Any other business

Who can put the toothpaste of inflation back in its tube?

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s food price index rose 13 per cent last month to stand a third higher than a year ago. Within the index, cereals rose by 17 per cent – driven by interrupted Ukrainian and Russian wheat supplies – and vegetable oils by 23 per cent, Ukraine being the world’s biggest sunflower farmer. In the UK, wholesale milk is up 20 per cent, as farmers face rising fuel and feed costs. Supermarkets squeeze suppliers to suppress retail prices: but soon, around the same time as our next quarterly gas bills, we’ll feel the full impact at the checkout. And then what?

We may be on the cusp of ‘a new inflationary era’, says Agustin Carstens of the Bank for International Settlements: interest rates must rise, however painfully, to fight it. But by how much and to what effect, given that this surge is a crisis of physical supply rather than a monetary phenomenon? And where are the Paul Volckers (of the Fed) or Karl-Otto Pöhls (of the Bundesbank), those granite-hard currency custodians of old whose mission was price stability above all? I recall Pöhl’s words from 1980: ‘Inflation is like toothpaste: once it’s out of the tube, it is all but impossible to get it back in.’ But I have no convincing answers to my own questions; and neither, I fear, do today’s central bankers.

Hotel dramas

The death aged 84 of Willy Bauer, dubbed ‘the saviour of the Savoy’ as its general manager during a celebrated 1980s takeover battle, is a reminder that grand hotels – forever calm front-of-house but chaotic in the kitchens – provide entertaining corporate dramas. The story then was a decade-long culture clash worthy of the pen of Julian Fellowes: on one side, the up-and-coming Forte dynasty, who acquired majority ownership of the Savoy’s shares; on the other, an old guard led by the haughty Sir Hugh Wontner, who somehow managed to cling on to voting control.

Today’s remake is set in Claridge’s. Current excitement involves a falling out between the al-Thani family, rulers of Qatar, and the Irish entrepreneur Paddy McKillen – the previous owner who the Qataris bought out but retained to run the business when they acquired the parent Maybourne Hotels (which also owns the Berkeley and the Connaught) for £1.3 billion in 2015. Despite record trading at Claridge’s after a splendid refurbishment, McKillen found himself ‘removed from the board without warning last weekend’, says the FT, and is now ‘utterly confused’. But he’s also entitled to a whopping payout, so watch this space – and I’m only sorry I can’t instantly stream the next episode.

Older and wiser

My invitation to last week’s Bitcoin 2022 conference in Miami got lost in the metaverse – denying me the chance to heckle the wacko libertarian tech investor Peter Thiel, whose speech attacking leading crypto-sceptics included calling the great stock-picker Warren Buffett ‘a sociopathic grandpa’. As for the world’s top banker, Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, and most prominent institutional investor, Larry Fink of BlackRock, Thiel called them part of a ‘finance geronto-cracy’ – a cohort in which I’d be proud to be included, being of an age with both. Thiel himself is so scared of getting old that he reportedly embraces the idea of life extension through blood transfusions from healthy youngsters. I wonder what they’d have to inject to make him talk sense about the delusion of bitcoin.

Too-rich Rishi?

I’d rather have a senior minister who’s been successful in business, preferably international business, before entering politics than one who has merely done brilliant brushstrokes of journalism. I’m more likely to trust politicians who are competent in managing their personal finances, rather than notorious for not being so. I’d like the country to be run by people whose experience has taught them to delegate effectively and deliver complex projects – rather than toss out half-baked ideas in the hope that underlings will pick them up or bury them. On the whole I prefer public figures who protect their spouses and stay faithful to them; who tell the truth rather than lie; who look me in the eye and mean what they say. As for how rich they are, if the fortune was honestly made, then I suggest it’s none of my business or yours.

Fruitful Easter

Any last-minute plans for Easter? Not, I hope, a sunshine getaway involving a flight from Manchester. Or worse, driving an HGV to the continent via Dover – in which case, with P&O Ferries suspended, you’ll likely spend the holiday in a jam on the M20. More irritating still, if you open the back of the truck you may well find nothing in it, because British exporters have become so disheartened by post-Brexit paperwork that up to half of all the lorries bringing imported goods this way across the Channel are currently returning empty.

No, this is a weekend for staying close to home. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll be busy filling in the online form for our Economic Innovator of the Year Awards. If you’re a futurist, you’ll be deep in thought as to what kind of venture might sweep the awards a decade hence. We may have leapt forward on decarbonisation by then but I bet we’ll be even more concerned about food security and vegetarian virtue. Our 2032 winner might be a kit to turn your suburban lawn into a model allotment.

Speaking of which, if you’re a gastronome, my advice is to get ahead of the game. Forget driving hundreds of £1.80-a-litre miles for a Michelin feast at, let’s say, Winteringham Fields in Lincolnshire, recommended by a reader for its £110-per-head eight-course dinner. Instead, stroll to your local, count the money you’ve saved, and order a big, rare, flame-grilled steak while you still can.

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