Howard Davies: A warm summer has cheered up the UK

The MT Diary: Howard Davies on the end of excess in Beijing, bear-watching in Finland and the sunny mood in Britain.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 30 Aug 2013

The new leadership in Beijing has decreed an end to excess. Out go 12-course official banquets in favour of, well, eight-course official banquets.

Those Patek Philippe watches that got Chinese officials in hot water (there is a website devoted to photographs of the expensively adorned wrists of mayors and party bosses) are consigned to the bottom drawer, of use only on overseas trips. S-Class Mercs, Maybachs and Rollers come out only at night.

The new policy line is no doubt why the two Maseratis stationed just inside the entrance of the outlet mall opposite my hotel were looking unloved. There's a class of Chinese entrepreneurs for whom a Mazza is an impulse buy on a Saturday afternoon. They are keeping their money in gold for the moment, and it is clear that, overall, the economy is pausing for breath.

That may not be a bad thing in the long run. Double-figure growth, year on year, is hard to sustain. It encourages more and more risky and marginal investment. When those investments turn sour, the banks are left to pick up the pieces. It is happening just now, not before time, and the banks can probably cope.

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But the news from China is not so good for Germany. The Germans have been able to offset weak demand in southern Europe by expanding their exports to China and the rest of Asia. So an Asian slowdown is the last thing Chancellor Merkel wanted in an election year, and the good burghers of Frankfurt were worried when I dropped in.

They don't think it will prevent her winning - she is by a distance the most popular leader in Europe, with an approval ratio roughly twice that of our own Dear Leader. But the economy remains distinctly soft and demand for the new fourth runway at Frankfurt airport is not quite as was hoped.

The city itself was baking in a heatwave. Somehow the Germans look uncomfortable in the heat, at least when they are at home. You can't put a towel down first thing in the morning in the Hauptbahnhof, or in Terminal 2B. You can drink a lot of beer, of course, and I was compelled to join in. Frankfurt is a self-aware kind of place these days.

Vienna it isn't, so they put on a very fancy firework display on the night of my visit. No one seemed to know why, and my suggestion that it was to celebrate Mario Draghi's birthday did not amuse. The ECB, whose tower glowers over downtown, is seen as being far too keen to commit German taxpayers' money to prop up the feckless Greeks and Italians.

If only the Frankfurters were as keen to buy Maseratis as the Chinese, all would be well, and the eurozone economy would rebalance nicely. But they tend to prefer cars that don't break down.

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The True Finns, Helsinki's version of the BNP but much more electorally successful, don't buy Italian cars either, and have even more robust views on the Greeks. Not that you would learn that from a visit, as the Finnish language is completely indecipherable, except to a Hungarian, apparently.

An obscure Siberian tribe wandered westwards a few thousand years ago, and split in two, with one branch going north to listen to Sibelius, and the other developing a taste for Bull's Blood by the Danube. Unfortunately, the tribe's cooks all went south.

Older readers may recall the Monty Python Finland song. Not as seminal as the Australian Philosophers' Song, perhaps, but full of warnings.

Finland, we learn, is 'often ignored, A poor second to Belgium, When going abroad'. The mournful refrain 'Finland has it all', follows 'eating breakfast and dinner, or snack lunch in the hall'.

That chorus went round and round in my head, as what the Germans vividly call an 'earworm', but what it didn't make clear was that you should take 10 days' worth of snack lunches with you from London, if you want to be nourished by anything more exciting than mashed potato.

You can, though, watch bears eat. The deal is that you sit in a hide for 13 hours and are not allowed to eat, drink or talk, while gazing through a small window in the hope that Baloo chooses that night to come by.

For a few hours nothing at all happened; it was like watching a very long partnership between Nick Compton and Jonathan Trott. Then an 800-pound cuddly toy ambled into view, having popped over the border to avoid being shot by President Putin. He then ate whatever it is they eat, and did other bear-like things that bears do in the woods.

That's about the size of it, really, but it is strangely compelling, and almost makes you forget how hungry you are.

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Back in Blighty, a warm summer seems to have cheered us all up. Consumers have come out to play. House buyers are buying houses again. OK, in London they are all called Pu or Putin or Bin-Shoppin, but it keeps the estate agents in Golf convertibles, and Tomek the builder in flights home to Wroclaw.

The service sector is looking good, too, and the stock market has a smile on its face. Even manufacturing output is rising. But there is not much sign of any rebalancing away from services and the March of the Manufacturers is still not on the programme at this year's Proms.

But it is just possible that George Osborne may turn out to be a lucky Chancellor, and that recovery may come in the clegg of time to rescue the Coalition.

Of course, we have been here before in 2010, but it feels a bit more soundly based. All we need is for Norman Lamont to spy some green shoots ...

Howard Davies is chairman of the Airports Commission.

Follow him on Twitter: @howardjdavies

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