Eddie's Spies 'Should Come in from the Cold'; SECRECY SURROUNDING BANK OF ENGLAND AGENTS SPARKS WARNING FROM ECONOMISTS

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Byline: MATTHEW FLETCHER;RICHARD GRANT

LIKE a network of spies, the secretive agents of Bank of England Governor Eddie George go about their intelligence gathering.

With thousands of contacts in the world of business and commerce, they collect sensitive information that eventually affects the finances of every person in Britain.

This week, a compilation of their reports, charting the health of the nation's finances and giving early indicators of where the economy is heading, will help the Bank's powerful Monetary Policy Committee decide whether to lower interest rates for the fifth time in a row.

Now top City economists are demanding that those secret reports should be published for all to see. A growing number believes that if the secrecy continues it will increase the risk of upheavals in bond markets and on the Stock Exchange and undermine economic stability.

Garry Young, senior research fellow at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, says: 'The MPC is treating the agents' reports as advanced warnings on the economy because it is not happy with official data.

Their findings merit being published now because they are more important than ever.

'That way there is less chance of something lurking in the woodshed that the markets are not being told about.' Calls for an end to the secrecy coincide with indications that Eddie George and the eight other members of the MPC are relying to an unprecedented extent on the agents' reports because of criticism that previously they depended too heavily on the opinions of academics remote from industry.

Last week, the Bank's deputy governor, Mervyn King, admitted that the role of the regional agencies 'has been transformed by the new monetary policy framework introduced by Gordon Brown'.

The committee has also become wary of too much reliance on official statistics after it was shown to have relied on data that was badly flawed when it raised interest rates last summer.

The Bank's continuing coyness over the reports contrasts starkly with the policy of the US Federal Reserve. It operates a similar system of regional agents but publishes its Beige Book findings 10 days ahead of its own meetings to set interest rates. …