Friday, 28 October 2016

Nissan's investment in Sunderland

I concluded my recent post on the meeting between the Prime Minister and the CEO of Nissan by saying that we would should now watch for Nissan’s investment decision on its Sunderland plant. This has now been made and it is to invest in the production of two new models, following, according to Nissan, written assurances received from the British government.

What those assurances are remains unclear. There are really only three possibilities. One is that when push comes to shove the UK will remain in the single market or, at the very least, the customs union. It seems highly unlikely that the government would put this in writing: certainly they have refused to say any such thing publicly, and it would cause a major rift within the government if it is true. The second is that the government has assured Nissan that they will strike a deal on single market access for the motor industry. But that could not be assured by the government as it would have to be negotiated with the EU. It seems unlikely that Nissan would have been persuaded to invest on such a basis.

The third possibility – and by far the most likely – is that the government have promised to cover any losses Nissan might incur as a result of Brexit. Such a ‘sweetheart deal’ is being widely rumoured in the press, although it has been denied by the government, albeit in terms which have some ambiguity (they are insisting that no ‘cheques have been written’, but that leaves open the possibility of a promise to write such a cheque). Reuters carried an intriguing report yesterday, stating:

“Britain has given Nissan a written commitment of extra support in the event that Brexit reduces the competitiveness of its Sunderland plant, in return for new production investments by the Japanese carmaker, a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters. In addition to unconditional investment aid, Britain pledged in a letter to offer further relief if the terms of Britain's European Union exit ended up harming the plant's performance, the source said.”

If correct, this amounts to an open-ended underwriting not just of any future tariff costs but of any other costs to Nissan of Brexit. This is a very high potential price to pay, but the political consequences of Nissan not having made the investment, especially at this particular point in time, would have been enormous. It is not difficult, then, to imagine that this is what has happened. It is possible that the letter to Nissan will be revealed, either by a leak or a freedom of information request, and then we will know for sure.

Inevitably the Nissan decision is being touted by Brexiters as proof that Brexit will not harm inward investment, but the (apparent) reality is that this has only been achieved by indemnifying Nissan against the costs of Brexit – hardly a ringing endorsement of its economic wisdom. It also opens up the possibility of further ‘assurances’ being given to other car companies and perhaps other sectors of the economy. Whether payments against these promised need to be made – and if they do, they will run into billions of pounds – will depend entirely on the deal struck with the EU, the terms of which will depend in large part on the EU. So much for taking back control.

It is of course not unusual for foreign investors to be offered inducements by governments to invest. In fact, this has been true of the Nissan investment in Sunderland since its inception. The difference this time is that what has had to be offered is an inducement as a specific insurance against the consequences of Brexit. Thus far from being the triumph claimed, it is best regarded as the latest of the ongoing, rising, costs of the referendum vote.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

The implications of CETA

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the EU has been – for the moment – derailed by a vote in the Wallonian regional parliament in Belgium. What does this means for Brexit?

The first thing is that it gives the lie to the Brexiter claim that national sovereignty is over-ridden by an EU ‘superstate’. The Wallonian vote shows that nations – and in some circumstances even regions – can veto EU policies. But Brexiters are never ashamed to run two contradictory arguments, so seeing that the sovereignty one is bogus they use CETA as an example of how the EU is incapable of making trade deals because they require unanimity of member states. So the Brexit proposition is completely unfalsifiable: if (in this case) CETA is signed it proves that the EU is deeply flawed; if it isn’t signed then it also proves that the EU is deeply flawed.

However, in the post-referendum landscape what matters is not making arguments against the EU but in seeing how the claims of Brexiters that a quick, easy and good trade deal with the EU stack up. And of course the current situation with CETA shows that they don’t, because any UK-EU deal could be voted down in just the same way. Brexiters, both before and after the referendum, repetitively claim that a good deal is assured because ‘the German car industry’ will ensure it (or, in some variants, the French wine industry). But as the Wallonian vote shows EU trade policy is not determined by any one member state, still less by particular industries within these states.

All of this matters, a lot, for the general Brexit proposition, but CETA matters in a very particular way because it was touted during the referendum by leading Brexiters, including Boris Johnson and David Davis, as the model for a Brexit UK-EU deal. And there are now some commentators suggesting that CETA could be re-configured as a CUKTA (Canada-UK Free Trade Agreement).

There are grave objections to both these ideas. As regards CUKTA, such a deal could only be signed if there was hardest of hard Brexits (i.e. if the UK leaves both the EU single market and the EU customs union), and only after that – so it would be some way off. And both CUKTA and a UK-EU FTA on the CETA model would not cover most services and would not remove most non-tariff barriers (NTBs) to trade. For a CUKTA that would perhaps not matter too much (as there is currently no UK-Canada deal), but as a UK-EU deal it would be disastrous because it would be far worse than single market membership which encompasses services and NTBs.

Finally, it is notable that neither of these ideas is a shining example of the exercise of sovereignty that Brexiters claim as paramount. Unlike Wallonia, the constituent parts of the UK would have no say in such deals and nor, as things stand, would the British parliament.

Ireland and Brexit

The impact of Brexit on Ireland is likely to be considerable and indeed is beginning already as the falling value of the pound makes Irish exports to the UK, its biggest export market, much more expensive. At the same time, and for the same reason, shoppers from the republic are driving to the north in search of cheap purchases.

These two immediate developments from the vote point to what will be longer term consequences when Brexit actually occurs. The Irish economy is intimately interlinked with that of the UK, for reasons of history and geographic proximity, to a greater extent than that of any other EU country. Thus, recently, the Irish government announced a so-called ‘Brexit proof budget’ to try to deal with some of the anticipated effects. For Ireland’s economy, almost as much as that of the UK, it will matter greatly whether Brexit turns out to be hard or soft. It may be that Ireland experiences some economic benefits, for example in attracting inward investment, financial services and students if the UK leaves the single market. It is certainly the case that they are already experiencing an upsurge of applications for passports from eligible Brits who want to retain EU movement rights. Nevertheless, Irish PM Enda Kenny recently stated that Brexit would be an “economic disaster” for the Irish Republic.

However, the economic effects are not even the most important thing at stake. More profound is that a hard Brexit would have multiple consequences for the Northern Ireland peace process which was possible in part because of the fact that both the UK and Ireland were within the EU. Most obviously, a hard Brexit would make it highly likely that a hard border would need to be in place between single market Ireland and the North. This would occur both because (on one version of hard Brexit) there would need to be customs points and (on any version) immigration controls. This would violate on of the basic tenets of the – still, it should be recalled, fragile – peace agreement, with possibly violent consequences, as a former senior police officer has recently warned. Such worries are exacerbated by the fact that Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to stay in the EU.

It has been mooted that immigration controls could be managed at point of entry to Ireland, by the Irish border police. That in itself would be a rather strange outcome of leave campaign that made much of ‘controlling our own borders’. It is in any case unclear how it would work, since EU nationals could pass quite legally into Ireland under free movement rules, and then proceed unchecked into the UK. Some Brexiters imagine that this is not an issue because the common travel area agreement between the UK and Ireland pre-exists the EU and could simply continue as it always has done. But of course this also means it preceded the existence of a continent-wide single market with free movement of people.

The conundrums and dangers of Brexit for the peace process were raised several times by the remain campaign, including in a joint visit to Belfast by former PMs John Major and Tony Blair, but dismissed (of course) as irresponsible scaremongering. As the novelist Eimear McBride put it:

“that this delicate, hard-won and harder-maintained web of hope has been so carelessly, thoughtlessly jeopardised by a handful of bloviating careerists unashamed to fan fear and division in British society in order to achieve their personal ambitions is a disgrace they will forever bear.”

Spare a thought, too, for the even less reported situation of Gibraltar, which voted by an astonishing 96% to stay in the EU. Like Northern Ireland, here too there is a land border between the UK and the EU, and a disputed territory (with Spain). Brexit means a crisis for them, as it does for the 2M or so British people living in EU countries and who now face massive uncertainty about their status as regards residency and health care, and with the many pensioners amongst them having already taken a direct hit to their incomes because of the collapse of the pound.
 




 
 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Nissan CEO meets PM

There is an intriguing article on the front page of today’s Financial Times (paywalled link) concerning yesterday’s meeting between the Prime Minister and the CEO of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn. Nissan are important, practically and symbolically, in terms of foreign investment in Britain. Practically important because they account for about a third of UK car manufacture, and a decision about whether to build the new Qashqai model in its Sunderland plant is due by the end of this year. Symbolically important both as a leading foreign investor but also because Sunderland voted by one of the highest margins to leave the EU. Ghosn has recently said that Nissan would not invest before Brexit terms were known unless the government offered compensation for any future tariffs (in parenthesis, it is by no means clear that this would be legal under WTO rules). This connects with the wider concerns raised by Japan about Brexit.

According to the FT report, rather than making any offer on tariff compensation, Theresa May apparently assured him that there would be no additional tariffs and that trading conditions will not change for Nissan post-Brexit. The FT takes this to imply that specific industrial sectors will remain a part of the single market and customs union, specifically industries, like motor manufacturer, with complex international supply chains.

If this is the case it raises some huge questions which the FT does not ask. First of all, it is not clear to me how May could guarantee this, as it would inevitably require the agreement of the EU in negotiations that have not even started yet. But it seems highly improbable that May would have given such a guarantee (assuming the FT reporting is correct) had she not had good reasons to think it is true – or, if not, and she is wrong, the backlash from Nissan and others will surely be huge. Does that mean that she has received some firm assurances from the EU on this point?

Second, if this is indeed what is envisaged, how would it work? The boundaries around particular industries or sectors are not, after all, clear cut. If a textiles firm, say, supplies fabric for Nissan car seats are they to be deemed to be in the motor sector? And for all of their business or just the segment that produces that particular fabric? Suppose Nissan changes suppliers – does that new supplier get shifted into the single market? More generally, does it mean that, somehow, part of the UK economy will remain inside the single market and part will lie outside it? Whatever the answers to these questions, any idea that Brexit on these terms will mean the reduction of ‘red tape’ promised by the leave campaign is illusory!

Third, and however sectors are bounded, it seems inconceivable that these could be deemed to be inside the single market without corresponding freedom of movement within those sectors. Would this mean that car workers would be able to move in and out of the UK at will but not others? And if those workers do have freedom of movement then how could they be prevented from changing jobs whilst in the UK? What, then, would this mean for May’s red line of ‘control of borders’?

If all that seems inconceivable then surely impossible would it be for May also to honour her pledge at the recent party conference to exempt the UK from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) since by definition at least those sectors within the single market would have to be subject to its jurisdiction.

This was a high profile meeting of key significance. The things said cannot have been casual. And although I haven’t seen any other media outlet reporting it as they do (elsewhere there are just anodyne statements from the two parties) the FT is a highly reputable and reliable source of business news. If their report is correct then it gives an important insight into how the government are approaching Brexit, but one which makes that approach seem, to say the least, deeply perplexing and raising more questions than answers. What Nissan made of it may become clear when the Qashqai investment decision is made.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Parliament asserts itself

There is suddenly just a hint that things are shifting. That is partly because of the continuing collapse of sterling I discussed in my last post, and its visible effects encapsulated in the great ‘marmite’ event (what better symbol could there be of the adverse effects of Brexit!). But, more, because the British parliament is now beginning to assert itself and – contrary to my last post – the Labour Party is now getting its act together. Yesterday not only did Jeremy Corbyn question the Prime Minister very effectively over Brexit plans, but the Labour Party set out some 170 questions about these plans and managed to force a parliamentary debate on scrutiny of the process (spearheaded by Keir Starmer who looks set to be a key figure in the coming months and years) itself the first concession by May’s government.

Within that debate MP after MP stood up to make often passionate, detailed and well-informed statements dissecting the ludicrousness of the present situation. It was riveting – and refreshing - to watch. Whilst most were at pains to say they accepted the result, and that Britain would leave the EU, the dominant theme was that this did not provide a mandate for any particular form of Brexit, and certainly not for leaving the single market. Moreover, they insisted that it should be for parliament to debate and vote on the terms of exit. Finally, the idea that all debate ended on June 23 has been put to bed, and, finally, the 48% have a voice.

Some Brexiters spoke, of course, but having made so much of parliamentary sovereignty in the campaign it was hard for them to make a coherent case against it now. And no doubt if (as could still happen) the government ends up pursuing soft Brexit they would argue that it should be subject to parliament. Indeed, a particular weakness of their position is that so many of them have been ‘rebels’ in the past, using the primacy of parliament as their justification – including David Davis, who now heads the government ministry primarily charged with Brexit.

The Labour position seems to have moved towards something like the model I posted about on September 7 of EEA single market membership with a beefed up emergency brake on immigration which might be achievable in negotiations with the EU and (with deft footwork) politically sellable to the UK electorate. There are grave difficulties, of course, but it is at least now an agreed position. Pressure has also increased for soft Brexit with the SNP Conference looking towards another independence referendum.

However, what in the long run may be most significant is how many Tories spoke against hard Brexit in the debate, including by my count eight former cabinet ministers. Given the government’s slender majority, they are well-placed to take, in reverse, the role of ‘the bastards’ in the Treaty Maastricht debates in the early 1990s that shook John Major’s premiership and which started the process within the Tory Party that led, ultimately, to the referendum.

The government response to all this was anodyne, re-stating the position that they would seek the best possible deal but would not reveal what they meant by that and would not allow any vote, either on the terms of withdrawal or the triggering of Article 50 (this latter issue being the subject of a legal challenge which started today). It will be a difficult line to hold. Outside of parliament, the Brexit press was much less anodyne and seems rattled – a vituperative editorial in today’s Daily Mail being a prime example.

The UK is an old and complex democracy, whereas referenda are unsubtle and, within the UK, very recent political instruments. Whilst Brexiters want to claim that the narrow vote of June 23 is some unanswerable and inviolable democratic truth, they may be about to find that – as with so much else that they believe – reality is not so straightforward.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The pound is now the official opposition

The continuing collapse of sterling – currently at $1.23 compared with $1.48 on the day of the referendum, including a flash crash last Friday – is the most tangible economic consequence so far of the vote to leave. In any other political climate the collapse of the pound on this scale would be a political crisis, and had it happened under a Labour government more than that, with screaming headlines in every newspaper. In the strange climate of post-referendum politics it is if not ignored then treated as just one of those things.

In the hermetically sealed world of Brexiters this is hailed as good news on various dubious grounds. It is good for exports, they say, but of course by contrast it is bad for import costs and the UK imports far more than it exports; or that the pound was over-valued before. If we take them at their word, it is surely surprising that they did not campaign in the referendum on the promise of the great news that the pound would plummet by 17% in 100 days. Of course they did no such thing, instead treating predictions of a currency collapse as yet more ‘Project Fear’ from ‘experts’.

Their joy is likely to continue, since all predictions are for further falls, with some anticipating dollar parity within months. There are of course similar falls against the Euro, with some airport exchange desks offering the pound at parity, and it is almost inevitable that this will become the official exchange rate fairly soon. This immediately impacts upon British tourists and pensioners living abroad, and in due course will lead to increasing inflation as it feeds through to import – and especially oil – prices.

Currencies fluctuate for all sort of reasons, of course. But this one has nothing to do with correcting a previous ‘over-valuation’ (in any case, the idea of currencies having some kind of ‘correct’ valuation is nonsense). It is straightforwardly a response to Brexit. The pound fell very sharply after the vote, somewhat recovered as traders assumed that there would be a soft Brexit, and then started to fall sharply again when Theresa May indicated that a hard Brexit was in prospect. With each statement coming from the government over recent days that seems to re-confirm that, the pound has fallen. If the government were to announce a soft Brexit policy the pound would rise.

The falling pound is therefore understandable both economically and politically. Economically, it is a forward estimate of the damage that will be done to the UK economy by exiting the single market, not just in terms of the effect on British businesses but, relatedly, in terms of the flow of investment capital which funds the UK’s current account deficit which was by international standards already huge (3.7% of GDP in January) before Brexit and is now soaring (currently 6% of GDP). That’s not the fiscal deficit (the gap between government income and expenditure) that has dominated political discussion in recent years, but the much less discussed, and arguably much more important, gap between national inflows and outflows of money through trade, money transfers and investments. This makes the UK economy unusually dependent upon what BoE Governor Mark Carney called “the kindness of strangers”. But of course there is no kindness in international finance, just the remorseless logic of the bottom line.

Politically, as HSBC’s chief foreign exchange strategist David Bloom said this week, this means that “the currency is now the de facto official opposition to the government’s policies”. This comment reflects not just the fact that the pound’s value is tracking Brexit policy hints and announcements, but also that the de jure official opposition – the Labour Party – is not acting effectively, to say the least.

Labour has no clear Brexit position, did not even discuss it at their part conference, and seems split at least three ways between those who want a soft Brexit (single market including free movement), a softish Brexit (single market with some unspecified restriction on free movement), and its leader Jeremy Corbyn’s position which seems to be (though he has never articulated it with any clarity) in favour of free movement but not the single market – a position which does not really have a name on the soft-hard Brexit spectrum. There is some emerging sign of a cross-party parliamentary opposition to hard Brexit but at present it is indeed fair to say that the government’s main opposition lies in the FX markets and amongst business associations like the CBI – certainly not with Labour which is an unprecedented abdication of political responsibility and competence.

Although the idea of the value of the pound being some kind of index of national political virility is absurd, it is in the present context a kind of proxy measure for the way that the UK is currently seen around the world as having taken leave of its senses: proposing to cut itself out of the world trade system and to re-attach itself on terms which cannot be anything but worse, and this on an unknown timescale; and having done so against the advice of all its major allies, including its key foreign policy partner for 70 years the US; and in the process slackening the NATO-US-EU axis which lies at the core of the global order, imperfect as that may be, at a time when it faces grave threats from a resurgent Russian nationalism. And all of this because about 3% of the UK population comes from the EU under free movement of people who will in future come instead under the aegis of some kind of work permit scheme.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Why remainers shouldn't move on

Anyone who participates in discussions about Brexit, especially online, will be familiar with the recurrent accusation that remainers (aka ‘remoaners’ or ‘remainiacs’ or, more crudely, ‘butthurt losers’) should ‘just move on’ and accept that they have lost.

There are several obvious reasons why that should not and will not happen. The first and perhaps least important is that it is a hypocritical argument. Eurosceptics never accepted the 1975 Referendum result – even though it was much more decisive than the 2016 vote – and agitated successfully to overturn it. As regards the 2016 referendum, Nigel Farage, no less, said before the result that if it were 52-48 to remain “this would be unfinished business by a long way”. Well the result was 52-48, but to leave. So by the same token it is ‘unfinished business’ for remain. And then there was that petition to the government to hold another Referendum if the vote on either side were less than 60% on a 75% turnout. After the referendum it was signed by millions of remainers – but it had been started by a leaver in anticipation that leave would lose.

The second issue is that the Referendum result was not a moment or event from which anyone can ‘move on’. It was the beginning of a process which will last for decades, and which will shape UK politics and economics for decades. Not least because the Leave campaign failed – in fact, refused – to specify what voting leave meant there can be no acceptance of the result because the meaning of the result is disputable. Hence the current debate about soft versus hard Brexit. There can be no ‘getting behind’ the result by remainers when even the leavers don’t agree what it means. Although even if they could agree there is no real reason for remainers to get behind the result. This is a national crisis, but unlike, say, 1939 – to pick a date that will resonate with leavers – it is not caused by an external threat but has been created internally.

Thirdly, and increasingly obviously, Theresa May is intent on exacerbating the divisions between leavers and remainers. One might have thought that the leaderly thing to do after so divisive a period would be to seek to bring the two sides together, and to reach out to the losing remain side. In practical terms this would have meant acknowledging the closeness of the vote and pursuing soft Brexit as a solution which would not be perfect for the hardcore on either side, but which called for compromise from each whilst being acceptable to the softcore on each side.

May’s persona as a pragmatist during the truncated Tory leadership context might have led one to expect this. Instead, she appears to see her task not as reaching out to the vanquished remainers but to the victorious leavers. Although she spoke at her party conference of “a country that works for everyone” she had nothing (except implicit insults) to say to those who voted to remain in the EU. A group which includes most business leaders, professionals and what might diffusely be called the intelligentsia and which numbers almost half of those who voted in the referendum. So if May does not wish to bring remainers in to some kind of national consensus then why on earth should they do so on their own account?

Britain is now a country more bitterly divided than I can ever recall. When I meet people now there is a kind of verbal dance in which we try to work out what side we are on before we talk freely. It’s far worse than the 1980s when the Miners’ strike polarised opinion, I think because there is much more of a sense of this being about a long-term split. Munich and Suez were also huge polarisers, but didn’t endure in the way that this will. It may seem slightly overblown, but the closest parallel I can think of is the Reformation and its aftermath.

For myself – and I think this is true for many people I talk to – there can be no ‘moving on’ from this. Britain has embarked on a culturally, economically, politically and strategically disastrous course of action. It could just about be rescued, even now, by competent political leadership but there is no sign of that. Equally, it could be rescued if there were an opposition party that spoke for remainers, but Corbyn’s Labour are utterly useless in this respect. So for the foreseeable future the UK will remain a bitterly divided country and as Brexit becomes a reality those divisions will become ever more bitter.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Conservative conference: inching towards hard Brexit?

Theresa May has used the annual Conservative Party conference to give a somewhat clearer sense of where the UK is heading post-Brexit. The strong implication was that she is seeking a hard Brexit – exiting the single market – given that she prioritised control of immigration and exit from the European Court of Justice, which oversees the single market. A strong implication, but she did not quite say it in terms, and there is some tiny degree of wriggle room still for her to enact a soft Brexit. She also disowned the terms soft and hard Brexit as a false and outdated polarity. But if that means that she still has some idea that there is an intermediate position between being inside and outside the single market then it is likely that she will be disappointed. In any case, the market reaction that followed, which saw the pound again fall sharply against both the dollar and the euro suggested that hard Brexit was how they read it.

More definitive was her pronouncement that all EU law would be written into UK law and then there would be a gradual process of repeal of those which were redundant post-Brexit. That played well with Tory Eurosceptics, but it is really only a fancier way of saying ‘Brexit means Brexit’, in that it is a move which is consistent with either soft or hard Brexit and so, in itself, does not betoken either. It is, however, in its own way a remarkable statement since the parliamentary time which it would require to strike go through each piece of legislation and revoke or continue with it will be enormous, and is likely to be the work of decades.

Also eye-catching was the announcement that Lisbon 50 will be triggered by the end of next March. But, again, this was not really news as that was the approximate timeframe that had long been trailed. Still it did, somehow, make more concrete that Brexit is going to happen, and carried the possible consequence that the final exit will fall on April Fools’ Day 2019. What also became clear was that her desire to engage in negotiations in advance of Lisbon 50 notification will not be countenanced by the EU27. Opinion seems to hardening amongst the other countries that the UK will seek hard Brexit and will get no favours, with a significant statement from Angela Merkel today.

The more diffuse, but politically important, message that May gave was one of nationalism, and a decisive rejection of the cosmopolitanism associated with remainers: “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. Much of her speech staked out the Tory party as that of the ‘local leavers’, in line with my own analysis that cosmopolitans and locals will be the defining post-Brexit political axis. There are dangers and ironies in that, though, as much of Tory support and funding comes from committed globalists, and none are more committed to that than her Brexit ministers. Her comments have attracted considerable derision, both at home and abroad. The issue now, perhaps, is whether those who feel themselves to be citizens of the world can find a way of articulating themselves politically.

Despite that fact that there is still not absolute clarity on the issue of single market membership, it does seem from what May said – and also the hardline anti-immigration policy announced by the new Home Secretary – that a hard Brexit is now the most likely option. This will obviously do incalculable damage to the UK economy, and especially to its service exports, and to the UK itself both as regards Scottish independence and the Northern Ireland border. She seems to have decided that despite the fact that the referendum did not mandate any particular form of Brexit, it was unequivocally a vote for hard Brexit. So, unless she is playing a very deep and subtle game, it seems that May is not the pragmatist that she seemed when she came to power.

It would still be foolish to predict how things will play out. May’s position is by no means unassailable given her small parliamentary majority and the splits in her own party. Moreover, there is not a majority either in parliament or in the country for hard Brexit. Most or all of those who voted remain, and at least some of those who voted to leave, would prefer a soft to a hard Brexit, so the support for soft Brexit must be at least as high as the 52% who voted leave. Much now depends on whether the necessarily dispirited remnants of the remain campaign can galvanise themselves to oppose the hard Brexit that May appears to be inching towards.