Book Review: Banking on it by Anne Boden

Banking on it book cover

Anne Boden, a 50-something female banker with a long career at RBS decides to leave. She gets headhunted to work at the failed Allied Irish Bank (one of the major casualties of the financial crisis in 2008). Whilst she is terribly excited about the innovations in technology deployment at the bank, as chief operating officer, actually, her day job was making people redundant. She left after 18 months.

Boden comes across as someone who doesn’t sit still for long. She mused over her future and decided to set up her own retail bank. Only this one would not have any legacy systems, branches, and crucially, it would not have an IT department. It would be an IT department. The bank would be, as the book cover suggests, an industry disruptor – a business that would strip down products to the basics. No frills. And what it did do, it would do better than any other retail bank. It would interface with customers through a mobile phone app. The core product would be the notoriously unprofitable current account; rendered profitable by a low cost base and intelligent rates for borrowing and saving.

There is much to recommend in this book. We know the ending – Starling Bank was launched and is on the cusp of profitability. It is award winning – though I am never really sure what that means. And as we might expect, the journey to this point has been fraught, involved near bankrupting herself, two unexplained burglaries and a big fall out with the core team about strategy. As a 50-something bloke, the idea of a 50-something becoming a successful entrepreneur is inspiring. I am myself embarking on ventures that perhaps should have been done a number of years ago. But there you go. What this story tells us that there is never a wrong time, but don’t expect to have a life if you try. And if one is going to set up a bank, expect to have to do a deal with the Devil (more of this later).

Here are a few things of note for budding entrepreneurs:

  • Silicon Valley’s investors may not be receptive to non-Silicon Valley start-ups;
  • contingency fees from consultancies and lawyers may not be honoured by investors;
  • even if one thinks that the idea is original, it is not. Someone else is working on it simultaneously and they may be competing for finance with you;
  • scalability will be important – can the business be expanded/grow without adding costs? (p33);
  • build a network full of goodwill (being 50-something can help, providing one has not hacked people down on the way up in a previous life) – (p63)
  • if the business is a disruptor, the incumbents will not sit back and watch (p66); but in mature industries – like banking – they might not know how to respond (p251-2);
  • watch out for a coup attempt – those brought in to develop the business may see themselves as better able to build the business and launch. The leader of the coup will require the rest of the team to choose between you and them (pp125-6);
  • the media will pounce on stories about a coup/disagreements. PR needs management;
  • failure is normal for entrepreneurs. Investors value experience. In Silicon Valley, recording failure is part of the culture. The place where this is done is medium.com (p138);
  • it is possible to lose a whole team, be close to ruin, but start again and learn from the mistakes – primarily, getting the right people. The signs are there if one cares to look;
  • it is staggering how much can be done just using email;
  • so-called Real Options are revealed sooner than expected, but must be embraced. Setting up the businesses is only the start;
  • the team that launched the product is not necessarily the team to see it in to the future;
  • potential stakeholders/investors are watching – keep an eye on the email. Unfamiliar names may not be all bad.

Talking of bad. The bank got approval from the UK banking regulator to trade. I’m not quite sure how this works, but it does involve a lot of meetings, paperwork, disappointment and finance. It may not matter where the finance comes from. In Starling Bank’s case, Boden got an email from a mysterious investor, Harald McPike. Austrian, apparently. The eventual deal was done in the Bahamas on board a 92 metre yacht. £48m was pledged in exchange for 2/3 of the equity. So, essentially, Starling Bank is owned by a secretive financier based in the Bahamas.

That led me to a wider question about motives. Boden sees her core customers as younger types who live largely from their mobile phones. I get that. But why did the bank need to ape existing ownership models; namely venture capital based in the Bahamas? In these post-financial-crisis days, surely more of the same, albeit on a mobile, is falling short of truly disrupting? Why not a co-operative or other mutual model? Democratise banking and roll back the bank-as-an-end-in-itself principle.

There is absolutely no sense that Boden (left) might have had any reservations about the source of her capital, and that the profits would be offshored. It is not only McPike, she also sounded out Jared Kushner’s brother, Josh, in New York and John Thain famous seemingly for spending $141k on rugs for his office whilst he was at Merrill Lynch.

And what about ethical standards? The only mention of ethics was in a discussion as to whether it was ok to buy a competitor’s domain name (p197)! The website does have an ethics statement which explicitly excludes certain business customers such as arms traders. There is a commitment to planting trees, some reference to energy and supply chains. Nothing, though, that says, “this is the bank for me”.

Pic: Anne Boden, Charlottelorimer 

The welcome return of a pack of 20

It is not entirely clear why cigarette advertising in Germany has been absent for most of the year. Obviously the pandemic has been significant – fewer people out-of-doors to see the posters. The marketing of e-cigarettes, too, is part of the story. The new modes of delivery are often owned by the same companies and the campaign budgets are being redirected.

So, it was a absolute delight – and surprise to see that Gauloises, the French brand owned by Imperial Tobacco – back on the streets. And what is more, still marketing under the Vive le Moment tag. And normal packets, too.

Of course the poster is the tried-and-tested. An attractive young woman (not yet with the mouth ulcers, discoloured teeth and diseased skin) sits with her feet up in a yard to an urban apartment – in Paris obviously. She is holding a cigarette that has just been lit. The tagline is “Für Momente, die dir gehören” – roughly translated as “for the moments you own”.

Classic advertising. But I tell you, for those moments, my thoughts do not turn to products that have a concentration of toxic chemicals in them. With the virus around there is enough trying to kill me without cigarettes adding to it. Or is it that the relatively young, need a helping hand with this death thing as the virus does not seem to be enough? 

Book Review – Jason Hickel, Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World

Book cover

“Degrowth the economy” has a ring of “defund the police” about it. It sounds bad, counter-intuitive and a threat to security. Surely, if we degrow, we become poorer and less able to provide services that society needs?

These are obvious questions, the answer probably starts with the issue of notions of rich and poor. As much of my most recent reading has highlighted, for as long as wealth is measured in terms of money and its exchange value; i.e. the amount of stuff we can buy with it, the poorer we become as a species. But that is largely what GDP is, a measure of value in terms of the quantified and expressed in units, usually a currency, that are convertible and comparable with other currencies.

Hickel’s final chapter is thought provoking. He’s an anthropologist, not an economist; it is that multi-disciplinarity that is so helpful in debates about economies and climate change. Hickel takes us into the disappearing world of indigenous peoples living in the forests of South America and Asia. These people live in very close proximity to nature, are reliant on it and are deeply conscious that over-exploitation will lead to shortages. Take too many fish and they will not reproduce in sustainable numbers. Sustainable here means the same for the fish as those who rely on them for food.

These indigenous people do this by viewing the natural world not as “other”; in our “developed-world terms, as objects to be exploited. Rather, the natural world is full of subjects that, for some indigenous peoples, have souls. Having a soul (note that is not humans granting other living things a soul, rather other things having immanent souls). Hickel (below right) is not just talking about higher mammals; this stretches to plants (way more sophisticated than we give them credit for) and (even the) micro-organisms that digest our food and manufacture the nutrients that make us work.

Of course, if we have a view of the world where other living things have souls – though that does not make them the same as us – then it necessitates a less exploitative relationship with “other”. As we have seen so often in the developed human world, if we ascribe other living things object status rather than subject status, they become eminently exploitable. And in any way that the exploiter sees fit. We do this to the indigenous people (Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil seeks to exterminate indigenous Amazonian people to exploit their lands); but our favourite economic system – capitalism – was based on subject-object distinctions. Colonialisation is a case in point. Indigenous people find themselves objects even if they themselves had seen the colonialists as subjects (albeit with weapons). 

If anyone thinks that it is not possible to ascribe subject status to things that are not human, one does not have to go much further than the US Supreme Court that interpreted the Constitution to include corporations as having the same liberties as individuals – at the time, of course, white males with property. That said, that decision was much to the chagrin of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who could see the dangers (Mintzberg, 2015).

And so to capitalism. Capitalism is a system dependent on unsustainable exploitation of resources. Our measure of GDP does this for us. It is the measure that tells us that we are in growth, recession or depression; but perversely, we can increase it by wrecking a ship full of oil because GDP measures the “clean-up” operation but not the damage done by the oil on the landscape, the wildlife and the eco-system more generally. 

Governments revel at levels of 3 per cent growth and we are amazed and envious when countries achieve 8 per cent and more. We must process what that means. At a rate of 3 per cent per year, an economy will effectively double in 30 years. That is double the resource extraction, too. As we now know, this is unsustainable. We need, argues, Hickel, to degrow.

Capitalism extracts from us more and more work. We once thought that technology would enable us to spend less time working. But it has not proved to be the case. The machines, like the one I am using now, makes it possible for me to do things that my predecessors would have given to others to do. In my work at a university, I am an imperfect IT technician as well as a lecturer. I do administration, too, all facilitated by technology and all displacing work from – and for – others who are not rewarded with more leisure time, but rather with unemployment and poverty. The excess goes to owners and executives.

Hickel reports that if we have more time, we use it not to consume more, but to spend time with family and friends. We also volunteer more. We are healthier. And we emit less greenhouse gas. Actually, we take more short flights when we work long hours as we seek, through the logic of capitalism, to “make the most” of the free time that we have. That has become synonymous with consumption. And what’s more “…nearly a third of all labour we’ve rendered, all the resources we’ve extracted, all the CO2 we’ve emitted over the past half century has been done to make rich people richer.” (p29) That stays with me as a thought.

This is what degrowth means that:

  • we work less but are more productive in the process; remove the scarcity of jobs that leads to people working longer and for lower wages. There is actually no scarcity of work in modern economies; 
  • we should advertise less and reduce the creation of wants over needs;
  • built-in obsolescence in products is ended – everything is repairable;
  • we share more (shift from ownership to usership). Equally, expand the commons – land, in particular. 
  • ecologically damaging industries are scaled back (e.g. red meat production);
  • we invest in meaningful jobs and guarantee them (in line with Stephanie Kelton’s thinking
  • we reduce inequality – more equal societies consume less and are less wasteful. The people are happier;
  • debt is cancelled for poor countries (so-called Jubilee). In order to pay the debt, countries exploit natural resources unsustainably;
  • we end debt-based currency – banks create currency from every loan they make. Compound interest is also ended;
  • we broaden democracy and participation, end lobbying/political advertising. Elite control of news media is ended. Industrial democracy becomes the norm in firms. Monopolies are broken up;
  • the power structures in key global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are flattened.

Degrowth book coverLike all of the books I review, there is much more to them than the contents of this blog post. Hickel has a style that is satisfying. As an academic, he eschews too much anecdote and comprehensively gives citations and endnotes. This contrasts with Rutger Bergmann who is equally erudite, but less academically rigorous. However, it is annoying that Hickel’s book does not have an index, but that is labour-intensive, I know. My next task is to backtrack a little on degrowth with D’Alisa et al (left). 

Hickel photo – Goldsmiths College

Mintzberg, H (2015), Rebalancing Society.

Climate Watch: we must not give up!

These are very hard times. The role of climate change in starting and propagating the Californian wild fires continues to be denied in the USA, despite being undeniable. However, here is a link to an even-more under-reported cause of the fires which links the establishment of a federal forestry system back in the 1930s (actually earlier, but the outlawing of burning arrived later) and the loss of indigenous fire-prevention knowledge and action. Seemingly in the past, California’s indigenous population burned the forests’ dangerous undergrowth to avoid wildfires in the dry season. Evidence shows that trees were injured in the process, but not fatally so.

The Amazon continues to burn, and now the Pantanal Wetlands burn, too. Both have deliberate human causes. The Amazon fires are directly related to our increased consumption of meat, particularly beef. Beef cattle are poor converters of plant protein into meat protein, but that does not stop humanity ramping up consumption at the expense of the natural environment. Bio-diverse rain forest gives way to diversity-free  soya plantation.

An example of this meat-fixation nonsense is the report this week of pig farms in China that have buildings that are 7-storey high! A single farm now produces one-million pigs per year to meet growing demand for pork. The implications for waste and use-and-abuse of anti-biotics are significant. The Economist highlighted this 6 years’ ago!

The Economist is at it again in this week’s special climate edition. The Leader article says that decarbonising energy will “avoid the chaos of unchecked climate change , including devastating droughts, famine, floods and mass dislocation. Once mature, it should be more politically stable, too, because supply will be diversified, geographically and technologically. Petrostates will have to attempt to reform and, as their governments start to depend on taxing their own citizens, some will become more representative. Consuming countries which once sought energy security by meddling in the politics of oil producers, which instead look to sensible regulation of their own power industry. The 21st Century should be less economically volatile. Electricity prices will be determined not by a few big actors but by competition and gradual efficiency gains.” One has to marvel at the Economists’ perpetual belief in – and defence of – capitalism.

The optimist in me, however, says this has a lot to recommend it; the pessimist says, capitalism is the cause and cannot solve the problem. Just look at the pig farm. It’s like a doubling down. Simply, though, capitalism cannot countenance de-growth. I am currently reading Jason’s Hickel’s book (right) of that title. A review will follow.

55 – the magic death number

Cigarette advertising is back in Germany. Two campaigns – Winston and now Camel – have something in common, the number 55. It is the number of death sticks that can be squeezed into a packet that is just short of the size of a brick. The two brands also have their brand management by Japan Tobacco in common. Let’s see if 55 catches on.

Book review: Stephanie Kelton, the Deficit Myth

Without my reliable book seller, I would probably not have read this book. It arrived one day through my Covid-barrier letterbox. Once I had started reading, it completely changed my way of thinking and boosted my mood amidst the gloom that is modern politics and economics. Kelton demonstrates that, contrary to the British Prime Minister’s assertion, there actually is a magic money tree. I am going to resort to bullet points here. Here’s what Kelton tells us:

  • we do not pay tax to pay for services, we pay tax to “provision” the economy
  • governments do not tax and spend, they spend and tax
  • governments’ budgets do not work like household budgets
  • countries that have currency sovereignty (i.e. “issue” their own currency), cannot run out of money
  • the role of fiscal policy is to manage inflation, not the deficit.
  • austerity is both unnecessary and damaging economically and socially
  • deficits are a sign of a healthy economy – economies that are balanced are not innovative
  • a negative balance of payments does not mean that foreign powers have power over countries whose currencies they keep
  • currency “holders” convert their cash into interest-bearing bonds
  • countries with currency sovereignty can, and should, have full employment
  • the resources are there for countries with currency sovereignty to transform to carbon-zero economies.

That is almost enough for one book. There are plenty of reviews of this book for my readers can draw on, for example, Despan, 2020. As ever, there is no substitute for reading the book oneself. But let me take just a few of these bullet points and metabolise them.

Take Covid-19, the British Government has found £30bn to fund the furlough/job retention scheme to enable employers to retain staff when revenues are hard to generate. The Government found money to build emergency hospitals; purchase PPE (albeit inefficiently); and even pay us to eat out. The government has not disclosed how these initiatives will be paid for. The Conservative Government has spent millions of pounds on Brexit, most notoriously a £13.8m contract to a ferry firm without ferries. Oh, and those expensive nuclear weapons. Essentially, the Treasury is paying by creating money. Though by contrast, it would seem that Government spending on welfare payments to poorer people, on education, social care, etc., have to be justified and balanced by tax revenue.

Tax, more generally, is not as it seems. Kelton makes the argument that the reason that we pay tax is not to fund spending, but rather for provisioning. Governments need people to be economically active, to make things, to provide services, for progress. Tax, therefore, is the incentive for people to be economically active by ensuring that people have to give their labour and time in exchange for currency (money). There is a secondary purpose to tax, that of wealth redistribution. The obscene wealth concentration in the hands of a few known-individuals – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel – does not serve society at all. The rich who get more money tend to save it rather than spend it. Give poor people money and they will spend it in the real economy. Take a $1bn off Jeff Bezos in tax and he is left with $109bn. Would he really notice? Plus, how much has Bezos increased his wealth during the pandemic which has necessitated large-scale public spending commitments? What can civil society do with $1bn? Rather a lot, I think.

People will argue – particularly in the USA – that rich people are serious philanthropists. Bill Gates’ foundation gives billions to the fight against malaria. Warren Buffet has endorsed Gates and will donate his fortune to Gates’ foundation upon his death. There are two problems – at least – with that argument. Many billionaires have become so rich by exploiting workers, communities and natural resources. Suddenly to give excess money “away” to causes that they decide are worthy seems wrong. They distribute excess money (they do not become St Francis of Asissi). They live well and maintain their political influence. And who is to say the causes selected by philanthropists are worthy and the most efficacious? Where is the transparency, the democracy, the accountability?

Back to Kelton’s main arguments, government deficits are, by definition,  surpluses or credits to others. I buy something (debit) and give money to someone else (credit) in return for something that I actually want. But unlike governments, my debit does have to be covered either by savings or borrowing. Governments only get into trouble when they borrow in currencies that are not their own. Cases such as Argentina are often floated as examples of how deficits are bad. Notwithstanding the fact that Argentina’s 2001 inflation-led crisis caused a default on foreign debt, it did reconfigure its economy to one that focused on domestic growth and full employment. Its government moved away from US dollars both in cash terms and also uncoupling interest rates to a foreign currency.

Inflation, unemployment and climate change

Inflation is a problem for economies. In my lifetime I have seen high inflation; though nothing compared to the hyper-inflation suffered by Germany in the 1930s which still scars the landscape and leads to economic conservativism within the country and forces austerity on countries such as Greece that share the currency (the Euro). Inflation is usually controlled by notionally-independent central banks. They increase interest rates to dampen down demand. 2 per cent inflation seems to be a common target in modern economies. Overshoot and the central bank will raise interest rates. That will also impact on the unemployment rate – but modern economy managers trade off inflation and employment. Higher unemployment is a price worth paying for keeping down inflation, unless you are, of course, someone being made unemployed. This trade-off can be seen at work in a recent article by Gordon Brown, UK PM during the financial crisis of 2008. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, he writes: “Now I am the first to say that the Bank needs a more demanding constitution, one that imposes a dual mandate: to take unemployment as seriously as inflation. This should be matched by an operational target stating that interest rates will not rise or stimulus end until unemployment falls to pre-crisis levels.” (Guardian, 15 September 2020).

Kelton argues convincingly that countries with sovereign currencies can run their economies with a “good jobs guarantee”. Monetary policy has it that there is a natural level of unemployment – NAIRU. The Economist Martin Goodfried puts a figure on it: 7 per cent! In the USA, that might be as many as 12 million Americans “naturally” without work and a whole lot more who are under-employed. To keep that number of people unemployed is not some law of economics (there are no laws of real economics), it is purely a political decision predicated on a non-existent law of rising wages caused by too much employment and hence bargaining power of labour leading to inflation. When wages rise, interest rates should increase to prevent inflation from occurring.

Mainstream economics has it that unemployment benefit is sufficient to provide for the needs of people without work. Critically for the neo-liberal economists, the rate needs to be set sufficiently low so as to provide the incentive for the unemployed to take any paid work rather than be idle. The gig economy is, arguably, the result of this mentality; that is insecure and sporadic work. However, this argument is pretty phoney – most people are motivated by a sense of purpose, much of which comes from engaging in meaningful work. But the rich – for example, those who earn six-figure sums – do not work harder the more they receive in salary and bonuses. They merely accumulate believing themselves to be worth the money they are paid. Moreover, they bias the policy of their firms in order to maximise the benefits they receive. For example, if remuneration is linked to share price, CEOs may engage in share buy-backs rather than invest in innovation and new products.

Kelton identifies seven deficits that do matter. These are: employment, infrastructure, education, climate, democracy, health and savings. Let me take a couple of those deficits, starting with employment. Kelton argues that progressive governments would use the state apparatus to employ all unemployed labour on a wage that sustains individuals and families until full employment returns in the natural economic and business cycles. A good job guarantee (the good is important here) can maintain aggregate demand even in a downturn because everyone who wants to work can do so. This potentially makes the downturn of shorter duration. All citizens would be covered (not everyone is eligible for unemployment benefits either because they have not paid-in to the insurance system, or they have exhausted their “entitlement”) and purposeful work is at the heart of such a programme. Moreover, skills are retained and/or enhanced. Kelton argues further that these public works should be based in communities and the work itself should focus on developing communities – whether it be public service, caring (for elderly and children alike) or business development/entrepreneurship. It is also clear that such a job-guarantee programme could be beneficial as societies pursue environmental sustainability. It is also feasible for people to change their own direction from accumulation to sharing and “de-growth”.

That leads to the second deficit that matters, climate change. Kelton rehearses many of the arguments made by key writers in this field such as Mike Berners-Lee, David Wallace-Wells, Tim Lang, Bruno Latour, etc. If governments persist with a neo-liberal, deficit-avoidance economic mindset, then climate change will impact human society at the upper, catastrophic-end of the climate-modelled scenarios. There is no financial block on investment in green technologies. It is political. Sovereign currency issuers such as the USA and the UK can generate the financial resources needed to eliminate carbon as the source of all energy and limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

In conclusion, Kelton is a credible critic of existing monetary policy. She demonstrates how we can as a society have the things we need. Society has never been provided for by taxation. It has always been spend and tax, not tax and spend. Tax does not provide the resources for public spending, it is primarily a tool of redistribution. Some rich people are not keen on that, for some reason.

Updated, 15 September 2020 to incorporate quote by Gordon Brown

Cigarette advertising post-Covid lockdown

The last post I made on cigarette advertising in Germany was 10 February, just before Germany went into lockdown. Even then, I thought that cigarette advertising was on the wane and we were unlikely to see big cigarette campaigns by the big brands. One of the reasons for this was the growth of e-cigarettes. Campaign budgets were being transferred from authentic killing to massaged killing. The clearest indicator of that is the warning at the bottom of each advertisement. Traditional cigarette advertising (bottom right) says “smoking is deadly”. Advertising for the new delivery method of super-heated tobacco says “this way of smoking can damage your health and make you dependent”. And to demonstrate how cool we are – and is this method of killing or maiming otherwise healthy people, let’s have a picture of an attractive women who nicely illustrates the product “glo”. The important thing for the tobacco company behind it, British American Tobacco, is that it is real tobacco from real tobacco plants, with real killer chemicals.

I have been out-and-about in Munich recently. Finally, I found a couple of cigarette advertising posters. Take the first one (right), I may have got the translation wrong, but maybe the packet is big enough to act as a parasol? Ho ho ho! There is some double meaning there that defeats me with my limited translation skills. Actually, I think one could actually live in the box, let alone use it as a parasol.

The second poster (left) goes for the time theme. If I am reading it right, there are so many cigarettes in the packet that in getting through them one has the time to name some woman? Again, this may well be marketing genius, but I am happy with my failure to appreciate perceived marketing cleverness on products that are designed to kill and maim.

My last Samsung

A few years’ ago, I watched a documentary about corruption at Olympus (the Japanese camera/optics firm). I was rather disturbed by it. To the western viewer, there was unacceptable fraud being perpetrated by Japanese executives. The British-company president at the time, Michael Woodford, found that dealing with it was not straightforward and could be dangerous. What he could not understand with his capitalist mindset was that losses were not only about honour in Japanese society, but also about social welfare – the interests of generations of employees (Olympus people) were intertwined with the fortunes of the company. The Japanese executives did what they could to avoid the collapse of the company for that reason – something that is difficult for a western mindset to embrace.

So in reading Geoffrey Cain’s book (left) about South Korea’s Samsung corporation, packed full of examples of fraudulent business activities, should I try to understand the cultural imperatives and conclude the book was a good read? Which it is, though the style as a thriller is annoying, but that is just me again. Samsung is a family business traded on foreign stock markets. It is the cornerstone of the South Korean economy, run as a business empire with a patriarch who can be convicted numerous times for services to the ruling family and somehow evade the full force of the criminal justice system. The book concludes just at the point where the current patriarch, Lee Jae-yong (Jay Lee), was facing a re-trial on bribery charges after a successful appeal by prosecutors to the Supreme Court.

The charges are intimately linked to Lee Jae-yong’s attempts to retain control over the company and not pay much inheritance tax in the process. Although Samsung is traded on stock markets,

car

1999 Samsung SQ5, later called SM5

investors do not buy a stake in the parent; there is a lot of cross-shareholding that does two things. It blurs the precise nature of who owns what whilst ensuring a controlling role for family members. It is a conglomerate, but at the same time not. Family members control the affiliate businesses including a theme park, a hospital, shipbuilding, fashion and chipsets. It made motor cars in my lifetime (right) The cross-shareholding allows the family to retain control with relatively small shareholding. The structure is frequently adjusted in the interests of the Lee family.

In 2015 one of these adjustments involved two affiliates merging to the considerable detriment of the financial interests of the existing shareholders of one of those affiliates, C&T such that it was being valued at less-than zero. As Cain notes: “Samsung argued that this was an attempt to consolidate business units…Jay Lee owned a 23 percent stake in Cheil Industries, the company acquiring Samsung C&T [Construction and Trading], which in turn owned a 4 percent stake in Samsung Electronics, the crown jewel. The merger would simplify and solidify Jay Lee’s control of Samsung Electronics through this shareholding web, starting with Cheil at the top” (p245). To make matters worse, the family managed to convince one of the largest institutional investors, The National Pension Service (NPS), to support the merger despite it not being in the interests of its own stakeholders; namely, South Korean pensioners and those hoping to retire on a pension. In the end, a combination of the devaluing of the NPS’s shareholding and the stock market’s response, it lost $500m – a straight transfer from the people to an industrial elite!

Even a US hedge fund, Elliott Management, led by Paul Elliott Singer, failed to stop it. Singer himself was described by Bloomberg as “The World’s Most Feared Investor”. Samsung engaged in some pretty unsavoury propaganda to discredit him. Singer is Jewish and Samsung went full-on antisemitism even going to the point of setting up a website called “Vulture Man” with a slide show depicting a vulture, thought to be a caricature of Singer, “whose sadistic practices consisted of plotting and preying on the poor and disenfranchised around the world” (p250).

Samsung’s origins are uncomfortable from a 21st Century context. Its founder, BC Lee, was educated in Japan and was enamoured to say the least by Japanese Zaibatsu, powerful family-dominated industrial and financial business empires, which fell victim to post-war reconstruction. Lee’s first business operation was in supplying vegetables to Japanese soldiers in Manchuria. That story itself has unsavoury implications, though from a business perspective, perfectly reasonable. A man familiar with Japanese cuisine supplies vegetables to customers in Manchuria. The fact that they were an occupying force is neither here nor there.

After WWII, the South was invaded by the North; 3 years’ of war saw most of Lee’s assets taken or looted. Lee then entered sugar refining and wool spinning, banking, insurance and chemicals. Samsung was intimately involved in the economic transformation of the country arising from the military coup in 1961 led by General Park Chung-hee after some horsetrading over the scope of Samsung business interests. Actually, the state wanted the banks.

selfieThe transformation into an electronics firm started to take shape with the acquisition of a semi-conductor firm in 1974. Always a supplier, Samsung powered the first iPhone. In fact without very close collaboration between the two firms the iPhone would not have made it to the market and that infamous 2007 presentation by Steve Jobs at the Macworld convention would not have happened. That event is itself a tale of trade-off and compromise.

Samsung seems to have been obsessed with beating competitors. First, Sony in terms of design and LCD screens/televisions. More famously, beating Apple, particularly in the American market for which Samsung employed a crack team of marketers led by Todd Pendleton. Their White Glove project culminated in one of the most famous non-selfies when Ellen deGeneres tried to make a selfie  with Meryl Streep using a Galaxy mobile at the Oscars ceremony in 2014. It ended up being the most-retweeted Tweet (right) featuring other stars such as Julia Roberts, Channing Tatum, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Jared Leto. And Kevin Spacey.

It is at this point in the book that I realise how meaningless life is.

The politics are much more interesting than the marketing; and much more unsavoury. Further words are expended on the PR disaster of the Galaxy Note 7 and the company’s insufficient recall policy and unwillingness to come clean about the cause, or indeed the danger. Readers will not be surprised to learn that there turns out to be considerable institutional causes over-and-above the design flaws. And then there is the premature release of the folding-screen phone that was so delicate that it broke by looking at it. Cain concludes, however, that we, the consumers, are just seduced by good products in nice cases. We will overlook the behaviour of the manufacturer in pursuit of consumption. My Samsung  S8+ is now into its fourth year. That is a testament to the product (and a bit to my care and attention to it). My next mobile will not be a Samsung.

25 October 2020 – death of Lee Kun-hee announced: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/oct/25/lee-kun-hee-samsung-electronics-chairman-dies-aged-78

Pics: Samsung SQ5: raul • CC BY-SA 3.0

Posh hotels

We’ve been revisiting the television recently. We’ve done the ten episodes of The Great British Sewing Bee. I finally got round to watching the extraordinary story of the Shah of Iran’s extravagant and delusional party in the desert back in 1971. But the other night we fancied something extremely light and un-challenging. So we went for the BBC’s Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby featuring Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps. Unfortunately, this was challenging. I am writing this now because the impact is still festering.

presentersThe concept of the programme is that two presenters go to posh hotels all around the world and muck-in, as it were, whilst giving the hotel a priceless chunk of advertising. The presenters (left) are Monica Galetti – a real-life chef, and Giles Coren – a sometimes controversial columnist with, by his own admission, an opinion “on just about everything”. This mucking-in, or as the publicity for the series has it, “rolling up their sleeves” is excruciating. Coren, in this episode, trying to learn towel flapping in a sauna is a case in point.

I tried to book a room at the hotel. The off-peak prices were about 3000 Euros for a couple of nights for two. But for that you get fed twice a day, access to a spa and a series of temperate pools inside and outside, accessible all year round, libraries and a bookshop (that is a nice touch), lounges and generously-sized rooms with views. Stunning views. It is also unique in that it is a music venue. Some of the world’s most eminent classical musicians play there (and have done so since 1959) on a “stay and play” basis. So the owner, Dietmar Mueller-Elmau, when asked what is the core theme of the hotel, he took them to the music room. It is extraordinary. Oh, and the G7 met there in 2015.

Summary – culture and well-being. At a price. What is my gripe, then?

Notwithstanding the extraordinary publicity granted a private business on a public broadcaster, and the format of the programme – mucking-in – there is an elephant in the room. It is probably true of all in the series and not exclusive to Schloss Elmau. And that elephant is sustainability.

At no point was there any discussion about the carbon footprint of this place. I cannot begin to imagine just how much carbon it generates from heating, the spa, the kitchens and, of course, getting people there. Whilst there is a train 7km away, I doubt it is the primary mode for visitors, especially in the winter. We had a look at the menus for the five restaurants. It all looked rather meaty. Just adding, of course, to the carbon footprint. Now bearing in mind the hotel had a devastating fire in 2005 and was largely rebuilt to meet the vision of Mueller-Elmau, one might have thought that there was a potential sustainability story to be told. Maybe there was, and the BBC just edited it out. I sense the producers and editors just loved Muller-Elmau’s declaration of delight when the hotel burned down and the opportunity it presented. I have no idea to what standard of sustainability the hotel was rebuilt.

That leads to the BBC and any other broad or narrow caster. Sustainability needs to be central to the theme of these programmes. OK, I can be a voyeuristic as the next person on how the “other half” lives, but at least put a carbon price on it. Or maybe the next series is about hotels that are sustainable, have been built or rebuilt to be sustainable – carbon neutral. Maybe it is time to promote them. Or if Schloss Elmau is sustainable, tell that story. Amazing hotels, I fear, come at a price much higher than what comes out of my bank account to visit.

Photo: BBC

Why solar power is the answer

illustrative

Demonstrations against nuclear power, Hull, 1983

Again, showing my age, there was a time before chiller vending machines. I had just started at college and one arrived on campus. There seemed to me to be two things instantly wrong with them. First, the drinks – sticky water really – were packaged in aluminium cans. Giving back aluminium cans to supermarkets had been one of my earliest experience of environmental activism. I’ve never liked them because of the energy required to make single-use containers. Second, chillers used energy to chill something that really did not need chilling. It was purely an aesthetic, especially in the middle of winter. Chillers just multiplied from that point onward. It seemed to me throughout my formative years that we used energy for things that did not need energy. Shop windows at night. What was that all about?

It kind of didn’t matter in those days. Aluminium smelters were located near to hydro-electricity stations and there was plenty of coal and generating capacity to burn it. Plus, chillers and lit shop windows made life better. Apparently. It is true, it was a piffling amount of energy relative to the big users: iron and steel producers, paper mills, bitumen manufacturers, water-treatment works, industrial-scale refrigeration. What I did not know before reading Chris Goodall’s book, The Switch, was that some smart people run businesses that sign up some of these large energy users and gain permission to turn off their equipment when the grid is under pressure at peak times. One Belgian company, REstore (now part of Centrica), operates a platform that monitors the real-time use of electricity of its clients and gauges whether they can be taken off-grid for a certain amount of time to level out demand. The platform is clever – or at least the people behind it are – in that it works out just how much energy can be taken from a big customer without affecting production. For example, molten steel stays that way for some time. Even 5 minutes off-grid can provide enough capacity to keep everyone else secure in supply. The company receives money from the grid in exchange for its clients coming off grid when requested to do so.

illustration

Hastings Railway Station: why no solar panels?

Why is this important? it is important because despite the startling fact supported by a logic that I am not going to argue with, photovoltaics (PVs) can supply humanity with all of the electrical energy that it needs more cheaply than by any other renewable mode. Contrary to what I had thought about chillers and well-lit shop windows, actually energy consumption is declining in developed countries. In the UK, apparently, we are back down to levels of consumption as of 1970 driven by two things. First, it is actually difficult for those in the rich west to consume much more. There is unlikely to be more chillers because – probably – there is nowhere to put them and we cannot realistically drink more sugared water. Second, many of the things we still consume are getting more efficient, in particular lighting (see below). Semi-conductors, too, are becoming energy efficient, exponentially so.

How much electrical energy does humanity need? Goodall thinks that a decent standard of living can be achieved by a total running energy demand of 3kw per person (one-third more than the running demand in 2015). Scale that up, that is about 30 terawatts of power (twice the level in 2015). Goodall notes, too, that the amount of available solar energy is: ten times that of the nearest renewable alternative, wind; one-hundred times that of biomass; wave and hydro are some 13 times less than biomass. All we have to do is collect the solar energy and covert it. Well, not quite.

illustrative

Roofs in Hastings. Spot the solar panels

PV cells are getting cheaper. Goodall uses the concept of the learning curve to explain this. Essentially, the more units manufactured, the more learning about how to manufacture them quicker and more efficiently. The decline in the costs of manufacture has a name, Swanson’s law (Like Moore’s law in semi-conductors, but bigger).

And maybe my chiller and shop window lighting gripes are actually valid? In a solar-dominated world – and especially in the temperate North – energy use peaks between 1600 and 2000 daily. There is an overlap between businesses shutting down and people arriving home, turning on lights and cooking dinner. Goodall reminds us how crazy it is that we do not have demand pricing for energy at these peak times. In the zero carbon world, we are going to have to turn off our lights and appliances at peak times. Ensuring that all light fittings are LEDs, seemingly would make a huge difference – demand can be reduced by one-third by this very simple change. Goodall goes further and advocates we all sign-up for smart meters on the basis that, in the washingend, suppliers will be able to shut off energy-hungry appliances at times of stress for the grid. He’s thinking particularly of our washing machines, tumble driers and dishwashers. My supplier invites me weekly to install a smart meter; I have been reluctant to let them into my house, but maybe there is a utilitarian case for it?

So, controlling demand at peak times is one element of the solution. Another element is alternative sources. As noted above, wind is the second-best option here; conveniently there is an inverse relationship between solar and wind – when it is not sunny, it is often windy. Wind turbines, however, cannot compete on price with solar. At the time of Goodall’s writing, the best solar conversions were coming in at US$0.06 per Kwh. Swanson’s law suggests that this conversion can go down further. However, such prices are half that of the best performing fossil fuel sources (p47). Wind can do about US$0.07 in its best places (Texas, for example), so it is a good complementer, and works at night and when the sun does not shine so brightly. Wind’s experience curve, however, is much less steep and sustained. It is also more expensive to site turbines (rental charges can be quite high; offshore has quite high maintenance costs).

SpongThere is also room for public policy – a south-facing roof in a city should have solar cells mounted on it. Equally, dwellings need to be made energy-efficient. A bit of insulation is insufficient. Rendering UK housing stock energy-efficient, in particular, is a major task. It is going to take central government support to transform regular houses, but companies like Energie Sprong (right) in the Netherlands (operating in the UK) show the way; though at £30k, it is quite a commitment. One house in a block seems a little pointless. We may need to do a bit of getting together to make this happen. Though disappointingly, there was no sign of money for these kinds of developments in UK budget statement of 8 July 2020.

Then there is the battery solution which has been driven by a rapid diffusion of electric cars. Elon Musk’s Tesla vehicles’ high performance depends on high capacity battery storage – in his case based on lithium ion technology (fast discharge). Seemingly there is enough lithium on the planet to build the necessary batteries. The United States Geological Service estimates that there is 13.5m tonnes available, which is more than enough and is recyclable. What Goodall doesn’t tell us, however, is whether this lithium is accessible, subject to geopolitics and/or would have environmental implications if it was exploited. There are other battery technologies – flow batteries are slow discharge, so not much use for cars, but work for other less dynamic applications such as mobile phone masts.

illustrativeThen there is pumped hydro – excess daytime electricity is used to pump water up for hydro-release when the sun does not shine. There is one in the UK at Dinorwig in Snowdonia (left). It can react quite quickly at peak times. But scaling up is not easy; there would be more damning needed and lots of power lines. Effectively, we are still short.

Fuels are stores of energy. Fossil fuels are particularly good because they are concentrated stores which means you get a lot of energy per bundle rendering it possible to have meaningful fuel tanks in cars and aeroplanes. Goodall doesn’t hold out too much hope in the hydrogen economy – it is way too dangerous and difficult to store and is not particularly dense in its energy. Time to turn to microbes. Carbon neutral fuels are possible. Here’s the logic: take hydrogen and carbon dioxide, literally feed it to known microbes in return for energy-rich molecules containing hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. These can be stored in existing oil storage infrastructure – a bonus for what will need to be a rapid switch.

Goodall advises us to keep an eye on a couple of pioneering companies – Electrochaea and LanzaTech. Both use microbes to convert various elements and compounds – carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide oxygen and hydrogen – often taken from the environment, sewage installations or from industrial plants such as cement factories before emission, and converted into a liquid fuel – methane and ethanol – that can be stored and used when needed. Just like with hydro, excess summer electricity is used in the conversion process. The excess, argues Goodall, is actually worthless. PV generates more electricity than is needed in the summer, so putting it to good use is no bad thing.

Finally, there is air capture of carbon dioxide. This is inherently a good thing as it would actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It does not require the burning of fossil fuels to capture it to then use it to make liquid fuels. A company called Climeworks in Switzerland leads the way here. Carbon dioxide is captured, combined with other elements to produce liquid fuels. It is expensive at the moment and would benefit immensely from the world adopting realistic carbon taxes as Climeworks’ carbon dioxide would be tradeable. Investment costs are equally important. Low interest rates help in the development of technology and installation, particularly of PVs for consumers.

I am still convinced that saving energy is still important and might contribute to reducing the deficit between what renewables can achieve in the winter and dark months. It does not seem to me just to be a case of our appliances becoming more energy efficient. Those drinks chillers and shop windows can still be turned off.

Pictures:

Energie Sprong – https://www.energiesprong.uk/

Dinorwig – https://www.fhc.co.uk/en/power-stations/