Archive for the ‘Finance and Economics’ Category

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 (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 

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.

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

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,


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:

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

Makers and Takers, review

There I am in the bookshop and the owner offers me Rana Foroohar’s lastest book, Don’t be Evil..., about the inherently evil Big Tech. He detects my interest, but not quite in this book at this moment. Then he reaches for Foroohar’s earlier work from 2016, Makers and Takers. In true Douglas Adams style I bought it because it was slightly cheaper, but unlike the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it did not have a reassuring title (Don’t Panic). Indeed, this book’s subtitle, How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street, could actually be re-titled, Panic. It is that troubling.

How does this book fit into my current reading? Regular readers know that climate change is occupying my thoughts at the moment, indeed my current reading (right) is shockingly pertinent (also used by my bookseller to cause an exchange of money from me to him). The finance industry is both a cause and solution to the climate crisis. To understand how it might solve the crisis, it is worth knowing – or at least reminding oneself – about the dark side of finance. How, despite the financial crisis of 2008, in Jarvis Cocker’s words, The cunts are still running the world. And indeed, ruining it.

This is a gripping book. I know most of the story, but here it is nicely sewn together. Essentially as a Financial Times journalist – unusually so – Foroohar has been a chronicler of the story in bite-sized chunks, in real time. She reminds us about the banking industry’s original functional purpose for capitalism, to provide the funds for investment in the productive economy. She takes us through the deregulation of the industry in both the USA and the UK that crucially broke the separation of boring, low-return retail and business banking and lending and the riskier investment, speculative and hedging activities. Moreover, the central banks in those countries are both lenders of last resort (always reassuring when engaged in risky trading), regulators and, in tandem with the state, secure a compliant civil society and the system of law that favours capital over labour.

Wall Street is also complicit in the financialisation of business. Faroohar reminds us how large firms avoid tax by offshoring their earnings abroad; how they increase the value of their firms by share buy-backs financed by lending (for example, Apple) at the expense of innovation in product and services; and how the executives of these firms remunerate themselves not on the basis of salary like their employees, but rather by shares attracting capital gains tax rather than income tax. This provides the incentive to inflate the value of the firm independent of its products. Here Faroohar cites the case of Pfizer, so desperately short of innovative products, but rich nonetheless.

We see how the finance industry thrives on private and public debt, itself fuelled by low interest rates. The lower the interest rates, the more lending (and hence money generation) becomes feasible. The lower the interest rates, the more money there is to buy property which squeezes out of property ownership a good percentage of private citizens – or at least gets them to overstretch themselves in pursuit of loans. And when whole neighbourhoods become bankrupt, the finance sector provides the money for equity funds to buy up swathes of cheap properties, rent them out, often supported by the state and tax payers, and take rather than make.

The finance sector steals our pensions, ensures the high price of commodities, including essential foodstuffs. And, particularly in the USA, personnel enjoy the revolving door between Government and Banking and vice versa, over and over again. We see how the banks, private equity, and their customers monetise public goods like research and development executed in publicly-funded universities and research centres but privatise the benefits. By offshoring their profits, they return only a fraction of the value generated to source.

Where does the environment come into this? The climate crisis that is ramping up can be still solved by investing in zero carbon technologies, infrastructures, public procurement, education and lifestyle changes. It does not. The finance sector has become an end in itself rather than the means by which an economy can be radically changed in a relatively short space of time. Not only do they not lead in investment in green technology, but they actively lobby against it. And because of the revolving door, a bubble is generated whereby business-as-usual – that is, making money – remains the priority. Challenging this is the struggle of the century. And if we do not win it, the climate will change. Badly.

Unease over corporate scandal: Olympus

Olympus_head_office_hatagaya_shibuyaLast night we watched documentary screened by the BBC called 1.7 billion dollar fraud: full exposure broadcast under the Storyville series banner. It is the story of an accounting fraud perpetrated over a 10 or so year period by the Board of the company to hide losses. It is an intriguing story told in an engaging way. Or so it seemed on first viewing.

The plot is simple. Successive presidents of the company have hidden losses by a variety of means – offshoring debt, buying shell companies, etc. – in order to keep up the share price and, ultimately, avoid bankruptcy. The knight in shining armour, as it were, was Michael Woodford, a humble Brit from Liverpool who started work for a subsidiary of Olympus 30 years ago and rose to be its president, at least in name. Without him, the scandal would have been ignored in Japan even though the story had been articulated in a small Japanese language financial magazine, FACTA. The story is even more complicated than the film presents.

Now there is no doubt that Olympus perpetrated significant accountancy fraud. And in order to do it, some rather dubious players – Yakuza and various Cayman Island firms – were employed. But it is also clear that the causes were not all they might seem. At first sight, the successive Presidents “instructed” their Finance directors, in particular Hisashi Mori, to move, hide and do whatever else to get rid of the debt for personal gain. Surely, should such losses be reported, they, as the person sat at the top would have to go? But what if the motive was not personal gain but rather the social welfare of employees? The capitalist west – or certainly the USA and the UK – has no real problem with this. Firms fail, employees find new jobs. Or not.

Tsuyoshi Kikukawa and Michael Woodford shake hands over appointment as President in 2011

Tsuyoshi Kikukawa and Michael Woodford shake hands over appointment as President in 2011

But even a cursory knowledge about Japanese firms and Japanese business methods alerts us to the non-universality of this approach. The firm may be bigger than the President (despite what Michael Woodford says about – Tsuyoshi Kikukawa – in the film) with the livelihoods of employees, families and pensions all locked into the success of the firm.

Moreover, the losses have their origins in global capitalist systems. First, the Plaza Accord of 1985 where a group of countries including Japan, the USA, UK, France and West Germany, decreased the value of the Dollar relative to the Yen. The purpose of this was to make the US more competitive and its goods and services cheaper. The downside was that Japanese products became more expensive, including Olympus products. Whilst this was not threatening, Olympus’ profits were affected. In order to keep them up – and this was not unique to Olympus – firms invested in stocks, bonds and other financial “instruments”. When the crash of 2008 came, these companies found their balance sheets compromised. Olympus acted to protect itself from those losses.

In the film, Michael Woodford is portrayed as being a victim. He was badly treated by Kikukawa particularly. For example, he tells the story of how he was invited to a lunch meeting where he saw that he had been served a Tuna sandwich and the other Japanese participants, Sushi, as a way of demonstrating his inferiority vis-a-vis his Japanese counterparts. He also tells of how he feared for his life when on the day he was sacked. But what was also telling is that Michael Woodford did not speak any Japanese. Now I am far from qualified to comment on this, but it seems to me that language is the most important aspect of culture. It is clear that some of the Japanese (writing) signs are made up of concepts of honour, loyalty, etc. To understand the language is to understand the culture. One cannot hope to understand Japanese capitalism in English. Maybe that is the biggest scandal, that Michael Woodford thought that he could. Or that capitalism speaks a universal language?

Picture: Olympus HQ ja:利用者:Kamemaru2000

Kikukawa and Woodford: screengrab from film

Syriza and the Greek response to austerity

Increasingly, it is clear that globalisation has globalised wealth in the hands of a number of elites – from Flag_of_Greece_svgoligarchs in Russia, bankers in the UK and land speculators in Bombay. When the crash came in 2008, the perpetrators – the financial services elites – ‘hoovered’ up the public money pumped into the system to obviate a capitalist meltdown. No one went to jail; but Europe’s people were handed down a dose of austerity in return for their support. What is perplexing is how any sane policy-maker can sustain an argument that austerity helps declining economies. In Greece, for example, something in the order of 70 per cent of the country’s under 25s are unemployed. They are neither economically active nor productive. In the UK, unemployment goes down not because the economy is growing and the demand for labour is increasing; rather because people are taking zero-hour jobs or, indeed, taking jobs for an hour through ‘freelancer’ websites. Or, most disturbingly, if unskilled – at the unconnected end of the labour market – ads in supermarkets and shop windows. Alexis_Tsipras3

Syriza’s victory in the Greek general election last week represents something positive. It is populist, but from the left rather than the right. The rhetoric is one of alternative, fairness and equality. It is a David and Goliath story in the making. The new Greek Prime minister, Alexis Tsipras (left), takes his secular oath, appoints radicals to his government (such as Yanis Varoufakis as Finance Minister), halts privatisations, reappoints the cleaners who were sacked from their jobs in the finance ministry, initiates tax reform and targets corruption. They have even put up all of the ministerial BMWs up for sale.

We learn that the first port of call is not the IMF, the European Commission or even the German government in Berlin, rather opposition parties in Italy and Spain – next up on Europe’s election merry-go-round. I wait and see what happens, but there is optimism about Europe’s prospects and the rightness of Syriza’s approach to the crippling debt that they have inherited. I trust the elites do not share my optimism.

Flag: Fry1989, Wikipedia

Photo: Lorenzo Gaudenzi

The oil price is a problem

Oil_wellWhilst I am delighted to see that I can fill the tank of my ever-so reliable van for a fraction of what it cost this time last year and fly until my heart is discontent in the knowledge that the value of the airlines (share price) is increasing, they having done nothing more than survive three months since the oil price started to plummet, it is bad news. Why?

First, burning hydrocarbon fuels is bad for the environment and price is a key regulator of consumption. Second, many oil producing countries – some of them not the richest – have set their budgets at anticipated levels; for example, $100. The shortfall of $35 (reflecting today’s price-per-barrel) can make the difference between life-and-death. High oil prices, then, can be good transfer payments between rich and poorer countries.

Third, oil company shares are down sharply. With these stocks being some of the key investments made by pension funds, meeting obligations becomes more difficult. Fourth, investment in renewables will be hit. Suddenly it is only cost-effective to burn oil. Fifth, geopolitics. When demand goes down, price is often regulated by cutting supply. This is not happening for reasons which are currently unclear. However, there are some suggestions that it is a power battle between oil producing countries particularly in the middle-east rendering the region even more unstable than it already is. That is also not to mention the situation in Russia. Very much an oil economy that is suffering also from ludicrous EU sanctions. There is unrest ahead.

What about the positives? Well, I can think of one key positive. The glut in demand is, in part, caused by shale oil production in the USA and tar sands in Canada. These two practices are very damaging to the environment. $65 a barrel is not sufficient to warrant such production. Whether the firms will cease their activities remains to be seen, but what is clear is that where fracking has not yet started, it is unlikely to do so.

Picture: Flcelloguy/Wikipedia

The case for lawyers to head up the banking inquiry

‘Bob’ – we are all on first name terms now – Diamond wrapped the MPs on the Treasury Select Committee around his little finger yesterday. Despite it taking 3 hours, it was an incoherent tame affair largely because there was no strategy to the questioning by the MPs. To be fair, they are not trained interrogators, but there were some rudimentary errors made. For example, Robert Peston on yesterday’s World Tonight programme asked, when did Diamond actually learn about LIBOR fixing – when he first read the report last week as he claims or earlier when he in 2008 claimed that all banks were busy fixing the LIBOR? If he knew in 2008, why did he not intervene? And why did he say to the Committee that he learned only last week? And why did the MPs not pick him up on that contradiction? The now infamous Tucker exchange was also unsatisfactorily investigated.

Click on Peston above to hear the interview.

If ever there was a case for a lawyer led investigation, yesterday’s hearing made it.

Diamond resigns, Cameron announces limited inquiry

Bob Diamond has this morning resigned as CEO of Barclays. Clearly, the reputation of Barclays is under some pressure over this LIBOR-fixing scandal. That said, one is still incredulous to hear shareholders this morning defending him – or at least his aggressive banking style that they think suits their dividend requirements.

Yesterday, David Cameron announced a parliamentary review of banking – or rather professional and cultural standards in the banking industry to be chaired by Andrew Tyrie. Tyrie is now doing some back peddling in light of Labour’s call for a more substantive review of banking presided over by a lawyer similar to Leveson currently investigating phone hacking.