Thursday, 22 December 2011

Augmented Reality and Linked Data

I enjoyed a far-ranging conversation with @StGilesResident today, and am indebted to him for the reference to the following TED talk by Pranav Mistry. I do not know how I've missed this to date and am looking forward to seeing how this technology evolves with 'midata' initiatives to support our day-to-day activities in future. The folks at Microsoft have also been playing around here (you can follow them here).

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Sweat The Small Stuff

I enjoyed a great conversation with the Renegade Economist on Thursday. On the humorous side, it reminded me that:
"Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige's wall, there was this one: "Matters of great concern should be treated lightly." Master Ittei commented, "Matters of small concern should be treated seriously." Ghost Dog (previously cited here).

But, seriously, it's stunning how little of the detail is really understood by our institutions. Instead, they are obsessed with erecting grand schemes that are shaped most by surprise events beyond our control - 'black swans'. These grand schemes, like the 'single market' and the Euro, are brittle political constructs that neither minimise our exposure to the downside of surprise events nor maximise our exposure to the upside. Worse, they distract us from coping with structures that emerge organically outside the artificial regulated sphere as well as day-to-day outcomes that we might otherwise have avoided within it. It was typically five years too late before any financial regulator demonstrated any understanding of the shadow banking system lurking outside the walls, for example. And our regulated financial system has suffered from within due to poor due diligence on sub-prime debt, lack of scepticism amongst auditors, analysts who rarely say 'sell', banks who are fined millions for lax controls, and tax incentives that concentrate investors' risk and fail to deliver finance to creditworthy people and businesses.

Retail is detail, they say, but so is everything else. We need to align our tax and regulatory system with our actual or desired end-to-end activities, bottom-up, rather than with artificial, paternalistic institutional visions for the future.

Image from Core77.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

When in Doubt, Stay Out

I’m with the Tories on the EU treaty veto. There are just too many unanswered questions for anyone not already implicated to sign up. Even other EU leaders are now saying they'll struggle to sell the treaty nationally

Key among those questions is how the EU can democratically enforce its fiscal rules. I say ‘democratically’, because the whole point of the European Union is to avoid the diplomatic equivalent of ‘sending the boys around’.

Graham Bishop tries to address this in his short book, "The EU Fiscal Crisis: Forcing Eurozone Political Union in 2011?".

Perhaps the best place to start is Graham's point that “Wrong behaviour in misleading investors is still wrong even if the motive is patriotism, rather than personal greed.” During the Maastricht Treaty negotiations in the early ‘90s, Graham wrote some papers that “doubted the willingness of finance ministers to discipline profligate states”. The issue was ignored at that time on the basis that member states assumed it would always be in a profligate state's interest to want to do the right thing - a version of the efficient markets hypothesis, royally debunked first by Lehman Bros et al and now Greece. Even Alan Greenspan has had to admit that, left to itself, when any organisation is in trouble it is likely to behave in a way that suits those in 'control', which is why a taxpayers' guarantee constitutes a moral hazhard.

After gamefully attempting to explain the alphabet soup that comprises the EU financial bandaid stability aparatus, Graham recommends four principles of more effective fiscal supervision:

1.       Recognise there is nominal credit risk in the debt issued by a state that can’t print its own money – traditionally, there is assumed to be no nominal credit risk on loans to central governments held to maturity, since it's assumed that if the government needs more money it will simply print it (even though this may create other problems) - this is clearly wrong for Greece, for example;
2.       Make it progressively harder for EU banks to finance the excesses of an EU member state;
3.  Insurers, pension funds and other caretakers of peoples’ savings should be similarly disincentivised from concentrating on risky public debt;
4.      “Develop necessary flanking measures".

Funnily enough, non-Eurozone investors seem to be playing by these rules, even if the Eurozone isn't.

Little wonder private investors are working hard on contingency plans for Eurozone break-up.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Are ISAs "Safe"?

I'm having lots of discussions with mainstream policy folk at the moment, and it's striking that they perceive money invested via tax-free Individual Savings Accounts as somehow 'safe'.

This is somewhat true, up to the limits of compensation scheme protection. But only if you ignore the enormous direct and indirect costs of the bailouts required to deliver that protection, not to mention the fact that ISA cash earns 0.41% interest after 'teaser rates' expire, and investment returns after management and dealing fees may be slight (as we've learned in the pensions market). 

Even worse, your ISA money can't be properly diversified because you can only invest it in a limited range of regulated asset classes. So the government is both incentivising you to invest narrowly, and disincentivising you from putting your eggs in the full range of potential baskets.

But worst of all, like much of the money in the regulated system, the £350bn in total ISA money is 'dead' - propping up bank balance sheets and generating mutual fund fees - rather than working capital in the hands of creditworthy people and businesses who need it.

So it's high time that policy makers re-aligned the ISA tax incentives with the day-to-day activities of people and businesses. We urgently need to expand the range of asset classes within the ISA scheme, using proportionate regulation where appropriate.

Image from the Building Societies Association.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

A Bill Of Duties

I saw a protest sign yesterday that said "We all deserve a decent pension." Instantly my eye settled on the word "deserve", and I wondered who that message was intended for? Other protesters? People without decent pensions? Someone with enough money to fund decent pensions? If so, who?

Such a sign is useless unless it focuses us on how we should all fund decent pensions for each other.

A bill of rights is similarly aspirational. But, worse, simply listing all our needs merely creates a sense of entitlement. The list says nothing about the corresponding obligations that must be performed in order to satisfy those needs, and does not remind us that society as a whole shares those obligations.

Far better that we create a 'Bill of Duties' that commits all members of society to meet each other's basic needs. A Bill of Duties would act as a call to action, inspiring people to seize the initiative rather than the role of victim.

There was some notion of this in the background paper to the proposal for a British Bill of Rights and Duties, but casting rights purely in the form of duties would seem much more productive.

Having written this piece, I searched for an image to illustrate it and discovered that Deseret News has explored what a Bill of Duties might look like...

Image from from Deseret News.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Permanent Occupation

Here's an idea. Every city with a financial district should erect a substantial monument to the 'occupations' in the heart of its financial district, to act as a reminder to all who pass by it that all of society is affected by what goes on there.

While I have no objection to the quaint tradition of enshrining 'bulls' and 'bears' in the streets outside our bourses, should animals alone continue to epitomise our financial system?

Image from Technology News.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Saving The Euro Does Not Justify Every Means

The Eurozone crisis has now transcended economics. Full fiscal union is all that will carry the Euro across the chasm of doom, and the tension this generates is sweeping economics, the markets and the Euro to one side. European unity itself is at stake. The elected governments of Greece and Italy have fallen and been replaced by unelected technocrats who would deliver up fiscal sovereignty ahead of fresh elections. Last night we learned that the EuroZealots are now so deluded in the strength of this cause they'd even have Britain make the leap. 

There's something very ominously totalitarian in this level of dogmatic desperation. Merkel, Schäuble, Sarkozy and the EC crew would seem to forget they're dealing with a pressure-cooker, and would blithely slam the lid on rather than allow people time to let off steam.

There has been warning after warning that this is a time to pause and try to re-establish consensus on European Union itself - to uphold democracy - rather than to drag disparate peoples along by the scruff of the neck just to save the technocratic dream of a single currency, or even a 'single market'. 

Allowing people time to adjust to the grim new economic reality will not save the currency, but it might just avert the catastrophic conflicts of yesteryear. Similarly, riding roughshod over riotous anxiety levels today will not inspire citizens to embrace a decade of economic gloom.  

This is not an attempt to manufacture a moral panic - though one could say that of the case for EU fiscal union. It recognises that ordinary EU citizens have already taken to the streets to express their outrage and duly elected governments have wilted. Forcing fiscal union and further austerity measures is clearly intended to confront those popular forces. Saving the Euro does not justify such means.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Red Tape Challenge To Liberate UK Economy

As part of its Red Tape Challenge, the Cabinet Office is now targeting laws that stifle the development of new business models for no good reason. 

So anyone who's run into bureaucracy in setting up an innovative business should submit their comments at: Red Tape Challenge for Disruptive Business Models.

Once the initial ten-week window has closed, highlighted regulations "will be immediately put on probation, and will be scrapped unless the responsible department can justify or satisfactorily modify the regulation in question."

The two examples cited show how 'red tape' may include the absence of a definitive permission, exemption or exclusion, in the existing regulations (the first example certainly being close to my heart):
"Zopa, a company that provides a platform for members of the public to lend to each other, who found that financial regulations simply didn’t know how to deal with a business that didn’t conform to an outdated idea of what a lender is...
A number of businesses have tried to disintermediate estate agents by providing a platform for customers to sell directly to each other at low or no cost. But Estate Agency regulations treat them as if they are traditional Estate Agents, and place burdens upon them that make very low cost internet-enabled business models unviable."
I couldn't see a ready guide to what else would be considered 'red tape', so it's up to you to decide. As a suggestion, one definition I've found repeatedly referred to is:
"a collection or sequence of forms and procedures required to gain bureaucratic approval for something, especially when oppressively complex and time-consuming."
My own view is that 'red tape' and 'bureaucracy' are the same thing: requirements that either have no purpose or exceed their intended purpose or effect. Examples would include data that is collected but never used. Or a financial system that prohibits diversification. Or financial regulation and tax laws that favour 'traditional banking' over new models.

I'll get my coat.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A New Regulatory Model For Retail Finance

Over on The Fine Print, I see that my professional alter ego has updated his post on a proposed new regulatory model for retail finance, in the light of a late night post on the US Crowdfunding Bill. Those posts, and some feverish work of my own on the Book of the Blog, would appear to explain a slight delay on this particular front, which I'm personally assured will be rectified shortly ;-)

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Short Churches?

Ever since protesters were forced by police to retreat from the London Stock Exchange to occupy St Paul's Churchyard, I've been fascinated by the effect of the global financial crisis on our Christian institutions.

While the Vatican has seized the opportunity to issue its statement on 'reform to the international financial and monetary systems', the Church of England, of course, was terribly embarrassed to be caught up in it all. Incapable of grasping a real opportunity to shape people's thinking, instead St Paul's initially offered to convene a nice cosy debate. Then the Cathedral's 'canon chancellor' resigned ahead of the Bishop of London's threat of eviction, which was followed shortly after by the resignation of the dean of St Paul's. Finally stirred into action, the Archbishop of Canterbury called for "robust public discussion" about the possibility of a so-called 'Robin Hood tax' on financial transactions.

The Vatican's statement is typically grand, and I've not had the time to consider it all, but here's an extract of some concrete proposals:
"a) taxation measures on financial transactions through fair but modulated rates with charges proportionate to the complexity of the operations, especially those made on the “secondary” market. Such taxation would be very useful in promoting global development and sustainability according to the principles of social justice and solidarity. It could also contribute to the creation of a world reserve fund to support the economies of the countries hit by crisis as well as the recovery of their monetary and financial system;

b) forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds making the support conditional on “virtuous” behaviours aimed at developing the “real economy”;

c) the definition of the domains of ordinary credit and of Investment Banking. This distinction would allow a more effective management of the “shadow markets” which have no controls and limits."
However, I wonder whether our religious institutions could be a bit more active in the reform of the financial system, rather than pontificating from the sidelines? Their wealth and tax-free status has not gone unnoticed, and there's plenty they can do on the investment front. The Church of England's ethical investment policy is here, for example. And it has lent stocks to short sellers. But that's not what I'd call active

Having previously suggested that short selling would be a useful regulatory tool, and that we could do with a secular version of the old Devil's Advocate, perhaps these are areas where the churches can help, along with voting at AGMs on executive compensation, for example. In fact, sometimes billed as the "shock troops of the Vatican" or "God's Marines", maybe there's a calling for highly-trained Jesuit priests on the trading desk of an ethical hedge fund, short selling the stocks of companies that the faithful believe are operating unethically. 

I wonder how they would rate Mr Blankfein's efforts?

Image from

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

No Mandate To Offer Better Public Pensions

Where is Cameron's mandate to offer public sector workers better pensions than the private sector?

Gordo raided the private sector pension pot years ago, as the Tories rightly pointed out in their election campaign. The unions, of course, had no problem with that, since they are the beneficiaries of Labour Party porkbarrelling. And economic crisis has mean that private sector workers have known for the past few years they can never retire.

The public sector needs to understand they can strike all they like. The world has changed.

Referenda seem popular at the moment. Perhaps we should have one to decide this issue?

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Of Credit Easing, SMEs And New Regulatory Models

Growth in Lending
Source: Bank of England
Good news that the Treasury is exploring the potential for using the London Stock Exchange's "Order book for Retail Bonds" or "ORB" as a platform for issuing bonds in small and medium sized businesses as a tactic in the government's credit easing strategy. But let's hope this is part of a wider solution that creates a broad 'safe harbour' for a range of instruments and platforms, rather than a nice cosy exclusive for the LSE and its member firms.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Banks Winning War On SMEs

The latest Bank of England "Trends in Lending" report reveals that a further contraction in funding available to SMEs, combined with unjustified hikes in the cost of finance, are causing small firms to conserve cash on deposit for 2012 - which in turn means free money for banks (my emphasis added):
"The major UK lenders stated that credit availability to SMEs remained unchanged or had eased. Most major UK lenders reported that their expectations for SME credit conditions during 2012 were less optimistic than their expectations six months ago. Under this outlook, which they attributed to current economic uncertainties, SMEs were expected to continue to have a reduced risk appetite and to be cutting back on investment and non-essential spending.

Concerns about credit availability have been reported, however, by business contacts of the Bank’s network of Agents. Contacts of the Agents reported that credit conditions continued to be tighter for SMEs compared to larger corporates. Small businesses and new business start-ups still found it difficult to gain access to credit. The Bank’s Agents also reported that some small firms were holding sizable cash balances because of concerns about the continuing availability of overdraft facilities. They reported that some small firms were reluctant to approach banks out of concern for an increase in the cost of existing borrowings, or reductions in overdraft limits, and sometimes had resorted to the use of personal loans instead."
Meanwhile, loan pricing by banks "continued to drift upwards", notwithstanding that:

"Default rates and losses given default were reported to have fallen for both small and medium-sized firms over the past six months, although some pickup in these quantities was expected in 2011 Q4 for medium-sized firms. Most major UK lenders, however, reported little evidence so far of deterioration in their existing SME credit portfolios."

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Delegation: The Pyle Principle

The Peter Principle is the name given to the notion that "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to the level of his incompetence." In turn, Peter's Corollary holds that: 
""in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties" and adds that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence". "Managing upward" is the concept of a subordinate finding ways to subtly "manage" superiors in order to limit the damage that they end up doing."
But the suggestion that "work is accomplished" in such an organisation implies successful delegation by management, itself a sign of management competence. That can't be true of an organisation governed by the Peter Principle, since surely it is incompetent from the top down. In such an organisation, therefore, it is more likely that issues are delegated to the level of incompetence and less and less is accomplished. Accordingly, either we should re-define Peter's Corollary or (acknowledging that delegation to the incompetent could be a tactic employed in otherwise sound organisations, e.g. to kill an unpopular project) we should proclaim a fresh principle. 

How about the Pyle Principle?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Does Occupation Work?

Much is being written about Occupy Wall Street and similar expressions of mass dissatisfaction about our financial system. In particular, many are giving advice on more practical alternatives to occupation, which misses the point:
"Occupy Wall Street is [a] leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants."
In other words, this is what people do when their faith in all the immediately practical alternatives is exhausted. 

But why? Does mass occupation 'work'? I mean, is Egypt now a better place? Wouldn't it be better to withdraw completely and assume the foetal position under your duvet? 
While I don't believe these protests have any causal connection with the changes that are democratising the financial markets, they are critical insofar as they represent a peak in our society's dissatisfaction with its financial institutions. I mean, this is not intended to shock or wake people up, like a strike or a noisy protest march, or an attempt to get the attention of law-makers outside Parliament. Quite the reverse: pitching your tent in the beating heart of a giant city is a sign of utter confidence that every rushing passerby, every person who reads the paper or watches the evening news will understand exactly why you're there.

For this reason, such occupations are a sign that the majority of us have rounded the change curve. It means we've moved beyond 'shock' at how broken things are, through 'denial' and beyond 'anger and blame' - even though that appears to be what all the signs are about. Those people wouldn't be there if they instinctively sense that we all understand the world has changed for the worse. That something has to be done. In fact, the reason they're gathering is to figure out what is to be done.

Ironically enough, these occupations mean we're moving on.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

EU Rescue Fund: Build It, And "They" Will Come

Source: Allianz. Hat tip: Financial Times
The Zerozone's life and death struggle may be painfully slow, but it's weirdly entertaining. Comical proposals abound as to how far the dwindling European financial stability facility ("EFSF") - now eroded from 440bn to 250bn - might be leveraged to cover the risk of Zerozone countries going bust. Metaphors to date range from 'a burning building with no exit' to holding on to a 'rising balloon', and I've mixed a few more below. 

The latest instalment, as it were, involves a proposal from Allianz, the insurer, that the requisite leverage could be produced by guarantees (see diagram), so that the steadily shrinking 440bn could magically cover €2.9 trillion of shonky southern sovereign indebtedness. A previous proposal involved CDO-style leverage to €4 trillion. Both appear to suffer from the flaws outlined by Satyajit Das: that the credit risk is massively concentrated and the default correlation is high.

This is like watching turkeys fight over who's next at Thanksgiving. Mr Das is not alone in assigning a high probability to the guarantees being called, or 'CDOs' defaulting - the facility is also a giant magnet for recalcitrant Greek bureaucrats, hedge fund managers and bond traders alike. 

The vultures aren't so much circling, as landing and fastening napkins around their necks.

I guess you could say this makes the creation of the facility a self-fulfilling prophecy. And this just happens to be the reason leading Zerozone banks give for resisting requirements that they recapitalise on the back of stress-tests that factor in the risk of sovereign default (French banks complain they would be forced to raise capital at valuations that are too low, but who are they kidding?)

In truth, the banks are just playing for time until the EFSF gravy train finally rolls into town.

That seems to be what banking is all about. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A Good Year For Innovation In SME Finance

Source: Bank of England
As the headwind for UK banks stiffened today, we have news from MarketInvoice, the UK-based online invoice discounting platform, that it has enabled SMEs to raise £2 million against their invoices since February 2011, with £500,000 raised through the platform in August alone.

"Buyers" of each firm's invoices are institutional investors (such as asset managers and private investment funds) - who we know have plenty of cash in search of a home. They bid against each other on the platform to ensure some competition to provide cheaper funding. The types of deals done to date, and how the process works, are described here. In effect, this puts the traditional invoice discounting, or 'factoring', process online.

Of course, MarketInvoice is not alone in providing small businesses with alternatives to bank finance. Funding Circle, the peer-to-peer platform for small business lending, has also reported healthy interest. And Crowdcube facilitates equity investments.

So far, each of these new entrants has chosen to innovate around a specific funding instrument or process. No doubt other alternative providers, and further innovation, will emerge while the banks remain in complete disarray. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

Bank Bonuses, Dividends Impact The Economy

Source: Bank of England
Banks were recently warned by the Bank of England to cut bonuses and dividends ("discretionary distributions"), rather than to reduce lending, when faced with falling profits.

Interestingly, Angela Knight, chief executive of the British Bankers Association, welcomed the news. She is reported to have said, "This is the first statement I’ve seen from [UK] authorities that recognises that capital levels and regulatory changes ... can have an adverse impact on the economy.”

By implication, of course, this is also the first acknowledgement from UK banks that their bonuses and dividends will adversely impact on the economy, unless they are cut before lending shrinks.

Let's hope they continue to bear this in mind as their rate of lending continues to shrink...

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Let Go Of The Rising Balloon

I recall being told the terrible story of some military personnel grabbing the ties on a hot air balloon that was threatening to leave the ground prematurely, only to be hauled into the air. One by one they faced the decision whether to drop off as it continued to rise, and some held on too long... I'm tempted to search for an accompanying YouTube clip. But you get the point, and Winnie the Pooh provides a more fitting illustration for the Eurozone politicians who face the same dilemma.

The latest proposal is that a €440bn European Financial Stability Fund be somehow swelled to €1 trillion, which in turn would be leveraged to €4 trillion using "distressed sovereign debt, and equity in distressed banks exposed to the very same sovereigns, as security".

That this is the equivalent of a rising balloon is not in doubt. Nor is it a surprise. Gillian Tett explained two years ago why sovereign debt could be "the new subprime". And the IMF's report on the subprime crisis has explained the problem with allowing the same $1 trillion in assets to be rehypothecated or 'churned' to 'secure' $4 trillion in borrowing by US banks in the lead up to the Lehman collapse... Noting the "surreal" circularity involved in the latest EU proposal, Satyajit Das also recently pointed out that the proposed structure is also flawed because it fails to recognise that the underlying bonds could lose 75% of their face value.

Martin Woolf discusses this process in terms of "How to keep the euro on the road" but I prefer the rising balloon analogy - as did Danny, the dealer in Withnail and I, when referring to the end of the '60s:
"Politics, man. If you're hanging onto a rising balloon, you're presented with a difficult decision - let go before it's too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black."
Time to let go. Greece first.

All Your Problems Solved - For Life

A new TV game show promises to solve all your problems for life - on the single toss of a coin.

A spokesperson for independent production company CoinToss Productions confirmed the show's ultimate promise, but refused to give further details. "We're still in stealth mode," she said, "and we don't know how this got out. But all will be explained in the launch."

Industry analysts were enthusiastic about the show's potential. One pundit, who preferred not to be named, suggested "this really captures the zeitgeist." Asked what he meant, he said, "it's a German word, and I'm not entirely sure what it means. But what's certain is this country is on its knees and the majority of people are employed by the government or receiving some kind of benefit. The entrepreneurial spirit, the get-up-and-go that created whole countries like America and Australia and... and... Fiji has been replaced by an entitlement culture the pinnacle of which is knocking a hole in a shop window to grab a telly, followed by a cheap lager and a bag of crisps down the local as a warm-up for the public sector strikes. I mean, a show like this will appeal to most people in the UK, of course, because it's just about basic human greed at the end of the day, isn't it? But it'll appeal particularly to those who expect it all on a plate and can't be bothered to take control of their own lives."

Sources say the show, which has the working title "Coin Toss", should be out in time for Christmas.

Image from Blackberrysites.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Of "Credit Easing" and P2P Finance

Source: Bank of England
The governments proposal to intervene directly in the corporate and small business funding markets shows how grave it is that lending to UK businesses is shrinking.

But it seems crazy for the taxpayer to prop up zombie banks - subsidising tax-free savings rates that allow banks an average margin of 11% - and then to use more public money to shunt aside nascent private competitors. Surely, the result will be a never-ending spiral of financial dependency on the public purse. 

As NESTA recently reported, there are more innovative ways to finance small business. But the current regulatory framework - ironically designed to protect us from the banks - makes it unduly painful in terms of time and money to start true competitors. Which is why the P2P Finance Association was formed to help inform the move to a new regulatory framework and pave the way for new entrants. Without any of the vast subsidies the banks receive, these new platforms will lend more than £100 million this year to individuals and small businesses - and they already account for over 2% of the UK personal loan market.

So why doesn't the government foster the growth and development of alternative means of finance, rather than use public money to put them at risk?

For instance, why not extend the ISA tax-free cash subsidy to lending via peer-to-peer platforms?


I believe that mainstream popular culture is a pretty good bellweather for the national state of mind. That's not to say there's necessarily a causative impact (apart from fads), merely reflective.

Last year, I was struck by Hollywood's happy ending to Money Never Sleeps, which celebrated the fraudulent success of one Gordon Gecko. Later, I wondered whether there is anything else we regard as socially more important than the accumulation of wealth?

This year, having already witnessed that greed and stupidity are winning, I've been struck again by greed-inducing TV programmes like The Million Pound Drop and Red or Black.

Maybe people need 'hope', but surely this sort of cheap route to fortune is merely setting us up for frustration.

What sort of film and TV would reflect a culture that has adjusted to our new economic reality?

Thursday, 29 September 2011

In Brussels It's Always 3 Years Ago

Yesterday's speech from the European Commission President perfectly underscores Brussels' feeble grip on reality. 

Now is not the time, amidst multiple sovereign insolvencies - "a burning building with no exit" - to be debating (yet again) the need for a 'Tobin Tax' that might take effect in 2014. 

Now is not the time to be recommending legislation that might one day deliver greater centralised control. Nor is it timely - or wise, given the confessed lack of central control - to assert that solutions cannot be achieved by negotiations between governments. 

Surely, the EC President's role in such troubled times, if he ever really had one, was to do all he could with the structure he'd been given. Which would have included locking governments in a room until they did what was necessary.

Alas, that opportunity slipped by in 2008, if not before. "Europe" is an ex-parrot.

Even the news that German MPs have backed moves to bolster the Zerozone rescue fund is beside the point, as Satyajit Das explains in an excellent article today. The Zerozone central banking system simply does not have the capital to leverage itself, CDO-style, to the point at which the rescue mechanisms need to stretch:
"A 20 per cent first loss position may be too low. Unlike typical diversified CDO portfolios, the highly concentrated nature of the underlying investments (distressed sovereign debt and equity in distressed banks exposed to the very same sovereigns) and the high default correlation (reflecting the interrelated nature of the exposures) means potential losses could be much higher. Actual losses in sovereign debt restructuring are also variable and could be as high as 75 per cent of the face value of bonds."
We must get our heads around the fact that Europe's building will inevitably burn down.

So where will you be in 2014, Mr Barroso?

Images from Crisisboom and The Nation.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Labour Rolls Out The Porkbarrel. Again.

Forget "Fulfilling the promise of Britain" the most boring, leaden, ominous tag-line ever conceived.

Forget the dweeb whom the unions allowed to be "leader".

Dig a little into its shallow grave and you realise the Labour Party is still offering you... More!

Gordon Brown's former henchman, Ed Balls, says he "deeply regrets" that their last round of porkbarreling transformed Britain's economy into a complete shambles. Nevertheless, he insists he has some new "tough fiscal rules" for the future (remember Gordon's "Golden Rule"?) - indeed, Balls says he has a five point plan to give you More: 
1. More greed - if we aren't greedy for punishment we won't hire more civil servants, who won't become union members, who won't vote Labour.

2. More civil servants - because they tend to join unions and vote for the party most likely to grow the public sector.

3. More union members - because they control the vote at Labour's annual conference, the leadership and the party's finances.

4. More money - Balls says he would borrow more to pay for public sector growth.

5. More spending - to complete the vicious virtuous circle.
And here's where that takes you:

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Okay, So How About A Mutual Europe?

Putting harsh economic reality aside for a minute, those who've always suspected that the Euro was a political Trojan horse for full fiscal European union must be highly amused by the current rhetoric.

The self-congratulatory political engineers of the European Union, like Jacques Delors, are lambasting their successors for ruining the grand plan. In their minds, monetary union and the Euro should have naturally led to complete union by now. That having failed, suddenly an enormous shared debt is suggested as the new political vehicle for the single market vision:
"To avoid falling, the choice looks straightforward to me: either member states accept the robust economic partnership I always demanded, or they transfer more powers to the Union."

Delors said Merkel and Sarkozy were playing games by arguing for "a minimum amount of cooperation designed to limit any transfer of sovereignty" to Brussels.

Taken on that basis, the ideas for eurozone reform they put forward on Wednesday after a head-to-head in Paris "won't amount to a hill of beans...
[Delors] instead called for a part-mutualisation of eurozone member states' debts, "up to 60 percent of GDP," saying the pooling of guarantees on that basis would "put out the fire" on money markets." 
Or, as Hunter S. Thompson once put it: 

"when the going gets tough, the weird turn pro."
"Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl" 
(Rolling Stone #155, Feb. 28, 1974)

All very reminiscent of the following scene:

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Wither The Zerozone?

I'm no Eurosceptic, but after all the dithering over the options open to the Eurozone it seems only the default option, as it were, will transpire: break-up

It remains to be seen whether we need to go through the farce of country-by-country downgrades and bank-by-bank recapitalisation. I guess we do, since avoiding or pre-empting that would take some kind of decision which the Zerozone politicians are incapable of making and for which they probably have no electoral mandate anyway.

But why stop there? I wouldn't weep for all those European Commission officials having to lodge their final excessive expenses claim and head home to defend their huge pensions from rioting neighbours. 

Flowers will grow through the cracks in Brussels' streets, and we can forget Strasbourg again.

We could certainly use the money more wisely.

Image from Crisisboom.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Toshiba: You've Lost A Customer For Life

In March 2011, I bought a Toshiba laptop after reading a glowing review on Which? (for which I'd had to subscribe). 

Nineteen days ago, my 6 month old Toshiba laptop died. 

I was on holiday overseas at the time. It was Friday evening. The Toshiba web site wasn't helpful and I couldn't reach anyone at Toshiba Support. Monday was a holiday in the UK, so it was Tuesday before I could report a critical problem: Day 4. The support person I spoke to said it couldn't possibly be a hard drive failure, as I'd have different error messages, so I should order a recovery disk on the web site - about £20 worth. Delivery was promised within fourteen days.

So, Toshiba think it's okay for a customer to wait at least fourteen days to get access to his laptop. So I went down to the basement and rescuscitated my old Dell laptop.

I began tweeting, using .

Toshiba's recovery disk arrived on Day 11. It didn't work. The only option available on the web site and via the telephone was to pay £30 for third party support. I spent over an hour on the phone before the support person said I should call a special number at Toshiba for a hard drive diagnosis. I did, and after trying to suggest my warranty details on the web site weren't valid, they said I should take the machine to a support centre in London, which I did, same day. 

On Day 13, the Toshiba service centre told me the hard drive had failed. They said they'd ordered a new one on the warranty. Estimated delivery time: another 5 business days.
Day 17, the lap top still hadn't surfaced, so I ordered a new Dell - estimated delivery: two days.

Today, Day 19, the new Dell arrived. I also got a call to say the Toshiba was ready, but I don't care. This is being posted via the Dell. I still haven't collected the Toshiba, which I might do tomorrow if I have time.

Toshiba, you've lost a customer for life.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Institutions Don't Need Our Money

Forget the credit crisis, we're in the midst of a deposit crisis. 

In a series of excellent posts citing the NY Feds' work on shadow banking, FT Alphaville explains there are too few of these safe harbours for all the institutional cash that needs them. This is different from the mistaken investments made in toxic "AAA" sub-prime mortgage debt. This is about a shortage of the highest grade bank deposits and government bonds. In fact, the NY Fed reports "that 90 per cent of instutional cash pools are subject to management policies where safety [rather than yield] is the primary objective."

This can turn government bonds and other high grade debt into kind of Giffen Good, which people paradoxically consume more of as the price rises. This can continue to the point that the bond rate becomes negative (as has happened with Swiss debt) and some banks may even charge depositors for depositing cash on which it can no longer make a return.

In turn, this awakens the so-called "Triffin Dilemma", whereby a country that has a reserve currency (like the US) runs a large current account deficit to fuel consumption and provide the rest of the world with liquidity, yet suffers "from the declining value and credibility of any currency which runs a persistent trade deficit - eventually leading to a reluctance of creditors to hold the reserve currency."

All of which suggests that institutions don't need our cash - that perhaps we're better off allocating it directly to those who do need it, like people and SMEs, through 'horizontal credit intermediaries' that don't add unnecessary cost or contribute to the deposit crisis.

Image from CurtisMorley.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Let's Be Unreasonable

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
George Bernard Shaw.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

A Litigation-led Recovery

Those struggling to find a job take note. The recents string of law suits filed against major banks by the Federal Housing Finance Agency confirms that the litigation services market will lead us to economic recovery.

By the time the parties have counter-claimed, cross-claimed and largely disappeared, taxpayers on both sides of the pond may of course syphon some damages out of the giant round-robbin. But it's when you add in the legal and other professional/support time, software and cloud-computing capacity, stationery, coffee, taxis, restaurants and takeaway food that you know we're into some serious redistribution of wealth. Then there are the spin-offs: all the discretionary spending of everyone involved, on holidays, cars, boats, pub lunches and ice creams for the kids - all trickling through into the real economy.

I reckon there's a good five years left in it yet, by which time the same machine will be chewing hungrily into the next mess.

Litigation is the future.

Joking aside, anyone who thinks that being a securities litigator might be a bit dull should watch how much fun Senator Carl Levin had cross-examining Dan "Shitty Deal" Sparks of Goldman Sachs on their Timberwolf CDO deal:

Saturday, 3 September 2011

There's No Good Time For Banks To Change

Retail bankers always fiercely resist change. I guess that's because they've always had to follow the manual. Unless the manual changes they are powerless to help. Add to this a general lack of accountability for the manual, and you have the perfect recipe for inertia. This explains retail bankers' resistance to faster payments, fairer overdraft charges, abandoning the sale of payment protection insurance ... the list goes on and on and on. It's cultural, regardless of their woeful economic plight.

So, of course, we find febrile resistance to the notion of 'ring-fencing' or other structural proposals to shuffle the deckchairs somehow prevent the need for massive taxpayer subsidies to keep retail banks afloat. Timing is always the last line of defence, and now we're hearing from the British Bankers Association that they couldn't possible restructure until never they've financed the recovery and repaid bail-out funds to the taxpayer.

I completely understand the concerns about restructuring banks amidst the current economic hurricane. But isn't the purpose of restructuring them to protect us against one of them being swamped? If so, surely now is the time to batten down hatches and secure the cargo as best we can.

Or should we simply be manning the lifeboats?

Image from gCaptain.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

'Normal' Service Will Now Be Resumed

Apologies for the radio silence during much of August. Already frantically busy going into the holiday, I landed myself with the additional task of finalising The Book of The Blog by 1 September. Fortunately, the patience of family and friends allowed me to finish the first draft early and I emailed it from holiday in Spain two days before my laptop packed it in...

The enforced social media lay-off was probably no bad thing. While I stand by it, the scathing vitriol I poured onto Ryanair now seems to have been Tweeted by someone far less relaxed - though some good old-fashioned personal service from AutosEstrellas helped exponge the few hours of misery. I should also add that the easyJet experience was definitively better than that of its Celtic cousin, even if everyone now seems to be opting for 'Speedy Boarding'. One of the staff said they're considering a move to reserved seating, so maybe that's why.

For what it's worth, I wholly recommend the beaches around Begur, north of Barcelona, and Illetes in Mallorca, including Balneario Illetas for great food (and a consistently good blues mix). Others from 'downunder' will laugh uproariously, but that's European beaches for you, unless you're well off the beaten track or on a boat and can anchor where you like.

The 'find' of the past few weeks, if you want to push the boat out for a night, is the Restaurant Pa i Raim in Palafrugell. But I don't recommend the 10km run at 8:00 the next morning to pick up the car before the Policia Local swing into action. A taxi would do just nicely.

Image from Blogxiliar.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The Book of The Blog

Well it's no secret, but I feel a lot better admitting to it now I'm back from holiday and the first draft is safely in!

In a nod to convergence, Ash Rattan of Searching Finance, the economics and finance publisher, first got in touch via Twitter to suggest we meet in a more traditional publishers' forum in July. And, ready as I was to indulge in a traditional West End literary lunch that spilt late into the afternoon, I was equally impressed that our discussions required nothing stronger than coffee and that agreement was reached within a few weeks.

I could be wrong, but somehow I doubt an agent and several belts of the Bordeaux would've helped much in that process.

Anyhow, it seems fitting that the book of the Pragmatist blog should be published not only by someone who publishes an array of people for whom I have a great deal of respect, but who also disintermediates a few links in the supply chain along the way.

I hope you will enjoy the read in due course.

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Great PPI Robbery Redux

I must be missing something. UK banks are all reporting their profits and losses with separate adjustments that 'strip out' their massive provisions for mis-selling payment protection insurance in connection with their retail credit products over many years.

In other words, they suggest they would have been 'much more profitable' if they had not ripped off consumers.

But they did rip off consumers, and this damaged their profitabilty.

Worse still, their provisions do not reflect the fact that they used PPI revenue to cross-subsidise the marketing and sale of related credit products. So there was a false market in those products as well.

The point remains: will these banks continue to rip off consumers? Will there be more fines and more provisions?

Millions upon millions of fines and adverse findings in UK banks' recent history suggest we have not seen the last of their exploitative conduct.

And it would seem very unlikely that in the current economic environment these businesses will be capable of dedicating the necessary resources to ensure their processes and procedures are compliant.

We urgently need to figure out alternative sources of finance to our banks.

Friday, 29 July 2011

More Tea, Wolfgang?

The "Tea Party" may be getting it in the neck for its bumbling brand of brinkmanship over the US debt ceiling, but, as Schumpeter points out, it's the European finance leaders who seem not to realise the gravity of the current financial situation:
"Italy sold €8 billion ($11.4 billion) of ten-year bonds on July 28th but had to pay a yield of 5.77% to do so, the highest level at auction for 11 years. Making matters worse, European politicans have gone back to making unsettling comments after their brief show of discipline at the summit: Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, said this week that he would not be writing any blank cheques to the euro area’s bail-out fund, the size of which is inadequate to ringfence Spain and Italy."
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