Saturday, 28 September 2013

Labour's Rocky Horror Show

As the Labour Party took it's "jump to the left" this week, we saw firsthand how "madness takes its toll."

Things turned ugly when the faithful realised there'll be no pot of gold at the end of the 2015 campaign rainbow - brutal medicine for a party infamously free with the public purse. So the furious mob turned its sights on the private sector, just like in the bad old days.

Gordo's lieutenants did their best not to disappoint the baying crowd, smashing in a few shop windows in an effort to claw back some of the profits they'd gleefully handed out when their old boss proclaimed the end of boom and bust. But the private equity boys are a vicious crew, and they were waiting. They went after those dogmatic party geeks like a bunch of Paras on PCP, strangely trailed by Lord Mandelson waving a socket wrench.

The geeks took a hiding, but they weren't giving up, or venting their sterile rage on public sector waste. Or gnashing their teeth about the six ways 'the System' is in a worse state than in 2008. No way. Back in the safety of the Hilton Metropole they were hell-bent on re-nationalising everything this country's sold off in its vain attempt to keep kicking the economic can down the road: "railways, power, water, Royal Mail." Savagely yearning for the return of British Leyland. A time when the State could do no wrong and Jimmy Savile ruled the BBC.

As the great Gonzo once said, "when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

Doomed, you might think. And so too is the old Labour rort of hiring public sector employees so they can automatically join the unions and unwittingly subsidise the party's lust for power. Snubbed by these ingrates, Milibore now wants to slip his hand into the public purse to fund his dreams, and is tempting the other parties to follow suit. He might be onto something there. Party political types are united in greed, if nothing else. But the Tories know there'll be nothing left by 2015 anyway. Soon they'll be sewing patches on the elbows of their suits...

You'd think that should mean a blissfully quiet election. But based on this week's performance I reckon Labour's rocky horror show has only just begun.

We're in for a mind flip.

We'll be into a time slip.

Labour will do the Time Warp again.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

We Need Let The Crowd into Financial Services

What a difference a year makes. At an industry event yesterday none other than Nicola Horlick, a well-known fund manager, confirmed her faith in crowdfunding as way of people putting money directly into the lifeblood of the economy, at a time when bank finance for small businesses is limited. Her own film finance vehicle raised £150,000 by issuing shares within weeks of an initial discussion with Seedrs CEO, Jeff Lynn, about how the crowd might help. A year ago, she wouldn't have given it a moment's thought. 

Of course, Nicola was referring to equity crowd-investing, which is the latest type of crowdfunding to burst into life. People have been donating to each other's projects via online marketplaces for nearly a decade and lending to each other online since 2005. Even the UK government is lending along side savers on peer-to-peer lending platforms. 

But these 'direct finance' marketplaces are no longer simply challenging a dozy bunch of retail banks. The addition of crowd-investing in shares and bonds is a direct assault on the sophisticated world of venture capital, private equity and boutique investment banking. 

Silicon Roundabout has launched a rocket attack on Mayfair.

This trend has raised a few bushy eyebrows down at Canary Wharf, where the paint is still wet on the signage at the hastily re-named Financial Services Conduct Authority. Not everyone at the FCA is excited by the prospect of just anyone being able to put a tenner into a business run by Nicola Horlick. In fact, the 'hawks' down there seem to believe that ordinary folk should content themselves with a low interest savings account, a lottery ticket and a flutter on the nags between visits to the nearest pub. If you can't afford to lose a grand, say the hawks, then you've hit the economic buffers. The banks can enjoy the use of your savings for free, while the government enjoys the betting taxes and the excise on your beer and cigarettes.

And we wonder why the poor get poorer.

You might also wonder, as I did yesterday, how 'the government' might explain to the same person who is banned from buying a share in the local bakery why he is still be free to blow £10 on a drug-fuelled quadruped at a racetrack, or donate it to a band that might go triple platinum and never have to share a penny of the upside with those who backed them.

But that's where you're reminded that the government never puts itself in the citizen's shoes; and there's really no such thing as 'the government' anyway. Just individual civil servants at separate desks in separate buildings, each looking at his or her own policy patch and waiting to be told what to do. Collaboration is not a creature common to Whitehall. In that world, no one at, say, the Treasury snatches up the phone to share a bold new vision for driving economic growth from the bottom-up with the folks over at Culture Media and Sport, or Business Innovation and Skills or Communities and Local Government. 

Or do they...?

At least those in Parliament, bless them, did collaborate in response to the ongoing financial shambles. Julia Groves of the UK Crowd Funding Association quoted some choice words on alternative finance from the report of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, and I've set out the full quote below (as I have previously). Julia also put it very nicely in her own words: "Wealth is not a skillset." We need to let the crowd into financial services, and we need to keep the 'crowd' in crowdfunding. Let's hope this time the following message permeates all the way to the remaining hawks at Canary Wharf.
"57. Peer-to-peer and crowdfunding platforms have the potential to improve the UK retail banking market as both a source of competition to mainstream banks as well as an alternative to them. Furthermore, it could bring important consumer benefits by increasing the range of asset classes to which consumers have access. This access should not be restricted to high net worth individuals but, subject to consumer protections, should be available to all. The emergence of such firms could increase competition and choice for lenders, borrowers, consumers and investors. (Paragraph 350)

58. Alternative providers such as peer-to-peer lenders are soon to come under FCA regulation, as could crowdfunding platforms. The industry has asked for such regulation and believes that it will increase confidence and trust in their products and services. The FCA has little expertise in this area and the FSA's track record towards unorthodox business models was a cause for concern. Regulation of alternative providers must be appropriate and proportionate and must not create regulatory barriers to entry or growth. The industry recognises that regulation can be of benefit to it, arguing for consumer protection based on transparency. This is a lower threshold than many other parts of the industry and should be accompanied by a clear statement of the risks to consumers and their responsibilities. (Paragraph 356)

59. The Commission recommends that the Treasury examine the tax arrangements and incentives in place for peer-to-peer lenders and crowdfunding firms compared with their competitors. A level playing field between mainstream banks and investment firms and alternative providers is required. (Paragraph 359)."

Friday, 20 September 2013

Either Gillian Tett's On Fire...

Ominous bursts of smoke have been rising from Gillian Tett recently. 

On September 12, the lady who gave us Fool's Gold pointed out that six key aspects of the financial system in 2008 are far worse now

The banks are bigger. Shadow banking is bigger. Investor faith hinges on central banking 'wisdom' and liquidity, while the top 5% of bankers are soaking up 40% of that support in bonuses. No one has been jailed for their role in the sub-prime fiasco. And the US government agencies now account for 90% of the mortgage market...

Today's smoke is rising over the Federal Reserve's decision to keep buying smack bonds at the rate of $85bn a month. It appears to have concluded that the West simply can't handle the withdrawal symptoms. Meanwhile, the UK regulatory elite has finally started to ring the bell over the fact that only 10-15% of the money our banks create actually goes to productive firms, while the rest is stoking financial asset bubbles... And, oh look, the real estate agency, Foxtons, has soared on its return to the stock market.

Either Gillian Tett's on fire, or something else sure as Hell is.

Image from JetSetRnv8r.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Involve The National Audit Office in Project Planning

So, two weeks have passed since the revelations of the latest (known) public sector IT disaster, and related wasted expenditure. But I'm willing to bet that nothing has changed in the way projects are planned, and we'll see many more juicy stories in future.  

Perhaps some kind of pre-emptive strategy would be in order...? 

Surely the National Audit Office is by now rammed with people who can spot the seeds of doom in just about any public sector IT project it cares to look at. So why not involve them at the start?

Forget all this talk of economic recovery, only the civil servants can save us now.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Cryptocurrencies Crest Capitol Hill

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of joining a panel on mobile payments at Liquidity, the summit on new finance. I also caught the earlier sessions, but sadly missed the afternoon. It was definitely worthwhile, and I'll include links to the videos when they're published. Well done to Stan and Edie for pulling the summit together.

One development in particular that caught my attention was James Smith's explanation of the wider uses of Bitcoins, and other cryptographic currencies. I actually struggle with the idea that these are really 'currencies' as opposed to commodities that can be bought and sold. That would also explain the volatility in the 'exchange rate'. But the technology definitely opens up some interesting possibilities.

One of the wider uses of cryptocurrencies involves agreeing that a unique string of numbers with a nominal 'value' (say, a sixteenth of a Bitcoin), represents the record of title to a specific asset. This use-case is reflected in colored Bitcoins, for example, where different coloured 'coins' respresent different types of asset. While we already have asset registers for many types of property, such as land, ships, cars and securities, there are many other types of asset for which a similar approach would be too expensive. Some of the challenges confronted by such a project from a technological standpoint are described here.

The proliferation of cryptocurrencies and their possible uses has generated  significant interest from the venture capital community, as well as amongst central banks, monetary authorities and agencies fighting financial crime.

Far from retreating before the threat of a regulatory onslaught, however, cryptocurrency service providers have been lobbying for some time to gain acceptance, (e.g. via the Bitcoin Foundation). Recently, the leading providers and supporters also formed the Digital Assets Transfer Authority, or DATA to concentrate and focus resources more efficiently and provide a forum for resolving appropriate controls for the shared operational and regulatory risks.

The fact that the future of cryptocurrencies have reached this level of official engagement definitely makes it an area worth keeping an eye on.

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