Archive for October, 2009

It’s a win, win, win, win

Posted in Uncategorized on October 28, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

There is an excellent rant in today’s Guardian by Simon Jenkins which can be found HERE. Nothing exceptional about this per se, I suspect Simon’s blood pressure has been an issue for some time with his doctors as regular readers will know he has trenchant views on the 2012 Olympics (he reckons he could do it for about a quarter of the price by using sport stadia we already have) and Afghanistan (he quite rightly points out that this is the fourth war we have fought over there and we have lost each time).

Anyway, today’s target for his rage is scrappage. Don’t get me wrong, he is in favour of the car scrappage scheme, rightly pointing out that it has been an extraordinary success despite the fact that only £400 million has been spent on it (compare that to how much we have spent on failed banks). Why he wonders is the scheme not extended to other household goods to stimulate demand?

It’s a fair point and one that has been vexing British business for some time. I was talking to a client in the heating sector only a few weeks ago who has been quietly lobbying for a scrappage extension to old, inefficient boilers. Let’s be clear, my client does not expect the Government to provide a short term boost to his sector and bottom line with no contribution from his end. His view is that such a scheme will help boiler manufacturers; small businesses such as gas installers; help homeowners to reduce their heating bills and the Government itself to hit its climate change targets. This is what could be called a win, win, win, win.

So why don’t we do it? Simon blames it on the class system – in that the Government and bankers are much happier doling out cash to each other in the hope that some of it will trickle down to us via increased lending, rather than giving it directly to us. Coming from a man who was educated at Mill Hill and St John’s Colleage Oxford this is strong stuff.

Apparently Mandelson had to fight tooth and nail with the Treasury to get the scrappage scheme go-ahead which tells me that this is a Government wedded to monetarist economic policies which now seem as outdated as Keynesian demand stimulation seemed a decade ago.

Worth a read.

Right idea, wrong show

Posted in BBC on October 26, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

I watched Question Time on BBCi over the weekend to see what all the fuss was about (when you have a 12 week old baby the scheduled 10.30 start to watch it live is asking a bit too much).

All my instincts in the lead up to the programme were that the BNP’s participation protected important elements in our basic rights – namely freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Now, I’ve changed my mind.

There was little freedom on show here. Instead we were treated to an hour’s bear baiting which did little to forensically analyse, dissect and reveal BNP policies. Those with enough grey in their hair will remember a debate on the future of the monarchy held by ITV about 15 years ago in front of a live studio audience which descended into farce with invited guests being shouted down and barracked mercilessly. Last week’s Question Time was almost a re-run.

There is another point here. The BBC keeps getting it badly wrong. If it isn’t Question Time it’s a shoddy piece of Ryanair reporting on Panorama which managed to do the almost impossible by getting public opinion behind Michael O’Leary. Or the deliberate scheduling of Strictly Come Dancing against X-Factor. Now I don’t watch either (I’m a Radio 5 Live 6-0-6 man) but I find it difficult to believe that it is the role of a subsidised state broadcaster to deliberately try and reduce the audience figures (and, crucially, advertising revenue) for a commercial broadcaster.

There has been underground debate, mainly confined to the pages of The Guardian, about the future and role of the BBC. If it carries on the way it is, that debate won’t stay underground much longer.

Too big to do anything about?

Posted in Banking on October 22, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The Governor of the Bank of England’s use of Churchillian rhetoric a few nights ago in a speech on banking reform (“never in the field of financial endeavour has so much money been owed by so few to so many”) opened a new front in the on-going Battle of the Bonuses, on this side of the Atlantic at least.

We now have two of the biggest names in banking and regulation effectively wanting to break up the banks by splitting off commercial banking activities (clearing, loans, mortgages etc) from investment banking activities (trading, arbitrage etc) where the big profits and bonuses are being made. The other? Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve who advocates the re-enactment of the Glass-Steagall Act, first passed by the Roosevelt administration in the midst of the Great Depression.

How likely is this? Well, for a current Governor of the Bank of England to be talking this way is certainly a surprise and is probably the start of a Bank of England ‘land-grab’ which will be enacted if we get a Conservative Government, which has pledged to get rid of the FSA and return banking regulation the Bank.

However, our current Chancellor of the Exchequer has publicly said that a modern Glass Steagall is not on the cards and Volcker’s views are finding little traction in Washington (according to the New York Times).

My own view is that there is a lack of political will to do anything about this, beyond words. I’m not sure that these banks are now ‘too big to fail’. It’s more like they are so well connected, politically and economically that they are now ‘too big to do anything about.”

A very quick PR point. Banker confidence was on full display when the official spokesperson for the British Bankers Association was asked to comment on the bonuses. Apparently, we all need to “move on”.

Mad, bad and useless

Posted in Politics on October 13, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

There is an excellent article in today’s Independent by Steve Richards in which he says that MPs are “not corrupt”, they’re just useless. Well, he doesn’t actually use the word “useless” he prefers “mediocre” but it amounts to pretty much the same thing. It can be found HERE.

Richards blames the decline of Parliament on the main parties’ selection processes, but I think he’s missing a wider point. The problem, from where I’m standing, is that the Prime Minister has to pick his Government from an exceptionally small talent pool. Let’s say he has a majority of 75 seats, which equates to about 375 MPs with which he or she must fill their Government of approximately 150 positions. However, out of that 400 there will be many who are not interested in Government (the Chris Mullins and Dennis Skinners of this world), many who are not remotely up to Government and many who are either not trusted by the leadership or are regarded as a bit barking (bit like Bill Cash and Charles Clarke).

Once you rip out the mad, bad and the useless, you aren’t left with much and, more importantly, it is practically impossible to find MPs who could be regarded as experts in the Government departments they are expected to run. The result is that the Prime Minister is reduced to chopping and changing to get his best people into the departments which are causing him the most grief at any one time. The best Ministers become firefighters, parachuted into Government trouble areas. John Reid for example, like him or loathe him, had eight different Government positions between 1999 and 2007.

This chopping and changing has reached epidemic proportions across Government and is making life very difficult for business in particular. I was talking to a client in the energy sector a few weeks ago and he told me that they have had 12 different Energy Ministers since 1997. By the time they have got the new one up to speed with their sector he or she is off again.

Is there an alternative? Well, I sometimes do cast envious glances at the American system in which the President is free to choose whoever he likes for his key cabinet positions. Steven Chu for example, the US Secretary for Energy has won the Nobel Prize for Physics and was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which has conducted pioneering work into the use of biofuels and solar energy technology. So he should know what he’s talking about. My client for one would be more than happy with an appointment of this sort of calibre from the next Government.