John Lanchester, writing in last Saturday’s Guardian, explained the essence of the Repo 105 deals which Lehman Bros did to create the false impression in their accounts that the company was fit and well. And Lehman’s accountants, Ernst & Young, were happy, as Lanchester explained, to ‘sign off on the deal … It was all within the rules.’
But it wasn’t. Company accounts, in Britain and in America, are intended to reflect a true and fair picture of the company’s position – otherwise what is their point? It doesn’t matter that custom and practice has become so fraudulent in financial circles. The only reason why auditors are still required in Britain to certify the accounts as “true and fair” is to be sure that the various clever creative ways of accounting to disguise the true picture, which in themselves may be perfectly legal, are not used to deceive. At the end of the day the accounts must give a “true and fair” account. If audited accounts are not “true and fair”, then the accountants responsible, and the auditors who signed them off, should be struck off and locked up.
George Osborne announced the Conservatives proposal to mutualise and co-op the public sector, describing it as the ‘biggest social revolution since Thatcher sold council houses’. But their proposal just shows how little they understand the essence of those movements. Mutuals and co-ops operate within the for-profit sectors but instead of paying surpluses over to external shareholders they pay some to their members and accumulate the rest within the business. That’s the whole point. That was how the great mutual financial institutions and building societies got to be so big and so successful. The rape and destruction of so many, almost including the Co-op itself, was sanctioned and encouraged by the Thatcher government.
So how would mutuals and co-ops operate in the public sector with no surplus to distribute and accumulate? What would be the point? Well, George Osborne says, they would be able to work without the central controlling bureaucracy. So, was he saying there would be no central regulation or control? Well, not quite that, Osborne admitted, there would still have to be performance standards. So what did this social revolution amount to, other than confusion? Well, it was a reply to Gordon Brown’s earlier announcement that mutualism and co-ops would be at the centre of Labour’s election manifesto. But not a very convincing reply. No more convincing, in fact, than Brown’s own commitment. It would be rather better if politicians thought through their policies before deciding on the accompanying sound-bite.
So it turns out the top brass at Lehman Brothers were deliberately lying about their indebtedness to the tune of $billions. Shades of Enron! So what’s new? Speculative markets are based on lies. In the old days financial institutions such as pension funds and insurance companies, served some social purposes. Today, hedge funds, sovereign funds and the like, serve no social purpose. They exist only to make money for their investors and themselves, both being in a position to take risks with ‘loadsamoney’. They have no moral compass beyond ‘making as much money as possible’ to quote the famous economic mountebank, Milton Friedman. So, of course, they are liars. The accounting profession are culpable, deliberately falsifying balance sheets so they appear less risky than they are. And firms of auditors are liars, declaring the accounts to be “true and fair” when they know perfectly well they are nothing of the kind. But very few of these parasitic liars end up behind bars.
Keynes said he could see no reason why a government should become involved in owning a railway. However, the result of privatizing British Rail and trying to open it to competition, suggests Keynes may have been short-sighted. Monopoly might be a bad thing when exploited by some profit maximising economist, but the case against is by no means shown to be universally true.
Continue reading The Case for Monopoly