Category Archives: free trade ideology

The Real Rogue Traders

Kweku Adoboli lost some $2.3bn for his employer, Swiss bank UBS. A couple of years ago Jérôme Kerviel lost over $6.5bn for Société Générale, while a dozen years back, Nick Leeson cost Barings $1.3bn and their independent existence. In all, around $10bn of losses were accrued by these three nice young men who were no doubt the pride of their parents. $10bn may seem a lot, but it’s less than a billion a year – a small price to pay for the continued freedom from regulation which enables investment banks to continue their rogue trading, which is hugely profitable for them, even if it costs the rest of us an arm and a leg.

One of the recent articles on Adoboli’s exploits, suggested that banks had failed to learn lessons and had not controlled individual traders effectively. Another suggested that securities had grown in complexity making it difficult to assess the trading risks involved. The internal risk controls within UBS were said to be obviously inadequate. The same was said about Baring’s in its day. But UBS, Société Générale and Barings, seem pretty typical members of the investment banking community. UBS may have differed slightly in requiring its female employees to wear flesh coloured underwear, but otherwise they seem fairly normal. The lack of risk control in investment banking must be endemic.
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Why Don’t We Make the Bankers Pay?

In the United States, Goldman Sachs, hugely profitable out of the financial crisis, still rules the roost. According to Senator Carl Levin, chair of the senate permanent sub-committee on investigations, in the report on Wall Street and the Financial Crisis, it’s a “sordid story” of a “financial snake-pit, rife with greed, conflicts of interest and wrongdoing.” Levin said he would be recommending Goldman executives be referred for criminal prosecution. But that’s barely news. Goldman have paid for their criminality before. In the UK this startling story is hidden away in a few short paragraphs on page 26 of today’s Guardian (15th April). It hardly qualifies as news. Because everybody knows.

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Osborne’s Wasted Opportunity

In the context of UK’s indebtedness, it might seem that any morsels in the new budget to benefit the real economy, for start-ups, small businesses, for technology and innovation, should be thankfully received. But the real opportunity, the one the now toothless Vince Cable made so much noise about, has been totally ignored. For the financial sector, it really is business as usual. Its rape of the real economy can continue for another year at least without fear of interference.
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Restoring Enterprise by Burying Dogma

The almost universal acceptance of neoclassical economic theory, at least in Britain and the United States, has resulted in much destruction of professional management practice. The so simplistic dogma leads to a set of mindless clichés which have not only severely damaged enterprise management practice, but, also the wider management of the real economy, as has been seen over the past two years.

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Food Insecurity: Another Big Bubble

Neoclassical free market orthodoxy, by which the world is still ruled, makes no distinction between real and speculative markets. Both are granted maximum freedom to grow. Speculative markets started as a strand within the financial sector which itself was brought into existence to support investment in the first industrialisation. But while the size of real markets is limited by the ‘appetite’ of potential customers, speculative markets have no such limit. Their growth has been phenomenal; the market for derivative securities has already been estimated as close to the GDP of the planet and many times the value of the world’s stocks and shares. But that is only the start.

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The British Government’s Hopes for Partnership with the Unions

The end of the self-defeating miners’ strike in 1985 led to the somewhat fundamentalist right wing government imposing severe restrictions on the unions’ rights to engage in industrial action. Despite the 13 years of Labour rule, those restrictions were never undone. So it remains extremely difficult, within the law, for the union movement to mount any general industrial action. However, the wholesale nature of the current government’s expenditure cuts, presents a once in a life time opportunity for the unions to mount a hundred or more individual legitimate trade disputes, which could, to all intents and purposes, look very much like a general strike. The unions hope this will be the appearance of their London demonstration at the end of March, which they expect to attract a million supporters.

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The Neoclassical S-Curve

The pattern of technological progress has been found to be surprisingly consistent. New technology has to clear various hurdles before attracting funds for its commercial development. A successful project that gets fully exploited grows fast, all the time getting detailed improvements and added features. Eventually, progress begins to slow, returns from further R&D diminish and the technology begins to stagnate, before being replaced by something totally new and different which starts the whole process off again. The graph of this progression is the S curve, starting at the tail of the S, going through a rapid growth and tailing off, before being replaced by a new S.

About 30 years ago, when Friedman’s fixation on maximising shareholder wealth was beginning to be widely adopted, S curves were a trendy form of strategic analysis. They had been applied to many industrial sectors, studying the introduction, development and replacement of technologies, all following discernible S curve progressions. However, the idea was not then applied to theoretical development.

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Shared Value: another variation on the neo-classical theme

An article in the current issue of Harvard Business Review, by eminent Harvard Business School economist, Michael Porter, and his business partner, consultant Mark Kramer, claims to be showing ‘how to reinvent capitalism – and unleash a wave of innovation and growth’. The secret is “Creating Shared Value”.

It criticises the ‘outdated approach to value creation that has emerged over the past few decades’. That ‘outdated approach’ might be summarised as short term shareholder value maximisation – the target of much criticism in other posts on this site. Porter and Kramer propose a “new conception of capitalism”. But, despite the rather breathless, teenage language, it all boils down to an increased orientation to the usual candidates: concern for the wellbeing of customers, employees, suppliers, local communities, and also for the firm’s role in depletion of key resources, especially water and energy, and its role in polluting the atmosphere and thus, probably, contributing to climate change. So what’s new?

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In Praise of Renegades

The economic mainstream has flowed on its capital oriented way with relatively little deviation despite its manifest limitations, errors, omissions and downright falsehoods. And despite the occasional disasters to which it gives rise.

In the middle of last century, J M Keynes corrected some of the more apparent errors of the classical model, but his aim was improvement rather than revolution. He did argue powerfully that ‘the madmen in authority’ should accept the maintenance of full employment as their moral responsibility, but renegade he was not.

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Changing Economics

A retrospective of this year’s postings would highlight some of the flaws in accepted economic theory. Many have been flagged up elsewhere: economic theory is not, and never has been, without its severe and knowledgeable critics. However, there are a couple of errors which are fundamental to the study of economics which are not often mentioned elsewhere.

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