Category Archives: Regulation

Banking Standards Apple Pie

The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards published its 571 pages and its chairman, Tory MP Andrew Tyrie, hopes ‘the higher standards it advocates will help revive the banking sector and the UK generally’. ‘This is not,’ he assures us, ‘a bank bashing report.’ Indeed so. It is as supportive of banking, the City and its financial activities as such a report could be, while talking the language of reproof and proper correction. Its disapproval of massive bonuses, especially those being paid for failure, is given full voice. But proposed substantive action is limited. The extension of deferred bonus payments with easier “clawback”, seems unlikely to make much difference.

A much repeated complaint in the report, especially of people at the top, is the lack of personal responsibility and accountability. Those responsible for the decisions and behaviour which led to the sector’s failure have continued to be rewarded with massive bonuses and pensions. To address this the report recommends top appointments having to be authorised by the regulator who will identify specific responsibilities. Would that make any difference? Would the regulator have rejected the appointment of Fred Goodwin or Bob Diamond. Or any other likely incompetent?
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Grasping the Nettle Now

So President Francois Hollande has not given up on his election promise to levy a 75% tax on those who pay themselves, or get paid, in excess of €1m (£840,000) pa. The French high court rejected his original proposal, but it seems the revised version, to levy the tax on the payers rather than the recipients, may well prevail. The promise is that it will only be for two years, but Pitt said much the same when he introduced the first British income tax to pay for the Napoleonic wars. If it works, it will no doubt stay and perhaps be built upon

Taxing the income of the very high paid at a higher rate than the low paid is part of what made the French vote for Hollande as President. The people want it. They apparently don’t like the idea that the wealthy are sneering contemptuously from their tax avoiding havens at the poor who are being clobbered left, right and centre. And in that respect the French are probably not much different from the Brits. If a British political party were to advocate a 75% tax rate, with no escape, for those earning a million or more, would it gain support from the mass of people?
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Glencore, PwC and Horsemeat

Back in July last year, this site pondered what would replace the public company, formerly the most powerful institution in the economy (see http://www.gordonpearson.co.uk/11/what-will-replace-the-public-company/). Its numbers had halved over the past decade and the number of small and medium sized firms’ initial public offerings had declined by more than 80%. Shareholders’ funds appeared to be no longer of much worth to the public company, the flow of money having been reversed so that shareholders, and indeed the whole financial sector, were now taking rather than investing, Nevertheless, media interest in the FTSE100 and other stock market indices continues unabated, even though they only measure betting activity on such as M&A rather than real new investment. A posting last month offered a reasoned explanation of how democratic capitalism, which had delivered so much and promised so much more, appeared now to be approaching the buffers – http://www.gordonpearson.co.uk/20/democratic-capitalism/.

The still dominant Friedmanite version of capitalism is now being seen to self-destruct with its array of naïve beliefs and illegality. Company law (eg Companies Act 2006) charges company directors, Friedman’s ‘corporate officials’, with the legal duty of looking after the best interests of the company having regard to the long term and to the interests of all stakeholders. Friedman argued they had no other duty than to make as much money as possible for shareholders. Friedman clearly won hands down against the law, and that despite the fact that ‘corporate officials’ have legal contracts of service and employment with the company, not its shareholders, and those contracts invariably charge them with the duty of looking after the company’s best interests.
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Democratic Capitalism

Among all the debate about the vices and virtues of capitalism there is rarely any serious attempt to define its key characteristics. Whatever they are, they appear to work better than the best known alternative that has so far been tried: centrally planned totalitarian communism. Whether good capitalism or bad, compassionate, predatory or even ‘conscious’, all capitalisms appear to depend on the ownership and control of the established legal entity known in the United States as the corporation, or the public limited company elsewhere. That is the corporate form Chandler described as ‘the most powerful institution in the economy’ on which the affluence and growth of the past century and a half has been based.

The corporation was the legal form which was enabled to issue shares to many dispersed individuals and so accrue sufficient funds to make large scale capital projects possible. Initially its legal creation required a royal charter, then an act of parliament and finally, after 1844, a company could be legally established by a relatively simple process of registration. Limited liability followed a decade later. This was the precious means by which industrialisation was enabled.
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The Real Costs of Globalisation

Globalisation reduces the cost of goods and services as their production migrates to the lowest cost parts of the world. The lower prices are a benefit for everyone and the low cost parts of the world, which are only now beginning to industrialise, gain tremendously in terms of economic growth and employment. So globalisation is a good thing, But there are some downsides. Jobs disappear in the advanced economies as production moves to the developing world. Up to now, the advanced economies have grown, bar a few booms and busts, more or less continuously, for the past 250 years in UK’s case. But the migration of jobs now seems likely in the advanced economies to be permanent and to be bringing the growth phase of their economic development to an end.

Permanent changes like this are difficult to forecast, and even appear difficult to recognise when they have happened. The initial response is to identify the change as a blip. Commentators today are identifying this quarter’s UK GDP data as indicating the end to the ‘double dip recession’. If miniscule GDP growth is recorded two quarters on the trot, commentators will surely be referring to ‘green shoots’. But it is equally likely that the slightly encouraging data this quarter is a blip and from now on, the lack of economic growth will be the steady state in advanced economies, which might more aptly be described as post-industrial.
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Our future and effective innovation

Will Hutton is courageously idiosyncratic about innovation, proposing a simple combination of general purpose technologies (GPTs) and good capitalism as the explanation for the rapid rise in living standards in the west over the last 250 years. For Hutton, the source of growth is ‘the combination of science’s capacity to transform how we live and a capitalism constantly pushed and prodded by democratic governments towards exploiting those opportunities.’ [See ‘Britain’s future lies in a culture of open and vigorous innovation’, Will Hutton, The Observer, 14 Oct 2012].

However, the massive empirical and theoretical literature on innovation presents quite a different story. Hutton suggests one exemplar GPT was the steam engine. First identified as a possibility in ancient times, drawn up in some detail in late 15th century by Leonardo da Vinci, it wasn’t till late 18th century that the first working engines were built by Thomas Newcomen for pumping water out of Cornish tin mines. Newcomen’s engine was taken several stages further by James Watt, with among other refinements, an external condenser and rotary drive which made it feasible to run the new cotton mill machinery invented by Arkwright, Crompton and the rest which had previously been driven by water power, the whole made more efficient by the greater precision of machining developed at Watt & Boulton’s Soho foundry and powered by coal made economic by the new transport infrastructure provided by canals. The steam engine wasn’t a GPT. It was an important component of a technological revolution, comprising a whole collection of fundamental innovations which, while not all strictly interdependent, tended to feed into and reinforce each other.
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Labour’s Balls on Taxation and Spending

Ed Balls is talking about Labour’s ‘big strategy’ decisions on taxation and spending. He wants to be seen as ‘ruthless and disciplined’ about ‘every penny’ of public spending. Hence his ‘zero-based budgeting review’, which is really a bit of motherhood flim-flam, totally devoid of specifics, dreamed up for the benefit of credulous voters.

The real problem with the economy is lack of demand. The mass of people don’t have the money, or the confidence, to spend unless they have to. So sales are slow and businesses are similarly reluctant to invest till better times return. But the politicians, including Balls, are locked into their simplistic undergraduate understanding of the economy. That was the situation when FDR made his inaugural call that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. It’s that fear that prevents Balls suggesting anything remotely like a new New Deal. In his fear, he’d rather be seen to be ‘ruthless and disciplined’ considering chopping ‘every penny’ of public spending, rather than proposing selective increases to the public spend to create jobs, financed by some higher rates of tax.
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