26 February 2009

Dead banks walking

After some thought, I've come to the conclusion that Joe Stiglitz is right; we should let the duff banks fail and start again - probably by taking over the infrastructure (branches etc) at rock-bottom prices, giving jobs to the rank-and-file staff and firing the directions.

The RBS results today are a disaster and all the UK and US adminstrations seem to be doing at the moment is providing an open-ended lifeline to keep these zombie banks operating on a large enough scale to leech huge amounts of cash from the taxpayer, but not doing anything to reform the basic banking strategies. Indeed, RBS have been relentlessly taking the piss - Fred Goodwin's £650,000 per year pension (at age 50!) which RBS were NOT contractually obliged to give him according to Robert Peston (they could have sacked him, and should have done) are just the icing on a very toxic cake.

In a way, Goodwin and his ilk are doing more to advance the cause of the hard left in UK politics than anybody else in recent memory. Now that the directors of the failing banks have been seen to be taking the piss in such a spectacular manner - at taxpayer expense - the logical foundations of the current economic system, have come crashing down. The arguments for a truly radical solution to the current crisis grow stronger with each new revelation of the incompetence and arrogance of the bankers.

Maybe we need some kind of retrospective taxation on remuneration and bonus packages for the financial sector - where banking firms have subsequently collapsed, senior managers should be made to repay their bonuses and pension pots. Probably unworkable but it's hard to see what else would sort out people like Goodwin. A revolution would probably do the trick, but only with a lot of collateral damage in the process. Increases in income tax at the top end, and some kind of wealth tax (as was mooted in the 1970s) seem essential. Meanwhile, RBS should just be allowed to collapse (subject to protection for individuals with savings in RBS or associated banks) - and probably Lloyds Banking Group as well. It seems to be a choice between that on the one hand, and a liability of several hundred billion pounds for the taxpayer on the other. And I don't see why Joe or Joanna Public should bail out these wankers anymore. Time to apply some Strict Market Discipline...

23 February 2009

Laugh? I nearly bought the Telegraph

A couple of very amusing items on the Telegraph website:

1. Corby rail station has finally opened - but they only have one train a day (going in one direction). Apparently £17 million has been spent on the rail station but no-one remembered to buy any new rolling stock to actually, y'know, get trains running to and from the station. It's like a Soviet-style planning error.

2. The Telegraph is worried about the 'coping classes' - not Julian cope fans, unfortunately, but nice middle/upper class people who apparently deserve better than to be affected by the recession like the rest of us. Apparently,

According to an analysis by the Office for National Statistics, architects, lawyers, tax advisers and commercial pilots are among the fastest-growing sectors for claims of jobseekers’ allowance. It’s a crushing comedown for those who have worked hard to establish high-flying careers and take pride in their self-sufficiency.

Yeah, because only 'professionals' work hard, don't they? If you're in a working class job it must mean you're a feckless moron who deserves to starve to death. Not like those fine, morally upstanding banking executives.

One good side-effect of this recession is that maybe some of the tossers who voted for successive govts who emasculated the unemployment benefit system, from Thatcher onwards, will suddenly discover that the system is no longer fit for purpose and only gives them a fiver a week, or whatever. It makes the heart bleed.

Of course a lot of innocent people are going to suffer badly as well, which is unforgiveable. But at least we'll take some of 'middle Britain' down with us.

Oh well, this kind of stuff provides some minor amusement while we're waiting for the latest piece of idiocy from Simon Heffer.

17 February 2009

In (at least partial) support of John Sentamu

Most Giroscope posts on the topic of religion have tended to read as if they were drafted by a slightly toned down version of Richard Dawkins, but I wanted to say a few words in (partial) support of the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who said today that Christians are regarded as mad by society.

Sentamu was one of the most vocal critics of the BBC's shamefully callous and irresponsible decision not to air the DEC's Gaza aid appeal a few weeks back, and his denunciation of the BBC was based on pretty much exact the same arguments as my own.

I also find a lot to admire in his latest remarks. He says that Christians are regarded as mad by the rest of society because "they are motivated by charity and compassion rather than the relentless pursuit of money".

Scrub out "society" from that sentence and substitute "the people who call the shots in capitalist society and all of us who believe their lies" and it's 100% correct.

John Sentamu is absolutely right that the relentless pursuit of profit at all costs is a problem - but this ain't a "Christians vs non-Christians" issue. Many Christians - or at least people who call themselves Christian (and who is to say what the difference is?) are relentless pursuers of profit. Many non-Christians, either from other religions or atheists, aren't. (To be fair, Sentamu does say "it is not as if we are the only ethically minded people on the block - far from it".)

In the present crisis of capitalism we need everybody who is opposed to the lunacy that has brought us to the present economic collapse - religious people, non-religious people, and those who haven't a clue - to stand together. But we need to stand together because of our common economic ideology, and not divided by this or that religious belief. That is the key issue. If Christian beliefs help get you to the conclusion that capitalism is morally bankrupt, then bloody great - join the club. But it sure ain't the only way to reach that conclusion.

On a slightly different issue (although I'm not sure if Sentamu actually discussed this in his speech or if the Telegraph just shoehorned it into the report as part of its latest hobbyhorse) I don't think it's right that people should be sacked for talking about their religion in the workplace. I can't see how it's hurting anyone if someone tells me they're praying for me, for instance. Free speech, and all that.

15 February 2009

New opinion poll makes grim but also interesting reading

A new opinion poll from the 'Sindy' confirms the post-Xmas collapse in Labour's popularity as the gloss comes off the October bailout. Recent news of an £11bn loss by the HBOS (part of the 40% state owned Lloyds Banking Group) hasn't helped none... taxpayers will certainly be wondering just what they've been put on the hook for.

The poll shows Labour down to 25% - pretty much where it was last summer - with the Tories on 41% and interestingly, the Lib Dems up to 22%. The Lib Dems had been running at about 12% before Christmas and it looks like that 10% improvement is entirely due to Vince Cable, who continues to operate as the best economic brain in Parliament - light years ahead of Brown, Darling or Osborne. If this is how well the Lib Dems are doing with the semi-useless Nick Clegg running the show, it's interesting to speculate how well they'd be doing if Cable was the leader.

The poll rates the Tories very poorly in terms of confidence in their ability to deal with the economic crisis, and it seems pretty clear that that 41% rating is very soft. Things could yet improve further for the Lib Dems, although they would need to be into 35 - 40% poll ratings to make serious electoral inroads given the first-past-the-post electoral system. Probably unlikely, but as the economic crisis gets more severe, if Cable continues to impress, anything is possible.

Other news today (in the same article as the poll) is that Labour welfare adviser David Freud - an ex-banker (that description really inspires confidence, doesn't it?) who advocates privatisation of the welfare system (a measure which the government is struggling to implement) has defected to the Tories. Expect this to be just the start of a trend, although I would imagine most defections will occur after the next election rather than before. The most obvious candidates to go to what Tony Benn calls 'Blue Labour' will be ultra-Blairite MPs who have little grounding in the culture of the Labour party - John Hutton being the most obvious example, and maybe James Purnell (although he may stick around after the election for a shot at the Labour leadership - god help us). But probably not Hazel Blears (why on earth would the Tories want her? They will presumably be trying to get re-elected.) And probably not Peter Mandelson, although with Mandy anything - short of a move to UKIP - is possible.

Of course if the recession becomes a depression it could well engulf the Tories' attempts to get re-elected if they do win in 2010 (still by no means certain, whatever the polls say). Assuming that some kind of functioning opposition survives and we don't just get a re-run of the early 1980s. I haven't really thought much about at might await Labour in opposition (apart from the party going bankrupt and having to be restarted, which is pretty much certain) but the more the polls head in their current direction, the more it looks like I'm gonna have to address that issue. One for the next couple of weeks.

11 February 2009

The whistleblower who got it right... and got sacked for his trouble

Very interesting interview on Channel 4 News today with Paul Moore, an HBOS executive who got sacked by HBOS CEO (and now deputy head of the Financial Services Authority) Sir James Crosby when he expressed the opinion that the bank might be over-stretching itself.

Of course, we now know he was absolutely right. However, back in 2003 when this happened, the consensus opinion was that people like Moore were over-cautious pessimists, and people with his views were probably hounded out of many institutions for their trouble.

Of course, now everybody is rushing to join the other side of the bandwagon. For example, today's Bank of England Inflation Report forecasts that GDP growth in 2009 will be minus 2.9 per cent. That's a post-war record... in the wrong direction.

There's a pattern to this herd behaviour and unwillingness to speak out. A major problem with market sentiment in the financial sector - typified by the 'animal spirits' described by Keynes as far back as the 1930s - is that the rewards to employees who "run with the pack" - with making an "average" assessment of how markets are going to perform - are pretty good. Compare that with the risk of falling flat on your face - or getting sacked for being "out of line" if you take a position contrary to the overall market sentiment - and it's not surprising that so few financial decision-makers 'rock the boat'. In other words, being a Paul Moore makes you a troublemaker. Why bother when you can play it safe and get a cushy bonus for doing so (provided your bank, hedge fund, commodity trading - or whatever - performace is close enough to average so as not to be really crap?

For a profession that is often caricatured as the epitome of rugged free-market individualism, it's actually probably one of the most collectivist and unimaginative parts of the economy (apart of course from the people who were designing ever-more complex financial instruments for parcelling up and selling on risky assets, who did the job so well that many institutions still seem to have no clue how large their bad debts are. Great job, guys.)

We can certainly reform financial regulation, but you can't really regulate market sentiment - which may be one of the biggest problems contributing to the crazy market swings we've seen over the last decade. So, perhaps time to junk the system completely and try a less capricious approach? Certainly food for thought.

08 February 2009

Economic crisis: how far into the abyss are we?

A very good article on the Telegraph site from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, probably their best columnist. He points out that debt deflation is now occurring in the US. This is a phenomenon where a fall in the price level increases the real value of debt - and hence increases its burden on the debtors. (The debt deflation hypothesis was formalised by the American economist Irving Fisher in the 1930s: Steve Keen's excellent book Debunking Economics (available fairly cheap as an online download here contains an excellent explanation for the non-technical reader.)

The yield on 10-year Treasury bonds (a good benchmark the cost of government debt finance) has risen from 2 per cent to 3 per cent over the last six weeks, despite the initial Paulson bank bailout. And the US price level is falling.

A large increase in debt servicing costs could blow a hole in the reflation strategies which most countries are either toying with or have already initiated. It would seriously increase the risk of governments "doing an Iceland" and defaulting on their debt payments - which is a reinforcing feedback loop, since an increase in the risk of default makes lenders more nervous about lending to governments which in turn increases the risk of default... etc.

But on the other hand, failing to reflate means the economy is likely to just drop of a cliff, with huge losses in output which mean governments would have to borrow more just to keep current levels of public spending going (because of the decline in tax take). It's a real Catch-22 situation.

Is there a way out? There are two possible options. One is the route of just "printing money" (it's slightly more sophisticated than that... the central bank purchases debt, which expands the money supply).

BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders's Stephanomics blog points out one risk with printing money (or 'quantitative easing' as it's sometimes called): there's no guarantee that an increase in the 'narrow' money supply (notes and coins plus banks' operational balances at the Bank of England) will translate into an increase in the broad money supply, which is what would really drive a recovery. Banks need to lend for that to happen. However, if the Government nationalised the banks - or regulated them into lending money by some other route, although without nationalisation that's difficult - we'd soon see broad money expanding, so I don't see that as a problem.
This may be an option that receives a lot more attention if things really are as bad as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard points out (and they may well be).

Otherwise, the options of letting the banks fail, and starting again under state control or regulation, becomes more attractive the more the costs of servicing the debt which is being incurred under the current policy increase. I'm starting to lean towards the idea that politicians everywhere need to collectively throw their hands up and admit that the game is up, we've been operating with a flawed system for the last 30 years, it's led us down a blind alley and we need a completely different approach. That different approach will have a far greater role for public ownership and regulation than we've had in the financial free-for-all of the last decade. The problem is that the rather disappointing progress of the bailout legislation in the US (which I'll say more about tomorrow) is, as Evans-Pritchard points out, doing very little to plug a deflationary vortex into which the whole world is inexorably being dragged. Things really are f***ed out there, and we are in the abyss. Enjoy the view.

06 February 2009

Time for politicians to retaliate against the idiots

All the morons seem to be out in force this week. First we had Carol Thatcher in the back room of The One Show calling a mixed-race tennis player a "gollywog" and apparently thinking that was perfectly acceptable language to use in a social context.

You're not in the f***ing Conservative club now, Carol. This isn't "In the Line of Beauty".

Next, Jeremy Clarkson describes Gordon Brown as "a one-eyed Scottish idiot". Two-thirds of that one, at least, is correct... a few months after making a sicko joke about truck drivers murdering prostitutes.

Was the Beeb right to sack Thatcher? I think if she'd apologised for the remark then a "two strikes and you're out" warning would have been OK, but given that she didn't, her position on the show was untenable. I just can't understand the mentality that thinks comments like that are OK in this day and age. The same mentality, presumably, that thinks the Mail and the Express are decent newspapers...

Clarkson survived the prostitute gag and will no doubt survive his latest slur on the PM, and I'm kind of glad about that because the guy is such an easy target. Since the departure of business editor Jeff Randall for the Telegraph and Sky News (where Jeff seems to be carving out a niche as the UK's answer to Rush Limbaugh), Clarkson has been the major representative for the right-wing "man on the street" viewpoint on the BBC. He's no fool and can be quite witty but he's also so utterly ludicrous on so many levels that I can only conclude that the Top Gear producer is a New Labourite who keeps Clarkson on to discredit the Right. I mean, this guy probably watches The Sweeney and actually wants to be like Regan and Carter. He watches Life On Mars and thinks Gene Hunt is a sensible kind of chap... and then off he goes in some ludicrously over-engineered sports car monstrosity and then slams into the crash barrier because the roads haven't been gritted properly, because of government spending cuts which he argued for.

I think James May is the acceptable face of Top Gear. He cultivates the same hairstyle I was trying for in the sixth form, with similar results. Also he gets to wind up Oz Clarke in the programmes they do together - another easy target, but hilarious nonetheless.

Really, the most effective deterrent to making these kind of comments would be if Gordon Brown used PMQs to slag the protagonists off. He could call Carol Thatcher "a honky moron" and Clarkson "a bubbleheaded blowhard." An abuse of Parliamentary Privilege to be sure, but a very amusing one. Let's call these f***ers out before they do any more damage.

04 February 2009

Binyam Mohammed: time for Obama to clear up these nasty Bush loose ends

The worst president in US history has left the building... but sometimes it doesn't feel that way.

For the second time in a year, David Davis (who is excellent on civil liberties issues, despite being crap on most other things) has hit the nail on the head: it's completely unacceptable for UK ministers to stay silent on allegations that the UK was complicit in torture.

Binyam Mohammed is a UK citizen who has been detained at Guantanamo Bay since 2004 after being arrested in 2002. He claims to have been tortured in Pakistan, Morocco and Afghanistan between 2002 and 2004.

The UK government says it is not in the public interest to release full details of the alleged torture because the US has threatened to withdraw intelligence cooperation with the UK if this happens.

Having already made the decision to close Guantanamo Bay, Barack Obama should distance himself fully from the discredited policies of the Bush administration by withdrawing this threat and allowing the facts to surface.

If he doesn't, that casts serious doubt on the Obama adminstration's 'progressive' credentials.

Even if the US doesn't cooperate, the UK government should release details of the torture - or whatever did happen - regardless. It is utterly unacceptable for any country to commit gross violations of human rights in the name of 'national security' or any other cause.

I seriously doubt that we get anything of value from the US intelligence agencies anyway, given that the entire ramping up of spending on national security institutions under Bush was, for the most part, simply a cover for mass surveillance of the US population and a huge 'pork-barrel' sop to defence companies.

If Obama wants to save large amounts of government money he could do a lot worse than repeal the USA Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, vastly reduce the amount of money being spent on private defense contractors, and dismantle the KGB-style police state apparatus built up under Bush-Cheney.

Barack Obama has said he stands for a new style of politics. Now's the time to start proving it. And if he doesn't... the UK should start showing that it can stand up for democracy and freedom even if the US can't or won't.

02 February 2009

Snow chaos: Everyone Blames Everybody Else

... to paraphrase Barclay James Harvest. (Well, somebody had to.)

Seriously though, this is hilarious. Count the number of blame assignments in the article:

  • council chiefs were blamed for not gritting enough.
  • transport chiefs were blamed for being generally crap (my personal choice. National Express East Anglia couldn't even be bothered to keep a proper website up and running. I haven't bothered linking to their site as there's a good chance it won't be up. F*** 'em.)
  • Boris Johnson was blamed for ordering the suspension of all London bus services, unprecedented since the Blitz. 
  • Boris blamed a huge volume of snow and a lack of snow ploughs. 
  • Local councils claimed the snow was too heavy for their snow ploughs to work. 
  • 'The wrong kind of snow' got blamed (resurrecting the classic British Rail excuse of 1991). 
  • One council leader blamed a lack of overnight traffic overnight followed by a lot of cars in the morning, which 'compacted the snow'. (??)
  • Motorists blamed the Highways Agency for not gritting properly.
  • The Highways Agency blamed HGVs for blocking roads. 
  • TfL blamed local councils for not keeping the 95 percent of the road network which they are responsible for, gritted. 
  • The chairman of the Local Government Association's Environment Board blamed 'other organisations' for scapegoating local councils. 
  • The Shadow Transport Secretary blamed the Government. 
  • Peter Mandelson blamed xenophobic strikers. 
  • I blamed Peter Mandelson. 
  • A worker at Waterstone's bookstore in Oxford Street blamed the rest of the world. 
As Alan Partridge might have said: "this country..."

To quote the I Ching: "no blame". 

Joe Stiglitz says: let the banks fail!

A very interesting alternative strategy for dealing with the economic crisis comes from Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. His suggestion? Let the dodgy banks fail, take over their infrastructure and build a new, healthier financial system, in the public sector (at least for a while).

It's similar to my previous suggestion of full nationalisation of the sector in many ways. The only big difference is that in my proposal the banks wouldn't default on their debt payments whereas in Stiglitz's proposal they would - it'd presumably all be dealt with through bankruptcy proceedings.

So there seems to be an emerging consensus on the Left that a state-led reconstruction of the banking system is needed to get us out of this mess. The question is: do you prop up the existing banks without letting them go bankrupt (the cost of which falls on the taxpayer) or do you let the banks go bust (the cost of which falls on their creditors?) To decide that I guess we have to know a bit more about who the creditors are. (I'm assuming that the existing bank shareholders lose out either way - either due to nationalisation or bankrutpcy).

Stiglitz's argument that bankrutpcy would restore some kind of market discipline - banks that took bad decisions would go bust rather than getting a bailout - has a logic to it. But there are externalities to these kind of banking failures. In the short run extra bankruptcies would make the economic situation worse, not better.

Also, a lot of the people who did the damage have already been remunerated - handsomely - for their efforts. I'm talking about huge city bonuses. Maybe we should impose retrospective surtaxes on senior bankers depending on how much taxpayers' money is required to rescue the banks they work for (or used to work for.) Very fiddly, though. A wealth tax would work a lot better.

I'm not sure whether I agree with the Stiglitz position compared with a bailout which incorporates nationalisation. It's a very tough call and I'll be thinking about it some more over the next few weeks.