Anthony Hilton: To be more like Americans, Europe should do what they do, not what they say they do
Saturday 25 February 2012
Vince Cable and Nick Clegg were on the stump this week visiting factories and announcing another pot of money to help businesses invest and grow.
Their efforts prompted a few headlines and an interesting comment from the EEF – once known as the Engineering Employers Federation – now, with the CBI, a leading business lobby group.
As one would expect, the EEF's Steve Radley welcomed this visible commitment to manufacturing, but then explained why it was not enough. If Government really wants to get things moving, he said, "we need to see a reinvigorated effort to set out its ambitions for our economy to the end of this Parliament and the policies which will deliver them."
That seems like common sense, but in fact what he is calling for is an industrial policy. However, such is the stifling legacy of Thatcherite thinking in Whitehall and Westminster that no politician or civil servant dare suggest such a thing for fear that the policy will be instantly derided as "government picking winners".
Because government can't pick winners, policy goes to the other extreme, with government instead trying to get out of the way. It consciously tries not to have a policy other than to remove as many as possible of the regulatory impediments which clog up the market and making sure there is lots of competition.
That is also the solution it urges on the rest of the EU. The theory is that business will do the rest. Sclerotic, state-controlled Europe will become like dynamic, free-market America. The next Google will be invented here.
Except business and Google won't, and the reason, according to Mariana Mazzucato (pictured), a brilliant economist recently appointed to a professorship at the University of Sussex, is that most leading-edge inventions which are the foundation of the modern economy were invented in the public sector with public money.
This is America's guilty secret. The algorithms which underpin Google were developed in the public sector. The technology in the Apple iPhone was invented in the public sector. American leadership in computers, biotech and nanotech is the result of conscious decisions within American government to direct research and public money into these areas.
In America it is recognised that in the early years of any new technology government has to make the running because the private sector will not. Government-funded research and innovation done at a time when there is no sign of an end product or commercial gain is the essential foundation for later success and recognised as an essential purpose of government.
The US government has a conscious policy of picking winners and it works, says Professor Mazzucato, because it has a willingness to fail and an expertise which comes from having done this kind of thing for years.
Because of this misunderstanding of what Americans actually do, rather than what they say they do, policy in Europe is heading entirely the wrong way. Instead of dismantling the public-sector involvement in business so we can be more like America, we should be going in absolutely the opposite direction. We should be encouraging a greater role for the state, not a reduced one.
Think of that in a couple of weeks' time when, at the Budget, the Chancellor will no doubt announce plans to revive British business, by cutting taxes and red tape.
US banks' $20bn fine just a cost of doing business
The talk in New York at the beginning of the week was all about the latest twist in the subprime scandal.
Having lent to people money who could not afford to repay, the banks have now been found to have routinely abused the process by which they can legally try to get some of the money back.
Indeed, so casual have they been in their approach, that the leading US banks agreed with the authorities that they should pay $26bn (£16.45bn) into a settlement fund to offset some of the damage done by the legally incorrect way they have been foreclosing on mortgagees who have fallen behind on their payments.
It is a measure of the times in which we live that many think not only that a $20bn fine lets the banks off lightly, but that it won't make any difference to the way they behave.
US homeowners are under water to the tune of about $700bn, which means that $20bn of relief is neither here nor there. More to the point, the foreclosure task is so gargantuan that the banks don't have the resources to deal with it.
The core problem is that the system was never designed to deal with the ownership complexity created by securitisation. It was designed for a world with one lender advancing one mortgage to one owner. But when pools of mortgages are packaged up, sliced and diced into collateralised debt obligation securities and then sold to many different parties right across the world, it creates a situation with hundreds of owners holding a small slice of hundreds of properties. They probably don't know or have never checked what they own, but legally they all have to be part of the foreclosure process.
It is a mind-numbing task threading through the securitisation process to find the beneficial owners. The banks simply cannot find lawyers willing to do it for more than a few days before they quit. So they cut corners, and that $20bn settlement becomes just a cost of doing business.
Bonds and gold leave Warren Buffett cold
Bond prices move in the opposite direction to interest rates. Interest rates as low as they are now means that bond prices will plummet when rates start to rise to more normal levels.
This has prompted a nice line over in the US earlier this week from the world's most successful investor, Warren Buffett. He says bonds are now so dangerous they should come with a warning label.
The irony is that the major holders of bonds there and here are pension funds, and they have bought them in such huge quantities at such dangerous prices because conventional wisdom, peddled by consultants, is that putting money in bonds takes the risk out of pension fund investing. On their models, investing in Greek, Portuguese or Irish government debt is safer than investing in Tesco's bonds.
Mr Buffett, being a traditional investor, thinks the value of an asset is directly related to the quantity and the certainty of the income it generates. This led him also to be scathing about gold – another of the current investment fashions – because it produces nothing and yields no income.
If all the gold in the world was melted down it would create one cube 68 feet square, and be valued at $9.6 trillion. "But," he asks, "why would you want that cube rather than its dollar equivalent, which is all the crop-yielding land in the United States plus 16 Exxon Mobils [the world's most profitable company] and $1 trillion in cash left over?"
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