Jim Armitage: Beppe Grillo’s not funny and he’ll have to grow up now he’s a big player in Italy after election
Jim Armitage is the City editor of The Independent and London Evening Standard group of newspapers. He has been a reporter and editor for more than 20 years and was recently shortlisted for the Press Gazette financial journalist of the year and The Society of Editors financial journalist of the year awards. He contributes news, investigative reports and comment to the Independent titles plus a daily column in the Evening Standard.
Saturday 02 March 2013
Remember at primary school when, on General Election day, we kids would play at staging our own elections? I recall a hard-fought battle in 1979 when we had to choose between a pig-tailed eight-year-old Conservative (campaigning on a ticket of free chocolates for all), a Labour lad (a total ban on homework) and a Liberal (biscuit baking to replace maths).
All very tempting ideas, but not especially good for the country. In Italy, Beppe Grillo's policies are similar, but far more dangerous. Childlike, naïve and economically suicidal.
There has been much mirth and winking admiration for his success at the elections this week. But this comedian is seriously unfunny.
First of all, just look at what he's said he stands for. It isn't so easy to find any actual manifesto ideas among his rabble, so I'll rely on the Economist's synopsis: abolition of trade unions, a 20-hour working week, university lecturers to be assessed and examined by their pupils, the abolition of share options, a cap on salaries of senior executives. Worst of all, a referendum on whether the country should default on its debts and leave the eurozone.
Leaving aside the more bizarre of those (abolition of trade unions? Really?) These are student policies that would send even more investors scurrying from the troubled country, sending its economy into a tailspin.
In case they hadn't realised, the very youth vote which seems to have been his core constituency would be the first to suffer from the surge in unemployment that would follow.
What Italy needs, and what former prime minister Mario Monti was providing, is a period of calm, to carry out the painful restructuring that needs to happen. Mr Monti was boring, but he was doing what Italy, and Europe (whose taxpayers are effectively underwriting Italy, let's not forget), required.
What Italy has now got is turmoil and renewed crisis. So far, Mr Grillo has refused even to countenance forming a working government in Europe's fourth-biggest economy.
That's just childish beyond belief. Or, as many a teacher has said over the years, not big and not clever.
The size of Mr Grillo's Five Star movement's vote means it has entered the world of the adults. It's time for this 64-year-old to grow up. Incidentally, our 1979 election was a better predictor than any of the Eastleigh polling companies came up with last week. The Tory girl won with a chunky majority.
Eu is going too far by blocking bankers' pay
As a long-term ranter and railer against the excesses of bankers, it feels weird to admit to feeling deeply uncomfortable about the European Union capping their bonuses.
It's not that I don't feel angry at the size of investment bankers' pay packets, those hundreds-of-thousands-of-pounds-a-year deals still so common in the finance industry come out of our pensions and savings in some way or another. We should still be furious.
But I'm deeply squeamish that politicians, be they in Brussels or in national parliaments, should be allowed to dictate by law how privately employed staff of privately owned businesses are paid. It seems such a violation of civil liberties.
Local parliaments should continue to nudge pay policy in certain directions by using taxes. They should order firms to disclose pay details of their fattest cats. They should force banks to reveal more details about the size of bonus pots. Crucially, they should encourage more shareholder engagement in pay issues.
But to dictate those pay structures through direct legislation is an infringement too far. Even if the victims are bankers.
And what is a "banker" anyway? Will the new EU rules apply to fund managers, who also earn ridiculous bonuses for investing our money? Will they apply to the hedge funds, who hired the dealers who left the big banks when their trading divisions were closed? Will they apply to derivatives traders working for insurance firms? Will they apply to the thousands of specialist outfits trading bonds, currencies or derivatives?
Take a walk around the City, or the financial centres of Frankfurt and Paris, and you'll never have heard of 95 per cent of the names on the brass plates. But they nearly all carry out some form of activity most of the public would call "banking". Yet I bet they will not be affected by these curbs.
Politicians in Brussels are right to want to reform the banking system, but they must not legislate against a few big-brand firms out of an angry public's clamour for revenge.
Old-fashioned operators who have superior style
Of course, bankers have brought this kind of draconian legislation on themselves by continuing to pay themselves ridiculous amounts of money, often for performing socially irrelevant, even damaging, tasks.
During Paris fashion week, which ended this week, a piece tucked away in the Financial Times served as a reminder of the kind of useful work some old-fashioned bankers still do.
It looked at a few of the fixers and connectors advising the famous high-end fashion firms in times of sometimes life-threatening crisis. These are the consiglieri who give highly valued financial advice to their clients over decades, particularly when steering family firms dominated by ageing patriarchs and matriarchs through the succession process.
People like Francesco Caretti, the banker who has advised the Ferragamo family for so many decades that nobody remembers when he wasn't there. He even sits on the board and is a shareholder. Or Gerardo Braggiotti, the Marcello Mastroianni lookalike who co-ordinated the delicate sale of Valentino to Permira. Mr Braggiotti also used his contacts to introduce new investors to Brioni when the family clans were feuding.
You can't imagine these guys spraying magnums of Cristal around lapdancing clubs and creating toxic get-rich-quick financial products.
Somehow, one doesn't begrudge them their Maseratis and Milanese villas half as much as their shabbier peers on the trading floors.
Groupon's straight talker is a breath of fresh air
The stream of emails I receive from Groupon inviting me to buy face masks, bikini-line waxes and eyeliner is one of the more irritating downsides of modern communications. But it's nowhere near as annoying as the PR industry-driven corporate doublespeak entangling most chief executives' vocal cords these days. So it was delightful to read Groupon's accident-prone boss Andrew Mason's resignation statement. "After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I've decided that I'd like to spend more time with my family," he wrote. "Just kidding – I was fired today." Suddenly I like the guy. I find myself scrabbling to find this morning's email: how much was that pedicure again?
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