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Business Comment

Simon English: Terrified City types are now too scared to take a risk – so they do nothing


Outlook On a sunny day, assuming there will ever be one, the view across London from the Babylon Roof Gardens in Kensington is fabulous.

If you squint you can even make out the class war.

Not that anyone inside has much interest in that, perhaps beyond casually noting that they won.

The restaurant, given its prices and location, caters for that small group of people for whom recessions and financial disasters are merely things on the news rather than causes of distress (they let me in occasionally, in disguise).

It doesn't follow that the opinions of the folk at the tables lack merit. Multi-millionaire chief executives might know some things.

Musing on the bank crisis yesterday, one offered me this:

"The City is now a group of people just terrified to take a risk. They fear reprisals from either the public or their bosses, so they do nothing. The thing is, there are billions of pounds floating around that could be used to kick-start the economy, and bankers are too scared to put it to use. The only institutions willing to spend money are governments. That's not a route to economic recovery."

That has to be right.

Kicking the hell out of bankers and large corporations is fun for a while, and there's no doubting that some of them absolutely deserve all that is coming their way.

But at some point – not yet – we'll have to stop and decide we've claimed enough scalps. The combined anger of the public and our elected representatives could get every single banking chief executive resigning in disgrace, but what would be the point? Someone has got to run those companies and it wouldn't be better if it were you.

Mostly, very wealthy business people moaning about over-regulation or anti-business sentiment, haven't got much of a point.

Sometimes they have though. My lunch companion (note to accounts dept: he paid) says the shares in his own company are so undervalued because of the timidity of investors everywhere that he'd like to buy as many of them himself as he can.

He is convinced his company is on the up, tells anyone who will listen that this is the case, and thinks a bunch of massively lucrative contracts could be on the way.

So why doesn't he do as he wishes with the fortune he has built up elsewhere? Because he's terrified of a later punishing regulatory ruling should he turn out to be right, and the shares soar as much as he thinks they should.

Someone will say he profited at the expense of long-term holders of stock he got on the cheap. And the watchdog might get involved, leading to a stain on his good standing even if he is cleared.

His lawyers advice extreme caution on investing heavily in his own business at this point, such is the thirst for wrongdoers to be slain. He asked the Financial Services Authority (FSA) if it would be OK, but couldn't get the straight answer he wanted.

The FSA said to him: do you have any inside information?

Of course I do, he replied, I'm the bleedin' chief executive. That might not prove an adequate defence, says the FSA, we can't advise further.