Simon Evans: Turner's antidote would kill, not cure, the City
Sunday 30 August 2009
It's nearly one year since US powerbrokers allowed the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Wall Street investment bank, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Lehman had gambled on the continued climb of property values, placing giant bets in the US mortgage market. Such a strategy was always doomed to fail, but it's easy to be clever after the event.
Looking back, allowing Lehman to go under was a terrible mistake. The months following the failure, which saw the rescue of plenty of less august institutions, showed how badly the former Goldman Sachs chief and Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, and others read the situation. Nearly one year after Lehman's collapse, the financial community is in an altogether different place. Share values have soared since March, while banks are in an altogether more bullish mood. Recession? What recession?
Barclays Capital's Bob Diamond is leading the chequebook charge to hire the best talent but others aren't far behind. It seems that the excesses that laid the foundations for the credit crisis are being built up once again. Certainly something needs to be done to ensure that the giant incentive packages that promote disproportionate risk-taking by traders and other financiers are removed.
But I don't know how to temper the City's greed. I've yet to hear a single idea that holds up to scrutiny. The bizarre intervention last week by Lord Turner, the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, has little merit to it. Parts of his magazine interview are truly staggering.
The City was lauded and feted by Britain's political elite a few years ago, but Lord Turner launched a tirade against the Square Mile saying that it had now swollen to the point of being dangerous, while he dubbed parts of it as "socially useless".
If Lord Turner's assertions about the City were over the top, he also overdosed on the medicine to cure the apparent illness. The idea of bringing in a Tobin tax, a charge on transactions, to quell the City's exuberance is absurd. Are the world's financial centres all going to sign up to this tax in a co-ordinated manner? Of course not. We'd simply see an unedifying competition begin between states and jurisdictions to scoop up the spoils from companies quitting London.
The FSA's remit is to safeguard economic stability. The idea of a Tobin tax is for the Chancellor, or a future chancellor, to consider. The deafening silence from both the Treasury and George Osborne speaks volumes about what they think of Lord Turner's musings. The tax take generated by the City is vast, never mind the foreign exchange earned. What will happen to the UK's balance of payments if the City falls to the same level of importance as the car industry, or the mining industry as it surely would if left to Lord Turner?
These are dangerous times and the regulator has responsibility to stick to his remit instead of bandying around preposterous suggestions. It's not as if his in-tray is empty at the moment.
Nearly one year on from Lehman's collapse, there are many reasons to be cheerful. We are clearly over the worst. But Lord Turner's comments should be a warning to us all. Failing to save Lehman's last year was a dreadful mistake. Let's make sure we don't have any more disasters for a while.
Margareta Pagano is away
Not moving: Goodwin's banker denies rumours
Being Sir Fred Goodwin's banker on the way up must have been fantastic. Merrill Lynch's Matthew Greenburgh was once upon a time one of the City's most prolific dealmakers. Perhaps the most prolific dealmaker. He was the key man in Royal Bank of Scotland's ultimately catastrophic purchase of ABN Amro in 2007.
Reports suggest that he earned as much as £11m for that deal alone. But the City can be a cruel place and the kudos that went with being so heavily aligned with Sir Fred has disappeared. With Sir Fred gone, RBS's chief executive, Stephen Hester, ditched Greenburgh, seeking counsel with Paul Nicholls at Hoare Govett instead. City rumours suggest that Greenburgh may leave Merrill by the end of the year as the group's financial institutions group looks to a fresh start. Apparently some chief executives aren't too keen on being associated with Greenburgh and the baggage of Sir Fred.
In his usual brusque fashion, Greenburgh told me last week he is not leaving Merrill or changing his role and who am I to disagree with him? But the rumours and whispering will persist. Reputations are hard won but quickly lost.
For the real meaning of prudence, Brown should have looked to Poland
It's easy to see why the hordes of Polish workers that came to Britain after 2004 have flown our shores for home.
While Britain still languishes in recession, with one of the biggest debt piles in the world and an unemployment rate that is soaring, the Polish economy is side-stepping the gloom. It is expected to grow by 1 per cent during 2009 – the 14th year in succession. In contrast, Alistair Darling said in April's Budget he expects the British economy to shrink by more than 3 per cent over the same period. The Chancellor's estimate is by any stretch of the imagination bullish.
Like Britain, Poland's immediate neighbours in the former Soviet bloc countries are having a tough time too. The Czech Republic, for example, is expected to see its economy shrink by 2 per cent this year.
Poland's success is no mean feat. The course plotted to avoid the maelstrom by the country's politicians and central bankers has been one borne out of past experiences.
Cheap money might have been sloshing around Western economies during the bull market years but Poland's banker's resisted the same kind of monetary easing.
Memories of galloping inflation clearly remained fresh in the minds of the Polish establishment, which resisted relaxation despite condemnation at the time and demands that the country should be less cautious.
The travails of 2001, which saw the country's economic growth slow to a near halt, must also have been in the minds of policymakers too. In contrast to many Western states the Polish banking system didn't place all its chips on the roulette wheel as the rest of the world got hooked on casino capitalism.
Gordon Brown talked about prudence at length but the path he took the UK economy down was in hindsight anything but.
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