The HSBC chairman might like to sound off but at least he hasn’t left
Douglas Flint began the week in grumpy fashion.
The HSBC chairman is one of few senior bankers willing to sound off about the challenges faced by his industry in trying to cope with a blanket of new regulation, and he made a good point that spending millions readying assets to be ring-fenced from risky trading is a waste of time and money if a competition inquiry into current accounts and small-business lending prompts some of those activities to be sold. But it is hard to win support for less regulation when the financial crisis is still being paid for with hefty fines and customer redress.
Of course caution should stalk the corridors of HSBC’s Canary Wharf tower. Bankers have to get used to the new world. Unfortunately, the manner in which HSBC is picking and choosing its customers – witness the revelations in The Independent that Syrian refugees and students are having their bank accounts closed – is as bad for its image as the money laundering it was found to be involved in.
But the bank chairman who is the most outspoken is almost the most durable. Mr Flint appears to be staying put, while three of the five main lenders are on the hunt for new chairmen. A fourth, Lloyds, is just bedding down Lord Blackwell, Margaret Thatcher’s former adviser, who was already on the board when he took over in April.
Consider that Royal Bank of Scotland’s Sir Philip Hampton is joining GlaxoSmithKline soon and Sir David Walker at Barclays and Lord Burns at Santander UK are heading towards the exit, and you can see the headache for headhunters. Once the pinnacle of a business career, the political pressure, public opprobrium and regulatory risk mean they are no longer queuing around the block to chair a British bank.
How will this vacuum be filled? The same as always. There is always someone enticed by a mix of a sense of duty and the prospect of high corporate office. It will just need a little more arm-twisting in a thinner field. Maybe the newcomers could follow Mr Flint and let off steam in public. Then again, investors might prefer it if they didn’t.
Put Boris in a hot seat before giving him the keys to No 10
There has been much talk about Boris Johnson, MP, and Boris Johnson, prime minister. But what was striking about the confirmation of the worst-kept secret in Westminster was that halfway between those two roles might come Boris Johnson, business secretary.
Anyone who has heard the London Mayor’s after-dinner speaking is likely to be familiar with his routine about exports from the capital. Mr Johnson reels off sales successes such as the perfume shipped to France and the tea sent to China. The punchline, that we sold Piers Morgan to America, doesn’t work so well any more.
Now that he has confirmed he is hunting a parliamentary seat, his supporters are campaigning hard for a senior Cabinet post for him beyond 2015. Assuming a Conservative victory, he would be well placed to move into Downing Street should David Cameron exit mid-term. Partly because he has banged the exports drum, the business role is seen as perfect.
But would it be a perfect appointment for Britain’s business leaders? One charge levelled at politicians is that they don’t understand what business needs; they don’t take it seriously enough. How ironic if the clown prince of politics is the man to do that.
There have been a few comedic turns as business secretary, but not intentionally. Stephen Byers, who was in the hot seat when MG Rover was sold to the Phoenix Four and Railtrack was nationalised, is particularly memorable for the wrong reasons. The business department has also suffered from too much change, with Labour’s Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling and John Hutton running it for little more than a year each in quick succession.
For all his failings, one of Vince Cable’s successes has been his longevity. It has given him leeway to plug away at long-term projects such as developing Britain’s industrial strategy. That’s good, but I would say the Coalition’s two most business-friendly measures – reducing the headline rate of corporation tax and the patent-box incentive for research and development – grew out of the Treasury.
Mr Johnson might well be forgiven for being another short-term business secretary. But if he is as good as his fans say he is, why not hand the prime minister in waiting a really tough brief, such as energy?
The unsexy companies we should learn to value more
It’s always fun to follow a takeover battle for one of the stock market’s unheralded constituents. There was a spate of these fights a few years ago, when unsexy Chloride, a maker of power protection systems, was fought over by Swiss engineer ABB and America’s Emerson, and the industrial fans firm Charter became the subject of the affections of both Colfax of America and Melrose, the British turnaround firm.
Now it is the turn of Hyder Consulting, an engineering consultant with a good presence in the Middle East and Asia Pacific. Suddenly it has Dutch and Japanese suitors banging at the door. It might be that when these corporate tiddlers become part of something far bigger, the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts. Or it could be that British investors are poor at properly valuing companies that harbour great skill and know-how.
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