Posts Tagged ‘British politics’

South-east England, offshore financial centre

June 9, 2014

I should try to start posting to this blog again. Here is a story about the latest chapter in the re-modelling of south-east England as Singapore. Osborne should get on with those mega-casinos that New Labour promised. Too busy checking his house price and portfolio, no doubt.

sing casino


parliament

english garden party

Britain becomes haven for U.S. companies keen to cut tax bills

LONDON (Reuters) – Nothing about the narrow cream-coloured lobby at 160 Aldersgate Street in the City of London financial district gives a hint of its role at the centre of the offshore oil industry.

That’s because the building is occupied by a law firm. Yet, on paper at least, it is also home to Rowan Companies, one of the largest operators of drilling rigs in the world.

In 2012, Rowan, which has a market value of $4 billion (2.38 billion pounds), shifted its legal and tax base from the United States to Britain. But not much else.

“We changed our corporate structure and we’re legally domiciled in the UK but our headquarters and our management team remain in the U.S.,” Suzanne Spera, Rowan’s Investor Relations Director said in a telephone interview from Houston.

“It has been positive. We take advantage of trying to be competitive with our effective tax rate.”

Indeed, Rowan filings say the shift helped cut the company’s effective tax rate to 3.3 percent in 2013 from 34.6 percent in 2008. Spera said Rowan complies with all UK tax rules.

A government spokeswoman for the Treasury said recent changes to the tax rules were aimed at supporting “genuine business investment”.

“The UK is not a tax haven. In 2015, our main rate of corporation tax will be 20 percent, well above the levels seen in tax havens,” she said in an emailed statement.

In the last year around a dozen major U.S. companies including media group Liberty Global, banana group Chiquita and drug maker Pfizer unveiled plans to shift their tax bases overseas outside the United States.

Historically, when U.S. companies wanted to cut their tax bill they usually reincorporated in Caribbean Islands or Switzerland.

However, following recent legal changes whereby Britain largely stopped seeking to tax corporate profits reported in other countries, including tax havens, companies are increasingly choosing the UK as a corporate base.

President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats have proposed measures to stem the flow of so-called “inversions”, although Congressional gridlock on tax reform means new barriers to overseas moves are unlikely anytime soon.

There is no official list of companies which have moved their tax base to Britain but government officials, tax advisors and lawyers said at least seven had re-based to London — Aon Plc, CNH Global N.V., Delphi Automotive Plc, Ensco Plc, Liberty Global Plc, Noble Corp. Plc.

Drugs group Pfizer and Omnicom had planned to transfer their tax domicile to Britain, while retaining U.S. headquarters, but the takeover deals which were meant to facilitate this recently failed.

U.S. and UK filings and other company statements from the seven that relocated showed that while redomiciling to London can cut a company’s tax bill, it usually involves relocating just a handful of senior executives — and sometimes not even that many.

“The UK has made a very clear policy decision to engage in tax competition for multinationals. It’s fair to say it’s rivalling Ireland,” said Stephen Shay Professor of Law at Harvard University who has testified to Congressional investigations into corporate tax reform.

“When I go to tax conferences now, I hear people talk about the UK as a tax haven.”

Bernhard Gilbey, tax partner at law firm Squires Sanders said tax competition was common across countries and that companies were within the law and indeed faced competitive pressure to structure themselves in response to such governmental incentives.

The companies said that while tax was a consideration in their moves, commercial reasons such as the desire to be closer to customers was also a factor.

 

PAPER MOVES

British finance minister George Osborne has welcomed the trend of U.S. companies such as insurance group Aon redomiciling to Britain, saying it reflects how the government has made the country a more attractive place to do business.

In November, Ernst & Young, one of a number of tax advisors which advocated the tax changes that made Britain a magnet for U.S. corporations, published a survey saying that 60 multinational companies were eyeing a move to the UK.

EY said this could create over 5,000 jobs and bring in over 1 billion pounds a year in additional corporation tax, the UK’s corporate income tax.

However, a Reuters review of company filings and other statements from the seven companies, news reports and interviews with tax advisors and company executives, suggested corporate moves may not mean so many new jobs.

Ensco and Noble said they had each created around 30 positions between them, including moving their chief executives to London. Aon declined to say how many UK jobs it created, but filings showed its CEO moved to London and that the newly incorporated London-based parent company employed 16 people last year.

None of the most senior officers of Delphi, as listed in its annual report, are based in Britain, the company confirmed. A spokeswoman declined to say if any less senior roles had been shifted to Britain.

A spokesman for CNH, which shifted its tax base to London last year, said the company was currently scouting for a London office where some senior managers would be based. He declined to say how many or which roles would be based there.

Liberty declined to say if it created new jobs in Britain connected with its re-incorporation. Filings at the UK companies register say CEO Michael Fries resides in the United States while media reports cited the company as saying Liberty’s takeover of Virgin Media, which was cited as part of the reason for re-basing to Britain, would lead to 600 job cuts.

All the companies said they continued to employ large numbers of staff at and invest in long-established operating subsidiaries in Britain. They declined to identify any new investments tied to their corporate relocation.

Lawyers said the small number of new jobs reflected how Britain would give companies the benefits of its tax regime in return for a less substantial investment than was required by some other countries — including countries previously accused by U.S. and European lawmakers of facilitating tax avoidance.

“In terms of governance and presence, it requires actual substance if you want to set up in the Netherlands, whereas you can achieve a UK residence just by having board meetings in the UK,” said Isaac Zailer, global head of tax at law firm Herbert Smith.

The seven companies Reuters examined had a combined 73 directors. Only 14 percent reside in Britain, up from 4 percent before the companies moved, company filings, records at the UK companies register and other company statements show.

For the six previously U.S.-incorporated companies which shifted to Britain, 80 percent of directors continued to reside in the United States after the move.

 

NO TAX WINDFALL

Accounts for the companies also show little benefit to the UK exchequer from the corporate relocations.

Aon and Liberty Global – the only two companies which published figures for group UK tax payments – reported UK corporation tax credits for 2013.

Ensco had a UK tax charge of $200,000 last year. That included tax on profits from its UK operating subsidiaries which have revenues of around $300 million a year.

Delphi Automotive’s most senior UK corporate entity is a partnership, which does not have to pay tax. The company declined to say if other British units paid any corporation tax but said in its annual report that it had UK tax assets which could be used to offset future taxable profits.

CNH does not publish UK tax payments. Its main UK operating unit reported a tax credit in 2012, the last period for which accounts were available.

Rowan and Noble declined to say if they paid any UK tax in relation to their UK head office activities. Rowan, Ensco and Noble’s North Sea rig leasing businesses have combined revenues of $1 billion a year but have paid almost no tax over the past 20 years, a separate Reuters investigation showed last month.

What attracts companies like Rowan to Britain is not a headline tax rate that is half the U.S. level but the way the UK has effectively stopped taxing profits reported by UK companies’ overseas subsidiaries.

The government introduced the measures in the 2012 budget to “better reflect the way that businesses operate in a global economy” and encourage investment in Britain.

This means companies can shift profits out of the countries where their employees and customers are based, into tax havens, and then bring the money back to Britain and pay it out to shareholders without paying any tax – something that would not be possible under U.S. or German tax law.

“For offshore profits, the UK can literally be a nil tax jurisdiction, which obviously compares very well with traditional tax havens,” Kevin Phillips, International Tax Partner, Baker Tilly said.

The UK is also unusual in not charging withholding tax on dividend payments and, for now at least, offers an air of respectability.

“Over the last couple of years, companies that have used jurisdictions like Ireland, the Netherlands or Luxemburg have found themselves at the wrong end of some poor publicity for their attitude to tax,” said Gilbey.

“It looks less likely that that would be the case if they put themselves in the UK because we’re not generally considered a tax haven.”

 

Weekend reading: abuse of state power special

August 25, 2013

It has been a bumper week for abuse of state power. Here are some of the highlights:

Bradley Manning goes down for 35 years. On the watch of the ‘liberal’ president, Barack Obama. The FT (sub needed) argues that Manning got off lightly and may get parole in 10 years. The Guardian takes a different view on the proportionality of Manning’s sentence, a position closer to mine.

While the reaction pieces are being penned, Manning expresses a desire for hormone treatment to assist in a desired gender reassignment. Federal prisons offer this, military ones do not. Manning has asked that she [sic] be referred to henceforth as Chelsea, with the former name Bradley reserved only for letters to the the confinement facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. There are worse ways to spend half an hour than writing him/her a letter of support, so why not do so?.

From, for me, the damaged but well-meaning Manning to the thoughtful, lucid and brave Edward Snowden. In the UK, Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor, reveals threats from the British government, securocrats, and indirectly from David Cameron himself, to pre-emptively shut down further reporting of the Snowden cache using British legal powers of pre-emption.

It is depressing to read how the poodles in the UK government told their bosses in Washington that Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald’s partner David  Miranda would be detained at Heathrow, how Met police say they checked they were using anti-terrorism legislation correctly and how the police reckon they were procedurally perfect. Having taken the call from the lickspittle Brits, Washington then moved to distance itself from the Miranda detention and the seizure of his possessions, saying it wouldn’t happen in the US. As the Economist points out (sub needed), the anti-terrorism legislation under which Miranda was detained was established for the police to ascertain if a person “is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism”. To use such legislation against journalists is grotesque.

Over to China, where 70 policemen take the unusual risk of appending their thumbprints to a denunciation of the acting president of the Shanghai High Court who, they say, has been engaged in massive long-term corruption including stealing several tons of alcohol from the police booze budget each year. Court president Cui Yadong was already feeling the heat after senior Shanghai judges were recently captured on video cavorting with prostitutes. The video of the judges has had over 4 million hits.

Separately in China, the New York Times discusses ‘Document number 9’ and the alleged ‘seven subversive currents’ at large in the Chinese nation. Per my recent blog about Xi Jinping, we are starting to get more visibility on the new Chinese president and what we are seeing is not pretty. Xi’s evolving proto-Maoist approach to politics provides the background to the trial on corruption and abuse of power charges of fellow princeling Bo Xilai, which started this week. Bo was the person who invented the ‘New Red’ school of modified Maoist populism when he was running Chongqing. As Xi and pals move to crush him, the irony and hypocrisy are not lost on John Garnaut in Foreign Policy.

Here in Italy, meanwhile, we are enjoying a peculiarly Italian twist on the abuse of state power. Silvio Berlusconi, having been definitively condemned for a felony for the first time, has opted for an attack on state power that recalls, for me, Italy’s fascist past (much more so than the claims, which I previously dismissed on this site, that Beppe Grillo is proto fascist). Over the Ferragosto holiday Sil promised a programme of direct action on Italy’s beaches, with his supporters leafleting holiday makers who would otherwise be trying to catch a rest. The focus of Sil’s campaign is not so much a proposal for structural reform of the judiciary, or indeed enforcement of existing norms (which would be half the job done already), but instead a direct attack on magistrates and judges as a species. The strategy has more than a whiff of hoped-for intimidation.

Here is a lead story (in Italian) from Berlusconi’s Il Giornale during the holiday. Although the article was on the front page, it has no news content, and comprises a simple frontal assault on the judiciary, likening its perceived efforts to ‘attain political power’ over the nation to Mao Zedong’s Long March. The connection with Maoism/communism is established in the first sentence. Italy, we learn, does not have a mundanely inefficient legal system to be improved by systemic change, but an extremist, personal, visceral political conspiracy against the Italian people (to wit, Sil and his businesses).

Here are some current icons from Berlusconi’s PDL/FI site:

banner-forzasilvio pdl-logo 20ANNI-DI-CACCIA-UOMO 995980_621688441198598_1936708951_n 998453_620420304658745_378895156_n 998913_622166501150792_278588033_n 1097945_620420421325400_707118344_n slide-1-638

The manner in which Berlusconi’s personal interests, those of the Mediaset group he controls, and national politics are conflated is bewildering for anyone from the First World. But of course this is not the First World. Next month Sil will relaunch Forza Italia (FT, sub needed), his original political movement named for a football chant (in the country that now boasts the worst record of football violence and racism in western Europe). ‘Ancora in campo’ / Back on the Field is the new tag line.

To me the strategy looks more than a little fascistic, involving as it does an attack on the institutions of the state and promises of more direct action. However, as the holidays wind down I suspect that we won’t see a proto-fascist movement take hold in Italy. Instead we will see business as usual.  The main evidence of Sil’s promised campaign of direct action so far (the plan on the beaches described here in the FT, sub needed) is a few Forza Italia militants in Rome (here telling journalists they have not been paid to march, that they are ‘spontaneous volunteers’ and that they have ‘just come for Him [Sil]’) and a pisspoor little plane dragging a bit of superannuated toilet paper above a few holidaymakers. ‘Forza Italia, Forza Sil’, I think it says.

I don’t want to do you down Sil, but I’m not sure you’ve really got the fascist cojones for this thing….

Forza Italia sul ferragosto 2013

Meanwhile, my own experience with abuse of state power occurs when I stop at Sasso, the bar on the river on the way to Citta di Castelllo. Despite the fact that there were few people around when I stopped, and lots of safe parking available, a carabinieri police car was parked across the zebra crossing that leads to the children’s playground, with two wheels outside the white parking line and hence well into the road. Thinking this a bit slack, even by Italian police standards, I took a photo on my phone. Walking into the bar, I found two carabinieri eating cream buns. I bought a small bottle of cold water and went outside to drink it in the sun.

While I was doing this, it seems one of regular clients at the bar told the carabinieri I had taken a photo. One of the carabinieri came over and demanded ‘a document’. Of course, I said, handing him my EU photo driving licence. He took it away and wrote down all the details, resting on the boot of his car. Then he came back and said: ‘I have taken down all your details because you took a photo.’ I replied: ‘Yes I did take a photo because of the way you parked.’ The policeman responded: ‘You have no idea what business we are engaged on here.’ I resisted the urge to reply: ‘It looked like you were engaged in eating cream buns.’ Both policemen were standing over me, not completely in my face, but close enough to make me feel uncomfortable.

The officers then made a series of threats:

1. ‘We have your details. If that photo is published on the Internet [he only seemed concerned about the Internet] we know who you are.’ I replied that I have no problem with them knowing who I am.

2. [from the second carabinieri, thinner and younger]: ‘That is a MILITARY vehicle. Do you understand?’ I replied that I am fully aware that the carabinieri is a para-military force.

3. The first officer mentioned seizing my phone (the verb he employed was ‘sequestrare’). I remained impassive, just looked him in the eye. There were a few people around the bar (maybe 8), plus the female boss, whom I have known for years. He didn’t take the phone in the end, just saying: ‘Get rid of that photo or I will seize your phone.’ I said nothing.

2013-08-16 11.56.41

At this point the policemen appeared to run out of threats. They went back to their car, got in it, turned around, and followed me to Citta di Castello, before turning off in the direction of the police station. Should I complain to the justice system or should I launch a proto-fascist programme of direct action? Thankfully this dilemma no longer presents itself. I now live in Cambridge. I think I’ll just go home.

More:

If you would like to harass people on street corners until Silvio is let off his felony, you should be able to sign up at the site below. (Latest talk is of a general amnesty for convicted felons facing up to as much as four years’ jail time. This would be a triple triumph — saving money spent on prisons, reducing Italy’s huge trial waiting lists, and getting Sil off his fraud sentence (plus other sentences that may soon follow). The only downside would be to put a few thousand crooks, some of them violent, back on the streets. What is not to like?)

ForzaSilvio.it

Holiday reading and viewing: booze, race, nationalism

July 23, 2013

English beach

 

Since I am sort of on holiday this week, I have decided that everybody else should be too. So here is weekend reading re-dressed as holiday reading.

 

1. First up, to get us started, a great discussion of the role of alcohol, and of alcohol addiction, in writing.

Next, the serious stuff.

Here are three articles on questions of race and nationalism.

2a. Orville Schell and John Delury offer a thoughtful piece about China’s need to move on from the narrative of national humiliation that the country’s schools and politicians have fed the population ever since 1949 (and indeed longer in the case of early converts to the communist party’s cause).

2b. In the United States, Barak Obama can no longer avoid speaking out about the Trayvon Martin case.

2c. Philip Stephens in the FT (sub needed) reflects on the mindless racism of Italian politics, but ends with his ideas that just maybe Gianni Letta represents change. Would that it were so!

3. Third, a near miss. Gideon Rachman in the FT (sub needed) has a thoughtful piece on Putin’s Russia but fails to nuance it with what Putin’s government is doing to put Russia back on an economic development path — in essence, reining in the oligarchs and bringing cash flows from national mineral assets back under public control. Putin may be a revolting man, and yet may also be a revolting man whose time has come.

4. Finally, a heartening curiosity. Teach First seems to be working. It is now Britain’s single biggest recruiter. So it turns out that smart people often do care, and don’t reflexively sell their souls to a law firm or investment bank.

 

Weekend reading and viewing

July 13, 2013

1. First up, a farewell piece from Evan Osnos, China correspondent of the New Yorker. All about his poet bin-man friend.

A BILLION STORIES

POSTED BY 
Osnos-qi-290.jpg
In my neighborhood, near the Lama Temple, the men and women in fluorescent orange jumpsuits work for the district sanitation department. Many are migrant workers from the countryside; they sweep the alleys, clean the public restrooms, and collect the trash. Some wear straw farmers’ hats that cast a shadow across their faces, and, I admit, the matching uniforms make it difficult for me to keep them straight. I don’t know if there are three of them or thirty.
One afternoon not long ago, I was chatting with my next-door neighbor, a retiree named Huang Wenyi—a proud Beijinger, born and raised—when one of the sweepers in an orange jumpsuit wandered by. He had tousled hair, sun wrinkles around his eyes, and a smile of jumbled teeth. He approached and pointed to a gray flagstone at our feet. “Can you see the emperor on that rock?” the sweeper asked.
I thought I’d misheard. He said, “I can see an image of the emperor right there on that rock.”
Huang and I looked at the rock and back at the sweeper. Huang was not interested. “What are you bullshitting about?” he asked. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The sweeper smiled and asked, “Are you saying you think I’m not a cultured man?”
“What I’m saying,” Huang said, “is that you’re not making sense.”
The sweeper gave him a look, and turned, instead, to face me. “I can look at anything, and pull the essence from it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how ordinary something is; in my eyes, it becomes a treasure. Do you believe me?”
Huang was irritated: “Old man, I’m trying to have a chat with our foreign friend here. Can you not disturb us, and go back to your work?”
The sweeper kept talking—faster now, about ancient Chinese poetry, and the great modern writer Lu Xun—some of it too fast, and the references too obscure, for me to understand. He sounded somewhere between interesting and bonkers. Huang had had enough, and he poked fun at the man’s countryside accent. “Come back after you’ve learned to speak Beijing dialect,” he said.
Under his breath, the sweeper said, “As long as it’s a dialect of human beings, it’s legitimate.” But Huang didn’t hear him. He’d waved him away and wandered into his house.
I introduced myself. The sweeper’s name was Qi Xiangfu. He was from Jiangsu Province, and he said he had come to Beijing three months ago. Why did you come, I asked.
“To explore the realm of culture,” he said grandly.
“What kind of culture?”
“Poetry, mainly. Ancient Chinese poetry. During the Tang Dynasty, when poetry was the best, every poet wanted to come to Chang’an,” he said, invoking the name of the ancient capital, the predecessor to Beijing. “I wanted a bigger stage,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether I succeed or fail. I’m here. That’s what matters.”
It was getting late; before I went inside, Qi said he had competed in poetry competitions. “I won the title of ‘Super King of Chinese Couplets.’ ” In his spare time, he had taken to hosting an online forum about modern Chinese poetry. “You can go online and read about me,” he said.
That night, I typed his name into the Web, and there he was: Qi Xiangfu, the Super King of Chinese Couplets. In the photo, he was handsomely dressed in a bow tie and a jacket; he looked young and confident. Chinese poems are hard for me to understand, and many of his, especially, were impenetrably weird. But I appreciated some moments of grace: “Earth knows the lightness of our feet,” he wrote. “We meet each other there / Between heaven and earth.”
To my surprise, the more I searched about Qi Xiangfu, the more I found of a life lived partly online. He once wrote a short memoir, in which he described himself in the third person, with the formality usually reserved for China’s most famous writers. He wrote that his father died young, and Qi was raised by his uncle. He wrote, of himself, “The first time Qi read Mao’s poem ‘The Long March,’ he resolved that Mao would be the teacher to show him the way. Later, he studied the poetry of Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpu, Lu You, and others, and he made a promise to himself: Become a master of literature.”
He described the first time he ever presented one of his poems to a large group—it was played on a speaker at a construction site—and he described a bus trip in which he met, as he put it, “a girl who sympathized.” They married and it “ended his life of vagrancy.” There were hints of trouble in his life—at one point, he wrote a plea for donations, saying, “Alas, Comrade Qi is having a difficult time”—but something in the spirit of his online persona captivated me.
So much of it was impossible just a few years ago: the journey to the city, the online identity, the interior life so at odds with the image he projected to the world. When I first studied in China, seventeen years ago, the Internet was only a distant rumor. It had reached China two years earlier, but hardly anyone had access. When I brought a modem from the U.S., and tried to plug it into my dorm-room wall in Beijing, the machine emitted a sickly popping sound and never stirred again.
When I moved to Beijing, in 2005, to write, I was accustomed to hearing the story of China’s transformation told in vast, sweeping strokes—involving one fifth of humanity, and great pivots of politics and economics. But, over the next eight years, some of the deepest changes in the lives around me have been intimate and perceptual, buried in daily rhythms that are easy to overlook. A generation ago, foreigners writing about China marvelled most at the sameness of it all. Chairman Mao was the “Emperor of the Blue Ants,” as a memorable book title had it. But in my years in China, I have been seized most of all by the sense that the national narrative, once an ensemble performance, is splintering into a billion stories.
Living in China at this moment, the stories bombard you with such fantastical vividness that you can’t help but write them down and hope to make sense of them later. Writing about China, in The New Yorker, for the past five years, I’ve tried to capture something of this age, to grab a few of these stories out of the air before they slip by. The complexities of individual lives blunt the impulse to impose a neat logic on them, and nobody who stays here for some time remains certain about too much for too long. To impose order on the changes, we seek refuge, of a kind, in statistics. In my years here, the number of airline passengers nationwide doubled; sales of personal computers and cell phones tripled. The length of the Beijing subway quadrupled. But the longer I stayed, the less those impressed me than the dramas that I could never quantify at all.
On Sunday, my wife, Sarabeth, and I are flying out. I’ll be on leave for the next couple of months, wrapping up a book about a few individuals I’ve come to know in China. It will be published next spring, and I’ll be saying more about that later. I’ll resume writing for the magazine this fall, based in Washington, D.C. China is not leaving my blood stream; I’ll be back to write pieces, and, in between, I’ll be writing at Daily Comment and elsewhere about how China looks from afar.
Since we launched this blog, in January of 2009, I’ve written about five hundred posts. This will be the last for a while, and I want to thank you for visiting over the years. There will be much more to come on China on this site, and in the magazine, so I won’t pretend to sum things up. For now, I’ll mention only the fact that returns to me more often, perhaps, than any other: never in modern history has China been more prosperous and functional and connected with the world—and yet, it is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison. Contradictions like that have been the essence of this moment.
After I met the street sweeper Qi Xiangfu, I started bumping into him frequently. We swapped phone numbers, and he would send me a poem, now and then, by text message. He typed out the characters on his phone, with the help of a magnifying glass to aid his eyes. Many of his poems were heavy with Communist fervor; others were oracular and strange. But I sympathize with anyone trying to make sense of this place in writing, and I admired his persistence. “I’ve experienced every kind of coldness and indifference from people,” he told me once, “but I’ve also given myself knowledge, all the way up to the university level. I don’t have a diploma. People look down on me when they see me.”
A few weeks ago, Qi told me he had been reassigned to the sanitation department in another part of town; he said he would come back when he could. The last time I saw him, he wasn’t wearing his uniform; he was in street clothes—a crisp white shirt and a black jacket—on his way to see his daughter who worked at a restaurant nearby. He had a book under his arm: “Ten Contemporary Authors of Prose.” For the first time, I saw the two personae, online and real-world, in one. What inspires you, I once asked him.
“When I write,” he said, “anything becomes material. In life, I must be practical, but when I write, it is up to me.”
Photograph, of Evan Osnos and Qi Xiangfu, courtesy of Osnos.
2. Next, a bit of Australian fun. A Kath and Kim movie came out last year. It got terrible reviews, so don’t go see it. However this appearance on Sunrise is pretty funny. Seems like good background to the Ashes series.
3. Next: Oh. Bama! Just to keep piling pressure on the liberal president, here is a Guardian piece about the sale of ambassadorial positions. Sort of Lloyd George goes to Washington. You might want to watch Lou Reed talking about Snowden and Obama again, (if only to watch the put-down of the obsequious female journalist at the end).
4. Now something serious. Christopher Wood, one of the best (perhaps the best) equity analyst in east Asia, doesn’t like his weekly missive reposted. So I am just going to quote a couple of bullets about the income distribution effects of the QE approach to stabilising the global financial crisis. I was banging on about the same thing soon after the crisis hit in 2010 and the QE started:
<The practical way unconventional monetary policies work is to lead to ever more extreme wealth distribution. Wealth distribution would have become much less extreme as a consequence of the 2008 crisis if losses had been imposed on creditors to bust financial institutions in line with capitalist principles, as opposed to the favoured ‘bailout’ approach pursued for the most part by Washington. The ‘great reckoning’ has been deferred to another day as the speculative classes have continued to game the system by resort to carry trades actively encouraged by the Fed and other central bankers. The leverage taken on in such trades is highly risky because of the underlying deflationary trend.>
5. More serious and interesting stuff is Philip Stephens in the FT (sub needed) parsing the Anglo Saxon-created disaster story that is the Middle East.
6. Looking at the Stephens’ canon, I see a piece from June (sub needed) making the case for shutting down the UK Treasury. It would save money and get rid of dangerous incompetents whose follies we, the taxpayers, must finance. I would just add that in shutting the Treasury to save money, government could also shut the Foreign Office, another black hole of self-regarding incompetence. George Osborne is right that we should not waste money. Mainly on people he went to school and university with.
7. Finally, this looks like something useful to do if any UK university students read this blog:
Hi there, My name’s Jonathan Goggs – I’m from an organisation called Team Up, who are establishing a student committee at Cambridge for 2013/14. I would very much appreciate it if you, or one of your colleagues, could circulate the following blurb into an email to all students in the business school, including the enclosed attachments as well. Do let me know if there are any questions from students by responding to this email, or copying me in. “Team Up is passionate about improving social mobility and transforming the prospects of bright young people and we are looking for outstanding university students from Cambridge to join one of our accredited leadership programmes next year. You will be trained in the highly sought-after professional skills to make a genuine difference and empower young people in your community to academic excellence. We believe in developing our university students to foster the skills they need to tackle the UK’s biggest social problem (social mobility) and secure exceptional careers. That’s why, once we’ve processed your application and conducted a short interview, we’ll be running master classes and networking opportunities, in partnership with leading businesses and charities, to give you the tools to lead, inspire and excel. The programme runs for 20 weeks, alongside your degree, and an overview of the year is attached, together with descriptions of the roles you can apply for. Last year our programme partners were Teach First and Bank of America Merrill Lynch and next year we will be partnering with even more organisations in management consultancy, education, social enterprise and finance. Places are competitive, so early applications are encouraged. Over the past two years we’ve received over 2,000 applications and some incredible student feedback – 9 out of 10 students said they enjoyed the programme. At Team Up, we think it’s a tragedy that so many young people are still disqualified from leading universities like Cambridge and fulfilling careers, because they come from low-income, socially disadvantaged backgrounds. If you think the way we do, we’d love to hear from you. To apply, click here.” Kind regards, — Jonathan Goggs Programme Officer | Team Up 18 Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, LONDON | E2 9PF E: jonathan.goggs@teamup.org.uk | W: www.teamup.org.uk

Stallone, Johnny English, Q, the works

July 3, 2013

obama downcast Johnny English Cameron finger raised

Q Dr Evil

Excellent piece in The Guardian about Da Americun Armee’s efforts to prosecute Bradley Manning into non-existence and how Sly Stallone, or whoever their lawyer is, ain’t making the case so well. If the prosecution team needs a new job after this, they could fit right in in Italy.

Meanwhile the Ecuadoreans claim to have found a bug in the London embassy where Julian Assange has been living for almost a year. Brave Dave Cameroon, we are told, does not comment on security matters, because if he did he might have to admit to being a bit of a tosser. The Ecuadorean Foreign Minister put it more diplomatically: ‘We are sorry to say so, but this is another instance of a loss of ethics at the international level in relations between governments.’

And Evo Morales was ‘kidnapped by imperialism‘ cos they thought he was giving Snowden a lift to La Paz.

Who needs Ian Fleming books, or Mike Myers or Johnny English movies, with all this going on?

BTW, have they managed to catch the guy below yet?

 

 

Later:

Philip Stephens in the FT (sub needed) has a sensible opinion piece to offer. When the FT concludes ‘whatever his motives, Mr Snowden has done the rest of us a service’, I don’t exactly feel out on a limb. Meanwhile, what is the betting that tomorrow’s Economist will be to the right of the FT? Now there is a thing…

 

UKIP if you want to / Weekend reading & viewing

May 5, 2013

So UKIP (full name ‘UKIP if you want to, we are going to set this cross on fire’)  has won 100+ council seats.

To me it is a symptom of a less inclusive, more unequal society fomenting a brew of angry old and ignorant people (and old and ignorant people) that the Conservative Party can no longer accommodate because they have become too angry and prejudiced even for the Tories.

In America they call this sociological phenomenon the Tea Party and I am surprised the press is not going for more of an ‘ooh, we’ve now got one too’ angle. Indeed UK leader Nigel Farage (unfortunate foreign-sounding name, no?) says UKIP is indeed the Tea Party wrapped in a different flag.

The bigger issue at stake here is whether UKIP is more of a problem for the Tories or for Labour. Hopeful Tories say that since they got a quarter of this week’s local election vote, and so did UKIP, together the right has half the vote if it can just, like Humpty, be put back together again. This sounds superficially tremendous, but the US experience suggests it is not, because when the far right of the right-wing becomes so nutty that your mother-in-law starts to seem reasonable, it really benefits the left. If the Labour Party can generate a few sensible policies (a la Obama), and get rid of Ed Balls and other remaining Blair-Brown detritus, it may be set fair for the 2015 general election. A single term of opposition for what Blair and Brown did to their country would be an extraordinarily low price to have to pay…

 

Weekend reading & viewing:

Why it is very dangerous to give police any new powers (in cartoon format).

This repeated, just in case anybody has not seen it. Give Obama a tv show, now.

Amanda Knox’s interview with ABC‘s Diane Sawyer to coincide with the release of her book. Part 1 (only about 8 mins)

This is very funny and goes out to all my friends planning to ghettoise their children in expensive British boarding schools.

Here’s more in the same vein.

Boycotting Google. I own shares in Google, but they are tax evading bastards and they promised not to be evil, so they are also hypocrites. Here is how you can substitute their services. I am trying out the duckduckgo search engine, so far without problems.

Infrastructure to-do list No.1

April 25, 2013

The UK has, for now, avoided a third recession. According to data released today, the economy grew 0.3% in Q1. However, as the Labour Party was quick to point out, cumulative growth since George Osborne’s epochal 2010 Spending Review has been 1.1%, when he promised it would amount to 6% over the period. And the construction sector shrank 2.5% in Q1, offset only by strong growth in services (related, one wonders, to booming stock markets and The City?). In reality, the British economy remains weak.

When aggregate demand in an economy falls because private sector investment has collapsed, government is the only spender that can step in to make up the difference until confidence returns.

When governments decide whether to spend money in these circumstances, the critical issue is whether they can find capital expenditures which will contribute to long-run productivity gains. In other words, can you spend to create demand today by buying something that will have ongoing value in the future. The most obvious target investments are in infrastructure, because construction creates lots of jobs and has big economic ‘multipliers’ by creating demand for all sorts of goods and service inputs into construction.

So let’s start making a list.

On Monday I have to go from Cambridge, the fastest-growing urban centre in the UK, to Warwick University, near Coventry, to give a talk. The distance is just 80 miles. But if I go by train, I have to go via London and it will take over 2.5 hours to get to Coventry, and nearly 3 hours to get back.

Write that down on a piece of paper, George.

 

When Britain was like Italy

April 21, 2013

A day in London allows for a few minutes talking about How Asia Works on CNBC here, and a longer discussion on the UK’s Monocle Radio ‘Globalist’ programme, (beginning at the 16 minute mark).

In between I decide to spend a couple of hours wandering the corridors of the Royal Courts of Justice, as the large building that contains the High Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal on The Strand is confusingly called. The place is of interest to anyone who wants to understand the need to constantly reform institutions. In particular, Italians should visit this building. It was constructed in the late 19th century to stop the British justice system being what Italy’s is today.

Law Royal Courts panorama

Before anyone enters, the essential book to read is Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, probably his greatest, which centres on a legal case that has multiplied and gone on for so long that no one can really remember exactly what the case is about, or quite why it started. People just attend hearings because the case(s) has(ve) taken on life(ves) of its(their) own. All that is clearly remembered is that the whole, huge, expensive, draining, painful affair concerns the Jarndyce family, which is enshrined in the case name, Jarndyce v Jarndyce. The different sides of the Jarndyce family just do what the lawyers tell them, and the case does not end until it has consumed all the family’s money, and caused the death of a sympathetic character, because the system makes it possible for cases never to end.

Things were so bad in the British legal system by the 1860s — students of development should note that this had not stopped the British economy growing and becoming the world’s most powerful — that there was eventually a cross-party consensus that radical reform was necessary. A royal commission (essentially an independent review) was set up to consolidate a morass of different legal institutions under one roof, streamline procedures and simplify judicial processes so that the system worked. The Royal Courts of Justice, which opened with their 18 (now 88) courts in 1882, shunted Britain on from the world of Bleak House. Opening the court, Queen Victoria’s speech stated the aim was to ‘conduce to the more speedy and efficient administration of justice’.

Almost always, you can just wander in to a court here and sit down and listen to what is going on. I spent half an hour observing the goings on in each of two randomly selected courtrooms. In Italy, I haven’t seen courtrooms beyond the provincial level (except on television). But some very loose points of comparison can be offered. Here in London there is no chatting during court proceedings, no playing around with mobile phones, no lawyers saying hello to their friends and colleagues in court while ignoring their clients, no male lawyers dedicating their working day to trying to flirt with any woman in sight. And everything is taped. When I once asked to tape record proceedings in an Italian court the judge grudgingly acceded, but with a look that suggested I was proposing a coup d’etat.

Unlike Italian courts, the Royal Courts give a sense of being places where stuff gets done. This is not to say that there isn’t plenty wrong with the justice system in the UK. However, compared with Italy, this is the modern world. The Royal Courts are a living museum of institutional development that is well worth a visit. For the kids, there is a room displaying all the silly outfits that judges and lawyers have worn over the years — and thankfully wear less of these days. The grown-up exhibit is the institutional progress captured in quite a beautiful building with its varied, interesting and business-like courtrooms.

Could Italy have the same thing in the foreseeable future? One way to consider this is to remember that the leaders who made the British reforms of the 1870s possible were Gladstone and Disraeli, working in concert. Would you consider that any of the putative ‘reformers’ of contemporary Italian politics — Monti,Berlusconi, Bersani, or Grillo — is in their league?

More

Imagine this in Italy: Edwin Wilkins Field, one of the key reformers and the Secretary to the royal commission of 1865 on the Royal Courts of Justice, declined remuneration!

Evolution continues: didn’t have time to go see it, but the latest addition to the Royal Courts is the Rolls Building, opened in 2011.

Goodbye Margaret

April 8, 2013

thatcher 20s thatcher 50s

As a kid, I did impersonations of her, sitting in the back of my mother’s VW Beetle, leaning in between the seats. I lived in the increasingly post-industrial north of England and her voice was so ‘other’ that I couldn’t give a jot what she actually stood for. Of course I was too young to understand either the politics of Margaret Thatcher or the quintessentially British neurosis behind her forced upper class accent.

With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, I have no great issue with the economics of Thatcher. The reason that so many people on all sides of the political divide find it hard to criticise her is that, more than anything, she delivered a mortal blow to many vested interest groups. In the Britain of the late 1970s, her time had come.

In the end, however, Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is a shallow one.  She did very little to challenge the dreary class basis of British society (far less, indeed, than her grotesque parody and successor, Tony Blair). She understood nothing about Europe and fingered liberal post-war Germany as a proto-fascist state. As a result, while she arrested the immediate economic decline of Britain, she presided over its continued intellectual demise, a trajectory that finds Britain today to be a very marginal society — far, far less than the sum of its individuals.

The United States had its Thatcher in Reagan. But since then it has produced Obama. We, meanwhile, gaze upon Cameron and Osborne, waiting forlornly for the thinking man’s Margaret to appear.

More:

Martin Wolf quick-ish wrap on her economics (FT sub needed)

Confirm the shallowness of Ken Baker by reading this (FT sub needed)

Ditto Niall “Harvard” Ferguson here (FT sub needed)

Guardian doesn’t seem to have anything interesting at a quick glance.

Across the pond, similar drivel from the NYT.

Bloomberg gets the point by focusing more acutely and has a good headline. But it ain’t philosophy.

As good as it gets, and nowhere near as good as his biography of her, by Hugo Young, from 2003 before he died.

Next day:

Perhaps time is improving the copy. Ian McEwan captures Thatcher quite well.

And AC Grayling does at least as well in the New York Times.

Martin Wolf can make us feel dumb, but George Osborne makes us all feel clever…

February 27, 2013

Martin Wolf has a nice review of policies of economic austerity employed in different states since the start of the global financial crisis. (You will need an FT sub.) Although he doesn’t articulate it as strongly as I would like, his basic point is simple: the crisis is not a macro-economic problem soluble by austerity. It is a micro-economic problem, or rather two different micro-economic problems.

The first problem, in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries, is the need to re-regulate finance in order to stop bankers taking unreasonable risks with other people’s money. This is sort of being dealt with (including in the UK by the Vickers Commission on which Wolf sat), albeit for me in a somewhat ham-fisted, messy way that will eventually bring us more problems.

The second micro-economic problem is that a bunch of states that developed fast after the Second World War by means of close government control in order to foster industrialisation (Japan, Italy, France are the main ones) need micro-economic deregulation, especially of their labour markets and government and legal institutions, in order to return to growth and pay off the large debts they built up while becoming rich countries.

So the crisis (or two distinct crises), as Wolf writes today, has very little to do with macro-economics and is, in general, made worse by austerity. If it has taken you a while to wake up to this, however, do not fear. For in Britain we have the person who will perhaps be the last in the entire world to understand what is going on around him: George Osborne.

George Osborne fixes cufflink

I haven’t written anything about George since the UK’s loss of its AAA credit rating, because there is nothing to add. Here is what I said about George in January 2011. And here is an update from November 2011. What happened since? Looks to me like four out of the past five quarters showed negative growth. The graph below is from the Office of National Statistics…

UK Quarterly GDP to Q4 2012 inc

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten days later:

Martin Wolf follows up with another attack on Osborne’s policy (FT sub needed), which Brave Dave has come out to endorse without reservation. Meanwhile, latest data suggest the chances of a triple dip recession are now as high as 50:50. All I would add to what Wolf says is that the contrast with the early 80s recession turns on the fact there are no major structural adjustments to the labour market that can be made in this crisis to get the economy moving. Unlike in the early 80s, Britain already has a very flexible labour market. This is why (as in the United States and unlike in continental Europe) unemployment has been lower than the scale of economic contraction would suggest. But it also means that monetary policy alone cannot solve the problem and actually discourages many people from undertaking the deleveraging their finances require. Back in 2010 I thought Osborne would realise this within a couple of years and listen to Vince Cable. Ho, ho, ho…

 


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