Posts Tagged ‘Investment Banks’

Jacob Rees-Mogg and Tory Self-Delusions

March 31, 2018

I found this little gem in the ‘Pseud’s Corner’ column of an old copy of Private Eye. Amid the usual, very pseudish remarks from football pundits and cookery writers comparing that last goal by Arsenal to Julius Caesar crossing the Tiber, or literary types extolling the virtues of their last excursion around the globe, where they took part in the ancient tribal ceremonies of primal peoples, was a truly astounding quote from the Young Master. This is, of course, the current darling of the Tory party, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who declared.

“I am a man of the people. Vox populi, vox dei!”

This was in response to Andrew Neil questioning him about the influence of public schools on British political life.

Rees-Mogg probably does see himself as ‘man of the people’. He’s in a party, which considers itself the natural party of government. Decades ago, the Tory ideologue, Trevor Oakeshott, tried to justify the overpowering influence of the middle classes by saying they were the modern equivalent of the barons who stood up to King John, in providing a bulwark against the power of the state. True in some case, but very wrong when the middle classes are in power, and the state functions as their servant.

Rees-Mogg has never, ever, remotely been a man of the people. He’s an aristo toff, who has made his money from investment banking. He holds deeply reactionary views on abortion and homosexuality, which are very much out of touch with those of the genuinely liberal middle and lower classes. And he has always represented the aristocracy and the rich against the poor, the sick, and the disabled. He began his political career in Scotland trying to folks of a declining fishing community that what this country really needed was to keep an unelected, hereditary House of Lords. In parliament, he has continued to promote the interests of the rich by demanding greater subsidies and tax cuts for them. For the poor, he has done nothing except demand greater tax increases on them, to subsidise the already very wealthy to whom he wants to give these tax cuts, and voted to cut welfare services and state funding for vital services. No doubt he genuinely believes all that Thatcherite bilge about making life as tough as possible for the poor in order to encourage them to work harder and do well for themselves.

Personally, he comes across as quiet-spoken, gentlemanly and polite. But he is not a man of the people. He hates them with a passion, but clearly thinks of himself as their champion and saviour against the dreaded welfare state.

Let’s prove him wrong and throw him out of parliament!

Advertisements

George Monbiot on the Supermarkets’ Decimation of the Small Businesses

April 19, 2016

I’ve just started reading George Monbiot’s Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (London: Pan MacMillan 2000), about how our country was taken over politically and economically by the big corporations. One of the chapters, is entitled ‘Economic Cleansing – How the Supermarkets Conquered Britain’. This opens by describing how Brecon’s thriving independent shops and small businesses were decimated when the Parks Authority, which governs the town, decided to back the construction of a new Safeways on the site of the town’s livestock market. Knowing some of the farmers in the area, I found this particularly interesting. The farmers were complaining about how they were being driven out of business by the predatory pricing of the big supermarkets. This is true and still very much an issue for farming communities. And Monbiot gives the stats on how small businesses up and down the country are being ruined by the large supermarkets.

During the 1990s, according to the consultancy Verdict, the number of specialist shops like Brian Keylock’s [a butcher featured in the chapter] fell by 22 per cent in Britain. The smallest ones were hit hardest: between 1990 and 1996, shops with annual sales of less than £100,000 declined by 36 per cent. Between 1986 and 1997, by contrast, superstore numbers rose from 457 to 1,102. While most towns have suffered substantial losses, the impact has been even greater in the countryside: at the end of 1997 the Rural Development Commission revealed that 42 per cent of rural parishes no longer possessed a shop.

This is plainly not due to an overall reduction in trade: between 1992 and 1997 retail food sales in Britain increased by £18.6bn, or 30 per cent. But while small shops lost 8.5 per cent of their trade between 1990 and 1996, large retailers gained 18 per cent. The two trends – of the decline in small independent shops and the expansion of the superstore chains – appear to be linked.

In 1998, the government published the most comprehensive assessment of the impact of superstores ever undertaken. Its findings were unequivocal. Food shops in market towns lost between 13 and 50 per cent of their trade when a supermarket opened at the edge of the town centre or out of town. The result is ‘the closure of some town centre food retailers; increases in vacancy levels; and a general decline in the quality of the environment of the centre … Even where town centre food retailers suffer an impact, but do not subsequently close, there may still be a concern that this will lead to a general decline in activity elsewhere in the centre, and adversely affect the vitality and viability of the centre.’ (p. 169).

A few days ago I signed a petition put up by Adam Bernstein, a small businessman in London, who runs a Jewish deli. Mr Bernstein was concerned at the way businesses like his were being driven out of the capital by the big stores. He wanted the government to appoint a ‘small business czar’ to protect this nation’s Arkwrights. He’s absolutely right. The s-s-small businessmen of the kind shown in the classic TV comedy, Open All Hours, are under threat. Monbiot quotes the retailers in Brecon as saying that there’s a sense of community there that’s been created by them, as people talk when they come into the shop. He’s right, and shows like Open All Hours are undoubtedly popular partly because they do celebrate the sense of community created by such small businesses. Even when they’re run by notoriously mean grotesques like Arkwright, and now his nephew and protégé, Granville. But this is being destroyed for the corporate profits of our politicos’ paymasters. Millions of people across the UK dream of running their own business. For many men, it’s the idea of owning a garage fixing cars and bikes. But this is being taken away from them by a series of governments that have consistently favoured big business, no matter what platitudes they’ve spouted about the value of the small, independent businessman and woman. And Monbiot has supplied the stats to prove it.

Once upon a time, Maggie Thatcher made much about how she was ‘working class’ because her father owned a shop. She wasn’t working class, of course. She was petit bourgeois, lower middle class. And she, and the Conservative administrations after her, including Blair in New Labour, have done neither the working nor lower middle classes any good. As a result, our high streets are dying, our sense of community is being lost, and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, as the businesses that bridge that gulf are being forced into liquidation.

This desperately needs to change. I noticed from Mike’s blog that Labour in Wales are promising tax cuts to the small businessman, and an investment bank for Wales to offer credit to micro, small and medium businesses. These seem to me to be sound policies. But we also need to get the corporate rich out of politics, so the working and lower middle classes aren’t impoverished by Cameron’s and Bliar’s friends in big business.

Financial Times Review of Book on Origins of American Financial Imperialism

October 27, 2015

Also looking through the pile of past newspaper clippings I’ve collected, I found this review by David Honigmann of Financial Missionaries to the World: The Politics and Culture of Dollar Diplomacy 1900-1930, by Emily S. Rosenberg, published by Harvard, in the FT’s weekend supplement for 11th/12th March 2000.

The Real Costs of an Empire on Loan

At the end of the 19th century, the US was acquiring an empire by default, picking up colonial possessions and exerting a sphere of influence it did not quite know how to handle. When the 1896 selection turned on the question of currency reform and the gold-standard advocates won, the next step to export the gold standard to the scattered territories under US control. It spread from Puerto Rico to the Philippines, then Panama, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico. Eventually, US financial advisers would by plying their trade as far afield as China, Germany and Persia.

Dollar diplomacy was the term coined for an arrangement under which struggling economies would receive loans from US banks in return for accepting “supervision” from American economic advisers. The story of the public-private partnership that tried to bring this about is the subject of Emily Rosenberg’s meticulously researched book.

She traces the three parties involved in pushing dollar diplomacy. Investment banks, anxious for new markets, provided the loans. Academics made, in some cases, small fortunes from providing the advice: Edwin Kemmerer, who became the high priest of dollar diplomacy, made many times his already generous Princeton salary from grateful client governments. (Rosenberg cites personal correspondence to show that Kemmerer was obsessed with the inadequacy of his salary and what this meant for his manliness.

The third party underpinning all this was the US State Department, which played an ambiguous role in approving the loans. Each loan went to the State Department for approval, and when approval was granted there was at least a tacit expectation by lenders that the US government was backing it, protection which could take any form from ambassadorial murmurings to the dispatch of the Marines.

Banking was a contested area at the time. The gold standard, with its tendency to deflation, was inimical to small farmers and small businessmen. Marxists condemned it as materialism in action, and opposition to it also drew on a strain of populist anti-Semitism. (In the 1896 election, the Democrats warned against “crucifying mankind upon a Cross of Gold”.)

Attitudes to dollar diplomacy did not split evenly along political lines, however. When President (Theodore) Roosevelt, in 1905, halted the Dominican Republic’s slide towards bankruptcy by turning it into a US fiscal protectorate, and then built it into a model of dollar diplomacy, there was little anti-imperialist protest. The plan was seen essentially as extending “assistance without annexation”.

It was only as client countries began to rebel against the conditions and policies imposed to accompany loans (the Sandino rebellion in Nicaragua in the late 1920s being the most visible) that progressive domestic opposition and the Comintern rallied to denounce it.

Rosenberg dives deepest into the professional advisers and their search for respectability. this was the foundation of the whole system: the professionalism of the advisers reduced the perceived risk of the loans, lowering their price and making them affordable for the client countries. The advisers presented themselves as impartial third parties, aloof from both US governmental interests and the banks, responsible only to client governments. In fact, they received considerable support behind the scenes from the State Department, and Kemmerer was also kept on a secret annual retainer by Dillon Read, one of the investment banks: not so much Chinese walls as Hall of Mirrors.

Despite the technocratic claims of the advisers, dollar diplomacy was not a clean, value-free exercise. Rosenberg locates its roots in the cultural debates of the early 20th century. The Tarzan books and films were only one example of the ways in which other nations and peoples were framed as “primitive” and in need of western assistance.

Dollar diplomacy even became the subject of poplar entertainment, as in Edison’s 1917 film Billy and the Big Stick, whose hero was an American customs officer in Haiti, denied his salary by the Haitian president until he threatens the dispatch of gunboats. All very explicit, it might seem; in fact, as Rosenberg notes, it was the US financial adviser in Haiti who sopped the wages of Haitian officials until they agreed to his proposals.

The crux of Rosenberg’s argument is that dollar diplomacy cloaked geo-politics in the guise of market contracts, but with the iron first ill-concealed in the velvet glove. She draws a parallel with Victorian marriage contracts: “the dominant (male) party promised monetary support (loans) and supervision in return for obedience and acceptance of regulation. Yet, also like marriage, the status inequalities were embedded in the controlled loan contracts of dollar diplomacy, even as the contracts tended to be culturally presented as freely negotiated and based on mutual attraction.”

Financial Missionaries to the World is not easy reading. It is full enough of fiscal minutiae that even fairly central concepts, such as financing currency conversion through seniorage, go unexplained. There is no argument that is not a discourse, no assumption that is not a paradigm, no subordination that is not a “feminization”.

But it works well in explaining how this policy of arm’s length financial administration arose, how it was sustained by cultural pressures in the teeth of growing opposition from both isolationist Right and anti-colonialist Left, and how it eventually collapsed in the gale of the 1929 Crash and a series of armed rebellions.

Rosenberg does briefly trace the evolution of dollar diplomacy through Bretton Woods and the rise of the IMF, although a less scholarly book might have drawn even more explicit parallels with the financial regimens imposed by today’s multinational institutions. But perhaps the warnings are all too clear.

That last paragraph is important. The IMF and the World Bank certainly do act as instruments of American economic imperialism. When countries go for them for loan, these are given with a set prescribed conditions to rectify those nations’ ailing economies: they are to private the state industries and cut down on state expenditure generally, including removing or cutting back on any welfare support they may provide their citizens. The privatised industries are to be sold to American companies.

And the Americans haven’t just tried this with Developing Nations. They’ve done it to us as well. The British Empire was dismembered partly due to pressure from the Americans for their help during the Second World War, as they wanted to open up the closed imperial trading bloc to American companies. And they’ve continued interfering in our economic affairs afterwards. According to Lobster, one of the chiefs and head executives at the Bank of England under Bliar was Deanne Julius, a high ranking official within the American banking system. She believed that Britain should abandon its role as a manufacturer and concentrate instead on servicing American global financial interests.