Austeritarian politics minds less about balancing the books than cutting the state. It aims to bear down on public spending but also distrusts tax, particularly on the well-off. Austeritarians bang on about the debt while failing to plug revenue holes. Labour muddied the issue last week by merging it with the question of toxic party funding. At prime minister’s questions Ed Miliband attacked Tory donors including Lord Fink, who’d benefited from HSBC’s newly exposed Swiss tax scamming. Miliband apparently saw this as a chance to brand the Tories as high-rollers contemptuous of the fisc. The tactic was doubly doomed.
Lloyds Bank has been fined a record £28 million for 'serious failings' in its 'seriously flawed' sales practices. Lloyds says it 'recognises that its oversight of these particular schemes during the period in question was inadequate and apologises to its customers for the impact that they may have had.' Last month, the bank wrote apologetically to its offshore customers to let them know that it would no longer be able to aid and abet them in their criminal activities. Of course it didn't really say that.
Years ago, in the early days of the financial crisis, Cyprus was one of the first European countries to reassure bank savers of relatively modest means by guaranteeing their deposits up to a limit of €100,000. What this meant was that the government made a promise. Anything could happen to a bank. It could go bankrupt. Branches could crumble into lumps of concrete and shards of glass, servers explode in showers of sparks, cashiers and mortgage consultants plunge flaming from fourth-floor windows, and small savers would still get their money back.
In July, Santander wrote to tell me that there were going to be changes to the online account for small businesses I have had with them for around eight years. They began: Our aim is to build the bank we know our customers want. A bank that takes the time to listen... Then it went on to tell me what it was that I wanted.
In his Treasury Select Committee evidence yesterday, Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank of England, denied nudging or winking to Barclays over the Libor rate. Whatever the semiotics, warning signs over Libor were already plain long before Tucker’s supposed nictation in October 2008. Minutes from November 2007 of the Bank’s money markets liaison committee meeting show its members were already exercised, eleven months before the exchanges between Tucker and Bob Diamond at Barclays, over lowballing Libor prices: several expressed concern that ‘Libor fixings had been lower than actual traded interbank rates’. The oversight regime resembles a dead chameleon, stuck on orange, while the system goes critical.
Barney Frank's statement on J.P. Morgan's $2 billion loss:
You can understand how they might be grouchy at UBS, the Swiss bank that reckons it has lost $2.3 billion through alleged jiggery-pokery by one of its employees, Kewku Adoboli, only three years after the bank was bailed out by the Swiss government. When one of UBS's economists, George Magnus, says that French banks are now the ones that need to be bailed out – as he did this morning in the Financial Times – you might suspect a tinge of schadenfreude.
For all Plato’s hopes, an education in philosophy is no guarantor of virtue. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s 2008 PhD from the LSE is an alleged kickback for a £1.5 million bung from the Gaddafi Foundation, now to be rejected, though it isn’t clear what’s going to happen to the £150,000 that’s already been spent. The LSE is also investigating allegations that the thesis was plagiarised, on the faintly ludicrous imputation that nobody in cahoots with the Mad Dog of Tripoli could knock out a competent discussion of John Rawls.
Damn, I'm enraptured, yes, enraptured, at Eric Cantona's suggestion that everyone take their money out of the banks. A wonderful, and possibly even serious (it's hard to tell from the English translation of the Belgian French) website, Bankrun 2010, set up by a screenwriter and an actor, has now set aside 7 December as International Take Your Money Home With You Day:
You could be forgiven for not noticing it, but the new British government has just been forced to do what the old British government was forced to do: bail out Britain’s banks. The bail-out of Ireland marks a new stage in the privatisation of government by the financial system. Two governments, the British and the Irish, have been effectively taken over by a venal banking network which, using ordinary savers and productive businesses as hostages, forces the state to cough up whatever sums are required to save it from the consequences of its own greed and idiocy.
I know nothing about snooker, but the other week I noticed that someone called Ronnie O'Sullivan almost refused to pot the final black in a maximum break (whatever that means) because there wasn't a decent bonus for doing so. Previously he would have got £147,000 but it's been dropped because it can't be insured against any more since the maximum break thing is too common an occurrence. So O'Sullivan would only have got an extra £4000 which he'd already won for the highest break (whatever that means). He said it wasn't worth the effort, especially once he'd paid tax on it.
I misread the headline of Faisal Islam's blog on the Channel 4 News website. I though it said that the new deputy governor of the Bank of England told him that Britain's savers should now 'eat their reserve cash'. The fact that he's called Charlie – or Mr – Bean didn't help. But no, what he actually said was that people should be eating into their savings. It's the point of the Bank of England policy of keeping interest rates low, he said: an intended penalty, not, as the idiotically virtuous saver had supposed, an alarming side effect. How right I was to sneer at my parents' generation when they told me that I should save for my old age. It won't be like that then, I said. And here it is, not like that at all.
HSBC has its own radio station. Standing in line at the agency counter in the Fenchurch Street branch, waiting to pick up cheques to be cleared by other banks, I used to listen to piped muzak interspersed with financial advice and adverts: ‘That was Abba with Money Money Money, and have you thought of an HSBC high interest savings bond for yours?’ Banks have a habit of creating these artificial worlds, homogeneous commercial hubs strung out across London.
At some point in the early 1980s the father of one of my friends took a small gang of us to the Farnborough Airshow. I don't remember much about it, apart from a vague sense of the thrill of seeing the actual-size, actually flying originals of the shakily-painted plastic models of Second World War planes, pocked with dried glue, that hung from strings sellotaped to my bedroom ceiling and occasionally fell to the carpet with a feeble rip, crack and splinter in the middle of the night.
I was talking last night to a financially literate man who was complaining about the level of knowledge the Senate was showing in its grilling of Goldman Sachs executives. ‘This stuff about making a market, they just don’t know what they’re talking about,’ he said. (Market-making is a standard financial-industry arrangement in which an entity keeps a market in business by acting on both sides of transactions, so that the commodities in question can always be both bought and sold.) ‘It just isn’t that big a deal.’ Then he took a sip of his wine and, quietly and thoughtfully and as if to himself, said: ‘Mind you, in my judgment Goldman is essentially a criminal enterprise.’
I’m still in New York – back tomorrow – where the story playing biggest right this moment is about the Goldman executives who are testifying in front of the Senate. Of the various things which are astonishing about Goldman, one aspect which really stands out is their demeanour. They really do a very convincing impersonation not just of not giving a shit, but of seeming to go out of their way to be disliked. It reminds me of the Millwall FC ethos, summed up in their song:
Explosive news. Not about the election, where things were quietish while the debate was digested, and not just about the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which is bringing an eerie calm to those of us who live under a UK airport flightpath, while causing chaos and mayhem all over Europe. There's also the news that Goldman Sachs are being charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The allegations concern the Collateralised Debt Obligations which the bank sold to its customers, and what sorts of shenanigans went on in the course of their manufacture.
Something like this has been coming for months. I’m going to quote something I wrote back in January:
A short guide on how to bank your way to a fortune on Wall Street, set to music and starring the ghost of Harry Secombe.
I just got off the phone with a helpful guy called Fernando from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The local bank where I have a chunk of my savings on deposit is in deep trouble and liable to be closed any day now, and I was concerned that my status in the US, as a permanent resident but not a citizen, might disqualify me from FDIC coverage. No problem, Fernando said. Everybody’s covered – immigrants, legal and otherwise, foreigners, citizens, whatever. An account with a single name on it is insured for up to $250,000, but as you add more names (of partners, family members, trusted friends) to the account, the greater the number of $250,000 tranches are protected.
Short-term profiteering is one explanation for the banking crisis. Who was among those who warned of the dangers of short-term economic and financial thinking? Gordon Brown, who has begun to resemble Richard Nixon in the way he is clinging to power because that's all there is left to cling to. Twenty years ago, in two pieces he wrote for the LRB, Brown attacked Thatcher for promoting short-term gain at the expense of long-term investment and research. In fact, Brown equated the entire Thatcher project with short-term thinking, blind as he also believed it was to long-term growth.