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Monday, March 21, 2011

Applied Market Forces: first principles explained

It occurred to me that, what with Libya and all that, the bankers might think we've forgotten about them. We wouldn't want that, now, would we? Look what happened the last time the fog of war obscured them from the public gaze for too long. What naughty boys and girls they were. They would love nothing more than a good scrap with a real baddie, the better to resume looting unhindered. Good heavens! The media beanfeast over M.Ps' expenses provided sufficient cover for the biggest sting in history. A war? Really? Oh, we mustn't. We're spoiling them.

The bankers' jaw-dropping disingenuiety on the issue of their remuneration has now attained such Himalayan heights of intelligence insulting that we're all in danger of developing altitude sickness. With every swipe of the public credit card, our sensibilities recoil, our eyes glaze over to protect them and, do you know what? This is precisely what they want. As far as it goes, which isn't very far but, until we wake up, is as far as they need, their line of reasoning is sound enough, too; they are quite clearly getting exactly what they want with ruthless efficiency and nothing seems to stop them.

They have said "Sorry" and announced that the time for contrition is over. The "tough decisons" enacted by Project Merlin - I ask you - were sagely acknowledged to the sound of popping Champagne corks. This unilateralism with regards to niceties such as rules of engagement is not an accident. It is a reflex; a pampered, base urge that somehow manages to be both immune and allergic to any encroaching restraint in one breath. Their dismissal as "envy" of public opprobrium is ridden, side-saddle, by a specious wounded innocence that would win you a lenient plea bargain with a hanging judge if you beat it to a pulp. 

How loudly does it need said? What won't we tolerate? These jokers need brought to heel and to book. We'll have to work with the tools we've got, sadly, tempting though summary hanging and assisted defenestration may be. A good way might be to employ, exclusively, their very own terms of reference and a language they are fluent in and therefore must understand. They will tell us that their jobs involve taking risks.  All in the public interest, naturally. I'd chance my arm here and cheerfully face any risk in calling their smug collective bluff.  In the public interest. 

Despite having lost every single public argument, logical or moral, these sainted altruists still insist that without their public-spirited conjuring tricks, society would disintegrate and that their take home is merely a natural and perfectly reasonable consequence of our debt to their protection racket; for an ever-growing price they will protect us from the likes of themselves. Apparently they are simply helping themselves to what is legitimately theirs, to wit, the market rate for what is a vitally important job and - the best bit - they and only they can be the judge of what this highly competetive market rate might be, or what the job might be, for that matter. It is hard to see how multiple risky transactions of benefit to nobody bar those conducting them benefit the greater good or creates wealth for anybody other than those at the trough. We slavishly fill that trough, day in,day out. Those of us who can't afford to are allowed to participate by maintaining it and eating the few scraps that escape their grasp.

They maintain the laws of the markets are as indivisible as laws of physics; economics by Newton and Darwin. Some of them actually believe this, too. They point to solemn academic tracts as conclusive proof. To an extent, they are correct. But when they admonish us gravely with prophecies of "terrible things will happen" if they are impeded in any way, this isn't a forewarning of peril as a default: it is a direct threat. It distils, very quickly, down to "mess with us and we'll torch the place on the way out." They threaten a fiscal nuclear option. Mutually assured destruction, they aver. They think they're Soviet Moscow. I think they're pure Hollywood and that their nukes are film props.

They have unilaterally deleted shame and decency from their lexicon and only deign to discuss anything if these quaint notions stand outside shivering, catching their deaths. They calculate their rewards with a simple formula:

svT = K(x + y), where "x" = a positive number that we think they're worth, "y = what they think they're worth and "K" = an entirely randomly arrived at integer considerably greater than 2. "T" = thank you very much. "sv" denotes sotto voce.

Alas, winning this lofty moral argument obviously hasn't done anybody other than its losers any good and they don't even do a third-rate impression of giving a monkey's cuss. Their losing looks very much like winning from here, and with some style, too. Little effort is necessary in demonstrating that the converse of this unavoidably applies with seizure-inducing arithmetic. 

At impasses like this, the ante needs upped. As a banker is essentially a free spirit in the world of business, one who sets the terms rather than abides by those set down by others, he can reasonably be said to be operating as a self-employed businessman. If anybody is his own boss, it is a banker and he self-evidently likes to think this, too; if evidence were needed, try telling a banker how to do his job and see where it gets you. Show him a line and he'll cross it and charge a fee for the pleasure. 

However, he insists that he has vital societal utility. So do water authorities and hospitals,  albeit increasingly only with the market's nod. Most people, that is to say everybody else, still struggle to grasp the necessity for the Caligulan excesses of the investment banker. Many struggle to see any signs of prudent investment either. Sub-prime mortgage, anyone? But however we look at it, how he looks at it, indeed, if he is involved in providing a public service he should compete for work like anybody else and engage in a tendering process when pitching for a job, especially when the contract is a public one, as it is with the entire banking sector. Nobody should be in any doubt about this. If R.B.S., and others hadn't been bailed out, the financial sector wouldn't have lasted any longer than a dying man would without that transplant and a blood transfusion or two; the head, arms and legs wouldn't have survived alone. 

This being the case, if a banker decides that being paid in anything less than 7 rounded digits a year isn't good enough and threatens - "Threatens?" - to run away to Switzerland, why shouldn't his job be put out to public tender? The argument that this wouldn't get the "right stuff" has already been blown; this debate's existence is proof enough. Contractural rights? For the audience, gentlemen. Remind us again of the concomitant obligations and show us all the mutually binding contracts that say "Help yourselves." 

And, importantly, governments can legislate if the law is found wanting. This is not simply a quirky relic of ancient governance that is statute only because a civil servant forgot to include its abolition in an amendment to the 1911 Parliament Act. It is a government's prime and only function. Judiciaries and civil services see to the rest. The word Legislature provides a good clue here.  If bankers excesses are legal, they shouldn't be. They operate in an interstitial netherworld of loopholes. They don't set out to do things. They set out, primarily, to get away with things. Their specialism is not banking, it is safe cracking, knowing the codes. Tax avoidance, to name but one of the many charges pending against big business in general, is precisely and entirely to do with finding and successfully negotiating these wriggle holes and it is legal. Such services are advertised and widely sought. Claw back all the corporation tax avoided in the last decade and the country's books would look a lot better. This can be treated just as a hitherto unclassified but dangerous drug might be and proscribed with a 10 minute parliamentary debate and vote. We might as well make our flawed democracy work for its keep.

To guffaws of ironic laughter, and taken with good old-fashioned British stoicism and typical inabilty to recognise when we're not only being utterly shafted and appearing to enjoy it, but having our noses rubbed in it, it  was revealed at the time of the crash that Terry Wogan, who had sat and passed his banking exams, had more qualifications than Fred Goodwin and a host of other bright sparks put together, who between them had zip. This was generally presented in an "odd one out" format. This was Comedy, for a while. Given the scale of graduate unemployment, I suspect that there are many well-qualified people out there who would settle for considerably less than the present masters of the universe demand and we supply, moreover, with more diligence, more conscience and better outcomes all round. In the current climate, I reckon £75K a year with the possibility of a £25K bonus  will buy a decent double-first with a scruple or two still intact. 

If we are to accept that The Market must be the first and last arbiter in all financial decisions, which in turn must be allowed to determine every other transaction in our lives, then let's put this theory to the test. The market for huffy sociopaths with an unfeasibly poor grasp of what "entitlement" really means, even in economic powerhouses with the industrial might of the Channel Islands and Cayman, can only bear so much. Let's saturate it then, shall we?

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