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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Here's one I sneered at earlier in the week

.. but didn't have time to blog about.

Now this might come as a bit of a surprise, but as an investment banker, I would say that nobody is "worth" a million pound bonus, which may come as a bit of a surprise, but I look on life as it used to be looked on when investment banks were largely private institutions, and commercial banks funded by public money (not government, but institutional) didn't pay much in the way in bonuses.

That is not to say that investment bankers shouldn't get paid million pound bonuses, but the rules should be quite clear: if the individual, his/her department and the whole bank make a lot of money, then the sky is the limit.  If any of those don't do so well then all bets are off, bonus-wise.  The reason is quite simple.  Shareholders who put up the money for the whole operation only make a profit if all do well, so why should bankers get paid out when the shareholders don't?  If the banker turns a profit and the bank loses money, then he is in the wrong organisation.

Which is why I sneered at the mealy-mouthed narrative from RBS who paid £1 million bonuses to staff in their Global Markets or whatever it is called when the bank as a whole lost £1,125 billion.  First of all lets us just point out that the retail part of the bank made money, so the rest of the bank lost more than that £1,125 billion, then we could add that £550 of net income arose because of our old favourite "fair value of own debt" (for the uninitiated, RBS/NatWest's creditworthiness didn't look as good as it did a year earlier so the market widened spreads on RBS's borrowings which meant that the fair value of RBS' liabilities fell and they booked £500m of income by doing nothing more than being a worse credit.

But the most heinous part was the statement by chief executive Stephen Hester that the bank recorded a loss of only £9m to shareholders after excluding the after-tax cost of the government's Asset Protection Scheme of £1,116 million, as though this cost was some how an extraordinary item outside the bank's operating business, which is about as misleading a statement as it is possible the make.  The Asset Protection Scheme costs are essentially insurance premiums paid to the government to wrap 0% guarantees around some the banks assets so that the bank does not have to apply any capital to them.  But without this guarantee, the bank would not have sufficient capital to hole all of the interest bearing assets that it has on its balance sheet, so the APS costs are necessary costs of doing business on the scale that RBS currently does and without which it would have to lose revenue without necessarily losing any staff.

So RBS lost money but paid bonuses when its shareholders lost out.  Normally, I wouldn't care unless I was a share holder, but since I and you dear UK tax paying reader are substantial shareholders in this dozy outfit, I think we should speak up.

Fiscal incontinence

Of all the labour saving devices given to us by technology, there is none so gratifying as the option on the BBC iPlayer that allows me to directly to the moment on this morning's Andrew Marr Show where national slimeball champion Peter Mandelson tries to give us the impression that a £170 billion budget deficit represented a long Labour tradition of economic competence and fiscal stability.

A pity then that the £600,000 a year Loretto and Cambridge educated Marxist Leninist Andrew Marr didn't pull him up on the point.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Libyan Insurance Policies

I had a friend in my university days who liked to go on European motoring holidays, but although the outward trip would be quite an adventure, the return journey would be a bit of a drag, but he worked out an alternative.  Having taken out a European 5-star-get-you-home-in-any-eventual insurance policy on his clapped out car, when he wanted to travel home in style he would drive it up the neareast alp whereupon the engine would over heat and the clutch would wear out and he would call up the relay service and get shipped home.

Nowadays it seems that one of the benefits of British citizenship is that, at least according to the BBC, the government is supposed to extricate you froma ny revolution anywhere in the world.  I have eery sympathy for people stuck in Libya, but I have to say that it has long been a risky place to go, more so in the last few weeks.

The government has done well to get people out, but it is ridiculous to expect them to be able to whistle up a charter plane at a moment's notice (even if other countries have done the same).  With the situation changing fast and Libyan Air Force fighters flying armede missions in Libyan airspace, only a fool of an owner would let their $50 million plane fly into the middle of a revolution, and the same would be expected of their lenders and insurers.

So if anybody wants to complain that they weren't fished out fast enough I would say, put up your own $50 million money first and then you might have a point.  If you can't do that, then don't go to dangerous countries.

As for my friend, he is now a lawyer acting for insurance companies fighting fraud cases.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

It's the 1848 Show

The thought has crossed my mind several times in the last few weeks that what we are seeing in the Middle East and North Africa is reminiscent of what happened in many parts of Europe in the middle of the 19th century, with apparently spontaneous uprisings against entrenched national leaders.

I have no particular reason to believe that they are particularly linked except that the various young unappointed spokesmen for political movements do not speak with noticeably Arab accents, nor British, French or even Italian which one might have expected from some of the people from that part of the world, but with the same distinctive East Coast American accent

Conspiracy theories welcome in the comments or by email marked with the subject: "CIA overthrow Gadhafi for role in Lockerbie bombing"

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Lay off Barclays

I have no problem with people whoi have a go at Barclays and their tax avoidance, provided they know what they are talking about, but most of the current comments from the usual sources (including the tax avoiders at the Guardian) is so ill informed that is is beyond contempt.  Have the criticsread and understood Barclays accounts?  It seems not. Have they seen their tax computations?

Of course they haven't and neither have I, but to me it seems me that there is little amiss with the fact that they only paid  £113 million in UK corporation tax last year. That is still  £113 million a year more than the Guardian or the Labour Party.  Are they still massive avoiders?  Hardly because it seems they pay £1.5 billion a year in corporate income taxes at an effective rate of around 25% of their profits which is hardly reflective of major tax avoidance when the UK headline rate is 28%.

So why is the UK rate so low.  Well a lot of their business (60%) is conducted overseas, and while they still have profitable UK businesses, they also have £800 million of head office costs in the UK, which would mean credit control, accounting, banking operations, IT, personnel, training and similar costs, which are all part of running a big bank.  That gets set against their UK taxable profits.  The other major reason is that despite the Labour government (or rather HMTRC's) attempts to legislate tax based finance leasing out of existence, Barclays still have a continuing book, albeit limited to a small class of assets.  That creates capital allowances which reduce their tax bill for the moment.

Is this all bad?  Hardly, any leasing is financing UK capital investment, while the £800 million of head office costs will be mostly staff costs, which means they are paying £800 million of taxable salaries to UK based employees so the revenue still gets its taxes but by a different route.  In fact it gains because it gives Barclays relief at 28% while picking up employee income tax at 20%/40%/50% plus employee and employers NI.

Contrary to what many of the critics say, the banks have not been subsidised by the government. 
  1. The banks do not receive any general guarantee on their assets.  It is the banks customers who may receive some implicit guarantee. Thje bank or rather its shareholders bear all the loss. The deposits were always liabilities of the bank, not its assets, so they were not the banks' to lose.In return for this support the banks allow the government to regulate their businesses.  As a result the government can be seen as equally culpable if a bank fails despite the regulatory system.
  2. The banks did not receive a subsidy by being bailed out.  They sold shares to the government for value (fair enough, you would hardly expect them to give the shares away).
  3. The banks did not receive a subsidy when the government agreed to wrap a 0% risk weighted guarantee around the second loss position on a large part of some banks' asset books.  The banks paid an insurance premium of several billion.  An arms length bargain is not a subsidy.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

How it all fell apart

A commenter asked why I am not doing so many financial stories, and the simple answer is that there aren't so many stories of greed and excess at the moiment  When the tide goes out we see all sorts of flotsam and there mabe some Ponzi schemes and the like on the go at the moment, but don't expect to see them blow up until just before the next big crash.

So most of the big stories are still about Madoff, Goldman and AIG, and the tales are all about the time just before the big bust, so here's another. In the past, I have blamed Tie Rack for the UK banking crisis, and I stick by my analysis, but that doesn't explain the failure on Wall Street.  Michael Lewis blames women, mostly.

Financial Crisis Cause No. 1: Wall Street’s shifting demographics.
In the commission’s report Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke describes recent events as “the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.” The event, in other words, was unprecedented. To understand an event that has never before occurred, we must logically begin with those factors that have never before been present. On Wall Street, the most obvious such factor is women.

Of course, the women who flooded into Wall Street firms before the crisis weren’t typically permitted to take big financial risks. As a rule they remained in the background, as “helpmates.” But their presence clearly distorted the judgment of male bond traders --- though the mechanics of their influence remains unexplored by the commission (on which several women sat).
They may have compelled the male risk takers to “show off for the ladies,” for instance, or perhaps they merely asked annoying questions and undermined the risk takers’ confidence.
At any rate, one sure sign of the importance of women in the financial crisis is the market’s subsequent response: to purge women from senior Wall Street roles. 

Sounds crazy? Not really, as I pointed out before, credit derivatives were pioneered by Blythe Masters  at J.P.Morgan.

Nokia: no comment

I used to like Nokia phones.  Actually I still do, because even though I am a sucker for a new gadget, I usually just want a mobile phone to do two things: make calls and take calls.  Texting is a bonus, as are diaries, cameras, GPS and web browsing. In fact they are a malus because they suck battery power, and I dont really need them. Oh, and I like a phone to have a clock on the ront (I think they all do), because I haven't worn a watch for the last 20 years.

Which is sort of why I liked Nokia phones, neat simple, didn't break etc, and which is why our family has had nearly a dozen of them over the years.  But causes of the recent gnashing of teeth from the Intel CEO and the tie up with Microsoft should have been obvious to all for many years.  Nearly twenty years ago we were all pleasantly surprised when a tech company from Finland seemed to be one of the most innovative and dynamic companies in the world.  Now it seems they are having a combination of midlife-crisis, menopause and stroke.

My first disillusionment came a few years ago when I was offered an upgrade to some glizy all-singing, all-dancing phone, which I took home and loaded up with all my contacts (I have many many thousands, some of whom are quite likely dead).  The phone had the capacity to store them all, but ground to a halt, so back to the shop it went for a lower grade phone that I still have.  I can't get all my contacts on it, but who needs to call the dead anyway.

But worse bloatware was to come with Nokia's Ovi Suite, which I never really understood.  This is the single most annoyingly bad piece of software there ever was. I really dislike bits of software that think they own the real estate that is my computer.  You know the ones, that launch applications when you boot up to monitor whether they need to download updates, or more annoyingly updates to the updating software (take a bow, Adobe).

But worse than those are the programs that grab large chunks of memory and just sit there.  Ovi suite (NokiaMServer) was the worst of those, grabbing up to 300Mb and hanging around with nothing to do like an unemployed teenager on a sink estate. 300Mb?  To sync with a phone?  That's half a CD's worth of data, what on earth does it need that for and why did nobody at Nokia do anything about it?

Simple fact is that to survive in the mobile phone (read consumer electronics) you have to move fast and be lean and mean, because the market (not me) buys the phones with the biggest and best features.  Nokia lost "lean and mean" years ago.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Overpaid public sector presidents

Much uproar about civil servants and council leaders who get paid more than the Prime Minister, and quite right too (the protests not the salary), but I worry much more about national leaders who not only seem to get a sense of entitlement, but become increasingly difficult to budge and dream of personal dynasties, like Mr Mubarak and any other number of Arab leaders, or Berlusconi for that matter.

But I worry most of all when I hear how Mr Putin, on his modest £80,000 salary has been able to have a £600 million Summer palace built (here on Google Earth, I think). Here is a man who is not only blatantly corrupt (but then so was Yeltsin), but he also has his finger on a nuclear button.  Will he be as easy to remove as Mubarak when his time comes? Some how I think not.

It's not easy being old

My eye was caught by an article in the Independent.  I don't mind lifting it verbatim because the same "news" was on the radio this morning, no doubt from the same press release.

People aged over 50 face a bleak future, with falling incomes, rising living costs and higher rates of unemployment, a report suggests. In a survey, 28 per cent of respondents said their standard of living has got worse in the past year, while 30 per cent thought their health had deteriorated.

The worst affected were those close to retirement as their pensions failed to deliver the income they had expected. The report, by the company Saga, was based on a survey of 10,000 people over 50.

All true, but I loved some of the comments:

The way things are in this country its the over 10s who are facing a tough future.

Cheer up, the people who stole your pension contributions have invested the money in care homes, where people on minimum wage watch you die in your own excrement while they play cards.

Monday, 14 February 2011

So which way is the BBC going to flip?

Obama - a Democrat - announces $1.1 trillion of annual budget cuts, and an administration official says that by 2015 “the government will be paying for what it spends and debt will no longer be increasing as a share of GDP”.

So how do the BBC play that? Continue the Obama hugfest, and say what a wise decision that is, but thereby validate the Cameron economic policy? Be consistent with their critical line towards Cameron (consistency huh)?

Or pretend it never happened, or at least not link the two countries?

Friday, 11 February 2011

How big is the deficit?

Well we all know that it is £170 billion a year, but what does that mean in real terms?  What is a meaningful international benchmark for that sort of number.

Well Saudi Arabia produces 9.764 million barrels of oil a day and the Brent crude price for oil is $101 at the moment, so that runs out at about £240 billion a year.  Now, not all of that money goes into Saudi hands because they rely on foreign operators and have to import foreign manufactured equipment and expertise, but we can assume that at least £200 billion gets into the Saudi economy.from oil, and that is with oil standing at a relatively high price.

And that is barely more than the UK government deficit.  So one way of looking at the UK deficit is that it pumps as much cash into the UK economy as oil puts into the Saudi economy.  The difference being that whereas the Saudi Oil money is theirs free and clear after they have sold their oil, the UK government borrowings are going to have to be repaid.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Follow the money

Osborne says he understands people's anger over baker's bonuses. "It would have been better if, when we were bailing the banks out, we had secured something from the banks in return. Unfortunately I was not chancellor at the time," he said.  Fair enough, but putting a tax on all banks isn't the same as running the banks that are actually owned by the tax payers and controlling bonuses that way.

"Oh but we need to pay bonuses to attract the staff".  Not so, RBS and Lloyds always were staffed by bozos with nowhere else to go, so it doesn't matter what they get paid.

But again we have the BBC operating in full anti-banker, anti Tory mode: "Banks will begin to announce the value of their bonuses pots next week, with total payouts expected to top £6bn - almost eight times the additional tax being raised."

Yeah, right eight times the additional amount of tax compared to what was paid last year, but what kind of statistic is that.thebank levy will raise £2.5 bn even after the reduction in corporation tax.  Add to that the 50% tax on bonuses and that makes £6.5 bn to the government, £4bn, and even then the bankers get most of thates in bank shares while the government gets paid in hard cash. There really is no pleasing the BBC.

Only in America

For the benefit of those who don't want to wade through hours of  Americam Football to watch the SuperBowl ads, they are all on line at www.foxsports.com/ads. Some of them are mildly amusing.
Here's a sample.

<a href="http://msn.foxsports.com/video?vid=861ea297-45eb-43be-a3a1-1d12e8133a56" target="_new" title="">Chevy Camaro: Commercial Pitch</a>

Monday, 7 February 2011

Scratch and sniff

Cuts are "destroying" volunteering and undermining the government's "big society" vision, according to Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, who is retiring from the Community Service Volunteers (CSV), and much trumpeted by the ever-so un-independent BBC.

What the BBC forgot to tell us is that this apparent worthy is a former Labour councillor from Islington, a big government type who is the exact anti-thesis of the locally based Big Society (silly name, good idea).

But who is Dame Elizabeth and what is her charity, from which she has drawing a salary not just for the last 36 years as head, but for the last 47 years in total?

The CSV accounts for 2010 show that of £28m income, £22m came from central and local government, with the rest coming from investments and private donations (and a large part of the latter coming from the Big Lottery Fund) so not really a charity at all but a government quango that takes donations from the public.


But look further at Note 4 to the accounts and we find £18m of their income was spent on staff salaries and somebody at the organisation (we presume the executive director but we can't tell because she is not a trustee i.e. real director)  was trousering between £120 and £130k a year for their trouble, which puts a new perspective on the word "volunteering".

Saturday, 5 February 2011

I live in a relatively expensive house

Miliband: "I live in a relatively expensive house."
Morgan: "How much is it worth?"
Miliband: "I'm not sure, over a million."
Morgan: "How much exactly?"
Miliband: "I don't know Piers, I haven't checked." 
Morgan: "You don't know? Everyone else in Britain knows what their house is worth."
Miliband: "It was bought for £1.6m."
Morgan: "When?"
Miliband: "A year and a bit ago."
Morgan: "Well remembered."

Ed Milipede being interviewed for GQ by Piers Morgan.  Given what Ed Miliband has done to earn a crust for the last few years, does this level of wealth not bracket him with Cameron and Osborne? What do the people of Doncaster think about their elected representative's accommodation? Who would have thought that it was only 2 generations ago that the Milibands lined up with the Red Army.