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Showing posts from February, 2008

The End of the Age of Excess ?

This economic downturn feels qualitatively different from ones that I remember. Instead of talking about cyclical changes, the breakdown of the securitised credit market is described increasingly as a systemic, secular challenge. The liquidity of the credit market may well have been irreversibly changed as banks are now forced to take on more risk directly, and as they consequently insist on tighter restrictions on borrowers. The long term impact of these changes may well be profound. After an age of excess, we now enter an age of restraint, and it seems to me that the effects may be not just economic, but cultural and political too. The breakdown of the post-war Bretton Woods international financial system that took place over the course of the 1970s led to an explosion of deregulation and easy money. The wealth that entered the system fueled a consumer boom which, despite cyclical downturns, has continued to expand until the beginning of the the latest crisis. Over that time, from be

Market Solutions

As the credit market continues to tighten, it is clear that major ramifications are already underway. Despite the fact that too many political figures insist that they can do a better job by regulating, in fact the market has a habit of being able to fix its own problems. Ferrovial, who bought BAA a year and a half ago , are now finding their large debt burden hitting their profits severely. However, there is a solution: they can simply sell assets. From the point of view of the consumer, this would be good news. The lack of competition has led to inefficient use of the airports around London. The poor transport links to Heathrow has allowed the BAA owned Heathrow Express to become the most expensive train ride per mile in the world, yet passengers transferring between different London Airports must do so by either coming into London by train, or taking a bus or taxi directly- there is no direct train link. Breaking up the monopoly would force competition and help to address the costs

Drinking Responsibly

Both Labour and the Conservatives have been much exercised by the alleged culture of binge drinking in the UK. A report has suggested that the introduction of more relaxed opening hours for the sale of alcohol had not created a cafe culture, but had in fact increased crime. We are told that the UK is at the centre of an epidemic of binge drinking. Children are said to be out of their brains and out of control. David Cameron has suggested that adults who buy alcohol should be named and shamed with pictures. Frankly, after accusing the government of gimmicks, he might have left that idea in the wastepaper bin, where it belongs. Although the media are whipping up a moral panic, and although it is undoubtedly the case that excessive consumption of booze generally leads to higher crime, the fact is that the UK is not actually at the top of international consumption of alcohol. France, Ireland, Denmark, the Czech Republic and even Luxembourg all consume far more alcohol per capita than th

Enough from Fayed already

As another day passes in the seemingly interminable inquest into the death of Diana, I am sure that I am not alone in losing patience with Mohamed Fayed. Fayed (the Al- prefix is an honorific like the German Von- which he is not entitled to use) has over the years been repeatedly condemned as a dishonest and rather brutal individual who tends to use threats and bluster as part of his normal business. His illegal dismissals of staff at Harrods for example have, on more than one occasion, seen him condemned by the British legal system over several years. Therefore the tragic loss of his son has not been the cause of his erratic and generally poor behaviour, though of course it may have accentuated it. Having had his day in court over the death of Diana and his playboy son Dodi, Fayed has made a number of very serious allegations about a very large number of people. If the Inquest finds that Diana and Dodi were not in fact murdered, then I for one sincerely hope that all of those whose na

The past and the future of Kosova

The declaration of independence that the Parliament of Kosova approved on February 16 th has been greeted by the international community with a certain weary resignation. The seventh country to have been carved out of the wreckage of Yugoslavia now takes its first toddler steps in the face of a certain amount of international dismay. We are told that Serbia has lost the core of its history- yet, how true is this? The province is named after the word for a blackbird in Serbian- Kos - in fact it is named after one particular battlefield: Kosovo Polje -the field of the Blackbirds. The battle took place on June 28 th 1389. The battle took place at a key time for South East Europe, with the Ottoman Sultan Murad seeking to surround the declining Byzantine State and advancing into Europe. The army that faced the Ottomans was led by a Serbian princling , Lazar Hrebljanovic , and the various rulers of the petty states that emerged from the Serbian Empire of Stefan Dusan who had died in 1

The infantilism of the British Snob

Last night I had the privilege to attend a dinner in central London hosting the President of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus. It was a hugely well attended event, with a variety of different attendees. The bulk of the guests were members of the UK's large Lithuanian diaspora. Some were those forced to leave Lithuania by the Soviet occupation. Some were more recent arrivals. Others were those, like myself, who have very long standing connections with Lithuania and the fight for freedom and independence. I was proud to have the honour to be presented to the President in a short meeting that proceded the reception and the dinner. The centrepiece of the evening was the presentation of a national decoration to Baroness Thatcher. As a supporter of her foreign policy- though precious little of her domestic agenda- I was happy enough to applaud the frail elderly lady that she has become. Her health is clearly poor and yet she was able to address a short speech to the audience of several hundred.

Nick Clegg and Economic Liberalism

Slowly, slowly we progress: Nick Clegg's speech on the economy , while I was away in Estonia, was reasonably trenchant, especially in claiming the mantle of Economic Liberalism. I think the stuff on the Banking system was very much to the point: "The truth is, the British banking industry is cosseted and closed. It is not truly competitive. For years it’s been almost impossible to get a new banking licence. New banks are usually just a subsidiary of existing banks. And the Northern Rock episode has demonstrated that it’s also nearly impossible to stop being a bank. The government and regulators are too afraid to let a bank fail. Unless we lower the barriers to market entry and market exit, we will not have a truly competitive banking industry that can eradicate the poor service and high charges consumers currently face. To make true competition possible without jeopardising customers, deposit protection needs to be beefed up, and widely publicised, to protect individuals’ depo

When Europhobia becomes simple bigotry

Once again I post from the Estonian capital, Tallinn. Though not exactly tropical, the weather is actually unseasonably warm: + 3 degrees Celsius. In a brief moment I check out the news, and with it Mark Mardell's generally excellent Euroblog on the BBC website. Unfortunately, I end up in a kind of dispair at the unrelenting determination of the British to destroy their own national interests. Mark had blogged about the fact that the European Investment Bank had provided finance to the commercial operations of the BBC. The extraordinary howls of protest that this normal commercial transaction has provoked, marks out the protesters as blind bigots. Their line of reasoning is that the editorial line of the BBC is pro-European (a debatable prospect in itself), and that this is because of the money that has come from "Europe" i.e. the European Investment Bank. The EIB , though originally set up under the 1957 Treaty of Rome, is not a part of the structure of the European Un


Since the 1988 US Presidential elections only a Bush or a Clinton has sat in the Oval Office. Hillary Clinton wishes to extend this run for at least another four years or even eight. 28 years of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton! Yet these are Presidents who have not actually been very successful. The policy mistakes of Bush one, the integrity mistakes of Clinton one, the policy catastrophy of Bush two, and then what would Hillary Clinton bring? What a council of dispair, that American politics is reduced to the dynastic machinations of two families. So, as the Republicans, for the time being, look outside the Bush family- indeed John McCain looks in many ways to be an opponent of the Bushes- should not the Democrats seek to break the circle too? I certainly hope so. I respect John McCain, and believe that he would be a President who could help to reconstruct the international image of his country- so badly mauled by George W Bush. I do not believe that the cynical and divisive Clintons could

Jobs for the Boys

The supposedly shocking scandal of Derek Conway handing over tens of thousands of Pounds to his own family has certainly cheered up the nation. I mean, obviously the cash element is rather annoying, and one can only hope that he will be forced to pay back a bit more than the GBP 13,000 than has been his current sanction, together with his suspension from the House. However, who could resist the rather louche Henry Conway? A totally unashamed hedonist, seemingly focussed only on the fripperies of life: parties, fashion and his boyfriends. I mean, we might have been able to forgive Conway pere had his son been a charity worker or a brain surgeon, but the host of the "F**k off, I'm Rich" Party (as it has been universally noted in every newspaper), seemed to have no redeeming virtues. The problem for David Cameron is, of course, that a significant number of people think that he himself is far more like the Conway boys than he is like the rest of us. Arrogant, and filled wit