One can hardly blame governments around the world for going after tax evaders. Across Europe, finance ministers are battling to reduce budget deficits while at the same time trying to find resources for stimulus measures, and anti-capitalist upstarts are snapping at the electoral heels of the established parties. Sometimes the word ‘fairness’ slips into the discussion, but political leaders can hardly pretend that morality is the motivation for the siege on tax-havens. If that was the case, they would have acted long ago.
I relish the chance to make a trip to the Black Forest whenever I visit my native Freiburg. Those woods have the magical ability to chase away all thoughts about financial markets and to stir up long-forgotten memories from my childhood. One such reminiscence on a recent trip was of the fairytale by Wilhelm Hauff, ‘The Cold Heart’. For those who do not know it, the tale, which was set in the Black Forest in the 19th century, recounts the misadventures of a poor charcoal burner named Peter Munk.
When the financial website “Business Insider” proposed a solution to the euro crisis I was all ears. But when the saviour turned out to be none other than the Saviour, one could forgive me for being a sceptical. Although I agree the euro mess could do with a little divine intervention, a transcript of a speech by Deutsche Bank’s head of FX strategy, Bilal Hafeez, was the last place I expected an appeal for it. The euro area, like any teenager needs a father figure to accompany it through its present pubescent throes and to guide it to adulthood. Its birth parents, Germany and France, are not up to the job, so a respected, sinless, external figure is necessary – Jesus.
Cost-cutting measures in one stressed investment bank have reached such an extreme that bankers will have to forego a coffee service during their meetings from now on. Admittedly, the saving is hardly likely to felt on the bank’s bottom line; like cancelling the newspaper subscriptions,
Hardly a week goes by it seems without some new banking scandal in the headlines: tax evasion; LIBOR manipulation; mis-selling of derivative products and insurance; embargo dodging; money laundering, etc. Some of the obvious victims have included private investors and municipalities, but there are also innumerable faceless individuals and firms, taxpayers and savers who have suffered indirectly as a result of the apparent lack of integrity.
Although High-Street bank Santander has taken the unprecedented step of suspending 800 of its UK retail investment advisors and sending them off to intensive re-training, angry bank customers are not appeased. Online comments continue to slate the bank’s management for pressuring these ‘advisors’ into heavy-handedly selling products that suit the seller more than the buyer. However, if Santander is ever to achieve anything positive on this front, this is certainly the way to do it.
A class reunion is a very peculiar event. I have often wondered what it is about these anniversary get-togethers – 10, 20 or 25 years after leaving school – that makes them so appealing. Naturally, there is a certain thrill about the prospect of seeing an old buddy from one’s childhood again. But not all of those present are former friends. Not only classmates are reunited at these events, but human reference points.
The clash of money and morality holds a particular fascination for me. Although it is seemingly everywhere, and we read daily tales of fraud, insider-dealing, income inequality, conflicts of interest, payday lending, etc., it almost never fails to surprise us. When embarking on a simple and purely economic activity, we rarely think that it might one day collide with our own or others’ sense of morality.
Sometimes even children can teach us a thing or two about behavioural economics. At least, I received an unexpected (and unwanted) lesson just a couple of weeks ago during a discussion about Christmas wish-lists.
“Paula got an iPad for her birthday, can I have one too?” my nine-year daughter asked me. Her friend Paula was born on the exactly the same day as my child, but she can just about read and her writing leaves much to be desired.
Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS) idea of using charitable donations to buy up distressed consumer debt, and then simply forgiving it, sounds very appealing. I am very much in favour of pardoning debt that everyone knows can never be repaid. This allows overly-indebted people to get on with their lives, hopefully in a more productive way. One of those ways, OWS hopes, is eventually to make their own financial contribution to the project, thereby ‘paying it forward’. The impact of a test project was impressive: according to one of the organisers, OWS was able to buy $14,000 of distressed debt with an investment of just $500.
It is obvious why people seem to enjoy seeing a hero fall: it is all about changing the reference point. For example, when a beacon of morality – a sporting hero, an outspoken priest, a clean-cut politician, a decorated general – is dragged into the mire of sleaze and shame, it lowers the bar for our own patchy integrity. Without having to do anything, we are instantly able to see ourselves as more honest. Quite why anyone would like to see someone’s tainted image redeemed is perhaps counter-intuitive, but we like that too.
I was so impressed by a lecture on the fascinating subject of ‘Economics and Ethics’ by Julian Nida-Rümelin, a former German culture minister and currently professor of philosophy and political theory at the Ludwig-Maximillian University in Munich, I literally ran out and bought the book. Nida-Rümelin’s newest publication, entitled The Optimisation Trap, deals with the philosophy of a human economy.
Is the publisher of the UK’s Guardian and Observer newspapers close to pulling the plug on print editions and moving to wholly digital newspaper publications? This, at least, was the contention of a report posted on the website of a rival high-brow newspaper, The Telegraph. The ‘breaking story’ came in the wake of the US magazine Newsweek’s decision to do just that, so it seemed plausible. But it was entirely wrong.
‘Born to Fly’ is the phrase tattooed on Felix Baumgartner’s arm. Flying is perhaps not the word one would use to describe his supersonic sky-dive from a hot-air balloon at a height of 39 kilometres, but it was no less fascinating to watch. Hours after the record-breaking plunge on Sunday, I still sat engrossed in front of the television while he recounted the details of his exploit in the press conference. All of the time, I had to ask myself why in heaven (excuse the pun) he wanted to risk his life trying to dive further and faster than all before him?
In an online poll, the Guardian newspaper was among the first to test the public reaction to the UK Chancellor George Osborne’s proposal to give workers the option to sacrifice some or all of their employment rights in exchange for shares in their respective companies. In essence the question was: would you give your employer the right to fire you at will in exchange for a tax-exempt equity stake in the firm? The sample was probably not representative of the labour force, but the result was nonetheless remarkable: 94 percent rejected the offer.
A blogger railed against Apple’s decision to change the docking connector on its latest iPhone because it rendered his beloved internet radio obsolete. This blogger does not yet own an iPhone 5, nor is he under any obligation to buy one. Yet the notion that he absolutely must have one as soon as it goes on sale is so self-evident that it simply did not occur to him that he could just as easily keep his existing iPhone 4S and keep on docking it to the internet radio.
Yesterday’s post concerned the documentary recently broadcast by Franco-German TV network ARTE: ‘Goldman Sachs – one Bank Rules the World’. In reality, one could easily have replaced the name Goldman with that of any number of institutions or associations, from Harvard University to the Freemasons, but I am not fond of conspiracy theories.
The Franco-German TV network ARTE ran a documentary at the weekend with the ominous-sounding title ‘Goldman Sachs – one Bank Rules the World’. I was totally absorbed while watching, and a little shocked that such a high-brow TV network could portray an investment bank in such a damning fashion. The documentary’s producers sought to generate fear and loathing as it showed Goldman alumni – former employees – occupying leading positions in politics, government, business and regulation in the US and the EU.
How do you feel when, after you have stood in line for 15 minutes in front of a supermarket check-out, someone jumps in ahead of you? Maybe, on a good day, you simply turn a blind-eye. But on a normal day, you’d probably be annoyed by the unfairness. I was certainly irked the other day when a woman ‘secured’ a place in the line ahead of me while her husband ran back and forth between the aisle, slowly filling her caddy with groceries.
A couple of years ago I attended a speech by Georges Pauget, the then outgoing CEO of Crédit Agricole. The bank had escaped the worst of the financial crisis largely unscathed, so he had a very flattering tale to tell. Remember, bankers were not very popular characters in early 2010; in one poll they ranked just above ‘prostitute’ at the bottom of the list of occupations respondents said they would like to have as a friend.
Say you are driving down a highway, the day after getting your license, and pass a dreadful crash that has scared you out of your wits. In the rear-view mirror, you see the destruction scattered across the road. You promise yourself to never drive recklessly, as that driver obviously did. With the vivid image seared into your mind, you drive cautiously away. And so is the feeling of the younger American generation regarding financial markets, particularly stocks.
“What are they going to force us to do next – eat broccoli?” raged one American TV commentator about the healthcare reform known as Obamacare. He considered it an impingement on his personal liberty to be obliged by law to buy health insurance. The decision by the US Supreme Court last Thursday to uphold the plan as constitutional has obviously ignited a wave a discontent across many parts of the country, not least in the campaign headquarters of Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. He has already promised to repeal the law if he is elected in order to give the American people their freedom back.
Bild-Zeitung, Germany’s most popular tabloid newspaper ran a front page last year that pictured a hundred gold bars. Within the paper’s colourful pages, readers were offered free tips on how to profit from the ‘limited sources’ of gold. A headline bore the lofty price target of analysts at JPMorgan who, like pundits at the other major banks, predicted a gold price of $2,500 per ounce by the end of 2011. That was last August, at which time the spot price was around $1,800. I remember the moment well because, in the subsequent week, volatility rose sharply. Why? The latecomers had arrived.
The Bloomberg anchor-woman was to blame. She started it. Right at the outset of a TV interview with a Global Head of Economic Strategy, she decided to limit the scope of the discussion about the world’s ills to one region: Europe. She then further sub-divided the Europe issue into a simple question: “Will Greece exit the eurozone or not?” It was almost as if this binary yardstick could adequately measure the goodness or otherwise of future outcomes for investors or for viewers in general.
I have often seen cyclists squeeze through the pedestrians on zebra crossings with no concerns that they might hurt them. Often a short step in their direction by small children on the roads can cause an accident. But not only in Frankfurt, in many other ‘bike-friendly’ German cities too have cyclists shown this unconcerned and careless behavior. I am also an enthusiastic cyclist. I enjoy the feeling of freedom and flexibility that riding a cycle gives especially in big congested cities. And since cycling is considered healthy and environment-friendly, perhaps many cities in Germany are now equipped with cycle paths.
That mothers multi-task, manage households with meagre budgets, and are concerned about providing adequate guidance to their kids, is well-known. But when a survey of 4,000 mums confirms these realities the mother in me feels appreciated. I also felt good that the survey was called Mumdex, the name that drew me to the Financial Times article in the first place. The article revealed that 75 percent of mums surveyed in the UK were worse off than a year ago, and that 93 percent had altered their lifestyle to adjust to new economic realities. A large number of them had even resorted to loans to make ends meet.
An observation made in a study by Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart is often cited in connection with the eurozone debt crisis: when a country’s debt burden surpasses 90 percent of its GDP, economic growth suffers. Many European nations overtook this threshold a long time ago. Even though the study has amassed a fair amount of criticism, it is undeniable that growth in Europe has been very weak. In order get the debt back down to levels where they no longer represent a threat to growth, governments have had to pull their budgetary belts ever tighter.
‘An embarrassment for Frankfurt,’ was how one described it; ‘disgraceful,’ said another, ‘a complete over-reaction on the part of the police. These were some of the quotes that circulated after last weekend’s Blockupy Frankfurt protest – and not just from left-leaning commentators. The attempt by Occupy supports to bring Germany’s finance capital to a halt over four days using peaceful, creative and colourful means, undeniably left the city’s authorities with egg on the faces.
The latest prominent personality to renounce his US citizenship is the Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. Apparently, Saverin gave up the US passport to avoid a hefty capital gains tax bill that he would have incurred post-IPO. However, Saverin is not a typical high net-worth individual who is renouncing his passport. The US Internal Revenue Service data showed that around 1,780 US expatriates gave up their nationality at US embassies last year, up from 235 in 2008.
In a column in the FT recently Martin Taylor, the former Barclays CEO, expressed great surprise that shareholders had not revolted against excessive banker pay much sooner. Of course, the shareholder discontent is a product of the Zeitgeist