Friday, 17 October 2008

Need for Regulation

I read an interesting article this week that explained why there is a desperate need for external regulation of the market and why the market is not able to regulate itself.

The role of a bank is simple. To make profit for its shareholders. It has no obligation to its staff (they are a factor of production and a means to an end), or the wider community. It has one sole aim, to make a profit. This is basic free market economics. So, the bank sets about its business to do just that. And, if other banks around it are taking big risks, but in return making big profits, it will have no choice but to do the same. If it chooses to take a less risky position, it will make less profit that its rivals, its share price will fall and it will be liable to a take over. Again, this is basic free market stuff.

But thinking back a year to the sub prime mortgage market problems - it is pretty clear that the banks knew trouble was brewing. But in isolation, none of them could have taken a lower risk high liquidity position. Market forces and this focus on profit maximisation meant they were forced to take a high risk high profit position. No CEO could have sold a different strategy – let’s increase our liquidity for the next 12 months chaps because things might go wrong - but it might mean getting taken over and losing our jobs if i am wrong.

So, even if banks knew problems were pretty likely, this need to make a profit, or risk falling share prices and a take over, meant that they had to keep reducing liquidity to keep increasing profit.

What does this all mean - well, it means that the idea of a free market working in our best interests - or rather the idea that if we have banks et al maximizing profits, it will automatically be good for the community - is utter rubbish.

How can energy firms maximising their profits be good for the community?

There needs to be regulation - and we are seeing some of this coming into effect. World governments buying into banks and giving new rules for how they are governed. In the UK we have seen government intervention to force energy and petrol prices down (would the market without pressure from our government have led to prices for unleaded falling below £1. I don't think so. Prices are always slow to come down and it took some pretty assert behind the scenes pressure to force them down.

Again, the markets are not able to work in our best interests.

So, we are seeing across the globe a move to more government regulation. And this is surely welcomed. And i hope that it leads to a more equitable economy. We will see.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

End to free market capitalism?

So, the UK has followed the US and bailed out the banks. Latest estimates are that it could cost £500 billion. This is on top of the £200 for Northern Rock and £50 billion for B & B. I make that £750 billion. That is a serious amount of cash. Over 1/3 of the GDP of the UK. That is pretty worrying.

But, we are told, our cash is safe and may even result in a profit! And, most importantly, there are strings attached and the top execs will have limits placed on pay and bonuses etc. What these will be in practice is not clear.

And, the banks will have to reform their practices, increase their liquidity, and thus stop taking such massive gambles leaving them exposed to a similar problem in the future. Gate, horse and bolt spring to mind, but never mind.

But, and this is where there is a glimmer of hope. The mood on the street seems to be increasingly anti free market. Obama is talking about a retreat from unregulated markets in the US, and there seems to be an appetite for regulation over here too. There seems to be a recognition that many of the assumptions about free market capitalism are wrong. Allowing unregulated competition doesn't result in trickle down wealth, it results in large profits for a few large companies.

For example, we are told that the price of our utilities has gone up because the price of wholesale gas has gone up. We can cope with that. But why have utility company profits jumped at the same time? The only explanation is that the price we pay has gone up by more than the price of wholesale gas. If not, their profits would remain unchanged. And without regulation, will the markets prevent such blatant profiteering. The answer is clearly no.

The same is true with the price of petrol. We all know that the price of fuel has fallen by far less than the cost of oil. Oil is back to what it was 9-12 months ago and we are still paying 20% more than we were a year ago. Without regulation, the market will not lead to reduced prices.

While a bail out of the banks may be necessary to prevent a total meltdown of the economy, unless it is accompanied by a new and brave world of increased government regulation to correct market failures - namely profiteering by the big boys - this will prove to be a wasted opportunity.

If this is indeed Mr Brown’s Falklands moment, I hope he is brave enough to do the right thing and once and for all reject unregulated free market capitalism.

We will wait and see.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Credit Crunch

Is it me or has the world (or the West) gone crazy. I am so mad about what is going on in the financial markets at the mo, for my own sanity i had to vent.

I have been saying for the past couple of years that the markets were unstable and a crash was highly possible if not inevitable. Crazy bankers and greedy brokers have been building a house of cards. Lending way more than was sensible, for flip flops sake, surely the very label "sub-prime" was enough of a clue!! And now it has all gone belly up, after years of indifference at best and down right hostility at worst to government regulation, they all go crying to the state to help them out.

And - this is the bit that really makes me mad - the state says ok. We will lend (a city euphemism for give) you billions of quid, so long as you promise to say sorry and try not to do it again.

Lehmans US kept $1.9 billion to share out to executives which would have paid all the UK staff for a year. As it is, they get no redundancy pay or even the wage they just worked for.

So obviously we can trust these same people to use the $700 billion US government hand out wisely and fairly and for the benefit of the whole of society and not just stuff it in their own pockets.

Taking this slightly wider - what it shows us is that Free Market Capitalism can only ever result in disaster. In every de-regulated sector, what happens is not an increase in competition driving down price, but rather a serious of mergers that results in several large companies exercising monopoly power and ripping of the customer.

The top people in these firms make lots of money - and the majority of us end up paying more and more for our electricity, petrol, food etc etc

What we need is an end to greed and the idea that profit is all that matters. We need people to matter again. Community to matter again. If that comes as a result of this crash, then it will be a defining moment in history.

My fear is that nothing has been learnt and the the banks will just take the cash, our cash, and start building the same house of cards again, and in a year or so, everything will be fine once more - for them!