Sunday, 1 July 2012

The bigger, the better

Michel Platini's suggestion that future European Championships could be held in a dozen cities spread across Europe, rather than in just one country, has been greeted with bafflement, not least because of his praise for Ryanair. It's worth remembering that Platini has now been a UEFA politician for as long as he was a professional player, and he is as adept at misdirection in his current role as he was in France's midfield. The real issue here is the proposed expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams in 2016.

The Euros are generally regarded as superior to the 32-team World Cup during the group stages because the smaller size means there are rarely any whipping boys and thus the results are closer and the surprises greater. This tournament proved the point with the early departures of Russia and Holland, not to mention England topping their group. While Ireland took a near-battering, it's worth remembering that half of their group will now contest the final.

A competition of 24 teams would typically have 6 groups, with the 4 best 3rd place finishers proceeding to the knock-out stage. Each group would logically be based in one city with two or more grounds, with different cities hosting some or all of the knockout games. Platini's suggestion of 12 cities is what you typically get for a 32 team, 8 group tournament, which may be where this is ultimately heading. Though Platini has claimed the change to a multi-country format would be financially responsible (no need for new airports and stadiums), it's pretty clear that this is just an attempt to expand turnover and therefore UEFA's revenue.

This desire to increase the number of "transactions" is hardly new to football. The Euros went from 4 to 8 teams in 1980 and then to 16 in 1996. More and bigger is a theme of modern life, from super-sized food to the plethora of TV channels. It is an irony that this new age of austerity is one characterised by visible plenty. Across the political spectrum there is a desire to return to growth as quickly as possible. There may be disagreement over how to achieve it, but there is no disagreement that more is better, despite the warning of climate change.

Nowhere has this commitment to unimpeded growth been more spectacular than in financial trading. From the early 70s onwards, trading ballooned in volume as a result of free-floating currencies, the expansion of equity markets, the growth of insurance and private pensions, the boom (in volume and value) of mortgages, and the eruption of personal credit. Because of derivatives and securitisation, the monetary value of trading is many times the actual underlying assets, which is why the size of the market in derivatives vastly exceeds global GDP. The point, if you are a financial trader, is that your commission is based on the transactions not the underlying asset. More is better.

Michel Platini cannot expand the Euros indefinitely without debasing the competition, however credit can be created as long as there is a demand for it. The claim that banks manufacture money out of thin air is not quite right: they manufacture credit. Even when the market for credit is weak, as the Bank of England has found with quantitative easing (which has not led to a big increase in commercial loans), opportunities for credit creation and utilisation can be found through proprietary trading by banks.

The LIBOR scandal has two aspects to it. The genuine anger of politicians relates to the abuse of the rate in 2008 to avoid Barclays being bailed out and thus nationalised like RBS and Lloyds. The bank lied, which has shown up the contempt they had for the regulators and (by extension) the politicians. But this abuse in turn revealed the existence of earlier cross-bank collusion to game the system to the advantage of traders. The latter has attracted the most public opprobrium with the now traditional attacks on banking culture and the personal immorality of bankers. As ever, the appeal to morality should make us suspicious.

An industry's culture is not some free-standing ethical framework, written on tablets of stone. It is the normative manifestation of the structure and purpose of the industry, its ideology. In other words, blaming culture is attacking the symptom, confusing cause with effect. Likewise, criticising morality is personalising the failure. While we've moved on from "rotten apples" and "rogues", the tone of the criticism still betrays the desire to find individual scapegoats, hence the call for Bob Diamond's head. Diamond, whatever his faults, did not single-handedly design the modern banking system. It was the regulators, and their political masters, who were responsible for that. Diamond merely took advantage of what they created, and then lobbied for its continuation and further development ("the time for remorse is over").

As ever, the political reality is better exhibited through the proposals for action than in the analysis of failure. Thus Vince Cable does his best old testament prophet act ("the rot was widespread") before suggesting that ring-fencing, together with some robust shareholder activism, will do the trick. The formal separation of proprietary trading and investment banking from personal and commercial banking, while still part of the same business, is a watered-down implementation of the already cautious Vickers reforms. It will not change the culture one iota. Properly splitting the industry in two would help, but only if this were to lead to the development of distinct professions (and thus cultures), not unlike the way it used to be when merchant bankers were City gents and commercial bankers were provincial Quakers. The cultural problem of modern banking is the blending of executive management into a single financial and legal class, which has now spread beyond the financial sector to the wider corporate world and politics. The culture is bigger than banking.

Equally, the idea that the bank's shareholders will introduce high ethical standards is laughable. These are mainly either institutional investors, and thus members of the same financial class as the bankers, or sovereign wealth funds such as the Qataris who bailed Barclays out in 2008. The plea for better stewardship by the likes of Will Hutton runs up against the problem that the day of the discriminating individual shareholder, in it for the long haul and emotionally as well as financially invested, has long gone. The financialisation of the economy, the excess of surplus capital (like Qatari wealth) chasing limited investment opportunities, and the increasing reliance on debt by median income-earners have all contributed to an investment culture that is short-term, bubble-prone and socially obtuse. The quality of shareholder management is inversely proportional to the volume of financial trades. Reduce the latter and you will increase the former.

Meanwhile, David Cameron continues Janus-like to excoriate immoral bankers (though he's stopped short of the full Jimmy Carr this time) while defending the interests of Britain's banking sector from the regulatory predations of those spendthrift/interfering Europeans. The man is living a lie, in full public view. This makes Michel Platini's refusal to consider goal-line technology in place of goal-line officials ("there was only one mistake") look almost reasonable in comparison.

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