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Karina's Column

An insider’s view on the City of London and beyond

Lands of Opportunity: China & the City


Osborne the hero

Readers suggested that the last column’s negativity deserved a positive riposte. Herewith 6 reasons to be cheerful.

China’s Chance China looks set to grow at between 7% to 8% annually, a drop from decades of higher growth stretching into double digits. As the Financial Times pointed out in an editorial a couple of weeks ago (and subsequently ignored in all its doom-laden articles that day), when the world’s second largest economy is projected to grow 7.5% a year this still implies an enormous addition of both capacity and demand.

While China reorients its economy towards consumption and away from investment and exports, increased opportunities arise for foreign firms to sell more goods into an expanding middle class. Gucci and other luxury brands have prospered, even with Chinese consumption growing at a slower pace than output over the last decades, The fact that the emphasis is set to change is an exciting prospect.

It is no coincidence that earlier this week China’s top legislature started studying draft amendments to the country’s 20-year old consumer rights law. The government is aware that providing urban jobs and a measure of rural growth is no longer enough to uphold social peace and with it the continuance of the Communist Party’s power. The Chinese consumer is a new constituency to be kept pacified. Consumer rights protection can now be added to the list of priorities, as was seen in the government-sponsored attack on Apple’s after-sales services a few weeks ago.

City Callings Perhaps it is an exaggeration to call a career in the City of London a calling, a word generally used for those who wish to follow a religious path. However, the City is still a preferred prospect for many despite the fact that around 100,000 jobs are said to have been cut since 2007. Continuing cuts will bring job levels to a 20-year low in 2014, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR).

Yet there is an area of great opportunity: compliance. Some banks have tripled the number of staff involved in that function. Financial firms will pay up to 24% more for the new regulatory bodies that take over from the now defunct Financial Services Authority. The Bank of England’s new Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA), for instance, said its staff costs will rise 34%.

Meanwhile, the lack of global coordination in bank regulation – we have Volcker in the US, Liikanen in the EU and Vickers in the UK – means that a universal bank active in the UK, EU and US would be subject to all three regimes, notes Simon Hills from the British Bankers’ Association (BBA) in the magazine of the Worshipful Company of International Bankers’s (WCIB)

It is true that this epidemic of regulation is an unproductive use of funds; it is true that it raises the cost of capital; it is true that it does not necessarily make the world a safer place. But look on the bright side, dear reader: the compliance departments of banks and insurers are not likely to suffer from generalised and ongoing job cuts, lawyers and accountants involved in the sector are busy, and the sector is booming.

Cash for Claptrap There is still enough money around to fund a university professor’s study into whether bras are beneficial to women’s breasts. Professor Rouillon of Besançon University spent fifteen years on this topic. His conclusion: “Medically, physiologically, anatomically – breasts gain no benefit from being denied gravity.” The article was published on April 11, not April 1, so one presumes it was not an April Fool’s joke. In academia, as in life, there are always enough funds around to finance rubbish. Daily Telegraph

Dictator Deaths The era of Chavismo in Venezuela is drawing to a close. It matters little whether Henrique Capriles, the head of the Opposition who “lost” the general election by 235,000 votes manages to overturn the rigged result. Infighting within the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela will probably see it fragment into factions and no longer hold a monopoly on power.

Meanwhile, the centre-right elite which ruled for decades and never allowed the country’s oil riches to make it beyond the confines of the Caracas Country Club has morphed into an Opposition that looks to have learned enough over the last fourteen years to avoid the same mistakes. (For informed opinion on the Venezuelan Economy, see Veneconomy)

Fidel Castro will, at some point, follow Chavez. He turned Cuba into an island where, irony of ironies, the dollar is king and his much-vaunted educational drive counts for little. The most coveted jobs are those of a doorman at an international hotel in Havana, or a prostitute consorting with tourists. Both have access to dollars. Doctors and erudite officials don’t.

Obliged to Osborne The more one looks at the finance ministers in a number of European countries, the more grateful one is for UK Chancellor George Osborne. Keeping in mind that his austerity is not as austere as critics would have it, he thankfully has the guts to resist the siren calls of those who advocate spending money that is not there. It will take time for the UK economy to emerge from current circumstances. The short cuts proposed would be counterproductive. In the meantime, Osborne’s critics are growing at a quick pace – unlike the UK economy – with even the IMF joining the chorus.

(IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde and Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard are now at the forefront of UK economic policy critics. A conspiracy theory has it that it is no coincidence that the two are French. The only way to save France, which is refusing to face up to its need for reform, is by having the German and the Northern European contingents loosen their purse strings. (See Why France will fall next).

Stanislav Petrov, a Russian military officer, saved the world two decades ago. One day in 1983 his computer screen indicated that a single missile had been launched from the US. Four more missile attacks subsequently appeared on his screen. He did not report directly to the USSR High Command that the country was under attack because his insight told him it made no sense. Petrov averted nuclear Armageddon by using his ability to think independently and thus override what to anyone else would have seemed clear evidence. In fact, the “attacks” were a series of computer errors.*

Comparing Osborne to Petrov is excessive. But one should never underestimate the guts it takes to stand up to conventional wisdom.

Reading Riot The last item on my gratefulness list is the existence of sublime reading material. I shall mention three.

The Financial Times continues to be the best source of news and comment in the West. We live in a world where the breadth of available expertise and opinion is mind-boggling – literally – and thus the continued existence of a coalescing centre of excellence on international economics and politics is to be welcomed.

Professor Christopher Coker’s Warrior Geeks is inaptly subtitled How 21st century technology is changing the way we fight and think about war. My former tutor’s book, published this year, encompasses infinitely more than that. Read it and you will be proud to be human. (*The anecdote about Petrov comes from this book).

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is the book of the moment. Unlike others, it will last the course. Her analysis of the internal and external barriers to women advancing in their careers and what needs to be done to overcome these is masterful. The COO of Facebook has written a book that will truly help women, as long as all fathers and brothers and sons read it too.