One of the ironies in the rumbling debate around the crisis of capitalism is that the banking and finance industry so often fails to practice what it preaches.
While the industry advocates free market capitalism and extols market discipline, it often tends towards rentier capitalism, or extracting profits from the economy rather than generating profits for the economy. This tendency has accelerated in the past few decades.
At a recent dinner with a range of senior people from the City, there was a surprising level of agreement that the industry can be its own worst enemy, and that capitalism needs saving not just from its critics but from itself. The discussion focused on three main areas: crony capitalism, in which the close links between government and finance distort incentives and create an unlevel playing field; monopolistic behaviour; and rent-seeking behaviour whereby companies generate fat profits from their ownership of assets and through complex fees and products.
The problem is not just that this creates inefficiencies and costs in financial markets. More importantly, it undermines trust in financial markets and capitalism itself, distracts from the vital function that capital markets can and should play in supporting the economy, and feeds the perception that finance sees itself as separate from the rest of society. A bunch of bankers and asset managers may not seem the best messengers for the need for reform.
But the clear view round the table was that unless the industry faces up to this challenge and starts to reform itself, it will have far more painful reform imposed upon it by a future government. Radical tax reform – such as equalising the tax treatment of debt and equity, and the rates of tax on income and capital – more transparency, fundamental reform of incentives and pay, and a much tougher approach to accountability, all featured in the debate.
Im not sure we solved the problem over dinner, but its encouraging to see that senior people across the industry at least recognise that theres a problem that needs to be solved.
The one thing India isn't talking about
During a recent break in India last week I indulged my holiday hobby of devouring the local newspapers. I couldnt help noticing that something was missing: the UK, and in particular, Brexit. In 10 days of reading Indian newspapers I found just one mention of Brexit, and a report about the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting Theresa May next week at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London made no mention of a potential new trade deal (less than two per cent of UK exports go to India today, a little more than to Sweden). The second most populous country on earth with economic growth motoring at seven per cent a year seems to care far less about a potential trade deal with the UK than advocates of a brave new world of post-Brexit free trade might like to think it does.
Gender pay gap data exposes more than just salary differences
Among the most depressing conclusions from the recent round of gender pay gap reporting is that the government appears not to have the faintest idea of how many companies in the UK have more than 250 employees and would have to report under the new rules. Initially the Government Equalities Office estimated that 9,000 firms would be included. So far, more than 1,650 public sector bodies have reported – more than 60 per cent higher than the government expected – and more than 10,300 groups in total have disclosed their numbers (though this undercounts the many different legal entities that have reported within the same group). If the government is serious about business, it would be nice to think that it had a decent handle on who the big employers in the country are and how many of them there are. Then again, that would require the many different government departments that companies have to deal with – and who between them know exactly who the big employers are – to talk to each other.