Tim Geithner would have backed a Barclays bid for Lehman Brothers

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tim Geithner would have backed a Barclays bid for Lehman Brothers” was written by Jill Treanor, for theguardian.com on Monday 12th May 2014 17.33 UTC

It will never been known what might have happened if Lehman Brothers had not collapsed in 2008, unleashing a wave of panic on the financial markets that led to the bailout of banks around the world.

But Tim Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve bank at the time of Lehman’s difficulties, admits that he would have backed a deal allowing Barclays to buy the Wall Street firm, potentially staving off its collapse. According to his book, Stress Test, Geithner would have supported the use of US public money to finance a loan helping Barclays secure a deal.

“In the end I’m confident the Fed would have helped finance a deal with a willing buyer,” Geithner writes. But he also makes the point that this still would not have surmounted another stumbling block: that Barclays was required to put its takeover to a shareholder vote and that a loan “would not have eliminated the risk to Barclays”.

In the end, the barriers to Barclays taking over Lehman Brothers were too high. But then, just days after Lehman’s collapse in September 2008, Barclays was picking off the Wall Street operations of the business and embarking on a rapid expansion of its investment banking arm.

Five years on, Barclays has announced it will be closing large parts of the investment banking arm again, axing almost one in three jobs. A comment piece in the German newspaper Handelsblatt has urged Deutsche Bank to become a European investment bank capable of competing with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, now that Barclays is retrenching. Cue a mass arrival of CVs from Barclays’ bankers.

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The libertarian iCapitalists wouldn’t have anything to do with the state … would they?

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The libertarian iCapitalists wouldn’t have anything to do with the state … would they?” was written by David Priestland, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 19th June 2013 17.58 UTC

As Google reels from stinging condemnation for its tax avoidance from Margaret Hodge’s parliamentary committee, and the hi-tech companies are embarrassed by allegations of state surveillance, the general response has been one of astonished disbelief.

But we should not be surprised. The “iCapitalists” have long been zealots for a radically neoliberal vision of capitalism. It is their skill at making this harsh approach palatable to the modern zeitgeist which will probably save their skin – though with potentially disastrous consequences for our economy.

Big tech, originating in California’s Silicon Valley, has always been about more than cutting-edge engineering. It embodies a value system that merges a counter-cultural 60s romantic individualism with a cold-eyed commitment to free markets. Apple’s Steve Jobs, the Zen Buddhist of canny entrepreneurialism, captured the worldview with Apple’s famous 1997 slogan: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers …”

And it is this rebellious pose that reconciled a whole swath of the educated professional classes – the “creatives” – to free-market capitalism. In the 1980s, it was besuited corporates who were in the vanguard of Thatcher’s and Reagan’s neoliberal revolution – people such as the hard-faced, downsizing financier Mitt Romney. The iCapitalists, however, presented a far more appealing vision to liberals – one of denimed democracy, of gender-blind and colour-blind egalitarianism. For many of us, Google’s own Big Brother house-style offices, with their Play School sofas and pool tables, seemed the very epitome of a creative, “happening” workplace; while Facebook’s Silicon Valley HQ was a mini-utopia of subsidised gyms, dentists, and personal stylists.

But this is an egalitarian utopia only for the networked and highly educated, not for the many. For the iCapitalist culture is not so much liberal as libertarian, and is founded on the belief that we should be led by elite hi-tech businesses and their shinily packaged semi-conductors and microchips; the state, a lumbering, bureaucratic drag on creativity and innovation, has a minimal role.

This worldview lies behind Eric Schmidt’s defending Google’s tax affairs with reference to the company being “a key part of the electronic commerce expansion of Britain, which is driving a lot of economic growth for the country.” It is not necessary, it seems, to worry about taxation, and indeed the state, as long as company profits are trickling down to the rest of us. The PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has taken this anti-state view to its logical conclusion, and contributed funds to “Seasteading” – a project inspired by the libertarian writer Ayn Rand, to create mobile “islands” of entrepreneurs on cruise-ships and oil-rigs, where they can be free of tax and state regulations.

As the iCapitalists have become richer, they have aspired to project this libertarian vision beyond their sunny, frisbee-friendly Californian campuses to society more generally. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has set up FWD.us to lobby American politicians. It has been pressing for looser rules on immigration – a cause his critics argue is primarily driven by company’s appetite for foreign tech-engineers, and a cheap alternative to improving the American education system.

Of course, we need hi-tech, and Britain should be investing more in the sector. But the iCapitalist vision of society is deeply flawed, and potentially destructive. It is based on the false premise that the tech industries are a triumph of and justification for pure laissez-faire economics – refusing to acknowledge, of course, that the US department of defence drove the development of Silicon Valley. Also, it erroneously assumes that economic growth can be driven by a small group of super-wealthy, highly educated individuals, producing technologies that allow employers to cut wage costs for the majority, while resisting taxation and redistribution. This was precisely the highly inegalitarian economic model that led governments to maintain consumption by allowing a debt build-up among us lesser mortals – contributing to the crisis of 2008.

Since the financial crisis, the iCapitalists, like the bankers, have come under more scrutiny. They will clearly now have to pay more tax, at least in the UK, and they are under pressure elsewhere.

And now we have the possibility that the tech companies have allowed the US government wide access to their users’ data, something that they have denied. If true, it leave them open to the charge of gross hypocrisy; for despite their much-vaunted libertarianism, it seems, they can also collaborate with an overbearing state.

It may be this scandal, rather than the tax-dodging, that undermines faith in big tech.

But there is little sign of any rebellion yet. For the iCapitalist vision of liberation and creativity still resonates with many of us, and particularly the young. British polls show that those born since 1979 are more likely to be socially liberal on race, gender and sexuality, but also more pro-market and anti-state than their older peers. They are also less likely to engage in boycotts of companies guilty of tax avoidance.

One explanation may be that this generation came of age when the iCapitalist vision seemed to be working and jobs were plentiful. And it may be some years before the hollowed-out neoliberal economy takes its toll and the flaws of iCapitalism are finally exposed.

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‘Mint the coin’: why the platinum coin campaign doesn’t even work as satire

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘Mint the coin’: why the platinum coin campaign doesn’t even work as satire” was written by Heidi Moore, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 4th January 2013 18.59 UTC

Twitter is a great news source and a hotbed of idea generation. But one of its major downsides is that it allows cranks and trolls to quickly and efficiently coalesce around ridiculous ideas. The latest bored-financial-nerd meme is this: the minting of a trillion-dollar platinum coin to save the US economy from the dithering of Congress.

There is a Twitter hashtag – #mintthecoin – and a wan, spindly White House petition created on January 3 that needs around 25,000 signatures and currently has just under 2,000, which makes it resemble the winsomely pathetic Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Here is the background behind this inane, yet media-consuming, project.

The US is coming up to its debt-ceiling limit soon. The debt ceiling is the amount the US Treasury is allowed to – and has already – spent. Raising the debt ceiling means allowing the US Treasury to pay its bills; if the debt ceiling is not raised, the US will default on its financial commitments and put at risk its credibility as well as the health of the bond and stock markets. The US already went through a bruising debt-ceiling fight in 2011, which resulted in a downgrade. Members of Congress, mostly led by the hapless and disorganized Tea Party, are preparing to do exactly that: hold the debt-ceiling vote hostage and refuse to raise the debt ceiling until they get a giant package of spending cuts.

This is a real problem, and in a couple of months – when we hit the debt ceiling – every American will be so sick of the insane discussion that we may all collectively vomit. But the fact remains: how to get out? What to do?

A small but relentless group of impish bloggers and columnists – including Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider and Josh Barro of Bloomberg, as well as hapless Congressman Jerry Nadler – have created a large-scale trolling project that is meant to pressure the US Treasury into creating a trillion-dollar platinum coin to solve this problem. (The former head of the US mint, Philip Diehl, says it is legal, but legal, of course, doesn’t mean something is a good idea. It just means no one in legislative circles anticipated this particular idiocy.)

Their reasoning is this: the US Treasury has the power to create platinum coins of any size and denomination. It could easily print one with a face value of $1tn and deposit it at the Federal Reserve, thus immediately adding $1tn to the Treasury’s bank account and giving it breathing room to avoid the debt ceiling fight.

This is an elegant solution – if you are a cartoon villain given to sitting in a vast underground bunker and innovating plans for world domination while petting a white cat. It makes less sense for real mortals. In fact, it has all the aspects of a group of well-financed mad scientists plotting to create a giant slingshot to avert an asteroid hurtling towards the earth.

The #mintthecoin project is not meant, of course, to be completely serious, although they may play at it on TV. In the minds of its creators, is supposed to be a kind of Swiftian Modest Proposal that highlights the ridiculousness of the recurring debt ceiling hostage-taking by offering an equally ridiculous solution.

Even as satire, it does not work. Leave aside the strange hashtag and the stringy petition. Leave aside the somewhat science-fiction-like idea of a magic coin, as if the US economy is a video game.

Here is one big problem: the US Treasury spends approximately $100bn per month. A trillion-dollar coin would buy the Treasury only about 10 months of breathing room. It is dubious at best that a Congress full of reckless legislators will surely come to their senses in only 10 months, given that they haven’t for the past 18 months since the same last debacle. Delaying the Debt Ceiling Reunion Tour will not achieve the primary goal here, which is ending it.

Another problem with the trillion-dollar coin is that the US mint probably doesn’t have the capacity to create one out of real bullion, which will likely be required for something with such a historical importance. The US mint no longer produces platinum coins, except in collector’s editions that retail for $1,892 at the moment. A real platinum coin – the American Eagle – that was produced as recently as 2009 contains 31.12 grams of platinum and has a face value of $100. There is not enough platinum in the US in a year’s supply to create that. The US produces all of 3,700 kilograms of platinum a year.

The mint could, on the direction of Treasury, just make a platinum-finished coin that bears the face value of $1tn, but that would just create a nonsensical level of inflation in the value of the US dollar.

Another point, perhaps, is that it’s no worse for the Treasury to print a trillion-dollar gold coin than it is for the Federal Reserve to buy trillions in mortgage securities to save banks and the bond market. There is more meat to this – the US government is not nearly done meddling in the world of the economy and the markets, and minting a new coin is very much in the interventionist mold of the past four years. But the Fed’s programs don’t require scouring the US reserves for platinum and creating some unnatural currency beast. It can at least masquerade as an intellectual exercise.

The most insulting thing about the campaign to mint the trillion-dollar platinum coin is this: there are some – a few! – in the financial world who do not have the memory capacity of goldfish. Those people who can think as far back as 2011 remember that we went through the drill on the platinum coin back then – all the commentary, the punditry, the absurd speculation about it was first created at the time of the last debt-ceiling fight. Then, as now, it attracted the efforts of bored bloggers, chattering among themselves. And guess what? It didn’t impress upon Congress the recklessness of their approach. The US came within hours of default anyway. If anything, we have a more unreasonable and humorless Congress, even less likely to be swayed by satire or ridicule. The platinum joke, played once last year, is played out now.

But the biggest disadvantage of the platinum coin campaign is that it is frivolous, when there is a serious failure of US governance at stake. Allowing the “mint the coin” campaign to take over the news cycle may be good for the media exposure of the bloggers involved, but it does nothing to dissuade stubborn lawmakers from a silly path they chose once and are likely to choose again.

A Congress like this doesn’t need to be reminded of how ridiculous it is; it already knows that. It needs to be reminded of the nobility and dignity and importance of the offices they agreed to hold, and which they are now dragging through the mud.

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CES 2013: as big as ever, but is it out of date?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “CES 2013: as big as ever, but is it out of date?” was written by Rory Carroll in Las Vegas, for The Guardian on Wednesday 9th January 2013 08.53 UTC

The world’s biggest consumer technology expo opened on Tuesday to a familiar scene: thousands of gadget buffs streaming down Paradise Road to the cavernous Las Vegas convention centre, eager to glimpse the devices and trends of the future.

For the next four days the Consumer Electronics Show will unveil technological advances and launch 20,000 products and prototypes – a vast bazaar showcasing new phones, new televisions, new tablets, new everything.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m here!” squealed a voice as crowds surged through the doors. Tweets from those visiting the booths of Samsung and the like declared them “awesome” and “amazing”.

The event is as big as ever: around 150,000 industry professionals – entrepreneurs, executives, designers, bloggers – crawling over 1.85m sq ft of exhibition space. The chief executive of mobile chip maker Qualcomm, Paul Jacobs, who delivered the keynote speech on Monday night, said its wares would change the world. “There are almost as many mobile connections as people on earth. Pretty soon mobile connections will outnumber us.”

But there is a problem. Sceptics say that the world has changed faster than CES, that the pre-eminence of the internet and software has marginalised an event still tethered mainly to hardware, and that CES is sliding into limbo as a consequence.

Wired, the technology magazine, declared on the convention’s eve: “As software matters more and more, CES matters less and less. The internet is already the world’s largest trade show. Gadget blogs are the new conventions.

“Sure, big electronics shows offer the opportunity to meet people and forge relationships. But even that transaction is being moved online in the era of real-time social media.”

Hardware has become increasingly meaningless as upgrade cycles accelerate and spread across platforms, it argues, citing the Nokia Lumia 900, a flagship phone hailed as the next big thing at last year’s CES. It was a hardware triumph but disappeared after Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8, rendering the Lumia, which used Windows Phone 7.5, obsolete.

Wired at least sent reporters to Las Vegas. The news site BuzzFeed boycotted and published a story headlined “Why We’re Not at the Biggest Tech Show in the World.”

After years of dwindling relevance CES was no longer the most important place to go to see trends in technology, it said. “Seriously doesn’t the word ‘electronics’ in the conference’s dusty title make your eyes instantly droop a bit?”

One problem raised by the news site BuzzFeed was the event’s focus on hardware at the expense of software and services. The other was that social media had displaced traditional conventions as forums to showcase products and ideas. It noted that none of the four technology companies which “truly matter to people” – Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google – were exhibiting at the expo.

For years Microsoft’s chief executive, Steve Ballmer, had given the keynote speech at the Venetian resort hotel. But the company pulled out this year, handing the job to Jacobs of Qualcomm. In his speech Jacobs exuded optimism and said “Gen M” – generation mobile – would keep the industry humming. He underlined his point by unveiling Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 800 Series processor. Due on the market this summer, it should improve the performance of smartphones and cars and give rival Intel a run for its money. And as if to rebuff accusations of dwindling relevance, Jacobs spiced up his speech with eclectic celebrity guests. Director Guillermo del Toro came on stage to show a clip of his new robot film, Pacific Rim, streaming it from a tablet that uses a new Qualcomm chip.

“Snapdragon ensures the film you see will be viewed exactly as I want it to be seen. When you’re watching a great film, you want a great experience.”

The Nascar driver Brad Keselowski displayed an app which lets fans follow drivers during races. The actor Alice Eve lauded a new app for her new film, Star Trek: Into Darkness. Big Bird from Sesame Street appeared to plug an app which helps children with vocabulary. For the industry audience the biggest and most welcome surprise was Microsoft’s Ballmer, who made a cameo to talk up the tech giant’s new generation tablets and smartphones.

This week’s CES is expected to be dominated by ultra HD TVs, supersized smartphones, acrobatic PCs and sensors which replace the mouse by tracking gestures and eye movements. If any of that catches on CES will claim, as ever, that you saw the future here first.

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