Category Archives: Finance
Part 1: economic ramifications, food security and pandemic bonds
Many of the points highlighted in this article are summarised below. It is published in full here.
Alan Simpson opened: “The delusions of neoliberalism stand at the edge of an implosion just waiting to happen. But, as with the emperor’s new clothes, global leaders are too fearful to say that their economic model has been stripped naked”.
The last week has seen that – following the wild weather – coronavirus and tumbling stock markets are ganging up to form an economic “perfect storm.” It will only get worse.
Initially, the industrial world had only a passing interest in the coronavirus outbreak in China: stupid Chinese, eating the wrong stuff it thought — good job that an authoritarian state could turn a city of millions into a quarantine zone.
Then markets began to panic and central banks are having to intervene
But now Italy has followed suit. In a dramatic, middle of the night statement, the Prime Minister announced the quarantining of a whole region of northern Italy, affecting 16 million people around Milan and Venice. Even this may be too late. The ramifications are massive. Start with China.
- Its output accounts for around a quarter of global manufacturing,
- huge quantities of which are currently stored up in containers that cannot get out of Chinese ports.
- accounts for one quarter of global automotive production
- provides 8% of global exports of automotive components for other manufacturers, many of whom rely on just-in-time assembly processes.
- The same applies to steel and plastics, chemicals and high-tech telecoms.
- Tankers arriving now set off before China went into lockdown. The real shortages will start to kick in this month.
The ripple effect of these logjams is running through the entire industrial economy, including a shortage of available containers themselves.
And when goods don’t flow, nor do payments associated with them. First-world firms struggle to work out how to pay bills (and workers) in the same way that China is having to pay workers to stay at home in quarantined areas.
The UK Treasury official who has just advised that agriculture is unimportant to the UK economy could barely have been more mistaken. Real alarm bells should be ringing all around Parliament about the amount of crops that will rot in the ground of waterlogged fields around the land. How are we to feed the public throughout the coronavirus crisis?
Weather related problems, including flood, drought and fire will throw food production systems crisis, with no globalised supply lines to step in as the safety net. But food security is an issue Parliament has barely touched on.
Why are political leaders reluctant to call what we are facing “a pandemic”?
(WHO) definition of a pandemic is relatively clear. It is “an epidemic or actively spreading disease that affects two or more regions worldwide.” This clearly describes today’s geographical spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus and its significant clusters of cases far from China; principally in Italy and Iran. Countries closer to China, like South Korea, have also experienced an explosion in novel coronavirus infections. And Europe and the US are rapidly catching up.
The World Bank has launched a $12bn fund to help developing nations deal with “the epidemic.” But this is where the politics turns ugly. Behind the scenes, casino spivs stand to lose lots of money if we call this a “pandemic” not an “epidemic.” It all goes back to
In June 2017, the World Bank announced the creation of “specialised bonds” that would fund the previously created Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEFF) in the event of an officially recognised (ie WHO-recognised) pandemic. The high-yield bonds were sold under the premise that those who invested would lose their money if any of six deadly pandemics (including coronavirus) occurred. If a pandemic did not occur before the bonds mature on July 15, 2020, investors would receive what they had originally paid for the bonds along with generous interest and premium payments.
This is why Trump has gone out of his way to pooh-pooh use of the word “pandemic.” If we don’t call it out until after July 15 speculators get paid and it’s the public who then pick up the bills.
The first “pandemic bond” raised $225 million, at an interest rate of around 7%. Payouts are suspended if there is an outbreak of new influenza viruses or coronaviridae (SARS, MERS). The second, riskier bond raised $95 million at an interest rate of more than 11%. This bond keeps investors’ money if there is an outbreak of filovirus, coronavirus, lassa fever, rift valley fever, and/or Crimean Congo haemorrhagic fever. The World Bank also issued $105 million in swap derivatives that work in a similar way.
In 2017, $425 million of these “pandemic bonds” were issued, with sales reportedly 200% oversubscribed. For many, they looked more like “a structured derivative time bomb” — one that could upend financial markets if a pandemic was declared by the WHO.
He adds, “And that’s where we are now. Call it a crisis. Call it an emergency. But whatever you do, don’t use the word “pandemic” because it might kill the market”. Concluding that there is no way to magic this crisis away, he says we must manage our way through it as best we can, adding, “But calling a pandemic a pandemic would at least treat countries and communities as human entities, not just chips in casino capitalism”.
8 March 2020
After a climate-friendly Flybe decision, will government respond to Tory challenge on the scandalous North-South funding imbalance?
Due to WordPress malfunction I cannot upload images to this site. They are included in the email alert
The Financial Times casts doubt on the prime minister’s commitment to the regions in two articles today
As Jim Pickard reports, in Flybe collapse puts commitment to regions in doubt, some MPs are voicing concerned about the impact of the bankruptcy on their constituencies. He points out that Boris Johnson’s administration had repeatedly vowed to improve “regional connectivity” and sees the Flybe decision as a failure to uphold this commitment.
The economic case was put by Kelly Tolhurst, the aviation minister: “Unfortunately, in a competitive market, companies do fail, and it is not the role of government to prop them up”.
Snapshot FT reader’s comment: decision is climate friendly
Tory think-tank Onward has found “dramatic” differences in spending to the advantage of London in recent years
In another article, Pickard reports that – in his election manifesto last year – Mr Johnson promised to ramp up the Housing Infrastructure Fund from its current £5.5bn to £10bn to support the delivery of new homes in local authorities “across every English region”
Housing Infrastructure Fund graphic
He refers to a report called “The Challenge”, by the Tory think-tank Onward (May 2019) which has found “dramatic” differences in spending to the advantage of London in recent years.
It argued that government spending has for years been skewed towards the most prosperous parts of the country, in part because of the Treasury’s “Green Book” — which sets spending criteria.
The differences in spending included:
- capital spending on transport in London at £6,600 per head between 2008 and 2019, compared with the English average of £2,400,
- research funding for universities — was nearly twice the UK average in London, at £3,900 per head versus £2,300 per head from 2001 to 2017 and
- London received 47% of Arts Council England spending and central government funding of arts institutions over the same period.
Pickard’s conclusion that such evidence raises questions about the depth of the prime minister’s commitment to the regions is qualified by his FT colleague, Camilla Cavendish: “Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda depends on devolving power”
In 2018, the Times (paywall) reported the verdict of MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee: “The apprenticeship levy is not working. It was meant to incentivise large employers to invest more in apprenticeships by requiring them to pay into a central fund from which they can claim back some or all of their training costs.
Instead it has led employers to recoup the cost of existing in-house training schemes by relabelling them as apprenticeships.
She noted that more companies are setting themselves up as training providers and that Ofsted says that it will struggle to keep tabs on these. The following year her report pointed out that too many apprentices were still being trained by sub-standard providers.
Around a third of apprentices covered by Ofsted inspections in 2017/18 were being trained by providers rated as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’. The poor quality of some contributed to a situation where over 30% of apprentices fail to complete their apprenticeship successfully each year.
A letter to the Times editor added: “The Learndirect scandal serves as a stark case: an organisation was allowed to take on more and more learners (reaching 75,000) when warning signs of inadequate training and poor financial management were already being issued”.
The Financial Times reminded readers that Learndirect was privatised and sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but is still reliant on government funding. When the Public Accounts Committee questioned Learndirect and Ofsted, Ofsted revealed the findings of Learndirect’s “inadequate” performance and the ‘legal shenanigans’ used to prevent earlier revelations. The findings included:
The National Audit office’s 2019 report focussed on the cost of apprenticeships and the low rate of uptake. In its first full year of operation, the apprenticeship levy raised £2.7 billion and this is expected to rise to £3.4 billion by 2023-24. However, there have been repeated warnings in recent months that the funding pot generated by the levy is about to run out
Earlier this month the Financial Times reported on an Education and Skills (EDSK) report, based on official data, which has investigated what is happening with the apprenticeship levy and the apprenticeship system in England more broadly.
It found that 50% of apprenticeships funded by the levy are ‘fake’, citing figures which relate closely to those reported by the Public Accounts Committee, recorded in the FT box above:
- Some £1.2bn of the £2.4bn money raised since the levy was introduced in April 2017 had been spent on “fake” apprenticeships, rebadged MBA courses and low-skilled jobs training,
- £550m of levy funding had been spent on management training courses for experienced employees, which previously would have been funded from professional development budgets.
- Highly qualified academics, many of whom already have PhDs, had been relabelled as apprentices in order to put them through levy-funded professional development courses.
- And £235m had been used to teach people in low-skilled jobs, including working at a shop checkout or serving in a bar, often requiring minimal training, which pay low wages and do not meet any established definition of an apprentice.
Last July Boris Johnson said that, while he will always “defend and extol the advantages of having a degree, there are far too many young people who leave university with huge debts, and no clear sense of how their academic qualification has helped their career.” He has pledged to “elevate practical and technical qualifications” to “recognise their immense value to society and to the individual” and to raise funding for apprenticeships.
As – regrettably – Learndirect has re-emerged in the apprenticeship sector under a new name: Learndirect Apprenticeships Ltd., EDSK reflects that government pays private providers taxpayers’ money to deliver public services but can fail to monitor the results or truly penalise those that do not deliver. It recommends the Department for Education to tighten rules to stop financing of rebadged MBAs and low-skilled training and introduce a new definition of apprenticeship, benchmarked against the world’s best technical education systems.
As Paul Halas writes (Western Daily Press, 7 December 2019, p. 30):
“Over the past few decades privatisations have included Royal Mail, British Gas, electricity, water and sewage treatment, the 999 calls service, much of the ambulance service, the NHS appointments service, British Steel, large parts of the education service, the Coal Board (as was), the probation service, many prisons and detention centres, large chunks of the care services, British Airways, British Rail… ad infinitum”).
Martin Rudland draws attention to the ‘we own it’ website which focusses on privatisation of public services which wastes billions each year on shareholder dividends and high borrowing costs, giving links to research into costs in several sectors including water, energy, transport, broadband, Royal Mail and NHS.
Transnational Engie is on the list of Luton and Dunstable University Hospital’s suppliers of domestic, catering and cleaning services. Unison and GMB are calling for these services to be brought back in-house once Engie’s contract ends next year.
UNISON, the union representing workers at Luton & Dunstable Hospital, points out that staff who were transferred from the NHS in 2015 are being paid NHS rates of £9.02 an hour but anyone who started since is paid the legal minimum of £8.21 an hour.
New starters are paid at least £1,400 less than colleagues who were at the hospital before cleaning services were sold off. Engie employees have also told UNISON that they are being denied leave and being made to take the blame when the contractor is pulled up by the Trust for any shortcomings in service.
UNISON’s Eastern regional organiser Winston Dorsett said, “Engie has confused and demoralised its staff further with a third set of pay and conditions brought in last year to squeeze a bit more cash out of the taxpayer. This firm is making its profits off the backs of some of the lowest-paid workers in our NHS”.
GMB regional organiser Hilda Tavolara agrees that the workers “deserve to be treated fairly by their employer” and points out that last year, housekeepers’ working hours and wages were cut, yet they were still expected to do the same amount of work. This has had a knock-on effect on the patients, their families and visitors.
Hospital chiefs are offering Engie a new 10-year contract to provide the services, proposing to outsource a number or employees currently working for the NHS but UNISON is calling on the Trust not to renew Engie’s contract next year and bring cleaning, catering and housekeeping back in-house.
This week an IPPR study revealed the cost of private finance initiatives (PFI) contracts in the NHS.
These contracts brought £13 billion of initial investment capital into the health system but by the time they have ended the NHS will have spent £80 billion on them.
This is money which could have been spent on doctors’ and nurses’ salaries, on improving treatments, or on making sure young mental health inpatients don’t have to stay in hospitals hundreds of miles away from their family and friends.
The IPPR report reveals that £55 billion of this debt is still outstanding – representing a huge burden on tight NHS resources if the government does not take action. It recommends that bad deals be brought back into public ownership.
After wondering whether what’s left of the NHS is really going to remain in the public domain under the Tories, Paul Halas adds: “What they (private companies) all have in common is poorer service, higher prices, worse wages and conditions for employees, and a haemorrhaging of money to highly paid executives and shareholders, many of them based overseas and avoiding tax in this country”, ending:
“The Tories’ long-term goal has always been to shrink the public sector to the size of a walnut and until the NHS, the last of the public service dominoes, is toppled it’ll remain a thorn in their ideological flesh”.
There are many forms of outsourcing, defined here, but in this post we refer to the practice of handing over control of public services to private enterprises. Many adverse references to the practice of outsourcing may be seen by searching this site.
The Information Services Group consultancy reports that the UK outsourcing market is now the second largest in the world outside the US; under the coalition government the number of outsourced contracts rose 125% from 526 under the last Labour government to 1,185. Justice, defence and welfare are the biggest ‘markets’
‘HGS seamlessly supports your business behind-the-scenes’ . . .
The Ministry of Justice (right), which had serious IT problems earlier this year, is handing over its outsourced system, designed to help police to book local duty solicitors and co-ordinate payments from the existing supplier, from Capita to HGS UK. After a week-long transition period solicitor Kerry Hudson, vice president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said that police are struggling to log cases with the Defence Solicitor Contact Centre (DSCC). Bethan Staton reported on the problems experienced, including 30-minute hold times, staff who cannot operate the bookings system and requests being sent in error or after suspects had been released under investigation.
David Greene, vice-president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said that the service administered by Capita, had previously been plagued by faults:
- reports of wrong or missing names of detainees,
- cases given to incorrect firms,
- solicitors directed to custody suites — only to find the detainee isn’t there.
He added that the call centre “appears to have undergone a complete system meltdown” during the contract changeover.
The Law Gazette reports that Kerry Hudson wondered how many detainees across the country had gone into interview alone, having been told the police cannot get through to request a solicitor to attend. Kerry Hudson said that even when they do manage to get through, there are said to be:
- delays of four or five hours between the police first call and the DSCC then contacting the solicitor and
- when they are contacting the solicitor, much of the key information is missing (including the detainee name in some cases) and the crucial DSCC reference number.
Law Society vice president David Greene added that denying suspects the right to legal advice risks miscarriages of justice.
Public Finance, which provides news and analysis for professionals in public finance, has commented that a series of botched UK government contracts, including a Serious Fraud Office investigation into Serco and G4S for overbilling on a deal to monitor offenders, has raised concerns over whether the taxpayer receives the best value for money and the National Audit Office has called for closer scrutiny of government contracts.
This is the latest in a series of debacles linked to government outsourcing of some parts of the law enforcement system; last year the government had to reverse its decision to use private companies to run probation services.
Andrew Pendleton (New Economics Foundation) reminds us that since Margaret Thatcher first stood on the steps of Number 10 in 1979, successive UK governments have chosen to withdraw all but the barest bones of support from Britain’s foundational industries, of which steel is one. He questions whether any owner of steel manufacturers in the UK could thrive in the hostile environment UK governments have created.
Failed by the current government’s blind faith in markets, Pendleton writes, the people of Scunthorpe and many other places have had no voice whatsoever in how the economy was run, until ‘the blunt instrument of the EU referendum’. The loss of this significant company will intensify the sense of loss that contributed to the Brexit vote
There are risks in selling to the Turkish Military Pension Fund or to the Chinese Jingye Group, about which very little is known, industrially, but the interest of foreign buyers suggests that British Steel is seen as a potentially viable asset.
Many tonnes of steel will be needed to build a cleaner economy – for wind turbines, electric vehicles and the rail lines made in Scunthorpe, critical to a decarbonised economy. As Pendleton points out, steel production is ‘problematic’ for climate change – but steel production in Scunthorpe can be ‘greened’ by investing to reduce its carbon emissions, eventually reaching zero as coal-free production (below) becomes the norm.
In Germany, Thyssenkrupp recently demonstrated running a steel blast furnace completely on hydrogen – opening up the prospect of zero-emissions steel production by using renewable hydrogen.
Hydrogen will become cheaper as current methods, which rely on creating hydrogen fuel from purified water, are superseded by less expensive technologies such as one being developed by Stanford researchers, who have been separating hydrogen and oxygen gas from seawater via electricity.
And millions of tonnes of carbon used in shipping will be saved by using steel close to where it is manufactured
Pendleton sees the current economic model, ‘now the default preference of our policy-makers’, as absurd; in Fife, steel fabrication firm BiFab is in mothballs (right) while energy giant EDF imports the casings for the turbines on its new offshore wind farm from Indonesia.
He points out that Indonesia and some of our European neighbours’ governments habitually intervene to ensure that ‘foundational industries’ have guaranteed supply chains and amply-filled order books.
British Steel owners Greybull, a private investment company which owns many other industries, are unlikely to be seriously affected, but the company’s workforce, its suppliers, Scunthorpe and the wider economy will. It will be a disaster, politically and economically. Andrew Pendleton ends:
“Nothing short of immediate nationalisation is needed; anything less will be a betrayal of a whole town and will send shockwaves through the UK’s industrial heartlands . . .
“It is not too late for the government to step in and take the company over, which would have the immediate effect of keeping people in work and the economy of a town afloat. This is absolutely government’s proper role. But it shouldn’t stop there. After nationalisation should come a three-pronged approach:
- focus on industrial strategy for British Steel in order to secure its supply chains
- fill up its order book with a proactive procurement policy.
- and create a worker owned company who could then benefit from an ownership dividend
“Given the UK’s need to invest and build green infrastructure, such as railways, steel is of national strategic importance”.
Read Andrew Pendleton’s article here.
Patrick Jenkins (Financial Times) attended a debate held by the FT City Network, a panel of more than 50 senior figures from across the City of London, during which ‘two of the world’s biggest fund management bosses’ pleaded for reform.
He reported that these pleas were made in response to an address by Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, in which she called for wholesale reform of the current economic system to avert global disaster.
Recent protests have focussed in part on the City of London and the role that banks, asset managers and insurers play in financing and sustaining some of the world’s most environmentally damaging industries, from oil extraction to vehicle manufacture.
Several participants praised the part that UK-based climate change activist group Extinction Rebellion has played — alongside others, including Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and film-maker David Attenborough.
Anne Richards, chief executive of Fidelity International, said the world must end “our obsession with ever-increasing GDP” and the “primacy of shareholders” to foster the kind of long-term thinking that would help protect the environment and “pivot [away] from the Milton Friedman concept of capitalism and the primacy of shareholders, who may have a very short-term involvement with an individual company, towards a wider stakeholder approach”.
Andreas Utermann, CEO of Allianz Global Investors, said that the world’s growth mania — “nominal GDP growth, supported by population growth, [and profit] growth” — was clearly unsustainable, and suggested that capitalism in its current form is “borrowing from the future while destroying the environment . . . A more holistic approach to ‘growth’ needs to evolve, looking to capture societal and environmental benefits and costs . . . More sophisticated measures than GDP per capita are required to determine whether capitalism is delivering to all stakeholders without borrowing from the future while destroying the environment. It was self-evident that this is not sustainable”.
A number of City Network contributors said that, while it was impossible to blacklist climate unfriendly firms instantly, it was vital that companies set tough environmental targets, measure whether they were met and reward managers on their performance, rather than on short-term profit. Other interventions showed that a wider range of contributors to the debate believe that business and government must urgently improve their response to the growing evidence of environmental catastrophe.
On 14 September 2017 The Grenfell Tower Inquiry began to investigate the causes of the fire and other related issues. The chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, issued the phase one report on Wednesday 30 October 2019. In it, he concluded that the tower’s cladding failed to comply with building regulations; the principal reason the fire spread was the use of aluminium composite cladding filled with plastic on the building’s exterior.
In the dock?
- Past and present governments’ erosion of safety standards through programmes of deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing/subcontracting, localism and austerity: “Regulations were relaxed and eliminated, warnings were ignored and costs were cut, while profits and council reserves.
- David Cameron, as prime minister, promised and delivered a “bonfire of regulations” in the construction industry.
- Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, closed 10 London fire stations, took 30 fi re engines out of service and slashed over 500firefighter jobs to “save money” (charges made by Yvette Williams)
- The Conservative members of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) who covered the homes of working-class people with flammable tiles rather than fire-resistant tiles because they were cheap, prepared the way for the Grenfell Tower fire (Sasha Simic).
- “The true culprits of the fire are those who wrapped the building in flammable cladding, who gutted the UK’s fire safety regime, who ignored the warnings from previous fires, and who did not hear the pleas of a community worried for their safety”, Fire Brigades Union (FBU). Below left, see a brief video of firefighters during the fire
* In the 2012 Grenfell Tower Regeneration Project’s public consultation, which may be read here, residents were asked about the cladding’s colour and finish, but the issue of fire resistance was never raised.
The planning application’s engagement statement records that the choice of cladding – zinc or particle board was investigated and the final choice was Reynobond PE with a plastic filling – a cheaper option, saving nearly £300,000 – placed around flammable foam insulation.
The establishment – elite networks who close ranks to protect their own interests – spared the government & cladding company and scapegoated the Grenfell firefighters
Despite the Grenfell Inquiry’s finding that the principal reason the fire spread was the use of aluminium composite cladding filled with plastic on the building’s exterior, mainstream media chose to highlight criticism of the fire-fighters’.
The FT, though focussing closely on the performance of firefighters, did at least give details of the other companies involved, prudently noting that the report does not assign blame to any individual companies.
Hotpoint, a division of Whirlpool, made the fridge-freezer in which the fire began. Celotex, a division of the French multinational Saint Gobain, made the foam insulation used on the tower; Rydon, the design and build contractor on the refurbishment subcontracted the cladding installation; Harley Facade, and CEP Architectural Facades manufactured the cladding into “cassettes” for use on the tower.
The BBC (warned off after publishing this outspoken article about the cladding?), the Guardian and the Independent opted to focus on the fire service, the Metro achieving some balance by publishing a fiery article by Yvette Williams and one focussing on the fire service in the same issue.
Yvette summarised the feelings of many: “the real ‘villains of the piece’ should be in the media headlines, rather than the firefighters who risked their own lives to save people in a building that no-one should have been living in, with a fire that was unprecedented”.
Since the Grenfell disaster, Arconic has withdrawn Reynobond PE from the market for all building uses. The company is now being forced to disclose evidence to investigations by the police and the Grenfell Tower public inquiry and a second phase to investigate the broader causes will begin in 2020.
But, as the FBU concluded, “We cannot wait for years for the Inquiry to conclude. Change is needed now.” The Grenfell question: will Britain elect a government that puts people before profit?
* As with some other ‘sensitive’ documents, this link will not open. To read the report, the link has to be copied and pasted: https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/idoxWAM/doc/Other-960662.pdf?extension=.pdf&id=960662&location=VOLUME2&contentType=application/pdf&pageCount=1