On the web: London’s global financial standing, EU security and defence policy, China and the West…

– The FT has news that London’s position as the dominant global financial hub is slipping, with the UK capital now tied with New York for top spot in the latest rankings. Elsewhere Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H. O’Rourke examine the latest economic data comparing the present crisis with the Great Depression across a range of indicators (including global output, world trade, and equity markets). Robert Shiller, meanwhile, explains the difficulties of using past experience to predict the course of the current crisis.

European Geostrategy suggests that EU security and defence policy is like a jazz band and explains why a White Paper providing a “grand strategy” is needed. EUobserver, meanwhile, has news on the emerging shape of the European diplomatic service – its structure and staffing – as member states gear up to secure the important EEAS secretary general post.

– Elsewhere, Constanze Stelzenmüller takes an in-depth look at the travails of German security policy, offering insights into how it might evolve. Highlighting the lack of strategy, she argues that “fundamental decisions regarding German security policy have been repeatedly forced into the Procrustean bed of moral necessity, domestic imperatives, or the demands of external alliances.”

– Finally, over at openDemocracy, Andy Yee explores the “hedgehog’s dilemma” between China and the West, highlighting a gradual acceptance of different core values. TIME magazine, meanwhile, assesses the slow progress toward democracy in Hong Kong and the possible wider implications from Beijing’s perspective.

On the web: nuclear progress, gold bubbles, Ashton’s diplomacy, and key thinkers of 2009…

– With the US and Russia reportedly close to agreeing a successor START deal, Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi chart the next steps for a secure nuclear future. Details of their recently published report on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament can be found here. Henry Kissinger, meanwhile highlights the importance of kick-starting progress on six-party talks with North Korea.

– Elsewhere, Nouriel Roubini reflects on “gold bubbles” and the need to beware the calls of “gold bugs”, given that the “recent rise in gold prices is only partially justified by fundamentals”. The FT’s Alphaville blog offers an alternate view.

– Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, outlines her vision of a “quiet diplomacy” keenly focused on “getting results”. The BBC’s Europe Editor, Gavin Hewitt, assesses the upcoming challenges she is likely to face – whether a winter energy crisis, shaping a coherent EU policy towards the Middle East, or establishing the much-trumpeted EU diplomatic service. Charlemagne, meanwhile, argues that when it comes to European foreign policy there are simply “too many cooks”. Philip H. Gordon, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, offers his thoughts on what the post-Lisbon landscape is likely to mean for US-EU relations.

– Finally, Prospect presents 25 key public intellectuals that have helped us navigate the squalls of the financial crisis – Simon Johnson, Avinash Persaud, and Adair Turner make up the top 3. Niall Ferguson, meanwhile, offers his take on the most influential thinkers of the past now showing renewed relevance – Keynes, Polanyi, Kindleberger and Darwin, among others, have places on his list.

On the web: 1989 anniversary, climate predictions, and India’s relations…

– With the upcoming anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Timothy Garton Ash surveys the current debate about the causes behind those dramatic events twenty years ago. Commenting on the role of the superpowers, he suggests: “They made history by what they did not do… both giants stood back partly because they underestimated the significance of things being done by little people in little countries.” Adam Roberts, meanwhile, explores how civil resistance has fared around the world since 1989. When confronted with the reality of power politics, he suggests, choosing the right time for action from the bottom-up is critical.

– Looking to Copenhagen, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita propounds the predictive capacity of game theory and rational choice theory to explore what the climate negotiations might hold. Der Spiegel, meanwhile, has a report about the Danish island of Samso – at the forefront of the country’s green revolution.

– Elsewhere, Robert Skidelsky assesses the current debate raging between New Keynesian and New Classical economists over the financial crisis. Fully grasping the “implications of irreducible uncertainty for economic theory”, he suggests, would lead to a better understanding.

– Finally, Mihir Bose explores the contemporary state of Anglo-Indian relations, suggesting that fragility, rooted in history, is still very apparent. And with Indian and Chinese officials set to meet, Kapil Komireddi argues that rivalry between the two rising superpowers will come increasingly to define the 21st century.

On the web: the EU’s global influence, Obama’s leadership, and inside the financial crisis…

– With Czech ratification of the Lisbon Treaty now looking increasingly likely, attention shifts to the implications for the EU’s global influence. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the current External Relations commissioner, offers some thoughts on the future EU foreign policy setup here. Hugo Brady, meanwhile, identifies some of the qualities needed in a new President of the European Council – “the job appears”, he suggests, “to require its holder to be a walking paradox: charismatic but modest, highly effective but non-intimidating, a consensus builder but also a decision-maker”. Pascal Lamy, he argues, might just fit the bill.

– In the London Review of Books, David Bromwich explores President Obama’s tendency toward the conciliatory gesture and major pronouncement, assessing the consequences for delivering meaningful outcomes. “[H]is pattern has been the grand exordium delivered at centre stage”, Bromwich argues, “followed by months of silence”.  Writing in the WSJ, meanwhile, Bret Stephens offers a critical perspective on the President’s commitment to human rights.

– Elsewhere, Dani Rodrik rails against those raising the spectre of protectionism, suggesting that “the world economy remains as open as it was before the crisis struck” and that the “international trade regime has passed its greatest test since the Great Depression with flying colours”. The Economist, meanwhile, provides an analysis of the falling dollar, while Jean Pisani-Ferry and Adam Posen assess the limitations of the Euro as an alternate global currency.

– Finally, behind the scenes of the financial crisis, and based on in-depth interviews throughout, Todd Purdum chronicles Hank Paulson’s time in office. Reuters has an extract from Andrew Ross Sorkin’s new book offering another take on the former US Treasury Secretary’s actions during the crisis. Daniel Yergin, meanwhile, examines the importance of finding a narrative for the crisis – crucial, he suggests, not only in understanding what happened but also offering a “framework for organising thinking for the future”.

On the web: Lehman’s legacy, the Irish referendum on Lisbon, transatlantic trends and more…

– With the anniversary of Lehman Brother’s demise, the FT recalls the events of that fateful weekend last September. The NYT has reflections of three former Lehman employees, while a Guardian roundtable asks what lessons, if any, we’ve learned from the bank’s fall. Niall Ferguson, meanwhile, rails against those who argue “if only Lehman had been saved”. He suggests:

Like the executed British admiral in Voltaire’s famous phrase, Lehman had to die pour encourager les autres – to convince the other banks that they needed injections of public capital, and to convince the legislature to approve them.

– Sticking with matters financial and economic, Der Spiegel has an interview with the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on the Fund’s actions during the crisis and the potential for a new role for the institution going forward. Former MPC member, David Blanchflower, meanwhile, offers a telling insight into the inner workings of the Bank of England’s decision-making as financial meltdown ensued.

– Elsewhere, the WSJ reports on President Sarkozy’s call to broaden indicators of economic performance and social progress beyond traditional GDP, following the findings of the Stiglitz Commission. Richard Layard, expert on the economics of happiness, offers his take here, arguing that “[w]e desparately need a social norm in which the good of others figures more prominently in our personal goals”.

– Wolfgang Münchau, meanwhile, assesses the implications of an Irish  “No” vote in the upcoming referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.  “There is an intrinsic problem for the Yes campaign in Ireland”, he suggests, “which is that the core of the treaty was negotiated seven years ago. This is a pre-crisis treaty for a post-crisis world… If we had to reinvent the treaty from scratch, we would probably produce a very different text”.

– Finally, last week saw the German Marshall Fund of the US publish its Transatlantic Trends survey for 2009. Unsurprisingly, a majority of Europeans (77%) support Barack Obama’s foreign policy compared to the 2008 finding for George W. Bush (19%); though the “Obama bounce” was less keenly felt in Central and Eastern Europe than Western Europe. A multitude of other interesting stats – on attitudes to Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, the economic crisis, and climate change –  can be found here (pdf).

The Return of Ethics: Panglossian Banking?

The financial crisis has led to a lot of talk about the failure of ethics in the banking sector. Greed overtook wisdom, we’re told. No doubt this is the case. Yet whilst bankers are to blame, it’s hopelessly naïve to suppose that a ‘return’ to some golden age of ethical business will solve all our problems.

There is a parallel with the expenses claims of British parliamentarians. Caught with their hands in the till, some cried out that the system was to blame for letting them get away with it. For all the cheek of that response, there is a lesson in it.

Individuals must take responsibility for their sins. But if we’re serious about making sure that these things cannot occur again, it really isn’t enough to call for more ethics in business. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that this is a way to avoid having to enact any real change. As the crisis seems to be settling down, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling has shied away from significant reform of the regulatory system and chose instead to blame bosses for being irresponsible. ‘Don’t worry,’ we seem to be being told, ‘we’ll just ask bankers not to be greedy any more.’ Forgive me, but I had hoped for something more robust.

It must be conceded that in sharp contrast to the plans of the British government, Barack Obama’s planned reforms are substantive and bold. But on a global level, concerns are growing that the opportunity for broader reform that this crisis provides is being missed as optimism returns alongside talk of ‘green shoots of recovery’. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), often described as the central bankers’ central bank, published its annual report on Monday. According to the FT, the BIS:

said it was vital that thought be given to the ongoing structure of the financial system while the patient was still on life support. Efforts so far, it concluded, had been a “messy mixture of urgent treatment designed to stem the decline, combined with an emerging agenda for comprehensive reform to set the foundations for sustainable growth”.

It highlighted two main risks: first, that not enough will be done to ensure a durable recovery from crisis; and second, that the emergency action to stabilise the financial system will undermine efforts to build a safer system.

The G8, too, is jumping on board the ‘return to ethics’ bandwagon. MBA graduates have set up their own code of ethics, taking inspiration from the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath. This is welcome. We do need to create a public environment in which ethics and responsibility are more emphasised (and more respected), but to expect a firm whose raison d’etre is the pursuit of profit to apply the brakes is painfully naïve. Business (and politics) should be conducted on more ethical grounds. This year’s Reith Lectures, given by Michael Sandel, address this point well. But in the meantime (between now and hell freezing over), we need rules that acknowledge people’s tendency to ignore ethics, especially in the heat of the moment. The great theorists of capitalism itself, such as Adam Smith, knew well that the system wasn’t moral. But neither is capitalism immoral – it’s simply amoral. If we want a moral system, we have to bring in the morality ourselves. But to expect bankers to do so on their own is to invite a conflict of interest. We do not expect the players at Wimbledon to make line calls on their own shots and, similarly, we should not expect the financial sector to judge the morality or wisdom of its own practices.

This is an important moment, but it’s not a moment of a new ethical kingdom, or of a new form of capitalism. Instead, we need to return to an older scepticism about the role of private interests in our society and the degree to which the doctrine of self-regulation is a realistic solution.

Pity the rich (or genocide awaits)

Like most of you, I spend most of my days weeping at the fate of rich. But I don’t think I’d realised how bad things were, until I came across Gabriel Sherman’s definitive account.

You should probably get your senior executive assistant to read you the whole thing, but if you’re been forced to cull the hired help, the key themes are: (i) Make sure we, the rich, are paid more than anyone else, even if we go bust. (ii) Don’t expect us to foot the bill from the bailout – tax the sheeple instead. (iii) Money isn’t enough – we demand deference and respect.

Here are some of the quotes that made me tear up:

Citigroup exec: “No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?”

Bankrupt Wall Street exec: “I think [Obama] doesn’t have an appreciation for how hard it is to build these companies, the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into them. It’s just that he has no passion for it.” 

Bear Stearns senior managing director: “Honestly, you can pick on Wall Street all you want, I don’t think it’s fair. It’s fair to say you ran your companies into the ground, your risk management is flawed-that is perfectly legitimate. You can lay criticism on GM or others. But I don’t think it’s fair to say Wall Street is paid too much.”

Wall Street exec: “Why are [we] being punished for making a lot of money?”

Hedge fund guy: “The government wants me to be a slave!”

Another hedge fund guy: “JPMorgan and all these guys should go on strike—see what happens to the country without Wall Street.”

I’d also highly recommend reading the Economist’s typically incisive analysis. The stakes are high, it warns. Raise taxes on the rich and you’re on a slippery slope towards fascism, genocide and global conflict:

 

Barack Obama has suggested raising the tax rates on high earners and closing loopholes such as the carried-interest privilege enjoyed by private-equity managers. Such tax changes may suit the public mood. The danger is that popular anger, once released, can fasten on targets beyond the rich; immigrants, say, or foreigners generally. The 1930s Depression led to fascism in Germany and the second world war. Even if such apocalypses are avoided, the anti-rich backlash can [still] go too far. 

 

So, repeat after me, “They came first for the rich, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t rich. Then they came for the Jews…”