31 October 2008

Protecting children from the Sachs offenders

Did you hear about that terrible earthquake in Pakistan on Wednesday? So far 300 dead and 50,000 made homeless, and all in desperate need of food and shelter. You may have missed this, because apparently the most important story of the week was a rude message left on an actor's answerphone. And not just the Daily Mail, the green-eyed monster who never passes up the chance to kick the BBC; even the BBC pulled on its hair shirt to flagellate itself, determined not to be accused of bias.

The caricature is a tempting one: two overpaid, over-confident, overtly sexual comedians preying on the elderly from their towers of money. At the risk of adding a little balance to the debate, the reason Brand and Ross ended up leaving messages on Andrew Sachs's answering machine is because they were trying to conduct a pre-arranged phone conversation with him, but he wasn't there. Does that justify leaving an obscene message and then broadcasting that to the nation? Probably not, but it's also not the case that they sat around thinking of old people to pick on - two broadcasters with a mischievous sense of humour then egged each other on when they probably should have known better. End of story, or at least it should have been.

Too much has already been said about the merits of "edgy" comedy on the BBC, whatever that means. But if what happened this week is the occasional price of trying to be innovative, then I think it is worth paying, with all the caveats and apologies you like. The BBC should be allowed to fail, because without that risk of failure, they will never achieve greatness. The victory of a policy of taste as dictated by the Daily Mail will be the triumph of mediocrity - where all comedy is Terry and June, all entertainment is Dancing on Ice and everything tastes of vanilla.

23 October 2008

Buyer beware (2)

Given the way the present financial crisis seems to have caught even the brightest economic minds in the world by surprise, perhaps we are looking too deeply for the tell-tale signs that would have warned us of impending meltdown. Certainly the development of increasingly complex financial instruments, from Options to CDS'es, that separated the price of the risk from the asset it backed didn't help.

But following the Icelandic banks whose assets are now frozen, there seems to be more nominative determinism at work, as Goldman Sachs laid off 10% of its workforce today, giving lazy headline writers perhaps the easiest day's work this year. Certainly the credit ratings given to banks by Standard & Poor must feel uncomfortably close to the truth. And I am not sure I would trust my savings to the New Zealand-based company called Blackhole Investments. As for the Fuxin Bank in China - let's hope that one stays nationalised.

19 October 2008

Sounding off

Much has been made of the return to government of Peter Mandelson, now ennobled as Lord Mandelson, in his role as Business Secretary. I had forgotten how long he had been out of the cabinet, not least since the rise of David Cameron to the post of Leader of the Opposition, so it was not until today that I was struck by how similar their voices are. I am now thoroughly confused when I hear either Cameron or Mandelson on the radio, as I struggle to work out which one it is.

Maybe it's the logical conclusion of both parties copying each others policies, presentational style and techniques. It's not like you can even be sure when you hear their views, as both parties seem intent on muscling out each other for occupancy of the centre ground. I'm also unsure as to who should be most offended by the comparison.

10 October 2008

The show must go on

I've recently started reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and found it surprisingly easy going, despite its 1200 pages. I must admit, though, that when reading about the lives of the wretched of 19th century France, my first thought isn't: this would make a cracking musical.

I haven't seen "Les Mis" on the stage, so can't pass comment on it. But so far Fantine has left her daughter with a family to live in child slavery while she has had both her front teeth removed, and her hair cut off, to pay for the child's upkeep. Now she has had to resort to prostitution to support herself and her growing drink habit. It's not exactly Salad Days.

09 October 2008

Art for wealth's sake

The best place to put your money right now seems to be into safes. And not just literally, for it seems the sales of home safes has gone through the roof since the start of the recent global economic crisis. And no doubt someone at IKEA is right now inventing a new mattress with a zip and padlock on the side for the lower end of the market. As the world looks for new places to put cash it once thought was safe in the bank, a few surprising investment trends have become apparent.

It might seem counter-intuitive in these uncertain times to invest in luxury goods, but it seems that is where the smart money is going. Fine wines and champagnes continue to buck the trends, and the recent auction at Sotheby's of Damien Hirst's work shocked the art world with the prices he was able to attract, pocketing the shark pickler a cool £111,000,000.

But I can see a problem with this:

"Darling, the milkman needs paying, and I've only got an early Picasso - he says he can't change more than a small Braque."

"Try next door - see if they'll change it for a couple of Rothkos"

08 October 2008

An Englishman's house is his castle in the air

Another day, another impressive range of zeros is wheeled out by the UK government to persuade the heroes-turned-zeros in the banking world to cheer up a bit. As the panic raises another notch seemingly every day, the amounts of money being found behind the back of government sofas gets every more dizzying. It seems to have reached a point where most people are numb to developments; a year ago, a run on a middling UK bank was a sign of the apocalypse. Today, we greet the imminent collapse of titanic high street institutions with barely a raised eyebrow, before changing the channel.

And so it is with the money required to pay for the investment folly of the elite. Today the UK government announced financial guarantees to the money markets worth up to £500 billion, according to the Evening Standard. The BBC, however, reckoned it added up to £400 billion, further proof of this blase response that two media outlets could disagree about the most important news story of the day by the equivalent of total UK annual health budget. As the numbers get ever greater, the nature of what is underpinning the entire economy becomes ever more surreal.

To put it in context, today's announcement guarantees the near-equivalent of the government's entire annual budget. That's like the government not spending money on anything for a year - from paperclips to pensions, DSS leaflets to Darling's tea bags. Think of how much of a fuss was made about the will-they-won't-they vote by the US Congress over the recent US government bail-out. This was more money - both in absolute and relative terms - but do you think our elected representatives will get the chance to tilt at the idiots who got us into this mess, make them sweat a bit? I think all we'll be invited to do is shut up and pass the money.

Assuming the government spending will not immediately cease for a year, they will have to borrow the money. I'm guessing not from the banks they are bailing out. I am also presuming that the collateral used to secure this borrowing is that famous bottomless pit, the UK Taxpayer? So, in fact, the government is not the lender of last resort - I am. And if those loans are called in, who's going to bail out the government?

This begs the question: can I ever be said to own my house if it is, effectively, part of the security against bailiffs reclaiming the entire United Kingdom? No wonder the housing market is a bit flat at the moment.

Buyer beware (1)

Savers in the bank "Icesave" woke up yesterday to find their assets had been frozen, as part of the global bankers' bonus panic.

I think the clue was in the name - something of a risk, you'd think, when investing in banks in Iceland.