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We may be in the grip of the worst economic upheaval for half a century, but the UK is still at heart a forward-looking, modern economy, isn’t it? Smogs and satanic mills are things of the past and we have a model that is resource-light and service driven, don’t we?
Perhaps not. In the UK for the first quarter of this year, £1 in every £4 paid in dividends to shareholders came from a single industry: oil and gas. And, from that sector, just two companies – BP and Shell – accounted for the vast majority.
If the banking crisis taught us one thing, it is that putting too many of your economic eggs in one sector’s basket is a very bad idea. In banking it was a bad idea because they practised Narnia-nomics (which is probably a slur on Narnia). With the oil and gas sector it is a bad idea for two reasons, which may seem contradictory: the products are both very damaging and have no long-term future. Unfortunately, however, there’s still enough oil and gas left to cause more damage than the planet can handle (and an awful lot of coal, which people may turn to as the other fossil fuels become more expensive and harder to get).
Where the damage is concerned emissions continue to drive the loss of a climate system conducive to stable, flourishing societies. A combination of steadily rising greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures suggest that in around 78 months we will enter a new, more dangerous category of risk for creeping climatic instability, reason enough perhaps, to disinvest in fossil fuels.
The second reason is that an economy so hard-wired to the oil and gas sector is hitching its future to a long-term loser. We are already decades past the point of peak global oil discoveries, and on the cusp of the peak of oil production.
A new assessment of 14 forecasts of global oil supply underlines how the short-lived empire of oil is already well into its dotage, with the end in sight during our own lifetimes.
Some speculate that the moment at which production levels-off and begins its inexorable decline is already with us. If so, it may be only the recession, which temporarily reduces demand, that is hiding it. Several more forecasts suggest it will happen over the course of this decade – mere seconds away in the calibration of economic planning. Crucially, the study concluded that no credible forecast could put the date more than 20 years away.
Expect to see repeats of BP’s disaster at its Deepwater Horizon rig as companies seek to extend their lives of by exploiting ever-more marginal and hard-to-get reserves. Accidents happen when limits get pushed and an industry becomes increasingly desperate.
While companies like Shell, BP and Exxon may dominate the current economic landscape like leviathans, it is a feature of the end of empires that they seem permanent (especially from within) until, suddenly, they are gone.
All the more important, then, to plan for the inevitable. This is starting to happen. As the peak, plateau and decline of oil production approaches, its price will rise dramatically. Companies that are heavily exposed or, in other words, dependent on the old oil economy, will be at risk. Thinking back to the oil price spike of 2008, the ratings agency Fitch recently reassessed a range of industrial sectors for how vulnerable they will be when oil again knocks on the door of $150 per barrel. Airlines, trucking, chemicals and various consumer goods sectors look to be in big trouble. But railways and renewable energy cash-in.
It’s not just the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico that have fallen victim to our economic dependence on oil, its the climate that we depend on, for example, to grow our food, and will soon also be huge chunks of the economy.
The quicker we arrange a separation between society, the economy and the oil and gas sector, the better. This era-defining problem falls on the watch of the new coalition government. They could start by substantially capitalising the proposed new green investment bank and turning the taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland – that once proudly called itself the “oil and gas bank” and is still up to its neck in fossil-fuel financing – into a Royal Bank of Sustainability. More or less we have just the lifetime of this parliament to get money out of oil and into renewables and low-energy infrastructure.
After the bank bailout, we were left with the question, “where did the money go?”. At least if we put our resources into the great transition away from fossil fuels there would be tangible results. We would be looking at a great wave of new employment opportunities, more energy security, a less vulnerable economy and the chance for a better future.
78 months and counting …
Listening to the debate on bankers’ bonuses over the past week is enough to make anybody seasick. It veers terrifyingly from righteous vengeance to doom-laden warnings. The Chancellor says he “won’t be held to ransom” by the RBS directors. Then we hear that taxing wealth-creators is bad and counter-productive.
Rather than being dogmatically for or against bonuses, we should take a step back and ask: what is the point of a bonus?
Bonuses are incentives. And we know that incentives are powerful and do work. So while there is a question about size – City bonuses are obscenely large and out of all step with pay in the much vaunted “real world” – the most overlooked question seems to be: are we using bonuses to incentivise the right kinds of actions and behaviours in the City?
Put like that, it is obvious that there are fundamental flaws with the City bonus systems. The current bonus system in the financial sector encourages the behaviour that wrecked our economy. My own experiences as an investment banker echo the observation by Lord Turner and now many others: much of it is indeed socially useless. It also has the potential, as we’ve seen, to bring the economy to its knees. It is dangerous and useless primarily because the opaque bonus system breeds short-termism and speculation. It pushes bank staff into overstretching their institutions’ capacity to bear risk. My experience is that even if traders want to invest long-term, they find they can’t because they are not paid to. When I traded shares for an investment bank, the managers’ patience for losing money was counted in days, not weeks or months.
A recent Harvard Law School study documents how executives from America’s two biggest failed banks were rewarded hugely for their efforts in the years leading up to the crisis. We now know that they were being paid so handsomely to bankrupt their own institutions and threaten the world economy.
I have just taken part in a Royal Society of Arts debate about whether the bonus system could possibly exist in an effective finance sector. The City insiders who defended the system inadvertently revealed the two reasons why this debate continues going in circles. First, they over-estimate the contribution of the sector’s high-paid. Second, they believe, wrongly, that bonuses reward good performance.
Even the Bischoff Report, commissioned by the government, makes this same mistake. It assumes that because the financial sector is vital that the bonuses must be vital and, crucially, that there is nothing wrong with the way bonuses are structured.
In reality, the sector’s contribution to the economy is not dependent on the bonuses likely to suffer from a windfall tax. Most bonuses that non-bankers receive (including doctors, teachers and many other private sector employees) are no more than a portion of overall annual pay.
A windfall tax will send a strong signal that bonuses have gotten too big. But a windfall tax is not enough. Incentives, rules and regulation are not encouraging the behaviour our businesses and economy need. They have encouraged the banks to become casinos and their staff to bet the house and our economy.
For banks, just as for bankers, it isn’t that incentives are the problem. Bad incentives are the problem.
Vince Cable was quite right on the Today programme. The response to the RBS director’s threat to resign if they are not allowed to pay the bonuses they want to their failed, cash-strapped, state-owned bank should be to say: go ahead.
But we need to look a little more closely at the business of banking bonuses. They are paid out of a percentage of the profits of the investment divisions, sometimes up to fifty per cent. The money would otherwise go to the shareholders – the same ones who failed to exercise proper control over the bank they owned.
There are some, and Fortune magazine is among them, who would say that they are better shared with the staff than shovelled at the owners – and that’s right as far as it goes.
But the real question is not why the bonuses are so high. It is why the profits are so high. They come, after all, out of all of our pension investments, or the debt that goes to build productive business, or capital investments in public infrastructure. The real scandal is that these bonuses are paid out of fees which ought rightly to stay with the small investors who are watching the value of their pensions falling.
The fact that the banks are able to award themselves such hefty fees is purely because we have allowed a semi-monopoly to build up in banking, both domestic and investment banking. So here is the real solution: slash the bonuses, accept the resignation of the directors, put in their place bankers who are prepared to do what is necessary to break up RBS into its constituent businesses and regions.
When George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor, called for the break-up of Lloyds and RBS, he echoed the recommendations of our report I.O.U.K. on the failure of British banks to provide credit appropriate to our economy’s needs.
It seemed inevitable that this issue would rear its head again, and now we finally witness the financial sector’s response, via its ever-willing ally, the Government and Treasury. Their response came today with a Treasury report – commissioned before the worst days of the current crisis – that staunchly defends the right of big banks to get bigger. According to today’s Financial Times, the Chancellor and the authors reiterated the report’s findings that “an industry constrained on narrow lines would find it harder to develop new products”.
What does not seem to be acknowledged in the current debate is that the failure of overly-consolidated banking pre-dates the crisis. As we discussed in I.O.U.K., the inability of the banking sector to provide the necessary credit for thoses small businesses and sectors of the economy which do not enjoy unwavering Government support is not a result of the credit crunch and economic crisis. The reality is that banks have been withdrawing from communities, closing their branches and abandoning relationship-driven banking for over two decades now. And it is this retrenchment from the real economy which has made them so vulnerable to the kinds of economic shocks we have seen in the last eight months. Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley used to be mutuals, but they abandoned old-fashioned banking and converted into shareholder-owned institutions in search of better returns. And the result of this shift? They both went bankrupt and had to be rescued by the taxpayer.
It was selfish herd-like behaviour seeking the easiest profits, encouraged by policymakers since Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s reforms, which thoroughly undermined our financial system. Perversely, it is now the Tories who seem to perceive the contradiction of a banking system with a permanent Government get-out-of-jail free card for banks that are, in the Shadow Chancellor’s words, “too big to fail, too big to bail”.
Perhaps the Conservatives are willing to contradict the prior orthodoxy just to win political points? Or maybe Osborne is just concerned about how big a headache a banking system in need of permanent subsidy will be when he has to present the next Budget?
The Royal Bank of Scotland announced this week that they would grant six months breathing space to homeowners who fall behind with their mortage payments. At nef, we welcome this decision, but feel that it goes nowhere near far enough.
The housing charities have been fairly positive about RBS’s move – although other banks have dismissed it as marketing spin. It is clearly an inadequate concession, but it also demonstrates that RBS are beginning to recognise their culpability in this mess.
In the last few months, we’ve seen banks – which are at fault – being bailed out to a previously unimaginable degree by the taxpayer, while thousands of hard-working home owners face the daily insecurity of potential eviction as the recession makes it harder to meet repayments. This is, of course, deeply unjust. It also destabilises and burdens society.
As nef recently argued in From the Ashes of the Crash, evictions must be stopped and replaced by long-term plans for restructuring householders’ mortgage debts.