Sunday, December 18, 2011

Joseph’s story

She’s sleeping now.

I managed to clean her up as much as I could,

And the women from the inn took away the birth straw.

They were far too busy after that to be bothered with her anymore.

The rooms were all full and the guests were shouting for their dinners and liquor and calling for service.

It was kind of the woman to give us some old birth cloths to wrap him in,

Said they were old, but clean, even if they had been used before.

She didn’t seem to mind.

The boy has blue eyes.

Seems like a healthy lad, at least as far as I can tell.

That’ll be a blessing anyway, it’s hard enough feeding her and me just now.

Business has really fallen off since the Romans started squeezing the last coins from our pockets to pay for all their foreign wars.

He’ll have to get used to hard work if he wants to keep his place by the fire and share what little food there is.

As I say, he looks sound enough, but what do I, an old man, know of these things, I never had a son before.

I wonder, were his father’s eyes that piercing blue.

I’ve known her since she was very young.

Her father recently asked me to marry her as I was still alone, even after all these years.

He made me a good offer because he already had three other girls and she was, well, she was the least comely,

And he simply couldn’t afford marriage portions for all of them,

That was how he put it.

When I agreed, he gave me a longer lease on the workshop and said he wouldn’t press too hard for rent,

If I wasn’t doing so well that quarter

Nice of him to do that, I thought

The only condition he wanted was to announce our engagement soon

Because she was expecting a child and he did not know who the father was.

Neither did she apparently, except that it came from heaven,

Or so she said, some daft story about an angel,

And her being chosen for a special task.

Don’t suppose it makes a lot of difference anyway.

I'd been having some really odd dreams about this time and I found that I didn’t mind about not being the father,

Although it took a bit of getting used to at first.

The men in the wine shop said I was a fool,

Said I could have held out for a lot more

Called her father a skinflint, said I was doing him a real favour

While the women talked about her in corners,

Making pointed references to certain dates in the calendar

And the arrival of a new cohort of Roman soldiers in the town.

But she simply put her hand in mine

And said she would be a good wife to me

And after that,

I found that it really didn’t matter at all.

She’s a strong little thing.

I’ll say that for her, and when we were told we had to make this winter journey to get registered for the new taxes,

She didn’t make a fuss, but just gathered her few bits and pieces

And went to see to the donkey.

She put what we needed in a bag and handed me the reins

And said we should start soon, as it looked as if the weather would be closing in.

She never once questioned the reason for having to go so far,

It kind of seemed like she was almost expecting it.

I thought we would make it all the way.

Except she couldn’t go on any longer as she was far too tired and her feet were bleeding.

And when her waters broke and the baby started coming, she simply asked me to find her somewhere to lie down,

And she said she would be alright if I didn’t stray too far away.

This inn was just down the road,

But the landlord said he was full up with paying guests

Unless of course I had enough money to pay for his best room

And by the look of our condition, he said he somehow doubted it!

I told him we were broke.

He just stood there with his huge fists on his hips and laughed

And shook his head and told me to get lost and not to waste his time.

His wife understood though, and said he should be ashamed and that we could use the stable

As long as we didn’t mind sharing with the animals.

She came with her mother and old cloths and hot water later

But as I said, they couldn’t stay long

She asked us not to think too hardly of her husband,

Said that he was a good man really.

She didn’t want me then.

Told me to go away and not to come back until it was finished.

I began to argue but she was insistent,

Said that this was something she had to do alone and that she would receive all the help she needed, but she didn’t say from where.

Just told me not to be too far away.

She was right of course, what was I really going to be able to do to help, what experience do I have of these things

She only screamed out once, a man’s name I think,

But I didn’t catch it.

Then, later, the strangers started to arrive.

You would have thought that they would had more consideration.

I mean it’s bad enough trying to manage a new birth,

On your own, in a cowshed, without constant interruptions.

First a crowd of smelly sheepherders, the poorest kind who live out on the hills all year round, not much better than brigands and thieves,

Men with rough hands and even rougher speech, and dressed in fleeces which stank

They all insisted on crowding in to see the child

And wouldn’t take no for an answer.

The landlord tried,

He wouldn’t let them in at first.

Said he ran a classy house and said they had no money to spend

and that they would only frighten his paying guests.

He took some real persuading, but they were very persistent.

Their leader kept going on about angels telling them about the baby and how they had to come and witness his birth.

It’s all nonsense of course, they’d probably all been drinking,

But they did seem genuinely pleased to see the boy

She didn’t say anything, she just smiled.

Just as she was about to go to sleep the professors turned up.

Said they had come a long way and pointed at a star they claimed to have followed, but among all the others blazing away on that freezing cold night, I couldn’t make it out.

They at least brought some presents, but these educated types have no common sense at all.

What is a simple carpenter going to do with myrrh? She can probably use the frankincense to air the clothes, but God knows what I’ll do with the gold.

I’ll have to hide it from the taxman, and hope no-one gets to hear of it.

They talked a lot of blather most of the time, or so I thought,

But isn’t that just like academics all over.

They did tell me not to go home to Galilee just now

Seems it isn’t safe because the King has been asking a lot of questions about some other king being born.

That rules us out of course

But I think I‘Il take their advice anyway, it doesn’t pay to pick quarrels with kings, priests or politicians.

It’s a lesson to teach the boy when he’s older,

No point in looking for trouble if you don’t have to.

I’ll have my hands full just teaching him the trade

Seems strange now looking at his tiny hands to think how will they ever get used to managing the skills of the carpenter.

But he looks strong, he’ll learn, and when he’s finished his apprenticeship, I’ll take him into the business with me.

That’ll be good, the two of us working together.

And when he has learned enough to be about his father’s business,

We should be able to bring in enough to rent the olive grove behind the workshop,

And maybe buy some goats for his mother.

I’ll teach him all my skills so he won’t hurt himself.

Just making a simple joint to hold two pieces of wood together is a complex operation,

If they are going to last and draw from each other’s strengths.

Using hammers and saws needs time to learn,

The slightest slip when working in wood can cause great pain,

I couldn’t bear to think of the flesh of his hands being torn by nails.

No doubt you’ll say its an occupational hazard for a carpenter

But he seems different somehow, I can’t really explain it.

Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age.

We’ll leave in a few days

When she’s stronger and there’s more colour in her cheeks and she can feed him properly.

I’ll thank the innkeeper of course, but frankly, he’s been acting a bit oddly since the professors left and keeps touching his forehead and calling me sir!

We’ll have to register another time, when it gets a bit easier.

We have to think of a name for him as well. I expect she’s already thought of that, but if she has, she hasn’t let me know.

She’ll probably say the angel told her.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

One law for them, and one for the rest of us!

When a top business executive throws a wobbler because one of his staff has put a pink wafer biscuit on the coffee tray, you know you are dealing with a rare kind of individual. But Sir Fred Goodwin, for it is he, was obsessed with biscuits and also had anger problems, The former Royal Bank of Scotland boss, who was known as "Fred the Shred" because of his obsession with cutting costs, left the taxpayer with a £45 billion bailout bill, and a lot of uneaten pink wafer biscuits.

He was, by all accounts, a terrible boss to work for. It is claimed that Sir Fred could not control his anger if the wrong type of biscuit was put in the boardroom, and even threatened catering staff with disciplinary action in an email titled "Rogue Biscuits" after executives were offered pink wafers.

The reason why Goodwin’s discredited name is back in the public frame again is because the FSA has now published its report into the way they regulated or failed to regulate the way in which RBS engaged in the contested take-over for Dutch bank, ABN Amro.

Let us be clear in the interests of simplicity, RBS made a bid for the Dutch bank, which resulted in their buying a crock, leaving RBS with a £49 billion black hole in her accounts, requiring a £45 billion injection from public funds to keep RBS afloat.

The FSA report makes repeated criticisms of the culture and governance at the bank, and labels the £49bn takeover of ABN Amro in 2007 as little more than "a gamble". So delicate are the sensibilities of some of the Directors of RBS as to the way this bad joke should be described, that they have hired lawyers who have been engaged in a lengthy legal dispute with the regulator over its description of the ABN deal.

In the foreword to the report, Lord Turner, the FSA chairman, says that the due diligence conducted by RBS amounted to "two lever-arch files and a CD-ROM", a claim disputed by the bank's former directors.

During its inquiry, the FSA wrote to former non-executives of the bank, including Sir Tom McKillop, the chairman at the time of RBS's collapse, to gauge whether they had felt intimidated or bullied by Sir Fred's notably autocratic style. The former directors are understood to have responded, perhaps not surprisingly, that they had not. Of course not, who would have thought that such a thing could even have been contemplated, I’m surprised anyone felt the need to question whether these nice Scottish gentlemen might have felt at all intimidated by a commercial thug who threw a hissy fit when a pink biscuit appeared by his coffee cup. What we do know is that The City regulator has reconfirmed its conclusion of last year that no former directors of RBS, including the former chief executive Goodwin, will face punishment over their role in the bank's collapse.

Why should this be, did no-one do anything wrong?

The duties of a director of a public company are straightforward and they include;

Directors must act in the interests of their company;

They have a duty to act within their powers;

They have a duty to promote the success of the company;

They have a duty to exercise independent judgment;

They have a duty to exercise reasonable care, skill and diligence;

They have a duty to avoid conflicts of interest;

Looked at through eyes given the benefit of hindsight, how could Goodwin possibly have thought that the ABN Amro deal was a good one for the Bank? Remember, the FSA report calls the whole thing a ‘gamble’!

The banking culture at the time was caught up in a mania of merger activity. The atmosphere in 2007 was, as one senior former RBS director put it, “eat or be eaten”. This was the era when everything was about rapid growth and global domination. Internally, RBS, it was felt, had to be part of that.

Yet Goodwin was repeatedly warned of the dangers of making a bid for part or all of ABN Amro. The memory of the Charter One deal was still fresh in the minds of RBS board members and many doubted whether a bidding consortium could be formed and did not want to buy the whole bank. Goodwin called UBS banker John Cryan, who had helped broker a previous deal and had been a close adviser of Goodwin’s in the past, for advice. The one-sided conversation was what one colleague later described as the “Fred hairdryer”.

Cryan had been against RBS buying ABN from the start and had warned Sir Fred against doing the deal, telling him he was “extremely concerned” about the impact it would have on the bank, particularly its capital ratios.

In one note, Cryan wrote to Sir Fred warning him about ABN’s exposure to subprime: “There is stuff in here we can’t even value.” Sir Fred replied saying: “Stop being such a bean counter”.

This was a man exercising reasonable care skill and diligence? I don’t think so. This was a man so puffed up by his own ego that he was willing to ignore serious professional advice. The full, gory story of this banking farce can be read at;

uk, -2-tele-2357916462.htmail?x=0

What it demonstrates is the way in which one man’s inflated sense of self-importance determined the way in which a bank would quickly founder and collapse to the point that it needed vast sums of public money to stay afloat. Goodwin of course walked away completely free, with an obscene pension to feather-bed has latter years, and no-one inside the RBS Palace of Varieties has been required to explain their dereliction to the duties they owed the company in Court.

To understand the reasons for this inexplicable conclusion, we are forced to revert to the most recent FSA findings. In a report published on 12th December 2011, the FSA admits its own supervision was "flawed" and "provided insufficient challenge" to RBS, the BBC reports. However, it did not concede these shortcomings amounted to negligence.

How can this possibly be the case? The FSA has had a very chequered track record of dealing with the big cases and it has always employed people who were not really qualified to take on the big players. We were repeatedly told that the FSA was going to be better than its predecessor, the SIB,, which was supposed to be infinitely preferable to its predecessor, the DTI, etc, etc.

It may just be that lawyers reviewing the case may have found themselves constrained by the fact that the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was on the record insisting that the FSA continue to engage with the financial sector, with ‘…a light touch approach to regulation…’

Perhaps they felt that this evidence might not assist a jury in coming to a clear conclusion. Whatever the reason, no-one is going to be held accountable for this farce, and the tax-payer must pick up the bill.

In any other walk of life, any failure to fulfill your role and responsibilities properly, and in such an egregious manner as this, would have resulted in immediate sackings inside both organisations. Any chief officer of police deemed to have acted in this way would have been picking up his P.45 long ago, The same goes for any other kind of public service role, but in the City and the financial sector, we do things differently! No one will be called to account, senior figures inside the FSA will be quietly selected for promotion and the whole rotten system of cosy City financial regulation will just drift on and on.

Many of those of us who have been closest to financial regulation in the past have tried to warn the FSA of its failings, but to no avail. We have tried to show them through offering training or working with their enforcement arm, with the aim of providing a high level of assistance, how to develop investigators with real skills, but we have been rebuffed at every turn.

The good old tradition of well-meaning amateurs exercising senior positions in public life, without any real professional skills, will continue to operate. No detective worth his or her salt would have been confused by Goodwin or his satraps, and it is unlikely that they would have allowed him and his cowed team to shout them down. They would have insisted on getting straight answers to straight questions like;

Why, when he knew that other professionals were counseling caution, did Goodwin ride roughshod over their concerns, without reviewing them by third-party professionals? How did this demonstrate that he was acting within his powers?

Why was so little due diligence undertaken before making such a huge investment? How was this in the interest of the company? How much did Goodwin believe his personal commercial worth in the banking fraternity would be increased in the event that the buyout went through successfully?

It would have been put to him that his anxiety to get the deal done in such a hurry, was largely motivated by his greed and avarice in both wanting to beat Bob Diamond from Barclays, (a personality issue) and wanting to be seen as a major banking icon (a big swinging dick in other words) in the banking world, which would of course have increased his commercial value.

It would have been put to him that his anxiety to achieve this fast fix was in fact a series of major conflicts of interests and not in keeping with the interests of the company and its shareholders, but in making him even more commercially valuable.

He would have been kept at the interview table until such time as he gave simple and reasoned answers. He would not have been allowed to roam off into the realms of commercial bullshit, speculating and pontificating and trying to avoid the real meaning of the questions, and he would have been invited to demonstrate why he should not be litigated against for a gross breach of all these requirements?

We, the investing public have a right to deserve far better from those who regulate our financial sector. We have a right to expect that those who have the stewardship of our great financial institutions, should exercise considerable skill, diligence and above all, caution in their handling of our money. We have a right to expect that the Regulators will employ people who can do their job properly, and above all, we should not expect to have to sit through another sniveling apology from a the head of the SFA, explaining why their handling of their responsibilities was so pathetic.

They should be subjected to the same treatment as any one of us would expect, but the problem with the British financial sector is that there has always been one law for those on the inside and one law for the rest of us. Oh, and they don’t like pink wafer biscuits either!

Friday, December 09, 2011

Lord Snooty Went to Brussels

What on earth was David Cameron thinking when he went to Brussels to join the talks on the future of the EU?

He managed to enrage most of those present by his intransigence over the issue of European proposals for further financial regulation in Europe, splitting the European Union, after failing to secure “safeguards” for the City of London that he demanded as the price of Britain approving a new treaty for the bloc.

Lord Snooty almost certainly misread the signals coming from the EU, probably believing that Germany would not force his issues to a point where he had no choice but to play his veto. Germany possibly also thought he wouldn’t press the point so far, but would be willing to roll over on certain issues. In the end, his decision to force a breakaway treaty within the EU came after a standoff with France and Germany, who rejected Lord Snooty’s demands for legally binding commitments to shield the City of London from new and wider regulations.

“I had to pursue very doggedly what was in British national interest. It is not easy when you are in a room where people are pressing you to sign up to things because they say it is in all our interests,” Mr Cameron said.

Well, let us examine that statement!

The City of London, and the very small number of extraordinarily powerful (and obscenely wealthy) men who run the Square Mile, have, through their friends and lobbyists in the Tory Party in Parliament, let Cameron know in hugely certain terms what his future would be, if he were to accede to EU requests for further financial regulation. The City does not like financial regulation, because it gets in the way of business. The City has taken this view for hundreds of years. At the turn of the eighteenth century, Alexander Baring, 2nd son of Francis Baring of the prestigious banking family said;

‘...I consider every regulation to be a restriction and, as such, contrary to that freedom which I have held to be the first principle of the well-being of commerce…’

Nothing has changed in the minds of British bankers since that statement was uttered, and no-one proposing wider regulation of the financial sector is going to be given a wide audience in London.

We have banking regulations, of course, it’s just that they are not enforced very well, or really at all, to any great extent. You only have to look at the level of downright fraud committed by our High Street banks to realize the truth of that assertion.

The financial mess we are currently laboring with was caused directly by these very banks. They played around with financial products which they did not understand sufficiently, they gambled on other people’s debts in the sub-prime scandals, they encouraged their people to sell worthless and dangerous products to gullible investors, and they made fortunes gambling in proprietary trading. Then, when they were broke, they went bleating to the Government for a bail-out, and we were forced to pick up the tab for their incompetence, their arrogance, ignorance and greed (thanks Steve Knightley), all the while, being told that it was our duty and in our best interest to do so!

Can someone help me understand how our best interests are served by continuing to bail out these conmen, crooks and thieves, without any kind of gut-wrenching regulation being imposed on the bastards in return.

The British financial sector, which is all we have left now that most other meaningful jobs have been destroyed, exists to serve the interests of a very small group of elites. They serve the politically exposed criminals and foreign dictators who use the London market to launder the looted contents of their bank accounts out of the reach of their true beneficial owners; they serve the interests of tax evaders, both from home and abroad, they facilitate the onward safe-passage of bribes and corruption on an international scale; they gamble recklessly with the contents of their Treasuries, and then pay themselves bloated bonuses.

We now know that 98% of the FTSE 100 companies (which includes all the major banks) pay little or no tax in the UK, so what benefit do we really get from them? If you need financial services, it is now a given that you will be gouged, cheated, ripped off and sold wholly inappropriate products. If you want a pension, it is an accepted fact that you will have much pulled out if it by the way of inflated and almost invisible charges.

These are the products whose promoters, ever so quietly, through their friends on the Tory back benches, sent the message to Lord Snooty. ‘…If you don’t want to end up like John Major, fighting a constant back-bench army of ‘Euro-bastards’, make sure you know where your (and our) best interests lie…’

Lord Snooty has won himself a reprieve. He will have pacified his Euro-demented back-benchers and given himself some breathing space. He has done his job by his mates in the City, who will be happy that they may not have to face greater EU regulation.

However, Cameron’s bid to secure a new protocol on the City’s exclusion from new rules won little or no support from other EU members, and was barely discussed in detail during the ten-hour summit. Mr Sarkozy merely dismissed the demands as “unacceptable”.

Snooty came home with nothing, except having succeeded to marginalize Britain even more in the eyes of the wider EU members. He may think that the EU can do nothing in the wider scheme of things, Haig, the Foreign Minister was wittering on about ‘protection by treaties’ on Radio 4 this morning.

For myself, I expect that if the new club members form a group, of which Britain is not a member, then they will almost certainly not let us come to their parties! Britain’s ultimatum has infuriated many European leaders who saw Britain as the biggest obstacle to a rigorous treaty to improve eurozone governance and resolve the sovereign debt crisis. Some in the negotiation said the decision to stand firm would have repercussions. “This is going to cost the UK dearly. They have antagonised everyone,” one senior EU official said.

Still, as long as the City gets what it wants, they won’t give a fuck!