Monday 30 April 2018

The gender pay gap? No one told me!

The gender pay gap is something I have never experienced. I know it exists. I witnessed it all the time. Yet it definitely is not the patriarchy thing its feminist believers think it is.

On the pyramid of management, I was at every one of those levels, bar CEO, in the same company. I joined as a  supervisor and left as a regional manager. 

In my firm, which was a predominantly menswear fashion chain, there was very nearly parity between numbers of male and female supervisors. Which is quite amazing. Fashion retail offers a generous 25%-50% discount for employees. So women tend to favour working in female fashion chains and vice versa. A supervisor earns a little more than minimum wage.

Up the rung is deputy or assistant manager. Capable but usually inexperienced. Many areas of expertise lacking but enough basic knowledge to get the job done and follow orders. Initiative can be highly variable between them. At this level still roughly parity in numbers of males and females. 

Up next. The branch manager. Here the split begins. In fashion a branch manager can be any age. But twenty five is a good level of maturity and experience. 
The branch manager has a hefty workload. But commands their unit. They mostly hire and fire and budget and are expected to know their job. The hand holding is over at this level. performance is key.

In my day it was 35-65% women to men managers. The 25 age tells you something about the decline. Its baby time. The drop out rate for maternity begins. And it was fatal. In TEN YEARS as a regional manager I had exactly ONE female manager return to her role as store manager on the same hours and contract as when she left. This is simply because its almost impossible to do the job with a child without much 'free' grandparent/neighbour/sister cover. The hours are 8-6pm or 8-8pm Mon-sat, PLUS Sunday. Plus every bank holiday including Christmas. The pay isn't good enough to afford childcare and be worthwhile. For all the grief involved a full time manager might be working 50 hours a week for just £5,000pa after tax and expenses. 
So the option of part-time work is very attractive.

For chains they can have a highly skilled, suddenly lowly paid, part time team member. 
For the mother its fixed hours. No nights. No weekends and can be fitted around childcare. And HMG is picking up the tab for 15-30 hours of the childcare for 3-4 year olds.  
It suits everyone.

However, the downside is something common to everyone in work. The new mother is out for 5-10 years. While her male colleagues are in. And rising up.

At the Area manager level, which is someone multi-site managing, the female rate is down again. No more than 30%. And that's with senior managers and HR {almost exclusively female? Office hours see..} demanding more female hiring.
Its a better job with better hours. And better perks and higher salary. But its much more stressful. Discipline. Criminality. Legal. Reports. Presentations. Special areas of responsibility. And personal responsibility for all those below.

And its a very lonely change. Previously managers have their branches and their teams. And work alongside many varied characters, The area manager is on their own. A team of one driving around in the traffic  all day. Its not a very sociable role at all.

Then regional.  North. South. London. 
We had 5 regional managers. Only 1 woman. 20%.
 Like me, the others had risen from the floor to the top tier. The lady had no children. The female area managers below, mostly no children.

Its not a mystery, is it? Any reader can look at their own industry and find similarities. 

I was at each level. From recruiting for part time, to setting the annual wage budgets and payscales for each area and each branch and each manager. Not once, at any of those levels, was I ever asked, or ever thought, to pay a woman less than a man just because she had more estrogen. It just never occurred. 

Yet, one time on a check from HR, it was discovered female managers were being paid about 15% less overall. 
The explanation, after much data mining, was the women had been more loyal. Their average length of service was greater. So they were receiving annual pay rises. Didn't move locations as much as their male colleagues. And didn't jump ship for more money.  At the lower levels, they did. But not so much at management. Maybe only a third as likely to leave for another job as the men.

On maternity issues, its often thought women won't be hired as often as men. Because of the very harsh maternity payments that cause all sorts of problems financial problems for a very small business. But in a large one, mine had 1500 employees at its peak, its irrelevant.  Even with the lousy stats for returning from maternity it didn't matter. If they became pregnant they were just a pending vacancy. As I wrote earlier, only one ever came back to the exact same role.
So the subject of 'likely to become pregnant?' wasn't raised at recruitment. Not just because its illegal but because it really doesn't matter. The future is unknown. Today's problems are in need of solutions today. Sort the present.
So. The gender pay gap. It does exist. But only for the endlessly discussed and already revealed reasons. There isn't a conspiracy. Or if there is, no one ever told me about it. Nor anyone I knew. Even when we were supposedly the people devising and implementing the gender outrage.
The government can make companies 'report' all day long. The recent data set was designed to show a problem. And the gender pay gap does exist.
But not for the reasons parliamentarians are convinced it exists.

If any government really wanted to get women straight back to work, childcare as a tax deduction would fix the problem as much as it could possibly be fixed. Especially at the lower to middle level pay scales. 

But everyone knows all of this already. I'm amazed it comes up every year and is a hot media talking point for weeks on end.

Sainsbury's/Asda merger

Well, this big story has been rumbling for a few days. It has gone down very well with the Sainsbury's share price. Not surprising really as although this is called a merger it is not at all. Sainsbury's management will take over Asda and in return, Asda's owner, the US retailer Walmart, will get around 42% of Sainsbury's.

Of course, the ignorant Labour rep, Rebecca Long-Bailey claims that this will be bad for customers and workers - parroting the Union line as usual. But wait!

Is she right here, in the stopped clock right twice a day sense? A combined business will have a 30% market share not far off the size of Tesco. The UK will have gone in 15 years from 6 large supermarkets to only three, yes there have been new entrants like Aldi and Lidl (and Amazon), but still a huge drop. As a good capitalist, I am always sympathetic to the view that large corporates will try their best to create oligopolies where possible to the detriment of their customers - it has always been this way.

In contrast, the two companies clearly think they will get this through any Government oversight. They claim that with a lower market share than Tesco and disparate stores which do not compete in local markets (north vs south) it will be fine. Indeed, prices will be lower (of course, this is due to Brexit not the merger, but they don't find room to say that).

Overall though, the UK has a very competitive food market and the big dislocation is online and big-box German style discounters, neither of which factors is addressed by this merger. This is a classic defensive move to try to get some benefits from shared buying and shared IT services - so bad for suppliers and for non-customer facing staff. It won't really help in the long-term with the changes being faced by supermarkets that have huge out-of-town warehouses that don't meet the needs of the internet savvy consumers anymore.

So is this a conspiracy against the supply chain and customers? Probably.

Will this work though? No, too much change in the market caused by the internet for it to be more than a bandage for a few years.

Thursday 26 April 2018

"We're All Doomed" - A Man Who Speaks Plainly

Here's a man who knows what he thinks and isn't afraid to speak plainly
We’re doomed,” says Mayer Hillman with such a beaming smile that it takes a moment for the words to sink in. “The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.”
Doomed, I tell ye
We really do need people like this, willing to follow through the logic of their own arguments.  Far too many of the Climate Change establishment go into great and detailed spiels about how we are at the 11th hour and 59th minute and we must throw all the gears into reverse immediately ... and then (when they notice nobody throws any gears into reverse, particularly not in China or India) just whimper a bit and say,  - well OK, actually we've got, errrr, 20 years to get serious, and maybe it'll be OK if we just, errrr, spend a lot of money on my pet projects ... 

And if you suggest their own logic indicates the money might better be spent on adaptive measures - o-oh no, that's to accept defeat, we mustn't do that.

I prefer Private Frazer's approach.


Wednesday 25 April 2018

Top of the retail coffee market indicator?

So reading the tea leaves so to speak , Whitbread has been forced by activist investors on its shareholder register to spin-off its Costa Coffee business into a separate entity.

The Activist investors think this ill result in extra shareholder value and allow Whitbread to concentrate on its Premier Inn hotels business.

Both businesses are well run and have been very successful, in fact Whitbread in its markets is a super business and has been for many years. Well managed and targeted, with no airs and graces at its Luton HQ that is for sure.

However, noting in the UK as we did here last week, with the massive preponderance of coffee shops on the high street due to rapid changes in the retail market, surely this is a great top of the market indicator!

Globally, the growth for Costa with its awful 'machines' that you find even in France at motorway service stations, may well be a big opportunity. China is a key target for them (this rarely works out well for UK Companies - its another sign of exuberance and arrogance) and so perhaps there is a lot to this business.

But in the UK surely not with the abundance of competition to sell hot coffee to everyone, everywhere.

(My one reservation is I am typing this with a Costa Coffee sat next to me on my desk which I feel is somewhat undermining my prose....)

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Macron/Trump = Blair/Bush?

That's about it really - a neat idea to explore, that doesn't require much elaboration to set the ball rolling.

It's from the Graun, who introduce it thus
young European leader flies to Washington on an official visit. He is a modernising charmer from the progressive wing of politics, articulate and comfortable with the media. He arrives to meet an American president whose politics are emphatically not his, and whose election has dismayed US liberals, disrupted the transatlantic alliance and alienated European opinion. The new US president is an American exceptionalist. He is no respecter of human rights and international institutions. But the European leader has decided to hug him close in the hope of influencing his decisions. Washington rolls out the red carpet. It is captivated by the visitor’s eloquence and charisma, such contrasts to their own leader’s bombast. Improbably, the two men find themselves starting to make big plans together...
 They suggest it didn't end well for Tony, though.  Discuss!


Sunday 22 April 2018

Owen Jones: A True Rival to Dr North

Man of the People
Ordinarily it's bad manners to derive fun from someone's personal shortcomings, but there is a certain type of in-your-face personality that doesn't quite seem to require observance of such scruples.  High on the list is Dr Richard North, about whom I and several others around these parts have often been unkind.  We suspect there is a textbook clinical pathology at work here, but until he is finally led quietly away his own robust rudeness and strident arrogance in the public realm rather disqualifies him from the protection otherwise afforded by good manners.  IMHO.

Bidding strongly for inclusion on this rather short list is Little Owen Jones.  Just as with Dr North, fairly eloquent writing pours forth from his pen (from which, incidentally, he makes a small fortune - another reason he can be left to fend for himself).  The relevant backstory is this.

Owen "his parents met as members of the Militant Tendency" Jones, a well-regarded Grauniad columnist and firebrand lefty author (read BQ's glowing pen-portrait of his early career) decided back in 2015 to throw in his lot with the apparently foredoomed Corbyn bid for Labour Leadership.  Corbyn's campaign, subsequently to metamorphosize into the baleful Momentum, quickly took on a life of its own with some clever tech-savvy people at the helm.  One of their wheezes was to award campaign brownie-points (Corbie-points?  brownienose points?) to individual registered supporters for activities in furtherance of the mission, e.g. x points for signing up a new supporter, y for raising some money, z for a supportive social-meejah post etc etc.  It was all very competitive, with league-tables and ladders circulated amongst the faithful.   (Almost makes them sound businesslike, doesn't it?  Like the Boy Scouts; or a squash club ... why do we feel it's all rather middle-class?)

You won't be surprised to learn that Little Owen proudly came top of this ladder by a country mile.  Well done, Owen!  Oh, how chuffed he must have been.  But then, Something Went Wrong and, rather as Polly Toynbee fell out with Tony Blair and in due course with Gordon Brown, Owen concluded Jeremy was a wrong'un.  Imagine!  Yes, though candidate Corbyn had triumphed with his invaluable assistance, Owen withdrew his precious support and, compounding matters, proceeded to heap ordure onto the useless Labour leader's head.   Guido has documented all this nicely for us; and it's worth taking a look, to savour the sheer scale of the betrayal.

But then what happened?  Stone me, if Jezza didn't do really well in 2017!  Oh dear oh dear, what is poor Owen to do?  With a decent prospect of there being a genuine lefty government in office, a bright young star like Owen can't just smoulder on the sidelines - he needs to be right in the middle of things, important, influential.  Panic sets in, and Operation Desperate Grovel is launched, for all to enjoy.  A major contribution to the jollity** of the nation.

It's another pathology, of course.  Can we decently laugh out loud at such a public spectacle?

Yes, I think we can.


**You can perhaps imagine how carefully I have chosen my words throughout this post ...

Friday 20 April 2018

House of Closure?

Not a great end to the week in yet another of the long-drawn out retail sector decimation.

Debenhams has don't he usual trick of blaming the weather for its very poor Christmas when in the next breath its CEO admits that Clothing is a massive problem for it, but maybe all the other Chinese tat that it stocks will save it.

House of Fraser also has called in the insolvency specialists. This I can relate to with some anecdata - there is a House of Fraser opposite where I work in the City. I can honestly say I can't afford a single product they sell - it is very high end tat indeed with prices to match. The store always seems busy but you rarely see people walking out with actuals bags. It really does not surprise me to see them struggling, who the hell wants £250 shoes or £200 perfume on a regular basis?

Pre-pack administrations and CVA's  - where companies reduce their rents on in one swipe to try to survive are common practice and no doubt what House of Fraser will be aiming for in this case.

Overall though, the internet continues to destroy retail piece by piece. Still the Governments of all stripes happily let the internet retailers work out of cheap warehouses whilst high street rates and rents are simply beyond imagination - they have been declining a while now even in London but from stratospheric levels. It is beyond me as to why Governments cannot do anything to preserve the high streets and culture of the Country - its not nothing to do with Capitalism in the sense of change must be allowed to happen as technology alters the commercial landscape, yet the tax system is simply being abused by the new entrants to the market. This is causing the harm to city centres which will be hard to recover from, I am amazed that so many coffee shops can currently exist and that demand is there. The collapse in tax revenues from retail also hits local jobs and local government incomes disproportionately - the fact it is ignored by Government continues to amaze me - but it has been this way for over 15 years now!

Wednesday 18 April 2018

Timing is everything.

Fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson,was surprised coming up to his renomination for the Presidency,by an unexpected challenge over his handling of the Vietnam War, by Senator Eugene McCarthy 
Standing against him for the leadership of Democrats on a Peace Platform.

The Peace movement was still quite small in the US. Most Americans still supported the war. Most wanted it finished, but not at the expense of surrender. A peace candidate wasn't expected to do very well at all. 

Then the Tet Offensive happened. A major offensive right across South Vietnam. Focused on the urban strongholds rather than the rural hamlets. It came just weeks after a huge PR campaign by the Johnson Administration,that had told Americans the war was being won.

The pictures on the nightly news told a different story. Bodies in the streets of Saigon. Americans under siege the length and breadth of Vietnam. Walter Conkrite, the voice of evening news America, gave his first ever personal opinion. "America cannot win."

In the aftermath McCarthy came a very credible second place to the sitting president in the New Hampshire primary.
A few days later, Robert Kennedy said he would run on a peace ticket too, so Johnson was suddenly in big, big trouble.

He made a television appearance in which he uttered a famous phrase. But just before that part Lyndon explained his view that because the Vietnam War was so important. Was so time consuming and required such focus, it was going to take every second of the President's time.

"I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office: the presidency of your country."

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."

 The War had claimed it's highest profile victim.

It is worth noting that in a sort of Brexit like frustration, a lot of the Democrats who voted for McCarthy had voted because they thought Johnson wasn't pursuing the war hard enough. 
They thought Johnson too weak on war. So they voted for a peacenik ?
Yes..exactly that. Anyone but LBJ! His support was becoming narrower as he was seen as simultaneously too much pro-war and too much anti-war.

The success of McCarthy in a sort of stalking horse role is what convinced Johnson's biggest rival and sworn enemy, Robert Kennedy, to finally run against him. And made Johnson quit.

Fifty years on, another serving leader, is faced with an impossible challenge. Having to reconcile Hawk and Dove elements within their party and the nation. A challenge that sucks the time and focus out of all other agenda. That diminishes all other politics and leaves the all important domestic legislation drifting aimlessly. 

 Brexit is Vietnam for May. And she doesn't even have Lyndon Johnson's relatively successful domestic bills to fall back on.

The time for the leader to leave will only become more of an issue with every passing day. The time for a successor is once Brexit is done. Not immediately. But within a year of our leaving the EU.
So the new leader can have distance from the past. And a focus for the future.

There will be a feeling by Mayites that she's done.."Alright."
But, in truth, she has not. 

The deal isn't the deal. Its just "Alright."
The country isn't doing well or badly. It's doing "Alright."
The local elections? Who knows? But by polling it looks like Jez will do well as this cycle favours him anyway. And Theresa might snatch a few rurals in exchange for the metropolis. Which might be 'Alright.'
And so on.

I'm afraid, Prime Minister, 5/10 isn't going to be enough. Even 6/10 with a rabble of an opposition like Momentum, shouldn't be considered a success.

So perhaps now is the time to look at 2020. To put aside all fantasies of managing to muddle through to the next election and leading the party to triumph. You had your chance.

Reflect a little now on how best to make the transition. And although very few believed Johnson's explanation for why he wasn't running again, it was a very good excuse.
And a very good speech. 


"...With Britain's future facing a challenge right here at home from the failed policies of Hard Left socialism. With our hopes, and Europe's hopes, for a successful, new European partnership, hanging in the balance every day...
... I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes. Or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office: the leadership of your country."

Image result for theresa may tv camera
..I shall not seek ..and will not accept...

"Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your Prime Minister."

UK Inflation falls again

Back down to 2.5% today.

I wrote last week of the challenge the Bank of England will have in normalising the economy and this is yet another example of this trend.

Historically, to maintain a 2.5% inflation rate you would have expected interest rates to be at around 4% to 5%. But now, after the financial crash, this just is not the case. Debt loads, both public and private are much higher (excluding the Banks whose balance sheets are around 50% smaller). This higher debt load means we are far more sensitive to interest rate changes than pre-2008.

The oft use quote is "this time its different" - but in many ways this time it really is, the macro-economy seems very resilient inspite of the underlying monetary failure of the State. Unemployment is very low by any historical standard, inflation  - even including house prices - remains low. The Government is glacially eating into the deficit. Even the Pound has recovered, which is a shame in many ways as it was such a boost to the sluggish economy of 2017. Abroad the Trump stimulus will help the US a while and the EU is climbing out of its decade long crash - albeit with some major challenges ahead in Countries like Italy that avoided fixing the banking systems.

As a backgound the, how can the Bank of England continue to raise rates in anything other than a tiny and anemic way? Also, more worryingly, is should anything go wrong with the current goldilocks scenario we are facing prolonged deflation with very few tools left to counter it.

Amazing really the Government, for all its evident crapness of people and policy, has still managed to oversee a good economy amongst the madness its manifest failings elsewhere.

Monday 16 April 2018

The Politics of German Gas

Round the back for the dodgy deal
A brief history, plus some other bits and pieces you won't read about in the meejah and might find helpful in forming a view on Germany's and Gazprom's shenanigans and Nordstream 2

(1) Firstly, it's also about oil - not just gas.  The Eastern and mittel-euro countries, including Germany, have long relied heavily on Russia for oil products (indeed, those countries nearest to Russia are almost wholly dependent).  Of course, oil as a commodity is very liquid - in both senses: and both senses are equally important.  (i) Market liquidity means there is a universally-accepted benchmark for pricing;  and (ii) literal physical liquidity makes transportation and delivery much easier than for (e.g.) gas, the latter being dependent on inflexible infrastructure.  Both factors make it much more difficult for Russia to stiff their european oil clients than it is for them to play games with gas: everyone knows what the market price of oil is; and it's not difficult to obtain the stuff, and transport it, from anywhere (albeit perhaps inefficiently).

Those factors combine to make the situation almost the converse to gas, because oil is easy to steal, and to fence.  There is a strong tradition of truckloads of misappropriated Russian oil being sold at discounted prices in eastern and central Europe by highly organised criminals (a bit like ISIS oil to Turkey a while back - and indeed mafia oil in New York City!)  In several EU countries, if they were being honest, what they lose on the gas price, they (well, some of their *businessmen*) gain on the oil.  I'm guessing we won't see an EC inquiry into that anytime soon.  (See also Raedwald passim.)

What does this gas-flow map remind Germans of?
(2) Gas and Germany:  it's fairly well-known that back in the late 1970s / early 1980s the USA made strenuous but unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to prevent Germany, France, Italy et al from buying Russian gas at all.   This was the era of Cruise, Pershing & 'Star Wars', after all.  But Germany (which in those days was more than pulling its weight in NATO) had already decided it was a strategic move, and went for it in a big way.  An exceptionally strong *commercial* relationship was forged between the predecessor of Gazprom (then called SoyuzGazExport) and Ruhrgas, a classic German entity of very complex ownership (including Shell, Exxon and BP) and extremely strong *connections* to the German government.  Ruhrgas was eventually bought by E.on in 2003 - mysteriously the EC competition authorities did not prevent it and E.on has continued in the tradition of being *very close* to both their own government and Gazprom.  No surprises there.

When the eastern countries complain that Germany has cut a preferential deal with Gazprom, they (and the European Commission) choose not to highlight the very substantial amounts of what we might call soft finance Ruhrgas and E.on have provided to Gazprom over the decades (obviously, at governmental behest, to say the least).  Whether Germany Inc as a whole has made a net return on this colossal *investment* in financial terms - cheaper gas in return for soft finance - I couldn't begin to guess.  Maybe they've received a "most-favoured-nation" discount, and maybe some of the eastern countries have been handed a "punishment premium".  Frankly, though, if Germany Inc has made an overall financial loss I wouldn't be surprised.   Because Germany sees it all as strategic.  And, as we know (see recently the Deutsche Einheit) Germany can be willing to pay a high price for what it sees as a strategic geo-political imperative.  

(3)  Overall / rest-of-Europe:  putting Ukraine to one side, Gazprom has generally been a very reliable supplier in political terms, i.e. they have kept the gas flowing westwards even sometimes at the expense of cutting off their own citizens in situations of shortage.  The reason is easy: hard currency revenues (trade was always better than fighting).  As I've mentioned here several times before, it's always been Holland that has been seen as a politically unreliable supplier: they'd always interrupt exports if there was a problem, in order to supply their own citizens in preference.
Not entirely reliable
(Incidentally, Gazprom hasn't been particularly reliable in engineering terms - in fact, their system is notoriously primitive.   But their big Europe customers understand this well, and have invested in huge gas storage facilities to tide them over the inevitable occasional hiccup; and everyone's too polite to talk about it much.)

Now Germany's dealings with Gazprom have been conducted more-or-less at state level; and while one can describe it as highly corrupt, you could also say it's just high politics (- like BAe and Saudi Arabia).  And on the western end of that relationship it's mostly a matter of plumb sinecures taken by Herr Schröder and the like - galling, but hardly the worst thing anyone's ever done, nor even remotely furtive.  But in other countries ... well, let's just say that in the case of certain large Mediterranean clients of Gazprom's, the hanky-panky has been rather more venal.

Ever meddlesome
(4)  The 'Energy Union':   I've written before of my disgust at the acquis-grab that is the European Energy Union.   Suffice here to say that for the eastern EU members, right from the start this has all been about getting the EC to deal with Gazprom on their behalves, urged on by the ever-meddlesome Mandelson, needless to say.  (The EC has actually been promising all countries everything they want in the energy space, in order to extend the acquis.)   Given that the timing of the Energy Union initiative coincided with the height of the Ukranian nonsense, the EC documentation contains some of the most undiplomatic anti-Russian sentiments you'll ever read from a non-Trumpian civil servant, so it's clear the easterners have been making the running and holding the pen.  Germany, though, blithely ignores all this crap and motors on with Nordstream 2 unaffected.

Let's see how it all pans out.  One of those easterners is presumably leaking the Competition enquiry stuff (which was almost forgotten, so quiet had things gone) in order to sabotage Nordstream 2 at a fairly critical juncture.  The Danes are nervous of approving their leg of the new Baltic pipeline, but will probably roll over.  The Finns have already rolled over (well, where do we think they get their oil and gas?)  Yes, it's power-politics all the way.  Think the worse of Germany for it?  They'll be the judge of their own strategic interests.


Friday 13 April 2018

Not a great look for Germany or its politics

The Telegraph have an excellent story out today on the Gazprom-Germany-EU shenanigans. It is well worth reading and here is a link to the full story on a non-paywall site.

I won't rehearse the whole article because it is very clear. The Germans have been happy to stiff Eastern Europe in complicity with the EU. Now that the whole story is out (which must be some miracle for the EU and I feel for the team who pressed publish on this), the EU are going to have to bury it or else end up with 30% income sanctions on Gazprom and State Aid charges against Germany.

The piece to add to it is some people context.

For a long time Germany has been well in with Gazprom. This has been arranged by Gerhard Schroder, the ex-Chancellor, who has long been in Putin's arc and is indeed now Chairman of Rosneft (replacing Putin late last year, natch). The picture here is from 2005, working closely with all the worst of the Putin Gang.

He is indeed a founder member really and today is in the inner cabal, always defending Putin. Angela Merkel has called him out once, saying she does not approve of what he is doing. But the reality is that he has done these sweetheart deals for Germany who look to have gladly lapped them up. Of course, readers here will know of the crazy "EnergieWende" policies in Germany which have left the Country desperate for Russian (low-carbon) gas.

As much as there is loathing in the UK for Tony Blair, he has not actually represented state actors that have hostile intentions. Yes he joined a few Bank boards - but even here Schroder has managed to be an Managing Director of Rothschilds to match. It is quite incredible really what has happened politically.

Of course, there are real world impacts in addition to the economic splintering of the EU that this has been creating, see just today where Germany refuse to join with US/France/UK in considering what action to take against Syria and their Russian supporters. Whilst there are plenty of solid reasons to avoid getting involved in Syria, the German-Russian gas relationship will always now allow for a lack of credibility to German political positions when we know how compromised they are with their Russian engagements.

Thursday 12 April 2018

Will UK interest rates ever rise?

Of course they did, quite recently, back to heady heights of still below 1%.

But the Bank of England, giving its favourite 'guidance' suggested that this was the first move of many and that rates would soon be back to normal (well, over 1%).

Then, as always, reality intervenes. There is some fairly grim economic data out today. Firstly Manufacturing is estimated to have shrunk in the last quarter; then imports have increased as our oil refining capacity slips and exports have grown only a little. Throw in some underwhelming services sector growth and some bad weather and we will be lucky to see much first quarter expansion at all. The economists seem to come in at a consensus of around 0.2% of sclerotic growth.

So the Bank will be left with yet another dilemma in May, to raise or not to raise?

The longer-term issue is that the recovery is eight years old now. Lots of things, like the London Property market,  the Stock Market, the level of consumer debt are all looking like they could easily move down. This is without the panic inducing international political situation interfering. Even the good old oil price is back to $70 - a high level compared to the past couple of years.

But if we were to go into another recession with very low interest rates and a small Government deficit  there are going to be precious few macro levers for the Government to pull to keep the economy going. No doubt most commentators will say this is all the fault of Brexit, but it absolutely is not, these factors would be there in any other situation too, given the length of the bull run.

The saving grace may end up being that the real economy is running with enough spare capacity that slow growth can continue for a long time; even whilst capital owners are stuck for investments and returns.

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Does Putin want Wolrd War Three

Huge focus, rightly, today on the worryingly bellicose tweets coming from President Trump. For me Trump had it over Hillary mainly because of all things, she was a massive war-monger and being a businessman, war was really not his thing.

The Russians though have pushed the West into a very invidious position. They took Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, diverted oil and gas supplies through Iran, had an assassination campaign across the west, troll farms to try to affect Western Democracy, confiscation of Western Assets in Russia, murders of is a very long list and this is before we get to Assad and Syria.

The thing is, the Russians have a plan. De-stabilise the World order with the aim of getting previously unfriendly countries onside and open to takeover by gangsterism and bribery, with a side benefit of undermining the West. At the same time destroy all opposition both in Russia and in Exile to maintain the regime in the Motherland.

I posted on Maskirovka last week, this the bedrock of the execution of this strategy. Deny everything, use useful idiots the world over to promote their fake lines, use their very in-depth infowar teams to promote alternative lines, weaken the resolve to stand up to Russia.

Boy has this been successful, in Syria it got hot because actual Russian forces have heavily supported Assad along with Iranians. The challenge is for the West, that they have mainly been fighting Jihadi's. So it is very much like Libya indeed, where removing Gaddafi was seen as a good thing but turned out to be a big mistake.

However, it seems beyond reasonable doubt that Assad has been using chemical weapons for sometime, clearly as a last resort in several places to break all final resistance. The idea of it being the rebels is for the birds, as has been investigated years ago. But it is great Maskirovka because there are no good guys in a civil war that has lasted seven years and cost too many lives.

The West then is in a bind, Russia can huff it is ready for a war and if the Kremlin is over-confident (tick), then perhaps it is. Perhaps they will try to ruin the West less with bombs and rockets and more with virus's and internet denial attacks. But if he world lets Chemical attacks go unanswered a terrible precedent is set for the future. Chemical today, biological tomorrow, perhaps Nuclear in due course...where do we draw Obama's line in the sand?

So what to do Trump, another missile strike on Assad forces, taking out command and control points to undermine his regime, makes a lot of sense on one level. Also, for me, drawing the line in the sand for the Russians is getting more urgent now, they have really extended themselves but will keep pushing if they see the West folds every time. Very high risk though and so this is also, whilst logical on one level, a poor deterrent. A more realpolitik approach is needed, whereby we let Russia win Syria but then promise to give up Assad for War Crimes - difficult to achieve, but better than world war three risk.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Facebook on trial...perhaps

Sadly our American cousins are afflicted with sae jumped-up hysterical political generation that we have here in the UK.

A classic example of this will be seen today when two congressional hearings will get to grill Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

Facebook has apparently a lot to answer for. Sharing cat videos and one-year old's birthday party pics has proven to be a dark road for the world indeed, soon, it started trying to sell you a sofa that you had purchased last year and from then on it was not long before the only thing appearing on Facebook was doing it yourself Sarin kits and guides from Moscow.

Anyway, that is how the congressmen will put it. Asking over the top questions to try and get onto the news and twitter by going gung ho on Zuckerberg. I am a total bystander having never signed up to this over-sharing fantasy world that people enjoy so much. Good luck to them, the idea that you share all your most personal data freely then get annoyed when the company you gave this all to sold the data to make money.

Umm, that is the business model of social media, after all, it is free at the point of use so how are the companies going to make money?

Yet the Congressmen, exactly like our pathetic Select Committees, will grandstand instead of questioning the underlying nature of the business model and how this works. Indeed, Zuckerberg can probably win just by reminding everyone of quite how desperate politicians are to throw money at his company - money raised from their own brand of suckers, and how he will promote some sort of restriction on political advertising. Boy will they not like that.

Monday 9 April 2018

Dreaming of Macron

In many respects it's surprising there hasn't been more talk of a third party before now.  Given that a big majority of MPs were pro Remain - at least, until they saw which way their constituents voted - one could have imagined a Remainder voting-bloc in Parliament with sufficient cohesion (maybe even whipping) to constitute a single-issue Party of sorts.

But to date we've only seen the faintest shadow of such organisation: too little to count as a real entity, so far as I can judge.  And then, this weekend, the papers seem to have been briefed that a well-funded new party is on the way.  The Observer / Grauniad is, of course, a particular sucker for this stuff: Polly Toynbee even became an SDP candidate all those years ago.   

The sponsors are obviously dreaming of a Macron in British clothing.  (Polly probably dreams of Macron without any clothing - a charismatic frog with a penchant for older women ...)  These 'third party' fads come round from time to time, for sure: but it really isn't the British Way.

Speaking of Macron, myself & Mrs D have just returned from our usual spring break in Paris, where once again we have been incommoded by the French unions en grève.  We did at least avoid being gassed this time; but they are still a bloody nuisance.   Interestingly, as well as being determined to thwart Macron's plans to reform the French economy, the sans-culottes are protesting that the EU is a conspiracy to eliminate French public services (by which they mean, state ownership of public services, a hallowed concept for many over there).

Our French friends tell us Macron in turn is 100% determined to face them down.  Obviously, Sarkozy and Hollande both tried and failed; but he's convinced he's different.  Maybe he is - his mandate is seemingly big enough, and it's his big bid for gloire éternelle - but only time will tell.

Anyhow:  hard to see where the Remainders are going to find a Brit equivalent to lead their third party.   Are any C@W readers limbering up to join such an enterprise?


UPDATE - here's an academic review of the psephological challenges faced by a putative 3rd party in UK politics  [ link now fixed ]

Thursday 5 April 2018

The trade war that won't happen

Let's start with what Trump'w National Economic Advisor is saying today:

"Trump is really the first president to fight back and to put a shot across the bow, stealing intellectual property rights, technology transfers, high barriers, investment limitations, high tariffs – this stuff really is not just unfair, it’s unlawful. It’s outside the boundaries of the WTO. Every country in the world knows this.
Every analyst knows this is the case. Somebody’s got to deal with it. President Trump is going to deal with it. There’s no trade war here. What you’ve got is the early stages of a process which will include tariffs, comments on the tariffs, then ultimate decisions and negotiations. There’s already backchannel talks going on. So look, I understand the stock market’s anxiety. I get that. But on the other hand, don’t over react. We’ll see how this works out.
My view Stu, look, you know I’m a growth guy, I’m a Reagan supply side growth guy. I think that at the end of this whole process, that at the end of the rainbow, there’s a pot of gold. And if you open up that pot, you will see better economic growth, more trading going on, improved wages for both sides.
Anytime you lower barriers, anytime you lower barriers, and that’s the key, the president will say this, lower barriers is the key, don’t raise the barriers. Anytime you do that, it’s good for growth. It’s good for American growth and American workers, it’s good for China’s growth, it’s good for the rest of the world’s growth.”

When you read the contest you can see that Trump is, as the private deal maker he is, just raising the game and not going through the usual channels of the WTO etc.

It is good to recall that the US has won 16/16 claims against China in the WTO and a fat lot of good it did as its consumer manufacturing base was hollowed out.

By way of return, I note that China is being very cautious with its retaliatory tariffs. One sector targeted is Soy Beans, but China imports so much Soy Bean that really, the Tariff's are unlikely to reduce demand and will instead just add to the US tax income. China needs raw materials more than the US needs cheap TV's. Of course, if China targeted iphones then it would be a real threat, as we have seen of late, the millenials can get very voiceferous and excited about access to social media!

So, as is a pattern, the crazed Trump might achieve some of his ends by taking this route. I compare and contrast to Obama, who hand-wringed and talked his way to achieving so little. It is really hard after a year of Trump not to think he is a far better President at getting stuff done. Of course, his tone and associations are dreadful, but his actions do deliver results. This area will be one to watch, albeit the Chinese play a much longer game, much better, as there are no pesky elections to worry about for Emperor Xi.

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Political Maskirovka in action

It was all going so well for the Prime Minister, hubris is funny thing.

Today, the FCO are having to delete tweets that said Porton Down had identified the Novichock agent as having come from Russia.

Russia, unsurprisingly, are having much fun with this. Indeed, the whole incident has been treated with humorous contempt by Russia from the get go. I was so reminded of the excellent documentary by Adam Curtis on Vladislav Surkov, the shadowy aide of Putin.

In Russia, Surkov plays a masterly game, using mainly the broadcast media and internet, the game is played of bigging up celebrities to be politicians then dropping them, backing the hard right, then alternately attacking the hard right, assassinating journalists and enemies at will, making up tax charges to seize property and arrest opponents at will. Overseas, since Surkov was appointed as Ukraine and Crimea advisor, the Russians managed to seize Crimea with unbadged troops and pretend they were not invading Ukraine, as they invaded Ukraine. They claimed they had not shot down a Dutch airliner with their missiles, even as footage of the missile and reaction of the launch crew was broadcast to the world.

The Maskirovka strategy has a long history in Russia and a very successful one. Indeed, the Germans noted they had destroyed every division the Russian army had listed in 1941 and were unable to explain the giant army that still existed in front of them.

So with all this history, I just can't believe the naivety of our UK press today, making out that Russia has scored some huge victory because they can twist a few words spoken by  a Porton Down scientist. This is what Putin's Russia does, lie, disseminate and confuse. Their own people, the world, probably even themselves.

In recent years they have added computer hacking and twitter/facebook trolls to their arsenal of deceit. Yet, it is all out in the open this strategy, recognised for what it is- this is how PM May got such massive support in the first place after the Salisbury attack. Russia has a long history of assassinating its own people at will and the Salisbury attack is prima facie part of their wider assassination programme, with tens of other unexplained deaths in the UK alone.

The UK needs to quickly challenge this current maskirovka with its own truth based version to our own Media, to date we have ignored the Russian game with some success, but the media being populated by naïve idiots means this strategy is not guaranteed to continue with much success going forward.

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Fracking: Off to the Races (soon ...)

Here we go: Cuadrilla have completed their first well at the new Lancashire site and will shortly be ready to frack: and not before time - it's been nearly 7 years since their first attempt.  The antis are limbering up for 13 weeks of colourful protests, so it should all be very jolly.

For some while now I have been working on the hypothesis the government reckons it might as well use the 4 or so years potentially left to it, to encourage the drilling companies to get on and prove up whatever shale reserves there are.  Then, if Labour really wants to turn its back on the wealth the gas represents, well, it's been sitting under the ground for eons and it ain't going anywhere else in a hurry.  When it comes to serious development and production prospects, t'unions might have ideas quite different from "Nanas against fracking" ...
It rains in Lancs.  Who knew?   Not Cuadrilla

What slightly troubles me is that Cuadrilla are a pretty useless crew (ditto Third Energy).  They have made a pig's ear of the drill pad up in Lancs, allowing it to flood everywhere and breaching their permits several times.  (That's water in the pic, not ultra-smooth concrete - and it's never been entirely clear where it came from, though Cuadrilla says rain.)  Given that handling immense quantities of liquids is what the fracking game is all about - both in the pumping-down phase of the operation, and perhaps more significantly in the flow-back phase when a substantial proportion of the fluids that've been sent down come back up again, often heavily polluted - it doesn't bode well that these jokers can't even handle suface water.  Who knew it rained in Lancashire, eh?  Bloody amateurs.

Still, the big boys were always reckoning to let the minnows take the flak, then move in once the reserves have been proven.  A good long-term strategy?  If it allows the game to be brought into terminal disrepute, I'm not so sure.


Monday 2 April 2018

Arguing Ad Hominem against the Labour Party

It's always supposed to be deeply suspect to argue ad hominem - playing the man, not the ball - as though it were a fallacy.  Well, sometimes it almost is.  It's even more frequently very annoying, generally as a tactic being used to avoid the more strenuous business of disputing lucidly the logic of an assertion.   

But other times it is an entirely appropriate component of a critique.  If, for example, a convicted murderer was to argue that murder doesn't merit a custodial sentence; or a CEO earning £10 million a year was to be found proposing income tax be abolished; then mention of their personal interests in the  matters would not be thought out of place.  (Which isn't to say their reasoned arguments shouldn't be heard, for what they are worth: the laws of natural justice cut both ways - as the Trans lobby would do well to remember.)

Now here's an anecdote, before I get to the point.  A year ago, my local Conservative association invited a well-known political journo on the left of UK politics to address us.  He was very interesting, and we had an excellent, open, wide-ranging Q&A after his talk.  À propos of somethingorother, he said: do you know, this kind of event couldn't take place within the Labour Party.  You people are interested in seeking views and analyses from the other side of the political divide in a spirit of enquiry, and you hear me out courteously.  If a mirror-image Labour meeting were to be attended by a right-wing journalist, he wouldn't be allowed to finish before several people would feel obliged to shout him down.

I want to say - because I consider it meaningful - so, what does that tell you about the Labour Party?  And the answer, of course, is that it is disproportionately** filled with unpleasant people, and should be discounted accordingly.  Nor is there, IMHO, a legitimate counter along the lines of: no, wait a minute, Labour Party members are so down-trodden, nay, struggling for their very survival; you can't expect them to observe genteel pleasantries.  In reality, you know full-well the bastards heckling from the back would just be assorted middle-class Trots for whom raw survival has never been any kind of issue.     

Which brings us to Labour and anti-semitism.  Just consider what's being unearthed in that nasty little organisation, day after day.  Enough to damn their enterprise as a whole, that's what.  Ad hominem?   When so many of the homines (yes, and the feminae) are as deeply unpleasant as that, then yes:  the rest of them should be thinking carefully just what it says about the company they keep.  The company they propose should be entrusted with political power.  It's not fallacious, or even slightly tangential.  It's central to the issue.

** Yes, I've met plenty of perfectly reasonable, non-doctrinaire ones too.  I feel sorry for them; and in many constituencies I'd say life will soon become very uncomfortable for them indeed.