Tuesday, February 16, 2010


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Friday, February 12, 2010

Government May Put the Financial Industry at Risk

In the coming weeks we can expect the halls of Congress to echo with cries of outrage as banks announce their bonuses for 2009 performance. Abroad, Alistair Darling, the United Kingdom’s finance minister, already revealed a 50 percent “supertax” on all U.K. bank bonuses more than 25,000 pounds (about $40,000). France has announced that it will enact a similar tax.

The Obama administration plans to impose a fee on large finance firms to “recoup” public funds spent in the Troubled Asset Relief Program, regardless of whether the banks wanted to participate. Will Congress demand more as voters’ anger against banks remains high?

Two key economic concepts are under attack by the government. First is the principle of comparative advantage. Ironically, in light of British government action, the term was popularized almost 200 years ago by Briton David Ricardo. There seems to be a great willingness to extinguish the value of this advantage overnight. It took decades, despite significant competition from other financial centers such as Frankfurt and Singapore, for London to structure financial operations superior to others.

That leads to the second concept under attack — clustering. Since birds of a feather flock together, good performers were attracted to London. The comparative advantage of London’s banking sector attracted related and supporting industries as well. London therefore became a key market, attracting key players who were paid top rewards. Quite a perpetuum mobile if not disturbed!

However, disturbances did occur, as was evident in the past two years. Markets were not as successful. There were large losses because of opaqueness in corporate activities and high-risk exposure. Are we now seeking to find ways to reform finance in order to offer more transparency and better risk management? Apparently not. The U.K. government seems to believe that curtailing the work of markets will improve conditions. Even conservative-led governments in France and Germany are leveraging public opinion to increasingly tax the banks. When public anger is high, it can easily be used to support political action. Taxation is an easy recourse, but is it the right course?

Finance employees in London are angered by the “supertax.” Many bankers view the action as unfair and pandering to short-term populism. One key complaint focuses on the low threshold for the tax. In a business where individuals can generate millions of pounds worth of profits (and losses), a trigger amount of 25,000 pounds seems very low. Critics also fear that the “supertax” would damage the city’s attractiveness as a financial center. In a global environment, one can expect bankers and banks to look at alternatives such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Geneva or even Dublin.

Some governments might well see new opportunities to attract financial businesses. Perhaps Silvio Berlusconi, with visions of renewed Medici splendor, might position Milan as the bank-friendly city? Could German Chancellor Angela Merkel reposition Frankfurt as the new mecca for financiers?

The U.K. and French governments reject the criticisms as humbug. They justify the “one-off” tax with the argument that banks were able to realize profits, and subsequently pay large bonuses, in large part because of the government’s “bailout” of the banking system. While there is merit to this argument, we advise a more prudent approach supportive of a renewed and thriving financial system and limited in its imposition of pain from high-performing financial executives. We should not punish excellence.

It is quite difficult to understand the financial community’s culture of very large annual bonuses. There have been corporate compensation structures that rewarded top executives at levels beyond their contributions to the firm. Reform is needed. While a forceful counterpunch may lead to short-term popular contentment, one should bear in mind that in the long run, there is little support for high levels of taxation. As we pursue needed reforms, let’s not put a desire for retribution over good business sense.

Government actions can have significant indirect effects. We are reminded of the Empress Dowager Tz’u-hsi. In 1896, in order to finance the renovation of the summer palace, she impounded funds that had been designated for Chinese shipping and its navy. As a result, China’s participation in world trade ground to a halt. In the subsequent decades, China operated almost in total isolation, without any transfer of knowledge from the outside, without major inflow of goods and without the innovation and productivity increases that result from international exposure.

In the U.S., we have laboriously built comparative advantage for our financial sector. Prosperous financial firms provide treasure and opportunity to the fortunate societies in which they cluster. Given today’s mobility of both industries and employees, banks that are convinced of their righteousness should fight back and move core units to business-friendly locations. Businesses, in general, need to remember that they are but one integral component of society. The level and structure of their profits and executive compensation should reflect a firm’s long-term best interests within an overall societal context. MBA programs without an emphasis on such context and proportionality must revise such shortcomings in their teaching.

Legislators and government in turn need to recognize the effects of their actions on global alternatives. Eliminating a comparative advantage and successful clusters without a productive replacement is a risky strategy.

Co-written with Charles J. Skuba. Prof. Skuba teaches international business and marketing at Georgetown University. .

Friday, February 5, 2010

Competition for Russia's Gazprom in Natural Gas

A February 1 article investigates Mr. Reinhard Mitschek’s plan to connect a gas pipeline from the Caspian area to Western Europe. This would weaken the monopoly that Russia has in natural gas. The building of the pipeline is scheduled to begin in 2011; however, deciding who will provide the needed capital of €7.9 billion ($11.03 billion) to fund the project is still in question. But Mr. Mitschek is optimistic that many financiers will be willing to fund the long-term initiative rather than investing in volatile short-term ventures.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Free Trade Deals Unlikely Right Now

I have written before about the importance of free trade to our economic recovery.  However the current political climate is not amenable to making trade freer.  Unemployment and labor unions are preventing any progress which ironically might hurt them in the long run.  Mark Drajem wrote an excellent article on the difficulties which you can read here.

Do you think free trade is a good idea right now and is there any way to make it more politically feasible?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Answer to the Salt Riddle

If you did not get a chance to read the previous entry about salt and its historical importance, read it here.
I appreciate all the reader contributions.  It is the readers who make this blog successful and the comments create a fantastic forum for discussion and I urge you to subscribe, continue commenting, and take part in the discussion.

The answer after the break.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Some Quick Thoughts on Salt

In ancient Hebrew and Arabic, the words for war and peace derive from the words for salt and bread.  It is well known salt was incredibly important in the pre-modern world.  Roman soldiers jealously guarded the salt fields near Palestine and controlled the caravan routes that brought this commodity westward.  In fact, Roman soldiers were partially paid in salt which is where we get the word 'soldier' from the Latin sal dare (to give salt) and the word 'salary.'  In the Middle Ages, nations such as England built their foreign policies around the imperative of securing southern sea-salt supplies.  The phrase "to be worth one's salt" and the compliment "salt of the earth" arose out of the high value of salt.

Of course in modern times, though it is still incredibly important, salt is substantially cheaper because of its abundant supply.   My question is: What commodity today has such importance and high value in day to day life?  There is an obvious answer.  But there is also another resource that may be in short supply sooner than we think that could drastically affect the global economy...Comment with your guesses and thoughts!

Read the answer here

Friday, January 22, 2010

Biopiracy is the Next Big Issue

Charges of biopiracy -- the illegal use of one nation's natural resources for the economic gain of another are often extreme and are therefore relatively easy to reconcile.  But what happens when pharmaceuticals are involved and people's lives hang in the balance.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bribery and Corruption

In many countries, bribery and corruption are part of the business lifestyle. “Greasing the wheels” is expected for government services.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Culture Clue #4

North Americans begin getting to know people by asking a lot of questions. In Latin America, it is safer to talk about local or regional topics.  Personal questions are often interpreted as prying.

What are your experiences in this regard.  I would love some comments.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

US Trade Policies Disadvantaged Companies

Ironically, it was the leadership role of the U.S. after World War II that led to the shift in trade positions. American policymakers have long seen the U.S. as the leading country in world power and trade. This opinion brought with it a sense of obligation to assist other countries with their trade efforts.