Monday, October 20, 2008

Forgive me Father for I have speculated...

Having essentially liquidised my stock portfolio at the end of last year, I thought I was content to watch others on the rollercoaster, gently licking a gelato on a park bench below. But in the past couple of weeks the capitalist serpent has been hissing in my ear again...and the temptation to play the market for oil and gas short has proved to be too great. 

According to some of the worthies on BBC Radio 3's Beyond Belief programme on the ethical ramifications of the credit crunch, short-sellers and their like are set for a real roasting. "These people profit from others' pain."

My chosen instrument of pecado mortal was DUG, an ETF which seeks 'daily investment results, before fees and expenses, which correspond to twice the inverse of the daily performance of the Dow Jones US Oil and Gas Index'. 

Aside from the fact that this security has a manager who is paid to go to Hell on my behalf, there are several other factors contributing, according to my own private exegesis, to a possible remission of sin in this particular instance. 

My current place of 'work' doesn't for instance incorporate those collateral moral distractions familiar to City workers, such as Colombian blow, lap dancers and male-bonding sessions. 

A lower oil price may also help cushion the blow of recession - billions which might have been spent distending the bombast of the likes of that populist dingbat Hugo Chávez and all round turd Mahmoud Ahmadinehad, can be put to better, maybe even social, uses methinks. 

Chávez has been indulging in a bit of premature gloating of late, but he rather needed the price of oil to stay above $95 to balance his books this year. Oops. 

Now, I have nothing against the good people of Venezuela - except perhaps that comedy show Bienvenidos - but I can't be wrong in assuming that a certain amount of disarray in their public finances might help to bring the possibility of regime change a step or two closer. 

Other members of the 'Axis of Diesel' are feeling similarly discomfited. Ahmadinjihad - who faces an 'election' next June - was also hoping for $95 a barrel and Poot'n's little red line was around $75. (Vlad has more of a snowy day fund to resort to than the Venezuelan government, but he's also going to have a harder time flogging AKs to Hugo's ejercito.) Nigeria must also be feeling a bit nervous ($68), but those medieval bullies down in Saudi are a bit more sorted unfortunately: $55.

They're all getting together this week for an OPEC jolly to see what can be done against the dissipation of their petrodollars. 

Anyway, the panel on Beyond Belief reached the ecumenical conclusion that our future moral wellbeing will depend on privileging investment over speculation. 

Wall Street wit Fred Schwed once noted that "speculation is an effort, probably unsuccessful, to turn a little money into a lot" whilst "investment is an effort, which should it be successful, to prevent a lot of money becoming a little." He added that explaining the difference between the two was usually "like explaining to the troubled adolescent that Love and Passion are two different things."

The theological commentators assembled by Radio 3 could find no way of separating speculation from the sin of gambling, yet other - more secular - observers, have often pointed out that while the gambler creates new risk, the speculator is merely assuming one that is already implicit within the capitalist system. 

I did however quite take to some of the ideas being expounded by the representative of Islam on the show. In that tradition it is a precept that businesses and their customers must share risk - so the circumstances in which cynical merchant bankers advise clients to pump money into flakey enterprises would not generally arise, because deals would be structured so that the financial penalties also fall on the purveyors of poor counsel. 

Having lived through three of these GDP-shrinking moments in my professional life, I'd have to agree with the French President that it's about time we tried to change our commercial ways more durably. 

Some sort of preventative regulation will certainly help to avoid the need for repeats of the kind of state intervention we've seen this month, but revisionist mores at the level of everyday business practice could also have a role to play. The Islamic notion of shared risk might even be a good place to start - what a different place the PR industry would be if it was rewarded at least in part according to business results. (A lack of a real stake in the business outcomes of communications campaigns has probably been one of the key factors holding back the industry.) 

One last thought for today. A knowledge of history has famously been said to help contain the danger of repeating it. But a misapprehension of that knowledge can also generate new gaffes in governance. The credit crunch may well be no more an analogue of the crash of '29 than the appeasement of Saddam was one of the several accommodations made with Hitler in the 30s. 

Having said that, it might be worth adding a geographical dimension to our historical quest for antecedents for the 2008 crisis. Both Chile (1982) and Mexico (1994) had to re-nationalise their banking systems after massively over-extending themselves with debt, with immediately dire consequences for their GDP. (A contraction of 20% in the case of Mexico). These were both dodgy developing economies you might argue, but UK and US public debt levels have not been far off Third World levels in recent years...

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