Hong Kong protests and Brexit could both end up benefiting financial elites

[A short comment piece I wrote for The Conversation website]

Philip Roscoe, University of St Andrews

Protests in Hong Kong have captured the world’s attention in recent weeks, with demonstrators closing streets and the airport, and Chinese forces amassing near the border with a none too subtle threat of violent reprisal. The protests began in response to a new extradition law, but have spilled over into a general unease about the future of Hong Kong’s special administrative status.

This special status sets Hong Kong apart from mainland China in a number of ways. As well as enjoying various social and political freedoms, it has a free market economy and is one of the world’s biggest financial centres. Global finance has attracted a number of Chinese elites but has not benefited a large chunk of Hong Kong society.

But if Hong Kong’s protesters succeed in pushing back against the oversight of Beijing, it would serve to reinforce the benefits the elites already enjoy from Hong Kong’s economic arrangements. This parallels the situation in the UK, where financial elites could soon embrace a low-tax, low-regulation future following a no-deal Brexit driven by populist concerns about immigration and inequality.

Longstanding financial centres

Hong Kong and London share a common history and since the 1960s have flourished as offshore financial centres, acting in many ways as secrecy jurisdictions or tax havens.

Hong Kong’s financial sector was a creation of the British, who used it as a route into Chinese markets. It boomed following the opening of the Chinese economy. When, in 1997, Hong Kong returned to China, it preserved some of this offshore status as a special administrative zone. The beneficiaries this time were Chinese.

Hong Kong stores great reserves of capital in comparative secrecy, channels global investment into China – also in secrecy – and is a crucial part of China’s long-term plan to establish the Renminbi as a global reserve currency through offshore markets. The local “dim sum bond market”, issuing RMB denominated debt, has been a remarkable success, with the equivalent of more than US$100 billion of capital circulating.

Finance hub. Shutterstock

Hong Kong has been implicated in shadier dealing. Investigative journalist Nicholas Shaxton puts it bluntly: “Hong Kong is where most of the corruption in China is accomplished.” Other scholars see Hong Kong as an amalgam of onshore and offshore finance, with a strong legal system, tax treaties, and a robust financial market.

London’s success as a global financial centre has also been driven by its status as a hub for offshore financial services, a position greatly supported by its strong connections throughout Britain’s former empire. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, London became home for the “eurodollar” markets. These were lending markets operating in US dollars, located in London but considered to be beyond the purview of the UK’s legislation.

London-based lenders could charge higher rates than the national currency controls of the time allowed. The United States benefited as the depth and liquidity of eurodollar markets supported the dollar’s reserve currency status; international banks arrived in droves and the City, London’s financial district, thrived. Regulators on both side of the Atlantic turned a blind eye, quietly admitting the economic benefits the markets bestowed. Even the Soviets invested.

Masters of reinvention

Both London and Hong Kong are centres of perpetual reinvention. Following the financial crisis, the City’s innovations have included managing the wealth of the global super-rich and an arrangement with the Chinese government to develop the offshore trading of the RMB.

In the same way that Hong Kong’s protesters fear Chinese control, a number of Brexiters claim the EU comes with too much red tape. Interviewing financiers for research into London-based markets, I found overwhelming support for Brexit, largely driven by a distaste for increasing layers of regulation.

It is certainly the case that Europe has never been comfortable with London’s activities as a conduit for international funds. No one expects the EU to maintain the City’s “passporting rights” which allow firms based in the UK to trade freely across the EU. And the mundane but profitable business of settling euro transactions is likely to be pulled within the bloc.

But there is much more to financial markets than regulation. The City’s remarkable talent for reinvention flows from the nature of financial markets themselves.

History shows they are fluid entities constantly reshaping in response to political happenstance and technological or economic advances. Markets put down roots in the shape of dense social networks shaped by bonds of trust and expertise, and in the material infrastructures – from wires, phones and screens to upscale offices, restaurants and hotels – without which they cannot function. Advantages of status and connection become embedded. When new financial frontiers open up it’s those well-placed who benefit.

Here’s the irony. Hong Kong’s protesters seek political freedom, but whatever happens in politics, it is likely that the economic advantages of the elite will be preserved through the social and material architectures of its markets.

Brexit, meanwhile, has been driven by concerns over immigration and inequality, but the no-deal on the horizon offers something else. If the new prime minister’s rhetoric of “boosterism” and “freeports” is to be believed, the City will be entirely unencumbered by regulation, free to roam the high seas of international currency flows. Here too, only the financial elites will benefit.

Philip Roscoe, Reader in Management, University of St Andrews

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How To Build a Stock Exchange: Making Finance Fit for the Future

Here’s my new project: a podcast! It’s titled How To Build a Stock Exchange: Making Finance Fit for the Future. It’s a story of stock markets and how they came to be so important in our world. It will feature my own work and showcase the research of the sociological studies of finance as it builds an account of the evolution of financial markets and their place in a responsible, sustainable future. I introduce it as follows:

Finance matters. We’re off to build a stock exchange, but first of all I’ll spend a little time explaining why financial markets matter. This episode explores how financial markets – a crucial mechanism for the distribution of wealth – are implicated in our present political malaise and looks at some of the ways that finance has squeezed us over the last three decades.

Episode One is called ‘Finance Matters and here’s how it starts…

A famous philosopher once said – ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’ It was Adam Smith, of course, born not far down the road from me in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, and the father of modern economics. He once walked to neighbouring Dunfermline in his dressing gown, apparently, so deep was he in thoughts, musings like this, and ‘Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.’

From those words, published in 1776, a whole global order has sprung. We can call it capitalism, and at its centre lies a strange entity, so much part of our lives that we simply take it for granted.

I’m talking about the stock exchange…

You can find transcripts and audio here, or follow on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

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Deficit, what deficit? The politics of financial fact

Our pensions are under threat. You will be familiar with the headline numbers – pensions slashed by over half, to a level where the very survival of the university sector seems in jeopardy. I have done the numbers, like everyone else, and they make grim reading. But how did this whole mess come about? At root, it’s a struggle over risk and who should carry it. The deficit itself is the result of some particular choices made by regulators and administrators. Its very existence is a reflection of the broader struggles over the marketizing of universities and the social contract for public services, and it’s this battle that academics are fighting, whether we know it or not.  Continue reading

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The rise and fall of the penny-share offer : A historical sociology of London’s smaller company markets

For the last two years I have been working on a ‘historical sociology’ of two stock markets established in London in 1995 in response to a series of rule changes at the London Stock Exchange (LSE). Roscoe report cover

The first, the Alternative Investment Market, or AIM, was set up by the LSE. It was established as part of LSE chief executive Michael Lawrence’s ‘seven-point plan’ for the repositioning of the Exchange as an engine for economic growth focused on the UK regions. AIM was also, in part, a reactive move allowing the Exchange to deal with competitive threats in Europe and at home, particularly growing activity under its own Rule 535. It has acted as a proving ground for many smaller companies and plays an important role in the political positioning of the LSE.

The second, OFEX (renamed PLUS in 2004) was privately operated and driven by commercial demand. Originally operated as a trading facility, it achieved legal recognition as a ‘designated market’ in 2001, and then as a Recognized Investment Exchange (RIE) in 2007. As OFEX it coexisted with the LSE and rode the dotcom wave; as PLUS it served as a vehicle for a market rebellion against the LSE. It struggled to maintain a commitment to its original small company constituency and to compete as a trading venue of choice against the Exchange. While AIM has flourished, PLUS faltered after the financial crisis of 2008, and my narrative finishes in 2012 with the sale of the PLUS RIE licence to ICAP, now NEX.

My research is based on interviews with members of the small company stock market community, as well as extensive documentary records. I have compiled a narrative account of these markets designed primarily for interested academics and for members of the professional community. It’s freely available and you can download it here. My narrative begins on the old floor of the LSE prior to the 1986 ‘Big Bang’ and finishes with the failure of PLUS in 2012. I conclude with some brief reflections upon the challenges and opportunities facing stock markets serving the smaller company sector, as illuminated by this history.

Please feel free to download, circulate, and quote. Suggested citation: Roscoe , P J 2017 , The rise and fall of the penny-share offer : A historical sociology of London’s smaller company markets. University of St Andrews.

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Confessions of a ‘critical marketographer’

Last week I attended the 12th International Ethnography Symposium, at the University of Manchester, and had the pleasure in speaking to a group of fellow ‘marketographers’, whatever they may be. In fact, I think that was rather the point of the stream, organized by Daniel Neyland and Vera Ehrenstein (both of Goldsmiths University) and Dean Pierides (University of Manchester). My thanks to Dan, Vera and Dean for a great two days. In the meantime, here’s my talk:

When I mischievously titled my abstract ‘Confessions of a critical marketographer’ I had in mind, not so much Augustine, but those bawdy films of the 1970s with names like Confessions of a Window Cleaner, all suggestion and double entendre but no more than the occasional glimpse of flesh on camera. This, I thought, accurately represented the state of my ideas, or lack of them. But of course the confessional tale is one of the categories of ethnography highlighted by John van Maanen in Tales of the Field. It is, he says a response to the realist abstraction of earlier scientific ethnography, focusing attention on the fieldworker as a means of supporting authority. It is typically told from a shifting perspective and in a character building narrative, ending on an upbeat note: a justification, in fact, of the realist work that follows it, or more usually precedes Tales of the Fieldit, because in 1988 at least, one could not write a confession until after the realist account. Van Maanen goes on to introduce the Impressionist tale, a narrative account depending on interest, coherence and fidelity, offering impressionistic moments or fleeting glances of the subject at hand: the audience is invited to relive the tale with the teller, to work out what is going on as the narrative unfolds. It seems to me that this move, described by van Maanen in 1988, it is roughly where we are at when it comes to marketography: glimpses and impressions, stylishly drawn, are appearing alongside more realist tracts. If I had to give an example, I would site Muniesa and company’s achingly stylish oeuvre ‘Capitalization’. Though whether we Brexit Brits could get away with something so assuredly Parisian is another matter… Continue reading

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More awfulness from the US labour market

Image result for elizabeth anderson private governmentHot on the heels of my last review – of Ilana Gershon’s Down and Out in the New Economy – here’s a second offering for the THE on the subject of labour relations. This, from the esteemed philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, takes aim at the expansion of market logic into the private realm of firms, and the subsequent ceding of almost all power on the part of employees. In pursuit of a free-market, employers can hire – and fire – at will, and the results are quite shocking. Once again, Brexiteers beware: your much hoped for low-regulation world may have you, quite literally, pissing your pants at work. Here’s a taster:

“Elizabeth Anderson is a philosopher on the warpath. Her Tanner Lectures, published in this volume with comments and a response, take aim at the unelected, arbitrary and dictatorial power that employers, particularly in the US where labour laws are flimsy, hold over their work-forces. She calls it “private government”, in the sense that those governed – that’s us, by the way – are shut out of the governing process.

The book is littered with examples of firms that make employees’ lives a misery. The usual suspects are here and worse: I was shocked to discover that the right to visit the toilet during working hours has been a contentious and ongoing battle of American labour relations for many decades, and that it is not uncommon to be forced to wear nappies on the production line or urinate in one’s clothes…”

Read the rest here

 

 

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Self as brand, Linkedin, and new ways of thinking about work


Down and out cover

A recent review, for THE, of Ilana Gershon’s troubling Down and Out in the New Economy. It’s one of two books on labour relations in the United States I’ve reviewed of late – the other coming soon – and believe me, some of the material is shocking. Those of us subject to European labour regulations have no idea how lucky we have been (up till now, at least). Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:

‘Imagine a world without stable or secure jobs. A world where job seekers are told to embrace risk, to be flexible and upbeat, where the engine of the economy is powered by passion and lubricated by uncertainty. Such is the world of new-economy employment skilfully documented by Ilana Gershon’s sympathetic and wide ranging study.

For much of the 20th century, employment has been understood in Lockean terms of self-as-property with the worker renting her bodily efforts and skills for a prearranged period of time. Such a metaphor implies boundaries between work and personal life, and squabbles over such boundaries have been codified in labour law. In the new economy, says Gershon, we have come to talk about our jobs in a very different way. Interactions around work – job seeking, hiring, firing and quitting – are structured by a distinctive new metaphor that posits employment as business-to-business relationship. To be a business is to be a bundle of skills, assets and relationships, arriving at a new employer ready to deliver a particular service on a short-term, contractual basis. When we buy a service from a business we do not expect to invest in training or to have a long-term obligation once the service is being delivered. Gershon, a linguistic anthropologist, suggests that the change in metaphor underpins an important and unwelcome change in economic organization….’

You can read the rest on the THE website here

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Evolution and organization, part 2: more sloppy language, dodgy organizational theory, and Weber being right all along

Spring is in the air. The sky is blue and the garden robin is lining his nest-box bachelor-pad with moss. At such a time the thoughts of man turn naturally, like those of the robin, to matters evolutionary, and in particular to the long-awaited second half of my blog on organization and evolution. I posted the first part before Christmas, though never made it to organization, waylaid instead by a lengthy detour into Richard Dawkins’ decidedly wonky metaphysics.

Robin

Pseudo-evolutionary chatter in organizations: it seems to be everywhere. We don’t bat an eyelid when Amazon talks about its ‘purposeful Darwinism’, a yearly cull of the worst performing employees. It doesn’t make us shudder to hear that this is based on constructive criticism offered to bosses via secret feedback mechanisms. Final year undergraduates cheerfully tell us about the ‘rank and yank’ mechanisms in the firms they hope to work for, never considering that things may not go to plan and they might themselves be yanked, not ranked.

Management scholars of a critical bent should be worried about this kind of thing, so I’ve set out to elaborate a genealogy of these ideas. It’s one of many possible lineages as the evolutionary tropes have themselves evolved and spread out in their own diasporic family tree; Continue reading

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Evolution and organization, part 1: Sloppy language and dodgy metaphysics

Image result for the god delusionA few days ago, a scientist friend remarked that he was reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. What’s more, he was really enjoying it. It really spoke to him, he averred. This awkward conversational moment set me thinking once again about a topic that I’ve been pursuing on and off for the last couple of years: trying to get a hold of the reasons for importing evolutionary thinking into management thinking. It strikes me as odd when a firm can describe its ruthless annual cull of the weaker performers (as identified by colleagues through anonymous feedback mechanisms, which sounds a very fair and reasonable method to me) as ‘purposeful Darwinism’. Not just as odd, but also morally charged and strategically dishonest, as if ruthless pursuit of shareholder interest can be justified by the subliminal message that those under-performers – the weak! – are dull herbivores, contentedly fattening themselves up until something more leonine, in this case the go-getting manager – the strong! – comes along and scoffs them. Mind you, this week in politics has testified, among other, darker things, to the enduring image of the strong-man in the popular imagination.

Richard Dawkins, of course, is at the epicentre of this particular earthquake of popular thinking. But I was struck by my friend’s comment because the God Delusion is a truly bad

Continue reading

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Reviewing “Peak: Secrets from The New Science of Expertise”, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

It seems strange to call a book about self-improvement “Peak”. Perhaps the publishers balked at “Uphill Struggle”, though that would have been much more fitting for a tome in which Anders Ericsson – the psychologist behind Malcom Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” – and science writer Robert Pool channel the Calvinist spirit to insist that greatness is possible for everyone. So long, that is, as we work at it…

Read the rest on the THE website or download the PDF.

This review appeared in Times Higher Education, 9-15 June 2016

 

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