LONDON, England – Though I've lived in London for 18 years, I had never been invited to the historic Mansion House speech of Britain's finance minister - or Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was well worth going last night given that it was the first speech by someone other than Gordon Brown, who had the job for nine years before he became prime minister last year.
And while the Mansion House speech is usually just a few brief words given before the great and the good of the City of London financial district, this time there was a lot to be said by the Chancellor Alistair Darling and maybe more importantly by the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King.
They talked about sub prime, Northern Rock and reforming the Bank of England so the country's inflation target is not the bank's only raison d'etre.
But, I'd rather write first about the pomp and circumstance of this very British of evenings.
It's a black tie affair and hosted by the Lord Mayor of London. You may know that the square mile, known as the City, has its own mayor, police force, courts, cathedral (St. Paul's) and is quite separate from Greater London, the City of Westminster (where the British government is based) and the Docklands area of East London where all those tall towers house American banks.
The Lord Mayor changes every year and likes to be considered at the unpaid CEO of the City. He (and it's always a he) has lived in the Mansion House since 1753 and Invites the chancellor and Bank of England governor to speak yearly.
What I didn't know was that the mayor has to be an alderman of a city ward and also a sheriff of London and he has to live in the famed court building, the Old Bailey before becoming mayor. I also didn't know, and still don't understand, why those gathered for the dinner have to greet the chancellor and governor with a slow clap on their arrival and departure (the kind that would be considered derisory at a sporting event).
London of course loves to call itself the financial capital of the world, which New York might dispute. But as the Lord Mayor's office likes to point out, London has a 42 percent share of global equity trading, 70 percent of the global trade in international bonds, and is easily the world's biggest in foreign exchange with about one third of that market. Then, greater London is home to a one third of the European HQ of the Fortune 500 companies.
The Lord Mayor also pointed out that one third of those working in London's financial services sector is foreign born (its now jokingly known as the seventh largest French city).
Governor King gave the last speech and made the most headlines. He started by saying he would loved to have been able to give his speech from last year and that things could scarcely be difference from a year ago. He warned about inflation, house prices, unemployment and that the bank was not afraid to raise interest rates to bring inflation down. Many analysts think he's talking tougher now hoping he doesn't have to raise rates later.
Here's hoping his Mansion House speech was enough for now.
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