January 4th, 2009
06:26 PM GMT
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LONDON, England – It never rains but it pours.  Hot on the heels of last year's financial turmoil came the revelation that the New York hedge fund manager Bernard Madoff had said that he had run a giant Ponzi scheme, allowing him to defraud investors to the tune of $50 billion.

Bernard Madoff is accused of a mulit-billion dollar fraud scheme.
Bernard Madoff is accused of a mulit-billion dollar fraud scheme.

Little by little the details have been coming out in the past few days as regulators and now U.S. legislators get to work on their investigations - but the fact is, we will probably never ever discover the whole truth about how much was ripped off, or where Madoff, a former chairman of Nasdaq, has squirreled it away.

That staggering headline number may be as bogus as Madoff's promise of generous and genuine returns: 12 percent a year. We have only Madoff's word for it, and his word is worth less than ... well, you can insert your own well-chosen words here.

Meanwhile, the ninepins are falling.  A charitable trust.  An Austrian bank.  Several wealthy individuals.  All brought to their knees because they trusted a man likely to go down as the greatest fraudster of all time.

Of course, none of this is directly related to the brutal falls suffered by global stock markets in 2008, the collapse of leading investment banks or to the U.S. housing bust that triggered both those events.  But they and the Madoff scam would never have been possible had it not been for the willingness of sophisticated and responsible adults to cast aside wisdom and experience and to be taken in by the lure of money - to forget that if a thing seems too good to be true, it probably isn't.  Even at the height of the bull market, which reputable fund manager ever promised 12 percent returns?

And of course regulators have once again failed in their task of nailing the untrustworthy and their dubious practices. We are left with the gullible in pursuit of the negligent as well as the fraudulent.

Bernard Madoff, we are told, is cooperating with investigators, falling into line with a court-ordered deadline of December 31, 2008, for him to submit a list of assets, liabilities and property to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.  But so far he alone has been charged, though it seems hard to believe that he ran so extensive a scheme without the support of at least a few confidants.

Not everybody who invested in the Madoff funds lost money. By the very nature of a Ponzi scheme, anyone who took their money out before the scam collapsed would have made the promised mint. But by the same token they have in effect become accomplices of Madoff, or at least fellow profiteers.

This one will run and run; it's probably the first big financial story of 2009.

 What do you think? Is Madoff solely responsible? What consequences should he face, along with anyone else who contributed to the fraud? And should investors who made money unfairly from his Ponzi scheme be forced to help bail out those who lost out?

Given that any returns would have been purely the fruits of fraud, are any investors entitled to anything more than the money they invested in the first place?

Post your questions and comments below, and we'll put them to an expert on Friday's edition of Business International. (It's helpful if you also say where you are writing from, and please confine your comments to the Madoff affair.)

December 27th, 2008
04:38 AM GMT
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LONDON, England - Binge ... hangover ... regret ...resolve.

It's the pattern of the holiday season. Eat and drink too much, suffer for it, wish you hadn't overdone it - and then savor the chance of redemption in the shape of New Year's resolutions. You know the drill: something along the lines of "I will never ever touch a drop again" or "I will never eat so much rich food ever again."

It's also, of course, the pattern of the world economy. Grow too much too fast on borrowed money, and things will feel lovely until the awful day the bust comes. Then comes the pain, only partly offset by the usual measures to remedy it.

Think of interest rate cuts as the equivalent of a couple of aspirin or liver salts.

And of course policymakers and investors alike wish they had all spotted it coming sooner and taken action in time.

So what about the economic equivalent of New Year's resolutions? As we enjoy the tail end of the holidays and cross the invisible frontier that divides 2008 from 2009, what can we promise that we will always do in the future, and what will we swear to avoid?

The world's policymakers are already working hard on tighter, more effective regulation. In the new world that awaits us, banks and other financial services players will have their wings clipped to prevent them from soaring again to the heights of excess.

Economists are busily rewriting their textbooks, airbrushing any passages that suggested that the cycle of boom and bust was history. And of course we journalists are insisting that we were taken in by the same irrational exuberance as everyone else and could only tell the truth as we saw it.

So there will soon be new regulations and a new economic orthodoxy to bow down to. Meanwhile, what can we do to hasten recovery and prevent a recurrence of the current slowdown?

The words of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural address in 1933 have have always had great resonance and wisdom: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

As investors sit on great piles of cash, as banks refuse to lend money even to the most promising and worthy of ventures, as consumers steer clear of the shops, and as companies slash jobs, the impact of that "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" is plain.

And we can be sure that it will intensify, as 2009 progresses. It's going to be that kind of year. As Germans say, "Augen zu und durch!" ("Shut your eyes and get through it!")

But if abject fear could be replaced not by misplaced optimism but by a rational prudence, what impact would that have? Would a change in psychology make much difference?

As with the question of climate change, if we changed our attitudes and actions together, could we solve the problem?

What do you think? What New Year's resolutions are you making to beat off the economic crisis? And what do you recommend to the rest of us?

Post your questions and comments, and we'll put them to an expert on Friday's edition of Business International. (It's helpful if you also say where you are writing from.)

December 12th, 2008
07:19 PM GMT
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LONDON, England – In life, there are always decisions you want to keep on putting off. In my case, the one that always stresses me out centers on the heating oil tank in my garden.

 It's no great beauty - a big green plastic job that could probably swallow up two entire bedrooms in one of those Japanese capsule hotels, but which apparently holds 2,500 liters of fuel.In these days of wildly fluctuating crude prices, working out when to fill the wretched thing is a task requiring the greatest wisdom, calculation and foresight.

The seesawing price of oil has given consumers worldwide much to consider during 2008.
The seesawing price of oil has given consumers worldwide much to consider during 2008.

It is not helped by the fact that the local company with which we have a supply agreement employs a high-pressure salesman to answer the phone, quote the latest price per liter and coax customers into buying as many liters as possible.

His strong-arm tactics probably earn him an annual bonus which would not disgrace an oil company mogul.

What he knows is that those of us who use oil to heat and cook in the winter (I know, not desperately environmental, we have no mains gas supply but do have a solar panel and turn the oil off for six months each year) can imagine nothing worse than being stranded with an empty tank just as the extended family descends for the holidays and Jack Frost starts to tighten his wintry grip.

Desperate + gullible = ripped off. Game on, I thought last April. I cheated the man on the phone at the oil company of a few pounds in bonus by refusing to buy a full tank of oil at what I felt to be an inflated price of 51.5 pence per liter (around 65 euro-cents or US$1.03).

Instead I persuaded my skeptical wife to order a mere 500 liters, on the basis that this would be enough to last until nearly the end of the year, by which time (I said, crossing my fingers) crude prices would be way back down again from around $110 a barrel and heating oil would be way cheaper.

Over the summer, I chewed my nails as crude rose majestically to $147 a barrel, taking my wife's eyebrows up with it. I could see that I was going to be saddled with yet another financial clanger, my eternal optimism (see last week's blog) dragging the family budget and my personal credibility down with it.

But then my bet started to pay back. Crude prices slid and slid and slid, all the way down to around $40 a barrel.

I started to dream of a holiday in the sun on the basis of all the money we had saved by holding back on buying oil and waiting for the price to drop; after all, if the price drops 10 euro-cents, that's a saving of €250 on a full tank. If you go away to somewhere sunny, you're not even consuming any oil!

Then, out of the blue, my wife rang me at work. The oil in the tank was getting dangerously low and would only last another week.

It might run out just as... well, this is nearly the week before the holidays and you can guess the rest.

But luckily, she told me, she had spoken to the man at the oil supply company and he would fill our tank for 37.5 pence a liter. I sighed.

The connection between crude prices and the price of heating oil to consumer dorks like me is actually more tenuous and delayed than you'd think.

Even so, I valiantly weighed the odds. On the one hand, crude demand is falling, and will probably fall further as the global economy struggles to shake off recession next year.

On the other hand, petroleum prices have been underpinned by OPEC's determination to tighten supply; Saudi Arabia, the "swing producer" in the producer cartel and its biggest player, is already rumored to be cutting the amount of oil it exports.

In the end, the salesman won - more or less. My wife rang around, got a lower quote, called him back and got him to match it.

So next week the truck will roll up, the man will jump out and run out his hose to the green plastic thing, turn a switch - and we'll be warm and cosy over the holidays.

We'll also be £900, or $1,340, poorer off. So were we robbed? Should I have held on, maybe bought another 500 liters (at a slightly higher price; the salesman knows his job)? Or was I right to get my personal big oil deal out of the way before OPEC tightens demand? What do you think? How have changing oil prices had an impact on your life? Post your questions and comments below, and we'll put them to an expert on Friday's edition of Business International. (It's helpful if you also say where you are writing from.)  And here are some answers from Philip Sellwood, chief executive of the Energy Saving Trust 

December 5th, 2008
07:12 PM GMT
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LONDON, England - This is all getting seriously ugly.  The U.S. labor market shed some 533,000 non-farm jobs in November, and it now turns out that in September - before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the consequent severe volatility on global stock markets - U.S. unemployment was already starting to surge.

It was just a few days ago that we were told the gurus at the U.S. National Bureau for Economic Research had decided that we could use the word "recession" to describe the economic conditions in the United States. But now, with jobs disappearing fast, confidence in shreds and the "Big Three" carmakers holding out the begging bowls in Washington, the word "depression" is starting to be on everyone's lips.

I admit to being the eternal optimist.  I'm not ashamed to say so - I would actually hate to be thought of as a pessimist - but must also confess that it comes with a big personal price tag: for example, ever hopeful, I hung on in there in the stock market for longer than was wise. Watch Michael O'Sullivan of Credit Suisse discuss Europe's options

So it pains me to write this, but given that this recession has already lasted longer than many of its peers - and is widely forecast to last longer than most of them – perhaps we can no longer rule out a depression, a prolonged and dramatic downturn lasting well into 2010.

It's a scenario nobody wants.  But every government and every central bank in the world is now united in fighting to avoid it

Hours before those U.S. labor market numbers stunned financial markets, Europe was launching a broad-fronted counterattack.  The European Central Bank, the Bank of England and Sweden's Riksbank slashed their key interest rates; in the case of the ECB, the 0.75 percentage point reduction was the biggest cut in its 10-year history.  In Germany, the Bundestag voted through the federal government's $39 billion fiscal stimulus package, just as the French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose the car-making city of Douai to announce a similar package worth $32 billion.

In fact, each day now brings news of European Union leaders and the European Commission working closely together to show they are putting up a united front against the recession.  But what is striking is that nobody says they can stop it in its tracks, whatever they do.  The most they can do, say most economists, is soften the pain of recession and ensure it lasts no longer than it has to.

All this comes at a price.  France's latest effort to boost its economy will probably lift its national debt to 3.9% of GDP, and like all prudent governments, it will have to pay that back out of the taxpayer's pocket once normality has returned.  Virtually every European government will be doing the same: borrowing big-time now, and repaying later.

Central banks also face a dilemma.  They have had no choice but to loosen the monetary floodgates in an effort to induce the commercial banks to start lending again; that is essential if businesses are to invest and employ more people, and if individuals are to restart consumer spending.

But lower interest rates take many months to generate their full impact on the economy, and central bankers worry that growth will snap back, forcing up prices and unleashing inflation.

Imagine trying to drive a car along a highway with steering that only responds, say, 30 seconds after you've turned the wheel.  How long before you dive into the ditch?

So there is an argument which says that governments and central banks might do better to stay on the sidelines and let the recession take its course rather than take expensive and risky measures which are never going to stop it anyway.

What do you think?  Are Europe's governments and central banks doing enough to fight off recession, apart from avoiding policy measures which might make things even worse?  Should they actually bother to do anything?  Are they just making things worse? Watch Michael O'Sullivan from Credit Suisse Asset Management answer your questions

November 5th, 2008
05:20 AM GMT
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LONDON, England - When Barack Obama is sworn in as U.S. president on January 20, 2009 he will be taking office on the usual wave of enthusiasm for a new political beginning, but against a grim economic background.

Barack Obama must act quickly to turn around the U.S. economy.
Barack Obama must act quickly to turn around the U.S. economy.

There's a much-told story about a couple becoming utterly lost in the back lanes of some rural area and chancing upon an ancient local inhabitant.

Watch Bill Hubard of MIG Investments discuss what President-elect Obama must do to clean up the economic mess

Asked for the directions to their destination, the old man leans on his stick, furrows a wrinkled brow and remarks sorrowfully: "If I wanted to get there, I wouldn't start from here."

Obama won't have any choice, any more than the couple in the story did.

Shortly after the crowds attending the inaugural parade have gone to their homes (assuming they haven't lost them to foreclosure by hard-hit mortgage lenders), ill tidings will reach the Oval Office: the national income numbers for the fourth quarter of 2008.

They will confirm to everyone but a few academic pedants and hair-splitters that the United States will be well into recession by then.

By then, too, the usual remarkable capacity of the U.S. economy to create jobs will be fully exhausted. The unemployment rate will be rising inexorably.

Add all that to a housing market still on life-support, and the feel-bad factor will be overwhelming.

The U.S. consumer will be in parlous state, and retailers will be licking their wounds after a disastrous 2008 holiday season.

So what will the new president need to do to dig his nation out this sticky economic mess?

In fairness, a start has been made by President George W. Bush's administration after a hesitant start.

Fingers crossed, the worst of the financial turmoil is already behind us: the banks have been underpinned by hundreds of billions of dollars of government money and U.S. stocks appear to be escaping out of the cycle of volatility that has marked the past few weeks.

Economic forecasters believe the back end of 2009 will see global recovery - without adding any riders stipulating that what the new U.S. president does will alter the outlook.

But it plainly will.

The holder of the most powerful office on the planet can do more than anyone to influence global economic fortunes, especially if he has the support of the U.S. Congress, which holds the key to the awesome power of the U.S. federal budget (albeit painfully overstretched by the bank bailout plan).

So what should Obama be doing? What will be his most powerful tools? How will he stimulate the economy? How will he best use the "presidential bully-pulpit" to instil confidence into a stricken nation?

Should he adjust the duties of the U.S. Federal Reserve to include an obligation to prevent the formation of financial bubbles? Or would he be well advised to avoid extending the boundaries of economic regulation, while perhaps making sure that the existing framework is used more effectively?

How will he lift the housing market off the floor? And should he reach out to those many Americans suffering the distress and humiliation of being turfed out of their own homes because they can't make the mortgage payments?

Please give us your answers and ideas.

October 27th, 2008
07:09 AM GMT
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LONDON, England - How long can this go on? We seem to be locked into a terrifying cycle: stocks suffer days of sell-offs, followed by a powerful bounce. But just as we start wondering whether this market slump will follow the same pattern as its ugly predecessors of 1987, 2001 and many others and hit bottom, the same pattern repeats itself.

Traders at the New York Stock Exchange, where share prices have fluctuated strongly during the past few weeks.
Traders at the New York Stock Exchange, where share prices have fluctuated strongly during the past few weeks.

It's three steps back, then one step forward – and over the past few months it's been repeated more times than I care to remember. To make matters worse, there never seems to be that much rhyme or reason to the selling or the buying. One day share markets worry themselves sick about global recession, then the next day all that is outweighed by some random piece of supposedly good news. A few hours later a renewed slide on stocks in another time zone has investors back in panic mode, and we're off to the races again.

Market insiders point to several underlying factors, notably the aching uncertainty about where the credit crunch and the world's leading economies are heading. But they say that what is clearly adding to the volatility is a frenzied scramble by hedge funds to move out of stock markets and also to make money for their investors by whatever means they can dream up. The betting is that they are both creating a lot of the volatility and riding it at the same time.

To add to the craziness, we are seeing some violent swings on currencies, with the Japanese yen and to a lesser extent the dollar (given the relative security of US Treasury bonds) now the safe havens of choice amid the carnage of "global deleveraging".

With previous sell-offs, there seemed to be a clear end to the selling. It may have taken a while to come along, but in the end the bargain-hunters stepped in and there was a gradual return to normality, and then to sustained growth in share values.

So where are we now? When Warren Buffett said a couple of weeks back he thought Wall Street stocks were a buy, he may have been right about their current puny valuations, but not about whether those valuations could get even punier.

Speaking on Business International on Friday, Robert Parker, Deputy Chairman of Credit Suisse Asset Management, was a lot more cautious, predicting the return to a bull market would not come until the middle of 2009.

That would certainly be a few months before the predicted end to the current global slowdown, which most economists I speak to seem to think will only loosen its stranglehold at the far end of 2009.

What do you think? If so illustrious an investor as Warren Buffett thinks we're close to the bottom, should the rest of us pile into stocks in hopes of rather decent gains within a couple of years? Or has even he got it wrong? Watch what Tom Hougaard, chief markets analyst at City Index thinks of your opinions

October 18th, 2008
02:06 PM GMT
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LONDON, England – What do you do once your house has burnt down? Rebuild it the same as before? Or think hard about why it burnt down - and make sure it is a lot less likely to do the same again?

There seems to be a feeling among many of the world's leaders that once we have stemmed the present financial crisis, we should work out how to stop such a firestorm ever recurring.

The argument goes that this means redesigning the global financial architecture that has served since 1944, when an international agreement at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, set up the International Monetary Fund and its sister institution, the World Bank.

Already sketching away on his drawing-board is the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown - no doubt feeling himself to be the man of the moment after seeing his nationalization-by-another-name model for bank rescues being widely adopted, even by the Bush administration.

At its summit in Brussels, the European Union endorsed his approach and gave its blessing to this weekend's visit to Washington by the French President and EU Council President Nicolas Sarkozy and the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. (It must have taken at least two strong men to hold Brown back from jumping aboard the plane alongside them.)

It is of course hard to disagree with the prime minister when he calls for a global "early warning system." That is about as controversial as motherhood and apple pie; of course we all support them. But the reality is that many authoritative voices warned of the dangers of spiralling personal and mortgage debt in the U.S., UK and elsewhere, but they were broadly ignored.

With all due respect and the luxury of hindsight, what is the point of going to great trouble to build a new early warning system when you have a history of ignoring the crescendo of early warnings of disaster - and when you allowed the problem to progress to the point of catastrophe?

The other question is one I raised on "Business International" a couple of days ago with Geoffrey Wood, Professor Economics at London's Cass Business School: what caused the fire in the first place? Was it the system that was at fault, I asked him, or was it reckless misuse of the system that got us into this mess?

Wood told me that both were at fault, but that rebuilding the so-called financial architecture was "neither necessary nor helpful."

So what did go wrong?

In Wood's view, the regulators failed. So on Friday's "Business International" I turned to Chris Rexworthy, a former manager at the UK's Financial Services Authority. He conceded the point, while pointing to the difficulties of supervising a highly complex industry with a small body of enthusiastic, intelligent but ultimately inexperienced and probably underpaid regulators.

Another important strand of Gordon Brown's argument is the need for globalized regulation in an of rapid globalisation. Again, that seems hard to dispute - but unless national regulators are up to the job, how would that work any better? Would the establishment of a supranational regulatory body really bring real benefits, or just tie up the world's best financial brains in years of haggling over its shape, size, scope and powers?

So before we embark on that process, gushingly referred to as "a new Bretton Woods," let us ask what part those 64-year-old institutions themselves have played in all of this? The fact is, the International Monetary Fund has been on the sidelines, with Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn railing furiously about the intensity of the flames engulfing the financial house, while lacking water and a hose with which to douse them.

In fairness, the IMF has dealt admirably with what it was set up to do: deal with national governments whose financial payments got into scrapes. Its involvement in helping Ukraine is a fine example.

But what the fund was never designed to do was deal with a problem that originated within the commercial banking system. So it can hardly be blamed for the turmoil that swirls around us now, or for being left as more of an advisor than a rescuer. It was also never intended to save us from what we now recognise as the inevitability of the business cycle.

It is only human to seek a scapegoat, and a large well-heeled international organization like the IMF might do nicely. But ultimately, we need to address the real root of the banks' woes: those famous "toxic subprime assets" - the result of fancy financial footwork which took advantage to minimal regulation and lumped ill-advised mortgage lending in with perfectly sound loans and then marketed them as "investment grade."

Whose job was it to spot the dangers they posed and nail them? The answer must in future surely be national regulators and governments, aware of the global dimension and unafraid to turn to other nations for help and a common approach.

New Hampshire is an attractive place at this time of the year, when the autumn colors turn the hills red, orange and yellow, and especially appealing to officials and investors beaten black-and-blue by slumping markets.

But before we head off to revisit Bretton Woods, let us be clear what really went wrong, who was responsible, and whether we really need completely revamped financial architecture - or a well-constructed new wing to the house.

What do you think?

September 29th, 2008
06:01 PM GMT
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LONDON, England - They don't make Mondays like they used to. In the good old days, Mondays were about cranking one's mind back into working mode after a weekend of relaxation, occasional excess and not much else. The return to weekday routine involved a certain amount of pain, but no more than a mild sense of shock.

Over the past few weeks, things have changed. The collapse of Lehman Brothers a fortnight ago is only the most dramatic of the huge shockwaves that have pounded through the financial world, and a startling number of them have been unleashed on a Monday, following a weekend of frenzied negotiation and agonised decision-making by bankers, officials and government ministers.

This Monday is yet another monster day in the markets. The US bailout plan (apparently I should be calling it TARP, but I'm somehow wary of doing so) is due to be voted on in the House of Representatives; Wachovia's banking operations are being bought by Citigroup; the governments of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg are bailing out Fortis to the tune of $16bn; the UK government, still reeling from the failure of Northern Rock, has now been forced to nationalise Bradford & Bingley, taking on its $80bn mortgage book; the German federal government is leading a consortium of commercial banks providing a $51bn line of credit to keep Hypo Real Estate afloat; and there are bank rescues under way in Iceland, Russia and Denmark.

Quite a list. But can you spot the odd one out? It's actually obvious: the US bailout plan is the only one that is open-ended, does not apply to a particular bank, has not been substantially worked out behind closed doors and - crucially - the only one so far subjected to any degree of scrutiny by legislators. Under the US system of government, Congress holds the purse-strings, and though the President holds awesome powers, when he starts to think in terms of serious money, he has to seek Congressional approval.

It is actually remarkable how much firefighting the US federal authorities have done in this crisis without having to bow the knee on Capitol Hill (as US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson rather chivalrously did before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week). The underpinning of the insurer AIG was an $85bn operation undertaken by administrative fiat.

But European governments and their funds are controlled by whoever has the majority in parliament, so once in office they can rely on their majority, act first and then worry about consulting other legislators afterwards - this is often not the case in the US. It does not mean that European legislators and the media will not give them a hard time. Look at the criticism the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling has been subjected to after nationalising Northern Rock.

The separation of powers is one of the key features of the US Constitution, the work of people in whose ear the anti-British cry "No Taxation without Representation!" still resounded. The Founding Fathers created a President who would undoubtedly sit at the top of the tree of government and who would wield huge power in the fields of national defence and foreign policy, but who would always have to bow to the wisdom of other representatives of the people when it came to money.

On paper, then, a European head of government has a more comprehensive range of levers to pull, once she or he has gone to the trouble of being put in place by directly elected parliaments. Many on this side of the Atlantic will have watched the last 10 days of politicking in Washington with a mixture of bemusement and awe.

And John McCain and Barack Obama will also have drawn some important lessons from the contortions in which President Bush and his administration have had to indulge to hammer through their rescue plan. Sitting in the Oval Office is probably the greatest job in the world, but the US constitution sees to it that whoever moves in there on January 20, 2009 must remember who is picking up the check: the taxpayer - as represented by the Congress of the day.

John and Barack, it's not too late. If humility is not your thing, now's the time to drop out of the race.

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Filed under: Business

September 26th, 2008
12:39 PM GMT
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It has a kind of inevitability to it. No sooner had U.S. congressional leaders proclaimed that they were on the brink of a deal than it all fell apart: House Republicans have declared that they reject a measure they see as unnecessary and reminiscent of socialism, and financial markets have reacted predictably to the latest dollop of uncertainty to land on their groaning plates.

You can read full details elsewhere on CNN.com, but it is worth noting that we are in effect looking at a split within the Republican Party, with the Bush administration unable to convince its allies in the House of Representatives (which as an institution is crucially important in matters of the federal budget) that this dramatic measure is necessary. Congressional Democrats, by contrast, appear to be on board.

It may be no bad thing that the discussions are continuing. The sum involved is colossal, as are the power handed to the Treasury Secretary and the ideological about-face involved for almost all the United States' political leaders. Wise heads are pleading for more thinking to be devoted to proper guarantees for the taxpayer, including provision for the federal government to take an equity stake in the banks its assists, as it did with the failing insurer AIG and as happened when Sweden successfully rescued its banks from a similar pickle in the early 1990s.

That, though, would stick in the craw of many Republicans; they'd see such state ownership as "socialistic and unamerican." But it is interesting that one of the many voices calling for equity stakes is that of the billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, hardly someone bent on destroying the capitalist system which has made him so wealthy.

Hold on a minute, though - where is the Republican presidential nominee John McCain in all of this? He broke away from the presidential campaign a couple of days ago to return to Washington and help work on the crisis, and President Bush invited him along to Thursday's key meeting at the White House, along with the biggest names from Conress and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

All the same, McCain is reported to have said little. His Democratic rival, Barack Obama, by contrast, did not allow himself to be wrong-footed for long: he is reported by the New York Times to have "peppered Mr Paulson with questions".

That silence seems to have stung the House Republicans: one reason for their anger is their perception that the bailout plan is being rushed through before their man has a chance to put his mark on it and reap due political gains.

But while this may be an awkward time in U.S. politics, it's an ugly one in U.S. finance: after the White House talks broke up, Washington Mutual went down in the biggest-ever failure by a US bank. As the talks restart on Friday, that should concentrate a few minds.

It is a rule of thumb in big negotiations like this one that there are false dawns and false sunsets. Brinkmanship is a skill much practised in Washington DC.But here is an awesome chance for the two presidential candidates: which of them has the statesmanship to heal the rift between Republicans and Democrats and lead the country - and the global financial system - to a fair and effective solution to the crisis?

September 25th, 2008
08:35 AM GMT
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LONDON, England - It's not that far from the U.S. Treasury, next door to the White House, to the great white dome of the U.S. Capitol. But as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson shuttles daily along Pennsylvania Avenue to plead with America's legislators and secure their swift approval for his plans to bail out struggling U.S. banks, it must feel as if he's crossing a huge cultural divide.

Paulson must use all his skills in dealing with politicians.
Paulson must use all his skills in dealing with politicians.

Let me explain. Paulson is from Wall Street, where he used to run Goldman Sachs, and in financial markets, there's a particular discipline to describing problems and suggesting solutions. There's no room for distortion, exaggeration, sentimentality or wishful thinking; you have to call things the way you see them. If what you see happens not to fit in with your ideological viewpoint, tough.

The political world is different. I'm not calling politicians liars here, but what I think they would acknowledge is that, in politics, to call things exactly the way you see them can be painfully naïve and damaging. Call it restraint, call it spin, call it smoke and mirrors; if you're in politics you need to look principled and you have to toe the line. That's why you were elected, and if you really have to abandon your principles, make sure you're as graceful and as persuasive as you possibly can be.

There's no grace to the jagged shape of the ideological U-turn Henry Paulson has described in embracing the $700 billion bailout plan he and the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke are touting to Congress. Not only have recent events forced him to set aside his own personal beliefs in free markets and minimal regulation, but he has had to drag the rest of the Bush administration with him, including a president steeped in the idea that business must be free and taxes must be low.

It speaks volumes for Paulson's advocacy that he has succeeded here. Now he has to do the same on Capitol Hill, and I suspect that his appearances there will have been among the most stressful moments of his life. He has not minced words when describing what he sees as the consequences of failure to rescue the banks and the financial system, and whether or not you think he is doing the right thing, he is clearly totally convinced in his own mind that this bumpy road is the only way forward, and he has no qualms about letting his conviction shine through - even if he surely thought something quite different a couple of weeks ago.

Equally striking, though, is the way that Paulson's elected questioners seem publicly to be going through the motions of hostility and resistance to the bailout plan, even as we learn that behind the scenes there is strong bipartisan support for it. The betting is that the legislation will pass in some shape or form, yet there's an unwritten understanding that as part of the price of approving it, Paulson, Bernanke and administration officials have to be given a ritual hard time.

The politicians know that the fallen titans of Wall Street are an easy target, and by saying that the bailout plan gets them off the hook, they will score points among the voters. I won't call it bad faith, just part of an essential political process in a mature democracy. Perhaps, though, this feeling explains why I prefer to cover business rather than politics.

Henry Paulson also used to be an American Football star. It's a game in which sheer weight counts - look at the size of the players - but skill trumps weight. He knows it's not enough for the Treasury Secretary, the Fed Chairman and other financial luminaries to demand something. They also have to deploy their utmost skills - and, crucially, be seen by the voters to do so - if they are to win this game against opponents who love to play to the grandstand.

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CNN International's business anchors and correspondents get to grips with the issues affecting world business, and they want your questions and feedback.

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