Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Accidentals

There's a big write-up in the business pages of today's Guardian for a new insider look at the investment banking game - The Accidental Investment Banker by Jonathan Knee, a former swinging dick at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, now with his own boutique -
Investment banks promote themselves as sources of wise, experienced and loyal counsel for longstanding clients. Disillusioned with the profession's culture, Knee argues that large banks have moved away from the tradition of building long-term relationships of trust. He says they have become "financial supermarkets", riddled with conflicts of interest.
Bankers, with an eye on bonuses, tout deals to every company prepared to listen. At the same time, he says, banks invest heavily on their own account - which can put them at cross purposes with their clients. "The line between how much relationship and how much transactional work you have has been crossed," Knee told the Guardian.
Explaining the top-of-the-head approach to deal-making that he ended up despising, Knee points to one of his earliest pitches to a food company from his days at Bankers Trust in London. He says he was given a few days to read up on the poultry industry and choose a chicken company suitable for acquisition. "I might not know anything about valuation or accounting or, if truth be told, chickens," he recalls, "but I had been a maths major." He constructed a line graph of the lowest-valued chicken processing firms and Bankers Trust presented it as "very innovative thinking".
Tricks of the trade within banks include league tables engineered to inflate their track record. Knee says banks can pick any time period, measure by volume or by financial size, exclude large or small transactions and separate stand-out deals. "Many an analyst has spent many a sleepless night cutting and re-cutting the data to come up with the least ridiculous ways to demonstrate number one market share."
Staff are rewarded with extraordinarily generous pay which, at Goldman Sachs, typically goes up by $100,000 a year, says Knee. "It is hard, with a straight face, to conclude, in the best of all possible worlds, that bankers should be making so much money."

Sounds like an entertaining companion to Philip Augar's The Greed Merchants (discusssed below).

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Heads of regeneration

I stumbled across this huge semi-submerged head of Alfred Hitchcock while flaneuring around London last week. It's at the centre of the redeveloped Gainsborough Studios, just on the Hackney side of the canal off New North Road, where the great sadist made many of his early pictures.

When I lived in London, I lived for a while in a flat just the other side of Shoreditch Park. The old studios were, then, derelict - an empty but imposing complex of 1920s brick sheds, still steeped in character. I thought I had some decent pics of them from back then, but this is the best I can find -

It was a bit of a shock to see what they'd become. I knew the site was up for redevelopment, but assumed that they'd be keeping some vestige of the old brick studios. But it's another bit of history and atmosphere that's been lost - big sculptural head aside, the flats themselves could be anywhere, by a canal in Leeds or Manchester, or maybe Oslo or Barcelona (except they probably wouldn't cost quite as much anywhere else).

Still, such nostaligia is probably anathema to the spirit of the excellent Future Cities exhibition at the Barbican, at which I arrived after a few detours via Bunhill Fields and St Mary Ax. This takes in everything from Debord's first psychogeographique maps of Paris, through Archigram and Koolhaas, to Will Alsop's vision of Barnsley as a Tuscan hill village. (And speaking of Yorkshire reinventions, Urban Splash's previously discussed proposals for regenerating Sheffield's infamous Park Hill flats have finally been approved by the council.)

I then met with the brilliant writer Iain Sinclair for an interview, primarily about the influence of JG Ballard on his own work, but also taking in such concerns about architecture and place, the subject of his upcoming London: City of Disappearances. The full interview will be appearing shortly at, but as a taster, here's Sinclair's thoughts on regenerations such as the Gainsborough's:
"The whole of the canal has undergone this Ballardian process, whereby all the warehouses have been turned into loft living for City folk. It is actually a city, it's a water city even though the canal is decaying into a drought-like condition, undergoing hideous transformations and being choked with weed, but along it is somewhere that is nowhere."

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Fractured City

The NatWest Tower (as was), reflected in the now-iconic Gherkin at St Mary Ax.
This post is mainly by way of a test - been having problems uploading photos onto Blogger using the Safari browser, so thought I'd give Firefox a try. Seems to be working so far...


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sky and basket

Two photos from a recent visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Above, James Turrell's Skyspace in the old deer shelter.
Below, Dr Ro gets trapped inside Winter/Hörbelt's Basket #7.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Stone Age Economics

Just been reading the intriguingly-titled Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins. This one's been sat on my shelf for a year or two since I picked it up at a Fortean Times Unconvention, but I was finally spurred to read the damned thing after it was referenced in Clifford Conner's excellent A People's History of Science.

It's not as wacky as it might sound (as someone asked at the Uncon - 'What's that about, exchange rates for pebbles?'). My copy is a first British edition from 1974, but it appears to still be in print.

It's more a work of anthropology and sociology than economics, though. The opening chapter, 'The Original Affluent Society' (a slightly different version of which is available on various websites like this one), riffs on Galbraith to argue that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was more than adequate to meet all the needs of its members with just a few hours' labour a day. It's an obviously appealing idea as a riposte to the work-hard/spend-hard ethos of late capitalism.

Vernon Smith, the Nobel-winning experimental economist who I interviewed a few years ago, has written on prehistoric and hunter-gatherer economics, and also concluded that they generally enjoyed plentiful food and a far-from-Hobbesian life. I've also found a recent paper by Charles Kenny of the World Bank (available as a pdf from the Brookings Institution) which asks "Were People in the Past Poor and Miserable?" - Kenny concludes they generally weren't any more miserable than people today (and maybe less so), and suggests a re-examination of the economic doctrines that rising incomes mean more happiness (or 'utility' as economists call that nice warm feeling you get from satisfying your wants). It's another angle to current interest in the economics of happiness, something I've touched on before.

Back to the Sahlins book - the following chapters argue that 'primitive' economies operated at far below their production possibilities to meet their own needs, though production intensifies to meet the extra demands of a tribal chief when such arises. There's also a lengthy exegesis about gifts and exchanges in a pre-monetary society, derived from Mauss' 'Essay on the Gift' - this is all rather steeped in 60s sociology-speak, and didn't quite hold my interest. Throughout, contemporary 'primitive' and hunter-gatherer societies are used as a proxy for prehistoric ones (something Conner also does in the early parts of his history) - I don't know how valid this actually is, but there's some fascinating notes on the traditions and practices of various tribes. The book ends with a briefer consideration of primitive trade, and the emergence of exchange rates for pigs, pots, axes and spears (if not pebbles).

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Friday, August 04, 2006

Enquirer cutbacks

Sad but not unexpected news from the North West Enquirer, the regional weekly launched this spring by former Newsco honchos Nick Jaspan and Bob Waterhouse. The Media Guardian reports the first round of cutbacks -

Deputy editor Paul Blebta, a former Daily Express night editor, and news editor David Anderson were made redundant after the independent paper, which launched in April, failed to reach its circulation target of 15,000-20,000 copies a week.
The £1 weekly paper, aimed at high income earners in the north-west, sells 10,500-12,000 copies a week.
Additionally, the paper issues about 7,000 free and bulk weekly copies to airlines, which was not part of its original business plan.
"The paper is selling but we had to reduce our costs to fit the shape or the paper going forward," said Nick Jaspan, the managing director of the North West Enquirer.

Given the general parlous state of the newspaper industry, it's far from surprising news. The Enquirer's launch was hardly helped by some unprofessional and rather puerile practices by local competitors, but it's a pretty good paper - generally well written and put together, and certainly a much more appealing package than the hidebound Yorkshire Post.

But it's done well to do as well as it has - too many other new newspaper titles die a much quicker death, as seen last month with the short-lived Sportsman. Given the Enquirer's venture capital backers (Northwest Equity Fund and Northwest Seed Fund), I wouldn't be surprised to see a fairly quick sale to one of the big local newspaper groups - though that would risk losing the things that make it a decent paper.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Singapore sky

Singapore, September 2005.
A fairly random pic from the archive, but one that I like. I'm scanning and enlarging a few such (via a Canon Pixma MP760) for the ever-changing gallery along the hallway at home. I'll put some up here as and when.