The Great Debate UK

What the new normal looks like

After a crisis the most unusual thing can be that things remain the same. For example, apart from media stories of doom and gloom, by and large if you managed to keep your job then the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and ensuing financial crisis may not have affected you acutely and life may have, more or less, gone on in the same fashion albeit with a bit more banker bashing than before.

Change as a result of a crisis can take years to manifest itself into a tangible difference. But five years after the financial crisis, and three years after European sovereign debt implosion, some of the long-term market and psychological effects are finally starting to be felt. Here are a few examples:

Low interest rates

In a post Lehman world, a 3% 10-year Treasury yield is considered a major threat to the global economy. Prior to the crisis rates had peaked at more than 5% in 2006. Cast your mind back even further and the average yield between 1980-1990 was more than 10%. U.S. mortgage rates are another anomaly these days: when 30-year fixed-rate mortgage yields rose to 4.7% in May, market commentators were beside themselves about the danger this could do to the U.S. housing recovery and how the end of the American Dream is upon us. However, the average rate between 1990 and 2007 was more than 6%, and it still managed to fuel a house-buying boom (albeit one that ended up doomed).

Low interest rates are also symbolic of a different and altogether more worrying trend in global finance: the cult of equities. Don’t get me wrong, stock market rallies are a good thing, but central bank action (inadvertently or not) is helping to prop up stocks to the detriment of savers. This seems like a strange focus for central banks especially when populations from Italy to Germany, the U.S. to the UK, and even China, are ageing. Traditionally, the older the population the more conservative the investment philosophy, but central bankers seem to be ignoring this core cohort of the global population. We have become so used to low interest rates that we don’t really question when major central banks like the Federal Reserve delay interest rate normalisation, as it did back in September, or when U.S. politicians refuse to drop partisan bug-bears to reach a fiscal deal and thus help foster an environment where rates could rise.

from Breakingviews:

Blueprint for new BoE could start with rebrand

By Dominic Elliott and Christopher Hughes
The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions expressed are his own.


Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has hired McKinsey and Deloitte to advise on strategy. Breakingviews imagines what the consultancies might recommend.

from The Great Debate:

Apple: ‘Early adopter’ as fashionista

To much fanfare, Apple announced Tuesday that Angela Ahrendts is resigning as chief executive officer of Burberry and joining the inner circle in Cupertino, California. “Apple-polishing” has become the headline du jour. Picturing the soignée Ahrendts surrounded by geeks in jeans and hoodies, we might be forgiven for wondering why Apple feels in need of a fashionista buff-up. After all, there is hardly a product line more shiny-bright than Apple’s -- or one with less affinity to the cold exclusivity of the world’s great fashion houses.

But the extraordinary affection that iPhones inspire is different from the anxious ostentation surrounding high fashion.

from The Great Debate:

Foreign investment in France thrives despite gripes — for now

In France these days, every new industrial investment is welcomed with open arms, so when the Japanese machine-tools manufacturer Amada announced in mid-September that it was putting an additional $50 million into its existing production facilities, no fewer than two government ministers showed up for the signing ceremony. Much to their embarrassment, however, the chief executive officer of Amada, Mitsuo Okamoto, gave an interview that morning to a national French daily in which he castigated the national business climate, and said that if the company hadn’t already been in France for 40 years, “we would think twice about investing here for the first time.”

Chalk it up, one more time, to France’s investment paradox. Okamoto is just the latest example of a foreign CEO who moans and groans about the difficulties of doing business in France, even as he pours in money, in the form of fresh investment.

Apple attempts to become fashionable

The UK lost one of only three female CEOs on the FTSE 100 on Tuesday, as Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts quit. My concerns about females at the top aside, the interesting thing about Apple’s new hire is the link between Apple and fashion and what it tells us about the evolution of the tech industry.

Ahrendts is a smart choice to become the head of retail and online stores for Apple. Firstly, her marketing skills are second to none. During her tenure at Burberry she has completely transformed the consumer experience at the iconic British brand. The stores are beautiful. The central London branches are styled just as well as the brand’s catwalk stars; they look more like a high-end boutique hotel in Paris or Milan than a high street shop.

from The Great Debate:

How the Nobel economists changed investing forever

The 2013 Nobel Prize for economics celebrates that financial markets work, but cautions how little we know. One theme unifies the work of all three winners: Eugene Fama, Robert Shiller and Lars Hansen -- risk. (A disclosure: until August I worked at Dimensional Fund Advisors, where Fama is a director and consultant.) Risk is unpredictable, but can be very profitable. That sounds simple enough, but it has profound implications -- not only for the lords of high finance, but households, too. Risk teaches humility, to overconfident investors and also policymakers. That humility was notably absent at the IMF/World Bank meetings last week. Policymakers should take special note of the prize this year; it reveals how little we really understand about financial markets.

Fama’s work showed that prices incorporate all available information; this is known as the efficient market hypothesis. The implication is that you cannot systematically outperform the market, unless you have information other people don’t or can access part of the market others can’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make money. Over time you can expect, but are not guaranteed, that riskier assets generate higher returns. Stocks, on average, return more than bonds because they are riskier. The stock of smaller companies is riskier than larger ones, so they typically generate more returns. It’s a straightforward concept, but often poorly understood. Even many sophisticated investors get it wrong.

Never waste a good crisis

The events in Washington over the last couple of weeks have shown two things: how a system of checks and balances government can be extremely frustrating and get nothing done, and how the Republican Party is in desperate need of a major change.

The guiding principle of the U.S. Constitution is to never allow any individual or party to get too much power. The ideal is to have a President and Congress at odds with each other so that one ideology is not given a preferential position.  Thus, what we have seen over the last few weeks in Capitol Hill is, in essence, exactly what the Founding Fathers orchestrated back in the late 18th century.

Science’s innovators are to be prized

–Juha Ylä-Jääski (D.Tech.) is President and CEO of Technology Academy Finland. The opinions expressed are his own.–

The 2013 Nobel season is once again gorging on a Grand Cru vintage of scientific achievement. Today, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three scientists, Levitt, Karplus and Warshel, whose multinational collaboration laid the foundation for the computer models crucial for most advances in chemistry today. Yesterday, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the Nobel Prize for physics for conceiving the so-called “God particle” which explains why the Universe has mass. Another trio were recognised on Monday when the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Rothman, Schekman and Südhof for solving the mystery of how the cell transports crucial cargo.

from The Great Debate:

An unstable global economic system that is being ignored

Today, the International Monetary Fund announced yet another a reduction in its global growth projections for 2014, with its estimate of U.S. growth also reduced (citing reduced government spending, but not the present U.S. government shutdown -- or the heretofore unthinkable notion of the U.S. government defaulting on its obligations). Despite the seeming urgency of global economic slowdown, when world leaders attended their annual fall confabulation at the United Nations in New York last month, they focused on the diplomacy of physical security (Syria, Iran, etc.). Thus another year has passed in which global economic security issues were on no one’s reported agenda.

Policy makers continue to fail to appreciate that the most formidable economic challenge today lies in the area outside the borders of any one nation or region -- and that multilateral action to address this challenge is arguably more important than efforts at increasingly less-effective internal stimulus.

from The Great Debate:

Why “sustainability” should be more than a meaningless buzzword

The term “sustainability” crept into the business lexicon slowly, by way of the environmental movement. It no longer means covering operating costs with profits, the definition I learned at Harvard Business School six years ago. Instead, it’s morphed into a blurry term that fits into whatever suitcase you want it to -- a catchall for everything “socially good,” whatever that means.

The term has been used by various groups -- with various meanings -- for three decades. The Sierra Club first introduced it in the 1970s, during the dawn of the environmental movement. At the time, activists were speaking out against mining, water pollution, and other environmental threats. They defined “sustainability” as an approach to preserving natural resources by creating national parks and enacting legislation that would penalize polluters. In the 1980s, companies like The Body Shop used sustainability to describe their commitment to environmental and human rights, and a corporate focus that expanded beyond profits. For the next 20 years, the term was used by a small group of companies, like Ben and Jerry’s and Eileen Fisher, whose founders tried to incorporate their social values into their business models.

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