April 29, 2011

I did a stupid thing today: I visited my ex-firm’s website.  When I got there, I checked out the Community section and realised that I had been erased; unsurprisingly, all references to me have been removed.  And the Community News page, which provides short updates about recent projects and activities, featured several initiatives that I had dreamt up.  It’s really true: that isn’t my job anymore.  The world keeps turning.

It sounds daft, but I almost feel like I’m in mourning for my lovely job.  I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to work there and develop the community affairs strategy into something that is now a source of great pride for the firm.  It was wonderful to do something that ticked so many boxes that are important to me: it made me happy; it gave me the chance to use a wide range of my skills; it enabled me to spend every day dealing with fantastic people, both in the firm and externally; and it made a positive difference to the world, helping the schools and charities that we supported and, by extension, the people that they were set up to support.

I am going to set up a community engagement initiative of some kind in New Zealand, and I know that it will be amazing to be able to use my expertise to help people in my own country.  However, this will take time – the kind of things that I want to do are likely to be different to what is already happening here and I will need to get myself organised.  For now, I’m left missing the day-to-day ritual of my job.  I honestly don’t know how people can choose not to work.  I can understand it if you’re at home with little kids or something (far busier than any job, from what I’ve seen), but aside from that… no.  What do people who don’t work talk about when their spouses come home in the evening?  I miss talking to people all day.  I guess that I could fill my day with coffee dates and the like, but I fear that I would discover that I only shared a surfeit of leisure time with my fellow coffee-drinkers and had little else in common.  I guess that I could go to the gym every day and fill my hours with exercise classes.  Actually, I should do something like that – this enforced idleness is a good opportunity to get in shape once again.

Essentially, I miss having that sense of shared purpose with my colleagues.  I went to work every day feeling fortunate to have that job and I was never sad when holidays ended: there weren’t enough hours in the day to get through my wish-list of new projects.  Now, I miss contributing to something more meaningful than cleaning this shoebox of a serviced apartment, or making dinner.

It isn’t a surprise to me that I’m feeling this way.  In a couple of weeks we should have our rental house organised, and then I will start making my plans.  For now, I think I should call time on the whole ‘exilednzer’ thing and stop thinking about my old life and, by extension, what I am missing about it.  Time to hit the reset button and focus more fully on my new life – after all, it’s going to be awesome!


Bankers’ bonuses

January 19, 2011

This commentary piece in The Independent was one of the best articles I’ve read for ages.  It discusses the totally ridiculous general attitudes towards bankers’ remuneration – here’s a sample:

Maybe Boris Johnson, too, is right when he says the banker bashing season should be declared closed.

Right, that is, in the sense that all the emotive stuff about “obscene” bonuses, “fairness” and rich men entering the kingdom of Heaven misses the point a bit. Is this debate really about creating an efficient, safe banking system (but one which has the same right as any other bit of the economy to pay people very well indeed)?

Or is it about what kind of society we want: the old, but perfectly respectable argument about what is an “acceptable” distribution of wealth, income and opportunity in a country.

Is paying Eric Daniels, boss of Lloyds, a £2m bonus bad because it is bad for the strength of his bank, or because it’s rather a lot of money for one chap?

Would it be “acceptable” if it was £1m? If so, why? Do we wish to be more like Sweden; more equal? Or more like the US or Brazil, with more billionaires and more shanty towns?

If we want to argue these points, then we ought to be more honest about it.If it is more about the way we supervise banks, then we should de-emotionalise and sub-contract it to the Bank of England and the other central banks and regulators around the world who are even now bending their minds to the task. Maybe the money Mr Diamond, Mr Daniels and the rest are getting should be put to better use, building up the capital of their banks or lending it out to small businesses.

If so that is something we ought to entrust to the Bank of England to secure. But those banks would still need bosses and would still need to be paid the going rate, hefty as it is. There is clearly the possibility that, in a good, healthy bank in a good year, appropriate, going-rate rewards for bosses and traders will be many times what a nurse or head teacher gets and the Bank of England will be OK about that.

Are we happy with that or not?Or put it this way: is the £75m that Mr Diamond has made from his involvement in Barclays over the past few years offensive because it is such a lot of dosh and “unfair”, or because it has been detrimental to financial stability? Would it be all right if he had received it as an oil executive? Or as a hedge fund head; an investment house; in other words, one that has made no demands on taxpayers at all? Would it be satisfactory if the Barclays board paid less than the going rate to Mr Diamond and his colleagues and they lost a competitive advantage to other banks? The same goes for the taxpayer-owned banks. The state-owned BBC and Post Office pay execs the rates for the job, so why not state-owned banks?

I have no friends who are bankers and I have no feelings about them as a group of people (just like I have no feelings about accountants, nurses, whatever).  However, the public hysteria about bankers’ bonuses and salaries, entirely fuelled by ridiculous media coverage, really gets on my nerves.

There’s a perception that the British government ‘bailed out’ many of the banks during the economic crisis and that the money being paid to the bankers now is coming from the pockets of hard-working tax-payers.  People will still claim that the banks shouldn’t have been ‘bailed out’ and should have been left to fail, to ‘teach them a lesson’. 

I think that several points are missed:

  • If the British banks hadn’t been assisted during the economic crisis, the entire financial system of this country would have collapsed and we would have probably ended up queuing for several hours to buy a loaf of bread.  The UK government had no choice but to help some of the banks.
  • The UK government didn’t just give the banks money as a philanthropic gesture – it took shares in RBS and Lloyds.  We, as UK taxpayers, own a stake in those banks.
  • The money used to pay bankers’ bonuses is generated by profits made by the banks – it isn’t coming from a UK government pot and it wouldn’t otherwise be used to pay nurses and teachers.
  • If we want the value of our investment in banks to increase, we need them to make money.  They will do this if they can employ and retain the best talent.  They will not manage to do that if their pay and bonus arrangements are uncompetitive.

As the Indy article goes on to say, the weird thing is the way in which the general public is directing all of its ‘unfairness’ accusations solely at bankers.  There are plenty of people in UK society who are paid a vast amount of money – Premierships footballers, for example (Wayne Rooney makes £250,000 a week, but nobody’s complaining about how unfair this is).  I think the attitude towards bankers is  partially because they are perceived as being stupid and irresponsible, having bought bad debt and all that.  But are UK tax payers in any position to fling around these accusations?  Personal debt (excluding mortgages) is up around £40,000 a household in this country, and plenty of UK tax payers made the most of the good times by doing things like taking out 100% mortgages on properties that have now dipped in value – pretty irresponsible and stupid behaviour, in my opinion.

Back to the Indy article:

Bankers were merely going about their lawful business, if not doing God’s work, with no evil intent. Let’s draw an analogy with the pharmaceutical industry, which is also involved in developing new, but risky products. If we suddenly decided to stop making them do extensive clinical trials and they went ahead and put drugs on the market that turned out to do harm and which cost the NHS billions to treat, who should we really blame? They ought not to do it, but it is the authorities’ job to oversee what they do. In the go-go years everyone was happy watching the City make money and no-one mentioned the emperor’s clothes.

If anyone should have done that it was the nation’s financial journalists, so wise and so indignant now. They did not. Neither did the regulators. Should they also now have their pay docked for their failure? Does paying Bob Diamond huge amounts damage his bank? If it does, then let the regulators penalise Barclays – they are plenty of ways they can do that.

I agree.

Disgraced MP

January 13, 2011

In 2009 a big scandal broke in the UK concerning MPs’ expenses and, in particular, their widespread tendency to spend taxpayers’ money with a degree of freedom usually reserved for lottery winners.  Some of the tales of excess were just ridiculous – one Tory MP claimed the cost of having his moat cleaned, David Cameron thought that we should pay for the removal of wisteria from his house (because that wisteria was clearly having a major impact on his abilities as Leader of the Opposition at the time), and all MPs were able to claim a huge amount of sundry expenses each day, without even submitting a receipt.

All this was bad enough, but the worst bit was the habit of many MPs to designate a certain property as their second home, claim expenses for it, and (usually) dodge any tax that they were due to pay if they later sold the house.  Some of the MPs had barely even visited the houses in which they were claiming to live for some of the time.  Other MPs would have their second house just a few minutes’ walk from their family house.  It was all completely insane.

Anyway, we’re finally seeing some of the more dishonest and crooked MPs being tried and convicted, which is fantastic.  Last week David Chaytor, a former Labour MP, was jailed for 18 months after deliberately continuing to claim expenses for a mortgage that had already been paid.  And earlier this week Eric Illsley, MP for Barnsley Central, pleaded guilty to three charges of false accounting, and will also end up in jail. 

I’m particularly pleased about Illsley and I wish that there was some way that he could be stung for the public costs of his case: he initially denied the charges and was due to stand trial, but he later changed his plea.  Way to waste even more of the taxpayer’s money, Eric! 

What’s really astonishing is the fact that, because he will be likely to sentenced to less than a year in jail, he didn’t automatically lose his job as an MP – despite being convicted of a crime of fraud and dishonesty.  However, pressure from other MPs has forced him to resign.  And I’m also pretty surprised that the good people of Barnsley Central re-elected him last year, despite the investigation being already underway.  Those people take ‘innocent until proven guilty’ more seriously than I would have done, that’s for sure.

The whole question of MPs’ expenses really winds me up, actually.  I don’t begrudge them the right to claim standard expenses incurred while doing their jobs, but the way that this is interpreted is totally mental and would never be accepted in the private sector.  Apparently, being an MP means that the taxpayer should pay for all of the food consumed by your household – as if eating is an expense unique to life as an MP.  And the habit of owning a second home in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities for real estate, is mad.  MPs who live in electorates within commuting distance of London should be forced to join their constituents and catch the train every day.  And for MPs who live further afield there should be serviced apartments, owned by the state and available to them while they’re in the city.  I would buy or build a decent apartment block in an inner city suburb, furnish it, and tell them to keep the wild parties to a minimum.

(Coincidentally, while typing this I have been watching BBC Breakfast and they’ve just had a short piece about the likely sentencing options for Eric Illsley and, in particular, whether he should be jailed, or whether it’s a waste of taxypayer money to jail people for short periods for non-violent crimes.  One woman has suggested that we get out the cat ‘o’ nine tails, or put him in the stocks.)

Pretty sky

January 10, 2011

Taken from my train this morning.

Doing nothing much

December 3, 2010

Party people, it’s so flipping cold in England right now!  You know, just in case the pictures of snow didn’t give it away.  I was at home alone last night and was very well rugged up against the Arctic chill.  I’m talking woolly tights, socks, fleecy pyjamas, a hoodie, and a rug wrapped around me.  And it was still chilly.  This weather sucks the big kumara.

I made use of my night at home by writing an email to my friend Hugh.  He’d emailed me a mere twelve weeks earlier, so I thought that it was high time that I devoted some time and energy to catching up with him.  A prince amongst men, he responded straight away by sending me an outstanding photo of his Movember moustache, making me laugh out loud when I opened the attachment on my way to work this morning.  When I am President of The Whole World, I will make it a law that all men must participate in Movember.  Few things make me laugh more than a good comedy moustache on an otherwise-normal man.

Tristan’s back from Portugal today – hurrah! – and we’ll be able to collect Tui the Wonder Dog from Tina the Wonder Dog Sitter’s house.  After four days there, Tui will have gained a few pounds and will spend the entire weekend absolutely exhausted, sleeping off her excesses.

My rock star life continues this weekend: my St Vincent de Paul group has organised a mass for the sick and housebound of our parish, so I will be attending that and then helping with the tea and coffee afterwards.  The other thing I must do this weekend is make Christmas cards.  I bought the stuff to make Christmas cards two years ago, so it’s probably time that I got around to it.  If you would like me to send you a home-made Christmas card, send me a message at exilednzer @ yahoo . co . uk (without the spaces, obviously).  Having people waiting for the cards might spur me on to actually make them!

Snowy scenes

December 2, 2010

It’s still very snowy in our neck of the woods – this is the view from my office window. We’ve only had a couple of inches at home, but Kent and Surrey have been blanketed.

Wellington commuter chaos

November 29, 2010

Oh, how I laughed when I read this news story:

Wellington trains are running again following a 55-minute suspension due to a signals failure this afternoon.

Commuters were stranded during rush hour as all trains in and out of Wellington, except the Johnsonville line, were stopped at 4.35pm.

KiwiRail North Island passenger services manager David Knight said the suspension was due to a fault in the integrated signals and points control system.

“We … temporarily stopped train services into and out of Wellington station while we dealt with the issue.”

Due to the short notice and the number of people waiting to board trains, bus replacements had not been arranged, he said.

A Tranz Metro delay notification said the signal fault was now fixed, and services will be back to timetable about 6.30pm.

“We apologise to our passengers for the delay to the journey and will get them home as soon as we can,” Mr Knight said.

Commuters expressed their frustration on Twitter, with one calling Tranz Metro a “useless third world rail system” and another asking “who the hell did the work on the new lines?”.

Another commuter wrote: “TranzMetro that’s OK. Please accept my invoice for cost of alternative arrangements.”

A two-hour delay in public transport scarcely counts as ‘chaos’, surely?  Or am I just tainted by the ‘commuter chaos’ that I regularly deal with in London: repeated Tube strikes, over-crowded trains, that kind of thing? 

It reminds me of the way in which the British press will describe two inches of snow as a ‘blizzard’, prompting everybody living in Canada and North America to smirk.

Chill out, Wellingtonian commuters.  Go and have a beer or something.