Sunday, 2 December 2007

Age Shock and financial cadres

Another book I have on the go at the moment is Age Shock by Robin Blackburn. It's an interesting read, not least the review of the corporate scandals in the US, and in particular the major conflicts of interest in the financial services industry. It is genuinely shocking to remind yourself how poorly Wall Street has treated its customers in recent history.

For example I would recommend anyone who isn't familiar with the story to read up about the famous email exchange between Citigroup's Sandy Weill and Jack Grubman. It's shocking both because you realise corrupt practices went right to the top of the company and because the trust millions of punters was being abused in exchange for (relatively) petty personal favours.

The book also details Blackburn's suggestion of a share levy on companies. These shares would then be held by a network of public pension trust funds. Blackburn argues that these funds could (or should) become a significant voice in the governance and stewardship of the companies in which they were invested. He acknowledges that this is not without potential problems:

"[S]me fear that the mass of beneficiaries would become no less wedded to thecult of shareholder value and the bottom line than Wall Street. Of course this would be a danger - indeed shareownership is widespread enough to make it already a danger... [T]here would be argument about how pension trust fund votes should be used..."

He then replies with a run through of why he doesn't think the funds would develop in such a way, but it's the following line a couple of pages on that caught my eye.

"Because the network of pension funds would have significant power in corporate affairs, it would need to develop its own cadre of financial specialists..."

Regardlesss of what you think of Blackburn's central idea of the share levy (which looks similar to the idea of wage-earner funds in Sweden) I think the above point is a key one that needs to be applied more widely. If we are ever to get the financial services industry to ever work in the interests of working people (who are its customers afterall) I think this is exactly what we need. The labour movement needs trained people who understand the financial system technically, but also have a good grasp of what we might call the 'politics of capital' and have some power within the system. Basically we need financial cadres.

At the moment (in the UK at least) we are miles away from this. TU members who are pension fund trustees typically have little understanding of the political nature of their role, and some are even hostile to the idea that they should have a political approach. I actually think longer term it would not just be trustees that we would need to think about, but also service providers. For example, we either need to indentify - or create - progressives in the actuarial field (there are some already). Maybe we also need to think about is the creation of labour-oriented service providers?

I accept that at present these ideas may sound pie in the sky but a) I get the impression that people in the labour movement in other countries are thinking this way and have had some success and b) personally I have come to the conclusion that if we are really going to have an impact we need to think big.

No comments: