Liquidity Ditty – LiquiDitty – The Poem Drops

Ten years ago I gave a lecture on liquidity at Gresham College – “Liquidity: Finance In Motion Or Evaporation?”  – London, England (5 September 2007).  I recommend the transcript as easiest to read with the slides.  The lecture was actually scheduled back in February 2005 (yes) as I looked ahead ujneasily towards a liquidity crisis.  The timing turned out to be too good as I came back from summer break after BNP Paribas started the financial crises news and things lurched onwards to Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, RBS, etc.

Engraving of a flea, Micrographia by (fellow) Gresham Professor Robert Hooke, 1665.

In these days of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) this lecture seems to be coming back in popularity and I wonder about a reprise.  Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist ending the lecture with a little ditty of my own, based on Jonathan Swift’s construction around a flea, The Siphonaptera, that seems worth sharing again:

Big pools have little pools

which suck out their liquidity,

and little pools still lesser pools

and so on to aridity.


So, financiers observe, small pools

suck larger pools liquidity,

yet tinier pools drain other drops,

and so on to aridity.

Plebicide Or Silver Lining?

EU Referendum – Strategy Thoughts

À La Recherche Du Temps Trouvé

For many months we have been discussing the EU Referendum.  Since 24 June we have been discussing even more fervently the result, to “Leave”.  To get the obvious question out of the way, yes I voted “Remain”, though recognising the need for EU reform, which still stands.  Now, our old positions so obviously need to be put behind us.  We all recognise the need to work together with others, going forward to create our common wealth rather than dwell on pre-Referendum days.  Personally, I turn to the question, “What Did You Do In The Brexit Daddy (or Granddaddy)?”

Since 24 June, the magnitude of change that the result may have unleashed is only beginning to dawn upon us.  The EU Referendum appeared to hinge around three core issues – sovereignty, economics, and immigration.  The ramifications of the result have destabilised the established UK political parties and perhaps the system, caused financial turmoil worldwide, and encouraged further changes across Europe.  But where there is change there is opportunity.

The opportunity to make major realignments in sovereignty, economics, and inclusion are real and potentially very positive.  We have the opportunity to consider significant improvements in the structure of government, taxation, regulation, immigration and visas, infrastructure, international relations, and much more.  It is heady, and perhaps dangerous, and an opportunity to improve things that rarely passes by.

This letter to The Economist on 9 July is funny, and I’m sure self-aware:

A new entry for the Oxford English Dictionary:

Plebicide n. the self-inflicted ruin of a nation’s prospects or interests via a reckless act of direct democracy.

St Helier, Jersey


‘Unity and Trade’

The City of London may have an important role in helping to unite the nation, and unite the nation with the world.  If we want to take bolder steps, we could create a more prosperous future for all.  We also need to replenish our reserves of goodwill.  I might emphasise two points for us, ‘unity’ and ‘trade’.  The nation needs to be seen abroad as open, tolerant, and tolerably united.  That unity may mean pointing harder to the City of London’s millennium-old role in forming new businesses and trade, rather than its recent (and in my opinion, inaccurate and unfair) association with a UK bank oligopoly.  Any nation that wishes to prosper must trade from an open and competitive environment.  Competition means that the state sector needs to be modest (taxation under control), that education is paramount, and that cartels, barriers-to-entry, information asymmetries, and agency problems are avoided.  Trade is the gateway to reaping the economic benefits of specialisation and comparative advantage.  What would constitute some bold steps? I thought I might note a few below.


It has been disappointing to see how slowly so-called ‘leaders’ have come forward to recognise that EU nationals are valued members of the national community.  There have been some honourable exceptions, most notably the Mayor of London.  It has been heart-breaking to see the scale of hate-crimes the result has encouraged.  Things we could consider doing:

  • provide a clear statement of how much we value the EU nationals who are members of our community. We could back that up by being more public about encouraging them to apply for the Freedom of the City, noting how welcome they are.  We could encourage the government to make a clear ‘for life’ visa statement on resident EU nationals;
  • provide a clear statement to firms of our (City) goals in any negotiations;
  • work hard to get a pan-party delegation to negotiate – – so that the end of negotiations is the end and not the beginning of a rejection of any compromises;
  • work hard to assemble a business delegation supporting the pan-party delegation.


The Guildhall Heritage Gallery currently displays a letter from John Hancock to John Wilkes, Lord Mayor from 1774-1775, that reminds us that the City of London has traditionally played a role in using its sovereignty to advance wider causes, often to the great long-term benefit of all.  Things we could consider doing:

  • connect harder and faster with the Commonwealth using our connections with the Commonwealth Enterprise & Investment Council and Alderman Baroness Scotland, Secretary General of the Commonwealth – should the UK make a more material contribution to the Commonwealth budget (reminder, circa just £46 million annually for the entire budget not the UK’s contribution – less than the not-so-faithfully represented £50 million per day to the EU) – make the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018, and the run-up ahead of time, ten times the scale of the one in Malta last autumn;
  • work harder and faster with the UN on things such as the Sustainable Development Goals via the Business & Sustainable Development Commission;
  • connect with the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland;
  • connect with the forgotten – Alderney, Gibraltar, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Sark, the Overseas Territories who are truly confused by Brexit and what it means for them;
  • use our convening powers – perhaps banquets for some of the segments above, or special dinners for world trade, or European financial services;
  • perhaps we could even be assertive and play a direct role in the re-regulation of financial services, supporting the return of voluntary standards markets. Could the City sponsor a new financial services regulator for global voluntary standards markets in areas like KYC/AML/Sanction or professionalism working alongside the prudential and compliance arms?


It’s not scare-mongering, it’s real – we will lose some significant financial services business to other European centres.  Our core problem is now how we’re going to attract new business.  As Z/Yen compiles the Global Financial Centres Index, from our relationships with other financial centres I know that several to many have been in London selling their jurisdiction to firms who need to leave – “just too many moving parts” one US firm said to me.  Things we could consider doing:

  • picking a European financial centre that we think is City of London friendly (Dublin, Amsterdam, Vienna, Hamburg, Milan?) and working with it for the smooth transition of businesses, assisting them with ‘brass plating’ (perhaps using Crown Dependency access too) so that only HQs need move, and at some point some smooth transitions back, mostly from one or two places;
  • tax – our Achilles heel going forward as it is the basis of the money-laundering allegations and increases the complexity of current regulations. A radical move towards a UK land value tax (a GLA interest as well) and a consumption tax (now possible as the VAT regime is moving to a UK VAT regime) could mean the abolition of corporation tax (more realistically setting it at 0%), the removal of income tax, a streamlining of the benefits system (see identity below), perhaps even with immigration control the introduction of a universal minimum income that could work.  Bold statements on tariffs, i.e. zero, could establish London as the global trade centre (interestingly, in 1960 Hong Kong’s GDP/capita was US$429, equal to Jamaica and below Turkey, Greece, Israel, and many others – with effectively a nil corporation tax);
  • to prevent further losses of information and finance businesses, sign up to be the gold standard General Data Protection Regulation despite being outside the EU – analogous to the Maltese strategy of being the first on compliance with EU financial regulation;
  • implement the ‘Open Data’ policies forcefully to create business and a more open trade culture;
  • consider a ‘financial services free trade zone’ for London or parts of London and the UK;
  • develop further the City of London’s UK SME work even wider in sectors such as media, film, shipping, health, or biotech;
  • perhaps be bold and reach out with suggestions (though some months hence) of recreating the Common Market afresh alongside EEA;
  • perhaps be bold and reach out to join other regional trade bodies directly, TTIP, TTP, Mercosur with some unilateral guarantees, e.g. “no tariffs, ever”, etc.;
  • consider tactical moves such as encouraging the old P&I Mutuals (Protection & Indemnity) to return to the UK by reversing the early 1990’s capital regulations;
  • on being ‘green’, issue Environmental Policy Performance Bonds;
  • on financial stability, implement Confidence Accounting;
  • on infrastructure, sure Heathrow, now why not Gatwick too, and any other private entity that wants to take risks on infrastructure for future reward;
  • turn the Intellectual Property Office into one with teeth:
We Need To Reinvent The Patent Process Michael Mainelli 2014 Wired, Condé Nast Publications (October 2014), pages 74-75.


As an immigrant myself several times over, I feel this is the hardest area.  The spirit of the 2012 Olympics was that London was the world’s city, the heart of the global community.  Our focus here should be on simplicity and speed.  Things we could consider doing:

  • become the global centre for work on the global identity problem;[1]
  • encourage the government to be bolder and go visa-less where possible, go electronic everywhere – a global financial centres needs global cosmopolitan people – and consider a ‘London Financial Services’ visa;
  • encourage the government to emulate immediately leading jurisdictions with proper electronic identity systems, Estonia being foremost, i.e. based on mutual distributed ledger (aka blockchain) technology (if you wish to see such a system on my mobile, built with PwC, just ask). Such a system could be more aggressive programme for Gov.UK Verify and:
    • help ‘prove’ that immigration and visa targets are under control;
    • cut $3bn to $5bn from know-your-customer, anti-money-laundering, and ultimate-beneficial-ownership processes in banking, insurance, and investment management, thus making London more competitive rapidly in financial services;
    • having our regulators take the KYC/AML suggestions further, i.e. surcharge those who are non-digital and use paper;
    • setting a stiff national KYC/AML target, e.g. an account opened within three days or a valid reason given;
    • create new global identity businesses in London;
  • establish a tradable route to immigration, i.e. a firm can swap one national for a UK national elsewhere in the world;
  • get a clear message on university students coming to the UK out quickly – perhaps reverse the decision of a while back and allow students to stay for up to two years after a ‘proper’ graduation;
  • guarantee university places to overseas students with an insurance guarantee to cover courses being pulled or visa problems, thus enhancing the UK higher education brand.


The idea of listing the above ideas is not to bring chaos into disorder.  I would hope that some of the above thoughts spark further thinking.  I recognise that it is a long walk from a set of thoughts, to good ideas, to implementing just a few well.  But we do have a heck of an opportunity to implement perhaps some special few and perhaps explain to our children and grandchildren that we did do something for City and Country in the great EU transformation.  Anyway, “let’s be optimistic, pessimism is for better times”.

[1]  About 2.4 billion people worldwide lack official identification, about 1.5 billion over the age of 14.  While they certainly know who they are, they are excluded from market economy property ownership, and frequently free movement, social protection, and empowerment.  They cannot ‘prove’ their existence to the satisfaction of society’s registries.  Lack of official identification increases remittance costs, corruption, and crime.  Insightfully, United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 “Peace, Justice And Strong Institutions” contains target 16.9 to “provide legal identity to all, including birth registration, by 2030”. See also Z/Yen’s work on IDchainZ.

Staying In EUr Relationship Is Hard Work – With Or Outwith The UK

Published: Thursday, 23 June 2016 10:53
Long Finance Blog – The Pamphleteers

Hopefully, Thursday, 23 June 2016 is a quiet, slow news day with everyone at the polls. Regular readers know that Pamphleteers is about the long-term. We have published only a little on the EU Referendum. I thought I’d exhibit some courage and try to write a long-term post for today with the referendum result pending and uncertain.

EU images

To remind those of you reading this from the future, on 23 June 2016 the UK voted on the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, asking the electorate – “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” It has been a noisy, acrimonious, and vacuous campaign by both sides. Many voters, myself included, resent having to vote on what was, initially, an internal Conservative party problem due to poor strategy, poor leadership, and poor discipline. The Conservatives are split one from the other in almost two separate parties. Labour’s leadership is split from Labour’s membership. Many things have been said that cannot be unsaid. And with referenda (yes, I’m grammatically stubborn here) now so easily called I fear another one coming, perhaps on a vital subject with no proximate cause, “shall we drive on the right instead of the left?”.

Obviously the big decision will be to ‘leave’ or ‘remain’. But the implications of ‘to leave’ or ‘to remain’ hinge on how large the leave or remain margins are, turnout percentages, on the various splits between the four nations (Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, England) and the political parties, as well as on the extent of clear divisions by age, gender, ethnicity, urban versus rural, education levels, and London & the Southeast (themselves perhaps divided with central London versus the Home Counties or central London versus suburbs) versus the rest of the country. Whew. Lots of analysis and different interpretations coming. And lots more UK politics.

I have had the opportunity to travel widely around Europe on work much more than usual during the course of the campaign. Outside the UK, there are also things to do. Other Europeans are hurt. They don’t understand why the UK had this referendum, at this time. In rebuilding any relationship one should:

· Acknowledge that trust was broken.

· Admit your role.

· Apologise for how you acted and what happened.

· Appraise where you particularly broke trust and how you can be more connected, committed, and dependable.

· Amend and plan ahead.

Acknowledge, Admit, Apologise, Appraise – the UK needs to walk round the EU and do these things, whether in or out. If ‘in’, then it would be nice to walk round with the hands of supportive partners, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, … there are many countries who earnestly want to partner.

And what might “amend and plan ahead” contain?

1 – In the UK, commit to EU reform. When a light bulb burns out, you don’t buy a new house, you fix the light bulb. UK political parties should write specific EU reforms into their manifestos.

2 – Around Europe, remove direct EU foibles. There are some very obvious points of attack that have been made more evident in this campaign, the waste of two EU parliamentary seats – remove Strasbourg – unaudited accounts, some regulation, complete the common market in services, etc. All EU members can use this as an opportunity to do the obvious and remove easy targets for demagogues around the EU.

3 – Around Europe, set out an exit plan for a member state to leave the euro. There should be the banking regulatory equivalent of a ‘living will’ for a member who wishes to leave. The euro cannot be a lobster pot. Nor should one country’s problems with the euro be guaranteed to precipitate an EU crisis. Yes, the euro-zone might shrink, but it is unlikely to fold. Perhaps there is an optimal size that happens to be smaller but far better for members. Perhaps the euro-zone will grow when it is grown up enough to recognise that there will be leavers as well as joiners over the long-term.

4 – Around Europe, address the democratic deficit of the EU. The knee-jerk reaction to ‘EU democratic deficit’ is to give powers to the European Parliament. Here I have a strange suggestion. The European Parliament exacerbates the democratic deficit rather than fixes it. Any trade agreement requires some form of submission to a greater good, but the more the Parliament is strengthened the more sovereignty issues it creates. The more it is strengthened the greater the dissonance between “no more ‘ever closer union'” and the intentions and desire for power of such a body. There are two democratic lines now, national parliaments and direct European elections. These dual electoral lines have had led to confusion. People kick the establishment on European elections while voting pragmatically in national elections. These dual lines have funded fringe parties of right and left confusing national elections. There are many things to discuss here, e.g. directly elected commissioners, the origination of legislation, national parliamentary representation, etc. Whatever, consider constitutional reform, perhaps even the abolition of the European Parliament.

If nothing else, the EU Referendum campaign repeatedly focused attention on three issues – economics, sovereignty, and immigration. Economics matters everywhere. The UK is not the only country with sovereignty concerns about the EU. Two-to-four above do little about immigration. UK perception aside, immigration reality is a bigger issue in the EU than in the UK.

And if the UK votes leave today? Then Europe should still undertake points two-to-four above – fix the obvious, fix the euro, fix the constitution – though sadly without what might have made a great long-term partner.

Europe's Ties That Bind

ChainZy – Anchoring Mutual Distributed Ledgers (aka blockchains) In Reality

Over the Last year there was a lot of hype about mutual distributed ledgers (MDLs, aka blockchain technology).  Leaving aside the coin-based systems of Bitcoin, Ripple, and Ethereum, I think Z/Yen’s practical work in the field is fascinating.  Much of Z/Yen’s work was featured in the FT recently.

We have been working with mutual distributed ledger (MDL) technologies since 1995 for complex multi-party transactions, but until recently financial services people dismissed MDLs as too complex and insecure, until Bitcoin terrified them.  The mania around cryptocurrencies has led to a reappraisal of their potential.  Equally, MDLs are getting easier to implement and manage at a time when people are rethinking the future of financial services.

Z/Yen have a lot of work  on, a project with SWIFT on The Impact and Potential of Blockchain on the Securities Transaction Lifecycle, ‘proof of concept’ and ‘use case’ demonstrators for clients, courses, and ongoing research.  Z/Yen and Long Finance share their research widely, e.g.:

EY Front Cover

Sharing Ledgers For Sharing Economies: An Exploration Of Mutual Distributed Ledgers (aka blockchain technology) Michael Mainelli and Mike Smith 2015
Journal of Financial Perspectives, Volume 3, Number 3, EY Global Financial Services Institute (December 2015), 44 pages.

Z/Yen published the work of one significant 2015 research consortium (InterChainZ) online back in September.  InterChainZ has been working for the past year on multiple MDLs working together.  Z/Yen used their suite of MDL technologies built up over two decades, dubbed ChainZy, to build a set of seven ‘use cases’ working together.  InterChainZ aimed to answer a core question – “what elements of a trusted third party are displaced by mutual distributed ledger (MDL) technology?” by providing a basic demonstrator of MDLs, including variants of blockchains, and comparing how they might work within selected financial services use cases.  InterChainZ provides a generic demonstration suite ChainZy Logo of software providing an interface to MDLs for tasks such as:

  • selection & storage of documents;
  • document encryption;
  • sharing keys;
  • viewing the MDL transactions;
  • viewing the MDL contents subject to encryption structures.

The software permitted the testing of a variety of MDL technical configurations. It was then employed to discuss and test various practical applications of MDLs.  The outputs were shared with participants as joint intellectual property for their own future use.

InterChainZ has shared some learning online. This includes the above video – titled “Boring is Brilliant” – where participants (DueDil, PwC, and SunCorp) explain what mutual distributed ledgers are, and how they could be employed.   A few of the key learning points from InterChainZ were:

Terminology: Early in the InterChainZ project it became apparent that the further discussion moved away from Bitcoins and blockchains, the easier conversations became.  Bitcoins and blockchains were burdened with too much baggage.  Terminology is evolving rapidly, hence the team’s emphasis on “mutual distributed ledgers” as the term of choice.  The technical focus might be on boring ‘ledgers’, but the excitement is in the applications above.

Identity: It also became clear that ‘identity’ issues are universal.  One of the great advantages of doing consortium research was that the identity chains were both ‘use cases’ and essential infrastructure that would have had to be built for anything else of substance.  Distinguishing ‘identity’ from ‘transactions’ and ‘content’ made processing and distribution sense, at the expense of a bit more complexity in comprehension.  While InterChainZ showed that MDLs can work together, and the project explored many different architecture possibilities, what was explored is certainly only a small portion of what is possible.

Architecture Choices: MDL architecture has to reflect the economic and commercial realities of numerous businesses working together.  This dictates that many different architectures are needed for many different situations.  One ‘blockchain’ will not suffice for most business-to-business work.  Different business uses require different node structures.  For example, the Master node architecture would be appropriate where a regulator is confirming all transactions in a market as being from valid market participants.  The Supervisor node architecture might suit a small group of large organisations interacting with multiple smaller ones.

Validation: Core to identity and architecture is the method used for validating new transactions.  While Bitcoin blockchain’s ‘proof-of-work’ validation approach is fascinating, and suited to having seven billion people confirm retail transactions, it is not appropriate for wholesale markets.  One of the basic premises for InterChainZ was to focus on exploring “non-blockchain consensus or identity” MDLs, i.e. what benefits could be achieved when not using currencies or tokens.  This decision provoked some external criticism, principally questioning whether there were benefits to MDLs without proof-of-work validation mechanisms.  However, Z/Yen long ago achieved around 1 billion transactions per day, a benchmark a few are now touting, by sacrificing token systems for other validation methods.

Content Chains: The project developed a number of MDLs that directly stored documents, as well as MDLs that only recorded the ‘hash’ of documents.  This led to the development three conceptual MDLs, “identity chains”, “transaction chains”, and “content chains”.  Corporate and individual identity chains authorise access to a transaction chain.  A transaction chain holds the core ledger records of all transactions, but only a hash of original documents.  The content chain is an MDL holding all of the original documents.  The content chain might be managed by a third party for storage and retrieval because of its size.  This conceptual structure is quite flexible.  The only technical difference between the chains is that the identity and content chains have a fixed length hash field while the content chain has a variable length field.

Further Research – IntereXchainZ & MetroGnomo

At a basic level, the project showed that MDLs work and can work together, but current research, IntereXchainZ goes much further, pushing forward four themes:


  • market functions – order matching, margining, account functions, clearing, settlement, as well as possible uses of a token currency within exchange;
  • usability and ergonomics to enhance the end-user experience – exploring the end-user experience by connecting to off-the-shelf wallets for cryptographic key management;


  • integrity proofing – dynamic anomaly and pattern response additions, monitoring and testing facilities;
  • Content Hash-Addressable Storage Market (C#ASM) – extending the ‘identity’, ‘transaction’, and ‘content’ chain thinking that emerged from InterChainZ into an indexable archiving system both as a ledger itself, but also supporting other ledgers;
  • data taxonomies, encryption levels and tracking – how feasible is it to have differently labelled categories and ‘data boxes’ (e.g. health, car insurance, home insurance, driving record, etc. on a person’s MDL) that can only be opened as a group, to encrypt levels with levels (first order health data perhaps before detailed data), to provide access records (who opened, when), and might homomorphic encryption have a role;


  • facilities for automated creation of new mutual distributed ledgers – a parameter driven system providing options for permission management, proof of stake and identity settings, supervisor-master and other node settings, ‘voting’ permutations, and peer-to-peer structure settings;
  • exchange functions – processes to make the basic interacting ledgers into a demonstrator of a full exchange, with numerous ‘use cases’ therein, e.g. sharing identity functions with transactional functions and storing relevant documents securely and permanently;


  • management and control features – management information, performance statistics, visualisation;
  • documentation of standards for mutual distributed ledgers and legal entity identifiers.

And 2016?  Z/Yen are launching a new timestamping service next month with the support of at least one government.  We call it MetroGnomo, a “world record service”.  This is being launched in an experimental mode using MDLs based on ‘agnostic broadcasting’.  The intention is to increase speeds further, increase resilience, and provide a useful, free service showcasing Z/Yen’s technologies.

I Think I’m Turning Koreanese, I Really Think So

Busan - GFCI 17

Had The Vapours had their hit a few years later, who knows how it might have gone.  I went with my friend Mark Yeandle to launch Global Financial Centres Index 17 (yes, 17 since we started in 2005 and published from 2007) in Busan on 23 March.  It was an exciting trip, though I felt rather guilty about 44 hours travel for 36 hours there.  I haven’t been to Busan since the financial meltdown of 1997 and what a change it is.  The city’s population has shrunk slightly, but wow has the quality of life surged – more parks, more recognition of the need for environmental protection and sustainability.  Here we are with some of our hosts after the launch event with the mayor.


Perhaps the most interesting bit of the trip was seeing how they focus on greeting visitors.  Busan is geared to having a single administrative area where new businesses are whisked through the variety of offices they need to visit in a single day in a single area.  Two particularly interesting items for businesses thinking of coming to Busan were a 1:2000 and also a nearby 1:4000 scale model of the city.  Here’s a photo of the 1:2000.


Further, the Korean Stock Exchange, which evolved from the traditional rice market trade in the port, is headquartered here.  Unlike certain London exchanges, they have a fantastic museum for the public.


Though talking about comparable tourism among financial centres does give me an opportunity to plug the City of London Walk of Commerce & Finance Z/Yen helped create – free ebook for the public.  Heading home was hard, as I loved the food and the hospitality of our hosts, though I won’t miss some extremely, too extremely, fresh octopus.


On the flight back, I cracked open a thriller written by a friend, Blue Eye by Tracy Elner, only to find that it is set on Lake Baikal – look at what was outside the window of the Korean Air flight home.

Knightian Ignorance – “Are You Not Thinking What I’m Not Thinking?”

Voltaire said, “Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is absurd.”  I was asked to share my ignorance by speaking about uncertainty and finance at the Calculating & Communicating Uncertainty Conference on 27 January 2015 at BIS, London.  The event was sponsored by the UK Ministry of Defence, Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and Public Health England, and organised by the University of Southampton.  You can read the full talk, “Where The Numbers Meet The Road – Uncertainty At The Frontiers Of Finance”.  As my highlight, I would point out how much I enjoyed sharing with the audience my concept of “Knightian Ignorance”.

DSTL Conference 2015.01.27

University of Chicago economist Frank Knight (1885–1972) distinguished risk and uncertainty in his 1921 work Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit.  Risk is something you can assess by knowing impact and likelihood.  Uncertainty is something you realise might happen, but can’t quantify.  Black Swans and unknown unknowns are popular party points today.  To explain the conjunction of known unknowns and unknown unknowns I remembered the UK Conservative Party’s crude slogan under Michael Howard in the 2005 general election, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”  I could explain known unknowns and unknown unknowns as Knightian Ignorance, “Are you not thinking what I’m not thinking?”  Enjoy!

Sir Thomas Gresham: Tudor, Trader, Shipper, Spy and the Ladies of Dulwich

What a most interesting talk to give. My dear friend, Robin Sherlock KCLJ MA, former Chief Commoner of the City of London Corporation, asked me to speak at the Ladies’ Dinner of The Dulwich Club where he has been Senior Steward the past year. The Club, founded in 1772, is one of the oldest dining societies in the world. Elisabeth and I found the entire evening a delight. Haberdashers’ Hall was rebuilt after the fire of 1666 and the bombing of WWII, yet the Company made a brave decision to open one of the most tasteful modern halls in 2002, a true architectural gem opposite St Barthomew’s.

Giving a talk to The Dulwich Club was no easy task, as they’ve heard them all before. I was a bit trepidatious, particularly as the Junior Steward, Bruce Purgavie made clear my ignorance of football yet expected me to show some rocket science skills the night after Guy Fawkes. What can one say? Well, this was it:

Sir Thomas Gresham: Tudor, Trader, Shipper, Spy

The Dulwich Club – Ladies Night Dinner
Haberdashers’ Hall
Thursday, 6 November 2014

“Senior Steward, Junior Steward, my Lords, distinguished Guests, Ladies. When Robin suggested that I have a dinner with the Ladies of London’s most exclusive dining society, I was particularly pleased. When he suggested I bring along my Lady Elisabeth, while delighted of course, I began to realise it wasn’t my looks – I would be lecturing for my dinner on behalf of the Visitors.

Robin suggested I do a serious talk, after all the jokes, about being a newish Alderman, so I naturally thought of ward disputes, governance, compliance, and endless committee meetings to share with you. Robin wondered if perhaps there was something slightly more interesting, so let me share with you one fun project of the Joint Grand Gresham Committee – a biography on Sir Thomas Gresham: Tudor, Trader, Shipper, Spy, born 1519, died 1579.

When I was a boy two-door was what you bought when you couldn’t afford four-door, but Gresham served four Tudor monarchs, managed to keep his head, and all the while made money. Lots of it. He probably died comparatively wealthier than Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. 435 years later his legacy still generates millions for good causes. We have Gresham Street. We have his statue a few hundred yards away on Holborn viaduct, another at the Royal Exchange. We have his Tower 42 Mansion site, Osterley Park, Boston Manor. His grave at St Helen’s Bishopsgate. We have grasshoppers everywhere – on the top of the Royal Exchange, at 68 Lombard Street, on stained glass windows.

Gresham was born on Cheapside and attended St Paul’s School and Gonville College, Cambridge. In 1543 he went to Antwerp to make his fortune as a Mercer. Antwerp then was very cosmopolitan and large for the time, with a population approaching 100,000, double London or Rome. Just 25 merchants accounted for half of London’s cloth exports, and the two biggest exporters were the brothers John Gresham and Richard Gresham, Thomas’s father.

Gresham imported from Antwerp the idea of a ‘bourse’ or ‘exchange’ for intangible items such as ship voyages and insurance. Incorporated into the 1571 Royal Exchange were 150 small shops, called The Pawn, London’s first shopping centre. From within St Martin’s Goldsmiths he experimented with fractional reserve gold stores, cornering markets, and insider trading. His Will, enacted upon his death in 1579, created Gresham College and challenged the ‘Oxbridge’ oligopoly in higher education.

We are commissioning a biography which we hope to publish on the quincentenary of his birth, 2019. But what does a Tudor have to say about contemporary issues? I thought I’d ‘channel’ Gresham on three questions today:
1 – what should we do about our banks?
2 – what should we do about our currency?
3 – what should we do about Europe?

1 – What Should We Do About Our Banks?

Gresham was probably one of the first goldsmiths to issue more certificates for gold in the vaults than he had. Our modern economic terms are fractional reserve banking or leveraged banking. So rather than letting banks such as RBS in 2008 lend 42 times what they had in the vaults, Gresham would probably recommend tight control over leverage. He might have recommended that our quantitative easing continue to the point that our banks were lending little more than they have in their vaults.

2 – What Should We Do About Our Currency?

Gresham explained to Elizabeth I that because Henry VIII and Edward VI had replaced 40% of the silver in shillings with base metal, ‘all your fyne gold was conveyed out of this your realm.’ Colloquially expressed as “bad money drives out good”, Gresham’s Law was attributed to him in 1858 by a Scottish economist. Two awkward bits – the Law is the reverse, “good money drives out bad”, and Gresham’s Law was not his; it was noted much much earlier by many, starting with Aristophanes. The Nobel economist Robert Mundell rephrased Gresham’s Law more properly as “cheap money drives out dear money only if they must be exchanged for the same price”.

In 1551 Edward VI appointed Thomas as Royal Agent in Antwerp. A clever and shrewd dealer, Gresham reduced royal indebtedness from £325,000 to £108,000. He reduced the national debt by two-thirds in nine months. Under so-called ‘austerity’, UK national debt has grown over the past four years by a third. William Cecil put Gresham in charge of recoinage in 1560. To his, Elizabeth’s, and Cecil’s credit, within a year debased money was withdrawn, melted, and replaced, with a profit to the Crown estimated at £50,000.

Gresham stood for an independent pound sterling. He certainly wouldn’t have sold off the national gold reserve. More interestingly, he might also have supported an independent London currency.

3 – What Should We Do About Europe?

A Gresham ship from 1570 was re-discovered in the Thames in 2003; its cannons inscribed with grasshoppers and marked ‘TG’. There are tales of bullion concealed in bales of pepper or armour. Gresham was clearly a “merchant adventurer” with a network of European agents, though the sobriquet ‘arms-dealer’ might equally apply.

The Royal Exchange began as his father’s idea, but the idea behind the exchange and the shops was that London prospers when all who come for exchange are treated fairly.

Gresham was a free trader and Europhile, yet also a realist and a spy, committed to engaging with Europe, vigorously, but for mutual and selfish benefit.

Hop To It

I must end on grasshoppers, in two ways – the family symbol and Kung Fu. The Gresham grasshopper first appears in the mid-1400’s. According to family legend, the founder of the family, Roger de Gresham, was abandoned as a baby in long grass in North Norfolk in the 13th century. A woman’s attention was drawn to the foundling by a grasshopper. While a beautiful story, a more likely explanation is that the Middle English word ‘gressop’ for ‘grasshopper’ resembles ‘Gresham’. I think the Royal Exchange may have taken the theme too far – if you look on the south side just now it reads, “luxury shopping”, but the “s” has temporarily fallen off. Luxury hopping?

And Kung Fu? Well grasshoppers, you’ll remember David Carradine and the 1970 television series – ‘grasshoppers’ are students. Gresham believed in the power of education for all. His Tudor Open University spawned ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’ after a 1660 lecture by Sir Christopher Wren, then Professor of Astronomy. Today Gresham College hosts over 130 physical events per year free to the public, distributes recordings under a Creative Commons licence, and provides millions of people with lecture transcripts and recordings via the internet.

A century after Gresham’s death Samuel Pepys enjoyed Gresham’s legacies, listening to one of the professors ‘sufficiently learned to reade the lectures’, then strolling through the Royal Exchange afterwards in search of a gift for a loved one, as can you today well over three centuries later. We’re pleased to be setting out on the first proper biography and I hope you feel he is a worthy subject. What I might ask you to do is look around the City and wonder at how we ourselves could leave a comparable legacy for the next half a millennium. We, your grateful guests, know the Dulwich Club will be full of enthusiastic ideas. Thank you!”

And for even more…

Michael Mainelli and Valerie Shrimplin, “Sir Thomas Gresham: Tudor, Trader, Shipper, Spy”, London Topographical Society Newsletter, Number 79 (November 2014), pages 3-6.

CISI Annual Integrity Debate 2014: Do UK Savers & Investors Get A Fair Deal?

One of the more difficult tasks can be substituting at the last moment in a debating team.  It happens more than you wish.  You haven’t worked on creating the question and always wish it was different.  The person for whom you’re substituting is often the one you’d  most dispute.  This year I was asked to help the CISI and debate the question  ‘Do UK savers and investors get a fair deal?’

CISI logo“Whether it’s interest rates offered by banks, charges imposed by intermediaries or fees charged by asset managers, we are constantly assailed by stories suggesting that once again, the unsuspecting public is being taken for a ride.  So is it any surprise that so many people are reluctant to save through conventional channels and is there any truth in all or even some of this?”

In favour of the motion:
Dr Tim May MCSI, CEO, Wealth Management Association (WMA)
The Rt Hon John Redwood MP MCSI

Against the motion:
Will Hutton, Author and Financial Commentator
Alderman Professor Michael Mainelli, Chartered FCSI, Executive Chairman, Z/Yen

Will was great to work with and I have a lot of respect for Tim and John.  In the event, Will and I technically won, but Tim and John actually won, having moved more of the audience to their side.  John did some excellent pandering to the audience – “these guys are pessimistic; be optimistic; be selfish; congratulate yourselves”.  The pandering was decidedly effective.  Probably tells you something about those of us who work in finance.  The event was moderated by Stephanie Flanders, Chief Market Strategist, JP Morgan Asset Management and Former BBC Economics Editor.  She’s also speaking at our Gresham College January Magna Carta Uncovered event.  Anyway, here were my opening remarks:

CISI Integrity Debate 2014

Wednesday, 24 September 2014
Plaisterers’ Hall, London

“Do UK Savers And Investors Get A Fair Deal?”

 Fellow Aldermen, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Tonight I have the distasteful job of biting the hand that feeds me.  I must be risking madness because I agree with the Chief Vampire Squid at Goldman Sachs that financial services has the ability to do God’s work.  Paraphrasing last week’s St Matthew’s Day sermon, “If love of money is the root of all evil, then the study of money must be the source of much madness.”

In 2005 our Long Finance movement asked “when would we know our financial system is working?”  At our 2011 conference on bubbles John Redwood pointed out there that he could show you an economy with no bubbles, North Korea.  He’s correct, we don’t want to occupy a bubble-free, scandal-free economy.  Yet financial services bubbles and scandals seem to lose our economy at least seven years of growth every generation.  We can improve, massively.

Folks in the agrarian countryside, somewhere outside the Circle Line, know the City is the Devil’s inherently unfair machine designed to relieve naïve bumpkins of their money.  Kicking off with the 1698 Darien Disaster that determined last week’s referendum, we move swiftly to the South Sea Bubble, and railway shares.  In the 1970s we sell the bumpkins Rolls Razor, Bank of Gibraltar, and BCCI.  In the 1980s we hawk endowment mortgages, Barlow Clowes, Equitable Life, and Lloyd’s names.

In the 1990s I penned a piece, “How I Learned To Start Worrying And Love The Dot.Bomb.”  Castigated for my negativity and browbeaten to chant that “under our new unified FSA there will be no problems”, we opened the millennium with the the supposedly 1-in-300 year onslaught of Waste Management, Enron, Global Crossing, Worldcom, Sunbeam, Dynegy, Nicor, and Halliburton.  The authorities sacrificed Arthur Andersen and shored up the remaining four audit firms who managed on their own to produce Adelphia, Freddie Mac, Duke Energy, Kmart,, HealthSouth, ImClone, Nortel and AIG round one.

And then after we really really made sure that scandals were a thing of the past and that every little bit helps a big four auditor or regulator avoid another Tesco, we had precipice bonds, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG round two, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Northern Rock, RBS, Lloyds the bank, Iceland, Ireland, the whole UK, and even the world economy, fortunately saved by Gordon selling our gold.  Whew!  I thought a ‘fair deal’ was one that benefits both parties.  How wrong I was.  I have a simple intelligence versus integrity balance.  When something goes wrong you are either stupid or corrupt.  It’s hard to be both, though possible, but the smart person chooses hypocrisy.

I love all those former bankers and ministers who have found God and their pension payments in retirement, for they have inherited the earth.  So many of them shaking their heads and muttering about values, ethics, and standards.  Balzac knew them, «Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.» “The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten, for it was properly done.” [Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Le Père Goriot (1835)]

Scandal and salvation are staggering, PPI – estimates near £50bn, saving the UK financial system,  the IMF estimates an entire year of UK GDP £1.227 trillion.  Thank God for QE and recovery, by which I mean LIBOR, mis-sold interest rate swaps, RBS Global Restructuring Group, FX scandals, let alone looming scandals in gold, aluminium, and oil.  Heck, even Calpers the other week abandoned the hedge fund sector as a bad deal.

Our opposition may blame the victims.  In 2008 usurious savers put 25% of the nation’s cash in the nation’s riskiest financial product – paying 4.5% under 4.5% inflation, zero real return – an RBS deposit account.  Our industry can’t advise on basic day-to-day cash management without the government rescuing us, designed by us clever clogs, promoted by trained experts, audited by geniuses, regulated by Newtons, presided over by the Einsteins of politics.  We congratulate ourselves on our housing wealth and wring our hands about homeless young families.  We’ve managed to so abuse our golden goose pension products we’ve destroyed all defined benefits.

Our professional advice was to speculate, speculate, speculate, but call it investment.  We, so-called professionals, left honesty and self-control to neophyte regulators.  We failed to regulate ourselves.  We took advantage of the weak, the savers and investors outside the Circle Line.  Our best friends call us “socially useless”.  Your choice tonight? Vote for what we lack – do we lack integrity or do we lack intelligence.  Smart – Stupid.  Devious – Daredevils.

Tonight be detectives and consider motive, means and opportunity.  Motive – we have greed and fear, power and sex, and all of the seven deadly sins.  So-called reforms are religious dogma – ethics, better regulation, controlled bonuses – we invoke integrity not intelligence.  Financial services chants: ‘regulation failed because you really really didn’t believe in regulation.’ So pray harder. Next time let’s use better pixie dust.

Means – agency problems, information asymmetries, externalities.  The one guaranteed way to make money is to convince people that you have a sure-fire way to make money.  Leading people into scams is dishonest, but successfully predicting where people will go constitutes honest investment winnings – think the front-running of high-frequency trading.  The Tudors knew the second sure-fire way to make money, get a monopoly.  Five banks control nearly 90% of the market.  Why does the UK have 50 or so retail banks when Germany has 2,000 and the USA 8,000?  Auditors, credit rating agencies, and many other cartels.  We have a moral obligation to open and competitive markets.

Opportunity – Galbraith believed that, “Speculation on a large scale requires a pervasive sense of confidence and optimism and conviction that ordinary people were meant to be rich.”   Why be honest that savings should be invested in producing assets, not lottery tickets?  We prey on the stupidity, the gullibility, and to be fair, the greed and fear of others.

Money is a technology communities use to trade debts.  A few trillion here or there soon add up to an acute monetary Armageddon.  Governments create future tax debts, savers are taxpayers, taxpayers are pensioners, future tax debts are money.  The national debt ensures we are all in it together!  First and foremost we have an obligation to avoid harming the monetary system.

Second, in a fair deal – we will use our brains for changes that eliminate cartels and challenge leverage, with Martin Wolf a recent convert to the cause.

Third, as Thomas Jefferson said – “Commerce and honest friendship with all.”  Fellow human beings, not punters or bumpkins or sheep to be shorn.  In a fair deal – we will regulate ourselves not heap blame on government or society.

I’ll quote Warren Buffett, “… Sir Isaac Newton gave us three laws of motion, which were the work of genius.  But Sir Isaac’s talents didn’t extend to investing: He lost a bundle in the South Sea Bubble, explaining later, ‘I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men’.   If he had not been traumatized by this loss, Sir Isaac might well have gone on to discover the Fourth Law of Motion:  For investors as a whole, returns decrease as motion increases.” [2005 Berkshire Hathaway Chairman’s Letter]  I charge us, the financial services industry, as guilty of increasing illegal motion, peddling unfair deals, yet being very clever.  To vote that we are all very smart, you have to vote that we’re unfair and lack integrity.  Thank you.

Postscript – Of course, just a week later it was revealed that across most of Europe pensions have not delivered – – ” in Belgium, Britain, France, Italy and Spain, the real (after inflation) returns from private pension schemes have been negative for much of this century”.

Banking About In Boats

Kathleen Tyson-Quah is a generous friend letting us bounce around the Regents Canal with her several times on her assortment of river craft.  Literally bouncing off the banks on a few occasions.  We had just had some fun at the 2014 Canalway Cavalcade London in Paddington Basin when Kathleen let David Shirreff take the wheel of her new possession, Diona. 

2014-05-05 18.09.46 edit

David knows a lot about banks as a former Economist writer.  His new book “Don’t Start from Here: We Need a Banking Revolution” comes out in September.  BTW – he means financial banks not river banks.  And no, despite the drink on view, not a single scratch!

Not So Foolish April

April turned out to be a whirlwind month rather than a showery one.  The month opened with a not-April-fool article in Banking Technology, co-written with my friend Bob McDowall and published promptly courtesy of my friend, editor David Bannister.  This article set the tone for a whole series of meetings and initiatives around blockchain technologies.

Building Bit – What’s A Poor Government To Do About AltCoins? Michael Mainelli and Bob McDowall 2014
Banking Technology, Informa plc (April 2014), pages 30-33.

Equally interesting though have been the numerous reactions to Z/Yen’s publication of Global FInancial Centres Index 15 showing London pipped for the top spot by New York City.

The Global Financial Centres Index 15 Mark Yeandle and others 2014
Long Finance & Qatar Financial Centre Authority (March 2014), 58 pages.

Nobody volunteered to write the foreword, so sadly I had to pen the following:

“London’s powerful wholesale financial markets, which leverage its strong brand, generate disproportionate benefits in jobs and exports.  London suffers when global financial news tarnishes that brand – London-IBOR, the London Whale, the foreign exchange scandal only now starting to bite, with rumours circulating about other index, benchmark, and commodities scandals. In fact, it seems increasingly apparent that authorities were aware of, yet tolerated, the LIBOR scandal well into 2012. If the regulators are unimpressive, they are certainly not inexpensive. Some claim that the majority of jobs created have been in compliance departments or compliance providers, accountants or actuaries or lawyers. A Middle Eastern businessman states the problem plainly, “though deals have become vastly more expensive, I don’t feel any safer.” “

It probably doesn’t get more encouraging to read a related snippet from IFC Economic Report which made it into our Gresham Symposium, “Saving Havens: Off Shore, Onshore, Midshore: International Financial Centres“:

“From January to June 2013, the UK media had headlines such as “Google, Amazon, Starbucks: The rise of ‘tax shaming’” (BBC), and “David Cameron: Tax avoiding foreign firms like Starbucks and Amazon lack ‘moral scruples’” (The Telegraph).  In late June 2013, Starbucks agreed to pay £10 million to the UK Treasury.  Given that Starbucks reportedly paid no tax in the previous four years, £8.6m in corporation tax in the UK over the previous 14 years, yet had sales in the UK of £400m per annum, this might sound like a victory over tax evasion.

At no point has any authority accused Starbucks of not complying with tax law.  Having followed the tax code correctly, Starbucks reached annual agreements with HM Revenue & Customs that little or no corporation tax was payable.  The majority of people seem to have no problem with Starbucks’ payment or feel an urgent need to reform tax laws.  However, as an accountant I wonder how the payment should be booked.  Certainly not to marketing or advertising expenses?  Possibly to tax?  Tax liabilities have always been a complicated area, but in this case is the payment:

  • a mistake, an adjustment to historic tax liabilities, or a retroactive tax?
  • a bonus payment or donation to HM Revenue & Customs?
  • a donation or bribe paid to the UK coalition government, or perhaps David Cameron’s Conservative Party?
  • a shakedown or protection racket payment to a corrupt government?

Perhaps I might mischievously suggest that Starbucks be reported to the US authorities under The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 which “was enacted for the purpose of making it unlawful for certain classes of persons and entities to make payments to foreign government officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business.” [US Department of Justice website]  The rules on international corporate taxation are close to unworkable, though I wonder why more people do not question the theoretical basis for taxing corporations, which is at best dubious.” 

Socially, April was much more upbeat.  There was the whirlwind contrast of greeting the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, and the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, at Mansion House and Guildhall, with the celebrations of St George’s Day.  It was quite emotional hearing the Irish National Anthem, “Amhrán na bhFiann”, being played in the Guildhall in honour on the evening of 9 April.  Something I never expected to hear three decades ago, yet also a sound that still discomfits those who lost loved ones during the Troubles.  The Lord Mayor’s excellent speech on the night says it all.  

Increasingly emotional too were this year’s celebrations in honour of St George’s Day, 23 April.  Three decades ago it was not a day one heard much about.  Today, there isn’t a patriotic pub not festooned with flags.  I attended two notable events.  Courtesy of Dudley Edmunds, I was able to hear a wonderful talk from the last of the dambusters, Johnny Johnson.  Bright as a button and with a deft touch to his talk, Johnny made you realise what a group of determined young men could achieve, and still retain their humanity, as he related the story of 617 Squadron’s May 1943 raid.


The second event was the St George’s Dinner at the Honorable Artillery Company which I attended for the first time in an ex officio Aldermanic capacity in Old Bailey velvets.  The female officer toasting the guests reminded the guest of honour, the US ambassador, that the Company and the USA had had some low and high points in their relationship, such as burning the White House in 1814, though she left us a bit misdirected about high and low.  We concluded the dinner with three rounds singing Rule Brittania, Land of Hope and Glory, and Jerusalem along with the band and accompanied by the American ambassador, which wound up with us standing on the tables in formal wear and waving our napkins.  The photo above was taken as I left about midnight, outsung and outdrunk by men and women who’d entered military service in the 1940’s and 1950’s.