FPS’ Friday Fiver

Hello all and welcome to the second Financial & Professional Services Friday Fiver of the year. Apparently, Monday 16th January is set to be ‘Red Monday’ – the most depressing day of the year. With that in mind, this week’s Fiver at least attempts to lift the gloom a little with the return to blogging of our resident sharp-tongued Apprentice critic, Marie Cairney, who brings us her views on Scottish independence (as a Scot herself). We’ve also got thoughts on Tesco, Mitt Romney, cockney slang and an intriguing new report from Barclays Capital. Thanks to Ed, Jonathan and Ross for their contributions as well this week.

CAMERON THE BRAVE…..In a display of blunt brinkmanship combined with a lesson in ‘being careful of what you wish for’, the PM this week tried to push Alex Salmond into a corner on the future of the UK, most likely to the bewilderment of those around him. Perhaps buoyed by his new-found devil may care – we can go it alone – attitude recently honed in Europe, Cameron decided to raise an issue that didn’t really need to be raised right now. So much so that we were looking for some really bad news that needed to be hidden in the ensuing manufactured maelstrom.

There wasn’t any but then I guess the economic crisis can’t get much worse. Philip Clarke at Tesco might have been slightly relieved for five minutes although not even a divided kingdom could distract from those awful results yesterday (more on that below). While Marie can’t speak with any certainty or authority for a nation on how much they want to stay in the UK (being a deserter for 20 years now), she can say that if there is one thing that Scots don’t like; it is being told what to do by governments they don’t vote for, especially if they are predominantly English. Have the Conservatives learned nothing?  Instead of calling Salmond’s bluff Cameron played right into his tartan-mitted hands and raised the not inconsiderable heckles of 6 million people. Well done. Or as they say up there ‘Gaun yerself Big Man’!

Not that Mr Salmond came out of this glowing. His explanation of why we should wait until 2014 for something he has spent his ENTIRE career asking for seems equally lame. Yes, Scotland may have voted for the time-frame he proposes but the fact that they also voted for a load of other electoral goodies like free prescriptions at the same time kind of makes you think that they weren’t paying that much attention to that bit of the SNP’s manifesto. They are now though and for the first time, Marie has a slight sinking feeling in her stomach that it might actually be considered a serious option for more Scots than ever before. Hopefully common sense will prevail over patriotic, stick- it-in-the-eye-to the English fervour.  This week’s self-created constitutional crisis only confirmed something that has rumbled for some time now; that the people most likely to benefit from independence in Scotland are in fact the English. Increasingly they probably believe it too.

BUBBLES IN THE SKY…..As someone who flirted with the prospect of becoming an architect, but couldn’t stomach the seven years it would have taken to get the qualification, Ed in particular loved this stuff and it’s a great bit of PR – so hats off to BarCap. The Barclays division published a report this week which claimed to have figured out that ‘there is an “unhealthy correlation” between the building of skyscrapers and subsequent financial crashes.’ A look around London certainly could lead you to believe this is absolute fact. Still, Ed loves skyscrapers all the same. Especially this one.

THE BIG PRICE FLOP…..As it’s already been labelled by many City analysts, Tesco’s discounting programme seems to be the main lightning rod for at least the short-term woes of Britain’s biggest supermarket. A £5bn puff of smoke for their shares in one day is certainly not to be sniffed at, but what was far more extraordinary was the candid disclosure by the chain’s CEO, Philip Clarke, about the longer-term problems the retailer has battled since at least 2008 – in a nutshell, diminishing numbers of customer-facing staff in stores, which has led to a poorer ’shopping experience’. Extraordinary that is because Mr Clarke only took over nine months ago, and before that Tesco was run by the previously bullet-proof retail granddaddy, Sir Terry Leahy. In a stroke, his legacy has now become questionable.

As an interesting aside to this tale, it’s worth noting what looks like it might be a PR effort by Tesco to focus the media’s attention ahead of their results on the company’s expansion into India (witness the features on their Indian shops in both The Times and Mail today) – certainly very timely given the recent opening-up of the Indian market to foreign companies, and also a clever way to maintain focus on the Tesco success story. Alas, when your CEO issues a huge profit warning for the year ahead, not even a jolly to India can disguise it.

THE MITTS ARE OFF…..Mitt Romney’s campaign to become the Republican candidate to take on Obama appears to be gathering momentum. However, the former Governor of Massachusetts’ past has come into focus in recent weeks for his role as CEO of Bain Capital, the private equity firm. On this side of the Atlantic, we are regularly being reminded about the problem of career politicians and their lack of business or broader life experience.  We imagine similar criticisms are levelled at those in power in the US.

Romney has the opposite problem. As a man who regularly restructured companies and hired and fired, critics are on the hunt for examples of Romney wielding the axe over the average American. Of course, political debate often operates in a world where normal logic is turned on its head (as this video where his dog is brought in the equation demonstrates) and whatever the truth of the matter Romney is now the man in the spotlight.

GOOD WEEK/BAD WEEK…..Hedge Funds. Loved by few and loathed by many, especially the many who don’t work in them. This week has been something of a mixed bag for them but there appear to be signs of support emerging for the sector which is why they qualify for our Good Week award (hey, it’s been a lean week all round otherwise). On the negative side, The Economist ripped into them for posting fairly average, if not poor returns for investors over the long term. Then again, low returns aren’t exactly a phenomenon confined to hedgies over the past few years. On the plus side however, today’s FT features a compelling argument in favour of retaining and encouraging hedgies in light of RBS’ investment banking demise. The argument is simple – finance is never going to be a stable system, and hence it’s far better to contain the inherent instability in small institutions that aren’t too big to fail i.e. hedge funds. Have a read, and see if you’re convinced.

City Gent David Buik joined Twitter this week

On the Bad Week side, spare a thought for one dieing aspect of the City. According to Reuters, the accelerating change in the social background of the City’s foreign exchange traders and the march of technology is threatening to kill off traditional cockney rhyming slang in the Square Mile. It almost makes you pine for the old days, which is why we’re also celebrating the arrival of veteran City Gent, David Buik, on Twitter this week. We’ll leave you then, with some examples of cockney trader slang at its finest:

‘A prickly’ – the number 2 (as in ‘a prickly pear’)

‘A Lady Godiva’ – the number 5 (rhymes with fiver)

‘An Ayrton’ – the number 10 (Senna rhymes with tenner)

‘A Bully’ – the number 50 (from the bullseye on a dartboard)

‘Bill and Ben’ – Japan’s currency, the Yen

‘The Stokkie’ – Sweden’s currency, the Swedish Crown

‘The Nokkie’ – Norway’s currency, the Norwegian Crown

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