Monthly Archives: February 2002

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Not the oracle

It’s interesting to observe how different sources treated Alan Greenspan’s congressional testimony. The Financial Times (bizarrely, in my view) made it their lead story: “Greenspan says economy is close to turning point”. For The New York Times, it didn’t even make the front page: “Recovery near, but its vigor is in doubt”. The Wall Street Journal also relegates it from the front page, although it is the second news item on the website: “Greenspan says he sees the start of likely weak recovery” (subscription required).

Two things are notable. First, even Greenspan doesn’t buy the optimistic view of the direction of the US economy. He’s not an out-and-out pessimist, granted, but his words were tempered with considerable caution. Second, the time when the world hung on every word the Fed chairman said has passed. He’s still important, and certainly has the power to move markets, but does anyone recall him being termed the second (or even the first) most powerful person in the US?

Incidentally, comparisons between FT and WSJ coverage have an added piquancy, as their competition for the world’s business readers is verging on the nasty. As an avid reader of both, here’s my take. If you want to understand what’s happening in the world, nothing touches the FT. If you want to keep up with American business, the Journal knocks spots off all the competition. The FT has done extraordinarily well to top 100,000 in the US. It’s never going to compete (and it doesn’t pretend that it will) with the Journal as the prime business source in the US. I think the FT has Europe similarly locked up, even though the circulation comparison with the WSJ Europe isn’t that far ahead. In Asia, it’s more of a toss up.

On the Web, it’s a different story. FT.com is hopeless compared to the WSJ Online. The Journal took the courageous decision to charge from the outset, and to my mind they’ve remained way ahead of other newspapers in how they use the Web. And if you’re interested in their kind of information, the price they ask is absurdly low. I pay it happily. (Of course, both sites are completely hopeless in linking to anywhere else on the Web, but what BigPub site is?)

They’re very different papers, and we all profit immensely from having both (although stay far, far away from the Journal’s editorial pages if you want to maintain an equable blood pressure).

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Economic cheer

Martin Wolf is his normal cheery self: “The strong dollar has made life for the Federal Reserve very easy. Maybe this happy state of affairs will continue for years. But the elastic is not infinitely stretchable. It will snap back in the end.”

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Two schools

Tom Friedman is the only globally oriented analyst I know who has spent years trying to understand the Arab world (many have attempted belatedly since 11 September). So it’s interesting to read his theory of two schools of future development for Saudi Arabia.

Tom proposes that the country will either follow a Soviet path (with the ruling al-Sauds as the politburo and the Wahhabi sect as the ideology) or a Chinese one (where a ruling ideology successfully encourages a seemingly contradictory reform). He fudges, however, the conclusion: “Which school would I bet on? Ask me in five years.”

Not incidentally, Tom produced the scoop on the Abdullah plan which might (emphasis on might) break the current Israel-Palestine deadlock.

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Goodbye and good riddance

Victoria Brittain’s obituary of Jonas Savimbi captures a lot of how the rest of the world has conspired to mess up Africa over the years. Africans, like Savimbi (and Robert Mugabe right now), have played their part but it is shameful how the world’s economic and military powers have meddled for their own ends and ignored what’s best for the people of Africa.

We’re now at a point where there’s a chance for real, positive change. And appropriately the impetus is coming from forward-thinking African leaders, rather than being imposed from the outside.

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Blogging an event

I may have been perverse over the years in turning down a couple of invitations to Richard Saul Wurman’s TED conference. The timing has always been bad for me: too close to a week away in Davos to justify nearly a week in California, however nice that would be. I generally hear good things about TED, and this year (even if slightly late) I’ve been able to get a good sense of things from David Weinberger’s weblog of TED 12.

Davos Newbies during the actual Davos meeting has generally been far more impressionistic than Weinberger’s account. That is partly forced by the nature of the event. Davos is a multi-ringed circus, while I know Richard Wurman’s philosophy is that everyone should share a common experience. I’m not certain one idea is better than the other, but it does create a distinctly different climate.

Weinberger’s call for longer time slots is one with which I sympathise. A lot of the best Davos experiences come from uninterrupted time with a wonderful thinker, such as Daniel Kahneman this year in New York.

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The country blacklist

John Plender makes an important point in the Financial Times about Calpers’ decision to rule out investment in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines (second item in column). “Blacklisting countries rather than individual companies is a little like red-lining — the practice whereby home lenders ostracise complete neighbourhoods regardless of the creditworthiness of individual inhabitants.”

 Of course Calpers is under no obligation to go to the trouble and expense of researching individual companies in distant markets. But celebrating (and investing in) the well-run pioneers would do far more for the cause of economic and social reform than shunning the entire market.

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Time away

I’m going to be away from my keyboard for the rest of this week. Some friends express surprise that I can willingly disconnect myself, but I find it essential. I’m convinced that companies scrambling for recognition at events like Davos should sponsor a “disconnected” room, where there are no electronic links, no television screens and mobile phones don’t work. The only problem would be controlling access, such would be the demand for this special place.

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What we should have discussed

Today’s Financial Times does a wonderful job of analysing the deeper consequences of the Enron affair (and other business and financial scandals) for the corporate, regulatory and financial worlds. This is what we should have been talking about during Davos in New York.

There’s nothing startling in the FT’s conclusions, but they are sensible and workable. On corporate governance, for example, the paper calls for “genuinely independent non-executive directors with a clear leader” and a strengthened audit committee. On accounting, the demand is for ”substance over form”.

What I admire about this coverage is both the seriousness of intent, but also the determined use of an unrivalled platform to campaign on a key issue. I don’t believe the FT would have done this a few years ago. Its new editor, Andrew Gowers, is clearly something of a fresh wind for the pink ‘un.

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Here’s looking at you

Two clever commentators come to the same conclusion from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both Bill Safire (from the right) and John Sutherland (from the left) reckon key civil liberties are at threat in the US.

Safire points to the establishment of the Synchronized Operations Command Complex in Washington, where surveillance cameras are knit together in the interest of increased security, but at the expense of creating a technological Big Brother. Sutherland singles out the appointment of John Poindexter to run the Information Awareness Office (Orwell couldn’t have done better with that name). The IAO will work with the Information Exploitation Office. Poindexter, Sutherland reminds us, was Ollie North’s boss and deeply embroiled in the Iran (aka axis of evil) Contra affair.

Here in Britain, we’re already accustomed to being the world’s most surveilled society (perhaps Singapore would pip us into first place).Because of the years of local terrorism, this development has occurred virtually unnoticed. It’s not that people don’t care about civil liberties: when home secretary David Blunkett made noises about a national identity card scheme as a security measure, there was a widespread hullabaloo.