Think

Monday, November 30, 2009

Poised

Film Review - "L'Esquive"

L'Esquive (Games of Love and Chance) shocked audiences when it won the César for Best Film, but what were people reacting to exactly: the fact that Abdellatif Kechiche had made a better film than Les Choristes and A Very Long Engagement, or that L'Esquive was earning comparisons to a certain Larry Clark provocation? The teens in the film—most of whom are North African and Muslim—live somewhere in the slums of Paris and their parents are conspicuous by their absence, which means they're allowed to do just about anything they want with very little interference, and though the worst thing a kid does here is steal someone's cell phone, L'Esquive scarcely starves for intensity.

Krimo (Osman Elkharraz) has broken up (again) with his girlfriend Magalie (Aurélie Ganito) and has set his sights on a lifelong friend, Lydia (Sara Forestier), who is playing the lead character in their high school class's adaptation of Marivaux's A Game of Love and Chance. An enigma wrapped in a riddle, Krimo bribes his friend Rachid (Rachid Hami) for his role in the play, just so he can act alongside Lydia, which perpetuates all sorts of melodramas, not least of which is the boy's embarrassment in front of his classmates during a rehearsal.

These hysterically fickle teens seem to speak their own language (they're always threatening to "waste" their "homies" and use weird clicking sounds as punctuation), and sometimes it's difficult to tell when they're acting out or simply acting. Epic stretches of the film are devoted to characters going at each other's throats, and as tedious and irritating as this may sound (and often is), it's never less than compelling in its genuineness: These kids are insufferable and they're more than happy to make everyone around them feel their wrath. Not only is the play the thing here, so are the rituals of adolescent behavior, with the world, naturally, as their stage. Kechiche even parallels the theatricality of Marivaux's play with the artifice of the teenage experience, but as for a social context, the events and themes from Marivaux's play more subtly and cunningly address issues of class than the characters in the film sometimes do, like when the teacher in charge of the Marivaux production discusses how behavior is inextricably bound to social status.

Like Tim Blake Nelson's O, the film plays out like a teen version of a Shakespeare play (it isn't, but it's almost best to enjoy it as such), you half expect the constant swirl of shifting alliances, betrayals, and chance run-ins to be capped with a bloodbath of some kind. Kechiche seems to understand this level of expectation, and it's something he toys with, which is probably why the film's coda is at once refreshing and frustrating. L'Esquive consistently teeters on the brink of tragedy (a confrontation between the kids and a group of thuggish cops is chilling) but dares to end on a chipper note, a slap in the face to viewers who aren't content with the tragedy inherent in the bad behavior of these children: They love and hate like Romeo and Juliet, even if they don't die like them. Why shouldn't that be enough?

Source - Slant Magazine

Rising

Dubai Sinks

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has total debt amounting to $184 billion at the end of 2009, according to estimates by Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, which said the region faces a heavy redemption schedule until 2013. Dubai's shock announcement this week that it is seeking to suspend payments on debt of its state-owned conglomerate Dubai World and property subsidiary Nakheel has roiled global markets, raising fears that the emirate which funded a spectacular building boom on a mountain of debt could default.

BofA-Merrill Lynch said in a report that the restructuring undertaken by Dubai would be a serious blow to the Gulf region's economic recovery prospects, adding that the scale of the region's debt was now the issue.

"The lack of official debt data may add up to uncertainty and cause higher risk premiums," it said.

Of the $184 billion UAE debt, Dubai holds $88 billion while Abu Dhabi accounts for $90 billion. BofA-Merrill Lynch said the debt servicing cost will be higher than these estimates as their numbers only include the principal payments.

The bank said Dubai faces almost $50 billion of debt amortization in the next three years: $12 billion in 2010, $19 billion in 2011 and $18 billion in 2012.

"We estimate the total debt for Dubai World as $26.5 billion, 80 percent of which needs to be paid back in the next three years," added BofA-Merrill.

Source - Reuters

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bejewelled

Green Tea Stress Management

Green tea has an impressive of list of health benefits. Studies have reported that green tea can help prevent Alzheimer's, certain cancers, and improve cardiovascular health. Some health experts have asserted that green tea can help alleviate stress as well.

But until recently there has not been a large scale study on stress reduction with green tea. A large scale study in Japan linking green tea with stress reduction was recently published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The research team from the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine was led by Atsushi Hosawa. The study included 42,093 Japanese individuals. Just under seven percent of the study population, 2,774, suffered from psychological stress. The research team determined that consuming sufficient quantities of green tea improved their psychological well-being.

Those who drank five cups of green tea per day showed considerably less psychological distress than those who drank less than a cup a day. These results were calculated after making adjustments for variables such as age, diet, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, and disease histories.

The benefits of polyphenols

Because this was strictly an epidemiological study, no effort was made to determine the bioactive components that achieved the observed results. Green tea leaves contain polyphenols. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant that combats the oxidative stress associated with neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases.

The four primary polyphenols found in fresh green tea leaves are: epigallocatechin (EGC), epicatechin gallate (ECG), epicatechin (EC), and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG).

An earlier Japanese animal model study uncovered a link between EGCG and recovery from stress-induced fatigue. The researchers subjected rats to physical stress trials. They administered EGCG orally to the rats and discovered a significant reduction of liver oxidative damage, which stress and fatigue create. The research results were published in the journal Nutrition.

Stress and workaholic fatigue have been increasing worldwide. Consuming more green tea daily may offer a low-cost solution for stress management.

Source - Natural News

Honest

Taxation & Globalization

Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which got $10 billion and debt guarantees from the U.S. government in October, expects to pay $14 million in taxes worldwide for 2008 compared with $6 billion in 2007.

The company’s effective income tax rate dropped to 1 percent from 34.1 percent, New York-based Goldman Sachs said today in a statement. The firm reported a $2.3 billion profit for the year after paying $10.9 billion in employee compensation and benefits.

Goldman Sachs, which today reported its first quarterly loss since going public in 1999, lowered its rate with more tax credits as a percentage of earnings and because of “changes in geographic earnings mix,” the company said.

The rate decline looks “a little extreme,” said Robert Willens, president and chief executive officer of tax and accounting advisory firm Robert Willens LLC.

“I was definitely taken aback,” Willens said. “Clearly they have taken steps to ensure that a lot of their income is earned in lower-tax jurisdictions.”

U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat who serves on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said steps by Goldman Sachs and other banks shifting income to countries with lower taxes is cause for concern.

“This problem is larger than Goldman Sachs,” Doggett said. “With the right hand out begging for bailout money, the left is hiding it offshore.”

In the first nine months of the fiscal year, Goldman had planned to pay taxes at a 25.1 percent rate, the company said today. A fourth-quarter tax credit of $1.48 billion was 41 percent of the company’s pretax loss in the period, higher than many analysts expected. David Trone, an analyst at Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran Caronia Waller, expected the fourth-quarter tax credit to be 28 percent.

The tax-rate decline may raise some eyebrows because of the support the U.S. government has provided to Goldman Sachs and other companies this year, Willens said.

“It’s not very good public relations,” he said.

Source - Bloomberg

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cosmetics

The Cosmetics Industry Targets Women

Women and beauty products - it's a love affair that's been going on for centuries. And no wonder. There's nothing like a new lipstick or favourite perfume to make us look and feel good. Or so we thought...

In fact, according to a new report, most of our favourite cosmetics are cocktails of industrially produced and potentially dangerous chemicals that could damage our health and, in some cases, rather than delivering on their potent 'anti-ageing' promise, are causing us to age faster.

Research by Bionsen, a natural deodorant company, found that the average woman's daily grooming and make-up routine means she 'hosts' a staggering 515 different synthetic chemicals on her body every single day.

Many of those are also used in products such as household cleaners, and have been linked to a number of health problems from allergies and skin sensitivity to more serious hormonal disturbances, fertility problems and even cancer.

Parabens, for example, which are designed to preserve the shelf-life of your cosmetics, are one of the most widely used preservatives in the world, and are found in shampoos, hair gels, shaving gels and body lotions. But their use is becoming increasingly controversial - a range of different studies has linked them to serious health problems including breast cancer, as well as fertility issues in men.

Research from the Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine suggests that some parabens we had previously presumed to be safe, such as Methylparaben, may mutate and become toxic when exposed to sunlight, causing premature skin ageing and an increased risk of skin cancer.

Methylparabens are found in more than 16,000 products, including moisturisers and toothpastes. Cosmetic producers have always defended their use of parabens on the grounds that they can't be absorbed into the body.

But many leading researchers disagree, including Dr Barbara Olioso, an independent professional chemist, who says: 'Research shows that between 20 and 60 per cent of parabens may be absorbed into the body.'

There are a number of laws designed to protect us from dangerous chemicals in cosmetics, but researchers worry that they don't go far enough. For example, cosmetic manufacturers are required to list their ingredients, but they don't have to tell us about any impurities found in the raw materials or used in the manufacturing process, so long as they don't end up in the finished product.

The industry insists that our cosmetics are safe. The Cosmetic Toiletries and Perfumery Association said last night: 'Stringent laws require all cosmetics to be safe, and each product undergoes a rigorous safety assessment. The number of ingredients in a product, or whether it is natural or man-made, has no bearing on how safe it is.'

They also say that any chemicals are present in safe doses that can't harm us. While that may be true, there is some disagreement over what constitutes a 'safe' level - for young people and children, or sensitive adults, these levels may not be so safe at all.

And even if the relatively small amounts in individual products don't hurt us, there is growing concern over the number of products women use daily, and the cumulative effect of so many chemicals being used all over our bodies every day, for many years.

As Charlotte Smith, spokesperson for Bionsen, says: 'Women have never been more image-conscious and their beauty regimes have changed over the years, from a simple "wash & go" attitude, to daily fake-tan applications, regular manicures, false lashes and hair extensions.

'Lots of the high-tech, new generation cosmetics and beauty "wonder" treatments naturally contain more chemicals to achieve even better results, which, of course, means women apply more chemicals than ever before.'

If you want to protect yourself from chemical overload, reduce your overall cosmetics usage; switch to natural or organic products, and read the labels on your beauty and grooming products with care.

* The Women's Environmental network has more detailed information and advice about ingredients contained in beauty products: www.wen.org. uk; The Cosmetics Database, a website which gives a 'hazard rating' for products: cosmeticsdatabase.com. Or read Skin Deep: The Essential Guide To What's In The Toiletries And Cosmetics You Use (Rodale), by Pat Thomas.

Source - Daily Mail

Paris

Eugene Atget [1857-1927]

Eugène Atget (February 12, 1857 – August 4, 1927) was a French photographer noted for his photographs documenting the architecture and street scenes of Paris.

Personal life

Born outside the French city of Bordeaux, he was orphaned at seven and raised by his uncle. In the 1870s, after finishing his education, Atget briefly became a sailor and cabin boy on liners in the Transatlantic. After shipping on several voyages, Atget became an actor, more specifically, a bit player, for a second-rate repertory company, but without much success. He met and eventually married Valentine DeLafosse, an actress, with whom he spent the rest of his life.

He retained his bohemian affection for the working person and worried about the petty tradespeople and merchants threatened by modernization and the rise of big Paris department stores. He was said to be short-tempered and eccentric and in his 50s stopped eating anything except bread, milk and sugar. He and his wife associated with some of Paris' leading dramatists—though he left behind no known portraits of friends or associates.

His death went largely unnoticed at the time outside the circle of curators who had bought his albums and kept them interred, mostly unseen. Atget would likely have been indifferent to his relative obscurity, given his preference for work over fame. "This enormous artistic and documentary collection is now finished," he wrote of his life's work in 1920, though he kept on shooting photographs for years after.
[edit] Photography career

Atget finally settled in Paris in the 1890s. Despite his limited background in the visual arts, he saw photography as a source of income, selling his photographs to artists in the nearby town of Montparnasse. He advertised his photographs as "documents for artists." It was common practice at the time for painters to paint scenes from photographs. By the mid-1890s, Atget bought his first camera and began to photograph more than 10,000 images of the people and sights of the French capital. By 1899, he had moved to Montparnasse, where he lived and earned a modest income until his death in 1927.

Atget photographed Paris with a large-format wooden bellows camera with a rapid rectilinear lens. The images were exposed and developed as 18x24cm glass dry plates. Besides supplying fellow artists, architects, publishers and interior decorators with his photographs of a dream-like Paris, he was also commissioned by city Bureaus and the Carnavalet Museum to preserve and record landmarks in France's capital city.

Between 1897 and 1927 Atget captured the old Paris in his pictures. His photographs show the city in its various facets: narrow lanes and courtyards in the historic city center with its old buildings, of which some were soon to be demolished, magnificent palaces from the period before the French Revolution, bridges and quays on the banks of the Seine, and shops with their window displays. He photographed stairwells and architectural details on the façades and took pictures of the interiors of apartments. His interest also extended to the environs of Paris.

He produced timeless views of the parks of Versailles, Saint-Cloud and Sceaux. In addition to architecture and the urban environment, he also photographed street-hawkers, small tradesmen, rag collectors and prostitutes, as well as fairs and popular amusements in the various districts. The outlying districts and peripheral areas, in which the poor and homeless sought shelter, also furnished him with pictorial subjects.

Distinguishing characteristics of Atget's photography include a wispy, drawn-out sense of light due to his long exposures, a fairly wide view that suggested space and ambiance more than surface detail, and an intentionally limited range of scenes avoiding the bustling modern Paris that was often around the corner from the nostalgia-steeped nooks he preferred. The emptiness of most of his streets and the sometimes blurred figures in those with people are partly due to his already antiquated technique, including extended exposure times which required that many of his images be made in the early morning hours before pedestrians and traffic appeared.

The mechanical vignetting often seen at some corners of his photographs is due to his having repositioned the lens relative to the plate on the camera—exploiting one of the features of bellows view cameras as a way to correct perspective and control the image. Under the dark cloth, Atget surely knew the effect of these corners and accepted or preferred them. In fact, one of the key qualities of Atget's work compared to that of many other similar documentary photographers of that city, is his savvy avoidance of perfection, that cold symmetry and clear stasis that photography is so naturally good at. He approaches his subjects with a humanism that is palpable once noticed, and you become an observer and appreciator with him in his meanderings. He often said, "I have done little justice to the Great City of Paris," as a comment on his career.

Atget's photographs attracted the attention of well-known painters such as Man Ray, Andre Derain, Henri Matisse and Picasso in the 1920s.

Berenice Abbott was the key that unlocked Atget's Paris for the rest of the world. She got to know him in the 1920s, when she was an assistant to Atget's Montparnasse neighbor Man Ray. She attempted to help Atget achieve greater recognition during his lifetime by sending friends to purchase his work and by making a celebrity-style photographic portrait of him. After Atget's death in 1927, she acquired a large part of his archive and exhibited, printed and wrote about his work, as well as assembled a substantial archive of writings about his portfolio by herself and others. In 1968, Abbott arranged for New York's Museum of Modern Art to buy this archive, and through a series of MoMA exhibitions and publications Atget finally entered the pantheon of "Masters" of photography.

Abbott, as a result of all this, is given much credit for the recognition that Atget's photographs have received in the contemporary photographic world. Abbott partnered with the American Julien Levy to raise the money to acquire 1,500 of Atget's negatives and 8,000 of his prints. As noted above, she spent the 40 years promoting his work in America, elevating it to recognition as art, beyond its original reputation as documentation.

Legacy

The Museum of Modern Art purchased Abbott's collection of Atget's work in 1968, and now has some 5,000 of his prints and negatives in its possession. Abbott wrote of Atget: "He was an urbanist historian, a Balzac of the camera, from whose work we can weave a large tapestry of French civilization." In 1981, MoMA completed publication of a four-volume series of books based on its four successive exhibitions about Atget's life and work.

'Atget, a Retrospective' was presented at the Bibliotheque Nationale in 2007.

Source - Wikipedia

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lace

Ecuador Sues Chevron

Tens of thousands of Amazonians are suing Chevron, the American oil company, for poisoning their waterways in what is billed as one of the biggest environmental cases in history.

The Ecuadorean claimants said the company illegally dumped toxic waste from its oil production, which filtered into the lakes used by thousands of people for washing and drinking.

The result, they claimed, was one of the worst environmental disasters in history, which led to a public health crisis with rising levels of cancer, birth defects and miscarriages.

Some 30,000 Amazonians are behind a case to be heard by an Ecuadorean judge. Experts said the company might have to pay damages of up to $US27 billion.

The company said there was no proof that any illnesses were caused by its operations. It said the responsibility for cleaning the area lay with the Ecuadorean government and Petroecuador, the state oil company.

The court case is the result of the exploitation of the indigenous population by US trial lawyers and a corrupt government, according to Chevron.

The Amazon campaign has attracted high-profile supporters including actor Daryl Hannah. Chevron's reputation for corporate social responsibility has already taken a blow.

The issue is the subject of Crude, a critically acclaimed documentary. The rags-to-riches tale of the most senior Ecuadorean lawyer fighting the case has earnt it a place on the front cover of Vanity Fair.

Texaco, which is owned by Chevron, started operating in Sucumbios, Ecuador, in 1964. Over 26 years it made more than $500 million, producing 1.7 billion barrels of oil. As the operator of a consortium with Petroecuador, it drilled hundreds of wells.

Pits were created for each well in which to put the water produced as a byproduct of the oil. Those fighting Chevron claimed that the 68 billion litres of water in the pits were toxic and were allowed to overflow into nearby rivers. They also claimed that Texaco spilt an additional 64 million litres of crude oil.

The contamination allegedly increased cancer rates in the area threefold, and led directly to 1400 deaths.

"Texaco treated Ecuador's Amazon like a garbage dump," said Douglas Beltman, a former official at the US Environmental Protection Agency who is a scientific consultant to the indigenous groups.

Source - Telegraph

Monday, November 16, 2009

Eden

USA; Bringing Freedom To The Afghans

Journalists have been allowed to inspect refurbished facilities at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, the largest US military hub in the region and home to a controversial prison.

Al Jazeera's correspondent James Bays, who was among those who inspected the facilities on Sunday, said Bagram, unlike its Guantanamo counterpart, was clearly not going to be shut down soon.

"The new prison wing cost some $60 million to build ... and is meant to be part of a new era of openness and transparency," Bays said.

"But we were not shown the detainees. Human-rights lawyers say that, while the environment for the prisoners may be changing, their legal situation is not ... not having been charged. Nor has any civilian lawyer ever been allowed inside."

Bays said the extended prison could hold up to 1,000 detainees, but was at present holding around 700 inmates, including 30 foreign prisoners.

Detainees 'beaten'

Omar Dighayes, a former detainee at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, said the Bagram prison resembled a concentration camp.

"People were beaten, dragged, tortured in it. There were high places where guards stood with guns. It was a hard, difficult place," he told Al Jazeera.

But he said he doubts the newly refurbished Bagram prison will improve conditions for its detainees, one of which includes his brother-in-law, whom Dighayes says was recently "badly beaten" inside Bagram.

"I don't think it's the facilities which make the difference, it's the treatment of people inside.

"Everybody who worked in Bagram - from the American side - will tell you that the things I'm describing did happen. People from the military intelligence [and] people from the FBI have spoken about the barbaric treatment at this facility."

But General Mark Martins, who runs detention operations at the airbase, said the US military was improving its treatment of detainees and had learnt many lessons since occupying the country in 2001.

"Detention, if not done properly, can actually harm the effort. We are a learning organisation ... we believe transparency is certainly going to help the effort, and increase the credibility of the whole process," Martins said.

'Guantanamo's evil twin'

However, Clara Gutteridge, an investigator of secret prisons and renditions from the human rights organisation, Reprieve, said Bagram is seen as "Guantanamo's lesser-known evil twin".

"All this talk about transparency, and the US government still won't release a simple list of names of prisoners who are in Bagram," she told Al Jazeera.

"None of them have had access to a lawyer ... and that just seems very unfair.

"We at Reprieve see this as the next big fight after Guantanamo Bay.

"But one thing that the US government is saying is that Afghan prisoners in Afghanistan have less rights than any other prisoner which just seems absurd."

Bagram Air Field is the largest US military hub in Afghanistan and is home to about 24,000 military personnel and civilian contractors.

Tens of millions of dollars continue to be spent on expanding and upgrading facilities - turning Bagram into a town spread over about 5,000 acres.

Base expansion

The air field part of the complex is already handling 400 tonnes of cargo and 1,000 passengers daily, according to Air Force spokesman Captain David Faggard.

It is continuing to grow to keep up with the requirements of an escalating war and troop increases.

Among new options being considered in Washington is regional commander General Stanley McChrystal's request to bring an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan.

But even with current troop levels - 65,000 US troops and about 40,000 from allied countries - Bagram already is bursting at the seams, our correspondent reported.

Plans are under way to build a new, $22m passenger terminal and a cargo yard costing $9m. To increase cargo capacity, a parking ramp supporting the world's largest aircraft is to be completed in early 2010.

Bagram was previously a major Soviet base during Moscow's 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan, providing air support to Soviet and Afghan forces fighting the mujahidin.

Bagram lies in Parwan, a relatively quiet province. The Taliban is not believed to have a significant presence in the province.

But the base is susceptible to rocket and mortar attacks. In 2009, the Taliban launched more than a dozen attacks on the base, killing four and wounding at least 12, according to Colonel Mike Brady, a military spokesman.

Source - Al Jazeera

Reaching

American Democracy At Work

In the official record of the historic House debate on overhauling health care, the speeches of many lawmakers echo with similarities. Often, that was no accident.

Statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies.

E-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that the lobbyists drafted one statement for Democrats and another for Republicans.

The lobbyists, employed by Genentech and by two Washington law firms, were remarkably successful in getting the statements printed in the Congressional Record under the names of different members of Congress.

Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points — 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists.

In an interview, Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said: “I regret that the language was the same. I did not know it was.” He said he got his statement from his staff and “did not know where they got the information from.”

Members of Congress submit statements for publication in the Congressional Record all the time, often with a decorous request to “revise and extend my remarks.” It is unusual for so many revisions and extensions to match up word for word. It is even more unusual to find clear evidence that the statements originated with lobbyists.

The e-mail messages and their attached documents indicate that the statements were based on information supplied by Genentech employees to one of its lobbyists, Matthew L. Berzok, a lawyer at Ryan, MacKinnon, Vasapoli & Berzok who is identified as the “author” of the documents. The statements were disseminated by lobbyists at a big law firm, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

In an e-mail message to fellow lobbyists on Nov. 5, two days before the House vote, Todd M. Weiss, senior managing director of Sonnenschein, said, “We are trying to secure as many House R’s and D’s to offer this/these statements for the record as humanly possible.”

He told the lobbyists to “conduct aggressive outreach to your contacts on the Hill to see if their bosses would offer the attached statements (or an edited version) for the record.”

In recent years, Genentech’s political action committee and lobbyists for Roche and Genentech have made campaign contributions to many House members, including some who filed statements in the Congressional Record. And company employees have been among the hosts at fund-raisers for some of those lawmakers. But Evan L. Morris, head of Genentech’s Washington office, said, “There was no connection between the contributions and the statements.”

Mr. Morris said Republicans and Democrats, concerned about the unemployment rate, were receptive to the company’s arguments about the need to keep research jobs in the United States.

The statements were not intended to change the bill, which was not open for much amendment during the debate. They were meant to show bipartisan support for certain provisions, even though the vote on passage generally followed party lines.

Democrats emphasized the bill’s potential to create jobs in health care, health information technology and clinical research on new drugs.

Republicans opposed the bill, but praised a provision that would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to approve generic versions of expensive biotechnology drugs, along the lines favored by brand-name companies like Genentech.

Lawmakers from both parties said it was important to conduct research on such “biosimilar” products in the United States. Several took a swipe at aggressive Indian competitors.

Asked about the Congressional statements, a lobbyist close to Genentech said: “This happens all the time. There was nothing nefarious about it.”

In separate statements using language suggested by the lobbyists, Representatives Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri and Joe Wilson of South Carolina, both Republicans, said: “One of the reasons I have long supported the U.S. biotechnology industry is that it is a homegrown success story that has been an engine of job creation in this country. Unfortunately, many of the largest companies that would seek to enter the biosimilar market have made their money by outsourcing their research to foreign countries like India.”

In remarks on the House floor, Representative Phil Hare, Democrat of Illinois, recalled that his family had faced eviction when his father was sick and could not make payments on their home. He said the House bill would save others from such hardship.

In a written addendum in the Congressional Record, Mr. Hare said the bill would also create high-paying jobs. Timothy Schlittner, a spokesman for Mr. Hare, said: “That part of his statement was drafted for us by Roche pharmaceutical company. It is something he agrees with.”

The boilerplate in the Congressional Record included some conversational touches, as if actually delivered on the House floor.

In the standard Democratic statement, Representative Robert A. Brady of Pennsylvania said: “Let me repeat that for some of my friends on the other side of the aisle. This bill will create high-paying, high-quality jobs in health care delivery, technology and research in the United States.”

Mr. Brady’s chief of staff, Stanley V. White, said he had received the draft statement from a lobbyist for Genentech’s parent company, Roche.

“We were approached by the lobbyist, who asked if we would be willing to enter a statement in the Congressional Record,” Mr. White said. “I asked him for a draft. I tweaked a couple of words. There’s not much reason to reinvent the wheel on a Congressional Record entry.”

Some differences were just a matter of style. Representative Yvette D. Clarke, Democrat of New York, said, “I see this bill as an exciting opportunity to create the kind of jobs we so desperately need in this country, while at the same time improving the lives of all Americans.”

Representative Donald M. Payne, Democrat of New Jersey, used the same words, but said the bill would improve the lives of “ALL Americans.”

Mr. Payne and Mr. Brady said the bill would “create new opportunities and markets for our brightest technology minds.” Mr. Pascrell said the bill would “create new opportunities and markets for our brightest minds in technology.”

In nearly identical words, three Republicans — Representatives K. Michael Conaway of Texas, Lynn Jenkins of Kansas and Lee Terry of Nebraska — said they had criticized many provisions of the bill, and “rightfully so.”

But, each said, “I do believe the sections relating to the creation of a market for biosimilar products is one area of the bill that strikes the appropriate balance in providing lower cost options.”

Source - New York Times

Sunday, November 15, 2009

V

Ikea

The wholesome Scandinavian image of furniture and lifestyle giant Ikea has been rudely shaken by a new book which claims the company is hostile to foreign employees and uses Stasi-style secret police methods to spy on its thousands of staff worldwide.

The explosive charges are made by a former senior Ikea executive Johan Stenebo, a Swede who started working for the company at one of its German outlets outside Hamburg over 20 years ago and rose to a senior management position. He resigned last year.

His book, entitled Sanningen om Ikea (The Truth about Ikea), contains wide-ranging allegations about a company which has become a global household name. Justifying the book to Gemany's Der Spiegel magazine, he said: "I did not want to go along with it any more, but I could not stay silent."

Mr Stenebo claims that Ikea, which employs 135,000 staff in 44 countries, is run with an iron fist by founder Ingvar Kamprad and his two sons Mathias and Peter, who were promoted to top management five years ago.

He describes Ikea as "one of the most secretive companies in the world" and claims that senior management were expected to show fanatical loyalty and devotion to Mr Kamprad. "There was an unwritten law for Ikea upper management: loyalty to Ingvar unto death," he writes.

He alleges that Ikea used methods normally associated with former Communist East Germany's hated Stasi secret police to spy on its staff and keep them in line. He claims that a close-knit network of company informers kept Mr Kamprad constantly updated on personal gossip about employees and the prevailing atmosphere in each office.

Foreigners who work for Ikea have been referred to by Swedish executives as "niggers", he writes, and have no chance of being promoted to senior positions. In fact, most of the top Ikea jobs, he claims, go to employees from the town of Älmhult, in the Samaland region of Sweden, where Mr Kamprad grew up. Mr Stenebo claims Ikea has elaborately manipulated the image of its 83-year-old founder, now the world's fifth-richest man, portraying him as "an ascetic, slightly dim geriatric" with alcohol problems and dyslexia, and confecting for him a typical Ikea lifestyle of modest, affordable simplicity, with a Klippan range sofa and the bog-standard Billy bookcase.

In reality, he writes, these stories were made up by Mr Kamprad (who actually drove a Porsche), then disseminated by media which fell for their quaint charm. There was good business sense to the strategy, he says: the company's homely image "helped to push down prices with suppliers".

His book also alleges that the company makes claims to being an eco-friendly concern, while in reality its huge market share means that it can dictate the lowest prices to its suppliers. "The key to Ikea's low prices is the supply of cheap raw materials," Mr Stenebo writes. "Instead of using the best they use the cheapest."

Mr Stenebo insists that he chose to write his open denunciation of Ikea after a furious row with Mr Kamprad's son Peter. "Economic power means a responsibility towards people and the environment, but Peter does not understand that," he claimed.

The book has attracted enormous media attention in Sweden, with its unprecedented attack on a national institution by one of its former senior executives. The last time the furniture giant came in for such negative publicity was more than a decade ago when Mr Kamprad senior was unmasked as having been a wartime member of a Swedish pro-Nazi organisation.

He managed to survive that stain on his reputation by publicly apologising and writing personally to all of Ikea's Jewish staff. This time around, Ikea has dismissed the book as "the author's personal opinion on Ikea and the Kamprad family. Ikea sees no reason to make a comment on someone's personal view on the company."

Yet despite Mr Stenebo's destructive criticisms, it is clear he has not entirely escaped entanglement with the old man's charisma. He has no doubt his denunciations have come to the attention of the man who matters. "Ingvar will be reading the book with his chameleon eyes," he told Der Spiegel with an unmistakable note of pride. "He hates me and he loves me."

Ikea in numbers

565 million Number of visitors to Ikea worldwide in 2008

9,500 Items of furniture available in the catalogue

135,000 Employees in 44 countries

€21.2bn Sales in 2008

594,000sq ft Size of largest branch of Ikea, outside Stockholm

Source - The Independent

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Om

God's Work - Goldman Sachs!!!!!!

Number 85 Broad Street, a dull, rust-coloured office block in lower Manhattan, doesn’t look like a place to stop and stare, and that’s just the way the people who work there like it. The men and women who arrive in the watery dawn sunshine, dressed in Wall Street black, clutching black briefcases and BlackBerrys, are very, very private. They walk quickly from their black Lincoln town cars to the lobby, past, well, nothing, really. There’s no name plate on the building, no sign on the front desk and the armed policeman stationed outside isn’t saying who works there. There’s a good reason for the secrecy. Number 85 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004, is where the money is. All of it.

It’s the site of the best cash-making machine that global capitalism has ever produced, and, some say, a political force more powerful than governments. The people who work behind the brass-trim glass doors make more money than some countries do. They are the rainmakers’ rainmakers, the biggest swinging dicks in the financial jungle. Their assets total $1 trillion, their annual revenues run into the tens of billions, and their profits are in the billions, which they distribute liberally among themselves. Average pay this recessionary year for the 30,000 staff is expected to be a record $700,000. Top earners will get tens of millions, several hundred thousand times more than a cleaner at the firm. When they have finished getting "filthy rich by 40", as the company saying goes, these alpha dogs don’t put their feet up. They parachute into some of the most senior political posts in the US and beyond, prompting accusations that they "rule the world". Number 85 Broad Street is the home of Goldman Sachs.

The world’s most successful investment bank likes to hide behind the tidal wave of money that it generates and sends crashing over Manhattan, the City of London and most of the world’s other financial capitals. But now the dark knights of banking are being forced, blinking, into the cold light of day. The public, politicians and the press blame bankers’ reckless trading for the credit crunch and, as the most successful bank still standing, Goldman is their prime target. Here, politicians and commentators compete to denounce Goldman in ever more robust terms — "robber barons", "economic vandals", "vulture capitalists". Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, contrasts the bank’s recent record results — profits of $3.2 billion in the last quarter alone — and its planned bumper bonus payments with what has happened to ordinary people’s jobs and incomes in 2009.

It’s even worse in the US. There, Rolling Stone magazine ran a story that described Goldman as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money". In his latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore drives up to 85 Broad Street in an armoured Brinks money van, leaps out carrying a sack with a giant dollar sign on it, looks up at the building and yells: "We’re here to get the money back for the American people!"

Goldman’s reputation is suddenly as toxic as the credit default swaps and other inexplicably exotic financial instruments it used to buy with glee. That’s bad for the one thing it values more than anything else: business. Being the prime target for popular and political outrage could put Goldman first in line for draconian new regulation. So it has, reluctantly, decided that the time has come to speak out, to fight its corner. That’s how, on one of those bright autumnal New York mornings when anything seems possible — even an invitation to break bread with the masters of the universe — I find myself walking past the security guard who held up Michael Moore and into the building with no name.

"Aha! You catch us plotting in real time," says Lloyd Blankfein, breaking away from a cabal of senior executives discussing his trip to Washington the previous day. Blankfein, 55, Goldman’s chairman and chief executive, is wearing a grey suit with a jaunty Hermès tie with little red bicycles on it. In his hand, he’s carrying one of those cups of coffee that look bigger than the human stomach. Maybe it’s the caffeine, maybe it’s the tie — a birthday present from his daughter — but he’s in a remarkably jolly mood for a man everyone seems to hate. "It’s like a safari here," he jokes. "You’ve come in to look at the animals."

Blankfein may be Wall Street’s Sun God, but, with the economic outlook stormy, he doesn’t want to advertise it, so the merest hint of a status symbol or — horror! — ostentation is airbrushed out of his life, publicly, at least. Take his office on the 30th floor. The chairs are the same ones that were there when he became CEO three years ago. There are none of the $87,000 handmade rugs or $5,000 wastepaper baskets of Wall Street lore. There’s no sign of irrational exuberance. Only coffee, which arrives cold. It sets just the right tone for the job in hand. The grand wizard of Wall Street is steeling himself for the hardest sell of his life: he’s here to argue for good ol’ capitalism, for investment banks and for Goldman Sachs.

Luckily for him and his firm, he’s a damn good salesman. He starts with a little humility. He understands that "people are pissed off, mad, and bent out of shape" at bankers’ actions. Goldman played its part in the meltdown that almost destroyed the global financial system. It, like most other banks, lent too much money, made its first quarterly loss for more than a decade last year and ended up taking bail-out cash from Washington. "I know I could slit my wrists and people would cheer," he says. But then, he slowly begins to argue the case for modern banking. "We’re very important," he says, abandoning self-flagellation. "We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle." To drive home his point, he makes a remarkably bold claim. "We have a social purpose."

Social purpose? Those who have lost their jobs or seen their pay slashed thanks to bankers who flogged dodgy mortgages and dreamt up investments so complex not even they understood them, would gladly tell him where to stick his social purpose. But the problem is, Blankfein is a good advertisement for wealth creation. His own. He is no scion of privilege, dispensing plummy-voiced homilies to raw capitalism from his 30th-floor eyrie. Born in a tough neighbourhood in the Bronx, the son of a postal worker and a receptionist, he was the first in his family to go to college and used financial aid to go to Harvard.

Even though he proudly pays himself more in a year than most of us could ever dream of — $68m in 2007 alone, a record for any Wall Street CEO, to add to the more than $500m of Goldman stock he owns — he insists he’s still "a blue-collar guy".

But what about the charge sheet? Bankers brought the world to the brink of bankruptcy and instead of doing the decent thing and jumping out of the nearest window, they turned up cap in hand to governments to hoover up taxpayers’ money to save their skin. Now, just one year on, they are carrying on as if nothing has happened, gambling, and winning, handsomely, with our cash. Goldman’s profits in the second quarter were a record $3.4 billion. Most of the money is being made in trading in bonds, currencies and commodities.

Goldman is coining it again for two reasons. First, global markets are booming — up 50% from the credit-crunch lows, as new money, much of it from governments, has gushed into the financial system. Second, with Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns off the street, Merrill Lynch a crippled shadow of its former self, and neither Citigroup nor UBS the forces of old, Goldman has a bigger slice of a growing pie. "We didn’t f*** up like the other guys. We’ve still got a balance sheet. So, now we’ve got a bigger and richer pot to piss in," is how one Goldman banker puts it. Small wonder the bank is on course to set aside over $20 billion for salaries and bonuses.

So far, so lucrative. But isn’t it simply unfair? Isn’t Goldman acting as the modern equivalent of war-time profiteer, taking advantage of global crisis and emergency government action to mint millions? Even the veteran financier George Soros says the big profits made by Wall Street banks are "hidden gifts" from the state.

Blankfein dismisses any suggestion that Gold-man needed to be bailed out, and, by extension, rejects any notion that the firm is now profiting from public support. Sure, he took $10 billion from Washington’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (Tarp). But the bank has since repaid the cash, with healthy interest — 23%. Goldman also bene-fited from the federal bail-out of the huge US insurance firm AIG. Goldman had bought $20 billion worth of insurance from AIG and received billions of dollars — perhaps as much as $13 billion — when Washington pumped $90 billion into the stricken giant. But Blankfein insists Goldman was "hedged" against any AIG losses, in the best possible way — with cash. So even if AIG had gone under, Goldman would not have suffered. Critics say that had AIG gone bust, the entire financial system could have collapsed, taking Goldman with it. What’s more, at the height of the crisis, the Federal Reserve broke with an 80-year-old tradition and let Goldman turn itself from a pure investment bank into a bank holding company. This meant it could borrow funds at the same cheap rate as commercial banks for as long as it wanted. Blankfein says Goldman changed status not for the money, but because it had become clear, following the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman, that the market had lost faith in the ability of the US Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate investment banks. Being regulated by the central bank, the Federal Reserve, would help to restore confidence in the financial system as a whole.

Whatever the truth behind the bail-out, not even the smartest Goldmanite can deny that it is only thanks to government aid that the bank still has a financial system to work with. Washington has bolstered the US economy and banks to the tune of $12 trillion. Does Blankfein not acknowledge that it is maddening for most of us to watch Goldman gobble up so much cash while we struggle? Quite the opposite. He insists we should be celebrating his bank’s success, not condemning it. "Everybody should be, frankly, happy," he says. Can he be serious? Deadly. Goldman’s performance, he argues, is the firmest indication of a nascent economic recovery that will benefit not just him and his firm but all of us. "The financial system led us into the crisis and it will lead us out."

Blankfein goes on to say something equally audacious. We should welcome the return of titanic paydays at Goldman. Goldman is exempt from President Barack Obama’s cap on bonuses because it has paid back bail-out cash. Paying top dollar to recruit and retain the best bankers won’t sink the system, he claims, but save it. Performance-related pay is a guarantee of high-quality responsible banking. "If you examine our practices on compensation, you will see a complete correlation throughout our history of having remuneration match performance over the long term. Others made no money and still paid large bonuses. Some are not around any more. I wonder why."

Many disagree, arguing that in the new, flatter economic landscape, megabucks pay is no longer necessary. Lucian Bebchuk, professor of law, economics and finance at Harvard Law School, says: "These days, it’s easier for banks to keep their employees from being raided. The outside opportunities are less attractive now than in 2007."

Okay, forget bail-outs, forget bonuses, forget all the money stuff, if you can. Surely Blankfein cannot dodge the playwright David Hare? Through his latest work, The Power of Yes, which tackles the issue of the credit crunch, Hare argues that it is "blackmail" to say that there cannot be a recovery unless we let bankers get on with what they have always done and pay themselves squillions. It’s like what the miners did in the 1970s, only this time the National Union of Mineworkers is the City and Wall Street. Blankfein has no time for such soft talk. Bankers are not miners. "I’ve got news for you," he shoots back, eyes narrowing. "If the financial system goes down, our business is going down and, trust me, yours and everyone else’s is going down, too."

Like a patient who has survived a near-death experience, for Blankfein the credit crunch has rekindled his innate passion for moneymaking. Talking to him is like talking to a man who has greenbacks, not blood, running through his veins. He believes he’s good at what he does and what he does is good. He has his supporters. Vanity Fair awarded him the coveted No 1 spot in its 2009 New Establishment list, its league table of the 100 top power players in the information age, above such luminaries as the Apple boss, Steve Jobs, and the Google founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Others, such as the New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, argue that the public "cannot have it both ways". At the height of the crisis last year, Sorkin recalls, "many crossed their fingers, hoping Goldman and the rest of Wall Street would be saved to halt the downward spiral. But now when the banks finally get back on their feet, we want them to fall flat again".

Like it or loathe it, one thing is unarguable: "Tenacious G" does seem to draw the winning hand in good times and, as we have seen recently, in bad. It begs one simple question. How? What’s in the special sauce? To try to find the answer, you have to leave Blankfein’s office and take the lift to the 17th floor. On the way, you hear investment bankers, traders, "strats" — strategists — and "quants", the mathematical lizard brains who dream up whizzy trading formulae, discussing "interest rate swaps", "no credit defaults", "exotic and vanilla options", "bid-ask spreads", "bunds", "bobls" and goodness knows what else. You can’t see the cash whizzing around 85 Broad Street as you walk through the place, but you can feel it being shuffled 24 hours a day between central, commercial and investment banks, vast companies, Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern movers and sheikhers, Texas oilmen and secretive billionaires in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

In an office with an ink stain on the carpet, sits Liz Beshel. She’s the first ingredient of Goldman’s witches’ brew. The firm only hires the very, very brightest and they don’t come much sparkier than Beshel. The 40-year-old single mother talks so fast, and with such insight into financial markets, you practically need a degree from Harvard Business School to keep up. She was snapped up by Goldman straight from college and managed to get an executive MBA from Columbia University, New York, "on Fridays". As you do. She rose quickly though investment banking to become the firm’s youngest-ever global treasurer, the keeper of the cash. Today, every pound the firm invests, every yen it borrows, every dollar that flows on and off its balance sheet, is under her watchful eye, all $1 trillion a day of it. How much cash does the bank have right now? I ask. "$164.2 billion in cash or cash equivalents," she replies without pausing for thought or breath.

It is thanks to rat-tat-tat intellects like Beshel that Goldman Sachs not only has so much money, but tends to be good at hanging onto it. Staff rigorously price — "mark to market", in the jargon — the bank’s assets every day, down to the last cent, and forensically examine daily profit and loss. This helps the bank to see market trends clearly and early and, it believes, to manage risk better than most other banks. "We think we make better decisions," says Beshel. There’s evidence to support the claim. Take the sub-prime mortgage sector, the ticking toxic debt bomb that detonated the economic crisis. One year before bad home loans brought down Lehman and Bear Stearns, forced shotgun marriages of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America and HBOS to Lloyds, and made Royal Bank of Scotland a national joke, Goldman’s daily valuations revealed it had suffered modest losses in its mortgage holdings for just over a week. At most banks, the losses might have gone unnoticed or been dismissed as a rounding error, but Goldman convened a meeting of senior bankers to try to find out what was going on. Even though the housing and mortgage markets were still buoyant, the bank did not like what it saw and began reducing its exposure. When the credit crunch hit, its losses in the mortgage sector were only $1.7 billion, lower than any other big investment bank. UBS lost $58 billion.

Being smarter than the average bear is one thing, but to be a Goldmanite you have to work harder than the average bear too. Ask Sarah Smith, 50, a former convent schoolgirl from Bromley in Kent who left Britain to become Goldman’s chief accountant. "It’s a 24/7 culture," she says. "When you’re needed, you’re here. And if you’re needed and you’re not answering your phone, you won’t be needed very long."

Smith, whose office is a BlackBerry throw away from the Embassy Suites hotel where Goldman staff go for an hour or two’s sleep when they have been up so long that they start sleepwalking along the hallways, only had a few days’ holiday last year. How many weeks off does she get a year?

"I don’t know. No one really knows how much holiday you get because nobody ever takes it all."

The big brains and brutal work ethic help to give Goldman the edge when it comes to snagging the best, and richest, clients. One veteran Goldman banker explains: "You are programmed at an early stage to go out more than the other guy, to see more people — clients, hedge funds or private equity guys."

Goldman staffers are also trained to "brain pick" contacts and clients harder than the other guy. "You ask what’s their best trade. How do they see the market," says one. "You offer something in return, but you always come back with something. Then you feed it to colleagues who go to work trying to use the information to make money." Other banks do not get such good information, and what information individual bankers do get, they tend not to share because they regard it as power they can use to benefit individually. "Goldman is not like that," the veteran banker says. "It’s a team effort." Or, as one rival banker puts it, "They’re a clever gang — of thugs."

Dane Holmes, 39, Goldman’s head of investor relations, is a 6ft 8in tall, 260lb former college basketball player. He looks like he could run straight through opponents — hell, through brick walls! — if he wanted to. But, he says: "That’s not the way Goldman works. You can have a great career in banking as an individual, but it won’t be here. The system weeds out those who can’t play nicely with others."

When Goldman gets behind something, everyone in the giant hive wants a piece of the action. Take this article. Once the bank had agreed to talk, it was hard to get senior executives to shut up. One, Michael Sherwood, 44, co-boss of Europe, flew back to the firm’s London headquarters from the IMF meeting in Istanbul, via Moscow, for a 40-minute interview, before jetting off again straight away to see clients in the Gulf.

The idea of teamwork goes right to the top. Goldman may not be a private partnership any more — it went public a decade ago — but the bosses work hard to foster a "we’re in this together", family-style approach. Others say it feels more like a cult, but they mean it as a compliment. Some of its practices make perfect sense. Bonuses, for example, are not based on personal performance, as they are at many banks, but on the performance of the firm as a whole, and partners receive a sizable chunk of their remuneration in stock that they cannot sell until they leave the firm. It weeds out what Dina Powell, 36, the firecracker Egyptian-American boss of Goldman’s philanthropic arm, calls "egomaniac jerks" who might be tempted to bet the farm on red in the hope of skewering a bigger bonus.

Other practices are distinctly creepy. Goldman-ites are forced to check their secure voicemail morning, noon and night for the latest bon mots of Blankfein and Eileen Dillon, 48, who is officially head of operations for the executive office but unofficially camp counsellor. Goldman is the biggest user of voicemail in the world. The "mind bullets" consist of anything from the latest profit and loss figures, to reports of what the chief executives of key clients have told Blankfein and his top team over lunch, to instructions to "switch off on holiday, for goodness sake".

No calls to meet in the basement to club baby seals to death first thing in the morning to get in the mood for a hard day’s banking? "God, no," one staffer says wryly. "We don’t club baby seals. We club babies."

What makes people who are bright enough to do anything they want put up with the days-into-nights-into-days working and the dorkish corporate groupthink? There’s the money, of course. Goldman Sachs isn’t nicknamed "Goldmine Sachs" for nothing. There’s so much of the stuff sloshing around that in an average year a good investment banking partner will make $3.5m, a good trading partner $7-10m and a management committee member $15-25m. Some 953 employees got bonuses of at least $1m in 2008. Blankfein may insist he is still a blue-collar guy, but he manages to have a $30m apartment on Central Park West and a 6,500-square-foot home in the Hamptons, the summer playground of New York’s elite. One former Goldman banker describes the culture as "completely money-obsessed. I was like a donkey driven forward by the biggest, juiciest carrot I could imagine. Money is the way you define your success. There’s always room — need — for more. If you are not getting a bigger house or a bigger boat, you’re falling behind. It’s an addiction." Addiction is a word Sherwood uses, too. He should know. He’s on his second multi-million-pound super-yacht. "I like boats," he says. Not sailing, but boats. It’s his way of keeping up with, and in with, his friend the BHS billionaire, Sir Philip Green, who lives for part of the year on his 208ft, £32m yacht, Lionheart, which is moored in Monaco. "How many boats have I bought?" Sherwood says. "It’s not a good time to answer that. I’ll take the Fifth."

But there’s another powerful motivator: doubt. There may be arrogance at 85 Broad Street — behind closed doors, Blankfein likes to joke (but not really) that he has "attained perfection" — but behind the bravado, Goldmanites, curiously, question their ability. "There is a deep and constant paranoia about everything we do," says Sherwood. It applies to an individual’s performance and the prospects for the firm as a whole.

Insecurity is hard-wired into the system. You feel it even before you are hired. Most applicants are interviewed at least 20 times before they are made an offer and some more than 30 times. Once hired, each staff member is constantly and confidentially reviewed by those they work with. There’s a metric for every aspect of performance and each staffer is measured against their department and the firm as a whole. Every year, staff are put into one of four quartiles by the Human Capital Management department. Note the "Capital". At Goldman, people are money. The top are richly rewarded, while the fourth quartilers? Who cares? They won’t be around much longer. It’s up, or out. "We say goodbye to the bottom 3-5% every year [about 1,500 people]," says Richard Gnodde, 49, co-boss of the European operation, based in London.

Taking type-A people, making them feel like type-B people and moulding them into kick-ass teams that work every hour God — sorry, Goldman — sends, is important, no doubt. But it’s not Goldman’s killer app. That is its extraordinary networking ability. The firm is the greatest talent network in the world. Unlike at other banks, top performers are encouraged to get on, make all the money they will ever need in their thirties, then get out to "do good". The average tenure of a partner is eight years. "You don’t join for the retirement programme," says one staffer. "You have your phase of the moon to make money and then f*** off." But doing good does not mean running an HIV clinic in Kinshasa, it means getting top jobs in treasuries, central banks and stock exchanges around the world. The list of former Goldman executives who have held key posts in the US administration and vital global institutions in New York and Washington alone is mind-boggling. It includes: the treasury secretary under Bill Clinton (Robert Rubin); the treasury secretary under George Bush (Hank Paulson); the current president and former chairman of the New York Federal Reserve (William Dudley and Stephen Friedman); the chief of staff to the treasury secretary Timothy Geithner (Mark Patterson); the chief of staff under President Bush (Joshua Bolten); the economic adviser to the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton (Robert Hormats); the chairman of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (Gary Gensler); the under-secretary of state for economic, business, and agricultural affairs under President Bush (Reuben Jeffery); the past and current heads of the New York Stock Exchange (John Thain and Duncan Niederauer); the chief operating officer of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division (Adam Storch). Moreover, Goldman’s new top lobbyist in Washington, Michael Paese, used to work for Barney Frank, the congressman who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. To put this in perspective, imagine that Alistair Darling, the chancellor, and his key advisers, Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, Xavier Rolet, the boss of the London Stock Exchange, and Hector Sants, head of the Financial Services Authority, all used to work at the same City firm before moving into government. Small wonder that another of Goldman’s nicknames is "Government Sachs".

Critics say having friends in high places gives the firm the vital edge. Key government officials, they argue, discuss policy — privately — with Goldman chiefs more than executives from other banks. In his new book, Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin reports one meeting. Blankfein’s predecessor, Paulson, had promised not to talk to Goldman when he moved from the bank to the US treasury, but last June he happened to be in Moscow at the same time that Goldman’s board of directors was having dinner there with Mikhail Gorbachev. Paulson got approval from treasury lawyers to meet his old chums, since it would be a "social event". Paulson proceeded to regale them with stories about his time in the treasury and his predictions for the global economy. Goldman’s board questioned him about the possibility of another bank blowing up, like Bear Stearns. Recently released documents reveal that a few months later, at the height of the crisis when Paulson was working on the bail-out of AIG, Blankfein’s name appeared on his call sheet 24 times in six days. Big banks that held AIG insurance contracts, including Goldman, were paid off in full, rather than at the 60 cents on the dollar that AIG negotiators had been pressing for, prompting allegations of a "sweetheart deal" between Paulson and Blankfein.

Goldman vigorously denies that having so many former staffers in top political posts means it receives special treatment. "These people are highly principled," says Sherwood. The Moscow meeting and the AIG deal call into question Sherwood’s claim, to put it mildly.

The more time you spend in 85 Broad Street, the more you get the feeling that Goldman is the overachieving child of globalisation. It has the best, brightest and hardest-working in global finance and government in its pocket. Even the critics agree. But they add that the well-greased machine does other things that ensure its success, things that the bank is less keen to talk about. While the whizzo teams might manage risk well and get out of bull markets at just the right time, they play their part in inflating the bubbles in the first place — and pocket a fortune doing so. Goldman has benefited from the upside of all the recent booms — dot.com, commodities, housing — and, critics say, was involved in stoking them by handling share offerings for big clients and by trading securities and debt before pulling back.

Detractors also accuse the bank’s trading and investment-banking arms of "playing both sides" of the market. Goldman trades securities for big firms and pension funds. It also acts as adviser to many of the companies whose securities it trades. This means the firm has a view on what everyone in the market is doing. Say an investor approaches Goldman and says it wants to buy into the oil market. Goldman can offer an accurate view of what is likely to happen in that market because it knows what its own corporate energy clients are doing on its advice and what other big investors are trading. This also means the bank can do well on its own oil trades. Critics liken this to a huge casino in which the house knows every hand at the table and uses that information to enrich itself at the expense of everyone else. Goldman dismisses charges of "casino capitalism". The more market information it has, it argues, the better it can advise companies and the better it can match buyers with sellers and get the best prices in the markets. It emphatically denies it misuses information or acts unethically. Strict "Chinese walls" between traders and advisers prevent any conflicts of interest. Regulations are so tight that if an investment banker so much as tries to enter a trading floor using their electronic office pass, not only will the pass not work, but he or she will be hauled in for questioning.

Whatever alchemy it uses, one thing is certain: Goldman has dodged the credit-crunch bullet and is emerging from the crisis stronger than ever. To the victor, the spoils. But the patient might find cheating death easier than pacifying the public. Many remain unconvinced that, while Goldman may be big and clever, it is a force for good. Vince Cable warns: "If we’ve learnt anything, it’s that banks have too much power over consumers and governments. Goldman Sachs has never been more powerful. That should alarm all of us."

World leaders and financial regulators are trying to draw up plans to limit what bank like Goldman can do and how they can pay their staff. With his bulldog-like belief in the purity and efficiency of the free market, you would not imagine this would be a fight Blankfein would relish. But the funny thing is, he’s up for it because he thinks it will make banking safer and enable Goldman to make even more money in future.

"Those government pronouncements that have come out so far are on the right track," he says. Paying staff for performance, and paying in deferred stock awards as well as cash to ensure long-term success, is "desirable and something we already do". "Greedy, but long-term greedy," is how Goldmanites describe the bank’s investment and payment policies. Blankfein backs proposals to ensure banks are better capitalised. "If we didn’t understand the limits of unfettered capitalism before, we sure do now. Anything that makes the system better, safer, is good for us." He might have added: just don’t impose any windfall tax on pay.

For Blankfein, in the end, it all comes down to one thing: finding the best, fastest, and safest way to make money with money, then make some more money, with money on top. He’s not interested in a reality check, just a bumper pay cheque for his clients, for his firm, for his staff, for his shareholders and, eventually, he believes, for us. His almost religious devotion to the dogma of finance is thrown into stark relief just before I walk out of the building with no name and find myself back in the autumn sunshine. I ask him the question that, in these troubled times, you’d think anyone — from the guy outside 85 Broad selling 99-cent chilli dogs to the gazillionaire King of Wall Street sitting 30 storeys above — would pause before answering. And then, perhaps, offer an equivocal, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand answer, whether he means it or not. Is it possible to make too much money?

"Is it possible to have too much ambition? Is it possible to be too successful?" Blankfein shoots back. "I don’t want people in this firm to think that they have accomplished as much for themselves as they can and go on vacation. As the guardian of the interests of the shareholders and, by the way, for the purposes of society, I’d like them to continue to do what they are doing. I don’t want to put a cap on their ambition. It’s hard for me to argue for a cap on their compensation."

So, it’s business as usual, then, regardless of whether it makes most people howl at the moon with rage? Goldman Sachs, this pillar of the free market, breeder of super-citizens, object of envy and awe will go on raking it in, getting richer than God? An impish grin spreads across Blankfein’s face. Call him a fat cat who mocks the public. Call him wicked. Call him what you will. He is, he says, just a banker "doing God’s work"

How they make their money

Goldman Sachs’s name may not be on the high street, but if you bank with HSBC, cook with gas, shop with Ocado, watch Big Brother, buy clothes at Gap, use a TomTom satellite navigation system or simply enjoy the odd cheese-and-pickle sandwich, Goldman is part of your life.

The company is split into three divisions. It’s an investment bank that raises money for clients and sometimes invests its own money in businesses. In the UK, it has raised capital for HSBC, Centrica (owners of British Gas), and Ocado, the online grocery business backed by Waitrose that sells more than £400m-worth of food a year.

It helped to fund Endemol, makers of Big Brother, and is the biggest single investor in Eurotunnel. It has handled share issues for TomTom and J Crew. It is banker to Gap. It restructured Premier Foods, one of whose brands is Branston pickle. Goldman is also a trading house. It trades commodities, such as oil and gold, equities (shares in companies) and company debt. It raises money for governments by selling interest-bearing bonds to investors. The bank’s third division is asset management. It manages money on behalf of pension funds, insurance companies and wealthy individuals.

It makes money by charging hefty fees to the companies and clients it advises and whose assets it manages — typically 2-4%. It also makes profits from trading using its own cash, as it has done since its inauspicious beginnings.

The bank was founded in New York in 1869 by a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria, Marcus Goldman. His son-in-law, Samuel Sachs, later joined him. Shut out of the clubby, largely Protestant world of stock and bond trading, Goldman established a profitable, if unglamorous, niche buying and selling short-term corporate IOUs, known as commercial paper. By the turn of the century, the firm was pioneering the market for initial public offerings, handling the stock-market debuts of blue-chip companies such as Sears and Ford.

As Goldman started outside the cosy Wall Street establishment, it hired the smartest, most driven people it could find, who learnt to exploit market loopholes, snatch business from rivals and win favours from friends in high places. Under Sidney Weinberg, chief executive from 1930 to 1969, the bank forged top business graduates into ad-hoc teams that would work around the clock for clients

Overworked, overpaid, over here

Goldman Sachs may be a Wall Street bank, but its role and influence in London is huge. Around 5,500 people work in its Fleet Street office, which is, in fact, two former newspaper offices joined together. Traders sit where hot-metal printers used to lay out The Daily and Sunday Telegraph and The Daily and Sunday Express.

It is the most profitable bank in the City. Profits per employee averaged £181,000 a year between 2000 and 2008. Average pay this year is expected to be £458,000.

It is one of the top tax-payers in the City.

The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, stands to receive more than £2 billion in corporation tax, VAT and income tax this year.

Staffers enjoy lavish perks. The firm has its own chefs to make sure visiting guests can eat and drink with Goldman partners in style — and away from envious eyes. There is a company gym, a doctor’s surgery and a crèche. Every staffer gets private health insurance as standard. Staff can take a taxi on the firm pretty much whenever they want. Lines of black cabs snake around the back of the building at night.

The London office is run by Michael Sherwood (above) and Richard Gnodde. Sherwood, known as Woody, is the hard man. The former trader seems to model himself on his good friend, the BHS billionaire Sir Philip Green. He talks fast, in a no-bullshit style.

Like Sir Philip, his brash deal-making can get the better of him. In 2006, British Airports Authority asked Goldman to pitch for the brief to fend off a hostile takeover bid from Ferrovial, Spain’s construction giant. Goldman, whose team included Sherwood, said one tactic would be for Goldman itself to buy BAA. The move outraged BAA and prompted Goldman’s then CEO, Hank Paulson, to send a stern message upbraiding the executives involved. The note became known as ‘the spank from Hank’.

By contrast, Gnodde is a suave investment banker. He looks, and talks, like he has stepped out of a 1970s men’s knitwear catalogue. He is the velvet — or should that be cashmere? — glove to Woody’s iron fist. He is best known for advising the Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal in his £17-billion bid for the European producer Arcelor.

Sherwood and Gnodde are advised by part-time eminences grises, such as Lord (Brian) Griffiths, one-time special adviser to Margaret Thatcher who ran the prime minister’s policy unit from 1985 to 1990 and is a former director of the Bank of England. He is one of the bank’s international advisers and also acts as company pastor. ‘I had one guy who came to see me — I thought about his career — but he wanted to talk about the morality of banking. That was a long conversation,’ Griffiths recalls.

As a committed Christian and a trustee of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Fund, Griffiths is a useful PR tool. It was he, for instance, who spoke out last month to defend big bonuses. ‘If we said we’re not going to have as big bonuses or the same bonuses as last year, I think you’d find that lots of City firms could easily hive off their operations to Switzerland or the Far East,’ he told an audience at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Every year, at bonus time, Sherwood and Gnodde remind staff to keep a low profile, not to advertise their wealth. Most do. They invest their millions in property, mostly in secluded parts of Kensington, Regent’s Park, Fulham, Notting Hill Gate, Chelsea, Highgate and Hampstead. For many years, one partner, Julian Metherell, proudly drove around in a beaten-up red Nissan Sunny.

Not all Goldmanites avoid the headlines. An abiding tale of the boom years is how three London executives, Jennifer Moses and her husband, Ron Beller, and Scott Mead, had so much cash they did not notice when an assistant, Joyti De-Laurey, stole more than £4m from their accounts.

Goldmanites send their children to the same private schools and if they don’t like the ones in their area, they set up their own. Mead co-founded a prep school in Notting Hill, with 200 students from ages 4-14. The wives of Goldman Sachs employees also try to keep a low profile, devoting themselves to charity work and competitive grooming.

As in the US, the bank is closely linked to the government. Its former chief economist and partner, Gavyn Davies, is married to Gordon Brown’s special adviser Sue Nye. Under Tony Blair, Davies became chairman of the BBC. His successor as chief economist at Goldman, the late David Walton, was handed a seat on the Bank of England’s interest-rate setting Monetary Policy Committee. Paul Deighton, who is running the London Olympic Games organising committee, used to be Goldman’s chief operating officer.

Goldman is a key banking adviser to the government. Brown hired the bank to advise him on the sale of Northern Rock last year.

Friends in high places. Goldman's political web

US treasury secretaries, heads of the New York Stock Exchange, White House and Downing Street advisers — you name it, they’ve worked for Goldman Sachs. Here are just some of the Goldmanites with their fingers in the worldwide political pie

Sue Nye/Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown’s special adviser, Nye is married to Goldman’s former chief economist and partner Gavyn Davies. Under Tony Blair, Davies became chairman of the BBC. He resigned in 2004 after the Hutton Report

Robert Rubin/Bill Clinton

Rubin spent 26 years at Goldman before joining the Clinton administration as an economic adviser. He served as treasury secretary for four years from 1995, and remains an adviser to President Barack Obama

Hank Paulson/George Bush

Paulson was CEO of Goldman before becoming the US treasury secretary. At the height of the credit crunch, when Paulson was working on the AIG bail-out, Blankfein’s name appeared on Paulson’s call sheet 24 times in six days

Larry Summers/Barack Obama

Obama’s economic adviser Summers never worked directly for Goldman, but served in Clinton’s government under his mentor, Robert Rubin. Goldman paid Summers $135,000 to appear at a one-day speaking event in 2008 before Barack Obama came to power

Sachs in the City

Michael Sherwood: The vice chairman and co-chief executive of Goldman Sachs International. Known as Woody, he is renowned for his trading skills. His basic salary in 2008 was £415,000.

In a good year, he can expect a bonus to take his package to around £6m. He is one of two head honchos in London.

Richard Gnodde: The co-chief executive of Goldman Sachs International, Gnodde’s 2008 salary was £1.3m. A large chunk of this may have been a bonus. He is believed to have been the highest-paid director in London in 2007, taking home £11.7m. He took a 90% pay cut last year.

Matthew Westerman: The global head of equity capital markets. He should take home up to £5m with a bonus in 2009. A former Rothschild banker who cut his teeth in his thirties on stock-market flotations around Europe, he was lured to Goldman Sachs in 2000 to lead the European new issues division. He has been involved in company fundraisings this year, where Goldman has reaped huge profits, so is in line for a bumper bonus.

Yoel Zaoui: The head of European investment banking. He is likely to receive up to £5m in 2009.

An employee since 1988, Zaoui has had a meteoric rise. He achieved coveted partnership in just 10 years. He has often locked swords in European takeover battles with his older brother Michael, who had the same role at the rival bank Morgan Stanley.

Karen Cook: An MD of Goldman Sachs International and president of Goldman Sachs, Europe, Cook’s salary with bonus in 2009 could be up to £5m. A mother of six, she was co-head of UK corporate finance at the blue-chip bank Schroders before moving to Goldman in 1999. She has been involved in multi-billion-pound takeovers, such as Kraft’s £10.2 billion tilt at Cadbury.

Strenth in numbers

In 2007, the Goldman Sachs boss Lloyd Blankfein earned $68m, a record for any Wall Street CEO. A good investment banking partner at Goldman will make $3.5m a year, a good trading partner $7-10m a year, and a management committee member $15-25m.

Goldman is not the biggest bank in the world. ICBC, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, has 11 times the number of employees. Nor is it the richest. HSBC has assets of $2.4 trillion, against Goldman’s $1 trillion. And it’s not the biggest by market capitalisation. It’s worth $95 billion, compared with $201 billion for HSBC. But it is the most profitable.

Goldman makes more money per employee than any other bank — $222,000 a year on average between 2000 and 2008. JP Morgan Chase, its nearest rival, made annual profits of $133,000 per employee in the same period.

Goldman’s profits in the second quarter of this year were a record $3.4 billion.

Source - Times Online

Monday, November 09, 2009

Cuba

American Diplomacy

After the US Congress agreed a $7.5bn aid package for Pakistan this autumn, the Obama administration was taken aback by the seemingly ungrateful reaction of its intended recipients. Pakistani opposition politicians fumed about "colonialism" and "imperialism". Military men spoke angrily of insults to national sovereignty implied in conditions attached to the aid.

But particular hostility was directed at US plans to spend over $800m on building a new, heavily fortified embassy in Islamabad, to be protected by the private security contractor, DynCorp. The activities of contractors in Iraq, notably Blackwater, have become notorious in the Muslim world. In addition, expanded US "bunker consulates" were announced for Lahore and Peshawar.

"Just the other day we had a television debate on America wanting to colonise us," one Pakistani said. "How easy it was for us to believe this when we hear of Blackwater setting up camp in our cities, buying hundreds of homes, not being accountable to the laws of our country, of hundreds of US marines on our soil, being allowed to enter without visas, of the enormous new US embassy being built which is like a mini-Pentagon."

Despite such complaints, US plans are going ahead. They include a $405m replacement embassy building in Islamabad, the construction of a $111m office annexe to accommodate 330 workers, and new housing units costing $197m. In Peshawar, scene of a devastating Taliban car bomb attack on Wednesday, the US plans to buy the city's only five-star hotel and turn it into a sort of diplomatic Martello tower.

The US says the new facilities are needed because old premises are insecure and it must accommodate the "civilian surge" of diplomats and officials into Pakistan and Afghanistan ordered by Barack Obama. But the American expansion in Islamabad mirrors similar developments in other Muslim and foreign capitals that are focal points for the Pentagon's "long war" against Islamist extremism.

Shocked by the 1998 al-Qaida attacks on its Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassies, the US has opened 68 new embassies and overseas facilities since 2001 and has 29 under design and construction, the state department's bureau of overseas buildings operations says. Total worldwide spending on embassy replacement has been put at $17.5bn.

In Kabul, Baghdad, Jakarta, Cairo and beyond, in "allied" cities such as London and Berlin, Washington is building, reinforcing or expanding slab-walled, fortress-like embassies that act as regional overseas HQs, centres of influence and intelligence-gathering, and problematic symbols of superpower.

Historically speaking, these formidable outposts are the 21st century equivalent of crusader castles, rising out of the plain, projecting superior force, and grimly dominating all they behold.

As in Pakistan, the new strongholds attract plenty of criticism, acting almost as magnets for trouble. The massively fortified $700m Baghdad embassy, the biggest US mission in the world with 1,200 employees, was dogged by construction delays and militant attacks before it finally opened in January this year. Now even the state department's own inspector-general has ruled that the 21-building, 104-acre encampment is too big. "The time has come for a significant right-sizing," a July report said.

The Kabul embassy, which is negotiating an $87m purchase of 30 to 40 additional acres, encountered a different kind of trouble last month after photographs emerged of embassy guards engaging in sex acts, pouring vodka on each other, and dancing naked round a fire. The guards were employed by another private security firm, ArmorGroup North America. The revelations underscored existing concerns about security contractors. Investigators concluded the embassy's safety had been seriously compromised.

Away from the frontline of America's wars, the unveiling last year of the new US embassy in Berlin, close by the Brandenburg Gate, brought strong objections of an aesthetic nature. Architectural experts queued up to lambast the squat, custard-coloured but bomber-proof building, deriding it as a "klotz" (lump) built by barbarians.

One newspaper compared the offending edifice to a maximum security prison, another to a council house, while Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung fumed: "There is hardly a modern building in existence, with the exception of nuclear bunkers and pesticide-testing centres, that is so hysterically closed off from public spaces as this embassy."

On present trends, Londoners face being similarly shut-out as the US embassy currently centrally located in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, prepares to move to a brand new concrete citadel in wild, far-off but hopefully al-Qaida-free Wandsworth.

The way the new embassies tend to physically cut off America's diplomats from the countries they are supposed to connect with is one good reason, among many, why Washington might want to rethink its laager policy. While effective security is obviously important, the worldwide rise of America's diplomatic fortresses undermines the kind of "soft power" outreach and public diplomacy that the Obama administration earnestly espouses.

In a policy-setting speech in July, secretary of state Hillary Clinton stressed the US need to communicate directly with other countries from the bottom up. "Reaching out directly to people will encourage them to embrace cooperation with us, making our partnerships with their governments and with them stronger and more durable," she said.

That makes sense. But it's not the message citizens of Islamabad are hearing. When America speaks to Pakistanis and other Muslim countries, it too often sounds like it's shouting down from the battlements.

Source - Guardian

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Vulnerable

Human Resources Of America

More than a third of American youth of military age are unfit for service, mainly because they are too fat or sickly, the Army Times reports, quoting the latest Pentagon figures.

Most of the rest are too dumb or have used too many drugs to qualify, the study shows.

The report says 35% of the 31 million Americans aged 17 to 24 are unqualified because of physical and medical issues.

"The major component of this is obesity," Curt Gilroy, the Pentagon's director of accessions, tells the Times. "We have an obesity crisis in the country. There's no question about it."

He also said young people, by and large, can't do push-ups.

"And they can't do pull-ups," Gilroy says. " And they can't run."

The Times says the Pentagon gets its data from the Centers for Disease Control, which has found that the percentage of youth 18 to 34 who are considered obese has jumped from 6% in 1987 to 23% now.

Here's the Pentagon's breakdown of the ineligible population, according to the Times:

* Medical/physical problems, 35%.
* Illegal drug use, 18%.
* Mental Category V (the lowest 10% of the population), 9%.
* Too many dependents under age 18, 6%.
* Criminal record, 5%.

The Times reports that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a group of retired military officers will issue a report on Thursday warning that the situation is so dire it amounts to a threat to national security.

That study will show that when all factors are considered, 75% of military-age youth are not eligible to serve.

Source - USA Today

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Shade

Swiss Banking Under Threat?

WHILE the spotlight has been on the aggressive drive by the US government to flush tax dodgers out of Switzerland, bankers there are instead grappling with the loss of a much richer clientele: Europeans.

Americans have made up no more than 5 per cent of Switzerland's $US1.8 trillion ($1.97 trillion) offshore-banking business. But European clients are steadily coming clean, spooked by threats of a crackdown by their own governments.

Non-resident, or offshore, clients make up about a third of Switzerland's private-banking business, with just more than half of those coming from other European countries. According to KPMG, as much as 80 per cent of the Europeans' money in Switzerland is undeclared. In all, KPMG reckons that tax evasion could represent up to 25 per cent of Switzerland's total private-banking market.

This weekend, Swiss banking giant UBS will hand over the names of 500 suspected American tax dodgers to the Internal Revenue Service, the first of 4450 names it will turn over as part of an August agreement between the US and Swiss governments. That accord marked a historic breach of Switzerland's cherished bank secrecy, and prodded many Swiss banks to refuse to take American clients for fear of falling foul of US laws.

Now, in the wake of the American crackdown, and Switzerland's co-operation, an exodus of European money is under way. According to consulting group McKinsey & Co, Western European money makes up 51 per cent of legacy assets in Switzerland, but only about a third of new money.

"It's a big mistake to say this is an American issue," says Philip Marcovici, a Zurich partner at law firm Baker & McKenzie. "The Europeans are right around the corner."

To be sure, the demise of the tax-dodging business is akin to a melting ice cube, and the speed at which it dissolves will depend on how aggressive European governments - whose rhetoric in clamping down on tax deadbeats has exceeded real action - will be. No other government has been as aggressive as the US has in putting up demands that the Swiss hand over names of suspected tax dodgers.

But there are signs of pressure. This past week, Italian tax authorities raided local offices of Swiss banks, in what Swiss bankers regard as an attempt to scare tax dodgers. And new treaties Switzerland has signed with France and the UK make it easier for those countries to pursue information on suspected tax dodgers.

The tax crackdown isn't the only factor driving European money away. Many European baby boomers are also anxious to bring money home to recapitalise sagging businesses or pass the money on to their children.

For Swiss banks, a fat business is slipping away. Citizens in Italy, Germany and France - the big three tax-dodging nations - stashed their money in Switzerland because of political unrest at home, high inflation and sky-high tax rates. They weren't always after high returns, and they complained little about performance and rarely visited their bankers, who typically had them sign discretionary mandates allowing the bank to act on their behalf. Higher fees on discretionary mandates mean such clients are twice as profitable as those who directly manage their accounts. Some bankers privately admit that the fees on undeclared money can be several times those on declared money.

Since around 2000, the bigger Swiss banks such as Credit Suisse, UBS, Julius Baer Group and Pictet & Cie have tried to diversify away from tax dodgers by opening branches in Italy, Germany and France and building big onshore businesses with these clients. They are also targeting new millionaires in Russia, the Middle East and Asia. With taxes low at home, investors in these countries are instead fleeing political instability. Indeed, Singapore, also courting these emerging-market millionaires, is now Switzerland's main offshore rival.

But the switch isn't painless. A recent presentation by Credit Suisse gave a rare peek into just how rich the undeclared business was. The bank expanded aggressively abroad over the past decade; between 2006 and the first half of this year, just 4 per cent of its net new money came from Western European clients bringing their money into Switzerland; 59 per cent flowed into its booking centres outside the country.

"Bank secrecy in itself cannot be a value proposition," said Walter Berchtold, head of private banking at Credit Suisse, at a presentation recently. "It is important to clients, but the tax angle of it cannot be the driver."

Dirk Hoffmann-Becking, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein reckons that Credit Suisse's operating profit margin on its business managing non-compliant money in Switzerland is 75 per cent - double the margin on its onshore business. The tax-avoidance business could account for 12 per cent to 15 per cent of the operating profit of Credit Suisse's private bank, according to Mr Hoffmann-Becking. As that business melts away, Credit Suisse could have trouble hitting its target of 40 per cent operating margin on the private bank, he says.

A spokesman for Credit Suisse said that the bank contests Mr Hoffmann-Becking's analysis, saying Mr Hoffmann-Becking incorrectly interpreted figures from a recent presentation to analysts. Mr Hoffmann-Becking stands by his report.

The low valuations for a raft of recent private-banking acquisitions also show the poor prospects for undeclared money. In October, Julius Baer paid just 2.3 per cent of managed assets for the Swiss portfolio of ING - far off the 5 per cent paid just a few years ago - in part because the book contains a large chunk of European clients.

According to analysts, the biggest losers will be the smaller banks, which don't have the resources to bulk up in the areas tax-compliant clients need. They will also struggle to open overseas offices to lure the new rich of the emerging markets.

Source - The Australian