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City Republic: Navigating recession in the dark

LONDON - Even Gordon Brown has had to admit that we're in uncharted territory, contending with a recession that stubbornly refuses to do what the doctor orders.

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Cut bank rate across the world and nothing happens, bail out the banks and nothing happens, underwrite lending....well, you get the story.

At Davos he seemed to compare himself to Renaissance painter Titian who claimed he didn't learn how to paint properly until he was 90, opening up the daunting prospect of 32 more years of Gordon Brown.

This week the Bank of England will probably cut rates to just 1%, most definitely uncharted territory as they've never been this low before, while the European Central Bank will cut from 2.5%.

Next stop will be so-called quantitative easing (or printing money according to the sceptics), pumping money into the economy by the state buying assets, like government and corporate bonds, that nobody else wants or can afford to buy.

About the only shot left in the locker is the creation of one or more "bad banks", entities into which the banks can dump their toxic assets (non-performing mortgages and the like) to clean up their balance sheets.

The argument for this is that, relieved of the necessity to make further horrific writedowns, they'll have more money to lend.

The bad news is that the poor old taxpayer (assuming we have any money left) will have to buy the damn things.

The ECB at least seems to be taking this seriously, saying it is to produce guidance about how such schemes should work while the German government is in talks with its banks about helping them set up their own bad banks.

Brown keeps saying that co-ordinated international action is needed to solve these problems (he's placing his hopes on the G20 economic pow-wow in London in April) but in reality he's not going to get it.

Individual countries will do what they think best. It's the Tesco approach to international finance, "Every little bit helps."

Let's hope so.

Might the Post Office help?

The political wind changes everything and the Post Office, which critics say the Government has been trying to run down into oblivion, has emerged as the latest lending Great White Hope.

Lord Mandelson has asked the Business and Enterprise Select Committee to look into ways for the PO to increase its lending.

It already offers loans, cards and some mortgages through a deal with the Bank of Ireland (which has recently been bailed out by the Irish government) so presumably his lordship is contemplating putting some UK government money in.

Post Office CEO Adam Crozier (late of Saatchi & Saatchi and the Football Association) has welcomed the notion and it certainly might be a better way for the Government to try its hand at banking than trying to run Royal Bank of Scotland or the new Lloyds Banking Group.

Global drugs industry restructures

For decades the pharmaceutical industry has been seen as a licence to print money and a safe haven for investors in hard times.

It's also provided a pretty good living for medical ad agencies and PR companies.

But times are hard in pharma too with Glaxo Smith Kline announcing it's going to cut 6,000 jobs (10% of its workforce) and Astra-Zeneca announcing a second round of job cuts.

In the meantime industry leader Pfizer from the US has bought rival Wyeth for $68bn and Swiss giant Roche is bidding $42bn for US biotech firm Genetech.

French company Sanofi-Aventis has also announced it's looking to do deals.

One of the problems in pharma is that government health services can't afford to buy all the drugs becoming available at the prices the drug companies would like to charge.

Increasingly, they're spending their money on "generic" drugs, drugs out of patent which are much cheaper.

So the big drug companies are going to need to produce more new drugs at lower prices.

Good news for the ageing populations of the West (and possibly for people in Africa and Asia who already get some drugs more cheaply) although not for drug company employees or shareholders.

Wen Jiabao and the China conundrum

Chinese premier Wen Jiabao is probably wishing he'd stayed at home as the first two days of his visit to London were dominated by human rights protesters and today, if he makes it through the snow to Downing Street, he'll get a lecture from Gordon Brown about more help from China.

For at least a decade now China and, to a lesser extent, other developing countries like India and  brazil, has profited mightily from surging exports to the West.

This has allowed it to build up huge cash and bond reserves (it essentially finances the US government's debt) and fund a massive process of domestic industrialization.

But the exports are slowing rapidly as Western purchasing power dries up and Wen's worry is that this may be compounded by protectionist measures in Western countries.

US politicians are already insisting that Barack Obama's state-funded infrastructure projects, part of his $819bn economic package, use only steel produced in the US.

Most economists are agreed (which can be worrying in itself) that the Chinese currency needs to rise if world trade is to rebalanced.

This in turn would put more money into the pockets of Chinese consumers who would then be customers for all the goods the Chinese can no longer sell to us.

And it might curb the anti-globalisation protests by workers that are raging in China just as they are in numerous other countries including Britain.

So Brown and Wen might find something they can agree on.

Barclay Brothers rescue Woolworths

Well, sort of.

Daily Telegraph owners David and Frederick Barclay have bought the Woolworth franchise to create another online retailer to run alongside their Great Universal and Marshall Ward brands.

This is a clever move by them (think of the marketing costs they will save) although it won't help many, if any, of the 30,000 people who lost their jobs after Woolies went into administration in November.

And it'll create another advertiser for the Telegraph.

Synergy or what?

Stephen Foster is a former news editor of Campaign, former editor of Marketing Week and Evening Standard ad columnist. He is a partner in Editorial Partnership and writes the blog www.editco.net and Politics of the Media for Brand Republic.

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