Sto­ries may change but the driv­ers stay the same

Af­ter 11 years at The Daily Tele­graph I bid you a fond farewell, but not with­out first look­ing back, and to the fu­ture

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business Comment - James Quinn

Fe­bru­ary 2006. Alan Greenspan stood down as chair­man of the US Fed­eral Re­serve, with Ben Ber­nanke tak­ing charge. An un­pop­u­lar US pres­i­dent con­tin­ued to lever­age his work­ing re­la­tion­ship with his younger British ri­val. Amer­i­can reg­u­la­tors were block­ing for­eign takeovers of US as­sets, in the form of DP World and P&O. Sir Mar­tin Sor­rell was CEO of WPP.

Eleven years on, in some ways, not much has changed. The Fed chair­man – Janet Yellen, Ber­nanke’s re­place­ment – is, to all in­tents, in the de­par­ture lounge. An un­pop­u­lar US pres­i­dent is con­tin­u­ing to dom­i­nate his work­ing re­la­tion­ship with his younger British ri­val. Amer­i­can reg­u­la­tors con­tinue to block strate­gic over­seas takeovers. And Sor­rell is still boss of WPP.

The rea­son for this ran­dom rem­i­nisc­ing? Well, hav­ing joined this news­pa­per in Fe­bru­ary 2006, to­day is my last day writ­ing for it.

Over those 140 months – or 4,255 edi­tions of the Daily and Sun­day news­pa­per (don’t worry, I’ve re­moved non-edi­tion Christ­mas Day from the cal­cu­la­tion) – there have, to my mind, been four dis­tinct phases in the busi­ness cy­cle: the end of the boom, un­til the sum­mer of 2007; the fi­nan­cial cri­sis; the re­ces­sion that fol­lowed; and the re­turn of the bull mar­ket, the ex­u­ber­ance of which has been some­what damp­ened by a suc­ces­sion of ref­er­enda and elec­tions that have cre­ated un­cer­tainty on both sides of the At­lantic.

In each phase, there have been stand­out mo­ments to cover and opine upon from my berths both in Lon­don and dur­ing my time in New York. And I – like col­leagues here and else­where – have had a ring­side seat for many a jaw-drop­ping story. The first was mem­o­rable for the mega-deals of pri­vate eq­uity’s hey­day – KKR’s £11.1bn lever­aged takeover of Al­liance Boots be­ing the stand­out – and the in­tense scru­tiny of pri­vate eq­uity ex­ec­u­tives over per­sonal tax­a­tion. The se­cond needs no in­tro­duc­tion. From the bail-outs of some of the UK’s big­gest banks to the col­lapse of a raft of their Amer­i­can peers – Lehman Broth­ers and Bear Stearns – there was no short­age of drama and as­ton­ish­ment. The third was a more un­cer­tain time, with a suc­ces­sion of trou­bled Euro­pean coun­tries dom­i­nat­ing the head­lines, while banks at­tempted to re­build cap­i­tal, and reg­u­la­tors wrapped their arms around the sec­tor even tighter to try to en­sure a cri­sis the like of the credit crunch could never be seen again. And the fourth, well, that has been dom­i­nated by two Bs – a hes­i­tant bull mar­ket, and Brexit.

Although much has changed in the busi­ness sphere over that pe­riod – from dis­ap­pear­ing high street names to the rise of the tech gi­ants, the two of which are en­tirely re­lated – much stays the same. What is clear to me is that there are a num­ber of defin­ing fea­tures that have been present through­out all four, shap­ing the nar­ra­tive and sto­ries that have hit the head­lines.

One, reg­u­la­tion. From the ar­guably weak tri­par­tite sys­tem that ex­ac­er­bated some of the worst ef­fects of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis here in the UK, to the strict tight­en­ing that fol­lowed, reg­u­la­tors have never been far from the ac­tion. Em­bold­ened by the cri­sis and the re­ces­sion that fol­lowed, reg­u­la­tors, and the politi­cians who ap­point them and shape the leg­is­la­tion within which they op­er­ate, per­haps no longer fear busi­nesses in the way that they used to. This has cre­ated an in­ter­est­ing dy­namic, one in which em­bold­ened bu­reau­crats take de­ci­sions that do not al­ways solve the prob­lems they think they’re try­ing to. From the cri­sis-era dik­tats from Brus­sels that placed un­due pres­sures on the likes of Lloyds Bank­ing Group and the Royal Bank of Scot­land for years, to do­mes­tic over­bear­ance in a num­ber of fields, reg­u­la­tion has not al­ways been a force for good, de­spite at­tempts to cre­ate a level play­ing field.

Two, tech­nol­ogy. Although the term is of­ten used to re­fer to com­pa­nies such as Google and Ama­zon, it is far more than that. Tech­nol­ogy has dom­i­nated the busi­ness world in a way that few could have en­vi­sioned. The struc­tural shift that it has cre­ated is im­pos­si­ble to quan­tify. No one com­pany op­er­ates in the same way it did 11 years ago as a re­sult of tech and all that it brings. While that has brought many op­por­tu­ni­ties, it has also cre­ated a se­ries of down­sides. But at its heart, tech­nol­ogy has al­lowed the pace of in­no­va­tion to ac­cel­er­ate, cre­at­ing new prod­ucts, new ways of work­ing and new com­pa­nies at a speed not seen, ar­guably, since the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion.

Three, peo­ple. We hu­mans are es­sen­tial to any story. From the emo­tional staff car­ry­ing their be­long­ings out of Lehman Broth­ers’ of­fices in boxes in Septem­ber 2008 to the very pub­lic down­falls of once near-un­touch­able names such as Fred Good­win, the in­di­vid­ual is ever present, and rightly so. It is what makes a good story into a great one, even when the num­bers ap­pear to be dom­i­nat­ing the head­lines.

Four, cer­tainty, or the lack thereof. Busi­ness and in­vest­ment thrive on know­ing, or be­ing able to place a pretty good bet, on what comes next, and what the pre­vail­ing en­vi­ron­ment will look like. Through­out much of the past 11 years, that cer­tainty has been lack­ing. That’s es­pe­cially true now thanks to a per­fect storm of Brexit in Europe and Trump in the US.

As I look on from not too far – af­ter 17 years in busi­ness jour­nal­ism, the poacher is be­com­ing the game­keeper – I would hap­pily place a bet that although the sto­ries that are told will un­doubt­edly move on, the fac­tors that shape them will very much stay the same.

‘We hu­mans are es­sen­tial to any story. The in­di­vid­ual is ever present, and rightly so’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.