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
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’