Was Tesco Corrupt?

Corrupt = “guilty of dishonest practices”, “lacking in integrity”

Tesco is in a state of some chaos brought on by real market competition and has seen its business model threatened. It has always been a fighter – a company built on a culture that customers responded to well – a “pile ‘em high” culture that sought to bring low prices and wide choice.

This success was predicated by a market where the medium wealthy within society (middle class or in-work working class)– where most people existed – wanted good value and reliable products.

This outward superiority over the competition was managed through an internal capability highly based on staff knowing their job well, a high investment in systems that could gauge customers’ needs and supply them. To many suppliers it was a desperately competitive environment – with continuously lower prices and higher quality requirements.

How Corporate Culture can lead to Corruption

This culture was also, as far as can be seen, based on internal fear of failure – a numbers culture that relied on bullying to ensure that every day’s sales and profit figures were met. The Telegraph recently wrote on this subject where it said that: “Investigation into Tesco’s £250m profit shortfall unearths ‘corruption’ of culture.”

For any organisation, the culture employed for the business is critical but the headline suggests that the culture of Tesco indirectly led to corruption. This corruption came about, for instance, through accounting issues – the taking of discounts from suppliers too early (well before they could be guaranteed, apparently). The culture led somehow to the corruption – it seems that Tesco’s leadership was blind to the corruption (which, it is claimed, was only a set of accounting issues – where no-one directly benefitted).

This is the norm in some companies – especially in highly competitive markets where the differences between the competitors are hard to judge. In food retailing, the differences are price, range, full shelves, ease of use, location, quality and service. In 2014, most of the major retailers have products and services that are comparable. Tesco clearly believed that it was the best and that its strategy was right. That strategy included a culture that demanded much of its people. Overall, that is not a bad thing – until it becomes a culture that demands results no matter how achieved.

In my book “Last Line of Defense”, I described a business in a different market sector (aerospace and defense) that operated under similar cultural disciplines. It was in a business that was highly competitive and sales and bottom line results were critical. Senior management made demands on its staff. Having made those demands, senior management did not want to know how those demands were satisfied. They imposed a culture and required the response.

In the book, the CEO demanded that long-term accounting changes were made to turn losses into profits for a countermeasures system – the RWR-50:

“You have all made clear to me how the RWR-50 is going to establish Global as a world player in the defense business, at last living up to its name. Well, the first thing you have given me is a problem that must be dealt with to allow those prospects to be nourished and grow to maturity. I want your total support in my actions. Anyone that feels unable to live with this should be under no misapprehension: the only option would be to find alternative employment.”

For staff operating in such an environment, successfully meeting such demands often resulted (within aerospace and defense in the 1970’s until now) in corrupt practices. This included outright bribery of customers to buy their products. Many industries such as aerospace and defense, construction, energy have bad reputations for such methods of corruption.

In Tesco’s case, there is no suggestion that I have seen of any corruption such a bribery – at least not since the Potato bribery case of 2008 where Tesco’s potato buyer was paid millions of Tesco’s own money to swing purchases in one supplier’s direction.Indeed, The Grocer included an article only two years ago that suggested bribery and corruption remained a serious problem between supermarkets, wholesalers and suppliers.

However, just as the culture of the aerospace and defense industry directly led to corruption (with senior management often claiming denial of all knowledge of such impacts), so the culture in Tesco is highly likely to have led to accounting irregularities and the suspension of senior management. If these cases are shown to be true, then denial of knowledge is no different.

Indeed, the worst of the aerospace and defense companies, involved in long-term projects, have for many years developed ways to control accounting of such projects. Losses have been turned into profits – legally in many cases – as accounting for the future is indeterminate and unauditable. Notions of conservatism (supposedly the hallmark of good accounting) are thrown aside when senior management make different demands and shareholders need to see higher share prices and better dividends. This often led to accounting changes in that industry. It is no surprise that accounting issues are central to the likely problems at Tesco.

Governance and Culture

Of course, these accounting problems are an outcome of the culture. Bad management (misunderstanding changing market patterns and / or unable to resist them) relies more and more on a culture of threat and intimidation when things go bad or just tougher. Senior management then rely on the fact that they did not ask for accounting irregularities to be able to say that they had no knowledge – they are innocent (as innocent as Henry II was innocent of the murder of Thomas a Becket).

Some might also argue that no one directly benefitted from the corruption that is alleged to have existed at Tesco. This is also not the case. Accounting changes that improve stated profits have an impact on job security (no-one looks for “alternative employment” if they meet their targets), bonuses, share prices. Of course, unless the business then grows through increased demand, the accounting problems show up (as they have done at Tesco as the tide has gone out).

This is a serious issue for senior management. The Bribery Act of 2010 introduced tough requirements on senior management in cases of bribery. Where bribery and similar corruption is found in a company, senior management can no longer hide behind a veil of “no knowledge” of the bribery or corruption. It is now required that they are able to show that proper processes were in palace to ensure that such bribery and corruption were minimised or, better still, eradicated. Where it is clearly not the case, then senior management (Directors) can be held liable.

Good governance has now to be firmly enmeshed within a culture in a business as far as the Bribery Act is concerned. But, the absence of such good governance is shown in any company that has a culture of threat and intimidation that is likely to lead to pressure on staff to rig the statistics. In the Bribery Act, such a culture would be a sure sign of likely Director culpability. What is the difference within Tesco – if such accounting allegations are found to be the case? Although unlikely to be subject to the Bribery Act, the senior management culture at Tesco clearly led to a lack of due process that appears to be no less culpable. It is surprising that the Non-executive Directors and auditors also missed the clear links between bad culture and poor governance.

The pressure to make results no matter what resounds throughout a company. No one in the company could be immune from that pressure nor would they (at senior levels) be in any doubt of the repercussions that ensue. Accounting irregularities are an outcome of bad culture and bad governance. The Bribery Act has shown that senior management (the Board) has a direct responsibility for ensuring that culture must include good governance where bribery is a risk. There is a direct link between culture and governance and, where corruption exists, all senior management are normally culpable – processes should have been in place to minimise the risk of such “accounting irregularities”.

Bad culture leads to bad governance and potentially to corruption – the links are known and understood.

If the allegations are proven, then Tesco was corrupt. Probably not alone.

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Was Tesco Corrupt? – II

No Accounting for the End of the World?

Jacob Soll’s book “The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Making and Breaking of Nations” makes a good case for economic progress being firmly based on the ability to account for that progress. Although he does not show direction of travel (or cause to effect) with certainty, there is a common sense from his historical analysis from ancient Greece to more recent times in the theory that progress is based partly on an ability to undertake double-entry book keeping. This measures progress but also provides the degree of transparency that ensures “buy-in” from society.

 

This may not be a riveting “eureka” moment for many and Soll’s dallying with more metaphysical comparisons about the debits and credits of a good life being reflected by the righteous in the way that good businesses and people (like Josiah Wedgewood of pottery fame who not just promoted cost accounting but used the principle of accounting to balance their sins and good deeds) do their accounting is somewhat stretched. However, there seems ample evidence that at both a corporate / organisational and national level, economic progress is assisted greatly by the ability to count your profits and losses – to show how progress is being made.

 

Soll refers to corruption in the past that resulted from both poorly kept accounts (at corporate and national levels) and those clever enough to hoodwink auditors and investors through manipulation of accounts.

 

From the analysis, it is clear that investors need good data to make informed decisions and that citizens need to know how governments spend their money – not just for the sake of transparency but to provide worthwhile and useable information. In the majority of developed nations, corporate accounting is subject to GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) or equivalent; in other countries there is a wide disparity of accounting standards or a lack of them – in Afghanistan, it will hardly be a surprise that there is no accepted principle of accounting and very few qualified accountants from there.

 

Despite the developed world’s professional standards, this does not prevent disasters on the scale of the 2007-8 banking crisis or Enron or a host of other “accounting” failures. Often, auditors don’t see the problems and may even see them and do nothing.

 

On a national basis, the same is true. While it is hard to judge the efficacy of national accounts (which are the subject to revision for many years), it is hard to believe that any country which does not work hard to make its national accounts transparent is one where real economic progress is being made or where opacity is not hiding something sinister.

Back in 2010, Global Witness highlighted this in its report “Oil Revenues in Angola” which documented the problems that Sonangol (Angola’s state oil and energy company which was then considering a public stock listing) had in reporting its revenues. That report, one of the few independent reports in a sector that is riven with corruption, argued for greater transparency, improved systems and independent auditing to the highest standards for an organization through which Angola’s wealth derives. Soll would argue that its secrecy and lack of transparency and independent auditing shows all the hallmarks of a corrupt society. But, pressure on Sonangol to provide more and better information (better accounting) is a key approach.

Numerous, other examples exist in many countries – many where natural resources exist that should benefit the population but where the “resource curse” is made possible by lack of proper accounting to high standards, properly audited and verified.

Similarly, the Dodd-Frank Act in the USA opened up country-by-country reporting to reveal how much revenue was entering such countries. The USA (and hopefully with the EU to follow) are attempting to go around the opacity of nations (and their lack of accounting capability) to find the real accounting data through those that have that ability and are subject to our own norms of accounting – the major energy companies. In this way, good accounting may be accessible by the back door to show citizens of the affected nations just how their Governments provide for them (or don’t).

 

A recent example of this is shown by an analysis made by Richard Murphy (the progenitor of country by country reporting) on recent data issued by Barclays Bank. It shows, through analysis of that data, how Barclays shields its profits from the UK Exchequor.

 

 

 

 

Value accounting – can we properly Account for Natural Resources?

 

One of the latest “opportunities” for accountants is accounting for natural resources – our natural capital. It is believed that if we make up a balance sheet of all our assets (and liabilities) then we will better know by valuing them what impact we are making on them. We naturally sympathize with a society that is striving to understand its failings and what to do about them. There is no question that if it was possible for governments (nationally and internationally) to properly assess value in our natural capital, then we could (somehow) impose some sort of value adjustment to problems caused by companies and governments when doing the things they do that adversely impact our natural capital or trade-off costs and benefits and make better decisions.

 

There is a natural and realistic desire in some governments to properly account for their natural capital. For example, The Scottish Forum on Natural Capital aims to focus on its natural capital and

 

“To deliver on its goals, the Scottish Forum will:

  1. Calculate the monetary value of Scotland’s natural capital and the cost of depleting it. This will involve coordinating experts including accountants, people from business, academics and policymakers.
  2. Communicate to a broad range of businesses and other stakeholders the risk of depleting Scotland’s natural capital and the huge economic value from protecting and enhancing it.
  3. Set up collaborative projects to deliver tangible action to protect and enhance Scotland’s natural capital.”

 

 

The calculation of that value and the link between that and effective action are major challenges. This is because the pricing mechanism for such resources does not exist. Accounting is based on the ability to reach a value determination on goods and services. It is not always right but much of double entry book-keeping methodology is based on market prices – the prices actually paid for goods and services. Market prices provide information on those goods and services that allows a profit and loss account and balance sheet to be derived.

 

Now, even existing and well understood basic accounting is often flawed or wide open to judgement. An example from the recent past: in the days of high inflation, companies (that anyway provide accounts that are usually out of date by the time a user receives them) were encouraged to undertake inflation-based accounting in addition to actual costs. Oil companies still provide two sets of accounts (one takes the data back to the latest oil prices). Which is correct? Neither (although only actual costs are used by taxation authorities)– but, they may be aids to better informed decisions.

 

Accounts are always an approximation of reality. So, for example, accounts show labour costs (the costs of people who work in a business or organization) as costs. Yet, of course, people are only recruited to add value. Unfortunately, there is no balance sheet valuation of the benefits that they can provide. Back in the 1970’s, it was fashionable to consider whether people should have a value assigned to them on the Balance Sheet (much like footballers used to be valued on the Balance Sheets of football clubs). This proposition lasted only a short time and people are not valued on a balance sheet – except in those companies with traded shares where “goodwill” (the difference between the stock value of the company and its balance sheet value) contains an undefinable figure for people. Google’s share price (usually viewed as a multiple of earnings – its P/E which is currently around 30) takes account of its extraordinary people talent – but, in a way that the market is willing to trade – a form of market pricing.

 

When the accounting mechanism is brought to natural capital, it is much harder to “account” for it – there are limited pricing mechanisms.

 

At a micro-level, companies can provide information on where their natural risk lies (e.g. how they source materials upon which they survive, where the risks are and what they are doing about it) but some of this is pricing, much of it is risk analysis. From the latter (just like any risk analysis) actions can be taken to minimize risks and maximize opportunities.

 

Companies also produce “externalities” – they impact the environment, for example, through CO2 emissions, use and abuse transportation systems, can destroy environments. So, clean-up costs need to be established when developing projects along with the minimization of health hazards and environmental degredation. Governments in many countries can work with businesses to save the environment and recast it. In the developing world, this is harder. Many instances occur whereby companies ravish areas of natural beauty and poison locations with the side effects of their production processes and do not pay the consequences. This is often a corrupt bargain but becomes the norm where natural resource extraction and its “value” overcomes the perceived value given to those dependent for their lives and health on the land: from China to DRC, from mining to forestry.

 

The key problem is linking the micro activities to the macro (governmental) responsibility for the environment. The notion of valuation at least focuses the mind. The question is whether valuing natural capital (and the wide range of – usually erroneous – assumptions that have to be made in a non-market priced environment) is useful and whether such valuations can be used to make decisions – even whether there is a use for such decisions on a quantity basis at all. For decisions based solely on price (where all the risks are not taken into account) will be wrong except where there is a market-based pricing formula available (and, of course, perfect pricing relies on perfect information on both sides – which never occurs). We can “see” how Barclays used low tax jurisdictions (see the TJN report referred to above) to shield profits and decisions can, in future, be made as a result. Valuations of natural capital are far more tenuous.

 

The drive to valuing our “natural capital” in business jargon (through pricing) is centering our attention on this critical area. However, at this early stage of natural capital ideas development (although not at an early stage in the degradation of the planet) we should be understanding what we want out of it.

 

What if all the alligators in the world were to be destroyed because enough people were willing to pay the price for alligator skin handbags and shoes? Would this be acceptable because we “paid the price”? Clearly not as the value of preserving such an animal is not easily factored into the price – who assesses it and who sets it when the “value”of having alligators is unpriceable. That is why ivory sales are (in the main) banned. There is no price allowed in the system for the elimination of elephants from our natural environment – we have made a collective decision to try to stop it rather than pricing it.

 

This suggests that the “value” placed on part of our “natural capital” is not quantifiable in business terms – even if the costs of certain degradations (and “externalities”) are.

 

Not only do we need to ask the right questions, we have to start with the answers we want or the history of Easter Island is just repeated on a massive scale.

 

There is a place for good accounting – and good accounting should know its place.

 

From Euro Chaos to Chasm

As Greece Votes

I was on an ethics panel this week – organized by CGMA and Accounting Magazine. This has been arranged to discuss the outcome of CGMA’s recent survey “Managing Responsible Business” http://www.cgma.org/Resources/Reports/Pages/ManagingResponsibleBusiness.aspx

This survey explored the range of issues around business and doing things properly – ethically. It found that most businesses tried to, CEO’s were handing down responsibility for this to other staff, the ability to do so changed by country and there was real pressure not to in some countries.

With elections in Greece on Sunday and the Euro in everyone’s mind, the issue of business ethics seemed mighty small in comparison.

Ethics – moral rectitude, the rules of conduct – are not just about business. It is from society that ethics emerge and it is the destruction of the rules of good conduct that has tipped Europe and many other parts of the world into an economic, political and financial chasm. It is a chasm that threatens our way of life and, deep inside that chasm, there is not a lot of light.

The Chasm is not just a Banking one

 

We are continuously being told by our politicians that the current banking crisis can be resolved with large amounts of cash. The latest attempts are the £100bn on offer by the Bank of England of low rate loans to banks to regenerate lending in the UK and the €100bn on offer to Spain to prop up their banks.

In the chasm, sticking plasters don’t work.

Banking liquidity is not the problem anyway. The problem that banks have in Spain, for example, is solvency – their very being is at stake not their ability to lend in the short-term. They were over-stretched by awful decisions ten years ago to lend to get-rich-quick property schemes that were doomed and, when the tide went out, were shown to be naked. Borrowers across the western world were too highly geared – over-leveraged. While companies have managed to get their act together, individuals have not and while savings are higher, they are still, by normal standards, far too over-leveraged – which is still leading to house price reductions everywhere but London (where funds are rushing in from all corners of worse of countries).

But, the banks are hiding behind the problem in front of them – national insolvency. The transfer from nations (i.e. taxpayers) to banks has been enormous and continues. Well over a trillion dollars was poured into the US banking system and the same in Europe. The estimate is that this needs at least to be doubled. National solvency is at stake throughout Europe (west, south and east especially) and the austerity programmes now in place are a testimony to them.

Like the 1930’s, this is leading to massive unemployment and a risk that the chasm into which nation by nation is being thrown will swallow them whole. In Europe, the answer, we are told lies with Germany – they should assume the debts of all the others with Eurobonds – a financial answer to a financial problem.

But, the chasm is bigger than this.

The Chasm is engulfing Politics, Economics and Finance

Behind the financing of banks and the insolvency of nations lie the root causes. These are the disenfranchisement of the mass of people in most nations – disenfranchised not by their inability to vote every few years but by the paucity of choices on offer.

Greece offers a great example of a nation in economic chaos but the causes and the choices open to the people there are not often recorded.

Whoever read Michael Lewis’s “Boomerang” will understand some of the corruption that underpins the chaos. It is endemic and led by a political elite that have rampaged through the economy and gouged out any life from it. At the same time as The President of Equatorial Guinea is about to meet with four NGO’s (including my former employer, Global Witness) to discuss the rampant corruption inside his country, who is meeting with who to ensure that Greece can emerge with some dignity from its corruption?

Who can blame voters for, at last, running away from Pasok and into the arms of Syriza – the main concern is not the Euro, it is the corruption of the political elite and complete lack of trust in any politicians. The whole political class is tainted.

Outside Greece, the same is true to some extent in Spain and in Italy, where technocrats (unelected) now rule. The paucity of choice for voters – why vote for politicians when they are all the same and as corrupting and corruptible as each other?

The euro problem is much deeper. It is not just about emulating hard-working Germans, it is about serious change needed throughout Europe where leadership is absent or tainted by nations that are corrupt, unable to raise taxation, where the cash culture is rampant. This is true in Greece, Spain, certainly southern Italy and elsewhere. Why would Germany want to pick up the tab for this when the problem is chasm deep – not the surface banking or financial issue that has been painted?

The Ruling Class

In democracies, we are supposed to be able to vote out political parties that do a bad job. What happens when the whole political class is damned? The whole electorate is disenfranchised as a result.

This is true throughout the Eurozone – political parties have joined forces with other powerful elites to seemingly run countries – now, it is clear they have run them into the ground or, worse, into the chasm where conventional politics, economics and finance are drowning.

The ruling classes – politicians of all political persuasion, big business, the public sector – decided to run off with the benefits and have left the rest behind. Somewhere those funds reside in tax havens, well away from the hands of civil society. If it was all about harder effort, there could be some light ahead, but the problem is so deep that it will take years of real change and real hurt to recover to anywhere near where countries thought they were until recently.

From Chasm to ……what?

The European dream of one country living under one flag, which to many is a nightmare, is not a new one as the wars of the twentieth century showed. Now, a war just as savage is being fought – but a war where the fighting is hidden and where the soldiers don’t even realize they are in the trenches. Greek citizens and the young in Spain (where 50% are out of work) probably realize the consequences of the post-war European experiment. Many others don’t yet, but soon will.

Papering over a crack or two is relatively easy. Papering over a chasm is impossible,

The core problems of societies need to be resolved – corruption has to be ended, taxation has to be collected, public servants have to serve the public, politicians have to be credible and respected and people have to believe that if they work hard they stand a chance of being successful. For banks to function, they need finance; for businesses to succeed, they need markets and finance; for an economy to succeed, it needs good business but also a society that works – and that is not riven with insidious corruption of people and dignity.

Many African states (with massive natural resources) are corrupt and wealth is held by small elites. We did not believe that the corruption in Europe was on the same scale and, indeed, it is not the same – but the scale may be greater and just as endemic.

Solutions will not be found purely through the injection of more money into a chasm – the chasm has to be filled first or cleansed at least. Liberal democracy was supposed to be the best solution (the best worst solution). The 21st Century struggle may not be against the same totalitarians as in the last century (fascists and communists) and, hopefully, it may not be sullied by war and death, but, metaphorically, it will be just as bloody and won’t be complete until political elites are brought down to earth and civil society gets inside the tent.

Should Everything have a Price?

Michael Sandel in his recent book “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” writes excellently on how the market economy has turned into the “market society”. This view echoes Galbraith and “The Affluent Society”. Galbraith’s warning from the 1950’s has not been heeded – we are now subject to the “market” in everything we do – anything and everything has a price.

 

Sandel cites many examples – such as someone selling their organs, someone saving a place in a queue, schools being sponsored by companies and many others.

 

It could be argued that it was always so. Slavery, the selling of humans in the marketplace, was a common market phenomenon and still exists. Bribery and corruption – the selling of favours or ensuring something goes in your favour – remains common and Iraq and Afghanistan are riven by corruption on the grandest scale. Russia and much of Eastern Europe are held to be gangster nations – like much of the USA in the time of prohibition. Somalian pirates resort to kidnapping as an outcome of pure economic theory.

 

Yet, society does, from time to time, attempt to apply limits in a world where it seems that everything has a monetary price.

 

Market domination

 

The libertarian view that the market should be allowed to rule means that we abrogate our responsibilities. It is the role and duty of civil society (usually through Government) to judge where market rules and where other forms of decision-making are paramount.

 

We make those judgments continually. The right to be safe on the streets is, in most developed societies, made possible by laws which are enacted through general agreement by citizens. It is enforced, where needed, by legal systems and enforcement agencies – again, only there by the general agreement of civil society. In those countries where the market and price dominate, then the danger is that laws and police forces can be bought off. This is the case in many eastern European countries and many countries in Africa. Bribery and corruption rule through what may be called the market society – against the agreement of most of its citizens. As Sandel points out, this is against the best outcome for society – and by a long way.

 

Libertarians may argue that a legal system and an “open society” are the foundations for market economies to work, but the world is a global economy and it is no longer possible for one country to be cut off from the rest. The market domination into so many areas of life is a threat if basic norms do not exist.

 

The market versus societal norms

 

Sandel does not go too much into how society develops its norms – where market pricing should not intrude. We are in danger, of course, of taking on pricing into every form of our lives and there are plans to price our natural resources and to ensure that accounting incorporates aspects of social life into accounting rules – for example, through the Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project; through the Natural Capital Committee – which will report into the UK Government’s Economic Affairs Committee, chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequor.

 

While this acknowledges the problem in one respect (i.e. we are not properly accounting for externalities like pollution, the loss of natural capital – our rivers, forests and such) it is perhaps giving up the struggle against the market society. By the very nature of accounting in terms of numbers for such “externalities”, we subscribe to the essential condition for market pricing of everything – the market society is allowed to dominate.

 

Our focus on GDP and numbers betrays a failing of society – our inability to see anything outside of numbers – so-called economic wealth. GDP, which rewards only that which can be measured, has been a poor simulation of real “wealth”. Our drive to economic success (measured by how many unnecessary items we make and buy) takes no account of what is really important. Ability to buy is all that “counts” – literally.

 

Societal norms are now up for sale. Instead of a rearguard action against the market society (as against market economics) where we defend those areas of society against pricing (as they should be beyond price), we succumb to pricing everything. This leads to everything having a price – an accounting-driven doctrine, a market society doctrine.

 

Beyond economics

 

Of course, this may be the price (!) we are paying for economic growth and relative economic success. As we become more economically successful and as the world derives basic economic success, maybe our brains are becoming hard-wired to numbers as the only register of what is successful. The left-hand side of the brain is assuming victory over the right.

 

There is no question that the discovery of numbers has made the human successful and to understand and control large areas of science. We have changed the world entirely. Our ability to count is now dominating our lives. Since the dawn of accounting (when we counted our grain), numbers now “account” for everything.

 

Where has been the debate to question the way we account? If numbers dominate everything we do, what outcomes do we envisage, what changes result? If all our successes depend on numbers, then what lives will we lead?

 

This is now beyond economics – which, as George Soros has recently outlined, http://www.georgesoros.com/interviews-speeches/entry/remarks_at_the_festival_of_economics_trento_italy/

has been shown to be terribly mistaken in its misunderstanding of the world. His analysis, that economics, in trying to copy the rules of science has travelled the wrong path. Economics is a social science and, as such, does not have definitive outcomes. But, the situation is worse than Soros makes out.  Macroeconomics is being subsumed beneath a torrent of numbers so that, worse than following a quasi-scientific path, we are now following an accounting outcome for everything.

 

Where are the norms for society? Who are the guardians?

 

The financial crash of 2008, which is still playing out in 2012, opened up severe cracks in our economic system. It is also opening up divisions in society between the very wealthy and the large swathe of middle-income earners who make up most of civil society. These divisions show how we are valuing society and show clearly that pricing is not working. The value given to bankers and bonuses (no risk activities for the individuals who can only lose their jobs, not their wealth and no risk activities for the banks, who are too big to fail) shows a dramatic failing in pricing – in which we apparently put all our trust.

 

Pricing mechanisms are not working successfully, yet we place more and more of our faith in pricing as the only arbiter of success.

 

We now price (or will soon be attempting to price) everything – from CO2 to education, from healthcare to shoes, from our rivers to our right to pollute – everything with a price.

 

Yet, macro-economics (the economics of society) is a social science – it is not based on rigid rules. It is (as Soros rightly states) bound up in decisions and thoughts of men and women.

 

Pricing is one outcome of a social science that is not unquestionably right in every case – it is actually, mostly wrong and most economists are only good at describing what has passed (i.e. rear view mirror gazers).

 

Accounting was originally a micro-based activity – to help regulate and tax individuals and firms. It is now being used to price everything.

 

Are there any alternatives to pricing everything?

 

Of course there are, but it is becoming tougher. The Bribery Act in the UK (following a mere 34 years after the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the US) is an example. Society has (at least in the UK) decided that winning contracts or influencing economic decisions should not be subject to corruption. In China, as Jonathan Fenby’s excellent “Tiger Head Snake Tails” so ably describes, bribery and corruption have existed for many years but (at least at home) it is not considered acceptable. In many other countries in the developing world, it is.

 

But, we know that price is in play throughout society. The best lawyers cost huge sums and only the wealthy can afford them – so, our legal system is subject to pricing. The best education is paid for; the best healthcare is paid for.

 

With wealth divisions becoming wider, pricing is everything. It is time for a real debate in society on how economics needs to be changed to reflect reality and how accounting for everything (and a price for anything) may not be the answer. The invisible hand of the market should not be allowed to grab everything.