Shaddap you face

‘The urge to be stupid is a very powerful force, but there are always alternatives’ – Lois McMaster Bujold

The newspapers this morning are full of the derogatory comments by Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis, about France and the French. His intemperate remarks – for which he has subsequently sort-of apologised using the Mike Ashley defence of claiming that it was all a joke – included objecting to our neighbour’s economy, railway stations and believe or not their food and wine. His outburst seems to be being excused as part of the traditional enmity between the countries; a tradition that has always seemed to me to sit oddly with the fact that there hasn’t been any conflict between us since the battle of Waterloo two centuries ago. In the end it doesn’t really matter whether his sense of humour has been spoiled by watching too much Top Gear or whether – as I have seen suggested elsewhere – he is actually rather fond of French wine after all. Speaking as someone who has had his own experiences of saying the wrong thing can I offer him some advice:

‘The wise man satisfies himself by abstinence’ – Confucius

Or, if that’s too subtle:

‘I wish that people who have trouble communicating would just shut up’ – Tom Lehrer

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Pick ‘n’ mix

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” – Albert Einstein

I am shaken from my blogging torpor by the alleged events at Tesco. Now clearly I have no idea what has or has not happened, but am somewhat disappointed at all the fingers being pointed by those who not only don’t know what has happened, but don’t understand accounting either. For let’s be frank here, who among us can put his or her hand on their heart and honestly say that they have never produced a set of figures that looked at it a different light, with an alternative interpretation or simply with the wind blowing from the other direction couldn’t have been £250m higher or lower? I can’t for one.

One huge mistake that non-accountants make is to assume that striking a P&L is like using a thermometer to measure temperature. It’s more like describing the colour of something down the ‘phone to a blind person who doesn’t speak English. In reality most numbers produced by accountants, while they do have something to do with reality, are also heavily influenced by internal politics, fiscal policy, custom and practice and inertia. I once worked for a company in the same value chain as Tesco. Everyone knew that we produced our accounts on a different basis to all others in the industry (interesting enough relating to a very similar issue that seems to have caught out the supermarket chain), but equally everyone knew that if they changed it they would suddenly appear to be a much smaller company. That would never do; after all executive rewards are in proportion to the size of the company.

” Do not condemn the judgement of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong.” – Dandemis

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Luxury!

“Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue” – J.K. Galbraith

I have been to a breakfast debate on the Future of Professional Services organised by Yorkshire Business Insider magazine. These guided discussions can be a bit hit and miss, but this one was very good; a panel of senior regional managers in major accounting and legal firms sharing cogent and well thought through opinions.

One speaker compared the current state of the legal profession to the cotton spinning industry in the eighteenth century. Now this might be evocative imagery, and presumably the audience were meant to assume that change was therefore both inevitable and to be welcomed; indeed there is an obvious subtext that anyone disagreeing is a Luddite. But I wonder how many of the audience who lapped it up realised that it is they themselves who are the proud, self-employed craftsmen soon to be reduced to lowly wage-slaves in factories owned by others.

I always think the most amusing elements of these events is when a panelist, put on the spot by a question from the floor, says something patently ridiculous, but good manners preclude the others or indeed the chair from drawing attention to it. This morning’s was the somewhat odd claim by one of them – it would be unfair to reveal which – that the status of Leeds as a centre for professional services was held back by the reticence of the denizens of the city, and indeed the whole county, to tell everyone how wonderful they actually were. Just in case any of you are not already laughing let’s try a thought experiment. Close your eyes and try to bring to mind the last time that you were in conversation with a Yorkshireman and when you had finished you reflected to yourself “He seems OK, but I wish he’d been a bit more full of himself”. No, me neither.

“You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him much” – Anon

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Optimism

“Optimism is the madness of insisting all is well when we are miserable” – Voltaire

There were reports in this morning’s papers that manufacturers were at their most optimistic since the 1970s. Those of you who read the stories fully will already know what I am about to point out, namely that the headlines were not borne out by the detail. What the figures actually showed was that the increase in optimism over a three month period was the greatest since April 1973; not quite the same thing as I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s easy to significantly increase one’s level of optimism if one wasn’t that optimistic to start with, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that one ends up terribly cheerful anyway.

I have no need to elaborate on why business may have been less than bullish during the last few years; you’ve all lived through them. It might however be worth reminding ourselves of what happened last time manufacturers rapidly increased their levels of optimism. In October 1973, less than six months later, there was war in the Middle East and the price of oil quadrupled. In January 1974, less than nine months later, the UK government imposed a three-day week to conserve electricity, a restriction that lasted for two months during which period the government fell from office. So, one must surely ask oneself, how much reliance should we place on sudden surges in the optimism of manufacturers? Rhetorical question of course, but I personally am off to the bookies to place a bet on war with Russia followed by disruptions to gas supplies and periodic blackouts.

“We all agree that pessimism is a mark of superior intellect.” – J.K. Galbraith

 

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It’s a fix

“All the gold which is under or upon the earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue” – Plato

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s FT about the daily London Gold Fixing. Gold isn’t traded openly on exchanges, rather one has to buy it from a market maker. The process – by which five of these market makers confer secretly before announcing to the rest of the world what the answer is – is now, only 95 years after it started, considered to be insufficiently transparent. Apparently some cynics are prepared to believe that the large banks involved might have an incentive to influence the price according to the current state of their own trading positions. Who’d have thought it?

My own doubts about the process started more than thirty years ago. During a long forgotten crisis the daily gold fix meeting in, I believe, the oak-panelled boardroom at Rothschilds featured prominently on the main evening BBC news. The corporation’s then economic correspondent intoned portentously about the great import of it all, reassuring us that what we saw here, around that table, was the City of London standing steady as the great financial centre of the world, in which we should have faith at this uncertain time. However, I couldn’t concentrate because my eye was drawn to one of the participants; a chap with whom I had studied economics in the sixth form just a few years earlier. Had there, I wondered, been something in the lessons from ‘Jimmy’ Jewell and ‘Bonker’ Badkin which my friend and I had shared so recently that would lend support to the journalist’s pompous waffle? No, I rapidly concluded, there had not.

So, there we have it. At best the usual British amateurish busking behind a florid facade, at worst a bunch of spivvy bankers ripping us all off. As I said before, who’d have thought it?

Around the same time another of my old classmates turned up equally unexpectedly in a sketch on the Dick Emery Show. I have never been sure which of these two alumni television appearances brought the greater and longer lasting renown to our alma mater.

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country” – Kurt Vonnegut

 

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Drivelshouter

“Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those who we cannot resemble” – Samuel Johnson

I was astonished to read over the weekend that Digby Jones is to present a new series of Troubleshooter, the programme originally made famous by John Harvey-Jones. One would be hard pushed to come up with a better example of the decline over recent decades of both British industry and the seriousness of the BBC.

Harvey-Jones spent many years as a manager in, and ultimately chief executive of, ICI, a company once generally regarded as epitomising the whole UK economy. He significantly raised the share price and turned a loss into a billion pound profit. All of that, plus his charismatic turn as a television presenter, came on top of his wartime service as a submarine captain and subsequent spell in naval intelligence.

Jones was a long-time provincial lawyer sufficiently suited to the tedium of committee work to find himself in charge of a lobbying organisation. Anyone who had the misfortune to hear him speak at a CBI dinner will know him as a rabble-rousing buffoon too dim-witted to spot the inconsistencies in the second-hand platitudes that he drearily recycled.

“Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be” – Lionel Bart

 

 

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Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those who we cannot resemble.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/s/samueljohn157383.html#x4ifW15MR7IfaC7w.99
Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those who we cannot resemble.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/s/samueljohn157383.html#x4ifW15MR7IfaC7w.99
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Identical or unique

“Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” – Andy Warhol

I believe it was Dilbert who pointed out the two most important rules of business. First, the customer is always right, and secondly, they must be made to pay for their arrogance. Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the latter, but even so the principle that those who pay the bill can do no wrong is hard to swallow sometimes. In the interim management sector one particular foible of potential clients that annoys me is when they ask the question “Point to the role on your cv that is identical to our requirements”.

It irritates me on a variety of levels. To start with, I am rather offended that it reduces three decades’ experience and education to a mere parrot like ability to repeat myself when requested. Then it displays a smug assumption that the client has actually understood their problem correctly in the first place; that thirty year career that I just mentioned leads me to strongly believe that is rarely the case. And thirdly, there is an internal inconsistency; the reason, as they will inevitably explain, that they want you to demonstrate that you’ve done exactly the same before is because they, their company and their issue are all unlike anything else that one will have come across.

In fact, forget Dilbert, the management guru they really need is Murray Walker, as in “the lead car is unique, except for one behind it which is identical”.

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