Friday, December 28, 2007

"You can't buck the market."

So said Margaret Thatcher a lifetime ago. I can't recall enough of the context to remember the sense in which she meant “can't” - whether she was saying that it is an impossibility not to do what the market wills, or whether she was simply suggesting that to do such a thing would be rude, or inappropriate.

“Meltdown”, by Martin Baker, is a competent, intelligent thriller, and it suggests that the answer is the first of those options. Assuming you are into this sort of book (and I guess you are unlikely to read it if you aren't), perhaps this message will last longer than the actual content of the plot – which involves the customary violence, deviant sex, glamorous locations, paranoia, psychotic henchmen and narrow brushes with death.

The startling point that Baker makes is that in a global economy, there are no organisations which are large enough to directly influence the markets – and conversely, the markets themselves have the power to wreck organisations of all sizes up to nations. This is a fact to which we generally turn a blind eye – too much of the time, we behave instead as though the markets are another servant of the economic system. The way in which the UK was bounced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992 should have been a warning to us. The way in which the price of oil has been driven up by speculation – it isn't fundamentally more expensive to extract a barrel of oil from the ground now than it was three years ago, when the price was a third of today's price – should have made it absolutely clear. But it's difficult to knock them. Everything they do is driven by you – the fact that you want a pension when you retire; the fact that you want to get a return on your savings; the fact that there are certain things we need to live that we can't produce ourselves. They are just another part of the world economy, producing something that we all need – money.

In any case, the markets are by now too integral to the structure of the world economy to be done away with, even assuming that this was considered to be an appropriate response – and for the most part, their effect is reasonably benign. However, the reason for this isn't because “the markets” have any particular concern for individuals, or companies, or nations, or the poor. It is simply because stability and happiness generally lead to long term profit – and profit is the summum bonum of the markets – in fact, the solus bonus, if my amateur Latin translation is up to it. (Profit isn't everything, it's the only thing.) If the markets thought that better gains were to be had from betting against happiness, stability, or any individual, company or nation, then that would be what they would do. They have to.

But whilst the market can't be “bucked”, it can be influenced. Left-leaning thinkers have cottoned onto this more quickly than conservatives. With the possible exception of radicals like Thatcher, perhaps it's the case that many conservatives continue to assume that the market is simply a bigger version of a country market, rather than a global leviathan, not beholden to anybody. At the level of nations, the Chinese (for example) have shown themselves to have a highly adept understanding of the nature of the global economy. At the level of individuals, some people have discovered that it is possible to affect the markets through another global entity which is not accountable to any government and which probably can't, ultimately, be bucked – that is, the media. Thinking back to the international campaign calling for sanctions against South Africa under apartheid (and thence a negative impact from the markets against companies that were prepared to deal there), it is possible to see the first clash between the media and the market. Few clashes since then have had a similar impact. The Jubilee 2000 campaign to encourage scrapping of international debt was one – and on a smaller scale, the growth of the Fair Trade and ethical market is another one.

Individual voices can be heard today, but it is probably harder to gain any real influence, because there are so many voices. But if we want to see a world that is concerned for more than simply the bottom line, it is important for all thoughtful people to be sensitive to what they see around them, and wise enough to realise that the global institutions themselves simply don't have the moral compass to take us where we might want to go.