Articles

Berkshire business model is simple and effective, yet rarely copied

Buffett’s method is to find well-run companies and give them more freedom than they would enjoy on public markets. Yet other conglomerates use financial engineering and impose “transferable” management skills.

Incremental improvements to infrastructure offer better value for money

Does it lift your heart to hear that “Britain is uniquely placed to lead the world in a smart power revolution”? Do you share the ambition of George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, to discover “what the government needs to do to become a world leader in 5G infrastructure”? Here’s why my heart sank when reading these words in the plans of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission.

The dangers of ever-closer tax scrutiny

Explaining your possibly complex financial affairs to unsympathetic journalists adds to the already too long list of reasons why able people might not want to go into politics. And such scrutiny draws attention away from genuinely serious and widespread tax evasion, corruption and money laundering, practices.

Central problem with banks is “too complex to fail” not “too big to fail”

Recent stumbles by Bernie Sanders illustrate a misdirection in his attack on the banking establishment. The central problem is not so much “too big to fail” but “too complex to fail”.

Radical uncertainty: The importance of the things we do not know we do not know

There is a world of difference between low-probability events drawn from the tail of a known statistical distribution and extreme events that happen but had not previously been imagined. And it is usually the latter that give rise to crises — and opportunities.

Democracy thrives on a diversity of thoughtful and sincerely argued views

“To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” The principle encapsulated in these words from Thomas Jefferson sounds fair. But we should be more anxious to fund the work of non-partisan institutions with direct policy relevance, like the Bank of England, IFS and Royal Society.

Investment opportunities abound but we must get over the barriers

The belief that the zero lower bound to interest rates is a significant obstacle to stimulating demand supposes that there is a host of projects that promises a prospective return less than zero but more than, say, minus one half per cent. This completely misunderstands the nature of the barriers to long-term productive investment. We need less financial ingenuity and more common sense.

Economic statistics have not kept pace with our needs or new sources of data

Last week’s Treasury report from Sir Charlie Bean on the methods by which national economic statistics are collected confirms that there has been relatively little change since the ONS began measuring GDP 75 years ago in wartime Britain. Yet our data needs – and our ability to collect them through digital sources – has changed considerably.

Our tax system needs purposeful change, not tinkering

George Osborne has, it is reported, abandoned plans for root-and-branch reform of the taxation of pension saving and will content himself with tinkering with rates of relief. However, what’s really needed in our tax system — as in so many other areas of political life — is purposive change: reforms may well be implemented in piecemeal fashion but should be motivated by a sense of strategic direction.

The limits to productivity growth are set only by the limits to human inventiveness

Robert Gordon’s magisterial book The Rise and Fall of American Growth argues that the years from 1870 to 1970 were the “special century” for technological developments. And that the past 50 years, by contrast, have been “dazzling but disappointing”. Yet, if not much seems to have happened, it is perhaps because we see that much is yet to come.