Issue 227: 2019 12 12: Lens on the Week

12 December 2019

Lens on the Week

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UK

FINAL FURLONG: At the start of election day the Tories are ahead in the polls but no one knows whether or not they will achieve a majority.  The pledges for the three main parties include:

Conservatives: To get Brexit done, to lift the national insurance threshold, and to invest in schools and the NHS;

Labour: to renegotiate the Brexit agreement and put it to a referendum, to nationalise rail, the post office, water and power, and energy supplies, and to acquire up to 10% of quoted company shares, restore public spending to pre austerity levels;

Liberal Democrats: to cancel Brexit, tackle the climate emergency, transform our mental health policy .

But many of the differences are illusory.  Delve into their manifestos and you will find that all parties back expenditure on the NHS and education.  All are aware of and worried about the climate emergency.  The figures and rhetoric may be different but when it comes to practicalities it is unlikely that their approaches will differ in relation to these areas.  In the end it reduces to three issues: Brexit, the degree of public ownership, and the competence of the various leaders to take the country forward over the next five years.  Faites vos choix, ladies and gentlemen; faites vos choix!

STREET ART: A Banksy mural in Birmingham has had to be protected with polythene after another street artist improved the original work by adding colour to the noses of Santa’s reindeer.  This caused outrage because paintings by Banksy are, well, art and unauthorised additions to them are, well, vandalism.  Ask yourself though.  Had it been the other way round so that graffiti by another artist had been improved into an international quality artwork by Banksy, who would have been the artist and who the vandal?  “Handy dandy”, as Shakespeare might have put it.

CANCER TARGETS: Shortage of capacity and equipment has resulted in the NHS missing a number of key cancer targets.  According to figures from the Nuffield Trust for the six months to last September, the target of having 93% of patients seen by a consultant within two weeks of referral was missed, the figures being 90.1% and, in the case of breast cancer, 81.1%.  Targets for the time from a decision to treat to actual treatment were generally met, save where the treatment involved surgery where the target of a one month delay in 94% of cases was missed, the actual figure being 91.4%.

FATUOUS RUBBISH: Anne Widdicombe of the Brexit party has been labelled a racist for using the word “Gollywog”.  Did she use it to describe someone?  No.  Was she denigrating a community or ethnic group? No.  She was talking about throwing her toys out of a pram and used the description “Yes, I threw all my toys out of the pram.  Bears and gollywogs flying everywhere!!”  As she points out she is 70 years old and these were the sort of thing her pram contained.  Readers may not care for Ms Widdicombe as a politician but to think that was racism one would have to be half-witted.

International

HONG & KONG: The two male pandas recently born in Berlin Zoo were given names this week.  The public was invited to suggest names and vote for them, and the popular vote subsequently dubbed the two cubs ‘Hong’ and ‘Kong’.  This was over-ruled by the zoo, however, which decided to call them Meng Xiang (‘longed-for dream’) and Meng Yuan (‘fulfilled dream’) instead.  This must have been a relief for Beijing’s ambassador, who was present at the ceremony.  “Panda diplomacy” is used as a unique and effective piece of ‘soft power’ by Beijing, which only lends and never gives pandas to foreign states.  The foreign zoos are given only the honour and kudos of looking after them; the pandas themselves – and any offspring they might have – remain the property of the Chinese state.

FRANCE: Most of the country was paralysed by strikes and demonstrations as public sector workers protested against President Macron’s plans to reform the country’s state pension schemes.  M Macron wants to change the system so that all French workers draw the same state pension, i.e. what everyone takes out is uniformly proportional to what they put in.  This would be a blow to public sector workers, who enjoy an exceptionally generous scheme which is funded by private-sector workers whose state pension is not so generous.

The protests are seen as the climactic confrontation of M Macron’s reforming presidency so far – make or break for himself or his opponents.

The government does appear to have room for manoeuvre, however; while prime minister Edouard Philippe has expressed determination to complete the reform, official sources have hinted that the actual introduction of the reform could be delayed until 2035 and that austerity measures planned to reduce the country’s ballooning pension deficit could be scrapped.

SHOOTINGS: In the Czech Republic, a 42-year-old man shot six people dead in an A&E waiting room in Ostrava University Hospital.  He shot himself dead when the police arrived.

In Jersey City, USA, a gun battle lasting several hours developed when police laid siege to a supermarket where two apparently armed suspects of a murder investigation had taken refuge.  The two suspects, a policeman and three members of the public were killed.  Several others were wounded.

In Pensacola, Florida, USA, a Saudi Arabian airman shot three people dead after smuggling a firearm into the US naval base where he was being trained.  Eight others were wounded.  He was shot dead by sheriffs.  The FBI is investigating it as a terrorist attack.  The moustached officer from the Royal Saudi airforce, who had been attending a three-year training course in the USA, had apparently made an official complaint earlier in the year about an instructor nick-naming him ‘Pornstache’.  The incident has placed further strains on the already-tense relationship between the USA and Saudi, and has caused the US armed forces to review the training it offers to servicemen from overseas (the Pentagon announced a suspension of operational training for all Saudi students).

In Hyderabad, India, police shot dead four men suspected of the gang-rape and murder of an Indian woman.  The men were already in police custody and the exact circumstances of their deaths are unclear.  The killings have been applauded by large sections of the population.  The police have often been criticised of doing too little to combat a surging epidemic of rape and violence against women in India.  But other sections of the population have expressed concern that the rule of law might now be under threat from the opposite direction.

Financial 

UP THE AMAZON:  Jeff Bezos, founder and head honcho of Amazon is saying nothing – but his company is making lots of noise about its failure to win one of the most prestigious and presumably profitable contracts in the market – that to run the cloud computing contract for the Pentagon.  Amazon is blaming US President Donald Trump for this (why not, he gets blamed for everything else).  It says Mr Trump interfered in the tender process (won by Microsoft) because he has a personal animosity against Mr Bezos and the Washington Post, a media leader of anti-Trump reporting, personally owned by Bezos.  As a result, says Amazon, “improper pressure” was applied to make sure the contract was not awarded to Bezos interests.  However, Oracle, another failed bidder, also attacked the tender process – saying it was biased in Amazon’s favour.  (IBM was the fourth bidder.)  Some observers are slightly amazed that Amazon was in the running at all, given the extreme sensitivity of the data to be handled – “Your delivery is delayed and is now expected between Wednesday 25th and Sunday 29th” will not help US capability for defence, but in truth there are few businesses which have the scale to handle data of this size.

TED TALKS:  And the investors in the former high flying retailer do not like what the new management of the Ted Baker business is saying.  Troubles began nine month ago when founder Ray Kelvin was accused of sexual harassment of staff (“too much hugging” was one cry) and forced out, though he continues to own more than a third of the quoted company.  Since then there have been three profit warnings, the latest, flagging that profits for 2019 are likely to be around £5m against 2018’s £50m, also saw the departure of chairman David Bernstein, temporarily at least replaced by non-executive Sharon Baylay, and the promotion of recently appointed Finance Director Rachel Osborne to CEO.  The problem seems to be over valuation of stock.  That is a common issue in the fashion business – if sales are slow, old stock can be become pretty much worthless and writing that down can cause a financial wipeout, as seems to be the case here.  The new team may not enjoy their jobs for long – Kelvin is rumoured to be planning a takeover, and with the shares 15% down yesterday, it just got cheaper.

FLYING AWAY:  The stock market did not quite know how to react to the announcement that director Brad Singer is giving up his seat on the Rolls-Royce board.  Mr Singer joined the aero-engine maker on behalf of the fund which he runs, ValueAct, a USA domiciled venture investment fund, in 2016 after a long period of criticism of the lack of tight financial management of the business (viz, lack of cost control) and after amassing an 11% shareholding.  Since then Rolls have sold their marine business and much of their nuclear power activities, cutting staff numbers by 5,000, and now are concentrating on the core aero engine business.  Ian Davis, chairman of Rolls Royce paid generous tribute to Mr Singer, thanking him for his advice and support in driving progress in transforming the business.  But investors are pondering what all this might mean; is the way set fair; or is there some bad news to come; or does ValueAct simply want to sell out?  Seems unlikely – the share price is about the same as when Mr Singer joined the board.  Time will tell, but the market took the cautious view – and dropped the share price 5%.

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