As Nick Leeson languishes in a Singapore jail for his ill-fated escapade in Anglo-Saxon capitalism, red in tooth and claw, Tony Blair drops in to Singapore to sing the praises of the much nicer sounding "stakeholder economy".
Insofar as this cloudy concept means anything at all, it endorses the general idea of long-term partnership as opposed to the short-term promiscuous goings-on that are said to characterise the UK's freewheeling market economy. In a heavily overcast passage - we're talking cumulo-nimbus here - Mr Blair says it's time for a change in emphasis in corporate ethos from companies as "a mere vehicle for the capital markets" towards a vision of them as a community or partnership "in which each employee has a stake". Mmmm
What this appears to mean is that New Labour is no more enamoured of the City's rumbustious market in corporate control than Old Labour. The general accusation - though not one made in Mr Blair's speech - is that companies are forced to superserve shareholders, by now so bloated on their fat dividends they cannot see beyond the next quarter, let alone their toes. Fear of corporate predators stops managers from pursuing long- term investment strategies. Instead, they insist on unrealistically high hurdle rates for new capital spending that have contributed to the investment famine in this recovery.
While there is something in all this, it is far from clear that the alternative system - for which Labour generally looks longingly towards Germany rather than the Far East - is so superior. Indeed when many Germans look in the mirror of their system of corporate government they're not so keen on what they see, either. Small wonder when they contemplate the disastrous diversification strategy of bellwether Daimler-Benz which the present management is now seeking to rectify. As Sir Geoffrey Owen of the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance pointed out last week, the German system kept a company like AEG on the life support system long after it should have been put out of its misery.
The City certainly keeps industry on its toes - but maybe industry needs to be. Certainly there is no ready miracle cure, as Mr Blair himself concedes when he says that legislation cannot bring about the sort of company he holds high. Verdict: storm clouds - but no rain.
Is Labour bluffing over Railtrack?
Labour yesterday officially launched its campaign to halt privatisation of Railtrack, scheduled to take place in May. Unfortunately it was as unforthcoming as ever on the crucial question on how to reconcile its determination to have a publicly owned rail network with the fact that it has also ruled out renationalisation. "Aces up sleeve", mutters John Prescott. To which the response must be "produce them, or we won't believe you", for at this stage it is hard to see what those aces could be. Or is he just bluffing? As with previous privatisations, Labour's effect looks like being merely to reduce the value of the sell-off, making it even more of a bonanza for investors, rather than halt it altogether.
Discounting Labour's sniping from the sidelines, the flotation of Railtrack is beginning to look a relatively straightforward exercise. From an investment point of view, Railtrack is a utility with a property kicker - in other words as safe a bet as you could hope for. This is a company whose revenues are largely protected by contracts with the train operating companies; many of the financial uncertainties surrounding Railtrack are beginning to fall away. …