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Tuesday 31 January 2012

Should a banker forgo his bonus ?

Its not that I've suddenly gone soft on bankers but, the historical progression of this story, as ever, beggars belief.

In the dark days of the banking collapse of 2008 (seems like we've been in one crisis or another ever since), the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) got into serious difficulties. The bank announced eye-watering losses of £28 billion, a UK corporate record. This was put down to a case of overwhelming greed.

Rather than leave market forces to decide the price of such abject failure, the then Labour government in the UK decided to intervene. As a result, the UK Government (strictly speaking the treasury, through a vehicle called UK Financial Investments Ltd) became interested in 84% of the share capital of RBS, obviously leaving it as, by far, the largest shareholder.

In order for the bank to retain a listing on the London Stock Exchange, the voting rights attached to those shares were unilaterally diluted to 75%. There was no financial consideration for this action; very much an affront to the UK taxpayer. Very much a case of government intervention caused by panic, and reality being something for 'the rest of us'.

The then CEO, Sir Fred Goodwin, was forced to stand down, having been deemed responsible for the bank's predicament. He left with a golden parachute including a pension of £703,000 per annum. There was uproar at the amounts, and the story was on the front page for weeks. In the end a compromise agreement was reached of a pension (payable immediately to this 50 year-old) of £555,000 per annum, after having also received a, tax free, (another kick in the teeth for taxpayers) one-off lump sum of £2.7 million.

And for those of you who were wondering how plain Fred Goodwin turned into a 'Sir'; he was knighted by Labour prime minister Tony Blair in 2004 for... this is worth the wait... 'services to banking'. Laughable, tragic, inept, or maybe something altogether more nefarious.

A new chief executive was sought to replace Fred the Shred (a sobriquet earned as a result of merciless axe wielding at take-over time). The lot fell on Stephen Hester who was brought in from outside RBS; hardly a surprise as the performance of the previous incumbents, as a group, hardly warranted internal promotion.

Just, for one moment, let's assume that the government was instrumental (or at very least deeply involved) in this appointment. If it had not been at least consulted then, its cavalier attitude towards the taxpayers' money would have bordered on the criminal. So, let's take it as read then that the, then, Labour government appointed, or at very least rubber stamped the appointment of the new CEO.

I don't know about you reading this but, whenever I have been involved in hiring someone, the matter of compensation (it used to be called pay and conditions but, there's progress for you), was discussed before anyone signed any contract. We are therefore back to a government and majority shareholder not having a clue of the real world.

That's the background filled in, now fast forward to now. The Labour party (now, not surprisingly, in opposition) has 'threatened' a debate on whether or not Stephen Hester should receive his near £1 million bonus. Mr Hester has taken the path of least resistance and refused his bonus, not wishing to be branded a banking pariah.

So, I genuinely feel sorry for Mr Hester. He has, presumably, met the terms of his contract and his employers (as represented by the majority shareholder) are threatening a public execution.

The current Labour MPs (many of whom were in the previous government), should now do the decent thing and forgo all their pay and expenses.

Monday 23 January 2012

Discounted Ski Passes

If you've been skiing or boarding to Villars before then, you are aware that queuing for a lift pass can take quite some time, especially in the peak season. There are a number of ways to avoid this waste of time, and, at the same time, to pay less  than the published price for your lift pass.

Before being able to obtain the benefit of any of these advantages, you need to have a Key Card to use as your pass. If you do not already have one then, simply buy one once you are in Villars for CHF 5.00 from the lift company, unless you already have one from a previous visit.

Option One - Easyski

The reduced prices only apply to tickets for the next day and up to four days. You cannot get a reduced priced ticket for the day of purchase.

The only type of ticket available for this option is a day pass that gives you access to the whole Alpes Vaudoises*.

You will be greeted by a screen that looks like this:

Simply choose the number of tickets for the first day, then press the 'ucBtnSelect' button (don't ask... I haven't got a clue why they don't just have 'buy' or 'select'). Repeat this process for every day; you cannot choose more than one day on the first screen (again, don't ask).

You will then have the choice of 'anonymous purchase' or 'identified purchase'. I suggest you use 'identified purchase as you still need to enter your name and date of birth for an 'anonymous purchase', and you will need to enter it all again next time you use it. You now need to enter your KeyCard number, in the format including the hyphens. Add this to basket for each different person and then repeat for each day that you want a pass. Then you will be able to pay with your credit card.

You will receive a confirmatory email which I suggest you keep on your phone, just in case there is a problem.

Option Two - Skipass

This option only gives you reduced prices, compared to a single day pass, in the sense that you can buy a pass for multiple days at a reduced price. These prices are identical to those practiced at the ticketing booths.


This time, the screen looks like this:

The procedure for actually ordering is similar to that for EasySki.


Option Three - FreePass

This option enables you to use your KeyCard whenever you want, and you are automatically debited each day. There is a saving of 30% during the week and 15% at weekends.

As with all the other options, the main advantages are reduced daily rates and no queuing. The downside is that there is a fee of CHF 50.00 (CHF 30.00 for children 9-15) for setting up the service, and you will always be billed for a full day, albeit at the reduced price. Additionally, you must provide a photograph.

If you want additional information, you can contact me through the Contact Form, and receive regular updates of snow conditions either on Twitter (@munificus), or on my dedicated skiing page.

Have a great winter!

*Alpes Vaudoises consists of Leysin, Les Mosses, La Lécherette, Les Diablerets, Glacier 3000, Villars – Gryon.

Friday 13 January 2012

French Presidential Elections - a Prediction

French Presidential Elections - a Prediction

Before sticking my neck out and making a prediction, here is some background information that might be useful.

The French people choose a president, who must be elected by a majority of the voting population (that is, must receive more than 50% of the votes cast). This is achieved by the simple method of having, up to, two rounds of voting. In the first round, all the candidates meeting the criteria are on the ballot list. If no candidate receives an absolute majority of the votes then, the top two candidates go into the second ballot. Apart from the statistically extremely unlikely possibility of both receiving exactly the same number of votes cast, one must be elected by the majority.

The main criteria for being a candidate for the presidency are that one must be a French national aged at least eighteen years, and have been sponsored by at least 500 elected French officials. There are about 46,000 such people, approximately 35,000 of whom are mayors, the rest are elected members of various assemblies. A sponsorship is a matter of public record and nobody can sponsor more than one candidate. This sponsorship is similar to that required to join a club; it does not involve a financial element. It is also (incorrectly), frequently, described as 'godparenting', as a result of a poor translation from the French 'parrainage'.

The first round of the election will take place on 22nd April, 2012 and the second round (there has always been a second round) two weeks later, on 6th May, 2012.

The runners and riders for this contest have not yet been declared, although various intentions have been made clear. The following are near certain to meet the criteria for nomination, and have also openly stated that they wish to have their candidacy considered: the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkosy (UMP - Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, a centre right party, who polled 31% of the vote in the first round last time out), Francois Hollande (Socialist, whose party, in the form of his ex-partner polled 26%), Francois Bayrou (Democratic Movement, a centrist who personally gained 19%), and Marine Le Pen (National Front, right wing party, whose father polled over 10% in 2007, and was the run off candidate in 2002).

And here is the tip, directly from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Marine Le Pen will be a candidate in the second round of the election on 6th May. This is based, not on personal political ideology, but on simple arithmetic. In the most recent polls, one third of respondents said they would vote for the National Front (Marine Le Pen's party). This leaves two thirds of the votes to be shared between the three other candidates. It is therefore arithmetically impossible for two other protagonists to receive more votes than Marine Le Pen.

The only way this would not happen is, of course, the million to one scenario, where one candidate receives over 50% of the votes cast, which would be a first and should get you some amazing odds.

I believe Marine Le Pen has also played a very strong card in declaring that she would take France out of the Euro currency. This is unlikely to alienate her core supporters and will strike a sympathetic chord with some voters of most other parties, thereby bringing her more votes in the first round. It will further strengthen her position, as it is extremely unlikely (although I could be proved wrong), that any of the other candidates mentioned will dare to suggest a Euro exit. This will have a levelling effect on the other candidates, thereby diluting their individual share of the vote even further.

Things could have been very different if Dominique Strauss-Kahn had not been embroiled in a sexual scandal, which effectively cost him the socialist party nomination. If the rumours of a 'dirty tricks' campaign are eventually proven then, the current French administration, as well as that of the United States could live to seriously regret their, alleged, involvement.

Saturday 7 January 2012

Racism - a black and white case?

It's been quite a week for racism in the UK. Here are three examples of what have, perhaps, been the most prominent news stories.


Stephen Lawrence

This 18 year old teenager was brutally murdered in a racist attack while waiting for a bus. This incident happened in 1993. It has taken another 18 years for the British justice system to catch up with, at least some of, the perpetrators. There is absolutely no place for such behaviour in a civilised society. Everyone must be appalled by the actions of his attackers; their jail terms will mean that they are not a threat to society again, or at least not for a very long time. There is absolutely no room for ambiguity in this case.



Luis Suárez

The Liverpool Football Club No. 7 was found guilty by an FA (Football Association) independent regulatory commission of having called another player (Patrice Evra of Manchester United) a 'negro'. The punishment meted out was a £40,000 fine and an eight match suspension.


It seems that the word 'negro' was taken as a disparaging remark. It is worth mentioning that this 'conversation' was taking place between a Uruguayan and a Frenchman, and not necessarily in English.


George Bernard Shaw wrote that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language". He was correct when he wrote that, and is just as accurate today. The US Census of 2010 lists 'negro' as a racial option.


As usual, the news channels rolled out various so-called 'experts' who gave us the benefit of their vast experience in these matters. One suggested that the timing of a declaration by Luis Suárez' employers (Liverpool Football Club) to not appeal against the decision was 'unfortunate'. This pundit was obviously blissfully unaware that LFC had to accept the decision (or not) to get the clock ticking on the suspension; there was a match the same day. During this match, large numbers supporters of the opposing team were chanting 'where's your racist'; no action was taken against them.


My favourite quote on the matter comes from Lord Ouseley, erstwhile chairman of the Commission for Racial equality (1993 to 2000). Referring to the case and the conduct of Luis Suárez, as well as that of LFC, he stated "all we have heard are denials and denigration of Evra". Etymology cannot be Lord Ouseley's strong suit.


The decision by the FA has now set a precedent; one which I believe they will regret. A tariff has been set and will now need to be applied in the inevitably huge number of complaints that will be brought in the future.



Diane Abbott

This labour Member of Parliament (currently shadow minister for public health), born to Jamaican immigrants in London, tweeted "White people love playing 'divide & rule' we should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism". Her boss, opposition leader Ed Milliband apparently ordered her to apologise, which she duly did. Diane Abbott is not new to controversy. In 2004 the Committee on Standards and Privileges found that she had failed to declare earnings of £17,300 on the Register of Members' Interests for fees received for television appearances on the BBC. Diane Abbott was required to apologise to the house. In 1996 Diane Abbott stated that "blonde, blue-eyed Finnish girls" were unsuitable as nurses. The reason: they had "never met a black person before". She also made a speech in the United States where she stated that "the British invented racism". Last year Diane Abbott was reported as having referred to the Prime Minister and his deputy as "two posh white boys". The worst which has befallen Diane Abbott is that she has been required to apologise. Could this be referred to as a whitewash? (Sorry, I could not resist that one).


As a result of the controversial Tweet, experts were again brought in to comment. One who was very much defending Diane Abbott from any racist slur that was suggested (after all, what are friends for) stated that she had always been re-elected with increased majorities, at every general election. Apart from the fact that the assertion is incorrect, it could also be shown to prove exactly the opposite point to that sought.

The UK seems to be going through turmoil over racism at the moment. These are a number of high profile news stories that are making the country re-evaluate its attitude towards racial tolerance. It seems to be a case of a multicultural, multiethnic society no longer having a clue of what it really stands for.


In order for things to really change will require a British (or English) ethnicity, consisting of a common heritage, including a common language and a common language; this will take more than one generation.