Rebuilding the social contract

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2009, 12:00am

Plutocrats and politicians, schooled in the values of globalisation and free-market capitalism, operate outside the laws that bind ordinary mortals. Like modern alchemists, they can conjure money out of thin air through quantitative easing and, blessed with the certainty that wealth and power provide, defy apparent logic by asserting that the best way out of the financial crisis is to redeploy some of the policies that created it.

Time will tell what does and doesn't work. However, given some of the evident failures already engineered by the 'best and the brightest', and the blatant instances of corporate misdirection, it is difficult for anyone whose investments have been mauled to see how a prescription that essentially calls for more of the same can be a palliative, never mind a cure.

Alternatives are available. The groundswell of public opinion, evident outside the recent G20 meetings in London, is for change, not 'historic' reassurances that more indebtedness on a vast scale is the best, or only, way forward. Burnt once, many people understandably want to see a clear reordering of priorities, encompassing a new sense of realism and fairness, not semi-frantic attempts to re-erect a flawed economic model on decidedly shaky foundations.

Perhaps capturing the broader pre-summit mood better than his peers, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: '[France] will fight for the moralisation of financial capitalism and for the refoundation of a better regulated capitalism. Let's not wait. Let's put an end to the excesses and abuses.'

At the time, other leaders, beating the drum for worldwide tax cuts and wider fiscal stimulus, may not have appreciated the focus of those remarks. With every passing day, though, the message is sinking in: the best way to emerge from the financial malaise is to reunite economic theory with neglected aspects of moral and political philosophy.

The theme of change at a systemic level resonates strongly with David Lui Yin-tat, non-executive vice-chairman of Schroder Investment Management (Hong Kong). As someone who has managed unit trusts and institutional funds, and sat on many official advisory bodies, Mr Lui has steered a course through 30 years of booms and busts and gained a true insider's view of the finance industry.

However, since relinquishing day-to-day responsibilities in February, he has been able to take a step back and reflect on the deeper causes of the crisis and on what it will take to re-establish a measure of economic stability that is equitable and sustainable.

Central to his thinking is the need for a 21st century version of Rousseau's social contract. The hope is that this will bring a stronger sense of morality to the workings of the business world and instil among the elite a broader appreciation of the consequences of the blinkered quest for ever-higher profit.

'There is no 'social contract' at all now,' Mr Lui says. 'It is sad that the world has changed to this extent. It is so inhuman now, with too many people just motivated by profit and self-interest.'

While no hair-shirt radical preaching the virtues of poverty or extolling an end to consumerist thinking, he suggests that a period of austerity will be good. This has to be accepted as inevitable after the heady excesses, irrational exuberance and gross misjudgments of the past few years. And it will act as a spur for leaders in various spheres to break free of their dependence on short-sighted economic goals and focus on measures to make companies, countries and international trade function more effectively for the good of all.

'A severe recession would not be that bad,' Mr Lui says. 'It would allow us to rebalance and return to a more sustainable position, not supported by leverage and highly inflated asset prices. Anyone who observed what has happened in the past few years would come to this conclusion. With due respect to all these economists and central bankers, I do not think we can grow out of this problem.'

What most concerns him is the lack of consistency and logic in many of the proposals put forward by senior policymakers. Especially notable is the obvious contradiction between the 'medicine' recommended for the Asian financial crisis and the kind of solutions leaders are championing today.

The International Monetary Fund in 1998 advocated belt-tightening, depreciation of currencies, an increase in exports and tighter fiscal controls. Hindsight shows that the insight methods are generally successful. Now, in complete contrast, the majority of voices are calling for anything and everything to boost consumption, stimulate borrowing and give free rein to further spending.

'It is really ironic, the same problem with two different solutions,' Mr Lui says. 'In Asia we had the surgeon, in the US they inject some more steroids. It is a dilemma, but common sense says this doesn't make sense. If you continue to print money - quantitative easing - with zero interest rates, you only create more problems down the road.

'I understand these governments have to face the electorate and keep unemployment below 10 to 12 per cent - this is democracy. But I would rather accept a lower base rate of growth for a number of years and tighten belts. If you flush the economy with all this money, you may revive it a bit or slow down the deceleration, but you can't fix it.'

Allowing for political realities, he says the key is to re-establish the basic concept of living within one's means. This has to apply for governments, corporations and individuals. It will not mean an end to lending or herald a 'new world order', but simply means the mentality that encourages outrageous risk and demands escalating returns have to be replaced by a far more sober regime.

With that comes the need for a revived code of business ethics that takes note of the interests of society as a whole. One starting point for this, Mr Lui says, is to admit that in many westernised companies the gap in remuneration between people at the top and the bottom is too wide and often inexplicable. The general disparity in salaries between the finance sector and other industries also makes little real sense.

A more ethical approach will see a realignment of salaries. There should also be recognition that, in difficult times, a company still making substantial profits has an obligation to protect employment opportunities for lower-paid staff rather than the bonuses and status symbols of directors.

'Somehow, business ethics has been pushed to extremes, with people trying to test the limits of the law,' Mr Lui says. 'The abuse of trust and of minority shareholders cannot go on with boards catering only for self-interest. It is easy to criticise but, in society, you have to interact and co-exist. You cannot be self-sustaining. Therefore, [business people] have to be very careful to remain humble.'