We need a fund for the preservation of financial monuments. Sir Nicholas Goodison — successively chairman of the Stock Exchange, the TSB and the National Art Collections Fund — would be just the man to head it. My fund would have saved Cazenove for the nation, and could now get a second chance with a monument familiar to Sir Nicholas: the Stock Exchange itself. As can happen with works of art, it has been given a stay of execution. The two foreign collectors who have cast covetous eyes on it — Euronext in Paris and Deutsche Börse in Frankfurt — are being held off by the Competition Commission. All that plumbing at the back of the Exchange, the pipes that carry the stocks and the money for clearing and settlement, would need to be sorted out, the Commission says, before either of them would be allowed to bid for it. Now all that our fund needs to do is to rustle up the money — say, £1 billion — and we could bid for it ourselves. The Heritage Lottery Fund would be anxious to help us, and even the Treasury might unbuckle. Our trouble would be to show that this monument is still part of our financial heritage.
Keeping the silver
It is certainly not what it was when Sir Nicholas first took command there. In those days it was a members’ club with a monopoly. To exchange stocks, brokers and jobbers had to meet each other on its floor. Today the Exchange is a limited company whose shares are widely held and, rather oddly, quoted on itself, and it has to compete for its living. Many deals never go near the Exchange. Investment banks may find it simpler and quicker to deal with each other. Investors may see the charms of derivative contracts whose value is linked to the price of a share or to an index of the market. These contracts are easy to trade and, unlike shares, are not caught by stamp duty. The Exchange muffed its chance to get into this business. Its best business, just now, is AIM, intended as a sort of Stock Exchange Lite for cheap and cheerful companies, though serious companies, too, are now attracted by its informality and its friendly tax regime. Even so, when Deutsche Börse’s ambitious supremo, Werner Seifert, tried to launch a bid for the Exchange, his own shareholders rose in revolt and he was sacked. I conclude that our fund should take its lead from them, and concentrate on what is worth preserving: the Exchange’s archives, its historic silver and, of course, its wine cellar.
Banking on Africa
The cartoon showed two explorers pushing through the jungle: ‘If there isn’t a Barclays,’ says one, ‘then we’re probably lost.’ That was in the heyday of Barclays Dominion Colonial and Overseas, the banking empire set up to the undisguised fury of Montagu Norman, who as Governor of the Bank of England thought that High Street banks should mind their own businesses. Then the empire shrank, as empires do, and Barclays retreated from South Africa under pressure from its customers at home. Now it is back, with the biggest overseas deal that it has ever made, which carries control of the South African banking group, Absa. Former DCO banks in a dozen African countries, from Ghana across the continent to Kenya, will be rolled into it. This is where its ambitions begin, says Barclays’ David Roberts: ‘We want to make Absa the leading bank in Africa.’ His must be a different Africa from the basket-case presented to us by Bob Geldof, fit only to have its debts forgiven. Absa will want to lend. There is nothing charitable about this investment, as John Varley, Barclays’ chief executive, confirms. It is based on the belief that Africa and its dedicated bank can grow and prosper: a post-imperial vision.
This week Stephen Green, Mr Varley’s opposite number at HSBC, was crystal-gazing on his own account. Where, he was asked, should the world and its local bank look for growth? America and its Nafta partners, he said. China. If he had hopes for this country or the Eurozone, he kept them to himself. Instead his money, over the next two or three decades, would be on the emerging economies in general. Certainly, if more of them emerge, that would make for a more prosperous and better-balanced world, and if some of them are African, that would be better still.
King sized up
After King Fahd, King Sturge. The London house agents received the news of his death with an eye to the main chance, as usual. It will be a signal, they say, for a wall of money to flood out of Saudi Arabia and into the property market in London. Walls, of course, do not usually flood, but, in unstable times, you never know. Perhaps King Sturge have some penthouse flats on their hands and just hope that the wall rises high enough. I would have thought that the long-foreseen transition from a stricken king to his brother, the elderly regent, did not make the world’s biggest oil exporter more inherently unstable than it was already. For the moment, the price of oil, like the prices of flats, will have more to do with supply and demand.
A wharf too far
I regret the hollowing out of the City. Quite soon the Governor and the Lord Mayor will have the place to themselves. A few months ago the last bank — this was Barclays — left Lombard Street for Canary Wharf, and now it has been followed by the last of the daily papers’ City offices, those traditional eyries of their City editors and observation posts for their City pages. This was the Daily Telegraph’s. In its new home, a plaque commemorates Michael von Clemm, who first set the example. Prospecting among dockside warehouses for somewhere to relocate his bank’s back office, he thought that the front office and its dealing rooms should go there, too. His own office, though, always seemed to move in the other direction. I once caught up with him in a Mayfair town-house, where French windows opened on to the garden and a glass of champagne was at hand. He gave me a punchy presentation on the merits of Canary Wharf, and then added, ‘Of course, being here is much more convenient for one’s club, one’s wine-merchant, one’s tailor, one’s house and one’s airport.’ One certainly sees what he meant.