Meetings can be a substitute for work, and an expensive one, at that, which is why the thrifty bankers at HSBC had a rule about them. A note had to be kept of every meeting, and the last line of the note would read, ‘This meeting lasted for one hour and 33 minutes and is estimated to have cost £2,822.27p, including the digestive biscuits.’ The biggest item on the bill would be the time of all those present, and they might think twice before incurring it, given the chance that head office would take umbrage. Perhaps HSBC could lend Tony Blair a clerk to help him cost his summit meeting. His own time and his guests’ time would be only the start of it. There would be the time of their full supporting cast of sherpas, finance ministers, spokespeople, bag carriers and bodyguards, and the cost of flying them in from all over the world. They would need somewhere to meet, eat and sleep, and that meant block-booking Gleneagles — 257 rooms from £225 to £465 and 13 suites to £1,600: Michelin graded grand luxe et tradition + restaurant with star, to pacify Jacques Chirac. Add in some extras, like a fence round the estate, and policemen patrolling the fence, and helicopters patrolling the skies, and, of course, the biscuits.
Pay Hutu, pay Tutsi
Standard procedure at these meetings is to draft the report in advance, and this one is sure to include a sanctimonious section on the needs of Africa. All that would remain would be for HSBC’s clerk to append his own report, on some such lines as these: ‘This meeting appears to be held as a matter of annual habit, and on this occasion lasted for three days, give or take a few naps after lunch. The full figures and costings are not yet to hand, but my preliminary observations lead me to two conclusions. I expect that this meeting will have cost more than the gross national product of Rwanda–Burundi, so that money would have been saved by calling it off and writing the Hutus and Tutsis a cheque. I am equally confident that if such a meeting were held within HSBC and the report caught the eye of head office, careers would be blighted. Try economising on biscuits.’ Mr Blair, that most frequent of flyers, might even be inspired to economise on meetings. Alternatively, he might conclude, as (so I gather) HSBC has, that working out the cost is too expensive.
Aldermen at arms
A clash of titans in the City, where aldermen still roam the prairie. In the Aldgate ward, Alderman Sir Clive Martin, Lord Mayor six years ago, is standing down, and the ward’s 600 voters face an aldermanic election. Alderman Lord Levene of Portsoken, Lord Mayor seven years ago and nowadays chairman of Lloyd’s, is leaving his ward of Portsoken after two decades — the boundaries have shifted and the ward has changed its character — and might be thought a shoo-in for Aldgate, the home of insurance and shipping. There, though, he has been challenged by Peter Kerr-Dineen, now chairman of the Baltic Exchange, which charters the ships that Lloyd’s insures. Shipping, so Mr Kerr-Dineen says, has revived with the growth of world trade. It needs its voice, and Aldgate needs a new perspective: ‘I cannot claim to have followed a traditional path to this City office,’ he tells the electors, ‘let alone to be a grandee. I work informally and openly, and am not motivated by the trappings of office. I hope to be a breath of fresh air in a changing world.’ By the muted standards of City democracy, that could be called pointed — but it will be no bad thing for the City if its democracy is livened up.
Lord Oxburgh is the eminent scientist who became chairman of Shell when his predecessor discovered that petroleum products could be used to make black bags, suitable for clearing desks. A by-product of this was the plan to roll Shell’s Dutch and English companies together, and this in turn has given off a nasty tax bill. British holders of Royal Dutch Shell stand to lose a quarter of their money. Now David Hunter of NCL Smith & Williamson has written to Lord Oxburgh on their behalf, to pose two questions. Did the board know what it was letting the shareholders in for — concluding, perhaps, that this would just have to be tough on them? Or was the board left in ignorance by its advisers, who might owe the company and its shareholders some redress for missing the trick? ‘Death is, you will note, an option,’ Mr Hunter adds. ‘If we have a mass suicide we will avoid the tax.’ Lord Oxburgh may be inclined to cheer them on.
A touch of frost
Iceland is cooling down. Two months ago, when Baugur, its biggest retailer, was bringing a chain of our own high street shops to the Reykjavik stock market, it was red hot. Baugur owned Hamleys, the toy shop, controlled the Big Food Group, which used to be called Iceland, and cropped up in City gossip every time a block of shares in a retailer changed hands. To be the biggest in Iceland was not, after all, saying much. How could these Icelanders do it, I asked? Was Iceland now the Hong Kong of the north? ‘The alternative view is that this is just the latest hot spot for hot money. ’Ware frostbite.’ Some colour was lent, this week, to this cynical view by the arrest of Jon Asgeir Johannesson, Baugur’s guiding spirit, on charges of fraud. This came as a shock to Barclays Capital and Baugur’s other partners in a consortium which planned to bid for Somerfield. Would the bid be more convincing, so these partners seemed to wonder, if these dashing Icelandic raiders were kept out of it? Further outlook: continuing frosty.
Jacta alea est
Project Rubicon, my leveraged buy-in for Italy, announced in this column last week, has been received with suspicious enthusiasm. Can my target, after all, turn out to be another Parmalat? Have all the worthwhile assets long since left the country? A helpful hint comes from Christian Noyer, who is governor of the Banque de France. Countries in the eurozone, he says, are free to leave it. That is not what the treaty says, but never mind. Italian euro notes, remember, have the letter S before their serial number. Avoid them.