Who owns Kent?

Brett Christophers has become the leading expert on the role the financial sector has played in shaping the UK economy – for better or worse, usually the latter. I first came across his 2013 Banking Across Boundaries, where he was the first person to point out the pernicious effect of the ‘FISIM’ (financial intermediation services indirectly measured) construct in flattering the contribution of finance to the economy – a point later taken up by others. Subsequent books have looked at UK land ownership (The New Enclosure) and rentiership (Rentier Capitalism).

His new book, Our Lives In Their Portfolios: Why asset managers own the world, lives up to the high expectations established by the earlier ones. The subject is the scale and scope of the ownership of physical infrastructure – mainly in the UK but with examples from the US and Australia too – by large and generally little-known asset managers. Take Kent for example: water and wastewater infrastructure is controlled by Macquarie and Morrison, while the gas network is owned by Global Infrastucture Partners and Brookfield. Blackstone, Harrison Street and Safanad own much housing. EQT Partners owns the charging stations for electric vehicles. And so on.

In short, a group of global asset management companies act for investors such as pension funds and companies, creating funds that invest in real assets and buy in services to operate them. However, while the investors have long term horizons and look for steady returns (such as rents or fee income), and the infrastructure itself is long-lived, the funds set up by the asset managers coming in between are short term – a few years at most. Ownership of the assets by different managers churns frequently, and the managers have every incentive to cut maintenance costs and raise charges or rents. As all the operational aspects are contracted out to service companies, the asset managers are neither energy or water companies, nor investors in such companies: they are pure rentiers. The risks are borne entirely by others – and particularly the people experiencing crumbling homes or essential services.

Despite the large impact this subterranean ownership structure therefore has on people’s lives – through lack of maintenance and repairs and rising costs – there is scant public information. One of the major contributions of the book is the evidently huge amount of work that has gone into stitching together what information is available: “Researching and writing about asset-manager society is sometimes much more like detective work than it should be.” There is a shout-out here to the FT’s Jonathan Ford, who has done some excellent reporting on various UK rentiership scandals. The book organises the material by considering the asset classes (housing, energy, farm land, transport), the geography (where are the investments mainly located – US, UK –  and where do the asset managers headquarter), and who are the major commercial players.

PFI projects clearly boosted the asset manager business no end, and there are continuing pressures for the government to bring more private long term investment into infrastructure, given that the state has seemingly abdicated from such investments in the country’s future. While I don’t have a problem with the idea of private money coming into infrastructure investment, there is a clear incentive issue: as Avner Offer’s excellent recent (2022) book Understanding the Private-Public Divide set out, private money will always require pay-back faster than a major piece of infrastructure can deliver, so there are challenges in structuring the investment and governance. And the lack of transparency and failures of governance over the maintenance and operation of infrastructure and housing, resulting from the financialized structure of the investment through asset managers, are shocking. I defy anyone to read this book without being at least a bit scandalized about the blatant disregard for the people using these essential services.

What to do about it? Not clear, but the first step is clearly the disinfectant of light. Our Lives in Their Portfolios is an essential start. The book is out in late April.


Rawls, reloaded

A few weeks ago I read Thomas Aubrey’s All Roads Lead to Serfdom, which argued for an alternative philosophical foundation to simple-minded utilitarianism for economic policy, if market liberalism is to survive. In Free and Equal: What Would A Fair Society Look Like, Daniel Chandler offers a modern interpretation of Rawls as an alternative to Aubrey’s Ordoliberalism.

The first part of Free and Equal is a clear and useful summary of what Rawls said. It’s over 40 years since I read A Theory of Justice, so this was a terrific refresher. And indeed for a liberal-minded person there is much to like in the Rawlsian approach, which is presented here as both comon sense and yet quite radical given where we are.

The second part of the book takes the themes – freedom, democracy, equality of opportunity, shared prosperity and democracy at work – and analyses the current state of the world in the light of each. It has many policy recommendations, many of them familiar such as UBI, worker rights in gig jobs, proportional representation in elections, all justified in terms of the underlying Rawlsian philosophy. Again, there are some unexpected overlaps with the ordoliberal case for power dispersion: Chandler writes: “Properly understood, the difference principle is concerned not just with the distribution of income and wealth but with the concentration of economic power and control.”

It seems hard to disagree with the contention that both wealth and power have become too concentrated in the western democracries and some things badly need fixing. But reading Free and Equal so soon after All Roads Lead to Serfdom crystallised for me an uneasiness I have with both underpinning philosophies, namely their individualism. Take Universal Basic Income for instance. Chandler is an advocate, but recognises there are critiques – such as undermining the sense of purpose people get from work, or the cost. The one critique he does not address is the one I’m going to label the Coyle Critique: you can’t buy a public realm – transport services, decent schools, waste collection – with your UBI.

Both books have plenty of specific recommendations, and a fine liberal individualist philosophy, but no positive account of the public realm. Improving economic and social outcomes will require a shift in public philosophy away from the bankrupt post-1980 set of assumptions; while there is much to like and much sense in Free and Equal, it doesn’t achieve this, although recognising the need to get away from the false dichotomy of market fundamentalism vs statist socialism. It argues that Rawls’ ‘difference principle’ lays the foundation for “a richer and more nuanced conversation about our economic structures,” but for me it doesn’t add up yet to “a new and inspiring political economy.”

Still, it’s unfair to expect a ready-packaged answer. Free and Equal makes an important contribution to the conversation, also explored in the recent special issue of Daedalus and elsewhere. It’s an optimistic take, and it’s interesting to revisit Rawls in such depth.


One of my long weekend reads (alongside a detective novel – Death Before Evensong – and Metamorphosis, amazing memoir by Richard Douglas-Fairhurst about his diagnosis with MS) was Henry Dimbleby’s Ravenous: How to get ourselves and our planet into shape. The three sections cover health, nature, and what to do. Much of the material it covers is in his terrific Food Strategy document, which the government commissioned and ignored. But here it is written in compelling manner – this is an excellent and anger-inducing read. In short, the food system is making us obese and diabetic (because processing food is so profitable and is under-regulated), massively contributing to global warming, the depletion of biodiversity and other environmental harms (fertilizer use, red meat eating), lacks resilience to shocks (including because of near-monoculture production), and is inhumane to animals and birds that are industrially farmed and processed.

The food strategy has many sensible recommendations, reproduced here, including the use of taxes to cut the use of sugar and salt, more free school meals, changing the approach to farm subsidies and land use, and starting to tackle the UK’s unhealthy food culture. It is not an easy task though because there are several policy aims and some trade-offs. The aims: better health, greater equality of nutrition in an unequal society, more nature-friendly farming and food trade/consumption, improved food security, better treatment of farmed creatures. For instance one implication of several of these is that food prices should be higher – but this works against reducing food inequality and shifting the British diet to a healthier mix. So while some policies are no-brainers (tax sugar in food processing!) others are less obvious.

The first chapter starts with obesity as a system outcome rather than a failure of individual willpower. Not the ideal read as one tucks into an Easter egg (where lack of willpower definitely comes into play). Still, I hope the book makes some impact – not least shaming the government into action despite the lobbying by the food industry.




Saving liberalism

I liked Thomas Aubrey’s short book, All Roads Lead to Serfdom: Confronting Liberalism’s Fatal Flaw. It could alternatively be called, Confronting the weaknesses of the Anglo-Saxon economic model. But it does this in a thoughtful way, contrasting the utilitarian tradition of UK/US economic policy with (West) Germany and the “underlying ordoliberal principle of power dispersion.” It is quite a philosophical book, which concludes that private and public power must be dispersed across labour markets, product markets and the activities of the state (as well as the liberal market basics of secure property rights and a stable currency). As well as stressing the importance of ideas, though – and I wholeheartedly agree – the book calculates power dispersion indices (“to provide a potential alternative framework to the current utilitarian welfarist approach”) and has a serise of proposals for how to disperse power in the three domains.

The empirics turn out broadly as you might expect. Canada, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden turn out to have widely dispersed state power, as does the US, and the Scandinavian countries cluster near the top of all three rankings. The UK is near the bottom of all three rankings, while the US is near the top for state power dispersion but not labour or product markets. This seems to me to understate the traction economic power delivers in terms of political power, albeit through sometimes indirect channels.

The book’s compare and contrast with the German model is interesting although Aubrey concludes Germany itself has not delivered on ordoliberal ideals. I rather agree with its final conclusion: “If liberalism is to have a future, it will require those who believe in liberal values to make the case for an alternative ethical foundation; one where freedom and equality can be contsnatly manufactured by the continuous dispersal of public and private power.” Ideas are indeed important for winning hearts and minds. The naive utilitarianism underlying the eocnomic policy playbook of the past 40 or 50 years has lost hearts and minds. But I’m not sure framing what’s needed in terms of ‘ordoliberalism’ with all its free market and Hayekian baggage will be an easy sell, hearts and mind-wise. (And the book has been priced only for libraries by its publisher, Bristol University Press, so it won’t even get much chance to influence people.)A1e0JCBaNuL._AC_UY436_QL65_


Webs of money

A 2016 book that was an eye-opener for me was Brooke Harrington’s Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent. A sociologist, she had trained as a private client wealth manager and worked among/for the global elite – the Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs).  The rich really are different…. and among her striking findings was their deep-seated belief they have that the money is theirs, or their family’s, and governments truly have no legitimate right to take any of it away from them in taxes.

Spiderweb Capitalism: How Global Elites Exploit Frontier Markets by Kimberly Kay Hoang is a sort of companion or follow-up volume. She is also a sociologist, but in this case conducted academic research as a clear outsider. Her focus is also different: her interest is in the ploys the UHNWIs and their delegated High Net Worth Individuals (professional lawyers and PRs etc who act for them, making pretty vast amounts of money themselves but bearing some legal risk) devise to distance themselves from “playing in the gray” – that is on the borders of legality or beyond – in emerging markets Vietnam and Myanmar. These ploys generally involve complex structures with holding companies in the Caymans, Samoa, British Virgin Islands etc, multiple Special Purpose Vehicles to make investments, professional advisers in Hong Kong or Singapore, and local fixers.

More academic (ie. slightly clunky) in style than the earlier Harrington book, it is nevertheless a fascinating read, reflecting five years of interviewing the different categories of people involved in these global money flows, and following some around on their extensive travels. Again, avoiding – or evading – tax is a regular theme. The book documents the various mechanisms involved, from the on-the-ground bribery (including attempts at mutually assured destruction deterrence such as sharing compromising social events with bribed officials) to the setting up of bank accounts and pitching investments to UHNWIs in the US. The scope of the fieldwork involved is impressive.

What to do about the spider’s web of global money flows? That’s less clear. Each individual (whether dominant or subordinate spider) is one element in a system that ultimately traps all. Although an optimistic note I took from the book is that US legislation does seem to be inhibiting some of the practices documented. In any case, it’s super-valuable to have htis kind of rigorous evidence about how the web operates, and how its inhabitants are motivated and incentivised. This is a very impressive book.