Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Protectors of Treasure Island: Border Dragons of the Offshore Financial System

Several hundred years back, the City of London was protected by a great stone wall, and access was controlled via several key gates. Aldersgate was in the north, Ludgate was to the west, Aldgate was in the east, and on the south end of London Bridge there was Bridge Gate. Later, others were added, like Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, and Newgate. Nowadays, the physical wall and gates have slipped out of popular memory. To many modern commuters into the City, the Moorgate is nothing but a station on the Northern Line of the London Underground.

Recently, a wing of the Occupy movement set up camp just up the road from Moorgate, in Finsbury Square. Another wing set up in an old building in Sun Street. Like the original St. Paul’s Camp, the new camps seem  like incongruous outposts amidst the black sheet glass and metal frames of buildings housing financial giants. The protesters have managed to take temporary control of small areas of physical space, and yet, do they really have true access to the City?

It seems to me that the walls of the City are still there, only nowadays you can’t see them. They exist in codes and institutions, cultures and hidden political forces, architectural styles and subtle symbols whispering you don't belong here. Finding ways of passing these hidden gates is a great and worthwhile challenge. Before that can be done though, it's good to get a sense of the ancient boundaries of the City. That's why I've been recently visiting the border dragons.

The City border dragons are sentinels on plinths, totem-like creatures lurking at the ancient entrances to the City, originally to warn travelers and act as toll-booths. They’re sometimes called griffins, but they’re actually dragons, dog-like dragons with wings and a forked tongue. Maybe they’re like small versions of Cerberus, Hade’s three-headed hound of darkness that guards the underworld across the river Styx. Indeed, you do find three of them as you cross over the river Thames – two on the south side of London Bridge, and one in the middle of the road on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge.

So where are the others found? The largest border dragon is found at the Temple Bar on Fleet Street, perched by the Royal Courts of Justice like a nazgul from the Lord of the Rings. There are two smaller ones keeping watch in the street next to Chancery Lane tube station on High Holborn. See if you can find the others. There’s one lurking somewhere on Goswell Road in the north, and one next to the Broadgate complex. There's one around Moorgate, and another guarding the area before the Tower of London, somewhere on Byward street.

My favourite border dragons though, are on the Victoria Embankment by Temple Place. They’re slightly larger than most of the dragons, and strangely enough, they used to reside above the entrance to the London Coal Exchange which was demolished in 1963. Word on the street is that they took off and flew into the night, landing on Victoria Embankment two years later.

Some have suggested that the dragons are creatures from mystical treasure islands known as offshore tax havens. Indeed, the City is at the centre of a giant web of such havens, a beating financial heart drawing in money from the opaque offshore jurisdictions and pumping it back out to them again, keeping a global system of secrecy alive. The vast majority of hedge funds and SPVs for example, are incorporated in places like the Cayman Islands, even though they’re managed from offices within London and the US. It poses something of a headache for tax authorities, and also places something of a burden on the broader society which does not have access to the offshore realms. Indeed, it's an open question as to how much of the City of London is even in London, and how much is situated within excel spreadsheets on computers in Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands.

Certainly the City incorporates a lot more physical space than meets the eye. It’s like that scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the door to Narnia is found. Hidden doors abound in the City, and they lead to parallel universes on Caribbean Shores and Swiss Cantons

So where does this leave access? I'm not sure. The border dragons mark the ostensible borders of the City, but the true borders are scattered and fragmented by a world of shell companies and registered addresses. And we haven't even got into the cultural and political boundaries yet. I guess we’ll have to work on this access issue a bit more in due course. I’ve had controversial views on it before, and they need to be refined.

In the mean time, take some photos of dragons. Put a funny hat on its head, or give it some bling accessories. Please do send the photos on me. I’ll be sure to put them up.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Suitpossum's Ecologist article No.2: Four strategies of subtle financial subversion

Last week I got published in The Ecologist. The article was called A four-step guide to bypassing high street banks. This is my second article for the magazine (my first was on food speculation), and this time the aim was to sketch out how people might engage in financial protest, not by waving placards, but by changing debit cards.

Many people agree in principle that major high-street banks have too much power, and that they frequently abuse that power. Nevertheless, many individuals don't necessarily have the time, or inclination, to protest about it directly in the manner of the Occupy protesters. There's been a lot of discussion about how to make financial protest more inclusive (including this piece by Kenth Gustaffson on a type of ‘virtual occupy movement’), but perhaps one of the most profound (and often overlooked) forms of protest is to distance yourself from mainstream finance by withdrawing deposits and avoiding using the services.

The article is pretty straightforward. It goes through four (UK-focused) strategies:
  1. You can move your money to a more socially responsible bank like the Co-Operative Bank, or to building societies and credit unions
  2. You can invest savings in socially responsible alternatives, including certain investment funds and specialist investments with environmental or social benefits
  3. If you need a loan, you can bypass the mainstream loan system and engage in peer-to-peer (P2P) finance or crowdfunding
  4. If you want to go bold, you can try detach from the mainstream currency system and use alternative currencies
Bypassing mainstream finance is not necessarily easy or convenient, and it's not a solution to the deeper structural problems of the financial sector. Change though, needs to come from many different angles. Regulatory and policy changes are needed, internal cultural changes are needed, and more competition is needed. Moving your money and getting involved in alternative finance is one way to boost competition, and one way to support sustainable finance innovation. It's an act of protest, but in encouraging financial diversity, it's also an act of creativity.

Please do check out the article. Any comments are most welcome, and I’d dig to hear any other suggestions for alternative strategies that I might have missed.