x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Why we need more pirates in a deflationary world

We can only cheer the audacity of this small Somali crew who turn a profit with a minimal investment and no government bailout.

Pirates, alone, seem to be making a good return on their investment; that is, until they run into the Indian navy.
Pirates, alone, seem to be making a good return on their investment; that is, until they run into the Indian navy.

At last, a ray of economic cheer amid all the gloom. While sales of cars have stalled, banks are going bust and former High Street chains in Britain are now worth as little as the rubbish they sell, one group is making out like bandits. No, it is not the lawyers, who I am pleased to report are also feeling the pinch. Soon we will be able to say: "My learned friend, could you bring me a side salad and another pitcher of water? Many thanks."

Those that can't get jobs as waiters will be standing at traffic lights, offering to clean the windows of your car for a few coins. Few things could be more satisfying than seeing lawyers on the streets with a squeegee bottle, but we should also celebrate the group of people who are making out like bandits. The only problem is that they are bandits. Pirates, to be precise. We can only marvel the audacity of this small Somali crew, who with a minimal investment and no government bailout are able to turn, say, US$100,000 (Dh367,000) - the cost of buying a couple of speedboats and the odd anti-tank weapon - into $100 million with the takeover of the Sirius Star and its precious cargo of oil.

The warships of the world are stacked against them, but for the most part they are no match for our men in inflatable boats. Only the Indian government is prepared to respond in an appropriate manner by blowing suspected pirate ships out of the water. The public has always had a secret admiration for robbers, bandits and pirates. Robin Hood is still a national hero in England, although there is scant evidence that he distributed much of his gains to the poor, while Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's exploits were immortalised in film.

While we do not suggest that this illegal activity should be copied throughout the world, we do think that there is something to be learnt from their approach that can be applied in the corporate world. They probably won't be studying this at Harvard Business School, which may be why we are in such a mess now. For where are the corporate pirates now? There was a time when they were willing to risk it all for reward, betting their own money and expertise against the market. In the old days, merchants clubbed together to pay for vessels that went out trading and returned - hopefully - laden with cargo.

This is the origin of the phrase "when the ship comes in". These informal groups were turned into merchant banks, which risked their own capital to make money. If the ship went down, the money was lost - and the government did not intervene. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jimmy Goldsmith was the original buccaneer. Aged 47, he left Britain to try his luck in the US, a move he dubbed "Operation New World". With a billion-dollar pot, his initial forays were met with enthusiasm by both politicians and businessmen.

He hung out with Henry Kissinger and businessmen such as Al Dunlap. "Jimmy really loved America," recalled Mr Dunlap years later. "I cannot tell how excited he was and how much charisma he generated in those days." Mr Goldsmith took over Diamond International, a logging company, and its profitable revival made him something of a star. He testified before a Senate investigations committee. His answers were met with admiration and he was invited to become a US citizen and even run for political office.

However, the mood changed when he made a bid for Goodyear Tyre and Rubber. The company was badly run, but knew how to use its contacts in Washington to defend itself. A coalition of union bosses and Ohio politicians pursued Mr Goldsmith. Pensioners were bussed to Capitol Hill to beg that the "pirate" be repulsed. There was an angry Senate hearing in which he was heckled. The deal fell apart and he left a couple of hundred million dollars richer.

"It was clear to me that we were not living in the real world," he said later. "We had now entered the post-Reagan period with the triple alliance of big business, big government and big unions fighting back." The "land of the free" purged the corporate pirates. How it reacts to the economic crisis will determine for the next 20 years whether the US is back in the real world. The barbarians are no longer at the gates, but inside congress, begging for help.

The most audacious thing the head of a US car maker does now is fly in to Washington in his own corporate jet, saying the company is on its last legs and demanding cash. Why don't they dip into their executive pay packets, have a whip round at the golf club and buy Chrysler if they think it is worth saving? The danger is that they, along with many others, now fear something altogether more terrifying. Deflation is the scariest word you can mention to an economist. Whisper it into his or her ear and watch them jump out of their skin.

The Japanese, who know a thing or two about deflation - what happens when instead of prices rising, they keep falling to such an extent that people delay purchases, safe in the knowledge that they will be cheaper the next day. When this happens, economies grind to a halt. Japan already experienced one "lost decade" in the 1990s. It does not want another. The Japanese call deflation "the monster".

Faced with falling house and car prices, who knows how we should react? A friend of mine was on the phone last night from London. "I have the inflatable boat, can you lay your hands on the weapons?" rwright@thenational.ae