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In the bleak midwinter

Already, it is that time of year when my two neighbours and I are despatched on our winter breaks and, even though as I type it is not yet December, I feel obliged to come up with something vaguely Christmassy. To make that task still harder, there appears to be some kind of arms race among Her Majesty’s financial services industry to produce the most depressing Yule-oriented press release.

Which? magazine has seen Legal & General’s “Over 1.5m households can’t afford Christmas” and raised it with “20m forced to cut back this Christmas”. Mind you, I have just noticed Legal & General also suggests that eight out of 10 UK households are planning to spend the same as or less than last year so, if it wants to win this one, Which? may well have to cancel Christmas.

All this, of course, against a backdrop of the darkest hour for capitalism since Marx turned to Engels and said: “I’ve been thinking a bit about class, Fred. Do you fancy co-writing a manifesto?” For that, at least in part, we have the unhappy campers of St Paul’s to thank.

One black mark against them is they do fail my Arsene Wenger test for, just as a few months back everybody seemed to feel he had had his time as manager of Arsenal but nobody could come up with a plausible successor, so the St Paul’s protestors appear willing to consign capitalism to history but, in keeping with their overall communications strategy, are pretty hazy about what might replace it.

And yet, even I, who have never been one of life’s natural activists, am unable to shake the feeling that for all their unwillingness to spend a night under canvas – or possibly because of that – the protestors really are on to something.

Is it the suspicion that, at some point in the not too distant past, capitalism took a wrong turn and whoever is driving still has not realised? As such, the “system” continues disproportionately rewarding short-termism, middle-men and chief executives to the detriment of its foot soldiers, the ordinary shareholders.

As someone recently rather neatly put it – let’s pretend it was me – we are happy enough to try our luck in a casino, even knowing the odds are against us but nobody would bother if they knew the games were rigged. If we are to play, we need to believe we stand a chance of coming out ahead and, in the wonderful world of finance, such a belief is hardly prevalent now.

For that, many sections of said world are to blame, including, of course, the media. For if we accept the only way most of us stand a chance of a comfortable future is by investing – preferably in equities – then it is not exactly helpful that large portions of the press are inclined to portray the investment industry as, without exception, a bunch of baby-eating kitten-torturers.

With the most obvious source of unbiased information and comment denied them, where – bearing in mind financial advisers of every denomination hardly do any better for press – do the public turn for help? Probably Hargreaves Lansdown and the like and, while I would not dream of criticising the quality of their investment analysis, I am not convinced this is the way things should be. As it happens, being really quite pro-investment and financial advice, I had always seen myself as exempt from the charge I just levelled against my alleged profession but I recently attended the investment trust awards of another parish and had a small moment of self-realisation.

Political pundit and inflatable Daley Thompson lookalike John Pienaar, who was presenting the awards, mentioned the importance of journalists being sceptical but not cynical as it was this latter approach that would eventually scare off anyone half-decent from entering the world of politics.

Obviously that also applies in finance and I, who have tended to wear my cynicism as a badge of honour, felt a little ashamed and resolved to do better next year. So, a tiny Christmas miracle for me then and please have a splendid festive period yourselves. We’ll see if I remember my resolution in 2012.

Julian Marr is editorial director of and


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