It was George Bernard Shaw who once observed of America and the UK that we are “two nations divided by a common language”
Students of this particular claim and of our common language in general will doubtless know the work of another great Irish playwright, wit and author of such classic works as Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde.
Note: For the pedants amongst my readers there will be some upset now for technically Oscar was Anglo-Irish, and that’s important for those who would claim him as their own. However I’m just a simple Anglo-African (with bits of Russian) and I believe that although Oscar was born in Dublin before the Easter Uprising of 1916 and so technically was a child of the English colonial era – his full name eliminates all doubt of his true heritage – Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde!
But I digress.
The reason I mention Wilde is because “Earnest’s” female lead – Lady Bracknell – is particularly famous for two lines. One has to do with handbags and the other, delivered when the hapless Earnest (who is also known as Jack – for reasons too complicated to describe now if you don’t already know the plot!) has just explained that he is an orphan:
“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
Now I mention all of this because this week I had the honor of hearing one of the English language’s most lucid speakers not once, but twice.
To some this might seem like masochism - aren't there enough things to attend without going twice? - and to others mere gluttony. But it must be said that only a fool of Wildean proportions would pass up any opportunity to hear the man who is famous for saying something along the lines of:
“If you think you have understood me, then you haven’t been listening.”
Yes! This week I rolled up to hear Alan Greenspan speak twice.
The first was a rather grand affair at Reuters and the other, a more homey one hosted by KPMG at "the epitome of British style Claridge's.
The Reuters do (and here I declare my interest as a Director of that wonderful company) was very stately with speeches by our revered Chairman – Niall Fitzgerald – our fresh (or more properly, given the election fever currently raging through the UK, I should say our "current”) Prime Minister – Gordon Brown – and his replacement at the Treasury – the little known Alistair Darling (whose unchanging looks I suspect owe more to Dorian Gray than to the family in Peter Pan).
It was a very good affair. Against a backdrop of Greenspan shamedly pushing his book - The Age of Turbulence - and Brown unashamedly pushing his right to remain the leader of the world’s 5th largest economy and America’s greatest ally, we were treated to a riveting analysis of post Cold War economics delivered in the dry but enlightening style for which the ex-Fed Chairman has long been famous.
In contrast to Reuters, the KPMG event was a cosy fireside chat (albeit without a fireside, due, no doubt to the current European mania for health and safety rules) between Mr Greenspan and KPMG(UK)’s Vice Chairman Alistair Johnston.
That being said, the biggest difference between the two events wasn’t the political stature of the speakers or the standing/seating arrangements, but rather that at KPMG, because there were no pre-election speeches, there was time to ask questions.
Many years ago I decided that when attending lectures and seminars it is a wise tactic always to sit at the front. There are three reasons for this:
1. It’s more interesting because by being in the thick of things, even on mediocre occasions, it is hard to become bored or to fall asleep;
2. Because you can always catch the speaker’s eye you can be guaranteed to be able to ask a question; and
3. You can see and hear everything.
Admittedly this last point has only become important with the advancing years as the distance away from University lectures grows ever greater!
And to stick with the historic theme, I admit that I hadn’t fully developed this model when at University – in fact in truth I was an enthusiastic adherent to the obverse theory of levturee positioning (ie sit at the back) but it’s remarkable just how much more interesting presenters have become since I left Cambridge!
So, true to my principles, I duly sat at the front and was pleased to pose the only question that raised a laugh.
Ever faithful to my readers' interests I asked:
“We in the UK who work in the capital markets, especially AIM, have been very grateful recipients of the consequences of the US approach to heavy handed regulation such as Sarbanes Oxley. How much longer have we got?”
Alan’s first answer was a little disappointing – “Not as long as you’d like”
But, as he got into his stride with substantive reply, I quickly realised that he too had only been playing for laughs and was not actually predicting an early change.
He made the following points:
1. The US had over reacted by writing a hastily-drafted (and therefore poor) law in Sarbanes Oxley in general and Section 404 in particular. In his opinion SoX would eventually be reformed, but in the meantime there were two unintended and unfortunate consequences.
2. The first was that compliance overkill is leading to a damaging reduction in constructive managerial creativity and
3. That the law had turned accountants from being helpful scorekeepers into policeman with negative consequences for just about everything other than their fee incomes.
So there you have it – from the mouth of one of capitalism’s most powerful contemporary advocates and a man whose wit and eloquence will easily stand muster against those of Shaw and Wilde.
As Lady Bracknell might have said to one of the 4000+ hapless CEOs of US VC-backed technology companies and their Boards:
“To lose one opportunity to IPO (on Nasdaq) may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both (by not seizing the opportunity presented by London’s AIM) looks like carelessness.”