Greece maps the long way back to a Brexit deal

Kamikaze Leavers who have wrecked Theresa May’s deal cannot win support for their own

Philip Stephens




Some time ago, I wrote that Britain was heading the way of Greece. The comparison caused (justifiable) offence in Athens and (unwarranted) indignation in London. The time has come formally to recant. Grexit is now a fading nightmare. Common sense and political leadership have seen Greece stabilise its economy and restore functioning government. In the meantime, Brexit has all but broken British politics.

The heavy economic costs of Brexit were always obvious to all but the fantasists who imagine that “global Britain”, untethered from its own continent, will usher in a new Elizabethan age. The political stresses and strains — the absence of any consensus about what Brexit actually meant, the collision between the referendum outcome and the pro-European views of the majority of MPs, and deep divisions within parties — were casually overlooked. No one should be surprised that the nation’s politics now resemble a car crash.

At once unimaginative and stubborn, Theresa May has squandered the respect of her cabinet and lost all authority within the governing Conservative party. The prime minister’s half-baked Brexit deal with the EU27 has suffered a second crushing defeat in the House of Commons. An unbridgeable chasm has opened up between the Conservatives’ English nationalists and a shrinking band who still pledge allegiance to “One Nation” Toryism. For her part, Mrs May clings against all logic to the idea that somehow she can get her agreement through.

On the other side of the aisle, the largely pro-European Labour opposition is led by a Eurosceptic trapped in the time warp of 1970s socialism. Jeremy Corbyn commands the confidence of only a couple of dozen of his own MPs. Many consider him unfit to be prime minister. Brexit, Mr Corbyn tells centre-left leaders elsewhere in Europe, “is not my priority”. He sees himself as the carrier of a brighter flame. His mission, he boasts, is “building socialism”.

The referendum outcome shocked and dismayed Britain’s many friends. The paralysis since in a nation once renowned for level-headed pragmatism has been all but incomprehensible. And, yes, it is truly shocking to realise that two weeks before its scheduled departure, Britain does not have even an outline as to how it can replace decades of economic integration and political collaboration with its nearest neighbours.

For their part, European leaders have shown the patience of saints as Mrs May has run scared of her party’s nationalists. The likes of former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, soaked in delusions about past glory and continental conspiracies, have wrecked all attempts to reach an intelligent accommodation. Britain won the war, they want us to know. It can set its own terms.

So no blame attaches to the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier or to French President Emmanuel Macron when they suggest that if Britain now wants an extension to the Article 50 process, it must first come up with a credible strategy to use the additional time.

I have heard many others across the continent — most of them good friends of Britain — say much the same thing. What is the point of open-ended negotiations if they do nothing but postpone the cliff edge for a few months or so? And, by the way, the EU27 have other things on their minds beyond Britain’s determination to self-harm.

As understandable as they are, such sentiments misread the political dynamics. Britain needs extra time — and a lot more than the three months often mentioned in Brussels — precisely because it does not have a strategy. The past two years have been entirely wasted. An orderly separation requires that the politicians start again. That will require time as well as imagination. Nor should fellow Europeans discount the possibility that such a process could end in a second referendum.

A few things should be obvious by now. The Kamikaze Brexiters who have tortured Mrs May can wreck her plans but cannot win support for their own. For her part — and I fear even after two resounding defeats she still has not understood this — the prime minister cannot continue to treat Brexit as the sole property of the Tory party. The only deal with Brussels that will command sufficient support in the House of Commons is one that reaches across the partisan barricades.

Impossible, some will say. The two-party system is immutable. I am not so sure. Brexit has pushed politics in the other direction. Just this week Mrs May was forced to offer a free vote to underscore the stupidity of the crash-out Brexit sought by her party’s hardliners.

There could well be more such occasions in coming days as MPs test opinion on other, softer versions of Brexit. Nearly a dozen MPs have broken with the two main parties to re-establish a centrist voice in the nation’s politics. Talk of a second referendum is no longer the preserve of diehard Remainers. If Mrs May can demand a second vote on her deal, why should the people be denied a chance to think again?

There is a long way to go. The process could throw up a general election as well as a promise of another referendum. It will be messy and could end in another failure. But it is surely worth the time. A series of rolling extensions of Article 50, guaranteed until the end of 2020, could be the game-changer. Britain does not deserve a bailout, the EU27 could reasonably say. Well, perhaps not. But some said the same about Greece.


Brazil’s Chance to Lead

The crisis in Venezuela poses a national security threat, leaving Brazil little choice but to take action.

By Allison Fedirka


Brazil’s new president said he was going to be different, and Venezuela is his first chance to prove it. When Jair Bolsonaro took office, he made it clear that he planned to refocus Brazil’s foreign policy by re-evaluating its bilateral relations and building relationships outside of South America. On paper, this is an about-face from the policies of the past quarter century. In practice, however, there’s little concrete evidence of this foreign policy makeover. The exception is Venezuela. Brazil is delicately but deliberately charting its own course for managing the crisis next door. In the process, it’s subtly taking first steps toward regional leadership and deviating from the U.S. approach to the crisis.
 
A Matter of National Security
For Brazil, the Venezuela crisis is a question of national security. Other outside powers – most notably the United States – certainly have interests in Venezuela, but the chaos there doesn’t have the same direct bearing on their national security concerns. Brazil’s northern Roraima state is playing host to a growing number of migrants crossing over from Venezuela. But the state is not fully integrated into Brazil’s infrastructure, and its remoteness makes it difficult for Brasilia to project political and military power into the region. For now, the government is handling the influx of migrants, but as conditions in Venezuela deteriorate, it will be harder for Brazil to control the border.



 

Brasilia strongly opposes outside military intervention, and it has dedicated defense and military officials – of which there is no shortage in the government – to managing the crisis. This is particularly critical because Brazil, having recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, has a dwindling number of ways to communicate with the camp of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and it needs the right people in place to do so. Vice President Hamilton Mourao is now leading Brazil’s Venezuela response (sidelining Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo), with a mandate to reduce the threat that the crisis poses to Brazil’s national security. Mourao, who had a long military career before entering politics, is particularly well-suited for this role; he served as Brazil’s military attache to Venezuela and headed command posts in the remote northern state of Amazonas during his military career. By levying the historical ties between the two countries’ militaries, Brasilia hopes to pursue a resolution through dialogue – or at least something that’s not popular unrest verging on civil war. And in the process, Brazil is setting itself apart from the U.S. approach, which has focused on engaging with the opposition, imposing sanctions and threatening the regime with bloviations.

In remote corners of the jungle, Brazil is looking for lower-level and more localized options to mitigate the crisis. On multiple occasions, local Brazilian officials have engaged with their Venezuelan counterparts. During the Feb. 23 attempt to deliver food aid to Venezuela, there were bouts of violence between Venezuelan security forces and those seeking aid at the Brazil-Venezuela border crossing, resulting in the death of several protesters. Shortly thereafter, however, reports emerged of Brazilian troops talking with Venezuelan border guards, hoping to reduce tensions. In the end, Venezuela withdrew anti-riot vehicles. Days later, Maduro reportedly sent two Venezuelan governors and the ministers of education, food and nutrition, and indigenous peoples to talk with the governor of Roraima about how to reopen the border. And, in early March, Venezuelan media reported that government officials and Brazilian entrepreneurs were exploring partnerships to help improve nutrition and food security in Venezuela. The immediate and overriding goal of these exchanges is to help stabilize the border area. They are also low-level, low-risk moves through which Brazil is exploring options for facilitating a resolution to the crisis.



 

Brazil’s execution of these activities is intentional and muted. Brasilia finds itself in the difficult position of needing to both protect national security interests and preserve existing regional relationships. If it were to broadcast its local engagement efforts, Brazil would be seen as undermining the regional and U.S. position, which is focused on regime change. Instead, the government passed off each of the above cases as an informal, even spur-of-the-moment event – or altogether out of the government’s purview. Through these informal channels, however, Brasilia can support dialogue with the Maduro government, focused on local stability and aid delivery, while maintaining plausible deniability. But all of these moves could be laying the groundwork for higher-level political solutions.
 
Washington’s Tacit Approval
The United States had until recently taken a hands-off approach to Venezuela’s malaise. U.S. oil interests in Venezuela, and its desire to maintain stability in the region, weren’t enough to warrant intervention. It was also preoccupied with other countries like China, North Korea and Iran. As the U.S. changed course, it courted Colombia and Brazil as regional partners in its efforts to end the crisis in Venezuela. Brazil, along with the vast majority of the region, got on board. Even though its motivations and tactics differed from Washington’s, it shared the same end goal.

Historically, there have been few instances where the U.S. and Brazil have forged strong bilateral ties over shared interests. In most cases, the U.S. needs something from Brazil and sets the terms of the relationship. As Bolsonaro took office, academics, politicians and foreign policy analysts raised concerns over the idea of Brazil cozying up to the United States, believing that Brazil could get caught up in the tensions between the U.S. and its rivals, such as China and Russia, that still support Maduro. Through public statements on issues like Israel and globalism, it seemed Bolosnaro’s government was planting itself firmly in the U.S. camp. Bolosnaro’s early declaration that he favored regime change in Venezuela was seen as a near-desperate attempt to garner favor with Washington. But Brazil’s overtures to Venezuela prove that its relationship with the U.S. is secondary to its need to deal with the national security threat posed by Venezuela.

The U.S. is aware of Brazil’s new maneuvers but hasn’t publicly responded. The cost of trying to fix Venezuela is climbing, and Washington is running out of cards to play, so from its perspective, it doesn’t hurt to have Brazil trying out alternative options. For the U.S., military intervention isn’t a viable option – it would jeopardize the United States’ standing in the region. Washington has imposed a barrage of sanctions on Venezuela, and it’s rallied more than 50 countries to recognize Guaido as interim president. Now it’s playing one of the last cards it has to debilitate the Maduro regime: going after its security apparatus, by way of Cuba. Havana and Caracas have a long-standing security and intelligence-sharing relationship, and Cuba is credited with helping Maduro and his military hang on to power. The U.S. is now putting greater economic pressure on Cuba and calling on others to do the same, as Guaido asks for global support in blocking Venezuelan oil exports to Cuba.

Washington can afford to let Brazil try out its own solutions to the Venezuela crisis because they have complementary goals – an end to the crisis and political transition in Venezuela. It cannot criticize Brazil for deviating slightly from the U.S. approach, but nor will it openly endorse Brazilian efforts. Right now, the U.S. is still seen as the hemispheric leader, even on this matter. Washington has no reason to jeopardize its regional image, especially when Brazil’s moves are still low-level, low-risk and not fully developed.

The crisis in Venezuela gives Brazil an opportunity to assume greater regional leadership at a time when the country’s entire foreign policy is being re-evaluated. Historically, Brazil has shirked the role of regional leader, unsure if it wants to assume the accompanying responsibility. But it now faces security threats from Venezuela, and Brazil will have to deal with them, whether it likes it or not. In the process, Brazil will also have to decide whether it’s ready to assume regional leadership.


US bank chiefs veer from financial to political problems

Growth in profits has been accompanied by rising anger among Democrats

Tom Braithwaite


Citigroup’s Mike Corbat, left, JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and five other bank chiefs appear before the House financial services committee on Wednesday © AFP


The leading US bank chief executives were hauled to Washington this week and mauled before Congress, prompting severe déjà vu.

It looked strikingly similar, deliberately so, to a February 2009 hearing before the same House financial services committee during the height of the financial crisis. Then, like now, the top US bankers filed into a gloomy room on Capitol Hill and sat in alphabetical order to answer for their sins during a seven-hour session.

Delve beyond the superficial similarities, though, and the dynamics are radically different.

In 2009 Democrats held both chambers of Congress. Now, Republicans control the Senate. There is, therefore, little chance of any tougher banking regulations being passed into law.

But although the numbers show Congress has shifted to the right, the rhetoric says otherwise.



A decade ago, Democrat Barney Frank was in charge of the hearing. Irascible but witty, sceptical of Wall Street but also wary of wrecking the economy, Mr Frank subsequently helped push through reforms that made the system safer. Now he has retired and the gavel is held by 80-year-old Democratic firebrand Maxine Waters, who excoriated the banks for “chronic lawbreaking” and suggested they should be broken up.

The divided Congress means Ms Waters has no chance of legislating — yet. But the items on congressional Democrats’ agenda should be concerning for the banks.

In Wednesday’s hearing, Citigroup’s chief executive Mike Corbat was told to “lower your salary or raise the salary of others” to correct a 486:1 ratio between his $24m pay and the average employee’s $49,766.

The seven white men were asked “whether your likely successor will be a woman or a person
of colour”, and whether their institutions had historically benefited from slavery. They were accused of “duping the American people into believing that you are helping to address climate change” but continuing to provide financing to oil and gas companies.

Guns, absent from banking hearings 10 years ago, were mentioned 21 times. Republicans are outraged that the likes of Citigroup and Bank of America have responded to a spate of gun violence by limiting their work with weapons businesses. But JPMorgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon was criticised by Democrats for not following suit.

For now, ignoring their own past failings, Democratic lawmakers are happy to slam bankers for not changing the country or saving the planet.

But if they prevail in the 2020 elections, there are a number of Democratic presidential candidates — led by Senator Elizabeth Warren — who might translate the anti-bank rhetoric and transformative social agenda into action.

The considerable consolation for bankers is that the discussion has veered to these topics partly because the banks are obviously healthier. Shortly after the 2009 hearing, Federal Reserve “stress tests” reassured investors that US banks were sound. Since then the S&P 500 is up almost 300 per cent. The returns of all the big banks now exceed their cost of capital, a sharp difference with European banks.

JPMorgan Chase on Friday reported net income of $9.1bn for the first quarter. That is more than the combined annual profits of Deutsche Bank, Barclays and Credit Suisse. The political storm is still brewing. At least the financial one is clearly over.

The Value of Failure: How We Can Make the Most of Losing




According to this opinion piece by Scott Cowen, president emeritus and distinguished university chair of Tulane University, a full active work life will, of course, produce some failures. What counts are the lessons taken from them. He is also the author of Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education.


It’s all eyes on the winners this time of year. With the Academy Awards and other major entertainment industry award shows, and America’s greatest sports spectacle just behind us, our obsession with being successful is in full bloom. The truth though is that winners get our undivided attention all the time. We all like to win and we revel in victories — the ones we brought about and the ones we embrace as our own, such as our favorite sports team’s triumphs. We want to be successful in what we do and eagerly consume advice on how to be better and achieve more. But wouldn’t it be equally, if not more, instructive to examine failure? As Oprah Winfrey once said, “Failure is another stepping stone to greatness.”

Instead of just focusing on what it takes to be successful, we should be keenly aware of shortcomings that hinder our success. As much as we like to win, we are all prone to making mistakes. Failing is a natural, necessary process. Some failures must be experienced first-hand so we can “live and learn,” but there are common leadership failures that we can learn from, and hopefully steer clear of, in order to be more effective leaders. The following list describes failures that were part of my personal leadership path as well as failures that I have observed in other leaders or that emerged as common themes in conversations with leaders.

Failure 1: Inability to understand reality

When Hurricane Katrina almost destroyed Tulane University at the beginning of the fall semester in 2005, after I had worked through the initial shock and distress, I was determined to reopen the university for the spring semester. We had less than five months to restore the campus and bring back students, faculty, and staff, but I was convinced we could do it. And we did. But the number of students who returned was lower than I had expected. What I had not realized was that the rest of New Orleans wouldn’t be moving as quickly and that the city was nowhere near where we were by the time we invited our students back to campus. The students wanted more than a fully functioning campus; They wanted a thriving community surrounding it. I had failed to understand reality, that is, a decimated New Orleans would likely have an adverse impact on Tulane for years to come. Filled with hope and wrapped up in our spirited and frantic efforts to reopen the university, I missed the opportunity to climb on the balcony and see the larger picture.

A healthy dose of constructive cynicism (hope is not a plan) and a broader, more realistic perspective, that focused on weaknesses as much as on what is possible, would have served me better. On a general note, it’s crucial for organizations to not just look at the bright side and keep an open, critical mind. Change is the new normal and success is fleeting. In fact, the more successful an organization, the more likely the seeds of its destruction are being sowed. No leader or organization should ever fall into complacency.

Failure 2: Hiring the wrong person and then taking too long to correct the mistake

I once promoted a staff member who had been successful in her previous position at the university to a position on my leadership team. I liked the person and assumed she would do great given her previous track record. Lo and behold, things didn’t work out. The staff member’s competencies and skills didn’t line up with the requirements of the new job. Out of fear of conflict and awkwardness and because I was hoping she might grow into her new responsibilities, it took me a while to remedy the situation. Much time and energy were unnecessarily wasted. Fit is everything in building a strong team, and honest performance evaluations and feedback are important for developing your staff. Unfortunately, it is far too common for leaders to not take the time to help their staff members grow as leaders, and they rarely undertake rigorous succession planning, which typically results in outside hires. This increases the chances of bad fit, which means the organization may end up with someone in charge who shouldn’t be because no one has the courage to confront the issue.

Failure 3: Lack of courage in decision making for fear of failure, controversy or being disliked

It is ironic that we often shy away from challenging situations for fear of failure when it is exactly our inaction and indecisiveness that will bring about failure. In 2003, I had the chance to move Tulane athletics from Division I to Division III, but once the news of our discussions became public, all hell broke loose. I was met with hate and disdain at an unprecedented and, quite frankly, frightening level, which involved me being hung in effigy outside of my office.

The board got skittish and critics of the proposed move started making promises that suggested we could turn the current situation around if given a chance. I also started to wonder whether I would be able to get anything done, assuming that I was able to keep my job, if I were to go through with the plan. I acquiesced and kept things the way they were although I had serious concerns about whether the status quo made long-term sense from an academic, financial and strategic viewpoint. The facts were pointing us in a different direction, but I couldn’t bring myself to go there. This decision, or lack thereof, has haunted me to this day. I do pray that the critics were correct, but I have spent more time second-guessing myself on this decision than on just about any other decision in my presidential career.

Oftentimes, making no decision is akin to making a decision, but all you’re doing is perpetuating the status quo. Effective leaders have the courage to make tough decisions based on hard facts and a point of view about the future. They are OK with not being liked all the time and by everyone (I’ve grown a very thick skin over the years). If everyone likes you, chances are that you have not made any tough decisions.

Failure 4: Failure to listen to and learn from those who disagree with you

If I ever had a tendency to block out critics and naysayers, it must have been before my time as university president. The academy’s unique model of shared governance ensured that I considered varying viewpoints before any major decision, and I learned to appreciate the process of respectful debate because it ultimately led to the right decisions. But I have come across many leaders who prefer talking over listening, who consider themselves the smartest person in the room, and who reach decisions based on their feelings and wants. Disagreement is not only the hallmark of democracy, it is a fundamental of great leadership. Disregarding different and opposing perspectives can block the emergence of ideas and solutions. Leadership should never be about one person’s agenda; it’s about facts, mission, vision, values, and principles. Consequently, it is of great importance to seek inclusive dialogue.

Failure 5: Lack of understanding of one’s personal strengths and weaknesses

I have seen leaders fail because they didn’t take the time to show people who they are. Letting your followers get to know you requires showcasing your strengths while also exposing vulnerabilities. People will not only support you when they embrace you as a person, they can help guide you in your decision making and growth. The most effective leaders understand that leading involves learning, and they encourage feedback from people around them to work on their weaknesses. I believe in the power of authenticity and emotional intelligence — it helped me a great deal when I was trying to instill hope and faith in the future of Tulane against all odds after Katrina. Self-awareness, one of the key characteristics of high EI, is a quality that can distinguish a good leader from a great leader. If you don’t know who you are, if you don’t know what your strengths and weaknesses are, you will have a hard time gaining people’s trust and growing as a leader.

Failure 6: Not knowing when to leave

Many leaders tend to stay past their best-buy date. Even the most extraordinary leaders reach a point where they no longer have what it takes. They may have lost their energy, motivation and drive or their skill set no longer meets the demands of an ever-changing world to continue to move the organization forward. Whatever the reason, staying on when one’s leadership is no longer in the best interest of an organization is a fatal and common mistake. I stayed at Tulane as president for 16 years because Hurricane Katrina confronted me with a challenge seven years into my tenure that required a longer-term commitment. Without such a bona fide crisis, I probably would have left after 10 years. With the occasional exception (Norman Francis, whose presidency at Xavier University in New Orleans lasted 47 years, being one such exception), I believe that it normally takes about a decade to achieve transformative, sustainable change. Any existing problems after that are likely of your own making or you aren’t able to solve them. Change is not only normal but also healthy, so a leader’s decision to step away after certain milestones have been achieved and his or her level of incompetence has been reached (think Peter principle), is in fact an act of great leadership.

I wholeheartedly believe that experiencing failure can be the source of exemplary leadership, but the common leadership failures outlined in this article should be seen as cautionary tales.

By better understanding how we can fail, we are ultimately learning how to succeed. With a healthy dose of self-awareness, an open mind, and the courage to see what’s really going on and what needs to happen, leaders can avert failure and continue their winning streak.

Life Was Short for Longevity Gains

Life expectancy at 65 is falling and that means cash windfalls for insurers

By Paul J. Davies




The great gains in life expectancy as people gave up smoking and treatments for heart disease improved have run their course. In the U.K., at least, longevity has gone into reverse.

That’s sobering for people turning 65, but for life insurers it is turning into a cash windfall. The trend will boost earnings for some U.S. insurers, too, over time. Companies like Prudential Financial PRU 0.41%▲ and Pacific Life, a mutual insurer, have become big reinsurers of the risk that British people live longer than expected.

A string of British life insurers reported higher full-year profits this month, boosted by reserve releases totaling almost £2 billion ($2.6 billion) between them. Aviva’s windfall was largest, at £780 million, followed by those of Prudential PUK 2.26%▲ PLC (not to be confused with Prudential Financial in the U.S.) and Legal & General ,which released £441 million and £433 million respectively.


The British body that tracks deaths and makes predictions about longevity made its biggest ever cut to life expectancy at age 65.
The British body that tracks deaths and makes predictions about longevity made its biggest ever cut to life expectancy at age 65. Photo: Joe Giddens/Zuma Press 


Much more money will likely be freed up in coming years, according to analysts at Royal Bank of Canada .Life insurers are slow to update their expectations of how long people will live. And this month the British body that tracks deaths and makes predictions about longevity made its biggest ever cut to life expectancy at age 65. In 2012, life expectancy was more than 25.5 years for women aged 65 and 23.26 years for men. In 2018 that dropped to 24.2 years for women and 21.9 years for men.

It isn’t entirely clear what is behind the decline, but the main suspects are bad diet, high alcohol consumption and lack of exercise. Some policy makers also worry about problems with opiates, which are causing lots of deaths in the U.S. However, official statistics show only a small recent rise in drug-related deaths in people aged over 50. Rising costs and limited resources for health care might also contribute.

Life insurers put aside money as reserves to cover the long-term costs of paying pensions. In the early 2000s, life expectancy kept increasing, meaning insurers had to put more and more money away. They have also been buying reinsurance from groups like Prudential in the U.S. against the risk that longevity improvements would keep increasing their pension costs.

Now that people appear to be dying sooner than expected, U.K. reserves can be released. Different U.S. accounting rules mean insurers there will only get a boost to profits when people actually die, rather than just because expectations change. The benefits to investors in the U.S. will therefore take longer to emerge.

If there is good news for future pensioners here, it is that higher returns to shareholders and shorter retirements ought to give them better incomes in the time that they have.