Cable: 'I love business, really'

BBC business editor Robert Peston on capitalism.

Many uber-capitalists would tend to agree with Vince Cable's critique of capitalism - that it tends towards short-termism, that markets often don't work in a fair and efficient way, that vast rewards often accrue to the undeserving.

But, they would add, history would tend to indicate that capitalism is the least worst system we have for generating wealth.

So what has caused the odd harrumph in British boardrooms, in reaction to the deliberate leaks by Mr Cable of extracts from his speech today to the Liberal Democrat conference, is that Mr Cable is accentuating the negatives about the behaviour of the private sector.

And that's not wholly trivial at a time when we all need the private sector to grow and flourish - if unemployment is to fall and living standards are to rise again - in order to take up the slack in the economy that is being generated by an unprecedented squeeze on public spending.

If the private sector believes the business secretary and government is hostile to its interests, then it'll invest less in the UK - and may even up sticks to those fabled foreign parts where business leaders are deified rather than vilified.

However Mr Cable is a complicated and misunderstood chap, as he implied on the Today programme this morning.

After all, it's him alone at the cabinet table battling on behalf of bigger British companies to allow more immigration into the UK from outside the UK (see my previous post Why businesses want to recruit from overseas).

And no one has shouted louder than he over the past couple of years on behalf of small businesses starved of vital credit by banks.

He has come to tame capitalism, rather than bury it - he might say.

And the truth is that there is nothing desperately novel in that aspiration. Every government since the fall of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan some two decades ago has - by stealthy increments - tried to make it their business to try and harness capitalism to minimise the bads and maximise the goods that it generates.

The problem is, some would say, that they did this in a piecemeal way that didn't get to the heart of the matter.

So perhaps it is a good thing that the business secretary wants to cast what he calls "a harsh light into the murky world of corporate behaviour."

After all, acknowledged experts - including the governor of the Bank of England and the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, who have hitherto done a good job of hiding any sympathy they might have for the SWP - assert that the banking crisis of 2008 is demonstration that the taming of capitalism has failed in a pretty fundamental way.

Lord Turner, for example, in his annual address to the City of London and in an interview with me yesterday renewed his swipe against his many predecessors at regulatory bodies and central banks who believed that financial markets are self-correcting, and that therefore light-touch regulation is good regulation.

One consequence is that Lord Turner and Mervyn King are both taking it upon themselves to meddle in the affairs of banks before breakfast, lunch and tea, to prevent them ever again holding the entire British economy to ransom.

Also, the recent Deepwater Horizon disaster is widely seen as proof that the boards of huge companies such as BP are not provided with adequate incentives to minimise what have colloquially come to be styled as high impact, low probability events - which is another way of saying that the big rewards go to those business leaders who have Nelsonian vision.

Vince Cable guru on all this seems to be Andy Haldane of the Bank of England - and Mr Haldane's recent monograph on "patience and finance" is the guiding text (see my recent post on this).

Which sets up something of a challenge.

This tendency of markets, especially financial markets, to encourage impatient herdlike behaviour rather than thoughtful, patient investment is not a new malaise: Keynes, for example, is withering about it, in the general theory.

If Vince Cable tries and fails to cure this great Anglo-American disease, he'll be part of a distinguished and long line of well-intentioned, disappointed minsters.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

More on this story

Around the BBC