Monday, March 5, 2012

In praise of Frank Lowy

Wayne Swan the Treasurer of Australia (in UK parlance the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in US parlance the Secretary of the Treasury) has been publicly criticizing the new Australian billionaires and their political influence warning that they are a risk to the Australian ethos of the "fair go".

He is quoted as follows:

"A handful of vested interests that have pocketed a disproportionate share of the nation's economic success now feel they have a right to shape Australia's future to satisfy their own self-interest."
Swan's critics have accused him of "class warfare".

This will be highly familiar to American readers who have got used to living in a world where lots of money gives you better access to speech. I have barely met an American who disagrees with this sentiment but mainly when the said pile of money disagrees with them.

To liberals in America the Koch brothers are evil incarnate.

Several conservatives think the same thing about Warren Buffett when he argues the rich should pay more tax. Governor Christie's comments were just plain angry. George Soros induces apoplexy in some conservatives.

And most Americans think there is something unseemly about K-Street and the influence peddling lobbyists of Capital Hill.

Money politics - American style - is settling in in Australia. Wayne Swan knows it.

But in Australia it is potentially much more dangerous than in America. Our new-era Australian billionaires - the ones Wayne Swan rails against - are all billionaires from resource extraction. They all get their money by digging up things that potentially belong to all Australians and selling them to foreigners. And they railed against the resource rent tax (a tax whereby the rest of us got paid something for their bounty). As well they might. And they rail against carbon trading schemes.

Indeed American style money politics in Australia is far more insidious than in the US because our billionaires are far less diverse. A diversity in billionaires (and in the way they make their money) gives us a diversity of billionaire opinion. You can get the Koch Brothers and George Soros in one system - and to some extent their opinions (and the money with which they foist them onto the rest of us) offset each other. The balance is preserved.

Here we risk no balance. And so I am writing a post to tell you just how important Frank Lowy has become. Frank is an opinionated billionaire who made his money from property management and shopping centres. He is "Mr Westfield". He is also highly opinionated and funds his own think-tank (the Lowy Institute). I have in the past disagreed with him strongly - but at the moment I am just darn pleased that he is there.

Lowy is fighting with Clive Palmer (a resources billionaire) about of all billionaire disputes - the business of owning football teams. But I hope that is just the start of it. He is our most opinionated non-resource billionaire, one with a global perspective - and suddenly he is part of the future of Australian democracy.

Frank Lowy (despite the high quality think-tank) has never shown the intellectual depth and breadth of vision of George Soros. I am just as familiar with his influence on local councils (getting his projects approved and his competitor projects rejected) than I am with his global vision. But Frank is all we have got. Billionaire visions are pretty thin around here.

I never thought I would say this. Frank Lowy - your country needs you.


PS. I am a hedge fund manager. My job is to find rich people, invest their money and make them richer. The rise of an Australian plutocracy is thus in my interests but I would prefer a plurality of plutocrat clients.


ben c said...


I absolutley agree with you.

My language may not be appropriate for your blog but I was at a lunch the other day and I phrased it as "every boom tosses up a few moneyed up f**kwits".

The self interest is galling. What's worse is they seem to be doing what the Republicans have done in America: making the middle class feel as though it's about them losing out.

I'm not exactly poor but I'm finding Australia increasingly dabbling in the politics of envy. How sad.



John Hempton said...

Oh, I know a boom throws up a view self-interested moneyed f--kwits.

That I think is inevitable.

I would however prefer a plurality of opinion amongst them.

It is REALLy dangerous here - they are all of the same ilk.


Luke said...

Greetings from London. 'fraid I don't have enough dosh either to interest you as a hedge fund manager, or to fund a think tank. I have tried posting on the Krugman blog (piece about think tanks) asking that any billionaires reading help you out.

How about Murdoch? Odd to think of him as a saviour, but the best I can think of. The Times in London is campaigning in favour of better bike facilities right now, so you never know.

This has set me thinking about funding over here.

Anyway, congrats on your blog, which I've read since seeing a link to the wonderful Hawaiian shirt post.


Anonymous said...

That's amusing, I've lived in the US my whole life and would say it is obvious to even the most casual observer that it has been the Democrats' bete noire to make the middle class feel as though they are the ones losing out.

Repubs make them feel like they have a shot to be the next Mitt Romney.

Anonymous said...

Interesting PS. A plutocracy is not in your interest, just more rich people. But that is due to the hedge fund structure. Do you think your job would be more rewarding if you made many middle class or working class clients wealthier?

Anonymous said...

"And they railed against the resource rent tax (a tax whereby the rest of us got paid something for their bounty)". John, I accept that views may differ in relation to the merits of the MRRT, but in fairness to your overseas readers, you ought to have mentioned that the mining companies already pay royalties to the States (who, consitutionally speaking, own the minerals).

John Hempton said...

The original resource tax was going to refund the state duties.

That said - yes - they talked their self interest - and - as someone who has no interest in mining but kind of liked them paying more tax - I will talk my self interest.

Also - and talking as someone who worked for seven years of their life in tax policy at the Treasury - I think the first version of the tax was quite well designed - and the other side told some fat porkies about it.

But hey - that is not my point - my point is that their views were so - well - predictable - and so one sided because their wealth is so uni-sourced.

A diversity of plutocrats is safer.


Anonymous said...

Interesting John. So a clear rent seeker like Lowy is good while a Gina is bad and we need more rent seekers like Frank.

We need more people like Frank because they won't publicly come out with the truth.. this government sucks big time and Swan is a nasty, hate filled little shit.

That sure makes sense.

John Hempton said...

I did say that billionaire opinion is pretty thin on the ground.


Anonymous said...

"Frank Lowy (despite the high quality think-tank) has never shown the intellectual depth and breadth of vision of George Soros"

Disagree, both Hungarian Jewish survivors of the shoah, Frank Lowy went to Israel and fought for Israel then ended up in Australia running a delicatessen, George Soros went to London after the Shoah and managed to get into the LSE but Soros' stock in trade is insight into markets that he also tries to inflence with opnions , Lowys stock in trade is insight into the shopping habits and lifestyles of ordinary people, something that can't be easy from Bellevue Hill.

I accept that Lowy doesn't spout his opnions the way that Soros does and lowy specialises in a far more mundane world that financial markets but in real esate Lowy famously lets his shareprice and EPS do the talking for him.

Anonymous said...

John - would be interested in your comments on this article from the Age today :
"The outspoken Clive Palmer has not sued the media for defamation but has spent millions suing governments and other parties to support his corporate agendas.
Palmer's nemesis du jour, Frank Lowy, has had his run-ins too. The Football Federation Australia, of which Lowy is president, recently sued The Age for imputations in a story about Australia's soccer peak body and its bid to host the World Cup.
Lowy is not a prolific suer yet his very power and wealth have media organisations constantly on edge as to what he might do. This is another aspect to the billionaire armoury.
It's not just about influencing the press via lawsuits and the threat thereof, it is also about financial muscle and connections."

Read more:

luv your blog btw


Anthony said...

Frank was born in Filakova not far from my grandfather's birthplace of kosicze. So given the commonality, there is a high likelihood my opinions would align with Frank's more than many. Having said that credit where credit is due. Clive's "frank is an institution, now he belongs in an institution" was gold (perhaps iron ore).

As to the diversity of opinion issue, buffett the exception, but do we conclude economic and social upbringing is the main cause? Or if frank had a whole bunch of tenements adjacent to palmers would we expect him to still hold an opposing opinion? I'm going to hope for the first but expect the last.

brandsinger said...

To say that someone "has never shown the intellectual depth and breadth of vision of George Soros" is like saying a cook doesn't have the culinary sensibility of Burger King. I doubt your billionaire could be more pompous and ideologically cracked than our Soros.

Anonymous said...

Palmer made his first fortune selling real estate. Then he made another fortune running Australian Commercial Research and Development. He sued a major shareholder ANZ Bank & Macaugn Dyson for hundreds of millions for breach of contract for their failure to underwrite a private placement in London in late October early November 1987. In 1990 or 1991 the Brisbane press noted that he was seeking damages of $1 billion. ANZ settled. I suspect there was a confidentiality agreement and/or supression order. While suing ANZ, he was using Minerology Ltd to pick up iron ore tenaments for a song, and try to get into gold mining in WA. In the 1990s his "Who's Who" entry listed his hobbies as suing people. Interesting man. Colourful character.

Ben Bunger said...

Hear hear,

Despite the extremes of opinions in the US the net result is often reasonable. I agree that our position is the weaker one.

Perhaps one upside of any hard landing in China is that these sandpit kings will not hold so much sway.

A few more 'hundred million dollar' vs 'billion' opinions might be more healthy indeed. Although I am sure our TV network ad sales teams will not agree with me.

Anonymous said...

Always read and appreciate your blog but.... I'm glad there are Lowys and Forrests and Rineharts, even with their problems, contributing to creating industries, jobs and export income for this country. Woe betide their intellectual contribution does not match that of hedge fund managers, because their contribution to society at least does.

John Hempton said...

I never thought much of the contribution of hedge fund managers to the economy. (And that includes myself...)

As to their contribution to the political debate - I think more highly of that. Reason: to be a good asset manager you need to be very well read. The best asset managers are (a) very well read, (b) continuously test their theses - because otherwise they wind up getting crushed (c) have a reasonable view of risk control (in other words know they can be wrong, know execution can be stuffed etc).

All of these things make them worthy contributors to the political debate.

The biggest problem with asset managers is that they are paid too much relative to their economic contribution - and being paid too much sometimes distorts the mind. It makes you feel self-important. It clouds your judgement.

When asset managers forget the last bit of this then you must fire them.


Anonymous said...

"Frank Lowy (despite the high quality think-tank)"

describing it as high quality is a stretch

".....the Lowy Institute’s chief US apologist Michael Fullilove — allegedly mooted as a replacement for Mark Arbib — who incessantly criticised WikiLeaks’ cable release and continued to insist it was dangerous and irresponsible long after even Obama administration officials had admitted only embarrassment had resulted from the leaks. "

It's an 'institute' full of establishment cretins who think America should run the world.

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