‘Idon’t get anything out of sex with prostitutes except for a badfeeling,” says Ben. An apparently average, thirtysomething,middle-class man, Ben had taken an extended lunchbreak from his job inadvertising to talk about his experiences of buying sex. Shy andslightly nervous, he told me, “I am hoping that talking about it mighthelp me work out why I do it.”
I, too, was hoping to understandhis motives better. Ben was one of 700 men interviewed for a majorinternational research project seeking to uncover the reality about menwho buy sex. The project spanned six countries, and of the 103customers we spoke to in London – where I was one of the researchers –most were surprisingly keen to discuss their experiences.
The mendidn’t fall into obvious stereotypes. They were aged between 18 and 70years old; they were white, black, Asian, eastern European; most wereemployed and many were educated beyond school level. In the main theywere presentable, polite, with average-to-good social skills. Many werehusbands and boyfriends; just over half were either married or in arelationship with a woman. Continue reading →
Banknotes aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. The entire economy relies on the suspension of disbelief
I’m no financial expert. I scarcely know what a coin is. Ask me to explain what a credit default swap is and I’ll emit an unbroken 10-minute “um” through the clueless face of a broken puppet. You might as well ask a pantomime horse. But even an idiot such as me can see that money, as a whole, doesn’t really seem to be working any more.
Money is broken, and until we admit that, any attempts to fix the economy seem doomed to fail. We’re like passengers on a nosediving plane thinking if we all fart hard enough, we can lift it back into the sky. So should we be storming the cockpit or hunting for parachutes instead? I don’t know: I ran out of metaphor after the fart gag. You’re on your own from hereon in.
Banknotes aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. If they were, they’d all have identical value. Money’s only worth what the City thinks it’s worth. Or, perhaps more accurately, hopes it’s worth. Coins should really be called “wish-discs” instead. That name alone would give a truer sense of their value than the speculative number embossed on them.
The entire economy relies on the suspension of disbelief. So does a fairy story, or an animated cartoon. This means that no matter how soberly the financial experts dress, no matter how dry their language, the economy they worship can only ever be as plausible as an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. It’s certainly nowhere near as well thought-out and executed.
No one really understands how it all works: if they did, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Banking, as far as I can tell, seems to be almost as precise a science as using a slot machine. You either blindly hope for the best, delude yourself into thinking you’ve worked out a system, or open it up when no one’s looking and rig the settings so it’ll pay out illegally.
LAST year your correspondent visited one of Citibank’s few branches in mainland China, hoping, among other things, to get a local credit card. The reply was unexpected. “Sorry, sir, but we are not very good in China. I recommend you go to another bank.”
Assuming such honesty has not already cost him his job, the teller has a better story now. This week Citibank became the first Western bank to receive regulatory approval to issue credit cards in its own name; previously, foreign banks (Hong Kong’s Bank of East Asia was the exception) could offer cards only through local partners. Citi has been expanding its retail network in China, including in novel places like airports and tube stations. In January it also announced it would set up a joint venture with China’s Orient Securities Company.
Is good news for Citi also manna for others? Some note that China’s official policy is to encourage consumption and wonder if the announcement suggests a desire to expand the domestic credit-card market in a big way. Others point out that China stands accused at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) of illegally boosting UnionPay, a domestic payment system backed by big local banks, and ask if this signals opportunity for the likes of MasterCard and Visa.
Do not hold your breath. It is true that the country’s credit-card market is growing (local banks had issued nearly 270m cards by the end of the third quarter last year, up by 20% on a year earlier) but from a low base. Officials would much rather see future consumption growth come via lower household savings than through splurges on credit cards, argues Tom Quarmby of Barclays Capital. And even if the WTO case results in a formal change in regulation, says Liu Jing of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, such are the advantages of incumbency and local backing that UnionPay is likely to remain dominant.
As for the notion that Citi’s recent advances suggest a speedier opening of China’s financial system to foreigners, that hope also seems misplaced. This is a year of leadership transition in China, when officials typically take few chances. Some reforms may move forward, but probably as pilot schemes. Foreign firms have invested heavily in order to capitalise on any Chinese bonanza, but the waiting game is far from over.