Any other business

Should we fear Facebook’s cryptocurrency?

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

The cryptocurrency winter has turned to spring: having slumped from $20,000 in late 2017 to $3,200 a year later, bitcoin has lately risen like a rocket to $8,800. Though it doesn’t change my negative opinion, I admit that if I had bought a fistful of these wacky gaming chips last October when I gave the crypto concept a kicking at our Spectator conference on the subject, I’d be up almost 40 per cent. Evidently, hints from the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank that further bouts of ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing may be in the offing have spurred what the FT calls ‘a rally in riskier assets’. Crypto is the new gold for those who distrust central banks and seek stores of wealth that governments can’t reach.

That last factor may also be in the mind of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is reportedly planning a cryptocurrency for his social network’s two billion users. Unlike bitcoin and its ilk, this one would be pegged to the dollar to hold its value stable: in which case — you might well ask — what’s the point if there’s no scope for gambling? Apparently, the purpose is to create an alternative banking system that would tie users to Facebook and potentially reward them with loyalty bonuses for buying stuff or viewing ads on it. And the project is part of a trend in which all major tech companies are now exploring financial products and payment devices. Will that be good for you and me? If the apps are super-efficient and secure, and they don’t fuel an explosion of consumer debt, then maybe. But imagine if Amazon — which already behaves in so many ways like an autocratic mini-state — starts insisting we shop only in a currency of which is has total control. How sinister would that be?

Let’s build better houses

So many of you rose to my Any Questions challenge (‘What one thing are you going to change in response to the climate emergency?’) that I’ll struggle to do justice to the breadth of your wit and wisdom. Some 35 per cent of you — bang in line with the Brexit-Ukip share of the European poll, I notice — were highly sceptical of climate sermonising; I think that included the readers who said ‘I’ll refuse to go to hospital in a diesel ambulance’ and ‘I’ll try to fart less’. Others called for measures that would irritate but would be at least as sensible as Defra’s proposed ban on plastic-stemmed cotton buds: ban plastic-bottled liquid soap, ban paper recycling which discourages tree-planting, ban first-class and private air travel which maximizes emissions per passenger.

But the suggestions that struck me as both practicable and unobjectionable even to the ardent sceptic (in the sense that at least they would slash utility bills) were those relating to the way our homes are built: let’s have Scandinavian-style ground heating systems as well as solar, triple glazing and heat-exchange ventilation; low-energy timber-framed prefabs rather than bricks and blocks; compulsory water butts and electric-car plug-in points. Domestic architecture in this country has barely advanced since the 1960s, making it easy for lazy housebuilders to reap handsome profits. It’s a sector in which eco-reform also means better value for homeowners — and that’s the kind of change citizens will always prefer over righteous calls for self-denial.

New auto giant

The proposed merger of Fiat Chrysler with Renault would create the world’s third largest carmaker after Volkswagen and Toyota, and is an indication of the way the automotive industry is consolidating to share development costs for electric vehicles, just as the pharma industry keeps on consolidating to spread the cost of bringing major new drugs to market. This looks like a marriage of more-or-less-equals, in which Fiat Chrysler is more efficient in production and stronger in the US, but Renault is more advanced in research, stronger in Europe and linked to Japan via its strained partnership with Nissan. Job protection in Renault’s French plants has already been highlighted as an issue in the negotiation. And one thing we can say with certainty, I’m afraid: despite the excellence of our engineers, this new global auto giant won’t be searching for factory sites in the UK any time soon.

Fantasy boardroom

My late father judged all the politicians he ever met according to the seniority he reckoned they might have achieved if, like him, they had made long careers in high-street banking. His dream team was Lord Carrington as chairman with Denis Healey as chief executive and Norman Tebbit as a troubleshooting general manager. I wonder what he would have made of today’s Tory leadership contenders.

Both Andrea Leadsom and Sajid Javid had short careers in banking, though neither was tipped for the top. Boris Johnson spent a single week with the management consultancy LEK before shunning corporate life forever — or as he later expressed it, ‘Fuck business!’ Jeremy Hunt famously founded an educational venture called Hotcourses and in a piece I commissioned from him long ago wrote about ‘many ups and downs… once my entire staff resigned within the space of a few weeks’. That experience might stand him in good stead for Downing Street, as might Esther McVey’s time in her dad’s demolition firm.

But I’m guessing none of those would have been picked for the paternal fantasy boardroom, nor would he have known what to make of the imperial throwback Rory Stewart. That leaves four he might have thought would make a potent team: Dominic Raab as the cunning in-house lawyer; Matt Hancock as the eager youngster handling customer complaints; accountant Kit Malthouse on the numbers; all of them reporting to Michael Gove as the dynamic changemaker who can spin an eloquent line to shareholders. Do I hear my father’s voice whispering ‘Vote for Gove’?

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