The faces of 2021
It has been an especially turbulent year in politics, monetary policy and new stockmarket listings. Four key movers and shakers caught our eye
The Governor of the Bank of England (BoE)was once referred to by his predecessor, Mark Carney, as “the big sexy turtle”: his “considered decision-making” was akin to the mating of Galapagos tortoises, says The Observer. Critics of the Bank’s policy on interest rates will appreciate the joke. “The BoE has spent months dithering” while inflation crept up, notes Alistair Osborne in The Times. Accused of “bottling it” in November after seemingly signalling a rise, this month he changed his mind.
Bailey was going to be damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. In the autumn, when it seemed that the BoE might lead the advance among major central banks, some accused him of foolishly moving out of lockstep with the US Fed. Bailey wasn’t the only central banker to argue that this year’s inflation spiral was “transitory”. But he conveyed bull-headed stubbornness – understandable, if not excusable, as he’d begun the year advising financial institutions to prepare for negative rates. Educated at Wyggeston grammar school in Leicester and Queen’s College, Cambridge, Bailey, 62, joined the BoE in 1985, rising to chief cashier, says the Financial Times. He switched to financial regulation in 2013, becoming CEO of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in 2016. But his reputation was tarnished by a series of scandals, notably the collapse of Neil Woodford’s empire and the implosion of unregulated mini-bond provider London Capital & Finance. Perhaps the timing was “unlucky”, but the affairs led to criticism that the FCA was “asleep at the wheel and slow to take action”. There may be a sense of déjà vu about that.
A former colleague once described the Australian financier Lex Greensill as the type of salesman who “can sell sand to the Bedouin”. If so, his skills were certainly laid bare this year, says John Arlidge in the Evening Standard. The collapse of his supply-chain finance company Greensill Capital was a shock – not least because it involved former prime minister David Cameron as a well-paid “adviser” who had earlier lobbied the chancellor for hundreds of millions of pounds in loans. The Greensill affair helped unearth a series of shady dealings between ministers and the private sector.
Greensill, 45, “inveigled himself into the highest echelons of the establishment”, but Whitehall was not the only casualty. He was equally adept at seducing banks and industrialists – including Sanjeev Gupta, boss of steel conglomerate GFG Alliance, who became Greensill’s largest debtor, says The Guardian. The Serious Fraud Office is examining the financing of Gupta’s metal empire and “its links with Greensill Capital”. It’s quite a trajectory for the son of a sugar-cane farmer from Queensland. Greensill came to the UK in 2001, put himself through business school and in his twenties worked at Citigroup and Morgan Stanley. There, a colleague and mentor was the late Jeremy Heywood, an ex-mandarin who returned to government, serving as cabinet secretary to David Cameron and Theresa May. After setting up his own business in 2011, Greensill became adviser to Cameron on supply-chain financing – a securities-driven update on traditional bank “factoring”. Such “revolutions in finance”, says the Financial Times, “have a nasty way of ending badly”.
“Spac pioneer” Chamath Palihapitiya boasted in February that he was set to grow his Social Capital investment empire into a 21st-century Berkshire Hathaway while generating “enough wealth to shrink the inequality gap in America”, says the Financial Times.
The grandiosity was nothing new for an anti-establishment self-advancer who once bragged about buying Goldman Sachs. But five days later, the IPOX Spac (special purpose acquisition company) index hit its all-time high, marking the peak of the Wall Street craze for “blank cheque” companies. Still, if anyone was responsible for pulling an estimated $325bn into Spacs since the start of 2020, it was Palihapitiya, says The Wall Street Journal. He belongs to “a new class of market influencers – social-media savants”, followed by amateur traders for investment hints “and for the insults he hurls at the high-finance elite”. No matter that his own preferred mode of transport is a private jet.
The child of Sri Lankan immigrants to Canada, Palihapitiya, 45, grew up poor in Ottawa. He spent four years at Facebook before founding Social Capital in 2011. In 2019 he floated Virgin Galactic with Richard Branson – setting the template for the “white-hot” market that followed, says the FT. But lately the “Spac King’s” magic touch has deserted him. Several deals have bombed with big losses, leaving Palihapitiya vulnerable to accusations of cynically exploiting his 1.5 million Twitter followers. Palihapitiya remains defiant. “My real long-term track record won’t be known for another decade or two.”
Could the rapid rise of Valérie Pécresse in 2021 really win her the Élysée Palace next spring? Her “task is tough”, says The Guardian. The first woman to run for the centre-right Republican party, Pécresse, 54, is known for fighting “difficult and epic election battles”. Her nickname is “the bulldozer”. But her party faces competition from a growing far-right opposition. And many Republican voters and politicians have already “jumped ship to Macron”.
Born Valérie Roux near Paris, Pécresse grew up in a family of “social Gaullist” intellectuals. Her father, an economist, told her women could do as well as men. After graduating from the elite ENA school, which produces France’s top civil servants, “she cut her teeth in government” as an adviser in Jacques Chirac’s administration before being elected an MP and regional councillor, says The Local. Subsequent stints as spokeswoman and budget minister during the Sarkozy presidency “brought her to national prominence”.
A Russian-speaking, self-described “Iron Lady”, Pécresse cites Margaret Thatcher as a great inspiration. But she aims to lead more like Angela Merkel, whose consensus-building skills she admires, says The Guardian. Her strong point against Macron, supporters say, is her “experience as a budget minister trained in finance”. Sarkozy says she is “obsessive” about the details of her dossiers. Often underestimated as a “blonde bourgeoise”, Pécresse knows her politics and economics well and has a solid record in government, says the Financial Times. Has Macron met his nemesis?