Inspiring The Nation With The ATP World Tour Finals

November 21, 2009

In diverse societies, fragmenting media landscapes and recessionary eras, a big sporting moment is one of the few instances where people can come together, unite, and often escape the daily grind. For many, they are the cornerstone of our leisure-time, benefitting, inspiring and enthralling audiences in ways that few other events and systems can manage.

The ATP World Tour Finals in London should be no exception. The O2 Arena, one of the world’s most iconic stadia, sets the perfect stage for a truly inspiring event that will showcase the world’s greatest athletes at the highest level of tennis.

A truly global event, with contending players hailing from 7 countries that span 3 continents, as well as national and international broadcasting, journalistic and fan interest, only adds to the excitement and drama of the event. London, one of the financial, political, chronological – and now sporting – centres of the world, seems a perfect backdrop to this prestigious tournament. Being the high-stakes climax to the arduous tennis calendar, expectation of the event is truly building.

This event is set to offer a series of tremendous matches between the world’s top eight tennis players; it is at this unique tournament that every match permits fans to view the highest quality, and most competitive, rivalries in a one-on-one, unrelenting and fast-paced sport.

20,000 sets of eyes, plus millions watching from home, will be transfixed on two players alone, fighting at every opportunity and with every sinew of their finely-tuned bodies, to see who will become the ultimate champion. A modern sporting classic.

Sport is an intrinsic part to the cultural fabric of many nations, as well as being indispensable for the good health and well-bring of individuals. Research shows that watching live sport, either on television or in a stadium, can genuinely promote interest in sport.

Let us all hope that the World Tour Finals will encourage a new generation of tennis stars, from all corners of the globe, to emulate their idols and succeed.

ATP World Tour Finals: With Groups Determined, The Scene Is Set

November 20, 2009

Now that the competitors of the two round robin groups for the ATP World Tour Finals have been finalised, and official photos taken, the first day of hotly anticipated competition is less than 48 hours away.

In the first time that the event will be hosted in London, the location seems especially apt for an almost wholly European participation (following Andy Roddick’s withdrawal due to a knee injury and Swede Robin Soderling taking his place, only Argentine Juan Martin del Potro does not hail from the European continent).

Equally, the huge, modern, architecturally stunning location of the O2 Arena in the east of the city seems apt for the newly rebranded and highly anticipated end-of-season spectacle.

In Group A, the first of the round robin groups, Roger Federer will face Del Potro, Scot Andy Murray, and Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in what is described as the toughest of the two groupings.

The first singles match on Sunday, the first day of the eight-day tournament, will be home hope Murray against Del Potro—surely a highly entertaining encounter from the two young talents—followed by Federer against Verdasco.

The other group consists of world No. 2 Rafael Nadal, defending champion Novak Djokovic, Russian Nikolay Davydenko, and Robin Soderling of Sweden, who will play on Monday.

Group B will start with Nadal against Soderling in a rematch of the French Open fourth round, where the Swede knocked out the four-time defending champion. Djokovic and Davydenko will conclude the first round robin matches late on Monday.

Djokovic goes into the finals as the in-form player, having won last week’s Paris Masters title, brushing aside Nadal in straight sets on the way to the final. The week before he beat Federer on his home court in Basel to win the final of the Swiss Indoors.

Although the players do not have to win every match in the round robin stage in order to progress to the semifinals, with such stiff competition, every victory will matter this year.

The top two players in each of the round robin groups advance to the semifinals of the tournament, with a possible $1.63 million on offer to a champion who is also undefeated in group stages.

An important side story will be the ongoing battle for year-end No. 1, a position which is still yet to be determined. Federer, who took over as world No. 1 in midseason as Nadal was sidelined by injury, could still lose the No. 1 ranking to the Spaniard.

An undefeated winner of the tournament will claim 1,500 points in the rankings, with the Swiss star’s lead over Nadal at 945 points, meaning that effectively Nadal will have to reach the final of the event in order to recapture the No. 1 position.

While this year is undoubtedly Roger’s year, with final appearances in all four Slam finals and wins in the French Open and Wimbledon (securing a career Grand Slam and record-breaking 15th Slam title), it is clear that the final plot line of Roger’s annual story is yet to be written.

Brawn GP No More: Mercedes Buys Out Team For 2010 F1 Season

November 20, 2009

German car giant Mercedes has bought the Brawn Formula One team, with Jenson Button set to join Lewis Hamilton as his McLaren team-mate.

Mercedes will buy 75 percent of Brawn in partnership with an Abu Dhabi investment company but will also continue as McLaren’s engine partner until 2015.

The Brawn GP team won both world titles in their debut season in 2009—with Brit Jenson Button winning the Driver’s Championship.

Following the purchase by Mercedes, the team will be rebranded as Mercedes Grand Prix, giving a somewhat mythical ending to the one-year old, doubly-successful Brawn GP team that triumphed over initial financial adversity to become champion after only one season.

Ross Brawn will stay on as team principal. He and chief executive Nick Fry will retain a 24.9 percent shareholding in the team. The remaining 75.1 percent will be split between Mercedes, which will own 45.1 percent and Abu Dhabi company Aabar Investments, which will own 30 percent.

Nico Rosberg will be their lead driver, with Nick Heidfeld his likely partner. Neither driver has yet been confirmed but Rosberg, who drove for Williams in 2009, is widely known throughout F1 to have already signed for the Mercedes team.

As part of a deal that will see the McLaren Group buy back Mercedes’s 40 percent shareholding by 2011, the German company will continue to supply free engines and sponsorship to the McLaren team for at least the next six years. Additionally, the team’s official name will remain as Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.

Button, who won the drivers’ title this year, has been trying to secure a pay-rise from his £3.5m salary but it seems Mercedes is not interested in keeping him on. He and his manager Richard Goddard visited McLaren on Friday and Button now looks sets to join the McLaren team on double the salary that Brawn were offering.

Button’s decision is understood not to be solely about money—sources say he considers McLaren might have a more competitive car than Brawn in 2010. Button and Hamilton are likely to end up as McLaren team-mates for the 2010 F1 Championship, a formidable British world championship-winning pair.

In other news, former McLaren driver Kimi Raikonnen is likely to be out of the 2010 F1 season, having so far failed to find a team.

The BBC and Editorial Standards: Where To Draw The Line

November 18, 2009

In a recent BBC meeting, Director-General Mark Thompson has urged presenters and executives to continue their creativity and not feel stifled by the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines.

In the high profile meeting, which was attended by the likes of Bruce Forsyth, Jeremy Clarkson and John Humphrys, Thompson stressed that the recent taste and decency rows should not limit the BBC’s innovation in other areas.  It is believed that the meeting’s aim was to act as a ‘moral boost’ to the corporation’s talent following the recent intensification of politically correct programme content.

The decision to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question TIme and airing the political satire ‘The Thick of It’ shows that the public service broadcaster was not afraid of controversy.

According to Thompson, the BBC should not be afraid to ‘push boundaries’ and make risque jokes for the good of a programme, intoning that there is a ‘freedom at the BBC to take risks’.

This is in direct contrast to the ‘climate of fear’ that has seemingly been induced among the corporation, where comedians, presenters and producers are constantly aware of breaking strict editorial guidelines.

Recently, a furore broke out over the ‘unjust’ content of ‘Mock the Week’, where Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington’s appearance was criticised; in the political programme’ This Week’, Andrew Neil’s comments about a black MP were erased from the iPlayer edition after they prompted complaints from viewers.

Now, it appears that the atmosphere is one of retrenchment.  However, with new Editorial Guidelines due for release in early 2010, many key individuals remain unclear as to where they stand and to what extent current policy will intervene in programme production and content.

Equally, it is unclear whether comedy, entertainment or political programmes will suffer as a result of the misty circumstances.  Nonetheless, all parties hope that 2010 will bring more clarity to the tangled mess of 2009 legislation and broadcasting.

Top Gear: The Boys Are Back

November 15, 2009

I was never a big fan of Top Gear.  Yes, I may have watched every so often, when I happened to be sat in front of the television at 8pm on a Sunday night, or when friends suggested it was worth a look, but I had never really given in to the seemingly universal adulation that the two words ‘Top Gear’ appear to generate among young and old, male and female.  The show that everyone seems to love never really did it for me.  Until now.

Curious events in my summer notwithstanding, I now cannot bear to miss a minute of any connotation of Top Gear hype, drama, excitement and the show’s unique, but utterly believable, style of ‘cocking about’.

The bizarrely hypnotic presenting trio of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond seem to seduce even the most discerning viewer to their fun, enthralling, ambitious and often obnoxious banter, challenges and features that are the fundamentals of the escapist Top Gear hour.  This trio of middle-aged men, that (they agree) could so easily belong to ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, are the twenty-first century equivalent of comforting, British Sunday-night television.

Attempting, and sometimes achieving, tasks that only a little boy could dream of, the programme strikes the perfect balance between fun and excitement with the precision, planning and intelligence that is so evidently beneath the surface of the show’s jokes.  It takes a lot of skill and talent to make a niche motoring show so appealing to the broadest demographic, and it is clear the the presenters and production team have these qualities in spades.

I am not alone in feeling this way.  Each new episode of BBC2 attracts over 7 million viewers, often acquiring a 25% audience share.  The show is frequently the most watched show on BBC iPlayer, the online programme playback website.

Its appeal is not limited to the UK.  Over 350 million viewers worldwide watch the BBC production; broadcast in over 100 countries, with spin-offs in places as obscure as Romania and Russia, as well as magazines, live shows and every merchandise under the sun, it seems that the world and his dog cannot get enough of the Top Gear juggernaut.

The Top Gear phenomenon is the one of the most lucrative arms of BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the public service broadcaster; with one quarter of Top Gear’s Worldwide profits being delivered straight back to the programme, it is no wonder that the show can consistently pull off daring and dramatic stunts that other shows could only dream of.

The main pull of Top Gear is simple – it is fun.  Pure, unadulterated fun.  It is a seductive world, where there is no need for politeness, consideration, duty or cultural engagement.  Each presenter offers a different spin on proceedings, while all maintaining the addictive undercurrent of amusement, delight and naughtiness.

It is a drug in broadcasting form.  Once you give in to its simple charms, its indulgent nature, you are hooked.

Of course, there are critics.  The show is frequently under investigation by the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, due to its risque content, language and opinions.  Only this past week has the regulator deemed the last episode of the most recent series to be offensive and inappropriate for the time and audience (the show showed a ‘home-made’ car advertisement showing a man commit suicide).

Other incidents have included drinking a gin and tonic on the way to the North Pole, naming lorry drivers’ chief occupation as murdering prostitutes, and setting fire to a caravan on a camping holiday.  All events have incurred the wrath of the regulators and generated considerable newspaper column inches, but none have done so much as dent the show’s immense popularity.

Others take offense at the current show’s co-creator and chief presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, and his left-field delivery and comments that frequently push the boundaries of responsible and acceptable television.  Yet for others, this politically incorrect, patriarchal and off-kilter presenting style is the principal reason why the show remains so popular and alluring to the majority.  The show is escapist, giving viewers the opportunity to untie themselves from the shackles of restrictive and oppressive daily life, with Clarkson as prophetic leader of this image.

It is clear that Top Gear is Clarkson’s vehicle, his baby; his personality, enthusiasm and driving runs through every vein of the production.

How ironic it is, then, that the BBC’s greatest money-spinner is a politically incorrect, independent, free-spirited, gas-guzzling automotive show.

The fourteenth series of the show begins in earnest this weekend, at 9pm rather the traditional 8pm, due to what Executive Producer Andy Wilman calls the ‘Simon Cowell and the X-Factor on storming form’.  The boys know when to surrender to other children, then.  The first episode will show all three presenters take expensive cars to Romania, with what will surely be side-splitting consequences.  I, for one, can’t wait.

ATP World Tour FInals – The Contender Run-Down

November 14, 2009

Now that the final tournament of the season is reaching its conclusion, the 2009 ATP Tour will culminate in the ATP World Tour Finals at London’s O2 Arena between Nov. 22 and Nov. 29, less than two weeks away.

The top eight players, their rankings taken from their year-long results on the tour, will battle it out in this exclusive finale in the hopes of becoming the year’s ultimate tennis champion.  These players have produced consistently exemplary results throughout the season, thoroughly deserving their place at the O2.  But who will be the ultimate champion?

Rafael Nadal of Spain was the first player to secure a spot in the end of year championships as a result of his stellar start to the season.  Following on from his French Open, Wimbledon and Olympic success in 2008, Nadal continued the trend by defeating Roger Federer in an epic 5-set final at the Australian Open in early February.  His hot streak continued into the Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome Masters 1000 tournaments, until he faltered in mid-May against Federer in the Masters 1000 Madrid Final.

From that point, his recurring knee problems seemed to get the better of him; he lost to Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open, his most lucrative tournament (he had not lost at the event in 31 matches over five years) and was unable to defend his crown at Wimbledon, pulling out with patellar tendonitis.

He rallied somewhat in August, reaching the latter stages of events in Montreal and Cincinnati, but was still not at his best at the US Open, later putting his sub-standard performances down to a painful abdominal muscle strain.

More recently, he was runner-up to Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai but there are signs that he is still not back at his peak fitness or skill level.  Occupying the No. 2 spot in the world, it is evident he has high hopes for the London championship.

 

Roger Federer was the second player to quality for the World Tour Finals.  With a somewhat shocking start to the year, that seemed to continue his run of bad results from 2008, where he suffered from mononucleosis and back strains—including his loss to Nadal at the Australian Open and a racket-smashing episode in Miami against Novak Djokovic—Federer rebounded with a vengeance in Madrid against Nadal.

He then went on to win his first ever French Open, allowing him to equal Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Slam victories and achieve a career Grand Slam.  In just under two weeks, Federer followed this sweet victory with a win over Andy Roddick to clinch his 6th Wimbledon title and 15th Slam overall, signalling him as the greatest player of all time.  He also returned to No.1 as a consequence of his victories and Nadal’s absence, a position that he will hold until the end of the year.

Since Federer’s amazing summer, the Swiss player’s level has plateaued somewhat, with consistent match victories but no titles.  He lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the US Open Final and recently Djokovic in his home town of Basel, with an extensive break in between these two events in order to rest his weary limbs.

An early exit in the Paris 1000 event may mean that he has less match experience than preferred going into the World Tour Finals, but there is no doubt that his extended breaks from competition at the end of this season will stand him in good stead for the tiring tournament in London.

 

Andy Murray, from Scotland, was the third player to qualify as a result of his consistently excellent results throughout the season.  He started off as the player to beat in 2009, winning an exhibition in Abu Dhabi and a tournament in Doha.  His Australian Open tournament did not turn out as well as expected with an exit in the quarterfinals, but since then Murray has continued to outperform the majority of players on every surface.

In August he moved to No. 2 in the world, briefly overtaking Nadal and Djokovic—the first time someone other than Nadal or Federer had held such a prestigious position in over four years.  A finalist in 2008, Murray had high hopes for his favourite Slam, the US Open, but lost to Croat Marin Cilic in three easy sets.

Throughout the back end of the season, the Scot has been suffering with a persistent wrist injury, making his ranking slip back down to No. 4; but with a win in Valencia in November, it looks as if Murray is finding form just in time for the end of year championships.

 

Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Roddick occupy three other London berths.  These players, too, have excellent chances at the season-ending tournament; Djokovic has been consistent throughout the year, beating many top players, and is the defending champion of the event.

Del Potro has been inspired throughout much of the hard court season in particular, with his US Open win a notable highlight and justification of his selection for the championship.  Djokovic is enjoying a burst of renewed confidence, with his recent win over Roger Federer to win the Basel title and Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the 1000 Paris event.  Is he peaking just in time to defend his crown?

Andy Roddick, too, has produced stellar results, frequently reaching semifinals and finals of the biggest and best tournaments, including the Australian Open, Wimbledon and Miami.

Injuries are nevertheless a big concern for this trio; tiredness and exhaustion are playing their part, plus Roddick is suffering from a knee injury which saw his exit from Shanghai and withdrawal from Paris.  Will he be fit enough in time for London?  Only time will tell.

 

The final two players, completing the 8-man lineup, had their fates sealed in the final tournament of the year in Paris.  Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Verdasco, through their own exploits and those of the other few remaining contenders, sealed their positions as 7th and 8th ranked in the world respectively.

 

With these eight players being so consistent in their success over the past 10 months, it is incredibly difficult this year in particular to predict the World Tour Finals champion.  All players have prowess on indoor hard courts and all have shown that they can withstand the pressure of the most tense, important moments.

Andy Murray will be the home favourite, with significant column inches being reserved for the Scot’s play; however, it is difficult to ignore the experienced Federer, Nadal and Roddick in such an event, where a loss in the ’round robin’ stage does not necessarily mean the end of the player’s chances to win the event.  The defending champion, Novak Djokovic, should not be discounted, having won the most matches in total this season.

One thing is for certain; injuries and withdrawals notwithstanding, the ATP’s London masterpiece should certainly live up to its hype of being ‘The Decider’.

(Published on Bleacher Report; December 14th 2009)

Top Gear Live at Earl’s Court 2009: The Wheels Are Still Turning

November 12, 2009

You would think that the audience would be tired of it by now.  The same format of automobile-based stunts, with the same three middle-aged men acting like big children with their favourite toys.  Yet after 8 years of the multi-award winning BBC Entertainment show, and three years of the live show, Top Gear is still going strong.

Back for its third outing as the showpiece of MPH Live at Earl’s Court – which moves to the Birmingham NEC this week – Top Gear Live 2009 is fronted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May and contains even more outrageous and daring stunts than ever before.  With acts involving an indoor loop-the-loop and car doughnut, Executive Producer Rowland French aims to ‘push the boundaries of theatre’ – and while this is a fairly ambitious statement, for Top Gear fans, the show does not disappoint.

Full of fire, loud explosions, stunts and racing from the word go, with a crowd-pleasing mixture of luxury and reasonably priced cars on display, the show aims to please all of its demographic, from young to old, rich to not so wealthy.  The audience interaction features – an interactive ‘Cool Wall’ and race around the Top Gear Test Track – add to the crowd pleasing equation of fast cars and tomfoolery in equal measure.

The fact that nothing has gone wrong with the daring performances, and the clear indication that nothing has been left to chance, only proves that tomfoolery takes a lot of intelligence to get right, a testament to the strong team behind the light-hearted Top Gear facade.

Of course, for the majority of the audience, the main draw of the show is not the opportunity to view car stunts and fire; the attraction of seeing the three presenters, Clarkson, Hammond and May, live and personal, is the key selling point, especially when tickets for the BBC production reportedly have a 4 year waiting list.

In this respect, the show does not disappoint.  The 90 minute performance was punctuated by many typical interactions between the three famous presenters, including Clarkson making a continuous joke of Hammond’s recent advertisement for Morrison’s, the national supermarket chain.  Seeing the three performers at their best, with no room for re-take or error, reinforced the notion that the men truly are one of the key reasons why their niche motoring show has made it so big on the world stage.

With the fourteenth series of Top Gear due to commence on BBC2 this coming Sunday, plus the continuation of the Top Gear Live World Tour in December and January, it seems like the Top Gear phenomenon shows no sign of abating.

Is The Tennis Calendar Too Long?

November 12, 2009

Many tennis players are growing increasingly unhappy at the gruelling length and content of the ATP Tour.  The yearly season runs from early January, where warm-up tournaments take place in Australasia and the Middle East in preparation for the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia, to the ATP World Tour Finals in London in late November, and even the Davis Cup Finals in December.

From beginning to end, this arduous, jam-packed calendar provides just 4 weeks of off-season before the tour begins once again.  The rest and recuperation that the players so dearly need by this stage, therefore, is severely limited.

Signs that this growing tour schedule is taking its toll have been noticeably visible in recent months.  Until the ATP 500 tournament in Basel this past week, Roger Federer did not play any tennis since the US Open apart from his Davis Cup appearance.  His necessary break from the tour in order to recover from fatigue and exhaustion was longer than his regular off-season.

Andy Murray was also a no-show in the recent ATP 1000 tournament in Shanghai due to a wrist injury, only returning in Valencia last week, but with frequent icing on his longstanding injury.

Nadal, too, has been a victim of the season’s busy schedule.  After his Australian Open win, plus multiple successes on the American hard courts and European clay earlier in the year, his constant weekly play finally took its toll on his knees and the Spaniard had to withdraw from the tour for several months.  Even in the recent tournament in Shanghai, signs that Nadal had still not fully recuperated from his ailments (he has also been suffering from a stomach muscle pull) were visible.

The most vociferous critic, however, of the current tour schedule is American Andy Roddick. One of nine players to withdraw from the Shanghai field, Roddick has also withdrawn from this week’s Paris 1000 event, citing knee problems.  Applauding the innovative WTA Tour Road Map that was instituted this year and designed to give the women a longer off-season, Roddick strongly believes that more time between important tournaments, and a longer off-season is desperately required for the men’s tour.

The problem seems to be particularly poignant this year, since so many top players have been consistently reaching the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals of every event that they have entered.  Playing 5 or 6 matches per week, every week, can take its toll on even the most finely-tuned athlete.  The fact that Grand Slams and ATP 1000 tournaments are compulsory for qualifying players only adds to the demands on high ranking players.

Although the current ATP CEO, Adam Helfant, has been more willing to listen to players’ complaints and suggestions than his closed predecessor, Etienne de Villiers, there are still questions over whether the tour schedule will be changed.  Despite the ATP Tour having player representatives, ultimately the governing board has control over the structure and content of the tour.  The conflict between players’ needs and sponsors’ demands, even for such an experienced professional, will be hard to resolve.

The Day The World Nearly Ended: Have We Learnt Any Lessons?

October 30, 2009

September 14th, 2008.  The day the that global financial system nearly collapsed under its own strain, the day that the fifth largest bank in the world, ceased to exist.

The day when Lehman Brothers, the fifth largest global financial services firm, was faced with a mass exodus of most of its clients, drastic losses in its stock, devaluation of its assets and an increasingly inward-facing financial market, forcing to file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 of the United States Code.

Since that traumatic date, long, seemingly endless periods of volatility and unpredictability symbolized the global recession, with job cuts, a reduction in consumer spending and falling house prices being the hallmarks of the ‘credit crunch’.

Nevertheless, these periods of depression and desperation have slowly been replaced by cautious optimism and renewed growth in the financial markets and global economies – the loaded ‘green shoots’ term comes into effect here – but, this has arguably occurred only after significant government bailout strategies were hastily drafted into place.

In the wake of Lehman’s collapse, everyone seemed to agree that fundamental change was necessary.  Bailouts largely stabilized the financial system, but it became clear that regulatory reform was needed to prevent a similar crisis from happening again.

President Obama and Prime Minster Gordon Brown have since cautioned that regulators and companies should continue to step lightly as the economy and financial sector recover from the deep lows of 2008 – but evidently, stringent regulation is desperately needed in order to ensure that similar events never happen again.

Stricter rules are needed within respective economies and industries in order to prevent the domino effect if one large firm collapses.  While it may be inevitable that a certain institution collapses, or files for bankruptcy, at some point in the future, the dragging-down of other key organisations must be avoided at all costs.

Equally, as is the key motto in global economics, the overhaul of regulation must be done in a way that does not smother innovation.  Reckless behaviour, unchecked excess and the desire for ‘quick kills’ must all be limited, if not stopped completely, so that the entire banking system realises the consequences of its actions.

Obama and other members of the G8 have reiterated a number of proposals, including a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, closing loopholes and gaps in the regulatory system, and putting an end to “too big to fail” by creating resolution authority for non-bank financial institutions. Obama also called on foreign economies to join the United States in its regulatory effort for a coordinated response to the financial crisis.  Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, has even called for a reintroduction of the ‘Tobin Tax’, whereby a levy would be applied to every financial transaction.

The end of the ‘too big to fail’ motto is certainly one that strikes a chord with many executives.  It is widely agreed that regulators and lawmakers needed to impose rules so failing banks could be shut, rather than allowed to operate indefinitely with taxpayer support.

Nevertheless, other lawmakers and regulators have been resistant to some of the changes the administration has proposed. The surprise is not how much has changed in the financial industry, but how little.  Lawmakers have spent most of the last year trying to save the financial industry, rather than transform it.

For instance, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has opposed a new consumer regulator, arguing that it’s the Fed’s job to protect consumers.

Seemingly protected by huge federal and fiscal guarantees, the biggest, most influential banks have restructured only around the edges.  Surprisingly, only a handful of hedge funds have closed; employee salaries and bonuses are, in many instances, returning to pre-crash levels.  Goldman Sachs, for instance, are reported to be giving their workers an average of $700,000 each this year after earning over $3 billion in third quarter (July-September) profits.  This from a highly prestigious, highly trusted bank that was almost ready to fail twelve months ago.

J.P. Morgan, too, have released profits of $3.6 billion for the past quarter.  If anything, the hedge fund arm of this huge retail and investment organisation is performing better than ever before due to a lack of competition from its pusillanimous rivals.

There is an increasing separation from the healthiest and least healthy of the banks, both nationally and internationally, which is only adding to the feeling among the prosperous that there is no need for reform.  In the UK, it is clear that the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group are dragging the financial sector down.

These big banks have had their eyes opened, their books exposed.  They have been able to realise the fragility of certain trading and investment strategies before it is too late, with Lehman being the martyr in this particular financial battle.  By pulling back on risk and reducing leverage, the banks argue, there is no need to impose more regulation in the sector.

Yet critics of the industry argue that a reduction in risk will only produce temporary results, without the necessary deep, regulatory changes.  Many note that banks chronically underestimate their risks and must be managed more cautiously and deeply.  The assumption, too, that governments will always prevent major banks from collapsing so the banks can continue to execute risky trades knowing that the taxpayer will soak up any cataclysmic losses – the so-called ‘moral hazard’, or IBG, ‘I’ll Be Gone’ – only adds to the financial excess.

Economists who predicted last year’s fall, purely from noticing the danger of trading unregulated derivatives, warn that if longstanding issues are not addressed, they could cause an even bigger crisis — in years, not decades. Next time, they say, the credit of the United States government may be at risk.

So what else can be done?  A multitude of solutions have been raised, then quashed.

Principally, investors in financial institutions, especially bondholders, must believe that they will lose money if banks fail, but legislation that would allow regulators to close giant institutions in an orderly fashion has been consistently stalled.  So too have efforts to create a systemic regulator that would focus on the broader risk that might occur from the ripple effects caused by the failure of one major bank.

Another proposed change would require banks to list and trade derivatives through a central clearinghouse, just as stocks and options are traded through exchanges, but it has yet to go anywhere.  Requiring that derivatives be traded openly sounds like a relatively small change, but it could have important effects.  Banks could not hide negative equity positions; they would have to put up money as positions moved against them, since derivatives would be sold if they were not backed by adequate margin.  Showing the power of the banking industry, legislation to force derivatives trading onto exchanges has stalled for now, and banks are still writing contracts with limited regulatory oversight.

Reining in banker’s bonuses, another key media theme in the recession, is another colossal headache for lawmakers.  The bankers and the government are seemingly playing a game of cat and mouse, whereby each act of chasing seems to end in calamity rather than success.

Advocates of bonuses claim that it reinforces a healthy attitude in the City, an attitude that will ultimately bring benefits to the national economy as a whole, with many bonus pounds being put directly into the Chancellor’s tax treasure chest.

Nonetheless, the sheer abhorrence of the status quo to observers is clear to see.  George Osbourne, Shadow Chancellor, has suggested a dramatic reform in the shape of retail bankers being tethered to bonuses worth no more than £2k in cash, with the rest in shares.  The insistence of ‘new equity capital’ – i.e. shares in the banker’s own business – is a common theme from all areas of the political spectrum, both nationally and internationally.

Of course, there is scepticism too from the potential implementers of this system.  Many city lawyers have already been approached about the contractual arrangements of such a scheme, but a predicted consequence of any law would be that bankers will have their salaries doubled or trebled.  Once again, this could increase the risk-taking because the link between performance and profitability will be severed.

There are other complications in this proposal.  Employers could be put in a conflicted position, by trying simultaneously to obey the law and meet the contractual obligations to employees.

In the longer term, there are likely to be tax problems on these share handouts, not to mention the distress of existing shareholders as the value of their own shares diluted by these effective gratuitous giveaways.

There are two main streams of thought at work – deferral and clawback – yet no-one is quite sure what these terms would mean in practice, given the complications of remuneration on such a huge scale.  Nevertheless, with such a barrage of criticism levelled at bonuses it is likely that there will be some sort of change in the future, an ordered transparency and target-based structure.

Clearly, the insatiable hunger for profit and individual bonuses juxtaposed with the need for restraint and transparency is a complex puzzle to solve.  Plus it cannot be denied that the sheer power of the world’s biggest banks in determining fiscal policy suggests that there is no end, and no fundamental reform, in sight.  At least for now.

Review, ‘Skin Deep’ – Identity and Identification: Linking the Self to the Skin

October 28, 2009

I have chosen to critique a particular episode of the popular US drama series, House.  I believe it relates well to the subject of ‘Identity’, in terms of the common stereotype, prejudice and expectation we have encountered when forming identities of others, and the manner in which we hinge our recognition of an individual on what we expect to see, rather than what could, or should be seen.

In this episode – ‘Skin Deep’, from Series 2, Episode 13 – the main protagonist and expert diagnostician, House, treats a teenage supermodel who has collapsed on a catwalk.  At first he believes she has a heroin addiction, an attribute that is believed to be prevalent in the modelling industry.

After disqualifying this theory, then numerous others, the extraordinary diagnosis is that the supermodel has male pseudohermaphroditism (specifically, androgen insensitivity syndrome), also known as testicular feminization syndrome), and the tumor is located in her testes which, due to the syndrome, had never come to drop.  In layman’s terms, women with this syndrome often have primary and secondary sexual characteristics typical of other women; however, they are genetically XY and have internal testes, rather than ovaries.

Thus, at the end of the episode, when the surgical removal of the tumor is set, a consult with a psychiatrist is scheduled as well – showing that for this particular character, as for all individuals, the discovery of a changed, complicated sexual nature is difficult to take in.

Moreover in this instance, it is shown that not only does the viewer take physical identity for granted – there is no question that this character was judged on her feminine beauty throughout the episode until the diagnosis – so does the individual.

The supermodel, when told of her complaint, is distraught; because she has effectively lost her identity – and thus, simultaneously, her occupation – as well as her gender, since all her feminine activities have been a ‘lie’.  This illustrates how much we base our lives around our identity, and how others view us; when this is destroyed, often we have nothing left, and must rebuild our lives from the very foundations.

Additionally, the added layer of sexuality – another key part of identity – in the plot line demonstrates the extent to which there is still anthropological unease over misplaced identity in this context.  This particular episode treats the question of sexuality in society with intelligence and reality, showing a society that sexualizes a teenager, treats her as an adult, then castigates those who look at her as a sexual being, without sympathizing with either side. The added dimension of ‘mixed’ gender adds to the feeling of identity ‘exclusion’ even more.

Once again, the very fact that this critical facet to one’s identity can be fundamentally different to what one expects, and medically modified in an instant (given this illness), the superficiality of beauty, gender and identity in twenty-first century society is reinforced.

Despite being a television drama intended for public rather than academic viewing, House is always thought provoking due to its exploration of ethics, morality and philosophy, as well as unique medical diagnostics.  Additionally, with each episode being based on a true story, the drama looks at issues that have been raised at some stage in reality, adding to the authenticity of its plot lines, and accentuating the existing moral questions that are difficult to resolve in relation to these issues.

Concurrent with the conclusion to this episode, there is no comfort or reassurance that House will save the day; the patient will live; and everyone will be happy; more often than not, the viewer and the character are left with more questions, which is both disturbing, but also truthful, of today’s medically and ethically tangled world.

I believe that this episode is particularly stirring in this respect since it invites us to look below the surface, past our expectations and past our stereotypical view of beauty and identity.  As we have examined in our lecture and seminar investigations, examples of identity and forms of identification throughout history have all reaffirmed the concept of physical identity, and identity on the surface, as being the most crucial elements in day-to-day identification.  These are beliefs that should evidently be altered due to the continuous ‘human errors’ in judging ‘by the skin’.

The title of the episode, ‘Skin Deep’, is a perfect illustration of how we tend to take the physical outside of individuals for granted, rather than actually stopping to analyse the inside, or the unknown, before we make assumptions.

In this manner, the basis of identity, or misplaced identity, and our apparent lack of regard for knowledge and understanding over physical identity, has remained constant for decades.