There's nothing I love as much as a critical accountant - just thinking about the juxtaposition of those two words is delightful. It is a subversive job title. I recently attended a seminar by Jean Shaoul, Professor of Public Accountability (there's another subversive job title) at Manchester Business School and one of the UK's leading critical accountants.
Jean explained how 'financial engineering' developed as a tactic for squeezing profits out of economic sectors that had already been squeezed dry. She has made her name by analysing the waste of cash that results from privatising public industries. Her simple account of corporate accounts made it clear that if you make profits where once there was only a service either the service users (us) or the service providers (public-sector employees) will lose.
Since the deregulation of financial markets in the 1980s companies have focused on using their money to make money rather than investing in tiresome productive capacity and persuading people to buy things. It is in this setting that 'financial engineering' has flourished. Its predominance is indicated by the gulf between falls in sales and falls in profits. In the case M&S sales have fallen by 6% but profits by 50% in the past year. This gives an indication of how much of their profit was actually related to sales of stuff and how much was about financial fiddling the could engage in balanced on top of the stuff they were selling.
She had some other rather challenging statistics - such as that 67% of corporation tax is paid by three sectors: banking, insurance and oil & gas. And that in 1977, 70% of public expenditure went towards wages, whereas now the percentage is only 45%.
Talk about intelligent design. I sometimes wonder whether the whole financial crisis isn't a sort of cosmic joke. I like the idea of God(dess) as some form of comedian - probably not the stand-up sort; probably more like Alan Bennett - especially as I've noticed that since I've been putting more energy into spirtual practice I've lost my sense of humour.
Subversive job titles is one thing, but what about the potential for double entendres offered by a fiscal bailout that is made up of bonds which are also called gilts. Images of snouts in troughs and prisoners longing to break free abound. But it was the divine being who made Bernard Madoff into a fraudster that takes the prize - the crook that launched a thousand puns.