Old ideas, new problems

The connections between government insiders and a failed finance firm raise awkward questions


WHEN SOMEONE claims to have found a new way to make money out of an old idea, it usually pays to treat them with suspicion. Greensill Capital, a now-failed finance company, lent firms money secured against their invoices. This type of finance existed in ancient Mesopotamia. Lex Greensill, the business’s founder, updated it with some shiny new technology and what an early backer calls “homespun stories of growing up on a farm and seeing how late payments hurt his father” 。

要是有人声称他找到了靠旧点子赚钱的新方法,通常还是留点心为好。Greensill Capital 是一家现在已倒闭的金融公司,它贷款给企业,而企业以付款通知单作抵押。这样的金融模式在古美索不达米亚就已存在。Greensill 的创始人莱克斯・格林希尔(Lex Greensill)把它发扬光大,用上一些炫目的新技术,外加说一段——用一位早年支持者的话说——「自己在农场长大,眼看着别人迟迟不付款如何伤害了父亲的朴实故事」。

Britain’s government greeted the charming Mr Greensill not with suspicion, but with a job in 10 Downing Street and a contract with the National Health Service (NHS). He was aided by the equally charming David Cameron, now embroiled in a lobbying scandal that will scotch any hope of restoring a reputation ruined by Brexit. The pair’s reach ran far. On April 13 th it emerged that a senior public servant had combined his Cabinet Office job with one for the failed company. A day earlier Boris Johnson announced an inquiry into the government’s links with Greensill, led by Nigel Boardman, a corporate lawyer.

英国政府对魅力十足的格林希尔非但不怀疑,还给了他一份在唐宁街 10 号的工作,以及和英国国家医疗服务体系(NHS)的一份合同。他得到了同样充满魅力的前首相卡梅伦的帮助。卡梅伦如今身陷游说丑闻,令他再无希望挽回因英国脱欧而毁掉的声誉。二人的影响波及甚广。4 月 13 日曝出消息,一名高级公职人员在内阁办公厅任职的同时受雇于 Greensill。前一日,现任首相约翰逊宣布,由公司法律师奈杰尔・博德曼(Nigel Boardman)牵头,调查政府与 Greensill 的关系。

Supply-chain finance is a simple solution to a common business problem: long payment terms. A retailer, for example, will want goods from its wholesalers upfront but may delay paying their invoices for weeks. Greensill, and firms like it, offer an alternative to waiting. They pay the money at once, for a small charge, and then cash in the invoices when they fall due. Greensill took the model a step further by bundling up its loans to firms as bonds for sale to yield-hungry investors. This year questions were raised about the creditworthiness of some of the companies issuing the invoices on which Greensill’s bonds were secured. That prompted Credit Suisse, a bank, to freeze funds linked to the firm. Companies that relied on liquidity provided by Greensill, such as Liberty Steel, a large British-based manufacturer, now face a financing gap.

供应链金融为长账期付款这个商业上常见的问题提供了简单的解决方案。例如,零售商想先从批发商那里进货,但可能会延迟数周才按付款通知单付清货款。Greensill 及类似企业提供了等待付款之外的另一种选择。它们立刻向批发商支付全款,只收取少许费用,然后在付款通知单到截止期时从零售商那里收款。Greensill 把它给企业的贷款打包成债券,出售给渴求收益的投资者,将这一模式更推进了一步。今年,Greensill 债券中一些开具付款通知单作为抵押的公司的信誉遭到了质疑。这促使瑞士信贷银行冻结了与该公司有关的资金。依靠 Greensill 提供流动资金的企业现在面临融资缺口,英国大型制造商利百德钢铁(Liberty Steel)就是其中一家。

The affair has revealed some unflattering quirks of the British state. One is a readiness for quick fixes. In 2018, Greensill won a contract to help the NHS pay high-street pharmacies quicker. Neither that contract, nor another one to allow NHS staff access to their pay earlier, made Greensill much money. They did, however, feature in the firm’s pitches and boosted its credibility. An alternative solution—for the government simply to speed up payments—would have meant difficult reform of bureaucracy, while Greensill appeared to offer an instant fix.

此事件暴露了英国政府一些有损自身形象的怪癖。其一是喜欢用权宜之计。Greensill 在 2018 年赢得了一份合同,帮助 NHS 加快向零售药店付款。无论是这份合同,还是另一份让 NHS 员工更早领到工资的合同,都没让 Greensill 赚到多少钱。不过这些合同确实成了公司自我推销的重点,提高了它的信誉。另一种解决方案——也就是让政府直接加快支付速度——意味着要对官僚作风展开艰难的改革,而 Greensill 看似提供了一个即时解决方案。

The second is a permeability to outside interests. Mr Greensill was made an unpaid government adviser on supply-chain finance in 2012, and had a Downing Street business card. He had previously worked alongside Jeremy Heywood, then the head of the civil service, as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley. Hardest to explain is how Bill Crothers, formerly the government’s chief procurement officer, was allowed to work part-time for Greensill while still holding his government post. Mr Crothers argues that he did not need to seek permission from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (itself a pretty flimsy body) because the role was approved under an internal conflicts-of-interest policy at the Cabinet Office. There is no central register of second jobs. Civil servants now worry that Mr Crothers’ case will not be unique.

其二是外部利益的渗透。2012 年,格林希尔被任命为供应链金融方面的政府无薪顾问,并配有唐宁街的名片。那会儿杰里米・海伍德(Jeremy Heywood)担任文官长,他曾是格林希尔从前在摩根士丹利做投资银行家时的同事。最难解释的是,为何允许政府前首席采购官比尔・克罗瑟斯(Bill Crothers)在政府任职的同时在 Greensill 兼职。克罗瑟斯辩称,他不需要获得商业任职咨询委员会(Advisory Committee on Business Appointments,本身是一个相当不靠谱的机构)的许可,因为这个职位是根据内阁办公室的内部利益冲突政策批准的。官员们的第二份工作并没有集中记录在案。公务员们现在担心克罗瑟斯的情况不是个案。

Mr Cameron’s role exposes the weakness of Britain’s lobbying rules. He stood to make millions if the firm succeeded. He bombarded ministers and civil servants with messages, asking them to tweak the rules to allow Greensill to benefit from government-backed lending schemes for stricken companies. To the Treasury’s credit, the rules were not changed. As Mr Cameron was employed by the firm, rather than a third-party lobbyist, such messages were not subject to the disclosure rules put in place by his government. It has since emerged that, on a trip to Saudi Arabia to seek contracts, Mr Cameron and Mr Greensill (pictured, above) went camping with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

卡梅伦的角色暴露了英国游说制度的缺陷。如果 Greensill 成功,他势必能赚上几百万。他向部长们和公务员发送大量短信,请求他们调整规则,好让 Greensill 从为受困企业提供的政府担保贷款计划中受益。值得表扬财政部的是,它没有更改规则。由于卡梅伦受雇于该公司,而不是第三方说客,因此这些短信不受他那届政府制定的信息披露法规的约束。此后有消息称,在一次前往沙特谋求签约的行程中,卡梅伦和格林希尔(见上图)曾与王储穆罕默德・本・萨勒曼(Mohammad bin Salman)一起露营。

Mr Boardman’s report, due by the end of June, is not expected to pull punches. “He’s a hard-edged lawyer who understands finance and has no incentive to go easy on anybody,” says one former colleague. Mr Johnson and Mr Cameron have been rivals since they were at Eton together and the affair has yielded a striking volume of leaked material. Mr Johnson may hope the inquiry bolsters him while embarrassing his predecessor. Some Tories fear this is a dangerous move, and the government may get damaged in the fallout.

博德曼的报告定于 6 月底前完成,预计不会手下留情。「他是一位性格强硬的律师,懂金融,也没有缘由对任何人心慈手软。」他的一位前同事说。约翰逊和卡梅伦从一起上伊顿公学时起就开始竞争了,而这桩事件已经泄露出大量内幕资料。约翰逊可能希望这次调查能抬高自己,同时让他的前任难堪。一些保守党人担心这一步有危险,政府可能会受到牵连

Published since September 1843 to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”


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