Argentina's Oil Grab is Timely Retort to Rampaging Capitalism
Suppose the British government knew that a key shareholder in Centrica, our last great British energy company and owner of British Gas, was to sell its stake to Gazprom, so making Russian state ownership inevitable. I hope that, in this scenario, the government would expand the provision of the Enterprise Act that allows Britain to block takeovers that are against the national interest to include gas and nuclear power. (The act is currently confined to defence, financial services and the media.) I'm pretty certain that Centrica chairman Sir Roger Carr, also president of the CBI, shares the same view. No country can be indifferent to the ownership of strategic assets and thus the use to which they might be put. Its first obligation is to the well-being of its citizens.
The Argentinian government was faced with just this dilemma last week. YPF is its national oil and gas company, which it sold to the Spanish oil company Repsol for $15bn in 1999 as part of its privatisation drive. It has not been a great deal for either party. Argentinian oil and gas production has slumped, exploration for new reserves has been run down and this oil-rich country is now an oil importer, with Repsol accused of looting the company and betraying its obligations.
Repsol's excuse is that Argentinian price controls are absurdly tough. It has wanted to sell its holding for some time and last July finally found a potential buyer: the Chinese state oil company Sinopec. On Monday, fearing that the deal was about to be done, the Argentinian government seized the lion's share of Repsol's stake to get majority control. Better that YPF is owned by the Argentinian government than the Chinese Communist party is their reasoning.
Many governments would have done the same. Ownership matters. Yet Argentina has been roundly condemned – the EU, Spain, Mexico and even Britain have all weighed in. The Economist thunders that President Cristina Fernández's antics must not go unpunished; nationalisation is a sin beyond redemption. The inference is that Repsol should have been allowed freely to dispose of its shares to whichever buyer and at the best price it could achieve. Argentina and its citizens have no right to intervene.
Ms Fernández was certainly high-handed and very arbitrary. She only seized enough shares from Repsol to secure 51% control and has yet to say what the state will pay in compensation; the other shareholders are hapless bystanders with their investment shredded. There is more than a whiff of shameless populism to her actions. But to portray Repsol as an injured innocent whose natural rights have been unfairly suborned is to traduce economic and political reality.
For too long, companies and the rich worldwide, egged on by American Republicans and British Tories, have shamelessly exploited the proposition that there is only one proper relationship between them and society: they do what they want on their own terms. And society must accept this because it is the sole route to "wealth generation". Capital exists above state and society.
Fernández's actions, however clumsy and unfair in their execution, are part of a growing worldwide reaction to the excesses that this proposition has brought. Repsol does not, and did not, have a God-given right to sell control in YPF to whomever it pleases while Argentina's interests can go hang. It exists in a symbiotic relationship with the society in which it trades. The right to trade and to own are privileges that come with reciprocal obligations as the Ownership Commission, which I chaired, argued earlier this year. They cannot exist in a vacuum because companies' actions have profound effects.
Moreover, companies, especially energy companies, need public agencies to help mitigate the risk of undertaking huge investments in a world where the future is unknowable. Across the globe, business and the rich insist on denying these elementary truths. Now they are reaping the whirlwind as a hostile reaction gathers pace worldwide. Capitalism's self-appointed custodians have become its worst enemies.
It is the driving force behind the Occupy Movement. It is why Jean Luc Melénchon, the hard left French presidential candidate, has had such a successful election campaign. It is why so many governments are co-ordinating their investigation into Amazon, the company paying negligible tax on its worldwide profits. It is why President Obama has adopted the Buffet tax on millionaires as a popular part of his re-election campaign. It is why George Osborne felt he had to balance his high-risk reduction in the top rate of income tax to 45%with a passionate declaration of war on the rich evading tax.
The reaction is long overdue and is producing some long-needed corrections. For example, in the last fortnight alone, Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein, Barclays' Bob Diamond and Citibank's Vikram Pandit have all faced angry shareholders, responding to the new mood, protesting about the extravagance of their bonuses compared to their institutions' paltry performance. They are being forced to accept less. Proportionality in top pay is beginning to be restored, if still a long way off.
But the mood needs to be channelled. Argentina may have done everyone a service by forcibly reminding global business that there are unpleasant consequences for neglecting economic and social responsibilities, but summary nationalisation without compensation is hardly a solid template for the future. It is a harbinger of Chinese-style arbitrary government; a move from crony capitalism to crony statism. It is time to reassert that while capitalism may be a proven route to prosperity, it only works in a complex interdependence with the state and society. There have to be rules at home and abroad to make a desirable world of open borders, free trade and free business work. Taxes have to be paid rather than evaded. Pay has to be proportional to contribution. Labour leader Ed Miliband was roundly and universally criticised as a leftist innocent just seven months ago when he differentiated between good and bad capitalism; now he looks extraordinarily prescient.
If more of his party – especially the shadow cabinet – would rally to his cause, there is a phenomenal political opportunity. The mood is changing. It needs to be channelled: the creation of a new and different compact with business, finance and the rich. It is what electorates across the world want to see. President Fernández, in her gauche way, has tapped into a global mood.