Luke Johnson: Breast move I never made

Luke Johnson on Ireland's downfall and his narrow escape from the implant industry.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 03 Feb 2012

Is it our certain fate to become what we once despised? I grew up in leafy greenbelt Buckinghamshire. Although it was a perfectly comfortable upbringing, I could hardly wait to escape the boredom of village life and rush towards the bright lights of London and the material opportunities of a giant city. For stimulation and challenge, nowhere else in Britain - and perhaps even the world - comes close.

Yet, after three decades, I have now bought a holiday place in the country, and have even taken up landed gentry sports such as shooting - albeit only clays, rather than game. The rural pursuits - the scenery, the friendly neighbours - all held no attraction for me in the past, but now they seem to appeal.

Quite possibly, I am falling prey to the disease Martin Weiner described in English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980. He wrote about how aristocratic values tend to trump capitalist ones, so that successful entrepreneurs often aspire to a Downton Abbey lifestyle, rather than more factories and shops.

I should ration my exposure to the countryside in order to maintain the fire in my belly. It is important to keep the hunger and the desire to hustle. I'm confident I have not really rejected trade, growth and technological progress for a provincial life of leisure. But I shall have to remain on my guard against slippage.

With all the talk of inequality and the conflict of the 99% versus the 1% in the US, it is worth considering how the very rich earn their living. Thanks to the fact that income tax return data is widely available there, studies have been carried out on occupations among the richest 0.1% of the population.

Roughly a fifth of the super-wealthy work in finance; over 40% run or own companies; 7% are lawyers - and less than 1% are scientists or academics.

Although this final statistic isn't surprising, I believe it's important. Scientists and professors greatly influence culture, education and technology. They are concerned with the future and shaping opinions and policy. They write books, publish learned papers, teach students, advise governments and invent new technology. Considering their impact on our world, they seem to obtain few of the financial rewards it has to offer.

Most of those who work in universities and research laboratories don't seek significant wealth. They might have the greatest intellects, but for them career satisfaction isn't secured by amassing a fortune. In their case, the glittering prizes are represented by the respect of their peers, membership of important institutions, great discoveries and so forth.

It's a shame the campus geniuses aren't more motivated by the accumulation of riches - it might inspire them to commercialise their clever inventions.

While Britain has suffered an unpleasant downturn in the past four years, our economic suffering has been as nothing compared with our closest neighbours in the Republic of Ireland.

There it has been a catastrophe. Unemployment has trebled to 14%; GDP is still 7% below the level it was in 2007; retail spending has plummeted and confidence is shattered.

Taxes are rising, public spending is being cut sharply and the nation is once again experiencing a brain drain, as the young flee for better prospects abroad.

Ireland's downfall has been about too much debt, and a truly manic property boom - and bust. Dublin houses seem to have fallen in value by up to 65% from the height - a greater decline, as far as I can see, than in any other major city on earth, including Las Vegas.

If the figure of a two-thirds price drop is true for most of the country, then the implication is that Ireland's banks - and economy - are even more insolvent than is feared. Most of the billions of loan write-downs taken by Anglo Irish, AIB and Bank of Ireland relate to commercial property and housebuilding. The impairments relating to the EUR150bn residential mortgage books have been modest to date. But that must change.

As with Greece, the full extent of the problems in the republic is only now becoming apparent to its putative paymasters within the eurozone. I predict its difficulties will get worse before they get better.

I have followed the cosmetic surgery crisis with interest. Some years ago, I came very close to buying Transform, the market leader, but at the last minute I got cold feet and pulled out of the deal. My concerns were twofold - one ethical, the other legal.

First, I realised that many customers sought breast enlargements because they said they were unhappy with their appearance. But a surgical procedure was unlikely to provide the answer to their issues, which were usually complex and about much more than the size of their chest. And given boob jobs are half the industry, I saw that the trade was built on something of an illusion.

Second, I worried about litigation. I realised that patients were much more likely to sue a cosmetic surgeon than an NHS doctor, for all sorts of reasons - and that the clinics would often be liable too, even though all the surgeons are self-employed. And this sort of liability is long-tail, so the risks are difficult to quantify.

I suspect the cosmetic surgery clinics that carried out breast enlargements using PIP silicon on a serious scale are to all intents and purposes insolvent now. Thank God I dodged that bullet.

- Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners

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