Book review: Life and soul of the party, by Stephen Green

The modest HSBC chairman delivers a stunning tour de force analysis of the state of the world. Just don't expect a blueprint for action. Review by John McLaren.

Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Stephen Green is a terrific person to sit beside at a dinner. Entertaining, unpompous, clever, likeable, interesting, fluent, he is remarkably like his new book. The parallel doesn't stop there: if he didn't tell you, it would be hard to guess that he was one of the world's most successful bankers, since he lacks altogether the slick self-assurance and Jermyn Street feathers that mark most of that breed.

The book is just as self-effacing - there is no mention of the fact that he was CEO and is now chairman of HSBC, or of his previous jobs in the Overseas Development Agency or McKinsey. It's as if David Beckham penned his reflections on sport without so much as mentioning that he'd played the odd game for Man United.

So, Good Value is in no sense a memoir, and is as far as you can imagine from a kiss-and-tell. It is a compendium of thoughts on matters such as globalisation, trade, finance, capitalism and global warming, cross-referencing them with views on ethics, integrity, the role and obligations of the individual, and religious belief.

Green cites heavily but always interestingly (quotations account for about one-tenth of the total text), and throws in a delightfully broad range of factlets. (Did you know the Bangladeshi population of Tower Hamlets speaks Sylheti, a language whose written form is extinct?) I was equally thrilled to learn (showing my ignorance here) the authorship of phrases such as 'from the sublime to the ridiculous' (Napoleon), 'the greasy pole' (Disraeli), and 'Plus ca change ...' (Alphonse Karr). The erudition is awesome, but the lively, unstuffy flow of the narrative stops it ever feeling wearisome or showy.

On globalisation, Green outperforms any Bryson in the ability to condense a complex tale into a few fluent pages. His touch is most assured when dealing with China. He points out that for 18 of the past 20 centuries, China has been the world's leading economy, so when it streaks past the US soon, it will only be recovering its natural rank.

He is equally succinct on the credit crunch, with the best pocket description of the cycle I've ever encountered: 'The historical pattern repeats and repeats. Confidence is followed by foolhardiness, then by fear followed by a crash, followed by witch-hunts - and eventually by renewed growth. The human emotions appear to repeat themselves: greed, panic, shame, and anger, remorse and sobriety - until exuberance returns.'

There is, though, a bit of a 'but'. For all the brilliance of the analysis, nothing is said about any individual, organisation or country that might run the faintest risk of causing offence. When discussing the way bankers have lost people's trust, he concedes that 'the sins of arrogance, greed, untrustworthiness and callousness are hard to forgive', and recognises that some have taken pay and bonuses 'in vast multiples of the remuneration of ordinary, hard-working, socially-valuable people'.

That might suggest that one way to rebuild that trust and discourage such runaway greed in the future would be to slash the differential by drastically cutting bankers' pay. But we don't go there. The same applies to the conduct of boards, who Green exhorts to take a wider and longer-term view of their social responsibilities. It isn't exactly a blueprint for action, and my hunch is far more radical surgery to the structure of boards will be needed before we see real change.

It's much the same story on geo-political issues. The book reasonably points out that countries such as China and India will soon need to be given a status in supranational bodies that better reflects their superpower status, but steers well clear of the wider economic and military repercussions that will almost inevitably flow from the rise of those countries and the relative fall of the US and Europe.

The problem is probably unavoidable, given Green's day job. His own colleagues might be less than keen if their chairman started scaremongering about places where they want to do business. And nor would they welcome with open arms novel suggestions on how to pare the bank's pay bill. (I can't imagine any BA-style 'work free for a month' proposals going down well in the City.)

All the same, as you speed through this book, you might think back to that dinner party, where Green is dazzling you, Mastermind-style, with his special subjects, including Teilhard de Chardin, TS Eliot and Goethe. But as the evening wears on, with voices rising, conversation getting nearer the bone, and everyone else on their fifth glass of wine, you might notice that Green is still quietly sipping what looks like mineral water. 'Come on,' you feel like saying, 'take your jacket off. Have a good slug of the merlot, tell us what you really think.'

- John McLaren is chairman of the Barchester Group.

Good Value: Reflections on money, morality and an uncertain world
Stephen Green
Allen Lane £25

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