A free supplement in The Independent today is all about spread betting: what it is, what the pitfalls are. It was pretty clear: there are potentially huge rewards, but because you can bet whatever money you like on each share, you can actually be exposed to huge losses too.
But what disgusted me about the articles in the supplement was the total absence of any mention of what buying a share in a company might mean. The old fashioned view of acquiring a ‘share’ was precisely that: one bought into a company because you wanted to invest in what it did. You believed in it, so put some of your money into it.
That view has clearly been eroded, and over the years ownership of shares has less and less had anything to do with a relationship with a company or what its practices were. It became purely about profit: your money came back to you, and then some.
What depresses me about spread betting is that this alienation of the investor from the company they are investing in has been exaggerated to the maximum. A spread better may only hold a position in a company for a matter of minutes. They have no concern for the employees, for the environment policies, for the conditions the cleaners work in… Their only concern is a very quick transformation of their capital into…more capital.
In Marx’ Capital he outlines the development of money, and the exchanges that typically occur with a market: a man might bring some linen to sell, take £12 for it, and use this £12 to buy a bible. The linen and the bible have equivalent value – the money has simply facilitated the exchange between a number of individuals. Marx denotes this a ‘C-M-C’ transation: Commodity (into) Money (then back into) Commodity.
Extrapolating this exchange sequence, we can see that the seller of the bible now has £12, so we could look further and see C-M-C-M-C-M-C…. going on ad infinitum.
All well and good. But Marx’s insight was to see that this chain could be read a different way through a simple phase-shift and become M-C-M-… Money is exchanged for a Commodity, which is then exchanged again for Money.
The question he poses is this: why would anyone exchange their money for a commodity, if they were simply going to get the same money back? The parity only works for the C-M-C exchange of commodities. For M-C-M the parity looks absurd… until the idea of profit comes in.
And this is the insanity of spread betting – and all share dealing to some extent. It is totally uninterested in the commodities the facilitate the profit. What does this mean in practice? Abuses of human rights as workers are exploited, and abuses of our environment as the planet’s resources are exploited. Those spread betting have no material interest in these things – only profit can be of interest to them.
The romantic ‘old’ view of buying a ‘share’ in a company is not so old and romantic, as it happens. And stake-holder ownership of companies by workers is one of the key recommendations of The Spirit Level in the battle to reduce income inequality and thus improve life outcomes for everyone in society. Conversely, spread betting increases inequality and instability in society.
It seems to me – given the current financial climate – grossly irresponsibly of The Independent to write a supplement without considering the wider issues at all. The only negative they considered was personal loss of capital. The deeper problems of economic instability and widening inequality wer totally ignored.
And so I’d say this: no one with an interest in human rights or the environment, certainly no Christian, should be involved in spread betting. It’s an unethical way of making money. Period.