This week I binge-watched a financial thriller series called Devils. Set in London’s financial district during the early 2010s, against the backdrop of the European debt crisis, the story spins a fast-paced alternative narrative about how and why those calamitous events took place.
The show was worth a look. Full of betrayal. Car chases. Murders. Anti-heroes and dastardly villains. A modern-day Game of Thrones. Armani instead of armour. Armies replaced by the media. Megacorp CEOs the new Kings and Queens. Yet the real weapons remained as they ever were: information and power.
The scriptwriters deployed a couple of very effective plot devices. News footage from the era was used as a narration device. Helping set the scene and convey the sense of fear, outrage, and suspense prevalent at the time. Key events were alternately portrayed from perspectives of everyday people whose lives were destroyed, and the investing titans who (possibly) engineered those events for their own financial gain
It portrayed the difference between those who make the news and those who passively consume it.
How eager the general public are to believe. Gullible. Easy to manipulate. Unquestioning acceptance.
Failing to do the thinking or follow the money.
No root cause analysis. Little anticipation of what happens next.
One thing I found fascinating was how effectively the show portrayed populism. Emotive at the time. Preying on people’s fears and worries. The orchestrated whipping of a crowd into a frenzied mob.
Mass protests appearing to apply pressure on corporate officeholders and public officials. Using the court of public opinion to bring reluctant parties to the negotiating table.
However, with the benefit of a decade’s hindsight, we can see how ineffectual those mass protests really were. A few token scalps were claimed, scapegoats sacrificed to sate the angry mob, but little of consequence changed.
It rarely does.
Rule the world
Devils reminded me of an entertaining tale I was told years ago.
The year was 1997. The privatisation gravy train appeared to be nearing the end of its journey.
In certain quarters, heads were starting to look towards the next big thing: outsourcing.
In a luxuriously appointed board room, a half dozen or so old white men in grey suits assembled.
At various times allies of convenience or the fiercest of competitors.
Each man represented a large player in the professional services game, an industry that was amidst an orgy of mergers and acquisitions at the time. Every deal resembled a game of musical chairs, enriching the victors and bringing to an early end the careers of those left without a seat at the table.
The group had gathered to reach an accord. While they would viciously compete with one another for slices of the lucrative pie that was supplying professionals services to large organisations, all those present agreed it was in their collective best interests that pie not be shared with outsiders.
In essence, they would become a guild. Control the supply. Set the market price. Protect their profit margins. Establishing a defensive moat that would be difficult for new entrants to breach.
A plan was agreed that their considerable collective reach be brought to bear.
Quiet words in the right ears.
Incentives offered. Intimidation applied.
Power flexed to set the agenda and influence government policy.
In early 1999, the tax authorities issued a press release announcing a crackdown on “disguised employment”. The target of the policy change was small consultancies and independent white-collar professionals, who used the legal protections offered by limited companies to sell their services to clients.
The argument went that such service providers were really disguised employees of the client.
By trading behind a corporate veil, these nefarious tax evaders enjoyed a form of tax arbitrage over normal employees. Their services did not incur payroll taxes or national insurance contributions.
It was unfair.
Something should be done!
The government must act. Ensure equal pay for equal work. Protect the rights of everyday workers.
A brief consultation period ensued, where those small service providers observed that while they did not incur those additional taxes, neither did they enjoy many of the benefits traditionally associated with permanent employment. Annual bonuses. Career advancement. Continuous professional development. Health insurance. Job security. Paid vacations. Private pensions. Sick leave.
They pointed out that the use of corporate vehicles was not only legal, it was incentivised by the rules contained within the existing tax system.
Valid or otherwise, those arguments were unpersuasive.
Parliament passed a retrospective law that effectively outlawed these “disguised employment” arrangements from being used by small service providers.
If clients wanted to hire short-term professional services consultants, they should be using the large consultancies who paid their taxes and, in the court of public opinion, did everything by the book.
The implementation and enforcement of the new rules was a circus. Vague and subjective guidelines. Bungled implementation. Inconsistent rulings. Legal challenges at every step, with the authorities losing more often than they won.
Throughout the next decade, the outsourcing wave swelled into a veritable tsunami of money.
Government service provision and megacorp back-office functions were shopped on the open market.
Management consultants and business school graduates recited the mantra that firms should focus on their core competencies. Let the “professionals” take care of everything else.
The annual revenues earned by the big players eventually topped USD$200,000,000,000. Their collective staffing numbers larger than the standing armies of many countries, another professional service that was increasingly being outsourced.
While many of those snouts in the trough wore the uniforms of the large professional services firms, trading elbows with them and jostling for space remained a host of pesky smaller consultancies and independents.
The cabal of old white men in grey suits met once more, to review progress and refocus their efforts.
Some large clients, particularly those in the City, had been persuaded that the cost and hassle of dealing with numerous small suppliers outweighed the flexibility and benefits of sourcing white-collar professionals from a single large service provider. Outsourcing the resourcing function. Mitigating the hiring risk. Turning the supply of suitably skilled warm bodies into an on-demand service.
But it wasn’t enough. A new series of actions were called for.
A wider net was cast for enforcing the legislation. Capturing computer geeks, consultants of all stripes, media personalities, and tradespeople. Collateral damage in pursuit of the broader goal.
A new assessment tool was provisioned for the tax authorities, defaulting to a “computer says no” response to the question of whether a small player was compliant and operating within the rules.
Years passed. The scheme to corner the professional services market continued. Yet it failed to land a decisive killer blow, many clients persisting with procurement from outside the cabal’s guild.
Until a final meeting was convened, where a simple yet devious solution presented itself. The most effective lever in the campaign so far had been the tax arbitrage issue. Few members of the public had any sympathy for those able to evade taxes that they themselves had little choice but to pay.
The clients didn’t much care about that perception however, they just wanted reasonably priced and suitably skilled interchangeable cogs to power their corporate machines.
But what if there was a way to make that tax arbitrage the clients’ problem? To make them liable, should the small service providers they hired fail to pay the full amounts owed under the new rules?
It was genius! Before long the idea was baked into policy. First applied in the public sector, then subsequently rolled out through the private sector.
Clients were free to hire independent consultants. The market rates for their services didn’t change.
However, those consultants now faced the prospect of paying marginal tax rates of up to 60-65%. Representing a cut in disposable income of up to 20%, for which the client was potentially liable should the consultant attempt to fiddle their taxes.
Understandably, this was a risk that few clients were willing to assume.
In a single stroke, many small consultancy businesses ceased to be financially viable. Still incurring the costs and uncertainty associated with running a small business. Now earning less than the equivalent permanent employee salary package, with none of the benefits.
New service delivery models suddenly sprang up. Independents subcontracting through larger consultancies or selling their services through so-called “umbrella” companies. Unsurprisingly, the owners of these vehicles were often the guild members.
Those who persisted with the old ways faced structural changes in the marketplace. Time and materials based engagements were increasingly replaced by fixed-price contracts. Shifting the delivery risk onto the service provider. A significant challenge for a small professional, who has no control over the client’s prioritisation and resourcing decisions.
A career as a freelancer suddenly became a lifestyle choice, rather than a financial one.
Leading to a stampede for the exits, as former independent consultants battled it out for permanent seats in the never-ending game of musical chairs.
While an entertaining yarn, I have my doubts about the veracity of the story.
Yet I know several long term freelancers who steadfastly insist it is true.
Wanting to believe that adversely changing market conditions were the result of some grand conspiracy against them. Needing somebody to blame.
I know just as many Buy-To-Let landlords who will happily spin a similar conspiracy theory perpetrated by large property developers and commercial property management firms.
Do these cabals exist? Powerful people who meet up in James Bond villain lairs, stroking white cats and plotting global domination? Probably.
The candidate pre-selection committees for any major political party could certainly be described thus.
Any guild or industry controlled by a professional standards body or which has a barrier to entry is controlled by one. Limiting numbers. Defending prices. Deciding how good is “good enough”.
Editorial lines taken by mainstream media owners can certainly influence election outcomes. So too the policies applied by social media platforms.
Celebrities moving markets, such as Elon Musk’s recent pump and dump of the crypto market.
However, there is a danger in perceiving conspiracy theories everywhere we look.
Those claiming 5G causes COVID
The Q-Anon folks who believe Donald Trump saved the world from a cult of satanic cannibal paedophiles.
These we mostly dismiss as the ravings of the deranged, the gullible, or meme following sheeple.
But what about anti-vaxxers?
Herd immunity advocates, who protest mask-wearing and COVID lockdowns?
Proponents of Universal Basic Income or Financial Independence being possible for anyone?
These ideas are just as difficult to prove or disprove, yet we indulge and protect them. Freedom of thought. Freedom of expression. Freedom of assembly.
Whether things are carefully orchestrated, or the result of random chance, many things in life are outside of our control and have a way of happening regardless.
Choose your beliefs carefully, but don’t fall into the trap of blaming others or using conspiracy theories as an excuse to hide behind.
- Gov.uk (2021), ‘Rates and thresholds for employers 2020 to 2021‘
- HMRC (1999), ‘IR35: Press Release dated 9 March 1999‘
- HMRC (1999), ‘Personal services provided through intermediaries – preventing avoidance: preserving flexibility‘
- ITContracting (2020), ‘IR35 history – a concise timeline from 1999 to date‘
- Lux Vide (2020), ‘Devils’, IMDB
- Seely, A (2021), ‘Personal service companies & IR35’, House of Commons Library
- Seymour, R. (2012), ‘A short history of privatisation in the UK 1979-2012’, The Guardian
- The Guardian (2011), ‘A history of outsourcing‘