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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Cabal

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.

Confident.

Wary.

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.

Unjust.

Inequitable.

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.

Conspiracy theories

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.

Flat earthers.

Sunscreen opponents.

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?

Religious believers?

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.


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6 Comments

  1. themoneymountaineer 8 June 2021

    Great piece. I was at the tail end of my consultancy career when this was coming to fruition. I had worked successfully for a boutique consultancy, and times had been good. Then suddenly things shifted and my final few years were still working for the same boutique firm, but all under a KPMG umbrella (oh joy). Largely the same people, doing the same (good) work, but for less money and with KPMG taking their hefty cut.

    And then they came for the subbies with IR35. The independent space dried up and the good times were over for me and my colleagues, and the independents we had worked with so closely and so well. As an ex civil servant in the domain where I consulted, and where I retained some ‘loyalty’ to the tax payer – this all just felt like the big boys had found yet another way to squeeze those who actually do most of the work and transfer the money to the ‘facilitators’.

    I’m not inclined towards believing conspiracy theories – I’ve seen enough natural market shifts not to need to. But I don’t believe the story you told above is much different from what will have happened – but perhaps without the actual ‘cabal’ at the centre – it probably just ‘happened’. But I don’t think anyone benefited, certainly not the tax payer or the hard working specialists (myself included) who in general I think tried their very best to do the right thing for their clients and delivered valuable results.

    Luckily, ?, my life took a natural turn away from consultancy at this point anyway (cherchez la femme!), but I’m not sorry to be out of the game. I had a good run at it and the moderate amounts of cash I was able to stash for good, hard work delivered has set me on a decent road to FIRE, so for that I’m grateful. But I’ll never work for the ‘big 4’ again, not in any form.

    I am not a line on a spreadsheet – I’m a free man!

    MoMo

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 8 June 2021 — Post author

      Thanks TheMoneyMountaineer. I applaud your sentiment, and share your reticence about bending the knee or selling my soul to one of the monster consultancies.

      For what it is worth, I too doubt the existence of a formal cabal. That said, government policy is yet another area that has largely been outsourced, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to learn the core idea and direction of travel taken had originated in a high powered meeting where the phrase “end game” featured more than once.

      I am not a line on a spreadsheet – I’m a free man!

      That’s a protest anthem for the FIRE movement, you should get it printed up on t-shirts!

  2. Malcolm 9 June 2021

    Life is so variable and beyond human knowledge and understanding that it keeps us constantly on our toes-a very uncomfortable position to maintain
    There is no getting off the wheel till death intervenes
    However that does not make us stop trying to find patterns and guess the future
    Unfortunately human changes can mostly be explained by cock ups,incompetence and genuine mistakes not conspiracies
    Sometimes humans can establish a temporary order ie make a cartel work but these are usually very short lived
    Our current social rules for instance have evolved over thousands of years and provide some successful scaffolding to cling to but nothing is forever and constant reevaluation is required to enable survival
    What a game life is!
    xxd09

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 9 June 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Malcolm.

      human changes can mostly be explained by cock ups,incompetence and genuine mistakes

      Exactly! Anyone who has ever worked in the property development game or IT can attest to this.

      Is also worth considering that where there is one group attempting to achieve a given outcome, there will likely be others whose goals interfere with or conflict with the original. Reminds me of a shambolic game of Twenty20 cricket I once saw, where both teams had been paid (by separate gambling syndicates) to lose. Was like watching the under 12s play!

  3. weenie 12 June 2021

    Not sure about Cabals, unless you see HMRC as a cabal?

    The latest IR35 regulation resulted in a couple of our biggest clients issuing a blanket rule that all their consultants (new and existing) worked on PAYE contracts. No change to the rates so the consultants received less in their pockets, but got benefits such as pension auto-enrolment and paid holidays.

    The grizzled consultants who have been round the block and earned good money didn’t like it but were shocked when their threats to leave were ignored as the clients did not deem them to be irreplaceable.

    The thing is the jobs were probably outside of IR35 but the clients just couldn’t be bothered to get involved where there could potentially be a tax burden/liability on them.

    The good times of consulting are probably over for many but not for all.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 12 June 2021 — Post author

      Thanks weenie.

      unless you see HMRC as a cabal?

      No, in this context HMRC is merely a tool. The cabal would be akin to an architect sitting behind the scenes, providing instruction to the builders and subcontractors on what needs to be built, but probably not how they should go about it.

      The additional administrative hassle imposed on the clients is a feature of the new rules, not a bug.

      There is a long running structural reform underway in the labour market in the United Kingdom. The goal was never about equal taxation, but changing the mechanics of the market. Zero hour contracts and gig economy jobs form separate threads in that same structural reshaping.

      That is a tough lesson to learn for those grizzled consultants, we are all just interchangeable cogs in a machine. None of us are irreplaceable.

      The good times of consulting are probably over for many but not for all.

      Agreed.

What say you?

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