Have you noticed one of the favourite tricks interviewees do on television when they are asked something difficult? They say something like "I am not sure about that, but what I think you meant to ask was ..." - and off they trot into the message they have been itching to impart, with hardly a care for the interviewer or listener.
I got one like that last week, but not on live television.
I was in China and was being asked about the impact of foreign banks in China, since the market had been opened up to allow foreign institutions to take stakes in domestic banks. Had the "experiment" been a success, I was asked. Well, I was able to trot out a whole range of answers about the injections of capital, the expertise that had become available to the investee banks in some cases by the secondment of executives from outside China (although I admit this has not been a universal success). The opening up of the foreign markets, in return, to those domestic Chinese banks, and so on. And the introduction of "best practice" in so far it is understood by foreign banks, in the realms of corporate governance and transparency - taking provisions for bad debts early rather than hiding them. A "no surprise" regime. Not forgetting the important area of credit control.
I really should have noticed the slight narrowing of the eyes and pursed lips.
The conversation continued until it had almost reached its natural conclusion. The interviewer relaxed, as did I. Just one last question Mr. Eldon, if I may? Of course.
"You mentioned earlier that one of the important areas, perhaps the most important contribution that had been made by the foreign banks to China was the introduction of good lending systems and controls over lending. Can you tell me, then, what you think about these expert foreign banks who got caught up in the sub-prime debt market. If they are so expert, how could this have happened - and do they really bring such good practices to China. Should we be worried, or should we let more foreign banks in to teach us?
"Ah!" I said. "What an interesting question - what I think you really meant to ask was...". But in this case, there was little sensible I could add; no message I had been itching to impart.
Message to foreign banks wanting to invest in Chinese banks - tell them about your lack of sub-prime exposure. That will impress them as to your suitability as a partner.