Brummer: 'I could've changed Guardian Middle East stance'

Brummer: 'I could've changed Guardian Middle East stance'

ALEX ZATMAN speaks to Alex Brummer, a leading authority on world economics

ALEX Brummer is a veteran economic commentator, city editor of the Daily Mail and renowned financial author, but the son of a kosher butcher still finds time to lead services at his synagogue.

And despite being warned off a career in journalism by his school's careers master because it was "too competitive", Alex persevered and is now one of the nation's leading experts at a time when economics insight has never been more prized.

The 63-year-old places his success at the feet of his Jewish heritage.

He explained: "One of the things I've learned in journalism, in any aspect of work life, if you are a little bit more intense and devoted than the people around you, you'll do better.

"To want to do something well is a Jewish characteristic. It's a desire to outshine your colleagues.

"There is a burning ambition to do a bit better, to make the extra phone call, to knock on the extra door, in terms of financial journalism, to do that extra bit of research, that pushed me on.

"It is something in the Jewish dynamic. There is a general insecurity and a need to prove ourselves."

Hailing from a "traditional" Jewish family, Alex grew up in Brighton where his father was first a farmer then a kosher butcher.

The Brummers attended Middle Street Synagogue and would "clamber across the South Downs" to reach shul for Shabbat and the high holy days.

His uncle, the famous chazan Hillel Brummer, plied his trade on the south coast during the Second World War before moving on to the Poale Zedeck Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Middle Street was where Alex learned to daven. And those skills are still in use at Richmond Synagogue, London, where he occasionally leads the services.

Undoubtedly a bright, ambitious, erudite youngster, the grammar school boy could have made a success of any path he turned his hand to.

Temporarily he adhered to the overtures of the careers master and headed to Southampton University to read economics.

After a gaining an MBA from Bradford Management Centre, he spent a short period in business before fulfilling his dreams in journalism.

Alex recalled: "I joined a weekly financial called Accountancy Age, but I was only there for three or four months.

"I ran into somebody at The Guardian and was recruited on to their graduate scheme."

He remained at the left-leaning publication until 1999 having been, at various points, financial reporter, Washington correspondent, Washington bureau chief, foreign editor, financial editor and finally assistant editor.

On his return from America, he stood for election as editor but lost to the man who still holds the position, Alan Rusbridger.

It remains one of his deepest regrets.

"It was the culmination of my ambition and I could have changed the course of its Middle East coverage," he lamented.

"I sat at editorial level and wrote leaders. I was constantly pushing back the tide of support for the Palestinians.

"As editor I could have pushed it back permanently.

"I have a passionate belief in the State of Israel. The country is a huge force for good in the region."

The Jewish state's economy has emerged from the global financial crisis relatively unscathed and Alex praised Bank of Israel chairman Stanley Fischer for his determined steering.

He explained: "The IMF recently produced a whole series of reports on the Israeli economy on every aspect down to regulation of banks, insurance and infrastructure projects.

"They received an A-, which is pretty good for a country of Israel's size.

"But there were a couple of things they focused on that are worth Jewish people thinking about.

"There is a great level of prosperity, Israel is richer in many ways than other OECD countries, but there is a big division in Israel between the very well off and the least well off.

"That doesn't reflect well. I like to think that Jewish values are of fairness, charity, giving and a certain amount of equality."

He pointed to the ultra-Orthodox, Israeli Arabs and Bedouins as "very poor communities" on the sidelines of society.

"The charedim do not make a huge contribution and with Israeli Arabs there was a lost opportunity to involve them in being part of the nation's growth story," he said.

In 2000 Alex joined The Mail on a permanent basis, to take up the post of city editor, where he remains.

Turning back to Britain, the financial expert explained that the recessions of the 1970s, which he covered as a cub reporter, made life "much harder to negotiate than today".

With rubbish piling up on the streets, Britain begging the IMF for money, and intermittent power cuts, life was more difficult to navigate, he added.

With the eurozone in seemingly perennial peril, Alex criticised Britain's lack of trade with emerging economies.

He said: "So many of our eggs are in the European basket. Forty per cent of our trade is with the euro area.

"Our trade with Ireland is greater than our trade with China, Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa."

And he offered a warning to chancellor George Osborne.

"He took the right steps when he came into office," Alex said. "It was right to try to stabilise public finances.

"But I do think that we've gone as far as we can with austerity, our low interest rate costs should be used to engender more growth and to direct more money into small and medium-size enterprises.

"That requires some imagination and radical thinking."

Alex claimed that a by-product of the economic crisis could be a rise in the denigration of Jews - historically associated with money-lending.

"The banks have become an easy target and I worry that behind the vilification of Goldman Sachs, which has strong Jewish roots and a strong Jewish presence, is a latent antisemitism," he said.

"JP Morgan Chase have done everything Goldman Sachs have.

"Polling in America suggests this vilification of banks means antisemitism is on the rise."

But for Alex, now a grandfather, his Jewish heritage offers a different perspective from his competitors when analysing the markets.

"It allows me a more moral, ethical viewpoint," he said.

"I like to believe I'm hard on bad financial behaviour, regardless of where it comes from.

"The shareholder spring, the rebellion against high pay, doesn't surprise me. I've been writing about the immorality of it for a while."

Throughout his 40-year career, Alex has acquired a number of industry awards.

In 1989 he received the Best Foreign Correspondent in the United States from the Overseas Press Club, and more recently he won the Magazine Commentator of the Year for his New Statesman column, winning a further six awards in between.

He recalled: "The highlight of my career was my first period in the US.

"Since I was a boy I was fascinated by American politics and to be able to cover it first-hand was a thrill beyond anything I could imagine.

"I have a deep-seated devotion to understanding American politics.

"The first award was some achievement for somebody with a financial background."

He added that losing The Guardian's editorship election was dejecting, but he "recovered fairly well and now I have a wonderful platform to commentate".

Would he consider a run to be the Daily Mail's editor?

"I don't think so. I'm past my peak in that kind of ambition," he declared.

"I want to do what I do much better, and to be more of an expert at it."

Alex has also diversified into books.

He penned two biographies on leading British businessmen in the 1990s, but the financial meltdown of 2007, which began with the run on Northern Rock, led Alex to write accessible analysis books.

In 2008, he published The Crunch: The Scandals of Northern Rock and the Looming Credit Crisis and the next year The Crunch: How Greed and Incompetence Sparked the Credit Crisis.

In 2011 he released The Great Pensions Robbery: How the politicians betrayed retirement.

And earlier this year, his latest effort Britain for Sale - British companies in foreign hands - the hidden threat to our economy made its way onto book shelves.

Alex, married to puppeteer Tricia, explained that Britain for Sale focuses on a subject he has been writing on for a number of years.

At such a fascinating time for journalists, when the world is in financial flux, Alex remains a lynchpin of his trade.

He said: "Journalism is exciting, even after a long career in it. You're always discovering new things.

"Although news goes in cycles and you've done something before, there's always a new aspect, and you're able to put that across.

"This is the best I've ever been. I'm able to compare to past experience.

"I still get a great thrill by discovering new facts and you get that by studying company accounts.

"I thrive on going out to meetings in Washington, with the IMF, to Silicon Valley."

Ever dedicated to the Jewish community, Alex was recently elected to be a vice president of the Board of Deputies.

He explained: "I decided to do it on the urgings of senior people at the Board.

"I have the right credentials, a good grip on public affairs, and a wide range of contacts in business, Whitehall, in Parliament and in the Jewish community.

"My goal is to get deputies more involved in their own communities and national community."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph