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20 January 2016

Benevolent No More



The London Metal Exchange Benevolent Fund is being wound up, after over a hundred  years. I suppose I’m probably fairly typical in that when I first became aware of that fact, I didn’t really pay much attention. But some of the people I know are Trustees, and talking a little with them about it made me revise my view somewhat. I think it reflects something significant, in which perhaps we should all be a little interested. 

Some History

First, though, just a brief explanation. Before the First Word War (the Fund was founded in 1900), still in the time of some of the great names of the LME - Rudolf Wolff, Henry Bath, Charles Davis et al - the partners of the companies recognised that not all their staff were as financially secure as they were themselves. They therefore set up the Benevolent Fund to enable assistance to be given to those associated with the LME who had fallen on straitened times. In those days, of course, social security as we know it - unemployment pay, pensions and so on - was in its infancy and while those at the top of the business had plenty of opportunity to protect themselves against sickness, unemployment or retirement (although of course that didn’t mean they did: the Fund donated to some surprising recipients as inflation poisoned what had been expected to remain adequate pensions), that did not apply to the majority of those who worked for them. So, with typical late Victorian/Edwardian paternalism, they decided amongst themselves that they should set up a fund to provide for the less fortunate. Plenty of people employed at LME firms donated over the years - from senior partners down to clerks - since it was perceived as the ‘right’ thing to do (and also perhaps as a hostage to future misfortune?). It was part of the way that the City of those days demonstrated a degree of ‘heart’. Over the last twenty-five or thirty years or so companies also donated, as well as individuals. 

Changing Times

I have no idea how many were helped over the years, either through unemployment or times of inadequate pension, but clearly during that time, society has changed. Now, in the era of state benefits and corporate pension schemes, the environment is different and the Trustees of the Fund have taken the view that its purpose has become less pressing. For sure, there is scope for philosophical debate over the relative merits of private charity versus state funding, but that’s really irrelevant here. I am told by the Trustees that the reality in recent times was that they had a degree of difficulty in raising money, on the one hand because - with societal change - individual donors became rarer, and on the corporate side because as member companies became part of larger institutions, the direct personal link was lost and corporations have many other (more well-known) charities approaching them. At the same time, mainly because of those same societal changes, new cases for disbursement became fewer, although of course the Fund continued to assist in existing cases. In other words, the Fund’s time had probably run and its function was no longer as necessary. The City’s ‘heart’ has been transferred to the State.

Different Emphasis?

So that’s the end of the story, except that it is indicative of something else. Just before Christmas, John Wolff wrote on this site an article about the way Christmas used to be celebrated on the LME. Take these two themes together, and I think there is a fundamental change at the heart of it. In previous times, the LME was a community; it entertained itself together, it looked after its members. Now, there is an argument that such a creature would become introspective, ill able to handle changes in the outside world. I wouldn’t dispute that; I’m not suggesting that things shouldn’t change, or that they were better before, I’m simply making an observation. Change happens, and organisations and communities have to adjust to their environment. The LME of the past was a largely self-contained entity, with a clear view that its function was the preservation of its members and their interests (and, of course, the interests of the trade). In becoming a commercial operation, as it has, it is seemingly inevitable that the nature of the beast will change. First, the single-product companies went, to be replaced by larger and larger financial conglomerates; then the self-referential bits, typified by the pantos and so on; now, the last knockings of the benevolent paternalism of the Exchange’s earliest incarnation. Does it matter? In many ways, no; institutions have to adapt to their environment. Should we note it? Well, it’s always good to keep history alive, if for no other reason than to give a sense of perspective. Does it go further? Mmm, I’ve made my views on the longevity of the Ring known before; and there does seem to be a bit of a theme developing. Still, “as long as it’s needed”, huh? Just like the Benevolent Fund, then………. 

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