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Guy Kingston

We are told that ‘business’ is very keen on big-ticket public works items like the expansion of Heathrow airport and the HS2 high speed rail link. Really? Or is this another area where self-appointed ‘business leaders’ are failing to represent the real needs and desires of most businesses. As with most public works projects, the initial budgets for HS2 underestimated the costs to a degree that borders on the criminal. Few now believe the final cost will leave much change from £50,000,000,000 …all to cut passenger journey times from London and Birmingham by just over 20 minutes! Read More!

Although we try to be internationally minded, the authors of this blog can be forgiven for basking for a little while longer in the reflected glory of a great weekend for British sport. First, the British Lions hammered the feared Australians to win their rugby tour test series 2-1, somewhat contrary to expectations. Then Britain broke a 77-year home-ground losing streak when Andy Murray became the first Briton since Fred Perry to win the Men’s Singles at Wimbledon. Even those of us who are usually bored by tennis were thrilled to see it.

As we have observed before, there is a define correlation between sporting success and confidence, and between confidence and business success.

Confidence is coming back, at least in the UK. Better still, it is not the arrogance that expects, and relies on, another boom – and ignores the consequent bust – but a more realistic confidence in slow, steady recovery, avoiding both boom and bust.  There are still some very dangerous unexploded mines out there in the global economy, especially in Europe and the United States, but the UK is better prepared than most for them going off.

Where the talk, not so long ago, was of a possible ‘triple dip recession,’ it turns out that there was never even a ‘double dip recession’ in Britain. A revision of the official statistics confirms what many small businesses suspected: the original post-2008 recession was worse than was said at the time, but once we were clear of it, we stayed clear.

Britain’s Coalition Government might see that as vindication of its policy of ‘austerity,’ but ‘austerity’ has really not been that austere and the new Government’s greatest contribution is simply not making things worse. Still, they do deserve credit for that much. It is better than the alternative, which we had before.

It is therefore disappointing that the Bank of England undermined the mood of confidence by announcing the continuation of its low interest rate policy, with the implication that it will continue to rely instead on ‘quantitative easing’ – printing money to the rest of us. This is the inflationary option rather than the growth option. Although self-appointed small business ‘leaders’ are always calling for lower interest rates, official base rates have relatively little to do with the much, much higher rates currently being paid by business, and it is more important to send the right signals to maintain confidence. A token base rate rise would have been a helpful sign of determination.

In rugby and tennis alike, how one responds to the first touch of the ball is of great psychological importance, often setting the tone for the rest of the match, and the new Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has not got off to the firm, decisive start he needed.

 

Mardi Gras Money Dance on Royal Street

The idiots who failed to see 2008 coming – including most of the overpaid ‘experts’ who advise governments and big organisations – are now all but dancing in the streets because of the spectacular rise of the Dow Jones. The people who made themselves unpopular by predicting 2008 – including much of the small business community – are worried for exactly the same reason.

Basic mathematics suggests that if the rise of the Dow Jones is not the result of a proportionate rise in the productivity of the companies it represents, then share prices are overinflated. If so, for reasons familiar to Sir Isaac Newton, sooner or later there must be a downward readjustment – a fall; best case scenario a slump, worst case and more likely a crash.

The recent surge in the Dow Jones may have less to do with productivity than people having nowhere else to put their money. Confidence in the banking system collapsed in 2008 and expensive efforts to rebuild it have been undermined by the Cypriot tax-grab. Gold was a good option for a while until governments dumping their reserves reduced the price. Property remains the safe option but people who became accustomed to unsustainable price rises are now reluctant to tie up their capital in long-term growth.

So cash has flooded into the stock markets – but, as in 2008, a lot of it is effectively borrowed. This time the borrowing is by banks but financed by governments in the form of ‘quantitative easing’, a modern day metaphor for printing money, and borrowing of their own. Of course, borrowing for investment is the foundation of modern capitalist prosperity, but too much has been borrowed for the wrong reasons. This newly printed money is finding its way into stockmarkets and driving share prices up. It should, instead, be financing genuine investment in new capital projects. The trigger for the 2008 crash – although there were other factors involved – was borrowing to buy overpriced property the borrowers could not really afford. The problem now is borrowing and printing by governments who lack the will to take unpopular measures to deal with their deficits.

The decision of the EU to ‘ease austerity’ is the latest in a long chain of tough choices postponed. Sooner or later, those deficits must be reduced substantially – we cannot hope for their total elimination under present circumstances – and the later it happens, the harder it will be.

The soft money cannot last forever. We must break our addiction to it, even if doing so means a tough couple of years – better that than a tough couple of decades. Of course, the process could be made much easier if accompanied by serious measures to help productivity – simplifying taxes, cutting red tape, and firing a few million useless, interfering bureaucrats – but no one in government is even talking about that.

Meanwhile, the party goes on, as bullish investors dance on the edge of a volcano.

 

 

The news that ‘Pope Emeritus’ Benedict XVI has returned to live in the Vatican means that there are now two Popes living in the same palace. This might sound like the set-up for a bad sitcom, but it highlights a problem that is all too familiar in the small business sector.

Scholars have identified the problems of ‘succession’ or ‘generational transition’ as a major cause of the collapse of otherwise successful businesses. In the case of a family business, it might mean a patriarch or matriarch handing the business to the next generation. In a larger business, it might mean that growth has reached a point where the entrepreneurial founder has to bring in professional management to run it.

Whatever the reason it has to happen, ‘letting go’ is psychologically very difficult for most people, but doubly so for the sort of people who head businesses. They are the sort of people who like being in control, and they may have strong emotional attachments to businesses they built themselves and/or run for a long time. They also get used to the power, the perks, and trappings of being the boss, and are loath to give them up.

Some go into denial. They remain in charge even when their judgement is no longer up to it, with predictable results. Even if they hold on to the very end, the business might die with them because they refuse to put arrangements in place to ensure it survives them. Others might accept the need to transfer power in theory, but prove unable to live with it in practice. They insist on hanging around afterwards, interfering and offering unwanted advice.

They usually claim that their experience is a useful asset and it would be a shame to let it go to waste. Maybe… but the reality is that they really want a position where they have power but not responsibility. That is unacceptable in any organisation. Power and responsibility should be united in one person, the current chief executive. He should be able to make his own decisions, knowing he will bear the consequences.

In the Vatican, that person is Pope Francis. He needs to make that clear. It was a mistake for him to visit his predecessor soon after his election, and it is a mistake now to welcome him back to his old workplace. It is in everyone’s interest for someone to tell Benedict that it was his choice to resign and he owes it to his successor to keep out of his way – everyone’s interest including Benedict’s: he needs to move on himself. Also it is not exactly helpful for him to use the unprecedented title of ‘Pope Emeritus’ and keep wearing the Pope’s trademark white. Saying this frankly might hurt Benedict’s feelings a little but, of all people, he should understand.

 

Reagan et Thatcher

Even those of us who did not agree with everything she did cannot deny the achievements or the influence of Margaret Thatcher. While there is room to debate whether Caesar, Napoleon, Churchill, or whoever, is the Greatest Man in History, when defined purely in terms of personal accomplishment, it is hard to think of any serious challenger to Margaret Thatcher as the Greatest Woman in History by that definition.

For a commoner from a modest background to become the first ever female Head of Government of a major power would have been triumph enough in itself, but it was what she did with that office that set her apart from every other British politician since Churchill.

For better or for worse, she changed Britain completely – and if there was, as with all politicians, a bit of both, on balance the better far outweighed the worse. When she came to power in 1979, Britain was still generally viewed as Konrad Adenauer’s bankrupt millionaire who had not yet realised that he had lost all his money. By the time she left office in 1990, Britain was again an economic powerhouse, the envy of other nations and even their role model.

She also changed the world. She played a pivotal role, along with Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Mikhail Gorbachev in bringing the Cold War to a triumphant and surprisingly peaceful conclusion.

However, her greatest legacy may be the re-establishment of Britain’s enterprise culture. In the 1970s business was actively scorned and persecuted by the British government. It was the grocer’s daughter who showed how abolishing exchange controls, cutting taxes, privatising state assets, and reducing overly politicised unions to their proper role could benefit the economy as a whole. Perhaps she could have gone further in cutting red tape, but what she did was enough to encourage a whole new generation of entrepreneurs, many of them people who would never have dreamt of owning their own business before she came along.

Not only did it become possible for almost anyone to be an entrepreneur – it became positively fashionable. To that extent, all entrepreneurs in Britain today – and in countries influenced by the ‘Thatcherite’ British model – are, like it or not, Margaret Thatcher’s Children.

It is the nature of things that strong, healthy children often clash with their parents, but in the end they are usually grateful to them and for them. That is as good as summary as any of Britain’s complex relationship with the Iron Lady – we have had our differences with her but today, in the end, we are grateful.

 

Essential business building videos and podcasts with no-nonsense advice from experienced entrepreneurs will help you become a successful business owner