Beware Abandoning Europe, Mr Cameron

This is an extract of an article published on January 13th 2013. It can be read in full on the Daily Mail website here.

Article Daily Mail January 2013The Obama administration has voiced its concern about Britain’s future in Europe. Some prominent business leaders are getting nervous that political posturing could result in the UK sleepwalking out of the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron is under pressure from his right wing and the rising UKIP vote to renegotiate the treaty and hold a referendum on EU membership.

The key question in this increasingly heated debate is whether the UK could become a Switzerland or Norway with a trading agreement with the Union.

During the past two decades Britain has looked mainly west towards America for political and economic inspiration rather than east towards Europe. As the headlong rush into globalisation emasculated the unions and kept real wages low, demand had to be stimulated in new ways.

Under the last Labour government, Gordon Brown and Ed Balls took their guidance from Federal Reserve supremo Alan Greenspan and Wall Street.

Following the US example, wage increases were replaced by increased limits on credit cards and rising mortgages on the back of the asset bubble.

When Margaret Thatcher came to office in 1979, private household debt stood at around £60billion. When Labour got into office in 1997 it had risen to £750billion and when the Coalition took over, it had reached £1.45trillion.

Instead of government debt being reduced during the boom years, the opposite happened, with the rescue of the banking sector completing the disaster.

Taking the lead from the US in economic strategy has been an unmitigated disaster not only for Britain, but left other countries such as Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece. It even influenced such countries as Switzerland, France and Germany, as their banks were trying to become global players, pay their managers Wall Street salaries and adopt the casino culture.

Fortunately, in the northern European countries the excesses were not quite as pronounced, but they now have the unenviable task of bailing out their profligate southern neighbours. Following the US lead during the past decade has not been a great success and no wonder open-minded people all over Europe are looking for alternatives.

A lot of my German business colleagues regret, as I do, that Germany and Britain did not get together as leaders of Europe, as Helmut Schmidt and other German chancellors had hoped.

Britain is approaching the crossroads and my hope is that leaders will look at the alternatives carefully and not be influenced by political expediency.

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Corrosive Pay-Day Loans Should Stop

This letter appeared in the Financial Times Monday 26 November 2012

With his assertion (Letters, November 22), that APR calculations are meaningless and that banks charge even more on occasions, Errol Damelin, chief executive of Wonga, is trying once again to defend the indefensible. May I remind your readers why Wonga and the other 50 pay-day loan companies are not operating on the continent – very simple, Mr Damelin and his peers would likely be in prison under usury laws, if they plied their trade in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Netherlands or the Nordic countries. Contracts that bear exploitative interest rates, generally above 15-20 per cent cannot be enforced in law. Repeat offenders, who try it, get a prison sentence. Maybe it is no coincidence that the above countries are the so-called creditor nations in Europe.

Usury laws protect the socially weak, uneducated, desolate and weak-willed from predators. There seem plenty of those around in the UK to feed this market. It is high time that the government acts against them, and at least they are prevented from advertising – their products are more socially corrosive than cigarettes or alcohol.

Letter in the Financial Times regarding payday loans by Bob Bischof

Steve Mann's reply in the Financial Times
Steve Mann’s reply in the Financial Times

How Overseas Investors Saved UK Car Makers

As published in the Daily Mail, 14 August 2012

Britain’s car industry is booming. After decades of decline, the UK for the first time since the mid-1970s is making more cars for export than are being imported.

Investment is rolling in and production is up and rising substantially. Just this week Jaguar Land Rover announced its Halewood factory would move to 24-hour round-the-clock production for the first time with the introduction of an extra shift.

The car maker has created another 1,000 jobs at its Merseyside plant to meet demand for its ‘baby’ Range Rover Evoque – launched by Spice Girl Victoria Beckham who also created a special edition version and Land Rover Freelander offroader models.

Most of the UK car industry is now in foreign hands, and thriving. So how come, whilst it was in British ownership, the reverse was the case?

Some people blame the unions for their part in its downfall, but recently employees have shown themselves prepared to work hard and agree to flexible deals to preserve jobs, so it seems unlikely there is anything inherently wrong with the British workforce.

Others blame management for the failures. However, an analysis of the management structures of the German, Japanese and Indian car owners show that many of the managers in their UK operations are not only British but are doing a first class job.

So if Britain has top flight workers and managers, why did it all go so wrong in the past? The answer has to lie with the different corporate governance models that are used.

All the above mentioned car manufacturers are from countries where companies and their managements are not beholden to the Anglo-Saxon short term shareholder value model. This ethos inflicts a pressurecooker obsession with quarterly results on managers.

If boards are incentivised through share prices, they would rather pay higher dividends or try to please the markets with share buy-backs, takeovers or break-ups than invest in skills, modern equipment, new products, or research and development.

Professor John Kay alluded to the defects in the equity markets in his review for business secretary Vince Cable. He is clearly of the opinion that short-termism is not helpful to industry. However, his focus was just on the equity market and its players, not on the effects on manufacturing businesses.

The boards of BMW and Volkswagen can take a long view in spite of being stock market quoted companies, because they are not only responsible to shareholders but also to the other stakeholders, particularly the employees of the company. Their incentive systems are designed accordingly for the long term.

One does not need to look just at the car industry in isolation.

There are other examples of what corporate governance can deliver. Why, for instance, has JCB been so successful, weathered so many storms and seen its products have become world beaters? The reason is simply that JCB management can act like their opposite numbers in a German or Japanese company.

Another example is the Unipart Group, a buy-out from British Leyland that has blossomed under management and employee ownership and boasts now a turnover of around £1bn. Its strengths are its skilled and highly motivated labour force and management.

There are other examples – though unfortunately not enough of them. If Britain is serious about rebalancing the economy with a buoyant manufacturing sector, it needs to change the governance system.

The present one has been failing manufacturing in this country as long as I have been working in the UK – and that is for over 40 years.

It can be done, if a few people could jump over their beloved shadows.

Ordnungs- politik: the real third way

This letter appeared in the Financial Times Saturday 7 April 2012

Bob Bischof Letter in the FT April 2012

Sir, Michael Portillo hits the nail on the head with his suggestion of funding political parties out of tax revenues. Britain is the nation of common sense and everybody knows instinctively that “Who pays, says!” . Neither the union barons nor the rich donors should do either and it is pure logic that the voting, taxpaying public should do it. The Allies introduced this system in Germany after the last war and it works well – as do so many of the checks and balances, which govern modern Germany’s public life. There appears to be a growing murkiness in Britain in the relationship between business, unions, politicians, the media and police, which eats at the fabric of this free, open and liberal society. David Cameron would be well advised to forget about the “Big Society” with less regulation and rather re-establish a more “Orderly Society” with a dose of “Ordnungspolitik” to save it.
Yours sincerely
Bob Bischof

Neue Labour: Can German Business Ideas Revive the UK Economy?

Sunday 11 March 2012 – Bob Bischof appeared on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Analysis’ to share the ideas from Germany that could help improve the UK’s fortunes.

Presenter Matthew Taylor travels to Bob’s birthplace, Hamburg, to discover how apprenticeships are set up to buffer businesses and workers against hard times.

You can listen to the programme in full here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01cvkg6

The BBC article by Matthew Taylor is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17213556

‘Hire and fire’ has destroyed Britain’s jobs economy

Europe’s biggest problem now is youth unemployment – we should be looking at the German labour model

As published in the Guardian: by David Marsh and Robert Bischof. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/26/hire-and-fire-destroyed-uk-jobs

These days we tend to talk about the divisions in Europe as one between net creditors and debtors. In reality this is just a sideshow. There is a much more fundamental gulf, hinted at by Angela Merkel in her Davos speech yesterday: between countries with organised industrial training systems such as Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia, Austria and Switzerland – all currently with jobless rates of between 3% and 7% – and those with much higher rates of unemployment, often in double digits, in peripheral Europe.

The issue pits Anglo-Saxon precepts of free market regulation against the Germanic “Rhineland” system of managed capitalism, with modern apprenticeship systems built on a long-term compact between labour and employers. In the years before and immediately after the euro’s birth in 1999, the peripheral countries of the European monetary union (Emu) often followed Anglo-Saxon principles by liberalising parts of notoriously inflexible labour markets. “Hire and fire” became the motto.

Initially this seemed to work. But as debt market conditions worsened and growth stalled after the 2007-08 financial crisis, Emu’s periphery has been left seriously exposed by the failure to replace unproductive regulations with new mechanisms to generate jobs.

In the battle between rival systems, “Rhineland capitalism” appears to be winning hands down. In the two years since the global economic downturn in 2009, Germany has expanded employment by 1.8m, while the UK, US, France, Italy and Spain have shed 7m jobs. In 2007, when most other countries were nearing the end of a boom driven by excess credit, Germany had the highest unemployment rate (8.7% of the workforce on a harmonised basis) of the group of seven leading industrialised countries. Yet in late 2011, according to OECD figures, German unemployment, at 5.2%, was the lowest in the G7 apart from Japan.

While the UK struggles with record youth unemployment, Germany’s youth unemployment rate is one third of the OECD average and one eighth of the rate in Spain. High youth unemployment is the most pressing problem in Europe right now – Merkel acknowledged as much when she admitted that mere austerity would make the European project meaningless for the next generation of young people. “Structural reforms that lead to more jobs are essential,” she said in her opening statement.

But Merkel is drawing strength from Germany’s own experience with low unemployment in the mid-noughties, and she is right to do so. While the German labour market underwent some Anglo-Saxon-style deregulation under Gerhard Schröder in 2003-2005, it still places more emphasis on employers’ freedom to build long-term loyalty between employers and workers. These relationships are embedded in a strikingly different cultural approach to industrial training, closely tied to the German tradition of family-owned Mittelstand businesses buttressed by long-term savings that take a generational approach to assembling skills and technology.

British politicians are keen to talk about “skills”, but at the same time they are reluctant to let go of the flexible labour laws that have set them apart from the European mainland in the past. They can’t have it both ways. Employers who do not have a sense of social responsibility for training are unlikely to be durably persuaded to hire apprentices through one-off state payments. Instead, governments should consider building comprehensive vocational training schemes that could be funded through a reduction in the social costs ensuing from unemployment. Tinkering with apprenticeship programmes on a piecemeal basis, as has been done in the UK, is unlikely to yield long-term results, as such half-hearted reforms result in expensive and wasteful systems that lack both scale and content.

And it’s not just the German system of apprenticeship schemes that could do with being copied. One of the main reason why Germany’s economy was able to recover so quickly after the downturn was the system of short-time working support (Kurzarbeit), introduced in the 1920s and extended in recent years.

Funded by an employment insurance levy, it pays for firms to keep workers for six to 12 months, provided employers can show their businesses are in a cyclical and not a structural downturn. Imagine a small engineering firm that ran into financial trouble in 2008: rather than letting go of the 17-year-old apprentice who had recently joined the firm, it would have been able to keep employees on board and then benefit from their experience when the economy was back on its feet. Even if the company had gone bust, the apprentice would by law have been sent to another company.

Sir Anthony Bamford, chairman of UK excavator maker JCB, points out that his company was forced to shed more than 20% of staff in Britain when production halved in 2009. By contrast, the Kurzarbeit system enabled him to keep all his labour force in Germany.

Such examples underline how Germany’s previously unfashionable model has enabled it to become the industrialised world’s premier job machine. As the economic climate darkens, 2012 will be a difficult year both for Germany to hold on to its advantages and for other countries striving to follow the German lead. Yet unless they start to lay the groundwork for longer term gain, time for catching up will soon run out.

Hit the Loan Sharks

Published 23 Jan 2012, Daily Mail, Letters to the Editor

Sir

James Coney in the Money Mail 18th January 2012 (“Banks can easily fix this flawed system”) highlights rightly the fact that the system is geared towards “the vulnerable paying for the better off”.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Banks, Credit Card and Store Card operators, Mail Order companies and worst of all loan sharks and those known by a camouflaged name, the so-called Pay-Day loan providers all work on a similar principle. They can afford to lend money out indiscriminately at exorbitant rates, as these include provisions for defaulting customers: The higher the risk, the higher the interest rate. They are exploiting the socially weak and uneducated by luring them often  into spending money they do not have and  in the most expensive way. Frequently they are driven  deeper into debt and in the end it is invariably the state that has to pick up the pieces with social welfare support. It is a disgrace of the first order and one of the reasons for British private household debt to stand at 1.5 trillion.

The Mail has often been critical of European ways – I wished it could break with this tradition and start a campaign to outlawing this practice of exploiting the weakest group in society. Countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland have tough usury laws to protect this most vulnerable group. There any contract or deal that carries interest rates above 18-20% pa are nil and void and unenforceable in court. Repeated offenders can be imprisoned. It is noticeable that the above mentioned countries are also those doing reasonably well in the present economic climate.

As this proposal would put half of Britain’s financial services operators behind bars, a law like this would have to be introduced over time and with decreasing rates starting maybe with 30%, which put at least an immediate end to the horrible loan sharks.

Bob Bischof

Bob Bischof Letter printed in the Daily Mail January 2012
The letter as printed in the Daily Mail, 23 January 2012

Letter to the Times: Firing Up UK plc

Bob Bischof Letter to the Times June 2011
Bob Bischof Letter to the Times June 2011

This letter appeared recently in the Times and is republished here:

“Instead of accepting the CEO’s whining about high taxes and too much regulation, the Prime Minister could have interrogated them at the Times CEO Summit about their abysmal performance in world markets. As we heard, Britain has been exporting more to Ireland with 4.5 million people than to the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, india, China and South Africa), with nearer 4 billion people. German companies have to cope with far more regulation and carry substantially higher payroll costs, but have managed to reduce unit labour cost by more than 20 per cent in the last decade and raise productivity. Moreover, Germany was until 2009 the largest exporter in the world.
Britain, on the other hand, had a more than 20 per cent devaluation of sterling but British exporters have not taken advantage with higher sales volumes. Mr Cameron is right to try to turn bad regulation into useful regulation, but he should look at taxing profits which stay in companies and are re-investe in markets and products differently from those that are paid in dividends and share buy-backs.
In the absence of credit-induced consumption and state spending to drive the economy, growth depends to a large degree on our companies’ performance over the coming years. One precondition is to increase the skill base. Here again, should the Government beg companies to engage in its ambitious apprenticeship programme or should there be a training levy, against which companies can reclaim some of the cost of training? Either way, feeding companies carrots does not seem to work: more stick might work better.”