Scots Independence and UK Leaving EU – Both a Mistake

As Published in the Daily Mail, June 29 2014

Scottish Independence a MistakeIn less than three months the Scots will be voting whether to leave the Union.

They may decide to head out on their own, or they may choose to stay within the United Kingdom and be given as yet unspecified further powers to determine their own affairs.

Although the difference between those two choices might not be that great in the end, a separation following a majority Yes vote would be a significant set-back for the Union, Europe and the Scots themselves.

However, the debate could bring about some good.

As the nation states of the European Union head towards closer economic and political integration, its citizens are feeling that they are losing too much of their national identity and are therefore rebelling.

In some cases this manifests itself in protests against immigration, in others through the resurgence of regional and tribal issues, and in others again, in anger against Brussels ‘red-tape’ and the desire to win back powers for national governments.

The recent European elections gave an increasing share of the vote to the parties on the right arguing against immigration, citing the threat to jobs and criticising EU meddling in home affairs – as UKIP did in the UK.

In my view the real underlying fear is what in Germany we call Ueberfremdung, which translates as ‘foreignisation’.

That is linked not only to immigration, but also to overseas ownership of huge chunks of British industry, including ports, airports and utilities.

This is of course not just a British phenomenon. The same feelings are at the heart of the rise of populist right-wing parties in France, Austria, Greece and Spain.

The only countries that have reacted differently so far are Germany – my native country – and Italy.

Perhaps citizens in these two nations are not as easily reeled in by demagogues with simple messages because they have been there before.

Although the EU has talked much about the rule of subsidiarity – the principle by which decisions must be taken at the appropriate local level – Brussels has failed its member states by not delivering on it and by not making it clear enough.

The rising support for the ‘Yes’ campaign and ‘Scotland for the Scots’ is, I believe, an expression of similar concerns and must be taken seriously.

It is not good policy to try to scare the Scots about losing the pound and being economically worse off, or even by raising doubts about whether an independent Scotland could secure membership of the European Union, as Alex Salmond wishes.

This is much more an emotional issue and should be treated as such by the ‘No’ campaigners.

Far better, then, to concentrate of the positive aspects of the Union. There are not only economies of scale in business but also in politics. Size matters, as every business knows, when it tries to sell in global markets.

Paddling your own canoe economically and politically in a more and more globalised world is difficult, to say the least. The threat of Britain leaving the European Union is similarly counterproductive in my opinion.

Most importantly, the men in Brussels and Angela Merkel in Berlin must have a close look at the results of their actions so far. In the long run they can’t ignore the deep seated fears and mistrust of the peoples of Europe.

Britain may appear isolated following the row over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, but should continue to lead a push for change.

As for Scotland and the UK, the West Lothian Question – whether Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should be able to vote on matters involving only England – is unresolved, and the relationship between Scotland and the other countries that make up the Union is not very efficiently structured.

It might be an idea to take a look at the constitution that the Allies gave Germany after the last World War, which has a clear separation of national, state and local powers. It could serve as a model for the men in Brussels.

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Britain Could and Should Do Better

Can Britain catch Germany? Can pigs fly? But why even think in these terms? It would make a lot more sense to examine ways of stopping the widening of the gap.

This article first appeared in the Mail Online, 20 January 2014

The think tank CEBR reckons Britain will not only overtake its old rival France soon but also that the UK stands a good chance of narrowing the gap with Germany by 2020 and leaping ahead of Europe’s economic powerhouse by 2030.

Now, economic forecasting is not an exact science and it is mighty difficult to predict even a year ahead. The CEBR found that out when they finished 37th out of 40 economic forecasters for the year 2013, according to the Sunday Times’ league table.

Are the predictions about Britain v Germany any more credible? As a German living in this country, perhaps I am biased, but I think not.

The 2013 figures show Germany at $3.65trillion, France at $2.65trillion and the UK with $ 2.45trillion of output. To catch up with France within the next four years, Britain would need around $50bn in additional output per annum, or a roughly 2 per cent higher growth rate. That could be on the cards, given the woes of the French economy.

As for narrowing the gap with Germany by the year 2020 that looks a bit tougher. German GDP is 45 per cent higher than Britain’s; not surprisingly as Germany has a 33 per cent larger workforce (40m vs 30m) and productivity is more than 10 per cent higher.

The CEBR argues a weak euro will make it harder for Germany to stay ahead, though most analysts believe the opposite, as a weak currency helps the country’s thriving export industry.

Even a chronically low birth rate in Germany is unlikely to have much effect. It has always relied on an influx of Gastarbeiter, or guest workers from abroad, to bolster the labour market. It is doing so now after having successfully integrated 22m newcomers after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Can Britain catch Germany? Can pigs fly? But why even think in these terms? It would make a lot more sense to examine ways of stopping the widening of the gap.

The danger with selling illusions about the future is that it can breed complacency among businessmen and politicians alike.

Britain could easily do better and should do so. But it has to be realistic about its position in the world and the huge effort it needs to turn around its growing balance of payments deficit, to increase business investment, to make sure its youngsters have the right education and skills, to improve its infrastructure, to raise productivity and not to rely on rising house prices to fuel another consumption-led boom.

All that needs to be tackled at a time when the Government is trying to get the deficit down, whilst Germany will have a balanced budget in 2014.

Could it be done? I believe it can, but it needs a shift towards long-term strategies in business and government.

Selling British businesses and assets for short term shareholder value and calling it “Inward Investment” is not the answer.

Mergers and acquisitions are no match for organic growth strategies; neither is paying the largest dividends as a percentage of profits of all developed economies.

The UK has an abundance of entrepreneurs but cannot emulate the Mittelstand – the small and medium businesses that are the backbone of the German economy.

All too often starved of adequate bank finance, those that make it over the first hurdles are soon driven into the arms of private equity or the stock market and too many are swallowed up and disappear.

Lord Bamford, who chairs JCB, his family firm, said to me not long ago: ‘If my Dad or I had gone to the stock market for money, we would not be here any more.’

His words should haunt British politicians. If the UK wants to reduce its dependence on the City and get properly into the international race and not with an arm tied behind its back, it should do something about growing more SMEs into JCBs. It’s the real economy, stupid.

Invensys Sale: UK Manufacturing On the Fast Track to Oblivion?

This article was published in the Daily Mail on 7 August 2013

The sale of Invensys, one of the last remaining substantial engineering companies in the UK, to the French industrial giant Schneider Electric simply beggars belief.

The declared aim of this Government is to rebalance the economy towards manufacturing. In reality short-term shareholder value rules and the Brits will sell anything and everything to please the City.

As a German living in this country, I am aghast at this. Germany’s manufacturing prowess is founded on a much more long-termist approach. But Invensys is, sadly, a typical British industrial story.

The company was created out of the merger of two engineering companies Siebe and BTR in 1999. The new company was debt-laden and poorly managed, going through a £2.7billion debt restructuring exercise in 2004. In 2005 the board appointed Ulf Henriksson as chief executive, who restored the company to financial health. Enter Sir Nigel Rudd as new chairman.

Opinion in Daily Mail: Sale of InvensysIn March 2011 he fired Henriksson, an engineer, because ‘he could not see the big picture’ and replaced him with the chief financial officer Wayne Edmunds. The share price subsequently halved in 2012 because of technical problems. It only bounced back when the break-up of the company was announced and set in motion with the sale of the signalling business to Siemens.

The rest is now on its way to being swallowed by a French company for £3.4billion – well done, Sir Nigel. Does anybody get the message that these deals are a sure way to manufacturing oblivion in the UK?

My own experience bears this out. I arrived in the UK 40 years ago to set up a UK subsidiary of a German lift truck maker. Our main European rival was the British company Lansing Bagnall, based in Basingstoke. Their market share in the UK was around 45 per cent and they exported 60 per cent of their production worldwide. They were the envy of the industry.

Some 20 years later a large German industrial conglomerate bought them. A few years later they were sold on with the rest of the lift truck division to private equity, who closed the Basingstoke factory and moved the production to Germany and France.

In 1994 my company bought the last remaining British lift truck manufacturer Lancer Boss, invested huge sums for a while, but then had to give up, close the plant in Leighton Buzzard and moved the production to Germany.

One of the reasons was that they could no longer get cold-rolled steel sections for the lift masts of their trucks in the UK, as the Corus plant in the North East was ‘restructured’ – the other was that there was a cyclical downturn in the sector.

There are dozens of industries and companies where the same or similar happened. Mergers, acquisitions, de-mergers and break-ups of companies are a favourite game in the UK to enhance so-called shareholder value. It promises faster returns for shareholders and bonuses for the board members rather than following the slower path of growing their companies organically. They would rather ‘return cash to the shareholders’ by share buy-back programmes and high dividends than invest in the future of their businesses and the prosperity of UK Plc.

What is the Government doing to change this pattern? The slogan needs to change from ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ to ‘It’s the real economy, stupid.’

Britain Has Much to Learn from German Firms

Daily Mail March 2013A new German word has entered the English language after ‘Rucksack’, ‘Kindergarten’ and the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’, namely Mittelstand.

It means different, yet related things – it describes a medium-sized company, but it also means doing business in a very German way.

Mittelstand companies are family owned, in 95 per cent of cases, and 85 per cent are owner-managed. They are oriented towards customers, employees and communities rather than just obsessed with shareholder value.

They are typically embedded into a region, where they take their responsibilities seriously. Often, they are strong exporters, world leaders in their chosen field of operation like Brita Water Filters, which has raked up around £7billion annual turnover in 2012 from very humble beginnings.

Although the official definition of a Mittelstand company is up to €50million turnover and 500 employees, many have outgrown these numbers by far – including my former company, the €2.2billion turnover fork-lift truck maker Jungheinrich AG. But culturally, they retain the Mittelstand outlook.

Staying with the narrower definition, Germany has 3.5 million Mittelstand companies, representing 52 per cent of total economic output, 61 per cent of employment and €200billion of exports from Germany. Of these, 1,300 rank as so-called ‘hidden champions’ – world market leaders in their niche, against 67 in the UK and 366 in the US.

These companies are regarded as the backbone of German manufacturing, giving it a resilience that has stood the economy in good stead in the economic turmoil.

That leads to an inevitable question. Why can’t the UK create a Mittelstand of its own? Britain has brilliant inventors and entrepreneurs, but is not so successful at evolving their ideas into the creation of sustainable businesses, which can grow in to the world-leaders of tomorrow. The likes of Sir James Dyson and the Bamford family of JCB fame are the exception, not the rule.

The talent is there, but it seems to be driven too early into the wrong direction. 
Entrepreneurs cash in, either through a trade sale, to private equity, or by floating on the stock market. It may bring personal rewards, but getting into the short-term profit race can be detrimental to developing new products and markets.

I believe that the key difference between our two countries lies largely in the financing of these companies, and the role of banks.

Typically, Mittelstand firms finance themselves from retained profits, with bank debt and equity funding playing a smaller role. Germany has around 3,000 independent banks with excellent regional coverage, while the UK has not even a dozen business banks. Although they have many branches, they no longer have bank managers who can make local lending decisions based on a thorough knowledge of customers.

The manager of a small or medium-sized regional Sparkasse, Volksbank or Raiffeisenbank in Bavaria or Lower Saxony knows the businesses in his area and probably plays tennis or golf with the owners. Their kids attend the same school. During their last few years at school children make frequent trips to companies in the area and the companies make presentations to get the best candidates for apprenticeships.

Universities and colleges also work closely with the companies in their region.

Here, we have an opportunity right under our nose. Around 1,000 branches of Lloyds and RBS are up for sale. Rather than selling them to a City conglomerate which no doubt would offer a similar centralised structure, they should be offered in small clusters to regional institutions or individuals with the right background.

In co-operation with the Local Enterprise Partnerships they could be part of the ‘business bank’ structure for small and medium firms, which the Government is trying to get off the ground. Lord Heseltine has pointed the way in this direction.

The UK could make a start in following this model and building a unique and successful Brit-elstand right now.

This article was published in the Daily Mail, 24 March 2013

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.

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.

‘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.

Universal Apprenticeship for the UK

Vocational Education Training (VET) – to be known as the Universal Apprenticeship – could offer a (debt-free) pathway from “shop to top” as an alternative to a university based education.

To make this a reality, certain changes have to be made to the present system regarding the content of the learning offering. In addition, it needs simplifying and a higher degree of standardisation to achieve the necessary scale, which in turn will make it more cost-effective.

These changes are of course primarily designed to make apprenticeships more desirable to youngsters as well as employers. A lot of what is on offer at present should stay in place and form the basis of an upgraded, attractive first step on the ladder of a career for young people.

Eventually the Universal Apprenticeship should replace all of NVQ1-4, Modern and Advanced Apprenticeships. It would need high level political and business support, together with a PR makeover.

Vocation

Vocational should therefore mean that young persons’ differing talents – academic, artistic or practical – are recognised as equally useful in a “Big and Inclusive Society”. Accordingly, young people need to be offered corresponding pathways – firstly, from school into the world of work and after a successful completion of the first step – the Universal Apprenticeship, further career progression opportunities to fulfil their aspirations may they be in trades, crafts, technical, administrative or other occupations.

Education

Education should mean that school leavers aged 16 to 19, by choosing the Universal Apprenticeship are not just taught the ins and outs of a specific job in a narrow manner, but that they continue their education in general terms, too.

Enhancing their social and communication skills would be some of the aims of this part of their further education. This will lay the necessary foundation to enable the person to move off “the shop floor” and reach “the top floor” of his chosen profession, whatever it may be. This part must be the responsibility of vocational colleges, as it needs real teaching abilities. Of the total college based part of the apprenticeship, it should be around one third of the learning program, whilst the other two thirds are the theoretical part backing up the in-house company job specific training.

Training

The largest part of the Universal Apprenticeship, namely Training, ought to be based on standardised frameworks of in-company/organisation learning.

This would typically be over a period of around 2-3 years, for which the apprentice and employer enter into a training contract. Ideally the frameworks should give the apprentice as holistic an insight into their work environment as possible.

This gives the trainee/employees more self-esteem, empowers them to work more autonomous with less supervision and ultimately is more flexible, cost-efficient and productive.

The apprenticeship training contract should be largely standardised and safeguarded by law. To complete an apprenticeship successfully there should be a recognised and meaningful certification process, to ensure successful apprentices achieve good standing in society as young professionals.

In short, a successfully completed apprenticeship should not be the end but the beginning of a career for those with aspirations.