Trump and Germany

Germany should point out to Trump that it is his own irresponsible macroeconomic policies that make the dollar strong and the euro weak.

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This article first published on The Globalist, 10 March 2017.

https://www.theglobalist.com/trump-germany-on-trade-imbalances-exchange-rates/ 

President Trump is a man on a mission, to the tune of several earth-shaking ones a week. After Mexico, this time it is Germany’s turn.

Going mano a mano with Germany

Another staggering current account surplus of near 9% of German GDP has caught his administration’s eye. Clearly, the euro too weak, the Trumpists argue. They want to have a mano-a-mano talk with the Germans, outside of WTO and EU structures.

Rampant bilateralism is the only way in which the Trump administration can imagine the world. Otherwise, the world clearly gets too complicated for him and them.

It ain’t so easy

But whatever Mr. Trump’s desires, the world of exchange rates doesn’t move to the tune of the unilateral issuance of executive orders. Here is an inconvenient fact: There is a market out there that actually establishes those (market) rates.

Still, there are some serious questions to be answered – none bigger than this: If the euro is too weak (and the dollar too strong), who dunnit?

And: Is Germany taking advantage of the United States? And what can the U.S. government possibly do to rectify the imbalances.

The President, for all his assumed omnipotence, will be in for a surprise the who’s dunnit. He will also find to his great dismay that the world of currencies and revaluations and devaluations has changed.

The old world

Under the Bretton Woods Agreement, signed in July 1944, the exchange rates of the major countries were fixed, with the U.S. dollar acting as the reserve currency, at an agreed price to gold of US$35 per ounce.

This system made business transactions between nations again possible after WWII and led to a rapid increase in world trade.

Over time, however, this regime started to create increasing imbalances between countries. Britain, economically ever more lacklustre, had to devalue its currency in 1967 against the dollar, from 2.80 to 2.40.

Similarly, an economically resurgent German deutschmark was revalued, from 11.20 to 9.60. Even so, the UK trade deficit did not go away though and further devaluations of Sterling became necessary.

As an importer of engineering products from Germany at the time, I had to buy DM forward in order to protect myself against these gyrations in the markets. At first, is wasn’t easy to get reasonable cover as there was not enough liquidity around in the market.

Brave new world

Soon enough, the banks and other Fintech companies became aware of the fact that there was a lot money to be made in the foreign exchange business and that, in order to tap into these profit opportunities, there was no need for an underlying trade in the real economy to occur. The currency casino started to gear up big time.

With North Sea oil coming on stream in the late 1970s and 1980s, and with the UK service sector expanding after Big Bang with the massive deregulation of the financial sector, Britain’s current account stayed more or less in balance.

UK runs out of steam

Selling a huge number of assets — from luxury homes in London to the energy sector, ports and airports as well as numerous companies — helped to keep the UK’s current account in balance.

During the last decade, however, this situation has reversed dramatically. Both trade and services are now showing growing deficits.
The UK current account deficit, as of 2016, stands at around 5% of GDP, probably because much of what could be sold off to foreigners has been sold off.

 

Even so, this period of growing current account deficits coincided with the opposite of what one would expect — a period of relative strength for Sterling, which was only interrupted by the Brexit vote.

During the same period, the eurozone has developed a growing current account surplus (in 2016 amounting to around Euro 400 billion).

However, contrary to what one would expect – a strengthening of the euro, to reflect the strong fundamentals — the euro remains weak.

As goes the UK, so does the US

Why am I telling this UK story? Because it foreshadows developments with regard to the United States. Despite a huge current account deficit there, the U.S. has to contend with a strong dollar.

How does Germany fit into all this? It has, of course, contributed around three quarters of the eurozone’s current account surplus.

Can Trump make the mental leap?

Somebody has to explain to Mr. Trump that the rules of the current account/forex game have changed significantly. Of course, the U.S. dollar is overvalued in PPP terms. However, the dollar will remain strong and even may appreciate further.

Particularly so if – and this is where it gets interesting — Trump goes on a spending spree and inflation picks up. He won’t have much choice under those circumstances but to introduce defensive tariffs to compensate for the strong dollar to fend off imports.

His advisers may have foreseen this – hence all the noise about “putting the U.S. first” and hitting out at the world.

The real world doesn’t matter that much anymore

What is fairly new, of course, is that currency adjustment don’t follow any more what is happening in the real economy. Rather, they are determined by interest rate expectations and movements.

Ask any currency broker and he/she will confirm this. The problem with this new scenario is that the imbalances will be getting worse as the deficit countries like the U.S. and UK are expected to be the first to raise interest rates.

What then is the reason behind the performance of the real economy no longer being the main driver for currency adjustments in the short and medium term?

The answer is simple: The volume of the currency trade needed for “real economy transactions” – which still shape our collective mind about exchange rate developments — is totally dwarfed by the volume of speculative currency transactions traded each day in the financial markets.

Just how dwarfed? By 5 trillion a day total market.

We clearly live in financial times.

The Globalist: Economic Lessons from the UK’s Olympic Success

There can be no doubt that there is enough talent in the United Kingdom to compete with the best – but the system has to be right. Brexit or no Brexit, the UK has a choice to make. It can follow an Olympic strategy or stay with the calamitous football set-up, which has all the glitz and none of the glory.

This article was first published on The Globalist website 25 August 2016

2016 were the most successful Olympic Games ever for the United Kingdom. With 27 gold medals (and 67 medals overall), Team UK came in second place, ranking only behind the United States.

In spectacular fashion, the UK beat both China (3rd) and Russia (4th), as well as Germany (5th ) in the overall standings.

What makes this very special Olympic glory so noteworthy is the contrast to the Olympic Games two decades earlier. In Atlanta in 1996, the British team received just one gold medal – its lowest score ever.

What a difference smart planning makes

What has made the difference over these 20 years? The short answer seems money from The National Lottery, with each ticket sale generating proceeds that were dedicated to funding Team UK at the Olympic games.

But that is not the whole story. Once Britain was awarded the 2012 Olympic games, the country’s then-government under Messrs. Blair and Brown decided to change things around a bit.

A long-term strategy was developed and priorities were set to focus on certain sports where the chance of medals were greatest.

To that end, specialized facilities like the Manchester Velodrome created (yielding a record haul from indoor cycling events for Team UK this time around).

In addition, the best coaches were hired and they and the athletes were highly motivated through incentive schemes based on performance.

Just apply the Olympics strategy to the UK economy

As far as I can tell, the new British Prime Minister, Theresa May, is determined to take a leaf out of her nation’s Olympics book and apply it to the entire British economy.

Mrs. May certainly doesn’t want to copy the English football team’s example, which reached its own “Atlanta moment” this year, with a defeat against Iceland in the European Championship.

Britain has got plenty of sports talent but, as the Olympics strategy has proven, that talent must be properly nurtured.

England’s national football team failed because of systemic problems. That football is considered the national game in England makes these failures especially stinging.

The BPL cover-up

However, for most of the year, they are carefully covered up. With the relentless focus on the global commercialisation of the Barclays Premier League, club football seems a glorious enterprise.

But even here, as is seen in the late stages of international club competitions every season, English clubs fall short of expectations.

A key part of the explanation is short-term pressure on results, paired with too many foreign owners and managers with no interest in the national game.

They look for spectacular foreign signings rather than developing home-grown talent over the long term. The contrast to Spanish and German clubs is palpable. They do hire foreign talent, but develop plenty of home-grown talent.

Sir Alex Ferguson was the last manager who raised English youngsters to become world-class football payers – and that is now too many years ago.

As goes football, so does the economy?

Unfortunately, England’s football saga bears an uncanny resemblance to the overall British business approach, with a similar result.

The Anglo-Saxon “shareholder value” governance system, with its inherent pressure on quarterly results, drives short-term decision-making by boards.

M&A activity yields quicker results to make a corporation larger than organic growth would. For the latter approach, you need patient product improvement and development, investment in the latest technologies, focus on opening up new markets and, above all, on skills development in house (at all levels, from shop floor to top floor).

Balance sheet maneuvers, instead of focusing on productivity

All that costs money and reduces profits in the short term. The approach chosen instead is to massage the balance sheet – often through share buy-back schemes – to make the company’s results “look” better, even if this is just a financial engineering exercise achieving no real enhancement in value.

It is part of the shareholder value model where the incentives for directors are in line with those of the shareholders – unfortunately both thrive on short-term results.

Bizarre “business” practices

Even more importantly, they mostly just pay mere lip service to the stakeholders – employees and their families, the towns and cities where operations are based, as well as society as a whole.

To give a concrete example how far this disregard for employees and society can be taken, consider Sir Philip Green’s purchase of British Home Stores some years ago.

His special dividend payment of £400 million to his tax-exiled wife, followed by his sale of the company (which carried a £572million pension deficit) to a three times bankrupt associate for one Pound and the subsequent collapse of the company led to the loss of 11,000 jobs.

This bizarre, but carefully crafted chain of events has rightfully been described as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It clearly highlights major shortcomings in the UK’s corporate governance.

To make a long story short, under the British business-as-usual rules, the deck is amply stacked against long-term thinking and value creation.

Selling the family silver until there is no more?

Britain has lived for decades on the proceeds of selling assets to shore up the country’s current account deficit and the exchange rate.

Ports, airports, the energy sector, huge numbers of industrial businesses have been sold to foreign investors. The London Stock Exchange and high-tech ARM Holdings PLC are the latest in a long line.

For a long time, all this selling off the family silver was falsely heralded as underlining the attractiveness of Britain as an investment location and considered a virtue.

Why was all this misleading thinking pushed on the British public? Because plenty of people in “the City” got filthy rich in the process of acting as advisors to, if not instigators of, these transactions.

Just ask all the lawyers, investment bankers, accountants and management consultants.

England and the “kindness of others”

Now, at long last, doubts are being voiced over the long term effect of all this so-called inward investment. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England warned before the Brexit vote that the reliance on “the kindness of strangers” might backfire.

There undoubtedly is a short-term gain for the national accounts when the proceeds of a sale support the British balance of payment. However, the dividend flow leaves the country forever.

Unsurprisingly, the UK’s once considerable earnings flow from overseas investment has reversed. While the country’s trade balance has for decades been negative, it is a new and worrying development of the last few years that the service sector is in deficit, too.

In some areas, the open door policy has of course worked with remarkable results. The car industry, once the perpetual laggard, is now thriving as it is almost completely under foreign ownership and management.

That is a great success story — and so are hundreds of foreign owned businesses in the UK. The profits from these operations, however, are only partly re-invested in the UK.

The largest part flows abroad. It is thus like English league club football – a great success story, but sadly not so much for the national team.

May’s mind in the right place: Can she do it?

The UK Prime Minister Theresa May appears to understand that there is a problem. Rather atypically for a former Home Secretary, she has been referring to:

  • rethinking the role of workers on boards of publicly listed companies
  • refocussing on industrial strategy and board room remuneration in connection with the ease with which British companies and assets can fall into foreign hands.

It will be interesting to see what she can actually do about it. The prime minister’s mind certainly is in the right place, but she will encounter plenty of resistance from her country’s financial establishment that has gotten very rich on selling off assets.

A true challenge given global competition

Britain’s businesses are up against world-wide competition, quite a few of them like the Germans, Japanese, Chinese and others who are determined to play the long game.

These nations engage in the long game for very different reasons. For example, most German companies, even in the export sector, are not listed on the stock market.

They are family-owned enterprises, whose main aim is to grow to survive and look after its stakeholders – their employees, customers, suppliers and the community.

But even those companies that are listed on the stock market have supervisory boards with worker and management representation.

This structure, reflecting in actual voting rights for workers at the supervisory board level, prevent a company’s top managers from purely self-interested behaviour that underlies most prettifying balance sheet manoeuvres.

I know because I was there: As a top manager of German companies, I was always paid bonuses on market share and profit – never on profit only.

What can be done?

It is impossible, and even counter-productive, to try to copy the German governance system and corporate culture for many reasons. Theresa May is obviously avoiding any reference to the German model – the Social Market Economy also called Rhineland Capitalism.

It would be ironic, to say the least, if Britain would turn in the direction of the continental economic model after leaving the EU. Probably for that reason, Mrs. May has been called May Guevara already!

The search is on for a workable construction that combines the best of both worlds and allows British managers to act in a long-term oriented fashion to the benefit of their shareholders, employees and the national performance.

There can be no doubt that there is enough talent in the United Kingdom to compete with the best – but the system has to be right.

Brexit or no Brexit, the UK has a choice to make. It can follow an Olympic strategy or stay with the calamitous football set-up, which has all the glitz and none of the glory.

Is English Glory Foreign-Made?

Exploring parallels between English football and the economic and political landscape of the country.

This article was published in The Globalist on 5 July 2016

England has without doubt the most expensive and internationally most followed football league in the world. Many Premiership clubs are owned by Americans, Russians, Saudis, Iranians, Thais and Chinese.

The global element shaping the sport in England doesn’t end there: Out of the top 12 clubs in the 2015/16 season, 11 were trained by Italians, Spanish, French, Dutch, a Chilean, a Croat and a German.

In the pool of players signed by all Premiership teams, 59 foreign nationalities are represented, accounting for 67% of all players in the league. Of the remaining 33% — the English players — not even half get to play every weekend.

The English press regularly proudly reports the Barclays Premier League as the richest, best and most successful league in the world.

It also elevates the English team before every international tournament like the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and the current European championship to semi-favourite status.

Soccer, just like the economy

The English are without doubt the champions in self-promotion. The meeting with reality is quite harsh, though. Consider that Spanish club teams made a clean sweep of trophies in European club competitions this season, with the English clubs all knocked out early.

The early exit of the national team in Brazil in 2014 and now in 2016 against Iceland shows up the fundamental weaknesses of the overall approach.

The sport is played for profit only, with little regard for the development of home grown talent on or off the field. That money-based approach has an obvious impact on the national team, which has underperformed badly yet again.

This soccer saga has all the hallmarks of the overall British economic and political malaise. In politics, the bragging about the greatest league translates into “We are the fifth-largest economy in the world” and “We are the fastest growing country in the G8.”

This self-boosting rhetoric has been peddled by Cameron and Osborne over the last few years and featured hugely in the British press. However, once the pair decided to campaign for remaining in the EU, it came to haunt them.

Harsh economic reality

The two slogans were effectively used by the Leave campaign by simply claiming, “we can stand alone, we don’t need Europe.” Neither Cameron nor Osborne could admit that both claims were untrue for fear of being accused of “talking the country down.

As David Smith, the Economics Editor of the Sunday Times, pointed out, economic reality is not as kind. The UK, by Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), is the tenth largest economy.

And in the first quarter of 2016, Britain’s economy grew at less than half the pace of the Eurozone – 0.3% versus 0.7%. Moreover, it was forecast to lag behind for the full year without the Brexit disaster.

But not only that – the country’s fiscal deficit is also going up. The current account deficit is at record high with 7% of GDP, this under a presumably strict Conservative government.

Private household debt hit a new record way above the pre-crisis level of 2008, with credit card debt rising at double-digit rates. The much talked about National Health Service is under water, to the tune of £2.5b billion.

The underfunded company pension schemes – like those of Tata Steel and BHS – amount to £92 billion, much of that shortfall will have to be covered through the government guarantee scheme.

Public pension deficits look even worse.

Sterling under pressure

All of it is totally unsustainable, even without the shock of Brexit. Theresa May, the leading contender for the prime ministership, announced simultaneously with Chancellor Osborne the abandonment of the fiscal target for this parliament. It makes sense, but doesn’t solve the problem.

Britain’s current account deficit is of particular concern. The trade balance has always been negative, but services made up for the gap in the past.

No longer so. Britain has lived for decades on the proceeds of selling assets to shore up the current account deficit and the exchange rate. Ports, airports, the energy sector, huge numbers of industrial businesses have been sold to foreign investors.

Unsurprisingly, the UK’s once considerable earnings flow from overseas investment has reversed. It means that Sterling would have come under pressure before any Brexit-related effects.

Overseas investment

The car industry, once the perpetual laggard, is now thriving. It is almost completely under foreign ownership and management. These firms have trained their workforce well, for example, by re-introducing German-style apprenticeship systems and taking a long view.

The Brits treat this as a great success story. But working for so many foreign employers has another side to it. There is a deep psychological problem here, too.

Having foreign bosses and even being paid well by them is one thing. Liking that situation is quite another matter altogether.

Accordingly, there is a growing feeling of alienation in the country because of these developments. The migration crisis, which made the timing of the referendum so awful, has of course magnified this feeling.

We want our country back” seems also a cry of despair about what has happened – and blaming others like Brussels was just so easy to exploit by the populists on the right and left.

Need for home-grown talent

What gets lost amidst all this is that what still makes Britain great these days is that it attracts so many skilled professionals in all sorts of fields, not just soccer; however, more home reliance is clearly necessary.

German and many other clubs on the European continent are owned by their members. Of course, German clubs also import players, but they are serious about developing their own young players – always with an eye on the national game, too.

Unless Britain develops more home-grown talent in all walks of life, changes the overall approach from short to long-term thinking and stops kidding, if not deluding itself, it will not succeed — on or off the field.

British Have Been Fed Misinformation by the Rightwing Press for Years

I don’t think the British people per se are anti-Europe but they have been fed misinformation for years by the puppet masters of the rightwing British press, which has such a huge circulation advantage over the liberal press. To make out that they are doing this for the working class people of Britain is the con of the century.

This letter was published in the Financial Times on June 22nd 2016, the day before the EU referendum. It was a response to a Martin Wolf article on the previous day, and ran alongside ‘Fleet Street’s European bite remains sharp’ by John Gapper – see below and click to read the full item. 

Sir,

As a German who has lived and worked happily in the UK for more than 40 years, I can only underline Martin Wolf’s arguments for staying in (“Why I believe Britain belongs in Europe”, June 21). Two small additional comments, however.

The Brexit supporters constantly mention that Britain can easily stand alone, being the fifth largest and fastest-growing economy among the Group of Eight countries.

First, as David Smith, the fiercely independent economics editor of The Sunday Times has pointed out, Britain is by purchase power parity (PPP) the 10th largest; and as for gross domestic product growth, the much maligned eurozone grew by 0.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2016 against 0.3 per cent in the UK and is forecast to be ahead over the full year. Naturally, David Cameron can’t mention this fact, as he would be accused of talking the country down.

My second point is that I don’t think the British people per se are anti-Europe but they have been fed misinformation for years by the puppet masters of the rightwing British press, which has such a huge circulation advantage over the liberal press. To make out that they are doing this for the working class people of Britain is the con of the century. I only hope that enough people will see through this and that the famous British common sense will prevail.

Bob Bischof
London SW1, UK
Vice-President, German British Chamber of Industry & Commerce; Chairman, German British Forum

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Fleet Street's European bite remains sharp

Sterling at €1.34 is a threat: Britain, the EU and the price of independence

At the heart of the British argument against closer ties with Europe has always been many UK citizens’ fear of losing control over the country’s affairs in general and in economics in particular.

This article originally appeared on OMFIF’s website here

At the heart of the British argument against closer ties with Europe has always been many UK citizens’ fear of losing control over the country’s affairs in general and in economics in particular. For many in Britain, the euro project is not a basket of former independent currencies, rather a basket case. Doubts about the wisdom of so-called ‘German-backed austerity policies’ or about the ability of Greece and others to stay in the single currency have strengthened this belief in many British minds.

The ‘in-out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union which could take place in 2017, depending on the outcome of the May general election, will further focus attention on this point. Latest opinion polls indicate a majority in favour of departing.

The big question for a relatively small country like Britain is what ‘independence’ means in a globalised world. Being on your own, in monetary affairs as well as politically, can be damaging. Against its €1.04 low point in 2009, sterling has appreciated by 30% to around €1.34. This may be good news for Britons holidaying abroad, but the pound’s rise will hammer British manufacturing exports.

Switzerland, which has just abandoned its currency peg against the euro, has a current account surplus and high-value manufacturing goods, helping the Swiss absorb the shock of the latest 20% Swiss franc revaluation. Britain, on the other hand, has a large and growing current account deficit. It desperately needs to rebalance its economy away from services to manufacturing.

Although the UK’s coalition government has declared it wishes to further the ‘march of the manufacturers’, it has made little progress. Britain’s external performance will get worse. All this spells future trouble for sterling, especially if an inconclusive May election result brings political uncertainty.

Against this sobering background, Britain’s power over monetary and fiscal policy – setting interest rates, deciding quantitative easing and calibrating fiscal expansion or contraction – is well short of being an unmitigated benefit.

Germany has been doing well within the euro area because it benefits from the weak euro for its non-European exports, and even more from the stability, or lack of volatility, that emanates from membership of a large club. Germany still runs a substantial trade surplus with the rest of the euro area, but it has fallen sharply in recent years, making up less than 25% of Germany’s overall external surplus, against 40% in 2011.

If Britain wants to be serious about rebalancing the economy, it has to give its manufacturers a solid base, particularly in foreign trade. Currency hedging is expensive, the more so when volatility is high. The euro bloc encompasses most of the UK’s largest trade partners. Every transaction to another currency – whether one is buying or selling – costs money.

With so much of British industry in foreign ownership, there is an additional danger. When the foreign owners see developments they don’t like, they will first stop investing and then look elsewhere. At the German-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry we hear many worried comments from the over 1200 German-owned companies in the UK. The grumbling is getting louder.

And it’s not confined to the Germans. British business is overwhelmingly in favour of the UK staying in the EU, as a recent poll by the EEF manufacturers association showed. Britain can hardly be expected to join the euro in the foreseeable future. But as the election approaches, the issue of UK EU membership will start increasingly to occupy business people’s minds. Some might even support Labour as a potential party of government that will not brook a referendum on the matter – and could bring a weaker currency as well.

OMFIF

The Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum is an independent research and advisory group and a platform for confidential exchanges of views between official institutions and private sector counterparties.

The overriding aim is to enable the private and public sector to learn from each other in different ways, promoting better understanding of the world economy and higher across-the-board standards.

All developments regarding OMFIF can be followed at www.omfif.org and www.twitter.com/OMFIF.

Bob Bischof is a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

Role of currency movements in global markets

Published in the Financial Times, 16 March 2014

Sir,

Martin Wolf’s excellent article “The spectre of eurozone deflation” (March 12) leaves out one important aspect of the causes of inflation and deflation in today’s globalised markets, namely the role of currency movements. The euro has been appreciating against the dollar for some time now and making a large number of dollar-denominated imports like oil, other commodities and food stuff cheaper and with that lowering price indexes. That in itself is hardly worrying.

A parallel to this is the reducing inflation in the UK. When sterling devalued in the immediate aftermath of the 2007-08 recession, it did not do much for exports, as was hoped for, but led to soaring inflation, which is only now falling with sterling appreciating again around 10 per cent against a basket of currencies.

It is important to understand that the former drivers of inflation, namely demand increases through wage rises leading to wage/price spirals, no longer exist. Bank of England governor Mark Carney is no doubt aware of this – I hope.

Bob Bischof, Vice-President, German-British Chamber of Industry & Commerce, UK

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.