Eurozone Membership

This letter was published 24 July 2015 in the Financial Times here

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This letter was published 24 July 2015 in the Financial Times: click here to view

Sir,

Although I can go along with Ed Balls’ general comments of Britain in Europe (“The risk of fumbling the Europe poll”, July 22), I don’t agree with his and the general British public’s belief that it is such a godsend for Britain not being in the euro. It certainly isn’t for exporters!

Bob Bischof letter in the FT July 2015
The eurozone is good for exporters

Just like the other “independent minded” nations’ currencies, sterling has been revalued over the past 18 months by around 30 per cent and is nearly 40 per cent higher than at its low point in 2008-09. British exports to Europe and the rest of the world are suffering and importers are gaining market share with disastrous effects on the balance of payments, which is heading for a record deficit of about 6 per cent of gross domestic product. At the same time, the eurozone is heading for a balance of payment surplus in 2015 of about €200bn. It shows that currency markets don’t follow the real economy but interest rate expectations, and that individual countries’ currencies become a plaything for the markets.

UK manufacturers don’t just suffer from the overvalued currency, but also have to bear the cost of currency exchange and hedging. Germany and the other eurozone members can trade without the volatility and uncertainty of currencies in a market of 350m people — a huge advantage! The “March of the Manufacturers” has been blocked one more time.

Bob Bischof

Vice-President, German British Chamber of Industry & Commerce; Chairman, German British Forum

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.’

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.

Investment in Skills & Productivity: German-British Forum Conference

Better training as the key to economic dynamism

Bob Bischof will be co-chairing the upcoming German-British Forum Conference on Monday 22 and Tuesday 23rd November this year.

Entitled Investment in Skills & Productivity: Better training as the key to economic dynamism, the conference will address pressing macro- and micro-economic themes around how to ensure young people are being trained in the right ways to address the future needs of modern European economies.

Investment in Skills: the German-British Forum Conference
Download the Conference Programme and Registration Form PDF

Europe as a whole recognises that a high-skill, high-productivity economy provides the most effective platform to boost competitiveness and enhance well-being.

As Peter Loescher, Chief Executive of Siemens AG, put it at the Annual Dinner of the German-British Chamber of Industry and Commerce on 9 June 2010 in London;

“We have to get the message across to our youngsters in schools and universities that we need to out-innovate the innovators all over the world.”

German Industry UK (GIUK) has been at the forefront of efforts by German businesses in the UK to attempt to provide in Britain a framework similar to the German Dual Training System.

GIUK has held constructive meetings with Ministers from both the Labour government and the new Conservative-Liberal coalition administration and has now set up a working group within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to determine how this can be done for England.

The new UK government has made tackling the skills gap a significant priority in its efforts to spur economic renewal. There is considerable interest in learning lessons from Germany, where equipping the workforce with competitive skills through the vaunted apprenticeship and vocational training system, in partnership with industry, has long been a centre-piece of economic policy.

The presence of a large number of German companies in the UK has added impetus. Underlining this point, Robert Bosch, BMW, EON and Siemens are all giving support to the conference.

The gathering will highlight the role of the Technician Council, a new body set up in the UK to promote a new non-academic route to technical excellence for employees in many different fields.

Look East

Much has been made in the past of America’s superior productivity levels – 20 per cent ahead of Germany’s and France’s, with Gordon Brown’s Britain seemingly catching up. But all may not be exactly as it seems.

Much has been made in the past of America’s superior productivity levels – 20 per cent ahead of Germany’s and France’s, with Gordon Brown’s Britain seemingly catching up. But all may not be exactly as it seems.

The first mystery: how is a $700bn trade gap (6-7 per cent of GDP) reconcilable with the highest productivity in the world? As the manufacturing sector of the US, and for that matter the UK, has shrunk to somewhere just north of 15 per cent of GDP, the trade gap as a percentage of manufacturing output only is more than 40 per cent. When countries and companies are outperformed on world markets like that, the productivity story sounds less convincing. Strikingly, the trade gap is not just with the cheap labour countries of the Far East; it has been growing significantly with Europe, despite the dollar’s near 80 per cent devaluation against the euro.

Which brings me to the second part of the riddle. How are these productivity levels being calculated?

Read the full article as published in The Observer 08.06.08

Predicting Boom and Bust

In 2004 Bob Bischof wrote for the Observer that credit levels needed to be kept in check in Britain’s manufacturing sector

In 2004 Bob Bischof wrote for the Observer that credit levels needed to be kept in check in Britain’s manufacturing sector. Read the full article here