Alistair Darling should set up a text alert service to keep business people in the loop with his banking bail-out, the latest instalment of which is expected on Thursday. Imagine the advantages. You are in a meeting. Your mobile pings discreetly. Equally discreetly, you check your in-box. “Treasury crosses fingers, whangs £200bn more into the void,” the message reads. “Quid pro quo: Aldi will cater Lloyds’ board lunches.” You smile smugly. Bail-out ignorance begone!
Richard Lambert, CBI director-general, recently suggested that the UK Treasury should emulate its US counterpart by setting up a website listing the proliferating initiatives to resuscitate banks and stimulate lending. But SMS would surely be preferable. Not everyone has an internet-enabled phone or BlackBerry. Texts also have the advantage of being an active feed. You might forget to check a website for a couple of hours. Sod’s Law dictates that the Treasury would meanwhile squeeze off a couple of toxic asset plans and a special liquidity scheme, leaving you hopelessly behind the curve.
The news that Mr Lambert, who has a mind like a steel trap, is just a tad confused by the welter of support schemes is a big relief. If, like me, you have a mind like an untidy sock drawer, there is now no shame in admitting that you muddle up the enterprise finance thingy with the mortgage guarantee doofer. The unveiling on Thursday of an asset protection scheme, under which the hapless taxpayer will underwrite up to £500bn of toxic loans, will merit only despairing shrugs from many of the sock drawer persuasion.
Hope is fading in business that state intervention can restore credit to “normal levels” (whatever those are) and brake plunging economic growth. The collective misery is compounded by the failure of some companies and the critical condition of others. David Kern, chief economist of the British Chambers of Commerce, explains our befuddlement by saying: “We are in a battle.” The Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz called it “the fog of war” – a state where the prevalence of chaos attenuates the connection between an action and its outcome. Confidence has been floored by what a lesser tactician, the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, termed “known unknowns” – the quantity of bad loans in the financial system, for example – and “unknown unknowns” – such as collapsing Ponzi schemes.
But how justified are we sockistas in our angst? Only up to a point, according to Mr Lambert. The economic stimulus of a weaker pound and lower interest rates could take a year to be fully felt. Easier credit may be months away too. Many businesses, he says, have “mistaken the announcement that the Seventh Cavalry is on its way with the Seventh Cavalry actually arriving”. One might add that companies currently flirting with collapse had mostly struggled for years.
However, the momentum of economic predictions has been downhill all the way. I will quote Mr Kern’s record not to castigate him, but because he is typical, and willing to recap his numbers. Over the past year his growth forecast for 2009 has shifted as follows: 2 per cent, 1.1 per cent, -1.6 per cent, -2.2 per cent. He is now considering a further reduction to -2.5 per cent.
Business managers cannot be blamed for battening down the hatches on a day when Royal Bank of Scotland is scheduled to publish Britain’s largest yet full-year loss. The government would prefer them to hold their nerve. But the upbeat behaviour that would benefit UK plc would expose their companies to greater individual peril. Directors are therefore cutting investment, focusing on cash generation and slinging out employees who appear even momentarily under-occupied. Never was there a worse time for workers in open-plan offices to surf the web for bargain holidays.
Most business organisations believe that the economy will hit rock bottom this winter and recover next year, thanks to such stabilisers as sterling weakness and reduced stock levels. But the period of the downturn looks ever more prolonged. We all want to believe in a quick recovery, in the way that pantomime audiences believe in fairies so Tinkerbell can live. But that is getting tough. The mobile phone business in the serviced office next to mine went bust a fortnight ago. The jolly recruitment consultant down the corridor is scraping by as a lettings agent. And my friend Craig – he was the mechanic who wanted to open his own garage – was made redundant last week.
The CBI remains committed to the banking bail-out through which the government is shifting the cost of the financial crisis from the private to the public balance sheet. Mr Lambert says that leaving it all to the market would “have been extremely damaging to the economy and resulted in the country taking far longer to recover”.
The difficulty for Labour is that it will be impossible to determine what, if any, part of the eventual recovery it can accurately claim credit for. The Conservative party’s oblique positioning on the banking bail-out therefore looks increasingly smart. The other winners are conservatively run private businesses, which are well placed to survive the recession. They use banks only as strong-boxes for the retained profits needed to finance measured growth. They know their customers too intimately to need credit insurance. Politicians and management consultants vilified them as “lifestyle businesses” during the white heat of Labour’s enterprise revolution. Not any more.
More columns at www.ft.com/guthrie
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