American investors fear divided government

Debt ceiling struggle raised concerns.

Suzy Khimm, of the Washington Post's WonkBlog, reports on a new Gallup poll of American investors, which asks them what they fear the most:

More than unemployment, oil prices, the housing market, tight credit, or the euro zone crisis, investors believe that a politically divided federal government could hurt the US investment climate, according to a new Gallup poll that surveyed American adults with “investable assets of $10,000 or more”:

Gallup poll

The second most common fear is the federal budget deficit. Altogether, this suggests that investors believe the recent political gridlock over the debt-ceiling and budget has been extremely harmful to the U.S. business climate. Presumably, they’re concerned that this could continue should President Obama be re-elected along with a GOP Congress, or vice versa.

Before the election, the Conservative line on coalition governments was much the same as the one these investors seem to hold: political divisions hamper the ability to make crucial economic decisions, which, especially in a depression, can lead to an inability to competently handle crisis. Two years on, those fears have been comprehensively put to bed. Far from coalition resulting in legislative gridlock, as divided government has in the US, this government has been the most radical in a decade.

The European debt crisis would obviously rank higher in a British version of this poll, but the interesting ones to see would be the relative positions of the budget deficit and unemployment rate. In both, the UK is now worse off than the US (when the deficit is expressed as a percentage of GDP, that is), but the narrative seems to be different on both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas the US has experienced its "jobless recovery", now transitioning to a "growthless recovery", the failure of the UK to experience the same levels of growth means that the unemployment rate often blends into the general gloomy economic background.

Obama signs the budget control act, raising the debt ceiling. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.