The case for a British Investment Bank

The UK is the only member of the G8 not to have a dedicated institution dealing with SME financing.

For some time the calls have increased for the creation of some type of government-backed financing institution to support the UK economy.  This is based not only on the needs created by the perfect storm we have been experiencing since 2008 but also the value which a permanent institution could have for UK plc throughout the economic cycle, and in addressing issues which existed before the credit crunch.  In particular there are two areas where getting investment moving is vital:  the financing of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) and ensuring we have fit-for-purpose infrastructure.  They are both fundamental for the creation of a growing economy in which business enterprise can flourish.

The non-availability of finance to smaller businesses is long-standing, having been identified in 1931 by the Macmillan Report.  Market failures exist in relation to the provision of both debt and equity.  In many cases this stems from an asymmetry of information between the finance provider and the business.  Financiers find it difficult to distinguish between high and low risk businesses without incurring significant costs which are judged too high in relation to the level of finance being provided, thus reducing profit margins.  The way Banks avoid this is only to finance businesses with a strong track record and/or the provision of collateral (the classic mortgaging of the family home to finance the business).  There are also credit-scoring systems which mean atypical, innovative businesses, which may be economically viable, are unduly penalised because they do not fit the mould.  The regulatory environment is stacked against SMEs as well with banks required to hold more capital when lending to SMEs, resulting in more expensive finance and/or less finance.  Added to that is the lack of competition in the mainstream SME lending market and the trend towards short-termism in lending, with facilities often repayable on demand.

Faced with such systemic deep-seated problems it is surprising, to say the least, that the UK is the only member of the G8 not to have a dedicated institution dealing with SME financing issues.  So there are international examples from which we can learn, notably the activities of KfW in Germany, the Small Business Administration (SBA) in the US and the Business Development Bank of Canada.  Indeed the SBA provided early-stage finance to success stories such as Apple.  There is also past UK experience, in the original activities of the Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation (ICFC), created immediately after the Second World War to address the funding gap identified by the Macmillan Report.  Its modus operandi was to employ technical specialists, familiar with local business, operating through a regional network.  That original business model was watered down as external investors put pressure on increasing returns more quickly.  The strengths and weaknesses of the ICFC experience need to be borne in mind when considering how to structure any government intervention. 

In the area of infrastructure investment the coalition government's National Infrastructure Plan identifies the huge investment required in infrastructure over the next decade (some £250bn).  We have a nascent model in the area of the green economy, the Green Investment Bank.  Its activities are currently constrained by its inability to borrow until at least 2015 and then only if public sector net debt is falling as a percentage of GDP.  There are likely to be synergies between its current activities and those in the wider area of potential interventions in infrastructure investment and SME finance.  The Green Investment Bank's role is to crowd-in private finance where it can and to demonstrate financeability by being a frontier investor.  It will act in a commercial manner and is not in the business of financing lost causes.  Finance for infrastructure investment is constrained, in part by the retreat of commercial banks from the sector and the demise of credit-enhanced bonds but also as a result of regulatory changes, which make long-term investing in infrastructure more expensive (similar to the SME problem).  The EU has initiatives to attempt to address these issues but their resources are finite and have to cover the entire EU.  Given our investment needs, intervention is also required by government here in the UK.

There are therefore a series of necessary interventions in the areas of SME finance, and infrastructure finance which, based on past and present experience, here and internationally, point towards the creation of a British Investment Bank operating on a commercial basis independent from government. It would also have a public policy mission thus creating a dual-bottom line business strategy.  Given that split and the broad range of interested parties affected by it activities, there is merit in establishing an overarching Advisory Council which would not have executive authority but which would ensure that the board held to its dual strategy.  Members of the Advisory Council could include, among others, representatives of key government departments, trades unions and business.

Funding for the Bank could come from a range of sources, including channelling funds from National Savings and Investments.  Something similar is done to fund comparable institutions in France and Italy.  That would create an effective depositor base for the Bank and give it a platform to develop further products to fund its activities - for example Green ISAs, which could fund interventions by the Green Investment Bank.

If we fail to learn from and embrace the experience of other countries we will, as Ed Miliband said in his speech on 9 July, be condemning businesses to operate with one arm tied behind their backs.

Nicholas Tott is the author of a report for Labour's policy review on "The Case for a British Investment Bank".

The facade of the headquarters of the Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicholas Tott is a consultant for Herbert Smith and the author of a report for Labour's policy review on "The Case for a British Investment Bank".

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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