Making sure the green shoots don’t wither away

The UK may be in recovery, writes Scott Barnes, but how can we keep it that way?

Recent third quarter GDP figures for the UK showed a growth of 1.0 per cent, however when these figures were announced, many commentators were keen to point out that discounting this summer’s Olympic Games and Diamond Jubilee spending, the economy has remained stagnant year on year. Although this is a continuation of the current pessimism around the UK economy, the question is whether when you take a closer look at the situation, this is justified. 

Some recent research undertaken by us in conjunction with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that mid-sized businesses have actually, for the most part, been growing well during the past few years of economic stagnation. After taking a closer look at this growth, it found that mid-sized businesses have been able to boost their productivity, with turnover per employee 18 per cent higher than the UK average, and as a result increase their turnover by £25.7bn over the past year. 

In addition, the third quarter of 2012 company liquidations were down 2.8 per cent from the previous quarter, and 6.6 per cent less than the same quarter in 2011. One of the major factors behind this is that the current low interest rates mean that struggling businesses are better able to service their loans and pay off the interest. As a result, banks are less concerned about calling the loan in. Those businesses that can’t afford to tackle the debt itself are given a bit more breathing space, allowing them to concentrate on growing revenue, rather than struggling to meet loan payments. 

The latest quarterly Business Confidence Monitor from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales and Grant Thornton shows that business confidence is actually higher in regions outside of London and the South East. There have been some encouraging initiatives recently from the Government and it will be interesting to see how this glimmer of regional confidence is affected by the recent review by Lord Heseltine and the Coalition Government’s "City Deals" plan. Together, these schemes have called for more government funds to be diverted to regional governments and greater powers for mayors to support this entrepreneurialism and dynamism across the UK.

The pervading economic climate continues to be a proving ground for companies, with those that are still in business emerging lean, organised and efficient. Businesses are taking a fundamental look at how their business is run in order to weather the worst of the economic storm. Clear effective governance, robust planning and attention to financial levers mean they are now equipped to deal with this kind of environment. 

Before businesses start to invest again, economic confidence needs to come from somewhere, and the government must shout about how well we’re doing, and keep providing support for British businesses. If just a fraction of the estimated £720bn of cash reserves in British businesses was invested back into the economy, business investment would return to pre-crisis levels. While the "new normal" means we have to adjust our growth expectations, confidence is needed to ensure the recent economic growth doesn't just prove to be an anomaly and continues.

Green shoots. Photograph: Getty Images

Scott Barnes is the CEO of Grant Thornton UK.

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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.