Should we kill off unproductive companies?

The out-of-business business.

The out-of-business business has done a roaring trade this month, as a walk down any high street will testify.  But the staff of one closed store using their empty shop window to advertise themselves as available for work was a heartbreakingly public illustration of what each redundancy actually represents. Stories like that one have been painful to read, but it was both right and necessary that the media (including this newspaper) made space for the victims of these events.

Amid the concern for the newly-jobless, however, has come new talk around an old idea: the notion that some insolvencies can actually promote recovery in the economy. The theory is that labour and capital can be released from fundamentally unproductive companies, to re-enter the system in some more productive context.

For that to hold true in practice, however, the conditions must be in place for capital and labour to be reabsorbed into the economy. That means strong growth – assets find a market, staff find new jobs, creditors can offset loss. But an economy which is currently only adding new jobs at the rate of a few thousand a month will struggle to place the newly-redundant back into work. Therefore, one must sound a note of caution before we decide that unproductive companies should all be killed off.  If the current rash of large-scale insolvencies was indeed a side-effect of the recovery, there would be no cause to worry, but that is clearly not the case.  The economy is simply not adding enough jobs to re-employ those left without work.

By the time a business enters administration, it is generally beyond all help, but the end should not come as a surprise to those in charge. One reason that it might, is that the means used to measure productivity within companies are often inadequate, and provide an incomplete picture at best.  It’s fairly easy for the leader of a small business to look around his or her office and, from the ringing of the phone alone, gain a fairly clear grasp of the productivity of their company.  It’s far harder for the management of a retail chain with hundreds of locations and thousands of employees. That’s a major problem because, if business leaders cannot analyse productivity effectively, then many of their decisions will be based on little more than guesswork.

When attempting to arrest a slide in revenue, or a loss of market share, it ought to be relatively simple to identify the points at which productivity and effectiveness can be improved.  These might include things like closer centralised control of planned absences like holidays, to reduce reliance on costly agency staff; another might be better assessment of the peaks and troughs of customer demand.  Indicators like these allow a much clearer insight into whether problems are internal or external, and whether internal reforms, or more radical measures, are required to return the organisation to health. 

Similarly, the measurement (and projection) of customer loyalty is often left to the most basic analysis, while the factors affecting it are multifarious and complex. No business’s cashflow is immune from the impact of customer loyalty, whether positive or negative, and any kind of long-term planning demands some means to accurately predict what will motivate customers to keep spending.  Indeed, research suggests business leaders are not doing enough to impress their customers: less than half of UK consumers say they are satisfied with the service they receive from organisations including retailers, banks and phone companies.

Of course, some firms do fall victim to truly exogenic factors, and not all businesses can succeed, but those are largely the exception rather than the rule.  Bosses should not be spared blame if they do not do all they can to identify and fix inefficiencies within their business or, indeed, if they pretend to be surprised when their creditors finally run out of patience.

One of the most horrid features of the recent series of bankruptcies was the extent to which staff were kept in ignorance of the state of the company.  At the shop mentioned previously, employees only found out that the company had folded when a journalist phoned the store to ask for comment. That’s unforgiveable – when the writing is on the wall, executives should recognise it, and seek to wind up their company in an orderly fashion. 

Equally unforgivable is if they never made an effort to read that writing in the first place. Business leaders carry an inherent responsibility for those that work for them, ensuring that they stay productive and that the business keeps competing. That entails a duty to make mature decisions about the future of the business, and a duty to do so in full possession of the facts.

Claire Richardson is a VP at customer relations consultants Verint.

Closing down. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.