An evil still lurks at the heart of the British economy: lateness

Cash flow problems account for a huge percentage of corporate bankruptcies. A change in the law, and our culture, might just give the economy a much-needed boost.

Sometimes parliamentary inquiries can be drab, dull affairs - events that feel compelled to occur for form's sake rather than for any great purpose. A recent special parliamentary inquiry however shone a light onto a dark and shameful corner of business culture in the UK, a culture that is undermining our economic recovery. The enquiry was looking into the UK's systemic late payment system and in particular the escalating impact overdue invoices are having on SMEs and their ability to stay afloat. As of the end of last year, outstanding debts to small and medium-sized business stood at a record £35.3bn in late payments - and large companies have been identified as the main culprits.

That the government is aware of this issue is of course to be applauded. A couple of months ago the Late Payments of Commercial Debts Regulations 2013 came into force, designed to protect small businesses struggling with cash flow due to late payment of invoices. However, this legislation only goes halfway to addressing the problem because it does not stipulate the length of time that an invoice must legally be paid by. The government should strongly consider imposing fines on serial late payers. Protecting SMEs with a mandatory payment time limit is a no-brainer and will surely be coming down the track at some stage.

This will take some time though. Therefore until the law is amended we need to start changing the culture in which large businesses sit on sizable cash reserves and hold SMEs hostage to their reluctance to pay in a timely fashion. My question to large businesses with ample liquidity is: what is there to gain in taking an age to pay a supplier? It engenders bad relationships, a negative perception of your brand and, worst of all; it slows economic growth – growth that you, the reluctant-to-pay business, could take advantage of. The great unintended consequence of this late payment culture is that the SME or start up – a growth engine for economic acceleration and source of so-called 'green shoots' - is being strangled at birth by its neglectful elders.

Cash flow problems account for a huge percentage of corporate bankruptcies: in 2008, for example, 4,000 UK businesses failed as a direct consequence of late payment. As of the end of 2011 the average small firm had approximately £45,000 of unpaid invoice debt sitting on its books, up from £39,000 from the previous half year. Furthermore, given that SMEs account for about 60 per cent of private sector employment, if their cash flow was more stable they might employ just one more person, which would make a huge difference to the overall level of unemployment. With lending shrinking at 2.5 per cent a year, despite the Government’s Funding for Lending Scheme, this is an escalating problem that, like a pestilent, is killing green shoots just as they begin to grow.

If large corporations start to pay their suppliers on time, i.e. within 30 to 60 days, we would see a sea change in business activity and, consequently, SME growth. As the saying has it, it's not rocket science, and is perhaps one of the simplest and most practical way of stimulating economic growth in our current flat lining economy.

Stop all the clocks - Overdue invoices are having a damaging effect on SMEs. Photograph: Getty Images.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit