The politics of pricing

The fear of "difficult conversations with clients".

As anyone in business knows, working out how much to charge for your goods or services is a perpetual conundrum. Charge too much and you risk losing customers; charge too little and you might not break even. It’s a difficult balance to strike at the best of times, but the present economic climate makes the challenge even harder. Deciding what the price of your services should be – and how you charge for those services – is one of the most important decisions that you can make when you run your own practice. So you need to do your utmost to get it right.

Charging per hour has long been the tried-and-tested billing model for the accountancy profession, and with good reason. The principle is that the fairest and most transparent way to recompense someone is by paying them for their time – hence the model is also used by a range of other professionals from lawyers through to IT contractors.

Traditionally, the hourly rates charged by accountancy firms tended to be calculated on the basis that a third of the fee would cover salary costs (hence it would vary according to the seniority and expertise of the staff member), a third would cover overheads and third would be profit. While this breakdown does not necessarily hold true now – the percentage of the fee needed to cover labour has increased, for example – it helps to explain why the charge-out rates of some Big Four partners are more than £1,000 an hour.

So far, so good. Except that from the client’s point of view, charging per hour does not necessarily seem that transparent. After all, they are not sitting in your office, watching over your staff while the work gets done, so they don’t know how efficient or otherwise your practice is. There is also the risk that they will be presented with a bill that is far larger than they expected at the end of the job, which is a sure-fire way to lose their business.

This piece first appeared here.

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a news story from economia.

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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.