49's the sticking point for French firms

Quantifying regulatory burden.

A group of LSE economists have published a paper which makes a strong effort to actually work out the damage regulations do to economic efficiency. Luis Garicano, Claire Lelarge, and John Van Reenen hit upon the method of looking to France, where there are sharp increases in the regulatory burden when firms employ 50 or more workers.

Seemingly as a result of those burdens, a noticeable number of firms appear to "stick" at 49 employees even when they may hire that extra marginal person. The piece's key chart is a killer:

Notice how the number of companies with 49 employees is actually higher than the number with 45 – and also that there's a precipitous drop between the number with 49 and the number with 50.

The paper tries to estimate, to a preliminary level, the regulatory cost of this burden. They estimate that 0.05 per cent of firms are distorted, and that the total output lost by those distorted firms is about 35 per cent – meaning that GDP is lowered by 0.5 per cent.

As the New York Times' Casey Mulligan writes, however, we shouldn't confuse the direct cost with the total cost of the regulations:

This is not to say that the regulations imposed on 50-employee companies are necessarily excessive, because they can create public benefits that more than justify their net costs for an employer and his employees, just as taxes and government spending can. For example, an air-pollution regulation might kick in at 50 employees that creates a significant cost for the employer and little aggregate benefit for his employees but creates a significant benefit for the people of France.

The employers also miss another transfer of wealth that might be just as important. Matt Yglesias covered it in another context last week:

One very plausible consequence of this would simply be to strongly discourage the owners of small firms from pursuing growth. And the big winners from that kind of disincentive to firm growth will be the owners of other small firms that simply aren't as lucky or well-managed as the growing ones.

In other words, it's a transfer of wealth from a company which may expand by a few employees to the companies which aren't going to have their lunch eating by a growing competitor. In the French context at least, that transfer will be relatively small. While companies are disinclined to grow from 49 to 50 employees, they may well be happy to leapfrog from 49 to 51 or higher; and the impact on creation of massive companies will be small indeed. But it will have an impact.

Fundamentally, it's an example of why it's best, where-ever possible, to target margins rather than absolutes. In taxation, for example, there's rarely this sort of adverse incentive, because there are few margins where earning more affects the taxes you pay on money already earned (where that does happen – between £100,000 and £150,000 of income, for instance – it is still carefully planned so that there is a positive value for every extra pound earned).

The problem is that that's harder to do for regulation. You can't really tell a company that they have to provide health insurance for the 50th employee but not the first 49, for instance. It would be unfair, not to mention probably even more impractical.

Better answers may be to more gradually phase in the burdens, so that at no point is there a leap in regulation big enough to dissuade too many companies from expanding; to stop fetishising small businesses, and make them subject to the same regulations as every other company (which would also force regulations to be easy to comply with, of course); or to make such regulations more explicitly support entrepreneurship rather than merely being small by imposing them a set period after a company has been founded, rather than basing them on growth.

More research, please!

An employer works on pullover sleeves for one of the luxury French brands who outsource work to these small specialist artisan factories on December 10, 2009 in Port-Brillet. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.