Why is the EU in no hurry for a trade deal?

The BBC’s Adam Fleming reported today that the EU’s trade commissioner hasn’t yet started preparing for trade negotiations:

Katya Adler said something similar yesterday:

[T]his is another reason for the rather laid-back atmosphere in Brussels Brexit circles right now – EU insiders think much of the detail and substance governing EU-UK future relations will actually be worked out after the UK leaves the bloc in March next year.

Perhaps the clue to this is in the report by Institute for Government last month on the views of the EU 27:

The Single Market matters more than the UK market to EU27 governments and businesses.

[T]he other member states mean it when they say that maintaining the integrity of the EU and its Single Market is their priority.

[T]here are many reasons why the EU27 will want a close future relationship with the UK, and they will all have their own priorities. That does not mean that the consensus that has prevailed so far will crumble. All member states share an interest in a deal that protects the integrity of the Single Market and the stability of the EU.

The integrity of the Single Market is a phrase we hear often from the EU but one to which a lot of our politicians and commentators don’t seem to have paid a lot of attention. There are good reasons for wanting to preserve it though. When it works in sync with the EU’s Customs Union it enables trade to flow freely in a way it does nowhere else in the world.

Outside the EU, trade is a lot more complicated. Many people seem to think that leaving the EU will free us; that there is some state of nature where countries trade freely with each other. The truth is that, in international trade, the state of nature is nasty and brutish. Historically, countries have restricted trade. They have protected their home markets and imposed tariffs, quotas and regulations on others. Over time, through trade agreements and the World Trade Organisation, these barriers have started to come down.

The EU has taken this process further than most. Its Customs Union removes tariffs and its Single Market harmonises regulations on goods and some services. The combination of these two systems removes the need for border controls. Common tariffs are charged and common standards enforced at the EU border so once something is inside the EU, whether as a finished product or a component of another product, it can be moved freely. It is therefore possible to put goods on a truck in Manchester and drive them to Munich, then pick up another load and come back again, without being stopped. One way to think about the EU is as a system of immunity. It provides a space in which the usual constraints of international trade do not apply.

It therefore follows that once a country leaves the EU it loses that immunity. There is much talk of the EU threatening to put up barriers once the UK has left. That is back-to-front thinking. Once the UK leaves the EU, the barriers that exist in the normal course of international trade will reappear. By placing itself outside the system, the UK loses the benefits of that system’s removal of tariffs and regulatory barriers. The EU’s border will move and the restrictions that apply to other countries will then apply to the UK.

But couldn’t we just decide not to check goods that cross our borders with the EU? After all, we have the same regulations as the EU at the moment so what’s going to be different after 29 March? Wouldn’t that solve the problem in Ireland too?

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. WTO rules mean that countries can only offer preferential trading terms as part of a trade deal. As the Institute for Government explained last year:

[T]hough there is scope for flexibility to unilaterally apply a lighter-touch regime, the UK would be unable to liberalise its borders for EU imports completely.

First, under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, unless the UK is prepared to drop tariffs for all imports, it will have to collect duties on EU imports.

Second, as a member of treaty organisations such as the WTO and as a signatory of the TBT (Technical Barriers to Trade) and SPS (Sanitary and Phytosanitary) agreements, the UK would be bound by the principle of non-discrimination when it comes to applying regulatory checks.

In other words, if you drop tariffs for one country you have to drop them for everyone. The same applies to regulatory checks. If the UK decided not to implement checks on the Irish border it would have to stop checking imports from anywhere or else, sooner or later, someone would bring a legal challenge to the WTO. As the FT’s Alan Beattie pointed out:

If the UK discriminates in this way, it will be vulnerable to widespread litigation in the WTO. This will come at a time when the UK is attempting to regularise its position in the organisation, in which it has hitherto been represented by the EU. The UK is dependent on the goodwill of other WTO members in the tricky question of splitting the EU’s existing commitments on food import quotas. It must also establish its position in the WTO’s government procurement agreement which gives its companies the right to bid for public tenders abroad. Arriving on the scene while creating one of the biggest breaches of WTO law in the organisation’s existence probably isn’t the way to get other countries on side.

The same applies in the opposite direction. The EU would be obliged to treat UK exports the same way as any other and therefore subject to customs and regulatory checks. It is not that the EU would ‘slap’ tariffs and checks on British goods. They would simply appear as a consequence of our withdrawal from the customs union and single market.

There is no free trade deal that can magic these borders away. A zero tariff agreement on its own would not remove the need for border checks. Regulatory and rules of origin checks would still need to be applied. Once the UK leaves the customs union and the single market there will have to be border checks.

Which is why the EU is very reluctant to allow the UK to ‘cherry pick’ which bits of the single market it wants to be in. Once the UK starts doing trade agreements with other countries it will mean that goods that don’t conform to EU standards will be circulating in the UK. That means there is a risk of those goods crossing borders and so there will need to be border checks. A country can’t be half in and half out of the Customs Union and Single Market because that contaminates the system. The whole point is that any goods inside can be moved anywhere and any goods outside are checked as they come in.

This ease of movement has enabled firms to set up EU-wide supply chains. This FT graphic, showing the journey of a fuel injector, is an example of how something manufactured in the UK can end up as part an EU product manufactured elsewhere.

The UK imports to make its exports and exports so that others may make their exports. As Mark Carney pointed out last year, over 30 percent of the total value of UK exports is components for goods that are finished elsewhere in the EU:

The proportion of UK exports that are intermediate components of EU value chains has increased from about 1/5th of exports in 1995 to about 1/3rd in 2014. Increasingly the UK doesn’t so much export to Europe as through Europe; it is a supplier of components to final goods that are exported beyond the continent.

Chart by Bank of England

Once the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union this trade will be subject to border checks. This will cost to processes that have been integrated for years, many of which are time sensitive. In some cases, the disruption will be enough to make it worth relocating these supply chains. For the most part, it will be a lot easier for EU firms to do that than for UK ones, simply because they will still have a number of other countries from which to choose while UK firms will have to source components from within the UK.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies remarked:

[T]he UK is a much less important source of inputs for the EU than vice versa. For example, manufacturing firms in the rest of the EU only obtain 1.5% of their inputs from the UK.

The disruption to supply chains will be a lot less of a problem for EU countries than for the UK.

Chart by Institute for Fiscal Studies

From the perspective of other EU countries most of the problems associated with Brexit come from the UK’s withdrawal from the Customs Union and Single Market. A free trade agreement might mitigate that to an extent but it won’t restore the smooth flow of supply chains. As BMW’s sales and marketing director Ian Robertson said, a FTA isn’t that much better than WTO rules. Once the supply chains are disrupted the damage is done.

The British Ports Association agrees. The impact on ports, it says, would be the same under a FTA as under WTO rules. Its chief executive said:

A potential Brexit free trade deal will be welcomed by many in the sector but this is unlikely to cover border processes. In terms of border operations the impact of leaving the Customs Union and Single Market is now fast becoming a ‘no deal’ scenario for ports. Indeed this means that new border controls on UKEU trade are likely to be unavoidable and that delays at certain ports and important trade gateways are a distinct possibility.

Maybe that is why the EU doesn’t appear to be in any great hurry to talk about trade deals. Its objective is to limit the damage to EU supply chains and re-set the Customs Union and Single Market to operate without the UK. That’s the priority. Set against that, a trade deal is simply a nice-to-have.


It reminds me of what happens when you disturb an ants’ nest. The ants rush to seal the breach as quickly as possible. That is what the EU will do when the UK ruptures its carefully designed system. It will re-seal it in a way that does not leave any holes. A two-year transition period, should it be agreed, will give it time to do this. EU firms will be able to relocate their supply chains so that when the final break with the UK comes it will not be as big a deal.

There is a possibility that the EU might agree to the UK staying in the Single Market for goods only and negotiating a new customs union. As Sam Lowe and John Springford argue, this is similar to the arrangement Jersey has now and it would enable the UK to regain control of its immigration policy. The “Jersey Option” would also remove the need for physical checks on goods thereby avoiding the disruption to supply chains and the need for a visible border in Ireland. So far, it is the only proposal I have seen which enables the UK to retain its red lines, honour its commitment on the Irish border and to which the EU might just agree.

Otherwise we may find that come 2021 the EU will happily let us leave without a trade deal. It will have relocated its supply chains, put its port infrastructure in place and secured the UK’s budget contributions until the end of the financial period. With its system of friction-free trade preserved, then the EU might get around to talking about a trade deal with its awkward neighbour.

Posted in Uncategorized | 25 Comments

An Irish Sea border is a silly idea but so is the cake-and-eat-it bluster

The EU wants to annex Northern Ireland. Such was the predictable hysterical reaction by pro-Brexit MPs and commentators to the European Commission’s attempt to turn December’s Phase 1 agreement into a detailed withdrawal agreement.

What has really upset people is the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which starts on Page 98. It contains the suggestion that, in the absence of any other way of avoiding a hard border in Ireland, it would be necessary for Northern Ireland to remain in a customs union with the EU. The corollary of this would be a customs border on the Irish Sea, effectively dividing the UK into two customs zones.

Of course, Theresa May is right when she says that “no United Kingdom prime minister could ever agree to it”. Chuka Umunna is also right when he says that parliament would never vote for it. A customs border on the Irish Sea is a silly idea which would create more problems than it solved. Leaving aside the possibility of Loyalist violence, the flip-side of the Republicans potentially attacking the border posts, there is the simple economic impact. While Northern Ireland’s principal foreign trading partner is the Republic of Ireland, the majority of its external trade goes to the rest of the UK. A customs border with Great Britain is therefore likely to be more damaging than one with the Republic. It also wouldn’t remove the Republic’s other Brexit headache, the loss of its export bridge to the rest of the EU.

The European Commission knows all this and knows that such a thing would never come to pass. It also must have known that its suggestion would provoke outrage. So why do it? Was it an insensitive provocation or was it, as the FT’s man in Brussels Alex Barker reports, because the EU wants to force a reckoning? One EU diplomat even used the term ‘shock therapy‘.

Paragraph 49 of the December agreement read:

The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all- island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

That effectively means that unless the UK can suggest either a form of trade deal or a technological solution that removes the need for border checks, the UK must retain full alignment with the single market and customs union at least for Northern Ireland.

Within days of the report being published, David Davis told Andrew Marr that it wasn’t really an agreement, just a statement of intent. This annoyed the other major players in the EU who thought they’d secured an agreement which would allow them to move on to the next phase of the negotiations. The UK also failed to come up with any detailed solutions, despite insisting that it could all be sorted out somehow. In the absence of anything more concrete, the EU came up with what it described as its fallback plan; an EU and Northern Ireland customs union.

Government ministers have probably known for some time that there isn’t an easy solution to the Northern Ireland border question. If Boris Johnson really believed that it was no more complicated than administering the congestion charge between the London Boroughs of Camden and Westminster, he wouldn’t have been the slightest bit worried by the European Commission’s fallback protocol. His response would have been, “What a silly suggestion. Everybody knows it won’t come to that because we have the technology to avoid customs checks at the Irish border.” Instead, he got angry and blustered. Indeed, it is the same people who have been assuring us all along that technology would solve the border question (many of them quoting an EU report that said nothing of the sort) who have gone apoplectic at the EU’s protocol. Which was, I suspect, the whole point of it.

So far, the government has avoided coming clean about the trade-offs that Brexit makes inevitable. It has stuck to the cake-and-eat-it line whereby the UK can end free movement and negotiate its own trade deals while avoiding a hard border in Ireland and any economic damage from trade friction.

But there is no magic solution to the Northern Ireland border. As soon as the UK starts importing goods from outside the EU under its own trade agreements, there has to be a customs border with the Republic of Ireland. There is a straightforward decision to be made. Do we want the UK to have its own trade deals with other countries or do we want to maintain the current border arrangements in Ireland? We can’t have both. If we choose the hard border option, the EU’s current line is that it will refuse to discuss trade deals. How firmly it will stick to this is anybody’s guess but it certainly increases the risk of the UK leaving the EU without any sort of trade deal.

So it’s not difficult this. It’s a straightforward trade-off. We can have some of what the Brexiters promised but not all of it.

The Brexit Dilemma

As a country, we need to decide what is important to us and what we are prepared to give up to secure it. But so far we haven’t had any proper political debate about any of this. The government has maintained that we can have it all and the Labour Party has, until recently, kept quiet. Now, the EU’s protocol on the future status of Northern Ireland, whether by cold hard calculation or ham-fisted provocation, is likely to force the issue.

As a former colleague of mine used to say, “Sometimes, the only way to get people to understand the shit they are in is to rub their noses in it.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 43 Comments

Away day to nowhere

It’s fashionable to poke fun at corporate away days. There’s even a Famous Five parody devoted to the subject. Many of you will no doubt be familiar with these events. They usually start with some fine words about openness and trust then finish hours, or even days later, with a set of statements on flip charts.

Such things were the original inspiration for the title of this blog. For, all too often, no-one actually believes in the things written on the flip charts. Either that, or they are so ambiguously worded that people can interpret them in any number of ways. It often takes as long to wordsmith the statements as it does to come up with the ideas in the first place. The result is that people sign up to what is on the flip charts, then go back to their day jobs and carry on pretty much as before, while slagging off their colleagues and complaining about what a waste of time the away day was. As a result everyone will start next year’s away day with even lower expectations, which will duly be fulfilled.

It sounds like the Cabinet’s away day was a classic of the genre. From what I’ve heard it had much of the usual paraphernalia, including breakout rooms. You have to have breakout rooms. And the result was predictably meaningless.

“So, we’re going with Canada Plus Plus Plus and Managed Ambitious Divergence then. Are we all happy that we are strategically aligned on these principles?”

“Yes. Looks good to me.”

“Should we have another Plus, you know, like Canada Plus Plus Plus Plus? Might that look a bit more ambitious?”

“Actually, I think we’ve already got too many pluses. Another one will just look silly.”

“But David has already talked about Canada Plus Plus Plus, so if we lose one it’s going to look weak.”

“OK, OK, let’s go with it. I’m not that fussed either way.”

“Right, so that’s agreed then.”

“Hang on, Managed Ambitious Divergence, that’s M.A.D. That spells mad.”

“Oh bugger! That’s true. Right. Anyone got another idea?”

“Er, how about Ambitious Managed Divergence?”

“Yeah, that’ll do. Just draw an arrow, Amber, so it shows we are swapping the words around to read Ambitious Managed Divergence.”

“No, write it all out again, Amber, otherwise we’ll get confused.”

“Write it in capitals.”

“Shall I use a different colour?”

“Look, get a new flip chart and write the whole thing again.”

“What, all of it?”

“Come on, Amber, it’s not that bloody difficult.”

“Well if you’re so clever, Boris, you come up here and do it.”

“Give me that pen. Look. AMBITIOUS. MANAGED. DIVERGENCE. There. Job done. Are we all agreed on that? Good. Now can we go for dinner?”

I jest, of course, though it is usually one of the women that ends up doing the flip charts. So too, it’s often a bombastic man whose contribution to the process has consisted of content-free grandstanding and rhetorical hand grenades who complains about the lack of pace and progress.

Executive team away days can work. I have seen people come up with useful stuff. I even saw one team spend an entire day-and-a-half exploring lots of ideas only to discount them all. That was time well spent because by eliminating what they shouldn’t do, it helped them to focus much more clearly on what they should. The trouble is, away days have a bad name because, a lot of the time, they simply paper over the cracks.

Team events fail for four reasons, which I call the 4 Cs: Capability, Conflict, Courage and Collusion.

  • Capability – where the team doesn’t understand the problem and/or doesn’t have a clue what to do about it;
  • Conflict – where members of the team are at loggerheads, either because of personality clashes or opposing vested interests;
  • Courage – where no-one in the team is prepared to acknowledge either of the above and challenge their colleagues, which leads to:
  • Collusion – where everyone tacitly agrees to paper over the cracks with an inane statement that all can agree on because no-one’s position is challenged.

The result of this will be that the elephants in the room are left alone and the sleeping dogs are left to lie. None of the important issues are addressed and they are still there at next year’s away day, when the whole process starts again.

How long a management team can keep going like this depends on the organisation’s external environment. If the market is changing rapidly, if there are hostile predators or if there are far-reaching regulatory changes, the management team’s inertia may get found out fairly quickly. However, if the environment is relatively benign, an organisation can trundle on for years happily avoiding any difficult decisions.

Unfortunately, our government doesn’t have that long. The EU has already dismissed the output from its away day. Ambitious Managed Divergence also contradicts what the EU thinks the UK government agreed to in December. Essentially, Paragraph 49 of that agreement commits the government to keeping Northern Ireland in some form of customs union with the EU and Paragraph 50 commits it to preventing barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. If you follow the logic, that means the UK staying in a customs union with the EU. The contradiction between the December agreement and the away day statement will have to come to a head soon if any progress is to be made in the rest of the negotiations.

The output from away days is often rendered irrelevant by subsequent events. That from the Chequers event may be particularly short-lived. Six months from now we will probably have forgotten all about Ambitious Managed Divergence. Another flip chart consigned to the shredder of history.

Posted in Uncategorized | 28 Comments

The Good Friday Agreement: an inspired fudge

Twenty odd years ago, a former colleague of mine was about to get married. She was from Northern Ireland and, while in London, she had met an Englishman called Anthony. She described, with amusement, the polite questions from her relatives. Without asking directly, they were trying to find out whether he was a catholic. Anthony, she told me, was a name far more common among catholics than protestants in Northern Ireland.  Another friend, this one a catholic called Rory, told me of an occasion when he had been out with a mixed group of friends in Belfast at an event where he knew most of the audience would be protestants. He asked his friends to call him Roy, not Rory, as his name would immediately tell others where he was from. It worked for most of the evening until one of them forgot and shouted ‘Rory’ across the room. Fortunately it was just before last orders so they made their excuses and left.

A few years later, during a late-night conversation at a conference, we somehow got onto the subject of passports. Of the two people in our team who were from Northern Ireland, one had an Irish passport and the other didn’t. As I remarked to one of my colleagues, it was obvious which one. The one with the Gaelic-sounding name had the Irish passport, the one named after a town in Scotland didn’t. For me, the surprising thing about this was how much of it came as news to some of my other English colleagues. It’s one of the many things that people this side of the water fail to grasp about Northern Ireland. You only need one piece of information about someone to be able to infer a whole lot of other stuff. As our boss, whose family are Irish, remarked, you don’t even need to know where someone went to school. Just the name of the school will do.

At the root of all this are questions of history and national identity. Those from protestant backgrounds are more likely to see themselves as British and those from catholic backgrounds are more likely to see themselves as Irish. Matthew O’Toole summed it up neatly:

We might wish for a world in which more of Northern Ireland’s people shared a collective identity, but that is not is the world we live in. Nations are imagined communities, to use an old truism. The people of Northern Ireland have, over time, constructed separate psychological spaces for their identities. And part of the reason for enduring political instability is that neither monolithic identity can win. Both are inherently insecure.

People who feel Irish live in the island of Ireland, but not the state called Ireland. People who feel British live in the British state, but not on the island of Great Britain.

And, as he said, the Good Friday Agreement created a situation in which both were able to pretend. Northern Ireland remained legally part of the United Kingdom but the lack of a visible border meant that nationalists could imagine they lived in the same country as the people in the Republic.

The Good Friday agreement was elaborately engineered to reflect this. It not only instituted power-sharing, but created a legally enforceable right to identify as British, Irish or both. The agreement is fastidious in keeping Northern Ireland within the UK until a majority votes otherwise. But it is expansive when describing the right of people there to be part of the “Irish nation”. To make people who feel Irish relaxed about Ireland being partitioned as a matter of legal fact, the agreement sought to soften the border in people’s minds: to help them imagine it wasn’t there.

This softening of the border was enabled by the European Union and its single market. Once the single market had been implemented, there was no need for customs checks. With no customs checks, no security concerns and no immigration controls, people could cross the border as they pleased.

Some people were highly critical of the Good Friday Agreement at the time. Michael Gove wrote a blistering attack on it in 2000. He concluded:

Ulster’s future lies, ultimately, either as a Province of the United Kingdom or a united Ireland. Attempts to fudge or finesse that truth only create an ambiguity which those who profit by violence will seek to exploit.

He was absolutely right that the agreement was a fudge but, as Matthew O’Toole says, the fudge was the whole point. The ambiguity it created allowed people with different national identities to pretend they were living in the country they wanted to be in. Far from inflaming the violence, the peace process actually allowed most of the men of violence to back down with face-saving good grace. Here, the statistics speak for themselves.

From 1993, the peace process saw a gradual reduction in terrorist incidents and its culmination, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, almost brought terrorism in Northern Ireland to an end. Michael Gove was wrong. The agreement’s ambiguity didn’t open up opportunities for violence, it closed them down.

Businesses needed no encouragement to imagine the border away. Over the next 15 years, the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic became ever more integrated. The Republic of Ireland now accounts for around a third of Northern Ireland’s exports. According to the FT, no other part of the UK is so dependent on trade with a single country. A lot of this is due to cross-border supply chains.

All of this is now under threat from Brexit. The assumptions on which people have built their lives and their work over the last 20 years are about to be blown away. The UK government’s current position on its future relationship with the EU is incompatible with its assurances on the Irish border. As soon as the UK leaves the customs union there must be border checks. There is no magic technology option that will wish this away.

Now we have pro-Brexit politicians saying that the Good Friday Agreement is a failure or that it has outlived its usefulness. Politicians and commentators have condemned their remarks. You only have to look at what has happened to the level of violence and the level of cross border trade in Ireland to conclude that, whatever minor problems there might be with the Good Friday Agreement, it’s still better than what went before.

The trouble is, a lot of people on this side of the water don’t really understand why it’s a big issue. Irish commentators are outraged and incredulous at the actions of the British government and the utterances of some of its politicians but the border question gets a lot less air time over here. It was barely discussed during the referendum. What some Irish people see as British aggression is, these days, simply lazy indifference. Since the IRA stopped bombing shopping centres, the English, in particular, have forgotten about Ireland. The results of Channel 4’s vox pop, asking people to draw the Irish border on a map were unsurprising. Most people hadn’t a clue where it was. Nuanced questions of identity and the importance of a constructive ambiguity that allows people to live in two different countries at the same time are likely to be lost on many people.

Unless the UK government has a sudden change of heart, it’s difficult to see how there won’t be a border between the UK and Ireland. The Irish government is already preparing for the introduction of customs checks. What happens if border customs posts go up is anybody’s guess. I have heard it said that the threat of violence has been over-hyped, that the terrorists on both sides are now mostly retired and that the country has moved on from the days of the troubles. That may be so but the border is long and difficult to police. Differing customs rules create opportunities for smuggling and where there is lucrative crime, violence usually follows. Furthermore, there are still armed groups operating and they seem to wield considerable power in some parts of the country. New grievances, like a  sudden hit to the economy, might bring new recruits. These groups only need a few  resentful young people and they are in business. The terrorism might look completely different too. Not bombs in the Arndale Centre but crippling cyber attacks on vital services.

It is true that Northern Ireland is a different place now. For many, sectarianism has lost its appeal. A return to 1970s levels of violence looks unlikely but any increase in terrorism will wreck lives. Even if there isn’t an upsurge in violence, the reappearance of a border will create misery and resentment which might play out in all sorts of unpredictable ways in years to come.

Perhaps there are aspects of the Good Friday Agreement which haven’t worked. Maybe some things that were agreed during the peace process need to be looked at again. But make no mistake, what Matthew O’Toole calls the “smudged sovereignty” of the agreement has served us well over the past 20 years. Of course it was a fudge. Everybody knows it was a fudge. But it was an inspired fudge. And it worked.


Posted in Uncategorized | 44 Comments

Corporate governance and short-termism

The collapse of Carillion has brought corporate governance back into the headlines and with it the perennial questions about the short-termist nature of British business. Merryn Somerset Webb was in fine form, having a go at managers, analysts and shareholders alike; “short-termism at its worst”.

The collapse of construction and support-services group Carillion has left a lot of people with a lot of explaining to do. First up, the UK’s equity analysts. Even in 2015, says the Financial Times, two-thirds rated Carillion’s shares a buy – despite warning signs in its accounts. The managers are also in the firing line. Why on earth were they taking huge bonuses in the face of a failure they surely saw coming? Why did they take on so much debt (if there is one lesson for investors here, it is to avoid companies with high levels of debt)? And why did they keep paying dividends, even as their cash-flow woes mounted?

The UK’s institutional shareholders are hardly blameless either. They bore on endlessly about how they take a long-term view – so why were they demanding those dividends from a firm that was clearly stressed? Short-termism at its worst (see this week’s cover story for more on firms who pay dividends that they probably shouldn’t).

The FT’s Capital Markets Editor Miles Johnson called it “a warning to dividend fetishists“. He too criticises analysts and Carillion’s bosses but points out that this is a symptom of a deeper problem:

Income investing has a long history in Europe, more so than in the US where investors are far more willing to support companies that pay no dividends at all. As a result, institutional shareholders in the UK have over generations created a culture of dividend worship that has pretensions to valuing long-term investment, but in fact frequently enables some of the worst forms of corporate short-termism and mismanagement.

This has led to a frequent pattern in the UK market, where companies will doggedly maintain their dividends even when their business models are under threat because of the knowledge that a cut will very frequently result in a chief executive being fired.

Over the years, a number of reports have made the link between the UK’s poor economic performance and the short-term focus of corporate executives and investors. One of the most comprehensive was John Kay’s review in 2012 which, as you might expect, met with mixed reviews from the investment industry.

It is certainly true that the UK has low levels of investment relative to other developed economies. In November, the Office for National Statistics reported that the UK was at the bottom of the OECD investment league and has been for most of the past two decades.

Looking back further, the UK’s investment relative to GDP began to fall away from that of other similar countries sometime around the early 1990s which, ironically, is when the first of a wave of corporate governance reports was produced and the framework which became our corporate governance code was created.

Source: World Bank Data

When we look specifically at research and development, the picture looks even worse. The UK has consistently invested less than other major economies. 

Chart: World Bank Data

Meanwhile, payments to shareholders have generally been higher in the UK than in other developed economies. Kyle Caldwell, the Telegraph’s personal finance reporter, remarked on this a couple of years ago, noting that payouts to shareholders as a percentage of company earnings were relatively generous. I have updated his chart with more recent data.

Apart from the recession period, UK firms have paid dividends at a higher rate than in other markets and considerably higher than in the US.

Furthermore, listed companies are a more significant part of the UK economy than most others. Market capitalisation is a crude measure as it fluctuates so much but, over time, the value of listed companies has been higher relative to GDP in the UK and US than in other large economies. (For some reason, the World Bank’s data on the UK stops at the recession. If anyone has the up-to-date figures please let me know.)

Chart: World Bank Data

The historic data on Page 15 of this University of Chicago paper suggest that a similar pattern held true for much of the last 100 years. Publicly traded companies have loomed larger in the UK economy than in most other developed economies for some time.

McKinsey’s report on short-termism in US firms last year found that those firms with a more short-term focus invested less and, over time, performed less well than those with a longer-term view. The study also found that a majority of executives believed the pressure to deliver short-term results was increasing. Andy Haldane, the Bank of England Chief Economist, reckons something similar is happening in the UK.

The other side of the coin to high pay-out ratios from internal funds is low investment. There is both direct and indirect evidence of investment having been adversely affected by short-termism on the part of either investors or managers or both.

Chart 6 shows some diagnostics for a matched sample of public and private UK companies (Davies et al (2014)). In line with US evidence, it suggests that investment is consistently and significantly higher among private than public companies with otherwise identical characteristics, relative to profits or turnover. In other words, shareholder short-termism may have had material costs for the economy, as well as for individual companies, by constraining investment.

Overall, then, there is some strong evidence that corporate short-termist behaviour is, in Andy Haldane’s words, “far from benign”. In the UK we seem to have a particularly severe case of it.

What I’m less convinced about, though, is whether corporate governance reform can do much to solve this. As Andy Haldane says, sometimes well-intentioned changes to corporate governance can have unintended consequences. The 1980s emphasis on shareholder value is a case in point:

[T]he shift to equity-based compensation practices in the 1980s and 1990s addressed one incentive friction – the principal/agent problem between shareholders and managers. But it may have done so at the expense of amplifying other incentives frictions – for example, it may have amplified risk-shifting incentives from shareholders to creditors and to wider society.

Linking the remuneration of corporate managers to shareholder value was supposed to have  reduced the risk of executives managing companies for their own gain and aligned their interest with those of  shareholders. Most observers now agree that it made the problem of short-termism worse and often didn’t work particularly well for shareholders. In 2009, Jack Welch, one of its early proponents called it “the dumbest idea in the world”.

Might something similar happen if corporate governance regime were altered to favour a broader range of stakeholders? As Stian Westlake said, reflecting on the Haldane speech, employees might prove risk-averse, preferring to save their jobs for the next few years rather than risk an investment that might only pay off years later. Likewise, customers might prefer continuity and low prices to the promise of innovative products in future.

Furthermore, while we often imagine shareholders to be individual investors, nowadays few of them are. Just as there is separation of ownership and control in companies, there is a separation of ownership and control in the investment and management of shares. Many investors have only a vague idea of which companies their fund managers are putting their money into. As the Kay review noted, in 1963 individual investors owned 54 per cent of UK firms. That figure is now around 12 percent.

The term“share ownership” is often used, but the word “ownership”must be used with care.It is necessary to distinguish:

  • Whose name is on the share register? (often a nominee)
  • For whose benefit are the shares held? (e.g. a pension fund trustee)
  • Who makes the decision to buy or hold a particular stock? (normally an asset manager)
  • Who effectively determines how the votes associated with a shareholding should be cast? (this might be an asset manager, a pension fund trustee, or a specialist proxy voting service); and
  • Who holds the economic interest in the security? (i.e. who is the saver who bears the gains and losses from investment?)

It is possible, and in fact common, for each of these rights of ownership to be held by different people.

The Kay review emphasises the need for the long-term stewardship of companies and one of its recommendations, the abolition of quarterly reporting, has already been implemented. Even so, I wonder whether the engaged investor with a long-term interest in the company is a will o’ the wisp. Sure there are some but are there enough of them? This piece by corporate governance adviser Paul Frentrop summed up the problem:

Out in the open market, cold-hearted, distant investors count on liquidity to realise the ‘outperformance’ they promised their clients. And in this harsh climate, no steward can survive.

So, yes, we do seem to have a problem with short-termism in the UK that is affecting our wider economy and the country’s long-term prospects. Carillion was en extreme example of it. But I’m not convinced that changes to the corporate governance regime, even major ones, will make much difference. After all, we have implemented a new corporate governance code every few years for the last quarter century. OK, things might be been worse if we hadn’t but, whatever else it might have achieved, the overall long-term investment picture looks pretty much as it did 20 years ago. Even our 1990s and 2000s productivity catch up may turn out to be ephemeral.

Having said all that, I’m happy to be convinced otherwise. Answers in the usual place please.

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Carillion: a one-off or a symptom of a wider malaise?

Last week’s House of Commons report on Carillion is damning. Frances has an excellent summary of it here but the key points are these.

In the words of the report, the company was borrowing without investing. Its debt increased but the value of its assets remained the same and, as its revenue declined, Carillion found it ever more difficult to service the debt.

Carillion was also ‘aggressively accounting’, which is a way of making a corporate conjuring trick sound macho:

‘Aggressive accounting’ is the practice of declaring revenue and profits based on optimistic forecasts, before the money has actually been made. All is well if the forecasts are correct. But if costs rise and revenues fall (say, because of delays and defects), expected profits turn into actual losses.

If you then pay dividends on those expected profits but the profits don’t come in, you run up even more debt.

In the eight years from 2009 to 2016, Carillion paid out £554 million in dividends, almost as much as the cash it made from operations. In the five years from 2012 to 2016, Carillion paid out £217 million more in dividends than it generated in cash from its operations.

Over the eight years from December 2009 to January 2018, the total owed by Carillion in loans increased from £242 million to an estimated £1.3 billion – more than five times the value at the beginning of the decade.

When times were good, Carillion was paying as much in dividends as it could, when things went bad, it carried on paying dividends with money it didn’t have.

And when you’re in that sort of fix, all it takes is for two or three projects to fail and you’ve had it. Which is what happened in 2017. Its debt nearly doubled in 2 years and, by the time it collapsed, it held just £29 million in cash.

As it turns out, quite a lot of people saw this coming, or at least had enough of an inkling that something was wrong to start betting against the company. In April 2017, the FT reported that Carillion had been the most shorted UK stock for 18 months. As Frances says, the rot set in some time ago:

The researchers seem to have gone back through the reports & accounts to about 2009. And they conclude that Carillion was a basket case not just in the last year of its life, but from about 2011 onwards. I’ve now done the same exercise, and I agree with them. Carillion’s cupboards were virtually bare, and the little that was in them stank.

Yet, while all this was going on, Carillion was winning accolades for building public trustethical business practices and corporate governance. Its chairman was advising David Cameron on corporate social responsibility. As the FT’s Kate Burgess said, the Carillion board ticked all the good governance boxes:

On paper, the directors looked well qualified to steer the outsourcer. As chairman, Philip Green was a former chairman of United Utilities, the UK’s largest listed water company. Not only had he run a large contracting company, he was also a fully paid-up member of the great and good as a former adviser to then prime minister David Cameron on corporate responsibility.

The directors did not lack experience, sitting on boards from Royal Dutch Shell to Premier Farnell.

Alison Horner, head of the remuneration committee, was formerly operations director at Tesco and a non-executive director of Tesco Bank. The head of the audit committee was an accountant, as were three other directors.

In 2016, the directors approved a change to the conditions under which executive bonuses could be clawed back. As the Institute of Directors remarked, this is not a good look. The FT’s city editor Jonathan Ford managed to work the term ‘looting’ into his article while stopping short of any accusations that might get the paper sued:

Carillion’s board may not have looted, but it does seem to have practised what one might call “reckless abstraction”. It sucked out cash to placate stock market investors even as executives wrote the mountain of under-priced contracts that ultimately buried the business, triggering a £1.2bn writedown in the second half of last year.

In the five years to 2016, the directors recommended paying £357m of dividends to shareholders, despite generating just £159m of cash from operations. Over the same period, the bonuses for the two top executives climbed from nothing to more than £1m a year in 2016.

Inevitably, people are asking questions about corporate governance. It is 25 years since the Cadbury Review, set up after the collapse of BCCI and Polly Peck, led to the creation of the UK’s corporate governance framework. Since then, there have been numerous reports and the code has been amended every few years. Yet, every so often, someone trousers a large amount of money from a massively indebted company, leaving shareholders, employees, pensioners and creditors to take the hit. After a quarter of a century’s corporate governance reform, the scandalous company failures are still happening. Would the recent proposed reforms to the corporate governance code have saved Carillion? It’s difficult to say, writes corporate lawyer Sophie Brookes:

[W]hether the new corporate governance code would have prevented the collapse is unclear. Ultimately, the new requirements will only bite if shareholders and investors are prepared to step in and hold boards to account.

As ever, the system is only as good as the people operating it.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect the corporate governance framework to prevent the occasional corporate collapse. It could be that it is like the drains; most of the time it works well and we only notice when it fails somewhere and a foul stink erupts. It may be that most non-exec directors and active shareholders are doing a good job holding their executives to account and we would be worse off without them.

Or could it be that there are a lot more firms like Carillion which are only getting away with similar practices because no-one has twigged yet. As Kate Burgess says:

It is worrying to think the construction company’s board was such a model of good governance. If the line up had been different, would another cast of characters have done any better?

And how many other supposedly well-run boards are presiding over impending corporate disasters elsewhere?

Meanwhile, the astonishing revelations about Carillion continue.

There will, no doubt, be more of this to come over the next few weeks and months.

A peculiarly badly managed one-off, sunk by a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances? Or a symptom of something deeply wrong with the way UK companies are governed?  Whatever happens, Carillion will probably provide the impetus for further corporate governance reform. Whether that will stop something similar happening in future is anyone’s guess.


Posted in Uncategorized | 23 Comments

Have we fallen out of love with private sector contractors?

Is the collapse of Carillion a watershed moment? Robert Peston thinks so:

Carillion’s collapse marks the end of a 25-year love affair between Tory and New Labour governments on the one hand and private-sector service providers on the other.

Could this be the point at which political opinion turns against the private sector provision of public services? And, if so, is it simply catching up with where the voters have been for some time?

In the mid-1990s, I went to see Tony Blair speak at Brenford Fountain Leisure Centre. The first question from the floor was about renationalising the railways and utilities. Labour’s new leader dismissed the idea, essentially saying that it was never going to happen and that there were far more important things on which a new Labour government would need to focus its energy and resources.With that the conversation moved on.

And that was pretty much how things went for the next two decades. In his dismissal of denationalisation, Tony Blair was simply reflecting the prevailing political orthodoxy which arose during the Thatcher years. The government was to do less and the private sector was to do more. That was the way the world was going. Light-touch regulation and the privatisation of public services would be the order of the day whoever was in power.

Recent years, though, there seem to be signs that the voters are not altogether happy with this state of affairs. The Guardian’s Andy Beckett declared last summer that Britain had fallen out of love with the free market. Here he quotes IEA director Mark Littlewood:

Amid all the current political turmoil in Britain and the wider world, the shift against free markets has yet to register fully with much of the media or many voters. But the most ardent neoliberals have noticed. “Free marketeers have been gobsmacked,” says Mark Littlewood, director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has supplied British politicians with pro-capitalist arguments for 62 years. “Things we thought of as like the laws of gravity are now up for grabs.”

Equally gobsmacked was the Legatum Institute. “The capitalism ‘brand’ is in crisis,” it said after its joint research with Populus found significant support for stronger business regulation and the re-nationalisation of utilities and railway companies. Nor can this be dismissed as the idealism of young people who can’t remember how bad things were in the 1970s. These views are fairly evenly spread. (The full list is on pages 15-18 of the report.)

These views also cross the traditional left-right divide. A YouGov survey found that the proportion of UKIP voters supporting re-nationalisation was around 75 percent. There was even a narrow majority among Tory voters.

There is also evidence to suggest that voters have a negative view of big business. Research by the Edelman Trust and IpsosMORI reported low levels of trust in large corporations and the people who run them. However, this “unprecedented crisis of trust” seems to apply across western economies and to most institutions and authority figures. According to Edelman’s recent figures, business hasn’t fared much worse than anyone else.

Ipsos MORI data records a sharp fall in the proportion of people who think company profits make things better for their customers but this decline goes back to the 1980s and has held fairly steady ever since.

Chart by Ipsos MORI Reputation Centre

YouGov data also shows the level of trust in people who run large companies to be consistently low (around 20-25 percent) since 2003. Contrast that with journalists whose reputation has collapsed over the past 15 years.

There are a couple of questions on the British Social Attitudes survey which go back to the 1980s and enable us to track broad anti-corporatist sentiments. (Thanks to Harry Carr at Sky News for these charts.)

This suggests that a majority of people have a negative view of corporate behaviour and have done for some time. With some fluctuations, these numbers have held fairly steady since the 1980s.

The 2015 British Social Attitudes survey found similar levels of anti-big business feeling among UKIP and Labour voters.

The BSA also has some data on attitudes to nationalisation although, for some reason, it stopped asking the question in 2009.

This shows a balance of opinion in favour of state ownership but nowhere near as high as that found in the more recent surveys.

This data leads to three tentative conclusions:

  1. People in the UK have had a negative view of big corporations and those that run them for some time. This goes back to the 1980s and the financial crisis and recent corporate scandals don’t seem to have changed it either way.
  2. People were never that keen on privatisation. They may have bought shares in privatised companies but that didn’t mean they thought it was good idea in principle.
  3. There seems (going by the gap between the BSA and the more recent YouGov and Legatum findings) to have been a rise in support for re-nationalisation in the last five years or so.

Which raises a broader question, is this a shift in public opinion about private sector public service provision or does it reflect a deeper and more long-term anti-corporate sentiment that has only recently found its political expression? Is the collapse of Carillion really a pivotal event or has it just come at a time when political opposition to privatisation was finding its voice? Was it the last straw it did it just confirm the beliefs of many voters that a lot of things shouldn’t have been privatised in the fist place?

Whatever happens next it is likely that governments will find a lot more public attention on the private provision of public services. Further privatisations will almost certainly meet stiff resistance, as the plans to privatise the Land Registry and Ordnance Survey already have. My guess is that this would probably have happened anyway regardless of whether or not Carilllion had crashed. Where I think Robert Peston is probably right is that private sector service provision has peaked. Whatever the rights and wrongs of privatisation, governments will be faced with a lot more public hostility to it than they have seen for the past few decades.

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments