Why it's time for business
Here and now is the best time to be broadcasting or writing about business. The private sector and the unleashing of market forces across the globe is changing all our lives, mostly for the better, but also (if, for example, you are in the wrong job in the wrong place, or if you've been saving in many conventional pension funds) for the worse.
It's an epic drama called "Globalisation", with Tolstoyan themes: the emergence of great new economic superpowers, China and India, and the strikingly fast dissemination of IT and broadband technologies that have combined to engender rapid (and surprisingly stable) economic growth almost everywhere. They're manifested in news stories on a daily basis, such as this report in The Times today about the angst of the giant mining companies over China's agreed takeover bid for more or less the whole of Africa.
Then there are the great anxieties or our age: that the explosion of cheap credit around the globe over the past decade - which fuelled a boom in corporate takeovers, the explosive growth of hedge funds and private equity, and putative housing-market bubbles in the US and UK - will end in tears; that the world's most important economy, the US, is excessively in hock (largely, though not exclusively, to China); that the spoils of growth are being unequally shared, within countries and between countries; and that the oil economy's excreta, CO2, is poisoning all our futures.
It's entertainment and soap opera too. Last week's ousting by the world's biggest bank, Citicorp, of a high-flying executive, Todd Thomson - after he shared a private jet with a glamorous US business journalist, Maria Bartiromo, whose sobriquet is the Money Honey - was a sizzler. But the recent turmoil at the UK's second largest company, BP - when its chief executive, Lord Browne, decided to quit 18 months early - was more Shakespearean tragedy, redolent of Julius Caesar.
So I hope that this blog will be a conversation about the important trends, the drama of breaking news, the big business personalities who are now in many ways more powerful than politicians, and - above all - the issues that touch all our lives and affects our futures. It would be surprising if in the coming weeks and months the agenda didn't include:
1) Is Tesco a great British success, the bringer of the good life to millions of consumers, or destroyer of high streets and local communities?
2) Are the high street banks the vital infrastructure of the economy, innovators helping us provide for our retirement, or oligopolists fleecing us?
3) Are small businesses being crushed by the burden of taxation and regulation or is complaining about mortal threats just part of the natural condition of being an entrepreneur?
4) Is the abandonment of final salary pension schemes by companies a dreadful betrayal of their employees or essential for their survival in a cruelly competitive world?
5) Does it matter that the wealth gap between the super-rich and the rest of us is widening?
6) Is it a good thing that unprecedented numbers of British companies are being bought by overseas outfits?
7) What are the implications of the growth of private equity, or the increasing number of companies that are going private backed by specialist funds?
This phenomenon of private equity is utterly compelling. Suffice to say for now that the British-based private equity funds - which are significantly smaller than their counterparts in the US - raised £27bn in new equity capital in 2005 (and considerably more in 2006). Now when they buy a company, they tend to deploy £4 of borrowed money for every £1 of the equity capital they invest. So that equity capital is sufficient to buy companies with a total value of almost £140bn.
To put that in context, Tesco has a market capitalisation of £32bn, Unilever's value is £18bn, and Cadbury Schweppes is worth £12bn. So these days only the very biggest businesses, such as HSBC (valued at £108bn) can be wholly confident they won't be taken over by private equity - for now.
Now last week, the eminences of British private equity were out in all their pomp and finery at the most glittering of parties held in London's magnificently refurbished Roundhouse. Only rarely in the history of this nation can so many stupendously wealthy individuals have been gathered in one place. Many of those present were worth many tens of million pounds each, some worth comfortably more than £100m. According to a banker, the collective net worth of those at the do was more than £10bn.
They were there for "charidy", to launch the Private Equity Foundation, a new charitable trust endowed by private equity's leading firms and individuals. It's part of a slightly belated charm offensive, to show that some of the high returns generated by the buyout of companies will be ploughed back into good causes. So far it's raised £5.1m, which is a fraction of what a private equity partner can expect to earn in just one big deal that goes right. "Frankly the charity has got to do a lot better if it wants to impress," said one of the guests.
Now private equity makes its profits by buying companies and making them more efficient. Some of this improved efficiency is fairly simple financial engineering, the replacement of equity by debt in a company's balance sheet (a subject to which I will return in later postings). Some of it stems from cost reduction, often involving job cuts.
Inevitably, therefore, private equity hasn't endeared itself to the trade union movement. And outside the Roundhouse last Wednesday night were protestors from the GMB, who've been targeting one of the UK's leading private equity houses, Permira. The GMB has been trying to embarrass Permira over job cuts at Birds Eye and the AA, two companies it controls (Permira shares ownership of the AA with another private equity house, CVC).
And the trade unionists have focused much of their campaign on Damon Buffini, Permira's managing partner. They've put his face on posters, they've picketed his local church, they've littered Labour's last annual conference with leaflets attacking him. But arguably they've shown poor judgement in painting him as villain, because in many ways he symbolises the opportunities available in a meritocratic UK. He was brought up on a council estate in the Midlands by a single mum, he's black and he went to local state schools.
Today Buffini is probably one of the UK's top five business people. He embodies one of the great debates of our time: Britain as a place where excessive spoils accrue to a tiny minority versus Britain as a place where any of us can make it big. Sadly he won't be taking part in that debate, because he shuns publicity as though it were pure kryptonite.