If growth's the problem, are more ARMs the answer?
- 1 November 2011
- From the section Business
The UK has both a short-term and a long-term growth challenge.
We will know a bit more about the immediate problem later today, when figures are published for UK GDP in the three months to September.
Unless every economist in the UK is as wrong as wrong can be, the stats will not presage a strong recovery - and, at best, they may show that the country stands a chance of avoiding a return to recession.
Which takes us to the longer term question, which is whether there is the remotest prospect that the UK in the coming five to ten years can return to the 3%-a-year growth rate it enjoyed during the putative golden years from 1992-2008.
The problem is that the economic model that achieved the strongest and most consistent growth rate in reliably recorded history - a spending spree by consumers financed by borrowing from the great producing countries like China, Japan and Germany - is kaput.
The great crash of 2007 to 2008 was when it became clear that the UK has to start paying its way in the world, that it's impossible to run current account deficits forever, that when aggregrate household, business, corporate and banking debt reaches four times the value of everything we produce (which it did in 2008), it's time to start saving, investing and working harder.
Or to put it another way, the UK economy has to be transformed from a debt-fuelled consuming economy, in which private consumption is equivalent to around two-thirds of GDP, to one powered much more by investment and exports.
Which, with manufacturing currently contributing only 12% of GDP and non-financial business services around 14%, can happen neither quickly or painlessly.
Growth in the years of transition to a more sustainable economic model is likely to be a fraction of what we took for granted in the boom years: consistent growth of 1% might not be such a disastrous result, given the scale of the challenge.
Top of the league
In a successful attempt to cheer myself up, I went to an unpretentious campus that is a techie nirvana just outside Cambridge, to talk to Warren East, the chief executive of a British company, ARM, that is an acknowledged world leader.
And, what's even more extraordinary, it is a world leader in technology - which is a bit like claiming that the world's best baseball team is British.
Strange but true, ARM is currently winning the microchip World Series: some 8bn ARM-designed chips will be sold this year, and are in everything from tablets, to smartphones to televisions and fridges. The success of the iPad and Samsung Galaxy range owe a great deal to ARM brainpower.
Better than having me blather on about ARM in writing, I made a piece about it - which includes an interview with Mr East - for this morning's Today Programme.
ARM is a corporate paradox: it is both very big, in respect of the influence of its technology and the tens of thousands of people that make its chips and associated products around the world, and pretty small, in that it directly employs just 900 people in the UK and 2,000 worldwide.
So it seems to me that three questions are raised by ARM's success, all of which could usefully go to the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron.
1) Since ARM makes pretty effective commercial use of the nerd quota in British universities, generating some 98% of its income overseas largely from a base in Cambridge, how does the UK turn more nerds into generators of exports?
2) Is there a way to encourage more of the so-called ARM family of companies to be located in the UK? Right now, only a small proportion of the businesses that manufacture its chips and put them into all sorts of hi-tech kit are located in the UK. Most are in Asia and the US. Can ARM, and similar technology design companies, become the sponsors (as it were) of many more high quality manufacturing jobs in Britain?
3) If the conspicuous global success of ARM tempts an overseas IT giant to make a takeover bid for it - which precedent suggests is highly likely - would this represent a serious and worrying threat to Britain's ability to develop a more substantial "knowledge" economy. Microsoft, for example, could acquire ARM (even with ARM's market value of £7.9bn) for not far off loose change.
In the case of ARM should the government drop the habits of the past 30 years and attempt to block the transfer into foreign ownership of valuable proprietary British technology, for fear that precious high quality jobs would follow that technology overseas?
I recently asked Vince Cable, the business secretary, why he didn't attempt to frustrate the £7bn takeover of the UK's leading software house, Autonomy, by the sprawling and (many would say) strategically challenged Hewlett-Packard of the US.
He looked at the deal, he said, but was persuaded it would be good for jobs in Britain.
If that's right, and it may well be, it tells you that the UK is a long way from having the kind of industrial ecosystem that allows companies like ARM and Autonomy, as independent businesses, to generate as much income for the British economy as they might. Which - if you look at the intensifying competitive threat from the likes of Korea, India and China - is a serious concern.