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Archives for December 2010

Holyrood's bottom line

Douglas Fraser | 06:53 UK time, Wednesday, 29 December 2010


Businesses don't vote: voters do. So why are politicians so exercised about the business lobbies' New Year messages, issued this morning?

CBI Scotland's Iain McMillan hadn't even released his report card on the SNP administration, when it had already provoked a heated exchange between the four main political parties.

The fact that they'd all got hold of the statement in advance does suggest he's more than happy to spark a bit of a barney.

And he knows that the view of the business leadership matters to politicians because they help shape public views on the question of economic competence. That played a starring role in 2010's Westminster election campaign.

It's a tussle rarely taken up by business leaders, who tend instead to be careful when they engage in sharply-worded judgements on incumbent politicians.

Roundly abused

It wasn't always so. A previous generation of business leaders in the 1980s and 1990s backed the then Conservative government in its opposition to devolution or to devolved tax powers, and were roundly abused for doing so. It's led to caution on political engagement.

But Iain McMillan isn't deterred. He's been around a while, and he's got previous on this.

He has less reason than others who lobby for business - whether the small-to-medium variety, directors or chambers of commerce - to try to represent a wide range of the membership's political views. He's given enough licence by the CBI's members (the larger businesses, often straddling the border) to stick his neck out a bit.

And that's just what he's done, with a [nearing the] end of term report card. It praises the SNP administration at Holyrood for its council tax freeze, transport investment, school curriculum reform, and renewable energy support.

But he then lists the items that CBI Scotland hasn't much liked: cancelling airport rail links, blocking more private involvement in delivering public services, notably in Scottish Water, and refusing new nuclear power plants.

'Wasted money and energy'

The incendiary bit is an attack on the SNP administration for its "national conversation" on independence, saying it's wasted money and energy on something Scots don't want.

The First Minister's spokesman was quick to hit back at Iain McMillan himself, highlighting his membership of the Calman Commission, at the invitation of the three pro-union parties that set it up.

That raises an interesting question of whether business supports the devolution tax measures, based on Calman, which the UK coalition government is now putting through Westminster. Iain McMillan has personally signed up for them, but otherwise, the normally vocal business lobby has been strangely silent.

One leading figure tells me members haven't yet engaged with it, having thought it would be quietly parked by an incoming Conservative government.

But it's now a coalition commitment, giving it momentum which is hard to stop. And when business-people do engage with it, my source tells me they're unlikely to like what they see.

Skirmishes and fury

Other items on the business lobby groups' wish list for economic growth may yet become hot campaign issues, but it's hard to see transitional relief on business rates revaluation becoming the national talking point by next May 5. Likewise, the question of Scottish Water's governance.

But these issues are skirmishes within that battleground of economic competence, over which the parties will surely argue furiously.

And among the SNP's responses to Iain McMillan and their party opponents is the intriguing notion that blame can be apportioned by a precise two-to-one ratio between the past Labour government and the current coalition one. It seems blame is now subject to mathematical calculation.

Just as calculating is the £30m levy on supermarkets. The CBI doesn't like it, but the Federation of Small Businesses does - or at least, it's not complaining.

The SNP is explicitly saying the proposal helps rebalance the power of the supermarkets against smaller retailers, and will affect only one in a thousand business properties.

In other words, there's a modification to that rule on business and politics: while big business doesn't vote, the people who run and identify with small businesses certainly do.


The war of words continues. Scottish government sources dismiss Iain McMillan as representing nobody in particular, and John Swinney has explicitly said he seems to be following a political more than a business agenda.

Meanwhile, the CBI Scotland director has been taking stock of the Scottish government's response to his New Year statement.

Speaking to BBC Scotland, he's said: "There is an arrogance, there is a smugness, and there is a propensity not to accept what business is telling it. And unfortunately we're seeing this coming through in far too many policies today".

Wasn't this meant to be the season of goodwill?

More than a token effort

Douglas Fraser | 10:25 UK time, Tuesday, 28 December 2010


Did you get a voucher as a Christmas gift? If so, you're not alone.

I spent part of Sunday shopping, and part of Monday reporting on shopping, and found the off-loading of vouchers seemed to be as important as the search for sale bargains.

This hunch was borne out by George Reader, centre manager at Silverburn shopping centre in Glasgow.

He reckons people are using tokens within families and between friends to bank their Christmas spending until prices fall with the start of winter sales.

And this week, they're keen to spend those tokens before VAT goes up to 20%.

That's a canny approach. But maybe there's more to it than that?

Could it say more about us, our choices and our relationships with friends and family: either that we know less about each other's preferences, or we increasingly respect each other's right, ability or freedom to make their own choices?

Could this voucher boom reflect the rapid decline of the cheque, as a means of gifting money?

Or could it be that the weather made shopping rather less pleasurable over recent weeks, so we minimised how much had to be carried home through the snow and ice?

Vouchers don't break when you slip and fall.

When you look at what's available through shop tokens, you can see that supply is driving some of this.

Shops such as WH Smith offer racks with scores of different options - magazine subscriptions of your choice, white-water rafting to be redeemed when it suits you, with brands and stores galore, much of it led by online retail such as Apple's iTunes.

It's a long way from the days when book tokens were the only major multi-store voucher.

They were first issued in Britain in 1932, and they're now digitised.

But they're yet to become usable to online book sales - could it be that traditional bookshops don't want another way for Amazon to gain market share?

That's not the only trend emerging from this year's retail splurge, as the British Retail Consortium warns that its members are downbeat about the prospects once these sales are over.

The John Lewis Partnership has found the trend is not only towards online sales, but a bit of forward planning too.

It reported Christmas Day visitors to its website up 25% on last year, and sales up 45%, as people took a two-day advantage of offers before the stores for clearance sales on Monday morning.

Demand subsided from 1pm to 4pm on Christmas Day, and then rose to its peak between 9pm and 10pm.

What were they buying? Luxury bedding led the way, and signs that people were already planning next year's splurge when this one still had a long way to run: packs of Christmas gift tags were the sixth best selling product.

Finally, from the US and Australia, another trend to the Christmas sales this year: "self-gifting".

After three years of austerity, stores are claiming people have spent December leaving at least a bit of their budget to spoil themselves.

And why not? The only people even more keen on people spoiling themselves are the shops where they do so.

Let us play

Douglas Fraser | 15:30 UK time, Friday, 24 December 2010


Symbolic of secular Christmas, it's the very moment when church services start across the country that broadband will be under most pressure from people booting up their new gizmos.

Broadband provider TalkTalk has forecast that 11am on Christmas Day will see a record number of bytes whizzing down fibre-optic cables; once people have unwrapped their gifts: as they Skype their relatives around the world: and perhaps for some, as the winter sales get under way online.

The company cites an estimate of £2bn being spent on technology this Christmas - more than quarter of the total for the nation's presents.

It seems we've never had such a digital Christmas, and that reflects growing activity in recent months to respond to demand and technology changes.

The change seems most dynamic in the games industry. This week, a detailed report on the gaming industry across Europe showed how fast things are changing, and moving to interactive gaming online and on mobile.

Commissioned by the European Commission, 'Born Digital/Grown Digital' reported the games industry is growing four-times faster than the rest of the media and entertainment industry. Globally valued at more than £35bn in 2009, it's expected to grow 70% in the next three years, while the rest of the industry grows 17%.

In Britain, gaming outgrew the cinema market during 2009, and Ofcom is quoted saying earlier this year that online games are now as big as downloading music and video.

Super Mario

The UK consumer's role in this is striking. In mobile gaming, for instance, Britain saw 37% growth in 2008, taking it far ahead of the rest of Europe, with revenues of £261m. France was next on £167m, Germany on £98m. Britain was proportionately far ahead of the US, and trailed only Japan and South Korea.

The consumer demand is reflected in Britain's lead within the European industry. The report shows the UK, in May this year, was rated as having 23 of the 27 top ranking games developers.

Realtime Worlds was one of them and a great hope for Dundee, but it turned into one of the most prominent Scottish collapses of 2010, brought down by the development costs and unsuccessful launch of its APB game.

However, Rockstar North, also based in Dundee, was placed third in the world for games developing, after America's Blizzard and Japan's Nintendo. The next biggest European company outside the UK is France's Ubisoft, at number 39.

In the year of his 25th birthday, Super Mario the plumber finds that his Italian home turf barely features.

Controlling the food chain

The report found that American and Japanese presence in the console hardware market leaves Europeans at a disadvantage, as those who make the platforms tend to "control the food chain".

There's a hope that companies such as Finland's Nokia can make up ground with its mobile gaming platform.

There are other lessons to be learned from success elsewhere. The games industry in Britain has been pushing hard for the tax breaks its Canadian competitors receive. It had some from the outgoing Labour government, but lost them when austerity overtook the Treasury last May and the measure was reversed.

South Korea is particularly proud of making gaming the first major technology in which it's taken a world lead. Like Canada, it's taken a long-term view and used government intervention, creating two quangos to promote the industry, while setting up ratings and qualifications systems. Since 2000, it's even offered skilled game developers an alternative to military service.

That, it seems, is how seriously the industry is being taken. This, it's argued, is an example of a sector that has been "born digital", but which continues to face disruptive innovation and opportunities for new entrants.

Including technologies that create environments and respond to movement, it has big potential for applications spreading through the convergence with other creative output, as well as e-government, health, culture and education.

So once the Christmas wrapping of this year's Wii has been put away, we're being advised to treat this more seriously, as a sector that's a lot more than an adolescent play-thing.

Online Alpha Mail

Douglas Fraser | 17:11 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010


The future of the newspaper is becoming a bit clearer. And amid much gloom, it's looking relatively rosy for the owners of the Daily Mail.

Two years after re-launching the paper's online edition, at a time when it had only 50,000 visitors a day, the success of MailOnline is challenging for the world champion crown.

The latest official industry figures for online readership, out today, put the MailOnline at a staggering 51.4m unique browsers visiting the site during November. That's up from 31.2m in November last year.

While other publishers see their online editions as a drain on their print resources and harmful to those circulation figures, MailOnline's owners, Associated Press, says it made £12m in revenue during the last financial year.

It's hardly a goldmine, but it's better than the large losses some others face from their digital editions.

The closest competitor in Britain is a far cry from the Daily Mail: The Guardian has passed the 40m monthly browser mark, but it's rising much less fast, up from 35.8m last year.

The Audit Bureau of Circulation reports the Telegraph Media Group is Britain's next best performer, with 32.9m unique users during last month, while the Mirror is slowly heading upwards, at 11.4m.

Foreign bias

This calculation leaves a lot of information gaps.

News International could claim 41m users in November last year, split equally between The Sun and The Times online.

But Rupert Murdoch has since started putting his papers behind a paywall.

His company's reported more than 100,000 subscriptions so far, but the equivalent monthly browser figures are not being published by ABC.

The titles reporting their online traffic are all 'British', but their success is anything but.

The number of unique browsers accessing these news (and showbiz, gossip and sport) websites are mainly outside the British Isles.

Of MailOnline's readers, three out five last month were outside the UK and Ireland.

For The Guardian, which has ambitions to become the world's leading liberal English-language news site, only 16.4m of its 40.8m are in the UK.

The Telegraph has a two-to-one foreign reader bias, while The Mirror has a British majority.

Having such a broadly scattered readership makes it more difficult to turn those browser numbers into pounds.

Showbiz gossip

But clearly, something's going right for the Mail. It's partly down to smart use of technology and clever writing of headlines to maximise its returns on online searches.

It's also an editorial mix that's carefully crafted to mix heaps of showbiz gossip, fashion and pictures. The readership is 60% female - far ahead of general internet use.

Unlike other news publishers, it's not an online edition of the paper, carrying the same stories, but a separately-edited offering with separate staff.

There's more science and history than you'd find in the print edition of the Daily Mail, and the presence of so many foreign eyes helps explain why there's much less of the paper's conservatively Middle English approach to politics and foreigners.

All this is being masterminded at Associated News by someone who will be remembered with a shudder by those he encountered while working in Scotland.

Martin Clarke was something of a bruiser as editor of The Scotsman from 1997, and then the Daily Record in the early days of devolution.

He was a key figure in driving the campaign to stop the repeal of 'section 28', a statute that had banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

Then, he moved to Ireland to shake up its Sunday market, before a return to London.

Despite his success, he's put his unhappiness with these monthly user statistics on record.

He says they're of very limited use in measuring traffic, when it also matters how long people stay at the site, or how often they return during a month.

Late catch-up

Foreigners, for instance, are not such regular visitors.

And with the figures compiled for the newspaper industry, he points out his competitors are not just other newspapers, but broadcasters with online publishing, including the BBC.

The Mail's online success has been carefully noted by the New York Times, claiming it has the only news website in the world that can still boast a larger online readership (even though some Mandarin-language websites may wish to take issue with that).

In a profile of its London competitor earlier this month, the American paper had Martin Clarke saying: "The great thing about the Internet is that you can be late in and still catch up very quickly".

But if there are lessons from MailOnline's success, do other newspapers have what it takes to catch up?

Fuelling energy uncertainty

Douglas Fraser | 18:47 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010


Don't be put off by the complexity of Chris Huhne's electricity pricing regime.

The market signals he hopes to send are of huge significance for the energy industry, in deciding what, where and how much it builds to keep Britain's lights on for the next, well, perhaps half a century.

It's late to be sending these signals, when generating capacity is needed soon.

But at least there's agreement that action is required to build new plant.

But elsewhere in the energy sector, there's less harmony.

Today in snow-hit Aberdeen, captains of the energy industry Ian Marchant and Sir Ian Wood led the battalions of renewable power and the offshore hydrocarbon business in a conference designed to find common ground.

There are transferrable skills in oil and gas, of course, but there are also concerns that their interests in the North Sea may soon be clashing.

However, the over-arching energy issue to watch - bringing potential for conflict - is the oil price.

It's been creeping upwards, with Brent crude today above $91 per barrel.

There's a return to the talk of 'peak oil'.

Goldman Sachs has been warning of cruising past the $100 mark next year.

Last month, the International Energy Agency said the price of oil is on track to rise to around $110 a barrel in 2015.

Long-term, by which it means 2035, it's talking about $200 per barrel.

But for the here and now, one consequence is on the forecourt.

The AA points out today that petrol's hit a new high this week, at a British average above 122 pence.

Brian Madderson of RMI Petrol warns it will continue to creep upwards, and will then get a 3 pence per litre boost when VAT goes up to 20% from early January.

He says motorists are "striking back" by reducing their mileage, and after "a distressing year" in 2010, it's independent retailers in rural areas, and with lower turnover, who are most at risk.

As ever with energy, these trends are global.

There's a warning today from HSBC's asset management specialists about prices heading for $100 per barrel.

It argues that emerging economies with energy import needs, such as India and Turkey, could be hit particularly hard by rising costs.

But viewed from elsewhere, it's not all bad news.

Not if you're sitting on a lot of oil.

Rising prices should cut through the chill of Russia's winter, and Brazil is one of those big emerging markets with a lot of oil revenue on the horizon.

For explorers, the price rise means bigger rewards and ought to mean easier access to capital.

Today's year-end review of operations from Melrose Resources, a small-scale explorer based in Edinburgh, shows how it's tuning into those opportunities.

It hasn't had Cairn Energy's gushing success, but it's playing a similar game.

Melrose is now relying on the flow of cash from its producing assets in Egypt and Bulgaria, to go after further prospects, particularly in Egypt.

Its development plans for next year come to £34m, and that assumes an oil price at $75.

The rise in that price may add to the winter chill for many consumers.

But just as we're seeing with bulging estimates for the cost of the winter chill, rising costs for some can be balanced with opportunity for others.

Kickback in time

Douglas Fraser | 20:10 UK time, Wednesday, 15 December 2010


Weir Group has been quite smart in its handling of criminal proceedings over kickbacks paid to Saddam Hussein's regime, to secure deals in the oil and water business.

Not only did it fess up in 2004, when it says the £3m payments first came to light.

This week, it got its contrition into the public domain before the charges were brought to court.

Following an agreement with the Crown Office, that played out at the High Court in Edinburgh yesterday, Weir Group accepted the confiscation of nearly £14m that it's assumed to have profited from the contracts.

Today, it learned it's paying another £3m as a fine.

Abject apology

It was reckoned back in 2004 that the total extent of the kickbacks over the Oil for Food trading with Iraq, allowed but constrained by UN sanctions, came to around £1bn.

Saddam's people were able to cream off 10% from every deal, and Weir's people reckoned it was impossible to win the contract without offering that through an agent.

By that reckoning, Weir's wrong-doing was on a relatively small scale.

But, as chairman Lord Smith of Kelvin has abjectly apologised three days in a row - today doing so for the cameras, alongside chief executive Keith Cochrane - it was wrong, the company has changed, so have the senior personnel, Weir now takes ethics seriously, and it won't be happening again.

Careering into calamity

So who was in charge when this was going on?

That would be Lord Smith's immediate predecessor - Sir Ron Garrick, one of Scotland's leading industrialists, building up Weir Pumps during 40 years with the company, as chief executive from 1982 to 2001, and as chairman from 1999 to 2002.

Payment of the kickbacks to which Weir Group has admitted began while Garrick was executive chairman and looking for a replacement chief executive. During that two year period, he appointed Australian Mark Selway to the top job.

A blemish on an otherwise unblemished career as venerable captain of Scottish industry?

Sadly not. Sir Ron went on to play a starring role in Halifax Bank of Scotland, appointed to the post of deputy chairman and senior independent director in 2003.

You probably won't need reminding what happened to HBOS over the subsequent five years, and the questions about the failure of its non-executive directors to spot a bank careering into calamity on the back of a reckless lending splurge.

University review

Garrick, a son of Glasgow's Springburn, was also a director of Shell UK, part of the oil giant which, at that time, was in the line of critical fire for its activities in Nigeria.

On a topical note, Sir Ron was also the Scot chosen by the last Conservative government to find a sustainable route to funding Scotland's universities.

His results, alongside the UK-wide Dearing Review, advocated a payment by graduates and a cut to three years in Scotland's honours degree.

That was 14 years ago, and on Thursday, Education Secretary Mike Russell gives us the latest attempt to resolve that tricky issue.

Santa's little helpers

Douglas Fraser | 05:59 UK time, Wednesday, 15 December 2010


With Tesco's grip on the nation's grocery choices, you might think it doesn't have much to worry it. Its onwards march to market dominance looks assured.

But think again. What keeps the supermarket giant's bosses awake at night is: Amazon. The online retailer is not making serious inroads into the core grocery market - not yet, anyway. It's in electronics and household goods where Amazon is able to undercut rivals like Tesco, using its far lower retail overheads.

With yet sluggish figures out from the Scottish Retail Consortium this morning, that's one reason why supermarkets are particularly grumpy about the £30m extra hit on business rates being imposed from next year by the Scottish government.

So yes, it's true: there are bigger issues in shopping than the rush to get Christmas presents bought and delivered with Arctic weather bearing down.

And one is the impact of online. While it's understandably lauded for its price, choice and convenience, it also represents a significant threat to traditional shops as well as supermarkets.

Bookshop survival

This week, we've seen evidence from a Verdict Research survey of 4000 shoppers suggesting that 57% of people will buy books from Amazon, but 20% would choose to do so from WH Smith, and 19% from Waterstone's.

Purchasing DVDs, 26% would buy from HMV, but twice as many from Amazon.

It's a vast market advantage. And with HMV, owner of Waterstone's, recently reporting a sharp drop in sales, the competition from Amazon's aggressive pricing calls into question the very survival of Britain's last national chain of book stores.

Sara Miller, retail specialist at Pricewaterhouse Coopers in Scotland, highlights the allied threat from digital publishing: "With the prospect that the new generation of eReaders may achieve the long awaited breakthrough of luring more people away from pen and ink, the publishing industry will need to plan and implement new strategies now in order to stem the flow.

"There are great opportunities that come with the change to digital, and it will be those publishers and retailers that resist change, and stick to existing content and business models that will face the greatest risk."

Retail cat and mouse

While the Scottish Retail Consortium speaks of nervous uncertainty over weather-hit December retail, other evidence is of what PwC sees as a cat and mouse game.

Customers know there are bargains to be had, and they're holding off. But retailers have got their stock under much better control than in the past two years. Discounts are less evident on the high street, and they're hoping to hold their prices until Christmas.

Two years ago, 80% of retailers surveyed by PwC were highlighting discounted goods in their shop windows, but this year, it's down to 55%. For them, that's progress.

The other big issue just beyond Christmas is the impact of the VAT rise, from 17.5% to 20%. That may bring forward some purchases. But what happens after it's introduced in early January?

KPMG has also been busy surveying, with a warning of an inflationary price hike. While some say the pressure on retailers is such that many will absorb the additional tax bill and hold prices steady, the Big Four accountancy firm says we can expect the opposite.

It found that some 60% of retailers and consumer goods manufacturers will use the VAT rise to mask bigger increases. That would help claw back some of the margins cut as input costs have risen but prices have been kept subdued.


That comes with a warning from KPMG to its retail clients: don't raise prices without being clear about the likely consequences for demand.

It says two-thirds of companies that implemented recession discounts did so without fully understanding the impact on demand.

And for those who think the consuming public will overlook the VAT-plus-plus pricing approach, bear in mind some of the big winners from the recession have been ultra-discount, price-driven pound shops.

Meanwhile, with inflation still above the Bank of England target, another survey reaches me from Lanarkshire. This is a sample of one, offered up by restaurant proprietor Ajmal Mushtaq.

He says of his eponymous establishment in Hamilton that he's anticipating 10% price increases for those eating out: 2.5% more on VAT, 4.9% food inflation and 2.5% in other costs such as fuel for his fleet of delivery Minis.

In the age of austerity, it seems 2011 may also be the year to cut back on the poppadoms.

Oiling the deal wheels

Douglas Fraser | 10:32 UK time, Monday, 13 December 2010


At least Scotland's entrepreneurs are feeling chipper. That's their job, of course.

Optimism should be their natural disposition. One doesn't get far growing companies by being gloomy.

Deloitte has surveyed them and found a Scottish sample (of around 70) much more positive than last year. One in four expects revenue to double over the next three years.

Last year, 21% expected to make no headway or to decline during 2010. That's down to only 3%, while almost all expect growth of at least 10%.

Over next year, 58% of the sample reckon on growth of more than 10%.

Takeover rules

Chief dealmaker of the day is the chairman of the Entrepreneurial Exchange, Bob Keiller. He's announced this morning that he's sold PSN oilfield services company to Wood Group for £607m, and he's reckoned to have around a 10% stake. The buy-out from Halliburton four years ago was for £180m.

That's one big company being taken over by a genuine Scottish giant, after a report last month that an Australian rival was also on the PSN trail.

PSN expects this year to earn £63m before exceptionals on turnover of £760m. It operates in 23 countries and employs 8000 people.

Put it together with Wood Group's existing production services (with Keillor in charge and on the Wood board), and that division alone has a workforce of 22,000.

Contrast that with Wellstream, based in Newcastle, which this morning agreed to a raised takeover offer from GE valuing the company at nearly £800m.

Clearly, that's a lot of consolidating for one day in the oil industry. And on Tyneside, it highlights those concerns that British corporate power is shifting overseas.

It adds to the pressure on the UK Government - in the wake Cadbury being gobbled by Kraft - to tighten takeover rules.

Negative territory

Meanwhile, the upbeat assessment of Scotland's entrepreneurs is not matched by the much more broadly-based Purchasing Managers Index.

The Markit/Bank of Scotland survey has Scottish managers still going backwards, while every other part of mainland Britain is in positive territory. The Scottish average for the past 12 months is the lowest in Britain too.

Why is it that Scotland's recovery is lagging? And why has Scotland's better-than-UK-average employment position been reversed (with the latest figures out this Wednesday)?

I looked for an answer in the annual report of the Council of Economic Advisers, out last Friday. It doesn't offer an explanation on growth.

But it does say, on government employment targets, that they are very challenging while Scotland has its current benefit regime, "specific challenges faced by some groups such as lone parents and those with drug or alcohol problems", questionable quality in employment training, and low entrepreneurship.

While a small sample of Scottish entrepreneur's have turned Tiggerish, there a list for the rest of us to be more gloomily Eyeorish about.

Talk Among Yourselves

Douglas Fraser | 16:25 UK time, Sunday, 12 December 2010


Do Scots talk too much to themselves and fail to engage with the outside world?

It's a charge occasionally levelled, at least at the political classes, though history and the nation's economy suggest a fairly high level of international engagement.

Now, we have evidence of just how insular Scots can be.

Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has analysed the pattern of landline phone calls made throughout Britain, and how long people spend on these calls.

The idea was to map Britain according to the interactions people have, at least by landline. (The absence of mobile calls seems a fairly large gap in the analysis, though the researchers hold out hopes also of mapping Britain by credit card payments.)

The result shows a map of Britain that's not far removed from the time-worn administrative map of its nations and regions, but for three developments - parts of central Wales are more plugged into the Midlands of England than to the rest of Wales, Yorkshire is less self-contained than might have been expected, and the prosperous Home Counties to the west of London form their own telephonic region.

What this shows about Scotland is that it is by far the most self-contained part of the British mainland.

By this measure, 77% of phone contact is with other people in Scotland.

SenseLab concludes: "We quantify the effects of partitioning, showing for instance that the effects of a possible secession of Wales from Great Britain would be twice as disruptive for the human network than that of Scotland... in some ways, the historical distinction between England and Wales may be obsolete". (Probably better to say that from the safety of Massachusetts than in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.)

The north-west of England, around Manchester, comes closest to Scotland in keeping phone calls close to home, while in central southern England and the East Midlands, the measure falls below 45%.

Does that say something about Scotland's mindset and politics? Or that of Wales? You decide.

Meanwhile, you can read more about it through the BBC news website online or at The Economist magazine or the original

Economic advice: who needs it?

Douglas Fraser | 10:54 UK time, Saturday, 11 December 2010


There's too much anecdotal evidence of banks ramping up charges unreasonably on business borrowing for it to be wrong.

So says one who knows a thing or two about the banks' dark arts, but who now engages from the other side of the relationship.

Sir George Mathewson, one-time chief executive and then chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, was commenting on the debate about whether banks or smaller businesses are right about the level of lending.

He found common ground with Jim McColl of Clyde Blowers, in calling for the Office of Fair Trading to look at the dominance of Scotland's two big banks.

Both men conceded RBS and Lloyds Banking Group have good reason to rebuild their troubled balance sheets, but both could think of companies that have breached loan covenants, and find excessively high arrangement fees for re-negotiating, added to interest rates - according to Mr McColl - that can be three times higher than the previous facility.

Irish role model

The two men were together on Friday for the publication of the annual report of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), reflecting on how different things look from the time they were appointed to the task.

Back then, Ireland was the role model for a small European nation with its own tax and fiscal autonomy.

The latest report reflects that it hasn't quite turned out that way.

"The Irish experience illustrates both the opportunities and challenges available to small nations in the European economy and has been - and will continue to be - a useful benchmark for discussion," the report understates.

The early days were in 2007, when Alex Salmond was a freshly-minted First Minister, playing to his personal economic strength by getting together an impressive gathering of business and economic thinkers.

Helped by the calibre of Mathewson and McColl, and with two Nobel prize-winners on board, he showed himself significantly better connected and advised on the private sector than his predecessor.

Sex and pornography

Critics have since focussed on the considerable cost of their meetings and fine dining.

They are unsurprised to find that the Nationalist leader's personal appointees have been enthusiastic about increasing the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and doing so far beyond those recently proposed by the UK Government.

Council member Professor John Kay penned the most eye-catching criticism of Whitehall's devolution plans, comparing them with the difference between sex and pornography, in that it "looks like the real thing, but it isn't".

But is it fair for those critics to dismiss the CEA so glibly?

It's true that in providing a challenge function to the Scottish government, punches have been pulled.

After all, the council meets with the First Minister and others from the government.

They have disagreed on little, beyond nuclear power and immigration.

Members privately question whether it's been clear what it was there to do.

And looking at the Scottish government's responses to two previous CEA reports, you read the depressing effect of officialdom defensively pretending that it's already got an answer to everything the council suggests, as if it has little or nothing to learn.

That defensive syndrome ("we've got it sorted already - nothing to see here, move along please") seems to afflict every government - perfectly illustrated by transport minister Stewart Stevenson's problems this week in articulating a response to the deep frozen roads network.

Grim fiscal outlook

The council has, however, addressed some tricky issues, pushing gently but firmly against SNP ministers' resistance on university funding, forcing ministers to address the case for at least graduates contributing to the cost of their education.

The most recent report says higher education is "particularly vulnerable in the face of the grim fiscal outlook" on public spending and immigration curbs, requiring "wide-ranging policy re-appraisal within Scotland".

That's what Education Secretary Mike Russell has to set out in the next few days.

Sticking with education, the CEA has asked some searching questions of Scottish schooling.

Sir George's assessment is that the focus on class sizes has been misguided, that a lack of money is not the problem afflicting the performance of schools, and that teacher quality must remain an overarching focus, even in the face of obstacles from the profession and politics.

The answer so far has been "wait and see what the Curriculum for Excellence delivers".

We're still waiting.

The CEA chairman cites the council's most obvious success as tackling the shortcomings for business of the planning system.

Central government has upped its game, concludes the third annual report, but local government has much more to do. It needs incentives.

It seems unlikely, however, that one such incentive is to have planning as a spending line in John Swinney's draft budget that's taking one of the biggest cuts next year.

The CEA's sectoral focus has been on finance and on life sciences.

It's added weight to a report out this week from the Royal Society of Edinburgh calling for government to use its procurement power, as much as research funding and tax incentives, to help innovation in life sciences.

Finance has been been given extensive attention by others, given its acute challenges.

Less so life sciences. There are some meaty ideas in there, for instance about re-focussing on those areas with the best productivity prospects: agriculture, diagnostics, bio-manufacturing, for instance, meaning a steer away from mainstream pharmaceuticals.

There's more to be explored there in a future episode of The Ledger.

And there's more there where expert advice can inform the next Scottish government after May.

Alex Salmond sounds keen to keep the project going.

What about others who want his job?

Does the white stuff leave red ink?

Douglas Fraser | 21:50 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010


How much does the big freeze cost the economy? Disruption looks expensive, and to some, it is.

Hauliers pay more than £400 a day to have a truck and driver doing nothing much. And while only a few have been completely stuck, those that are moving are doing so only slowly, so that's going to hurt the bottom line.

They're only one part of the supply chain that's in difficulties. Getting fresh goods to the shops is proving difficult, primarily milk.

Farmers are reporting the movement of livestock for slaughter at a vital time of year is problematic too.

Distribution out to retailers is also causing problems for those same fast-moving goods. Bakeries are finding it particularly tough going, so bread's proving hard to locate in much of the country.

So that's income foregone for some businesses, and spending foregone by those who are unable to find what they want. And that displacement of money can be found elsewhere, without meaning the economy as a whole is any worse off.

Frozen pipes

It's going to hurt householders that they have to turn up the heating, or pay for a plumber to sort out their frozen pipes.

But if you're the plumber or the energy utilities, that extra business is good news.

Restaurants have it harder than most. They lose business if people can't or won't go out at night, and those meals are only occasionally going to be postponed. Most are business that's gone for ever.

Hotels are reporting cancelled bookings, including one in Aberdeen where I should have been tonight.

But VisitScotland says its finding some hotels - in Perthshire for instance, where people are staying a bit longer because their travel plans have been blocked.

And in the city centres, where people can't get home from work, there are additional bookings too.

Footfall slips

What about Christmas business, on which so many retailers depend? Much less footfall looks bad for them, and they fear the impact of online shopping, even without bad weather.

The upside for them is that that online shopping is getting stuck, as postal and courier deliveries fail to get through. Royal Mail today apologised for the disruption to deliveries. And if people aren't sure they'll get their Christmas presents in time, they may choose to return to the shops in the next two weeks.

According to Cliff Lockyer, a number cruncher at the Fraser of Allander Institute, all the concern about harm to the economy from the harsh winter earlier this year, and by the volcanic ash cloud closing down air travel, it's hard to see any discernible effect over time.

But what if we're to assume weather events like this are to become more of a feature of life in Britain and Scotland?

That means the public authorities would have to gear up with better heavy-duty equipment, but it would also mean businesses and householders having to invest in weather-proofing as well.

Highly charged current accounts

Douglas Fraser | 17:48 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010


Do you know how much you're paying for your current account?

According to bankers appearing before the Treasury select committee at Westminster today, people are well aware of that. It's not a problem.

But asked how much one of those bankers is paying for her own Lloyds account, the bank's executive director of retail couldn't say.

Brian Hartzer, her opposite number at the Royal Bank of Scotland, told MPs that the cost of funding and managing overdrafts for its customers is actually loss-making, which left the committee chairman a tad incredulous.

After all, it's reckoned that banks made £9bn profit last year out of running Britain's personal and current accounts.

The direction of travel for the committee is towards more transparency in current accounts, which looks like leading to the end of the myth of "free banking". After all, around half the profits being made on current accounts are from those who have their accounts in credit.

But Hartzer says there's already a high level of churn in the market, as 9% of current accounts are shifted each year, but that customer inertia rather than a lack of transparency is the problem. He went on to argue that people prefer simplicity in their banking.

Driving this was Benny Higgins, chief executive of Tesco Bank, also headquartered in Edinburgh, expanding fast and moving towards a launch of a current account offering. He says the reality of bank switching is actually closer to 3%, largely down to a lack of information to customers.

He was keen to stress how many customers told the Office of Fair Trading they wouldn't want to switch account providers again, and many more who wouldn't recommend it to others - conceding that the problem may be due to vendors handling direct debit agreements rather than the banks.

Tesco Bank is also targeting what it sees as the arrangements by which the existing big four banks - controlling 73% of personal and current accounts, with even more concentration in Scotland - in sharing information on customers' credit.

Stephen Hester, chief executive of the Royal Bank, was quizzed on whether he had anything to learn from the Financial Services Authority report - published last week - into the near-collapse of RBS.

He hadn't read it, he said, arguing most of the information comes from RBS in the first place - so why would he?

So he wasn't able to say if he would have any problems with that report being published. So far, the FSA has said it won't.

"Sources close to" Sir Fred Goodwin, the former chief executive, have made it clear that he wouldn't mind, having been cleared of wrong-doing.

Now, with Business Secretary Vince Cable urging the FSA to publish, we're waiting to find out if the RBS would object. It's not yet saying - at least until Mr Hester takes up the Treasury committee's invitation to read the report and get back to them.

Mr Hester was a bit clearer about the state of play with RBS's exposure in Ireland - a few hours before the latest brutal budget in Dublin's Dail.

The answer is a loan book of around £50bn - 40% of which is 'non-core'. That's not to say it's going to be marked down as loss. Losses are "significant", yes. But the 40% is the unsustainable bit of the Ulster Bank subsidiary that went far too far. The target is to run off that loan book, down to £30bn or so.

"There are no investment bankers anywhere near this in Ireland," Hester stressed. "This is bog standard lending that went wrong."

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