BBC BLOGS - Douglas Fraser's Ledger

Archives for February 2011

Diverse Attractions

Douglas Fraser | 11:56 UK time, Sunday, 27 February 2011


What is it about women, or is it all the fault of grey, older men? Why is there a glass ceiling for women's progress to company boardrooms?

To what extent does it harm the interests of Britain's companies?

Just some of the questions I've been pondering in light of the Davies Report into boardroom diversity, or lack of it.

It's not the first time anyone's noted the problem, but the latest figures show previous efforts to change it have fallen woefully short.

Only one in eight FTSE 100 directors is female, and nearly half of FTSE 250 companies have no women at all on the board.

By men, for men

For 'Business Scotland' this week (which can be found on iplayer and via podcast) I've been hearing from two of those most closely involved in challenging that male dominance.

One is a co-author of the Davies Report, Professor Sue Vinnicombe. She observes that organisations were designed "by men, for men".

That helps explain why a high-octane workaholism is respected at the top, although she argues that more flexible work patterns can deliver positive results for everyone.

It's just that it's rarely tried at the most senior levels.

Perhaps it's also to do with top executive pay. If that were moderated, it might put less pressure on the pay-cheque recipients to burn themselves out in pursuit of often short-term results.

Quota stigma

Also contributing to the discussion was Debbie Atkins of Tods Murray legal partnership in Edinburgh, and a founder of a women in business network.

She is one of those to share the Davies Report conclusion against Norwegian-style quotas for boardrooms.

In Oslo, they legislated for at least 40% of posts to go to females.

The Davies Report suggests instead that boards should be pressured this year to set targets for increasing women's representation, leading to at least a quarter by 2015.

If that doesn't make the difference, the threat of legislated quotas hangs in the air.

Incidentally, it's worth noting that survey evidence of women finds they support the idea of quotas, but it's rather more difficult to find individuals who will speak up for them.

It's probable that those who are in senior posts don't want to be stigmatised as being there to fill quotas.

'Positive action'

Nor is Debbie Atkins in favour of positive discrimination, meaning a requirement on employers to help fast-track women returning from child-rearing career breaks.

Instead, she talks of "positive action", encouraging employers to see the potential that such women have.

"People who have taken a career break could be much more valuable than someone who maybe traditionally has worked in one pattern in one firm for many years," she says.

What, then, of positive action for others who are under-represented in company boardrooms?

What of racial diversity, particularly for companies seeking to understand other races in target export markets?

What about younger people - perhaps those with an intuitive feel for modern consumer markets and technology?

And what about employee representation, which is common in continental Europe, but only a minority interest in Britain?

Sue Vinnicombe says: "The fundamental problem is the lack of women at the top. Once companies have championed gender diversity, the evidence seems to be that questions of other diversity will sort themselves out". Discuss.

Hungry for assets

On the programme this week, I was discussing Centrica's offshore oil and gas operations since its hostile takeover of Aberdeen's Venture Production in 2009, with its managing director Jonathan Roger.

On Thursday, he announced profits up by nearly a third to £581m, in the first full year since the merger with Centrica's previous offshore operations.

This was also a year in which the company bought Suncor, one of Trinidad's big producers of liquid natural gas.

Unfortunately, he was not being drawn on the prospects for buying around $1bn of BP assets in the North Sea, placed on the market this week.

But the older fields, many of them gas and in the southern sector, look to this untrained eye like a perfect fit for asset-hungry Centrica.

Let us know what you think.

We're open to feedback and new ideas for the programme, for which you can write to

Oiling the economic wheels

Douglas Fraser | 09:24 UK time, Wednesday, 23 February 2011


The motor which drives Aberdeen's economy has had a bit of a rough time through recession.

So it's had a service, oil filter change, and it's now as good as, well, not quite new.

It's becoming more of a vintage classic. And it's one that's still able to turn heads.

Economic leaders in Scotland's north-east are battling the impression that the North Sea is past-it and in decline.

That's not always easy when the North Sea is, indisputably, in decline.

The question is how fast reserves are emptying and how technology can extract more, what a rising oil price will mean, and where the activity will go next.

North Sea bonanza

On all fronts, according to today's review of activities by industry body Oil and Gas UK, it's not looking so bad at all.

If current plans for the next five years are worked through, the rate of decline could half to around 3% per year.

Barring a miracle of geology, 40 years after the North Sea bonanza began, that continuing decline is inevitable.

Yet by slowing it down, the industry's confidently looking to continue production for at least another 30 years.

How many other industries can look, with some confidence, to that time horizon?

Sluggish Arab economies

Twin factors are working in favour of the North Sea.

It's relatively expensive to extract, so it's helped by the rising oil price.

When oil is cheap, it makes most sense to pump it - cheaply - out the Arabian and Texas desert.

So obviously, when it's more expensive, there's an incentive to look at more expensive basins for exploration.

With Asian economies rebounding strongly from global downturn, demand for oil is back in fashion.

Political uncertainty in North Africa and the Middle East is giving the price an upward push. That may turn out to be temporary.

Whoever takes power in Libya and wherever comes next, they will probably want to satisfy the protesters' demands on jobs, prices and prosperity - unshackling their sluggish economies and sharing the fruits of growth being enjoyed in other parts of the world.

So while there may be uncertainty and volatility, this doesn't look like the kind of Arab revolutionary movement that will turn the oil exporting taps off in the long term.

For that reason, it seems the more significant trend worth watching on oil is in demand from Asia.

In deep water

Coming back to the so-called UK Continental Shelf (that seabed convention beloved of the Treasury, ensuring the hydrocarbons aren't associated with any one part of the country), technology keeps moving the industry goalposts, and invariably to the upside.

Using an inventiveness which is often led by the Scottish offshore industry and its university friends, old and emptying oil wells can be coaxed into giving up ever more of their riches.

Smaller fields can be found and exploited in new and more efficient ways, often by new pipeline links to existing platforms, and improved methods of pumping.

In a market of majors, with big ambitions for big new projects, and smaller niche players expert in tackling older fields, BP has signalled it wants to sell such North Sea assets during this year, including some it's had from the start.

It's looking west of Shetland, to the Russian Arctic, to a new alliance with Reliance in India and to cleaning up the financial mess deposited in the Gulf of Mexico, and that new orientation means selling new opportunities to the North Sea independents.

Heavy oil is becoming a more prominent feature, justified by the price hike. It's harder to extract and to pump, and it can be more expensive to refine, but if the price justifies it, there are reservoirs under the northern North Sea that the UK and Norway can develop.

And - very controversially (the industry and its financiers are under growing pressure from the green lobby) - the new frontier is in deeper water, west of Shetland.

It's reckoned that quarter of all UK output will be from that area by 2020.

Scrapyard boom

So not much to worry about then?

Well, the industry's always worried about the Treasury's intentions, as it has previous on plundering profits.

It's being emphasised that quarter of corporation tax already comes from the oil and gas sector - the take totalling more than £9bn last year.

And there's always a new tax break to be sought. This year, it wants more help with offsetting decommissioning costs.

That, of course, is the other new frontier. Oil and Gas UK has updated its assessment of the cost of scrapping all that offshore kit, and it looks like a £29bn bill over the next 30 years.

Bad news for the industry - good news if you're a scrappie, or hope to become one.

The other fear on the industry horizon is rising cost. Because the supply chain works globally, demand from big and rather more exciting prospects in Brazil and Africa mean UK operators were facing 5% inflation last year.

Renewable energy is also competing for engineering talent and in the steel fabrication market.

That contributes to the growing cost of extracting the average barrel of oil (or gas equivalent).

As they get harder to squeeze up out of the UK seabed, that unit cost is up 10%, according to the Oil and Gas UK survey.

Vintage classic

All this helps explain why the north-east Scottish economy is following its own cycle, with property prices at least holding up, and more evidence this week that its employment position is strengthening.

The increased level of investment identified in the industry survey is being translated into 10,000 to 15,000 new jobs, some of these workers already being trained up after redundancy in recession-hit sectors.

Are bonuses bad for you?

Douglas Fraser | 09:56 UK time, Sunday, 20 February 2011


You'd think there was something evil about bonuses, or at least mildly morally degrading. Investment bankers, quango mandarins and hospital consultants all get trashed for having their snouts in the bonus trough.

Admittedly, much of the coverage comes from just how big the bonus pot is. And there can be a lack of transparency about how bonuses are awarded.

But the popular media image of a bonus is that it's a guaranteed top-up to pay, handed out by executive cronies irrespective of results and performance.

It's possible this is coloured by journalists' prejudices or envy.

Very few journalists, below executive levels, are incentivised by bonuses, or if they are, it's for a small proportion of pay. So they are happy to spread the impression that anyone eligible for a bonus is on some sort of gravy train.

Happy executives

Is that true? I've been looking in more detail at what bonuses - and their close relative, performance-related pay - can do for a company and for employee productivity.

The answers can be heard on Radio Scotland's Business Scotland
programme, being broadcast at 10.00 GMT on Sunday 20 February, and also available by iPlayer and podcast.

To offer a taster, there's some fascinating evidence in there from two business school academics.

Professor Brian Main of Edinburgh University business school told me about top executive pay, having researched it extensively.

He points out that companies have the bad habit of making it appear that bonuses are awarded for poor performance, when in fact, the bonus is typically paid for a performance over a different and longer time-frame than the annual report in which it appears.

He says the growth of the bonus owes much to institutional investors over the past 20 years or so, when they sought to tie in executive directors' pay to shareholders' interests.

And although there's some evidence that activist shareholders are cracking down on over-generous remuneration (or what some annual report writers like to call 'emoluments'), the Prof says the success of such endeavours at AGMs has been strikingly rare.

He observes that rewarding senior executives generously is seen as essential to company success. A happy executive is one who feels she or he is being rewarded at least in line with the market rate, and if you value your senior executives, why wouldn't you throw a hundred thousand or two at them to lighten the load?

It seems quite a lot of top-up for most of us, but it's a relatively small cost for the right leadership team.

The catch is that, if all companies take the same approach, there's a powerful upward ratcheting effect.

There are lessons being applied in some quarters from continental companies which use bonus targets other than finance, such as staff satisfaction, carbon emission reduction and corporate social responsibility. Those may have some way to go yet.

Pay enough or not at all

I also heard from an expert in performance-related pay for those working at grunt level in the private sector. Konstantinos Pouliakas is a labour economist at Aberdeen University business school, and offered many insights into what works - and crucially, what doesn't.

In short, performance-related pay (PRP) works, but it has to be carefully designed. It works best for sales forces, where targets are easily understood.

It works least well, or not at all, for public sector workers. For many of them, the satisfaction is in doing the job as much as making money out of it, and performance is often qualitative more than quantitative, and in teams at least as much as by individuals.

Where PRP can work in a private sector context is where employers offer more than 10% of total pay. Anything less than that can be demotivating, and can be seen as insulting. It's better to pay nothing at all than less than a tenth.

While it's been seen as an essential form of incentivising workforces in the past decade or two, that trend is now changing towards a mix of PRP with employee empowerment - motivating by handing down autonomy.

Dr Pouliakas says the research shows PRP pushes up the average working week by about two hours, and can be associated with unhealthy presenteeism. Keen to ensure they don't lose their entitlement, workers can feel the pressure to get back from ill-health earlier than they should, and that can have negative consequences on long-term health.

Another fine mess?

There is, of course, one other vital factor driving the bonus business - it allows cost flexibility where revenue is unpredictable. If cash flow's in trouble, it's a whole lot easier to cut the bonus pot than to cut basic pay.

Rather more problematic is the trend towards unconsolidated pay - a one-off top-up, which doesn't form the basis for the next year's pay settlement/negotiations. Nor does it have to be pensionable. So you can see why some employers rather like that option.

Finally, an observation picked up from Chris Dillow, columnist with Investors Chronicle and economics blogger. He pointed me to a psychology lab research project at Nottingham University that tested how people's actions are shaped by rewards being given either through flat rate pay, bonuses or being fined.

The outcome challenges the whole notion of performance-related pay - the best results came from imposing fines or penalties when people fail to hit targets.

That may merely reflect human nature: we work harder to avoid losing something we think we've already secured than we do to gain something extra.

Clydesdale's Moody blues

Douglas Fraser | 18:14 UK time, Thursday, 17 February 2011


Don't panic, we're told, about the questions being asked of Clydesdale Bank's credit health.

The way they see it in the Glasgow headquarters is that Moody's, one of the big three in corporate credit rating, is merely running a rule over what have been very robust ratings in the first place.

Clydesdale took a hit in earlier stages of the downturn, as its loan book suffered the same pounding as other lenders.

But the story it had to tell was one of relative conservatism paying off, while its larger Scottish-based rivals, the Royal Bank and HBOS, followed by the Dunfermline Building Society, smacked into calamity and needed bailing out on a spectacular scale.

Clydesdale recently reported an uptick in bad debt, but nothing to knock it off its cautious stride.

Now, it seems Clydesdale and its partner Yorkshire Bank are being drawn into a wider Moody's review of Australian banking - these two brands representing the entire European division of National Australia Bank.

Reality check

The Aussie bank sector, and the nation's wider economy, have been noted for having a good downturn - surviving it through a combination of conservative balance sheets and the country's rich commodity mining sector.

Feeding into the Asian manufacturing and construction sectors, the Australian economy didn't even have a recession involving consecutive quarters of contraction.

So peppered with A credit ratings from Standard and Poor, Fitch and Moody's, the downgrade warning may be more of a reality check on ratings generosity.

If they're not chastened by their role in the bank crash, then the agencies should be - and some think they're expressing it by being unduly hawkish.

One thing for sure - this shouldn't affect customers.

But it is one of those periodic reminders that the relatively sluggish Clydesdale and Yorkshire may not fit forever into the NAB view of the future from Melbourne.

Acquisitive rivals keep wondering when they might come on the market.

Stagecoach's Manhattan transfer

Douglas Fraser | 16:57 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Stagecoach is used to operating effective monopolies in British urban bus services, so it probably comes as a bit of a shock to be told to hop off its own sight-seeing bus operation in New York.

In the land of the free market, a regulatory, anti-trust stop is being put to a merged joint venture of the two companies - one of them the Perth-based transport giant, which runs 59 buses under the Gray Line brand.

Together with CitySights NY, and its 70 buses, they operate around 89% of what the regulator calls "double-deck, hop-on, hop-off" services. And they neglected to get regulatory approval before joining forces.

In one of the stranger regulatory rulings, this is to protect others in the sector including those who offer tours of the Big Apple by bicycle, rickshaw, Segway, helicopter or "New York's iconic horse-drawn carriages".

The US federal regulator of surface transport says Stagecoach had no right to form the alliance with its main rival. That's particularly as it runs what appear to be separate services with suspiciously similar routes and prices that rose sharply around the time the joint venture was formed.

Route ahead

So it's being refused permission to keep operating as a joint venture. The current set up means it can raise prices without concern about competition, and that it describes as "a hallmark of unrestrained market power".

Having formed the joint venture in March 2009, the following year delivered £8.5m of profit to Stagecoach Group's results.

So in Perth, chief executive Brian Souter is mulling over what to do next. He could easily get out from under the federal regulator's jurisdiction by axing the joint venture's interstate bus lines. They only account for 1% of business, so that's easily done.

But that could put him into the New York regulator's patch, and there's no guarantee it won't take the same approach.

Makes you wonder how bus services might change in Britain with a similarly robust regulatory approach.

Celtic connections

Douglas Fraser | 16:55 UK time, Tuesday, 15 February 2011


What is the purpose of a football club, particularly an Old Firm one?

To win the league, to have a good run in Europe, to keep fans happy?

Or could it be to speculate on the commodity of up-and-coming players - spotting them young, buying them cheap, bringing them on, and then selling them at a profit?

Celtic put out its six-monthly figures yesterday, and it's clear that player development has become an explicit part of the business model.

The numbers underlining the continuing headache the Old Firm have with unpredictable good and bad runs in Europe.

A good run can fund an expensive team. A dud one leaves your pay bill way out of kilter with income.

Celtic chairman John Reid - formerly Tony Blair's Cabinet enforcer - was announcing a near trebling in debt, above £9m.

That's well under half of Rangers' debt, when it was last updated, and the Parkhead chairman sounds confident that transfer season transactions since the end of the reporting period should bring the debt substantially down by the time the full-year figures roll round.

But it's clear that the economic downturn is also taking its toll on income, and £1 in every eight - 12%, or nearly £4m - has had to be stripped out of costs, down to £27.5m.

However, turnover was down by far more, 21%.

It's only with player transactions that half-year profits look substantially better than they did this time last year, helped that way by the departure of McGeady, McManus, Boruc, Fortuné, Sheridan and Mizuno.

Other income took a tumble: football and stadium operations down £2.3m to £16.7m. Income from multimedia and other commercial opportunities fell from £7.3m to £4.4m.

Merchandising down from £9.8m to £8.3m.

Celtic is in a better financial position than many others, but Dr Reid sounds like the bitter economic and the winter chill are getting to him in the Parkhead directors' box.

The second half of the football year, he says, is looking even more challenging.

The Wood Choppers Ball

Douglas Fraser | 06:31 UK time, Tuesday, 15 February 2011


It's not a bad day at the office, when you walk away with more than £200m.

That looks like the proceeds heading towards Sir Ian Wood, his family and its trust as a result of the sale of the Well Support division.

As you can hear in an interview with the Wood Group chairman, he's upbeat about the success of the division, built up over 20 years, as evidence that Scots can cut it in the industry.

Well support - including blow-out preventers, data logging and the pumps needed to coax oil and gas out of lower-pressure wells - was the toughest part of the industry to crack. But Wood Group cracked it. And some.

However, the company's directors decided last year that it ought to specialise, in an environment where projects are becoming humungous - one billion dollars has become relatively small, replaced by $20 to $30bn projects - where the industry giants are consolidating, and where there is limited synergy between the wellhead business and the main engineering and production services division.

That explains the £600m purchase in December of PSN oilfield services, also Aberdeen-based, which was already expanding fast and has now announced another 100 jobs.

It also helps explain why it has sold the Well Support division - GE winning the race with £1.75bn. Of that, £1.06bn is to be distributed among the company's shareholders.

Sir Ian controls 17% of the stock, and other family members and the trust take that above 20%.

Hence a pretty good payday, and perhaps significant news for the Wood Family Trust's philanthropic work.

I shall leave it to Aberdonians to argue - as they love to do - over its potential impact for plans to revamp Union Terrace Gardens, to which Sir Ian had offered £50m.

Deal or no deal in the desert

Douglas Fraser | 08:15 UK time, Friday, 11 February 2011


Cairn Energy may look like a wee Edinburgh company that got lucky with an oil gusher in the Indian desert.

It's since gained some notoriety from green groups for prospecting off the virgin coast of Greenland.

But the significance of its current predicament goes far beyond its Lothian Road headquarters or the oil sector. It has become a litmus test of the future of the globalised economy and of Asia's elephantine growth.

The regulatory obstacle on which it's become stuck in Delhi challenges whether foreign investors can have confidence in India, and it's being closely watched in the oil sector and far beyond.

Cairn's concern, now being signalled to others to put pressure on the Indian government, is this: if national interest can be used to renege on legal contracts, then why would anyone else risk billions of risk capital in the country?

Lucky with the black stuff

The start to the story has become corporate folklore. Cairn bought up the rights to drill in the Rajasthan desert, cheaply, where others had failed. On its last throw of the prospecting dice, Bill Gammell, chief executive, rugby internationalist and schoolboy chum of fellow oilman George W Bush, rolled a double six.

The Mangala field is now pumping 125,000 barrels a day, with the potential to go at least to 150,000 barrels. Thursday's figures from Cairn India, of which it owns two-thirds, came with a warning that momentum is being lost because of a lack of regulatory approval for expansion of production. That's a symptom of the wider malaise.

Cairn sees its expertise as being in exploration rather than production. So last August, it struck a deal to sell about half of Cairn India to Vedanta, the London-listed, Indian-based metals company. The proceeds, more than £6bn, can go partly to shareholders and partly to help fund its hugely expensive Greenland adventure.

But there's a catch. In India, there's often a regulatory catch. In this case, it involved ONGC, three-quarters owned by the Indian government, with a further tranche expected to go private in months.

Rupee royalties

In the 1990s, when it was wholly owned by the Indian government and when ministers in Delhi were eager to attract international oil exploration, Cairn moved in on the basis that, if it took the financial risk and got lucky with the black stuff, ONGC would pay all of the royalties from any oil find due to the Indian government.

ONGC got a 30% stake in the Rajasthan field, without having to put in any risk capital. That was all Cairn's - more than half a billion dollars of it.

It seems the catch in the Vedanta deal is that ONGC is telling the energy minister that it wants to get out of that royalty agreement - a contract that looks like costing it about £2bn in payments over the lifetime of the Rajasthani fields.

It wants Vedanta to take on some of those royalty payments - preferrably 70%. And if Vedanta has to fork out that that much in rupees, the value of its acquisition from Cairn would be considerably less and would require renewed shareholder approval.

With Vedanta having already clashed with the Indian government over environmental concerns around its metals business, the problem with the Cairn deal was clear by last October, and the Scottish company's hopes of completing the sale by the end of 2010 were dashed.

Humungous investment potential

Sir Bill Gammell has shareholder authority and Vedanta's agreement to complete the transaction by 15 April. By that time, at least 20 days, and arguably more than double that length of regulatory processing, will have to be completed.

So a decision is required imminently if the deal is not to fall. That's why Cairn's chief executive has this week met the Indian energy minister, S Jaipal Reddy, eager afterwards to stress how "positive and constructive" the talks were. The minister let it be known that ONGC would require its concerns to be legitimately addressed.

The meeting was probably also quite tough, because the message to India is a blunt one: refuse Cairn on this one, let ONGC break a legal contract on the royalties payment, and wave goodbye to the confidence of those wielding the humungous potential for foreign direct investment (FDI) into India.

It's clear from Friday morning's Indian business press that both Cairn and ONGC are now playing hardball in public. One publication carries ONGC's version of Cairn's apparent lack of co-operation: another a reminder to the Indian government that it is also in Alberta, looking for bidders to take on other exploration blocks, and those in the frame will want to know what's happening with the Cairn deal before they commit.

From Delhi, the Scottish company may look like the former colonial masters intending to walk away with vast profits from the country's natural resources. That tends not to go down well.

Refined energy security

But prospective FDI investors from anywhere need to know they can take risks on India, then exit that or any other country, selling on stakes when they've extracted value and want to move elsewhere.

That's a hurtful process - as Scotland found when much of its own FDI boom in electronics pulled out, seeking improved shareholder value where wages were lower.

It's a lot less painful where Cairn has created a legacy that keeps flowing through the desert for refining, providing energy security where it had little.

India may be an emerging giant with much more clout in the newly globalising world economy, but it's being reminded that the rule of law and the reliability of legal contracts is essential if inward investment is to be attracted in the first place.

Tax Changes for Growth

Douglas Fraser | 15:53 UK time, Thursday, 10 February 2011


How best to use the tax system to boost growth, particularly through a downturn? It's an economic question that really matters, while taxes and benefits are being altered significantly in a big gamble that deficit-cutting will somehow lead to growth.

And there's an answer today from the Economic Journal today, in an article by OECD economists, who have been poring over the empirical evidence from different countries and tax regimes.

At least two of their answers would be problematic, if applied in the UK. One is to shift the burden of taxation on to housing - not housing transactions or stamp duty, that is, but on property charges such as council tax.

The argument is that stamp duty discourages mobility, both for workers who might wish to move out of the area in search of work, and for people - empty-nesters, for instance - who are living in houses that are too big for them, and would like to downsize but don't want to pay the tax for doing so.

VAT on food

An economically-efficient tax system would encourage people to move to the home that fits their lives best, thus pricing lower-income, older people out of big houses, making them available for large families. That would require more frequent revaluation for tax - unlike the Scottish council tax system, where homes are rated on a 20-year old assessment.

It's efficient, but the OECD economists concede it's not necessarily popular.

Likewise for consumption taxes, such as VAT, with the suggestion that it would be tax efficient to reduce the consumption tax breaks for particular goods. In Britain, that means household energy, food, newspapers, magazines, books, children's clothes and, rather oddly, the purchase or lease of airships.

It's reckoned that a shift from income tax towards housing and consumption tax could boost growth - a 1% shift delivering a rise of between 0.25% to 1% in long-term growth rates.

Scotland's economists and politicians have recently been loudly at odds about devolving tax powers - the question of whether the very act of devolution boosts growth rates, or is the evidence inconclusive? - there doesn't seem to be any guidance from the Economic Journal or its OECD authors.

Unhappy about terrorism

As proof of just what a dismal science economics can be, the EJ is also offering statistical evidence of just how unhappy people were made by the hijacking attacks of 11 September 2001 in the USA.

By comparing responses to the British Household Panel Survey before and after that date, it's concluded that the impact on levels of happiness was equivalent to one-fifth of the impact of being made unemployed.

Too small to sell to a big world

Douglas Fraser | 19:00 UK time, Wednesday, 9 February 2011


Are there risks in exporting to emerging markets? Of course there are.

But the message today from the new boss of Scottish Development International - the government's export agency, among other things - is that there's a bigger risk in not exporting.

With long-term sluggishness or stagnation in domestic markets, that's the best way for the economy and for companies to grow.

And if you can't reach scale in domestic markets, foreigners surely can and then sell their goods and services into the UK.

So how well placed is British manufacturing to act on this advice? The ITEM Club reported this week Scotland is weaker than the UK as a whole, apart from strengths in food, drink and metals.

Thursday's half-year figures from Diageo are expected to underline the continuing success of the whisky industry.

And Subsea UK has today put out its regular survey, showing how well that offshore and underwater sector is doing - in short, rather well.

Short-sighted ambition

But for much of the economy, the problem with growing exports has been a consistent worry.

The Scottish Council for Development and Industry says a boost to exports is not only desirable, but crucial. It's set the target of doubling exports in the next decade.

A recently-leaked memo from Alex Salmond suggests he may be about to head down the same target-setting road in the SNP election manifesto.

Some responses to the exports challenge came today from UK Business Secretary Vince Cable, setting out reforms to the way government supports small firms with export credit guarantees and hedging against currency fluctuations.

He did so on the day the monthly trade figure showed the biggest ever deficit in November. Though exports rose, imports were up far more, helped by weakened sterling pushing import prices up.

But the problem may go well beyond short-sighted lack of ambition or an absence of financial guarantees.

'Limited ambitions'

A report from the University of Manchester - covering British manufacturing - suggests it's the structure of the country's much depleted manufacturing sector that's the problem.

It concludes that a key problem is how much of British industry is foreign-owned, leaving it "limited ambitions".

British-owned firms employ an average of 14 workers, and are too small to operate internationally.

The number of factories employing 200 or more people has halved since 1979, while the number of workshops employing 10 or fewer people has doubled in the past 25 years.

They also suffer from "broken supply chains", meaning they struggle to source components from within Britain.

An example is the JCB digger , which has been a very successful British product, but can't source any more than 36% of value from the UK.

UK engineering manufacturers have to source half of their components from foreign firms, while in Germany, only a third are imported.

So it's argued that the benefits of growing these companies in Britain quickly leaks overseas to their suppliers.

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