India’s cashless economy chaos

As the world remains fixated on the election of Donald Trump and a Soros sponsored campaign of protests and riots against his presidency, a crisis has the attention of over a billion people in Asia.

India is on the brink of an economic meltdown resulting from the withdrawal of 500 and 1000 rupee notes and its enormous population is now living in fear of the emergence of a police state.

Prime Minister Modi’s announcement on Tuesday 8th November, US voting day, directed that these notes would be withdrawn immediately and that its population should conduct its business digitally or with smaller notes. The pretext given for this widely praised initiative is that it will help fight corruption, an enormous problem in India’s public sector. An alternative view is of course that it is simply another small step in an IMF driven globalist war on cash, a method of extending government control into areas it has previously not been involved in – a further step towards entombing everyone in a government controlled digital cash prison. That argument is for another day but in the meantime perhaps the Indian experience has some capability of informing our own future.

Some background facts. India has a current population of around 1.2 billion people, not far behind China’s 1.36 billion. 1,000 and 500 rupee notes represent over 80% of all notes in circulation and are widely used for all sorts of transactions throughout the country. To give some value context a 100 rupee note is worth approximately £1.17, $1.48 or €1.36. In other words even in India you would need some pretty large pockets to carry around a meaningful amount of currency. Finally, India is predominantly a cash economy. Its wealthy classes have the same access and use banking facilities as westerners but there are still hundreds of millions who do not have a bank account or who even carry identity cards. This of course is something of a problem as we will see.

The process for the average Indian to exchange his higher denomination notes into smaller ones appears to be as follows:

  1. Queue in a line for an official to issue you with a form.
  2. Complete the form (assuming you can write) with details of your notes and serial numbers and relevant personal contact details.
  3. Make a photocopy of your ID card. A challenge for the 35% of Indians that does not have one (circa 400 million), many of whom don’t actually understand the concept of an ID card.
  4. Queue for an official to verify and stamp the ID card copy as genuine.
  5. Queue at a bank to get a bank teller to convert the higher denomination notes into smaller usable ones.

Apparently it takes a couple of hours to exchange 4000 rupees (about £47), the maximum you can convert per day. The rich can pay servants to undertake the exchanges but the poor have to use working time every day to exchange their cash, at least until their savings have been converted. Meanwhile bank accounts also remain restricted from a cash withdrawal perspective which is why ATMs are now out of notes on a daily basis.

In a matter of days businesses have already started to show signs of stress and failure. Small cash driven businesses may not last much more than a week as liquidity is sucked out of an economy only partially supported by wealthy people with bank accounts. Chaos reigns already and India has entered into crisis mode as virtually the entire adult population queues for the chance of exchanging now worthless notes into something useful.

The poor are in panic mode as fear grows that they may not have enough useable money to buy food next week. The educated salaried class are largely untouched as they use plastic to continue with life as normal. India’s tax authorities are rubbing their hands as information about the wealth of individuals becomes a matter of record. Tax demands are being paid with little contention.

Realistically, the smaller notes replacing larger ones will not be like for like in terms of liquidity. Over the next week or so the economy could go into full meltdown as hundreds of millions risk starvation and cash transactions shrink to a minimum. To protect themselves against further chaos the wealthy are buying physical gold which in US dollar terms cannot be acquired for much less than $3,000/oz, a price almost 2.5 times the paper market LBM/COMEX traded price. That is if you can actually find some.

In due course India will get through this crisis either through suffering the effects of this uncommunicated move or via its reversal when the real consequences are fully understood, or acted upon by those most affected.

Whether or not European or North American governments could get away with this sort of thing is moot. It would probably take a political/economic crisis in which it could be presented as an ‘emergency measure’. Far more likely is the ongoing gradual erosion of cash, the digital carrot rather than the executive order stick. It will probably take a financial crisis for the implications of an almost cashless economy to catch the attention of the general public. When bank deposit accounts are eviscerated through ‘doing a Cyprus’ ‘bail-in’ perhaps then we will realise the risks we have all been taking in concentrating the power over our money into the hands of a small cadre of bankers and government officials.

Is cash a freedom or a convenience issue?

Digital Tax Accounts

Of all the interesting stuff to write about why on earth would I want to write something about tax?

Well I wouldn’t but this particular subject got my attention at a recent CPD update. I feel obligated to go on these things on a fairly regular basis to keep reasonably tuned-in to developments in the tax and accounting world. The last one, a Finance Act 2016 seminar, contained all the usual things that I would much rather not fill my head with plus something extra. At this point you can switch off if you are non-UK resident, this is a specially delightful set of proposals affecting the 50m or so tax-paying citizens of Her Majesty’s British Isles.

The presenter of the seminar introduced the topic of ‘digital tax accounts’ with a little anecdote. As a tax specialist he had recently attended a conference of….tax specialists…whereupon they covered HMRC’s December 2015 proposals on digital tax accounts. After covering the topic and enjoying an exploratory Q&A, a survey was conducted of the said tax specialists about their plans for tackling the consultation proposals. Apparently, 17 of the 73 attending put their hands up to indicate that they intended to retire before the full effects of this digital nightmare rolled out. Now these are some of the best tax experts in the UK, the ones who not only advise large corporations on their tax computations but who give seminars to the high street accountants and other generalists.

Suffice to say it got my attention.

The ‘Making Tax Digital’ surfaced as a consultation document in 2015 followed by an innocuous looking promotion outlining the benefits of a move to digital tax accounts. In essence it is about moving tax online which in an increasingly digital world makes a lot of sense. However, as ever, the devil is in the detail.

Personal tax accounts are already being rolled out with many people already having received notification from the HMRC that their digital tax account is now live. For those of us used to doing self-assessment it’s probably not a big deal but it could be a challenge for the millions who don’t have a computer or the skills, or who are limited by sub-standard broadband provision. All most individuals will have to do is check their account to ensure that HMRC have populated it with the right numbers. Easy for those who already self-assess but it could be an extra task for many who have never directly engaged with the Revenue. It is not clear at the moment but it could well be that you will be required to ‘digitally approve’ the numbers each year.

So, a little more work for each of us as individuals but generally not a major challenge for the majority of people.

That’s probably the extent of the good news, unless of course you are a fee-earning accountant or accounting software vendor. The rationale for that comment will soon become apparent.

The first and least welcome surprise in the business world is that small businesses will be required to move over to digital tax accounts before big ones, a break from tradition. As proposals presently stand all small non-VAT registered businesses and landlords will be required to start delivering QUARTERLY updates after April 2018.

‘QUARTERLY updates.’ What does that mean?

We have to speculate at this point as the proposals are still fairly opaque. What it seems to be suggesting is that Joe Plumber, Eddy Electrician and Lawrence Landlord will have to transmit some sort of income and expenditure or profit and loss account each quarter, probably using a piece of HMRC approved accounting software. In other words a ‘mini’ year-end every three months. So it’s a major admin burden for the smallest of businesses, and inevitably, extra cost. What the Revenue intend to do with this information is not totally clear but more regular tax payments ‘on account’ is no doubt pretty high on the list of applications. The fun of course will start when attempts are made to try and reconcile these quarterly ‘abbreviated’ accounts with final year end accounts, and taxation adjusted for capital allowances, private use, loss relief etc. etc. The smallest of businesses have a limited interest and expertise and will clearly resort to their accountants for some sort of help. It will no doubt increase accountancy fees once the challenge of whether there is enough accounting help in the system has been faced. I would not overestimate the ability of the high street accounting sector to cope with a broadly unexpected onslaught of extra work. In time it will absorb the work but the transitional years could be pretty difficult. Even accountants have home lives.

HMRC hope that imposing these additional requirements will in some way raise tax revenues. The evidence for this is at best anecdotal and the policy could actually reduce revenues as rules force small businesses to keep better records and ensure those receipts don’t get lost. Time will tell whether the brave new world of digital taxation will also invoke the law of unintended consequences.

The implementation timeline is aggressive. It is the smallest of businesses in 2018 but larger VAT registered businesses, contractors with PSCs etc. will follow very quickly afterwards. Larger entities are further down the road but in many cases they will already have the infrastructure capable of submitting quarterly accounts; in most cases these organisations already produce monthly statements. The only additional task would be formal quarterly HMRC submission. In a world where these companies are being encouraged to think strategically and plan long term we could see a renewed focus on quarterly market updates. I have not seen a lot of discussion on the implications for PLCs but this could be a topic of future interest.

By 2020 most companies will be updating HMRC quarterly for Corporation Tax purposes through approved accounting software. Investing in Sage and other accounting vendors might not be a bad idea as it looks like every business will be compelled to pay for software, most of which is likely to be updated at least annually. It looks like this could become an additional ongoing cost in addition to any supplemental accounting fees.

Digital tax accounts aside we are slowly moving towards a world where everything is becoming government controlled. The emerging discussion about a cashless society would quite easily interface with a ‘digital tax account’ environment. With every piece of expenditure digitised and an all-seeing government holding absolute control over your affairs we are increasingly reliant on the fact that its intentions are benign. While most of us still think we still have some control through the ballot box we ought to recall the words of Mark Twain on this subject: “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” With digitisation happening so quickly we should be very careful that we maintain oversight on who is the servant and who is the served, or we might all wake-up one day and find that we have sacrificed our freedom to the god of convenience.

The significance of the BLOCKCHAIN

I still covet Issue 1 of the first magazine launched in the UK to cover the Internet. It was a free supplement to an edition of ‘What Personal Computer’ which unfortunately I have now lost. Dated October 1994 and appropriately titled ‘INTERNET’, at 34 pages it is rather thin to say least, much of it advertisements. Page 7 describes the following three and half pages as ‘the most extensive ever published in a magazine’ and includes descriptions of sites such as ‘The BBC Networking Club’, CERN and a handful of corporate sites such as Microsoft, ‘Lotus Development’, Novell and Dell. It’s a fascinating snapshot of the genesis of a technology ten years before it really caught the imagination of the wider world.

Roll forward to today and we could be seeing the start of something equally revolutionary, Blockchain technology. The Blockchain is the enabling platform for the better known Bitcoin cryptocurrency. While Bitcoin attracts most of the interest of writers and news columnists it is almost certainly the Blockchain which is more important. Indeed like the Internet it has the potential to fundamentally and structurally change the way economies work and how transactions take place.

So what is it?

Just a matter of months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 a rather mysterious character calling himself Satoshi Nakamoto released a White Paper ‘Bitcoin: a Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System’. The first sentence in the document introduces the concept of Bitcoin: ‘A purely peer to peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution’. With that the Blockchain and its first application, Bitcoin, was born. Its launch has effectively removed the need for any middlemen involvement in a transaction, hence the growing interest of governments and financial institutions.

Bitcoin is potentially significant but is still just a Blockchain application; a bit like relationship between email and the Internet. The Blockchain itself is effectively a database but one with a number of features that don’t necessarily appear in more conventional environments.

There are four elements usually associated with the Blockchain. It is ‘Encrypted’, ‘Distributed’, ‘Public’ (nobody owns it) and ‘Synchronised’. It works in a different way to traditional databases and incorporates a number of principles which are reflected in the features referred to earlier.

It is decentralised. In other words data is validated across a virtual network rather than in one particular centralised place. This allows its nodes to continually and sequentially record transactions on what it calls a ‘public block’. The ongoing chain of these transactions on the ‘block’ is where the description ‘Blockchain’ originates. Each block is distinguished from others by a ‘hash’, the encrypted signature which authenticates the transaction, and the combination of the ‘hash’ and the block ensures that it is not replicated.

The robustness of the Blockchain and its associated encryption and authentication processes facilitate another associated concept, that of ‘trusted computing’. If the Blockchain is the ultimate arbiter of the validity of a transaction then you don’t need an intermediary. You don’t need a bank, corporate or government to establish transaction safety. The rules of trust are embedded in the way the Blockchain itself works.

A third concept is that of the semi-public nature of any transaction taking place via the Blockchain. The fact that you have made a transaction is available to the public but the details of that transaction are opaque to anyone but the person making the transaction. The Blockchain’s encryption technology also ensures that the transaction cannot be hacked for any value that it may hold. It may be that your Blockchain holds Bitcoin and yet no one can access that information, not governments, corporates or other financial institutions.

‘Smart contracts’ are basically a set of instructions associated with a store of value, say a Bitcoin. To enable a transaction to take place without an intermediary the rules of the transaction and any associated transfer of value need to be established between the parties transacting. Once agreed and recorded the Blockchain governs the progress of the transaction automatically and in accordance with the conditions established at the outset.

‘Proof of work’ is a fifth and foundation concept of the Blockchain. It has been described as ‘the right to participate’ in the Blockchain system and effectively prevents users from changing records. Once a transaction has taken place it cannot be undone; it is protected by encryption and the ‘hashes’ that validates its authenticity.

Given the Blockchain is basically an encrypted database that facilitates peer to peer transactions without an intermediary the more interesting aspects are what you can actually do with it. Early applications have generally been financially based, notably Bitcoin, but there are other applications starting to emerge outside of the financial world. Listing those that are (slightly) better known is a bit like looking at that early Internet magazine listing of websites. It’s currently a very small list and the apps themselves are clearly at a very early stage in development.

Actual applications of Blockchain technology are few at the moment, less even than the numbers listed in that first internet magazine in 1994. A few that have caught my eye include ‘Lazooz’, ‘UjoMusic’ and ‘OneName’. Believe it or not if ‘Lazooz’ gains any traction it could be the successor to Uber. Billed as ‘social ridesharing’ it basically links people who have space in their vehicles directly with end users without the involvement of an intermediary. In its raw format it looks and sounds like a winner but perhaps there are still security and logistics issues that will need to be addressed. ‘UjoMusic’ positions itself as ‘a home for artists that allows them to own and control their creative content and be paid directly for sharing their musical talents with the world.’ I can see artists liking this site and certainly users, especially if they would like to establish direct contact with artists. ‘Onename’ is something different. It is essentially a means of establishing an identity on the internet, secured and supported by Blockchain technology. In time it could effectively become a digital signature, a method of authorising a transaction: ‘Blockstack is the global database for people, companies, websites and more.
Decentralized, privacy-centric, and blockchain-secured.’

Potential uses of Blockchain technology are extensive and range from applications in the financial services space to public and private and personal records, physical keys and other uses involving unique identifiers. For example voting could be undertaken via the Blockchain, security access facilitated both physical (keys) or as replacements for unlock codes. Land and property transactions could be authorised, medical records secured and loan agreements processed. The list easily runs into dozens and could reach hundreds or even thousands once the technology becomes ubiquitous and trusted.

As with the internet in the early 1990s it’s all about ‘potential’. Blockchain technology could take off or it could hit the wall along with lots of other equally promising technologies. Robotics, AI, IoT, ‘Big Data’ and the Blockchain are all starting to happen now. The internet has been the big news story of the last twenty years but the next twenty are likely to see much more technology driven change, and at an even faster pace.

The organisational change implications of this technology wave are enormous.

I’ll take a look at this archived blog in 2036, maybe via a Blockchain enabled identity…

Blockchain sites:

Libor, Currencies & Inflation

There are two broad subjects that I like to research and occasionally write about. Both are very broad but perhaps surprising to a lot of people there are often cause and effect links between them. The first is change management and improving business performance, and the other is finance, economics and investing. Finance, economics and investing are indeed subjects in themselves but there are so many joins and overlaps between them that it’s often hard to cover one without referring in some way to the others.

On the face of it LIBOR (Intercontinental London Interbank Offered Rate) appears irrelevant to most people and is often only vaguely understood by those outside of the financial services industry. Like the FED funds rate LIBOR is a global benchmark rate; in other words it is important.

I’ll resort to Investopedia for a full definition:

‘LIBOR or ICE LIBOR (previously BBA LIBOR) is a benchmark rate that some of the world’s leading banks charge each other for short-term loans. It stands for Intercontinental Exchange London Interbank Offered Rate and serves as the first step to calculating interest rates on various loans throughout the world. LIBOR is administered by the ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), and is based on five currencies: U.S. dollar (USD), Euro (EUR), pound sterling (GBP), Japanese yen (JPY) and Swiss franc (CHF), and serves seven different maturities: overnight, one week, and 1, 2, 3, 6 and 12 months. There are a total of 35 different LIBOR rates each business day. The most commonly quoted rate is the three-month U.S. dollar rate.

LIBOR (or ICE LIBOR) is the world’s most widely-used benchmark for short-term interest rates. It serves as the primary indicator for the average rate at which banks that contribute to the determination of LIBOR may obtain short-term loans in the London interbank market…..’

What is slightly more interesting feature of LIBOR is that ‘…it helps to evaluate the current state of the world’s banking system as well as to set expectations for future central bank interest rates.’

It is this latter comment which is perhaps of more interest. With the notable exception of the Federal Reserve and, some would say, its quixotic notions of increasing interest rates, most of the world’s central banks are positioning lower or ‘low for longer’ interest rates. Dollar LIBOR seems to support this. If we look at a chart for the past few years there is a noticeable increase in rates. Each of the standard maturities are showing tangible increases with the trend starting somewhere towards the end of 2014. The Brexit vote in mid-2016 interrupted this trend but as you can see from the chart, within a week or two the earlier upward trend re-established itself rather quickly.

The FRED chart of U.S. bank excess reserves is also of interest. Peaking in August 2014 at $2.7 trillion it started a downtrend about the same time as Dollar LIBOR started to move upwards. Given the subject matter, availability of money, it seems reasonable to assume that the two things are connected. In other words demand for money has been increasing and it is being sourced from US bank excess reserves deposited at the FED. As of the end of July 2016 these reserves had dropped to $2.2 trillion, representing almost $500 billion only recently injected into the U.S. economy.

For information U.S. ‘excess reserves’ basically represent cash held at the Federal Reserve above the minimum the FED requires banks to hold on their balance sheets. It is a nuance of the U.S. banking system which is why you don’t see reference to it in UK discussions. Excess reserves rocketed upwards in alignment with the $4 trillion QE money printing exercise initiated in 2008 following the banking crisis. Starting in 2008 the FED used QE to buy assets from the private sector while at the same time announcing that interest would be paid on any private bank cash deposited back at the central bank. Given the waning appetite of business to borrow and a significantly increased reluctance by the banking system to lend, much of that QE cash swilling around the private banking system did not end up getting loaned out to business but was re-deposited with the FED. US banks took the view that low risk FED interest was a much better bet than lending to business in a shaky post-2008 business environment. Some QE did filter out into the real US economy but a massive amount ended up back with the FED. In other works the stimulus real economy effect of Dollar QE was muted at best.

Rolling forward to 2016 and demand for dollars has been slowly increasing, represented by Dollar LIBOR rates edging upwards. It is therefore moot as to whether we could see U.S. inflation also edge upwards. Much will depend on how fast this $2.2 trillion of excess reserves finds its way into the real U.S. economy. Currently ‘locked-up’, the money might as well not exist. But if hundreds of billions are released into the U.S. economy over a short period of time then there are bound to be consequences for the value of the U.S. dollar. More dollars chasing the same goods and services ultimately translates into inflation in one form or another, both in consumer prices and hard assets.

If U.S. inflation lurches upwards the FED may need to act to prevent a sharp fall in the value of the Dollar. At the moment the Dollar is regarded as ‘the cleanest dirty shirt in the laundry’ and remains the favoured currency in volatile and capricious markets. A Brexit vote and Cable moves in favour of the Dollar; a Eurozone crisis and the Euro falls and the U.S. Dollar increases. However, a sharp increase in U.S. money supply sourced from U.S. bank excess reserves and sentiment could well shift in favour of those other currencies, including of course gold. While the longer term goal of the FED is probably to help inflate away the ballooning U.S. debt (projected at $20 trillion by early 2017) short sharp drops are not usually regarded as desirable.

The FED is somewhat cornered. It needs a gradual drop in the value of the Dollar but would also like to increase rates in preparation for the next crisis. Notwithstanding the claims of the Democrats and the (allegedly) goal-seeked BLS economic statistics, outside of the large cities the US economy is not generally in a healthy state. A dose of inflation would probably help get things moving but the FED will not be able to achieve this if it starts putting rates up. Indeed, the opposite is a more likely result. For this reason there doesn’t appear to be much of an immediate case for increasing US rates in the foreseeable future, whatever the periodic ruminations of FED members. Nonetheless an increase in inflation above 5% and the FED could have its hand forced, whatever the longer term benefits of eroding the real value of US debt.

Back in the UK the BoE is still positioning a ‘low for longer’ policy, perhaps capping the current ‘crisis’ interest rates until 2020. Sterling LIBOR still supports these signals but a structural change in U.S. Dollar sentiment could well force a re-think of this intent. The current ‘Brexit bonus’ of a 10% drop in the value of the Pound could evaporate just at the time we need it most: during the uncertain two year countdown to formal exit from the EU.

In a world driven by central bank interventions forecasting is virtually impossible; even directional thinking is a tough challenge. Nonetheless herewith are some thoughts. If the US is about to experience higher inflation rather than the more widely assumed deflation there will be some consequences for Cable. Sterling could well increase against the Dollar which will put the BoE in an equally challenging situation. With Brexit fear and potential further EU referendums over the next couple of years the Euro could also drop in value against Sterling.

What short term strategy could the BoE deploy if faced with a currency increasing in strength against its major trading partners? How will the UK Treasury and BoE manage the UK’s own burgeoning national debt load, already exceeding £1.6 trillion? Faced with a shorter term challenge of a rising currency and the longer term problem of a growing national debt it really has few moves available. It no doubt feels that it must keep rates at low levels for as long as possible. Alas another 25 basis points fall in UK interest rates and the country risks entering the Twilight Zone world of negative interest rates.

Interest rates have now been at these crisis levels for eight years. Failing banks have been protected but at the expense of current and future pensioners. Defined Benefit pension funds are mostly in deficit with bond yields at their lowest in hundreds of years and asset values in bubble territory. The economic infrastructure is creaking under the weight of systemic and polarised financial forces pulling in all sorts of directions. Add Brexit uncertainty and a global slowdown to this and the prognosis for the next few years looks less than healthy for the UK economy. Even if Brexit acts as a palliative factor the implications of continued lower interest rates look more likely to hinder economic progress rather than help it. The BoE looks like it is as cornered as the FED with many of its remaining ‘new normal’ economic manipulation tools now looking very blunt indeed. What exactly is the point of lowering interest rates even further and what evidence is there that this strategy still has any residual stimulative economic benefit, if indeed there ever was any?

Whatever the choices of the FED, BoE and ECB economic activity looks more likely to decline rather than increase. This of course suggests that businesses should be starting to look at 2017 and 2018 as revenue challenging and should thinking about paring costs to align with those less than stellar increases in income. The better companies undertake scenario analysis, plan and prepare in the good times rather than wait to see declining revenues on their profit and loss statements. Now is the time to think this through and take action rather than put your hands together and pray that the central banks, economists and political class know what they are doing.

The dénouement of the great monetary experiment could soon be upon us.

Offshoring and the anti-globalisation movement

A Donald Trump presidency would mark a major turning point for the anti-globalisation movement if he follows through on his pre-election statements on trade. A key attraction for disaffected Democrats, the Bernie Sanders contingent, are Trump’s statements on ‘bringing jobs back to the United States’. His declared intent is to introduce a 35% tax on companies who offshore the manufacture of products and then import those goods back to the U.S. 35% is certainly a big number and would no doubt get the attention of all those well-known industrial and consumer brand names who currently outsource and offshore a lot of their activity to India, China and Mexico. A policy like this could therefore mark a major turning point for one of the dominant management trends of the past twenty five years.

Before delving further into the subject and assessing some potential implications it is probably worthwhile to pause on a few basic definitions. Outsourcing and offshoring are often used interchangeably but there is a difference, albeit in some cases you see instances of outsourcing and offshoring occurring at the same time. Outsourcing simply describes a situation where an organisation buys goods or services from a third party with the third party being located either in the same country as the buyer or potentially overseas. Offshoring usually describes a situation where the location of the manufacture or service has been moved overseas. The ownership of the offshored facility may not necessarily change; it simply becomes a more remote manufacturing or service unit. Companies often outsource an activity to an overseas operator so it is not uncommon to find outsourcing and offshoring taking place concurrently.

It may be time for the offshoring industry to wake up and smell the coffee. Despite an army of ‘expert’ economists, the media and senior business managers and politicians forming an alliance to defend EU membership the British people voted for a Brexit. Represented by much of the UK media as an anti-immigration rebellion the story is also very much one of dissatisfaction with the effects of a generation of globalisation initiatives. The EU and the offshoring of jobs are appear to conflate in this argument in that millions of jobs have been allowed to migrate ‘offshore’ to Eastern Europe and Asia while at the same time hundreds of thousands of EU citizens have been encouraged to find work in some of the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom. The people in these areas quite naturally rebelled. They have seen little or nothing of the benefits of globalisation and yet have been faced with all of its negative impacts. Donald Trump’s support in the United States and the rapid rise of anti-EU political movements across Europe are arguably just more localised manifestations of this general rejection of a pattern of corporate behaviour that has channelled the rewards of globalisation to a small minority. It remains an irony that the EU’s broadly protectionist stance has not in fact been effective in protecting the constituencies most in need: fortress Europe has failed.

The politics of this new anti-globalisation paradigm suggests that regulation could lurch in the direction of state based protectionism along the lines of Trump’s proposed punitive taxation regime. ‘Fair trade’ will likely mean something different in this new world. It could well evolve to describe situations where the central banking tools of international trade, currency manipulation events, are blunted by international agreements that are created with tariffs and taxes that adapt to relative values in currencies. Perhaps they will also seek to control the migration of labour and impose a better balance in the movement of jobs between states. However these international trade agreements evolve it is likely that the focus will be more on recognising the imbalances that have occurred in the past and making sure they are not repeated. The people have spoken and will not react well if they are ignored. For ‘fairness’ read protectionism.

Away from the politics of anti-globalisation the offshoring industry will need to re-think its business model. Sustainable business solutions will need to be closer to home and corporate social responsibility will be much more about looking after jobs and people in domestic markets than introducing a few green recycling bins and promoting an energy reduction campaign. Whether the offshoring industry could actually die is moot although it clear that the political pressures to reduce its impact on the domestic social and economic infrastructure will translate into a far smaller industry. It may even accelerate a newer trend of ‘Inshoring’, the practice of moving an overseas activity back into a domestic market.

The regulatory and taxation aspects of this new world could still be some years away which presents something of a challenge for those companies currently looking at the relative advantages of moving production and service tasks overseas. At the moment it is still very much a cost and service calculation: can the same activity take place overseas at a cost lower than the domestic market but at the same price? If the answer is ‘yes’ then the business case is made and the operating model can change. In the future the tariff and taxation regime could well be substantially greater and the impact on corporate reputations will be more of a consideration. Even today companies regarded as significant exporters of domestic jobs are at constant risk of having their brands impacted by these behaviours. They are not seen as good corporate citizens. Corporate social responsibility will become much more important in the coming decades.

In a 2008 report the Nottingham Centre for Research on Globalisation and Economic Policy delivered a broadly benign piece of research on the impacts of offshoring on the UK economy. Its findings indicated that offshoring was responsible for an estimated 3.5% of job losses in the UK in 2005 but nonetheless suggested that job gains outweigh job losses without clearly specifying the mechanism (possibly inward investment). It further suggested that companies who offshore generally experience an increase in average productivity gains and also associated offshoring with an increase in company turnover. The report acknowledged that average service sector wages decline with more offshoring but postulated that average manufacturing wages stay broadly the same.

A more current 2015 report from the CEPR (Centre for Economic Policy Research) probed further into the impact of offshoring on British jobs. It took a far closer look at the geographical and industry sector impacts and is a far better reference point for explaining how and why some regions and industries have been particularly badly hit while others have seen enormous benefits. By delving into the detail we can start to understand why deprived areas of the country are rebelling and perhaps glean insights into the reasons for anti-EU and anti-globalisation sentiment.

The report divided the UK employment market into ‘routine’ and ‘non-routine’ jobs. It basically suggested that the UK jobs market has become increasingly polarised into these two categories ‘with labour market disadvantages increasingly concentrated in specific occupational categories.’ Routine occupations have rapidly declined in recent years while non-routine jobs have shown a slight increase. A finding of the study indicated that routine jobs were ‘overrepresented in some parts of the UK, mainly in the midlands, the north and the northwest, Wales, and parts of Scotland. By contrast, non-routine activities were overwhelming concentrated in London and the southeast, with spikes in cities such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Harrogate, Manchester, and Bristol.’

The report found that ‘the impact of offshoring in places more exposed to such trends as a consequence of their pre-existing industry specialisation was significantly negative on routine occupations.’ It further noted that ‘the consequences of offshoring are likely to be particularly severe in the short and medium term in specific areas with a high initial specialisation in routine activities.’ In other words the areas where routine jobs are ‘overrepresented’ have and will continue to experience the predominantly negative effects of globalisation in the short term and will have to wait much longer for the positive effects of offshoring to work their way through the system: ‘In addition, compensation effects of job creation in non-routine occupations were strengthened in the long term, once efficiency gains linked to the geographical rationalisation of production had been capitalised.’

So we have the outline of an explanation for the changes that are taking place in the political world and perhaps can now rationalise what we can all see with some economic data. Parts of the UK are very unhappy with their lack of prosperity and are likely to continue to express this dissatisfaction in the ballot box until the economic benefits of globalisation start to spread across the UK.

At the micro level we have to be cognitive of this dynamic and as change managers need to factor-in the potential changes to regulation and taxation in our evaluation of offshoring propositions. The UK is far less likely to introduce anything near a 35% levy on imported goods and services than the US but there will no doubt be some taxation implications for states seen to be unfairly trading with the UK or pursuing predatory pricing. Offshoring should perhaps no longer be seen as the automatic answer to many cost reduction challenges, and even if it is still seen as a viable option the location of an offshoring proposal will require even deeper consideration. Strategic views of national politics and trade practices are likely to become an increasingly integral part of the offshoring decision. An offshoring decision barely features on the corporate social responsibility agenda at the moment but we cannot be certain that this will sustain. The electorate is now watching and the political class have become much more aware of the relationship between corporate decisions and any potential impacts on voter intentions. Stripping a pension fund of hundreds of millions of pounds may be attracting the opprobrium of the public today but a few years from now it is not beyond the realms of possibility that an announcement to offshore hundreds of jobs from an economically deprived area will attract the similar amount of voter (and therefore customer) revulsion.

With or without a Donald Trump presidency we need to be far more careful about those offshoring decisions in the coming years.

Age discrimination in executive recruitment

Discrimination is never an acceptable form of selection behaviour although based on some recent research it would appear that some types are more acceptable to recruiters than others. A couple of recent surveys undertaken by TCMO, a career management organisation, seems to indicate that age discrimination at executive level is the most dominant type of discrimination in senior management recruitment. Link to the surveys are included at the bottom of this post.

The initial survey was not particularly clear on whether it is older managers being discriminated against because of their seniority or aspirant younger managers seeking their first senior management appointment. Some further analysis is provided in their more recent survey with additional gender related insights provided.  It also must be stated that they are surveys, and that being surveys they are a collection of perceptions of treatment rather than totally objective evidence on whether age discrimination is actually taking place. There may be some contributors who are able to support their opinions with something concrete although in most cases it may well be more suspicion based. However, perceptions are a reality to those who feel they have been discriminated against so we have to treat the exercise seriously and at face value. Recruiters also do not help matters by aligning to the growing trend of refusing to explain the basis of decisions. This lack of transparency is bound to breed suspicion in candidates, more so in the final stages of a selection process.

The initial survey suggested that nearly 46% of people at an interview stage felt that had been discriminated against on the basis of age, usurping gender at 21% by quite a wide margin. This pattern of age discrimination being the most prevalent form was repeated in the other survey questions to a lesser amount but it was still the dominant type.

As with other types of discrimination age discrimination is illegal, and as the summary comments rightly points out it is important to follow the rules to avoid potential penalties and corporate reputational damage. Perhaps it should also be added that not only should the rules be followed but they should be seen to be followed. In other words more transparency in the hiring process and less litigation ‘risk avoidance’ actions.

It does feel something of a stretch to believe that anywhere near 46% of recruiting managers and Human Resources staff have an inherent age prejudice, although the current domination of agency involvement in the hiring process might well be a problem. HR people are professionals who generally have a sound understanding of the law, exercise good judgement and usually provide sound advice and guidance to hiring managers. The more established recruitment agencies may also fit into this category although the volumes of start-up agencies entering the hiring industry must inevitably attract individuals who are far more interested in generating commissions than in providing sound customer service and a fair and transparent filtering and selection process. It must be frustrating to the truly professional agents to see masses of new entrants with a limited or absent pedigree in recruitment entering the industry and arguably tarnishing its reputation with cowboy practices and other reputation damaging behaviours.

The first survey covered later stages of the recruitment process although it would be more than interesting to see results for the initial stages of recruitment including the CV filtering mechanisms used by agency staff and corporate recruiters. We can only guess at these at this time although I suspect the numbers of recruiters requiring a declaration of age, for whatever reason, as an integral element of the application process will do little to allay suspicions.

Age prejudice is also a major change management challenge. The demographics of many Western states suggest an ageing profile which many organisations have yet to take on board. In 2016 it may still be fairly easy to recruit people with a broadly younger profile but in the coming decades it will likely be far more difficult and probably damaging to an organisation’s reputation to avoid hiring older people. It is interesting to note that skill shortages are still promoted as a reason for lower productivity and yet we see limited enthusiasm by businesses for hiring and retraining older people. There may now be less propensity to ‘let go’ of older people simply because of their age but there still seems to be a perception that age is a barrier to learning.

Many organisations seem to adopt a policy of employing older people but not actually hiring them, especially in more senior positions. A sixty year old can be a prime minister and a seventy year old an American president but an over fifty year old being recruited into a middle or senior management position in business seems to be a completely different proposition. This perception of people in their fifties simply looking for roles that allow them to ‘coast into retirement’ is going to have to change, especially as state retirement ages are heading for seventy in the coming decades. Discriminating against the very groups that are likely to be the backbone of your customer base will not be good for business and the sooner this is recognised the better.

In searching for some legitimacy for these unwritten hiring policies it may well be that older people are staying with organisations for extended periods are effectively ‘blocking’ progress for younger managers who aspire to more senior positions (the career version of ‘bed blockers’?). Perhaps by filtering out older candidates recruiters believe that they are ‘levelling’ the ground for candidates in other age groups. Then there is the view that older workers are more expensive than younger ones. Without sifting through volumes of data, this would nonetheless make some sense given that on the whole older workers are more likely to have progressed into higher paying senior positions. Thus the premise that on average they are probably more expensive may well be true although why it should be used as a generic reason for filtering out candidates for what are likely to be roles with a specified salary band is unclear.

Hard evidence of discrimination of any nature tends to be difficult to come by. We know it does exist but the legalistic nature of today’s hiring conventions appears to have increased the difficulty of promoting transparency during the recruitment process. Candidates are often required to complete on-line surveys during the application part of the process recording age, ethnicity, gender and many other potential discriminatory attributes. Positioned as a method of ensuring that there is no overall discrimination they are then asked to ‘trust’ that these details are not used in the initial filtering process. If an interview follows hiring managers are instructed to be very careful about what they write down about candidates, and if positions are not offered the reasons given often rank amongst the blandest of the bland. ‘Another candidate was better qualified’ or perhaps deemed more ‘suitable’ but no actual analysis of why ‘X’ was preferred over ‘Y’. How exactly was ‘X’ more qualified than ‘Y’? The reasons for a lack of detail are no doubt associated with a lack of time and an unwillingness to invite a challenge. This may be entirely reasonable from a hirer perspective but it is unlikely to promote a sense of respect or trust among prospective candidates. If anything the recruitment process is even more opaque than it was a few decades ago. The discriminatory practices that were once more overt seem to have gone underground and may well be masked by the implications of fifty years of anti-discrimination legislation. Perhaps the law of unintended consequences is in force.

Steps to combat age and other forms of discrimination are typically framed in terms of legal and regulatory frameworks. This is understandable in that politicians react to the pressures of social change by introducing laws which recognise that the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable have shifted. They need to be seen to ‘do something’ and that ‘doing’ generally manifests itself as a law, or set of laws that redefine the rules under which we must all operate. Laws help define the rules but do not necessarily change essential behaviours. Discrimination moves out of sight and hearing often hidden behind spurious and uninformed prejudices, inter –generational rivalry or basic misunderstandings. It is only when fundamental cultural change has been attained can a perception of fairness and reasonableness be achieved. When we look at age discrimination the story is really about what each generation has to offer. It is often presented in generalised terms: older people offer experience while younger workers provide enthusiasm and perhaps more technology literacy. The reality will differ from person to person but even within the context of generalisations it is clear that the obvious answer to any recruitment challenge is to hire the best person for the job and don’t allow a general perception of an age group to evolve into a prejudice. Older workers can be enthusiastic and just as technically aware and younger ones need to be given a chance to progress, and perhaps be allowed to make the odd error.

Beyond legislation the steps that socially responsible organisations might include the following:

  • Promoting retraining initiatives particularly targeting older age groups.
  • Increasing transparency publishing an age profile of current employees and those hired in the previous years.
  • Encouraging mentor schemes, pairing older with younger workers.
  • Developing and issuing educational notes for recruiters and hiring managers on the implications of a steadily ageing population and what that means for the workplace.
  • Actively promoting the concept of age diversity and ‘balanced teams’.

The TCMO study clearly suggests that there is still a problem of age discrimination in the hiring process despite several decades of legislation and its application. More laws are unlikely to be the answer. It will be far more helpful to work with what we have and promote age education and diversity through increased transparency and carefully designed anti-discrimination initiatives. Senior hiring managers must also step-up and ensure that their own decisions are an example of the sort of behaviours they expect others in the organisation to follow.

What shadow does your leadership cast?


TCMO Research: Discriminating Executives

TCMO Research: Age, gender and flexi-working discrimination at executive level

Let’s blame it on Brexit

The 2008 banking crisis had far more financial and economic implications than Brexit is ever likely to deliver. Indeed, you could argue that it was just another effect of 2008 rather than an event on the same scale. It is not difficult to build an argument that 2008 acted as a trigger for the economic conditions that ultimately led to a lot of very unhappy people voting against what they see as a monolithic and remote organisation threatening their cultural identity. Thus Brexit becomes another symptom of a cyclical change in the world condition, another manifestation of what Strauss & Howe describe as ‘The Fourth Turning’ in their book of the same name.

The markets are not the economy but you can’t ignore the fact that the FTSE is up significantly after the nervousness of the first few days. Somewhat perversely, anyone who has a private pension has probably benefited to the tune of 10% or more in recent weeks as a result of valuations adjusting themselves to a lower GBP. Imports are likely to be more expensive although exports should be far more competitive. Thus an exporting business will do very well over the next two or three years and could even increase exports to the EU, at least while still a member. The effects on non-UK EU based businesses are likely to be somewhat less benign. With exports to the UK more expensive, EU businesses will find Great Britain a far tougher place to generate trade. It is not therefore surprising to find the recent DAX and CAC performance somewhat weaker than the FTSE.

There is however a significant risk that the many in the UK media and (fortunately) a shrinking cohort of political doom porn peddlers would still like to see their pre-vote predictions of economic Armageddon come to pass. This daily barrage of negativity risks the prophecy of recession becoming self-fulfilling, some years before the impacts of an unknown exit arrangement are likely to have any tangible effect on the process of selling goods and services to the EU. It really is execrable journalism and bad politics but that’s what we seem to have.

There may or may not be a recession in the UK. If there is, and notwithstanding the last point, it is far more likely to be the result of the structural financial and economic changes unleashed in 2008, demographics, global politics and of course new technologies which are being introduced into the workplace at an accelerating pace. Financial drivers tend to be the premier cause of recessions and the biggest one around at the moment is the state of the credit markets. In other words ‘Debt’. It is humungous already, still growing and is arguably the primary cause of the malaise in global trade. We like to talk about ‘deficits’ in the UK rather than the ‘national debt’, to avoid scaring the horses. Deficits are merely the annual additions to our national debt (we don’t do reductions these days) and are already relatively small compared to the £1.6 trillion we owe to the rest of the world. It is somewhat fortunate that other Western economies are in a similar state and are similarly trying to find ways of managing their own financial challenges. In trying to help repair faltering post-2008 economic conditions central banks have reduced interest rates, including the UK. Rates are now the lowest they have ever been which is just as well given the size of our debt and our annual interest payments. To put our interest payments in context UK PLC pays around £50bn a year against £1.6bn of borrowing, and that is at record low rates. The referendum debate was all about saving £8.5bn or £10bn of EU contributions, a sum easily wiped out should interest rates revert to long term ‘normal’ trends.

The implications of debt are far more likely to be the cause of a recession than Brexit. Brexit and the media reporting on it are masking real issues in the world which are more related to global debt and trade than whether the EU will be difficult to deal with in negotiating an exit deal. Away from the daily headlines, the IMF worries about Deutsche Bank, highlighting it as the highest risk bank on the planet, and the Italian banking system edges closer to a collapse. Confidence in Deutsche Bank is already faltering. Undercapitalised and with an opaque $72 trillion worth of derivatives on its balance sheet its failure would be systemic and potentially freeze-up not only the European banking system but that of the entire world. As we saw in 2008 credit market failures cause recessions, big ones. The Italian banking system collapse has already started as Italian politicians try to deal with the thorny question of ‘bail-in’ vs. ‘bail-out’. EU rules requires the former which of course would affect the deposit accounts of millions of Italians. That particular piece of political theatre has yet to play out.

At the sovereign level Greece remains saddled with decades worth of disproportionately high repayments, and Portugal, Italy and Spain remain in an economically oppressed state. At least two of those three are likely to be threatened with breaching EU spending rules in the coming months, and potentially fined. A sovereign debt crisis in a European state could yet be a catalyst for market revulsion before the year is out. Over in China debt is again the issue. The slowdown in global economic activity has created losses in dozens of state enterprises most of which will require bailouts in the billions of Yuan. At least ten major enterprises are reportedly affected by the problem and will need major injections of capital.

But back in Blighty our financial press are still pushing the Brexit line. The US markets have already forgotten about it and the senior UK market could well hit new highs later this year, especially if a new round of monetary easing initiatives are launched to address recessionary risks. In the UK it looks like 25 basis points off interest rates and/or another round of Quantitative Easing are likely to be the favoured policies. We are not yet at the stage of ‘Helicopter Money’, the term derived from Ben Bernanke’s (former US FED Chairman) revived suggestion that if there really was a Doomsday like deflation crisis the FED could always engineer “a money-financed tax cut” which would be “essentially equivalent to Milton Friedman’s famous ‘helicopter drop’ of money.” In other words printing money and giving it away.

In the meantime let’s not worry about the real reasons for an uncertain economic outlook. Forget sovereign debt woes and the prospect of a major international banking crisis. We have the political pageant of a ‘BoJo’ (Boris Johnson) led foreign policy to watch and the spectacle of Brexit strategy formation unfold, both of which will be clinically parsed by the media’s ‘Bremoaner’ contingent.

And if there is a recession later in 2016 or in 2017 you can always blame it on Brexit…

What I’ve learned since Brexit Day

And it’s a pretty dismal list…

  • Apparently there is nothing of more economic or financial importance in the world than BREXIT.
  • The 17.4m people who voted for an exit are either undereducated or racist bigots.
  • The millennials and generation Y are all ageists when it comes to voting – opinions and concerns of pensioners don’t matter and should not be heard because they haven’t got long to live.
  • A lot of people don’t think democracy should operate when it delivers the ‘wrong’ decision.
  • The media are generally incapable of undertaking any rational and balanced analysis of why the majority vote was to exit.  
  • It will still be the end of the economic and financial world as we know it.
  • No it’s not so bad after all; the UK economy is strong and the fundamentals are good.
  • A small number of extremely wealthy people have lost a lot of value in their investments.
  • It’s not made a scrap of difference to those who don’t have two half pennies to rub together.
  • UK markets went down and then back up again.
  • Sterling is lower but that’s good for UK exports.
  • European markets dropped down far more because the perceived economic impact will be much greater.
  • The Italian banking system is on the point of collapse.
  • A large number of people who own property and holiday regularly in Europe think that not being a member will disrupt future plans.
  • Most people under the age of 40 think their future European job prospects will be impacted.  
  • Our main political parties are a shambles and at war within themselves.
  • The parliamentary parties in general would still prefer to stay in, despite the vote.
  • Nobody had prepared a contingency exit plan.
  • We have no idea whether or even if we will leave the EU.
  • The EU has no intention of reforming itself and wants to use the vote as a method of driving through a United States of Europe.
  • Eurocrats want to boot the UK out as soon as possible but senior EU member state politicians are far more sanguine.
  • EU politicians want to change the rules so that it is legally impossible for a future member to leave the EU.
  • No senior UK politician wants to press the Article 50 button.
  • The commonwealth has a GDP of $10.4bn and 2.2bn people and the UK will be allowed to trade with them again.
  • If Le Pen’s party wins the election next year it will call an EU referendum; if there is a majority to exit it will effectively shut down the EU.
  • A majority of Italians would probably vote to leave the EU if allowed a referendum.
  • Scotland may or may not have a legal right of veto.
  • Donald Trump cares as much about international sensitivities as those at home in the U.S.
  • Many North American financial analysts think the UK is deserting a sinking EU ship.  
  • We may or may not have a general election later this year the result of which could culminate in a decision to veto/ignore the EU referendum.
  • UKIP support could evaporate during the next general election as its main platform and purpose has been fulfilled.
  • UKIP support could increase during the next general election because the two mainstream parties have become disconnected from their constituencies.
  • Several million UK citizens think that enough has changed since June 23rd to warrant a second referendum.
  • Nearly 50,000 of the 800 citizens of The Vatican City and 24,000 North Koreans think we should have a second referendum…..

I think I’m barely scratching the surface. It’s no wonder people are angry, anxious, frustrated, and generally confused or bemused when there is such a demonstrable lack of leadership both in the UK and the EU.

I’ll give the political class and media 2 out of 10 for performance, integrity, lack of bias and professionalism at the moment.

Despite the protestations of many in the mainstream and social media, I think the really sad aspect of the referendum is not the result but the extreme intolerance demonstrated by people who disagree with a different perspective. I’m also very much of the view that the way to persuade people is not to patronise, disenfranchise or to alienate through insults and branding.

Most UK citizens are only heard through the ballot box. It is a right bequested by previous generations to ours, one that has been fought for through mass protest and sometimes behind the barrel of a gun. There always will be disagreements in democracies but the answer is not to trade insults but to listen to concerns, and if reasonable act on them.

You win votes by giving people something to believe in and vote for.         

An EU agenda for change

Much of the material penned in the days following the EU Brexit referendum has naturally focused on the possible impacts to Britain. The ‘end of the world’ type article typically assumes that the UK will suffer and that the EU will remain intact as a politically stable economic block. This may or may not be the case. There are certainly calls for referenda in Denmark, The Netherlands and France and potentially others but with the British result now out I am sure they will be fiercely resisted. This will no doubt work for a time but if the EU fails to take significant steps to reform itself an existential threat will continue to hang over the whole project.

Like millions of others I like the idea of a European Union and its potential to peaceably knit together many different cultures. The travel and working benefits have been considerable for the general population but the institution has allowed itself to become monolithic, bureaucratic, remote and undemocratic. Politicians in member states, the UK included, have become far more interested in maintaining the status quo rather than addressing the concerns of the millions of people living in areas outside the big cities.

Over the next few months the EU has an opportunity to take a fundamental look at its own construction and purpose and take steps to address deficiencies before those other calls for an exit become overwhelming. A communication campaign explaining its positive aspects may be a start but unless the fundamental issues are resolved it will be no more than a cosmetic move. The institution needs to get back to basics and give British and other EU citizens something to vote for and enthuse about. With the right set of principles I don’t think it’s beyond a possibility that the 4% margin in favour of an exit could be swung into a 4% margin in favour of the EU. After all, if Scotland can table the possibility of another independence referendum why can’t the UK have another one on the basis of a reformed EU? But reform it must beforehand.

A reform agenda

Many of the core principles of the EU and its associate bodies are exactly what European citizens need. Despite the inconvenience of managing terrorist suspects the Human Rights Act should remain as a fundamental principle. The flaws of the working time directive and some of the more extreme ends of Health and Safety regulations may need to be addressed but the basic principles make sense and are broadly accepted across the Union. The depth and breadth of regulation is an issue but the basic concepts behind them are sound. It is not these that need changing. But there are elements that do need to change and some of them are fundamental to the way the institution works:

More democracy     

There is not much democracy in the EU. The commissioner appointment process is an opaque and highly political exercise that often appears more like a retirement project for former state politicians. There is little, if any, accountability which leaves the door wide open for criticism. While there is obviously voting associated with membership of the EU Parliament, the parliament itself appears little more than a debating shop for laws proposed by the unelected. This really needs to change if the EU is to appear as a credible governing body to the citizens of Europe.

‘Ever closer union’

No one seems to understand exactly what this means which is something of a problem given that it is not unreasonable to infer that it will eventually manifest itself as a ‘United States of Europe’. The people of Europe need a clear definition and clarity of purpose. If it is a ‘USE’ the citizens of Europe ought to be given the right to vote on it. After all the natural outcome will be a dissolution of state parliaments or at best a reduction of their purpose to local debating forums.

Unmonitored free movement of labour within the EU

The accession of ten Eastern European states to the EU in 2004 and the associated visa free movement of labour from these nations to the more developed economies has acted as a catalyst for anti-EU establishment thinking. During the referendum the UK political class focused on the benefits to big business and wider economy rather on the concerns of people affected by it. For years politicians of both UK parties exploited low impact forecasts to avoid addressing the funding and investment implications but were happy to blame the EU for its freedom of movement principle.

The EU either needs to amend the principle of freedom of movement or address its implications. It is one of those principles that seems reasonable and sensible in theory but when applied in practice unwittingly creates enormous problems. If a common market is to work then free movement of labour really ought to stay as a principle but its application requires some modification.

If we accept the principle then either some controls are needed or the effects of free movement should be addressed. Either way, labour movement needs to be tracked across Europe through social security or tax payment monitoring. If a control route is adopted we are in a wold of quotas and negotiation, perhaps agreed annually. If an ‘effects’ solution is preferred the EU needs to provide additional investment in the social infrastructure of the areas most affected. Perhaps a ‘per-head’ grant support in the health and other public services in those areas. It may not create many new jobs but it could help alleviate the pressures local authorities face when confronted with thousands of migrants in a short space of time.

An unfettered freedom of movement has become a major issue for some regions and really must be addressed.

EU accession

It is not difficult to make a case that one of the root causes for the Brexit vote was the premature accession of ten Eastern European nations into the EU back in 2004. In its thirst for expansion the EU made too many compromises and allowed in countries whose economic performance were many years away from any true alignment with those in the North of the Continent. These countries should have been allowed develop over decades rather than over a few years.

Current membership may well be fixed but there is no need to exacerbate an already challenging situation by opening the doors to other developing states. The EU needs to define its boundaries and limit its ambitions. Only then can its citizens be reassured that the socially disruptive waves of economic migrants can be limited and controlled. The accession of Turkey, Ukraine, Bosnia, Georgia and others needs to take place over many decades rather than on the accelerated timelines of the past.


There is both good and bad regulation emanating from the EU although general opinion is that there is simply too much of it. On the whole it benefits big business by erecting cost barriers for smaller ones. Most businesses in the UK and other European countries are small but have to face the same regulatory challenges as larger ones. Thus from a business perspective the trading benefits of being a member of the EU are predominantly experienced by the far smaller group that actually exports across borders.

The EU needs to create more appeal for smaller businesses by introducing far more flexibility in its regulatory framework. Smaller businesses need to be provided with the chance to grow before facing the regulatory challenges more suited to pan-European and global organisations. Far more exemptions and tolerance is required.

The poorly publicised ‘bail-in’ rules introduced by the EU to help recapitalise the banking system when it fails is not a particularly appealing piece of legislation for EU citizens. The EU ought to re-think how banking system issues are resolved without resorting what would be effectively theft from its citizens. Should people unconnected to the problems of banks be forced to pay for issues entirely outside of their control or influence? This really needs to change. Cyprus should not be the template for resolving all future issues in the European financial system

Institutional controls and bureaucracy

The EU has received an audit report for the past twenty years but has not received a ‘clean’ one. In examining the reasons for the qualification it would appear that between 4% and 5% of the EU’s annual budget has not been spent according to its own rules. This does not necessarily translate into anything criminal but it does suggest that €6bn or €7bn a year has not been subject to proper controls. That is not an insignificant amount of money and equates to the net contribution for some EU member states. This must change. The EU cannot be credible without an unqualified audit report every year.

More control and openness on the subject of EU salaries and expenses would also improve confidence and reduce suspicion.

Complexity breeds bureaucracy and we seem to have this in spades within the EU. You can get a sense of how it all fits together on the EU website:

The EU cannot become tightly run efficient and effective machine with this level of complexity. Its entire structure requires an overhaul with a lot less ‘design by committee’ involved. This could be the hardest part for the politicians and bureaucrats who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo but it has become one of the primary drivers of its decision sclerosis.

Trade agreements

There is an increasing perception that the EU has become a vassal of big business and that the Brussels lobbying industry has evolved in the image of Washington. A principle of EU trade agreements ought to be that they benefit the people of Europe and are not there just for the benefit of the large multinationals. The negotiators in Brussels need to ask themselves whether the EU/US trade agreement currently being negotiated will actually work in favour of member states. The implications of current leaks from these negotiations are not encouraging. Starting with the medical principle of ‘primum non nocere’ would not be a bad idea.

The Euro and the European economy

Some action from the EU, especially the Eurozone, in actually addressing the economic dysfunction in Europe. The ECB is rapidly running out of options; it’s time for the EU to do something even if it means splitting the currency area in two.  A partition between the developed and less developed regions of Europe would benefit both and might even start to help the UK change its mind about membership, not just of the EU but even the Euro.

Most of the European economy is the Eurozone and it’s a basket-case. The ECB is printing more money to inject into the EZ system. Having basically run out of sovereign bonds to buy it has now moved into ‘junk’. Poorly rated EU companies are now eligible for the ECB’s buying programme. Mario Draghi is the de-facto saviour of the EZ project and is simply following through on his promise to do ‘whatever it takes’ to save it. He really wants the EU institutions to establish a reform programme but for political reasons they have been reluctant to take the necessary steps.

Meanwhile 15% of Euro debt now has a negative yield, a situation which is set to get worse, and Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal still see moribund economic activity and high unemployment. Average EU unemployment rates disguise the higher than 50% rates impacting certain age bands, especially the young. The ECB is running out of options and the EU bureaucracy reluctant to contribute towards a resolution is simply accelerating the prospect of a major economic challenge. Nothing is inevitable but the failure of one or more of these states, or the banking systems within them, looks like a highly probable outcome.

Another financial crisis in Europe is virtually a certainty unless the EU starts a process of reforming the economies of many of its member states. The ECB cannot act on its own; the EU has a political and economic part to play in this process.

British and other Northern European taxpayers need to feel that they will not be potential milch cows when the next financial crisis appears. It would be far better to reduce the potential for such a crisis by pursuing a reform agenda today rather than waiting for the worst to happen and then financially punishing its victims, EU citizens.

In summary….

I’m sure there is much I have missed but in my view this is the sort of reform agenda that might make the EU more appealing to both UK and other European citizens. There is much criticism at the moment of the people who voted to exit but the result was really a symptom of the problems caused and ignored by both Westminster and Brussels. I do think that most people would like to believe in the European Union idea but they need to feel that it works in their interests and not simply for the benefit of big business and the European political class. To achieve that it needs to reform, and quickly, or in a few years it might not even exist.

Get back to basics and give those British citizens who voted ‘Leave’ something to help them change their minds.

Why the North lost faith in the EU

“The people have spoken, the bastards.”

(Dick Tuck, aspirant U.S. congressman and political prankster)

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use that quote for years and now looks like as good a time as any. Yesterday’s vote caught me by surprise as it did many others. My expectation was that the margin would have been the same but in favour of ‘Remain’ campaign, especially after the supercharged fear campaign that has been waged over the last few weeks. But I guess that’s now history: we have to look forward and make the new paradigm work for us.

The mainstream media appeared to be predominantly in favour of staying in the EU with one or two notable exceptions. Most of the journalists and TV commentaries seemed to miss the mood of the people who actually voted ‘Out’ largely due to who they talk to and where they live. When I walk through the big cities in the UK I see a different economic condition than that in the rest of country. They have the feeling of vibrancy and wealth, largely untouched by the ravages of the 2008 banking crisis. It is pretty obvious that the journalists marching the streets of our capital city are not confronted by the economic realities of decline and indeed don’t really care about what is happening 50, 100 or 200 miles away. There is an apparent attitude of what’s good for London must be good for Britain. London has prospered through EU membership so a vote to stay-in must be good for the UK.

Well try that argument in some of the towns in the North West, Yorkshire and the North East. The big cities of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle are fairly prosperous but travel a few miles into towns like Bolton, Blackburn and Burnley and the economic pain is evident. Valliant efforts continue to be made by local businesses to trade through the difficulties of the last few years but the reality is that whatever the average economic indices state these places are effectively in a form of recession. The sense of growth and renewal has been lost, replaced by struggle and more than a small amount of bitterness at the situation.

The EU has probably attracted more than its fair share of blame for this. When I analyse the reasons for the decline of these former giants of the Industrial Revolution I see the structural trends of globalisation and digital probably playing a greater part than the impacts of EU policies but these are often remote concepts to the average worker. Over the past couple of decades jobs have been outsourced to the lower cost manufacturing nations of the East. Add the impact of Amazon and the recent and rapid emergence of on-line and these towns are left with too many empty commercial premises and unused and derelict former manufacturing plants. The banks of course have not helped either. Loans are not as easily obtained as they once were with banks now far more cautious about risk and capital ratios than they were prior to 2008.

There is also the small matter of people not having the money they used to have. I have an interest in a small property company and we recently made a decision to sell about a dozen residential premises. We have already sold several and know exactly what the current market is prepared to pay for a terraced house in Lancashire. It certainly is not the London price paradigm that those national journalists love to write about. The sort of prices paid are at the levels seen nearly fifteen years ago. In other words at recessionary levels. Locals can’t afford higher prices and the prospective landlords from outside the area know that yields will continue to be a challenge.

So what exactly has this got to do with the EU?

My sense is that the average worker, or beneficiary of welfare, in Blackburn, Bolton or Burnley appears somewhat more tolerant of a multi-national’s decision to outsource its manufacturing plant than they are of the political class. Amazon is also a convenient consumer resource rather than a direct threat to local retail employment. These structural threats seem less tangible and more remote.

A worker displaced by redundancy has some choices to make. He or she can look for work elsewhere, perhaps retrain, become self-employed, or depending of circumstances, has to resort to seeking benefits. Herewith is the problem. Not only have these former workers have to seek work in a structurally declining circumstances but they now have to compete for work with hundreds of thousands of EU migrants. Now this is not a seemingly remote concept like globalisation or digitisation but is a visible impact seen on a daily basis. Eastern European workers are competing directly for local work with plumbers, builders, electricians and other skilled and semi-skilled indigenous labour.

It’s not a race issue; it’s a job and numbers issue. For several decades now the former immigrants from Asia have been absorbed into the local social and economic infrastructure. There is still some pushback from certain elements but on the whole the communities have settled in to working together. Many of these former immigrants are now second and third generation, own businesses and make tangible contributions to the local economies. Others are employed by local businesses and are as threatened by a rapid influx of migrant workers as those of us who are fifth or sixth generation immigrants. The more recent immigrants also don’t see why a Pole can simply walk into the UK with little or no entry requirements while an Indian or Pakistani relative faces the full weight of a Border Control checking process.

I know a lot more about the UK government’s migrant ‘asylum seeker’ dispersal policy than I am allowed to write about. However, the simple fact is the political force of councils in the London and the South East ten to fifteen years ago set the template for a dispersal policy which still sustains today. The pressure on local social and health infrastructure in London was recognised as a major problem so the then Labour government’s wheeze was to resettle these prospective UK citizens elsewhere in the UK. It solved the immediate political issue but obviously simply shifted the problem elsewhere. Very little financial support was provided to the recipient councils and I’m not aware of any planning or financial investment made in local infrastructure. Now this may have been primarily a UK government decision but the effect nonetheless was to inject thousands of people into Northern towns just at a time when these economies were starting to feel the effects of those structural trends referred to earlier.

Our local NHS has to provide a translation service for over sixty languages. The EU is hardly responsible for this but again its unrestricted migration policies have not helped. It is simply an illustration of the pressures faced by local councils and other public service organisations. On 10 June 2003 the Home Office published a report commissioned by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND). It contained forecasts of net migration from the ten new East European members to the present member countries of the EU, particularly the UK and Germany. Estimates for the UK ranged from 5,000 to 13,000 net immigrants per year from the date of accession in May 2004. This estimate range was ruthlessly adopted by the government of the time and was still in use during in the Coalition era. It was politically expedient to use these numbers because it translated into little need for any meaningful incremental investment in social infrastructure attributable to EU expansion. As a point of fact between 2011 and the end of 2015 net EU migration into the UK exceeded 1m people and this has naturally manifested itself in enormous pressures on NHS and local public services. There has simply been no investment or planning for this injection of people and many of the economically challenged areas of the country have borne the brunt. Locals naturally feel resentful. Not only have their jobs and living standards been impacted but they now compete with new EU migrants for school places and hospital appointments.

The Labour party suggest that the answer is more investment in local public services, conveniently forgetting the fact that it was their policy to adopt unrealistically small planning guideline for far too many years. Meanwhile we continue to have ‘Austerity’ as the UK faces the realities of a £1.6 trillion national debt, near £100bn deficits and interest payments of £50bn a year – the net £8.5/£10bn EU payment is barely a fifth of that. The point here of course is that even if a more realistic forecast of migration have been predicted, could the UK have afforded that investment?

There are juniors in commercial and investment banks in London who may well feel threatened by the EU decision. From a London perspective it will no doubt be hard to understand why the rest of the country has voted for an exit. Alas, an unemployed worker in Lancashire, Yorkshire or South Wales for that matter will probably not have much sympathy. If you are unemployed and cannot find any local work are you likely to be less unemployed by voting out? There is also the reputation aspect of the London banking community. I don’t meet many people in the North who think they are a great bunch of people supporting regional economies. There is similar appreciation of the ‘expert’ economic and corporate opinion emanating from the corporate towers in the South East. When you make a decision to outsource a plant to Asia you can’t really threaten someone whose job has already been offshored.

So the issues become conflated and the EU takes the heat. It has not been the primary cause of the economic challenges of smaller Northern manufacturing towns but its open door migration policy has effectively been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The ordinary worker has not noticed the blue EU plaques that adorn some of the buildings littered around some of our towns and cities but certainly notices the labour competition and absolutely resents the falling living standards that it represents. By not recognising that it’s this more than anything else that has catalysed June 23rd’s response, the EU and the London political elite has effectively been the architect of the genesis of what could be its demise. The response to calls for independence referenda in the Netherlands, Denmark and France in the last 24 hours will interesting to watch.

I’ll finish on a more optimistic note. At the moment uncertainty and apprehension has dominated the media, politics and the markets, but it could mark the start of a new EU. It will take a humungous effort from a predominantly sclerotic political infrastructure to change but the Brexit could just be the catalyst that it needs. A different EU, a democratic and flexible EU, and one which adopts far more sensible policies on economic migration may well appeal to a new generation of UK voters in five or ten years. I don’t dismiss the possibility of re-entry into the EU whatever the nonsense uttered by the Brussels elite. The UK represented about 20% of economic activity in the EU and has been the third largest net contributor. With this in mind you really have to ask yourself whether it is in the interests of the EU to favour a net dependent nation or a net contributor in the future. EU re-entry may be a far distant prospect today but with a reformed EU and only a 4% margin in favour of an exit today, it’s is not an impossibility. In the meantime it is now down to the EU to save itself through something more than a few political soundbites.

The jury may currently be out on EU survival but the UK will have its own challenges to face. Scotland and Wales may have some devolved political powers and economic capabilities but the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ concept is really little more than a concept at the moment. As a Northerner I see the EU as a bit of a sideshow in an ongoing economic battle. Perhaps an exit from the EU can be an opportunity for a little more attention from Westminster to its own regions rather than Brussels. I was once budget manager for the £1.3bn ‘North West Fundamental Plan’, the capital infrastructure plan that effectively created the UK’s alternative telecoms network in the North West. It alone created hundreds if not thousands of jobs for people in the region, many of which are still around today. We need something like this today only bigger, much bigger and focused on more than one sector. The current reset of the European political system could not only help change the EU but could perhaps help shape economic policy in the North.

We can but hope.