Category Archives: Economy

The Morality of Tax Avoidance

Tax

There’s an interesting scuffle about tax going on in the British media at the moment – and it seems that the Government is in danger of being responsible for companies contravening the Companies Act which was rewritten in 2006.

This scuffle started a few months ago with the ‘outing’ of various individuals who were apparently using legal tax avoidance schemes to reduce their tax burden. The newspapers – always looking for some dirt to dig up – leapt on this with joy and the resulting public furore caused a number of wealthy people to apologise publicly for avoiding tax, even though the schemes were legal, and in many cases volunteer to pay more tax.

Secure in the knowledge that a significant part of the British public supported this crackdown on the dastardly villains that were exercising their rights to legally reduce their tax bill, the next step was to take on corporations – and the multinationals were an obvious target: nasty foreign companies taking advantage of making huge profits through the sweat of the (implied: underpaid) British worker, but not paying tax on the proceeds. It’s easy for the press to whip up public support for calls that they pay more tax and for the politicians, ever ready to back a cause that would seem to be a vote-catcher, joined in. In essence, these multinationals were being blamed for cuts in welfare and other government services, completely ignoring the fact of profligate government over-spending for years, if not decades.

What has been completely overlooked in all of this self-righteous posturing (and let’s ignore the ongoing issues with MPs and their expenses) are a few important points:

  • First and foremost, every company’s directors have a fiduciary duty – as laid down in the Companies Act – to “promote the success of the company.” By volunteering to pay more tax than is legally required these boards would act in contravention of the Companies Act and, in fact, directors could therefore be disbarred from serving on boards. Even by the admission of the government, these companies are not engaged in tax evasion (that’s illegal) but are structuring their affairs to minimise tax paid, an activity that is not only legal but necessary in terms of the Companies Act. So the government is encouraging directors to act in contravention of its own laws.
  • E.U. legislation requires there be a single legal head-office for companies operating throughout the region, and companies will obviously look to put this in the country/city that makes the most financial sense overall – tax, employment, etc. So, countries that are competitive in these areas will derive most benefit, while those with higher operating/tax costs will not. That’s called free-market enterprise.
  • The UK tax system is now arguably the most complex of any, having more than doubled in size under Labour from under 5000 pages in 1997, to over 11500 pages in 2009. Such complexity will always result in loopholes being found – a simpler code means more tax, more fairly applied. What about simply imposing a flat tax system – this generally means more tax collected at a fraction of the cost?
  • Figures published early this year showed that some 52% of the working populace in the UK are employed by the State. This means that less than half the workforce is not only supporting those not working, but this massive and grossly inefficient (it must be at this ratio!) government machine, too. The issue, therefore, should not be more tax income, but less expenditure.

But, of course, common sense flies out of the window when it comes to politics.

Our revered “public servants” in the current government recognise that the wealthy, and the captains of industry are unlikely to switch their vote to Labour and by appealing to an increasingly vociferous “mob” they might garner enough votes to remain in power after the 2015 elections. Even if this means abandoning previously-held principles and, in fact, common sense, as by taking this tack they risk chasing even more companies and wealthy individuals to more favourable business climes.

Bear in mind that the top 1% of British earners pay almost 30% of all income tax (more than twice their proportion of earnings), and the top 10% pay almost 60% of all income tax. As these are typically the business owners / leaders – and therefore the employers – encouraging them to move will not only reduce the tax receipts from these critical contributors, but put overall employment at risk, too, threatening the health of the country as a whole.

It’s time for that most uncommon of things – common sense – to start playing a part in the UK; for people to realise that the government doesn’t have money and everyone needs to play their part in the economy and life of the country; for politicians to  stop trying to buy votes with short-term moves that will cost the country dearly in the longer term; and for the media to present a more balanced approach to matters and to actively seek to lift the country out of its current mess by encouraging everyone to work together for the good of all.

Should the Euro Survive?

Spanish Euros

Image by Gadget Virtuoso via Flickr

There’s been an enormous amount of ink used on the ‘veto’ that David Cameron used in Europe last week, with warnings of dire consequences if the UK doesn’t help to support the Euro.

Frankly, I don’t understand this as the Euro has been doomed since introduction in January 1999. In fact, the 10th anniversary of the release of Euro banknotes and coins on 1st January, 2002, would be a great time to announce its departure as a central currency.

“Heresy” I hear being loudly cried… But the facts are simple – for a central currency to work, it needs central control, and Europe doesn’t have this. Sure, it has a hideously expensive, large, bureaucratic parliament that shuffles (at even more expense, thanks to French Government insistence) between Brussels and Strasbourg every month, but all this body does as far as I can – apart from ensure regal lifestyles for its members at taxpayer expense – is create complication in everyone’s life, and silly rules that have clearly not been thought through. What the Eurozone doesn’t have is central fiscal control. A United States of Europe, if you like, where the member countries have the status that individual states have in the USA.

Of course, the reason for this is simple – no member country’s politicians want to be answerable to a (central) higher authority. You can see this in the choice of the European President – a nice enough chap, apparently, but basically invisible, and certainly no “leader of Europe.”

Unlike the USA, Europe is not united in a common history/language/culture. It’s a very diverse set of countries and should remain as such – celebrating the differences, rather than trying to blend them into a murky sameness. It could never support a central government, and shouldn’t.

What it SHOULD be is a free-trade zone, as originally envisaged. The Euro should be simply a currency that exists to facilitate this free trade – similar to the ECU of pre-1999, but actually existing as a currency. Legal tender in all EU countries, it would operate alongside those countries’ own currencies, with a rate of exchange that floats against each, allowing that country to determine its own fiscal policy (as they all do to a large extent anyway – which is what caused the mess) and have the relative value of its currency determined accordingly. Like trade, loans could be made or sought in Euros or a country’s own currency, depending on the will of both parties to the transaction.

The dissolution of the current Euro would be simple – start with each country having its currency at par with the Euro, and let them float from that point. Market forces would soon determine the real value of each currency.

As a considerable side benefit, this would also facilitate the dissolution of the European Parliament saving us all a great deal of money and aggravation.

There would be no need to try to prop up a fatally flawed system and countries could celebrate their individuality while sharing in what should arguably be the biggest and wealthiest free trade zone in the world. This would also mean an acceleration of growth at country level.

Given the Euro cannot survive unless all in the Eurozone abrogate power to the centre – which I can’t ever see happening – isn’t it best to ackowledge the role the Euro should play and move to individual currencies; the sooner the better?

Our Changing Lifestyle

London

Many of you will have come across the various forms of the “Did You Know?” or “Shift Happens” slide shows over the past decade or so – there are several versions on YouTube, of course.

Regardless of how accurate you believe the figures presented to be, the facts of the matter are that the nature of work is changing more fundamentally than many people yet believe – and is doing so more quickly than any major change that has gone before.

Urbanisation really came into its own with the Industrial Revolution: although towns/cities had existed almost from the dawn of civilisation, it took the centralising of manufacture to drive the majority of the workforce into conveniently situated accommodation near to their work.

Now, though, two major factors are driving the next big change in the way we live:

  • The increase of service industries – in the US and the UK, this already accounts for around 77% of GDP, v 22% for “traditional industry,” and even in China service industries are fast approaching parity with “traditional industry” in GDP terms (44% v 46%).  Such “knowledge” work is far less location-dependant than manufacturing lines and their like.
  •  The increase in digital communication technologies and speeds which free us up from location dependence even more, as we can talk, meet (over video links), email, and so on from virtually anywhere, any time.

These factors are, of course, spawning ever-more smaller businesses focused on different niche market areas. Big business in many service areas is inefficient as management overheads lead to cost issues when compared with smaller businesses, which are also generally more nimble and able to adapt more rapidly to changing market conditions.

While the higher cost of property in cities was offset by the lower commuting costs which kept the populations of the cities growing, as people need to commute less to central locations so the need to live in a city diminishes and people become freer to choose where to live. Couple this with the issues over living conditions in crowded cities (the recent riots in UK cities underscore some of this) and a somewhat more rural residential lifestyle becomes attractive – less expensive, less crowded, quieter and less potentially dangerous.

The impact this could have on cities is enormous – property prices would drop as supply of properties exceeds demand and infrastructure investment would move elsewhere, following the people. Conversely, large-scale migration to more rural areas will create its own set of problems – residents objecting to large-scale growth (although the shop-owners won’t mind the influx of customers too much), crowded roads and creaking infrastructure which will have to be upgraded to handle the increased loads, and so on. District councils will start to compete with each other to offer the best combination of space (there’s no point moving from one crowded area to another), infrastructure, affordability and general lifestyle.

As location independence grows, the same, of course, should then start to happen at a country level. Some countries – Malaysia, for example – are busy today trying to attract retirees on the basis of lifestyle and costs, and so boost their economies through a relatively high-spending population. Can we expect to see a scenario in the next 10 years where countries compete to attract people on the basis of infrastructure, cost of living and general lifestyle, regardless of where the companies themselves are located?

What would this do for country citizenship, for taxation bases, social security networks and the like? Have you thought about where you would, or wouldn’t, like to live if you were able to be truly location-independent? How does your current country measure up?

Blackouts or Nuclear Power – UK’s stark choice

The map shows the commercial nuclear power pla...

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There’s a good deal of talk about power today: oil prices retaining their high levels in spite of Saudi offering to make up any shortfall due to Libya, nuclear back-tracking following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and so on.

How, the media seem to be asking, is the UK going to be able to generate sufficient power for its needs in an affordable manner?

Consequently, attention is turning increasingly to sustainable power – particularly as today (27th June), when much of the South East of the country saw temperatures break the 30C mark, was a day marked by the switching-on of the UK’s largest solar power plant, one near Wallingford in Oxford that is expected to generate nearly 700 megawatt-hours of electricity per year.

The trouble is, it’s just not the answer. Nor is wind, tide or any of the other “new technologies” being spoken about.

At present, around 75% of the UK’s maximum power generating capacity is from fossil fuel sources (oil, coal and gas). But, as we know, these resources are being depleted rapidly all over the world (and that’s apart from the well-documented problems of global warming being brought on through the use of fossil fuels). However, for any country – including the UK – to continue to see economic growth, its power requirements grow. In fact, it is estimated that the UK’s power generating capacity will have to increase by at least 25% in the next 10 years – and this figure may be low if oil reserve issues accelerate the necessity to move to electric vehicles.

“Green Technologies” such as wind and solar suffer from a major drawback – a lack of reliability and predictability (and that’s before looking at cost issues which are significant – huge government subsidies benefit the builders but have to be reclaimed from the tax-payer). The fact is that while they will generate power during periods when the wind blows and there is sufficient daylight, this is far from constant, and power is needed on a 24-hour basis. It’s simply impractical from a cost, space, etc., perspective to store such power (assuming you’re generating excess) to any great extent. Yes, the UK has some level of stored-power reserves (mainly using pumped storage technology), but this is limited to around 3% of maximum capacity at present and is unlikely to be able to be increased to any great extent.  So, solar and wind generators need to be backed up by other technologies that can be switched on immediately the wind or light levels drop – effectively meaning a doubling of peak capacity.

Wave power and Tidal power technologies, although more constant, have not yet proven sufficiently scalable, nor reliable, to be of significant practical use either.

Hydro-electric power is well understood, but the UK geology does not really suit it – which is why only about 1% of current electrical power is from hydro-electric schemes here.

The only practical answer is nuclear.

I recognise that this is a highly emotive topic, particularly in the light of the recent events in Japan, but the facts are that today’s technology makes nuclear plants infinitely safer than just about any other form of power generation. Of course, care needs to be taken that they are not sited where natural disasters are likely to cause a breach of the all-important containment vessels, but the UK is fortunate in being extremely stable geologically, so this is not an issue.

Nuclear “waste” – the by-products – can now be safely processed to remove the contaminants and reuse the rods in existing plants, or to utilise other up-coming technologies such as fast-breeder and fusion which can utilise the waste products.  Incidentally, Scientific America published an article showing fly-ash from coal-fired power plants pumps 100 times more radiation into the surrounding environment than any nuclear facility today…

France today generates something like 85% of its electricity, China is looking at 132 plants by 2030, Korea is planning to obtain 50% of its power from nuclear sources by 2020, as is Japan (still).  The UK simply has no option but to embrace nuclear power – and to do so quickly – or face much higher utility bills and a “return to the dark age” as power shortages loom.

Communication in the Information Age

Note: the plate says - "The quick brown f...

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Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 heralded the start of mass communication – for the first time, text could be reproduced quickly and inexpensively for a large audience. Of course, very few people could read in those days and many authorities were against it, fearing the impact of mass uncontrolled communication on their rule, so it took a few hundred years for this to spread.

The introduction of broadcast radio from 1920 started to spread information even more quickly and widely, marking a significant jump in the speed of communication.

But it was the Information Age which has really accelerated global communication.  Widely accepted to have started in the 1970s with the advent of the microprocessor, it took the introduction of the Internet Browser in the early 1990s for the Information Age to really become as integral to life as it is today.

And yet, it seems, the Information Age is just a quicker way to spread the same sort of information as before. Certainly our main sources of news seemed to have missed the point – news bulletins rely on “sound bites” or their video equivalents to relay information with the result that this is often inaccurate or, at best, unbalanced. Newspapers, too, have not really worked out how to embrace the digital age fully – you either get print (almost as in 1440, albeit more quickly), or the same articles available online, missing the opportunity to have summaries of stories and the ability to drill down for more information.

This is the key – we’re bombarded with information from multiple channels but have not developed the tools to effectively sift it. Long messages are often ignored as we don’t have time for them, while short messages are frequently taken out of context missing the real point that was being made. What’s needed is the ability to capture the essence of a point in a short burst and then enable people to get more information as they require it – almost an inside-out onion, with successive layers giving more and more detail.

Twitter is a great example of the modern communication paradigm – 140 characters to get the basic message across, including a link to more detail, which you can access if you wish. That more detailed message, in turn, could have links to other sources for even more information, and so on…

Nowhere, perhaps, is this communication problem more evident than in politics. There’s no argument with the fact that the UK, like many other countries globally, has woefully overspent and has to completely revisit its bloated public sector spending (how can a majority of the workforce be civil servants – effectively paid for by the minority?).  And yet it, like so many others, is facing widespread revolt at the prospect – look at the pension reform issue, for example…

Why?

Primarily because the government is incapable of effective communication. White papers, government statements and debates are far too long and not suitable for the news media or the viewing/listening/reading public, so people simply don’t understand the issues. I absolutely believe that the vast majority of people are decent, willing to work hard to get ahead and happy to help those less fortunate (but NOT those that are not prepared to help themselves).

But, for as long as governments cannot get the message out in a way that the media can carry without distortion and people can understand in just seconds, they will be unable to implement the changes that are needed, worsening the financial state of their countries, prolonging the agony and the economic downturn.

It’s time to turn traditional communication on its head and embrace “the 140 character world.”

When Will Interest Rates Rise?

The Bank of England in Threadneedle Street, Lo...

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With the Bank of England having revised the growth rate down to 2.7% this year (from a previous forecast of 2.9%) and inflation rate up to peak at 5% in the fourth quarter (previously 4.5%), expectations are again growing for an interest rate rise in the near-term.

Of course, the classic economic theory is that a rise in interest rates reduces inflation as spend decreases and so demand-driven price rises are no longer a factor.

However, we’re not living in classical times. This economic slowdown – it can’t be called a recession as we’ve not had a further 2 quarters of negative growth – is persisting and there’s no real expectation of a marked change to lacklustre growth rates throughout the developed world. So it’s not demand that’s driving inflation but rather a number of external forces, including climatic conditions and wars, that have pushed up commodity prices. These won’t respond to a rise in interest rates.

So, given this, let’s understand who benefits from the current scenario and what this means for interest rates.

The main beneficiaries of the sustained low bank rate are:

  • The banks themselves – don’t confuse low bank rates with low interest rates for borrowing money. Certainly, the rates are lower than they were before the crash, but not as low as they should be, given the drop in the bank rate. In fact, looking at interest rates charged to companies and individuals for borrowings, the bank’s margins are extremely high. A margin of 3% to 3.5% (the difference between bank rate and lending rate) is normal – today it’s running somewhere between 5% and 7%, depending on your financial profile. The banks are, quite literally, “coining it” – just look at the new bonus rounds for evidence of this.
  • The government – the massive government debt attracts interest costs (they have to borrow the money). Historically, governments borrow money at, or extremely close to, the bank rate, so by keeping this low, the government reduces the amount of its budget spent on interest to service its massive debts.

Yes, homeowners can benefit to a degree, too – but the advantages tend to be a lot smaller in real terms for most people due to the structure of mortgages and the costs associated with moving between fixed and tracker rates, together with the fact that many people can’t change to take advantage of lower rates due to not having enough equity in their properties following the decline in values. And don’t forget that homeowners repaid a record additional £24 Billion on their mortgages last year – getting their mortgage values down ahead of any possible rise to cushion the impact.

So who benefits from higher inflation?

  • In a word: government. It comes back to the massive government debts that have been rung up in the past 10 years. One way to reduce the effective value of them is to allow moderate inflation into the system – simplistically, 5% inflation over 5 years reduces the effective size of the debt by 25%. Couple this with the increased tax receipts that come with inflation and you have a model to get government debt down much more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

So, given that inflation won’t respond to a rise in interest rates as this is not caused by high demand, and that the government and banks are the primary beneficiaries of having a slightly higher inflation rate and a sustained low bank rate, is it likely we’ll see an interest rate rise soon?

I think not – although I suspect the impact of a rise in bank rates may be felt less than generally expected. In fact, it might well lead to lending rates not going up at all as the banks would use this as a way to try to woo customers from each other, keeping lending rates where they were before – let’s face it, they have more than enough room in their margins to absorb a few modest rises in the bank rate.

Capitalism – What the Future Holds

Wall Street

Image by Mirka23 via Flickr

The world is in a state of flux.

With the economic downturn lingering far longer than most people expected, governments are under growing pressure to kick-start economies. However, a growing number of countries with looming debt crises and a consequent unwillingness or inability of governments to spend more money hampers this.  And, as the northern hemisphere weather warms up, we can expect to see growing numbers of demonstrations by people wanting jobs or, at least, a reduction in job cuts.

All of which leads to the question – is the capitalist system doomed?

I don’t believe for a moment that this is the case – history shows that capitalism is the most effective way for countries and people to grow their wealth – but I do think we’re going to see some far-reaching changes.

Back in September 2009, I suggested in my post, “The Perils of Quarteritis” that the short-term thinking so prevalent in recent years had contributed significantly to the crash, and that businesses would move to a longer-term, more strategic model.

The March 2011 edition of Harvard Business Review has a wonderful paper, “Capitalism for the Long Term,” by Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director of McKinsey & Company where documents his findings from 18 months of research and hundreds of meetings with business and government leaders. In this paper, Barton makes 3 points to support his conclusion that capitalism must survive, but that it needs to change, too:

  1. A return to longer-term thinking by companies, investors and politicians alike – he refers to this as “The Tyranny of Short-Termism” (my version was Quarteritis).
  2. That there is no difference between serving the interests of shareholders and of stakeholders – in spite of a more recent belief that serving stakeholders made shareholders poorer, managing for long-term value growth benefits not only stakeholders and society but shareholders, too.
  3. Company executives and boards need to act more like owners, not temporary care-takers – as by doing so they will naturally look to the long-term and so benefit the company, its shareholders, its stakeholders and society as a whole.

Basically, it all comes down to taking a longer-term view of business (as well as the economy, in the case of government) and a consequent change in leadership style, too – see my post of November 2009, “Leadership for the New Business World.”

This longer-term thinking and more inclusive leadership approach will ultimately be to the benefit of all – investors, executives, employees and society as a whole.

What do you think?

Update (31Mar11): Read the Leadership Interview with James Quigley of Deloittes, just out at N2growth.com – leadership is about trust and looking to long-term sustainability.