Tag Archive | "banks"

Asset Protection Scheme IS a Blank Cheque

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Asset Protection Scheme IS a Blank Cheque

Whatever Gordon Brown may have said about the Asset Protection Scheme not being a blank cheque, he is either misguided or failing to be honest with the electorate, you decide. Whilst I was aware that  a proportion of the £325bn (RBS) of “toxic assets” insured by the UK taxpayer would be outside the UK, I had NOT expected it to be the “majority”. Furthermore, I had not considered the fact that we, the UK taxpayers, would also be liable for exchange rate risks.

Gordon Brown claimed that the banking bailout was not a “blank cheque”, that is utter rubbish, in my view the definition of a blank cheque is one where you don’t know what the final cost will be and there is no cap on your exposure. Could anyone disagree with that analogy? Yet here we are, insuring toxic assets, where our exposure is unknown, the vast majority of the “assets” are overseas and we must accept 90% of any losses as well as covering exchange rate issues at a time when Sterling is dropping like a stone against ALL major currencies.

Granted, when or if we have to stump up cash to cover these losses, no-one can accurately predict the exchange rates, but it would be a very brave man, with the state of our economy, that would envisage that Sterling will be stronger than it is now. Lets face it, this country has massive borrowings, lower tax income and it is expected to be the last of the G7 to come out of recession. That is hardly going to provide any confidence in Sterling, add to that, the fact that we are also printing money and the writing is on the wall for a weak Pound for some time to come.

Unlike the United States where the banking bailout had to be passed through both Houses of US Congress, in this country, Gordon Brown was able to commit money without such scrutiny. That is an incredible amount of power and it ought to have been used with care, but in my opinion, our Government has been reckless. Not only have they failed to complete a proper due diligence before investing our money into the banks, but they have now negotiated an appalling deal to insure toxic assets, much of which are overseas, at a rate of 90% of the loss plus cover for the exchange rate fluctuations. If this is the best our Government could do, then it is a very sad day for politics in general and this Government in particular. The opposition parties are not much better, because they have, through their relative silence, been complicit in the whole thing.

Fair enough, there must be no reward for failure, but conversely there must also be a price to pay for recklessness, a failure of duty and incompetence. We need to start with the bankers and then deal with the politicians, ministers and regulators that have failed in their duty to the public. We can regulate as much as we want, but unless those responsible are brought to book, lessons will not have been learnt and a clear message will go out that the only ‘price‘ that has to be paid is public humiliation. Tell that to our kids and their children who will have to pay the price for this wholesale failure.

Posted in Conservatives, General, Labour, Lib Dems | Comments (4)

Are bankers exempt from a fiduciary duty?

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Are bankers exempt from a fiduciary duty?

It is generally accepted that company directors have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders. The word itself comes originally from the Latin fides, meaning faith, and fiducia, trust. In other words, a fiduciary is someone who has undertaken to act for and on behalf of another in a particular matter in circumstances which give rise to a relationship of trust and confidence. As is the case of a company director.

If we assume that the directors of banks also have this fiduciary duty, why is it that they are being asked to resign, rather than being sacked? In addition to their fiduciary duty, directors must exercise a reasonable standard of care and act responsibly. Now, whilst there is some reasoned argument that the world economic situation compounded the problems our banks faced, it is ludicrous in the extreme to suggest that this is the sole reason for their demise and therefore, the need for vast amounts of taxpayers money to bail them out. With position comes responsibility, if the directors of our banks got it wrong, then they must pay the price. It is after all, they (collectively or otherwise), who made the decisions that ultimately lead to the failure of these once great institutions. Theoretically at least, if any director failed in their fiduciary duty, acted recklessly or without due care then, not only could they be sacked, but they could find themselves liable to a civil action. That notwithstanding, it is clear to me, that if ‘trust and confidence’ is an integral part of a fiduciary’s duty, then there has been a failure.

Government ministers have consistently talked about the fact that there must be “no reward for failure”, this pre-supposes that the bankers have failed,if this is the case, then by which yardstick? Is it in terms if their fiduciary duty, duty of care or that they have acted recklessly? If they have failed, then why were they allowed to leave voluntarily, with or without a compromise agreement? Why weren’t they sacked, why haven’t we heard ministers talk about suing directors that have failed? Could it be that those in public office also have a fiduciary duty and that they themselves could be subject to litigation? I don’t know the answers, I am no lawyer, but I say this, if there is no reward for failure, then there must be action against anyone that has failed in their duties. Not for revenge, but to prevent this happening again. In addition, if the government is correct in its assertion that certain bankers have failed, then surely, the right way to go is not to renege on the terms of any compromise agreement, but to sue the individual in their personal capacity. These individuals have either failed or they have not, ministers must be careful in making damning statements, yet failing to back them up with appropriate action.

I am not qualified legally or otherwise to determine whether or not any individual director has failed in their fiduciary duty. Therefore I am not suggesting anyone (bankers or otherwise) has acted improperly, I am relying only on the governments own words, that there should be no reward for failure, which implies that there has indeed been a failure. However, in the “court of public opinion” I would like to state for the record, that I believe there is merit, perhaps even a duty, for the government to seek legal advice on this matter, because they, as a majority shareholder in these banks, have their own fiduciary duty to the shareholders, you and me!

Posted in Conservatives, General, Labour, Lib Dems | Comments (4)

Government to act on bailout tax breaks

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Government to act on bailout tax breaks

I would like to thank David Jones, MP, for drawing my attention to a statement made by Alistair Darling in relation to my current anathema. Specifically, that unless Government intervenes to prevent it, banks and other large institutions that are in receipt of taxpayers money (as a consequence of large scale losses), will be able to benefit from carrying forward current losses to offset against future taxes. This to my mind would be scandalous. In a statement last Wednesday, Alistair Darling said;

To protect the taxpayer, RBS will have to bear the first portion of any additional losses over the coming years, up to a total loss of 6 per cent., or some £20 billion, on top of the £22 billion of impairment and write-downs that it has already taken. As in any insurance scheme, RBS will have to bear the first losses. After that, the Government will cover up to 90 per cent. of any further losses. RBS will also pay a fee of 2 per cent. of the value of the assets insured—some £6.5 billion—again, as in any insurance scheme. It has also agreed for a number of years not to claim certain UK tax losses and allowances, meaning that when it does return to profitability it will not be able to benefit from the losses accrued in the intervening period.

Now, whilst there appears to be a recognition that banks and other such institutions in receipt of taxpayers money could take advantage of tax breaks related to past losses, it does not go far enough. Firstly, this is just words, there is no concrete agreement, secondly, it only refers so far, to RBS and thirdly, it highlights “certain losses” and “number of years”, providing no clear definition. As we all know, if there are grey areas and money is involved, such statements will be challenged by these large institutions. This is a classic New Labour statement, high on self-righteous rhetoric and short on substance, detail and commitment. We would all be well advised to take much of this statement with a large pinch of salt.

Government needs to legislate for this issue, given every business is entitled to carry forward past losses to offset against future profits. Therefore, unless legislation is introduced, specifically aimed at those in receipt of taxpayers bailout money, to prevent the use of these tax breaks, there will be a massive outcry in the future. This will doubtless be at a time when the taxpayer is being fleeced for even more money to pay for the losses, borrowing and debt accumulated in large part as a consequence of the mismanagement of these institutions.

It is unlikely that we can rely on New Labour to tackle this issue, especially as they are unlikely to be in power when the tax breaks become a political issue, but there is no reason why the Conservatives and LibDems could not, or should not raise this issue now. The electorate demands it of our elected representatives and they must not claim ignorance when the day of reckoning comes, as it surely will.

Posted in Conservatives, General, Labour | Comments (1)

Big Brother Database or Tax Cuts?

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Big Brother Database or Tax Cuts?

Yesterday, I wrote an article suggesting how this government could reduce taxes to help stimulate growth in the economy. This was partly a Keynesian approach, given I argued that it was possible that these tax cuts could be self-funding, if my proposals worked. The reason for this was, if we do nothing, there is likely to be a significant surge of people claiming benefits, rather than generating income for government coffers. My proposal was, if the government was going to borrow to invest, they would be better off doing so, with a natural stimulus, rather than bringing forward capital building projects which would only benefit a small section of the economy.

My proposal, amongst other things, was that government should reduce the basic rate of personal tax by 5%. Over a period of 3 years, this would cost around £45bn, less than 10% of the cost of the banking bailout. However, by allowing us to retain more of our own money, we could decide how and where we would spend the extra money we were ‘permitted’ to retain. If we were to spend it in much the same was as we did before the crash, my argument was and is, that more small and medium sized business would survive and therefore more people would remain in employment. I noted that some 13.5m people were employed by small businesses and these same companies accounted for, just shy of 50% of UK Plc’s output. However, I also noted, that the Keynesian approach was that government should adopt a balanced budget, that is to say, they should cut back government spending in certain areas, to allow them to invest in other areas. Having read my post this morning, addressing the usual, inexcusable typos, I decided that I should expand on my own theory.

For example, my pet hate is the government’s proposed Big Brother Database, which I think is a massive attack on the civil liberties of every person in this country and an unforgivable intrusion into our right to privacy. That said, this government, if it goes ahead with this initiative, is expected to spend some £12bn on this massive Big Brother Database. Now quite apart from the fact that we know this government has never yet managed to bring an IT project in on budget, the figure that needs to be allocated is huge.

Therefore, the question I wanted to ask was:
Which would you prefer a Big Brother Database that infringes our civil liberties and intrudes on our privacy at a cost of £12bn or an immediate 4% cut in the basic rate of income tax for at least 1 year? From 20% to 16%? – I know what my answer will be.

Then I went on to look at other large government capital expenditure projects, this time I focused in on the much criticised NHS Database Project. It is worth noting that the original cost was estimated to be £2.3bn, by 2006 that had rocketed to £12bn, with some independent estimates suggesting it could cost as much as £32 billion. Most medical professionals question the viability of this project, the public have barely been consulted on such a massive project and even though some £2bn has already been spent, there is little to show for it. So, lets be generous, and take a middle figure between the governments estimate of £12bn and the independent estimates of £32. This leaves us with a likely cost of £22bn.

Therefore, my question is:
Which would you prefer, to shelve or cancel the NHS Database or receive an immediate cut in the basic rate of income tax of 5% for at least 18 months? The reason I have said ‘at least’ is because if this additional money prevents people losing their jobs and claiming benefits, then it would be possible to extend the period of the tax cut, perhaps indefinitely.

So what of the ID Database Project. Yes, I know, this government is completely obsessed with databases, it is a pity, they do not also consider the massive security risks associated with having all of this information on computers. However, I digress, this particular project, is simply aimed at having all of our personal ID information in one place. The cost, an eye-watering £5.4bn.

So, once again, my question is, which would you prefer, an ID database where only the government and its agents see the benefit, or an immediate cut in the basic rate of income tax of 2%, for a least one year, from 20% to 18%?

My basic premis is that this government has an obsession for massive information technology projects, most of which have been so poorly considered, specified and planned that they are either doomed to failure or massive cost overruns. This governments track record of waste is well documented and appalling. Most of these pet projects are not wanted by the public and it has to be said, the vast majority will allow government to know everything their is to know about every single legal citizen in this country. Because this government is obsessed with using IT to spy and control its subjects. At this time, the biggest threat to our security (apart from the government itself) and our well being, is the state of our economy, not terrorism. Yet no-one from government has suggested shelving, postponing or cancelling any of these Big Brother databases. Even though, combined, these 3 projects alone, will cost a staggering £40bn. If the government were to add an extra £5bn, we could all benefit from a reduction in the basic rate of income tax of 5%. From 20% to 15%, for a period of 3 years, if we are lucky, this would be able to see us through this period of recession. In addition, as I have argued earlier, if this money is invested into the economy by us, then jobs could be saved, government would benefit from the revenues brought about by indirect taxes, business taxes and fewer unemployed claiming benefits.

So, my final question, is which would you prefer? Government to spend £40bn on 3 highly questionable information technology projects at a time of this massive economic downturn, or more money in your pocket. £40bn on IT projects, or a 5% cut in the basic rate of tax for 5 years. QED!

I have also argued strongly for a significant, simultaneous cut in the Bank of England bases rates from 4.5%, to 2%, with all taxpayer funded banks being ‘required’ to pass on this cut to their customers. This will reduce the number of repossessions and/or increase the amount of money available to us, to reinvest into the economy. I am sure there will be economists out there that can or will pick holes in my arguments, well go ahead, someone needs to come up with some ideas, because it is pretty clear to me, this government hasn’t got a clue, the Conservative Party has backed themselves into a corner with their negative, one size fits all ‘austerity’ assessment of our economic future and none of the other parties have any influence. Sad, but true!

Posted in Big Brother, Civil Liberties, Conservatives, General, Labour, Lib Dems | Comments (7)

Gordon Brown, its time to introduce tax cuts

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Gordon Brown, its time to introduce tax cuts

At prime ministers questions time, Gordon Brown, once again, decided to take all the credit for “creating 3 million new jobs” and none of the responsibility for the ‘bust’ brought about by the credit funded boom that was his creation. Instead, he avoided all of the questions he was asked and once again, came out with the same old mantra, that the problem was the fault of the Americans and the bankers. Nothing new there then.

He did imply, however, that he believed that the government should invest in times of recession, a sort of embracing of the Keynesian approach. However, John Maynard Keynes did not suggest that government should simply spend, but that there should be a balance. He also argued, that it was possible that if government used borrowed money wisely, it could be self-financing. For example, most people want to work, which means that given the opportunity, they will not be a burden on the state, but an asset. In addition, companies want to sell their goods, at a fair price, employ people, succeed and therefore, be an asset to the state.

To achieve this, people need to have money to spend, yet the state takes nearly 50% of what we all earn. That is way, way too much. A reduction in direct taxation, would be much less expensive than building new schools and hospitals earlier than was originally intended. Moreover, a construction boom will be very limited in terms of assisting the wider economy. What we need is more money in peoples pockets, which they can invest in buying goods and services offered by retailers, service providers and manufacturers. In other words, a natural stimulus, not a false one.

If people feel poorer, then they will push their employers to pay them more, this adds a further burden to struggling businesses and places inflationary pressures on the wider economy. In addition, public sector workers, who account for some 20% of all employees in the UK are starting to get increasingly vocal about higher wage increases and they are backing this up with threats of industrial action. This is no good to anyone. Furthermore, if they succeed in getting higher wages, this will be a cost borne directly by the taxpayer and will inevitably result in a cut in services as the public sector attempts to balance the books.

We know that a boom based on easy credit is not the answer, nor does the equity in a property really amount to tangible wealth. The Keynesian approach advocated, amongst other things that borrowing to provide tax cuts can provide an aggregate increase in demand and, that properly targeted, it could be self-financing, because demand will create or save jobs and people that are employed, are not a burden on the state. In addition, companies that are selling goods, will be pay tax and sell goods that, for the most part, attract VAT.

A cut in direct taxation would have an immediate and tangible affect on the publics ability (not necessarily willingness) to spend. If this would was coupled with a substantial, perhaps 2 or 2.5% cut in bank base rates, then the benefits would multiply as would the potential speed of recovery. The government has indicated that they want to spend £12bn to create a database to spy on the public, apart from the fact that this is both unnecessary and a massive attack on our civil liberties, it is also something that is a nice to have, rather than a need to have. That notwithstanding, even if they proceeded with this database, the chances are, the contract would be awarded to an American company! Yet this £12bn, could ‘fund’ a 5% cut is direct taxation for nearly 3 years, if you were to ask the public what they would sooner have, there are no prizes for guessing their likely preference.

In addition, the government is intending to proceed with the £13bn NHS computer system. There is no proof that the system will work, nor has their been a sensible cost/benefit analysis. This project should be shelved and the money used to invest into small and medium sized businesses. I wrote an article yesterday, outlining some of my own ideas to assist small businesses. These companies employ 50% of our workers, some 13.5m people and provide nearly half of our output. An investment in this area, could secure jobs, companies and tax revenues.

It is true, governments cannot prevent a recession, but they can, through careful management of their (our) finances, targeted initiatives and the shelving of non-essential investment programmes, reduce the length and severity. Had the conservative party not nailed their colours to the mast, with an austerity assessment of the UK economy, claiming that “the cupboard was bare”, then they could have proposed this type of solution. Instead, they must either say that they got it wrong, or the Labour government, if they are bright enough to steal the initiative, will be able to come out of this smelling of roses.

For what it is worth, I am not convinced that this government, or the other political parties will want to endorse my suggestions, because they seem more interested in telling us what won’t work, rather than what might. It is this dithering and indecision that will damage this economy. Whatever action is taken it needs to be bold, decisive and meaningful. Therefore, in summary, my suggestions are as follows:

  1. Shelve the £13bn investment in the NHS computer system
  2. Cancel the proposed £12bn Big Brother Britain database
  3. Reduce direct taxation by 5% for a minimum period of 3 years
  4. Implement a package of incentives and tax reductions for small business
  5. Instruct the independent Bank of England to slash rates from 4.5% to 2%
  6. Ensure that all taxpayer funded banks pass on the full cut immediately, which should encourage the others to follow or lose

My suggestion will cost a tiny fraction of what the government has already invested into the banking system and provide a tangible stimulus to the economic activity of this country. Above all, it may just ensure that we can watch the news and receive some good news. If the government introduced, or the other parties proposed such an initiative, I do not believe anyone, other than a few discredited bankers and economists (who already got it wrong), would criticise the move. The bottom line is it is our money and we should be allowed to keep more of it and decide where we will invest it.

Posted in Conservatives, General, Labour, Lib Dems | Comments (3)

Don’t let small businesses become a political football

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Don’t let small businesses become a political football

There is a real risk that the plight of small business, the so called SME (small and medium enterprises) are becoming a political football as each party attempts to outdo the other. Labour are saying they will “do whatever is necessary“, where have we heard that before? Then they put up a pittance to address the issue, to put this in perspective, the amount proposed is probably much less than they paid the consultants for advice on the banking bailout. I am not advocating state aid as such, but less government interference and an understanding of what makes small business tick.

David Cameron suggests that a 1% cut in national insurance contributions for companies employing less than 4 people. This he claims will save these businesses up to £600 per year! What? Is he serious, this would barely cover an organisations business rates for one month. He then suggests that small businesses should be allowed to defer VAT payment and PAYE etc., for up to 6 months. Yes, I agree, this will aid cashflow, but the reality is, for many who need to take advantage of this option, it will only delay the inevitable, leaving a large hole in the HMRC balance sheet.

What is clear, is that none of these ministers really have a clue how small businesses operate, what is important, or what policies will make a real difference. They seem to believe that a little tinkering here and there will make it look like they are doing something positive. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Our MP’s visit one or two businesses, ask a few questions and then try and portray themselves as in touch, or knowledgeable on the subject. Instead, they have had, at best, a very limited overview of a couple of businesses. There are 13.5m small and medium sized businesses, yet they talk to a handful, what is the point?

What is clear is that there are many ways in which government can aid small business, some initiatives will cost money, most will not. Some options will work for some businesses and others may only receive a small benefit, but it is something. That said, there has to be a starting point, and I would like to include my two penneth. Firstly we need to look at some hard facts, so that government, ministers and members of parliament can truly understand the risks of doing nothing or just tinkering with the issues. This subject is so important, that it needs to be addressed in the same way as the banking bailout, I am not talking about numbers, but effort and thought.

The UK’s 4.4m small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) are the engine room of our economy, accounting for 47% UK employment (13.5m), 99.7 per cent of all enterprises and 48.7% of UK Plc turnover. Within the SME sector, some 4.2m actually employ less than 10 employees and a further 167,000 less than 50. In fact, SME’s actually employ 60% of the ‘private sector’ workforce. It is, therefore, self-evident that small business is the primary vehicle for innovation which leads to new jobs, new industries and new wealth for this country and its people. Tangible and effective moves on issues such as tax, regulation, education and infrastructure are areas which are most likely to have a positive impact on small businesses. Only government can do this, because in most cases, they caused to problem in the first place.

It is worth noting that the government currently has in excess of 3000 ‘business support schemes’, yet the Federation of Small Business claims that just 4.4% of their respondents confirmed that they had used any of these schemes. This cannot, by any stretch of the imagination be called a success, but that is hardly surprising, with this number of schemes. Where is a small business to start? Okay, so the government has indicated that they want to rationalise this to around 100 schemes, but given few of these schemes have any tangible method to measure success, it is difficult to see how this government will determine which schemes to scrap.

Business Link is probably one of the best known and supported schemed, but even this ‘local’ initiative has many detractors, who complain that emails are not answered, those charged with supporting small business have little understanding of their needs and that there is very little depth within the organisation. This would imply that whilst the initiative has merit, it needs a vast overhaul.

So what would I do? Well I am going to put forward some of my ideas, some relatively simple, others rather more controversial and perhaps complex. Nonetheless, if we are to avoid a genuine catastrophe within the SME sector, it will require bold, new initiatives and the introduction of some former programmes that have been withdrawn by this government.

I believe Business Link is a good programme, but it truly lacks depth and promotion. There are a good number of semi-retired and retired business people and out in the market and their skills are going to waste. I believe Business Link should look to recruit these people and bring them on board on a casual or self-employed basis and utilise them as business mentors. Many will have sector experience and/or specific skill sets such as finance, sales, marketing and so on. To waste this resource is ridiculous and many, I am sure, will be grateful of the opportunity to get involved in something tangible and the additional income that could top up their pensions. Of course, the recruits don’t have to be retired, there is no reason why full-time, experienced business people should not be recruited to this programme.

In addition, I believe that Business Link should be able to provide small business with specific advice on key areas, such as sales, marketing, health & safety, legal, employment law, exports, finance and so on. I know that Business Link will claim that they already do this, but my point is that they should seek to employ the best, not the cheapest, so that the small businesses can have access to the best advice.

This government has wielded the stick over everyone ever since they came into office, particularly where it comes to HMRC and regulation. They do not appear to have understood, that most ‘normal’ people use and respond better to a combination of carrot and stick. The New Labour government has always and continues to act as a schoolyard bully, not supporters of small business. They are the first to claim to be business friendly and that may be the case where businesses can afford the services of lobbyists, but it is most certainly not the case for small business. This has go to stop. Government must act and act now to reduce the burden of red tape imposed on small business.

Here are my proposals, in no particular order.

  • Government must reduce personal tax for all by 5%. This will cost around £40bn over 5 years. However, it will reduce the pressure on businesses to increase wages, it will negate the public service sectors claims for higher wages to take account of higher inflation, so at least in this sector it will be self-financing and above all, it will (potentially) provide a natural stimulus to the economy. If people spend more, jobs can be saved and government will not have to pay out tax payer funded benefits. Instead, they will benefit from tax receipts through national insurance contributions, income tax, VAT and so on. Contrary to popular belief, this type of initiative introduced now may even be self-financing.
  •  Government must extend the ‘small business rate scheme’. Business rates are often the third largest expenditure for a small business, after wages and rent and proportionally higher for those with turnovers of less than £1m. I believe businesses with a turnover of less than £1m or employing less than 10 people should receive a 100% rebate, with a progressive programme for larger businesses. Furthermore, business should not have to apply for these rebates, they should be automatic, given many small businesses are not even aware that they have an entitlement.
  • There should be a cut in small business corporation tax (businesses with a turnover of less than £5m) from the proposed 22% (2009) to 17.5% and the introduction of a tax threshold (before tax is payable) of £50k
  • The VAT registration threshold should rise from £67k to £200k. HMRC, whilst retaining their vital role of collecting VAT revenues, should be directed to be supporters of business, in partnership, rather than assuming that every unpaid tax collector (anyone registered for VAT), is out to shaft them. They must also stop issuing threats to “wind up” companies that are a little late with their returns. A late return does not mean that the business is in danger of folding, it is more often than not, something that is considered a bind, a burden and therefore, not necessarily something at the top of the priority list. Fines for late returns from small business should be ceased immediately, except for persistent offenders, particularly in the current climate.
  • VAT rules on exports need to be simplified. Current HMRC will offer advice, but cannot be held responsible for it, unless they agree to put it in writing (a ruling). Missing Trader Fraud has now meant that HMRC assumes that everyone is trying to do something dodgy on exports. As a consequence, they make life very difficult, especially when it comes to Europe, because often HMRC will tell the trader that they must charge VAT, the European customer argues that this is wrong and the order is lost to the business and, of course, UK Plc. In addition, small business are expected to shoulder the financial burden if VAT cannot be recovered by HMRC, even if the HMRC provided the information that exempted a transaction. I know many companies that despair of HMRC when it comes to exports, so much so, that many now avoid European exports,rather than take on the VAT risk!
  • Unlike sole traders, for tax purposes, if you are a director of a limited company, you are an ’employee’ of the company. You are therefore liable to pay Class 1 NIC’s on your earnings. The limited company is also liable to pay Class 1 NIC’s as your ’employer’. This practice should cease for businesses that turnover less than £1m or employ less than 5 people.
  • Small business should be encouraged to take on the long term unemployed and those that in receipt of disability benefits (some 2.5m), but can work. Small business employers could be offered a full rebate on all employer NIC’s for employees that are classed in either of these categories. This will assist small businesses, increase the opportunities available for the long term unemployed and result in a massive reduction in the burden on the state from those who are in receipt of benefits, rather than contributing. This initiative could be self-funding or even offer a surplus.
  • Small business often have to use large commercial vehicles out of necessity, yet they are now being penalised as a consequence of the increased vehicle excise duty, under the guise of an environmental or green tax. This should be reduced to the lowest tariff for small businesses with a turnover of less than £5m
  • Government should understand that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to business is not appropriate, especially where employment laws are concerned and specifically in the case of businesses with a small workforce. For example, parental or maternity leave obligations may not adversely affect a company employing 100 or more people, but a small business employing 4 people, could lose 25% of its resources overnight. The employment laws must be relative to the size of the workforce and the regulations relaxed for all employers with a workforce of less than 50. Employees have a choice, if they want all of the benefits of parental leave, maternity leave, paid sick leave and so on, they must look to find a job with a larger employer.
  • Government bodies, local authorities, NHS trusts, agencies and so on, must be required to actively encourage trading with small, local businesses. Most small businesses are not aware of  supply opportunities with government agencies and if they are,  they find the paperwork too time consuming or complicated, especially for what may be low level or uncertain returns. Therefore, many do not pursue this opportunity. Businesses with a turnover of less that £1m should be given free access to www.supply2gov.uk, rather than charged £180. Many local authorities, for example, use the same suppliers as they have done for years, instead, they must be required to encourage new suppliers, they must assist these companies to complete the paperwork and offer constructive advice. Tenders have to remain open and unbiased, but the process of encouraging new local suppliers has to become a priority. Similarly, where possible local government bodies should be required to share their tenders amongst more companies, rather than using a single source.

Cashflow is important to small business. In fact, many small businesses fail or cannot expand, not because of a poor business model, but because of the pressures on cashflow. Invariably, this is the fault of larger companies that will not adhere to agreed payment terms, this problem now is all too common. The small business is often reluctant to chase too hard, in case the supplier refuses to place further orders. Government must legislate, to require all large companies, perhaps those with turnovers of over £5m, to pay on time and where they do not, offer a fast track legal recovery system for small businesses to recover their outstanding invoices.

Public companies should be required to sign up to an ‘ethical small business practice’, where they undertake to pay all SME’s businesses within 30 days. This objective should be audited by the firms auditors and included in the company’s year end accounts. Where public companies fail to meet these obligations, they should lose the support of investment funds and/or face fines based on turnover. Further’ all companies with a turnover of over £5m should be required to provide their ‘average payment terms’ to Companies House in the form of, for example: 1. Average payment terms 30 days., 2. Percentage paid within terms 85%. Legislation does already exist in part, but it is not enforced by Companies House.

Banks & Credit Card Processors
Two organisations that can have a significant impact on small businesses are banks and credit card processors and yet, they are very lightly regulated and, for the most part, operate a virtual monopoly in terms of financial support services to small business. Banks can change terms, conditions and rates on a whim and often do, whilst credit card processors, successfully pass of much of their financial risk in relation to fraud, directly on to the retailer, through a set of onerous terms and conditions.

Many small business operate with a bank overdraft. Banks can, in many cases, withdraw these facilities with 24 hours notice, change the risk profile requiring further security, higher charges or apply penal interest rates and/or the interest rates are variable. Government must legislate, alternatively the regulators must insist that banks offer their customers the alternative of a fixed rate of interest or variable on all bank overdrafts, reviewed annually. Banks must be required to provide small business at least 6 months notice of their intention to withdraw or reduce overdraft facilities. Banks must permit small business to convert, on request, overdrafts into short or medium term loans at rates no less favourable than the overdraft rates.

Government or the regulator must come up with a formula to ensure that interest rates are ‘reasonable’ taking account of the risk, available security and Bank of England rates. For example, many overdrafts are charged at very high rates, even though banks have personal guarantees and/or a fixed and floating charge over all business assets. Where a bank acts unreasonably, small businesses should be able to refer the matter to a fast-track arbitration service which is binding on both parties. Banks that ignore these rules should be open to litigation if a business suffers or fails.

Currently all business credit card processors have a similar set of terms and conditions. These terms, in effect, pass off the risk of fraud to the retailer. Even when the retailer has had the transaction ‘authorised’ by the card processor and followed all of the rules. The card processors have an appeals process, but this is long-winded and I am not aware of anyone that has ever ‘won’ their case.  It is estimated that credit card fraud costs small business upwards of £200m every year and the figure is rising rapidly with the advent of the Internet.

Card processors automatically charge the retailer, whenever there is a suspected fraud, it is then up to the retailer to demonstrate that they followed the rules. However, where the transaction is ‘cardholder not present’, even if the retailer has used a terminal to verify the validity of the card, the address, transaction amount and signature strip number…if it turns out to be a fraudulent transaction, the card processor re-charges the retailer. Worst still, the card processors, may take 6 weeks or more, before they re-charge the retailer, even then, the first time the retailer is aware of it is, invariably, when they receive their statement.

These terms would undoubtedly be considered unreasonable in a court of law, however, any business that needs to transact debit or credit cards, has little choice, because all of the card companies have the same onerous conditions attached. If the retailer complains, the card processor will just terminate the contract. Government must legislate, alternatively the regulator must investigate this unreasonable practice as a matter of urgency. Card processors that have approved a transaction, must be required to honour the transaction, unless they can provide incontrovertible proof that the retailer was party to the fraud.

Now, I know that I have not included everything here and I am sure that more ideas could be added. Equally, I am certain that it is possible to pick holes in some of my arguments or suggestions. Although I hope that anyone that wants to criticise will be constructive and perhaps, offer alternatives. What I am adamant about however, is that whatever steps are taken to assist small business, they must be bold, swift and meaningful. Not all of my suggestions will cost money, some just require new or tighter legislation. Some will be self-funding and other initiatives may cost money, at least in the short-term. However, to ignore the plight of this sector, is, in many ways, more risky that allowing the banks to fail. Too much of our economic well-being is reliant on the SME businesses, from GDP, to taxes and employment to enterprise. Politician’s that use this aspect of UK Plc as a football, do so at their peril!

Posted in Conservatives, General, Labour, Lib Dems | Comments (5)

Government bailout, take a breather and reflect

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Government bailout, take a breather and reflect

Now that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have committed some £500bn to the banks in loans, guarantees and shares, it is time to reflect, to allow the city, time to digest the level of this intervention before going any further. There is now a real risk that the government could become its own worst enemy, by saying they “will do whatever is necessary to stablise the UK economy”, they are sending the wrong message to the city. Yes, I mean the wrong message, city investors are not uninterested parties here. Whilst the taxpayer is shoring up balance sheets, buying up shares, rescuing companies and intervening in the money markets, the ‘city types’ have their own investment portfolios protected. The government is continuing to speculate at our expense, with limited or no risk to the investors.

As I have said before, I am no economist, I am no expert, but I have been blessed with some commonsense. This tells me that if you are constantly running at full pelt, you don’t have time to see what you have passed, what you have left behind and whether you are still in the race. The government must stop NOW, before they bankrupt this country. They have oiled the wheels and reduced much of the investor risk through these interventions and the substantial injections of cash underwritten by the UK taxpayer. No more open-ended promises.

Government must also look at which stocks are falling. For example, most people accept that we are about to face a world recession, therefore, you can expect organisations that are involved in commodities to see their share prices fall. And, of course, these are some of the largest companies, in terms of value, on the stock exchange. Add this to banking and financial stocks and of course we will see a massive fall in the value of the FTSE. On top of the so called banking crisis, a recession means that city experts will be looking at companies that will do well out of a downturn and those that won’t, this will then be reflected in their share price. So, given there is a recession looming, it is fair to assume that stock prices would have fallen anyway.

Virtually from day one, this government has used taxpayers money as if they had been given their very first credit card. They have gone on a spending spree, thinking they are rich and there is an endless money supply. Then, once they realised they had overspent or reached their credit limit, they simply came after the taxpayer for more money. As a consequence, this Labour government has set a poor example to everyone else, now we must all pay for our excesses…but that includes government who must haul back on their investment commitments, they must learn to live within their means, just like everyone else must do.

My concern, is that the current banking crisis has them on that road again, they think they can spend more and more of our future tax revenues in the name of saving us all from some type of doomsday scenario. Now I accept, some form of intervention was necessary, but this must have limits and I am worried that this government has exceeded those limits with an intervention that is worth at least as much as that provided by the American’s, who’s economy is 3 times the size of our own. It is also worth noting, that £500bn is more than double all tax receipts, based on the 2007 figure. Given we are likely to have much reduced tax revenues because of company losses (they can carry these forward to offset against future profits), falling employment and lower sales, this £500bn might end up being the equivalent of 3 years worth of tax receipts.

Now the government have told us there may be some upside for the taxpayer. I don’t like the word ‘may’, nor do I really trust this government to negotiate a good deal for the taxpayer. It has been suggested that this government has lost close to £110bn in poorly negotiated contracts, mistakes and failed projects. This record does not bode well for the taxpayer, when the same people are negotiating with experts. Lets hope, this time they have learned some lessons, though I will not hold my breath. But in the meantime, I would like to advice Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown to STOP, pause for thought, look at whether what you have done has had any positive affect and stop offering the city a blank cheque, no-one could blame them for taking advantage.

Posted in General | Comments (5)

Banking Crisis and the responsibility of the auditors

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Banking Crisis and the responsibility of the auditors

At the moment one day pretty much blends into another, but on one of the evening news programmes this week, another fat cat, fee-earner had the temerity to say, when questioned, that auditors had played no part in the financial mire that is the bane of every UK taxpayer. I have to admit, that I wanted to throw something at him, because I have been arguing for weeks that the auditors have failed in their duty to the shareholders and worst still, shall be one of the few ‘industries’ that will make money out of this fiasco, through company administrations, receivership’s, consultancy fees and so on.

Lets look at the generally accepted definition of a Finance Audit:
The process of verifying a company’s financial information. Auditors are certified public accountants who are independent of the corporation. An auditor examines a company’s accounting books and records in order to determine whether the company is following appropriate account procedures. An auditor issues an opinion in a report that says whether the financial statements present fairly the company’s financial position and its operational results in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).

And here is a common definition of an Auditor
Auditor is the person appointed to conduct an examination of the records, to form an opinion about the authenticity and correctness of such records, by verifying the correctness and reliability of the recorded transactions from the evidences available, opinion and inference reachable based on his expertise.

Most, if not all, stock market listed companies in this country and, for that matter, around the world, use the services of one of the so called ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms. These big firms charge huge sums for their audits, often running into £millions, and the audit teams are lead by high ranking ‘fee earners’. In other words, as the businesses, banks and financial institutions they audited expanded, so have the fees earned by the auditors and yet, not one audit firm appears to have asked any questions about what is now being described as “questionable accounting” practices within the financial services and banking sectors.

For example, do we know of any audit firm that qualified a set of accounts within the banking sector because of the heavy reliance on a particular financial model, such as in the case of Northern Rock? Has an audit firm raised any prior concern over the way that ‘bundled’ mortgage debt was traded, sold and then re-sold, with each party taking a profit or commission, without really knowing the risks or true value of the asset.

You would think that after Enron and Worldcom, auditors would be even more cautious, especially given investors and business people alike, will have increasingly come to rely on the expertise and the independence of the auditors before they make financial investment decisions related to the company being audited. It is absolutely essential that the audits of company’s that rely on external investors for funding are wide-ranging, thorough and probing, a failure to do this and ask questions, is, in my impinion a dereliction of the auditors responsibility to the shareholders. If an audit is not indepependent, or in-depth, why on earth do so many companies pay so much money out every year for their audits?

I personally believe that, when the investigation begins, as it surely will, the part played by company auditors also needs investigating. Given they will be the only party to have profited in the ‘boom’ as well as profited out of the ‘bust’, yet they were also the only party, other that the regulatory authorities, that had a duty to ensure that they reported the facts, discovered questionable practices and reported their findings in an open, direct and a frank manner. I do not say that any of these accountancy firms are culpable, because I would have nothing to back this up with (other than logic of course), but I can say that, I believe they have failed, for the most part, in their duty to appropriately and competently assess the risks associated with some of the more questionable practices adopted by the banking and financial industries.

I also believe that shareholders that have lost money should consider individual or class actions against any audit firms that are left wanting in this current mess. For them to be preening themselves in front of the cameras, whilst rubbing their hands with glee, behind the scenes, is stomach churning. If there job was not to highlight risks, operating and reporting practices, asset values and profit claims, what on earth were they charging such massive audit fees for? The Audit Firms must not be allowed to extract themselves from any form of responsibility whilst the rest of us are left to pick up the tab and the pieces of what is left.

Posted in General | Comments (2)

Housing Crisis, what they don’t want us to know

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Housing Crisis, what they don’t want us to know

I am no economist, nor am I a banker, but I invite those that are to pick holes in my assertion or put my mind to rest. I have never been a great advocate of government intervention, but I believe they need to do far more and now, before we reach a genuine crisis driven by the falling property market.

Many people have suggested that the property market is long overdue for a “correction”, but just how far should this be allowed to go? If we assume that a bank has secured its lending against an asset, which subsequently falls, surely at some stage the banks will be required to write down the difference, just like any other business? If this is the case, they could, theoretically, breach their covenants in terms of their reserves.

Banks have very strict rules in relation to their reserves and many may end up having to go cap in hand to the market in an effort to raise money to shore up their capitol reserves. In a nervous market, this is going to be very tough, particularly if there are several banks trying to do this at the same time. The affect of a major bank failing could have catastrophic consequences for the city, Sterling and the UK economy. This would almost certainly lead to some form of government bailout, which would very costly indeed at no doubt lead to the breaking of our own fiscal rules in terms of borrowing.

Therefore, surely the government would be better advised to intervene now, invest what is required to stablise the property market and avoid a banking crisis. The government must know the risks, they pay hundreds of millions of pounds to expert advisors every year. Now, they may want to keep this information from the public, but they simply can’t afford to ignore it.

Posted in General, Labour | Comments (2)

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