Tuesday, 15 December 2009

All Mouth And No Trousers

Cast your minds back to January this year and we got lots of big talk from the aptly named Department of Business of how it had introduced a scheme to support the car industry pledging up to £2.3bn in cash for loans.

This week we have heard that despite the bravado and big talk, not a single penny of that money has been given to the car industry. There have been plenty of meetings and negotiation, with Jaguar trying to get its hands on around £300m at one stage but for one reason or another, no firm has received any benefit for a scheme that was largely advertised with the sole intention of grabbing the headlines and making it look as though ministers were actually doing something about the potential collapse of an entire business sector on which around 800,000 jobs depended.

The grandly called Automotive Assistance Program (AAP) offered minimum loans of £5m to ailing car firms while the Enterprise Guarantee Scheme (EGS) offered loans of up to £1m - clearly any component or distribution firm in the car industry that wanted a loan anywhere between £1m and £5m was scuppered from the start. But then came the conditions. Far from taking on risky loans as the scheme was intended, with £400m of potential toxic debt write off written into the scheme form the start, firms who applied for the scheme found the rules too inflexible.

The Government, meanwhile, claim that there are 10 firms in negotiation on the scheme needing as much as £2bn of loans or guarantees. It seems that during the period of inertia from the beginning of the year, the scrappage scheme, successfully cloned from the continent, has filled a gap which has helped rescue rapidly falling car sales by offering incentives directly to customers to promote buying new cars - a simple and sensible proposition, easily aimed at the right point. It seems that simple, well directed applications of money get immediate and exciting results whereas complex, airy ideas which are difficult to implement but far more grandiose sounding and headline grabbing get no results whatsoever.

If only the Government had looked at its history in education and health it would have realised that smaller packets of focused money deliver greater results than shed loads poured down a hole with no real objectives and spurious measurements of results.

The Automotive Assistance Scheme has been an object lesson in how to waste time and money and get zero results but good headlines. It also illustrates that spin gets the desired results as everyone will see car sales recovering and believe it was the AAP that helped. Instead it was a continental idea that had already brought spectacular results in France and Germany - both of whose economies were out of recession at the end of the Summer.

IT seems that inaction speaks louder than words.
Another fine fiasco has been the trade credit top up scheme, designed to help small companies where their credit insurance has been lowered or withdrawn. The Department of Business, once again, offered £5bn in another headline grabbing initiative which was said to help companies maintain trade with one another. It is a testament to the fortitude and invention of treasury departments that just 72 UK businesses have benefited from the scheme utilising just £18m of the £5bn funds (less than 4% of the total).
Now Lord Mandelson has said that he will withdraw the scheme as it was no longer required, which has sparked uproar among small to medium sized business owners. The issue is that during the recession, businesses have focused on cutting their cloth and recognising more profitable business opportunities where credit is easier to cover. Now that we are entering the recovery phase, businesses will be gearing up to get a little more creative and risk-taking as markets pick up speed.
Once again, companies have felt that the scheme was too inflexible, restrictive and prohibitively costly to use. However, rather like the AAP and the EGS, great sounding, ostentatious schemes have delivered nothing to British business and it is little wonder that when so much was given so cheaply to banks and so little and expensively to business generally that the recession has lasted far longer in the UK than anywhere else. Grand ideas with little substance packaged with large business in mind always.
Too much money given to too few too cheaply, and too little to many too expensively equalling a long recession. It's a lesson in mathematics and economics that I hope Mandelson remembers in future.

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