City & Business: Financial turmoil? Don't worry, be happy

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The Independent Online
THE DEFLATION virus that put the world economy on the critical list from mid-August until October has been contained. We are now seeing Group of Seven officials exchanging knowing smiles: "Worldwide financial crisis? What worldwide financial crisis?"

But the virus has jumped from the financial sector to the corporate sector. So far it's not so virulent in its new host. G7 officials, indeed, are predicting no more than a mild dose of the flu for the world economy in 1999, but no recession unless we talk ourselves into one.

Still, the world - and consequently that part of the world having to do with money - looks an uneasy place this weekend. If the brinkmanship between the Anglo-US alliance and the murderous, probably insane Saddam leads to bombing, we can expect oil prices and the dollar to rise, and airline stocks to fall over the fear of jet-fuel price hikes.

Beyond that, however, the prospect of B52s and Tornadoes flying sorties over the Gulf reminds us of something we forgot during the financial crisis: the world is not an econometric model.

Central bank interest-rate reductions are to be sincerely applauded. G7 efforts led by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to tighten up on the most excessive of hot money flows in and out of emerging market economies can only be backed.

But these policy initiatives are not stopping students, thugs and soldiers from fighting it out on the streets of Jakarta. Nor are they stopping the diversion of badly needed resources away from productive sectors into security.

I do not want to sound like an old-fashioned bleeding heart liberal (although, to come clean, that's what I am). I've sat in enough government offices in enough G7 capitals talking to enough officials to respect the sophistication, resourcefulness and plain intelligence that occasionally crops up in such places. Riots, mad dictators, surgical strikes, the thudding feet of millions of economic migrants - this is all part of the post- Cold War world. It is not entirely external to the econometric models in use today.

I appreciate that doom-mongering can be an irresponsible luxury for journalists - as Mary Poppins once told the King of Siam, we must whistle a happy tune.

But still. The recent round of results from our high-street retailers tells us that the collapse in consumer sentiment is no mirage. When Storehouse - owner of 135 BhS stores and 272 Mothercare shops - reports its interims this week, the trend is likely to be accentuated. How much of a fall- off in pre-Christmas retail spending, I wonder, do the Treasury and Bank of England forecasts for 1 per cent growth in 1999 anticipate?

The decline of our heavy industries continues. BMW thinks it can reach an accord with Rover car workers this week. But that still leaves the question of what sort of aid the Government will offer Rover after productivity rates are out of the way as an issue. And that still leaves the even larger question of whether BMW capital, government aid and worker concessions can save Rover in a world rife with automotive overcapacity.

Meanwhile, on the international front, there is an outbreak of trade boils on the corpus economicus. In isolation, an EU-US banana war is funny. Couple it with the bully-boy tactics employed by Washington to prise open Heathrow for the US airlines and the laughter becomes a little hollow. Couple both those situations with the hardline stance adopted by Washington going into this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Kuala Lumpur, and the laughs rather die away.

The sophisticates in the think-tanks around Washington's Du Pont Circle wink and tell us not to worry about American protectionist breast-beating. It's pre-emptive, they say, meant to satisfy the blood lust of the America Firsters out there in Nebraska. But this is casuistry.

As the pressure to open up Heathrow demonstrates, Washington is not only playing to its hinterland audience. It is responding to pressures from its Fortune 500 companies, worried that their sales are drying up in Asia and Latin America.

There are happy tunes to whistle. Whatever the cyber-Luddites may say, the information revolution looks real. Putting the world on the internet - giving billions e-mail addresses - and plugging telly owners into the digital, interactive age is bound to have positive economic consequences. The Government's recent commitment of pounds 430m to link every school to the internet is a wise investment of taxpayers' money.

All the corporate news is not bad. Zeneca's announcement on Thursday that it was putting its speciality chemicals business up for sale breathed new life into the ageing adage that companies need to focus. Zeneca's idea is to concentrate on pharmaceuticals and agro-chemicals like Novartis, BASF and other continental rivals. It is a bit late in making its move, but it wanted to clean up the special chemicals division before putting it up for sale.

Still, the deflation virus is causing dyspepsia in corporate boardrooms. Maybe the dust-up at LucasVarity can be discounted. Perhaps the idea of moving the motor parts maker from the UK to the US was just a brainwave by the company's chief executive, Victor Price, which was properly rejected by UK shareholders.

But what about Marks & Spencer? Boardroom power struggles are not supposed to happen in a company consistently voted "most respected" and "best managed". You can discount the eruption as an aberration. Put it down to the frustrations of one man - the deputy chairman, Keith Oates, who, according to published reports, felt he had nothing to lose in kicking up a public row over the question of who is to succeed the current 62-year-old chairman and chief executive, Sir Richard Greenbury.

Or you can take it as a sign. Many of us are stretched to breaking point in our jobs. Many companies, it therefore stands to reason, must be stretched to breaking point in the pursuit of sales and profits. If this is so, large parts of the world economy may be running on reserves. If this is so, the world economy is accident-prone.

Accidents do not fit neatly into econometric models.