Comment: Dismal decline in year of export-led recovery

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The Independent Online
It is easy to see why Japan's share of world export markets in manufactured goods should have fallen last year. 1995 was the year when the yen climbed into the stratosphere; even the most supercharged of industrial mountaineers would have found it hard to survive for long in the rarified atmosphere occupied by the yen at that time. It is equally easy to see why France, still clinging to its ill-conceived franc fort policy, should also be suffering. Harder to explain is how Germany managed to increase its share and in the process regain its position as second largest exporter; the German mark was also a strong currency in 1995.

But hardest to explain of all - except in anything but the most disturbing terms - is why Britain should have seen its relative share of world trade in continued decline. This, you will recall, was meant to be the year of the export-led recovery. It was the year when the currency advantage obtained by leaving the ERM should have been making British exporters significantly more competitive in world markets. And it was the year in which British manufacturing was meant to be rediscovering its pride, showing the rest of Europe the way in terms of productivity and innovation.

If figures from the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry are to be believed, the good news story being put about by ministers and industrialists is a long way from the truth. Indeed, it seems to be little more than wishful thinking. No comparable analysis of world export performance is produced in Britain (now, why do you think that is?) and the integrity and accuracy of the German survey is obviously open to question.

All the same, the picture it paints is probably about right. There is no reason to believe the figures have been distorted. Britain's biggest failing, judging by the breakdown, has been in the high growth economies of Asia. Again there is no obvious explanation for this, for Britain's historic and cultural links with Asia should have given its exporters a natural advantage.

Furthermore, Britain's dismal showing in these markets (our share over the last 10 years has fallen from 3.3 per cent to 2.2 per cent) rather gives the lie to those Eurosceptics who naively and vainly believe Britain could make its way outside Europe by strengthening trading links with the Far East and the Americas.

We are already doing badly in the Far East even with the bridgehead into Europe our islands offer by way of return. Cast adrift from Europe, there is every reason to believe our performance would be even worse.

The German figures fail to take account of Britain's still impressive performance in financial and business services - invisibles. Here our showing is still a respectable one. But as exporters of things that ordinary people can understand, we are on the road to oblivion. If we cannot hold our own even in the world's strongest growth markets, where on earth are we going to succeed? Mars? Time for some serious soul searching.

Small comfort at Chamberlain Phipps

All those new found concerns over AIM, Ofex and other matched bargain markets in high risk companies that nobody has ever heard of, has made us forget that the real money is still lost on the main exchange with all its safeguards, listing requirements and high voltage investor protection rules. It is hard to imagine a more scandalous example of this than Chamberlain Phipps, for this was a company floated on the stock market just two years ago. To call in receivers just a year after the company reported record results and awarded its chairman a controversial performance bonus that doubled his salary, makes it seem doubly worse.

The biggest questions must be asked of the company's advisers, HSBC Samuel Montagu and Credit Lyonnais Laing, for it was their stamp of approval that allowed the company to be floated.

The latter, as house broker, recommended buying the shares at 163p only a year ago. They were suspended yesterday at 11p but, with debts of pounds 34m hanging around the shoe makers neck, they are worthless. Rarely has cobblers been a more appropriate description of a company. It will come as cold comfort to shareholders but the warning signs were flashing bright red at Chamberlain right from the word go. Shareholders who allowed the company to thumb its nose at a string of corporate governance guidelines have only themselves to blame for the loss of their investment.

Why, they might have asked themselves at the time, was Dan Sullivan, an American venture capitalist with a far from flawless record, allowed to combine the roles of chairman and chief executive, leaving unchecked the ambitious expansion plans that ultimately left the company drowning in debt? Worse, why was he allowed to sit at the head of a remuneration committee that concocted the bonus scheme from hell and had it waved through by unquestioning investors? The one comfort shareholders can glean from this sorry episode is that Mr Sullivan did at least put his money where his mouth was. His 25 per cent stake, now a quarter of nothing at all, was worth the best part of pounds 20m a year ago.

Calling time on the electricity companies

Electricity is slippery stuff. You cannot warehouse it and you cannot forecast its price more than 24 hours in advance. Now it appears that you may not be able to buy it from a supplier of your choice quite as soon as promised either. The 12 regional electricity companies are wizards when it comes to staring into their crystal balls and devising long-term share option and incentive schemes guaranteed to deliver riches beyond most people's wildest dreams. It appears, however, that eight years is not long enough for them to prepare for the opening up of the domestic market to full competition. This is due to happen on 1 April, 1998. But the Recs are now asking for another 18 months while competition is phased in.

When the financial markets were liberalised a decade ago, it was called Big Bang. Recs call their own forthcoming shakeup "the Cliff Face", a term which refers to the climb from cosy monopoly one day to competitors in a fully liberalised market the next.Now they seem to have got vertigo before they have even begun the ascent. Granted, the scale of the change is daunting. Writing a computer program that will allow 25 million domestic customers to shop around for a commodity whose price changes every half hour of the day is hardly a breeze.

But the regulator, Professor Stephen Littlechild rightly comes back to the fact that the industry has known about the impending change since 1990. If the Recs need time to phase in competition, it should end, not start, in April 1998. The new public electricity supply licences Prof Littlechild has framed in readiness for that day give him the power to penalise those Recs which delay. He should use it, even if it means pushing one or two over the cliff edge.