Monday, 9 June 2008
Money money money money money money money money
As prices rocket and companies start laying people off, there's one good news story - allegedly. I heard it on the news and read it on the BBC website. British companies are the best at creating wealth.
To me, that raises two questions: where does the wealth come from and where does it go? I assume the companies aren't simply printing banknotes and handing them out in the street.
Looking more closely at the story, it turns out that 23% of British or part-British companies have been placed in the top 750 for a league table I've never heard of. It's the 2007 Value Added Scoreboard from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform - a government department which has the job of boosting British business. I suppose the story would have had less impact if it had been billed as "British government says British companies are the best."
So what precisely is being measured? According to the BBC, the scoreboard measures wealth-generation - which it also terms "productivity" by deducting "bought-in" goods and services from profits made by sales. I'm not quite sure where the value is added in all this. But I find it curious that "buying-in" goods and services is seen as such a bad thing in the private sector. In the public sector we're always being told that buying-in from outside, private industries boosts efficiency.
The top five British companies in terms of wealth generation are a surprising group. They're not exactly known for innovation. Some of them aren't even known for being British. They are: Royal Dutch Shell, BP, HSBC, Vodafone, Royal Bank of Scotland.
Royal Dutch Shell may be registered in Britain but its headquarters are in the Hague. Its subsidiary, Shell, has caused debate, especially for its operations in Nigeria, denounced by Ken Saro-Wiwa and others, and for alleged damage to the environment.
BP, initially the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, is a huge multi-national which has come in for criticism and lawsuits alleging environmental damage and human rights abuses. Most of its activities are far from Britain.
HSBC operates under four initials in Britain. They stand for the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. While its HQ is in Britain it operates in 83 countries. It may be the world's largest company. It certainly knows how to make money. In the past two years it has made £100 million from running NHS hospitals. The bank's routine charge for fitting an electric socket is £200 - far above the usual rate.
Vodafone is a global mobile phone company. Two years ago it posted a loss before tax of £14.9 billion (for 2005) - the biggest loss ever posted in British corporate history. For all this, it seems to be profitable at the level of current operations. I'm not sure what - if any - the effect of the loss is.
Royal Bank of Scotland seems to have overcome recent problems from the "credit crunch" by asking shareholders to give it £12 billion. Apparently they did. Like most banks, RBS as it is now known is proud of its abilities in "wealth management", helping "high net worth individuals" look after their assets - in offshore trusts, for instance.
I'm sure all five companies will be celebrating their position in this new league table. But I'm still not sure why it's a good news story or what, if anything, it means to British people today.