22 Jan 2014 |Off Balance
Chilly response to tax
When is tax ‘fun'? Perhaps when you create constructs that cut your bills to bugger-all, or perhaps even sort out a nice little rebate. These options are often frowned upon, though, or they're outright illegal.
For chill-focused retailer Iceland, the £2.5m ‘fun tax' bill it received for sending 800 staff to Disney World in Florida was anything but fun.
Iceland had a barney with Her Madge's Revenue & Customs over the trip, which the retailer claimed was a tax-deductible business expense. The taxman said it was a holiday for the staff, and therefore a benefit-in-kind.
Iceland chief Malcolm Walker revealed that the bill had been settled, and Iceland was ‘very happy' with the outcome. Perhaps HMRC decided it wasn't a Mickey Mouse claim after all.
Santa levy sleighs
It must be the season for prefixing ‘tax' with a cheeky noun or adjective. Not only did Debenhams FD Simon Herrick quit shortly after another profit warning at the department store chain, but he also made just as many headlines for adding a ‘Santa tax' to suppliers - not something they were looking forward to receiving in their proverbial stockings.
Eight days before Christmas, Herrick sent key suppliers a letter asking for a 2.5% discount on their supply prices. Not really in the spirit of the season of goodwill to all men, mused Off Balance, and not actually a ‘tax' either - but you can't let that stand in the way of a good headline.
Nothing useful to say?
Efforts to deal with trimming the Metropolitan Police's finance, HR and IT budget took a bizarre twist when an interim restructuring expert quit following allegations that he made a racially inappropriate comment during a meeting.
A report by the Daily Mail says that Steve Hodgson, an experienced HR, payroll and shared service change management professional, who had been called in to help make hundreds of millions of pounds in cost savings, allegedly used what Off Balance would charitably call an ‘old-fashioned and inappropriate' expression in front of colleagues. He left the meeting immediately, later issuing a statement saying he didn't recall making the comment, but couldn't be sure that he hadn't.
Off Balance lives by the motto: ‘The less said in meetings, the better.'
It's practically a chapter from Freakonomics. If you're a toy retailer, and selling fewer toys than before, is it due to the product mix? Price point? Economic conditions? Poor advertising and marketing?
For Toys R Us CFO Clay Creasey, it comes down to looking at the fundamentals: there just aren't as many kids around as before.
A declining US birth rate through 2008 and 2009 - following a record high in 2007 - has hit 4th and 5th birthday prezzies and subsequently Christmas gifts.
"That mouse is entering the toy-buying part of the snake, if you will," he reportedly said on a Q3 earnings call, according to BuzzFeed Business.
We don't know how Toys R Us have managed their stock levels, but Off Balance pictures rows of forlorn Woodys and Buzz Lightyears having to make up their own adventures.
27 Nov 2013 |Arbinder Chatwal, BDO
The first in a series of blogs, from BDO, on their take on the way in which business is done in different locations, plus the opportunities and pitfalls - starting with India
REPORTS of India's demise are greatly exaggerated. Despite reports to contrary, opportunities remain for British businesses to continue to invest and succeed in the country.
Having just returned from a two week UKTI-sponsored visit to Mumbai and Delhi, it is clear that neither the recent fall in the value of the rupee nor the slowdown in GDP growth - which, at 5%, remains very attractive by international standards - should discourage British companies from setting up in India.
Rather than a mass exodus of foreign companies, what we're actually seeing is that businesses with a longer term outlook are recognising the value in the rupee right now and investing in the knowledge that they are getting good value for their initial set up and business development costs. In addition, as the business grows and the owners eventually seek to repatriate, they will be able to do so at a much more favourable exchange rate.
Take a sector focus
Investors should also look beyond the headline numbers; they need to consider focusing instead on specific sectors, regions and product categories and trends. Despite the recent economic slowdown, the chemical, food & beverage and healthcare industries, for example, are still growing at double-digit rates. The opportunities are there if you know where to look.
That said, business should not be under the illusion that success in India is somehow guaranteed. Many entrepreneurs have made the mistake of building their business plans on finger-in-the-air calculations about expected future revenues. As the overall numbers are so large, this tends to lead to the unrealistic expectation that a small proportion - but still a large absolute number - of that business will come automatically and immediately. This is rarely the case.
Prepare for paperwork
Moreover, despite the similar legal system and language, doing business in India is inherently difficult. The tremendous amount of paperwork, compliance and regulatory red tape in India are still major headaches. Businesses also need to get used to a rapidly-changing regulatory landscape: the new Companies Act, introduced earlier this year, will have wide ranging implications, and mandatory audit rotation (every five years for a partner and every ten years for a firm) comes into force in 2016 but is already having an impact on companies and their advisers.
India continues to offer attractive opportunities to businesses and potential returns remain impressive if you get it right. However, like with any other major investment, it is vital that decision makers take time to actually understand the market and identify their unique selling point in what has become a highly competitive environment. The days when speculators could pile in and make a quick buck are long gone, if they ever actually existed; the future belongs to more selective, considered investors.
19 Nov 2013 |Ikenna Chigbo, Global Reach Partners
Last week saw the release of the Bank of England's quarterly inflation report which as a whole has been perceived as an upbeat release from the central bank. In terms of the growth estimates, this year is expected to be 1.6% up from 1.4% previously thought, and for next year annual growth is anticipated to be 2.8% rather than the 2.5% predicted in August. These expectations are further signals that the economy is gradually getting back to speed. However, Carney did state headwinds remain and there is a "long way to go" before the crisis aftermath has cleared.
Elsewhere, with regards to the inflation levels in the UK, the BoE have now cut the near term inflation outlook on lower data and see inflation below the target from Q1 2015. If this does actually continue to cool, then the central bank will not need to rush and raise their benchmark rate.
Looking into unemployment, which is important as Carney linked this to rate guidance outlook, the bank believes there is a 2 out of 5 chance that the unemployment rate which currently stands at 7.6%, will fall below 7% by the end of 2014. Recapping back to Carney's first inflation hearing, he did state that the bank would not look at raising rates until the unemployment falls to 7%. However this time round, the governor went on to say that even when the unemployment rate falls below 7%, it does not automatically trigger a hike in rates.
Overall, what to take from this report is the fact that Carney has covered himself in all aspects with regards to the rate guidance and a non-committal approach. GBP has gained against all major currencies on the back of this event, given the upgrade in GDP estimates and prompting of speculation for earlier hikes in interest rates than originally anticipated.
Going forward no real affect expected for the British importers/exporters in the short term, given the current tight range that GBP is trading in against the likes of the EUR and USD. However, with dovish sentiment coming from Washington and a rate cut in Europe, the Pound could march on against major peers into the end of the year.
Ikenna Chigbo is a currency consultant at Global Reach Partners
07 Oct 2013 |Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, Hadlow College
IT'S THE END of the political conference season and everything from taxation to measures reducing the number of young people not in education, employment or training has been covered. Equally, conference season would not be the same without the occasion faux par or media sound byte that gets the News at 10 extremely vexed!
It has however, made me think about the 'day job'. The well used phrase 'well that saving can be deployed to fund that new development' regularly repeated to the extent that the so-called saving has been spent a number of times is more prominent than ever. A new bankers tax anyone?
For example the new government initiative, 'earn or learn' has real merit providing its all joined up. The parallel; ideas come up in business all the time, the finance director needs to ensure it works.....
On a serious note, the role of the finance director is as much an architect of change as a custodian of the finances and a political negotiator. He or she needs to be a consummate politician to ensure that the financial aims of the business are met while ensuring the organisation grows and develops, without being hindered. We manage expansion and we manage contraction.
I have found that some of the best strategies have been those of logical reasoning. When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the most appropriate course of action. This process can be time consuming, but invariable ensures all accept and buy into the process and most importantly the outcome.
In and out of the boardroom - more so that ever - is a challenging environment and the FD is the hidden negotiator. Like politicians, we are often the first port of call when things go wrong, and are in the public eye increasingly. Some of us have a strong back up team (for politicians read Sir Humphry and his team) that crunch the data, but often it all rests with the leader. Our role is no longer just in the back office, it is far broader keeping the troops in line, ensuring that whatever plan is devised it will work, whilst ensuring critical support to the CEO and the business as a whole.
The role has changed beyond recognition in the last ten years from boom to bust and now the times of economic recovery. It is crucial that we inspire our teams and the wider business as well as giving a confident air despite what may be going on behind the scenes, and making sure the day job is done.
The financial director is the fixer, a 'front man or woman', the negotiator, the number two, and more so than ever the consummate politician. Life is never dull....
Mark Lumsdon-Taylor is finance director at Hadlow College
01 Oct 2013 |Ikenna Chigbo, Global Reach Partners
SO it's actually happened...the US government has shutdown for first time in 17 years.
A stalemate was reached among stubborn US politicians and this has forced the government into a partial shutdown, causing some distress for the US dollar across the board in the foreign exchange markets. President Obama will now have to stop non-essential services, jeopardising just under one million US jobs and forcing many workers onto unpaid leave.
The main disagreement in the budget talks was due to the infamous ‘Obamacare' policy, which has caused a lot of flare ups since its inception in 2010.
If the shutdown continues to drag out it could have a damaging effect on the US economy and its general growth. In real terms, analysts are forecasting that 0.3% could be shaven of the third quarter GDP figure every week that the political turmoil continues. This would obviously have a negative impact on the US dollar.
This issue has already resulted in a fall in the US currency, with the Dollar Index initially moving quickly lower by 0.5% as the news broke. Allied with the no tapering announcement from the Federal Reserve last month, it has been a harsh couple of weeks for the dollar with the USD index falling 1.5%. If the parties finally come to an agreement this should provide some relief for the greenback but there is no indication as to when this might come.
What this means for the US going forward is that the country now has a looming deadline of 17 October before pushing the United States into a default on its debts - which would be an absolute catastrophe and cause a global financial turbulence. We have already seen this "cliff" approached in January this year and the impact on the currency markets was profound.
UK importers and exporters will have to navigate this potentially volatile situation with caution - especially as we approach the time of year when many businesses will be working out budgets for 2014. While markets as a whole continue to expect the dollar to recover, conviction is dwindling. Charts this morning suggest that we are in a new trading range and the outlook got the GBP/USD and EUR/USD crosses in particular are unclear.
Sensible hedging policies will win the day.
Ikenna Chigbo is a currency consultant at Global Reach Partners
19 Sep 2013 |Gavin Hinks
AFTER A FEW DRINKS I can get maudlin and can be heard to say things like: "I should have joined an investment bank, made some money and then downsized to grow shiitake mushrooms in the country." A fair indication of where my current neuroses lay.
But my sentiments about investment banks went through something of an adjustment recently following stories about the death of Moritz Erhardt, a 21 year-old German intern with Bank of America. He was found dead in his lodgings and newspapers reported his colleagues claiming he had worked for three straight days without sleep. Bank of America announced a review of working practices for junior staff.
Whether the death of Erhardt was related to his work is a matter for conjecture, but the incident certainly brought attention to the long-hours culture in investment banks and saw numerous comments online from other City interns claiming they pulled marathon stints at their desks for fear of losing out on a coveted job and because of the expectations and sheer aggression of senior staff. Other articles revealed research that appeared to demonstrate how unhealthy such a lifestyle is and we all wondered why anyone would put themselves through it.
But the articles implied a single factor. Fear. That's what this seemed to be about. Fear of losing the job. Fear of managers. And perhaps, fear of not making it. But how could this be in the age of the modern manager who understands his staff and what motivates them? Why would anyone want to work that way?
Which brings me to a book out this month Becoming a Better Boss: Why Good Management is so Difficult, from Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business school. For me there is a standout passage when Birkinshaw discusses what motivates employees, especially those in mundane roles with little opportunity for higher wages or promotion. It's not what I quite what I was expecting.
First a bit of background. Birkinshaw investigated the issue for his book by taking on a succession of jobs with "low pay and low intrinsic satisfaction". After questioning plenty of employees Birkinshaw comes up with a fascinating matrix of motivations which essentially lead to the conclusion that managers of people in such jobs need to understand that they come to accept the limits of promotion and pay and come to value their job for other factors like its inherent social life, the quality of the people they work or the flexibility of the job and its security (anyone who has seen it will be instantly reminded of the BBC series The Call Centre - Happy People Sell and note that Birkinshaw worked in a call centre as part of his research).
But then Birkinshaw makes what I see now as the stand out observation which seems achingly poignant in the wake of discussion surrounding Erhardt's death. "Compared to motivation, fear gets much less attention in studies of the workplace." Which seems a bit strange when you think about it, a view that Birkinshaw apparently holds too. It's as if we've decided to delude ourselves into thinking that fear - perhaps the most primal of all human emotions and motivations - had disappeared from the modern workplace.
Birkinshaw response (working long before the Erhardt incident) was to map our workplace trepidations. After a survey he finds the top five are 1. Fear of losing your job, 2. Lack of opportunities for advancement, 3. Fear of failing to deliver to expectations, 4. Lack of clarity about an organisation's vision and 5. Excessive change or turbulence in the workplace. Number 14 on the list, and the last, is a fear of being intimidated.
Birkinshaw concludes from his research among employees in a bank (I assume it's a retail rather than investment bank) that in a hierarchy of fears the biggest concerns are fear of meeting expectations and for opportunities to progress. The answer, he says quite rightly, is for managers in banks to spend more time on coaching to support individuals in achieving their ambitions.
But as I read this I wonder how investment bank employees would have responded to the research. The ones taking artificial stimulants to wrack up the hours, or the ones who [reportedly] had their boss throw mobile phones at them for taking a break. Their hierarchy of fears may well have seen "intimidation" rise much further up the list (if they were willing to admit it).
Perhaps, the most interesting question though about the psychology of fear is the in-built assumption that it is demotivating. Given the huge profits made in investment banks, and the readiness of many employees to log endless hours, it appears to work. Some of the time. Which makes me wonder if the psychology of investment interns is something akin to the mindset of base jumpers. After all, the working culture of investment banks is common knowledge, and people continue to step off the ledge.
That said I like Prof Birkinshaw's conclusions. We come out at the same place. I don't like fear, why would I behave in a way that caused it for anyone else? Going through it everyday seems to me to be a bizarre way to spend a career, even if the rewards are high. But it also seems to me to be a subject worthy of more discussion and study. The books say keeping people happy is the best motivation and yet some workplaces are built on intimidation and what now looks like extreme sacrifice.
I can't help thinking that fear goes beyond an issue about the psychology of motivation and the implied business case. I can't help feeling this is where we wander into the difficult area of ethics too. Being a better boss is not just about understanding the way your employees think. It's about doing right. In the high pressure world of investment banks these issues can become crushed in the rush for profits.
And as for me? Next time I've had a drink, I hope I remember to thank my lucky stars and forget about the money I didn't make at an investment bank.
Becoming a Better Boss: Why Good Management is so Difficult By Julian Birkinshaw is out this month on Wiley. Hardback £18.99.
Gavin Hinks is a freelance journalist and writes the Profits and Loss blog at http://profitsandloss.blogspot.co.uk/
08 Aug 2013 |Ikenna Chigbo, Global Reach Partners
BANK OF ENGALND GOVERNOR Mark Carney once again laid down his mark yesterday publishing the first quarterly inflation report within his control.
UK interest rates, which currently stand at 0.5%, will now be kept low until the unemployment rate falls below 7%. Therefore, the governor has taken a leaf out of the book of its counter-part, the US Federal Reserve, by now linking monetary policy to a key economic target.
However, there is a caveat to this decision. Given the fact that inflation is the central bank's key mandate (the BoE is targeted with keeping inflation at 2%) if current levels move beyond the desired criteria then the low rate pledge will be withdrawn. So essentially, the bank could look to increase interest rates in order to cool inflation, the latest reading of which suggests UK CPI for the year is at 2.9% - above the 2% target.
Another point to take away from the announcement is the BoE's UK growth forecast. They now expect the British economy to grow 1.6% in 2013 against 1.5% which was projected back in May. Good news for the UK.
What does this all mean for sterling?
GBP gained convincing ground as the report was published. The pound rose fully three cents versus the US dollar following the inflation report as participants digested Carney's rhetoric. It appears market participants are somewhat relieved that Mark Carney has everything pretty much in control, outlining his intentions and targets for the UK economy. Furthermore, rates staying low for a sustained period should encourage borrowing and ultimately boost the UK economy. Indeed, Mark Carney saw huge success with this policy during his tenure as Governor of the Bank of Canada. This is all positive news for the Pound.
UK economic data has also shown a large improvement for over the past couple of months; manufacturing, services, construction, export and GDP have all met with if not beat expectations. All of this is supportive for the pound, but how long will current strength last?
The Pound is trading at the top of its range today which is affording a great opportunity to UK importers. The outlook is improved as a result of yesterday's report, but by no means certain. There are still major downside risks to the pound and any softening of the data will lead to GBP weakness. Similarly, if the current trend of US dollar strength is to continue, exchange rates could fall back.
Carney has done a favour to UK importers. Don't look this gift horse in the mouth.
Ikenna Chigbo is a currency consultant at Global Reach Partners
10 Jul 2013 |Richard Crump
LAST WEEKEND I not only had the pleasure of seeing Andy Murray become the first British man to win Wimbledon while wearing shorts, but also to spend a day with the Caterham F1 team at the German Grand Prix.
While Caterham still has some way to go to achieve the kind of success enjoyed by Murray in their respective sports, I was struck by how both employed the principle of marginal gains. Famously coined by British Cycling's performance director Dave Brailsford the principle of accumulated marginal improvements has become a sporting given.
Yet, the theory is equally true for business. While on the one hand the Caterham's mechanics, technicians and computer analysts are harnessing the power of big data to improve the car's performance based on minute adjustments, much the same can be said for the running of the team's finance function.
Though decidedly less glamorous than the on track performance, the same focus on efficiency is taking place behind the scenes. Take for instance how the cars are painted. Caterham changed the paints/process and managed to reduce the cost by 80% but with the same quality of finish.
Similarly, the team partnered with Truphone - a telephone network that allows you to pay local tariffs on international calls - and managed to slash its phone bills. This might seem of limited importance to a team that is run on a multi-million pound budget, yet it is part of an ethos that runs throughout the team.
If finance directors were to adopt Brailsford's theory of breaking down everything that goes into riding a bike and improving it by 1%, it would add up to a significant increase when those small and seemingly unimportant gains are put together.
by Recruiting Animal on Psyched in the workplace - Fear is the key
by Ian Burbidge on Living by Thatcher's old adage
by Seb Haigh on AIM is at the crossroads
by julian cheyne on Can the “Olympic Effect” jump-start our faltering economy?
by Anna Meller Allan on Editor's blog: Why the Davies Report won't make much difference to gender equality at work
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