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What really matters for businesses – and the rest of us

The big bad wolf and the knight in shining armour always behave predictably, and that’s reassuring. Maybe we like the reports on the FTSE and GDP because the reactions of “experts” are similarly predictable.

Earlier this month, a think-tank said the UK should scrap some of its bank holidays. Workshy fops that we are, we are spending far too many days a year lounging about and doing frivolous things like playing with the kids, having a lie-in and putting up shelves. This is having a deleterious effect on gross domestic product. The think-tank suggested that if we cut down, or maybe shifted some of the holidays out of the sunny months and into the depths of winter, we could be £19 billion (€23.06 billion) a year better off.

Brilliant stuff, and proof that people in think-tanks have only the most tangential connection with reality. Especially “pro-business” ones. Their idea of paradise is a world of anxious, overworked drones, who spend their days commuting and toiling and evenings trawling the internet to find the cheapest deals on their utilities. For your pro-market think-tank employee, life doesn’t get any better than a low gas tariff.

If you created a random right-wing think-tank report generator, this bank holiday nonsense is exactly what you would get. The trade union response was also reassuringly familiar. “We could send kids down the mines again too and go back to working six days a week again as well,” one sniffed, while presumably eating sandwiches in a smoke-filled backroom.

It’s all so silly. Economists’ obsession with GDP is just bizarre. For normal human beings in normal businesses, GDP figures are not all that important. True, the difference between growth of 4% and -4% matters, but the numbers have become a fetish. It’s utterly irrelevant whether growth is 0.1% or -0.1%, yet there are people who crack open the champagne when they hear the former number, while they start hyperventilating at the latter.

It’s the same with the FTSE 100. A friend who runs a hedge fund was laughing about it recently – he doesn’t know what it actually measures or means. Ask about. Nobody does. Yet the morning radio news programmes in the UK give you a breathless update on the index every 15 minutes or so. Even youth-targeted Radio 1. Why?

The FTSE 100 is just a bundle of the biggest businesses that happen to be listed in London. They are not selected to be representative of anything. You might as well look at the number of red Smarties in a tube, the temperature in Southend and the height of the first person you meet each day, add it all together and create an index. It measures something, but it doesn’t mean anything.

In Michael Frayn’s novel The Tin Men, a researcher is looking at newspaper language; the gymslip mums, busty brunettes, mystery men, playboy millionaires, wonder drugs, criminal masterminds, blazes and scorchers. “It had a bearing on life, but was remote from it,” Frayn writes, the reports are “modern fairy stories,” with some strange, distorted connection to reality but no real meaning. Much of the chatter around business is the same.

The big bad wolf and the knight in shining armour always behave predictably, and that’s reassuring. Maybe we like the reports on the FTSE and GDP because the reactions of “experts” are similarly predictable. None of it helps us to deal with ambiguous reality. We should all turn off the radio, and learn to pay attention to the stuff that matters.

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