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Capitalism is only trustworthy once the cronies have been shown the door

The prime minister spoke strongly in defence of business last week. But his government has done little to drive out the vested interests that rightly arouse so much suspicion

Who are these anti-business snobs that David Cameron complains about? The prime minister, arguing that business is “the most powerful force for social progress the world has even known,” did not name names in his speech to the Business in the Community group last week. Instead, he said they hold three snobbish attitudes – that business has no moral worth; that it isn’t to be trusted; and that it should stay out of social issues and stick to making money.

It is easy to cheer Cameron’s condemnation of the first and third of those attitudes. Capitalism, practised properly, can indeed be an effective way of lifting people out of poverty – or at least it’s got a better record than the alternatives. And, at the other end of the spectrum, mainstream thinking surely long ago left behind the notion that business can ignore social matters: you would be hard-pressed to find a FTSE 100 chief executive willing to defend that position.

So far, so good. It is on the second question – the issue of trust – that Cameron was guilty of ignoring the real problem. OK, if you’re speaking to the Business in the Community crew, it’s fair to give them a slap on the back for promoting responsibility, even if the prime minister’s praise for members for “integrating your values into the soul of your business” simply sounded vacuous. But, come on – the real debate about trust in business hinges on the issue of crony capitalism. Does it exist? And, if so, what are you going to do about it?

Tory MP Jesse Norman, who popularised the phrase, explained the problem in a pamphlet last year. “The free-market west, most notably the US and the UK, has sleepwalked into a species of financial crony capitalism that has disguised economic reality, shielded underperformance, cosseted poor management and leached away value,” he wrote.

He’s right. Financial services is riddled with rent-seekers. Employees in the investment banking industry have loaded the dice in their favour so that bonuses are distributed even when returns on capital fail to match the cost of that capital; shareholders – which in large part means people saving for a pension – are the losers.

Norman’s position is clear enough. “Attacking crony capitalism is not anti-business, it is pro-business.” But where does Cameron stand?

It’s hard to tell. Anxious not be outflanked by Ed Miliband, he gave a speech last month promoting “popular capitalism” that was long on rhetoric but very short on detail. It’s all very well to call for “more competition”, but the voters are bound to ask which cartels you wish to bust. The Competition Commission currently appears grossly underemployed.

The retail banking industry has shrunk over the past two decades to a concentration of five large institutions. Yet the government, presented with a financial crisis, and thus a chance to reverse the tide, seems happy to see the shake-up confined to a sale of a small part of Lloyds to the Co-op and the sale of Northern Rock to Virgin. It’s hardly visionary stuff for a prime minister who said in that speech last month that “we should use this crisis of capitalism to improve markets“.

One suspects that what has really happened is that big business has caught the whiff of Conservative backbenchers’ call for a dose of real capitalism – meaning a challenge to vested interests – and has sought to head off the danger. To judge by Thursday’s speech, the business lobby has got its way. Cameron is happy to encourage firms to show responsible behaviour – it chimes with his “big society” message – but he’s not interested in hunting down cronies.

Time for a decision on RBS

It is not difficult to agree with Andrew Tyrie, the Tory MP who chairs the Treasury select committee, when he says that the future role of Royal Bank of Scotland “needs sorting out”.

Picking up on remarks made by RBS’s chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, who has pleaded for it to be allowed to operate on a “commercial basis”, Tyrie agrees the taxpayer is unlikely to get back the £45bn it invested in the bank quickly if politicians keep meddling.

Lord Myners, the former Guardian Media Group chairman who became City minister on the weekend of the bank bailouts in October 2008, reckons he has the answer: the government should stomach some losses at current share prices (the taxpayer’s stake is some £20bn underwater) to begin to extricate itself. A reduction in the government’s stake could actually help lift the share price, the argument runs.

Others argue that the way to solve this problem would be for the government to seize full control and give up on any pretence that RBS is operating at “arm’s length” from the Treasury through UK Financial Investments.

Rewriting the mandate for UKFI – to realise value for the taxpayer stake – might be the easiest option. An e-petition has already been set up for this purpose; for those that want to sign, it can be found here.

Peacocks survives, but retail remains a tale of woe

So Peacocks lives to strut another day, but the cheap and cheerful fashion group’s plumage has been clipped. Fewer than two-thirds of the company’s 1,000-plus stores will come out of the other side of a savage administration process that has claimed more than 4,000 high street jobs.

Last week’s rescue of Peacocks by acquisitive Scottish group Edinburgh Woollen Mill coincided with the publication of some cheery research from Morgan Stanley retail analyst Geoff Ruddell, identifying the retailers most likely to suffer as changing shopping patterns threaten to put the country’s weakest parades on death row. The study checked the weakest town centres against the store locations of the major chains, and the results are a powerful guide to the retailers that will face the biggest restructuring problems over the next few years.

Top – or perhaps bottom in this instance – of the quoted retailer heap is Argos, whose new American boss John Walden got his feet under the desk in Milton Keynes just last week. Walden inherits an estate of more than 700 outlets, mostly in cheaper “secondary” locations, and many analysts think closing some of them should be at the top of his to-do list.

The shift of retail sales to the internet is structural, not cyclical, Ruddell reminds us (official figures suggest 14% of non-food sales have already gone online). There is also bad news for Marks & Spencer boss Marc Bolland, as the research suggests that owning the freeholds of most of its stores is no longer a blessing should M&S want to retreat from struggling locations.

Earlier this month, the former boss of New Look, Phil Wrigley, likened the state of UK high streets to the decline of the shipbuilding industry. He may have seen the writing on the wall, but the indebted New Look still makes the top three of the study’s league table of doom, behind Argos and Boots. WH Smith and Carphone Warehouse also rank highly. Analysts reckon a quarter of the UK’s 271,000 shops are surplus to requirements: this adjustment will be long and messy. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds