Political managers: Here's an instant wealth warning - In his pursuit of instant returns, the self-styled Iron Chancellor is no better than the dot.com whizz-kid with an easy smile and a glib prospectus

Political managers: Here's an instant wealth warning - In his pursuit of instant returns, the self-styled Iron Chancellor is no better than the dot.com whizz-kid with an easy smile and a glib prospectus - Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to doubt anythin

by MICHAEL HESELTINE
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to doubt anything claiming to confer immediate or easily gained advantage. To me, foreign language courses offering fluency 'within weeks', fame that is 'instant', and 'guaranteed' high returns are about as sustainable as a government sound-bite. Recently, my scepticism mutated into a cynical strain as I observed two phenomena - the hype surrounding the dot.coms and the tripe surrounding the recent budget.

Straight away, I should say I believe that the current revolution in telecommunications, of which the internet is the focal point but far from the entirety, will have a profound effect on society. I do not doubt, for instance, that it will restructure major industries, change our work and how we relate to it, transform choice and redefine relationships between customers and suppliers. I admire the enterprise that has gone into many of the new economy firms. This revolution is, as doctors say, a non-trivial event. But it is not the end of economics.

Just as physicists have yet to devise a perpetual motion machine, so too investors have yet to discover a perpetual profit growth generator - though that is how the dot.coms have been seen. There are, however, two economic concepts that, in my view, could have been conceived with the dot.com in mind - the so-called greater fool theory and 'moral hazard'.

Under the first, it doesn't matter if you buy something for a price that only a fool would pay provided that a greater fool can be found to take it off your hands for more. A great deal of internet investment has happened on this basis and it is my fervent hope that the supply of greater dot.com fools is close to exhaustion. When (not if) it is, ordinary boring, asset-rich, profitable businesses, many of which will ultimately make more of and from the internet than some of the more fashionable lesser dot.com sparklers, will regain a place in the sun.

Moral hazard lies, however, at the heart of my concern about the internet bubble. Consider how traditional businesses are conceived and grown to maturity, and contrast that with the genesis of typical dot.coms. The founders of the former are expected to demonstrate sufficient competence, track record and, critically, personal commitment to secure the necessary backing. The owner-manager is expected to share at least the same risks as his investors, probably more. The founders of dot.coms, in contrast, are not at all on the same hook. Relatively little is put on the line and, too often, the dot.com entrepreneur expects to have to do little more than promote a plausible idea for it to lead inexorably to the arrival of sufficient 'eyeballs' to support the subsequent float and flight. The founder by now is well ahead and, compared with his traditional counterpart, can afford to let someone else worry if things subsequently go awry. Anyway, if someone else is left holding the hype-inflated baby ... well, they were warned in the prospectus, weren't they?

So how does the psychology of some dot.com investment connect to self-styled Iron Chancellor Gordon Brown? The link, you might imagine, given his cavalier treatment of industry's concerns about the exchange rate, lies in the greater fool theory. But that is just part of it. The Budget, according to a variety of industry spokesmen, ended industry's honeymoon with the Government - the number of those willing unquestioningly to buy into Gordon's prospectus dwindling as the costs and risks associated with its dubious returns become more evident. Ask any farmer, the shipbuilders of Belfast or car-makers of the West Midlands what they think about the relevance of the Budget to the real economy, and you'll get the idea. Maybe Britain's share of the 20 million jobs that Gordon says are coming from the internet will replace those now being destroyed in formerly profitable parts of the economy. Or maybe Gordon and Stephen Byers have plans to make good the foreign investment that would be coming here but for the growing propensity of the Japanese and others to view euroland as a safer haven. And maybe a pig will break the sound barrier.

But it is the pursuit of instant returns that most closely connects the Chancellor to the dot.com start-up. For example, having been roasted for ignor-ing industry's concerns and returning to the tax-and-spend approach that is his political heritage, he tries to placate his critics by enveloping them in pre-publicised, soundbite-ridden discussions, ostensibly about productivity, that have become part of the political reflex. Does anyone imagine that the UK's productivity gap has not already been thoroughly analysed and understood? Or that the measures required to close it are few, easily implemented or addressed by Mr Brown's pre-electoral self-promotion? Or that the press release that will follow tea and sympathy at Number 11 will make a shred of difference? No, I thought not.

Nothing worthwhile comes easily. The sooner UK industrialists, investors and, dare I say, voters become properly suspicious of those offering instant gratification, the better.

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