R&D’s great but why a target for spending on it?

R&D’s just lovely, it is, after all, how we develop the new technologies that are such an important part of economic growth. But we do hesitate a little bit when people start to say that we should have targets for spending upon something, whether it be R&D, poverty alleviation or education:

A “bold strategy” is needed to remedy weaknesses in Britain’s supply chain, according to the CBI, in a push to create 500,000 new jobs and boost the economy by £30bn.

The CBI feels a long-term target of 3pc of gross domestic product for public and private sector spending on research and development would underpin a turnaround over the next decade.

It’s all a bit never mind the quality, feel the width, isn’t it? For it’s not actually true that devoting more resources to something is desirable: what we want is more output of whatever it is from the resources that we do devote to that thing. We could describe this as being almost Stalinist: don’t worry about how good each car is but just weigh how much steel we put into each one! Or, another way of making the same point is that GDP, the thing we use to measure economic growth, is actually measuring value added in the economy. Except when we come to talking about government of course. There we’ve no idea what the value added is so we just assume that the output is worth the value of the resources devoted to producing it.

That’s not an assumption that holds true in the real world of course: and so it is and would be with R&D spending. How much we spend on it isn’t the interesting or important point: how much cool new stuff and shiny shiny we get from spending on R&D is.

The report shows a lack of investment in research and development, along with a growing skills crisis, has weakened “foundation industries” such as plastics, metals and chemicals.

It is also calling for a change in research tax credits to help innovation and incentives to encourage more graduates to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees.

Creating a national materials strategy to protect and enhance critical supply chain sub-sectors and doubling the budget of Innovate UK are among other measures in the CBI programme.

It all does smack rather of that old industrial planning, doesn’t it, where success is measured by resources consumed rather than the value of the output.

Finally, as an aside, encouraging more people to take STEM degrees is very simple indeed. The employers of those who graduate with STEM degrees should increase the wage they pay to those with STEM degrees. Rather than demand that the State subsidise the creation of a willing workforce.

Tired of London?

Samuel Johnson famously pronounced: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. This isn’t the end of his statement though, he added: “for there is in London all that life can afford.” But what if you can’t afford life in London? Surely then it is time to up sticks and move to a cheaper city.

According to a poll from the Supper Club, the network for entrepreneurs turning over £1m or more, 40pc of London-based business owners have considered moving their operations.

More than a third claimed that the cost and inefficiency of London’s public transport system is holding back businesses, while 40pc said that the cost of housing is driving away the best talent. With house prices in London reaching an all-time peak, business owners have warned of a “brain drain”.

The Supper Club, which represents 330 entrepreneurs from a range of sectors, found that 79pc of respondents fear a skills crisis within five years.

Of course, for as long as London remains a leading world city – at the cutting edge of finance, business and culture – it will remain a pricey place to live. After all, there is a flipside of the economies of amalgamation – some stuff, like housing becomes more expensive. And yet, there can be no doubting that house prices are hitting crisis point. For Generation Y, many can’t foresee how they will ever be able to own property in the capital. London’s big divide is between the owners and the renters and successive governments’ failure in allowing more houses to be built is squarely to blame.

To give you a sense of the crisis, Shelter’s model predicts that fewer than 1 in 5 of London families will be able to become owners by the age of 65 if prices inflate as they have done in the past.

As the LSE’s Paul Cheshire points out, politicians haven’t stepped up to the plate. The coalitions’ Help to Buy policies are doing little (except pushing up prices), while Labour’s suggestion for partial controls on rents, increased security of tenure, and elimination of agent’s fees for finding housing for renters, will probably just decrease rental supply as fewer people want to become landlords.

Cheshire believes “nothing short of radical reform will improve housing affordability. But radical reform, like intelligently loosening restrictions on Greenbelt building, is frightening.” Affordable, more stable house prices should be the policy goals of all political parties. This requires a more liberalised system, whereby the demand for housing would impact its supply.

This generation of successful entrepreneurs may be able to live in London but their employees increasingly can’t. And crucially, for the wealth of this nation, the next generation of entrepreneurs may have already moved to a city where the cost of living isn’t prohibitively expensive – and my first pick wouldn’t be the UK.

The risk tolerant benefit more from entrepreneurship training

Policymaking always utilises a broad brush with which to redraw the lives of individuals. However, though broad, with the right evidence this brush can be narrowed by taking account of the heterogeneity of human behaviour.

Just consider the many and varied schemes designed to support entrepreneurs. Putting aside the debate over whether or not this is the best use of tax revenues, nobody could deny that if we are to spend money on promoting entrepreneurs we should do so in most efficient way.

In “Entrepreneurship Training, Risk Aversion and Other Personality Traits: Evidence from a Random Experiment”, Robert W. Fairlie and William Holleran from the University of California draw on data from Growing America through Entrepreneurship (Project GATE), the largest randomised control experiment on providing entrepreneurship training ever conducted in the United States. Fairlie and Holleran find that:

[I]ndividuals who are more risk tolerant benefit more from entrepreneurship training than individuals who are less risk tolerant. The estimated interaction effects are large: averaging our estimates across the three waves implies that individuals who have a one standard deviation higher level of risk tolerance experience a 2.9 percentage point larger increase in business ownership and a 3.7 percentage point larger increase in the likelihood of starting a business from receiving the treatment than individuals with the lower level of risk tolerance.

This is a useful insight and suggests that we should consider identifying specific groups that may benefit more or less from government programmes to help people start a business. There can be no sure-fire way for spotting the next Zuckerberg, but we can increase the odds. Interestingly, Fairlie and Holleran also find “no evidence that individuals who are more innovative benefit more from entrepreneurship training than individuals who are less innovative.”

As the paper states: “some of the most disadvantaged groups such as at-risk youth and individuals with a criminal background have high levels of risk tolerance, and thus might benefit more for entrepreneurship training than more traditional job training programs.” There might be something in this: John Timpson has found ex-offenders fit in well with his unique entrepreneurial, bottom-up model for running his high street retailer.

As things stand in the UK, we have a remarkably limited understanding whether the schemes used to support entrepreneurship are doing any good. According to Gov.uk, business owners have 278 schemes to choose from. With proper analysis it might turn out that this is the correct number and they are being targeted at exactly the right group in the most efficient way. But I doubt it.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Don’t kill off the only industry that provides loans for low-earners

Wonga’s decision to write off £220m worth of debt for 330,000 customers and “voluntarily” embrace new regulations will been seen by many as a form of social justice and an obvious defeat for the big, bad, payday-lending wolf.

Unfortunately, the Financial Conduct Authority’s attempt to further regulate the payday lending sector may end up harming low-income earners in need of a loan.

But first, we must distinguish between the payday lending industry and Wonga as a specific organization within that industry. Payday lenders offer customers quick and easy access to short-term cash flow. Though anyone with any income size could apply to Wonga for a loan, it is mostly used by people with low-incomes, as such earners struggle to get bank loans and credit cards, and payday loans are often cheaper than using an unauthorized overdraft.

Of course, there are risks associated with payday lending, as “companies are loaning to high-risk demographics, with usually low-income averages and bad credit scores.”* In order to stay profitable and protect themselves from bankruptcy, payday lending companies must factor defaults into their interest rates.

These interest rates –especially Wonga’s interest rates – tend to be the target of myths constructed by opponents of payday lending, who are either accidentally or intentionally analyzing the data badly. Most notably, critics attack Wonga for charging its customers close to an astronomical 6,000% interest rate.

That figure, however, comes from a legal quirk in British financial regulations that requires every business to express their interest rates as an annual rate. Wonga’s payday loan interest payments are capped at sixty days, so there is no scenario where anyone could come close to paying Wonga nearly 6,000% APR, as the company is forced to express as it’s annual rate.

Some of the criticisms leveled specifically at Wonga do have merit – indeed, their fake legal letter scandal from this past summer – which threatened customers with legal action if loans weren’t repaid – left everyone feeling uncomfortable with the industry.

Such behavior from any company is unethical, to say the least, and should be met with repercussions. But the FCA’s decision to crackdown on all payday lenders as a result of Wonga’s actions will drive almost all payday lenders out of business and leave Wonga to dominate the industry.

From today it has introduced new lending criteria to improve its decisions. That means it will be lending to fewer people and it is unlikely to be the only firm forced to do that, as the FCA said today: “This should put the rest of the industry on notice.

This new lending criteria, coupled with previous regulation tightening – bans on payday advertising in public spaces – and future proposed regulations – like a mandatory cap on costs for all short-term loans – reduces the entire industry’s profitability and forces smaller companies, that would otherwise compete with Wonga, out of the market.

Furthermore, other indirect financial regulations continue to ensure Wonga’s dominance in the loan market. Credit unions could become competitive payday lenders and compete with companies like Wonga, but their interest cap of 3% a month prevents them from properly competing in the market.

Yes, Wonga is facing a 53% fall in annual profits partly as a result of new controls set by the FCA, but other payday lender companies, that don’t have the ethically questionable history of Wonga, are looking to be cut out of the market all together.

Critics of payday loans will be overjoyed to hear that the payday lending industry is on the rocks, but those who actually use its services and benefit from the loans should be worried. Banks and credit card companies have priced these customers out of accessing loans, and with with less payday lenders offering their services to people with low incomes, a lot of people will find themselves with no options, no loan, and no way to pay rent.

While payday lenders are by no means the perfect system to deliver loans to low-income customers, they are currently the only realistic way for such people to get their hands on necessary loans.

*This gal.

The visa and the sausage

The policy making process is a messy business. It is widely and fairly quoted that “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” Think tanks sit at the very start of the policy process – writing recipes for politicians to feed to the public (as well as writing recipes for the public to feed to politicians). However, polices can become adulterated as they are funnelled through the sausage machine of government.

Some policies are just bad ideas – such as the creeping reintroduction of incomes policies, which dramatically and unequivocally failed in the 1970s – but some good policies fail in their implementation. At least one is failing because nobody knows it exists: the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa for tech.

As Sam Shead explains at TechWorld:

As part of an effort to get more of the world’s best tech entrepreneurs and software engineers to come to the UK, prime minister David Cameron announced last December that the government was going to allow Tech City UK to endorse 200 of the 1000 slots. At the time, Cameron said more overseas talent was needed if the UK wanted to overcome the skills gap that exists in the tech sector.

The Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa should be a fast-track for tried and tested entrepreneurs to enter the UK, but even though Tech City UK has been free to endorse entrepreneurs since April, the policy is struggling to get off the ground.

The failure is largely the result of so few people knowing the visa route even exists. I’ve spoken with plenty of entrepreneurs, recruiters and lawyers – all of whom are needed to make this policy work in practice. Most haven’t heard of this visa route and none has the information required to understand the process. There is plenty of blame to go around but Tech City UK and UKTI probably deserve the brunt of it.

The failure of the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa tech demonstrates how government departments and quangos are falling short in their job of communicating policy to so-called stakeholders (for want of a better word). We can’t rely on MPs to spread the word. In a recent poll commissioned by The Entrepreneurs Network it was discovered that they are largely ignorant of current policies to support entrepreneurs.

Based upon the evidence (and my cosmopolitan biases), fiddling with the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa doesn’t go nearly far enough in liberalising the immigration system. But before this great battle of ideas is won – which will encompass cultural as well as economic clashes – every failing policy is a setback.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.