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Could a BIB promote growth?

    The search continues for a big idea to help rebalance the British economy and restore growth. In his autumn statement, George Osborne proposed some £40bn of "credit easing" to get cheaper credit flowing to small and medium-sized enterprises along with a boost for infrastructure spending to create jobs and investment in new capital projects. But, if such projects are going to work, they need ownership, leadership and drive.

    The arch proponent of building a new framework - in the shape of a "British Investment Bank" (BIB) - is Robert Skidelsky, biographer of the economist John Maynard Keynes and a former professor of political economy.

    Skidelsky, the product of a Russian-Jewish family exiled to Harbin, has been an outspoken critic of the Government's budgetary policy. He advocates the Keynesian solution of greater public spending.

    His ideas have been embraced by Felix Martin of the hedge fund, Thames River Capital (part of the publicly quoted F&C group), and are outlined in a new pamphlet* released by the Centre for Global Studies.

    The discovery that there is a shortage of long-term investment capital for small, medium and even larger businesses in the UK can be traced back to the 1931 Macmillan Report, which identified what has become known as the "Macmillan gap". It was in an attempt to deal with this problem that the Industrial and Commercial Financial Corporation (ICFC) to serve smaller businesses, and its sister group, Finance Corporation for Industry, were established immediately after the Second World War.

    But when the two organisations were merged in the 1980s to form 3i, and floated on the stock market in 1994, this became a profit-seeking private equity fund and the needs of its original clients were neglected.

    In the 1970s and the 1980s, it became fashionable to scoff at government interventions in industry because of the failure of British Leyland.

    The reality is that it created some notable successes including a viable early competitor in the new world of computers in ICL - eventually swallowed by the Japanese giant Fujitsu.

    Skidelsky notes that state investment banks have a distinguished record in Britain and attributes the success of German medium-sized firms to the work of KfW, the country's government-run development bank.

    Such a bank, Skidelsky argues, can "mobilise investment without adding to the deficit". Osborne's credit-easing plans might be a useful start to this process but go nowhere near to fulfilling the broader Skidelsky vision of a more permanent institution capable of making bold decisions.

    A second requirement is that such a bank be run on semi-commercial lines by a businessman of the calibre of Sir Terry Leahy, formerly of Tesco; Sir John Rose, formerly of Roll-Royce; or WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell.

    Such a BIB might have been able to save Britain's music champion, EMI, currently being sold by its owners Citigroup, from being broken up. Similarly, it could step into the crisis at Japanese photographic group Olympus and rescue Britain's cutting-edge hearing technology firm Gyrus.

Alex Brummer

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