Latest from Birmingham Post business...
It's a measure of just how much the world has changed in the last decade or so, that it's a surprise to come across a global event in which China is not playing a part. It's as much a measure of how much China has changed that, despite that, the country is looking for a light hearted way to capture some of the attention associated with said global event.
Figures produced on Friday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that the UK's trade deficit for April was greater than March because of weakening manufacturing export.
Initially the estimated deficit was believed to be £9.6 billion; up from the £8.3 billion for March.
Given that there was a trade surplus of £7.1 in due to the services sector which, it should be remembered, is responsible for a whopping 80% of economic growth, this resulted in an overall deficit of £2.5 billion an increase of £1.4 billion from that in March (£1.1 billion).
However, the figure was revised upwards because of an omission by HM Revenues and Customs (HRMC) which, forgot to include £700 million of oil we exported to the EU.
So, taking into account the omission - I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when it was discovered and how this would be reported to George Osborne - the overall deficit for April reduces to £1.8 billion.
There is a modest explosion in the conference room. After a number of years of very happy engagement with Chinese colleagues, there is still a sense, to my western ears, that any slightly animated conversation sounds like a series of fire crackers going off. Everyone has a view and an urgent need to express it - which all gives an impression of blood boiling somewhere. On this occasion the issue is no more than the slightly tardy arrival of a projector to support a presentation. Just another of those minor cultural adjustments you have to make as a matter of course.
The last week has certainly been seminal in showing us the thinking of a large number of voters in the local and European elections; most especially in their apparent belief that EU membership is something that has been to this country's disadvantage.
Though many commentators suggest that one of the reasons for the votes garnered by a party that is avowedly anti-European is disenchantment with the current Westminster political 'class', I am not so sure.
Not for the first time many voters believe that leaving the EU would cure problems such as unemployment by reducing immigration.
For as long as I can remember there have been controversies surrounding subsidies that we pay to Brussels.
The pervading wisdom of many is that the money we pay goes to Mediterranean countries where it has been wasted.
The fact that we get back billions of pounds each year in grants to fund infrastructure schemes and initiatives to create employment is often conveniently forgotten.
Add to that the belief that the continuing Euro crisis is undermining our ability to compete together with a pervading view that the original European 'dream' of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, a federation based on economic collaboration (the 'Common Market'), has instead morphed into closer political ties that impinge on our freedom and you have a noxious brew that has allowed the detractors some easy hits.
Thomas Piketty may have just got into hot water with the Financial Times over the data in his book, but there is another new book getting lots of publicity which is rock solid on the data it has amassed.
That's John Clancy's new book The Secret Wealth Garden which sets out a compelling case for reforming Britain's local government pension funds, and which is now being considered by Labour's Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves.
And I can be confident about saying that the data is 'rock solid' as I have spent many days with the author checking and rechecking the figures.
A damning study by the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee (PAC) entitled "promoting economic growth locally" has just laid bare the failings of the coalition government's local job creation policies.
These are "falling well short" of its initial expectations the report states, which can be read here.
The report looks at the impact thus far of the government's various local economic growth initiatives after it abruptly scrapped the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). These include the Growing Places Fund, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), Enterprise Zones (EZs) and City Deals.
If there is one strategic objective that appears to be common to all really successful organisations it is the ability to be innovative.
As one definition I use states, 'it is generation of new ideas that will allow the organisation to achieve competitive advantage through growth and enhanced reputation.'
Corporate history is littered with the 'carcasses' of corporations that sparked into life on the basis of creative ideas which spurned innovative ability but which because of factors such as increased size and complexity became, to use one expression 'stodgy'.
Maintaining innovative ability is extremely difficult and requires leadership that is willing to continuously work hard to facilitate a culture that will underpin and support effort dedicated effort by every.
The problem for many organisations is that by the time they realise they need to increase innovative ability it is probably too late.
The retail industry is having a bumper time of things right now, with spending on the high street, in stores and malls, and on line up by around 7% since a year ago. That's the fastest rate of growth for ten years.
A decade ago, Tony Blair was Prime minister, the EU enlarged to include ten new states, and Arsenal won the Premier League at a canter without being beaten. And the Bank of England - concerned over the strength of consumer spending and inflationary pressures - raised official interest rates. By August of that year they had reached 4.75%.
This blog posting is winging its way to Birmingham from Indianapolis in the land of the free. I'm here attending the spring meeting of State Law Resources (SLR), a network of mainly US law firms, each of which has a governmental affairs practice based in a state capital. Most of the firms are full service commercial law firms like my own, SGH Martineau, but the focus of SLR is on industry sectors heavily regulated by local state law, notably (but not exclusively) energy, health and insurance.
Our firm has a busy and well-respected energy team here in the UK and it is for this reason we have been a member of SLR for some years; indeed, we remain its only member outside of North America, and thanks I suspect in part to our Brussels office, we are badged as the 'EU' member firm.
Admiring European glances have focussed on the US energy revolution and in recent months we have become a useful link between our European energy network, the Association of European Energy Consultants (AEEC) and energy lawyers in the US. This culminated in the AEEC's first 'transatlantic summit' in Washington last month. This high profile event on the energy calendar featured representatives from the US energy industry as well as from the European Commission, and discussed the many parallels either side of the pond as energy law and policy continues to evolve rapidly.
SLR meetings, in contrast, are dominated by presentations and discussions led by clients of member firms. Indianapolis is no exception and we've been joined by one of Toyota's top government affairs people in the US.
Interestingly, he explains how, as a leading manufacturer, they go about engaging with (and influencing) law makers in the various state capitals on topics such as electric vehicle infrastructure (e.g., charging points), driver safety (e.g., use of mobile phones), driver-less vehicle technology, and competition law concerns around right to repair and access to IP for non-dealer repair shops.
For a large global company such as Toyota, navigating the US legal system, with its patchwork of local laws made by local legislatures in each of the 50 states, complementing federal law made in Washington DC, is a challenge which requires a veritable army of lawyers (of which the US has a bountiful resource, or course). For a European, with elections looming, it is tempting to draw parallels with our own system of EU law making and the frequent tension between the European Commission and the 28 member states.
As co-chair of the Energy, Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, it's my job to help devise topics for discussion. All the talk amongst the energy lawyers here is of the shale gas revolution and how it has transformed the US, so it's fitting that we've got two shale gas speakers. One is from the Natural Gas Alliance, the US trade association which represents the independent gas exploration and production companies, and he explains how the US is now the world's no. 1 natural gas producer, having overtaken Russia; the shale reserves in the US are vast.
The shale revolution came about here as two technologies developed and combined - hydraulic fracturing (the process of extracting gas from rock deep below the surface by cracking it apart with a mix of water, sand and chemicals injected at high pressure) and horizontal drilling (traditionally, gas has been extracted through vertical well shafts).
The US embarked on the exploitation of its huge resource with such speed that the large quantities of gas produced have now made the US self-sufficient. Indeed, to complement the clutch of export terminals given the green light in the Gulf Coast, designed mainly to serve the Indian and Chinese markets, the coal import terminal in Maryland on the east coast is currently being converted into a liquefied natural gas export facility. I suspect we could even be importing US gas ourselves in a few years.
It's clear from what people are saying here that the shale revolution is not just about energy self-sufficiency. The glut of gas on the market has created record low energy prices and this has led to a resurgence in US manufacturing; look no further than the succession of closed steel mills which have been acquired for re-opening; and Dow Chemicals has just committed to a new huge R&D centre for 2,000 employees in Texas.
The politicians here in the US are also keen to use their new-found ability to export gas to their advantage on the political stage as a counter-balance to reliance on Russia gas in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. That sounds great in theory, but prices are higher in Asia, and Eastern Europe lacks sizeable LNG import infrastructure. There is also a strong lobby in the US opposed to unlimited LNG exports - to date, only half a dozen or so export permits have been issued to US companies.
Back in Europe, however, there are many who look on with envy. But shale gas still has its critics, even in the US, and we've been hearing about the 'fractivisits' and 'pipeline-istas' who make life difficult for the drillers, and familiar concerns about use of water resources, road issues and infrastructure problems.
Interestingly, people here are saying that the key to unlocking the potential that shale has given to US industry is plugging the skills gap; getting youngsters into engineering school. A refrain we've heard frequently in the UK.
Thankfully, although the Americans work hard, they know how to relax. With two evenings of receptions and dinners behind me, all that's now left to look forward to is a visit to the home of US motor racing for the Indy 500 qualifying sessions and then my trip home.
International competition is sprouting everywhere with both very traditional and novel activities as its focus. The World Cup is looming over the horizon and we have just survived the mounting absurdities of the Eurovision Song Contest. What else ? Well, one of the more intriguing fields of human endeavour stepping into the global competitive spotlight is education and you might have noticed a bit of a kerfuffle about this a couple of months or so ago.