Friday, 29 July 2011

Macro Level Trends – The UK Economy – Fiscal 'Auto-Motivation' at the W.I.

The previous essay / web-log ended with the metaphor of the UK's auto-engineering sector moving beyond 'teaching the world to fish' so as to continue to develop the service aspect of the 'manufacturing-service' equation, whilst importantly still re-invigorating the manufacturing element.

It mentioned the need to create, maintain and repair allegorical 'rods, nets and boats'. Beyond the automotive world, the notion is well exemplified by a ship named the 'Wave Centennial' whose captain and crew have the task of repairing the multitude of under-sea internet transmission cables that carry the load demands of billions of users. Thus a critical and very high value service.

Yet the necessary re-balancing of the UK and Western economy from overt financial to manufacturing-service and from being credit-driven to productivity-driven requires much more than efforts to re-adjust import and export levels to re-set the 'visible' and 'invisible' Balance of Trade figures.

To generate innate good economic health the UK and West must 'dive deeper', moving beyond the surface of basic industrial & service activities to re-discover a seemingly lost sense of old-fashioned 'home-economics'. The essential meaning of that phrase has been increasingly diluted over the last century, where once it meant 'broad household management' it eventually became little more than a school-subject title which by the 1980s served-up tasteless staple recipes.

Yet, 'home-economics' derived its name from 'economics' which in turn derived its name from the Latin 'œconomican', in turn from the Ancient Greek 'oikonomia'.

The 20th century's productivity and wealth story ended with the 'throw-away age' where the notion of repair became little less than a social disgrace, an attitude that would have been truly an anathema to our Victorian predecessors who at all social levels demanded maximum value extraction from an item (ie its extended life-time) and when seemingly eventually exhausted sold to a merchant or trader, not simply thrown-away. This type of sagacity was typically learned the hard way by the older generation and is retained in all but a few of the modern young who now themselves face a very different 'austerity age' of their own.

Japan has famously experiences its own 'de-leveraging' process over the last 15 years or so, and has been both informally and formally academically reviewed by the West for lessons learned of what economic policies appear to work and those that do not. However, it has been the legendary involvement of an older generation of Japanese housewives, who acting en mass (though not orchestrated pe se) have helped to buoy their own savings and that of the Tokyo FX exchange via their support of the Yen carry-trade over the last decade.

The memories of WW2 famine and necessary post-war thriftiness were attitudinally engrained, and slowly the older Japanese generation recognised that they needed to understand global events, dynamics and the fiscal inter-relationships; in short a self-propelled need for broader fiscal understanding and knowledge at the personal level.

Of course, a similar remembrance of the 'austerity years' still exists here in Britain but the ability to pass-on such learning amongst families has been diminished by the fragmentation of society both geographically, and critically attitudinally, given the propensity of a media and media-device propelled American 'bling' culture.

Sixty years ago British men caustically complained that their recently arrived American allies were “over-paid, over-sexed and over-here”. As natural romantic and illicit targets, Britain's women-folk enjoyed the foreign GI's attention, their disposable income, imported cigarettes, bubble-gum and stockings. But many also recognised the 'fly by night' nature of such affairs and retained a sense of self-dignity albeit on very limited income without the attentions of seemingly rich American cousins.

In later years many of these upright slightly older ladies banded back together, given the changed face of the UK due to immigration, 'modern attitudes' etc. The prime focal-point for doing so was the Women's Institute. A haven for similar-mindedness; indeed a pavilion club-house for old-fashioned values.

The Women's Institute – better known as the “WI” - was established by Canadian Adelaide Hoodless in 1897, and was inaugurated in Britain during WW1 in 1915, with a clear agenda to engage the women of Britain's rural regions to become more engaged in community matters and to importantly raising national food production yields. It critically retains its 'Jam & Jerusalem' spirit, which whilst initially appearing as respectively cosseted, remote, spurious and deeply jingoistic, appears to in reality translate as conveying the values of personal productivity and staunchness – values that are very much needed for Britain's 21st century challenge.

It does this with a remit to educate, gain new skills and act as a campaigning body for various social causes.

[NB As with any nation-centric organisation it could of course be argued that it operates as a type of social-engineering entity; pressing top-down agendas. This accusation also levelled at the boy-scouts, girl-guides pre-WW1 and Salvation Army. The converse argument forms around social-cohesion. Though of course in all such organisations a seeming 'rank and file' structure is formed. So whilst not of personal interest to an 'individualist' it does indeed serve a national, public and personal need for many].

The WI then has undoubtedly retained its primary position as the spiritual home of 'home-economics'. Its jam-making activity may be an easy target for external humorists, but when viewed in the in the original 'œconomican' and 'oikonomia' sense, this flippant representation belies an important income stream which promotes the idea of self-sufficiency.

Economic Governance has always been at the very heart of the body, each and every one of the WI's 6,500 nationwide groups (containing 205,000 members) must have a nominated Treasurer, reporting on a weekly or monthly basis the income and expenditure of the group, and provide overview of the group account.

By virtue of acting as a role model, this very action then encourages each its members to take a responsible attitude to money; both regards family and personal expenditure. This a desperately needed lesson for many single women and single-mum households often living beyond their means, given the supposed social pressures 'for acceptance' that exist today; though often a case of 'one-up(wo)manship'

As is often the case with organisations built upon old-fashioned values and softer activities, the age of the constituent membership tends to reflect and reinforce the constituent mentality. And so the WI's average membership age is well over 40, more akin to a lawn-green bowls club or bingo parlour than say a 'hi-impact' gym class.

The constant search for newer, younger blood has always been a central challenge facing the WI, the youth and even middle-aged put off by the image - true or not - of a stuffy self-contained world. It conjures pictures of a 'blue-rinse brigade' led by officious 'Little Hitlers', with the central corps venting quiet anger via bad impressions and bitter sarcasm within their own cliques. The image then little different to the worst traits of the hierarchical regime set into public schools, the civil service or armed forces.

This stereotypical portrait, along with the apparent time-heavy demands, unsurprisingly does not sit well with the over-worked, over-stressed modern young woman.

To try and dispel this image the WI has undertaken various initiatives, many successful, some far less so. Central has been the publication of its in-house magazine, now printed on recycled paper, yet this below-the-line medium has also been bolstered by above-the-line PR efforts.

Amongst the most persuasive was the 2003 film Calender Girls, based on a true story, showing how the 'sister-ship' could both raise funds for a member's husband's medical treatment and simultaneously 'jivvy-up' the WI's image through the production of a (near) nude calender. This has since been reborn in 2010 as a UK touring stage-show.

Less flattering was a 2006 television documentary programme which spotlighted a newly set-up group on the Isle of Wight. It depicted the WI's effort to attract a new generation of members, one with open minds and fresh approaches. A newly established group created on the Isle of Wight was identified for this 'fly on the wall' approach. But the programme only served to highlight (and possibly create) the divisions between old and new, primarily by spotlighting the innate differences between the modest, low-key WI establishment and a set of newcomers with high personal wealth, overt 'professionalism' and a dynamic nature who appeared to have the ambition of usurping the WI leadership.

The new group's leader proclaimed her/their feats of local membership and income growth, through a series of high-priced high-profile talking events. A plausible paid-speaker invited to attend was a Royal Estates ex-Head Gardener. Less plausible were outside professionals such as a divorce lawyer and a plastic surgeon, effectively touting for business; presumably paid to do so!

Thus whilst on paper it appeared a 'successful' group, the 'WI guardians' apparently viewed the group's financial success as simply a consequence of local pricing elasticity. The exactitude of this high 'revenue-pull' was then implicitly questioned when it was mentioned that the necessary formal Treasurer's report was not being adhered to. Instead, within the informal setting of a kitchen table (seemingly her own) the group leader mentioned to a few 'close' members the amount of money made on a previous event

This then raised questions central to good governance.

[NB Although not explicitly stated in this case, in practice, such a loose seemingly 'cabalistic affair' is typical of the manner in which a few prime-placed people can siphon-off funds by 'skimming from the top', informally circulate a nominal profit figure and later have this ratified (by consensus) at a later a formal meeting}.

Whether by editorship design or not, even to the television viewer the group leadership appeared to have a fractious, “gung-ho”, nouveau riche money-making attitude more akin to a VC backed 'start-up' firm. The personal accoutrements of Louis Vitton handbags and Chanel sun-glasses provided a silent commentary to the WI elite.

As an absorbing public interest story it conveyed (intendedly or not) ideas about 'the right kind' vs 'the wrong kind' for the core of the WI - ie those that meld-in and are their for good moralistic reason versus those who are pushy and self-interested.

In short, the programme indicated that 'they don't make girls like they used to'!

Even though the search for the right kind of new blood is hard, the WI must continue its own transformational journey, whilst vitally retaining core ethics and a culture which perpetuates 'participation', 'information' and 'education' for its members.

However, the ongoing modernisation must not only attract well rounded younger members, it must also seek to do more than simply cover costs at local, regional & national levels.

Those at the WI HQ well know that must try and constantly build its profitability, so that it may in turn build an institutional nest egg; from which it can better service itself into tomorrow and the broader public at large.

This means reviewing and undertaking benchmark practices at 'income' and 'savings' levels. That means absorbing how the modern world operates commercially and understanding how other august institutions save and prosper. As such, investment-auto-motives believes that the following 2-tier 'earnings' & 'investment' model should be used to stimulate further internal dialogue at the WI headquarters in central London:

Earnings -
(Membership and Commercial Activity)

Today the organisation has its own trading arm named 'WI Enterprises', it offers both WI Cookery courses to the general public and owns & operates educational courses through its wholly owned Denman College based in Berkshire. But there is as ever an impetus to grow its influence and income through membership numbers and trading activities.

To assist the former with impact on the latter, a very general template which could be adopted is to attract new 20-something & 30-something members by creating activity parallels with the manner in which women assisted the nation in WW2. This would build upon the recent fashion-trend for 1940s glamour and 'make-do-and-mend' chic, and parallel the social urban trends for self-adapted clothes and the big uptake of a knitting culture amongst the anti-street fashion brigade that has arisen in response to the 'bling' culture seen on TV programmes such as 'The Only Way is Essex' and 'Made in Chelsea'. As such the attitude is of the wholly old fashioned British 'middle-class', and very much reflects a female socio-psychology engrained in British culture which harks back to the principle self-improved, self-reliant but romantic Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austin's Pride & Prejudice.

As such WW2 groups such as the 'Land Girls', the WAAF, the WRENS, the various female transport & ambulance corps, aswell as individual figures from history such as Amy Johnson and perhaps today's Alison Streeter. These would serve as useful group identities with associated activities that demonstrate female self-sufficiency, grounded in the yesteryear but also linked to today.

This then would mean broadening the WI educational remit to far beyond the perceptions of jam-making and general cookery; although still vitally important.

An obvious avenue would be to fill the knowledge gap that exists between women (and increasingly men) and the car, its maintenance and the automotive service and repair industry at large. Through self-ignorance and then doubt, women have been obvious targets for less than decent garage owners and mechanics. It can be well argued, with some justification, that women have only themselves to blame (as have ignorant men), and that they allow themselves to be exploited. But equally the automotive world has been typically foreign to females, and often intentionally kept that way, and channels have not been created to assist their improved knowledge.

Of course commerce has been quick to jump on the opportunity of serving the female-only market such as the insurance industry with Sheila's Wheels and the like; now denied by Brussel's EU edict as a sexist action. Whilst the likes of UDO have created - on a superficial level at least - female-friendly publications for car maintenance.

This is a domain that the WI could leverage and exploit to serve its single, divorced and widowed members by expanding courses at Denham College and nationwide. No dount considered previously, this of course replicates the kinds of evening courses that can be found across the country at Further Education colleges. But the uptake by females in this arena, though larger than in the past, is still small compared to the potential for mass group learning.

The motor-vehicle is but one arena, a few others male-dominated until obviously being (amongst many more):

- Home Repair
- Personal Finance etc.

Such commercial based education programmes born from a community naturally lead to the merchandising of products and so the WI brand. WI-logo'd green/grey/blue overalls with a retro-chic mock 'WW2 services' aesthetic could be just one product outcome.

[NB As an aside, yet demonstrating the self-sufficiency trend amongst young females, investment-auto-motives suspects that the fashion retailer 'All Saints' is being used as an 'intermediary buying vehicle' to obtain many of the UK previously dispersed stock of old hand-turned Singer sowing machines.

They appear in their thousands as part of the impressive shop display across London and the country. As this display stock will need to be eventually removed and sold, the 'invisible' wholesale buyer of the stock may well have cornered the UK market in the machines.

The WI may wish to approach All Saints retailers senior management / owners and seek to make an offer for these sewing-machines to ensure that they can eventually find deserving homes amongst real users; and not simply profit the pocket a possible hoarding recipient speculator].

Hence, the WI must try and create its own “economic eco-system” by which it can both produce value, consume value and manage/invest the marginal profits thereby gained.

Wealth Retention & Growth -

Hence, the WI must try and create its own “economic eco-system” by which it can both produce value, consume value and manage/invest the marginal profits thereby gained.

Amongst the broader realm of UK institutions 'best-practice' may be reflected in the efforts of university endowment funds to be more participatory. They have historically tended to 'outsource' their fund management activities to typically one or more investment banks, brokerages or investment planning enterprises such as a 'family wealth' firms, with little interactivity themselves.

However, in recent years – especially after the 2008 crash - a greater emphasis has been on those institutions to take on a greater level of self-responsibility, so as to 'de-risk'. One such has been the renowned University of Cambridge and the creation of its So whilst still using external money managers it will incorporating a small in-house skeleton-staffed office able to pay closer attention to the day to day dynamics of capital markets and draw up asset-allocation structures/ratios (equities vs bonds vs commodities vs derivatives vs real estate) to create a stable investment portfolio, itself created from the monies brought-in from offering one of the world's best educational environments.

Cambridge University then has created through preceding centuries and the late 20th/early 21st centuries both a solid 'business foundation' and now increasingly solid 'investment foundation' that will help not only itself in retaining its standards and primacy, but also assisting those from far less wealthy backgrounds through ever expansing scholarships etc to ensure it attracts the best students and post-graduate researchers.

If not already the case – which it may well be - this then could serve as a strategic and operational template for the WI.

An additional template that offers learning is to review the investment criteria and staffing levels of Sovereign Wealth Funds, more and more transparency growing in this arena, though it would be fair to say that different countries - indeed funds - offer differing levels of information.

Beyond this, the legendary investment approach of Berkshire Hathaway's Buffett & Munger would prove useful.

They have created an eco-system wherein its stock-holders typically buy a broad-span of products from cookies to shoes from BH's own portfolio companies. In this case it is blatant self-interest of the BH investor to 'buy from themselves ' - a model that goes back throughout tribal history, notably Jews (to this day), Ancient Greek traders, Mormons, immigrant Chinese etc.

This then goes against the ethos of 'indiscriminate free-trade', and should not be favoured in general commerce and national trade - though often is. But regards the WI a good case could be made that it lends itself to both cultural roots (as a UK institution, and presumably predominantly Church of England) whilst also serving the broader national agenda of 'mass self-improvement' and thereby 'nation-improving'.

The WI would then take a position somewhere in the middle of the economic-model spectrum: reaching from from 'communism' to 'socialism' to 'co-operative capitalism' to 'stakeholder capitalism' (eh John Lewis Group) to 'investor self-interest' (BH) to 'raw capitalism'].

Whilst the WI has been financially self-sustaining since 1926 when sponsorship funding from the Board of Agriculture was withdrawn, it might perhaps seek to (re)learn those lessons currently being digested by the National Trust which is now forced to create a self-sustaining model. In turn the NT could look through the WI's 'history books' to view its 1920s & 1930s methods.

Of course, the WI probably does not have the type of 'property-bank' enjoyed by the National Trust which is presumably concreted into of 'non-current' asset valuations on the balance sheet, nor has it direct access to family & male membership fees and incomes.

Nevertheless lessons could be learned by comparing the ways and methods of the WI and NT to mutual advantage.

It should therefore act in the combined manners of a private equity holding company which seeks to create a set of synergistic enterprises (horizontally or vertically or diagonally across the value-chain), whilst also looking to defend and grow part of its wealth with the classical use of compounding interest, now having to access foreign currency deposits to ensure better rates of interest than available in the stagnant West.

The WI will reach its centenary in 2015, and in the run up to that auspicious occasion it might wish to re-set and crystalise its operational agenda, one by which it can ensure it may enjoy another fruitful 100 years as an increasingly potent instrument assisting women to help both their families and as a result the broader public interest.

If ever a body proffered both intrinsic economies of scale and growth potential it is the WI.

And at a time when intelligent young women have noted that the seemingly endemic penchant for designer handbags has started to reek with a tainted odour, all WI members would do well to remember that their involvement must be more about “ethical commercial brawn” and less about “handbags at dawn”.

As Henry Ford stated, “whether you think you can or whether you think you are absolutely right”.

Good Luck to the Women's Institute and the enhancement of its commercial traction as it approaches its centenary.