On his final day, the Birmingham Post’s economics editor, Nevill Boyd Maunsell, reflects on his 36 years
A fearsome recession was gathering momentum when I joined the City office of the Birmingham Post in London 36 years ago. I sign off this morning with fingers crossed that we have seen the worst of another.
It is not a bad moment to remind ourselves that things really have been worse before. Last winter, this recession was cracked up to be the worst since the Great Depression of the 30s, or even the short, but shocking slump at the end of the First World War, when the famous flu epidemic coincided with demobilisation and mass unemployment.
Take note, then: I am not aware of any suicides among West Midland industrialists this time. There was at least one in 1981. The man had been in the audience when Sir Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s industry minister, came to Birmingham to deliver a crass and insensitive speech about the unimportance of manufacturing industry to Britain.
West Midland industry never returned as the lavish employer of labour it had been before that recession. Yet it survived to stage a powerful revival in the mid-80s. In 1986 the M&G investment group’s Midland & General unit trust topped the league table of all packaged investments.
One of the first lessons I learned at the Post was that the real economy is rarely as bad – or as good – as the City thinks.
Months after I arrived, Ted Heath ordered industry to work no more than a three-day week. It was mid-winter, the miners were on strike and coal stocks were running low. Heath panicked.
Suddenly we found West Midland companies that had been previously been avid for free publicity were refusing to let journalists near their premises. Some stopped answering the phone.
Afterwards they confessed that they gone on working at least five days a week, whatever Mr Heath decreed, but dared not be found out.
The stock market, though, was behaving – as it does from time to time – as if the capitalist world as we knew it had imploded. The worst shock came when NatWest put out a formal statement that it was not going bust.
The silence last October from NatWest’s new owner, Royal Bank of Scotland, when it faced the beginnings of a run, has turned out far worse – for British taxpayers anyway. In 1974, they never had to stump up a penny.
The stock market, though, was in freefall. The 30-share FT Index (this was before the Footsie 100) had peaked at 543 on May 1, 1972. By January 6, 1975, it was down to 146.
We have had four savage bear markets since, but nothing like that. Nor have we seen anything like the recovery that followed.
By the end of that February, the index was back at 302. Share prices doubled in less than two months.
It transpired that several merchant bankers and chairmen of investing institutions had got together over the New Year and agreed to stage a concerted buying spree. Anybody who tried that today would be locked up by the Financial Services Authority for “market abuse”.
The City office that I joined was a wonderful berth for a journalist. We were 110 miles away from our masters, who had not the tiniest idea of what we were doing – only that it was read and respected. Computers put a stop to that independence, but it was great while it lasted.
Our City Editor, Ian Richardson, who sadly died last winter, was unfailingly considerate personally, but expected everyone else to work almost as long and as hard as he did.
He believed financial journalism should be entertaining, provocative and jargon-free, as well as accurate.
At a time when journalists were entertained lavishly and a bottle of whisky cost about £5, he banned “bribes” worth more than £5 on the grounds that they might corrupt us and those worth less than £5 because they were an insult.
Amazingly, we picked up only one libel writ – from Arnold Weinstock’s then mighty GEC. Ian accused Weinstock of “wild claims that would not have got past even the Advertising Standards Authority”.
We were busy: 1974 was a year of three Budgets, which we covered with gusto and dismay. In one of them Denis Healey raised basic rate income tax to 33 per cent and the top rate to 83 per cent (plus another 15 per cent on “unearned income”).
Our readers hated it. After one informative lunch with an ingenious accountant, I described Birmingham in print as “Tax Dodge City”. Not a soul objected. One or two told me quietly they rather liked the title.
Birmingham Stock Exchange had been merged with the other UK exchanges a short while before I came to the City office. But there was still an active trading floor in Margaret Street, providing a market for shares in more than 100 listed local companies.
Our main task was to follow their fortunes and those of the post-war entrepreneurs, who still ran them. Many kept dominant stakes in their companies after selling enough shares to make themselves independently wealthy.
A number could often be found, larger than life, on a Friday afternoon in the Pedmore outside Stourbridge.
The car park markings there were re-drawn to accommodate their Rolls-Royces.
All but a handful of these companies have since been taken over, mostly by multi-nationals or private equity outfits. But for two decades their status as independent listed companies stood them in good stead. Most came through the recession of 1980-81
In other parts of Britain with less active financial communities their counterparts sold out to multi-nationals and were closed down as “non-core activities”.
Since then I have seen the West Midlands adapt and reinvent itself twice – once for computers, more recently for the global economy.
It has been a proud achievement. I have had a wonderful 36 years observing it and recording my observations. I must thank the Post for letting me go on doing it long past what is, for the time being, regarded as retirement age. My thanks, too, to all of you, who have paid me the compliment over the years of your occasional attention over breakfast.