The high street flopperoo that was ‘Black Friday’ may have something to do with terrorism fears, or even the downturn of the Chinese economy: in last year’s ugly scenes of bargain-hunters wrestling over televisions, Chinese tiger–shoppers seemed to win most of the spoils. But this year you could have held a picnic in the entrance of an Oxford Street store without fear of being trampled; trade had migrated massively online, where total UK sales are estimated to have passed £1 billion in a day for the first time and to have peaked (how sad is this?) between midnight and one in the morning. Amazon alone processed 7.4 million purchases in 24 hours.
If we’re lucky, the soul-crushing American concept of Black Friday as a great day out in a shopping mall (invented in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, to fill a lull after the Thanksgiving holiday) will fade as fast as it rose over here in the past two years, and the media will make a meal of Cyber Monday instead. But retailers who are sufficiently shrewd, specialised and valued by regular customers to have survived the online revolution thus far, or turned it to their advantage, will continue to do so — if the Living Wage doesn’t cripple them, and the government at last comes up with a business-rates review that eases their cost burden. Be sure to save some of your Christmas shopping for your friendly local stores.
The delivery of George Osborne’s Autumn Statement was notable for the way he held eye contact with Labour’s front bench as he escaped his tax-credit embarrassment and pulled other rabbits out of his hat. But earlier in the speech I thought I spotted a nervous upward glance towards the Commons rafters — a check, perhaps, for the presence of that elusive creature on which I have myself been trying to keep a beady eye lately: I refer of course to the writhing python of global economic doom. ‘Expectations for world growth and world trade have been revised down again,’ read the Chancellor briskly. ‘The weakness of the eurozone remains a persistent problem; there are rising concerns about debt in emerging economies [but] even with the weaker global picture, our economy this year is predicted to grow…’, and he rattled off a forecast to 2020 that stayed within 0.1 per cent of the expected out-turn for this year, which is 2.4 per cent.
The forecast came from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, rather than the Chancellor’s own team, and I’m sure it carried the usual health warning that forecasting is a mug’s game. Even so, given everything that’s going on in the world, a prediction of five years’ stable growth at a whisker below the post-1948 average of 2.6 per cent seems optimistic, not to say unworldly. Not since the 1960s has our economy come close to behaving so sensibly; you could argue that it generated relatively steady above-trend growth from 2003 to 2007, averaging 3.3 per cent, but look what happened after that. The growth forecast was one of the least remarked passages of the Chancellor’s speech, but I’ll be amazed if the next five years turn out anything like it.
More readers’ tales of trouble opening business bank accounts. One who urgently needed a repository for fees from overseas work toured his local branches. NatWest told him it could take six months: ‘We don’t seem to want the business, to be honest,’ said the salesperson. Next he tried Lloyds, who ‘pretty well told me to sling my hook’. Then Barclays, who to his amazement did the business in ‘four days, start to finish’.
But another, who happens to have a gong for non-political public service, found Barclays peculiarly difficult: ‘I think they think I’m a “politically exposed person”,’ he tells me. Perhaps the bank has tightened the way it handles ‘PEPs’, having just been fined £20 million, and had £52 million of fee income ‘disgorged’, in relation to a huge investment-related deal on behalf of some unnamed (but widely reported to be Qatari) clients who were categorised as ‘Sensitive PEPs’ — but seem to have been waved past the standard vetting you or I would face if we asked for a new chequebook.
‘Sensitive’, in this context, doesn’t mean emotionally frail, but carrying ‘a higher risk of financial crime’. According to a Financial Conduct Authority report, however, Barclays executives believed they had landed ‘the deal of the century’ and decided to ‘race this through’ with minimal checks. The use of ‘multiple jurisdictions, offshore companies [and] temporary bank accounts’ did not put them off; nor did a request, later withdrawn, to ‘make a payment of several tens of millions of US dollars to a third party’.
The FCA report made me shudder: it wasn’t that the bank had no rules or precedents to deal with such an ethically complex situation; it had plenty, but set them aside because the potential rewards were so big. It’s the perfect parable of greed overwhelming prudence in modern banking; and in the end it’s the small customer who suffers.
Day of bargains
In my Yorkshire town of Helmsley — currently waiting to hear whether we’re a ‘Great British High Street’ winner — I spotted only one small shop with a ‘Black Friday 25 per cent off’ sign. But Friday has been the day of bargains here since the early 13th -century, when our local baron and Magna Carta hero Robert de Ros granted a borough charter that created burgesses, or free men, who became the town’s first merchants. For this summer’s Magna Carta anniversary I penned a piece of street theatre: ‘Borough status makes us free-er/ To ply our trades and drink more beer…/ On Fridays we shall hold a market/ If you come by cart you’ll pay to park it/ No longer serfs, we’re the middle classes…’. To which Robert’s Scottish wife Isabella, who might have been a junior Treasury minister today, retorts: ‘Doesnae mean I can’t kick your arses.’