A multi-track global economy
We always talk about the economy in black and white - it's boom, or bust, or if we're really unlucky, a double dip.
But what if the future is simply grey? That's the question I was discussing with guests on the Bottom Line this week. I was interested to know whether a long period of slow growth might be more challenging, for some businesses, than a short, sharp shock.
The point was brought home to me lately when we interviewed an insolvency expert for the television bulletins. He reminded me of an astonishing fact - that the corporate insolvency rate in the UK is currently at a 30-year low. But, he said, the first couple of years of an economic recovery are often the worst for business failures, especially if growth is slow to pick up. The longer companies are forced to operate well below their usual capacity, the greater the chance they will eventually go bust - even after making it through the toughest recession in more than 20 years.
I've banged on about this before - it all goes back to the so-called "endogeneity" of our supply, and the worry that slow growth will become a self-fulfilling prophesy by destroying capacity and skills.
It all made me interested to hear what my studio guests would say about living with a slow growth. They were Rupert Soames, chief executive of mobile energy group, Aggreko; Neal Gandhi, chief executive of international business services company Quickstart Global and David Haines, chief executive of German bathroom fittings company Grohe.
Surprise surprise, they could barely comprehend the concept of a slow growth economy - all of their businesses are doing so well. (When's the last time you heard an interview with a chief executive talking about how bad his company was doing?!) But there was a good reason why they might all be thriving. None of them depended on the UK market for their growth.
Grohe has been doing well, even in the slow UK market, but where the bathroom business has taken off is, you guessed it, in the Bric countries. As so often in these conversations, all roads inevitably lead to China.
We also spoke about why the German economy is doing so well - and whether royals should get mixed up with promoting Britain's business interests. You might be surprised to hear that Prince Andrew got a big thumbs up from the guests. When the palace was looking for endorsements last week, it should have phoned them.
But most interesting, to me, was a theme that I have come across a lot in the last few weeks - the notion that the digital economy, combined with a more integrated global economy, has smashed all previous ideas about what a "global" firm looks like.
As Rupert Soames commented, in the old days they said you had to reach a certain critical size before you could even think about exporting, or opening offices abroad. Now you see tiny niche players, with customers from around the world. The fact that Germany's SMEs have always worked this way is, famously, a big part of the country's economic success.
Neal Gandhi's business helps UK companies set up outposts abroad, providing them with office space and staff in places such as India and China, so they don't have to cope with the time and expense of doing it themselves.
He's been working with an online gift recommendation service based in southern England. Just a few weeks after the business got started, a well-known TV personality in Argentina happened to stumble upon their service, and tweeted about it. Suddenly, Argentina was by far their biggest market. That's not something you can plan for. But, happily for them, Argentina grew by 7% last year.