The wait is almost over: a new £2.5 billion pot of money which from this month will be administered by the British Business Bank to small businesses struggling to scale up is aptly named.
This “patient capital” will use government funds to attract twice as much long-term private-sector money to fill what investment professionals call gaps in the funding ladder. In the UK, that is those firms looking to raise between £5 million and £25 million whose founders might otherwise sell out and start again instead of nurturing the next Google to global domination.
Looking around the world, not much of this is new. Another prong of the scheme takes its lead from the Small Business Investment Company debenture programme in the US — which began in 1958 — and the Yozma initiative in Israel, launched in 1993 and one explanation for so many high-tech firms having emerged from there.
So is this cash worth being patient for? Definitely. The vintage of companies in the FTSE 100 tells the tale.
There is nothing wrong in many of them having a century or so of history behind them but it is a shame so few were established this century. New blue-chip club entrant Ocado, created in 2000, will drag down the average age. That’s something else for boss Tim Steiner to crow about.
More can be done on the financial side to cure the UK’s failure in the corporate middle ranks. There is evidence of pent-up demand from retail investors wanting to get into venture capital beyond the limits of the existing Enterprise Investment Scheme. And more pension funds might ape what the Business Growth Fund has been quietly getting on with if only they had a stronger covenant from their sponsor company that permits investing in riskier assets.
Talent is also an issue. It takes a very special kind of entrepreneur to lead a start-up from the kitchen table all the way through its transformation into a multinational. Lance Uggla, who began the $20 billion-valued financial data business IHS Markit from a barn in St Albans, springs to mind. The feeling is that if the right investors populate this space, the best managers will follow the money.
It is striking that this drive for patient capital comes just as the popularity of impatient capital is sky-high. By that I mean the activist investors such as Edward Bramson who is agitating for change at Barclays and hedge fund Elliott which scored a success when Whitbread agreed to spin out coffee chain Costa.
The length of time these investors hold shares can be measured in weeks not years and it is debatable whether they add much value in the long term. But they are cheered along by pension funds keen to beat their 12-month benchmark. These same funds are meant to be invested in the nation’s future but lend their stock for a fee so equities can be shorted and markets suffer from excess volatility.
The UK has an unenviable record of selling itself short, from the core infrastructure that has passed cheaply into the hands of foreign funds and then meekly regulated, to the brilliant ideas emerging from our world-leading universities that are all too rarely commercialised.
As I have written before in these pages, it is still not too late to create a sovereign wealth fund for the UK that would take advantage of recurring, reliable income streams from our utilities that are at present guaranteeing Canadian pensioners a well-funded retirement. It could also place long-term bets in promising growth stocks that need more than a handful of millions of investment.
One idea I heard was that UKGI — an arm of the Treasury dedicated to managing and ultimately selling state-owned assets including Royal Bank of Scotland and the Ordnance Survey — could be granted borrowing powers and set up as a UK version of Temasek, the Singaporean wealth fund. Chaired by ex-Schroders veteran Robert Swannell, it has styled itself as the Government’s corporate finance expert and has a board stuffed with bankers and dealmakers.
Such a move would be bold and brave, hard to achieve under European Union state aid rules and everything the Brexit optimists say the future UK should be about.
Patient capital is overdue if a generation from now the UK is to fulfil its potential. But more long-term money shouldn’t be the sole preserve of start-ups.