Is the recovery too tilted towards big business?

BBC business editor Robert Peston reads the runes on the year ahead

Cautious optimism about the coming year looks like something of a trend.

A survey of Ipsos Mori published this morning shows that leaders of FTSE 350 companies are a bit more upbeat about their prospects than they were a year ago, which is similar to what finance directors of bigger companies have said to Deloitte in that firm's quarterly poll of their views.

These assessments are consistent with what business leaders say to me in informal conversations, with manufacturers in particular more cheerful than I have known them in years.

That said, there remains a sensible reluctance to count chickens. Which is hardly surprising, in that a year ago business leaders were allowing themselves to make similar positive noises - before the collapse of Greece and Ireland hit them in the face like a large wet fish.

And there are exceptions to the general mood that things are getting a bit better, especially in the retailing sector, where there is an expectation that households' record indebtedness will continue to dampen their enthusiasm to spend.

Then there are those businesses that cannot escape who and what they are - witness the hideous drop in sales disclosed today by HMV, a victim of the big freeze and technological change.

I should introduce a number of obvious caveats here. First is that Ipsos Mori obtained answers from "just" 102 "captains of industry" - a decent number, but plainly not the whole field.

Second, they are weighted towards the middle and bottom of the FTSE 350 rather than the biggest multinational companies.

Even so, the views of these second-rank executives are arguably a bit more representative of what's actually going on in the British economy, in that the fortunes of the biggest FTSE 100 companies - the oil and commodities giants for example - are far more dependent on conditions in the rest of the world rather than on this smallish island.

Finally, there is something of a contradiction between what they say about the economy in general and what they say about the prospects for their own companies.

So, for example, 32% of them expect the economic condition of the country will improve over the coming 12 months, whereas 29% expect it to deteriorate - which is almost identical to what they thought a year ago.

But a much more decisive 60% of them expect that business for their own companies will get better in 2011 - which does represent a bit of tick up from the beginning of 2010.

Even so, and this looks like another contradiction, a significant 75% of them say they have or are likely to postpone investment because of the economic uncertainty - with hiring new staff the main casualty. Which rather implies that even if the recovery gains momentum, unemployment may fall relatively slowly.

There are some other interesting nuances. The vast majority of them support the thrust of the government's general economic policy and believe that the public sector deficit needs to be cut rapidly.

But around half fear that restrictions on immigration will harm the UK's economic performance. Also they overwhelmingly believe that regulatory burdens on their businesses are rising and will harm the British economy.

Now it's in this general area, of managing the burden on productive industry, that there is an important challenge for the coalition.

Big businesses don't like regulation or additional taxes - such as the VAT increase - but they typically have the resources to deal with it. So, for example, to limit the impact of the VAT rise, they can (and do) squeeze their smaller suppliers to obtain supplies at keener prices.

However for smaller businesses, these new burdens can be the difference between life and death. And that's especially true at a time when they continue to find it difficult and expensive to obtain finance (which is absolutely not the case for the bigger companies, which are able to borrow as much as they like on the keenest possible terms).

As it happens smaller businesses also seem to be somewhat more upbeat than they were. That's the thrust of my completely unscientific Twitter trawl of the past 48 hours (to which you can contribute by tweeting with a mention of @peston).

More comprehensive attempts to gauge the mood of companies with turnover less than £100m also indicate a rise confidence.

That said, proper entrepreneurs are genetically programmed to look on the bright side, even when they acknowledge that times remain tough.

And what they want and need to know is whether the government will match its consistent rhetoric about the importance of smaller businesses with practical help in the short term.

Arguably the immediate consequence of the thrust of government economic, tax and regulatory policies is to increase the relative strength of big companies in the British economy - simply because bigger companies have the infrastructure and cash flows to cope.

Which may not be a complete disaster in the round, if the management consultancy firm McKinsey is correct that it is bigger companies that drive innovation and productivity improvements (see McKinsey's recent report, From Austerity to Prosperity).

But an absolute decline in the numbers and health of smaller businesses would not only be a personal tragedy for thousands of entrepreneurs. It would sap the ability of the British private sector to re-make itself - which would be pretty awful for all of us.

Update 12:30: Ipsos Mori has been in touch to say it made a mistake in the data it sent to me.

In fact, 25% of the business leaders said they were postponing investment, not 75%.

That still represents a significant reduction in investment plans, but not nearly as significant as Mori initially stated.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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