Liam Fox tells UK businesses to invest more abroad

If Liam Fox set out to alienate and upset business leaders, he probably could not be doing a better job of it.

First he characterised them and their outfits as fat and lazy.

Now I’ve learned that he shocked a group of them, brought together by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), when he said they should place more of their capital outside Britain.

This seemed a dangerous and explosive thing to say when there are widespread concerns that Brexit will lead to a costly investment drought in the UK.

"Right now we need as much investment here as we can possibly get, to prevent a rise in unemployment - which is what many of us believe will be the painful reality of leaving the EU", said the head of a huge UK company."Few of us could really believe that he was telling us to invest more in other parts of the world. There was a real sense in the room of 'this is bonkers'".

Senior City figures said Fox turned the atmosphere 'icy' with his suggestions. Credit: PA

A senior City figure said: "We assumed he would be telling us to invest here. It was literally amazing that he said we should do precisely the opposite".

Another said the atmosphere in the room was "icy" - and said Mr Fox left without the usual applause.

The explosive remarks were made last Monday by Fox, the cabinet minister charged with negotiating trade deals that can offset the anticipated negative impact on our exports of Brexit.

He was addressing the CBI President's Committee, and the justification for what he said was that Britain is not paying its way in the world.

We are suffering from a record 7% current account deficit – in part because UK businesses and institutions are no longer earning as much as they did on their overseas investments.

Whereas foreign companies with operations here are taking more profits out of Britain than in the past.

Prime ministers since Margaret Thatcher have been trying to persuade multinationals to invest in Britain. Credit: PA

Fox was extolling the virtues of Outward Direct Investment, or ODI, as opposed to Foreign Direct Investment here by overseas firms.

If this becomes official government policy, it would represents a huge shift, since successive prime ministers have since Thatcher tried to persuade big multinationals – from Japan, the US and China, to name a few – to invest in Britain.

Most economists would probably agree with Mr Fox that over the long term it would be helpful to the UK if British companies increased their stock of productive capital abroad.

But to do that on a large scale now could be seen as potentially triggering a balance-of-payments and sterling crisis, because it could be seen as a vote of little confidence in the prospects for the UK of our indigenous businesses.

Prime Minister Theresa Mat at the G20 Summit in China earlier this month. Credit: PA

On Theresa May’s recent trip to China for the G20, she was warned by America’s President Obama and premier Abe of Japan that US and Japanese companies operating in the UK could move their investments out of the UK in the absence of more clarity on our future trading relationship with the EU.

There are growing concerns, especially in parts of the UK dependent on foreign owned car plants and engineering, and in the City of London, that capital and jobs will seep away from Britain.

Unless businesses can be given confidence that the UK will retain relatively frictionless access to the EU’s single market, which is the UK’s biggest export market.

A spokesman for Liam Fox said: "Liam was making the point that over time you need a balance of Inward and Outward investment for the current account".