November 5th doesn’t have any great significance on the American calendar as far as I know, but here in the UK we’re already gearing up for a night (what am I talking about, a night? Make that a week, at least!) which strikes fear into the heart of any right-thinking professional firefighter: Guy Fawkes Night, Plot Night, or just Bonfire or Firework Night for those who don’t know the history. Whatever you call it, bonfire parties and firework displays abound, and some of it is sure to get out of control.
When I was a kid I suppose I enjoyed the treacle toffee and pretty colours as much as the next kid, and viewing the sunset pyrotechnic display at Disneyland from a safe distance some years ago was a memorable experience. But I’ve always been somewhat allergic to blazes and loud bangs (a hangover from a previous life, a friendly hypnotist once told me), so I’ll probably switch on the TV and turn up the volume on reruns of Cagney and Lacey, like every other year. And if that makes me a boring old killjoy, I don’t care. Each to her own, and I like Cagney and Lacey. It’s about people, so it doesn’t date, even if it features manual typewriters and bakelite phones that weigh ten pounds, instead of unreliable broadband connections and hi-tech gadgets designed to block out cold callers trying to sell me accident insurance or cavity wall insulation, like the one my husband is currently wrestling with.
But that’s a rant for another day. Today my thoughts have turned to... numbers.
Cue cries of Who are you, and what have you done with Lynne? But no, I haven’t been invaded by an alien entity. These are specific numbers, with a relevance that will become clear. First, though, just to prove this really is still me: on the familiar subject of putting commas in the right places and copy-editing manuscripts, let me issue a caveat to my last post. Copy-editors of the world, beware excessive enthusiasm in the comma department! I’ve almost finished a moderately amusing book which (literally) puts the magic into police work, and hallelujah, it had clearly been edited and properly proofread. Except... There were two places in which you might under some circumstances expect to find a comma, and indeed there the comma was – but unfortunately they were the wrong circumstances. Said comma changed the meaning of the phrase in each case, and the result was a meaning the author didn’t intend. Oh dear.
And so to numbers. Ten years ago I understood practically zilch about the different ways businesses operated; I don’t understand a great deal more now, but I do know that if a business doesn’t at least make as much money as it spends, it can’t pay its bills and soon reaches a stage at which it can no longer function as a business. And if a business is owned by a number of people who have invested in shares in it, those people expect to see some return on their investment, or they pull out; and if there’s no return on the shares on a regular basis, no one else wants to buy them, so... same result.
What I don’t understand is this: if a high-profile business consistently loses money, and announces this in a high-profile way at the end of every financial year, how can it afford to pay its shareholders enough of a return on their investment to keep them on board? Ergo, why do its shareholders keep on hanging on?
OK, I know my understanding of how business works is sketchy and basic at best, but to me this seems a pretty fundamental principle. So when a business tells the world year after year that it’s costing more to run it than it makes in revenue, yet continues not only to function but to thrive and expand, am I the only person in that world who wonders exactly what is going on?