Private Investor: One man's evil is another man's wise investment
Saturday 26 July 2008
As a consumer, you ought to hate and despise the utilities. If you do feel that way, then I suggest the ideal emotional and financial hedge is to buy shares in them. Very often in these matters you find that one man's profiteering evil company is another man's wise and fruitful investment, and, in the case of the utilities you can in fact be both those men at once.
The only problem is when a government nicks the "windfall" profits. There was one such raid a decade ago when New Labour came to power, the funds – £3bn or so – being spent on "getting young power back into work". I have a naturally strong suspicion that most of it was wasted, as is the way with such schemes, because the economy was growing strongly enough to create all the jobs needed anyway. Still, you could see the power of the argument. The utilities were making an awful lot of money, for all the wrong reasons. Not so now, I fear, after a decade of ever tighter regulation. The utilities are also being forced to pay a hidden tax by being forced to lower prices for those in "fuel poverty". I'm all in favour of helping people in fuel poverty, which is a real issue, but I think it should be done through the tax and benefits system rather than by selective covert taxation. But there we are.
Short term, the sector is facing some difficult times. My favourite play, Scottish and Southern Electricity, has warned about lower profits as a result of higher gas and electricity prices. Now, that sounds to me like a "windfall loss" that the Government ought to consider subsidising, possibly by cutting the youth training budget. Only joking,
Scottish and Southern have told their shareholders, including me, that profits in the six months to 30 September would be "substantially lower" than in the previous year, but added the majority of its profits would be made between October and March – a clear signal that price hikes are on the way – if they can get away with them.
The surge in wholesale gas costs has already prompted a raft of higher tariffs but I'm not sure even these can make up for the hike in wholesale prices.
In any case, the shares fell on the news, and I promptly bought some more. This is because of Scottish and Southern's extremely bright long-term prospects.
For a start, Scottish and Southern is a major player in the burgeoning wind-power sector. Pushing renewable is an absolutely vital priority in the battle against climate change and a huge amount of public money and policy will be directed at making sure renewables pay. So that's the first piece of good news.
Second, I think that there is going to be a revolution in the way we drive cars. In other words, the electric car is coming and, when we're all plugging our vehicles into the mains to power them up, the likes of Scottish and Southern will be moving almost without effort into a huge new line of business – personal road transportation. It is almost as if the company was suddenly to acquire a good chunk of Shell's retail petrol business, say, and for nothing. Quite a mouth-watering prospect.
The point, I suppose, is that these two sets of greener technology do work: lots of factories, including Ford's plant at Dagenham and Nissan's in Sunderland, to take two interestingly linked examples, gain much if not all of their electricity from a couple of huge wind turbines on site. Provided we don't allow the sentimentalists to get in the way, wind farms can play a significant and growing part in helping to save the planet. Given the choice between a slightly despoiled view and the melting of the ice caps, I think we know which we ought to be opting for.
Less impressive is the technology used to run battery-driven electric cars. There is some work to be done here, but have no doubt that some of the world's biggest corporations and cleverest minds are on the case.
You can buy electric cars now, though they are mostly small, slow and less than sturdy in a smash. Mostly they survive on strange fiscal breaks, such as free parking in parts of London and congestion charge exemption. They are not yet serious family transportation. But they may be soon. The Chevrolet Volt, for example, shows how, even in such difficult circumstances as General Motors finds itself in, a certain amount of American entrepreneurial ingenuity can never be discounted.
So think of Scottish and Southern as an ethical, green investment. Not evil or to be despised at all.
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