Beckett tamed by the watchdog mandarins
COMMENT; 'The truth of the matter is, that while utility regulation may be in need of some institutional reform, its underlying foundations are essentially sound'
Tuesday 01 July 1997
So mature, considered and generally unrevolutionary did Margaret Beckett's speech on regulatory reform seem yesterday, that for all we can surmise, Sir Humphrey must already have had his way and persuaded the new President of the Board of Trade to back away from all that was said while on the other side of the fence. Rate of return regulation is ruled out entirely. Executive remuneration is a matter not for regulators but for the companies themselves, she says in words that might have come straight from the lips of John Major. She's also going to stick with the idea of independent regulation, free from political interference.
And in an admission that she would never have made in opposition, Mrs Beckett concedes that "the combination of competition, regulation, and the introduction of new technology in the utilities since privatisation has in most areas brought benefits in the form of lower prices to consumers". Well there's a thing. It seems that Mrs Thatcher built something worth preserving, after all.
The truth of the matter is, of course, that while utility regulation may be in need of some institutional reform, its underlying foundations are essentially sound. In some cases, notably telecommunications and gas, regulators have already succeeded in ironing out virtually all the early privatisation excesses, so much so that the introduction of new-fangled ideas such as profit sharing might actually work against the interests of the customers they are meant to protect.
That's particularly the case with gas where old-style price cap regulation is now so severe that there is a real chance that TransCo won't earn the regulator's assumed rate of return. Under profit sharing, customers would end up having to help meet the difference with higher prices.
In other utilities regulators are well on the way to achieving the same thing. The exception is the most recent price regulated privatisation, rail, which is being left out of Mrs Beckett's review. John Prescott is determined to keep the railways as his own special plaything.
For a party that made so much out of privatised excess while in opposition, the irony is that now it's in government there's not much left to be done about it, other than a little tinkering at the edges. There may be some scope for standardising general principles of economic regulation across the utilities, and the cult of personality among regulators certainly needs to be curtailed. Under its own steam, however, price cap regulation is now delivering for customers in exactly the way it was always intended to. As with so many other things, it all came too late to help the Tories.
Brown won't be able to please everyone
Gordon Brown has lots of constituencies to please in tomorrow's Budget. For the markets, he needs to produce a fiscally responsible Budget. For industry, it has to be business friendly - lots of measures to help investment and offset the effect of the expected abolition of tax credits on dividends. For Old Labour, it has to be a Budget with a social conscience. Measures to help the poor, reduce unemployment and crackdown on the fat cats will have to be included alongside anything that helps business.
Then there are the economic pundits, a small but hard-to-please elite of conuscenti. Only a raft of measures to dampen down the consumer boom and halt sterling's soaraway appreciation will satisfy them. And finally there's Middle England, or New Labour. This is the most difficult constituency of all to square with the others. It expects some fiscal tightening but not that much. Dress it up in green clothing and it becomes that much more acceptable. But at what point does fiscal tightening become a breach of Labour's election promise not to increase taxes? Hit new Labour voters too hard, and they'll start complaining.
So to use a dreadful old cliche, Mr Brown has got quite a tightrope to walk. Having now discovered a "black hole" in the public finances, largely artificially it has to be said, he's got to fill it. He's also got to find money for reform of the tax and benefit system and to fund all those investment incentives that industry is confidently looking forward to. At the same time he's got to raise money to soak up some of those building society and insurance windfalls, taking it out of the economy altogether. And finally he's got to do all this without giving the Conservative opposition ammunition to be able to say, credibly, we told you so. If he pulls all that off, he really will be a Chancellor to remember.
FitzGerald's strategy will take some time
Unilever's sale of its John West canned fish business to Heinz seems to lay at least one stock market canard to rest - that it might use the pounds 5bn proceeds from the sale of its speciality chemicals business to take a tilt at the Pittsburgh baked bean leviathan itself. It wouldn't make a lot of sense to sell your unwanted businesses to a company you intended to bid for.
Unilever's chairman, Niall FitzGerald, has been playing a good guessing game with the City for weeks now. He has told Unilever watchers to expect the unexpected and Heinz has been one of a raft of names linked with his shopping list. With Heinz now seemingly ruled out, perhaps the rumour mill will turn to other US consumer goods companies, like Campbell Foods and CPC.
Or maybe not. Actually, Mr FitzGerald has persistently stressed since announcing the speciality chemicals disposal his intention of rebalancing group assets towards the mouth-watering opportunities in emerging markets such as the Far East and central and eastern Europe. Buying Campbell would not achieve that aim. And even CPC, which is more international than most, still makes half its profits in mature markets such as the US and Europe. The difficulty for Mr FitzGerald is that while the City keeps looking for the big deal, his alternative strategy is going to take some time to realise. Most branded goods companies in emerging markets are family owned and relatively small. In any case, Mr FitzGerald wants to build his own brands in these markets.
While there might be a few deals long the way, therefore, much of this development is bound to be organic. It is something Coca Cola has been doing for years - starting from scratch in new markets and building the brand. The problem is that Unilever has a bit of ground to make up. Only a third of its profits come from emerging markets. Meanwhile that earnings dilutive pounds 5bn will keep burning a hole in Mr FitzGerald's pocket.
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