Gary Parkinson's Outlook: Turbulent times ahead for BA's Walsh after regulators launch second price-fixing inquiry

Bank's MPC loses an independent voice; Merck faces up to patent dilemma; Stamp of approval for Birmingham
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The Independent Online

Ping. Could everyone please extinguish all cigarettes and return to their seats. And Willie Walsh, please strap yourself in tightly. There is fresh turbulence over Heathrow and the ride could get pretty bumpy.

The chief executive of British Airways is already facing one investigation into alleged price-fixing by his airline (on its cargo services); now he is caught up in a second. This, on top of BA's yawning £2bn pensions deficit, union unrest, dog-eat-dog competition across Europe, entrenched working practices and an ongoing battle to drive down costs, would be enough to give even the most ardent flyer air-sickness.

The latest investigation, by the Office of Fair Trading and US Department of Justice, into whether Britain's former flag carrier has been engaged in a cosy stitch-up on fuel surcharges on its long-haul routes, looks by far the more serious.

Dominating long-haul are BA's transatlantic routes, the jewel in its crown. Flying businessmen too and fro across the pond is the most profitable part of BA's own business by a country air mile.

Mr Walsh inherited the bilateral UK-US Bermuda Two treaty, which grants his airline and only three others rights to fly from Heathrow to the US. The involvement of those three - Virgin Atlantic, United and American - in the inquiry is as opaque as an October sky, but they are also being asked for information by investigators.

The seven increases in two years that have seen BA's fuel surcharges rise 14-fold look a trifle rich, in a time when oil prices have roughly doubled. Nor have BA's fuel surcharges on its short-haul routes, which are subject to cut-throat competition from the no-frills carriers, kept pace with those on longer journeys.

Mr Walsh's initial response to this latest inquiry was to ground for its duration Martin George, BA's commercial director (and his previous challenger for the top job), and Iain Burns, his head of communications.

A swift resolution looks further away than even BA's most exotic destination. Unfortunately for Mr Walsh, he cannot kick off his shoes, pull up a blanket, plug in the earphones, and wait for gentle landing.

Bank's MPC loses an independent voice

It is sad (but inevitable) that the death of a monetary policymaker is seen by financial markets as a reason to trade rather than mourn. Every time that a premature rumour of the demise of Alan Greenspan swirled around Wall Street, traders rushed to sell the dollar - only to buy it back when the news turned out to be false.

This time, there is no doubt over the sad and shocking news that David Walton has died at the age of 43. He was a highly competent economist first at the Treasury, then at Goldman Sachs, where he rose to be chief European economist, and finally on the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, where he displayed a streak of independence. In the past two months, he was the lone voice voting for a rise in interest rates to dampen inflationary pressures.

The obvious conclusion is that the MPC is now less likely to raise rates any time soon. As a result traders sold the pound and bought gilts. As one trader put it yesterday: "Despite the very sad news, markets carry on."

The minutes at the June meeting had already revealed little enthusiasm for a rate rise, highlighting the benign trends in domestic inflation and the labour market and the possible impact of the falls in share prices.

A year ago, Mr Walton displayed his independence in a different direction, using his first meeting in July 2005 to lodge a minority vote for a rate cut, ending up on the winning side in the following month.

His passing not only robs the Bank of an immense intellect, it also potentially leaves the normally nine-strong Monetary Policy Committee with seven members ahead of its July meeting. We have been critical of the Chancellor's repeated failure to find a suitable replacement for a departing member in time.

It is now more than two months since Richard Lambert left the committee to take on the top job at the CBI with no sign of a replacement. Michael Fallon, the Conservative MP, was quick yesterday to accuse Gordon Brown of "lethargy".

Ultimately, it is a tribute to the system of operational independence over monetary policy that the Chancellor set up in 1997 that the unfortunate death of one member does not rock the financial markets.

Merck faces up to patent dilemma

Today marks the close of a very lucrative era for the pharmaceutical industry. In the US, the most profitable drug market in the world, the cholesterol-buster Zocor goes off-patent.

Made by Merck, the drug was one of the earliest in a class of cholesterol-lowering medicines called statins, which haverevolutionised the prevention and treatment of heart disease.

The drug industry has been raking in $30bn in annual sales from statins. Pfizer's Lipitor is still the best selling medicine on the planet and Zocor's sales peaked at more than $5bn in 2004, easing some of the trauma of the withdrawal of its Vioxx painkiller that year.

But now there will be two copycat versions of Zocor - or simvastatin, as the drug behind the brand is known - and a vicious price war is in prospect. The unusual thing this time is that it is Merck which has fired the first shots, offering Zocor to some health insurers at prices below its generic rivals.

For Big Pharma shareholders, a first reaction might be, all power to Merck. The generics companies seem to have had it all their own way for several years, successfully rolling back the intellectual property protections which made the research-based drug makers so profitable.

A more considered reaction should be one of fear. Prices for simvastatin will fall like a stone and the move could seriously hurt Pfizer's Lipitor and even AstraZeneca's Crestor. Many doctors plan to shift their patients on to the cheap drugs, saving them $200 a month and health insurers considerably more.

Merck's move is the latest sign of the squeeze on medicine prices in the US. It is the product of some tough negotiations with insurers, many of whom suddenly have more clout. They are administering the Medicare drug benefit, which was introduced in April to subsidise medicines for uninsured senior citizens for the first time. This makes the insurers agents for the federal government which, at a stroke, has become the biggest indirect purchaser of medicines in the US.

Insurers have woken up to criticisms that many branded drugs have little to differentiate themselves from others in their class. Why Lipitor, when cheap Zocor can lower cholesterol by almost as much? Why Viagra, the department of veterans affairs asked earlier this year, when GlaxoSmithKline's Levitra can get the blood pumping just as quickly and GSK is happy to offer a discount?

For the insurers - and by extension corporate America, which pays through the nose for health care for its workers - this is generating a happy downward spiral on prices of all but the newest medicines. For Big Pharma, the era of high-priced, patent-protected statins was a high water mark for profit margins that will never be seen again.

Stamp of approval for Birmingham

It has apparently taken the Royal Mail 166 years to get round to noticing the beauty of Birmingham. Making postal stamp history, the city's other-worldly Selfridges store features on a set of new postage stamps celebrating modern architecture. Handy, then, for Britain's number two town that Allan Leighton, the Royal Mail boss, is also chairman of Selfridges. The 44p stamp shows a section of the Birmingham outlet's eye-popping silver and blue design. Clearly, Mr Leighton doesn't quite think the building first class, however.