Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Commission wants more supermarkets

Federal Reserve: don't ask for more; Capital gains tax: conceding nothing
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The Independent Online

For the most revealing verdict on the Competition Commission's supermarkets report, look no further than the stock market, where shares in Tesco rose more than 3 per cent yesterday to a new all-time high. Stock markets don't always get it right, but they are surely correct in thinking that in the round the Commission's findings are mildly positive for the Big Daddy of the British supermarkets sector.

To those who have been looking to the commission for curbs on the allegedly monopolistic excesses of Tesco and the other big supermarket groups, there could scarcely have been a more perverse outcome. The call has gone up for action to halt or even reverse the Tesco juggernaut's progress.

Yet the commission finds that on the whole supermarkets do a pretty good job for consumers, and, to the extent that remedies are proposed, they seem calculated to ensure that there are more, not less, of them.

Tesco itself is meanwhile found not to be in such a strong position that other retailers cannot compete. Other grocery retailers continue to grow, the commission notes, which suggests Tesco's purchasing cost advantage, share of national grocery sales or expansion into convenience shopping is not acting as a barrier to expansion by others.

It all rather leaves you wondering whether the whole investigation was not just another monumental waste of money. This is the third Competition Commission investigation of the supermarkets sector in seven years, and all of them have broadly ended up clearing the industry of "rip-off" practices.

Yet the commission is determined that it won't entirely have wasted its time, so it stops short of giving the industry a completely clean bill of health. Evidence is found of continued abuse of suppliers, and, perhaps more importantly, the long suspected practice of buying up available land around dominant supermarket sites so as to prevent any worthwhile competition from moving in next door.

On the other hand, the number of incidences of this happening seem to be relatively small. The commission identifies just 110 cases of land hoarding, restrictive covenants or exclusivity arrangements which give cause for concern. Of these, only 20 appear so deliberately intended to frustrate entry by a competitor that the commission considers them targets for an enforced divestment order.

Admittedly, all these 20 appear to relate to Tesco, but if this is the worst the commission can throw at the company it might be considered to have escaped lightly. Certainly it had been widely assumed the scale of the problem was much worse. In fact, it is quite small, though not entirely insignificant.

In other respects, Tesco seems to emerge a net winner. There seems to be nothing to stop its further advance into the convenience market, and, as expected, the commission wants to see planning restrictions relaxed so as to encourage the development of more out-of-town competition. This will allow Tesco further to encroach on rivals' territory. The commission's view is that more supermarkets equals more competition.

This is where green and small-business lobbyists seem to have misunderstood the investigation's purpose. They wanted to see the supermarkets reigned in. The commission's view is that, in order for competition to function properly, we need to see even more of them. So was it all a complete waste of time and money?

Actually, no. Despite some confused thinking around the landbank issue, the findings are on the whole measured and proportionate. Britain's growing population means that there is a real need for more supermarkets, regardless of the competition issues. The planning laws have to be adjusted accordingly.

It is in any case surely better that the response to understandable public concern over the supermarkets should be to subject them to regular scrutiny by the Competition Commission, even if the outcome is largely to clear them of all charges, than that some kind of monstrous super-regulator – an Ofshop – is set up to vet and pass judgement on their every move.

Wait a few more years and there will no doubt be another of them. By that time, Tesco will presumably be so well established overseas that the impact will be even more marginal than the last three.

Federal Reserve: don't ask for more

Crisis? What crisis? Forget the credit crunch and the housing market downturn, the American economy grew by an annualised rate of an astonishing 3.9 per cent in the third quarter, according to figures released yesterday. Small wonder that the Federal Reserve cut interest rates by "only" a quarter point, disappointing calls from Wall Street for another half point. The credit crunch seems so far to have left US growth largely untouched.

Nobody expects it to last, of course. Strong exports, fed by the weak dollar, were part of the explanation for the unexpectedly robust growth performance. As the Open Markets Committee observed in its statement yesterday, intensification of the housing correction almost certainly means that the pace of economic expansion has eased over the past month. Even so, it appears that for the time being the rate-cutting is over.

The Fed considers the policy action already taken should offset the adverse impact of the disturbance in credit markets on the wider economy. Meanwhile, recent increases in commodity and energy prices are putting renewed upward pressure on inflation. In the round, then, the Fed judges that the downside risk to growth is roughly counterbalanced after yesterday's action by the upside risk to inflation. In other words, no more rate cuts.

Indeed, the Fed may already have gone too far. Readers of Alan Greenspan's book, The Age of Turbulence, cannot help but be struck by how prone the former Federal Reserve chairman was to answer the call of Wall Street. Whenever there was a financial crisis, Mr Greenspan would come riding to the rescue.

He seemed to regard it as part of his patriotic duty, though to be fair his purpose was always rather that of addressing the possible damage to the wider economy than that of underwriting investors' losses. Ben Bernanke, the latest incumbent, seems to be operating very much within that tradition. When Wall Street panicked, he did the bankers' bidding. It's still too early to tell, but his actions may have been unnecessary, and, if all they have done is sown the seeds for future bubbles, even inappropriate.

We can expect an altogether more sober response from the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee when it sits down to consider British interest rates next week. Mervyn King, the Governor, has stoicly resisted pressure for action from markets throughout the summer credit crisis, at some cost to his own reputation. The judgement of history may prove him to have been correct.

Capital gains tax: conceding nothing

There are climbdowns and then there are climbdowns, yet Alistair Darling's apparent concessions over capital gains tax reform scarcely counts as even a foot on the first rung of the ladder. Even if he wanted to, the Chancellor cannot in fact give the CBI and other business lobbyists what they are asking for in terms of a return to the 10 per cent taper relief rate that previously existed.

This is because the changes are primarily designed as a tax-raising measure to pay for the separate increase in inheritance tax thresholds forced on the Government by the Tories. Any concession is therefore bound to be largely cosmetic. The 10 per cent taper relief has been a huge boost for entrepreneurial start-ups, encouraging many investors to become business angels.

The gamble Mr Darling is taking is that raising the rate to 18 per cent won't significantly deter them. If it does, then he'll be dealt a double blow. Entrepreneurial activity will have been correspondingly damaged, and the tax take from capital gains will be lowered rather than raised. The indicated concessions won't affect the outcome one way or the other.

j.warner@independent.co.uk

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