Powerful little spanner screws up the works

City & Business
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The Independent Online
IF INVESTORS had been in any doubt before, they can have no excuse now: however well or poorly utilities are managed they will always be subject to political interference that will put a lid on the return those shares can produce. And quite right, too, you may say, given that these are shares in statutory monopolies that will always have a social responsibility.

But although the Independent on Sunday stands by its advice to hold National Power and PowerGen as medium-term income shares, few investors could have anticipated before last week how that political dimension could amount to taking money under false pretences.

Anyone who thinks that last week's furore over Professor Stephen Littlechild was about a regulator's change of heart is guilty of a touching navety. While government ministers lose no opportunity to protest the regulator's independence, there is no doubt that there is a constant dialogue between the two. After all, if you were a regulator, wouldn't you make it your business to keep in touch with the organ-grinder?

So it does not require a great leap of imagination to see that dialogue becoming somewhat sharpened by Trafalgar House's bid for Northern Electric, and even more so by Northern's offer to return £560m to its shareholders if they rejected the Trafalgar offer.

That exposed the hidden value in Northern - and, by implication, the other electricity distributors - at a time when the Government was already under pressure over the pay packets being tossed around utilities boardrooms. Nothing so crude, of course, as an edict from Whitehall to the regulator, but Professor Littlechild could be forgiven for trying to anticipate his masters' wishes.

So he thought about it and announced that he might toughen controls on electricity prices, even though the present regime was updated only six months ago. Oh, and he chose to unburden his views to the world on the second day of trading in the newly privatised tranches of shares in PowerGen and National Power. By way of side-effects, Professor Littlechild's little thought wrecked Trafalgar House's takeover bid for Northern Electric and jeopardized the flotation of the National Grid.

However, if you play big boys' games, you must take big boys' knocks. Or, at least, the playground banter of Dr John Cunningham, Labour's trade and industry spokesman.

With a concern for the small stock market punter that combined cynicism and hypocrisy in a cocktail of prime humbug, Dr Cunningham said: "The Government has conned sharebuyers in PowerGen and National Power. There must be hundreds of thousands of people who feel they have been deliberately misled and cheated." Pretty good from the party that has spent most of the past decade and more threatening privatisation shareholders with every torture short of red hot pokers.

While there is scant sympathy for utilities investors among those too poor or too idle to join the fray, and no one expects any of the regulators to make utility shares even more attractive than they have already proved, surely it is not too much to ask them not actively to throw spanners into the works.

Whenever that happens, money is made and lost in an unpredictable, arbitrary and unfair manner - usually by the market makers and other professionals, who can react instantly, gaining at the expense of individuals. Most private investors would have known nothing of the Littlechild row until they bought an evening paper or turned on a radio on their way home from work. That was several hours and £3.5bn too late to do much about it.

As it is, there is an unpleasant smell of connivance about this affair which, as Paul Rodgers shows on the opposite page, raises deeper questions about the role of regulators.

Perhaps all concerned had been thrown off guard by the mistaken advice of BZW and Kleinwort Benson, the merchant banks advising the Treasury on the share sale, that Professor Littlechild's possible review of the electricity distributors' profits "was not material to the generating companies". Of course, we know that advice was mistaken only with hindsight, but BZW and Kleinwort are being handsomely paid for anticipating market reaction in all its baroque irrationality. Significantly, both declined the opportunity to discuss their conduct.

Cross-media clodhopper

IF THERE is one thing worse than Professor Littlechild's clodhopping attempt at advising the stock market, it is abject dithering. And that is what we have had in spades from Stephen Dorrell, the plainly unenthusiastic secretary for National Heritage.

It is a bizarre anomaly that the media industry comes under National Heritage, as if it were some museum piece. Nevertheless, that is no excuse for the rank ineptness with which Mr Dorrell has approached the task he inherited from his predecessor, Peter Brooke, to review the arrangements for cross-media ownership, which currently limit the ability of any one organisation to control print, radio and television operations.

We know from a statement by Mr Brooke in the House of Commons that the groundwork for this review was substantially complete 10 months ago. Then Mr Dorrell took over the department in July and had to play his way in.

The months slipped by, leaving the industry increasingly frustrated and exasperated with the feeble explanations being fed out by his underlings. Now we learn that a policy statement after Easter will recommend that newspaper companies be allowed to buy up to 29.9 per cent of a broadcaster instead of the present 20 per cent.

While that is to be welcomed, it still leaves the UK media industry handicapped in relation to foreign competitors, at a time when the technology is allowing material to be repackaged through a wide mixture of media to suit customer demand. It is no excuse to plead that the technology is moving too quickly to lay down a sensible policy. That is an argument for more action, not less.

On the face of it, the new threshold on TV company stakes should be good for the share prices of Scottish TV and Yorkshire-Tyne Tees TV. Mirror Group already has 20 per cent of Scottish, while both Granada Group and Pearson are camped on YTTTV's doorstep.