Take politics out of merger decisions altogether

COMMENT: `Present legislation places the Secretary of State in a quasi-judicial position when deciding whether or not to allow takeovers to proceed. That is always a dangerous place to leave an ambitious politician'
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A lot of people have had good cause to rue Ian Lang's capricious approach to mergers policy over the last year. But George Simpson, now managing director of GEC, is not one of them. When GEC bid for the warship builder, VSEL, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission decided it should be sent packing on the not unreasonable grounds that Britain only had three such yards and GEC already owned one of them.

Fortunately for GEC, Michael "National Champions" Heseltine, was in charge then at the Department of Trade and Industry and he duly brushed the MMC's recommendations aside. Would GEC have fared differently had Mr Lang then been in the hot seat?

In short, it is impossible to say. Mr Lang has executed so may U-turns since he arrived that if he isn't dizzy and thoroughly confused, then the rest of the business community certainly is. In his last pronouncement on the subject, the President of the Board of Trade made it crystal clear that mergers which increased market domination or created national champions were not on. Since then he has blocked the Bass/Carlsberg Tetley deal but approved British Airways' alliance with American Airlines. How's that for consistency?

Step forward Mr Simpson to inject some clarity. In his other incarnation as a member of the cumbersomely titled Commission on Public Policy and British Business, Mr Simpson has the chance to strike a blow for all those not as fortunate as GEC.

A report due out from the commission next week will conclude that the Government's competition policy is in a mess. That much we knew. It hardly takes a committee of the great and the good to point out that this administration's track record has been contradictory, weak and riven by short-term political considerations.

Would Labour perform any better? Probably not. The old-style corporatism that would creep back in would almost certainly put paid to a rational or consistent competition and mergers policy.

The core of the problem, as the commission's report highlights, is that present legislation places the Secretary of State in a quasi-judicial position when deciding whether or not to allow takeovers to proceed, and on many other matters concerning competition policy. That is always a dangerous place to leave an ambitious politician.

The solution proposed by the commission is to allow ministers to continue making the final decision but then require them to set out their detailed reasoning in public, thus making the whole process transparent. This doesn't go far enough.

While there is something to be said for making sure the buck ultimately stops with elected politicians, there is a stronger case for removing temptation from the grasp of departmental ministers altogether and allowing the courts or some kind of independent cartel office to act as final arbiter. As things stand, competition policy is too often determined by political whim or favour. Removing these powers from the politicians would go a long way towards depoliticising the process, making pro-competition policy a generally accepted thing across the political divide, as it is in the US.

Break-up of Sears must be on the way

It is just as well that Liam Strong, chief executive of Sears, is a lover of military history. His hero is General Ulysses S Grant, whose motto was: "Find your enemy, then move in on him and hit him hard and keep on hitting him." Sadly for Mr Strong, the City has identified him as the enemy at Sears and has been hitting him hard for some time. He now appears fatally wounded.

The polished, almost impish Ulsterman is unlikely to go quietly, however. He is fighting for his business reputation. When he jetted in to Sears from British Airways five years ago, Mr Strong was thought capable of great things. But indecisiveness and caution appear to have got the better of him.Formats and management have been chopped and changed. And the radical pruning of the Sears portfolio was delayed until it was too late.

Sears has proved a woeful investment in the Strong years. Institutions were giving him one last chance to prove that Sears could trade its way out of difficulties. He has bodged it and it now appears certain that he will be offered up for sacrifice. To be fair, there is an argument that Sears was always a mess that was beyond the wit of even the brightest manager. Unfortunately that will not help Mr Strong now. The City is in no mood for excuses.

And whither Sears in all this? As an empire it is crumbling and a break- up is surely not far away. Lord Wolfson, the new chairman of Great Universal Stores and Next, has a theory that most of the strongest retailers are single-brand entities. There was never any worthwhile link between most of the disparate Sears formats. Now the name looks set to be consigned to the dustbin of British retail history. It will not be mourned.

No life insurance revolution yet

The theory behind the move to fuller disclosure of life insurance charges, which began in 1995, was that it would focus the minds of customers on the best value products. As the business then flowed to the better companies, the rest of the industry would have to slash its costs and reduce its charges to remain competitive.

But so far it has not happened, at least judging by this year's statistics from the Personal Investment Authority, which show only a very small overall reduction in charges, and a slight increase among the companies which were already at the low end of the scale. So soon after the start of the disclosure regime it would perhaps be surprising if the market had been radically transformed. These things take time.

New information must be absorbed and understood. Just as important, the present framework for disclosure allows loopholes which will have to be tackled before customers can rely on the figures. Companies can easily distort the figures by, for example, arranging charging structures so that there is a good return for policies held to maturity but spectacular levels of charging in the first few years. The effect is to slash returns for those who quit early. There is plenty of room for tightening up in this area.

However, let us not be churlish about it. There is evidence that the pressure of disclosure is forcing change on the industry. Look at the decision by Eagle Star this week to offer a policy with a full refund of charges to those who quit in the first two years.

However, it will take a long time to counteract the damage done by the personal pensions mis-selling scandal and the continuing high level of charges which have discredited private sector pension providers in many eyes, most significantly, those of the Labour Party. The party's proposed stakeholder pensions are a way of bypassing high-cost personal pensions by setting up large pooled funds. Having been dragged kicking and screaming into cutting its charges, the insurance industry may find it has left it too late.