Woke up wid dem ol' workin' for de OFT blues

City & Business
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The Independent Online
GOT THE autumn blues? Feel your job is pointless? Worried that whatever you say or do makes absolutely no difference?

You probably work for the Office of Fair Trading, that gallant body of 420 public servants who attempt to fight the good fight against monopolists, cartelists and other scoundrels who put one over on the consumer with anti-competitive behaviour.

Ever since Michael Heseltine arrived at the Department of Trade and Industry, the OFT has felt less than wanted. Mr Heseltine has repeatedly overturned OFT recom- mendations or watered them down. Sir Bryan Carsberg, the director-general, finally went off in a huff in May, and who could blame him?

The faces have changed. Ian Lang is at the DTI and John Bridgeman, a former British Alcan executive, is the new OFT boss. But the divisions remain all too familiar. On Friday, Lang ignored Mr Bridgeman's advice and cleared North West Water's pounds 1.8bn bid for Norweb.

UK competition policy is now in a dismal state. Even where deals are referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission - stage two of Britain's absurdly long-winded competition-vetting process - the Secretary of State has the final say. He has not been frightened of blowing a raspberry at both competition watchdogs. It was Mr Heseltine's overruling of an MMC majority decision that allowed GEC to capture VSEL, the submarine builder.

The Government is so passionate about creating large, powerful national "champions" capable of competing on the world stage that it overlooks the fact that in the process it creates local monopolies.

The DTI response to the industry select committee review of competition policy speaks volumes about the Government's thinking: that in the long-run the interests of consumers and business are one and the same.

That might be true in an ideal world where there are an infinite number of suppliers and consumers are perfectly informed. Back on Planet Earth, it's an absurd notion.

Mr Lang should have Adam Smith's thinking on the subject pinned to his wall: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."

Competition policy now needs serious reform. First, the law needs changing to give the courts the power to level big fines on companies and, in extremis, prison sentences on offending directors. Second, the OFT and MMC need merging into a single strong, streamlined and independent body. Third, the Secretary of State should have less discretion - or have to come up with a very good reason why he is ignoring his advisers.

On their own

NO ONE can be very surprised that Anita and Gordon Roddick want to take their company private. For years, Body Shop International has come under the kind of intense scrutiny normally reserved for a soap star, not a soap shop.

That is inevitable. The company is a journalist's dream. It's a well- known brand. It's headed by a woman - the only large quoted company with that distinction. It has been a spectacular success story, enriching both the Roddicks and many other ordinary shareholders. And, best of all, it claims to be ethically and environmentally superior to conventional companies.

Whether as an unquoted private company it would be much more removed from the spotlight is questionable. The City would lose interest, of course. But media attention would remain intense.

Paul Farrelly tells the story on page 4. It's not at all clear that a Roddick bid will now ever materialise. It rather sounds as if the banks baulked at the last minute about coughing up the necessary loan finance. The Roddicks only own 24 per cent of the shares and would therefore have had to gear themselves up enormously to buy out the majority shareholders.

Moreover, the ideal opportunity may have passed. With hindsight, the Roddicks should have pounced in June, when the shares were floundering at 107p. Last week, even before news of their approach came out, they were 26 per cent higher at 135p.

If the Roddicks do manage to table a bid, that is just the start of their problems. Pitching the price fairly is essential if both sellers and buyers are to remain content. That can prove horribly difficult. Attempts by both Conrad Black at The Telegraph and Alan Sugar at Amstrad to take their businesses private failed because the outside shareholders felt they were getting a raw deal. Inevitably, they feel that the bidder knows more than they do, and they get suspicious.

Valuing Body Shop is doubly difficult because of uncertainty in the US, where its stores are struggling against aggressive competition from copycat retailers. If Body Shop succeeds there, its share price could easily double. If it fails, the shares could halve. For the moment things hang in the balance.

It hardly helps that the Body Shop's only two independent directors are both marketing folk, with little bid experience. Penny Hughes is a former Coca-Cola executive. Aldo Papone used to work at American Express, the firm that persuaded Mrs Roddick to star in its TV commercials.

They have wisely called in an independent financial adviser, Goldman Sachs. But the non-execs could still do with an independent, credible and heavyweight City figure added to their numbers. The irony is that the Roddicks, after all their taunts about "merchant wankers" and "pinstripe dinosaurs", are the last people to attract one.

All in a flutter

RETAILERS are having a grotty time. Shoppers are thin on the ground, reluctant to spend and more likely to be shelling out on the National Lottery. Boots showed its wounds last week: its Do It All, Fads and Children's World chains are all suffering badly. Marks and Spencer reports this week.

Meanwhile, prepare for the perennial fears that Christmas shoppers will stay at home and stores will be lumbered with heaps of unsold stock. It never happens. But the Christmas sales bulge may well be later than ever because 25 December is a Monday, giving shoppers a full final shopping week.

A statistical quirk may bring some cheer. The lottery is a year old this month, so its impact will start to drop out of retailers' year-on- year sales figures. That can only help sentiment.