Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Not asking the right question

The meeting between the Prime Minister, the Energy Secretary, and the ‘big six’ energy companies seems to have been a classic case of creating the appearance of action without actually doing anything very much.
That high and rising fuel prices are a problem is indisputable and that they impact disproportionately on the least well-off is equally so.  But exhorting energy companies to make their bills clearer, and to make it easier for consumers to switch supplier, is little more than tinkering on the fringes.  And there’s nothing new in any of it, as one of the more independent suppliers who was present stated after the meeting.
The response of opposition politicians has been little better.  Ed Miliband’s statement that the companies should use their profits to reduce prices is merely the most glaring example of a lack of will to implement real change.
There does seem to be some doubt as to whether the claim that the energy companies are making an average profit of £125 per household per year is true or not.  The companies themselves claim that it’s closer to £15, but I’m not sure how relevant any figure is. 
‘If £125 is too high, what’s the right figure?’ is not a question to which I’m hearing any answers.  And in any event, the percentage figure is more relevant that the absolute figure, and energy companies’ profits do not seem that far out of line with other profit-making businesses.
That goes to the heart of the inadequacy of the political response.  The underlying question – whether we want these services provided by companies whose main aim is profit – is not even being asked.  Suggesting that companies should sacrifice the interests of their shareholders for the benefit of their customers is like criticising the outcomes of the free market without challenging the underlying basis.
Government (or opposition) politicians could propose an alternative ownership model for energy companies, or they could propose legislation to limit profits or enforce lower tariffs, but they do none of those things – because they accept the basic economic model under which the companies operate.
That leaves them nothing to fall back on except pious words and spin, which will do little to alleviate the problems which many will face this winter.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

I accept much on the direction of your post, but getting fixated by profit may not be the answer as this is an international business and has to attract big investors with money and the kind of money HMG does not have.
Introducing competition to the market place is the answer and a quick fix would be to break up the distribution system for oil and gas as they did in the USA via the antitrust ruling in the 30`s. Energy producers outside the US have a logistical cartel that controls the price at the last six feet of hose. The Pipeline Act of the 70`s that governs all distribution of oil products, was written by the oil industry and is obstructive to new suppliers.
One lesson from history, the last government to take on the oil barons was Dear Old Maggs and her Exchequer –Nigel Lawson who was ordered to call them in for a roosting and call an end to their nasty little ways. The leader (I have this from someone who was there) of the oil delegation asked the Chancellor “Do you know who we are? Nige said “you are the oil industry”. The answer was “we are the people that collect millions of pounds for you per day for free, and this could slow down”- end of meeting.