August 21, 2008

BAA’s Mauling From the Competition Watchdog Looks More Like a Massage

By David Prosser


For a man who had just been told he would have to give up three of his most valuable assets, Colin Matthews, chief executive of BAA, didn't look terribly upset yesterday. Dividing his time between pointing out that the Competition Commission had delivered just as big a broadside at government policy as BAA itself and crowing about the expressions of interest he has already received about the purchase of Stansted and Gatwick, Mr Matthews was positively cheerful.

No wonder. Ferrovial, BAA's Spanish owners, must have had one eye on this turn of events when appointing Mr Matthews back in February. This, after all, is a man with extensive experience of breaking up companies, having done the job successfully at both Hays and Severn Trent. And, as Mr Matthews and his Spanish bosses know, the Competition Commission's report has plenty of silver linings for BAA.

The middle of an airline industry recession is not the ideal time to be forced into the sell-off of Gatwick and Stansted, but, given the number of companies that have already said they would be potential buyers, BAA can be confident it will achieve a reasonable price for both. Ferrovial might have made more from such deals two years ago, say, but the fact that its share price jumped yesterday morning suggests investors think the sale proceeds would do wonders for BAA's rather stretched balance sheet.

Moreover, there's no reason to think the new owners of Gatwick and Stansted are likely to provide BAA's flagship airport Heathrow with extra competition any time soon. The Competition Commission itself says the five-year pricing deals already announced for the three London airports should remain in place, which will make it impossible for Gatwick and Stansted to make aggressive inroads into Heathrow's business.

Even in the absence of pricing regulation, Gatwick and Stansted are not credible challengers to Heathrow's dominance. Nor will they become so unless they are able to substantially increase capacity with new runways. The Competition Commission says BAA should have done more to push the case for these runways, but its rivals will face a concerted effort from opponents of airport expansion, including this newspaper, that is likely to delay their construction for many years.

In the meantime, it is possible that rival operators could cut landing charges in order to entice airlines away from Heathrow. These airlines might then pass the savings on to customers.

However, landing charges per passenger are a tiny influence on ticket prices with oil still trading at well over $100 a barrel. And in any case, the fees are already lower at both Gatwick and Heathrow, and there doesn't seem to have been any shift in business. There's also the question of how a new owner of either airport could improve service to passengers - one of the failures for which BAA has faced criticism - while cutting charges.

BAA, then, will hardly be quaking in its boots. Not to mention the fact that, having dumped Gatwick and Stansted, it will be free to focus on Heathrow, the airport that is already benefiting from the prioritisation of investment that the Competition Commission says is a negative feature of BAA's monopoly.

Indeed, Terminal 5 was completed on Ferrovial's watch, during a period when it was saddled by huge debts. If BAA pays off those debts with the proceeds of the sale of Gatwick and Stansted, think how much more it could achieve at Heathrow, especially as a third runway there stands as much chance of approval as rival schemes in Essex and Sussex.

Naturally, BAA and Ferrovial had to appear aggrieved yesterday. Privately, however, they will not be feeling too sore. In the industry's parlance, this result is the equivalent of a seat upgrade rather than the endless passenger lounge delays with which many BAA airport users are all too familiar.

Good news for homeowners (well, some)

More grim tidings from the mortgage sector, where lending in July was 27 per cent down on the same month last year, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders. The slump in loans to house buyers is continuing and remortgages are down too.

What the figures don't tell you, however, is that the outlook for many thousands of borrowers that are coming to the end of cheap short-term deals taken out two or three years ago is much brighter than it seemed a few weeks ago.

Mortgage lending is depressed for three reasons: the housing market is in freefall, so people aren't borrowing to buy new houses; the credit crunch has squeezed lenders' funding so the number of mortgages available is in any case falling; and first-time buyers are effectively being squeezed out altogether by the fact that many lenders now want much higher deposits.

However, none of these issues affects existing homeowners who have plenty of equity in their properties - those with mortgages of 75 per cent or less of the value of their homes. For these people - and a substantial chunk of the 600,000 people with two- and three- year deals coming to an end this year fall into the category - competition is returning to the market.

In recent weeks, many of Britain's biggest lenders, including Halifax, Nationwide and Abbey, have cut the cost of the products they offer this sort of borrower by quite substantial amounts. It has helped that swaps rates have fallen, reducing the cost of offering fixed-rate deals, but variable rates are coming down too.

Many lenders actually overdid it when they sought to reduce lending as the scale of the credit crunch began to emerge. In the rush to avoid being overcommitted, particularly to borrowers considered more risky, they pulled back too hard and now they are scrabbling to regain market share.

Today's mortgage market is a throwback to the way home loans used to work. If you have no savings, or the merest hint of an adverse credit history, expect to pay through the nose for a mortgage deal, assuming you can find one. But for blue-chip customers, the environment is slowly improving. Those who have decent equity and an unblemished repayments record should now be able to find some decent deals.

EBay turns its back on its founders' vision

EBay looks set to become just another online retailer. What began 13 years ago as a clever wheeze through which individuals could auction off their weird and wonderful possessions long ago became an international business worth billions of dollars. But yesterday's announcement of an overhaul of eBay charges will transform the site once more.

Not that eBay has much choice. It's fine earning a few pence each time someone wants to auction off their old comics, but the business has always known it needed bigger and better customers. It has been hugely successful in persuading small and medium-sized retailers to sell in bulk through the site, increasingly with instant "buy it now" prices, but that source of growth also has its limits.

The latest overhaul of charges then is designed to attract the retail giants, many of whom already offer their entire product range through eBay's rivals, including Amazon.

As eBay sees it, site users should in future be able to buy, say, clothes from Next, or homewares from John Lewis, while also surfing for second-hand furniture or the collected works of Bucks Fizz.

The transformation of eBay into an online shopping centre began years ago, but this restructuring will complete the shift. It no doubt makes sense for a huge business that must now find a way to grow even further, but early eBay users and internet adopters will shed a tear for the disappearance of what was once a much more communitarian online experience.

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