Fran O'Sullivan: Control of prices major poll issue

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Supermarkets, power, farming and housing markets being batted about ahead of September's general election.

Z Energy. Photo / Greg Bowker
Z Energy. Photo / Greg Bowker

Boat outing chatter: "The oil industry loved Lloyd Morrison - the greatest thing he did was buy Shell's petrol retailers and list Z - it will enable them to crank their prices up".

It's the type of chatter you hear about sectors where prices (at times) appear to move in unison. Such as: petrol prices, interest rates, power prices, airline tickets, dairy prices.

People frequently suspect that cartels operate in such sectors - and sometimes they do.

But generally competition is a lot stronger than it appears at face value.

What is clear is that prices and who controls them is already an issue for this year's election.

The "market rules OK?" is not the kind of slogan that opposition parties are chanting.

Labour's Shane Jones has been creating a storm over the "Aussie supermarkets" with allegations aplenty over aggressive tactics to suppliers which they deny. Despite a Commerce Commission inquiry Jones is still dishing the dirt.

Back to Z Energy, the theory was that by listing it would create shareholder expectations that hefty dividends were in store. Thus the impetus would be for it to raise prices. Other industry competitors would follow suit. Everyone would benefit.

The same "rule" applies when it comes to power prices. By this logic, New Zealanders will pay more for their electricity because the private shareholders in the partially privatised Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power and the about-to-be listed Genesis Energy need a good return on their investments and will jiggle them up a bit.

This behaviour would of course not be evidence of a cartel in action ... just a fortuitous confluence of circumstances.

But it doesn't quite work out like that.

As far as Z Energy is concerned much of the post-IPO impetus has been to drive prices down with the company dropping petrol prices earlier this week. Falling costs combined with a strong NZ dollar had allowed Z to pass the savings on to its customers. Z Energy has been at pains to point out that petrol and diesel prices are driven by three things - government taxes and levies, the cost of oil and refined product (petrol and diesel) and the exchange rate (what the New Zealand dollar is worth compared to other currencies).

Major disruptive factors like the expansion in US shale gas production are the key price driver for the future.

When it comes to power prices it is important to point out that Her Majesty's Government has been rather light-fingered when it comes to extracting excessive dividends and capital repayments from the electricity companies it has formerly owned outright.

The returns from the Government's electricity IPOs have been marred by Labour's pledge to introduce NZ Power to monster prices down by setting up the new agency to act as a single buyer of power for households.

Labour reckons NZ Power will do a similar job to Pharmac - by using bulk buying to keep prices low. It pledges NZ Power will "save every New Zealand household hundreds of dollars each year, and will keep a lid on future power price increases".

The big question of course is why Labour did nothing about the power price increases when it was last in Government? When it was the single shareholder in three of the four major power companies it didn't bleat on then about avarice in the industry or that of the "shareholders".

It arguably controlled the play through its shareholding stranglehold over all three companies. But once other players from the private sector were poised to invest the Opposition decided it was time to change the rules.

The reality is that politicians prey on consumers' vulnerabilities by rarking them up to believe that powerful interests will do them down by extracting greater margins than is warranted.

Labour and the Greens have already had a whack at the National-led Government over power prices. We know they intend to monster them down if they are in government after the election.

Then there are housing and farm prices. Yesterday Labour's David Cunliffe signalled his party wanted to amend the rules around foreign ownership of farms and houses. Again by constraining just who can take part in the market.

National is not promising to reduce any prices. Its argument is that interest rates will go up if Labour and the Greens are in power after September 20. This argument rests on the assumption that a Labour/Greens Government will be a big spending creature and increase inflation. The Reserve Bank will thus then need to raise interest rates to combat inflationary pressures. Hence John Key's argument that a Labour/Greens Government will raise prices.

This may be true. Or it may be simply a political ruse deployed by Key.

The reality is that interest rates are already on the rise. What is interesting is what moves Labour will have in mind to control them into the future.

The key is deciding whether the remedy will be worse than the current ills (if indeed they do exist).

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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