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Union policy research in the 21st century

Archive for April 2010

IASB puts up new Exposure Draft on pensions accounting

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The International Accounting Standards Board has put up a new Exposure Draft proposing amendments to the accounting regime for defined benefit pension schemes.

The Exposure Draft is, essentially, the accounting profession’s way of publicly consulting on changes to the accounting standards which govern financial reporting regimes. Like everything else, accountancy is governed by global standards which seek to harmonise how accountants report company accounts; unfortunately, IAS19, which governs how defined benefit pension schemes are accounted for, is subject to the same short-termist approach as the rest of the corporate world, implying that it is inimical to the long-term nature of defined benefit pension schemes. Both it and its predecessor in the UK (FRS17) have been blamed, at least partly fairly, for contributing to the rush to close DB schemes.

The IASB has already been through a lengthy consultation process on its preliminary views on refining how defined benefit schemes are financially accounted for; this new consultation runs until early September this year. The Draft is available for public comment and the IASB aims to finalise its plans by mid-2011, with a view to the new standard becoming effective in 2012 or 2013.

The new Exposure Draft seeks to ‘improve’ (in the context, a word full of dread!) pension scheme accounting by requiring companies:

– to account immediately for all estimated changes in the cost of providing pension benefits and all changes in the value of plan assets

– to use a new presentation approach that would clearly distinguish between different components of the cost of these benefits

– to disclose clearer information about the risks arising from defined benefit plans.

Some of this inevitably needs decoding. According to KPMG, what this means in practice is that companies will henceforth have to stop booking a ‘profit’ in their accounts equivalent to the gap between expected investment returns and the interest cost paid on pensions liabilities. This ‘pensions credit’ is, essentially, a way of recording a paper profit from the pension scheme where schemes’ investment returns are higher – as they usually are, where schemes are investing in equities – than the AA corporate bond yield used to discount liabilities. The introduction of the amendments to IAS19, which will require the assessment of investment returns to be based on the same yield on AA corporate bonds, thus effectively ending the credit, will, clearly, lead to greater transparency in accounts – and, at the same time, to a further reduction in the attractiveness of running DB pension schemes.

KPMG’s press release quotes that this will ‘cost’ UK businesses £10bn in lost earnings, with the largest schemes facing a ‘loss’ of £50m per annum, while the ubiquitous John Ralfe believes that this will ‘cost’ BT £750m (turning a £500m ‘profit’ from the scheme on the existing basis into a £250m ‘loss’ under the new one). Ralfe has a long-standing antipathy to schemes investing in equities – as this blog has previously observed. In terms of the actual cost in individual cases, much would seem to depend on how much schemes have invested in equities – though (perhaps to disappoint Ralfe) this is unlikely to result in schemes adopting more cautious investment profiles in the interim.

Will it make much difference? Yes, clearly, to those schemes which remain open to future accrual (the BTPS among them): changes in accounting rules which take money away from the profit and loss account – however much such money was paper only, and regardless of whether pension schemes should have been used in this way to boost earnings – will have an impact on ordinary workers since that ‘profit’ will have to be found from elsewhere so as to retain the level of earnings. Whether it will lead to more schemes being closed, given the numbers of schemes which have already come crashing down and the weight of other arguments against running DB provision which already exist, is a moot point.

Certainly, however, it – together with the requirement for further ‘clarity’ on the risks associated with defined benefit provision – can’t help; I’m almost of the view that it’s the latter that is the most damaging feature of all this: regardless of the ‘losses’ which need to be made up, having to write (or read) even more stuff in company accounts about just how much risk is posed by running a defined benefit scheme may well end up wearing down even the most resilient of corporate defenders of DB provision.

Clearly, these remain tough, and worrying, times for DB schemes, and most of all for the members of them.

Written by Calvin

30/04/2010 at 6:19 pm

Posted in Pensions

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Credit ratings agencies: the lessons of a children’s fable

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Some interesting pieces in the media today on credit ratings agencies, which appear, at least on the face of it, to have been produced pretty much without recognition of each other’s existence: on Peston’s Picks; at Citywire; and by John Gapper at the FT.

The consensus between the pieces appears to be largely that the agencies remain influential, not least in the context of their role in the current financial crises enveloping Greece and Spain, in spite of an inability on past form to recognise – in the gutter language of the day – a turd when they see one and to call as such. Shockingly, it also seems that the agencies were either uninformed (or else misinformed) of the full depth of the products they were rating, or else they simply did not understand them and did not care sufficiently to find out. Either way, I’d have thought that an ability to stand up and say, along with the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, that ‘the Emperor has no clothes on‘ would have been a prime raison d’être for such an organisation – or better said, perhaps, that such an ability ought to be their most highly valued asset in the future. Economies deserve better.

The agencies’ collective ability to resemble the three  ‘hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil’ – except at the bidding of their masters in the financial investment and speculatory world, of course – renders them ripe for reform by any government intent on tackling the financial abuses which have led to the current scandals and returning national economies to be run in the interests of the people.

Written by Calvin

29/04/2010 at 5:52 pm

Posted in Economic trends

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Britain’s digital future

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The Guardian‘s Tech Weekly podcast this week focuses on the parties’ views and attitudes towards Britain’s digital future, featuring discussion and comment from the three leading parties’ main representatives (Stephen Timms, Jeremy Hunt and Lord Razzall) on the following issues:

– curbing piracy and file sharing

– intellectual property copyright reforms

– how to fund rural broadband penetration

– dealing with the library of government data.

I haven’t yet listened to this in full but will be doing so with some interest, blogging any issues that arise. In the meantime, you can pick up the podcast, or listen online, here.

Written by Calvin

29/04/2010 at 11:55 am

A greener wireless industry

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Telecoms companies have united in another green initiative, this time with the aim of achieving a 50% reduction in the energy consumption of so-called 4th generation (or LTE) mobile wireless communication networks, and with the aim of commercialising its work by the end of 2012. The Earth (Energy Aware Radio and neTwork tecHnologies) project is based on research into ways of saving energy in mobile networks, network components and radio interfaces with the aim of laying the foundations for a new generation of energy-efficient communications equipment.

Other than that, the company press release is really rather dense (which may well account for the distinct lack of interest amongst the UK press, even on what seems to be a slow news day). Indeed, the initiative seems to have got underway some three months ago and only now has a press release been put together about it. Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson are the lead names on the initiative (as indeed the former was on a previously announced green initiative, which I blogged about here) but it also encompasses 13 other partners, including research institutes and universities, and the European standards organisation, ETSI, alongside the telecoms partners.

LTE (Long-Term Evolution) is the name for the next generation of mobile, with a wide range of frequencies deployed to allow users to watch high-definition video and receive much faster downloads on their mobile devices. An auction encompassing LTE-appropriate spectrum has just been concluded in the Netherlands, while similar is currently underway in Germany. Plans in the UK, intended to have been facilitated by Kip Meek’s independent brokerage and accepted by the government, have been derailed both by operator objections and by the loss of key chunks of the Digital Economy Bill, but may return to the agenda after the general election.

So, the new initiative is timely and very welcome – even if the EARTH programme, if not its aims, suffers from an inevitable imprecision as well as the equally inevitable strong dose of corporate puff. Similar to the last initiative, however, my gripe remains the relative lack of UK involvement. The University of Surrey is one of the consortium partners, but UK involvement seems otherwise to be minimal. Leadership on these sorts of initiatives is up for grabs and it would be a shame were the technical expertise in energy efficiency generated by such initiatives to flow largely elsewhere.

Written by Calvin

28/04/2010 at 4:07 pm

The ‘Google tax’ and net neutrality

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It is being reported that Vodafone is to ask the European Union to take action so as to ‘facilitate bilateral agreements between telecom operators and online content providers like Google’ – essentially, to allow network operators to charge content providers, such as Google, YouTube and, probably, the BBC’s iPlayer, additional fees in relation to the network demands placed by the users of such services.

Operators would rather charge content providers than consumers, but it would seem that some network operators have started to realise that the ‘all you can eat’ model – under which bandwidth comes at a flat rate (except, perhaps, for usage caps on really high users) – is not a viable economic model in a scenario of the rapid growth in bandwidth consumption we are experiencing. More and more for less and less is never a particular sound economic model. Clearly, in such a situation of heavy retail competition, essentially preventing operators from starting to raise prices, or to alter pricing structures in accordance with consumers’ capacity usage, operators need to look for alternative sources of revenue – and content providers represent it. (How we’ve got into this mess in the first place is a different blog post altogether.)

Were they to succeed, then this is likely to lead to a further commercialisation of the internet, in terms of how the content that you read, or view, is paid for (though, to be fair, such a commercialisation is proceeding apace anyway via new advertising models), with network operators essentially wanting their own slice of this action.

On the face of it, the reference to the need for EU action looks a little odd – there is nothing to stop operators coming to such bilateral agreements amongst themselves and, in a free market, that’s probably the more preferable response (where, of course, content providers are prepared to play ball, which they may well not be).

The other difficulty, of course, is the reference to the principle of net neutrality, according to which network operators should carry net traffic on an open, non-discriminatory basis. (Roger Darlington reviews the issues of net neutrality very well in his monthly column for Connected, the magazine of the Connect Sector of Prospect, which you can also read online here.) Starting to charge content providers for network quality, or levels of consumption (as measured by capacity usage), starts to affect how the net operates since content providers, under the commercial pressures of such agreements, are likely to want to see ‘their’ traffic prioritised by those with whom they have reached such agreements. Indeed, such prioritisation is likely to be included within any such agreements on charging. The upshot will be changes to how the net operates, and is experienced, some of which may well be invisible to the naked eye – a problem for those supporting a liberal internet and likely to lead to such principles being heavily compromised.

The original source for this post reports that Vodafone is making its push via a shortly-to-be-finalised submission to an EU consultation on net neutrality. This is a bit strange, since the last I saw from the EU on this issue was this (part of last year’s EU telecoms package) which, in Annexe 2, does talk of the importance of preserving ‘the open and neutral character of the net’ and seeking to enshrine net neutrality as a policy objective for member states. I can’t find a reference to an open consultation on this on the appropriate pages of the EU portal, although we know from Ofcom’s annual plan for 2010/2011 that some activity will be taking place (A1.77) – while Roger’s piece also refers to a UK discussion and consultation on net neutrality taking place ‘later this year’ (and, evidently, within the context of EU action).

Such confusion aside, it is clear that operators (the original source cites also Telefonica) are starting to gird their loins for an attack on net neutrality so as to allow them to seek to charge content providers for access (in this context, Project Canvas takes on a new light since it would seem to allow project partners to side-step any such charges). Equally, the EU looks set against such a model, so it could be quite a battle. Consumers will end up paying the price somewhere, although whether that’s a cash-based or a principles-based price (or both) is an interesting question.

Written by Calvin

27/04/2010 at 4:28 pm

Orange refused Swiss merger

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Swiss competition regulators have refused permission for Orange, the smallest of three operators in Switzerland, to merge with Sunrise, the Danish-owned second largest operator, on the grounds that the proposal would undermine market dynamics and damage consumer interests.

The merged entity, for which proposals had been developed last November, would have had a market share of 38%, compared to the 62% held by Swisscom, the former monopoly operator. However, the view of the Swiss authorities was that the merged operator: ‘would have been in a collective dominant position which risked eliminating effective competition.’ Uppermost in the authorities’ mind was that it would be more advantageous in a two-company market for both to collude over pricing levels.

An appeal, which must be lodged within 30 days, is thought likely [registration required; limited viewing time]. In the meantime, a knock-on effect of the decision has been to delay a planned flotation of TDC [registration required; limited viewing time], the Danish parent of Sunrise, which is currently owned by a consortium of five well-known private equity groups (Blackstone Group; Permira; Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co; Providence; and Apax Partners). Part of the Swiss merger would have meant France Telecom, Orange’s parent, handing over €1.5bn in cash to TDC in return for a 75% share in the merged operation – without which, on the face of it, the private equity groups concerned have been unable to realise sufficient gains prior to their exit from the Danish market.

Clearly, the Swiss mobile communications market is different to the UK one and Switzerland is outside the EU, so it’s not particularly interesting to examine the reasons for the approval of a merger in one market compared to a decision to reject a merger creating a still-small entity in another. At the same time, however, and taking these two recent situations together, it is interesting that the rationale for merger approval or rejection in neo-liberal societies seems, on the face of it, not to be so much the desire to create, or achieve, conditions of high competition but to minimise the point at which there is a potential for pricing collusion.

It’s also an interesting reflection on the role of private equity groups, and their ability to extract high rewards from relatively quiet situations (the Swiss mobile market is 9m consumers) – as well as a comment on  the involvement of private equity groups in telecoms companies. If the €1.5bn was as crucial as that to their exit from the Danish market, and sufficient to postpone it when its arrival has been blocked, then it is likely that the efficiency gains sparking their involvement in TDC have not been sufficient to make their involvement in Denmark worthwhile. At least – not yet; which may in turn spark a note of further warning to Danish trade union colleagues.

It would have been even more interesting had Deutsche Telekom, in which Blackstone has a stake, had been involved in the Swiss market.

Written by Calvin

26/04/2010 at 6:07 pm

Young Fast Optoelectronics

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One of LabourStart’s current campaigns concerns workers at Young Fast Optoelectronics, a Taiwanese manufacturer of touch panel screens whose customers include Samsung, LG, HTC (which supplies phones to Vodafone in the UK) and Google. Following a concerted union organising drive at the factory in the face of poor working conditions, which led to the establishment of the union in December 2009, management at the plant has sacked five union officers and more than ten active union members.

LabourStart is organising an e-mail campaign in support of the union and the sacked workers, and calling for the improvement of working conditions at the plant, which you can join either from the LabourStart homepage, or else directly here.

It’s a telecoms industry plant, and these workers need to know that they’re not alone. Please do what you can to support them.

Written by Calvin

23/04/2010 at 6:00 pm