Supermarket sweep-(15.01.03)

The battle for Safeway is on, and the battle for shareholders votes seems almost secondary to the more significant battle to win the argument at the OFT. The first interesting point to note is that this battle happens whilst the new Enterprise Bill makes its way through parliament. The key impact, apart from reinforcing the requirement to act in the consumers interest (whatever that is defined to mean) is to supposedly remove a political element to the process. So in theory the OFT should decide the case based on whatever is in consumers interests alone, but this is a technocratic rather than political judgement.

The Morrison's bid would appear to have the potential for consumer gains, as it would improve the geographic spread of competition. For shareholders however, the knowledge of this results in the lowest bid of the competing parties. Higher bids are only possible from a future stream of higher profits at the stores. This is before taking into account the costs of potential remedies such as store disposals that the bigger bidders would be required to undertake.

One way of avoiding this would be to not allow the OFT to propose remedies. A pendulum style approach to competition where you either get all or nothing would prevent this potential abuse of shareholders at the expense of consumers. Whilst that problem can be overplayed, pendulum resolution would at least provide clarity and simplicity to a complicated process and help to encourage greater transparency with bidding parties.