Thursday, 11 February 2016

No appeal? Good

I've been catching up with stuff that's happened over the summer holidays, and I have to say I was quite encouraged when I found out that Chorus has decided not to appeal against the Commerce Commission's decisions on copper broadband pricing and on backdating the regulated price.

Chorus's statement on January 28 said that "the Chorus Board has elected not to appeal the decision, despite disagreeing with some key elements such as the lack of backdating. While we are aware that some investors feel there may be merit in further testing aspects of the determination in court, it is the strong view of the Board and Management that the best long-term value for our shareholders and customers will be achieved through the industry focussing on bringing New Zealand better broadband".

Well said. Even if there is also something of a Mexican standoff going on - "we won't appeal against some aspects of the decisions if everyone else holds off, too" (my words, not theirs) - the general idea is bang on the button. There has been a deal of opportunistic regulatory and litigatory rent-seeking in the telco, and other, sectors over the years, and it is good to see someone turning their back on it and getting on with running the whelk stall.

More companies could usefully realise the true extent to which regulation and litigation are a distraction from their core lines of business. The direct costs of management and board time, and of lawyers and economic experts, are only a fraction of the true cost of diversion of focus from longer-term performance. In my experience, across various governance roles, that item on the agenda about the regulator or the court case takes on an entirely disproportionate importance. The corporate ego gets overinvested in winning: business strategy and longer-term performance are the inevitable losers.

Chorus may well have come to another correct conclusion that others could learn from: if you play the regulatory game too hard for too long, it will bite you (as I've argued before). We might eventually have had sector-specific regulation in any event, but there's little doubt that Telecom (as was), and various parties in the electricity business, pulled their current sectoral regulatory regimes onto their own heads through their bloodyminded intransigence.

I'm perfectly happy to accept that focussing on the business was the primary motivation for Chorus flagging away any appeals.  But if in the background Chorus also reasoned that pushing their luck on backdating - they might have scooped a pot of some $140 million - on top of a halfway decent outcome on the price, would have been a bad strategic move, given that the whole regime of telco regulation is currently under review, then they made a good call.

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