Friday, June 24, 2011

Competition's essential role in development

Two weeks ago I spent a weekend at Jamaica Grande with my son. I forgot to take my camera with me and therefore asked one of the roving photographers to take a picture of us, so that we could have a record of our time there. When leaving I went to the photo shop (not operated by Jamaica Grande) and asked for two copies of the pictures to be placed on a compact disc (CD), so that I could have a digital copy. To my surprise the attendant informed me that that could not be done, and I would have to purchase printed copies, as the policy is that only if you purchase five or more copies could it be placed on CD.

I wondered to myself who in this day and age keeps printed copies of pictures, and secondly if the problem is the cost of the CD why not just tell me that I would have to pay for the CD, which surely costs under J$100 and I think would cost less than the printing and paper cost. Instead the attendant was adamant that it could not be done. I therefore left without purchasing the copies, and the photo shop ended up with digital copies that they didn't recover any cost for.

This is reminiscent of the way Cable and Wireless behaved when they were the sole mobile provider. Those old enough will remember the days when to call another cell phone was like taking out a mortgage on a house: what is more, the person receiving the call would pay also. Even before that time, for those even older, I remember when one applied for landline service a woman could have two children before the phone service was connected.

When Digicel entered the market in the 1990s it changed the whole landscape. Finally there was competition and there was no need for any regulations for consumer protection, as competition and the drive for market share and profitability ensured that the consumer became king. It is therefore logical that if the market is open to even further competition, through number portability for example, the consumer will benefit even more. Additionally the market will grow as more money will be spent on advertising and infrastructure development.

We have similar situations where (1) the JPS is the monopoly distributor for electricity; (2) NWC is a monopoly; and (3) the banking sector is effectively closed and does not allow for more flexibility in fees and interest charges. The result of the lack of adequate competition in these areas means less benefit for the consumer, or in the case of the JPS or NWC, you either pay for the service or do without.

What we have failed to realise as a country, however, is that the way to solve the plight of the consumer, when it comes to monopolies, is not to regulate, regulate, and regulate, but rather to open up the market to competition. So in the 1930s the great USA realised the problem with monopolies and they passed the Sherman Act, which controlled monopolistic tendencies. Or across Europe and the USA when two large entities seek to merge they first have to get the blessing of the authorities, who will not approve the merger if they believe it will lead to monopolistic tendencies .

In Jamaica, however, we never seem to try to solve market distortions by creating more efficient markets through competition. Rather what we do is seek to regulate it. So instead of trying to assist consumers suffering from high electricity or telephone rates we talk about giving more power to the OUR, rather than spending our energies discussing how to create a more competitive market and greater market efficiency. It seems that even though we talk about the benefits consumers have gained from the liberalisation of the telecommunications market, we don't seek to emulate it. Is it any wonder then that we have suffered from economic stagnation since the 1970s or significant fiscal and trade deficits?

The only way for economies to develop is through competition. Even communist China has realised this, and is the fastest-growing economy in the world and one of the most competitive.

Competition, of course, should never be unbridled but should have oversight. If left unchecked we could end up with another global economic crisis, but it is important that as many players as possible be allowed to participate. The regulators should act as referees in a football match who do not interfere with the free flow of play but who ensure fairness.

This need for market efficiency through competition is one of the primary reasons why Jamaica has failed to realise its full market potential. During the 1960s we had a lot of development, not because government picked winners (as we have sought to do since the 1970s) but rather because the enabling environment was created and we watched the private sector expand the economy. It seems, though, that since the 1970s our governments have had a socialistic tendency towards economic management.

When I spoke about the need for a paradigm shift in my book, it wasn't only a shift in government policy, but rather the need for a cultural shift and the way that we approach market development. Jamaica will never truly develop until we allow for an environment where greater competition is allowed and the best companies are allowed to survive and the worst ones to fail, as they should. Otherwise what we have is market distortion, which leads to a stagnant economy and finds its way into fiscal and trade deficits.

So at the end of the day, to go back to the example I started with: if there were two photo shops beside each other, what would have been the possible outcome of the interaction I had with them? In my view the story would have had the following outcome.

Both would first ensure that they had well trained photographers with the best cameras, taking pictures of all the guests. They might then go further in marketing the pictures to the guests by creating some link to display the pictures to the television sets in the guest rooms and offering some kind of package actively. They might even offer that the payment could be made through the internet and the pictures delivered electronically. One thing is sure: is they would never set a minimum purchase before one could get digital copies on CD.

So at the end of the day we would have (i) a better trained work force; (ii) a better paid workforce; (iii) greater market activity and efficiency; (iv) greater infrastructure investment; (v) more market information; (vi) increased corporate profits; and (vii) higher standard of living and consumer satisfaction. All from a little competition.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Jamaica’s telecommunications industry

THIS week CNN reported on an article titled "WHO: Cellphone use can increase possible cancer risk". I think that this is something that many persons suspected, before but coming from the World Health Organisation this cements the belief in people's minds. I wonder how this will affect cellphone usage going forward.

This got me thinking about Jamaica's telecommunication sector, which has made a valiant attempt to keep pace with what is happening in a developed market such as the US, but with the coming merger between Claro and Digicel and the consistent losses being shown by Cable and Wireless (trading as LIME), it seems as if this sector could fall back into one where competition is all but absent.

I had long thought that this day was coming, and remember advising someone a few years ago that C&W shares at J$1.60 at the time was a bad buy, even though that price was a 52-week low, because I felt that the share price would fall considerably. It is now trading at approximately 20 cents. I also expect that the share price will fall further as when I look at the way the company is presently structured I don't see how it will emerge from the black hole it finds itself in. There are a few reasons for my thinking this way, which I will briefly outline. Before I do so, I think that given this situation it is important for the regulators to look at the situation and see how best the consumer can be protected going forward.

The truth is that given the nature of the business and the market, I wouldn't be surprised if Digicel is having a difficult time also, which cannot be assessed because of the lack of financial information.

The industry itself is one where significant capital infrastructure investment is consistently required, and with the decline in disposable income across Jamaica, it should be extremely difficult to recover. So like the airline industry, the greatest amounts of money are not made by the service providers, by the agents, or those that do business with the service provider. The main issue of course is the capital investment cost. The Jamaican market is just too poor for maintaining a sustainable competitive environment in telecommunications development.

As a result the regulators will have to be proactive in protecting the consumer.

C&W financials

The recently published audited statements for C&W show a company that has significant challenges, and I think the mistake that management has consistently made in that company is not recognising the need for a paradigm shift. Maybe the current management will make that change given their ability.

The group continued to show significant losses, and losses attributable to stockholders increased from J$3.3 billion to a whopping J$6.1 billion in fiscal year ended 2011. Further analysis on the Group Income Statement showed that the gross margin declined year over year (YoY) from 65 per cent to 57.6 per cent, reflecting the deteriorating market conditions and competition from Digicel. Although the group managed to reduce operating expenses by over $2 billion, a careful look showed that the reduction was due to a non-cash item, depreciation and amortisation, which does not add cash flow and also suggests that the equipment is ageing and will need to be replaced soon, especially if it is to keep up with Digicel, which already has over 70 per cent of the market. The group shows an improvement in the operating loss before net finance cost line, from $3.0 billion to $2.6 billion, but when one removes the depreciation consideration, it shows that the cash-generating activities worsened, as is reflected in the cash flow statement, which shows that net cash provided by operating activities declined YoY from $4.9 billion to $1.2 billion. This suggests that the group is facing a tighter liquidity situation and is supported by a cash injection from group companies of $5.6 billion.

It is important to note, though, that the group is still very liquid and is still generating cash from operations. The main concern is that going forward it will need cash resources to upgrade infrastructure.

LIME at the crossroads

One of the things that the group may have to look at in restructuring the operations is the charge of the interest to C&W from advances from other group companies. If this debt is taken into consideration ($19.9 billion), the group has a debt to equity ratio of 3.7, but if the internal debt is removed the debt to equity is 0.12. The majority of the interest paid is also within the group. The suggestion is that one way the group could significantly turn around the fortunes of the company is to capitalise the debt. This would significantly reduce the burden on the company and improve the operating position.

The challenge they will continue to face, however, is capital replacement going forward and competition from Digicel. As I had stated in an article a few weeks ago, this big bother about the Digicel-Claro merger is really a red herring. Even if the merger does not take place C&W is in danger of extinction without any significant restructuring, or unless the regulators introduce portability of numbers.

This operating challenge is also evident in the current ratio, which stood at 0.72 on March 31, 2011, and where the Trade and accounts payable is twice the Accounts receivable balance.

The numbers do tell a lot more about the group, but lack of of space and time does not permit a much more comprehensive report. Suffice it to say that C&W is at the crossroads and must make a fundamental shift in order to preserve the competition in the local marketplace. There is of course a logical action I think either Digicel or C&W can take to increase profitability, which I am sure they have thought about already. The group still has significant liquidity, despite the decline, and I am hopeful that with the management team that is there it will overcome this obstacle for the benefit of Jamaica's telecommunication industry.