Cutting Room

Cutting Room - NYSE finds it no longer has room for al Jazeera; which directory enquiry service? - it's your call; petrol retailers feel the heat; fat economics ... Evan Davis at large.

by Evan Davis, economics editor of the BBC
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

NYSE finds it no longer has room for al Jazeera; which directory enquiry service? - it's your call; petrol retailers feel the heat; fat economics ... Evan Davis at large.

How nice, at this time of geo-political turmoil, to see the New York Stock Exchange strike a blow for freedom, international understanding and the American way. It has banned the Arab news station al-Jazeera from broadcasting on its premises.

You might have thought that opening the doors of western institutions to Muslim viewers would be just what the world needs. Yet, according to the NYSE, such notions of nation speaking peace unto nation are gratuitous. The exchange chose the fifth day of the war to 'prioritise' the allocation of its broadcast space, and kick out al-Jazeera's reporters.

No other broadcasters have been removed. And there's no suggestion of complaint at the way the Arab station covered the exchange's own affairs. No, it seems it was just fed up with al-Jazeera's reporting of the war in general. Indeed, one press officer, Ray Pellecchia, admitted as much. 'It's impossible to say that thought was not in the minds of those looking at this question,' he told me.

Perhaps when broadcasters report from the exchange in future they should warn viewers in the usual way: 'The following item comes from inside the stock exchange and is thus subject to reporting restrictions.'

We are now a few months into the new regime for directory enquiries, and what an interesting PhD thesis the study of this market will one day make.

You'll recall that last December new enquiry operators opened to compete with the traditional 192 service, which closes in August. All the new companies use six-digit numbers starting with 118. BT, for example, is 118 500.

The market seems to be in turmoil, with different services competing on tariffs that are hard to compare. Other services listed on the Oftel web site seem not to exist at all, and some numbers take you through to generic enquiry operators, providing a directory for several different companies.

Most strange of all is that, despite competition, the price of BT enquiries has gone up. BT's 192 directory costs 40p. The new parallel BT service costs 25p, plus 30p a minute.

It's true that there are opportunities for saving money. Low Cost on 118 888 charges 20p a minute - I timed a straightforward enquiry at 45 seconds, so you'd save substantially there. But the nightmare for employers must be that their staff will now use the big new thing in enquiry services, the offer to put you through to the number requested. Even Low Cost offers the service, which sounds attractive until you realise that they bill you for the connected call at the same 20p a minute they charge you for enquiries - an extortionate rate for just dialling the number.

Companies face a dilemma on whether to bar all 118 services, including Low Cost.

Talking of the oddities of market forces, here's a finding by the National Audit Office on the wholesale supply of petrol to independent service stations. The fuel is sold by volume, and - as any GCSE science student knows - volume expands with temperature. But the temperature at which retailers buy fuel off the tanker is apparently higher than the temperature at which it is sold to car owners. In short, retailers buy a bigger volume than they can sell. It's thought to cost them #8O million a year.

Of course, I can't endorse the idea discussed by the NAO that we should regulate against warm deliveries of fuel. If we did, the deliverers would probably just raise their price to maintain overall profit levels. It looks as though small retailers will have to live with it.

A fascinating economic study of obesity has arrived on my desk from the US. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the increase in obesity in the US can be put down to developments in the labour market. Increased female participation, low incomes and long hours make it likely you will cut down on intensive work at home preparing good food and instead buy more fast or processed food, probably higher in calories.

Perhaps a more shocking conclusion, albeit tentative, is that the upward trend in obesity is at least partly attributable to the anti-smoking campaign', as smoking can keep metabolism up and weight down.

It's not the first word on this topic. One author, Edward Luttwak, hypothesised that poor Americans were prone to obesity because their economic lives are miserable and they take solace in food.

See, economists have so much to say on so many topics.

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