ROBERT PESTON: Inside out

ROBERT PESTON: Inside out - When the history is written of the economic and market gyrations of 2000, an academic from University College in London will merit more than a footnote. In fact, if there is a global recession this year, Professor Ken Binmore o

by ROBERT PESTON, editorial director of QUEST (www.csquest.com),e-mail Peston@Peston.com
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When the history is written of the economic and market gyrations of 2000, an academic from University College in London will merit more than a footnote. In fact, if there is a global recession this year, Professor Ken Binmore of the Economic Learning and Social Evolution unit at UCL will be a good man to blame.

The logic - of a slightly twisted nature - goes like this. Much of the slowdown in world economic growth stems from a deceleration in technology spending by telecoms companies. This slowdown stems from their growing indebtedness, which is worrying banking regulators and has increased their cost of capital. The increase in their indebtedness is due in large part to the Eu100 billion and more that they spent at European auctions of licences to operate third-generation mobile telephone services.

And the UK auction, which precipitated all the auctions, was designed by Binmore.

If you also take account of a blow to consumer confidence from a collapse in share prices caused by the bursting of the technology bubble, Binmore might be advised to barricade his front door and buy a shotgun. Many directors of high-tech companies with worthless share options might think he was too clever by half.

But I might turn myself into a human shield for Binmore, if it came to that. He should not be chided for the use made by others of his work on maximising returns from asset sales through a competitive auction process.

However, I have heard senior directors of the biggest telecoms companies curse Gordon Brown for hiring Binmore and using his auction system. They normally express their criticism in altruistic terms, saying that the UK economy has been damaged, never mentioning that their own companies have been hobbled by the imprudent bids they made for licences.

The implication is that the directors of these companies - Vodafone, BT, France Telecom, Deutsche Telekom - are not the swaggering giants of the business world we all thought they were. No. They are meek little sheep, none of whom had the guts during the auction process to break away from the herd and withdraw. 'The chancellor made us throw away our shareholders' money,' they bleat. 'We didn't want to do it, but the big bully made us.'

As the months have passed since the UK auction closed on April 27 last year, evidence has accumulated of how foolish these bidders were. Having paid more than Eu100 billion for licences to operate in Germany, the UK, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere, the mobile companies will have to spend at least that much again to build the necessary infrastructure.

What I have found most shocking is that companies paid away fortunes for the licences without having a clear idea of how they were going to generate sufficient returns from the investments. When I asked directors of the big telecoms companies to describe their 3G revenue models, I was met with embarrassed smiles.

They based their bids on an untestable gut feeling that we consumers are going to have a burning desire to carry around mini online computers giving fast access to the internet and allowing us to download a game or find the nearest Pizza Hut at the click of a button. Of course, lots of people will want to do this. Our 15-year-old, Simon, will go wild-eyed at the thought of it. But will he and his pals do enough impulse shopping of pepperoni supreme to pay the dividend on a pounds 35 billion investment? I am unconvinced.

Anyway, I am told that the transmission of unsolicited information - telling Simon where to find his local Pizza Hut without him asking - is illegal under rules designed to protect personal privacy and data. If so, it would deprive the mobile internet of some potentially valuable advertising revenues.

But what I find particularly amusing about the humiliation of the telecoms companies is that the same government that trousered pounds 22.5 billion for UK 3G licences is now saying it is sensitive to public concerns about the health effects of mobile phones. The political climate for the construction of thousands of new base stations necessary for the provision of third-generation mobile services could hardly be worse.

While the Treasury was consulting Prof Binmore, the Department of Health was seeking the advice of an independent expert group on mobile phones under Sir William Stewart. Ministers are considering what to do about its recommendation that a tougher system of planning approvals be put in place for mobile masts.

They are in no doubt about the public mood. In my own leafy north London street, parents who depend on their mobiles for keeping tabs on babysitters turn into crazed sans-culottes at a proposal to erect a mast at the entrance to a local park. In an election year, will the Government ride roughshod over passionate middle-class irrationality, out of some sense of obligation to Vodafone, BT and the rest? Don't count on it.

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