The Conservative party has long been in favour of a free and open market economy. So it was no surprise to see, at the party conference, Theresa May extolling the virtues of this at some length. Then, after a brief pause to collect ‘her’ P45 from a prankster in the audience, the PM moved against the same free market economy to hit energy suppliers with a price cap.

Summary – free market economy works, except when it doesn’t.

Subtext – free market economy works, except when your main political rival (exogenous to your own party, that is, not Boris) is espousing a ‘grass is always greener’ alternative of nationalisation and shared profits for all.

May’s speech noted the broken energy market as customers are punished for being loyal with higher prices. Though this is very difficult to justify, energy market practices of increasing bills for those who are reluctant to switch are overlooked in other industries (when was the last time your car insurance renewal quote came down in price?).

Yesterday’s price cap announcement has grabbed less headlines than intended, being overshadowed by the P45 (on which reasons for termination included “neither strong nor stable” and “we are a bit worried about Jezza”, in case you were wondering…). And in true Conservative party style of late, the announcement was light on detail (“Brexit means Brexit!”). But as some details emerge, we can make an initial assessment of the impact:

  • Ofgem is likely to be involved in implementing the cap, and it is better for utilities in the hands of the independent regulator, versus being overly punitive in the hands of MPs.
  • There will still be incentives for switching customers and the regulator will be mindful of striking a balance between incentivising competition and penalising unfairness.
  • The cap will be temporary in nature, with a date set for its removal. Who said politics was short-termist in its outlook?

So what does the announcement mean for our bond holdings? Should we sell out of bonds issued by UK energy suppliers? In summary: no.

The big six UK energy suppliers are international companies with diverse business lines. A UK price cap, in whatever form it takes, will not affect Centrica’s robust US business, nor will it affect German utility E.ON’s substantial grids business. In addition, the substance behind the headlines noted above all suggests the implemented policy will be a watered-down version from the past reports of all customers saving £100 a year.

Economic history and the unintended consequences of restricting free market forces tell us that the consumer rarely benefits in the long run. As Reagan noted, the most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

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