Be afraid: Bombardier’s woes show government meddling is back in fashion

‘It is chilling to think of the disruption that a combination of activist governments and technology will have on the interests of those at the bottom’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 5:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 11:04pm

The internet has become the poster boy for the economic disruption that has destroyed the way we do business. Retailers, travel agents, booksellers, medium sized competitors have all been crushed by the digital revolution. But technology is not the biggest disrupter – increasing government intervention beats it by a wide margin.

The ability of governments to make or break business has been around since the days of royal patronage but over the last 70 years, world trade has been largely governed by the mantra of free trade. Since the 1960s, when the Japanese were caught selling goods to the world at low marginal cost, having had their overheads paid for by their huge domestic market, lengthy world trade negotiations have resulted in a fairly open playing field for trade.

The US loves its domestic antitrust legislation. The European Union, operating as usual in its own bubble, is currently taking action against the biggest technology companies for non-competitive activities. Yet while the European Commission fiddles with anti-competitive measures within the EU, governments around the world are burning with disruptive intervention that is changing the industrial landscape.

Many will point to President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy as being protectionist, but it is a delayed reaction to a feeling of being cheated by other governments intervening in the trade process. Socialism with American characteristics is exemplified by the recent imposition by the Commerce Department of a very massive fine on Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier. Boeing initiated the nuisance complaint using the regulatory system to destabilise a competitor – they were not even in the running for the contract to sell aircraft to Delta Air Lines.

There is no doubt that the Canadian and UK governments have massively supported the development of the aircraft to protect jobs and technology, yet Boeing is only in business because of massive support by the US military. The Commerce Department has taken a one-eyed view and played along with the game declaring unfair competition.

From Boeing’s point of view it is a stupid move – the British and Canadian governments are big military buyers. If you are too aggressive with your customers, they may go elsewhere. China will soon be a competitor to Boeing through its government-supported aircraft industry and it will not be long before they are making military exports.

The burgeoning impact of governments on markets is obvious close to home. Our home-grown airline, Cathay Pacific, has run an airline on purely commercial terms for nigh on 70 years, yet in recent years, the Middle Eastern airlines have started to eat their breakfast. These new competitors ordered billions of dollars of new aircraft and hired experienced management precisely because they have an implicit government guarantee. A typical airline start-up would not normally be able to raise that level of capital from private sources. The Chinese airlines, which also boast a government guarantee, have been the biggest buyers of new aircraft in history, and they are also eating Cathay’s lunch.

Fortunately for Cathay Pacific there should always be a niche, as years of quality and service pay off. But governments can still disrupt an industry enough in some areas to make business difficult in the whole industry. It is unfair to be competing against someone else’s taxpayer – but it is increasingly common.

Strangely for capitalism, there is nothing better than running a business with government support. The oligarchs in Russia have found this to their immense profit. So have those in China, where Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei and Tencent are protected by the Chinese government as national champions in their sector. The only commercial alternative is to be first into the sector and grow big like Apple, Amazon and Google.

It is true that governments have to seed important development, extend national influence or launch military projects that bear establishment risks that private enterprise cannot accept. Man on the moon, the Channel Tunnel, the Belt and Road Initiative and Concorde would not have seen the light of day without government support. In an excellent example of government disruption, the world’s one and only supersonic airliner Concorde, an otherwise a runaway success, was irreparably damaged by US government restrictions, as American lawmakers were miffed at not having one of their own.

We are living in an age of economic disruption where winners and losers are changing places. It is not just because of new technologies. Governments are becoming more aggressive in their “national interest”, that is the interests of those at the top.

It is chilling to think of the disruption that a combination of activist governments and technology will have on the interests of those at the bottom.

Richard Harris is a veteran investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster – and financial expert witness