We need to talk about profit

Accounting profit is necessary for publicly traded companies to survive; it's not a sign of extortion.

Profit is seen as a pretty ugly thing for public services to be dealing in. Take the Guardian's Terry Macalister in April (only picked because it's the most recent I can find):

The big six energy suppliers have been accused of "cold-blooded profiteering" after official figures showed they had more than doubled their retail profit margins over the last 18 months and were now earning an average of £95 profit per household on dual-fuel bills.

To be clear, the profit motive is a fair target. There's a real debate to be had over whether or not companies providing public services should be operating under a legal structure which requires them to try to maximise the amount of cash (over the long term) they can return to shareholders, rather than, say, maximising the quality of service provided for a given investment, or providing a set level of service at the minimum cost possible.

But given public services are frequently run by private companies, attacking the amount of profit they actually make is concerning, for one simple reason: money costs money.

It's a basic fact of the economy, one which explains why it takes so long to pay off credit card bills, why the bank pays you if you've got a savings account, and why Greece is finding things tricky at the moment.

But while we're all familiar with debt finance – the act of borrowing a sum, and then paying it back with interest – corporations have an alternative way of paying for the money they need: equity finance. Rather than paying interest on top of borrowed cash, they return a share of the money they make with their loans to the people who loaned to them in the first place.

That money being returned – the equivalent of the interest which we all have experience paying – is profit.

If companies don't earn some profit, then the shareholders are likely to cash out, safe in the knowledge that they can earn more by putting their money elsewhere – maybe by buying shares in another company, or putting it in a high interest savings account. The amount of profit that companies have to earn to stop this happening will vary based on the perceived riskiness of investing in them, as well as the value of investments elsewhere, and is known as the "cost of capital".

Power companies need to be able to make investments, frequently valued in the billions of pounds (Macalister quotes one industry analyst who estimates £50bn is needed just to hook up new gas supplies). It's only by making profit today – that is, by rewarding the shareholders who bought in to the companies before – that they can ensure that they have enough funding to carry on paying for investments tomorrow.

None of this is to say that there can't be such a thing as "too much" profit; if Thames Water were to suddenly make Apple-sized margins, we could be pretty sure that they were overcharging or underinvesting. But simply making accounting profit, even at the same time as pleading penury and raising prices, is not a sign of underhandedness. It's just a sign of a business working as normal.

Companies which deliberately and continually make no profit do exist. But they aren't traded on the open market, and have no access to equity finance. That's fine for some, but worrisome if they suddenly need to find large amounts of cash to invest – or to stave off the creditors.

Perhaps public services should be run as non-profits, or not be run privately at all; but if they are, attacking them for making profit is foolish.

Hinckley Point nuclear power station. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What will Labour's new awkward squad do next?

What does the future hold for the party's once-rising-stars?

For years, Jeremy Corbyn was John McDonnell’s only friend in Parliament. Now, Corbyn is the twice-elected Labour leader, and McDonnell his shadow chancellor. The crushing leadership election victory has confirmed Corbyn-supporting MPs as the new Labour elite. It has also created a new awkward squad.   

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Then there is the written word - so long as what you write is controversial enough. Rachel Reeves caused a stir when she described control on freedom of movement as “a red line” in Brexit negotiations. Keir Starmer is still planning to publish his long-scheduled immigration report. Alison McGovern embarked on a similar tour of the country

Other MPs have thrown themselves into campaigns, most notably refugee rights. Stella Creasy is working with Alf Dubs on his amendment to protect child refugees. Yvette Cooper chairs Labour's refugee taskforce.

The debate about whether Labour MPs should split altogether is ongoing, but the warnings of history aside, some Corbyn critics believe this is exactly what the leadership would like them to do. Richard Angell, deputy director of Progress, a centrist group, said: “Parts of the Labour project get very frustrated that good people Labour activists are staying in the party.”

One reason to stay in Labour is the promise of a return of shadow cabinet elections, a decision currently languishing with the National Executive Committee. 

But anti-Corbyn MPs may still yet find their ability to influence policies blocked. Even if the decision goes ahead, the Corbyn leadership is understood to be planning a root and branch reform of party institutions, to be announced in the late autumn. If it is consistent with his previous rhetoric, it will hand more power to the pro-Corbyn grassroots members. The members of Labour's new awkward squad have seized on elections as a way to legitimise their voices. But with Corbyn in charge, they might get more democracy than they bargained for.