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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.