Both companies are currently loss-making and may need the scale that a merger would bring to remain viable. More than competing with each other, they compete in a huge and highly competitive market for start-up funding that includes seed funds, bank finance, angel syndicates and corporate venture funds. But mostly it was wrong because they, like the majority of digital businesses, compete in an increasingly global market.
Look at PayPal from the US, Sweden’s Klarna, or the UK’s TransferWise. In each case they started by serving their domestic market and then expanded to compete internationally. This is often the way with digital offerings.
The UK has a strong position in building innovative digital businesses, and is particularly strong in financial technology (fintech). For Britain to maintain this position, which is more important than ever as we seek to mitigate the impact of Brexit, we need a business and regulatory environment that supports the growth of our technology innovators.
At the forefront of this needs to be reining in excessive regulatory interventions in a range of areas. The recent review of UK competition policy by Conservative MP John Penrose lays the foundation for this. The report recognised the cumbersome red tape which slows businesses down and increases transaction costs and suggests a “better regulation” regime”. It proposes a “one-in-two-out” strategy for ministers attempting to introduce new rules. This must also translate into a clearer set of rules from sector regulators, so innovators can operate without risk of retrospective rule making and enforcement actions in the future.
In order to foster competitiveness after Brexit, predictability will be key. This will require the CMA to have a transparent and speedy process, with decisions made in weeks rather than months or years. Predictability means rulings based on the risk of consumer detriment from the combination of the companies’ current operations, not some conjecture about what they might do in the future.
The CMA review of Amazon’s proposed 16% stake in Deliveroo in 2019 hinged on whether Amazon might, in the future, enter the UK takeaway delivery market. Such decisions cast the CMA as soothsayers. Many big tech companies could, conceivably, enter many, many markets. To know that almost any such transaction could be thwarted based on regulator crystal ball gazing makes any UK-based merger highly uncertain and therefore less attractive.
Britain’s mergers and acquisitions review process must also recognise the international nature of competition in digital markets. With its focus on domestic competition, the CMA is far more likely to block the combination of two UK businesses than the sale of a UK business to an acquirer from overseas. Of course we need to protect consumers from the creation of true monopolies, but we must also recognise that competition is increasingly global, and have an eye to UK competitiveness. If it is far easier for our tech companies to sell to overseas buyers than to merge domestically, then our best digital IP will end up in foreign ownership and we will fail to create UK-based scale players that can compete on a global level. Our economy will be all the poorer as a result.