A suggestion for the Government

Stuff reports:

says it could default on its loans and may not be able to complete construction of its share of the ultrafast network, following a ruling by the this morning.

The NZX-listed company issued the dire warnings after the commission released a “final determination”, which ruled that the company should be allowed to charge $10.92 a month for its copper broadband connections.

Its shares have plunged 8 per cent this morning, and were trading down 21 cents at $2.42 within minutes of the NZX opening at 10am.  

Chorus has a contract with the Crown to complete its work on the UFB network by 2020 but the company said that if the Government didn’t intervene, it would be left with a $1 billion “funding shortfall”.

Chief executive Mark Ratcliffe said Chorus would “simply not be able to borrow the money we need” to complete its UFB contract.

The company had notified its bank lenders that unless the Government intervened, the ruling would have a “material adverse effect” on the firm.

“If this did occur lenders would be entitled to trigger an event of default,” the company said in a statement.

Chorus would also “discuss with the Crown whether Chorus is still a credible UFB partner” and how it might still deliver on its contract, the company said.

No one wants to see Chorus bankrupt or defaulting on its loans. But wise politicians would do well to remember the words of Mandy Rice-Davies who basically said “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

The price set by the Commerce Commission is almost half way between the draft determination and the price the Government indicated in its discussion document it might set.

Now I can totally understand that the Government doesn’t want the UFB project derailed, or worse Chorus to go bankrupt or default on its loans.

But please please please I hope they don’t just take Chorus’ words for it, and make a decision based on a press release. This is not to suggest that Chorus is wrong. Just to say, that a very high level of certainty should be required before you intervene. It should be the last option, not the first option.

If the Government really thinks there is a risk of that magnitude to Chorus, then it should hire the best accountancy or financial analysis firm in New Zealand to go into Chorus, and do an independent review of its income, spending, profitability, debt and the like and have them report back on whether they concur with what Chorus has said. Release that report publicly and allow people to peer review it.

As Chorus is asking the Government for a special law change, that would benefit it by hundreds of millions of dollars, surely they could not object to an independent review?

I understand the Government is stuck between a rock and a hard place. They have to make a decision. My plea is for them to make a decision based on the best independent data there is, not on the basis of a press release from a monopoly provider.

Also the Government could do worse than play a bit of hardball themselves. If Chorus is going to threaten the Government by saying it may default on the UFB project, then maybe the Government should open talks with Vector and other UFB bidders and see if they would be willing to step up if necessary. Use the same tactics that Steven Joyce used with Novopay – keep the pressure on the company, by looking at backup options.

Personally I think it is almost beyond belief that Chorus would seek to default on its UFB contracts, considering that would leave the company with almost no long-term future – being a copper provide only in what is a future world.

Maybe the price recommended would cause them issues with their debt. If so, let’s have the details.

As I said I understand the difficult position the Government is in. But this is a decision they should take great care about. Both because it may set a precedent, and also because it will affect almost every Kiwi household.

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