Yell’s Irritation Over Rate Cap Issue

Yell Group just posted solid numbers for the first nine months of its financial year, which ends on March 31. Its U.S. unit, Yellow Book, continues to post double digit gains, even when acquisitions are taken out of the picture. Results were also good in the U.K., where overall growth was 5.6 percent, and the IYP Yell.com continues to accelerate, growing at 62.4 percent.

The mixed blessing is that in the U.K. Yell faces a looming decision from the Competition Commission on whether to end, minimize, maintain or intensify the rate cap that Yell now operates under. The decision is expected in August, and last month, the commission issued a glimpse into its thinking that suggests its options may have narrowed to either maintaining or intensifying the rate cap.

Yell executives, understandably in our view, have not done very well at hiding their irritation. Yell issued a stinging rebuke of the commission’s statement, and has refused to back off since.

The commission seems to think that it can will a share shift into existence by curtailing Yell’s ability to raise prices. We think the commission has invoked the law of unintended consequences by forcing Yell to grow through innovation and improved service (both good outcomes), and it has also given the publisher a bit of good news to bring into sales calls each year ("Good morning, prices are lower again this year!").

Rather than accept that pricing intervention has failed because it is fundamentally wrong-headed, the commission seems to think it will work sooner or later if only it causes Yell enough pain.

We see the U.K. as a competitive market, with BT and Thomson competing for share, along with a smattering of other smaller players. Is Yell strong? Of course. In the U.S., its division Yellow Book has grown as a competitive publisher by exploiting a pricing umbrella. In the U.K., that umbrella has been all but folded up by the regulators, leaving competitors out in the wet.

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