Monday, July 30, 2012

Smarter pricing would improve productivity

The debate over our seemingly weak productivity performance has come full circle, reverting to the explanation the big end of town was happy to accept under John Howard: almost all the weakness is explained by the special circumstances of the mining and utilities industries, which are nothing to worry about.

According to estimates by Reserve Bank researchers, after you exclude mining and utilities, labour productivity in the market sector improved at annual rates of 1.8 per cent over the 20 years to 1994, 3.1 per cent over the 10 years to 2004, and 1.7 per cent over the seven years to 2011.

However, Labour productivity in mining fell by 6.3 per cent a year over the past seven years because much higher prices justified the exploitation of harder-to-get-at deposits and because of spending on new mines that have yet to start producing.

Productivity in utilities (electricity, gas and water) fell by 5.5 per cent a year over the period, mainly because additional investment to improve the reliability of supply in the electricity and water industries has done little to increase output.

Note that a deterioration in our productivity performance isn't always a bad thing. Improved productivity is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is a higher material standard of living, and improved productivity is just one way for us to get richer. Another is for higher world prices to make uneconomic mineral deposits profitable to exploit. How could that be a bad thing, even if it does wreck our productivity figures?

And avoiding power blackouts and extreme water shortages is surely part and parcel of enjoying a high material living standard. If that requires us to invest in more power stations and higher-capacity power lines to cope with peak electricity demand - or requires us to build desalination plants to ensure we don't run out of water during severe droughts - what of it? Would it be better to go without to keep our figures looking good?

That's pretty obvious. But Dr Richard Tooth, of Sapere Research Group, and Professor Quentin Grafton, a water economist at the Australian National University, have separately advanced a more sophisticated argument: we could have avoided the expense of all that extra utilities investment had we been smarter in the way we set the prices of those commodities.

Starting with electricity, it has long been the case that we've needed to invest in sufficient generating and distribution capacity to cope with occasional peaks in demand that far exceed the average level of demand. These days, the peak comes on hot summer days. As household aircon has become cheaper and more ubiquitous, the peaks have shot ever higher than average demand, which is actually declining a little.

It costs a fortune to install the extra capacity - particularly the power-cable capacity - needed to ensure a lot of people turning on their aircon just a few days a year doesn't lead to the thing every state government dreads: blackouts.

But all this capital spending - and the political pain of 18 per cent increases in power bills - could have been avoided had state governments got on with installing smart meters in homes. This would have allowed prices that vary with the time of day. Significantly higher prices at the time of year when people are tempted to put on their airconditioner would prompt many to think twice. It would also be easy to encourage big industrial users to reduce their demand for relatively brief periods when household aircon was full blast.

The case of water is more complicated. Water bills are composed of a fixed charge plus a usage charge that varies with how much water you use. In (simple) theory, the usage charge should reflect the long-run marginal cost of an extra unit of water. The fixed charge is whatever additional amount is needed to cover the water company's full costs (including a reasonable return on capital).

However, the usage charge is usually too low to have much effect on consumption behaviour. And the simple theory doesn't apply well to commodities that have to be stored rather than produced to order, such as water.

As usual, in the last drought we relied on water restrictions, but they weren't sufficient to fix the problem (you can only police the water use that can be seen from the street, which means restrictions don't work well with business users) and we ended up building desal plants, only to mothball them when the drought broke.

The economists' study of the price elasticity of demand for water leads them to argue that, had user charges been raised high enough, supply could have been better conserved and desalination avoided.

User charges could have been increased to the point where they raised more revenue than was needed, thus allowing the fixed charge to be a subtraction from the total user charge. Dr Tooth argues such an arrangement would have been fairer in its treatment of low-income users.

If all those jumping on the productivity bandwagon were more genuine in their concern to raise efficiency, they would have a lot more to say about efficient pricing.

The most bizarre (and pathetic) political statement of last week was Wayne Swan's response to news the annual inflation rate had fallen to 1.2 per cent, the lowest in 13 years: "While the moderation in ... inflation is certainly welcome, many households continue to face cost of living pressures." And these guys wonder why they're not getting the appreciation they deserve.