Saturday, September 23, 2017

How micro reform of electricity has failed

The soaring price of electricity is testament to the disastrous failure of a major item on the 1990s agenda of micro-economic reform – establishing a national electricity market.

In practice, nothing worked out the way the reformers' economic textbooks told them it would.

The failure occurred because the people charged with implementing the reforms – governments and their bureaucrats – did so in ways that defeated the object of the exercise.

They either had ulterior motives, or people charged with regulating the national market in the interests of consumers were "captured" by the big businesses they were regulating.

These are the conclusions I draw from the exposition of the market's many problems given by Rod Sims, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, in a speech this week.

Before reform began, the electricity industry consisted of separate state government-owned monopolies, each generating, distributing and selling electricity, with little trading of power between them.

The reformers' idea was to get a competitive market going, with individual power stations across the eastern states competing to sell electricity into a national grid, and competing electricity retailers at the other end buying the power and selling it to households and businesses.

There was no reason the power stations had to be government owned, so they could be privatised, as could the retailers. New retail firms could be allowed to compete with the big privatised retailers.

The transmission and distribution networks remained natural monopolies, of course, but there was no reason they too couldn't be privatised – provided there was regulation of the prices they could charge.

Victoria's Kennett government was the first to sell off everything in 1994, joined much later and more hesitantly by South Australia, NSW and Queensland.

The consumer price index shows retail electricity prices have doubled in real terms over the past decade, whereas the competition commission's calculations show the average retail consumer's bill has increased by "only" about 50 per cent in real terms.

Three main factors explain the difference. First, the price index is based on the retailers' "standing offer" price, whereas some households have taken advantage of cheaper offers.

Second, many households have responded to price increases by finding ways to reduce the amount of electricity they use, thus reducing the increase in their quarterly bills.

Third, many households with solar panels buy a lot less power from the grid and many get unrealistically high credits for the power they put into the grid.

Sims' people estimate that, of the total increase in household power bills, 41 per cent is explained by increased charges for the distribution network, 19 per cent by increased "wholesale" prices for power generation, 24 per cent by increased retail costs and profit margin, and 16 per cent by the increased cost of the renewable energy target and household solar power incentive schemes.

The excessive increases in charges by the natural monopoly distribution networks of poles and wires occurred because, about a decade ago, the state governments – which owned most of the network businesses and greatly profited from them – succeeded in weakening the rules for regulating their prices.

Some states also lifted their standards for avoiding blackouts to unrealistic levels, thus allowing their networks to increase the cost base on which they get a set rate of return.

When a regulator tried to stop the networks charging for "inefficient costs", the NSW and ACT governments took her to court and got her stopped. Although the NSW government was in the process of privatising its networks, it wanted to preserve their profitability so as to maximise their sale price.

For most of the past decade, the highly sophisticated wholesale market designed by the reformers worked well, keeping prices low while generating capacity exceeded demand.

But now that's changed as ageing coal-fired generators are closed and aren't sufficiently replaced by new generators because of the "regulatory uncertainty" created by the present federal government and its climate-change deniers.

Apart from the contribution the misregulation of the gas market is making to higher wholesale electricity prices, prices are also rising because two or three big companies – Origin, AGL and Energy Australia – have been allowed to dominate both the wholesale and retail ends of the market.

Reformers' models always envisage a market composed of a large number of firms competing vigorously on price, but it hasn't worked out that way. It's taken less than a decade for the national electricity market to become oligopolised, giving the few big firms greater pricing power and ability to induce regulators to "see it my way".

State governments have been happy to sell businesses to the aggrandising oligopolists because they offered higher prices than other buyers. The competition commission's efforts to block these takeovers were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, the oligopolists were figuring out ways to game the wholesale bidding system.

Retail electricity prices were regulated for many years, but the reformers persuaded state governments to deregulate them since competition between the many electricity retailers could be relied on to keep prices in check.

It hasn't worked out that way. Oligopolistic firms are adept at non-price competition, and so it's proved.

The commission's estimate that 24 percentage points of the overall increase in real power costs have come from the retail level breaks up into 7 points for higher profit margins and a remarkable 17 points for higher costs – mainly, I presume, the costs of marketing, advertising and sales people to flog an essential service. Remarkable.

Being entirely a creation of government policy, the national electricity market is heavily regulated by at least three agencies.

But the regulators have been surprisingly slow to recognise that the market is falling far short of what the reformers promised, and also slow to implement their corrective actions.

They've been far more conscious of the need to avoid annoying the oligopolists than the need to stop consumers having to pay more than they should.