Showing posts with label airports. Show all posts
Showing posts with label airports. Show all posts

Monday, August 2, 2021

Privatisation has done too much to perpetuate monopolies

It always disturbs me to see how few of our econocrats and economic rationalists – “neo-liberals” to their lefty critics – are willing to acknowledge the many cases where, what looked like perfectly sensible micro-economic reform on the drawing board, turned into a disastrous rort in the hands of the politicians.

But that’s not true of one of the great survivors from the reform era. Rod Sims, now chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, who’s an experienced econocrat and formerly a key advisor on the 1993 Hilmer report on national competition policy, which urged increased competition at state as well as federal level.

At the commission’s annual regulatory conference last week, Sims criticised the many privatisations of government-owned businesses that have simply bundled up a public monopoly and sold it to the highest bidder, without doing anything to get some competition into the industry, or even to adequately regulate the prices charged by a now-privately owned monopoly.

“Privatising assets without allowing for competition or regulation creates private monopolies that raise prices, reduce efficiency and harm the economy,” Sims said.

Why would governments do such a terrible thing? Because they put short-term budgetary pressures ahead of the best interests of their voters, as consumers and business-users of essential services. It’s actually part of a trick that buys the appearance of good management at the price of paying more than necessary for essential services from now on.

The pollies say: “Look at how much I got for that business, look at how I’ve got the budget back to surplus and reduced government debt, look at how I’ve kept our triple-A credit rating”. (Just don’t look at how much more you’re paying for electricity, for using the airport and for imported goods.)

Adding to these short-term budgetary temptations is the way politics and public policy have become more tribal, more public bad/private good. More “binary” as Prime Minister Scott Morrison would say. By definition, the public sector is inefficient and the private sector is efficient, people think.

It follows that merely by changing the ownership of a business from government to private you’ve made it more efficient. But that’s not economics, it’s just prejudice. Economists believe that whether a business should be privatised should be judged case-by-case, and by the way it’s proposed to be done.

Sims says “privatisation can generate important benefits to the economy, such as improved incentives for cost control, investment and innovation to meet the needs of consumers”.

“There have been many examples of privatisations that have been done well and that have benefited Australia. The privatisation of Qantas was done appropriately, for example, and the privatisation of Telstra was accompanied with measures to promote rather than constrain competition.”

Governments can be bad owners of businesses because – thanks to budgetary pressures – they’re usually hungry for big dividends, but reluctant to provide the extra capital needed to keep up with innovation and changing consumer needs.

But I’ve never understood people who lament the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank. Its treatment of customers was never very different to that of its three big privately-owned competitors. On aviation, we’ve long had trouble keeping enough competition in our domestic market, but Qantas had plenty of international competitors.

“The problem is that, in more recent years, many of Australia’s key economic assets have been privatised without regulation, and often with rules designed to prevent them ever facing competition. This makes us all poorer,” Sims says.

“You regularly hear people calling for micro-economic reform these days. The best way to do that is to expose more of our economy to competition, and by dealing with excessive market power. Australia has on a number of occasions been doing the opposite.

“Many monopolies are subject to regulation, such as gas pipelines, electricity networks, railways and the NBN. In contrast, many ports and airports, which are essential gateways for our economy, are largely unregulated, mostly due to decisions made when they were privatised.”

In its search for a top-dollar selling price, the Keating government stuffed up the privatisation of capital-city airports, particularly Sydney’s. But nothing Victorian governments have done compares in infamy with the behaviour of the Baird and Berejiklian governments in NSW.

They took the state’s three vertically integrated electricity companies – each owning power stations and electricity retailers – and sold them to the people offering to buy them at the highest price. They became the three oligopolists dominating the national electricity market, Origin Energy, AGL and EnergyAustralia.

Then, when they privatised NSW ports, they promised the new owner of the Botany and Port Kembla ports it would be compensated should the Port of Newcastle start handling containers, not just coal.

Then they made the new owners of the Newcastle port agree to pay this compensation should they set up a container facility. They were so proud of this deal they tried to keep it a deep dark secret.

When its existence became known, the ACCC tied to get it struck down by the court as anti-competitive. But it failed to persuade the judge that trying to maximise the sale price by including monopoly rights in the deal was anti-competitive.

Which shows that it’s not just the ulterior motives of politicians that can turn good reform into a travesty. It’s also that many privatisation deals end up before the courts, where economic questions are decided by judges “learned in the law” but, in too many cases, not as well-versed in economics.

I understand that, in a recent case where one of the state’s public-sector unions sought to object to the NSW government’s wage freeze before the NSW Industrial Relations Commission, an economist brought as an expert witness by the union mentioned that wage increases were supposed to reflect productivity improvement.

He was chastised by the bench for introducing such a novel and controversial notion so late in the proceedings. Really?

My point is that would-be reformers need to be a lot warier of doing more harm than good.

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