Monday, 21 December 2009

Exorcising the asset sale bogy

At Infometrics John Carran argues for Exorcising the asset sale bogy. Carran writes,
The New Zealand Government has a considerable amount of capital tied up in commercial assets on its balance sheet – around $15bn as at 30 June 2009. Examples of State Owned Enterprises include New Zealand Post, TVNZ, KiwiRail, and the government-owned electricity generators. Consider what could be achieved for taxpayers if a proportion of that capital was freed for use elsewhere. For instance, it could be invested in much needed infrastructure such as roads, or it could be invested in schools, hospitals, and other public amenities. Alternatively, the Government could reduce the burgeoning public debt burden. This would improve New Zealand’s overall debt position, helping to improve our sovereign credit rating and lowering the cost of financing for all New Zealand businesses.
There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that on average privately owned businesses are run more efficiently, innovate more, and provide better customer services than government owned businesses. The nub of the reason for this is because private owners are acutely responsible for the financial performance of their companies. Sustained bad performance will result in a private company going out of business. Government owners of commercial businesses on the other hand don’t have their own “skin in the game” as they say. In many cases the true objectives of government commercial entities are unclear or conflicting (profitability versus social objectives versus “strategic” objectives) making accountability for results difficult to determine. Poor performance can be supported by taxpayers indefinitely to their ultimate detriment.
As to the evidence on the subject the following comes from the summary of chapter 4, 'Empirical Evidence on Privatization's Effectiveness in Nontransition Economies', from William L. Megginson's book The Financial Economics of Privatization, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005,
The 87 studies from nontransition economies discussed in this chapter offer at least limited support for the proposition that privatization is associated with improvements in the operating and financial performance of divested firms. Most of these studies offer strong support for this proposition, and only a handful document outright performance declines after privatization. Almost all studies that examine post-privatization changes in output, efficiency, profitability, capital investment spending, and leverage document significant increases in the first four measures and significant declines in leverage.

The studies examined here are far less unanimous regarding the impact of privatization on employment levels in privatized firms. All governments fear that privatization will cause former SOEs to shed workers, and the key question in virtually every case is whether the divested firm's sales will increase enough after privatization to offset the dramatically higher levels of per-worker productivity. Three studies document significant increases in employment [Galal, Jones, Tandon, and Vogelsang (1992); Megginson, Nash, and van Randenborgh (1994); and Boubakri and Cosset (1998)], but most of the remaining studies document significant-sometimes massive- employment declines. These conflicting results could be due to differences in methodology, sample size and make-up, or omitted factors.

However, it is more likely that the studies reflect real differences in post-privatization employment changes between countries and between industries. In other words, there is no "standard" outcome regarding employment changes.

Perhaps the safest conclusion we can assert is that privatization does not automatically mean employment reductions in divested firms, though this will likely occur unless sales can increase fast enough after divestiture to offset very large productivity gains. Since the empirical studies discussed in this chapter generally document performance improvements after privatization, a natural follow-up question is to ask why performance improves. For utilities, the need to introduce competition and an effective regulatory regime emerges as key, but there is no "silver bullet" answer for what makes privatization successful for firms in competitive industries. As we will discuss in the next chapter, a key determinant of performance improvement in transition economies is bringing in new managers after privatization. No study explicitly documents systematic evidence of this occurring in nontransition economies, but Wolfram (1998) and Cragg and Dyck (1999a,b) show that the compensation and pay-performance sensitivity of managers of privatized U.K. firms increases significantly after divestment. Studies that explicitly address the sources of post-privatization performance improvement using data from multiple nontransition economies tend to find stronger efficiency gains for firms in developing countries, in regulated industries, in firms that restructure operations after privatization, and in countries providing greater amounts of shareholder protection.
Sunita Kikeri and John Nellis write in their article, An Assessment of Privatization, "The World Bank Research Observer", vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring 2004)
This article takes stock of the empirical evidence and shows that in competitive sectors privatization has been a resounding success in improving firm performance. In infrastructure sectors, privatization improves welfare, a broader and crucial objective, when it is accompanied by proper policy and regulatory frameworks.
Mary M. Shirley and Patrick Walsh write in Public versus Private Ownership: The Current State of the Debate, Working Paper, The World Bank,
Our review found greater ambiguity about ownership in theory than in the empirical literature. In the debate over the effects of competition, theory suggests that ownership may matter and if so, that private firms will outperform SOEs. The empirical studies squarely favor private ownership in competitive markets. Theory’s ambiguity about ownership in monopoly markets seems better justified, since the empirical literature is also less conclusive about the effects of ownership in such markets. Theories that assume a welfare maximizing government suggest that SOEs can correct market failures. In contrast, public choice theories are skeptical of the benevolent government model. Corporate governance theories suggest that even well intentioned governments may not be able to assure that SOE managers do their bidding. The empirical literature favors those skeptical of SOEs as a tool to address market failures. In studies of industrialized countries, where we might expect more developed political markets to motivate greater government concern with welfare maximization or better information and incentives to overcome corporate governance problems, private firms still have an advantage. The private advantage is more pronounced in developing countries, where market failures are more likely.
As to the New Zealand experience let me deal with one obvious recent example: Kiwirail.

In the July 2009 issue of Competition and Regulation Times put out by the New Zealand Institute for the Study of Competition and Regulation (ISCR) the question is asked, Kiwirail: strategic asset or strategic blunder? The article summaries an ISCR research paper "The history and future of rail in New Zealand" by Dave Heatley.

My view has, for awhile, been nearer the blunder end of the scale than the asset end. The Times article and the research paper argue along similar lines. Heatley opens his Times article by noting that back in 1999 one of the first projects undertaken by the ISCR was a study of the long-term economic performance of New Zealand railways.
Public rail ownership was characterised by declining performance, beginning in the 1920s and culminating in a very poor prognosis in the 1990s. There were signs that since 1993, privatisation had led to improved productivity and profitability; however, the business was still far from achieving financial sustainability. The ISCR report predicted that private-sector ownership would result in better incentives for productivity-enhancing decision making, but in the long run it was unlikely that in its current form the business would be able to generate returns sufficient to cover the costs of the very large sums of capital employed. Given these facts, a rational private owner would likely rationalise services and reduce the scale of the network to the point where it constituted a sustainable long-run business. Revenues freed up from repeated cycles of historic government-funded capital injections and operating subsidies could then be applied to more productive uses, to the wider benefit of the New Zealand economy.
Given that rail is again in the hands of the government it is timely to re-examine the assumption that government ownership will result in superior long-term outcomes for the long suffering taxpayer owners. Heatley writes,
The 2009 analysis reveals little evidence to suggest that overall the economic outlook for rail has improved since 1999. Despite gains in operational productivity, rail's share of the land freight task has declined over the period examined. Profitability has remained poor, suggesting an ongoing lack of competitiveness vis-a-vis other freight modes.
and continues
Rail networks offer benefits from economies of density (increasing use of existing tracks), but not necessarily from economies of size (increasing size of the network).' In a rail network with uneven patterns of use, such as New Zealand's, the economics of density means that the closure of lightly used lines will, in general, improve the overall economic performance of the network.
Importantly Heatley notes that
It proved difficult for private owners to rationalise the size of the network efficiently, due to poorly aligned incentives and political intervention in operational decisions such as exiting from the provision of certain long-distance passenger services.

The retention of land ownership by the Crown at the time of privatisation muted private incentives to rationalise the network as the private operator was unable to access the potential land-sale benefits from closing unprofitable lines. Private-sector owners have been incentivised to persevere with a strategy (originating under public ownership) of retaining otherwise uneconomic lines for their current income-generating potential, but refraining from investing in replacement infrastructure such as sleepers, tracks and bridges.

A return to integrated land, infrastructure and operational ownership resolves the incentive misalignment, enabling its new owners to rationalise network infrastructure efficiently. Yet perversely, extensive recapitalisation has followed re-nationalisation. The government has invested $2.9 billion in rail since 2002, and has committed a further $0.9 billion through to 2013. It is unlikely that the government will earn a reasonable financial return on this investment, as the strong incentives of private owners for ongoing productivity improvements will likely be muted under government ownership, and the scope for political intervention in strategic and operational activities has increased.

The consequences of political intervention are evidenced in the targets set for a modal shift from road to rail freight in the New Zealand Transport Strategy. Any increases in rail freight's share must ultimately come from substitution at the margins away from competing transport modes. Extensive competition from both road and sea freight restrains the ability of rail to set prices. Rail exhibits few apparent cost advantages, even with subsidies from the written-off opportunity cost of capital. So modal shift can only be driven by increasing the level of subsidies in order to lower prices artificially and therefore induce movement of marginal freight away from more efficient road and sea freight. Such shifts will be to the detriment of the overall economic performance of the transport sector and the wider New Zealand economy.

There is little evidence that the real costs of the current government ownership and investment strategy have been adequately assessed in terms of foregone benefits in other taxpayer-funded areas, such as health and education.
After this, an obvious question to ask is, Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Heatley comments,
The 2009 analysis confirms that the issues identified in 1999 still remain, and are unlikely to be addressed by recent changes in governance, ownership and policy direction. Yet rail still remains a viable transport medium for those segments to which it is intrinsically well-suited - long-haul carriage of heavy, bulky freight (coal, logs, manufactured goods, etc.) and high volume urban commuter services. The challenge for rail's new owners is to find a viable subset of the current rail network. Given current and projected freight and passenger types and volumes, it appears a viable subset exists at around 1500-2000 kilometres in length - less than half the present size. Line closures and land sales could fund upgrading of the core network to 21st-century standards.
So, rail makes sense for a small portion of the current network. However I can't see the changes in government policy and public perceptions need for rationalisation of the network coming to pass any time soon. So the taxpayer gets stuck with yet another white elephant

As to a general argument on the value of privatisation we can ask when is government control and production preferable? As a general guide, Hart, Shleifer and Vishny ("The Proper Scope of Government: Theory and an Application to Prisons", Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(4): 1127-61, November 1997) argue that the case for government provision of goods or services is generally stronger when non-contractible cost reductions have large deleterious effects on quality, when quality innovations are unimportant and when corruption in government procurement is a severe problem. It has been argued that the case for government production is strong in such services as the conduct of foreign policy, police and armed forces. The case can also be made reasonably persuasively for the case of prisons. The case for private sector provision is stronger when quality reducing cost reduction can be controlled through contract or competition, when quality innovations are important and when patronage and powerful unions are a severe problem inside the government.

Its not clear that the government's interventions have been in areas where the Hart, Shleifer and Vishny arguments would suggest the government should be involved. Banking, for example, is not a area where cost reduction come at the expense of quality, where innovation is unimportant or where there are any problem with government procurement. So why have the government owning a bank? Also government involvement in Air New Zealand is hard to justify on these grounds. As noted above, the case for private sector provision is stronger when quality reducing cost reduction can be controlled through competition, and the airline industry is very competitive, when quality innovations are important, and we want a high quality and innovative airline industry, and when patronage and powerful unions are a severe problem inside the government, which are things we wish to avoid with an airline. Here private provision makes sense.

So I would say that Carran is right when he says,
Sale of public commercial assets needn’t be seen as a bogy. In reality it would result in no great changes in the distribution of power and wealth in New Zealand and confer long-lasting benefits to taxpayers and consumers. Sounds like a free lunch. And it is if sales are an open process and markets are properly regulated. Sales of public commercial assets will help us wring extra performance out of our economy without the economic upheaval that some fear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Dave Heatley has been creating this same pulp for a long time. The "Railways" persay have been underinvested for years while the taxpayer subsidises massive road infrastructure improvements for the competition. Not only this, but in many cases the national asset (our pavement) has suffered. Even though I might be a businessman I'm in favour of certain transport assets staying in public hands. This is definitely one of them!

In many cases we need to see where we've been, to see where we're going. What Mr Heatley has conveniently overlooked is the effect of privatisation on the railways over the last 20 years.

Unfortunately we're entering a new world of emission trading schemes and "Peak Oil". I'm not fond of the emotion that proponents of the Peak Oil theory try to create. I do believe that it's likely that fossil fuel costs will rise much higher than the CPI. Fossil Fuel prices of course being one of the main drivers of the CPI, the only way to fight this will be to bring down it's use! The individual motorist is likely to have switched to electric cars over time. Trains can run on electricity as some do in New Zealand now. Trucks and Buses not yet. We will need a solid rail system, for the moment it's still being very much under-invested. If this is correct then conversely roads are proportionately being overinvested.

Both major parties went to the polls in opposition very much opposed to rail. It's taken not very long in government for both of them to form a different view. I believe the current administration included. Fortunately, I believe that Mr Joyce won't be rushing into any privatisation.

Really there are far more pressing transport infrastructure problems for New Zealand especially port rationalisation with the advent of the next generation of superships. Rail will have a very important role to play here too.