Friday, 11 December 2015

Competition policy, again (updated)

In the latest Insights newsletter at the New Zealand Initiative Oliver Hartwich discusses the recent decision by the government not to criminalise cartel behaviour. Hartwich writes,
On Tuesday, Minister of Commerce Paul Goldsmith decided not to proceed with the long debated criminalisation of cartel behaviour.

The Minister’s explanation was telling: “In weighing up the benefits of criminalising cartel activity, the government had to consider the significant risk that cartel criminalisation would have a chilling effect on pro-competitive behaviour between companies.”
As Hartwich notes it may sound strange that pro-competitive behaviour of companies could ever be confused with anti-competitive behaviour. Hartwich writes,
The problem lies in the nature of competition law. It is an area of law which is prone to arbitrariness. Practically everything is a matter of interpretation.
William Landes summaries the point in the following quote on why Coase gave up antitrust,
Ronald [Coase] said he had gotten tired of antitrust because when the prices went up the judges said it was monopoly, when the prices went down they said it was predatory pricing, and when they stayed the same they said it was tacit collusion. (William Landes, “The Fire of Truth: A Remembrance of Law and Econ at Chicago”, Journal of Law and Economics (1981) p. 193.)
If everything is illegal what is a firm to do?

Hartwich continues,
Similarly, the benchmark of “competition” is vague. For what should it mean? Is it the theoretical but unrealistic state of so-called “perfect competition” taught in many economics textbooks? Or is it the process of companies actually competing with each another? And if so, how do you measure that?

Then there is the difficulty in finding proper definitions. To quote the late economist Murray Rothbard, “there is nothing anticompetitive per se about a cartel, for there is conceptually no difference between a cartel, a merger, and the formation of a corporation: all consist of the voluntary pooling of assets in one firm to serve the consumers efficiently.” Indeed. Yet somehow the formation of a corporation is fine whereas a merger or a cartel might be illegal.
Rothbard's point about cartels being illegal while mergers which can achieve the same result being legal is comment on a relatively recent change in thinking on competition policy. If you go back to, say, the 1950s integration was looked at with just as much suspicion as cartels are today. Recently I came across an interesting comment on the old view on integration and antitrust policy by Joseph J. Spengler
RECENT decisions suggest that the United States Supreme Court is beginning to look upon integration as illegal per se, under the antitrust laws. It may be presumed, in so far as this inference is valid, that the Court believes that integration necessarily reduces competition "unreasonably." No sharp distinction is made by the Court between vertical and horizontal integration. (Joseph J. Spengler, "Vertical Integration and Antitrust Policy", Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Aug., 1950), pp. 347-352.)
This was written in 1950 and things have changed since it is now accepted that there are often efficiencies that result from integration and now the US Antitrust Division typically requires a showing of market power before it considers whether a such arrangement poses serious competitive concerns.

At least part of the reason for the change in view is due to the work of Oliver Williamson, Williamson was sceptical of the conventional wisdom of the time (1960s), which presumed that the purpose and effect of many integration practices was the enhancement of market power and the erection of entry barriers. Contrary to this view, which was widely adopted by antitrust lawyers and courts in the 1960s, Williamson could see rationales for various integration practices that were based instead on economic efficiency.

If we accept that integration can have efficiency justifications then why not cartels? At least we should ask what the reasons for the formation of the cartel are and not just assume that cartels are evil per se. The government's decision can be seen as a small step in this direction.

Update: Donal Curtin at the Economics New Zealand blog takes a more traditional (and anti) view of the government's decision when he argues "Hard core" cartelists are criminals.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Do we need competition policy?

On twitter Vanilla Thrilla asked,

I replied,

then Vanilla Thrilla said,

and then I said,

Let me expand a bit on my general point with an argument from a previous post on this topic.

Many people seems to think that a body such as the Commerce Commission is needed and that it should be a powerful player in its role as competition regulator. I ask why? May be the commission does more harm than good. Would it be better to do away with it?

The idea behind competition law in New Zealand is, according to the Act, “to promote competition in markets for the long-term benefit of consumers”. This is to say, it is believed, by the Act's supporters, that markets left to themselves, without any oversight from regulators, without any regulation of prices, quantities, or structure, would be harmful to consumers. Such a view rests on the notion that there is a large danger of monopoly power being used to harm consumers and, therefore, competition is a state of affairs which must be regulated and managed by the authorities because undesirable situations of monopoly can emerge all the time.

Frederic Sautet, ex-economist at NZ Treasury and the Commerce Commission, makes the point that this thinking is wrong headed:
At the end of the day, the problem assumed by competition law is only exacerbated by regulation, while economics shows that the entrepreneurial process solves it. So while there may be situations where competition law may seem warranted, in fact there is no crime at the crime scene. While competition law aims to protect consumers, the danger is that it may affect the self-correcting properties of the market system — an outcome worse than the disease it tries to cure.
Much of the problem is due to the fact that competition law was established on an misunderstanding of the nature of competition. The law in New Zealand aims to achieve "workable competition" but the practice of competition law relies on the view of competition as a static (equilibrium) state of affairs - derived from the idea of perfect competition. However, actual competition is a rivalrous entrepreneurial process by which the knowledge enabling a better coordination of individual plans is discovered over time. Again, as Frederic Sautet points it
[...] it must be understood that the competitive process takes place within a set of institutions that guarantee the functioning of entrepreneurial discovery and the exploitation of business opportunities over time. These institutions and regulation must guarantee entry into any market to anyone desiring to compete.
Sautet goes on to make the important point that
Under the disguise of consumer protection, competition law has in fact protected some producers from the greater efficiency of their potential competitors. Indeed, competition can be difficult for some incumbents who run the risk of being outcompeted. However, this process is necessary if the ultimate goal is to let consumers (indirectly) dictate the allocation of resources according to their preferences. The danger with competition law is that it interferes with the entrepreneurial process — a cure worse than the disease.
Thus the danger of the Commerce Commission is that it may so damage or restrict the true competitive process that it harms the very people it set out to help, consumers, but helps the people it wished to control, producers. The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

As far as empirical evidence goes it tends to suggest that competition policy does not improve consumer welfare by much. Robert W. Crandall and Clifford Winston look at the effects of antitrust enforcement in the US and ask Does Antitrust Policy Improve Consumer Welfare? And the short answer is, not much. Crandall and Winston write,
In this paper, we argue that the current empirical record of antitrust enforcement is weak.
and they add
We then synthesize the available research regarding the economic effects of three major areas of antitrust policy and enforcement: changing the structure or behavior of monopolies; prosecuting firms that engage in anticompetitive practices, namely, price fixing and other forms of collusion; and reviewing proposed mergers. We find little empirical evidence that past interventions have provided much direct benefit to consumers or significantly deterred anticompetitive behavior.
Overall I'm not sure that we really do want a strong interventionist Commerce Commission.

At the very lest we should start a discussion about the nature of the Commerce Act and the role of the Commerce Commission by asking questions about what form of competition policy we really want.


The Sautet paper, which is well worth reading, is "The Shaky Foundations of Competition Law", New Zealand Law Journal, pp. 186-190, June 2007.

The Robert W. Crandall and Clifford Winston paper is "Does Antitrust Policy Improve Consumer Welfare? Assessing the Evidence", Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(4) Fall 2003.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Worstall on Davies on Coase on housing

In a previous post I commented on the idea of Steve Davies to apply Coaseian thinking to solving the British (and other countries) housing problem. In part Davies wrote
For Coase the solution was to assign a property right to one of the two sides and then allow a process of bargaining to take place. If the first group have the right then those who do not want development would have to pay them not to do it. If the second, then the developers (and ultimately the buyers) have to pay for the right to develop. Crucially it does not matter which of these two we go for: in either case we will end up with the outcome that maximises total welfare so long as the bargaining process itself is not too costly.
Now at the Adam Smith Institutes's blog Tim Worstall comments on this idea. He writes
We have no doubt this would work and that should be good enough as a solution. However, while it would work we’re really not convinced that it is the correct solution. For what it is saying is that those who wish to prevent building upon land that they do not own have some form of right to say or insist so. That’s why they might be due some compensation from those who do build. And we rather reject that basic contention.

Property ownership does mean that one should be able to dispose of the property as one wishes. Consistent with this is that other people do not have the right to impose their views upon you of how you should dispose of that property. Thus we’re uncomfortable with the idea of creating a right which can then be subject to such Coasean bargaining.
Tim has a point, sorting out who has what rights to object to a housing development could raise the transaction costs of Coaseian type bargaining to such a degree that it would become impractical. And if multiple people or groups claim said rights negotiating with each of them could be expensive and time consuming. However if it is clear who the parties involved are and there are only a few of them, ie transactions costs really are low, then the Coaseian solution could be an improvement over the current situation.

EconTalk this week

If you have 250 million tons of food to give away every year to local food banks how should you do it? Canice Prendergast of the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about how he and a team of economists created an artificial currency and a daily auction for the national food bank Feeding America so that local food banks could bid on the types of food that were the most valuable to them. Prendergast explains the results of the new system and the cultural and practical challenges of bringing prices, even artificial ones, to a world accustomed to giving things away.

A direct link to the audio is available here.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Efficiency of female leaders in family and non-family firms

There has been recent discussion of the idea that economic research shows that companies that have a balanced representation of women and men on their boards perform better, a claim made by the Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf . Eric Crampton at the Offsetting Behaviour blog has pointed to research that shows this is not the case.

Today I came across this working paper - Efficiency of Female Leaders in Family and Non-Family Firms by Per-Olof Bjuggren, Louise Nordström and Johanna Palmberg - that draws a distinction between family-owned and non-family owned firms when looking at the performance effects of female leadership. In their conclusion the authors write,
Our study shows that female leadership is more common in family than non-family corporations. This female leadership has also a strong positive impact on performance in family firms while the performance impact is surprisingly strongly negative in non-family firms.
Insofar as Makhlouf's comments were about non-family owned firms, and most large firms are of this form, then the above comment doesn't offer much support for his claim. When considering family-owned firms however, he may be on stronger ground.

The paper's abstract reads:
Female leadership is an expanding area of research. It is a popular topic discussed frequently in both academia and in the popular press. Despite this, comparative studies of the impact of female leadership on firm level performance between family and non-family firms are rare. The present study has the ambition to fill this gap. This paper investigates female leadership in family firms and how it affects firm profitability. A unique database of ownership and leadership in private Swedish firms makes it possible to analyze difference in firm performance due to female leadership in family and non-family firms. Even though much has been written regarding the role of women in family firms we do not know so much about how female leadership in family firms affect the profitability of the firm. The analysis indicates that female leadership makes much more of a positive difference for performance in family firms. The effect is negative in non-family firms.
This leaves open the question as to what drives the difference in leadership performance between the two types of firms.

AFA Lecture: Andrei Shleifer

"The Transformation of Finance" an address to The American Finance Association by Andrei Shleifer, January 2011.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

The 20 most influential books in history

From the World Economic Forum comes a list of The 20 most influential books in history. The top ten are,

Davies on Coase on housing

At the LSE's British Politics and Policy blog Steve Dacies writes that low house-building levels and the unaffordability of existing homes are problems that have been plaguing Britain for decades. And this is true not just in the UK but most other countries, like New Zealand, as well.

Davies writes,
There is now something of a consensus among academics and commentators that the shortage of housing (and buildings of all kinds) is one of our most pressing problems. Many others such as welfare costs and low productivity are at least partly caused by the lack of house building and the consequent high price of housing. However, this has not as yet led to any political action. The problem of course is the conflict of interest between people who want to build, buy or rent new houses on the one hand, and people who do not want new development on greenfield sites on the other. The second group have so far been able to block any action and this does not seem likely to change.

But the work of Coase shows that this deadlock is quite simply unnecessary and avoidable if we only think about it in the right way, as Mark Pennington explains. Current policy on development is shaped by conventional welfare economics, where two people engaging in a transaction can impose costs on bystanders. So a developer and a house buyer can impose costs on existing home owners and people who wish to preserve the rural environment. This is dealt with by regulations through planning laws.

As Pennington explains, Coase rejects this model. For him the costs are reciprocal – there are two sides each of whom is potentially imposing costs on the other. One wants to build houses, the other to preserve space. To the extent that one side gets its way the other suffers a loss. What we actually have is not an externality or pollution but a conflict over how to use land.

For Coase the solution was to assign a property right to one of the two sides and then allow a process of bargaining to take place. If the first group have the right then those who do not want development would have to pay them not to do it. If the second, then the developers (and ultimately the buyers) have to pay for the right to develop. Crucially it does not matter which of these two we go for: in either case we will end up with the outcome that maximises total welfare so long as the bargaining process itself is not too costly.

Fortunately, in the case of land use the cost of negotiation is low. If we applied this model instead of a complex and costly planning procedure we would simply have a default right, either to build or not, which would have to be bought out. We could make one default apply in some parts of the country and the other in the rest (although this should not matter, it might be politically astute). There would then be a process of bargaining and through this we would actually find out how much people really valued one alternative or the other (as opposed to their asserting it – words are cheap).

The result would be development in some areas but not in others and this would reflect the actual value that people collectively placed on the two competing uses and the associated moral values. This would be different in different places (unlike the inflexible present system). As Pennington points out this would also be an ethically superior outcome because it would reflect ethical and value pluralism rather than having one group’s values imposed on the rest through the political process which is what we have now.
For Coase the world of positive transaction costs is the world we should consider when thinking about policy. High transactions costs can prevent otherwise efficient trades from taking place. But if we can structure things so that transaction costs are low then bargaining between parties will lead us to efficient outcomes. Thus as Davies notes if we assign property rights to either developers or to those who wish to prevent new development and let them bargain the two groups can work the problem out for themselves. Bureaucrats not needed.

Such an approach to housing really would be RMA change!

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Do people maximise their well-being?

As a followup to the last posting on Coase v. Becker on utility theory I came across this new working paper by Marc Fleurbaey and Hannes Schwandt which asks Do People Seek to Maximize Their Subjective Well-Being?

The abstract reads,
In a new survey we ask respondents, after a standard Subjective Well-Being (SWB) question, if they can think of changes in their lives that would improve their SWB score. If the SWB score is just one argument among others in the respondents’ goals in life, they should easily find ways to improve it, at the expense of other dimensions they care about. Our results suggest that close to 90% of the respondents actually seek to maximize their SWB. The life satisfaction question appears the best contender as the “maximand” in the contest, before the ladder-of-life question and felt happiness. Among the other goals that people pursue and for which they are willing to sacrifice some of their SWB, the prominent appear to be about their relatives and about their future self.
So 90% of us seem to want to maximise our subjective well-being. One interesting question is what does this tell us about assuming utility maximisation as a starting point for modelling consumer behaviour?

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Coase v. Becker on utility theory

An interesting, and all too short, exchange between Ronald Coase and Gary Becker on utility theory. Coase was not much of a believer in the usefulness of utility theory whereas Becker was.

The video comes from

Why politics and business should not mix

In a new column at Jiangtao Fu, Daichi Shimamoto and Yasuyuki Todo discuss Politically connected lending and economic development.

A long held view of many economists is that firms with good political connections obtain loans with more relaxed terms than those who are not politically connected. The Fu, Shimamoto and Todo column presents evidence from Indonesia that firms whose owners or directors have a personal relationship with a politician are more likely to have their loans approved by state-owned banks, and are more likely to receive the full amount applied for. However, the labour productivity of such firms is on average lower. This suggests that in some cases, politically connected lending may distort the efficiency of resource allocation and be detrimental to economic development.

Fu, Shimamoto and Todo write,
The Indonesian government implements policies to facilitate credits to SMEs with growth potential. However, our results suggest that such public credits are most likely to be given to unproductive but politically connected firms. The distorted allocation of resources may harm the economic growth of Indonesia and lead the economy into a middle-income trap. Possible solutions to this problem include reducing the political influence in state-owned banks (e.g. their privatisation), building SMEs’ credit information sharing system, and strengthening the ability of financial institutions to evaluate loan applications.
These results highlight, if such highlighting is really needed, why politics and business should never mix. Some countries are better at separating business from politics but all countries need to be aware of the dangers of the mixing of the two. Those dangers include reducing much needed economic growth. The column also points to one advantage of privatisation, in this case of state-owned banks, it helps depoliticise business decisions.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

EconTalk this week

Are we on the verge of driverless cars and other forms of autonomous robots and artificial intelligence? David Mindell of MIT and the author of Our Robots, Ourselves talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the robotic revolution. Mindell argues that much of the optimism for autonomous robots ignores decades of experience with semi-autonomous robots in deep-sea operation, space, air, and the military. In all of these areas, the role of human supervision remains at a high level with little full autonomy. Mindell traces some of the history of the human interaction with robots and artificial intelligence and speculates on what the future might hold.

A direct link to the audio is available here.