Friday, 14 December 2018

A big boost

Yesterday's Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update, the 'HYEFU', has got well picked over - except from one important perspective: what's the overall stance of fiscal policy? Is it boosting or braking GDP growth?

The answer to that question is given by the 'fiscal impulse'. If you're not a fiscal policy wonk, the fiscal impulse is the difference between one year's fiscal balance (surplus or deficit) and the next year's, when the balances have been adjusted for the impact of the business cycle. When you've taken out those cyclical effects (eg a strong economy boosting the tax take) what's left is the impact of changes to fiscal policy. If the (cyclically adjusted) deficit is getting larger, for example, fiscal policy is becoming more stimulatory. If a surplus gets bigger, policy is becoming more contractionary.

Here are the HYEFU estimates of the impulse. For the (June) 2019 year, there's a stonking great positive fiscal boost to GDP, of the order of 2% of GDP, followed by an extended period of mildly contractionary fiscal policy.

You might well wonder, given that the economy grew by a roughly-on-trend 2.7% in the year to June 2018, why there's a thumping great boost from fiscal policy underway. And the answer is, it's an accident. Here's what was intended back on Budget day in May, compared with what's actually happened.

The government meant to give the economy a decent kick along from fiscal policy in the year to June '18: it never happened. Planned expenditure didn't go to schedule: "lower-than-forecast expenditure in 2017/18 has resulted in expenditure now in 2018/19 that was previously expected in 2017/18 driving up the impulse in this year" (from p15 of the HYEFU 'Additional Information' document).

Why? Who knows. I'd guess a combo of institutional inertia, and capacity constraints in areas like infrastructure and housing. It might be useful if someone in Treasury had a decent look: at some point we may well want to turn on the fiscal taps in a hurry, and it'll be no good if too little is 'shovel ready', as the jargon goes.

As it happens, moving the fiscal boost from 2017-18 to 2018-19 may not be a bad thing. It's still an anomalously pro-cyclical fiscal stance in an economy that doesn't need it, but on the other hand it does provide a hefty dollop of cyclical insurance against the risks lurking in the global economy (well laid out in the 'Risks to the Economic Outlook' section of the HYEFU).

Hopefully this fiscal impulse analysis will still be possible in the future. The HYEFU said (p32) that "The Treasury is currently reviewing these indicators [the cyclically adjusted fiscal balances, and the fiscal impulse] to ensure they remain useful to users and fit for purpose. Any changes to these indicators will be signalled prior to their publication". I hope that's not code for "we always knew these things were down the by-guess-and-by-God end" - as they are - "and we're not going to run with them any more". Something half-way towards an answer still trumps no answers at all.

More positively, there was a big step up in the quality of information provided on the government's capital spending plans. In the past you could go cross-eyed trying to find how much of the spend was opex and how much capex, where the capex spend was going, and whether it was enough to add to the national stock of infrastructure (you need to spend quite a lot just to keep depreciation at bay). That's hugely improved: the 'Core Crown Capital Spending' bit starting on p33 is excellent, and I particularly liked the clear explanation of the 'Multi-year capital envelope'. And in the bowels of Treasury is someone who managed to explain (on p30) the 'top-down' adjustment in Plain English. Give that person a chocolate fish.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Our financial cycles

Two economists at the University of Auckland, Caitlin Davies and Prasanna Gai, have come up with a really useful bit of practical macroeconomics. They've devised a Financial Cycle measure for New Zealand - an indicator of the overall tightness or looseness of financial conditions. Their paper, 'The New Zealand financial cycle 1968–2017', is available here in the online version of New Zealand Economic Papers.

Financial conditions indices (FCIs) are an established thing overseas. They were always relevant - changes in financial conditions have played a lead part in many business cycles, and even when not the lead have been important channels for propagating non-financial shocks - but have naturally become of greater interest since the GFC. As Davies and Gai say (p1), "Recent [academic] work ... suggests that strong credit growth and house price booms are good predictors of crisis and significantly shape macroeconomic outturns".

In the States, for example, there are a herd of them. The chart below shows five FCIs - three produced by various regional Federal Reserve Banks (Chicago, Kansas City, St Louis), two by the private sector (Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs) - plus a market-derived measure, the VIX, which is the volatility investors expect from holding the S&P500 index and which can be backed out of the prices for S&P500 options. They've all been normalised to be comparable, as described here by the St Louis Fed. Higher values for these indices mean tighter conditions.

You can see, for example, how financial conditions (ex the VIX) had been tightening ahead of the GFC, and then hit all-time highs for financial distress and unavailability of credit through the GFC itself. And if you subscribe to Austrian or Minsky style theories of business cycles, you'd argue that the pronounced period of unusually easy monetary conditions you can see in 2004-2006 sowed the seeds for the over-exuberant risk-taking that fuelled the eventual GFC bust.

Highly useful and informative things, these FCIs. And now we've got one of our own. To get it, Davies and Gai went the principal components route - take a bunch of finance and credit indicators, and see if there's a common influencing component in the background - and found that yes, there was. It combines six variables into an overall index: real credit, credit to GDP, credit to the M3 measure of money supply, real house prices, real share prices, and housebuilding to GDP.

Here's what the results look like, in raw form: for this New Zealand index, you read it the other way round to the US ones, in that higher values show easier financial conditions. The authors say that "Our measure of the New Zealand financial cycle appears to be broadly consistent with the main economic developments during the period", and I agree. You can see, for example, the surge in credit availability in the mid 1980s following banking deregulation, and the subsequent bust after the 1987 sharemarket crash. You can also see our experience of the GFC.

The authors usefully superimposed their financial index results on the business cycles identified by Viv Hall and John McDermott. The FCI for this comparison has been expressed in smoothed cyclical terms showing whether it is rising or falling (there's econometrics behind this we don't need to explore here), but same diff. Here's how they compare.

"Of the six contractionary episodes during the past fifty years, five occur less than three years after a peak in the financial cycle", the authors say (p8), and while I wouldn't immediately leap to cause and effect (and they don't either), it's a suggestive pattern.

The authors modestly say (p14) that their work "should be regarded as a tentative first-step in constructing a set of stylised facts on the financial cycle in New Zealand", but it's more than that. We had a rather large gap in documenting our recent macro history, and they've filled it. They've also created something that could easily be kept up to date, and serve as a real-time indicator of trouble brewing. As they mention, it's of obvious relevance to macroprudential policy: you might want to keep a weather eye out for where the FCI is before, for example, tightening or loosening LVRs. Indeed, you'd wonder why the RBNZ hadn't developed an FCI of their own by now.

And you can see extensions to it. This FCI is based on whatever quarterly series were available all the way back to 1968, and for a paper looking at the grand sweep of history, that's fine and unavoidable. But you can easily imagine an FCI using data that became available only more recently:I think it's highly likely, for example, that moves in corporate credit spreads, unavailable back to 1968 but available for more recent years, would feature strongly. And I think it's plausible that you could get to a monthly FCI: the Americans certainly have, and the Fed of Chicago has even gone as far as producing a weekly one (conditions are currently on the easy side of normal).

In any event this is a great start: I hope there's someone out there - the RB? a bank? the University itself? - who'll take up the baton and turn this into an ongoing up-to-date macro indicator.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

In their prime

Our latest monetary policy targets agreement requires policy to "contribute to supporting maximum sustainable employment within the economy", and the Reserve Bank now spends a fair bit of each Monetary Policy Statement reporting on where we are relative to the maximum sustainable level, using a suite of different labour market indicators.

In the latest Statement, the Bank said that "employment is near its maximum sustainable level" (p22). It might be above it: "Evidence reported by employers suggests the labour market is currently tight, and that employment is above its maximum sustainable level" (p22). Or it might be below it: "some other indicators of the labour market suggest that employment may still be below its maximum sustainable level. One example is the job-finding rate" (p23). But overall we look to be there or thereabouts.

While the Bank deploys a whole battery of perspectives on the state of the labour market, one line of attack that doesn't appear is what is happening to what the Americans call the "prime age labour force", those aged 25 to 54. They're the bedrock of the labour force - they're typically out of education and not yet contemplating retirement - and the argument is that it's the state of the core  labour force that matters most for things like wages growth.

Overseas what's happening to the prime age labour force consequently gets quite a bit of air time: here, for example, is the Wall Street Journal's graph explaining the November US jobs report (from 'Did the Job Market Slow in November? Here’s How It Compares', if you've got access).

Interestingly, despite the long post-GFC expansion in the US, neither the participation rate nor the employment rate for prime age people have got back to where they were just before the GFC, and there is a mix of structural and cyclical trends going on: there looks to have been a gentle trend downwards in participation even before the GFC hit.

The corresponding numbers for New Zealand don't get much focus at all (they weren't mentioned, for example, in Stats' news release on our latest employment data), so in the spirit of inquiry I went and dug them out to see what they might be able to tell us (they're easily calculated from the data in Infoshare). Here are the headline unemployment results.

The unemployment rate for prime age people is, as you'd expect, markedly lower than for the labour force as a whole. And it's certainly signalling a tight market: the latest unemployment rate (2.0%) is getting close to its all-time low (1.5% in late 2007). You'd imagine that a fair chunk of this low rate is frictional unemployment, and that there's precious little cyclical unemployment left.

Here is the participation rate picture. It's harder to interpret: we're in uncharted territory, as the prime age participation rate has been hitting record highs. Can it keep on rising? Is there still a large reserve of people who could be tickled out into employment? Who knows, but you'd guess that the reservoir must be getting lower. We're down to only 14% of prime age people who are not in the labour force, and who are doing things like looking after young or elderly family.

The prime age participation rate is usefully splitabble into male and female participation rates, and here they are.

The overall rise to record levels of prime age participation is largely driven by a sharp and ongoing rise in female prime age participation, and like in the US there are surely both structural and cyclical things going on. That drop in the male rate over 1986-2000, for example, may well reflect the post-Rogernomics shrinking of traditionally male-dominated activities like meat processing. Changing social attitudes about (for example) who should stay at home and look after the kids will be in there, too. So it's very hard to unpick the purely cyclical component. I don't have any good feel at all for where the prime age female participation rate might peak.

Overall, the data don't give any huge overlooked insights into where we are relative to maximum unsustainable employment, mostly because the grand sweep of history and the changing attitudes to who works, and works at what, overlap the more cyclical aspects you'd like to isolate. If there is one useful extra bit of data, it's the prime age unemployment rate, which is confirming the RBNZ's "there or thereabouts" assessment.

Monday, 26 November 2018

The wheels are back on

"The goss", I said a while back, "is that the Commission stands a good chance of having Lodge overturned in the Court of Appeal, but stranger things have happened", Lodge being the High Court case involving price-fixing amongst Hamilton real estate agents.

The Commission had rather unexpectedly lost it - "...and then the wheels came off" - but now the Court of Appeal has put the wheels back on, tightened the nuts, and banged the hubcaps into place.

In the High Court, Justice Jagose had said that the estate agents had come to a collective agreement (their agencies would stop absorbing the cost of Trade Me real estate listings and instead start charging the house sellers for it), and had given effect to it (part of it, for example, was a collective withdrawal of listings on Trade Me, which duly occurred).  But - and this was the surprise bit - the arrangement didn't breach s30 of the Commerce Act. If the seller wanted a Trade Me listing, it was still open to individual real estate agents to offer a discount or indeed carry the cost themselves if they badly wanted the listing. If the ad cost was still negotiable, then it couldn't be said that the collective agreement had controlled the price.

Not so, said the Court of Appeal. The estate agents had collectively agreed to remove State of the World A (the agencies wore the cost) and replace it with State of the World B (the vendor probably paid, but maybe twisted the arm of the agent and got it for free). That's not on: at [89]
We agree with Mr Dixon’s [John Dixon QC, for the Commission] submission that all of those vendors after January 2014 who chose not to list on Trade Me when faced with having to pay for it, and indeed those who did pay the fee, lost the opportunity to be offered a price which had been set for an agency operating in response to working competitive market forces ... Plainly the agreement in principle to withdraw from agency-paid Trade Me advertising would affect price; if the vendor did not have a Trade Me advertisement it had lost an allowance or credit that had been previously provided. The price for the real estate agencies’ services was correspondingly more.
And the Court gave a homely but useful example: at [88]
By way of example, if the retailers of motor vehicles in a street all agreed on an asking price for a certain model, aware that this was the asking price only and the end price after negotiation could be quite different, that would have an anti-competitive effect in the way discussed in Plymouth Dealers’ Association [an American case from 1960]. The starting point for one side of a negotiation about price would undoubtedly affect the end price, even if it may be possible or even likely the end price would be different from the starting point.
I could see Justice Jagose's point, but the Court of Appeal has put us both right. It's clearly the better take, and I'd be mightily surprised if the Hamilton agents press on to the Supreme Court.

Getting back onto the safer ground of economics, there was a side issue of whether economic evidence about what the real estate agents were likely to have done in any event was admissible. The High Court had said no; the Court of Appeal agreed.

And there's a lesson there for businesses in the real world. It's a recurring theme: some sort of shock happens - in this case, Trade Me tried on an enormous rise in its listing fees, in the air cargo cases airlines got whacked with new security charges - and the question arises, what to do? Chances are, in a competitive market, you're going to have to pass them on to the ultimate customer. All of you in the real estate or air freight game may have independently come to the same conclusion.

But you mustn't get together and collectively agree to do it, even if the two outcomes don't look very different. "It would have happened anyway" will be no defence. At [112] the Court of Appeal agreed with the High Court which had said at [238] that
in principle, s 30 type conduct does not avail of a competition analysis. Constraints on price-setting are deemed in breach of s 27. That the same price may have arisen in the counterfactual (ie, absent constraint) does not respond to the presence of constraint in the factual. The proposed [economics] evidence was irrelevant
So there have been twists and turns in the story, but the end point for businesses is still as I put it after the High Court: "it remains highly dangerous to go near any discussion of price or pricing models with your competitors ... How much of a cost to absorb, and how much to pass on, needs to be your own independent decision".

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Double or quits?

Last month Australia's High Court told Japanese company Yazaki that no, it couldn't appeal against the record A$46 million cartel fine it had copped in Australia's Full Federal Court in May.

Now that the legal race is run, we can sit back and learn some lessons from the whole affair. Mostly, unfortunately, they're lessons about what not to do, though on the positive side they are guides to avoiding future heffalump traps.

First up in the catalogue of mistakes was Yazaki's disastrous decision to keep on fighting both conviction and penalty through the courts. Yazaki was bang to rights from the off: Yazaki and a bunch of other companies had already been convicted and fined in the US and Europe for price-fixing, bid rigging and market allocation in the market for "wire harnesses", which are things that link up the electrical components in a car. Yazaki had, for example, worn most (€125 million) of the €142 million penalty the European Commission had imposed in July 2013 for a cartel that had been ripping off Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Renault.

Sure, Yazaki had every right to claim it hadn't been ripping off Toyota in Australia (though it had). And to make the ACCC prove its case (it did). And to dispute the penalty imposed (originally A$9.5 million). But the proverbial snowball in hell had a better chance of beating the rap. Apart from the evidence in other jurisdictions of Yazaki being up to its eyeballs in wire harness rorts, Sumitomo Electric, Yazaki's comrade in cartel crime, had ratted Yazaki out both overseas and in Australia under the cartel leniency regime. Yazaki was always going to get its collar felt.

The sensible thing to have done was fold your hand as gracefully as you could. And you'd like to think Yazaki, or any New Zealand company in the same pickle, would send out for some independent economic and legal advice on the realistic chances of beating the rap and on the likely penalty (very low, and rather high, would have been the answers). But no: Yazaki appealed the original conviction in the Federal Court and the A$9.5 million penalty; the ACCC cross-appealed; and Yazaki scored one of the bigger corporate own goals of recent times, and got its fine quintupled to A$46 million.

Good. It's about time something disrupted the cynical calculus of appeals. Recall that in both Australia and New Zealand one way of setting cartel penalties is three times the profit gained from the cartel, the idea being that it acts as a disincentive to absorb cartel fines as a cost of doing business (provided the perceived chance of being detected and convicted is higher than one in three). But there's nothing equivalent deterring companies from clogging up the courts with doomed nuisance appeals. A $10 million fine? A 30% chance of getting it reduced to $5 million? A legal bill of $1 million? See you in the Court of Appeal, is the line of reasoning. This time it's fallen flat on its face, and I'm not sorry.

And it's not as if the courts are in any good place to absorb the dead weight of these nuisances. The ACCC first laid charges in December 2012. The Federal Court's liability judgement came out in November 2015 The original penalty judgement appeared in May 2017. The Full Federal Court  ramped up the fine in May 2018. The High Court finally drew two lines under the affair in October. That's nearly six years from go to whoa. I'd guess a similar timetable would have played out here in New Zealand. It's too slow. If 'hard core' cartelists like Yazaki think twice in the future before clogging up already slow courts, it'll be a good outcome.

Another lesson is that if you are in a cartel, or discover you've been in one, do not walk, do not amble, do not pause to think you're well hidden in the undergrowth and they'll never find you, RUN for the protection of the cartel leniency programme. So far Yazaki has copped well in excess of $1 billion globally, while Sumitomo Electric is home free, at least with the criminal enforcers (private class actions can't be fended off in the same way).

That was always good advice, but even more so now given the reasoning behind the Full Federal Court's whacking up the fine, and which I'd expect the New Zealand courts will be looking at. For one thing, it took the view that there were more contraventions than the Federal Court had identified (five, rather than the primary court's two, namely an overarching scheme plus a giving effect). For another, it said Yazaki's whole corporate income in Australia would go into the calculation of the maximum penalty (it ended up being a penalty based on turnover rather than on three times profits).

Yazaki wriggled: its argument was that the rest of its Australian business (which didn't even know about the cartel fix being in) shouldn't be swept into the maximum penalty calculation for what happened in one little corner. The Full Federal Court wasn't having a bar of it: at [198]
We also do not accept the respondents’ [Yazaki's] submission that the construction for which they contend is to be preferred by considering the position of a tiny subsidiary of a major Australian corporation, carrying on some very incidental and discrete part of the corporate group’s business, and engaging in cartel conduct, in circumstances where no other company in the corporate group had any knowledge of what was going on. If the consequence is that all of the values of the supplies made by every company in the corporate group were brought in, irrespective of their connection with the conduct of the contravening subsidiary corporation, we would not regard that as an absurd consequence, that is, a consequence obviously unintended by the Parliament.
One final learning is that, yet again, the primary victims of this cartel were other businesses: industrial inputs like wire harnesses are a common target for cartel operators. When it comes to debating cartel enforcement policy, it's fine for the business community to have reservations about criminalising cartels and sending ringleaders to prison, and to worry about pro-competitive collaborative activity being mistakenly characterised as anti-competitive cartels. But that's as far as concern or business solidarity should go: more businesses should realise they're the prime prey for these conspiracies, and should be supporting throwing the book at the Yazakis of this world.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Two sides to the story

You might think the ugly process of nominating US Supreme Court judges and the predictably  5 - 4 conservative/liberal votes in many of the Court's decisions wouldn't matter a hoot to us humble toilers in the vineyard of New Zealand competition and regulation. But you'd be wrong.

The US Supreme Court, in the Amex case, said something important in June about two-sided markets: formally it's Ohio. v American Express Co. and even has its own Wikipedia entry if you'd like a quick recap of what went on. Two-sided and multiple-sided markets and platforms are everywhere these days - I'm writing this post on one - and even if US jurisprudence doesn't always get a lot of traction in our Anglosphere courts, sooner or later the latest American anti-trust thinking tends to find its way through to us too, not least because the same economic experts front up here.

So Amex is relevant to us, and indeed we've traversed this territory ourselves in the past. I was involved at the time, so I'll just refer to the public material on the credit cards 'interchange case' of 2006-09, where an agreed settlement was reached pretty much on the steps of the High Court (the announcement of the Commerce Commission's proceedings in 2006 is here, one of the settlement announcements in 2009 is here)

This latest US case was about whether credit card companies can include 'anti steering' provisions in their contracts with retailers. 'Anti steering' means that a retailer, if it's signed up with Amex, say, can't nudge ('steer') the Amex-card-using shopper to some other means of payment. The retailer will be wont to steer the shopper to use the card system that costs the retailer least. That's usually not Amex: it charges relatively high fees to retailers to fund a relatively generous rewards programme for its cardholders.

Amex would argue that its card brought its (typically higher spending, upmarket) customer into the shop in the first place, and that at least one of the thoughts going through the buyer's mind when they spend up big in the store is the payoff from the Amex rewards programme. It's a swizz, on this reasoning, for the retailer to benefit from the Amex-initiated deal but put it through the till on someone else's card network.

Before reading Amex, I had sympathised with the plaintiffs (the Feds and 17 American states initially, but down to just 11 states at the Supreme Court). Language along the lines of "you mustn't mention there are competing alternatives to this card" doesn't sound good at all, and both Visa and MasterCard had agreed to stop doing it, with only Amex ploughing on all the way through the American courts. My first instincts would have been along the lines of the minority in the Supreme Court, which said
If American Express’ merchant fees are so high that merchants successfully induce their customers to use other cards, American Express can remedy that problem by lowering those fees or by spending more on cardholder rewards so that cardholders decline such requests. What it may not do is demand contractual protection from price competition (p26)
But to my considerable surprise (I didn't ever expect to find myself agreeing with the conservative majority of the current Supreme Court) the 5 - 4 decision in favour of Amex looked the right call.

The majority found that the credit card market is a two-sided market, which you would think is beyond much doubt. The District Court first hearing the Amex case had, however, oddly found separate single markets for retailer and shopper card services. The District Court got put right by the US Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court affirmed it.

Following on from that market definition, the majority in Amex said that you mustn't draw anti-competitive conclusions from looking at high prices on one side of a two-sided market, a conclusion which is now a commonplace in competition economics but doesn't seem to have been considered by the Supreme Court before (the minority referred to a case from 1953, but that was long before the modern theory of two-sided markets):
Evidence of a price increase on one side of a two-sided transaction platform cannot by itself demonstrate an anticompetitive exercise of market power. To demonstrate anticompetitive effects on the two-sided credit-card market as a whole, the plaintiffs must prove that Amex’s antisteering provisions increased the cost of credit-card transactions above a competitive level, reduced the number of credit-card transactions, or otherwise stifled competition in the credit-card market ... They failed to do so (pp15-6)
The Amex majority pointed to a variety of evidence that showed no anti-competitive detriment: for example
the evidence that does exist cuts against the plaintiffs’ view that Amex’s antisteering provisions are the cause of any increases in merchant fees. Visa and MasterCard’s merchant fees have continued to increase, even at merchant locations where Amex is not accepted and, thus, Amex’s antisteering provisions do not apply ... This suggests that the cause of increased merchant fees is not Amex’s antisteering provisions, but rather increased competition for cardholders and a corresponding market wide adjustment in the relative price charged to merchants (pp16-7)
and they also cited a wide variety of other evidence (on pp18-9) showing ongoing vigorous competition between the card networks, which made the plaintiff's claim of harm rather difficult to sustain.

They also dealt to the "inherently anticompetitive" argument which I would have been attracted to - that it is inherently wrong to forbid retailers to mention the competition. Amex said that the anti-swizz justification ("you can't welcome our customer and then do a switcheroo against us") was okay, or in the majority's words
there is nothing inherently anticompetitive about Amex’s antisteering provisions. These agreements actually stem negative externalities in the credit-card market and promote interbrand competition ... This externality endangers the viability of the entire Amex network. And it undermines the investments that Amex has made to encourage increased cardholder spending, which discourages investments in rewards and ultimately harms both cardholders and merchants (p19)
If you're still sceptical about ultimately harming cardholders, it helps to think of Amex as an agent aggregating the collective purchasing power of its well-heeled membership to wrest what is effectively a larger discount from retailers.

The minority saw things completely differently, but struggled with their arguments. They persisted with the manifestly uphill notion that there are two separate markets:
the relationship between merchant-related card services and shopper-related card services is primarily that of complements, not substitutes (p11)
Since only substitutes are in the same market, there must must be two markets:
there is no justification for treating shopper-related services and merchant-related services as if they were part of a single market, at least not at step 1 of the "rule of reason" (p12)
The reference to "step 1" is to the 3-step process American jurisprudence follows (plaintiff says anti-competitive harm, defendant can rebut as pro-competitive, plaintiff can respond that it could be achieved less intrusively).

In any event, as a market definition, this looks a somewhat contrived description of what the majority better characterised as two sides of a single transaction. The minority also argued (which they needed to, since their first line of attack was weak), that market definition didn't matter, since evidence of higher prices was enough to establish anti-competitive effect:
The District Court’s findings of actual anticompetitive harm from the nondiscrimination provisions thus showed that, whatever the relevant market might be, American Express had enough power in that market to cause that harm. There is no reason to require a separate showing of market definition and market power under such circumstances. And so the majority’s extensive discussion of market definition is legally unnecessary (p14)
Not convincing at all: if a price increase is sufficient evidence of market power, every business in the country would be in the dock. But when a judgement opens with wrap-me-in-the-flag huffing ("For more than 120 years, the American economy has prospered by charting a middle path between pure laissez-faire and state capitalism") it's a good bet that wrap-me-in-the-logic is in short supply.

The judgment was met with outrage in some quarters. A piece from the Brookings Center on Regulation and Markets reacted with "Why the Supreme Court’s decision in Ohio v. AmEx will fatten the wealthy’s wallet (at the expense of the middle class)", for example, and the Open Markets Institute's Lina Khan wrote on Vox that "The Supreme Court just quietly gutted antitrust law".

I can understand the sentiment: 'anti steering' had initially looked wrong to me, too. But this is now the second time for me in recent months where something that initially looked deeply suspicious from a pro-competition point of view was judged okay (the other one was the Australian Pfizer case). For me, both cases correctly avoided a Type 1 error (wrongly finding anti-competitive detriment). But I'd also accept that in dynamic industries like pharma (Pfizer) and platforms (Amex) the safe path between Type 1 and Type 2 errors is getting harder and harder to spot.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

I've tried to stop...

...writing any more posts about market studies, but events have intervened. The government announced that it's going to fast track the Commerce Amendment Bill, which will give the Commerce Commission the powers to do studies, and also that the first one will be an inquiry into the petrol industry (which was always on the cards anyway).

So I headed smartly to the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee's website to see where the Bill had got to, and found its final report (published on September 12). Market studies - or "competition studies" as we've elected to call them - have got the tick, though the Committee members divided on party lines on who should be allowed to initiate them. The majority backed either a Minister or the Commission (I'm with them), in line with MBIE's advice in its advisory report on the bill. The National members would have let the Commission initiate only with ministerial approval.

The Committee also went with another good MBIE recommendation. The Committee said (p3):
We consider that it would be appropriate for the legislation to require a government response to the final report. We do not consider it necessary to specify a time frame or process for the response. We recommend inserting new section 51E to require the Minister to respond to the commission’s final report on a competition study within a reasonable time frame.
I was really pleased about this. Of the 15 market studies submitters on the Bill (6 for, 6 broadly neutral, 3 against), only two folks had pushed for it - ASB Bank (submission here, the Ministerial response bit is on p7) and me (ditto, pp18-19). But MBIE thankfully saw enough merit in the idea to run with it. To my mind, it made no sense to set up a studies regime but not address the risk that they would be ignored.

There is also a useful focus (again following MBIE's sound advice) on following up what actually happens after the studies come out. As the Committee put it (p3)
We would like to see evaluations carried out to assess the effectiveness of each study and of the regime as a whole. We do not propose any legislative amendment in this regard. However, we suggest that, as part of the commission’s accountability arrangements with the responsible Minister, one of its performance measures should be to evaluate each competition study and report the results in its annual report.
I also learned from para 20 of MBIE's report to the Committee that "Cabinet has directed MBIE to carry out an evaluation of the competition studies regime after it has been in operation for five years". That's good practice. As I mentioned in a telco context ('Regulation done right'), it's easy to set up regulatory regimes and processes, and then forget to go back and check whether they've done any good or are still needed.

It's a pity in a way that it needed soaring petrol prices to be the catalyst that propelled competition studies up the legislative queue: they deserved a faster track than they'd got up to now. But that's realpolitik, and there's no point being naïve about it. If it took politicians' squirming to get a faster result, let's bank it and get the Commission underway that much quicker.

At the petrol pump

You don't - for good reason - get much of a chance to quote reams of facts on the radio. So for those of you who were listening to my stint on the National programme's 'The Panel with Jim Mora' on Tuesday, here are the numbers on what's driven the rise in petrol prices this year.

Conclusion - roughly two-thirds of the rise is down to the increased cost of the imported fuel, which has been hit by both a markedly higher world price in US dollars, and a markedly lower New Zealand dollar against the US dollar. It's not down to a big rise in petrol companies' margins, which is the story being used to frighten the children.

Most of the rest is down to taxes, by the way, and even more so in Auckland. The numbers above come from MBIE's weekly petrol price monitoring which as MBIE says "assumes retail petrol price are uniform nationally. Auckland City has recently introduced a regional fuel tax that will increase fuel prices in the Auckland region. Our currently methodology does not accommodate regional prices or regional fuel taxes. We are developing a new methodology ... that will include regional retail price differences". Aucklanders can add 11.5 cents to the increase in taxes, meaning that, for them, tax increases have been of the same order of importance as higher import costs.

The MBIE data are a great resource if you'd like to keep tracking developments for yourself. There was also an excellent explainer on the Newsroom website from Bernard Hickey, 'Q+A: Are petrol retailers profiteering?' which provides a lot of useful background.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

A good follow-up

The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research has followed up on an idea I threw out here in August, suggesting that somebody ought to ask New Zealand businesses exactly what was bugging them when they reported low levels of business confidence (and thanks for the credit in the latest Quarterly Survey of Business Opinion, guys, it's appreciated).

Here are the answers to the special question the NZIER included this time round.

While it's good to know more precisely what's on businesses' minds, in the event it's not hugely surprising. Most people had suspected that businesses were not enormously enamoured of various current economic policies, and sure enough government policy topped the list. The tightness of labour markets (staff availability, wage pressures) and its impact on profitability, are also right up there, as is profitability more generally.

As NZIER said in the media release, "Profitability continued to worsen, reflecting intensifying cost pressures for many businesses. Businesses remained pessimistic about an improvement in profitability", and the overall results in the QSBO were downbeat. Looking just at the "own activity" results, which track GDP pretty well, "Firms’ own activity for the September quarter and expectations for the next quarter both fell, indicating a slowing in economic growth over the second half of 2018".

Hopefully the support from still very supportive fiscal and monetary policy will carry us through whatever slowdown occurs in coming months: in particular, the lower Kiwi dollar has tilted overall monetary conditions in businesses' favour, even as the RBNZ has stood pat on already low interest rates. And let's trust that the long-running  post-GFC global business expansion will not blow a gasket, despite the best efforts of American tomfoolery to derail it.

That's the upbeat take. But if there's one thing that would give you special pause for thought, it's "consumer confidence" turning up in the graph above as businesses' third most pressing worry. I didn't expect it to rate so highly, but looking at it now, I can see why it's there. I'd finger the petrol price as one big factor: here in Auckland the regional tax, the general rise in fuel excise, the high world price of oil, and the weaker Kiwi dollar have resulted in a litre of 91 costing $2.35 - $2.40, and households aren't in a great place to absorb a thumping great whack like that. I also suspect that housing wealth effects, again maybe more in Auckland than elsewhere, have stalled or even reversed.

So the state of consumer confidence is something I'll be watching a bit more closely. Hopefully rising wages in a tight labour market will alleviate some of the budget pressures from the petrol station forecourt, and the September QSBO result of no rise in employment likely reflected firms' inability to find scarce labour, rather than any cutback in hiring intentions, which remain positive. I certainly wouldn't want to see any job insecurity thrown into the already fragile household mix.

Monday, 1 October 2018

What do devaluations achieve?

Perhaps unwisely, over the week-end I queried a bit of logic I saw on Twitter which had argued that a lower domestic currency makes a trade deficit worse.

The reply that came back to my query said that a lower dollar makes imports more expensive, QED.

And although I tried to point out that other things start happening, too, to my surprise I got further pushback in support of the the lower-dollar-makes-a-deficit-worse theory.

Maybe it's a generational thing. Back when I was starting out in economics, exchange rates were typically fixed or managed, currency changes were an actively deployed policy tactic, and the conventional thinking was that you reached for a devaluation to improve your trade deficit.  These days, exchange rates typically float, and the effects of devaluation as an option have, maybe, been forgotten about.

So here's a numerical example of what I always thought was the orthodox way of looking at it. It starts with New Zealand running a small trade deficit - our export revenue from wine doesn't quite match our import bill for oil - and it traces what happens when the New Zealand dollar drops against the US dollar. For dramatic effect I've made it a big fall, from parity with the US dollar to only 50 US cents.

The first panel is the starting point. The second panel shows the immediate impact of the fall in the Kiwi dollar. As the people on Twitter rightly feel, the first impact is of course to make imports more expensive, and the trade deficit does indeed get worse. What we're seeing at that point is the downward, or worsening, part of what used to be called the 'J curve' effect, and these days would probably be called a 'hockey stick' or 'Nike swoosh' effect - things get worse before they get better.

If that's all that the Twitter people were saying, fair enough, though I get the clear feeling that they also believe that the lower dollar will lead to a permanent worsening of the deficit, and that things won't actually get better later on.

But get better, they do, thanks to two responses to the lower dollar.

Panel three shows adjustment on the import side. Oil used to cost NZ$60; now it costs NZ$120. That's a powerful incentive to use less of it - by car pooling, by trading down to smaller car engines, by putting in solar panels, by using more energy-efficient public transport, whatever.

One respondent on Twitter argued that "How do you propose we "cut back" on imports without local industry to meet the demand? Should we just tell people to have less goods and medicines because they've become more expensive?". Well, the answer to that is that people routinely change their patterns of consumption to big price changes. If tickets to the big match get too pricey, you do something else for the weekend. If avocados are $7 each (as they were), you don't make guacamole. But I'll come back to that behavioural response at the end.

In panel three I've assumed that a variety of energy-saving measures in response to much more expensive oil lead to a reduction in demand from 400 barrels to 300. And we saw precisely that response in the real world to successive jack-ups in prices by OPEC, though it took quite a while for people to reorganise their affairs (eg by junking gas guzzlers and designing more fuel-effective engines).

That alone starts to eat into the initially higher trade deficit, which comes down from NZ$28,000 to NZ$16,000. The exact numbers don't matter: what does matter is that we've started going up the swoosh.

But there's also a response on the export side, which I've shown in the bottom panel. Before, the American buyer of our wine was paying US$200 a case. After the devaluation, he's only paying US$100 - it's a complete steal. He could well increase his order significantly - if he was profitably shifting New Zealand wine at US$200 a case, he'll have them flying off the shelves at US$100.

Or it's possible that the winemakers will raise their prices a bit. In the panel I've assumed they raised the Kiwi dollar price from NZ$200 to NZ$250, which for the US buyer means he's still paying a lot less (US$125) than the US$200 he used to pay. I've assumed that there's a mixture of more wine sold, as they are now a lot cheaper in US$ for US buyers, and a somewhat higher NZ$ price.

And hey presto, the overall outcome after both imports and exports have adjusted is a small trade surplus.

"Hey presto" may get you thinking this is all a sleight of hand, and indeed there is an assumption in the background here that those behavioural responses actually happen, and happen strongly enough, to turn things round. And there's a bit of economics (the 'Marshall-Lerner condition') that's figured out exactly how strong those responses need to be.

If you're what used to be called an 'elasticity pessimist', you don't believe the responses will in fact be large, and maybe that's where my Twitter correspondents are. Maybe, on the import side, we're always going to have to buy those medicines, and we can't skimp; maybe, on the export side, some wowser wine-shunning import monopoly won't order more cases then it used to. There's nothing logically wrong with that line of thinking, and at the end of the day the actual effect will turn on the size of the responses. Me - I'm more of an elasticity optimist, and especially over the longer run.

Before leaving what will be ancient history for some and the bleeding obvious for others, I'd just add that back in the day I was never a great fan of devaluations as a policy option. Can they improve the trade deficit? Yes, over time. But should you go there?

Mostly no. Devaluations can come with unpleasant side effects, including the ever-higher-inflation ever-lower-dollar spiral that New Zealand actually fell into. They can degenerate into tit for tat zero sum games (everybody can't simultaneously devalue against everyone else). And they encourage - or at the very least perpetuate - the idea that price is the best way to compete in world markets. So, at most devaluation makes an expedient policy tactic, but it's a poor economic strategy.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

As expected

The NZME/Fairfax Court of Appeal judgement is out and contained few surprises.

The Court had been widely anticipated to rebuff the appeal against the Commerce Commission's refusal to authorise the proposed merger of NZME (the Herald, radio stations, and a herd of other North Island media businesses) and Fairfax (DomPost, Press, S-ST, herd of other media things nationwide). So it did. Rather, the interest was always going to be in what it said about the Commerce Act and how it is supposed to operate.

In particular, was the Commission allowed to count non-economic things in the balancing of benefits and detriments that goes on in a merger authorisation? In this case, the big non-economic detriment was the social loss of media plurality (a very large share of the take on the news would be in one pair of hands).

There was also a likely degradation of the quality of journalism (due to the merged entity laying off journalists) which was also treated as a non-economic detriment. That always seemed odd to me, as a loss of product quality is easily accommodated within the usual economic framework. But never mind: what did the Court say?

It said, count all benefits, count all detriments, whether occurring in the markets affected or not, and whether economic or not. Completely sensible. Key bits (footnotes omitted here and later):
[69] ... The High Court held that the Commission has jurisdiction to consider a loss of plurality resulting from the transaction. It accepted that out of market considerations may seldom arise and the Commission may be susceptible to challenge on the merits if it takes them into account, but as a matter of construction Parliament cannot have intended to exclude such considerations where a proposed transaction is likely to cause them. We agree generally with these conclusions ...
[71] ... Section 3A further presumes that efficiency gains may benefit the public and prescribes that regard must be had to them when assessing public benefit. But as a matter of construction the Act treats efficiency as a subset of public benefit; put another way, efficiency is a mandatory consideration but others are not excluded. To paraphrase AMPS-A (HC), efficiency matters but it does not exhaust society’s interest in the  transaction ...
 [73] ... the Act is not exclusively concerned with efficiency but rather allows it to be balanced alongside other public benefits that may include anything of importance to the community as a whole. Nothing in the legislation requires that public detriments be defined less comprehensively. The identification and weighting of public benefits, including efficiency gains, and detriments is left to the Commission’s judgement.
Perhaps sarcastically, along the way the Court said at [61] that the Commission must have been doing it wrong all these years when it had already been counting a whole bunch of non-economic consequences - "reduced pollution, health benefits of breastfeeding, safer handling of hazardous substances, reduced stigma for psychiatric patients, and social effects of plant closures".

There was one interesting thing in the part of the judgement dealing with balancing benefits and detriments. While it may be tempting, for the Commission or for the merger parties, to chuck in low probability outcomes with high impact - "cure for cancer", "world peace", "Armageddon", you get the idea - you can't do that. As the Appeal Court said (rapping the High Court's knuckles, though otherwise affirming where the High Court had got to):
[92] In our opinion the High Court erred to the extent that it took into account what it considered a remote risk that a single owner would exploit the merged entity for political purposes. We agree that even a remote risk of this kind is a matter of public concern. Post-transaction, NZME’s substantial presence in relevant markets would create a vulnerability that ought to worry policymakers. But unless the risk is thought “likely” it should not enter the balance ...
Had the Commission and the High Court got the facts wrong? No.
[134] We consider that quality and plurality detriments are very likely to result from the transaction. We have examined quality effects first ... We agree with the High Court that quality detriments are very likely and substantial. We consider that they are sufficient in themselves to outweigh the transaction’s benefits.
[135] Additional plurality losses are also very likely and substantial. We agree with the High Court and the Commission that plurality is a characteristic of media markets that is vitally important to the community. We also agree with the High Court that the loss of plurality attributable to the transaction would very likely be irreparable ...
[137] In the result, we find that detriments clearly outweigh benefits, and not by a small margin. It follows that authorisation was properly declined 
My overall take? The jurisprudence has landed in a good place. If a merger has a mix of good and bad stuff, it may get messy: as the judgement says at [80], "We accept that non-economic detriments may complicate merger analysis and introduce an additional element of unpredictability, which is undesirable". But that's the way it is: "Some measure of uncertainty is inherent in the legislative decision to permit authorisation on widely-defined public benefit grounds ... Parliament made efficiencies a mandatory consideration but it did not exclude others or say anything about the weight to be assigned to them".

So count them all (excluding the unlikely ones) best you can, and balance them. That aligns economics, the law, and common sense. Not a bad day's work by the Court at all.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

We take the plunge...

...and in the interests of scientific inquiry our household has a go at changing electricity retailers.

Time, in short, to stop being the competition equivalent of an unmarried marriage counsellor, and actually use the tools available to increase competition in electricity retailing.

We haven't been averse to switching in the past, but I'd got disillusioned by the first wave of retail competition. The phone would go - it was usually telephone marketing then - and we'd get an offer. Of sorts: a lower fixed daily rate but a higher cents per unit usage rate, or a lower cents per unit usage rate and a higher fixed daily rate. No offer at that time was unambiguously better than your incumbent's tariff, with lower fixed and lower usage rates. You were reduced to getting out a calculator and figuring out whether you'd actually be better off.

So we ended up in the large number of people who didn't switch - somewhere between 400,000 to 750,000 households, according to our recent Electricity Price Review - and helped provide a captive base for the retailers to exploit. As this graph from the Review shows, the gap between the best and worst price plan, and the gap between the best plan and the incumbent's in a a particular area, have been widening, suggesting (Review, p38) that "those consumers who don’t or can’t easily shop around are paying more and more than they need to".

It's been a bit of a mystery - in the UK, in Australia, here - why consumers just sit there and apparently let themselves be exploited. You can't - and shouldn't - ever rule out the possibility that their decisions are entirely rational: when a lot of people do something, there tends to be a reason. But equally the conventional wisdom is more down the lines of low switching reflecting some form of problem in the switching market.

So I set out, with our sample of one, to see if I could figure out what it might be.

I went for Consumer's Powerswitch though I could as easily have used the Electricity Authority's What's My Number. It went easily enough, though I discovered two little wrinkles.

One was that our incumbent - who I'll call Oldco - didn't make it obvious what pricing plan we were currently on (unlike our broadband or mobile suppliers, who do). I figured it out from the wording of the charge for unit usage, and by matching our charges (after grossing up for GST) with those shown (GST inclusive) in the drop-down menu of Oldco pricing plans that appears on Powerswitch.

The other was that Oldco didn't show annual electricity consumption, which you need to get the best plan for you. Powerswitch says that your retailer will tell you if you ask, but it isn't volunteered (or not anywhere I could find on the bill or using Oldco's online app). You can however add up your last twelve months' bills manually, so I did (a little over 9,000 kWh).

Powerswitch came up with a wide range of competitive alternatives, with annual savings of around $500 to $600, or roughly 20%. Well worth having, so I pressed the 'Switch' button and signed up with Newco.

And it's at that point that I unearthed at least one of the reasons for consumer reluctance to switch. Putting aside the associated free and frank discussion on lack of intra-household consultation, what most concerned my better half was, "what if something goes wrong?"  (in our case enlivened by recollection of a previous attempt to change broadband supplier, which had gone phut). This is (I gather from para 9.210 on p504 of the UK electricity review) quite a common fear, though higher among those who haven't switched than among those who've actually given it a go:
We agree with the views expressed by some parties that the perception of problems by those who had not attempted to switch appears to be somewhat greater than the experience of problems by those who had. In contrast to the experience of those who shopped around or switched, 66% of those who did not shop around or switch in the last three years agreed that ‘switching is a hassle I do not have time for’ (compared with 40% of those who had shopped around or switched in the last three years) and 57% agreed ‘I worry things will go wrong if I switch’ (compared with 37% of those who had shopped around or switched in the last three years).
In the end the spirit of pro-competitive market discipline prevailed over fears of a cock-up, and Newco got the tick.

When Newco contacted us, they said that "During this process you may get a call from the previous power company", and rather disarmingly added, "that’s what we’d do". And Oldco indeed e-mailed us, offering a cash rebate, a bigger prompt payment discount, a two-year price guarantee (which was also part of the Newco offer), and - belatedly - the offer of a better pricing plan (with an element of lock-in for two years).

No deal. We're gone to Newco. Some critical mass of people need to follow through on switching, or the system won't work. And - accepting that our own inertia let them get away with it - we're not feeling especially charitable to Oldco. A short term profit focus may well lead the Oldcos of this world to offer poor default plans, anticipating (often correctly) that you won't jib. But if I were in a corner suite at Oldco and thinking strategically about longer-term customer goodwill and regulatory risks, I think I'd be questioning the wisdom of the old way of running the whelk stall.

Friday, 21 September 2018

We've scrubbed up well

Last week MBIE published the first report of the Electricity Price Review - you can find it and its supporting documents here. If it's all new to you, you might want to start with the 'at a glance' summary. If you'd like an eminently sensible media think piece on the review, try Pattrick Smellie's 'Electricity review a smoking pop-gun'. And if you'd like a pot pourri of select items of interest, read on.

First of all, full marks for plain English. The review said (p3) that "The panel was very conscious of the need to ensure this first report was succinct and easily understood by the public", and it shows. The review team credits Peter Riordan of THINKWRITE - well done, that man. Economics, regulation, public policy analysis in general - all can, and should, be made more lucid than they usually are.

On substance, I especially liked this bit of analysis prepared for the review by Concept Consulting.

The logic here, from p32 of the review, is that
Contract prices that were above costs on a sustained basis would suggest weak competition among generators, and that the entry, or threatened entry, of new generators was not restraining prices. On the other hand, prices that were well below costs on a sustained basis would suggest looming problems with reliability of supply because new investment would not be able to keep pace with demand. The comparison suggests competition has been effective in restraining prices. Figure 14 shows how wholesale prices have moved broadly in line with the cost of adding more capacity. Importantly, there is no evidence contract prices have been above costs on a sustained basis in recent years.
That's good to know, because an alternative analysis in the review (pp45-6, with more detail on pp7-8 of the Technical Paper) which attempted to gauge whether the gentailers are earning excessive profits was not convincing. Granted, there were data issues for the review in trying to figure it out. In the end it used a proxy for profits - net cash from operations, ex tax ex interest, adjusted for inflation and the amount of electricity generated -  which showed little change in recent years.

But even if you accept that the proxy is okay, the exercise doesn't answer the 'excessive profits' question at all. Steady net cash flows could mean excessive profits, or, equally, inadequate profits, all the way through. The important question is, what are the profits relative to some measure of the capital employed in the business? That went unanswered.

Something else left a bit up in the air in the review was exactly why the distribution lines businesses went from overcharging business customers to (somewhat) overcharging residential customers for their shares of the distribution costs. There's no arguing about what went on: as the review says (p21), "Shifting costs from businesses to householders was the biggest factor in residential price increases between 1990 and 2018 (a development that began in the early 1980s). During this period, distribution charges for householders rose 548 per cent, while those for commercial and some industrial businesses fell 58 per cent", and here's the graph if you prefer graphs. But, why?

Maybe everyone in the electricity game already knows that the re-apportionment of costs was actually a move from a rort on businesses to something more rational (even if it has now overshot a bit the other way). As MBIE's 'Chronology of New Zealand electricity reform' says (p2), "In 1985 local distribution and supply were the responsibility of sixty-one electricity supply authorities (ESAs) - (there were ninety-three [!] in 1945). These were electorally oriented, statutory monopolies. Inefficiency, lack of customer choice and cross-subsidies resulted". But this may no longer be obvious to the reader in the street, and the review could usefully have given a bit more of the historical context against which this subsequent reallocation has occurred.

Before the review came out, I'd speculated that "there's a good chance that we may have made a better go of publicising and facilitating switching [by retail electricity customers from one supplier to another] than either the UK or Australia with initiatives like the Electricity Authority's WhatsMyNumber". In the end the review wasn't able to come to a conclusive answer (partly because it got a big data dump very late in the piece), but it's still possible we're making a better fist of it than others are (p39):
Overall, some stakeholders consider retail competition is stronger here than in Australia and the United Kingdom, based on measures such as switching rates and savings available from switching. However, some stakeholders consider that, like Australia and the United Kingdom, a two-tier retail market is developing, in which those who actively shop around enjoy the benefits of competition, and those who don’t pay higher prices.
There's heaps more interesting stuff in the review, which broadly comes to the conclusion that we're not too shabby at all when it comes to organising our electricity affairs. There are certainly things to work on - make a decision on transmission pricing methodology, figure out how to incorporate more renewables and accommodate all the new solar cell and battery technologies, do something about raising the lines businesses' efficiency, get a better grip on what's behind consumer switching inertia, and dig into why retailers' costs seem to be unusually high - but by international standards we're pretty hot stuff.

You might perhaps feel otherwise if you focussed on the 'energy hardship' issues for poorer households that made the headlines. But to my mind, that's got a lot less to do with allegedly excessive power prices - "New Zealand’s average residential price was in the lower half of all OECD countries in 2016" (review, p23) - and a good deal more to do with our internationally challenged level of absolute income, and with its distribution. The answers to energy hardship - and food, housing, clothing, medical, and educational hardship - lie more in the realm of raising national productivity and operating a more effective tax and welfare system.

And it's not just this review taking an upbeat view of how we're travelling. It went under my radar when it came out first, but the International Energy Agency has been trekking its way through the energy policies of its member countries, and here are some quotes from the executive summary of its 2017 New Zealand review:
New Zealand has an effective energy-only market. It is a world leading example of a well-functioning electricity market [I think they mean the wholesale generation market here], which continues to work effectively ... New Zealand has the highest penetration of geothermal energy and a significant contribution from hydro. Without any direct subsidies or public support, their share in electricity and heat supply has grown in recent years ... This [renewables] performance is a world-class success story among IEA member countries ... To date, New Zealand’s market design and operation of an energy-constrained system offer a high degree of operational variability, and the system has managed peak and seasonal demand variability successfully for decades. The transmission system operator Transpower is experienced and adept at managing supply and demand adequacy, and the power system demonstrates considerable flexibility and resilience. Other IEA member countries could learn from this experience
We've got a well-established knock-em-down commentariat in New Zealand, and I've done a bit of it myself. So for a change it's nice to be able to say we're doing things a good deal better than your average bear.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Regulation done right

From overseas I've caught up with the news that the Telecommunications Commissioner Dr Stephen Gale has decided not to deregulate the market for national mobile roaming.

The current regime (summarising a bit) is that the incumbent mobile network operators (Spark, Vodafone, 2degrees) have to provide wholesale network access to any serious new entrants. That way the new entrant is able to offer a national service from day one: offering patchy network coverage would otherwise be a big turnoff to potential customers and realistically would all but nobble a new entrant's prospects.

National roaming is a 'specified' service, which in telco regulatory jargon means that it must be made available, but on commercial terms struck between an incumbent and an entrant. A more stringent form of regulation would be a 'designated' service, at a price set by the Telecommunications Commissioner.

I liked this decision from at least five perspectives.

One, it was correct.

Two, it was short (38 paragraphs). Maybe that was inherent in the relative simplicity of the issue under consideration. But in any event it was mercifully concise: well done.

Three, plain English, or at least as plain as as you can be when grappling with telco acronyms.

Four, an appropriate bit of "behave yourselves or else" ("We remain of the view that 2degrees’ commercial roaming arrangements with Vodafone were only secured against the threat of regulation. We consider that similar difficulties could potentially arise for a new entrant as have affected 2degrees"). Effective outcomes without actually reaching for bigger sticks: good one.

Five - and this is down to the overall design of the telco regulatory regime - there is a working mechanism where the Telco Commissioner has to regularly check whether regulation of 'specified' or 'designated' services is still needed. They have to be revisited no later than five years after they've been regulated. An excellent idea that stops the sector being littered with redundant rules.

Though you are immediately left with the thought: why isn't this done with regulation more generally?

Case in point - on the latest episode of The Block (no, I don't watch either) apparently two contestants "won't be able to market their property as a four-bedroom house for sale (or rent), because it  contravenes the Government's Housing Improvement Regulations 1947".

That makes regulatory sense. Let's face it, not much has changed since 1947.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Now you see it

Markets need institutions to help them work properly - things like a practically enforceable rule of law, well defined property rights, and the likes of our Fair Trading Act and 'weights and measures' provisions to prevent misrepresentation and deceit and to foster trust in commercial exchange.

All that orthodoxy said, the Fair Trading Act and its companions, worthy though they are, have never greatly floated my boat, and I'm relieved that it's someone else pinging (for example) the back-of-a-truck ratbags selling overpriced tat to poor people.

But during the week I came across an interesting new piece that raised my opinion of the impact Fair Trading enforcement can have. It's from the States, and it looks at the impact of making the airlines disclose the full price of tickets, including all taxes.

By way of background, we don't have rules that require all-inclusive pricing. Back in 2012 when consumer law was being updated, the Commerce Commission argued for all-inclusive pricing to be mandatory, as it is in Australia. MBIE however didn't see an issue, so the Commission's proposal died the death. A pity: I have a lot of sympathy for Consumer New Zealand and its "sneaky fees" campaign. As they say here,
our research shows the problem is real and, with the rise of online trading, looks set to get worse. When goods and services are bought online, we’ve found extra fees may only be revealed near the end of the purchase process.
Not only does the practice mislead consumers, it also makes it difficult to compare prices and gives the retailer an unfair advantage over companies that are upfront about costs. All-inclusive pricing rules would ensure consumers can easily identify the price of a product.
What I didn't know, before I read this American research, was how big the impact of fully disclosing the total price might be.

The paper, published last month, is 'Hidden Baggage: Behavioral Responses to Changes in Airline Ticket Tax Disclosure', and was published in the discussion paper series of the Fed. I came across it, by the way, thanks to the very useful Brookings Briefs which trawl for interesting papers across a variety of issues. Here's what happened.

From early 2012, the US Department of Transportation brought in "full fare advertising rules", or FFAR, which required airlines to show the ticket price including various flight-specific taxes that had previously not been shown until you went to pay. Finding out what those taxes were, by the way, was very difficult in the pre-FFAR regime, assuming you even knew that there were extra taxes and that they varied quite a bit from flight to flight.

On the very large database of  international flights the two authors looked at, the average price was US$750 and the taxes were a sizeable $100, with quite a lot of variation (standard deviation of $45). As the authors show (on pp7-8 and in Table 1) it would have been very easy to pick a flight that looked cheap on a pre-tax basis, but which turned out to be an expensive option on a full-disclosure basis.

And what happened when buyers could see the full price?

First of all, consumers ended up wearing much less of the taxes, and the airlines absorbing much more of them. This is the bit of tax economics known as "incidence", which looks at who actually ends up paying taxes (or receiving subsidies), as opposed to who formally pays them - they can be quite different. You might think, for example, that subsidies to first home buyers will go to the formal home buyer beneficiaries: typically, they won't, and will actually be trousered by housebuilders.

In this case, pre-disclosure, the airlines correctly reasoned that what you can't see or can't be bothered about, we'll dump entirely in your lap. Post-disclosure, consumers were more sensitised, and to keep their custom airlines had to sharpen their pencils and cut their base fares. Or as the paper says (p21)
Three-quarters of every dollar in ticket taxes are thus borne by the airlines in the post-FFAR period, in marked contrast to the pre-FFAR period when  consumers bore the entire tax.
The researchers also found, by the way, that the pattern of pass-through varied with how competitive the route was. If there were lots of competitors (as measured by a lowish HHI index) pass-through by the airlines was higher, which is what theory predicts (low profit margins in a competitive market don't leave much room for sellers to absorb costs in base prices). And it was lower in low-competition markets: "Following the adoption of tax-inclusive pricing ... pass-through rates for unit taxes are shown to drop most sharply in more highly concentrated (i.e. "duopoly") markets" (p28).

Consumers also wised up. Before FFAR, they could see base fares (disclosed), non-tax charges (disclosed) but not ticket taxes (undisclosed). They reacted as you'd expect to the first two (buying less when the cost went up), but paid little or no attention to the taxes, which, as noted, they consequently ended up wearing. Post FFAR, they became sensitised to all elements of the cost:
Adoption of FFAR, however, is associated with significant de-biasing [i.e. responding to all components of costs the same way], such that when base fares, unit taxes, and non-tax charges are all included in total fares in an equally salient [transparent] manner, consumers respond to each equally - consistent with the standard theory of (attentive) consumer behavior (p23, square brackets are my explanation of some of the terminology)
The airlines got hit in a couple of ways. They had to cut base fares to accommodate their new share of the taxes, and were faced by more price-sensitive customers. All up, it made quite a big difference:
The combined impact of reduced ticket tax pass-through and reduced passenger demand (in relation to the portion of the tax still born by consumers) together imply that a $5 increase in unit taxes is furthermore associated with a 2.4% reduction in airline ticket revenue (p30)
As the authors say, "These represent large potential losses in ticket revenue ... and lend strong justification for the U.S. airline industry's intense and persistent efforts to reverse FFAR through lobbying and public relations campaigns" (p26). Best I can tell, a Bill which includes a provision to reverse FFAR has got through the US House of Representatives, but hasn't yet got through the Senate. In Trump's America, though, if you're an airline CEO, you've got to fancy its chances of going all the way.

Maybe the airlines weren't hit as badly as they looked: "it is also possible that carriers may have compensated for lower base fares and ticket revenue through increased reliance on product unbundling and the use of less heavily regulated add-on fees, such as baggage and check-in fees, seat upgrades, in-flight meals and service, etc., whose costs to consumers we do not observe in the ticket data" (p26).

If so, mandating FFAR (and full price disclosure more generally) in New Zealand "should be tempered by the possibility of fostering unintended consequences" (p30) like extra fees for this, that and the other. Me? I'd go for it. These are big bucks being transferred from consumers to producers solely because of off-the-radar treatment. Looks to me as if efficiency and equity point the same way.

As a final thought, it was great to see empirical methods being applied to an issue like all-inclusive pricing. It's all very well running in-principle arguments before Select Committees, but facts are trumps. Big data got by, for example, 'scraping' online prices (as in this paper), are increasingly going to inform what otherwise would be semi-philosophical debates. About time, too.

Monday, 27 August 2018

A different view of productivity

New Zealand's biggest economic problem is our low productivity by international standards. Here, for example, is a chart from an excellent paper by the Productivity Commission's Paul Conway, 'Can the Kiwi Fly? Achieving Productivity Lift-off in New Zealand'.

In the better-off parts of the OECD people can produce 100 widgets an hour (and in the US, more like 105). Australians can produce 90. We can only produce 65.

As Paul says on page 41 of his paper , "This is unusual within the OECD, given that lagging economies have, in principle, greater scope for improving productivity more quickly than leading economies. New Zealand's lack of productivity catch-up is even more perplexing given that its economic policies are often regarded as fit for purpose".

The more I've been thinking about this, the more I'm convinced that we should recast the problem in a slightly different way. What if we put it like this?

In the better-off parts of the OECD people take an hour to produce 100 widgets (and in the US, more like 57 minutes). Australians take 67 minutes. We take 83 minutes.

Exactly the same data, but when put in terms of how slow or fast we are, it suggests some different lines of inquiry about what's going on and what some remedies might look like.

As a thought starter, think about infrastructure planners. Say they've got a budget of a billion a year, and they've got five equal sized $1 billion projects in mind.

One choice is to start the five projects at once, spending $200 million a year on each one, and therefore (because of the budget constraint) necessarily doing them slowly over five years, using 1,000 people with shovels on each one. Five low-productivity projects.

The other choice is do project 1 quickly, using only 200 men and lots of productive (but expensive) heavy equipment, and spend the whole annual $1 billion budget on it. Then do Project 2 in year 2, again in a concentrated burst, and so on. Five high-productivity projects.

In New Zealand's culture, though, which choice do you think will be made?

Quite. And never mind that doing it the high-productivity, short-time way will actually deliver 10 years of benefits from the projects by the end of year 5, whereas going the slow-delivery route will have generated no benefits at all till the completion of all five slow-moving projects.

Not that it's wholly to be laid at the door of the commissioning planners. I'd suggest that spinning out five years of 1,000 men with shovels suits the bidders just fine, too. They keep the band together, and they take out the risk (if they do the $1 billion quick job) of being left high and dry with a lot of idle heavy equipment if they don't pick up a job in year 2. In an economy where lumpy projects don't necessarily appear like clockwork, that's a rational fear, and I'm not the first to observe that one productivity-enhancing policy might be a pre-announced big-project timetable.

Or another example. In public procurement of commercial construction, we are, apparently, extremely tough on cost over-runs. You go over budget, you wear it - too bad, as Fletcher Building has painfully experienced. But does completion time get anything like a decent look-in compared with the focus on cost? If a public buyer had to choose between the bidder who says, "It'll cost a bit more but I'll have it done by Christmas, no dramas" and the bidder who says, "Cheap as, but it'll be next Lammas Eve twelvemonth, probably", I wonder which way they'd go?

Not that I wonder a lot, as I suspect I know the answer.

And it's not just big construction projects or public buyers that are dragging the chain. I've worked in a variety of in-house and external consultancy environments: some have been on the ball, with quick turnaround times, some have been, shall we say, rather more relaxed. No doubt you've experienced the same in your career.

Thinking of low productivity as slow pace also puts a different spin on how prospective solutions might work. Many people (including the Productivity Commission, and me) think greater competition is part of the answer. Too many dozy producers are enjoying the quiet, low-activity life because there aren't enough people snapping at their heels to make them do any better. Typically, we think of competition as forcing out inefficient levels of costs, or pushing prices down to 'normal profit' levels. Maybe we should think about how it could also be harnessed to improve response and delivery times? 

Viewing our productivity problem as a low-speed issue isn't a panacea. There's still a lot of mileage to be got from the more usual low-production view. But at a minimum it's a useful complementary viewpoint. I'm quietly convinced that digging into the incentives to do things slower or faster could provide some extra answers to our productivity conundrum.