Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Revisiting regulation

In a later-career bit of diversification, I've been lecturing, last week delivering an intensive three-day course at the University of Auckland Law School - "Economic regulation: principles and practice", a master's level programme also available for some undergraduate study paths.

It's been stimulating: the class was high calibre, motivated, and ready with questions for me and the three visiting speakers I'd lined up. Big, big hat tips to Andrew Riseley, General Counsel on the regulation side of the ComCom house, Diego Villalobos, Principal Economist of the same parish, and former Telco Commissioner and the big honcho on regulation and competition at Minter Ellison, Dr Ross Patterson.

I don't know whether bringing in visiting firemen is standard in academia. All I can report is that, having tried it earlier at Victoria on a business cycles course run with colleagues Adrian Slack and Viv Hall, it seems to go down well with the students. They get to see that the stuff the lecturer has been going on about is actually what is happening and being used out there in the real world, and hearing it said in another voice probably helps it all sink in. Plus it also gives them some feel for whether they'd like to get into that line of work themselves later on.

Along the way I discovered a newish (2017) book that I recommended to the students as their first go-to resource. It's Thomas Lambert's How to regulate:  a guide for policymakers, Cambridge University Press. If you haven't come across it, it's excellent. Lambert is a full professor at the University of Missouri Law School, but evidently caught the economics virus as part of his undergraduate philosophy degree, and is very comfortable in the crossover badlands between economics and law. He contributes to the interesting Truth on the Market competition/regulation blog (I sympathised with their somewhat plaintive 'About us' description, where they say "We hope you find some of our posts insightful, thought-provoking, or at least mildly interesting").

His book had the structure I wanted for the course - an explanation of why workably competitive markets are the ideal, followed by all the instances where they won't necessarily work as well as you'd want (externalities, market power, asymmetries of information and the like), with good examples of how they can crop up and what you might do about them. You can currently get the paperback at the ever reliable Book Depository for NZ$51.16 (postage included) but if the pennies are tight or you prefer e-books you'll find Amazon does a Kindle version for US$20.79.

As you assemble your thoughts for a course like this, you wonder what the big takeaways for the students ought to be. Mine? The primacy of workably competitive markets; hence and otherwise the need to make sure any diagnosis of "market failure" is well founded; matching problems with the appropriate regulatory responses and, within that, prioritising more market-friendly and lighter-handed solutions; and regularly reviewing the need for regulation.

On which latter score we look to be doing reasonably well. I was encouraged by the latest rollback from the telco folk. The Telecommunications Commissioner Stephen Gale and his team are recommending that resale of Spark's copper-based voice services doesn't need its collar felt any more: "competition has been established, is increasingly effective, and is no longer dependent on access to these services". Right on, lads.

Though I'm less encouraged by the proposed 'building blocks model' (BBM) regulation of Chorus's fibre lines. One of Ross Patterson's points was that wireless broadband will serve as an effective competitive discipline on fibre prices, and I'm inclined to his view. The case for regulation no longer looks compelling, let alone regulation along the heavy duty BBM model that seems to have become our default. Fortunately, as Diego explained, we have had the wit to introduce an element of incentive regulation into the BBM at least as it applies to electricity lines businesses.

We also went through the history of the regulatory pendulum: right out to the pro-regulation side through to at least the late Seventies (France was still nationalising banks as late as 1982 and New Zealand was in regulatory lockdown until 1984); right back to the pro-market side up to the GFC; and the more recent swing to reregulation.

One thing that occurred to me is that, while the zeitgeist is now pro-regulation, and we may not now get a chance to fix them, the high water mark of the deregulation decades still left many areas overregulated when the tide started to retreat again. This past weekend's social and mainstream media, for example, are full of the follies of Easter trading restrictions, and (as I've said before) in an era when government funds are tight and we apparently can't find the funds for needed infrastructure in Auckland and elsewhere, successive governments have elected to go on owning a bunch of dairy farms, a policy which has not the slightest shred of public policy rationale.

Finally, we had a bit of fun in the class with the Weighted Average Cost of Capital (not a sentence you ever thought you'd read). We played "guess the beta", beta (for those who aren't regulation tragics) being a parameter in WACC which attempts to capture whether a share is more volatile than the average share and which might therefore need to offer a higher return. Beta is defined as how much a share price goes up relative to changes in the share market as a whole: beta greater than one, it goes up (and down) more than the market, beta less than one, it doesn't do as well (or as badly) as the rest of the market.

So I showed them the betas for a few of the listed utility-style companies, based on the very useful financial data you can find at Yahoo! New Zealand's finance site. You have Chorus on 0.61, and the gentailers not far away: Meridian 0.71, Genesis 0.79. And I pointed out that the current beta in the default price/quality paths for the electricity lines businesses is 0.72. Same diff.

All good, and then I showed them some companies and asked them to guess their betas. The class generally made a good fist of the likes of Auckland Airport (1.17), Fletcher Building (1.26), and Sky City (1.41). The surprises, for them and for me when I was devising the mental exercise, were Port of Tauranga (an unusually low 0.48) and - for a company down the higher-tech end and, with its assembly line robotics, you'd imagine would be facing some leveraged exposure to world trade - Scott Technology's oddly low 0.67.

ComCom had a go a while back at pulling together the literature on what drives betas - it's here, on pp35-8 - but I can't help feeling that it's still a work in progress. You'd wonder if the betas are sometimes more driven by the fads of investors than by the inherent volatility of the firm's line of business. 'Value' stocks for example can have extended periods in the sun - right now, for example, surveys of fund managers show that steady-Eddie utility shares are all the rage, partly because of the current 'hunt for yield' - only to languish later when 'growth' stocks are the in thing. And we regularly see 'sectoral rotation', where you can't give tech shares away one day and can't get them for love or money the next.

So despite the WACC cost of capital equations that look cut and dried, there's still a greyness around appropriate rates of return. Even if it wasn't a good idea anyway for dynamic efficiency reasons, ComCom's practice of using things like the 67th percentile of an estimated WACC range is exactly the right thing to do as a guard against faux precision.

Speaking of rates of return, ComCom has just put out the latest couple of papers as part of its petrol market study, one on what they're minded to zero in on and another on measuring profitability. If you want to respond to either of these (and I'll likely rise to the bait on the profitability one) you've only got till May 7 to do it, so skates on. And if market studies in general are of interest, don't forget to sign up to their update mailing list at