Tackling Ossified Oligopolies, and other God’s work, on one side of the Irish Sea

Before Christmas, John Fingleton tweeted a link to a talk by John Kingman, outgoing second secretary of the Treasury.

In the speech [here] Kingman reviews what the Treasury had achieved to improve the performance of the British economy over the decades since Nigel Lawson’s 1984 Mais lecture, which argued for a switch to have microeconomic policy seek to promote growth (supply side) and macroeconomic policy control inflation (demand side), a reversal of the post-war policy. He estimates less than 10% of Treasury staffing was subsequently devoted to supply-side policy and the talk discuss the institutional challenges of internalising the new supply-side role.

He reckons the successes of supply-side policy were in
– fighting bad ideas (“God’s work”): not to prop up failing industries
– labour markets: improved ratio of job losses to output loss
– competition policy: the 2002 Competition Policy and the decisions to introduce criminal penalties for cartels, and to take Ministers mostly out of merger decisions (Ministers are mostly captured by sectors whose names appear in their departmental title)
– science, innovation and universities; he points out that the UK has far more top-ranked universities than all of the rest of Europe and the whole of Asia.

Where does he see remaining supply-side problems? In
– planning and housing, where the public has not been persuaded to modify land policy
– education and skills (other than elite universities) where spending is high but outcomes “mediocre”
– the “absurd cost” of infrastructure: he doesn’t use this example but the cost of an additional runway at Heathrow exceeds that at Dublin by a factor of one hundred! (€0.25bn versus €25bn.)
– (obviously) migration.

In discussing the failures, Kingman distinguishes areas where the solution is known but the public has not been convinced (planning, migration), and ones where the ways to ‘crack’ the problems are just not known (effective non-elite education, distinguishing between investments that will prove to be grand projets rather than plonkers).

A comparable review of policy successes and failures Ireland would make for valuable reading but, at a high level, some of the UK’s successes are patently not ours (elite universities, vigorous competition enforcement – tackling ossified oligopolies), while some of their failures may have been avoided here (migration) to date. How to fit the enclave MNC sector into an evaluation is not clear. Lots of supply, albeit exaggerated, but possibly disguising problems in the non-MNC economy.

PS Some similar themes (from a regulatory perspective) were discussed by John Fingleton in a talk last December to the IIEA here.

Reformed central bank regulators criticised for being, uh, ‘awake at the wheel’

Three people bid for a house, each using a mix of savings and borrowings; the highest bidder wins. Now suppose each had been prepared to spend more, and each bidder’s bank had extended an additional €100,000 of credit. Nothing changes in the aggregate – one house is bought and sold – except that the buyer has an additional €100,000 of debt (and the seller an additional €100,000 of cash.)

How is that a better overall outcome?

When supply is constrained, credit limits are needed (from a central bank, or internally to the banks themselves) to prevent lending driving up house prices and household debt as borrowers compete against one another for a fixed supply of accommodation. Under boom-time conditions, prices rise to levels Ireland saw ten years ago. Any sensible regulator would seek to put a stop to such a spiral, and should expect to receive the support of politicians, the media and a responsible industry.

But the Irish Central Bank’s mortgage lending controls seem to leave it standing almost alone, criticised by the building industry, the banks, politicians and journalists for being – what? – ‘awake at the wheel’? These controls protect buyers from over-paying. Yet the Central Bank is pictured as punishing the consumers it is protecting. (‘Only the rich can now afford housing’ says the newspaper headlines, but without credit limits only the over-indebted could.)

This is remarkable on many counts.

The Crash is not over, but already many seem to have tired of financial regulation. Denounced for failing to act in the boom, the Bank is now denounced for limiting wasteful bidding wars. Meanwhile, largely uncriticised and indeed not much commented on, local authorities construct elaborate and costly planning rules that increase housing costs. That’s without considering what Colm McCarthy calls (in today’s Sunday Indo) the ‘elephant in the room’: the planning and zoning restrictions that create an artificial housing shortage in the first place. Curiously, we criticise regulations that protect us and not the regulations that harm us.

The media present the lending rules as adjustable but house prices as fixed. The opposite should be the goal of policy. If today’s prices and lending limits require a level of savings impossible for most intending house-buyers to achieve, this means house prices are too high not that regulatory rules are too tough. Do we want everything else to be cheap but the most substantial purchase – housing – to be dear? Perhaps we do; Aidan Regan has recently argued on this blog broadly along these lines. When the number of house owners dwarfs the number of marginal buyers, the intergenerational political economy gets very ugly.

To tackle the housing shortage we should leave bank regulators to do their job, and deal with the policy obstacles that cause so few houses to be built. Don’t tackle one problem by creating a second. And don’t fuss over bank regulation to avoid looking at underlying planning, zoning, intergenerational and NIMBY problems.

A scarcity of accommodation is not solved by lending limits. But house prices are lower, mortgages smaller, banks safer, and taxpayers sleep more peacefully; admittedly miscellaneous middlemen may earn lower fees and journalists have to search elsewhere for a story.

Credit limits protect house buyers when there are more buyers than the kinds of houses they want to buy.

Aviation conferences and meetings in November

The 2015 meeting of the European Aviation Conference (EAC) will take place this year in Cranfield University on November 19th and 20th. Academics, business and industry figures will debate whether the momentum behind airline liberalisation over past decades is now spent, as some evidence suggests.

The conference programme may be inspected and a booking made on the conference website.

Preceding the EAC will be the 2nd COST Workshop on Air Transport, Regional Development, Airport Hubs & Connectivity, which will take place at the University of West London (17 November) and Cranfield University (18 November). The program for the Workshop is available on the German Aviation Research Society (GARS) website where, as always, aviation-research-related information is updated continuously; see www.garsonline.de

European Aviation Conference 2014, Amsterdam

The programme for the third European Aviation Conference, on the general theme of aviation infrastructure, is now available. One topic will be the forthcoming report of the Davies Commission, on expanding airport capacity in the South-East of the UK, though many other issues relating to airport and ATC infrastructure will also be covered. The conference takes place at Schiphol airport on 6th and 7th November. There is a substantial conference fee discount for students.

As usual the EAC is preceded by a more academic meeting of the German Aviation Research Society (GARS), which attracts aviation researches from across the globe; more information will be available at www.garsonline.de nearer the date.

Economics, new and improved

Many readers of Irish Economy are likely to be aware of a project to rethink the teaching of Economics, linked to the Institute for New Economic Thinking, and organised by a committee chaired by Professor Wendy Carlin of UCL. Some people associated with this blog, including Kevin O’Rourke, are also involved in this work.

A beta digital textbook (‘The Economy’) has very recently been put online and there is a useful explanatory video and a blog.

On my preliminary and (so far) partial reading of ‘The Economy’, it achieves its goal of being strikingly different to the standard first-year textbook. It places at the centre of the story familiar ideas that students and the public expect to feature in Economics and understand better through Economics, including capitalism, technology, living standards, the environment, institutions, and property rights before turning to the more abstract aspects of microeconomics. All the bells and whistles of digital publication are there too including hyperlinks to many of the readings. And of course it’s all freely available. The organisers are seeking user (student and faculty) feedback via a Facebook page and it seems there is supplementary material to follow in due course.

Disturbing Equilibrium

A tangled though remarkable story behind the proof in the mid-1950s of the existence of a competitive general equilibrium (Arrow-Debreu, as it is known) is summarised in a recent posting on economicprincipals and revised (rather drastically, it must be said) here (scroll down to ‘A correction’).

There are strong echoes of the controversy over the proper academic credit for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. In the Economics case, the problem was compounded by a very slow refereeing process while rivals worked on a related research paper.

Economic Principals is itself an interesting website reporting on topical issues as well as presenting non-technical interpretative overviews of controversies in economics, often disentangling the intellectual, institutional and personal issues. One example, amongst many, relating to the 2011 Sargent-Sims Nobel Prize, is here. The full archive is online.


Aviation policy ‘week’ this November

This year’s European Aviation Conference takes place at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland on 14 and 15 November. Programme, speakers, booking details and venue are at www.eac-conference.com.

Feedback after last year’s event indicated a greater preference for active debate, so almost the entire first day this year is devoted to a moderated discussion between ten invited advocates and critics of airport price regulation. And the 2013 Martin Kunz Memorial Lecture is to be given by the person credited with devising modern price cap regulation, Professor Stephen Littlechild.

HAC 2013 is preceded on Wednesday 13 November by a workshop of the German aviation research society (GARS); the call for papers is here: www.garsonline.de.

Unsated wonks can devote the entire week to aviation policy; IATA holds a two-day discussion on evaluating the economic effects of air transport on Monday and Tuesday 11-12 November in Geneva. Details on the GARS website given above.