Archive for the ‘Competition policy’ Category

Doublespeak of the day

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Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

According to the Irish Independent, Minister Noonan was worrying in public last night about the shortage of family homes in the Dublin area. But he also apparently said:

“We need to get property prices up another bit.”

To which the only possible response is: “why”?

If you are stuck in a malfunctioning currency union and can’t devalue, then don’t you want to get all costs down as much as possible, especially if they are going to feed into wage demands? Why interfere with the market in this particular case?

Italy eyes ‘Google Tax’ to help fix public finances

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Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Using standard provisions in tax codes internet companies face low or no corporation tax bills in the countries of their customers.  This issue has been repeatedly raised in the UK by Margaret Hodge, chair of the Westminster Public Accounts Committee.  In relation to Google in particular much of the focus has been on whether Google has a permanent establishment in the UK.

This issue is also agitating the chair of the Italian lower house Budget Committee, Francesco Boccia, who has drafted a bill to try and force companies like Google to engage with their customers in Italy through a party that has a permanent establishment in Italy.  See this report from Reuters.

The proposal would not tax the multinationals directly but would force them to use Italian companies to place their advertisements, rather than doing so through third parties based in low-tax countries like Luxembourg, Ireland or outside the European Union.

Doubts about the feasibility of such a proposal seem justified but it does show someone trying to take some action on this issue.

Grant me microeconomic efficiency, but not yet

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Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

It has always struck me that the first order consequence of making it easier for firms to fire people in the middle of a depression would be that…firms would fire more people. And it has never struck me that this would be desirable.

Now Gauti Eggertsson, Andrea Ferrero and Andrea Raffo have a new paper pointing out that at the zero lower bound, where monetary policy cannot offset the deflationary impact of structural reforms that would otherwise be desirable (lowering mark-ups in product and labour markets), such reforms can be contractionary (by generating expectations of deflation and raising real interest rates).

All of which seems obvious once you think about it, but it needed someone to point it out. And this is a problem for a continent whose leaders refuse to take the demand side of the economy seriously, and are hoping that “structural reforms” will obviate the need for them to rethink their macroeconomic strategy.

Another chance for Paul Krugman to cite St Agustin!

(H/T Eurointelligence, which also links to a report on how the Greek government is saying that there will be no more austerity next year, even under a third bailout. This crisis is not yet over.)



Fitch Report: Property Markets Remain Soft, Irish Borrowers on Strike

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Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Namawinelake has a link to the new Fitch report on global property markets, including Ireland which gets considerable attention in the report. The Irish picture is mixed with some positive signals (affordability ratios have become more normal) and other negative signals (continued bank distress limits future mortgage lending).

Fitch also highlights the unusual behaviour of Irish arrears, and connects this to the Irish policy framework.

Irish Borrowers on Strike: Despite economic stabilisation, Irish arrears continue to trend upwards. Fitch believes this to be partially driven by policy framework changes. Lenders are constrained from large-scale repossessions, dis-incentivising borrowers from paying their mortgages. In addition, borrowers in arrears are also likely to benefit from significant debt write-offs when personal insolvency legislation becomes effective.”

Energy could be so much cheaper

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Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Gas interconnection

The Celtic Tiger died five years ago. The economic crisis hurts. The end of the pain is not in sight. So you would think that the government would do everything it can to keep prices low. For energy prices, you would be wrong.

Natural gas is an important fuel for heating homes and cooking. It is also used to generate electricity. The gas used in Ireland comes via two pipelines. Bord Gais Eireann (BGE) owns and operates both interconnectors. BGE cannot abuse its market power because the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) regulates the price. Each year, total costs are divided by the volume of gas transported. BGE is allowed a modest profit.

This simple rule was fine when there was one source of gas only. That will change. Eventually, the gas from Corrib will be brought onshore. There are advanced plans to build an Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal in Kerry. With LNG, Ireland would no longer depend on the European market, where gas is dear. Gas is cheap in North America because of the abundant shale gas. As gas transport is expensive, it would be cheaper still to exploit the Irish shale reserves.

The costs of interconnection with Great Britain are largely fixed. If another source of gas captures a small part of the market, BGE will spread its costs over a smaller volume. That is, BGE would raise its price. The competition would thus capture a large share of market, and be able to raise its price at the same time. BGE would be forced to raise its price again.

The CER anticipated this and has changed the price regulation. The CER should be praised. It is not often that a government agency locks the door before the horse bolts. However, the new regulations are not good for consumers.

In the future, the right to transport gas over the interconnectors will be auctioned. There is overcapacity now and probably in the future, so the highest bid will not be very high. Therefore, there will be a reserve price. And if BGE still makes a loss, a levy will be imposed on all importers and producers of gas. This levy will be passed on to consumers.

This arrangement guarantees the profits of BGE. It drives up the price of gas and electricity. And because it hurts would-be importers and producers of natural gas, competition is hampered and prices go up again.

Indeed, the Shannon LNG project was stalled earlier this week, primarily because of the new price rules. The CER in effect shielded BGE from competition at the expense of anyone who buys gas or electricity.

BGE is largely state-owned, but a minority share is owned by employees, who will directly benefit from the new CER regulation. The exchequer could benefit too, but state-owned companies in Ireland have a poor track record of paying dividends. Instead, profits are diverted to vanity projects of managers and politicians.

It would therefore be better if BGE gradually writes down the capital invested in the gas interconnectors, and compete in the market on the basis of its variable costs only. Gas and electricity would be cheaper.

The new pricing rules are not yet set in stone. It will be a few years before households will pay more for their gas and electricity. People will complain bitterly to Pat Kenny and #gasprice will trend on Twitter. But then it will be too late to change the rules. The CER should reconsider now.

Atlantic oil

After a long absence, oil exploration companies returned to Irish waters. There is oil in the Atlantic. Now that experience is growing with the ultra-deep oil off Brazil and Angola, there is increasing confidence that the oil in the Irish Atlantic too may be commercially exploited – although the water is colder and choppier.

This is good news. Oil exploitation brings well-paid jobs and welcome royalties. It is early days though.

Some commentators and politicians have jumped to the conclusion that there is an immense richness under the Irish seabed that is being plundered by foreigners, and have called for punitive taxes.

Fact is, a few companies are exploring for oil. They are losing money at the moment, and it will be ten years or more before they would see a return on this investment, if any. There are plenty of other oil provinces that look just as promising as Ireland. Shell’s troubles in Mayo are well known in the international oil industry, and the story of Shannon LNG is making the rounds. Talk of high taxes, even nationalization, may well scare off the next round of would-be investors in Irish oil. The goose will be slaughtered before it has laid its first egg, perhaps golden.

Wind for England

England has a problem. Power plants are aging, and no one is willing to invest in new ones. The European Commission has imposed stringent targets for renewable electricity. The plan is now to build a great many wind turbines in the Irish midlands, and transmit the power to England.

The wind blows harder in Ireland than in England, but this does not justify the extra cost of long distance transmission. Rather, locals effectively use the English planning regulations to block new wind turbines.

Transmission will be over a dedicated grid. EirGrid would not have to invest even more than it already does, and English wind would not be eligible for the generous subsidies on Irish wind.

So what does Ireland get out of this? Some construction jobs, fewer maintenance jobs, and more wind turbines to look at. It seems that England struck the better bargain.

Wind power should pay royalties, just like oil and gas pay royalties. England would contribute money to the Irish exchequer if they still want to go ahead.

Royalties would make wind power more expensive in Ireland too, another reason to switch to cheaper gas for power generation.

Paul Hunt had excellent comments on an earlier version.

An edited version (part 2, 3) appeared in the Independent. Without byline online but on paper there is apparently a picture and a wrong email address.

UPDATE: John Mullins, CEO of BGE, disagrees.

Gas interconnection, decision made

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Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

I blogged earlier about the draft decision of the CER on the pricing rules for the gas interconnectors.

The decision is now final. I find the document hard to read, because it assumes that you are familiar with the draft decision, and it rambles between the actual decision, decisions that might have been, justification of the decision, and responses to comments to the draft decision. This is what I think was decided:

  1. The interconnector will be moved, legally, from offshore to onshore.
  2. Interconnector capacity will be auctioned.
  3. There is a reserve price for the auction.
  4. The reserve price is the long-run marginal cost.
  5. If the auction does not cover the costs of the pipe-formerly-known-as-the-interconnector, the difference will be split over ALL gas suppliers.

I am not sure whether there will really be an auction, or whether the reserve price will always hold.

The contentious point, however, is the long-run marginal cost. This implies that Bord Gais will have a guaranteed income on its assets.

Instead of forcing BGE to take a hit on what might turn out to be a bad investment in interconnection, the CER forces gas consumers to make up the difference.

This is wrong in principle. It is a transfer from gas users to the owners of BGE. And it distorts competition.

New issue/re-launch of journal Administration available

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Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

A new issue of the journal Administration is out today.

To mark the journal’s ‘re-launch’, this issue is available in full for free online here.

As many readers will know, Administration is published by the Institute of Public Administration, and has been a key locus for research-led debate on economic development, and of course on wider developments in the public sector and society, since 1953.

The current issue includes prefatory articles from the incoming editor Muiris MacCarthaigh, who `sets out his stall’, and from Tony McNamara, who has edited Administration since 1989. These will be of interest no doubt to a wide readership and to various contributor bases, (e.g., from academic, practitioner and civil society perspectives).

As the contents indicate, the focus of this issue is on public sector reform, with an opening piece by Brendan Howlin TD, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I guess that Ministers historically have been uneven in how or whether they contribute to debate at this level; perhaps this is a good cue to them, and to politicians more generally, to get their quills out.

Contents
Notes from the Editors:

  • “Renewing public administration research and practice” by Muiris MacCarthaigh
  • “A final word” by Tony McNamara

Articles:


  • “Reform of the public service” by Brendan Howlin, TD
  • “Progress and pitfalls in public service reform and performance management in Ireland” by Mary Lee Rhodes & Richard Boyle
  • “Regulating everything: From mega- to meta-regulation” by Colin Scott
  • “Trust and public administration” by Geert Bouckaert
  • “The reform of public administration in Northern Ireland: a squandered opportunity?” by Colin Knox

Reviews:

  • Third report of the Organisational Review Programme
  • The challenge of change: Putting patients before providers

www.ipa.ie/administration

Nama Scheme Increases Recorded Property Sales Prices by Approximately 7.5%

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Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

In announcing its 80/20 negative equity insurance scheme, Nama management could have, but did not, provide estimates of the implicit cost of the insurance component of the package product. The cost is hidden in the package sales prices, which Nama management describe as “fair value prices” for the property.  With a bit of work, it is possible to reverse-engineer the insurance-component cost from the scanty information provided by Nama. 
(more…)

Nama giving away “free” insurance, thereby distorting both its published accounts and Irish property market prices

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Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

I have written about this before, twice, but now some more details have emerged and the Nama scheme has gone live.  Nama has announced that it will providing “free” insurance against price falls for selected properties, in order to help sell its Irish residential property portfolio.

 
From the information provided, it seems Nama will hide the insurance premium in the recorded property sales price, thereby simultaneously distorting Nama’s published accounts, CSO property sales price statistics, and the soon-to-be-released property price sales registry.

Wonkish paragraph: Hiding the insurance premium in this way also has a knock-on effect on the “moneyness” of the embedded option.  Since the actual sales price includes a hidden insurance premium, and the eventual valuation of the property (used to determine the insurance pay-out) does not include any insurance premium, the insurance scheme is immediately “in the red” as soon as the property is sold. Nama has to hope for price increases, not just the absence of decreases, in order to claw back the embedded insurance premium which is hidden in the distorted sales price. This knock-on effect can be quite substantial.

ESRI Renewal Conference: Economic Adjustment

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Monday, April 16th, 2012

Venue: The ESRI, Whitaker Square, Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Dublin 2

Date: 18/04/2012
Time: 8.30 – 13.00

The fourth ESRI Renewal Conference will examine the best available domestic and international evidence relating to the need for rapid economic adjustment. Papers will address:

  • What explains the apparent inflexibility of wages in the Irish labour market?
  • How can competition and regulatory policies help in economic recovery?
  • What does evidence tell us about designing a property tax?

Papers will be followed by a response from an expert in the field and an open Q&A session.

Programme

8.30 Registration & Refreshments

9.00 Opening remarks: Frances Ruane, Director, ESRI

9.05 Explaining Changes in Earnings and Labour Costs During the Recession
Adele Bergin, Elish Kelly, Seamus McGuinness (ESRI)
9.35 Response: Kieran Mulvey, The Labour Relations Commission
9.45 Audience discussion

10.10 Troubled Times: What role for Competition and Regulatory Policy?
Paul Gorecki (ESRI).
10.40 Response: Cathal Guiomard, Commission for Aviation Regulation
10.50 Audience Discussion

11.15 Coffee

11.45 Property Tax in Ireland: Key Choices
Claire Keane, John Walsh, Tim Callan, Michael Savage (ESRI)
12.15 Response: Dr William McCluskey, University of Ulster
12.25 Audience Discussion

12.50 Close

Booking

To book a place at this conference, please register here

For further information please email renewal@esri.ie.

The Economic Renewal Conference Series is supported by FBD Trust

View map and how to find us.

If you would like to receive our monthly eNewsletter with news of ESRI activities and publications, please subscribe here.

 

Download Programme

Sale of State Assets

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Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has announced the Government’s plans for the sale of state assets. Interestingly, rather than sell a minority stake in the ESB the plan now is to sell non-strategic power generation capacity – in my view a more sensible approach.  

Gas interconnection

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Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

In December, I blogged about the peculiar pricing rules for the gas interconnector with Scotland. (The current rules would grant substantial market power to importers of LNG.

The CER has been aware of this for a while, and has now published a draft decision. The proposal boils down to the following elements:

  1. The interconnector will be moved, legally, from offshore to onshore. It remains to be seen that this would satisfy the European Commission, which is not happy either about the current regime.
  2. Interconnector capacity will be auctioned.
  3. There is a reserve price for the auction.
  4. The reserve price is the long-run marginal cost.
  5. If the auction do not cover the costs of the pipe-formerly-known-as-the-interconnector, the difference will be split over ALL gas suppliers.

Shannon LNG is understandably cross. They publicly fume about point 5, which will impose a cost on them that rises as they are more successful, but privately they must have hoped that the rules would not change. While I have argued that the rules should change, the current proposal can easily be spun as the regulator protecting a state-owned company from a private competitor.

Point 4 is worrying too. In the decision document, the CER goes back and forth between OPEX for the reserve price and OPEX+CAPEX. In the end, they opt for OPEX+CAPEX. Essentially, they propose to perpetually reward Bord Gais for what increasingly looks like a bad investment decision in the past.

Nothing has been set in stone yet. Let us hope that the CER will reconsider.

Ireland in the European Court again, now over gas

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Monday, January 30th, 2012

In December, I blogged about the gas interconnector, the Shannon LNG terminal, and the need for regulatory reform in the wholesale gas market.

Last week, the European Commission chipped in. It is taking Ireland to court over the lack of competition in the market for gas between Scotland and Northern Ireland, and between Ireland north and south. Intriguingly, the UK is sued as well, although most of this is Irish rules on UK soil.

John Fingleton gave a great presentation at last week’s conference on the Irish economy. Among other things, he argued that competition policy in Ireland exists by virtue of the European Union.

(h/t Paul Hunt)

Fire sale prices versus stagnation prices

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Sunday, January 29th, 2012

The concept of “fire sale prices” is a useful one in many contexts – some examples are the October 19th 1987 US stock market crash, the LTCM crisis of 1998, and the 2007-8 US credit-liquidity crisis. In all three of these cases, security prices crashed in a particular sub-market, policymakers stepped in providing extraordinary credit-liquidity support, and eventually (quickly in the first two cases, slowly in the last) the capital market situation normalized. Unfortunately, “fire sale prices” is a useless or even harmful analytical tool for understanding the current Irish financial predicament. A better term for current conditions in Irish asset markets is stagnation prices rather than fire sale prices. Policymakers should look to Japan circa 1991 and the following two decades, rather than the USA, for a useful historical precedent. The fire sale concept gives the wrong policy guidance in the Irish situation; it is metaphorically like trying to use a fire hose to drain a swamp.


Andrei Shleifer and Robert Vishny have a series of papers exploring the use of the fire sale concept in modelling financial markets. There has been a large outpouring of papers by other authors with similar or related models, but the Shleifer and Vishny model is clear and simple and their survey is particularly good. They provide a definition:

“A fire sale is essentially a forced sale of an asset at a dislocated price…. Assets sold in fire sales can trade at prices far below value in best use, causing severe losses to sellers.”

They discuss how fire sales can cause financial and macroeconomic instability via credit and liquidity channels. In a related paper they laud US policymakers for their prompt and correct response in 2007-9 in injecting massive credit and liquidity into the markets for mortgage-related and credit-related securities caught up in the fire sale environment of 2007-9.

Fire sale mitigation policies are unusual as economic policies in that, as a rule, they should result in a net profit for the policymaker. This follows from the theory of the limits to arbitrage. This certainly seems to apply in the US case – the Federal Reserve made a trading profit of $79.3 billion in 2010 and $76.9 billion in 2011. The Fed vastly outperformed the best-performing hedge fund both years, at U.S. civil service pay rates, and without actually trying to make a profit. TARP was also profitable or near profitable, after an adjustment for the expensive but necessary bail-out of the US automobile industry. This is the nature of fire sale mitigation policies – they are about buying securities slightly below fair value and holding them temporarily on government account while injecting liquidity and credit.

The bad news is that this has near-zero relevance for Ireland. Irish asset markets are not suffering from a fire sale problem but rather from a long-horizon stagnation problem. The appropriate comparison case is not from the USA but rather Japan circa 1990. Japanese policymakers and financial institutions worked endlessly to slow the pace of adjustment, leading to an almost twenty year period of stagnation, suppressing growth and business innovation, and leaving a massive overhang of government debt. Irish asset markets need to be forced to adjust quickly and reach their new (much lower) equilibrium values with un-frozen free trading and clear, public pricing. This applies to banks, collateralized pools of debt, commercial leases, and commercial and residential property. Preventing this from happening is not preventing a “fire sale” rather it is guaranteeing a long stagnation. It could even last twenty years, as in Japan.

Another question – what is it about the US environment that gives rise to fire-sale-induced financial crises of typically short duration? Part of the answer lies in the USA lead in financial innovation. New financial innovations were key to all three fire-sale market crashes mentioned in the first paragraph of this post (portfolio insurance, statistical arbitrage, and numerous CDO innovations, respectively). High-frequency trading (the most recent big innovation) will be the likely cause of the next fire-sale-related crash, if one comes in the USA.* Ireland seems to avoid these fire-sale crashes, but is plagued instead by long-lasting periods of stagnation. Let us hope the current one is not dragged out for a decade.

………………………………………………………………………

*A post-script on HFT and the Tobin tax. After my last blogpost, Frank Barry asked me to give more details about Tobin’s use of the term “sand in the wheels” and its application in old-fashioned engineering. I do not know that much about the engineering use of sand in the wheels – I only heard Tobin discussing it in an interview. I now know that historically the sand in the wheels technique was used in the case of a metal (steel or iron) wheel aligned on a track and needing better grip, such as an old-fashioned railway wheel on a wet track. It is used for wheel-type mechanisms and not for gears with teeth. See Wikipedia for some details for those with an interest. I remember Tobin saying he was annoyed that many commentators mistook him as suggesting sabotage, and I remembered that key idea correctly. Sand in the wheels is a technique to improve, not hinder, performance.

Commercial sensitivity

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Thursday, January 19th, 2012

In the comments on my piece on Irish Water, Paul Hunt reports back from his attempt to get the costings for water metering etc from the PWC report. This request was refused as it would be “commercially sensitive”.

To cite Paul, this is balderdash.

Irish Water will be 100% state-owned. Citizens of Ireland (of two of which I am the legal guardian) have the right to know what is going on in a company they (will) own.

Ireland is an unwilling party to the Aarhus Convention, which grants access to data except “where such confidentiality [of commercial and industrial information] is protected by law in order to protect a legitimate economic interest”. As Irish Water will be a monopoly, I do not think there is a “legitimate” economic interest in hiding data.

Unfortunately, state-owned companies have made a habit of hiding behind “commercial sensitivity” when there is none.

Ireland’s Policy Stance on a Tobin Tax

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Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

The most recent Final Conference to Save the Euro ended in disarray when the UK refused to sign up to a proposed set of EU treaty changes. The UK’s veto was due to the inclusion of an EU-wide Tobin Tax on security transactions in the set of proposals. The justification for an international Tobin Tax is quite strong. Hypercompetitive securities markets with excessively-large trading volumes and hyper-fast price changes are a serious danger to global financial stability. A Tobin Tax would eliminate these dangerous trading excesses without impinging much on underlying market efficiency. On other hand, the UK government’s refusal to sign up to an EU-only Tobin Tax, imposed on the City of London while the US and Asian global financial centres remain outside the tax net, was an obvious and sensible policy decision for the UK.

After the proposed EU treaty changes were restricted to a coalition of the willing, the Irish government fretted that a Tobin Tax might particularly disadvantage the Irish financial services industry, given that the UK will be outside the tax net.

What should be Ireland’s policy stance toward an international Tobin Tax? Should Ireland do the right thing as a global citizen by supporting such a tax within the Eurozone, or should it protect its international financial services industry from UK (and non-EU) predation and therefore veto any such tax proposal? It would be much better for all concerned if the Tobin Tax could be imposed at a global rather than EU level.

Sometime in the future, May 6th 2010 might rank with August 9th 2007 as a “warning date” for a subsequent financial market disaster. Recall that starting on August 9th 2007, quant-trading hedge funds experienced an extremely turbulent, credit-market-related meltdown. Although the quant-trading markets calmed down after about two weeks, many analysts now recognize this as an early warning signal of the subsequent global credit crisis. In an interesting parallel, on May 6th 2010, high-frequency trading systems generated a “flash crash” of US equity markets, causing a 9% fall and 9% rise of the US stock market within a 20 minute period. Some individual stock prices went bananas; completed trades at crazy prices during this short “flash crash” period were annulled that evening by the NYSE board. Since the markets righted themselves within a day or two, many analysts have forgotten about this incident. But could this “flash crash” be an early warning sign of a subsequent “permo-crash”? High frequency trading (HFT), using entirely computerized systems to trade at hyper-second frequency, now constitutes 70% of US equity and equity-related (equity baskets, futures, options) trading volume, and 30% in the UK. If HFT generates a flash-crash at the end of the trading day, rather than mid-day as on May 6th, and something else goes wrong at the same time, it could lead to an enormous disaster.

Tobin originally proposed his tax for the foreign exchange market, which was the first financial market to have hyper-competitive trading costs. He saw that most of the trading volume in forex markets provided very little economic value. A small tax would have a big influence on trading volume, rendering purely speculative and potentially destabilizing trading strategies unprofitable, while having little or no impact on the real economic value of these markets. Tobin called it “throwing sand in the wheels” of securities market trading. Nowadays, Tobin’s “sand in the wheels” metaphor is widely misunderstood. Tobin was a World War Two naval officer and throwing sand in the wheels was an accepted way to improve machine performance in his day. For mid-twentieth century machinery a little sand in the wheels would slow down the mechanism (think of something like a navy ship’s water pumps) and make for more reliable performance with less chance of overheating. With modern precision engineering the notion of “sand in the wheels” as a repair method seems ridiculous, so commentators assume Tobin is advocating sabotage of securities markets. That was not what he meant – “sand in the wheels” is an old-fashioned procedure to slow down machinery so that performance improves, not a means of sabotage. Oddly, the tax is designed to generate minimum revenue – it relies on the elasticity of trading volume to net costs, and tries to drive out destabilizing short-term trading strategies while collecting minimal tax revenue.

Now, after decades of hard-fought liberalization, US and UK equity markets have the same hyper-competitive trading costs as forex markets. HFT has hijacked this and feeds off this market cost improvement (and by earning net profits from “normal” market traders) with trading systems that add little real efficiency improvement for markets. Eliminating their net profits with a small tax would do little harm, and make markets safer. The very bright computer scientists who run these HFT firms could go back to socially useful activities like designing better software.

There is another interesting parallel to the global credit crisis. US housing regulators worked for thirty years to increase access to owner-occupied housing for lower and middle income households and this was a big success. Then, they took that policy too far, and the policy was hijacked by self-interested actors in the US property lending and securities trading sectors. There was too much of a good thing in terms of the too-low-credit-quality US residential property lending market. The same applies now with securities market trading costs and trading access. Regulators have succeeded in driving out bad securities trading practices and greatly lowering trading costs, but this process has gone too far. It has been hijacked by HFT. I call this the Too Much of a Good Thing (TMGT) theory of regulatory capture.

During the credit bubble, Ireland enthusiastically joined the dumb-down contest to impose the minimal possible regulation on the financial services sector. Perhaps now Irish policy leaders could make amends by joining the push for a Tobin Tax.

How would a Tobin tax impact the competitive draw of Dublin for its brand of “off shore” financial services? Perhaps it would be the death knell for the Irish stock exchange since all trading volume might migrate to London. Ireland policymakers should encourage a global solution, bringing the US and UK in particular into the plan. Asian markets (which are not yet competitive for HFT) might be willing to cooperate as well, since there is no great cost for them.

Gormanston, Tarbert and regulation

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Thursday, December 8th, 2011

The Examiner has a story on the proposed LNG terminal at Tarbert in the Shannon estuary. This is a privately funded project and a welcome stimulus for North Kerry. As long as the developers play within the rules, public policy analysts should have no opinion on such matters. But as the gas market is so heavily regulated, private actors affect the public good. The LNG terminal would, for instance, improve the security of supply, which is very valuable.

Minister Rabbitte argues that Shannon LNG would increase the price of gas. This is absurd at first sight. Increased competition should reduce the price. The minister is right, though. To see why, we need to consider the gas interconnector from Scotland that lands in Gormanston in Co Meath, or rather the way in which its price is regulated: The annual cost of the pipe is distributed over the gas it carries.

The interconnector is a competitor’s wet dream. If you capture a small part of the gas market, the interconnector will increase its price — because its annual cost is distributed over a smaller volume. You can then increase your price to just below that of the interconnector and gain yet more market share. And the interconnector will raise its price again.

The solution surely is to change the regulation of the interconnector rather than to block the LNG terminal. The current regulation, which may date back to the days of Minister Woods or Fahey, is a neat example of something that makes sense in the short run only.

Note the separation of powers. Minister Rabbitte is the executive branch of government and an influential part of the legislative, he appoints and controls the budget of the regulator, and he is the trustee for the shareholders (us) of the dominant company in the market.

Regulating the Legal Profession Conference

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Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

As has already been noted the Government is in the process of implementing a commitment in the EU/IMF aid package to re-regulate aspects of the legal profession in Ireland with a view to enhancing competitiveness in the sector. The Legal Services Regulation Bill has been controversial in some of its aspects and UCD School of Law is hosting a conference, drawing in a variety of overseas and local experts, with a view to locating debates within a wider international context.The keynote speaker will be Lynn Mather, Professor of Law & Political Science, Buffalo University. Other speakers include Isolde Goggin, Chair of the Competition Authority, Julian Webb, Professor of Legal Education, University of Warwick and Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. A full programme and online booking facilities are available at http://www.ucd.ie/reggov/.

Towards a private ESB

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Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

The government has announced that it will sell a minority share of the ESB. This is welcome news. Privatization of non-core activities is a matter of principle. The ESB has paid poor dividends. It has frequently been used to bankroll projects of dubious commercial (yet clear electoral) value. Selling a minority share is a low risk strategy for price discovery and much better than a fire sale.

So far so good. However, the government also announced that it would keep the ESB “as an integrated utility”. The ESB is a conglomerate. It generates power, it owns the transmission network, it sells electricity, and it provides consultancy services.

The network is a natural monopoly, and should probably not be sold. The rest of the ESB can be safely left to the market (if properly regulated).

As an integrated utility with a natural monopoly, The ESB enjoys considerably market power. The nominally independent transmission system operator, EirGrid, gets electrons from ESB, transmits them over lines owned by the ESB, and delivers them to the ESB (who then retails them). The ESB’s dominant position is the main reason why few companies have entered the Irish electricity market.

Today’s announcement suggests that the government plans to continue the current situation. It would make more sense to sell the network to EirGrid. The price of such a sale matters because the ESB is part-owned by an ESOP; and because the ESB is using the network as collateral for cheap loans.

The future ESB will therefore face three demands, compared to two now. The workers will want well-paid jobs, as they had in the past. The political masters will want their pet projects, as they had in the past. And the private owners will want dividends. The consumer will have to pay for all of this.

Waste collection

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Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

The Dept Environment is now moving to change the regulation of waste collection from “competition in the market” to “competition for the market”. The reason is simple: Economies of density. In my street, we have three bins (black, green, brown) and four companies collecting bins. Every fourth Monday, no less than 12 waste trucks drive up our road, to the delight of the children and the annoyance of drivers. Three trucks (one company) could do the same work for a little more than a quarter of the cost. Even after allowing for monopoly mark-ups, there would be cost savings for households. Market power would be limited if tendering is competitive and concessions are short (waste trucks are mobile).

A perfectly sensible move by the Department so.

In today’s Irish Times, this is spun (and again) as a way to promote incineration. This is nonsense. At the surface, “competition for the market” was a recommendation in the International Review commissioned by the previous minister, and in the Gorecki report of the ESRI.

The markets for waste collection and waste disposal are largely separated; economies of vertical integration are small. Nonetheless, Irish waste collectors have vertically integrated with waste disposal. The competition in waste collection is such that hardly any money is made. The market for waste disposal would be lucrative with the EU cap on landfill and without additional incineration, but the Poolbeg incinerator would undercut the price of any other disposal technology except landfill. If waste collection would be run as a profit center, waste would be sent for incineration.

Competition for the market will allow waste collectors to make money in their core business again.

Where competition fails…and where it works, A guest post by Paul Hunt

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Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

‘Competition and consumer choice’ has become a policy mantra to shake up dozy and inefficient industries and to benefit consumers.  EU and national policy-makers and regulators have expended huge effort – and continue to expend effort – to complete the internal EU markets in electricity and gas in line with this mantra.  But all that has been achieved is to move from vertically integrated national monopolists in the individual member-states to a pan-European oligopoly comprised of 12 members (responsible for 85% of EU energy supply) and some residual dominant national incumbents.  (Successive Irish government, not surprisingly, have implemented their own cunning variation on a theme.)

So how did this happen – and what can be done?  The Troika is demanding some action on electricity and gas in Ireland.  The solution outlined has relevance to sectors that, at first sight, appear unlikely candidates. (more…)

The Role of Competition in Ireland’s Economic Recovery

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Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

A number of the papers/presentations from last week’s Competition Authority conference are now available: see here

Last night’s The Frontline programme had an interesting discussion on competition in the market for GPs, among other topics related to the functioning of the health care system: see here

Coming soon . . . a guest post by regular IE contributor Paul Hunt on the failures of the “competition model” in key utility industries.

Martin Walsh on Residential House Prices

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Monday, April 25th, 2011

This article by Martin Walsh in the Irish Times has some convincing analysis (unfortunately the graphics are not shown in the on-line version), and some thought-provoking comments on the Irish government policy conundrum regarding residential house prices.  As Martin Walsh notes, to minimize expected future (state-owned) bank losses and Nama losses, policymakers must hope that prices have now fallen to their steady-state equilibrium level.  But for the purposes of restoring competitiveness, continued house price decreases would be better. 

“… it seems that there is a real dilemma at the heart of national policy. Do we prioritise competitiveness by bringing house prices back into line with incomes or keep them inflated in the hope of reducing further losses to the banks and Nama (National Asset Management Agency), as well as containing the extent of negative equity?”

Most importantly, by most long-term metrics, current house prices in Ireland still seem to be above sustainable levels.  

What actions (if any) should Irish policymakers pursue regarding stabilizing the residential housing market, and to what ends?    

Review Group on State Assets and Liabilities

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Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

The report of the Review Group on State Assets and Liabilities has been published here. While some of the key recommendations had been signalled over recent days in the media there is a lot of detail in the report. Apart from the recommendations on asset disposal there are lots of recommendations on the regulation and governance of state bodies. 

IMF deal can change Irish legal system for the better

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Monday, December 13th, 2010

An article by Eoin O’Dell, Trinity School of Law explains how. You can read it here.

Mortgage Arrears: September 2010

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Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

The latest quarterly report on mortgage arrears from the Central Bank is available here. The report shows a continuation of the steady increase in the fraction of mortgages that are more than 90 days in arrears. This fraction rose from 4.6% in June to 5.1% in September, in line with the previous increases over the past year.

Privatisation in energy

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Monday, November 15th, 2010

Minister Ryan has come out against the privatisation of state-owned energy companies, for three reasons.

First, the minister states that these companies are investing, and implies that these investments would disappear if the companies would be privatised. That suggests that part of the current investment plans make no commercial sense. It would therefore be good to scrap those investments.

Second, the minister states that the companies paid a 320 mln euro dividend in 2009. The return on capital of ESB and BGE is a respectable 9.4%, but the return to the owner is only 4.3%. Ten year bonds are at 8.1% now, so a sale would be profitable to the Irish taxpayer.

Third, the minister states that splitting the companies would increase their cost of capital. A split is necessary because the network infrastructure is a natural monopoly that should remain in state ownership. Essentially, the minister claims that ESB and BGE use capital cross-subsidies between their activities. The value of the parts is therefore greater than the value of the total.

In sum, the minister has given three excellent reasons why the state-owned energy companies should be privatised.

Paul Hunt’ submission to An Bord Strip

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Friday, October 8th, 2010

is here

Paul unsurprisingly focuses on regulation and energy. The piece starts with some common misconceptions about energy prices before arguing the case of vertical disintegration and privatisation.

Submission to An Bord Strip

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Friday, October 1st, 2010

We made a submission to the Review Group on State Assets and Liabilities.

We argue for privatisation of everything that is not a natural monopoly, but not without proper regulation first. We also say that the government should stop giving away intangible assets. We cast the net a bit wider than the interim mandate of An Bord Strip.

Electric vehicles

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Thursday, September 9th, 2010

CT&T, a specialist manufacture of all-electric vehicles with big ambitions, has decided to put its European headquarters in … Amsterdam.

Apparently, they plan to build 20,000 vehicles next year and 60,000 in 2013. Wikipedia has nice pictures. Would you pay €15,000 for that?