The risk tolerant benefit more from entrepreneurship training

Policymaking always utilises a broad brush with which to redraw the lives of individuals. However, though broad, with the right evidence this brush can be narrowed by taking account of the heterogeneity of human behaviour.

Just consider the many and varied schemes designed to support entrepreneurs. Putting aside the debate over whether or not this is the best use of tax revenues, nobody could deny that if we are to spend money on promoting entrepreneurs we should do so in most efficient way.

In “Entrepreneurship Training, Risk Aversion and Other Personality Traits: Evidence from a Random Experiment”, Robert W. Fairlie and William Holleran from the University of California draw on data from Growing America through Entrepreneurship (Project GATE), the largest randomised control experiment on providing entrepreneurship training ever conducted in the United States. Fairlie and Holleran find that:

[I]ndividuals who are more risk tolerant benefit more from entrepreneurship training than individuals who are less risk tolerant. The estimated interaction effects are large: averaging our estimates across the three waves implies that individuals who have a one standard deviation higher level of risk tolerance experience a 2.9 percentage point larger increase in business ownership and a 3.7 percentage point larger increase in the likelihood of starting a business from receiving the treatment than individuals with the lower level of risk tolerance.

This is a useful insight and suggests that we should consider identifying specific groups that may benefit more or less from government programmes to help people start a business. There can be no sure-fire way for spotting the next Zuckerberg, but we can increase the odds. Interestingly, Fairlie and Holleran also find “no evidence that individuals who are more innovative benefit more from entrepreneurship training than individuals who are less innovative.”

As the paper states: “some of the most disadvantaged groups such as at-risk youth and individuals with a criminal background have high levels of risk tolerance, and thus might benefit more for entrepreneurship training than more traditional job training programs.” There might be something in this: John Timpson has found ex-offenders fit in well with his unique entrepreneurial, bottom-up model for running his high street retailer.

As things stand in the UK, we have a remarkably limited understanding whether the schemes used to support entrepreneurship are doing any good. According to Gov.uk, business owners have 278 schemes to choose from. With proper analysis it might turn out that this is the correct number and they are being targeted at exactly the right group in the most efficient way. But I doubt it.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Don’t kill off the only industry that provides loans for low-earners

Wonga’s decision to write off £220m worth of debt for 330,000 customers and “voluntarily” embrace new regulations will been seen by many as a form of social justice and an obvious defeat for the big, bad, payday-lending wolf.

Unfortunately, the Financial Conduct Authority’s attempt to further regulate the payday lending sector may end up harming low-income earners in need of a loan.

But first, we must distinguish between the payday lending industry and Wonga as a specific organization within that industry. Payday lenders offer customers quick and easy access to short-term cash flow. Though anyone with any income size could apply to Wonga for a loan, it is mostly used by people with low-incomes, as such earners struggle to get bank loans and credit cards, and payday loans are often cheaper than using an unauthorized overdraft.

Of course, there are risks associated with payday lending, as “companies are loaning to high-risk demographics, with usually low-income averages and bad credit scores.”* In order to stay profitable and protect themselves from bankruptcy, payday lending companies must factor defaults into their interest rates.

These interest rates –especially Wonga’s interest rates – tend to be the target of myths constructed by opponents of payday lending, who are either accidentally or intentionally analyzing the data badly. Most notably, critics attack Wonga for charging its customers close to an astronomical 6,000% interest rate.

That figure, however, comes from a legal quirk in British financial regulations that requires every business to express their interest rates as an annual rate. Wonga’s payday loan interest payments are capped at sixty days, so there is no scenario where anyone could come close to paying Wonga nearly 6,000% APR, as the company is forced to express as it’s annual rate.

Some of the criticisms leveled specifically at Wonga do have merit – indeed, their fake legal letter scandal from this past summer – which threatened customers with legal action if loans weren’t repaid – left everyone feeling uncomfortable with the industry.

Such behavior from any company is unethical, to say the least, and should be met with repercussions. But the FCA’s decision to crackdown on all payday lenders as a result of Wonga’s actions will drive almost all payday lenders out of business and leave Wonga to dominate the industry.

From today it has introduced new lending criteria to improve its decisions. That means it will be lending to fewer people and it is unlikely to be the only firm forced to do that, as the FCA said today: “This should put the rest of the industry on notice.

This new lending criteria, coupled with previous regulation tightening – bans on payday advertising in public spaces – and future proposed regulations – like a mandatory cap on costs for all short-term loans – reduces the entire industry’s profitability and forces smaller companies, that would otherwise compete with Wonga, out of the market.

Furthermore, other indirect financial regulations continue to ensure Wonga’s dominance in the loan market. Credit unions could become competitive payday lenders and compete with companies like Wonga, but their interest cap of 3% a month prevents them from properly competing in the market.

Yes, Wonga is facing a 53% fall in annual profits partly as a result of new controls set by the FCA, but other payday lender companies, that don’t have the ethically questionable history of Wonga, are looking to be cut out of the market all together.

Critics of payday loans will be overjoyed to hear that the payday lending industry is on the rocks, but those who actually use its services and benefit from the loans should be worried. Banks and credit card companies have priced these customers out of accessing loans, and with with less payday lenders offering their services to people with low incomes, a lot of people will find themselves with no options, no loan, and no way to pay rent.

While payday lenders are by no means the perfect system to deliver loans to low-income customers, they are currently the only realistic way for such people to get their hands on necessary loans.

*This gal.

The visa and the sausage

The policy making process is a messy business. It is widely and fairly quoted that “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” Think tanks sit at the very start of the policy process – writing recipes for politicians to feed to the public (as well as writing recipes for the public to feed to politicians). However, polices can become adulterated as they are funnelled through the sausage machine of government.

Some policies are just bad ideas – such as the creeping reintroduction of incomes policies, which dramatically and unequivocally failed in the 1970s – but some good policies fail in their implementation. At least one is failing because nobody knows it exists: the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa for tech.

As Sam Shead explains at TechWorld:

As part of an effort to get more of the world’s best tech entrepreneurs and software engineers to come to the UK, prime minister David Cameron announced last December that the government was going to allow Tech City UK to endorse 200 of the 1000 slots. At the time, Cameron said more overseas talent was needed if the UK wanted to overcome the skills gap that exists in the tech sector.

The Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa should be a fast-track for tried and tested entrepreneurs to enter the UK, but even though Tech City UK has been free to endorse entrepreneurs since April, the policy is struggling to get off the ground.

The failure is largely the result of so few people knowing the visa route even exists. I’ve spoken with plenty of entrepreneurs, recruiters and lawyers – all of whom are needed to make this policy work in practice. Most haven’t heard of this visa route and none has the information required to understand the process. There is plenty of blame to go around but Tech City UK and UKTI probably deserve the brunt of it.

The failure of the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa tech demonstrates how government departments and quangos are falling short in their job of communicating policy to so-called stakeholders (for want of a better word). We can’t rely on MPs to spread the word. In a recent poll commissioned by The Entrepreneurs Network it was discovered that they are largely ignorant of current policies to support entrepreneurs.

Based upon the evidence (and my cosmopolitan biases), fiddling with the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa doesn’t go nearly far enough in liberalising the immigration system. But before this great battle of ideas is won – which will encompass cultural as well as economic clashes – every failing policy is a setback.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Privateers and the sinister threat posed by ‘patent trolls’

Many in Britain may not be familiar with the term ‘patent privateering’ – but that may all be about to change. British courts are apparently being targeted in a forum-shopping exercise by global monopolists, who are using this technique to reduce competition and innovation in the hi-tech sector.

This new menace to the workings of efficient markets is rapidly gripping the global hi-tech sector and it threatens to stifle innovation, raise prices and constrain choice for consumers not just in Britain but across the globe. The threat has been dubbed ‘patent privateering’ and its impact on effective competition is already alarming.

Patent privateering refers to the practice whereby corporations enter into private agreements with patent assertion entities (PAEs) – effectively separate companies with no assets or manufacturing capabilities. The process works along these lines: Company X and Company Y have agreements to license a specified number of patents from each other in order to create a product. What Company Y does not know is that Company X has a private agreement with Company Z (a privateer) to hold certain patents that are essential to the production of the product Company Y is creating. Once the product is in the market, the privateer, Company Z, threatens to sue Company Y. Since it may cost Company Y anything up to $2.5 million to defend itself, most companies opt to settle. So Company X benefits from a large share of the proceeds collected by the privateer Company Z. Such behaviour cramps competition and damages the end consumer – big time.

This cynical form of economic rent-seeking is becoming more and more widespread. PAEs or ‘patent trolls’ as they are sometimes styled are now estimated to add a staggering annual burden of $29 billion on the back of American consumers alone[i].

Incumbents with a market share to defend are tempted to set up patent trolls – it’s often impossible to trace their real owner – to raise competitors’ product prices and shackle innovation and choice in the marketplace. By employing patent trolls the incumbents avoid counter suits which would risk their own asset base as well as attract unwelcome publicity and potential reputational damage.

Media reports have begun to shine some light on these questionable practices. One of the most prominent is MOSAID, a controversial patent troll which collects royalties on 2,000 patents transferred by Microsoft and Nokia while another troll, Unwired Planet, is collecting royalties on 2,185 patents assigned by Swedish telecoms giant Ericsson. Another PAE, owned by a group including Goldman Sachs and Boston Consulting Group collects royalties for patents originally filed by our own British Telecom, which stands to collect half the proceeds from the patent.

These developments risk turning patents into a tool of litigation rather than innovation. Abuse of the patents principle runs counter to the original intent of patents, which was a set of exclusive rights granted by a government of a sovereign state to spur innovation and provide entrepreneurs with a reasonable return for their innovative research collected on a fair, reasonable and non discriminatory (what lawyers term FRAND) basis.

In the computer software industry over 100,000 patents are filed each year. Many of these are for innovations which are not particularly novel and are likely to be independently invented by a host of IT engineers. In practice, it is often impossible for a software firm to know that it is not infringing on an existing patent. In the US, where wilful infringement triggers treble damages if proved in court, software developers have a powerful incentive not to conduct a patent search.

Competition watchdogs need to cast a careful eye on these worrying developments. Already in the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has begun to collect information on patent trolls’ corporate structures, their portfolio of patents and the way in which they acquire them and enforce them. Congress is also considering legislation[ii] aimed at outlawing deceptive patent demand letters and granting the FTC civil penalty authority to tackle this rapidly emerging threat to consumer welfare.

In Europe, regulators have yet to really tackle the problem posed by patent privateers. Yet, as Robert Harris, a law professor at the University of Berkeley, California, points out, “Given the harm to competition that patent entity sponsored privateering, there are important roles for anti-trust authorities: blocking potentially anticompetitive patent transfers and bringing enforcement actions against anticompetitive conduct by patent entity sponsored PAEs”[iii].

Due to the lack of regulation of this anti-competitive practice, the courts in England, it seems, will be the first in Europe to evaluate and rule on patent privateers. Cases are expected to begin in the High Court from the end of 2014. U.S. courts have already suffered from bruising judicial battles that have proved a perfect case-study of how rent-seeking through the courts can harm the effective functioning of a dynamic market.

The hope is that we do not have to learn the lesson the hard way, as the Americans have done. It’s about time our troop of regulators woke up to the threat posed by the growing ranks of rent-seeking patent trolls.

[i]                  See ‘As Congress and Enforcers Contemplate Patent Trolls, Don’t Forget about Privateering’, by David   Balto (a former policy director at the FTC), Huffington Post, 4 December 2013.

[ii]                 The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing & Trade of the Committee on Energy & Commerce has been holding expert testimony hearings on a draft Bill with respect to deceptive patent demand letters (see FTC testimony, 22 May 2014).

[iii]                 PAEs & Privateers: Economic Harm to Competition & Innovation, Robert G Harris, Georgetown Law Annual Antitrust Symposium, Georgetown Law School, Washington DC, September 2013.

What would we consider a successful railway system?

Under many measures, the railways have performed remarkably since privatisation. It is not surprising that the British public would nevertheless like to renationalise them, given how ignorant we know they are, but it’s at least slightly surprising that large sections of the intelligentsia seem to agree.

Last year I wrote a very short piece on the issue, pointing out the basic facts: the UK has had two eras of private railways, both extremely successful, and a long period of extremely unsuccessful state control. Franchising probably isn’t the ideal way of running the rail system privately, but it seems like even a relatively bad private system outperforms the state.

GBR_rail_passenegers_by_year

Short history: approximately free market in rail until 1913, built mainly with private capital. Government control/direction during the war. Government decides the railways aren’t making enough profit in 1923 and reorganises them into bigger regional monopolies. These aren’t very successful (in a very difficult macro environment) so it nationalises them—along with everything else—in the late 1940s.

By the 1960s the government runs railways into the ground to the point it essentially needs to destroy or mothball half the network. Government re-privatises the railways in 1995—at this point passenger journeys have reached half the level they were at in 1913. Within 15 years they’ve made back the ground lost in the previous eighty.

But maybe it’s not privatisation that led to this growth. Let’s consider some alternative hypotheses:

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