The sale of Royal Mail was well handled

The National Audit Office, some of the media, and the Opposition (of course) are saying that the sale of Royal Mail was "too cautious" and lost "hundreds of millions of pounds" for the taxpayer.  This is nonsense, and its currency shows how little some people understand about privatization, or perhaps how much people have forgotten by not doing it.

It was the first major privatization in two decades, and the aim was not to raise the greatest possible sum for the government, but to turn a state-run corporation into a successful and flourishing private business.  This was always the aim of the privatizations of the 1980s and 1990s.  When the major state industries and utilities were brought to the stock market and put into private hands the aim was always to achieve a first-day premium so that investors would feel satisfied that it was a success, and feel confident about its future.

No-one knew what the "correct" price was for Royal Mail, any more than they did for BT, British Gas and the dozens of others.  Since they had not traded in the private sector, or had to attract private investment, no-one knew how they would be valued.  Government took expert advice knowing that it would be, at best, an estimate.  It covered itself by retaining a proportion of the shares so it could gain later from any increase in value.  In the case of Royal Mail it has retained 30% for later sale at a higher price.

The pricing was cautious, as it was in the earlier privatizations, because government wanted a successful launch into the private sector more than it wanted the highest possible price.  Privatization was always a political as well as an economic act.  Its major aim was to replace state ownership and direction of industry by commercial and (where possible) competitive private sector activity.  It did so because the private sector is exposed to improving disciplines absent from nationalized industries.

The threat at the time of a Royal Mail strike cast more uncertainty over the company's valuation, even though that threat was later withdrawn.  We now have a successful private company holding its own in a competitive market, a company that has become one of the UK's leaders, and one whose future prospects look good.  This was a successful sale, and those who carp about not gaining the maximum possible price simply do not understand what privatization is all about.  It isn't about selling off stuff for the top price; it's about building up companies that can thrive by providing goods and services in a dynamic competitive market.

Regulatory clampdown on regulators

New research today (1 April) reveals that errors made by regulators are persistent and predictable. Regulators misjudge key facts and are inconsistent, say behavioural economists, so greater supervision of regulators is needed. Fortunately the Regulatory Conduct Authority (RCA) is there to improve things.

Examples of regulators' mistakes includes over-simplifying the complex world of retail products, focusing only on prices and neglecting product innovation. They also over-discount the future, introducing regulations for immediate gratification. And they are overconfident in their ability to identify what customers actually want.

The RCA plans to identify and prioritise the problems caused by regulators and to 'name and shame' the least competent. It is also attempting to discover whether it is just some, or all, regulators who mess things up. The RCA will then 'nudge' regulators into upping their game. Former water regulator Sir Ian Byatt and former gas regulator Claire Spottiswoode have both supported the RCA initiative.

Download this paper.

As Ms. May is finding out overbearing law can be expensive

It's a fairly standard observation that most things and actions have both costs and benefits. Paying unemployment pay for a longer period alleviates poverty but also raises long term unemployment.  Dealing with climate change might make the future better but at the cost of making the present worse. In terms of laws about secrecy, privacy and so on we normally look at the costs as being the curtailment of civil liberty and the benefit as being greater security from the terrorists and the like. But as Theresa May has just found out the costs can also be economic:

Theresa May summoned the internet giant Yahoo for an urgent meeting on Thursday to raise security concerns after the company announced plans to move to Dublin where it is beyond the reach of Britain's surveillance laws. By making the Irish capital rather than London the centre of its European, Middle East and Africa operations, Yahoo cannot be forced to hand over information demanded by Scotland Yard and the intelligence agencies through "warrants" issued under Britain's controversial anti-terror laws. Yahoo has had longstanding concerns about securing the privacy of its hundreds of millions of users – anxieties that have been heightened in recent months by revelations from the whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Perhaps rather than Ms. May summoning Yahoo (and excuse me, but is that actually the correct word there? Does a British Minister really have the power to command the arrival of a private citizen in the Ministerial offices? Rather than politely request?) the rest of the government should be summoning Ms. May to ask why she's pushing legislation so repressive that firms are fleeing the country. Becausetheterrorists is a reasonable enough answer to why we have spies at all but keeping them corralled enough that people still wish to do business in our fair land seems a reasonable enough thought, doesn't it?

In which I have to explain something to George Monbiot. Again

Unfortunately it's sometimes necessary, with certain people, to explain things again and again so that they finally get it. So it is with George Monbiot and the upcoming US/EU trade treaty. Here he is whining again that there will be a clause insisting that governments must obey their own laws:

But this is not all that democracy must give so that corporations can take. The most dangerous aspect of the talks is the insistence on both sides on a mechanism called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). ISDS allows corporations to sue governments at offshore arbitration panels of corporate lawyers, bypassing domestic courts. Inserted into other trade treaties, it has been used by big business to strike down laws that impinge on its profits: the plain packaging of cigarettes; tougher financial rules; stronger standards on water pollution and public health; attempts to leave fossil fuels in the ground. At first, De Gucht told us there was nothing to see here. But in January the man who doesn't do give and take performed a handbrake turn and promised that there would be a three-month public consultation on ISDS, beginning in "early March". The transatlantic talks resumed on Monday. So far there's no sign of the consultation. And still there remains that howling absence: a credible explanation of why ISDS is necessary. As Kenneth Clarke, the British minister promoting the TTIP, admits: "It was designed to support businesses investing in countries where the rule of law is unpredictable, to say the least." So what is it doing in a US-EU treaty? A report commissioned by the UK government found that ISDS "is highly unlikely to encourage investment" and is "likely to provide the UK with few or no benefits". But it could allow corporations on both sides of the ocean to sue the living daylights out of governments that stand in their way.

That it's not going to do much of any importance in the UK is true. But this is because the UK Government generally obeys the laws that it itself has passed. And this is not true of all and every government in all and every country around the world: not even, sadly, true of each and every government of each and every country here inside the EU.

And this is indeed very much the point of this sort of arbitration. It is, quite simply, to make sure that a government keeps its word. That it does not, after someone has made an investment into the country being governed, change the rules so as to, say, confiscate some part of that investment. And the way we do that is by making sure that the court which decides whether the rules, the law, the agreement, has been broken is not under the control of the same government accused of breaking the rules, the law or whatever agreement there has been. And that's all it is about too.

Any government can still go off and, say, nationalise anything it wants, whoever owns it. That's a legitimate, if stupid, use of State power. But the insistence that it is someone outside the country that determines the price that must be paid to the original owners seems sensible. And for an example of what happens when this is not the case we only have to look back to, as I've mentioned before, the Greek bond haircut.

If you were an investor in Greek government bonds that were issued under Greek law then you get shafted. For the Greek government changed the law after the issue of the bonds on what was needed for the collective action clauses to be valid. That is, when the borrower is obviously bust (as Greece indeed was) then clearly there's going to be a restructuring of those bonds and or loans. The creditors are just going to have to take a haircut. However, there are usually clauses which detail the level of agreement that is necessary between creditors and the debtor before this can happen. The general rule is that 90% of the creditors have to agree to the level of the haircut. The Greek government unilaterally changed this to 75% and this made their cramming of a deep deep haircut onto the creditors easier.

If you had Greek government bonds issued under English law you didn't in fact get that haircut: they were repaid in full. Because the Greek government didn't have the power to get the English law changed in that manner. It's a good example of why you would like to have legal matters dealt with by people who aren't the government that you might end up having the argument with. And that is, again, why the whole idea of offshore arbitration exists. Simply to keep governments on the straight and narrow about obeying the law of their own land.

And to be honest, I can't actually think of a reason why this might be a bad idea. Shouldn't governments credibly commit to obeying their own law of the land?

Why we can’t plan the economy part DXVI

This is a lovely little tale from Paul Ormerod in City AM:

Igal Hendel and Yossi Spiegel document the evolution of productivity over a 12 year period in a steel mini-mill, producing an unchanged product, working 24/7. The steel melt shop is almost the Platonic ideal from a national accounts perspective of output measurement. The product – steel billets – is simple, homogenous, and internationally-traded. There was virtually no turnover in the labour force, very little new investment, and the mill worked every hour of the year. Yet despite production conditions which were almost unchanged, output doubled over the 12 year period. As the authors note, rather drily, “the findings suggest that capacity is not well defined, even in batch-oriented manufacturing”.

This is a product of the point that Hayek made, that all knowledge is local. This increase in production from the same assets and workforce came not because anyone outside the plant had anything at all to do with it. There was no governmental either mandate, nor advice on how to do it. There was no technological breakthrough, no scientist involved, no research. Simply people getting better at doing something simply by doing that thing. And note that production doubled in 12 years just from this factor.

This isn't something you can do by plan nor is it something that can be accomodated in a plan: for obviously it's not true of all processes all the time. Another blow struck against the idea that the centre can possibly detail how an economy should work.

Yes, we do indeed still need the centre, there are some things that can only be done there. But as I've remarked before we should be using central government only for those things that both must be done and can only be done by central government.