Economic Nonsense: 24. Strong laws are needed to curb the activity of speculators

The villains of the piece change as the economy changes. At one time it was money-lenders, then corn merchants. In modern times speculators are up there with bankers in popular dislike. Speculators are commonly perceived as people who add nothing to a product, and often as people who profit from the hardships endured by others. They are seen to buy cheap in the hope that the price will rise, then sell at a profit without having added to or improved whatever it was they speculated on.

In fact speculators often provide a useful service. They can take the burden of risk that others might find difficult to deal with. The speculator who buys a farmer’s crop in advance gives the farmer the certainty of a price. Farming is an unpredictable activity, and the market price when the crop I harvested might be higher or lower than that agreed price. The speculator hopes it will be higher and takes the chance, but the farmer prefers the certainty of a known price that enables him to plan his affairs.

When speculators buy or sell commodities hoping to profit from price changes, they dampen some of the fluctuations. If they bet on a future shortage, they will buy now in the hope of selling for a higher price. If enough of them do it, the effect of buying now is to raise the price now, signaling to users to curtail their use, and to producers to bring out more supply. The same happens in reverse if they bet on a future glut by selling.

Businesses that sell to other countries face the uncertainty of not knowing what their goods might fetch in foreign currencies at the time of their delivery. They can smooth this by buying or selling currencies in advance from speculators prepared to take a punt on future changes in exchange rates.

The invisible service that speculation adds to goods is risk management. It is a valuable service, but because people cannot see it, they see it as money for nothing. Always there will be populist politicians prepared to trade on their resentment and propose tough laws to curb an essential service that helps markets to work more efficiently.

Who rules Britain: how much of our law comes from Brussels?

Business for Britain was right, on 2nd March, to question the proportion of our laws that comes from Brussels. Nigel Farage says it is 78%, Nick Clegg 7% and the House of Commons Library 13.2% but that is also an understatement due to the Library’s omission of no less than 49,699 EU Regulations, during the same 21 years to 2014. EU Regulations are not approved by Parliament and thereby escape the Library’s attention. From that, Business for Britain concluded that 65.7% of our legislation comes from Brussels.

The figures, in fact, get murkier because the Library also seems to have omitted up to 2,000 statutory instruments a year, which would offset most of the swing. SIs are the UK equivalents of EU regulations: both are secondary or “delegated” legislation and cover a broad range of rules from laws in the full sense to temporary road closures. SIs can even be used to repeal primary legislation.

The proportion from Brussels is really beside the point, namely the total number of rules both from Brussels and Whitehall. Governments claim they will staunch the flow but little is done. Surely by now we must have enough laws?

Curiously, so far as business regulation is concerned, Whitehall is the bigger offender. In 1972 we signed up to a Common Market. That is the one bit of the EU we all like and let us hope that, and not much else, survives the EU renegotiation. A single market must have a single set of rules governing that market. You cannot have a single market if everyone makes their own. The market-maker is the EU and it is no more a loss of sovereignty to conform to their rules than, say, playing by the club’s rules when one joins a poker club. Sovereignty is being able to opt out.

Business, like poker, is competitive so it is crazy to add ones own rules, hobbling one’s own business, to those required by the club. Telling the others at the table that you will never raise on, say, two pairs, stacks the odds against you. For this reason, counter-intuitively, it would be best if 100% of business regulation came from Brussels.

If a regulation is needed in the UK then we should ensure Brussels adopts it for the rest of the single market. If the others think it is unnecessary, we should think again. Rather than dreaming up its own business regulations, Whitehall should be staunching the 4,000 a year flow from Brussels and ensure that what does get through will deliver the open, fair and competitive single market we need.

Not only can we ditch all UK business regulations not required by the EU, but, with all that new free time at their disposal, our civil servants can be out and about in the capitals of Europe developing best practice, closer working relationships and, in consequence the simplest and best set of rules. In this game, fewer is better as anyone who witnessed the FSA contribution to the banking crisis can testify. Indeed, they will not need desk space in Whitehall, probably the most expensive in Europe, any longer.

There is little truth in widespread view that we must accept EU legislation without demur, beyond fine tuning directive-based legislation a bit. The European Scrutiny Committee of MPs “assesses the legal/political importance of EU documents, deciding which are debated, monitoring the activities of UK Ministers in the Council and keeping developments in the EU under review.” In other words, it is supposed to be briefed with EU Regulations in draft and seek to amend those not in the UK interest. How often does it do that? Hardly ever is probably a generous estimate. When that doughty EU fighter, Sir William Cash, became chairman, some of us hoped for action, but no, he was overcome by the same torpor as overwhelmed his predecessors.

In short, Business for Britain are right to complaint about the excess of regulation from Brussels but we should complain even louder about the excess from Whitehall and Parliament’s spineless defence of British business.

Enemy of the steak: what’s wrong with government diet guidelines

As an amateur chef I have become increasingly interested in the government’s guidelines and regulations around food. For something so central to our lives, the advice and rules the government makes to do with what we eat are usually overlooked. Two developments this week suggest that this is a mistake.

I have previously argued that government regulation is often bad because, if it turns out to be bad regulation, it imposes a single error across an entire group of people or firms. That view may explain the financial crisis, where banks were required to hold lots of mortgage debt by regulators who thought they were forcing banks to be sensible.

Now, it looks as if it might also apply to diet guidelines. This week a new paper has been published that argues quite convincingly that, not only does modern evidence show that government guidelines to reduce dietary fat intake were a bad idea, they were even against the bulk of the evidence available at the time.

Today, it’s being reported that the US will stop advising people to avoid dietary cholesterol, because of a change in nutritionists’ view of how our diet affects our bodily cholesterol levels.

The Verge says that ‘The DGAC is more concerned about the chronic under-consumption of good nutrients, noting that Vitamin D, Vitamin E, potassium, calcium, and fiber are under-consumed across the entire US population.’ Interestingly, high-cholesterol foods like eggs, offal and seafood are very high in some of those vitamins.

It’s tempting to suggest a connection there – that vitamin deficiencies may be a direct cause of misguided government diet advice. And this may be the case. But, having looked around and spoken to the British Nutrition Foundation, I can’t find any work by either the government or independent academics on how much impact these guidelines have on what we eat, let alone on our health. (The exception is the five-a-day campaign, which has been fairly successful.)

If it turns out that diet guidelines have been wrong on things like fat and cholesterol, and maybe things like salt as well, what are the costs? I see there being two potential downsides to bad advice. The first is that the advice is actually dead wrong and drives people to eat in ways that ends up being worse for their health. Perhaps this is true of the cholesterol advice.

The second, which is more ambiguous, is the welfare cost. We eat not just for sustenance but because it gives us pleasure – a steak done well is much better for me than a well-done steak, because, even though the nutritional content is basically the same, it makes me happier. If government guidelines have been mistakenly putting people off eating foods they enjoy then they have been costly in welfare terms even if the health impact is not significant.

Of course people may need to get advice from somewhere, and I don’t see any reason to believe that government advice is worse than, say, the stuff you get in the Femail section of the Mail Online website. But if government diet regulations are still likely to be mistaken, and they influence people much more than any single bit of diet advice from an independent source, then they may end up holding back a process of private trial and error that would give us better information about what’s good to eat over time.

This picture is illegal in California

Or rather, the action being performed in that picture is illegal in California. It’s not that the lettuce is not organic or anything. It’s that it is evidence of someone working during their lunch break:

I mentioned earlier that we had struggled to comply with California meal break law. The problem was that my workers needed extra money, and so begged me to be able to work through lunch so they could earn a half-hour more pay each day. They said they would sign a paper saying they had agreed to this. Little did I know that this was a strategy devised by a local attorney who understood meal break litigation better than I. What he knew, but I didn’t, was that based on new case law, a company had to get the employee’s signature every day, not just once, to avoid the meal break penalties. The attorney advised them they could get the money for working lunch AND they could sue later for more money (which he would get a cut of). Which is exactly what they did, waiting until November to sue so they could get some extra money to pay for Christmas bills. This is why — believe it or not — it is now a firing offense at our company to work through lunch in California.

Eventually a system becomes so encrusted by such nonsense that nothing useful can ever be done and all that can be is to chase the paper around in ever decreasing circles. That is arguably what happened to the Ottoman Empire, various incarnations of the various Indian and Chinese empires and so on and on. It’s one of the reasons that we here shout so loudly about regulation and the necessity of a bonfire of much of it.

We do not say that there should not be regulation, not at all. But we do say that we need to carefully consider who is doing the regulating. There are times and circumstances when it does need to be the bureaucrat or the politician. But far more often tasks that they take upon themselves will be better regulated through what we might call simple market processes. Markets are, after all, just the interaction of voluntary behaviour and surely we can trust two adults to agree between themselves about whether someone might usefully check a spreadsheet, or not, while munching on a salad?

With property rights, there are plenty more fish in the sea

We at the Adam Smith Institute need little further evidence that property rights are the best way to an efficient allocation of resources. Even so, more literature on how property rights can work in different industries and regulatory environments is always welcome. A new National Bureau of Economic Research paper looks at how the strength of property rights can affect regulators’ willingness to allow the exploitation of natural resources. They focus on the most common system of regulation, which sees a limited number of firms given the right to extract to the level of a cap set by a regulator. They attribute this, at least partly, to a benign form of regulatory capture.

Commonly, it is seen as an unwelcome anticompetitive force, leading to the overexploitation of resources by monopolistic producers in industries with clearly defined property rights. However, because of the temporary, weak, and ill-defined nature of rights in the natural resources sector, the authors suggest that this analysis is not applicable. Instead, they find that

when property rights to the resource are strong, the regulator’s choice (which is the product of resource harvesters’ influence) coincides with the public interest. However, when property rights to the resource are weak, the regulator’s choice leads to overexploitation. This suggests that the resulting extraction level is closer to the socially-optimal extraction level when rights to the resource are strong.

The authors distinguish between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ property rights using the probability that such rights will be revoked – the more likely, the weaker the rights. They propose that, when rights are strong, firms influence regulators (either formally by voting in regulatory councils, or by informal means) to choose a lower extraction rate than they would in a situation with less secure property rights, because they are less concerned about those rights being revoked in the future. In addition, regulators discount utility from future harvests less when there is less risk of rights being revoked, causing them to favour less current extraction.

The paper tests this thesis empirically against novel panel data from 178 of the largest commercial fisheries, and finds that regulators are “significantly more conservative” in their management of resources when property rights are most secure. In those cases where poorly managed fisheries switch to a ‘Catch Share’ system, with more secure property rights, there is a significant fall in exploitation, supporting their thesis (the fall prior to the switch is attributed to a gradual policy change in the face of overexploitation):

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If in practice the Coasean idea that the assignation and enforcement of property rights – through their effects on the decisions of regulators – lead to more efficient outcomes, this has important implications for policy. It gives us an even greater incentive (as if we need it) to promote the institution of secure property rights, especially in those resource-rich low-income countries which could be subject to a swift depletion of natural resources due not only to tragedies of the commons, but also to the insecurity of extractive firms property rights.