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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Should the government play the stock market? Or the gold market?

Written by Ben Southwood | Thursday 03 April 2014

A recent report from the National Audit Office found that the government could have made £750m more from the sale of Royal Mail if it had sold at the highest price the shares reached on its first day. This has led many to blame the government for selling off the family silver at the bottom of the market. Others have pointed out that the reason for privatising Royal Mail was to subject it to the disciplines of the market, not to raise money. And that no one knows in advance what a share will be worth. Grey markets undervalued the share as well—and of course some advisers said it would rise higher, just as others said it wouldn't. Perhaps government politicking prior to the sale caused some of the problems. In any case, the value has not disappeared, it has just been distributed differently. There may be weak reasons to question the profile of the distribution (e.g. will it be spent more progressively or efficiently by government?) but realistically we're talking a small amount of the budget and bear in mind that investors who ordered more than £10,000 of shares were shut out completely.

But one interesting angle is whether this is like Gordon Brown's gold "sell-off" of 1999-2002. As everyone remembers, Brown, as chancellor of the exchequer, sold off the government's gold at what turned out to be the bottom of the market, losing out on potential gains easily ten times more than available with Royal Mail. He is widely criticised for this, but I can't quite see why. I can't think of any good reason why the government should hold any assets whatsoever. On top of this, there are at least four reasons why the state should not hold any specific assets:

1. The government is not well placed to play asset markets. So there's an interesting question as to whether the government should hold net wealth. Maybe there are shocks where easy sources of income will evaporate and the government will need to instantly liquidate some assets in order to pay its normal bills, defend the country against external aggressors, enforce the law etc. This might suggest the government needs to hold net wealth. But we know that even very smart and knowledgeable fund managers with all the right incentives only consistently outperform the market due to luck. So what would make us think, outside of one issue I'll deal with later, that the government's agents, so universally derided for competence in most contexts, could succeed in this either impossible or just really really really hard task? The UK government's Royal Mail and gold holdings were vastly out of proportion to those assets' size in relation to all wealth. If the government wants to hold wealth we know that it should hold a low cost exchange-tracker, as broad-based as possible. Otherwise it will effectively be handing over taxpayer wealth to traders in the markets.

2. Playing asset markets may directly distort those markets. If governments hold given assets (e.g. Royal Mail shares or gold) then it might be because there are social welfare reasons for doing so. It's at least possible that people have the specific desire for the equity of companies to not be held privately or to be held by the state and this something worth at least factoring in. When it comes to gold then individuals might be glad the government has it as a backstop. And of course the state could just be holding these assets on behalf of its citizens, perhaps because there are economies of scale in so doing. Even if there aren't benefits to the state holding assets on behalf of citizens, individuals may take these holdings into account as if they were their own, thus causing only small inefficiencies. But I take most of these considerations to be of minuscule empirical importance. Mainly the government's holdings of assets cannot be justified by these reasons. But since the market will be influenced by their holdings, they will reduce the supply of certain sorts of assets for the market to hold, leading to price shifts and portfolio rebalancing. Since this will be away from the ideal portfolio firms would have held (I can imagine exceptions but none of them are relevant here) this reduces social welfare.

3. Government holding assets means they're unlikely to be used with allocative efficiency. This depends on some of the considerations in 2, but again they're very very unlikely to have empirically large impacts. By contrast, there are probably some very empirically large impacts from the fact that few of the government's assets—totting up to about £600bn, according to a recent ASI report—are ever marketed. As we know from Friedrich A. Hayek's most important work, market pricing is how we rationally allocate resources in society. This was why Hayek and Ludwig von Mises won the socialist calculation debate as even noted Marxist G.A. Cohen agreed. What this means for assets is that we don't know whether they are properly used unless we trade for them. An illustration: if the government sold off all its army barracks the army might then rent the selfsame barracks from their private owners. But it's possible that they would rent somewhere else, and someone might set up a factory or a farm or a theme park on the original site. Without the market competition process we have no idea what would happen and we have no idea what the best use of the land and buildings would be. This applies to big nebulous assets like Royal Mail just as it applies to land and as it applies to gold.

4. If the government holds assets it may have incentives that distort its policy-making decisions. Why does the UK have such an appallingly tight planning regime even though basically all economists think it's extremely inefficient and damaging? It's probably because lots of people own houses and these groups tend to be disproportionately likely to vote and are otherwise politically well-connected. If these groups rented their house and owned the same amount of wealth spread across a wide range of assets it's very unlikely we'd see such economically unjustifiable policies. The same goes, potentially, for government-held assets. After all, the government will be blamed not to mention having less ability to achieve its policy goals if assets it holds lose value. It's not so much that they're likely to directly pursue policies designed to boost the value of state assets. But acts of commission are treated differently to those of omission. It seems highly likely that the government will treat policy changes that affect these particular assets' value differently, just like housing.

So maybe the government should hold some wealth, I can see the arguments for and I can imagine some arguments against. But if it holds wealth it ought hold assets as broadly as possible: because it's not placed to take gambles on particular assets; because doing so may distort markets directly; because holding assets takes them off the market and reduces allocative efficiency; and because holding particular assets may distort the incentives facing policymakers. Thus we should praise Gordon Brown for selling off gold just as we should praise Vince Cable and George Osborne for selling off the Royal Mail.

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What on earth is Germany doing here?

Written by Tim Worstall | Thursday 03 April 2014

This looks to me like an extraordinarily silly decision over there in Germany:

BERLIN—Germany's cabinet Wednesday adopted a bill to introduce a statutory pay floor of €8.50 ($11.72) an hour, a change in policy after Europe's largest economy for decades let business groups and trade unions set pay and working times in collective agreements. The measure, which targets the five million German workers who currently earn less than €8.50 an hour, will be introduced in 2015 with a two-year transition period given to existing regional and sector-wide wage deals.

Where do we expect to see the unemployment effects of a minimum wage? Quite, in the unemployment rate of the young, untrained and unskilled. So, what can we note about the youth unemployment rate in Germany, given that up until now it hasn't had a minimum wage that bites? Yes, quite, we can see that it's very low compared to that of other European countries.

What do we expect to happen with the introduction of a minimum wage, especially one this high? That the youth unemployment rate will start to look more like that of other European countries of course.

Oh, and Germany also has another problem:

Government officials have said that former East Germany with its lower wage and higher unemployment levels will likely be hit hardest by the new minimum wage.

Yup. Just doesn't look like a sensible decision to me.

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The conscience of the constitution

Written by Dr. Eamonn Butler | Wednesday 02 April 2014

The Conscience of the Constitution by Timothy Sandefur, is a new Cato book that can be read with profit by anyone interested in classical liberalism, not just Americans. Some regard the US Constitution as a great bastion of democracy, yet the word, says Sandefur, appears nowhere in it. What the Constitution actually enshrines is liberty.

This liberal purpose and foundation is expressed in very plain terms by the Declaration of Independence, which is, in Sandefur's term, 'the conscience of the Constitution'. Where the Constitution says how the power of government should be limited, the Declaration explains why. Not to empower majorities and their representatives, but to restrain them.

Sandefur's thesis is that over a long period of usurpations, the liberty role of the Constitution has been eclipsed by its democracy rule. Its principles go back to Magna Carta, which declared that rulers and officials themselves had were subject to the 'law of the land' – the deep sense of justice and fairness that grows up through the voluntary interactions of free people. Governments cannot pass any rule they like, no matter how arbitrary, irrational, unfair, unclear or contradictory, and properly call it 'law'. It is this that 'due process' is all about – laws and their execution must be substantively fair and just. Americans do not simply enjoy a list of 'rights' but are protected (or should be) by a general rule against exploitation and unfairness.

In any particular case, that general rule might of course outrage the majority. And in recent years, says Sandefur, the courts have come to place the majority decisions in the legislature above the principle of safeguarding liberty, hardly ever striking down official powers. It is called 'judicial activism' but actually it is a baleful inactivity. Justices claim that legislators are nearer to the public and therefore better equipped to know what is in the 'public interest'. But that, says Sandefur, gives legislators carte blanche to pass almost any law, covering it with some or other 'public interest' fig-leaf. Also, majority decisions are actually made through the rent-seeking of interest groups, pressuring politicians, as described so well by the Public Choice economists. And much law today is made by unelected regulators anyway, so the 'nearer to the public' argument is plainly a sham.

Deliberately upholding unjust laws, concludes Sandefur, is no less damaging than accidentally striking down just ones. The courts should be in no doubt that, as the Constitution and Declaration specify, liberty is the primary object of their actions. However much democracy we have, our rulers have no right to go beyond the Constitution and thereby put the liberty of individuals at risk.

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Art museums are simply too expensive, sell everything and close them down

Written by Tim Worstall | Wednesday 02 April 2014

This is based on a recent piece in the NYT which I cannot now find so apologies both for the repeat and also for the possible garbling of the argument. But art is simply to valuable to be hanging in museums these days. We should sell the lot off and close them all down.

Take, for example, the mythical Vermeer, "Girl who has lost her ears let alone her pearl earring". This is worth, in these days of Russian oligarchs, $100 million. It is also hanging in a public museum in London, owned by some arm of the State.

So, how much does it cost for people to look at this picture? A reasonable discount rate might be 5%. That's what we could get if we flogged the piece and stuck the money into a stock market fund concentrating on yield. Maybe 3% for FTSE as a whole. But with 5% that means that not selling it costs us £5 million a year.  Or £13,700 a day, which if museums are open for 10 hours a day means £1,370 an hour. A period of time in which this one picture might have, what, 10 people look at it? Thus, the cost to us of this one picture hanging in a gallery in London is £137 per viewer.

At which point we have to ask whether this is worth it. And we've a method of working that out to. Do we think that we could charge those 10 people an hour £137 each to be able to view the painting? No, clearly and obviously, we do not. Therefore the costs to us as a whole of our possession and display of this painting are less than the benefits that come from our owning and displaying this painting. Having costs higher than benefits is also known as destroying value, something which is properly known as "making us all poorer".

We should therefore sell off all such art and close down the museums.

If those who purchase it then wish to show it to the public all well and good. But they'll be doing that on their dime, not our.

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Video: the state of the minimum wage debate

Written by Sam Bowman | Tuesday 01 April 2014

Last month I spoke on the minimum wage at LibertarianHome's meet-up, and they have uploaded the video of the talk, as well as a very good summary write-up of my comments. I had a great time at the talk and I'm looking forward to attending more of their meet-ups in future. 

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The sale of Royal Mail was well handled

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Tuesday 01 April 2014

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.

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Regulatory clampdown on regulators

Written by Blog Editor | Tuesday 01 April 2014

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.

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Markets are the way to beat climate change

Written by Tim Worstall | Tuesday 01 April 2014

So we've been treated to the latest installment of climate science from the IPCC. And as they say, it's vitally important that we have well functioning markets to deal with this. Of course, we need well functioning markets to deal with anything but here, right from the horses mouth (in Chapter 10, here) is what they say about markets:

Well-functioning markets provide an additional mechanism for adaptation and thus tend to reduce negative impacts and increase positive ones for any specific sector or country (high agreement, medium evidence). The impacts of climate on one sector of the economy of one country in turn affect other sectors and other countries though product and input markets. Markets increase overall welfare, but not necessarily welfare in every sector and country.

And as they say in more detail in 10.9:

Computable general equilibrium models have long been used to study the wider economic implications of changes in crop yields (Kane et al., 1992). (Yates and Strzepek, 1998) show for instance that the impact of a reduced flow of the Nile on the economy of Egypt is much more severe without international trade than with, because trade would allow Egypt to focus on water-extensive production for export and import its food.

Yes, they say that international trade, even or especially in food, is one of the vital ways in which we can deal with this problem.

That is, that part of the solution to climate change is international trade and markets: you know, basically the neoliberal world order.

Yes, OK, believe the science or not about the effect of emissions as you will. But don't let go of this point that I've highlighted above. Even if all of what the scientists tell us about the effect of emissions on anything at all is correct this still means that the people who tell us we must have local food security, that we must become more self-reliant, those who tell us we must abandon the market and plan matters, they are still wrong!

As I once wrote a whole book about the solution to climate change is neoliberal globalisation plus a carbon tax. This latest report from the IPCC is saying exactly the same thing. No, not prescient of me, I just read the previous reports where they've been saying exactly the same thing all along. And don't let anyone tell you different.

(Yes, I know the date of publication of this piece. No, it ain't)

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Apparently HFT is going to bring on the next crash or something

Written by Tim Worstall | Monday 31 March 2014

I confess, I do find myself a little puzzled by the coverage of finance and banking over at The Guardian at times. Are their writers actually inhabiting this same universe that we are or are they phoning it in from some parallel one? Tke this example, worrying about the perils of high frequency trading (HFT):

Cynics may conclude that Goldman's damascene conversion is a PR exercise designed to counter some of the more incendiary material that Lewis is expected to disclose. But they would be wrong. After playing a heroic role in the sub-prime mortgage scandal and Greece's economic ruin, Goldman, like all the big banks, is surely now turning over a new leaf. This is just as well. The consequences of a repeat of the 2008 financial crash, conducted at warp speed, are too terrifying for us mortals to get our heads around. History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce, Marx observed. But then he didn't have fibreoptic broadband.

My first confusion is that of course it wasn't trading, at high frequencies or not, that actually caused the crash. The markets that do have high turnovers, at high speed, are things like foreign currency, options, derivatives, and now moving into equities. None of these causwed the slightest problem during the crash. That was all about housing finance, the securitisation of mortgages into bonds that were then sliced and diced. Abnd, notably, very rarely traded after they have been placed with investors.Almost all of these bonds were nearly entirely illiquid, no one trading in them at all a month after issuance. And that's what caused the problems given that some banks had held onto healthy slices of these issues. How we can comare the perils of HFT with something that was hardly traded at all I'm really not sure.

As to why Goldman Sachs might not like HFT, can we at least start with the idea that GS is a greedy, profits hungry, capitalistic firm? Good, thought we could get agreement there. So, what's the effect of HFT? It reduces trading margins: reduces the difference between the buy and sell price of any particular security. Who would be unhappy if this happened? The people who make markets, the people making those buy and sell prices of course. A large part of GS's business is in making markets in things. And if margins collapse as a result of more trading and greater liquidity then GS isn't going to be happy, is it?

But over in Guardian world things seem to be different....

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Higher food prices reduce poverty

Written by Tim Worstall | Sunday 30 March 2014

It's a general assumption that higher food prices are bad for the poor. Clearly, it must be: the poor, the truly poor that is, spend some 80% of their incomes on food, if the price rises then obviously they must be getting poorer. Thus all that nonsense from the World Development Movement, Oxfam et al, about how food speculation in 2008 drove up food prices, impoverished more and thus we must ban capitalism etc.

Except that's not actually true. Poverty declined in the wake of that 2008 rise in food prices. Which leads us to, via Dani Rodrik, this paper:

Standard microeconomic methods consistently suggest that, in the short run, higher food prices increase poverty in developing countries. In contrast, macroeconomic models that allow for an agricultural supply response and consequent wage adjustments suggest that the poor ultimately benefit from higher food prices. In this paper we use international data to systematically test the relationship between changes in domestic food prices and changes in poverty. We find robust evidence that in the long run (one to five years) higher food prices reduce poverty and inequality. The magnitudes of these effects vary across specifications and are not precisely estimated, but they are large enough to suggest that the recent increase in global food prices has significantly accelerated the rate of global poverty reduction. The policy implications of these findings are therefore nuanced: short-run social protection is justified in the face of high food price volatility, but passing on higher prices to producers in the long run is an important means of reducing poverty in the poorest countries.

The most important word there is that "producers" in that last sentence. The poor in developing countries are the peasant farmers. They're also food producers: thus a rise in food prices benefits them. The mistake being made by those who insist that higher food prices impoverishes further the very poor is to assume that they are net food consumers. But, being peasant farmers, they're not: a peasant household is a net food producer. So of course higher prices will benefit them.

The situation is quiite different for the urban poor, of course, for they are net consumers. But given that the urban poor are richer than those stuck in the idiocy or rural life higher food prices are still poverty and inequality reducing.

All of which leads to an interesting conclusion. Assume that WDM and Oxfam are correct about the effects of food speculation (they're not), also that they both truly desire to reduce poverty and inequality (your options on that are open) then both organisations should be campaigning for there to be more speculation in food commodity markets.

I look forward to the new campaigns.

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