Been reading David Farrar’s column in the Herald yesterday “Asset sales – what’s the political cost?“. I’d say that his opinion is exactly what I’d expect from someone who spends their time at the political trough theorizing about business rather than doing it. Rather than look at the potential costs to the businesses and therefore downstream for the country he prefers just to look at politics.
Sadly this focus on the politics is kind of excusable in his case – he doesn’t know any better. As far as I can see, Davids experience has never been to operate a business operating fully in the private sector. He has been a staffer around parliament followed by running a polling company (whose major business appears to be the private polling for the National party) and political blogger and now seems to be morphing into the voice of National in the media.
Outside of the political blogging my working life provides quite a different viewpoint. I have been worked in private industry in NZ throughout my working life. Over the last few decades this has been for tech companies exporting offshore. I’ve helped form and grow several companies. I even went back to university to pick up a MBA to give myself better tools for the task of being better at business.
But the difference between David’s theoretical approach and mine can best be summed up in his spin..
With $220 billion of existing assets, the proposed sales by National represent around 2% of the Government’s total assets. It’s hardly a closing down sale.
Indeed. However that completely misses the point about why the government built and holds those types of assets.
The government origionally built these strategic assets because private industry wouldn’t put in the required capital and they were natural monopolies providing services to other companies and individuals. As a country we had to have them to grow. With its ability to raise capital cheaply and a set of objectives that operate over a longer term than profits during the next managerial tenure, the government was in a position to build strategic services.
Why were they strategic? Lets emphasize that again. Other businesses required the services provided to be able to build their businesses. Without the underpinning of reliable services businesses would spend much of their time in crisis mode dealing with outages in services rather than focusing on their own operations, markets and customers.
Take an example of the electricity supply for Auckland businesses. In 1998, I was in the Auckland CBD when we had 5 weeks of rolling power blackouts.
Queen Street was almost deserted for the first few days, as few businesses could operate. Some brought goods out onto the street to sell, but heavy rain in the first week made that impractical. Generators were brought in from around the country to power essential services and some businesses. These made Queen Street a very noisy place and thus deterred customers. Some businesses estimated that the outage cost them at least NZ$60,000 per week.
Now this type of outage isn’t an uncommon in some countries that I have visited. The cause was an organisation that had simply let their maintenance and capacity growth slip. This is the common theme through the power outages in Auckland in 1998, 2006, and 2009 from one part of the electrical supply system of another.
In each of these, I have been one of the dozens of people standing around drawing wages and costing the company I was working for. I often have been the person worrying about being unable to do business, finding out how robust our organisations infrastructure is and keeping an eye on the deadlines. Needless to say, those business affected are unable to recover their losses directly from the power company. And those costs are enormous across the areas affected.
Sure it is nice for a business if it can get its basic services provided at a lower cost – not that has been a notable feature of privatization. But the costs in not having reliable services are almost invariably far higher than the potential savings. It simply doesn’t matter to me in a business if I have dozens of possible providers of retail services saving a few dollars a week when a single failure in their suppliers can waste all of the other costs for a day or weeks. This is the case if I am powering the company, sending/receiving offshore data over our limited cable infrastructure, getting critical parts or sending product/people through Auckland’s sole international airport, or looking at the air-freight capacity.
People in other markets will be interested in different services, but when thinking strategically will be more concerned with reliability of the services that they depend on than David’s interest in political costs.
David (and for that matter Bill English) do not seem to get this. They concentrate on irrelevant spin that carefully misses all of the crucial factors that businesses worry about. For instance David says…
It is literally impossible for a foreign company to take control. In fact it will be impossible for a foreign company to have a share-holding in excess of 10 per cent.
Perhaps David should look at where the effective control lies in most listed companies. It is frequently exerted by minority shareholders because many investors are as passive as Bill English seems to think that the government should be. Generally companies and investors in other companies form formal or informal working alliances with others to achieve their common objectives. Quite simply this is a rather pathetic meaningless political figleaf.
David’s ‘economic’ factors are kind of hilarious in their narrow political and non-strategic focus.
Not every private company is better performing than every public company. But overall, the evidence is that private ownership does lead to better performing companies. This is of course a key difference in ideology between the left and the right.
Of course the question that David very carefully leaves out is for whom to those private companies perform better for? Their shareholders or for the country as a whole?
We’re now decades into the political privatization of strategic assets. But what is clear is that shifting the number of retailers in the electricity sector doesn’t provide the security of supply that other businesses want in this country. We are running so close to the boundaries of the supply vs demand that an earthquake in the wrong place could give us the power shortages that currently afflict Japan. The history of privatizing telecommunications is replete with examples of price gouging by natural monopolies with minimal and slow upgrades in capacities. We have the example of NZ Rail where private owners stripped profit by allowing the strategic infrastructure required by many businesses to deteriorate.
This is why kiwis and especially kiwi businesses are skeptical about privatization of utilities. It seems to largely benefit the shareholders more than the country. Perhaps if we put a considerable duty and cost on the shareholders for not providing reliable services? But that really seems to defeat the rationale for privatizing in the first place if you have to regulate them so tightly. Not to mention it will probably be about as effectively enforceable as National’s figleaf ownership caps (which probably violate a number of our free trade obligations).
A strong secondary reason is the desire to give New Zealanders some more reliable investment options than finance companies.
Which really begs the question about why NZ companies do not list on the NZ stock exchange? And why many investors including myself avoid it. Despite the amounts of money invested around NZ, only a minuscule fraction is available from the stock exchange.
The investment climate in NZ is completely biased towards investing directly into property privately where there is no tax on capital gains. Much of the investment money in the stock market prior to the crash went into finance companies was because they were about the only stocks with more attractive rates of return than speculating on house prices. To achieve those returns they were clearly running their businesses with unacceptable and concealed risk levels.
How is having a few low return utility companies bulking out the stock exchange going to magically change that? The structural problem at the heart of investment in NZ needs to be addressed and this type of pallidness is simply political fluff that governments do when they don’t wish to face the hard and important issues.
A tertiary factor or reason is lowering the amount the Government will need to borrow. The total amount reduced is not huge, but it does send a signal to rating agencies that the Government is serious about keeping gross debt from exceeding a certain level.
He is right about how little it will raise. He is wrong about how rating agencies will read it. Rating agencies look at the longer term rather than the short term. They can read a balance sheet. The reason why these assets are highly salable is because they are profitable. The government currently demands a very high dividend from many of the organizations and the loss of part of that dividend will affect their ongoing fiscal position far more badly than keeping them. Not to mention that it isn’t that likely that the other shareholders will be as interested as the government is in high dividend payments. The loss of revenue to the crown is what the rating agencies are more likely will look at, because over time it increases the risk of lending to the government.
In short, the current round of privatization proposals by National and their mouthpiece has been notable for not making a case for doing it on any basis that would quell the alarm that many businesses will feel. Rather they appear to be more interested in laying political spin with their reasons concealing a bad case of ideological stupidity