Why does privatisation sometimes go wrong?

The imposition of flawed privatisation models imposes economic losses far beyond the sectors concerned. Although the problems experienced in privatised industries have largely been the result of political interference and state regulation, their failure may be misused by ideological interventionists to undermine trust in markets more generally.

Both the public and opinion-formers have weak incentives to properly investigate why particular sectors have not performed well and this ignorance can be exploited. If the political culture turns against relatively free markets, the wider efficiency losses are likely to be substantial, as more and more economic activity becomes subject to high taxes and restrictive controls.

Privatisation is a political process and as such will be vulnerable to the problems afflicting political processes in general. Almost inevitably it will be influenced or even ‘captured’ by special interests. As a result, there is a risk that the outcome is not a dynamic free market, or even a lightly regulated sector. At worst, government will regulate the market to enable special interests to extract ‘rents’ from taxpayers and consumers. Such a model would protect favoured interest groups from new market entrants, competition and disruptive entrepreneurship, while participants’ profits might well rely on state subsidies.

As public choice theory would have predicted, many of the privatisations of the 1980s and 1990s did not produce anything approximating to free markets in the sectors concerned. In some industries at least, the period might more accurately be characterised as a shift from ‘state-capitalism’ Model A to ‘state-capitalism’ Model B. This raises the question whether Model B, consisting of heavily regulated markets under nominal private ownership, delivered economic benefits compared with the direct state ownership of Model A.

The answer is likely to depend both on the characteristics of a particular industry and the regulatory structure adopted post-privatisation. In an unhampered market economy, sectors characterised by major economies of scale and vast, inflexible, long-term capital investments – such as the rail industry – are likely to be dominated by large firms exhibiting high degrees of vertical integration. The ‘command economies’ within such firms will exhibit significant knowledge and incentive problems no matter what the ownership model. Thus, ceteris paribus, the benefits of privatisation are likely to be lower in such industries than in naturally more fragmented, dynamic and competitive sectors.

Nonetheless, there are particular problems associated with state ownership that are likely to apply across all sectors. These are explained in detail elsewhere, but include politicisation, producer capture, and poor incentives for entrepreneurship, innovation and cost-control. Where state regulation ensures monopolies, such pathologies may be exacerbated by an absence of competition. The poor results became apparent in the nationalised industries of 1970s Britain. Endemic misallocation of resources led to heavy taxpayer subsidies and poor quality services for customers.

However, some of the privatised sectors exhibit broadly similar problems today. The following (non-exhaustive) analysis therefore draws on theory and recent evidence to summarise some possible reasons why artificial post-privatisation markets could fail to produce efficiency gains compared with the directly state-controlled model that preceded them:

  • Politicisation – The propensity of politicians to interfere in a sector could hypothetically increase post-privatisation, resulting in increased regulation/taxation and concomitant efficiency losses. This outcome may be particularly likely in sectors with high political salience. Any change in the status quo creates risks for policymakers, providing incentives for them to intervene. The costs of such intervention are likely to be opaque and widely dispersed, leading to limited accountability.
  • Overregulation – Politicians may face fewer disincentives to impose costly regulations on a nominally privatised sector than under state ownership. In the former case, the negative effects can be blamed on private firms, whereas in the latter they are likely to be blamed directly on the government, creating higher political costs. Voters and ‘opinion formers’ have weak incentives to become well informed about such issues. Senior officials may benefit from the salary and status opportunities provided by expanded regulatory oversight, while key corporate players in the sector may welcome additional regulation if it serves their interests (for example, by raising barriers to market entry and protecting them from competition).
  • Flotation receipts – Short-term incentives to maximise flotation receipts may encourage the creation of heavily regulated ‘rigged markets’ that reduce the risks facing investors. Large, risk-averse institutional investors, such as pension funds, may prefer a model that effectively guarantees returns rather than entrepreneurial and disruptive freed markets that threaten incumbent players.
  • Transaction costs – Artificial post-privatisation markets may depart significantly from the organisational forms likely to evolve in an unhampered market economy. It is conceivable that in some instances such artificial structures increase transaction costs compared with direct state ownership, thereby reducing allocative efficiency.
  • Restructuring costs – Structural changes may weaken ‘social capital’ within a sector by disrupting working relationships, as well as losing specialist, often asset-specific knowledge and skills through the departure of long-term staff. Organisational cultures may also be weakened or destroyed. The role of such factors in efficient operations may be somewhat opaque to both policymakers and senior management.
  • Moral hazard – If sectors comprise ‘essential’ infrastructure then firms can be sure that governments will step in if they fail. Indeed, rules are typically in place that set out how this would be done. Limited liability laws and the use of special purpose vehicles also limit downside financial risks. These factors may encourage excessive risk-taking and a concomitant misallocation of resources.
  • Rent-seeking – A combination of heavy regulation and private ownership could potentially increase incentives for special interests to engage in rent-seeking activity. Profit-making businesses might have stronger incentives to lobby for regulations and subsidies that increase their profits than the less commercially minded managements of state industries. There is even a danger that ‘crony capitalism’ could emerge, as observed with privatisations in post-Soviet economies.


This is an edited extract from Without Delay: Getting Britain’s Railways Moving.


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