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.


How to destroy crony capitalism

The recent Oxfam report on inequality and the ‘top 1 per cent’ is riddled with statistical errors. Worse still, its proposed solutions risk harming the poor through ill-conceived government interventions.

Nevertheless, current patterns of wealth distribution raise important questions about ‘crony capitalism’ and the extent to which concentrated special interests have succeeded in rigging markets to benefit themselves at the expense of the wider population.

As might be expected in ‘state-capitalist’ economies characterised by high public spending and pervasive regulation, it would appear that a significant proportion of the ‘top 1 percent’ do indeed owe a large part of their fortunes to special privileges granted by governments.

Several powerful ‘crony capitalist’/protected interest groups can be identified, including:

  • Elements of the financial sector propped up by quantitative easing, monetary inflation more generally, bailouts, taxpayer guarantees, regulation, tax breaks, government-imposed monetary systems, state borrowing etc.
  • Beneficiaries of government contracts, who are often well connected to the political and bureaucratic elites who determine official spending priorities.
  • Landowners whose property was stolen by the state and then transferred into private ownership. This category would include many of the European aristocrats who still make up a significant proportion of their national rich lists, but could also be extended to include mining, energy and agribusiness enterprises benefiting from government land-theft around the world.
  • Property developers, often well connected to political elites, who are able to gain permissions that are unavailable to the general population due to planning and building regulations, and who profit from the resulting scarcity value. They may also be indirectly subsidised by taxpayer-funded transport infrastructure and regeneration grants.
  • Enterprises dependent on state protectionism in the form of illegitimate ‘intellectual property rights’ such as patents.
  • Professionals whose lucrative jobs depend on regulation and/or whose high remuneration relies on occupational licensing. Examples include lawyers, doctors and accountants.

Some of the individuals and firms benefiting from special privileges could of course also thrive in an unhampered market economy based on voluntary exchange – but it seems likely that a high proportion of the above groups would either be eliminated entirely or see a major fall in their relative wealth in the absence of state protection.

The precise impact on overall inequality would depend on the social structures that evolved under a system based on free exchange. However, it is clear that both patterns of wealth distribution and absolute levels of wealth would be very different if markets were freed. Crony capitalism, special-interest influence and rent-seeking behaviour tend to undermine genuine wealth creation. Accordingly, the emergence of ‘distributional coalitions’ is a serious problem for contemporary ‘state capitalism’.

Tackling the cronies will not be easy, but identifying some of the most egregious special interests provides a useful starting point. A combination of honest, free-market money and deregulation would destroy the privileges of the financial sector. Dramatically shrinking public spending would undermine the government contractors. Scrapping patents would subvert that insidious form of protectionism. Planning liberalisation would reduce the advantages of crony-capitalist property developers. And land restitution (which raises many difficult issues) might start to address the widespread government-corporate theft of individual and communal property. Finally, abolishing occupational licensing would bring much-needed competition to state-protected professions.

Unless otherwise stated, all articles on this website are written in a personal capacity.

The deeper causes of Britain’s economic stagnation

Mancur Olson is best known for his 1965 book, The Logic of Collective Action, in which he explained why small, concentrated interest groups are more likely to influence policy than large, dispersed groups. Olson’s work, together with that of other public choice theorists, exposed the mechanisms by which interest groups obtain special privileges from government, enabling them to extract ‘rent’ from the wider population. For example, a domestic industry might lobby politicians to introduce import tariffs or environmental regulations to shut out foreign competition. In The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), Olson contended that over time, concentrated interest groups – facing little public resistance – would come to dominate more and more sectors of the economy, stifling competition and innovation, misallocating resources, crowding out entrepreneurial activity and thereby bringing economic stagnation.

In the recent debate over Britain’s poor economic performance, there has been relatively little discussion of the underlying causes. Olson’s analysis provides a compelling explanation for many of the long-term structural problems now afflicting the UK economy. Much economic activity is now artificial in the sense that it is not the result of voluntary exchange but rather the consequence of state-granted privileges resulting in part from ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour by special interests.

Whole swathes of the nominally private sector are sustained by government regulation rather than consumer choice. Across the professions, occupational licensing restricts entry and raises fees, while at the same time, regulations create artificial markets for professional expertise. Complex tax rules create work for accountants and tax lawyers, for example. Vast industries such as renewable energy and waste recycling have been brought into being by combinations of regulation and subsidies. And major sectors of the economy are now heavily dependent on special privileges granted by the state at the expense of the wider population. Agriculture, energy and public transport are three obvious examples, but a strong case could also be made for numerous sectors including banking (bailouts, QE, etc.), pharmaceuticals (licensing etc.) and vehicle manufacturing (non-tariff barriers etc.). In this context, the success or failure of businesses is frequently dependent on political favours rather than satisfying customers’ preferences. Given such incentives, devoting resources to rent-seeking behaviour is entirely rational, even if it is at the expense of consumers and taxpayers and the health of the wider economy.

Clearly cutting public spending is an important part of reducing the pernicious influence of special interests. It will tend to reduce the share of the ‘private’ sector reliant on government subsidies. But there is little sign that the coalition understands the economic importance of dismantling the web of regulatory privileges enjoyed by concentrated interest groups. Indeed, several government policies have actually increased opportunities for rent-seeking.

Olson was generally pessimistic about the prospects for fundamental reform in stable Western societies. Only extreme events such as wars and revolutions were likely to break the hold of powerful interest groups over policy and restore economic dynamism (arguably West Germany after World War 2 is an example of this). Yet the success of Margaret Thatcher in tackling the unions suggests that it can be done. A similar strategy against ‘middle-class’ professions would be a good starting point.

For an illustrative case study of special-interest influence over policy, and its harmful economic effects, see The High-Speed Gravy Train: Special Interests, Transport Policy and Government Spending.

26 April 2012, IEA Blog

Politicians are to blame if we have crony capitalists

Capitalism has a problem. Increasingly it is viewed as a deeply unfair system favouring a small, privileged elite at the expense of everyone else.

Our politicians have been quick to join the criticism. Last week David Cameron mooted granting extra powers to shareholders to restrain executive pay. Today he will give a speech on how to make capitalism more “inclusive”. Ed Miliband, meanwhile, has attacked “rip-off Britain” and backs forcing firms to consult workers on bosses’ pay levels.

There is a whiff of hypocrisy in some of these statements. Recent government initiatives include a plan to give top executives special access to ministers and a scheme to subsidise mortgages which will be run by the housebuilding industry.

Nevertheless, both leaders are correct in acknowledging the UK has a serious problem with “crony capitalism”. They are wrong, however, about the causes and solutions.

In fact, cronyism is quickly rooted out in a genuinely free economy. Companies that fail to incentivise success fall behind the competition. Cosy and complacent corporate cliques are outflanked by vigorous and innovative market entrants.

That is how markets are supposed to work. But Western economies have moved a very long way from free-market capitalism. It is not just that government spending now accounts for close to half of GDP; most sectors are also very heavily regulated.

For many firms, profits are more dependent on political favours than serving individual customers. Energy companies rely on rigged electricity markets for their reveunues from renewables; rail firms require operating subsidies; the defence industry needs government contracts, and so on. The banking sector is, of course, one of the most telling examples. Without the bailouts, many of the banks now being heavily criticised on pay would not exist.

This level of state involvement brings immense political risks to business. A new regulation, tax hike or subsidy cut can destroy profits or ruin investment plans. George Osborne’s raid on North Sea oil revenues is one recent example; the subsidy cut for the solar-power industry is another.

The incentives for business leaders to develop close relationships with politicians and regulators are therefore very strong. The returns from lobbying are often far higher than the returns from conventional business activity. Indeed, large corporate interests often successfully capture the policy process and use it to shut out competition or obtain favourable treatment. The losers are generally dispersed groups such as consumers and taxpayers, who are powerless to resist.

The answer is not, as politicians propose, to add more layers of regulation to control corporate behaviour. This will strengthen incentives for business leaders to get closer to government – an entirely counterproductive result.

Crony capitalism is inevitable given an intrusive regulatory state. It can only be stopped by removing the payoffs from special-interest lobbying – by a substantial reduction in political influence over business activity.

19 January 2012, City AM