Saturday, 15 July 2017

I've been at a conference...

Last week's annual conference of the NZ Association of Economists went off well - particularly the big four keynote addresses: William Strange (University of Toronto) on the agglomeration benefits of cities, Lisa Cameron (University of Melbourne) on randomised control trials and natural experiments in development economics, Andrew Atkeson (UCLA) with a historical perspective on regulating big banks and preventing GFC-style episodes, and our own John Gibson (University of Waikato) with his "Quantity and quality redux", about how even professional economists forget that consumers adjust both quantity and quality in response to price changes.

That sounds at first blush like something only a professional microeconomist would care about, but it is surprisingly relevant across a variety of contexts. A local topical example is whether the likes of soda taxes (to curb obesity or rotten teeth) will work: no, is the answer, if, in response to a tax, people keep up their previous soda intake, and can afford to, because they also trade down to slightly less attractive and cheaper quality (eg 1.5 litre plastic bottles rather than smaller-volume cans).

It got me thinking about other possible applications, too. Competition authorities, for example, fret about potential price rises after mergers that reduce competition: 5% is often bandied about as a threshold price increase that you'd start to be concerned about. But what if consumers can easily defeat the 5% increase by small compensating changes in the quality of what they buy? Should we be more relaxed about mergers? Or should we be focussed on the welfare losses (potentially quite large if they really, really liked the quality they had before) of not quite getting what they used to have? Quality isn't always forgotten - it was a big theme in the proposed NZME / Fairfax merger that got turned down - but it can be.

All thought provoking stuff, and even if you had no prior interest in any of these topics, they were all fascinating to listen to. The keynote speeches aren't up on the NZAE's conference papers page yet, but keep an eye out for them when they do go up.

I was also pleased to see another 'Commerce Commission themed' session of three papers. This is a recent innovation, and a good one, and it's great to see the Commission getting behind the NZAE conference. It's good outreach, and a fine way of encouraging and facilitating the professional development of staff (all three presenters are at the Commission). Competition and regulation didn't always get much of a look in at NZAE conferences, and the limited coverage didn't line up with the number of economists engaged in the area or indeed with the importance of the topic. Your broadband, mobile phone and electricity bills, for starters, are all heavily influenced by the Commission, not to mention the policing of mergers like NZME / Fairfax or SkyTV / Vodafone.

It was a solid session, too. Catherine Corbett had a paper on "Flipping markets": no, not in the sense of "sod 'em", nor in the sense of "tipping" where network effects lead to one player becoming dominant, but the unusual situation where sometimes a buyer pays for its inputs but sometimes charges for its services. Her example was a meat waste product collector (a "renderer"). Sometimes a renderer will find the butcher's waste is worth paying for, sometimes the butcher is prepared to pay to have it taken away. How should you think about a merger of renderers? Does it say anything about how competition authorities should think about mergers between buyers? At the moment Catherine and I have come to different conclusions, but I'll wait to see the final paper before I get too entrenched.

Stephen Hudson talked about "Pass-through analysis in dynamic markets with differentiated products", which was largely about the Commission's recent fossick into whether internet service providers (ISPs) had passed on cuts in regulated input prices. The Commission got Aaron Schiff to look at a thumping great sample of phone bills, and the answer was that roughly 90% of the cut got passed on. And that in turn would lead you to be reassured about the state of competition in the ISP market, given that the standard wisdom is that only half of a cut would be passed on by a monopolist, but progressively more gets passed on as markets get more competitive.

And finally there was Diego Villalobos, with "Regulated firms in unregulated markets: friends or foes?". This was mainly about electricity, and maybe I can best explain it with an example. Suppose your friendly local electricity lines business says, listen, we'll sell you a battery, put it in your garage, and we'll charge it up when it's cheap to, and run it down when otherwise you'd have paid high prices. Sounds good, right? And it is good: there are economies of scope (the company that transmits your power also does your battery), and you and your lines business get to split some savings.

Except that independent battery providers risk getting shut out. The lines business, if it is allowed to put the battery into its 'regulatory asset base', gets a nice, guaranteed return. Whereas your Cheap And Cheerful Battery Company has to run the risk that if nobody buys its batteries, it's kaput, yet is trying to compete against someone who doesn't run the same risk. So would you be as enthused about the lines company's offer, if you knew that the guy who'd actually supply the cheapest battery, can't get a look in?

Diego got to the point (as I did, in a bit of client work), that this is a horrendously difficult area, and one that's getting trickier as technology advances: it's not just batteries, but also those solar panels on your roof, and who knows what down the pike.

And there were also interesting competition/regulation papers in other sessions. I went along to AUT's Lydia Cheung and her paper on "Divestiture as Conglomerate Merger Remedy, with Case Study of 2005 P&G-Gillette Merger". Procter and Gamble were made to divest some deodorant brands when they bought Gillette's ones: how'd it work out? I'm a huge fan of these after-the-event studies: how else are we going to find out what works and what doesn't? In this case, it's still not entirely clear. Sometimes it is, but whether you can find a smoking gun or not is a bit irrelevant: the point is to look, rather than rely on unquestioned assumptions about the efficacy of regulatory decisions.

We all know that the internet is changing everything, and in its little way the NZAE conference is another example. Organisers can now go on the web and see if someone can give a good presentation. Up to now you could rely to some degree on (say) graduate students who were in a professor's course, and they could tell you how well it went across. It's a good deal better, though, to watch it for yourself via say a TED talk. So someone like William Strange from Toronto gets onto the agenda, as he should: a brilliant presenter of his big set piece, and just as good in Q&A afterwards. He told me afterwards, modestly, that he'd put more effort than usual into his speech. The fact is, he's a natural (or has put a lot of effort into becoming one), and he could read the bus timetable and we'd all find it interesting. We've only begun to scratch the surface of matching up good suppliers with interested buyers.

And I'm pleased to say I've helped nudge the NZAE into the age of social media. In principle, all presentations each year have been on a 'Chatham House rules' basis. In Wellington, in particular, you can see the point, where public servants might have wanted to contribute to a policy debate without landing their organisation or their Minister in it. But otherwise it is a nonsense. NZAE publicly publishes a programme, with abstracts of what the speaker is going to say, but social media are supposed to play along with the fiction that nobody knows? And remind me why there's a #nzae2017 hashtag, if you can't tweet who said what?

I don't think so. And neither did the membership at this year's AGM when I proposed (and folks like Eric Crampton at the NZ Initiative supported) that the default setting of Chatham House rules should be junked. If speakers still want Chatham House, they can say so, and commenters can still safely comment without being fingered. But the default now is, on the record. As it should be: I'd tweeted, for example, about the session on this new 'CORE' curriculum for economics. Someone who'd never heard of it picked up on it, and found that CORE was just what they'd been looking for. Payoff for them, payoff for the value of the NZAE conference: Pareto would be pleased.

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