Apr

17

 I offer the following question only because I would appreciate some constructive criticism.

Free markets work well for short term investments, such as publicly traded commodities and equities. The free market falls down in long term investments because they lack liquidity and price discovery for investments lasting 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years.

How is a utility to finance capital improvement projects under such circumstances? I'm finding every investment organization I've talked to is unwilling to participate in a US deregulated power market asset because they cannot hedge their investment.

Today, few are financing power plants in deregulated regions because there is no bankable offtaker. The result is few power plants are being built in these areas.

What is the Austrian School's take on this challenge?

Henry Gifford responds:

As for deregulated electricity markets, I think what is currently called "deregulated" is different from what I think of as free market. I will use the California deregulation as an example.

When California deregulated the electricity markets, they formed three new state government agencies, one with monopoly power to sell electricity at the wholesale level. I have no idea what the other two did. The agency signed long term sale contracts with local utilities, and bought electricity from both in-state and out of state (California is a net importer) suppliers on the spot market or on short-term contracts. I repeat - they signed short term purchase contracts, and signed long term sale contracts for set prices. The agency made a few billion dollars of profit in a few years, as buyers were barred by law from buying from anyone else (remember, I am describing deregulation), and the state bought for a lower price than they sold for.

The inevitable happened - short term prices rose above the prices they had contracted to sell for. The state government did the inevitable: they passed price control laws, barring their suppliers from selling at a price that would be unprofitable for the state government (remember, I am describing deregulation). Out of state suppliers refused to sell at the lower prices, so the California governor asked the president to pass price controls for suppliers outside of California. The president did not do this. Meanwhile, suppliers went unpaid. I repeat - the state agency did not pay for what they had bought. Instead of paying, the state demanded to first investigate their allegations of "unfair profits" while the bills went unpaid. As out of state suppliers who were owed money were getting investigated, they refused to sell power to the state, and the lights went out. (repeat: I am describing deregulation). This gave deregulation a bad name for a generation, spawned the usual anti-freedom documentaries, and because the arrangement was called deregulation, free markets were also given a bad name. But, I don't think a government monopoly is a free market, and have never met anyone else who does. Instead, people just keep calling it deregulation and saying deregulation doesn't work, and the free market doesn't work, including many people who know the deregulation involved formation of monopolies, price controls, etc.

Now if you reread the description above, and think of the position you would be in if you were a producer of electricity in California, or were considering becoming a producer, or financing a new power plant, your lack of enthusiasm would be understandable, but have nothing to do with failure of what I think of as free markets, long term or short.

The statement that free markets fall down in long term investments is I think inaccurate. Lack of liquidity is priced into investments that are difficult to sell.

 I don't know what "price discovery" is. Real Estate is rather illiquid, but prices for most transactions are a matter of public record, and advertised prices for comparable properties are always available.

I would invest in an electricity producing plant in California if I thought the price was right. With some looking I would tell you what that price would be, which I think indicates there is no lack of price discovery for long-term investments.

Gary Rogan writes:

 It seems in retrospect that combining regulated rate utilities with unregulated power assets is asking for trouble. It's the same kind of trouble as defined benefits pension obligation funders eventually always have to face: when you promise something definite far into the future but the source of funds for your promise is indefinite, this has to blow up sooner or later for many participants. Nothing is ever really guaranteed and some percentage of attempts to make such promises will either run out of money or will have to ask the government for help. Some bonds in the "real world" become worthless, and some insurance companies promising life-time annuities go belly up.

There must be a long and complicated history of how natural regulated monopolies came into existence, but I bet they were accepted too easily. The real cost of energy cannot be projected too far into the future, and in what I would consider a "fair" world nobody would be guaranteed any particular rate of return, and anybody would be allowed to compete for the end customer's business, with property access rights of course being in private hands is so historically determined. Investments in new sources of power would only be made when the benefits were outrageously obvious or the investors were unwise. Even the wise investors would of course sometimes striker out. That's free market, and that's what delivers an ever increasing standard living. That said I will always look for monopolies to invest in where I can find them at reasonable prices. You have to somehow deal with the unfair world.

Tyler Cowen adds:

Maybe political risk is the worry.

If the market is pricing a Monet painting, or a forest, it seems quite well to account for the services yielded decades into the future…
 


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