Streetwise Professor

December 26, 2012

What’s Yours Is Theirs-That’s the Real Cliff

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:38 pm

It’s been known for centuries that comparative advantage and relative factor endowments should drive trade patterns.   The fracking revolution has led to a dramatic change in US comparative advantage and factor endowments.  Basic economics tells us that this should drive a change in trading patterns, and in particular, it makes it efficient for the US to export natural gas, once the requisite infrastructure is in place.

Prices tell the story.  There is a a yawning gap between prices in Europe and Asia, and prices in the US.  Price signals are screaming: invest in export infrastructure, and export gas.

But politicians are deaf to basic economics, and to policies that promote efficiency.  They listen to the importuning of organized interests, and these interests are often diametrically opposed to economic efficiency.

Natural gas is a case in point.  Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) has long been beating the drum to restrict natural gas exports.  And now he has company, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR):

New discoveries of natural gas are beginning to transform the U.S. economy, and energy companies say exporting it is the next logical step. But a call for restraint is coming from Sen. Ron Wyden.

The Oregon Democrat, who will have a powerful perch in Congress to influence the debate, has been fielding substantial home-state opposition to such exports. The brewing fight illustrates how energy abundance can be just as divisive in Washington as a shortage, a theme likely to play out in coming years as the U.S. deals with growing energy supplies.

. . . .

Hours after the report came out, Mr. Wyden was sitting at Bistro Cacao, a French restaurant a few blocks from the Capitol, with Andrew Liveris, chief executive of Dow Chemical Co.,  one of the largest natural-gas-consuming companies in the U.S.

. . . .

“I want to make sure we look for the opportunities…to the greatest extent possible, to export value-added products rather than the raw material,” the senator said in a recent interview.

“Natural gas is a strategic American advantage,” he added. “We’ve got it. The whole world wants it.”

And the market is the best way to determine the most efficient way to exploit that advantage. But Sen. Wyden, thinks he is Goldilocks, and knows the price that is just right:

That is one reason Mr. Wyden hasn’t proposed an outright energy export ban. Instead, he suggests softer restrictions such as a cap. “How can policy makers look to find a sweet spot where you can allow exports to keep wells in production without letting exports drive prices so high that they hurt the American manufacturers?” he said.

This is an illustration of the Peltzman-Becker theory of regulation in action.  Politicians buy political support by balancing between competing interests.  Wyden is trying to buy support from domestic gas consumers by proposing to restrict exports, thereby keeping prices lower.  But he doesn’t want prices too low, because that would lead to fierce opposition from energy producers.  So he is looking for “softer restrictions.” He wants to take, but not too much.

How generous of him.  But it’s not generosity, really.  It is the logic of the stationary bandit, and the optimizing politician balancing support and opposition.

Distributive effects drive politics and regulation, not efficiency.  Efficiency is not irrelevant, because politicians like to have a bigger pie to divvy out, but they are willing to incur substantial efficiency penalties in order to achieve distributive goals.  Here, Wyden is proposing to deliver a big gift to Dow and other chemical producers (and other major industrial consumers of gas).  But for every dollar Dow gets, somebody else loses a dollar, and crucially, some cents are destroyed.  There will be deadweight losses.   Too little gas will be produced.  Too little gas will be exported.  Too much will be consumed domestically.

This is just one example of how politics and regulation destroys wealth.  Multiply this thousands of time over, in just about every good and service you can think of.  Everything from haircuts to energy to medicine.  These things kill income and growth, by a thousand cuts.

The amazing-and disturbing-thing about the Wyden article is the very matter-of-fact treatment Wyden’s threatened intervention gets in the article.  It’s the natural order of things that a senator can just arrogate to himself the power to shift around billions at a whim.

And the whim part is important.  Any investment, and plan, is vulnerable to the whims of politicians looking to redistribute wealth to favored interests.  You do something that creates a substantial amount of wealth, you attract those who believe it is their God given right to redistribute it.  In essence, politicians have an option on innovation and the fruits of hard work: tails you lose, heads you share .   This uncertainty, this risk, and the innovators’ short option position are drags on investment and hence growth.  Moreover, management of this risk involves the direction of valuable resources-including the time of top management-into rent seeking activities.  More waste, another drag on growth.

All the yammering over the “fiscal cliff” is a distraction, a near irrelevance.  All the fear mongering is predicated on Keynesian mumbo jumbo, so it will be more of a pothole than a cliff.  The real threat is the accumulation of interventions like those that Wyden is proposing, that collectively serve to reduce wealth and income, and sap growth.   That is the real cliff we have to worry about.  All of the budgetary and fiscal issues become far more more intractable, the lower is growth.   The sclerosis that results from the overbearing interventions in matters large and small will make a fiscal crisis far more likely, because our ability to create wealth will not be able to accommodate the insatiable demands of the entitlement state.

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  1. […] Or even whether US companies should be allowed to export all that shale gas. […]

    Pingback by Hm, nice idea that. But somebody’s already doing it less well | My Blog — December 31, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

  2. […] Or even whether US companies should be allowed to export all that shale gas. […]

    Pingback by Hm, nice idea that. But somebody’s already doing it less well | Technology News — December 31, 2012 @ 11:09 pm

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