Possibly the worst argument for privatising part of the public sector is a supposed ‘need’ to reduce public sector debt. I think the problem with this argument is obvious to most economists, but as it is repeatedly ignored by politicians, it is worth spelling it out.
As I argued in a previous post, decisions to privatise or contract out should be based on considering the microeconomic pros and cons, which will vary from case to case. This analysis should include political economy considerations, like the extent of public sector corruption, or the ability of firms to extract rents from the public sector.
Suppose that such an analysis left the decision to privatise evenly balanced. Should macroeconomic factors, like the need to reduce public sector debt, ever be used to sway the decision in favour of privatisation? In our recent paper, Jonathan Portes and I argue (here or here) that a government should have some view about what the long run desirable level of public debt relative to GDP should be. Two arguments that could be used to argue for lower long term debt are that paying interest on debt requires raising taxes, which are ‘distortionary’ (they tend to reduce GDP and welfare), or that public debt may crowd out private capital and investment (assuming those are thought to be too low).
If we start out with public debt above its long run target, why not use privatisation to help get us towards that target? To see why that is nonsense, consider the two reasons for reducing debt given above. The first was to reduce the need to raise taxes to pay interest on that debt. While privatisation might reduce debt, it will also reduce future revenues or increase future public sector payments. Privatisation will either mean that the public sector loses the revenue that the privatised activity produced, or the private sector will have to be paid to undertake the outsourced activity. So the net impact on taxes will be zero.
What about the point that public debt may crowd out private investment? Once again privatisation does nothing to encourage additional private sector investment. All that happens is that existing capital and any investment that goes with it are relabelled private rather than public. No additional savings are released to encourage new private sector activity.
Consider an extreme example: Greece. The country is desperate to show that debt can be at least be brought to some sustainable level. So what is wrong with selling off some state asset, like part ownership of a water company for example, to help reduce this debt? Now there may or may not be good microeconomic reasons for doing this, but is there a good macro reason? Selling the asset would allow the Greek government to reduce its debt, but it would also have to raise future taxes, or cut future spending, to make up for the revenue lost from no longer owning that company. If microeconomic efficiency is unchanged, this sale would make no difference to the balance between taxes and spending required to make debt sustainable. Debt interest payments would fall, but so would receipts.
To make the same point another way, if we valued public sector assets and calculated the public sector’s net asset position, privatisation would have no effect on that net number. So why should anyone think that the position of the Greek government had been improved by this asset sale?
Obvious though this point may be, it illustrates a problem with most fiscal policy rules. Most rules need to involve what Jonathan and I call realisable operational targets: goals that politicians can aim for (and be judged by) within the lifetime of administrations and parliaments. Privatisation is one of a number of devices that flatter the short term public finances with no impact (or worse) on the long term position. (Considerably worse if the asset is sold far too cheaply, as in the most recent UK case for example.) Because fiscal rules inevitably focus on the next few years, politicians will always be tempted to use these devices to in effect cheat those rules. This is why it is vital to have effective fiscal councils to work alongside any rules. These independent institutions need to be able to shout when they believe only the letter and not the spirit of these rules is being met. The UK’s fiscal council, the OBR, does not have this kind of mandate, and can therefore only note when policies have this kind of effect (see here, paras 1.8-9).