Friday, May 18, 2007

The beleaguered president of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz, is to resign following allegations that he arranged preferential employment terms for his partner. In a deal reached to secure his resignation, the board of directors of the bank have announced that they accept that he acted 'ethically and in good faith'.

Corruption is undoubtedly a major cause of economic hardship in many countries in which the World Bank is engaged. The head of the organisation not only has to be squeaky clean in order to be effective in combatting such corruption - he or she has to be seen to be squeaky clean. Mr Wolfowitz may have been caught up in a labyrinth of World Bank regulations, he may have suffered by receiving ambiguous advice, and he may have done what he thought was right at the time. None of that matters. His moral authority to lead an organisation that is battling against corruption evaporated, and so he had to go.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability proposes an innovative cap-and-share scheme to reduce CO2 pollution. It works like this. The government sets an overall target for emissions, and allocates certificates to each adult in the country based on their share of these emissions. They can then take these to the bank (or presumably to somewhere like eBay) and sell them at the market rate. Firms that introduce polluting goods (that is, the producers or importers of coal, gas etc.) must then buy enough certificates from the bank (eBay, wherever) to cover their output, and their behaviour will be audited by government inspectors. Since these producers must pay for certificates, the cost of these certificates will be embedded in the costs of the polluters that use the coal, gas or whatever.

In many respects this is a similar scheme to existing emissions trading schemes. One difference is that the permits are allocated first to individuals, not to firms. Another is that it is the producers rather than the users of the polluting agents that pay - though of course they shift the incidence of this payment on to the users.

A neat feature of the proposal is that consumers are automatically compensated for higher energy prices. They receive payment for selling certificates. In terms of basic economics, there are two counterbalancing effects - an income effect and a substitution effect. Consumers' income rises (making them better off), and the price of energy increases (making them worse off). But because the relative price of energy rises (energy prices are higher but other prices stay the same), it is likely that less energy will be demanded.

Another neat feature is that the scheme introduces a limit to supply (like rationing), but does not impose the disbenefits of rationing on any individual. Individuals can consume what they want to consume, firms can produce what they want to produce - they might just have to pay a bit more to do so if it involves pollution. But the freedom to choose is preserved.

An intriguing feature of the scheme is the implication for secondary markets. If, at the end of a year, there is a shortage of certificates, petrol and other energy prices will rise. So there is likely to emerge a futures market for consumer purchases of fuel, as consumers try to insure themselves against such price hikes. What form this would take is the subject of fascinating speculation.

Are there any clear disadvantages? Sure. Compared with existing schemes, it will be bureaucratic. Relatively few firms are covered by emissions permit schemes; allocating certificates to 60 million individuals in the UK would necessarily be costly, given the need to ensure that the scheme is not compromised by forgery and other corruption.

So overall my judgement would be that this is an idea that has promise - but also it is one that requires more development before it is ready to be put into action. In particular, the benefit of allocating the certificates to individuals rather than to companies needs to be quite considerable in order to offset the likely costs.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Interest rates have risen again in the UK, to 5.5%. In view of the latest figures on inflation, this is quite modest, and one might have thought an increase to 5.75% would be more likely to provide the short sharp shock needed to bring down expectations of inflation. Perhaps the Monetary Policy Committee is hoping that today's will be the last increase needed. That would certainly be a favourable outcome - but it is one that relies on a measure of restraint on the part of wage negotiators.
Energy Watch is calling for discounts to be offered by electricity and gas companies to poorer households. The sentiment behind the call is laudable, of course. Whether this is the best way to achieve the social objectives that underpin the organisation's concern is, however, altogether another matter.

As a result of collecting data for tax purposes, the government is in a unique position to know which households are relatively well off and which require support. Power companies do not have this information, and are not in a position to collect it.

Moreover - and this is the key point - it is not at all clear that poorer households, if they are to be helped in some way, should be helped by cutting energy prices. For doing so distorts the signals that the price mechanism is designed to give. It artificially reduces the price of energy in relation to that of other goods, and that artificially boosts the amount of energy demanded. Such an artificial distortion is not desirable in its own right because it corrupts the allocation of resources in the economy. What's more, it is not a very environmentally friendly solution.

A much better solution exists. That is to give such households an income supplement through the tax or benefit system - then they can choose how they spend the extra resource.