Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Does competition get rid of waste in the private sector?

It is very common to hear comments about the waste of resources when referring to governments and the public sector. Paul Krugman does his best to argue against this popular view by showing that most of what government do is related to services that we demand and value as a society (it is not about hiring civil servants that produce no useful service). As he puts it, the government is an "insurance company with an army". But critics will argue that even if this is the case, the functioning of that (public) insurance company is extremely inefficient. In fact, we all have our list of anecdotes on how governments waste resources, build bridges to nowhere and how politicians are driven by their own interest, their ambitions or even worse pure corruption. If only we could bring the private sector to manage these services!

In addition to the anecdotal evidence there is something else that matters: we tend to use framework that starts with the assumption that in the private sector competition will get rid of waste. An inefficient company will be driven out of business by an efficient one. An inefficient and corrupt manager will be replaced by one who can get the work done. And we believe that the same does not apply to governments (yes, there are elections but they do not happen often enough plus there is no real competition there).

But is competition good enough to get rid of all the waste and inefficiencies in the private sector? I am sure there are many instances where this is the case but I am afraid there are also plenty of cases where competition is not strong enough. And just to be clear, I am not simply talking about large companies that abuse monopoly power, I am thinking of all the instances where the competitive threat is not enough to eliminate inefficiencies. 

I think this applies to financial institutions: the financial crisis has undermined our perception that these institutions were acting in the benefit of their shareholders (even Alan Greenspan said so). Profits and rents going to that sector (and to a reduced group of individuals) did not seem justified by the value they added. Why don't we see entry of new banks? Why don't we see new entrants taking over this market, finding the necessary funding to build scale and attracting the depositors or investors of the current established institutions? Why don't we see new CEOs rising to the leadership of these institutions with a platform that promises to behave in a different way and possibly be much better at maximizing the creation of long-term value? It must be that competition is not strong enough.

Same in the healthcare sector: How good is the private sector at managing healthcare? Are medical doctors truly competing with each other (in both quality and price)? Luckily we can find some data here from Uwe Reinhardt on excess costs in US health spending that include among other things $190 billion of excess administrative costs.

But this table looks to me like an exception, but not an exception in the sense that we do not find similar waste in other sectors, we simply do not know about it, we do not even attempt to measure it (at least at the macro level). And the reason why we do not bother measuring it is because we assume that markets and competition must make this number close enough to zero. Maybe it is time to challenge this assumption.

Antonio Fatás
on September 18, 2013 |   Edit