Reducing the political cost of liberalisation

By Hafiz Noor Shams | June 02, 2011
The Malaysian Insider

JUNE 2 — A price-control mechanism has its economic cost, on top of that associated with the current subsidy regime in place in Malaysia. There are also some political costs to the control.

In tight times when commodities are becoming dearer, any government that dares to reset retail prices upwards invites public wrath.

There was talk of an early general election, but the rumour machines now suggest that the election will be held only later. The Barisan Nasional-led federal government needs room to manoeuvre before renewing its mandate.

The prime minister is under pressure to seek a mandate of his own. One has to remember that Datuk Seri Najib Razak is running on the 2008 mandate secured by the highly-unpopular Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Not only that, the prime minister also needs Barisan Nasional to do better than it did in the last general election. He must get the two-thirds majority in Parliament to prove that his government is better than the one led by his predecessor.

That is one of the ways the political cost matters. The political cost can affect cold but rational economic calculations. This is especially relevant for those whose conviction is measured by their appetite for adventure, or lack of adventure rather.

That makes it important to reduce the political cost of liberalisation lest the liberalisation agenda, however dissatisfyingly incomplete it is in its current form, be left high and dry.

The local political cost that exists is unfortunate because global economic reality largely ignores local political reality. In many cases, the increase in retail prices is inevitable amid rising world prices of various commodities.

The factors fuelling the hike are real: growing population, growing affluence and therefore growing demand. That is the current long-term trend. Mere business cycles neither erase nor change long-term trends by much.

There are some institutional issues affecting local retail prices as well. Without hurting the trustworthiness of the government, these problems have to be solved.

Liberalise the market instead of granting monopoly power to specific firms. Make the market open instead of having deals made in the shadows. Stop signing contracts that are grossly lopsided at the expense of public money. All that can lessen the degree of the hikes in the long run.

Yet, local issues just like short-term fluctuations are unlikely to drown out long-term trends. Until new technology, new culture and new alternatives prevail over old ones — or if total world population drops — prices will generally go up to clear the markets.

Because of the dissonance between local political and global economic realities, the political cost should be reduced so that both run parallel to each other. The political cost is a disincentive to good economic policy.

Democracy coupled with entitlement culture is a recipe for irresponsible populism. This is especially true for the fuel subsidy regime where the subsidy fixes the price ceiling and in effect subsidises everything between retail prices and world prices. Under this arrangement, the government risks hypothetically unlimited expenditure. The higher the world prices, the larger the subsidy bill.

So, how does one reduce the political cost?

The government can stop being the fall guy. To do so, the government needs to stop managing prices. Relax the control. Let prices float. Let the market take charge instead. Let those closest to the ground — the actual buyers and sellers — determine the prices.

Using the fuel subsidy as an example, the relaxation can exist together with fixed per unit subsidy regime rather than the current unfixed per unit subsidy.

In this way, the subsidy burden shouldered by the government will remain constant given a consumption level. Any increase or decrease in retail prices will be due to market forces only.

This particular arrangement will reduce the political cost faced by a liberalising government by making the link between prices and primary market participants clearer. Prices will no longer be linked to the government. With the government out of the way, then perhaps the government will receive less flak.

The question of subsidy reduction itself will not even surface because increase in world prices will not increase the subsidy bill given the level of consumption. Indeed, a typical model will suggest that an increase in world prices might actually decrease the total subsidy bill due to decreased consumption.

In the end with less flak, perhaps the liberalisation agenda can go farther down the road without unnecessary undue erosion of political capital.

* Hafiz Noor Shams sometimes swears a little at

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