Utility Regulation: The bad, the ugly and the good.

Summary: in an attempt to solve one problem, the regulation of public utilities unwittingly introduces another, potentially much worse one. But there is hope – we also discuss a potential improvement.

The Bad: Unregulated Natural Monopolies

Water, electric and natural gas utilities are often used as an example of natural monopolies – a service where the economies of scale are so great that it is efficient to only have one supplier in an area. This company would then be incentivized to charge inefficiently high prices, causing deadweight loss, as they prevent some customers from purchasing who otherwise would have at a competitive price. As such, people argue, they need to be regulated by the government, to ensure they don’t charge so high a price. As an added benefit, the regulation can ensure that they serve everyone in the service area, including those in hard-to-reach rural areas.

Which sounds very nice in theory. Unfortunately, in trying to fix this problem, regulation introduces another problem.

The Ugly: How Utilities are regulated in the United States

At present utilities are basically allowed to earn a profit on whatever services their regulator thinks they should provide. So the utility identifies certain projects that need to be done – putting in new transmission lines, or substations, or generation1, and present these projects to their regulator. The regulator approves the projects, and approves an ROE – (Return on Equity) – for the utility. The collection of approved and completed projects is called the utility’s Rate Base. The utility is then allowed to charge its customers enough to cover its costs and earn that ROE on its Rate Base.

So if a utility identifies a $100m project, and is awarded a 10% ROE, they make the investment, and then can charge customers enough to cover both their direct costs (labor, fuel, taxes etc.) and earn a $100m*10% = $10m profit on top.

This profit is very stable – it’s been granted to you by the government, who won’t allow anyone to compete with you2 – so investors are happy to fund the project. In fact, they’d be happy to fund the project even at lower ROEs – why ROEs have stayed high while interest rates have fallen is a mystery with basically no explanation other than regulatory capture. Suppose investors required a mere 6% return – then the extra 4%, or $4m in the above example, is pure monopoly profit – exactly what regulation was meant to avoid occurring!

But that’s not the main problem.

Utilities are not really businesses.

Normal businesses make money by selling stuff to customers for more than it cost them to make. If they can cut costs – use less of the earth’s precious resources – they can make more profits, either by earning more per unit or charging customers less and selling more units. As such, firms are incentivized to be as efficient as possible.

With utilities, however, you’ll notice this is not true. They’re allowed to charge customers enough to cover their costs and make a profit – if they cut costs, their regulator will make them return the savings to customers by lowering price. So utilities don’t really have any incentive to cut costs.

Worse, if they cut costs they might end up over-earning – earning a higher profit than their regulator has allowed – in which case they’ll be made to give money back to customers. To avoid this happening, utilities are deliberately wasteful in their operating expenses to ensure they can control exactly how high their costs are. They deliberately waste resources.3

But this is not even the worst part.

Remember how we discussed the $100m project earlier? It’s well known that the cost of construction projects is hard to estimate – government projects routinely go 100% over-budget. Well, what happens if instead of a $100m project, it was a $500m project? The utility would be allowed to earn a 10% on its Rate Base of $500m, or a $50m profit. So by building a more expensive and less efficient project, the utility makes 5x as much profit. And this is not idle speculation – utilities deliberately do this.

As a result, utilities are basically on a constant mission to find as many capital projects as possible, and to pay as much for them as possible. They spend twice as much to build a power plant as competitive firms spend to build one of the same type and capacity.

So regulation has taken one problem – utilities charging a high price and earning high profits – and replaced it with a far worse one – utilities charging a high price, earning reasonable profits but wasting most of the money on unnecessary spending. At least with unregulated monopolies someone benefits!

It’s possible that a similar thing might be happening with healthcare insurance companies now, as maximum Medical Loss Ratios mean that spending on drugs/treatments/etc. increases the amount they’re allowed to profit, but this is a relatively new issue for them – only becoming nationwide with obamacare. Utilities, on the other hand, have had this trouble for about 100 years.

The Good: How to save money by allowing unlimited profits

The problem is that utilities basically operate on a cost-plus basis. Here’s a simple alternative.

  • The utilities is allowed to charge a certain amount – either a total revenue sum or a per-kWh amount. This will rise by 1% a year.
    • Slightly below the current rate of increase. Alternatively you could tie this to inflation, say CPI -1%
  • The utility is legally obliged to connect all customers within its service territory.
  • The utility is fined for every blackout, with the fine set by a formula (e.g. $15/kWh not provided, which is roughly 100x what they would have charged for that kWh).

Now the utility is incentivized to be as efficient as possible. It can’t raise prices, but every dollar of savings will increase its profits. All of a sudden it goes from being a sleepy and inefficient company, whose only purpose is corrupting the regulator, to being a lean cost-cutting machine, dedicated to supplying electricity as efficiently and reliably as possible.

How should the initial revenue allowance be set? As we already have utilities, it would probably make sense to keep their current revenue allowance. It will take time for them to reform their infrastructure and become more efficient.

But if you were building the system anew, you might auction off regions. So you’d ask different companies to submit bids for the right to become the utility for an area, and accept the company who asked for the lowest revenue requirement. You don’t have to worry about their cutting corners, because electricity is homogeneous, and they’re massively penalized for any lack of reliability.

Unfortunately this would be politically vulnerable. If a highly competent management team reduced costs by 50%, they could increase their profit margins from 20% to 60%, and raise their ROE from 10% to 30%. Customers would see their bills continue to rise (albeit below inflation) and blame the profit-gouging utility. Voters might then pressure the politicians to steal from the utility, which cannot threaten to leave the area. The only way the utility can respond is by lobbying and obfuscating their profits, which basically gets us back to where we are now – highly inefficient cost structures so that profits look small compared to costs. Still, it’s worth thinking about what an enlightened electorate, or benevolent dictator, could do. And actually this is a little like what FERC is doing with transmission in RTOs.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy How not to reform the insurance industry and The Future of Socialism is Privatizing the Atmosphere.


  1. Outside of the North East and Texas, where generation is operates in a semi-competitive market 
  2. I hear you asking: “If it’s a natural monopoly, why does the government need to prevent competition?” 
  3. Source: conversations with CEOs, CFOs, regulators etc. of utility companies. 

The Future of Socialism is Privatizing the Atmosphere

Scott recently wrote a quite interesting review of John Roemer’s ‘Future for Socialism’. It sounds rather like Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Funnily enough his vision for socialism also reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s plan for property-owning democracy. I haven’t read the underling book, so I can’t comment on that, but I can talk about Scott’s writing. More importantly, it provides an excellent excuse to talk about how to save the environment by privatizing the atmosphere.

Central planning could never work, so a socialist economy doesn’t need it. Bosses and managers seem to be doing a good job keeping their firms profitable, so they can all keep their jobs under socialism. Everyone has different skills, so clearly in a truly socialist system they deserve different wages, in fact whatever wage the market will bear.

…you give everyone an equal amount of these stocks. When the corporations make money, they pay them out in the form of stock dividends, which go to the people/stockholders. So every year I get a check in the mail representing my one-three-hundred-millionth-part share of all the profits made by all the corporations in the United States.

We’ll assume that when Scott says ‘Stock Dividend’, he actually means ‘non-stock dividend.’ A stock dividend is when a company gives extra shares to its existing shareholders. This increases the number of shares outstanding, but has no real economic impact. What Scott presumably means is ‘cash dividend’, which is when a company gives cash to all its shareholders.

However, this immediately opens up a problem with the next part.

Roemer proposes a law that stocks cannot be sold for money, only coupons and other stocks. Every citizen is given an equal number of coupons at birth, trades them for stocks later on, and then trades those stocks for other stocks. This allows smart citizens to invest wisely, and allows a sort of “stock market” that sends the correct signals (this business’s stock price is decreasing so maybe they’re doing something wrong) but doesn’t allow stock accumulation by wealthy capitalists.

While I applaud Roemer’s attempt to make use of the valuable signals sent by prices, his plan for preventing people from selling their shares won’t work. If such a policy was instigated, there would probably be strong demand from people for a way to turn their shares into cash. They’d even be willing to accept a discount for the sake of the liquidity cash offers. So some companies would sell all their assets and pay out all the money as one massive liquidation dividend. By announcing this in advance, the company would basically become a way to turn your shares into cash – just swap your other shares for its shares, and then wait for the single massive dividend.

In this system, businesses would raise funds not by selling stock but by seeking loans from banks.

This is where it really gets crazy. Earlier on Scott said that companies would pay out all their profits as dividends. So they can’t issue new equity, and they can’t retain the profits they’ve earned: companies would eventually become 100% debt financed. As soon as they hit the slightest downturn, without a buffer of equity to absorb losses, they would all go bankrupt. And bring the banks down with them. Then you have zero companies, shareholders would envy those who got their money out before the end, and the living would envy the dead.

So perhaps we’ll lighten the requirement that companies have to pay out all their profits. Companies that routinely raise new equity will be in trouble, like tech companies, but lets assume they solve that problem. Utilities also rely on continued equity issuance, so we won’t be able to charge our devises anyway.

More seriously, this would present massive problems for new companies. Or rather, it would prevent there being any new companies. The way you found a company is by investing some money and becoming the owner of a startup – effectively, the startup sells stock to you. Without this, there’s no way to found a new company. So we have a finite number of companies, that occasionally go bankrupt, take each other over, or liquidate themselves. These companies own all the factors of production, leading to a less and less competitive economy, dominated by a couple of few firms, with absolutely no fear of new entrants shaking up their cosy oligopolies.

So there are some problems with Roemer’s ideas. In fairness to Scott, he spots a lot of other problems himself, and he doesn’t even have an economics background. In fairness to Roemer, perhaps Scott misrepresented him. Lets just say that Roemer-as-paraphrased-by-Scott’s plan has some serious disadvantages.

However, it did make me think of an interesting idea I had a while ago. Here is an way of using joint-stock corporations to solve collective action problems.

How to solve the problem of pollution by privatizing the atmosphere.

At the moment, people are incentivized to over-pollute. If my factory releases dangerous emissions, I get much of the benefit, in the form of profits from selling my product (along with my customers, employees, suppliers etc.) I pay only a fraction of the costs though – most of the pollution effects other people. Since I gain much of the benefit, and little of the cost, I tend to pollute too much.

The problem here is one of negative externalities. Equivalently, it the tragedy of the commons. And what is the solution to the tragedy of the commons? Privatization. If one person owns the field, they have the right incentive to preserve its value.

Similarly, we could privatize the atmosphere. People who wanted to use the air (say, by breathing, or burning fuel) would be charged a fee. This would cause them to internalize the external cost, and restore efficiency to the market for pollution.

Of course, this would be rather difficult to administer. How are we going to charge people for breathing? Do people get charged more for having bigger lungs? If people fall behind on their payments, do we cut off their oxygen? Doing so would plausibly count as theft, as currently they enjoy use-rights to the air.

Fortunately, this can easily be solved. Simply give everyone shares in AeroCorp. Because AeroCorp gets most of its money from coal plants and gasoline companies, it pays a dividend each year well in excess of the breathing price. So everyone’s breaths are just netted against the dividend, and they never have to send any money to AeroCorp. Because polluters now have to pay AeroCorp to emit pollutants, they’re less keen to do so, and the negative externality problem is solved.

We could even have a dual share class system. Every human is given a single A-share at birth. These are non-transferable, dilution-protected, and their purpose is to ensure that everyone can afford to breathe. We also have B-shares. These have the same voting and dividend rights as A-shares, but are transferable and dilutable. These are initially auctioned off in a standard IPO. They money raised will be used to fund AeroCorp’s operating expenses. Trading in these shares would ensure price discovery, efficient capital allocation and allow secondary issuance.

There some problems with this system. For example, the firm would be a monopolist, so would tend to charge polluters too high a fee. As such, society would actually end up underpolluting.

Additionally, we need to ensure the two share classes don’t take advantage of one another. There are probably more A-shares than B-shares, but B-shares will be more closely attended to.

One strategy B-shareholders could use would be to have AeroCorp buyback stock. Ordinarily this would be fine – it would raise the value of A-shares. However, in this instance we’re relying on the dividends paid to B-shares to cover the oxygen charge.

A strategy A-shareholders could use would be to insist on new equity issuance, diluting B-shareholders, then paying out the funds raised as a dividend, thereby benefitting themselves.

These two problems could be solved in an attractively symmetrical fashion by giving the B-shares a veto over buybacks and giving the A-shares a veto over new equity issuance.