Competition policy > privatisation policy

Business Standard, 21 March 2007

How important is privatisation in India? The first order issue is that of competition policy. When the government hinders competition by blocking entry or FDI, this is deeply damaging. Once competitive conditions are ensured, there are, indeed, benefits from shifting labour and capital to more efficient hands through privatisation, but this is a second order issue.

The difficulties of governments that run businesses are well-known:

These arguments have led many economists to advocate large-scale privatisation, so as to clear the slate, and get on with the task of building a mature market economy. The role model in this regard is Germany. After the collapse of communism and the unification of East and West Germany, an auction was held for selling off all East German PSUs. Negative bids were permitted; i.e. the government was willing to even pay a private manager to take over a loss-making business if no higher bid was to be found. Through this, Germany was able to erase the heritage of socialism, and get on with the task of running an efficient market economy.

While such a game plan is entirely feasible in India, the present Parliament desires no privatisation. Does this mean that in the immediate future, progress in economic policy on privatisation must merely wait for the next elections?

When we look at various industries in India, the gains from privatisation are quite heterogeneous. In some cases, there are hopelessly loss-making PSUs. These operate in industries where private and foreign firms have been able to come in, and the PSU has been left far behind the standards of quality and price set by the private sector. The PSUs should ideally have been sold off long ago, but today, these firms are irrelevant for the competitive dynamics of the industries that they operate in. The only issue is that of getting the land, the labour and some machinery out of public hands. When privatisation is achieved, India will benefit because the private buyer will produce more GDP using the same resources, and the flow of budgetary support to these firms will cease. The government should be happy to get these firms out of its hands with negative bids.

The next and most interesting category comprises industries like telecom, airlines and mutual funds. In these areas, India has witnessed the dramatic benefits that come from the entry of private players. Telecom and airline services in India are now dramatically improved, if not yet up to world-class, by changing rules in a way that permitted limited entry to domestic and foreign players. The privatisation of VSNL was critically important because it was part of the opening up the ILD sector to competition: the government would arguably have been more tardy in opening up if it had a vested interest through ownership of VSNL. However, the key innovation which broke with the stasis of socialism was opening up entry barriers -- not privatisation.

The full benefits from permitting foreign competitors, which are only present in muted fashion, remain to be harnessed. While Spicejet is a good airline, there are bigger benefits waiting to be obtained by having domestic flights run by Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. In these sectors, the defining issue in policy is the removal of entry barriers, not privatisation.

Looking forward, in some years, BSNL, MTNL, UTI and the merged airline could end up like one of the many defunct PSUs of today. It makes sense for the government to sell today, while the going is good. But the privatisation of these four firms is no longer the most important issue -- the further elimination of entry barriers faced by domestic and foreign firms is.

What does this tell us about banking? The decline in market shares of PSU banks, while helped along by strikes of PSU bank unions, has proceeded only slowly. This is partly because there is a fundamentally non-level playing field where private and foreign banks have deposit insurance for only Rs 1 lakh of deposits while PSU banks have unlimited deposit insurance. This gives one reason in favour of bank privatisation: it is inherently difficult to achieve competitive conditions without privatisation.

But equally, there is no industry in India where the licence-permit raj hinders entry more than in the case of banking. At a time when the Indian economy is booming, and every kind of business is being created, the one industry where we see no new firms starting up is banking. This has surely got to do with government restrictions on entry.

There is absolutely no industry in India where the opening of branch offices by foreign firms and private firms requires permission from the government. When Ford operates in India, it has to obey rules on FDI, but after that, it never has to go back to the government to take permission to open offices. What is worse, all foreign banks put together are given permission to open 12 branches per year in the full country. There is no worse instance where contemporary Indian policy-making is animated by ideas from the 1960s.

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