Friday, June 24, 2011

Competition's essential role in development

Two weeks ago I spent a weekend at Jamaica Grande with my son. I forgot to take my camera with me and therefore asked one of the roving photographers to take a picture of us, so that we could have a record of our time there. When leaving I went to the photo shop (not operated by Jamaica Grande) and asked for two copies of the pictures to be placed on a compact disc (CD), so that I could have a digital copy. To my surprise the attendant informed me that that could not be done, and I would have to purchase printed copies, as the policy is that only if you purchase five or more copies could it be placed on CD.

I wondered to myself who in this day and age keeps printed copies of pictures, and secondly if the problem is the cost of the CD why not just tell me that I would have to pay for the CD, which surely costs under J$100 and I think would cost less than the printing and paper cost. Instead the attendant was adamant that it could not be done. I therefore left without purchasing the copies, and the photo shop ended up with digital copies that they didn't recover any cost for.

This is reminiscent of the way Cable and Wireless behaved when they were the sole mobile provider. Those old enough will remember the days when to call another cell phone was like taking out a mortgage on a house: what is more, the person receiving the call would pay also. Even before that time, for those even older, I remember when one applied for landline service a woman could have two children before the phone service was connected.

When Digicel entered the market in the 1990s it changed the whole landscape. Finally there was competition and there was no need for any regulations for consumer protection, as competition and the drive for market share and profitability ensured that the consumer became king. It is therefore logical that if the market is open to even further competition, through number portability for example, the consumer will benefit even more. Additionally the market will grow as more money will be spent on advertising and infrastructure development.

We have similar situations where (1) the JPS is the monopoly distributor for electricity; (2) NWC is a monopoly; and (3) the banking sector is effectively closed and does not allow for more flexibility in fees and interest charges. The result of the lack of adequate competition in these areas means less benefit for the consumer, or in the case of the JPS or NWC, you either pay for the service or do without.

What we have failed to realise as a country, however, is that the way to solve the plight of the consumer, when it comes to monopolies, is not to regulate, regulate, and regulate, but rather to open up the market to competition. So in the 1930s the great USA realised the problem with monopolies and they passed the Sherman Act, which controlled monopolistic tendencies. Or across Europe and the USA when two large entities seek to merge they first have to get the blessing of the authorities, who will not approve the merger if they believe it will lead to monopolistic tendencies .

In Jamaica, however, we never seem to try to solve market distortions by creating more efficient markets through competition. Rather what we do is seek to regulate it. So instead of trying to assist consumers suffering from high electricity or telephone rates we talk about giving more power to the OUR, rather than spending our energies discussing how to create a more competitive market and greater market efficiency. It seems that even though we talk about the benefits consumers have gained from the liberalisation of the telecommunications market, we don't seek to emulate it. Is it any wonder then that we have suffered from economic stagnation since the 1970s or significant fiscal and trade deficits?

The only way for economies to develop is through competition. Even communist China has realised this, and is the fastest-growing economy in the world and one of the most competitive.

Competition, of course, should never be unbridled but should have oversight. If left unchecked we could end up with another global economic crisis, but it is important that as many players as possible be allowed to participate. The regulators should act as referees in a football match who do not interfere with the free flow of play but who ensure fairness.

This need for market efficiency through competition is one of the primary reasons why Jamaica has failed to realise its full market potential. During the 1960s we had a lot of development, not because government picked winners (as we have sought to do since the 1970s) but rather because the enabling environment was created and we watched the private sector expand the economy. It seems, though, that since the 1970s our governments have had a socialistic tendency towards economic management.

When I spoke about the need for a paradigm shift in my book, it wasn't only a shift in government policy, but rather the need for a cultural shift and the way that we approach market development. Jamaica will never truly develop until we allow for an environment where greater competition is allowed and the best companies are allowed to survive and the worst ones to fail, as they should. Otherwise what we have is market distortion, which leads to a stagnant economy and finds its way into fiscal and trade deficits.

So at the end of the day, to go back to the example I started with: if there were two photo shops beside each other, what would have been the possible outcome of the interaction I had with them? In my view the story would have had the following outcome.

Both would first ensure that they had well trained photographers with the best cameras, taking pictures of all the guests. They might then go further in marketing the pictures to the guests by creating some link to display the pictures to the television sets in the guest rooms and offering some kind of package actively. They might even offer that the payment could be made through the internet and the pictures delivered electronically. One thing is sure: is they would never set a minimum purchase before one could get digital copies on CD.

So at the end of the day we would have (i) a better trained work force; (ii) a better paid workforce; (iii) greater market activity and efficiency; (iv) greater infrastructure investment; (v) more market information; (vi) increased corporate profits; and (vii) higher standard of living and consumer satisfaction. All from a little competition.

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