Why does a theory of competition matter for electricity regulation?

For the firms in regulated industries, for the regulators, for their customers, does the theory underlying the applied regulation matter? I think it matters a lot, even down in the real-world trenches of doing regulation, because regulation’s theoretical foundation influences what regulators and firms do and how they do it. Think about a traditional regulated industry like electricity — vertically integrated because of initial technological constraints, with technologies that enable production of standard electric power service at a particular voltage range with economies of scale over the relevant range of demand.

When these technologies were new and the industry was young, the economic theory of competition underlying the form that regulation took was what we now think of as a static efficiency/allocation-focused model. In this model, production is represented by a known cost function with a given capital-labor ratio; that function is the representation of the firm and of its technology (note here how the organization of the firm fades into the background, to be re-illuminated starting in the mid-20th century by Coase and other organizational and new institutional economists). In the case of a high fixed cost industry with economies of scale, that cost function’s relevant characteristic is declining long-run average cost as output produced increases. On the demand side, consumers have stable preferences for this well-defined, standard good (electric power service at a particular voltage range).

In this model, the question is how to maximize total surplus given the technology, cost function, and preferences. This is the allocation question, and it’s a static question, because the technology, cost function, and preferences are given. The follow-on question in an industry with economies of scale is whether or not competition, rivalry among firms, will yield the best possible allocation, with the largest total surplus. The answer from this model is no: compared to the efficient benchmark where firms compete by lowering price to marginal cost, a “natural monopoly” industry/firm/cost structure cannot sustain P=MC because of the fixed costs, but price equal to average cost (where economic profits are “normal”) is not a stable equilibrium. The model indicates that the stable equilibrium is the monopoly price, with associated deadweight loss. But that P=AC point yields the highest feasible total surplus given the nature of the cost function. Thus this static allocative efficiency model is the justification for regulation of prices and quantities in this market, to make the quantity at which P=AC a stable outcome.

The theory of competition underlying this regulatory model is the static efficiency model, that competition is beneficial because it enables rival firms to bid prices down to P=MC, simultaneously maximizing firm profits, consumer surplus, and output produced (all the output that’s worth producing gets produced). Based on this model, legislators, regulators, and industry all influenced the design of regulation’s institutional details — rate-of-return regulation to target firm profits at “normal” levels, deriving retail prices from that, and erecting an entry barrier to exclude rivals while requiring the firm to serve all customers.

So what? I’ve just argued that regulatory institutional design is grounded in a theory of competition. If institutional designers hold a particular theory about what competition does and how it does it, that theory will inform their design to achieve their policy objectives. Institutional design is a function of the theory of competition, the policy objectives, and the ability/interest of industry to influence the design. If your theory of competition is the static allocative efficiency theory, you will design institutions to target the static efficient outcome in your model (in this case, P=AC). You start with a policy objective or a question to explore and a theory of competition, and out of that you derive an institutional design.

But what if competition is beneficial for other reasons, in other ways? What if the static allocative efficiency benefits of competition are just a single case in a larger set of possible outcomes? What if the phenomena we want to understand, the question to explore, the policy objective, would be better served by a different model? What if the world is not static, so the incumbent model becomes less useful because our questions and policy objectives have changed? Would we design different regulatory institutions if we use a different theory of competition? I want to try to treat that as a non-rhetorical question, even though my visceral reaction is “of course”.

These questions don’t get asked in legislative and regulatory proceedings, but given the pace and nature of dynamism, they should.

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