Category Archives: Lytton Advisory

The Rent Economy

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I am currently on assignment Kuwait, one of the oil drenched Gulf states. The economic incentives at play here are unlike anything I have ever seen. At university years ago we spent a couple of hours in undergraduate economics talking about rent seeking – looking for an economic gain without a reciprocal return to society through wealth creation.

Laid out before me is a whole economy resting on this premise and driven by the distribution of oil rents. Kuwait has been pumping around 3 million barrels of oil a day and is targeting 4 million  with some urgency now oil prices have collapsed. Currently this earns them an oil rent (after costs of production and depending on the price) around US$60 million a day. When oil prices were over US$100 a barrel they were getting US$300 million a day. Kuwait has one of the highest dependencies on oil – some 93% of its revenues come from oil rents.

Some indicative figures provide context. The population of Kuwait is about 3 1/2 million people.  Around one third of residents are Kuwaiti citizens, the vast majority of the remainder are guest workers. Guest workers remit around A$25 billion a year to their home countries. This is equivalent to 55% of the Kuwait national budget. Nine in ten Kuwaiti citizens are employed by the government. The country rests on a cash reserve of around US$600 billion.

All businesses, with a few limited exceptions, are required to be 51% owned by Kuwaitis. So there are a range of business partnerships that are not strictly commercial but compliance-based. At any stage, the dominant partner can take control of the business.

This creates some very peculiar incentives. Lack of permanency for guest workers provides little incentive to save, spend or invest in Kuwait. So Kuwait misses out on retaining a significant proportion of their remittances.

With significant reserves in the ground – over 75 years – there is little incentive to move away from this rent-seeking model and the inherent imbalances it introduces. However in the long term that transition will be necessary.

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out over time.

 

The Mouse that Roars

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In the heart of the Kingdom of the Mouse at EPCOT today.  Disney certainly has already created an immersive environment.  It is a fully enclosed micro economy.  The main point is that it is an opt-in environment.  A flick of a switch, a click of a mouse and the consumer can easily be somewhere else.  Disney is very shrewd with its franchises but they are only surface tales of eternal stories.  Their ability is to tell them to mass markets. Coincidentally The Economist had a piece on the Magic Kingdom, here.

American Infrastructure

us-mapFew countries epitomise individualism and free markets as much as the United States. Large swathes of the economy are given over to commercial activity. The US is a global leader in investment, innovation and infrastructure systems. Also, a lot of infrastructure in the US has been privately developed, delivered and run over a long period of time.

Which is why it might be surprising that the last Report Card (2013) by the American Society for Civil Engineers so poor. One would have thought eagle eyed investors could create assets to address infrastructure needs. The engineers actually gave America a D+ and stated that by 2020 investment of some US$3.6 trillion is required. That is around US$11,250 for every man, woman and child. The next review is in 2017.

In contrast, the Institute of Engineers in Australia gave Australia a grade of C+ in 2010 on the back of a possible deficit in infrastructure spending of A$770 billion. That is around A$32,000 for every man, woman and child in Australia. It seems we need even more than our American cousins.

So who is doing better? It is hard to tell without know what assets each country already has.  I suspect the level of future investment is partly a function of increasing demand and the need to replace of existing assets. It will be good to get some first hand insights when I am in the US in December.