Recently I have been thinking about inland freight and logistics to see how this affects Australia’s seaports. Volumes may be constrained by production factors – you can only grow what you can grow when the environment allows you to grow it – but where these volumes go can be determined by these inland costs.
Policy can have consequences as NSW’s freight and logistics strategy shows. Improvements in freight handling and inland cargo aggregation can reduce costs. Some of these improvements reduce the cost of multi modal handling, as well as reduce the cost of line haul by mode – whether that is by rail or road.
For an economist like me it is a relative comparison game. Relatively lower costs will shift the movement of commodities from one mode to another, as well as shift the direction of commodities. Subject, of course, to existing commercial agreements.
However this is not the only story. The other story is around the development of vertically and horizontally integrated businesses that develop their own end-to-end freight and logistics systems. This means they are able to profit maximize by using less profitable parts of their networks to feed the more profitable parts. These firms are also taking equity stakes in their clients.
This is different to geographically and modally constrained freight and logistics operators – they have to maximize efficiency of throughput at a single point or along the linear operation of a particular mode. They certainly do not own parts of their client’s operations. Also, singular operations cannot transfer price because the other parts of the network or system are owned by other parties, and often singular operations cannot aggregate the volumes of goods required to develop leverage over prices.
This article also provides a gratuitous opportunity to show some of the canola fields near my home town in the South West Slopes region of NSW. I took this picture last week on a visit there. Primary production remains an important part of the freight task, albeit a volatile one that is hostage to world demand, weather and yields.
While working recently in Kuwait, I was privileged to be invited to a diwaniya (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dewaniya) along with colleagues from my project team. This type of forum is fairly unique to Kuwait and it a key element of their civil society.
For around an hour we discussed industry policy with a number of leading lights from Kuwait’s business community. I learned a lot from them. The discussion took our project team beyond the numbers and statistics we were considering to just how the reforms might actually be implemented. The exchanges were robust but expressed in good humour and with great politeness.
I think these kinds of gatherings are extremely important in shaping consensus. Kuwait has hundreds of diwaniyas and candidates for public office often seek to turn up at as many as possible around election time. In my view, it removes a lot of the adversarial nature that characterises public discourse in Western countries. Where hard decisions are needed to effect significant change, a consensus based approach may deliver better outcomes than a crash or crash though approach.
Australia used to do evidence-based, consensus-driven public policy quite well. It was grounded in clearly explaining the need for change. I fear now that the people putting themselves forward for public office are increasingly driven more by populism and a startling touch of irrationality.
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.