Archive for March 2013

Electricity Prices Highlight the Benefits of Markets and Choice

March 28, 2013

Four of the six New England states (CT,ME, MA and NH) had lower average retail prices for residential electricity customers in January of 2013 than they did in January of 2012 (chart below).

Chang in Avg Retail Price of Electricity

Most of that is a result of the increasing sales into the region’s electricity market  of electricity generated by natural gas which is priced lower than the electricity generated using other sources.  The decline in the average price in NH is smaller than in some other states but it could have been, and could still be,  larger if retail competition in the residential electricity market takes hold.   The chart below shows the average cost of retail electricity for residential customers in the continental United States in January of 2013.  New Hampshire and all of New England have among the highest average rates but based on the contract information from the largest competitive suppliers of residential electricity in New Hampshire, the average price would be significantly lower (at least until November of 2013) for those who choose the lowest rates available from competitive suppliers (other higher rates are available that let customers choose to purchase a higher percentage of electricity generated from ‘green” sources).

Avg Residential Price of Electrictyby State

I was going to make this a much longer post and include a discussion of why the warnings by some about an “over-reliance” on natural gas in the region are overstated but not inaccurate (the natural gas pipeline limitations to the region are real but more likely to be remedied than not with increased natural gas usage in the region) but I will save that for another day.  The reputation and belief in free(er) markets and competition have taken a beating over the past several years so  for now I am just going to enjoy highlighting  of  one of their recent successes.

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Gasoline Taxes, Prices, and Price Differentials

March 27, 2013

Policymakers often assume that sales and excise taxes are the primary reason for variations in the price of goods and they too often assume that consumers consider differences in tax rates across jurisdictions when making purchases rather than differences in the total price (tax plus non-tax price) of a good.  A good example was the $.10 drop in NH’s cigarette tax in 2010.   Some thought the decrease would be a beacon to NH for consumers.  But the decline did nothing to lower the price of cigarettes in NH because manufacturers increased their price by an equivalent amount immediately after the tax decrease (effectively capturing the revenue that would have gone to the State of NH).  I did a fair amount of gloating in an early post as the revenue numbers reflected my predictions. Consumers saw no price break and no major changes occurred in other states so no increases in competitive advantage for retailers occurred in NH (retailers saw no benefit) and the longer-term trend of declining smoking rates (along with a things like higher gasoline prices and fewer visitors to the state) were the primary determinants of sales trends, and thus lower revenues.

The demand for gasoline, like cigarettes, is relatively inelastic so it takes a surprisingly large price increase to change consumption very much but differences in prices among  locations may shift the location of some gasoline sales where consumers can conveniently choose where to make their purchases.  I can buy gasoline as easily in Maine as in NH and with a little more effort I can also buy in MA.  I often can get gasoline as or even a bit cheaper in MA than in the town where I live,  but I can’t get gasoline cheaper in Maine.  I can also get gasoline  cheaper if I drive a few miles to towns just north and south of me, or even to a gasoline station on the other side of town.   These price differences are often $.10 per gallon and occur among retailers of similar types – i.e. gasoline stations with a convenience store, the same brand convenience store selling the same brand of gasoline.   Nevertheless, when I look at the average price of gasoline between neighboring states (with some exceptions like California where environmental regulations have large retail price impacts), the differences in price appear  to be strongly related to differences in state tax rates (r=.82).  Comparing statewide average prices and tax rates for gasoline masks much of the variation in pricing that occurs within states and even within communities.  That is one reason why I think policymakers focus so much on tax rates as the primary reason for price differences.

State Gasoline Prices

Despite all of the attention to gasoline prices and proposals to raise or lower gasoline taxes over the past decade there has been surprisingly little research on the retail price impacts (or “pass-through” effects) of changes in gasoline taxes.  That may be because changes in gasoline taxes are relatively small (usually a few cents) compared to the much larger price changes that occur as a result of  supply/demand issues and variations in the world-wide price of oil.  The chart below shows how gasoline prices in NH have changed since 2004 and it also shows the theoretical price if the state had no excise tax on gasoline.  The red line shows the theoretical prices because, like cigarettes, retail prices may or may not be reduced by an equivalent amount if the gasoline tax were lowered.

Monthly NH Gasoline Prices

The theory of tax incidence suggests that sales and excise taxes should be fully passed on to consumers in competitive markets with constant marginal costs.  Less than full “pass-though” is expected in markets with increasing marginal costs, while the pass-through rate may be less than, or greater than, one-hundred percent in markets that are less competitive.  In addition, tax increases in one state may lead to higher prices across the border as stations there face greater demand.  A study examining a temporary reduction and reinstatement of a 5% gasoline tax in Illinois (sorry I can’t find the reference)  found that that when the 5% tax was eliminated, prices declined by 3% and when the tax was reinstated prices rose by 4%.

Politicos are looking to score big points for their positions on gasoline taxes.  There was a time when whatever marginal changes lawmakers made to gasoline taxes may have meant a lot to changes in prices at the pump.  Right now, and in the future, changes in world-wide oil markets are likely to overwhelm  any impacts from changes in state taxes and  together with the uncertainty over the degree of pass-through, make any predictions about the economic impacts of gasoline tax hikes nearly impossible.

Funding Roads and Bridges to Perdition

March 25, 2013

Gasoline taxes, road tolls and highway infrastructure spending are issues at the forefront of a lot of heated debates in state legislatures across the country.  I am going to write about the issue a couple of times this week.   Some lawmakers want to raise sales or other taxes to pay for infrastructure and others want to increase gasoline taxes and other “user fees” to pay for it.   The highway infrastructure spending and revenue issue can illustrate classic principles of sound fiscal and economic policy so it is too bad that the debates have generally taken the “low road” by framing the issue almost entirely as either one of “who wants to raise taxes and who doesn’t,” or “who wants to makes roads and bridges safe and who doesn’t”.

User fees are a good thing and it is sound fiscal policy to have the users of roads pay for them via gasoline taxes, road tolls, and other fees that reflect an individual’s usage of roads and bridges.  When general revenues are used to pay for roads and bridges people who don’t necessarily use them wind-up paying for a portion of highways and subsidize the usage of roads of those who travel them a lot.  When you subsidize something you can bet you are going to get more of it than you would have gotten without the subsidy and in this case that means more travel on roads which, of course, means there will be more need for roads and spending on roads and that means more subsidy and that approach is surely a road to perdition.

It was nice to see New Hampshire rank high in a recent report (issue brief) by the Tax Foundation on the percentage of  highway spending that is funded by user fees like gasoline taxes, tolls and other fees.  Unfortunately, in making good points about user fees, the Foundation draws the wrong conclusion about the data it uses to make them.  That happens a lot when you use bivariate analysis to draw conclusions in a multivariate world.  Instead, using multivariate (regression) analysis on the data, it becomes clear that it is less the use of good principles of fiscal policy that results in states paying for a higher percentage of the costs of highways with user fees, than it is a function of the volume of federal government grants they receive.  So a cursory look at the Tax Foundation’s report can give NH a sense of superiority in fiscal policy over many states (while I generally think that is true about NH it is not so much in this case),  and especially over Vermont because that state funds just under 20% of its highway spending with user fees compared to NH’s 42%.  The real reason those percentages are what they are is that Vermont receives about 64% more federal highway funds per capita than does NH ($220 to $134 in 2010). The chart below shows the simple relationship between the percentage of highway spending in a state that is funded by gas taxes and user fees and the amount of federal highway funding per capita in each state.

User fees and Fed funds

States like NH that fund a higher percentage of highway expenditures with user fees do generally receives lower amounts of highway funds from the feds (the data point slope downward to the right).  There are even more intervening variables, like the amount of federal highways (by mile) and as a percentage of all highways that are in a state but still, by far, the amount of federal highway funding per capita is the best predictor of the volume of highway spending per capita in each state. The amount of motor vehicle-related user fees per capita were a distant second but still significantly related to highway spending.

Fed Highway per capita

Almost everyone agrees that NH’s (and every other state’s) roads and bridges are in need but I don’t think the debate is ever going to be about the wisdom of user fees versus general revenues in paying for highway infrastructure.  It is too bad because if it were we just might reduce the need for more spending in the future.

E-Commerce’s Small % of Sales Has Big Implications

March 21, 2013

Total retail sales increased modestly last Christmas season (4.0% higher in QIV than in QIV  2011) while e-commerce (Internet) retail sales  increased 15.6% during the same time period.   E-commerce sales are still a relatively small percentage of total retail sales but some of that is a function of the percentage of consumer goods that will never be sold over the Internet (don’t look for free shipping and returns on gasoline or boneless chicken soon).  E-commerce now accounts for about 5.4% of retail sales, a new record.

e commerce sales

E-commerce sales are an interesting issue for a lot of reasons. It portends heavyweight policy battles over the taxation of e-commerce and brick and mortar sales as well as policy debates over taxing the source or destination of sales.  It also has longer-term implications for the demand for commercial real-estate, the usage, mix and look of downtowns, malls, and probably the nature of a good percentage of our socialization and interactions, but that won’t be apparent for some time.   For someone who doesn’t like to shop (and even for those who do), e-commerce essentially reduces the cost (time and travel etc.) of shopping and comparison shopping to near zero, so it has the potential to increase the time available for other activities.   That could be a good thing, but if it reduces the time we spend walking through our downtown or otherwise interacting with our communities so that we can get to know a thousand more people infinitely less well on-line, I ‘m not sure it makes that much of a contribution.   To the upside, e-commerce has given a lot of us yet another  reason not to try-on the clothes or shoes we buy.

The data in the chart above shows that while e-commerce sales dipped during the recession, they continued to increase their percentage of total retail sales.  That means they dipped less than overall retail sales.  There are tremendous long-term implications for the growth in e-commerce and that  prompts more than a few questions in my mind:

  • Are consumers especially motivated to comparison and price shop on-line during recessions or in weaker economic times?  Does a weaker economy convert more sales to e-commerce?  I look at state level data and use quarterly industry earnings data to estimate state-level retail sales in some states and noted that NH’s retail sales fell less than neighboring states during the recession.  A result I attribute, in part, to the 5% or greater savings due to NH’s lack of a retail sales tax, that consumers may be even more motivated to realize during a recession.
  • Can the most attractive elements of e-commerce be combined with brick and mortar retailing to “double the pleasure”.  Which retailer or type is most likely to find the formula?
  • How much different are the demographics of on-line buyers than are those of traditional retailers?  I assume for the most part e-commerce buyers have somewhat higher incomes and are likely to be younger.  If income were the primary difference I would expect that e-commerce sales would probably decline less than total retail sales.  If age is a significant contributor, how much will demographic trends matter?  Its been a while since I’ve been in a mall, have  teenagers forsaken them for on-line social gatherings?
  • How are sales trends affected by differences in the percentage mix  of products sold on-line and at bricks and mortar stores. As an example, furniture stores and home furnishings sales were pummeled during housing market drop and recession and I have to think those items are less representative of e-commerce sales.  Will shopping downtown now mean going to an internet cafe?
  • Is there an e-commerce substitute for “recreational shoppers”?

These are just a few of the questions I will never have time to investigate.  Recent trends are  probably a combination of these factors and more and  no doubt someone who looks and writes about  these trends more thoroughly has answers where I have only questions.  The comment lines are now open.

Between a (Black) Rock and a Hard Place

March 19, 2013

If I am the state’s largest electric utility I have to be hoping that the limited natural gas pipeline infrastructure that supplies the New England market never gets expanded, that shale gas production has even more environmental impacts than it appears to now, or preferably both.  I’ve written probably too many times about the electric power industry (as well as the commercial and industrial sectors) switching to natural gas (primarily at the expense of coal but also oil) because of its lower carbon intensity and significant decline in price over the past decade.  Increased demand for natural gas along with New England’s limited pipeline infrastructure have caused natural gas prices to rise in New England more than in most other parts of the country but I don’t think that is reason to “jump ship” from natural gas.   Natural gas production is increasing and it will likely be sometime early in the next decade before the increase in demand for natural gas in this country outstrips growth in supply (even though it feels like it in New England because of our pipeline limits).  Coal is cheaper and becoming cheaper still for good reason, the demand for coal as a fuel for electricity production is declining rapidly and despite being a lower cost fuel, that doesn’t mean facilities that burn coal can sell electricity more cheaply than can producers using more expensive fuel.

I  briefly noted how electric power gets sold into regional markets in an early post.  The Cliff Notes version of that is this: The suppliers of electricity (generating companies) in a region offer to supply electricity to the market at a given price and the offers are accepted beginning with the lowest cost providers first, until enough energy is supplied to meet expected demand in the region.  The price of electricity offered by the last electricity generator needed to meet the regional demand determines the market price paid by companies that supply the electricity to businesses and consumers.

So here is the rock (black) – our state’s largest utility has a large generating facility that burns cheap coal but because it costs a lot to burn coal in a way that doesn’t make NH look like Beijing on a bad day, the price of that electricity is high relative to other electricity producers in the region who are also offering their electricity in the regional market (primarily natural gas  generators).  The electricity generated by the coal burning facility has increasingly not been sold into the regional market.  As the graph below shows, the longer-term trend indicates that the percentage of New England’s electricity that is generated by Merrimack Station has been cut by more than half.  It is a 12 month moving average to smooth the results and prevent readers from getting nauseous from bouncing lines, but the trend is clear and troubling if you are a generator with a coal-burning facility.

Merrimack Station

The “hard place” is the growing loss of its residential customer base as retail competition finally takes hold.  A lot was made of the financial difficulties of one competitive supplier to NH’s residential market and the resulting return of its customers to the default service provider, but anyone who thinks that is going to stop the train from leaving the station is going to find themselves looking for another way to get to their destination.

When your generating business is weakening and your retail business is declining, all that is really left for growth is your transmission business.

A Hot Topic for a Cold Day

March 18, 2013

Climate change skeptics have to appreciate that there is no better time to talk about the topic and about global warming than during a period of below average temperatures.  I don’t expect anyone to believe anything I say unless I can empirically demonstrate my point so I appreciate those who bring solid empirical evidence to a debate while leaving ideology and polemics out.

In the competition for our time and attention the issue of climate change competes with a lot issues that seem to more directly and immediately impact us.  At least that was the case for me until I heard a presentation on the impacts of climate change on the Piscataqua River Basin/Great Bay region of NH and Maine.  As a guest of a local Rotary Club I heard a presentation by Prof. Cameron Wake of the Institute for Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of NH.   You can get a copy of the report here.   It is one thing to generically consider an issue like climate change, it is another to consider it in the context of evidence of how it directly impacts those things and those people whom you care deeply about.  I love the Piscataqua and Great Bay and Little Bay region.  I walk with my best friend almost daily there – I took these pictures yesterday.

IMG_20130317_100056IMG_20130317_093300

So when I hear solid empirical evidence of threats to it I listen.  It makes me wish I listened sooner and it also makes me wish similar reports could be written for every region where someone cares about the natural amenities around them that will be affected by climate change.   I regularly work for companies that burn fossil fuels to produce electricity and none of them have been robber-barons unconcerned about the potential impact of carbon on climate change.  They too all have places like the Piscataqua River Basin that they love.

Durham temp proj

I hate anecdotal evidence but it is hard for me not to consider the reduction in cold temperatures and snow during winter months (despite tomorrow’s and this winter’s events) from when I was a youth growing-up along the Canadian border (and successfully defending it against the insufferably polite hordes of the great white north).  The number of extreme rain events and the three or four 100  year floods (just in the past 15 years)  since I arrived in NH (the 1980’s)was not, for me at least,  definitive evidence of climate change until I saw the data in the larger research context presented by the Piscataqua River Basin report. The more dramatic impacts of climate change won’t occur until after I am gone but the forecasts of the change in my region contained in the report and presentation by Professor Wake make clear to me the importance of action now.  If you get a chance, look at the report or better yet, invite Prof. Wake to make a presentation.  The data and information is great but his ability to present it is even better.

extreme precip forecast

Where The U.S. Leads the World (Almost)

March 13, 2013

According to a report by KPMG, the U.S. has the second highest corporate income tax among all nations.   I don’t know what the workforce is like in Vanuatu and I am not certain how I would feel about worshiping at a shrine that is the remnants of a wrecked WWII B17 bomber, but if those aren’t concerns to you they have a 0.0% corporate tax rate.  So also do Bahrain, Georgia, Saba, as well as some well known industrial powerhouses such as the Bahamas, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands.

That we (the U.S.) have almost the highest statutory corporate tax rate in the world is the focus of a lot of debate in Washington, but what is probably more relevant is the dramatic differences in the effective tax rates of different industries in the U.S..  Aswath Damodaran, Professor of Finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University, calculated the average tax rate of various business sectors using public financial statements.  The chart below illustrates the disparity between the average tax rates  paid by different sectors of the U.S. economy and includes only the highest and lowest twenty industries.  My purpose isn’t to single-out any industry or group of industries so the chart isn’t a commentary on the merits of any particular industry, I’ll let readers make their own assessments about the implications of varying rates on different industries.    The chart shows the average rate based on the public filings of over 6,000 publicly traded companies and includes only the rates  for profitable companies.    Effective marginal rates would be better to show but public data does not allow for that estimation.

Tax rates by industry

Unfortunately, it does not seem that the high level of concern about the world  ranking of  the U.S. corporate tax rate is matched by a concern about the large differences in effective rates by industry.  A lot of people are all for reducing the statutory corporate rate in the U.S., they just aren’t so keen on reducing or eliminating  the $100 billion + in preferences and breaks that could pay for it without adding to the nation’s deficit.


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