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Letter to the Editor
Jim Johnston's letter gives us an opportunity to clarify our discussion of electricity pricing. In our article we argued that there were two important defects of traditional electricity regulation from the perspective of economists: excess incentive for capital-intensive generation techniques and the use of prices as revenue-recovery rather than resource-allocation devices. Regulated retail prices for electricity consumption are weighted-average rather than marginal cost and thus incorrectly signal consumers about the true costs of electricity production: too high off-peak and too low on-peak.
In a true deregulated market, Johnston is correct that consumers would be offered choices about how much of the continuous wholesale price variation they would face, ranging from all to none-just like mortgage products range from continuously adjustable to 30-year fixed-rate, even though the spot price of capital varies continuously.
If genuine deregulated electricity markets are not possible, we argued that regulation could "mandate" real-time pricing. Our use of the term mandate was unfortunate because it implies that we would oppose the use of the risk-hedging and long-term contracts that Johnston describes. In addition, our use of the term allowed Johnston to infer that we favor mandating particular market institutions such as the California spot market. We neither oppose the use of the contracts Johnston describes, nor do we favor mandating any particular type of market institutions. What we do not favor is the suppression of prices as resource allocation signals through regulation. -Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren
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Letter to the Editor
To the Editor:
Cato's Peter Van Doren and Jerry Taylor analyzed the electricity crisis in the February 2004 issue of the ("Rethinking Restructuring," p. 12) and concluded that the solution to a bad situation is vertical integration and mandatory real-time pricing. In my opinion they have got it half right.
Vertical integration of electric utilities has been the dominant form of organization since the beginning of the industry and even before there was regulation. It is a substitute for long-term contracting and as such is a hedge. It is especially relevant now given the need to maintain and modify the transmission grid to meet the new interstate sales of electricity in a reliable manner.
The form of vertical integration that works well for interstate oil pipelines and natural gas pipelines in Texas is one where transmission is typically a joint venture owned by the shippers in rough proportion to the value of their throughput and subject to light-handed regulation. That structure solves the problems of under-investment and opportunistic behavior in reserving capacity. As any landlord will tell you, owners take better care of property than mere renters. Vertical integration is the part of the Van Doren-Taylor prescription that is right.
The part that is wrong is the mandatory real-time pricing by federal authorities. The history of deregulation is instructive here. Both the system of fixed foreign exchange rates and oil and natural gas regulation were replaced by futures and options contracts. These contracts are very liquid and have substantial open interest. In the case of natural gas futures the volumes traded are on the order of nine times consumption.
These derivative contracts have several useful characteristics. First, they make prices transparent. Second, they provide a vehicle for hedging price risk. Third, exchange-traded contracts have provisions to insure compliance. Insuring compliance was important in the case of natural gas in the wake of the reneging of the take-or-pay contracts and could be useful in resurrecting the sanctity of electricity contracts.
A special version of these derivatives was offered by the New York Mercantile Exchange at the time electricity deregulation began in California. However, they were rejected in favor of mandating spot market transactions. There were two spot markets. One was for the day of consumption and the other was for the day ahead.
Aggravating this situation was a requirement that generation be separated from transmission for much of the power produced in California, and prices to final users were rolled back and made subject to a complex formula to pay off stranded costs. The apparent strategy was to pass off the lower spot prices as genuine savings to ratepayers. But this was an illusion like a motorist thinking that not having insurance for his car is a real savings. Eventually the crisis comes and spot prices jump above contract prices because not much can be done immediately to increase supply or decrease demand.
Real-time pricing, the second part of Van Doren and Taylor's proposed solution, is actually a particularly perverse form of spot-market trading, especially for highly volatile markets.