Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Is it May already? Asset sales edition

It must be May. The Christchurch Press is reporting that Council is considering selling some assets to pay for the quake.

May 2, 2011: The Press wondered the same thing. I put up the general conditions under which Council should sell assets.

May 21, 2012: Another round of speculation about Council asset sales. Labour was outraged by that the City might contemplate selling dividend-paying assets. I pointed out that, unless there are really serious problems in asset markets, dividend flows get capitalised into asset prices. I'd written:
Cosgrove can only be right where the asset is more efficiently owned by local council, or where there are serious problems in IPO markets, or where the Council has a particular kind of stupidity.

If the asset is best owned by government, then the selling price will be less than the discounted value of the dividend flow. Otherwise, local Councils can do better by selling off the asset and taking the cash.

If there are serious problems in IPO markets, then things sell for less than fundamental value at IPO. But there's no particular evidence of this.

The last one might be more of a worry. Imagine a guy who has a trust fund that pays him a modest annual income. He generally is foolish in how he spends it, but he's always able to pay his bills. If he is given the investment as a lump sum, he blows it all on pop rocks and bungee jumping and has no income flow for the next year. That guy is probably better off not being able to sell off the dividend-paying asset. Is Christchurch Council that guy? Hopefully not. But post-quake, unless they're dumb enough to blow it all on stadiums, there are tons of productive ways they could be spending the money - roads, sewers, turning Red Zone into useful parks.

And, if Council is dumb enough to blow any divestiture returns on pop rocks and stadiums, are they smart enough to handle the asset properly if they own it in the first place? Note that an asset like the Lyttelton Port of Christchurch isn't like a hands-off trust fund; it requires annual decisions about asset maintenance versus dividends. Cosgrove talks about how the revenue stream from assets helped kept rate rises in check; what reports I'd heard on maintenance standards at the Port as of a few years ago suggested that Council was putting a fair bit more weight on current dividend flow than on maintaining the assets. Divestiture may be a bad idea if Council is prudent enough to manage the asset properly while they own it, but profligate if they're handed a lump sum of cash; under the current circumstances, with plenty of really pressing financial needs, I'm less worried about this one.
And here we are, May 2013. In today's Press:
A Christchurch city councillor says the city could offload non-core assets, including its own offices, to help pay its share of big-ticket rebuild projects.

Cr Tim Carter said last night that less important assets were expendable if it helped ease the council's debt burden in funding anchor projects such as the new convention centre and roofed sports stadium.

...He was against selling strategic, money-earning assets such as Christchurch International Airport, Lyttelton Port, Orion, and Enable, which is installing ultra-fast broadband in Christchurch.

His comments come as Prime Minister John Key yesterday weighed into the council asset sales debate.

Key told Firstline it was up to the council to ask whether the people of Christchurch wanted "the nice-to-haves".

"Then they'll ask how are you going to pay? That could be through rates or asset sales," he said.
The case against selling the airport isn't that it's a money-earner. A money-earning airport will sell for a LOT of money at IPO. Rather, the case is that the local monopoly airport would be tempted to set fees to maximise its own profits without considering that reduced traffic into town might have some broader costs. It might even do things like charge really high fees to taxicab companies for the right to operate from the airport, increasing the costs of Christchurch as a travel or conference destination.

I still think that Council should fully divest assets that are managed at least as well by the private sector and don't have the kind of problem that the airport could have, partially divest other assets, and use the money for roads, sewerage, overbridges, and for topping up the costs of rebuilding and repairing Council facilities. But if John Key wants Council to sell off the Port to fund a big covered stadium or a huge convention centre, well, I discussed that case last year.


  1. Not so sure about the dividend flows get capitalised into asset prices argument.
    History shows time and time again plenty of examples where assets are sold at both massive undervaluation and overvaluations, due to the reflexivity of the market participants involved. The financial models (such as discounted cashflow models) make huge assumptions as to the value of future earnings.

    George Soros is a living example of someone who succesfully exploited this false belief in a kind of 'market fundamentalism'.

    That said I agree with the logic regarding any potential sale of assets, and the perverse incentives currently at work for monument building.
    Pity the CERA act didn't make Chch a "democracy zone" where via monthly referendum ratepayers get to vote on the big financial decisions. Instead there is almost the opposite.

  2. Sure, IPOs can be too high or too low. But unless you reckon that we systematically undervalue firms with higher dividend flows, then that a council firm has a high dividend flow isn't evidence against privatising it.