It appears that the principal rationale for any potential privatisation is to raise revenue for the exchequer in order to deal with the country’s acute fiscal crisis. Although privatisation can raise useful revenues for the exchequer in the short- to medium-term it cannot, however, be justified on this basis alone. In a recent article published in Administration, we show that the revenues generated from privatisations, both in Ireland and abroad, are rarely maximised.
In Ireland, ten SOEs have been privatised to date and the exchequer has accrued over €8.3 billion. However, we show that the exchequer has foregone over €2.1 billion as a result of a combination of costs related to the underpricing of shares, debt write-offs, fees to advisors, underwriters etc., and the establishment of employee share ownership plans (ESOPs), which account for approximately half of the foregone revenues.
This is shown in the table below, where direct costs refer to advisory fees etc, and indirect costs refer to the cost of debt write offs and the underpricing of shares. Admittedly, the aggregate costs are dominated by the biggest divestiture to date (Eircom), however, there were questionable decisions in relation to a number of other sales. For example, when the refinery and terminal operations of the Irish National Petroleum Corporation (INPC) were sold in 2001, the sale involved a large debt write-off and other costs which amounted to €76 million. The Whitegate and Bantry assets were sold for €116 million, but six years later the new owners put the Whitegate refinery up for sale for a price of approximately €350 million.
The cost of ESOPs in the table above is calculated as the difference in the revenues received by the exchequer for the 14.9 per cent transferred to employees and the value of that stake based on the sale price of the firm. For example, in the case of the TSB, employees received a 5 per cent stake in return for accepting a transformation agreement, and purchased a further 9.9 per cent stake for €25.15 million. Based on the €430 million price paid by IL&P for the TSB, the 14.9 per cent stake was worth just over €64 million.
In the case of Eircom, employees also received a 5 per cent stake in exchange for the acceptance of a transformation agreement, and purchased a 9.9 per cent stake for €241 million. Based on the proceeds from the flotation of the government’s 50.1 per cent stake in July 1999 (which raised €4.2 billion), the 14.9 per cent stake transferred to the ESOP was worth approximately €1.25 billion. The difference between the amount received by the exchequer for the 14.9 per cent stake and its actual value amounts to over €1.01 billion.
Some degree of privatisation appears inevitable but sales will undoubtedly involve the exchequer incurring big costs in order to bring in some much-needed cash. Can this be justified? Perhaps, if there are compensating gains such as improved enterprise performance and public service delivery. However, the Irish track record is not hugely impressive in this regard.
The question of privatising public enterprises requires careful consideration of all the costs and benefits. Ideally the decision to sell these companies should be made in the context of an overall strategy for the sector, but this doesn’t exist. Instead, the issue of privatisation is under consideration as a revenue raising measure. Past experience shows us that there are reasons to be fearful about the quality of decision making in relation to the disposal of such assets. The firesale approach that appears to be imminent is a worrying development.