The mathematical logic of privatisation

Published: October 11, 2013
The writer is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the US

The writer is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in the US

It is a testament to how much of Pakistan’s political discourse is still shaped by the socialist vocabulary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that even today, economic liberals hesitate to forcefully make the case for privatisation for fear of the inevitable, visceral populist backlash. And it is a testament to how pathetically low our investment in education has been that the criticism levelled at the idea of privatisation is usually devoid of even the most rudimentary understanding of mathematics, let alone economics and finance.

But the case for privatisation is relatively simple: it works. It improves productivity, reduces government spending, increases tax collection and improves service quality, to name just a few benefits. And it does all of this not in some economics textbook or in an advanced economy whose conditions are very different from ours, but right here, in Pakistan, with all of the flaws and inefficiencies of our market.

The Nawaz Administration’s announcement that it will be selling stakes in 31 state-owned enterprises is likely to be met with the usual parade of populist bromides against capitalism. There will be the usual complaints that ‘national assets’ are being sold at ‘throwaway prices’ or that the people who buy them will ‘suck the blood’ out of their customers. All of these are wrong. Horribly, absurdly wrong.

For starters, most of the critics who pretend to become instant investment bankers have no idea about financial valuation methods or what constitutes a fair value of a company. But even without explaining the theoretical underpinning of discounted cash flows or the capital asset pricing model, one can make the argument — purely mathematically — that the government rarely ever gets a bad deal on privatisation.

The government, it must be understood, is not an ordinary investor whose returns are determined purely by the difference between the buying and selling price and any dividends received in between. The government, through its power of taxation, is in a position to continue reaping revenues from companies long after it has sold every single share in them.

Take the banking sector, for example. In 1994, when most of it was nationalised, it cost the government nearly Rs46 billion in bailouts (about Rs235 billion in today’s money). In 2012, however, the banking sector nearly Rs62 billion in just corporate income taxes. Over the past five years, the Pakistani banking sector has paid Rs202 billion in income taxes, an amount that is only likely to keep growing over time.

An inflow of taxes is certainly much better for the public than an outflow of bailout money. The finance ministry states that the cost of bailouts of state-owned companies to the taxpayer is in the range of Rs500 billion a year. Just eliminating that amount is worthwhile for the government, even if the price it receives for all of those companies combined is zero. Doing so would reduce the budget deficit by one-third, thus bringing down interest costs and slowing the rise in the national debt.

But privatisation offers much more than just a reduction in the fiscal bleeding. It contributes to the solution by providing a steady stream of increasing tax revenues from newly-profitable companies. Hence, not only would the budget deficit go down, but the tax-to-GDP ratio would go up. Lower budget deficits, would, in turn, translate into lower inflation.

My reasons for supporting privatisation are ideological. I am an economic liberal who believes that the government should not be in the business of running companies. But even those who do not share my ideological beliefs cannot deny the sheer mathematics of it: privatisation works.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • Ameena Mohyuddin
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:03PM

    You are correct that ideally privatization is efficient and a good economic practice in a textbook developed country. However, the economic fabric of Pakistan is quite different and not at all comparable to that of a developed country. Therefore, privatization right now in Pakistan is NOT a good idea.

    Economists also understand the importance of strengthened institutions which work as a conduit to efficiency through privatization. For instance, taxes are not effectively collected (forget taxes… corporations don’t even pay their utility bills will pay heavy taxes to the government? Good Luck!); wages will be lowered and unemployment will increase (there are no minimum wage laws); corporations will make disproportionate amounts of profits and it will further breed the economic disparity that’s engulfed Pakistan in the last 15 years. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the opportunities of corruption.

    The idea is wonderfully idealistic, and not practical given the current environment of Pakistan. Looking to privatization to bring economic change Pakistan is premature. It is more like skipping steps – very important steps… First step is to strengthen its institutions so they have the power of enforcement. Economic advancement needs both institutional support and policy measures to support viable liberal economics.

    When we begin to build a house, we do not skip the foundation and start by dressing windows.


  • Waqar Qureshi
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:09PM

    Sorry to burst the bubble. But any sensible person will agree that it is not state’s duty to run businesses or companies. The problem arises when MCB is sold out to your own front man for just 88 Crores. Mind you the cost of MCB main branch alone in Karachi was worth more than that. Privatization is a must but equally must is the trust of people that it is transparent, on merit and really rational. In short, privatization should be rational not blind. A better model to follow in Pakistan could be where you make sell the shares to public or where you make the employees shareholder. Hope it helps further :)


  • T
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:09PM

    Ah! Finally some sane economic voice on privatization on ET. I have the exact same views but you structured it in a very coherent and simple manner.


  • meekal ahmed
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:16PM

    Very good, Mr Tirmazi.

    Be glad you are out of the country or they would be gunning for you!


  • hamza khan
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:17PM

    agree with the author, but fundamentally speaking, privatization works when it is done in a transparent and open manner. credible financial institutions must oversee its advisory role and valuation techniques and assumptions should be made apparent. using DCF or CAPM is fine and dandy, but ultimately valuing a company is very much an art and not a science. two bankers could have relatively differing opinions on the value of a public company based on their assumptions.


  • Parvez
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:20PM

    Short sweet and to the point…………….completely agree with you.
    The people who argue against privatisation are those who for years have been milking these organisations, becoming filthy rich while the organisation goes bankrupt many times over and the taxpayer ( the nation ) suffers. The role of any government must be to facilitate an environment where business can thrive make money and contribute towards the exchequer.


  • Asad Khan
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:39PM

    ….Succinct, Easy, Brilliant.

    Nowadays, even the Socialist countries like China are adopting much more privatize way managing & running enterprises unlike in the past.

    Privatize PSM & PIA asap and the deficit money saved should be goes straight into health & education.

    Had PSM been privatized in Shaukat Aziz’s tenure, the PSM now definitely be at breakeven if not profitable.



  • shahid
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:56PM

    Then how come China with a heavily centralized and controlled economy is today the second biggest economy in the world? Look at the unprecedented growth that has occurred inside the country besides becoming a major military power and literally a factory for production of goods for the whole world? Yes, they have allowed some degree of privatization in the recent decades, but can any one claim that it is a free for all capitalistic society? In the future plans for their country they plan to build 20,000 miles of electric trains, a massive network of highways, canals, dams, airports and on and on. How many countries in the world have been able a railway line like the one that they built to Lhasa in Tibet or a bullet train that they have between Beijing and Shanghai? The accomplishments are limitless. How did the Japanese built their economy after the second world war under closed government supervision and protection? What about South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore? Even in Europe the role of the governments is undeniable in creating basic infrastructures and setting up an environment in which private businesses can prosper. There has to be a balance between what the Governments can and should do and what the private enterprises can. Even in the United States the huge support and expenditure by the government at all levels has been and will be necessary for private entrepreneurship to survive. From assembly line production to the most modern technologies of computers, internet, biotechnology, aeronautics, marine, every single one of them has huge public funding under girding them. None of these would have become possible without the trillions of dollars that were spent by the government to support fundamental research, experimentation and prototyping. People who blindly repeat the mantra “it works” really have no clue about how the modern world has come about to be and what role the technological progress plays in advancing human societies and the rolw that the governments have to play for make this progress possible.Recommend

  • NK
    Oct 12, 2013 - 1:14AM

    “Even if the price it receives for all of those companies combined is zero”. What is the writer on to make such a statement. Organizations such as PSO, PPL etc. are worth billions of rupees and there are no reasons not to privatize them at a reasonable price. It would be a crime to sell them for next to nothing.


  • Arifq
    Oct 12, 2013 - 1:19AM

    Privatization works! People will agree with that statement except for the Russians post Boris Yelstin massively corrupt exercise of privatization at throwaway prices. Sensible approach provided state and its “stakeholders” are committed to free market principles,


  • AA
    Oct 12, 2013 - 1:19AM

    If you talk about privatization, also talk about its downside effects on a country like Pakistan; rising inequality, low tax rates for the rich, poor redistribution networks, money leakages, unregulated markets. There is sufficient evidence on this from development capitalist economies especially the US to understand why privatization will hurt the poor.

    Privitization is plain and stupid idea especially when we need state subsidies to provide basic services to the poor. Recommend

  • Aleem
    Oct 12, 2013 - 10:11AM

    Privitization only works if you sell the national ‘assests’ to local Pakistanis. Not like the PTCL example whereby it has become just one subsidiary of etisalat.Recommend

  • z lodhi
    Oct 12, 2013 - 10:53AM

    Privatisation may or may not work depending up the process adopted I.e., how transparent it is, general social and economic conditions of the country and also the quality of government institutions governing and regulating business and industry I.e., FBR etc. Consider all these and Pakistan would score low the above mathematical logic, DCF are all based on assumptions, and that’s exactly what they ar.


  • Oct 12, 2013 - 12:44PM

    I have nothing against privatization, but the question is it ethical to privatize daily necessity items. Privatization gives the capitalist the right to vary supply and demand with respect to market forces to squeeze extraordinary profits.

    The question then arises when state looses its ability to influence or provide daily necessities to the people, what control would it have over the masses? How will the state take care of its responsibilities of making sure that all necessities of life reach the people at large.


  • Red Dawn
    Oct 12, 2013 - 1:10PM

    Agreed. The government hasnt got in it to turn around businesses.


  • sk
    Oct 12, 2013 - 2:14PM

    I 100% agree with the writer as an analyst.
    However corruption or strategies for implementation is a separate topic


  • Umair
    Oct 12, 2013 - 3:43PM

    PML-N govt needs alot of money to reduce fiscal deficit so by no way they are going to sell PSEs on discount!! People even with zero knowledge of economics and finance will keep crying against privatization but it will successful in Pakistan !! it will create huge employment for people on merit instead of current lot of employee who work on political basis…plus u hv forgotten the era of Musharaff when large part of foreign inflows came from privatization proceeds :)


  • ali
    Oct 12, 2013 - 6:07PM

    jeeeeeeeeeeay bhuttttttttttttttttttooooooooooooooo


  • Junaid
    Oct 12, 2013 - 7:12PM

    @Ameena Mohyuddin: I agree with you. I too am an economic liberal, I think an argument relating to ‘privatisation in the developing world’ needs several footnotes and some context. It’s not so black and white.

    Farooq, no two economies are alike. The mechanisms/institutions in Pakistan that undertake the process of privatisation are flawed/weak. The banking sector, cited by yourself, is an “easier” sector to tax as (for one) forensic accounting yields results. Additionally, the compliances that define the parameters within which banks and other financial institutions can operate is well monitored by reputable institutions. This is the banking sector though. The game changes completely with aviation and steel (just to name two). Our institutions are some ways away from ensuring ‘fair competition’, the primary driver for the need to privatise. I’m an optimist though, all we really need is for NAB to function independently, then we might want to talk about privatisation.


  • Uza Syed
    Oct 12, 2013 - 7:43PM

    Fair enough, governments should not be in the business of running ‘business’ but shouldn’t it be responsible for regulating economy over all and ensuring that national assets are not robbed by a few connected thieves in the name of privatization?


  • ANG
    Oct 12, 2013 - 8:47PM

    Major corporation in developing country Malaysia are state owned, profitable and as efficient as private corporations. No denial. Privatisations adds efficiency and increases profits. But same comes with a cost. Layoff’s, price manipulation, tax evasion, inflated profits and capital flight is common in developing countries which did it at pre-mature stage.

    Problem in Pakistan is lack of FDI in new sectors, deficit in foreign trade and resources to upgrade rusting corporations. Take example of PIA, if it has new jets, it got manpower, technical know how and expertise to be a leading airline. Similarly, Railways got most valuable assets after Pakistan army, same can be securitized to restructure.

    In present situation of terrorism and economic collapse, it would be like committing suicide to privatize these corporations. Neither these valuable assets will get fair price nor a transparent deal. The best way again would be to restructure, securitize and make these corporation run by boards of governors, independent of state control.

    Perhaps, author has never bothered to study the research papers on restructure of these corporations and is paddling academic theory rather than offering a practical solution.


  • Mudassar
    Oct 12, 2013 - 8:48PM


    For all those who are giving justifications of privatization being a bad move for Pakistan, all your concerns are correct. However, privatization does not necessarily means that now the GoP doesn’t have any control over the private sector. I understand that the GoP is not being able to enforce its control over the private sector, but don’t you think that’s a separate issue. I mean if the GoP have failed to collect taxes from companies, what does it have to do with state owned companies? Furthermore, as per the recent statistics, its the state owned companies who are defaulting each other mostly; PIA defaulting PSO, PSO defaulting SSGC SNGPL and so on. I mean privatization or not, they will still be defaulting to the government. That doesn’t mean the GoP should try to take a step which can help reduce the deficit and improve their balance sheet a little?

    Also in case privatization is done, the GoP can focus more on enforcing the tax collection activities rather than worrying about failing state owned companies; and then improving upon the labor laws; SECP laws etc.

    From my experience in the downstream steel industry of PSM; I would like to share a fact. PSM was installed in parallel to Posco mill (a Korean steel mill). Both had same capacity at the time of installation. However, currently Posco is 100 times bigger with respect to output only! What have PSM done in past decades!? Reduced its output by up to 70%, increased its workforce (management and labor inclusive) by up to 80%, consistently failed to deliver products on time, never been able to (yes you read that correct, never ever!!) produce the quality of steel a mill of its size can deliver. How would you justify that?

    Only if government separates its self from running the business, it can actually try to enforce it. Its a paradox, you wouldn’t actually enforce something in your business which will effect the profitability right?


  • Zia Banday
    Oct 12, 2013 - 9:32PM

    Since 2002, every year around 5,000 State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) in China went bankrupt. It appears that policy makers in 2nd largest economy are focused more in pampering market as a mechanism for weeding out the weaklings. It has now resulted in private sector producing over 50% GDP in China. The author is suggesting similar prescription. It seems that the biggest communist country is offering a relevant precedent in this regard.


    Oct 12, 2013 - 10:02PM

    The upshot of all the debate is that it is better to privatize Pakistan and outsource all the services to be provided by government maybe it will be able to provide better services to the people of Pakistan.


  • Insaan
    Oct 12, 2013 - 10:23PM

    @shahid: Then how come China with a heavily centralized and controlled economy is today the second biggest economy in the world?

    Chinese don’t believe that this life is a test and God will punish people for wrong doing.
    Chinese believe there is “one life to live” and one should be punished right at the time when he is caught committing any crime.

    Chinese are very good at stealing Technology from West.

    Privatization is good to increase efficiency and stop losses from theft and free loaders. Every thing involved in the process of privatization should be transparent and honest.


  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Oct 12, 2013 - 11:19PM

    Privitization would work or not, depends on future buyers honesty, dedication, government policies and country’s law and order situation but State would itself starve to death if it keeps on bailing out organiztions. Private company kills one, itself.. but public company kills all,..The State..


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