June 9, 2011

The problem with subsidies

There has been much talk lately about whether the United States Government should stop subsidizing domestic oil companies like Exxon, Chevron or ConocoPhilips to name a few. Tax breaks to oil companies are an old time practice in the US and no government, either democrat or republican, has dared to eliminate them. The reason why these tax breaks still exist is not clear for me, as oil has always been a profitable industry, even through energy crisis like the ones in the 70's or the Gulf war crisis in 1990. However, recent talks about the need to eliminate those tax breaks and focus the money on alternate energy have spiked some heated debates across the US, mainly due to the already high prices of gas and the multi-billion benefits of oil companies worldwide. This has put the problem with subsidies back in the spotlight. 

People (and corporations) get used to subsidies really fast and once they are fully integrated in daily life they are just perceived as an acquired privilege, rather than what they really should be: a temporary boost to an ailing or complicated situation/sector. This is a big problem for two main reasons. The first one is that, after their initial effect on containing or lowering prices, the subsidized good or service generally goes up as if nothing had happened, thus rendering the subsidy useless. The second reason is, when government retires said subsidy, prices are expected to go up even more, so people will complain about it. And that people will complain is not an expectation but a true fact.

But despite energy subsidies having a distorting effect on the economy, the clearest and biggest examples of the danger of subsidies I can think of are the homeownership subsidies that caused the Irish and the Spanish housing bubbles. Yes, over-optimistic lending by numerous banks makes them guilty by association,  but they are businesses and they responded to the needs of a market. A market governments artificially created. Governments were the true enablers of said bubbles. I will never understand what (if any) is the noble idea behind subsidizing homeownership through mortgages. If said noble idea was giving access to a decent house to low-income citizens renting subsidies would have worked similarly well, yet they did not appear anywhere. Maybe the reason was that buying a house provides far more tax revenue for a government than renting one does... Whatever the reason was, for me homeownership is not a security but a limiting factor, as discussed in this article.

The only thing these housing subsidies have achieved in both of the examples given is a construction boom together with a price spike, and a quite heavy one. In a normal, not mortgage-subsidized market, even after assuming the natural demand increase caused by higher demographics in the period, the situation would have been very different. A housing and construction boom would have led to lower or stable house prices, never to sky-rocketing ones! Sky-rocketing prices that ended busting the bubble that we can easily trace to the drowning of Ireland and Spain economies in the past two years.

The supply and demand law is at the base of economic liberalism for a reason. It is a force powerful enough to shape any given economic sector with common sense. The market is wise enough to decide on the evolution of a sector. Subsidies should only be used in exceptional cases, or to protect distressed citizens from being excluded from the system (think health for example) but never on a generalized scale or on a long-term basis.


  1. Anonymous18/6/11 10:46

    I still wonder why the United State will continue to subsidy or bail out companies operating in her territory but discourage Africa countries from doing same.

  2. thanks for commenting, which countries in Africa are you referring to?