A Negative Sign for Investment and Job Growth

There’s a good rule of thumb–you get what you reward.

Here’s a summary of current U.S. policy towards big corporations: Invest in the U.S., create jobs, and get sued by the government.

You would think that during a business investment drought, any company that puts big money into the U.S. would be patted on the back. But no…

AT&T is the company which is putting the most money into the U.S….almost $20 billion in capital spending in 2010.  AT&T is also planning to bring back call center jobs from overseas.  AT&T is also getting sued by the Justice Department to block the merger with T-Mobile.

Frankly, this sends a signal to U.S. companies that getting out of  the reach of government regulators by going overseas is the right strategy.

While Economy Burns, Regulators Fiddle

So let me get this straight. The economy is slumping, economists are warning of a double-dip, and the Obama Administration is pleading for companies to invest.

But clearly Obama’s telecom regulators didn’t get the memo, based on the way they are treating AT&T, a company that actually invested almost $20 billion in the U.S. last year, tops in the country.  Rather than encouraging AT&T to speed up investment in this period of economic weakness, the regulators actually seem intent  on slowing down  the telecom provider.

The latest move: An indefinite postponement of AT&T’s request to buy some wireless licenses from Qualcomm, originally proposed in February. From Reuters

AT&T Inc’s $1.9 billion offer for some of Qualcomm Inc’s wireless licenses will be tied to a simultaneous review of AT&T’s $39 billion proposed takeover of T-Mobile USA, U.S. communications regulators said in a letter sent late on Monday.

The Federal Communications Commission, citing the many related issues, dropped the agency’s informal 180-day timeline for review of the Qualcomm deal. The move could significantly delay completion of the smaller Qualcomm deal because the review of AT&T’s bid for Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Mobile is expected to span at least into the first quarter of 2012.

Qualcomm said swift action on its deal was in line with the FCC’s goal to free up more airwaves for mobile broadband use. The company said the deal would not only re-purpose unused spectrum for wireless Internet services, but it would also allow it to invest and deploy more spectrum efficient technology.

I’m sure this choice seemed perfectly reasonable to the regulators, and who knows, in some ideal world it might be the right thing to do.  But on the day that the stock market is crash,  a move to slow down a successful business sends another signal that the priority of the Obama Administration is regulation rather than the state of the economy today.  No wonder voters don’t believe Obama is serious about jobs and investment. 

The Price of Wireless Service Dives

This morning’s CPI report show that the price of wireless phone service is falling at an accelerating pace. That suggests the communications sector is becoming more and more important as a driving force for growth.

More Regulatory Overreach at the FCC

Imagine that you had an industry where customer satisfaction was increasing faster than any other part of the economy.  Now imagine that the same industry showed rising real investment, even during the worst recession in 75 years.  Finally, imagine that industry charged  falling prices for both consumers and businesses.

But of course, that industry is not imaginary: The telecom industry, and in particular the wireless sector, has  outperformed  the rest of the economy on key measures such as customer satisfaction, investment, and price.  Moreover, at a time when President Obama is calling  for more innovation,   the wireless industry has produced more genuine new products and services than anyone else.

So given the great performance of the industry during this tough period, why the heck does the Federal Communications Commission keep imposing additional regulations on wireless providers? The latest case of regulatory overreach: On April 7,  the FCC issued an order forcing the  big wireless providers to sign ‘data-roaming’ agreements with smaller carriers.  In effect,  the smaller carriers can now tell their customers that they could have data service all over the U.S., free-riding on the mammoth investments by the big carriers. In addition, the FCC made it clear that it is willing to set the price for each data roaming agreement if it doesn’t like what the big carriers are offering–effectively reinstituting price regulation for the most dynamic sector of the economy.

This aggressive regulatory move by the FCC follow its enactment of confusing ‘net neutrality regulations’ in December 2010, an 87-page order that raises more questions than it resolves. And then coming down the road is the ‘bill shock’ regulation. In order to address the rather rare and fixable problem of a surprisingly high bill, this regulation would force providers to spend scarce investment dollars on revamping their billing system rather than  building out their networks. 

In many ways, enacting this series of regulations is like throwing pebbles in a stream. One pebble doesn’t make much of a difference, but throwing enough pebbles in the stream can dam it up.

Frankly, the degree of regulation that the FCC wants to impose is more appropriate to a failing industry rather than one which is demonstrably successful and growing.  Let’s just run through the performance of the telecom/wireless industry over the past five years.  According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index,  satisfaction with wireless service has increased by 14% over the past five years, by far the biggest  jump of any industry.

Now let’s look at investment. The data on investment is somewhat fuzzier than for satisfaction, since the government’s figures on industry investment only run through 2009, and merges the telecom and broadcasting industries.

But here’s what we see: In the telecom/broadcasting industry, real investment in equipment and software  is up 30% since 2005, despite the turbulence of the financial crisis. By contrast, overall private sector real investment in equipment and software is down 8% over the same period.

And then of course the price of wireless service keeps falling. The latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics say that consumer wireless prices are down 6% since 2011, and business wireless prices are down a lot more.

Right now the FCC  has the good fortune to preside over one of the few growing industries in the economy.  If the commissioners genuinely want to  support  innovation and growth, they should stop throwing regulatory pebbles into the stream.

Some Thoughts on ‘Bill Shock’ and Negative Externalities

In my paper on the Regulatory Improvement Commission, I argued that adding new regulations was like  tossing small pebbles into a stream. Each pebble by itself would have very little effect on the flow of the stream. But throw in enough small pebbles and you can make a very effective dam.

Why does this happen? The answer is that each pebble by itself is harmless. But each pebble, by diverting the water into an ever-smaller area,  creates a ‘negative externality’ that creates more turbulence and slows the water flow.

Similarly, apparently harmless regulations can create negative externalities that add up over time, by forcing companies to spending  time and energy meeting the new requirements. That reduces business flexibility and hurts innovation and growth.

For example, consider the ‘bill shock’ regulations now under consideration by the FCC.  ‘Bill shock’ is when someone gets a mobile bill that is higher than they expected—say, a large roaming charge.  This problem is annoying but not life-threatening.

In response to consumer complaints, the FCC  invited comments on  regulations that would require “customer notification, such as voice or text alerts, when the customer approaches and reaches monthly limits that will result in overage charges,” and ” require mobile providers to notify customers when they are about to incur international or other roaming charges that are not covered by their monthly plans, and if they will be charged at higher-than-normal rates.”

One question is whether bill shock is a widespread problem. A just-released study, “An Empirical Analysis of Overages on Wireless Consumer Bills” by Recon Analytics suggests that most overages are relatively small and not repeated.  What’s more, in many cases it makes financial sense to take a small overage, rather than switch to a more expensive plan. The study reports that “only 0.3% of wireless accounts go into overage during a year by such an amount that the customer would have been better off having upgraded their plan for that year.”

Now, here’s where we come to the tale of the pebble and the stream.  The rule of thumb about IT projects is that they are always more complicated and take longer than you think.  More precisely, it would be a major and costly effort to build a system that in real-time accurately tracks customer total charges on the home system and on domestic and international roaming systems.  The key words here are ‘real-time’ and ‘accurate’ in the same sentence—the two together translate into expensive.

The bottom line is that if the bill shock regulations are enacted, significant resources—IT personnel and dollars–would be diverted into building and maintaining this real-time/accurate charge tracking system. The number of beneficiaries—the people who are truly surprised by ‘bill shock’– would be relatively small.

What’s more, these are resources that would not be available for innovation and improvements to the whole network.  This negative externality—the potential slowdown in innovation and the pace of network improvements– is not measured as part of conventional cost-benefit analysis. Depending on how many other regulations are being enacted, it could be another pebble that helps dam up the stream.

Indeed,  this suggests we should not evaluate regulations one at a time, but rather as part of a larger context. Think of the impact of a regulation as the net benefit of that regulation plus a negative externality E. That negative externality sums over all regulations on that industry.  The more regulations, the bigger the negative impact.

From that perspective, in order to meet President Obama’s goal to eliminate regulations that hurt job creation, conventional cost-benefit analysis is not enough. Agencies such as the FCC need to  look skeptically at the bill shock rule and other borderline regulations that could impose genuine negative externalities on job growth and innovation without helping many people.

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