Publication: Price Structures, Cross-Subsidies, and Competition in Infrastructure

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Governments often regulate not only the overall level of prices charged by infrastructure firms but also the relationship between prices for different services or customers. Prices can differ among different types of customers, even when no customers can be said to be subsidizing another, for example, when one asset is used to supply a service to two or more groups of customers. One of the hurdles that governments must overcome in introducing competition in infrastructure is dealing with the social and political implications of changing price structures, or rate rebalancing. Generally, competition should reduce overall costs in the sector, lessening the need to compensate groups hurt by price increases resulting from rate rebalancing. But if the efficiency gains are not enough to offset the price increases for some groups and the government is worried about the political and social costs of rate balancing, it has three basic options: 1) preserving the old price structure; 2) funding price subsidies from general tax revenue rather than from transfers within the firm or industry; and 3) relying on social safety nets rather than price subsidies. Whichever option a government chooses should stand up against the following four tests: 1) Do subsidies reach the people the government most wants to support? 2) are the costs clear and measurable? 3) Are the administrative costs as low as possible? 4) Is the revenue raised from the source that entails the least cost to the economy? This Note looks at the three options in practice and reviews how they measure up against the four criteria. It concludes that governments should eliminate price subsidies if politically feasible. But even if they cannot, they can still reap the benefits of competition.
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Irwin, Timothy. 1997. Price Structures, Cross-Subsidies, and Competition in Infrastructure. Viewpoint: Public Policy for the Private Sector; Note No. 107. © World Bank, Washington, DC. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.
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