December 24th, 2009 by Hafiz Noor Shams
On December 7 in the Parliament, based on the Hansard, Deputy Minister for International Trade and Industry Jacob Dungau Sagan was asked whether the government intends to abolish a policy that grants exclusive permits for imports to limited entities and effectively, the granting of monopoly power to several companies over certain commodities such as sugar and rice. He effectively said no and went on to defend the policy. I find the defense problematic.
He began his defense of the policy by stating it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that prices of such commodities, and specifically sugar, remain at affordable levels while promoting the sugar industry in Malaysia. According to him further, due to the fact that prices in Malaysia are lower than prices in neighboring countries, there is possibility that producers will not import sugar when prices in the international market are higher than local ones.
Approved permit policy however is an very suboptimal solution to the problem. His answer is similarly so.
Firstly, prices are lower because of price control. Remove the control and prices will go higher. If the local prices without price control mechanism is higher than international prices, then there will be no problem of flow. In fact, the approved permit restricts flow into the local market. If it is the other case, then while there might be problem with flow, the policy of approved permits does not address the problem. This brings us to the second issue I want to raise.
Second, import quota is useless when international prices are higher than local prices sans free trade. It is a redundant policy. Why is it redundant? The rationale is the same as having a minimum wage that is lower than all other wages paid by the market. Higher international prices compared to local price however does introduce the issue of flow. There is a way to address that concern and this is why I make the third point.
Third, the existing subsidy system alone is more than capable of ensuring that there is no large major outflow of sugar under the price control mechanism. How? Just pay (really, subsidize) the importers to bring in the sugar.
I wish to veer off course for a moment or two here. Do note that this does not mean that I support a subsidy system. Rather, it is only a demonstration of positive economics. It is not an exercise at proposing the best policy but merely an effort at proposing a better policy. The best policy remains one that returns to the principle of free market.
Returning to the issue at hand, another unsatisfying point the Deputy Minister made in defending approved permits policy for sugar involves price fluctuation. Again, the subsidy system already in place is able to confront that. There is an existing system in place: the previously used fuel subsidy regime.
Really, the import quota policy is redundant in addressing fluctuating prices. Quota itself does not lessen fluctuation of prices. Any considerable fluctuation in the international price of sugar will translate into fluctuation of local prices regardless of permits, unless a country is a complete natural autarky, which Malaysia is not. What it does is merely to increase average local unsubsidized prices. It does not decrease variance around the local average. In other words, quota just makes prices fluctuating at the same magnitude at higher levels.
The relevant policy should be only price control and subsidy to producers and importers. Two tools alone are sufficient to achieve both objectives of affordable and low prices.
I want to harp on this point again, just in case if it had not driven the point home. While it is important to understand that these two policies suffer grave weaknesses — two examples are smuggling and shortage; also opportunity cost — when juxtaposed alongside free market environment, import quota in no way addresses those weaknesses. Therefore, import quota is really an irrelevant policy, if the objective is low stable prices.
The real reason for import quota is to protect domestic producers. The Deputy Minister did mention this as a reason and he should mention only this as the reason without stating that the policy is there to ensure that prices are affordable and to ensure the availability of sugar. The import quota raises price of sugar, with or without subsidy, much to the benefit of importers and producers of sugar.
It is worth highlighting that there are only four sugar factories in Malaysia owned only two entities. These entities also monopolize the quota. Never mind that these two entities are closely linked.