In state business, the agency problem is on steroids


Inefficiency in state enterprises is a common, if not universal, problem. Citizens are often frustrated by poor service at public institutions. Public hospitals are free, but how many senior executives use them? When holidaying overseas, Sri Lankans will use the railway, but when was the last time they rode on Sri Lanka’s subsidised railway?

Where there is a choice – private hospitals or cars – people may escape poor state services by using alternatives; but the poor aren’t as fortunate.

However, there is no escape from the cost of inefficiency. Inefficiency and waste in state enterprises must eventually be paid for, either by high prices (needed to cover all the waste) or higher taxes. Why is this common in Sri Lanka, but less so in developed countries? The issue is with governance, specifically the problem of agency.

The principal-agent problem is common to any enterprise, private or public, not directly managed by its owners. When an owner manages a business, the interests of the business and the owner are perfectly aligned. When the owner hires a manager to run the business, problems arise if the interests of the manager conflict with that of the owner.

The problem with state enterprises is that, apart from the standard agency costs of a business, they also suffer political costs. We will come to this presently, but in effect, two sets of costs must be managed for a state enterprise to function effectively, so the regime of governance needs to be much stronger than for private entities. In Sri Lanka, the governance regime is a lot weaker, leading to underperformance and abuse.

When an owner manages a business, the interests of the business and the owner are perfectly aligned. When the owner hires a manager to run the business, problems arise if the interests of the manager conflict with that of the owner

Shareholders, the ultimate owners of a company, as principals, elect the management to act and take decisions on their behalf. Managers are supposed to employ the resources of the business in a manner that will maximize shareholder wealth. The manager’s best interest, however, is to divert these resources to enhance their personal status (through perquisites such as chauffeured limousines, business class travel) and maximise their own wealth (through excessive pay or corruption).

An example may be seen in recent news reports of a payment of Rs75 million paid to senior managers of People’s Bank and allegedly excessive payments to the top management of SriLankan Airlines. According to a COPE report, the ETF has paid incentives amounting to Rs74.8 million and bonuses of Rs44.5 million, contrary to treasury circulars. Another instance is Hunter and Company PLC, where the auditors were dismissed when they insisted that disclosure was necessary with regard to a bungalow that was being used by key management personnel. Later, a shareholder of the company moved to convene an EGM to call for an explanation from Hunters’ directors with regard to the “disappearance of a Rs2.5 million cheque in favour of a Mr Mahesh Gajanayake and about directors’ remuneration over and above the limit set out in the company’s Article 107”.

The reduction of agency costs is regarded as the essential function of company law and corporate governance.

State ownership creates its own agency problems, which are caused by the separation of politicians and bureaucrats who oversee SOEs from “the citizens” on whose behalf the enterprises are ostensibly owned. This creates an extra level of agency.

SOEs are ultimately owned by citizens, but run by managers, who are controlled by politicians. Politicians determine or otherwise influence the appointment of key management and must hold the managers accountable.

Unlike shareholders, politicians have not invested their own money in the business. As they have no stake, there is no particular interest in ensuring that it is well run. Politicians, however, have incentives to direct SOEs to achieve economically inefficient objectives for political purposes, giving rise to political costs. These may be benign, if policies enhance social welfare, even if they fail to maximize shareholder value, but most often they are malign, favouring political allies at the expense of public welfare.

The real owners, the citizens, have no voice and little interest in how the business is run.

Citizens are the ultimate “owners”, but cannot exert any meaningful oversight as:
(a) they have no legal standing as owners; and
(b) the fragmented nature of the “ownership” creates a collective action problem: no one citizen, even ones who are seriously interested, has an incentive to bear the costs required to monitor the managers.

Oversight is costly, as time and effort must be spent monitoring performance if malpractice is to be detected, a task made more difficult as citizens lack ready access to information. As no direct rewards accrue to a diligent citizen from such action, there is little incentive to expend the effort to do so; they will depend on politicians for this. As discussed previously, politicians have no incentives to do so.

The main mechanisms to address these two layers of agency costs are general corporate laws on the one hand, and general political and legal institutions on the other; but for reasons discussed later, they are weak.

Therefore, the performance of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) suffer from both political costs (i.e. costs associated with the control of firms by politicians who have political goals that differ from economic efficiency) and agency costs (i.e. costs resulting from managerial pursuit of private benefits at the expense of the firm), leading to chronic inefficiency and underperformance.

As observed above, the agency problem is present in all corporate entities, but it is important to note a fundamental distinction between private shareholders and citizens.

Investors in private companies take a risk when they put money down, but it is one taken of their own volition. Shareholders subscribe voluntarily to shares; they are not compelled to invest.

Generally, people only invest in private companies if they know and trust the management. If the business does not perform to expectations, they will earn a lower return. If it fails, the shareholders will lose, but it is their own money, voluntarily invested, that is lost.

With SOEs, the important difference is that, unlike in a company where willing investors are taking conscious decisions, the investment in an SOE is by citizens who contribute involuntarily and unwittingly. Taxation is compulsory, and in the form of indirect taxation, all citizens contribute to SOEs.

In the most extreme case, if shareholders are disgusted and can find no remedy, they still enjoy a final option: exit. They may sell their shares. For citizens, unless they choose to migrate, there is no exit option.

Businesses must risk their own money when they go into trade, but governments risk other people’s money. If a business does not earn a profit, the owner will need to keep infusing funds, and this provides a powerful incentive to improve efficiency. If the owner is incapable of improving the business and is unable to infuse more funds, a mismanaged business will eventually close.

SOEs in Sri Lanka, however, enjoy implicit state guarantees and funding via state banks, which undermines even the threat of bankruptcy as a source of managerial discipline. The continuous accumulation of losses is only possible because of this factor. An example is SriLankan Airlines, which has accumulated losses of $1 billion and a negative net worth, but continues to operate with funding from state banks. For context, the current IMF facility (stand-by arrangement) is $1.5 billion.

Investors in private companies take a risk when they put money down, but it is one taken of their own volition. The investment in an SOE is by citizens who contribute involuntarily and unwittingly

As citizens lack the interest or wherewithal to monitor SOEs, efficiency is entirely dependent on the system of governance. Distorted incentives and weakened mechanisms present structural challenges to efficiency.
(a) Patronage
Politics in Sri Lanka is based on patronage. Ministers face pressures from constituents for jobs or favours. State sector jobs are especially prized for status and security. Politicians believe that granting jobs is a necessary condition for re-election. In general, lawmakers and ministers in Sri Lanka across party lines and ideological divides view SOEs as providing avenues to create employment.

SOEs incorporated as limited liability companies enjoy greater autonomy in the management of their affairs, allowing the minister to bypass treasury or budget restrictions placed on recruitment. In the case of state banks, it is possible for the minister to exercise patronage by directing lending on preferred terms to selected constituents.

This leads to problems of over-staffing. The more staff are hired, the greater the potential votes, leading to the chronic over-staffing evident in many SOEs. The allied problem is nepotism – the recruitment of people based on relationships instead of ability. Recruiting unsuitable candidates weakens the general level of competence within the SOE, which adversely impacts performance.

Therefore, patronage is particularly harmful as it has a dual impact on performance; the hiring of excess staff adds to unnecessary costs, while nepotism leads to diminished efficiency.

A COPE report highlights how the State Engineering Corporation recruited 4,512 employees when the available vacancies were only 41. The problem is pervasive. The Secretary to the Treasury Dr. Samaratunga noted that recruitments to SOEs take place without the approval of the Management Services Department of the Treasury. “All SOEs across the government—public corporations, statutory boards or government-owned companies—have effected recruitment without proper approval of the management services”.

Corruption is endemic in Sri Lanka’s political system. The root of the problem lies in campaign finance.

Changes in the 1978 constitution removed limits on campaign spending and the need to disclose sources of funding. This has led to a massive increase in spending with candidates seeking to outspend each other in order to win. Those who succeed come into office having either made major investments or incurred significant debts, usually a combination of both. This creates an in-built incentive for corruption. In the absence of strong governance mechanisms, it is hardly surprising if MPs do not succumb to temptation. spending a good deal of their time in office either recovering election spending or raising funds for their re-election campaign. This explains the scramble for positions in the government, which allows control over resources. The greater autonomy of SOEs makes them particularly tempting targets.

Greater efficiency can only be expected through better governance, which requires addressing fundamental weaknesses in the political system and adopting a comprehensive system of corporate governance for state enterprises

The Secretary to the Treasury has noted that SOEs have a “general lack of governance practices, lack of accountability mechanisms, issues associated with lack of clear policy and legal frameworks, and weak supervisory roles played by the management and board of directors”.

Many countries have adopted comprehensive corporate governance practices to strengthen the governing bodies that oversee and control (shareholders or owner meetings, board and management, internal monitoring structures), while defining clear rules of engagement between the different actors, as well as increasing transparency and accountability towards stakeholders.

These are lacking in Sri Lanka, and the overall system of governance still seems inadequate to hold SOEs to account.

Perverse incentives and weak governance greatly increase political and agency costs of state-owned enterprises. It is, therefore, not surprising that a study by Lalithsiri Gunaruwan found that “inefficiency is a common feature in all Sri Lankan SOEs, across all organisational categories”. Greater efficiency can only be expected through better governance, which requires addressing the fundamental weaknesses in the political system and adopting a comprehensive system of corporate governance for state enterprises.