Moral hazard is an interesting concept in economics. It’s the problem that someone protected from risk may behave differently from how they’d behave if they were fully exposed to the risk.
It’s a big issue in finance and insurance. Moral hazard has been blamed in part for the sub-prime mortgage debacle gripping the US and elsewhere. Governments often guarantee banks to protect citizens from losing their savings if banks collapse. But this guarantee to bail out banks can encourage the banks to make riskier loans: if the loans go OK, they make money and if everything goes wrong – well, the government will bail them out to protect the savings of the mums and dads. The government’s guarantee can therefore – perversely – make the financial systems riskier and more unstable.
An environmental example is drought assistance. By helping farmers when they face a drought we may encourage unsustainable farming practices. ‘Should I farm in the drought-prone area? Well, if it rains I’m fine and if it doesn’t, I’ll get drought relief, so why not?’
A proposal in the Garnaut Climate Change Review's latest discussion paper on emissions trading (pdf) is that permits be allowed to be “banked” or “borrowed” from future years. Banking’s not a big issue – if you reduce your emissions more than anticipated, you can “bank” your excess credits and use them in a later year. But “borrowing” is a potential minefield. It allows a company to say “I’ll exceed my allowance this year but it will be OK because I’m planning to reduce my emissions substantially in the next few years so I’ll repay them then”.
What’s the problem? First, we really want to be encouraging emissions reductions now. But that’s pretty easily dealt with – you just charge interest. At a 10% interest / penalty rate on borrowed permits for example, a company could choose to emit 100 tonnes this year and 100 next year or borrow 10 and emit 110 this year but only 89 next year (100 minus the 10 borrowed minus interest of 1 on the 10 borrowed). You could give the same rate of interest as a discount on banked early reductions to encourage those.
The bigger problem is will these borrowed permits ever be repaid? And this is where moral hazard raises its ugly head. Imagine this scenario: coal-fired power plant operators are sure that carbon capture and storage is going to mean they can reduce their emissions massively and cheaply in 20 years. The technology is looking promising. But right now, reducing emissions is hard and expensive. So they borrow from their entitlements 20 – 30 years in the future. They’re sure the investment will pay off when the technology comes on line and they reduce emissions massively and cheaply. And seeing as they’re going to pay an interest or penalty rate for delaying their cuts, everyone will win: the cuts will be delayed but they will be so huge when they arrive that it will more than compensate in the long run.
But, as it turns out, the technology doesn’t deliver. So the power station operators deliver the unfortunate news to the government: "We got it wrong, we can’t afford to make the reductions. And we can’t afford to buy in permits on the open market. You’ve got a few options. You can fund us to buy more permits. Of course, the price of permits will spike, instantly and substantially increasing the costs of any emitting industries, sending some to the wall, increasing energy, food and goods prices to consumers and fuelling inflation, and maybe a small recession. And of course, taxpayers will be paying the debts that we’ve incurred. Or, we can just shut down. Electricity production will slump and energy prices will spike, again increasing the costs to energy users (sending some firms to the wall and hurting households), fuelling inflation, and maybe a small recession. Or you could just issue us with more permits…"
The idea of emissions trading between different companies is that it allows flexibility in who makes the reductions and therefore lowers the overall community costs of achieving reductions – whoever can reduce emissions most cheaply has most incentive to do so. Allowing the trading of emissions between different time periods adds more flexibility (flexibility as to when we make the reductions) and further reduces the total cost to the community. If it works. But we need to be very careful. Because the risk of moral hazard suggests it might not work.