Profit may be the most emotive and most disagreed-on word in the modern political lexicon.
For some people, it conjures up a deep positive energy. It’s the lacquer of success that tells you your life has not been in vain, a thank you message from the universe.
For others, it’s a totem of greed. It’s the fuel barbarians pour onto the bodies of the civilised before they burn them all, throw back their heads and howl as the smoke covers the moon.
Both can be right.
Whether you drive a Rolls Royce or a 1990 Subaru with a bumper sticker that says People Before Profit, you need to know this.
There’s two types of profit.
Economic profit (bad), and accounting profit (fine).
Let me explain.
Accounting profit is what a business makes after it has paid all its staff, all its bills, but before it pays the people who put the money into the business. People who funded the business to start up need a little bit of sugar to keep their money in there instead of putting it in the bank.
Imagine a small business person who delivers things you buy on the internet. She buys a van, putting $30,000 into the business. If that money was put in the bank and got 5 per cent return it would make $1500. So the small business needs to make at least $1500 in accounting profit, on top of paying wages and bills, to compensate the person who funded the business.
That accounting profit is necessary for the business to run. If there’s no accounting profit, the delivery business will shut down, as the delivery woman realises she should sell the van, put the money in the bank, and work for someone else.
(In reality she should be looking for slightly more than $1500 in accounting profit, to help compensate her for the risk of running a business, which is much higher than plonking your cash in a government-guaranteed deposit.)
So, accounting profit is necessary for businesses to exist. The alternative is the business shutting down.
When you see Woolworths Limited reporting a before-tax profit of $3.4 billion on sales of $58.5 billion, some of that is the accounting profit necessary for the share to be worth anything at all.
But some of it might be economic profit. Let’s go back a step.
Us economists think accountants are simpletons. We like to think about opportunity cost. We think that you should measure your ‘profits’ against the next best use of your money. So economic profit is not the little bit extra you need to pay back the person who funded the business. Economic profit is extra on top of that. If you make a lot of economic profit, something has gone wrong.
Some businesses make enough money that their owners don’t just get a nice 5 per cent return on their investment. They make enough that it rains cash. That’s often economic profit, and it’s a bad sign.
Unfortunately, it’s not always clear if a company’s profit is simple accounting profit or the extra economic profit. When an company reports profit, it includes some that is necessary to cover the cost of capital, and the gravy.
Here’s the thing: under the assumption of perfectly competitive markets, there should be no economic profit in the long run. Businesses should make enough to cover their cost of capital and not any more.
It’s only during deviations from perfect competition, or when market failures creep in that economic profit can occur. Sometimes firms can create economic profit for themselves by behaving in an anti-competitive way. They have an incentive to do that, which is why we have to have competition law.
The most obvious market failure is market power. If a company is part of an oligopoly, or worse a duopoly (Hi Woolworths), or worst of all, a monopoly, then economic profit can be expected to ensue.
Of course banks should make enough to compensate the people that own the capital that allows the bank run. But should they make more?
Commonwealth Bank, Australia’s biggest, made $7.7 billion in profit last year.
The value of the Commonwealth Bank is $120 billion at time of writing. It was, at least until recently, in the top ten biggest banks in the world by value, even though it is not in the top ten by assets.
Any industry where all the competitors are making extra profit on less assets should ring alarm bells. There is almsot certainly economic profit being made, and it is being made at the expense of the customers.
IS THERE NOTHING WE CAN DO?
I’m glad you asked.
A tax design idea is floating around – currently out of favour – called allowance for corporate equity. It is gentle to accounting profits, and starts to snarl and salivate when economic profits are made. As the name implies, it would allow profits to cover the cost of equity [that’s the money the owner put in, or the $30,000 van in the example above]. After that, taxes rise.
Another way of putting that same idea is to say ‘take the mining super-profit tax and apply it across all industries.’
“At the tax summit, Melbourne University’s John Freebairn, a former research director of the Business Council, said Australia’s super-profits tax rate might be ”more towards 40 or 50 per cent”. It would only be paid by companies earning ”monopolistic-type rent”. ”And let’s rub it into the banks,” he added. ”They seem to make much higher returns than anyone else.””
But that would not be popular. It’s one reason Wayne Swan ran from the Allowance for corporate equity idea when it had a brief resurgence a few years ago.
But recognising the difference between the types of profit is crucial for anyone who wants to make a difference to society. Tax policy makers know better than anyone else that companies making a super profit are probably managing it at the expense of the consumer. We should not stint from hitting them with extra tax.