Although I’ve worked on agricultural economics for nearly thirty years, I’ve never given much thought to “single desk selling”, the policy under which Australia nominates a single source (formerly a government agency and now a quasi-private business) to supply exports of commodities such as wheat and sugar. The scandal engulfing AWB (the former Australian Wheat Board, now privatised) has naturally raised the issue of whether this export monopoly should continue. On reflection, I think it should not.
There are a couple of reasons why we might favour an export monopoly. The first is the classic idea of exploiting Australian monopoly power to generate higher returns. There are a few problems with this. First, our monopoly power in the world wheat market is very limited, even allowing for the fact that wheat is not a homogeneous commodity. Second, in the absence of restrictions on the aggregate supply of wheat, this implies diverting additional wheat to the domestic market, depressing prices there. While that’s a benefit to consumers, it means that the net gain to wheatgrowers from the operation of the AWB will be pretty modest. Finally, it doesn’t appear to me that AWB acts in the way required. Far from that of a tightfisted monopolist, the AWB culture comes across as that of hotshot sales types, eager to do whatever is necessary to bring home a deal.
The second case for an export monopoly is that of countervailing power. Here the idea is that the buying side of the market is dominated by big players who will, if left unchecked, divide and conquer Australian wheatgrowers. In a situation where Australian growers were bargaining individually with monopsony buyers, the establishment of a publicly-supported export supplier might be a good idea. But, given that such a supplier exists, it’s hard to see why it needs to retain monopoly rights. If, as claimed, it gets better prices for wheatgrowers than they can get for themselves, or through other exporters, why would they switch?
As far as wheat is concerned, the question is, I think, academic. AWB’s reputation has been so badly shredded that any deal they make from now on will be open to attack by foreign competitors, unless it is at such a discount as to make it clear that it could not possibly incorporate a bribe. This is already happening in Iraq, (though the Americans had grabbed the market for themselves in any case). So if want to keep the single-desk policy, we’ll have to establish a completely new enterprise to work it.