The market is a harsh mistress – for competitors

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
31 August, 2018

It was the year 2019 and Kiwis had had enough. It was time for legislation to finally protect the interests of those of us stuck in the car leasing market.

It wasn’t always this bad. The market used to be able to keep up with demand for cars. Mostly. Sure, the cars available overseas were better and cheaper. Some overseas families even had more than one of them! Normal people couldn’t really get those cars here because of import controls.

The 1980s reforms hadn’t touched the car market. Petone still made lots of cars.

But the reforms had touched it indirectly. People saw the cars available overseas, either while travelling or on television, and wondered why the new ones here were of such poor quality and high cost by comparison – and why so many people were stuck driving old and run-down ones. Higher incomes built greater expectations.

The government tightened car regulations to try to close the gap, but that always wound up either making cars worse in other ways, or increasing prices for those who could least afford it, or both.

It was annoying, but we put up with it.

Fat-cat families with more than one car had started leasing their second cars to those who couldn’t afford one in the late 80s. Car ownership rates started their long decline. And we started seeing stories on how cars in Houston didn’t cost multiples of the median income.

The leasing market was never that nice. If the owner’s kid came back from OE a bit early, you might have to scramble to find another car in a hurry. You were usually stuck doing far more of your own maintenance than expected. And the lease price could jump at the owner’s discretion – take it or leave it.

The immigration boom made everything worse. Some brought their cars with them – lording their well-built Honda Civics over everyone else. But the rest simply added to the pressures on the car market. The local production plants just couldn’t keep up. People even wanted to ban immigration to restore automotive affordability.

Finally, in 2019, the government decided to really fix things and protect renters.

It opened the market to imports.

Scarcity is power. Fixing the rules that artificially constrain supply enables the best regulator of all: the competitor down the road.

Renting a house as easily as leasing a car doesn’t have to be science fiction.

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