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Welcome

Welcome to the Sloman Economics News Site. This blog contains links to topical stories in the news discussing key economic issues and concepts.

Each news item starts with an introduction to the issue. This is followed by several links to relevant news articles – some to videos or podcasts. The item finishes with discussion questions that can be used either for self-testing or for use in class.

Scroll down below to read the latest articles posted, or use the search facilities on the left-hand side to search the articles by date, keyword and your chosen textbook.

Most of the postings are by Elizabeth Jones, John Sloman, Dean Garratt, Matt Olczak, Jon Guest and Alison Wride.

We also welcome guest posts from lecturers using one or more of the books in their teaching – see the About this Site section on the left for more details.

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Should countries target GDP growth?

A key economic objective of governments around the world is economic growth, where economic growth is taken to mean growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This can be refined as growth in GDP per head or growth in Net National Income (NNY or NNI) – this takes account of depreciation and net flows of income to and from abroad. But is GDP (or NNY) an appropriate measure? There continues to be much debate about this and there is a lot of support for adopting an alternative measure – the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) as a target for economic policy.

GDP measures the market value of production and is the value added at each stage of production. If the value of a nation’s production is what you want to measure or target, then GDP is quite a good indicator. Its main drawbacks are that it uses market prices, which may be distorted, and that much of production in the informal sector is not included.

But if GDP growth is taken to be a proxy for development or growth in wellbeing of the residents of a country, then it has serious shortcomings. This is not to say that GDP gives no indication of progress. Generally, countries with higher GDP per head have a better standard of living, but it is not necessarily the case that, if Country A has higher production in the formal sector than Country B, its residents will be happier, more fulfilled and have fewer economic or other problems.

GDP, by focusing on production, ignores many environmental and social costs of that production. Valuable but not tradable resources, such as clean air, rivers and oceans, may be sacrificed for the sake of extra production and this is recorded as a gain in GDP.

Similarly, unless GDP is specifically weighted by income groups, which virtually never happens, it does not take into account income distribution. Much of the growth in production in both rich and poor countries in recent decades has gone to the richest people. Take the case of the USA. In 1944 the share of income going to the top 1% share was 11.3%, while the bottom 90% were receiving 67.5%. Such levels remained roughly constant for the next three decades. But then things began to change.

Starting in the mid- to late 1970s, the uppermost tier’s income share began rising dramatically, while that of the bottom 90% started to fall. The top 1% took heavy hits from the dot-com crash and the Great Recession but recovered fairly quickly: [preliminary estimates for 2012 by Emmanuel Saez] have that group receiving nearly 22.5% of all pre-tax income, while the bottom 90%’s share is below 50% for the first time ever (49.6%, to be precise).

So what does GPI measure and why may it be a better target for policy-makers than GDP or NNY? The answer is that it includes a number of important items that affect the well-being of a country, such as resource depletion, social activity and income distribution, that are not measured in GDP. So what would cause GPI to rise? According to The Guardian article below, examples would include:

Getting more energy from renewables; increased energy efficiency; reducing the income gap; putting more reliable, durable products on the market (have you heard of planned obsolescence?); volunteering more for your community; preserving wetlands, forests, and farmland; shorter commutes and transport routes. In fact, there are 26 ways the GPI can go up, all measured in dollars that boil down to a single number.

GPI is being increasingly adopted as a measure of progress. In the USA, it is officially used in Vermont and Maryland and is being considered in other states, such as Hawaii, Washington and Oregon.

And there are other alternatives. For example, since 1990, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has published an annual Human Development Index (HDI) As Box 27.1 in Economics, 8th edition states:

HDI is the average of three indices based on three sets of variables: (i) life expectancy at birth, (ii) education (a weighted average of (a) the mean years that a 25-year-old person or older has spent in school and (b) the number of years of schooling that a 5-year-old child is expected to have over their lifetime) and (iii) real GNY per capita, measured in US dollars at purchasing-power parity exchange rates.

The following articles look at the suitability of GDP and GPI and whether, by targeting growth in GDP, governments are guilty of downplaying the importance of other economic and social objectives.

Beyond GDP: US states have adopted genuine progress indicators The Guardian, Marta Ceroni (23/9/14)
Forget the GDP. Some States Have Found a Better Way to Measure Our Progress. New Republic, Lew Daly and Sean McElwee (3/2/14)
Gross domestic problem Aljazeera, Sean McElwee (6/6/14)
Creating the Circular Economy, Part II Environmental Leader, David Dornfeld (17/9/14)
Development: Time to leave GDP behind Nature, Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Enrico Giovannini, Hunter Lovins, Jacqueline McGlade, Kate E. Pickett, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Debra Roberts, Roberto De Vogli and Richard Wilkinson (15/1/14)
The Problems With Using GPI Rather Than GDP Forbes, Tim Worstall (5/6/14)

Questions

  1. What does GDP measure?
  2. Does GDP of a country equate to the turnover of a firm?
  3. If growth in NNY is superior to growth in GDP as a measure of economic growth, why are GDP figures more generally used than NNY figures when assessing a country’s economic performance?
  4. How suitable is using GDP as a measure of a nation’s production?
  5. What does GPI measure?
  6. Is GPI superior to GDP as a measure of a nation’s level of development? Explain why or why not.
  7. Give some examples of where a growth in GDP might correspond to a decline in economic well-being.
  8. For what reasons could GPI measures be described as subjective?
  9. Would it be a good idea for a country to target growth in GPI/GDP? Explain your answer.
  10. In addition to real GNY per capita, the Human Development Index includes measures of education and life expectancy. For what other social objectives might education and life expectancy be useful proxies?
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Cloudy skies ahead?

Now here’s a gloomy article from Robert Peston. He’s been looking at investors’ views about the coming years and sees a general pessimism about the prospects for long-term economic growth. And that pessimism is becoming deeper.

It is true that both the UK and the USA have recorded reasonable growth rates in recent months and do seem, at least on the surface, to be recovering from recession. But, according to investor behaviour, they:

seem to be saying, in how they place their money, that the UK’s and USA’s current reasonably rapid growth will turn out to be a short-lived period of catch-up, following the deep recession of 2008-9.

So what is it about investor behaviour that implies a deep pessimism and are investors right to be pessimistic? The article explores these issues. It does also look at an alternative explanation that investors may merely be being cautious until a clearer picture emerges about long-term growth prospects – which may turn out to be better that many currently now predict.

The article finishes by looking at a possible solution to the problem (if you regard low or zero growth as a problem). That would be for the government to ‘throw money at investment in infrastructure – to generate both short-term growth and enhance long-term productive potential.’

Note that Elizabeth also looks at this article in her blog The end of growth in the west?.

The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)

Questions

  1. What is meant by the ’25-year yield curve for government bonds’? Why does this yield curve imply a deep level of business pessimism about the long-term prospects for UK economic growth?
  2. What are the determinants of long-term economic growth?
  3. Looking at these determinants, which ones suggest that long-term economic growth may be low?
  4. Are there any determinants which might suggest that economic growth will be maintained over the long term at historical levels of around 2.6%?
  5. Do demand-side policies affect potential GDP and, if so, how?
  6. What policies could government pursue to increase the rate of growth in potential GDP?
  7. What current ‘dramas’ affecting the world economy could have long-term implications for economic growth? How does uncertainty about the long-term implications for the global economy of such dramas itself affect economic growth?
  8. Is long-term growth in real GDP an appropriate indicator of (a) economic development and (b) long-term growth in general well-being?
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The end of growth in the West?

The growth rates of the Western world have been somewhat volatile for the past decade, with negative growth sending economies into recession and then varying degrees of economic recovery. Growth rates elsewhere have been very high, in particular in countries such as China and India. The future of economic growth in the west is hotly debated and whether the western world has been forever changed by the credit crunch remains to be seen.

The article below from the BBC, written by Robert Peston, the Economics Editor, addresses the question of the future of the western world. Opinions differ as to whether the west is finally recovering from the recession and financial instability or if the credit crunch and subsequent recession is just the beginning of many years of economic stagnation. The article in particular focuses on the yield curve and the trends in government debt or gilts. This tends to be a key indicator of the expectations of the future of an economy and how confident investors are in its likely trajectory. Though technical in places, this article provides some interesting stances on what we might expect in the coming 2-3 decades for economic performance in the West.

Note that John also looks at this article in his blog Cloudy Skies Ahead?

The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)

Questions

  1. Which factors affect the economic growth of a nation?
  2. Confidence from consumers, firms and investors is always argued to be crucial to the future economic growth and in many cases, the recovery of an economy. Explain why this factor is so important.
  3. What is the yield curve and what does it show?
  4. How can the yield curve be used to offer predictions about the future strength of an economy?
  5. Why are governments seen as the safest place to lend?
  6. If Larry Summers is correct in saying that it is a negative equilibrium interest rate that is needed to generate full employment growth, what does this suggest about the future economic performance of the western world?
  7. In the article, there is a list of some of the key things that make investors anxious. Review each of these factors and explain why it is so important in generating anxiety.
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Oil prices fall below $100

One of the key prices in any economy is that of oil. Whenever oil prices change, it can have a knock-on effect on a range of other markets, as oil, or some variation, is used as an input into the production of countless products. The main products that consumers will see affected are energy prices and petrol prices..

Although on the supply-side, we see a large cartel in the form of OPEC, it is still the case that the forces of demand and supply directly affect the market price. Key things such as the demand for heating, economic growth, fears of war and disruption will change the demand and supply of oil. The possibility of militant strikes in oil producers, such as Syria, would normally reduce supply and push up the market price. However, we have actually seen oil prices drop much faster than we have in two years, dropping below $100 per barrel since September 5th. The slowdown of economic growth in Asia, together with the return of Libyan production at a level greater than expected have helped to push prices down and have offset the fears of global production.

The market forces pushing prices down, while good for consumers and firms that use crude oil or one of its by-products, are clearly bad for oil producers. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Countries are urging OPEC to halt its production and thereby shift supply upwards to the left putting a stop to the downward oil price trend. Several countries are concerned about the impact of lower prices, and one country that may be significantly affected is Russia. Some are suggesting that the impact could be as big as 4% of Russia’s GDP, taking into account the ongoing political crisis with Ukraine.

The market for oil is highly susceptible to changes in both demand and supply-side factors. Microeconomic changes will have an impact, but at the same time any global macroeconomic factors can have significant effects on the global price. Expectations are crucial and as countries release information about the size of the oil stocks and inventories, it is adding to the downward pressure on prices. Some oil experts have predicted that prices could get as low as $80 per barrel before OPEC takes significant action, influenced heavily by countries like Saudi Arabia. The following articles consider this global market.

Articles
Iran urges OPEC to halt oil price slide Financial Times, Anjli Raval (26/9/14)
Oil overflow: as prices slump, producers grapple with a new reality The Globe and Mail, Shawn McCarthy and Jeff Lewis (27/9/14)
Weak demand, plentiful supply drive decline in oil prices International Distribution (26/9/14)
Oil prices plunging despite ISIS CNN Money, Paul R La Monica (25/9/14)
Oil prices fall on EIA report of big U.S. crude stocks build Reuters, Robert Gibbons (17/9/14)
Sanctions and weaker oil prices could cost Russia 4% of GDP – official RT (25/9/14)

Data
Spot oil prices Energy Information Administration
Weekly European Brent Spot Price Energy Information Administration (Note: you can also select daily, monthly or annual.)
Annual Statistical Bulletin OPEC

Questions

  1. What are the key factors on the microeconomic side that affect (a) demand and (b) supply of oil?
  2. Explain the key macroeconomic factors that are likely to have an impact on global demand and supply of oil.
  3. Militant action in some key oil producing countries has caused fears of oil disruption. Why is that oil prices don’t reflect these very big concerns?
  4. Use a demand and supply diagram to explain the answer you gave to question 3.
  5. What type of intervention could OPEC take to stabilise oil prices?
  6. Why is the Russian economy likely to be adversely affected by the trend in oil prices?
  7. Changes in the global macroeconomy will directly affect oil prices. Is there a way that changes in oil prices can also affect the state of the global economy?
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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The French economy is flatlining. It has just recorded the second quarter of zero economic growth, with growth averaging just 0.02% over the past 12 months. What is more, the budget deficit is rising, not falling. In April this year, the French finance minister said that the deficit would fall from 4.3% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2014 and to the eurozone ceiling of 3% in 2015. He is now predicting that it will rise this year to 4.4% and not reach the 3% target until 2017.

The deficit is rising because a flatlining economy is not generating sufficient tax revenues. What is more, expenditure on unemployment benefits and other social protection is rising as unemployment has risen, now standing at a record 10.3%.

And it is not just the current economic situation that is poor; the outlook is poor too. The confidence of French companies is low and falling, and investment plans are muted. President Hollande has pledged to cut payroll taxes to help firms, but so far this has not encouraged firms to invest more.

So what can the French government do? And what can the EU as a whole do to help revive not just the French economy but most of the rest of the eurozone, which is also suffering from zero, or near zero, growth?

There are two quite different sets of remedies being proposed.

The first comes from the German government and increasingly from the French government too. This is to stick to the austerity plans: to get the deficit down; to reduce the size of government in order to prevent crowding out; and to institute market-orientated supply-side policies that are business friendly, such as reducing business regulation. Business leaders in France, who generally back this approach, have called for reducing the number of public holidays and scrapping the maximum 35-hour working week. They are also seeking reduced business taxes, financed by reducing various benefits.

Increasingly President Hollande is moving towards a more business-friendly set of policies. Under his government’s ‘Responsibility Pact’, a €40 billion package of tax breaks for business will be financed through €50 billion of cuts in public spending. To carry through these policies he has appointed an ex-investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, as economy minister. He replaces Arnaud Montebourg, who roundly criticised government austerity policy and called for policies to boost aggregate demand.

This brings us to the alternative set of remedies. These focus on stimulating aggregate demand through greater infrastructure investment and cutting taxes more generally (not just for business). The central argument is that growth must come first and that this will then generate the tax revenues and reductions in unemployment that will then allow the deficit to be brought down. Only when economic growth is firmly established should measures be taken to cut government expenditure in an attempt to reduce the structural deficit.

There are also compromise policies being proposed from the centre. These include measures to stimulate aggregate demand, mainly through tax cuts, accompanied by supply-side policies, whether market orientated or interventionist.

As Europe continues to struggle to achieve recovery, so the debate is getting harsher. Monetary policy alone may not be sufficient to bring recovery. Although the ECB has taken a number of measures to stimulate demand, so far they have been to little avail. As long as business confidence remains low, making increased liquidity available to banks at interest rates close to zero will not make banks more willing to lend to business, or businesses more willing to borrow. Calls for an end, or at least a temporary halt, to austerity are thus getting louder. At the same time, calls for sticking to austerity and tackling excessive government spending are also getting louder.

Articles
Hollande entrusts French economy to ex-banker Macron Reuters, Ingrid Melander and Jean-Baptiste Vey (26/8/14)
France’s new Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron described by left-wingers as a ‘copy-and-paste Tony Blair’ Independent, John Lichfield (28/8/14)
Merkel praises France’s economic reform plans after Berlin talks with PM Valls Deutsche Welle (22/9/14)
French economy flat-lines as business activity falters Reuters, Leigh Thomas (23/9/14)
French public finances: Rétropédalage The Economist (13/9/14)
French employer group urges ‘shock therapy’ for economy Reuters (24/9/14)
Last chance to save France: loosen 35-hour week and cut public holidays, say bosses The Telegraph (24/9/14)
‘Sick’ France’s economy is stricken by unemployment ‘fever’ The Telegraph (17/9/14)
France’s economics ills worsen but all remedies appear unpalatable The Observer, Larry Elliott and Anne Penketh (31/8/14)
The Fall of France The New York Times, Paul Krugman (28/8/14)
Why Europe is terrified of deflation Salon, Paul Ames (20/9/14)
Europe’s Greater Depression is worse than the 1930s The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (14/8/14)
Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (20/8/14)
Eurozone business growth slows in September, PMI survey finds BBC News (23/9/14)
Europe must ‘boost demand’ to revive economy, US warns BBC News (21/9/14)
Valls says France would never ask Germany to solve its problems Reuters, Annika Breidthardt and Michelle Martin (23/9/14)
The euro-zone economy: Asset-backed indolence The Economist (11/9/14)

Data
Annual macro-economic database (AMECO) Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Business and Consumer Surveys Times Series Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
StatExtracts OECD
Statistics database European Central Bank

Questions

  1. What types of supply-side reforms would be consistent with the German government’s vision of solving Europe’s low growth problem?
  2. How could a Keynesian policy of reflation be consistent with getting France’s deficit down to the 3% of GDP limit as specified in the Stability and Growth Pact (see)?
  3. What is meant by (a) financial crowding out and (b) resource crowding out? Would reflationary fiscal policy in France lead to either form of crowding out? How would it be affected by the monetary stance of the ECB?
  4. Give examples of market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies.
  5. What is meant by the terms ‘cyclical budget deficit’ and ‘structural budget deficit’. Could demand-side policy affect the structural deficit?
  6. Using the European Commission’s Business and Consumer Surveys find our what has happened to business and consumer confidence in France over the past few months.
  7. How important is business and consumer confidence in determining economic growth in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?
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