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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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A lorry load of fines

Record fines have been imposed by the European Commission for the operation of a cartel. Truck makers, Volvo/Renault, Daimler, Iveco and DAF have been fined a total of €2.93bn. The fines were considerably higher than the previous record fine of €1.7bn on banks for rigging the LIBOR rate.

Along with MAN, they were found to have colluded for 14 years over pricing. They also colluded in passing on to customers the costs of compliance with stricter emissions rules. Together these five manufacturers account for some 90% of medium and heavy lorries produced in Europe.

The companies have admitted their involvement in the cartel. If they had not, the fines might have been higher. MAN escaped a fine of €1.2bn as it had revealed the existence of the cartel to the Commission.

A sixth company, Scania, is still in dispute with the Commission over its involvement. Thus the final total of fines could be higher when Scania’s case is settled.

In addition, any person or firm adversely affected by the cartel can seek damages from any of the companies in the national courts of member states. They do not have to prove that there was a cartel.

The Commission hopes that the size of the fine will act as a disincentive for other firms to form a cartel. ‘We have, today, put down a marker by imposing record fines for a serious infringement,’ said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner.

Also, by being able to exempt a cartel member (MAN in this case) from a fine if it ‘blows the whistle’ to the authorities, it will help to break existing cartels.

There are some other major possible cartels and cases of abuse of market power currently being considered by the Commission. These include Google and whether unfair tax breaks were given to Apple and Amazon by Ireland and Luxembourg respectively.

Articles
Price-Fixing Truck Makers Get Record E.U. Fine: $3.2 Billion New York Times, James Kanter (19/7/16)
Truckmakers Get Record $3.23 Billion EU Fine for Cartel Bloomberg, Aoife White (19/6/16)
EU fines truckmakers a record €2.93bn for running 14-year cartel Financial Times, Peter Campbell, Duncan Robinson and Alex Barker (19/7/16)
Truckmakers fined by Brussels for price collusion The Guardian, Sean Farrell (19/7/16)

Europa Press Release
Antitrust: Commission fines truck producers € 2.93 billion for participating in a cartel European Commission (19/7/16)

Information
Competition DG European Commission

Questions

  1. How have the various stakeholders in the truck manufacturing industry been affected by the operation of the cartel?
  2. What incentive effects are there, (a) for existing cartel members and (b) for firms thinking of forming a cartel, in the fining system used by the European Commission?
  3. Unlike the USA, the EU cannot jail managers for oligopolistic collusion. Compare the relative effectiveness of large fines and jail sentences in deterring cartels.
  4. What determines the profit-maximising price(s) for a cartel?
  5. Apart from the threat of action by the competition authorities, what determines the likely success of a cartel in being able to fix prices?
  6. Choose two other cases of possible cartels or the abuse of market power being examined by the European Commission. What is the nature of the suspected abuse?
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Transforming capitalism

Short-termism is a problem which has dogged British firms and is part of the explanation of low investment in the UK. Shareholders, many of which are large pension funds and other financial institutions, are more concerned with short-term returns than long-term growth and productivity. Likewise, senior managers’ rewards are often linked to short-term performance rather than the long-term health of the company.

But the stakeholders in companies extend well beyond owners and senior managers. Workers, consumers, suppliers, local residents and the country as a whole are all stakeholders in companies.

So is the current model of capitalism fit for purpose? According to the new May government, workers and consumers should be represented on the boards of major British companies. The Personnel Today article quotes Theresa May as saying:

‘The people who run big businesses are supposed to be accountable to outsiders, to non-executive directors, who are supposed to ask the difficult questions. In practice, they are drawn from the same, narrow social and professional circles as the executive team and – as we have seen time and time again – the scrutiny they provide is just not good enough.

We’re going to change that system – and we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well.’

This model is not new. Many countries, such as France and Germany, have had worker representatives on boards for many years. There the focus is often less on short-term profit maximisation and more on the long-term performance of the company in terms of a range of indicators.

Extending this model to stakeholder groups more generally could see companies taking broader social objectives into account. And the number of companies which put corporate social responsibility high on their agenda could increase significantly.

And this approach can ultimately bring better returns to shareholders. As the first The Conversation article below states:

This is something that research into a ‘Relational Company’ model has found – by putting the interests of all stakeholders at the heart of their decision making, companies can become more competitive, stable and successful. Ultimately, this will generate greater returns for shareholders.

While CSR has become mainstream in terms of the public face of some large corporations, it has tended to be one of the first things to be cut when economic growth weakens. The findings from Business in the Community’s 2016 Corporate Responsibility Index suggest that many firms are considering how corporate responsibility can positively affect profits. However, it remains the case that there are still many firms and consumers that care relatively little about the social or natural environment. Indeed, each year, fewer companies take part in the CR Index. In 2016 there were 43 firms; in 2015, 68 firms; in 2014, 97 firms; in 2013, 126 firms.

In addition to promising to give greater voice to stakeholder groups, Mrs May has also said that she intends to curb executive pay. Shareholders will be given binding powers to block executive remuneration packages. But whether shareholders are best placed to do this questionable. If shareholders’ interests are the short-term returns on their investment, then they may well approve of linking executive remuneration to short-term returns rather than on the long-term health of the company or its role in society more generally.

When leaders come to power, they often make promises that are never fulfilled. Time will tell whether the new government will make radical changes to capitalism in the UK or whether a move to greater stakeholder power will remain merely an aspiration.

Articles
Will Theresa May break from Thatcherism and transform business? The Conversation, Arad Reisberg (19/7/16)
Democratise companies to rein in excessive banker bonuses The Conversation, Prem Sikka (14/3/16)
Theresa May promises worker representatives on boards Personnel Today, Rob Moss (11/7/16)
If Theresa May is serious about inequality she’ll ditch Osbornomics The Guardian, Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs (19/7/16)
Theresa May should beware of imitating the German model Financial Times, Ursula Weidenfeld (12/7/16)

Questions

  1. To what extent is the pursuit of maximum short-term profits in the interests of (a) shareholders; (b) consumers; (c) workers; (d) suppliers; (e) society generally; (f) the environment?
  2. How could British industry be restructured so as to encourage a greater proportion of GDP being devoted to investment?
  3. How would greater flexibility in labour markets affect the perspectives on company performance of worker representatives on boards?
  4. How does worker representation in capitalism work in Germany? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this model? (See the panel in the Personnel Today article and the Financial Times article.)
  5. What do you understand by ‘industrial policy’? How can it be used to increase investment, productivity, growth and the pursuit of broader stakeholder interests?
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Don’t bank on Italy’s economy

The Brexit vote has caused shockwaves throughout European economies. But there is a potentially larger economic and political problem facing the EU and the eurozone more specifically. And that is the state of the Italian banking system and the Italian economy.

Italy is the third largest economy in the eurozone after Germany and France. Any serious economic weaknesses could have profound consequences for the rest of the eurozone and beyond.

At 135% of GDP, Italy’s public-sector debt is one the highest in the world; its banks are undercapitalised with a high proportion of bad debt; and it is still struggling to recover from the crisis of 2008–9. The Economist article elaborates:

The adult employment rate is lower than in any EU country bar Greece. The economy has been moribund for years, suffocated by over-regulation and feeble productivity. Amid stagnation and deflation, Italy’s banks are in deep trouble, burdened by some €360 billion of souring loans, the equivalent of a fifth of the country’s GDP. Collectively they have provisioned for only 45% of that amount. At best, Italy’s weak banks will throttle the country’s growth; at worst, some will go bust.

Since 2007, the economy has shrunk by 10%. And potential output has fallen too, as firms have closed. Unemployment is over 11%, with youth unemployment around 40%.

Things seem to be coming to a head. As confidence in the Italian banking system plummets, the Italian government would like to bail out the banks to try to restore confidence and encourage deposits and lending. But under new eurozone rules designed to protect taxpayers, it requires that the first line of support should be from bondholders. Such support is known as a ‘bail-in’.

If bondholders were large institutional investors, this might not be such a problem, but a significant proportion of bank bonds in Italy are held by small investors, encouraged to do so by tax relief. Bailing in the banks by requiring bondholders to bear significant losses in the value of their bonds could undermine the savings of many Italians and cause them severe hardship, especially those who had saved for their retirement.

So what is the solution? Italian banks need recapitalising to restore confidence and prevent a more serious crisis. However, there is limited scope for bailing in, unless small investors can be protected. And eurozone rules provide little scope for government funding for the banks. These rules should be relaxed under extreme circumstances. At the same time, policy needs to focus on making Italian banking more efficient.

Meanwhile, the IMF is forecasting that Italian economic growth will be less than 1% this year and little better in 2017. Part of the problem, claims the IMF, is the Brexit vote. This has heightened financial market volatility and increasead the risks for Italy with its fragile banking system. But the problems of the Italian economy run deeper and will require various supply-side policies to tackle low productivity, corruption, public-sector inefficiency and a financial system not fit for purpose. What the mix of these policies should be – whether market based or interventionist – is not just a question of effectiveness, but of political viability and democratic support.

Articles
The Italian Job The Economist (9/7/16)
IMF warns Italy of two-decade-long recessionThe Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/7/16)
Italy economy: IMF says country has ‘two lost decades’ of growth BBC News (12/7/16)
What’s the problem with Italian banks? BBC News, Andrew Walker (10/7/16)
Why Italy’s banking crisis will shake the eurozone to its core The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (16/8/16)
If You Thought Brexit Was Bad Wait Until The Italian Banks All Go Bust Forbes, Tim Worstall (17/7/16)
In the euro zone’s latest crisis, Italy is torn between saving the banks or saving its people Quartz, Cassie Werber (13/7/16)
Why Italy could be the next European country to face an economic crisis Vox, Timothy B. Lee (8/7/16)

Report
Italy IMF Country Report No.
16/222
(July 2016)

Data
Economic Outlook OECD (June 2016) (select ‘By country’ from the left-hand panel and then choose ‘Italy’ from the pull-down menu and choose appropriate time series)

Questions

  1. Can changes in aggregate demand have supply-side consequences? Explain.
  2. Explain why there may be a downward spiral of asset sales by banks.
  3. How might the principle of bail-ins for undercapitalised Italian banks be pursued without being at the expense of the small saver?
  4. What lessons are there from Japan’s ‘three arrows’ for Italy? Does being in the eurozone constrain Italy’s ability to adopt any or all of these three categories of policy?
  5. Why may the Brexit vote have more serious consequences for Italy than many other European economies?
  6. Find out what reforms have already been adopted or are being pursued by the Italian government. How successful are they likely to be in increasing Italian growth and productivity?
  7. What external factors are currently (a) favourable, (b) unfavourable to improving Italian growth and productivity?
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The Great Barrier Reef: a tragedy in the making

Australia held a general election on 2 July 2016. The Liberal/National coalition narrowly won in the House of Representatives, gaining a substantially reduced majority of 77 of the 150 seats, to Labor’s 68 and other parties’ 5 seats. One campaign issue for all parties was the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, which is seen as an environmental disaster. Each party had proposals for tackling the problem and we examine some of them here.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world. As the BBC’s iWonder guide states:

One of the world’s seven natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef contains some 900 islands and 3000 smaller reefs. It is larger than the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined, home to around 10% of the world’s marine fish, over 200 bird species and countless other animals, including turtles and dolphins.

But this iconic Reef system is facing unprecedented threats. Together with governments, scientists are playing a key role in the battle to preserve this vulnerable ecosystem before it’s too late.

The Reef is 2300km long. In the northern third, around half of the coral is dead. Few tourists see this, as they tend to dive in the southern third, which, being cooler, is less affected.

The bleaching and destruction of coral reefs has a number of causes. These include: rising water temperatures, generally from global warming and more extreme El Niño events (rising warm waters that periodically spread across the Pacific); pollution, including that from coal mining, industrial effluent and run-off of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and sediment from farming, leading to acidification of waters; more frequent and more violent cyclones; rapidly expanding numbers of coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish; and over fishing of some species of fish, leading to knock-on effects on ecosystems.

The Barrier Reef and the oceans and atmosphere around it can be regarded as a common resource. The warming of the atmosphere and the oceans, and the destruction of the reef and the wildlife on it, are examples of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. With no-one owning these resources, they are likely to be overused and abused. Put another way, these activities cause negative externalities, which do not appear as costs to the polluters and despoilers, but are still costs to all who treasure the reef. And, from a non-human perspective, it is a cost to the planet and its biodiversity. What is in the private interests of the abusers is not in the social or environmental interest.

The Australian government had sought to downplay the extent of the problem, afraid of deterring tourists – a valuable source of revenue – and under pressure from the coal and farming industries. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the election, the destruction of the Reef and what to do about it became a major debating point between the parties.

The Coalition government has pledged A$1bn for a new Reef fund, which will be dedicated to tackling climate change and water quality.

The fund will also help coastal sewage treatment plants to reduce ocean outfalls with efficient pumps, biogas electricity generation and next-generation waste water treatment. Improving water quality will enhance the Reef’s resilience to climate change, coral bleaching and outbreaks of the destructive crown of thorns starfish.

But how much difference the fund can make with the money it will have is not clear.

The Labor Party pledged to follow every recommendation in the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce’s Final Report, released in May, and to pass laws to prevent farm pollution flowing into the waters around the Reef and to have a more rapid shift towards renewable energy.

The Green Party goes the furthest. In addition to the Labor Party’s proposals, it wants to impose taxes on coal firms equal to the cost of the damage they are causing. The tax revenues would be paid into a multi-billion dollar fund. This would then be spent on measures to rescue the Reef, invest in clean energy projects, stop damaging industrial development, improve farm management and stop polluted run-off into the Reef catchment area by investing in water systems.

Promises at the time of an election are all well and good. Just how much will be done by the re-elected Coalition government remains to be seen.

Interactive Videos and presentations
David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef: an Interactive Journey, Atlantic Productions, David Attenborough (2015)
Global Warming – the greatest market failure Prezi, Yvonne Cheng (5/12/12)

Articles
The Great Barrier Reef: a catastrophe laid bare The Guardian, Michael Slezak (7/6/16)
The Guardian view on the Great Barrier Reef: the crisis they prefer to downplay The Guardian (7/6/16)
Fight to save Great Barrier Reef could cost billions, secret government modelling estimates ABC News, Mark Willacy (2/6/16)
Great Barrier Reef: government must choose which parts to save, says expert The Guardian, Joshua Robertson (8/7/16)
This election, what hope is there for the Great Barrier Reef? The Guardian, Michael Slezak (1/7/16)
Coalition will protect Great Barrier Reef with $1bn fund, says PM The Guardian, Gareth Hutchens (12/6/16)
Great Barrier Reef election explainer: how do the parties compare? The Guardian, Michael Slezak (2/6/16)
Five things we can do right now to save the Great Barrier Reef The Guardian, John Pandolfi (13/6/16)
We’ve scored the parties on the Reef My Sunshine Coast, Australian Marine Conservation Society (29/6/16)
Our Most Iconic Places Are Under Dire Threat From Climate Change Huffington Post, Nick Visser (26/5/16)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by the Tragedy of the Commons. Is all pollution damage an example of this?
  2. What can the Australian government do to internalise the external costs to the Great Barrier Reef from (a) farming; (b) mining; (c) global warming?
  3. Why is it difficult to reach international agreement on tackling climte change? What insights can game theory provide for understanding the difficulties?
  4. What are the recommendations in the Final Report of the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce? What mix of tools does it suggest?
  5. What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of taxation, laws and regulations, public investment, education and international negotiation as policy instruments to protect the Reef?
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Falling sterling – bad for some; good for others

Since the Brexit vote in the referendum, sterling has been falling. It is now at a 31-year low against the US dollar. From 23 June to 6 July it depreciated by 12.9% against the US dollar, 10.7% against the euro and 17.0% against the yen. The trade-weighted sterling exchange rate index depreciated by 11.6%.

Why has this happened? Partly it reflects a decline in confidence in the UK economy by investors; partly it is in response to policy measures, actual and anticipated, by the Bank of England.

As far as investors are concerned, the anticipation is that there will be net direct investment outflows from the UK. This is because some companies in the UK are considering relocating part or all of their business from the UK to elsewhere in Europe. For example, EasyJet is drawing up plans to move its headquarters to continental Europe. It is also because investors believe that foreign direct investment in the UK is likely to fall as companies prefer to invest elsewhere, such as Ireland or Germany.

Thus although the effect of net direct investment outflows (or reductions in net inflows) will be on the long-term investment part of the financial account of the balance of payments, the immediate effect is felt on the short-term financial flows part of the account as investors anticipate such moves and the consequent fall in sterling.

As far as monetary policy is concerned, the fall in sterling is in response to four things announced or signalled by Mark Carney at recent news conferences (see Monetary and fiscal policies – a U-turn or keeping the economy on track?).

First is the anticipated fall in Bank Rate at the next meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee on 13/14 July. Second is the possibility of further quantitative easing (QE). Third is an additional £250bn of liquidity that the Bank is prepared to provide through its normal open-market operations. Fourth is the easing of capital requirements on banks (reducing the countercyclical buffer from 0.5% to 0%), which would allow additional lending by banks of up to £150bn.

Lower interest rates, additional liquidity and further QE would all increase the supply of sterling on the foreign exchange markets. The anticipation of this, plus the anticipation of lower interest rates, would decrease the demand for sterling. The effect of these supply and demand changes is a fall in the exchange rate.

But is a fall in the exchange rate a ‘good thing’? As far as consumers are concerned, the answer is no. Imports will be more expensive, as will foreign holidays. People’s pounds will buy less of things priced in foreign currency and thus people will be poorer.

As far as exporters are concerned, however, the foreign currency they earn will exchange into more pounds than before. Their sterling revenues, therefore, are likely to increase. They might also choose to reduce the foreign currency price of exports, thereby increasing the quantity sold – the amount depending on the price elasticity of demand. The increase in exports and reduction in imports will help to reduce the current account deficit and also boost aggregate demand.

Articles
Pound slumps to 31-year low following Brexit vote The Guardian, Katie Allen , Jill Treanor and Simon Goodley (24/6/16)
Sterling’s post-Brexit fall is biggest loss in a hard currency Reuters, Jamie McGeever (7/7/16)
Brexit Accelerates the British Pound’s 100 Years of Debasement Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy and Lukanyo Mnyanda (5/7/16)
Pound sterling falls below $1.31 hitting new 31-year low Independent, Hazel Sheffield (5/7/16)
Viewpoints: How low will sterling go? BBC News, Leisha Chi (6/7/16)
How low will the pound fall? Financial Times (7/7/16)
Allianz’s El-Erian says UK must urgently get its act together or dollar parity could beckon Reuters, Guy Faulconbridge (7/7/16)
What does a falling pound mean for the British economy? The Telegraph, Peter Spence (6/7/16)

Data
Spot exchange rates: Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data Bank of England

Questions

  1. What determines how much the exchange rate depreciates for a given shift in the demand for sterling or the supply of sterling?
  2. Why might the short-term effects on exchange rates of the Brexit vote be different from the long-term effects?
  3. Why has the pound depreciated by different amounts against different currencies?
  4. What are likely to be the effects on the financial and current accounts of the balance of payments of the Bank of England’s measures?
  5. Find out what has happened to business confidence since the Brexit vote. What effect does the level of confidence have on the exchange rate and why?
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