Pearson - Always learning

All your resources for Economics

RSS icon Subscribe | Text size

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.

For registration and access to companion websites, MyEconLab products or lecturer resources accompanying your Sloman textbooks click here to access the Sloman textbook online resources page.

Subscribe to this feed: you can subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog and be alerted when new articles are added. Simply access an RSS reader and enter or paste the URL of this feed into the reader:

http://pearsonblog.campaignserver.co.uk/?feed=rss2

(Help on RSS feeds.)

If you like any of the articles, you can let others know about them through various social media by using the icons at the bottom of each post.

Share in top social networks!

Supermarket price wars and the effect on suppliers

The retail food industry is an oligopoly – a market dominated by a few big firms, with interdependence between them. This means that each firm considers the reaction of all its competitors when making any decision. Pricing is one of those key decisions and this is one of the reasons why price wars tend to break out in this industry.

For consumers, price wars are usually seen as a good thing, as it means prices in the supermarkets get forced downwards, thus reducing the cost of living. Low prices in this case are one of the key benefits of competition. However, there are costs of such fierce competition for suppliers. As final prices to customers are pushed down, small competitors are likely to feel the squeeze and may be forced out of the market. The other losers are suppliers. The big supermarkets are likely to pay lower prices to their suppliers, thus adversely affecting their livelihood. Research suggests that throughout 2014, 146 food producers entered insolvency, which is significantly higher than last year.

Accountancy firm, Moore Stephens, has blamed the supermarket price war for this rise in insolvencies in the food production sector. Duncan Swift from this firm said:

“The supermarkets are going through the bloodiest price war in nearly two decades and are using food producers as the cannon fodder…Supermarkets have engaged in questionable buying practices for years, but it’s getting worse and clearly wreaking havoc on the UK food production sector.”

The British Retail Consortium has said that placing the blame in this way was too simplistic. A commentator suggested that many suppliers have long-standing relationships with the supermarkets they deal with, suggesting that relations were good and sustainable. Furthermore, it was suggested that the demise of these producers may be due to many other factors and the data on insolvencies did not show that those firms affected were suppliers to the supermarkets. There is a Groceries Code Adjudicator in place to ensure that the supermarkets do not abuse their power when it comes to dealing with their suppliers, but the power of this person is limited, leaving suggestions remaining that suppliers are vulnerable. The following articles consider both the good and bad of price wars.

Supermarket price wars blamed for food producers folding BBC News (23/11/14)
Supermarket price war turns smaller food supplies into ‘cannon fodder’ The Guardian, Sarah Butler (24/11/14)
Supermarket price war now claiming food producers as victims The Telegraph, Peter Spence (24/11/14)
Supermarket price war is ‘killing off’ food producers as shops squeeze suppliers to cut prices at the checkout This is Money, Rachel Rickard Straus (24/11/14)
Supermarket price war killing British food producers International Business Times, Finbarr Bermingham (24/11/14)
Supermarket wars ‘failing’ food producers Sky News (24/11/14)

Questions

  1. What are the characteristics of an oligopoly? Why do price wars tend to break out in oligopolies, such as the supermarket industry?
  2. Apart from the supply-chain pressure from supermarkets, what other factors could have caused so many small food producers to become insolvent?
  3. How does the supermarket supply chain work and why have the price wars led to suppliers being squeezed?
  4. Use a diagram to illustrate the impact of the price war on (a) the supermarkets and (b) the suppliers.
  5. How important is the Groceries Code Adjudicator and should she be doing more to protect suppliers?
  6. If supermarkets are cutting prices, is this an indicator of unfair competition or good competition?
Share in top social networks!

The Royal Mail

With Christmas approaching, sales will once again begin to rise and cards will be written. Mail services will be at their busiest as we post millions of cards and parcels every day. But, the question is: will they arrive? Workers in the supply chain at Royal Mail have voted to strike over pay.

Since the part privatisation of Royal Mail, many criticisms have emerged, ranging from the price at which shares were sold, the efficiency of the Royal Mail, suggestions of varying prices for delivery depending on location, and now over pay. As with any labour market, there is a demand and a supply of workers and the intersection of these curves creates our equilibrium wage. If the wage is forced up above the equilibrium wage by the actions of trade unions, then there is the potential for unemployment to be created.

The Communications Workers Union (CWU) feels that their pay is insufficient. Dave Ward, Deputy General Secretary of CWU said:

“Thanks entirely to the unreasonable attitude of Post Office management, a pre-Christmas national strike is looking inevitable…The workforce has made a major contribution to the company’s success and have every right to their fair share.”

However, the head of the supply chain at Royal Mail has responded to the threats of strike, referring to the 5% pay rise promised to its workers over the next three years, saying:

“We are undertaking the biggest modernisation programme in UK retail history to ensure we become commercially viable and reduce our reliance on public money…We urge the CWU to reconsider their unrealistic demands and discuss an affordable pay deal rather than call strike action which can only cost our people money.”

The row over pay is not the only way that job losses could emerge. A major criticism levelled at the Royal Mail is its lack of efficiency, especially in terms of cost reductions and work flexibility. The Royal Mail has become increasingly concerned by competition, especially as its low-cost competitors can choose to whom they deliver. Those living in built up areas receive mail, but for those living in more rural areas, some of Royal Mail’s competitors will not deliver there, because of the higher costs. Royal Mail does not have this luxury and hence must deliver to loss-making places. Royal Mail says that this is creating unfair pressure to its business and is calling for these competitors to be forced to deliver to rural areas and small businesses. However, one such company, Whistl, has said that the figures from Royal Mail suggest that ‘productivity is not a sufficiently high enough management priority.

If the strike does go ahead in the build up to Christmas, then the management priorities of Royal Mail will certainly be under scrutiny. The following articles consider the current situation.

Exclusive: Ofcom to criticise Royal Mail efficiency Independent, Mark Leftly (24/11/14)
Post Office facing pre-Christmas strike action BBC News (18/11/14)
DPD seeks to put Royal Mail under further pressure with hiring Financial Times, Fill Plimmer (23/11/14)
Royal Mail’s Moya Greene should stop whinging and start delivering The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (22/11/14)
CWU deem Post Office strike over Christmas ‘inevitable’ Post&Parcel (19/11/14)

Questions

  1. If there is strike action in a labour market, what can we conclude about the market in question in terms of how competitive it is?
  2. Is strike action completely pointless?
  3. What actions could workers take, other than strike action, to achieve a resolution of their grievances? Discuss what employers could offer in an attempt to resolve the situation?
  4. What are the arguments for making Royal Mail’s competitors deliver to all places, just as the Royal Mail must do?
  5. The efficiency of the Royal Mail has been called into question. If efficiency improved, would this mean that pay rises were more or less feasible?
Share in top social networks!

Deflation danger

The articles linked below look at the dangers of deflation and policies of central banks to counter it.

Deflation in economics has three meanings. The first is falling prices: i.e. negative inflation. The second, more traditional meaning, is a fall in real aggregate demand, resulting in lower output, higher unemployment and lower inflation – and quite possibly an actual fall in the price level. These first two definitions describe what is generally seen as an undesirable situation. The third is a slowing down in the growth of real aggregate demand, perhaps as a result of a deliberate act of fiscal and/or monetary policy. This third meaning could describe a desirable situation, where unsustainable growth is reduced and inflation is reduced from an above-target level.

Here we focus on the first definition. The first two articles look at the dangers of a fall in the price level. The chart below shows falling inflation, although not actually deflation, in China, France, Germany and the UK (click here for a PowerPoint). Several European countries, however, are experiencing actual deflation. These include: Greece, Spain, Hungary, Poland and Sweden. Inflation in the eurozone for 2014 is expected to be a mere 0.5%.

The most obvious danger of deflation (or expected deflation) is that people will delay spending on durable goods, such as cars, furniture and equipment, hoping to buy the items cheaper later. The result could be a fall in aggregate demand and a fall in output and employment.

For retailers, this is all spelling Christmas doom. Already the runup to the most crucial time of the year for shops is being characterised by a game of chicken. Shoppers are wondering how long they can leave their festive buying in the hope of late bargains.

Interest rates may be low, but for people with debts, this is being offset by the fact that inflation is no longer reducing the real value of that debt. For people with credit card debt, personal loans and most mortgages, the interest rate they pay is significantly above the rate of inflation. In other words, the real interest rate on their debt is still significantly positive. This may well discourage people from borrowing and spending, further dampening aggregate demand. And, with a Bank Rate of just 0.5%, there is virtually no scope for lowering the official interest rate further.

At least in the UK, economic growth is now positive – for the time being at any rate. The danger is becoming more serious, however, in many eurozone countries, which are already back in recession or close to being so. The ECB, despite its tentative steps to ease credit conditions, it moving closer to the day when it announces full-blown quantitative easing and buys sovereign bonds of eurozone countries. The Bank of Japan has already announced that it is stepping up it QE programme – a vital ingredient in getting Abenomics back on track and pulling Japan out of its latest recession.

In the USA, by contrast, there is little danger of deflation, as the US economy continues to grow strongly. The downside of this, has been a large rise in consumer debt (but not mortgages) – the ingredients of a possible future bubble and even a new financial crisis.

Forget what central bankers say: deflation is the real monster The Observer, Katie Allen (23/11/14)
Why Deflation Is Such A Big Worry For Europe NPR, Jim Zarroli (31/10/14)
Exclusive: China ready to cut rates again on fears of deflation – sources Reuters, Kevin Yao (23/11/14)
Central Banks in New Push to Prime Pump Wall Street Journal Jon Hilsenrath, Brian Blackstone and Lingling Wei (21/11/14)
Are Central Banks Panicking? Seeking Alpha, Leo Kolivakis (21/11/14)

Questions

  1. What are (a) the desirable and (b) the undesirable consequences of deflation? Does the answer depend on how deflation is defined?
  2. What is meant by a ‘deflationary gap’? In what sense is ‘deflationary’ being used in this term?
  3. Why have oil prices been falling? How desirable are these falls for the global economy?
  4. Is there an optimal rate of inflation? If so, how would this rate be determined?
  5. The chart shows that inflation in Japan is likely to have risen in 2014. This in large part is the result to a rise in the sales tax earlier this year. If there is no further rise in the sales tax, which there will probably not be if Mr Abe’s party wins the recently called election, what is likely to be the effect of the 2014 tax rise on inflation in 2015?
  6. If the Bank Rate is below the rate of inflation, why are people facing a positive real rate of interest? Does this apply equally to borrowers and savers?
  7. In what sense is there a cultural revolution at the Bank of England?
Share in top social networks!

Paying for a public good: will it Wash?

Much of the east coast of England is subject to tidal flooding. One such area is the coastline around the Wash, the huge bay between Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Most of the vulnerable shorelines are protected by sea defences, usually in the form of concrete walls or earth embankments, traditionally paid for by the government. But part of the Norfolk shoreline is protected by shingle banks, which require annual maintenance.

Full government funding for maintaining these banks ended in 2013. According to new government rules, only projects that provide at least £8 of benefits for each £1 spent would qualify for such funding to continue. The area under question on the Norfolk cost of the Wash does not qualify.

Between 2013 and 2015 the work on the shingle banks is being paid for by the local council charging levies. After that, the plan is for a partnership-funding approach, where the government will make a (small) contribution as long as the bulk of the funding comes from the local community. This will involve setting up a ‘community interest company’, which will seek voluntary contributions from local residents, landowners and businesses.

Sea defences are a public good, in that it is difficult to exclude people benefiting who choose not to pay. In other words, there is a ‘free rider’ problem. However, in the case of the Wash shoreline in question, one borough councillor, Brian Long, argues that it might be possible to maintain the flood defences to protect those who do contribute while ignoring those who do not.

Not surprisingly, many residents and businesses argue that the government ought to fund the defences and, if it does have to be financed locally, then everyone should be required to pay their fair share.

Radio podcast
Holding back the sea BBC Radio 4, David Shukman (19/11/14)

Articles
What is the price of holding back the sea? BBC News, David Shukman (19/11/14)
Firms will have to pay towards cost of sea defences between Heacham and Wolferton in West Norfolk EDP24, Chris Bishop (1/8/14)
Businesses between Snettisham and Hunstanton will have to pay for flood defences. EDP24, Chris Bishop (19/11/14)
Wash and west Norfolk sea defence repairs now under way BBC News (13/12/13)

Consultation document
Managing our coastline Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Environment Agency

Questions

  1. What are the two main features of a public good? Are sea defences a pure public good?
  2. Is there a moral hazard if people choose to live in a coastal area that would be subject to flooding without sea defences?
  3. Who is the ‘public’ in the case of sea defences? Is it the whole country, or the local authority or just all those being protected by the defences?
  4. What are the problems with relying on voluntary contributions to fund, or partly fund, sea defences? How could the free-rider problem be minimised in such a funding model?
  5. Discuss the possible interpretations of ‘equity’ when funding sea defences.
  6. If ‘flood defences could be built or maintained to protect those who do contribute while ignoring those who do not’, does this mean that such defences are not a public good?
  7. Find out how sea defences are funded in The Netherlands. Should such a funding model be adopted in the UK?
Share in top social networks!

Japan’s arrows missing their target

Since coming to office two years ago, Shinzo Abe’s government has been determined to revive the Japanese economy. The policy has involved ‘three arrows‘: expansionary fiscal policy, expansionary monetary policy and supply-side reforms. But figures just out show that the Japanese economy is back in recession. The economy shrank by 0.4% in quarter 3, having shrunk by 1.9% in quarter 2.

This has come as a huge disappointment for Mr Abe, who has staked his political reputation on escaping from deflation and achieving sustained economic growth. In response, he has called a general election to put a revised economic plan to the electorate.

The main cause of the reversal into recession has been an increase in the sales tax on all goods, which has dampened spending. The tax rise, planned by the previous government, was to help reduce the deficit and start tackling the huge public-sector debt, which, at over 230% of GDP, is by far the highest in the developed world. Another rise in sales tax is due in October 2015 – from 8% to 10%. Mr Abe hopes to cancel the rise and it is this that he may put to the electorate.

So what is the outlook for Japan? Will quarter 4 show economic growth, or will pessimism have set in? Will the Bank of Japan introduce even more quantitative easing, or will it wait for the latest increase in QE to take effect (see the blog post, All eased out: at least for the USA and UK)?

The following articles look at the implications of the latest news, both for Japan and globally, and at the options for the government and central bank.

Articles
Japanese economy falls into surprise recession Independent, Maria Tadeo (17/11/14)
Japan’s economy makes surprise fall into recession BBC News (17/11/14)
Coming to a crunch: Time is running out for Abenomics The Economist (20/11/14)
Japan’s economy: Delay the second consumption tax hike The Economist (17/11/14)
Defying Expectations, Japan’s Economy Falls Into Recession New York Times, Jonathan Soble (16/11/14)
Japan shocks as economy slips into recession CNBC, Li Anne Wong (17/11/14)
Japan Unexpectedly Enters Recession as Abe Weighs Tax: Economy Bloomberg, Keiko Ujikane and Toru Fujioka (17/11/14)
The world should be wary: Japan’s economic woes are contagious The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/11/14)
Why is Japan heading to the polls? BBC News (18/11/14)

Previous news items on this site
A new economic road for Japan? (January 2013)
A J-curve for Japan? (May 2013)
Japan’s three arrows (June 2013)
Abenomics – one year on (December 2013)
Japan’s recovery (January 2014)
Japan’s CPI: An Update (May 2014)
All eased out: at least for the USA and UK (November 2014)

Data
Quarterly Estimates of GDP Japanese Cabinet Office
Japan and the IMF IMF Country Reports
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OECD

Questions

  1. Give details of the Japanese government’s three arrows.
  2. Discuss the pros and cons of the rise in the sales tax. Is it possible for the rise in the sales tax to increase the size of the public-sector deficit?
  3. What have been the effects of Japanese government policies on (a) prices of goods and services; (b) living standards; (c) asset prices?
  4. Who have been the gainers and losers of the policies?
  5. How is the Japanese situation likely to effect the value of the yen? How is this, in turn, likely to affect its trading partners? Could this set off a chain reaction?
Share in top social networks!