As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate in the UK, the government has been forced to introduce a range of drastic measures, including severe restrictions on movement of people to ensure social distancing. Supermarkets have also been forced to act as they experienced panic buying and struggled to keep up with supply. They responded by starting to impose limits on the number of certain items an individual consumer could purchase and by reducing the range of products they made available. In addition, supermarkets contacted the government to suggest that competition law should be relaxed to allow the rival chains to coordinate their response to the ongoing situation.

WM Morrison, the forth largest supermarket retailer in the UK, was one of the key players lobbying for this change. Their chief executive, David Potts, argued that “There will be legislation that works perfectly in peacetime and not so well in wartime.”

The supermarket industry is in fact a market where the UK competition authorities have expressed considerable concerns in the past regarding a lack of competition (see for example the 2008 market investigation and the recent decision to block the merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda). The supermarkets also previously made similar demands for a relaxation of competition law in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Despite this, the government has agreed to temporarily relax elements of competition law to help supermarkets respond to the Coronavirus crisis with the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, stating that:

By relaxing elements of competition laws temporarily, our retailers can work together on their contingency plans and share the resources they need with each other during these unprecedented circumstances.

In moves supported by the Competition and Markets Authority, laws enabling them to do so will soon be passed through Parliament. Supermarkets will be allowed to:

  • share data with each other on stock levels
  • cooperate to keep shops open
  • share distribution depots and delivery vans
  • pool staff with one another to help meet demand.

It is also expected that the Groceries Code Adjudicator will take a pragmatic approach to rules previously in place to prevent the big supermarket chains abusing their power over suppliers. These rules previously prevented supermarkets from stopping orders from a given supplier without reasonable warning. However, it is now accepted that they may need to do so in order to focus on supplying a restricted range of essential products.

Such relaxation of competition laws has been rare, with previous examples being measures taken in 2006 for the maintenance and repair of warships and in 2012 during the fuel crisis. In contrast, typically competition law is extremely hot on preventing agreements between firms. This is due to the fact that they distort competition and prevent the considerable benefits that can arise for consumers when firms compete to offer the best deals.

In the extreme situation the UK is currently in, the government’s stance appears to be that there are sufficient other benefits from restricting competition between supermarkets and allowing some degree of cooperation. It is then important that the form of cooperation between the supermarkets is restricted to narrow areas that will help to ensure the continuity of supply. In particular, it would be worrying if the supermarkets started discussing the prices they charge. Already food prices may rise due to increased demand and a potential shortage of supply. Furthermore, many consumers will see their income reduced. Therefore, it is important that coordination between supermarkets doesn’t result in further increases in prices.

It is therefore reassuring that the Government made clear that the relaxation of competition law:

will be a specific, temporary relaxation to enable retailers to work together for the sole purpose of feeding the nation during these unprecedented circumstances. It will not allow any activity that does not meet this requirement.

The Competition and Markets Authority has also stressed that they will not:

tolerate unscrupulous businesses exploiting the crisis as a ‘cover’ for non-essential collusion. This includes exchanging information on longer-term pricing or business strategies, where this is not necessary to meet the needs of the current situation.

Once the current crisis is over, it will also be important that the competition authority closely monitors the supermarket sector to ensure that cooperation between the supermarkets ends and normal competitive conduct is resumed.

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Questions

  1. Outline the effects agreements between firms to raiser prices have on economic welfare.
  2. What are the pros and cons of allowing cooperation between the supermarkets in response to the Coronavirus crisis?

With promises by the newly elected Conservative government to increase investment expenditure on health, education, innovation and infrastructure, it was expected that Rishi Sunak’s first Budget would be strongly expansionary. In fact, it turned out to be two Budgets in one – both giving a massive fiscal boost.

An emergency Budget

The first part of the Budget was a short-term emergency response to the explosive spread of the coronavirus. An extra £12 billion is to be spent on the NHS and other public services. Whether this will be anything like enough to cope with the effects of the pandemic as businesses fail and people lose their jobs remains to be seen. (See the blog A global supply-side shock: the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.)

A key issue is just how quickly the money can be spent. How quickly can you train health professionals or produce more ventilators or provide extra hospital beds?

This emergency part of the Budget was co-ordinated with the Bank of England’s decision to cut Bank Rate from 0.75% to 0.25%.

This combined fiscal and monetary response to the crisis was further enhanced by the agreement of central banks on 15 March to boost world liquidity by increasing the supply of US dollars through large-scale quantitative easing. The US central bank, the Federal Reserve, also cut its main federal funds rate by one percentage point from 1–1.25% to 0–0.25%.

The planned Budget

The second part of the Budget is to raise government investment by 9% in real terms over the next four years, bringing overall government expenditure to 41% of GDP, financed largely by extra borrowing. As the IFS observes, “That is above its pre-crisis level and bigger than at any point between the mid 1980s and the start of the financial crisis.”

But despite this rise in the proportion of government spending to GDP, in other respects the spending plans are less expansionary than they may appear. Increases in current spending on health, education and defence had already been promised. This leaves other departments, such as social security, facing cuts, or at least no increase. And when compared with 2010/11 levels, if you exclude health, government current spending per head of the population will around 14% lower, or 19% lower once you account for spending that replaces EU funding.

The Chancellor’s hope is that, by focusing on investment, there will be a supply-side effect as well as a demand-side boost. If increases in aggregate demand are balanced by increases in aggregate supply, such a policy would not be inflationary in the long run. But in the light of the considerable uncertainty of the effects of the coronavirus, the plans may well require significant adjustment in the Autumn Budget – or earlier.

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Questions

  1. To what extent is this Budget ‘Keynesian’?
  2. Is the extra government expenditure likely to crowd out private expenditure? Explain.
  3. Demonstrate the desired long-term economic effect of the infrastructure policy using either an AD/AS diagram or a DAD/DAS diagram.
  4. How is the coronavirus pandemic likely to affect potential GDP in (a) the short run (b) the long run?
  5. Why is public-sector debt likely to soar over the next four years while annual government debt interest payments are likely to continue their gentle decline?
  6. What is missing from the Budget that you feel ought to have been included? Explain why.

The global economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak is uncertain but potentially very large. There has already been a massive effect on China, with large parts of the Chinese economy shut down. As the disease spreads to other countries, they too will experience supply shocks as schools and workplaces close down and travel restrictions are imposed. This has already happened in South Korea, Japan and Italy. The size of these effects is still unknown and will depend on the effectiveness of the containment measures that countries are putting in place and on the behaviour of people in self isolating if they have any symptoms or even possible exposure.

The OECD in its March 2020 interim Economic Assessment: Coronavirus: The world economy at risk estimates that global economic growth will be around half a percentage point lower than previously forecast – down from 2.9% to 2.4%. But this is based on the assumption that ‘the epidemic peaks in China in the first quarter of 2020 and outbreaks in other countries prove mild and contained.’ If the disease develops into a pandemic, as many health officials are predicting, the global economic effect could be much larger. In such cases, the OECD predicts a halving of global economic growth to 1.5%. But even this may be overoptimistic, with growing talk of a global recession.

Governments and central banks around the world are already planning measures to boost aggregate demand. The Federal Reserve, as an emergency measure on 3 March, reduced the Federal Funds rate by half a percentage point from the range of 1.5–1.75% to 1.0–1.25%. This was the first emergency rate cut since 2008.

Economic uncertainty

With considerable uncertainty about the spread of the disease and how effective containment measures will be, stock markets have fallen dramatically. The FTSE 100 fell by nearly 14% in the second half of February, before recovering slightly at the beginning of March. It then fell by a further 7.7% on 9 March – the biggest one-day fall since the 2008 financial crisis. This was specifically in response to a plunge in oil prices as Russia and Saudi Arabia engaged in a price war. But it also reflected growing pessimism about the economic impact of the coronavirus as the global spread of the epidemic accelerated and countries were contemplating more draconian lock-down measures.

Firms have been drawing up contingency plans to respond to panic buying of essential items and falling demand for other goods. Supply-chain managers are working out how to respond to these changes and to disruptions to supplies from China and other affected countries.

Firms are also having to plan for disruptions to labour supply. Large numbers of employees may fall sick or be advised/required to stay at home. Or they may have to stay at home to look after children whose schools are closed. For some firms, having their staff working from home will be easy; for others it will be impossible.

Some industries will be particularly badly hit, such as airlines, cruise lines and travel companies. Budget airlines have cancelled several flights and travel companies are beginning to offer substantial discounts. Manufacturing firms which are dependent on supplies from affected countries have also been badly hit. This is reflected in their share prices, which have seen large falls.

Longer-term effects

Uncertainty could have longer-term impacts on aggregate supply if firms decide to put investment on hold. This would also impact on the capital goods industries which supply machinery and equipment to investing firms. For the UK, already having suffered from Brexit uncertainty, this further uncertainty could prove very damaging for economic growth.

While aggregate supply is likely to fall, or at least to grow less quickly, what will happen to the balance of aggregate demand and supply is less clear. A temporary rise in demand, as people stock up, could see a surge in prices, unless supermarkets and other firms are keen to demonstrate that they are not profiting from the disease. In the longer term, if aggregate demand continues to grow at past rates, it will probably outstrip the growth in aggregate supply and result in rising inflation. If, however, demand is subdued, as uncertainty about their own economic situation leads people to cut back on spending, inflation and even the price level may fall.

How quickly the global economy will ‘bounce back’ depends on how long the outbreak lasts and whether it becomes a serious pandemic and on how much investment has been affected. At the current time, it is impossible to predict with any accuracy the timing and scale of any such bounce back.

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Questions

  1. Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate the fall in stock market prices caused by concerns over the effects of the coronavirus.
  2. Using either (i) an aggregate demand and supply diagram or (ii) a DAD/DAS diagram, illustrate how a fall in aggregate supply as a result of the economic effects of the coronavirus would lead to (a) a fall in real income and (i) a fall in the price level or (ii) a fall in inflation; (b) a fall in real income and (i) a rise in the price level or (ii) a rise in inflation.
  3. What would be the likely effects of central banks (a) cutting interest rates; (b) engaging in further quantitative easing?
  4. What would be the likely effects of governments running a larger budget deficit as a means of boosting the economy?
  5. Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation. How would you characterise the speculation that has taken place on stock markets in response to the coronavirus?
  6. What are the implications of people being paid on zero-hour contracts of the government requiring workplaces to close?
  7. What long-term changes to working practices and government policy could result from short-term adjustments to the epidemic?
  8. Is the long-term macroeconomic impact of the coronavirus likely to be zero, as economies bounce back? Explain.

On 15 March 2019, the ‘Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill’ was passed into law. (See the blog, Organ donations – Changing the default option vs active choice.) The government has just announced that this will come into force on 20 May this year. Under the scheme, ‘adults in England will be considered potential donors unless they chose to opt out or are excluded. The act is known as Max and Keira’s law in honour of a boy who received a heart transplant and the girl who donated it.’

This change from an ‘opt-in’ to an ‘opt-out’ system follows a similar a move in Wales in 2015. Since then, Wales has seen a significant increase in potential donors, with the consent rate rising from 58% to 77%. A similar move in Scotland will come into force in the autumn of this year. The government expects there to be an additional 700 transplant operations per year available for transplant by 2023.

These moves from an opt-in to an opt-out system are consistent with ‘nudge theory’. This maintains that positive reinforcement or making a decision easy for people can persuade them to make a particular choice. They are ‘nudged’ into so doing.

Opting out and nudge theory

In the case of having to opt in to a scheme such as organ donation, people have to make the decision to take part. Many, as a result, do not, partly because they never seem to find the time to do so, even though they might quite like to. With the busy lives people lead, it’s too easy to think, ‘Yes, I’ll do that some time’, but never actually get round to doing it: i.e. they have present bias and hence behave in a time-inconsistent manner.

With an opt-out system, people are automatically signed up to the scheme, but can freely choose to opt out. In the case of the new organ donor schemes in the UK, it is/will be assumed that organs from people killed in an accident who had not opted out could be used for transplants. If you do not want your organs to be used, you have to notify that you are opting out.

It could be the same with charitable giving. Some firms add a small charitable contribution to the price of their products (e.g. airline tickets or utility bills), unless people opt out.

Similarly, under UK pension arrangements introduced from 2012, firms automatically deduct pension contributions from employees’ wages unless they opt out of the scheme. Opt-out pension schemes like this retain between 90 and 95 per cent of employees. Opt-in pension schemes, by contrast, have much lower participation rates of around 60 per cent, even though they are otherwise identical.

This type of ‘nudging’ can improve the welfare of those who make systematic mistakes (i.e. operate in a time-inconsistent manner), while imposing very limited harm on those who act in a time-consistent manner. If it is in the interests of someone to opt out of the scheme, they can easily do so. Policies such as these are an example of what behavioural economists call ‘soft paternalism’.

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Questions

  1. Why do opt-out schemes have a higher take up than opt-in ones? Would this apply if people behaved in a time-consistent manner?
  2. What is present bias? How does it differ from simple impatience? Explain how present bias might help to explain the impact of changing the default option.
  3. What are the arguments for and against nudging people to make decisions that benefit them or are in the social interest?
  4. Give some example of nudges that are used in public policy or would be a good idea to use. Consider how effective they are likely to be. (You might refer to the work of the Behavioural Insights Team.)
  5. What are the possible drawbacks of presumed consent in organ donation?
  6. What are the arguments for and against paying live people to donate organs, such as a kidney?
  7. How might people be encouraged to behave in the right way during an epidemic, such as corona virus?
  8. To what extent was nudge theory used during the Brexit referendum campaign and in the two subsequent general elections?

The government has announced outlines of the new system of immigration controls from January 2021 when the Brexit transition period is scheduled to finish. It plans to introduce an Australian-style points-based system. This will apply to all EU and Non-EU citizens. The aim is to attract skilled workers, while preventing non-skilled or low-skilled workers from entering the UK for employment.

But even skilled workers will need to meet three criteria in order to obtain a work visa: (i) having the offer of a job paying a minimum of £25,600 per annum, except in designated jobs where there is a shortage of labour; (ii) being able to speak English; (iii) having qualifications equivalent to A levels.

To apply for a work visa, applicants must have at least 70 points according to the following table:


In certain jobs where there is a shortage of labour, designated by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), immigrants will be able to earn a lower income, provided it is above £20,480 per annum. They will earn 20 points for such jobs, which can offset not meeting the £25,600 threshold. Such jobs could include those in healthcare and farming. There will also be temporary visas for seasonal workers, such as fruit pickers.

The government argues that the new system will encourage employers to substitute technology for labour, with greater investment in equipment and computers. This would increase labour productivity and wages without reducing employment.

This is illustrated in the diagram, which illustrates a low-paid job which will be impacted by the restrictions. If there is a rise in productivity through technological change, the marginal revenue product of labour curve shifts upwards from MRPL1 to MRPL2 and offsets the leftward shift in labour supply (caused by the decline in immigration) from ACL1 to ACL2 and the marginal cost of labour from MCL1 to MCL2. Employment is where the marginal cost of labour equals the marginal revenue product of labour. This remains at Q1. Wages are given by the supply curve of labour and rise from W1 to W1. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the diagram.)

Even if the upward shift in the MRPL curve is not sufficient to offset the leftward shift in the labour supply curve, wages will still rise, but there will be a fall in employment.

In higher-paid skilled jobs where people meet the points requirement, there will be little effect on wages and employment, except where people are generally discouraged by a points system, even if they have the points themselves.

The government also argues that there is a large pool of UK residents who can take up jobs that would otherwise have been filled by immigrants. The Home Secretary referred to the 8.48 million people who are economically inactive who could fill jobs no longer filled by immigrants. However, as the data show, most of these people are not available for work. Some 2.3 million are students, 1.9 million are carers at home looking after relatives, 2.1 million are long-term sick and 1.1 million are retired. Only 1.9 million (22.1% of the economically inactive) would like a job and not all these would be able to take up one (e.g. the long-term sick).

One the biggest problems concerns low-paid sectors where it is very difficult to substitute capital for labour through use of technology. Examples include social care, health care, the leisure and hospitality industry and certain jobs in farming. There could be severe shortages of labour in such industries. It remains to be seen whether such industries will be given exemptions or more relaxed conditions by the government in line with advice from the Migration Advisory Committee.

More details will emerge of the points system in the coming months. It will be interesting to see how responsive the government will be to the concerns of employers and workers.

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Questions

  1. Find out how the proposed points-based system for immigration differs from the current system that applies to non-EU citizens.
  2. What will be the likely impact of reducing immigration of unskilled and low-skilled people?
  3. What barriers are there to substituting capital for labour in the caring and leisure sectors?
  4. What would be the macroeconomic effects of a substantial reduction in immigration?