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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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Does a shrinking banking sector balance sheet signal the end for credit cycles?

Following the financial crisis, all sectors of the economy continue to repair their balance sheets. As well as households, non-financial corporations and government, this is true of the banking sector. In part, the repairing and rebalancing of their balance sheets is being brought about by regulatory pressures. The objective is to make banks more resilient to shocks and less susceptible to financial distress.

The need for banks to repair and rebalance their balance sheets is significant because of their systemic importance to the modern-day economy. Financial institutions that are systemically important to national economies are know as SIFIs (systemically important financial institutions) while those of systemic importance to the global economy are know as G-SIFIs or G-SIBs (global systemically important banks). The increasing importance of financial institutions to economic activity is known as financialisation.

One way of measuring the degree of financialisation here in the UK is to consider the aggregate size of the balance sheet of resident UK banks and building societies (including foreign subsidiaries operating here). The chart shows that the balance sheet grew from £2.6 trillion in 1998 Q1 to £8.5 trillion in 2010 Q1. Another way of looking at this is to consider this growth relative to GDP. This reveals that the aggregate balance sheet of banks and building societies grew over this period from 3 times annual GDP to a staggering 5.6 times GDP. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

But, now consider the aggregate banking balance sheet in the 2010s. This reveals a shrinking balance sheet. At the end of the second quarter of this year (2014 Q2) it had fallen back to £7.1 trillion or 4 times GDP. As a share of GDP, this was the smallest the aggregate balance sheet had been since 2005 Q1.

Does a shrinking balance sheet matter? This is where the analysis becomes tricky and open to debate. If the smaller size is consistent with a more stable financial system then undoubtedly that is a good thing. But, size is not that all matters. The composition of the balance sheet matters too. This requires an analysis of, among other things, the liquidity of assets (i.e. assets that can be readily turned in a given amount of cash), the reliability of the income flow from assets and the resources available to withstand periods of slow economic growth, including recessions, or periods of financial difficulty.

As we have identified before (see Financialisation: Banks and the economy after the crisis), the financial crisis could herald new norms for the banking system with important implications for the economy. If so, we may need to become accustomed to consistently lower flows of credit and not to the levels that we saw prior to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. However, an alternative view is that we are merely experiencing a pause before the next expansionary phase of the credit cycle. This is consistent with the financial instability hypothesis (see Keeping a Minsky-eye on credit) which argues that credit cycles are an integral part of modern financialised economies. Only time will tell which view will turn out to be right.

Articles
‘Cleaning up bank balance sheets is key’ Irish Examiner, John Walsh (10/10/14)
More action needed at European banks: Fitch Courier Mail, (17/10/14)
Bank lending to small businesses falls by £400m The Telegraph, Rebecca Burn-Callander (20/10/14)
Bank lending to SMEs falls by £400m SME insider, Lindsey Kennedy (21/10/14)
Record world debt could trigger new financial crisis, Geneva report warns The Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/10/14)
RBS shares jump as bank’s bad debts improve The Guardian, Jill Treanor (30/10/14)

Data
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Questions

  1. Using examples, demonstrate your understanding of financialisation.
  2. Draw up a list of the alternative ways in which we might measure financialisation.
  3. What factors are likely to explain the recent reduction in the aggregate balance sheet of resident banks and building societies in the UK?
  4. How might we go about assessing whether the aggregate level of lending by financial institutions is sustainable?
  5. How might we go about assessing whether the level of lending by individual financial institutions is sustainable?
  6. How would reduced flows of credit be expected to impact on the economy both in the short term and in the longer term?
  7. Are credit cycles inevitable?
  8. Of what significance are credit cycles in explaining the business cycle?
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Is Amazon a monopolist?

The market structure in which firms operate has important implications for prices, products, suppliers and profits. In competitive markets, we expect to see low prices, many firms competing with new innovations and firm behavior that is in, or at least not against the public interest. As a firm becomes dominant in a market, its behavior is likely to change and consumers and suppliers can be adversely affected. Is this the case with Amazon?

Much attention has been given to the dispute centering around Amazon and its actions in the market for e-books, where it holds close to two thirds of the market share. Critics of Amazon suggest that this is just one example of Amazon using its monopoly power to exploit consumers and suppliers, including the publishers and their authors. Although Amazon is not breaking any laws, there are suggestions that its behavior is ‘brutal’ and is taking advantage of consumers, suppliers and its workforce.

But rather than criticizing the actions of a monopolist like Amazon, should we instead be praising the company and its ability to compete other firms out of the market? One of the main reasons why consumers use Amazon to buy goods is that prices are cheap. So, in this respect, perhaps Amazon is not acting against consumers’ interests, as under a monopoly we typically expect low output and high prices, relative to a model of perfect competition. The question of the methods used to keep prices so low is another matter. Two conflicting views on Amazon can be seen from Annie Lowrey and Franklin Foer, who respectively said:

“Amazon relentlessly drives down prices for goods and services and delivers them fast and cheap. It ploughs its profits into price cuts and innovation rather than putting them in the hands of its investors. That benefits millions of families – full stop.”

“In effect, we’ve been thrust back 100 years to a time when the law was not up to the task of protecting the threats to democracy posed by monopoly; a time when the new nature of the corporation demanded a significant revision of government.”

So, with Amazon we have an interesting case of a monopolist, where many aspects of its behaviour fit exactly into the mould of the traditional monopolist. But, some of the outcomes we observe indicate a more competitive market. Paul Krugman has been relatively blunt in his opinion that Amazon’s dominance is bad for America. His comments are timely, given the recognition for Jean Tirole’s work in considering the problems faced when trying to regulate any firm that has significant market power. He has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. I’ll leave you to decide where you place this company on the traditional spectrum of market structures, as you read the following articles.

Amazon: Monopoly or capitalist success story? BBC News, Kierran Petersen (14/10/14)
Why the Justice Department won’t go after Amazon, even though Paul Krugman thinks it’s hurting America Business Insider, Erin Fuchs (20/10/14)
Is Amazon a monopoly? The Week, Sergio Hernandez (19/11/14)
Big, bad Amazon The Economist (20/10/14)

Questions

  1. What are the typical characteristics of a monopoly? To what extent does Amazon fit into this market structure?
  2. Why does Paul Krugman suggest that Amazon is hurting America?
  3. How does Amazon’s behaviour with regard to (a) its suppliers and (b) its workers affect its profitability? Would it be able to behave in this way if it were a smaller company?
  4. Why is Amazon able to charge its customers such low prices? Why does it do this, given its market power?
  5. Is there an argument for more regulation of firms with such dominance in a market, as is the case with Amazon?
  6. The debate over e-books is ingoing. What is the argument for publishers to be able to set a minimum price? What is the argument against this?
  7. Should customers boycott Amazon in a protest over the alleged working conditions of Amazon factory employees?
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The UK’s Mansion Tax under Labour

The housing market and what to do about bubbles, second homes and first time buyers is likely to be one of many battle grounds at the next election. For many years, the idea of a mansion tax has been debated and the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has outlined plans for a mansion tax under a Labour government.

The policy would see houses valued at between £2 and £3 million pay £250 a month as a mansion tax. Those owning a home worth tens of millions and those with second homes would pay more under the mansion tax, which would be based on a progressive system. Concerns have been raised about the impact of this tax on home-owners in areas like London, where average house prices are considerably higher than the UK average. Ed Balls has sought to reassure homeowners that payment of the mansion tax could be deferred if earnings do not reach the £42,000 threshold. However, critics have suggested that this policy will only make things worse for middle income households who will not be able to defer such a payment if their income is £43,000. Labour’s MP for Greenwich, Nick Raynsford said, ‘What it does is create a cliff edge. It will still hit people who are asset rich but cash poor.” Writing in the Evening Standard, Ed Balls said:

“Long-standing residents who now find themselves living in high-value homes but do not have an income high enough to pay the higher or top rate of income tax — in other words earn less than £42,000 a year — will be guaranteed the right to defer the charge until the property changes hands.

So a tax on the highest value properties will be done fairly and carefully to help fund our NHS for the future.

Ordinary Londoners should be protected and wealthy foreign investors must finally make a proper tax contribution in this country.”

Although similar in its objective to the Liberal Democrat’s mansion tax, the amount of the tax as a percentage of the value of the home under Labour is significantly lower. It is likely to be between 0.1% and 0.15% of the home’s valued, compared to the 1% levy proposed by the Liberal Democrats.

One debate now surrounds the amount that this tax is expected to raise, especially given the revenue has been ear-marked to finance the NHS. The number of homes whose value is estimated to fall between £2m and £3m varies considerably and hence so would the revenues raised from such a tax. However, the income generated by even the most generous estimates will not come close to raising the ear-marked figure of £1.2bn. As such, there are suggestions that the tax levied on houses worth more than £3m; on foreign owners of residences in the UK and second homes will need to be significant to make up the short fall. A spokesperson for the Conservatives said:

“Serious questions have now been raised about how much revenue Labour would be able to raise from the tax …This is a further unravelling of the policy, which faced fierce criticism after it was revealed that no money would be raised until halfway through the next parliament, and the proposals for mass valuations of family homes was widely slammed as unworkable.”

The UK residential research director of Savills estate agency, Lucian Cook, added:

“Given Labour’s stated ambition to raise £1.2bn, that would leave at least £1.08bn to be raised from the remaining 57,000 properties, possibly more to account for tax leakage elsewhere in the system.”

The impact of the mansion tax will depend on exactly how it is imposed and the thresholds, together with how the threshold changes with the housing market. In the UK, we have seen some houses increase in value by huge amounts in just a few months and with a mansion tax, any such increase in price could move more home-owners into the new progressive tax system. Some argue that it is a tax on Londoners. The following articles consider the proposed policy by Labour.

Ed Balls seeks to reassure London home owners over mansion tax plans The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (20/10/14)
Ed Balls: Mansion tax would start at £250 a month BBC News (20/10/14)
‘Mansion tax’ will mean bill of £250 a month, says Ed Balls Financial Times, Emily Cadman, Kate Allen, Vanessa Houlder and George Parker (20/10/14)
Mansion tax can be deferred in you earn less than £42,000, Ed Balls insists as he reveals details of levy on £2million homes Mail Online, Matt Chorley (20/10/14)
Ed Balls: Mansion tax will cost homeowners £250 a month London Evening Standard (20/10/14)
Middle-class families hit by Labour’s mansion tax The Telegraph, Steven Swinford (20/10/14)
Balls says mansion-tax threshold to rise with home values Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (20/10/14)

Questions

  1. How does a progressive tax system work?/li>
  2. Why are some critics arguing that this mansion tax would just be a tax on Londoners?
  3. What objective is the £42,000 income threshold trying to achieve? Do you think that critics are correct in their assertion that it penalises middle income households?
  4. Fiscal drag is mentioned in the BBC News article as a potential problem with the mansion tax proposed by Labour and that houses may move into the taxable threshold. What is fiscal drag and why is it a potential concern?
  5. How might such a policy affect the incentives of foreigners to invest in the UK housing market? Would this be a good or a bad thing and for who?
  6. The revenues generated from houses between £2 and £3m will not be sufficient to generate £1.2bn. What are the implications for how progressive the mansion tax would need to be and how this might affect homeowners?
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A VW recession for the eurozone, as German growth revised down?

Europe’s largest economy is Germany and the prospects and growth figures of this country are crucial to the growth of the Eurozone as a whole. The EU is a key trading partner for the UK and hence the growth data of Germany and in turn of the Eurozone is also essential in creating buoyant economic conditions within our borders. The bad news is that the economic growth forecast for Germany has been cut by the German government.

The German government had previously estimated that the growth rate for this year would be 1.8%, but the estimate has now been revised down to 1.2% and next year’s growth rate has also been revised downwards from 2% to 1.3%. Clearly the expectation is that low growth is set to continue.

Whenever there are changes in macroeconomic variables, a key question is always about the cause of such change, for example is inflation caused by demand-pull or cost-push factors. The German government has been quick to state that the lower growth rates are not due to internal factors, but have been affected by external factors, in particular the state of the global economy. As such, there are no plans to make significant changes to domestic policy, as the domestic economy remains in a strong position. The economy Minister said:

“The German economy finds itself in difficult external waters … Domestic economic forces remain intact, with the robust labour market forming the foundation … As soon as the international environment improves, the competitiveness of German companies will bear fruit and the German economy will return to a path of solid growth … [for this reason there is] no reason to abandon or change our economic or fiscal policy.”

The global picture remains relatively weak and while some economies, including the UK, have seen growth pick up and unemployment fall, there are concerns that the economic recovery is beginning to slow. With an increasingly interdependent world, the slowing down of one economy can have a significant impact on the growth rate of others. If country A begins to slow, demand for imports will fall and this means a fall in the demand for exports of country B. For countries that are dependent on exports, such as Germany and China, a fall in the demand for exports can mean a big decline in aggregate demand and in August, Germany saw a 5.8% drop in exports.

Adding to the gloom is data on inflation, suggesting that some other key economies have seen falls in the rate of inflation, including China. The possibility of a triple-dip recession for the Eurozone has now been suggested and with its largest economy beginning to struggle, this suggestion may become more real. The following articles consider the macroeconomic picture.

Articles
Germany cuts growth forecasts amid recession fears, as Ireland unveils budget The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (14/10/14)
As cracks in its economy widen, is Germany’s miracle about to fade? The Observer, Philip Oltermann (19/10/14)
Why the German economy is in a rut The Economist (21/10/14)
Germany’s flagging economy: Build some bridges and roads, Mrs Merkel The Economist (18/10/14)
Germany cuts 2014 growth forecast from 1.8% to 1.2% BBC News (14/10/14)
IMF to cut growth forecast for Germany – der Spiegel Reuters (5/10/14)
Fears of triple-dip eurozone recession, as Germany cuts growth forecast The Guardian, Phillip Inman (15/10/14)
Germany slashes its economic forecasts Financial Times, Stefan Wagstyl (14/10/14)
Merkel vows austerity even as growth projection cut Bloomberg, Brian Parkin, Rainer Buergin and Patrick Donahue (14/10/14)
Is Europe’s economic motor finally stalling? BBC News, Damien McGuinness (17/10/14)
Why Germany won’t fight deflation BBC News, Robert Peston (16/10/14)

Data
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (15/10/14)
World Economic Outlook IMF (October 2014)

Questions

  1. How do we measure economic growth and is it a good indicator of the state of an economy?
  2. What are the key external factors identified by the Germany government as the reasons behind the decline in economic growth?
  3. Angela Merkel has said that austerity measures will continue to balance the budget. Is this a sensible strategy given the revised growth figures?
  4. Why is low inflation in other economies further bad news for those countries that have seen a decline or a slowdown in their growth figures?
  5. Why is interdependence between nations both a good and a bad thing?
  6. Using AS and AD analysis, illustrate the reasons behind the decline German growth. Based on your analysis, what might be expected to happen to some of the other key macroeconomic variables in Germany and in other Eurozone economies?
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The annual autumn scramble for Glastonbury tickets

An annual event takes place every October that leads to a large number of frustrated consumers – the sale of tickets for the Glastonbury festival. This year the sale of standard tickets began at 9.00am on Sunday 5th October. Within 27 minutes all of the 120,000 tickets had been sold and it was reported that over a million people had tried to access the website. Social media was full of messages from disappointed fans that had been unable to get a ticket.

The Glastonbury festival has grown in popularity and the organisers adopted a unique way of selling the tickets a number of years ago. They introduced a system that made it impossible for people to purchase tickets unless they had previously registered. Although there is no charge to register, in order to complete the process successfully, people have to submit a clear passport style photograph in Jpeg format. Once registered, customers are allocated a unique registration number which they must submit in order to purchase a ticket when they go on sale. Each buyer can purchase up to a maximum of 6 tickets and must provide a valid registration number for each separate ticket they obtain. Successful applicants receive a personalised ticket, including their photo, which cannot be re-sold. The organisers have been very clear about the rationale for introducing this scheme. They have stated that it is part of their

“on-going efforts to cut out ticket touting”

However a number of people have criticised the ticket sale process. These criticisms tend to fall into two key areas: first, the method used in the initial sale process and second, the constraints placed on resale after a ticket has been purchased.

The tickets are sold by the company SeeTickets and their Head of Business Development stated in an interview in 2013 that:

There is something like 1,100,000 customers registered to go to Glastonbury, and they all want a ticket. It’s a shame but there is nothing you can do about it. The 900,000 people that don’t get to go often come up with the argument, why don’t you just have a ballot? Why don’t we just register and a computer generated ballot just picks the winners? I think they’ve (Glastonbury) always had a view that if you get a ticket to Glastonbury there’s an element of work that you have to do to achieve that and it does reward that commitment. I think there’s a sense that if you use a ballot then maybe you’d get some people who were not as committed.

However responding to these comments a customer commented that:

I’ve been lucky in the past and got tickets within minutes and like this year tried all morning and come away empty handed. Whether I have been successful has nothing to do with hard work but the vagaries of the internet and a bit of luck.

Another customer commented:

No ballot! It’s too random. People who really,really want to go should get the tickets, so the only fair way is regional ticket sales, where you could queue ( overnight if required) to get your ticket. This is the only fair way. Year after year genuine fans miss out. This way fans who are willing to make an effort get the chance, rather than a ballot or the random computer system which they have at present.

Others have criticised the limited ability consumers are given to resell their tickets. The full cost of a ticket for the 2015 festival is £220 plus a £5 booking fee. When the tickets are originally sold in October, the buyers have to pay a £50 deposit and at this point none of the bands playing at the festival have been announced. The remaining balance of £175 is due at the beginning of April by which point some of the bands/acts will have been confirmed. Anyone who decides not to pay the balance or cancel their order before this date is refunded their deposit, minus an administration fee. Those tickets are then put forward for re-sale. The re-sale process typically takes place at the end of April and once again is only open to people who have previously registered. Last year 10,000 tickets were re-sold in just 12 minutes! Once this period in April is over the re-sale of tickets is prohibited even though the complete line-up for the festival may not have been confirmed.

The secondary ticket company Viagogo reported the results from research they had carried out on the 2014 festival. This found that following the relatively late announcement of Metallica as one of the headline acts,78% of people who had bought a ticket said they would have resold it if they’d had the chance.

A spokesperson from Viagogo stated that:

We believe that once you’ve bought a ticket it’s yours and if you want to sell it or give it away, you should be allowed to do so. In this case, with an unpopular headline act announced late, ticket holders lose out because they can’t resell their tickets and Metallica fans lose out because they can’t buy them.

Those people who either did not get a ticket or are left with a ticket they would rather re-sell will no doubt continue to complain about the ticket selling process.

The economics of GlastonburyThe Economist (24/6/14)
Handbag Economics: How much Glastonbury will really cost you Handbag Economics (12/6/14)
Should Glastonbury Festival tickets go to the ballot? Virtual Festivals (8/10/13)
Glastonbury 2014: Four in five fans wanted to resell tickets after Metallica announcement The Independent (26/6/14)
Third of Glasto fans put-off by strict ‘no ticket resale policy’ – but 2015 is still a sell-out The Mirror (6/10/14)
“People wanted to sell Glastonbury tickets!” says ticketing website Bad PR (3/7/14)
The pain of Glastonbury tickets – in two charts The Mirror (6/10/14)

Questions

  1. What is the opportunity cost of going to the Glastonbury Festival? Discuss some of the non-ticket factors you have included in your calculations.
  2. Draw a demand and supply diagram to illustrate the market for Glastonbury tickets. NB think carefully about the shape of the supply curve in both the short-run and the long run. Is the current price of a ticket at the market clearing level? Explain your answer.
  3. The sale and re-sale of tickets takes place before the all the headline acts have been announced. Illustrate what will happen to the demand curve for consumers with different preferences once the headline acts have been announced.
  4. Assess the relative costs and benefits of using a ballot instead of the current system used by the festival organisers to sell of tickets.
  5. The organisers of the festival introduced the registration process in order to limit the re-sale of the tickets. Analyse the impact of this policy on Pareto and allocative efficiency? Will the policy cause any deadweight welfare loss? What factors will determine the size of any deadweight welfare loss?
  6. Suggest some reasons why care may need to be taken when using the results from the research carried out by Viagogo.
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