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Welcome to the Sloman Economics News Site. Each blog post discusses economic issues in the news and relates these news items to key economic concepts and theories. Links are given to a range of articles and other relevant material and each blog post finishes with a set of discussion questions. (Click here for more details of the site, its authors and for making a guest post.)

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

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Game Theory: Rafa is the King

Together with Formula 1, tennis is the other sport I love – and my favourite player by far is Rafa!

We often apply game theory to various sports and consider how players, teams and individuals can think strategically. One of the big debates in tennis is ‘who is the best ever’ and I argue that Nadal is the greatest, based on a huge range of metrics.

I saw this article in the Economist, providing analysis and comparison between some of the best tennis players. It shows how we can use economic thinking, probability, game theory and analysis to come to something of an answer about who is the greatest, considering the various players’ runs to the title in the Grand Slams. Of course the reason I’m posting this is because according to the Economist, Rafa is the best! And the reasoning is very sound. Enjoy. I certainly did.

Sorry Roger: Rafael Nadal is not just the King of Clay The Economist (13/09/17)

Questions

  1. What is game theory and why is it useful?
  2. How does the rating system aim to measure the skill of a tennis champion?
  3. In this particular scenario, why is it important to use probabilities?
  4. We can use game theory to think about penalty shoot outs and whether footballers play to the Nash equilibrium. Can we also use the Nash equilibrium when thinking about tennis? (Think about the serve!)
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Increasing stress over financial distress

An economy that becomes dependent on credit can, in turn, become acutely volatile. Too much credit and there exists the potential for financial distress which can result in an economic slowdown as people cut back on spending. Too little credit and the growth in aggregate demand is subdued. Some argue that this is what now faces a financialised economy like the UK. Even it this overstates the significance of credit, there is no doubt that UK credit data is keenly followed by economists and policymakers.

Recent rates of credit accumulation by individuals have raised concern. In July 2014 the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) of the Bank of England issued a statement voicing its concern that the growth in consumer credit, also known as unsecured lending, was stretching the financial well-being of individuals and that the resilience of lenders’ consumer credit portfolios was therefore reducing.

Chart 1 illustrates the scale of the flows of both consumer credit (unsecured lending) and mortgages (secured credit) from banks and building societies to individuals. It shows the amount of credit net of repayments lent over the last 12 months. In the 12 months to July 2017 the net accumulation of consumer credit was £18.2 billion while that of secured borrowing was £40.8 billion. Although the 12-month level of consumer credit accumulation was down from its recent peak of £19.2 billion in November 2016, total net lending (including secured lending) to individuals of £59.0 billion was its highest since September 2008. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart).

To help put in context the size of flows of net lending Chart 2 shows the annual flows of consumer credit and secured debt as percentages of GDP. In this case each observation measures net lending over the past four quarters as a percentage of annual GDP. The latest observation is for 2017 Q2 and shows that the annual net flow of consumer credit was equivalent to 0.94 per cent of GDP while that for secured borrowing was 1.78 per cent of GDP. While the flows of consumer credit and secured borrowing as shares of national income have eased a little from their values in the second half of last year, they have not eased significantly. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart).

Despite the recent strength of borrowing, levels are nothing like those seen in the mid 2000s. Nonetheless, we need to see the current accumulation of debt in the context of two important factors: debt already accumulated and the future macroeconomic environment. Chart 3 gives some insight to the first of these two by looking at stocks of debt outstanding as shares of GDP. The total debt-to-GDP ratio peaked 90 percent in 2009 before relatively slower growth in credit accumulation saw the ratio fall back. The ratio has now been at or around the 78 per cent level consistently for the past two or so years. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart).

The ratio of the stock of consumer debt to GDP peaked in 2008 at 13.3 per cent. It too fell back reaching 9.05 per cent in the middle of 2014. Since that time the ratio has been rising and by the end of the second quarter of this year was 10.1 per cent. The PRA appears not only to be concerned by this but also the likely unwinding of what it describes as the ‘current benign macroeconomic environment and historically low arrears rates’.

Going forward, we might expect to see ever closer scrutiny not only of the aggregate indicators referred to here but of an array of credit indicators. The PRA statement, for example, refers to the number of , ‘0% interest credit card offers’, falling interest rates on unsecured personal loans and the growth of motor finance loans. The hope is that we can avoid the costs of financial distress that so starkly affected the economy in the late 2000s and that continue to cast a shadow over today’s economic prospects.

PRA Statement
PRA Statement on Consumer Credit PRA, Bank of England (4/7/14)

Articles
Bank of England demands consumer credit vigilance; construction growth slows – as it happened Guardian (4/7/14)
Bank of England warns more defences may be needed against consumer credit Telegraph (24/7/17)
Beware the bubble: Bank of England clamps down on credit Telegraph, Tim Wallace (1/7/17)
Bank of England raises capital requirements on UK lenders amid concerns about excessive consumer borrowing Independent, Ben Chu (27/6/17)
Bank of England tightens mortgage borrowing rules amid fears of debt boom Express, Lana Clements (27/6/17)
Rise in personal loans dangerous, Bank of England official says BBC News (25/7/17)
Bank of England takes action over bad loans BBC News (27/6/17)

Data
Bankstats (Monetary and Financial Statistics) – Latest Tables Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Questions

  1. What does it mean uf people are financially distressed? What responses might people take in response to this distress?
  2. How can financial distress affect the economy’s growth path?
  3. How would you measure the financial well-being of an individual? What about the financial well-being of firms?
  4. What role mights banks play in affecting levels of financial distress in the economy?
  5. What does it mean if credit conditions are pro-cyclical?
  6. Why might banks’ lending be pro-cyclical?
  7. Are there measures that policymakers can take to reduce the likelihood that flows of credit become too excessive?
  8. Why do some economists refer to the economic downturn of the late 2000s as a balance sheet recession? How likely is another balance sheet recession in the short term? What about in the longer term?
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Hurricanes and the social rate of discount

With first Houston, then several Caribbean islands and Florida suffering dreadful flooding and destruction from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many are questioning whether more should be spent on flood prevention and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Economists would normally argue that such questions are answered by conducting a cost–benefit analysis.

However, even if the size of the costs and benefits of such policies could be measured, this would not be enough to give the answer. Whether such spending is justified would depend on the social rate of discount. But what the rate should be in cost-benefit analyses is a highly contested issue, especially when the benefits occur a long time in the future.

I you ask the question today, ‘should more have been spent on flood prevention in Houston and Miami?’, the answer would almost certainly be yes, even if the decision had to have been taken many years ago, given the time it takes to plan and construct such defences. But if you asked people, say, 15 years ago whether such expenditure should be undertaken, many would have said no, given that the protection would be provided quite a long time in the future. Also many people back then would doubt that the defences would be necessary and many would not be planning to live there indefinitely.

This is the familiar problem of people valuing costs and benefits in the future less than costs and benefits occurring today. To account for this, costs and benefits in the future are discounted by an annual rate to reduce them to a present value.

But with costs and benefits occurring a long time in the future, especially from measures to reduce carbon emissions, the present value is very sensitive to the rate of discount chosen. But choosing the rate of discount is fraught with difficulties.

Some argue that a social rate of discount should be similar to long-term market rates. But market rates reflect only the current generation’s private preferences. They do not reflect the costs and benefits to future generations. A social rate of discount that did take their interests into account would be much lower and could even be argued to be zero – or negative with a growing population.

Against this, however, has to be set the possibility that future generations will be richer than the current one and will therefore value a dollar (or any other currency) less than today’s generation.

However, it is also likely, if the trend of recent decades is to continue, that economic growth will be largely confined to the rich and that the poor will be little better off, if at all. And it is the poor who often suffer the most from natural disasters. Just look, for example, at the much higher personal devastation suffered from hurricane Irma by the poor on many Caribbean islands compared with those in comparatively wealthy Florida.

A low or zero discount rate would make many environmental projects socially profitable, even though they would not be with a higher rate. The choice of rate is thus crucial to the welfare of future generations who are likely to bear the brunt of climate change.

But just how should the social rate of discount be chosen? The following two articles explore the issue.

Articles
How Much Is the Future Worth? Slate, Will Oremus (1/9/17)
Climate changes the debate: The impact of demographics on long-term discount rates Vox, Eli P Fenichel, Matthew Kotchen and Ethan T Addicott (20/8/17)

Questions

  1. What is meant by the social rate of discount?
  2. Why does the choice of a lower rate of social discount imply a more aggressive climate policy?
  3. How is the distribution of the benefits and costs of measures to reduce carbon emissions between rich and poor relevant in choosing the social rate of discount of such measures?
  4. How is the distribution of the benefits of such measures between current and future generations relevant in choosing the rate?
  5. How is uncertainty about the magnitude of the costs and benefits relevant in choosing the rate?
  6. What is the difference between Stern’s and Nordhaus’ analyses of the choice of social discount rate?
  7. Explain and discuss the ‘mortality-based approach’ to estimating social discount rates.
  8. What are the arguments ‘for economists analysing climate change through the lens of minimising risk, rather than maximizing utility’?
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A broken economy

According to a new report, Time for Change published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), ‘The British economic model needs fundamental reform.’

It is no longer generating rising earnings for a majority of the population, and young people today are set to be poorer than their parents. Beneath its headlines figures, the economy is suffering from deep and longstanding weaknesses, which make it unfit to face the challenges of the 2020s.

The report by the IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice is an interim one, with the final report due in the latter part of next year. The commission was set up in 2016 and includes business leaders, such as the heads of John Lewis and Siemens, the TUC General Secretary, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leading figures.

Commenting on the interim report, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury said

Our economic model is broken. Britain stands at a watershed moment where we need to make fundamental choices about the sort of economy we need. We are failing those who will grow up into a world where the gap between the richest and poorest parts of the country is significant and destabilising

The report found that wages have stagnated for the majority of the population since the financial crisis of 2007/8. Wage income has fallen as a proportion of national income, while the proportions going to income from profits and property have risen. Young people are poorer than previous generations of young people.

Despite low unemployment, many people are on zero-hour contracts, part-time contracts or employed on a casual basis. For many, their jobs are insecure and they have no bargaining power.

The UK for many years has had a lower rate of investment that other developed economies and productivity, in terms of output per hour, is the lowest of its major competitors. Productivity in Germany is 36% higher than in the UK; in France and the USA it is 29% higher. Although there are some internationally competitive UK firms with high productivity, the country has:

a longer ‘tail’ of low-productivity businesses, in which weak management and poor use of skills leads to ‘bad jobs’ and low wages.

There are many other challenges, including an ageing population, uncertainties from Brexit, a large current account deficit, increased competition from abroad and growth once more in private-sector debt, which means that consumption may cease to be the main driver of economic growth as people seek to curb their borrowing.

The report is also critical of fiscal policy, which with record low interest rates could have been used to finance infrastructure projects as well as supporting public services.

The report recommends three approaches:

The first is institutional reform to support investment.

The second is making the economy more competitive through a coherent industrial strategy, reform of the financial sector to support long-term investment, reform of corporate governance to promote business success and tackling the market dominance of companies such as Amazon and Google.

The third is to bring greater social justice and equality through encouraging more secure and better-paid jobs, strengthening trades unions and reforming the tax system to make it fairer and smarter.

Not surprisingly the government has defended its record of reducing debt, presiding over falling unemployment and reduced inequality as measured by a reduced Gini coefficient. However, there has only been a modest fall in the Gini coefficient, from 0.333 in 2009/10 to 0.315 in 2016/7, and this has largely been the result of the very rich seeing a decline in income from assets.

Articles
Britain’s economy is broken and failing to tackle inequality, says major new report Independent, Ben Chu (6/9/17)
UK’s economic model is broken, says Archbishop of Canterbury The Guardian, Phillip Inman (5/9/17)
Tax wealth or see the UK tear itself apart, Cable will warn Bloomberg, Alex Morales and Thomas Penny (6/9/17)
Archbishop of Canterbury calls for radical economic reform BBC News (5/9/17)
Archbishop warns economy is “broken” as report reveals longest period of wage stagnation for 150 years Huffington Post, Rachel Wearmouth (6/9/17)
Britain’s economy is broken. We desperately need new ideas The Guardian, Tom Kibasi (4/6/17)
Carney: Britain is in the ‘first lost decade since the 1860s’, Business Insider, Oscar Williams-Grut (6/12/16)
Our broken economy, in one simple chart New York Times, David Leonhardt (7/8/16)

Report
Time for Change: A new Vision for the British Economy IPPR Commission on Economic Justice (6/9/17)

Questions

  1. Why have wages for the majority of the UK population stagnated for the past 10 years?
  2. Why is productivity in the UK lower than in most other developed economies?
  3. Is it possible for poor people to become poorer and yet for the Gini coefficient to fall?
  4. What institutional reforms would you suggest to encourage greater investment?
  5. Explain the possible advantages and disadvantages of abandoning ‘austerity policy’ and adopting a more expansionist fiscal stance?
  6. Does it matter that Amazon and Google are dominant players in their respective markets? Explain.
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Oil prices – the ups and the downs

Oil prices are determined by demand and supply. Changes in oil prices are the result of shifts in demand and/or supply, with the size of the price change depending on the size of the shift and the price elasticity of demand and supply.

Some of the shifts are long term, with the price of oil varying from year to year or even moving in a particular direction for longer periods of time. Thus the opening up of new supplies, such as from fracking wells, can lead to a long-term fall in oil prices, while agreements by, say, OPEC to curb output can lead to a long-term rise in prices (see the blogs The oil see-saw, OPEC deal pushes up oil prices and An oil glut).

Medium and long-term price movements can also reflect medium and long-term changes in demand, such as a recession – oil prices fell dramatically as the world economy slid into recession in 2008/9 and then recovered as the global economy recovered.

Another long-term factor is the development of substitutes, such as renewable energy, which can reduce the demand for oil; another is developments that economise on power, such as more fuel-efficient vehicles and machines.

But oil prices do not just reflect these long-term movements in demand and supply. They also reflect daily and weekly movements as demand and supply respond to global and national events.

Two such events occurred at the end of August/beginning of September this year. The first was Hurricane Harvey. Even though it was downgraded to a tropical storm as it made landfall across the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, it dumped massive amounts of rain on southern Texas and Louisiana. This disrupted oil drilling and refining, shutting down a quarter of the entire US refining capacity. The initial effect was a surge in US oil prices in late August as oil production in much of Texas shut down and a rise in petrol prices as supplies from refineries fell.

Then prices fell back again in early September as production and refining resumed and as it became apparent that there had been less damage to oil infrastructure than initially feared. Also the USA tapped into some of its strategic oil reserves to make up for the shortfall in supply.

Then in early September, the North Koreans tested a hydrogen bomb – much larger than the previous atom bombs it had tested. This prompted fears of US retaliation and heightened tensions in the region. As the Reuters article states:

That put downward pressure on crude as traders moved money out of oil – seen as high-risk markets – into gold futures, traditionally viewed as a safe haven for investors. Spot gold prices rose for a third day, gaining 0.9 per cent on Monday

Quite large daily movements in oil prices are not uncommon as traders respond to such events. A major determinant of short-term demand is expectations, and nervousness about events can put substantial downward pressure on oil prices if it is felt that there could be a downward effect on the global economy – or substantial upward pressure if it is felt that supplies might be disrupted. Often markets over-correct, with prices moving back again as the situation becomes clearer and as nervousness subsides.

Articles
U.S. crude edges higher, gasoline tumbles after Harvey Reuters, Libby George (4/9/17)
Global oil prices fall after North Korea nuclear weapon test Independent, Henning Gloystein (4/9/17)
Brent crude oil falls after North Korea nuclear test The Indian Express (4/9/17)
Oil prices remain volatile AzerNews, Sara Israfilbayova (4/7/17)

Questions

  1. What are the determinants of the price elasticity of demand for oil?
  2. Search news articles to find some other examples of short-term movements in oil prices as markets responded to some political or natural event.
  3. Why do markets often over-correct?
  4. Explain the long-term oil price movements over the past 10 years.
  5. Why is gold seen as a ‘safe haven’?
  6. If refineries buy oil from oil producers, what would determine the net effect on oil prices of a decline in oil production and a decline in demand for oil by the refineries?
  7. What role does speculation play in determining oil prices? Explain how such speculation could (a) reduce price volatility; (b) increase price volatility. Under what circumstances is (b) more likely than (a)?
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