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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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Frozen’s Elsa and Anna save the whale. Or do they? A festive cautionary tale

Since the Global Financial Crisis, and especially since 2010, there has been a significant decline in the volume of commercial freight carried by aircraft. Whilst regional and national economies have been hit by fiscal problems, credit snarl-ups and twitchy consumer demand, increases in the price of crude oil (until recently) have compounded air freight cost increases, leading to substitution towards the main alternatives.

Whilst some multinational businesses have shifted production back ‘on-shore’, there has been unprecedented growth in sea freight. In the latter case there are, of course, both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. As the world’s seas and oceans become more and more congested, one of the distinct losers is a large species which shares the water with commercial maritime transport: the whale.

A recent ‘Sharing the Planet’ documentary on BBC Radio 4, highlighted the plight of whales in the world’s open waters. Since the imposition of controls upon the whaling industry, whale numbers had stabilised and even increased. However, the past five years has seen the most significant threat coming from the eerily clinical-sounding ‘ship strike’: that is, unintended incidents of ships hitting and either injuring or killing whales. In particular, the Blue Whale and the Right Whale have been most affected – the Right Whale was almost driven to extinction by ship strikes in the North Atlantic region.

International action is driving a regulatory approach which aims to intervene, for example, to impose speed restrictions in known waters where whales congregate. But this isn’t a universal solution. Even where it is applied, enforcement is tricky and there is industry resistance as already slow shipping freight delivery times are further extended, thus challenging producers under pressure to respond rapidly to changing consumer demand in the world of ecommerce.

But where is the link to the movie Frozen? Well, this year’s top-selling range of toys are tie-ins to Disney’s wintery animated blockbuster. Excess demand for some of the tie-in merchandising has led to short supply in toy stores and carefully planned production and shipping plans junked. Panicked creation of extra capacity in off-shore production has had to be complemented by the contracting of air freighting options – the lead times are too long to get last-minute products to distributors and retailers in time. Whilst someone has to bear the increased financial cost, the whale might therefore become – at least temporarily – a beneficiary.

But the message is clear: globalised production and distribution involve a complex web of trade-offs. Where negative externalities hit those without a global voice, this adds weight to the continued efforts towards sustainability and the full costing of production and exchange. Whales are a ‘flagship species’ in diverse ecological systems. The planet cannot afford to lose them. And so, whilst your gift purchases this festive season may have been made possible by products having been air-freighted rather than being sent by yet another ship, don't rest on your laurels. Consider this variant on a traditional injunction: whales are for life, and not just for Christmas.

Guest post by Simon Blake, University of Warwick

Books and articles
Nature in the Balance: The Economics of Biodiversity Oxford Dieter Helm and Cameron Hepburn (eds) (2014)
Frozen dolls sell out Express Sarah Ann Harris (9/12/14)
Biodiversity Finance and Economics Tread Softly November 2014

Information
EU Business and Biodiversity Platform EC Environment DG
Whales & Dolphins (cetaceans) World Wildlife Fund

Questions

  1. Why might UK-based businesses be concerned with the plight of whales in the world’s seas and oceans?
  2. In what ways might shipping firms – and the manufacturers who contract their services – be regarded as ‘good’ businesses?
  3. Using the concept of externalities, how would you account for the impacts of global commerce upon whales?
  4. How could you conduct a scientific evaluation of the trade-offs involved?
  5. Can damage to one species by the actions of business ever be offset by ‘making good’ through corporate action elsewhere?
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Inequality and economic growth

What is the relationship between the degree of inequality in a country and the rate of economic growth? The traditional answer is that there is a trade off between the two. Increasing the rewards to those who are more productive or who invest encourages a growth in productivity and capital investment, which, in turn, leads to faster economic growth. Redistribution from the rich to the poor, by contrast, is argued to reduce incentives by reducing the rewards from harder work, education, training and investment. Risk taking, it is claimed, is discouraged.

Recent evidence from the OECD and the IMF, however, suggests that when income inequality rises, economic growth falls. Inequality has grown massively in many countries, with average incomes at the top of the distribution seeing particular gains, while many at the bottom have experienced actual declines in real incomes or, at best, little or no growth. This growth in inequality can be seen in a rise in countries’ Gini coefficients. The OECD average Gini coefficient rose from 0.29 in the mid-1980s to 0.32 in 2011/12. This, claims the OECD, has led to a loss in economic growth of around 0.35 percentage points per year.

But why should a rise in inequality lead to lower economic growth? According to the OECD, the main reason is that inequality reduces the development of skills of the lower income groups and reduces social mobility.

By hindering human capital accumulation, income inequality undermines education opportunities for disadvantaged individuals, lowering social mobility and hampering skills development.

The lower educational attainment applies both to the length and quality of education: people from poorer backgrounds on average leave school or college earlier and with lower qualifications.

But if greater inequality generally results in lower economic growth, will a redistribution from rich to poor necessarily result in faster economic growth? According to the OECD:

Anti-poverty programmes will not be enough. Not only cash transfers but also increasing access to public services, such as high-quality education, training and healthcare, constitute long-term social investment to create greater equality of opportunities in the long run.

Thus redistribution policies need to be well designed and implemented and focus on raising incomes of the poor through increased opportunities to increase their productivity. Simple transfers from rich to poor via the tax and benefits system may, in fact, undermine economic growth. According to the IMF:

That equality seems to drive higher and more sustainable growth does not in itself support efforts to redistribute. In particular, inequality may impede growth at least in part because it calls forth efforts to redistribute that themselves undercut growth. In such a situation, even if inequality is bad for growth, taxes and transfers may be precisely the wrong remedy.

Articles
Inequality ‘significantly’ curbs economic growth – OECD BBC News (9/12/14)
Is inequality the enemy of growth? BBC News, Robert Peston (6/10/14)
Income inequality damages growth, OECD warns Financial Times, Chris Giles (8/10/14)
OECD finds increasing inequality lowers growth Deutsche Welle, Jasper Sky (10/12/14)
Revealed: how the wealth gap holds back economic growth The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/12/14)
Inequality Seriously Damages Growth, IMF Seminar Hears IMF Survey Magazine (12/4/14)
Warning! Inequality May Be Hazardous to Your Growth iMFdirect, Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry (8/4/11)

Videos
Record inequality between rich and poor OECD on YouTube (5/12/11)
The Price of Inequality The News School on YouTube, Joseph Stiglitz (5/10/12)

Reports and papers
FOCUS on Inequality and Growth OECD, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs (December 2014)
Trends in Income Inequality and its Impact on Economic Growth OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, Federico Cingano (9/12/14)
An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries: Main Findings OCED (2011)
Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth IMF Staff Discussion Note, Jonathan D. Ostry, Andrew Berg, and Charalambos G. Tsangarides (February 2014)
Measure to Measure Finance and Development, IMF, Jonathan D. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg (Vol. 51, No. 3, September 2014)

Data
OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS

Questions

  1. Explain what are meant by a Lorenz curve and a Gini coefficient? What is the relationship between the two?
  2. The Gini coefficient is one way of measuring inequality. What other methods are there? How suitable are they?
  3. Assume that the government raises taxes to finance higher benefits to the poor. Identify the income and substitution effects of the tax increases and whether the effects are to encourage or discourage work (or investment).
  4. Distinguish between (a) progressive, (b) regressive and (c) proportional taxes?
  5. How will the balance of income and substitution effects vary in each of the following cases: (a) a cut in the tax-free allowance; (b) a rise in the basic rate of income tax; (c) a rise in the top rate of income tax? How does the relative size of the two effects depend, in each case, on a person’s current income?
  6. Identify policy measures that would increase both equality and economic growth.
  7. Would a shift from direct to indirect taxes tend to increase or decrease inequality? Explain.
  8. By examining Tables 3, 26 and 27 in The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13, (a) explain the difference between original income, gross income, disposable income and post-tax income; (b) explain the differences between the Gini coefficients for each of these four categories of income in the UK.
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The Chancellor puts his stamp on the housing market

As we reported in New Build: Foundations for a successful housing policy? the Autumn Statement heralded significant reforms to Stamp Duty – the UK tax on house purchases. The result is the introduction of a graduated system of tax, along the lines of the income tax system. A similar regime will continue to operate in Scotland when the Land and Buildings Transactions Tax replaces Stamp Duty next April. Here we consider the impact on the effective rates of tax following the changes to Stamp Duty.

Under the old system any house purchase involving a property whose value was £125,000 or less incurred no Stamp Duty liability. Thereafter, one of five tax rates applied: 1% above £125,000 to £250,000, 3% above £250,000 to £500,000, 4% above £500,000 to £1m, 5% above £1m to £2m and 7 per cent for properties over £2m. The important point was that the whole of the purchase price was subject to one of these five progressively higher tax rates.

The new system sees the introduction of a graduated system of tax which means that the amount paid by house purchasers will be dependent upon the proportion of the value of the property that falls in each of the tax bands. Again, for properties up to £125,000 there will be no liability. There will then be four bands: 1% above £125,000 to £250,000, 5% above £250,000 up to £925,000, 10% above £925,000 up to £150,000 and 12% above £150,000.

One significant impact of the changes is that the liability will be more proportionate to the value of the property. To see this we can compare the average rate of tax under the new and old tax system. The average rate of tax is simply the amount of the tax liability relative to the price of the property.

From Chart 1 we can see how the new average rate of tax under rises progressively with the price of the property. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart). Under the old system, the profile of the average rate of tax looks like a series of steps with a slab at each tax rate. Unsurprisingly, the system was sometimes referred as the ‘slab system’.

A second significant change will be the removal of the significant spikes in the marginal rate of tax around each of the tax bands. For example, the tax liability on a property costing £125,001 was £1,250.01 compared with a zero liability on a property costing £125,000. Therefore, a £1 rise in the price of property was accompanied by a £1,250.01 rise in the purchase tax. In percentage terms this is a marginal rate of tax of 125,001. Chart 1 shows how the marginal rates now match the progressively higher tax rates that become payable between each threshold.

The principle of removing the significant distortions to pricing created by the old system of Stamp Duty is likely to receive general approval. However, there may be some unease around the short-term implications for house prices of the bands and rates under the new system. This is largely because nobody purchasing a property at £937,000 or less will see their tax liability rise. The reduction in the liability raises concerns about a potential boost to house prices.

Chart 2 show the percentage change in the Stamp Duty liability for properties of up to £2.5 million. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.) The average UK house price, excluding London, is currently £235,000. The stamp duty saving in this case is £150 or 6.4 per cent.

But there are more significant savings than this from the reforms, including in London where inflationary pressures in the housing market have been more significant. Here annual price inflation ran at close to 20 per cent in the second and third quarters of the year. Given that the average house price in London is currently £510,000, this means a Stamp Duty saving of £4,900 or 24 per cent. Of course, for premium London markets (and other similar markets elsewhere) a quite different effect could arise. The liability on a £2m property rises by 53.75 per cent. Nonetheless, for most markets it is the boost to prices that is most concerning.

In the East Midlands, which is a good barometer of the market in the rest of the country, there will be a saving of £610 or 32 per cent on the current average property purchase of £189,000. Therefore, even in markets where house price inflation is more subdued there is the potential that the changes to the Stamp Duty system will, in the short term at least, boost housing demand and fuel house price growth.

Stamp Duty/Land and Buildings Transactions Tax
Rates and allowances: Stamp Duty Land Tax Gov.UK
Land and Buildings Transaction Tax Revenue Scotland

Autumn Statement
Autumn Statement: documents Gov.UK

Articles
The home owners cashing in on stamp duty reforms Telegraph, Dan Hyde (2/12/14)
Christmas comes early for estate agents after stamp duty changes Guardian, Nigel Bunyan (7/12/14)
Stamp duty: House price boom and mansion bust Telegraph, Anna White (6/12/14)
£200m house deal stampede by wealthy to beat stamp duty hike: Reforms spark one of busiest periods for estate agents in 25 years Daily Mail Online, Louise Eccles and Ruth Lythe (5/12/14)
Stamp duty changes boost housing market and push up prices Guardian, Hilary Osborne (5/12/14)

Stamp Duty revamp blow to SNP property tax reforms Scotsman, Tom Peterkin and Jane Bradley (4/12/14)
Autumn Statement: What do stamp duty changes mean? BBC News, (3/12/14)

Data
House Price Indices: Data Tables Office for National Statistics

Questions

  1. What is the tax base of Stamp Duty and the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax?
  2. How does Stamp Duty distort choices?
  3. Under the old Stamp Duty system, why might a seller be reluctant to put their property on the market at £251,000?
  4. What is meant by the average and marginal rates of tax?
  5. What is meant by a progressive tax?
  6. What is the connection between the average rate of tax and how progressive a tax is?
  7. Calculate the marginal rates of tax (in percentage terms) under the old Stamp Duty system following a £1 rise which results in a property’s value moving into the next tax band (start with a £1 rise from £125,000 to £125,001).
  8. Using a demand-supply diagram show the effect of the Stamp Duty reforms on house prices in most UK housing markets. What characteristics of supply would make the change in price particularly large?
  9. Are there any housing markets where demand could fall following the introduction of the reforms to Stamp Duty? Illustrate the possible effects using a demand-supply diagram.
  10. How might an economist go about evaluating the Stamp Duty reforms? What factors will affect the judgement formed?
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New Build: Foundations for a successful housing policy?

The housing market was at the heart of the 2014 Autumn Statement. Perhaps most eyecatching were the reforms to stamp duty. Stamp Duty is a tax on house purchases. Overnight we have seen the introduction of a graduated system of tax, along the lines of the income tax system – similar to the model to be adopted in Scotland from next April under the Land and Buildings Transactions Tax. For the rest of the UK, there will be five tax bands, including a zero rate band for property values up to £125,000. The total tax liability will be dependent upon the proportion of the value of the property that falls in each taxable band.

But, alongside the Stamp Duty announcement, the Autumn Statement was noteworthy for its references to new build. New build is clearly central to UK housing policy.

The Autumn Statement reaffirmed the government’s wish to see house building play a central role in easing pressures on the housing market. Over the past 40 years or more UK house prices have been characterised by considerable volatility and by a significant real increase. This can be seen clearly in the chart. Actual (nominal) house prices across the UK have grown an average rate of 10 per cent per year. Even if we strip out the effect of economy-wide inflation, we are still left with an increase of around 3.5 per cent per year. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart).

The economics point to supply-side problems that mean demand pressures feed directly into house prices. The commitment to build has now seen the announcement of a new garden city near Bicester in Oxfordshire. This is set to provide 13,000 or more new homes. The government has also pledged £100 million to the Ebbsfleet Garden City project to provide the infrastructure and land remediation necessary to bring in more private-sector developers to help deliver an expected 15,000 new homes.

An interesting development in housing policy is the willingness of government to consider being more actively involved itself in house building. The development of former barracks at Northstowe in Cambridgeshire will be spearheaded by the Homes and Communities Agency which will lead on the planning and construction of up to 10,000 new homes. This signals, at least on paper, that government is prepared to think more broadly about the way in which it works with the private sector in helping to deliver new homes.

The desire to facilitate new build appears to make some economic sense. But, the politics of delivering on new homes is considerably more difficult since the prospect of new developments naturally raises considerable local concerns. Furthermore, it does not deal with fundamental questions around the existing housing market stock. In particular, how we can further increase investment in our existing housing stock, especially given the significant land constraints that face a country like the UK. As yet, the debate around how to improve what we already have has not really taken place.

Autumn Statement
Autumn Statement: documents Gov.UK

Articles
Autumn Statement: Government will build tens of thousands of new homes Independent, Nigel Morris (2/12/14)
Government could build and sell new homes on public sector land Guardian, Patrick Wintour (2/12/14)
Bicester chosen as new garden city with 13,000 homes BBC News, (2/12/14)
Nick Clegg reveals coalition plan for new garden city in Oxfordshire Guardian, (2/12/14)
State to build new homes for first time in generation Telegraph, Steven Swinford (2/12/14)

Data
House Price Indices: Data Tables Office for National Statistics

Questions

  1. Explain the distinction between real and nominal house prices.
  2. Would you expect real house price inflation to always be less than nominal house price inflation?
  3. What factors are likely to affect housing demand?
  4. What factors are likely to affect housing supply?
  5. Show using a demand-supply diagram the impact of rising incomes on the demand for a particular housing market characterised by a price inelastic supply.
  6. Would we expect all housing markets to exhibit similar characteristics of housing demand and supply?
  7. What is the economic rationale for the government’s new build policy?
  8. What other measures could be introduced to try and alleviate the long-term pressure on real house prices?
  9. How might we go about assessing the affordability of housing?
  10. Would a policy which reduced for the stamp duty payment of most buyers help to curb inflationary pressures in the housing market? Explain your answer using a demand-supply diagram.
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Eurozone deflation risk

The eurozone is made up of 18 countries (19 in January) and, besides sharing a common currency, they also seem to be sharing the trait of weak economic performance. The key macroeconomic variables across the eurozone nations have all seemingly been moving in the wrong direction and this is causing a lot of concern for policy-makers.

Some of the biggest players in the eurozone have seen economic growth on the down-turn, unemployment rising and consumer and business confidence falling once again. Germany’s economic growth has been revised down and in Italy, unemployment rose to a record of 13.2% in September and around 25% of the workforce remains out of work in Spain and Greece. A significant consequence of the sluggish growth across this 18-nation bloc of countries is the growing risk of deflation.

Whilst low and stable inflation is a macroeconomic objective across nations, there is such a thing as inflation that is too low. When inflation approaches 0%, the spectre of deflation looms large (see the blog post Deflation danger). The problem of deflation is that when people expect prices to fall, they stop spending. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. After all, if you think prices will be lower next week, then you are likely to wait until next week. This decision by consumers will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. This is the problem facing the eurozone. In November, the inflation rate fell to 0.3%. One of the key causes is falling energy prices – normally good news, but not if inflation is already too low.

Jonathan Loynes, Chief European Economist at Capital Economics said:

“[the inflation and jobless data] gives the ECB yet another nudge to take urgent further action to revive the recovery and tackle the threat of deflation…We now expect the headline inflation rate to drop below zero at least briefly over the next six months and there is a clear danger of a more prolonged bout of falling prices.”

Some may see the lower prices as a positive change, with less household income being needed to buy the same basket of goods. However, the key question will be whether such low prices are seen as a temporary change or an indication of a longer-term trend. The answer to the question will have a significant effect on business decisions about investment and on the next steps to be taken by the ECB. It also has big consequences for other countries, in particular the UK. The data over the coming months across a range of macroeconomic variables may tell us a lot about what is to come throughout 2015. The following articles consider the eurozone data.

Euro area annual inflation down to 0.3% EuroStat News Release (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation weakens again, adding pressure on ECB Nasdaq, Brian Blackstone (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation rate falls in October BBC News (28/11/14)
Eurozone recovery fears weigh on UK plc, says report Financial Times, Alison Smith (30/11/14)
€300bn Jean-Claude Juncker Eurozone kickstarter sounds too good to be true The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/11/14)
Eurozone area may be in ‘persistent stagnation trap’ says OECD BBC News (25/11/14)
Euro area ‘major risk to world growth’: OECD CNBC, Katy Barnato (25/11/14)
OECD sees gradual world recovery, urges ECB to do more Reuters, Ingrid Melander (25/11/14)

Questions

  1. What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
  2. Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
  3. What policies are available to the ECB to tackle the problem of deflation? How successful are they likely to be and which factors will determine this?
  4. To what extent is the economic stagnation in the Eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and US? Explain your answer.
  5. How effective would quantitative easing be in combating the problem of deflation?
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