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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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Collusion between German car makers

The car industry has featured heavily in the news in recent weeks with the announcement of plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2040. Around the same time, news broke that the European Commission had commenced an investigation into potential collusive behaviour between German car makers.

Since the investigation is ongoing, it is not yet clear exactly what the firms are accused of. However, allegations first published in German magazine Der Spiegel claim that since at least the mid 1990s Volkswagen (and subsidiaries Porsche and Audi), Daimler (owner of Mercedes-Benz) and BMW met several times a year. Furthermore, it is alleged the meetings aimed to give the firms an advantage over overseas rivals by:

co-ordinating the development of their vehicles, costs, suppliers and markets for many years, at least since the Nineties, to the present day.

In particular, Der Spiegel claims that the cartel limited the size of the tanks that manufacturers install in cars to hold chemicals that reduce diesel emissions. Smaller tanks then left more room for the car’s sound system.

Limiting the size of these tanks should be seen in the context of the 2015 emissions scandal where it became clear that Volkswagen had programmed its cars to limit the use of these chemicals and cheated in emissions tests. This meant that 11 million cars worldwide produced excess emissions. Whilst other manufacturers have suggested that the cars they produced may also produce excess emissions, Volkswagen has so far been the only firm to admit to breaking the rules so explicitly. However, if the allegations in Der Spiegel turn out to be true, there will be clear evidence that the harm caused was widespread and that illegal communication between firms played a key role in facilitating this. If found guilty, substantial fines will be imposed by the European Commission and several of the firms have already announced plans to put in place measures to reduce emissions.

It is not clear how the competition authorities discovered the cartel. However, it has been suggested that incriminating documents were uncovered during a raid of Volkswagen’s offices as part of an investigation into a separate steel cartel. It seems that Volkswagen and Daimler are now cooperating with the investigation, presumably hoping to reduce the penalties they could face. It has also been reported that Daimler’s role in the investigation will have serious implications for future cooperation with BMW, including a project to develop charging sites for electric cars. It will be extremely interesting to see what the investigation uncovers and what the future ramifications for the car industry are.

Articles
European officials probe claims of huge German car cartel CNN Money, Mark Thompson (23/7/17)
Automotive corruption: German manufacturer collusion could spell bankruptcy Shout out UK, Christopher Sharp (4/8/17)
Germany’s auto industry is built on collusion Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky (31/7/17)
BMW reassured top staff about cartel allegations: sources Reuters, Edward Taylor (4/8/17)

Questions

  1. What are the consequences of the coordination between German car makers likely to have been for consumers? What about for rival car manufacturers?
  2. Are there circumstances in which coordination between car makers might be beneficial for society?
  3. How do you think the German car industry will be affected by these allegations going forward?
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Ten years on

Ten years ago (on 9 August 2007), the French bank BNP Paribas sparked international concern when it admitted that it didn’t know what many of its investments in the US sub-prime property market were worth and froze three of its hedge funds. This kicked off the financial crisis and the beginning of the credit crunch.

In September 2007 there was a run on the Northern Rock bank in the UK, forcing the Bank of England to provide emergency funding. Northern Rock was eventually nationalised in February 2008. In July 2008, the US financial authorities had to provide emergency assistance to America’s two largest mortgage lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Then in September 2008, the financial crisis really took hold. The US bank, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy, sending shock waves around the global economy. In the UK, Lloyds TSB announced that it was taking over the UK’s largest mortgage lender, Halifax Bank Of Scotland (HBOS), after a run on HBOS shares.

Later in the month, Fortis, the huge Belgian banking, finance and insurance company, was partly nationalised to prevent its bankruptcy. Also the UK government was forced to take control of mortgage-lender, Bradford & Bingley’s, mortgages and loans, with the rest of the business sold to Santander.

Early in October 2008, trading was suspended in the main Icelandic banks. Later in the month, the UK government announced a £37 billion rescue package for Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Lloyds TSB and HBOS. Then in November it partially nationalised RBS by taking a 58% share in the bank. Meanwhile various other rescue packages and emergency loans to the banking sector were taking place in other parts of the world. See here for a timeline of the financial crisis.

So, ten years on from the start of the crisis, have the lessons of the crisis been learnt. Could a similar crisis occur again?

The following articles look at this question and the answers are mixed.

On the positive side, banks are much more highly capitalised than they were ten years ago. Moves by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in its Basel III regulatory framework have ensured that banks are much more highly capitalised and operate with higher levels of liquidity. What is more, banks are generally more cautious about investing in highly complex and risky collateralised assets.

On the negative side, increased flexibility in labour markets, although helping to keep unemployment down, has allowed a huge squeeze on real wages as austerity measures have dampened the economy. What is more, household debt is rising to possibly unsustainable levels. Over the past year, unsecured debt (e.g. personal loans and credit card debt) have risen by 10% and yet (nominal) household incomes have risen by only 1.5%. While record low interest rates make such loans relatively affordable, when interest rates do eventually start to rise, this could put a huge strain on household finances. But if households start to rein in their borrowing, this would put downward pressure on aggregate demand and jeopardise economic growth.

Articles
The crisis: 10 years in three chart BBC News, Simon Jack (9/8/17)
Darling: ‘Alarm bells ringing’ for UK economy BBC News (9/8/17)
Alistair Darling warns against ‘complacency’ 10 years on from financial crisis The Telegraph (9/8/17)
A decade after the financial crisis consumers are still worried Independent, Kate Hughes (9/8/17)
Bankers still do not understand complex reasons behind financial crash, senior politician warns Independent, Ashley Cowburn (9/8/17)
We let the 2007 financial crisis go to waste The Guardian, Torsten Bell (9/8/17)
Bank of England warns of complacency over big rise in personal debt The Guardian, Larry Elliott (24/7/17)
On the 10th anniversary of the global financial meltdown, here’s what’s changed USA Today, Kim Hjelmgaard (8/8/17)
Financial crisis: Ten years ago today the tremors started Irish Times (9/8/17)
If We Are Racing to the Pre-Crisis Bubble, Here Are 12 Charts To Watch Bloomberg, Sid Verma (9/8/17)

Videos
The financial crisis ten years ago to the day Euronews (9/8/17)
Ten years later: What really sparked the financial crisis Sky News, Adam Parsons (9/8/17)
Bank of England warns on household debt Channel 4 News, Siobhan Kennedy (25/7/17)

Questions

  1. Explain what are meant by ‘collateralised debt obligations (CDOs)’.
  2. What part did CDOs play in the financial crisis of 2007–8?
  3. In what ways is the current financial situation similar to that in 2007–8?
  4. In what ways is it different?
  5. Explain the Basel III banking regulations.
  6. To what extent has the Bank of England exceeded the minimum Basel III requirements?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘stress testing’ the banks? Does this ensure that there can never be a repeat of the financial crisis?
  8. Why is it desirable for central banks eventually to raise interest rates to a level of around 2–3%? Why might it be difficult for central banks to do that?
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A portent of tighter monetary policy in the UK?

On the 15th June, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee decided to keep Bank Rate on hold at its record low of 0.25%. This was not a surprise – it was what commentators had expected. What was surprising, however, was the split in the MPC. Three of its current eight members voted to raise the rate.

At first sight, raising the rate might seem the obvious thing to do. CPI inflation is currently 2.9% – up from 2.7% in April and well above the target of 2% – and is forecast to go higher later this year. According to the Bank of England’s own forecasts, even at the 24-month horizon inflation is still likely to be a little above the 2% target.

Those who voted for an increase of 0.25 percentage points to 0.5% saw it as modest, signalling only a very gradual return to more ‘normal’ interest rates. However, the five who voted to keep the rate at 0.25% felt that it could dampen demand too much.

The key argument is that inflation is not of the demand-pull variety. Aggregate demand is subdued. Real wages are falling and hence consumer demand is likely to fall too. Thus many firms are cautious about investing, especially given the considerable uncertainties surrounding the nature of Brexit. The prime cause of the rise in inflation is the fall in sterling since the Brexit vote and the effect of higher import costs feeding through into retail prices. In other words, the inflation is of the cost-push variety. In such cirsumstances dampening demand further by raising interest rates would be seen by most economists as the wrong response. As the minutes of the MPC meeting state:

Attempting to offset fully the effect of weaker sterling on inflation would be achievable only at the cost of higher unemployment and, in all likelihood, even weaker income growth. For this reason, the MPC’s remit specifies that, in such exceptional circumstances, the Committee must balance any trade-off between the speed at which it intends to return inflation sustainably to the target and the support that monetary policy provides to jobs and activity.

The MPC recognises that the outlook is uncertain. It states that it stands ready to respond to circumstances as they change. If demand proves to be more resilient that it currently expects, it will raise Bank Rate. If not, it is likely to keep it on hold to continue providing a modest stimulus to the economy. However, it is unlikely to engage in further quantitative easing unless the economic outlook deteriorates markedly.

Articles
The Bank of England is moving closer to killing the most boring chart in UK finance right now Business Insider, Will Martin (16/6/17)
UK inflation hits four-year high of 2.9% Financial Times, Gavin Jackson and Chloe Cornish (13/6/17)
Surprise for markets as trio of Bank of England gurus call for interest rates to rise The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan Tim Wallace (15/6/17)
Bank of England rate setters show worries over rising inflation Financial TImes, Chris Giles (15/6/17)
Three Bank of England policymakers in shock vote for interest rate rise Independent, Ben Chu (15/6/17)
Bank of England edges closer to increasing UK interest rates The Guardian, Katie Allen (15/6/17)
Bank of England doves right to thwart hawks seeking interest rate rise The Guardian, Larry Elliott (15/6/17)
Haldane expects to vote for rate rise this year BBC News (21/6/17)

Bank of England documents
Monetary policy summary Bank of England (15/6/17)
Monetary Policy Summary and minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee meeting ending on 14 June 2017 Bank of England (15/6/17)
Inflation Report, May 2017 Bank of England (11/5/16)

Questions

  1. What is the mechanism whereby a change in Bank Rate affects other interest artes?
  2. Use an aggregate demand and supply diagram to illustrate the difference between demand-pull and cost-push inflation.
  3. If the exchange rate remains at around 10–15% below the level before the Brexit vote, will inflation continue to remain above the Bank of England’s target, or will it reach a peak relatively soon and then fall back? Explain.
  4. For what reason might aggregate demand prove more buoyant that the MPC predicts?
  5. Would a rise in Bank Rate from 0.25% to 0.5% have a significant effect on aggregate demand? What role could expectations play in determining the nature and size of the effect?
  6. Why are real wage rates falling at a time when unemployment is historically very low?
  7. What determines the amount that higher prices paid by importers of products are passed on to consumers?
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Brexit alternatives

With the Conservatives having lost their majority in Parliament in the recent UK election, there is renewed discussion of the form that Brexit might take. EU states are members of the single market and the customs union. A ‘hard Brexit’ involves leaving both and this was the government’s stance prior to the election. But there is now talk of a softer Brexit, which might mean retaining membership of the single market and/or customs union.

The single market
Belonging to the single market means accepting the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. It also involves tariff-free trade within the single market and adopting a common set of rules and regulations over trade, product standards, safety, packaging, etc., with disputes settled by the European Court of Justice. Membership of the single market involves paying budgetary contributions. Norway and Iceland are members of the single market.

The single market brings huge benefits from free trade with no administrative barriers from customs checks and paperwork. But it would probably prove impossible to negotiate remaining in the single market with an opt out on free movement of labour. Controlling immigration from EU countries was a key part of the Leave campaign.

The customs union
This involves all EU countries adopting the same tariffs (customs duties) on imports from outside the EU. These tariffs are negotiated by the European Commission with non-EU countries on a country-by-country basis. Goods imported from outside the EU are charged tariffs in the country of import and can then be sold freely around the EU with no further tariffs.

Remaining a member of the customs union would allow the UK to continue trading freely in the EU, subject to meeting various non-tariff regulations. It would also allow free ‘borderless’ trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, being a member of the customs union would prevent the UK from negotiating separate trade deals with non-EU countries. The ability to negotiate such deals has been argued to be one of the main benefits of leaving the EU.

Free(r) trade area
The UK could negotiate a trade deal with the EU. But it is highly unlikely that such a deal could be in place by March 2019, the date when the UK is scheduled to leave the EU. At that point, trade barriers would be imposed, including between the two parts of the island of Ireland. Such deals are very complex, especially in the area of services, which are the largest category of UK exports. Negotiating tariff-free or reduced-tariff trade is only a small part of the problem; the biggest part involves negotiating product standards, regulations and other non-tariff barriers.

All the above options thus involve serious problems and the government will be pushed from various sides, not least within the Conservative Party, for different degrees of ‘softness’ or ‘hardness’ of Brexit. What is more, the pressure from business for free trade with the EU is likely to grow. Brexit may mean Brexit, but just what form it will take is very unclear.

Articles
Free trade area, single market, customs union – what’s the difference? BBC News, Jonty Bloom (12/6/17)
Brexit: What are the options? BBC News (12/6/17)
After the election, the real test: Brexi The Economist (8/6/17)
May’s Ministers Plot Softer Brexit to Keep UK in Single Market Bloomberg, Tim Ross, Alex Morales and Svenja O’Donnell (11/6/17)
UK’s Hung Parliament Raises Business Hopes for a Softer Brexit Bloomberg, Stephanie Baker and James Paton (12/6/17)
Do not exaggerate the effect the election will have on Brexit Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau (11/6/17)
What is soft Brexit? How could it work as UK negotiates leaving the EU? Independent, May Bulman (12/6/17)
Brexit-lite back on the table as Britain rethinks its options after election The Guardian, Dan Roberts (11/6/17)
Review plan to quit EU Customs Union, urges FTA FoodManufacture.co.uk, James Ridler (12/6/17)
Freight leaders urge government to review decision to leave EU customs union RTM (12/6/17)

Paper
Making Brexit work for British Business: Key Execution Priorities M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 77, Harvard Kennedy School, Peter Sands, Ed Balls, Sebastian Leape and Nyasha Weinberg (June 2017)

Questions

  1. Explain the trading agreement between Norway and the EU.
  2. How does the Norwegian arrangement with the EU differ from the Turkish one?
  3. What are meant by the terms ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’?
  4. How does a customs union differ from a free trade area?
  5. Is it possible to have (a) a customs union without a single market; (b) a single market without a customs union?
  6. To what extent is it in the EU’s interests to negotiate a deal with the UK which lets it maintain access to the customs union without having free movement of labour?
  7. The EU insists that talks about future trading arrangements between the UK and the EU can take place only after sufficient progress has been made on the terms of the ‘divorce’. What elements are included in the divorce terms?
  8. If agreement is not reached by 29 March 2019, what happens and what would be the consequences?
  9. Will a hung parliament, or at least a government supported by the DUP on a confidence and supply basis, make it more or less likely that there will be a hard Brexit?
  10. For what reasons may the EU favour (a) a hard Brexit; (b) a soft Brexit?
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Falling UK real wages – comparison with other OECD countries

In the last blog post, As UK inflation rises, so real wages begin to fall, we showed how the rise in inflation following the Brexit vote is causing real wages in the UK to fall once more, after a few months of modest rises, which were largely due to very low price inflation. But how does this compare with other OECD countries?

In an article by Rui Costa and Stephen Machin from the LSE, the authors show how, from the start of the financial crisis in 2007 to 2015 (the latest year for which figures are available), real hourly wages fell further in the UK than in all the other 27 OECD countries, except Greece (see the chart below, which is Figure 5 from their article). Indeed, only in Greece, the UK and Portugal were real wages lower in 2015 than in 2007.

The authors examine a number of aspects of real wages in the UK, including the rise in self employment, differences by age and sex, and for different percentiles in the income distribution. They also look at how family incomes have suffered less than real wages, thanks to the tax and benefit system.

The authors also look at what the different political parties have been saying about the issues during their election campaigns and what they plan to do to address the problem of falling, or only slowly rising, real wages.

Articles
Real Wages and Living Standards in the UK LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The Return of Falling Real Wages LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, David Blanchflower, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The chart that shows UK workers have had the worst wage performance in the OECD except Greece Independent, Ben Chu (5/6/17)

Data
Earnings and working hours ONS
OECD.Stat OECD
International comparisons of productivity ONS

Questions

  1. Why have real wages fallen more in the UK than in all OECD countries except Greece?
  2. Which groups have seen the biggest fall in real wages? Explain why.
  3. What policies are proposed by the different parties for raising real wages (a) generally; (b) for the poorest workers?
  4. How has UK productivity growth compared with that in other developed countries? What explanations can you offer?
  5. What is the relationship between productivity growth and the growth in real wages?
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