The transition towards clean energy in combination with a shortfall in supply has seen the price of raw uranium, also known as ‘yellowcake’, rise almost 60 per cent in recent weeks. It is now trading at over $50 a pound – a nine-year high. The market has been described as being at a ‘tipping point’. Given the recent boom in the market, the current conditions could tip the balance towards an era of rising uranium prices.
What is uranium?
Uranium is a heavy metal which has been used as a source of concentrated energy for over 60 years. Uranium ore can be mined from underground, milled, and then sold. It is then used in a nuclear reactor for electricity generation. About 10% of the world’s electricity is generated from uranium in nuclear reactors. There are some 445 nuclear reactors operating in 32 countries. It is the most energy-dense and efficient fuel source we have, with just ten uranium pellets able to power the average household for an entire year.
In March 2011, Japan’s most powerful earthquake on record triggered a tsunami, which then caused a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. It forced residents from their homes as radiation leaked from the plant. Since the Fukushima accident, uranium prices had been on a downtrend trend – enough to force several miners to suspend or scale back operations.
However, there has been a 42 per cent increase in the price of the metal in the first nine months of 2021 alone.
Demand for uranium
Since launching in July, a new investment trust, run by Canadian asset manager Sprott, has snapped up about 6m pounds of physical uranium, worth about $240m. This aggressive buying has helped push prices of uranium to more than $40 per pound, up from $30 at the start of the year. In the first part of September alone, prices surged by around 40%, outperforming all other major commodities. In just a few weeks, millions of pounds of supply were scooped up by the Sprott Physical Uranium Trust. This puts pressure on utilities that need to secure supplies of the commodity for electricity generation.
This increased demand is occurring at precisely the same time as countries and companies around the world are committing to net-zero carbon targets. As a result, nuclear power companies are now facing competition for supplies of uranium from financial investors, who are betting on sharply higher prices and demand for the radioactive material used to fuel reactors. This boost in demand is said to be due to uranium being used as a low-carbon energy source, despite the radioactive waste problem that comes with it. Investors are betting that nuclear power will be a key part of the move away from fossil fuels.
Production from world uranium mines has in recent years supplied 90% of the requirements of power utilities for uranium, with the current global mine supply expected to be about 125m pounds for 2021. In addition, there are secondary sources such as commercial and military stockpiles. However, according to the World Nuclear Association, demand for uranium is expected to climb from about 162m pounds this year to 206m pounds in 2030, and to 292m pounds by 2040. This is largely driven by increased power generation in China. China is planning a big increase in its nuclear power capacity over the next decade as the country seeks to cut its emissions.
Supply of uranium
Although uranium is relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, not all uranium deposits are economically recoverable. While some countries have uranium resources that can be mined profitably when prices are low, others do not. Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium and in 2019 produced more uranium than the second, third, and fourth-largest producers combined.
The big issue is that supply to the market is falling significantly. For deliveries that would start in 2022, Kazakh producer, Kazatomprom, is now discussing the possibility of supplying the metal directly to Sprott. However, it also warned of the risk that its mines would not reach their output target for 2021, and it said earlier this year that it would keep its production at reduced levels through 2023. In addition to this, the recent surge in buying is also reducing the inventories that accumulated after the Fukushima accident.
The supply of uranium is set to fall 15 per cent by 2025 and by 50 per cent by 2030. This is mainly due to a lack of investment in new mines. The lack of new uranium mines will mean the price has to move higher. Namibian mines, accounting for 8 per cent of world supply, are approaching the end of their lives. Cameco of Canada, another important source, has shut one large pit because of uneconomic prices. According to BMO Capital, a mine supply deficit since 2019 will continue.
Supply has also been affected by the pandemic. The boom in demand has coincided with historically low prices and pandemic-driven mine disruptions, prompting uranium producers to buy from the spot market to fulfil long-term contracts with consumers. Some of the largest mining operations in Canada and Kazakhstan had to suspend production temporarily due to a shortage of workers.
Adding to the security of supply concerns is the role of commercial and state-owned entities in the uranium market. Uranium is a highly trade-dependent commodity with international trade policies highlighting the disconnect between where uranium is produced and where it is consumed. About 80% of primary production comes from countries that consume little-to-no uranium, and nearly 90% of uranium consumption occurs in countries that have little-to-no primary production. As a result, government-driven trade policies can be particularly disruptive for the uranium market. It is argued that the risk to uranium supply may create a renewed focus on ensuring availability of long-term supply to fuel nuclear reactors.
The role of financial players
Financial players have been accelerating the recent recovery in the price of uranium, with large-scale speculative buying and withholding of supply. But it can be argued that this would not have occurred if there were not a fundamental and substantial shortage.
If investors keep buying uranium, analysts expect utility companies will come under pressure to replace long-term supply agreements before they expire. At the moment, long-term contracts cover 98 per cent of the uranium needed by US utility companies. But that figure drops to 84 per cent next year, and 55 per cent by 2025, according to uranium investment company, Yellow Cake.
As annual supply declines, demand for uranium from producers and financial players increases, and with trade policy potentially restricting access to some markets, it is believed the pounds available in the spot market will not be adequate to satisfy the growing backlog of long-term demand. As a result, companies expect there will be increased competition to secure uranium under long-term contracts on terms that will ensure the availability of reliable primary supply to meet growing demand.
What will the future look like?
Many countries are turning their attention to nuclear power in order to become net-zero economies. Even in Japan, nuclear generation has slowly been returning. It is argued that nuclear power is needed to some degree for the country to achieve its pollution-curbing goals. However, not all nations are re-embracing nuclear. Germany, for example, is set to shut its last reactor next year.
The concern is whether the recent gains in investor demand is enough to underpin the market. It can be argued that even before the recent price rally started, demand for uranium from the investment sector was already growing. However, observers of the market have suggested that just as quickly as uranium skyrocketed, prices may now be hitting the brakes. Producer stocks that got swept up in the frenzy seem to have peaked. In addition, the world’s top uranium miner Kazatomprom has warned that the recent price action was being fuelled by financial investors rather than the utilities that use the radioactive metal as fuel in their reactors. On the other hand, it is argued that this pickup in the spot market will be the catalyst to push more utilities to get involved in term contracting.
Despite the impact of the pandemic on global energy demand, it is now growing again. Gas and other energy shortages are being seen and the price of gas has been rising rapidly. This rise in energy prices plus a focus on carbon-free generation is likely to continue driving demand for nuclear power and hence for uranium. In addition, producers have warned of supply shortages in the long term as investors scoop up physical inventory and new mines are not starting quickly enough. Thus nuclear’s growing role in the clean energy transition, in addition to a supply shortfall, could turn the tide for the uranium industry.
- Using the uranium market as an example, describe the relationship between an increase in demand and the market price.
- Explain whether the supply of uranium would be price elastic or inelastic in (a) the short run; (b) the long run.
- What is the role of speculation in determining the recent movements in the price of uranium and likely future price movements?
- Given your answers to the above questions, draw supply and demand diagrams to illustrate (a) the recent increase in the market price of uranium; (b) the likely price of uranium in five years from now.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a stark effect on countries’ public finances. Governments had to make difficult fiscal choices around spending and taxation to safeguard public health, and the protection of jobs and incomes both in the present and in the future. The fiscal choices were to have historically large effects on the size of public spending and on the size of public borrowing. Here we briefly summarise the magnitude of these effects on public spending, receipts and borrowing in the UK.
The public sector comprises both national government and local or regional government. In financial year 2019/20 public spending in the UK was £886 billion. This would rise to £1.045 trillion in 2020/21. To understand better the magnitude of these figures we can express them as a share of national income (Gross Domestic Product). In 2019/20 public spending was 39.8 per cent of national income. This rose to 52.1 per cent in 2020/21. Meanwhile, public-sector receipts, largely taxation, fell from £829.1 billion in 2019/20 to £796.5 billion in 2020/21, though, because of the fall in national income, the share of receipts in national income rose very slightly from 37.3 to 37.9 per cent of national income.
The chart shows both public spending and public receipts as a share of national income since 1900. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) What this chart shows is the extraordinary impact of the two World Wars on the relative size of public spending. We can also see an uptick in public spending following the global financial crisis and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. The chart also shows that spending is typically larger than receipts meaning that the public sector typically runs a budget deficit. .
If we focus on public spending as a share of national income and its level following the two world wars, we can see that it did not fall back to pre-war levels. This is what Peacock and Wiseman (1961) famously referred to as a displacement effect. They attributed this to, among other things, an increase in the public’s tolerance to pay higher taxation because of the higher taxes levied during the war as well as to a desire for greater public intervention. The latter arose from an inspection effect. This can be thought of as a public consciousness effect, with the war helping to shine a light on a range of economic and social issues, such as health, housing and social security. These two effects, it is argued, reinforced each other, allowing the burden of taxation to rise and, hence, public spending to increase relative to national income.
If we forward to the global financial crisis, we can again see public spending rise as a share of national income. However, this time the ratio did not remain above pre-crisis levels. Rather, the UK government was fearful of unsustainable borrowing levels and the crowding out of private-sector activity by the public sector, with higher interest rates making public debt an attractive proposition for investors. It thus sought to reduce the public-sector deficit by engaging in what became known as ‘austerity’ measures.
If we move forward further to the COVID-19 pandemic, we see an even more significant spike in public spending as a share of national income. It is of course rather early to make predictions about whether the pandemic will have enduring effects on public spending and taxation. Nonetheless the pandemic, in a similar way to the two world wars, has sparked public debates on many economic and social issues. Whilst debates around the funding of health and social care are longstanding, it could be argued that the pandemic has provided the government with the opportunity to introduce the 1.25 percentage point levy from April 2022 on the earned incomes of workers (both employees and the self-employed) and on employers. (See John’s blog Fair care? for a fuller discussion on the tax changes to pay for increased health and social care expenditure).
The extent to which there may be a pandemic displacement effect will depend on the fiscal choices made in the months and years ahead. The key question is how powerful will be the effect of social issues like income and wealth inequality, regional and inter-generational disparities, discrimination, poor infrastructure and educational opportunities in shaping these fiscal choices? Will these considerations carry more weight than the push to consolidate the public finances and tighten the public purse? These fiscal choices will determine the extent of any displacement effect in public spending and taxation.
Alan Peacock and Jack Wiseman, The Growth in Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom, Princeton University Press (1961).
- What do you understand by the term ‘public finances’?
- Why might you wish to express the size of public spending relative to national income rather than simply as an absolute amount?
- Undertake research to identify key pieces of social policy in the UK that were enacted at or around the times of the two World Wars.
- What do you understand by the terms ‘tolerable tax burden’ and ‘inspection effect’?
- Identify those social issues that you think have come into the spotlight as a result of the pandemic. Undertake research on any one of these and write a briefing note exploring the issue and the possible policy choices available to government.
- What is the concept of crowding out? How might it affect fiscal choices?
- How would you explain the distinction between public-sector borrowing and public-sector debt? Why could the former fall and the latter rise at the same time?
Competition authorities across the globe have recently been paying close attention to the activity of large firms in high-tech markets, in particular Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. One estimate suggests that 30 cases have been opened by the authorities since 2010, and a third of these were launched in 2020.
One of the most prominent recent cases in the US courts concerns a complaint made by Epic Games, producer of the popular Fortnite game, against Apple. The background to the case is Apple’s standard practice on its App Store of taking a 30% cut of all paid app and in-app purchases. Therefore, a Fortnite player purchasing $10 worth of in-game currency would result in $7 for Epic and $3 for Apple.
However, in August 2020 Epic decided, contrary to Apple’s terms and conditions, to offer players an alternative way to purchase in-game currency. Gamers would see a choice screen giving them the option to buy currency through the Apple App Store or to buy it directly from Epic. Crucially, purchasing directly from Epic would be cheaper. For example, the same $10 worth of in-game currency on the App Store would cost only $8 if purchased directly from Epic.
It is clear to see why Epic was in favour of direct payments – it earns revenue of $8 instead of $7. However, note that the benefits for gamers are even larger – they save $2 by buying directly. In other words, Epic is passing on 2/3 of the cost saving to consumers.
Apple very quickly responded to Epic’s introduction of the direct purchase alternative by removing Fortnite from the App Store. Epic then filed a complaint with the US District Court.
The Epic v Apple court case
The case concerned Apple restricting game developers’ ability to promote purchasing mechanisms outside the App Store. However, more broadly, it also examined Apple’s complete control of the iOS app market since all apps must be distributed through the Apple App Store. Epic had previously disrupted PC games distribution by launching its own platform with lower fees. The setup of iOS and Apple’s actions against Epic make this an impossible way to reach users.
The Court’s analysis of the Epic v Apple case depended upon several key factors. First, the market definition. To be found to have breached competition law Apple must have a significant share of the market. If the market is defined as that for iOS apps, this is clearly the case. However, if, as Apple argues, it is broader, encompassing the options to play Epic games through web browsers, gaming consoles and PCs, then this is not the case.
Second, even if the market is narrowly defined, Apple argues that its control of the app distribution market is essential to provide user friendly and secure provision of apps. Furthermore, revenue extracted from app producers can enable more investment in the iOS. Without Apple controlling the market, app producers would be able to free-ride on the visibility the App Store provides for their apps.
The US Court announced its ruling on 10 September 2021. The judge decided that the market was broader than just iOS and thus Apple is not considered to be a monopolist. This has been touted as a major success for Apple, as it will allow the company to maintain its control of the app distribution market. However, the Court also ruled that Apple must allow game developers to link and direct users to alternative purchasing methods outside the App Store.
The Court’s decision in the Epic v Apple case closely follows concessions recently made by Apple for so called ‘reader apps’ such as Spotify and Netflix. Following an investigation by the Japanese authorities, these concessions allowed such apps to promote and receive purchases directly from consumers as long as they were made outside the app. These apps could be treated differently, as digital goods are consumed on multiple devices. However, the decision in the Epic case now extends such concessions to gaming apps.
It is unclear whether Apple will appeal the decision in the case Epic brought. If not, Apple stands to lose considerable revenue from its 30% share of in-app purchases. It will be very interesting to see how this ruling affects how Apple runs the App Store. Epic, on the other hand, has already made clear it will appeal the decision, aiming to prevent Apple gaining a share of any payment users make outside the app.
Matt Olczak and Jon Guest
- Why might a firm involved in a competition case, such as Apple, try to convince the authorities to define the relevant market as broadly as possible?
- Using the example of the Epic v Apple case, explain how Apple’s actions could be seen as both exclusionary and exploitative abuses of a dominant position.
For many goods and services, economists argue that relatively unregulated markets often do a pretty good job in delivering desirable outcomes from society’s view point.
However, for these desirable outcomes to occur, certain conditions need to be present. One of these is that all the benefits and costs of consuming and producing the good/service must be experienced/incurred by the buyers and sellers directly involved in the transaction: i.e. there are no externalities. The market can still work effectively if people outside of the transaction are affected (i.e. third parties) but the impact occurs through the price mechanism.
The fast fashion industry
Fast fashion refers to designs and trends that rapidly pass from catwalks and designers to retailers. The clothes sell for low prices and in high quantities. The business model relies on regular purchases and impulse buying. It is particularly popular in the UK where annual clothing consumption per capita is significantly greater than in other European countries – 26.7kg vs 16.7kg in Germany and 14.5kg in Italy. On average, people in the UK have 115 items of clothing. Unsurprisingly, 30 per cent of these garments have not been worn for at least 12 months.
Externalities in fast fashion
There is lots of evidence that the fast fashion market fails to meet the condition of no externalities. Instead, it generates lots of external costs across its whole supply chain that do not affect third parties through the price mechanism. For example:
- Growing cotton requires large amounts of water. Some estimates suggest that on average it takes 10 000 litres of water to cultivate just one kilogram of cotton. As water is a common resource (rival and non-excludable), its use in cotton production can exceed socially desirable levels. This can have serious consequences for both the quantity of drinking and ground water and can lead to previously fertile land being transformed into arid regions that are too dry to support vegetation.
- Growing cotton also uses large amounts of pesticide. Some estimates suggest that 6 per cent of global pesticide production is applied to cotton crops. Extended contact with these chemicals can cause illness and infertility. It also has a negative impact on the long-term productivity of the soil. For example, the chemicals destroy microorganisms, plants and insects and so decrease biodiversity.
- The manufacture of synthetic fibres such as polyester has a smaller negative impact on the use of water and land than the cultivation of a natural fibre such as cotton. However, because it is derived from oil, its manufacture generates more CO2 emissions. One study compared the CO2 emissions from producing the same shirt using polyester and cotton. The former generated 5.5kg whereas the latter produced 2.1kg.
- The waste water from the use of solvents, bleaches and synthetic dyes in the manufacture of textiles/garments often flows untreated into local rivers and water systems. This is especially the case in developing countries. Estimates suggest that this is responsible for between 17 and 20 per cent of industrial global water pollution.
- There are excessive levels of textile waste. This can be split into producer waste and consumer waste. Producer waste consists of 10–15 per cent of the fabric used in the manufacture of garments that ends up on the cutting room floor. It also includes deadstock – unsold and returned garments. For example, Burberry admitted that in 2017 it incinerated £28.6 million of unsold stock. In the same year, UK consumers disposed of 530 000 tonnes of unwanted clothing, shoes, bags and belts. This all went for landfill and incineration.
- Textiles are one of the major sources of microplastic pollution and contribute 35 per cent (190 000 tonnes) of microplastic pollution in the oceans. A 6kg domestic wash can release as many as 700 000 synthetic fibres.
Addressing the externalities
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report on the fashion industry in February 2019. One of its key recommendations was that the tax system should be reformed so that it rewards fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts.
The UK government has tended to focus on the use of plastic rather than textiles. For example, it introduced a charge for single use carrier bags as well as banning the use of microbeads in rinse-off personal products and plastic straws/stirrers.
In April 2022, a new tax is being introduced in the UK on the plastic packaging of finished goods that is either manufactured in the UK or imported from abroad. The rate, set at £200 per metric tonne, will apply to packaging that contains less than 30 per cent of recycled plastic.
One specific proposal made by the Environmental Audit Committee was for the government to consider extending this new tax to textiles that contain less than 50 per cent recycled polyester. A recent study found that just under 50 per cent of clothes for sale on leading online websites were made entirely from new plastics.
The committee also called for the introduction of an extended producer responsibility scheme. This would make textile businesses responsible for the environmental impact of their products: i.e. they would have to contribute towards the cost of collecting, moving, recycling and disposing of their garments. It could involve the payment of an up-front fee, the size of which would depend on the environmental impact of the product.
In its Waste Prevention Programme for England published in March 2021, the government announced plans to consult with stakeholders about the possibility of introducing an ‘extended producer responsibility scheme’ in the textile industry. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is also carrying out a follow-up inquiry to its 2019 report.
Government and Parliament documents and reports
- Using the concepts of rivalry and excludability, define the concept of a common resource.
- Explain the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and how it might apply to the use of water in the cultivation of cotton.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate how negative externalities in consumption and production lead to inefficient levels of output in an unregulated competitive market.
- Using a diagram, explain how imposing a tax on producers of textile products that contain less than 50 per cent recycled polyester could reduce economic inefficiency.
- Explain the potential limitations of using taxation/regulation to address the pollution issues created by the fast fashion sector.
For those of you embarking on a course in economics, one of the first things you’ll come across is the distinction between microeconomics and macroeconomics. The news is full of both microeconomic and macroeconomic issues and you’ll quickly see how relevant both branches of economics are to analysing real-world events, problems and policies.
As we state in Economics (updated 10th edition), ‘microeconomics is concerned with the individual parts of the economy. It is concerned with the demand and supply of particular goods, services and resources such as cars, butter, clothes, haircuts, plumbers, accountants, blast furnaces, computers and oil.’ In particular, it is concerned with the buying, selling, production and employment decisions of individuals and firms. When you go shopping and make choices of what to buy you are making microeconomic decisions. When firms choose how much of particular products to produce, what techniques of production to use and how many people to employ, these choices are microeconomic ones.
Microeconomics examines people’s behaviour when they make choices. In fact many of the recent developments in microeconomics involve analysing the behaviour of individuals and firms and the factors that influence this behaviour.
Open any newspaper, turn on the TV news or access any news site and you will see various microeconomic issues covered. Why are rents soaring? How is AI affecting various businesses’ productivity? How rapidly is the switch taking place to green energy? How do supermarkets influence spending patterns? Why are wages so low in the social care sector? Why are private PCR tests so expensive for holidaymakers retuning from abroad?
Many of the blogs on this news site will examine microeconomic issues. We hope that they provide useful case studies for your course.
- Look through news sites and identify five current microeconomic issues. What makes them ‘micro’ issues?
- If world oil and gas prices rise, why is this a microeconomic issue?
- What do you understand by ‘scarcity’? How is microeconomics related to scarcity?
- Are all goods scarce?
- What is meant by ‘opportunity cost’? Give some examples of how opportunity cost has affected recent decisions you have made.