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Articles for the ‘Economics for Business: Ch 01’ Category

Economic forecasts: are they of any value?

Economic forecasting came in for much criticism at the time of the financial crisis and credit crunch. Few economists had predicted the crisis and its consequences. Even Queen Elizabeth II, on a visit to the London School of Economics in November 2008, asked why economists had got it so wrong. Similar criticisms have emerged since the Brexit vote, with economic forecasters being accused of being excessively pessimistic about the outcome.

The accuracy of economic forecasts was one of the topics discussed by Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England. Speaking at the Institute for Government in London, he compared economic forecasting to weather forecasting (see section from 15’20″ in the webcast):

“Remember that? Michael Fish getting up: ‘There’s no hurricane coming but it will be very windy in Spain.’ Very similar to the sort of reports central banks – naming no names – issued pre-crisis, ‘There is no hurricane coming but it might be very windy in the sub-prime sector.” (18’40″)

The problem with the standard economic models which were used for forecasting is that they were essentially equilibrium models which work reasonably well in ‘normal’ times. But when there is a large shock to the economic system, they work much less well. First, the shocks themselves are hard to predict. For example, the sub-prime crisis in 2007/8 was not foreseen by most economists.

Then there is the effect of the shocks. Large shocks are much harder to model as they can trigger strong reactions by consumers and firms, and governments too. These reactions are often hugely affected by sentiment. Bouts of pessimism or even panic can grip markets, as happened in late 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Markets can tumble way beyond what would be expected by a calm adjustment to a shock.

It can work the other way too. Economists generally predicted that the Brexit vote would lead to a fall in GDP. However, despite a large depreciation of sterling, consumer sentiment held up better than was expected and the economy kept growing.

But is it fair to compare economic forecasting with weather forecasting? Weather forecasting is concerned with natural phenomena and only seeks to forecast with any accuracy a few days ahead. Economic forecasting, if used correctly, highlights the drivers of economic change, such as government policy or the Brexit vote, and their likely consequences, other things being equal. Given that economies are constantly being affected by economic shocks, including government or central bank actions, it is impossible to forecast the state of the macroeconomy with any accuracy.

This does not mean that forecasting is useless, as it can highlight the likely effects of policies and take into account the latest surveys of, say, consumer and business confidence. It can also give the most likely central forecast of the economy and the likely probabilities of variance from this central forecast. This is why many forecasts use ‘fan charts’: see, for example, Bank of England forecasts.

What economic forecasts cannot do is to predict the precise state of the economy in the future. However, they can be refined to take into account more realistic modelling, including the modelling of human behaviour, and more accurate data, including survey data. But, however refined they become, they can only ever give likely values for various economic variables or likely effects of policy measures.

Webcast
Andy Haldane in Conversation Institute for Government (5/1/17)

Articles
‘Michael Fish’ Comments From Andy Haldane Pounced Upon By Brexit Supporters Huffington Post, Chris York (6/1/17)
Crash was economists’ ‘Michael Fish’ moment, says Andy Haldane BBC News (6/1/17)
The Bank’s ‘Michael Fish’ moment BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (6/1/17)
Bank of England’s Haldane admits crisis in economic forecasting Financial Times, Chris Giles (6/1/17)
Chief economist of Bank of England admits errors in Brexit forecasting BBC News, Phillip Inman (5/1/17)
Economists have completely failed us. They’re no better than Mystic Meg The Guardian, Simon Jenkins (6/1/17)
Five things economists can do to regain trust The Guardian, Katie Allen and Phillip Inman (6/1/17)
Andy Haldane: Bank of England has not changed view on negative impact of Brexit Independent, Ben Chu (5/1/17)
Big data could help economists avoid any more embarrassing Michael Fish moments Independent, Hamish McRae (7/1/17)

Questions

  1. In what ways does economic forecasting differ from weather forecasting?
  2. How might economic forecasting be improved?
  3. To what extent were the warnings of the Bank of England made before the Brexit vote justified? Did such warnings take into account actions that the Bank of England was likely to take?
  4. How is the UK economy likely to perform over the coming months? What assumptions are you making here?
  5. Brexit hasn’t happened yet. Why is it extremely difficult to forecast today what the effects of actually leaving the EU will be on the UK economy once it has happened?
  6. If economic forecasting is difficult and often inaccurate, should it be abandoned?
  7. The Bank of England is forecasting that inflation will rise in the coming months. Discuss reasons why this forecast is likely to prove correct and reasons why it may prove incorrect.
  8. How could economic forecasters take the possibility of a Trump victory into account when making forecasts six months ago of the state of the global economy a year or two ahead?
  9. How might the use of big data transform economic forecasting?
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The future of capitalism

Some commentators have seen the victory of Donald Trump and, prior to that, the Brexit vote as symptoms of a crisis in capitalism. Much of the campaigning in the US election, both by Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left focused on the plight of the poor. Whether the blame was put on immigration, big government, international organisations, the banks, cheap imports undercutting jobs or a lack of social protection, the message was clear: capitalism is failing to improve the lot of the majority. A small elite is getting significantly richer while the majority sees little or no gain in their living standards and a rise in uncertainty.

The articles below look at this crisis. They examine the causes, which they agree go back many years as capitalism has evolved. The financial crash of 2008 and the slow recovery since are symptomatic of the underlying changes in capitalism.

The Friedman article focuses on the slowing growth in technological advance and the problem of aging populations. What technological progress there is is not raising incomes generally, but is benefiting a few entrepreneurs and financiers. General rises in income may eventually come, but it may take decades before robotics, biotechnological advances, e-commerce and other breakthrough technologies filter through to higher incomes for everyone. In the meantime, increased competition through globalisation is depressing the incomes of the poor and economically immobile.

All the articles look at the rise of the rich. The difference with the past is that the people who are gaining the most are not doing so from production but from financial dealing or rental income; they have gained while the real economy has stagnated.

The gains to the rich have come from the rise in the value of assets, such as equities (shares) and property, and from the growth in rental incomes. Only a small fraction of finance is used to fund business investment; the majority is used for lending against existing assets, which then inflates their prices and makes their owners richer. In other words, the capitalist system is moving from driving growth in production to driving the inflation of asset prices and rental incomes.

The process whereby financial markets grow and in turn drive up asset prices is known as ‘financialisation’. Not only is the process moving away from funding productive investment and towards speculative activity, it is leading to a growth in ‘short-termism’. The rewards of senior managers often depend on the price of their companies’ shares. This leads to a focus on short-term profit and a neglect of long-term growth and profitability – to a neglect of investment in R&D and physical capital.

The process of financialisation has been driven by deregulation, financial innovation, the growth in international financial flows and, more recently, by quantitative easing and low interest rates. It has led to a growth in private debt which, in turn, creates more financial instability. The finance industry has become so profitable that even manufacturing companies are moving into the business of finance themselves – often finding it more profitable than their core business. As the Foroohar article states, “the biggest unexplored reason for long-term slower growth is that the financial system has stopped serving the real economy and now serves mainly itself.”

So will the election of Donald Trump, and pressure from populism in other countries too, mean that governments will focus more on production, job creation and poverty reduction? Will there be a movement towards fiscal policy to drive infrastructure spending? Will there be a reining in of loose monetary policy and easy credit?

Or will addressing the problem of financialisation and the crisis of capitalism result in the rich continuing to get richer at the expense of the poor, but this time through more conventional channels, such as increased production and monopoly profits and tax cuts for the rich? Trump supporters from among the poor hope the answer is no. Those who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries think the answer will be yes and that the solution to over financialisation requires more, not less, regulation, a rise in minimum wages and fiscal policies aimed specifically at the poor.

Articles
Can Global Capitalism Be Saved? Project Syndicate, Alexander Friedman (11/11/16)
American Capitalism’s Great Crisis Time, Rana Foroohar (12/5/16)
The Corruption of Capitalism by Guy Standing review – work matters less than what you own The Guardian, Katrina Forrester (26/10/16)

Questions

  1. Do you agree that capitalism is in crisis? Explain.
  2. What is meant by financialisation? Why has it grown?
  3. Will the policies espoused by Donald Trump help to address the problems caused by financialisation?
  4. What alternative policies are there to those of Trump for addressing the crisis of capitalism?
  5. Explain Schumpeter’s analysis of creative destruction.
  6. What technological innovations that are currently taking place could eventually benefit the poor as well as the rich?
  7. What disincentives are there for companies investing in R&D and new equipment?
  8. What are the arguments for and against a substantial rise in the minimum wage?
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Evolving capitalism: technology and the rise of the sharing economy

The articles below examine the rise of the sharing economy and how technology might allow it to develop. A sharing economy is where owners of property, equipment, vehicles, tools, etc. rent them out for periods of time, perhaps very short periods. The point about such a system is that the renter deals directly with the property owner – although sometimes initially through an agency. Airbnb and Uber are two examples.

So far the sharing economy has not developed very far. But the development of smart technology will soon make a whole range of short-term renting contracts possible. It will allow the contracts to be enforced without the need for administrators, lawyers, accountants, bankers or the police. Payments will be made electronically and automatically, and penalties, too, could be applied automatically for not abiding by the contract.

One development that will aid this process is a secure electronic way of keeping records and processing payments without the need for a central authority, such as a government, a bank or a company. It involves the use of ‘blockchains‘ (see also). The technology, used in Bitcoin, involves storing data widely across networks, which allows the data to be shared. The data are secure and access is via individuals having a ‘private key’ to parts of the database relevant to them. The database builds in blocks, where each block records a set of transactions. The blocks build over time and are linked to each other in a logical order (i.e. in ‘chains’) to allow tracking back to previous blocks.

Blockchain technology could help the sharing economy to grow substantially. It could significantly cut down the cost of sharing information about possible rental opportunities and demands, and allow minimal-cost secure transactions between owner and renter. As the IBM developerWorks article states:

Rather than use Uber, Airbnb or eBay to connect with other people, blockchain services allow individuals to connect, share, and transact directly, ushering in the real sharing economy. Blockchain is the platform that enables real peer-to-peer transactions and a true ‘sharing economy’.

Article
New technology may soon resurrect the sharing economy in a very radical form The Guardian, Ben Tarnoff (17/10/16)
Blockchain and the sharing economy 2.0 IBM developerWorks, Lawrence Lundy (12/5/16)
2016 is set to become the most interesting year yet in the life story of the sharing economy Nesta, Helen Goulden (Dec 2015)
Blockchain Explained Business Insider, Tina Wadhwa and Dan Bobkoff (16/10/16)
A parliament without a parliamentarian Interfluidity, Steve Randy Waldman (19/6/16)
Blockchain and open innovation: What does the future hold Tech City News, Jamie QIU (17/10/16)
Banks will not adopt blockchain fast Financial Times, Oliver Bussmann (14/10/16)
Blockchain-based IoT project does drone deliveries using Ethereum International Business Times, Ian Allison (14/10/16)

Questions

  1. What do you understand by the ‘sharing economy’?
  2. Give some current examples of the sharing economy? What other goods or services might be suitable for sharing if the technology allowed?
  3. How could blockchain technology be used to cut out the co-ordinating role carried out by companies such as Uber, eBay and Airbnb and make their respective services a pure sharing economy?
  4. Where could blockchain technology be used other than in the sharing economy?
  5. How can blockchain technology not only record property rights but also enforce them?
  6. What are the implications of blockchain technology for employment and unemployment? Explain.
  7. How might attitudes towards using the sharing economy develop over time and why?
  8. Referring to the first article above, what do you think of Toyota’s use of blockchain to punish people who fall behind on their car payments? Explain your thinking.
  9. Would the use of blockchain technology in the sharing economy make markets more competitive? Could it make them perfectly competitive? Explain.
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Transforming capitalism

Short-termism is a problem which has dogged British firms and is part of the explanation of low investment in the UK. Shareholders, many of which are large pension funds and other financial institutions, are more concerned with short-term returns than long-term growth and productivity. Likewise, senior managers’ rewards are often linked to short-term performance rather than the long-term health of the company.

But the stakeholders in companies extend well beyond owners and senior managers. Workers, consumers, suppliers, local residents and the country as a whole are all stakeholders in companies.

So is the current model of capitalism fit for purpose? According to the new May government, workers and consumers should be represented on the boards of major British companies. The Personnel Today article quotes Theresa May as saying:

‘The people who run big businesses are supposed to be accountable to outsiders, to non-executive directors, who are supposed to ask the difficult questions. In practice, they are drawn from the same, narrow social and professional circles as the executive team and – as we have seen time and time again – the scrutiny they provide is just not good enough.

We’re going to change that system – and we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well.’

This model is not new. Many countries, such as France and Germany, have had worker representatives on boards for many years. There the focus is often less on short-term profit maximisation and more on the long-term performance of the company in terms of a range of indicators.

Extending this model to stakeholder groups more generally could see companies taking broader social objectives into account. And the number of companies which put corporate social responsibility high on their agenda could increase significantly.

And this approach can ultimately bring better returns to shareholders. As the first The Conversation article below states:

This is something that research into a ‘Relational Company’ model has found – by putting the interests of all stakeholders at the heart of their decision making, companies can become more competitive, stable and successful. Ultimately, this will generate greater returns for shareholders.

While CSR has become mainstream in terms of the public face of some large corporations, it has tended to be one of the first things to be cut when economic growth weakens. The findings from Business in the Community’s 2016 Corporate Responsibility Index suggest that many firms are considering how corporate responsibility can positively affect profits. However, it remains the case that there are still many firms and consumers that care relatively little about the social or natural environment. Indeed, each year, fewer companies take part in the CR Index. In 2016 there were 43 firms; in 2015, 68 firms; in 2014, 97 firms; in 2013, 126 firms.

In addition to promising to give greater voice to stakeholder groups, Mrs May has also said that she intends to curb executive pay. Shareholders will be given binding powers to block executive remuneration packages. But whether shareholders are best placed to do this questionable. If shareholders’ interests are the short-term returns on their investment, then they may well approve of linking executive remuneration to short-term returns rather than on the long-term health of the company or its role in society more generally.

When leaders come to power, they often make promises that are never fulfilled. Time will tell whether the new government will make radical changes to capitalism in the UK or whether a move to greater stakeholder power will remain merely an aspiration.

Articles
Will Theresa May break from Thatcherism and transform business? The Conversation, Arad Reisberg (19/7/16)
Democratise companies to rein in excessive banker bonuses The Conversation, Prem Sikka (14/3/16)
Theresa May promises worker representatives on boards Personnel Today, Rob Moss (11/7/16)
If Theresa May is serious about inequality she’ll ditch Osbornomics The Guardian, Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs (19/7/16)
Theresa May should beware of imitating the German model Financial Times, Ursula Weidenfeld (12/7/16)

Questions

  1. To what extent is the pursuit of maximum short-term profits in the interests of (a) shareholders; (b) consumers; (c) workers; (d) suppliers; (e) society generally; (f) the environment?
  2. How could British industry be restructured so as to encourage a greater proportion of GDP being devoted to investment?
  3. How would greater flexibility in labour markets affect the perspectives on company performance of worker representatives on boards?
  4. How does worker representation in capitalism work in Germany? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this model? (See the panel in the Personnel Today article and the Financial Times article.)
  5. What do you understand by ‘industrial policy’? How can it be used to increase investment, productivity, growth and the pursuit of broader stakeholder interests?
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Is a competitive market the wrong model for analysing capitalism?

In the following article, Joseph Stiglitz argues that power rather than competition is a better starting point for analysing the working of capitalism. People’s rewards depend less on their marginal product than on their power over labour or capital (or lack of it).

As inequality has widened and concerns about it have grown, the competitive school, viewing individual returns in terms of marginal product, has become increasingly unable to explain how the economy works.

Thus the huge bonuses, often of millions of pounds per year, paid to many CEOs and other senior executives, are more a reflection of their power to set their bonuses, rather than of their contribution to their firms’ profitability. And these excessive rewards are not competed away.

Stiglitz examines how changes in technology and economic structure have led to the increase in power. Firms are more able to erect barriers to entry; network economies give advantages to incumbents; many firms, such as banks, are able to lobby governments to protect their market position; and many governments allow powerful vested interests to remain unchecked in the mistaken belief that market forces will provide the brakes on the accumulation and abuse of power. Monopoly profits persist and there is too little competition to erode them. Inequality deepens.

According to Stiglitz, the rationale for laissez-faire disappears if markets are based on entrenched power and exploitation.

Article
Monopoly’s New Era Chazen Global Insights, Columbia Business School, Joseph Stiglitz (13/5/16)

Questions

  1. What are the barriers to entry that allow rewards for senior executives to grow more rapidly than median wages?
  2. What part have changes in technology played in the increase in inequality?
  3. How are the rewards to senior executives determined?
  4. Provide a critique of Stiglitz’ analysis from the perspective of a proponent of laissez-faire.
  5. If Stiglitz analysis is correct, what policy implications follow from it?
  6. How might markets which are currently dominated by big business be made more competitive?
  7. T0 what extent have the developments outlined by Stiglitz been helped or hindered by globalisation?
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Producing growth without production

In our recent blog constructing growth without production: The UK growth paradox we saw that the provisional estimate of economic growth in the UK in the final quarter of 2015 was 0.5 per cent. This was buoyed by service sector growth of 0.7 per cent. Meanwhile, construction sector output was estimated to have fallen by 0.1 per cent and production in the production industries by 0.2 per cent. The ONS Index of Production released on 11 February suggests the decline in production activity in the final quarter might have been has much as 0.5 per cent further pointing to unbalanced industrial growth.

The production industries today account for about 15 per cent of UK output which is small in comparison to the roughly 79 per cent from service-sector industries. Chart 1 shows the quarterly rate of growth in UK industrial production since the 1980s. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). Over this period the average quarterly rate of growth in industrial output has been a mere 0.1 per cent compared with 0.5 per cent for total economic output and 0.7 per cent for the service sector. As a result, the importance of the production industries as a driver of economic output has declined.

Across 2015 industrial production rose by 1 per cent while the total output of the economy grew by 2.2 per cent. Industrial output comprises four main components. Of these, output from mining and quarrying grew in 2015 by 6.6 per cent, water, sewerage and waste management by 3.1 per cent, electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning by 0.3 per cent, while manufacturing output contracted by 0.2 per cent.

Chart 2 shows the path of industrial output since 2006. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). In particular, it allows us to analyse the effect of the financial crisis and the global economic downturn. Whereas the total output of the economy surpassed its 2008 Q1 peak in 2013 Q2, driven by the service sector, total industrial output in 2015 Q4 remains 9.9 per cent below its 2008 Q1 level. Among its component parts, output in mining and quarrying is 31 per cent lower, electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning output is 12.2 per cent lower and manufacturing 6.5 per cent lower. Only the output of water, sewerage and waste management is greater – some 7.4 per cent higher.

The data point to the industrial composition of UK remaining heavily skewed towards the service sector and, hence, to service-sector industries driving economic growth. A key talking point is the extent to which this matters. On one hand we might point to the deindustrialisation captured by the data. This has had profound implications for certain regions of the United Kingdom and in particular for living standards in certain communities. Industrial change poses challenges for the UK labour force and for policymakers trying to affect the skills of workers needed in a changing economy. It has had a profound impact on the country’s balance of trade in goods: we consistently run a balance of trade deficit in goods. On the other hand we might argue that the UK does services well. We might be said to have a comparative advantage in this area. Whatever, your view point the latest industrial production data show the fragility of UK industrial output.

Data
Index of Production Dataset December 2015 Office for National Statistics
Index of Production, December 2015 Office for National Statistics

Articles
UK industrial production shrank in 2015 Guardian, Phillip Inman (10/2/16)
December UK industrial output falls sharply BBC News, (10/2/16)
Manufacturing output fall dents UK growth hope Sky News, (10/2/16)
Industrial production’s worst monthly fall since 2012 Belfast Trelegraph, Holly Williams (11/2/16)
GDP growth picks up to 0.5% but only the services sector comes to the party Independent, Ben Chu (29/1/16)

Questions

  1. What is meant by industrial production? How does it differ from the economy’s total output?
  2. Would you expect the index of production to be less or more volatile than total output? Explain your answer.
  3. What factors might explain the volatility of industrial production?
  4. Do the different rates of growth across the industrial sectors of the UK matter?
  5. Discuss the economic issues that might arise as the industrial composition of a country changes.
  6. Why is the distinction between nominal and real important when analysing economic growth?
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The risks of fossil fuel investment

Many UK coal mines closed in the 1970s and 80s. Coal extraction was too expensive in the UK to compete with cheap imported coal and many consumers were switching away from coal to cleaner fuels. Today many shale oil producers in the USA are finding that extraction has become unprofitable with oil prices having fallen by some 50% since mid-2014 (see A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2) and The price of oil in 2015 and beyond). So is it a bad idea to invest in fossil fuel production? Could such assets become unusable – what is known as ‘stranded assets‘?

In a speech on 3 March 2015, Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world, delivered at an insurance conference, Paul Fisher, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, warned that a switch to both renewable sources of energy and actions to save energy could hit investors in fossil fuel companies.

‘One live risk right now is of insurers investing in assets that could be left ‘stranded’ by policy changes which limit the use of fossil fuels. As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.

… As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.’

Much of the known reserves of fossil fuels could not be used if climate change targets are to be met. And investment in the search for new reserves would be of little value unless they were very cheap to extract. But will climate change targets be met? That is hard to predict and depends on international political agreements and implementation, combined with technological developments in fields such as clean-burn technologies, carbon capture and renewable energy. The scale of these developments is uncertain. As Paul Fisher said in his speech:

‘Tomorrow’s world inevitably brings change. Some changes can be forecast, or guessed by extrapolating from what we know today. But there are, inevitably, the unknown unknowns which will help shape the future. … As an ex-forecaster I can tell you confidently that the only thing we can be certain of is that there will be changes that no one will predict.’

The following articles look at the speech and at the financial risks of fossil fuel investment. The Guardian article also provides links to some useful resources.

Articles
Bank of England warns of huge financial risk from fossil fuel investments The Guardian, Damian Carrington (3/3/15)
PRA warns insurers on fossil fuel assets Insurance Asset Risk (3/3/15)
Energy trends changing investment dynamics UPI, Daniel J. Graeber (3/3/15)

Speech
Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world Bank of England, Paul Fisher (3/3/15)

Questions

  1. What factors are taken into account by investors in fossil fuel assets?
  2. Why might a power station become a ‘stranded asset’?
  3. How is game theory relevant in understanding the process of climate change negotiations and the outcomes of such negotiations?
  4. What social functions are filled by insurance?
  5. Why does climate change impact on insurers on both sides of their balance sheets?
  6. What is the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)? What is its purpose?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘unknown unknowns’. How do they differ from ‘known unknowns’?
  8. How do the arguments in the article and the speech relate to the controversy about investing in fracking in the UK?
  9. Explain and comment on the statement by World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, that sooner rather than later, financial regulators must address the systemic risk associated with carbon-intensive activities in their economies.
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The labour cost

In the UK, we take it for granted that if you need to see a doctor, you go and give little, if any thought, to the cost. It may be petrol costs, time off work or the cost of a prescription, but beyond that, receiving treatment is free at the point of use. Funded through a progressive tax system, the NHS is seen as being one of the more equitable health care systems.

When a mother gives birth, the main thing she will have to worry about is the labour – and not whether to have certain painkillers or stay an extra night, because of the cost.

The International Federation of Health Plans (IFHP) looked at data on the cost of giving birth, based on insurance company payments. For someone living in the UK, the figures make for quite astonishing reading. In the USA, a normal delivery will cost $10,000, while a caesarean totals $15,000, meaning that giving birth in the USA is the most expensive place in the world. The article linked below takes the case of Mari Roberts, whose total delivery bill came to over $100,000. The insurance did cover it, but that’s not always the case. Medical bills in the United States are one of the leading reasons for bankruptcy and with these types of figures, perhaps it’s hardly surprising.

Other countries also see high costs for delivery, where expectant mothers really do need to give consideration to the length of their stay in hospital and perhaps even whether they are willing to forgo a pain-relieving drug and save some money. There is often said to be an efficiency–equity trade-off in the area of healthcare, with countries offering a free at the point of use service delivering an equitable system, but with a lack of responsiveness to the demands of the patients. In the UK, you don’t pay to see a doctor but, with a ‘free’ service, demand is understandably very high, thus creating a shortage and waiting lists. In countries, such as the USA, a higher price for treatment does limit demand, creating more inequity but a responsive system.

There are certainly lessons that can be learned from all health care systems and living in a developed country, we should certainly consider ourselves lucky. There are many countries where access to even the most basic health care is a luxury that most cannot afford. So, where does have the best health care system? I’ll leave that to you.

Video and article
How much do women around the world pay to give birth? BBC News, Mariko Oi (13/2/15)

Report
Research for Universal Health Coverage, World Health Report 2013 World Health Organisation August 2013
Health Systems Financing: The Path to Universal Coverage, World Health Report 2010 World Health Organisation August 2010

Questions

  1. Using a demand and supply diagram, explain why there may be a trade-off between efficiency and equity.
  2. If there is over-consumption of a service such as health care, does this suggest that the market fails?
  3. What are the main market failures that exist in health care?
  4. Is the concept of opportunity cost relevant to mothers in labour? Think about the country in question.
  5. How would you go about ranking health care systems if you worked for an organisation such as the OECD or WHO?
  6. Pick a country whose health care system you are familiar with. What changes have occurred to the way in which health care is organised and financed in this country? How has it affected the key objectives that formed part of your answer to question 5?
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Getting out the crystal ball

The New Year is a time for reflection and prediction. What will the New Year bring? What does the longer-term future hold? Here are two articles from The Guardian that look into the future.

The first, by Larry Elliott, considers a number of scenarios and policy options. Although not totally doom laden, the article is not exactly cheery in its predictions. Perhaps ‘life will go on’ and the global economy will muddle through. But perhaps a new recession is around the corner or, even worse, the world is at a tipping point when things are fundamentally changing. Unless policy-makers are careful, clever and co-ordinated, perhaps a new dark age may be looming. But who knows?

Which brings us to the second article, by Gaby Hinsliff. This argues that people are pretty hopeless at predicting. “History is littered with supposed dead certs that didn’t happen – Greece leaving the euro, the premature collapse of the coalition – and wholly unimagined events that came to pass.” And economists and financial experts are little better.

Two years ago, The Observer challenged a panel of City investors to pick a portfolio of stocks and rated their performance against that of Orlando, a ginger cat who selected his portfolio by tossing a toy mouse at a sheet of paper. Inevitably, the cat triumphed.

But is this fair? If capital markets are relatively efficient, stock prices today already reflect knowable information about the future, but clearly not unknowable information.

It’s the same with economies. When information is already to hand, such as a pre-announced tax change, then its effects, ceteris paribus, can be estimated – at least roughly.

But it’s the ‘ceteris paribus‘ assumption that’s the problem. Other things are not equal. The world is constantly changing and there are all sorts of unpredictable events that will influence the outcomes of economic policy and of economic decisions more generally. And central to the problem are people’s attitudes and confidence. Mood can swing quite dramatically, from irrational exuberance to deep pessimism. And such mood changes – often triggered by some exogenous factor, such as an international dispute, an election or unexpected economic news – can rapidly gather momentum and have significant effects.

Predicting the long-term future is both easier and more difficult: easier, in that short-term cyclical effects are less relevant; more difficult in that changes that have not yet happened, such as technological changes or changes in working practices, may themselves be key determinants of the future global economy.

One of the most salutary lessons is to look at predictions made in the past about the world today and at just how wrong they have proved to be. Perhaps we need to call on Orlando more frequently.

Why ‘life will go on’ thesis about global economy might not pass muster in 2015 The Guardian, Larry Elliott (28/12/14)
Who knows what the new year holds? Certainly none of us The Guardian, Gaby Hinsliff (26/12/14)

Questions

  1. Give some examples of factors that could have a major influence on the global economy, but which are unpredictable.
  2. Is economic forecasting still worthwhile? Explain.
  3. Look at some macroeconomic forecasts made in the past about the world today. You might want to look at forecasts of agencies such as the IMF, the OECD, the World Bank and the European Commission. You can find links in the Economics Network’s Economic Data freely available online. Explain why such forecasts have differed from the actual outcome.
  4. Why, if capital markets were perfect, might Orlando be just as good as a top investment manager at predicting the future course of share prices?
  5. In what ways is economic forecasting similar to and different from weather forecasting in its methods, its use of data and its reliability?
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Should studying economics come with a health warning!!?

Many of you reading the articles on this website will be just about to start, or will have just started, studying economics at university. For some of you this will involve building on the knowledge you obtained prior to university, whereas for others it will be the first time you have ever studied the subject before. Will studying economics change the way you behave? Should it come with a health warning?

Can studying economics change the way you think and behave? The subject is often sold to prospective students on the grounds that it can. For example it is stated on the Economics Network’s Why Study Economics? website that

The economic way of thinking can help us make better choices

However, is it possible that studying economics could change people’s behaviour in a way that would be to the detriment of society? Some observers have argued that it can. They have suggested that students might be influenced by some of the assumptions that are made in traditional economic theory.

As social scientists, economists are always trying to analyse human behaviour. However, people vary in many different ways and have very diverse preferences. If we want to build a theory that predicts how people will behave and respond in different situations, then some type of simplifying assumptions are inevitable.

Traditionally one of the key simplifying assumptions that economists have used in their theories of human behaviour is that people make decisions in their own self-interest. There is some debate about exactly what self-interest means. For example it could be argued that giving £10 to charity is acting in your own self-interest if it gives you more pleasure than spending that £10 on yourself. However, in many of the economic theories that you first study in economics a narrow meaning of self-interest tends to be used. This is clearly illustrated by the following quote from Milgrom and Roberts. Referring to economic theory they state that:

It is often assumed that people behave as if they were entirely motivated by narrow, selfish concerns

It is important to make it clear that economists are not assuming that people behave in a selfish manner all of the time. Instead, they are assuming that the people in their theories are acting in a selfish manner. The value of making this assumption is whether the predictions about human behaviour that follow from using it are supported by evidence from the real world.

Some researchers have argued that when people study economic theory built on this assumption it makes them more likely to behave in a selfish way. The evidence for this comes from a range of research papers. Here are some findings:

Economics students were more likely than those studying other subjects to recommend the most expensive plumber to a student society if that plumber offered the student a side payment.

Students took part in an experiment in a computer room where they could either keep the money they had been given or donate it to a public good. On average the economics students kept more of the money.

Economics professors gave less money to charity than professors of other subjects such as psychology and sociology.

Some studies also found that selfish people were more likely to choose economics as a subject to study and became more selfish after they had studied it for some time.

If you are about to begin your study of economics then perhaps you should take care that your behaviour outside the classroom is not being unduly influenced by some of the assumptions you are learning about inside the classroom. On a more practical note perhaps you should avoid sharing a restaurant bill or buying rounds of drinks when in the company of other economists!!!

However on a brighter note, the evidence in these papers can be interpreted in a number of different ways. There are even some studies that found economics students were less selfish than those on other courses.

Re-Post: Does Studying Economics Make You Selfish? The Splintered Mind (21/11/12)
Does studying economics make you more selfish? BBC (22/10/13)
Does Studying Economics Breed Greed? Huffington Post (22/10/13)
The Dismal Education The New York Times (16/12/11)
Does Economics Make You a Bad Person? Conversable Economist (31/3/14)
Economists aren’t all bad FT Magazine (11/4/14)

Questions

  1. What is an economic model? Why is it necessary to make simplifying assumptions?
  2. How are economic models judged? How important is it for the assumptions to accurately describe the real world?
  3. Try to find some jokes that have been made about the use of assumptions in economic theory.
  4. Can you think of any alternative explanations for the results found in the research papers referred to in the case?
  5. Try to find a research paper that finds evidence that economics students are less selfish than other students.
  6. What is a public good? Explain why someone with selfish preferences would not contribute to the public good.
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