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Articles for the ‘Essentials of Economics 6e: Ch 11’ Category

A remnant of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe

In the late 2000s, Zimbabwe experienced hyperinflation. As a post on this site in January 2009 said, two estimates of the inflation rate were made: one of 5 sextillion per cent (5 and 21 zeros); the other of 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion per cent (65 and 107 zeros). In January 2009, in a last attempt to save the Zimbabwean currency, a new series of banknotes was issued, including a Z$100 trillion note.

Prices were typically being adjusted at least twice a day and people had to carry large bags of money around even to buy a couple of simple items. The currency was virtually worthless. As the Guardian article below states:

Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe left pensions, wages and investments worthless and spread poverty as everyday items became unaffordable. It also caused severe cash shortages, because the government could not afford to print bank notes to keep pace with inflation.

The solution was to allow other currencies, mainly the US dollar and the South African rand, to be used alongside the local currency. Although the Zimbabwean currency was still legal tender, it effectively went out of use. Prices stabilised and since then inflation has been in single figures.

But many people still have stocks of the virtually worthless old currency, either in cash or in savings accounts. The Zimbabwean government has now said that it will exchange Zimbabwean dollar notes for US dollars at the rate of US$1 = Z$250tn (250,000,000,000). People have until September to do so. Up to now, they have mainly been used to sell as souvenirs to tourists! For people with Zimbabwean dollars in their bank accounts, they will get a minimum of US$5. For amounts beyond Z$175,000tn they will get an additional US dollar for each Z$35,000tn.

Historical examples of hyperinflation
As case study 15.5 in Economics 9e’s MyEconLab points out, several countries experienced hyperinflation after the First World War. In Austria and Hungary prices were several thousand times their pre-war level. In Poland they were over 2 million times higher, and in the USSR several billion times higher.

Germany in the 1920s
But even these staggering rates of inflation seem insignificant beside those of Germany. Following the chaos of the war, the German government resorted to printing money, not only to meet its domestic spending requirements in rebuilding a war-ravaged economy, but also to finance the crippling war reparations imposed on it by the allies in the Treaty of Versailles.

From mid 1921 the rate of monetary increase soared and inflation soared with it. By autumn 1923 the annual rate of inflation had reached a mind-boggling 7,000,000,000,000 per cent! As price increases accelerated, people became reluctant to accept money: before they knew it, the money would be worthless. People thus rushed to spend their money as quickly as possible. But this in turn further drove up prices. (The note shown above is in old billions, where a billion was a million million. So the note was for 50,000,000,000,000 marks.)

For many Germans the effect was devastating. People’s life savings were wiped out. Others whose wages were not quickly adjusted found their real incomes plummeting. Many were thrown out of work as businesses, especially those with money assets, went bankrupt. Poverty and destitution were widespread.

By the end of 1923 the German currency was literally worthless. In 1924, therefore, it was replaced by a new currency – one whose supply was kept tightly controlled by the government.

Serbia and Montenegro 1993–5
After the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1992, the economy of the remaining part of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) collapsed. The government relied more and more on printing money to finance public expenditure. Prices soared.

The government attempted to control the inflation by imposing price controls. But these simply made production unprofitable and output fell further. The economy nosedived. Unemployment exceeded 30 per cent.

In October 1993, the government created a new currency, the new dinar, worth one million old dinars. In other words, six zeros were knocked off the currency. But this did not solve the problem. Between October 1993 and January 1994, prices rose by 5 quadrillion per cent (5 and fifteen zeros). Normal life could not function. Shops ran out of produce; savings were wiped out; barter replaced normal market activity.

At the beginning of January 1994 a ‘new new dinar’ was introduced, worth 1 billion new dinars. On 24 January this was replaced by a ‘novi dinar’ pegged 1 to 1 against the Deutsche Mark. This was worth approximately 13 million new new dinars. The novi dinar remained pegged to the Deutsche Mark and inflation was quickly eliminated.

Zimbabweans get chance to swap ‘quadrillions’ for a few US dollars The Guardian (13/6/15)
175 Quadrillion Zimbabwean Dollars Are Now Worth $5 Bloomberg, Godfrey Marawanyika and Paul Wallace (11/6/15)
Zimbabwe is paying people $5 for 175 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (12/6/15)
Zimbabwe dollars phased out BBC News Africa (12/6/15)
Zimbabwe ditches its all but worthless currency Financial Times (12/6/15)
Zeroing in Thomson Reuters, Breaking News, Edward Hadas (12/6/15)

Old articles
Could inflation fell Mugabe? BBC News (28/7/08)
ZIMBABWE: Inflation at 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent IRIN (21/1/09)
The Worst Episode of Hyperinflation in History: Yugoslavia 1993-94 Roger Sherman Society, Thayer Watkins (31/7/08)

Questions

  1. Why have several governments in the past been prepared to allow hyperinflation to develop?
  2. Itemise the types of cost imposed on people by hyperinflation.
  3. Does anyone gain from hyperinflation?
  4. What are the solutions to hyperinflation?
  5. What difficulties are there in eliminating hyperinflation? What costs are imposed on people in the process?
  6. Why might the causes of hyperinflation be described as always political?
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Eurozone: positive inflation

The eurozone has been suffering from deflation: that is, negative inflation. But, the latest data show an increase in the rate of inflation in April from 0% to 0.3%. This is still a very low rate, with a return to deflation remaining a possibility (though perhaps unlikely); but certainly an improvement.

The eurozone economy has been stagnant for some time but the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) finally appear to be working. Prices across the eurozone have risen, including services up by 1.3%, food and drink up by 1.2% and energy prices, albeit still falling, but at a slower rate. All of this has helped to push the annual inflation rate above 0%. For many, this increase was bigger than expected. Howard Archer, Chief European Economist at HIS Global Insight said:

“Renewed dips into deflation for the eurozone are looking increasingly unlikely with the risks diluted by a firming in oil prices from their January lows, the weakness of the euro and improved eurozone economic activity.”

Economic policy in the eurozone has focused on stimulating the economy, with interest rates remaining low and a €1.1 trillion bond-buying programme by the ECB. But, why is deflation such a concern? We know that one of the main macroeconomic objectives of a nation is low and stable inflation. If prices are low (or even falling) is it really as bad as economists and policy-makers suggest?

The problem of deflation occurs when people expect prices to continue falling and thus delay spending on durables, hoping to get the products cheaper later on. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. This decision by consumers to put off spending will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment and adding to problems of economic stagnation. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. In the eurozone, this has been a key problem, but it now appears that aggregate demand has stopped falling and is now slowly recovering, together with the economy.

It is important to note how interdependent all aspects of an economy are. The euro responded as news of better inflation data emerged, together with expectations of a Greek deal being reached. Enrique Diaz-Alvarez, chief risk officer at Ebury said:

“The move [rise in euro] got going with the big upside surprise in eurozone inflation data — especially core inflation, which bounced up from 0.6 per cent to 0.9 per cent. This is exactly what the ECB wants to see, as it is proof that QE is having the desired effect and removes the threat of deflation in the eurozone from the foreseeable future.”

One of the key factors that has kept inflation down in the eurozone (and also the UK) is falling oil prices. It is for this reason that many have been suggesting that this type of deflation is not bad deflation. With oil prices recovering, the general price level will also recover and so economies will follow suit. The following articles consider the fortunes of the eurozone.

Eurozone inflation shouldn’t shift ECB’s QE focus Wall Street Journal, Richard Barley (2/6/15)
Eurozone deflation threat recedes Financial Times, Claire Jones (2/6/15)
Eurozone inflation rate rises to 0.3% in May BBC News (2/6/15)
Eurozone back to inflation as May prices beat forecast Reuters, Jan Strupczewski (2/6/15)
Boost for ECB as Eurozone prices turn positive in May Guardian, Phillip Inman (2/6/15)
Eurozone inflation higher than expected due to quantitative easing International Business Times, Bauke Schram (2/6/15)
Euro lifted by Greek deal hopes and firmer inflation data Financial Times, Roger Blitz and Michael Hunter (2/6/15)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between the 0.3% and 0.9% figures quoted for inflation in the eurozone?
  2. What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
  3. Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
  4. How has the ECB’s QE policy helped to tackle the problem of deflation? Do you think that this programme needs to continue or now the economy has begun to improve, should the programme end?
  5. To what extent is the economic stagnation in the eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and USA? Explain your answer.
  6. Why has the euro risen, following news of this positive inflation data?
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Negative inflation or deflation? What’s the UK experiencing?

The CPI index fell by 0.1% in the 12 months to April 2015. This is partly the result of lower air and sea fares, as the upward ‘blip’ in these fares at Easter last year was not present in mid-April this year as Easter fell outside the period when the statistics are collected. What is more significant is that fuel, commodity and retail food prices have fallen over the past 12 months, and the exchange rate has risen, especially against the euro.

But how do we define what’s happened and how significant is it? It might seem highly significant as it’s the first time in 55 years that the CPI has fallen over a 12-month period. In fact, the effect is likely to be temporary, as fuel prices are now rising again and commodity prices generally are beginning to rise too. What is more, the pound seems to have peaked against the euro. Thus although aggregate demand remains relatively dampened, the main causes of falling prices and potential rises in the coming months are largely to be found on the cost side. This then brings us on to the definition of a falling CPI.

A falling CPI over a 12-month period can be defined as negative inflation. This is unambiguous. But is this ‘deflation’? The problem with the term ‘deflation’ is that it is ambiguous. On the one hand it can be defined simply as negative inflation. In that case, by definition, the UK has experienced deflation. But on the other, it is used to describe a situation of persistent falling prices as a result of declining aggregate demand.

If an economy suffers from deflation in this second sense, the problem can be very serious. Persistent falling prices are likely to discourage consumers from spending on durables (such as fridges, TVs, cars and furniture) and firms from buying capital equipment. After all, why buy an item now if, by waiting, you can get it cheaper later on? This mentality of waiting to spend leads to falling aggregate demand and hence falling output. It also leads to even lower prices. In other words deflation can get worse: a deflationary spiral.

If we define deflation in this second, much more serious sense, then the UK is not suffering deflation – merely temporary negative inflation. In fact, with prices now falling (slightly) and wages rising at around 2% per year, there should be an increase in aggregate demand, which will help to drive the recovery.

Videos
Should Britain Panic Over Negative Inflation? Sky News, Ed Conway (20/5/15)
UK inflation negative for first time since 1960; BoE says temporary Reuters, Andy Bruce and William Schomberg (19/5/15)
UK inflation negative for the first time since 1960 CNBC, Dhara Ranasinghe (19/5/15)

Articles
UK inflation rate turns negative BBC News (19/5/15)
Why there’s little to fear as the spectre of deflation descends on UK The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (19/5/15)
UK inflation turns negative The Guardian, Katie Allen (19/5/15)
Is the UK in the early stages of deflation? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (19/5/15)
Is the UK in deflation or negative inflation? Q&A The Guardian, Katie Allen and Patrick Collinson (19/5/15)
Market View: Economists unconcerned on temporary deflation FT Adviser, Peter Walker (19/5/15)

Questions

  1. Is negative inflation ever a ‘bad thing’?
  2. Explain the movement in UK inflation rates over the past five years.
  3. How do changes in exchange rates impact on (a) inflation; (b) aggregate demand? Does it depend on what caused the changes in exchange rates in the first place?
  4. Why is the current period of negative inflation likely to be short-lived?
  5. Would you describe the negative inflation as negative cost-push inflation?
  6. What factors could change that might make negative inflation more persistent and raise the spectre of deflation (in its bad sense)?
  7. If inflation remains persistently below 2%, what can the Bank of England do, given current interest rates, to bring inflation back to the 2% target?
  8. What is meant by ‘core inflation’ and what has been happening to it in recent months?
  9. What global factors are likely to have (a) an upward; (b) a downward effect on UK inflation?
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Insolvencies down – lessons learned?

Insolvencies in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest level since 2005, official records show. The Insolvency Service indicates that bankruptcy, individual voluntary arrangements and debt relief orders have fallen, with the largest and worst form of bankruptcy falling by 22.5 per cent compared to the same period in 2014. There has also been a fall in corporate insolvencies back to pre-crisis levels.

The British economy is recovering and despite an increase in consumer borrowing of £1.2 billion from February to March, which is the biggest since the onset of the credit crunch, the number of people in financial difficulty and living beyond their means has fallen. However, there are also suggestions that the number could begin to creep up in the future and we are still seeing a divide between the north and south of England in terms of the number of insolvencies.

There are many factors that could explain such a decline in insolvencies. Perhaps it is the growth in wages, in part due the recovery of the economy, which has enabled more people to forgo borrowing or enabled them to repay any loan more comfortably. Lower inflation has helped to reduce the cost of living, thereby increasing the available income to repay any loans. Interest rates have also remained low, thus cutting the cost of borrowing and the repayments due.

But, another factor may simply be that lending is now more closely regulated. Prior to the financial crisis, huge amounts of money were being lent out, often to those who had no chance of making the repayments. More stringent affordability checks by lenders may have a large part to play in reducing the number of insolvencies. President of R3, the insolvency practitioner body, Phillip Sykes said:

“It may be too early to draw conclusions but demand could be falling as a result of low interest rates, low inflation and tighter regulation. This trend is worth watching.”

Mark Sands, from Baker Tilly added to this, noting that fewer people were now in financial difficulty.

“As well as this, we are seeing lower levels of personal debt and fewer people borrowing outside of their means due to more stringent affordability checks by creditors.”

Whatever the main reason behind the data, it is certainly a positive indicator, perhaps of economic recovery, or that at least some have learned the lessons of the financial crisis. The following articles consider this topic.

Personal insolvencies fall to 10-year low Financial Times, James Pickford (1/5/15)
Personal insolvencies at lowest level since 2005 BBC News (29/4/15)
Personal insolvencies drop to lowest level in a decade The Guardian, Press Association (29/4/15)
Corporate insolvencies at lowest level since 2007 The Telegraph, Elizabeth Anderson (30/4/15)
Interview: R3 President Phillip Sykes Accountancy Age, Richard Crump (1/5/15)
North-South gap widens in personal insolvencies Independent, Ben Chu (27/4/15)
Insolvency rates show ‘stark’ north-south divide Financial Times, James Pickford (27/4/15)

Questions

  1. What is meant by insolvency?
  2. There are many factors that might explain why the number of insolvencies has fallen. Explain the economic theory behind a lower inflation rate and why this might have contributed to fewer insolvencies.
  3. How might lower interest rates affect both the number of personal and corporate insolvencies?
  4. Why has there been a growth in the north-south divide in terms of the number of insolvencies?
  5. Do you think this data does suggest that lessons have been learned from the Credit Crunch?
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Fuelling the absence of inflation

The latest inflation figures, as detailed in February’s Consumer Price Inflation Statistical Bulletin, show that the annual rate of CPI inflation hit zero in February. This is down from 0.3 per cent in January. While inflation is now well outside the 1-3 per cent target range that the Bank of England is charged with meeting, perhaps a more pertinent question is whether the UK is teetering on the brink of deflation – and the risks that may carry.

To get a better sense of the latest inflation picture we need to delve deeper into the numbers and look at the patterns in the prices that make up the overall Consumer Price Index. Interestingly, these shows that five of the 12 principal product groups that make up the index are currently experiencing price deflation.

As explained in Consumer Price Inflation: The 2015 Basket of Goods and Services, produced by the ONS, around 180,000 prices quotations are collected each month for around 700 representative items. These goods and services fall into one of 12 broad product groups. These include, for example, food and non-alcoholic beverages and transport.

The items included in each of the 12 product groups are reviewed once a year so that the chosen items remain representative of today’s spending patterns. A monthly price index is calculated for these 12 broad groupings, known as divisions, and for sub-categories of these. For example meat is a category within food and non-alcoholic beverages. The overall CPI is a weighted average of the 12 broad groupings.

The annual rate of CPI inflation in February 2015 was zero. This means that the price of the representative basket of goods and services was unchanged from its level in February 2014. As Chart 1 shows (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart), the annual rate of CPI inflation series goes back to January 1989 and this is the first time it has fallen to zero. Its average over this period is in fact 2.7 per cent. The recent fall is quite stark with the rate of CPI inflation in June 2013 close to the top-end of the Bank of England’s target range at 2.9 per cent.

Of the 12 product groups, five constitute 10 per cent or more of the overall weight of the CPI index. These weights are dependent on the relative level of expenditure comprised by each division.

Chart 2 shows the annual rates of inflation for these five groups (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). The most heavily-weighted component is transport (14.9%), which includes the price of fuel and passenger transport. Here we observe deflation with prices 2.7 per cent lower year-on-year in February. This is the fourth consecutive month where its annual rate of price inflation has been negative.

The second most heavily-weighted component within the CPI index is recreation and culture (14.7%), which includes games, toys and audio-visual equipment. Here too we see the emergence of deflation. In February 2015 prices were 0.8 per cent lower than in February 2014. Deflation is most prevalent in the fifth most heavily-weighted component (11.0%): food and non-alcoholic drinks. The price for this division of the CPI was 3.3 per cent lower in February 2015 as compared with February 2014. In nine of the last ten months the price of food and non-alcoholic drinks, helped by aggressive price competition in the grocery sector, has been lower year-on-year.

February also saw a negative annual rate of inflation emerge for the first time in the CPI division capturing furniture and household equipment and appliances (-0.3 per cent). Further, miscellaneous services, which include personal care and personal effects (e.g. jewellery) saw an annual rate of deflation for the eight consecutive month. The annual rate of inflation for miscellaneous services stood at -0.4 per cent in February. However, February did see an upturn in price inflation for clothing and footwear with prices 1.7 per cent higher than a year earlier while the price of alcohol and tobacco was 3.8 per cent higher year-on-year.

The detailed inflation numbers do reveal the extent to which many CPI divisions are already characterised by deflation. It is interesting to note that in A Comparison of Independent Forecasts published monthly by HM Treasury, the forecast for the final quarter of 2015 is for the annual rate of CPI inflation to be running at 0.8 per cent. An important reason for this is that the effect of falling fuel prices from November 2014 will begin to drop out of the year-on-year inflation rate calculations. The removal of this effect should help to prevent the specter of deflation provided that peoples’ inflationary expectations remain anchored, i.e. exhibit stickiness. If these were to be revised down, however, this would further contribute to downward pressure on prices since input price inflation – including wage inflation – would again be expected to fall.

Articles
U.K. on Brink of Falling Prices as Inflation Rate Drops to Zero Bloomberg, Tom Beardsworth (24/3/15)
UK inflation rate falls to zero in February BBC News (24/3/15)
Britain sees no inflation in February for first time on record Reuters, David Milliken and Andy Bruce (24/3/15)
Inflation hits a record zero boosting household incomes Independent, Clare Hutchinson (24/3/15)
Inflation Hits 0% As Food Costs Fall Further Sky News (24/3/15)
Inflation falls to zero in February as Britain heads to deflation Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (24/3/15)
UK inflation hits zero for the first time on record Guardian, Angela Monaghan (24/3/15)

Data
Consumer Price Inflation, February 2015 Office for National Statistics
Consumer Price Indices, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics

Questions

  1. Explain the difference between a decrease in the level of prices and a decrease in the rate of price inflation. Can the rate of price inflation rise even if price levels are falling? Explain your answer
  2. Explain what is meant by deflation.
  3. In what ways might deflation affect the behaviour of people? What effect could this have on the macroeconomy?
  4. Why do you think policy-makers, such as the Monetary Policy Committee, would be interested in the inflation rates within the overall CPI inflation rate?
  5. What factors do you think lie behind the fall in the transport component of the CPI?
  6. Explain why the rate of inflation would be expected to rise in the late autumn, a year on from when the transport component of the CPI began falling.
  7. Does the possibility of deflation mean that inflation rate targeting has failed?
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Your basket: ins and outs

The rate of inflation in the UK is measured using the Consumer Prices Index (CPI). This is made up of a basket of goods and the ONS updates this ‘basket’ each year to ensure it is representative of what the average UK household buys. The basket contains 703 items, with 110,000 individual prices collected each month.

In past years, items such as lip gloss have been added to the basket of goods, together with tablet computers and teenage fiction. In the recent update by the ONS, e-cigarettes have been added, together with specialist ‘craft’ beers and music streaming. On the other hand, other items have been removed, as the world changes. For example, during the recession, champagne was removed as an item that the representative household was no longer buying. In other cases, items are removed as they become outdated or obsolete with technology changing. This is the case with satellite navigation systems. As people turn to using their smartphones to navigate their way from A to B, satellite navigation systems are no longer seen as an item bought by the representative household.

The UK inflation rate is at an all-time low of 0.3% and there have been concerns that it may become negative, meaning we enter the world of deflation. However, if this does occur, many suggest that it is not bad deflation, as it is being driven by the extremely low oil prices. No matter what the inflation rate, the ONS will always continue to update the basket of goods that calculates inflation. It is therefore essential that these changes are made each year, as consumer buying habits do fluctuate considerably, as income changes, technology changes and general tastes change. The following articles consider what’s in and what’s out.

From craft beer to e-cigarettes, inflation basket reflects Britain’s changing shopping habits The Guardian, Katie Allen (17/3/15)
Inflation-measuring basket of goods adds protein powder, e-cigarettes The Grocer, Andrew Don (17/3/15)
E-cigareets and craft beers in updated inflation basket BBC News (17/3/15)
E-cigs added to inflation basket Mail Online (17/3/15)
Craft beer, e-cigarettes and protein shakes dded to price basket used to calculate inflation Independent, Hazel Sheffield (17/3/15)
U.K. hipsters and gym junkies win approval in new price basket Bloomberg, Tom Beardsworth (17/3/15)
Spotify in and sat navs out: take a look at the new inflation basket The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (17/3/15)
E-cigarettes, craft beer and Spotify enter UK inflation basket Reuters, Toby Melville (17/3/15)
Craft beer and e-cigarettes added to CPI basket Financial Times (17/3/15)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between the CPI and RPI? Which is usually higher? Explain your answer.
  2. Explain why champagne was removed from the basket of goods during the recession. What is sensible?
  3. How is the CPI calculated and hence how is inflation measured?
  4. Why has there been a movement towards chilled pizzas and away from frozen pizzas? Is the change likely to affect their relative price? Use a diagram to support your answer.
  5. What impact has technological progress had on the basket of goods that the representative household purchases? Do you think that technological progress make it more or less important for the basket of goods to be reviewed annually?
  6. Do you think products such as the iPad and e-cigarettes should be included in the CPI? Are they truly representative?
  7. In the BBC News article, you can access a list of the products that are ‘in and out’. Is there anything on there that you think should be in or that should be out? Be sure to justify your answer!
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Russia’s economic challenges: Good or bad for business?

Many important economic changes have occurred over the past two years and many have occurred in the past two months. Almost all economic events create winners and losers and that is no different for the Russian economy and the Russian population.

There is an interesting article plus videos on the BBC News website (see link below), which consider some of the economic events that, directly or indirectly, have had an impact on Russia: the fall in oil prices; the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine; the fall in the value of the rouble (see chart); the sanctions imposed by the West.

Clearly there are some very large links between events, but an interesting question concerns the impact they have had on the everyday Russian consumer and business. Economic growth in Russia has been adversely affected and estimates suggest that the economy will shrink further over the coming year. Oil and gas prices have declined significantly and while this is good news for many consumers across the world, it brings much sadder tidings for an economy, such as Russia, that is so dependent on oil exports.

However, is there a bright side to the sanctions or the falling currency? The BBC News article considers the winners and losers in Russia, including families struggling to feed their families following spending cuts and businesses benefiting from less competition.

Russia’s economic turmoil: nightmare or opportunity? BBC News, Olga Ivshina and Oleg Bodyrev (5/2/15)

Questions

  1. Why has the rouble fallen in value? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate this.
  2. What does a cheap rouble mean for exporters and importers within Russia and within countries such as the UK or US?
  3. One of the businesses described in the article explain how the sanctions have helped. What is the explanation and can the effects be seen as being in the consumer’s interest?
  4. Oil prices have fallen significantly over the past few months. Why is this so detrimental to Russia?
  5. What is the link between the exchange rate and inflation?
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A crude indicator of the economy (Part 1)

Oil prices have been plummeting in recent months. Indeed, many commentators are saying that this is the major economics news story of 2014. In June 2014 Brent crude was around $112 per barrel. By December the price has fallen to around $60 – a fall of 46%. But what are the implications for fuel prices?

Just because the crude oil price has fallen by 46%, this does not mean that prices at the pump should do the same. Oil is priced in dollars and the pound has depreciated against the dollar by just over 7% since June, from around £1 = $1.69 to around £1 = $1.57. Thus in sterling terms, crude oil has fallen by only 42%.

More significantly, the cost of crude is a relatively small percentage of the price of a litre of petrol. At a price of 132p per litre (the July average price), crude accounted for around 27% of the price, or around 36p per litre. At a price of 114p per litre, the price in late December, crude accounts for around 19% of the price, or around 21.5p per litre. The largest element of price is fuel duty, which is charged at a flat rate of 57.95p per litre. In addition there is VAT at 20% of the pre-VAT price (or 16.67% of the retail price). Finally there are the refining, distribution and retail costs and margins, but these together account for only around 16p per litre.

What this means is that the 46% cut in oil prices has led to a cut in petrol prices of only around 14%. If petrol prices were to reach £1 per litre, as some commentators have forecast, crude oil prices would have to fall to under $40 per barrel.

Although petrol and diesel prices have fallen by a smaller percentage than oil prices, this still represents a significant cut in motoring and transport costs. It also represents a significant cut in costs for the petrochemical industry and other industries using large amounts of oil.

For oil-importing countries this is good news as the fall in the oil price represents an increase in real incomes. For oil importing countries, and especially those such as Russia and some OPEC countries where oil constitutes a large proportion of their exports, it is bad news. We explore these effects in Part 2.

Videos
UK petrol prices hit four-year low BBC News, John Moyland (10/12/14)
Petrol prices plunge ahead of Christmas holidays Belfast Telegraph (19/12/14)
Petrol price plummet – could fuel drop to below a pound a litre in the New Year? Channel 5 News on YouTube (17/12/14)

Articles
UK motorists benefit from petrol price drop Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (23/12/14)
Petrol to drop to £1 a litre, says Goldman Sachs The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (9/12/14)
Oil prices: How low will they go in 2015? International Business Times, Shane Croucher (22/12/14)
Plummeting oil price may lead to petrol falling below £1 a litre RAC news (17/12/14)
Pump Prices: Cheap Petrol Comes With A Warning Sky News (19/12/14)

Data and information
Fuel prices in Europe Drive Alive (20/12/14)
Weekly road fuel prices Department of Energy & Climate Change (23/12/14)
Prices at the pump – why are they falling and will this continue? ONS (18/12/14)
Fuel Prices Explained RAC
UKPIA Statistical Review 2014 United Kingdom Petroleum Industry Association

Questions

  1. Why does the price of petrol fluctuate less in percentage terms than the price of crude oil?
  2. What factors will affect whether UK petrol prices fall to £1 per litre?
  3. If crude oil prices fell by 20%, in which of these two cases would there be a bigger percentage fall in petrol prices: (a) petrol price currently 140p; (b) petrol price currently 110p? Explain.
  4. Distinguish between a specific tax and an ad valorem tax. Which of these is (a) fuel duty; (b) VAT? Illustrate your answer with a supply and demand diagram.
  5. What determines the price elasticity of demand for petrol and diesel? Is the long-run elasticity likely to be higher or lower than the short-run elasticity? Explain.
  6. Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation. Given that oil price changes are correlated to inflation, would you characterise recent falls in inflation as reductions in demand-pull or cost-push pressures, or both: (a) in a specific oil-importing country; (b) globally?
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The state of the labour market in the UK

Figures for employment and unemployment give an incomplete picture of the state of the labour market. Just because a person is employed, that does not mean that they are working the number of hours they would like.

Some people would like to work more hours, either by working more hours in their current job, or by switching to an alternative job with more hours or by taking on an additional part-time job. Such people are classed as ‘underemployed’. On average, underemployed workers wanted to work an additional 11.3 hours per week in 2014 Q2. Underemployment is a measure of slack in the labour market, but it is not picked up in the unemployment statistics.

Other people would like to work fewer hours (at the same hourly rate), but feel they have no choice – usually because their employer demands that they work long hours. Some, however, would like to change to another job with fewer hours even if it involved less pay. People willing to sacrifice pay in order to work fewer hours are classed as ‘overemployed’.

Statistics released by the Office for National Statistics show that, in April to June 2014, 9.9%, or 3.0 million, workers in the UK were underemployed; and 9.7%, or 2.9 million, were overemployed.

The figures for underemployment vary between different groups:

11.0% of female workers 8.9% of male workers
19.6% of 16-24 year olds 9.9% of all workers
21.1% of people in elementary occupations (e.g. cleaners, shop assistants and security guards) 5.4% of people in professional occupations (e.g. doctors, teachers and accountants)
11.5% of people in the North East of England (in 2013) 9.2% of people in the East of England (in 2013)
22.1% of part-time workers 5.4% of full-time workers

As far as the overemployed are concerned, professional people and older people are more likely want shorter hours

The ONS data also show how under- and overemployment have changed over time: see chart (click here for a PowerPoint). Before the financial crisis and recession, overemployment exceeded underemployment. After the crisis, the position reversed: underemployment rose from 6.8% in 2007 to a peak of 10.8% in mid-2012; while overemployment fell from 10.5% in 2007 to a trough of 8.8% in early 2013.

More recently, as the economy has grown more strongly, underemployment has fallen back to 9.9% (in 2014 Q2) and overemployment has risen to 9.7%, virtually closing the gap between the two.

The fact that there is still significant underemployment suggests that there is still considerable slack in the labour market and that this may be acting as a brake on wage increases. On the other hand, the large numbers of people who consider themselves overemployed, especially among the professions and older workers, suggests that many people feel that they have not got the right work–life balance and many may be suffering consequent high levels of stress.

Articles
Rise in number of UK workers who want to cut back hours, ONS says The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/11/14)
Data reveal slack and stretch in UK workforce Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (25/11/14)
Will you graduate into underemployment? The Guardian, Jade Grassby (30/9/14)
Three million people would take pay cut to work shorter hours: Number who say they feel overworked rises by 10 per cent in one year Mail Online, Louise Eccles (26/11/14)
ONS: Rate of under-employment in Scotland lower than UK average Daily Record, Scott McCulloch (25/11/14)

ONS Release
Underemployment and Overemployment in the UK, 2014 ONS (25/11/14)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between unemployment (labour force survey (LFS) measure), unemployment (claimant count measure), underemployment (UK measure), underemployment (Eurostat measure) and disguised unemployment.
  2. Why is underemployment much higher amongst part-time workers than full-time workers?
  3. How do (a) underemployment and (b) overemployment vary according to the type of occupation? What explanations are there for the differences?
  4. Is the percentage of underemployment a good indicator of the degree of slack in the economy? Explain.
  5. How is the rise in zero hours contracts likely to have affected underemployment?
  6. How could the problem of overemployment be tackled? Would it be a good idea to pass a law setting a maximum number of hours per week that people can be required to do in a job?
  7. Would flexible working rights be a good idea?
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Deflation danger

The articles linked below look at the dangers of deflation and policies of central banks to counter it.

Deflation in economics has three meanings. The first is falling prices: i.e. negative inflation. The second, more traditional meaning, is a fall in real aggregate demand, resulting in lower output, higher unemployment and lower inflation – and quite possibly an actual fall in the price level. These first two definitions describe what is generally seen as an undesirable situation. The third is a slowing down in the growth of real aggregate demand, perhaps as a result of a deliberate act of fiscal and/or monetary policy. This third meaning could describe a desirable situation, where unsustainable growth is reduced and inflation is reduced from an above-target level.

Here we focus on the first definition. The first two articles look at the dangers of a fall in the price level. The chart below shows falling inflation, although not actually deflation, in China, France, Germany and the UK (click here for a PowerPoint). Several European countries, however, are experiencing actual deflation. These include: Greece, Spain, Hungary, Poland and Sweden. Inflation in the eurozone for 2014 is expected to be a mere 0.5%.

The most obvious danger of deflation (or expected deflation) is that people will delay spending on durable goods, such as cars, furniture and equipment, hoping to buy the items cheaper later. The result could be a fall in aggregate demand and a fall in output and employment.

For retailers, this is all spelling Christmas doom. Already the runup to the most crucial time of the year for shops is being characterised by a game of chicken. Shoppers are wondering how long they can leave their festive buying in the hope of late bargains.

Interest rates may be low, but for people with debts, this is being offset by the fact that inflation is no longer reducing the real value of that debt. For people with credit card debt, personal loans and most mortgages, the interest rate they pay is significantly above the rate of inflation. In other words, the real interest rate on their debt is still significantly positive. This may well discourage people from borrowing and spending, further dampening aggregate demand. And, with a Bank Rate of just 0.5%, there is virtually no scope for lowering the official interest rate further.

At least in the UK, economic growth is now positive – for the time being at any rate. The danger is becoming more serious, however, in many eurozone countries, which are already back in recession or close to being so. The ECB, despite its tentative steps to ease credit conditions, it moving closer to the day when it announces full-blown quantitative easing and buys sovereign bonds of eurozone countries. The Bank of Japan has already announced that it is stepping up it QE programme – a vital ingredient in getting Abenomics back on track and pulling Japan out of its latest recession.

In the USA, by contrast, there is little danger of deflation, as the US economy continues to grow strongly. The downside of this, has been a large rise in consumer debt (but not mortgages) – the ingredients of a possible future bubble and even a new financial crisis.

Forget what central bankers say: deflation is the real monster The Observer, Katie Allen (23/11/14)
Why Deflation Is Such A Big Worry For Europe NPR, Jim Zarroli (31/10/14)
Exclusive: China ready to cut rates again on fears of deflation – sources Reuters, Kevin Yao (23/11/14)
Central Banks in New Push to Prime Pump Wall Street Journal Jon Hilsenrath, Brian Blackstone and Lingling Wei (21/11/14)
Are Central Banks Panicking? Seeking Alpha, Leo Kolivakis (21/11/14)

Questions

  1. What are (a) the desirable and (b) the undesirable consequences of deflation? Does the answer depend on how deflation is defined?
  2. What is meant by a ‘deflationary gap’? In what sense is ‘deflationary’ being used in this term?
  3. Why have oil prices been falling? How desirable are these falls for the global economy?
  4. Is there an optimal rate of inflation? If so, how would this rate be determined?
  5. The chart shows that inflation in Japan is likely to have risen in 2014. This in large part is the result to a rise in the sales tax earlier this year. If there is no further rise in the sales tax, which there will probably not be if Mr Abe’s party wins the recently called election, what is likely to be the effect of the 2014 tax rise on inflation in 2015?
  6. If the Bank Rate is below the rate of inflation, why are people facing a positive real rate of interest? Does this apply equally to borrowers and savers?
  7. In what sense is there a cultural revolution at the Bank of England?
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