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Articles for the ‘Economics for Business: Ch 03’ Category

An above-inflation rise in the NMW

In the blog Effects of raising the minimum
wage
, the policy of an above-inflation rise in the minimum wage was discussed, as this had been advocated by political leaders. Over the past 5 years, the minimum wage has fallen in real terms, but from October 2014, the national minimum wage will increase 19p per hour and this rise will be the first time since 2008 when the increase will be higher than inflation.

The National Minimum Wage is a rate applied to most workers in the UK and is their minimum hourly entitlement. For adults over the age of 21, it will be increased by just over 3% to £6.50. Rises will also occur for 18-20 year olds, though their increase will be lower at 10p and will take the hourly wage to £5.13 an hour, representing a 2% rise. Those aged 16 and 17 will also see a 2% rise, taking their wage up by 7p to £3.79. With inflation currently at 1.9% (as measured by the CPI), these rises outstrip inflation, representing a real increase in the minimum wage. Undoubtedly this is good news for workers receiving the minimum wage, and it is thought that millions of workers will benefit.

Vince Cable said:

The recommendations I have accepted today mean that low-paid workers will enjoy the biggest cash increase in their take home pay since 2008…This will benefit over one million workers on national minimum wage and marks the start of a welcome new phase in minimum wage policy.

While this rise has been praised, there are still suggestions that this minimum wage is too low and does not represent a ‘living wage’. The General Secretary of Unison said:

Across the country people are struggling to make ends meet. The sooner we move to a Living Wage the better. The real winners today will again be payday loan sharks who prey on working people, unable to bridge the financial gap between what they earn and what their families need to survive.


(Click here for a PowerPoint of the above chart.)

The Chancellor eventually wants to increase the minimum wage to £7 per hour, but there will undoubtedly be an impact on businesses of such a rise. Is it also possible that with the national minimum wage being pushed up, unemployment may become a problem once more?

Market wages are determined by the interaction of the demand and supply of labour and when they are in equilibrium, the only unemployment in the economy will be equilibrium unemployment, namely frictional or structural. However, when the wage rate is forced above the equilibrium wage rate, disequilibrium unemployment may develop. At a wage above the equilibrium the supply of labour will exceed the demand for labour and the excess is unemployment.

By increasing the national minimum wage, firms will face higher labour costs and this may discourage them from taking on new workers, but may also force them into laying off existing workers. The impact of the minimum wage on unemployment doesn’t seem to be as pronounced as labour market models suggest, so perhaps the increase in the minimum wage will help the lowest paid families and we won’t observe any adverse effect on businesses and employment. The following articles consider this story.

National minimum wage to rise to £6.50 The Guardian, Rowena Mason (12/3/14)
Minimum wage up to £6.50 an hour BBC News (12/3/14)
Minium wage to increase by 3% to £6.50 an hour Independent, Maria Tadeo (12/3/14)
Minimum wage rise confirmed Fresh Business Thinking, Daniel Hunter (12/3/14)
Ministers approve minimum wage rise London Evening Standard (12/3/14)
Government to accept proposed 3% minimum wage rise The Guardian, Rowena Mason (4/3/14)
Londoners do not believe minimum wage is enough to live on in the capital The Guardian, Press Association (9/3/14)
Minimum wage: The Low Pay Commission backs a 3% increase BBC News (26/2/14)

Questions

  1. Using a diagram, illustrate the impact of raising the national minimum wage in an otherwise perfectly competitive labour market.
  2. How does your answer to question 1 change, if the market is now a monopsony?
  3. To what extent is elasticity relevant when analysing the effects of the national minimum wage on unemployment?
  4. How might an increase in the national minimum wage affect public finances?
  5. Why is an above-inflation increase in the national minimum wage so important?
  6. What is meant by a Living Wage?
  7. What do you think the impact on business and the macroeconomy would be if the minimum wage were raised to a ‘Living Wage’?
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Private versus public

Many people are attracted to work in the private sector, with expectations of greater opportunities for promotion, more variation in work and higher salaries. However, according to the Office for National Statistics, it may be that the oft-talked-of pay differential is actually in the opposite direction. Data from the ONS suggests that public sector workers are paid 14.5% more on average than those working in the private sector.

As is the case with the price of a good, the price of labour (that is, the wage rate) is determined by the forces of demand and supply. Many factors influence the wages that individuals are paid and traditional theory leads us to expect higher wages in sectors where there are many firms competing for labour. With the government acting as a monopsony employer, it has the power to force down wages below what we would expect to see in a perfectly competitive labour market. However, the ONS data suggests the opposite. What factors can explain this wage differential?

Jobs in the public sector, on average, require a higher degree of skills. There tend to be entry qualifications, such as possessing a university degree. While this is the case for many private-sector jobs as well, on average it is a greater requirement in the public sector. The skills required therefore help to push up the wages that public-sector workers can demand. Another explanation could be the size of public-sector employers, which allows them to offer higher wages. When the skills, location, job specifications etc. were taken into account, the 14.5% average hourly earnings differential declined to between just 2.2% and 3.1%, still in favour of public-sector workers. It then reversed to give private-sector workers the pay edge, once the size of the employer was taken out.

Further analysis of the data also showed that, while it may pay to be in the public sector when you’re starting out on your career, it pays to be in the private sector as you move up the career ladder. Workers in the bottom 5% of earners will do better in the public sector, while those in the top 5% of earners benefit from private-sector employment. The ONS said:

Looking at the top 5%, in the public sector earnings are greater than £31.49 per hour, while in the private sector, the top 5% earn more than £33.63 per hour… The top 1% of earners in the private sector, at more than £60.21 per hour, earns considerably more than the top 1% of earners in the public sector, at more than £49.65 per hour.

The data from the ONS thus suggest a reversal in the trend of average public-sector pay being higher than private sector pay, once all the relevant factors are taken into account.

This will naturally add to debates about living standards, which are likely to take on a stronger political slant as the next election approaches. It is obviously partly down to the public-sector pay freeze that we saw in 2010 and also to a reversal, at least in part, of the previous trend from 2008, where public-sector pay had been growing faster than private-sector pay. However, depending on the paper you read or the person you listen to, they will offer very different views as to who gets paid more. All you need to do in this case is look at the titles of the newspaper articles written by the Independent and The Telegraph! Whatever the explanation, these new data provide a wealth of information about relative prospects for pay for everyone.

Data
Public and Private Sector Earnings Office for National Statistics (March 2014)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results Office for National Statistics (December 2013)

Articles
Austerity bites as private sector pay rises above the public sector for the first time since 2010 Independent, Ben Chu (10/3/14)
Public sector workers still better paid despite the cuts The Telegraph, John Bingham (10/3/14)
Public sector hourly pay outstrips private sector pay BBC News (10/3/14)
Public sector workers are biggest losers in UK’s post-recession earnings squeeze The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/3/14)
New figures go against right-wing claims that public sector workers are grossly overpaid Independent, Ben Chu (10/3/14)
Public sector pay sees biggest shrink on 2010, figures suggest LocalGov, Thomas Bridge (11/3/14)
Public sector staff £2.12 an hour better off The Scotsman, David Maddox (11/3/14)

Questions

  1. Illustrate the way in which wages are determined in a perfectly competitive labour market.
  2. Why does monopsony power tend to push wages down?
  3. Why does working for a large company suggest that you will earn a higher wage on average?
  4. Using the concept of marginal revenue product of labour, explain the way in which higher skills help to push up wages.
  5. How significant are public-sector pay freezes in explaining the differential between public- and private-sector pay?
  6. Why is there a difference between the bottom and top 5% of earners? How does this impact on whether it is more profitable to work in the public or private sector?
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Should I give cash or gifts this Christmas?

There are a number of surveys that attempt to measure the spending intentions of people in the run up towards Christmas. For example a recent study carried out by YouGov found that people in the UK planned to spend an average of £599 on presents for their family and friends. This represented a 5.8% increase on the previous year. Planned total spending on Christmas was estimated to be a staggering £22 billion.

Respondents to another survey, carried out by the hotel chain Travelodge, stated that on average they planned to buy presents for 12 people. This study also found that the average expected spend on each present was £28.70 – an increase of £1.70 on the previous year. A rather obvious question for anyone interested in economics is whether this is either a sensible or an efficient way of allocating resources. One way to think about how an economist might approach this issue is to ask yourself the following questions after you have opened a present on Christmas day.

• How much money do you think the person who gave you the present paid for it?
• Ignoring the sentimental value, if you had not received this present how much would
  you be willing to pay to purchase it?

Exactly 20 years ago the economist Joel Waldfogel posed questions very similar to these to a group of 86 students studying an intermediate microeconomics module at Yale University in the USA. On average the respondents to the questions estimated that friends and family had spent $438 on the gifts they had received that Christmas. Unfortunately their willingness to pay for these same gifts was $313 on average. Economists would argue that this is an example of economic inefficiency because the recipients’ valuation of the gifts – as measured by their willingness to pay – was only 71.5% of the price paid by the person who gave them the presents. This means that it is possible to make the person who received the gift better off without making the person who purchased the gift any worse off. This argument can be illustrated with a simple example.

Assume you have purchased a Liverpool football club shirt as a present for Sir Alex Ferguson and it cost you £50! Rather surprisingly Sir Alex likes the shirt but would have only been willing to pay £20 if he was buying it for himself. Imagine now that you have given him £50 cash instead of the shirt. This would not make you any worse off – your cash outlay would remain unchanged. However, Sir Alex would now be able to spend the £50 cash in a way which would give him far more satisfaction than the Liverpool football shirt would have given him. Sir Alex can therefore be made better off without making you worse off. The present in this example generates a deadweight welfare loss of £30. Waldfogel concluded from his later research based on a larger sample of people that, on average, people’s valuations of their presents is about 90% of the money actually spent on them. If this figure is accurate, it suggests that over £2 billion will be wasted in the UK this Christmas.

The size of the deadweight welfare loss depends on how well the person who is buying the present knows or understands the preferences of the recipient. The closeness of age, friendship or family relationship are all likely to influence the accuracy of this knowledge. Interestingly, Waldfogel found that presents from grandparents to grandchildren were the most inefficient: i.e. the difference between the recipient’s valuation of the gift and the price paid for the present was the greatest. The study also found that grandparents were more likely to give their grandchildren cash gifts.

Do economists always advise people to give cash as presents? Thankfully the dismal science can find some positive things to say about giving gifts. The previous analysis can be criticised in a number of different ways. It assumes that the recipients are perfectly informed about all the potential gifts that are available. If the person buying the present can find an item that the recipient was unaware of, then it is possible that economic welfare might be increased. It has also been assumed that the pleasure or value people obtain from an item is not influenced by who has purchased it. It may be the case that people place a greater value on an item when it is a gift from somebody else. In the previous example, perhaps Sir Alex would value the Liverpool shirt at £60 if you had purchased it for him as a present. The analysis has also ignored the possibility that the person buying the present derives pleasure from trying to find a gift that they think the person would like. Perhaps people feel a ‘warm glow’ when they see the happiness of somebody opening their present on Christmas day.

A final interesting economic explanation for buying presents is that they might act as an effective signal in a situation where there is asymmetric information. It can be argued that this is the case in relationships where people have private information about their true feelings towards one another. One way of communicating these feelings is by simply telling someone how you feel about them. However, this might not be an effective signal, as someone who does not have such strong feelings could say the same things as someone who does! However, by taking the time and trouble to buy someone a present that they really like, you are able to signal more effectively how you really feel about them. The signal can be particularly strong if the person buying the present really dislikes shopping. Just giving someone cash, or not taking the time to buy a present the person really likes, might signal that you simply could not be bothered to exert the effort because your feelings are not that strong. The potential consequences of giving your partner money are amusingly demonstrated in the following clip: The Economics of Seinfeld: What’s the right Gift to give; cash?

Perhaps giving presents instead of cash is an economically efficient way of dealing with situations where asymmetric information is potentially an important issue.

Articles
British households plan to spend £820 on Christmas YouGov (11/11/13)
Brits ‘to spend more on Christmas presents this year with average gift costing £28.70′ Daily Mirror (13/11/13)
Christmas shoppers hit the sales in biggest spending spree since the recession began Daily Express (15/12/13)
Bah, Humbug The Joy of Economics: Making Sense out of Life, Robert J. Stonebraker (22/05/13)
What many economists don’t understand about Christmas Quartz, Tim Fernholz (19/12/13)
The Economics of Gifts Greg Mankiw’s Blog (24/12/06)
The case against Christmas presents The Guardian (19/12/13)
Grinchonomics or how the Economist stole Christmas Economics in Plain English (16/12/10)
The true value of the 12 days of Christmas reveals giving cash may be the most cost-effective gift Perth Now, Jessica Irvine (21/12/13)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by the term ‘allocative efficiency’. Use a diagram to help illustrate and explain your answer.
  2. Draw an indifference curve diagram to illustrate the potential welfare costs of giving presents instead of cash.
  3. Assess whether giving someone a gift card is more economically efficient than giving them a present.
  4. Using a simple numerical example, explain how economic welfare could be higher if someone buys a present that the recipient was unaware of. What factors might you have to take into account when carrying out this economic analysis?
  5. Explain what is meant by the term ‘asymmetric information’. Provide a number of examples to help illustrate your answer.
  6. What properties must a signal have if it is to successfully overcome problems caused by asymmetric information?
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Advertising’s role in the economy

Adverts are increasingly diverse, ranging from families using various products and promoting their qualities, to a gorilla drumming, a horse dancing and a monkey drinking tea! But, how important is advertising to a product’s brand. Does it have a positive effect on sales and profitability?

The key role of advertising is to sell more products and many firms spend a huge amount on advertising campaigns. Indeed, over £16bn was spent on advertising in 2012. Given that the economy is still vulnerable and many firms have seen their sales and profits decline, this is a huge amount. Procter & Gamble spent over £200 million, British Sky Broadcasting spent £145 million and Tesco spent £114 million in 2011.

Advertising increases consumer awareness of the product and its features, but also actively aims to persuade people to purchase the product. By differentiating the product through adverts a company aims to shift the demand curve to the right and also make it more inelastic, by persuading customers that there are no (or few) close substitutes.

Since the start of the economic downturn in 2008, advertising expenditure has fallen, as companies have seen a decline in their budgets. From a high of £18.61 billion in 2004, the Advertising Association found that it fell to £14.20 billion in 2009 at constant 2008 prices. In the last few years, advertising expenditure has remained at around £14.5 billion. But, is cutting back on advertising a sensible strategy during a recession? Of course budgets are tight for both firms and consumers, but many suggest that media-savvy firms would actually benefit from maintaining their advertising. By doing so firms could take advantage of weaker competitors by increasing their market share and establishing their brand image in the long run.

It’s also important to consider another link between economic growth and advertising. Research suggests that advertising can be an important factor for economic growth. A three-year study undertaken by the Advertising Association and Deloitte, commencing in January 2013 suggests that for every £1 spent on advertising in the UK, £6 is generated for the wider economy. Based on these predictions, the estimated £16bn that was spent on ad campaigns in 2011 added over £100 billion to the UK’s GDP.

So, perhaps encouraging more advertising is the answer to the UK’s economic dilemma. This is certainly the opinion of Matt Barwell, the consumer marketing and innovation director of Diageo Western Europe, who said:

People fundamentally believe in advertising but a lot of the conversation focuses on negative elements. People rarely get the opportunity to talk about the positive role advertising plays in terms of wealth creation, exports and the social benefits that it provides. These are all things that many of us take for granted.

If private firms can therefore be encouraged to boost their marketing campaigns, jobs may be created, demand for products will rise and with the help of the multiplier, the economy may strengthen. Advertising has both pros and cons and opinions differ on what makes a good advert. But, whatever your opinion of the role of advertising, it is certainly an important aspect of any economy. The following articles take a view of advertising.

Articles
Could we advertise ourselves out of recession? Marketing Week, Lucy Tesseras (31/1/13)
Advertising in times of recession: A question of value The Open University, Tom Farrell (13/3/09)
Recession spending on advertising and R&D Penn State, Smeal College of Business
Nothing to shout about The Economist (30/7/09)
UK’s payday lenders face restrictions on advertising Reuters (6/3/13)
Value claims improve advertising effectiveness in recessionary times Com Score, Diane Wilson (17/9/13)
Advertising in a bad economy About Advertising, Apryl Duncan
Advertising worth £100bn to UK economy The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (31/1/13)
Can advertising be the motor that gets the struggling UK economy out of first gear? More about advertising (26/2/13)
Adverts ‘worth £100bn to UK’ Independent, Giddeon Spanier (30/1/13)

Report
Advertising Pays – How advertising fuels the UK economy Advertising Association & Deloitte (30/1/13)
Advertising Pays – How advertising fuels the UK economy: Accompanying video presentation Advertising Association & Deloitte: on YouTube (30/1/13)

Questions

  1. What is the role of advertising?
  2. Using a demand and supply diagram, illustrate and explain the role of advertising.
  3. During a recession, why would you expect advertising expenditure to fall? What impact would you expect this to have in your diagram from question 1?
  4. How might firms that sustain their advertising expenditure during a downturn benefit?
  5. Explain the link between advertising and the economy.
  6. Why could a higher level of advertising boost economic growth?
  7. Are there any negative externalities from advertising?
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Supply in chains

The news in many European countries has been dominated in February by the ‘horse meat scandal’. Small traces of horse meat may be the result of faulty quality control. But the significant amount of horse found in several processed meat products suggest fraud at one or more points in the supply chain from farm to supermarket or other outlet. Indeed several specific suppliers, from abattoirs to processors are facing criminal investigation.

The scandal has put the supply chain under intense scrutiny. Part of the problem is that the supply chain is often very long and complex. As the Guardian article states:

The food and retail industries have become highly concentrated and globalised in recent decades. A handful of key players dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe. They have developed very long supply chains, particularly for their economy lines, which enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets. Networks of brokers, cold stores operators and subcontracted meat cutting plants have emerged to supply rapidly fluctuating orders “just in time”. Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down.

Then there is the huge pressure on all parts of the supply chain to reduce costs.

Supermarkets use their market power to drive down the prices of the products they buy from their suppliers and this has a knock-on effect backwards down the supply chain. This pressure has intensified as real wages have fallen and consumers have found their budgets squeezed.

At the same time, beef and other meat prices have been rising as the costs of animal feed have soared. This all puts tremendous pressure on suppliers to add cheaper ingredients. Again to quote the Guardian article:

Manufacturers add other cheap ingredients including water and fat, and use concentrated proteins to bind the water and fat in. They may appear on labels as ‘seasoning’. One of the cheapest sources of these protein additives is pork rind. It is possible that horse hide is now also being used. The widespread adulteration of cheap chicken breast with pig and beef proteins and water has been uncovered in previous scandals. The beef proteins were derived from hydrolysed cattle hides. It is not illegal to use these protein concentrates so long as they are identified correctly to the manufacturer.

It is not surprising that if cheap horse meat becomes available to suppliers, such as from old horses towards the end of their working lives, some processing companies may be tempted to add it fraudulently, stating that it is beef.

The articles look at the issues of long and complex supply chains in the processed food industry and assess why they have evolved into their current form and the difficulties in regulating them.

Horsegate: heed economics of the cold chain The Grocer, Andrew Godley (16/2/13)
Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide The Guardian, Felicity Lawrence (15/2/13)
After the horse has been bolted The Economist (16/2/13)
Slavery, not horse meat, is the real scandal on our doorstep The Telegraph, Fraser Nelson (14/2/13)
Industry must take the reins on food safety Globe and Mail (Canada)Sylvain Charlebois (15/2/13)
Supply chains changed the growth model The Economist, Richard Baldwin (15/8/12)
Supply-chain management The Economist (6/4/09)
Tesco pledges to open up supply chain after horse meat scandal The Telegraph (16/2/13)
Horse meat scandal: Shoppers who buy ‘cheapest food’ at risk The Telegraph, James Quinn, Jason Lewis and Patrick Sawer (16/2/13)
Let Them Eat Horse Bloomberg, Marc Champion (15/2/13)
Scandal shows meat supply chain must be policed heraldscotland (14/2/13)
MPs push for new powers for FSA as officials seize yet more suspect meat Independent, Martin Hickman (13/2/13)

Questions

  1. Why do supermarkets and their suppliers use long supply chains?
  2. Explain the concepts of ‘countervailing power’ and ‘monopsony or oligopsony power’? How do they apply in the processed meat supply chain?
  3. Identify the types of transactions costs in the processed meat industry.
  4. In what ways do consumers (a) gain and (b) lose from such supply chains?
  5. Why is the problem of fraud in processed food supply chains likely to have intensified in recent years?
  6. How have supermarkets reacted to the horse meat scandal? Why has it taken the scandal to make them react in this way?
  7. To what extent is the problem simply one of inaccurate labelling?
  8. To what extent is there a principal–agent problem in the processed meat supply chain?
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Anyone want to take a bite out of Apple?

The technology sector is highly complex and is led by Apple. However, as the tablet market is continuing to grow, it is becoming increasingly competitive with other firms such as Samsung gaining market share. Although both firms sell many products, it is the growing tablet market which is one of the keys to their continued growth.

Tablet PCs have seen a growth in the final quarter of 2012 to a high of 52.5 million units, according to IDC. Although Apple, leading the market, has seen a growth in its sales, its market share has declined to 43.6%. Over the same period, Samsung has increased its market share from 7.3% to 15.1%. While it is still a huge margin behind Apple in the tablet PC market, Samsung’s increase in sales from 2.2 million to 7.9 million is impressive and if such a trend were to continue, it would certainly cause Apple to take note.

It’s not just these two firms trying to take advantage of this growing industry. Microsoft has recently launched a new tablet PC and although its reception was less than spectacular, it is expected that Microsoft will become a key competitor in the long run. There are many factors driving the growth in this market and the war over market share is surely only just beginning. The chart shows the 75.3% growth in sales in just one year. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

A Research Director at IDC said:

We expected a very strong fourth quarter, and the market didn’t disappoint…New product launches from the category’s top vendors, as well as new entrant Microsoft, led to a surge in consumer interest and very robust shipments totals during the holiday season’

Apple has been so dominant in this sector that other companies until recently have had little success in gaining market share. However, with companies such as Samsung and ASUS now making in-roads, competition is likely to become fierce. There are already concerns that Apple’s best days are behind it and its share price reflects this. People are now less willing to pay a premium price for an Apple product, as the innovations of its competitors have now caught up with those of the leading brand name. The following articles consider this growing market.

Samsung gain tablet market share as Apple lead narrows BBC News (1/2/13)
Apple snatches US lead from Samsung Financial Times, Tim Bradshaw (1/2/13)
Apple revenues miss expectations despite high sales figures BBC News (24/1/13)
Samsung eats into Apple sales in the tablet market Mirror, Ruki Sayid (1/2/13)
MacWorld’s Apple celebration opens amid fears of tech giant’s decline Guardian, Rory Carroll (31/1/13)
Samsung’s tablet sales soar as Apple’s grip on market loosens Daily News and Analysis, Richard Blagden (2/2/13)
Samsung takes a nibble out of Apple’s tablet lead InfoWorld, Ted Samson(31/1/13)
Tablet Sales up 75% as Samsung and Asus Gain on Apple Interational Business Times, Edward Smith (31/1/13)

Questions

  1. Which factors are behind this exceptional growth in the tablet PC market?
  2. Using the Boston matrix, where do you think tablet PCs fit in terms of market size and market growth?
  3. Where would you place this market in terms of the product life cycle?
  4. What does the product life cycle say about the degree of competition, the impact on pricing on profits etc. in the phase that you placed the tablet PC market in your answer to question 3?
  5. Why have Apple’s shares fallen recently? Do you think this will be the new trend?
  6. Microsoft’s new tablet didn’t attract huge sales. What explanation was given for this? Use a diagram to help answer this question.
  7. Tablet PCs are relatively expensive, yet sales of them have increased significantly over the past few years. What explanation is there for this, given that we have been (and still are) in tough financial times?
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We need to talk about Capitalism

With the fall of communism in eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, many hailed this as the victory of capitalism.

Even China, which is still governed by the Chinese Communist Party, has embraced the market and accepted growing levels of private ownership of capital. It is only one or two countries, such as North Korea and Cuba, that could be described as communist in the way the term was used to describe the centrally planned economies of eastern Europe before 1990.

But whilst market capitalism seemed to have emerged as the superior system in the 1990s, may are now questioning whether the market capitalism we have today is fit for the 21st century. Today much of the world’s capital in the hands of big business, with financial institutions holding a large proportion of shares in such companies. And the gap between rich and poor is ever widening

The market system of today, is very different from that of 100 years ago. In fact, as John Kay agues in his article “Let’s talk about the market economy” below, it would be wrong to describe it as ‘capitalism’ in the sense the term was used in the debates of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nonetheless, the term is still used and generally refers to the market system we now have. And it is a market system that many see as failing and unfit for purpose. It is a system that coincided with the bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s, the credit crunch of 2007–9 and the recession of 2008/9, now seeming to return as a double-dip recession

With the political and business leaders of the world meeting at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland on 25–29 January 2012, a central theme of the forum has been the future of capitalism and whether it’s fit for the 21st century.

Is there a fairer and more compassionate capitalism that can be fostered? This has been a stated objective of all three political parties in the UK recently. Can we avoid another crisis of capitalism as seen in the late 2000s and which still continues today? What is the role of government in regulating the market system? Does the whole capitalist system need restructuring?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to talk about capitalism. The following webcasts and articles do just that.

Webcasts and podcasts
Davos 2012 – TIME Davos Debate on Capitalism< World Economic Forum (25/01/12)
Can capitalism be ‘responsible’? BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (19/01/12)
Capitalism ‘nothing to do with responsibility’ BBC Newsnight, Eric Hobsbawm (19/01/12)
Are there alternatives to capitalism? BBC Newsnight, Danny Finkelstein, Tristram Hunt and Julie Meyer (19/01/12)
America Beyond Capitalism The Real News on YouTube, Gar Alperovitz (27/12/11)
The future of capitalism CNBC, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (12/11/09)
Capitalism Hits the Fan (excerpt) YouTube, Richard Wolff (2/1/12)
Panel Discussion “20 years after – Future of capitalism in CEE” Erste Group on YouTube, Andreas Treichl, Janusz Kulik, Jacques Chauvet, and media Adrian Sarbu (24/2/11)
The Future of Capitalism: Constructive Competition or Chaos? YouTube, Nathan Goetting, Tony Nelson, Craig Meurlin and Judd Bruce Bettinghaus (24/1/11)
Capitalism in Crisis Financial Times, Various videos (24/1/11)
Bill Gates: Capitalism a ‘phenomenal system’ BBC Today Programme, Bill Gates talks to Evan Davis (25/1/12)
Capitalism (See also) BBC The Bottom Line, Evan Davis and guests (28/1/12)

Articles
Meddle with the market at your peril Financial Times, Alan Greenspan (25/1/12)
The world’s hunger for public goods Financial Times, Martin Wolf (24/1/12)
When capitalism and corporate self-interest collide JohnKay.com, John Kay (25/1/12)
Let’s talk about the market economy JohnKay.com, John Kay (11/1/12)
A real market economy ensures that greed is good JohnKay.com, John Kay (18/1/12)
Seven ways to fix the system’s flaws Financial Times, Martin Wolf (22/1/12)
To the barricades, British defenders of open markets! The Economist, Bagehot’s Notebook (26/1/12)
Community reaction to doubts about capitalism in Davos CBC News (26/1/12)
Capitalism saw off USSR, now it needs to change or die The National (UAE), Frank Kane (26/1/12)
Words won’t change capitalism. So be daring and do something Observer, Will Hutton (22/1/12)
A political economy fit for purpose: what the UK could learn from Germany Our Kingdom, Alex Keynes (20/1/12)
Debate on State Capitalism The Economist (24/1/12)

Questions

  1. How has the nature of capitalism changed over recent decades?
  2. Can capitalism be made more ‘caring’ and, if so, how?
  3. What do you understand by the term a ‘fair allocation of resources’? Is capitalism fair? Can it be made fairer and, if so, what are the costs of making it so?
  4. Can greed ever be good?
  5. How does the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of capitalism differ from the European model?
  6. What do you understand by the term ‘crony capitalism’? Is crony capitalism on the increase?
  7. John Kay states that “Modern titans derive their authority and influence from their position in a hierarchy, not their ownership of capital.” Explain what this means and what its implications are for making capitalism meet social goals.
  8. In what ways can governments control markets? Have these instruments and their effectiveness changed in effectiveness over time?
  9. What are the costs and benefits to society of the increasing globalisation of capital?
  10. To what extent was the financial crisis and credit crunch the result of a flawed capitalist system and to what extent was it a failure of government intervention?
  11. Why is it important for the success of capitalism that companies should be allowed to fail? Consider whether this should also apply to banks. How is the concept of moral hazard relevant to your answer?
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The latest Blockbuster

Blockbuster US has become the latest in a long line of companies filing for bankruptcy. With huge debts and a need to restructure the business, given the huge competition in America, Blockbuster has made agreements with its creditors to cut its debts from $1 billion to $100 million. Blockbuster has suffered from mail-order and online film rental services, in particular in America.

Blockbuster is a worldwide phenomenon with stores ranging from the UK to Mexico. However, as legally separate entities, the non-US branches of Blockbuster are protected from the bankruptcy. While the UK branches will remain unaffected, there are concerns that they may suffer from a lack of new DVD stock, especially with the approach of Christmas.

As news of Blockbuster’s bankruptcy spread, Netflix – a key competitor – saw its shares soar. Netflix was a catalyst in the demise of Blockbuster US and it has seen its market share increase rapidly over the past few years, with subscribers increasing from 1 million in 2002 to 15 million in 2010. Blockbuster responded by ending late fees and started its own online services, but it has been unable to compete effectively in this competitive market. Although restructuring of Blockbuster has begun, only time will tell what the future is for this once dominant movie rental firm.

Blockbuster files for Bankruptcy in US BBC News (23/9/10)
Blockbuster fizzles in US, but renters overseas haven’t switched to Netflix – yet The Christian Science Monitor, Stephen Kurczy (23/9/10)
Blockbuster files for Chapter 11 protection Guardian, Richard Wachman (23/9/10)
Blockbuster wins Court’s approval to draw $20 million from bankruptcy loan Bloomberg, David McLaughlin and Tiffany Kary (23/9/10)
Fitch lowers debt rating on Blockbuster Bloomberg BusinessWeek (23/9/10)
Netflix shares hit high after Blockbuster bankruptcy Reuters, Sue Zeidler (23/9/10)
Debt, changing media habits topple Blockbuster The Associated Press, Mae Anderson (23/9/10)

Questions

  1. What are the key factors behind Blockbuster’s decline?
  2. New competitors have entered the market for movie rental. Illustrate this on a diagram. How can we use this to explain Blockbuster’s problems?
  3. Online services and mail-order have become increasingly popular services in this market. Is the extra competition in the market in the best interests of consumers?
  4. What type of market structure is the rental movie industry? Explain your answer.
  5. What type of legal structure does Blockbuster operate under? What are the key advantages and disadvantages of this?
  6. Why are the non-US chains not affected by the bankruptcy of Blockbuster US?
  7. Have a look at the share prices of Blockbuster and Netflix. What has happened to them over rthe past year? Is this consistent with recent developments?
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Privatising Royal Mail

What is the future of the Royal Mail? One thing for certain is that it needs an injection of money, which has led the government to consider either privatisation of the Royal Mail or selling it. Over the past years, we have seen continued strikes by the postal service in response to proposed changes in working practices. Mr. Cable commented that:

‘Royal Mail is facing a combination of potentially lethal challenges – falling mail volumes, low investment, not enough efficiency and a dire pension position.’

However, there are concerns that the privatisation or sale of the Royal Mail could lead to higher prices, job losses and further pension problems. The transfer of the Royal Mail to the highest bidder could shift the pension deficit, currently standing at £13.3 billion, to the taxpayer, potentially costing each taxpayer £400. The choice for the public is stark: either lose the right to send a letter anywhere in the UK for the same price or take on postal workers’ pensions.

Expecting massive opposition from the Communication Workers Union (CWU), Ministers are looking to pursue an arrangement similar to that of John Lewis, whereby staff are given shares in the company. This will give the staff an incentive to perform well to improve the performance of the company and hence increase their future dividend. Read the following articles and then try answering the questions that follow.

Royal Mail is to be privatised, government confirms BBC News (10/9/10)
Royal Mail sell-off is confirmed BBC News, Hugh Pym (10/9/10)
Royal Mail privatisation backed Press Association (10/7/10)
Royal Mail sale could cost £400 per home as taxpayers set to fund £13.3 billion pension deficit Mail Online, James Chapman (10/9/10)
Royal Mail pension plan challenged by regulator BBC News, Ian Pollock (30/7/10)
Ministers consider offering 20 per cent of shares in Royal Mail to staff Telegraph, Christopher Hope (10/9/10)
Cable to privatise ‘inefficient’ Royal Mail Independent, Cahal Milmo and Alistair Dawber (11/9/10)
Royal Mail revolution needed, say bankers Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (10/9/10)

Questions

  1. What are the problems that the Royal Mail is facing? Why have they occurred?
  2. What are the arguments for and against privatisation of the Royal Mail?
  3. How might privatisation lead to job losses and higher prices?
  4. What type of business arrangement does John Lewis have? Explain why this may improve overall performance of the company?
  5. If the pension deficit is passed on to the government, why will it cost the taxpayer? Is such an arrangement (a) efficient (b) equitable? Explain your answer.
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Sailing the desert (updated)

Here’s an exciting bit of news. Lake Eyre in South Australia is filling and the Lake Eyre Yacht Club’s sailing regatta started on 5 July. So what, you may ask! Well, Lake Eyre is in the middle of one of the driest deserts in the world. It virtually never rains there and most of the time, the ‘lake’ is one huge dry salt pan.

But just a few times per century, the rainfall many kilometres away is heavy enough to fill the dry river beds of Cooper Creek, Finke River, Georgina River and Diamantina River. These ‘rivers’ drain about one sixth of the whole of Australia (about the size of Germany, France, Italy combined) – but a sixth where rainfall is normally very low. But this season’s rains have been exceptionally high; the rivers are flowing – and the lake is filling.

When the lake does fill, it teems with life. Fish eggs that have lain buried in the salt for years hatch. Sea birds fly in nearly 1000 kilometres from the Southern Ocean. And it’s then that the enthusiasts come to play.

What’s this got to do with economics? Well economics is about scarcity and choice. Many of the choices we make are not simple buying and selling choices. Many clubs and other organisations thrive on the enthusiasm of their members. They’re not there to make money but certainly add to people’s ‘utility’. And enthusiasm, and hope, is what the members of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club have in abundance. Let’s hope they get lots of utility from sailing in the desert over the coming weeks.

Articles
Outback Sailors 10 News (6/7/10)
Floods and boat race brings life to desert lake ABC News (7/7/10)
Flightseeing Lake Eyre Stuff.co.nz, James Shrimpton (25/5/10)
Gone (not fishing) flying over Lake Eyre Australian Daily Telegraph, Maralyn Parker (6/6/10)
The Lake Eyre Yacht Club Lounge of the Lab Lemming, Chuck Magee (21/3/10)
Lake Eyre Regatta ExplorOz, The Landy blog (14/6/10)
Boom follows boom in the Lake Eyre Basin ABC Western Queensland, Julia Harris (23/3/10)
Entries flood in for rare outback regatta ABC News (23/6/10)
Yacht club sails into history with a desert regatta The Age (7/7/10)
Chasing water to Lake Eyre ABC Rural, Caitlyn Gribbin (6/7/10)
Lake Eyre brims with life ABC News, Paul Lockyer (15/6/10)
Yachting regatta in Australian desert for first time in 20 years Telegraph, Bonnie Malkin (7/7/10)
Plain sailing for desert regatta Gulf Times (7/7/10)

Information sites
Lake Eyre Yacht Club
Current Lake Status Lake Eyre Yacht Club
Lake Eyre Wikipedia
Lake Eyre Rita’s Outback Guide

Questions

  1. What attitude do the members of Lake Eyre Yacht Club have towards risk and uncertainty?
  2. How would you set about estimating the consumer surplus that members are likely to gain from attending the regatta and sailing on the lake?
  3. How price elastic would you expect the demand for and supply of services to be, such as ferry crossings and accommodation?
  4. What business opportunities are likely to be associated with sailing on the lake? Would it be ‘rational’ to set up such a business?
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