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Articles for the ‘Economics for Business: Ch 04’ Category

Coffee strengthens

Your Americano, Latte or Cappuccino may soon be more expensive. This is because coffee bean prices are rising. A combination of continuing growth in demand and poor coffee harvests in various parts of the world have led to a rise in both Arabica and Robusta prices, with the International Coffee Organization’s Composite Indicator price (in US dollars) having risen by over 30% since mid-January this year (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint)

Supply has been affected by droughts in Brazil and Vietnam, two of the world’s biggest coffee producers, and by pests (the Coffee Berry Borer) in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania and in other East African countries. Global exports of coffee in July 2016 were 22% down on the same month in 2015.

The growing shortage and rising current (spot) prices is reflected in future prices. These are prices determined in the market now for trading at a specified future date (e.g. in three months’ time). Future prices depend on predictions of the balance of demand and supply in the future. According to the MarketWatch article below, “Analysts at Société Générale in a note predicted that prices could climb about 30% further by the end of next year”. The current (mid-September) spot price of robusta coffee beans is around $0.96 per lb. The December 2016 future price is around $1.48.

So what effect will this have on the prices in Starbucks, Costa or Caffè Nero? And what effect will it have on ground or instant coffee in supermarkets? To quote the MarketWatch article again:

A research report from the US Department of Agriculture found that, on average, a 10% increase in green-coffee-bean prices per pound would yield a 2% increase in both manufacturer prices and at the register in places like Starbucks Corp.

This is because the cost of coffee beans is just one element in the costs of coffee roasters and coffee shops. Also these companies use futures markets to smooth out the prices they pay. They hold stockpiles of coffee, which they build up when prices are low and draw on when prices are high. This helps to reduce fluctuations in retail prices.

So don’t worry too much about the price of your morning coffee – at least, not yet.

Articles
Why a surge in coffee-bean prices may not hit the Starbucks set—yet MarketWatch, Rachel Koning Beals (9/9/16)
Wired coffee prices may not slip far News Markets, David Cottle (9/9/16)
Late-harvest woes prompt Brazil coffee harvest downgrade Agrimoney (7/9/16)
Look Out, Latte Lovers: Brazil Drought Hurts Espresso Beans Bloomberg, Fabiana Batista and Marvin G. Perez (13/9/16)
Why Your Morning Coffee Is About to Become Even More Expensive Fortune (28/7/16)
Climate change brews a storm for East Africa coffee farmers Business Daily (East Africa), Paul Redfern (4/9/16)
Coffee Market Report ICO (August 2016)

Data
Commodity Prices Index Mundi
Historical Data on the Global Coffee Trade ICO
ICO’s Coffee Trade Statistics Infographic for July 2016 ICO blog (31/8/16)

Questions

  1. What determines coffee futures prices?
  2. How are the price fluctuations of coffee in coffee shops related to the price elasticities of demand and supply? What determines these elasticities?
  3. Why does a strengthening (an appreciation) of the currency of a coffee exporter affect (a) the price of coffee to producers in the country; (b) international coffee prices in dollars?
  4. Are poor coffee harvests on balance good or bad for coffee producers? How does this depend on the market price elasticity of demand? Does the answer vary from producer to producer?
  5. How does speculation affect coffee prices (both spot and future)? Is such speculation of benefit to (a) the coffee consumer; (b) the coffee grower?
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BHS: the end of an era?

According to the BBC’s Joe Lynam, “Britain has the most competitive and dynamic retail environment in the world, which attracts shoppers globally.” It is perhaps this fact which may save BHS, with new owners being attracted by such an opportunity. BHS is soon expected to file for administration, with debts of more than £1.3 billion and having failed to secure the loan needed to keep it afloat. If this company collapses, it will bring an end to the life of an 88 year old giant.

The British retail scene has certainly changed over the past decade, with names such as Woolworths and Comet disappearing – could BHS be the next casualty of the changing retail climate? In the world of retail, tastes change quickly and those stores who fail to change with the times are the ones that suffer. One of the factors behind the downfall of BHS is the ‘dated’ nature of its stores and fashions. As clothing outlets such as Zara, Oasis and Next have continued to change with the times, commentators suggest that BHS continues with a trading offer from the 1980s. With the online shopping trend, many household names adapted their strategy, but BHS failed to do so and the second chance that BHS asked the public for when Sir Philip Green, its former owner, sold BHS in 2015 hasn’t materialised.

With administrators ready to be brought in and thousands of jobs hanging in the balance, the administrators will be looking at methods to attract funding, new owners or so-called ‘cherry pickers’ who may be interested in buying up the more profitable stores. Some of their stores remain in prime locations and deliver a tidy profit and it is perhaps these gems, together with the tradition that British Home Stores brings that may yet see the company saved. The outcome for BHS will not only affect the jobs of its employees, but will affect the pensions of thousands of workers. The BHS pension fund currently has a deficit of £576 million and so the Pension Protection Fund will have to look closely at the situation before thinking about issues a contribution notice to those connected with the fund.

A deal was on the cards last week, with BHS owner Dominic Chappell in talks with Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct, but the high debts and pensions deficit appears to have deterred this deal. The failing fortunes of BHS have now come back to haunt former owner, Sir Philip Green, who in March 2015, sold the business for just £1. Sir Philip may return to save the day, but the options for this once giant of the British high street are rather limited. The following articles consider the fortunes of BHS.

BHS seeks Sports Direct lifeline as it heads for collapse The Guardian, Graham Ruddick (24/04/16)
BHS expected to file for administration on Monday BBC News (25/04/16)
Thousands of BHS workers face anxious wait amid administration fears The Telegraph (25/04/16)
BHS administration: ‘Imminent bankruptcy’ puts 11,000 jobs at risk Independent, Peter Yeung (25/04/16)
Up to 11,000 jobs face the axe as BHS is expected to announce collapse of chain after efforts to find rescuer failed Mail Online, Neil Craven (24/04/16)
BHS nears collapse putting 11,000 jobs at risk Sky News (25/04/16)
BHS set to file for administration after sales talks fail Financial Times, Murad Ahmed (25/04/16)

Questions

  1. Using a demand and supply diagram, can you explain some of the factors that have contributed to the difficult position that BHS finds itself in?
  2. Now, can you use a diagram showing revenues and profits and explain the current position of BHS?
  3. What type of market structure does BHS operate in? Can this be used to explain why it is in its current position?
  4. How has the company failed in adapting its business strategy to the changing times?
  5. Looking back at the history of BHS, can you apply the product life cycle to this store?
  6. If another company is considering purchasing BHS, or at least some of its stores, what key information will it need and what might make it likely to go ahead with such a purchase?
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Narconomics

In many cases, we simply leave the market to do what it does best – equate demand with supply and from this we get an equilibrium price and the optimal quantity. But, what happens if either the price or quantity is ‘incorrect’? What happens if the market fails to deliver an efficient outcome? In this case, we look to governments to intervene and ‘correct’ the market and such intervention can take place on the demand and/or supply-side. One area where it is generally felt that government intervention is needed is drugs and the trafficking of them across borders.

There are many ways in which governments have tried to tackle the problem of drug usage. The issue is that drugs are bad for individuals, for the community, society and the economy. Too much is produced and consumed and hence we have a classic case of market failure and this justifies government intervention.

But, how should governments intervene? With a substance such as drugs, we have an inelastic demand with resepect to price – any increase in price leads to only a small decrease in quantity. So any policy implemented by governments that attempts to change the market price will have limited effect in restricting demand. With globalisation, drugs can be moved more easily across borders and hence global co-operation is needed to restrict the flow. The article below considers the area of drugs and drug trafficking and looks at some of the policy options open to government.

Narconomics: The business of drug trafficking Houston Chronicle (16/3/16)

Questions

  1. Why does the market fail in the case of drug trafficking?
  2. Draw the demand curve you would expect for drugs and use this to explain why an increase in price will have limited effect on demand.
  3. Is there an argument for making drugs legal as a means of raising tax revenue?
  4. If better educational programmes are introduced about the perils of drug usage, how would this affect the market? Use a demand and supply diagram to help explain your answer.
  5. Why does globalisation make the solutions to drug trafficking more difficult to implement?
  6. Could drug usage and drug trafficking and hence the need to invest more money in tackling the problem actually boost an economy’s rate of growth? If so, does this mean that we should encourage drug usage?
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Will there be an oil price rebound?

People are beginning to get used to low oil prices and acting as if they are going to remain low. Oil is trading at only a little over $30 per barrel and Saudi Arabia is unwilling to backtrack on its policy of maintaining its level of production and not seeking to prevent oil prices from falling. Currently, there is still a position of over supply and hence in the short term the price could continue falling – perhaps to $20 per barrel.

But what of the future? What will happen in the medium term (6 to 12 months) and the longer term? Investment in new oil wells, both conventional and shale oil, have declined substantially. The position of over supply could rapidly come to an end. The Telegraph article below quotes the International Energy Agency’s executive director, Fatih Birol, as saying:

“Investment in oil exploration and production across the world has been cut to the bone, falling 24% last year and an estimated 17% this year. This is… far below the minimum levels needed to keep up with future demand. …

It is easy for consumers to be lulled into complacency by ample stocks and low prices today, but they should heed the writing on the wall: the historic investment cuts raise the odds of unpleasant oil security surprises in the not too distant future.”

And in the Overview of the IEA’s 2016 Medium-Term Oil Market Report, it is stated that

In today’s oil market there is hardly any spare production capacity other than in Saudi Arabia and Iran and significant investment is required just to maintain existing production before we move on to provide the new capacity needed to meet rising oil demand. The risk of a sharp oil price rise towards the later part of our forecast arising from insufficient investment is as potentially de-stabilising as the sharp oil price fall has proved to be.

The higher-cost conventional producers, such as Venezuela, Nigeria, Angola, Russia and off-shore producers, could take a long time to rebuild capacity as investment in conventional wells is costly, especially off-shore.

As far as shale oil producers is concerned – the prime target of Saudi Arabia’s policy of not cutting back supply – production could well bounce back after a relatively short time as wells are re-opened and investment in new wells is resumed.

But, price rises in the medium term could then be followed by lower prices again a year or two thereafter as oil from new investment comes on stream: or they could continue rising if investment is insufficient. It depends on the overall balance of demand and supply. The table shows the IEA’s forecast of production and consumption and the effect on oil stocks. From 2018, it is predicting that consumption will exceed production and that, therefore, stocks will fall – and at an accelerating rate.

But just what happens to the balance of production and consumption will also depend on expectations. If shale oil investors believe that an oil price bounce is temporary, they are likely to hold off investing. But this will, in turn, help to sustain a price bounce, which in turn, could help to encourage investment. So expectations of investors will depend on what other investors expect to happen – a very difficult outcome to predict. It’s a form of Keynesian beauty contest (see the blog post A stock market beauty contest of the machines) where what is important is what other people think will happen, which in turn depends on what they think other people will do, and so on.

Webcast
At $30 oil price, shale rebound may take much, much longer CNBC, Patti Domm , Bob Iaccino, Helima Croft and Matt Smith (25/2/16)

Article
Opec has failed to stop US shale revolution admits energy watchdog The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (27/2/16)

Report
Medium-term Oil Market Report 2016: Overview International Energy Agency (IEA) (22/2/16)

Questions

  1. Using demand and supply diagrams, demonstrate (a) what happened to oil prices in 2015; (b) what is likely to happen to them in 2016; (c) what is likely to happen to them in 2017/18.
  2. Why have oil prices fallen so much over the past 12 months?
  3. Using aggregate demand and supply analysis, demonstrate the effect of lower oil prices on a national economy.
  4. What have have been the advantages and disadvantages of lower oil prices? In your answer, distinguish between the effects on different people, countries and the world generally.
  5. Why is oil supply more price elastic in the long run than in the short run?
  6. Why does supply elasticity vary between different types of oil fields (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
  7. What determines whether speculation about future oil prices is likely to be stabilising or destabilising?
  8. What role has OPEC played in determining the oil price over the past few months? What role can it play over the coming years?
  9. Explain the concept of a ‘Keynesian beauty contest’ in the context of speculation about future oil prices, and why this makes the prediction of future oil prices more difficult.
  10. Give some other examples of human behaviour which is in the form of a Keynesian beauty contest.
  11. Why may playing a Keynesian beauty contest lead to an undesirable Nash equilibrium?
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Venezuela: policies to save the economy?

In the UK, petrol prices have fallen significantly over the past couple of years and currently stand in some places at below £1 per litre. For UK residents, this price is seen as being cheap, but if we compare it to prices in Venezuela, we get quite a different picture. Prices are increasing here for the first time in 20 years from $0.01 per litre to $0.60 per litre – around 40 pence, while lower grade petrol increases to $0.10 per litre.

Venezuela has oil fields in abundance, but has not used this natural resource to its full potential to bolster the struggling economy. The price of petrol has been heavily subsidised for decades and the removal of this subsidy is expected to save around $800 million per year.

This will be important for the economy, given its poor economic growth, high inflation and shortages of some basic products. Venezuela relies on oil as the main component of its export revenues and so it has been hit very badly, by such low oil prices. The money from this reduced subsidy will be used to help social programmes across the country, which over time should help the economy.

In addition to this reduced subsidy on petrol prices, Venezuela’s President has also taken steps to devalue the exchange rate. This will help to boost the economy’s competitiveness and so is another policy being implemented to help the economy. However, some analysts have said that these changes don’t go far enough, calling them ‘small steps’, ‘nowhere near what is required’ and ‘late and insufficient’. The following articles consider the Venezuelan crisis and policies.

Venezuela raises petrol price for first time in 20 years BBC News (18/02/16)
Venezuela president raises fuel price by 6,000% and devalues bolivar to tackle crisis The Guardian, Sibylla Brodzinsky (18/02/16)
Venezuela’s Maduro devalues currency and raises gasoline prices Financial Times, Andres Schipani (18/02/16)
Venezuela hikes gasoline price for first time in 20 years The Economic Times (18/02/16)
Venezuela hikes fuel prices by 6000%, devalues currency to tackle economic crisis International Business Times, Avaneesh Pandey (18/02/16)
Market dislikes Venezuela reforms but debt rallies again Reuters (18/02/16)

Questions

  1. Why are oil prices so important for the Venezuelan economy?
  2. How will they affect the country’s export revenues and hence aggregate demand?
  3. Inflation in Venezuela has been very high recently. What is the cause of such high inflation? Illustrate this using an aggregate demand/aggregate supply diagram.
  4. How will a devaluation of the currency help Venezuela? How does this differ from a depreciation?
  5. Petrol prices have been subsidised in Venezuela for 20 years. Show how this government subsidy has affected petrol prices. Now that this subsidy is being reduced, how will this affect prices – show this on your diagram.
  6. Why are many analysts suggesting that these policies are insufficient to help the Venezuelan economy?
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One little piggy went to market …

Pork – a favourite food of many Brits, whether it’s as a key ingredient of a roast dinner or a full English Breakfast! But, British pig farmers may be in for a tricky ride and we might be seeing foreign pork on our plates in the months to come. This is because of the falling price of pork, which may be driving local farmers out of the market.

As we know, market prices are determined by the interaction of demand and supply and as market conditions change, this will affect the price at which pork sells at. This in turn will have an impact on the incomes of farmers and hence on farmers’ ability to survive in the market. According to forecasts from Defra, specialist pig farms are expected to see a fall in income by 46%, from £49,400 to £26,500 in 2016. A key driver of this, is the decline in the price of pork, which have fallen by an average of £10 per pig. This loss in income has led to pig farmers facing the largest declines of any type of farm, even beating the declines of dairy farmers, which have been well-documented.

If we think about the forces of demand and supply and how these have led to such declines in prices, we can turn to a few key things. Following the troubles in Russia and the Ukraine and Western sanctions being imposed on Russia, a retaliation of sorts was Russia banning European food imports. This therefore reduced demand for British pork. Adding to this decline in demand, there were further factors pushing down demand, following suggestions about the adverse impact that bacon and ham have on health. If pig farmers in the UK continue with the number of pigs they have and bearing in mind they would have invested in their pig farms before such bans and warnings were issued, then we see supply being maintained, demand falling and prices being pushed downwards.

Zoe Davies, Chief Executive of the National Pig Association said:

“This year is going to be horrendous for the British pig industry … Trading has been tough for at least 18 months now and we are starting to see people leave. We’re already seeing people calling in saying they’ve decided to give up. All we can hope is that more people leave European pig farms before ours do.”

We can also look to other factors that have been driving pig farmers out of business, including a strong pound, the glut of supply in Europe and productivity in the UK. Lily Hiscock, a commentator in this market said:

“It is estimated that the average pig producer is now in a loss-making position after 18 months of positive margins … The key factors behind the fall in markets are the exchange rate, UK productivity and retail demand … Indeed, pigmeat seems to be losing out to cheaper poultry meat in consumers’ shopping baskets … The recent fall in prices may stimulate additional demand, and a strengthening economy could help, but at present these are hopes rather than expectations.”

The future of British pig farms is hanging in the balance. If the economy grows, then demand may rise, offsetting the fall in demand being driven by other factors. We will also see how the exit of pig farmers affects prices, as each pig farmer drops out of the market, supply is being cut and prices rise. Though this is not good news for the farmers who go out of business, it may be an example of survival of the fittest. The following articles consider the market for pork.

Podcast
UK pork market, Poppers, Scrap Metal BBC Radio 4, You and Yours (28/01/16)

Articles
Drop in global pork prices to bottom out – at 10-year lows agrimoney.com (29/01/16)
UK pork crisis looms as pig farmers expect income to half in 2016 Independent, Zlata Rodionova (5/02/16)
British pig farmers et for horrendous year as pork prices fall Western Morning News (17/01/16)

Questions

  1. What are they demand-side and supply-side factors which have pushed down the price of pork?
  2. Illustrate these effects using a demand and supply diagram.
  3. Into which market structure, would you place the pork industry?
  4. Using a diagram showing costs and revenues, explain why pig farmers in the UK are being forced out of the market.
  5. How has the strength of the pound affected pork prices in the UK?
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The Economics of Good and Evil: Tomas Sedlacek

Economics, but not as we know it. As the introduction to this programme on BBC radio 4 suggests, there has been criticism and concern about the way in which we think about economics. About, how it’s taught; the lessons we learn and whether we need to have a re-think. Tomas Sedlacek is a Czech economist and has a different way of thinking about this subject.

Humanomics is certainly a new way of thinking about economics and considering how it links and can be applied to a wide range of areas: the Bible; movies such as Fight Club and the Matrix. This 30 minute discussion between Evan Davies and Tomas Sedlacek provides some interesting insights and thoughts on some of the current challenges facing this subject and some novel insights into how we could change our thinking.

Tomas Sedlacek: The Economics of Good and Evil BBC Radio 4 (25/01/16)

Questions

  1. How do we define and measure value? Is this always possible? Can you think of some things where we cannot assign prices or numbers to values?
  2. How could economics be relevant Adam and Eve?
  3. Think about the marriage market. How would you apply the model of demand and supply to this most unusual of markets?
  4. What insights does Tomas Sedlacek provide about the ancient business cycle and this might affect our thinking about debt and assets?
  5. Do you think that refugees are of benefit to a country? If you don’t think they are of benefit, does this mean that countries should not accept them?
  6. If we did find out that corruption or crime and terrorism were of benefit to the GDP of a country, would you encourage it? Or would you place the morality issue above the actual figure of contribution?
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£1 per litre

The price of petrol is of interest to most families, occupying a key component of weekly expenditure. Over the past decade, it has fluctuated significantly, from around 85p per litre to over £1.40. More recently, prices have been around £1.03 to £1.10, depending on the brand and the location. But, will we see prices falling below that magical £1 per litre mark?

We have recently seen a 2p drop in wholesale fuel prices and it is this which has led to speculation about a further fall in prices at petrol stations to below £1. This, according to the RAC, has a ‘very good chance’ of happening.

A key determinant of petrol prices is the market price for crude oil and it is this which has been contributing towards the low petrol prices. As these prices filter through to the pumps, the RAC suggests that prices may once again come down. Furthermore, with some of the key petrol stations being operated by the big supermarkets, competition for sales and hence on prices may be fierce.

But, now let’s consider another well-informed organisation. According to the AA, the chances of petrol prices falling below £1 are ‘remote’. So, who should we believe? In fact, we can probably believe both. The market price may not fall below £1, but in the run-up to Christmas and in the start of the New Year, we may well see petrol on sale for under £1 as a means to entice shoppers or, as the AA has said, as a ‘marketing gimmick’. As you can see from the picture, Asda has dropped the price below £1 per litre in some of its petrol stations.

You might think this is a little strange, given the inelastic nature of the demand for petrol: after all, as prices of petrol rise and fall, I for one, don’t change my demand. This is also confirmed by HMRC, which reports that total petrol consumption is falling despite the low prices. But, it’s probably less about changing your total demand for petrol and more about from where you buy that total demand. For any one petrol station, the demand may be relatively elastic. It is this which may fuel a price war on petrol. The following articles consider this.

£1 per litre petrol? It’s unlikely The Telegraph, Rozina Sabur (20/11/15)
‘Good chance’ of £1 per litre petrol, says RAC BBC News (20/11/15)
Petrol prices ‘could fall below £1 per litre’ ITV News (20/11/15)
Fuel Prices: ‘Good chance’ of £1 a litre Sky News (20/11/15)

Questions

  1. What are they demand-side and supply-side factors which have helped to cut the price of petrol? Use a diagram to illustrate your answer.
  2. How much of a role has OPEC played in keeping petrol prices down in the UK?
  3. Why is the demand for petrol price inelastic?
  4. HMRC suggests that despite low prices, the demand for petrol has been falling. Does this suggest that the demand curve for petrol is upward sloping? Explain your answer.
  5. If the demand for petrol is falling, can this tell car companies anything about the future demand for vehicles? Which concepts are important here?
  6. If petrol prices do not fall to reflect falling oil prices, what does this suggest about the profit margins on petrol? Should government intervene?
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An oil glut

The demand for oil is growing and yet the price of oil, at around $46 per barrel over the past few weeks, remains at less than half that of the period from 2011 to mid 2014. The reason is that supply has been much larger than demand. The result has been a large production surplus and a growth in oil stocks. Supply did fall somewhat in October, which reduced the surplus in 2015 Q3 below than of the record level in Q2 – but the surplus was still the second highest on record.

What is more, the modest growth in demand is forecast to slow in 2016. Supply, however, is expected to decrease through the first three quarters of 2016, before rising again at the end of 2016. The result will be a modest rise in price into 2016, to around $56 per barrel, compared with an average of just over $54 per barrel so far for 2015 (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below).

But why does supply remain so high, given such low prices? As we saw in the post The oil industry and low oil prices, it is partly the result of increases in supply from large-scale investment in new sources of oil over the past few years, such as the fracking of shale deposits, and partly the increased output by OPEC designed to keep prices low and make new investment in shale oil unprofitable.

So why then doesn’t supply drop off rapidly? As we saw in the post, A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2), even though shale oil producers in the USA need a price of around $70 or more to make investment in new sources profitable, the marginal cost of extracting oil from existing sources is only around $10 to £20 per barrel. This means that shale oil production will continue until the end of the life of the wells. Given that wells typically have a life of at least three years, it could take some time for the low prices to have a significant effect on supply. According to the US Energy Information Administration’s forecasts, US crude oil production will drop next year by only just over 5%, from an average of 9.3 million barrels per day in 2015 to 8.8 million barrels per day in 2016.

In the meantime, we can expect low oil prices to continue for some time. Whilst this is bad news for oil exporters, it is good news for oil importing countries, as the lower costs will help aid recovery.

Webcasts
IEA says oil glut could worsen through 2016 Euronews (13/11/15)
IEA Says Record 3 Billion-Barrel Oil Stocks May Deepen Rout BloombergBusiness, Grant Smith (13/11/15)

Articles
IEA Offers No Hope For An Oil-Price Recovery Forbes, Art Berman (13/11/15)
Oil glut to swamp demand until 2020 Financial Times, Anjli Raval (10/11/15)
Record oil glut stands at 3bn barrels BBC News (13/11/15)
Global oil glut highest in a decade as inventories soar The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (12/11/15)
The Oil Glut Was Created In Q1 2015; Q3 OECD Inventory Movements Are Actually Quite Normal Seeking Alpha (13/11/15)
Record oil glut stands at 3 billion barrels Arab News (14/11/15)
OPEC Update 2015: No End To Oil Glut, Low Prices, As Members Prepare For Tense Meeting International Business Times, Jess McHugh (12/11/15)
Surviving The Oil Glut Investing.com, Phil Flynn (11/11/15)

Reports and data
Oil Market Report International Energy Agency (IEA) (13/11/15)
Short-term Energy Outlook US Energy Information Administration (EIA) (10/11/15)
Brent Crude Prices US Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Questions

  1. Using demand and supply diagrams, demonstrate (a) what has been happening to oil prices in 2015 and (b) what is likely to happen to them in 2016.
  2. How are the price elasticities of demand and supply relevant in explaining the magnitude of oil price movements?
  3. What are oil prices likely to be in five years’ time?
  4. Using aggregate demand and supply analysis, demonstrate the effect of lower oil prices on a national economy.
  5. Why might the downward effect on inflation from lower oil prices act as a stimulus to the economy? Is this consistent with deflation being seen as requiring a stimulus from central banks, such as lower interest rates or quantitative easing?
  6. Do you agree with the statement that “Saudi Arabia is acting directly against the interests of half the cartel and is running OPEC over a cliff”?
  7. If the oil price is around $70 per barrel in a couple of years’ time, would it be worth oil companies investing in shale oil wells at that point? Explain why or why not.
  8. Distinguish between short-run and long-run shut down points. Why is the short-run shut down price likely to be lower than the long-run one?
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Do you mind if your vegetables are wonky?

This rather strange question has been central to a storm that has been brewing between various celebrity chefs, including Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the supermarkets. Supermarkets say that consumers don’t want irregular shaped vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and potatoes. ‘Nonsense’, say their critics.

At the centre of the storm are the farmers, who find a large proportion of their vegetables are rejected by the supermarkets. And these are vegetables which are not damaged or bad – simply not of the required shape. Although these rejected vegetables have been described as ‘wonky’, in fact many are not wonky at all, but simply a little too large or too small, or too short or too long. Most of these vegetables are simply wasted – ploughed back into the ground, or at best used for animal feed.

And it’s not just shape; it’s colour too. Many producers of apples find a large proportion being rejected because they are too red or not red enough.

But do consumers really want standardised fruit vegetables? Are the supermarkets correct? Are they responding to demand? Or are they attempting to manipulate demand?

Supermarkets claim that they are just responding to what consumers want. Their critics say that they are setting ludicrously rigid cosmetic standards which are of little concern to consumers. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall states:

‘It’s only when you see the process of selection on the farm, how it has been honed and intensified, it just looks mad. There are many factory line systems where you have people looking for faults on the production line; in this system you’re looking for the good ones.

What we’re asking supermarkets to do is to relax their cosmetic standards for the vegetables that all get bagged up and sold together. It’s about slipping a few more of the not-so-perfect ones into the bag.’

In return, consumers must be prepared to let the supermarkets know that they are against these cosmetic standards and are perfectly happy to buy slightly more irregular fruit and vegetables. Indeed, this is beginning to happen through social media. The pressure group 38 degrees has already taken up the cause.

But perhaps consumers ‘voting with their feet’ is what will change supermarkets’ behaviour. With the rise of small independent greengrocers, many from Eastern Europe, there is now intense competition in the fruit and vegetables market in many towns and cities. Perhaps supermarkets will be forced to sell slightly less cosmetically ‘perfect’ produce at a lower price to meet this competition.

Videos
Hugh’s War on Waste Episode 1 BBC on YouTube, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2/11/15)
Hugh’s War on Waste Episode 2 BBC on YouTube, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (9/11/15)

Articles
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rejects Morrisons’ ‘pathetic’ wonky veg trial The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (9/11/15)
Jamie Oliver leads drive to buy misshapen fruit and vegetables The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (1/1/15)
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s war over wonky parsnips The Telegraph, Patrick Foster (30/10/15)
Asda extends ‘wonky’ fruit and veg range Resource, Edward Perchard (4/11/15)
Wearne’s last farmer shares memories and laments loss of farming community in Langport area Western Gazette, WGD Mumby (8/11/15)
Viewpoint: The rejected vegetables that aren’t even wonky BBC News Magazine (28/10/15)
Viewpoint: The supermarkets’ guilty secret about unsold food BBC News Magazine (6/11/15)

Questions

  1. What market failures are there is the market for fresh fruit and vegetables?
  2. Supermarkets are oligopsonists in the wholesale market for fruit and vegetables. What is the implication of this for (a) farmers; (b) consumers?
  3. Is there anything that (a) consumers and (b) the government can do to stop the waste of fruit and vegetables grown for supermarkets?
  4. How might supermarkets estimate the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables and its price elasticity?
  5. What can supermarkets do with unsold food? What incentives are there for supermarkets not to throw it away but to make good use of it?
  6. Could appropriate marketing persuade people to be less concerned about the appearance of fruit and vegetables? What form might this marketing take?
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