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Articles for the ‘Economics 8e: Ch 10’ Category

Pensioner hazard

In his Budget on March 19, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced fundamental changes to the way people access their pensions. Previously, many people with pension savings were forced to buy an annuity. These pay a set amount of income per month from retirement for the remainder of a person’s life.

But, with annuity rates (along with other interest rates) being at historically low levels, many pensioners have struggled to make ends meet. Even those whose pension pots did not require them to buy an annuity were limited in the amount they could withdraw each year unless they had other guaranteed income of over £20,000.

Now pensioners will no longer be required to buy an annuity and they will have much greater flexibility in accessing their pensions. As the Treasury website states:

This means that people can choose how they access their defined contribution pension savings; for example they could take all their pension savings as a lump sum, draw them down over time, or buy an annuity.

While many have greeted the news as a liberation of the pensions market, there is also the worry that this has created a moral hazard. When people retire, will they be tempted to blow their savings on foreign travel, a new car or other luxuries? And then, when their pension pot has dwindled and their health is failing, will they then be forced to rely on the state to fund their care?

But even if pensioners resist the urge to go on an immediate spending spree, there are still large risks in giving people the freedom to spend their pension savings as they choose. As the Scotsman article below states:

The risks are all too obvious. Behaviour will change. People who no longer have to buy an annuity will not do so but will then be left with a pile of cash. What to do with it? Spend it? Invest it? There are many new risky choices. But the biggest of all can be summed up in one fact: when we retire our life expectancy continues to grow. For every day we live after 65 it increases by six and a half hours. That’s right – an extra two-and-a-half years every decade.

The glory of an annuity is it pays you an income for every year you live – no matter how long. The problem with cash is that it runs out. Already the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that the reform ‘depends on highly uncertain behavioural assumptions about when people take the money’. And that ‘there is a market failure here. There will be losers from this policy’.

We do not have perfect knowledge about how long we will live or even how long we can be expected to live given our circumstances. Many people are likely to suffer from a form of myopia that makes them blind to the future: “We’re likely to be dead before the money has run out”; or “Let’s enjoy ourselves now while we still can”; or “We’ll worry about the future when it comes”.

The point is that there are various market failings in the market for pensions and savings. Will the decisions of the Chancellor have made them better or worse?

Articles
Pension shakeup in budget leaves £14bn annuities industry reeling The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (20/3/14)
Chancellor vows to scrap compulsory annuities in pensions overhaul The Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Harriet Meyer (19/3/14)
Labour backs principle of George Osborne’s pension shakeup The Guardian, Rowena Mason (23/3/14)
Osborne’s pensions overhaul may mean there is little left for future rainy days The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/3/14)
Let’s celebrate the Chancellor’s bravery on pensions – now perhaps the Government can tackle other mighty vested interests Independent on Sunday, Mary Dejevsky (23/3/14)
A vote-buying Budget The Scotsman, John McTernan (21/3/14)
L&G warns on mis-selling risks of pension changes The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (26/3/14)
Budget 2014: Pension firms stabilise after £5 billion sell off Interactive Investor, Ceri Jones (20/3/14)

Budget publications
Budget 2014: pensions and saving policies Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: documents HM Treasury (March 2014)
Freedom and choice in pensions HM Treasury (March 2014)

Questions

  1. What market failures are there in the market for pensions?
  2. To what extent will the new measures help to tackle the existing market failures in the pension industry?
  3. Explain the concept of moral hazard. To what extent will the new pension arrangements create a moral hazard?
  4. Who will be the losers from the new arrangements?
  5. Assume that you have a choice of how much to pay into a pension scheme. What is likely to determine how much you will choose to pay?
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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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A 50p top tax rate: more or less money for the government?

The UK Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has announced that, if Labour is returned to power in the next election, it will bring back the 50% top rate of income tax (see also). This will apply to incomes over £150,000.

But will this raise more tax revenue? The question here concerns incentive effects. Will the higher rate of income tax discourage work by those earning £150,000 or encourage tax avoidance or tax evasion, so that the total tax take is reduced? The Conservatives say the answer is yes. The Labour party says no, claiming that there will still be an increase in tax revenue.

The possible effects are summed up in the Laffer curve (see The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). As the previous post stated:

These arguments were put forward in the 1980s by Art Laffer, an adviser to President Reagan. His famous ‘Laffer curve’ (see Economics (8th edition) Box 10.3) illustrated that tax revenues are maximised at a particular tax rate. The idea behind the Laffer curve is very simple. At a tax rate of 0%, tax revenue will be zero – but so too at a rate of 100%, since no-one would work if they had to pay all their income in taxes. As the tax rate rises from 0%, so tax revenue would rise. And so too, as the tax rate falls from 100%, the tax rate would rise. It follows that there will be some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximises tax revenue.

As Labour is claiming that re-introducing the 50% top rate of income tax will increase tax revenue, the implication is that the economy is to the left of the top of the Laffer curve: that, at current level of income, the curve is still rising.

Work by HMRC, and published in the document The Exchequer effect of the 50 per cent additional rate of income tax, suggested that the previous cut in the top rate from 50% to 45% would cut revenue by around £3.5 billion if there were no incentive effect, but with the extra work that would be generated, the cut would be a mere £100 million. This implies, other things being equal, that a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would raise only a tiny bit of extra taxes.

However, the HMRC analysis has been criticised and especially its assumptions about the incentive effects on work. Then there is the question of whether a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would have exactly the reverse effect of a cut from 50% to 45%. And then there is the question of how much HMRC could reduce tax evasion and avoidance.

The following article from the Institute for Fiscal Studies examines the effects. However, the authors conclude that:

… at the moment, the best evidence we have still suggests that raising the top rate of tax would raise little revenue and make, at best, a marginal contribution to reducing the budget deficit an incoming government would face after the next election.

But there is also the question of equity. Putting aside the question of how much revenue would be raised, is it fair to raise the top rate of tax for those on high incomes? Would it make an important contribution to reducing inequality? This normative question lies at the heart of the different views of the world between left and right and is not a question that can be answered by economic analysis.

50p tax – strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve? Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson and David Phillips (Jan 2014)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between tax evasion and tax avoidance.
  2. How would it be possible for a rise in tax rates to generated less tax revenue?
  3. Could policies shift the Laffer curve as opposed to merely resulting in a move along the curve?
  4. What is meant by ‘taxable income elasticity (TIE)’? What are its determinants?
  5. Is the taxable income elasticity at the top of the Laffer curve equal to, above or below zero? Explain.
  6. Why did the Office for Budget Responsibility chairman, Robert Chote, conclude that, whatever the precise answer, we were ‘strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve’?
  7. Explain why ‘there is little additional evidence to suggest that a 50p rate would raise more than was estimated by HMRC back in 2012′.
  8. What contribution can economists make to the debate on the desirability of reducing inequality?
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Time to leave GDP behind?

GDP is still the most frequently used indicator of a country’s development. When governments target economic growth as a key goal, it is growth in GDP to which they are referring. And they often make the assumption that growth in GDP is a proxy for growth in well-being. But is it time to leave GDP behind as the main indicator of national economic success? This is the question posed in the first of the linked articles below, from the prestigious science journal Nature.

As the article states:

Robert F. Kennedy once said that a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. The metric was developed in the 1930s and 1940s amid the upheaval of the Great Depression and global war. Even before the United Nations began requiring countries to collect data to report national GDP, Simon Kuznets, the metric’s chief architect, had warned against equating its growth with well-being.

GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country

So what could replace GDP, or be considered alongside GDP? Should we try to measure happiness? After all, behavioural scientists are getting much better at understanding and measuring the psychology of human well-being (see the blog posts Money can’t buy me love and Happiness economics).

Or should we focus primarily on long-term issues of the sustainability of development? Or should we focus more on the distribution of income or well-being in a world that is becoming increasingly unequal?

Or should measures of well-being involve weighted composite indices involving things such as life-expectancy, education, housing, democratic engagement, leisure time, social mobility, etc. And, if so, how should the weightings of the different indicators be determined? The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) produces annual Human Development Reports, where countries are ranked according to a Human Development Index. As the UNDP site states:

The breakthrough for the HDI was the creation of a single statistic which was to serve as a frame of reference for both social and economic development. The HDI sets a minimum and a maximum for each dimension, called goalposts, and then shows where each country stands in relation to these goalposts, expressed as a value between 0 and 1.

HDI is a composite of three sets of indicators: education, life expectancy and income (see). The UNDP since 2010 has also produced an Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI).

The IHDI will be equal to the HDI value when there is no inequality, but falls below the HDI value as inequality rises. The difference between the HDI and the IHDI represents the ‘loss’ in potential human development due to inequality and can be expressed as a percentage.

You can now build your own HDI for each country on the UNDP site by selecting from the following indicators: health, education, income, inequality, poverty and gender.

The Nature article considers a number of measures of progress and considers their relative merits. The other articles also look at measuring national progress and well-being and at the relationship between income per head and happiness. It is clear that focusing on GDP alone provides too simplistic an approach to measuring development.

Development: Time to leave GDP behind Nature, Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Enrico Giovannini, Hunter Lovins, Jacqueline McGlade, Kate E. Pickett, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Debra Roberts, Roberto De Vogli and Richard Wilkinson (15/1/14)
The happiness agenda makes for miserable policy The Conversation, Daniel Sage (9/1/14)
Economic view: No matter what the politicians say, GDP is a distorted guide to economic performance and a bad way to measure prosperity Independent, Guy Hands (28/1/14)
Buy buy love The Economist (22/6/13)
Experts confirm that money does buy happiness – but only up to £22,100 Independent, Jamie Merrill (28/11/13)
Can Money Buy Happiness? Scientific American, Sonja Lyubomirsky (10/8/10)
Money can buy happiness The Economist (2/5/13)
Money can buy happiness Hacker News, pyduan (13/1/14)
Can ‘happiness economics’ provide a new framework for development? The Guardian, Christian Kroll (3/9/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Financial crisis hits happiness levels BBC News (3/11/13)
Happiness study finds that UK is passing point of peak life satisfaction The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/11/13)
How GDP became the figure everyone wanted to watch BBC News, Peter Day (16/4/14)
Economic development can only buy happiness up to a ‘sweet spot’ of $36,000 GDP per person Science Daily (27/11/13)

Questions

  1. What does GDP measure?
  2. How suitable a measure of economic progress is growth in GDP?
  3. How can GDP be adjusted to make it a more suitable measure of economic progress?
  4. What are the advantages of using composite indicators of well-being?
  5. What difficulties are there in measuring well-being using composite indicators?
  6. Assuming there were no measurement problems, what indicators would you include in devising the optimum composite indicator of well-being?
  7. Can money buy happiness?
  8. Why do life satisfaction levels peak at around $36,000 (adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP))?
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Making economic sense of politicians’ statements

Politicians often make use of economic statistics to promote their point of view. A good example is a claim made by the UK Prime Minister on 23 January 2014. According to the latest statistics, he said, most British workers have seen their take-home pay rise in real terms. The Labour party countered this by arguing that incomes are not keeping up with prices.

So who is right? Studying economics and being familiar with analysing economic data should help you answer this question. Not surprisingly, the answer depends on just how you define the issue and what datasets you use.

The Prime Minister was referring to National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE). This shows that in April 2013 median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £517.5, up 2.25% from £506.10 in 2012, and mean gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were £620.30, up 2.06% from £607.80 in 2012 (see Table 1.1a in the dataset). CPI inflation over this period was 2.4%, representing a real fall in median gross weekly earnings of 0.15% and mean gross weekly earnings of 0.34%.

But when adjustments are made for increases in personal income tax allowances, then, according to the government, except for the richest 10% of the working population, people had an average increase in real take-home pay of 1.1%.

But does this paint the complete picture? Critics of the government’s claim that people are ‘better off’, make the following points.

First, the ASHE dataset is for the year ending April 2013. The ONS publishes other datasets that show that real wages have fallen faster since then. The Earnings and Working Hours datasets, published monthly, currently go up to November 2013. The chart shows real wages from January 2005 to November 2013 (with CPI = 100 in December 2013). You can see that the downward trend resumed after mid 2013. In the year to November 2013, nominal average weekly earnings rose by 0.9%, while CPI inflation was 2.1%. Thus real weekly earnings fell by 1.2% over the period (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).

Second, there is the question of whether CPI or RPI inflation should be used in calculating real wages. RPI inflation was 2.9% (compared to CPI inflation of 2.4%) in the year to April 2013. The chart shows weekly earnings adjusted for both CPI and RPI.

Third, if, instead of looking at gross real wages, the effect of income tax and national insurance changes are taken into account, then benefit changes ought also to be taken into account. Some benefits, such as tax credits and child benefit were cut in the year to April 2013.

Fourth, looking at just one year (and not even the latest 12 months) gives a very partial picture. It is better to look at a longer period and see what the trends are. The chart shows the period from 2005. Real wages (CPI adjusted) are 8.0% lower than at the peak (at the beginning of 2009) and 5.0% lower than at the time of the election in 2010. The differences are even greater if RPI-adjusted wages are used.

But even if the claim that real incomes are rising is open to a number of objections, it may be that as the recovery begins to gather pace, real incomes will indeed begin to rise. But to assess whether this is so will require a careful analysis of the statistics when they become available.

Articles
UK pay rising in real terms, says coalition BBC News (24/1/14)
Are we really any better off than we were? BBC News, Brian Milligan (24/1/14)
Government take-home pay figures ‘perfectly sensible’ BBC Today Programme, Paul Johnson (24/1/14)
Take-Home Pay ‘Rising Faster Than Prices’ Sky News, Darren McCaffrey (25/1/14)
David Cameron hails the start of ‘recovery for all’ The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (23/1/14)
Is take-home pay improving? The answer is anything but simple The Guardian, Phillip Inman and Katie Allen (24/1/14)
Cameron’s ‘good news’ about rising incomes is misleading says Labour The Guardian, Rowena Mason (24/1/14)
The Tories’ claim that living standards have risen is nonsense on stilts New Statesman, George Eaton (24/1/14)
FactCheck: Conservative claims on rising living standards Channel 4 News, Patrick Worrall (25/1/14)
Living standards squeeze continues in UK, says IFS BBC News (31/1/14)
Richest have seen biggest cash income squeeze but poorest have faced higher inflation IFS Press Release (31/1/14)

Data
Average Weekly Earnings dataset ONS (22/1/14)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results ONS (12/12/13)
Consumer Price Inflation, December 2013 ONS (14/1/14)
Inequality and Poverty Spreadsheet Institute for Fiscal Studies
An Examination of Falling Real Wages, 2010 to 2013 ONS (31/1/14)

Questions

  1. Why are mean weekly earnings higher than median weekly earnings?
  2. Explain the difference between RPI and CPI. Which is the more appropriate index for determining changes in real incomes?
  3. Find out what benefit changes have taken place over the past two years and how they have affected household incomes.
  4. How have gross weekly earnings changed for the different income groups? (The ASHE gives figures for decile groups.)
  5. Which is better for assessing changes in incomes: weekly earnings or hourly earnings?
  6. How would you define a change in living standards? What data would you need to be able to assess whether living standards have increased or decreased?
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Effects of raising the minimum wage

Conservative Party leaders are considering the benefits of an above-inflation rise in the minimum wage. This policy has been advocated by both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats as a means of helping the lowest paid workers. From 2008 to 2013, minimum wage rates fell 5.2% in real terms: in other words, nominal increases were less than the increase in both the RPI and CPI (see UK minimum wage: a history in numbers).

Advocates of a real rise in the minimum wage argue that not only would it help low-paid workers, many of whom are in severe financial difficulties, but it would benefit the Treasury. According to Policy Exchange, a free-market think tank closely aligned to the Conservative Party, increasing the minimum wage by 50p would save the Government an estimated £750m a year through higher tax revenues and lower benefit payments.

But even such a rise to £6.81 would still leave the minimum wage substantially below the living wage of £8.80 in London and £7.65 in the rest of the UK, as estimated by the Living Wage Foundation (see The cost of a living wage). Although many businesses are now paying at least the living wage, many others, especially small businesses, argue that a rise in the minimum wage above the rate of inflation would force them to consider cutting the number of employees or reducing hours for part-time workers.

Meanwhile, in the USA 13 states have raised their minimum wage rates from the 1st January 2014 (see). Some of the rises, however, were tiny: as little as 15 cents. In a couple of cases, the rise is $1. Currently 21 states and DC have minimum wage rates above the Federal level of $7.25 (approx. £4.40); 20 states have rates the same as the Federal level; 4 states have rates below the Federal level. At $9.32 per hour, Washington State has the highest state minimum wage; the lowest rates ($5.15) are in Georgia and Wyoming. In 5 states there is no minimum wage at all. As the ABC article below states:

The piecemeal increases at the local level are occurring amidst a national debate over low wages and income inequality. Fast food and retail workers have been staging protests and walking off work for more than a year, calling for better pay and more hours. Currently, fast food workers nationally earn an average of about $9 per hour.

Workers from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and other fast food joints are calling for $15 per hour. Wal-Mart workers organizing as part of the union-backed OUR Walmart aren’t asking for a specific dollar amount increase, but they say it’s impossible to live on the wages they currently receive.

President Obama has been throwing his weight behind the issue. Earlier this month, the President said in a speech that it’s “well past the time to raise the minimum wage that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.” But such legislation has a bleaker outlook if it reaches the Republican-led House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner has said that raising the minimum wage leads to a pullback in hiring.

So what are the costs and benefits of a significant real rise is the minimum wage on either side of the Atlantic? The articles explore the issues.

Articles: UK
Lib Dems accuse Tories of ‘stealing’ their policy as George Osborne prepares to approve above-inflation rise in minimum wage Independent, Andrew Grice (7/1/14)
Lib Dems accuse Tories of ‘nicking’ party’s policy on low wages The Guardian, Nicholas Watt (7/1/14)
Cut housing benefit? A higher minimum wage would help The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (6/1/14)
Miliband prepares to wage war The Scotsman, Andrew Whitaker (8/1/14)
Increasing the minimum wage is only a half answer to poverty New Statesman, Helen Barnard (8/1/14)
Raise the bar: Economically and socially, Britain needs higher wages Independent (7/1/14)
Another Tory says there’s a ‘strong case’ for raising the minimum wage The Spectator, Isabel Hardman (8/1/14)
Fairness and the minimum wage Financial Times (7/1/14)
Osborne wants above-inflation minimum wage rise BBC News (16/1/14)
George Osborne backs minimum wage rise to £7 an hour The Guardian, Nicholas Watt, (16/1/14)
Minimum wage: in his efforts to defeat Labour, Osborne risks mimicking them The Telegraph, Benedict Brogan (16/1/14)
Minimum wage announcement is not just good economics The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/1/14)

Articles: USA
13 states raising pay for minimum-wage workers USA Today, Paul Davidson (30/12/13)
Minimum wage increase: Wage to rise in 13 states on Jan. 1 ABC15 (30/12/13)
NJ minimum wage sees $1 bump on Jan. 1 Bloomberg Businessweek, Angela Delli Santi (31/12/13)
Minimum wage hike a job killer ctpost, Rick Torres (7/1/14)
A Business Owners Case For Raising The Minimum Wage Grundy Country Herald, David Bolotsky (7/1/14)
Raising the Minimum Wage Isn’t Just Good Politics. It’s Good Economics, Too. New Republic, Noam Scheiber (31/12/13)
Minimum wage rises across 13 US states Financial Times, James Politi (1/1/14)

Information
National Minimum Wage rates GOV.UK
UK minimum wage: a history in numbers Guardian Datablog
List of minimum wages by country Wikipedia

Questions

  1. Draw two diagrams to demonstrate the direct microeconomic effect of a rise in the minimum wage for two employers, both currently paying the minimum wage, where the first is operating in an otherwise competitive labour market and the other is a monopsonist.
  2. What is meant by the term ‘efficiency wage rate’? How is the concept relevant to the debate about the effects of raising the minimum wage rate?
  3. What are the likely macroeconomic effects of raising the minimum wage rate?
  4. What is the likely impact of raising the minimum wage rate on public finances?
  5. Is raising the minimum wage rate the best means of tackling poverty? Explain your answer.
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Earning and spending in the UK

The ONS has just published two of its major annual publications on income and expenditure in the UK. The first is the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) and looks at earnings from 1998 to 2013. The second is Family Spending and looks at the level and pattern of household spending each year from 2001 to 2012.

Figures from the two publications show that average real incomes have fallen each year since 2008. This is illustrated in the first chart (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). They also show that household expenditure in real terms is falling and is at the lowest level since 2006.

Overall picture
In 2012, households’ average weekly disposable income was £597. In 2012 prices, this was down from £621 in 2010 (after the recession) and £659 in 2008 (before the recession).

Household expenditure is at its lowest level in real terms for over a decade. In 2012 households spent on average £489.00 per week. In 2012 prices, this compares with £521.90 in 2001/2 and £533.80 in 2006 (the peak year).

Picture for particular income groups and products
Although average real incomes have fallen, not everyone has been affected the same. For example, not all occupations have seen a fall in incomes (see the table at the end of the BBC article, Earnings rise slower than inflation for fifth year running). Also, as income distribution has become less equal, so those in lower income groups have seen their real incomes fall the fastest. This is partly the result of nominal wages rising less fast for low-paid workers and partly the result of price increases for various essentials, such as food and power being greater than the rate of inflation, and these products constituting a higher proportion of expenditure for poor people than rich people (see Squeezed Britain 2013).

Likewise expenditure hasn’t fallen on all categories of product. Since 2006, real expenditure on clothing and footwear and on housing, fuel and power has risen. The second chart illustrates expenditure on some of the different categories and how the balance has changed (click here for a PowerPoint). This partly reflects the changes in prices of products, with some items, such as electricity, gas and rent having risen faster than the average, and with the demand for such items being relatively price inelastic.

The changing pattern is also partly the result of different income elasticities of demand for different items. Thus, with falling real incomes, the proportion of income spent on products with a low income elasticity of demand is likely to rise.

Expenditure also varies by income group. People on higher incomes tend to spend a greater proportion of their income on things such as leisure activities (e.g. eating out and holidays), motoring, and clothing and footwear. Poorer people tend to spend proportionately more on food and drink, and on electricity, gas and rent (even net of housing benefit). These differences are illustrated in the third chart which looks at certain categories of expenditure of three different disposable income groups: the poorest 10% (decile), the richest 10% and the 6th decile (i.e. the 6th group up from the bottom – the group with average or just above average income) (click here for a PowerPoint for the chart). Detailed figures can be found here, which is Table 3.2 from Family Spending.

Just as the time-series data looking at changing income and expenditure over time can illustrate the different income elasticities of demand for different products, so can the cross-sectional data in Tables 3.1 and 3.2 of Family Spending.

Articles
Earnings rise slower than inflation for fifth year running BBC News (12/12/13)
Energy and rent are now the biggest family bills The Telegraph, Steve Hawkes (11/12/13)
Families spend £489 each week – on what? The Guardian, Mona Chalabi (11/12/13)
Cost of energy hits family budgets, says ONS BBC News (11/12/13)
Family spending interactive: how has it changed? The Guardian Datastore, Mona Chalabi (11/12/13)

Data
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results ONS (12/12/13)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results: Statistical Bulletin ONS (12/12/13)
Family Spending, 2013 Edition ONS (11/12/13)
Family spending in 2012: Infographic ONS (11/12/13)
Video Summary: Are you an average spender? ONS (11/12/13)
Household expenditure based on COICOP classification, 2001-02 to 2012 at 2012 prices: Table 4.1 of Family Spending ONS (11/12/13)
Detailed household expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure by disposable income decile group, 2012: Table 3.2 of Family Spending ONS (11/12/13)

Questions

  1. What are the determinants of the price elasticity of demand for a product?
  2. What are the limitations of using time-series data of prices and expenditure to estimate the price elasticity of demand for particular products?
  3. What are the determinants of the income elasticity of demand for a product?
  4. What are the limitations of using time-series data of incomes and expenditure to estimate the income elasticity of demand for particular products?
  5. What are the limitations of using cross-sectional data of expenditure of different income groups to estimate the income elasticity of demand for particular products?
  6. How do your answers to the above questions demonstrate the significance of the ceteris paribus (other things being equal) assumption?
  7. If real earnings are falling, why are people able to spend more in real terms?
  8. What are the macroeconomic implications of increased consumer spending at a time of falling real incomes?
  9. How could increased consumer spending help to reverse the fall in real incomes (a) in the short run (b) over a period of a few years? Distinguish between the effects on aggregate demand and aggregate supply.
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The burden of debt

Household debt in the UK has reached a record level. Individuals now owe £1430 billion. This compares with the UK’s general government debt of £1443 billion – also at a record level. These figures are illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).

But these figures are nominal. If you look at the real figures (i.e. corrected for inflation), household debt has been falling. In today’s prices, household debt peaked at £1668 billion in March 2008. Also, if you look at household debt as a proportion of GDP, it fell from a peak of 100.96% in May 2009 to 87.43% in July 2013 (see chart). However, since then it has begun rising again, standing at 87.65% in October 2013.

So has household debt become less of a problem? In aggregate terms, the answer is probably yes. However, it is too early to know whether a continuing recovery in the economy will be fuelled by real debt rising again and whether the recovery will encourage people to take on higher levels of debt?

For many people, however, debt has become more and more of a problem. In other words, the aggregate figures conceal what has happened in terms of the distribution of debt. According to a Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) study:

Indebted households in the poorest 10 per cent of the country have average debts more than four times their annual income. Average debt repayments within this group amounted to nearly half their gross monthly income.

And the poorest families, often with very poor credit ratings, are frequently forced to turn to payday lenders, charging sky-high interest rates (see Capping interest rates on payday loans: a government U-turn?).

As mainstream banks reduced access to credit following the financial crash, the market for short-term high-cost credit (payday lenders, pawnbrokers, rent-to-buy and doorstop lenders) increased dramatically and is now worth £4.8 billion a year.

Payday lenders have increased business from £900 million in 2008/09 to just over £2 billion (or around 8 million loans) in 2011/12. Around half of payday loan customers reported taking out the money because it was the only form of credit they could get. The number of people going to loan sharks is also said to have increased – the most recent estimate puts it at 310,000 people.

With rising energy and food bills hitting the poorest hardest, this section of the population could find debt levels continuing to rise, especially if interest rates rise. As Chris Pond, who chaired the CJS study, stated:

The costs to those affected, in stress and mental disorders, relationship breakdown and hardship is immense. But so too is the cost to the nation, measured in lost employment and productivity and in an increased burden on public services.

Articles
£1,430,000,000,000 (that’s £1.43 trillion): Britain’s personal debt timebomb Independent, Andrew Grice (20/11/13)
Average household debt ‘doubled in last decade’ The Telegraph, Edward Malnick (20/11/13)
UK household debt hits record high BBC News (29/11/13)
UK debt crisis: poorest face ‘perfect storm’ Channel 4 News (20/11/13)
One in five struggle with serious debt The Telegraph, Nicole Blackmore (27/11/13)
It doesn’t matter what we do with Wonga: personal debt is about to rocket The Telegraph, Tim Wigmore (26/11/13)
Poorest families ‘need more help over debt’ BBC News (20/11/13)

Report
More than 5,000 people a year ‘homeless’ as household debt crisis deepens, CSJ warns Centre for Social Justice Press Release (20/11/13)

Data
Monthly amounts outstanding of total (excluding the Student Loans Company) sterling net lending to individuals and housing associations (in sterling millions) seasonally adjusted Bank of England
Public Sector Finances First Release – Public Sector Consolidated Gross Debt ONS
Household debt (Economics Indicators update) House of Commons Library (29/11/13)

Questions

  1. What are the macroeconomic implications of rising levels of household debt?
  2. Why may an economy which has high levels of household debt be more subject to cyclical fluctuations in real GDP?
  3. What are the problems of having a recovery driven largely by increased consumer expenditure?
  4. Why have many people in the poorest sectors of society found their debt levels rising the fastest?
  5. Why may rising levels of debt of the most vulnerable people make it harder for the Bank of England to use conventional monetary policy if recovery becomes established?
  6. What policies could be pursued to try to reduce the debts of the poorest people?
  7. Discuss the effectiveness of these various policies.
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The end of the American dream?

Growing inequality of income and wealth is a common pattern throughout the world. In the boom years up to 2008, the rich got a lot richer, but at least those on low incomes generally saw modest rises in their incomes. Since 2008, however, the continually widening gap between rich and poor has seen the poor and many on middle incomes getting absolutely poorer.

The problem is particularly acute in the USA. Indeed, in his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said that it was the ‘defining issue of our time.’

No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

The good news for the poor in the USA is that at last their incomes have stopped falling, thanks to stronger economic growth. But their share of the growth in GDP is tiny. As The Economist article states:

The main message is a grim one. Most of the growth is going to an extraordinarily small share of the population: 95% of the gains from the recovery have gone to the richest 1% of people, whose share of overall income is once again close to its highest level in a century. The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.

Apart from the ethical question of whether it is desirable for a society, already highly unequal, to become even more so, there is the question of whether this growth in inequality threatens economic recovery. Joseph Stiglitz argues that the rich have a low marginal propensity to consume and that this is threatening recovery.

Then there is the question of investment. Because most Americans have not seen any significant rise in incomes, it is easy for them to believe that the country cannot afford to invest more. And certainly it is difficult to persuade people that higher taxes are warranted to fund education, infrastructure or research.

The following articles consider the problem and its implications and look at various policy alternatives.

Articles and videos
Inequality: Growing apart The Economist (21/9/13)
What is income inequality, anyway? CNN, John D. Sutter (29/10/13)
Inequality is literally killing America Press TV (22/11/13)
It’s Economic Inequality Stupid – What to Do About the Biggest Crisis Facing America Huffington Post, Robert Creamer (14/11/13)
US Inequality Now Literally Off the Chart Truthout, Salvatore Babones (8/6/13)
Inequality moves to the front line of US politics Financial Times, Richard McGregor (20/11/13)
Is wealth inequality slowing growth? BBC News, Linda Yueh (21/11/13)
American Inequality in Six Charts The New Yorker, John Cassidy (18/11/13)
Income Inequality ‘Profoundly Corrosive’ Wall Street Journal, Larry Summers (19/11/13)
21 Charts On US Inequality That Everyone Should See Business Insider, Gus Lubin (12/11/13)

Data, information and reports
Income inequality in the United States Wikipedia
Inequality Data & Statistics Inequality.org
Income Main United States Census Bureau
World of Work Report 2013: Snapshot of the United States ILO
World of Work Report 2013 ILO
StatExtracts OECD (Search for Gini)

Questions

  1. How may income inequality be measured?
  2. Comment on the Gini coefficients in the above link to the StatExtracts site.
  3. Why has inequality grown in the USA?
  4. The Swiss have just voted in a referendum to reject a proposal to limit executive pay to 12 times that of the lowest paid worker in the same company. What are the arguments for and against the proposal?
  5. What features of an unequal society tend to perpetuate or even deepen that inequality over time?
  6. What features of a well functioning market economy would help to reduce income inequality?
  7. Are higher marginal tax rates and higher welfare payments the best way of reducing inequality? What other policy options are there?
  8. Compare the views of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz on the effects of growing inequality on economic growth. How significant is the difference in the marginal propensity to consume of the rich and the poor in explaining the relatively low rate of US economic growth?
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Capping interest rates on payday loans: a government U-turn?

In an apparent U-turn, the Chancellor, George Osborne, has decided to cap the interest rates and other charges on payday loans and other short-term credit. As we have seen in previous news items, the sky-high interest rates which some of the poorest people in the UK are being forced to pay on these loans have caused outrage in many quarters: see A payday enquiry and Kostas Economides and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, the payday loan industry has been referred by the OFT to the Competition Commission (CC). The CC is required to report by 26 June 2015, although it will aim to complete the investigation in a shorter period.

It was becoming increasingly clear, however, that the government would not wait until the CC reports. It has been under intense pressure to take action. But the announcement on 25 November 2013 that the government would cap the costs of payday loans took many people by surprise. In fact, the new body, the Financial Conduct Authority, which is due to start regulating the industry in April 2014, only a month ago said that capping was very intrusive, arguing that it could make it harder for many people to borrow and push them into the hands of loan sharks. According to paragraph 6.71 of its consultation paper, Detailed proposals for the FCA regime for consumer credit:

The benefits of a total cost of credit cap has been looked at by the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol. This report highlighted that 17 EU member states have some form of price restriction. Their research was ambiguous, on the one hand suggesting possible improved lending criteria and risk assessments. On the other, prices may drift towards a cap, which could lead to prices increasing or lead to a significant reduction in lenders exercising forbearance. Neither of these latter outcomes would be beneficial for consumers. Clearly this is a very intrusive proposition and to ensure we fully understand the implications we have committed to undertake further research once we begin regulating credit firms and therefore have access to regulatory data.

The government announcement has raised questions of how imperfections in markets should be dealt with. Many on the centre right argue that price controls should not be used as they can further distort the market. Indeed, the Chancellor has criticised the Labour Party’s proposal to freeze gas and electricity prices for 20 months if it wins the next election, arguing that the energy companies will simply get around the freeze by substantially raising their prices before and after the 20 months.

Instead, those on the centre right argue that intervention should aim to make markets more competitive. In other words, you should attempt not to replace markets, but to make them work better.

So what is the reasoning of the government in capping payday loan charges? Does it feel that, in this case, there is no other way? Or is the reasoning political? Does it feel that this is the most electorally advantageous way of answering the critics of the payday loan industry?

Webcasts and podcasts
Payday Loans To Be Capped By Government Sky News (25/11/13)
New law to cap cost of payday loans BBC News, Robert Hall (25/11/13)
Osborne: ‘Overall cost’ of payday loans to be capped BBC Today Programme (25/11/13)
George Osborne announces cap on payday loan charges amid concerns ITV News (25/11/13)

Articles
UK to cap payday lenders’ interest charges Reuters, Steve Slater, Paul Sandle, Kate Holton and William James (25/11/13)
Capping payday loans: from light touch to strong arm Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (25/11/13)
Payday loans: New law to cap costs BBC News (25/11/13)
Payday loan ‘risk to mortgage applications’ BBC News (26/11/13)
Q&A: Payday loans BBC News (25/11/13)
George Osborne is playing social democratic catch-up on payday loans The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/11/13_
Payday loans cap: George Osborne caves in following intervention led by Archbishop of Canterbury Independent, Oliver Wright (25/11/13)
The principle, the practice and the politics of fixing payday loan prices: why? And why now? Conservative Home, Mark Wallace (25/11/13)
George Osborne and the risky politics of chutzpah New Statesman, Rafael Behr (26/11/13)
Chancellor too quick off the mark on payday lending cap The Telegraph, James Quinn (25/11/13)
Crap and courage of convictions: the political problem with Osborne’s payday loan plan Spectator, Isabel Hardman (26/11/13)

Payday loan calculator
Payday loan calculator: how monthly interest can spiral BBC Consumer (7/11/13)

Questions

  1. What types of market failing exist in the payday loan industry?
  2. What types of controls of the industry are being proposed by George Osborne?
  3. What is the experience of Australia in introducing such controls?
  4. What alternative forms of intervention could be used to tackle the market imperfections in the industry?
  5. What were the proposals of the FCA? (See paragraph 6.6 in its document, Detailed proposals for the FCA regime for consumer credit.)
  6. According to a representative example on Wonga’s website, a loan of £150 for 18 days would result in charges of £33.49 (interest of £27.99 and a fee of £5.50). This would equate to an annual APR of 5853%. Explain how this APR is calculated.
  7. The proposal is to allow a relatively large upfront fee and to cap interest rates at a relatively low level, such as 4% per month, as is the case in Australia. Explain the following comment about this in the Faisal Islam article above: “The upfront fee, in theory, should change the behavioural finance of consumers around taking the loan in the first place (there are ways around this though). So this is an intervention based not on lack of competition, but asymmetries of information in consumer finance.”
  8. Comment on the following statement by Mark Wallace in the Conservative Home article above: “If overpriced payday loans should be capped, why not overpriced DVDs, sandwiches or, er, energy bills?”
  9. Compare the relative advantages and disadvantages of George Osborne’s proposal with that of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury (see the news item, Kostas Economides and the Archbishop of Canterbury).
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