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Articles for the ‘Economics for Business 6e: Ch 19’ Category

A take-over between medical giants

When Kraft took over Cadbury, it was seen as a large take-over, but its size pales in comparison to the potential takeover of AstraZeneca by Pfizer. However, having made two offers for the UK drugs firm, the US company has been rejected twice, saying the terms of the offer were ‘inadequate, substantially undervalue AstraZeneca and are not a basis on which to engage with Pfizer.’

Pfizer initially made an offer of £46.61 per share, valuing the company at £58.5bn, but this latest offer increased the share price to around £50 and raised the company value to £63bn. The rejection was relatively swift and the price still too low, though analysts are suggesting that a price closer to £53 may tempt shareholders. At the moment the negotiations between these two giants remain ‘friendly’, but with this second offer being rejected by the Board, there are now concerns that the takeover could become ‘hostile’ with Pfizer going directly to shareholders. Indeed one investor has said:

We were very keen that the two boards actually get around the table and disucss the bid … I’m never very keen when companies just dismiss things and don’t allow shareholders to take a decision on it … The key thing is that these businesses get talking to each other so they can hammer out a deal.

Following the second offer, shares in AstraZeneca rose by 10p, as the debate continued as to whether such a take-over would be good or bad for British jobs.

Cadbury was seen as a jewel in the crown of British industry and the same can be said of AstraZeneca, especially with the growing importance placed on the Science sector in the UK. While Pfizer has now given the British government further assurances about protection for Britain’s science base, there are still concerns about what this take-over would mean for British jobs. Pfizer has said that 20% of the company’s workforce in research and development would work in the UK and the planned R&D base in Cambridge would still go ahead. However, asset-stripping is a phrase that has been thrown around, based on Pfizer’s previous take-overs and, based on this history, many are suggesting that any assurances made by Pfizer will be pointless. In particular, Allan Black from the GMB union said:

Similar undertakings were given by US multinationals before which have proved to be worthless.

This was echoed by Lord Sainsbury who commented that any assurances made by Pfizer would be ‘frankly meaningless’. However, Vince Cable seems more confident about the consequences for British industry and said:

We’ve now received some assurances from the company that they will strengthen the British science base, they will protect British manufacturing … We need to look at that in detail, we need to look at the small print, we need to establish that it is binding, but as far as it goes, on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, it is welcome and encouraging.

We therefore seem to have a tale of two stories. On the one hand, the assurances of a US company that British jobs and its science base will be protected, but on the other hand, suggestions that we should take Pfizer’s assurances with a pinch of salt and that any take-over could be ‘devastating’. The truth of the matter will only be known if and when the take-over goes ahead and perhaps more importantly, whether it remains friendly and co-operative or does indeed go ‘hostile’. The following articles consider this medical take-over between giants.

AstraZeneca rejects Pfizer bid as US Pharma giant courts UK government The Guardian, Julia Kollewe and Sean Farrell (2/5/14)
AstraZeneca rejects new Pfizer offer BBC News (2/5/14)
AstraZeneca Pfizer: major shareholder urges talks The Telegraph, Denise Roland (2/5/14)
AstraZeneca rejects Pfizer’s raised bid of 63 billion pounds Reuters (2/5/14)
Pfizer-AstraZeneca offer: IoD warns intervention ‘disastrous’ for Britain. The Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (2/5/14)
Pfizer enters takeover discussions with AstraZeneca, sources say Wall Street Journal (2/5/14)
Exclusive: Pfizer insider warns that takeover of AstraZeneca could be ‘devastating’ Independent, Jim Armitage and Chris Green (2/5/14)
The Cadbury deal: how it changed takeovers BBC News, Ben Morris (2/5/14)
Pfizer set to make higher bid for AstraZeneca The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (1/5/14)
The UK’s response to Pfizer’s takeover bid is incoherent and misguided The Guardian, Larry Elliott (4/5/14)

Questions

  1. What type of take-over would this be classified as? Explain your answer.
  2. What would occur if the take-over became ‘hostile’?
  3. Using a demand and supply diagram, explain why share prices in AstraZeneca went up by 10p on the day the second offer was made.
  4. How would such a take-over affect British jobs?
  5. Explain how this proposed take-over could (a) boost British R&D in science and (b) harm British R&D in science.
  6. To what extent might there be concerns from the competition authorities were this take-over to go ahead? How might such a takeover affect Pfizer’s market share and hence its ability to charge a high price?
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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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“Why buy a football club?”, asks Linda Yueh

Footballers in the English Premier League are some of the most highly paid workers in the world. With unique talents and skills and hence a limited supply of labour, together with an insatiable appetite from the British public for football, we would expect to see high wages and a market ripe for investment, with high returns on offer. But, is this case?

The article below is by Linda Yueh, the Chief Business Correspondent for BBC News, and she has looked into the football, asking why on earth buy a football club? Despite the success of the English Premier League in drawing fans, TV and commercial revenues, many teams find it difficult to break even and investing in a team is unlikely to yield much of a return (if any!). Yet, we still see successful businesspeople, especially from abroad, purchasing English football teams.

Many club owners have hugely profitable ventures in other markets and historically only invest their money when they see an opportunity for a high return. But, not in the case of football. A return is unlikely and yet they still invest. So, with positive returns unlikely, what is it about this market that attracts investors? The article by Linda Yueh considers this question.

Article
Why on earth buy a football club? BBC News, Linda Yueh (27/2/14)

Report
Annual Review of Football Finance – Highlights Deloitte, Sports Business Group June 2013

Questions

  1. How can the returns to investment be measured?
  2. How can a company’s operating profit be calculated?
  3. Using a labour market diagram, explain why footballers are paid such a high wage.
  4. Is it monetary or non-monetary factors that seem to explain why businessmen invest in football clubs?
  5. Why are English football clubs typically unprofitable? Should they be?
  6. Which factors can explain the growing financial inequality between clubs in the Premier League and in the divisions below? Is there an argument for government involvement to regulate football?
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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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Recent challenges to the football transfer system

Most football fans will probably never have heard of an organisation called FIFPro but, if it is successful, the labour market for football players could change quite radically.

FIFPro represents over 65,000 players from around the world. It is effectively an international trade union whose main objective is to promote the interests and defend the rights of professional football players. Its president, Philippe Piat, has recently announced that the organisation will challenge the way the current transfer system operates and is prepared to take its case to the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.

FIFPro’s argument is that players are being exploited under the current system. This may seem difficult to believe in the week when Luis Suarez signed a new four-and-a-half-year contract at Liverpool with earnings of £200,000 per week. However, referring to the transfer system, Piat stated that:

These legal and monetary shackles binding footballers to their current clubs can no longer be accepted and upheld. Football players are workers and only when they are able to enjoy the rights enshrined in law and enjoyed by all other workers, will Fifpro be satisfied.

In order to understand this argument, it is important to understand how the transfer system has evolved and how it now operates.

When the Football Association (FA) first accepted professionalism in 1885 it introduced a registration system. Before this reform it was possible for players to play for different teams each week. The new system meant that players had to register with a club at the beginning of each season. If a player was not registered with a team he was not allowed to play. He could only change team mid-season if his current club and the FA agreed to the transfer of his registration details to a different team. However, a player was free at the beginning of each season to register with a different team. Therefore there were no constraints on his mobility between teams from one season to another.

Significant changes were made to the system in 1893 when the retain-and-transfer system was first introduced. The new scheme allowed teams to keep retaining players they had initially registered for another year. This effectively meant that when a player was signed by a team he was tied to that team for as long as they wanted him. The mobility between clubs from one season to another had been removed. This gave the clubs significant monopsony power in the labour market. If a player wanted to change teams, he had to make a transfer request but the team was under no obligation to put him on the transfer list and allow him to move. Teams could decide to put players on a transfer list and would only allow them to leave if an agreeable level of compensation (a transfer fee) was offered by another team. A maximum wage of £4 per week was also introduced in 1901.

The system was periodically challenged and a number of minor changes were made. In particular, the conditions under which a player could be retained by a club were gradually altered. Originally a player could be retained by a club even if his contract was not renewed. Effectively a team could stop a player moving to another club by holding onto his registration without having to pay him. This was changed so that a minimum wage had to be paid to a player if he was to be retained by the team that held his registration.

The first major change to the system came in 1963 from a player called George Eastham. In 1959 he failed to sign a new contract with Newcastle United and made a transfer request which the club promptly rejected. Although they did eventually allow him to leave and join Arsenal, he still took his case to the High Court and the judge concluded that the retain-and-transfer system was an unreasonable restraint of trade. Following this judgment the system was amended so that, in order to retain a player, a club would have to offer the player a new contract with terms and conditions which were at least as good as the previous one. If this was done, then a player could be retained by a club and his registration would only be released if an acceptable transfer fee was offered by another team.

Perhaps the biggest change to the system was made in 2001 following the famous Bosman ruling. Jean-Marc Bosman had wanted to move to the French side Dunkirk, but FC Liege, the club that held his registration, demanded a transfer fee that Dunkirk were unwilling to pay. Bosman took his case to the European Court of Justice and in 1995 a decision was made that the system was in breach of European Union law on the free movement of people. Following this ruling, an informal agreement was reached between the European Commission, FIFA and UEFA. From 2001 players over the age of 23 were free to leave their clubs once their contracts had expired. Transfer fees no longer needed to be paid for players who had reached the end of their contracts.

In September 2013, Mesut Özil joined Arsenal from Real Madrid on the deadline day of the transfer period for a reported fee of £42.5 million.

Although the ease with which players can change teams has significantly improved over the past 50 years, they still face constraints on their labour mobility that are unusual for employees. Most workers simply have to give a period of notice in order to change employer. These vary between jobs but are not usually longer than 3 months. FIFPro’s argument is that professional football players should have these same rights. This would allow Luis Suarez to leave Liverpool at any point in the next four and a half years without any transfer fee having to be agreed. He would simply have a serve out a short period
of notice and then he would be free to join any other club. Under the current system he would have to wait four and a half years until the
end of his contract before he could leave without a transfer fee having
to be paid.

Whenever the transfer system has been challenged the football authorities have always used the same defence – sport is different from other industries because of the importance of maintaining an appropriate level of competitive balance. It is argued that the ease with which players can change clubs needs to be restricted in order for this level to be maintained. Ultimately a judgment will have to be made between this argument and the principle of freedom of movement.

Articles
Fifpro to launch legal challenge against transfer system because it shackles players The Telegraph (17/12/13)
Who gains from Fifpros world without transfers? What a surprise the rich The Telegraph (18/12/13)
Fifpro’s tilt at the transfer market is to be welcomed The Guardian (18/12/13)
Players’ union Fifpro to take transfer system to European courts The Guardian (17/12/13)
The 1960s The PFA.COM (18/12/13)
Luis Suarez signs new long-term Liverpool deal BBC Sport (20/12/13) .

Questions

  1. Explain why the marginal revenue product of footballers is so much higher than it is for people in most other jobs. What impact do you think technology has had on the marginal revenue product of footballers over the past 20 years?
  2. Draw a diagram to illustrate how the wage rate for footballers would be determined if the labour market was perfectly competitive.
  3. What is monopsony? Explain how the retain-and-transfer system could give football clubs monopsony power in the labour market.
  4. Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of monopsony on wages and employment in the labour market for professional footballers.
  5. Explain how limiting the mobility of players might help to maintain the level of competitive balance in a league.
  6. If the proposals by FIFPro were accepted, what impact do you think it will have on players’ wages?
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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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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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Valuing natural capital

In market capitalism, the stock of manufactured capital provides a flow of output. The profitability of the use of that capital depends on the cost of investing in that capital and the cost of using it, and on the flow of revenues from that capital. Discounted cash flow techniques can be used to assess the profitability of a given investment in capital; the flows of costs and revenues are discounted at a market discount rate to give a net present value (NPV). If the NPV is positive (discounted revenues exceed discounted costs), the investment is profitable; if it is negative, the investment is unprofitable. (See Economics, 8th edition, section 9.3.)

There may be market imperfections in the allocation of investment, in terms of distorted prices and interest rates. These may be the result of market power, asymmetry of information, etc., but in many cases the market allows capital investment to be allocated relatively efficiently.

Natural capital
This is not the case with ‘natural capital’. Natural capital (see also) is the stock of natural resources and ecosystems that, like manufactured capital, yields a flow of goods and services into the future. Natural capital, whilst it can be improved or degraded by human action, is available without investment. Thus the natural capital of the oceans yields fish, the natural capital of the skies yields rain and the natural capital of forests reduces atmospheric CO2.

Even though some natural capital is owned (e.g. private land), much is a common resource. As such, it is free to use and tends to get overused. This is the Tragedy of the Commons – see, for example, the following news items: A modern tragedy of the commons and Is there something fishy going on?.

Natural capital accounting
But would it be possible to give a value to both the stock of natural capital and the goods and services provided by it? Would this environmental accounting enable governments to tax or subsidise firms and individuals for their use or enhancement of natural capital?

On 21 and 22 November 2013, the first World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh. This brought together business leaders, politicians, economists, environmentalists and other scientists to discuss practical ways of taking natural capital into account in decision making. Central to the forum was a discussion of ways of valuing natural capital, or ‘natural capital accounting’. As the forum site states:

Natural capital accounting is a rapidly evolving new way of thinking about how we value the economic benefits we derive from our natural environment. The World Forum on Natural Capital will bring together world-class speakers, cutting edge case studies and senior decision makers from different sectors, in order to turn the debate into practical action.

But if natural capital is not owned, how is it to be priced? How will the costs and benefits of its use be valued? How will inter-generational effects be taken into account? Will firms price natural capital voluntarily if doing so reduces their profits? Will firms willingly extend corporate social responsibility to include corporate environmental responsibility? Will governments be prepared to introduce taxes and subsidies to internalise the costs of using natural capital, even if the effects extend beyond a country’s borders? Will natural capital accounting measure purely the effects on humans or will broader questions of maintaining and protecting environmental diversity for its own sake be taken into account? These are big questions and ones that various organisations are beginning to address.

Despite problems of measurement and incentives, sometimes there are clear economic benefits from careful evaluation and management of natural capital. Julia Marton-Lefèvre is Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the first Guardian article below:

Her favourite example of natural capital working in practice comes from Vietnam, where “planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost just more than $1m but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over $7m. And that only accounts for coast maintenance: mangroves are also nurseries for fish, meaning livelihoods for fishing and source of nutrients … “

One organisation attempting to value natural capital is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB). It also looks at what organisational changes are likely to be necessary for the management of natural capital.

Based on data collected from 26 early adopter companies (60% of them with $10 Billion+ revenues each) across several industry sectors this provides real life evidence on the drivers and barriers for natural capital management.

Pricing the environment is a highly controversial issue. Critics claim that the process can easily be manipulated to serve the short-term interests of business and governments. What is more, where tradable permits markets have been set up, such as the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), prices have often been a poor reflection of social costs and have been open to manipulation. As Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (WDM), says:

It is deeply ironic that the same financial markets that caused the economic crisis are now seen as the solution to our environmental crisis. It’s about time we learnt that financial markets need to be reined in, not expanded. Pricing these common resources on which people depend for their survival leaves all of us more exposed to the forces of the global economy, and decisions about whether or not to protect them become a matter of accounting.

The measurement of natural capital and setting up systems to internalise the costs and benefits of using natural capital is both complex and a political minefield – as the following articles show.

Articles
Putting a value on nature: Edinburgh conference says business is ‘part of the solution’ Blue & Green Tomorrow, Nicky Stubbs (20/11/13)
Edinburgh forum says putting value on nature could save it BBC News, Claire Marshall (20/11/13)
Natural capital must be the way forward, says IUCN director general The Guardian, Tim Smedley (11/11/13)
Is ‘natural capital’ the next generation of corporate social responsibility? The Guardian, Tim Smedley (7/11/13)
Natural capital accounting: what’s all the fuss about? The Guardian, Alan McGill (27/9/13)
Put nature at the heart of economic and social policymaking The Guardian, Aniol Esteban (1/3/13)
Campaigners warn of dangers of ‘privatised nature’ The Scotsman, Ilona Amos (21/11/13)
Edinburgh conference attempts to ‘privatise nature’ World Development Movement, Miriam Ross (18/11/13)
Valuing Nature BBC Shared Planet, Monty Don (8/7/13)

Sites concerned with natural capital
World Forum on Natural Capital
TEEB for Business Coalition
International Union for Conservation of Nature

Questions

  1. How would you define natural capital?
  2. What are ecosystem services?
  3. Is social efficiency the best criterion for evaluating the use of the environment? What other criteria could you use?
  4. How would you set about deciding what rate of discount to use when evaluating the depletion of or enhancement of natural capital?
  5. How can game theory provide insights into the strategies of both businesses and governments towards the environment?
  6. What are the arguments for and against attempting to value natural capital and to incorporate these values in decision making?
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The curse of the bumper harvest

A bumper harvest should be good news for farmers – but not if it drives down prices. This is the position facing many Australian farmers. After a relatively wet summer a year ago and a mild winter this year, crop yields have soared. But the prices farmers can get in wholesale markets have been so low that many have resorted to setting up their own farm shops or selling in farmers’ markets or from the backs of ‘utes’ (utility vehicles, i.e. pickup trucks) or at roadside stalls.

And the supply problem is not just one of increased domestic supply: cheap food imports, often of inferior quality, have been flooding into Australia. Increasing food exports, especially to Asia, would help Australian farmers, but here again there is competition in these markets from other countries.

The problem of increased Australian supply is even more serious for Australian farmers in areas where harvests have not been so good. Australia is a huge country and conditions, although generally favourable this year, have been poor in some areas. Here farmers face the double disaster of low output and low prices.

Australian dairy farmers too are facing problems of falling prices. Price deregulation and the monopsony power of supermarkets have driven down the price of milk and other dairy products. Since deregulation in 2000, the number of dairy farms has halved, as many smaller family farms go out of business and larger ‘industrial-scale’ farms grow.

So are there any solutions? The BBC article looks at things being done in Tasmania to help small farmers, but questions whether small farmers have much of a future more generally in Australia?

Articles
Australia’s small farmers struggling with low prices BBC News, Phil Mercer (31/10/13)
Commodity prices edge lower in October Sky News Australia (1/11/13)
Low prices spoil perfect season for Australian farmers ABC News, Eric Tlozek and Courtney Wilson (18/9/13)
Agri-businesses taking over the farm The Guardian (Australia) (6/11/13)

Data
Commodity prices Index Mundi
Agriculture in Australia Wikipedia
Farm inputs & costs Dairy Australia

Questions

  1. How does the fallacy of composition relate to the ‘problem’ of good harvests?
  2. How price elastic is the demand for specific crops likely to be? Why may individual farmers face an elasticity of demand close to infinity?
  3. Illustrate the problem for small farmers in Australia with a demand and supply diagram.
  4. Is there any way in which farmers, either individually or collectively, can make their demand less elastic?
  5. Comment on the following statement by a sugar cane farmer: “We’ve got that much money tied up (in the business) we just can’t walk away”. Under what circumstances would it make sense to ‘walk away’?
  6. How does the monopsony power of supermarkets influence the prices farmers receive?
  7. Discuss ways in which the federal government in Australia could support farmers.
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Miliband’s freeze

For all households, energy is considered an essential item. As electricity and gas prices rise and fall, many of us don’t think twice about turning on the lights, cooking a meal or turning on the heating. We may complain about the cost and want prices brought down, but we still pay the bills. But, is there anything that can be done about high energy prices? And if there is, should anything be done?

The worlds of politics and economics are closely linked and Ed Miliband’s announcement of his party’s plans to impose a 20-month freeze on energy prices if elected in 2015 showed this relationship to be as strong as ever. The price freeze would certainly help average households reduce their cost of living by around £120 and estimates suggest businesses would save £1800 over this 20 month period. The energy companies have come in for a lot of criticism, in particular relating to their control of the industry. The sector is dominated by six big companies – your typical oligopoly, and this makes it very difficult for new firms to enter. Thus competition is restricted. But is a price freeze a good policy?

Part of the prices we pay go towards investment in cleaner and more environmentally friendly sources of energy. Critics suggest that any price freeze would deprive the energy sector of much needed investment, meaning our energy bills will be higher in the future. Furthermore, some argue this price freeze suggests that Labour is abandoning its environmental policy. Energy shortages have been a concern, especially with the cold weather the UK experienced a few years ago. This issue may reappear with price freezes. As Angela Knight, from Energy UK, suggests:

Freezing the bill may be superficially attractive, but it will also freeze the money to build and renew power stations, freeze the jobs and livelihoods of the 600,000-plus people dependent on the energy industry and make the prospect of energy shortages a reality, pushing up the prices for everyone.

There is a further concern and that is that large energy companies will be driven from the UK. This thought was echoed by many companies, in particular the British Gas owner Centrica, commenting that:

If prices were to be controlled against a background of rising costs it would simply not be economically viable for Centrica to continue to operate and far less to meet the sizeable investment challenge that the industry is facing…The impact of such a policy would be damaging for the country’s long-term prosperity and for our customers.

Share prices naturally fluctuate with global events and a political announcement such as this was inevitably going to cause an effect. But, perhaps the effect was not expected to be as big as the one we saw. Share prices for Centrica and SSE fell following the announcement – perhaps no great shock – but then they continued to fall. The market value tumbled by 5% and share prices kept falling. This has led to Ed Miliband being accused of ‘economic vandalism’ by a major shareholder of Centrica, which is hardly surprising, given the estimated cost of such a price freeze would be £4.5 billion.

The economic implications of such a move are significant. The announcement itself has caused massive changes in the FTSE and if such a move were to go ahead if Labour were elected in 2015, there would be serious consequences. While families would benefit, at least in the short term, there would inevitably be serious implications for businesses, the environmental policy of the government, especially relating to investment and the overall state of the economy. The following articles consider the aftermath of Ed Miliband’s announcement.

Miliband stands firm in battle over fuel bills plan The Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Terry Macalister (25/9/13)
Michael Fallon calls Miliband’s energy prices pledge ‘dangerous’ Financial Times, Elizabeth Rigby and Jim Pickard (26/9/13)
Britain’s labour treads narrow path between populism and prudence Reuters (26/9/12)
Ed Miliband’s radical reforms will make the energy market work for the many Independent (26/9/13)
Has Labour fallen out of love with Business? BBC News (26/9/13)
Top Centrica shareholder Neil Woodford accuses Labour leader Ed Miliband of economic vandalism The Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (25/9/13)
Centrica and SSE slide after Labour price freeze pledge The Guardian (26/9/13)
Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge is a timely but risky move The Guardian, Rowena Mason (24/9/13)

Questions

  1. Why are energy prices such a controversial topic?
  2. How are energy prices currently determined? Use a diagram to illustrate your answer. By adapting this diagram, illustrate the effect of a price control being imposed. How could it create an energy shortage? What impact would this have after the 20-month price freeze
  3. Why would there be adverse effects on energy companies if prices were frozen and costs increased? Use a diagram to illustrate the problem and use your answer to explain why energy companies might leave the UK.
  4. How would frozen energy prices help households and businesses?
  5. Why were share prices in Centrica and SSE adversely affected?
  6. Is there an argument for regulating other markets with price controls?
  7. Why is there such little competition in the energy sector?
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