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Posts Tagged ‘asymmetric information’

What they want you to want

We are coming into the big spending season, with Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the run-up to Christmas and then the winter sales. So will we all be rational maximisers and weigh up the utility we expect to receive from items against the price we pay (plus any other cost, such as time spent searching/shopping)? Or will we use a set of heuristics which make life easier and that we have found to be useful in helping us choose – heuristics such as buying things we’ve liked before, or going for things on special offer?

The answer is that we do probably use a set of heuristics, at least for many items. And don’t the retailers and the marketing firms they employ know this!

They will use all sorts of tricks of the trade to persuade us to part with our money. These tricks are designed to nudge us (or push us), without us feeling manipulated or conned – at least until we’ve bought their product.

And the tricks are getting more sophisticated. They include special offers which are not as good as they seem, time-limited offers which stimulate us to buy quickly without carefully thinking about what we’re doing, cunning positioning of products in shops to encourage us to buy things we had not planned to buy, adverts which play to our idealised perceptions or the ‘good life’ or what we would like to achieve, and packaging or display which make the product seem better than it is.

Also we are increasingly faced with targeted advertising where our smart devices capture information about our spending habits and tastes through our previous online spending or our search behaviour. This is then fed to advertisers to tailor adverts specifically to us on our mobiles, tablets, laptops and even, soon, on our smart TVs.

We may have a general desire to maximise utility from our spending, but market failures, such as consumers having imperfect information about products and a present bias (see also) in decision making, make us easy targets for the advertising and marketing industry. They understand the heuristics we use and try to take maximum advantage of them.

Happy shopping!

Articles
How shops use tricks to get you spending The Conversation, Cathrine Jansson-Boyd (16/11/17)
ColourPop looks to Qubit for next-gen personalization guidance Retail Dive, Dan O’Shea (13/6/17)
Channel 4 to offer 100% ad targeting across All 4 platform, seeking partners for linear equivalent The Drum, Jessica Goodfellow (14/11/17)
How Google aims to bring TV advertising into the 21st century The Drum, Ronan Shields (19/10/17)
How to Use Heuristics to Your Marketing Advantage MarketingProfs, Cam Secore (12/11/15)

Questions

  1. Does the use of heuristics contradict the assumption that consumers behave rationally?
  2. Give some examples of heuristics that you yourself use.
  3. Other than those identified above and in the first article, what ‘tricks’ might companies play on you to persuade you to buy their products?
  4. Is advertising personally targeted to individual consumers desirable for them?
  5. Give some examples of present bias in people’s behaviour.
  6. What factors should a retailer take into account when deciding whether to make pre-Christmas discounts?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘affect heuristic’ and how the advertising industry uses the concept in setting the background to or scenario of an advertisement.
  8. Have you ever been persuaded into buying something you didn’t want? Why were you persuaded?
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Avoiding taxes

Tax avoidance has been in the news since the publication of the Panama papers, which show the use of offshore tax havens by rich individuals and companies, partly for tax avoidance, partly for money laundering and other criminal activities – some by corrupt politicians and their associates – and partly to take advantage of lower regulation of financial dealing.

There are many tax havens around the world, including Switzerland, Hong Kong, British overseas territories (such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda), Jersey, Singapore and certain US states (such as Arizona, Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming).

Here we focus on tax avoidance. This is the management of tax affairs by individuals or firms so as to avoid or minimise the payment of taxes. Tax avoidance is legal, unlike tax evasion, which is the practice of not declaring taxable income.

In a statement from the White House, directly after the publication of the Panama papers, President Obama spoke about the huge international scale of tax evasion and tax avoidance:

“A lot of it is legal, but that’s exactly the problem. It’s not that [people are] breaking the laws, it’s that the laws are so poorly designed that they allow people, if they’ve got enough lawyers and enough accountants, to wiggle out of responsibilities that ordinary citizens are having to abide by.

Here in the United States, there are loopholes that only wealthy individuals and powerful corporations have access to. They have access to offshore accounts, and they are gaming the system. Middle-class families are not in the same position to do this. In fact, a lot of these loopholes come at the expense of middle-class families, because that lost revenue has to be made up somewhere. Alternatively, it means that we’re not investing as much as we should in schools, in making college more affordable, in putting people back to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our infrastructure, creating more opportunities for our children.”

Tax avoidance, whether in tax havens, or through exploiting loopholes in the tax system may be legal. But is it fair?

Various principles of a tax system can be identified. These include:

Horizontal equity People in the same situation should be treated equally. For example, people earning the same level of income and with the same personal circumstances (e.g. number and type of dependants, size of mortgage, etc.) should pay the same level of income tax.
Vertical equity Taxes should be ‘fairly’ apportioned between rich and poor. The rich should pay proportionately more taxes than the poor.
Equity between recipients of government services Under the ‘benefit principle’, it is argued that those who receive the most benefits from government expenditure ought to pay the most in taxes. For example, it can be argued that roads should be paid for from fuel tax.
Difficulty of evasion and possibly of avoidance If it is desirable to have a given tax, people should not be able to escape paying.
Non-distortion Taxes alter market signals: taxes on goods and services alter market prices; taxes on income alter wages. They should not do this in an undesirable direction.
Convenience to the taxpayer Taxes should be certain and clearly understood by taxpayers so that they can calculate their tax liabilities. The method of payment should be straightforward.
Convenience to the government Tax rates should be simple to adjust and as cheap to collect as possible.
Minimal disincentive effects Taxes may discourage people from working longer or harder, from saving, from investing or from taking initiative. It is desirable that these disincentives should be kept to a minimum.

Of course, not all these requirements can be met at the same time. One of the most serious conflicts is between vertical equity and the need to keep disincentives to a minimum. The more steeply the rich are taxed, it is argued, the more serious are the disincentive effects on them likely to be (see the blog post from 2012, The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). Another is between vertical equity and equity between recipients of services. Some of the people most in need of government support are the poorest and hence pay the least taxes.

The crucial question is what is regarded as ‘fair’. What is vertically equitable? According to the second article below, people’s preferred tax rates depend on how information is presented. If information is presented on how much tax is paid by the rich, people generally feel that the rich pay too much. If, however, information is presented on how much income people are left with after paying tax, people feel that the rich still have too much and ought to pay more tax.

The majority of people in the UK feel that tax avoidance, although legal, is morally wrong. According to the results of an HMRC survey in 2015, “the majority (63%) of respondents felt that the use of tax avoidance schemes was widespread. However, the majority (61%) also responded that it was never acceptable to use a tax avoidance scheme. The most frequent reason given as to why it was unacceptable was that ‘it is unfair on others who pay their taxes’.”

In making judgements about the fairness of tax, people generally have inaccurate knowledge about the distribution of income, believing that it is more equal than it really is, and about the progressiveness of the tax system, believing that it is more progressive than it really is. Despite this, they want post-tax income distribution to be more equal.

What is more, although people generally disapprove of tax avoidance, it is the system that allows the avoidance of taxes that they want changing. As long as it is possible to avoid taxes, such as giving gifts to children to avoid inheritance tax (as long as the gift is made more than seven years before the person’s death), most people see no reason why they should not do so themselves.

The following articles look at tax avoidance and people’s attitudes towards it. They are all drawn from The Conversation, “an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.”.

Articles
Explainer: what are ‘tax havens’? The Conversation, Tommaso Faccio (5/4/16)
When it comes to tax, how do we decide what’s fair? The Conversation, Stian Reimers (8/4/16)
Six things a tax haven expert learned from the Panama Papers The Conversation, Ronen Palan (6/4/16)

Documents
The Panama Papers The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Exploring public attitudes to tax avoidance in 2015: HM Revenue and Customs Research Report 401 HMRC, Preena Shah (February 2016)
2010 to 2015 government policy: tax evasion and avoidance HMRC/HM Treasury (8/5/15)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between tax avoidance and tax evasion.
  2. Give some examples of tax avoidance.
  3. Look through the various principles of a tax system and identify any conflicts.
  4. What problems are there in having a highly progressive tax system?
  5. What is a ‘shell company’? How can it be used to avoid and evade taxes?
  6. What are bearer shares and bonds? Why were they abolished in the UK in 2015?
  7. What legitimate reasons may there be for a company or individual using a tax haven?
  8. To what extent might increased transparency in tax affairs discourage individuals and companies from engaging in aggressive tax avoidance?
  9. What light does/can behavioural economics shed on people’s perceptions of fairness?
  10. How might the use of absolute amounts or percentages influence people’s thinking about the fairness of a tax system? What implications does this have for politicians in framing tax policy?
  11. In the principal–agent problem, where the principals are the tax authorities and the agents are taxpayers, why does asymmetric information arise and why is it a problem? How do the tax authorities seek to reduce this problem?
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A soft target for a tax

Back in October, we looked at the growing pressure in the UK for a sugar tax. The issue of childhood obesity was considered by the Parliamentary Health Select Committee and a sugar tax, either on sugar generally, or specifically on soft drinks, was one of the proposals being considered to tackle the problem. The committee studied a report by Public Health England, which stated that:

Research studies and impact data from countries that have already taken action suggest that price increases, such as by taxation, can influence purchasing of sugar sweetened drinks and other high sugar products at least in the short-term with the effect being larger at higher levels of taxation.

In his Budget on 16 March, the Chancellor announced that a tax would be imposed on manufacturers of soft drinks from April 2018. This will be at a rate of 18p per litre on drinks containing between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml, such as Dr Pepper, Fanta and Sprite, and 24p per litre for drinks with more than 8g per 100ml, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Red Bull.

Whilst the tax has been welcomed by health campaigners, there are various questions about (a) how effective it is likely to be in reducing childhood obesity; (b) whether it will be enough or whether other measures will be needed; and (c) whether it is likely to raise the £520m in 2018/19, falling to £455m by 2020/21, as predicted by the Treasury: money the government will use for promoting school sport and breakfast clubs.

These questions are all linked. If demand for such drinks is relatively inelastic, the drinks manufacturers will find it easier to pass the tax on to consumers and the government will raise more revenue. However, it will be less effective in cutting sugar consumption and hence in tackling obesity. In other words, there is a trade off between raising revenue and cutting consumption.

This incidence of tax is not easy to predict. Part of the reason is that much of the market is a bilateral oligopoly, with giant drinks manufacturers selling to giant supermarket chains. In such circumstances, the degree to which the tax can be passed on depends on the bargaining strength and skill of both sides. Will the supermarkets be able to put pressure on the manufacturers to absorb the tax themselves and not pass it on in the wholesale price? Or will the demand be such, especially for major brands such as Coca-Cola, that the supermarkets will be willing to accept a higher price from the manufacturers and then pass it on to the consumer?

Then there is the question of the response of the manufacturers. How easy will it be for them to reformulate their drinks to reduce sugar content and yet still retain sales? For example, can they produce a product which tastes like a high sugar drink, but really contains a mix between sugar and artificial sweeteners – effectively a hybrid between a ‘normal’ and a low-cal version? How likely are they to reduce the size of cans, say from 330ml to 300ml, to avoid raising prices?

The success of the tax on soft drinks in cutting sugar consumption depends on whether it is backed up by other policies. The most obvious of these would be to impose a tax on sugar in other products, including cakes, biscuits, low-fat yoghurts, breakfast cereals and desserts, and also many savoury products, such as tinned soups, ready meals and sauces. But there are other policies too. The Public Health England report recommended a national programme to educate people on sugar in foods; reducing price promotions of sugary food and drink; removing confectionery or other sugary foods from end of aisles and till points in supermarkets; setting broader and deeper controls on advertising of high-sugar foods and drinks to children; and reducing the sugar content of the foods we buy through reformulation and portion size reduction.

Articles
Sugar tax: How it will work? BBC News, Nick Triggle (16/3/16)
Will a sugar tax actually work? The Guardian, Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett (16/3/16)
Coca-Cola and other soft drinks firms hit back at sugar tax plan The Guardian, Sarah Butler (17/3/16)
Sugar tax could increase calories people consume, economic experts warn The Telegraph, Kate McCann, and Steven Swinford (17/3/16)
Nudge, nudge! How the sugar tax will help British diets Financial Times, Anita Charlesworth (18/3/16)
Is the sugar tax an example of the nanny state going too far? Financial Times (19/3/16)
Government’s £520m sugar tax target ‘highly dubious’, analysts warn The Telegraph, Ben Martin (17/3/16)
Sorry Jamie Oliver, I’d be surprised if sugar tax helped cut obesity The Conversation, Isabelle Szmigin (17/3/16)
Sugar sweetened beverage taxes What Works for Health (17/12/15)

Questions

  1. What determines the price elasticity of demand for sugary drinks in general (as opposed to one particular brand)?
  2. How are drinks manufacturers likely to respond to the sugar tax?
  3. How are price elasticity of demand and supply relevant in determining the incidence of the sugar tax between manufacturers and consumers? How is the degree of competition in the market relevant here?
  4. What is meant by a socially optimal allocation of resources?
  5. If the current consumption of sugary drinks is not socially optimal, what categories of market failure are responsible for this?
  6. Will a sugar tax fully tackle these market failures? Explain.
  7. Is a sugar tax progressive, regressive or proportional? Explain.
  8. Assess the argument that the tax on sugar in soft drinks may actually increase the amount that people consume.
  9. The sugar tax can be described as a ‘hypothecated tax’. What does this mean and is it a good idea?
  10. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a tax on sugar in soft drinks with (a) banning soft drinks with more than a certain amount of sugar per 100ml; (b) a tax on sugar; (c) a tax on sugar in all foods and drinks.
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Energising the energy market

In June 2014, the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority (which governs the energy regulator, Ofgem) referred Great Britain’s retail and wholesale gas and electricity markets to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The market is dominated by the ‘big six‘ energy companies (British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE) and Ofgem suspected that this oligopoly was distorting competition and leading to higher prices.

The CMA presented its report on 10 March 2016. It confirmed its preliminary findings of July and December 2015 “that there are features of the markets for the supply of energy in Great Britain that result in an adverse effect on competition”. It concludes that “the average customer could save over £300 by switching to a cheaper deal” and that “customers could have been paying about £1.7 billion a year more than they would in a competitive market”.

It made various recommendations to address the problem. These include “requiring the largest suppliers to provide fuller information on their financial performance” and strengthening the role of Ofgem.

Also the CMA wants to encourage more people to switch to cheaper suppliers. At present, some 70% of the customers of the big six are on default standard variable tariffs, which are more expensive than other tariffs available. To address this problem, the CMA proposes the setting up of “an Ofgem-controlled database which will allow rival suppliers to contact domestic and microbusiness customers who have been stuck on their supplier’s default tariff for 3 years or more with better deals.”

Another area of concern for the CMA is the 4 million people (16% of customers) forced to have pre-payment meters. These tend to be customers with poor credit records, who also tend to be on low incomes. Such customers are paying more for their gas and electricity and yet have little opportunity to switch to cheaper alternatives. For these customers the CMA proposed imposing transitional price controls from no later than April 2017 until 2020. These would cut typical bills by some £80 to £90 per year. In the meantime, the CMA would seek to remove “restrictions on the ability of new suppliers to compete for prepayment customers and reduce barriers such as debt issues that make it difficult for such customers to switch”.

Despite trying to address the problem of lack of competition, consumer inertia and barriers to entry, the CMA has been criticised for not going further. It has also been criticised for the method it has chosen to help consumers switch to cheaper alternative suppliers and tariffs. The articles below look at these criticisms.

Podcast
Competition and Markets Authority Energy Report BBC You and Yours (10/3/16)

Articles
Millions could see cut in energy bills BBC News (10/3/16)
Shake-up of energy market could save customers millions, watchdog says The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (10/3/16)
UK watchdog divided over energy market reforms Financial Times, Kiran Stacey (10/3/16)
How the CMA energy inquiry affects you Which? (10/3/16)
UK watchdog accused of bowing to pressure from ‘big six’ energy suppliers The Guardian, Terry Macalister (10/3/16)

CMA documents
CMA sets out energy market changes CMA press release (10/3/16)
Energy Market Investigation: Summary of provisional remedies Competition and Markets Authority (10/3/16)

Questions

  1. Find out the market share of the ‘big six’ and whether this has changed over the past few years.
  2. What, if any, are the barriers to entry in the gas and electricity retail markets?
  3. Why are the big six able to charge customers some £300 per household more than would be the case if they were on the cheapest deal?
  4. What criticisms have been made of the CMA’s proposals?
  5. Discuss alternative proposals to those of the CMA for dealing with the problem of excessive prices of gas and electricity.
  6. Should Ofgem or another independent not-for-profit body be allowed to run its own price comparison and switching service? Would this be better than the CMA’s proposal for allowing competitors access to people’s energy usage after 3 years of being with the same company on its standard tariff and allowing them to contact these people?
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When it’s a pain choosing the right painkiller

One type of market failing is the asymmetric information between producers and consumers. Advertising, branding and marketing can either help to reduce consumers’ limited information or play on ignorance to mislead consumers.

Misleading consumers is what the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser is accused of doing with its Nurofen brand of painkillers. There are very few types of painkiller – the most common three being paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin. These are sold cheaply in chemists as unbranded ‘generic products’. Or you can buy much more expensive branded versions of the same drugs. Many people believe that the branded versions are more effective as they are cleverly marketed.

Reckitt Benckiser has been found guilty by the Australian federal court of deceiving consumers. The company produces various varieties of Nurofen, each claiming to target a particular type of pain. But Nurofen Back Pain, Nurofen Period Pain, Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache are in fact identical! And in many outlets, they were sold at different prices – a form of price discrimination reflecting the strength of demand by consumers for a particular type of pain relief.

And now the UK Advertising Standards Authority is investigating the company over whether its adverts for Nurofen Express are misleading by stating that the product ‘gives you faster headache relief than standard paracetamol or ibuprofen’. Also it is investigating the company’s claim that its products directly target muscles in the head. Both Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache claim on the front of the box to provide ‘targeted rapid relief’.

The company adopts similar practices in its combined pain-killer and decongestant drugs for relieving cold symptoms. For example, its Nurofen Cold and Flu Relief, Nurofen Day and Night Cold and Flu, Nurofen Sinus and Blocked Nose and Nurofen Sinus Pain Relief all contain the same quantities of ibuprofen and the decongestant phenylephrine hydrochloride, but each claims to do something different.

So there are various issues here. The first is whether excessive profits are made by charging a price typically 3 to 4 times greater than the identical generic version of the drug; the second is whether the company deliberately misleads consumers by claiming that a particular version of the drug targets a particular type of pain; the third is whether ‘faster acting’ versions are significantly different; the fourth is whether price discrimination is being practised.

Articles
Nurofen maker Reckitt Benckiser suffers advertising headaches Financial Times, Robert Cookson and Scheherazade Daneshkhu (15/12/15)
Nurofen Express advertising claims probed by UK watchdog BBC News (15/12/15)
ASA probing ‘misleading’ painkiller claims in advert by drug firm behind Nurofen The Telegraph, Tom Morgan and agency (15/12/15)
The great painkiller con: Top drug brands accused of huge mark-ups and misleading claims Mail Online, Sean Poulter and John Naish (16/12/15)
Nurofen Under Investigation By UK Watchdog Over Claims Advert ‘Misled’ Customers Huffington Post, Natasha Hinde (15/12/15)

Australian Competition & Consumer Comission media release
Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims ACCC (14/12/15)

Questions

  1. Is price discrimination always against the consumer’s interests?
  2. What form of price discrimination is being practised in the case of Nurofen?
  3. How, do you think, does Reckitt Benckiser decide the prices it charges retailers for its pain killers and how, do you think, do retailers determine the price they charge consumers for them?
  4. Is it a reasonable assumption that branded products in most cases are better than own-brand or generic versions? How is behavioural theory relevant here?
  5. If Reckitt Benckiser were banned from using the word ‘targets’ when referring to one of its product’s effect on particular type of pain, could the company instead use the words ‘suitable for’ relieving a particular type of pain and thereby avoid misleading consumers?
  6. What is the best way of improving consumer knowledge about particular types of over-the-counter drugs and their effects on the body?
  7. Comment on the following statement by Dr Aomesh Bhatt, the company’s medical affairs director: ‘The Nurofen specific-pain range was launched with an intention to help consumers navigate their pain relief options, particularly within the grocery environment where there is no healthcare professional to assist decision making.’
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Flooding the insurance market

Britain has faced some its worst ever weather, with thousands of homes flooded once again, though the total number of flooded households has fallen compared to previous floods. However, for many households, it is just more of the same – if you’ve been flooded once, you’re likely to be flooded again and hence insurance against flooding is essential. But, if you’re an insurance company, do you really want to provide cover to a house that you can almost guarantee will flood?

The government has pledged thousands to help households and businesses recover from the damage left by the floods and David Cameron’s latest step has been to urge insurance companies to deal with claims for flood damage as fast as possible. He has not, however, said anything regarding ‘premium holidays’ for flood victims.

The problem is that the premium you are charged depends on many factors and one key aspect is the likelihood of making a claim. The more likely the claim, the higher the premium. If a household has previous experience of flooding, the insurance company will know that there is a greater likelihood of flooding occurring again and thus the premium will be increased to reflect this greater risk. There have been concerns that some particularly vulnerable home-owners will be unable to find or afford home insurance.

The key thing with insurance is that in order for it to be provided privately, certain conditions must hold. The probability of the event occurring must be less than 1 – insurance companies will not insure against certainty. The probability of the event must be known on aggregate to allow insurance companies to calculate premiums. Probabilities must be independent – if one person makes a claim, it should not increase the likelihood of others making claims.

Finally, there should be no adverse selection or moral hazard, both of which derive from asymmetric information. The former occurs where the person taking out the insurance can hide information from the company (i.e. that they are a bad risk) and the latter occurs when the person taking out insurance changes their behaviour once they are insured. Only if these conditions hold or there are easy solutions will the private market provide insurance.

On the demand-side, consumers must be willing to pay for insurance, which provides them with protection against certain contingencies: in this case against the cost of flood damage. Given the choice, rational consumers will only take out an insurance policy if they believe that the value they get from the certainty of knowing they are covered exceeds the cost of paying the insurance premium. However, if the private market fails to offer insurance, because of failures on the supply-side, there will be major gaps in coverage.

Furthermore, even if insurance policies are offered to those at most risk of flooding, the premiums charged by the insurance companies must be high enough to cover the cost of flood damage. For some homeowners, these premiums may be unaffordable, again leading to gaps in coverage.

Perhaps here there is a growing role for the government and we have seen proposals for a government-backed flood insurance scheme for high-risk properties due to start in 2015. However, a loop hole may mean that wealthy homeowners pay a levy for it, but are not able to benefit from the cheaper premiums, as they are deemed to be able to afford higher premiums. This could see many homes in the Somerset Levels being left out of this scheme, despite households being underwater for months. There is also a further role for government here and that is more investment in flood defences. If that occurs though, where will the money come from? The following articles consider flooding and the problem of insurance.

Insurers urged to process flood claims quickly BBC News (17/2/14)
Flood area defences put on hold by government funding cuts The Guardian, Damian Carrington and Rajeev Syal (17/2/14)
Flooding: 200,000 houses at risk of being uninsurable The Telegraph (31/1/12)
Govt flood insurance plan ‘will not work’ Sky News (14/2/14)
Have we learned our lessons on flooding? BBC News, Roger Harrabin (14/2/14)
ABI refuses to renew statement of principles for flood insurance Insurance Age, Emmanuel Kenning (31/1/12)
Wealthy will have to pay more for flood insurance but won’t be covered because their houses are too expensive Mail Online, James Chapman (7/2/14)
Buyers need ‘flood ratings’ on all houses, Aviva Chief warns The Telegraph, James Quinn (15/2/14)
Wealthy homeowners won’t be helped by flood insurance scheme The Telegraph(11/2/14)
Costly insurance ‘will create flood-risk ghettos and £4.3tn fall in house values’ The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (12/2/14)
Leashold homes face flood insurance risk Financial Times, Alistair Gray (10/2/14)

Questions

  1. Consider the market for insurance against flood damage. Are risks less than one? Explain your answer.
  2. Explain whether or not the risk of flooding is independent.
  3. Are the problems of moral hazard and adverse selection relevant in the case of home insurance against flood damage?
  4. To what extent is the proposed government-backed flood insurance an equitable scheme? Should the government be stepping in to provide insurance itself?
  5. Should there be greater regulation when houses are sold to provide better information about the risk of flooding?
  6. Why if the concept of opportunity cost relevant here?
  7. How might household values be affected by recent floods, in light of the issues with insurance?
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Should I give cash or gifts this Christmas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by the term ‘allocative efficiency’. Use a diagram to help illustrate and explain your answer.
  2. Draw an indifference curve diagram to illustrate the potential welfare costs of giving presents instead of cash.
  3. Assess whether giving someone a gift card is more economically efficient than giving them a present.
  4. Using a simple numerical example, explain how economic welfare could be higher if someone buys a present that the recipient was unaware of. What factors might you have to take into account when carrying out this economic analysis?
  5. Explain what is meant by the term ‘asymmetric information’. Provide a number of examples to help illustrate your answer.
  6. What properties must a signal have if it is to successfully overcome problems caused by asymmetric information?
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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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Money can’t buy me love

Australia is a rich country. It is one of the few to have avoided a recession. This has been the result partly of successful macroeconomic policies, but largely of the huge mining boom, with Australia exporting minerals to China and other fast growing Asian economies.

But has this growth brought happiness? Are Australians having to work harder and harder to pay for their high standard of living? Indeed, do higher incomes generally result in greater happiness? The following articles explore this issue, both in an Australian context and more broadly. They look at some recent evidence.

For example, in one study, Canadian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese university students were asked what they held to be most important for assessing the worth of their lives. The crucial finding was that although higher incomes may be a contributing factor to increased happiness and well-being, especially for poorer people, other factors are more important. These include developing fulfilling personal relationships, whether with partners, family members or friends; gaining knowledge and wisdom; having enjoyable hobbies; having financial security (as opposed to higher incomes); having a worthwhile career; living a moral life; helping other people.

The question then arises whether our economic systems and incentives are geared towards achieving these outcomes. Or are we encouraged to consume more and more and to seek higher and higher incomes to feed our addiction to consumption?

Is there an information problem here? Do many individuals perceive that money will buy them happiness, whereas, in reality, money can’t buy them love?

Articles
Australia: Where the good life comes at a price BBC News Magazine, Madeleine Morris (24/2/13)
Australia has the know-how to boost wellbeing Sydney Morning Herald, Matt Wade (8/9/12)
Money can’t buy you the good life Independent, Roger Dobson (24/2/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Yes, Money Does Buy Happiness: 6 Lessons from the Newest Research on Income and Well-Being The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (10/1/13)
The fact is, the richer you are, the happier you are The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/13)
Money buys happiness? I wouldn’t bank on it The Telegraph, Christopher Howse (6/2/13)
Who Says Wealth Doesn’t Buy Happiness? The Wealthy Do CNBC, Robert Frank (4/2/13)
More Proof That Money Can’t Buy Happiness Business Insider, Aimee Groth (28/1/13)
Money Changes Everything The New York Times, Adam Davidson (5/2/13)
Why are the Chinese so sad? Maclean’s (Canada), Mitch Moxley (4/2/13)

Reports
First World Happiness Report Launched at the United Nations The Earth Institute, Columbia University (2/4/12)
World Happiness Report The Earth Institute, Columbia University, John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs (eds.) (2/4/12)
Well-being evidence for policy: A review New Economics Foundation, Laura Stoll, Juliet Michaelson and Charles Seaford (3/4/12)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. Is higher income a necessary or sufficient condition (or both or neither) for an increase in happiness? Does a person’s circumstances affect the answer to this question?
  2. Explain what is meant by ‘rational behaviour’ at the margin in the traditional economic sense?
  3. If a person always behaved rationally, would they be happier than if they did not? Explain.
  4. Explain how information asymmetry between the two or more parties involved in a transaction may make people worse off, rather than better off, even though they were behaving rationally.
  5. Explain what is meant by diminishing returns to income.
  6. Do richer countries get happier as they get richer?
  7. How would you set about measuring happiness?
  8. What do you understand by the term ‘hedonic elevation and decline’? Does this provide an accurate description of you own purchasing behaviour? If so, explain whether or not you would like to change this behaviour.
  9. When people make economic decisions, these are normally made with bounded rationality. How may this affect the desirability of the outcomes of the decisions?
  10. In explaining bankers’ behaviour, Christopher Howse (author of the second Telegraph article above) states: ‘It’s the power game that keeps them happy, not the money itself. When I say “keeps them happy” I mean “feeds their addiction”. It is a negative kind of satisfaction. A morning spent without the distraction of making big bucks is a morning left exposed to the empty horror of being a little rational animal on the bare surface of the Earth lost in space.’ Do you agree? Explain why or why not.
  11. When people are addicted to something, would doing more of it be classed as irrational? Explain.
  12. Why are the Chinese so sad?
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Liability for LIBOR

Barclays’ Chief Executive, Bob Diamond, has resigned following revelations that Barclays staff had been involved in rigging the LIBOR in the period 2005–9, including the financial crisis of 2007–9.

So what is the LIBOR; how is it set; what were the reasons for Barclays (and other banks, as will soon be revealed) attempting to manipulate the rate; and what were the consequences?

The LIBOR, or London interbank offered rate, is the average of what banks report that they would have to pay to borrow from one another in the inter-bank market. Separate LIBORs are calculated for 15 different lending periods: overnight, one week, one month, two months, three months, six months, etc. The rates are set daily as the average of submissions made to Thomson Reuters by some 15 to 20 banks (a poll overseen by the British Bankers’ Association). Thomson Reuters then publishes the LIBORs, along with all of the submissions from individual banks which are used to calculate it.

Many interest rates around the world are based on LIBORs, or their European counterpart, EURIBORs. They include bond rates, mortgage rates, overdraft rates, etc. Trillions of dollars worth of such assets are benchmarked to the LIBORs. Thus manipulating LIBORs by even 1 basis point (0.01%) can result in millions of dollars worth of gains (or losses) to banks.

The charge, made by the Financial Services Authority, is that Barclays staff deliberately under- or overstated the rate at which the bank would have to borrow. For example, when interbank loans were drying up in the autumn of 2008, Barclays staff were accused of deliberately understating the rate at which they would have to borrow in order to persuade markets that the bank was facing less difficulty than it really was and thereby boost confidence in the bank. In other words they were accused of trying to manipulate LIBORs down by lying.

As it was the LIBORs were rising well above bank rate. The spread for the one-month LIBOR was around 1 to 1.2% above Bank Rate. Today it is around 0.1 to 0.15% above Bank Rate. Without lying by staff in Barclays, RBS and probably other banks too, the spread in 2008 may have been quite a bit higher still.

The following articles look at the issue, its impact at the time and the aftermath today.

Articles
A Libor primer The Globe and Mail, Kevin Carmichael (3/7/12)
60 second guide to Libor Which? (3/7/12)
Explaining the Libor interest rate mess CNN Money (3/7/12)
Fixing Libor Financial Times (27/6/12)
LIBOR in the News: What it is, Why it’s Important Technorati, John Sollars (2/7/12)
Libor rigging ‘was institutionalised at major UK bank’ The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (1/7/12)
Barclays ‘attempted to manipulate interest rates’ BBC News, Robert Peston (27/6/12)
The Libor Conspiracy: Were the Bank of England and Whitehall in on it? Independent, Oliver Wright, James Moore , Nigel Morris (4/7/12)
Fixing LIBOR The Economist (10/3/12)
Cleaning up LIBOR? The Economist (14/5/12)
Eagle fried The Economist, Schumpeter (27/6/12)
Barclays looks like the victim Financial Post, Terence Corcoran (3/7/12)
Inconvenient truths about Libor BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/7/12)
Timeline: Barclays’ widening Libor-fixing scandal BBC News (5/7/12)
The elusive truth about Barclays’ lie BBC News, Robert Peston (4/7/12)
Rate Fixing Scandal Is International: EU’s Almunia CNBC, Shai Ahmed (4/7/12)
Bank-Bonus Culture to Blame for Barclays Scandal The Daily Beast, Alex Klein (3/7/12)
Libor scandal ‘damaging’ for City BBC Today Programme, Andrew Lilico and Mark Boleat (5/7/12)

Data
Libor rate fixing: see each bank’s submissions Guardian Data Blog, Simon Rogers (3/7/12)
Sterling interbank rates Bank of England

Questions

  1. Using data from the Bank of England (see link above), chart two or three LIBOR rates against Bank rate from 2007 to the present day.
  2. For what reason would individuals and firms lose from banks manipulating LIBOR rates?
  3. Why would LIBOR manipulation be more ‘effective’ if banks colluded in their submissions about their interest rates?
  4. Why might the Bank of England and the government have been quite keen for the LIBOR to have been manipulated downwards in 2008?
  5. To what extent was the LIBOR rigging scandal an example of the problem of asymmetric information?
  6. In the light of the LIBOR rigging scandal, should universal banks be split into separate investment and retail banks, rather than erecting some firewall around their retail banking arm?
  7. What are the arguments for and against making attempts to manipulate LIBOR rates a criminal offences?
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