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Posts Tagged ‘fixed costs’

Going nuclear

The UK government has finally given the go-ahead to build the new Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset. It will consist of two European pressurised reactors, a relatively new technology. No EPR plant has yet been completed, with the one in the most advanced stages of construction at Flamanville in France, having experienced many safety and construction problems. This is currently expected to be more than three times over budget and at least six years behind its original completion date of 2012.

The Hinkley C power station, first proposed in 2007, is currently estimated to cost £18 billion. This cost will be borne entirely by its builder, EDF, the French 85% state-owned company, and its Chinese partner, CGN. When up and running – currently estimated at 2025 – it is expected to produce around 7% of the UK’s electricity output.

On becoming Prime Minister in July 2016, Theresa May announced that the approval for the plant would be put on hold while further investigation of its costs, benefits, security concerns, technological issues and safeguards was conducted. This has now been completed and approval has been granted subject to new conditions. The main one is that the government “will be able to prevent the sale of EDF’s controlling stake prior to the completion of construction”. This will allow the government to prevent change of ownership during the construction phase. Thus, for example, EDF, would not be allowed to sell its share of Hinkley C to CGN, which currently has a one-third share in the project. EDF and CGN have accepted the new terms.

After Hinkley the government will have a ‘golden share’ in all future nuclear projects. “This will ensure that significant stakes cannot be sold without the Government’s knowledge or consent.”

In return for their full financing of the project, the government has guaranteed EDF and CGN a price of £92.50 per megawatt hour of electricity (in 2012 prices). This price will be borne by consumers. It will rise with inflation from now and over the first 35 years of the power station’s operation. It is expected that the Hinkley C will have a life of 60 years.

Critics point out that this guaranteed ‘strike price’ is more than double the current wholesale price of electricity and, with the price of renewables falling as technology improves, it will be an expensive way to meet the UK’s electricity needs and cut carbon emissions.

Those in favour argue that it is impossible to predict electricity prices into the distant future and that the certainty this plant will give is worth the high price by current standards.

To assess the desirability of the plant requires an assessment of its costs and benefits. In principle, this is a relatively simple process of identifying and measuring the costs and benefits, including external costs and benefits; discounting future costs and benefits to give them a present value; weighting them by their probability of occurrence; then calculating whether the net present value is positive or negative. A sensitivity analysis could also be conducted to show just how sensitive the net present value would be to changes in the value of specific costs or benefits.

In practice the process is far from simple – largely because of the huge uncertainty over specific costs and benefits. These include future wholesale electricity prices, unforeseen problems in construction and operation, and a range of political issues, such as pressure from various interest groups, and attitudes and actions of EDF and CGN and their respective governments, which will affect not only Hinkley C but other future power stations.

The articles look at the costs and benefits of this, the most expensive construction project ever in the UK, and possibly on Earth..

Articles
Hinkley Point: UK approves nuclear plant deal BBC News (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point: What is it and why is it important? BBC News, John Moylan (15/9/16)
‘The case hasn’t changed’ for Hinkley Point C BBC Today Programme, Malcolm Grimston (29/7/16)
U.K. Approves EDF’s £18 Billion Hinkley Point Nuclear Project Bloomberg, Francois De Beaupuy (14/9/16)
Hinkley Point C nuclear power station gets government green light The Guardian, Rowena Mason and Simon Goodley (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point C: now for a deep rethink on the nuclear adventure? The Guardian, Nils Pratley (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point C finally gets green light as Government approves nuclear deal with EDF and China The Telegraph, Emily Gosden (15/9/16)
UK gives go-ahead for ‘revised’ £18bn Hinkley Point plant Financial Times, Andrew Ward, Jim Pickard and Michael Stothard (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point: Is the UK getting a good deal? Financial Times, Andrew Ward (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point is risk for overstretched EDF, warn critics Financial Times, Michael Stothard (15/9/16)
Hinkley C must be the first of many new nuclear plants The Conversation, Simon Hogg (16/9/16)

Report
Nuclear power in the UK National Audit Office, Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General (12/7/16)

Questions

  1. Summarise the arguments for going ahead with Hinkley C.
  2. Summarise the objections to Hinkley C.
  3. What categories of uncertain costs and uncertain benefits are there for the project?
  4. Is the project in EDF’s interests?
  5. How will the government’s golden share system operate?
  6. How should the discount rate be chosen for discounting future costs and benefits from a project such as Hinkley C?
  7. What factors will determine the wholesale price of electricity over the coming years? In real terms, do you think it is likely to rise or fall? Explain.
  8. If nuclear power has high fixed costs and low marginal costs, how does this affect how much nuclear power stations should be used in a situation of daily and seasonal fluctuations in demand?
  9. How could ‘smart grid’ technology smooth out peaks and troughs in electricity supply and demand? How does this affect the relative arguments about nuclear power versus renewables?
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Sainsbury’s and Argos: Good or bad?

There has been a link between Sainsbury’s and Argos, with Sainsbury’s offering Argos concessions in some stores. But now, we’re looking at a much more significant link, with Sainsbury’s offering £1.3 billion for control of Home Retail Group’s Argos.

Many have questioned the sense of this offer, wondering what Sainsbury’s will gain from purchasing Argos, but Sainsbury’s has indicated it will boost sales, give itself access to a more advanced delivery network and Argos customers. Argos has worked hard to update its image, moving towards a more technology based catalogue and promising same day delivery in a bid to compete with companies, such as Amazon.

Online delivery is a costly business, with suggestions that retailers make losses on each delivery and hence pay customers to shop online. This move by Sainsbury’s may therefore be an investment in expanding its online delivery services and using the infrastructure that Argos already has. This will therefore help Sainsbury’s to invest in this sought after customer service, without having to invest millions into providing the infrastructure in the first place. This move may give Sainsbury’s a first mover advantage in the grocery sector, which may force other competitors to follow suit.

We could write for hours on the ins and outs of this potential deal and undoubtedly commentators will argue both for and against it. The following articles consider the good and bad sides and the future of grocery retailers in the UK.

Why does Sainsbury’s want to buy Argos? BBC News, Katie Hope (01/02/16)
Sainsbury’s agrees terms to buy Home Retail Group in £1.3bn deal The Guardian, Sean Farrell and Sarah Butler (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s bets on Argos takeover for digital age Reuters, James Davey and Kate Holton (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s returns with £1.3bn offer for Argos The Telegraph, Jon Yeomans and Ashley Armstrong (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s could shut up to 200 Argos stores Sky News (12/01/16)
Sainsbury’s strikes deal to buy Home Retail Group Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Arash Massoudi and Josh Noble (02/02/16)

Questions

  1. What are the benefits to Sainsbury’s of taking over Argos?
  2. Why have many critics been surprised by this take-over?
  3. What is meant by a first mover advantage?
  4. Do you think that grocery retailers should diversify further or focus on their core business?
  5. Commentators suggest that delivery costs more to retailers than the price charged to consumers. Can you illustrate this using cost and revenue curves?
  6. Online delivery infrastructure is a big fixed cost for a firm. How will this change the shape of a firm’s cost curves and what impact will this have on profits following changes in market output?
  7. Do you think this take over will cause any concerns by competition authorities?
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An oil glut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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

‘Farm-gate’ milk prices (the price paid to farmers) have been rising in the UK. In July they reached a record high of 31.4p per litre (ppl). This was 5.1ppl higher than in July 2012. There were further price rises this month (October). Sainsbury’s increased the price it pays farmers by nearly 2ppl to 34.15ppl and Arla Foods by 1.5ppl to 33.13ppl. Muller Wiseman is set to raise the price it pays to 32.5p per litre.

And yet many farmers are struggling to make a profit from milk production, claiming that their costs have risen faster than the prices they receive. Feed costs, for example, have risen by 2.12ppl. On average, farmers would need over 38p per litre just to cover their average variable costs. What is more, exceptional weather has reduced yields per cow by some 7%.

Meanwhile, in the USA, supply has risen by some 1.3% compared with a year ago. But despite this, the prices of dairy products are rising, thanks to strong demand. Cheese and butter prices, in particular, are rising rapidly, partly because of high demand from overseas. Demand for imported dairy products is particularly high in China, where supply has fallen by some 6% in the past couple of months.

The problem for dairy farmers in the UK is partly one of the power balance in the industry. Farmers have little or no market power. Supermarkets, however, have considerable market power. As large oligopsonistic buyers, they can put downward pressure on the prices paid to their suppliers. These are mainly large processing firms, such as Robert Wiseman Dairies, Arla Foods and Dairy Crest. They, in turn, can use their market power to keep down the price they pay to farmers.

Articles
Dairy farmers renew protests over milk prices Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (5/9/13)
Dairy farmers ‘lost more than 1p/litre last year’ Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (2/10/13)
South West farming businesses and producers still making a loss on milk South West Business (3/10/13)
Q&A: Milk prices row and how the system works BBC News (23/7/12) (note date of this)
Positive Dairy Trend: Rising Milk Production and Strong Demand The Farmer’s Exchange, Lee Mielke (27/9/13)
Chinese supply crisis to delay dairy price adjustment Rabobank (25/9/13)
China milk ‘crisis’ fuels world dairy price rise Agrimoney (1/10/13)

Data
UK milk prices and composition of milk ONS
Combined IFCN world milk price indicator IFCN

Questions

  1. Give some examples of (a) variable costs and (b) fixed costs in milk production.
  2. Why may farmers continue in dairy production, at least for a time, even if they are not covering their average variable costs?
  3. What factors determine (a) the price of milk paid to farmers; (b) the retail price in supermarkets?
  4. Explain how dairy futures markets work.
  5. Could the milk processors use their market power in the interests of farmers? Is it in the interests of milk processors to do so?
  6. Why is there a Chinese “dairy supply crisis”? What is its impact on the rest of the world? What is the relevance of the price elasticity of demand for dairy products in China to this impact?
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Easy or not so easyPricing?

The pricing model for low-cost airline seats seems simple. As the seats get booked, so the price rises. Thus the later you leave it to book, the more expensive it will be. But, in fact, it’s not as simple as this. Seat prices sometimes come down as the take-off date approaches. So what is the pricing model?

The general principle of raising prices as the plane fills up still applies. This enables the airline to discriminate between passengers. Holidaymakers and those with flexibility about when, and possibly where, to travel tend to have a relatively high price elasticity of demand. People who wish to travel at the last minute, such as businesspeople and those facing a family emergency, tend to have a much lower price elasticity of demand and would be prepared to pay a higher, possibly much higher, price.

With relatively high fixed costs for each flight, low-cost airlines need to fill, or virtually fill, their planes if they are to make a profit. And it’s not just about the direct revenue from ticket sales. Low-cost carriers also rely on the revenue from selling extras, such as on-board refreshments, hold luggage, hotels, car hire and travel insurance. With variable costs being tiny, the pricing model is about maximising revenue for each flight. So the fuller the plane, the better it is for the airline.

The airlines are very experienced in estimating demand over the period from a flight coming on sale and the departure date. If they get it right, then prices will indeed rise as take-off approaches. But sometimes they get it wrong. If, as time passes, a given flight is filling up too slowly, then it makes sense to be more flexible on prices, cutting them if necessary. Pricing may be easy in principle; but not always easy in practice!

Article
Low-cost air fares: How ticket prices fall and rise BBC News, Erica Gornall (21/6/13)

Papers
Pricing strategies of low cost airlines Air Transport Group, Cranfield University, Keith J Mason (2002)
Pricing strategies of low-cost airlines: The Ryanair case study Journal of Air Transport Management, 15, Paolo Malighetti, Stefano Paleari and Renato Redondi (2009)

Questions

  1. Does a low-cost airline always charge lower prices than a traditional scheduled airline? If not, why not?
  2. Identify the various reasons why holidaymakers may have a relatively elastic demand for a particular flight?
  3. Explain the system of ‘buckets’ of seats?
  4. Are low-cost airlines engaging in price discrimination and, if so, which type?
  5. Are there any variable costs of operating a particular flight (assuming that the flight does actually take place)?
  6. If demand for a flight becomes less elastic as the date of departure gets nearer, why might a budget airline choose to lower the price, at least for a few days?
  7. Why can Ryanair operate with lower costs than easyJet?
  8. Would it be in low-cost airlines’ interests to charge more (a) to overweight people; (b) for using the toilet?
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Market traders get a technology boost

Market trading has existed for centuries and in many respects it hasn’t changed very much. One thing that has developed is the means of exchange. Goods used to be traded for other goods – for example 1 pig for 4 chickens! But then money was developed as a means of exchange and then came cheques and plastic.

However, for many market traders, accepting credit and debit cards is relatively costly. It involves paying a monthly contract, which for many traders is simply not worthwhile, based on the quantity and value of the transactions. But, for many customers using debit or credit cards is the preferred method of payment and the fact that some traders only accept cash can be a deterrent to them making purchases and this therefore reduces the sales of the market traders.

But, with advances in technology a new way of paying has emerged. Small card readers can now be plugged into iphones, ipads, other tablets and smartphones. By putting a customer’s card into this device customers can then pay by card and either sign for their purchase or use the phone to enter their security details. There are plan for these companies to offer chip and pin technology to further ease payment by card on market stalls. The traders pay a small commission per transaction, but aside from that, the initial start-up cost is minimal and it is likely to encourage more customers to use markets. Jim Stewart, the Director of a firm that has begun using this technology said:

I think it’s definitely going to take off, the world is going that way … The money has always appeared in my bank account, no transactions have been declined, my accountant is happy, it’s all been good.

Some customers have raised concerns about the security of these transactions, as they have to put their cards into someone else’s ipad. However, traders have said that there are no risks and that customers can be sent a receipt for their purchase. The following few articles look at this latest (and other) technological developments.

Smartphone card payment system seeks small firms BBC News, Rob Howard (19/1/13)
POS Trends: What’s new for 2013 Resource News (17/1/13)
Payments by text message service to launch in UK in Spring 2014 BBC News (15/1/13)

Questions

  1. What are fixed cost and why does having a traditional card payment machine represent a fixed cost for a firm?
  2. How might this new technology affect a firm’s sales and profits?
  3. Will there be an increase in the firm’s variable costs from adopting this technology?
  4. Using a cost and revenue diagram, put your answers to questions 1 – 3 into practice and show how it will shift them and thus how the equilibrium may change for a market trader.
  5. What are the properties of money that allow it to be a good medium of exchange?
  6. How will this increased use of debit and credit cards affect the demand for money? Use a diagram to illustrate your answer.
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His Master’s Voice is fading

Comet, Peacocks, Woolworths, JJB, Jessops and now HMV – they all have one thing in common. The recession has hit them so hard that they entered administration. HMV is the latest high street retailer to bring in the administrators, despite insisting that it does have a future on the UK’s high streets. With debts of £176m and huge competition from online retailers, the future of HMV is very uncertain.

Over the past decades, companies such as Amazon, ebay, LoveFilm, Netflix and apple have emerged providing very stiff competition to the last remaining high street seller of music and DVDs. People have been turning more and more to the internet to do their shopping, with cheaper prices and greater choice. The speed of delivery, which in the past may have been a disadvantage of buying from somewhere like Amazon, is now barely an obstacle and these substitute companies have created a difficult environment for high street retailers to compete in. Despite going into administration, it’s not necessarily the end of the much-loved HMV. Its Chief Executive said:

We remain convinced we can find a successful business outcomes. We want to make sure it remains on the high street … We know our customers fell the same way.

While the recession has undoubtedly affected sales at HMV, is this the main reason for its demise or are other factors more relevant? As discussed, online retailers have taken over the DVD and music industry and with downloading increasing in popularity and CD/DVDs on sale in numerous locations, including supermarket chains, HMV has felt the competitive pressure and its place on the high street has come into question. As Neil Saunders, the Managing Director of Conlumino said:

By our own figures, we forecast that by the end of 2015 some 90.4 per cent of music and film sales will be online. The bottom line is that there is no real future for physical retail in the music sector.

Further to this, prices have been forced downwards and HMV, having to pay high fixed costs to retain their place on the high streets, have been unable to compete and remain profitable. Another contributing factor could be an outdated management structure, which has not responded to the changing times. Whatever the cause, thousands of jobs have been put at risk. Even if buyers are found, some store closures by the administrators, Deloitte, seem inevitable. Customer gift vouchers have already become worthless and further losses to both workers and customers seem likely. It is thought that there will be many interested buyers and huge support from suppliers, but the former is likely to remain a relatively secretive area for some time.

This latest high street disaster will undoubtedly raise many questions. One theory about recovery from a recession looks at the need for many businesses to go under until the fittest are left and there is sufficient scope for new businesses to emerge.

Could it be that the collapse of companies such as Woolworths, HMV, Comet, Jessops and Blockbuster is an essential requirement for economic recovery? Or was the recession irrelevant for HMV? Was its collapse an inevitable consequence of the changing face of Britain’s high streets and if so, what does the future hold for the high street retailers? The following articles consider the demise of HMV.

HMV: a visual history BBC News (15/1/13)
Chief executive says ‘HMV still has a place on the high street’, as customers are told their gift vouchers are worthless Independent, James Thompson (15/1/13)
Potential buyers circle stricken HMV Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (15/1/13)
HMV and independents to urged to work together to save in-store music market BBC News, Clive Lindsay (15/1/13)
HMV record chain was besest by digital downloads and cheap DVDs The Guardian (15/1/13)
The death of traditional retailers like HMV started when we caught on to one-click and the joy of owning DVDs wore thin Independent, Grace Dent (15/1/13)
HMV shoppers: ‘I’m disappointed, but it’s understandable why they went bust The Guardian, James Brilliant (15/1/13)
HMV: Record labels could take HMV back to its 1920 roots The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (15/1/13)
HMV’s future seen as handful of stores and website Reuters, Neil Maidment and James Davey (15/1/13)
HMV leaves social gap in high street BBC News, Robert Plummer (15/1/13)
Is there good news in HMV’s collapse? BBC News, Robert Peston (15/1/13)
Is it game over for UK retail? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/1/13)
High Street retailers: Who has been hit hardest? BBC News (16/1/13)

Questions

  1. What are the main reasons behind the collapse of HMV?
  2. Use a diagram to illustrate the impact the companies such as Amazon and Tesco have had on costs and prices in the entertainment industry.
  3. Has the value we place on owning DVDs truly changed or have other factors led to larger purchases of online entertainment?
  4. Why is online retail providing such steep competition to high street retailers?
  5. Explain why it can be argued that economic recovery will only take place after a certain number of businesses have gone into administration.
  6. To what extent do you think HMV’s collapse is due to its failure to adapt to changing social circumstances?
  7. Briefly outline the wider economic implications of the collapse of a company such as HMV. Think about managers, employees, suppliers, customers and other competitors, as well as other high street retailers.
  8. In which market structure would you place the entertainment industry? Explain your answer. Has this contributed to the demise of HMV?
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Comet fall from the sky

For those looking to buy larger electrical appliances at cheaper prices, things might be looking up, as Comet have begun heavy discounting after entering administration. Deloitte, as the administrator, will now begin the search for a buyer for this retailer, while Comet aims to raise the funds to rescue the company.

Comet was bought by OpCapita last year, but with poor performance continuing across the 200+ stores, we could be about to see the demise of this retailer. Over 6,000 jobs are now at risk, although Deloitte has maintained that stores will continue to trade and that redundancies will not be made. One of the administrators said:

‘Our immediate priorities are to stabilise the business, fully assess its financial position, and begin an urgent process to seek a suitable buyer which would also preserve jobs.’

The retail environment has inevitably suffered over the past few years, with well-known companies such as Woolworths, Optical Express and JJB Sports (to name a few) entering administration. Comet, therefore seems to be the latest in a long line of sad trading stories. So, which factors have contributed towards the collapse of this giant retailer?

Over the past few years, online retailers have gained a larger and larger market share. These internet retailers do not have the same overhead costs that Comet and other high street retailers face. To open a store in an area where customers are in high supply, premium rents must be paid and this adds to the cost of running any given store. In order to cover these higher costs, higher prices can result and this, together with consumers facing tight budgets, has led many customers to look at the cheaper alternatives online. Deloitte has also said that Comet has been suffering from a lack of credit, which has meant that it has not been able to purchase stock in the run-up to Christmas. Deloitte commented that:

‘The inability to obtain supplier credit for the peak Christmas trading period means that the company had no realistic prospect of raising further capital to build up sufficient stock to allow it to continue trading.’

Concerned customers are naturally emerging, wondering whether items they have ordered and paid for will actually turn up. However, Deloitte’s reassurance that trading will continue may go some way to relieving their concern. The following articles consider how Comet has fallen from the sky.

Comet officially enters administration, stores re-open for expected firesale The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick and Helia Ebrahimi (2/11/12)
Comet calls in Deloitte as administrators BBC News (2/11/12)
Apple sky-high as Comet falls to earth The Guardian, Zoe Wood (2/11/12)
Comet enters administration, Deloitte seeks buyer Reuters (2/11/12)
Comet electricals administrators formally begin search for saviour The Guardian, Zoe Wood (2/11/12)
Comet goes into administration Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (3/11/12)
Comet collapse: Deloitte blames internet and lack of first-time home buyers The Telegraph(2/11/12)
Collapse of Comet puts 7000 jobs in danger Independent, James Thompson (2/11/12)

Questions

  1. Why does the retail environment remain very weak?
  2. Explain why Deloitte suggest that a lack of first time home buyers has played a part in the demise of Comet.
  3. Why has a lack of credit contributed towards Comet’s downfall?
  4. Should customers be concerned about how Comet’s demise (if indeed a buyer is not found) might affect prices in other retailers such as Currys, given that they will now have a larger share of the market?
  5. Why has online trading contributed towards the harsher retail environment for the high street stores? You should think about fixed and variable costs in your answer.
  6. Why are companies such as Apple doing so well relative to other companies, such as Comet and JJB Sports? Is there a secret to their success?
  7. What impact might this collapse have on local labour markets, given Comet employs so many people? Think about the effect on wages, unemployment and on claimants of benefits.
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The economics of spam

A modern day hindrance is spam email clogging up your inbox with, for example, offers for cheap drugs or notifications that you will inherit enough money to retire to the Bahamas. A recent paper by Justin Rao and David Reiley in the Journal of Economic Perspectives investigates the economics of spam mail (which, as I discovered, from the article gets it’s name from a Monty Python sketch). Remarkably, they quote figures suggesting that 88% of worldwide email traffic is spam. Their paper then provides a number of interesting insights into the business of spam mail.

First, given that most recipients simply delete it, why is spam mail sent out? For the benefits of sending it to exceed the costs, it must be that somebody is reading and responding to it and the costs must also be reasonably low. Rao and Reiley are able to quantify these costs and benefits. They estimate that if 8.3 million spam emails are sent, only 1.8% (approximately 150,000) will reach the intended recipients’ inboxes, with the remainder being blocked or filtered out. Of these 150,000, just 0.25% (375) are clicked on. Furthermore, these 375 clicks generate just a single sale of the advertised product which is typically sold for around $50. Assuming that free entry of spammers leads to them earning zero economic profit, this means that it costs the spammers around $50 to send the 8.3 million emails.

Second, spam mail clearly imposes a considerable negative externality on society. This includes wasted time for consumers and the costs of the extra server hardware capacity required. Rao and Reiley are also able to quantify the size of the negative externality created. First, they estimate that:

“American firms and consumers experience costs of almost $20 billion annually due to spam.”

This can then be compared to the benefits senders of spam get:

“….. we estimate that spammers and spam-advertised merchants collect gross worldwide revenues on the order of $200 million per year. Thus, the ‘externality ratio’ of external costs to internal benefits for spam is around 100:1.”

They then compare this to estimates for other negative externalities such as car pollution and conclude that the size of the negative externality from spam is significantly greater.

Finally, they also point out that it is predominantly the larger email service providers i.e. Yahoo! Mail, Microsoft Hotmail, and Google Gmail who have both the incentives and resources to fund interventions to eradicate spam. For example, in 2009 Microsoft and Pfizer (the manufacturer of Viagra which faces competition from counterfeit versions often advertised by spam) financially supported the successful operation to shut down the largest spam distributor. Clearly, such operations have large positive spillovers for email users. However, as they also discuss, anti-spam technology also increases the fixed costs of competing as an email provider and they suggest that this has contributed to the increased concentration in the market.

The unpalatable business of spam The undercover economist, Tim Harford (19/07/12)
Huge spam botnet Grum is taken out by security researchers BBC News (19/07/12)
Spammers make a combined $200 million a year while costing society $20 billion BGR, Dan Graziano (28/08/12)

Questions

  1. Explain why free entry results in zero economic profit.
  2. Explain how an increase in fixed costs can lead to an increase in concentration.
  3. Why does Microsoft have large incentives to eradicate spam mail?
  4. In what ways does the externality created by spam mail differ from other forms of advertising?
  5. How might government policies alter the costs and benefits of sending spam mail?
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Illogical logistics?

Ginsters is a large producer of pasties in Cornwall. Most of its ingredients come from Cornwall, but the pasties are sold throughout Britain. But, not surprisingly, they are also sold in Cornwall. In fact, there is a large Tesco virtually next door to the Ginsters’ pasty plant and, as you can imagine, it does a good trade in Ginsters’ pasties, pies and sandwiches. After all, they are a local product.

But are they delivered directly from the Ginsters’ factory? No they are not. In fact, they are sent by lorry to the Avonmouth distribution depot, some 125 miles away, only to be sent back again to the Tesco supermarket next door! So does it make economic sense to incur all the costs of transporting the pasties 250 miles only to end up virtually where they started?

It is a similar story with Rodda’s Cornish clotted cream. It is made with Cornish milk but is also sold nationwide. In this case it is transported some 340 miles to get to another Tesco supermarket virtually next door to the Rodda plant.

The following articles and podcast consider the logistics of manufactured food distribution, and ask whether private costs are the only thing that should be taken into account when judging the sense of the system.

Articles
From here to eternity: 340-mile journey for clotted cream made two miles away Guardian, Steven Morris (3/9/10)
Food miles row as pasties travel 250 miles to the supermarket next door This is Cornwall (30/8/10)
Supermarket food mileage ‘completely bonkers’ BBC Today Programme, Tim Lang (30/8/10)

Questions

  1. Why does Tesco’s distribution system for pasties, clotted cream and other products made in parts of the country away from large centres of population make sense in ‘conventional economic terms’?
  2. What economies of scale are there in pasty production and distribution?
  3. What externalities are involved in the distribution of Ginsters’ pasties?
  4. Consider the arguments for and against locating mass producers of food products nearer to the ‘centre of gravity’ of markets.
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