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Posts Tagged ‘incentives’

The engine of global productivity stuck in first gear

According to Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF, the slow growth in global productivity is acting as a brake on the growth in potential income and is thus holding back the growth in living standards. In a recent speech in Washington she said that:

Over the past decade, there have been sharp slowdowns in measured output per worker and total factor productivity – which can be seen as a measure of innovation. In advanced economies, for example, productivity growth has dropped to 0.3 per cent, down from a pre-crisis average of about 1 per cent. This trend has also affected many emerging and developing countries, including China.

We estimate that, if total factor productivity growth had followed its pre-crisis trend, overall GDP in advanced economies would be about 5 percent higher today. That would be the equivalent of adding another Japan – and more – to the global economy.

So why has productivity growth slowed to well below pre-crisis rates? One reason is an ageing working population, with older workers acquiring new skills less quickly. A second is the slowdown in world trade and, with it, the competitive pressure for firms to invest in the latest technologies.

A third is the continuing effect of the financial crisis, with many highly indebted firms forced to make deep cuts in investment and many others being cautious about innovating. The crisis has dampened risk taking – a key component of innovation.

What is clear, said Lagarde, is that more innovation is needed to restore productivity growth. But markets alone cannot achieve this, as the benefits of invention and innovation are, to some extent, public goods. They have considerable positive externalities.

She thus called on governments to give high priority to stimulating productivity growth and unleashing entrepreneurial energy. There are several things governments can do. These include market-orientated supply-side policies, such as removing unnecessary barriers to competition, driving forward international free trade and cutting red tape. They also include direct intervention through greater investment in education and training, infrastructure and public-sector R&D. They also include giving subsidies and/or tax relief for private-sector R&D.

Banks too have a role in chanelling finance away from low-productivity firms and towards ‘young and vibrant companies’.

It is important to recognise, she concluded, that innovation and structural change can lead to some people losing out, with job losses, low wages and social deprivation. Support should be given to such people through better education, retraining and employment incentives.

Articles
IMF chief warns slowing productivity risks living standards drop Reuters, David Lawder (3/4/17)
Global productivity slowdown risks social turmoil, IMF warns Financial Times, Shawn Donnan (3/4/17)
Global productivity slowdown risks creating instability, warns IMF The Guardian, Katie Allen (3/4/17)
The Guardian view on productivity: Britain must solve the puzzle The Guardian (9/4/17)

Speech
Reinvigorating Productivity Growth IMF Speeches, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, IMF(3/4/17)

Paper
Gone with the Headwinds: Global Productivity IMF Staff Discussion Note, Gustavo Adler, Romain Duval, Davide Furceri, Sinem Kiliç Çelik, Ksenia Koloskova and Marcos Poplawski-Ribeiro (April 2017)

Questions

  1. What is the relationship between actual and potential economic growth?
  2. Distinguish between labour productivity and total factor productivity.
  3. Why has total factor productivity growth been considerably slower since the financial crisis than before?
  4. Is sustained productivity growth (a) a necessary and/or (b) a sufficient condition for a sustained growth in living standards?
  5. Give some examples of technological developments that could feed through into significant growth in productivity.
  6. What is the relationship between immigration and productivity growth?
  7. What policies would you advocate for increasing productivity? Explain why.
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The gig economy

The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced in the Budget this week that national insurance contributions (NICs) for self-employed people will rise from 9% to 11% by 2019. These are known as ‘Class 4′ NICs. The average self-employed person will pay around £240 more per year, but those on incomes over £45,000 will pay £777 more per year. Many of the people affected will be those working in the so-called ‘gig economy’. This sector has been growing rapidly in recent years and now has over 4 million people working in it.

Workers in the gig economy are self employed, but are often contracted to an employer. They are paid by the job (or ‘gig’: like musicians), rather than being paid a wage. Much of the work is temporary, although many in the gig economy, such as taxi drivers and delivery people stick with the same job. The gig economy is just one manifestation of the growing flexibility of labour markets, which have also seen a rise in temporary employment, part-time employment and zero-hour contracts.

Working in the gig economy provides a number of benefits for workers. Workers have greater flexibility in their choice of hours and many work wholly or partly from home. Many do several ‘gigs’ simultaneously, which gives variety and interest.

In terms of economic theory, this flexibility gives workers a greater opportunity to work the optimal amount of time. This optimum involves working up to the point where the marginal benefit from work, in terms of pay and enjoyment, equals the marginal cost, in terms of effort and sacrificed leisure.

For firms using people from the gig economy, it has a number of advantages. They are generally cheaper to employ, as they do not need to be paid sick pay, holiday pay or redundancy; they are not entitled to parental leave; there are no employers’ national insurance contributions to pay (which are at a rate of 13.8% for employers); the minimum wage does not apply to such workers as they are not paid a ‘wage’. Also the firm using such workers has greater flexibility in determining how much work individuals should do: it chooses the amount of service it buys in a similar way that consumers decide how much to buy.

Many of these advantages to firms are disadvantages to the workers in the gig economy. Many have little bargaining power, whereas many firms using their services do. It is not surprising then that the Chancellor’s announcement of a 2 percentage point rise in NICs for such people has met with such dismay by the people affected. They will still pay less than employed people, but they claim that this is now not enough to compensate for the lack of benefits they receive from the state or from the firms paying for their services.

Some of the workers in the gig economy can be seen as budding entrepreneurs. If you have a specialist skill, you may use working in the gig economy as the route to setting up your own business and employing other people. A self-employed plumber may set up a plumbing company; a management consultant may set up a management consultancy agency. Another criticism of the rise in Class 4 NICs is that this will discourage such budding entrepreneurs and have longer-term adverse supply-side effects on the economy.

As far as the government is concerned, there is a worry about people moving from employment to self-employment as it tends to reduce tax revenues. Not only will considerably less NIC be paid by previous employers, but the scope for tax evasion is greater in self-employment. There is thus a trade-off between the extra output and small-scale investment that self-employment might bring and the lower NIC/tax revenue for the government.

Articles
Thriving in the gig economy Philippine Daily Inquirer, Michael Baylosis (10/3/17)
6 charts that show how the ‘gig economy’ has changed Britain – and why it’s not a good thing Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (21/2/17)
What is the ‘gig’ economy? BBC News, Bill Wilson (10/2/17)
Great Freelance, Contract and Part-Time Jobs for 2017 CareerCast (10/3/17)
We have the laws for a fairer gig economy, we just need to enforce them The Guardian, Stefan Stern (7/2/17)
The gig economy will finally have to give workers the rights they deserve Independent, Ben Chu (12/2/17)
Gig economy chiefs defend business model BBC News (22/2/17)
Spring Budget 2017 tax rise: What’s the fuss about? BBC News, Kevin Peachey (9/3/17)
Self-employed hit by national insurance hike in budget The Guardian, Simon Goodley and Heather Stewart (8/3/17)
What national insurance is – and where it goes The Conversation, Jonquil Lowe (10/3/17)
Britain’s tax raid on gig economy misses the mark Reuters, Carol Ryan (9/3/17)
Economics collides with politics in Philip Hammond’s budget The Economist (9/3/17)

UK government publications
Contract types and employer responsibilities – 5. Freelancers, consultants and contractors GOV.UK
Spring Budget 2017 GOV.UK (8/3/17)
Spring Budget 2017: documents HM Treasury (8/3/17)
National Insurance contributions (NICs) HMRC and HM Treasury (8/3/17)

Questions

  1. Give some examples of work which is generally or frequently done in the gig economy.
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages to individuals from working in the gig economy?
  3. What are the advantages and disadvantages to firms from using the services of people in the gig economy rather than employing people?
  4. In the case of employed people, both the employees and the employers have to pay NICs. Would it be fair for both such elements to be paid by self-employed people on their own income?
  5. Discuss ways in which the government might tax the firms which buy the services of people in the gig economy.
  6. How does the rise of the gig economy affect the interpretation of unemployment statistics?
  7. What factors could cause a substantial growth in the gig economy over the coming years?
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The UK productivity puzzle

UK productivity growth remains well below levels recorded before the financial crisis, as Chart 1 illustrates. In fact, output per hour worked in 2016 Q3 was virtually the same as in 2007 Q4. What is more, as can be seen from Chart 2, UK productivity lags well behind its major competitors (except for Japan).

But why does UK productivity lag behind other countries and why has it grown so slowly since the financial crisis? In its July 2015 analysis, the ONS addressed this ‘productivity puzzle’.

Among the many reasons suggested are low levels of investment, the impact of the financial crisis on bank’s willingness to lend to new businesses, higher numbers of people working beyond normal retirement age as a result of population and pensions changes, and firms’ ability to retain staff because of low pay growth. While these and other factors may be relevant, they do not provide a complete explanation for the weakness in productivity.

The lack of investment in technology and lack of infrastructure investment have been key reasons for the sluggish growth in productivity. Many companies are prepared to continue using relatively labour-intensive techniques because wage growth has been so low and this reduces the incentive to invest in labour-saving technology.

Another factor has been long hours and, for many office workers, being constantly connected to their work, checking and responding to emails and messages away from the office. The Telegraph article below reports Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, as saying:

“This is having a deleterious effect on the health of managers, which has a direct impact on productivity. UK workers already have the longest hours in Europe and yet we’re less productive.”

Another problem has been ultra low interest rates, which have reduced the burden of debt for poor performing companies and has allowed them to survive. It may also have prevented finance from being reallocated to more dynamic companies which would like to develop new products and processes.

Another feature of UK productivity is the large differences between regions. This is illustrated in Chart 3. Productivity in London in 2015 (the latest full year for data) was 31.5% above the UK average, while that in Wales was 19.4% below.

This again reflects investment patterns and also the concentration of industries in particular locations. Thus London’s financial sector, a major part of London’s economy, has experienced relatively large increases in productivity and this has helped to push productivity growth in the capital well above other parts of the country.

Another factor, which again has a regional dimension, is the poor productivity performance of family-owned businesses, where ownership and management is passed down the generations within the family without bringing in external managerial expertise.

The government is very aware of the UK’s weak productivity performance. Its recently launched industrial policy is designed to address the problem. We look at that in a separate post.

Articles
UK productivity edges up but growth still flounders below pre-crisis levels The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (6/1/17)
Weak UK productivity spurs warnings of living standards squeeze The Guardian, Katie Allen (6/1/17)
Productivity gap yawns across the UK BBC News, Jonty Bloom (6/1/17)
The UK productivity puzzle Fund Strategy. John Redwood (26/1/17)
Productivity puzzle remains for economists despite UK growth in third quarter of 2016 City A.M., Jasper Jolly (6/1/17)

Portal site
Solve the Productivity Puzzle Unipart

Report
Productivity: no puzzle about it TUC (Feb 2015)

Data
Labour Productivity: Tables 1 to 10 and R1 ONS (6/1/17)
International comparisons of UK productivity (ICP) ONS (6/10/16)
Gross capital formation (% of GDP) The World Bank

Questions

  1. In measuring productivity, the ONS uses three indicators: output per worker, output per hour and output per job. Compare the relative usefulness of these three measures of productivity.
  2. How would you explain the marked difference in productivity between regions and cities within the UK?
  3. How do flexible labour markets impact on productivity?
  4. Why is investment as a percentage of GDP so low in the UK compared to that in most other developed countries (see)?
  5. Give some examples of industrial policy measures that could be adopted to increase productivity growth.
  6. Examine the extent to which very low interest rates and quantitative easing encourage productivity-enhancing investment.
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How behavioural economics can help you stick to New Year’s resolutions

Many or us make New Year’s resolutions: going on a diet, doing exercise, spending more time studying. But few people stick to them, even though they say they would like to. So how can people be motivated to keep to their resolutions? Well, the experiments of behavioural economists provide a number of insights into the problem. They also suggest various incentives that can be used to motivate people to stick to their plans.

Central to the problem is that people have ‘time inconsistency’. They put a higher weight on the benefits of things that are good for them in the future and less weight on these benefits when they have to act now. You might strongly believe that going to the gym is good for you and plan to go next Monday. But when Monday comes, you can’t face it.

Another part of the time inconsistency problem is the relatively high weighting given to short-term gratification – eating chocolates, watching TV, spending time on social media, staying in bed. When thinking about whether you would like to do these things in, say, a couple of days’ time, you put a low weight on the pleasures. But thinking about doing them right now, you put a much higher weight on them. As the well-known saying goes, ‘Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness pays off now’.

So how can people be motivated to stick to their resolutions? Behavioural economists have studied various systems of incentives to see what works. Some of the findings are as follows:

•  People are generally loss averse. To get us to stick to New Year’s resolutions, we could devise a system of penalties for breaking them, such as paying 20p each time you swear!
•  Given people’s time inconsistency, devising a system whereby you get treats after doing something you feel is good for you: e.g. watching TV for 30 minutes after you’ve done an hour’s revision. Rewards should follow effort, not precede them.
•  Having simple clear goals. Thus rather than merely saying ‘I’ll eat less’, you devise a meal plan with menus that meet calorie and other dietary goals. Rather than saying, ‘I’ll exercise more’, you commit to going to the gym at specific times each week and doing a specific amount of each exercise.
•  Ritualising. This is where you devise a regime that is feasible to stick to. For example, you could always write a shopping list to meet your dietary goals and then only buy what’s on that list; or you and your flatmates could have a rota for household chores.
•  Social reinforcement. This is where people have a joint plan and help each other stick to it, such as going to the gym at specific times with a friend or group of friends, or joining a support group (e.g. to lose weight, or give up drinking or smoking).
•  Avoiding temptation. For example, if you want to give up chocolate, don’t have any in the house.
•  Using praise rather than criticism. People generally respond better to positive incentives than negative ones.

Behavioural economists test these different incentive mechanisms to see what works best and then to see how they can be refined. The testing could be done experimentally, with volunteers being given different incentives and seeing how they respond. Alternatively, data could be collected on the effects of different incentive mechanisms that people have actually used, whether at home or at work.

The advertising and marketing industry analyses consumer trends and how people respond to pricing, quality, display, packaging, advertising, etc. They want to understand human behaviour so that they can ‘direct’ it in their favour of their clients. Governments too are keen to find ways of encouraging people to do more of things that are good for them and less of things that are bad.

The UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team looks at ways people can be ‘nudged’ into changing their behaviour, see the blog A nudge in the right direction?

But back to New Year’s resolutions, have you made any? And, if so, have you thought about how you might stick to them? Have you thought about the incentives?

Podcast
Dan Ariely talks “Payoff” WUNC 91.5: North Carolina Public Radio, Dan Ariely talks to Frank Stasio (3/1/17)

Articles and blogs
50 New Year’s Resolution Ideas and how to Achieve Each of Them Lifehack, Ivan Dimitrijevic (31/12/16)
5 New Year’s Resolutions You Can Keep (With The Help Of Behavioral Science Research) Forbes, Carmen Nobel (3/1/17)
The science behind keeping your New Year’s resolutions BT, SNAP PA (30/12/15)
The Guardian view on New Year resolutions: fitter, happier, more productive The Guardian, Editorial (3/1/17)
The Behavioral Economics of Your New Year’s Resolutions The Daily Beast, Uri Gneezy (5/1/14)
The psychology of New Year’s resolution The Conversation, Mark Griffiths (1/1/16)
Apply Behavioral Economics for a Better New Year Wharton Blog Network, William Hartje (16/1/14)
The Kardashians Can Help Your New Year’s Resolutions Huffington Post, John Beeby (29/12/16)
Using economics to score with New Year resolutions The Hindu, Venky Vembu (4/1/17)
Be It Resolved The New York Times, John Tierney (5/1/12)

Goal-setting site
stickK ‘Set your goals and achieve them!’

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by time inconsistent behaviour. Is this the same as giving future costs and benefits a lower weighting than present ones (and hence having to discount future costs and benefits)?
  2. Give some examples of ways in which your own behaviour exhibits time inconsistency. Would it be accurate to describe this as ‘present bias’?
  3. Would you describe not sticking to New Year’s resolutions as ‘irrational behaviour’?
  4. Have you made any New Year’s resolutions, or do you have any plans to achieve goals? Could you alter your own personal incentives and, if so, how, to make it more likely that you will stick to your resolutions/goals?
  5. Give some examples of ways in which the government could ‘nudge’ us to behave in ways that were more in our own individual interests or those of society or the environment?
  6. Do you think it’s desirable that the advertising industry should employ psychologists and behavioural economists to help it achieve its goals?
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Using incentives to affect throwaway behaviour

Can behavioural economics be applied to the case of Sweden? The Swedish government is trying this out by changing government policy in a way that may encourage its residents to change their behaviour.

People in many countries in the world live in what is often called a ‘throwaway society’. If something breaks, it’s often easier and cheaper simply to get rid of it and buy a new one. But with changes in government policy, including VAT cuts on repairs to white goods, the objective is to encourage consumers to repair their goods, rather than buying new ones. This is also contributing towards the wider objective of sustainable consumption, which is being promoted by the Swedish government.

Per Bolund, who is one of Sweden’s six Green Ministers, spoke about this policy commenting that:

“Consumers are quite active in changing both what they buy and how they buy in Sweden … We believe that getting lower costs for labour is a big part in making it more rational to repair rather than just to buy cheap and throw away …If we don’t change the economic incentives the change will never come.”

Whether or not this policy works will take some time to see, but it’s certainly an interesting test of how changing incentives affect consumer behaviour. You can read about other examples of nudging in the following blog A nudge in the right direction?.

Articles
Waste not want not: Sweden to give tax breaks for repairs The Guardian, Richard Orange (19/9/16)
Can Sweden tackle the throwaway society? BBC News (20/9/16)
Trendy now, trash tomorrow Huffington Post, Kirsten Brodde (29/9/16)
Hong Kong needs a strategy quickly for dealing with waste South China Morning Post (27/9/16)

Questions

  1. If VAT on repairs falls, how will this affect consumer behaviour?
  2. Do you think there would be an income and a substitution effect from this change in government policy? What would they be?
  3. How is the Swedish government using incentives to change consumer behaviour?
  4. If it is cheaper to buy a new white good, then is it rational to buy a new one rather than repair an existing one?
  5. How effective do you think this policy would be in encouraging consumers to change their behaviour?
  6. Find some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
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Perspectives on poverty

In this post we focus on three aspects of poverty around the world. The first is the definition of poverty. Is it an absolute or a relative concept? Does its definition change as the world develops. The second is the extent of poverty. Is the problem getting worse as inequality deepens, or are the numbers (absolutely or proportionately) getting smaller despite increased inequality? The third is policy to tackle the problem. What can be done and is being done? What answers are being given by policymakers in different parts of the world?

As far as the measurement of poverty is concerned, the simplest distinction is between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty could be measured as income below a certain real level deemed necessary to achieve a particular standard of living. This could be specified in terms of sufficient income to have adequate food, shelter, clothing and leisure time, and adequate access to healthcare, clean water, sanitation, education, etc. An obvious problem here is what is considered ‘adequate’, as this is partly culturally determined and will also depend on physical and geographical features, such as climate.

The World Bank defines extreme absolute poverty as living on under $1.90 per day in purchasing-power parity terms. However, even after adjusting for purchasing power, what is considered the poverty threshold differs enormously from country to country. As the Wikipedia entry states:

Each nation has its own threshold for absolute poverty line; in the United States, for example, the absolute poverty line was US$15.15 per day in 2010 (US$22,000 per year for a family of four), while in India it was US$1.0 per day and in China the absolute poverty line was US$0.55 per day, each on PPP basis in 2010.

Relative poverty is normally taken to mean when a person’s income falls below a certain percentage of the mean or median. Thus in richer countries, for a given percentage, the poverty threshold would be at a higher absolute income. In the EU, people in relative poverty are defined as those with disposable income (after monetary benefits) less than 60% of the median.

Both approaches focus on consumption. Other approaches include social and cultural exclusion as dimensions of poverty.

What is clear is that poverty has a number of definitions. One problem with this is that politicians can focus on whatever definition suits them. Thus in the UK, with relatively high levels of employment, but often at low wages and only part-time employment, the Conservative government has redefined poverty as where no-one in a family is in work. Yet many working families have very low levels of income, considerably below 60% of the median.

The second aspect of poverty is its extent and whether it is growing. According to the United Nations, globally ‘extreme poverty rates have been cut by more than half since 1990. While this is a remarkable achievement, one in five people in developing regions still live on less than $1.25 a day, and there are millions more who make little more than this daily amount, plus many people risk slipping back into poverty.’

Despite this progress, in many countries extreme poverty is increasing. And in others, although the number in extreme poverty may be declining, it is still high and inequality is increasing so that more people are living only just above the extreme poverty line. The articles look at dimensions of poverty in different countries.

For example, the first The Conversation article argues that the financial crisis of 2008–09 led to a substantial increase in poverty across the European continent.

The impoverishment of Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal has been so severe that these southern European countries, taken together, had higher levels of poverty and deprivation than many of the former Communist nations that joined the European Union in 2004.

The third aspect is how to tackle the problem of poverty. There are three broad policy approaches.

The first is the use of cash transfers, such as unemployment benefits. The second is providing free or subsidised goods and services, such as healthcare or education. The ability of a country to support the poor in either of these ways depends on its tax base. Also, clearly, it depends on its priorities. There is also the issue of incentives. Do benefits encourage or discourage the recipients from seeking work? This depends on the design of the system. For example, if childcare is subsidised, this may both aid poor parents and also encourage parents responsible for looking after young children to seek work.

The third is to attempt to improve the earning power of the poor. This may in part be by the second approach of improving education, training and health. But it may also involve removing restrictions to employment, say by making various forms of discrimination illegal. It may also involve increasing land rights. In many developing countries land is very unequally distributed; redistribution to the poor can make a substantial contribution to relieving poverty. Another approach is to encourage agencies which supply microfinance for poor people wishing to set up their own small business.

The articles below look at a number of dimensions of poverty: its measurement, its extent and its alleviation. They look at the problem from the perspective of different countries. It is interesting to see to what extent the problems and solutions they identify are country-specific or general.

Articles
Extreme poverty affects 1 in 8 globally Buenos Aires Herald (20/7/16)
How poverty has radically shifted across Europe in the last decade The Conversation, Rod Hick (20/7/16)
The economics of poverty The Tribune of India, S Subramanian (22/7/16)
Poverty Chains and Global Capitalism. Towards a Global Process of Impoverishment Global Research (Canada), Benjamin Selwyn (20/7/16)
Asia’s cost of prosperity The Nation, Karl Wilson (24/7/16)
Private rental sector is the ‘new home of poverty’ in the UK The Guardian, Brian Robson (20/7/16)
Challenges in maintaining progress against global poverty Vox, Martin Ravallion (23/12/15)
California, sixth largest economy in the world, has highest poverty rate in US wsws.org, Marc Wells (22/7/16)
How gross inequality and crushed hopes have fed the rise of Donald Trump The Conversation, Nick Fischer (21/7/16)

Information
Sustainable Development Goals – Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere United Nations
Children of the Recession: Innocenti Report Card 12 UNICEF, Gonzalo Fanjul (September 2014)
Listings on Poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Poverty The World Bank
Hunger and World Poverty Poverty.com

Questions

  1. Distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Give examples of specific measures of each and the extent to which they capture the complex nature of the problem.
  2. Discuss the appropriateness of the seven measures of poverty used in the first The Conversation article.
  3. How did the financial crisis affect the proportion of people living in poverty? Explain.
  4. What is the relationship between poverty and inequality? Does a more unequal society imply that there will be a greater proportion of people living in poverty?
  5. How has international poverty changed in recent years? What explanations can you give?
  6. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using income per head as a measure of poverty, whether absolute or relative?
  7. Why is poverty so high in (a) the USA as a whole; (b) California specifically?
  8. How does globalisation affect poverty?
  9. Are adverse environmental consequences an inevitable result of reducing poverty in developing countries?
  10. Is freer trade likely to increase or decrease poverty? Explain
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Has QE stimulated or dampened investment?

It is now some seven years since the financial crisis and nearly seven years since interest rates in the USA, the eurozone, the UK and elsewhere have been close to zero. But have these record low interest rates and the bouts of quantitative easing that have accompanied them resulted in higher or lower investment than would otherwise have been the case? There has been a big argument about that recently.

According to conventional economic theory, investment is inversely related to the rate of interest: the lower the rate of interest, the higher the level of investment. In other words, the demand-for-investment curve is downward sloping with respect to the rate of interest. It is true that in recent years investment has been low, but that, according to traditional theory, is the result of a leftward shift in demand thanks to low confidence, not to quantitative easing and low interest rates.

In a recent article, however, Michael Spence (of New York University and a 2001 Nobel Laureate) and Kevin Warsh (of Stanford University and a former Fed governor) challenge this conventional wisdom. According to them, QE and the accompanying low interest rates led to a rise in asset prices, including shares and property, rather than to investment in the real economy. The reasons, they argue, are that investors have seen good short-term returns on financial assets but much greater uncertainty over investment in physical capital. Returns to investment in physical capital tend to be much longer term; and in the post-financial crisis era, the long term is much less certain, especially if the Fed and other central banks start to raise interest rates again.

“We believe that QE has redirected capital from the real domestic economy to financial assets at home and abroad. In this environment, it is hard to criticize companies that choose ‘shareholder friendly’ share buybacks over investment in a new factory. But public policy shouldn’t bias investments to paper assets over investments in the real economy.”

This analysis has been challenged by several eminent economists, including Larry Summers, Harvard Economics professor and former Treasury Secretary. He criticises them for confusing correlation (low investment coinciding with low interest rates) with causation. As Summers states:

“This is a little like discovering a positive correlation between oncologists and cancer and asserting that this proves oncologists cause cancer. One would expect in a weak recovery that investment would be weak and monetary policy easy. Correlation does not prove causation. …If, as Spence and Warsh assert, QE has raised stock prices, this should tilt the balance toward real investment.”

Not surprisingly Spence and Warsh have an answer to this criticism. They maintain that their critique is less of low interest rates but rather of the form that QE has taken, which has directed new money into the purchase of financial assets. This then has driven further asset purchases, much of it by companies, despite high price/earnings ratios (i.e. high share prices relative to dividends). As they say:

“Economic theory might have something to learn from recent empirical data, and from promising new thinking in behavioral economics.”

Study the arguments of both sides and try to assess their validity, both theoretically and in the light of evidence.

Articles
The Fed Has Hurt Business Investment The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (26/10/15) [Note: if you can't see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
I just read the ‘most confused’ critique of the Fed this yea Washington Past, Lawrence H. Summers (28/10/15)
A Little Humility, Please, Mr. Summers The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (4/11/15) [Note: if you can't see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
Do ultra-low interest rates really damage growth? The Economist (12/11/15)
It’s the Zero Bound Yield Curve, Stupid! Janus Capital, William H Gross (3/11/15)
Is QE Bad for Business Investment? No Way! RealTime Economic Issues Watch, Joseph E. Gagnon (28/10/15)
Department of “Huh!?!?”: QE Has Retarded Business Investment!? Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Brad DeLong (27/10/15)
LARRY SUMMERS: The Wall Street Journal published the ‘single most confused analysis’ of the Fed I’ve read this year Business Insider, Myles Udland (29/10/15)
The Fed’s Loose Money, Financial Markets and Business Investment SBE Council, Raymond J. Keating (29/10/15)
How the QE trillions missed their mark AFR Weekend, Maximilian Walsh (4/11/15)
Financial Markets In The Era Of Bubble Finance – Irreversibly Broken And Dysfunctional David Stockman’s Contra Corner, Doug Noland (8/11/15)

Questions

  1. Go through the arguments of Spence and Warsh and explain them.
  2. Explain what are meant by the ‘yield curve’ and ‘zero bound yield curve’.
  3. What criticisms of their arguments are made by Summers and others?
  4. Apart from the effects of QE, why else have long-term interest rates been low?
  5. In the light of the arguments on both sides, how effective do you feel that QE has been?
  6. How could QE have been made more effective?
  7. What is likely to happen to financial markets over the coming months? What effect is this likely to have on the real economy?
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California’s new targets on greenhouse gas emission

The Governor of California, Jerry Brown, has issued an executive order to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 (a 44% cut on 2012 levels). This matches the target set by the EU. It is tougher than that of the US administration, which has set a target of reducing emissions in the range of 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

The former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had previously set a target of reducing emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Brown’s new target can be seen as an interim step toward meeting that longer-term goal.

There are several means by which it is planned to meet the Californian targets. These include:

a focus on zero- and near-zero technologies for moving freight, continued investment in renewables including solar roofs and distributed generation, greater use of low-carbon fuels including electricity and hydrogen, stronger efforts to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (methane, black carbon and fluorinated gases), and further efforts to create liveable, walkable communities and expansion of mass transit and other alternatives to travelling by car.

Some of these will be achieved through legislation, after consultations with various stakeholders. But a crucial element in driving down emissions is the California’s carbon trading scheme. This is a cap-and-trade system, similar to the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme.

The cap-and-trade rules came into effect on January 1, 2013 and apply to large electric power plants and large industrial plants. In 2015, they will extend to fuel distributors (including distributors of heating and transportation fuels). At that stage, the program will encompass around 360 businesses throughout California and nearly 85 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Under a cap-and-trade system, companies must hold enough emission allowances to cover their emissions, and are free to buy and sell allowances on the open market. California held its first auction of greenhouse gas allowances on November 14, 2012. This marked the beginning of the first greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program in the United States since the group of nine Northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program for power plants, held its first auction in 2008.

Since January 2014, the Californian cap-and-trade scheme has been linked to that of Quebec in Canada and discussions are under way to link it with Ontario too. Also California is working with other west-coast states/provinces, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, to develop a co-ordinated approach to greenhouse gas reductions

To achieve sufficient reductions in emissions, it is not enough merely to have a cap-and-trade system which, through trading, encourages an efficient reduction in emissions. It is important to set the cap tight enough to achieve the targeted reductions and to ensure that the cap is enforced.

In California, emissions allowances are distributed by a mix of free allocation and quarterly auctions. Free allocations account for around 90% of the allocations, but this percentage will decrease over time. The total allowances will decline (i.e. the cap will be tightened) by 3% per year from 2015 to 2020.

At present the system applies to electric power plants, industrial plants and fuel distributors that emit, or are responsible for emissions of, 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year or more. The greenhouse gases covered are the six covered by the Kyoto Protocol ((CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, SF6), plus NF3 and other fluoridated greenhouse gases.

Articles
California governor orders aggressive greenhouse gas cuts by 2030 Reuters. Rory Carroll (29/4/15)
California’s greenhouse gas emission targets are getting tougher Los Angeles Times, Chris Megerian and Michael Finnegan (29/4/15)
Jerry Brown sets aggressive California climate goal The Desert Sun, Sammy Roth (29/4/15)
California’s Brown Seeks Nation-Leading Greenhouse Gas Cuts Bloomberg, Michael B Marois (29/4/15)
California sets tough new targets to cut emissions BBC News, (29/4/15)
California’s New Greenhouse Gas Emissions Target Puts Obama’s To Shame New Republic, Rebecca Leber (29/4/15)
Governor Brown Announces New Statewide Climate Pollution Limit in 2030 Switchboard, Alex Jackson (29/4/15)
Cap-and-trade comes to Orego Watchdog, Chana Cox (29/4/15)
Cap and trade explained: What Ontario’s shift on emissions will mean The Globe and Mail, Adrian Morrow (13/4/15)
California’s Forests Have Become Climate Polluters Climate Central, John Upton (29/4/15)
States Can Learn from Each Other On Carbon Pricing The Energy Collective, Kyle Aarons (28/4/15)

Executive Order
Governor Brown Establishes Most Ambitious Greenhouse Gas Reduction Target in North America Office of Edmund G. Brown Jr. (29/4/15)
Frequently Asked Questions about Executive Order B-30-15: 2030 Carbon Target and Adaptation California Environmental Protection Agency: Air Resources Board (29/4/15)

Californian cap-and-trade scheme
Cap-and-Trade Program California Environmental Protection Agency: Air Resources Board (29/4/15)
California Cap and Trade Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (January 2014)

Questions

  1. Explain how a system of cap-and-trade, such as the Californian system and the ETS in the EU, works.
  2. Why does a cap-and-trade system lead to an efficient level of emissions reduction?
  3. How can a joint system, such as that between California and Quebec, work? Is it important to achieve the same percentage pollution reduction in both countries?
  4. What are countries coming to the United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris in November 2015 required to have communicated in advance?
  5. How might game theory be relevant to the negotiations in Paris? Are the pre-requirements on countries a good idea to tackle some of the ‘gaming’ problems that could occur?
  6. Why is a cap-and-trade system insufficient to tackle climate change? What other measures are required?
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A windfall for electricity producers?

When an industry produces positive externalities, there is an argument for granting subsidies. To achieve the socially efficient output in an otherwise competitive market, the marginal subsidy should be equal to the marginal externality. This is the main argument for subsidising wind power. It helps in the switch to renewable energy away from fossil fuels. There is also the secondary argument that subsidies help encourage the development of technologies that would be too uncertain to fund at market rates.

If subsidies are to be granted, it is important that they are carefully designed. Not only does their rate need to reflect the size of the positive externalities, but also they should not entail any perverse incentive effects. But this is the claim about subsidies given to wind turbines: that they create an undesirable side effect.

Small-scale operators are encouraged to build small turbines by offering them a higher subsidy per kilowatt generated (through higher ‘feed-in’ tariffs). But according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), this is encouraging builders and operators of large turbines to ‘derate’ them. This involves operating them below capacity in order to get the higher tariff. As the IPPR overview states:

The scheme is designed to support small-scale providers, but the practice of under-reporting or ‘derating’ turbines’ generating capacity to earn a higher subsidy is costing the taxpayer dearly and undermining the competitiveness of Britain’s clean energy sector.

The loophole sees developers installing ‘derated’ turbines – that is, turbines which are ‘capped’ so that they generate less energy. Turbines are derated in this way so that developers and investors are able to qualify for the more generous subsidy offered to lower-capacity turbines, generating 100–500kW. By installing derated turbines, developers are making larger profits off a feature of the scheme that was designed to support small-scale projects. Currently, the rating of a turbine is declared by the manufacturer and installer, resulting in a lack of external scrutiny of the system.

The subsidies are funded by consumers through higher electricity prices. As much as £400 million could be paid in excess subsidies. The lack of scrutiny means that operators could be receiving as much as £100 000 per year per turbine in excess subsidies.

However, as the articles below make clear, the facts are disputed by the wind industry body, RenewableUK. Nevertheless, the report is likely to stimulate debate and hopefully a closing of the loophole.

Video
Turbine power: the cost of wind power to taxpayers Channel 4 News, Tom Clarke (10/2/15)

Articles
Wind subsidy loophole boosts spread of bigger turbines Financial Times, Pilita Clark (10/2/15)
Call to Close Wind Power ‘Loophole’ Herald Scotland, Emily Beament (10/2/15)
Wind farm developers hit back at ‘excessive subsidy’ claims Business Green, Will Nichols (10/2/15)
The £400million feed-in frenzy: Green energy firms accused of making wind turbines LESS efficient so they appear weak enough to win small business fund Mail Online, Ben Spencer (10/2/15)
Wind power subsidy ‘loophole’ identified by new report Engineering Technology Magazine, Jonathan Wilson (11/2/15)

Report
Feed-in Frenzy Institute for Public Policy Research, Joss Garman and Charles Ogilvie (February 2015)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to demonstrate the optimum marginal rate of a subsidy and the effect of the subsidy on output.
  2. Who should pay for subsidies: consumers, the government (i.e. taxpayers generally), electricity companies through taxes on profits made from electricity generation using fossil fuels, some other source? Explain your thinking.
  3. What is the argument for giving a higher subsidy to operators of small wind turbines?
  4. If wind power is to be subsidised, is it better to subsidise each unit of output of electricity, or the construction of wind turbines or both? Explain.
  5. What could Ofgem do (or the government require Ofgem to do) to improve the regulation of the wind turbine industry?
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Nudging people onto the stairs: fun theory in action

Economics is about choices. But how can people be persuaded to make healthy choices, or socially responsible or environmentally friendly choices? Behavioural economists have studied how people can be ‘nudged’ into changing their behaviour. One version of nudge theory is ‘fun theory’. This studies how people can be persuaded into doing desirable things by making it fun to do so.

I came across the first video below a couple of days ago. It looks at a highly successful experiment at the Odenplan underground station in Stockholm to persuade people to make the healthy choice of using the stairs rather than the escalator. It made doing so fun. The stairs were turned into a musical keyboard, complete with sound. Each stair plays a piano note corresponding to its piano key each time someone treads on it. As you go up the stairs you play an ascending scale.

After installing the musical staircase, 66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator.

The fun theory initiative is sponsored by Volkswagen. The Fun Theory website is ‘dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.’

VW held a competition in 2009 to encourage people to invent fun products designed to change people’s behaviour. There were over 700 entries and you can see them listed on the site. The 13 finalists included the musical staircase, traffic lights with quiz questions on the red, a Connect Four beer crate, fun tram tickets (giving entry to an instant-win lottery), a pinball exercise machine, a speed camera lottery where a winner is chosen from those abiding by the speed limit, a jukebox rubbish bin (which plays when people add rubbish), a one-armed vending machine, a fun doormat, car safety belts linked to a car’s entertainment system, car safety belt with a gaming screen which turns on when buckled, a bottle bank arcade system and the world’s deepest bin (or at least one which sounds as if it is). The winner was the speed camera lottery.

The fun theory site
Thefuntheory.com

Fun theory videos
Piano Staircase – Odenplan, Stockholm (on Vimeo)
The Speed Camera Lottery (on VIMP.com, Kevin Richardson)
Garbage Jukebox (on YouTube)
The World’s Deepest Bin (on Vimeo)
Bottle Bank Arcade (on YouTube)

Questions

  1. Does fun theory rely on rational choices?
  2. Other than through having fun, how else may people be nudged into changing their behaviour?
  3. Go through some of the entries to the Fun Theory Award and choose three that you particularly like. Explain why.
  4. Invent your own fun theory product. You might do this by discussing it groups and perhaps having a group competition.
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