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Posts Tagged ‘interdependence’

A chill wind from the east

The mood has changed in international markets. Investors are becoming more pessimistic about recovery in the world economy and of the likely direction of share prices. Concern has centred on the Chinese economy. Forecasts are for slower Chinese growth (but still around 5 to 7 per cent) and worries centre on the impact of this on the demand for other countries’ exports.

The Chinese stock market has been undergoing turmoil over the past few weeks, and this has added to jitters on other stock markets around the world. Between the 5th and 24th of August, the FTSE 100 fell by 12.6%, from 6752 to 5898; the German DAX fell by 17.1% from 11,636 to 9648 and the US DOW Jones by 10.7% from 17,546 to 15,666. Although markets have recovered somewhat since, they are very volatile and well below their peaks earlier this year.

But are investors right to be worried? Will a ‘contagion’ spread from China to the rest of the world, and especially to its major suppliers of raw materials, such as Australia, and manufactured exports, such as the USA and Germany? Will other south-east Asian countries continue to slow? Will worries lead to continued falls in stock markets as pessimism becomes more entrenched? Will this then impact on the real economy and lead then to even further falls in share prices and further falls in aggregate demand?

Or will the mood of pessimism evaporate as the Chinese economy continues to grow, albeit at a slightly slower rate? Indeed, will the Chinese authorities introduce further stimulus measures (see the News items What a devalued yuan means to the rest of the world and The Shanghai Stock Exchange: a burst bubble?), such as significant quantitative easing (QE)? Has the current slowing in China been caused, at least in part, by a lack of expansion of the monetary base – an issue that the Chinese central bank may well address?

Will other central banks, such as the Fed and the Bank of England, delay interest rate rises? Will the huge QE programme by the ECB, which is scheduled to continue at €60 billion until at least September 2016, give a significant boost to recovery in Europe and beyond?

The following articles explore these questions.

Articles
The Guardian view on China’s meltdown: the end of a flawed globalisation The Guardian, Editorial (1/9/15)
Central banks can do nothing more to insulate us from the Asian winter The Guardian, Business leader (6/9/15)
Where are Asia’s economies heading BBC News, Karishma Vaswani (4/9/15)
How China’s cash injections add up to quantitative squeezing The Economist (7/9/14)
Nouriel Roubini dismisses China scare as false alarm, stuns with optimism The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (4/9/15)
Markets Are Too Pessimistic About Chinese Growth Bloomberg, Nouriel Roubini (4/9/15)

Data
World Economic Outlook databases IMF: see, for example, data on China, including GDP growth forecasts.
Market Data Yahoo: see, for example, FTSE 100 data.

Questions

  1. How do open-market operations work? Why may QE be described as an extreme form of open-market operations?
  2. Examine whether or not the Chinese authorities have been engaging in monetary expansion or monetary tightening.
  3. Is an expansion of the monetary base necessary for there to be a growth in broad money?
  4. Why might the process of globalisation over the past 20 or so years be described a ‘flawed’?
  5. Why have Chinese stock markets been so volatile in recent weeks? How seriously should investors elsewhere take the large falls in share prices on the Chinese markets?
  6. Would it be fair to describe the Chinese economy as ‘unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable’?
  7. What is the outlook over the next couple of years for Asian economies? Explain.
  8. For what reasons might stock markets have overshot in a downward direction?
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The end of globalisation?

The period from the end of the Second World War until the financial crisis of 2007–8 was one of increasing globalisation. World trade rose considerably faster than world GDP. The average annual growth in world GDP from 1950 to 2007 was 4.2%; the average annual growth in world merchandise exports was 6.7%.

And there were other ways in which the world was becoming increasingly interconnected. Cross-border financial flows grew strongly, especially in the 1990s and up to 2007. In the early 1990s, global cross-border capital flows were around 4% of world annual GDP; by 2007, they had risen to over 20%. The increasing spread of multinational corporations, improvements in transport, greater international movement of labour and improved communications were all factors that contributed to a deepening of globalisation.

But have things begun to change? Have we entered into an era of ‘deglobalisation’? Certainly some indicators would suggest this. In the three years 2012–14, world exports grew more slowly than world GDP. Global cross-border financial flows remain at about one-third of their 2007 peak. Increased banking regulations are making it harder for financial institutions to engage in international speculative activities.

What is more, with political turmoil in many countries, multinational corporations are more cautious about investing in such markets. Many countries are seeking to contain immigration. Fears of global instability are encouraging many firms to look inwards. After more than 13 years, settlement of the Doha round of international trade negotiations still seems a long way off. Protectionist measures abound, often amount to giving favourable treatment to domestic firms.

The Observer article considers whether the process of increased globalisation is now dead. Or will better banking regulations ultimately encourage capital flows to grow again; and will the inexorable march of technological progress give international trade and investment a renewed boost? Will lower energy and commodity prices help to reboot the global economy? Will the ‘Great Recession’ have resulted in what turns out to be merely a blip in the continued integration of the global economy? Is it, as the Huffington Post article states, that ‘globalization has a gravitational pull that is hard to resist’? See what the articles and speech have to say and what they conclude.

Articles
Borders are closing and banks are in retreat. Is globalisation dead? The Observer, Heather Stewart (23/5/15)
Is Globalization Finally Dead? Huffington Post, Peter Hall (6/5/14)

Speech
Financial “deglobalization”?: capital flows, banks, and the Beatles Bank of England, Kristin Forbes (18/11/14)

Questions

  1. Define globalisation.
  2. How does globalisation affect the distribution of income (a) between countries; (b) within countries?
  3. Why has the Doha round of trade negotiations stalled?
  4. Examine the factors that might be leading to deglobalisation.
  5. What are the implications of banking deglobalisation for the UK?
  6. Are protectionist measures always undesirable in terms of increasing global GDP?
  7. What forces of globalisation are hard to resist?
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Eurozone deflation risk

The eurozone is made up of 18 countries (19 in January) and, besides sharing a common currency, they also seem to be sharing the trait of weak economic performance. The key macroeconomic variables across the eurozone nations have all seemingly been moving in the wrong direction and this is causing a lot of concern for policy-makers.

Some of the biggest players in the eurozone have seen economic growth on the down-turn, unemployment rising and consumer and business confidence falling once again. Germany’s economic growth has been revised down and in Italy, unemployment rose to a record of 13.2% in September and around 25% of the workforce remains out of work in Spain and Greece. A significant consequence of the sluggish growth across this 18-nation bloc of countries is the growing risk of deflation.

Whilst low and stable inflation is a macroeconomic objective across nations, there is such a thing as inflation that is too low. When inflation approaches 0%, the spectre of deflation looms large (see the blog post Deflation danger). The problem of deflation is that when people expect prices to fall, they stop spending. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. After all, if you think prices will be lower next week, then you are likely to wait until next week. This decision by consumers will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. This is the problem facing the eurozone. In November, the inflation rate fell to 0.3%. One of the key causes is falling energy prices – normally good news, but not if inflation is already too low.

Jonathan Loynes, Chief European Economist at Capital Economics said:

“[the inflation and jobless data] gives the ECB yet another nudge to take urgent further action to revive the recovery and tackle the threat of deflation…We now expect the headline inflation rate to drop below zero at least briefly over the next six months and there is a clear danger of a more prolonged bout of falling prices.”

Some may see the lower prices as a positive change, with less household income being needed to buy the same basket of goods. However, the key question will be whether such low prices are seen as a temporary change or an indication of a longer-term trend. The answer to the question will have a significant effect on business decisions about investment and on the next steps to be taken by the ECB. It also has big consequences for other countries, in particular the UK. The data over the coming months across a range of macroeconomic variables may tell us a lot about what is to come throughout 2015. The following articles consider the eurozone data.

Euro area annual inflation down to 0.3% EuroStat News Release (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation weakens again, adding pressure on ECB Nasdaq, Brian Blackstone (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation rate falls in October BBC News (28/11/14)
Eurozone recovery fears weigh on UK plc, says report Financial Times, Alison Smith (30/11/14)
€300bn Jean-Claude Juncker Eurozone kickstarter sounds too good to be true The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/11/14)
Eurozone area may be in ‘persistent stagnation trap’ says OECD BBC News (25/11/14)
Euro area ‘major risk to world growth’: OECD CNBC, Katy Barnato (25/11/14)
OECD sees gradual world recovery, urges ECB to do more Reuters, Ingrid Melander (25/11/14)

Questions

  1. What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
  2. Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
  3. What policies are available to the ECB to tackle the problem of deflation? How successful are they likely to be and which factors will determine this?
  4. To what extent is the economic stagnation in the Eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and US? Explain your answer.
  5. How effective would quantitative easing be in combating the problem of deflation?
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A VW recession for the eurozone, as German growth revised down?

Europe’s largest economy is Germany and the prospects and growth figures of this country are crucial to the growth of the Eurozone as a whole. The EU is a key trading partner for the UK and hence the growth data of Germany and in turn of the Eurozone is also essential in creating buoyant economic conditions within our borders. The bad news is that the economic growth forecast for Germany has been cut by the German government.

The German government had previously estimated that the growth rate for this year would be 1.8%, but the estimate has now been revised down to 1.2% and next year’s growth rate has also been revised downwards from 2% to 1.3%. Clearly the expectation is that low growth is set to continue.

Whenever there are changes in macroeconomic variables, a key question is always about the cause of such change, for example is inflation caused by demand-pull or cost-push factors. The German government has been quick to state that the lower growth rates are not due to internal factors, but have been affected by external factors, in particular the state of the global economy. As such, there are no plans to make significant changes to domestic policy, as the domestic economy remains in a strong position. The economy Minister said:

“The German economy finds itself in difficult external waters … Domestic economic forces remain intact, with the robust labour market forming the foundation … As soon as the international environment improves, the competitiveness of German companies will bear fruit and the German economy will return to a path of solid growth … [for this reason there is] no reason to abandon or change our economic or fiscal policy.”

The global picture remains relatively weak and while some economies, including the UK, have seen growth pick up and unemployment fall, there are concerns that the economic recovery is beginning to slow. With an increasingly interdependent world, the slowing down of one economy can have a significant impact on the growth rate of others. If country A begins to slow, demand for imports will fall and this means a fall in the demand for exports of country B. For countries that are dependent on exports, such as Germany and China, a fall in the demand for exports can mean a big decline in aggregate demand and in August, Germany saw a 5.8% drop in exports.

Adding to the gloom is data on inflation, suggesting that some other key economies have seen falls in the rate of inflation, including China. The possibility of a triple-dip recession for the Eurozone has now been suggested and with its largest economy beginning to struggle, this suggestion may become more real. The following articles consider the macroeconomic picture.

Articles
Germany cuts growth forecasts amid recession fears, as Ireland unveils budget The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (14/10/14)
As cracks in its economy widen, is Germany’s miracle about to fade? The Observer, Philip Oltermann (19/10/14)
Why the German economy is in a rut The Economist (21/10/14)
Germany’s flagging economy: Build some bridges and roads, Mrs Merkel The Economist (18/10/14)
Germany cuts 2014 growth forecast from 1.8% to 1.2% BBC News (14/10/14)
IMF to cut growth forecast for Germany – der Spiegel Reuters (5/10/14)
Fears of triple-dip eurozone recession, as Germany cuts growth forecast The Guardian, Phillip Inman (15/10/14)
Germany slashes its economic forecasts Financial Times, Stefan Wagstyl (14/10/14)
Merkel vows austerity even as growth projection cut Bloomberg, Brian Parkin, Rainer Buergin and Patrick Donahue (14/10/14)
Is Europe’s economic motor finally stalling? BBC News, Damien McGuinness (17/10/14)
Why Germany won’t fight deflation BBC News, Robert Peston (16/10/14)

Data
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (15/10/14)
World Economic Outlook IMF (October 2014)

Questions

  1. How do we measure economic growth and is it a good indicator of the state of an economy?
  2. What are the key external factors identified by the Germany government as the reasons behind the decline in economic growth?
  3. Angela Merkel has said that austerity measures will continue to balance the budget. Is this a sensible strategy given the revised growth figures?
  4. Why is low inflation in other economies further bad news for those countries that have seen a decline or a slowdown in their growth figures?
  5. Why is interdependence between nations both a good and a bad thing?
  6. Using AS and AD analysis, illustrate the reasons behind the decline German growth. Based on your analysis, what might be expected to happen to some of the other key macroeconomic variables in Germany and in other Eurozone economies?
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How does the design of a penalty shoot-out influence the success of the teams involved?

The round robin group stage of the World Cup was recently completed with 16 out of the 32 countries eliminated from the competition – including England, Italy and Spain. The remaining 16 countries progressed to the single game elimination section of the tournament. At the time of writing, the first round of elimination games had been completed with the remaining 8 teams proceeding to the quarter finals of the tournament. Two of these 8 elimination games ended as a draw after extra time. The winner was decided by a penalty shoot-out e.g. Brazil and Costa Rica. Are these shoot-outs just a lottery or are there any factors that significantly influence their outcome?

The penalty shoot-out was first introduced in June 1970 and has become an important part of competitions such as the World Cup and European Championships for national teams and The Champions League, UEFA Cup and FA Cup for club teams. English fans have suffered more than most with victory in only one out of the seven penalty-shoot outs they have been involved in at major tournaments. On average only three out of every five penalties taken were scored. Germany has a very different record. They have won six out of the seven shoot-outs they have participated in and have a scoring rate of 93%. The Czech Republic has an even better record as their players have not missed a single penalty in the three shoot-outs they have been involved in – including beating West Germany in 1976.

Each individual penalty can be thought of as an example of an interdependent or game theoretic situation. The penalty taker (PT) has to choose from one of three different strategies: shoot to the right, shoot to the left or shoot down the middle. The success of the penalty does not just depend on which of these strategies is chosen. It also depends on the choice made by the goalkeeper (GK) i.e. dive to the left, dive to the right or stay where they are.

In the jargon of game theory there is strategic interdependence. It can also be thought of as an example of a simultaneous game. After the ball is struck it takes approximately 0.3 seconds until it hits the back of the net!! Therefore it is impossible for the GK to observe the shot and respond. Instead they simply have to guess which way they think the PT will kick the ball and respond accordingly. The same reasoning applies to the PT. They cannot observe which way the keeper will dive before they strike the ball. A penalty shoot-out is also an example of a zero sum game. If one teams scores they are better off by one goal while the other team is worse off by one goal.

There is also a sequential element to the shoot- outs as in each round one team always follows another. Is there either a first or second mover advantage? Is there any advantage from always shooting first or second? This was a question investigated by some economists who analysed the data from 129 shoot-outs in ten different tournaments taken between June 1970 and June 2003. This cut-off was chosen because up until this point it could be argued that a penalty shoot-out was an example of a truly randomized field experiment. The team that won the coin toss was required to shoot first. Teams were not given a choice of whether to shoot first or second until the rules were amended in June 2003.

The economists found that the teams who took the first shot won in 78 (60.5%) cases while the team that shot second won in only 51 cases (39.5%). This evidence suggests that there is a significant first mover advantage. One explanation for this finding is that there is greater psychological pressure on the PTs who go second in each round of the shoot-off and this has a significantly negative effect on their performance. The researchers also found that in 19 of the 20 shoot-outs they observed after June 2003 the team that won the toss decided to kick first. They concluded that not only is there a first mover advantage, but that teams/players are aware of it.

If there is currently a first mover advantage which provides teams with an unfair advantage then is there anything that the football authorities could do to help reduce the bias? One suggestion is to change the order in which the teams shoot in each round. A similar approach could be taken to that used in tennis in order to determine the order of the server in a tie break.

Imagine a penalty shoot-out between England and Germany. The sequence below provides one possible alternative to the current structure of the contest.

Penalty 1: Germany England
Penalty 2: England Germany
Penalty 3: England Germany
Penalty 4: Germany England
Penalty 5: England Germany
Penalty 6: Germany England

This would involve increasing the number of penalties from 5 to 6 so that both teams get to shoot first in three rounds of the contest. Interestingly the authors also found any first mover advantages fell dramatically if the shoot-outs reached the sudden death stage.

It will be interesting to see if first mover advantages occur in the remaining games in the tournament.

The English Disease – How to handle pressure: lessons from penalty shoot-outs The Economist (14/6/14)
Penalty kick shootouts and the importance of shooting first Soccermetrics Research (3/1/11)
Game Theory Lesson: Man Utd v Chelsea Penalty Shootout Econfix (11/3/14)
World Cup Game Theory – What economics tells us about penalty kicks Slate (24/6/06)
Football penalty shoot-outs are unfair says new research LSE (16/12/10).

Questions

  1. Explain the difference between a sequential and simultaneous game.
  2. Explain how either the penalty taker or goal keeper might attempt to transform the penalty from a simultaneous to a sequential game. (Hint: watch the next time the Brazilian footballer, Neymar, takes a penalty!!!
  3. Give some examples of potential first or second mover advantages in other industries.
  4. What other factors might influence the outcome of a penalty shoot? Is it possible for researchers to obtain any data in order to control for any of the factors you have identified?
  5. Explain the difference between a zero sum game and a non-zero sum game. Give some real world examples of a non-zero sum game.
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An oligopoly price war

Oligopoly is the most complex market structure, characterised by a few large firms which dominate the industry. Typically there are high barriers to entry and prices can be very sticky. However, perhaps the most important characteristic is interdependence. With this feature of the market, oligopolies, despite being dominated by a few big firms, can be the most competitive market structure.

There are many examples of oligopolies and one of the best is the supermarket industry. Dominated by the likes of Tesco, Morrisons and Asda, competition in terms of branding, product development and quality is constant, but so is price competition. During the recession, you could hardly watch a TV programme that included advert breaks without seeing one of the big four advertising their low prices.

However, in the past few years, the supermarket industry has seen competition grow even further and the big four are now facing competition from low-cost retailers, including Aldi and Lidl. This has led to falling sales and profits for the likes of Tesco and Morrisons.

Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Asda have all felt the emergence of discount retailers and have seen their customer numbers fall. All have reacted with rounds of price cuts and new deals, and this price war looks set to continue. Morrisons have just announced a 14% average price cut on 135 products to match earlier changes in pricing strategies by the other main competitors. As I’m writing this during the Algeria v. South Korea match, I have just seen an advert from Sainsbury’s, promoting their milk chocolate digestive biscuits, priced at £1. The advert explicitly states that they are ‘less than Morrisons’, where the price is £1.50. This was soon followed by another from Sainsbury’s saying that the Cif bathroom spray is £1.50, which is ‘less than Tesco’, priced at £2.75. I need say no more.

So, what is it about this industry which means it is so susceptible to price wars? Are all oligopolies like this? The following articles consider the supermarket industry and the price wars that have emerged. Think about this sector in terms of oligopoly power and consider the questions that follow.

Morrisons announces another round of price cuts/a> BBC News (22/6/14)
Tesco suffers worst sales for decades The Guardian, Sarah Butler and Sean Farrell (4/6/14)
Britain’s Morrisons to cut prices on 135 products Reuters (22/6/14)
Morrisons slashes more prices by up to 41pct The Telegraph, Scott Campbell (22/6/14)
Sainsbury’s and Netto in discount store tie-up BBC News (20/6/14)
Slow to respond, Tesco now pays the price Wall Street Journal, Peter Evans and Ese Erheriene (19/6/14)
One million fewer customer visits a week at Tesco The Guardian, Sean Farrell (3/6/14)
Asda only one of big four to grow share as Lidl achieves highest ever growth Retail Week, Nicola Harrison (3/6/14)
Will Asda shoot itself in the foot with in-store cost cutting? The Grocer, Alec Mattinson (28/5/14)
Tesco sales slide at record speed as discounters pile on the pressure Independent, Simon Neville (3/6/14)
Quester: Back J Sainsbury to prove doubters wrong The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (11/6/14)

Questions

  1. What are the key characteristics of an oligopoly?
  2. How do the above characteristics explain the conduct of firms in an oligopoly? How relevant is this to the supermarket industry?
  3. In many oligopolies, prices are sticky. Why is it that in the supermarket industry price wars break out?
  4. Is the kinked demand curve a relevant model to use when talking about the supermarket industry?
  5. What other industries fit into the category of an oligopoly? Is the kinked demand curve model relevant in these industries?
  6. Would there be an incentive for the big 4 supermarkets to collude and fix price? Explain your answer.
  7. Interdependence is the key characteristic in an oligopoly. Can this explain the behaviour of the supermarkets?
  8. Given that oligopolies are characterised by high barriers to entry, how is that Aldi and Lidl have been able to compete with them?
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A mini-stimulus for China

The growth of China over the past decade has been quite phenomenal, with figures recorded in double-digits. However, in the aftermath of the recession, growth has declined to around 7% – much higher than Western economies are used to, but significantly below the ‘norm’ for China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth target for this year is 7.5%, but there appear to be some concerns about China’s ability to reach this figure and this has been emphasised by a recent Chinese policy.

A mini-stimulus package has been put in place, with the objective of meeting the 7.5% growth target. Government expenditure is a key component of aggregate demand and when other components of AD are lower than expected, boosting ‘G’ can be a solution. However, it’s not something that the Chinese government has had to do in recent years and the fact that this stimulus package has been put in place has brought doubts over China’s economic performance to the forefront , but has confirmed its commitment to growth. Mizuho economist, Shen Jianguang, said:

It’s very obvious that the leaders feel the need to stabilise growth…Overall, the 7.5 per cent growth target means that the government still cares a lot about economic growth.

Data suggest that growth in China is relatively weak and there are concerns that the growth target will be missed, hence the stimulus package. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, there was a large stimulus package in place in China. This latest investment by the government is in no way comparable to the size of the 2008 package, but instead will be on a smaller and more specific scale. Mark Williams of Capital Economics said:

It’s a bit of a rerun of what we saw last year – something less than a stimulus package and more of piecemeal measures to ensure they reach their growth target.

It is the construction of public housing and railways that will be the main areas of investment this time round. A sum of $120–180bn per year will be available for railway construction and $161bn for social housing, and tax breaks are being extended for small businesses.

The 2008 stimulus package saw debt increase to some 200% of GDP, which did cause growing concerns about the reliance on debt. However, this latest package will be financed through the issue of bonds, which is much more similar to how market economies finance spending.

The fact that the government has had to intervene with such a stimulus package is, however, causing growing concerns about the level of debt and the future of this fast growing economy, though the new method of financing is certainly seen as progress.

It should be noted that a decline in growth for China is not only concerning for China itself, but is also likely to have adverse consequences other countries. In the increasingly interdependent world that we live in, Western countries rely on foreign consumers purchasing their exports, and in recent years it has been Chinese consumers that have been a key component of demand. However, a decline in growth may also create some benefits – resources may not be used up as quickly and prices of raw materials and oil in particular may remain lower.

It is certainly too early for alarm bells, but the future of China’s growth is less certain than it was a decade ago. The following articles consider this issue.

China’s new mini-stimulus offers signs of worry and progress BBC News, Linda Yueh (3/4/14)
China puts railways and houses at hear of new stimulus measures The Guardian (3/4/14)
China unveils mini stimulus to to boost slowing economy The Telegraph (3/4/14)
China stimulus puts new focus on growth target Wall Street Journal, Bob Davis and Michael Arnold (3/4/14)
China embarks on ‘mini’ stimulus programme to kick-start economy Independent, Russell Lynch (3/4/14)
China takes first step to steady economic growth Reuters (2/4/14)
China unveils fresh stimulus The Autstralian (3/4/14)
China’s reformers can triumph again, if they follow the right route The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (2/4/14)

Questions

  1. How has Chinese growth reached double-digits? Which factors are responsible for such high growth?
  2. The BBC News article suggests that the stimulus package is cause for concerns but also shows progress. How can it do both?
  3. Using a diagram, illustrate how a stimulus package can boost economic growth.
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of high rates of growth for (a) China and (b) Western economies?
  5. Why does the method of financing growth matter?
  6. Railway and housing construction have been targeted to receive additional finance. Why do you think these sectors have been targeted?
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Supermarket price wars

The supermarket industry is a classic example of an oligopoly. A market dominated by a few large companies, which is highly competitive and requires the companies to think about the reactions of the other competitors whenever a decision is made. Throughout the credit crunch, price cutting was the order of the day, as the big four tried to maintain market share and not lose customers to the low cost Aldi and Lidl. Morrisons, however, has found itself in exactly that position and is now looking to restructure to return to profitability.

Morrisons is well known for its fresh food, but it seems that with incomes still being squeezed, even this is insufficient to keep its customers from looking for cheaper alternatives. Morrisons’ market share has been in decline and its profits or the last financial year have been non-existent. It’s been losing ground to its big competitor, Tesco and part of this is due to the fact that Morrisons was late to enter the ‘Tesco metro’ market. It remained dependent on its large supermarkets, whereas Tesco saw the opportunity to expand onto the highstreets, with smaller stores. It was also late arriving to the online shopping business and while it has now developed more sophisticated IT systems, it did lose significant ground to Tesco and its other key competitors.

Another problem is that Morrisons has found itself unable to compete with the low cost supermarkets. The prices on offer at Morrisons are certainly not low enough to compete with prices at Aldi and Lidl and Morrisons has seen many of its customers switch to these cheaper alternatives. But Morrisons is fighting back and has announced plans to cut prices on a huge range of products across its stores. The fresh food aspect of the business will still remain and the hope is that the fresh food combined with cheaper price tags will allow Morrisons to re-gain lost ground to Tesco and take back some of its lost customers from the low-cost alternatives. However, it’s not just Morrisons that has been losing customers to the budget retailers. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda have all lost market share to Aldi and Lidl, but it is Morrisons that has fared the worst.

The latest news on Morrisons’ profits and overall performance, together with its promise of restructuring and price cuts worth £1 billion has caused uncertainty for shareholders and this has reduced the value of shares. However, Morrisons’ Directors have tried to restore confidence by purchasing shares themselves. With expectations of price wars breaking out, the other supermarkets have also seen significant declines in their share values, with a total of £2 billion being wiped off the value of their shares collectively. The consequences of Morrisons’ performance will certainly continue: customers are likely to benefit from lower prices in all of the big four supermarkets, but investors may lose out – at least in the short run. The impact on jobs is uncertain and will certainly depend on how investors and customers react in the coming weeks. The following articles consider this sector.

UK grocer Morrison warns on profit, threatens price war Reuters, James Davey (13/3/14)
Morrisons and the threat to mainstream supermarkets BBC News, Robert Peston (13/3/14)
Morrisons expected to sell property in response to profit drop The Guardian (9/3/14)
Morrisons restructuring sparks fears of new price war BBC News (13/3/14)
Morrisons’ dividend up while profit falls? It’s hard to believe The Guardian, Nils Pratley (13/3/14)
Morrisons boss talks tough as group slides into red The Scotsman, Scott Reid (13/3/14)
Morrisons plots price cuts after annual loss Sky News (13/3/14)
Morrisons’ declaration of £1bn price war with budget stores hammers Sainsbury and Tesco shares This is Money, Rupert Steiner (14/3/14)
Ocado on track for first profit in wake of Morrisons deal Independent, Simon Neville (14/4/14)

Questions

  1. What are the key characteristics of an oligopoly?
  2. To what extent do you think the supermarket sector is a good example of an oligopoly?
  3. Why is the characteristic of interdependence a key cause of the potential price war between the supermarkets?
  4. Why has Morrisons been affected so badly with the emergence of the budget retailers?
  5. By using the income an substitution effect, explain how the big four supermarkets have been affected by retailers, such as Aldi and Lidl.
  6. Using a demand and supply diagram, explain how the share prices of companies like Morrisons are determined. Which factors affect (a) the demand for and (b) the supply of shares?
  7. What do you think will happen to the number of jobs in Morrisons given the performance of the company and its future plans?
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The Supermarket Battleground

UK Supermarkets: a prime example of an oligopoly. This industry is highly competitive and over the past decade, but particularly since the onset of the credit crunch, price wars have been a constant feature of this market. You could barely watch a full programme on commercial TV without seeing one of the big supermarkets advertising that their prices were lower than everyone else’s! So, despite oligopoly being towards the ‘least competitive’ end of the market structure spectrum, this is an example of just how competitive the market can actually be.

With household incomes being squeezed, in particular by another oligopolistic industry (energy) and with the ‘middle market’ being pinched by higher-end retailers and budget retailers, the supermarket sector is facing uncertain times. Asda’s sales growth has continued to slow and in response, the giant supermarket chain will be launching a £1 billion price-cutting campaign. Tesco is the market leader, but Sainsbury’s and Asda have been battling over the second spot. One of Asda’s selling points is its low prices. Perhaps not as low as Aldi and Lidl, but this new pricing strategy will aim to bring its prices further below Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons and close the gap with the two big discount supermarkets. As Andy Clarke, Asda’s Chief Executive, said:

We regard ourselves as the UK’s leading value retailer and it is against this backdrop that I have today set out our strategic priorities which will improve, extend and expand the business over the next five years.

So, what will be the impact of lower prices? It appears as though Asda is marketing itself towards the budget end of the pricing spectrum, perhaps aiming to become fiercer competitors with Aldi and Lidl and let Tesco and Sainsbury’s do battle with the higher-end retailers, such as Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. Lower prices should cause a substitution effects towards Asda’s products, as many of them will have relatively price elastic demand. If the other supermarkets don’t respond, this should lead to sales growth. However, the key to an oligopoly is interdependence: the actions of one firm will affect all other firms in the market. The implications then, are that Tesco may react to this pricing strategy by engaging in its own price cuts, especially as the Christmas period approaches. The characteristic of interdependence was evident in the aftermath of Asda’s announcement when shares in Tesco and Morrisons both fell, showing how the markets were responding.

Of course, there are many other factors that affect a consumer’s decision as to whether to shop at Asda, Tesco or any other big supermarket. In the area where I live, we have a Tesco and a Morrisons (a few years ago, we had neither!). I don’t shop at Asda, as the nearest branch is over 30 miles away – even if prices were significantly lower, it would be more expensive to get there and back and a lot less convenient. For others, it may be loyalty and not just of the ‘I’ve shopped there all my life’ kind! For some, clubcard vouchers from Tesco may be preferred to Asda’s offerings and thus tiny price differences between the supermarkets may have little effect on a consumer’s decision as to where to shop. Many products at supermarkets are relatively cheap and thus as the proportion of our income that we spend on these goods is pretty low, any change in price doesn’t cause much of an effect on our demand.

It’s not just a pricing strategy where money is being invested by Asda. More investment will be going into their online services and more stores will be created, kin particular in London and the South East where their presence is low, but demand appears to be high. Improving ‘product quality, style and design’ will also be on the agenda, all with the aim of boosting sales growth and securing its position as the second largest retailer in the sector, perhaps with a long term aim of one day overtaking Tesco. The following articles consider the supermarket battleground.

Supermarket battle heats up as Asda announces £1bn price-cutting plan The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (14/11/13)
Sainsbury’s profits make it second biggest supermarket BBC News (13/11/13)
Asda to launch £1bn price-cut plan AOL, Press Association (15/11/13)
Asda takes fight to rivals with £1bn investment plan The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (14/11/13)
UK’s Asda promises £1 billion investment in price cuts Reuters (14/11/13)
Asda makes bid to woo shoppers with vow of five-year £1billion price war after it was overtaken in market share by Sainsbury’s Mail Online, Sean Poulter (15/11/13)
Sainsbury’s overtakes Asda on demand for its premium lines Independent, Simon Neville (14/11/13)
Asda to put £1bn into lowering prices over five years The Grocer, Thomas Hobbs (14/11/13)
Wal-Mart posts $3.7bn quarterly income BBC News (14/11/13)

Questions

  1. What are the key characteristics of an oligopoly?
  2. What is meant by a price war? Who benefits?
  3. How important is the concept of price elasticity of demand when deciding whether or not to cut the price of a range of products?
  4. Why is the proportion of income spent on a good a key determinant of the elasticity of demand of a product?
  5. How can market share be calculated?
  6. Many suggest that the ‘middle market’ of the supermarket sector is slowly disappearing. Why is this?
  7. How effective will Asda’s price cutting strategy be? Which factors will determine its effectiveness?
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The UK and the single market

A key debate for some months has been the UK’s membership of the European Union. The debate has centred around the desire to return some powers back to the UK, but this has extended into the possibility of a referendum on our membership of the preferential trading area. So, let’s take a step back and consider why any country would want to be a member of a preferential trading area.

Preferential trading areas can be as basic as a free trading area or as advanced as a currency, or even political union. The eurozone is clearly a currency union, but the European Union, of which the UK is a member, is a common market. A common market has no tariffs and quotas between the members, but in addition there are common external tariffs and quotas. The European union also includes the free movement of labour, capital and goods and services. Membership of a preferential trading area therefore creates benefits for the member countries. One such benefit is that of trade creation. Members are able to trade under favourable terms with other members, which yields significant benefits. Countries can specialise in the production of goods/services in which they have a comparative advantage and this enables greater quantities of output to be produced and then traded.

Other benefits include the greater competition created. By engaging in trade, companies are no longer competing just with domestic firms, but with foreign firms as well. This helps to improve efficiency, cut costs and thus lower prices benefiting consumers. However, from a firm’s point of view there are also benefits: they have access to a much wider market in which they can sell their goods without facing tariffs. This creates the potential for economies of scale to be achieved. Were the UK to completely exit the EU, this could be a significant loss for domestic firms and for consumers, who would no longer see the benefits of no tariffs on imported goods. Membership of a preferential trading area also creates benefits in terms of potential technology spillovers and is likely to have a key effect on a country’s bargaining power with the rest of the world. As is a similar argument to membership of a trade union, there is power in numbers.

There are costs of membership of a preferential trading area, but they are typically outweighed by the benefits. However, estimates suggest that the cost of EU regulation is the equivalent of 10% of UK GDP. Furthermore, while the UK certainly does trade with Europe, data suggests that only 13% of our GDP is dependent on such exports. The future is uncertain for the European Union and Britain’s membership. There are numerous options available besides simply leaving this preferential trading area, but they typically have one thing in common. They will create uncertainty and this is something that markets and investors don’t like. Vince Cable warned of this, saying:

There are large numbers of potential investors in the UK, who would bring employment here, who have been warned off because of the uncertainty this is creating.

The impact of the UK’s decision will be significant and not just for those living and working in the economy. The world is no interdependent that when countries exist (or typically enter) a preferential trading area the wider economic effects are significant. While any change in the UK’s relationship with the EU will take many months and years to occur and then further time to have an effect, the uncertainty created by the suggestion of a change in the relationship has already sent waves across the world. The following articles consider the wider single market and the current debate on UK membership.

European Union: if the ‘outs’ get their way, we’ll end up like Ukraine Guardian, Vince Cable (16/5/13)
Conservative MP James Wharton champions bill to guarantee EU referendum Independent, Andrew Grice (16/5/13)
Nick Clegg shifts ground over EU referendum The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (15/5/13)
Cameron tells EU rebels to back referendum law Reuters, Peter Griffiths (16/5/13)
The EU and the UK – the single market BBC Democracy (4/3/13)
Single market dilemmas on Europe BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (14/5/13)
Lord Wolfson: I back the single market – but not at any cost The Telegraph, Lord Wolfson (19/1/13)
EU focuses on returning single market to health Financial Times, James Fontanella-Khan (8/5/13)

Questions

  1. What other examples of preferential trading areas are there? How close are they to the arrangement of the European Union?
  2. In each of the above examples, explain the type of preferential trading area that it is.
  3. What are the benefits and costs of being a member of a preferential trading area such as the EU? How do these differ to being a member of a) a free trade area and (b) a customs union?
  4. What options are open to the UK in terms of re-negotiating its relationship with the EU? In each case, explain how the benefits and costs identified in question 3 would change.
  5. Why is the UK’s decision so important for the global economy? Would it be in the interests of other economies? Explain your answer.
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