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Posts Tagged ‘market failures’

A soft target for a tax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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

In his Budget on March 19, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced fundamental changes to the way people access their pensions. Previously, many people with pension savings were forced to buy an annuity. These pay a set amount of income per month from retirement for the remainder of a person’s life.

But, with annuity rates (along with other interest rates) being at historically low levels, many pensioners have struggled to make ends meet. Even those whose pension pots did not require them to buy an annuity were limited in the amount they could withdraw each year unless they had other guaranteed income of over £20,000.

Now pensioners will no longer be required to buy an annuity and they will have much greater flexibility in accessing their pensions. As the Treasury website states:

This means that people can choose how they access their defined contribution pension savings; for example they could take all their pension savings as a lump sum, draw them down over time, or buy an annuity.

While many have greeted the news as a liberation of the pensions market, there is also the worry that this has created a moral hazard. When people retire, will they be tempted to blow their savings on foreign travel, a new car or other luxuries? And then, when their pension pot has dwindled and their health is failing, will they then be forced to rely on the state to fund their care?

But even if pensioners resist the urge to go on an immediate spending spree, there are still large risks in giving people the freedom to spend their pension savings as they choose. As the Scotsman article below states:

The risks are all too obvious. Behaviour will change. People who no longer have to buy an annuity will not do so but will then be left with a pile of cash. What to do with it? Spend it? Invest it? There are many new risky choices. But the biggest of all can be summed up in one fact: when we retire our life expectancy continues to grow. For every day we live after 65 it increases by six and a half hours. That’s right – an extra two-and-a-half years every decade.

The glory of an annuity is it pays you an income for every year you live – no matter how long. The problem with cash is that it runs out. Already the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that the reform ‘depends on highly uncertain behavioural assumptions about when people take the money’. And that ‘there is a market failure here. There will be losers from this policy’.

We do not have perfect knowledge about how long we will live or even how long we can be expected to live given our circumstances. Many people are likely to suffer from a form of myopia that makes them blind to the future: “We’re likely to be dead before the money has run out”; or “Let’s enjoy ourselves now while we still can”; or “We’ll worry about the future when it comes”.

The point is that there are various market failings in the market for pensions and savings. Will the decisions of the Chancellor have made them better or worse?

Articles
Pension shakeup in budget leaves £14bn annuities industry reeling The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (20/3/14)
Chancellor vows to scrap compulsory annuities in pensions overhaul The Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Harriet Meyer (19/3/14)
Labour backs principle of George Osborne’s pension shakeup The Guardian, Rowena Mason (23/3/14)
Osborne’s pensions overhaul may mean there is little left for future rainy days The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/3/14)
Let’s celebrate the Chancellor’s bravery on pensions – now perhaps the Government can tackle other mighty vested interests Independent on Sunday, Mary Dejevsky (23/3/14)
A vote-buying Budget The Scotsman, John McTernan (21/3/14)
L&G warns on mis-selling risks of pension changes The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (26/3/14)
Budget 2014: Pension firms stabilise after £5 billion sell off Interactive Investor, Ceri Jones (20/3/14)

Budget publications
Budget 2014: pensions and saving policies Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: documents HM Treasury (March 2014)
Freedom and choice in pensions HM Treasury (March 2014)

Questions

  1. What market failures are there in the market for pensions?
  2. To what extent will the new measures help to tackle the existing market failures in the pension industry?
  3. Explain the concept of moral hazard. To what extent will the new pension arrangements create a moral hazard?
  4. Who will be the losers from the new arrangements?
  5. Assume that you have a choice of how much to pay into a pension scheme. What is likely to determine how much you will choose to pay?
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Capping interest rates on payday loans: a government U-turn?

In an apparent U-turn, the Chancellor, George Osborne, has decided to cap the interest rates and other charges on payday loans and other short-term credit. As we have seen in previous news items, the sky-high interest rates which some of the poorest people in the UK are being forced to pay on these loans have caused outrage in many quarters: see A payday enquiry and Kostas Economides and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, the payday loan industry has been referred by the OFT to the Competition Commission (CC). The CC is required to report by 26 June 2015, although it will aim to complete the investigation in a shorter period.

It was becoming increasingly clear, however, that the government would not wait until the CC reports. It has been under intense pressure to take action. But the announcement on 25 November 2013 that the government would cap the costs of payday loans took many people by surprise. In fact, the new body, the Financial Conduct Authority, which is due to start regulating the industry in April 2014, only a month ago said that capping was very intrusive, arguing that it could make it harder for many people to borrow and push them into the hands of loan sharks. According to paragraph 6.71 of its consultation paper, Detailed proposals for the FCA regime for consumer credit:

The benefits of a total cost of credit cap has been looked at by the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol. This report highlighted that 17 EU member states have some form of price restriction. Their research was ambiguous, on the one hand suggesting possible improved lending criteria and risk assessments. On the other, prices may drift towards a cap, which could lead to prices increasing or lead to a significant reduction in lenders exercising forbearance. Neither of these latter outcomes would be beneficial for consumers. Clearly this is a very intrusive proposition and to ensure we fully understand the implications we have committed to undertake further research once we begin regulating credit firms and therefore have access to regulatory data.

The government announcement has raised questions of how imperfections in markets should be dealt with. Many on the centre right argue that price controls should not be used as they can further distort the market. Indeed, the Chancellor has criticised the Labour Party’s proposal to freeze gas and electricity prices for 20 months if it wins the next election, arguing that the energy companies will simply get around the freeze by substantially raising their prices before and after the 20 months.

Instead, those on the centre right argue that intervention should aim to make markets more competitive. In other words, you should attempt not to replace markets, but to make them work better.

So what is the reasoning of the government in capping payday loan charges? Does it feel that, in this case, there is no other way? Or is the reasoning political? Does it feel that this is the most electorally advantageous way of answering the critics of the payday loan industry?

Webcasts and podcasts
Payday Loans To Be Capped By Government Sky News (25/11/13)
New law to cap cost of payday loans BBC News, Robert Hall (25/11/13)
Osborne: ‘Overall cost’ of payday loans to be capped BBC Today Programme (25/11/13)
George Osborne announces cap on payday loan charges amid concerns ITV News (25/11/13)

Articles
UK to cap payday lenders’ interest charges Reuters, Steve Slater, Paul Sandle, Kate Holton and William James (25/11/13)
Capping payday loans: from light touch to strong arm Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (25/11/13)
Payday loans: New law to cap costs BBC News (25/11/13)
Payday loan ‘risk to mortgage applications’ BBC News (26/11/13)
Q&A: Payday loans BBC News (25/11/13)
George Osborne is playing social democratic catch-up on payday loans The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/11/13_
Payday loans cap: George Osborne caves in following intervention led by Archbishop of Canterbury Independent, Oliver Wright (25/11/13)
The principle, the practice and the politics of fixing payday loan prices: why? And why now? Conservative Home, Mark Wallace (25/11/13)
George Osborne and the risky politics of chutzpah New Statesman, Rafael Behr (26/11/13)
Chancellor too quick off the mark on payday lending cap The Telegraph, James Quinn (25/11/13)
Crap and courage of convictions: the political problem with Osborne’s payday loan plan Spectator, Isabel Hardman (26/11/13)

Payday loan calculator
Payday loan calculator: how monthly interest can spiral BBC Consumer (7/11/13)

Questions

  1. What types of market failing exist in the payday loan industry?
  2. What types of controls of the industry are being proposed by George Osborne?
  3. What is the experience of Australia in introducing such controls?
  4. What alternative forms of intervention could be used to tackle the market imperfections in the industry?
  5. What were the proposals of the FCA? (See paragraph 6.6 in its document, Detailed proposals for the FCA regime for consumer credit.)
  6. According to a representative example on Wonga’s website, a loan of £150 for 18 days would result in charges of £33.49 (interest of £27.99 and a fee of £5.50). This would equate to an annual APR of 5853%. Explain how this APR is calculated.
  7. The proposal is to allow a relatively large upfront fee and to cap interest rates at a relatively low level, such as 4% per month, as is the case in Australia. Explain the following comment about this in the Faisal Islam article above: “The upfront fee, in theory, should change the behavioural finance of consumers around taking the loan in the first place (there are ways around this though). So this is an intervention based not on lack of competition, but asymmetries of information in consumer finance.”
  8. Comment on the following statement by Mark Wallace in the Conservative Home article above: “If overpriced payday loans should be capped, why not overpriced DVDs, sandwiches or, er, energy bills?”
  9. Compare the relative advantages and disadvantages of George Osborne’s proposal with that of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury (see the news item, Kostas Economides and the Archbishop of Canterbury).
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Small is beautiful – a story of local currencies (update)

Original post
As a resident of Bristol it is with considerable interest that I’m following the development of the Bristol pound, due for launch in September 2012. One Bristol pound will be worth one pound sterling.

The new currency will be issued in denominations of £1, £5, £10 and £20 and there is a local competition to design the notes. Participating local traders will open accounts with Bristol Credit Union, which will administer the scheme. It has FSA backing and so all deposits will be guaranteed up to £85,000.

The idea of a local currency is not new. There are already local currencies in Stroud in Gloucestershire, Totnes in Devon, Lewes in East Sussex and Brixton in south London. The Bristol scheme, however, is the first to be introduced on a city-wide scale. The administrators are keen that use of the currency should be as easy as possible; people will be able to open accounts with Bristol Credit Union, pay bills online and pay shopkeepers by mobile phone text message (a system used in many countries, but not in the UK).

As the money has to be spent locally, the aim is to help local business, of which more han 100 have already signed up to the scheme. Bristol has a large number of independent traders – in fact, the road where I live is off the Gloucester Road, which has the largest number of independent traders on one street in the UK. The organisers of the Bristol pound are determined to preserve the diversity of shops and prevent Bristol from becoming a ‘clone town’, with high streets full of chain stores.

But how likely is the scheme to encourage people to shop in independent shops and deal with local traders? Will the scheme take off, or will it fizzle out? What are its downsides?

Update
The Bristol pound was duly launched on September 19 and there has been much local interest. The later videos and articles below look at reactions to the new currency and at its chances of success in driving local business.

Videos and webcasts
The town printing its own currency [Stroud] BBC News, Tim Muffett (22/3/10)
Brixton launches its own currency BBC News (17/9/09)
Local currency BBC Politics Show (30/3/09)
Local currency for Lewes BBC News, Rob Pittam (13/5/08)
The Totnes Pound transitionculture.org on YouTube, Clive Ardagh (21/1/09)
Local Currencies – Replacing Scarcity with Trust Peak Moment on YouTube, Francis Ayley (8/2/07)

Videos and webcasts: update
Bristol Pound Launches ITV News, West, Tanya Mercer (19/9/12)
Can Bristol Pound boost local trade? BBC News, West, Jon Kay (19/9/12)
The Bristol Pound BristolPound on YouTube, Chris Sunderland (11/6/12)
Bristol Pound feature on BBC1 Inside Out BBC One in the West on YouTube, Dave Harvey (30/6/12)
Bristol Pound launched to keep trade in the city BBC News, Dave Harvey (19/9/12)
Bristol pound launched to boost local businesses BBC Radio 5 Live, Ciaran Mundy (19/9/12)

Articles
The Bristol Pound set to become a flagship for local enterprise The Random Fact, Thomas Foss (7/2/12)
What is the point of local currency? The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (7/2/12)
The Bristol pound: will it save the (local) economy? Management Today, Emma Haslett (6/2/12)
‘Bristol Pound’ currency to boost independent traders BBC News Bristol, Dave Harvey (6/2/12)
We don’t want to be part of ‘clone town Britain’: City launches its own currency to keep money local Mail Online, Tom Kelly (6/2/12)
British Town Prepares To Launch Its Own Currency — Here’s How That’s Going To End Business Insider, Macro Man (7/2/12)
They don’t just shop local in Totnes – they have their very own currency Independent, Rob Sharp (1/5/08)

Articles: update
Bristol banks on alternative pound to safeguard independent retailers Guardian, Steven Morris (21/9/12)
Bristol launches city’s local currency The Telegraph, Rachel Cooper (19/9/12)
The Bristol Pound is launched to help independent retailers Independent, Rob Hastings (20/9/12)
Banknotes, local currencies and central bank objectives Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin (Q4/2013)

Bristol Pound official site
Bristol Pound: Our City, Our Money Bristol Pound

Questions

  1. What are the advantages of having a local currency?
  2. What are the dangers in operating a local currency?
  3. What steps can be taken to avoid the dangers?
  4. Can Bristol pounds be ‘created’ by Bristol Credit Union? Could the process be inflationary?
  5. What market failures are there in the pattern of shops in towns and cities? To what extent is the growth of supermarkets in towns and the growth of out-of-town shopping malls a result of market failures or simply of consumer preferences?
  6. Are local currencies only for idealists?
  7. What benefits are there for shoppers in Bristol of using Bristol pounds?
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Abuse of power

EDF, one of the big six energy retailers in the UK, has agreed to pay out a record £4.5m. £1m of this will go to funding an energy advice centre; the rest will go to providing £50 each to 70,000 ‘vulnerable customers’ who struggle to pay their bills and who receive the government’s warm home discount.

The agreement was made with Ofgem after an investigation into mis-selling, both on the doorstep and over the phone. Customers were persuaded to switch energy suppliers with the promise of savings on their bills. As the FT articles states:

Ofgem found that EDF’s sales force did not always provide complete information to customers on some contract terms, or on the way in which their monthly direct debits had been calculated. In some cases, telesales agents claimed savings without knowing whether they were accurate for the specific customer on the call, the regulator said.

Ofgem did not accuse the company of directly sanctioning such practices, but rather of weak monitoring and control of its sales force’s actions.

The £4.5m payment is in lieu of a fine. Consumer groups have welcomed this, preferring the company to pay compensation to a fine, which would have simply increased Treasury funding.

It is the first settlement in a broader investigation into mis-selling, involving four of the six major suppliers.

Articles
EDF to pay out £4.5m in mis-selling case Financial Times, Guy Chazan and Hannah Kuchler (9/3/12)
EDF agrees to pay £4.5m misleading sales ‘fine’ Guardian, Lisa Bachelor (9/3/12)
Is it a fine? Is it a penalty? No, it’s EDF’s mystery Ofgem payment Management Today, Rebecca Burn-Callander (9/3/12)
‘Misleading claims’ cost EDF a £4.5m payout from watchdog , Independent, Tom Bawden (10/3/12)
EDF Energy agrees to pay a £4.5m ‘fine’ BBC News (9/3/12)
EDF Energy agrees to pay a £4.5m ‘fine’ BBC News, John Moylan (9/3/12)
More energy payouts could follow EDF’s £4.5m The Telegraph, Kara Gammell (9/3/12)

Ofgem ruling
EDF energy agrees to invest £4.5 million to help vulnerable customers following Ofgem investigation Ofgem

Questions

  1. What types of market failure are present in the energy supply industry?
  2. What are the arguments for and against fines being paid directly to victims of crime rather than to the government?
  3. In what ways could the energy industry be made more competitive?
  4. Why do the utilities, such as gas, electricity and water, require their own regulator rather than simply being subject to competition law?
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Small is beautiful – a story of local currencies

As a resident of Bristol it is with considerable interest that I’m following the development of the Bristol pound, due for launch in September 2012. One Bristol pound will be worth one pound sterling.

The new currency will be issued in demoninations of £1, £5, £10 and £20 and there is a local competition to design the notes. Participating local traders will open accounts with Bristol Credit Union, which will administer the scheme. It has FSA backing and so all deposits will be guaranteed up to £85,000.

The idea of a local currency is not new. There are already local currencies in Stroud in Gloucestershire, Totnes in Devon, Lewes in East Sussex and Brixton in south London. The Bristol scheme, however, is the first to be introduced on a city-wide scale. The administrators are keen that use of the currency should be as easy as possible; people will be able to open accounts with Bristol Credit Union, pay bills online or by mobile phone.

As the money has to be spent locally, the aim is to help local business, of which more han 100 have already signed up to the scheme. Bristol has a large number of independent traders – in fact, the road where I live is off the Gloucester Road, which has the largest number of independent traders on one street in the UK. The organisers of the Bristol pound are determined to preserve the diversity of shops and prevent Bristol from becoming a ‘clone town’, with high streets full of chain stores.

But how likely is the scheme to encourage people to shop in independent shops and deal with local traders? Will the scheme take off, or will it fizzle out? What are its downsides? The following articles consider these issues.

Articles
The Bristol Pound set to become a flagship for local enterprise The Random Fact, Thomas Foss (7/2/12)
What is the point of local currency? The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (7/2/12)
The Bristol pound: will it save the (local) economy? Management Today, Emma Haslett (6/2/12)
‘Bristol Pound’ currency to boost independent traders BBC News Bristol, Dave Harvey (6/2/12)
We don’t want to be part of ‘clone town Britain’: City launches its own currency to keep money local Mail Online, Tom Kelly (6/2/12)
British Town Prepares To Launch Its Own Currency — Here’s How That’s Going To End Business Insider, Macro Man (7/2/12)
They don’t just shop local in Totnes – they have their very own currency Independent, Rob Sharp (1/5/08)

Videos and webcasts
The town printing its own currency [Stroud] BBC News, Tim Muffett (22/3/10)
Brixton launches its own currency BBC News (17/9/09)
Local currency BBC Politics Show (30/3/09)
Local currency for Lewes BBC News, Rob Pittam (13/5/08)
The Totnes Pound transitionculture.org on YouTube, Clive Ardagh (21/1/09)
Local Currencies – Replacing Scarcity with Trust Peak Moment on YouTube, Francis Ayley (8/2/07)

Questions

  1. What are the advantages of having a local currency?
  2. What are the dangers in operating a local currency?
  3. What steps can be taken to avoid the dangers?
  4. Can Bristol pounds be ‘created’ by Bristol Credit Union? Could the process be inflationary?
  5. What market failures are there in the pattern of shops in towns and cities? To what extent is the growth of supermarkets in towns and the growth of out-of-town shopping malls a result of market failures or simply of consumer preferences?
  6. Are local currencies only for idealists?
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Reining in executive pay

There is a growing consensus amongst the political parties in the UK that something needs to be done to end the huge pay rises of senior executives. According to the High Pay Commission, directors of FTSE 100 companies saw their remuneration packages rise by 49% in 2010. Average private-sector employees’ pay, by contrast, rose by a mere 2.7% (below the CPI rate of inflation for 2010 of 3.3% and well below the RPI inflation rate of 4.6%), with many people’s wages remaining frozen, especially in the public sector. (See Directing directors’ pay.) In 1979 the top 0.1% took home 1.3% of GDP; today the figure is 7%.

But agreeing that something needs to be done, does not mean that the parties agree on what to do. The Prime Minister, reflecting the views of Conservative ministers, has called for binding shareholder votes on top executives’ pay. The Liberal Democrats go further and are urging remuneration committees to be opened up to independent figures who would guard against the cosy arrangement whereby company heads set each other’s pay. The Labour Party is calling for worker representation on remuneration committees, simplifying remuneration packages into salary and just one performance-related element, and publishing tables of how much more bosses earn than various other groups of employees in the company.

So what measures are likely to be the most successful in reining in executive pay and what are the drawbacks of each measure? The following articles consider the problem and the proposals.

Articles
Parties draw up battle lines over excessive executive pay Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt (9/1/12)
David Cameron’s plans for executive pay may not end spiralling bonuses Guardian, Jill Treanor (8/1/12)
Executive pay: what would Margaret Thatcher have done? Guardian Politics Blog, Michael White (9/1/12)
Businesses tell the PM he’s wrong about ‘fat cat’ pay Independent, Nigel Morris (9/1/12)
Directors’ pay is not the Government’s business The Telegraph, Telegraph View (9/1/12)
I’ll end merry go round of bosses’ pay, says David Cameron Scotsman (9/1/12)
Find a place at the table for public interest directors Scotsman, leader (9/1/12)
Cameron vows executive pay crackdown Financial Times, George Parker (9/1/12)
Q&A: Voting on executive pay BBC News (8/1/12)
Will shareholders crack down on executive pay? BBC News, Robert Peston (8/1/12)
Why didn’t investors stop high executive pay? BBC News, Robert Peston (9/1/12)

Report
Cheques With Balances: why tackling high pay is in the national interest Final report of the High Pay Commission (22/11/11)

Questions

  1. Why has the remuneration of top executives risen so much faster than average pay?
  2. What market failures are there in the determination of executive pay?
  3. What insights can the theory of oligopoly give into the determination of executive pay?
  4. Compare the proposals of the three main parties in the UK for tackling excessive executive pay?
  5. To what extent is it in the interests of shareholders to curb executive pay?
  6. Why may it be difficult to measure the marginal productivity of senior executives?
  7. To what extent would greater transparency about pay awards help to curb their size?
  8. What moral hazards are involved in giving large increases in remuneration to senior executives?
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Putting the wind up small energy businesses

You might think that small environmentally-friendly companies would be moving into the green energy market: that setting up a wind farm, for example, would be a perfect business opportunity for a small company. In fact, the big companies are taking over this market. As the Der Spiegel article below states:

Europe’s wind energy sector is currently experiencing a major transformation. New massive offshore wind parks are soon expected to crop up off Europe’s coastline. Big companies like Siemens and General Electrics are increasing their stakes in a market worth billions. But experts warn that a new energy oligopoly may soon emerge.

So what is it about the wind energy market that makes it suitable for an oligopoly to develop? The two articles explore this question.

Winds of Change Der Spiegel, Nils-Viktor Sorge (1/11/10)
GE and Siemens Outpacing Wind Pioneers, Becoming Clean Energy’s “New Oligopoly” Fast Company, David Zax (2/11/10)

Questions

  1. What market failures are there in the wind energy market?
  2. What barriers to entry are there in the wind energy market?
  3. What economies of scale are there in this market?
  4. How are changes in this market affecting the minimum efficient scale of companies?
  5. Would there be room in the market for enough competitors to prevent collusion?
  6. How might the authorities prevent (a) open and (b) tacit collusion in the wind energy market?
  7. Do small wind energy companies have any market advantages?
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Higher education and the market

Student fees are set to rise to between £6000 and £9000 per year from 2012 (see Will students be Browned off?. But I’m sure you know that already! Not surprisingly, there has been considerable debate about the effects on student debt and whether potential students will be put off from applying to university. But there is another issue, explored in the article below. This is the question of the ‘marketisation’ of higher education.

With the exception of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) universities will no longer receive any teaching subsidy from the government. Teaching will have to be funded from student fees. This means that provision will depend on supply and demand. If there is a high demand for certain courses, then the courses will be financially viable for universities. If not, they will have to close (unless the university chooses to cross-subsidise them from other profitable courses).

This might be fine if the market for university places were perfectly competitive and if questions of inequality of access were fully taken into account. But the higher education market is not perfect. The article looks at some of these imperfections and why, therefore, a pure market system will fail to achieve the optimum allocation of university places.

Browne’s Gamble London Review of Books, Stefan Collini (4/11/10)

Questions

  1. What information failures are there in the market for higher education places?
  2. What externalities are involved in higher education and will this lead to an over or underprovision of higher education in a pure market system?
  3. Apart from externalities and information asymmetries, what other market failures apply to the market for student places in HE?
  4. What are the arguments for subsidising non-STEM subjects (as well as STEM ones)? Should these subsidies vary from course to course and from university to university?
  5. What is the best way of tackling the problem of unequal access to higher education?
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