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Posts Tagged ‘Opportunity cost’

What do trade deals involve?

In the light of the Brexit vote and the government’s position that the UK will leave the single market and customs union, there has been much discussion of the need for the UK to achieve trade deals. Indeed, a UK-US trade deal was one of the key issues on Theresa May’s agenda when she met Donald Trump just a week after his inauguration.

But what forms can a trade deal take? What does achieving one entail? What are likely to be the various effects on different industries – who will be the winners and losers? And what role does comparative advantage play? The articles below examine these questions.

Given that up until Brexit, the UK already has free trade with the rest of the EU, there is a lot to lose if barriers are erected when the UK leaves. In the meantime, it is vital to start negotiating new trade deals, a process that can be extremely difficult and time-consuming.

A far as new trade arrangements with the EU are concerned, these cannot be agreed until after the UK leaves the EU, in approximately two years’ time, although the government is keen that preliminary discussions take place as soon as Article 50 is triggered, which the government plans to do by the end of March.

Articles
Trade deals are difficult to negotiate and Britain lacks the skills for the job The Conversation, Nigel Driffield (27/1/17)
Why a U.S.-U.K. Trade Deal Could be Harder than it Sounds Newsweek, Josh Lowe (26/1/17)
UK-US trade deal will have ‘very small upsides’ for Britain, says former Bank of England economist Independent, Rob Merrick (26/1/17)
Trump says he wants a U.K. trade deal. Don’t hold your breath CNN Money, Alanna Petroff (23/1/16)
Reality Check: Can there be a quick UK-USA trade deal? BBC News, Jonty Bloom (16/1/17)

Questions

  1. What elements would be included in a UK-US trade deal?
  2. Explain the gains from trade that can result from exploiting comparative advantage.
  3. Explain the statement in the article that allowing trade to be determined by comparative advantage is ‘often politically unacceptable, as governments generally look to protect jobs and tax revenues, as well as to protect activities that fund innovation’.
  4. Why is it difficult to work out in advance the likely effects on trade of a trade deal?
  5. What would be the benefits and costs to the UK of allowing all countries’ imports into the UK tariff free?
  6. What are meant by ‘trade creation’ and ‘trade diversion’? What determines the extent to which a trade deal will result in trade creation or trade diversion?
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Trump and trade

President-elect Donald Trump has blamed free trade for much of America’s economic problems. He argues that cheap imports from China, partly from an undervalued yuan, have led to a loss of jobs and to large-scale income flows from the USA to China. “They have taken our jobs; they have taken our money; and on top of that they have loaned the money to us and we actually pay them interest now on money,” he claimed to The Economist.

And it’s not just trade with China that he criticises. He sees cheap imports from developing countries generally as undermining US jobs. The solution he advocates is the imposition of tariffs on imports that threaten US jobs and scrapping, or fundamentally renegotiating, trade deals.

He refers to NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico – as the worst trade deal in US history and blames it for the loss of thousands of US manufacturing jobs. He has said that he will demand better terms from Mexico and Canada. If they don’t agree to them, he’d pull the USA out of NAFTA altogether.

A more recent trade agreement is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 other Pacific rim countries (but not including China). The agreement was signed on 4 February 2016, but is awaiting ratification from member countries. Amongst other things, the agreement cuts over 18,000 tariffs. Donald Trump has said that he would block the deal, even though it would lead to the elimination of tariffs on most US manufactured and agricultural products exported to the other countries. He argues that it would lead to a large-scale loss of US jobs from cheap imports.

Another major trade deal criticised by Trump is that being negotiated between the USA and the EU – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). It has already faced fierce opposition in Europe, with many fearing that it would give too much power to US corporations in their operations in Europe. With the opposition from Trump, it looks unlikely that the agreement will be signed, even in an amended form.

So is this more protectionist stance by Donald Trump in America’s interests? The main argument against restricting imports is that people generally in the USA would be poorer. This is the prediction from the law of comparative advantage. Trade allows a country to consume beyond its production possibility curve by specialising in the production of goods with relatively low opportunity costs and importing goods which would have had a higher opportunity cost if they were produced domestically (see, for example, Economics, 9th edition, pages 711–4). By imposing tariffs or other restrictions on cheap imports, consumers would end up paying more for such goods if they now have to be produced domestically. Cheap Chinese t-shirts would be replaced by expensive US ones. Real US incomes would be lower.

Another danger of pursuing protectionist policies is that other countries might retaliate. Trade wars might result, with the world ending up poorer.

Then there is a problem of locating products. It is not a simple question of saying a product is made in the USA or elsewhere. With complex modern supply chains, many products use components and services, such as design and logistics, from many different countries. Imposing restrictions on imports may lead to damage to products which are seen as US products.

An open trade policy, by contrast, not only leads to higher consumption, it stimulates economic growth and the extra competition it creates improves domestic productivity. As the pro-free trade article by Graeme Leach, linked below, argues:

There is overwhelming evidence that free trade improves economic performance by increasing competition in the domestic market. Trade disciplines domestic firms with market power, and simultaneously promotes productivity growth. Research also shows that a 10 per cent increase in trade leads to a 5 per cent increase in per capita income. More open trade policies are associated with higher per capita incomes.

And as the article by Clark Packard argues:

There is no question that America’s middle and lower classes have benefited from our trade liberalization. Through the widely accepted principle of comparative advantage in our trade policies, productivity has surged and prices have declined. Lower prices save the average American family thousands of dollars a year on goods they consume, raising the standard of living through enhanced purchasing power.

Despite these arguments, there is one crucial problem with free trade. Although overall levels of consumption may be higher, trade may make some people poorer. If workers in the US steel or garment industries lose their jobs because of cheap imports, they will certainly feel worse off, especially if there is no prospect of them getting another job elsewhere. They may lack transferable skills or have too many family or personal ties to move elsewhere in the country.

The government could help to ameliorate the problems of those made unemployed by providing retraining or resettlement grants or by investing in infrastructure projects that require relatively low skilled, but local, construction workers. But, as the Forbes article states:

It is in helping displaced workers of all types that US government, as well as the leaders of other rich countries, have largely failed. Little has been done to assist laid-off workers whose industries simply cannot compete in developed countries anymore.

What is more, inequality has been growing in the USA, and in most other developed countries too. International trade and investment and the growing concentration of power in large corporations has meant that most of the gains from trade have gone to the richest people. Many of the poor blame trade for their plight and the argument that they have still made some gains is either not believed or is not enough to appease them.

An interesting insight into why people may have voted for Trump and his policy of protectionism is provided by the Ultimatum Game (see also). As the final article below explains:

The game itself involves two players. The first player receives a sum of money, and gets to propose how to divide it between the two players. The second player can do only one thing: accept or reject the proposal. If the second player accepts, then the money is divided between the two players as proposed. But if the second player rejects the proposal, then neither player gets anything.

It might seem that the rational thing for the second person to do is to accept whatever the first person proposes, however little it gives to the second person providing it is something – after all, even a little is better than nothing. But experiments show that people playing the second person do not behave in that way. They seek a fair distribution. If the proposed distribution is perceived as unfair, they would prefer to reject the proposal, with both players getting nothing.

This may help to explain the psychology of poor blue-collar workers. They would rather punish the rich a lot, and possibly themselves a little, than let the rich continue getting richer while they are stuck on low wages with little prospect for improvement. But, of course, they may also believe Trump’s rhetoric that they will indeed be better off from protectionist policies that help save their jobs.

What precisely Donald Trump will do about trade agreements and protection, we will have to wait and see. Often what is pledged in an election campaign is not carried out in office or is substantially watered down.

Articles
How Donald Trump thinks about trade The Economist (9/11/16)
What President Trump’s victory means for the most important trade deal in the world Independent, James Moore (9/11/16)
Trump and trade: A radical agenda? BBC News, Ben Morris (9/11/16)
Trump could change trade stance, says former Bush adviser BBC News, Tom Espiner (11/11/16)
3 Ways President-Elect Trump May Shake Up Trade Policy NPR, Marilyn Geewax (9/11/16)
Donald Trump Win to Upend Trade Policy Nasdaq, William Mauldin and John Lyons (9/11/16)
Stiglitz Grades Donald Trump an F on Economics Bloomberg, Enda Curran and Angie Lau (19/9/16)
Trump can kill trade deals but he can’t kill globalisation The Conversation, Remy Davison (10/11/16)
Anti-free trader Donald Trump is on a collision course with economic reality City A.M., Graeme Leach (9/11/16)
What Trump And Clinton Both Get Wrong On Trade Forbes, Simon Constable (4/11/16)
The Rabble Understands Trade Pretty Well Huffington Post, Brad Miller (4/11/16)
Contrary to Donald Trump’s claims, free trade benefits the poorest Americans U.S.News, Clark Packard (27/10/16)
The Meaning of Open Trade and Open Borders The New Yorker, Bernard Avishai (17/10/16)
We just saw what voters do when they feel screwed. Here’s the economic theory of why they do it. Quartz, James Allworth (9/11/16)

Questions

  1. Use a simple two-product production possibility diagram to demonstrate the possible consumption gains to a country from trading with another country and specialising in exporting the good in which it has a comparative advantage.
  2. Search Donald Trump’s speeches to identify statements he has made about the trade policies he will pursue as president.
  3. Explain why some people may gain more from free trade than others. Why do the people who have gained the most tend to be the richest people?
  4. What are the arguments for and against the free movement of labour (a) within countries; (b) between countries?
  5. Compare the relative benefits and costs of tariffs and various forms of administrative constraints on trade.
  6. If the second player in the ultimatum game rejects an ‘unfair’ offer, should this behaviour be described as ‘irrational? Explain.
  7. Find out the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. In what ways, other than through increased trade, would the agreement benefit the residents of the member countries?
  8. Does free trade threaten employment in the long term? Explain.
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Trade wars looming

According to the law of comparative advantage, trade can benefit all countries if they export goods which they can produce at lower opportunity costs than their trading partners. Trade enables all countries to consume beyond their production possibility frontier. What is more, trade can increase competition, which encourages firms to be more efficient.

That trade is beneficial has been generally accepted by governments around the world since the Second World War, with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and then the World Trade Organization (WTO) advocating the dismantling of trade barriers. Countries have participated in a series of trade ’rounds’, such as the Uruguay Round (1986–94) and most recently the Doha Round (2001–15). But since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been waning enthusiasm for freer trade and growing calls to protect strategic and/or vulnerable industries. To some extent this mirrors the growth in protection after the Great Depression of the early 1930s as countries sought to boost their own industries.

After some progress in the Doha round talks in Nairobi in December 2015, the talks effectively marked the end of a fourteen-year road for the round (see also). There was a failure to agree on a number of items and chances of resurrecting the talks seem slim.

The classic response to calls for protection is that it can lead to a trade war, with a net loss in global output as less efficient domestic industries are shielded from competition from lower-cost imports. Consumers lose from no longer having access to cheaper imported goods. Trade wars, it is argued, are a negative sum game. Any gains to one country are more than offset by losses elsewhere. In fact, it is likely that all countries will lose.

One argument for protection recognises the efficiency gains from free trade, but argues that current trade is distorted. For example, countries may subsidise the export of products in which they have a comparative disadvantage and dump them on the rest of the world. The WTO recognises this as a legitimate argument for tariffs, if they are used to offset the effect of the subsidies and make import prices more reflective of the cost of production.

But increasingly arguments go beyond this. Industries that are regarded as strategic to a country’s future, such as the steel industry or agriculture, are seen as warranting protection. With protection, investment may flow to such industries, making them more efficient and even gaining a comparative advantage at some point in the future.

Then there is the question of income distribution. Trade with poor countries may help to close the gap somewhat between rich and poor countries. The reason is that poor countries, with an abundance of labour, are likely to have a comparative advantage in labour-intensive products. The demand for exports of such products will help to drive up wages in such countries. However, income distribution within the rich countries may become less equal. Cheap imports from developing countries may depress the wages of unskilled or low-skilled workers in the rich countries.

Another argument concerns the devastation caused to communities by the closure of plants which are major employers. Workers made redundant may find it hard to find alternative employment, especially if their skills are specific to the plant that has closed. At least in the short term, it is argued that such industries warrant protection to allow time for alternative employers to be attracted into the area.

Arguments such as these are being used today in many countries as they struggle with slowing growth in China, a glut of global resources and overcapacity in certain industries.

The steel industry is a case in point. The announcement by Tata Steel that it intends to close the Port Talbot steel works has been met with consternation and calls for protection against subsidised Chinese steel imports. The USA already imposes tariffs of 256% on corrosion-resistant Chinese steel. The EU has proposed raising tariffs on Chinese steel to the full amount of the subsidy, but the UK has blocked this, not wishing to trigger a trade war with China. In the meantime, China has announced the imposition of a tariff of 46% on a particular type of hi-tech steel imported from the EU.

On the other side of the Atlantic, there have been growing protectionist calls from presidential front runners. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on the Republican side, and Bernie Sanders and now Hilary Clinton on the Democratic side, are opposed to the trade agreement that President Obama has been seeking with the EU – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Donald Trump has proposed imposing tariffs of 45% on all Chinese imports.

The following articles look at the growing calls for protection, especially against China, and at the arguments about what should be done to protect the UK and EU steel industry.

Articles
Defiant China slaps steel tariffs on Britain as trade war looms The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (1/4/16)
China’s soaring steel exports may presage a trade war, The Economist (9/12/15)
Trade, at what price? The Economist (30/3/16)
Free trade in America: Open argument The Economist (2/4/16)
Can the British steel industry be saved? Financial Times (2/4/16)
Steel crisis: UK government plays down China tariff fears BBC News (2/4/16)
The dogmas destroying UK steel also inhibit future economic growth The Observer, WIll Hutton (3/4/16)
UK accused of leading efforts to block limits to Chinese steel dumping The Guardian, Frances Perraudin (1/4/16)
There’s always an excuse to justify suspending free trade – Tata is the latest The Telegraph, Allister Heath (1/4/16)
Can one of the world’s top economies live without making steel? Bloomberg, Thomas Biesheuvel (1/4/16)
Trade policy is no longer just for political nerds: it matters in the UK and US The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/3/16)
Steel shrivels while Britain’s balance of payments crisis grows The Observer, WIlliam Keegan (3/4/16)
Trump’s tariff plan could boomerang, spark trade wars with China, Mexico Reuters, David Lawder and Roberta Rampton (24/3/16)
Analysis: A Trump trade war could cost the U.S. millions of jobs Daily Herald (Chicago), Jim Tankersley (3/4/16)

Questions

  1. What is meant by the ‘law of comparative advantage’? Does the law imply that countries will always gain from totally free trade?
  2. Demonstrate the gains for each of two countries which choose to trade with each other (see, for example, pages 711–3 in Economics, 9th edition).
  3. What is meant by ‘strategic trade theory’? How would such theory relate to the case of steel production in south Wales?
  4. What are the arguments for and against the EU imposing tariffs on Chinese steel imports equal to the subsidy given by the Chinese government?
  5. Is protectionism always a negative sum game? Explain.
  6. Assess the validity of various arguments for protection.
  7. Why did it prove impossible to complete the Doha round?
  8. What is meant by the ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)’? Why is there so much opposition to it?
  9. Are bilateral trade deals, such as the TTIP, the best way of moving forward in reaping the gains from freer trade?
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When a piggy bank pays a better rate

As we saw in the blog post Down down deeper and down, or a new Status Quo?, for many countries there is now a negative rate of interest on bank deposits in the central bank. In other words, banks are being charged to keep liquidity in central banks. Indeed, in some countries the central bank even provides liquidity to banks at negative rates. In other words, banks are paid to borrow!

But, by definition, holding cash (in a safe or under the mattress) pays a zero interest rate. So why would people save in a bank at negative interest rates if they could get a zero rate simply by holding cash? And why would banks not borrow money from the central bank, if borrowing rates are negative, hold it as cash and earn the interest from the central bank?

These questions are addressed in the article below from The Economist. It argues that to swap reserves for cash is costly to banks and that this cost is likely to exceed the interest they have to pay. In other words, there is not a zero bound to central bank interest rates, either for deposits or for the provision of liquidity; and this reflects rational behaviour.

But does the same apply to individuals? Would it not be rational for banks to charge customers to deposit money (a negative interest rate)? Indeed, there is already a form of negative interest rate on many current accounts; i.e. the monthly or annual charge to keep the account open. But would it also make sense for banks to offer negative interest rates on loans? In other words, would it ever make sense for banks to pay people to borrow?

Read the folowing article and then try answering the questions.

Article
Bankers v mattresses The Economist (28/11.15)

Central bank repo rates/base rates
Central banks – summary of current interest rates global-rates.com
Worldwide Central Bank Rates CentralBankRates

Questions

  1. What is a central bank’s ‘repo rate’. Is it the same as (a) its overnight lending rate; (b) its discount rate?
  2. Why are the Swedish and Swiss central banks charging negative interest rates when lending money to banks?
  3. What effect are such negative rates likely to have on (a) banks’ cash holdings; (b) banks’ lending to customers?
  4. Why are many central banks (including the ECB) charging banks to deposit money with them? Why do banks continue to make such deposits when interest rates are negative?
  5. Would banks ever lend to customers at negative rates of interest? Explain why or why not.
  6. Would banks ever offer negative rates of interest on savings accounts? Explain why or why not.
  7. How do expectations about exchange rate movements affect banks willingness to hold deposits with the central bank?
  8. What are the arguments for and against abolishing cash altogether?
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The profitability of teams in the English Premier League

Deloitte recently published its 24th Annual Review of Football Finance and it contained some surprising results. Historically, most teams in the English Premier League (EPL) have made accounting losses with any increases in revenues being offset by higher wage costs. However, this report found that in 2013–14 most teams in the EPL actually made accounting profits.

The Deloitte’s review reported that the combined operating profits of clubs in the EPL increased from £82 million in 2012–13 to £614 million on 2013–14 – an enormous increase of 649%. Nearly all of the teams (19 out of 20) in the league made an operating profit while 14 also reported pre-tax profits. Dan Jones, head of Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, commented that:

“The change in club profitability in 2013–14 was more profound than anything we could have forecast.”

Why has the profitability of teams in the EPL suddenly improved so dramatically? One important factor was the significant increase in revenue. The combined income of the teams was £3.26 billion in 2013–14 – an increase of £735 million, or 29% on the previous year. Although match-day and commercial revenue both increased, the majority of this growth in income (nearly 80%) came from the sale of broadcast rights. The 2013–14 season was the first year of a new three-year contract that raised over £1.7 billion per year from the sale of these rights in both the UK and overseas.

However, clubs in the EPL have received big increases in revenue from TV deals before and still made substantial accounting losses. For example, the broadcasting contract that ran from 2010–13 generated over £1.1 billion per season – a £243 million per annum increase on the previous deal. Significantly, in the first year of this deal (2010–11), 81% of this increase in revenue went straight into higher player salaries, whereas in 2013–14 this figure was only 16%. The ratio of wages to turnover also fell from 71% in 2012–13 to 58% in 2013–14

So why did a smaller proportion of the increase in revenue go to the players compared with previous years? The explanation appears to be the impact of two new controls and regulations that were implemented by the EPL at the beginning of the 2013–14 season.

One of these has received considerable media attention and is similar to UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations. The Profitability and Sustainability Rules allow the clubs to make a maximum cumulative loss of £105 million over three seasons before having to face sanctions from the league. The size of the permissible loss is significantly higher than in the UEFA regulations.

The other control that has received far less attention is called Short-Term Cost Control (STCC). This regulation places limits on the extent to which clubs can increase their total wage bill. It operates from 2013–14 to 2015&ndash16: i.e. it covers the same three years as the current TV deal. For the 2013–14 season it worked in the following way.

If teams had a wage bill of less than £52 million they faced no restrictions on their spending on players’ salaries. Only Crystal Palace (£46 million) and Hull City (£43 million) fell into this category. Unsurprisingly, the five biggest spending clubs, Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, had much greater wage bills of £215m, £205m, £192m, £166m and £144m respectively.

Any of the 18 teams that exceeded the £52m limit would still not face sanctions if their wage bill increased by £4 million or less. For example, Stoke City’s wage bill only increased from £60m to £61m, while Tottenham Hotspur’s increased from £96m to £100m. Some clubs actually managed to reduce their total wage bill, including the champions, Manchester City, which managed to lower its from £233m to £215m.

However, there were still 12 teams with a total wage bill that was greater than £52 million in 2013–14 and which had increased by more than £4 million on the previous year. For these teams not to face any sanctions, they had to prove to the EPL that any of the increase above £4 million was either due to player contracts entered into before January 2013 or could by financed from the following two sources.

• Club Own Revenue Uplift
• Profit from player transfers

Whereas the profit from player transfers is straightforward, the ‘Club Own Revenue Uplift’ requires some explanation, as it excludes a very important part of teams’ incomes – Central Fund payments.

Some revenues earned by clubs in the EPL are referred to as ‘Central Fund payments’. These are, in effect, income payments from money that is raised centrally by the EPL on behalf of the clubs and then distributed to the teams using an agreed formula. The majority of the revenue generated under this category is from the broadcast deals, although some commercial income, such as the sponsorship of the league, also falls under this category. For some teams the money raised from Central Fund payments makes up the majority of their revenue.

‘Club Own Revenue’ in STCC calculations refers to all revenues other than those from Central Fund payments. This includes a number of income streams that the club has more direct control over. They include:

• Gate money/other match-day revenue
• Commercial deals negotiated by the individual club
• Income from playing in European competitions, including TV revenue.

The uplift refers to increases in revenue from these sources compared to 2012–13.

For example, assume a club has made no profit from its transfer dealing and did not enter into any significant player contracts prior to January 2013. If this club’s wage bill increased from £100m in 2012–13 to £110m in 2013–14 then it would have to provide evidence to show that £6m of this increase could be financed from growth in its Club Own Revenue. In other words, it would have to demonstrate how its income from gate money, commercial deals and playing in Europe was at least £6m higher in 2013–14 than it had been in 2012–13.

It will be interesting to see if (1) the profitability of the clubs continues to improve in future years and (2) the STCC regulations are extended when the new broadcast deal comes into effect in 2016–17.

The EPL Proves Cost Control Works The Judge 13 (4/6/15)
English Premier League clubs made more revenue than Spain and Italy’s clubs combined UK Business Insider, Lianna Brinded (4/6/15)
Premier League football club revenues and profits soar BBC News, Bill Wilson (4/6/15)
Deloitte Premier League list: Clubs’ revenue boom to £3.3billion as Tottenham record highest ever pre-tax profits after Gareth Bale transfer The Independent, Joanna Bourke (4/6/15)
Annual Review of Football Finance 2015 Premier League clubs generate over £3bn revenue in season of records Deloitte (4/6/15)
Premier League top of the rich list with record income of £3.26bn The Guardian, David Conn (4/6/15)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between an operating profit and a pre-tax profit?
  2. If a club reports that it is making an accounting profit, does this mean that it must be making an economic profit? Explain your answer.
  3. Give some examples of the economic costs of running a football club that might not be included in accounting calculations of profit.
  4. How is the profit/loss from player transfers calculated?
  5. Explain why the current rules may give teams that play in European competitions a competitive advantage.
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The labour cost

In the UK, we take it for granted that if you need to see a doctor, you go and give little, if any thought, to the cost. It may be petrol costs, time off work or the cost of a prescription, but beyond that, receiving treatment is free at the point of use. Funded through a progressive tax system, the NHS is seen as being one of the more equitable health care systems.

When a mother gives birth, the main thing she will have to worry about is the labour – and not whether to have certain painkillers or stay an extra night, because of the cost.

The International Federation of Health Plans (IFHP) looked at data on the cost of giving birth, based on insurance company payments. For someone living in the UK, the figures make for quite astonishing reading. In the USA, a normal delivery will cost $10,000, while a caesarean totals $15,000, meaning that giving birth in the USA is the most expensive place in the world. The article linked below takes the case of Mari Roberts, whose total delivery bill came to over $100,000. The insurance did cover it, but that’s not always the case. Medical bills in the United States are one of the leading reasons for bankruptcy and with these types of figures, perhaps it’s hardly surprising.

Other countries also see high costs for delivery, where expectant mothers really do need to give consideration to the length of their stay in hospital and perhaps even whether they are willing to forgo a pain-relieving drug and save some money. There is often said to be an efficiency–equity trade-off in the area of healthcare, with countries offering a free at the point of use service delivering an equitable system, but with a lack of responsiveness to the demands of the patients. In the UK, you don’t pay to see a doctor but, with a ‘free’ service, demand is understandably very high, thus creating a shortage and waiting lists. In countries, such as the USA, a higher price for treatment does limit demand, creating more inequity but a responsive system.

There are certainly lessons that can be learned from all health care systems and living in a developed country, we should certainly consider ourselves lucky. There are many countries where access to even the most basic health care is a luxury that most cannot afford. So, where does have the best health care system? I’ll leave that to you.

Video and article
How much do women around the world pay to give birth? BBC News, Mariko Oi (13/2/15)

Report
Research for Universal Health Coverage, World Health Report 2013 World Health Organisation August 2013
Health Systems Financing: The Path to Universal Coverage, World Health Report 2010 World Health Organisation August 2010

Questions

  1. Using a demand and supply diagram, explain why there may be a trade-off between efficiency and equity.
  2. If there is over-consumption of a service such as health care, does this suggest that the market fails?
  3. What are the main market failures that exist in health care?
  4. Is the concept of opportunity cost relevant to mothers in labour? Think about the country in question.
  5. How would you go about ranking health care systems if you worked for an organisation such as the OECD or WHO?
  6. Pick a country whose health care system you are familiar with. What changes have occurred to the way in which health care is organised and financed in this country? How has it affected the key objectives that formed part of your answer to question 5?
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Flooding the insurance market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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

I am an avid tennis fan and have spent many nights and in the last 10 days had many early mornings (3am), where I have been glued to the television, watching in particular Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open. Tennis is one of the biggest sports worldwide and generates huge amounts of revenue through ticket sales, clothing and other accessories, sponsorship, television rights and many other avenues. When I came across the BBC article linked below, I thought it would make an excellent blog!

There are many aspects of tennis (and of every other sport) that can be analysed from a Business and Economics stance. With the cost of living having increased faster than wages, real disposable income for many households is at an all-time low. Furthermore, we have so many choices today in terms of what we do – the entertainment industry has never been so diverse. This means that every form of entertainment, be it sport, music, cinema, books or computer games, is in competition. And then within each of these categories, there’s further competition: do you go to the football or the tennis? Do you save up for one big event and go to nothing else, or watch the big event on TV and instead go to several other smaller events? Tennis is therefore competing in a highly competitive sporting market and a wider entertainment market. The ATP Executive Chairman and President said:

We’ve all got to understand the demands on people’s discretionary income are huge, they are being pulled in loads of different avenues – entertainment options of film, music, sport – so we just need to make sure that our market share remains and hopefully grows as well.

As we know from economic analysis, product differentiation and advertising are key and tennis is currently in a particularly great era when it comes to drawing in the fans, with four global superstars.

However, tennis and all sports are about more than just bringing in the fans to the live events. Sponsorship deals are highly lucrative for players and, in this case, for the ATP and WTA tennis tours. It is lucrative sponsorship deals which create prize money worth fighting for, which help to draw in the best players and this, in turn, helps to draw in the fans and the TV companies.

With technological development, all sports are accessible by wider audiences and tennis is making the most of the fast growth in digital media. Looking at the packaging of tour events and how best to generate revenues through TV rights is a key part of strategic development for the ATP. It goes a long way to showing how even one of the world’s most successful sporting tours is always looking at ways to innovate and adapt to changing economic and social times. Tennis is certainly a sport that has exploited all the opportunities it has had and, through successful advertising, well-organised events and fantastic players, it has created a formidable product, which can compete with any other entertainment product out there. As evidence, the following fact was observed in the Telegraph article:

A 1400 megawatt spike – equivalent to 550,000 kettles being boiled – was recorded at around 9.20pm on that day [6/7/08] as Nadal lifted the trophy. The surge is seen as an indicator of millions viewing the final and then rushing to the kitchen after it is over. The national grid felt a bigger surge after the Nadal victory even than at half time during the same year’s Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea.

Tennis top guns driving ATP revenues BBC News, Bill Wilson (20/1/14)
The top 20 sporting moments of the noughties: The 2008 Wimbledon Final The Telegraph, Mark Hodgkinson (14/12/09)
The global tennis industry in numbers BBC News (22/1/14)

Questions

  1. How does tennis generate its revenue?
  2. In which market structure would you place the sport of tennis?
  3. What are the key features of the ATP tour which have allowed it to become so successful? Can other sports benefit from exploiting similar things?
  4. How has technological development created more opportunities for tennis to generate increased revenues?
  5. Can game theory be applied to tennis and, if so, in what ways?
  6. Why does sponsorship of the ATP tour play such an important role in the business of tennis?
  7. How important is (a) product differentiation and (b) advertising in sport?
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Valuing the natural environment

Economics studies the choices people make. ‘Rational choice’ involves the weighing up of costs and benefits and trying to maximise the surplus of benefits over costs. This surplus will be maximised when people do more of things where the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost and less of things where the marginal cost exceeds the marginal benefit. But, of course, measuring benefits and costs is not always easy. Nevertheless, for much of the time we do make conscious choices where we consider that choosing to do something is ‘worth it’: i.e. that the benefit to us exceeds the cost.

When we make a choice, often this involves expenditure. For example, when we choose to buy an item in a shop, we spend money on the item, and also, perhaps, spend money on transport to get us to the shop. But the full opportunity cost includes not only the money we spend, but also the best alternative activity sacrificed while we are out shopping.

Then there are the benefits. Not all pleasurable activity costs us money. The sight of beautiful contryside or the pleasure of the company of friends may cost us very little, if anything, in money terms. But they may still be very valuable to us.

If we are to make optimal decisions we need to have some estimate of all costs and benefits, not just ones involving the payment or receipt of money. This applies both to individual behaviour and to collective decisions made by governments or other agencies.

Cost–benefit analysis seeks to do this to help decisions about new projects, such as a new road, a new hospital, environmental projects, and so on. But just how do we set about putting a value on the environment – on the pleasure of a walk in bluebell woods, on protecting bird life in wetlands or sustaining ecosystems?

For the first time there has been a major study that attempts to value the environment. According to the introduction to the report:

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) is the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and the nation’s continuing prosperity. Carried out between mid-2009 and mid-2011, the UK NEA has been a wide-ranging, multi-stakeholder, cross-disciplinary process, designed to provide a comprehensive picture of past, present and possible future trends in ecosystem services and their values; it is underpinned by the best available evidence and the most up-to-date conceptual thinking and analytical tools. The UK NEA is innovative in scale, scope and methodology, and has involved more than 500 natural scientists, economists, social scientists and other stakeholders from government, academic and private sector institutions, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The following podcast and webcast look at the report and at some of the issues it raises in terms of quantifying and incorporating environmental costs and benefits into decision taking.

Podcast and Webcast
‘The hidden value’ of our green spaces BBC Today Programme, Tom Feilden (2/6/11)
Report puts monetary value on Britain’s natural assets BBC News, Jeremy Cooke (2/6/11)

Articles
NEA report highlights need for biodiversity Farmers Guardian, Ben Briggs (2/6/11)
Nature is worth £19bn a year to the UK economy – report Energy & Environmental Management Magazine (2/6/11)
In praise of… the unquantifiable Guardian (3/6/11)
Priceless benefits of bluebell woods Guardian letters, Dr Bhaskar Vira and Professor Roy Haines-Young (4/6/11)
Nature ‘is worth billions’ to UK BBC News, Richard Black (2/6/11)
Putting a price on nature BBC News, Tom Feilden (2/6/11)
Value of Britain’s trees and waterways calculated in ‘ground-breaking’ study The Telegraph, Andy Bloxham (2/6/11)
Nature worth billions, says environment audit Financial Times, Clive Cookson (2/6/11)
Nature gives UK free services worth billions Planet Earth, Tom Marshall (3/6/11)
UK scientists put price on nature with National Ecosystem Assessment GreenWise, Ann Elise Taylor (2/6/11)

Report
UK National Ecosystem Assessment: link to report DEFRA
UK National Ecosystem Assessment (June 2011)
The UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Synthesis of the Key Findings

Questions

  1. How would you set about valuing the benefits of woodlands?
  2. According to the report, the health benefits of living close to a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year. How much credance sould we attach to such a figure?
  3. What do you understand by the ‘ecosystem approach’ and the term ‘ecosystem services’?
  4. Explain Figure 2 on page 3 of Chapter 2 of the report.
  5. Should decision makers quantify only those benefits of ecosystems experienced by humans? Would all environmentalists agree with this approach?
  6. What are the advantages and disadvantages of quantifying all costs and benefits in money terms?
  7. Compare the consequences over the next 50 years of a ‘world markets’ scenarios with that of a ‘nature at work’ scenario.
  8. What policy implications follow from the report?
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An age-old problem

This week, we have seen some major potential changes in the UK’s welfare state. One key change involves child benefit. (see Who won’t benefit from child benefit?) However, a more recent development stems from a problem that has built up over a number of years and is not just peculiar to the UK: Pensions.

As technology advances and medical procedures improve, there has been a general increase in life expectancy for both men and women across the world. People are living for longer and longer and hence pensioners can be in retirement for over 30 years. This is over double the retirement time we used to see decades ago. Therefore, pensioners are eligible to receive their state pension or their private pension for much longer and hence the cost is becoming unsustainable.

Lord Hutton has led a review into public sector pension schemes and has concluded that public sector workers should be paying higher contributions. Lord Hutton has said that employees should be working for longer and hence retiring later. This would increase their contributions throughout their lives and also reduce the time period over which they receive a pension, hence cutting costs. There was also a recommendation that ‘final-salary pension schemes should be scrapped and changed to so-called ‘career-average’ schemes. The final-salary scheme benefits high earners and not those who make gradual progression up the career ladder. This possible change should certainly reduce the pension you are eligible to receive and hence should positively affect the sustainability of pension provision in the UK.

However, public sector workers who may face higher contributions and have already, in some cases, faced pay cuts or pay freezes, are unsurprisingly upset. They argue that accepting work in the public sector means accepting a lower wage than they could achieve in the private sector. The compensation, they argue, is the reward of a higher pension, which could be about to change. However, the independent review has found that the contributions made by the public sector do not reflect the true cost of the benefit they receive in their pension. This is likely to be a contentious issue for some time to come. Below are some articles considering this, but keep a look out for further developments.

Articles
Public sector pensions report explained BBC News (7/10/10)
Public sector pensions review: Q&A Telegraph (9/10/10)
Pensions reforms to focus on high earners Independent, Simon Read (9/10/10)
Why Lord Hutton could make public pensions bills bigger … not smaller Financial News, Mark Cobley and William Hutchings (8/10/10)
Lord Hutton: I busted the myth that public sector pensions are gold-plated Telegraph, Lord Hutton (8/10/10)
Key points of UK public sector pension review Reuters (8/10/10)
Public pensions review recommends higher contributions BBC News (7/10/10)
Public sector workers paying ‘less tax’ due to generous pension rules Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (8/10/10)
Asda closes final salary pension scheme Telegraph, Jamie Dunkley (9/10/10)
Hutton report: he’s no friend of gold-plated pensioners Guardian, Patrick Collinson (9/10/10)
Asda to close final salary pension scheme BBC News (8/10/10)
Lord Hutton: what the pension revolution means for public servants Telegraph, Emma Simon (8/10/10)

Report
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission: Interim Report Pensions Commission, Lord Hutton October 2010

Questions

  1. What is the purpose of a pension? Think about the idea of redistribution.
  2. Why should average-career pension schemes be less costly than final-salary pension schemes? Which is the most equitable arrangement?
  3. What are the key problems that have led to the pensions problem in the UK?
  4. What are the main recommendations of the independent pension review?
  5. How is opportunity cost relevant to problem of pensions provision?
  6. Is it fair that public sector workers should pay higher contributions towards their pensions?
  7. The BBC News article, Public sector review recommends higher contributions states that: “The recent decision to uprate pensions in line with the consumer prices index (CPI) rather than the retail prices index (RPI) has shaved 15% from the cost of the schemes.” Explain why this is the case?
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