Category: Economics 9e: Ch 09

In the last blog post, As UK inflation rises, so real wages begin to fall, we showed how the rise in inflation following the Brexit vote is causing real wages in the UK to fall once more, after a few months of modest rises, which were largely due to very low price inflation. But how does this compare with other OECD countries?

In an article by Rui Costa and Stephen Machin from the LSE, the authors show how, from the start of the financial crisis in 2007 to 2015 (the latest year for which figures are available), real hourly wages fell further in the UK than in all the other 27 OECD countries, except Greece (see the chart below, which is Figure 5 from their article). Indeed, only in Greece, the UK and Portugal were real wages lower in 2015 than in 2007.

The authors examine a number of aspects of real wages in the UK, including the rise in self employment, differences by age and sex, and for different percentiles in the income distribution. They also look at how family incomes have suffered less than real wages, thanks to the tax and benefit system.

The authors also look at what the different political parties have been saying about the issues during their election campaigns and what they plan to do to address the problem of falling, or only slowly rising, real wages.

Articles

Real Wages and Living Standards in the UK LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The Return of Falling Real Wages LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, David Blanchflower, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The chart that shows UK workers have had the worst wage performance in the OECD except Greece Independent, Ben Chu (5/6/17)

Data

Earnings and working hours ONS
OECD.Stat OECD
International comparisons of productivity ONS

Questions

  1. Why have real wages fallen more in the UK than in all OECD countries except Greece?
  2. Which groups have seen the biggest fall in real wages? Explain why.
  3. What policies are proposed by the different parties for raising real wages (a) generally; (b) for the poorest workers?
  4. How has UK productivity growth compared with that in other developed countries? What explanations can you offer?
  5. What is the relationship between productivity growth and the growth in real wages?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles

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

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

Questions

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

The UK benefits system is complex and this is just one reason why some people fall through the safety net. There are criticisms that it doesn’t reward work and doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to move off benefits and into work. One rather radical policy that has been discussed in numerous countries is the idea of a ‘Basic Income’.

The Basic Income or Citizen’s Income is a policy where individuals receive a regular payment from the government, essentially for doing nothing. The income is paid and aims to cover basic living costs and on top of this, individuals can then work, earn income and pay tax on it. Experiments of this policy are already in place and over the next few years, we may see many more being trialled and much discussion of the possibility of implementing this in the UK. We tend to be fairly risk averse when it comes to radical policies and so while we may see discussion of it in the UK, I imagine we’ll want to see the relative success of the policy in other countries first!

There are many variations of the scheme and lots of questions that need addressing. Will it encourage people to work more or less? Might it reduce the stigma of claiming benefits, if this is a basic income that everyone receives? Does it simplify the system and hence provide more people with a basic income thus targeting poverty?

Some proposals have this payment as a universal one – non means tested and not conditional on anything. Other proposals, including one in Finland, sees just the unemployed receive the benefit and appears to be a social experiment to see if such a policy discourages the unemployed from taking jobs. Traditionally individuals receive a benefit if they are out of work, but this benefit can be cut (in some cases quite substantially) if they begin to work. This creates a disincentive to supply labour. However, under the basic income scheme, those who moved into work would continue to receive the basic income payment and hence the disincentive effect is removed. The policy thus creates a basic level of economic security. As Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley argue, it would offer:

“…financial independence and freedom of choice for individuals between work and leisure, education and caring, while recognising the huge value of unpaid work”.

There isn’t universal support for this type of scheme and many remain very cautious about such a radical policy and how the incentives will work. Key questions focus around the marginal rate of income tax that might be needed to finance such a policy. Furthermore, there is discussion about the equity of the policy if it is universal and hence non means-tested.

In Switzerland, the policy was put to a public referendum and it was rejected, with 75% of voters voting against such a policy. However, with changes in the structure of economies and, in many countries, technological change increasingly leading to automation, some argue that such a system will help to protect people. Lord Skidelsky, Professor of Political Economy at Warwick University said:

“Credible estimates suggest it will be technically possible to automate between a quarter and a third of all current jobs in the western world within 20 years … It [Basic Income] would ensure the benefits of automation were shared by the many, not just the few.”

Basic Income or Citizen’s Income is certainly something we are likely to hear a lot about during 2017. Whether or not the time has come for implementation is another matter, but it’s a good idea now to look into both sides and the relative success of the upcoming trials around the world.

8 basic income experiments to watch out for in 2017 Business Insider, Chris Weller (24/1/17)
What is basic income? Basic Income Earth Network (January 2017)
Finland trials basic income for unemployed The Guardian, Jon Henley (3/1/17)
Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, Universal Basic Income: An idea whose time has come? Citizen’s Income Trust (14/6/16)
Is the world ready for a guaranteed basic income? Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner (13/4/16)
France’s Benoit Hamon rouses Socialists with basic income plan BBC News, Lucy Williamson (24/1/17)
Universal basic income trials being considered in Scotland The Guardian, Libby Brooks (1/1/17)

Questions

  1. What is basic income?
  2. What are three advantages of this policy? If you can, try to use a diagram to explain why this is an advantage.
  3. What are three disadvantages of moving towards this type of policy?
  4. Why does the provision of benefits affect an individual’s labour supply decision?
  5. Do you think that income tax would have to rise in order to finance this policy? Do you think high income earners would be prepared to pay a higher rate of tax in order to receive the basic income?
  6. If the trials showed that the policy did create an incentive to work in countries like Finland, do you think the results would also occur in the UK?

Many countries have experienced soaring house prices in recent years. To find out why, you need to look at demand and supply.

Low mortgage interest rates and more relaxed lending rules in the last couple of years have stimulated demand. In some countries, such as the UK, demand has been further boosted by governments providing increased help to buyers. In others, various tax breaks are given to house purchasers.

Typically the rise in demand has not been matched by an equivalent rise in supply. Social house building has slowed in many countries and building for private purchase has often be hampered by difficulties in obtaining appropriate land or getting planning permission.

The articles linked below look at the situation in Australia. Here too house prices have been soaring. Over the past 30 years they have grown by 7.25% per year – way above the growth in incomes. As the second article below states:

So expensive are homes becoming that the share of median household income devoted to mortgage payments for Australians aged 35 to 44 has more than doubled in 30 years. Incredibly, it’s happened at a time when mortgage rates have slid to their lowest on record.

But why? Again, to understand this it is necessary to look at demand and supply.

Strong population growth combined with easy availability of mortgage loans, low interest rates and tax breaks for both owner occupiers and property investors have stoked demand, while new building has lagged behind. As far as investors are concerned, any shortfall of rental income over mortgage payments (known as negative gearing) can be offset against tax – and then there is still the capital gain to be made from any increase in the property’s price.

But in some Australian towns and cities, price rises have started to slow down or even fall. This may be due to a fall in demand. For example, in Perth, the ending of the commodity boom has led to a fall in demand for labour in the mining areas; mine workers often live in Perth and fly up to the mining areas for shifts of a week or more. The fall in demand for labour has led to a fall in demand for housing.

House price changes are amplified by speculation. People rush to buy houses when they think house prices will rise, further pushing up prices. Landlords do the same. This speculation fuels the price rises. Speculation also amplifies price falls, with people with houses to sell keen to sell them quickly before prices fall further. Potential purchasers, including property investors, hold back, waiting for prices to fall.

Articles

House prices are surging because of low supply – it’s Economics 101 The Guardian, Stephen Koukoulas (27/10/16)
Who’s to blame for rising house prices? We are, actually. Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Martin (27/10/16)
The Price of Australia’s Real Estate Boom The New York Times, A. Odysseus Patrick (17/10/16)
Solutions beyond supply to the housing affordability problem The Conversation, Nicole Gurran (24/10/16)

Data

Residential Property Price Indexes: Eight Capital Cities Australian Bureau of Statistics (20/9/16)

Questions

  1. Identify the specific demand factors that have driven house price rises in Australia.
  2. How are the price elasticities of demand and supply relevant to explaining house price rises? Use a diagram to illustrate your analysis.
  3. What determines the rate of increase in house prices?
  4. Explain what is meant by ‘negative gearing’. How is the tax treatment of negative gearing relevant to the property market?
  5. What are the arguments for and against giving tax breaks for house purchase?
  6. Why are rising prices seen as politically desirable by politicians?
  7. What practical steps could a government (central or local) take to increase the supply of housing? Would such steps always be desirable?
  8. Does speculation always amplify house price changes? Explain.
  9. How are house prices related to inequality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles

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

Report

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

Questions

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