Category: Essentials of Economics: Ch 07

With first Houston, then several Caribbean islands and Florida suffering dreadful flooding and destruction from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many are questioning whether more should be spent on flood prevention and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Economists would normally argue that such questions are answered by conducting a cost–benefit analysis.

However, even if the size of the costs and benefits of such policies could be measured, this would not be enough to give the answer. Whether such spending is justified would depend on the social rate of discount. But what the rate should be in cost-benefit analyses is a highly contested issue, especially when the benefits occur a long time in the future.

I you ask the question today, ‘should more have been spent on flood prevention in Houston and Miami?’, the answer would almost certainly be yes, even if the decision had to have been taken many years ago, given the time it takes to plan and construct such defences. But if you asked people, say, 15 years ago whether such expenditure should be undertaken, many would have said no, given that the protection would be provided quite a long time in the future. Also many people back then would doubt that the defences would be necessary and many would not be planning to live there indefinitely.

This is the familiar problem of people valuing costs and benefits in the future less than costs and benefits occurring today. To account for this, costs and benefits in the future are discounted by an annual rate to reduce them to a present value.

But with costs and benefits occurring a long time in the future, especially from measures to reduce carbon emissions, the present value is very sensitive to the rate of discount chosen. But choosing the rate of discount is fraught with difficulties.

Some argue that a social rate of discount should be similar to long-term market rates. But market rates reflect only the current generation’s private preferences. They do not reflect the costs and benefits to future generations. A social rate of discount that did take their interests into account would be much lower and could even be argued to be zero – or negative with a growing population.

Against this, however, has to be set the possibility that future generations will be richer than the current one and will therefore value a dollar (or any other currency) less than today’s generation.

However, it is also likely, if the trend of recent decades is to continue, that economic growth will be largely confined to the rich and that the poor will be little better off, if at all. And it is the poor who often suffer the most from natural disasters. Just look, for example, at the much higher personal devastation suffered from hurricane Irma by the poor on many Caribbean islands compared with those in comparatively wealthy Florida.

A low or zero discount rate would make many environmental projects socially profitable, even though they would not be with a higher rate. The choice of rate is thus crucial to the welfare of future generations who are likely to bear the brunt of climate change.

But just how should the social rate of discount be chosen? The following two articles explore the issue.

Articles

How Much Is the Future Worth? Slate, Will Oremus (1/9/17)
Climate changes the debate: The impact of demographics on long-term discount rates Vox, Eli P Fenichel, Matthew Kotchen and Ethan T Addicott (20/8/17)

Questions

  1. What is meant by the social rate of discount?
  2. Why does the choice of a lower rate of social discount imply a more aggressive climate policy?
  3. How is the distribution of the benefits and costs of measures to reduce carbon emissions between rich and poor relevant in choosing the social rate of discount of such measures?
  4. How is the distribution of the benefits of such measures between current and future generations relevant in choosing the rate?
  5. How is uncertainty about the magnitude of the costs and benefits relevant in choosing the rate?
  6. What is the difference between Stern’s and Nordhaus’ analyses of the choice of social discount rate?
  7. Explain and discuss the ‘mortality-based approach’ to estimating social discount rates.
  8. What are the arguments ‘for economists analysing climate change through the lens of minimising risk, rather than maximizing utility’?

The car industry has featured heavily in the news in recent weeks with the announcement of plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2040. Around the same time, news broke that the European Commission had commenced an investigation into potential collusive behaviour between German car makers.

Since the investigation is ongoing, it is not yet clear exactly what the firms are accused of. However, allegations first published in German magazine Der Spiegel claim that since at least the mid 1990s Volkswagen (and subsidiaries Porsche and Audi), Daimler (owner of Mercedes-Benz) and BMW met several times a year. Furthermore, it is alleged the meetings aimed to give the firms an advantage over overseas rivals by:

co-ordinating the development of their vehicles, costs, suppliers and markets for many years, at least since the Nineties, to the present day.

In particular, Der Spiegel claims that the cartel limited the size of the tanks that manufacturers install in cars to hold chemicals that reduce diesel emissions. Smaller tanks then left more room for the car’s sound system.

Limiting the size of these tanks should be seen in the context of the 2015 emissions scandal where it became clear that Volkswagen had programmed its cars to limit the use of these chemicals and cheated in emissions tests. This meant that 11 million cars worldwide produced excess emissions. Whilst other manufacturers have suggested that the cars they produced may also produce excess emissions, Volkswagen has so far been the only firm to admit to breaking the rules so explicitly. However, if the allegations in Der Spiegel turn out to be true, there will be clear evidence that the harm caused was widespread and that illegal communication between firms played a key role in facilitating this. If found guilty, substantial fines will be imposed by the European Commission and several of the firms have already announced plans to put in place measures to reduce emissions.

It is not clear how the competition authorities discovered the cartel. However, it has been suggested that incriminating documents were uncovered during a raid of Volkswagen’s offices as part of an investigation into a separate steel cartel. It seems that Volkswagen and Daimler are now cooperating with the investigation, presumably hoping to reduce the penalties they could face. It has also been reported that Daimler’s role in the investigation will have serious implications for future cooperation with BMW, including a project to develop charging sites for electric cars. It will be extremely interesting to see what the investigation uncovers and what the future ramifications for the car industry are.

Articles

European officials probe claims of huge German car cartel CNN Money, Mark Thompson (23/7/17)
Automotive corruption: German manufacturer collusion could spell bankruptcy Shout out UK, Christopher Sharp (4/8/17)
Germany’s auto industry is built on collusion Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky (31/7/17)
BMW reassured top staff about cartel allegations: sources Reuters, Edward Taylor (4/8/17)

Questions

  1. What are the consequences of the coordination between German car makers likely to have been for consumers? What about for rival car manufacturers?
  2. Are there circumstances in which coordination between car makers might be beneficial for society?
  3. How do you think the German car industry will be affected by these allegations going forward?

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?

Following concerns about the market power of the Big Six energy suppliers in the UK and high prices for gas and electricity, the industry regulator, Ofgem, referred the industry to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in June 2014. The CMA published its final report in June 2016. This argued that while there was sufficient potential for competition, consumers nevertheless needed further encouragement to switch suppliers. This would strengthen competition in the market.

To encourage switching, the CMA proposed the creation of a database that would include the details of customers who have been on a supplier’s standard variable tariff (SVT) for three or more years. Competitor energy suppliers would have access to this database to offer better deals for these customers.

There had already been calls for price caps to be imposed on suppliers. For example, in the run-up to the 2015 general election, the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, proposed imposing a price freeze. This was criticised by the Conservatives for being too anti-market, that it would encourage energy companies to raise prices prior to the freeze and that it would be of no benefit in times of falling wholesale energy prices (which was the position in 2015).

Indeed, in its 2016 report, the CMA recommended price caps only for the 16% of people on prepayment meters and these would be variable caps not freezes. This was followed in February 2017, by Ofgem’s announcement that a temporary price cap for such customers would come into effect in April 2017. The level of the cap would vary by meter type and region. It would also be reviewed every six months to reflect changes in costs and remain in place until 2020. There would be no cap on other customers.

But in the run-up to the 2017 election, the Conservatives announced that they would, after all, introduce a price cap on SVTs – 66% of customers are on such tariffs. Before the details were announced, there was much speculation as to what form such a cap would take? It would not be a simple freeze. But there was debate as to whether caps would vary with wholesale costs or whether they would be relative to the company’s lowest tariffs or to those of its rivals.

As it turned out, the proposal was for a cap on standard variable tariffs. It would be set by Ofgem and reviewed every six months. The cap would be based on the cheapest standard variable tariffs in each part of the UK, taking into account the variable costs for transporting energy there. Ofgem will adjust the cap every six months to reflect changes in the wholesale cost of energy.

Articles before details were anniunced
U.K. Energy Industry Faults May’s Election Pledge to Cap Prices Bloomberg, Rakteem Katakey (23/4/17)
Conservatives promise to cap prices in UK energy market Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas (23/4/17)
How might an energy price cap work? BBC News, Brian Milligan (24/4/17)
UK government vows strong action to rein in energy companies The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (19/4/17)
Energy bills: what’s the difference between Tory cap and Miliband freeze? The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (23/4/17)
Capping energy prices? Still a bad idea Adam Smith Institute blogs, Sam Dumitriu (25/4/17)
Bulb becomes ‘first’ provider to cut energy prices this year Moneywise (24/4/17)
Experts slam Conservative plans to cap energy bills as ‘clumsy and counterproductive’ The Telegraph, Lauren Davidson (23/4/17)
Capping energy tariffs isn’t a one-way ticket to Venezuelan-style economic ruin Independent, Ben Chu (25/4/17)

Articles after details were anniunced
Conservatives defend plans to cap UK energy bills Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas (9/5/17)
What is the energy price cap – and what does it mean for bills? The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (9/5/17)
The new energy price cap con? The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (9/5/17)
May defends plan to cap ‘rip-off energy bills’ BBC News (9/5/17)
Q&A: The Tory plan to cap energy prices BBC News, Brian Milligan (9/5/17)
Energy prices could still go up under Theresa May’s price cap plans, admits Business Secretary Greg Clark Independent, Rob Merrick (9/5/17)
Tory claims over energy price cap are just hot air The Guardian, Nils Pratley (9/5/17)

Video and audio
UK government energy price cap ‘sheer politics’: Bernstein CNBC, Deepa Venkateswaran and Andrew Sentance (25/4/17)
Energy UK: price cap could backfire Sky News, Lawrence Slade (24/4/17)
Scottish Power: Capping prices ‘damages customers’ BBC News, Keith Anderson (24/4/17)
Tories to pledge energy bill cap BBC News, Michael Fallon (24/4/17)
Tories: Energy cap will protect vulnerable people BBC Today Programme, Business Secretary Greg Clark (9/5/17)
Energy cap: good or bad for consumers? Sky News, Stephen Fitzpatrick and James Kirkup (9/5/17)

Questions

  1. What scope is there for tacit collusion between the Big Six energy suppliers?
  2. What is meant by the RPI–X price cap? How does it differ from proposals being considered by the government?
  3. Why are people often reluctant to switch energy supplier?
  4. How could people be encouraged to switch supplier?
  5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of imposing a price cap for SVTs (a) relative to costs; (b) relative to lower-priced tariffs?
  6. Comment on Centrica’s chief executive officer Iain Conn’s statement that “price regulation will result in reduced competition and choice, and potentially impact customer service”.
  7. Comment on the statement by Lawrence Slade, chief executive officer of Energy UK, that intervention would create “huge uncertainty around government intentions, potentially putting at risk the billions in investment and jobs needed to renew our energy system”.
  8. Would an announcement of the introduction of a price cap in the near future necessarily encourage energy companies to raise their price now?

Price fixing agreements between firms are one of the most serious breaches of competition law. Therefore, if detected, the firms involved face substantial fines (see here for an example), plus there is also the potential for jail sentences and director disqualification for participants. However, due to their secretive nature and the need for hard evidence of communication between firms, it is difficult for competition authorities to detect cartel activity.

In order to assist detection, competition authorities offer leniency programmes that guarantee full immunity from fines to the first participant to come forward and blow the whistle on the cartel. This has become a key way in which competition authorities detect cartels. Recently, competition authorities have introduced a number of new tools to try to enhance cartel detection.

First, the European Commission launched an online tool to make it easier for cartels to be reported to them. This tool allows anonymous two-way communication in the form of text messages between a whistle blower and the Commission. The Commissioner in charge of competition policy, Margrethe Vestager, stated that:

If people are concerned by business practices that they think are wrong, they can help put things right. Inside knowledge can be a powerful tool to help the Commission uncover cartels and other anti-competitive practices. With our new tool it is possible to provide information, while maintaining anonymity. Information can contribute to the success of our investigations quickly and more efficiently to the benefit of consumers and the EU’s economy as a whole.

Second, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched an online and social media campaign to raise awareness of what is illegal under competition law and to encourage illegal activity to be reported to them. The CMA stated that:

Cartels are both harmful and illegal, and the consequences of breaking the law are extremely serious. That is why we are launching this campaign – to help people understand what cartel activity looks like and how to report it so we can take action.

This campaign is on the back of the CMA’s own research which found that less that 25% of the businesses they surveyed believed that they knew competition law well. Furthermore, the CMA is now offering a reward of up to £100,000 and guaranteed anonymity to individuals who provide them with information.

It will be fascinating to see the extent to which these new tools are used and whether they aid the competition authorities in detecting and prosecuting cartel behaviour.

Articles

CMA launches crackdown on cartels as illegal activity rises The Telegraph, Bradley Gerrard (20/03/17)
European Commission launches new anonymous whistleblower tool, but who would use it? Competition Policy Blog, Andreas Stephan (21/03/17)
CMA launches campaign to crackdown on cartels Insider Media Limited, Karishma Patel (21/03/17)

Questions

  1. Why do you think leniency programmes are a key way in which competition authorities detect cartels?
  2. Who do you think is most likely to blow the whistle on a cartel (see the article above by A.Stephan)?
  3. Why is it worrying that so few businesses appear to know competition law well?
  4. Which of the two tools do you think is most likely to enhance cartel detection? Explain why.