Tag: asymmetric information

We are coming into the big spending season, with Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the run-up to Christmas and then the winter sales. So will we all be rational maximisers and weigh up the utility we expect to receive from items against the price we pay (plus any other cost, such as time spent searching/shopping)? Or will we use a set of heuristics which make life easier and that we have found to be useful in helping us choose – heuristics such as buying things we’ve liked before, or going for things on special offer?

The answer is that we do probably use a set of heuristics, at least for many items. And don’t the retailers and the marketing firms they employ know this!

They will use all sorts of tricks of the trade to persuade us to part with our money. These tricks are designed to nudge us (or push us), without us feeling manipulated or conned – at least until we’ve bought their product.

And the tricks are getting more sophisticated. They include special offers which are not as good as they seem, time-limited offers which stimulate us to buy quickly without carefully thinking about what we’re doing, cunning positioning of products in shops to encourage us to buy things we had not planned to buy, adverts which play to our idealised perceptions or the ‘good life’ or what we would like to achieve, and packaging or display which make the product seem better than it is.

Also we are increasingly faced with targeted advertising where our smart devices capture information about our spending habits and tastes through our previous online spending or our search behaviour. This is then fed to advertisers to tailor adverts specifically to us on our mobiles, tablets, laptops and even, soon, on our smart TVs.

We may have a general desire to maximise utility from our spending, but market failures, such as consumers having imperfect information about products and a present bias (see also) in decision making, make us easy targets for the advertising and marketing industry. They understand the heuristics we use and try to take maximum advantage of them.

Happy shopping!

Articles

How shops use tricks to get you spending The Conversation, Cathrine Jansson-Boyd (16/11/17)
ColourPop looks to Qubit for next-gen personalization guidance Retail Dive, Dan O’Shea (13/6/17)
Channel 4 to offer 100% ad targeting across All 4 platform, seeking partners for linear equivalent The Drum, Jessica Goodfellow (14/11/17)
How Google aims to bring TV advertising into the 21st century The Drum, Ronan Shields (19/10/17)
How to Use Heuristics to Your Marketing Advantage MarketingProfs, Cam Secore (12/11/15)

Questions

  1. Does the use of heuristics contradict the assumption that consumers behave rationally?
  2. Give some examples of heuristics that you yourself use.
  3. Other than those identified above and in the first article, what ‘tricks’ might companies play on you to persuade you to buy their products?
  4. Is advertising personally targeted to individual consumers desirable for them?
  5. Give some examples of present bias in people’s behaviour.
  6. What factors should a retailer take into account when deciding whether to make pre-Christmas discounts?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘affect heuristic’ and how the advertising industry uses the concept in setting the background to or scenario of an advertisement.
  8. Have you ever been persuaded into buying something you didn’t want? Why were you persuaded?

Tax avoidance has been in the news since the publication of the Panama papers, which show the use of offshore tax havens by rich individuals and companies, partly for tax avoidance, partly for money laundering and other criminal activities – some by corrupt politicians and their associates – and partly to take advantage of lower regulation of financial dealing.

There are many tax havens around the world, including Switzerland, Hong Kong, British overseas territories (such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda), Jersey, Singapore and certain US states (such as Arizona, Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming).

Here we focus on tax avoidance. This is the management of tax affairs by individuals or firms so as to avoid or minimise the payment of taxes. Tax avoidance is legal, unlike tax evasion, which is the practice of not declaring taxable income.

In a statement from the White House, directly after the publication of the Panama papers, President Obama spoke about the huge international scale of tax evasion and tax avoidance:

“A lot of it is legal, but that’s exactly the problem. It’s not that [people are] breaking the laws, it’s that the laws are so poorly designed that they allow people, if they’ve got enough lawyers and enough accountants, to wiggle out of responsibilities that ordinary citizens are having to abide by.

Here in the United States, there are loopholes that only wealthy individuals and powerful corporations have access to. They have access to offshore accounts, and they are gaming the system. Middle-class families are not in the same position to do this. In fact, a lot of these loopholes come at the expense of middle-class families, because that lost revenue has to be made up somewhere. Alternatively, it means that we’re not investing as much as we should in schools, in making college more affordable, in putting people back to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our infrastructure, creating more opportunities for our children.”

Tax avoidance, whether in tax havens, or through exploiting loopholes in the tax system may be legal. But is it fair?

Various principles of a tax system can be identified. These include:

Horizontal equity People in the same situation should be treated equally. For example, people earning the same level of income and with the same personal circumstances (e.g. number and type of dependants, size of mortgage, etc.) should pay the same level of income tax.
Vertical equity Taxes should be ‘fairly’ apportioned between rich and poor. The rich should pay proportionately more taxes than the poor.
Equity between recipients of government services Under the ‘benefit principle’, it is argued that those who receive the most benefits from government expenditure ought to pay the most in taxes. For example, it can be argued that roads should be paid for from fuel tax.
Difficulty of evasion and possibly of avoidance If it is desirable to have a given tax, people should not be able to escape paying.
Non-distortion Taxes alter market signals: taxes on goods and services alter market prices; taxes on income alter wages. They should not do this in an undesirable direction.
Convenience to the taxpayer Taxes should be certain and clearly understood by taxpayers so that they can calculate their tax liabilities. The method of payment should be straightforward.
Convenience to the government Tax rates should be simple to adjust and as cheap to collect as possible.
Minimal disincentive effects Taxes may discourage people from working longer or harder, from saving, from investing or from taking initiative. It is desirable that these disincentives should be kept to a minimum.

Of course, not all these requirements can be met at the same time. One of the most serious conflicts is between vertical equity and the need to keep disincentives to a minimum. The more steeply the rich are taxed, it is argued, the more serious are the disincentive effects on them likely to be (see the blog post from 2012, The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). Another is between vertical equity and equity between recipients of services. Some of the people most in need of government support are the poorest and hence pay the least taxes.

The crucial question is what is regarded as ‘fair’. What is vertically equitable? According to the second article below, people’s preferred tax rates depend on how information is presented. If information is presented on how much tax is paid by the rich, people generally feel that the rich pay too much. If, however, information is presented on how much income people are left with after paying tax, people feel that the rich still have too much and ought to pay more tax.

The majority of people in the UK feel that tax avoidance, although legal, is morally wrong. According to the results of an HMRC survey in 2015, “the majority (63%) of respondents felt that the use of tax avoidance schemes was widespread. However, the majority (61%) also responded that it was never acceptable to use a tax avoidance scheme. The most frequent reason given as to why it was unacceptable was that ‘it is unfair on others who pay their taxes’.”

In making judgements about the fairness of tax, people generally have inaccurate knowledge about the distribution of income, believing that it is more equal than it really is, and about the progressiveness of the tax system, believing that it is more progressive than it really is. Despite this, they want post-tax income distribution to be more equal.

What is more, although people generally disapprove of tax avoidance, it is the system that allows the avoidance of taxes that they want changing. As long as it is possible to avoid taxes, such as giving gifts to children to avoid inheritance tax (as long as the gift is made more than seven years before the person’s death), most people see no reason why they should not do so themselves.

The following articles look at tax avoidance and people’s attitudes towards it. They are all drawn from The Conversation, “an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.”.

Articles

Explainer: what are ‘tax havens’? The Conversation, Tommaso Faccio (5/4/16)
When it comes to tax, how do we decide what’s fair? The Conversation, Stian Reimers (8/4/16)
Six things a tax haven expert learned from the Panama Papers The Conversation, Ronen Palan (6/4/16)

Documents
The Panama Papers The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Exploring public attitudes to tax avoidance in 2015: HM Revenue and Customs Research Report 401 HMRC, Preena Shah (February 2016)
2010 to 2015 government policy: tax evasion and avoidance HMRC/HM Treasury (8/5/15)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between tax avoidance and tax evasion.
  2. Give some examples of tax avoidance.
  3. Look through the various principles of a tax system and identify any conflicts.
  4. What problems are there in having a highly progressive tax system?
  5. What is a ‘shell company’? How can it be used to avoid and evade taxes?
  6. What are bearer shares and bonds? Why were they abolished in the UK in 2015?
  7. What legitimate reasons may there be for a company or individual using a tax haven?
  8. To what extent might increased transparency in tax affairs discourage individuals and companies from engaging in aggressive tax avoidance?
  9. What light does/can behavioural economics shed on people’s perceptions of fairness?
  10. How might the use of absolute amounts or percentages influence people’s thinking about the fairness of a tax system? What implications does this have for politicians in framing tax policy?
  11. In the principal–agent problem, where the principals are the tax authorities and the agents are taxpayers, why does asymmetric information arise and why is it a problem? How do the tax authorities seek to reduce this problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles

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

Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast

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

Articles

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

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

Questions

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

One type of market failing is the asymmetric information between producers and consumers. Advertising, branding and marketing can either help to reduce consumers’ limited information or play on ignorance to mislead consumers.

Misleading consumers is what the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser is accused of doing with its Nurofen brand of painkillers. There are very few types of painkiller – the most common three being paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin. These are sold cheaply in chemists as unbranded ‘generic products’. Or you can buy much more expensive branded versions of the same drugs. Many people believe that the branded versions are more effective as they are cleverly marketed.

Reckitt Benckiser has been found guilty by the Australian federal court of deceiving consumers. The company produces various varieties of Nurofen, each claiming to target a particular type of pain. But Nurofen Back Pain, Nurofen Period Pain, Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache are in fact identical! And in many outlets, they were sold at different prices – a form of price discrimination reflecting the strength of demand by consumers for a particular type of pain relief.

And now the UK Advertising Standards Authority is investigating the company over whether its adverts for Nurofen Express are misleading by stating that the product ‘gives you faster headache relief than standard paracetamol or ibuprofen’. Also it is investigating the company’s claim that its products directly target muscles in the head. Both Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache claim on the front of the box to provide ‘targeted rapid relief’.

The company adopts similar practices in its combined pain-killer and decongestant drugs for relieving cold symptoms. For example, its Nurofen Cold and Flu Relief, Nurofen Day and Night Cold and Flu, Nurofen Sinus and Blocked Nose and Nurofen Sinus Pain Relief all contain the same quantities of ibuprofen and the decongestant phenylephrine hydrochloride, but each claims to do something different.

So there are various issues here. The first is whether excessive profits are made by charging a price typically 3 to 4 times greater than the identical generic version of the drug; the second is whether the company deliberately misleads consumers by claiming that a particular version of the drug targets a particular type of pain; the third is whether ‘faster acting’ versions are significantly different; the fourth is whether price discrimination is being practised.

Articles

Nurofen maker Reckitt Benckiser suffers advertising headaches Financial Times, Robert Cookson and Scheherazade Daneshkhu (15/12/15)
Nurofen Express advertising claims probed by UK watchdog BBC News (15/12/15)
ASA probing ‘misleading’ painkiller claims in advert by drug firm behind Nurofen The Telegraph, Tom Morgan and agency (15/12/15)
The great painkiller con: Top drug brands accused of huge mark-ups and misleading claims Mail Online, Sean Poulter and John Naish (16/12/15)
Nurofen Under Investigation By UK Watchdog Over Claims Advert ‘Misled’ Customers Huffington Post, Natasha Hinde (15/12/15)

Australian Competition & Consumer Comission media release
Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims ACCC (14/12/15)

Questions

  1. Is price discrimination always against the consumer’s interests?
  2. What form of price discrimination is being practised in the case of Nurofen?
  3. How, do you think, does Reckitt Benckiser decide the prices it charges retailers for its pain killers and how, do you think, do retailers determine the price they charge consumers for them?
  4. Is it a reasonable assumption that branded products in most cases are better than own-brand or generic versions? How is behavioural theory relevant here?
  5. If Reckitt Benckiser were banned from using the word ‘targets’ when referring to one of its product’s effect on particular type of pain, could the company instead use the words ‘suitable for’ relieving a particular type of pain and thereby avoid misleading consumers?
  6. What is the best way of improving consumer knowledge about particular types of over-the-counter drugs and their effects on the body?
  7. Comment on the following statement by Dr Aomesh Bhatt, the company’s medical affairs director: ‘The Nurofen specific-pain range was launched with an intention to help consumers navigate their pain relief options, particularly within the grocery environment where there is no healthcare professional to assist decision making.’