It’s been a while since I last blogged about labour markets and, in particular, about the effect of automation on wages and employment. My most recent post on this topic was on the 14th of April 2018 and it was mostly a reflection on some interesting findings that had been reported by Acemoglu et al (2017). More specifically, Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) developed a theoretical framework to evaluate the effect of AI on employment and wages. They concluded that the effect was negative and potentially sizeable (for a more detailed discussion see my blog).
Using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, we show that robots may reduce employment and wages … According to our estimates, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18–0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25–0.5 percent.
Since then, I have seen a constant stream of news on my news feed about the development of ever more advanced industrial robots and artificial intelligence. And this was not because of some spooky coincidence (or worse). It has been merely a reflection of the speed at which technology has been progressing in this field.
There are now robots that can run, jump, hold conversations with humans, do gymnastics (and even sweat for it!) and more. It is really impressive how fast change has been happening recently in this field – and, unsurprisingly, it has stimulated the interest of labour economists!
A paper that has recently come to my attention on this subject is by Graetz and Michaels (2018). The authors put together a panel dataset on robot adoption within seventeen countries from 1993 to 2007 and use advanced econometric techniques to evaluate the effect of these technologies on employment and productivity growth. Their analysis focuses exclusively on developed economies (due to data limitations, as they explain) – but their results are nevertheless intriguing:
We study here for the first time the relationship between industrial robots and economic outcomes across much of the developed world. Using a panel of industries in seventeen countries from 1993 to 2007, we find that increased use of industrial robots is associated with increases in labor productivity. We find that the contribution of increased use of robots to productivity growth is substantial and calculate using conservative estimates that it comes to 0.36 percentage points, accounting for 15% of the aggregate economy-wide productivity growth.
The pattern that we document is robust to including various controls for country trends and changes in the composition of labor and other capital inputs. We also find that robot densification is associated with increases in both total factor productivity and wages, and reductions in output prices. We find no significant relationship between the increased use of industrial robots and overall employment, although we find that robots may be reducing the employment of low-skilled workers.
This is very positive news for most – except, of course, for low-skilled workers. Indeed, like Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) and many others, this study shows that the effect of automation on employment and labour market outcomes is unlikely to be uniform across all types of workers. Low-skilled workers are found again to be likely to lose out and be significantly displaced by these technologies.
And if you are wondering which sectors are likely to be disrupted most/first by automation, the rankings developed by McKinsey and Company (see chart below) would give you an idea of where the disruption is likely to start. Unsurprisingly, the sectors that seem to be the most vulnerable, are the ones that use the highest share of low-skilled labour.
- “The effect of automation on wages and employment is likely to be positive overall”. Discuss.
- Using examples and anecdotal evidence, do you agree with these findings?
- Using Google Scholar, put together a list of 5 recent (i.e. 2015 or later) articles and working papers on labour markets and automation. Compare and discuss their findings.
When did you last think about buying a new car? If not recently, then you may be in for a surprise next time you shop around for car deals. First, you will realise that the range of hybrid cars (i.e. cars that combine conventional combustion and electric engines) has widened significantly. The days when you only had a choice of Toyota Prius and another two or three hybrids are long gone! A quick search on the web returned 10 different models (although five of them belong to the Toyota Prius family), including Chevrolet Malibu, VW Jetta and Ford Fusion. And these are only the cars that are currently available in the UK market.
But the biggest surprise of all may be the number of purely (plug-) electric cars that are available to UK buyers these days. The table below provides a summary of total registrations of light-duty plug-electric cars by model in the UK, between 2010 and June 2016.
Source: Wikipedia, “Plug-in electric vehicles in the United Kingdom”
In 2010 there were nly 138 electric vehicles in total registered in the UK. They were indeed an unusual sight at that time – and good luck to you if you had one and you happened to run out of power in the middle of a journey. In 2011 this (small) number increased sevenfold – an increase that was driven mostly by the successful introduction of Nissan Leaf (635 electric Nissans were registered in the UK that year). And since then the number of electric vehicles registered in the country has increased with spectacular speed, at an average rate of 252% per year.
There is clearly strong interest in electric vehicles – an interest likely to increase as their price becomes more competitive. However, they are still very expensive items to buy, especially when compared with their conventional fuel-engine counterparts. What makes electric cars expensive? One thing is the cost of purchasing and maintaining a battery that can deliver a reasonable range. But the cost of batteries is falling, as more and more companies realise the potential of this new market and join the R&D race. As mentioned in a special report that was published recently in the FT:
The cost of lithium-ion batteries has fallen by 75 per cent over the past eight years, measured per kilowatt hour of output. Every time battery production doubles, costs fall by another 5 per cent to 8 per cent, according to analysts at Wood Mackenzie.
There is no doubt that more research will result in more efficient batteries, and will increase the interest in electric cars not only by consumers but also by producers, who already see the opportunity of this new global market. Does this mean that prices will necessarily fall further? You might think so, but then you have to take into consideration the availability and cost of mining further raw materials to make these batteries (such as cobalt, which is one of the materials used in the making of lithium-ion batteries and nearly half of which is currently sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo). This may lead to bottlenecks in the production of new battery units. In which case, the price of batteries (and, by extension, the price of electric cars) may not fall much further until some new innovation happens that changes either the material or its efficiency.
The good news is that a lot of researchers are currently looking into these questions, and innovation will do what it always does: give solutions to problems that previously appeared insurmountable. They had better be fast because, according to estimates by Wood Mackenzie, the number of electric vehicles globally is expected to rise by over 50 times – from 2 million (in 2017) to over 125 million by 2035.
How many economists does it take to charge an electric car? I guess we are going to find out!
- Using a demand and supply diagram, explain the relationship between the price of a battery and the market (equilibrium) price of a plug-in electric vehicle.
- List all non-price factors that influence demand for plug-in electric vehicles. Briefly explain each.
- Should the government subsidise the development and production of electric car batteries? Explain the advantages and disadvantages of such intervention and take a position.
So here we are, summer is over (or almost over if you’re an optimist) and we are sitting in front of our screens reminiscing about hot sunny days (at least I do)! There is no doubt, however: a lot happened in the world of politics and economics in the past three months. The escalation of the US-China trade war, the run on the Turkish lira, the (successful?) conclusion of the Greek bailout – these are all examples of major economic developments that took place during the summer months, and which we will be sure to discuss in some detail in future blogs. Today, however, I will introduce a topic that I am very interested in as a researcher: the liberalisation of energy markets in developing countries and, in particular, Mexico.
Why Mexico? Well, because it is a great example of a large developing economy that has been attempting to liberalise its energy market and reverse price setting and monopolistic practices that go back several decades. Until very recently, the price of petrol in Mexico was set and controlled by Pemex, a state monopolist. This put Pemex under pressure since, as a sole operator, it was responsible for balancing growing demand and costs, even to the detriment of its own finances.
The petrol (or ‘gasoline’) price liberalisation started in May 2017 and took place in stages – starting in the North part of Mexico and ending in November of the same year in the central and southern regions of the country. The main objective was to address the notable decrease in domestic oil production that put at risk the ability of the country to meet demand; as well as Mexico’s increasing dependency on foreign markets affected by the surge of the international oil price. The government has spent the past five years trying to create a stronger regulatory framework, while easing the financial burden on the state and halting the decline in oil reserves and production. Unsurprisingly, opening up a monopolistic market turns out to be a complex and bumpy process.
Source: Author’s calculations using data from the Energy Information Bank, Ministry of Energy, Mexico
Despite all the reforms, retail petrol prices have kept rising. Although part of this price rise is demand-driven, an increasing number of researchers highlight the significance of the distribution of oil-related infrastructure in determining price outcomes at the federal and regional (state) level. Saturation and scarcity of both distribution and storage infrastructure are probably the two most significant impediments to opening the sector up to competition (Mexico Institute, 2018). You see, the original design of these networks and the deployment of the infrastructure was not aimed at maximising efficiency of distribution – the price was set by the monopolist and, in a way that was compliant with government policy (Mexico Institute, 2018). Economic efficiency was not always part of this equation. As a result, consumers located in better-deployed areas were subsidising the inherent logistics costs of less ‘well endowed’ regions by facing an artificially higher price than they would have in a competitive market.
But what about now? Do such differences in the allocation of infrastructure between regions lead to location-related differences in the price of petrol? If so, by how much? And, what policies should the government pursue to address such imbalances? These are all questions that I explore in one of my recent working papers titled ‘Widening the Gap: Lessons from the aftermath of the energy market reform in Mexico’ (with Hugo Vallarta) and I will be sharing some of the answers with you in a future blog.
- Are state-owned monopolies effective in delivering successful market outcomes? Why yes, why no?
- In the case of Mexico, are you surprised about the complexities that were involved with opening up markets to competition? Explain why.
- Use Google to identify countries in which energy markets are controlled by state-owned monopolies.
The economic climate remains uncertain and, as we enter 2017, we look towards a new President in the USA, challenging negotiations in the EU and continuing troubles for High Street stores. One such example is Next, a High Street retailer that has recently seen a significant fall in share price.
Prices of clothing and footwear increased in December for the first time in two years, according to the British Retail Consortium, and Next is just one company that will suffer from these pressures. This retail chain is well established, with over 500 stores in the UK and Eire. It has embraced the internet, launching its online shopping in 1999 and it trades with customers in over 70 countries. However, despite all of the positive actions, Next has seen its share price fall by nearly 12% and is forecasting profits in 2017 to be hit, with a lack of growth in earnings reducing consumer spending and thus hitting sales.
The sales trends for Next are reminiscent of many other stores, with in-store sales falling and online sales rising. In the days leading up to Christmas, in-store sales fell by 3.5%, while online sales increased by over 5%. However, this is not the only trend that this latest data suggests. It also indicates that consumer spending on clothing and footwear is falling, with consumers instead spending more money on technology and other forms of entertainment. Kirsty McGregor from Drapers magazine said:
“I think what we’re seeing there is an underlying move away from spending so much money on clothing and footwear. People seem to be spending more money on going out and on technology, things like that.”
Furthermore, with price inflation expected to rise in 2017, and possibly above wage inflation, spending power is likely to be hit and it is spending on those more luxury items that will be cut. With Next’s share price falling, the retail sector overall was also hit, with other companies seeing their share prices fall as well, although some, such as B&M, bucked the trend. However, the problems facing Next are similar to those facing other stores.
But for Next there is more bad news. It appears that the retail chain has simply been underperforming for some time. We have seen other stores facing similar issues, such as BHS and Marks & Spencer. Neil Wilson from ETX Capital said:
“The simple problem is that Next is underperforming the market … UK retail sales have held up in the months following the Brexit vote but Next has suffered. It’s been suffering for a while and needs a turnaround plan … The brand is struggling for relevancy, and risks going the way of Marks & Spencer on the clothing front, appealing to an ever-narrower customer base.”
Brand identity and targeting customers are becoming ever more important in a highly competitive High Street that is facing growing competition from online traders. Next is not the first company to suffer from this and will certainly not be the last as we enter what many see as one of the most economically uncertain years since the financial crisis.
Next’s gloomy 2017 forecast drags down fashion retail shares The Guardian, Sarah Butler and Julia Kollewe (4/1/17)
Next shares plummet after ‘difficult’ Christmas trading The Telegraph, Sam Dean (4/1/17)
Next warns 2017 profits could fall up to 14% as costs grow Sky News, James Sillars (4/1/17)
Next warns on outlook as sales fall BBC News (4/1/17)
Next chills clothing sector with cut to profit forecast Reuters, James Davey (4/1/17)
Next shares drop after warning of difficult winter Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde (22/10/15)
- With Next’s warning of a difficult winter, its share price fell. Using a diagram, explain why this happened.
- Why have shares in other retail companies also been affected following Next’s report on its profit forecast for 2017?
- Which factors have adversely affected Next’s performance over the past year? Are they the same as the factors that have affected Marks & Spencer?
- Next has seen a fall in profits. What is likely to have caused this?
- How competitive is the UK High Street? What type of market structure would you say that it fits into?
- With rising inflation expected, what will this mean for consumer spending? How might this affect economic growth?
- One of the factors affecting Next is higher import prices. Why have import prices increased and what will this mean for consumer spending and sales?
An earlier post on this site described a recent row between Tesco and Unilever that erupted when Unilever attempted to raise the prices it charges Tesco for its products. Unilever justified this because its costs have increased as a result of the UK currency depreciation following the Brexit decision.
It also appears that more general concerns that the fall in the value of sterling would lead to higher retail prices were prevalent around the time that the Tesco Unilever dispute came to light. Former Sainsbury’s boss, Justin King, made clear that British shoppers should be prepared for higher prices. He also said that:
Retailers’ margins are already squeezed. So there is no room to absorb input price pressures and costs will need to be passed on. But no one wants to be the first to break cover. No business wants to be the first to blame Brexit for a rise in prices. But once someone does, there will be a flood of companies because they will all be suffering.
It is interesting to consider further why the Tesco and Unilever case was the first to make the headlines and why their dispute was resolved so quickly. In addition, what are the more general implications for the retail prices consumers will have to pay?
Arguably, Unilever saw itself as having a strong hand in negotiations with Tesco because its product portfolio includes a wide variety of must-stock brands, including Pot Noodles, Marmite and Persil, that are found in 98% of UK households..
Unilever has been criticised for using the currency devaluation as an excuse to justify charging Tesco more, since most of its products are made in the UK. However, Unilever was quick to point outthat commodities it uses in the manufacture of products are priced in US dollars, so the currency devaluation can still affect the cost of products that it manufactures in the UK. In addition, Unilever’s chief financial officer, Graeme Pitkethly, insisted that price increases due to rising costs were a normal part of doing business:
We are taking price increases in the UK. That is a normal devaluation-led cycle.
On the other hand, even if the cost increases faced by Unilever are genuine, it is interesting to speculate whether it would have been so quick to adjust its prices downwards in response to a currency appreciation. After all, a commonly observed phenomenon across a range of markets is ‘rockets and feathers’ pricing behaviour i.e. prices going up from a cost increase more quickly than they go down following an equivalent cost decrease.
Compared to Unilever, some other suppliers are likely to have less bargaining power – in particular, those competing in highly fragmented markets and those producing less branded products. In such markets the suppliers may be forced to accept cost increases. For example, almost 50% of butter and cheese consumed in the UK comes from milk sourced from EU markets. Protecting such suppliers is one of the key roles of the Grocery code of conduct that the UK competition agency has put in place.
From Tesco’s point of view it will have benefited from good publicity by doing its best to protect consumers from price hikes. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:
Retailers are firmly on the side of consumers in negotiating with suppliers and improving efficiencies in the supply chain to control the inflationary pressure that is building through the devaluation of the pound.
However, it is also clear that Tesco had its own motives for resisting increased costs for Unilever’s products. In such situations both supplier and retailer should be keen to avoid a situation where they both impose their own substantial mark-ups at each stage of the supply chain. It is well established that this creates a double mark-up and not only harms consumers, but also the supplier and retailer themselves. Instead, the firms have an incentive to use more complex contractual arrangements to solve the problem. For example, suppliers may pay slotting allowances to get a place on the retailers’ shelves in exchange for lower retail mark-ups.
It has also been claimed that cutthroat competition in the supermarket industry, especially from discounter retailers Aldi and Lidl, made Tesco particularly keen to prevent price rises. Some arguments suggest that these discounters will be best placed to benefit from the currency devaluation as they sell more own brands, have a limited range, the leanest supply chains and benefit from substantial economies of scale. On the other hand, they source more of their products from abroad and it has been suggested that:
A fall in sterling will push prices up for everyone who sources products from Europe, but Aldi and Lidl will be affected more than most.
One prediction suggests that the overall impact of the currency depreciation on food prices will be an increase of around 3%. This may be particularly worrisome given concerns that the impact will fall most heavily on benefit claimants and other low-income households.
Outside of the food industry, Mike Rake, the chairman of BT, has highlighted the fact that:
Imported mobile phones and broadband home hubs were already 10% more expensive and the cost would have to be passed on to consumers in the near future.
It is therefore clear that the currency devaluation has the potential to create substantial tensions in the supply-chain agreements across a range of markets. The impact on the firms involved and on consumers will depend upon a wide range of factors, including the competitiveness of the markets, the nature of the firms involved and their bargaining power. Furthermore, evidence from an earlier currency depreciation in Latin America makes clear that the price elasticity of demand will be another factor that determines the impact price rises have.
Finally, it is also worth noting that a potential flip side of the currency depreciation is a boost for UK exports. However, it has been suggested that the manufacturing potential to take advantage of this in the UK is limited. In addition, even the manufacturing that does take place, for example in the car industry, often relies on components imported from abroad.
The Brexiteers’ Marmite conspiracy theories exposed their utter ignorance of how markets really work Independent, Ben Chu (16/10/16)
Tesco price dispute sends Unilever brand perceptions tumbling Marketing Week, Leonie Roderick (17/10/16)
Unilever and Tesco both benefit from their price row, but Brexit will bring more pain Marketing Week, Mark Ritson (19/10/16)
Why the Tesco v Unilever feud was good for British business campaign, Helen Edwards (20/10/16)
- What are some of the factors that affect a supplier’s bargaining power?
- How might the discount retailers respond to the currency devaluation?
- Use the figures from Latin America in the article cited above to calculate the price elasticity of demand.
- Explain why the price elasticity of demand is an important determinant of the effect of a price rise.
- Can you think of other examples of markets that may be particularly prone to price rises following a currency depreciation?