The linked article below, by Evan Davis, assesses the state of economics. He argues that economics has had some major successes over the years in providing a framework for understanding how economies function and how to increase incomes and well-being more generally.
Over the last few decades, economists have …had an influence over every aspect of our lives. …And during this era in which economists have reigned, the world has notched up some marked successes. The reduction in the proportion of human beings living in abject poverty over the last thirty years has been extraordinary.
With the development of concepts such as opportunity cost, the prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage and the paradox of thrift, economics has helped to shape the way policymakers perceive economic issues and policies.
These concepts are ‘threshold concepts’. Understanding and being able to relate and apply these core economic concepts helps you to ‘think like an economist’ and to relate the different parts of the subject to each other. Both Economics (10th edition) and Essentials of Economics (8th edition) examine 15 of these threshold concepts. Each time a threshold concept is used in the text, a ‘TC’ icon appears in the margin with the appropriate number. By locating them in this way, you can see their use in a variety of contexts.
But despite the insights provided by traditional economics into the various problems that society faces, the discipline of economics has faced criticism, especially since the financial crisis, which most economists did not foresee.
Even Davis identifies two major shortcomings of the discipline – both beginning with ‘C’. ‘One is complexity, the other is community.’
In terms of complexity, the criticism is that economic models are often based on simplistic assumptions, such as ‘rational maximising behaviour’. This might make it easier to express the models mathematically, but mathematical elegance does not necessarily translate into predictive accuracy. Such models do not capture the ‘messiness’ of the real world.
These models have a certain theoretical elegance but there is now an increasing sense that economies do not evolve along a well-defined mathematical path, but in a far more messy way. The individual players within the economy face radical uncertainty; they adapt and learn as they go; they watch what everybody else does. The economy stumbles along in a process of slow discovery, full of feedback loops.
As far as ‘community’ is concerned, people do not just act as self-interested individuals. Their actions are often governed by how other people behave and also by how their own actions will affect other people, such as family, friends, colleagues or society more generally.
And the same applies to firms. They will be influenced by various other firms, such as competitors, trend setters and suppliers and also by a range of stakeholders – not just shareholders, but also workers, customers, local communities, etc. A firm’s aim is thus unlikely to be simple short-term profit maximisation.
And this broader set of interests translates into policy. The neoliberal free-market, laissez-faire approach to policy is challenged by the desire to take account of broader questions of equity, community and social justice. However privately efficient a free market is, it does not take account of the full social and environmental costs and benefits of firms’ and consumers’ actions or a fair distribution of income and wealth.
It would be wrong, however, to say that economics has not responded to these complexities and concerns. The analysis of externalities, income distribution, incentives, herd behaviour, uncertainty, speculation, cumulative causation and institutional values and biases are increasingly embedded in the economics curriculum and in economic research. What is more, behavioural economics is becoming increasingly mainstream in examining the behaviour of consumers, workers, firms and government. We have tried to reflect these developments in successive editions of our four textbooks.
The ‘Big 4’ supermarkets in the UK – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – have a 69.5% share of the Great Britain grocery market (see data link below). The next four – Aldi, Co-op, Lidl and Waitrose – have a 23.8% share. If two of the Big 4 were to merge, would there be a significant decline in competition? This is a question the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been considering in the light of Sainsbury’s planned £7.3 billion takeover of Asda (owned by the US retailing giant, Walmart).
In a recently published provisional report, the CMA argues that “the merger could lead to a substantial lessening of competition at both a national and local level.” The CMA has concerns that the merger:
…could lead to a worse experience for in-store and online shoppers across the UK through higher prices, a poorer shopping experience, and reductions in the range and quality of products offered. It also has concerns that prices could rise at a large number of Sainsbury’s and Asda petrol stations. …The combined impact means that people could lose out right across the UK and that the deal could also cost shoppers through reduced competition in particular areas where Sainsbury’s and Asda stores overlap.
Sainsbury’s and Asda currently have a combined market share of 31.2%. This is slightly larger than Tesco’s 27.7%. But would this give the merged companies too much market power? Would there not still be intense competition between the new Big 3? And, with the growth in the German discounters, Aldi and Lidl, as well as competition from Waitrose, the Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Iceland, would there be any significant decline in competition and choice and a rise in prices?
To answer this, it is crucial to define the grocery market. The CMA argues that the major competitors to any Big 4 company are the other Big 4 companies, rather than the German discounters or other supermarkets. Unlike Aldi and Lidl, the Big 4 have a range of facilities, such as fish and meat counters, delivery and a large range of branded products.
At a national level the CMA finds that the merger would reduce competitive pressure, so that a Big 3 would be less competitive than the Big 4, with higher prices and with reduced quality, range of products and in-store services.
At the local level the effects are likely to be serious. Often the consumer has very limited choice of supermarkets at a local level. If a particular area has just two supermarkets, Sainsbury’s and Asda, then the merger of the two could result in a substantial loss of competition. The only alternative for consumers in such areas would be to use small shops, which tend to be more highly priced anyway and do not compete head-to-head with the supermarkets, or to drive to another area or to shop online, depending on how far rival supermarkets are prepared to deliver. Similar arguments apply to supermarket petrol stations, where the only competition to supermarkets is from roadside petrol stations, often selling more highly priced petrol.
In response to the CMA’s findings, Sainsbury’s chief executive, Mike Coupe, claims that they focus too much on competition between the Big 4 and do not take into account competition from Lidl and Aldi, both of which are expending rapidly and now have a combined market share of 12.8% (compared with 10.7% two years ago).
Sainsbury’s and Asda also claim that there would be considerable scope for economies of scale, with lower costs being achieved through purchasing and logistics. In a joint statement they state that:
Combining Sainsbury’s and Asda would create significant cost savings, which would allow us to lower prices. Despite the savings being independently reviewed by two separate industry specialists, the CMA has chosen to discount them as benefits.
The two companies and other interested parties have until 13 March to respond to the provisional findings. The CMA will then issue its final report by 30 April 2019. If it sticks to its provisional findings, then either the merger will be blocked or the merging companies would have to ‘sell off a significant number of stores and other assets – potentially including one of the Sainsbury’s or Asda brands – to recreate the competitive rivalry lost through the merger.’ This might be very difficult to achieve as the new buyer would have to be big enough to provide effective competition to the remaining Big 3. Perhaps this could be an opportunity for Amazon to move into in-store grocery retailing. Or there may be some private equity company that would like to do the same.
It is likely that if the CMA sticks to its ruling, the two supermarkets will apply for a judicial review of the CMA’s decision.
In what market segments do the Big 4 supermarkets compete?
Research earlier investigations of the supermarket sector by the UK competition authorities. What were their findings?
In what ways might the proposed takeover of Asda by Sainsbury’s affect consumers’ interests (a) at a national level; (b) at the local level?
What is the ‘GUPPI index’? How is it calculated and how is it used in assessing the effects of the proposed takeover? (See pages 88–91 and 109–11 of the CMA’s Provisional Report and pages I5–I15 of the Appendices and Glossary.)
Distinguish between horizontal and vertical mergers. How is the distinction relevant in drawing lessons from the Tesco takeover of Booker for the Sainsbury’s takeover of Asda?
Rather than blocking the takeover, one alternative would be for the CMA to permit it, subject to the sale of specific stores where there are problems of the merger limiting competition in a particular locality. Do you think that this would be a better alternative than blocking the takeover? Explain.
Back in October, we examined the rise in oil prices. We said that, ‘With Brent crude currently at around $85 per barrel, some commentators are predicting the price could reach $100. At the beginning of the year, the price was $67 per barrel; in June last year it was $44. In January 2016, it reached a low of $26.’ In that blog we looked at the causes on both the demand and supply sides of the oil market. On the demand side, the world economy had been growing relatively strongly. On the supply side there had been increasing constraints, such as sanctions on Iran, the turmoil in Venezuela and the failure of shale oil output to expand as much as had been anticipated.
But what a difference a few weeks can make!
Brent crude prices have fallen from $86 per barrel in early October to just over $50 by the end of the year – a fall of 41 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Explanations can again be found on both the demand and supply sides.
On the demand side, global growth is falling and there is concern about a possible recession (see the blog: Is the USA heading for recession?). The Bloomberg article below reports that all three main agencies concerned with the oil market – the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Paris-based International Energy Agency and OPEC – have trimmed their oil demand growth forecasts for 2019. With lower expected demand, oil companies are beginning to run down stocks and thus require to purchase less crude oil.
On the supply side, US shale output has grown rapidly in recent weeks and US output has now reached a record level of 11.7 million barrels per day (mbpd), up from 10.0 mbpd in January 2018, 8.8 mbpd in January 2017 and 5.4 mbpd in January 2010. The USA is now the world’s biggest oil producer, with Russia producing around 11.4 mpbd and Saudi Arabia around 11.1 mpbd.
Total world supply by the end of 2018 of around 102 mbpd is some 2.5 mbpd higher than expected at the beginning of 2018 and around 0.5 mbpd greater than consumption at current prices (the remainder going into storage).
So will oil prices continue to fall? Most analysts expect them to rise somewhat in the near future. Markets may have overcorrected to the gloomy news about global growth. On the supply side, global oil production fell in December by 0.53 mbpd. In addition OPEC and Russia have signed an accord to reduce their joint production by 1.2 mbpd starting this month (January). What is more, US sanctions on Iran have continued to curb its oil exports.
But whatever happens to global growth and oil production, the future price will continue to reflect demand and supply. The difficulty for forecasters is in predicting just what the levels of demand and supply will be in these uncertain times.
Oil prices have been rising in recent weeks. With Brent crude currently at around $85 per barrel, some commentators are predicting the price could reach $100. At the beginning of the year, the price was $67 per barrel; in June last year it was $44. In January 2016, it reached a low of $26. But what has caused the price to increase?
On the demand side, the world economy has been growing relatively strongly. Over the past three years, global growth has averaged 3.5%. This has helped to offset the effects of more energy efficient technologies and the gradual shift away from oil to alternative sources of energy.
On the supply side, there have been growing constraints.
The predicted resurgence of shale oil production, after falls in both output and investment when oil prices were low in 2016, has failed to materialise as much as expected. The reason is that pipeline capacity is limited and there is very little scope for transporting more oil from the major US producing area – the Permian basin in West Texas and SE New Mexico. There are similar pipeline capacity constraints from Canadian shale fields. The problem is compounded by shortages of labour and various inputs.
But perhaps the most serious supply-side issue is the renewed sanctions on Iranian oil exports imposed by the Trump administration, due to come into force on 4 November. The USA is also putting pressure on other countries not to buy Iranian oil. Iran is the world’s third largest oil exporter.
Also, there has been continuing turmoil in the Venezuelan economy, where inflation is currently around 500 000 per cent and is expected to reach 1 million per cent by the end of the year. Consequently, the country’s oil output is down. Production has fallen by more than a third since 2016. Venezuela was the world’s third largest oil producer.
Winners and losers from high oil prices
The main gainers from high oil prices are the oil producing countries, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. It will also encourage investment in oil exploration and new oil wells, and could help countries, such as Colombia, with potential that is considered underexploited. However, given that the main problem is a lack of supply, rather than a surge in demand, the gains will be more limited for those countries, such as the USA and Canada, suffering from supply constraints. Clearly there will be no gain for Iran.
In terms of losers, higher oil prices are likely to dampen global growth. If the oil price reaches $100 per barrel, global growth could be around 0.2 percentage points lower than had previously been forecast. In its latest World Economic Outlook, published on 8 October, the IMF has already downgraded its forecast growth for 2018 and 2019 to 3.7% from the 3.9% it forecast six months ago – and this forecast is based on the assumption that oil prices will be $69.38 a barrel in 2018 and $68.76 a barrel in 2019.
Clearly, the negative effect will be greater, the larger a country’s imports are as a percentage of its GDP. Countries that are particularly vulnerable to higher oil prices are the eurozone, Japan, China, India and most other Asian economies. Lower growth in these countries could have significant knock-on effects on other countries.
Consumers in advanced oil-importing countries would face higher fuel costs, accounting for an additional 0.3 per cent of household spending. Inflation could rise by as much as 1 percentage point.
The size of the effects depends on just how much oil prices rise and for how long. This depends on various demand- and supply-side factors, not least of which in the short term is speculation. Crucially, global political events, and especially US policies, will be the major driving factor in what happens.
In the last few years there have been growing concerns (see here for example) that markets in the USA are becoming increasingly dominated by a small number of firms. It is feared that the result of this will be a reduction in competition. Consistent with this, evidence suggests that the profits these firms make have increased. Last month The Economist and the Resolution Foundation published evidence (see references below) suggesting a similar picture may be emerging in Britain.
The Economist divided the British economy into 600 sub-sectors and found that in 58% of these the share of total revenue accruing to the 4 biggest firms had increased since 2008. The Resolution Foundation found a similar picture, especially in manufacturing industries where from 2004-16 the top five firms’ share of total revenue increased by over 10%.
Economic theory would suggest that as markets become more concentrated prices are likely to rise and The Economist cites research showing that mark-ups charged by firms in Britain have indeed risen. In addition to consumers facing higher prices, there is also concern that the lack of competition both in the USA and the UK is leading to lower wages being paid to workers. On the other hand, unlike in the USA, the evidence from the UK does not so far suggest there has also been an increase in corporate profits. Instead, it appears that the more successful firms’ profits have increased at the expense of their rivals.
This evidence on profits is line with a number of arguments that suggest we should perhaps be less concerned when markets are dominated by a small number of firms. Large firms may benefit from economies of scale and, being sufficiently large may be necessary for firms to innovate in new products and processes. Furthermore, high market shares may result from the competitive process as a reward for a firm developing a unique product or being more efficient than its rivals.
The Economist cites the supermarket industry as an example where concentrated is high, but competition is intense. Interestingly, this is a market where the British competition authorities have previously been concerned about the level of competition and spent considerable amounts of time investigating.
Despite these two opposing viewpoints, overall, The Economist argues strongly that we should be concerned about the situation in Britain. Not only are prices too high and wages too low, but growth in productivity is slow, even for the leading firms. Furthermore, they make clear that the situation may worsen following Brexit. It is argued that:
leaving the EU’s single market and customs union would reduce trade, easing competitive pressure from abroad.
This is consistent with evidence that joining the EC in the mid 1970s increased foreign competition in the UK and helped to end the low productivity growth that had plagued the economy since the 1930s.
Furthermore, it is suggested that:
to attract investment the government might look more favourably on proposed mergers—and loosening regulations would be easier outside the EU’s competition regime.
Therefore, it is clear that in the future there will be a vital role for the UK’s competition authority to remain independent of political objectives and aim to promote competition. In particular, they must prevent mergers that raise concentration and harm competition and intervene if they believe firms are abusing their dominant positions. Of course, following Brexit the case load of the competition authority in the UK will increase dramatically as they have to take on cases previously dealt with by the European Commission. One estimate is that it will need to look at around 40% more merger cases. It will certainly be interesting to see how competition in markets in Britain evolves over the next few years and the role competition policy plays in regulating this process.