Category: Economics for Business: 8e Ch 13

Can behavioural economics be applied to the case of Sweden? The Swedish government is trying this out by changing government policy in a way that may encourage its residents to change their behaviour.

People in many countries in the world live in what is often called a ‘throwaway society’. If something breaks, it’s often easier and cheaper simply to get rid of it and buy a new one. But with changes in government policy, including VAT cuts on repairs to white goods, the objective is to encourage consumers to repair their goods, rather than buying new ones. This is also contributing towards the wider objective of sustainable consumption, which is being promoted by the Swedish government.

Per Bolund, who is one of Sweden’s six Green Ministers, spoke about this policy commenting that:

“Consumers are quite active in changing both what they buy and how they buy in Sweden … We believe that getting lower costs for labour is a big part in making it more rational to repair rather than just to buy cheap and throw away …If we don’t change the economic incentives the change will never come.”

Whether or not this policy works will take some time to see, but it’s certainly an interesting test of how changing incentives affect consumer behaviour. You can read about other examples of nudging in the following blog A nudge in the right direction?.

Articles

Waste not want not: Sweden to give tax breaks for repairs The Guardian, Richard Orange (19/9/16)
Can Sweden tackle the throwaway society? BBC News (20/9/16)
Trendy now, trash tomorrow Huffington Post, Kirsten Brodde (29/9/16)
Hong Kong needs a strategy quickly for dealing with waste South China Morning Post (27/9/16)

Questions

  1. If VAT on repairs falls, how will this affect consumer behaviour?
  2. Do you think there would be an income and a substitution effect from this change in government policy? What would they be?
  3. How is the Swedish government using incentives to change consumer behaviour?
  4. If it is cheaper to buy a new white good, then is it rational to buy a new one rather than repair an existing one?
  5. How effective do you think this policy would be in encouraging consumers to change their behaviour?
  6. Find some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.

Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers. As the Livemint article below states, “According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.” Instead, rationality is bounded: people use simple rules of thumb in making decisions – rules they have developed over time in the light of experience.

So can people’s behaviour be altered by understanding their limited rationality? Advertisers are only too well aware of a number of psychological ‘tricks’ to change people’s purchasing behaviour. For example, wanting to be approved of by your friends is used by advertisers to sell various fashion products and toiletries. Often, people need only a relatively small ‘nudge’ to change the way they behave.

And it is not just advertisers who are using the insights of behavioural economics. Governments are increasingly trying to find ways of nudging people to behave in ways that are better for themselves or for society.

In 2010, David Cameron set up a ‘Nudge Unit’, formally know as ‘The Behavioural Insights Team‘. It has produced a number of academic papers on topics as diverse as tax compliance, incentives for university attendance, charitable giving in the workplace and using SMS reminders to reduce missed hospital appointments. The academic evidence can then be use as the basis for policy.

Another nudge unit has been set up in Australia (see second article below). The USA, Singapore and various other countries are increasingly using the insights of behavioural economics to devise policy to affect human behaviour.

Two recent pieces of work by the UK team concern ways of discouraging doctors from over-prescribing antibiotics and using encouraging text messages to FE students to reduce dropout rates. Another nudge has been used by the tax authorities (HMRC) who have been sending out texts to remind people to pay their taxes on time and to make them aware that they are being monitored. The message read, “Most people pay on time to avoid penalties”.

The articles below look at these recent initiatives and how human behaviour can be changed in a relatively low-cost way. In most cases this involves a simple nudge.

Articles

Nudge-unit trials reveal best ways to prod people Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (29/8/15)
Government ‘nudge unit’ to attempt to change people’s behaviours Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (15/9/16)
New frontiers of human behaviour Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
Doctors ‘nudged’ into prescribing far fewer antibiotics New Scientist (15/9/16)
GPs handing out fewer antibiotics after warning of over-prescribing, says study BT (15/9/16)
Study of colleges shows ‘encouraging’ texts dramatically cut dropout rates FE Week, Paul Offord (22/7/15)
The text messages getting teenagers better grades BBC Today Programme, David Halpern and Fiona Morey (15/9/16)
Ping! Pay your tax now or face a penalty. HMRC sends out ‘threatening’ SMS texts to taxpayers The Telegraph, Christopher Hope (15/9/16)

Publications of Behavioural Insights Team

Publications list BIT
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16: overview BIT (15/9/16)
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16 BIT (15/9/16)
Blog BIT

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by bounded rationality.
  2. Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
  3. Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
  4. Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
  5. How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
  6. To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded nudging? Explain.
  7. Why, do you think, the message by an Australian hospital, “if you attend, the hospital will not lose the $125 we lose when a patient does not turn up” was successful in reducing missed appointments by 20%, while the message, “if you do not attend, the hospital loses $125” was not as effective?

Short-termism is a problem which has dogged British firms and is part of the explanation of low investment in the UK. Shareholders, many of which are large pension funds and other financial institutions, are more concerned with short-term returns than long-term growth and productivity. Likewise, senior managers’ rewards are often linked to short-term performance rather than the long-term health of the company.

But the stakeholders in companies extend well beyond owners and senior managers. Workers, consumers, suppliers, local residents and the country as a whole are all stakeholders in companies.

So is the current model of capitalism fit for purpose? According to the new May government, workers and consumers should be represented on the boards of major British companies. The Personnel Today article quotes Theresa May as saying:

‘The people who run big businesses are supposed to be accountable to outsiders, to non-executive directors, who are supposed to ask the difficult questions. In practice, they are drawn from the same, narrow social and professional circles as the executive team and – as we have seen time and time again – the scrutiny they provide is just not good enough.

We’re going to change that system – and we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well.’

This model is not new. Many countries, such as France and Germany, have had worker representatives on boards for many years. There the focus is often less on short-term profit maximisation and more on the long-term performance of the company in terms of a range of indicators.

Extending this model to stakeholder groups more generally could see companies taking broader social objectives into account. And the number of companies which put corporate social responsibility high on their agenda could increase significantly.

And this approach can ultimately bring better returns to shareholders. As the first The Conversation article below states:

This is something that research into a ‘Relational Company’ model has found – by putting the interests of all stakeholders at the heart of their decision making, companies can become more competitive, stable and successful. Ultimately, this will generate greater returns for shareholders.

While CSR has become mainstream in terms of the public face of some large corporations, it has tended to be one of the first things to be cut when economic growth weakens. The findings from Business in the Community’s 2016 Corporate Responsibility Index suggest that many firms are considering how corporate responsibility can positively affect profits. However, it remains the case that there are still many firms and consumers that care relatively little about the social or natural environment. Indeed, each year, fewer companies take part in the CR Index. In 2016 there were 43 firms; in 2015, 68 firms; in 2014, 97 firms; in 2013, 126 firms.

In addition to promising to give greater voice to stakeholder groups, Mrs May has also said that she intends to curb executive pay. Shareholders will be given binding powers to block executive remuneration packages. But whether shareholders are best placed to do this questionable. If shareholders’ interests are the short-term returns on their investment, then they may well approve of linking executive remuneration to short-term returns rather than on the long-term health of the company or its role in society more generally.

When leaders come to power, they often make promises that are never fulfilled. Time will tell whether the new government will make radical changes to capitalism in the UK or whether a move to greater stakeholder power will remain merely an aspiration.

Articles

Will Theresa May break from Thatcherism and transform business? The Conversation, Arad Reisberg (19/7/16)
Democratise companies to rein in excessive banker bonuses The Conversation, Prem Sikka (14/3/16)
Theresa May promises worker representatives on boards Personnel Today, Rob Moss (11/7/16)
If Theresa May is serious about inequality she’ll ditch Osbornomics The Guardian, Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs (19/7/16)
Theresa May should beware of imitating the German model Financial Times, Ursula Weidenfeld (12/7/16)

Questions

  1. To what extent is the pursuit of maximum short-term profits in the interests of (a) shareholders; (b) consumers; (c) workers; (d) suppliers; (e) society generally; (f) the environment?
  2. How could British industry be restructured so as to encourage a greater proportion of GDP being devoted to investment?
  3. How would greater flexibility in labour markets affect the perspectives on company performance of worker representatives on boards?
  4. How does worker representation in capitalism work in Germany? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this model? (See the panel in the Personnel Today article and the Financial Times article.)
  5. What do you understand by ‘industrial policy’? How can it be used to increase investment, productivity, growth and the pursuit of broader stakeholder interests?

There has been a link between Sainsbury’s and Argos, with Sainsbury’s offering Argos concessions in some stores. But now, we’re looking at a much more significant link, with Sainsbury’s offering £1.3 billion for control of Home Retail Group’s Argos.

Many have questioned the sense of this offer, wondering what Sainsbury’s will gain from purchasing Argos, but Sainsbury’s has indicated it will boost sales, give itself access to a more advanced delivery network and Argos customers. Argos has worked hard to update its image, moving towards a more technology based catalogue and promising same day delivery in a bid to compete with companies, such as Amazon.

Online delivery is a costly business, with suggestions that retailers make losses on each delivery and hence pay customers to shop online. This move by Sainsbury’s may therefore be an investment in expanding its online delivery services and using the infrastructure that Argos already has. This will therefore help Sainsbury’s to invest in this sought after customer service, without having to invest millions into providing the infrastructure in the first place. This move may give Sainsbury’s a first mover advantage in the grocery sector, which may force other competitors to follow suit.

We could write for hours on the ins and outs of this potential deal and undoubtedly commentators will argue both for and against it. The following articles consider the good and bad sides and the future of grocery retailers in the UK.

Why does Sainsbury’s want to buy Argos? BBC News, Katie Hope (01/02/16)
Sainsbury’s agrees terms to buy Home Retail Group in £1.3bn deal The Guardian, Sean Farrell and Sarah Butler (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s bets on Argos takeover for digital age Reuters, James Davey and Kate Holton (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s returns with £1.3bn offer for Argos The Telegraph, Jon Yeomans and Ashley Armstrong (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s could shut up to 200 Argos stores Sky News (12/01/16)
Sainsbury’s strikes deal to buy Home Retail Group Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Arash Massoudi and Josh Noble (02/02/16)

Questions

  1. What are the benefits to Sainsbury’s of taking over Argos?
  2. Why have many critics been surprised by this take-over?
  3. What is meant by a first mover advantage?
  4. Do you think that grocery retailers should diversify further or focus on their core business?
  5. Commentators suggest that delivery costs more to retailers than the price charged to consumers. Can you illustrate this using cost and revenue curves?
  6. Online delivery infrastructure is a big fixed cost for a firm. How will this change the shape of a firm’s cost curves and what impact will this have on profits following changes in market output?
  7. Do you think this take over will cause any concerns by competition authorities?

Jim Slater, who has just died at the age of 86, was a tycoon of the 1970s, probably unknown to most reader of this blog. But his legacy lives on and many will question whether the actions of the banking sector and big business today is a reflection of the lessons that were not learnt 40 years ago.

Slater was a businessman: perhaps the businessman in the 1970s, building up a company that in today’s money and the height of its success, would have been worth billions. Buying and selling companies, asset stripping and investing created Slater Walker, which shot to success and then crumbled to failure, taking with it a bailout from the Bank of England of £110 million. You might look at that figure and compare it with the bail outs of more recent times and think – peanuts. But think about how prices have changed and convert £110 million into today’s money and that’s a hefty bail out. A key question is whether the willingness of the government and Bank of England to bail out key banks and financial sector businesses has encouraged the irresponsible lending that led to the credit crunch. Was there a moral hazard? Had Slater Walker been left to fail, would the world look a slightly different place?

Perhaps a little extreme, but I wonder, if we were to look back over the past 50 to 60 years, whether we would find other cases of key businesses being bailed out, which set a precedent for other companies to grow, without necessarily taking full responsibility for it. Jim Slater will certainly leave a legacy behind him .

Jim Slater and the warning from the 1970s that we ignored BBC News, Jonty Bloom (20/11/15)

Questions

  1. What is meant by asset stripping?
  2. If a company like Slater Walker had not been bailed out, do you think the economy would have suffered?
  3. If Slater Walker had been left to fail, would that have changed the business model of some of our largest banks and reduced the chance of a financial crisis 40 years later?
  4. Do you think the concept of moral hazard is relevant here?