Category: Economics for Business: 8e Ch 16

You can hardly have failed to miss the snow! From children sledging to cars skidding and from being snowed in from work to being snowed in at work. In the UK, it only happens once in a while and when it does, life practically comes to a standstill. Why is this not the case in countries such as Norway? Well, one way of looking at it as that they’re used to it and have tried and tested methods of dealing with it and the investment to match. As we suffer from these severe conditions only once in a while, any significant investment in improving our ability to deal with it could be considered a waste of money.

However, many businesses affected by the snowy conditions will certainly not see it this way. Transport links have been disrupted: roads closed; trains stopped; airports closed; tunnels blocked and sports fields unplayable. The worst affected city centres have been deserted and retailers have subsequently suffered. Even if shoppers had made it to the shops, they may have found many of them closed, as staff struggled to make it in to work across the country. Office workers were being advised to work from home where possible and off-duty medical staff that could make it in to work were covering for those that couldn’t. Even emergency services were said to be going out only to life threatening situations.

Small businesses are suffering from declining sales, as deliveries cannot be made. Farmers too are facing major problems. Thousands of livestock are being frozen to death and many animals are without food, as farmers simply can’t get to them, suffering from snow drifts that have been up to 4 feet deep across Scotland. These are the worst conditions that some areas in Scotland have experienced in 50 years and they’re expected to continue for some time. Cattle farmers in the UK are also facing wasting thousands of litres of milk, as lorries find they cannot access the farms. This could simply mean pouring all this milk down the drain.

Estimates suggest that this cold winter could cost the UK economy £14.5bn in total from lost business. Daily costs will be about £690 million – certainly something that we don’t need in the current climate – financial that is! The following articles look at some of the problems faced across the UK. Read them and then think about the questions below.

Hundreds stranded as Eurostar train breaks down in channel tunnel again Mail Online, Peter Allen (7/1/10)
UK snow freezes transport links and thousands of schools (including video) Guardian, Peter Walker and Steven Morris (6/1/10)
Snowed in, out of pocket. Store staff face a wage freeze Guardian, Caroline Davis and John Stevens (6/1/10)
Livestock being frozen to death in their thousands Scotsman, Frank Urquhart, Alastair Dalton and Mark Smith (7/1/10)
Heavy snow damages business for hospitality industry Big Hospitality, Becky Paskin (6/1/10)
UK’s snowy winter could cost the economy £14.5bn Metro Reporter (7/1/10)
Business leaders criticise school closures BBC News (7/1/10)
Snow puts business continuity plans to the test Computer Weekly, Warwick Ashford (7/1/10)
Freezing weather will cost Welsh economy £25m a day Western Mail, David James (7/1/10)
Snow brings chaos – and beautiful scenes Cotswold Journal (7/1/10)
Local firms count the cost as the big chill continues Belfast Telegraph (7/1/10)
Is snow actually good for the economy? BBC Magazine, Anthony Reuben (15/1/10)

Businesses affected by bad weather BBC News (8/1/10)

Questions

  1. How have businesses been affected by the snow? Is opportunity cost relevant here?
  2. How is a cost of £14.5bn calculated? (See the article from Metro Reporter.)
  3. What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against more investment in techniques and equipment to combat these type of conditions?
  4. Why are pay freezes a possibility for some staff? Illustrate and explain the likely effects of this policy.
  5. Some shops have seen record sales in this snowy weather, with their shelves completely empty. Which shops would you expect to be in these circumstances and why? (See news item, A new concept for you – Thermal elasticity of demand)
  6. Which sector of the economy do you think will be the worst affected and why? Which sector’s losses are likely to have the biggest consequences for the UK economy?

Increasing traffic on the roads is observable by everyone and government policy is focused on reducing the demand for road space, rather than increasing its supply. One method has been to improve public transport and make it a viable substitute for car travel. Private costs of motoring have increased, but if there is no viable alternative, people will continue to demand car travel. Investment in buses and trains has improved their quality: they are more frequent, more reliable, arguably more comfortable and supposed to be part of an integrated transport policy. Local bus services provide a crucial link for local communities, but it is these services that are now facing problems.

In your economics lectures, you may have looked at local bus services, when you considered monopolies, oligopolies and possibly contestable markets. Oligopolies, whilst closer to the monopoly end of the market spectrum can be very competitive, but are also open to collusion and anti-competitive practices. The local bus sector has been referred to the Competition Commission by the Office of Fair Trading through complaints of ‘predatory tactics’ by companies. It is argued that local bus services, by limiting competition, are causing prices to rise and the quality of service to fall. One key issue is that those companies established in the market are alleged to be acting aggressively towards smaller bus companies and thus reducing competition in the industry. A low number of bids for supported service contracts in many areas, local bus routes dominated by a few large companies and predatory actions by incumbent firms are all complaints that this industry is facing.

This investigation is especially important, given the amount of public money that goes into the bus industry: £1.2bn. Investigations found that in areas of limited competition, prices were 9p higher. A number of take-overs have contributed to this situation. Two-thirds of bus services are controlled by only five operators. This limits competition in the market and hence is argued to be against public interest. Yet, industry representatives still argue that the market is competitive. Read the following articles and answer the questions about this issue. Was the OFT right to to initiate this investigation?

Local buses to be re-regulated BBC News (27/9/09)
OFT refers UK bus market to Competition Commission Dow Jones Newswires, Kaveri Nihthyananthan (7/1/10)
Office of Fair Trading prompts probe into bus services Guardian (7/1/10)
Trasport groups fear OFT competition probe over buses Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (4/1/10)
Bus industry competition queried BBC News (20/8/09)
OFT refers bus industry on poor service and prices Times Online, Francesca Steele (7/1/10)
Inquiry into local bus market ‘may delay investment’ Scotsman, Hamish Rutherford (5/1/10)

Questions

  1. Why are local bus services argued to be (a) a monopoly; (b) an oligopoly?
  2. What are the main aspects of UK competition policy?
  3. What is a concentration ratio and how does this apply to the bus industry?
  4. What predatory tactics are being used in the local bus industry and how do they affect competition, prices and quality?
  5. Why may limited competition be against the public interest?
  6. Traffic congestion is a major problem. Explain the economic theory behind government intervention in this area. Think about the effects of taxes; building more roads; investment in substitutes. Which is likely to be the most effective method?

Up until a year ago, milk and cheese prices were soaring woldwide (see Cheddar – the king of cheeses at £2000 per tonne). A surging world economy and rapidly growing demand from China and India were driving up commodity prices, including milk and milk-based producs. In the UK, average farmgate prices for milk had risen from 19 pence per litre (ppl) in 2006 to 27.4ppl by October 2008 (see here for data). Since then, however, as the global economy has plunged into recession, milk prices have fallen. By September 2009, the farmgate price had fallen by over 18 per cent to around 22.4ppl. With rising costs for fuel and cattle feed, many dairy farmers are now making a loss and are either quitting, or considering quitting, the industry.

It’s a similar story in Europe, North America and other dairy producing regions of the world. In Europe “the mood is turning sour. Last week 300 tractors dragged milk containers over fields in southern Belgium, dumping a day’s worth of production (see video). Similar protests were made in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The crisis has driven many EU farmers into a ‘milk strike’, with thousands refusing to deliver to the industrial dairy conglomerates that produce everything from skimmed milk to processed cheese.”

So is this just market forces in action and will prices rise again as the world economy recovers? Or is it a reflection, in part, of the monopsony power of the supermarkets and the milk processing industry? The following articles look at the issues, both in the UK and the rest of Europe and in the USA.

Milk ‘strikes’ and shortages hit Europe as UK dairy industry reels from crisis Observer (20/9/09)
German agriculture ministers meet as European milk crisis escalates Deutsche Welle (17/9/09)
EU Milk Strike Joined by More Than 60,000 Farmers, Group Says Bloomberg (18/9/09)
EU to boost aid for dairy farms BBC News (17/9/09)
Milk: Commission proposes further measures to help dairy sector in short, medium and long term European Commission Press Release (17/9/09)
Milk output fell in August as dairies cut herds Chicago Daily Herald (19/9/09)
New England tries to save dairies The News Journal (Delaware) (20/9/09)

Questions

  1. For what reasons are many dairy farmers now making a loss?
  2. For what reasons has the power balance in the wholesale milk market shifted towards milk purchasers (such as supermarkets) and away from farmers?
  3. How would a phased liberalisation of EU milk production help the UK’s dairy farmers?
  4. Discuss the likely effectiveness of the European Commission’ proposed measures to help dairy sector in short, medium and long term.
  5. What is likely to happen to milk prices over the next two years and what will be the likely effect on supply? Explain your answer and consider the relevance of price elasticity of supply.
  6. “Agriculture officials and farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts have launched a program called Keep Local Farms. … Organizers say they hope to appeal to consumers’ growing taste for local foods” (see final linked article above). What determines the likely effectiveness of such ‘buy local’ movements? What incentives are there for people to buy local? If countries in general encourage people to buy local, is this a zero sum game? Explain.

This podcast is from BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. It consists of an interview with James Berresford, chief executive of VisitEngland, and Tracy Corrigan, of the Daily Telegraph on the topic of ‘staycations’ – a term used to refer to people holidaying at home rather than going abroad. Staycations are up, but why is this the case; how much have people switched; and is it really a cheaper option?

More people holidaying in England BBC Today Programme (27/8/09)

See also the following articles:
Unemployment Up In Seaside Resorts Despite Era Of The ‘Staycation’ Fresh Business Thinking (22/8/09)
Unemployment up in seaside resorts despite era of the ‘staycation’ TUC (21/8/09)
Haven Holidays sees rise in caravan sales Times Online (26/8/09)
‘Staycation’ Britons reconsider their holiday plans The National (Abu Dhabi) (28/8/09)
Recession-hit Britons abandon foreign holidays in favour of ‘staycations’ Guardian (13/8/09)
Bad weather puts paid to the Great British Staycation Independent on Sunday (22/8/09)

The following are useful sources of evidence:
Visits to the UK up 4 per cent Office for National Statistics News Release (13/8/09)
1.2 Million More Holidays Taken In England As Brits Take Breaks Closer To Home enjoyEngland (7/8/09)
11.9 million Brits to take U.K break this Bank Holiday enjoyEngland (26/8/09)

Questions

  1. What are the determinants of demand for staycations? How have these impacted on the demand for staycations in the UK in summer 2009?
  2. How are the (a) price; (b) income and (c) cross-price elasticities of demand for staycations relevant in determining the demand for staycations?
  3. Why is imperfect information an important problem in making a decision about where to take a holiday and how do risk attitudes affect the decision?
  4. Why has unemployment risen more than the UK national average in many seaside towns?

Banks appearing in the news has become commonplace in the past year or so. Everyday, there has been something newsworthy happening in the banking sector, whether in the UK or abroad. A recent development in this sector is Barclays agreeing to sell its fund management division, BGI, to Blackrock for £8.2 billion. Barclays says that there are strategic reasons for the sale, which undoubtedly add to the 8.2 billion other reasons. This deal will put the bank in a strong position to make acquisitions next year in creating the world’s biggest asset manager. It will also allow Barclays to weather any further storms on the horizon. The articles below look at recent developments.

Blackrock in £8.2 billion Barclays deal BBC News (12/6/09)
Blackrock and a hardplace The Economist (12/6/09)
Bob Diamond: The builder of Barclays Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (13/6/09)
Barclays offloads fund management business BGI to Blackrock for £13.5 billion Telegraph, James Quinn (12/6/09)
Inside Look: Blackrock buys Barclays fund unit for $13.5 billion Bloomberg, youtube (12/6/09)
Sovereign wealth funds back BlackRock move to acquire Barclaysd Global Investors Telegraph, Louise Armitstead, James Quinn (12/6/09)
Blackrock targets Barclays firm BBC News (8/6/09)

Questions

  1. What are the ‘strategic reasons’ behind Barclays’ decision to sell its fund management division?
  2. The Blackrock and a hardplace article talks about the benefits of economies of scale. What does it mean by this?
  3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of combining fund management with banking and creating such a large business?
  4. Given that Barclays’ fund management, BGI is a successful part of its business, does their agreement to sell it put them in a stronger position?
  5. What will be the likely impact of this deal on the economy? Consider who will be (a) the winners and (b) the losers.