Speculation in markets can lead to wild swings in prices as exuberance drives up prices and
pessimism leads to price crashes. When the rise in price exceeds underlying fundamentals, such as profit, the result is a bubble. And bubbles burst.
There have been many examples of bubbles throughout history. One of the most famous is that of tulips in the 17th century. As Box 2.4 in Essential Economics for Business (6th edition) explains:
Between November 1636 and February 1637, there was a 20-fold increase in the price of tulip bulbs, such that a skilled worker’s annual salary would not even cover the price of one bulb. Some were even worth more than a luxury home! But, only three months later, their price had fallen by 99 per cent. Some traders refused to pay the high price and others began to sell their tulips. Prices began falling. This dampened demand (as tulips were seen to be a poor investment) and encouraged more people to sell their tulips. Soon the price was in freefall, with everyone selling. The bubble had burst .
Another example was the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Here, shares in the South Sea Company, given a monopoly by the British government to trade with South America, increased by 900% before collapsing through a lack of trade.
Another, more recent, example is that of Poseidon. This was an Australian nickel mining company which announced in September 1969 that it had discovered a large seam of nickel at Mount Windarra, WA. What followed was a bubble. The share price rose from $0.80 in mid-1969 to a peak of $280 in February 1970 and then crashed to just a few dollars.
Other examples are the Dotcom bubble of the 1990s, the US housing bubble of the mid-2000s and BitCoin, which has seen more than one bubble.
Bubbles always burst eventually. If you buy at a low price and sell at the peak, you can make a lot of money. But many will get their fingers burnt. Those who come late into the market may pay a high price and, if they are slow to sell, can then make a large loss.
GameStop shares – an unlikely candidate for a bubble
The most recent example of a bubble is GameStop. This is a chain of shops in the USA selling games, consoles and other electronic items. During the pandemic it has struggled, as games consumers have turned to online sellers of consoles and online games. It has been forced to close a number of stores. In July 2020, its share price was around $4. With the general recovery in stock markets, this drifted upwards to just under $20 by 12 January 2021.
Then the bubble began.
Hedge fund shorting
Believing that the GameStop shares were now overvalued and likely to fall, many hedge funds started shorting the shares. Shorting (or ‘short selling’) is where investors borrow shares for a fee and immediately sell them on at the current price, agreeing to return them to the lender on a specified day in the near future (the ‘expiration date’). But as the investors have sold the shares they borrowed, they must now buy them at the current price on or before the expiration date so they can return them to the lenders. If the price falls between the two dates, the investors will gain. For example, if you borrow shares and immediately sell them at a current price of £5 and then by the expiration date the price has fallen to $2 and you buy them back at that price to return them to the lender, you make a £3 profit.
But this is a risky strategy. If the price rises between the two dates, investors will lose – as events were to prove.
The swarm of small investors
Enter the ‘armchair investor’. During lockdown, small-scale amateur investing in shares has become a popular activity, with people seeking to make easy gains from the comfort of their own homes. This has been facilitated by online trading platforms such as Robinhood and Trading212. These are easy and cheap, or even free, to use.
What is more, many users of these sites were also collaborating on social media platforms, such as Reddit. They were encouraging each other to buy shares in GameStop and some other companies. In fact, many of these small investors were seeing it as a battle with large-scale institutional investors, such as hedge funds – a David vs. Goliath battle.
With swarms of small investors buying GameStop, its share price surged. From $20 on 12 January, it doubled in price within two days and had reached $77 by 25 January. The frenzy on Reddit then really gathered pace. The share price peaked at $468 early on 28 January. It then fell to $126 less than two hours later, only to rise again to $354 at the beginning of the next day.
Many large investors who had shorted GameStop shares made big losses. Analytics firm Ortex estimated that hedge funds lost a total of $12.5 billion in January. Many small investors, however, who bought early and sold at the peak made huge gains. Other small investors who got the timing wrong made large losses.
And it was not just GameStop. Social media were buzzing with suggestions about buying shares in other poorly performing companies that large-scale institutional investors were shorting. Another target was silver and silver mines. At one point, silver prices rose by more than 10% on 1 February. However, money invested in silver is huge relative to GameStop and hence small investors were unlikely to shift prices by anything like as much as GameStop shares.
Amidst this turmoil, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a statement on 29 January. It warned that it was working closely with other regulators and the US stock exchange ‘to ensure that regulated entities uphold their obligations to protect investors and to identify and pursue potential wrongdoing’. It remains to be seen, however, what it can do to curb the concerted activities of small investors. Perhaps, only the experience of bubbles bursting and the severe losses that can result will make small investors think twice about backing failing companies. Some Davids may beat Goliath; others will be defeated.
- GameStop: The competing forces trading blows over lowly gaming retaile
Sky News (30/1/21)
- Tempted to join the GameStop ‘angry mob’? Lessons on bubbles, market abuse and stock picking from the investment experts… including perma-bear Albert Edwards
This is Money, Tanya Jefferies (29/1/21)
- A year ago on Reddit I suggested investing in GameStop. But I never expected this
The Guardian, Desmund Delaney (29/1/21)
- The real lesson of the GameStop story is the power of the swarm
The Guardian, Brett Scott (30/1/21)
- GameStop: What is it and why is it trending?
BBC News, Kirsty Grant (29/1/21)
- GameStop: Global watchdogs sound alarm as shares frenzy grows
BBC News (30/1/21)
- The GameStop affair is like tulip mania on steroids
The Guardian, Dan Davies (29/1/21)
- GameStop news: Short sellers lose $19bn as Omar says billionaires who pressured apps should go to jail
Independent, Andy Gregory, Graig Graziosi and Justin Vallejo (30/1/21)
- Robinhood tightens GameStop trading curbs again as SEC weighs in
Financial Times, Michael Mackenzie, Colby Smith, Kiran Stacey and Miles Kruppa (29/1/21)
- SEC Issues Vague Threats Against Everyone Involved in the GameStop Stock Saga
Gizmodo, Andrew Couts (29/1/21)
- SEC warns it is monitoring trade after GameStop surge
RTE News (29/1/21)
- GameStop short-squeeze losses at $12.5 billion YTD – Ortex data
- GameStop: I’m one of the WallStreetBets ‘degenerates’ – here’s why retail trading craze is just getting started
The Conversation, Mohammad Rajjaque (3/2/21)
- What the GameStop games really mean
Shares Magazine, Russ Mould (4/2/21)
- Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation.
- Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate destabilising speculation.
- Explain how short selling contributed to the financial crisis of 2007/8 (see Box 2.7 in Economics (10th edition) or Box 3.4 in Essentials of Economics (8th edition)).
- Why won’t shares such as GameStop go on rising rapidly in price for ever? What limits the rise?
- Find out some other shares that have been trending among small investors. Why were these specific shares targeted?
- How has quantitative easing impacted on stock markets? What might be the effect of a winding down of QE or even the use of quantitative tightening?
In a series of five podcasts, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the first week of January 2021, Amol Rajan and guests examine different aspects of inequality and consider the concept of fairness.
As the notes to the programme state:
The pandemic brought renewed focus on how we value those who have kept shelves stacked, transport running and the old and sick cared for. So is now the time to bring about a fundamental shift in how our society and economy work?
The first podcast, linked below, examines the distribution of wealth in the UK and how it has changed over time. It looks at how rising property and share prices and a lightly taxed inheritance system have widened inequality of wealth.
It also examines rising inequality of incomes, a problem made worse by rising wealth inequality, the move to zero-hour contracts, gig working and short-term contracts, the lack of social mobility, austerity following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the lockdowns and restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with layoffs, people put on furlough and more and more having to turn to food banks.
Is this rising inequality fair? Should fairness be considered entirely in monetary terms, or should it be considered more broadly in social terms? These are issues discussed by the guests. They also look at what policies can be pursued. If the pay of health and care workers, for example, don’t reflect their value to our society, what can be done to increase their pay? If wealth is very unequally distributed, should it be redistributed and how?
The questions below are based directly on the issues covered in the podcast in the order they are discussed.
- In what ways has Covid-19 been the great ‘unequaliser’?
- What scarring/hysteresis effects are there likely to be from the pandemic?
- To what extent is it true that ‘the more your job benefits other people, the less you get paid’?
- How has the pandemic affected inter-generational inequality?
- How have changes in house prices skewed wealth in the UK over the past decade?
- How have changes in the pension system contributed to inter-generational inequality?
- How has quantitative easing affected the distribution of wealth?
- Why is care work so poorly paid and how can the problem be addressed?
- How desirable is the pursuit of wealth?
- How would you set about defining ‘fairness’?
- Is a mix of taxation and benefits the best means of tackling economic unfairness?
- How would you set about deciding an optimum rate of inheritance tax?
- How do you account for the growth of in-work poverty?
- In what ways could wealth be taxed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such taxes?
Since the financial crisis of 2008–9, the UK has experienced the lowest growth in productivity for the past 250 years. This is the conclusion of a recent paper published in the National Institute Economics Review. Titled, Is the UK Productivity Slowdown Unprecedented, the authors, Nicholas Crafts of the University of Sussex and Terence C Mills of Loughborough University, argue that ‘the current productivity slowdown has resulted in productivity being 19.7 per cent below the pre-2008 trend path in 2018. This is nearly double the previous worst productivity shortfall ten years after the start of a downturn.’
According to ONS figures, productivity (output per hour worked) peaked in 2007 Q4. It did not regain this level until 2011 Q1 and by 2019 Q3 was still only 2.4% above the 2007 Q4 level. This represents an average annual growth rate over the period of just 0.28%. By contrast, the average annual growth rate of productivity for the 35 years prior to 2007 was 2.30%.
The chart illustrates this and shows the productivity gap, which is the amount by which output per hour is below trend output per hour from 1971 to 2007. By 2019 Q3 this gap was 27.5%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Clearly, this lack of growth in productivity over the past 12 years has severe implications for living standards. Labour productivity is a key determinant of potential GDP, which, in turn, is the major limiter of actual GDP.
Crafts and Mills explore the reasons for this dramatic slowdown in productivity. They identify three primary reasons.
The first is a slowdown in the impact of developments in ICT on productivity. The office and production revolutions that developments in computing and its uses had brought about have now become universal. New developments in ICT are now largely in terms of greater speed of computing and greater sophistication of software. Perhaps with an acceleration in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics, productivity growth may well increase in the relatively near future (see third article below).
The second cause is the prolonged impact of the banking crisis, with banks more cautious about lending and firms more cautious about borrowing for investment. What is more, the decline in investment directly impacts on potential output, and layoffs or restructuring can leave people with redundant skills. There is a hysteresis effect.
The third cause identified by Crafts and Mills is Brexit. Brexit and the uncertainty surrounding it has resulted in a decline in investment and ‘a diversion of top-management time towards Brexit planning and a relative shrinking of highly-productive exporters compared with less productive domestically orientated firms’.
- How suitable is output (GDP) per hour as a measure of labour productivity?
- Compare this measure of productivity with other measures.
- According to Crafts and Mills, what is the size of the impact of each of their three explanations of the productivity slowdown?
- Would you expect the growth in productivity to return to pre-2007 levels over the coming years? Explain.
- Explain the underlying model for obtaining trend productivity growth rates used by Crafts and Mills.
- Explain and comment on each of the six figures in the Crafts and Mills paper.
- What policies should the government adopt to increase productivity growth?
With university fees for home students in England of £9250 per year and with many students receiving maintenance loans of around £9000 per year, many students are graduating with debts in excess of £50 000. Loans are repaid at a marginal rate of 9% on incomes over £25 716.
Many students also study for a masters degree. The average fee for a taught, classroom-based masters (MA) is £7392 and for a laboratory-based masters (MSc) is £8167 but can be considerably higher at some prestigious universities where demand is high. Government loans of up to £10 906 are available to contribute towards fees and maintenance. These are paid back at a marginal rate of 6% for people earning over £21 000, giving a combined marginal rate of 15% for first and masters degrees.
For high earners on the 40% income tax rate, the combined marginal rate of payment out of income is 40% tax, plus 2% national insurance, plus 15% for those with undergraduate and masters loans. This gives a combined marginal rate of 57%.
Average student debt in England is higher even than in the USA, where the average is $37 000. US university courses are more expensive than in the UK, costing an average of $34 000 per year in tuition alone. But undergraduates can borrow less. They can borrow between $5500 and $12 500 per year in federal loans towards both fees and maintenance, and some private loans are also available. Most students do some paid work during their studies to make up the difference or rely on parents contributing. Parental contributions mean that students from poor families end up owing more. According to a Guardian article:
Race is a huge factor. Black students owe an average of $7400 more than white students when they graduate, the Brookings Institution found. After graduation, the debt gap continues to widen. Four years after graduation, black graduates owe an average of nearly $53 000 – nearly double that of white graduates.
Student debt looks to become one of the key issues in the 2020 US presidential election.
Pressure to cancel student fees and debt in the USA
Most of the Democratic candidates are promising to address student fees and debt. Student debt, they claim, places an unfair burden on the younger generation and makes it hard for people to buy a house, or car or other major consumer durables. This also has a dampening effect on aggregate demand.
The most radical proposal comes from Bernie Sanders. He has vowed, if elected, to abolish student fees and to cancel all undergraduate and graduate debt of all Americans. Other candidates are promising to cut fees and/or debt.
Although most politicians and commentators agree that the USA has a serious problem of student debt, there is little agreement on what, if anything, to do about it. There are already a number of ways in which student debt can be written off or reduced. For example, if you work in the public sector for more than 10 years, remaining debt will be cancelled. However, none of the existing schemes is as radical as that being proposed by many Democrats.
Criticisms of the Democrats’ plans are mainly of two types.
The first is the sheer cost. Overall debt is around $1.6tn. What is more, making student tuition free would place a huge ongoing burden on government finances. Bernie Sanders proposes introducing a financial transactions tax on stock trading. This would be similar to a Tobin tax (sometimes dubbed a ‘Robin Hood tax’) and would include a 0.5% tax on stock transactions, a 0.1% tax on bond trades and a 0.005% tax on transactions in derivatives. He argues that the public bailed out the financial sector in 2008 and that it is now the turn of the financial sector to come to the aid of students and graduates.
The other type of criticism concerns the incentive effects of the proposal. The core of the criticism is that loan forgiveness involves moral hazard.
The moral hazard of loan forgiveness
The argument is that cancelling debt, or the promise to do so, encourages people to take on more debt. Generally, moral hazard occurs when people are protected from the consequences of their actions and are thus encouraged to make riskier decisions. For example, if you are ensured against theft, you may be less careful with your belongings. As the Orange County Register article linked below states:
If the taxpayers pay the debts of everyone with outstanding student loans, how will that affect the decisions made by current students thinking about their choices for financing higher education? What’s the message? Borrow as much as you can and wait for the debt to be canceled during the next presidential primary campaign?
Not only would more students be encouraged to go to college, but they would be encouraged to apply for more costly courses if they were free.
Universities would be encouraged to exaggerate their costs to warrant higher fees charged to the government. The government (federal, state or local) would have to be very careful in auditing courses to ensure costs were genuine. Universities could end up being squeezed for finance as government may try to cut payments by claiming that courses were overpriced.
Even if fees were not abolished, cancelling debts would encourage students to take on larger debt, if that was to be cleared at some point in the future. What is more, students (or their parents) who could afford to pay, would choose to borrow the money instead.
But many countries do have free or highly subsidised higher education. Universities are given grants which are designed to reflect fair costs.
- Assess the arguments for abolishing or substantially reducing student fees.
- Assess the arguments against abolishing or substantially reducing student fees.
- Assess the arguments for writing off or substantially reducing student debt.
- Assess the arguments against writing off or substantially reducing student debt.
- If it were decided to cancel student debt, would it be fair to pay students back for any debt they had already paid off?
- Does tackling the problem of student debt necessarily lead to a redistribution of wealth/income?
- Give some other examples of moral hazard.
- If student fees were abolished, would there be any problem of adverse selection? If so, how could this be overcome?
- Find out what the main UK parties are advocating about student fees and debt in the nations of the UK for home and non-home students. Provide a critique of each of their policies.
Firms are increasingly having to take into account the interests of a wide range of stakeholders, such as consumers, workers, the local community and society in general (see the blog, Evolving Economics). However, with many firms, the key stakeholders that influence decisions are shareholders. And because many shareholders are footloose and not committed to any one company, their main interests are short-term profit and share value. This leads to under-investment and too little innovation. It has also led to excessive pay for senior executives, which for many years has grown substantially faster than the pay of their employees. Indeed, executive pay in the UK is now, per pound of turnover, the highest in the world.
So is there an alternative model of capitalism, which better serves the interests of a wider range of stakeholders? One model is that of employee ownership. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the John Lewis Partnership, which owns both the department stores and the Waitrose chain of supermarkets. As the partnership’s site claims, ‘when you’re part of it, you put your heart into it’. Although the John Lewis Partnership is the largest in the UK, there are over 330 employee-owned businesses across the UK, with over 200 000 employee owners contributing some £30bn per year to UK GDP. Again, to quote the John Lewis site:
Businesses range from manufacturers, to community health services, to insurance brokers. Together they deliver 4% of UK GDP annually, with this contribution growing. They are united by an ethos that puts people first, involving the workforce in key decision-making and realising the potential and commitment of their employees.
A recent example of a company moving, at least partly, in this direction is BT, which has announced that that every one of its 100 000 employees will get shares worth £500 every year. Employees will need to hold their shares for at least three years before they can sell them. The aim is to motivate staff and help the company achieve a turnaround from its recent lacklustre performance, which had resulted in its laying off 13 000 of its 100 000-strong workforce.
Another recent example of a company adopting employee ownership is Richer Sounds, the retail TV and hi-fi chain. Its owner and founder, Julian Richer, announced that he had transferred 60% of his shares into a John Lewis-style trust for the chain’s 531 employees. In addition to owning 60% of the company, employees will receive £1000 for every year they have worked for the retailer. A new advisory council, made up of current staff, will advise the management board, which is taking over the running of the firm from Richer.
According to the Employee Ownership Association (EOA), a further 50 businesses are preparing to follow suit and adopt forms of employee ownership. As The Conversation article linked below states:
As a form of stakeholder capitalism, the evidence shows that employee ownership boosts employee commitment and motivation, which leads to greater innovation and productivity.
Indeed, a study of employee ownership models in the US published in April found it narrowed gender and racial wealth gaps. Surveying 200 employees from 21 companies with employee ownership plans, Joseph Blasi and his colleagues at Rutgers University found employees had significantly more wealth than the average US worker.
The researchers also found that the participatory management practices that accompanied the employee ownership schemes led to employees improving their communication skills and learning management skills, which had helped them make better financial decisions at home.
But, although employee ownership brings benefits, not only to the employees themselves, but also more widely to society, there is no simple mechanism for achieving it when shareholders are unlikely to want to relinquish their shares. Employee buyout schemes require funding; and banks are often cautious about providing such funding. What is more, there needs to be an employee trust overseeing the running of the company which takes a long-term perspective and not just that of current employees, who might otherwise be tempted to sell the company to another seeking to take it over.
- What are the main benefits of employee ownership?
- Are there any disadvantages of employee ownership and, if so, what are they?
- What are the main barriers to the adoption of employee ownership?
- What are the main recommendations from The Ownership Effect Inquiry? (See linked report above.)
- What are the findings of the responses to the employee share ownership questions in the US General Social Survey (GSS)? (See linked Global Banking & Finance Review article above.)