Category: Economics for Business: 8e Ch 32

The global battle for fuel is expected to peak this winter. The combination of rising demand and a tightening of supply has sparked concerns of shortages in the market. Some people are worried about another ‘winter of discontent’. Gas prices have risen fivefold in Europe as a whole.

In the UK, consumers are likely to find that the natural gas needed to heat their homes this October will cost at least five times more than it did a year ago. This surge in wholesale gas prices has seen several UK energy suppliers stop trading as they are unable to make a profit. This is because of an energy price cap for some consumers and various fixed price deals they had signed with their customers.

There are thus fears of an energy crisis in the UK, especially if there is a cold winter. There are even warnings that during a cold snap, gas supply to various energy-intensive firms may be cut off. This comes at a time when some of these industries are struggling to make a profit.

Demand and supply

The current situation is a combination of long- and short-term factors. In spring 2020, the demand for gas actually decreased due to the pandemic. This resulted in low gas prices, reduced UK production and delayed maintenance work and investment along global supply chains. However, since early 2021, consumer demand for gas has soared. First, there was an increased demand due to the Artic weather conditions last winter. This was then followed by heatwaves in the USA and Europe over the summer, which saw an increase in the use of air conditioning units. With the increased demand combined with calm weather conditions, wind turbines couldn’t supply enough power to meet demand.

There has also been a longer-term impact on demand throughout the industry due to the move to cleaner energy. The transitioning to wind and solar has seen a medium-term increase in the demand for gas. There is also a long-term impact of the target for net zero economies in the UK and Europe. This has hindered investors’ willingness to invest in developing supplies of fossil fuels due the fact they could become obsolete over the next few decades.

Nations have also been unable to build up enough supplies for winter. This is partly due to Europe’s domestic gas stocks having declined by 30% per cent in the past decade. This heightened situation is leading to concerns that there will be black-outs or cut-offs in gas this winter.

Importation of gas

A concern for the UK is that it has scant storage facilities with no long-term storage. The UK currently has very modest amounts of storage – less than 6% of annual demand and some five times less than the average in the rest of Europe. It has been increasingly operating a ‘just-in-time model’, which is more affected by short-term price fluctuations in the wholesale gas market. With wind power generation remaining lower than average during summer 2021, more gas than usual has been used to generate electricity, leaving less gas to go into storage.

However, some argue that the problem is not just the UK’s physical supply of gas but demand for gas from elsewhere. Around half of the UK’s supply comes from its own production sites, while the rest is piped in from Europe or shipped in as liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the USA, Qatar and Russia. In 2019, the UK imported almost 20% of its gas through LNG shipments. However, Asian gas demand has grown rapidly, expanding by 50% over the past decade. This has meant that LNG has now become much harder to secure.

The issue is the price the UK has to pay to continue receiving these supplies. Some in the gas industry believe the price surge is only temporary, caused by economic disruptions, while many others say it highlights a structural weakness in a continent that has become too reliant on imported gas. It can be argued that the gas crisis has highlighted the lack of a coherent strategy to manage the gas industry as the UK transitions to a net zero economy. The lack of any industry investment in new capacity suggests that there is currently no business case for new long-term storage in the UK, especially as gas demand is expected to continue falling over the longer term.

Impact on consumers and industry

Gas prices for suppliers have increased fivefold over the past year. Therefore, many companies face a considerable rise in their bills. MSome may need to reduce or pause production – or even cease trading – which could cause job losses. Alternatively, they could pass on their increased costs to customers by charging them higher prices. Although energy-intensive industries are particularly exposed, every company that has to pay energy bills will be affected. Due to the growing concerns about the security of winter gas supplies those industries reliant on gas, such as the fertiliser industry, are restricting production, threatening various supply chains.

Most big domestic gas suppliers buy their gas months in advance, meaning they will most likely pass on the higher price rises they have experienced in the past few months. The increased demand and decreased supply has already meant meant that customers have faced higher prices for their energy. The UK has been badly hit because it’s one of Europe’s biggest users of natural gas – 85% of homes use gas central heating – and it also generates a third of the country’s electricity.

The rising bills are particularly an issue for those customers on a variable tariff. About 15 million households have seen their energy bills rise by 12% since the beginning of October due to the rise in the government’s energy price cap calculated by the regulator, Ofgem. A major concern is that this increase in bills comes at a time when the need to use more heating and lighting is approaching. It also coincides with other price rises hitting family budgets and the withdrawal of COVID support schemes.

Government intervention – maximum pricing

If the government feels that the equilibrium price in a particular market is too high, it can intervene in the market and set a maximum price. When the government intervenes in this way, it sets a price ceiling on certain basic goods or services and does not permit the price to go above that set limit. A maximum price is normally set for reasons of fairness and to benefit consumers on low incomes. Examples include energy price caps to order to control fuel bills, rent controls in order to improve affordability of housing, a cap on mobile roaming charges within the EU and price capping for regional monopoly water companies.

The energy price cap

Even without the prospect of a colder than normal winter, bills are still increasing. October’s increase in the fuel cap means that many annual household fuel bills will rise by £135 or more. The price cap sets the maximum price that suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge domestic customers on a standard, or default tariff. The cap has come under the spotlight owing to the crisis among suppliers, which has seen eleven firms fold, with more expected.

The regulator Ofgem sets a price cap for domestic energy twice a year. The latest level came into place on 1 October. It is a cap on the price of energy that suppliers can charge. The price cap is based on a broad estimate of how much it costs a supplier to provide gas and electricity services to a customer. The calculation is mainly made up of wholesale energy costs, network costs such as maintaining pipes and wires, policy costs including Government social and environmental schemes, operating costs such as billing and metering services and VAT. Therefore, suppliers can only pass on legitimate costs of supplying energy and cannot charge more than the level of the price cap, although they can charge less. A household’s total bill is still determined by how much gas and electricity is used.

  • Those on standard tariffs, with typical household levels of energy use, will see an increase of £139.
  • People with prepayment meters, with average energy use, will see an annual increase of £153.
  • Households on fixed tariffs will be unaffected. However, those coming to the end of a contract are automatically moved to a default tariff set at the new level.

Ordinarily, customers are able to shop around for cheaper deals, but currently, the high wholesale prices of gas means that cheaper deals are not available.

Despite the cap limiting how much providers can raise prices, the current increase is the biggest (and to the highest amount) since the cap was introduced in January 2019. As providers are scarcely making a profit on gas, there are concerns that a further increase in wholesale prices will cause more suppliers to be forced out of business. Ofgem said that the cap is likely to go up again in April, the next time it is reviewed.

Conclusion

The record prices being paid by suppliers and deficits in gas supply across the world have stoked fears that the energy crisis will get worse. It comes at a time when households are already facing rising bills, while some energy-intensive industries have started to slow production. This has started to dent optimism around the post-pandemic economic recovery.

Historically, UK governments have trusted market mechanisms to deliver UK gas security. However, consumers are having to pay the cost of such an approach. The price cap has meant the UK’s gas bills have until now been typically lower than the EU average. However, the rise in prices comes on top of other economic problems such as labour shortages and increasing food prices, adding up to an unwelcome rise in the cost of living.

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UK government/Ofgem

Questions

  1. Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate what has happened in the energy market over the past year.
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention in a free market?
  3. Explain why it is necessary for the regulator to intervene in the energy market.
  4. Using the concept of maximum pricing, illustrate how the price cap works.

At a meeting of the G7 finance ministers in London from 4–5 June, it was agreed to adopt a minimum corporate tax rate of 15% and to take measures to prevent multinational companies using tax havens to avoid paying taxes. It was also agreed that part of the taxes paid should go to the countries where sales are made and not just to those where the companies are based.

This agreement is the first step on the road to a comprehensive global agreement. The next step is a meeting of the finance ministers and central bank governors of the G20 countries in Venice from 9 to 10 July. The G7 ministers hope that their agreement will be adopted by this larger group, which includes other major economies such as Russia, China, India, Brazil, Australia, South Korea and South Africa.

Later in July, the proposals will be put to a group of 139 countries and jurisdictions at a meeting co-ordinated by the OECD. It is hoped that this meeting will finalise an international agreement with precise details on corporate tax rules. It follows work by the OECD on reforming international taxation under its Framework on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS).

These meetings follow growing concerns about the ability of multinational companies to avoid taxes by basing regional headquarters in low-tax countries, such as Luxembourg or Singapore, and declaring their profits there, despite having only a tiny proportion of their sales in these countries.

The desire to attract multinational profits has led to a prisoners’ dilemma situation, whereby countries have been competing against each other to offer lower taxes, even though it reduces global corporate tax revenues.

With many countries having seen a significant rise in government deficits as result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the support measures put in place, there has been a greater urgency to reach international agreement on corporate taxes. The G7 agreement, if implemented, will provide a significant increase in tax revenue.

Details of the G7 agreement

The agreement has two parts or ‘pillars’.

Pillar 1 allows countries to tax large multinationals earning global profits of more than 10% if these companies are not based there but earn revenues there. Countries will be given tax rights over at least 20% of the profits earned there which exceed the 10% margin. The level of profits determined for each country will be based on the proportion of revenues earned there.

Pillar 2 sets a minimum corporate tax rate of 15% for each of the seven countries, which call on other countries to adopt the same minimum. The hope is that the G20 countries will agree to this and then at the OECD meeting in July a global agreement will be reached. If a country chooses to charge a rate below 15%, then a top-up tax can be applied by the home country to bring the total rate up to the 15%.

It is possible that these proposals will be strengthened/amended at the G20 and OECD meetings. For example, the 15% minimum rate may be raised. Indeed, the USA had initially proposed a 25% rate and then 21%, and several EU countries such as France, have been pushing for a substantially higher rate.

Analysis

The agreement was hailed as ‘historic’ by Rishi Sunak, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is true in that it is the first time there has been an international agreement on minimum corporate tax rates and locating part of tax liability according to sales. What is more, the rules may be strengthened at the G20 and/or OECD meetings.

There have been various criticisms of the agreement, however. The first is that 15% is too low and is well below the rates charged in many countries. As far as the UK is concerned, the IPPR think tank estimates that the deal will raise £7.9bn whereas a 25% rate would raise £14.7bn.

Another criticism is that the reallocation of some tax liabilities to countries where sales are made rather than where profits are booked applies only to profits in excess of 10%. This would therefore not affect companies, such as Amazon, with a model of large-scale low-margin sales and hence profits of less than 10%.

Also there is the criticism that a 20% reallocation is too low and would thus provide too little tax revenue to poor countries which may record large sales but where little or no profits are booked.

The UK was one of the more reluctant countries to sign up to a deal that would have a significant impact on tax havens in various British overseas territories and crown dependencies, such as the British Virgin islands, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. The agreement also calls into question whether the announced UK freeports can go ahead. Although these are largely concerned with waiving tariffs and other taxes on raw materials and parts imported into the freeport, which are then made into finished or semi-finished products within the freeport for export, they are still seen by many as not in the spirit of the G7 agreement.

What is more, the UK has been pushing for financial services to be exempted from Pillar 1 of the deal, which would otherwise see taxes partly diverted from the UK to other countries where such firms do business. For example, HSBC generates more than half its income from China and Standard Chartered operates mostly in Asia and Africa.

Update: July 2021

The G7 plan was agreed by the finance ministers of the G20 countries on July 11 in Venice. By that point, 130 of the 139 countries which are part of the Inclusive Framework of the OECD and which represent more than 90% of global GDP, had signed up to the plan and it was expected that there would be a global agreement reached at the OECD meeting later in the month. The other nine countries were Ireland, Hungary and Estonia in the EU and Kenya, Nigeria, Peru, Sri Lanka, Barbados and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Several of these countries use low corporate taxes to encourage inward investment and are seen as tax havens.

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Questions

  1. How are multinationals currently able to avoid paying corporate taxes in many countries, even though their sales may be high there?
  2. If the deal is accepted at the OECD meeting in July, would it still be in the interests of low-tax countries to charge tax rates below the agreed minimum rate?
  3. Why was the UK reluctant to accept the 21% rate proposed by the Biden administration?
  4. Find out about the digital services tax that has been adopted by many countries, including EU countries and the UK, and why it will be abolished once a minimum corporate tax comes into force.
  5. Argue the case for and against taxing the whole of multinational profits in countries where they earn revenue in proportion to the company’s total global revenue. Would such a system benefit developing countries?
  6. Should financial services, such as those provided by City of London firms, be exempted from the deal?

Many developing countries are facing a renewed debt crisis. This is directly related to Covid-19, which is now sweeping across many poor countries in a new wave.

Between 2016 and 2020, debt service as a percentage of GDP rose from an average of 7.1% to 27.1% for South Asian countries, from 8.1% to 14.1% for Sub-Saharan African countries, from 13.1% to 42.3% for North African and Middle Eastern countries, and from 5.6% to 14.7% for East Asian and Pacific countries. These percentages are expected to climb again in 2021 by around 10% of GDP.

Incomes have fallen in developing countries with illness, lockdowns and business failures. This has been compounded by a fall in their exports as the world economy has contracted and by a 19% fall in aid in 2020. The fall in incomes has led to a decline in tax revenues and demands for increased government expenditure on healthcare and social support. Public-sector deficits have thus risen steeply.

And the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Vaccination roll-outs in most developing countries are slow, with only a tiny fraction of the population having received just one jab. With the economic damage already caused, growth is likely to be subdued for some time.

This has put developing countries in a ‘trilemma’, as the IMF calls it. Governments must balance the objectives of:

  1. meeting increased spending needs from the emergency and its aftermath;
  2. limiting the substantial increase in public debt;
  3. trying to contain rises in taxes.

Developing countries are faced with a difficult trade-off between these objectives, as addressing one objective is likely to come at the expense of the other two. For example, higher spending would require higher deficits and debt or higher taxes.

The poorest countries have little scope for increased domestic borrowing and have been forced to borrow on international markets. But such debt is costly. Although international interest rates are generally low, many developing countries have had to take on increasing levels of borrowing from private lenders at much higher rates of interest, substantially adding to the servicing costs of their debt.

Debt relief

International agencies and groups, such as the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations and the G20, have all advocated increased help to tackle this debt crisis. The IMF has allocated $100bn in lending through the Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI) and the Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) and nearly $500m in debt service relief grants through the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT). The World Bank is increasing operations to $160bn.

The IMF is also considering an increase in special drawing rights (SDRs) from the current level of 204.2bn ($293.3bn) to 452.6bn ($650bn) – a rise of 121.6%. This would be the first such expansion since 2009. It has received the support of both the G7 and the G20. SDRs are reserves created by the IMF whose value is a weighted average of five currencies – the US dollar (41.73%), the euro (30.93%), the Chinese yuan (10.92%), the Japanese yen (8.33%) and the pound sterling (8.09%).

Normally an increase in SDRs would be allocated to countries according their IMF quotas, which largely depend on the size of their GDP and their openness. Any new allocation under this formula would therefore go mainly to developed countries, with developing economies getting only around $60bn of the extra $357bn. It has thus been proposed that developed countries give much of their allocation to developing countries. These could then be used to cancel debts. This proposal has been backed by Janet Yellen, the US Secretary of the Treasury, who said she would “strongly encourage G20 members to channel excess SDRs in support of recovery efforts in low-income countries, alongside continued bilateral financing”.

The G20 countries, with the support of the IMF and World Bank, have committed to suspend debt service payments by eligible countries which request to participate in its Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). There are 73 eligible countries. The scheme, now extended to 31 December 2021, provides a suspension of debt-service payments owed to official bilateral creditors. In return, borrowers commit to use freed-up resources to increase social, health or economic spending in response to the crisis. As of April 2021, 45 countries had requested to participate, with savings totalling more than $10bn. The G20 has also called on private creditors to join the DSSI, but so far without success.

Despite these initiatives, the scale of debt relief (as opposed to extra or deferred lending) remains small in comparison to earlier initiatives. Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC, launched 1996) and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI, launched 2005) more than $100bn of debt was cancelled.

Since the start of the pandemic, major developed countries have spent between $10 000 and $20 000 per head in stimulus and social support programmes. Sub-Saharan African countries on average are seeking only $365 per head in support.

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Data

Questions

  1. Imagine you are an economic advisor to a developing country attempting to rebuild the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. How would you advise it to proceed, given the ‘trilemma’ described above?
  2. How does the News24 article define ‘smart debt relief’. Do you agree with the definition and the means of achieving smart debt relief?
  3. To what extent is it in the interests of the developed world to provide additional debt relief to poor countries whose economies have been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
  4. Research ‘debt-for-nature swaps’. To what extent can debt relief for countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic be linked to tackling climate change?

Back in June, we examined the macroeconomic forecasts of the three agencies, the IMF, the OECD and the European Commission, all of which publish forecasts every six months. The IMF has recently published its latest World Economic Outlook (WEO) and its accompanying database. Unlike the April WEO, which, given the huge uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and its economic effects, only forecast as far as 2021, the latest version forecasts as far ahead as 2025.

In essence the picture is similar to that painted in April. The IMF predicts a large-scale fall in GDP and rise in unemployment, government borrowing and government debt for 2020 (compared with 2019) across virtually all countries.

World real GDP is predicted to fall by 4.4%. For many countries the fall will be much steeper. In the UK, GDP is predicted to fall by 9.8%; in the eurozone, by 8.3%; in India, by 10.3%; in Italy, by 10.8%; in Spain, by 12.8%. There will then be somewhat of a ‘bounce back’ in GDP in 2021, but not to the levels of 2019. World real GDP is predicted to rise by 5.2% in 2021. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the growth chart.)

Unemployment will peak in some countries in 2020 and in others in 2021 depending on the speed of recovery from recession and the mobility of labour. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the unemployment chart.)

Inflation is set to fall from already low levels. Several countries are expected to see falling prices.

Government deficits (negative net lending) will be sharply higher in 2020 as a result of government measures to support workers and firms affected by lockdowns and falling demand. Governments will also receive reduced tax revenues. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the general government net lending chart.)

Government debt will consequently rise more rapidly. Deficits are predicted to fall in 2021 as economies recover and hence the rise in debt will slow down or in some cases, such as Germany, even fall. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the general government gross debt chart.)

After the rebound in 2021, global growth is then expected to slow to around 3.5% by 2025. This compares with an average of 3.8% from 2000 to 2019. Growth of advanced economies is expected to slow to 1.7%. It averaged 1.9% from 2000 to 2019. For emerging market and developing countries it is expected to slow to 4.7% from an average of 5.7% from 2000 to 2019. These figures suggest some longer-term scarring effects from the pandemic.

Uncertainties

In the short term, the greatest uncertainty concerns the extent of the second wave, the measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus and the compensation provided by governments to businesses and workers. The WEO report was prepared when the second wave was only just beginning. It could well be that countries will experience a deeper recession in 2000 and into 2021 than predicted by the IMF.

This is recognised in the forecast.

The persistence of the shock remains uncertain and relates to factors inherently difficult to predict, including the path of the pandemic, the adjustment costs it imposes on the economy, the effectiveness of the economic policy response, and the evolution of financial sentiment.

With some businesses forced to close, others operating at reduced capacity because of social distancing in the workplace and with dampened demand, many countries may find output falling again. The extent will to a large extent depend on the levels of government support.

In the medium term, it is assumed that there will be a vaccine and that economies can begin functioning normally again. However, the report does recognise the long-term scarring effects caused by low levels of investment, deskilling and demotivation of the parts of the workforce, loss of capacity and disruptions to various supply chains.

The deep downturn this year will damage supply potential to varying degrees across economies. The impact will depend on various factors … including the extent of firm closures, exit of discouraged workers from the labour force, and resource mismatches (sectoral, occupational and geographic).

One of the greatest uncertainties in the medium term concerns the stance of fiscal and monetary policies. Will governments continue to run large deficits to support demand or will they attempt to reduce deficits by raising taxes and/or reducing benefits and/or cutting government current or capital expenditure?

Will central banks continue with large-scale quantitative easing and ultra-low or even negative interest rates? Will they use novel forms of monetary policy, such as directly funding government deficits with new money or providing money directly to citizens through a ‘helicopter’ scheme (see the 2016 blog, New UK monetary policy measures – somewhat short of the kitchen sink)?

Forecasting at the current time is fraught with uncertainty. However, reports such as the WEO are useful in identifying the various factors influencing the economy and how seriously they may impact on variables such as growth, unemployment and government deficits.

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Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by ‘scarring effects’. Identify various ways in which the pandemic is likely to affect aggregate supply over the longer term.
  2. Consider the arguments for and against governments continuing to run large budget deficits over the next few years.
  3. What are the arguments for and against using ‘helicopter money’ in the current circumstances?
  4. On purely economic grounds, what are the arguments for imposing much stricter lockdowns when Covid-19 rates are rising rapidly?
  5. Chose two countries other than the UK, one industrialised and one developing. Consider what policies they are pursuing to achieve an optimal balance between limiting the spread of the virus and protecting the economy.

The LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance has just published a paper looking at the joint impact of Covid-19 and Brexit on the UK economy. Apart from the short-term shocks, both will have a long-term dampening effect on the UK economy. But they will largely affect different sectors.

Covid-19 has affected, and will continue to affect, direct consumer-facing industries, such as shops, the hospitality and leisure industries, public transport and personal services. Brexit will tend to hit those industries most directly involved in trade with Europe, the UK’s biggest trading partner. These industries include manufacturing, financial services, posts and telecommunications, mining and quarrying, and agriculture and fishing.

Despite the fact that largely different sectors will be hit by these two events, the total effect may be greater than from each individually. One of the main reasons for this is the dampening impact of Covid-19 on globalisation. Travel restrictions are likely to remain tighter to more distant countries. And countries are likely to focus on trading within continents or regions rather than the whole world. For the UK, this, other things being equal, would mean an expansion of trade with the EU relative to the rest of the world. But, unless there is a comprehensive free-trade deal with the EU, the UK would not be set to take full advantage of this trend.

Another problem is that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have weakened the economy’s ability to cope with further shocks, such as those from Brexit. Depending on the nature (or absence) of a trade deal, Brexit will impose higher burdens on trading companies, including meeting divergent standards and higher administrative costs from greater form filling, inspections and customs delays.

Papers

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Questions

  1. Referring to the LSE paper, give some examples of industries that are likely to be particularly hard hit by Brexit when the transition period ends? Explain why.
  2. Why have university finances been particularly badly affected by both Covid-19 and Brexit? Are there any other sectors that have suffered (or will suffer) badly from both events?
  3. Is there a scenario where globalisation in trade could start to grow again?
  4. Has Covid-19 affected countries’ comparative advantage in particular products traded with particular countries and, if so, how?
  5. The authors of the LSE report argue that ‘government policies to stimulate demand, support workers to remain in employment or find new employment, and to support businesses remain essential’. How realistic is it to expect the government to provide additional support to businesses and workers to deal with the shock of Brexit?