Category: Economics 10e: Ch 13


The transition towards clean energy in combination with a shortfall in supply has seen the price of raw uranium, also known as ‘yellowcake’, rise almost 60 per cent in recent weeks. It is now trading at over $50 a pound – a nine-year high. The market has been described as being at a ‘tipping point’. Given the recent boom in the market, the current conditions could tip the balance towards an era of rising uranium prices.

What is uranium?

Uranium is a heavy metal which has been used as a source of concentrated energy for over 60 years. Uranium ore can be mined from underground, milled, and then sold. It is then used in a nuclear reactor for electricity generation. About 10% of the world’s electricity is generated from uranium in nuclear reactors. There are some 445 nuclear reactors operating in 32 countries. It is the most energy-dense and efficient fuel source we have, with just ten uranium pellets able to power the average household for an entire year.

In March 2011, Japan’s most powerful earthquake on record triggered a tsunami, which then caused a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. It forced residents from their homes as radiation leaked from the plant. Since the Fukushima accident, uranium prices had been on a downtrend trend – enough to force several miners to suspend or scale back operations.

However, there has been a 42 per cent increase in the price of the metal in the first nine months of 2021 alone.

Demand for uranium

Since launching in July, a new investment trust, run by Canadian asset manager Sprott, has snapped up about 6m pounds of physical uranium, worth about $240m. This aggressive buying has helped push prices of uranium to more than $40 per pound, up from $30 at the start of the year. In the first part of September alone, prices surged by around 40%, outperforming all other major commodities. In just a few weeks, millions of pounds of supply were scooped up by the Sprott Physical Uranium Trust. This puts pressure on utilities that need to secure supplies of the commodity for electricity generation.

This increased demand is occurring at precisely the same time as countries and companies around the world are committing to net-zero carbon targets. As a result, nuclear power companies are now facing competition for supplies of uranium from financial investors, who are betting on sharply higher prices and demand for the radioactive material used to fuel reactors. This boost in demand is said to be due to uranium being used as a low-carbon energy source, despite the radioactive waste problem that comes with it. Investors are betting that nuclear power will be a key part of the move away from fossil fuels.

Production from world uranium mines has in recent years supplied 90% of the requirements of power utilities for uranium, with the current global mine supply expected to be about 125m pounds for 2021. In addition, there are secondary sources such as commercial and military stockpiles. However, according to the World Nuclear Association, demand for uranium is expected to climb from about 162m pounds this year to 206m pounds in 2030, and to 292m pounds by 2040. This is largely driven by increased power generation in China. China is planning a big increase in its nuclear power capacity over the next decade as the country seeks to cut its emissions.

Supply of uranium

Although uranium is relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, not all uranium deposits are economically recoverable. While some countries have uranium resources that can be mined profitably when prices are low, others do not. Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium and in 2019 produced more uranium than the second, third, and fourth-largest producers combined.

The big issue is that supply to the market is falling significantly. For deliveries that would start in 2022, Kazakh producer, Kazatomprom, is now discussing the possibility of supplying the metal directly to Sprott. However, it also warned of the risk that its mines would not reach their output target for 2021, and it said earlier this year that it would keep its production at reduced levels through 2023. In addition to this, the recent surge in buying is also reducing the inventories that accumulated after the Fukushima accident.

The supply of uranium is set to fall 15 per cent by 2025 and by 50 per cent by 2030. This is mainly due to a lack of investment in new mines. The lack of new uranium mines will mean the price has to move higher. Namibian mines, accounting for 8 per cent of world supply, are approaching the end of their lives. Cameco of Canada, another important source, has shut one large pit because of uneconomic prices. According to BMO Capital, a mine supply deficit since 2019 will continue.

Supply has also been affected by the pandemic. The boom in demand has coincided with historically low prices and pandemic-driven mine disruptions, prompting uranium producers to buy from the spot market to fulfil long-term contracts with consumers. Some of the largest mining operations in Canada and Kazakhstan had to suspend production temporarily due to a shortage of workers.

Adding to the security of supply concerns is the role of commercial and state-owned entities in the uranium market. Uranium is a highly trade-dependent commodity with international trade policies highlighting the disconnect between where uranium is produced and where it is consumed. About 80% of primary production comes from countries that consume little-to-no uranium, and nearly 90% of uranium consumption occurs in countries that have little-to-no primary production. As a result, government-driven trade policies can be particularly disruptive for the uranium market. It is argued that the risk to uranium supply may create a renewed focus on ensuring availability of long-term supply to fuel nuclear reactors.

The role of financial players

Financial players have been accelerating the recent recovery in the price of uranium, with large-scale speculative buying and withholding of supply. But it can be argued that this would not have occurred if there were not a fundamental and substantial shortage.

If investors keep buying uranium, analysts expect utility companies will come under pressure to replace long-term supply agreements before they expire. At the moment, long-term contracts cover 98 per cent of the uranium needed by US utility companies. But that figure drops to 84 per cent next year, and 55 per cent by 2025, according to uranium investment company, Yellow Cake.

As annual supply declines, demand for uranium from producers and financial players increases, and with trade policy potentially restricting access to some markets, it is believed the pounds available in the spot market will not be adequate to satisfy the growing backlog of long-term demand. As a result, companies expect there will be increased competition to secure uranium under long-term contracts on terms that will ensure the availability of reliable primary supply to meet growing demand.

What will the future look like?

Many countries are turning their attention to nuclear power in order to become net-zero economies. Even in Japan, nuclear generation has slowly been returning. It is argued that nuclear power is needed to some degree for the country to achieve its pollution-curbing goals. However, not all nations are re-embracing nuclear. Germany, for example, is set to shut its last reactor next year.

The concern is whether the recent gains in investor demand is enough to underpin the market. It can be argued that even before the recent price rally started, demand for uranium from the investment sector was already growing. However, observers of the market have suggested that just as quickly as uranium skyrocketed, prices may now be hitting the brakes. Producer stocks that got swept up in the frenzy seem to have peaked. In addition, the world’s top uranium miner Kazatomprom has warned that the recent price action was being fuelled by financial investors rather than the utilities that use the radioactive metal as fuel in their reactors. On the other hand, it is argued that this pickup in the spot market will be the catalyst to push more utilities to get involved in term contracting.

Despite the impact of the pandemic on global energy demand, it is now growing again. Gas and other energy shortages are being seen and the price of gas has been rising rapidly. This rise in energy prices plus a focus on carbon-free generation is likely to continue driving demand for nuclear power and hence for uranium. In addition, producers have warned of supply shortages in the long term as investors scoop up physical inventory and new mines are not starting quickly enough. Thus nuclear’s growing role in the clean energy transition, in addition to a supply shortfall, could turn the tide for the uranium industry.

Articles

Data

Questions

  1. Using the uranium market as an example, describe the relationship between an increase in demand and the market price.
  2. Explain whether the supply of uranium would be price elastic or inelastic in (a) the short run; (b) the long run.
  3. What is the role of speculation in determining the recent movements in the price of uranium and likely future price movements?
  4. Given your answers to the above questions, draw supply and demand diagrams to illustrate (a) the recent increase in the market price of uranium; (b) the likely price of uranium in five years from now.

For many goods and services, economists argue that relatively unregulated markets often do a pretty good job in delivering desirable outcomes from society’s view point.

However, for these desirable outcomes to occur, certain conditions need to be present. One of these is that all the benefits and costs of consuming and producing the good/service must be experienced/incurred by the buyers and sellers directly involved in the transaction: i.e. there are no externalities. The market can still work effectively if people outside of the transaction are affected (i.e. third parties) but the impact occurs through the price mechanism.

The fast fashion industry

Fast fashion refers to designs and trends that rapidly pass from catwalks and designers to retailers. The clothes sell for low prices and in high quantities. The business model relies on regular purchases and impulse buying. It is particularly popular in the UK where annual clothing consumption per capita is significantly greater than in other European countries – 26.7kg vs 16.7kg in Germany and 14.5kg in Italy. On average, people in the UK have 115 items of clothing. Unsurprisingly, 30 per cent of these garments have not been worn for at least 12 months.

Externalities in fast fashion

There is lots of evidence that the fast fashion market fails to meet the condition of no externalities. Instead, it generates lots of external costs across its whole supply chain that do not affect third parties through the price mechanism. For example:

  • Growing cotton requires large amounts of water. Some estimates suggest that on average it takes 10 000 litres of water to cultivate just one kilogram of cotton. As water is a common resource (rival and non-excludable), its use in cotton production can exceed socially desirable levels. This can have serious consequences for both the quantity of drinking and ground water and can lead to previously fertile land being transformed into arid regions that are too dry to support vegetation.
  • Growing cotton also uses large amounts of pesticide. Some estimates suggest that 6 per cent of global pesticide production is applied to cotton crops. Extended contact with these chemicals can cause illness and infertility. It also has a negative impact on the long-term productivity of the soil. For example, the chemicals destroy microorganisms, plants and insects and so decrease biodiversity.
  • The manufacture of synthetic fibres such as polyester has a smaller negative impact on the use of water and land than the cultivation of a natural fibre such as cotton. However, because it is derived from oil, its manufacture generates more CO2 emissions. One study compared the CO2 emissions from producing the same shirt using polyester and cotton. The former generated 5.5kg whereas the latter produced 2.1kg.
  • The waste water from the use of solvents, bleaches and synthetic dyes in the manufacture of textiles/garments often flows untreated into local rivers and water systems. This is especially the case in developing countries. Estimates suggest that this is responsible for between 17 and 20 per cent of industrial global water pollution.
  • There are excessive levels of textile waste. This can be split into producer waste and consumer waste. Producer waste consists of 10–15 per cent of the fabric used in the manufacture of garments that ends up on the cutting room floor. It also includes deadstock – unsold and returned garments. For example, Burberry admitted that in 2017 it incinerated £28.6 million of unsold stock. In the same year, UK consumers disposed of 530 000 tonnes of unwanted clothing, shoes, bags and belts. This all went for landfill and incineration.
  • Textiles are one of the major sources of microplastic pollution and contribute 35 per cent (190 000 tonnes) of microplastic pollution in the oceans. A 6kg domestic wash can release as many as 700 000 synthetic fibres.

Addressing the externalities

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report on the fashion industry in February 2019. One of its key recommendations was that the tax system should be reformed so that it rewards fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts.

The UK government has tended to focus on the use of plastic rather than textiles. For example, it introduced a charge for single use carrier bags as well as banning the use of microbeads in rinse-off personal products and plastic straws/stirrers.

In April 2022, a new tax is being introduced in the UK on the plastic packaging of finished goods that is either manufactured in the UK or imported from abroad. The rate, set at £200 per metric tonne, will apply to packaging that contains less than 30 per cent of recycled plastic.

One specific proposal made by the Environmental Audit Committee was for the government to consider extending this new tax to textiles that contain less than 50 per cent recycled polyester. A recent study found that just under 50 per cent of clothes for sale on leading online websites were made entirely from new plastics.

The committee also called for the introduction of an extended producer responsibility scheme. This would make textile businesses responsible for the environmental impact of their products: i.e. they would have to contribute towards the cost of collecting, moving, recycling and disposing of their garments. It could involve the payment of an up-front fee, the size of which would depend on the environmental impact of the product.

In its Waste Prevention Programme for England published in March 2021, the government announced plans to consult with stakeholders about the possibility of introducing an ‘extended producer responsibility scheme’ in the textile industry. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is also carrying out a follow-up inquiry to its 2019 report.

Articles

Government and Parliament documents and reports

Questions

  1. Using the concepts of rivalry and excludability, define the concept of a common resource.
  2. Explain the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and how it might apply to the use of water in the cultivation of cotton.
  3. Draw a diagram to illustrate how negative externalities in consumption and production lead to inefficient levels of output in an unregulated competitive market.
  4. Using a diagram, explain how imposing a tax on producers of textile products that contain less than 50 per cent recycled polyester could reduce economic inefficiency.
  5. Explain the potential limitations of using taxation/regulation to address the pollution issues created by the fast fashion sector.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just published the first part of its latest seven-yearly Assessment Report (AR6) on global warming and its consequences (see video summary). The report was prepared by 234 scientists from 66 countries and endorsed by 195 governments. Its forecasts are stark. World temperatures, already 1.1C above pre-industrial levels, will continue to rise. This will bring further rises in sea levels and more extreme weather conditions with more droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes and glacial melting.

The IPCC looked at a number of scenarios with different levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, where significant steps are taken to cut emissions, global warming is set to reach 1.5C by 2040. If few or no cuts are made, global warming is predicted to reach 4.4C by 2080, the effects of which would be catastrophic.

The articles below go into considerable detail on the different scenarios and their consequences. Here we focus on the economic causes of the crisis and the policies that need to be pursued.

Global success in reducing emissions, although partly dependent on technological developments and their impact on costs, will depend largely on the will of individuals, firms and governments to take action. These actions will be influenced by incentives, economic, social and political.

Economic causes of the climate emergency

The allocation of resources across the world is through a mixture of the market and government intervention, with the mix varying from country to country. But both market and government allocation suffer from a failure to meet social and environmental objectives – and such objectives change over time with the preferences of citizens and with the development of scientific knowledge.

The market fails to achieve a socially efficient use of the environment because large parts of the environment are a common resource (such as the air and the oceans), because production or consumption often generates environmental externalities, because of ignorance of the environmental effects of our actions, and because of a lack of concern for future generations.

Governments fail because of the dominance of short-term objectives, such as winning the next election or appeasing a population which itself has short-term objectives related to the volume of current consumption. Governments are often reluctant to ask people to make sacrifices today for the future – a future when there will be a different government. What is more, government action on the environment which involves sacrifices from their own population, often primarily benefit people in other countries and/or future generations. This makes it harder for governments to get popular backing for such policies.

Economic systems are sub-optimal when there are perverse incentives, such as advertising persuading people to consume more despite its effects on the environment, or subsidies for industries producing negative environmental externalities. But if people can see the effects of global warming affecting their lives today, though fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, rising sea levels, etc., they are more likely to be willing to take action today or for their governments to do so, even if it involves various sacrifices. Scientists, teachers, journalists and politicians can help to drive changes in public opinion through education and appealing to people’s concern for others and for future generations, including their own descendants.

Policy implications of the IPCC report

At the COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November, countries will gather to make commitments to tackle climate change. The IPCC report is clear: although we are on course for a 1.5C rise in global temperatures by 2040, it is not too late to take action to prevent rises going much higher: to avoid the attendant damage to the planet and changes to weather systems, and the accompanying costs to lives and livelihoods. Carbon neutrality must be reached as soon as possible and this requires strong action now. It is not enough for government to set dates for achieving carbon neutrality, they must adopt policies that immediately begin reducing emissions.

The articles look at various policies that governments can adopt. They also look at actions that can be taken by people and businesses, actions that can be stimulated by government incentives and by social pressures. Examples include:

  • A rapid phasing out of fossil fuel power stations. This may require legislation and/or the use of taxes on fossil fuel generation and subsidies for green energy.
  • A rapid move to green transport, with investment in charging infrastructure for electric cars, subsidies for electric cars, a ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles in the near future, investment in hydrogen fuel cell technology for lorries and hydrogen production and infrastructure, cycle lanes and various incentives to cycle.
  • A rapid shift away from gas for cooking and heating homes and workplaces and a move to ground source heating, solar panels and efficient electric heating combined with battery storage using electricity during the night. These again may require a mix of investment, legislation, taxes and subsidies.
  • Improvements in energy efficiency, with better insulation of homes and workplaces.
  • Education, public information and discussion in the media and with friends on ways in which people can reduce their carbon emissions. Things we can do include walking and cycling more, getting an electric car and reducing flying, eating less meat and dairy, reducing food waste, stopping using peat as compost, reducing heating in the home and putting on more clothes, installing better insulation and draught proofing, buying more second-hand products, repairing products where possible rather than replacing them, and so on.
  • Governments requiring businesses to conduct and publish green audits and providing a range of incentives and regulations for businesses to reduce carbon emissions.

It is easy for governments to produce plans and to make long-term commitments that will fall on future governments to deliver. What is important is that radical measures are taken now. The problem is that governments are likely to face resistance from their supporters and from members of the public and various business who resist facing higher costs now. It is thus important that the pressures on governments to make radical and speedy reductions in emissions are greater than the pressures to do little or nothing and that governments are held to account for their actions and that their actions match their rhetoric.

Articles

Report

Questions

  1. Summarise the effects of different levels of global warming as predicted by the IPCC report.
  2. To what extent is global warming an example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’?
  3. How could prices be affected by government policy so as to provide an incentive to reduce carbon emissions?
  4. What incentives could be put in place to encourage people to cut their own individual carbon footprint?
  5. To what extent is game theory relevant to understanding the difficulties of achieving international action on reducing carbon emissions?
  6. Identify four different measures that a government could adopt to reduce carbon emissions and assess the likely effectiveness of these measures.

The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency have highlighted the weaknesses of free-market capitalism.

Governments around the world have intervened massively to provide economic support to people and businesses affected by the pandemic through grants and furlough schemes. They have also stressed the importance of collective responsibility in abiding by lockdowns, social distancing and receiving vaccinations.

The pandemic has also highlighted the huge inequalities around the world. The rich countries have been able to offer much more support to their people than poor countries and they have had much greater access to vaccines. Inequality has also been growing within many countries as rich people have gained from rising asset prices, while many people find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs, suffering from poor educational opportunities and low economic and social mobility.

The increased use of working from home and online shopping has accelerated the rise of big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google. Their command of the market makes it difficult for small companies to compete – and competition is vital if capitalism is to benefit societies. There have been growing calls for increased regulation of powerful companies and measures to stimulate competition. The problem has been recognised by governments, central banks and international agencies, such as the IMF and the OECD.

At the same time as the world has been grappling with the pandemic, global warming has contributed to extreme heat and wildfires in various parts of the world, such as western North America, the eastern Mediterranean and Siberia, and major flooding in areas such as western Europe and China. Governments again have intervened by providing support to people whose property and livelihoods have been affected. Also there is a growing urgency to tackle global warming, with some movement, albeit often limited, in implementing policies to achieve net zero carbon emissions by some specified point in the future. Expectations are rising for concerted action to be agreed at the international COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November this year.

An evolving capitalism

So are we seeing a new variant of capitalism, with a greater recognition of social responsibility and greater government intervention?

Western governments seem more committed to spending on socially desirable projects, such as transport, communications and green energy infrastructure, education, science and health. They are beginning to pursue more active industrial and regional policies. They are also taking measures to tax multinationals (see the blog The G7 agrees on measures to stop corporate tax avoidance). Many governments are publicly recognising the need to tackle inequality and to ‘level up’ society. Active fiscal policy, a central plank of Keynesian economics, has now come back into fashion, with a greater willingness to fund expenditure by borrowing and, over the longer term, to use higher taxes to fund increased government expenditure.

But there is also a growing movement among capitalists themselves to move away from profits being their sole objective. A more inclusive ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is being advocated by many companies, where they take into account the interests of a range of stakeholders, from customers, to workers, to local communities, to society in general and to the environment. For example, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, which is a joint initiative of the Vatican and several world business and public-sector leaders, seeks to make ‘the world fairer, more inclusive, and sustainable’.

If there is to be a true transformation of capitalism from the low-tax free-market capitalism of neoclassical economists and libertarian policymakers to a more interventionist mixed market capitalism, where capitalists pursue a broader set of objectives, then words have to be matched by action. Talk is easy; long-term plans are easy; taking action now is what matters.

Articles and videos

Questions

  1. How similar is the economic response of Western governments to the pandemic to their response to the financial crisis of 2007–8?
  2. What do you understand by ‘inclusive capitalism’? How can stakeholders hold companies to account?
  3. What indicators are there of market power? Why have these been on the rise?
  4. How can entrepreneurs contribute to ‘closing the inequality gap for a more sustainable and inclusive form of society’?
  5. What can be done to hold governments to account for meeting various social and environmental objectives? How successful is this likely to be?
  6. Can inequality be tackled without redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor?

The UK and Australia are set to sign a free-trade deal at the G7 summit in Cornwall on 11–13 June. This will eventually give tariff-free access to each other’s markets, with existing tariffs being phased out over a 15-year period. It is the first trade deal not based on an existing EU template. The government hopes that it will be followed by trade deals with other countries, including New Zealand, Canada and, crucially, the USA.

But what are the benefits and costs of such a deal?

Trade and comparative advantage

The classic economic argument is that free trade allows countries to benefit from the law of comparative advantage. According to the law, provided opportunity costs of various goods differ in two countries, both of them can gain from mutual trade if they specialise in producing (and exporting) those goods that have relatively low opportunity costs compared with the other country. In the case of the UK and Australia, the UK has a comparative advantage in products such as financial services and high-tech and specialist manufactured products. Australia has a comparative advantage in agricultural products, such as lamb, beef and wheat and in various ores and minerals. By increasing trade in these products, there can be a net efficiency gain to both sides and hence a higher GDP than before.

There is clearly a benefit to consumers in both countries from cheaper products, but the gains are likely to be very small. The most optimistic estimate is that the gain in UK GDP will be around 0.01% to 0.02%. Part of the reason is the physical distance between the two countries. For products such as meat, grain and raw materials, shipping costs could be relatively high. This might result in no cost advantage over imports from much nearer countries, such as EU member states.

But modern trade deals are less about tariffs, which, with various WTO trade rounds, are much lower than in the past. Many imports from Australia are already tariff free, with meat currently having a tariff of 12%. Modern trade deals are more about reducing or eliminating non-tariff barriers, such as differing standards and regulations. This is the area where there is a high degree of concern in the UK. Import-competing sectors, such as farming, fear that their products will be undercut by Australian imports produced to lower standards.

Costs of a trade deal

In a perfectly competitive world, with no externalities, labour mobile between sectors and no concerns about income distribution, eliminating tariffs would indeed provide an efficiency gain. But these conditions do not hold. Small farmers are often unable to compete with food producers with considerable market power. The danger is that by driving out such small farmers, food production and supply might not result in lower long-run prices. Much would depend on the countervailing power of supermarkets to continue bearing down on food costs.

But the question of price is probably the least worrying issue. Meat and grain is generally produced at lower standards in Australia than in the UK, with various pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics being used that are not permitted in the UK (and the EU). Unless the trade deal can involve UK standards being enforced on products produced in Australia for export to the UK, UK farmers could be undercut by such imports. The question then would be whether labelling of imported food products could alert consumers to the different standards. And even if they did, would consumers simply prefer to buy the cheaper products? If so, this could be seen as a market failure with consumers not taking into account all the relevant health and welfare costs. Better quality food could be seen as a merit good.

Then there are the broader social issues of the protection of rural industries and societies. Labour is relatively immobile from farming and there could be a rise in rural unemployment, which could have local multiplier effects, leading to the decline of rural economies. Rural ways of life could be seriously affected, which imposes costs on local inhabitants and visitors.

Trade itself imposes environmental costs. Even if it were privately efficient to transport products half way around the world, the costs of carbon emissions and other pollution may outweigh any private gains. At a time when the world is becoming increasingly concerned about climate change, and with the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow in November, it is difficult to align such a trade deal with a greater commitment to cutting carbon emissions.

Articles

Questions

  1. Why might the UK government be very keen to sign a trade deal with Australia?
  2. Does the law of comparative advantage prove that freer trade is more efficient than less free trade? Explain.
  3. What externalities are involved in the UK trading with Australia? Are they similar to those from trading with the USA?
  4. If a trade deal resulted in lower food prices but a decline in rural communities, how would you establish whether this would be a ‘price worth paying’?
  5. If some people gain from a trade deal and others lose and if it were established that the benefits to the gainers were larger than the costs to the losers, would this prove that the deal should go ahead?