Category: Economics 10e: Ch 03

What do tulips, nickel mining in Australia, South Seas trading, Beanie Babies and cryptocurrencies have in common? The answer is that they have all been the subject of speculative bubbles. In the first four cases the bubble burst. A question currently being asked is whether it will happen to bitcoin.

Bitcoin
Bitcoin was created in 2009 by an unknown person, or people, using the alias Satoshi Nakamoto. It is a digital currency in the form of a line of computer code. Bitcoins are like ‘electronic cash’ which can be held or used for transactions, with holdings and transactions heavily encrypted for security – hence it is a form of ‘crytocurrency’. People can buy and sell bitcoins for normal currencies as well as using them for transactions. People’s holdings are held in electronic ‘wallets’ and can be accessed on their computers or phones via the Internet. Transfers of bitcoins from one person or organisation to another are recorded in a public electronic ledger in the form of a ‘blockchain‘.

The supply of bitcoins is not controlled by central banks; rather, it is determined by a process known as ‘mining’. This involves individuals or groups solving complex and time-consuming mathematical problems and being rewarded with a new block of bitcoins.

The supply of bitcoins is currently growing at around 150 per hour and the current supply is around ₿16.7 million. However, the number of new bitcoins in a block is halved for every 210,000 blocks. This means that the rate of increase in the supply of bitcoins is slowing – the number generated being halved roughly every four years. The supply will eventually reach a maximum of ₿21 million, probably sometime in the next century, but around 99% will have been mined by around 2032.

The bitcoin bubble
The price of bitcoins has soared in recent months and especially in the past two. On 4 October, the price of a bitcoin was $4226; by 7 December it was nearly four times higher, at $16,858 – a rise of 399% in just nine weeks. Many people have claimed that this is a bubble, which will soon burst. Already there have been severe fluctuations. By December 10, for example, the price had fallen at one point to $13,152 – a fall of nearly 22% in just two days – only to recover to over $15,500 within a few hours.

So what determines the price of bitcoin? The simple answer is very straightforward – it’s determined by demand and supply. But what has been happening to demand and supply and why? And what will happen in the near and more distant future?

As we have seen, the supply is limited by the process of mining, which allows a relatively stable, but declining, increase. The explanation of the recent price rise and what will happen in the future lies on the demand side. Increasing numbers of people have been buying bitcoin, not because they want to use it for transactions, whether legitimate or illegal over the dark web, but because they want to invest in bitcoin. In other words, they want to hold bitcoin as an asset which is increasing in value. These people are known as ‘hodlers’ – a deliberate misspelling of ‘holders’.

But this speculation is of the destabilising form. The more prices have risen, the more people have bought bitcoin, thus pushing the price up further. This is a classic bubble, whereby the price does not reflect an underlying value, but rather the exuberance of buyers.

The problem with bubbles is that they will burst, but just when is virtually impossible to predict with any accuracy. If the price of bitcoins falls, what will happen next depends on how the fall is interpreted. It could be interpreted as a temporary fall, caused by some people cashing in to take advantage of the higher prices. At the same time, other people, believing that it is only a temporary fall, will rush to buy, snapping up bitcoins at the temporary low price. This ‘stabilising speculation’ will move the price back up again.

However, the fall in price may be seen as the bubble bursting, with even bigger falls ahead. In this case, people will rush to sell before it falls further, thereby pushing the price even lower. This destabilising speculation will amplify the fall in prices.

But even if the bubble does burst, people may believe that another bubble will then occur and, once they think the bottom has been reached, will thus start buying again and there will be a second speculative rise in the price.

The crash could be very short-lived. This happened with the second biggest cryptocurrency, Ethereum. On 21 June this year, the price at the beginning of the day was $360. It then began to fall during the say. Once its price reached $315, it then collapsed by 96% to $13 with massive selling, much of it automatic with computers programmed to sell when the price falls by more than a certain amount. But then, on the same day, it rebounded. Within minutes it had bounced back and was trading at $337 at the end of the day. It is now trading at around $450 – up from around $300 four weeks ago.

Whether the bubble in bitcoin has more to inflate, when it will burst, and when it will rebound and by how much, depends on people’s expectations. But what we are looking at here is people’s expectations of what other people are likely to do – in other words, of other people’s expectations, which in turn depend on their expectations of other people’s expectations. This situation is known as a Keynesian Beauty Contest (see the blog, A stock market beauty contest of the machines). Perhaps we need a crystal ball.

Articles

Is Bitcoin a bubble? Here’s what two bubble experts told us Trade Online, Timothy B. Lee (8/12/17)
Bitcoin and tulipmania have a lot more in common than you might think Business Insider, Seth Archer (8/12/17)
Bitcoin ends dramatic week with 20% slump followed by recovery The Guardian, Jill Treanor (8/12/17)
Putting a price on Bitcoin The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (8/12/17)
Is Bitcoin a Bubble Waiting to Pop? InvestorPlace, Matt McCall (8/12/17)
Bitcoin bubble follows classic pattern of investment mania Financial Times, John Authers (8/12/17)
The Bitcoin bubble – how we know it will burst The Conversation, Larisa Yarovaya and Brian Lucey (6/12/17)
Bitcoin isn’t a currency – and unless it becomes one it could be worthless The Conversation, Vili Lehdonvirta (6/12/17)
How Bitcoin futures trading could burst the cryptocurrency’s bubble The Conversation, Nafis Alam (13/12/17)
Op-ed: Bitcoin Is Not a Bubble; It’s in an S-Curve and It’s Just Getting Started Bitcoin Magazine, Brandon Green (8/12/17)
Bitcoin vs history’s biggest bubbles: They never end well CNN Money, Daniel Shane (8/12/17)
The 10 Most Ridiculous Price Bubbles In History Business Insider, Vincent Fernando and Anika Anand (11/10/10)
After bitcoin’s wild week, traders brace for futures launch Reuters, Saqib Iqbal Ahmed (10/12/17)

Cryptocurrencies current market prices

Bitcoin live exchange prices and volumes ($) CryptoCompare
All cryptocurrencies – live market prices Yahoo Finance

Questions

  1. To what extent does Bitcoin meet the functions of money?
  2. Why is bitcoin unsuitable for normal transactions?
  3. To what extent is bitcoin like gold as a means of holding wealth?
  4. How would you advise someone thinking of buying bitcoin today? Explain why.
  5. Does a rapid rise in the price of an asset always indicate a bubble? Explain
  6. To what extent is the current rise in the price of bitcoin similar to that of the tulip, Poseidon and Beanie Baby bubbles?
  7. If bitcoin is appreciating relative to the dollar and other currencies, does this mean that the price of goods and services valued in bitcoin are falling? Explain.
  8. Explain and comment on the following sentence from the first Conversation article: “Like any asset, Bitcoin has some fundamental value, even if only a hope value, or a value arising from scarcity.”
  9. How might the introduction of futures trading in bitcoin impact on its price and the volatility of price swings?
  10. Explain and assess the argument that the price trend of bitcoin is more likely to be an S curve rather than a roller coaster

In 2012, the Scottish Parliament voted to introduce a minimum unit price for alcoholic drinks. The Scotch Whisky Association along with others appealed against the legislation, but on 15 November 2017 the UK Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the legislation does not breach European Union law. It is thus likely that, after consultation, a 50p minimum unit price will be introduced, making Scotland the first country in the world to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol.

As we saw in a previous blog, Alcohol minimum price, the aim is to prevent the sale of really cheap drinks in supermarkets and other outlets. For example, three-litre bottles of strong cider can be sold for as little as £3.59. Sometimes supermarkets offer multibuys which are heavily discounted. The idea of minimum pricing is to stop these practices without affecting ‘normal’ prices. For example, the legislation will not affect prices in pubs, which are already more than 50p per unit of alcohol.

The following table shows how much prices would rise for various types of drink when compared to current cheap supermarket prices. The biggest percentage effect is for cheap, strong cider and beer.

Strength Size Units of alcohol Current price New minimum price
Cheap strong cider 7.5% 3 litres 22.5 £3.50 £11.25
Cheap wine 13% 750ml 9.75 £3.99 £4.88
Cheap beer/lager (normal) 4% 4 × 440ml 7.04 £2.50 £3.52
Cheap beer/lager (strong) 8% 4 × 500ml 16 £3.50 £8.00
Cheap spirits 37.5% 70cl 26.25 £10.00 £13.13
Cheap strong spirits 50% 70cl 35 £12.00 £17.50

The hope is that by preventing the sale of really cheap drinks in supermarkets, people will no longer be encouraged to ‘pre-load’, so that when they go out for the evening they are already drunk. It would also help to reduce the number of alcoholics amongst the poor.

But this raises the question of equity. By targeting cheap drink, the policy is likely to hit the poor hardest. The question is whether this will simply lead to alcoholics on low incomes cutting down on other things, such as food and clothing for themselves and their children.

How successful, then, will such a policy be in cutting down drunkenness and the associated anti-social behaviour in many Scottish towns and cities, especially on Friday and Saturday nights? This will depend on the price elasticity of demand.

Videos and podcasts

Scotland first country to introduce minimum alcohol price Channel 4 News, Fatima Manji (15/11/17)
The story of how Scotland brought in minimum pricing on alcoh The Scotsman, Ross McCafferty (15/11/17)
Supreme Court rejects challenge against plans for minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland ITV News, Peter Smith (15/11/17)
Scotland getting the all-clear for minimum alcohol pricing as judges reject appeal Heart Scotland News, Connor Gillies (15/11/17)

Articles

Alcohol minimum unit pricing to go ahead Scottish Government: news (15/11/17)
Scottish alcohol price survey 2016 Alcohol Focus Scotland (2016)
Minimum pricing Alcohol Focus Scotland (2017)
Supreme Court backs Scottish minimum alcohol pricing BBC News (15/11/17)
Supreme Court backs Scottish minimum alcohol pricing plans Out-Law.com (15/11/17)
Go-ahead for minimum alcohol pricing British Medical Association (BMA), Jennifer Trueland (15/11/17)
Expert reaction to UK supreme court ruling that the Scottish government can set a minimum price for alcohol, rejecting a challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association Science Media Centre (15/11/17)
Scotland to become first country with minimum price for alcohol sales Independent, Alex Matthews-King (15/11/17)
Scotland leading the world over minimum alcohol price ITV News (15/11/17)
Campaigners urge minimum alcohol price in England after Scottish ruling The Guardian, Severin Carrell (15/11/17)
Scottish ‘booze cruises’ to England predicted as minimum pricing introduced The Telegraph, Olivia Rudgard (15/11/17)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to illustrate the effect of a minimum price per unit of alcohol on (a) cheap cider; (b) good quality wine.
  2. What would be the likely effects of a 50p per unit minimum price on the pub trade?
  3. How is the price elasticity of demand for alcoholic drinks relevant to determining the success of minimum pricing?
  4. What determines the price elasticity of demand for cheap alcoholic drinks?
  5. Compare the effects on alcohol consumption of imposing a minimum unit price of alcohol with raising the duty on alcoholic drinks. What are the revenue implications of the two policies for the government?
  6. What externalities are involved in the consumption of alcohol? How could a socially efficient price for alcohol be determined?
  7. Could alcohol consumption be described as a ‘de-merit good’? Explain.
  8. Other than high minimum prices and taxation, what other policies could be used to (a) tackle binge drinking; (b) tackle the problem of alcoholism?
  9. What will determine the number of people travelling from Scotland to England to buy cheaper alcoholic drinks?

Food prices often rise or fall with good or bad harvests or because of a change in demand. A recent example is the price of brazil nuts, which by May this year had risen over 60% on European markets.

Part of the reason for the price rise has been on the demand side. Consumption of brazil nuts has increased as more people switch to healthier diets. This includes the purchase of the nuts themselves and as part of healthier snack foods. With supply being relatively inelastic, any rise in demand tends to have a relatively large effect on price.

A more acute reason is on the supply side. There has been a very poor harvest of brazil nuts. The nuts are grown largely in the Amazon basin which has been hit by drought linked to the El Niño effect. This, however, is only a temporary effect and future harvests should increase again as rainfall returns to normal. However, in the longer term, rainfall patterns may change with the effects of global warming.

The price rise in the UK has also be aggravated by the depreciation of the pound since the Brexit vote, which has fallen some 13% against the dollar since June 2016. A rise in the dollar price of brazil nuts has thus led to an even bigger rise in their sterling price.

Articles

Brazil nuts are rocketing in price – here’s why The Conversation, Iain Fraser (24/10/17)
Brazil nut prices soaring due to reduced harvests after droughts Independent, Zlata Rodianova (16/5/17)

Data

Index Mundi commodities Linked from Economics Network site
Commodity Markets World Bank (see Excel file of monthly prices)

Questions

  1. Explain the specific supply conditions that have affected the price of brazil nuts in 2017.
  2. Why did prices rise ahead of the change in supply?
  3. How has the size of the price rise been affected by the price elasticity of demand for brazil nuts?
  4. What determines the price elasticity of demand for brazil nuts?
  5. Find out what other food prices have risen or fallen a lot in recent months and explain why.
  6. How do real food prices (i.e. prices after correcting for inflation) compare today with 10 and 20 years ago? Explain why.

Thirty years ago, on Monday 19 October 1987, stock markets around the world tumbled. The day has been dubbed ‘Black Monday’. Wall Street fell by 22% – its biggest ever one-day fall. The FTSE 100 fell by 10.8% and by a further 12.2% the next day.

The crash caught most people totally by surprise and has never been fully explained. The most likely cause was an excessive rise in the previous three years, when share prices more than doubled. This was combined with the lack of ‘circuit breakers’, which today would prevent excessive selling, and a ‘herd’ effect as people rushed to get out of shares before they fell any further, creating a massive wave of destabilising speculation.

Within a few weeks, share prices started rising again and within three years shares were once again trading at levels before Black Monday.

Looking back to the events of 30 years ago, the question many fund managers and others are asking is whether global stock markets are in for another dramatic downward correction. But there is no consensus of opinion about the answer.

Those predicting a downward correction – possibly dramatic – point to the fact that stock markets, apart from a dip in mid-2016, have experienced several years of growth, with yields now similar to those in 1987. Price/earnings ratios, at around 18, are high relative to historical averages.

What is more, the huge increases in money supply from quantitative easing, which helped to inflate share prices, are coming to an end. The USA ceased its programme three years ago and the ECB is considering winding down its programme.

Also, once a downward correction starts, destabilising speculation is likely to kick in, with people selling shares before they go any lower. This could be significantly aggravated by the rise of electronic markets with computerised high-frequency trading.

However, people predicting that there will be little or no downward correction, and even a continuing bull market, point to differences between now and 1987. First, the alternatives to shares look much less attractive than then. Bond yields and interest rates in banks (at close to zero), unlike in 1987, are much lower than the dividend yields on shares (at around 4%). Second, there are circuit breakers in stock markets that suspend dealing in cases of large falls.

But even if there is a downward correction, it will probably be relatively short-lived, with the upward trend in share prices continuing over the long term. If you look at the chart above, you can see this trend, but you can also see periods of falling share prices in the late 1990s/early 2000s and in the financial crisis of 2008–9. Looking back to 1987, it seems like a mere blip from the perspective of 30 years – but it certainly didn’t at the time.

Articles

Three decades since Black Monday – are markets on the verge of another tumble? The Telegraph, Lucy Burton (19/10/17)
Black Monday: 30 years on from the 1987 crash Citywire, Michelle McGagh (19/10/17)
30 Years Ago: Lessons From the 1987 Market Crash U.S.News, Debbie Carlson (12/10/17)
Black Monday: Can a 1987-style stock market crash happen again? USA Today, Adam Shell (19/10/17)
Black Monday anniversary: How the 2017 stock market compares with 1987 MarketWatch, William Watts (19/10/17)
30 years after Black Monday, could stock market crash again? MarketWatch, William Watts (19/10/17)
The Crash of ’87, From the Wall Street Players Who Lived It Bloomberg, Richard Dewey (19/10/17)

Questions

  1. Explain what are meant by ‘bull markets’ and ‘bear markets’.
  2. Share prices are determined by demand and supply. Identify the various demand- and supply-side factors that have led to the current long bull-market run.
  3. What caused the Black Monday crash in 1987?
  4. For what reasons may global stock markets soon (a) experience, (b) not experience a downward correction?
  5. Distinguish between stabilising speculation and destabilising speculation on stock markets.
  6. What determines when a downward correction on stock markets bottoms out?
  7. Explain how stock market circuit breakers work. Can they prevent a fundamental correction?
  8. Does the rise in computerised trading make a stock market crash more or less likely?

Oil prices are determined by demand and supply. Changes in oil prices are the result of shifts in demand and/or supply, with the size of the price change depending on the size of the shift and the price elasticity of demand and supply.

Some of the shifts are long term, with the price of oil varying from year to year or even moving in a particular direction for longer periods of time. Thus the opening up of new supplies, such as from fracking wells, can lead to a long-term fall in oil prices, while agreements by, say, OPEC to curb output can lead to a long-term rise in prices (see the blogs The oil see-saw, OPEC deal pushes up oil prices and An oil glut).

Medium and long-term price movements can also reflect medium and long-term changes in demand, such as a recession – oil prices fell dramatically as the world economy slid into recession in 2008/9 and then recovered as the global economy recovered.

Another long-term factor is the development of substitutes, such as renewable energy, which can reduce the demand for oil; another is developments that economise on power, such as more fuel-efficient vehicles and machines.

But oil prices do not just reflect these long-term movements in demand and supply. They also reflect daily and weekly movements as demand and supply respond to global and national events.

Two such events occurred at the end of August/beginning of September this year. The first was Hurricane Harvey. Even though it was downgraded to a tropical storm as it made landfall across the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, it dumped massive amounts of rain on southern Texas and Louisiana. This disrupted oil drilling and refining, shutting down a quarter of the entire US refining capacity. The initial effect was a surge in US oil prices in late August as oil production in much of Texas shut down and a rise in petrol prices as supplies from refineries fell.

Then prices fell back again in early September as production and refining resumed and as it became apparent that there had been less damage to oil infrastructure than initially feared. Also the USA tapped into some of its strategic oil reserves to make up for the shortfall in supply.

Then in early September, the North Koreans tested a hydrogen bomb – much larger than the previous atom bombs it had tested. This prompted fears of US retaliation and heightened tensions in the region. As the Reuters article states:

That put downward pressure on crude as traders moved money out of oil – seen as high-risk markets – into gold futures, traditionally viewed as a safe haven for investors. Spot gold prices rose for a third day, gaining 0.9 per cent on Monday

Quite large daily movements in oil prices are not uncommon as traders respond to such events. A major determinant of short-term demand is expectations, and nervousness about events can put substantial downward pressure on oil prices if it is felt that there could be a downward effect on the global economy – or substantial upward pressure if it is felt that supplies might be disrupted. Often markets over-correct, with prices moving back again as the situation becomes clearer and as nervousness subsides.

Articles

U.S. crude edges higher, gasoline tumbles after Harvey Reuters, Libby George (4/9/17)
Global oil prices fall after North Korea nuclear weapon test Independent, Henning Gloystein (4/9/17)
Brent crude oil falls after North Korea nuclear test The Indian Express (4/9/17)
Oil prices remain volatile AzerNews, Sara Israfilbayova (4/7/17)

Questions

  1. What are the determinants of the price elasticity of demand for oil?
  2. Search news articles to find some other examples of short-term movements in oil prices as markets responded to some political or natural event.
  3. Why do markets often over-correct?
  4. Explain the long-term oil price movements over the past 10 years.
  5. Why is gold seen as a ‘safe haven’?
  6. If refineries buy oil from oil producers, what would determine the net effect on oil prices of a decline in oil production and a decline in demand for oil by the refineries?
  7. What role does speculation play in determining oil prices? Explain how such speculation could (a) reduce price volatility; (b) increase price volatility. Under what circumstances is (b) more likely than (a)?