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?
In March 2020, the UK government introduced a Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Businesses that had to close or cut back could put staff on furlough and the scheme would allow employers to claim 80% of workers’ wages up to £2500 per month. This would be passed on to workers.
There was large-scale uptake of the scheme. By the end of August, 9.6 million employees were on furlough (28% of the workforce) from around 1.2 million employers (61% of eligible employers). The scheme significantly stemmed the rise in unemployment. The claimant count rose 121% from March to August from 1.24 million to 2.74 million, far less than it would have done without the furlough scheme.
Since 1 August the level of support has been reduced in stages and is due to end on 31 October. It will then be replaced by a new ‘Job Support Scheme (JSS)‘ running from 1 November 2020 to 30 April 2021. Initially, employees must work at least 33% of their usual hours. For hours not worked, the government and the employer will pay a third each. There would be no pay for the final third. This means that an employee would receive at least 77.7% (33% + (2/3)67%) of their full pay – not far short of the 80% under the furlough scheme.
Effects on unemployment
Will the scheme see a substantial rise in unemployment, or will it be enough to support a gradual recovery in the economy as more businesses are able to reopen or take on more staff?
On first sight, it might seem that the scheme will give only slightly less job protection than the job furlough scheme with employees receiving only a little less than before. But, unlike the previous scheme, employers will have to pay not only for work done, but also an additional one-third for work not done. This is likely to encourage employers to lay off part of their staff and employ the remainder for more than one-third of their usual hours. Other firms may simply not engage with the scheme.
What is more, the furlough scheme paid wages for those previously employed by firms that were now closed. Under the new scheme, employees of firms that are forced to stay closed, such as many in the entertainments industry, will receive nothing. They will lose their jobs (at least until such firms are able to reopen) and will thus probably have to look for a new job. The scheme does not support them.
The government acknowledges that some people will lose their jobs but argues that it should not support jobs that are no longer viable. The question here is whether some jobs will eventually become viable again when the Covid restrictions are lifted.
With Covid cases on the rise again and more restrictions being imposed, especially at a local level, it seems inevitable that unemployment will continue to rise for some time with the ending of the furlough scheme and as the demand for labour remains subdued. The ending of the new scheme in April could compound the problem. Even when unemployment does begin to fall, it may take many months to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Update: expansion of the scheme
On 9 October, with Covid-19 cases rising rapidly in some parts of the country and tighter restrictions being imposed, the government announced that it was extending the scheme. From 1 November, employees of firms in certain parts of the country that would be required to close by the government, such as bars and restaurants, would be paid two-thirds of their previous wages by the government.
Critics of this extension to the scheme argue many firms will still be forced to shut because of lack of demand, even though they are not legally being required close. Employees of such firms will receive nothing from the scheme and will be forced onto Universal Credit. Also, the scheme will mean that many of the workers who do receive the money from the government will still face considerable hardship. Many will previously have been on minimum wages and thus will struggle to manage on only two-thirds of their previous wages.
- Job Support Scheme: What will I be paid after furlough?
BBC News, Eleanor Lawrie (1/10/20)
- Chancellor unveils new Job Support Scheme and extends self-employed grant
MSE News, Callum Mason (24/9/20)
- Sunak has bought himself time, but his big test will come as crisis eases
IFS Newspaper article, Paul Johnson (28/9/20)
- The businesses that feel left behind by Sunak’s jobs support scheme
Channel 4 News, Paul McNamara (25/9/20
- Covid: Jobs scheme ‘won’t stop major rise in unemployment’
BBC News (25/9/20)
- How the new Job Support Scheme will work
FT Adviser, Richard Churchill (30/9/20)
- Covid scheme: UK government to cover 22% of worker pay for six months
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/9/20)
- Hard winter ahead as Sunak tries to stop job losses hitting postwar record
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (24/9/20)
- Job Support Scheme ‘won’t reduce job losses’
Personnel Today, Ashleigh Webber (25/9/20)
- Sunak’s new job support scheme offers warm words but no escape from the coming unemployment chill
The Conversation, David Spencer (24/9/20)
- If people on furlough were counted as unemployed, find out what would have happened to the unemployment rate between March and August 2020.
- If an employer were previously employing two people doing the same type of job and now has enough work for only one person, under the Job Support Scheme would it be in the employers’ financial interest to employ one worker full time and make the other redundant or employ both of the workers half time? Explain your arguments.
- What are the arguments for and against the government supporting jobs for more than a few months?
- What determines the mobility of labour? What policies could the government pursue to increase labour mobility?
- Find out what policies to support employment or wages have been pursued by two other countries since the start of the pandemic. Compare them with the policies of the UK government.
The recent pandemic has, and will have, serious implications for our economy with some estimating the largest drop in GDP ‘in living memory’. Expenditure from disposable income fell by 60% as social distancing policies were introduced and consumers started reducing their spending.
However, despite the impact being widespread across all sectors of the economy, workers in the gig economy are at a particular financial disadvantage. A report by Fintech firm, Portify, has found that income for self-employed gig workers fell 30% in the first two weeks of April, compared to the pre-crisis average. It is estimated that there will be a loss of £1.5bn through earnings and £6.9bn in economic contributions from gig economy workers.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced increased benefits for the self-employed at the daily briefing on March 20th but did not guarantee their wages. This has understandably left those people who are self-employed, e.g. freelancers, with greater uncertainty. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are 5 million self-employed people in the UK, who make up 15% of the labour market.
The government has been cautious over the financial support for the self-employed, because it is more difficult to confirm how much they are earning each month. However, many of the 5 million workers would have been among the first to be impacted by the closures and restrictions caused by the outbreak.
What is the ‘gig economy’?
The gig economy has grown significantly since the last global recession of 2008/9. After a substantial number of people lost their jobs, they turned towards self-employment. A boom in digital platforms, such as Uber and Deliveroo, has sparked a revolution in the world of work, with as many as one in 10 working-age adults now working in the gig economy, up from one in 20 in 2016. According to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), prior to the coronavirus outbreak, self-employed people contributed £305bn to the British economy.
A gig economy is where workers are paid for the ‘gigs’ they do, e.g. a parcel delivery or taxi ride. They receive the money for the completed job instead of a regular wage. In the UK it is estimated that 5 million people are employed in this type of capacity. Flexible hours and controlling the amount you work is appealing for many people wanting to manage their home life and other priorities.
In the gig economy, workers are classed as independent contractors. This is also beneficial for employers as they only need to pay their workers when there is work available. Therefore, when demand drops, they don’t have to get rid of staff or have to incur unnecessary staff costs. However, this also has its drawbacks for the worker. They have no protection against unfair dismissal, no right to redundancy payments, and no right to receive the national minimum wage, paid holiday or sickness pay.
Impact of the coronavirus on the gig economy
Anybody experiencing symptoms of the virus have been told to self-isolate. Employees who are then self-isolating can access statutory sick pay from the first day they are off. However, it is unclear if this applies to gig-economy workers. Unions that represent such workers have raised their concerns over the uncertainty and have demanded that urgent action is needed on working practices, including on sick pay. The United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD) union said:
Without access to worker rights such as minimum wage and sick pay, drivers who are infected may simply not be able to afford to stop working.
Work and Pensions Minister, Justin Tomlinson, has said that gig economy workers can apply for universal credit (which can take five weeks to come through) if they need to self-isolate. However, this is not an option for those who live hand-to-mouth. The government has indicated it wanted to do more for the self-employed but it is operationally difficult. Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, said:
The purpose of our employment mechanism is to help continue the connection between employees and their business so once this is over – and it will be over – those individuals can return to their usual work and that link isn’t broken.
However, six days after the Chancellor’s initial support package was announced, he announced a new self-employed income support scheme, which will cover up to 80% of self-employed workers’ average taxable monthly profits. This taxable grant is to be paid in a lump sum in June and will no doubt provide a vital lifeline for those workers who have seen their income disappear almost overnight.
Those who are eligible will receive a taxable grant amounting to 80% of the average profits from the last three tax years. HMRC will use the total trading profit for the last three tax years and use this to calculate a monthly amount. However, annual profits are taken after expenses and capital allowances, but before pension contributions and charitable donations. Therefore, workers who have made significant investments into their businesses are likely to lose out.
The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents gig-economy workers, has announced that it is suing the government over its failure to protect the wages and jobs of millions of workers during the pandemic. It has also accused the government of failing to ensure the health and safety of those still employed through proper sick pay. It has also argued that the lack of certainty encourages those potentially infected to continue working so they can still receive a wage.
The current scheme is only planned to cover the next three months. However, it is questionable whether this will be enough, and the government may have to extend the support.
There is also concern around how much of the gig economy (besides delivery and distribution workers) will remain once the restrictions are eased. Ryan Barnett, an IPSE economist predicts the economic impact to be far more severe than the 2008 financial crisis, pointing out that many entertainment industry workers have already had jobs cancelled until the end of 2021. Even when we can re-emerge from the current lockdown, it is likely that many workers will continue to rely on Universal Credit for a prolonged period of time.
There is no doubt that the current situation has had an impact on the daily lives of everyone in the economy. However, the level of uncertainty for those working in the gig economy has been concerning for many of the 5 million people.
The full impact of the crisis will not be known until some time after the lockdown. However, it is what measures are put in place in the short run that will have an impact and provide a greater level of certainty for the self-employed. It is important that the government understands the importance of supporting self-employment throughout the crisis, as the self-employed will likely play a key role in the economic activity and recovery that will follow.
- Explain why many economies have seen an increase in the gig economy over the last decade.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of a gig economy?
- How does the gig economy impact on the flexibility of the labour market in the UK?
The government has announced outlines of the new system of immigration controls from January 2021 when the Brexit transition period is scheduled to finish. It plans to introduce an Australian-style points-based system. This will apply to all EU and Non-EU citizens. The aim is to attract skilled workers, while preventing non-skilled or low-skilled workers from entering the UK for employment.
But even skilled workers will need to meet three criteria in order to obtain a work visa: (i) having the offer of a job paying a minimum of £25,600 per annum, except in designated jobs where there is a shortage of labour; (ii) being able to speak English; (iii) having qualifications equivalent to A levels.
To apply for a work visa, applicants must have at least 70 points according to the following table:
In certain jobs where there is a shortage of labour, designated by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), immigrants will be able to earn a lower income, provided it is above £20,480 per annum. They will earn 20 points for such jobs, which can offset not meeting the £25,600 threshold. Such jobs could include those in healthcare and farming. There will also be temporary visas for seasonal workers, such as fruit pickers.
The government argues that the new system will encourage employers to substitute technology for labour, with greater investment in equipment and computers. This would increase labour productivity and wages without reducing employment.
This is illustrated in the diagram, which illustrates a low-paid job which will be impacted by the restrictions. If there is a rise in productivity through technological change, the marginal revenue product of labour curve shifts upwards from MRPL1 to MRPL2 and offsets the leftward shift in labour supply (caused by the decline in immigration) from ACL1 to ACL2 and the marginal cost of labour from MCL1 to MCL2. Employment is where the marginal cost of labour equals the marginal revenue product of labour. This remains at Q1. Wages are given by the supply curve of labour and rise from W1 to W1. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the diagram.)
Even if the upward shift in the MRPL curve is not sufficient to offset the leftward shift in the labour supply curve, wages will still rise, but there will be a fall in employment.
In higher-paid skilled jobs where people meet the points requirement, there will be little effect on wages and employment, except where people are generally discouraged by a points system, even if they have the points themselves.
The government also argues that there is a large pool of UK residents who can take up jobs that would otherwise have been filled by immigrants. The Home Secretary referred to the 8.48 million people who are economically inactive who could fill jobs no longer filled by immigrants. However, as the data show, most of these people are not available for work. Some 2.3 million are students, 1.9 million are carers at home looking after relatives, 2.1 million are long-term sick and 1.1 million are retired. Only 1.9 million (22.1% of the economically inactive) would like a job and not all these would be able to take up one (e.g. the long-term sick).
One the biggest problems concerns low-paid sectors where it is very difficult to substitute capital for labour through use of technology. Examples include social care, health care, the leisure and hospitality industry and certain jobs in farming. There could be severe shortages of labour in such industries. It remains to be seen whether such industries will be given exemptions or more relaxed conditions by the government in line with advice from the Migration Advisory Committee.
More details will emerge of the points system in the coming months. It will be interesting to see how responsive the government will be to the concerns of employers and workers.
- Find out how the proposed points-based system for immigration differs from the current system that applies to non-EU citizens.
- What will be the likely impact of reducing immigration of unskilled and low-skilled people?
- What barriers are there to substituting capital for labour in the caring and leisure sectors?
- What would be the macroeconomic effects of a substantial reduction in immigration?