Category: Economics: Ch 10

With the bounce-back from the pandemic, many countries have experienced supply-chain problems. For example, the shortage of lorry drivers in the UK and elsewhere (see the blog Why is there a driver shortage in the UK?) has led to empty shelves, fuel shortages and rising prices. The problem has been exacerbated by a lack of stock holding. Holding minimum stocks has been part of the modern system of ‘just-in-time’ (JIT) supply-chain management.

JIT involves involves highly integrated and sophisticated supply chains. Goods are delivered to factories, warehouses and shops as they are needed – just in time. Provided firms can be sure that they will get their deliveries on time, they can hold minimum stocks. This enables them to cut down on warehousing and its associated costs. The just-in-time approach to supply-chain management was developed in the 1950s in Japan and since the 1980s has been increasingly adopted around the world, helped more recently by sophisticated ordering and tracking software.

If supply chains become unreliable, however, JIT can lead to serious disruptions. A hold-up in one part of the chain will have a ripple effect along the whole chain because there is little or no slack in the system. When the large container ship, the Ever Given, en route from Malaysia to Felixtowe, was wedged in the Suez canal for six days in March this year, the blockage caused shipping to be backed up. By day six, 367 container ships were waiting to transit the canal. The disruption to supply cost some £730m.

JIT works well when sources of supply and logistics are reliable and when demand is predictable. The pandemic is causing many logistics and warehousing managers to consider building a degree of slack into their systems. This might involve companies having alternative suppliers they can call on, building in more spare capacity and having their own fleet of lorries or warehousing facilities that can be hired out when not needed but can be relied on at times of high demand.

When the ‘bounce back’ subsides, so may the current supply chain bottlenecks. But the rethinking that has been generated by the current problems may see new patterns emerge that make supply chains more flexible without becoming more expensive.

Articles

Questions

  1. What are the costs and benefits of a just-in-time approach to logistics?
  2. Are current supply chain problems likely to be temporary or are there issues that are likely to persist?
  3. How might the JIT approach be reformed to make it more adaptable to supply chain disruptions?

Long queues at petrol pumps, with many filling stations running out of fuel; fears of shortages of food and various other items in supermarkets; orders by shops and warehouses unfilled or delayed. These have been some of the headlines in the UK in recent days.

The immediate problem is a shortage of over 100 000 lorry drivers, with thousands of drivers from EU countries, who were previously living and working in the UK, having returned to their home countries. Their numbers have not been replaced by British drivers, a problem exacerbated by a decline in HGV tests during the pandemic. Thus the supply of lorry drivers has fallen.

At the same time, as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, aggregate demand has risen and with it the demand for lorry drivers.

The shortage is pushing up wages somewhat, but not enough to eliminate the shortage. What is more, the supply of lorry drivers is relatively wage inelastic: a higher wage does not attract many more drivers into the market. Also the demand is also relatively wage inelastic: a higher wage does not do much to dampen the demand for drivers.

But why has this happened? Why has the supply of drivers fallen and why is it inelastic? And what will happen in the coming months? The three main causes are Brexit, COVID-19 and working conditions.

Brexit

With Brexit, many EU workers left the UK, finding life and working conditions more conducive in the EU. Many EU drivers had faced discrimination and felt that they were not welcome in the UK. It has been difficult finding replacement drivers from the EU as the UK’s immigration system, which now applies to the EU as well as other countries, prioritises workers who are classified as high-skilled, and these do not include lorry drivers.

Those EU drivers who do want to stay as UK residents are finding that settled status or visas are not easy to achieve and involve filling in various documents, which can be an onerous and time-consuming process. As the writer of the first linked bog below, who is a Polish worker in the transport industry, states, ‘Would you rather come to Britain and jump through all the hoops, or choose any of the well-paying EU countries, for example, Germany that, if you live in Western Poland, is just a short drive across (virtually non-existent thanks to Schengen) border?’ Another problem is that with EU driving licences: it is harder for potential employers to check on their status and thus they may prefer to employ UK drivers. This, again, puts off EU drivers from seeking to stay in the UK.

Even in the case of EU drivers living in the EU but delivering to the UK there are problems. First there are the dangers for drivers of boarding ferries in France, where people from migrant camps seek to board lorries to get passage to the UK, often threatening drivers. If illegal migrants do succeed in boarding a trailer unseen by the driver, the driver can then be arrested in the UK. According to the Polish blogger, it’s ‘no surprise that I hear more and more drivers who, when taking on new jobs, demand guarantees from their employers that they won’t be sent to the UK’.

Then there is a decline in the system known as ‘cabotage’. This is where an EU driver delivers from the EU to destination A in the UK and takes back a load to the EU from destination B in the UK. To avoid having to travel empty between the two UK destinations, the driver could pick up a load to take from A to B. With a fall in imports and exports from and to the EU following Brexit, there are fewer EU lorries on UK roads. This means that there is now less capacity for transporting loads within the UK.

There has also been a large rise in ‘red tape’ associated with post-Brexit customs checks and border controls. This means that lorries can be held up at ports. This makes it much less attractive for EU haulage companies to export to the UK rather than to other EU countries, where paperwork is minimal. In addition, m many drivers are paid by the length of the journey rather than by the time spent, so delays result in them earning less per hour. Full checks have not been introduced yet. When they are, in January and July next year, the problem will be worse.

Tax changes make it more difficult for drivers to avoid taxes by claiming that they are self employed when they are in reality employees. This too is discouraging drivers from the EU from moving to or staying in the UK since many would now (since April 2021) be paying more tax.

COVID-19

Another contributing factor to the shortage of drivers has been COVID-19 and the government’s response to it. COVID rates are considerably higher in the UK than in most EU countries and, not surprisingly, many EU drivers are afraid to come to the UK.

The pandemic led to fewer HGV driver tests, with 25 000 fewer candidates passing their test in 2020 than in 2019. It takes time to train new drivers and then to test them. However, even if there had been no reduction in HGV drivers passing their tests, there would still be a significant shortage of qualified drivers.

A further problem with the effects of COVID-19 on the economy has been the initial recession and then the bounce back. The sheer size of the bounce back has exacerbated the problem of driver shortages, which otherwise would have been slower to develop, giving the market more time to respond. Real GDP grew by 5.5% from 2021 Q1 to 2021 Q2, giving an annual growth rate of 23.6%. Nevertheless, GDP was still some 3.3% below its 2019 Q3 level.

Pay and working conditions

Working conditions are very poor for many drivers. The following are common complaints:

  • Driving jobs are often very tightly controlled, with computer monitoring and little freedom for the driver. Some cabs have cameras aimed at the drivers so that they can be constantly monitored.
  • Drivers are subject to very stringent health and safety regulations, such as not being allowed to drive longer than a certain time, even when they are queuing in congested traffic. Whilst many of these regulations are desirable to protect both the public’s and the driver’s safety, they can discourage drivers from entering or staying in the industry. And some regulations are hard to justify on safety grounds (see second linked article below, point 13).
  • Just-in-time deliveries at supermarkets, regional distribution centres (warehouses) or factories make timing very important and add considerable stress to drivers who may face abuse if they are late, even though it was not their fault, with their employer perhaps facing a fine. And yet on other occasions they might have to wait a long time to offload if drivers before them have been delayed, and often the conditions in waiting areas are poor with few if any facilities.
  • Drivers often feel a lack of respect from employers, trainers and the general public.
  • Rest and refreshment facilities are often very poor in the UK and generally much worse than in the EU. In the EU, motorway service areas have better parking, toilets, showers and shops. Restaurants are better and cheaper. Dedicated truck stops have supermarkets, laundrettes, showers or even open-air gyms dedicated to making drivers’ lives easier and more pleasant. The UK by contrast often has very poor facilities. Unlike in most EU motorway services, drivers have to pay to park and are faced with poor toilet and eating facilities. ‘Meanwhile, a typical British truck stop is some dusty yard full of potholes on the side of some industrial estate with a portaloo and a “greasy spoon” burger van parked next to it.’
  • Hours are long. Even though driving hours are restricted to 10 hours per day (recently extended to 11 hours), the average working day may be much longer as drivers have to wait at distribution centres, fill in increasing amounts of paperwork and help load or unload their vehicle. Also drivers may have to work variable shifts, which leads to disturbed sleeping patterns.
  • The work is often physically demanding, especially when a large part of the job involves loading and unloading and moving items from the lorry to where the customer wants them.
  • Many vehicles are hard and unpleasant to drive, with leased vehicles often low-spec, dirty, uncomfortable and poorly maintained.
  • Many of the jobs are agency jobs that do not offer stable employment.

Although pay is higher than in some parts of the labour market where there are shortages, such as social care and hospitality, pay per hour is still relatively poor when compared with many industries which have better conditions of employment.

The future

The government is allowing more foreign workers into the UK from this month (October); more training places will be offered for potential drivers and the number of driving tests will increase; the government is also encouraging retired drivers or those who have left driving for other jobs to return to the industry.

However, there are shortages of drivers in other EU countries and so it will be difficult to attract additional drivers to the UK from the EU. What is more, with wages and working conditions remaining poor and the labour market remaining tight in other sectors, it might be hard to fill new training places and encourage workers to return to driving. Also, with the average age of drivers being 55, it is likely that the outflow of workers from driving jobs could be large in the coming years.

Articles

Questions

  1. Why are the supply of and demand for lorry drivers relatively wage inelastic?
  2. Use a marginal productivity diagram to explain the current situation in the market for lorry drivers.
  3. What policy measures could be adopted to increase the supply of lorry drivers? How successful would these be?
  4. Is it ‘rational’ for consumers to ‘panic buy’ fuel and other products in short supply?
  5. Find out why there is a shortage of lorry drivers in the EU. Are any of the explanations similar to those in the UK?
  6. What are the macroeconomic implications of a shortage of lorry drivers and other key workers?

In a post at the end of 2019, we looked at moves around the world to introduce a four-day working week, with no increase in hours on the days worked and no reduction in weekly pay. Firms would gain if increased worker energy and motivation resulted in a gain in output. They would also gain if fewer hours resulted in lower costs.

Workers would be likely to gain from less stress and burnout and a better work–life balance. What is more, firms’ and workers’ carbon footprint could be reduced.

In New Zealand, Unilever has begun a one-year experiment to allow all 81 of its employees to work one day less each week and no more hours per day. This, it argues, might boost productivity and improve employees’ work-life balance.

The biggest experiment so far has been in Iceland. From 2015 to 2019 more than 2500 people took part in a pilot programme (about 1 per cent of Iceland’s working population). This involved reducing the working week to four days and reducing hours worked from 40 hours per week to 35 or 36 hours with no reduction in weekly pay.

Analysis of the results of the trial, published in July 2021, showed that output remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces.

As a result of agreements struck with unions since the end of the pilot programme, 86% of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay or will gain the right to do so.

Many companies and public-sector employers around the world are considering reducing hours or days worked. With working patterns having changed for many employees during the pandemic, employers may now be more open to rethinking ways of deploying their workforce more productively. And this may involve rethinking worker motivation and welfare.

Articles

Report

Questions

  1. Distinguish between different ways of measuring labour productivity.
  2. Summarise the results of the Iceland pilot.
  3. In what ways may reducing working hours reduce a firm’s total costs?
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the government imposing (at some point in the future) a maximum working week or a four-day week?
  5. What types of firm might struggle in introducing a four-day week or a substantially reduced number of hours for full-time employees?
  6. What external benefits and costs might arise from a shorter working week?

One of the major economic concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic has been the likely long-term scarring effects on economies from bankruptcies, a decline in investment, lower spending on research and development, a loss of skills, discouragement of workers, disruption to education, etc. The result would be a decline in potential output or, at best, a slower growth. These persistent effects are known as ‘hysteresis’ – an effect that persists after the original cause has disappeared.

In a speech by Dave Ramsden, the Bank of England’s Deputy Governor for Markets & Banking, he argued that, according to MPC estimates, the pandemic will have caused a loss of potential output of 1.75%. This shortfall may seem small at first sight, so does it matter? According to Ramsden:

The answer is definitely yes for two reasons. First, a 1¾% shortfall as a share of annual GDP for the UK … represents roughly £39 billion – for context, that’s about half of the education budget. And second, that 1¾% represents a permanent shortfall, or at least a very persistent one, on top of the impact of the immediate downturn. If you lose 1¾% of GDP every year for ten years, then in total you have lost 17.5% of one year’s GDP, or around £390bn in 2019 terms

However, as the IMF blog linked below argues, there may be positive supply-side effects which outweigh these scarring effects, causing a net rise in potential GDP growth. There are two possible reasons for this.

The first is that the pandemic may have hastened the process of digitalisation and automation. Examples include ‘video conferencing and file sharing applications to drones and data-mining technologies’. According to evidence from a sample of 15 countries cited in the blog, a 10% rise in such intangible capital investment is associated with about a 4½% rise in labour productivity. ‘As COVID-19 recedes, the firms which invested in intangible assets, such as digital technologies and patents may see higher productivity as a result.’

The second is a reallocation of workers and capital to more productive sectors. Firms in some sectors, such as leisure, hospitality and retail, have relatively low labour productivity. Many parts of these industries have declined during the pandemic, especially those with high labour intensity. At the same time, there has been a rise in employment in firms where output per worker is higher. Such sectors include e-commerce and those where remote working is possible. The greater the reallocation from low labour-productivity to high labour-productivity sectors, the more will overall labour productivity rise and hence the more will potential output increase.

The size of these two effects will depend to a large extent on expectations, incentives and government policy. The blog cites four types of policy that can help investment and reallocation.

  • Improved insolvency and restructuring procedures to enable capital in failed firms to be reallocated to sectors with potential for growth.
  • Promoting competition to enable the exit and entry of firms into expanding sectors and to prevent powerful firms from blocking the process.
  • Refocusing policy from retaining labour in existing jobs to reskilling workers for new jobs, thereby improving labour mobility from declining to expanding sectors.
  • Addressing financial bottlenecks, so as to ensure adequate access to financing for viable firms.

Whether there will be a net increase or decrease in productivity from the pandemic very much depends on the extent to which firms and workers are able and willing to take advantage of new opportunities and the extent to which government supports investment in and reallocation to high-productivity sectors.

Blogs, articles and speeches

Questions

  1. Can actual economic growth be greater than potential economic growth (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
  2. Give some example of scarring effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. What effects might short-term policies to tackle the recession caused by the pandemic have on longer-term potential economic growth?
  4. What practical policies could governments adopt to encourage the positive supply-side effects of the pandemic? To what extent would these policies have negative short-term effects?
  5. Why might (endogenous) financial crises result in larger and more persistent reductions in potential output than exogenous crises, such as a pandemic or a war?
  6. Distinguish between interventionist and market-orientated supply-side policies to encourage the reallocation of labour and capital to higher-productivity sectors.

Bubbles

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.

Articles

Data

Questions

  1. Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation.
  2. Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate destabilising speculation.
  3. 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)).
  4. Why won’t shares such as GameStop go on rising rapidly in price for ever? What limits the rise?
  5. Find out some other shares that have been trending among small investors. Why were these specific shares targeted?
  6. 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?