Economists are often criticised for making inaccurate forecasts and for making false assumptions. Their analysis is frequently dismissed by politicians when it contradicts their own views.
But is this fair? Have economists responded to the realities of the global economy and to the behaviour of people, firms, institutions and government as they respond to economic circumstances? The answer is a qualified yes.
Behavioural economics is increasingly challenging the simple assumption that people are ‘rational’, in the sense that they maximise their self interest by weighing up the marginal costs and benefits of alternatives open to them. And macroeconomic models are evolving to take account of a range of drivers of global growth and the business cycle.
The linked article and podcast below look at the views of 2019 Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. She has challenged some of the traditional assumptions of economics about the nature of rationality and what motivates people. But her work is still very much in the tradition of economists. She examines evidence and sees how people respond to incentives and then derives policy implications from the analysis.
Take the case of the mobility of labour. She examines why people who lose their jobs may not always move to a new one if it’s in a different town. Partly this is for financial reasons – moving is costly and housing may be more expensive where the new job is located. Partly, however, it is for reasons of identity. Many people are attached to where they currently live. They may be reluctant to leave family and friends and familiar surroundings and hope that a new job will turn up – even if it means a cut in wages. This is not irrational; it just means that people are driven by more than simply wages.
Duflo is doing what economists typically do – examining behaviour in the light of evidence. In her case, she is revisiting the concept of rationality to take account of evidence on what motivates people and the way they behave.
In the light of workers’ motivation, she considers the implications for the gains from trade. Is free trade policy necessarily desirable if people lose their jobs because of cheap imports from China and other developing countries where labour costs are low?
The answer is not a clear yes or no, as import-competing industries are only part of the story. If protectionist policies are pursued, other countries may retaliate with protectionist policies themselves. In such cases, people working in the export sector may lose their jobs.
She also looks at how people may respond to a rise or cut in tax rates. Again the answer is not clear cut and an examination of empirical evidence is necessary to devise appropriate policy. Not only is there an income and substitution effect from tax changes, but people are motivated to work by factors other than take-home pay. Likewise, firms are encouraged to invest by factors other than the simple post-tax profitability of investment.
- In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
- How might the concept of rationality be expanded to take into account a whole range of factors other than the direct costs and benefits of a decision?
- What is meant by bounded rationality?
- What would be the effect on workers’ willingness to work more or fewer hours as a result of a cut in the marginal income tax rate if (a) the income effect was greater than the substitution effect; (b) the substitution effect was greater than the income effect? Would your answers to (a) and (b) be the opposite in the case of a rise in the marginal income tax rate?
- Give some arguments that you consider to be legitimate for imposing controls on imports in (a) the short run; (b) the long run. How might you counter these arguments from a free-trade perspective?
The USA has seen many horizontal mergers in recent years. This has turned industries that were once relatively competitive into oligopolies, resulting in lower output and higher prices for consumers.
In Europe, by contrast, many markets are becoming more competitive. The result is that in industries such as mobile phone services, airlines and broadband provision, prices are considerably lower in most European countries than in the USA. As the French economist, Thomas Philippon, states in a Guardian article:
When I landed in Boston in 1999, the United States was the land of free markets. Many goods and services were cheaper than in Europe. Twenty years later, American free markets are becoming a myth.
According to Asher Schechter (see linked article below):
Nearly every American industry has experienced an increase in concentration in the last two decades, to the point where … sectors dominated by two or three firms are not the exception, but the rule.
The result has been an increase in deadweight loss, which, according to research by Bruno Pelligrino, now amounts to some 13.3 per cent of total potential surplus.
Philippon in his research estimates that monopolies and oligopolies “cost the median American household about $300 a month” and deprive “American workers of about $1.25tn of labour income every year”.
One industry considered by the final two linked articles below is housebuilding. Since the US housing and financial crash of 2007–8 many US housebuilders have gone out of business. This has meant that the surviving companies have greater market power. According to Andrew van Dam in the linked Washington Post article below:
They have since built on that advantage, consolidating until many markets are controlled by just a few builders. Their power has exacerbated the country’s affordable-housing crisis, some economists say.
According to research by Luis Quintero and Jacob Cosman:
… this dwindling competition has cost the country approximately 150 000 additional homes a year – all else being equal. With fewer competitors, builders are under less pressure to beat out rival projects, and can time their efforts so that they produce fewer homes while charging higher prices.
Thanks to lobbying of regulators and politicians by businesses and various unfair, but just about legal, practices to exclude rivals, competition policy in the USA has been weak.
In the EU, by contrast, the competition authorities have been more active and tougher. For example, in the airline industry, EU regulators have “encouraged the entry of low-cost competitors by making sure they could get access to takeoff and landing slots.” Politicians from individual EU countries have generally favoured tough EU-wide competition policy to prevent companies from other member states getting an unfair advantage over their own country’s companies.
- What are the possible advantages and disadvantages of oligopoly compared with markets with many competitors?
- How can concentration in an industry be measured?
- Why have US markets become more concentrated?
- Why have markets in the EU generally become more competitive?
- Find out what has happened to levels of concentration in the UK housebuilding market.
- What are the possible effects of Brexit on concentration and competition policy in the UK?
Firms are increasingly having to take into account the interests of a wide range of stakeholders, such as consumers, workers, the local community and society in general (see the blog, Evolving Economics). However, with many firms, the key stakeholders that influence decisions are shareholders. And because many shareholders are footloose and not committed to any one company, their main interests are short-term profit and share value. This leads to under-investment and too little innovation. It has also led to excessive pay for senior executives, which for many years has grown substantially faster than the pay of their employees. Indeed, executive pay in the UK is now, per pound of turnover, the highest in the world.
So is there an alternative model of capitalism, which better serves the interests of a wider range of stakeholders? One model is that of employee ownership. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the John Lewis Partnership, which owns both the department stores and the Waitrose chain of supermarkets. As the partnership’s site claims, ‘when you’re part of it, you put your heart into it’. Although the John Lewis Partnership is the largest in the UK, there are over 330 employee-owned businesses across the UK, with over 200 000 employee owners contributing some £30bn per year to UK GDP. Again, to quote the John Lewis site:
Businesses range from manufacturers, to community health services, to insurance brokers. Together they deliver 4% of UK GDP annually, with this contribution growing. They are united by an ethos that puts people first, involving the workforce in key decision-making and realising the potential and commitment of their employees.
A recent example of a company moving, at least partly, in this direction is BT, which has announced that that every one of its 100 000 employees will get shares worth £500 every year. Employees will need to hold their shares for at least three years before they can sell them. The aim is to motivate staff and help the company achieve a turnaround from its recent lacklustre performance, which had resulted in its laying off 13 000 of its 100 000-strong workforce.
Another recent example of a company adopting employee ownership is Richer Sounds, the retail TV and hi-fi chain. Its owner and founder, Julian Richer, announced that he had transferred 60% of his shares into a John Lewis-style trust for the chain’s 531 employees. In addition to owning 60% of the company, employees will receive £1000 for every year they have worked for the retailer. A new advisory council, made up of current staff, will advise the management board, which is taking over the running of the firm from Richer.
According to the Employee Ownership Association (EOA), a further 50 businesses are preparing to follow suit and adopt forms of employee ownership. As The Conversation article linked below states:
As a form of stakeholder capitalism, the evidence shows that employee ownership boosts employee commitment and motivation, which leads to greater innovation and productivity.
Indeed, a study of employee ownership models in the US published in April found it narrowed gender and racial wealth gaps. Surveying 200 employees from 21 companies with employee ownership plans, Joseph Blasi and his colleagues at Rutgers University found employees had significantly more wealth than the average US worker.
The researchers also found that the participatory management practices that accompanied the employee ownership schemes led to employees improving their communication skills and learning management skills, which had helped them make better financial decisions at home.
But, although employee ownership brings benefits, not only to the employees themselves, but also more widely to society, there is no simple mechanism for achieving it when shareholders are unlikely to want to relinquish their shares. Employee buyout schemes require funding; and banks are often cautious about providing such funding. What is more, there needs to be an employee trust overseeing the running of the company which takes a long-term perspective and not just that of current employees, who might otherwise be tempted to sell the company to another seeking to take it over.
- What are the main benefits of employee ownership?
- Are there any disadvantages of employee ownership and, if so, what are they?
- What are the main barriers to the adoption of employee ownership?
- What are the main recommendations from The Ownership Effect Inquiry? (See linked report above.)
- What are the findings of the responses to the employee share ownership questions in the US General Social Survey (GSS)? (See linked Global Banking & Finance Review article above.)
The linked article below, by Evan Davis, assesses the state of economics. He argues that economics has had some major successes over the years in providing a framework for understanding how economies function and how to increase incomes and well-being more generally.
Over the last few decades, economists have …had an influence over every aspect of our lives. …And during this era in which economists have reigned, the world has notched up some marked successes. The reduction in the proportion of human beings living in abject poverty over the last thirty years has been extraordinary.
With the development of concepts such as opportunity cost, the prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage and the paradox of thrift, economics has helped to shape the way policymakers perceive economic issues and policies.
These concepts are ‘threshold concepts’. Understanding and being able to relate and apply these core economic concepts helps you to ‘think like an economist’ and to relate the different parts of the subject to each other. Both Economics (10th edition) and Essentials of Economics (8th edition) examine 15 of these threshold concepts. Each time a threshold concept is used in the text, a ‘TC’ icon appears in the margin with the appropriate number. By locating them in this way, you can see their use in a variety of contexts.
But despite the insights provided by traditional economics into the various problems that society faces, the discipline of economics has faced criticism, especially since the financial crisis, which most economists did not foresee.
Even Davis identifies two major shortcomings of the discipline – both beginning with ‘C’. ‘One is complexity, the other is community.’
In terms of complexity, the criticism is that economic models are often based on simplistic assumptions, such as ‘rational maximising behaviour’. This might make it easier to express the models mathematically, but mathematical elegance does not necessarily translate into predictive accuracy. Such models do not capture the ‘messiness’ of the real world.
These models have a certain theoretical elegance but there is now an increasing sense that economies do not evolve along a well-defined mathematical path, but in a far more messy way. The individual players within the economy face radical uncertainty; they adapt and learn as they go; they watch what everybody else does. The economy stumbles along in a process of slow discovery, full of feedback loops.
As far as ‘community’ is concerned, people do not just act as self-interested individuals. Their actions are often governed by how other people behave and also by how their own actions will affect other people, such as family, friends, colleagues or society more generally.
And the same applies to firms. They will be influenced by various other firms, such as competitors, trend setters and suppliers and also by a range of stakeholders – not just shareholders, but also workers, customers, local communities, etc. A firm’s aim is thus unlikely to be simple short-term profit maximisation.
And this broader set of interests translates into policy. The neoliberal free-market, laissez-faire approach to policy is challenged by the desire to take account of broader questions of equity, community and social justice. However privately efficient a free market is, it does not take account of the full social and environmental costs and benefits of firms’ and consumers’ actions or a fair distribution of income and wealth.
It would be wrong, however, to say that economics has not responded to these complexities and concerns. The analysis of externalities, income distribution, incentives, herd behaviour, uncertainty, speculation, cumulative causation and institutional values and biases are increasingly embedded in the economics curriculum and in economic research. What is more, behavioural economics is becoming increasingly mainstream in examining the behaviour of consumers, workers, firms and government. We have tried to reflect these developments in successive editions of our four textbooks.
- Write a brief defence of traditional economic analysis (i.e. that based on the assumption of ‘rational economic behaviour’).
- What are the shortcomings of traditional economic analysis?
- What is meant by ‘behavioural economics’ and how does it address the concerns raised in Evan Davis’ article?
- How is herd behaviour relevant to explaining macroeconomic fluctuations?
- Identify various stakeholder groups of an energy company. What influence are they likely to have on the company’s behaviour?
- In an era of social media, web-based information and e-commerce, why might it be necessary to rethink the concept of GDP and its measurement?
- What is meant by an efficient stock market? Why may the stock market not be efficient?
The ‘Big 4’ supermarkets in the UK – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – have a 69.5% share of the Great Britain grocery market (see data link below). The next four – Aldi, Co-op, Lidl and Waitrose – have a 23.8% share. If two of the Big 4 were to merge, would there be a significant decline in competition? This is a question the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been considering in the light of Sainsbury’s planned £7.3 billion takeover of Asda (owned by the US retailing giant, Walmart).
In a recently published provisional report, the CMA argues that “the merger could lead to a substantial lessening of competition at both a national and local level.” The CMA has concerns that the merger:
…could lead to a worse experience for in-store and online shoppers across the UK through higher prices, a poorer shopping experience, and reductions in the range and quality of products offered. It also has concerns that prices could rise at a large number of Sainsbury’s and Asda petrol stations. …The combined impact means that people could lose out right across the UK and that the deal could also cost shoppers through reduced competition in particular areas where Sainsbury’s and Asda stores overlap.
Sainsbury’s and Asda currently have a combined market share of 31.2%. This is slightly larger than Tesco’s 27.7%. But would this give the merged companies too much market power? Would there not still be intense competition between the new Big 3? And, with the growth in the German discounters, Aldi and Lidl, as well as competition from Waitrose, the Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Iceland, would there be any significant decline in competition and choice and a rise in prices?
To answer this, it is crucial to define the grocery market. The CMA argues that the major competitors to any Big 4 company are the other Big 4 companies, rather than the German discounters or other supermarkets. Unlike Aldi and Lidl, the Big 4 have a range of facilities, such as fish and meat counters, delivery and a large range of branded products.
At a national level the CMA finds that the merger would reduce competitive pressure, so that a Big 3 would be less competitive than the Big 4, with higher prices and with reduced quality, range of products and in-store services.
At the local level the effects are likely to be serious. Often the consumer has very limited choice of supermarkets at a local level. If a particular area has just two supermarkets, Sainsbury’s and Asda, then the merger of the two could result in a substantial loss of competition. The only alternative for consumers in such areas would be to use small shops, which tend to be more highly priced anyway and do not compete head-to-head with the supermarkets, or to drive to another area or to shop online, depending on how far rival supermarkets are prepared to deliver. Similar arguments apply to supermarket petrol stations, where the only competition to supermarkets is from roadside petrol stations, often selling more highly priced petrol.
In response to the CMA’s findings, Sainsbury’s chief executive, Mike Coupe, claims that they focus too much on competition between the Big 4 and do not take into account competition from Lidl and Aldi, both of which are expending rapidly and now have a combined market share of 12.8% (compared with 10.7% two years ago).
Sainsbury’s and Asda also claim that there would be considerable scope for economies of scale, with lower costs being achieved through purchasing and logistics. In a joint statement they state that:
Combining Sainsbury’s and Asda would create significant cost savings, which would allow us to lower prices. Despite the savings being independently reviewed by two separate industry specialists, the CMA has chosen to discount them as benefits.
The two companies and other interested parties have until 13 March to respond to the provisional findings. The CMA will then issue its final report by 30 April 2019. If it sticks to its provisional findings, then either the merger will be blocked or the merging companies would have to ‘sell off a significant number of stores and other assets – potentially including one of the Sainsbury’s or Asda brands – to recreate the competitive rivalry lost through the merger.’ This might be very difficult to achieve as the new buyer would have to be big enough to provide effective competition to the remaining Big 3. Perhaps this could be an opportunity for Amazon to move into in-store grocery retailing. Or there may be some private equity company that would like to do the same.
It is likely that if the CMA sticks to its ruling, the two supermarkets will apply for a judicial review of the CMA’s decision.
Competition and Markets Authority Report
- In what market segments do the Big 4 supermarkets compete?
- Research earlier investigations of the supermarket sector by the UK competition authorities. What were their findings?
- In what ways might the proposed takeover of Asda by Sainsbury’s affect consumers’ interests (a) at a national level; (b) at the local level?
- What is the ‘GUPPI index’? How is it calculated and how is it used in assessing the effects of the proposed takeover? (See pages 88–91 and 109–11 of the CMA’s Provisional Report and pages I5–I15 of the Appendices and Glossary.)
- Distinguish between horizontal and vertical mergers. How is the distinction relevant in drawing lessons from the Tesco takeover of Booker for the Sainsbury’s takeover of Asda?
- Rather than blocking the takeover, one alternative would be for the CMA to permit it, subject to the sale of specific stores where there are problems of the merger limiting competition in a particular locality. Do you think that this would be a better alternative than blocking the takeover? Explain.