The distinction between nominal and real values in one of the ‘threshold concepts’ in economics. These are concepts that are fundamental to a discipline and which occur again and again. The distinction between nominal and real values is particularly important when interpreting and analysing data. We show its importance here when analysing the latest retail sales data from the Office for National Statistics.
Retail sales relate to spending on items such as food, clothing, footwear, and household goods (see). They involve sales by retailers directly to end consumers whether in store or online. The retail sales index for Great Britain is based on a monthly survey of around 5000 retailers across England, Scotland and Wales and is thought to capture around 93 per cent of turnover in the sector.
Estimates of retail sales are published in index form. There are two indices published by the ONS: a value and volume measure. The value index reflects the total turnover of business, while the volume index adjusts the value index for price changes. Hence, the value estimates are nominal, while the volume estimates are real. The key point here is that the nominal estimates reflect both price and volume changes, whereas the real estimates adjust for price movements to capture only volume changes.
The headline ONS figures for September 2023 showed a 0.9 per cent volume fall in the volume of retail sales, following a 0.4 per cent rise in August. In value terms, September saw a 0.2 per cent fall in retail sales following a 0.9 per cent rise in August. Monthly changes can be quite volatile, even after seasonal adjustment, and sensitive to peculiar factors. For example, the unusually warm weather this September helped to depress expenditure on clothes. It is, therefore, sensible to take a longer-term view when looking for clearer patterns in spending behaviour.
Chart 1 plots the value and volume of retail sales in Great Britain since 1996. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this and the other two charts). In value terms, retail sales spending increased by 165 per cent, whereas in volume terms, spending increased by 73 per cent. This difference is expected in the presence of rising prices, since nominal growth, as we have just noted, reflects both price and volume changes. The chart is notable for capturing two periods where the volume of retail spending ceased to grow. The first of these is following the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. The period from 2008 to 2013 saw the volume of retail sales stagnate and flatline with a recovery in volumes only really starting to take hold in 2014. Yet in nominal terms retail sales grew by around 16 per cent.
The second of the two periods is the decline in the volume of retail sales from 2021. To help illustrate this more clearly, Chart 2 zooms in on retail sales over the past five years or so. We can see a significant divergence between the volume and value of retail sales. Between April 2021 and September 2023, the volume of retail sales fell by 11%. In contrast, the value of retail sales increased by 8.4%. The impact of the inflationary shock and the consequent cost-of-living crisis that emerged from 2021 is therefore demonstrated starkly by the chart, not least the severe drag that it has had on the volume of retail spending. This has meant that the aggregate volume of retail sales in September 2023 was only back to the levels of mid-2018.
Finally, Chart 3 shows the patterns in the volumes of retailing by four categories since 2018: specifically, food stores, predominantly non-food stores, non-store retail, and automotive fuel. The largest fall in the volume of retail sales has been experienced by non-store retailing – largely online retailing. From its peak in December 2021, non-store retail sales decreased by 18% up to September 2023. While this needs to be set in the context of the volume of non-store retail purchases being 15% higher than in February 2020 before the pandemic lockdowns were introduced, it is nonetheless indicative of the pressures facing online retailers.
Importantly, the final chart shows that the pressures in retailing are widespread. Spending volumes on automotive fuels, and in food and non-food stores are all below 2019 levels. The likelihood is that these pressures will persist for some time to come. This inevitably has potential implications for retailers and, of course, for those that work in the sector.
- Why does an increase in the value of retail sales not necessarily mean that their volume has increased?
- In the presence of deflation, which will be higher: nominal or real growth rates?
- Discuss the factors that could explain the patterns in the volume of spending observed in the different categories of retail sales in Chart 3.
- Discuss what types of retail products might be more or less sensitive to the macroeconomic environment.
- Conduct a survey of recent media reports to prepare a briefing discussing examples of retailers who have struggled or thrived in the recent economic environment.
- What do you understand by the concepts of ‘consumer confidence’ and ‘economic uncertainty’? How might these affect the volume of retail spending?
- Discuss the proposition that the retail sales data cast doubt on whether people are ‘forward-looking consumption smoothers’.
The development of open-source software and blockchain technology has enabled people to ‘hack’ capitalism – to present and provide alternatives to traditional modes of production, consumption and exchange. This has enabled more effective markets in second-hand products, new environmentally-friendly technologies and by-products that otherwise would have been negative externalities. Cryptocurrencies are increasingly providing the medium of exchange in such markets.
In a BBC podcast, Hacking Capitalism, Leo Johnson, head of PwC’s Disruption Practice and younger brother of Boris Johnson, argues that various changes to the way capitalism operates can make it much more effective in improving the lives of everyone, including those left behind in the current world. The changes can help address the failings of capitalism, such as climate change, environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, corruption, a reinforcement of economic and political power and the lack of general access to capital. And these changes are already taking place around the world and could lead to a new ‘golden age’ for capitalism.
The changes are built on new attitudes and new technologies. New attitudes include regarding nature and the land as living resources that need respect. This would involve moving away from monocultures and deforestation and, with appropriate technologies (old and new), could lead to greater output, greater equality within agriculture and increased carbon absorption. The podcast gives examples from the developing and developed world of successful moves towards smaller-scale and more diversified agriculture that are much more sustainable. The rise in farmers’ markets provides an important mechanism to drive both demand and supply.
In the current model of capitalism there are many barriers to prevent the poor from benefiting from the system. As the podcast states, there are some 2 billion people across the world with no access to finance, 2.6 billion without access to sanitation, 1.2 billion without access to power – a set of barriers that stops capitalism from unlocking the skills and productivity of the many.
These problems were made worse by the response to the financial crisis of 2007–8, when governments chose to save the existing model of capitalism by propping up financial markets through quantitative easing, which massively inflated asset prices and aggravated the problem of inequality. They missed the opportunity of creating money to invest in alternative technologies and infrastructure.
New technology is the key to developing this new fairer, more sustainable model of capitalism. Such technologies could be developed (and are being in many cases) by co-operative, open-source methods. Many people, through these methods, could contribute to the development of products and their adaptation to meet different needs. The barriers of intellectual property rights are by-passed.
New technologies that allow easy rental or sharing of equipment (such as tractors) by poor farmers can transform lives and massively increase productivity. So too can the development of cryptocurrencies to allow access to finance for small farmers and businesses. This is particularly important in countries where access to traditional finance is restricted and/or where the currency is not stable with high inflation rates.
Blockchain technology can also help to drive second-hand markets by providing greater transparency and thereby cut waste. Manufacturers could take a stake in such markets through a process of certification or transfer.
A final hack is one that can directly tackle the problem of externalities – one of the greatest weaknesses of conventional capitalism. New technologies can support ways of rewarding people for reducing external costs, such as paying indigenous people for protecting the land or forests. Carbon markets have been developed in recent years. Perhaps the best example is the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EMS). But so far they have been developed in isolation. If the revenues generated could go directly to those involved in environmental protection, this would help further to internalise the externalities. The podcasts gives an example of a technology used in the Amazon to identify the environmental benefits of protecting rain forests that can then be used to allow reliable payments to the indigenous people though blockchain currencies.
- What are the main reasons why capitalism has led to such great inequality?
- What do you understand by ‘hacking’ capitalism?
- How is open-source software relevant to the development of technology that can have broad benefits across society?
- Does the current model of capitalism encourage a self-centred approach to life?
- How might blockchain technology help in the development of a more inclusive and fairer form of capitalism?
- How might farmers’ co-operatives encourage rural development?
- What are the political obstacles to the developments considered in the podcast?
For those of you embarking on a course in economics, one of the first things you’ll come across is the distinction between microeconomics and macroeconomics. The news is full of both microeconomic and macroeconomic issues and you’ll quickly see how relevant both branches of economics are to analysing real-world events, problems and policies.
As we state in Economics (updated 10th edition), ‘microeconomics is concerned with the individual parts of the economy. It is concerned with the demand and supply of particular goods, services and resources such as cars, butter, clothes, haircuts, plumbers, accountants, blast furnaces, computers and oil.’ In particular, it is concerned with the buying, selling, production and employment decisions of individuals and firms. When you go shopping and make choices of what to buy you are making microeconomic decisions. When firms choose how much of particular products to produce, what techniques of production to use and how many people to employ, these choices are microeconomic ones.
Microeconomics examines people’s behaviour when they make choices. In fact many of the recent developments in microeconomics involve analysing the behaviour of individuals and firms and the factors that influence this behaviour.
Open any newspaper, turn on the TV news or access any news site and you will see various microeconomic issues covered. Why are rents soaring? How is AI affecting various businesses’ productivity? How rapidly is the switch taking place to green energy? How do supermarkets influence spending patterns? Why are wages so low in the social care sector? Why are private PCR tests so expensive for holidaymakers retuning from abroad?
Many of the blogs on this news site will examine microeconomic issues. We hope that they provide useful case studies for your course.
- Look through news sites and identify five current microeconomic issues. What makes them ‘micro’ issues?
- If world oil and gas prices rise, why is this a microeconomic issue?
- What do you understand by ‘scarcity’? How is microeconomics related to scarcity?
- Are all goods scarce?
- What is meant by ‘opportunity cost’? Give some examples of how opportunity cost has affected recent decisions you have made.
The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency have highlighted the weaknesses of free-market capitalism.
Governments around the world have intervened massively to provide economic support to people and businesses affected by the pandemic through grants and furlough schemes. They have also stressed the importance of collective responsibility in abiding by lockdowns, social distancing and receiving vaccinations.
The pandemic has also highlighted the huge inequalities around the world. The rich countries have been able to offer much more support to their people than poor countries and they have had much greater access to vaccines. Inequality has also been growing within many countries as rich people have gained from rising asset prices, while many people find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs, suffering from poor educational opportunities and low economic and social mobility.
The increased use of working from home and online shopping has accelerated the rise of big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google. Their command of the market makes it difficult for small companies to compete – and competition is vital if capitalism is to benefit societies. There have been growing calls for increased regulation of powerful companies and measures to stimulate competition. The problem has been recognised by governments, central banks and international agencies, such as the IMF and the OECD.
At the same time as the world has been grappling with the pandemic, global warming has contributed to extreme heat and wildfires in various parts of the world, such as western North America, the eastern Mediterranean and Siberia, and major flooding in areas such as western Europe and China. Governments again have intervened by providing support to people whose property and livelihoods have been affected. Also there is a growing urgency to tackle global warming, with some movement, albeit often limited, in implementing policies to achieve net zero carbon emissions by some specified point in the future. Expectations are rising for concerted action to be agreed at the international COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November this year.
An evolving capitalism
So are we seeing a new variant of capitalism, with a greater recognition of social responsibility and greater government intervention?
Western governments seem more committed to spending on socially desirable projects, such as transport, communications and green energy infrastructure, education, science and health. They are beginning to pursue more active industrial and regional policies. They are also taking measures to tax multinationals (see the blog The G7 agrees on measures to stop corporate tax avoidance). Many governments are publicly recognising the need to tackle inequality and to ‘level up’ society. Active fiscal policy, a central plank of Keynesian economics, has now come back into fashion, with a greater willingness to fund expenditure by borrowing and, over the longer term, to use higher taxes to fund increased government expenditure.
But there is also a growing movement among capitalists themselves to move away from profits being their sole objective. A more inclusive ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is being advocated by many companies, where they take into account the interests of a range of stakeholders, from customers, to workers, to local communities, to society in general and to the environment. For example, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, which is a joint initiative of the Vatican and several world business and public-sector leaders, seeks to make ‘the world fairer, more inclusive, and sustainable’.
If there is to be a true transformation of capitalism from the low-tax free-market capitalism of neoclassical economists and libertarian policymakers to a more interventionist mixed market capitalism, where capitalists pursue a broader set of objectives, then words have to be matched by action. Talk is easy; long-term plans are easy; taking action now is what matters.
Articles and videos
- Why the next stage of capitalism is coming
BBC Future, Matthew Wilburn King (27/5/21)
- During the pandemic, a new variant of capitalism has emerged
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/7/21)
- When it comes to social and environmental justice, words don’t cut it
GreenBiz, C J Clouse (28/4/21)
- Introducing the Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican
Inclusive Capitalism (7/12/20)
- The State and Direction of Inclusive Capitalism
Saïd Business School, Ford Foundation and Deloitte Social Impact practice, Richard Barker, Mary Johnstone-Louis, Colin Mayer, Pradeep Prabhala, Noah Rimland Flower, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, Tony Siesfeld and Peter Tufano (2018)
- Rising Market Power—A Threat to the Recovery?
IMF Blog, Kristalina Georgieva, Federico J Díez, Romain Duval and Daniel Schwarz (15/3/21)
- The Pandemic Alone Can’t Transform Capitalism
Jacobin, Ramaa Vasudevan (30/7/21)
- Down to earth: How entrepreneurs can collaborate to rejuvenate capitalism
EU-Startups, Luca Sabia (4/8/21)
- How similar is the economic response of Western governments to the pandemic to their response to the financial crisis of 2007–8?
- What do you understand by ‘inclusive capitalism’? How can stakeholders hold companies to account?
- What indicators are there of market power? Why have these been on the rise?
- How can entrepreneurs contribute to ‘closing the inequality gap for a more sustainable and inclusive form of society’?
- What can be done to hold governments to account for meeting various social and environmental objectives? How successful is this likely to be?
- Can inequality be tackled without redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor?
Each year the BBC hosts the Reith Lectures – a series of talks given by an eminent person in their field. This year’s lecturer is Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England. His series of four weekly lectures began on 2 December 2020. Their topic is ‘How we get what we value’. As the BBC site states, the lectures:
chart how we have come to esteem financial value over human value and how we have gone from market economies to market societies. He argues that this has contributed to a trio of crises: of credit, Covid and climate. And the former Bank of England governor will outline how we can turn this around.
In lectures 2, 3 and 4, he looks at three crises and how they have shaped and are shaping what we value. The crises are the financial crisis of 2007–9, the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. They have challenged how we value money, health and the environment respectively and, more broadly, have prompted people to question what is valuable for individuals and society, both today and into the future.
The questions posed by Carney are how can we establish what is valuable to individuals and society, how well are such values met by economies and how can mechanisms be improved to ensure that we make the best use of resources in meeting those values.
Value and the market
In the first lecture he probes the concept of value. He explores how economists and philosophers have tried to value the goods, services and human interactions that we desire.
First there is ‘objective value’ propounded by classical economists, such as Adam smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx. Here the value of goods and services depends on the amount of resources used to make them and fundamentally on the amount of labour. In other words, value is a supply-side concept.
This he contrasts with ‘subjective value’. Here the value of goods and services depends on how well they satisfy wants – how much utility they give the consumer. For these neoclassical economists, value is in the eye of the beholder; it is a demand-side concept.
The two are reconciled in the market, with market prices reflecting the balance of demand and supply. Market prices provided a solution to the famous diamonds/water paradox (see Box 4.2 in Economics (10th edition) or Case Study 4.3 in Essentials of Economics (8th edition) – the paradox of ‘why water, which is essential for life, is virtually free, but diamonds, which have limited utility beyond their beauty, are so expensive.’ The answer is to do with scarcity and marginal utility. Because diamonds are rare, the marginal utility is high, even though the total utility is low. And because water is abundant, even though its total utility is high, for most people its marginal utility is low. In other words, the value at the margin depends on the balance of demand and supply. Diamonds are much scarcer than water.
But is the market balance the right balance? Are the values implied by the market the same as those of society? ‘Why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland?’ – another paradox highlighted by Carney.
It has long been recognised that markets fail in a number of ways. They are not perfect, with large firms able to make supernormal profits by charging more and producing less, and consumers often being ill-informed and behaving impulsively or being swayed by clever marketing. And many valuable things that we experience, such as human interaction and the beauty of nature, are not bought and sold and thus do not appear in measures of GDP – one of the main ways of valuing a country.
What is more, many of things that are produced in the market have side-effects which are not reflected in prices. These externalities, whether good or bad, can be substantial: for example, the global warming caused by CO2 emissions from industry, transport and electricity production from fossil fuels.
And markets reflect people’s biases towards the present and hence lead to too little investment for the future, whether in healthcare, the environment or physical and social infrastructure. Markets reflect the scant regard many give to the damage we might be doing to the lives of future generations.
What is particularly corrosive, according to Carney, is the
drift from moral to market sentiments. …Increasingly, the value of something, some act or someone is equated with its monetary value, a monetary value that is determined by the market. The logic of buying and selling no longer applies only to material goods, but increasingly it governs the whole of life from the allocation of healthcare, education, public safety and environmental protection. …Market value is taken to represent intrinsic value, and if a good or activity is not in the market, it is not valued.
The drift from moral to market sentiments accelerated in the Thatcher/Regan era, when governments were portrayed as inefficient allocators, which stifled competition, innovation and the movement of capital. Deregulation and privatisation were the order of the day. This, according to Carney, ‘unleashed a new dynamism’ and ‘with the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, the spread of the market grew unchecked.’
But this drift failed to recognise market failures. It has taken three crises, the financial crisis, Covid and the climate crisis to bring these failures to the top of the public agenda. They are examined in the other three lectures.
The Reith Lectures
- Distinguish between objective and subjective value.
- If your income rises, will you necessarily be happier? Explain.
- How is the concept of diminishing marginal utility of income relevant to explaining why ‘A Christmas bonus of £1000 means less to Mark Zuckerberg then £500 does to someone on a minimum wage.’
- Does the use of social cost–benefit analysis enable us to use adjusted prices as a measure of value?
- Listen to lectures 2, 3 and 4 and provide a 500-word summary of each.
- Assess the arguments Mark Carney uses in one of these three lectures.