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.
Share prices are determined by demand and supply. The same applies to stock market indices, such as the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 in the UK and the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 in the USA. After all, the indices are the weighted average prices of the shares included in the index. Generally, when economies are performing well, or are expected to do so, share prices will rise. They are likely to fall in a recession or if a recession is anticipated. A main reason for this is that the dividends paid on shares will reflect the profitability of firms, which tends to rise in times of a buoyant economy.
When it first became clear that Covid-19 would become a pandemic and as countries began locking down, so stock markets plummeted. People anticipated that many businesses would fail and that the likely recession would cause profits of many other surviving firms to decline rapidly. People sold shares.
The first chart shows how the FTSE 100 fell from 7466 in early February 2020 to 5190 in late March, a fall of 30.5%. The Dow Jones fell by 34% over the same period. In both cases the fall was driven not only by the decline in the respective economy over the period, but by speculation that further declines were to come (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But then stock markets started rising again, especially the Dow Jones, despite the fact that the recessions in the UK, the USA and other countries were gathering pace. In the second quarter of 2020, the Dow Jones rose by 23% and yet the US economy declined by 33% – the biggest quarterly decline on record. How could this be explained by supply and demand?
In order to boost aggregate demand and reduce the size of the recession, central banks around the world engaged in large-scale quantitative easing. This involves central banks buying government bonds and possibly corporate bonds too with newly created money. The extra money is then used to purchase other assets, such as stocks and shares and property, or physical capital or goods and services. The second chart shows that quantitative easing by the Bank of England increased the Bank’s asset holding from April to July 2020 by 50%, from £469bn to £705bn (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But given the general pessimism about the state of the global economy, employment and personal finances, there was little feed-through into consumption and investment. Instead, most of the extra money was used to buy assets. This gave a huge boost to stock markets. Stock market movements were thus out of line with movements in GDP.
Stock market prices do not just reflect the current economic and financial situation, but also what people anticipate the situation to be in the future. As infection and death rates from Covid-19 waned around Europe and in many other countries, so consumer and business confidence rose. This is illustrated in the third chart, which shows industrial, consumer and construction confidence indicators in the EU. As you can see, after falling sharply as the pandemic took hold in early 2020 and countries were locked down, confidence then rose (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But, as infection rates have risen somewhat in many countries and continue to soar in the USA, Brazil, India and some other countries, this confidence may well start to fall again and this could impact on stock markets.
A final, but related, cause of recent stock market movements is speculation. If people see share prices falling and believe that they are likely to fall further, then they will sell shares and hold cash or safer assets instead. This will amplify the fall and encourage further speculation. If, however, they see share prices rising and believe that they will continue to do so, they are likely to want to buy shares, hoping to make a gain by buying them relatively cheaply. This will amplify the rise and, again, encourage further speculation.
If there is a second wave of the pandemic, then stock markets could well fall again, as they could if speculators think that share prices have overshot the levels that reflect the economic and financial situation. But then there may be even further quantitative easing.
There are many uncertainties, both with the pandemic and with governments’ policy responses. These make forecasting stock market movements very difficult. Large gains or large losses could await people speculating on what will happen to share prices.
- Illustrate the recent movements of stock markets using demand and supply diagrams. Explain your diagrams.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for shares?
- Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation. How are the concepts relevant to the recent history of stock market movements?
- Explain how quantitative easing works to increase (a) asset prices; (b) aggregate demand.
- What is the difference between quantitative easing as currently conducted by central banks and ‘helicopter money‘?
- Give some examples of companies whose share prices have risen strongly since March 2020. Explain why these particular shares have done so well.
The global economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak is uncertain but potentially very large. There has already been a massive effect on China, with large parts of the Chinese economy shut down. As the disease spreads to other countries, they too will experience supply shocks as schools and workplaces close down and travel restrictions are imposed. This has already happened in South Korea, Japan and Italy. The size of these effects is still unknown and will depend on the effectiveness of the containment measures that countries are putting in place and on the behaviour of people in self isolating if they have any symptoms or even possible exposure.
The OECD in its March 2020 interim Economic Assessment: Coronavirus: The world economy at risk estimates that global economic growth will be around half a percentage point lower than previously forecast – down from 2.9% to 2.4%. But this is based on the assumption that ‘the epidemic peaks in China in the first quarter of 2020 and outbreaks in other countries prove mild and contained.’ If the disease develops into a pandemic, as many health officials are predicting, the global economic effect could be much larger. In such cases, the OECD predicts a halving of global economic growth to 1.5%. But even this may be overoptimistic, with growing talk of a global recession.
Governments and central banks around the world are already planning measures to boost aggregate demand. The Federal Reserve, as an emergency measure on 3 March, reduced the Federal Funds rate by half a percentage point from the range of 1.5–1.75% to 1.0–1.25%. This was the first emergency rate cut since 2008.
With considerable uncertainty about the spread of the disease and how effective containment measures will be, stock markets have fallen dramatically. The FTSE 100 fell by nearly 14% in the second half of February, before recovering slightly at the beginning of March. It then fell by a further 7.7% on 9 March – the biggest one-day fall since the 2008 financial crisis. This was specifically in response to a plunge in oil prices as Russia and Saudi Arabia engaged in a price war. But it also reflected growing pessimism about the economic impact of the coronavirus as the global spread of the epidemic accelerated and countries were contemplating more draconian lock-down measures.
Firms have been drawing up contingency plans to respond to panic buying of essential items and falling demand for other goods. Supply-chain managers are working out how to respond to these changes and to disruptions to supplies from China and other affected countries.
Firms are also having to plan for disruptions to labour supply. Large numbers of employees may fall sick or be advised/required to stay at home. Or they may have to stay at home to look after children whose schools are closed. For some firms, having their staff working from home will be easy; for others it will be impossible.
Some industries will be particularly badly hit, such as airlines, cruise lines and travel companies. Budget airlines have cancelled several flights and travel companies are beginning to offer substantial discounts. Manufacturing firms which are dependent on supplies from affected countries have also been badly hit. This is reflected in their share prices, which have seen large falls.
Uncertainty could have longer-term impacts on aggregate supply if firms decide to put investment on hold. This would also impact on the capital goods industries which supply machinery and equipment to investing firms. For the UK, already having suffered from Brexit uncertainty, this further uncertainty could prove very damaging for economic growth.
While aggregate supply is likely to fall, or at least to grow less quickly, what will happen to the balance of aggregate demand and supply is less clear. A temporary rise in demand, as people stock up, could see a surge in prices, unless supermarkets and other firms are keen to demonstrate that they are not profiting from the disease. In the longer term, if aggregate demand continues to grow at past rates, it will probably outstrip the growth in aggregate supply and result in rising inflation. If, however, demand is subdued, as uncertainty about their own economic situation leads people to cut back on spending, inflation and even the price level may fall.
How quickly the global economy will ‘bounce back’ depends on how long the outbreak lasts and whether it becomes a serious pandemic and on how much investment has been affected. At the current time, it is impossible to predict with any accuracy the timing and scale of any such bounce back.
- Coronavirus: Global growth ‘could halve’ if outbreak intensifies
BBC News (2/3/20)
- Coronavirus: Eight charts on how it has shaken economies
BBC News, Lora Jones, David Brown & Daniele Palumbo (4/3/20)
- The economic ravages of coronavirus
BBC News, Douglas Fraser (7/3/20)
- What Coronavirus Could Mean for the Global Economy
Harvard Business Review, Philipp Carlsson-Szlezak, Martin Reeves and Paul Swartz (3/3/20)
- Coronavirus escalation could cut global economic growth in half – OECD
The Guardian, Richard Partington and Phillip Inman (2/3/20)
- U.S. Fed Cuts Rates, There Are Still Strategies The ECB Can Follow
Forbes, Stephen Pope (3/3/20)
- A coronavirus recession could be supply-side with a 1970s flavour
The Guardian, Kenneth Rogoff (3/3/20)
- Coronavirus will wreak havoc on the US economy
CNN, Mark Zandi (3/3/20)
- UK factories feel the effects of coronavirus spread – PMI
Reuters, William Schomberg (2/3/20)
- The first economic modelling of coronavirus scenarios is grim for Australia, the world
The Conversation, Australia, Warwick McKibbin and Roshen Fernando (3/3/20)
- Extraordinary complacency: the coronavirus and emerging markets
Financial Times, Geoff Dennis (2/3/20)
- Coronavirus Economic Impact On Global Economy
Seeking Alpha, Mark Bern (1/3/20)
- OECD warns coronavirus could halve global growth
Financial Times, Chris Giles, Martin Arnold and Brendan Greeley (2/3/20)
- BoE’s Carney sees ‘powerful and timely’ global response to coronavirus
Reuters, David Milliken, Elizabeth Howcroft (3/3/20)
- Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate the fall in stock market prices caused by concerns over the effects of the coronavirus.
- Using either (i) an aggregate demand and supply diagram or (ii) a DAD/DAS diagram, illustrate how a fall in aggregate supply as a result of the economic effects of the coronavirus would lead to (a) a fall in real income and (i) a fall in the price level or (ii) a fall in inflation; (b) a fall in real income and (i) a rise in the price level or (ii) a rise in inflation.
- What would be the likely effects of central banks (a) cutting interest rates; (b) engaging in further quantitative easing?
- What would be the likely effects of governments running a larger budget deficit as a means of boosting the economy?
- Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation. How would you characterise the speculation that has taken place on stock markets in response to the coronavirus?
- What are the implications of people being paid on zero-hour contracts of the government requiring workplaces to close?
- What long-term changes to working practices and government policy could result from short-term adjustments to the epidemic?
- Is the long-term macroeconomic impact of the coronavirus likely to be zero, as economies bounce back? Explain.
Elections are times of peak deception. Political parties have several ways in which they can use data to persuade people to vote for them. At one extreme, they can simply make up ‘facts’ – in other words, they can lie. There have been various examples of such lies in the run-up to the UK general election of 12 December 2019. The linked article below gives some examples. But data can be used in other deceptive ways, short of downright lies.
Politicians can use data in two ways. First, statistics can be used to describe, explain and interpret the past. Second, they can be used as the basis of forecasts of the future effects of policies.
In terms of past data, one of the biggest means of deception is the selective use of data. If you are the party currently in power, you highlight the good news and ignore the bad. You do the reverse if you are currently in opposition. The data may be correct, but selective use of data can give a totally false impression of events.
In terms of forecast data, you highlight those forecasts, or elements of them, that are favourable to you and ignore those that are not.
Politicians rely on people’s willingness to look selectively at data. People want to see ‘evidence’ that reinforces their political views and prejudices. News media know this and happily do the same as politicians, selectively using data favourable to their political leanings. And it’s not just newspapers that do this. There are many online news sites that feed their readers with data supportive of their position. And there are many social media platforms, where people can communicate with people in their political ‘bubble’.
Genuine fact-checking sites can help, as can independent forecasters, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies. But too many voters would rather only look at evidence, genuine or not, that supports their political point of view.
This can make life hard for economists who seek to explain the world with an open mind, based on a non-biased use of evidence – and hard for economic forecasters, who want to use full and accurate data in their models and to make realistic assumptions, emphasising that their forecasts are only the most likely outcome, not a certainty. As the article states:
Economic forecasts are flawed and their limitations should be acknowledged. But they should not be blindly dismissed as fake facts. And as far as political debate and discourse is concerned, in the long run, the truth may will out.
- Give some specific examples of ways in which politicians misuse data.
- Give some specific examples of ways in which politicians misuse the analysis of economists.
- Distinguish between positive and normative statements? Should economists make policy recommendations? If so, in what context?
- Why are economic forecasts flawed, but why should they not be dismissed as ‘fake facts’?
- Examine the manifestos of two political parties and provide a critique of their economic analysis.
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?