Category: Essentials of Economics: 8e Ch 09

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.

Article

Questions

  1. Give some specific examples of ways in which politicians misuse data.
  2. Give some specific examples of ways in which politicians misuse the analysis of economists.
  3. Distinguish between positive and normative statements? Should economists make policy recommendations? If so, in what context?
  4. Why are economic forecasts flawed, but why should they not be dismissed as ‘fake facts’?
  5. 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.

Podcast

Article

Questions

  1. In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
  2. 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?
  3. What is meant by bounded rationality?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?

With university fees for home students in England of £9250 per year and with many students receiving maintenance loans of around £9000 per year, many students are graduating with debts in excess of £50 000. Loans are repaid at a marginal rate of 9% on incomes over £25 716.

Many students also study for a masters degree. The average fee for a taught, classroom-based masters (MA) is £7392 and for a laboratory-based masters (MSc) is £8167 but can be considerably higher at some prestigious universities where demand is high. Government loans of up to £10 906 are available to contribute towards fees and maintenance. These are paid back at a marginal rate of 6% for people earning over £21 000, giving a combined marginal rate of 15% for first and masters degrees.

For high earners on the 40% income tax rate, the combined marginal rate of payment out of income is 40% tax, plus 2% national insurance, plus 15% for those with undergraduate and masters loans. This gives a combined marginal rate of 57%.

Average student debt in England is higher even than in the USA, where the average is $37 000. US university courses are more expensive than in the UK, costing an average of $34 000 per year in tuition alone. But undergraduates can borrow less. They can borrow between $5500 and $12 500 per year in federal loans towards both fees and maintenance, and some private loans are also available. Most students do some paid work during their studies to make up the difference or rely on parents contributing. Parental contributions mean that students from poor families end up owing more. According to a Guardian article:

Race is a huge factor. Black students owe an average of $7400 more than white students when they graduate, the Brookings Institution found. After graduation, the debt gap continues to widen. Four years after graduation, black graduates owe an average of nearly $53 000 – nearly double that of white graduates.

Student debt looks to become one of the key issues in the 2020 US presidential election.

Pressure to cancel student fees and debt in the USA

Most of the Democratic candidates are promising to address student fees and debt. Student debt, they claim, places an unfair burden on the younger generation and makes it hard for people to buy a house, or car or other major consumer durables. This also has a dampening effect on aggregate demand.

The most radical proposal comes from Bernie Sanders. He has vowed, if elected, to abolish student fees and to cancel all undergraduate and graduate debt of all Americans. Other candidates are promising to cut fees and/or debt.

Although most politicians and commentators agree that the USA has a serious problem of student debt, there is little agreement on what, if anything, to do about it. There are already a number of ways in which student debt can be written off or reduced. For example, if you work in the public sector for more than 10 years, remaining debt will be cancelled. However, none of the existing schemes is as radical as that being proposed by many Democrats.

Criticisms of the Democrats’ plans are mainly of two types.

The first is the sheer cost. Overall debt is around $1.6tn. What is more, making student tuition free would place a huge ongoing burden on government finances. Bernie Sanders proposes introducing a financial transactions tax on stock trading. This would be similar to a Tobin tax (sometimes dubbed a ‘Robin Hood tax’) and would include a 0.5% tax on stock transactions, a 0.1% tax on bond trades and a 0.005% tax on transactions in derivatives. He argues that the public bailed out the financial sector in 2008 and that it is now the turn of the financial sector to come to the aid of students and graduates.

The other type of criticism concerns the incentive effects of the proposal. The core of the criticism is that loan forgiveness involves moral hazard.

The moral hazard of loan forgiveness

The argument is that cancelling debt, or the promise to do so, encourages people to take on more debt. Generally, moral hazard occurs when people are protected from the consequences of their actions and are thus encouraged to make riskier decisions. For example, if you are ensured against theft, you may be less careful with your belongings. As the Orange County Register article linked below states:

If the taxpayers pay the debts of everyone with outstanding student loans, how will that affect the decisions made by current students thinking about their choices for financing higher education? What’s the message? Borrow as much as you can and wait for the debt to be canceled during the next presidential primary campaign?

Not only would more students be encouraged to go to college, but they would be encouraged to apply for more costly courses if they were free.

Universities would be encouraged to exaggerate their costs to warrant higher fees charged to the government. The government (federal, state or local) would have to be very careful in auditing courses to ensure costs were genuine. Universities could end up being squeezed for finance as government may try to cut payments by claiming that courses were overpriced.

Even if fees were not abolished, cancelling debts would encourage students to take on larger debt, if that was to be cleared at some point in the future. What is more, students (or their parents) who could afford to pay, would choose to borrow the money instead.

But many countries do have free or highly subsidised higher education. Universities are given grants which are designed to reflect fair costs.

Articles

Videos

Questions

  1. Assess the arguments for abolishing or substantially reducing student fees.
  2. Assess the arguments against abolishing or substantially reducing student fees.
  3. Assess the arguments for writing off or substantially reducing student debt.
  4. Assess the arguments against writing off or substantially reducing student debt.
  5. If it were decided to cancel student debt, would it be fair to pay students back for any debt they had already paid off?
  6. Does tackling the problem of student debt necessarily lead to a redistribution of wealth/income?
  7. Give some other examples of moral hazard.
  8. If student fees were abolished, would there be any problem of adverse selection? If so, how could this be overcome?
  9. Find out what the main UK parties are advocating about student fees and debt in the nations of the UK for home and non-home students. Provide a critique of each of their policies.

The latest UK house price index reveals that annual house price growth in the UK slowed to just 1.2 per cent in May. This is the lowest rate of growth since January 2013. This is being driven, in part, by the London market where annual house price inflation rates have now been negative for 15 consecutive months. In May the annual rate of house price inflation in London fell to -4.4 per cent, it lowest since August 2009 as the financial crisis was unfolding. However, closer inspection of the figures show that while many other parts of the country continue to experience positive rates of annual house price inflation, once general inflation is accounted for, there is widespread evidence of widespread real house price deflation.

The average UK house price in May 2019 was £229,000. As Chart 1 shows, this masks considerable differences across the UK. In England the average price was £246,000 (an annual increase of 1.0 per cent), in Scotland it was £153,000 (an increase of 2.8 per cent), in Wales £159,000 (an increase of 3.0 per cent) and in Northern Ireland it was £137,000 (an increase of 2.1 per cent). (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

The London market distorts considerably the English house price figures. In London the average house price in May 2019 was £457,000 (an annual decrease of 4.4 per cent). House prices were lowest in the North East region of England at £128,000. The North East was the only other English region alongside London to witness a negative rate of annual house price inflation, with house prices falling in the year to May 2019 by 0.7 per cent.

Chart 2 allows us to see more readily the rates of house price growth. It plots the annual rates of house price inflation across London, the UK and its nations. What is readily apparent is the volatility of house price growth. This is evidence of frequent imbalances between the flows of property on to the market to sell (instructions to sell) and the number of people looking to buy (instructions to buy). An increase in instructions to buy relative to those to sell puts upwards pressure on prices whereas an increase in the relative number of instructions to sell puts downward pressure on prices. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Despite the volatility in house prices, the longer-term trend in house prices is positive. The average annual rate of growth in house prices between January 1970 and May 2019 in the UK is 9.1 per cent. For England the figure is 9.4 per cent, for Wales 8.8 per cent, for Scotland 8.5 per cent and for Northern Ireland 8.3 per cent. In London the average rate of growth is 10.4 per cent per annum.

As Chart 3 illustrates, the longer-term growth in actual house prices cannot be fully explained by the growth in consumer prices. It shows house price values as if consumer prices, as measured by the Retail Prices Index (RPI), were fixed at their January 1987 levels. We see real increases in house prices or, expressed differently, in house prices relative to consumer prices. In real terms, UK house prices were 3.6 times higher in May 2019 compared to January 1970. For England the figure is 4.1 times, for Wales 3.1 times, for Scotland 2.9 times and for Northern Ireland 2.1 times. In London inflation-adjusted house prices were 5.7 times higher. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

The volatility in house prices continues to be evident when adjusted for changes in consumer prices. The UK’s annual rate of real house price inflation was as high as 40 per in January 1973, yet, on the other hand, in June 1975 inflation-adjusted house prices were 16 per cent lower than a year earlier. Over the period from January 1970 to May 2019, the average annual rate of real house price inflation was 3.2 per cent. Hence house prices have, on average, grown at an annual rate of consumer price inflation plus 3.2 per cent.

Chart 4 shows annual rates of real house price inflation since 2008 and, hence, from around the time the financial crisis began to unfold. The period is characterised by acute volatility and with real house prices across the UK falling at an annual rate of 16 per cent in 2009 and by as much 29 per cent in Northern Ireland. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

The UK saw a rebound in nominal and real house price growth in the period from 2013, driven by a strong surge in prices in London and the South East, and supported by government initiatives such as Help to Buy designed to help people afford to buy property. But house price growth then began to ease from early/mid 2016. Some of the easing may be partly due to any excessive fizz ebbing from the market, especially in London, and the impact on the demand for buy-to-let investments resulting from reductions in tax relief on interest payments on buy-to-let mortgages.

However, the housing market is notoriously sensitive to uncertainty, which is not surprising when you think of the size of the investment people are making when they enter the market. The uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the UK’s future trading relationships will have been a drag on demand and hence on house prices.

Chart 4 shows that by May 2019 all the UK nations were experiencing negative rates of real house price inflation, despite still experiencing positive rates of nominal house price inflation. In Wales the real annual house price inflation rate was -0.1 per cent, in Scotland -0.2 per cent, in Northern Ireland -0.9 per cent and in England -2.0 per cent. Meanwhile in London, where annual house price deflation has been evident for 15 consecutive months, real house prices in May 2019 were falling at an annual rate of 7.2 per cent.

Going forward the OBR’s Fiscal Risks Report predicts that, in the event of a no-deal, no-transition exit of the UK from the European Union, nominal UK house prices would fall by almost 10 per cent between the start of 2019 and mid-2021. This forecast is driven by the assumption that the UK would enter a year-long recession from the final quarter of 2019. It argues that property transactions and prices ‘move disproportionately’ during recessions. (See John’s blog The costs of a no-deal Brexit for a fuller discussion of the economics of a no-deal Brexit). The danger therefore is that the housing market becomes characterised by both nominal and real house price falls.

Articles

Questions

  1. Explain the difference between a rise in the rate of house price inflation a rise in the level of house prices.
  2. Explain the difference between nominal and real house prices.
  3. If nominal house prices rise can real house price fall? Explain your answer.
  4. What do you understand by the terms instructions to buy and instructions to sell?
  5. What factors are likely to affect the levels of instructions to buy and instructions to sell?
  6. How does the balance between instructions to buy and instructions to sell affect house prices?
  7. How can we differentiate between different housing markets? Illustrate your answer with examples.