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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.

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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.

There have been many analyses of the economic effects of Brexit, both before the referendum and at various times since, including analyses of the effects of the deal negotiated by Theresa May’s government and the EU. But with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October under the new Boris Johnson government, attention has turned to the effects of leaving the EU without a deal.

There have been two major analyses recently of the likely effects of a no-deal Brexit – one by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and one by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

IMF analysis

The first was in April by the IMF as part of its 6-monthly World Economic Outlook. In Scenario Box 1.1. ‘A No-Deal Brexit’ on page 28 of Chapter 1, the IMF looked at two possible scenarios.

Scenario A assumes no border disruptions and a relatively small increase in UK sovereign and corporate spreads. Scenario B incorporates significant border disruptions that increase import costs for UK firms and households (and to a lesser extent for the European Union) and a more severe tightening in financial conditions.

Under both scenarios, UK exports to the EU and UK imports from the EU revert to WTO rules. As a result, tariffs are imposed by mid-2020 or earlier. Non-tariff barriers rise at first but are gradually reduced over time. Most free-trade arrangements between the EU and other countries are initially unavailable to the UK (see the blog EU strikes major trade deals) but both scenarios assume that ‘new trade agreements are secured after two years, and on terms similar to those currently in place.’

Both scenarios also assume a reduction in net immigration from the EU of 25 000 per year until 2030. Both assume a rise in corporate and government bond rates, reflecting greater uncertainty, with the effect being greater in Scenario B. Both assume a relaxing of monetary and fiscal policy in response to downward pressures on the economy.

The IMF analysis shows a negative impact on UK GDP, with the economy falling into recession in late 2019 and in 2020. This is the result of higher trade costs and reduced business investment caused by a poorer economic outlook and increased uncertainty. By 2021, even under Scenario A, GDP is approximately 3.5% lower than it would have been if the UK had left the EU with the negotiated deal. For the rest of the EU, GDP is around 0.5% lower, although the effect varies considerably from country to country.

The IMF analysis makes optimistic assumptions, such as the UK being able to negotiate new trade deals with non-EU countries to replace those lost by leaving. More pessimistic assumptions would lead to greater costs.

OBR analysis

Building on the analysis of the IMF, the Office for Budget Responsibility considered the effect of a no-deal Brexit on the public finances in its biennial Fiscal risks report, published on 17 July 2019. This argues that, under the relatively benign Scenario A assumptions of the IMF, the lower GDP would result in annual public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) rising. By 2021/22, if the UK had left with the deal negotiated with the EU, PSNB would have been around £18bn. A no-deal Brexit would push this up to around £51bn.


According to the OBR, the contributors to this rise in public-sector net borrowing of around £33bn are:

  • A fall in income tax and national insurance receipts of around £16.5bn per year because of lower incomes.
  • A fall in corporation tax and expenditure taxes, such as VAT, excise duties and stamp duty of around £22.5bn per year because of lower expenditure.
  • A fall in capital taxes, such as inheritance tax and capital gains tax of around £10bn per year because of a fall in asset prices.
  • These are offset to a small degree by a rise in customs duties (around £10bn) because of the imposition of tariffs and by lower debt repayments (of around £6bn) because of the Bank of England having to reduce interest rates.

The rise in PSNB would constrain the government’s ability to use fiscal policy to boost the economy and to engage in the large-scale capital projects advocated by Boris Johnson while making the substantial tax cuts he is proposing. A less optimistic set of assumptions would, of course, lead to a bigger rise in PSNB, which would further constrain fiscal policy.

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Reports

Questions

  1. What are the assumptions of the IMF World Economic Outlook forecasts for the effects of a no-deal Brexit? Do you agree with these assumptions? Explain.
  2. What are the assumptions of the analysis of a no-deal Brexit on the public finances in the OBR’s Fiscal risks report? Do you agree with these assumptions? Explain.
  3. What is the difference between forecasts and analyses of outcomes?
  4. For what reasons might growth over the next few years be higher than in the IMF forecasts under either scenario?
  5. For what reasons might growth over the next few years be lower than in the IMF forecasts under either scenario?
  6. For what reasons might public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) over the next few years be lower than in the OBR forecast?
  7. For what reasons might PSNB over the next few years be higher than in the OBR forecast?

The IFS has launched a major five-year review into all aspects of inequality. The review is led by Sir Angus Deaton, the Scottish-born Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare. The review will cover all aspects of inequality, including inequality of income, wealth, health, life-span, education, social mobility, housing, opportunity and political access, and by gender, age, ethnicity, family and geography. It will look at trends in and causes of inequality, the impacts of globalisation and political change, barriers to tackling inequality and poverty, and at various policy measures.

Although the published Gini coefficient in England and Wales has not changed much over the past 15 years, largely because of support given to the poor by tax credits, it did rise from 31.7 to 33.2 from 2015/16 to 2017/18 (the latest year for which figures are available). Other measures of inequality, however, have changed more dramatically. There is huge geographical inequality in income in the UK, reflected in inequality in health. Average weekly earnings in London are 66% higher than in the north east of England. And, according to the IFS, ‘Men in the most affluent areas can expect to live nearly 10 years longer than those in the most deprived areas, and this gap is widening’.

The UK has the greatest inequality of income of developed countries, with the exception of the USA. The IFS warns that the UK could follow the USA:

…where wages for non-college-educated men have not risen for five decades, and where rising mortality for less-educated white men and women in middle age has caused average life expectancy in America to fall for the last three years – something that has not happened for a century. We have not experienced anything similar in the UK but we have now had a decade of stagnant wages and there is recent evidence that ‘deaths of despair’ – deaths from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse – are now rising among middle-aged Britons. Sir Angus will go on to say:
 
‘I think that people getting rich is a good thing, especially when it brings prosperity to others. But the other kind of getting rich, “taking” rather than “making”, rent-seeking rather than creating, enriching the few at the expense of the many, taking the free out of free markets, is making a mockery of democracy. In that world, inequality and misery are intimate companions.’

The initial report, which introduces the IFS Deaton Review, points to some possible causes of growing inequality, including the dramatic decline in union membership, which now stands at just 13% of private-sector employees, with more flexible labour markets with growing numbers of workers on temporary or zero-hour contracts. Other causes include growing globalisation, rapid technological change making some skills redundant, the power of large companies and their shareholders, large pay rises given to senior executives, growing inequality of access to education and changing family environments with more single parents.

About one in six children in the UK are born to single parents – a phenomenon that is heavily concentrated in low-income and low-educated families, and is significantly less prevalent in continental Europe.

Then there is the huge growth in housing inequality as house prices and rents have risen faster than incomes. Home ownership has increasingly become beyond the reach of many young people, while many older people live in relative housing wealth. Generational inequality is another major factor that the Deaton Review will consider.

Inequalities in different dimensions – income, work, mental and physical health, families and relationships – are likely to reinforce one another. They may result in, and stem from, other inequalities in wealth, cultural capital, social networks and political voice. Inequality cannot be reduced to any one dimension: it is the culmination of myriad forms of privilege and disadvantage.

The review will consider policy alternatives to tackle the various aspects of inequality, from changes to the tax and benefit system, to legislation on corporate behaviour, to investment in various structural resources, such as health and education. As the summary to the initial report states:

The Deaton Review will identify policy responses to the inequalities we face today. It will assess the relative merits of available policy options – taxes and benefits, labour market policies, education, competition policy, ownership structures and regulations – and consider how policies in different spheres can be designed to complement each other and minimise adverse effects. We aim not just to further our understanding of inequalities in the twenty-first century, but to equip policymakers with the knowledge and tools to tackle those inequalities.

Articles

IFS Deaton Review

Questions

  1. Identify different aspects of inequality. Choose two or three aspects and examine how they are related.
  2. Why has inequality widened in most developed countries over the past 20 years?
  3. What is meant by ‘rent seeking’? Why may it be seen as undesirable? Can it be justified and, if so, on what grounds?
  4. What policies could be adopted to tackle poverty?
  5. What trade-offs might there be between greater equality and faster economic growth?
  6. What policies could be adopted that would both reduce inequality and boost long-term economic growth?

Donald Trump has suggested that the Fed should cut interest rates by 1 percentage point and engage in a further round of quantitative easing. He wants to see monetary policy used to give a substantial boost to US economic growth at a time when inflation is below target. In a pair of tweets just before the meeting of the Fed to decide on interest rates, he said:

China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low. Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates, even though inflation is very low, and instituted a very big dose of quantitative tightening. We have the potential to go up like a rocket if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing. Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!

But would this be an appropriate policy? The first issue concerns the independence of the Fed.

It is supposed to take decisions removed from the political arena. This means sticking to its inflation target of 2 per cent over the medium term – the target it has officially had since January 2012. To do this, it adjusts the federal funds interest rate and the magnitude of any bond buying programme (quantitative easing) or bond selling programme (quantitative tightening).

The Fed is supposed to assess the evidence concerning the pressures on inflation (e.g. changes in aggregate demand) and what inflation is likely to be over the medium term in the absence of any changes in monetary policy. If the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) expects inflation to exceed 2 per cent over the medium term, it will probably raise the federal funds rate; if it expects inflation to be below the target it will probably lower the federal funds rate.

In the case of the economy being in recession, and thus probably considerably undershooting the target, it may also engage in quantitative easing (QE). If the economy is growing strongly, it may sell some of its portfolio of bonds and thus engage in quantitative tightening (QT).

Since December 2015 the Fed has been raising interest rates by 0.25 percentage points at a time in a series of steps, so that the federal funds rate stands at between 2.25% and 2.5% (see chart). And since October 2017, it has also been engaged in quantitative tightening. In recent months it has been selling up to $50 billion of assets per month from its holdings of around $4000 billion and so far has reduced them by around £500 billion. It has, however, announced that the programme of QT will end in the second half of 2019.

This does raise the question of whether the FOMC is succumbing to political pressure to cease QT and put interest rate rises on hold. If so, it is going against its remit to base its policy purely on evidence. The Fed, however, maintains that its caution reflects uncertainty about the global economy.

The second issue is whether Trump’s proposed policy is a wise one.

Caution about further rises in interest rates and further QT is very different from the strongly expansionary monetary policy that President Trump proposes. The economy is already growing at 3.2%, which is above the rate of growth in potential output, of around 1.8% to 2.0%. The output gap (the percentage amount that actual GDP exceeds potential GDP) is positive. The IMF forecasts that the gap will be 1.4% in 2019 and 1.3% in 2020 and 2021. This means that the economy is operating at above normal capacity working and this will eventually start to drive up inflation. Any further stimulus will exacerbate the problem of excess demand. And a large stimulus, as proposed by Donald Trump, will cause serious overheating in the medium term, even if it does stimulate growth in the short term.

For these reasons, the Fed resisted calls for a large cut in interest rates and a return to quantitative easing. Instead it chose to keep interest rates on hold at its meeting on 1 May 2019.

But if the Fed had done as Donald Trump would have liked, the economy would probably be growing very strongly at the time of the next US election in November next year. It would be a good example of the start of a political business cycle – something that is rarer nowadays with the independence of central banks.

Articles

FOMC meeting

Questions

  1. What are the arguments for central bank independence?
  2. Are there any arguments against central bank independence?
  3. Explain what is meant by an ‘output gap’? Why is it important to be clear on what is meant by ‘potential output’?
  4. Would there be any supply-side effects of a strong monetary stimulus to the US economy at the current time? If so, what are they?
  5. Explain what is meant by the ‘political business’ cycle? Are governments in the UK, USA or the eurozone using macroeconomic policy to take advantage of the electoral cycle?
  6. The Fed seems to be ending its programme of quantitative tightening (QT). Why might that be so and is it a good idea?
  7. If inflation is caused by cost-push pressures, should central banks stick rigidly to inflation targets? Explain.
  8. How are expectations likely to affect the success of a monetary stimulus?

When making a decision, what happens if you do nothing: i.e. take no action? The answer is the default option. There is evidence that changing the default option for the same decision can sometimes have a big impact on the final choices people make. For example, when a person starts a new job, they often have to decide whether to contribute to the company’s pension scheme. The default option is typically for employees not to contribute. They have to do something actively (e.g. fill in an online form) to opt in to the scheme. An alternative is to change the default option so that employees are contributing to the pension. They now have to do something to opt out of the scheme.

Changing the default should have no impact on people who behave in ways that are consistent with the rational choice model in economics. However, research by Madrian and Shea (2001) found that it had a big effect. When employees had to opt-in, 49 per cent enrolled in a company pension. When they had to opt out, the figure increased to 86 per cent.

Other research suggests that defaults can influence the likelihood of getting a flu jab, making healthier food choices, receiving e-mail marketing and choosing certain types of car insurance.

Organ donation

One policy area where the choice of default has become a topical issue is organ donation. In 2017, over 400 people died in the UK because it was impossible to find an appropriate donor. Could changing the default increase the number of donors?

The scheme that operates in England requires people to sign-up to the organ donor register: i.e. they have to opt in. Although 80 per cent of the public support organ donation less than 50 per cent ever get around to signing this register.

Parliament recently approved the Organ Donation Bill and the new law will come into effect in 2020. The default position will change so that people are automatically signed-up for organ donation. If they do not want to donate their organs, they will have to opt out of the register.

In December 2015, the devolved Welsh government introduced a similar scheme. Although it is quite early to give a full assessment of the policy, its impact has been smaller than many people had hoped.

Why have the initial results been disappointing? One potential downside with an opt-out scheme is that it may create greater uncertainty about someone’s true wishes. With an opt-in scheme, a relative takes a deliberate action to indicate their preference to be an organ donor. In England, approximately 10 per cent of families overrule the wishes of a relative who has actively signed the register.

With an opt-out scheme, family members may worry that their relative did not want to donate their organs but never found the time to take their name off the register. In 2017/18, families in Wales overruled the presumed consent of their relatives in 33 per cent of cases.

Some countries, such as Singapore and Austria, operate a ‘hard opt-out’ policy. In these schemes, families cannot overrule and this leads to high organ donor rates. However, this type of policy is unpopular with large sections of the electorate who feel it is over paternalistic.

Forcing people to make a choice

Is it possible to force people to make a choice and so reveal their preferences to others? This is a policy of active choice. For example, the government could make the issuing of a driving licence conditional on a people making a choice about whether or not to sign the organ donor register.

This type of policy has been trialled in the USA with the take up of home delivered prescriptions. For the majority of people, there are clear advantages of choosing to have home delivered prescriptions rather than visiting a pharmacy – it is both cheaper and involves less time/hassle. However, the default option is to visit a pharmacy and one study found that only 6 per cent of people chose home delivered options. With the introduction of active choice, this figure increased to 42 per cent.

Some have argued that it is socially undesirable to force people to make a choice. An alternative is simplified active choice – people can either make a choice or accept the default option.

Articles

Questions

  1. Explain why changing the default option should have no impact on people who behave in ways that are consistent with the rational choice model in economics.
  2. What is present bias? How does it differ from simple impatience? Explain how present bias might help to explain the impact of changing the default option.
  3. What is loss aversion? How does it differ from diminishing marginal utility? Explain how loss aversion might help to explain the impact of changing the default option.
  4. What are some of the limitations of using defaults in policy-making?
  5. Is active choice less paternalistic than changing the default option?
  6. Think of some reasons why someone may not want to make a choice.