Economics studies the choices people make. ‘Rational choice’ involves the weighing up of costs and benefits and trying to maximise the surplus of benefits over costs. This surplus will be maximised when people do more of things where the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost and less of things where the marginal cost exceeds the marginal benefit. But, of course, measuring benefits and costs is not always easy. Nevertheless, for much of the time we do make conscious choices where we consider that choosing to do something is ‘worth it’: i.e. that the benefit to us exceeds the cost.
When we make a choice, often this involves expenditure. For example, when we choose to buy an item in a shop, we spend money on the item, and also, perhaps, spend money on transport to get us to the shop. But the full opportunity cost includes not only the money we spend, but also the best alternative activity sacrificed while we are out shopping.
Then there are the benefits. Not all pleasurable activity costs us money. The sight of beautiful contryside or the pleasure of the company of friends may cost us very little, if anything, in money terms. But they may still be very valuable to us.
If we are to make optimal decisions we need to have some estimate of all costs and benefits, not just ones involving the payment or receipt of money. This applies both to individual behaviour and to collective decisions made by governments or other agencies.
Cost–benefit analysis seeks to do this to help decisions about new projects, such as a new road, a new hospital, environmental projects, and so on. But just how do we set about putting a value on the environment – on the pleasure of a walk in bluebell woods, on protecting bird life in wetlands or sustaining ecosystems?
For the first time there has been a major study that attempts to value the environment. According to the introduction to the report:
The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) is the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and the nation’s continuing prosperity. Carried out between mid-2009 and mid-2011, the UK NEA has been a wide-ranging, multi-stakeholder, cross-disciplinary process, designed to provide a comprehensive picture of past, present and possible future trends in ecosystem services and their values; it is underpinned by the best available evidence and the most up-to-date conceptual thinking and analytical tools. The UK NEA is innovative in scale, scope and methodology, and has involved more than 500 natural scientists, economists, social scientists and other stakeholders from government, academic and private sector institutions, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
The following podcast and webcast look at the report and at some of the issues it raises in terms of quantifying and incorporating environmental costs and benefits into decision taking.
Podcast and Webcast
‘The hidden value’ of our green spaces BBC Today Programme, Tom Feilden (2/6/11)
Report puts monetary value on Britain’s natural assets BBC News, Jeremy Cooke (2/6/11)
NEA report highlights need for biodiversity Farmers Guardian, Ben Briggs (2/6/11)
Nature is worth £19bn a year to the UK economy – report Energy & Environmental Management Magazine (2/6/11)
In praise of… the unquantifiable Guardian (3/6/11)
Priceless benefits of bluebell woods Guardian letters, Dr Bhaskar Vira and Professor Roy Haines-Young (4/6/11)
Nature ‘is worth billions’ to UK BBC News, Richard Black (2/6/11)
Putting a price on nature BBC News, Tom Feilden (2/6/11)
Value of Britain’s trees and waterways calculated in ‘ground-breaking’ study The Telegraph, Andy Bloxham (2/6/11)
Nature worth billions, says environment audit Financial Times, Clive Cookson (2/6/11)
Nature gives UK free services worth billions Planet Earth, Tom Marshall (3/6/11)
UK scientists put price on nature with National Ecosystem Assessment GreenWise, Ann Elise Taylor (2/6/11)
UK National Ecosystem Assessment: link to report DEFRA
UK National Ecosystem Assessment (June 2011)
The UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Synthesis of the Key Findings
- How would you set about valuing the benefits of woodlands?
- According to the report, the health benefits of living close to a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year. How much credance sould we attach to such a figure?
- What do you understand by the ‘ecosystem approach’ and the term ‘ecosystem services’?
- Explain Figure 2 on page 3 of Chapter 2 of the report.
- Should decision makers quantify only those benefits of ecosystems experienced by humans? Would all environmentalists agree with this approach?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of quantifying all costs and benefits in money terms?
- Compare the consequences over the next 50 years of a ‘world markets’ scenarios with that of a ‘nature at work’ scenario.
- What policy implications follow from the report?
If you want to buy a newly released DVD, a cheaper option than buying off the high-street tends to be to buy online, in particular through Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer. However, Amazon has been facing increasing competition from another US giant, Netflix that has over 16 million subscribers and is looking at entering the British market. Arguably, in a response to this threat, Amazon has agreed to purchase Lovefilm, the online movie rental service that has grown rapidly over the past few years, with over 1.4 million members around the UK.
As of 2008, Amazon already had a 42% stake in the business, but as Lovefilm has been running into difficulties, their senior management team has been looking at the possibility of selling the remaining 58% share. Enter Amazon in a bid to cement and defend their place in the British market to companies such as Netflix. Below are a few articles concerning this takeover – more will be added, as further details emerge.
Amazon acquires Lovefilm for £200m Financial Times, Tim Bradshaw (20/1/11)
Can Lovefilm survive the streaming revolution? Telegraph, James Hurley (27/1/11)
Amazon takes full control of Lovefilm Guardian, Josh Halliday(20/1/11)
Amazon buys remaining stake in Lovefilm DVD service BBC News (20/1/11)
Amazon takes control of Lovefilm Broadband TV News, Julian Clover (20/1/11)
Amazon acquires Lovefilm, the Netflix of Europe Tech Crunch, Mike Butcher (20/1/11)
- What type of takeover is this and what are the main motives behind it?
- How are consumers likely to a) benefit and b) suffer from Amazon’s takeover bid for Lovefilm?
- Who are Amazon’s main competitors? (Think of all the products they sell.)
- Will the Competition authorities be interested in this takeover? Explain your answer.
- In which type of market structure would you place Amazon, Netflix and Lovefilm? Explain your answer.
The market for food in the UK is highly competitive. From dining in style to a simple take-away, one of the key words when it comes to dining seems to be choice. Competitive prices and high quality are on offer, which is largely due to the sheer number of restaurants available to consumers. However, consolidation seems to be on the menu.
Nando’s is a well known restaurant and a popular eating destination on UK and Irish high streets, with more than 230 restaurants. This chicken restaurant group has made a £30 million bid for Clapham House, the company behind the Gourmet Burger Kitchen chain with 53 branches. Clapham’s shareholders were advised to accept the deal and on the 17th September 2010, it is reported that a deal was reached with Nando’s Group Holdings and its private equity owner Capricorn Ventures International. The 74 pence per share deal was met with disappointment by some analysts, who felt that the company was under-valued, despite failed attempts by Clapham House’s Board to persuade Capricorn to raise the offer price or find an alternative bidder.
The restaurant industry has suffered from the recession and especially by the weak economic recovery, so perhaps lower valuations are to be expected. Nando’s said:
‘As macroeconomic weakness has persisted in the UK, the trading environment for restaurant businesses in the UK has been difficult. This is evidenced by Clapham House’s vaolatile weekly trading performance.’
Nando’s intend to invest significantly in Clapham Houses’ businesses to reinvigorate their previous competitor. This may be essential, given the expectation that conditions in the UK will remain fragile, with consumer confidence staying low, as well as a somewhat untimely rise in VAT in January next year, which is almost certain to have an adverse effect on the restaurant business.
This take-over deal is not the first in the restaurant industry and nor is it likely to be the last, as the UK economy remains in a vulnerable state. The following articles look at this and over takeovers.
Nando’s to buy Gourmet Burger Kitchen for £30m BBC News (17/9/10)
UK restaurants serve up £50m in takeover deals Management Today, Emma Haslett (17/9/10)
Nando’s swallows Gourmet Burger Daily Mirror News, Clinton Manning (18/9/10)
GBK team plots next move after Nandos deal Telegraph, Jonathan Sibun (18/9/10)
Nando’s to buy Real Greek chain for £30m Independent, Alistair Dawber (18/9/10)
Mithcells & Butlers and Nando’s to feast on rival restaurant chains Mail Online, Ben Laurance (17/9/10)
GBK owner Clapham agrees to Nando’s offer Reuters (17/9/10)
- What type of takeover is Nando’s purchase of Clapham House?
- Why has the weak macroeconomic environment adversely affected the restaurant industry? What might be the impact of next January’s rise in VAT?
- Will Nando’s takeover (or indeed any other takeover in the restaurant industry) allow the company to prosper from the weak economic climate?
- In which type of market structure would you place the restaurant industry in the UK? Explain the characteristics of the market structure you choose and why you have placed the restaurant industry in it.
- How was the finance for the deal raised by Nando’s Holdings Group? What other sources of finance are available to firms for this purpose? What are the (a) advantages and (b) disadvantages of each?
- What other takeovers have occurred recently in the restaurant industry? What types of takeovers are they?
If we are faced with simple and limited choices, we may make careful decisions based on a number of criteria: in other words, we will identify various characterisitics we are looking for and see how well the various alternative products or activities meet our criteria. When we have lots of choice, however, we may be less careful or get confused.
In this Guardian podcast, the panelists discuss complex choices between many products and/or characteristics. Are people being ‘rational’ when making such choices? Is being less careful simply a rational use of scarce time? Do people really want lots of choice or would they prefer more limited choice? Can experiments where people are given choices help us to understand how people choose and how much choice businesses or government should give people? Then there is the question of producers/suppliers of products. Does choice promote competition and product development and is there an optimum amount of choice to achieve this?
The Business: Choice Guardian Podcasts, Sheena Iyengar, Julian Glover and Andrew Lilico in conversation with Aditya Chakrabortty (1/9/10)
- Are people ‘rational’ when they make choices? For what reasons may they not be rational?
- Can you make rational choices if your information is imperfect?
- Is there an optimum amount of choice and how would you set about establishing that optimum?
- How useful are experiments in understanding the process of choice? What are the weaknesses of such experiments?
- Should people be limited in the amount of choice they are given over medical treatment and schools?
- What are the advantages to other people of giving people more choice?
- How much does culture influence our attitudes towards choice?
When we examine industries and markets in economics, one of the key things we look for is how competitive the market is. A question that we ask is, under what type of market structure is this firm operating? To answer this, we will need information on the number of competitors, the products, prices, advertising, profits, efficiency and how the firms are likely to behave in both the short and long run.
A lot of the time firms are independent: their behaviour doesn’t affect the actions of rivals. This is usually because each firm within the industry only has a relatively small market share. If one firm changes the price, or how much it spends on advertising/product development, this won’t have an impact on the market equilibrium.
However, it’s not as easy for an oligopolist, as interdependence is a key characteristic of this market structure. As such, it’s not surprising that firms have a decision to make: should they compete with the other firms and try to maximise our own profits, or should they collude and try to maximise industry profits? Whilst collusion is illegal in many countries, activities such as price fixing do go ahead and it can be difficult to prove, as the ACCC is finding with a petrol price-fixing case in Melbourne. In 49 of the 53 weeks studied, when one of the big petrol stations changed their price, the industry followed these movements exactly.
As competition in a market decreases, it could be a sign that an oligopoly is developing. A few firms are beginning to dominate the market and this could spell trouble for customers. Indeed, in the Australian banking sector, there are concerns that an oligopoly will develop if more competition is not introduced. The Deputy Chairman of the Australian Bankers’ Association said: “We’ve got four major banks that are repricing all their commercial and small business customers’ margins upwards”. Customers may therefore lose out with higher prices and less choice, while the dominant firms see their profits growing.
The market structure under which a firm is operating will have a major impact on its decisions and the outcomes in the market, as shown in the articles below.
ACCC on safe political ground in targeting the Mobil takeover The Australian Business, John Durie and Martin Collins (3/12/09)
Nippon Steel Chairman warns of Australian oligopolies Market Watch, Stephen Bell (10/11/09)
Government’s bank guarantee hurting BOQ: Libby Business Day (2/12/09)
Regulators to scrutinise BHP and Rio’s Australian joint venture Financial Times, William McNamara and Elizabeth Fry (7/12/09)
Crackdown on price fixing draws mixed reaction The Korea Herald (7/12/09)
- What are the main characteristics of an oligopoly?
- Illustrate a cartel that fixes prices and show how a member of this cartel must sell at that price and at a given quantity.
- Some factors make collusion more likely to occur and more likely to succeed. In the Australian banking sector, which factors do you think are allowing price fixing to occur?
- Is the example of petrol price fixing barometric price leadership or dominant firm price leadership? Explain both of these terms and use a diagram, where possible, to illustrate the effects.
- The articles suggest that oligopolies are bad for competition. Explain why this is the case.
- To what extent are oligopolies against the public interest? Use examples from the articles to back up your argument.