As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate in the UK, the government has been forced to introduce a range of drastic measures, including severe restrictions on movement of people to ensure social distancing. Supermarkets have also been forced to act as they experienced panic buying and struggled to keep up with supply. They responded by starting to impose limits on the number of certain items an individual consumer could purchase and by reducing the range of products they made available. In addition, supermarkets contacted the government to suggest that competition law should be relaxed to allow the rival chains to coordinate their response to the ongoing situation.
WM Morrison, the forth largest supermarket retailer in the UK, was one of the key players lobbying for this change. Their chief executive, David Potts, argued that “There will be legislation that works perfectly in peacetime and not so well in wartime.”
The supermarket industry is in fact a market where the UK competition authorities have expressed considerable concerns in the past regarding a lack of competition (see for example the 2008 market investigation and the recent decision to block the merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda). The supermarkets also previously made similar demands for a relaxation of competition law in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Despite this, the government has agreed to temporarily relax elements of competition law to help supermarkets respond to the Coronavirus crisis with the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, stating that:
By relaxing elements of competition laws temporarily, our retailers can work together on their contingency plans and share the resources they need with each other during these unprecedented circumstances.
In moves supported by the Competition and Markets Authority, laws enabling them to do so will soon be passed through Parliament. Supermarkets will be allowed to:
- share data with each other on stock levels
- cooperate to keep shops open
- share distribution depots and delivery vans
- pool staff with one another to help meet demand.
It is also expected that the Groceries Code Adjudicator will take a pragmatic approach to rules previously in place to prevent the big supermarket chains abusing their power over suppliers. These rules previously prevented supermarkets from stopping orders from a given supplier without reasonable warning. However, it is now accepted that they may need to do so in order to focus on supplying a restricted range of essential products.
Such relaxation of competition laws has been rare, with previous examples being measures taken in 2006 for the maintenance and repair of warships and in 2012 during the fuel crisis. In contrast, typically competition law is extremely hot on preventing agreements between firms. This is due to the fact that they distort competition and prevent the considerable benefits that can arise for consumers when firms compete to offer the best deals.
In the extreme situation the UK is currently in, the government’s stance appears to be that there are sufficient other benefits from restricting competition between supermarkets and allowing some degree of cooperation. It is then important that the form of cooperation between the supermarkets is restricted to narrow areas that will help to ensure the continuity of supply. In particular, it would be worrying if the supermarkets started discussing the prices they charge. Already food prices may rise due to increased demand and a potential shortage of supply. Furthermore, many consumers will see their income reduced. Therefore, it is important that coordination between supermarkets doesn’t result in further increases in prices.
It is therefore reassuring that the Government made clear that the relaxation of competition law:
will be a specific, temporary relaxation to enable retailers to work together for the sole purpose of feeding the nation during these unprecedented circumstances. It will not allow any activity that does not meet this requirement.
The Competition and Markets Authority has also stressed that they will not:
tolerate unscrupulous businesses exploiting the crisis as a ‘cover’ for non-essential collusion. This includes exchanging information on longer-term pricing or business strategies, where this is not necessary to meet the needs of the current situation.
Once the current crisis is over, it will also be important that the competition authority closely monitors the supermarket sector to ensure that cooperation between the supermarkets ends and normal competitive conduct is resumed.
- Outline the effects agreements between firms to raiser prices have on economic welfare.
- What are the pros and cons of allowing cooperation between the supermarkets in response to the Coronavirus crisis?
With promises by the newly elected Conservative government to increase investment expenditure on health, education, innovation and infrastructure, it was expected that Rishi Sunak’s first Budget would be strongly expansionary. In fact, it turned out to be two Budgets in one – both giving a massive fiscal boost.
An emergency Budget
The first part of the Budget was a short-term emergency response to the explosive spread of the coronavirus. An extra £12 billion is to be spent on the NHS and other public services. Whether this will be anything like enough to cope with the effects of the pandemic as businesses fail and people lose their jobs remains to be seen. (See the blog A global supply-side shock: the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.)
A key issue is just how quickly the money can be spent. How quickly can you train health professionals or produce more ventilators or provide extra hospital beds?
This emergency part of the Budget was co-ordinated with the Bank of England’s decision to cut Bank Rate from 0.75% to 0.25%.
This combined fiscal and monetary response to the crisis was further enhanced by the agreement of central banks on 15 March to boost world liquidity by increasing the supply of US dollars through large-scale quantitative easing. The US central bank, the Federal Reserve, also cut its main federal funds rate by one percentage point from 1–1.25% to 0–0.25%.
The planned Budget
The second part of the Budget is to raise government investment by 9% in real terms over the next four years, bringing overall government expenditure to 41% of GDP, financed largely by extra borrowing. As the IFS observes, “That is above its pre-crisis level and bigger than at any point between the mid 1980s and the start of the financial crisis.”
But despite this rise in the proportion of government spending to GDP, in other respects the spending plans are less expansionary than they may appear. Increases in current spending on health, education and defence had already been promised. This leaves other departments, such as social security, facing cuts, or at least no increase. And when compared with 2010/11 levels, if you exclude health, government current spending per head of the population will around 14% lower, or 19% lower once you account for spending that replaces EU funding.
The Chancellor’s hope is that, by focusing on investment, there will be a supply-side effect as well as a demand-side boost. If increases in aggregate demand are balanced by increases in aggregate supply, such a policy would not be inflationary in the long run. But in the light of the considerable uncertainty of the effects of the coronavirus, the plans may well require significant adjustment in the Autumn Budget – or earlier.
Podcasts and Videos
- To what extent is this Budget ‘Keynesian’?
- Is the extra government expenditure likely to crowd out private expenditure? Explain.
- Demonstrate the desired long-term economic effect of the infrastructure policy using either an AD/AS diagram or a DAD/DAS diagram.
- How is the coronavirus pandemic likely to affect potential GDP in (a) the short run (b) the long run?
- Why is public-sector debt likely to soar over the next four years while annual government debt interest payments are likely to continue their gentle decline?
- What is missing from the Budget that you feel ought to have been included? Explain why.
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.