It’s been a while since I last blogged about labour markets and, in particular, about the effect of automation on wages and employment. My most recent post on this topic was on the 14th of April 2018 and it was mostly a reflection on some interesting findings that had been reported by Acemoglu et al (2017). More specifically, Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) developed a theoretical framework to evaluate the effect of AI on employment and wages. They concluded that the effect was negative and potentially sizeable (for a more detailed discussion see my blog).
Using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, we show that robots may reduce employment and wages … According to our estimates, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18–0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25–0.5 percent.
Since then, I have seen a constant stream of news on my news feed about the development of ever more advanced industrial robots and artificial intelligence. And this was not because of some spooky coincidence (or worse). It has been merely a reflection of the speed at which technology has been progressing in this field.
There are now robots that can run, jump, hold conversations with humans, do gymnastics (and even sweat for it!) and more. It is really impressive how fast change has been happening recently in this field – and, unsurprisingly, it has stimulated the interest of labour economists!
A paper that has recently come to my attention on this subject is by Graetz and Michaels (2018). The authors put together a panel dataset on robot adoption within seventeen countries from 1993 to 2007 and use advanced econometric techniques to evaluate the effect of these technologies on employment and productivity growth. Their analysis focuses exclusively on developed economies (due to data limitations, as they explain) – but their results are nevertheless intriguing:
We study here for the first time the relationship between industrial robots and economic outcomes across much of the developed world. Using a panel of industries in seventeen countries from 1993 to 2007, we find that increased use of industrial robots is associated with increases in labor productivity. We find that the contribution of increased use of robots to productivity growth is substantial and calculate using conservative estimates that it comes to 0.36 percentage points, accounting for 15% of the aggregate economy-wide productivity growth.
The pattern that we document is robust to including various controls for country trends and changes in the composition of labor and other capital inputs. We also find that robot densification is associated with increases in both total factor productivity and wages, and reductions in output prices. We find no significant relationship between the increased use of industrial robots and overall employment, although we find that robots may be reducing the employment of low-skilled workers.
This is very positive news for most – except, of course, for low-skilled workers. Indeed, like Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017) and many others, this study shows that the effect of automation on employment and labour market outcomes is unlikely to be uniform across all types of workers. Low-skilled workers are found again to be likely to lose out and be significantly displaced by these technologies.
And if you are wondering which sectors are likely to be disrupted most/first by automation, the rankings developed by McKinsey and Company (see chart below) would give you an idea of where the disruption is likely to start. Unsurprisingly, the sectors that seem to be the most vulnerable, are the ones that use the highest share of low-skilled labour.
- “The effect of automation on wages and employment is likely to be positive overall”. Discuss.
- Using examples and anecdotal evidence, do you agree with these findings?
- Using Google Scholar, put together a list of 5 recent (i.e. 2015 or later) articles and working papers on labour markets and automation. Compare and discuss their findings.
When did you last think about buying a new car? If not recently, then you may be in for a surprise next time you shop around for car deals. First, you will realise that the range of hybrid cars (i.e. cars that combine conventional combustion and electric engines) has widened significantly. The days when you only had a choice of Toyota Prius and another two or three hybrids are long gone! A quick search on the web returned 10 different models (although five of them belong to the Toyota Prius family), including Chevrolet Malibu, VW Jetta and Ford Fusion. And these are only the cars that are currently available in the UK market.
But the biggest surprise of all may be the number of purely (plug-) electric cars that are available to UK buyers these days. The table below provides a summary of total registrations of light-duty plug-electric cars by model in the UK, between 2010 and June 2016.
Source: Wikipedia, “Plug-in electric vehicles in the United Kingdom”
In 2010 there were nly 138 electric vehicles in total registered in the UK. They were indeed an unusual sight at that time – and good luck to you if you had one and you happened to run out of power in the middle of a journey. In 2011 this (small) number increased sevenfold – an increase that was driven mostly by the successful introduction of Nissan Leaf (635 electric Nissans were registered in the UK that year). And since then the number of electric vehicles registered in the country has increased with spectacular speed, at an average rate of 252% per year.
There is clearly strong interest in electric vehicles – an interest likely to increase as their price becomes more competitive. However, they are still very expensive items to buy, especially when compared with their conventional fuel-engine counterparts. What makes electric cars expensive? One thing is the cost of purchasing and maintaining a battery that can deliver a reasonable range. But the cost of batteries is falling, as more and more companies realise the potential of this new market and join the R&D race. As mentioned in a special report that was published recently in the FT:
The cost of lithium-ion batteries has fallen by 75 per cent over the past eight years, measured per kilowatt hour of output. Every time battery production doubles, costs fall by another 5 per cent to 8 per cent, according to analysts at Wood Mackenzie.
There is no doubt that more research will result in more efficient batteries, and will increase the interest in electric cars not only by consumers but also by producers, who already see the opportunity of this new global market. Does this mean that prices will necessarily fall further? You might think so, but then you have to take into consideration the availability and cost of mining further raw materials to make these batteries (such as cobalt, which is one of the materials used in the making of lithium-ion batteries and nearly half of which is currently sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo). This may lead to bottlenecks in the production of new battery units. In which case, the price of batteries (and, by extension, the price of electric cars) may not fall much further until some new innovation happens that changes either the material or its efficiency.
The good news is that a lot of researchers are currently looking into these questions, and innovation will do what it always does: give solutions to problems that previously appeared insurmountable. They had better be fast because, according to estimates by Wood Mackenzie, the number of electric vehicles globally is expected to rise by over 50 times – from 2 million (in 2017) to over 125 million by 2035.
How many economists does it take to charge an electric car? I guess we are going to find out!
- Using a demand and supply diagram, explain the relationship between the price of a battery and the market (equilibrium) price of a plug-in electric vehicle.
- List all non-price factors that influence demand for plug-in electric vehicles. Briefly explain each.
- Should the government subsidise the development and production of electric car batteries? Explain the advantages and disadvantages of such intervention and take a position.
An earlier post on this site described a recent row between Tesco and Unilever that erupted when Unilever attempted to raise the prices it charges Tesco for its products. Unilever justified this because its costs have increased as a result of the UK currency depreciation following the Brexit decision.
It also appears that more general concerns that the fall in the value of sterling would lead to higher retail prices were prevalent around the time that the Tesco Unilever dispute came to light. Former Sainsbury’s boss, Justin King, made clear that British shoppers should be prepared for higher prices. He also said that:
Retailers’ margins are already squeezed. So there is no room to absorb input price pressures and costs will need to be passed on. But no one wants to be the first to break cover. No business wants to be the first to blame Brexit for a rise in prices. But once someone does, there will be a flood of companies because they will all be suffering.
It is interesting to consider further why the Tesco and Unilever case was the first to make the headlines and why their dispute was resolved so quickly. In addition, what are the more general implications for the retail prices consumers will have to pay?
Arguably, Unilever saw itself as having a strong hand in negotiations with Tesco because its product portfolio includes a wide variety of must-stock brands, including Pot Noodles, Marmite and Persil, that are found in 98% of UK households..
Unilever has been criticised for using the currency devaluation as an excuse to justify charging Tesco more, since most of its products are made in the UK. However, Unilever was quick to point outthat commodities it uses in the manufacture of products are priced in US dollars, so the currency devaluation can still affect the cost of products that it manufactures in the UK. In addition, Unilever’s chief financial officer, Graeme Pitkethly, insisted that price increases due to rising costs were a normal part of doing business:
We are taking price increases in the UK. That is a normal devaluation-led cycle.
On the other hand, even if the cost increases faced by Unilever are genuine, it is interesting to speculate whether it would have been so quick to adjust its prices downwards in response to a currency appreciation. After all, a commonly observed phenomenon across a range of markets is ‘rockets and feathers’ pricing behaviour i.e. prices going up from a cost increase more quickly than they go down following an equivalent cost decrease.
Compared to Unilever, some other suppliers are likely to have less bargaining power – in particular, those competing in highly fragmented markets and those producing less branded products. In such markets the suppliers may be forced to accept cost increases. For example, almost 50% of butter and cheese consumed in the UK comes from milk sourced from EU markets. Protecting such suppliers is one of the key roles of the Grocery code of conduct that the UK competition agency has put in place.
From Tesco’s point of view it will have benefited from good publicity by doing its best to protect consumers from price hikes. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:
Retailers are firmly on the side of consumers in negotiating with suppliers and improving efficiencies in the supply chain to control the inflationary pressure that is building through the devaluation of the pound.
However, it is also clear that Tesco had its own motives for resisting increased costs for Unilever’s products. In such situations both supplier and retailer should be keen to avoid a situation where they both impose their own substantial mark-ups at each stage of the supply chain. It is well established that this creates a double mark-up and not only harms consumers, but also the supplier and retailer themselves. Instead, the firms have an incentive to use more complex contractual arrangements to solve the problem. For example, suppliers may pay slotting allowances to get a place on the retailers’ shelves in exchange for lower retail mark-ups.
It has also been claimed that cutthroat competition in the supermarket industry, especially from discounter retailers Aldi and Lidl, made Tesco particularly keen to prevent price rises. Some arguments suggest that these discounters will be best placed to benefit from the currency devaluation as they sell more own brands, have a limited range, the leanest supply chains and benefit from substantial economies of scale. On the other hand, they source more of their products from abroad and it has been suggested that:
A fall in sterling will push prices up for everyone who sources products from Europe, but Aldi and Lidl will be affected more than most.
One prediction suggests that the overall impact of the currency depreciation on food prices will be an increase of around 3%. This may be particularly worrisome given concerns that the impact will fall most heavily on benefit claimants and other low-income households.
Outside of the food industry, Mike Rake, the chairman of BT, has highlighted the fact that:
Imported mobile phones and broadband home hubs were already 10% more expensive and the cost would have to be passed on to consumers in the near future.
It is therefore clear that the currency devaluation has the potential to create substantial tensions in the supply-chain agreements across a range of markets. The impact on the firms involved and on consumers will depend upon a wide range of factors, including the competitiveness of the markets, the nature of the firms involved and their bargaining power. Furthermore, evidence from an earlier currency depreciation in Latin America makes clear that the price elasticity of demand will be another factor that determines the impact price rises have.
Finally, it is also worth noting that a potential flip side of the currency depreciation is a boost for UK exports. However, it has been suggested that the manufacturing potential to take advantage of this in the UK is limited. In addition, even the manufacturing that does take place, for example in the car industry, often relies on components imported from abroad.
The Brexiteers’ Marmite conspiracy theories exposed their utter ignorance of how markets really work Independent, Ben Chu (16/10/16)
Tesco price dispute sends Unilever brand perceptions tumbling Marketing Week, Leonie Roderick (17/10/16)
Unilever and Tesco both benefit from their price row, but Brexit will bring more pain Marketing Week, Mark Ritson (19/10/16)
Why the Tesco v Unilever feud was good for British business campaign, Helen Edwards (20/10/16)
- What are some of the factors that affect a supplier’s bargaining power?
- How might the discount retailers respond to the currency devaluation?
- Use the figures from Latin America in the article cited above to calculate the price elasticity of demand.
- Explain why the price elasticity of demand is an important determinant of the effect of a price rise.
- Can you think of other examples of markets that may be particularly prone to price rises following a currency depreciation?
A row erupted in mid-October between Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, and Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch company. Unilever is the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturer with many well-known brands, including home care products, personal care products and food and drink. Unilever, which manufactures many of its products abroad and uses many ingredients from abroad in those manufactured in the UK, wanted to charge supermarkets 10% more for its products. It blamed the 16% fall in the value of sterling since the referendum in June (see the blog Sterling’s slide).
Tesco refused to pay the increase and so Unilever halted deliveries of over 200 items. As a result, several major brands became unavailable on the Tesco website. The dispute was dubbed ‘Marmitegate’, after one of Unilever’s products.
This is a classic case of power on both sides of the market: a powerful oligopolist, Unilever, facing a powerful oligopsonist, Tesco. With rising costs for Unilever resulting from the falling pound, either Unilever had to absorb the costs, or Tesco had to be prepared to pay the higher prices demanded by Unilever, passing some or all of them onto customers, or there had to be a compromise, with the prices Tesco pays to Unilever rising, but by less than 10%. A compromise was indeed reached on 13 October, with different price increases for each of Unilever’s products depending on how much of the costs are in foreign currencies. Precise details of the deal remained secret.
An interesting dynamic in the dispute was that Tesco and Unilever were acting as ‘champions’ for retailers and suppliers respectively. Other supermarkets were also facing price rises by Unilever. Their reactions were likely to depend on what Tesco did. Similarly, other suppliers were facing rising costs because of the falling pound. Their reactions might depend on how successful Unilever was in passing on its cost increases to retailers.
This example of ‘countervailing power’, or ‘bilateral oligopoly’, helps to illustrate just how much the consumer can gain when a powerful seller is confronted by a powerful buyer. The battle was been likened to that between two ‘gorillas’ of the industry. Its ramifications throughout industry will be interesting.
Podcasts and Webcasts
Tesco-Unilever row: Can unique shop explain ‘Marmitegate’? BBC News, Dougal Shaw (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever in Brexit price clash Reuters, David Pollard (13/10/16)
Brexit price-rise warning to shoppers BBC News, Simon Jack (10/10/16)
Tesco in Brexit Pricing Spat With Unilever Wall Street Journal (13/10/16)
Tesco battles Unilever over prices Financial Times on YouTube (14/10/16)
Tesco vs Unilever: Who won? ITV News, Joel Hills (14/10/16)
Tesco removes Marmite and other Unilever brands in price row BBC News (13/10/16)
Marmite Brexit Shortage ‘Just The Beginning’ Of ‘Gorilla’ Grocery Battle As Pound Slumps Huffington Post, Louise Ridley (13/10/16)
Unilever sales increase despite dozens of its brands being removed from Tesco shelves Independent, Ben Chapman (13/10/16)
Tesco-Unilever price row: Why pound value slump has caused Marmite to disappear from shelves Independent, Zlata Rodionova (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls Marmite from online store amid Brexit price row with Unilever The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak, Steven Swinford and Ashley Armstrong (13/10/16)
Tesco runs short on Marmite and household brands in price row with Unilever The Guardian, Sarah Butler (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls products over plunging pound Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Scheherazade Daneshkhu and Paul McClean (13/10/16)
Brexit means…higher prices The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever settle prices row after pound’s Brexit dive Reuters, James Davey and Martinne Geller (14/10/16)
- To what extent can Tesco and Unilever be seen a price leaders of their respective market segments?
- What would you advise other supermarkets to do over their pricing decisions when faced with increased prices from suppliers, and why?
- What would you advise manufacturers of other consumer goods sold in supermarkets to do in the light of the Tesco/Unilever dispute, and why?
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for branded products, such as Marmite, Persil, Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, PG Tips tea and Wall’s ice cream?
- What factors will determine in the end just how much extra the consumer pays when supermarkets are faced with demands for higher prices from major suppliers?
- Give some other examples of firms in industries where there is a high degree of countervailing power.
- What are the macroeconomic implications of a depreciating exchange rate?
- If, over the long term, the pound remained 16% below its level in June 2016, would you expect the consumer prices index in the long term to be approximately 16% higher than it would have been if the pound had not depreciated? Explain why or why not.
Your Americano, Latte or Cappuccino may soon be more expensive. This is because coffee bean prices are rising. A combination of continuing growth in demand and poor coffee harvests in various parts of the world have led to a rise in both Arabica and Robusta prices, with the International Coffee Organization’s Composite Indicator price (in US dollars) having risen by over 30% since mid-January this year (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint)
Supply has been affected by droughts in Brazil and Vietnam, two of the world’s biggest coffee producers, and by pests (the Coffee Berry Borer) in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania and in other East African countries. Global exports of coffee in July 2016 were 22% down on the same month in 2015.
The growing shortage and rising current (spot) prices is reflected in future prices. These are prices determined in the market now for trading at a specified future date (e.g. in three months’ time). Future prices depend on predictions of the balance of demand and supply in the future. According to the MarketWatch article below, “Analysts at Société Générale in a note predicted that prices could climb about 30% further by the end of next year”. The current (mid-September) spot price of robusta coffee beans is around $0.96 per lb. The December 2016 future price is around $1.48.
So what effect will this have on the prices in Starbucks, Costa or Caffè Nero? And what effect will it have on ground or instant coffee in supermarkets? To quote the MarketWatch article again:
A research report from the US Department of Agriculture found that, on average, a 10% increase in green-coffee-bean prices per pound would yield a 2% increase in both manufacturer prices and at the register in places like Starbucks Corp.
This is because the cost of coffee beans is just one element in the costs of coffee roasters and coffee shops. Also these companies use futures markets to smooth out the prices they pay. They hold stockpiles of coffee, which they build up when prices are low and draw on when prices are high. This helps to reduce fluctuations in retail prices.
So don’t worry too much about the price of your morning coffee – at least, not yet.
Why a surge in coffee-bean prices may not hit the Starbucks set—yet MarketWatch, Rachel Koning Beals (9/9/16)
Wired coffee prices may not slip far News Markets, David Cottle (9/9/16)
Late-harvest woes prompt Brazil coffee harvest downgrade Agrimoney (7/9/16)
Look Out, Latte Lovers: Brazil Drought Hurts Espresso Beans Bloomberg, Fabiana Batista and Marvin G. Perez (13/9/16)
Why Your Morning Coffee Is About to Become Even More Expensive Fortune (28/7/16)
Climate change brews a storm for East Africa coffee farmers Business Daily (East Africa), Paul Redfern (4/9/16)
Coffee Market Report ICO (August 2016)
Commodity Prices Index Mundi
Historical Data on the Global Coffee Trade ICO
ICO’s Coffee Trade Statistics Infographic for July 2016 ICO blog (31/8/16)
- What determines coffee futures prices?
- How are the price fluctuations of coffee in coffee shops related to the price elasticities of demand and supply? What determines these elasticities?
- Why does a strengthening (an appreciation) of the currency of a coffee exporter affect (a) the price of coffee to producers in the country; (b) international coffee prices in dollars?
- Are poor coffee harvests on balance good or bad for coffee producers? How does this depend on the market price elasticity of demand? Does the answer vary from producer to producer?
- How does speculation affect coffee prices (both spot and future)? Is such speculation of benefit to (a) the coffee consumer; (b) the coffee grower?