With the bounce-back from the pandemic, many countries have experienced supply-chain problems. For example, the shortage of lorry drivers in the UK and elsewhere (see the blog Why is there a driver shortage in the UK?) has led to empty shelves, fuel shortages and rising prices. The problem has been exacerbated by a lack of stock holding. Holding minimum stocks has been part of the modern system of ‘just-in-time’ (JIT) supply-chain management.
JIT involves involves highly integrated and sophisticated supply chains. Goods are delivered to factories, warehouses and shops as they are needed – just in time. Provided firms can be sure that they will get their deliveries on time, they can hold minimum stocks. This enables them to cut down on warehousing and its associated costs. The just-in-time approach to supply-chain management was developed in the 1950s in Japan and since the 1980s has been increasingly adopted around the world, helped more recently by sophisticated ordering and tracking software.
If supply chains become unreliable, however, JIT can lead to serious disruptions. A hold-up in one part of the chain will have a ripple effect along the whole chain because there is little or no slack in the system. When the large container ship, the Ever Given, en route from Malaysia to Felixtowe, was wedged in the Suez canal for six days in March this year, the blockage caused shipping to be backed up. By day six, 367 container ships were waiting to transit the canal. The disruption to supply cost some £730m.
JIT works well when sources of supply and logistics are reliable and when demand is predictable. The pandemic is causing many logistics and warehousing managers to consider building a degree of slack into their systems. This might involve companies having alternative suppliers they can call on, building in more spare capacity and having their own fleet of lorries or warehousing facilities that can be hired out when not needed but can be relied on at times of high demand.
When the ‘bounce back’ subsides, so may the current supply chain bottlenecks. But the rethinking that has been generated by the current problems may see new patterns emerge that make supply chains more flexible without becoming more expensive.
- What Is a Just-in-Time Supply Chain?
The Balance Small Business, Martin Murray (12/10/20)
- Why it’s high time to move on from ‘just-in-time’ supply chains
The Guardian, Kim Moody (11/10/21)
- Logistics Study Reveals Three Potential Cures To Global Supply Chain Problems
Forbes, Garth Friesen (20/9/21)
- Just-in-Time Manufacturing Needs Better Data
Supply & Demand Chain Executive, Paul Lachance (8/10/21)
- Just-in-time supply chains after the Covid-19 crisis
VoxEU, Frank Pisch (30/6/20)
- Plastics industry moves away from just-in-time logistics amid increased volatility
S&P Global, Miguel Cambeiro, Baoying Ng and George Griffiths (8/10/21)
- Just-in-time supply chains have left us dependent and with just-not-enough
CityAM, Tom Tugendhat MP (1/10/21)
- Supply chain havoc is getting worse — just in time for holiday shopping
Vox, Rebecca Heilweil (7/10/21)
- Ever Given and the Suez Canal: A list of affected ships and what delays mean for shippers
Supply Chain Dive, Matt Leonard (25/3/21)
- What are the costs and benefits of a just-in-time approach to logistics?
- Are current supply chain problems likely to be temporary or are there issues that are likely to persist?
- How might the JIT approach be reformed to make it more adaptable to supply chain disruptions?
Some firms in the high-Covid, tier 3 areas in England are being forced to shut by the government. These include pubs and bars not serving substantial meals. Similarly, pubs in the central belt of Scotland must close. But how should such businesses and their employees be supported?
As we saw in the blog, The new UK Job Support Scheme: how much will it slow the rise in unemployment?, the government will support such businesses by paying two-thirds of each employees’ salary (up to a maximum of £2100 a month) and will give cash grants to the businesses of up to £3000 per month.
This support has been criticised by local leaders, such as those in Greater Manchester, as being insufficient. Workers, they argue, will struggle to pay their bills and the support for firms will be too little to prevent many closing for good. What is more, many firms and their employees in the supply chain, such as breweries, will get no support. Greater Manchester resisted being put into tier 3 unless the level of support was increased. However, tier 3 status was imposed on the authority on 20 October despite lack of agreement with local politicians on the level of support.
Jim O’Neill, Vice Chair of the Northern Powerhouse partnership, has argued that the simplest way of supporting firms forced to close is to guarantee their revenue. He stated that:
The government would be sensible to guarantee the revenues of businesses it is forcing to shut. It is easier, fairer and probably less costly in the long run – and a proper test of the government’s confidence that in the New Year two of the seven vaccines the UK has signed up to will work.
This would certainly help firms to survive and allow them to pay their employees. But would guaranteeing revenues mean that such firms would see an increase in profits? The questions below explore this issue.
- Identify the fixed and variable costs for a pub (not owned by a brewery).
- If a pub closed down but the wages of workers continued to be paid in full, what cost savings would be made?
- If a pub closed down but was given a monthly grant by the government equal to its previous monthly total revenue but had to pay the wages of it workers in full, what would happen to its profits?
- On 19 October, the Welsh government introduced a two-week lockdown for Wales. Under these restrictions, all non-essential retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses had to close. Find out what support was on offer for such firms and their workforce and compare it to other parts of the UK.
- What type of support for leisure and hospitality businesses forced by the government to close would, in your opinion, be optimal? Justify your answer.
- Is there any moral hazard from the government providing support for businesses made unprofitable by the Covid-19 crisis? Explain.
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?