The UK and Australia are set to sign a free-trade deal at the G7 summit in Cornwall on 11–13 June. This will eventually give tariff-free access to each other’s markets, with existing tariffs being phased out over a 15-year period. It is the first trade deal not based on an existing EU template. The government hopes that it will be followed by trade deals with other countries, including New Zealand, Canada and, crucially, the USA.
But what are the benefits and costs of such a deal?
Trade and comparative advantage
The classic economic argument is that free trade allows countries to benefit from the law of comparative advantage. According to the law, provided opportunity costs of various goods differ in two countries, both of them can gain from mutual trade if they specialise in producing (and exporting) those goods that have relatively low opportunity costs compared with the other country. In the case of the UK and Australia, the UK has a comparative advantage in products such as financial services and high-tech and specialist manufactured products. Australia has a comparative advantage in agricultural products, such as lamb, beef and wheat and in various ores and minerals. By increasing trade in these products, there can be a net efficiency gain to both sides and hence a higher GDP than before.
There is clearly a benefit to consumers in both countries from cheaper products, but the gains are likely to be very small. The most optimistic estimate is that the gain in UK GDP will be around 0.01% to 0.02%. Part of the reason is the physical distance between the two countries. For products such as meat, grain and raw materials, shipping costs could be relatively high. This might result in no cost advantage over imports from much nearer countries, such as EU member states.
But modern trade deals are less about tariffs, which, with various WTO trade rounds, are much lower than in the past. Many imports from Australia are already tariff free, with meat currently having a tariff of 12%. Modern trade deals are more about reducing or eliminating non-tariff barriers, such as differing standards and regulations. This is the area where there is a high degree of concern in the UK. Import-competing sectors, such as farming, fear that their products will be undercut by Australian imports produced to lower standards.
Costs of a trade deal
In a perfectly competitive world, with no externalities, labour mobile between sectors and no concerns about income distribution, eliminating tariffs would indeed provide an efficiency gain. But these conditions do not hold. Small farmers are often unable to compete with food producers with considerable market power. The danger is that by driving out such small farmers, food production and supply might not result in lower long-run prices. Much would depend on the countervailing power of supermarkets to continue bearing down on food costs.
But the question of price is probably the least worrying issue. Meat and grain is generally produced at lower standards in Australia than in the UK, with various pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics being used that are not permitted in the UK (and the EU). Unless the trade deal can involve UK standards being enforced on products produced in Australia for export to the UK, UK farmers could be undercut by such imports. The question then would be whether labelling of imported food products could alert consumers to the different standards. And even if they did, would consumers simply prefer to buy the cheaper products? If so, this could be seen as a market failure with consumers not taking into account all the relevant health and welfare costs. Better quality food could be seen as a merit good.
Then there are the broader social issues of the protection of rural industries and societies. Labour is relatively immobile from farming and there could be a rise in rural unemployment, which could have local multiplier effects, leading to the decline of rural economies. Rural ways of life could be seriously affected, which imposes costs on local inhabitants and visitors.
Trade itself imposes environmental costs. Even if it were privately efficient to transport products half way around the world, the costs of carbon emissions and other pollution may outweigh any private gains. At a time when the world is becoming increasingly concerned about climate change, and with the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow in November, it is difficult to align such a trade deal with a greater commitment to cutting carbon emissions.
- UK makes free-trade offer to Australia despite farmers’ fears
BBC News (22/5/21)
- UK-Australia trade deal: What are the arguments for and against?
BBC News, Chris Morris (21/5/21)
- Australia–UK trade deal can help spur post-pandemic recovery
The Conversation, David Collins (20/5/21)
- Australia will set the precedent for UK trade deals
Prospect, David Henig (21/5/21)
- Britain beefs with Australian farmers as Boris Johnson backs trade deal
Sydney Morning Herald, Mike Foley and Bevan Shields (20/5/21)
- Boris Johnson defends Australia trade deal that will allow cheap foreign meat imports …
Mail Online, David Wilcock (19/5/21)
- City executives raise concerns over hidden costs to trade deals
Financial Times, Daniel Thomas (22/5/21)
- Australia trade deal: Ministers discuss British farmers’ concerns
BBC News (21/5/21)
- Boris Johnson Faces His First Real Brexit Trade Test
Bloomberg, Therese Raphael (21/5/21)
- UK-Australia trade deal could mean children and patients eating meat reared in ways illegal in UK, warn experts
Independent, Jane Dalton (11/5/21)
- Australian farmers rush to reassure UK over looming free trade agreement
The Guardian, Amy Remeikis (19/5/21)
- Brexit: Boris Johnson warned trade deal with Australia could ‘decimate’ British farming
Independent, Adam Forrest (20/5/21)
- Truss’s naivety on trade with Australia could leave the UK exposed
The Observer, Phillip Inman (22/5/21)
- ‘Irresponsible’ Australia trade deal will bring ruin for UK farmers, critics warn
The Observer, James Tapper and Toby Helm (23/5/21)
- Brexit: Boris Johnson rejects claim UK-Australia trade deal would see farmers ‘lose their livelihoods’
Sky News, Tom Rayner (19/5/21)
- Small farms have a huge role to play in our sustainable future
The Guardian, Charles, Prince of Wales (23/5/21)
- Farmers’ opposition to UK-Australia trade deal grows
BBC News, Claire Marshall (2/6/21)
- UK livestock farmers fear Australia trade deal will threaten way of life
Financial Times, Judith Evans and Sebastian Payne (8/6/21)
- The UK–Australia trade deal is not really about economic gain – it’s about demonstrating post-Brexit sovereignty
The Conversation, Tony Heron and Gabriel Siles-Brügge (18/6/21)
- Why might the UK government be very keen to sign a trade deal with Australia?
- Does the law of comparative advantage prove that freer trade is more efficient than less free trade? Explain.
- What externalities are involved in the UK trading with Australia? Are they similar to those from trading with the USA?
- If a trade deal resulted in lower food prices but a decline in rural communities, how would you establish whether this would be a ‘price worth paying’?
- If some people gain from a trade deal and others lose and if it were established that the benefits to the gainers were larger than the costs to the losers, would this prove that the deal should go ahead?
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.
This rather strange question has been central to a storm that has been brewing between various celebrity chefs, including Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the supermarkets. Supermarkets say that consumers don’t want irregular shaped vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and potatoes. ‘Nonsense’, say their critics.
At the centre of the storm are the farmers, who find a large proportion of their vegetables are rejected by the supermarkets. And these are vegetables which are not damaged or bad – simply not of the required shape. Although these rejected vegetables have been described as ‘wonky’, in fact many are not wonky at all, but simply a little too large or too small, or too short or too long. Most of these vegetables are simply wasted – ploughed back into the ground, or at best used for animal feed.
And it’s not just shape; it’s colour too. Many producers of apples find a large proportion being rejected because they are too red or not red enough.
But do consumers really want standardised fruit vegetables? Are the supermarkets correct? Are they responding to demand? Or are they attempting to manipulate demand?
Supermarkets claim that they are just responding to what consumers want. Their critics say that they are setting ludicrously rigid cosmetic standards which are of little concern to consumers. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall states:
‘It’s only when you see the process of selection on the farm, how it has been honed and intensified, it just looks mad. There are many factory line systems where you have people looking for faults on the production line; in this system you’re looking for the good ones.
What we’re asking supermarkets to do is to relax their cosmetic standards for the vegetables that all get bagged up and sold together. It’s about slipping a few more of the not-so-perfect ones into the bag.’
In return, consumers must be prepared to let the supermarkets know that they are against these cosmetic standards and are perfectly happy to buy slightly more irregular fruit and vegetables. Indeed, this is beginning to happen through social media. The pressure group 38 degrees has already taken up the cause.
But perhaps consumers ‘voting with their feet’ is what will change supermarkets’ behaviour. With the rise of small independent greengrocers, many from Eastern Europe, there is now intense competition in the fruit and vegetables market in many towns and cities. Perhaps supermarkets will be forced to sell slightly less cosmetically ‘perfect’ produce at a lower price to meet this competition.
Hugh’s War on Waste Episode 1 BBC on YouTube, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2/11/15)
Hugh’s War on Waste Episode 2 BBC on YouTube, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (9/11/15)
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rejects Morrisons’ ‘pathetic’ wonky veg trial The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (9/11/15)
Jamie Oliver leads drive to buy misshapen fruit and vegetables The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (1/1/15)
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s war over wonky parsnips The Telegraph, Patrick Foster (30/10/15)
Asda extends ‘wonky’ fruit and veg range Resource, Edward Perchard (4/11/15)
Wearne’s last farmer shares memories and laments loss of farming community in Langport area Western Gazette, WGD Mumby (8/11/15)
Viewpoint: The rejected vegetables that aren’t even wonky BBC News Magazine (28/10/15)
Viewpoint: The supermarkets’ guilty secret about unsold food BBC News Magazine (6/11/15)
- What market failures are there is the market for fresh fruit and vegetables?
- Supermarkets are oligopsonists in the wholesale market for fruit and vegetables. What is the implication of this for (a) farmers; (b) consumers?
- Is there anything that (a) consumers and (b) the government can do to stop the waste of fruit and vegetables grown for supermarkets?
- How might supermarkets estimate the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables and its price elasticity?
- What can supermarkets do with unsold food? What incentives are there for supermarkets not to throw it away but to make good use of it?
- Could appropriate marketing persuade people to be less concerned about the appearance of fruit and vegetables? What form might this marketing take?
‘Farm-gate’ milk prices (the price paid to farmers) have been rising in the UK. In July they reached a record high of 31.4p per litre (ppl). This was 5.1ppl higher than in July 2012. There were further price rises this month (October). Sainsbury’s increased the price it pays farmers by nearly 2ppl to 34.15ppl and Arla Foods by 1.5ppl to 33.13ppl. Muller Wiseman is set to raise the price it pays to 32.5p per litre.
And yet many farmers are struggling to make a profit from milk production, claiming that their costs have risen faster than the prices they receive. Feed costs, for example, have risen by 2.12ppl. On average, farmers would need over 38p per litre just to cover their average variable costs. What is more, exceptional weather has reduced yields per cow by some 7%.
Meanwhile, in the USA, supply has risen by some 1.3% compared with a year ago. But despite this, the prices of dairy products are rising, thanks to strong demand. Cheese and butter prices, in particular, are rising rapidly, partly because of high demand from overseas. Demand for imported dairy products is particularly high in China, where supply has fallen by some 6% in the past couple of months.
The problem for dairy farmers in the UK is partly one of the power balance in the industry. Farmers have little or no market power. Supermarkets, however, have considerable market power. As large oligopsonistic buyers, they can put downward pressure on the prices paid to their suppliers. These are mainly large processing firms, such as Robert Wiseman Dairies, Arla Foods and Dairy Crest. They, in turn, can use their market power to keep down the price they pay to farmers.
Dairy farmers renew protests over milk prices Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (5/9/13)
Dairy farmers ‘lost more than 1p/litre last year’ Farmers Weekly, Philip Case (2/10/13)
South West farming businesses and producers still making a loss on milk South West Business (3/10/13)
Q&A: Milk prices row and how the system works BBC News (23/7/12) (note date of this)
Positive Dairy Trend: Rising Milk Production and Strong Demand The Farmer’s Exchange, Lee Mielke (27/9/13)
Chinese supply crisis to delay dairy price adjustment Rabobank (25/9/13)
China milk ‘crisis’ fuels world dairy price rise Agrimoney (1/10/13)
UK milk prices and composition of milk ONS
Combined IFCN world milk price indicator IFCN
- Give some examples of (a) variable costs and (b) fixed costs in milk production.
- Why may farmers continue in dairy production, at least for a time, even if they are not covering their average variable costs?
- What factors determine (a) the price of milk paid to farmers; (b) the retail price in supermarkets?
- Explain how dairy futures markets work.
- Could the milk processors use their market power in the interests of farmers? Is it in the interests of milk processors to do so?
- Why is there a Chinese “dairy supply crisis”? What is its impact on the rest of the world? What is the relevance of the price elasticity of demand for dairy products in China to this impact?
The news in many European countries has been dominated in February by the ‘horse meat scandal’. Small traces of horse meat may be the result of faulty quality control. But the significant amount of horse found in several processed meat products suggest fraud at one or more points in the supply chain from farm to supermarket or other outlet. Indeed several specific suppliers, from abattoirs to processors are facing criminal investigation.
The scandal has put the supply chain under intense scrutiny. Part of the problem is that the supply chain is often very long and complex. As the Guardian article states:
The food and retail industries have become highly concentrated and globalised in recent decades. A handful of key players dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe. They have developed very long supply chains, particularly for their economy lines, which enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets. Networks of brokers, cold stores operators and subcontracted meat cutting plants have emerged to supply rapidly fluctuating orders “just in time”. Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down.
Then there is the huge pressure on all parts of the supply chain to reduce costs.
Supermarkets use their market power to drive down the prices of the products they buy from their suppliers and this has a knock-on effect backwards down the supply chain. This pressure has intensified as real wages have fallen and consumers have found their budgets squeezed.
At the same time, beef and other meat prices have been rising as the costs of animal feed have soared. This all puts tremendous pressure on suppliers to add cheaper ingredients. Again to quote the Guardian article:
Manufacturers add other cheap ingredients including water and fat, and use concentrated proteins to bind the water and fat in. They may appear on labels as ‘seasoning’. One of the cheapest sources of these protein additives is pork rind. It is possible that horse hide is now also being used. The widespread adulteration of cheap chicken breast with pig and beef proteins and water has been uncovered in previous scandals. The beef proteins were derived from hydrolysed cattle hides. It is not illegal to use these protein concentrates so long as they are identified correctly to the manufacturer.
It is not surprising that if cheap horse meat becomes available to suppliers, such as from old horses towards the end of their working lives, some processing companies may be tempted to add it fraudulently, stating that it is beef.
The articles look at the issues of long and complex supply chains in the processed food industry and assess why they have evolved into their current form and the difficulties in regulating them.
Horsegate: heed economics of the cold chain The Grocer, Andrew Godley (16/2/13)
Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide The Guardian, Felicity Lawrence (15/2/13)
After the horse has been bolted The Economist (16/2/13)
Slavery, not horse meat, is the real scandal on our doorstep The Telegraph, Fraser Nelson (14/2/13)
Industry must take the reins on food safety Globe and Mail (Canada)Sylvain Charlebois (15/2/13)
Supply chains changed the growth model The Economist, Richard Baldwin (15/8/12)
Supply-chain management The Economist (6/4/09)
Tesco pledges to open up supply chain after horse meat scandal The Telegraph (16/2/13)
Horse meat scandal: Shoppers who buy ‘cheapest food’ at risk The Telegraph, James Quinn, Jason Lewis and Patrick Sawer (16/2/13)
Let Them Eat Horse Bloomberg, Marc Champion (15/2/13)
Scandal shows meat supply chain must be policed heraldscotland (14/2/13)
MPs push for new powers for FSA as officials seize yet more suspect meat Independent, Martin Hickman (13/2/13)
- Why do supermarkets and their suppliers use long supply chains?
- Explain the concepts of ‘countervailing power’ and ‘monopsony or oligopsony power’? How do they apply in the processed meat supply chain?
- Identify the types of transactions costs in the processed meat industry.
- In what ways do consumers (a) gain and (b) lose from such supply chains?
- Why is the problem of fraud in processed food supply chains likely to have intensified in recent years?
- How have supermarkets reacted to the horse meat scandal? Why has it taken the scandal to make them react in this way?
- To what extent is the problem simply one of inaccurate labelling?
- To what extent is there a principal–agent problem in the processed meat supply chain?