Tag: COVID-19

World politicians, business leaders, charities and pressure groups are meeting in Davos at the 2022 World Economic Forum. Normally this event takes place in January each year, but it was postponed to this May because of Covid-19 and is the first face-to-face meeting since January 2020.

The meeting takes place amid a series of crises facing the world economy. The IMF’s Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, described the current situation as a ‘confluence of calamities’. Problems include:

  • Continuing hangovers from Covid have caused economic difficulties in many countries.
  • The bounceback from Covid has led to demand outpacing supply. The world is suffering from a range of supply-chain problems and shortages of key materials and components, such as computer chips.
  • The war in Ukraine has not only caused suffering in Ukraine itself, but has led to huge energy and food price increases as a result of sanctions and the difficulties in exporting wheat, sunflower oil and other foodstuffs.
  • Supply shocks have led to rising global inflation. This will feed into higher inflationary expectations, which will compound the problem if they result in higher prices and wages in response to higher costs.
  • Central banks have responded by raising interest rates. These dampen an already weakened global economy and could push the world into recession.
  • Global inequality is rising rapidly, both within countries and between countries, as Covid disruptions and higher food and energy prices hit the poor disproportionately. Poor people and countries also have a higher proportion of debt and are thus hit especially hard by higher interest rates.
  • Global warming is having increasing effects, with a growing incidence of floods, droughts and hurricanes. These lead to crop failures and the displacement of people.
  • Countries are increasingly resorting to trade restrictions as they seek to protect their own economies. These slow economic growth.

World leaders at Davos will be debating what can be done. One approach is to use fiscal policy. Indeed, Kristalina Georgieva said that her ‘main message is to recognise that the world must spend the billions necessary to contain Covid in order to gain trillions in output as a result’. But unless the increased expenditure is aimed specifically at tackling supply shortages and bottlenecks, it could simply add to rising inflation. Increasing aggregate demand in the context of supply shortages is not the solution.

In the long run, supply bottlenecks can be overcome with appropriate investment. This may require both greater globalisation and greater localisation, with investment in supply chains that use both local and international sources.

International sources can be widened with greater investment in manufacturing in some of the poorer developing countries. This would also help to tackle global inequality. Greater localisation for some inputs, especially heavier or more bulky ones, would help to reduce transport costs and the consumption of fuel.

With severe supply shocks, there are no simple solutions. With less supply, the world produces less and becomes poorer – at least temporarily until supply can increase again.

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Discussion (video)

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Questions

  1. Draw an aggregate demand and supply diagram (AD/AS or DAD/DAS) to illustrate the effect of a supply shock on output and prices.
  2. Give some examples of supply-side policies that could help in the current situation.
  3. What are the arguments for and against countries using protectionist policies at the current time?
  4. What policies could countries adopt to alleviate rapid rises in the cost of living for people on low incomes? What problems do these policies pose?
  5. What are the arguments for and against imposing a windfall tax on energy companies and using the money to support poor people?
  6. If the world slips into recession, should central banks and governments use expansionary monetary and fiscal policies?

Global oil prices (Brent crude) reached $128 per barrel on 9 March, a level not seen for 10 years and surpassed only in the run up to the financial crisis in 2008. Oil prices are determined by global demand and supply, and the current surge in prices is no exception.

A rise in demand and/or a fall in supply will lead to a rise in the price. Given that both demand and supply are relatively price inelastic, such shifts can cause large rises in oil prices. Similarly, a fall in demand or rise in supply can lead to a large fall in oil prices.

These changes are then amplified by speculation. Traders try to get ahead of price changes. If people anticipate that oil prices will rise, they will buy now, or make a contract to buy more in the future at prices quoted today by buying on the oil futures market. This then pushes up both spot (current) prices and futures prices. If demand or supply conditions change, speculation will amplify the reaction to such a change.

What has happened since 2019?

In 2019, oil was typically trading at around $60 to $70 per barrel. It then fell dramatically in early 2020 as the onset of COVID-19 led to a collapse in demand, for both transport and industry. The price fell below $20 in late April (see charts: click here for a PowerPoint).

Oil prices then rose rapidly as demand recovered somewhat but supply chains, especially shipping, were suffering disruptions. By mid-2021, oil was once more trading at around $60 to $70 per barrel. But then demand grew more strongly as economic recovery from COVID accelerated. But supply could not grow so quickly. By January 2022, Brent crude had risen above $80 per barrel.

Then worries began to grow about Russian intentions over Ukraine as Russia embarked on large-scale military exercises close to the border with Ukraine. People increasingly disbelieved Russia’s declarations that it had no intention to invade. Russia is the world’s second biggest producer of oil and people feared that deliberate disruptions to supply by Russia or other countries banning imports of Russian oil would cause supply shortages. Speculation thus drove up the oil price. By 23 February, the day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Brent crude had risen to $95.

With the Russian invasion, moves were made by the EU the USA and other countries to ban or limit the purchase of Russian oil. This increased the demand for non-Russian oil.

On 8 March, the USA announced that it was banning the import of Russian oil with immediate effect. The same day, the UK announced that it would phase out the import of Russian oil and oil products by the end of 2022.

The EU is much more dependent on Russian oil imports, which account for around 27% of EU oil consumption and 2/3 of extra-EU oil imports. Nevertheless, it announced that it would accelerate the move away from Russian oil and gas and towards green alternatives. By 8 March, Brent crude had risen to $128 per barrel.

The question was then whether other sources of supply would help to fill the gap. Initially it seemed that OPEC+ (excluding Russia) would not increase production beyond the quotas previously agreed by the cartel to meet recovery in world demand. But then, on 9 March, the UAE Ambassador to Washington announced that the county favoured production increases and would encourage other OPEC members to follow suit. With the announcement, the oil price fell by 11% to £111. But the next day, it rose again somewhat as the UAE seemed to backtrack, but then fell back slightly as OPEC said there was no shortage of oil.

This is obviously an unfolding story with the suffering of the Ukrainian people at its heart. But the concepts of supply and demand and their price elasticity and the role of speculation are central to understanding what will happen to oil prices in the coming months with all the consequences for poverty and economic hardship.

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Data

Questions

  1. Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate what has happened to oil prices over the past two years. How has the size of the effects been dependent on the price elasticity of demand for oil and the price elasticity of supply of oil?
  2. Use a demand and supply diagram to show what has been happening to the price of natural gas over the past two years. Are the determinants similar to those in the oil market? How do they differ (if at all)?
  3. What policy options are open to governments to deal with soaring energy prices?
  4. What are the distributional consequences of the rise in energy prices? (see the blog: Rise in the cost of living.)
  5. Under what circumstances are oil prices over the next six months likely (a) fall; (b) continue rising?

During the pandemic, millions of people’s wages in the UK were paid by the government to prevent the closure of businesses and a surge in unemployment. The furlough scheme officially came to an end in September 2021. However, with the spread of the Omicron variant and the fear of further restrictions being put in place, there has been a call by many to re-introduce the furlough scheme.

The furlough scheme

The furlough scheme began when the government brought in, what was officially called the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) in early 2020. This was when the pandemic first forced businesses across the country to close. The scheme worked by paying part of employees’ wages, preventing the need for businesses to make their staff redundant, therefore avoiding a rapid rise in unemployment along with the associated costs. It also avoided the financial and emotional costs of firing and then rehiring workers post pandemic. Under the scheme, furloughed workers received 80% of their wages, up to £2500 a month, if they couldn’t work because of the impact of coronavirus. Employees were able to maintain the security of employment and the payments helped furloughed workers pay their bills.

The scheme saw billions of pounds spent paying the wages of employees whose firms were forced to close temporarily. It could be argued that the expense of the scheme was a huge disadvantage. However, the alternative would have been for the government to pay unemployment-related benefits. Despite the furlough scheme being deemed necessary, it was not without its drawbacks for the structure of businesses. Rather than businesses adapting to changes in the economy and consumer demands, they could decide to claim the money and avoid the need to restructure. There was also concern about the length of the furlough scheme and the ability of businesses to bounce back post-pandemic.

Since the start of the scheme, the specifics of what was paid and who received it changed over time, especially once the economy started opening again. Initial steps were made to allow part-time return to work and the scheme started to wind down over the summer of 2021, with the government covering less of the wages and businesses covering more. From July, employers had to provide 10% of the wages of their furloughed staff, with the government paying the rest. This then increased to 20% in August with the CJRS coming to a complete end on 30 September 2021. At this point, there were around 1.6 million employees still receiving payment from the scheme.

Impact on Employment

With the end to the furlough scheme in September 2021, there were concerns that this would lead to a large number of redundancies. However, data indicate that has not happened and there is a record number of job vacancies. Official figures show that UK employment rose in October, confirming the strength of the labour market. The Office for National Statistics stated that the employment rate rose to 75.5% in the three months to October, up 0.2 percentage points on the previous quarter. This is believed to be driven by a rise in part-time work, which had dropped sharply during the pandemic. However, it is important to note that the strength in these numbers was prior to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Omicron

In November, the government had ruled out once again bankrolling people’s wages at enormous expense. However, the Chancellor is now under pressure to respond to the latest announcements around the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. The fast-spreading mutation of the Covid-19 virus, Omicron, is posing a fresh threat to the economy.

On the 8 December, the Prime Minister announced new ‘Plan B’ Covid rules for England. As part of these new rules to limit the spread of Omicron, people are being asked to work from home again if possible and face masks are compulsory in most public places. Covid passes or a negative Covid test result are also needed to get into nightclubs and large venues.

Scotland and Wales have brought in further restrictions. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has asked people to limit socialising to three households at a time in the run-up to Christmas. Shops and hospitality venues in Scotland must bring back physical distancing and screens. In Wales, nightclubs will close after 26 December and social distancing will be reintroduced in shops.

Although the hospitality industry and retail sector remain open, they are facing a slump in trade thanks to the new restrictions and worries among the general public. With the work-from-home guidance and advice from health officials that people should limit their social interactions, pubs and restaurants have seen widespread cancellations in the run-up to Christmas. Trade is suffering and these mass cancellations come at a time when these sectors were hoping for bumper trade after a dismal last couple of years.

In light of these concerns, ministers are now being urged to guarantee support in case businesses have to shut. Despite the indication that it would be highly unlikely that the UK would experience a full return to the restrictions seen at previous stages of the crisis, the International Monetary Fund has stated that the UK government should be drawing up contingency plans. The IMF has called for a mini-furlough scheme in the event that the Omicron variant forces the government to close parts of the economy. The idea is that the mini-furlough scheme would see a limited version of the multi-billion-pound job subsidy scheme being rolled out if firms are forced to close.

There are strong calls for there to be targeted support, which this mini-furlough scheme could offer. The Resolution Foundation argued in mid-December that a furlough scheme tied solely to the hospitality industry would help prevent job loses in an industry that is currently suffering once again. It calculated that the cost of a hospitality-only furlough scheme would be £1.4 billion a month if it were pitched at the original level of 80% of wage support. If a January to March sector-specific scheme were to be introduced it is estimated to cost around £5 billion, a small cost in comparison to £46 billion spent on furlough so far.

Inflation

Any reintroduction of a furlough scheme would be a jolt for the government. This would mean a return to the 2020-style arguments around protecting livelihoods and businesses, a contrast to the recent messaging from the Treasury of restoring public finances. There is also concern about how this will all impact on current growth predictions and inflation concerns. The IMF expects the growth of the UK economy to be 6.8% in 2021 and 5% in 2022. However, the drawback from this is that the recovery would also be accompanied by rising inflation. It has been suggested, therefore, that interest rate increases from the Bank of England would be needed to keep inflation under control, while at the same time being not so great as to kill off growth.

It was widely expected that the Bank of England would again put off a rate hike in order to wait to see the economic impact of Plan B restrictions. However, on Thursday 16 December, interest rates were raised for the first time in more than three years. Despite the fears that Omicron could slow the economy by causing people to spend less, Bank Rate was raised from 0.1% to 0.25% . This came in the wake of data showing prices climbing at the fastest pace for 10 years.

Next Steps?

Government finances would take another huge hit if the furlough scheme were revived. But a version of such a scheme is likely to be necessary to avert an unemployment crisis and the attendant costs.

However, in resisting further measures, the government has argued that it has already acted early to help control the virus’s spread by rapidly rolling out booster jabs, while avoiding unduly damaging economic and social restrictions.

The government also argues that some of the measures from the total £400 billion Covid support package since the start of the pandemic will continue to help businesses into Spring 2022. Such measures include government-backed loans for small- and medium-sized businesses until June 2022, a reduction in VAT from 20% to 12.5% until March 2022 and business rates relief for eligible retail, hospitality, and leisure businesses until March 2022. Talks are ongoing with hospitality and and other business organisations directly affected by Covid restrictions.

The British Chambers of Commerce has argued that current measures are not enough and has called for VAT on hospitality and tourism to be cut back to its emergency rate of 5% and for the 100% business rates relief for retailers to return. The CBI has also called for any unspent local authority grants to be spent now to help affected firms and that further help, including business rates relief, should be on the table if restrictions continue after the government’s 5 January review date. The IMF said that with strong policy support, the economy had proved resilient, but it stressed that a return of some of the measures that prevented mass unemployment and large-scale business failures might soon be needed.

Conclusion

Infections caused by the new Omicron variant are rising rapidly, doubling every two to three days. It is expected to become the dominant variant in the UK soon with health officials warning it may be the most significant threat since the start of the pandemic. However, it is not yet known what the full extent of the impact of this new variant on the NHS will be, leaving the severity of future restrictions uncertain.

But what is evident is that the course of the pandemic has changed and there is a growing case for the government to start planning for new support packages. Although a reintroduction of the furlough scheme was hoped not to be needed on the path out of the pandemic, a short detour may be required in the form of a mini-furlough scheme. The size and reach of any support put in place will depend upon any further restrictions on economic activity.

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Questions

  1. Should the level of support for business return to the levels in place earlier in 2021?
  2. What measures could a government put in place to curtail the spread of the Omicron variant that have only a minimal impact on business and employment?
  3. Compare the UK measures to curtail the spread of the virus with those used in some other European countries.
  4. What are the arguments for and against (a) re-introducing the furlough scheme as it was earlier in 2021; (b) introducing a version restricted to the hospitality sector?

The global battle for fuel is expected to peak this winter. The combination of rising demand and a tightening of supply has sparked concerns of shortages in the market. Some people are worried about another ‘winter of discontent’. Gas prices have risen fivefold in Europe as a whole.

In the UK, consumers are likely to find that the natural gas needed to heat their homes this October will cost at least five times more than it did a year ago. This surge in wholesale gas prices has seen several UK energy suppliers stop trading as they are unable to make a profit. This is because of an energy price cap for some consumers and various fixed price deals they had signed with their customers.

There are thus fears of an energy crisis in the UK, especially if there is a cold winter. There are even warnings that during a cold snap, gas supply to various energy-intensive firms may be cut off. This comes at a time when some of these industries are struggling to make a profit.

Demand and supply

The current situation is a combination of long- and short-term factors. In spring 2020, the demand for gas actually decreased due to the pandemic. This resulted in low gas prices, reduced UK production and delayed maintenance work and investment along global supply chains. However, since early 2021, consumer demand for gas has soared. First, there was an increased demand due to the Artic weather conditions last winter. This was then followed by heatwaves in the USA and Europe over the summer, which saw an increase in the use of air conditioning units. With the increased demand combined with calm weather conditions, wind turbines couldn’t supply enough power to meet demand.

There has also been a longer-term impact on demand throughout the industry due to the move to cleaner energy. The transitioning to wind and solar has seen a medium-term increase in the demand for gas. There is also a long-term impact of the target for net zero economies in the UK and Europe. This has hindered investors’ willingness to invest in developing supplies of fossil fuels due the fact they could become obsolete over the next few decades.

Nations have also been unable to build up enough supplies for winter. This is partly due to Europe’s domestic gas stocks having declined by 30% per cent in the past decade. This heightened situation is leading to concerns that there will be black-outs or cut-offs in gas this winter.

Importation of gas

A concern for the UK is that it has scant storage facilities with no long-term storage. The UK currently has very modest amounts of storage – less than 6% of annual demand and some five times less than the average in the rest of Europe. It has been increasingly operating a ‘just-in-time model’, which is more affected by short-term price fluctuations in the wholesale gas market. With wind power generation remaining lower than average during summer 2021, more gas than usual has been used to generate electricity, leaving less gas to go into storage.

However, some argue that the problem is not just the UK’s physical supply of gas but demand for gas from elsewhere. Around half of the UK’s supply comes from its own production sites, while the rest is piped in from Europe or shipped in as liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the USA, Qatar and Russia. In 2019, the UK imported almost 20% of its gas through LNG shipments. However, Asian gas demand has grown rapidly, expanding by 50% over the past decade. This has meant that LNG has now become much harder to secure.

The issue is the price the UK has to pay to continue receiving these supplies. Some in the gas industry believe the price surge is only temporary, caused by economic disruptions, while many others say it highlights a structural weakness in a continent that has become too reliant on imported gas. It can be argued that the gas crisis has highlighted the lack of a coherent strategy to manage the gas industry as the UK transitions to a net zero economy. The lack of any industry investment in new capacity suggests that there is currently no business case for new long-term storage in the UK, especially as gas demand is expected to continue falling over the longer term.

Impact on consumers and industry

Gas prices for suppliers have increased fivefold over the past year. Therefore, many companies face a considerable rise in their bills. MSome may need to reduce or pause production – or even cease trading – which could cause job losses. Alternatively, they could pass on their increased costs to customers by charging them higher prices. Although energy-intensive industries are particularly exposed, every company that has to pay energy bills will be affected. Due to the growing concerns about the security of winter gas supplies those industries reliant on gas, such as the fertiliser industry, are restricting production, threatening various supply chains.

Most big domestic gas suppliers buy their gas months in advance, meaning they will most likely pass on the higher price rises they have experienced in the past few months. The increased demand and decreased supply has already meant meant that customers have faced higher prices for their energy. The UK has been badly hit because it’s one of Europe’s biggest users of natural gas – 85% of homes use gas central heating – and it also generates a third of the country’s electricity.

The rising bills are particularly an issue for those customers on a variable tariff. About 15 million households have seen their energy bills rise by 12% since the beginning of October due to the rise in the government’s energy price cap calculated by the regulator, Ofgem. A major concern is that this increase in bills comes at a time when the need to use more heating and lighting is approaching. It also coincides with other price rises hitting family budgets and the withdrawal of COVID support schemes.

Government intervention – maximum pricing

If the government feels that the equilibrium price in a particular market is too high, it can intervene in the market and set a maximum price. When the government intervenes in this way, it sets a price ceiling on certain basic goods or services and does not permit the price to go above that set limit. A maximum price is normally set for reasons of fairness and to benefit consumers on low incomes. Examples include energy price caps to order to control fuel bills, rent controls in order to improve affordability of housing, a cap on mobile roaming charges within the EU and price capping for regional monopoly water companies.

The energy price cap

Even without the prospect of a colder than normal winter, bills are still increasing. October’s increase in the fuel cap means that many annual household fuel bills will rise by £135 or more. The price cap sets the maximum price that suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge domestic customers on a standard, or default tariff. The cap has come under the spotlight owing to the crisis among suppliers, which has seen eleven firms fold, with more expected.

The regulator Ofgem sets a price cap for domestic energy twice a year. The latest level came into place on 1 October. It is a cap on the price of energy that suppliers can charge. The price cap is based on a broad estimate of how much it costs a supplier to provide gas and electricity services to a customer. The calculation is mainly made up of wholesale energy costs, network costs such as maintaining pipes and wires, policy costs including Government social and environmental schemes, operating costs such as billing and metering services and VAT. Therefore, suppliers can only pass on legitimate costs of supplying energy and cannot charge more than the level of the price cap, although they can charge less. A household’s total bill is still determined by how much gas and electricity is used.

  • Those on standard tariffs, with typical household levels of energy use, will see an increase of £139.
  • People with prepayment meters, with average energy use, will see an annual increase of £153.
  • Households on fixed tariffs will be unaffected. However, those coming to the end of a contract are automatically moved to a default tariff set at the new level.

Ordinarily, customers are able to shop around for cheaper deals, but currently, the high wholesale prices of gas means that cheaper deals are not available.

Despite the cap limiting how much providers can raise prices, the current increase is the biggest (and to the highest amount) since the cap was introduced in January 2019. As providers are scarcely making a profit on gas, there are concerns that a further increase in wholesale prices will cause more suppliers to be forced out of business. Ofgem said that the cap is likely to go up again in April, the next time it is reviewed.

Conclusion

The record prices being paid by suppliers and deficits in gas supply across the world have stoked fears that the energy crisis will get worse. It comes at a time when households are already facing rising bills, while some energy-intensive industries have started to slow production. This has started to dent optimism around the post-pandemic economic recovery.

Historically, UK governments have trusted market mechanisms to deliver UK gas security. However, consumers are having to pay the cost of such an approach. The price cap has meant the UK’s gas bills have until now been typically lower than the EU average. However, the rise in prices comes on top of other economic problems such as labour shortages and increasing food prices, adding up to an unwelcome rise in the cost of living.

Video

Articles

UK government/Ofgem

Questions

  1. Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate what has happened in the energy market over the past year.
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention in a free market?
  3. Explain why it is necessary for the regulator to intervene in the energy market.
  4. Using the concept of maximum pricing, illustrate how the price cap works.

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.

Articles

Questions

  1. What are the costs and benefits of a just-in-time approach to logistics?
  2. Are current supply chain problems likely to be temporary or are there issues that are likely to persist?
  3. How might the JIT approach be reformed to make it more adaptable to supply chain disruptions?