There is increasing recognition that the world is facing a climate emergency. Concerns are growing about the damaging effects of global warming on weather patterns, with increasing droughts, forest fires, floods and hurricanes. Ice sheets are melting and glaciers retreating, with consequent rising sea levels. Habitats and livelihoods are being destroyed. And many of the effects seem to be occurring more rapidly than had previously been expected.
Extinction Rebellion has staged protests in many countries; the period from 20 to 27 September saw a worldwide climate strike (see also), with millions of people marching and children leaving school to protest; a Climate Action Summit took place at the United Nations, with a rousing speech by Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish activist; the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report with evidence showing that the melting of ice sheets and rising sea levels is more rapid than previously thought; at its annual party conference in Brighton, the Labour Party pledged that, in government, it would bring forward the UK’s target for zero net carbon emissions from 2050 to 2030.
Increasingly attention is focusing on what can be done. At first sight, it might seem as if the answer lies solely with climate scientists, environmentalists, technologists, politicians and industry. When the matter is discussed in the media, it is often the environment correspondent, the science correspondent, the political correspondent or the business correspondent who reports on developments in policy. But economics has an absolutely central role to play in both the analysis of the problem and in examining the effectiveness of alternative solutions.
One of the key things that economists do is to examine incentives and how they impact on human behaviour. Indeed, understanding the design and effectiveness of incentives is one of the 15 Threshold Concepts we identify in the Sloman books.
One of the most influential studies of the impact of climate change and means of addressing it was the study back in 2006, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, led by the economist Sir Nicholas Stern. The Review reflected economists’ arguments that climate change represents a massive failure of markets and of governments too. Firms and individuals can emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at no charge to themselves, even though it imposes costs on others. These external costs are possible because the atmosphere is a public good, which is free to exploit.
Part of the solution is to ‘internalise’ these externalities by imposing charges on people and firms for their emissions, such as imposing higher taxes on cars with high exhaust emissions or on coal-fired power stations. This can be done through the tax system, with ‘green’ taxes and charges. Economists study the effectiveness of these and how much they are likely to change people’s behaviour.
Another part of the solution is to subsidise green alternatives, such as solar and wind power, that provide positive environmental externalities. But again, just how responsive will demand be? This again is something that economists study.
Of course, changing human behaviour is not just about raising the prices of activities that create negative environmental externalities and lowering the prices of those that create positive ones. Part of the solution lies in education to make people aware of the environmental impacts of their activities and what can be done about it. The problem here is that there is a lack of information – a classic market failure. Making people aware of the consequences of their actions can play a key part in the economic decisions they make. Economists study the extent that imperfect information distorts decision making and how informed decision making can improve outcomes.
Another part of the solution may be direct government investment in green technologies or the use of legislation to prevent or restrict activities that contribute to global warming. But in each case, economists are well placed to examine the efficacy and the costs and benefits of alternative policies. Economists have the tools to make cost–benefit appraisals.
Economists also study the motivations of people and how they affect their decisions, including decisions about whether or not to take part in activities with high emissions, such air travel, and decisions on ‘green’ activities, such as eating less meat and more vegetables.
If you are starting out on an economics degree, you will soon see that economists are at the centre of the analysis of some of the biggest issues of the day, such as climate change and the environment generally, inequality and poverty, working conditions, the work–life balance, the price of accommodation, the effects of populism and the retreat from global responsibility and, in the UK especially, the effects of Brexit, of whatever form.
- Explain what is meant by environmental externalities.
- Compare the relative merits of carbon taxes and legislation as means of reducing carbon emissions.
- If there is a climate emergency, why are most governments unwilling to take the necessary measures to make their countries net carbon neutral within the next few years?
- In what ways would you suggest incentivising (a) individuals and (b) firms to reduce carbon emissions? Explain your reasoning.
- For what reasons are the burdens of climate changed shared unequally between people across the globe?
One type of market failing is the asymmetric information between producers and consumers. Advertising, branding and marketing can either help to reduce consumers’ limited information or play on ignorance to mislead consumers.
Misleading consumers is what the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser is accused of doing with its Nurofen brand of painkillers. There are very few types of painkiller – the most common three being paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin. These are sold cheaply in chemists as unbranded ‘generic products’. Or you can buy much more expensive branded versions of the same drugs. Many people believe that the branded versions are more effective as they are cleverly marketed.
Reckitt Benckiser has been found guilty by the Australian federal court of deceiving consumers. The company produces various varieties of Nurofen, each claiming to target a particular type of pain. But Nurofen Back Pain, Nurofen Period Pain, Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache are in fact identical! And in many outlets, they were sold at different prices – a form of price discrimination reflecting the strength of demand by consumers for a particular type of pain relief.
And now the UK Advertising Standards Authority is investigating the company over whether its adverts for Nurofen Express are misleading by stating that the product ‘gives you faster headache relief than standard paracetamol or ibuprofen’. Also it is investigating the company’s claim that its products directly target muscles in the head. Both Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache claim on the front of the box to provide ‘targeted rapid relief’.
The company adopts similar practices in its combined pain-killer and decongestant drugs for relieving cold symptoms. For example, its Nurofen Cold and Flu Relief, Nurofen Day and Night Cold and Flu, Nurofen Sinus and Blocked Nose and Nurofen Sinus Pain Relief all contain the same quantities of ibuprofen and the decongestant phenylephrine hydrochloride, but each claims to do something different.
So there are various issues here. The first is whether excessive profits are made by charging a price typically 3 to 4 times greater than the identical generic version of the drug; the second is whether the company deliberately misleads consumers by claiming that a particular version of the drug targets a particular type of pain; the third is whether ‘faster acting’ versions are significantly different; the fourth is whether price discrimination is being practised.
Nurofen maker Reckitt Benckiser suffers advertising headaches Financial Times, Robert Cookson and Scheherazade Daneshkhu (15/12/15)
Nurofen Express advertising claims probed by UK watchdog BBC News (15/12/15)
ASA probing ‘misleading’ painkiller claims in advert by drug firm behind Nurofen The Telegraph, Tom Morgan and agency (15/12/15)
The great painkiller con: Top drug brands accused of huge mark-ups and misleading claims Mail Online, Sean Poulter and John Naish (16/12/15)
Nurofen Under Investigation By UK Watchdog Over Claims Advert ‘Misled’ Customers Huffington Post, Natasha Hinde (15/12/15)
Australian Competition & Consumer Comission media release
Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims ACCC (14/12/15)
- Is price discrimination always against the consumer’s interests?
- What form of price discrimination is being practised in the case of Nurofen?
- How, do you think, does Reckitt Benckiser decide the prices it charges retailers for its pain killers and how, do you think, do retailers determine the price they charge consumers for them?
- Is it a reasonable assumption that branded products in most cases are better than own-brand or generic versions? How is behavioural theory relevant here?
- If Reckitt Benckiser were banned from using the word ‘targets’ when referring to one of its product’s effect on particular type of pain, could the company instead use the words ‘suitable for’ relieving a particular type of pain and thereby avoid misleading consumers?
- What is the best way of improving consumer knowledge about particular types of over-the-counter drugs and their effects on the body?
- Comment on the following statement by Dr Aomesh Bhatt, the company’s medical affairs director: ‘The Nurofen specific-pain range was launched with an intention to help consumers navigate their pain relief options, particularly within the grocery environment where there is no healthcare professional to assist decision making.’
In a blog post on 1 May this year, What’s really on offer?, we looked at the ‘super-complaint‘ by Which? to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) about supermarket special offers. The complaint referred to bogus price reductions, ‘cheaper’ multi-buys which weren’t cheaper, smaller pack sizes and confusing special offers. Under the rules of super-complaints, the CMA had 90 days from the receipt of the complaint on 21 April 2015 to publish a response. It has now done so.
Here is an extract from its press release:
In its investigation the CMA found examples of pricing and promotional practices that have the potential to confuse or mislead consumers and which could be in breach of consumer law. Where there is evidence of breaches of consumer law this could lead to enforcement action.
However, it has concluded that these problems are not occurring in large numbers across the whole sector and that generally retailers are taking compliance seriously to avoid such problems occurring. The CMA also found that more could be done to reduce the complexity in unit pricing to make it a more useful comparison tool for consumers. …Nisha Arora, CMA Senior Director, Consumer, said:
‘We have found that, whilst supermarkets want to comply with the law and shoppers enjoy a wide range of choices, with an estimated 40% of grocery spending being on items on promotion, there are still areas of poor practice that could confuse or mislead shoppers. So we are recommending further action to improve compliance and ensure that shoppers have clear, accurate information.
Although the CMA believes that misleading pricing is not as widespread as consumer groups have claimed, in some cases the supermarkets could be fined. The CMA also says that it will work with the supermarkets to eliminate misleading information in promotions.
In addition it recommends that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) publishes guidelines for supermarkets on displaying unit prices in a consistent way. It also recommends that legislation should be simplified on how items should be unit-priced.
The following articles look at the implications of the CMS’ findings.
Some UK supermarket promotions are misleading, watchdog says Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (16/7/15)
Shoppers beware: Grocers ‘confusing’ consumers with special offers, unit pricing, says government investigation International Business Times, Graham Lanktree (16/7/15)
Supermarket pricing: CMA finds ‘misleading tactics BBC News, Brian Milligan (16/7/15)
How special are special offers? BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (16/7/15)
Response to super-complaint: link to elements of report CMA (16/7/15)
- Give some examples of the types of promotion used by supermarkets?
- In what ways might such promotions be misleading?
- How is competition from Aldi and Lidl affecting pricing and promotions in the ‘big four’ supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons)?
- What cost and other advantages do Aldi and Lidl have over the big four? How might the big four reduce costs?
- Are misleading promotions systemic across the industry?
- How can behavioural economics help to explain consumers’ response to promotions in supermarkets?
- What is meant by ‘heuristics’? How might supermarkets exploit consumers’ use of heuristics in their promotions?
For years, the UK consumer organisation, Which?, has exposed misleading supermarket pricing practices. These include bogus price reductions, ‘cheaper’ multi-buys, smaller pack sizes and confusing special offers. Claiming that these practices are still continuing, Which? has made a super-complaint (available to designated consumer bodies) to the competition regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
Commenting on this action, Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd said:
“Despite Which? repeatedly exposing misleading and confusing pricing tactics, and calling for voluntary change by the retailers, these dodgy offers remain on numerous supermarket shelves. Shoppers think they’re getting a bargain but in reality it’s impossible for any consumer to know if they’re genuinely getting a fair deal.
We’re saying enough is enough and using one of the most powerful legal weapons in our armoury to act on behalf of consumers by launching a super-complaint to the regulator. We want an end to misleading pricing tactics and for all retailers to use fair pricing that people can trust.”
The CMA will consider the issues raised under the super-complaint to establish whether any of them are significantly harming the interests of consumers. It will publish a response within 90 days from the receipt of the complaint on 21 April 2015. The possible outcomes include:
||recommending the quality and accessibility of information for consumers is improved
||encouraging businesses in the market to self-regulate
||making recommendations to government to change the legislation or public policy
||taking competition or consumer enforcement action
||instigating a market investigation or market study
||a clean bill of health
Some 40% of groceries are sold on promotion. Supermarkets are well aware that consumers love to get a bargain and use promotions to persuade consumers to buy things they might not otherwise have done.
What is more, consumer rationality is bounded by the information and time available. People are often in a hurry when shopping; prices change frequently; people are often buying numerous low-value items; and they don’t know what competitors are charging. People may thus accept an offer as genuine and not spend time investigating whether it is so. Supermarkets know this and use all sorts of tactics to try to persuade people that they are indeed getting a bargain.
Supermarkets Face Super-Complaint On Pricing Sky News (21/4/15)
UK supermarkets face possible probe over pricing practices Reuters, Neil Maidment (21/4/15)
Which? launches ‘super-complaint’ against supermarkets BBC News, Stephanie McGovern (21/4/15)
UK supermarkets dupe shoppers out of hundreds of millions, says Which? The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (21/4/15)
Supermarkets face inquiry into ‘rip-offs’ The Telegraph, Dan Hyde (21/4/15)
15 supermarket rip-offs that led to an inquiry The Telegraph, Dan Hyde (21/4/15)
What does Which?’s supermarket pricing complaint mean for you? The Guardian (21/4/15)
Supermarkets hit back over Which? report on pricing Financial Times (21/4/15)
Which? ‘super-complains’ about misleading supermarket pricing practices Which? (21/4/15)
CMA case page
Groceries pricing super-complaint Competition and Markets Authority (21/4/15)
- Give examples of supermarket offers that are misleading.
- Why are supermarkets able to ‘get away with’ misleading offers?
- How can behavioural economics help to explain consumer behaviour in supermarkets?
- Identify some other super-complaints have been made to the CMA or its predecessor, the Office of Fair Trading. What were the outcomes from the resulting investigations.
- What is meant by ‘heuristics’? How might supermarkets exploit consumers’ use of heuristics in their promotions?
Barclays’ Chief Executive, Bob Diamond, has resigned following revelations that Barclays staff had been involved in rigging the LIBOR in the period 2005–9, including the financial crisis of 2007–9.
So what is the LIBOR; how is it set; what were the reasons for Barclays (and other banks, as will soon be revealed) attempting to manipulate the rate; and what were the consequences?
The LIBOR, or London interbank offered rate, is the average of what banks report that they would have to pay to borrow from one another in the inter-bank market. Separate LIBORs are calculated for 15 different lending periods: overnight, one week, one month, two months, three months, six months, etc. The rates are set daily as the average of submissions made to Thomson Reuters by some 15 to 20 banks (a poll overseen by the British Bankers’ Association). Thomson Reuters then publishes the LIBORs, along with all of the submissions from individual banks which are used to calculate it.
Many interest rates around the world are based on LIBORs, or their European counterpart, EURIBORs. They include bond rates, mortgage rates, overdraft rates, etc. Trillions of dollars worth of such assets are benchmarked to the LIBORs. Thus manipulating LIBORs by even 1 basis point (0.01%) can result in millions of dollars worth of gains (or losses) to banks.
The charge, made by the Financial Services Authority, is that Barclays staff deliberately under- or overstated the rate at which the bank would have to borrow. For example, when interbank loans were drying up in the autumn of 2008, Barclays staff were accused of deliberately understating the rate at which they would have to borrow in order to persuade markets that the bank was facing less difficulty than it really was and thereby boost confidence in the bank. In other words they were accused of trying to manipulate LIBORs down by lying.
As it was the LIBORs were rising well above bank rate. The spread for the one-month LIBOR was around 1 to 1.2% above Bank Rate. Today it is around 0.1 to 0.15% above Bank Rate. Without lying by staff in Barclays, RBS and probably other banks too, the spread in 2008 may have been quite a bit higher still.
The following articles look at the issue, its impact at the time and the aftermath today.
A Libor primer The Globe and Mail, Kevin Carmichael (3/7/12)
60 second guide to Libor Which? (3/7/12)
Explaining the Libor interest rate mess CNN Money (3/7/12)
Fixing Libor Financial Times (27/6/12)
LIBOR in the News: What it is, Why it’s Important Technorati, John Sollars (2/7/12)
Libor rigging ‘was institutionalised at major UK bank’ The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (1/7/12)
Barclays ‘attempted to manipulate interest rates’ BBC News, Robert Peston (27/6/12)
The Libor Conspiracy: Were the Bank of England and Whitehall in on it? Independent, Oliver Wright, James Moore , Nigel Morris (4/7/12)
Fixing LIBOR The Economist (10/3/12)
Cleaning up LIBOR? The Economist (14/5/12)
Eagle fried The Economist, Schumpeter (27/6/12)
Barclays looks like the victim Financial Post, Terence Corcoran (3/7/12)
Inconvenient truths about Libor BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/7/12)
Timeline: Barclays’ widening Libor-fixing scandal BBC News (5/7/12)
The elusive truth about Barclays’ lie BBC News, Robert Peston (4/7/12)
Rate Fixing Scandal Is International: EU’s Almunia CNBC, Shai Ahmed (4/7/12)
Bank-Bonus Culture to Blame for Barclays Scandal The Daily Beast, Alex Klein (3/7/12)
Libor scandal ‘damaging’ for City BBC Today Programme, Andrew Lilico and Mark Boleat (5/7/12)
Libor rate fixing: see each bank’s submissions Guardian Data Blog, Simon Rogers (3/7/12)
Sterling interbank rates Bank of England
- Using data from the Bank of England (see link above), chart two or three LIBOR rates against Bank rate from 2007 to the present day.
- For what reason would individuals and firms lose from banks manipulating LIBOR rates?
- Why would LIBOR manipulation be more ‘effective’ if banks colluded in their submissions about their interest rates?
- Why might the Bank of England and the government have been quite keen for the LIBOR to have been manipulated downwards in 2008?
- To what extent was the LIBOR rigging scandal an example of the problem of asymmetric information?
- In the light of the LIBOR rigging scandal, should universal banks be split into separate investment and retail banks, rather than erecting some firewall around their retail banking arm?
- What are the arguments for and against making attempts to manipulate LIBOR rates a criminal offences?