Many politicians throughout the world,
not just on the centre and left, are arguing for increased spending on infrastructure. This was one of the key proposals of Donald Trump during his election campaign. In his election manifesto he pledged to “Transform America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains”.
Increased spending on inffrastructure has both demand- and supply-side effects.
Unless matched by cuts elsewhere, such spending will increase aggregate demand and could have a high multiplier effect if most of the inputs are domestic. Also there could be accelerator effects as the projects may stimulate private investment.
On the supply side, well-targeted infrastructure spending can directly increase productivity and cut costs of logistics and communications.
The combination of the demand- and supply-side effects could increase both potential and actual output and reduce unemployment.
So, if infrastructure projects can have such beneficial effects, why are politicians often so reluctant to give them the go-ahead?
Part of the problem is one of timing. The costs occur in the short run. These include demolition, construction and disruption. The direct benefits occur in the longer term, once the project is complete. And for complex projects this may be many years hence. It is true that demand-side benefits start to occur once construction has begun, but these benefits are widely dispersed and not easy to identify directly with the project.
Then there is the problem of externalities. The external costs of projects may include environmental costs and costs to local residents. This can lead to protests, public hearings and the need for detailed cost–benefit analysis. This can delay or even prevent projects from occurring.
The external benefits are to non-users of the project, such as a new bridge or bypass reducing congestion for users of existing routes. These make the private construction of many projects unprofitable, except with public subsidies or with public–private partnerships. So there does need to be a macroeconomic policy that favours publicly-funded infrastructure projects.
One type of investment that is less disruptive and can have shorter-term benefits is maintenance investment. Maintenance expenditure can avoid much more costly rebuilding expenditure later on. But this is often the first type of expenditure to be cut when public-sector budgets as squeezed, whether at the local or national level.
The problem of lack of infrastructure investment is very much a political problem. The politicians who give the go-ahead to such projects, such as high-speed rail, come in for criticisms from those bearing the short-run costs but they are gone from office once the benefits start to occur. They get the criticism but not the praise.
Are big infrastructure projects castles in the air or bridges to nowhere? The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (16/1/17)
Trump’s plans to rebuild America are misguided and harmful. This is how we should do it. The Washington Post, Lawrence H. Summers (17/1/17)
- Identify the types of externality from (a) a new high-speed rail line, (b) new hospitals.
- How is discounting relevant to decisions about public-sector projects?
- Why are governments often unwilling to undertake (a) new infrastructure projects, (b) maintenance projects?
- Is a programme of infrastructure investment necessarily a Keynesian policy?
- What accelerator effects would you expect from infrastructure investment?
- Explain the difference between the ‘spill-out’ and ‘pull-in’ effects of different types of public investments in a specific location. Is it possible for a project to have both effects?
- What answer would you give to the teacher who asked the following question of US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers? “The paint is chipping off the walls of this school, not off the walls at McDonald’s or the movie theatre. So why should the kids believe this society thinks their education is the most important thing?”
- What is the ‘bridge to nowhere’ problem? Why does it occur and what are the solutions to it?
- Why is the ‘castles in the air’ element of private projects during a boom an example of the fallacy of composition?
It doesn’t seem long ago that we were looking at the prospects of Brazil for hosting the Football World Cup. Now, we turn to the same economy, but this time for the Olympics. It is often the case that hosting big global sporting events can give a boost to the host nation, but is Brazil prepared for it? Did the World Cup bring the expected economic boosts? Some argue that the Olympics is just what Brazil needs, but others suggest it will only worsen the economic situation in the world’s seventh largest economy.
Brazil’s economic performance in the past year was not good. In fact, it was one of the worst performing nations of any major economy, with GDP falling by 3%. This is a very different country from the one that was awarded this biggest of sporting events. Despite these difficult times, Brazil’s government maintains that the country is ready and that the games will be ‘spectacular’.
Key to hosting a sporting event such as the Olympics is the infrastructure investment and as a key component of aggregate demand, this should be a stimulant for growth and job creation. However, with the economy still struggling, many are concerned that the infrastructure won’t be in place in time.
Other benefits from this should be the boost to growth driven by athletes and spectators coming from around the globe, buying tickets, memorabilia, accommodation, food and other items that tourists tend to buy. A multiplier effect should be seen and according to research has the potential to create significant benefits for the whole economy and not just the local regions where events take place. You can look at similar analysis in blogs written about Tokyo: 2020 Tokyo Olympics and London: The London Olympics legacy: a cost–benefit analysis and Does hosting the Olympics Games increase economic growth?
But, is this really likely to happen, especially given the somewhat lacklustre boost that the Brazil World Cup gave to the economy? The following articles consider this.
Rio 2016: Can Games bounce back from Brazil economic woes? BBC News, Bill Wilson (11/03/16)
Does hosting the Olympics actually pay off? It’s the economy, Binyamin Applebaum (5/08/14)
Rio Olympics no help to Brazil economy based on World Cup Bloomberg, Raymond Colitt (16/01/15)
The economic impact of Brazil’s 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics Saxo Group, Trading Floor, Sverrir Sverrisson (27/08/12)
Special Interview: Cost–benefit analysis of hosting the World Cup, Olympics Al Arabiya, Ricardo Guerra (3/7/14)
- How might you carry out a cost–benefit analysis to decide whether to host a big sporting event?
- Are there any externalities that might result from hosting the Olympics? How easy is it to estimate their monetary value? Should this be taken into account by a country when making a decision?
- Why might there be a boost to aggregate demand prior to the Olympics?
- Why might there be a multiplier effect when a nation hosts the Olympics or another sporting event?
- Might there be benefits to Brazil’s neighbours from its hosting the Olympics?
There has been a link between Sainsbury’s and Argos, with Sainsbury’s offering Argos concessions in some stores. But now, we’re looking at a much more significant link, with Sainsbury’s offering £1.3 billion for control of Home Retail Group’s Argos.
Many have questioned the sense of this offer, wondering what Sainsbury’s will gain from purchasing Argos, but Sainsbury’s has indicated it will boost sales, give itself access to a more advanced delivery network and Argos customers. Argos has worked hard to update its image, moving towards a more technology based catalogue and promising same day delivery in a bid to compete with companies, such as Amazon.
Online delivery is a costly business, with suggestions that retailers make losses on each delivery and hence pay customers to shop online. This move by Sainsbury’s may therefore be an investment in expanding its online delivery services and using the infrastructure that Argos already has. This will therefore help Sainsbury’s to invest in this sought after customer service, without having to invest millions into providing the infrastructure in the first place. This move may give Sainsbury’s a first mover advantage in the grocery sector, which may force other competitors to follow suit.
We could write for hours on the ins and outs of this potential deal and undoubtedly commentators will argue both for and against it. The following articles consider the good and bad sides and the future of grocery retailers in the UK.
Why does Sainsbury’s want to buy Argos? BBC News, Katie Hope (01/02/16)
Sainsbury’s agrees terms to buy Home Retail Group in £1.3bn deal The Guardian, Sean Farrell and Sarah Butler (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s bets on Argos takeover for digital age Reuters, James Davey and Kate Holton (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s returns with £1.3bn offer for Argos The Telegraph, Jon Yeomans and Ashley Armstrong (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s could shut up to 200 Argos stores Sky News (12/01/16)
Sainsbury’s strikes deal to buy Home Retail Group Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Arash Massoudi and Josh Noble (02/02/16)
- What are the benefits to Sainsbury’s of taking over Argos?
- Why have many critics been surprised by this take-over?
- What is meant by a first mover advantage?
- Do you think that grocery retailers should diversify further or focus on their core business?
- Commentators suggest that delivery costs more to retailers than the price charged to consumers. Can you illustrate this using cost and revenue curves?
- Online delivery infrastructure is a big fixed cost for a firm. How will this change the shape of a firm’s cost curves and what impact will this have on profits following changes in market output?
- Do you think this take over will cause any concerns by competition authorities?
The second largest economy in the world, with a record expansion to its current economic status: China. With a phenomenal population, massive migration to the cities and incredible infrastructure development, China has fast become a key economic player, with environmental and pollution problems to match.
The price of China’s economic development may be too high for some people. Increases in incomes, growth and employment may be good news, but is the cost too high? Do economic growth and progress mean poor health and if so, is this a price worth paying
Another big topic within China is the impact on inequality. With growth accelerating in urban areas, population movement from the rural to the urban has been a common feature across China, but this has also created greater inequality. This population movement has separated families and played a role in creating barriers of access to health and education.
The following article from the BBC considers a range of indicators within China and you may also want to review some earlier blog postings on the Sloman News Site which analyse the Chinese economy.
Cement and pig consumption reveal China’s huge changes BBC News (21/9/15)
- What are the key drivers of China’s development?
- What are the costs and benefits of rural-urban migration?
- To what extent do you think there may be a trade-off between quality and quantity when it comes to infrastructure projects? Or is Chinese labour simply more efficient relative to countries such as the UK?
- How should we measure economic development? If access to education and health care is limited in the more rural areas, but widely available in the larger cities, does this suggest a country that is developing?
- What are the main externalities that China must tackle? Are they domestic issues or global ones? What about the solutions?
- If a key driver of Chinese growth and development is government investment in infrastructure projects, is this true and sustainable growth or do you think it might slowly disappear if the government doesn’t continue to invest?
- Do you think the relative success of China can be replicated in other emerging nations and in particular in nations within Africa?
Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, is proposing a number of radical economic policies. One that has attracted considerable attention is for a new form of QE, which has been dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing’.
This would involve newly created money by the Bank of England being directly used to fund spending on large-scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects. Rather than the new money being used to purchase assets, as has been the case up to now, with the effect filtering only indirectly into aggregate demand and even more indirectly into aggregate supply, under the proposed scheme, both aggregate demand and aggregate supply would be directly boosted.
Although ‘conventional’ QE has worked to some extent, the effects have been uneven. Asset holders and those with large debts, such as mortgages, have made large gains from higher asset prices and lower interest rates. By contrast, savers in bank and building society accounts have seen the income from their savings decline dramatically. What is more, the indirect nature of the effects has meant time lags and uncertainty over the magnitude of the effects.
But despite the obvious attractiveness of the proposals, they have attracted considerable criticism. Some of these are from a political perspective, with commentators from the right arguing against an expansion of the state. Other criticisms focus on the operation and magnitude of the proposals
One is that it would change the relationship between the Bank of England and the government. If the Bank of England created money to fund government projects, that would reduce or even eliminate the independence of the Bank. Independence has generally been seen as desirable to prevent manipulation of the central bank by the government for short-term political gain. Those in favour of people’s QE argue that the money would be directed into a National Investment Bank, which would then make the investment allocation decisions. The central bank would still be independent in deciding the amount of QE.
This leads to the second criticism and that is about whether further QE is necessary at the current time. Critics argue that while QE of whatever type was justified when the economy was in recession and struggling to recover, now would be the wrong time for further stimulus. Indeed, it could be highly inflationary. The economy is currently expanding. If banks respond by increasing credit, the velocity of circulation of narrow money could rise and broad money supply grow, providing enough money to underpin a growing economy.
Many advocates of people’s QE accept this second point and see it as a contingency plan in case the economy fails to recover and further monetary stimulus is deemed necessary. If further QE is not felt necessary by the Bank of England, then the National Investment Bank could fund investment through conventional borrowing.
The following articles examine people’s QE and look at its merits and dangers. Given the proposal’s political context, several of the articles approach the issue from a very specific political perspective. Try to separate the economic analysis in the articles from their political bias.
Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal
The Economy in 2020 Jeremy Corbyn (22/7/15)
People’s quantitative easing — no magic Financial Times, Chris Giles (13/8/15)
How Green Infrastructure Quantitative Easing would work Tax Research UK, Richard Murphy (12/3/15)
What is QE for the people? Money Week, Simon Wilson (22/8/15)
QE or not QE? A slippery slope to breaking the Bank EconomicsUK.com, David Smith (23/8/15)
We don’t need “People’s QE”, basic economic literacy is enough Red Box, Jonathan Portes (13/8/15)
Is Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of ‘quantitative easing for people’ feasible? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (14/8/15)
Corbynomics: Quantitative Easing for People (PQE) Huffington Post, Adnan Al-Daini (7/9/15)
Corbyn’s “People’s QE” could actually be a decent idea FT Alphaville, Matthew C. Klein (6/8/15)
Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘People’s QE’ would force Britain into three-year battle with the EU The Telegraph, Peter Spence (15/8/15)
Would Corbyn’s ‘QE for people’ float or sink Britain? BBC News, Robert Peston (12/8/15)
Strategic Quantitative Easing – public money for public benefit New Economics Foundation blog, Josh Ryan-Collins (12/8/15)
People’s QE and Corbyn’s QE Mainly Macro blog, Simon Wren-Lewis
You can print money, so long as it’s not for the people The Guardian, Zoe Williams (4/10/15)
- What is meant by ‘helicopter money’? How does it differ from quantitative easing as practised up to now?
- Is people’s QE the same as helicopter money?
- Can people’s QE take place alongside an independent Bank of England?
- What is meant by the velocity of circulation of money? What happened to the velocity of circulation following the financial crisis?
- How does conventional QE feed through into aggregate demand?
- Under what circumstances would people’s QE be inflationary?