Each year the BBC hosts the Reith Lectures – a series of talks given by an eminent person in their field. This year’s lecturer is Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England. His series of four weekly lectures began on 2 December 2020. Their topic is ‘How we get what we value’. As the BBC site states, the lectures:
chart how we have come to esteem financial value over human value and how we have gone from market economies to market societies. He argues that this has contributed to a trio of crises: of credit, Covid and climate. And the former Bank of England governor will outline how we can turn this around.
In lectures 2, 3 and 4, he looks at three crises and how they have shaped and are shaping what we value. The crises are the financial crisis of 2007–9, the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. They have challenged how we value money, health and the environment respectively and, more broadly, have prompted people to question what is valuable for individuals and society, both today and into the future.
The questions posed by Carney are how can we establish what is valuable to individuals and society, how well are such values met by economies and how can mechanisms be improved to ensure that we make the best use of resources in meeting those values.
Value and the market
In the first lecture he probes the concept of value. He explores how economists and philosophers have tried to value the goods, services and human interactions that we desire.
First there is ‘objective value’ propounded by classical economists, such as Adam smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx. Here the value of goods and services depends on the amount of resources used to make them and fundamentally on the amount of labour. In other words, value is a supply-side concept.
This he contrasts with ‘subjective value’. Here the value of goods and services depends on how well they satisfy wants – how much utility they give the consumer. For these neoclassical economists, value is in the eye of the beholder; it is a demand-side concept.
The two are reconciled in the market, with market prices reflecting the balance of demand and supply. Market prices provided a solution to the famous diamonds/water paradox (see Box 4.2 in Economics (10th edition) or Case Study 4.3 in Essentials of Economics (8th edition) – the paradox of ‘why water, which is essential for life, is virtually free, but diamonds, which have limited utility beyond their beauty, are so expensive.’ The answer is to do with scarcity and marginal utility. Because diamonds are rare, the marginal utility is high, even though the total utility is low. And because water is abundant, even though its total utility is high, for most people its marginal utility is low. In other words, the value at the margin depends on the balance of demand and supply. Diamonds are much scarcer than water.
But is the market balance the right balance? Are the values implied by the market the same as those of society? ‘Why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland?’ – another paradox highlighted by Carney.
It has long been recognised that markets fail in a number of ways. They are not perfect, with large firms able to make supernormal profits by charging more and producing less, and consumers often being ill-informed and behaving impulsively or being swayed by clever marketing. And many valuable things that we experience, such as human interaction and the beauty of nature, are not bought and sold and thus do not appear in measures of GDP – one of the main ways of valuing a country.
What is more, many of things that are produced in the market have side-effects which are not reflected in prices. These externalities, whether good or bad, can be substantial: for example, the global warming caused by CO2 emissions from industry, transport and electricity production from fossil fuels.
And markets reflect people’s biases towards the present and hence lead to too little investment for the future, whether in healthcare, the environment or physical and social infrastructure. Markets reflect the scant regard many give to the damage we might be doing to the lives of future generations.
What is particularly corrosive, according to Carney, is the
drift from moral to market sentiments. …Increasingly, the value of something, some act or someone is equated with its monetary value, a monetary value that is determined by the market. The logic of buying and selling no longer applies only to material goods, but increasingly it governs the whole of life from the allocation of healthcare, education, public safety and environmental protection. …Market value is taken to represent intrinsic value, and if a good or activity is not in the market, it is not valued.
The drift from moral to market sentiments accelerated in the Thatcher/Regan era, when governments were portrayed as inefficient allocators, which stifled competition, innovation and the movement of capital. Deregulation and privatisation were the order of the day. This, according to Carney, ‘unleashed a new dynamism’ and ‘with the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, the spread of the market grew unchecked.’
But this drift failed to recognise market failures. It has taken three crises, the financial crisis, Covid and the climate crisis to bring these failures to the top of the public agenda. They are examined in the other three lectures.
The Reith Lectures
- Distinguish between objective and subjective value.
- If your income rises, will you necessarily be happier? Explain.
- How is the concept of diminishing marginal utility of income relevant to explaining why ‘A Christmas bonus of £1000 means less to Mark Zuckerberg then £500 does to someone on a minimum wage.’
- Does the use of social cost–benefit analysis enable us to use adjusted prices as a measure of value?
- Listen to lectures 2, 3 and 4 and provide a 500-word summary of each.
- Assess the arguments Mark Carney uses in one of these three lectures.
We are coming into the big spending season, with Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the run-up to Christmas and then the winter sales. So will we all be rational maximisers and weigh up the utility we expect to receive from items against the price we pay (plus any other cost, such as time spent searching/shopping)? Or will we use a set of heuristics which make life easier and that we have found to be useful in helping us choose – heuristics such as buying things we’ve liked before, or going for things on special offer?
The answer is that we do probably use a set of heuristics, at least for many items. And don’t the retailers and the marketing firms they employ know this!
They will use all sorts of tricks of the trade to persuade us to part with our money. These tricks are designed to nudge us (or push us), without us feeling manipulated or conned – at least until we’ve bought their product.
And the tricks are getting more sophisticated. They include special offers which are not as good as they seem, time-limited offers which stimulate us to buy quickly without carefully thinking about what we’re doing, cunning positioning of products in shops to encourage us to buy things we had not planned to buy, adverts which play to our idealised perceptions or the ‘good life’ or what we would like to achieve, and packaging or display which make the product seem better than it is.
Also we are increasingly faced with targeted advertising where our smart devices capture information about our spending habits and tastes through our previous online spending or our search behaviour. This is then fed to advertisers to tailor adverts specifically to us on our mobiles, tablets, laptops and even, soon, on our smart TVs.
We may have a general desire to maximise utility from our spending, but market failures, such as consumers having imperfect information about products and a present bias (see also) in decision making, make us easy targets for the advertising and marketing industry. They understand the heuristics we use and try to take maximum advantage of them.
How shops use tricks to get you spending The Conversation, Cathrine Jansson-Boyd (16/11/17)
ColourPop looks to Qubit for next-gen personalization guidance Retail Dive, Dan O’Shea (13/6/17)
Channel 4 to offer 100% ad targeting across All 4 platform, seeking partners for linear equivalent The Drum, Jessica Goodfellow (14/11/17)
How Google aims to bring TV advertising into the 21st century The Drum, Ronan Shields (19/10/17)
How to Use Heuristics to Your Marketing Advantage MarketingProfs, Cam Secore (12/11/15)
- Does the use of heuristics contradict the assumption that consumers behave rationally?
- Give some examples of heuristics that you yourself use.
- Other than those identified above and in the first article, what ‘tricks’ might companies play on you to persuade you to buy their products?
- Is advertising personally targeted to individual consumers desirable for them?
- Give some examples of present bias in people’s behaviour.
- What factors should a retailer take into account when deciding whether to make pre-Christmas discounts?
- Explain what is meant by ‘affect heuristic’ and how the advertising industry uses the concept in setting the background to or scenario of an advertisement.
- Have you ever been persuaded into buying something you didn’t want? Why were you persuaded?
Back in October, we looked at the growing pressure in the UK for a sugar tax. The issue of childhood obesity was considered by the Parliamentary Health Select Committee and a sugar tax, either on sugar generally, or specifically on soft drinks, was one of the proposals being considered to tackle the problem. The committee studied a report by Public Health England, which stated that:
Research studies and impact data from countries that have already taken action suggest that price increases, such as by taxation, can influence purchasing of sugar sweetened drinks and other high sugar products at least in the short-term with the effect being larger at higher levels of taxation.
In his Budget on 16 March, the Chancellor announced that a tax would be imposed on manufacturers of soft drinks from April 2018. This will be at a rate of 18p per litre on drinks containing between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml, such as Dr Pepper, Fanta and Sprite, and 24p per litre for drinks with more than 8g per 100ml, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Red Bull.
Whilst the tax has been welcomed by health campaigners, there are various questions about (a) how effective it is likely to be in reducing childhood obesity; (b) whether it will be enough or whether other measures will be needed; and (c) whether it is likely to raise the £520m in 2018/19, falling to £455m by 2020/21, as predicted by the Treasury: money the government will use for promoting school sport and breakfast clubs.
These questions are all linked. If demand for such drinks is relatively inelastic, the drinks manufacturers will find it easier to pass the tax on to consumers and the government will raise more revenue. However, it will be less effective in cutting sugar consumption and hence in tackling obesity. In other words, there is a trade off between raising revenue and cutting consumption.
This incidence of tax is not easy to predict. Part of the reason is that much of the market is a bilateral oligopoly, with giant drinks manufacturers selling to giant supermarket chains. In such circumstances, the degree to which the tax can be passed on depends on the bargaining strength and skill of both sides. Will the supermarkets be able to put pressure on the manufacturers to absorb the tax themselves and not pass it on in the wholesale price? Or will the demand be such, especially for major brands such as Coca-Cola, that the supermarkets will be willing to accept a higher price from the manufacturers and then pass it on to the consumer?
Then there is the question of the response of the manufacturers. How easy will it be for them to reformulate their drinks to reduce sugar content and yet still retain sales? For example, can they produce a product which tastes like a high sugar drink, but really contains a mix between sugar and artificial sweeteners – effectively a hybrid between a ‘normal’ and a low-cal version? How likely are they to reduce the size of cans, say from 330ml to 300ml, to avoid raising prices?
The success of the tax on soft drinks in cutting sugar consumption depends on whether it is backed up by other policies. The most obvious of these would be to impose a tax on sugar in other products, including cakes, biscuits, low-fat yoghurts, breakfast cereals and desserts, and also many savoury products, such as tinned soups, ready meals and sauces. But there are other policies too. The Public Health England report recommended a national programme to educate people on sugar in foods; reducing price promotions of sugary food and drink; removing confectionery or other sugary foods from end of aisles and till points in supermarkets; setting broader and deeper controls on advertising of high-sugar foods and drinks to children; and reducing the sugar content of the foods we buy through reformulation and portion size reduction.
- Sugar tax: How it will work?
BBC News, Nick Triggle (16/3/16)
- Will a sugar tax actually work?
The Guardian, Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett (16/3/16)
- Coca-Cola and other soft drinks firms hit back at sugar tax plan
The Guardian, Sarah Butler (17/3/16)
- Sugar tax could increase calories people consume, economic experts warn
The Telegraph, Kate McCann, and Steven Swinford (17/3/16)
- Nudge, nudge! How the sugar tax will help British diets
Financial Times, Anita Charlesworth (18/3/16)
- Is the sugar tax an example of the nanny state going too far?
Financial Times (19/3/16)
- Government’s £520m sugar tax target ‘highly dubious’, analysts warn
The Telegraph, Ben Martin (17/3/16)
- Sorry Jamie Oliver, I’d be surprised if sugar tax helped cut obesity
The Conversation, Isabelle Szmigin (17/3/16)
- Sugar sweetened beverage taxes
What Works for Health (17/12/15)
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for sugary drinks in general (as opposed to one particular brand)?
- How are drinks manufacturers likely to respond to the sugar tax?
- How are price elasticity of demand and supply relevant in determining the incidence of the sugar tax between manufacturers and consumers? How is the degree of competition in the market relevant here?
- What is meant by a socially optimal allocation of resources?
- If the current consumption of sugary drinks is not socially optimal, what categories of market failure are responsible for this?
- Will a sugar tax fully tackle these market failures? Explain.
- Is a sugar tax progressive, regressive or proportional? Explain.
- Assess the argument that the tax on sugar in soft drinks may actually increase the amount that people consume.
- The sugar tax can be described as a ‘hypothecated tax’. What does this mean and is it a good idea?
- Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a tax on sugar in soft drinks with (a) banning soft drinks with more than a certain amount of sugar per 100ml; (b) a tax on sugar; (c) a tax on sugar in all foods and drinks.
In June 2014, the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority (which governs the energy regulator, Ofgem) referred Great Britain’s retail and wholesale gas and electricity markets to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The market is dominated by the ‘big six‘ energy companies (British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE) and Ofgem suspected that this oligopoly was distorting competition and leading to higher prices.
The CMA presented its report on 10 March 2016. It confirmed its preliminary findings of July and December 2015 “that there are features of the markets for the supply of energy in Great Britain that result in an adverse effect on competition”. It concludes that “the average customer could save over £300 by switching to a cheaper deal” and that “customers could have been paying about £1.7 billion a year more than they would in a competitive market”.
It made various recommendations to address the problem. These include “requiring the largest suppliers to provide fuller information on their financial performance” and strengthening the role of Ofgem.
Also the CMA wants to encourage more people to switch to cheaper suppliers. At present, some 70% of the customers of the big six are on default standard variable tariffs, which are more expensive than other tariffs available. To address this problem, the CMA proposes the setting up of “an Ofgem-controlled database which will allow rival suppliers to contact domestic and microbusiness customers who have been stuck on their supplier’s default tariff for 3 years or more with better deals.”
Another area of concern for the CMA is the 4 million people (16% of customers) forced to have pre-payment meters. These tend to be customers with poor credit records, who also tend to be on low incomes. Such customers are paying more for their gas and electricity and yet have little opportunity to switch to cheaper alternatives. For these customers the CMA proposed imposing transitional price controls from no later than April 2017 until 2020. These would cut typical bills by some £80 to £90 per year. In the meantime, the CMA would seek to remove “restrictions on the ability of new suppliers to compete for prepayment customers and reduce barriers such as debt issues that make it difficult for such customers to switch”.
Despite trying to address the problem of lack of competition, consumer inertia and barriers to entry, the CMA has been criticised for not going further. It has also been criticised for the method it has chosen to help consumers switch to cheaper alternative suppliers and tariffs. The articles below look at these criticisms.
Competition and Markets Authority Energy Report BBC You and Yours (10/3/16)
Millions could see cut in energy bills BBC News (10/3/16)
Shake-up of energy market could save customers millions, watchdog says The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (10/3/16)
UK watchdog divided over energy market reforms Financial Times, Kiran Stacey (10/3/16)
How the CMA energy inquiry affects you Which? (10/3/16)
UK watchdog accused of bowing to pressure from ‘big six’ energy suppliers The Guardian, Terry Macalister (10/3/16)
CMA sets out energy market changes CMA press release (10/3/16)
Energy Market Investigation: Summary of provisional remedies Competition and Markets Authority (10/3/16)
- Find out the market share of the ‘big six’ and whether this has changed over the past few years.
- What, if any, are the barriers to entry in the gas and electricity retail markets?
- Why are the big six able to charge customers some £300 per household more than would be the case if they were on the cheapest deal?
- What criticisms have been made of the CMA’s proposals?
- Discuss alternative proposals to those of the CMA for dealing with the problem of excessive prices of gas and electricity.
- Should Ofgem or another independent not-for-profit body be allowed to run its own price comparison and switching service? Would this be better than the CMA’s proposal for allowing competitors access to people’s energy usage after 3 years of being with the same company on its standard tariff and allowing them to contact these people?
In his Budget on March 19, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced fundamental changes to the way people access their pensions. Previously, many people with pension savings were forced to buy an annuity. These pay a set amount of income per month from retirement for the remainder of a person’s life.
But, with annuity rates (along with other interest rates) being at historically low levels, many pensioners have struggled to make ends meet. Even those whose pension pots did not require them to buy an annuity were limited in the amount they could withdraw each year unless they had other guaranteed income of over £20,000.
Now pensioners will no longer be required to buy an annuity and they will have much greater flexibility in accessing their pensions. As the Treasury website states:
This means that people can choose how they access their defined contribution pension savings; for example they could take all their pension savings as a lump sum, draw them down over time, or buy an annuity.
While many have greeted the news as a liberation of the pensions market, there is also the worry that this has created a moral hazard. When people retire, will they be tempted to blow their savings on foreign travel, a new car or other luxuries? And then, when their pension pot has dwindled and their health is failing, will they then be forced to rely on the state to fund their care?
But even if pensioners resist the urge to go on an immediate spending spree, there are still large risks in giving people the freedom to spend their pension savings as they choose. As the Scotsman article below states:
The risks are all too obvious. Behaviour will change. People who no longer have to buy an annuity will not do so but will then be left with a pile of cash. What to do with it? Spend it? Invest it? There are many new risky choices. But the biggest of all can be summed up in one fact: when we retire our life expectancy continues to grow. For every day we live after 65 it increases by six and a half hours. That’s right – an extra two-and-a-half years every decade.
The glory of an annuity is it pays you an income for every year you live – no matter how long. The problem with cash is that it runs out. Already the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that the reform ‘depends on highly uncertain behavioural assumptions about when people take the money’. And that ‘there is a market failure here. There will be losers from this policy’.
We do not have perfect knowledge about how long we will live or even how long we can be expected to live given our circumstances. Many people are likely to suffer from a form of myopia that makes them blind to the future: “We’re likely to be dead before the money has run out”; or “Let’s enjoy ourselves now while we still can”; or “We’ll worry about the future when it comes”.
The point is that there are various market failings in the market for pensions and savings. Will the decisions of the Chancellor have made them better or worse?
Pension shakeup in budget leaves £14bn annuities industry reeling The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (20/3/14)
Chancellor vows to scrap compulsory annuities in pensions overhaul The Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Harriet Meyer (19/3/14)
Labour backs principle of George Osborne’s pension shakeup The Guardian, Rowena Mason (23/3/14)
Osborne’s pensions overhaul may mean there is little left for future rainy days The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/3/14)
Let’s celebrate the Chancellor’s bravery on pensions – now perhaps the Government can tackle other mighty vested interests Independent on Sunday, Mary Dejevsky (23/3/14)
A vote-buying Budget The Scotsman, John McTernan (21/3/14)
L&G warns on mis-selling risks of pension changes The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (26/3/14)
Budget 2014: Pension firms stabilise after £5 billion sell off Interactive Investor, Ceri Jones (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: pensions and saving policies Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: documents HM Treasury (March 2014)
Freedom and choice in pensions HM Treasury (March 2014)
- What market failures are there in the market for pensions?
- To what extent will the new measures help to tackle the existing market failures in the pension industry?
- Explain the concept of moral hazard. To what extent will the new pension arrangements create a moral hazard?
- Who will be the losers from the new arrangements?
- Assume that you have a choice of how much to pay into a pension scheme. What is likely to determine how much you will choose to pay?