The UK and Australia are set to sign a free-trade deal at the G7 summit in Cornwall on 11–13 June. This will eventually give tariff-free access to each other’s markets, with existing tariffs being phased out over a 15-year period. It is the first trade deal not based on an existing EU template. The government hopes that it will be followed by trade deals with other countries, including New Zealand, Canada and, crucially, the USA.
But what are the benefits and costs of such a deal?
Trade and comparative advantage
The classic economic argument is that free trade allows countries to benefit from the law of comparative advantage. According to the law, provided opportunity costs of various goods differ in two countries, both of them can gain from mutual trade if they specialise in producing (and exporting) those goods that have relatively low opportunity costs compared with the other country. In the case of the UK and Australia, the UK has a comparative advantage in products such as financial services and high-tech and specialist manufactured products. Australia has a comparative advantage in agricultural products, such as lamb, beef and wheat and in various ores and minerals. By increasing trade in these products, there can be a net efficiency gain to both sides and hence a higher GDP than before.
There is clearly a benefit to consumers in both countries from cheaper products, but the gains are likely to be very small. The most optimistic estimate is that the gain in UK GDP will be around 0.01% to 0.02%. Part of the reason is the physical distance between the two countries. For products such as meat, grain and raw materials, shipping costs could be relatively high. This might result in no cost advantage over imports from much nearer countries, such as EU member states.
But modern trade deals are less about tariffs, which, with various WTO trade rounds, are much lower than in the past. Many imports from Australia are already tariff free, with meat currently having a tariff of 12%. Modern trade deals are more about reducing or eliminating non-tariff barriers, such as differing standards and regulations. This is the area where there is a high degree of concern in the UK. Import-competing sectors, such as farming, fear that their products will be undercut by Australian imports produced to lower standards.
Costs of a trade deal
In a perfectly competitive world, with no externalities, labour mobile between sectors and no concerns about income distribution, eliminating tariffs would indeed provide an efficiency gain. But these conditions do not hold. Small farmers are often unable to compete with food producers with considerable market power. The danger is that by driving out such small farmers, food production and supply might not result in lower long-run prices. Much would depend on the countervailing power of supermarkets to continue bearing down on food costs.
But the question of price is probably the least worrying issue. Meat and grain is generally produced at lower standards in Australia than in the UK, with various pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics being used that are not permitted in the UK (and the EU). Unless the trade deal can involve UK standards being enforced on products produced in Australia for export to the UK, UK farmers could be undercut by such imports. The question then would be whether labelling of imported food products could alert consumers to the different standards. And even if they did, would consumers simply prefer to buy the cheaper products? If so, this could be seen as a market failure with consumers not taking into account all the relevant health and welfare costs. Better quality food could be seen as a merit good.
Then there are the broader social issues of the protection of rural industries and societies. Labour is relatively immobile from farming and there could be a rise in rural unemployment, which could have local multiplier effects, leading to the decline of rural economies. Rural ways of life could be seriously affected, which imposes costs on local inhabitants and visitors.
Trade itself imposes environmental costs. Even if it were privately efficient to transport products half way around the world, the costs of carbon emissions and other pollution may outweigh any private gains. At a time when the world is becoming increasingly concerned about climate change, and with the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow in November, it is difficult to align such a trade deal with a greater commitment to cutting carbon emissions.
- UK makes free-trade offer to Australia despite farmers’ fears
BBC News (22/5/21)
- UK-Australia trade deal: What are the arguments for and against?
BBC News, Chris Morris (21/5/21)
- Australia–UK trade deal can help spur post-pandemic recovery
The Conversation, David Collins (20/5/21)
- Australia will set the precedent for UK trade deals
Prospect, David Henig (21/5/21)
- Britain beefs with Australian farmers as Boris Johnson backs trade deal
Sydney Morning Herald, Mike Foley and Bevan Shields (20/5/21)
- Boris Johnson defends Australia trade deal that will allow cheap foreign meat imports …
Mail Online, David Wilcock (19/5/21)
- City executives raise concerns over hidden costs to trade deals
Financial Times, Daniel Thomas (22/5/21)
- Australia trade deal: Ministers discuss British farmers’ concerns
BBC News (21/5/21)
- Boris Johnson Faces His First Real Brexit Trade Test
Bloomberg, Therese Raphael (21/5/21)
- UK-Australia trade deal could mean children and patients eating meat reared in ways illegal in UK, warn experts
Independent, Jane Dalton (11/5/21)
- Australian farmers rush to reassure UK over looming free trade agreement
The Guardian, Amy Remeikis (19/5/21)
- Brexit: Boris Johnson warned trade deal with Australia could ‘decimate’ British farming
Independent, Adam Forrest (20/5/21)
- Truss’s naivety on trade with Australia could leave the UK exposed
The Observer, Phillip Inman (22/5/21)
- ‘Irresponsible’ Australia trade deal will bring ruin for UK farmers, critics warn
The Observer, James Tapper and Toby Helm (23/5/21)
- Brexit: Boris Johnson rejects claim UK-Australia trade deal would see farmers ‘lose their livelihoods’
Sky News, Tom Rayner (19/5/21)
- Small farms have a huge role to play in our sustainable future
The Guardian, Charles, Prince of Wales (23/5/21)
- Farmers’ opposition to UK-Australia trade deal grows
BBC News, Claire Marshall (2/6/21)
- UK livestock farmers fear Australia trade deal will threaten way of life
Financial Times, Judith Evans and Sebastian Payne (8/6/21)
- The UK–Australia trade deal is not really about economic gain – it’s about demonstrating post-Brexit sovereignty
The Conversation, Tony Heron and Gabriel Siles-Brügge (18/6/21)
- Why might the UK government be very keen to sign a trade deal with Australia?
- Does the law of comparative advantage prove that freer trade is more efficient than less free trade? Explain.
- What externalities are involved in the UK trading with Australia? Are they similar to those from trading with the USA?
- If a trade deal resulted in lower food prices but a decline in rural communities, how would you establish whether this would be a ‘price worth paying’?
- If some people gain from a trade deal and others lose and if it were established that the benefits to the gainers were larger than the costs to the losers, would this prove that the deal should go ahead?
The USA has seen many horizontal mergers in recent years. This has turned industries that were once relatively competitive into oligopolies, resulting in lower output and higher prices for consumers.
In Europe, by contrast, many markets are becoming more competitive. The result is that in industries such as mobile phone services, airlines and broadband provision, prices are considerably lower in most European countries than in the USA. As the French economist, Thomas Philippon, states in a Guardian article:
When I landed in Boston in 1999, the United States was the land of free markets. Many goods and services were cheaper than in Europe. Twenty years later, American free markets are becoming a myth.
According to Asher Schechter (see linked article below):
Nearly every American industry has experienced an increase in concentration in the last two decades, to the point where … sectors dominated by two or three firms are not the exception, but the rule.
The result has been an increase in deadweight loss, which, according to research by Bruno Pelligrino, now amounts to some 13.3 per cent of total potential surplus.
Philippon in his research estimates that monopolies and oligopolies “cost the median American household about $300 a month” and deprive “American workers of about $1.25tn of labour income every year”.
One industry considered by the final two linked articles below is housebuilding. Since the US housing and financial crash of 2007–8 many US housebuilders have gone out of business. This has meant that the surviving companies have greater market power. According to Andrew van Dam in the linked Washington Post article below:
They have since built on that advantage, consolidating until many markets are controlled by just a few builders. Their power has exacerbated the country’s affordable-housing crisis, some economists say.
According to research by Luis Quintero and Jacob Cosman:
… this dwindling competition has cost the country approximately 150 000 additional homes a year – all else being equal. With fewer competitors, builders are under less pressure to beat out rival projects, and can time their efforts so that they produce fewer homes while charging higher prices.
Thanks to lobbying of regulators and politicians by businesses and various unfair, but just about legal, practices to exclude rivals, competition policy in the USA has been weak.
In the EU, by contrast, the competition authorities have been more active and tougher. For example, in the airline industry, EU regulators have “encouraged the entry of low-cost competitors by making sure they could get access to takeoff and landing slots.” Politicians from individual EU countries have generally favoured tough EU-wide competition policy to prevent companies from other member states getting an unfair advantage over their own country’s companies.
- What are the possible advantages and disadvantages of oligopoly compared with markets with many competitors?
- How can concentration in an industry be measured?
- Why have US markets become more concentrated?
- Why have markets in the EU generally become more competitive?
- Find out what has happened to levels of concentration in the UK housebuilding market.
- What are the possible effects of Brexit on concentration and competition policy in the UK?
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has imposed a record fine of £84m on the American pharmaceutical manufacturing company Pfizer and of £5.2m on its UK distributor, Flynn Pharma. The CMA found that the companies charged unfair prices to the NHS for phenytoin sodium capsules, the anti-epilepsy drug.
The price was previously regulated, but Pfizer deliberately de-branded the drug in September 2012 and immediately raised the price to Flynn Pharma by between 780% and 1600%, which, in turn, raised the price to the NHS by nearly 2600%. This made the drug many times more expensive than in any other European country.
The cost to the NHS rose from around £2m per year to around £50m in 2013. Although other generic drugs are available, there would be serious health risks to patients forced to switch drugs. The NHS thus had no alternative to paying the higher price.
Pfizer claimed that the drug was loss-making before it was de-branded. However, the CMA calculated that this did not justify the size of the price increase; that the higher price enabled Pfizer to recover all these claimed losses within just two months.
The usual practice is for pharmaceutical companies to charge high prices for new drugs for a period of time to enable them to recover high research and development costs. Later, the drugs become available as generic drugs that other manufacturers can produce. The price then normally falls dramatically.
Phenytoin sodium was invented many years ago and there has been no recent innovation and no significant investment. But, unlike with many other drugs, there has been no switching by the NHS because of possible dangers to patients. This has given Pfizer and its distributor considerable market power. As the CMA states in its press release:
Epilepsy patients who are already taking phenytoin sodium capsules should not usually be switched to other products, including another manufacturer’s version of the product, due to the risk of loss of seizure control which can have serious health consequences. As a result, the NHS had no alternative to paying the increased prices for the drug.
In conclusion, the CMA found that “both companies have held a dominant position in their respective markets for the manufacture and supply of phenytoin sodium capsules and each has abused that dominant position by charging excessive and unfair prices”.
Pfizer fined record £84.2m for overcharging NHS 2600% Independent, Zlata Rodionova (7/12/16)
Pfizer fined record £84.2m over NHS overcharging The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/12/16)
CMA fines drug firms £90m for over-charging NHS nhe (7/12/16)
Pfizer hit with record fine after hiking price of NHS epilepsy drug by 2,600pc – costing taxpayer millions The Telegraph (7/12/16)
Pfizer, Flynn Get Record Fine on 2,600% Drug Price Increase Bloomberg, Patrick Gower (7/12/16)
Phenytoin sodium capsules: suspected unfair pricing Competition and Markets Authority: Case reference: CE/9742-13, Competition and Markets Authority cases (updated 7/12/16)
CMA fines Pfizer and Flynn £90 million for drug price hike to NHS CMA Press Release (7/12/16)
- What are the arguments for drug companies being allowed to charge high prices for new drugs?
- How long should these high prices persist?
- Sketch a diagram to illustrate Pfizer’s price for its anti-epilepsy drug before and after it was de-branded. Illustrate the effect on Pfizer’s profits from the drug.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for (a) a drug which is branded and unique; (b) a drug produced by a specific producer but which is generic and can be produced by a number of producers; (c) a generic drug produced by many producers?
- How should a regulator like the CMA decide what price a firm with market power should be allowed to charge?
- Under what legislation did the CMA fine Pfizer and Flynn Pharma? What is the upper limit to the fine it is able to impose? Did it impose the maximum fine on Pfizer?
Profits are maximised where marginal cost equals marginal revenue. And in a perfectly competitive market, where price equals marginal revenue, profits are maximised where marginal cost equals price. But what if marginal cost equals zero? Should the competitive profit-maximising firm give the product away? Or is there simply no opportunity for making a profit when there is a high degree of competition?
This is the dilemma considered in the articles linked below. According to Jeremy Rifkin, what we are seeing is the development of technologies that have indeed pushed marginal cost to zero, or close to it, in a large number of sectors of the economy. For example, information can be distributed over the Internet at little or no cost, other than the time of the distributor who is often willing to do this freely in a spirit of sharing. What many people are becoming, says Rifkin, are ‘prosumers’: producing, sharing and consuming.
Over the past decade millions of consumers have become prosumers, producing and sharing music, videos, news, and knowledge at near-zero marginal cost and nearly for free, shrinking revenues in the music, newspaper and book-publishing industries.
What was once confined to a limited number of industries – music, photography, news, publishing and entertainment – is now spreading.
A new economic paradigm – the collaborative commons – has leaped onto the world stage as a powerful challenger to the capitalist market.
A growing legion of prosumers is producing and sharing information, not only knowledge, news and entertainment, but also renewable energy, 3D printed products and online college courses at near-zero marginal cost on the collaborative commons. They are even sharing cars, homes, clothes and tools, entirely bypassing the conventional capitalist market.
So is a collaborative commons a new paradigm that can replace capitalism in a large number of sectors? Are we gradually becoming sharers? And elsewhere, are we becoming swappers?
Capitalism is making way for the age of free The Guardian, Jeremy Rifkin (31/3/14)
The End of the Capitalist Era, and What Comes Next Huffington Post, Jeremy Rifkin (1/4/14)
Has the Post-Capitalist Economy Finally Arrived? Working Knowledge, James Heskett (2/4/14)
- In what aspects of your life are you a prosumer? Is this type of behaviour typical of what has always gone on in families and society?
- If marginal cost is zero, why may average cost be well above zero? Illustrate with a diagram.
- Could a monopolist make a profit if marginal cost was zero? Again, illustrate with a diagram.
- Is it desirable for there to be temporary monopoly profits for inventors of new products and services?
- What is meant by a ‘collaborative commons’? Do you participate in such a commons and, if so, how and why?
- Should tweets and Facebook posts be regarded as output?
- What is meant by an internet-of-things infrastructure?
- What are the incentives for authors to contribute to Wikipedia?
- Could marginal cost ever be zero for new physical products?
- Think about the things you buy in the supermarket. Could any of these be produced at zero marginal cost?
- How can capitalists make profits as ‘aggregators of network services and solutions’?
- Provide a critique of Rifkin’s arguments.
A remarkable event took place in Venezuela on Friday 8th November. Soldiers, on the orders of the president, temporarily occupied a chain of shops run by a leading electrical retailer called Dakar. The shops were forced to cut the prices of their electrical appliances and five managers were arrested and accused of ‘hiking up’ prices.
Unsurprisingly, news of these lower prices spread very quickly and long queues rapidly appeared outside the stores as people hoped to buy plasma televisions, fridges and washing machines at bargain prices. On Sunday 9th November, the president, Nicolas Maduro, gave a televised address in which he condemned the owners of the stores and announced that he was going to ask the National Assembly to grant him extra powers so that he could extend price controls to all consumer goods. He stated that he would next turn his attention to stores selling toys, cars, textiles and shoes.
The use of price controls in Venezuela is not new and dates back to 2003 when they were first introduced by the then president Hugo Chavez. Initially the regulations were imposed on various foods and basic goods. For example, by 2009 maximum prices had been set for cooking oil, white rice, sugar, coffee, flour, margarine, pasta and cheese. Businesses often complained that the maximum prices set by the government were below the costs of production. For example after a maximum price of 2.15 Bolivares was placed on a kilo of rice, producers argued that the cost of producing a kilo of rice was 4.41 Bolivares.
The impact of the maximum prices in Venezuela appears to have been exactly what the theories in the economics textbooks would have predicted – shortages, long queues of people waiting outside shops and a flourishing black market. An article on the shortage of toilet rolls has been discussed in a previous article on this news site: Shortages in Venezuela- what’s the solution? However this has not stopped the Venezuelan government extending the scheme and increasing the number of products that have maximum prices imposed on them. In 2011 Hugo Chavez argued that the policy was required because:
The market has…become a perverse mechanism where big monopolies, the big trans-nationals and the bourgeoise dominate and ransack the people.
Economics textbooks often include some analysis of the impact of price ceilings on a competitive market. The effects on consumer surplus, producer surplus and deadweight welfare are usually discussed. However the potential administrative costs are rarely considered. The Venezuelan case helps to illustrate how in practise these costs could be quite significant.
For example, in April 2012 price controls in Venezuela were extended to a range of 19 products including fruit juice, toilet paper, nappies, soap, detergent, deodorant, toothpaste, baby food, floor polish, mineral water and razor blades. This caused a reduction in prices of between 4% and 25%. However this did not simply mean setting 19 different maximum prices because the goods were all sold in different quantities or different package sizes. For example a tube of toothpaste could be purchased in 4 different sizes – 50ml, 75ml, 100ml and 150 ml. Therefore officials had to set 4 different figures. Nappies were sold in 12 different package sizes ranging from10 nappies/packet to78 nappies/packet. Once again this meant that the administrators had to set 10 different maximum prices just for nappies. In total across the 19 products government officials had to set prices for 616 different individual items!! Companies were given just one month to adjust to the new legislation.
Whenever maximum prices are imposed on a competitive market both frustrated buyers and sellers have an incentive to evade them and trade illegally. Therefore the government established a number of organisations in an attempt to make sure the prices were enforced. One agency is called The National Superintendency of Fair Costs and Prices or Sundecop. Officials from this agency were sent out to 82 retail outlets in April 2012 to try to make sure that firms were sticking to the new regulated prices. They also printed and handed out leaflets to the public informing them of the changes. Another agency is called ‘The Institute for the Defense of People’s Access to Goods and Services’ or ‘Indepabis’. This organisation launched a new strategy in June 2012 in order to monitor compliance. This included the creation of a network called the Friends of Indepabis which would act as an information point for members of the public to report illegal pricing. A new complaints phone line was also introduced.
If president Maduro is granted the power to extend maximum prices to all consumer products, then one can only begin to imagine the extra administrative costs involved with implementing the policy.
Venezuelan president Maduro ‘to expand price controls’ BBC News (11/11/13)
Venezuela sends in troops to force electronics chain to charge ‘fair’ prices NBC News (13/11/13)
Venezuela appliances crackdown spurs uncertainty ABC news (13/11/13)
Venezuela’s government seizes electronic goods shops BBC News (9/11/13)
Venezuelan government sends TROOPS into electronics chain to force them to sell goods at a “fair price” DailyMirror (10/11/13)
Shocher: Price Controls Lead to Shortages in Venezuela Free Advice, Robert Murphy (2/10/13)
Venezuelan Government Action against Overpricing Welcomed by Citizens, Manipulated by Media venezuelanalysis (12/11/13).
- Explain why a maximum price imposed on a competitive market might generate a shortage. Draw a diagram to illustrate and explain your answer.
- Are there any circumstances when a maximum price would not cause a shortage in a competitive market?
- Analyse the impact of a maximum price on consumer surplus, producer surplus and deadweight welfare loss. Assume the market is competitive and clearly state any other assumptions you have made in your analysis. Comment on the impact of the price ceiling on economic efficiency.
- Illustrate and explain what would happen to consumer surplus and deadweight welfare loss if the available goods for sale were only purchased by the consumers with the lowest willingness to pay.
- Why might a maximum price lead to a flourishing black market?
- The former president, Hugo Chavez, argued that the price regulations were required because “big monopolies… ransack the people”. Using economic theory discuss this statement. Examine the impact of a maximum price on a pure monopoly.