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.
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?
Each week, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts readings from a book serialised in five 15-minute episodes. In the week beginning 18 January 2021, the readings were from English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks, a farmer from the Cumbrian fells. His farm is relatively small, covering 185 acres.
He has attempted to make it much more sustainable and less intensive, reintroducing traditional Herdwick sheep, having a mixture of cows and sheep rather than just sheep, a greater sub-division of fields, and more natural scrubland, peatbogs and trees. As a result, soil quality has improved and there has been an explosion of biodiversity, with an abundance of wild flowers and insects.
Apart from being an autobiography of his time as a farmer and his attempt to move towards more traditional methods, the book examines broader issues of agricultural sustainability. It looks at the pressures of consumers wanting cheap food, the market power of supermarkets and wholesalers, the cost pressures on farmers pushing them towards monoculture to achieve economies of scale, and the role of the agrichemicals industry promoting fertilisers, feeds and pesticides which bring short-term financial gains to farmers, but which cause longer-term damage to the land and to biodiversity.
Most football fans will probably never have heard of an organisation called FIFPro but, if it is successful, the labour market for football players could change quite radically.
FIFPro represents over 65,000 players from around the world. It is effectively an international trade union whose main objective is to promote the interests and defend the rights of professional football players. Its president, Philippe Piat, has recently announced that the organisation will challenge the way the current transfer system operates and is prepared to take its case to the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.
FIFPro’s argument is that players are being exploited under the current system. This may seem difficult to believe in the week when Luis Suarez signed a new four-and-a-half-year contract at Liverpool with earnings of £200,000 per week. However, referring to the transfer system, Piat stated that:
These legal and monetary shackles binding footballers to their current clubs can no longer be accepted and upheld. Football players are workers and only when they are able to enjoy the rights enshrined in law and enjoyed by all other workers, will Fifpro be satisfied.
In order to understand this argument, it is important to understand how the transfer system has evolved and how it now operates.
When the Football Association (FA) first accepted professionalism in 1885 it introduced a registration system. Before this reform it was possible for players to play for different teams each week. The new system meant that players had to register with a club at the beginning of each season. If a player was not registered with a team he was not allowed to play. He could only change team mid-season if his current club and the FA agreed to the transfer of his registration details to a different team. However, a player was free at the beginning of each season to register with a different team. Therefore there were no constraints on his mobility between teams from one season to another.
Significant changes were made to the system in 1893 when the retain-and-transfer system was first introduced. The new scheme allowed teams to keep retaining players they had initially registered for another year. This effectively meant that when a player was signed by a team he was tied to that team for as long as they wanted him. The mobility between clubs from one season to another had been removed. This gave the clubs significant monopsony power in the labour market. If a player wanted to change teams, he had to make a transfer request but the team was under no obligation to put him on the transfer list and allow him to move. Teams could decide to put players on a transfer list and would only allow them to leave if an agreeable level of compensation (a transfer fee) was offered by another team. A maximum wage of £4 per week was also introduced in 1901.
The system was periodically challenged and a number of minor changes were made. In particular, the conditions under which a player could be retained by a club were gradually altered. Originally a player could be retained by a club even if his contract was not renewed. Effectively a team could stop a player moving to another club by holding onto his registration without having to pay him. This was changed so that a minimum wage had to be paid to a player if he was to be retained by the team that held his registration.
The first major change to the system came in 1963 from a player called George Eastham. In 1959 he failed to sign a new contract with Newcastle United and made a transfer request which the club promptly rejected. Although they did eventually allow him to leave and join Arsenal, he still took his case to the High Court and the judge concluded that the retain-and-transfer system was an unreasonable restraint of trade. Following this judgment the system was amended so that, in order to retain a player, a club would have to offer the player a new contract with terms and conditions which were at least as good as the previous one. If this was done, then a player could be retained by a club and his registration would only be released if an acceptable transfer fee was offered by another team.
Perhaps the biggest change to the system was made in 2001 following the famous Bosman ruling. Jean-Marc Bosman had wanted to move to the French side Dunkirk, but FC Liege, the club that held his registration, demanded a transfer fee that Dunkirk were unwilling to pay. Bosman took his case to the European Court of Justice and in 1995 a decision was made that the system was in breach of European Union law on the free movement of people. Following this ruling, an informal agreement was reached between the European Commission, FIFA and UEFA. From 2001 players over the age of 23 were free to leave their clubs once their contracts had expired. Transfer fees no longer needed to be paid for players who had reached the end of their contracts.
Although the ease with which players can change teams has significantly improved over the past 50 years, they still face constraints on their labour mobility that are unusual for employees. Most workers simply have to give a period of notice in order to change employer. These vary between jobs but are not usually longer than 3 months. FIFPro’s argument is that professional football players should have these same rights. This would allow Luis Suarez to leave Liverpool at any point in the next four and a half years without any transfer fee having to be agreed. He would simply have a serve out a short period
of notice and then he would be free to join any other club. Under the current system he would have to wait four and a half years until the
end of his contract before he could leave without a transfer fee having
to be paid.
Whenever the transfer system has been challenged the football authorities have always used the same defence – sport is different from other industries because of the importance of maintaining an appropriate level of competitive balance. It is argued that the ease with which players can change clubs needs to be restricted in order for this level to be maintained. Ultimately a judgment will have to be made between this argument and the principle of freedom of movement.
Explain why the marginal revenue product of footballers is so much higher than it is for people in most other jobs. What impact do you think technology has had on the marginal revenue product of footballers over the past 20 years?
Draw a diagram to illustrate how the wage rate for footballers would be determined if the labour market was perfectly competitive.
What is monopsony? Explain how the retain-and-transfer system could give football clubs monopsony power in the labour market.
Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of monopsony on wages and employment in the labour market for professional footballers.
Explain how limiting the mobility of players might help to maintain the level of competitive balance in a league.
If the proposals by FIFPro were accepted, what impact do you think it will have on players’ wages?
Imagine if none of the clubs in the English Premier League (EPL) or English Football League (EFL) had junior or youth teams. Instead envisage a situation where all of the talented young footballers in the country go to college or university to develop their skills. Then once a year there is a big televised event where each of the clubs in the EPL and EFL take it in turns to choose which young college/university players they would like to recruit.
Strange as it sounds to football fans in Europe this is exactly what happens in American Football in the USA. It is called the NFL draft and this year’s event took place over three days between 25th and 27th April at Radio City Music Hall in New York. There was greater interest in Britain than usual in this year’s event because of the involvement of 24 year old Menelik Watson who was born and raised in Manchester. Although originally a basketball player, coaches spotted his potential to play American football in the NFL and two years ago he obtained a place at Florida State University.
The NFL draft has seven rounds. Each of the 32 teams has the right to choose one player in each round. An important design issue for any draft system is how to determine the running order in which the teams make their choices. Obviously all 32 teams would like to get the first chance at recruiting the most talented of all the college players. The NFL’s solution to this allocation problem is an interesting one. The team with the worst playing record from the previous season gets the first choice in each round. In the 2012-13 season this happened to be the Kansas City Chiefs who played 16 games and only won 2 of them. The second choice in each round goes to the team with the 2nd worst playing record from the previous season and so on. The final choice in each round goes to the previous year’s Super Bowl champions who in the 2012–13 were the Baltimore Ravens. Another interesting characteristic of the system is the ability of teams to trade draft choices. For example in 2013 the Oakland Raiders traded their choice in the first round (which was the 3rd choice overall) with the Miami Dolphins for their choices in both the first and second round (12th and 42nd choice overall).
What is the rationale for having a draft system? It was first introduced in February 1936 and many commentators have argued that it has been a key factor which has helped to maintain competitive balance in sport. The man behind the idea, Bert Bell of the Philadelphia Eagles, argued that without this type of system the sport would be dominated by the 4 richest teams. He stated that:
Every year, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Four teams control the championship. Because they are successful, they keep attracting the best college players in the open market, which makes them more successful.
Some evidence for the success of the scheme is that in the last 15 years the Super Bowl has been won by 10 different teams. However in 1934, just before the scheme was proposed, there was another major issue for team owners. The Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Eagles had become involved in a bidding war for a very talented young player called Stan Kostka. Brooklyn won the battle but had to pay him a salary of $5,000 – the same amount that was paid to the star player in the league. Some people have argued that the real purpose of the draft scheme was to limit the pay of young players by effectively reducing any competitive bidding for their services. Once drafted, a player is expected to join the team who selected him. There may be some protracted negotiations over his final salary and bonuses but the only option open to him if an agreement breaks down is to re-enter the draft the following year. This effectively gives the teams monopsony power which may enable them to restrict players pay to below that of their marginal revenue product. For example although Andrew Luck, the first choice draft pick in 2012, reportedly earns just over $20million from his 4 year contract with the Indianapolis Colts some commentators have argued that his true market value is over $100 million.
The good news for Menelik Watson was that he was finally drafted by the Oakland Raiders and was the 42nd overall player chosen in the draft process. This is the highest choice ever made by a team in the NFL for a player born and brought up in Britain. The final outcome for the league as a whole can be seen on the NFL website.
Two of the biggest publishing companies, Pearson of the UK and Bertelsmann of Germany are to form a joint venture by merging their Penguin and Random House imprints. Bertelsmann will have a majority stake in the venture of 53% and Pearson will have 47%.
The Penguin imprint, with a turnover of just over £1bn, has an 11% share of the English language book publishing market. Random House has a 15% share, with turnover of around £1.5bn. The new ‘Penguin Random House’, as it will be called, will have nearly 26% of the market, which should give it considerable market power to combat various threats in the book publishing market.
One threat is from online retailers, such as Amazon, Apple and Google, which use their countervailing power to drive down the prices they pay to publishers. Another threat is from the rise of electronic versions of books. Although e-books save on printing costs, competition is driving down prices, including the prices of paper books, which may make publishers more reluctant to publish new titles in paper form.
There has been a mixed reception from authors: some are worried that an effective reduction in the number of major publishers from six to five will make it harder to get books published and may squeeze royalty rates; others feel that an increased market power of publishers to take on the online retailers will help to protect the interests of authors
The following videos and articles look at the nature of this joint venture and its implications for costs, revenues and publishing more generally.
What types of economies of scale are likely to result from the joint venture?
How are authors likely to be affected?
Will the joint venture benefit the book reading public?
The relationship between publishers and online retailers can be described as one of ‘bilateral oligopoly’. Explain what this means and why it is impossible to determine an ‘equilibrium’ wholesale price of books in such a market.
What criteria would the competition authorities use to assess whether or not the joint venture should be permitted to proceed?
What is likely to be the long-term outlook for Penguin Random House?
Assess the benefits and costs of a News Corporation takeover of the Penguin division? This was an alternative offer to Pearson had it not gone with Bertelsmann. (News Corp. has the Harper Collins imprint.)