Tag: pandemic

In a series of five podcasts, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the first week of January 2021, Amol Rajan and guests examine different aspects of inequality and consider the concept of fairness.

As the notes to the programme state:

The pandemic brought renewed focus on how we value those who have kept shelves stacked, transport running and the old and sick cared for. So is now the time to bring about a fundamental shift in how our society and economy work?

The first podcast, linked below, examines the distribution of wealth in the UK and how it has changed over time. It looks at how rising property and share prices and a lightly taxed inheritance system have widened inequality of wealth.

It also examines rising inequality of incomes, a problem made worse by rising wealth inequality, the move to zero-hour contracts, gig working and short-term contracts, the lack of social mobility, austerity following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the lockdowns and restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with layoffs, people put on furlough and more and more having to turn to food banks.

Is this rising inequality fair? Should fairness be considered entirely in monetary terms, or should it be considered more broadly in social terms? These are issues discussed by the guests. They also look at what policies can be pursued. If the pay of health and care workers, for example, don’t reflect their value to our society, what can be done to increase their pay? If wealth is very unequally distributed, should it be redistributed and how?

The questions below are based directly on the issues covered in the podcast in the order they are discussed.

Podcast

Questions

  1. In what ways has Covid-19 been the great ‘unequaliser’?
  2. What scarring/hysteresis effects are there likely to be from the pandemic?
  3. To what extent is it true that ‘the more your job benefits other people, the less you get paid’?
  4. How has the pandemic affected inter-generational inequality?
  5. How have changes in house prices skewed wealth in the UK over the past decade?
  6. How have changes in the pension system contributed to inter-generational inequality?
  7. How has quantitative easing affected the distribution of wealth?
  8. Why is care work so poorly paid and how can the problem be addressed?
  9. How desirable is the pursuit of wealth?
  10. How would you set about defining ‘fairness’?
  11. Is a mix of taxation and benefits the best means of tackling economic unfairness?
  12. How would you set about deciding an optimum rate of inheritance tax?
  13. How do you account for the growth of in-work poverty?
  14. In what ways could wealth be taxed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such taxes?

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

Questions

  1. Distinguish between objective and subjective value.
  2. If your income rises, will you necessarily be happier? Explain.
  3. 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.’
  4. Does the use of social cost–benefit analysis enable us to use adjusted prices as a measure of value?
  5. Listen to lectures 2, 3 and 4 and provide a 500-word summary of each.
  6. Assess the arguments Mark Carney uses in one of these three lectures.

On 25 November, the UK government published its Spending Review 2020. This gives details of estimated government expenditure for the current financial year, 2020/21, and plans for government expenditure and the likely totals for 2021/22.

The focus of the Review is specifically on the effects of and responses to the coronavirus pandemic. It does not consider the effects of Brexit, with or without a trade deal, or plans for taxation. The Review is based on forecasts by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). Because of the high degree of uncertainty over the spread of the disease and the timing and efficacy of vaccines, the OBR gives three forecast values for most variables – pessimistic, central and optimistic.

According to the central forecast, real GDP is set to decline by 11.3% in 2020, the largest one-year fall since the Great Frost of 1709. The economy is then set to ‘bounce back’ (somewhat), with GDP rising by 5.2% in 2021.

Unemployment will rise from 3.9% in 2019 to a peak of 7.5% in mid-2021, after the furlough scheme and other support for employers is withdrawn.

This blog focuses at the impact on government borrowing and debt and the implications for the future – both the funding of the debt and ways of reducing it.

Soaring government deficits and debt


Government expenditure during the pandemic has risen sharply through measures such as the furlough scheme, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and various business loans. This, combined with falling tax revenue, as incomes and consumer expenditure have declined, has led to a rise in public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) from 2.5% of GDP in 2019/20 to a central forecast of 19% for 2020/21 – the largest since World War II. By 2025/26 it is still forecast to be 3.9% of GDP. The figure has also been pushed up by a fall in nominal GDP for 2020/21 (the denominator) by nearly 7%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the above chart.)

The high levels of PSNB are pushing up public-sector net debt (PSNB). This is forecast to rise from 85.5% of GDP in 2019/20 to 105.2% in 2020/21, peaking at 109.4% in 2023/24.

The exceptionally high deficit and debt levels will mean that the government misses by a very large margin its three borrowing and debt targets set out in the latest (Autumn 2016) ‘Charter for Budget Responsibility‘. These are:

  • to reduce cyclically-adjusted public-sector net borrowing to below 2% of GDP by 2020/21;
  • for public-sector net debt as a percentage of GDP to be falling in 2020/21;
  • for overall borrowing to be zero or in surplus by 2025/26.

But, as the Chancellor said in presenting the Review:

Our health emergency is not yet over. And our economic emergency has only just begun. So our immediate priority is to protect people’s lives and livelihoods.

Putting the public finances on a sustainable footing

Running a large budget deficit in an emergency is an essential policy for dealing with the massive decline in aggregate demand and for supporting those who have, or otherwise would have, lost their jobs. But what of the longer-term implications? What are the options for dealing with the high levels of debt?

1. Raising taxes. This tends to be the preferred approach of those on the left, who want to protect or improve public services. For them, the use of higher progressive taxes, such as income tax, or corporation tax or capital gains tax, are a means of funding such services and of providing support for those on lower incomes. There has been much discussion of the possibility of finding a way of taxing large tech companies, which are able to avoid taxes by declaring very low profits by diverting them to tax havens.

2. Cutting government expenditure. This is the traditional preference of those on the right, who prefer to cut the overall size of the state and thus allow for lower taxes. However, this is difficult to do without cutting vital services. Indeed, there is pressure to have higher government expenditure over the longer term to finance infrastructure investment – something supported by the Conservative government.

A downside of either of the above is that they squeeze aggregate demand and hence may slow the recovery. There was much discussion after the financial crisis over whether ‘austerity policies’ hindered the recovery and whether they created negative supply-side effects by dampening investment.

3. Accepting higher levels of debt into the longer term. This is a possible response as long as interest rates remain at record low levels. With depressed demand, loose monetary policy may be sustainable over a number of years. Quantitative easing depresses bond yields and makes it cheaper for governments to finance borrowing. Servicing high levels of debt may be quite affordable.

The problem is if inflation begins to rise. Even with lower aggregate demand, if aggregate supply has fallen faster because of bankruptcies and lack of investment, there may be upward pressure on prices. The Bank of England may have to raise interest rates, making it more expensive for the government to service its debts.

Another problem with not reducing the debt is that if another emergency occurs in the future, there will be less scope for further borrowing to support the economy.

4. Higher growth ‘deals’ with the deficit and reduces debt. In this scenario, austerity would be unnecessary. This is the ‘golden’ scenario – for the country to grow its way out of the problem. Higher output and incomes leads to higher tax revenues, and lower unemployment leads to lower expenditure on unemployment benefits. The crucial question is the relationship between aggregate demand and supply. For growth to be sustainable and shrink the debt/GDP ratio, aggregate demand must expand steadily in line with the growth in aggregate supply. The faster aggregate supply can grow, the faster can aggregate demand. In other words, the faster the growth in potential GDP, the faster can be the sustainable rate of growth of actual GDP and the faster can the debt/GDP ratio shrink.

One of the key issues is the degree of economic ‘scarring’ from the pandemic and the associated restrictions on economic activity. The bigger the decline in potential output from the closure of firms and the greater the deskilling of workers who have been laid off, the harder it will be for the economy to recover and the longer high deficits are likely to persist.

Another issue is the lack of labour productivity growth in the UK in recent years. If labour productivity does not increase, this will severely restrict the growth in potential output. Focusing on training and examining incentives, work practices and pay structures are necessary if productivity is to rise significantly. So too is finding ways to encourage firms to increase investment in new technologies.

Podcast and videos

Articles

OBR Data

Questions

  1. What is the significance of the relationship between the rate of economic growth and the rate of interest for financing public-sector debt over the longer term?
  2. What can the government do to encourage investment in the economy?
  3. Using OBR data, find out what has happened to the output gap over the past few years and what is forecast to happen to it over the next five years. Explain the significance of the figures.
  4. Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side policies. How would you characterise the policies to tackle public-sector net debt in terms of this distinction? Do the policies have a mixture of demand- and supply-side effects?
  5. Choose two other developed countries. Examine how their their public finances have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the policies they are adopting to tackle the economic effects of the pandemic.

The UK rail industry was privatised by the Conservative government in the mid-1990s. As Case Study 14.8 on the Economics 10th edition website states:

The management of rail infrastructure, such as track, signalling and stations, was to be separated from the responsibility for running trains. There would be 25 passenger train operating companies (TOCs), each having a franchise lasting between seven and fifteen years. These companies would have few assets, being forced to rent track and lease stations from the infrastructure owner (Railtrack), and to lease trains and rolling stock from three new rolling-stock companies. …In practice, the 25 franchises were operated by just 11 companies (with one, National Express, having nine of the franchises).

In 1996, at the start of the franchise era, the train operating companies were largely private-sector companies such as National Express, Stagecoach, Virgin Rail and Prism Rail. By 2020, most of the franchises were operated by a foreign state-owned business or a joint venture with a foreign state-owned firm.

As a result of poor performance (see above case study), Railtrack was effectively renationalised in 2002 as Network Rail – a not-for-profit company, wholly dependent upon the UK Treasury for any shortfall in its funds.

TOCs had mixed success. Some performed so poorly that their franchise contracts had to be temporarily taken over by a state-owned operator. For example, in June 2003 the Strategic Rail Authority withdrew the operating licence of the French company Connex South Eastern. The franchise was temporarily taken over by the publicly-owned South Eastern Trains from November 2003 until March 2006 before being returned to a private operator.

Perhaps the most troubled franchise has been the East Coast Main Line between London and Scotland. It was renationalised in 2009, reprivatised in 2015 and renationalised in 2018.

The effect of the coronavirus pandemic

The spread of the coronavirus and the accompanying lockdowns and social distancing saw a plummeting of rail travel. Passenger numbers fell to just 10% of pre-pandemic levels. In March 2020, the UK Government introduced Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs), which temporarily replaced rail franchise agreements. TOCs were paid a 2% fee (based on pre-Covid costs) to run trains and losses were borne by the government.

When the EMAs ran out on the 20 September, they were replaced by Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements (ERMAs), set to last until no later than April 2022. Under these measures, the fees paid to TOCs were reduced to a maximum of 1.5%. These consist partly of a fixed fee (again based on pre-Covid costs) and partly on a performance payment, depending on punctuality, passenger satisfaction and financial performance. As with the EMAs, the new arrangements involve virtually no risk for the TOCs (except for the size of the performance-related fee). Costs and revenue will be passed to the Department for Transport, which will bear any losses.

TOCs were required to run a virtually full service to allow reduced passenger numbers to observe social distancing. Despite journeys still being only 30% of pre-pandemic levels, social distancing on trains meant that many trains were sold out.

The ERMAs also contain provisions for the replacement of franchises when they come to an end. The precise nature of these will be spelt out in a White Paper, which will respond to the recommendations of the Williams Review of the railways. This review was set up in 2018 in the aftermath of difficulties with various franchises and a chaotic nationwide timetable change. The review’s findings were originally scheduled to be published in Autumn 2019, but were then put back because of the general election and the disruptions caused by the pandemic. The government hopes that it will be published before the end of 2020.

It is expected that the review will recommend replacing the franchise system with something similar to the currents ERMAs. TOCs awarded a contract will be paid a performance-related fee and revenues will go to the government, which will bear the costs. While this is not quite renationalisation, it is not the previous franchise system where TOCs bore the risks. It is in effect a contract system where private companies are paid to deliver a public service.

The CrossCountry franchise

The first test of this new approach to contracting with TOCs came this month. Arriva’s franchise for running CrossCountry trains ran out and was replaced by a three-year contract to run the services, which span much of the length of Great Britain from Aberdeen to Penzance via Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bristol and Plymouth; from Bournemouth to Manchester via Reading, Oxford, Wolverhampton and Stoke; from Cardiff to Nottingham via Gloucester, Birmingham and Derby; and from Birmingham to Stanstead Airport via Leicester and Cambridge.

The contract will last three years. The Department for Transport will gain the revenues and cover the costs and pay Arriva (owned by Deutsche Bahn) a management fee that is ‘performance related’ – as yet unspecified. This, like the EMAs and then the ERMAs, will remove the risks from Arriva.

Nationalisation in Wales

The Welsh government has announced that Transport for Wales will be taken over by a publicly owned company in February 2021. TfW operates many of the routes in Wales and the borders and most of the branch lines in Wales, including the valley commuter lines into Cardiff. It is currently owned by KeolisAmey (a joint company owned 70% by the French company, Keolis (part of SNCF), and 30% by the UK company, Amey), which took over the franchise in 2018 from Arriva. The Welsh government considered that KeolisAmey would collapse if it did not provide support. Ministers decided that nationalisation would give it greater control than simply subsidising KeolisAmey.

James Price, chief executive of the Welsh Government, stated that this allows it:

to reduce the profit we pay to the private sector massively over time, and make sure that when the revenue comes back, it comes back in to the taxpayer.

Under emergency measures, KeolisAmey has already been supported by the Welsh government to the tune of £105 million (£40 million in March and £65 million in June) to continue operating the franchise. Passenger numbers fell by 95% as the pandemic hit.

Is nationalisation a better way forward, or should private train operating companies continue with the government taking on the risks, or should the franchise system be amended with greater support from the government but with the TOCs still bearing risk? The articles below consider these issues.

Articles

Questions

  1. Explain how the franchising system worked (prior to March 2020).
  2. To what extent could each franchise be described as a ‘contestable monopoly’?
  3. What incentives were built into the franchising system to deliver improvements in service for passengers?
  4. What were the weaknesses of the franchising system?
  5. In the context of post-pandemic rail services, compare the relative merits of nationalisation with those of awarding contracts where the government receives the revenues and bears the costs and pays train operating companies a fee for operating the services where the size of the fee is performance related.
  6. What are the arguments for subsidising rail transport? What should determine the size of the subsidy?

Back in June, we examined the macroeconomic forecasts of the three agencies, the IMF, the OECD and the European Commission, all of which publish forecasts every six months. The IMF has recently published its latest World Economic Outlook (WEO) and its accompanying database. Unlike the April WEO, which, given the huge uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and its economic effects, only forecast as far as 2021, the latest version forecasts as far ahead as 2025.

In essence the picture is similar to that painted in April. The IMF predicts a large-scale fall in GDP and rise in unemployment, government borrowing and government debt for 2020 (compared with 2019) across virtually all countries.

World real GDP is predicted to fall by 4.4%. For many countries the fall will be much steeper. In the UK, GDP is predicted to fall by 9.8%; in the eurozone, by 8.3%; in India, by 10.3%; in Italy, by 10.8%; in Spain, by 12.8%. There will then be somewhat of a ‘bounce back’ in GDP in 2021, but not to the levels of 2019. World real GDP is predicted to rise by 5.2% in 2021. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the growth chart.)

Unemployment will peak in some countries in 2020 and in others in 2021 depending on the speed of recovery from recession and the mobility of labour. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the unemployment chart.)

Inflation is set to fall from already low levels. Several countries are expected to see falling prices.

Government deficits (negative net lending) will be sharply higher in 2020 as a result of government measures to support workers and firms affected by lockdowns and falling demand. Governments will also receive reduced tax revenues. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the general government net lending chart.)

Government debt will consequently rise more rapidly. Deficits are predicted to fall in 2021 as economies recover and hence the rise in debt will slow down or in some cases, such as Germany, even fall. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the general government gross debt chart.)

After the rebound in 2021, global growth is then expected to slow to around 3.5% by 2025. This compares with an average of 3.8% from 2000 to 2019. Growth of advanced economies is expected to slow to 1.7%. It averaged 1.9% from 2000 to 2019. For emerging market and developing countries it is expected to slow to 4.7% from an average of 5.7% from 2000 to 2019. These figures suggest some longer-term scarring effects from the pandemic.

Uncertainties

In the short term, the greatest uncertainty concerns the extent of the second wave, the measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus and the compensation provided by governments to businesses and workers. The WEO report was prepared when the second wave was only just beginning. It could well be that countries will experience a deeper recession in 2000 and into 2021 than predicted by the IMF.

This is recognised in the forecast.

The persistence of the shock remains uncertain and relates to factors inherently difficult to predict, including the path of the pandemic, the adjustment costs it imposes on the economy, the effectiveness of the economic policy response, and the evolution of financial sentiment.

With some businesses forced to close, others operating at reduced capacity because of social distancing in the workplace and with dampened demand, many countries may find output falling again. The extent will to a large extent depend on the levels of government support.

In the medium term, it is assumed that there will be a vaccine and that economies can begin functioning normally again. However, the report does recognise the long-term scarring effects caused by low levels of investment, deskilling and demotivation of the parts of the workforce, loss of capacity and disruptions to various supply chains.

The deep downturn this year will damage supply potential to varying degrees across economies. The impact will depend on various factors … including the extent of firm closures, exit of discouraged workers from the labour force, and resource mismatches (sectoral, occupational and geographic).

One of the greatest uncertainties in the medium term concerns the stance of fiscal and monetary policies. Will governments continue to run large deficits to support demand or will they attempt to reduce deficits by raising taxes and/or reducing benefits and/or cutting government current or capital expenditure?

Will central banks continue with large-scale quantitative easing and ultra-low or even negative interest rates? Will they use novel forms of monetary policy, such as directly funding government deficits with new money or providing money directly to citizens through a ‘helicopter’ scheme (see the 2016 blog, New UK monetary policy measures – somewhat short of the kitchen sink)?

Forecasting at the current time is fraught with uncertainty. However, reports such as the WEO are useful in identifying the various factors influencing the economy and how seriously they may impact on variables such as growth, unemployment and government deficits.

Report, speeches and data

Articles

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by ‘scarring effects’. Identify various ways in which the pandemic is likely to affect aggregate supply over the longer term.
  2. Consider the arguments for and against governments continuing to run large budget deficits over the next few years.
  3. What are the arguments for and against using ‘helicopter money’ in the current circumstances?
  4. On purely economic grounds, what are the arguments for imposing much stricter lockdowns when Covid-19 rates are rising rapidly?
  5. Chose two countries other than the UK, one industrialised and one developing. Consider what policies they are pursuing to achieve an optimal balance between limiting the spread of the virus and protecting the economy.