Economists are often criticised for making inaccurate forecasts and for making false assumptions. Their analysis is frequently dismissed by politicians when it contradicts their own views.
But is this fair? Have economists responded to the realities of the global economy and to the behaviour of people, firms, institutions and government as they respond to economic circumstances? The answer is a qualified yes.
Behavioural economics is increasingly challenging the simple assumption that people are ‘rational’, in the sense that they maximise their self interest by weighing up the marginal costs and benefits of alternatives open to them. And macroeconomic models are evolving to take account of a range of drivers of global growth and the business cycle.
The linked article and podcast below look at the views of 2019 Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. She has challenged some of the traditional assumptions of economics about the nature of rationality and what motivates people. But her work is still very much in the tradition of economists. She examines evidence and sees how people respond to incentives and then derives policy implications from the analysis.
Take the case of the mobility of labour. She examines why people who lose their jobs may not always move to a new one if it’s in a different town. Partly this is for financial reasons – moving is costly and housing may be more expensive where the new job is located. Partly, however, it is for reasons of identity. Many people are attached to where they currently live. They may be reluctant to leave family and friends and familiar surroundings and hope that a new job will turn up – even if it means a cut in wages. This is not irrational; it just means that people are driven by more than simply wages.
Duflo is doing what economists typically do – examining behaviour in the light of evidence. In her case, she is revisiting the concept of rationality to take account of evidence on what motivates people and the way they behave.
In the light of workers’ motivation, she considers the implications for the gains from trade. Is free trade policy necessarily desirable if people lose their jobs because of cheap imports from China and other developing countries where labour costs are low?
The answer is not a clear yes or no, as import-competing industries are only part of the story. If protectionist policies are pursued, other countries may retaliate with protectionist policies themselves. In such cases, people working in the export sector may lose their jobs.
She also looks at how people may respond to a rise or cut in tax rates. Again the answer is not clear cut and an examination of empirical evidence is necessary to devise appropriate policy. Not only is there an income and substitution effect from tax changes, but people are motivated to work by factors other than take-home pay. Likewise, firms are encouraged to invest by factors other than the simple post-tax profitability of investment.
- In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
- How might the concept of rationality be expanded to take into account a whole range of factors other than the direct costs and benefits of a decision?
- What is meant by bounded rationality?
- What would be the effect on workers’ willingness to work more or fewer hours as a result of a cut in the marginal income tax rate if (a) the income effect was greater than the substitution effect; (b) the substitution effect was greater than the income effect? Would your answers to (a) and (b) be the opposite in the case of a rise in the marginal income tax rate?
- Give some arguments that you consider to be legitimate for imposing controls on imports in (a) the short run; (b) the long run. How might you counter these arguments from a free-trade perspective?
One of the key developments in economics in recent years has been the growing influence of behavioural economics. We considered some of the insights of behavioural economics in a blog in 2016 (A nudge in the right direction?). As the post stated, ‘Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers.’ The post quoted from a Livemint article (see first linked article below):
According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.
Instead, people use heuristics. A heuristic technique is any approach to problem-solving, such as deciding what to buy, which is practical and sufficient for the purpose, but not necessarily optimal. For example, people may resort to making the best guess, or to drawing on past experiences of similar choices that turned out to be good or bad. On other accasions, when people are likely to face similar choices in the future, they resort to trial and error. They try a product. If they like it, they buy it again; if not, they don’t.
On other occasions, they may use various rules of thumb: buying what their friends do, or buying products on offer or buying trusted brands. These rules of thumb can lead to estimates that are reasonably close to the utility people will actually get and can save on time and effort. However, they sometimes lead to systematic and predictable misjudgements about the likelihood of certain events occurring.
In traditional models of consumer choice, individuals aim to maximise their utility when choosing between goods, or bundles of goods. The context in which the choices are offered is not considered.
Yet, in real life, we see that context is important; people will often make different choices when they are presented, or framed, in different ways. For example, people will buy more of a good when it is flagged up as a special offer than they would if there is no mention of an offer, even though the price is the same.
The recognition that framing is important to choices has led to the development of nudge theory. Indeed, it underpins many marketing techniques. These seek to persuade people to make a particular choice by framing it in an optimistic way or presenting it in a way that makes it easy to decide.
Governments too use nudge theory. In the UK, the Coalition government (2010–15) established the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) (also unofficially known as the Nudge Unit) in the Cabinet Office in 2010. A major objective of this team is to use ideas from behavioural economics to design policies that enable people to make better choices for themselves.
The podcast linked below, looks at the use of nudge theory. The presenter, Mary Ann Sieghart looks at how we are being encouraged to change our behaviour. She also looks at the work of UCL’s Love Lab which researches the way we make decisions. As the programme notes state:
Mary Ann is grilled in UCL’s Love Lab to find out how she makes decisions; she finds taking the pound signs off the menu in a restaurant encourages her spend more and adding adjectives to the food really makes it taste better.
Walking through the Nudge Unit, she hears how powerful a tiny tweak on a form or text can get be, from getting people back to work to creating a more diverse police force. Popular with the political left and right, it has been embraced around the world; from Guatemala to Rwanda, Singapore to India it is used to reduce energy consumption, encourage organ donation, combat corruption and even stop civil wars.
But the podcast also looks at some of the darker sides of nudging. Just as we can be nudged into doing things in our interests, so too we can be nudged to do things that are not so. Politicians and businesses may seek to manipulate people to get them to behave in ways that suit the government or the business, rather than the electorate or the consumer. The dark arts of persuasion are also something that behavioural economists study.
The articles below explore some of the areas where nudge theory is used to devise policy to influence our behaviour – for good or bad.
- New frontiers of human behaviour
Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
- It’s been 10 years since behavioral economics hit the mainstream
Quartz, Dan Kopf (13/10/18)
- What is ‘nudge theory’ and why should we care? Explaining Richard Thaler’s Nobel economics prize-winning concept
Independent, Ben Chu (9/10/17)
- Is Nudge Theory The Answer To Our Single-Use Plastics Problem?
HuffPost, Ollie Boesen (15/6/18)
- Re-enrolment key to ‘nudge’ UK into saving: survey
Investment and Pensions Europe Magazine (IPE), Elizabeth Pfeuti (22/10/18)
- Applying nudge strategies to higher education
Times Higher Education, Ben Castleman (6/7/18)
- Want to nudge others to install solar? Actions speak louder than words
Phys.org, Kevin Dennehy (25/10/18)
- DNA test and phone app to ‘nudge’ Waitrose shoppers towards healthier food
Imperial College London News, Caroline Brogan (12/10/18)
- “Nudge theory” explored to boost medication adherence
AMA Wire, Sara Berg (29/6/18)
- Simple ‘nudge’ letters can boost school attendance, new research suggests
The Seattle Times, Neal Morton (5/7/18)
- Using Behavioral Nudges to Treat Diabetes
Harvard Business Review, Thomas H. Davenport, James Guszcza and Greg Szwartz (10/10/18)
- Why nudge theory works until a kick in the backside is needed.
The Guardian, Andrew Rawnsley (22/10/17)
- Why Nudging Your Customers Can Backfire
Harvard Business Review, Utpal M. Dholakia (15/4/16)
- Explain what are meant by ‘bounded rationality’ and ‘heuristics’.
- How may populist politicians use nudge theory in their campaigning?
- Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
- Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
- Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
- How might we be nudged into using less plastic?
- How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
- To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded as nudging? Explain.
- Would you advise all GP surgeries and hospital outpatient departments to text reminders to people about appointments? What should such reminders say? Explain.
They may not have been happy about it but the executives of Manchester City have finally agreed a settlement with UEFA after it was judged that the club had broken Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. The club had initially indicated that they might take their case to the Club Financial Control Body’s adjudicatory chamber. For details about FFP, see previous article on the website: What does ‘fair play’ mean for the big teams in Europe?They have also now accepted the sanctions for breaking these rules which appear to be very similar in magnitude to those imposed on Paris St-Germain. UEFA have also judged that seven other clubs have failed to meet their financial requirements.
Why did Manchester City fail the FFP rules when they appeared to be so confident that they would meet them? To understand this requires some discussion of a number of exemptions put in place by UEFA in the implementation of the FFP guidelines.
One of the key aims of FFP is to force the clubs who compete in European competitions to break even. However UEFA allow clubs to make some losses before any sanctions are applied. For the current monitoring period the clubs are allowed to make a cumulative loss of up to €45 million (approximately £37 million) over a two year period from 2011-2013 before any penalties are imposed. This permitted loss is referred to by UEFA as the ‘acceptable deviation’ from breaking even.
Manchester City reported losses in their financial accounts of £97million in 2011-12 and £51.6 million in 2012-13. At first sight this cumulative loss of nearly £149 million over the two year period would suggest that the club failed to meet the FFP regulations by a wide margin i.e. £112 million over the acceptable deviation. However the size of either the profit or loss reported in a club’s final accounts is different from the figure that is used by UEFA when assessing whether the teams have met the FFP criteria. UEFA exclude any costs incurred by the clubs on
– Youth development and community projects
– Building/developing their stadiums
Imagine a situation where after deducting these costs, Manchester City’s losses fell to £75 million in 2011-12 and £35 million in 2012-13. Once again it would still look as if they have failed to meet the FFP guidelines by a large margin. However there is another set of costs that can be excluded if a number of conditions are met. These are the wage costs in 2011-12 of those players who had signed contracts with the club before 1st June 2010. This exemption was introduced by UEFA because a number of clubs complained that they would struggle to meet the rules because of the nature of the players’ contracts. It is quite common for these to be of a 4 or 5 year duration. The teams argued that they were already committed to paying some players very large salaries in 2011-12 because of deals that were agreed long before the FFP rules were introduced. UEFA accepted this argument but only allowed the wage costs to be exempted from the FFP calculations on two conditions:
1. The club could show that the size of its losses were falling over time and that they had a clear strategy in place so that they would be able to comply with FFP regulations in future years.
2. The cumulative loss in excess of the acceptable deviation was caused by losses incurred in the 2011-12 period.
As there is a downward trend in the size of the losses being made by Manchester City they would appear to meet the first condition. It would also be important for them to convince UEFA that they had policies in place to reduce the losses below the permitted levels in the future. In the example above the second criterion is also met as the loss in 2012-13 of £35 million was lower than the acceptable deviation of £37 million. Therefore the reason why the cumulative permitted loss would be broken is because of the impact of the £75 million loss in 2011-12.
However there is another element to the second condition. The club also has to show that the sole reason for the loss in 2011-12 was because of the wage costs they were already committed to – i.e. from the contracts signed before the 1st June 2010. If these wage costs are smaller than the losses reported in that period then they cannot be exempted from the FFP calculations as they can only partly explain the loss.
Reports in the press have suggested that approximately £80 million of Manchester City’s wage bill in 2011-12 was caused by contracts that were signed with players before the 1st June 2010. If this was true then in the example above they would have met the FFP requirements as the £80 million of wages could fully account for the £75 million loss in the 2011-12 season. This would mean that the £80 million could be exempted from the FFP calculation and City would have made a cumulative loss of £35 million which was less than the acceptable deviation of £37 million.
If the wages paid to the players from the contracts signed prior to 1st June 2010 could not fully account for the losses in 2011-12 then they could not be deducted in the FFP calculations. For example imagine if after deducting the costs of youth/community projects and infrastructure spending that Manchester City’s loss had been £85 million in 2011-12 instead of £75 million. The wages bill of £80 million could not fully account for this loss of and hence the £80 million wage bill would be counted in the calculations. The cumulative loss would now be £120 million (£85 million + £35 million) and the acceptable deviation would have been exceeded by £83 million.
Unfortunately for Manchester City this appears to be more or less what happened. As part of the FFP process UEFA also examined deals struck between the club and other organisations in which the owner had an interest. These are referred to by UEFA as Related Party Transactions (RPTs). It would seem that the accountants at UEFA came to the conclusion that some of these RPTs were at above market prices. Interestingly some press reports have indicated that the £35 million a year deal with Etihad was judged to be fine. It was a number of secondary sponsorship deals which were considered to be above fair market values. Once adjustments were made to take account of this it looks as if the re-calculated losses for 2011-12 were greater than the £80 million of wages. With these wage costs not exempted from the calculation, Manchester City have been judged to have missed the FFP conditions by a wide margin.
The following quote is taken from a statement released by the club:
At the heart of the discussions is a fundamental disagreement between the club’s and UEFA’s respective interpretations of the FFP regulations on players purchased before 2010.
The following sanctions have been imposed:
– A £49 million fine to be withheld from UEFA prize money over the next three seasons. (£32 million is suspended and depends on their financial performance in future years)
– A limit on the squad size for the Champions League – 21 instead of 25 players
– Spending limited on transfers this summer to £49 million plus any revenue received in transfer fees from the sale of players
– A freeze on the wage bill of the Champions League squad for the next two seasons
It will be interesting to see if these penalties significantly constrain Manchester City’s ability to compete with the other big teams in Europe next season.
Manchester City accept world-record £50m fine for breach of Uefa Financial Fair Play rules The Telegraph, (16/5/14)
Manchester City facing £50m fine for breaching Uefa’s Financial Fair Play regulations The Telegraph, (6/5/14)
A beginner’s guide to UEFA’s financial fair play regulations SB Nation, (30/04/14)
Financial Fair Play Explained Financial Fair Play 2012
Man City to act swiftly in transfer market – Khaldoon Al Mubarak BBC Sport, (20/5/14)
Manchester City fined and squad capped for FFP breach BBC Sport, (16/5/14)
Manchester City facing Uefa sanctions over finances BBC Sport, (6/5/14)
Paris St-Germain’s £167m deal fails Uefa financial fair play rules BBC Sport, (1/5/14)
Manchester City and PSG breach Uefa FFP rules BBC Sport, (28/4/14)
Financial Fair Play: What rules have Manchester City broken and what are the likely sanctions? The Mirror, (6/5/14)
We’re innocent! Manchester City on the attack over FFP penalties The Express, (21/5/14)
Man City facing double UEFA punishment for breaching financial fair play rules talkSPORT, (6/5/14) .
- What are barriers to entry? Give 4 examples.
- What impact do barriers to entry have on a market? Draw a diagram to illustrate your answer.
- To what extent do you think that the UEFA Fair Play Rules act as a barrier to entry?
- What impact do you think the FFP rules will have on the marginal revenue product of the most talented players? Draw a diagram to illustrate your answer.
- Can you think of any methods that a club might use to try and circumvent a rule that attempts to restrict the size of its wage bill.
Officials of the Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) of UEFA met on Tuesday 15th April and Wednesday 16th April to decide the fate of a number of European clubs. The job of the CFCB is to implement UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) are said to be nervously awaiting the outcome of these meetings.
UEFA’s FFP rules apply to teams who want to play in either the Champions League or the Europa League. In order to be eligible to compete in these competitions teams not only have to perform well in their domestic league they also have to obtain a license from UEFA. The application process normally takes place midway through the current season for entry into either the Champions League or Europa League for the following season.
UEFA’s FFP rules cover a broad range of issues such as requirements for clubs to pay taxes, transfer fees and players’ wages on time in order to receive a license. However it is the ‘Break Even’ requirement that has caught the attention of a number of economists. This provision limits the size of the financial losses that team can incur before they become subject to sanctions from UEFA. Some of the stated aims of the policy are to:
– Introduce more discipline and rationality in club football finances
– Encourage clubs to operate on the basis of their own revenues
– Encourage responsible spending for the long-term benefit of football
– Protect the long term viability and sustainability of European club football.
The Royal Economic Society held a special session on the potential impact of the ‘Break Even’ requirement at its annual conference in April of this year.
One key way in which the UEFA rules differ from the rules imposed in the Championship in England is that the financial performance of the clubs is judged over a 2/3 year period rather than just one. The initial assessment period is over 2 seasons – 2011-12 to 2012-13. After this the monitoring period is over 3 seasons. Teams can make an initial loss of €5 million in total over the first two year period but this can increase to a maximum permitted loss €45 million over the two years – approximately £37 million – if the team’s owner is willing to fund this loss out of their own money. Certain categories of expenditure are exempt such as the cost of building a new stadium/stand or spending on youth development and the local community.
Manchester City made a total financial loss of £149 million over the last two seasons, far in excess of the permitted £37million, but these losses are falling which may count in their favour. They made losses of £97.9 million in 2012 and £51.6 million in 2013. Also some of the club’s expenditure will have been on some of the exempted categories so that the actual losses subject to FFP will be lower. Chelsea made a profit of £1.4million in 2011-12 and a loss of £49.4million in 2012-13. Although the losses over the two seasons were greater than £37 million, once adjustments were made for exempted expenditures the club was within the maximum permitted loss so was not subject to a full investigation.
In order to implement its FFP regulations UEFA created the Club Financial Control Body (CFCB). The CFCB has two departments – an investigatory chamber and an adjudicatory chamber. The investigatory chamber does the bulk of the work by investigating the accounts of all the 237 clubs that play in UEFA competitions. It was initially reported that the accounts of 76 clubs were being investigated in some detail because it was thought that they might have failed to meet FFP guidelines. However after further investigations in February it was reported that this number had fallen to below 20 teams. The investigatory panel met on Tuesday 15th April and Wednesday 16th April in order to make its final decisions which will be announced May 5th. The body can choose from one of the four following options in each case:
– Dismiss the case
– Agree a settlement with the club – effectively putting it on probation
– Reprimand and fine the club up to €100,000
– Refer the club to the CFCB adjudicatory chamber
The last option is the most serious as the adjudicatory chamber has the power to issue more serious penalties such as
– A deduction of points from the group stages of UEFA competitions.
– Withholding of revenues from UEFA competitions.
– Restrictions on the number of players that a club can register for participation in UEFA competitions.
– Disqualification from future UEFA competitions.
One issue that concerned UEFA was the possibility that very wealthy team owners might try to artificially inflate the revenues their club’s generate so as to circumvent the rules and make it look as if the team was meeting the FFP guidelines. In particular deals might be struck between other organisations that the club owner has an interest in and the football club at rates far in excess of the normal market level. For example some concerns have been expressed about the nature of the back-dated sponsorship deal of £167 million/year signed by PSG with the Qatar Tourism Authority. PSG are owned by Qatar Sport Investment which itself is a joint venture between the Qatari government and the Qatari Olympic Committee. The CFCB have said that they will analyse these types of deals and adjust club accounts if necessary so that they reflect true market rates.
May 5th could prove to be a very significant day for some of the biggest and most wealthy clubs in Europe.
The Economics of “Financial Fair Play” (FFP) in European Soccer (EJ Special Session) Royal Economic Society (7/4/14)
UEFA probes ‘fewer than 20’ clubs over financial fair play rules Sky Sports, (14/4/14)
Manchester City confident of satisfying Uefa financial fair play rules The Guardian (15/4/14)
Uefa’s Financial Fair Play rules explained The Telegraph (15/4/14)
Man City sweating over sanctions as UEFA prepare to rule over excessive spending Daily Mail (15/4/14)
How Bosman’s lawyer is plotting another football revolution BBC Sport (2/10/13)
Manchester City await fate as Uefa’s financial rules kick in BBC Sport (16/4/14)
Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain face financial fair play fate The Guardian (14/4/14) .
- In standard economic theory it is assumed that both consumers and producers act rationally. What precisely does this mean?
- One of the stated aims of UEFA FFP is to ‘introduce more discipline and rationality in club football finances’. Why might the owners of a football club act in an irrational way?
- Consider some of the advantages and disadvantages of assessing the financial performance of a team over 3 years as opposed to 1 year.
- One of the major arguments made against the UEFA FFP rules is that they will lead to a ‘fossilisation’ of the existing market i.e. the current top clubs are more likely to maintain their leadership. Explain the logic of this argument in more detail.
- Which of the possible sanctions for breaking FFP regulations do you think would hit the clubs the hardest in terms of the revenue they would lose? i.e. Which of the sanctions would they most like to avoid?
Previous posts on this blog have discussed key principles of thinking like an economist and also whether this always makes sense. Highly relevant for this question, on her excellent Economists do it with models blog, Jodi Beggs has recently highlighted the fact that the cognitive costs of obtaining the information required to make decisions in this way can sometimes be excessive.
As an example she cites this scenario from the Cheap talk blog:
“You are planning a nice dinner and are shopping for the necessary groceries. After having already passed the green onions you are reminded that you actually need green onions upon discovering exactly that vegetable, in a bunch, bagged, and apparently abandoned by another shopper. Do you grab the bag before you or turn around and go out of your way to select your own bunch?”
I won’t go through the details of the 12 steps (see the above link) taken to infer from where the onions were abandoned that they were either:
“the best onions in the store and therefore poisoned, or they are worse than some onions back in the big pile but then those are poisoned.”
Based on this inference, the conclusion is that you should go for a take-away instead! As Beggs suggests, the level of effort undertaken to make a decision should depend upon the likelihood that this results in a more informed choice. In the above example this is highly questionable! She then provides the following example suggesting that when you obtain cash back in a store it is much better to ask for the money in small denomination notes. Whilst on face value this again seems like a strange conclusion, the economic logic provided suggests that it may be a much more rational decision than in the onion example.
Just for fun: reasons not to data an economist (thanks guys)…Economists do it with models, Jodi Beggs (25/10/12)
- Can you provide some examples of decisions where the cognitive costs of obtaining relevant information is very high?
- In these examples, would this information typically result in a better decision?
- What might be the opportunity cost of shopping in the manner described in the article?
- Explain how a rational economic actor should evaluate whether to obtain more information in order to facilitate making a decision.
- The article above suggests that there are a number of benefits from requesting small denomination notes, but what might be the costs involved in this strategy?