For those of you embarking on a course in economics, one of the first things you’ll come across is the distinction between microeconomics and macroeconomics. The news is full of both microeconomic and macroeconomic issues and you’ll quickly see how relevant both branches of economics are to analysing real-world events, problems and policies.
As we state in Economics (updated 10th edition), ‘microeconomics is concerned with the individual parts of the economy. It is concerned with the demand and supply of particular goods, services and resources such as cars, butter, clothes, haircuts, plumbers, accountants, blast furnaces, computers and oil.’ In particular, it is concerned with the buying, selling, production and employment decisions of individuals and firms. When you go shopping and make choices of what to buy you are making microeconomic decisions. When firms choose how much of particular products to produce, what techniques of production to use and how many people to employ, these choices are microeconomic ones.
Microeconomics examines people’s behaviour when they make choices. In fact many of the recent developments in microeconomics involve analysing the behaviour of individuals and firms and the factors that influence this behaviour.
Open any newspaper, turn on the TV news or access any news site and you will see various microeconomic issues covered. Why are rents soaring? How is AI affecting various businesses’ productivity? How rapidly is the switch taking place to green energy? How do supermarkets influence spending patterns? Why are wages so low in the social care sector? Why are private PCR tests so expensive for holidaymakers retuning from abroad?
Many of the blogs on this news site will examine microeconomic issues. We hope that they provide useful case studies for your course.
- Look through news sites and identify five current microeconomic issues. What makes them ‘micro’ issues?
- If world oil and gas prices rise, why is this a microeconomic issue?
- What do you understand by ‘scarcity’? How is microeconomics related to scarcity?
- Are all goods scarce?
- What is meant by ‘opportunity cost’? Give some examples of how opportunity cost has affected recent decisions you have made.
McDonalds is one of the most recognised names in the world and its iconic product, the Big Mac, is an obsession for many people – though I have to confess that I have never had one. McDonalds is taking advantage of this fact by auctioning off a bottle of its secret Big Mac sauce. The proceeds will go to charity.
McDonalds has around 36 000 stores around the world, located in over 100 countries. The Big Mac is sold in all of these stores and the famous sauce is available there for a pretty small price. However, on eBay, this bottle of sauce has already reached a bid of AU$23 100 (£11 800)! The 500m bottle is only being auctioned in Australia and with a few days before the auction finishes, the price may get still higher.
So, why are people prepared to pay such a high price for a bottle of sauce that is readily available on a Big Mac and which, in Australia, will be sold in small tubs throughout this month?
The advert on eBay suggests that the bottle is being set free and is ‘rarer than a spot on Bondi beach on New Years Day’. As we know, when products become scarce their price tends to rise. This auction will be the first time that this sauce is available, as normally the sauce is dispensed straight onto the burger. The ingredients of this famous sauce are known, but the recipe for making it is not. Perhaps it represents an opportunity for someone to try to re-create it!
An auction is an interesting mechanism to receive the highest price for any product. Most people have a maximum willingness to pay for something and if they pay less than that, they will receive some consumer surplus. However, with an auction, it can be a good way for the seller to force consumers to bid their maximum price and hence this can reduce the consumer surplus.
Of course, in this auction only the highest bidder will actually pay and so it will only be their consumer surplus that is affected. However, other auction designs, such as an ‘All-pay’ auction can extract the full consumer surplus from bidders. Mr Lollback, the Chief Marketing Officer said:
‘We’re excited to be auctioning off the first-ever bottle of Big Mac sauce for a cause we are passionate about… It’s going to be interesting to see just how much people are prepared to pay for such a sought after commodity.’
The final price will certainly be interesting and, with other bottles of this sauce available, we will have to wait and see whether or not further auctions take place or if other mechanisms of delivering the sauce to the public appear. The following articles consider the Big Mac sauce auction.
McDonald’s Big Mac sauce auction attracts $18,000 bid BBC News (3/2/15)
Liquid Gold! Macca’s auction off the only bottle of its trademark Big Mac special sauce in Australia … and bids have already reached $23,000 Mail Online, Leesa Smith (3/2/15)
Bottle of McDonald’s secret Big Mac sauce up for auction USA Today, Jessica Durando (3/2/15)
McDonald’s Big Mac special sauce yours to own from today The Telegraph, Richard Noone (29/1/15)
- Why does the price of a product rise when it is scarce? Use a diagram to explain this.
- What is consumer surplus and how can a firm aim to extract as much of this as possible? Why would a firm want to do this? Use a diagram to illustrate the concept of consumer surplus and how it can change.
- Why can an auction push up the market price of a product?/li>
- Given that the Big Mac sauce is available on all Big Macs, which can be purchased for a very low price, what explanation can be given for people being prepared to pay over £10,000?
- When are auctions a good mechanism to sell a product?
- What are the different types of auctions that can occur? How do they vary in terms of the price that can be achieved?
As resources become scarce, the price mechanism works to push up the price (see, for example, Box 9.11 in Economics 8th ed). If you look at the price of petrol over the past few decades, there has been a general upward trend – part of this is due to growth in demand, but part is due to oil being a scarce resource. Many millions have been spent on trying to find alternative fuels and perhaps things are now looking up!
Air Fuel Synthesis, a small British company, has allegedly managed to make ‘petrol from air’. Following this, the company has unsurprisingly received finance and investment offers from across the world. However, the entrepreneur Professor Marmont has said that he does not want any company from the oil industry to get a stake in this firm. This doesn’t mean that investment is not needed or on the cards, as in order to increase production of petrol from thin air financing is needed. Professors Marmont said:
We’ve had calls offering us money from all over the world. We’ve never had that before. We’ve made the first petrol with our demonstration plant but the next stage is to build a bigger plant capable of producing 1 tonne of petrol a day, which means we need between £5m and £6m
Whilst the process appears to be a reality, Air Fuel Synthesis is a long way from being able to produce en masse. However, it does offer an exciting prospect for the future of petrol and renewable energy resources in the UK. At the moment oil companies appear to be uninterested, but if this breakthrough receives the financing it needs and progress continues to be made, it will be interesting to see how the big oil companies respond. The following articles consider this break-through.
Company that made ‘petrol from air’ breakthrough would refuse investment from big oil Independent, Steve Connor (19/10/12)
British engineers create petrol from air and water Reuters, Alice Baghdijan (19/10/12)
Petrol from air: will it make a difference? BBC News, Jason Palmer (19/10/12)
British engineers produce amazing ‘petrol from air’ technology The Telegraph , Andrew Hough (18/10/12)
- Explain the way in which the price mechanism works as resources become scarce. Use a diagram to help your explanation.
- As raw materials become scarce, prices of the goods that use them to work or require them to be produced will be affected. Explain this interdependence between markets.
- Why is investment from an oil company such a concern for Professor Marmont?
- Why is there unlikely to be any impact in the short run from this new breakthrough?
- If such a technology could be put into practice, what effect might this have on the price of petrol?
- How might oil companies react to the growth in this technology?
EU environmental legislation is beginning to cause problems in the UK. As it prohibits coal-fired power plants from generating power, they will be forced to close. This means that the UK will be forced to rely more on imported energy, which could lead to price rises, as energy shortages emerge.
Ofgem, the energy regulator has said that the risk of a gas shortage is likely to be at its highest in about 3 years time, as the amount of spare capacity is expected to fall from its current 14% to just 4%. Energy shortages have been a concern for some time, but the report from Ofgem indicates that the predicted time frame for these energy shortages will now be sooner than expected. Ofgem has said that the probability of a black-out has increased from 1 in 3,300 years now to 1 in 12 years by 2015.
The government, however, has said that its Energy Bill soon to be published will set out plans that will secure power supply for the UK. Part of this will be through investment, leading to new methods of generating energy. The Chief Executive of Ofgem, Alistair Buchanan said:
‘The unprecedented challenges in facing Britain’s energy industry … to attract the investment to deliver secure, sustainable and affordable energy supplies for consumers, still remain.’
One particular area that will see growth is wind-farms: a controversial method of power supply, due to the eye-sore they present (to some eyes, at least) and the noise pollution they generate. But with spare capacity predicted to fall to 4%, they will be a much needed investment.
Perhaps of more concern for the everyday household will be the impact on energy prices. As we know, when anything is scarce, the price begins to rise. As energy shortages become more of a concern, the market mechanism will begin to push up prices. With other bills already at record highs and incomes remaining low, the average household is likely to feel the squeeze. The following articles and the Ofgem report considers this issue.
Electricity Capacity Assessment Ofgem Report to Government, Ofgem (5/12/12)
Power shortage risks by 2015, Ofgem warns BBC News (5/10/12)
Britain faces risk of blackout The Telegraph (5/10/12)
Ofgem estimates tightening margins for electricity generation Reuters (5/10/12)
Electricity shortages are ‘risk’ by 2015 Sky News (5/10/12)
Future energy bills could give customers a nasty shock ITV News, Chris Choi (5/10/12)
- What is the role of Ofgem in the UK?
- Explain the way in which prices adjust as resources become more or less scarce. Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate your answer.
- To what extent do you think the UK should be forced to close down its coal-fired plants, as a part of EU environmental legislation?
- Are there any market failures associated with the use of wind farms? Where possible, use a diagram to illustrate your answer.
- Explain why an energy shortage will lead to an increase in imports and how this in turn will affect energy prices.
- What are the government’s plans to secure energy provision in the UK? Do you think they are likely to be effective?
Economics studies the choices people make. ‘Rational choice’ involves the weighing up of costs and benefits and trying to maximise the surplus of benefits over costs. This surplus will be maximised when people do more of things where the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost and less of things where the marginal cost exceeds the marginal benefit. But, of course, measuring benefits and costs is not always easy. Nevertheless, for much of the time we do make conscious choices where we consider that choosing to do something is ‘worth it’: i.e. that the benefit to us exceeds the cost.
When we make a choice, often this involves expenditure. For example, when we choose to buy an item in a shop, we spend money on the item, and also, perhaps, spend money on transport to get us to the shop. But the full opportunity cost includes not only the money we spend, but also the best alternative activity sacrificed while we are out shopping.
Then there are the benefits. Not all pleasurable activity costs us money. The sight of beautiful contryside or the pleasure of the company of friends may cost us very little, if anything, in money terms. But they may still be very valuable to us.
If we are to make optimal decisions we need to have some estimate of all costs and benefits, not just ones involving the payment or receipt of money. This applies both to individual behaviour and to collective decisions made by governments or other agencies.
Cost–benefit analysis seeks to do this to help decisions about new projects, such as a new road, a new hospital, environmental projects, and so on. But just how do we set about putting a value on the environment – on the pleasure of a walk in bluebell woods, on protecting bird life in wetlands or sustaining ecosystems?
For the first time there has been a major study that attempts to value the environment. According to the introduction to the report:
The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) is the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and the nation’s continuing prosperity. Carried out between mid-2009 and mid-2011, the UK NEA has been a wide-ranging, multi-stakeholder, cross-disciplinary process, designed to provide a comprehensive picture of past, present and possible future trends in ecosystem services and their values; it is underpinned by the best available evidence and the most up-to-date conceptual thinking and analytical tools. The UK NEA is innovative in scale, scope and methodology, and has involved more than 500 natural scientists, economists, social scientists and other stakeholders from government, academic and private sector institutions, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
The following podcast and webcast look at the report and at some of the issues it raises in terms of quantifying and incorporating environmental costs and benefits into decision taking.
Podcast and Webcast
‘The hidden value’ of our green spaces BBC Today Programme, Tom Feilden (2/6/11)
Report puts monetary value on Britain’s natural assets BBC News, Jeremy Cooke (2/6/11)
NEA report highlights need for biodiversity Farmers Guardian, Ben Briggs (2/6/11)
Nature is worth £19bn a year to the UK economy – report Energy & Environmental Management Magazine (2/6/11)
In praise of… the unquantifiable Guardian (3/6/11)
Priceless benefits of bluebell woods Guardian letters, Dr Bhaskar Vira and Professor Roy Haines-Young (4/6/11)
Nature ‘is worth billions’ to UK BBC News, Richard Black (2/6/11)
Putting a price on nature BBC News, Tom Feilden (2/6/11)
Value of Britain’s trees and waterways calculated in ‘ground-breaking’ study The Telegraph, Andy Bloxham (2/6/11)
Nature worth billions, says environment audit Financial Times, Clive Cookson (2/6/11)
Nature gives UK free services worth billions Planet Earth, Tom Marshall (3/6/11)
UK scientists put price on nature with National Ecosystem Assessment GreenWise, Ann Elise Taylor (2/6/11)
UK National Ecosystem Assessment: link to report DEFRA
UK National Ecosystem Assessment (June 2011)
The UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Synthesis of the Key Findings
- How would you set about valuing the benefits of woodlands?
- According to the report, the health benefits of living close to a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year. How much credance sould we attach to such a figure?
- What do you understand by the ‘ecosystem approach’ and the term ‘ecosystem services’?
- Explain Figure 2 on page 3 of Chapter 2 of the report.
- Should decision makers quantify only those benefits of ecosystems experienced by humans? Would all environmentalists agree with this approach?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of quantifying all costs and benefits in money terms?
- Compare the consequences over the next 50 years of a ‘world markets’ scenarios with that of a ‘nature at work’ scenario.
- What policy implications follow from the report?