A simple model in economics is that of demand and supply. Through the price mechanism, signals are sent between consumers and producers and this interaction results in an equilibrium market price and quantity. However, what happens when the market for a good or service is in disequilibrium?
When a market is in equilibrium, demand equals supply. However, as we discussed in a previous blog concerning baby milk in China (see Milking the economy), markets are not always in equilibrium. If demand exceeds supply, a shortage will emerge and to eliminate this, the price must rise. If, on the other hand, supply exceeds demand, there will be an excess supply and thus the price must fall to restore equilibrium.
The market in question here is toilet paper in Venezuela! A severe shortage of this product has emerged in recent months, with shops running out of supplies. In a bid to relieve this shortage, the country’s Minister of Commerce has received approval for a $79 million credit, which can be used to import this basic product in short supply. Fifty million rolls will be imported to help fill the shortage that has emerged. The shortage is not just a problem for toilet paper, but also across a range of basic consumer goods. The article from Reuters comments that:
The government says the toilet paper shortages, like others, are the results of panicked buying and unscrupulous merchants hoarding the goods to artificially inflate prices.
Opposition critics say the problem is caused by the currency controls, created a decade ago by late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, and years of nationalizations that weakened private industry and left businesses unwilling to invest.
With shortages across a variety of products, the President has begun to work closely with business leaders to address this situation. The following articles consider this basic market, the intervention and consequences.
Venezuela hopes to wipe out toilet paper shortage by importing 50m rolls The Guardian (16/5/13)
Venezuela ends toilet paper shortage BBC News (22/5/13)
With even toilet paper scarce, Venezuelan president warms to business Reuters, Eyanir Chinea (22/5/13)
Toilet paper shortage in Venezuela to end after lawmakers back plans to import 39 million rolls Huffington Post, Sara Nelson (22/5/13)
Venezuela’s toilet paper shortage ended; 3 other basic goods that went scarce in the country International Business Times, Patricia Rey Mallen (22/5/13)
- Using a demand and supply diagram, explain how equilibrium is determined in a free market.
- Illustrate the shortage described in the aticles on your above demand and supply diagram. How should the price mechanism adjust?
- What types of government intervention have led to the shortages of such basic consumer goods?
- How have currency controls created a problem for Venezuela?
- With an increase in imported products, what impact might there be on Venezuela’s exchange rate and on its balance of payments?
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?
One problem for motorists at the moment is the cost of petrol, where prices have reached over 1.37p on average, as we considered in the blog It’s fuelling anger. However, another problem could soon materialise and that is no petrol. Back in 2000, there was massive disruption to the public with a fuel blockade and a similar thing could occur, following the ‘yes’ vote by fuel tank drivers in favour of strike action.
Over the past few years, strikes have occurred across a variety of industries and if this one did happen with no contingency plan in place, disruption would be significant to both private individuals and companies. Drivers from Unite (the trade union) supply over 90% of fuel to UK garages and so any strike could lead to the closure of up to 7,900 stations.
However, the government has begun to consider the worst case scenario, if talks do not work with plans to begin training army drivers. There are concerns that without these plans in place, disruption across the country may occur with supermarkets, garages and airports all facing fuel shortages. Those who have a job that relies on travel, or even those who simply use their cars or buses to get to work will also feel the effects. Other problems within the emergency services could also emerge, but the government has assured the public that their fuel would be prioritised. The following articles consider this issue.
Fuel strike drivers vote yes in row over conditions BBC News (26/3/12)
Plan for fuel strike, says Downing Street Financial Times, George Parker (27/3/12)
Talks urged to avert fuel tanker strike Independent, Andrew Woodcock and David Mercer (27/3/12)
Ed Miliband: Fuel strike must be avoided at all costs Telegraph, James Hall (27/3/12)
All striking tanker drivers want is responsible minimum standards Guardian, Len McCluskey (27/3/12)
- If a trade union bargains for higher wages, what is the likely effect on employment and unemployment?
- How might strike action by tankers affect businesses?
- Are there likely to be any adverse long term effects if strike action does occur over Easter?
- How could strike action affect a firm’s costs of production? Think in particular about those who rely on travel as part of the business.
- What other options are there to trade unions, besides striking? Assess the effectiveness of each of the options.
- If a shortage of petrol emerged, what would you expect to happen to its market price?
The UK section of the North Sea used to be sufficient to supply all of the country’s gas requirements, but now some has to be imported from countries such as Norway. With the cold weather, the usage of gas has increased to record levels and there are now concerns for future supplies, especially if the cold weather returns.
However, the National Grid has said that there isn’t a problem, despite a glitch with a Norwegian gas supply. Gas supplies from various sources have been increased to deal with this record demand. There have been calls for Britain to build more gas storage facilities and the National Grid did issue ‘gas balancing alerts’, asking power firms and other large industries to cut back on their gas consumption. There are suggestions that even if supplies of gas aren’t a problem at the moment, we could see serious shortages in a few years.
Following growing demand for gas supplies, wholesale prices rose, but they did fall again when supplies were increased. Prices of household bills could be affected in the future, but for now, it’s too soon to tell. However, rising prices could spell further trouble for ours and other economies suffering from extreme weather on top of a financial crisis. Economic recovery could be put in jeopardy.
This fear of gas shortages and security of supply has led environmental and business groups to argue that Britain needs to diversify its energy supplies and become less dependent on foreign exports. This issue fits in with the latest developments in new investment in wind turbines.
Who knew that something as beautiful as snow could cause so much trouble and provide so much economic analysis!
National Grid warns of UK gas shortage Guardian, David Teather (5/1/10)
Is the United Kingdom facing a natural gas shortage The Oil Drum (9/1/10)
Wind farms: Generating power and jobs? BBC News (8/1/10)
Gas rationing in -22C Britain increases fears of energy crisis Mail Online, Martina Lees (8/1/10)
Gas usage hits new high in UK cold snap BBC News (8/1/10)
Energy fears over gas and kerosene shortages Scotsman (6/1/10)
Gas shortages highlights firms’ exposure to energy security risks Business Green, Tom Young (8/1/10)
Uh-oh: the return of $3 gas CNN Money, Paul R La Monica (7/1/10)
Natural gas prices seen rising with winter shortages Global Times, Chen Xiaomin (4/1/10)
Gas demand hits record on Thursday Reuters (8/1/10)
Gas demand in UK hits another highBBC News, Hugh Pym (7/1/10)
- Illustrate the effects in the gas market of increasing demand and the resulting shortages. Then show the effects of increasing the supplies of gas. How is equilibrium achieved when there is a shortage in the market?
- Why did energy prices increase and then fall?
- To what extent should the government have been able to forecast this higher demand? Should better contingency plans have been in place?
- The article from CNN Money looks at the effect of rising prices of oil and energy and how this is likely to affect consumer spending. Why could rising prices of these commodities adversely affect economic recovery?
- What is an ‘interruptible contract’ and how useful have they been in dealing with these gas shortages?
- Why has this gas shortage presented environmental groups with an opportunity to promote renewable energy supplies? Think about economic interdependence.
- What alternatives are there to our current gas sources? Are they realistic alternatives?
You can hardly have failed to miss the snow! From children sledging to cars skidding and from being snowed in from work to being snowed in at work. In the UK, it only happens once in a while and when it does, life practically comes to a standstill. Why is this not the case in countries such as Norway? Well, one way of looking at it as that they’re used to it and have tried and tested methods of dealing with it and the investment to match. As we suffer from these severe conditions only once in a while, any significant investment in improving our ability to deal with it could be considered a waste of money.
However, many businesses affected by the snowy conditions will certainly not see it this way. Transport links have been disrupted: roads closed; trains stopped; airports closed; tunnels blocked and sports fields unplayable. The worst affected city centres have been deserted and retailers have subsequently suffered. Even if shoppers had made it to the shops, they may have found many of them closed, as staff struggled to make it in to work across the country. Office workers were being advised to work from home where possible and off-duty medical staff that could make it in to work were covering for those that couldn’t. Even emergency services were said to be going out only to life threatening situations.
Small businesses are suffering from declining sales, as deliveries cannot be made. Farmers too are facing major problems. Thousands of livestock are being frozen to death and many animals are without food, as farmers simply can’t get to them, suffering from snow drifts that have been up to 4 feet deep across Scotland. These are the worst conditions that some areas in Scotland have experienced in 50 years and they’re expected to continue for some time. Cattle farmers in the UK are also facing wasting thousands of litres of milk, as lorries find they cannot access the farms. This could simply mean pouring all this milk down the drain.
Estimates suggest that this cold winter could cost the UK economy £14.5bn in total from lost business. Daily costs will be about £690 million – certainly something that we don’t need in the current climate – financial that is! The following articles look at some of the problems faced across the UK. Read them and then think about the questions below.
Hundreds stranded as Eurostar train breaks down in channel tunnel again Mail Online, Peter Allen (7/1/10)
UK snow freezes transport links and thousands of schools (including video) Guardian, Peter Walker and Steven Morris (6/1/10)
Snowed in, out of pocket. Store staff face a wage freeze Guardian, Caroline Davis and John Stevens (6/1/10)
Livestock being frozen to death in their thousands Scotsman, Frank Urquhart, Alastair Dalton and Mark Smith (7/1/10)
Heavy snow damages business for hospitality industry Big Hospitality, Becky Paskin (6/1/10)
UK’s snowy winter could cost the economy £14.5bn Metro Reporter (7/1/10)
Business leaders criticise school closures BBC News (7/1/10)
Snow puts business continuity plans to the test Computer Weekly, Warwick Ashford (7/1/10)
Freezing weather will cost Welsh economy £25m a day Western Mail, David James (7/1/10)
Snow brings chaos – and beautiful scenes Cotswold Journal (7/1/10)
Local firms count the cost as the big chill continues Belfast Telegraph (7/1/10)
Is snow actually good for the economy? BBC Magazine, Anthony Reuben (15/1/10)
Businesses affected by bad weather BBC News (8/1/10)
- How have businesses been affected by the snow? Is opportunity cost relevant here?
- How is a cost of £14.5bn calculated? (See the article from Metro Reporter.)
- What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against more investment in techniques and equipment to combat these type of conditions?
- Why are pay freezes a possibility for some staff? Illustrate and explain the likely effects of this policy.
- Some shops have seen record sales in this snowy weather, with their shelves completely empty. Which shops would you expect to be in these circumstances and why? (See news item, A new concept for you – Thermal elasticity of demand)
- Which sector of the economy do you think will be the worst affected and why? Which sector’s losses are likely to have the biggest consequences for the UK economy?