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?
On Monday 23rd November, the US based pharmaceutical business Pfizer (producer of Viagra) announced that it had reached a $160 billion deal to acquire the Irish based pharmaceutical business Allergan (producer of Botox). If it is successful it will be the third largest deal in takeover history.
In a previous blog on this website a number of reasons were discussed to explain why businesses may engage in mergers and acquisitions (M&As) Are large mergers and acquisitions in the interests of the consumer . These include market power, access to growing markets, economies of scale and reducing x-inefficiency. One of the interesting things about the Pfizer and Allegan deal is the importance of another factor that was not discussed in the article – tax avoidance.
Rates of corporation tax vary considerably between countries and may deter some businesses from operating in the US where it is at the relatively high level of 35%. This compares with a rate of 20% in the UK, 12.5% in Ireland and 0% in Bermuda. The global average rate is 23.7% whereas the average across EU countries is 22.2%.
However, a far bigger incentive for a US firm to merge with or acquire businesses in other countries is the unusual way the US authorities tax profits. Most countries use a territorial system. This means that tax is only paid on the profit earned in that country. For example if a UK multinational business has subsidiaries in other countries it only pays corporation tax in the UK on profits earned in the UK. The profits earned by its subsidiary businesses would be taxed at the rate set by the government in the country where they were located.
The US authorities use a worldwide system. This means that profits earned by a subsidiary in another country are also taxed in the US. This is best explained with the help of a simple numerical example.
Assume a US multinational earns $100,000 in profits from a subsidiary based in Ireland. These profits will be taxed in Ireland at the rate of 12.5% and the company would have to pay $12,500 to the Irish government. If that profit was returned to the US it would be taxed again at a rate of 22.5%: i.e. 35% – 12.5%. The company would have to pay the US authorities $22,500.The worldwide system means that the total rate of tax paid by the firm is 35% but it is split between two different countries. If the territorial system was used, the firm would only pay the $12,500 to the Irish government.
So how could M&As change things? If an M&A enables a US multinational business to change its country of incorporation (i.e. move the address of its headquarters) from the US to another country that operates a territorial system its payments will fall. This is sometimes referred to as tax inversion. As the Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine stated:
If we’re incorporated in the U.S., we’ll pay 35 percent taxes on our income in the U.S. and Canada and Mexico and Ireland and Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, but if we’re incorporated in Canada, we’ll pay 35 percent on our income in the U.S. but 15 percent in Canada and 30 percent in Mexico and 12.5 percent in Ireland and zero percent in Bermuda and zero percent in the Cayman Islands.
As a result of the merger with Allergan, Pfizer will move the address of its headquarters to Ireland even though its global operations and executives will still be based in New York. It has been estimated that this will generate a one off tax saving of $21 billion as Pfizer would avoid having to pay US taxes on $128 billion of profits generated by its non US subsidiaries.
A number of US politicians have condemned the proposed deal. For example Hilary Clinton stated:
This proposed merger, and so called inversions by other companies, will leave US taxpayers holding the bag.
Twenty US companies have moved their headquarters to countries that operate a territorial system of taxation since 2012. These include Burger King’s move to Canada and Medtronic’s move to Ireland.
The US government has tried to tighten the rules but the two major parties disagree about how to deal with the problem.
Pfizer Seals $160bn Allergan deal to create drugs giant BBC News,(23/11/15)
Pfizer’s $160bn Allergan deal under pressure in the US BBC News,(24/11/15)
Pfizer set to buy Allergan in $150bn historic deal The Telegraph,(23/11/15)
Pfizer and Allergan poised to announce history’s biggest healthcare merger-corporate-tax The Guardian,(22/11/15)
Pfizer takeover: what is a tax inversion deal and why are they so controversial? The Guardian,(23/11/15)
- The newly merged business would jump above Johnson and Johnson to become the world’s largest biotech and pharmaceutical company in the world. Who are the other biggest eight Biotech and pharmaceutical businesses in the world?
- What exactly is a subsidiary? Give some real-world examples.
- How have the US authorities changed the rules in an attempt to deter tax inversions?
- Assume that a US multinational makes $1 million profit in the US and $1 million profit from its subsidiary in Ireland. Explain how changing its country of incorporation from the US to Ireland will alter the amount of corporation tax that it has to pay.
The UK Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has announced that, if Labour is returned to power in the next election, it will bring back the 50% top rate of income tax (see also). This will apply to incomes over £150,000.
But will this raise more tax revenue? The question here concerns incentive effects. Will the higher rate of income tax discourage work by those earning £150,000 or encourage tax avoidance or tax evasion, so that the total tax take is reduced? The Conservatives say the answer is yes. The Labour party says no, claiming that there will still be an increase in tax revenue.
The possible effects are summed up in the Laffer curve (see The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). As the previous post stated:
These arguments were put forward in the 1980s by Art Laffer, an adviser to President Reagan. His famous ‘Laffer curve’ (see Economics (8th edition) Box 10.3) illustrated that tax revenues are maximised at a particular tax rate. The idea behind the Laffer curve is very simple. At a tax rate of 0%, tax revenue will be zero – but so too at a rate of 100%, since no-one would work if they had to pay all their income in taxes. As the tax rate rises from 0%, so tax revenue would rise. And so too, as the tax rate falls from 100%, the tax rate would rise. It follows that there will be some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximises tax revenue.
As Labour is claiming that re-introducing the 50% top rate of income tax will increase tax revenue, the implication is that the economy is to the left of the top of the Laffer curve: that, at current level of income, the curve is still rising.
Work by HMRC, and published in the document The Exchequer effect of the 50 per cent additional rate of income tax, suggested that the previous cut in the top rate from 50% to 45% would cut revenue by around £3.5 billion if there were no incentive effect, but with the extra work that would be generated, the cut would be a mere £100 million. This implies, other things being equal, that a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would raise only a tiny bit of extra taxes.
However, the HMRC analysis has been criticised and especially its assumptions about the incentive effects on work. Then there is the question of whether a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would have exactly the reverse effect of a cut from 50% to 45%. And then there is the question of how much HMRC could reduce tax evasion and avoidance.
The following article from the Institute for Fiscal Studies examines the effects. However, the authors conclude that:
… at the moment, the best evidence we have still suggests that raising the top rate of tax would raise little revenue and make, at best, a marginal contribution to reducing the budget deficit an incoming government would face after the next election.
But there is also the question of equity. Putting aside the question of how much revenue would be raised, is it fair to raise the top rate of tax for those on high incomes? Would it make an important contribution to reducing inequality? This normative question lies at the heart of the different views of the world between left and right and is not a question that can be answered by economic analysis.
50p tax – strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve? Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson and David Phillips (Jan 2014)
- Distinguish between tax evasion and tax avoidance.
- How would it be possible for a rise in tax rates to generated less tax revenue?
- Could policies shift the Laffer curve as opposed to merely resulting in a move along the curve?
- What is meant by ‘taxable income elasticity (TIE)’? What are its determinants?
- Is the taxable income elasticity at the top of the Laffer curve equal to, above or below zero? Explain.
- Why did the Office for Budget Responsibility chairman, Robert Chote, conclude that, whatever the precise answer, we were ‘strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve’?
- Explain why ‘there is little additional evidence to suggest that a 50p rate would raise more than was estimated by HMRC back in 2012’.
- What contribution can economists make to the debate on the desirability of reducing inequality?