For many goods and services, economists argue that relatively unregulated markets often do a pretty good job in delivering desirable outcomes from society’s view point.
However, for these desirable outcomes to occur, certain conditions need to be present. One of these is that all the benefits and costs of consuming and producing the good/service must be experienced/incurred by the buyers and sellers directly involved in the transaction: i.e. there are no externalities. The market can still work effectively if people outside of the transaction are affected (i.e. third parties) but the impact occurs through the price mechanism.
The fast fashion industry
Fast fashion refers to designs and trends that rapidly pass from catwalks and designers to retailers. The clothes sell for low prices and in high quantities. The business model relies on regular purchases and impulse buying. It is particularly popular in the UK where annual clothing consumption per capita is significantly greater than in other European countries – 26.7kg vs 16.7kg in Germany and 14.5kg in Italy. On average, people in the UK have 115 items of clothing. Unsurprisingly, 30 per cent of these garments have not been worn for at least 12 months.
Externalities in fast fashion
There is lots of evidence that the fast fashion market fails to meet the condition of no externalities. Instead, it generates lots of external costs across its whole supply chain that do not affect third parties through the price mechanism. For example:
Growing cotton requires large amounts of water. Some estimates suggest that on average it takes 10 000 litres of water to cultivate just one kilogram of cotton. As water is a common resource (rival and non-excludable), its use in cotton production can exceed socially desirable levels. This can have serious consequences for both the quantity of drinking and ground water and can lead to previously fertile land being transformed into arid regions that are too dry to support vegetation.
Growing cotton also uses large amounts of pesticide. Some estimates suggest that 6 per cent of global pesticide production is applied to cotton crops. Extended contact with these chemicals can cause illness and infertility. It also has a negative impact on the long-term productivity of the soil. For example, the chemicals destroy microorganisms, plants and insects and so decrease biodiversity.
The manufacture of synthetic fibres such as polyester has a smaller negative impact on the use of water and land than the cultivation of a natural fibre such as cotton. However, because it is derived from oil, its manufacture generates more CO2 emissions. One study compared the CO2 emissions from producing the same shirt using polyester and cotton. The former generated 5.5kg whereas the latter produced 2.1kg.
The waste water from the use of solvents, bleaches and synthetic dyes in the manufacture of textiles/garments often flows untreated into local rivers and water systems. This is especially the case in developing countries. Estimates suggest that this is responsible for between 17 and 20 per cent of industrial global water pollution.
There are excessive levels of textile waste. This can be split into producer waste and consumer waste. Producer waste consists of 10–15 per cent of the fabric used in the manufacture of garments that ends up on the cutting room floor. It also includes deadstock – unsold and returned garments. For example, Burberry admitted that in 2017 it incinerated £28.6 million of unsold stock. In the same year, UK consumers disposed of 530 000 tonnes of unwanted clothing, shoes, bags and belts. This all went for landfill and incineration.
Textiles are one of the major sources of microplastic pollution and contribute 35 per cent (190 000 tonnes) of microplastic pollution in the oceans. A 6kg domestic wash can release as many as 700 000 synthetic fibres.
Addressing the externalities
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report on the fashion industry in February 2019. One of its key recommendations was that the tax system should be reformed so that it rewards fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts.
The UK government has tended to focus on the use of plastic rather than textiles. For example, it introduced a charge for single use carrier bags as well as banning the use of microbeads in rinse-off personal products and plastic straws/stirrers.
In April 2022, a new tax is being introduced in the UK on the plastic packaging of finished goods that is either manufactured in the UK or imported from abroad. The rate, set at £200 per metric tonne, will apply to packaging that contains less than 30 per cent of recycled plastic.
One specific proposal made by the Environmental Audit Committee was for the government to consider extending this new tax to textiles that contain less than 50 per cent recycled polyester. A recent study found that just under 50 per cent of clothes for sale on leading online websites were made entirely from new plastics.
The committee also called for the introduction of an extended producer responsibility scheme. This would make textile businesses responsible for the environmental impact of their products: i.e. they would have to contribute towards the cost of collecting, moving, recycling and disposing of their garments. It could involve the payment of an up-front fee, the size of which would depend on the environmental impact of the product.
In its Waste Prevention Programme for England published in March 2021, the government announced plans to consult with stakeholders about the possibility of introducing an ‘extended producer responsibility scheme’ in the textile industry. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is also carrying out a follow-up inquiry to its 2019 report.
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.
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.
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?
What can the government do to encourage investment in the economy?
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.
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?
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.
In his Budget on 29 October, the UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced a new type of tax. This is a ‘digital services tax’, which, after consultation, he is planning to introduce in April 2020. The target of the tax is the profits made by major companies providing social media platforms (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), internet marketplaces (e.g. Amazon and eBay) or search engines (such as Alphabet’s Google).
The proposed digital services tax is a 2% tax on the revenues earned by such companies in the UK. It would only apply to large companies, defined as those whose global revenue is at least £500m a year. It is expected to raise around £400m per year.
The EU is considering a similar tax at a rate of 3%. India, Pakistan, South Korea and several other countries are considering introducing digital taxes. Indeed, many countries are arguing for a worldwide agreement on such a tax. The OECD is studying the implications of the possible use of such a tax by its 36 members. If an international agreement on such a tax can be reached, a separate UK tax may not go ahead. As the Chancellor stated in his Budget speech:
In the meantime we will continue to work at the OECD and G20 to seek a globally agreed solution. And if one emerges, we will consider adopting it in place of the UK Digital Services Tax.
The proposed UK tax is a hybrid between direct and indirect taxes. Like corporation tax, a direct tax, its aim is to tax companies’ profits. But, unlike corporation tax, it would be harder for such companies to avoid. Like VAT, an indirect tax, it would be a tax on revenue, but, unlike VAT, it would be an ‘end-stage’ tax rather than a tax on value added at each stage of production. Also, it would not be a simple sales tax on companies as it would be confined to revenue (such as advertising revenue) earned from the use in the UK of search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. As the Chancellor said in his speech.
It is important that I emphasise that this is not an online-sales tax on goods ordered over the internet: such a tax would fall on consumers of those goods – and that is not our intention.
There is, however, a political problem for the UK in introducing such a tax. The main companies it would affect are American. It is likely that President Trump would see such taxes as a direct assault on the USA and could well threaten retaliation. As the Accountancy Age article states, ‘Dragging the UK into an acrimonious quarrel with one of its largest trading partners is perhaps not what the Chancellor intends.’ This will be especially so as the UK seeks to build new trading relationships with the USA after Brexit. As the BBC article states, ‘The chancellor will be hoping that an international agreement rides to his rescue before the UK tax has to be imposed.’
Evidence of widespread tax avoidance has featured heavily in the news recently. Furthermore, recent developments also suggest that avoiding taxes has become an important motivation for merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. For example, Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant that producers Viagra, has for a while been looking to expand through M&A. Following a failed attempt to merge with the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in 2014, it instead agreed late last year to merge with a company called Allergan. This was set to be the largest healthcare merger ever, worth over £100bn.
What is key about Allergan is that, whilst it is run from the USA, it is legally registered as being based in Ireland. It has been strongly argued that the key motivation for the merger was tax avoidance with Pfizer’s strategy described in this way:
They look for a likely partner based in a country with a lower corporate tax regime and suggest a merger. When the merger goes through, the company based in the US moves its HQ – but not the bulk of its operations – to the low-tax jurisdiction, where it books the bulk of its profits. At a stroke, the company’s tax bill is cut.
This practice is sometimes referred to as an inversion. It has been suggested that over the past five years around 40 completed mergers have been motivated by similar objectives.
However, policy makers, in particular in the USA, where corporation tax is high, have increasingly become aware of the practice. President Obama recently made clear that:
If corporations are paying less tax, only one of two things can happen. The US will have less to spend on schools, roads and public health, or taxes will have to be raised on the country’s middle class.
In 2014 some tightening of the tax rules took place, but with limited effect. Then, earlier this month President Obama implemented a series of new rules to attempt to prevent the practice. He stressed that these new rules would help to deter companies from taking advantage of:
one of the most insidious tax loopholes out there, fleeing the country just to get out of paying their taxes.
Almost immediately the Pfizer-Allegan merger was abandoned and Pfizer was required to pay a break-up fee of $150m to Allegran. The parties involved were far from happy and the chief executive of Allegran stated that:
For the rules to be changed after the game has been played is a bit un-American.
I think it is difficult to have a lot of patience for an American C.E.O. trying to execute a complicated financial transaction to avoid paying taxes in America, talking about what it means to be a good citizen of the United States.
As has been highlighted, the decision to immediately abandon the merger provides a clear indication that the business case and potential synergies arising from combining the two companies were far less important than the benefits from tax avoidance.
Where does the abandoned merger leave Pfizer? One option will be to consider alternative mergers. Perhaps reflecting this possibility, the share prices of foreign rivals such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline increased following the announcement that the Allegran deal had been abandoned. However, an alternative under serious consideration appears to be the opposite strategy of shrinking Pfizer’s operations. It has been argued that this would allow the company to be become more focused.
It remains to be seen in which direction Pfizer will go. However, what this example clearly illustrates is the impact changes in regulatory policy can have on firms’ strategic decisions.