Each year the BBC hosts the Reith Lectures – a series of talks given by an eminent person in their field. This year’s lecturer is Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England. His series of four weekly lectures began on 2 December 2020. Their topic is ‘How we get what we value’. As the BBC site states, the lectures:
chart how we have come to esteem financial value over human value and how we have gone from market economies to market societies. He argues that this has contributed to a trio of crises: of credit, Covid and climate. And the former Bank of England governor will outline how we can turn this around.
In lectures 2, 3 and 4, he looks at three crises and how they have shaped and are shaping what we value. The crises are the financial crisis of 2007–9, the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. They have challenged how we value money, health and the environment respectively and, more broadly, have prompted people to question what is valuable for individuals and society, both today and into the future.
The questions posed by Carney are how can we establish what is valuable to individuals and society, how well are such values met by economies and how can mechanisms be improved to ensure that we make the best use of resources in meeting those values.
Value and the market
In the first lecture he probes the concept of value. He explores how economists and philosophers have tried to value the goods, services and human interactions that we desire.
First there is ‘objective value’ propounded by classical economists, such as Adam smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx. Here the value of goods and services depends on the amount of resources used to make them and fundamentally on the amount of labour. In other words, value is a supply-side concept.
This he contrasts with ‘subjective value’. Here the value of goods and services depends on how well they satisfy wants – how much utility they give the consumer. For these neoclassical economists, value is in the eye of the beholder; it is a demand-side concept.
The two are reconciled in the market, with market prices reflecting the balance of demand and supply. Market prices provided a solution to the famous diamonds/water paradox (see Box 4.2 in Economics (10th edition) or Case Study 4.3 in Essentials of Economics (8th edition) – the paradox of ‘why water, which is essential for life, is virtually free, but diamonds, which have limited utility beyond their beauty, are so expensive.’ The answer is to do with scarcity and marginal utility. Because diamonds are rare, the marginal utility is high, even though the total utility is low. And because water is abundant, even though its total utility is high, for most people its marginal utility is low. In other words, the value at the margin depends on the balance of demand and supply. Diamonds are much scarcer than water.
But is the market balance the right balance? Are the values implied by the market the same as those of society? ‘Why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland?’ – another paradox highlighted by Carney.
It has long been recognised that markets fail in a number of ways. They are not perfect, with large firms able to make supernormal profits by charging more and producing less, and consumers often being ill-informed and behaving impulsively or being swayed by clever marketing. And many valuable things that we experience, such as human interaction and the beauty of nature, are not bought and sold and thus do not appear in measures of GDP – one of the main ways of valuing a country.
What is more, many of things that are produced in the market have side-effects which are not reflected in prices. These externalities, whether good or bad, can be substantial: for example, the global warming caused by CO2 emissions from industry, transport and electricity production from fossil fuels.
And markets reflect people’s biases towards the present and hence lead to too little investment for the future, whether in healthcare, the environment or physical and social infrastructure. Markets reflect the scant regard many give to the damage we might be doing to the lives of future generations.
What is particularly corrosive, according to Carney, is the
drift from moral to market sentiments. …Increasingly, the value of something, some act or someone is equated with its monetary value, a monetary value that is determined by the market. The logic of buying and selling no longer applies only to material goods, but increasingly it governs the whole of life from the allocation of healthcare, education, public safety and environmental protection. …Market value is taken to represent intrinsic value, and if a good or activity is not in the market, it is not valued.
The drift from moral to market sentiments accelerated in the Thatcher/Regan era, when governments were portrayed as inefficient allocators, which stifled competition, innovation and the movement of capital. Deregulation and privatisation were the order of the day. This, according to Carney, ‘unleashed a new dynamism’ and ‘with the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, the spread of the market grew unchecked.’
But this drift failed to recognise market failures. It has taken three crises, the financial crisis, Covid and the climate crisis to bring these failures to the top of the public agenda. They are examined in the other three lectures.
The Reith Lectures
- Distinguish between objective and subjective value.
- If your income rises, will you necessarily be happier? Explain.
- How is the concept of diminishing marginal utility of income relevant to explaining why ‘A Christmas bonus of £1000 means less to Mark Zuckerberg then £500 does to someone on a minimum wage.’
- Does the use of social cost–benefit analysis enable us to use adjusted prices as a measure of value?
- Listen to lectures 2, 3 and 4 and provide a 500-word summary of each.
- Assess the arguments Mark Carney uses in one of these three lectures.
Economics, but not as we know it. As the introduction to this programme on BBC radio 4 suggests, there has been criticism and concern about the way in which we think about economics. About, how it’s taught; the lessons we learn and whether we need to have a re-think. Tomas Sedlacek is a Czech economist and has a different way of thinking about this subject.
Humanomics is certainly a new way of thinking about economics and considering how it links and can be applied to a wide range of areas: the Bible; movies such as Fight Club and the Matrix. This 30 minute discussion between Evan Davies and Tomas Sedlacek provides some interesting insights and thoughts on some of the current challenges facing this subject and some novel insights into how we could change our thinking.
Tomas Sedlacek: The Economics of Good and Evil BBC Radio 4 (25/01/16)
- How do we define and measure value? Is this always possible? Can you think of some things where we cannot assign prices or numbers to values?
- How could economics be relevant Adam and Eve?
- Think about the marriage market. How would you apply the model of demand and supply to this most unusual of markets?
- What insights does Tomas Sedlacek provide about the ancient business cycle and this might affect our thinking about debt and assets?
- Do you think that refugees are of benefit to a country? If you don’t think they are of benefit, does this mean that countries should not accept them?
- If we did find out that corruption or crime and terrorism were of benefit to the GDP of a country, would you encourage it? Or would you place the morality issue above the actual figure of contribution?
The supermarket industry is a classic example of an oligopoly. A market dominated by a few large companies, which is highly competitive and requires the companies to think about the reactions of the other competitors whenever a decision is made. Throughout the credit crunch, price cutting was the order of the day, as the big four tried to maintain market share and not lose customers to the low cost Aldi and Lidl. Morrisons, however, has found itself in exactly that position and is now looking to restructure to return to profitability.
Morrisons is well known for its fresh food, but it seems that with incomes still being squeezed, even this is insufficient to keep its customers from looking for cheaper alternatives. Morrisons’ market share has been in decline and its profits or the last financial year have been non-existent. It’s been losing ground to its big competitor, Tesco and part of this is due to the fact that Morrisons was late to enter the ‘Tesco metro’ market. It remained dependent on its large supermarkets, whereas Tesco saw the opportunity to expand onto the highstreets, with smaller stores. It was also late arriving to the online shopping business and while it has now developed more sophisticated IT systems, it did lose significant ground to Tesco and its other key competitors.
Another problem is that Morrisons has found itself unable to compete with the low cost supermarkets. The prices on offer at Morrisons are certainly not low enough to compete with prices at Aldi and Lidl and Morrisons has seen many of its customers switch to these cheaper alternatives. But Morrisons is fighting back and has announced plans to cut prices on a huge range of products across its stores. The fresh food aspect of the business will still remain and the hope is that the fresh food combined with cheaper price tags will allow Morrisons to re-gain lost ground to Tesco and take back some of its lost customers from the low-cost alternatives. However, it’s not just Morrisons that has been losing customers to the budget retailers. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda have all lost market share to Aldi and Lidl, but it is Morrisons that has fared the worst.
The latest news on Morrisons’ profits and overall performance, together with its promise of restructuring and price cuts worth £1 billion has caused uncertainty for shareholders and this has reduced the value of shares. However, Morrisons’ Directors have tried to restore confidence by purchasing shares themselves. With expectations of price wars breaking out, the other supermarkets have also seen significant declines in their share values, with a total of £2 billion being wiped off the value of their shares collectively. The consequences of Morrisons’ performance will certainly continue: customers are likely to benefit from lower prices in all of the big four supermarkets, but investors may lose out – at least in the short run. The impact on jobs is uncertain and will certainly depend on how investors and customers react in the coming weeks. The following articles consider this sector.
UK grocer Morrison warns on profit, threatens price war Reuters, James Davey (13/3/14)
Morrisons and the threat to mainstream supermarkets BBC News, Robert Peston (13/3/14)
Morrisons expected to sell property in response to profit drop The Guardian (9/3/14)
Morrisons restructuring sparks fears of new price war BBC News (13/3/14)
Morrisons’ dividend up while profit falls? It’s hard to believe The Guardian, Nils Pratley (13/3/14)
Morrisons boss talks tough as group slides into red The Scotsman, Scott Reid (13/3/14)
Morrisons plots price cuts after annual loss Sky News (13/3/14)
Morrisons’ declaration of £1bn price war with budget stores hammers Sainsbury and Tesco shares This is Money, Rupert Steiner (14/3/14)
Ocado on track for first profit in wake of Morrisons deal Independent, Simon Neville (14/4/14)
- What are the key characteristics of an oligopoly?
- To what extent do you think the supermarket sector is a good example of an oligopoly?
- Why is the characteristic of interdependence a key cause of the potential price war between the supermarkets?
- Why has Morrisons been affected so badly with the emergence of the budget retailers?
- By using the income an substitution effect, explain how the big four supermarkets have been affected by retailers, such as Aldi and Lidl.
- Using a demand and supply diagram, explain how the share prices of companies like Morrisons are determined. Which factors affect (a) the demand for and (b) the supply of shares?
- What do you think will happen to the number of jobs in Morrisons given the performance of the company and its future plans?
In the blog No accounting for trade, the rise in the UK’s balance of trade deficit was discussed. Many factors have contributed to this weakening position and no one market is to blame. But, by analysing one product and thinking about the factors that have caused its export volumes to decline, we can begin to create a picture not just of the UK economy (or more particularly Scotland!), but of the wider global economy.
Scotch whisky may not have been the drink of choice for many British adults, but look outside Great Britain and the volume consumed is quite staggering. For example, French consumers drink more Scotch whisky in one month than they drink cognac in one year. The volume of Scotch whisky exported from our shores was £4.23 billion for 2011, accounting for 90% of all sales and making its way into 200 markets. However, one problem with this product is that it is highly susceptible to the business cycle. Add to this the time required to produce the perfect Scotch (in particular the fact that it must be left to mature) and we have a market where forecasting is a nightmare.
Producers typically look to forecast demand some 10 years ahead and so getting it right is not always easy, especially when the global economy declines following a financial crisis! So what has been the impact on exports of this luxurious drink? In the past few years, it has been as key growth market for UK exports rising by 190% in value over the past decade. But in 2012 the volume of Scotch whisky exports fell by 5% to 1.19 billion bottles. What explains the decline in sales?
The biggest importer of Scotch whisky is France and its volumes were down by 25%. Part of this decline is undoubtedly the economic situation. When incomes decline, demand for normal goods also falls. Many would suggest Scotch whisky is a luxury and thus we would expect to see a relatively large decline following any given fall in income. However, another factor adding to this decline in 2012 is the increased whisky tax imposed by the French government. Rising by 15% in 2012, commentators suggest that this caused imports of Scotch whisky to rise in 2011 to avoid this tax, thus imports in 2012 took a dive. Spain is another key export market and its economic troubles are clearly a crucial factor in explaining their 20% drop in volume of Scotch whisky imported.
But, it’s not all bad news: sales to Western Europe may be down, but Eastern Europe and other growth countries/continents, such as the BRICs and Africa have developed a taste for this iconic product. Latvia and Estonia’s value of Scotch whisky imports were up by 48% and 28% respectively, as Russian demand rises and China, still growing, is another key market. Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association said:
A combination of successful trade negotations, excellent marketing by producers, growing demand from mature markets, particularly the USA, and the growing middle class in emerging economies helped exports hit a record £4.3bn last year.
Furthermore, while the volume of exports worldwide did fall, the value of these exports rose to £4.27 billion, a growth of 1%. This suggests that although we are exporting fewer bottles, the bottles that we are exporting are more expensive ones. Clearly some people have not felt the impact of the recession. For Scotland and the wider UK, these declining figures are concerning, but given the cyclical nature of the demand, as the world economy slowly begins to recover, sales are likely to follow suit. Gavin Hewitt continued his comments above, saying:
We are contributing massively to the Government’s wish for an export-led recovery. There is confidence in the future of the industry, illustrated by the £2bn capital investment that Scotch whisky producers have committed over the next three to four years.
The following articles consider the rise and fall of this drink and its role as a key export market across the world.
Scottish whisky industry puts export hope in new market BBC News (2/4/13)
Scotch whisky sales on the slide The Guardian, Simon Neville (2/4/13)
Growth stalls for Scotch whisky exports BBC News (2/4/13)
Scotch whisky accounts for 25pc of UK’s food and drink exports The Telegraph, Auslan Cramb (2/4/13)
Whisky sales fall but value of exports hits new high Herald Scotland (3/4/13)
Scotch whisky exports rise to record value The Telegraph, Auslan Cramb (2/4/13)
Scotch whisky exports hit by falling demand in France The Grocer, Vince Bamford (2/4/13)
New markets save Scotch from impact of austerity Independent, Tom Bawden (2/4/13)
Scotch exports hit by falling demand Financial Times, Hannah Kichler (2/4/13)
- Which is the better measure of an industry’s performance: the value or the volume of goods sold?
- Why would you expect volumes of Scotch sold to decline during an economic downturn?
- When a higher tax was imposed on Scotch whisky in France, why did volumes fall? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate the impact of the tax.
- What type of figure would you expect Scotch whisky to have for income elasticity of demand? Does it vary for different people?
- Why is forecasting demand for Scotch so difficult? What techniques might be used?
- Why does demand for Scotch whisky remain high and even rising in many emerging markets?
- Is the market for Scotch whisky exports a good indication of the interdependence of countries across the world?
Here’s an interesting example of oligopoly – one you probably haven’t considered before. It’s the art market. And it’s not just one market, but a whole pyramid of markets. At the bottom are the ‘yearning masses’ of penny-poor artists, from students to those struggling to make a living from their art, with studios in their attic, garden shed or kitchen table. At the top of the pyramid are those very few artists that can earn fantastic sums of money by selling to collectors or top galleries. Then there are all the layers of markets in between, where artists can earn everything from a modest to a reasonable income.
The pyramid is itself depicted as a work of art, which you can see in the linked article below. It’s worth studying this piece of art carefully as well as reading the article.
A guide to the market oligopoly system Reuters, Felix Salmon (28/12/10)
- Identify the increasing barriers to entry as you work up the art market pyramid.
- Are there any other market imperfections in the art market that you can identify from the diagram?
- What are the key differences between the ‘primary market, tier 1’, the ‘primary market, tier 2’ and ‘the secondary market’?
- Are artists ‘rational maximisers’? If so, what is it they are trying to maximise? If not, why not?
- How would you set about determining the ‘worth’ of a piece of art? How do possible future value of a piece of art determine its present value?