No deal may be likelier than we think

Featured Image Credits: Ala z on Wikimedia Commons

A serious disruption of the free flow of commercially valuable data between Europe and the UK.

£13 (around $16) more to be spent each week per household on food in the UK.

A £100bn loss to the EU economy.

Regardless of your opinion on whether the above is waffle or a genuine threat of a no-deal Brexit, it seems pretty logical for both sides of the UK-EU negotiating table to see this as an avoidable scenario. Unfortunately the world, and most certainly geopolitics, is not exactly replete with magnanimity. Whilst public perception of politicians as a swarm of Machiavellis can be seen as a tad harsh, politicians, like regular people, in general tend to act in their own self-interest. Numerous groups, though, across the UK are unceasing in their attempts to stamp out a no-deal Brexit from the list of potential outcomes of the negotiation. However, previous attempts have fallen flat and so for the moment the blocking of no-deal from potentiality seems unlikely. Given this probability the potentially destructive no-deal black hole is coming closer and closer to Europe. This is not because it wouldn’t hurt both sides greatly but because if either side is seen to be the one to give ground, it could have dramatic implications.

First, a brief description of the issue: the Irish backstop.

To maintain the seamless transfer of goods, services and people across the border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the agreement reached between the May administration and the EU involved a so-called “backstop” in the region. In this case, Northern Ireland would have to comply with some rules of the EU single market, thereby necessitating the whole UK acquiescing to the EU rules. Given one of the major concerns for the UK populous in the very beginning was the claimed iron fist of the EU strangling the great British will to be free, the deal is hardly likely to curry favour with them. But forget the public, it didn’t even make it past the politicians, even after four tries! This is the essential bone of contention here.

Let’s firstly look at this from the UK perspective. PM Johnson already knows he cannot even consider bringing any deal with a backstop involved to the House of Commons, lest it be rejected for a hysterical fifth time. He now has two alternatives: a no-deal and an alternative to the current backstop arrangement which is acceptable to both the Commons (so the deal can actually pass) and the public (unless he wants to become May 2.0 and plunge the Conservatives into a deeper rut). He could, of course, revoke Article 50 altogether, but unless he wants to be known as the man who caused civil unrest, he’s going to stay well clear of that route. Now although both parties have indicated a willingness to explore alternatives to the traditional backstop (for example, the technology-driven border mechanism frequently espoused by many UK MPs), there has been precious little detail on the matter. As of now there remains no workable solution to the border issue and so the only option left on the table for Johnson is a no-deal.

What about for the EU? A backstop certainly isn’t the preferable outcome for them either, given the many benefits to the Republic, and thus the EU economy, of free trade between themselves and Northern Ireland. If there is no backstop (and no alternative arrangement) and the EU agrees to no hard border on the island of Ireland,  they are essentially allowing the UK access to the EU single market without the UK “giving” anything in return, for example, through membership of the customs union. This sets a dangerous precedent because the EU has numerous times said that it will not give the UK such preferential treatment. Countries like Norway and Switzerland have had to give substantial ground with regards to contributions to the EU’s budget and accepting the free movement of workers.

Now, don’t get me wrong; politicians are commonly hypocritical and go back on their word often, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that EU politicians such as European Council President Tusk aren’t capable of this. The issue is that this issue is extremely high profile and contentious. If the EU secedes this issue to a country that is, even slightly, anti-EU, it is capable of reigniting anti-EU moments driven by politicians such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine le Pen in France. Once these movements are bolstered, the very fabric of the EU is under existential threat. If this sounds sensational, ask yourself this: how many people would have predicted Brexit in 2010? Hence the EU cannot be seen to give the UK any sort of preference in this negotiation, otherwise it opens up a Pandora’s box of potential difficulties for the bloc.

It’s clear to see then, that taking an elementary game theoretical stance on the matter a clear Nash equilibrium is the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal. While not the optimal solution, given what is at stake for both parties it seems the most likely outcome unless a viable alternative to the Irish backstop is found.

While this presents a rather melancholy view, it seems to me as if it’s pretty realistic. The market may have to price in much greater odds for a no-deal than 50% soon.

Why, for me, the euro has and will continue to fail

Photo Credits: Ottmar Hörl License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Whatever your views on the euro, it’s clear to see that it isn’t in the best of places right now.

Really, it’s a culmination of a number of things that have led to its current malaise, starting from when the concept was first introduced, all the way back in 1993. Six long years and stern British and Danish opposition followed, but on New Year’s Day in 1999, the single currency went from a theoretical concept to a practical reality. It was even used by every country in the then EU apart from the UK and Denmark, who still now have a fixed exchange rate with it. Under the control of the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank, the euro has grown to become the world’s second largest reserve currency, and ECB decisions affect directly 340 million people across the globe. Given all this, the fortunes of the euro take on that much greater global significance worldwide, which is why it’s crucial that it finds its way out of the doldrums or ceases to exist altogether. Draghi and his team have tried to find a way to accomplish the former, however their measures haven’t gone nearly far enough to soothe the economic pain of oh so many. For me, this is because the euro in its current state is fundamentally unworkable; it cannot exist without imposing massive economic damage to a large proportion of its users. Here’s why.

Firstly, what the euro is trying to do is apply uniform monetary policy to a number of different states with different economies and different concerns that need to be assuaged. What this, of course, means, is that some policies will definitely not fit the needs of what some countries desire. As the former Bank of England governor Mervyn King claimed in his first book The End of Alchemy, the discontent caused by some nations having to bail out others (such as Greece recently) for what could be plain fiscal irresponsibility “may become too great to remain consistent with political stability”. I would argue strongly for this, extending on King’s point that this monetary union creates conflict between a “centralised elite” on one side and the “forces of democracy” on the other. Furthermore, I am of the belief that to stop King’s suggested wave of discontent, the only long-term sustainable option available to European policymakers is to bring together these countries in a fiscal union, and thus let the centralised elite coordinate the synergy of fiscal and monetary policy to what they believe to be the best interests of all parties involved. Obviously, there exists a problem with this: the backlash of the masses against what they perceive to be a moneyed elite. We’ve seen this with the famous Brexit and Trump’s election, so even this option presents substantial political risk that could, in my opinion, bring down this monetary union altogether. As we’ve seen here, there really isn’t a path which the EU can go down with this that doesn’t lead to some sort of political backlash or economic hardship: both of which could prove treacherous for the European establishment.

This point also becomes important when you have exogenous shocks affecting economies that cannot use their monetary policy tools to combat them. For example, the European Central Bank has set an interest rate of -0.40% on reserves, which in theory, should stimulate investment and economic growth within member economies. Setting aside the fact that the interest rate channel has proved relatively ineffectual in Europe till date, if it does indeed stimulate growth in a Eurozone economy, what happens if this economy overheats? The natural response would be to encourage saving by raising interest rates, however who now has the power to do this? That’s right: the European Central Bank. This also happens to be an institution who has to take into account the needs of the other tens of countries that happen to be at its monetary mercy, and when you have such an arrangement, be sure that the ECB’s decisions won’t always be what you need. This just makes a potentially negative situation that affects Europe worse, not just for the directly affected country, but for the Europe as a whole. This is because worsening economic conditions within a country could reduce consumer spending and aggregate demand for goods and services within that country and hence worsen export markets for other European countries. The excessive interconnectedness shown here acts as an amplifier that could shave down both European growth and that of the wider world.

However, it’s still possible that through some economic masterstroke, European policies largely benefit a majority of EU states. That’s one route of salvation for the EU, right? Unfortunately, as so occurs when one contrasts theory with reality, it doesn’t seem like this is anywhere close to a reality. Independent research has time and again proven that European austerity breaks the backs of Eurozone countries and further dampens private spending and investment. It seems that senior European policymakers do not see eye-to-eye with many academic experts (such as the famous Stiglitz) on the issue, and hence European growth continues to stagnate. While this is due in part to demographic decline, the lack of jobs in these advanced economies have led to youth unemployment being more than 50% in countries like Spain. When you combine European incompetence with the fundamental unworkability of uniform mass monetary policy, what you get is a concoction that proves so toxic for European economies.

That’s why, for me, the euro can’t work.

 

Price discrimination: the bane of consumers everywhere

Photo by James Petts. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

If you’ve been to two different branches of the same retailer, one in the heart of London and one in a less central area, chances are you’ve been a victim of price discrimination. The “discrimination” part of this phrase is probably ringing a few alarm bells with you already, but in the end, price discrimination is just another (relatively harmless) way of firms’ seeking to maximise profits, as basic economic theory states that they do. But what is price discrimination? Essentially, what this is is when firms charge different prices to different buyers for the same good or service. This manifests itself in many forms in our daily lives, from our taking advantage of age discounts to the annoyance we feel when paying large amounts for coffee in Leicester Square. Whilst often denounced by many as simply a discrete form of consumer exploitation, I see it as an ingenious tactic employed by firms to yet again slip under the watchful eye of the average buyer; however, the reason you don’t see price discrimination employed in the real world as often as you thought it might have been is because there are a certain set of criteria that need to be fulfilled in order for price discrimination to take place, the first of which relates to price elasticity of demand.

Intuitively, one of the only reasons that price discrimination works in the first place is because different groups of people will think differently about changing their quantity demanded in response to the change in price of a good or service. Hence, a prerequisite for price discrimination to be viable is that the price elasticity of demand (the responsiveness of demand after a change in a product’s own price) by different consumer groups is different. If the price elasticity of demand for a product were to be similar for two different consumer groups, they would both, ceteris paribus, reduce their quantity demanded by around the same amount for an equivalent increase in price, therefore rendering this pricing strategy ineffective. The firm will also need substantial information about consumer preferences to be able to confidently change the prices for the same good for different consumers, which may prove difficult for a number of firms that are strapped for cash and cannot easily carry out the essential market research. The firm must also not be operating within a perfectly competitive market (otherwise any attempt at price discrimination would simply result in the firm’s getting priced out of the market), and with this, there cannot be a great deal of market seepage (whereby consumers buy the good/service where there is a high price elasticity of demand and sell where demand is comparatively inelastic).

As with many business strategies, price discrimination can take many different forms, with their severity denoted by the “degree” suffix, with first being most severe, and third being the least severe. First degree discrimination is when a particular firm produces products for the same marginal cost, but then sells each product at a different price, depending on the consumer. For example, if I were to want to buy a packet of crisps at a Tesco in Harrow, I’d find that the price of a packet would be quite comparatively cheap. Why? Because I’m surrounded by other retailers that could potentially take my money as opposed to Tesco, and more importantly, I, like many others buying a packet of crisps in Harrow, am likely not in any sort of hurry to buy one. If I’m in bustling central London, however, and am running late to meet my friends, then I’d want to buy a packet of crisps as quickly as I possibly can. Here’s where firms can exploit you. Because you’re less willing to look for alternatives in central London than Harrow, firms can charge you a higher price here, due to the price elasticity of demand for this consumer group being lower than it would be in Harrow. This reduces consumer surplus for the consumers in central London, while giving firms higher revenues. Clever, isn’t it?

Let’s now move on to second-degree price discrimination. Basically, this is when the average cost per item decreases when you buy the items in bulk. This can be used by companies who are not able to pick apart consumer groups as well as the ones carrying out first-degree price discrimination, for example. When companies want to shift excess supply due to changing consumer preferences, for example, they could potentially use this form of price discrimination as although profit margins will be hit, they get the double benefit of at least making some profit on the items and also shifting the excess stock that they needed to shift. This is quite frequently also employed in major retailers such as Tesco and Asda and also at restaurants such as McDonalds and Burger King in order to shift stock of items that just aren’t selling very well any more. Second-degree price discrimination is not exclusively limited to these scenarios, however, and could be used in a wide variety of other contexts, although it has to be said that this form of discrimination is probably quite ineffective in general when compared with the former.

Finally, we move on to third degree price discrimination, which is perhaps the most widely employed in everyday life. Unlike the previous version of price discrimination, this relies heavily on differentiation between different consumer groups. Normally, what happens is that a firm (for example a company offering trips to the cinema) splits ticket prices (broadly) into adults, seniors and children, due to the latter two having a higher price elasticity of demand than adults, for whom the cost of a cinema fare is a comparatively small proportion of their income. The firm attempt this only if if they feel that P1Q1 + P2Q2 + P3Q3 > P0Q0, where P1 and Q1 are the price and quantity demanded for adult tickets respectively, P2 and Q2 are the price and quantity demanded for senior tickets respectively, P3 and Q3 are the price and quantity demanded for child tickets respectively, and P0 and Q0 are the price and quantity demanded had there been a uniform ticket price for all ages of people. Given that first-degree price discrimination occurs quite rarely, and second degree price discrimination is comparatively ineffective, this form of price discrimination is the most lucrative for a potential firm to engage in.

So now we come to the question: is price discrimination ethical? Well, it depends. The profit motive is always going to encourage firms to try to maximise their revenues while minimising their potential costs, and this obviously means that some consumers will lose out; however, the fact remains that price discrimination strategies are employed by firms only because they work, plain and simple; they generate more profit than they would have done without these price discrimination strategies, meaning that the targeted consumers are, by and large, still willing to buy goods for which the strategies are employed, even if they don’t know exactly what firms are doing behind the scenes. Simply, this is just another development in the cat-and-mouse game that is firms’ trying to maximise profits and consumers trying to maximise potential utility, and the fact that firms are finding this worthwhile to do shows that we as a society don’t really have an objection to this happening, even when it’s happening right in front of our eyes (as shown in the third degree price discrimination example above). As firms continue to become more and more savvy to make profits, it’s down to consumers to ensure they’re not being continually one-upped by price discrimination.

So consumers, the ball is in your court.

The EU needs to change. Here’s how

It’s the 1st of January, 2002. 12 European countries have officially began to use Euro notes and coins as legal tender. It was seen by some then as a sign, a sign of the peace and togetherness which being a member of the European Union engendered, and a sign of the success which the European Union was enjoying.

Oh, how wrong those people were.

Since the beginning of 2002, 7 more countries have joined the eurozone, Greece has gone back and forth from the depths of economic hell, and a refugee crisis has threatened the very fabric of what the EU stands for.

Oh, and there was that whole Brexit thing.

It’s not an exaggeration in any sense of the word to state that the past few years have been eventful for the EU. However, in truth, much of the blame for the EU’s tumultuous past lies squarely on the shoulders of the EU itself. From the sheer stupidity of the idea of uniform monetary policy for almost 20 countries to the EU’s resistance to compromise with member states on almost anything, it’s fair to say that the organisation has not done itself any favours recently. However, the Union’s death-knell has not come yet. It is possible that if the EU introduces key reforms in significant areas, they could snatch stability from the jaws of disintegration. However, these reforms need to be sweeping, and come sooner rather than later, starting with the abolishment of the eurozone entirely.

Essentially, what the eurozone is is a monetary union which currently comprises 19 of the 28 EU member states; intuitively, all of these countries therefore use the euro as their currency. The monetary policy of the eurozone countries is decided by a large organisation known as the European Central Bank (or ECB). You might already see what the problem with this is, which is that a one size fits all policy cannot possibly work with 19 different countries with completely different economic and financial circumstances to each other. Whilst globalisation has made these countries more interconnected than ever before, there still remain considerable differences; one wouldn’t liken the financial situation of Greece to that of Germany, for example. If one country’s central bank heads wanted to raise interest rates, they likely couldn’t get the ECB to; it has the interests of 18 other countries to think about as well. The result of this is lacklustre growth, accompanied by growing discontent within the eurozone directed towards the ECB, and each other for acting as barricades to collective success. Therefore, the EU is left with two possible choices: ditch the euro, and let each country’s central bank dictate monetary policy, or take control of the fiscal policy of each eurozone country themselves. Given the large political and diplomatic consequences which the latter would have, it would be wise, nay, essential for the euro to go, leaving each country to synergise their own fiscal and monetary policies, facilitating the increased growth and prosperity of these countries and therefore the EU as a whole.

Moreover, the arrogance of the EU in forcing austerity upon countries such as Greece to meet their budget deficit targets, when these countries are already in recession, is confusing at best and asinine at worst. Austerity during a period of recession simply dampens consumer confidence and spending even further, creating a negative cycle of economic contraction and reduced prosperity. Proponents of Keynesian thought here would say that what Greece and countries like it require would be large fiscal stimulus packages to help trigger a positive multiplier effect and bolster the economy through long run economic growth. Having not followed this route, Greek annual economic growth rates are still firmly negative, and showing no signs of changing anytime soon. Had Greece not gone down the road of austerity, it could have potentially trimmed its budget deficits during a period of growth, rather than shatter consumer confidence and therefore any prospect of economic growth in its short-term horizons. For the EU to not see this, even now, is hinging on delusional and suggests that they see their ideas as worth more than recent evidence; the last thing you want from a respectable political institution. This arrogance and blind faith in the powers of austerity needs to go, and soon.

Complementing this arrogance is a string of inefficient directives and rules that have misallocated funds and endangered key sectors of European economies. For example, the famous CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) regulates price levels of food, artificially inflating them and therefore resulting in an oversupply and wastage of food. Arguably, some EU legislation introduced such as this is counterproductive rather than constructive, and the EU member states would do better without it. Granted, almost all countries have that element of bureaucracy within themselves, but if the EU wants to go back to competing with the likes of America, China and India on the global stage, it needs to cut down on these regulations to ensure the most efficient allocation of resources possible within its borders. Compared to its euro and austerity problem, however, this is relatively minor, and should the EU change its policy stance drastically in the way outlined here, it could potentially live to see another day. If not? Well, let’s just say that the dream of EU economic prosperity could be just that, a dream, shunned from the gates of reality by its own stupidity and stubbornness.

The choice is theirs.

Could globalisation bring developing countries and their financial systems to their knees?

PHOTO CREDITS: Dieu-Donné GameliPhoto licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

If one was to rank recent economic issues by the division and depth of debate they cause, globalisation would surely be up there at the top. Whilst the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, amongst others, has spearheaded efforts to thwart the rise of globalisation, liberals around the world argue that the increasing interconnectedness and interdependence of our world today can only be a good thing. However, the actual answer to the question of the impacts of globalisation is not so clear-cut; if any answer exists at all, it would lie firmly in the grey area. But what is globalisation? In essence, globalisation is the process by which economies around the world become more closely and deeply integrated with one another. In a way, it can be thought of as a border-killer, bringing countries that are physically thousands of miles apart firmly together,. Is this desirable, though? A point frequently made is that the effects of the 2008 financial crisis in developing markets were magnified to a great degree by the increased integration between the financial systems of different countries, and without this, the effects would have been far more localised to developed markets. Is this true? Perhaps, although it has to be said that those who use this point as a catch-all of sorts are perhaps not thinking broadly enough. In this article, we can begin by analysing the effect globalisation has on the financial system of developing economies in the context of regulation.

One way in which globalisation has impacted the global economy is an increase in the velocity of international capital flows. While this can entail an increase in money put in to financial markets in developing countries, what it can also do is facilitate an increase in capital flows out of these developing markets, resulting in an increase in uncertainty and volatility in their financial markets. A direct impact of this is that a shock in one country that, at first glance, wouldn’t affect the developing market too much, could result in irrational behaviour and herd mentality driving money out of developing capital markets in bucketloads. The control that these countries so desperately need over their own destiny, is as a result forfeited to a degree due to globalised economic activity; a small shock in the United States could result in large percentage swings in some African markets, for example. This drives away the certainty needed for a long-term sustainable financial system to develop; in this way, it could be argued that the increase in the velocity of cross-country cash flows could actually serve to the detriment of developing economies.

However, a positive impact of the aforementioned variability in foreign direct investment (FDI) is also that the pressure of foreign buyers acts as an economic incentive for the governments of developing countries to solidify their financial system in order to attract and keep foreign capital. The threat of financial contagion should a global shock take place would, in theory, incentivise key individuals within developing countries to make sure that their underlying fundamentals are solid enough to withstand a global depression without too much long-term damage. If key markets are solidified soon enough, a virtuous cycle of investment and further growth could potentially be triggered, blurring the lines between these developing countries and their developed counterparts. Whilst the element of uncertainty and doubt will still be present, if the country is foresighted enough to secure their future prospects, the risk from this should be offset by the potential influx of foreign direct investment that could occur. Even if it does not work out, the meritocratic aspect of this scenario is still something to be commended and looked upon as a positive; countries will gain foreign direct investment if they see it as a rational economic decision to strengthen their financial system.

With the increase in available capital for corporations operating within developing countries to use, it is also important for regulation to be put in place such that the prevalence of moral hazard with regards to the risk/reward ratios of banks reduces. In a developing country, with arguably less financial infrastructure present than a developed one, it is somewhat easier to sign legislation that ensures that banks cannot operate in an unreasonably risky manner. As shown by the political lobbying of banks in the UK, USA and elsewhere, once a massive financial system has been built up, it is extremely hard to get major financial institutions to change their ways. Hence, if government puts its foot down quickly enough, it is possible that the developing countries of today could potentially have less of a glasshouse of a financial system than even the developed countries of today possess. The question of this article initially was “Could globalisation bring developing countries to their knees?”, and the answer to that is a resounding yes. Replace the “could” with a “will”, and you have an answer which depends on a multitude of factors, including primarily the quality of the country’s governance. If government manages itself correctly, globalisation could bring about rapid economic development and the bolstering of financial systems across the developing world. If not? Well then, we’ve all got ample reason to worry.

 

Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics” has failed. But why?

Who would have thought that it would be in the Land of the Rising Sun that three arrows could miss their target so wildly?

Of course, I’m talking about the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe’s, three arrows of fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reform that were intended to claw Japan out of a dangerous cycle of recession and deflation. At the time, it seemed like the perfect policy, with fiscal stimulus intended to increase demand for goods and services and monetary easing by the Bank of Japan intended to generate the 2% inflation that Japan has so longed for, increasing aggregate demand and therefore triggering a virtuous cycle of economic growth. In addition to this, the structural reform intended to increase the competitiveness of Japanese industry with regards to the world as a whole should have ideally bolstered and healed Japanese companies’ future prospects, after years of sluggishness. Yet as so often turns out, while Abe’s plans seemed to be worth their weight in gold on paper, they have failed to revitalise Japan and return it to the supreme economic status which it once had. Amongst a whole host of other indicators, Japan’s inflation rate fell to -0.4% in July 2016, lowering the proverbial coffin into the ground of another seemingly great set of economic policies. But why has it failed when it looked so good on paper? How has Abe fallen flat yet again? Could external factors be preventing the three arrows from working their magic?

Well, when you take into account Japan’s rapidly changing demographic, the answer to the latter question would be resoundingly in the affirmative. Since 2010, Japan’s population growth has been negative and birth rates have steadily declined while life expectancy continues to rise. On the health side of things, this is a massive breakthrough for the country, but economically, what it means is that Japan now is faced with the problem of a gradually dwindling labour force. Hence, although Abe is injecting billions upon billions of fiscal stimulus into the economy, the decline in labour force has resulted in a decrease in consumer demand in spite of his policies, due to less people having the money in their pockets to actually spend in the first place. In this regard, what Abe could further focus on is spearhead a further push for immigration to bolster aggregate demand and consumer spending, in turn boosting growth before the arduous and potentially unfruitful wait for Japanese societal norms regarding children to change (he has made great strides towards this with his Abenomics 2.0 programme). Perhaps in the case of Japan, this policy would be far more beneficial to her than any fiscal package that Abe could come up with; it would certainly at least be worth a try.

One side effect of recent Japanese economic policy (in particular the monetary policy of setting negative interest rates) has also been a devaluation of the Japanese yen, allowing Japanese firms to become complacent in the face of high profits. Due to the weak yen increasing Japanese firms’ revenues from abroad, the result is a lack of incentives for these firms to innovate and increase productivity. Due to this, the economy’s productive capacity has stagnated, hindering its potential for long run economic growth. Recent reports indicate that distinguished figures such as former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, declaring that “monetary policy is reaching its limits” in many developed countries. Due to this, it is feasible that the cut in interest rates to negative levels, while effective on paper, has not worked so well in reality because it disincentives innovation within Japan, and without innovation, it is extremely difficult for a capitalist framework to thrive and prosper. Therefore, perhaps an appreciation of the yen against the dollar would not be as disastrous as many pundits claim, and instead, may indeed provide a route by which Japanese firms can finally move forward.

Social attitudes in Japan currently are also not exactly conducive to economic progress. Due to many of the current Japanese young generation having known nothing but economic stagnation, deflation (or very low inflation), and failed government policy, these young people, traditionally some of the big spenders in a modern economy, have failed to provide the Japanese machine with a much needed boost. It has gotten so bad that one individual said to the Financial Times that she feels as if she is “more conservative than [her] grandmother.”, such is the backwards direction which Japan has gone in with regards to spending. The solution to this is much less science than it is alchemy, and the only way which Japan can really try and fix this problem is a bottom-up approach to incentivise spending amongst young people. In my opinion, this could be achieved by portraying spending on goods and services as some sort of natural duty, invoking patriotic sentiment and therefore triggering spending to lurch from its slumber. However, Japan’s problems are both deep and wide ranging, and will take years, or perhaps even decades of consistently successful government policy to solve. While Abenomics is well-intentioned, it simply has and will not work in practice, and perhaps what Abe and his fellow policymakers need to do is to think a little bit outside of the box.

Traffic jams: An economic perspective

You know the feeling.

The skies are grey, and fat drops of rain batter your windscreen: it’s almost as if the sky’s crying for you. You’re stuck in a sandwich of motorised vehicles – progress only comes a few inches at a time, slowly but not always surely. You curse as the faint hope you had of speeding ahead is dashed, falling away like droplets from the sky.

But then, after long hours of waiting, it happens. One car edges ahead, then another, then another. Finally, it’s your turn; your car moves forward, breaking the seemingly endless deadlock. It’s emotional catharsis the likes of which you can only experience after hours of frustration. Finally, you’re home, free from the scourge of traffic (until next morning, at least).

When the adrenaline rush wears off, though, you realise that you just wasted precious hours of your life that you’ll never get back. You could have spent that time watching television, playing chess, or even working more if you had to. In addition to the emotional outrage faced by many drivers across the planet, this congestion also has severe economic consequences for car-owning households. According to The Economist, traffic jams cost Los Angeles $23 billion a year, and that isn’t even when we take into account environmental impact. But why exactly do traffic jams happen, and what exactly can we do about them?

Well, part of the blame for traffic jams lies squarely on the shoulders of the people themselves. Public transport in the form of predominantly buses is a “key mode of public transport for those on low incomes”, according to Transport for London. As incomes go up, naturally the proportion of people using public transport in a particular country will decline. Don’t believe me? Hear me out. Public transport is an inferior service, which essentially means that demand for it decreases as consumer incomes go up. This is natural, as cars are inherently more prestigious than buses or trains; they grant you a degree of privacy and exclusivity, and they almost always look better. Therefore, you’d expect that as people become more affluent, more of them will ride in cars and other private forms of transport. Still don’t believe me? Look at the UK. According to the BBC, the number of cars on the streets of Britain rose by almost 600,000 in one year, with the average weekly wages in the United Kingdom also steadily rising. In this case, the correlation implies a heavy degree of causation. What can be done about this? In truth, not much; people’s opinions are not going to radically change. We could, however, simultaneously create more low-skilled jobs in the cleaning sector and clean up our public transport, which appears to be surprisingly dirty. Cleaning up and renovating some of our aged public transport, thereby making it somewhat more prestigious, could go some way to dampening the tradeoff between consumer income and public transport use, although, admittedly, the effect probably won’t be too drastic. It would help though, so why not try it?

110204-3.jpg
Improving the quality of public transport could diminish the correlation between income and car use. PHOTO CREDITS: Route 79

It’s also important to consider that as of right now, roads are mostly free at the point of use across the world. Therefore, many people see the use of roads as a given: something for which there is no cost. Hence, the number of cars on the road are surging, as the only thing people actually have to pay for is the payments associated with the car itself and fuel. If governments around the world could somehow introduce a system whereby people are charged for the duration of time that they spend on the roads, demand for cars would fall due to increased price leading to a decrease in quantity demanded, as per the demand curve. This is because an increase in the cost of driving means that for more and more people, the marginal utility gained by using a car is offset by its substantial total cost (in layman’s terms, it costs more than it’s worth). Although this would lead to potential job losses in the auto manufacturing industry, it is necessary to carry out to offset both the economic loss of productivity and the severe environmental damage on air quality caused by traffic jams. In short, while painful for one industry, we need to do this for the greater economic and environmental good.

While campaigns encouraging walking, cycling and use of public transport are almost ubiquitous in today’s world, and have no doubt had their effects, more still needs to be done in order for the prevalence of cars on the roads to decrease dramatically. The difficulty of cycling is one factor why for many, the utility gained in terms of exercise and fitness is less than the cost, in terms of their commute becoming drastically longer and also the safety risk that it entails. What I am proposing to solve this is to build more cycle lanes next to roads, thereby increasing their supply. The increased ease by which many can now find an easy way to cycle to the workplace would decrease the costs of cycling, thereby making the utility/cost tradeoff more favourable, hence spurring demand for bicycles with which to cycle to work, potentially helping the cycling industry also. Given that these cycle lanes take up considerably less space than new roads would, they are both a quicker and more effective solution to the problem of traffic congestion (the increased supply of roads would simply spur demand for cars in the same way as demand for bicycles is spurred above).

Applying economics to the problem of traffic congestion may seem unorthodox at first, but I am convinced that inherently, many of the world’s problems are economic. After applying economics to this situation, it’s entirely possible that you may just spend less time stuck on the roads.

Agree? Disagree? Please leave a comment below, whether you’ve been attracted or repulsed by my ideas.

 

How could we curb Venezuela’s hyperinflation?

Think of a note worth 10,000 bolívars. That seems like a lot, right? I’m a nice guy; I’ll give it to you. Go buy yourself a nice TV or something.

What’s that? They said you don’t have enough money?

Precisely.

As of July 27, 2016, this seemingly valuable note is worth just over ten dollars (it’s almost definitely worth less by the time you’ll read this). In the UK, it wouldn’t be enough to buy you a takeaway dinner. This is because of the rapid hyperinflation that’s occurring in the South American country, leaving it in a tumultuous spiral of poverty, with some not even having enough to pay for essentials such as food or heating. A recent Bloomberg report even suggested that the Venezuelan government is running out of money to print money, such is the state of the country. An analyst at Nomura even predicts that a $200 oil price is needed before the Venezuelans can balance their budgets. Estimates for the rate of decrease of prices range from 400% to 720%, meaning that Venezuelans are eager to spend their money before its worth dramatically decreases just a few weeks later. It seems that policymakers are unable to come up with a solution to the problems that Hugo Chávez’s government largely created. Is the country doomed?

Not quite.

The Venezuelan government needs to learn from the lessons of German, Zimbabwean and Brazilian hyperinflation in order to put a stop to the inflationary pressure that has roiled its economy. Fundamentally, the problem is that, due to the pegging of the bolívar against the dollar, there is an “official” exchange rate of bolívars to dollars, and then there is a black market rate, which is a cause of the hyperinflation. Officially, the bolivar trades competitively against the US currency, however on the black market, it is estimated that 10,000 bolívars are worth just over one dollar. The solution? Officially unpeg the Venezuelan currency from the dollar, and allow it to float freely, so that both the government and the people of Venezuela are on the same side: there is now only one exchange rate, and this makes the problem much easier to solve – we need only one bullet, rather than two, so to speak. In addition, this allows Nicolas Máduro and his government to significantly reduce their fiscal deficit, that came about through them getting significantly less bolívars from overseas for every unit currency than the people got through black market transactions using the unofficial exchange rate.

Now that we have a reduced fiscal deficit, the Venezuelans need to stop printing money in order to finance deficit spending. This would stabilise the aggregate money supply in the economy, reducing the potential for a further reduction in the value of money. Logic dictates that the reduced inflation will disincentivise Venezuelans from spending their money in anticipation of a coming decrease in value, which would in turn lead to an increase in savings. Aggregate demand for goods and services would therefore reduce, causing a corresponding decrease in demand-pull inflation (inflation as a result of aggregate demand outmatching aggregate supply). This leads to a continuous cycle whereby more and more people save more and more money rather than investing it, and combined with the stable money supply, inflation will continue to decrease. Years of hyperinflation have battered the Venezuelan people’s expectations, however, so it may take a long time for them to be convinced that their currency will hold its purpose as a store of value, enabling inflation to decrease substantially. While this may allow the national debt of the country to increase, it is a price worth paying for the country to return to a period of long term economic sustainability, during which tight fiscal policy (increasing taxes and cutting government spending) can help bring this debt down.

The final prong of this three-pronged attack on inflation is that when inflation decreases substantially, the likelihood is that it will still be relatively high; inflation ranging from 400% to 720% can’t simply be swatted away. Therefore, the government needs to maintain interest rates at a level such that the nominal interest rate is far higher than inflation, causing the real interest rate to be high and positive. Intuitively, this means people will see it as beneficial to further save their money rather than invest it immediately, curbing the cycle that increases demand-pull inflation. As the rate of inflation continues to decrease, the central bank should gradually decrease nominal interest rates, while keeping them high above inflation, until they have reached a level of inflation that they see as sustainable, at which point real interest rates could potentially come down.

The sad state of Venezuela is a reminder of the dangers that letting inflation go out of control can provide; Hugo Chávez has failed his country immensely. Despite this, the policies outlined above should go a long way to cut out the plague of hyperinflation, and restore peace and prosperity to the Venezuelan people.

What do you think?

Shrey Srivastava, 16

Why central banks should target 4% inflation

Photo by Remy Steinegger

It is October 29, 1929 , also known as Black Tuesday. The Great Depression, one of the largest economic downturns in history, has just begun. Unbeknownst to the everyday man and woman, this will last a backbreaking decade, during which these everyday people will see their dreams slashed in the face of lower wages. That is, if they even find a job in the first place; unemployment will reach almost 25% in America at the height of the depression in 1933. During this time, it’s obvious that we will start looking to policymakers for solutions to this problem, however, even they have been silenced by the lunacy of the gold standard: there are no solutions in the pipeline.

Time for a voyage into the future. 1990, specifically – New Zealand. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand has just introduced a pioneering measure that will shake up monetary policy: the inflation target. They say they target a rate of price increase of 0 to 2%. Fast forward 22 years, and on the 25 January 2012, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the most famous central bank in the world, the Federal Reserve, has introduced a 2% inflation target. Nowadays, the magic “2” is the norm, with central banks from the Bank of England to the Bank of Japan adopting the target. The problem? Well, there’s more than one, but the most arresting drawback is that we’re veering into very dangerous territory should we be even slightly amiss in meeting these targets.

Say we undershoot from our inflation target. That can happen, right? People make mistakes – even big, bad central bankers. If prices, therefore, appreciate by only 1% a year, that’s not too bad. But say we adjust the degree of error even more, and then we’re veering dangerously into deflationary territory – a nightmarish decrease in prices. In both my opinion and the opinion of many others, deflation is far worse than even high levels of inflation. This is because a deflationary slump in an economy causes people to think twice about purchasing goods and services, reducing demand for these goods and services, decreasing their prices to levels lower than they already are. Intuitively, this causes job layoffs as the reduction in demand causes a corresponding reduction in corporate revenue, and so the freshly unemployed aren’t very likely to buy non-essentials like a bottle of Coke or a packet of gum, let alone a new house. The ensuing vicious downward price spiral amidst a plethora of redundancies has historically been extremely difficult to get out of; deflation can batter an economy like nothing else. Where do we look for an example of this? Back to the past, that’s right – the Great Depression, where prices plummeted and redundancies soared due to a collapsing banking sector.

Moreover, recessions happen. We can’t prevent all of them, and it’s a fact of life that the average person is overwhelmingly likely to experience at least one or two in their lifetimes, if not many more. It’s how a central bank deals with the recession that defines how strong and robust their monetary policy is, and when you can only decrease interest rates by a small amount, then you’ve got a problem. Take the Bank of England. Interest rates currently sit at staggeringly low levels: 0.5%, to be precise. Let’s assume they meet their inflation target of 2%, and so the nominal interest rate (the interest rate when we don’t take into account inflation) will be 2.5%. Now, let’s hypothesise that they increase their inflation target to 4% and meet it (I know, I’m optimistic about their abilities). Now we have a wiggle room of a whole 4.5% should we face a recession, so we have a greater chance of stimulating the economy and getting it back on track. Even taking into account that central banks may not meet these targets, it’s logical to believe that they’ll at least achieve a higher inflation rate than before, and so regardless of the scenario, the overwhelming likelihood is that we’ll have more chance of beating back a recession than before.

Finally, we need to lend the companies that are the backbone of our economy a hand in being able to dish out nominal wage increases. Again, let’s take a scenario whereby we have higher inflation, say 3% (due to central banks undershooting the 4% inflation target) and the nominal wages of not very productive employees operating in, for example, McDonalds rise by 2%. In reality, they’ve still got 1% less purchasing power than they did before, however McDonalds’ 2% rise in wages keeps them happy and satiated; they won’t go on strike or resign or do all the things that corporations fear so much. Say we had a much lower inflation rate, perhaps 1%. Now, McDonalds is in hot water because they can only increase wages by a small, small amount, risking the ire of its employees. If the inflation rate went even lower, then we have even more of a problem; McDonalds cannot hand out relatively large nominal wage increases, as if they were to do so, their costs would increase, therefore enabling a reduction in profits. So now we have annoyed corporations, annoyed employees and perhaps an economy on the verge of recession, with very little room to alter interest rates when we enter one. All because of those dastardly low inflation rates.

Since 1990, the inflation target has become one of the key symbols of monetary policy and central banking. We need to increase it; I think it’s time to change this symbol for the better.

Do you?

Shrey Srivastava, 16

Should our economies take the road less travelled?

Photo by kakidai on Wikimedia, License: CC BY 3.0

Whenever the devil in you wants to see a spectacular economic fall from grace, look no further than Japan. After decades of strong economic growth, culminating with it becoming the world’s third largest economy in the latter part of the 20th century, growth has stalled in recent years, igniting strong fears regarding the long term future of the Asian country. From Japan’s much publicised ageing population to its astronomical debt to GDP ratio, the future looks bleak for Shinzo Abe and his countrymen, with no solution to its financial woes foreseeable. Regardless, if much of the developed world want to stop themselves from plunging into the same economic quicksand that Japan finds itself in now, they need to look at the country, and examine exactly where it went wrong. Continue reading “Should our economies take the road less travelled?”