Private Sector Space Exploration?!

Last night a space rocket landed back on earth upright. That in itself is hugely impressive (although apparently it isn’t the first rocket to do that), but what’s perhaps most interesting is that this was done by a private sector company, SpaceX. Our instinct when it comes to space exploration is to think about public sector bodies like NASA, or the European Space Agency, yet this is a private company founded by Elon Musk, described on his Wikipedia page as “South African-born Canadian-American business magnate, engineer, inventor and investor”. Musk is also the man behind PayPal, and Tesla, the electronic car manufacturer.

Is there any reason why space exploration needs to be public sector? This is one of the challenging questions as economists we should ask. Why do we think the private sector could not deliver in this area? Why do we also instinctively think that trains should be publicly owned? Why a National Health Service but not a National Food Service? Surely the food we eat is just as important to our health as any actions the NHS takes (maybe after we’ve eaten some bad food)?

We won’t touch on such issues in Intro Macro (EC114) next term, but you’ll have covered many of the building blocks for such an analysis in Intro Micro (EC113) this term – an analysis of markets and market failure. Under what conditions do we expect markets to succeed, and in what ones do we expect markets to fail? Some of the answers relate to information (do buyers and sellers have equal information?), some to power (do buyers or sellers have greater power?), and others still to the cost of mistaken choice (how costly is it?). You’ll get plenty of opportunities to think more deeply about what the state should and shouldn’t do as you go through your three years with us. Challenge yourself on why you think things should be done particular ways whilst you’re with us…

Hate quants? But it’s awesome!

If you’re the average first year undergraduate student (yes, I know, nobody’s really the average, but anyhow) you’ll either really hate quants (econometrics), or you’ll feign dislike in order to avoid seeming to be a geek.

My hope is that as you learn more about economics, you’ll learn to enjoy and even love the subject more, but also realise that data, and hence econometrics, is utterly central to all of it. All of the theories we teach you in micro and macro need to be verified out there in the real world, and the only way to do that properly is to collect data about the real world. Testing theories properly also requires that we learn appropriately what the data can, and is, telling us. This bit is econometrics. It’s absolutely essential if we’re going to determine which economic theories are worth taking seriously, and which we can safely discard.

Data can be pretty awesome at times, too. For example, in this day and age betting is ubiquitous on all kinds of events – see www.oddschecker.com/ if you want to get some sense of this. Data on the bets multiple bookmakers offer for events as diverse as the Premiership (Leicester City, really?!), and the next elimination on Strictly Come Dancing. These are predictions, or forecasts, about unknown as yet future events. Economic activity relies entirely on predictions about future events – how many sales will my company get with that new product, will that job be just right for me, should I take out insurance on my new phone, and so on…

If you’re concerned about more conventional data though, and the important messages we can learn from a proper and detailed look, here’s an example from yesterday on earnings. Hopefully it makes the point really clear: it’s vital for our good as a nation, and as a society, that we know about our statistics. Stagnant earnings growth that spawned the whole “cost of living crisis” (however real it felt for your dear lecturer over that period ;-)) may well have been bad statistics caused by a misleading calculation of the average that treats new entrants to the labour market, on low wages, equally to existing members of the workforce who are receiving more “normal” pay rises. Worth a read.

It makes the bigger point though: there’s an issue with how our statistics are calculated, and that needs to be investigated. Thankfully that is happening; I’m no fan of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but this is one of his better moved by some distance: he has set up a review into how statistics like GDP are being calculated, particularly in this day and age of masses of data (think about how much data Tescos and Sainsburys must have on you). Dry stuff I’ll grant you, but this section is particularly relevant for the first week of term after Christmas:

The Review was prompted by the increasing difficulty of measuring output and productivity accurately in a modern, dynamic and increasingly technological economy. In addition, there was a perception that ONS were not making full use of the increasingly large volume of information that was becoming available about the evolution of the economy, often as a by-product of the activities of other agents in the public and private sectors. Finally, frequent revisions to past data, together with several recent instances where series have turned out to be deficient or misleading, have led to a perception by some users that official data are not as accurate and reliable as they could be.

Fracking: Economics and Externalities

From Huffington Post

The BBC headline this afternoon communicates the outcome of a vote in Parliament to allow fracking in National Parks. This would appear to be a doubly controversial outcome. Fracking is a means to extract gas from deep underground, and is controversial, as is any kind of economic development in National Parks.

Fracking is unpopular amongst many because of concerns regarding the amounts of water used in the process, which must be transported to fracking sites at great cost, and also concerns about fracking causing small earthquakes, or tremors. Nonetheless, it is a means for producing energy, hence increasing its supply, and bringing prices down. It’s generally acknowledged to have played a considerable role in energy prices falling in the US.

The government’s own website for National Parks says they are “areas of protected countryside that everyone can visit, and where people live, work and shape the landscape”. Anybody who has visited any of them knows how beautiful they are, and rightly protected. Nonetheless, at the same time they provide a valuable place where economic activity could take place; not least there is likely plenty of natural resources beneath them, but also, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to study at university and in the afternoon take a walk, or go for a jog in one of our glorious National Parks? Many companies would jump at the opportunity to provide such a working environment for their employees (of course, many wouldn’t also). However, these are areas that are protected for a reason – primarily their outstanding natural beauty. The tragedy of the commons teaches us that more than likely without this protection, we’d overuse such areas.

Now, of course, the fracking bill passed in Parliament restricts digging to areas of non-outstanding natural beauty, but once 1.2km underground, then frackers (so to speak) can drill horizontally to get underneath the areas of outstanding natural beauty. This, naturally, is concerning – will it have no effect whatsoever to be doing things underneath the ground?

What this fundamentally boils down to is the difference between private net benefits of actions, and social net benefits. When making decisions, we will usually consider the benefits and costs that accrue to us individually and pay less attention to benefits and costs that society at large may feel as a result of our actions. When there’s a difference between the two, like for example if I choose to play music very loudly in my neighbourhood, we say there’s an externality. In the case of economic activity in National Parks, there are clearly private benefits: mining companies, and energy providers will get private benefits, as we all will, if energy prices fall. But equally, if damage is done to our National Parks as a result, we will all suffer since we can no longer enjoy those National Parks as we previously did.

Space and Economic Value

From wired.com, http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2009-08/11/why-didnt-britain-win-the-race-to-the-moon

This morning at 11:03am, GMT, a British astronaut will be launched into space for the first time.

The Treasury, the part of the UK government that is all about spending and revenues, has taken the opportunity to laud the UK space industry and its support for it on Twitter. Indeed there’s a new National Space Policy, the first such thing to exist here in the UK.

The Tweet, and the policy blurb emphasise that the space industry is “worth £11.8 billion” to the UK economy. Where has this number come from?

One of the first things we’ll be doing next term is thinking about is numbers like these – where do they come from? With an industry like the car industry it’s much easier to work these things out, since people buy cars at a particular price, and we then assume that that price reflects the value we as a society place on that good (a debatable assumption, but an assumption nonetheless).

But with space? Who buys the produce of the space industry? Hence, if there is no end consumer in the same way as most industry, what do we do? The answer is we value by the value of the inputs that went into the process. What was the value of the labour, capital and land inputs that went into production in the industry?

If you’re starting to raise objections about this, that’s fair enough; it’s far from a satisfactory approach.  For example, given this the government could simply give all employees a pay rise to get a GDP increase. However, it’s hard to know what else could be done instead, if we wish to measure things like national economic activity. Some defence can be mounted; the amount paid to the factors of production employed in the space industry must be market rates – if the UK space industry paid too low, then their experts would seek employment elsewhere – space agencies overseas, or other areas of manufacturing, say, in the private sector. As such there is some basis in what we value as a society in these calculations, even if it’s not as direct as in, say, private sector manufacturing.

In addition, the methods employed by the UK when calculating national income are the same as other countries around the world use. Hence at least if our measure is bad, it’s only as bad as what everyone else is doing, and still affords us a basis for comparing between countries.

Challenge yourself, first edition

University is entirely about personal development in all areas of your life. Developing almost always involves having preconceived ideas challenged. This can be a disconcerting experience – things you previously thought to be true you may find are anything but.

As students of economics, your lecturers and class tutors are most likely to do this in the sphere of economic ideas. It’s very easy, too, as there’s a huge range of economic ideas once you start looking, and the internet makes these much easier to come across than ever before. Every economist, or everyone who would like to think of themselves as an economist, can write a blog.

While this presents risks (who are the ones to believe and treat with respect, which ones are we safe to ignore?), it presents huge opportunities. One particular school of thought, much more common in the US than here, is libertarianism. Libertarian economists place a huge amount of attention on individual liberty, questioning the ability of others, and in particular institutions, to make decisions on behalf of individuals.

If you think that needn’t challenge you, it’s worth thinking a bit deeper. That the government sets a minimum wage is an example where an institution (the government) thinks it knows better than firms and individuals about how markets work, and what the right price would be. It impinges on the liberty of a firm to set a wage, and for an employee to accept a particular wage – if it’s below what is legally mandated.

Here’s an article from today on immigration, which is written by a libertarian economist: “Schengen, Adieu” by Alberto Mingardi. It’s written at the blog of the Library of Economics and Liberty, which gives a strong hint that it is libertarian. It asks the question: how do we “control” borders? Can we really think about controlling borders? We probably can if we erect big walls, and employ huge amounts of people to police the border. But we probably also then need to police things inside our country too, in order to make sure that those that have arrived aren’t doing certain things we don’t like (say, claiming benefits, or access to healthcare).

The problem with all of this is that it will impinge on the liberty of those of us native here. We’ll have much more faff and hassle when leaving the country to go elsewhere – for example,longer queues at the border, as anyone who has taken the ferry or Eurotunnel to France will testify. Additionally, we will find much more stringent checks when we do things we used to take for granted. We’ll be asked when applying for jobs to prove our immigration status even though we come from this country and always have.

Employers will have to devote much greater attention to compliance; the University of Reading has to check what its students from overseas are up to, which then eats into the time of lecturers to lecture, and class tutors to teach (and research). Governments have to employ more and more people to police borders and monitor those that enter, causing greater costs and a larger state.

None of this is to say that “controlling” our borders is not a bad thing; clearly nobody wants to have terrorists from overseas entering our country and prowling our streets without any checks taking place. But it’s to say that the controlling will have implications.

And more broadly, it’s to challenge any preconceptions you might have when thinking about immigration, a very real issue facing us at the moment. Should you do this? You certainly should challenge those views if it means you are less likely to support policy proposals that may be ineffective and have a lot of unforeseen consequences.

The Price of Petrol

Oil price

As students, I suspect there is little likelihood you (a) listen to Radio 4 in the morning, and (b) listen to it before 8am. However, if you do, you’ll have heard a section of the Today programme on petrol prices, which the RAC expects will fall below a pound before Christmas.

This is, of course, music to the ears of anybody who drives a car. But as you’ll be increasingly aware as a student of economics, the demand side of the market is only one side – there’s also the supply side. Contrary to how we might view large oil companies, the huge range of fluctuation in the price of oil makes it clear that they are price takers, rather than price makers, when it comes to the price of oil, and subsequently the price of petrol.

The graph above shows why petrol is so cheap again – the price of oil has fallen by close to 60% over the last 18 months, and this is part of a general fall in commodity prices over this time period. This raises questions, and perhaps the most pertinent are (1) why? and (2) what does it mean?

On the why, one explanation that Vince Cable (who came to the university earlier in term) put forward was that China and other strong growth economies of recent years like Russia and Brazil are all either slowing down or in recession. This removes a huge amount of demand for commodities.

On the what does it mean: the likelihood is it means job losses as firms that mine and trade in these commodities have to cut back given decreased revenues from their activities. It seems more than likely this would affect the UK, and Scotland in particular where the oil industry resides. But equally, other large mining companies are headquartered in the UK, and this may result in job losses.

It’s not all good…

Government Investment

One common criticism by those sceptical of the role of government is that attempts by governments to influence economic activity suffer from excessive delays. Hence the term “shovel ready” has quickly become part of the political vernacular since the financial crisis and economic downturn in 2008.

Today gives a great example of a project that is anything but “shovel ready”: the expansion of London (and by extension the UK’s) airport capacity. This is basically a decision on whether to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport, and as the BBC article points out, this has been being discussed now for 25 years, and commission after commission have reported on the issue. Nonetheless, the government is about to announce that yet another review is necessary, and a decision that might have been made around about now will instead happen in six months’ time.

Conveniently enough, after the forthcoming London Mayor elections.

Understandably, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), a group that represents the interests of UK businesses, is highly frustrated by this. Yet further uncertainty on the back of 25 years of uncertainty is something that is unwelcome for business. We’ll cover investment next term, but one thing that is generally cited as a reason for firms choosing to invest is the absence (or otherwise) of uncertainty. Will firms, British or otherwise, choose to invest less in the UK at the moment given there’s still no clarity on whether or not a third runway will be built at Heathrow?

What’s wrong with a bit of corruption?

One bit of news over the last few days has been another bunch of Fifa officials being arrested for corruption. You may, of course, be tempted to shrug your shoulders, particularly if you don’t like football much. Maybe if you like it, you may have already got corruption fatigue in light of all the high-profile (and long overdue) arrests thus far.

It might be worth thinking about what exactly is wrong with corruption? What even is corruption? Casting it in an economic light, it’s a mis-allocation of resources, where the means of re-allocation has a criminal element to it.

Thinking even more strongly in economic terms, corruption is rent seeking behaviour. That is, it is behaviour that does not create new wealth (such as producing a new widget that can be sold), but instead that extracts wealth from others. For example, a corrupt official may solicit bribes from those around him (or her); those bribes do not create anything, they simply reallocate wealth to the corrupt official.

Hence we can think that, absent of corruption, there might be a very different distribution of funds and activities in Fifa – some of the vast amounts of money that move around the game might get to grass roots endeavours around the world, in some of the poorest and needy parts of the world, rather than in the pockets of officials of football associations in some of those countries (and other ones).

So, even if we don’t care about football itself, we ought to care about corruption – and we ought to be trying to ensure that in all areas of economic life resources are going where they ought to be going, rather than into the hands of corrupt officials…

Global Monetary Policy

While our focus is often just on what the Bank of England is up to (speaking of which, today is December’s interest rate announcement from the Bank of England), there are other more important central banks out there, most notably the European Central Bank (ECB), and the Federal Reserve, representing the eurozone and the US respectively.

This article in the Guardian worries about what seems likely to happen this month: the US will tighten monetary policy while the ECB will loosen policy further.

Why does this matter? The worry is of considerable exchange rate movements. As we’ll learn towards the end of next term, one of the ways in which we believe exchange rates move in the shorter term as economists is via relative interest rate movements. This is because rates of interest reflect how much an investor could earn by moving their wealth into that country.

Hence, everything else being equal, if interest rates are higher in the US than in the eurozone, it is feared people will move their wealth out of European assets into US-based assets, increasing the demand for US dollars, and reducing the demand for euros. This would then lead to an appreciation in the value of the dollar (more demand), and a depreciation in the value of the euro (less demand). This need not be a bad thing, since a recovering economy ought to be aided by a weaker currency.

Of course things aren’t necessarily that simple; if eurozone producers use goods imported from the US to make their goods, and if eurozone consumption is often of US-produced goods, then eurozone economic activity would likely be negatively affected by the movements.

The bottom line is that larger than normal exchange rate movements ought to be expected in the coming months…

Risk Aversion

From Huffington Post

Are you risk averse? Hopefully if you’re a Part 1 student you’ll have already selected on a scale of 1 to 10 how likely you are to take a risk in your quiz for Settlers next term. If not, here’s the link again for the survey.

Google provides me quickly with a definition for being risk averse: “disinclined or reluctant to take risks”. So what is a risk? Again, from Google, “a situation involving exposure to danger”. A situation where something bad might happen with some probability. It could be a very low probability. Generally we also think about the potential rewards of situation also – expected payoffs, to use some economics speak.

We might thus think about the likelihood of something good happening (positive payoff), and the likelihood of something bad happening (negative payoff), and our decision to take part depends on whether we are risk averse or not – willing to accept the probability of the bad thing happening given the probability of the good thing happening. Will we accept a bet where with 10% chance we get £100, but with 90% chance we lost £1?

Why does this matter today? Today, MPs are debating about an extension of UK involvement in bombing campaigns in Syria. We can reduce this down to a situation where with some likelihood something good happens (Isis is defeated), but with some other likelihood something bad happens (Isis not defeated, long costly war). Should we get involved as a country?

You should respond that that is too simplistic. As the Defence Secretary points out (fairly, too, it has to be said), the UK is already a target for IS anyhow, meaning that to decide to bomb Syria doesn’t affect that dimension.

The simple two possible outcomes model seems woefully inadequate for a situation as complex as the Syrian conflict. Yet is it? If we choose to bomb, we have again two possible distinct outcomes (with shades of grey in-between): Our bombs only hit the right targets (IS installations) and there are no civilian casualties (a very good outcome, indeed), or our bombs miss all the right targets and only civilian buildings (a very bad outcome indeed).

What, of course, is more likely is something in-between – but then, if that happens, that means the loss of many innocent lives (more than is currently happening?), and the potential radicalisation of others witnessing these events (more than is currently happening?). Assuming that despite this mixed success, IS is essentially eliminated as a threat, what is left? Is the power that moves into the vacuum (presumably, the Syrian state that we were thinking about bombing just a few years ago) any better?

The graphic at the top of this post is stolen from the Huffington Post, and is really too flippant for the severity of the situation, but it makes a pretty clear point – it’s very difficult to know what the right thing to do is here, and we as the West have been intervening in the Middle East for decades now without any obvious signs of success.

A risky decision, one with a low probability of success – should our MPs be voting for it tonight???