Wednesday, September 14, 2005

There is a lot of public pressure on the UK government to respond to the petrol price situation by lowering duty on fuel. While all parties in the discussion understand that it is international factors that have pushed up the price of petrol, there is much disquiet about the fact that the government's tax take on petrol has risen - because while the duty is a fixed sum, VAT is raised as a percentage. There are therefore accusations that the government has allowed the VAT windfall arising out of the petrol price hike as a kind of stealth tax. This is what is causing people to call for a reduction in the rate of duty.

Should the government respond? I think not. If they did, it would signal to the petrol producers that they are prepared to absorb (in the form of a reduced tax take) any further increases in the price at which the petrol is sold to the garages. This would insulate the petrol producers from the disciplines of the market - and the profits made by the petrol giants do not suggest that their industry is sufficiently cut-throat to ensure that Shell, BP and the rest will discipline each other through competition. (Shell and BP each make annual profits that are roughly the same as the national incomes of countries like Estonia, Cyprus, Lebanon or Botswana; about twice as much as the national income of Niger.)

If government cut duties, petrol companies would likely hike prices again.

The root cause of the current difficulty in the petrol market is high demand (much of it speculative) and OPEC-restricted supply. The high demand is something we're going to have to learn to live with. The artifical restriction of supply by the OPEC cartel is likely to continue for a while yet, although political pressure in advance of the OPEC meeting on 19 September could possibly bring about some easing of the situation. Eventually - as happened in the 1970s - the cartel will find the maintenance of high prices unsustainable, but that could take some time.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The petrol price protesters are out in force again. Oil prices have pushed the pump price to an unprecedented £1 per litre in the UK. In a country where travel by car has become the norm, the rapid price increase has understandably made many people unhappy.

Demand for oil is forecast to rise dramatically over the next few years, as the rapid pace of development in the large high growth economies of China and India brings motorised transport within the budget of many more people. With some forecasters predicting a rise in the per barrel price of oil to over $100 within two years, it is hardly surprising that the demand has increased now, when prices are 'only' $57.

To be sure, the high price is being sustained by the behaviour of the OPEC cartel, which is restricting output to around 28 million barrels per day. While prices are on the rise, discipline within the cartel is likely to be maintained; members of the cartel will recognise that they are better off not breaking the output quotas agreed within the organisation just yet. (Or at least not breaking them too wildly - OPEC recognises that its members do in fact break the rules.) The cartel is the real reason why output is restricted. Of course oil supplies are not infinite, but it's cartelisation rather than limited supplies that is the immediate problem. OPEC will be meeting on 19 September to review its quotas; we can expect there to be a lot of international pressure on them to increase supplies in order to dampen the upward pressure on prices.

In the 1970s, restrictive practices by OPEC brought about inflation on a grand scale in the UK. That happened because the government of the day 'accommodated' the oil price rise by relaxing monetary policy. That led to a general and sustained increase in prices - inflation. So long as today's authorities keep a tight rein on monetary policy, there is no reason why that episode should be repeated. But it does make it likely that the interest rate will need to be increased in the near future.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The European Union's dispute with China about textile imports comes like a blast from an unwelcome past. It exhibits the EU at its worst.

At its best, the EU exists to promote free trade - albeit free trade within a prescribed trading bloc. Free trade encourages the most efficient international pattern of production possible. If we are best off when France produces wine and Italy produces pasta, then that is exactly what free trade will stimulate. We will get relatively cheap wine from France and relatively cheap pasta from Italy, and - given an amount of money to spend - we'll be able to buy more wine and pasta than we could under any other production arrangement.

In the case that is now making the headlines, China wants to sell the EU cheap textiles. I say let them. The EU says no. The EU is concerned about European jobs in the textile industry, and is imposing protectionist policies to prevent what they consider to be excessive textile imports from a low cost producer. But why not let China do what it is good at, and let us concentrate on producing things where we have a comparative advantage?

For some textile workers in the EU, this might mean adjustment. It might mean reskilling, either to move up the value chain in the textile industry, or to move out of the textile industry altogether. Change hurts, and that being so, the EU is resisting the change. But change is also inevitable, and if EU labour markets do not act flexibly now, they will be forced to do so, more painfully, later.

Meanwhile, the EU is seeking to deny hundreds of millions of European consumers the right to choose between cheap imported textiles and more expensive domestically produced goods.

And all the time the tide keeps rolling in, and the EU still needs to learn from the experience of King Cnut.