Friday, April 25, 2008

There has been a lot in the news lately about anti-competitive practice. Today, tobacco manufacturers and retailers are accused of price co-ordination. Last week, construction companies were accused of collusion in securing tenders.

Anti-competitive practices are subject to regulation because they can serve to reduce economic welfare. While companies engage in such practices in order to increase their profits, this increase in profit is achieved by exploiting their trading partners. In many cases, the exploited lose more than the exploiter gains. So on balance, the anti-competitive behaviour is a bad thing.

How is it that the exploited lose more than the exploiter gains? The gain in profit is usually achieved by raising prices; when they do this, firms find that they can sell less output. The increased price for which each unit is sold more than compensates them for the fact that they are selling fewer units. For the consumer, however, not only is less consumed, but more is paid for each unit that is still consumed.

The news about tobacco is not particularly surprising. The news about collusion amongst construction companies is more so - because of the sheer number of firms alleged to have been involved. Collusion between large numbers of companies is rare. This is because each firm has an incentive to cheat on the deal, and it is difficult to be caught cheating when there are many companies involved.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Bank of England has today cut the interest rate by a further quarter point to 5%. This is intended to stimulate the economy in the face of the anticipated downturn. The question is: will this be enough of a cut for a while, or can we expect further cuts in the months ahead?

The first thing to observe is that the Bank's interest rate is having a less focused impact on the real economy these days than has been the case in the past. While the Bank has been cutting the interest rate at which it lends to other banks, the squeeze on credit has meant that the interest rates that people pay on their mortgages (and that businesses pay on their borrowing) have not come down. The Bank's decision to cut its interest rate today is good news in that it might prevent the cost of mortgages rising, or it might ensure that more mortgages are available. It is also good news in that sometime, further on down the road (who knows when?), the cost of mortgages should come down - and this will give a boost to the economy.

At the same time, oil prices have reached another record high, and the consequent effect on prices more generally needs to be heeded. The threat of inflation may be sufficient to render any future cuts in the interest rate less likely.

But we are in a 'play it by ear' situation. The very least that can be said for economic policy at the moment is that it is interesting.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

House prices have fallen by nearly 3% since they hit their peak late last year. Prices are still higher (just) than they were a year ago, but only because of the sustained increase in prices through most of 2007. It now seems likely that the year-on-year rate of house price inflation will turn negative at some point during the current year. The question is: how negative?

A downward adjustment of between 5 and 10 per cent seems to be the likeliest outcome. Prices are currently dampened by the effects of last year's interest rate hikes and the current difficulty that people are experiencing in getting mortgages. But the Bank of England has already cut interest rates, and more cuts are in the offing. These have not, in the main, fed through to mortgage payers yet, owing to nervousness surrounding the credit crunch - but they will. And as confidence returns to the banking sector (which may happen after or, hopefully, without another blip or two), mortgages will become easier to find. A moderate adjustment of house prices, followed by a gradual and modest recovery, would not be comfortable. But neither would it cause much real damage.

Meanwhile, in a fascinating recent study, the International Monetary Fund reckons that house prices in the UK are 27% higher than is justified by the fundamentals. Perhaps. For sure that kind of gap could be fixed either by the 'soft landing' that I have described above or by something more drastic.

A more drastic realignment would introduce problems of negative equity on a large scale - where people find that the value of their house does not cover what they owe as a mortgage, thereby making it difficult for them to move house. This has to be seen as a less likely - but nevertheless possible - outcome than a more moderate readjustment.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has today published a report on immigration to the UK. It concludes that the recent wave of immigration has had 'little or no impact' on the economic position of native Britons.

To be sure there are pros and cons of migration. The sharp increase in population that has resulted in certain parts of the country has put (upward) pressure on house prices and local services. It has also put (downward) pressure on wages, particularly at the bottom end of the labour market. However, this last fact has meant that it has been possible to sustain relatively high levels of growth, and so maintain low levels of unemployment, without setting off inflation. This has been a huge benefit of migration that the Committee seems to underplay.

A further benefit is that when a downturn comes, much of the impact can be absorbed by migrants returning to their home countries. We may already have seen the start of this process, as movements of workers from Britain to Poland are reported, in the last couple of months, to have exceeded those in the other direction.

Migration has already given us growth we could not otherwise have enjoyed. Over the next couple of years, we face a serious downturn if not a serious recession. Migration is our biggest source of hope that the impact of that downturn will be moderate.