Archive for September, 2008

Sep 29 2008

European banks struggling – government lubrication needed!

European governments bail out more lenders – International Herald Tribune

As the US financial system holds its breath to see if the US government’s injection of $700 billion of liquidity actually results in new lending and restored business and consumer confidence, Europe is beginning to see its own government takeovers of European banks.

Regulators in Britain, Belgium and Iceland swooped in Monday to engineer emergency rescues of three banks with heavy exposure to soured mortgages, echoing moves underway in the United States.

In the latest sign of trouble to hit Europe from the global credit crisis, the Belgian, Dutch and Luxembourg governments announced a partial nationalization of the troubled Belgian-Dutch financial conglomerate Fortis, involving a combined injection of €11.2 billion from the three governments, which take a 49 percent stake…

Meanwhile, the British Treasury on Monday confirmed that it had seized the lender Bradford & Bingley – the third British bank to tumble this year – after no private buyers emerged.

Much as in the United States, several European banks have gotten into trouble as their assets tied to real estate have lost value due to the weak European and American real estate markets. As more and more borrowers are unable to pay their mortgages, banks’ assets decline in value and the banks’ willingness and ability to make new loans decreases. This limits the amount of credit available to households and firms, and with it their ability to make investments in consumer goods and capital. Tighter credit markets mean weaker aggregate demand (less consumption and investment), leading to slower or negative economic growth and rising unemployment.

In the past, when one bank got into trouble with bad assets like those tied to the real estate market, other private banks would come along and bail the troubled bank out, swapping cash for the assets, allowing the troubled bank to continue making loans. But when all banks find themselves in the midst of the same financial crisis, the likelihood of finding a private buyer for a struggling bank is low. This is where the government steps in:

The bailout of Fortis (Belgium’s largest commercial bank) orchestrated by the three neighboring countries (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) and the ECB (European Central Bank)… was meant to restore confidence in the bank before the reopening of markets on Monday after a tumultuous week of imploding share values at Fortis. The shares gained 4.8 percent to €5.45 Monday.

In Britain, regulators were unable to find buyers to keep Bradford & Bingley afloat. The lender’s shares are down 90 percent from the peak, touching new depths Friday as an already skittish market punished the company, prompting the talks.

When the private sector is unable or unwilling to purchase the assets of a bank that has experienced a write down of its asset value, the government must intervene to make sure such banks have the liquidity (meaning the hard cash) they need to make loans to borrowers, whose spending is needed to keep the economy going.

In the US, the government has agreed to trade $700 billion in hard, loanable and spendable cash, in exchange for financial assets tied to bad mortgages worth something less than $700 billion. If the swap has the effect the government hopes it will, then lending institutions will feel more confidence and be willing to loan cash to each other and to borrowers (households and firms), spending in the economy will increase (consumption and investment) and aggregate demand will rise, meaning more total output, more employment and higher incomes. In addition, more lending will also lead to an increase in the capital stock, effectively pushing the American and European aggregate supply curves outwards, leading to a more stable rate of inflation (a major worry for both economies as oil prices hit record levels this year).

In spite of the recent round of bailouts in both the US and Europe, confidence among European firms and households is low:

Euro-zone economic confidence plunged to its lowest level in seven years in September, the EU said Monday.

A regular survey of European companies and consumers showed the index of confidence in the economy falling to 87.7, close to a 2001 trough, the European Commission said.

The EU executive warned that the survey carried out in the first two weeks of September may not fully reflect growing gloom in the last few weeks as worries over a U.S. and European recession widened on a financial market crisis.

Industry, services and construction were all more pessimistic than a month ago, it said, while consumer confidence was unchanged from a low level. Retailers were slightly more upbeat about their prospects.

It said industry managers’ employment expectations fell – meaning they believe they may have to cut jobs – although services companies were more hopeful.

Consumers thought that unemployment would increase in future months and expect prices to rise.

The 15 nations that share the euro are battling high inflation as oil prices remain high – although below recent record levels – and increasing fears that a financial crisis will freeze or sharply hike the cost of borrowing.

That would slow growth as companies found it harder to get credit and people faced high costs to buy homes. The U.S. government is trying to stave off tighter credit conditions by buying up hundreds of billions of dollars of bad debt from major lenders

As can be seen, falling confidence and tighter credit markets are evil twins. If the Euro zone economy is to avoid recession, the European Central Bank and the governments of the 15 Euro nations should follow closely events in the US over the next few weeks. The $700 billion injection of liquidity, if successful, will act as lubrication in the engine of the US economy.

Think of it this way: lately, the US economic engine has slowed down. Friction in the financial markets has slowed the flow of cash from households to banks to firms and back to households. In IB and AP Economics terms, the circular flow of money and income has slowed to a halt. To get the engine moving again, cash is needed. Banks with liquid cash are more willing to lend to one another and to households and firms. A healthy economy depends on a well lubricated economic engine, which in today’s world means a functioning financial market.

The government bailouts in the US and Europe are intended to do one thing: lubricate that engine and get the economy moving forward once more.

Discussion question:

  1. Why does the government need to intervene in financial markets? Shouldn’t those who took risks by making bad loans pay for their mistakes and be allowed to go under?
  2. What will it take to turn consumer and investor confidence around in Europe?
  3. How might the crisis in the financial markets affect you and me in the real world?

2 responses so far

Sep 25 2008

What’s Korea’s “beef” with the US on free trade?

“This post was originally published in April, 2008. It has been re-published today for the benefit of my year 2 IB Econ students, who are currently studying barriers to free trade.

Bloomberg.com: Economy – Korea Beef Deal Won’t Yield Trade Vote

Free trade: everyone either loves it or loves to hate it.
South Korea and the US have been in negotiations for a landmark free trade agreement for years. Korea, however, has had a “beef” with US beef imports since 2003, when a case of Mad Cow Disease gave Korean officials the jitters and all imports were halted.

Even though Mad Cow has disappeared from American beef, the ban has remained, making it difficult for negotiators to come to any major agreements on the reduction of tariffs and other barriers to trade in other markets in which the US and Korea trade. Just last week, South Korea removed the beef ban, giving some analysts hope that a free trade deal may soon be agreed upon.

President Bush signed the agreement last year but has hesitated to pass it on to Congress; where certain Democratic politicians have refused to approve the agreement until S Korea removed the beef ban. Now that the ban has been lifted, however, it appears that the issues keeping an agreement from being reached may run deeper than the simple beef ban:

In addition, Ford Motor Co., unions and Democrats, including both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, all say the accord must be reworked to address what they call South Korea’s barriers to U.S. manufactured goods.

“I understand there are foreign policy considerations, but this is too important for us,” Stephen Biegun, vice president for government affairs at Ford said in an interview earlier this month. “We don’t see any sign that they are ready to change.”

Levin, who represents autoworkers in suburban Detroit, said the accord will need to be changed to address what he calls South Korea’s non-tariff barriers to U.S. manufactured goods, especially autos.

Clinton, in a response to questions from the Pennsylvania Fair Trade Coalition, said the agreement with South Korea “will cost America jobs.”

The S Korea / US Free Trade Agreement should bring a boost in trade between the two countries:

The U.S. is South Korea’s second-largest export market behind China, with shipments totaling $45.8 billion in 2007. Imports from the U.S. last year reached $37.2 billion. The trade agreement would eliminate or reduce tariffs on a wide range of goods including automobiles, vegetables and electronics.

Through free trade there are winners and losers. This is a theme we’ve explored in some depth already during our International Economics unit. The winners, in the case of the S Korea/US FTA will likely be manufacturers in S Korea and service industries in the US. Judging by Ford Motor Company’s response to the FTA, we can assume that American manufacturers will be losers from the accord.

Does this make it bad, however? According to macroeconomic theory, no. The removal of tariffs on imports from S Korea will force American manufacturers to become more competitive and achieve greater efficiency, both which will result in a more efficient allocation of resources in both S Korea and the US. If Ford, for example, sells fewer cars because of in influx of high quality, affordable Korean automobiles, then Ford may be forced to shut down some of its plants in the US. This will lead to the loss of American jobs, just as Hillary Clinton claims it will.

But in the long-run, America as a whole should be better off for it. Manufacturers in the US will focus more on capital intensive goods such as industrial equipment, the manufacture of which requires highly skilled labor, which America has in abundance. In addition to industrial equipment and other high skilled manufactured goods, the US service sector should benefit from freer trade with S Korea.

With beef being resolved, the U.S. banks, insurance companies and other services companies that stand to gain the most from this accord are gearing up their lobbying efforts.

Beef “has been our biggest obstacle in having a meaningful dialogue on the benefits of this agreement,” said Matt Niemeyer, vice president for the business insurer ACE Ltd. and a former U.S. trade official. “It’s now time to work with Congress to find a way to move this important agreement this year.”

As any student of economics knows by now, politics and economics don’t always mix well. The opposition to the S Korea/US FTA among Congressional Democrats is more political than it is economic. Jobs will be lost, that’s true, but overall trade between two technologically advanced, developed countries like the US and S Korea should do more for improvements in efficiency and in resource allocation than it will in harm for a handful of American workers who may find themselves out of work due to greater demand for imported automobiles.


*A tariff on Korean automobiles results in the following outcomes:

  • The quantity demanded of automobiles is less than it would be without a tariff (Q4 rather than Q3)
  • The quantity supplied by American auto manufacturers is greater than it would be without the tariff (Q2 rather than Q1)
  • The difference between Q2 and Q1 represents an overallocation of resources in America towards automobile manufacturing.
  • The domestic quantity demanded exceeds the domestic quantity supplied. The difference (Q4 – Q2) is made up for by imports from S Korea.
  • The government earns revenue equal to the area of the yellow rectangle (amount of tariff x number of cars imported)
  • Society experiences a loss of efficiency (deadweight loss) equal to the combined areas of the green triangles Y and X. This is consumer surplus lost, accounted for by the higher price paid by American consumers imposed by the tariff.

In the model above, the removal of a tariff on Korean automobiles will result in a decrease in output by American firms from Q2 to Q1, an increase in imports from Q4 – Q2 to Q3 – Q1, and an increase in consumer surplus, efficiency, and better overall allocation of resources in America.

Discussion questions:

  1. How does the graph illustrate the concept of “winners and losers from free trade”?
  2. Who gains and who loses from free trade with the US within Korea?
  3. Is it possible that a free trade agreement with Korea would actually create jobs in America? Explain…
  4. Why do politicians oppose free trade deals that would result in such improvements in efficiency, allocation of resources, and even in the employment opportunities for American workers?

144 responses so far

Sep 19 2008

It’s all about DEMAND!

FT.com / World – Air fares nosedive amid falling travel demand

Our IB and AP Econ classes here at Zurich International School have just begun our second unit of the year, where the concepts of Demand and Supply are introduced and the effect these have on prices is examined. The first assignment of the new unit was for each student to find an article discussing the demand for a particular good, service or resource, and post it to our Unit 2 wiki page.

If it’s ever unclear whether a change in demand for a good or a service can actually affect the price, the article linked here should make it perfectly clear that demand is a powerful market force. In an industry where it has seemed recently that prices only rise, a recent fall in market demand has driven prices downward, as firms have responded to consumer demand in order to sell their product, which in this case are seats on short and long-haul flights within and from Europe.

Falling demand for business and leisure travel is causing a marked decline in air fares, with UK fares to North America declining by nearly a half, according to American Express.

Air fares peaked earlier this year as a result of rising oil costs. But the slowing global economy has caused that to reverse.

The lowest economy class fares in Europe, the Middle East and Africa fell on average by 12.5 per cent in April to June compared with the first quarter, with long-haul fares down more than a quarter.

But UK fares suffered the sharpest falls, with the lowest economy fares down by an average of 20.2 per cent, including a 49 per cent fall in fares to North America and a 22 per cent decline in fares to Japan, Asia-Pacific and Australia.

Discussion questions:

  1. What factors are driving demand for air travel down within, to and from Europe?
  2. Why does the price of air travel fall as demand for air travel weakens?
  3. Which other industries may have to lower their prices as fewer and fewer people travel between European countries and North America?

14 responses so far

Sep 17 2008

So the stock markets are crashing, what’s the big deal?

How Does the Stock Market Effect The Economy? | Economics Blog

Well, a few things… Generally, the fluctuations of the stock market do not necessarily bode ill for the whole economy. Likewise, global fluctuations of stock markets does not mean there is a recession on the horizon. In fact, an old adage says that “stock markets have predicted ten out of the last three recessions.” In other words, a slump in global markets does not always precipitate a slump in the world’s economy. Here’s some impacts the market crashes of the last few days may have, however, explained nicely by Richard Pettinger, an economics teacher in the UK:

Economic Effects of Stock Market

1. Wealth Effect: The first impact is that people with shares will see a fall in their wealth. If the fall is significant it will affect their financial outlook. If they are losing money on shares they will be more hesitant to spend money; this can contribute to a fall in consumer spending. However, the effect should not be given too much importance. Often people who buy shares are prepared to lose money; their spending patterns are usually independent of share prices, especially for short term losses.

2. Effect on Pensions: Anybody with a private pension or investment trust will be affected by the stock market, at least indirectly. Pension funds invest a significant part of their funds on the stock market. Therefore, if there is a serious fall in share prices, it reduces the value of pension funds. This means that future pension payouts will be lower. If share prices fall too much, pension funds can struggle to meet their promises. The important thing is the long term movements in the share prices. If share prices fall for a long time then it will definitely affect pension funds and future payouts.

3. Confidence: Often share price movements are reflections of what is happening in the economy. E.g. recent falls are based on fears of a US recession and global slowdown. However, the stock market itself can affect consumer confidence. Bad headlines of falling share prices are another factor which discourage people from spending. On its own it may not have much effect, but combined with falling house prices, share prices can be a discouraging factor.

4. Investment: Falling share prices can hamper firms ability to raise finance on the stock market. Firms who are expanding and wish to borrow often do so by issuing more shares – it provides a low cost way of borrowing more money. However, with falling share prices it becomes much more difficult.

7 responses so far

Sep 17 2008

Welker’s daily links 09/16/2008

Published by under Daily Links

  • Is NAFTA really about free trade? Or “managed trade”?

    “The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is the quintessential managed-trade vehicle sold under the rubric of free trade. The first tip-off should be its size. While we earlier saw how 54 words in the U.S. Constitution established free trade among the states of the Union, NAFTA weighs in at over 2,000 pages, 900 of which are tariff rates. (Under true free trade, there is one tariff rate—0 percent.) The agreement does have trade-liberalizing features, to be sure. Consisting of a 10 percent reduction in tariffs to be phased in over 15 years, however, they are all but buried under the profusion of controls NAFTA also establishes.

    In the first place, the benefit from those tariff reductions are jeopardized by the agreement’s snap-back provisions. Those permit pre-NAFTA tariff levels to be restored against imported items which cause or threaten serious injury to domestic industry.[5] In other words, NAFTA supports free trade as long as it does not promote international competition which is too hot for favored domestic firms to handle. In addition, NAFTA’s rules of origin are designed to divert trade from the world’s most efficient suppliers to North America’s most efficient suppliers. This hobbles the international division of labor instead of expanding it, as true free trade does.

    The importance of NAFTA clauses that keep out foreign goods came to light as U.S. clothing manufacturers railed against the import of wool suits from our NAFTA partner Canada. The suits in question were made from third-country wool not covered by NAFTA rules of origin. Since Canadian tariffs on foreign wool were lower than U.S. tariffs (10 percent vs. 34 percent),[6] Canadian suits sold for less and soon claimed a large share of the U.S. market. The fact that the entire discussion of this issue centered on closing this loophole in NAFTA rather than on lowering the injurious U.S. tariff on wool should prove how devoted NAFTA’s supporters are to free trade.

    Free trade does not

    tags: economics, free trade, NAFTA

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