Archive for September, 2010

Sep 30 2010

Free Trade Debate: to what extent has globalization based on free trade contributed to global economic growth and development?

Today in class, my IB year 2 students undertook a debate on the extent to which free trade has contributed to or hurt the well-being of the world’s people. In preparation for this debate, students were asked to research and bookmark to our class’s Diigo group one article offering evidence in support of their argument.

The debate was framed around a quote from Paul Krugman from chapter 11 of the excellent book, Naked Economics.

“You could say that globalization, driven not by human goodness but by the profit motive, has done far more good for more people than all the foreign aid and soft loans provided by well-intentioned governments and aid agencies.”
I was very impressed with their well thought out viewpoints, considering we have only just started our Unit 4: International Trade section of the IB course. Below are the summaries of my student’s arguments for and against free trade. Next to their names are links to the articles they found to support their argument.
Anti-trade arguments
  • 80% of the toys sold in America are made in China.
  • Foreign companies make toys in factories operated and owned by Chinese.
  • Working conditions in China are horrible with a minimum wages that is far too low.
  • In addition to low wages, standards of worker safety are lower than the United States, leading to exploitation of labor to produce cheap toys for Americans.
  • To make matters worse, the prices of a certain toy may vary greatly from rich country to rich country. For example, a doll that sells for $29 in the USA sells for $64 in Holland. How is this fair?
  • The cost of labor makes up less than 5% of the price of the toy.
  • Free trade only increases the profits of the capitalists, but does not help the workers in the poor countries where products are manufactured.
Koen: The Negative Impact of Free Trade |
  • Due to free trade, demand for labor in more developed countries decreases since production occurs in other countries where it’s cheaper to produce.
  • This means jobs lost in rich countries, so less economic growth, less consumption, lower incomes.
  • Growth in some countries comes at the expense of growth in other countries. There are winners and LOSERS in free trade.
Sarah: Doha trade deal ‘will hurt Africa’ | Environment | The Guardian
  • Under free trade as we call it today, subsidies to farmers in Europe make it difficult for African farmers to compete.
  • Africa accounts for less of the total trade in the world today than it did in 1990, mostly because of its inability to export produce due to subsidies to farmers in Europe.
  • With less access to advanced capital and the lack of government  subsidies, African farmers find it difficult to compete on the global produce market.
  • Free trade hurts poor countries’ farmers and therefore increases the gap between rich and poor.
  • Trade liberalization creates some losers as it increases the gap between those with skills to work in the global market and those who don’t have those skills.
  • Trade leads to an increase in inequality and more relative poverty.
  • Trade creates severe tensions between big and small firms and workers who succeed and those who lag behind.
  • Export growth can exacerbate the exploitation of natural resources. Without environmental protection, trade may make us richer but at the price of future development.
Pro-trade arguments
Duy Anh: Africa: Free Trade Area for East, Southern Africa Making Progress
  • Africa is establishing Free Trade Areas to improve the flow of goods and services across country. If trade were not beneficial, then why would so many countries be clamoring to enter a free trade area?
  • When workers can move freely in a region it can lead to better, more efficient resource allocation. The same is true of capital, goods and services. Larger markets lead to more efficiency and greater opportunities for employment and for business operators.
  • Reducing tariffs, quotas and other barriers to trade increases efficiency and allows for more opportunities for all those who live within a free trade areal.

Christopher: Foreign Trade, Not Foreign Aid « John Stossel

  • If we help developing countries improve and increase their trade with each other and the rest of the world, it will create jobs, allow entrepreneurs to start companies and therefore reduce unemployment.
  • Greater opportunities and less unemployment leads to more social stability, reduction in poverty, and less likelihood that the poor people of the world will become “extremists” or result to violence and terrorism to express their dissatisfaction with the world.
  • More trade and international relationships reduces likelihood of conflict between and within poor countries.
  • We should expect to see social and political stability arising from increased economic opportunity.
  • Free trade WILL increase economic opportunities in poor countries.
General comments from the class after both sides have presented their arguments
  • Unlike aid, free trade cannot be “used up”. Aid is a one-off, when it’s gone it’s over, but trade can be self-perpetuating.
  • On the other hand, Sarah says,  “but it all depends on the kind of aid and how it is used!”
  • Aid can be invested responsibly, but often times it is not.
  • So maybe there is room for BOTH aid AND trade.
  • Lara says,  “In extreme circumstances, aid is necessary. In other, trade is better as a long-run means of achieving growth and development

The exercise of debating the pros and cons of free trade for rich and poor countries was rewarding and provided an interesting and engaging way to introduce Unit 4 of the IB Economics course. The final two units, on International Trade and Economic Development, are closely tied, as one of the main strategies for achieving improvements in people’s standards of living is to improve the unfettered access to resource, good and service markets across national boundaries. We will be revisiting the debate on the effectiveness of trade versus aid at promoting the objectives of economic development repeatedly throughout the rest of the second year of IB economics.

For now, some questions went unresolved in today’s debate, and I will ask my student and any other interested reader to respond to those questions in the comments below.

Discussion questions:

  1. Is it possible that free trade has increased not only the relative poverty in the world, but also the number of people living in absolute poverty? In other words, trade makes the rich get richer, but does it make the poor get poorer? Or do the poor just feel poorer due to increased wealth and income of the rich?
  2. In 1970, the economies of China and Africa were roughly the same size, and the average income of a Chinese person was around the same as an African’s. Today, China’s economy is more than three time’s the size of Africa’s. What has China done differently than Africa to lead to such a huge income gap between the two regions?
  3. Why should people in Europe, America and other high income regions of the world care about the economic development of the world’s poorest countries? Does improving the lives of Africans require that we in Europe and the rich West make sacrifices in our own standards of living?
  4. African countries want Europe to stop subsidizing its farmers to make it easier for African farmers to compete. But doing so would mean the loss of an important part of European history and culture. Why would less subsidies to farmers in Europe help Africa, and should Europe listen to Africa on this issue or not?

10 responses so far

Sep 30 2010

From disequilibrium to equilibrium – how prices allocate resources in a free market

Energy Roundup – : In Today’s Journal: Easing Back on the Gas

Here’s a great example of a market in disequilibrium:

“Amid an abundance of natural-gas supplies and soft prices, gas producers are starting to pull the plug. Chesapeake Energy Corp. said it will cut 6% of its gas production in September in response to low natural-gas prices. The Oklahoma City-based company will also reduce its capital spending by 10% in 2008 and 2009. Other natural-gas producers are cutting back their output as well, analysts said.”

We learn in IB and AP Economics that markets are generally efficient thanks to the signals that prices send from consumers to producers to determine where scarce resources should be allocated. We’ve also learned how supply and demand interact in a market (such as that for natural gas) to determine equilibrium price and quantity. In the above example, there exists a disequilibrium, where either the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supply (a shortage), or the quantity supplied exceeds the quantity demanded (a surplus).

Based on the excerpt above, discuss the causes and effects of the disequilibrium in the natural gas market. Are resources being under or over-allocated towards gas production right now? What about in a month or two? On a piece of scratch paper, sketch a supply/demand diagram and illustrate the above scenario. Describe the shifts you would draw in such a diagram.

Discussion questions:

  1. What is meant by “soft prices” in the natural gas market? Assuming output by gas producers remained constant, what must have changed to cause the soft prices?
  2. How have firms responded to soft prices? Does the reaction of the gas companies support the law of supply? Explain
  3. In the next month, what will happen to supply of natural gas?
  4. What may happen in the natural gas market  if firms reduce capital spending in the next two years?

Once you’ve read this post, thought about the situation in the gas market, and commented below, read this for a clear, concise explanation of the situation from a college professor, or click here: Environmental Economics: A demand and supply example

10 responses so far

Sep 29 2010

Price controls in the Chinese Petrol market – or why you may have to wait in line to fill your gas tank!

China rations diesel as record oil hits supplies | Markets | Reuters

In the fall of 2007 I was living in Shanghai, China. At the time, oil prices were hitting record levels world wide, leading to rising petrol prices for drivers in most places.  However, at the time,  I began witnesing an unusual site on my taxi rides into the city of Shanghai: as our taxi passed petrol station after petrol station, I observed dozens of blue trucks (the ubiquitous medium of transporting good from Shanghai’s factories to her ports) spilling out of gas station parking lots into the road, apparently queued, waiting for a spot at the pump. I had never seen such long lines at any of the petrol stations around Shanghai before, and I began to wonder as to the reasons for these crazy long lines!

Well, an article at the time helped solve the riddle of the long lines. As it turns out, there was a simple explanation rooted in the principles of supply and demand that any first semester AP or IB economics student would understand! The Chinese government had been forced to ration petrol (limiting the amount that a driver can buy at one go) due to the shortages resulting from the government’s price controls in the petrol market.

Truck drivers reported long queues at petrol stations along a national highway linking Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, with each truck getting 100 yuan ($13) worth of diesel, or around 20 litres, per visit at a state-run station and 40 litres at a private kiosk…

“What’s wrong with the oil market? Our drivers had to queue the whole night for only a small amount of fill, slowing the traffic by almost one day,” said Gao Meili, who manages a logistics company.

China is a major importer of oil. With an economy growing around 12% in 2007, much of the country’s growth depended on the availability of crude oil at reasonable prices, which China’s oil refining firms turn into diesel and petrol, needed to get Chinese manufactured products from factory to port and from port to overseas consumers.

The problem with the oil market in China, however, was that as “Chinese refiners cannot pass the souring crude costs on to consumers.” Oil is an input needed to make a finished product, diesel. As the price of oil rose in 2007 (it reached a record of $92 per barrel in October of that year), the resource costs to petrol and diesel producers also rose, shifting the supply of petrol and diesel to the left, putting upward pressure on the equilibrium price.   As a first semester AP or IB student knows, resource costs are a determinant of supply, and as oil (the main resource in the production of petrol and diesel) increased in price, the supply of these important commodities invariably decreased.

In a free market, a decrease in supply leads to an increase in price. Herein lies the answer to the riddle of the long lies at petrol stations in Shanghai: the Chinese petrol and diesel market is not a free market. The government plays an active role in controlling prices paid by consumers for the finished product refiners are producing, petrol fuel:

Beijing fears stoking already high inflation and rigidly caps pump fuel rates to shield users from a 50 percent rally in global oil so far this year.

As the costs to petrol and diesel producers rose in 2007, the government in Beijing took the side of consumers and forbade fuel producers from raising the price they charge consumers.  The Chinese government essentially imposed a price ceiling in the market for petrol. A price ceiling is a maximum price set by a government aimed at helping consumers by keeping essential commodities like fuel affordable. As we have learned this week in AP and IB Economics, price controls such as this end up hurting BOTH producers AND consumers, since they only lead to a dis-equilibrium in the market in which the quantity demanded for a product rises while the quantity supplied by firms falls. The shortage of petrol and diesel resulting from the government’s price control are the perfect explanation for the long lines of blue trucks and motor scooters at all the gas stations in Shanghai during October of 2007.

So why, exactly, does the government’s enforcement of a lower than equilibrium price result in such severe shortages that truck drivers are only allowed to pump 20 litres of petrol per visit and made to wait hours each time they need to refill? Below is a supply and demand diagram that illustrates the situation in the Chinese fuel market in 2007:

In the graph above, the supply of petrol has decreased due to the increasing cost of the main resource that goes into petrol, oil. This decrease in supply means petrol has become more scarce, and correspondingly the equilibrium price should rise. However, due to the government’s intervention in the petrol and diesel markets, the price was not allowed to rise and instead remained at the maximum price of Pc.

At the government-mandated maximum price of Pc, the quantity of fuel demanded by drivers far exceeds the quantity supplied by China’s petrol producers. The result is a shortage of petrol equal to Qd-Qs.

The government’s intention for keeping petrol prices low is clear: to make consumers happy and keep the costs of transportation among China’s manufacturers low so as to not risk a slow-down in economic growth in China. However, the net effect of the price controls is a loss of total welfare in the petrol market. Notice the colored areas in the graph above. These represent the effect on welfare (consumer and producer surplus) of the price control.

  • The total areas of the green, orange and grey shapes represent the total amount of consumer and producer surplus in the petrol market assuming there were NO price controls. At a price of Pe, the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied are equal (at Qe) and the consumer surplus and producer surplus are maximized. The market is efficient at a price of Pe. Neither shortages nor surpluses of petrol exist.
  • However, at a price of Pc (the maximum price set by the government), the amount of petrol actually produced and consumed in the market is only Qs. Clearly, those who are able to buy petrol are better off, because they paid a lower price than they would have to without the price ceiling. But notice that there is a huge shortage of fuel now; many people who are willing and able to buy petrol at Pc simply cannot get the quantity they demand, because firms are simply not producing enough!
  • The total consumer surplus changes to the area below the demand curve and above Pc, but only out to Qs. The green area represents the consumer surplus after the price control. It is not at all obvious whether or not consumers are actually better off with the price ceiling.
  • The total producer surplus clearly shrinks to the orange triangle below Pc and above the supply curve. Petrol producers are definitely worse off due to the government’s action.
  • So how is the market as a whole affected? The black triangle represents the net welfare loss of the government’s price control. Notice that with a price of Pe, the black triangle would be added to consumer and producer surplus, but with a disequilibrium in the market at Pc, the black triangle is welfare lost to society.

Price controls by government’s clearly have an intended purpose of helping either consumers (in the case of a maximum price or price ceiling) or producers (in the case of a minimum price or price floor).  But the effect is always predictable from an economist’s perspective. A price set by a government above or below the equilibrium price will always lead to either a shortage or a surplus of the product in question. In addition, there will always be a loss of total welfare resulting from price controls, meaning that society as a whole is worse off than it would be without government intervention.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why has the supply of petrol decreased?
  2. With a fall in supply of a commodity like petrol, does the demand change, or the quantity demanded? What is the difference?
  3. Define “consumer surplus” and “producer surplus”. Why does a government’s control of prices reduce the total welfare of consumers and producers in a market like petrol?
  4. How would a government subsidy to petrol producers provide a more desirable solution to the high oil prices than the maximum price described in this post? In your notes, sketch a new market diagram for petrol and show the effects on supply, demand, price and quantity of a government subsidy to petrol producers. Does a subsidy create a loss of welfare? Why or why not?

57 responses so far

Sep 23 2010

Is bicycle transportation an “inferior good”?

This article was originally published on May 12, 2008. It is being re-published since it relates to our current units in AP and IB Economics.

The Associated Press: Gas prices knock bicycle sales, repairs into higher gear

Greg Mankiw has an ongoing series of posts linking to articles illustrating the impact that rising gas prices have had on demand in markets other than that of the automobile.

One of the determinants of demand for goods and services is the price of related goods and services. As gas prices rise, drivers tend to switch from automobiles to alternative forms of transportation. A few days ago I blogged about the switch from tractors to camels in India, one illustration of the relationship between the price of one good and demand for its substitutes. Mankiw has so far linked to articles about the impact of high gas prices on demand for bicycles, small cars and mass transit.

These three “goods” are all substitutes for the most common form of transport among Americans, the private automobile (often times a gas-guzzler in “the bigger the better” America). When the price of a good like personal vehicular transport increases (in this case due to the price of an input required in private cars, gasoline), the demand for a substitute good will increase.

In the case of bicycles, evidence indicates that just such a change in demand is already underway in America today:

Bicycle shops across the country are reporting strong sales so far this year, and more people are bringing in bikes that have been idled for years, he said.

“People are riding bicycles a lot more often, and it’s due to a mixture of things but escalating gas prices is one of them,” said Bill Nesper, spokesman for the Washington. D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists.

“We’re seeing a spike in the number of calls we’re getting from people wanting tips on bicycle commuting,” he said.

Interestingly, the increase in demand for bicycle travel in response to high gas prices might be even more pronounced due to America’s sluggish growth, 4% inflation and rising unemployment. Real wages have seen little gain in the last couple of years as growth has fallen close to zero while prices have continued to rise. It may be possible that a fall in real incomes in America has spurred new demand for bicycle transportation, which could be considered an inferior good, meaning that as household incomes fall, consumers demand more bicycles for transportation.

Since bicycles represent such a drastically cheaper method of transportation, high gas and food prices, a weak dollar, and falling real wages accompanying the economic slowdown have had a negative income effect on American consumers, leading to increases in demand for inferior goods such as bicycle transportation

That said, having worked in a bike shop myself for two years in college, I can say that most consumers looking at new bicycles are not doing so because of falling incomes. Quite the opposite, in fact, indicating that new bicycles are normal goods (those for which as income rises, demand rises). However, the article states that in addition to increases in new sales, “more people are bringing in bikes that have been idled for years”.

It may be that while new bicycles themselves are normal goods, bicycle transportation as a whole is an inferior good. The increase in demand for new bicycles could be explained by the substitution effect (as the price of motor vehicle transportation rises, its substitute, bicycle transport, becomes more attractive to consumers) and at the same time explained by the income effect too (as real incomes have fallen, demand for the bicycle transport has risen).

This phenomenon is an excellent illustration of how the income and substitution effects work in conjunction to explain the inverse relationship between price and quantity demanded for automobiles (the law of demand), as well as the concept of cross-price elasticity of demand between two substitute goods.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Both the price of substitute goods and income affect demand for a particular product. How have both the prices of substitutes for bikes and the income of bike consumers influenced the demand for bicycles in different ways?
  2. What is the definition of an “inferior good” in economics?Do you believe bicycle transportation is an “inferior good”?
  3. Are all bikes the same? Do you think demand for some bicycles responds differently to changes in income than demand for other bicycles?

77 responses so far

Sep 23 2010

The magical recession proof bunny

Chocolate Sales: A Sweet Spot in the Recession – TIME

Living in Switzerland, I find an article featuring a local business from the town my school is in irresistible, particularly when it appear in TIME magazine. Lindt chocolate, the company featured in this article, manufactures its delicate treats right down the hill from the ZIS campus, which means that when the wind is just right, you can just catch the scent of fresh, creamy chocolate wafting up the hillside while walking to campus.

Lindt, as well as its global competitors in the chocolate business, is enjoying surge in demand even while countless other industries are forced to cut back production, lay off workers, and close their factory doors. From TIME:

While the credit crisis has slowed down sales of everything from cars to organic groceries, people seem happy to keep shelling out for chocolate. Last year, as the global recession was gaining ground, Swiss chocolate makers bucked the trend with record sales — nearly 185,000 tons, an increase of 2% over 2007, sold domestically and in 140 export markets…

“Switzerland’s image sells well abroad, and nothing says ‘Switzerland’ more than chocolate,” says Stephane Garelli, director of the World Competitiveness Center at the Institute of Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, predicting that this comfort food will continue to sweeten the sour economy for months to come…

“Now that people don’t have a new television or a new car,” he noted, “they eat a bit more chocolate.”

“Chocolate is one of the more recession-resilient food sectors,” says Dean Best, executive director of Just-Food, a U.K.-based news and information website for the global food industry. “With consumers eating out less and eating at home more, there is evidence that they are still allowing themselves the occasional indulgence — and chocolate is a relatively inexpensive indulgence.”

But the question of why there is no meltdown in the chocolate business may be more a matter of psychology than economics. “There is well-documented evidence going back to Freud, showing that in times of anxiety and uncertainty, when people need a boost, they turn to chocolate,” says Garelli of the IMD. “That’s why when the economy is bad, chocolate is still selling well.”

Which goes to show that chocolate is more than a candy treat — it’s real food for the soul.

So does this mean chocolate is an inferior good, or one for which demand increases as incomes fall? I doubt many Swiss chocolate producers would consider their product inferior, but perhaps it does fit the definition.

On the other hand, perhaps the reason demand for chocolate increases during a recession has more to do with the substitution effect than the income effect. As people eat out less, they consume fewer expensive deserts at restaurants and instead fill their shopping baskets with more affordable dessert options for the home. I can say from experience that this is the case for myself.

Living in Switzerland, I find myself rarely going out to eat at restaurants, an activity reserved for special occasions in this country where a steak can set you back 75 dollars. Instead, I eat at home almost every night, and nothing is more appealing to me, especially during hard economic times, than a bar of delicious chocolate after a home cooked meal. Demand for chocolate may rise during recessions simply because the demand for one of its substitutes (restaurant desserts) falls.

Discussion questions:

  1. Do you think chocolate is an inferior good or a normal good? What’s the difference? What types of goods do YOU consome more of when you find yourself faced with a tighter budget?
  2. Does economics have a good explanation for the above situation? The article mentions Freud, a pioneer in  the field of psychology; do humans’ economic behavior always appear rational?
  3. If chocolate were an inferior good, what would happen to chocolate sales when the global economy finally turns around and incomes start increasing? What do you think will happen to chocolate sales when the economy starts imrpoving? Explain.

26 responses so far

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