Archive for November, 2011

Nov 29 2011

“I am the condom friend ever useful to you”

Market failures exist all around us. Until you have studied the concept, however, you would probably never know it! Not all market failures are in the form of pollution, however, and in fact many of the goods that are beneficial to society can be pointed to as examples of market failure.

If a good creates external benefits for society beyond those enjoyed by the consumer of the good itself, it is said to create positive externalities of consumption. Condoms are an example of such a good; when an individual uses a condom when having sex, he enjoys several private benefits, such as reducing the chance of becoming infected with a sexually transmitted disease and reducing the likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy. However, the benefits for society of condom use are much greater, and include lower HIV and other STD infection rates, thus a healthier, more productive population, lower birth rates thus less pressure on resources from excessive population growth. These are external benefits of condom use, which means they will not be considered when an individual decides whether or not he will use a condom when engaging in sex.

Using the terminology of market failure, the marginal social benefits of condom use exceed the marginal private benefits. Thus, when left to the free market, the quantity of condoms consumed will be less than the socially optimal quantity. Not enough people will use protection when having sex: birth rates will be higher than desired, HIV infection rates will be higher and society as a whole will bear the costs of unsafe sexual activity.

In India, a developing country where the average woman still has nearly three children in her life, population growth threatens to put increasing pressure on the nation’s resources. Therefore, the country could benefit greatly from increased use of condoms.  The video below demonstrates an attempt by non-governmental organizations to increase awareness among Indian males about the purpose and appropriate use of condoms.

Watch the video and respond to the questions that follow:

Discussion Questions:

  1. What approach does the video take to correcting the market failure in the use of condoms?
  2. Why is condom use lower than what is socially optimal in India?
  3. Is this video an example of a commercial, or is it a public service announcement? What’s the difference?
  4. Do you think it will work? How would we know if the video succeeded or failed?

3 responses so far

Nov 29 2011

Market failure versus Government failure – what should we be more concerned about?

One of the most prominent economists of the 20th century was the late Milton Friedman, an ardent free market supporter who remained skeptical of government’s ability to correct market failures through interventionist policies.

I found the talk below interesting. Friedman offers several examples of market failures that have been pointed to as a justification for government intervention, and argues that in fact, government often does not truly know what the right outcome is in most cases. He believes that government failure should be just as much a concern as market failure; and that therefore societal welfare would be best met by finding market-based solutions to the misallocation of resources that sometimes arises under conditions in which externalities exist.

As you watch the video, consider Friedman’s claims regarding the role of government, then post your response to one of the discussion questions below.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is government better able to know the “optimal” quantity of output of different goods and services than private individuals are?
  2. Under what conditions would the free market be best able to achieve solutions to market failures such as those described by Friedman?
  3. What do you think should be of greater to concern to society, market failure or government failure?


3 responses so far

Nov 23 2011

Why the falling rupee makes Mr. Welker a happy man! (and may help the Indian economy in the long-run)

Indian Rupee hits all-time low against the dollar – CBS News

A couple of years ago I wrote what I would call a “fantasy” blog post about how the recent depreciation of the British pound would have made a ski trip to India a whole lot cheaper since the tour company I was planning to go with quoted its prices in the British currency. Well, at the time I wasn’t really planning to go skiing in the Himalayas, but this year, because of a fall in the value of another currency, I really AM going to ski in the Himalayas!

The chart below shows how the value of the Swiss franc has changed against the Indian rupee over the last year and a half.

The Value of the Swiss Franc in terms of India Rupees – last 18 months

As can be seen, the franc, which is the currency in which I get paid here in Switzerland, has risen from only 40 rupees 18 months ago to as high as 63 rupees in August this year, and is currently at 57 rupees per Swiss franc. We’ll explore the underlying causes of this appreciation of the franc in a moment, but first let’s examine its effect on my dream of skiing in the Himalayas.

So just yesterday morning I did, at last, after six years of dreaming of this adventure, book a six day guided ski trip in the Indian Kashmir town of Gulmarg, which sits at an elevation of 2800 meters and has lift-accessed skiing up to 4,000 meters, making Gulmarg the second highest ski resort in the world. Okay, enough facts. The strong franc made this trip a reality for me for the following reason:

  • 18 months ago, the 40,000 rupee price tag of this ski trip would have meant a cost of 1,000 swiss francs.
  • Today, due to the strong franc, the 40,000 rupee price tag means this trip is only costing me 700 swiss francs.
Due to the strengthening of the franc, and the weakening of the rupee, my Himalayan ski odyssey is now costing me 30% less than it would have 18 months ago… so… I’m doing it! YEAH!
The Swiss currency has appreciated by 42.5% in the last 18 months against the India rupee. WHY?! What could be going on in the world that accounts for this massive swing in exchange rates? There are a few causes worth mentioning here, which have to do with factors within Switzerland and India, but also external factors beyond the control of either country. Here are some of the major ones:
In Europe:
  • The franc has risen against most world currencies, not just the rupee, due, ironically, to economic uncertainty in the rest of Europe. Since Switzerland has its own currency, and a strong economy, whereas all of its European neighbors have a common currency (the euro), and struggling economies, investments in Swiss assets (primarily savings accounts and government debt) have become increasingly attractive. This has caused demand for francs to rise, causing its value to increase against most currencies.
  • The debt crisis in the rest of Europe, most notably in Greece and Italy, reduces certainty among investors in these European governments’ ability to repay their debt, creating further demand for investment in Switzerland, causing the franc to rise.
In India:
  • According to the Associated Press, “Slowing growth, a swelling current account deficit and waning investor interest in India are adding to pressure on the rupee…” India runs a large trade deficit, equaling about 3% of the nation’s GDP. This means Indians are dependent on imported goods, while foreigners do not demand as many of its exports. This puts downward pressure on the exchange rate of the rupee.
  • In addition, the “slowing growth” rate in India sends the signal that the country’s central bank may lower interest rates to try and stimulate GDP. However, the expectations of lower interest rates in the future make international investors look elsewhere for investments with relatively higher returns.
  • Next, weaker growth prospects make investments in Indian assets (such as corporate stocks or bonds) less attractive to international investors, since they expect demand for Indian output to slow in the future, thus demand for rupees declines now.
  • Finally, the decline in the rupee’s value itself is fueling a further increase in the value of the franc. Not all currency exchanges are for the purpose of purchasing a nation’s goods or its assets. Much currency trading is among forex brokers who buy and sell currencies to hold as assets themselves. The weakening of the rupee may be fueling speculation about the future value of the rupee, which acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as forex investors will continue to swap rupees for other currencies, including the Swiss franc.
All this adds up to one thing for me: A 30% discount on my ski vacation to India! Of course, for the Indian economy, a weaker rupee might be just what is needed to boost future economic growth. As the rupee falls and the Swiss franc and the US dollar gain value, not only will ski vacations to India become more attractive to foreigners, but so will other exports from the South Asian nation. That 3% trade deficit that has contributed to the rupee’s decline may begin to move towards the positive if foreigners like me begin taking more trips to and buying more goods from Indian firms.
The weaker rupee could, in the long-run, increase total demand for India’s output, which would improve employment and growth prospects on the sub-continent. Furthermore, if India’s growth rate picks up due to increased net exports, the Indian central bank may be able to raise interest rates a bit, reducing the incentive for investors to flee the rupee and put their money in countries with higher returns.
Through this process of self-balancing, in time the weaker rupee will probably lead to an improvement in India’s economic situation and eventually the rupee will begin to strengthen against the currencies of India’s trading partners. But for now, I’m going to enjoy my week of guided skiing in the Himalayas, and thank the forex traders and currency speculators for allowing me to take this dream vacation for such a bargain price!


No responses yet

Nov 07 2011

Excuse me, China… could you lend us another billion? Understanding the imbalance of trade between China and the United States

The $1.4 Trillion Question – James Fallows – the Atlantic

American consumers are a curious bunch. Up until 2007, the average savings rate in the United States fell as low as 1%, and during brief period was actually negative. What does negative savings actually mean? It means that Americans consume more than they actually produce.On the micro level, the only way to consume beyond ones income is to borrow from someone else to pay for the additional consumption. In other words, savings must be negative for one to consume beyond his or her income. The US is a nation of borrowers, but from whom do we borrow? China, for one…

China is a nation of “savers”, where national savings averages 50% of income. What exactly does this mean? Well, just the opposite what negative savings means; rather than consuming more than it produces, the Chinese consume only about half of what it produces. Here’s how James Fallows, a Shanghai-based journalist, explains the China/US dilemma:

Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should—which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.
What happens to the rest of China’s output? Naturally, it’s shipped overseas for Americans and others in the West to consume. The irony is that the consumption of China’s products has been kept affordable and cheap thanks to the actions the Chinese government has taken to suppress the value of the RMB, thus keeping its products cheap and attractive to American consumers.

When the dollar is strong, the following (good) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, manufactured goods, and just about everything else (vacations in Europe!) goes down. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes up. Interest rates go down—for mortgage loans, credit-card debt, and commercial borrowing. Tax rates can be lower, since foreign lenders hold down the cost of financing the national debt. The only problem is that American-made goods become more expensive for foreigners, so the country’s exports are hurt.

When the dollar is weak, the following (bad) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, and so on (no more vacations in Europe) goes up. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes down. Interest rates are higher. Tax rates can be higher, to cover the increased cost of financing the national debt. The only benefit is that American-made goods become cheaper for foreigners, which helps create new jobs and can raise the value of export-oriented American firms (winemakers in California, producers of medical devices in New England).

Clearly, a strong dollar is good for America in many ways. The dollar’s strength in the last decade can be credited partially to the Chinese, who have been buying dollar denominated assets in record numbers over the last seven years.

By 1996, China amassed its first $100 billion in foreign assets, mainly held in U.S. dollars. (China considers these holdings a state secret, so all numbers come from analyses by outside experts.) By 2001, that sum doubled to about $200 billion… Since then, it has increased more than sixfold, by well over a trillion dollars, and China’s foreign reserves are now the largest in the world.

China’s purchase of American assets keeps demand for dollars on foreign exchange markets strong, thus the value of the dollar high relative to other currencies, allowing American firms and consumers the benefits of a strong dollars described above.
A nation’s balance of payments consists of the current account, which measures the difference between a country’s expenditures on imports and its income from exports (In 2008 China had a $232 billion current account surplus with the US, meaning the US bought more Chinese goods than China bought of American goods), and the capital account, which measures the difference between the inflows of foreign money for the purchase of real and financial assets at home and the outflows of currency for the purchase of foreign assets abroad. In the financial account, China maintains a deficit (meaning China holds more American financial and real assets than America does of China’s), to off-set its current account surplus.The two accounts together, by definition, balance out… usually. Any deficit in the China’s capital account that does not cover the surplus in its current account can be held as foreign exchange reserves by the People’s Bank of China. The PBOC, however, prefers not to hold excess dollars in reserve, as the dollar’s value is continually eroded by inflation and depreciation; therefore it invests the hundreds of billions of excess dollars it receives from Americans’ purchase of Chinese goods back into the American economy, buying up American assets, with the aim of earning interest on these assets that exceed the inflation rates.

The “assets” the Chinese are using their large influx of dollars to buy are primarily US government bonds. The government issues these bonds to finance its budget deficits, and the Chinese are happy to buy these bonds for a couple of reasons: They are secure investments, meaning that unless the US government collapses, the interest on US bonds is guaranteed income for China. That’s one reason; but the primary reason is that the purchase of these bonds puts US dollars that were originally spent by American consumers on Chinese imports right back into the hands of American consumers (via government spending or tax rebates), so they can continue buying more Chinese imports.

The Chinese demand for dollar denominated financial assets, including government bonds, corporate stocks and bonds, and real assets like real estate, factories, buildings and so on, has resulted in a long period of a strong dollar. If the Chinese ever decided to stem the flow of dollars into American assets, the dollar’s value would plummet to record lows, leading to high inflation and eventually a balancing of America’s enormous current account deficit with China and the rest of the world.

However, a falling dollar is the last thing China wants to see happen, for two reasons: One, it would make Chinese imports more expensive thus less attractive to American households, thus harming Chinese manufacturers and slowing growth in China. Two, US dollars are an asset to China. Its $1.4 billion of US debt would evaporate if the dollar took a major plunge. To China, this would represent a loss of national wealth; in effect all that “savings” that makes China so unique would disappear as the dollar dived relative to the RMB. For these reasons, it seems likely that China will continue to be a willing buyer of America’s debt, thus the financier of Americans’ insanely high consumptive lifestyle.

Discussion Questions:
  1. Many people in America are terrified that the Chinese might dump their dollar holdings. What would happen to the value of the US dollar if China decided to change its foreign reserves to another currency?
  2. Why is it very unlikely that China will do this? In other words, how does the status quo benefit China as well as the US?
  3. How do American households benefit from China’s financing of the government’s budget deficits? In what way to they suffer from this arrangement?
  4. Do you think America can continue to finance its budget deficits through the continued sale of debt to foreigners forever? Why or why not?

152 responses so far