Archive for the 'Price controls' Category

Sep 29 2009

China’s “visible hand” clamps down on rising prices

This article was originally posted on September 19, 2007 / Asia-Pacific / China – China freezes government-set prices

Here’s a great article for both AP and IB students to pay attention to. The Chinese government is responding to rising prices at home by resorting to some good old fashioned “iron fist” measures, namely price controls on a wide range of products. For the rest of this year, prices on certain goods and services will not be permitted to rise, OR ELSE! (what? we don’t want to know!)

China has begun to enforce a freeze on all government-controlled prices in a sign of the central government’s alarm about rising popular anger over inflation, now at the highest rate in over a decade.The order freezes a vast array of prices still under the control of governments in China, ranging from oil, electricity and water, to the cost of parking and park entrance fees.

I find the following statement interesting:

“Any unauthorised price rises are strictly forbidden…and in principle, there will be no new price-raising measures this year,” the ministries’ announcement said. (italics added)

How strange is it that the government’s announcement pointed out that the freeze on prices is only in principle? Could this be the government’s attempt to placate a public that’s grown angry at their weakening purchasing power? Does this mean that if prices actually do go up, the government can just say, “Hey, at least we tried!” Looks like the old communist mentality has softened a bit in the era of market reforms!

So what’s the source of all these rising prices? Well, food plays a big role, thanks to a couple of factors:

The sharp spike in inflation is largely due to higher food prices, because of a shortage of pigs after a disease killed millions late last year and earlier in 2007, and the rising cost of feed, a global

The China of today is very different from that of 20 or 30 years ago, when the government played a much larger role in the economy. Unleashing the beast of the free market in the early 80’s may have meant the government would have to loosen its grip in situations such as today’s inflation, and let the free market adjust on its own.

Economists said the price freeze is the kind of administrative measure redolent of China’s former planned economy, but it may be less effective in China today.

“They will not be able to control the price of everything,” said Chen Xingdong, of BNP Parisbas in Beijing.

Perhaps that’s for the better.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might the government’s price controls actually make the matter worse for the average Chinese?
  2. If the government were to take a “laissez faire” approach to the problems faced by China, how might the free market resolve them on its own? Any ideas?

18 responses so far

Dec 17 2008

The questions no one seems to be asking about the auto industry bailout! | The Economists’ Forum | Will Americans demand the cars that Congress wants the big three to build?

It’s been driving me nuts, this whole bailout debate. My frustrations are definitely appartent to my students, who have had to put up with my occasional rants about the insanity of the whole affair since the issue came to the media forefront over a month ago. Here are some of the issues that just don’t add up from the perspective of a high school economics teacher:

The three companies asking for a bridge-loan supposedly want the money so that hundreds of thousands (some reports say as many as 2.6 million) jobs can be saved. But how could Ford, Chrystler and GM possibly maintain their labor force in a time of a recession when nobody is buying new cars in the first place? In the parlance of AP or IB Economics, automobiles are normal goods, ones for which demand falls as incomes fall. By definition, a recession in the United States means falling incomes. A government loan may allow the Big Three t keep making cars for the time being, but WHY WOULD THEY KEEP MAKING CARS when falling incomes point to falling demand in the immediate future? Making cars that nobody will buy represents a gross misallocation of the nation’s productive resources, not to mention taxpayers’ money. What is required of these industries is precisely what the government loan will prevent them from doing, DOWNSIZING, meaning the shrinking of their labor force as well as the number of plants in operation.

The US recession can not be avoided by allocating the nation’s scarce resources towards a bailout of the auto industry. In fact, it will be worsened because the capacity of any nation to emerge from a cyclical downturn requires the flexibility of the country’s labor force to adapt to the structural changes the country is experiencing in the era of globalization and free trade. America’s future does not reside in labor-intensive manufactured goods, especially in the production of a very expensive durable good for which demand falls drastically during recessions; specifically, automobiles.

The Finanacial Times Economists Forum approaches the issue of long-term falling demand for automobiles from another perspective. One of the conditions of the Big Three accepting a loan from the federal government is the mandate that Detroit will begin producing more fuel efficient automobiles to assure Americans more affordable, more environmentally friendly alternatives to the gas-guzzling SUVs that have dominated the industry for the last two decades. But here’s the problem, gasoline has fallen to a price as low as it was when SUVs were at their peak popularity back in the early 2000s! As any high school economics student knows, gasoline and SUVs are what we call complementary goods, or two goods for which demand and price are inversely related. As gas prices fall to their 2000 levels, demand for SUVs promises to rise once again, while demand for fuel-efficient automobiles will likely decline, creating market pressures for the Big Three to make not more fuel-efficient cars, but more SUVs instead! From the Financial Times:

The basic problem is that Americans like to drive sport-utility vehicles, minivans and small trucks when gasoline costs $1.50 a gallon…

Consumers may have regretted their behaviour when gasoline prices soared above $4 a gallon, but as gas prices descend, there is no reason to believe that left unchecked they will not return to their gas-guzzling ways.

Indeed, there is a distinct possibility that if they really do increase their small car production, in a few years the big three will be back asking for more help, on the grounds that they are losing money by doing exactly what Congress asked.

The only reasonable solution to this dilemma? If Congress DOES begin mandating that Detroit increase its production of fuel-efficient cars and phase out its manufacture of SUVs, any such requirement should be accompanied by a government-set price floor on gasoline. Several months ago, my colleague and fellow blogger Steve Latter blogged about a proposed price floor of $4 per gallon on gasoline. Such a scheme would likely prove nearly impossible to initiate politcally, but may be exactly what’s necessary to add legitimacy to any government requiremens of Detroit to manufacture fuel efficient automobiles. The FT appears to support such a scheme:

Congress should put their mouths where their money is. They should make binding commitments to ensure higher US oil prices and thereby sufficient demand for fuel-efficient cars and trucks in the future.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What message does falling demand in the auto market send from buyers to sellers, and what contradictory message does a subsidy from the government send to auto makers?
  2. If the auto makers receive a low-interest bridge loan (subsidy) from the government, how will this actually undermine the efficient functioning of markets in America?
  3. Why would a price floor on gasoline be needed to accompany a government requirement that the Big Three make more fuel efficient automobiles after receiving a government loan?

13 responses so far

Oct 02 2008

Will limiting exectutive pay send American business leaders packing for Europe? Probably not…

This post is in response to my colleague and fellow WW blogger Steve Latter’s recent post titled “Private market compesation: AIG CEO vs. Kobe Bryant”. It’s always enlightening to read Steve’s excellent posts, which really put things in perspective. With regards to CEO pay, it is a bit ironic that while Americans are all worked up about the high pay of its top executives, no one’s up in arms about the exorbitant salaries received by America’s professional athletes!

However, I wonder if Steve’s claim that limiting professional athletes’ pay would send the country’s top basketball players packing for leagues in other countries is true. A while back I blogged an article that asked the question of whether Lebron James would be offered a contract from a European club. James claimed that in order for him to even consider playing in Europe, he would require an offer of at least $50 million per year, more than double what he makes playing for Cleveland. – Source: LeBron would consider European offer of $50M a year or more

…the Cleveland Cavaliers’ strongest competition for LeBron James’ long-term services could be the deep-pocketed new kid on the block — Europe.

A person close to James said Tuesday that the Cavaliers’ superstar would strongly consider playing overseas if he was offered a salary of “around $50 million a year.”

James’ current contract expires after the 2010-2011 season, but he can opt out after the 2009-2010 season, and while several NBA teams are working to create salary cap space for his impending free agency, none could offer a contract beginning at even $20 million a year.

So, would Kobe be on the next plane to Lithuania if the US government (or the NBA) limited his pay to $5 million? I doubt it. That brings us to the more urgent question: Would America’s top business executives begin shipping their families and all their belongings off to Jakarta or Dhaka, Delhi or Singapore, London or Paris, if the US government attempted to limit the compensation packages of its executives? Maybe, but there are many reasons to work and live in the United States beyond the salaries offered by firms for their top executives. And upon a little research, it turns out that European executives’ pay packages have in fact been under regulation by governments for quite some time, and as a result, the incentive for American executives to jump ship for European firms should US executive compensation come under regulation may not be as strong as Steve implies.

Executive pay in Europe | Pay attention | The Economist

How excessive is bosses’ pay in Europe? It has certainly risen sharply in the past ten years, as European firms have had to compete globally for talent.  Foreign bosses now run seven of the firms in France’s CAC 40 index and five of Germany’s DAX 30. American-style bonuses and long-term incentive plans are now the norm.

European firms now benchmark pay against international peer groups in their own industries, rather than against domestic rivals, according to Piia Pilv, a pay expert at Mercer, a consultancy. But they still pay a fraction of the sums trousered each year by American executives. According to Hay Group, a management consultancy, the median European executive earns just 40% as much as his equivalent in America (see chart).

Most importantly, European companies appear to be more determined than American ones to link pay to performance. “Firms in Europe have tended to put more stringent conditions on long-term incentive awards than in America,” says Richard Bednarek, global director of executive remuneration for Hay Group. In America grants of shares are often not tied to performance, whereas European firms generally attach performance criteria to any grant of shares, typically depending on a comparison with a peer group. Such schemes often do not pay out at all, says Mr Bednarek. Dan Vasella, boss of Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, and a favourite target of pay activists, earned SFr17m ($14m) in 2007, down 33% from 2006, because he missed his targets.

Clearly, the incentive to head to Europe as a result of increased scrutiny of executive compensation in the US is not as great as it would be if there did not already exist a threefold gap between US and European executive pay.

The liberal in me wonders if there is such a thing as “unfair” CEO compensation. The free market advocate in me points to other markets governments have attempted to control prices in, and the clear inefficiency that such regulation creates. Governments limiting executive pay, in theory, should have a similar effects to rent controls, or price ceilings in other markets. The quality and quantity of apartments available under rent controls declines, and price ceilings on other goods often result in shortages, meaning there’s not enough to go around among consumers… the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied.

In the case of CEO pay in America, limiting compensation should, in theory, result in a shortage of highly qualified executives willing to head up American firms. But let’s be honest, even if the government placed highly stringent limits on the compensation of the country’s executives, the average executive in America would still likely be earning more than his counterpart in Europe. And since the average American CEO earns something on the order of 250 times what the average worker in his firm gets paid, increased regulation of CEO pay only help narrow this enormous gap slightly, but the incentive to make it to the top will still be strong among American workers.

Conclusions? It’s a tough issue. I want to have faith in the free market, in the price mechanism, in the efficacy of laissez faire economics. But the moral hazard of “golden parachutes” is a real concern. Should an American CEO be rewarded if he fails in his job? Steve makes the case that this “insurance” policy is necessary to attract the best and brightest to the firms willing to pay them most. Then again, something about the way the free market has created such a huge gap between executive pay and the pay of the average worker, and the threefold gap between America’s CEOs and Europes makes me think, “forget the free market, we need to get this insanity under control.”

2 responses so far

Nov 01 2007

Beijing caves in to the indisputable power of the MARKET!

Well, not exactly, but that’s kind of a dramatic headline, isn’t it? The other day I blogged about the shortages experienced in the petrol market in eastern provinces, evidenced by the long queues at gas stations around Shanghai last weekend.

Petrol stations resorted to rationing their product in small doses (between 20 and 40 litres) as the price of oil hit $92 and Chinese refiners scaled back production due to rising costs that they were unable to pass on to their customers. Beijing had previously imposed a price ceiling on fuel in an attempt to keep inflation low and Chinese consumers content; the actual impact of this price control was predictable: not enough fuel to go around as the quantity demanded exceeded the quantity supplied, leading to shortages and rationing at the pump.

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Oct 28 2007

Russia goes “Mugabe” on food prices as elections approach!

Published by under Price controls

Kremlin Secures Price Controls on Food Items Before Elections – New York Times

Okay, students. This article needs to introduction, no summary, no analysis, no passages quoted, I barely even glanced at the article myself! Read the headline… if you’re interested, read the article; but it should be nothing new to you at this point. It’s the same flawed economic thinking that led Zimbabweans to attempt to eat a poor giraffe, and the Chinese decision to freeze certain prices in the run up to the 17th meeting of the Chinese Communist Party Congress earlier this month.

What’s wrong with this sort of economic policy? Why do governments still attempt such policies, and why do people still fall for such tricks played by paranoid leaders obsessed with placating the masses through “generous” price controls? What do you expect will result from Russia’s price controls?

Hat tip to Greg Mankiw for the link.Mugabe, can't do economics good

Speaking of our old friend Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe has just announced he’s launching The Robert Mugabe Intelligence Academy. His stated purpose for opening this institute, which will train government officials from the greater Southern African region?

“The important role of defending our country cannot be left to mediocre officers incapable of comprehending and analytically evaluating the operational environment to ensure that the sovereignty of our state is not only preserved, but enhanced,” Mugabe said.

Before settling on the institutes’s official name, several options were tossed around, including the close runner up: “The Robert Mugabe Institute for People Who Can’t Do Economics Good and Want to Learn to Do Other Things Good Too.”

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23 responses so far

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