The visible hand in economics

Archive for December 2007

Today’s Balance of Payments release put the current account deficit at 8.3% of GDP.  This was right on the button of market expectations, however some interesting issues cropped up which will be important for tomorrows GDP release.

The actual current account deficit was a touch worse than market expecations, enough to make the deficit as a proportion of GDP 8.4% if market expectations for tomorrows GDP result held.  By itself this would indicate that either:

  1. GDP growth was above market expectations for the quarter (0.3%), or
  2. The GDP deflator is higher than we anticipated

Both of these results would cause a headache for the Reserve Bank.  However, the story becomes a little more complicated.

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Following on from our post on the minimum wage yesterday, the government decided to announce an increase in the minimum wage to $12, from $11.25.

The money-quote from the stuff story has to be:

“Initially business groups were opposed to lifting the minimum wage, which was set at $7 an hour when Labour took office in 1999.

However, in recent years they became more relaxed as the labour market tightened and hiring staff became more difficult.”

This tells us that the minimum wage increases are unbinding for a lot more groups than they used to be, and as a result the effect of the policy will be minimal.

Lets try to discuss this increase in regards to yesterdays conditions for a minimum wage to ‘increase’ employment.

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Over at Not Sneaky they are discussing how a higher minimum wage may lead to higher employment when we have a firm that has market power in the labour market (hat-tip CPW). The argument is a very interesting one as economists often view a minimum wage as a way of placing a price floor, which leads to a lower level of employment and social ‘surplus’.

On the blog he uses this fine graph to explain the result. The purple line illustrates the path of wages and employment. According to that, there is a range where higher wages create greater employment in the labour market. Let me attempt to explain this.

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Over time we have been covering specific issues with how income tax and GST influence economic activity. This post was supposed to describe how an increase in GST with a proportional decrease in a flat income tax would lead to no change in consumer activity. This required the assumption that the incidence of tax on the household in both cases was equal, which will not be true.

Next we discussed the incidence of income tax in this post, which allowed us to say that some of the burden of the tax falls on labour, but some also falls on the firms that employ workers. The next step is to look at the incidence associated with a goods and services tax, and some of the inefficiencies that this issue causes for this tax type. Read the rest of this entry »

Central banks have felt obliged to intervene in the recent credit crunch, introducing a bunch of liquidity into European and US financial markets. This has led market participants to say that “It helps with the confidence and the feeling that the Fed is going to help out the financial system“, but is this what the central bank should be doing?

Now some might say that putting a bit of liquidity in the system and risking a bit of inflation might be a small price to pay to prevent the ‘collapse’ of the financial sector. However, this is not the only costs associated with Central Bank intervention, we also have the problem of moral hazard.
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The US Federal Reserve cut their cash rate and discount rate by 25 basis points. In the statement the Fed said the following about inflation:

“Readings on core inflation have improved modestly this year, but elevated energy and commodity prices, among other factors, may put upward pressure on inflation … some inflation risks remain”

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Sticking to the recent theme of externality taxes, some researchers from Perth suggested that Australians should ‘fine’ parents for each kid they have above two. Now we know I’m a big fan of externality taxes, but I’m not too sure about this one.

As we have already established a carbon trading scheme, this externality tax is not being used to cover carbon creation from the consumption or production of certain goods – the kids will pay for all of this when they grow up. This leaves us with the carbon emissions that the child makes from living, by doing things such as breathing.
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Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen posts on what some people have to say about rent control. Several points are put forward as to why rent controls are a good thing, namely:

  1. People do not become happier from a larger, or better quality house and so a lower quality – lower price equilibrium would be preferable.
  2. Given this, lower prices will increase the supply of property over time by getting owners to put more small apartments in a given building.
  3. As it is harder to find an apartment temporarily people are forced to commit to a region for a longer period of time, which may provide a positive externality, or help to solve prisoners dilemma issues through the use of a repeated game.

If you cannot be bothered reading my long, boring post on the issue, then you can just say whatever you think about the above points in the comments :)
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According to Martin Feldstein (hat tip Greg Mankiw):

“Even if the Fed decides that it should not cut rates further at the present time, it would not raise rates to offset the stimulus effect of the fiscal change. From the Fed’s point of view, the tax cuts can provide a desirable short-run stimulus without the inflationary impact that would result from a lower interest rate and an increase in the stock of money.”

Just because Martin Feldstein is a far, far, better economist then I will ever be does not mean that I have to agree with him, and here’s why.

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The December quarter monetary policy statement was released today. Alongside this they announced that the OCR would remain unchanged, as they believe “current level of the OCR remains consistent with future inflation outcomes of 1 to 3 percent on average over the medium term”. This times they give the feeling that tax cuts are incorporated in their view of inflation outcomes, however they still view the emissions trading scheme and financial market uncertainty as risks to their forecasts.

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The Reserve Bank of Australia kept their target cash rate on hold yesterday. In a push to increase transparency, they now release a statement with every decisions, which is awesome. Yesterday’s statement was relatively neutral, however as my esteemed colleague CPW says, there is nothing to compare it too so its hard to tell exactly what the statement means. My guess is that the Bank is happy to stay on hold, until the risks associated with subprime worries in the US calm down.

At the same time the September GDP result came out, with a 1.0% seasonally adjusted increase in the September quarter, taking average annual growth to 3.4%. Although 1.0% for a quarter seems high, CPW informed me that this is what the market expected, and furthermore the growth in previous months had been revised down.

I found this point particularly interesting

“it is not possible to conclude that the relevant markets would be more competitive if the Warehouse Extra concept is pursued by the acquirer than if the Warehouse is not acquired”

I have always been of the opinion that the Extra concept would be much more effective in the hands of Woolworths or Foodstuffs due to the massive scale they have in the wholesale market. One of the supermarkets could then use the “halo” effect to the benefit of their grocery operations. I think this would lead to more competition than the status quo.

Another really interesting point is that the high court ditched the 5% price effect threshold in favor of 2% and still found that the acquisition wouldn’t substantially lessen competition. While this is interesting in it self, it also has profound implications for future mergers as the commission will have leeway to use different thresholds depending on the situation now that there is high court precedence for doing so

So the High Courts documents on the Warehouse merger ruling have been released. After skimming a couple of things I thought I would say something, then when I’ve actually read the document I can join in the criticism of it :)

It seems that the High Court overturned the Commerce Commissions decision as it felt that the Warehouse Extra concept would fail. As it would fail, it doesn’t matter whether one of the supermarkets purchases the company. Ok, thats cool, however they also go off and accept that there is probably tacit collusion between the two supermarket owners, Woolworths Ltd and Foodstuffs.

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Following the discuss on lower GST for healthy foods I feel it is appropriate to discuss the other side of the coin, a tax on inherently unhealthy food, a fat tax.

You know the type of foods I’m talking about, chocolate bars, chips, V’s (I can see all this on my desk, looks like this tax will hit me pretty hard :) ). If there is a social cost to the consumption of these types of goods we should tax them, and send the funds to the place where the externality will fall.

In this case, drinking too much V will lead to me needing to use health services more than I would have with no V. In order to ensure a socially efficient outcome, V needs to be taxed, and the money needs to be sent to the hospital. This will lead to me reducing my consumption of V (not likely) or paying the value of the negative externality I impose on society (my health care bill) or a mix.

Now this tax is on the consumption decisions of people, so the level of the tax will depend on how much we believe the consumption of V’s adds to the cost of running health care in NZ (or any other externalities it may cause). If we are so keen on taxing smoking, fuel, and alcohol, then why aren’t we taxing Moro bars and V’s?

Update:  Here is an article that goes into (marginally) more detail about a fat tax.

Over at Kiwiblog, Mr Farrar noticed a newspaper article on removing the GST tax from fruit and veg. I agree with him on both his points,

1) that the response of consumers to a 12.5% reduction in the price of fruit and veg will likely be small (items that only take up a small part of your household budget are inherently price-inelastic), and

2) that it is better to have a flat GST rate, as you are ensuring that the relative price of goods remains the same and minimise the cost of implementing the policy

However, the Massey Researchers also have a point (there is something I never thought I’d say :) ), and it has to do with situations where the second point doesn’t hold, specifically when we don’t want the relative price of the goods to stay the same. This occurs if we have an externality.

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