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Prices, Competition and Markets

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st March 2014

It has become commonplace in India to point fingers at the central government when prices of essential commodities such as onion or fuel rise. The underlying arguments behind this accusation could be that: (1) the government is expected to maintain price stability and/or (2) the government should socially engineer agricultural markets in a ‘fair’ manner. But, is the pursuit of price stability not the job of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI)? It is true that the RBI cannot do anything to combat inflation when it is caused by a supply-and-demand mismatch in the domestic vegetable market or the international oil market. What the RBI can do is manage inflation expectations, and that is for another post. The present post is motivated by the insightful analyses of Kannan Kasturi on the Indian vegetable market, published in the Economic & Political Weekly and other places. That is, this post takes up the second of the reasons mentioned earlier.

The price mechanism – adjustments made by producers to the selling prices and consumers to the purchasing prices – is expected to allocate the commodities brought to the market amongst the consumers, in accordance with their needs, reflected in their willingness to pay. The prices therefore act as signals for the producers especially. Sellers can adjust quantity in order to affect prices; hoarding commodities is one such strategy. At equilibrium, producers earn a normal rate of profit, which contains a pure rate of return on capital advanced and a return for risk and entrepreneurship. If producers do not make normal profits in time t, they will cut down production in time t+1. During the equilibration process, producers who are unable to earn a normal rate of profit will exit the market. If entry costs are low, new producers will enter the market. Producers who have large financial resources (or access to easy credit) at their disposal are insulated from temporary alterations in demand. Producers who have enough accumulated earnings can shield themselves from such market volatility. In short, a competitive market is one where prices are not distorted (by the producers or by external intervention), no (especially, cultural and social) barriers to enter the market exist and workers are mobile within and across markets.

Of course, the agricultural markets in India are far from competitive. Since more than 50% of Indians derive their income from agriculture, and particularly because of the poverty of the farmers, these markets require government intervention. This is not to say that any form of government intervention will better the situation. Kasturi quite convincingly shows that the fault lies with the supply-side – the agricultural supply chain. This post will not discuss minimum support prices or other input subsidies, such as for electricity, irrigation and fertilizers. Also to be noted is the specific manner in which the agricultural input markets are inter-linked in India, which has been of an exploitative nature. Finally, social and cultural factors (pertaining to caste and gender) are seen to hinder competitiveness in Indian markets, not just in agriculture.

What are the problems with the agricultural supply chain? Kasturi points out the following: (1) Small farmers lack storage facilities in order to gain from the high market prices. (2) The middlemen (those who intermediate between farmers and final consumers), i.e. the wholesale traders and commission agents have the ability to hoard vegetables and consequently they reap the benefits of the high prices they themselves engineer; the Agricultural Produce Marketing Act governs the agricultural markets (mandis) and it is here where all the proceeds from higher prices are absorbed with nothing reaching the farmers. These traders and commission agents are ‘well entrenched in the mandis, having been in the business on average for 20 years’ (3) Agricultural pricing is not at all transparent and the mandi records are of no assistance in this regard.

To sum up, the nature of government intervention has to change, in such a way that is beneficial to farmers. Proper laws are of utmost importance, not just in protecting the interests of the small farmers, but also that of the consumers.  Moreover, intermediaries in any market perform useful functions but laws should be in place which ensures that they do not become monopolistic and exploitative. Agricultural infrastructure such as storage facilities is paramount in this context. A very detailed study of how these supply-chains operate will be of much help in our attempts to combat inflation.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Development Economics, Economics, Government, India, Inflation, Markets, Prices | No Comments »

Misunderstanding Economic Growth and Development

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 25th August 2013

If two previous posts dealt with trying to understand how economic growth may or may not translate into development, this post goes a step behind and discusses what economic growth means. More importantly, this post examines what economic growth does not mean. The motivation for this blog post comes from Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya’s 2013 book titled Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries. Note that the following paragraphs are not intended to be a detailed review of the book; only their central premise – ‘the centrality of growth in reducing poverty’ (p. 4) – will be engaged with. The blog post, however, ends with a critical commentary on the authors’ methodology (focusing on authors’ engagement with opposing views, presentation of authors’ own arguments and referencing), as contained in the Preface, Introduction and the first three chapters. Also, no comments are offered on the data analysis present in their book.

A premise is ‘a statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion.’ Bhagwati and Panagariya start with the premise that economic growth entails increase in employment opportunities and an improvement in income per person. This is also their conclusion, and forms the title of their book. They write:

Bhagwati argued nearly a quarter century ago that growth would create more jobs and opportunities for gainful improvement in income, directly pulling more of the poor above the poverty line and additionally would allow the government to pull in more revenues, which would enable the government to spend more on health-care, education, and other programs to further help the poor. Growth therefore would be a double-barrelled assault on poverty. (p. xix)

Further, they write: ‘growth helps by drawing the poor into gainful employment’ (p. 23). A simple question is sufficient to negate this view. Does the market create jobs after taking into account the abilities and skills of the poor? Of course not! If so, there would not be any unemployment or underemployment. A well-educated (and healthy) workforce is necessary so as to actually ‘gain’ from the newly created employment opportunities. [Not to forget the hardships involved in deskilling and reskilling.] And, it is not logically necessary for employment opportunities to increase when the economy grows. Jobless growth is a possibility where the surplus is not used to create further jobs; more often, it is a question of whether jobs are being created at the same pace as at which the economy grows.

By definition, economic growth entails a rise in income. But whose income? Economic growth can co-exist with the rich getting richer. Or, economic growth can give rise to stagnant wage shares amidst productivity rises. Growth can be export-led. It can be service-led. It might favour capital-intensive over that of labour-intensive technology. A rise in real GDP can happen because of a variety of reasons. It is these ‘reasons’ that one must investigate. For, it is here that we will find answers as to who the beneficiaries of economic growth are. It is to the mechanisms or processes which generate economic growth that we must attend to in order to comprehend which sector/classes/groups are losing out. For example, the nature and consequences of service-led growth will be very different from that of growth that is manufacturing-led. Bhagwati and Panagariya repeat the same fallacy, pointed out in the previous paragraph, in the following passage.

Conceptually, in an economy with widespread poverty, labor is cheap. Therefore, it has a comparative advantage in producing labor-intensive goods. Under pro-growth policies that include openness to trade (usually in tandem with other pro-growth policies), a growing economy will specialize in producing and exporting these goods and should create employment opportunities and (as growing demand for labor begins to cut into “surplus” or “underemployed” labor) higher wages for the masses, with a concomitant decline in poverty. (p. 23; see p. 43 as well)

Conceptually, in an economy with excess labour supply, labour is cheap. Bhagwati and Panagariya argue that a growing economy with cheap labour will adopt labour-intensive techniques. This reasoning assumes that an unemployed farmer or school teacher can easily and naturally be employed in a firm which exports computer parts. The authors’ views seem to indicate a gross misunderstanding of the actual economic dynamics of any society (see below as well). Moreover, one is not just concerned with mere employment, but with employment that provides good working conditions – including sick leave, maternity leave, overtime wages, etc.

‘The pie has to grow; growth is a necessity’ (p. xx). Yes, a larger surplus makes it feasible for each claimant to get a greater share, including the government. The contention is with respect to the feasibility and who these claimants are. According to Bhagwati and Panagariya, growth automatically and naturally generates higher incomes per person thereby ‘directly pulling more of the poor above the poverty line.’ Growth is not manna from heaven which everyone gets in equal amounts. It is based on definite political, economic and social institutions/processes – wage bargaining, possibilities of reskilling, mobility of labour, gender, caste, family structure, social security nets (family based or from the government) and so on. In this context, the authors rightly note the negative effects excessive licensing, government monopolies and protectionism can have on the growth of an economy (p. xii).

Given the authors’ belief in a strict one-way causation running from economic growth to development, they argue for carrying out growth-enhancing reforms first, which they refer to as Track I reforms. Subsequently, the surplus can be redistributed by the government to achieve development; this can be through transfer payments of various kinds. These are known as Track II reforms. They argue:

Track II reforms can only stand on the shoulders of Track I reforms; without the latter, the former cannot be financed. (p. xxi)

Of course, they can be financed through government borrowing and there is ample literature on the issues surrounding debt-sustainability in relation to achieving full employment. One wishes to see a more nuanced understanding of such matters.

This separation of growth from development is not just illogical and untrue, but also dangerous to public policy. Often, for purposes of economic theorising, in order to carefully study the causal relations between variables, some boundaries are drawn and certain assumptions are made. But, an import of this technique into the domain of public policy is methodologically flawed, where the abilities of individuals to seek jobs and actually work and earn (higher) incomes crucially depend on their social, cultural and economic backgrounds. In other words, while the distinction between economic growth and development might be reasonable for some purposes, in practical politics, they go together. Moreover, if the policy objective is to ensure good quality of life for all, then it must be the case that, to use the authors’ terminology, both Track I and II should be undertaken at the same time, with perhaps a greater emphasis on Track II reforms.

A fundamental error underlies the authors’ belief that ‘growth’ is an automatic process which takes place when the government lets the private players have a completely free hand, international trade is free, and capital can freely flow in and out of the country. It is this notion which makes the authors’ note that ‘Track II reforms involve social engineering…’ (p. xxi). That is, in their view, Track I reforms require no ‘social engineering’. Nothing could be farther from the truth! A ‘market’ is an engineered institution. The belief that ‘free markets’ will deliver both economic and social justice is quite easily discernible from their statements. Making commodity markets free (from both government and private monopolies) is certainly beneficial for economic growth as well as for wider socio-economic development. But, given the (historical or otherwise) arbitrariness (as opposed to ‘merit’) involved in the ownership of various forms of assets, and the tendency of markets to favour the powerful, there is always a crucial role for the government and civil society to intervene in order to ensure social justice (especially in the arenas of education and health). After all, is this not what we mean by participatory democracy?

The preceding commentary is based on a partial reading of Bhagwati and Panagariya’s book, as noted in the introductory paragraph. Their conception of growth, at best, seems superficial and at worst, they misunderstand the dynamics of economics growth as well as development. The view of ‘free markets’ generating growth with rising incomes per person is never an automatic process. It requires visible hands and is indeed social engineering. We end with a few observations on their methodology. For them, all that their critics say are myths; Part I of their book is titled ‘Debunking the myths.’ On one occasion, some of the critics, who are hardly ever named (and therefore not cited), are accused of being ‘intellectually lazy’ (p. 25; also see p. 32, p. 34, p. 35 for the unnamed critics). On the other hand, the following phrases are used for arguments in their own support: ‘state-of-the-art techniques’ (p. 31), ‘detailed state- and industry-level data’ (p. 31), ‘compelling nature of evidence on the decline of poverty under reforms and accelerated growth’ (p. 33), ‘irrefutable evidence’ (p. 37), ‘evidence…is unequivocal’ (p. 38) and ‘these authors’ superior methodology’ (p. 43). Out of the total number of references excluding data sources and reports (around 125 in number), about 37% (around 47 in number) are references to the authors’ work, either as a sole author, a co-author or as the editor of the volume. This is very striking. And, out of citations to Panagariya’s work (about 27 in number), 14 of them are newspaper articles published in the Times of India or Economic Times. It is indeed unfortunate to come across so many fundamental errors in a book like this, because growth does matter, although not at all in the way Bhagwati and Panagariya expound in their book!

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Posted in Book reviews, Development Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, Education, Employment, GDP, Government, India, Labour Economics, Macroeconomics, Markets, Neoclassical Economics, Poverty, Unemployment | No Comments »

Who prices the products?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st January 2011

Recently, Indians have witnessed an escalation in onion prices followed by a hike in fuel prices. Price rise is a phenomenon which affects all sections of the society in varying degrees. Earlier, through the work of Michal Kalecki, a Russian economist, this blog showed the difference between cost-determined and demand-determined prices. The current post examines how products are priced. Majority of the arguments in this post is taken from the book Smart Pricing, authored by Jagmohan Raju and Z. John Zhang published in 2010.

Textbook economics teaches us that it is demand and supply which determine prices. Are the prices of vegetables, rice, chicken, train travel, milk, bread, toothpaste, parathas, etc determined in a similar way? When price changes are attributed to demand and supply, it means that prices are taking their “normal course”. In other words, price movements arising from demand and supply are considered as normal as the law of gravitation. Economic theory ascribes the term ‘invisible hand’ to denote demand and supply factors which cause prices to alter. However, as repeatedly pointed out in this blog, manufactured goods and producer/consumer services are not priced in the market via bargaining. As Raju and Zhang rightly point out, “Price setting is a tangible process with a tangible outcome – a dollar figure. The process of arriving at that number might not be tidy, but it cannot be so mysterious that it does not involve any human intervention. Someone, somewhere must make a concrete, numerical decision about the price of a product or service” (2010, p 2). Further, they argue that “the market does not set prices. Marketers do. All the prices we observe in the marketplace do not just spring out of an autonomous, impersonal market. The managers’ hands in setting those prices are entirely “visible,” regardless of whether such interventions are acts of expediency or strategy” (Ibid, p 11-12).

According to Raju and Zhang products are usually priced based on three approaches: (1) cost-plus based, (2) competition based and (3) consumer based. An overwhelming majority of U.S. Companies use this approach to set prices. Here, the mark-up is determined by the company’s targeted internal rate of return on investment or by some vaguely defined industry convention. Competition based pricing is the second most popular approach and is considered to be strategic. In this approach, the prices are fixed taking into account the prices of similar products in the market. In the case of consumer based pricing, the company tries to determine how much each consumer is willing to pay and then accordingly fixes a price. All the above mentioned approaches indicate that price fixing is a conscious and deliberate action carried out by the company or individual producer.

In microeconomics textbooks and in the media we find statements which ascribe price rise to demand-supply factors. The group of individuals – the capitalists, the brokers, the intermediaries etc – who cause the prices to rise with their actions are completely absent in this account. The book by Raju and Zhang therefore is a must read for all economists who wish to understand how products are actually priced in today’s consumerist society.

Reference

Raju, Jagmohan and Zhang, John (2010), Smart Pricing: How Google, Priceline, and Leading Businesses Use Pricing Innovation for Profitability, Pearson Education: New Jersey.

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Posted in Economics, Inflation, Markets, Neoclassical Economics, Prices | 2 Comments »

The ‘Micro-Foundations’ of Economic Survey 2009-10

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 11th May 2010

The Economic Survey 2009-10 is different from its predecessors. Of them, it is chapter two of the publication which deserves special attention. The chapter is titled ‘Micro-Foundations of Inclusive Growth.’ This is no new phrase for economists who have witnessed the recent ‘we want microfoundations’ movement in economics. Traditionally, economic survey analysed trends in income, food production, prices, net exports, and so on without telling the readers about their ‘foundations’. For the first time, microfoundations of macroeconomics (a progeny of the failed neoclassical microeconomics enterprise) makes a loud entry into the analysis of the Indian economy.

One of the first signs of this shift is to be seen on the book cover itself. This has been reproduced below, as it is a matter of great concern.

In 2007-08, the cover page indicated various aspects on the Indian Economy. Coupons equilibrium, something which very few people understand gains entry on the cover page. Why? Is it to show that economics is scientific and can only be understood by a few? Or does it mean that economic survey is only for those who know such concepts? Or does it convey that the economy is in safe hands now, run by competent economists? One can only wonder. The rest of the post will hover around theoretical explanations and policy suggestions provided in chapter 2. Very often, the proposal outlined below are seen as emnating from the ‘political economy school’. It will be argued that this school is only a variant of neoclassical economics, albeit a superior one.

The chapter starts by emphasising the need to look at the foundations of macroeconomic policies, which have been neglected. The author(s) point out that an ‘enabling state’ is what India needs; a state which provides incentives through proper institutions for the individuals. That is, for policy to be effective, we “need to take people to be the way they are and then craft incentive-compatible interventions.” Under the sub heading of ‘development and distribution’, some space is devoted to the question of futures trade. It is of national concern because very often futures trade tends to make the underlying spot prices volatile. However, it is argued that “An enabling Government takes view that if we cannot establish a connection between the existence of futures trading and inflation in spot prices, we should allow futures trade.” The literature contains mixed views on this issue. Perhaps, it is being suggested that since it cannot be proved conclusively, we must go for futures trade. The rationale provided to pursue futures trade is a dangerous trend. For, economics is unlike sciences where laboratory experiments can be carried out. In any case, what is the percentage of people who invest in futures trade? And what is the percentage of Indian farmers?

Trickle down effect is said to have taken place in India through injection of demand to the poor through increases in budgetary allocations for anti-poverty programmes. The firming up or increase in prices of food items is presented as evidence for income increases of the poor. This piece of evidence is wrought with methodological as well as conceptual difficulties. Hence, it cannot be argued with such certainty that incomes of the poor have risen. For, if the prices of food items have gone up, their real wage or purchasing power must necessarily be reduced. In effect, there might not have been any notable improvement.

Subsidies are considered essential for India. However, price controls are seen as distortionary and also they result in high levels of corruption. Therefore, it is pointed out that subsidies should take the form of ‘coupons’. This achieves two objectives. (1) Prices are left to the market and (2) Individuals have more choice. Both are hallmarks of neoclassical as well as neoliberal thinking. Hence, the need for Unique Identification (UID) system for improving information. It is argued that the state should not tamper with the ‘preferences’ of the subsidy reciever. Because “modern behavioural economics reminds us that there are situations where individuals act against their own interests because of lack of self-control or inconsistencies in their inter-temporal preferences, and so some pateranlistic interventions can be good for them.” This result cannot be directly imported to a macroeconomic setting, owing to differences in objectives and also, the sum of parts may be more or less than the whole (fallacy of composition).

Apart from such proposals, foreign direct investment (FDI) in the textile and clothing sector is favoured as they “can help modernize this industry and aid its integration to the global textile market.” The introduction of powerlooms have rendered many weavers jobless and most of them have become migrant construction workers. When any sector gains more importance than those employed in that sector, it is a sign that the objective of policy makers is plain ‘numerical growth’ and not employment!

The end of the chapter contains a discussion on ‘social norms, culture and development’ which points out that standard economics has not paid much attention to social and cultural factors. And that game theory and behavioural economics “is begining to give us some insights into the formation of customs and behaviour.” It is argued that though such “phychological and sociological determinants” may not effect short-term economic outcomes, they do affect medium-term and long-term outcomes.

In the following manner, this ‘political economy school’ explains economic issues through concepts such as ineffeciency, information asymmetry, bureacracy and corruption, inventives, incomplete contracts, etc. This school of thought should not be confused with Marxian or Sraffian political economy. This chapter is testimony to the fact that economists believe that economics is a science which has testable propositions and that they result in conclusive results. For the authors hail behavioural economics as though it is a new branch of economics which is the ‘saviour’ of economics. More dangerous is some of the causal connections made in the chapter, as they are not based on any logically consistent theory nor are they borne out of experience. The ‘micro-foundations’ of the economic survey definitely needs a rethinking!

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Posted in Behavioral Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, Government, India, Macroeconomics, Markets | 5 Comments »