Ludicrous regulations of the US Airline Industry and Contestable Markets

With Auckland now at COVID-19 Alert Level 3 and schools operating online we continued going through the A2 syllabus and discussed Contestable Markets using Webex. I used this clip from Commanding Heights to show how regulated the US airline industry was during the 1970’s. Regulations meant that major carriers like Pan Am never had to compete with newcomers. However an Englishman named Freddie Laker was determined to break this tradition and set-up Laker airways to compete on trans-atlantic flights. He offered flights at less than half the price of what Pan Am charged. Alfred Kahn was given the task by the then President Jimmy Carter to breakup the Civil Aeronautics Board (the regulatory body) and he wanted a leaner regulatory environment in which the market was free to dictate price. There is a piece in the clip that shows how ludicrous some of the regulations were:

When I got to the Civil Aeronauts Board, the biggest division under me was the division of enforcement – in effect, FBI agents who would go around and seek out secret discounts and then impose fines. We would discipline them. It was illegal to compete in price. That means it was illegal to compete in the discounts you offer travel agents. So we regulated travel agents’ discounts. Internationally, since they couldn’t cut rates, they competed by having more and more sumptuous meals. We actually regulated the size of sandwiches. Alfred Kahn

When the CAB was closed down competition was the rule and the industry had vastly underestimated the demand for air travel at lower prices – a very elastic demand curve – see graph below.

In the A2 course contestable markets is a popular essay question and is usually combined with another market structure.

What is a contestable market?

• One in which there is one firm (or a small number of firms)
• Because of freedom of entry and exit, the firm faces competition and might operate in a way similar to a perfectly competitive firm
• The threat of “hit and run entry” from new firms may be sufficient to keep the industry operating at a competitive price and output
• The key requirement for a contestable market is the absence of sunk costs – i.e. costs that cannot be recovered if a business decides to leave a market
• When sunk costs are high, a market is more likely to produce an price and output similar to monopoly (with the risk of allocative inefficiency and loss of economic welfare)
• A perfectly contestable market occurs only when entry and exit into and out of a market is perfectly costless
• Contestable markets are different from perfect competitive markets
• It is possible for one incumbent firm to dominate the industry
• Each existing firm in the market produces a differentiated product (i.e. goods and services are not perfect substitutes for each other)

There are 3 conditions for market contestability:

• Perfect information and the ability and or legal right to use the best available technology
• Freedom to market / advertise and enter a market
• The absence of sunk costs

• Liberalisation of the US Airline Industry in the 1970’s and the European Airline Market in late 1990s
• Traditional “flag-flying” airlines faced new competition
• Barriers to entry in the industry were lowered (including greater use of leased aircraft)
• New Entrants – easyJet- Ryanair

Truckometer – another indicator of the NZ Economy

The ANZ Truckometer is a set of two economic indicators derived using traffic volume data from around the country. Traffic flows are a real-time and real-world proxy for economic activity –particularly for the New Zealand economy, where a large proportion of freight is moved by road. It represents an extremely timely barometer of economic momentum. The ANZ Heavy Traffic Index shows a strong contemporaneous relationship to GDP, while the ANZ Light Traffic Index has a six month lead on activity as measured by GDP. Notice the change around 2007/08 with the GFC. The index below does show some encouraging signs after the lockdown with heavy traffic bouncing back as restocking takes place. Although as stated by Sharon Zollner of ANZ it is early days.

Source: ANZ Truckometer – 11th August 2020

RIP – Pete Lyons

Very sad to hear the passing of Pete Lyons – economics teacher at St Peter’s College in Auckland. He was well-know amongst economics teachers and produced some great resources – I have his Banquet of Beauties publication which has been very useful at all levels. Always prepared to challenge the economic theory in course syllabuses and had a great passion for the subject. As well as teaching he wrote very erudite pieces in the NZ Herald and the Otago Daily Times. See tribute below from the NZ Herald

Unemployment drops in New Zealand

I was surprised to see the official unemployment figures issued today – down from 4.2% to 4.0%. However this reflects those workers that were laid off but unable to seek further employment due to the Level 4 lockdown but still included in the labour force. Remember the unemployment calculation is those people who are unemployed and actively seeking employment.

According to the ASB a better measure in the current environment would be underutilisation – It is defined such that jobseekers outside the labour force are captured (unlike the unemployment rate) and includes people working part-time who would like to work more hours. Utilisation rose from 10.4% to 12%. The unadjusted LCI, more of a ‘raw’ measure of wage costs, rose just 0.4% qoq, with annual growth slowing from 3.8% to 3.1%. Average hourly earnings from the QES slowed to 2.5% yoy for private sector workers, a multi-year low.

End of wage subsidy

Although these were positive signs for unemployment figures later in the year it is inevitable that these figures will deteriorate when the wage subsidy ends and we return to an economy which isn’t propped up by government spending. Unemployment is forecast to peak at 9.8% in September.

Source: ASB Bank – Economic Note – 5-8-20

Gold reaches record high.

Good clip here from the FT that looks at why Gold which has been getting up to record levels. Should we be buying gold today?

Gold’s ascent continues as real yields have to continue to fall. This requires that inflation expectations keep going up at the same time as low growth expectations keep nominal yields pinned right where they are – this leads to stagflation.

Back in 2011, in the last crisis, like today, the Fed was intervening strongly in a sluggish economy and Washington was in turmoil. Investors then made the same bet on stagflation and gold. As it turns out, they were wrong. The price of gold got cut in half in the years that followed. In fact, all predictions of inflation since the last crisis have turned out to be similarly wrong. And all efforts by the Federal Reserve to get inflation up to its two per cent target have failed. So a bet on stagflation and gold now is a bet against recent history. That many investors are willing to take that wager shows just how frightened they really are.

Teaching MC=MR with M&M’s. Winner of the best M&M’s graph – 2020

Today we had our annual Yr 13 M&M’s graph competition. Having just completed Perfect and Imperfect Competition with my Year 13 class I used a couple of packets of M&M’s to drum home the concept of marginal analysis MC=MR. It has always been something that students have struggled with but I am hoping this experience of creating graphs with M&M’s might help their understanding and when to use the concept. There is a three way process for learning about this theory:

  • Students complete worksheets / multiple-choice questions that test their knowledge of the curves that make up the graphs.
  • Students draw the graphs on A3 size whiteboards
  • Students construct graphs using M&M’s

Profit is maximised at the rate of output where the positive difference between total revenues and total costs is the greatest. Using marginal analysis, the firm will produce at a rate of output where marginal revenue equals marginal cost. Below are a few of the graphs done today using M&M’s. The winner this year is Year 13 student Luke Davis – his graphs are the first and second below.

Student worksheet

Student graph on A3 whiteboard

Student graphs using M&M’s

A2 Eco – Monopoly and Deadweight Loss

A topic that I am covering with my A2 class is Market Failure with special emphasis on Monopoly and Deadweight Loss.

In Perfect Competition we stated that the force of supply and demand establish an equilibrium situation in which resources are used most efficiently – MC (Supply) = AR(Demand) . Furthermore, in perfect competition the firm produces at MC = MR (profit max) which is also the same as producing at MC = AR (allocative efficiency). This is because AR and MR are the same in perfect competition. Therefore the same output represents allocative efficiency and profit max. Remember that long-run Perfect Competition is a significant output as it is where:
MC = MR – Maximum Profit or Minimum Loss
MC = AR – Allocative Efficiency (Supply = Demand)
AC = MC – Technical Optimum – Productive Efficiency

However for a monopolist because the AR and the MR curves are different we get separate outputs for Allocative Efficiency and Profit Max. The graph below shows that at profit maximising equilibrium, output Q2 is less than that in a competitive market (Q1), and the demand and supply (MC) curves do not intersect. Q1 represents the Allocative Efficiency level of output and P1 the price. The shaded area therefore represents the loss of allocative efficiency or the deadweight loss.

Do imports slow GDP growth?

A book published this year ‘Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success’ Dietrich Vollrath addresses the issue – is growth the best way to measure economic success — and does a slowdown indicate problems in an economy?

He discusses that the slowdown (Pre-Covid) is an indicator of economic prosperity. The economy has already provided much of what we need in life – comfort, security and luxury – that we have turned to new forms of production and consumption that enhance our well-being but do not contribute to growth in GDP. One chapter looks at the increase in imports from China and how it doesn’t necessarily have any connection with the level of GDP or growth rate. It is commonly portrayed in the media that imports from China have a negative effect on US GDP and you can say that they do impact on employment levels in certain sectors – e.g. manufacturing industry. This can lead to a slowdown in growth if workers didn’t find alternative employment. According to Vollrath the size of imports from China looks too small to account for the growth slowdown.

There is an assumption that imports lower GDP but most introductory economics courses refer to GDP with the following:

Y = C + I + G + (X-M)

Y = GDP, C = Consumption, I = Investment, G = Government spending, (X-M) = Exports – Imports
With this equation if imports are higher, it must be that GDP is lower. The right hand side of the equation is just a way of accounting for GDP; it does not determine the size of GDP. Vollrath now puts imports on the other side of the equation so you have:

Y + M = C + I + G + X

The above equation helps given the common way that people understand the relationship if they imagine that M goes up, they’ll jump to the conclusion that one of the items on the right (C + I + G + X) must have gone up as well.

Y + M is the total goods and services available in a given year which we can purchase. The other side of the equation represents the purchasing of these goods and services whether it is consumption goods, capital good, government purchases and foreign purchases. An increase in imports means that there are more goods and services to purchase. But there is no necessary mechanical effect of having more imports on the size of our own production, GDP.