Grameen Bank: Empowering Women through Microfinance in Bangladesh

Microfinance was born in the early 1980s when an economist named Muhammad Yunus came across women in poverty from the villages of Bangladesh. In face of the widespread famine and poverty, some of these women and their families were controlled by the loan sharks, and had no other resource to turn to because traditional banks considered them not creditworthy. Muhammad Yunus repaid the women’s debt and helped them get loans from the bank as a guarantor. Soon, working with the poor made him realize that lending money to the disadvantaged is a great business opportunity for that they were trustworthy, hardworking people. He then created Grameen Bank, what we consider a pioneering model of social enterprise, to help the poor break the cycle of poverty.

Why has the Grameen Bank succeeded in reaching the poor, while traditional banks have not? The most prominent reason is that borrowers do not need collateral to get a loan. This policy allows access for the disadvantaged to get loans more easily to support their small businesses and livelihood. These loans are typically made in very small amounts, averaging at $200 with an interest rate below 20%, hence the “micro” in Microfinance. Grameen Bank is also different from traditional banks in that it has a financially self-reliant model. Yunus explained his bank’s business model in an article published in The Round Table: Grameen has funded 90 percent of its loans with interest income and deposits collected, aligning the interests of its new borrowers and depositor-shareholders since 1995. Essentially, the bank encourages all borrowers to become savers, so that their local capital can be converted into new loans to others.

The most fascinating fact about Grameen Bank’s operation, however, is that 97% of the borrowers are women. It is a brilliant business strategy because women statistically have a much higher loan repayment rate than male. Yunus have recognized this, and made women his target client partially for this reason. In an interview with The Guardian, Yunus said that he expanded the program into the US and established 19 branches in 11 cities, including eight in New York. “We have nearly 100,000 borrowers there now and 100% women. Not a single man.” However, giving microloans to women isn’t just good for business, it accomplishes so much more.

In rural Bangladesh, most women are essentially confined to their husband’s family compound, and are in a rather powerless position both socially and economically. Girls are usually married by 16, sometimes as young as 11. Most of the times, there are no medical professionals in attendance when women give birth to children in these areas. Women are expected to keep their eyes down and their voice soft, even at home. It is not considered proper for women to go to the market, or to be seen by men outside their family.

 

Microfinance serves these women, who are often overlooked in society, and empowers them one small loan at a time. This access to a small amount of capital made it possible for women to buy seeds, chickens or a cow and start and grow their small businesses. Often this allows them to earn enough to provide three meals a day instead of two for their family and their children, of whom 40% are malnourished. It also gave them a bit of cash to pay for medicines if a family member got sick.

Here’s the story of Manjira who, years before, was living in extreme poverty in Bangladesh. She had lost a young son to a sudden illness. She told the reporter at New York Times that her most painful memory was the day before her son died. He asked her for an ice cream that cost one taka (about 2 cents), but she didn’t have the money to give him that. A few years later, she managed to get a small loan through Grameen, and had become a successful seamstress. Now, she is one of the board members of Grameen Bank, along with 3 government representatives and 8 other village women elected by the bank’s more than 8 million members.

Like Manjira, many women in Bangladesh have found means to provide for themselves and their family with the help of microloans. The impact of Microfinance, however, goes far beyond providing women with business opportunities. More importantly, it help increase access to education for the next generation.

Statistically, children living in poverty have a higher chance of missing, dropping out, or not enrolled in schools. This is because the majority of families who live in poverty work in agriculture. The families need the children to be working and productive so their financial needs can be met. Microloans can help ease the financial pressure of these families, which means more opportunities for children to stay in school. This is especially important for families with girls. When girls receive just 8 years of a formal education, they are four times less likely to become married young. This makes these girls more likely to achieve higher level of education and then become a more productive member of the society.

Yunus claimed that part of the reason why he focused on serving female customers is that he wanted to protest the traditional banks that refused to lend money to women. As more and more of these women succeed in building their businesses, Bangladesh and many other developing countries reached by Microfinance firms are now forced to a new look at women’s role in the society. A recent study done by RMIT University has shown that Microfinance has effectively reduced gender inequality in developing countries. The study measured gender inequality using Gender Development-related Index and Gender Inequality Index. These are UN indicators that calculate gender inequality based on measures of differences in factors like health, education, and economic status, as well as living condition and empowerment. The researchers found that in the average developing nation, an increase in Microfinance by around 15% is associated with a decline in gender inequality by about 50%.

Some critics of Microfinance claim that many become overwhelmed by their debt. However, it is important to distinguish the different types of Microfinance organizations. Some institutions in Bangladesh like BRAC have models similar to Grameen and provide services with the goal to combat poverty. Unfortunately, there are also some profit-oriented organizations that use predatory lending and collection practices. Some of these institutions charge up to 200% for interest, and their harsh collection methods had driven some borrowers to commit suicide. This type of Microfinance lenders does their business on the client’s doorstep, meaning that representatives are encouraged to travel to rural villages to make the loans and then come back weekly to collect the payments. Yunus himself is outraged by this kind of Microfinance companies that make profits of the backs of the very poor. Sadly, the Bengali government offer few regulations in this type of predatory business.

Some academics, including Dean Karlan, insist that the success stories of women who received help from Grameen Bank is overrated, and paint an unrealistic picture of the effectiveness of Microfinance. Karlan conducted randomized controlled trials of Microfinance programs in different developing countries, and in each case they compared a randomly selected group of people who had been offered the loans to an otherwise identical group that had not. Their research suggests that Microfinance does not have much effect on improving the level of income of the loan recipients. However, it is worth noting that in some cases the overall income stay unchanged because borrower decrease their work at a wage-paying job as they start to gain more income from their own business, and the assets they own are not counted toward their income.

Aneel Karnani, a professor of strategy in University of Michigan published an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, in which he agrees with Karlan and argues that despite its noneconomic benefits, Microfinance does not significantly alleviate poverty. He claims that instead of Microfinance, best way to eradicate poverty is to create jobs and to increase worker productivity. Karnani points out that most Microfinance clients are not “micro-entrepreneurs” by choice, and that these borrowers would “gladly take a factory job at reasonable wages if it were available”. On a macroeconomic scale, most people agree that employment is the fundamental link to poverty reduction. However, the problem that the clients face in these rural areas of Bangladesh is precisely the limited opportunities for steady employment at reasonable wages. Within the status quo, Microfinance is still the best opportunity for people who seek temporary financial relive and are hoping to kick start their small business.

Granted, Yunus’ hopes for Microfinance had always been rather grandiose. Poverty is a complex issue, and Microfinance isn’t a “silver bullet” that can magically solve it. With that said, well-intended Microfinance institutions remain one of the best tools available to developing countries to alleviate poverty. A 2015 report from advocacy organization Microcredit Summit Campaign claims that between 1990 and 2008, Microfinance has lifted 10 million people out of poverty in Bangladesh alone. However, there’s no denying that Microfinance has now become a worldwide movement. By 2013, some 3,098 microfinance institutions had reached over 211 million clients worldwide, just under half of whom were living in extreme poverty.

Clearly, more Microfinance in developing nations is good news for women. There is an immeasurable effect that occurs when women are empowered to do something in their society that they weren’t normally allowed to. As women build up their business, overall consumption increases and its benefits also extend outward to the entire community benefits, including those who are participating in the program. However, it is important to keep in mind that Microfinance does not automatically empower women. Governments and international organizations in developing nations should tighten regulation over Microfinance institutions and be sensitive to the country-specific and cultural factors that play a key role in determining how Microfinance interacts with the local community.

 

Can Natural Disaster Ever be Good to Economy?

Hurricane, earthquake, and wildfire… America and the world have been entangled by natural disasters recently. The natural disasters indeed never could be a positive thing because of its destruction and death tolls; however, the disasters also tend to make reconstruction the primary task for the government, which would face little obstacle to pour money into the affected regions. Thus, setting humanity aside, natural disasters in some situations could be a boost to the regional economics.

Sichuan in China, where a magnitude 8 earthquake stoke in 2008, is an example that the local economy benefits during the post-disaster reconstruction. The poor infrastructure led the Sichuan earthquake in China to end with 87,150 people death toll and 4,800,000 people homeless, according to the BBC News. With $191 billion economic loss, the Sichuan Earthquake was the second highest in terms of economic losses. The fortunate part was that the center counties in 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Wenchuan and Ya’an, were neither a raw material production base nor manufacturing zone; actually, these counties were poor. Thus, the earthquake did not hurt much the Chinese exports and GDP.

(from BBC)

The rebuilding efforts costs the Chinese government almost $150 billion,equivalent to a fifth of its entire tax revenues for a single year, according to the Guardian.The rebuilding plan will “envisages building 169 hospitals and 4,432 primary and middle schools to replace collapsed structures.” “Another 2,600 schools that remained standing will be strengthened.Under the plan, more than 3 million homeless rural families will get new houses and 860,000 apartments in the city will be built.”

It is brutal but true to say this immense earthquake served as a stimulus to Sichuan’s local economy. “When something is destroyed you don’t necessarily rebuild the same thing that you had,” said Mark Skidmore, an economics professor at Michigan State University. “You might use updated technology, you might do things more efficiently.”

As poor and small counties in China, WenChuan and Ya’an have minimal chance to receive this much of national investments and resources.

“The GRP level (as a percentage of Chinese GDP) of the worst-hit area of Sichuan decreased by 35.4% in 2008 compared to the 2007 level. After three years of reconstruction, the region had still not returned to its pre-earthquake GRP level, but the GRP level of the rest of Sichuan experienced a boom in those three years because of the reconstruction demand stimulus,” According to a studies conducted by MOE Key Laboratory of Environmental Change and Natural Disaster of the Beijing Normal University.


It is understandable for the chart above that depicts the economic recovery of the worst-hit region in Sichuan and else of Sichuan. The hardest hit region suffered the destruction and the labor shortage the most. Even with such tremendous amount of resources and capital, the quake center regions hardly could reach effective capacity and productivity. The else of Sichuan are in a much better situation that these recovery investment creates job opportunity and industrial production.

More practical reflection of the benefits from 2008 earthquake to Sichuan region comes from the 7.0 magnitude Sichuan earthquake in Ya’an. According to the BBC report, “none of the buildings built since the Sichuan earthquakes collapsed.” The quality of housing for sure has improved.

The claim that natural disaster would boost regional economy is not new, but it has remained a small field of study because critics charge “disaster economists with oversimplifying enormously complex economic systems and seeing illusory effects that stem only from the crudeness of the available economic measuring tools.”

In 1969, Douglas Dacy and Howard Kunreuther, two young analysts at the Institute for Defense Analyses, published a book called “The Economics of Natural Disasters.”  It was probably one of the first attempts to measure the economic influence of catastrophe. The book argues that the dreadful Alaska earthquake of 1964 helped Alaska economy by garnering government loans and grants for rebuilding.

“We got a lot of hate mail for that finding,” said Kunreuther, now a professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Gus Faucher’s study also supported the Dacy’s and Kunreuther’s claim. Fauncher is the director of macroeconomics at Moody’s Economy.com. He found sharp increases in construction employment after Hurricane Andrew attacked Florida in 1992 and after the Northridge earthquake of 1994.

The Bernard L. Schwartz Chair in Economic Policy Development Martin Neil Baily said whether the economy of affected regions can be benefited depends on “the way the country or region responds to the crisis”. The time factor is the most important here. He gave an example that Haiti, where is too poor to manage the immediate recover after hurricane, has to wait international aid to get basic rebuilding, leaving alone economic growth.

The Hurricane Katrina was a debatable case. Faucher accuses government aid was slow to arrive and with insurance payouts so low, there were so many residents left New Orlean. The economic recovery and boost both did not come.

However, there are also many critics to the theory of disaster economic growth. It is important to remember that the wealth to the affected regions is not generated by the hurricane or earthquake, “the money and labor that go into postdisaster rebuilding are simply being redirected from other productive uses.”The natural disaster could be an economic boost to a region, but it always is an economic downturn for the whole nation. Moreover, some jobs are benefited at the cost of other industries.

“If you’re a carpenter, a trash remover, a physician, you may be made better off,” said Donald Boudreaux, an economics professor at George Mason University. “But the things that those producers would have otherwise produced are not going to be produced.”

Here is the chart of the wage and employment growth for New Orleans during the immediate recovery time after the Hurricane Katrina.

It is clear that construction, waster service, and real estate enjoyed a huge economic boost, while entertainment and food service suffered.

“Over any reasonably relevant period of time, society is not made wealthier by destroying resources,” Boudreaux said. If it were, “Beirut should be one of the wealthiest places in the world.”

The theory model of disastrous benefits for economy should be viewed as that the areas that would not receive national resources or investment during the normal time becomes privileged after suffering catastrophe. It also gives these areas more opportunity and capital to develop during the reconstruction. The catastrophe wiped out the outdated facilities and infrastructure and replace them with more efficient and modern ones. “It might be seen as Mother Nature’s contribution to what the Austrian-born U.S. economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called capitalism’s ‘creative destruction.'”

As long as the government responds to the disaster quickly with reconstruction capitals, it is general to see a quick recovery for the affected area and a bullish future for the local economy.

Once again, it is inhuman and cruel to say the natural disaster is a good thing, and it is significant to remember it hurts national economy as a whole. However, it could be an opportunity for the specifically affected regions to develop and reform its economy.

How Oil Prices Impact Different Sectors

There are few things that have a bigger influence in global markets than swings in oil prices. However, the ripple effects these swings have are hardly ever clear cut. In order to understand how swings in oil prices can influence global markets, we must first understand how these prices can increase or decrease.

Oil is a commodity that tends to fluctuate throughout time. One of the largest influencers of these fluctuations is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting (OPEC). The OPEC is an organization that includes 13 countries; Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. According to their website, as of 2016, “81.5% of the world’s proven crude oil reserves are located in OPEC Member Countries, with the bulk of OPEC oil reserves in the Middle East, amounting to 65.5% of the OPEC total” (http://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/data_graphs/330.htm). They have production levels that meet global demand, and are able to control prices by increasing or decreasing production.

Just like the stock market, the laws of supply and demand play a crucial role for commodities as well. If supply of oil were to pass demand, the price of the oil must decrease, and if demand were to pass supply, prices will increase. For example, if there is lower demand for oil in Europe and China, but there is continuous supply of oil from the OPEC, the price of oil will fall due to the surplus of oil supply. Although supply and demand do affect oil prices, the future of oil and reserves are what actually sets the price. Future contracts allow purchasers of oil to buy at a fixed price in the future on a specific date. Other influencers of oil prices include natural disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, production costs, and political instability.

Although weaker demand is what can drive prices lower, the growth rate in China, which is the world’s largest net importer of oil, has caused significant changes to the price of oil. This is due to the slowdown of growth in China. Also, the OPEC has promised to reduce its production of oil, which can drive up the demand. However, with competitors entering the market, the OPEC has kept its production levels up to compete in the market and hold market share.

For many industries in the market, oil prices are really important to pay attention to. Fluctuations in prices can have a large influence on different sectors of the economy. One of the main sectors that is highly influenced by oil prices is the airline industry.

Every traveler can agree that the cost to fly from one place to another has become a crucial factor in making the decision to travel. Like most industries, the airline industry is constantly itching to find new streams of revenue. Airfare fees used to cut it, but now surcharges have been placed on almost every bit of customer service offered by the airline company. This includes seat selection, checked bags, meals, and sometimes carry-on bags, and they are not cheap. These surcharges first began as something to depend on when fuel prices increased, as well as increasing ticket costs.

Overall, crude oil prices have significantly dropped as a result of a surplus of supply. For the airline industry, a decrease of oil prices is great news. This means that they will have lower costs on fuel, which is one of their major costs, and will potentially lead to an increase in profits. The decrease in oil prices have caused airline companies to restructure their fleets, buy back stocks to show better earnings, and also look into expanding their routes in areas that seemed less feasible. This has also benefited travelers, due to the decrease in airfare costs.

Crude prices had recovered in the first quarter of 2017. This resulted in most airline fuel costs to rise. According to Ally Schmidt, “Delta Air Lines’ fuel costs rose 26.4% YoY to $1.6 billion. American Airlines’ fuel cost rose 37.8% YoY to $1.7 billion, and United Continental’s fuel costs rose 28.1% YoY to $1.6 billion. Alaska Air’s fuel cost rose 103% YoY to $339 million, including the impact of its Virgin America merger. Southwest’s fuel cost rose 13.6% to $959 million. JetBlue’s fuel cost rose 50% to $323 million. Spirit Airlines’ fuel expense rose 62.2% YoY to $139 million” (http://marketrealist.com/2017/08/analyzing-crude-oils-impact-on-airlines-fuel-costs/).

With the news of the OPEC and a few other non-OPEC nations slowing oil production rates until March of 2018, the oil prices rose to about $51.50 per barrel (http://marketrealist.com/2017/06/how-crude-oil-prices-impact-airlines-fuel-costs/). However, the impact of Hurricane Harvey had caused oil prices to fall to $47 per barrel. The capacity Texas has of oil is about 5.6 million barrels per day, and Louisiana has about 3.3 million barrels per day. The loss faced by both of these states resulted in a decrease in crude prices.

We know an increase in crude oil prices negatively impacts the industry’s largest cost. However, a decrease in crude oil prices can also cause problems to the airline industry. Lowering the oil costs can enhance profits, but also lowers airfares. This increases demand for traveling, which forces airline companies to find ways to increase capacity. Adding too many routes or dramatically increasing their fleet can cause airline companies to hurt their potential profits when oil prices bounce back. Therefore, it is very important for them to make every move a smart one. Major airline companies have recently done a good job of finding the right balance between adding capacity and still keeping demand steady.

Another industry that is impacted by the fluctuations of oil prices is the auto industry. Automobiles and petroleum are considered to be complimentary goods, which are goods that are associated with one another. Gasoline is a petroleum-based product; therefore, price fluctuations in crude oil can directly impact the price. A fall in oil prices is great for automotive companies. This means that vehicle sales will rise, as gas prices are cheaper, and more people have leftover income to spend. The extra income that people have could be used to lease or purchase a new car. As the cost to drive becomes cheaper overall, car ownership becomes more attractive to the population.

However, the impact oil prices have on the auto industry does depend on the market and the nation. For example, people who live in high fuel-tax areas may experience an overall lower percent change in the price. Therefore, it will not appear as significant as it will to someone who lives in a lower fuel-tax area. This can change the perspective one has towards purchasing a vehicle during a time where oil prices have decreased.

Some argue that the constant volatility of oil prices causes uncertainty about if and when the oil prices will increase again in the future. Therefore, this can impact the decision-making process of an individual wanting to finance or purchase a car. This perspective suggests that the future expectations of oil prices are what reflect car sales, rather than the actual price. However, most industry experts are directly correlating an increase in sales with the recent low gas prices.

The increase of automobile sales due to lower gas prices has had a larger impact on the gas-guzzling vehicles than the fuel-efficient ones. These vehicles tend to be more expensive in general, allowing automobile companies to generate more revenue. Also, profit margins on smaller vehicles are usually less than the larger vehicles, and gas-guzzling vehicles are generally on the larger side, including trucks and SUVs.

Fluctuations in oil prices can affect many companies in different sectors. Low prices can benefit industries that rely on oil as a key input, but other industries may hurt. Upstream oil producers are the ones that take the largest hit when their costs to produce the oil passes the market price, and they have to operate at a loss. However, downstream companies can hurt as well. These include industrial producers and other companies that build drilling operations, as they support the energy sector. Also, investors that hold bonds from oil producing firms also take a hit. As mentioned, this is also true for the exact opposite; an increase in oil prices. High oil prices can significantly hurt industries, such as the airline and auto industry. However, upstream oil producers and industrial companies that support the energy sector can benefit from an increase in oil prices.

It is difficult to accurately predict what the future holds for oil prices. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that crude oil prices will average $52 per barrel in 2018. The reports show that volatility will not be as bad as it was in 2016. Commodity traders are able to predict the price of oil due to their future contracts. Their predictions state that price could be anywhere from $39 per barrel to $63 per barrel by December of 2017 (https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/report/global_oil.cfm). It is important to remember that any perceived shortages, such as a hurricane, can cause these traders to panic and prices to increase. However, prices tend to moderate in the long run, while heavily impacting industries in the short run.

 

Sources:

https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/report/global_oil.cfm

http://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/data_graphs/330.htm

http://marketrealist.com/2017/08/analyzing-crude-oils-impact-on-airlines-fuel-costs/

http://marketrealist.com/2017/06/how-crude-oil-prices-impact-airlines-fuel-costs/

“Struck Oil!” Oil Prices Are on the Rise, But How Long will the Sunup Last?

Oil markets are positioned for yet another wild ride; with academic and Wall Street analysts predicting price increases of anywhere ranging from $40 to $70 per barrel by the end of the year, oil is looking far more handsome to investors. Over the last two and a half years, the industry experienced its deepest downturn since the 1990s. As the old saying goes, “history always repeats itself.” When using the past as a guide, after every oil bust comes a significant recovery, if not a market boom. With external factors like increased electronic car production and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, known as OPEC, fast at work, one question remains: just how long will this upswing last?

According to macrotrends, as of October 10th, the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil was $49.17 per barrel. “It looks as though the market started to get convinced that the rebalancing is actually happening,” Tamas Varga, an analyst at PVM Oil Associates Ltd. Said in a note during late September of this year.

Even after oil prices recovered from below $30 per barrel in early 2016 to $50 per barrel by the end of that year, The New York Times reported that Executives believe it will be many years before oil returns to a comfortable and prosperous $90 or $100 per barrel, which was essentially the norm for the industry until the price greatly collapsed in late 2014. However, analysts still remain hopeful that oil prices will sit above $60 per barrel by the end of this year.

Following a drumbeat of bullish data in September, which included the International Energy Agency’s upward revision to its demand outlook, crude oil prices were lifted, returning the U.S. to bull-market territory. The Wall Street Journal reported that this serves as the sixth bull market for the crude industry in four years and the first since February of this year.

Investors have gained new confidence that OPEC will continue to cut production and its efforts will help to bring oil’s supply and demand into balance, thus increasing prices. Other factors, like Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum, have played an influential role in boosting prices. After Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erogan, made a camouflaged threat to close the pipeline which allows for Kurdish oil to reach the global market, crude prices perked up in response.  Political and economic upheaval in major oil-producing countries like Venezuela could cause a major price spike as well.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, U.S. oil rebounded as U.S. refineries came back online. Due to the storm’s immense power and widespread devastation, U.S. oil supply became more limited, causing an increase in the prices per barrel.

Global demand for oil has also been strong in recent months. In early September of this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) raised its prediction for demand growth throughout 2017 and expects an increase of at least 1.6 million barrels each day. Additionally, Forbes reported that the “Energy Information Administration showed that motor gasoline product supplies rose 0.6 percent on a year on year basis.” With the IEA confirming rising growth outside the U.S. and the EIA confirming the rise in U.S. demand for petroleum product, “oil markets will move back into contango, and there is really nothing stopping a move in U.S. crude to $60/barrel.”

Despite outspoken investor confidence in a continued upswing in crude oil prices, some more speculative investors and hedge funds remain bearish when placing bets on U.S. crude oil. Donald Morton, a Senior Vice President on the energy trading desk at the Connecticut-based Investment Bank Herbert J. Sims & Co., told the Wall Street Journal, “The short sellers haven’t capitulated yet. Those bears who are entrenched remain entrenched – they’re not convinced this is over.”

In early 2017, data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission showed the bullish bets outnumber bearish ones by more than 11 to one, but according to more recent data, that number has shifted to less than three to one.

So, who benefits from this resurgence in oil prices? Oil companies, their employees and shareholders all walk away as winners when oil and gasoline prices rise. U.S. producers are likely to lock in higher prices for future outputs to maximize their profit. Michael Tran, the director of energy strategy at RBC Capital Markets, regarded this producer mentality as something that has previously capped rallies and worked against OPEC’s pricing efforts.

Producing states, including Alaska, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas benefit from residual employment and tax revenue increases. The higher crude prices equate to increased activity in the oil fields, which aids local businesses including construction firms that build housing, truck dealerships, and mom-and-pop services companies.

Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are all major crude oil producing countries that have been pressed financially in recent years.  For the Saudis, higher oil prices hold an additional benefit as its state oil company, Saudi Aramco, becomes more valuable for the initial public offering (IPO) planned to roll out later this year.

Lastly, there is a potential benefit for the environment. With increasing oil and gasoline prices, consumers are encouraged to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles and limit driving. While this is a good sign for mother nature, consumers of gasoline, heating oil and diesel fuel walk away from the oil pricing increase as losers. Additionally, retail outlets, hotels, and restaurants can take a hit when consumers have less disposable income in response to increased pricing.

With OPEC members producing nearly 40 percent of the global oil supply, the group, when united, serves as a tremendous force in dictating oil prices. In response to their recent efforts, current oil and gasoline prices are more or less in balance, which The New York Times suggests positive economic news for all parties affected by the industry.

As excitement continues to circulate around the direction of oil prices, it seems as though no one has bothered to consider impending potential threats to the crude oil industry.

“It’s going to be huge,” overjoyed oil industry experts exclaimed as Donald J. Trump was elected as the U.S.’ 45th President. Trump is outspoken about his support of industry efforts to build more pipelines, including the Keystone XL, a pipeline that would open up more federal lands and Deepwater prospects for drilling, and successfully deliver Canadian heavy oil to refineries located near the Gulf of Mexico. He has also stated he would like to lower regulatory burdens on the industry, which was made apparent through his lack of sympathy for the international Paris climate accord, which set out to lower global dependence on fossil fuels.

If enacted, all the aforementioned policies would increase natural gas and oil supplies on domestic and international markets, which in theory sounds great, right? Well, this would actually lower gas prices, which would hush the joyous industry expert’s tune.

Trump’s presidency isn’t the only threat facing the oil industry. Automakers have been pushing to produce more electronic cars.

10 years ago, Apple Inc. released a surge of innovation (does the name iPhone ring a bell?) that completely capsized the mobile phone industry. With some assistance from ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, and new self-driving technology, Bloomberg Technology stated that Electric cars could be on the cusp of pulling the same fast one on “Big Oil.”

David Eyton, the head of technology at the London-based oil giant BP Plc, stated in an interview, “Electric cars on their own may not add up to much, but when you add in car sharing (and) ride pooling, the numbers can get significantly greater.” Fewer people driving cars indicates less demand for oil. If the already diminishing vehicle numbers on the road are replaced by electronic vehicles, the demand for oil will greatly reduce, causing a huge drop in price and supply will likely continue to increase or stay the same.

Tim Harford, the economist behind a BBC radio series and book on historic innovations that disrupted the economy pointed out that instead of electric motors gradually replacing the current norm of internal combustion engines within the model, there’s likely going to be “some degree of systemic change,” adding, “(improvements in technology) are a lot more complicated (than perceived).”

Moral of the story? Yes, crude oil prices are rising at a promising rate; however, one must always remember that all good things do come to an end.

 

Works Cited

Collins, Jim. “Rising Demand Will Continue To Drive The Rally In Crude Oil Prices.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 27 Sept. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/jimcollins/2017/09/27/rising-demand-will-continue-to-drive-the-rally-in-crude-oil-prices/#2f2a309c2749.

“Commodities: Latest Crude Oil Price & Chart.” NASDAQ.com, www.nasdaq.com/markets/crude-oil.aspx.

Krauss, Clifford. “Oil Prices: What to Make of the Volatility.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 May 2017, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/business/energy-environment/oil-prices.html?_r=0.

Saefong, Myra P., and Mark DeCambre. “Oil Prices Settle at a More than 1-Week High.” MarketWatch, MarketWatch, 10 Oct. 2017, www.marketwatch.com/story/oil-aims-for-first-2-session-gain-since-late-september-as-saudis-cut-crude-exports-2017-10-10.

Salvaterra, Neanda, and Alison Sider. “Oil Prices Mixed Ahead of Crude Market Data.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 9 Oct. 2017, www.wsj.com/articles/oil-prices-yo-yo-ahead-of-crude-market-data-1507546791.

Shankleman, Jess, and Hayley Warren. “How Electric Cars Can Create the Biggest Disruption Since the IPhone.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 21 Sept. 2017, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-21/how-electric-cars-can-create-the-biggest-disruption-since-iphone?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_term=170925&utm_campaign=ritholtz.

 

Germany –– The Land of Productivity.

Germany. Deutschland. The leading country of the Eurozone.

Germany continues to maintain a strong economy. In fact, German workers have paved the way for economic success while utilizing fewer working hours with more productivity.

Seizing Opportunities

Ironically, the hours worked by Germans are significantly lower than other countries in the EU. Some of the strongest economies have an average of 32-hour work-weeks, whereas Germany, the leading economy of the EU, only has a short 26-hour work-week. The trick to Germany’s success? Productivity. By definition labor productivity is “the amount of goods and services produced by one hour of labor; specifically, labor productivity measures the amount of real gross domestic product (GDP) produced by an hour of labor” (Investopedia). German workers see success in productivity because they are investing in advanced technologies and machineries in order to “seize the opportunities of digitization, remain internationally competitive and drive innovation” (Nienaber, 2017). The graph below highlights the GDP per hour worked for various countries in the EU, ranking Germany with nearly the highest GDP per hour worked.

As seen in the data above, Germany produces more goods per hour than its competing countries and works fewer hours. In order to see growth in that productivity, an economy needs physical capital, new technology, and human capital, which Germany has (Investopedia).

A Strong Work Environment

Many different aspects factor into Germany’s economic and productive success. Whether it is that German work culture is very by-the-book –– when you are at work all you do is work — or they have been trained as a population to maintain efficiency, they have found success in business. Essentially, they move quickly but also remain focused. Starting at age 15, German students leave their education to go into apprenticeships. Rather than staying in school and learning, they experience the working world and learn from there. At a young age they are automatically conditioned to be more efficient and productive in the work place. Adding light to Germany’s productivity makers, The World Economic Forum’s 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report ranks Germany 5th in higher education and training and 3rd in infrastructure and business sophistication. In fact, as the world’s 2nd largest exporter and one of the most highly advanced manufacturers, Germans would be expected to work off the clock, non-stop. But, that is not the case. Again, this goes to the point of their ability to seize opportunities because of their investment in advanced technologies and choice to constantly innovate. The ‘—‘ mark below indicates Germany’s competitive success relative to 41 other countries and 11 other members of the European Union. This demonstrates that they have remained a strong and leading export country since the fall of the Berlin Wall. So, what made the fall of the Berlin Wall such a strengthening factor in Germany’s economy? Let’s look at a brief history.

A Brief History

Looking back to the Industrial Revolution of the 1830s, Germans had an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset which led them to be early adopters of coal production and rail transportation (Brenner, 2014). That’s just a mere example of the beginning of their strong economic trajectory. In order to properly look at their success, let’s fast forward to 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This historical moment finally ended the divide between East Germany and West Germany and brought forth a whole new labor force and marketplace of ideas. Germany acted fast and placed an emphasis on the complex manufacturing of products by which other countries simply could not compete. For example, they have created a thriving auto industry producing the world’s most innovative, luxurious and strongest car brands. Through advanced manufacturing and trade exports, they quickly became a top net exporter to other countries. Not only did this pave the way towards a healthy economic future for Germany, it also made them a key country in the expansion of the EU –– mending the European financial crisis with one currency: the euro. For reference, the graph below represents the significant raise in GDP of the Eurozone after enacting the euro.


Source: data world bank

According to current (2017) data from The Heritage Foundation, Germany’s overall economic score is a 73.8 out of 100. A country’s economic score “focuses on four key aspects of the economic environment over which governments typically exercise political control – rule of law, government size, regulatory efficiency, market openness” (Heritage). Within these four measures, there are 12 sub-components that are measured on a scale of 0 to 100 which “are equally weighted and averaged to produce an overall economic freedom score for each economy” (Heritage). Where Germany’s numbers show strength is under fiscal health (government size), business freedom (regulatory efficiency), monetary freedom (regulatory efficiency), trade freedom (open markets), investment freedom (open markets), and property rights (rule of law), as identified in the graphic below. What is so great about Germany is that they continue to show success in business freedom — both on the business side and the investment side. To that end, Germans are willing to start their own businesses, invest in businesses, and overall innovate a business because they have the capital for it.

If you wish to view this further and get directed to the site, click here.

Now that the economic score of Germany is clear, below is a graph of Germany’s score in comparison to both Europe and the world, with Germany ranking higher against each.

If you want to compare other countries and view the graph in real time, click here.

Unparalleled Unemployment Rates

Without high employment rates, productivity would remain low because typically it means there is not as much work to be done. In the simplest terms, Germany has more money to invest in business, therefore they have more money to invest in workers, which leads them to more employees getting the job done. Germany went from a steep 5 million unemployed workers in 2005 to a low 2.7 million unemployed, as shown in graph A titled “Germany unemployed persons.” Graph B, titled “Unemployment rate,” demonstrates Germany’s unemployment rate in regards to the U.S., U.K., and France.

A)

B)c

According to The Guardian, “a strong economic backdrop has helped Germany post a record budget surplus of €23.7bn in 2017, fueled by higher tax revenues, rising employment and low debt costs. It was the highest budget surplus since reunification in 1990 and the third successive year the government has had a budget surplus” (Monaghan and Wearden, 2017). Clearly, the Germans productivity is paying off in more ways than just being a leading exporter. They are truly a financially sound country.

The German Way

Germany finds its way as a leading economy due to the productivity it has retained from its workers, the strength in their manufacturing technology, their education systems, and their overall ability to constantly innovate. German workers are unafraid to pave the way for business freedom. With an abundance of capital to invest toward business success, a strong workforce, and overall economic strength, Germany continues to be a force to be reckoned with. Fewer hours doesn’t always mean less work! Use Germany as that example.

http://money.cnn.com/2017/09/06/news/economy/germany-election-merkel-economy-inequality/index.html

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-economy-gdp/german-economic-growth-picks-up-speed-good-news-for-merkel-idUSKBN1880S6

https://www.expertmarket.co.uk/focus/worlds-most-productive-countries-2017

https://www.theguardian.com/world/blog/2017/feb/23/germanys-gdp-shows-19-rise-over-last-year

https://qz.com/586547/germany-is-the-worlds-strongest-economy/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/16/world/europe/germany-25-years-of-success/index.html

http://www.investopedia.com/terms/l/labor-productivity.asp

http://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/1212/why-germany-is-the-economic-powerhouse-of-the-eurozone.aspx

http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DatasetCode=ANHRS#

http://www.heritage.org/index/heatmap

http://www.heritage.org/index/country/germany

https://data.worldbank.org/region/euro-area?view=chart

 

The Economic Side Effects of the Affordable Care Act on the Health of the Nation’s Economy

Disrupting America’s existing healthcare system was not going to be easy, but President Obama centered his legacy legislation around the effort. According to the Commonwealth Fund, “The Affordable Care Act (ACA) represents the most fundamental change to the structure of U.S. insurance markets in decades.” The disruption was a long time coming and the need for charge originally stemmed from many problems, but most notably, rising healthcare premiums. Please see the data below from The Commonwealth Fund which exhibits the rise in premiums over just 3 years:

Something needed to change and President Obama saw this market failure as an opportunity for intervention. When introducing the bill, President Obama articulated the reasons why the change was necessary at a speech in Maryland. He stated, “I knew that if we didn’t do something about our unfair and inefficient health care system, it would keep driving up our deficits, it would keep burdening our businesses, it would keep hurting our families, and it would keep holding back economic growth.” Fast forward to 2017. Looking at the healthcare system before the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and now 7 years later in 2017, there have been notable market effects that are worth looking into.

First, the Affordable Care Act introduced more patients into the healthcare market by expanding insurance to more people. Health Affairs summarized the way The Affordable Care Act expanded health insurance in three ways: “the expansion of Medicaid to cover the poorest segment of the population (those with annual incomes below 138 percent of the federal poverty level), health insurance subsidies on the new exchanges for low- and medium-income people (those with annual incomes of 100–400 percent of poverty) who lack access to employer coverage or Medicaid, and a mandate for the uninsured to buy coverage.” When there are more people in the market, subsequently there is more business for the market. According to an article The New York Times published just one year after the Affordable Care Act became law, it reported that the stock market actually performed quite well for hospitals, drug companies and for-profit health insurers and that “the S&P 500 Health Care Index rose by 24 percent over the last year, outperforming the overall stock market.”

However, with a growing pool of healthcare recipients, greater risk is inevitable. Before the Affordable Care Act, people with pre-existing conditions who did not have access to insurance from the government or their employers, did not have many options for gaining healthcare coverage. Now, those high-risk patients are qualified for insurance coverage under the law and put on an equal playing field with healthy patients. Although more people are getting coverage, the new people being introduced into the pool are mostly poorer, sicker people. The Kaiser Family Foundation looked deeper into how the addition of higher-risk people would fluctuate the existing premiums. “Prohibiting discrimination against people with pre-existing health conditions will tend to raise premiums as higher cost individuals who have previously been excluded from the market buy coverage,” Kaiser concluded but eased worry with the fact that “this may be offset by an influx of younger and healthier people, due to the ACA’s individual mandate and premium subsidies for low- and middle-income people buying insurance in new health insurance marketplaces (also known as exchanges).”

Secondly, not only has more risk entered the market, but new economic restrictions have been placed on the insurance industry. With more people and more insurance companies, competition within the market is heightened. The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states had the opportunity to opt of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. As a result, some state governments now have differing policies and rules for the insurance market. According to Kaiser, insurers are being more closely monitored by not only the federal government, but some individual state governments, including a cap on how much those insurers can make from coverage of individuals. Not only are insurers being restricted, but hospitals are as well. The New York Times reports that “hospitals are being hurt by a provision of the law that cuts their Medicare payments by $260 billion over 10 years, but they have benefited from having more insured customers who can pay their bills.”

So it seems the healthcare market has a way of naturally balancing what seem to be significant effects on its existing market, but of course with change, there are always winners and losers. So who is suffering the most for the greater good of all Americans? The answer:  Middle class, healthy Americans who already had health insurance before the Affordable Care Act became law. Yahoo Finance reported people who have already purchased insurance plans, because they could afford it or qualified for the existing coverage, had their coverage cancelled because it did not meet the new requirements by law of the Affordable Care Act. The market once again balanced out according to a study done by Health Affairs, concluding that most of the Americans who had to exchange their plans were probably going to switch anyway and were mostly likely getting a better a deal on their new plan than if they were to purchase it before the Affordable Care Act came into play.

Naturally, there are outliers in this situation. Brenda Laster, a 49-year-old self-employed, single mom of two living in Rogersville, Tennessee is one of the losers in this situation. She claims, “Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee provided me with good coverage and access to good doctors and I didn’t want to switch. Now I am paying more for coverage and I don’t see a difference.” People like Brenda get the short end of the stick with the Affordable Care Act, but it seems as if it is a necessary evil to improve healthcare for all Americans in the future.

Kentucky has some similar cases as well. A spokesperson from the Majority Leader’s Office states that “middle class Kentuckians are hurt the most by the ACA because of the increasing costs. Because the costs keep rising, many of the healthy middle class individuals are leaving the market and paying the penalty instead.” This is bad for the middle class, but so many poor and sick Kentuckians, especially in the Appalachian region, are now getting access to insurance, which as mentioned before, is offset by the inclusion of younger, healthier people into the market. The healthy people are subsidizing the sick and those with pre-existing conditions, which is helping ease more people into the market, providing a way for the government to get involved and address some of the inherent problems President Obama mentioned earlier, without breaking their own bank.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the sacrifice of some will pay off for our economy as a whole. The New York Times reported “the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that hospitals will save $5.7 billion in so-called uncompensated care costs this year because more people have insurance. And nearly three-quarters of those savings, $4.2 billion, has gone to the 25 states and the District of Columbia that expanded Medicaid at the beginning of 2014.” The temporary pain will be worth the long term gain for the healthcare market as a whole, because improvements have already been made. The New York Times also reported progress back in 2014 stating “the last few years have seen a significant slowdown in the growth of health spending. Across nearly every measure — medical price growthemployer insurance premiumsper capita Medicare spending — the amounts the country spends on health care have increased by much smaller margins than the nation is used to.” However, we have to take the decrease in health spending with a grain of salt. Kaiser conducted a study that found that “because GDP and inflation influence health spending with a significant lag, the effects of economic cycles on the health system are not always apparent from looking at such simple relationships.This study is essentially saying it is possible the Affordable Care Act could not be the only reason for the decrease in health spending and that GDP, inflation and even global economic trends can also play a role in that decrease.

For most middle class Kentuckians and Brenda Lasters of the population, it seems unfair but the pros will outweigh the temporary cons in terms of the Affordable Care Act having a positive economic effect on the healthcare market. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act was always going to attract political controversy because change usually does, but from an economic perspective, the data supports a mostly positive impact on the economy as a whole. After 7 years of the Affordable Care Act being embedded in the economy, alterations to the law would have a significant impact on all Americans. CNN gathered research from the Congressional Budget Office estimating that “repealing Obamacare would increase Medicare spending by $802 billion over 10 years.” President Obama’s legacy legislation had the intent of disrupting the current economic market and disrupt it has. Current debate of removing the law and replacing it will have just as much of an economic impact as introducing the Affordable Care Act in the first place.

 

 

 

 

Future of Vehicles Looks Electric

It’s an idea that makes sense for many reasons, mostly notably because it doesn’t toy with our environment quite like gas does. But, as with most change that occurs in this world, the full-on switch to electric vehicles (EVs) continues to take some time.

Many believe that electric vehicles will overtake gas-powered ones in a matter of years. When will this be the case? In order to answer this question, you need to have a basic understanding of what owning and selling an EV requires right now. And this knowledge will give you a solid perspective of the pros and cons of the EV’s existence.

According to PBS.org, Robert Anderson, a Scottish inventor, was the first person recorded to make headway into creating an electric-powered vehicle from 1832-1839. In 1891, a chemist from Iowa named William Morrison built the first electrical automobile in the United States. So the notion of electric vehicles was born far before the emergence of modern technology we’ve come to know.

Early electric car (Source: Inside EVs)

Still, a column from Business Insider noted that about 34 million vehicles were sold over the past two years in the United States, and mostly all of them were fueled by gas. One of the biggest reasons why people see no need to shift from gas-powered to electric cars is due to the time length of charging a battery.

It takes a short matter of minutes to refuel a gas-powered engine, while most electric vehicles need to be powered overnight or take roughly an hour at a commercial station, via The New York Times. This reality contributes to an anxiety that if the car’s battery runs out, and you don’t have a charging station nearby, you can no longer travel.

The way to get rid of that fear is to think of EVs like ChargePoint chief executive Pasquale Romano.

“Electric vehicles are more like horses than gasoline cars,” Romano said, also via that NY Times piece. “You refuel them when you’re doing something else.”

The charging options for your electric vehicle are broken down into two levels. Level 1 charging means that it plugs into a typical house outlet. Using the Nissan Leaf as our primary example, it would take 22 hours for a full charge. But driving 40 miles per day, which is typical of the average American, would allow for around nine hours to completely recharge your battery for the next day, per PlugInAmerican.org.

The fact that electric cars are very functional within shorter distances enables them to be used by modern car-sharing technologies like Uber and Zipcar.

“Electric cars on their own may not add up to much,” David Eyton, head of technology at London-based oil giant BP Plc, said in an interview. “But when you add in car sharing, ride pooling, the numbers can get significantly greater.”

Since for many people time is money, you may want to explore other charging methods if a trip were longer, perhaps around 200 miles. The DC Fast Charger costs up about $100,000 and adds 40 miles per every 10 minutes — a dramatically reduced time from Level 1 charging. CleanTechnica.com notes the the cost of a Level 2 charging station ranges from $500-$1,000 — a manageable price— but is less powerful than the DC Fast Charger.

DC Fast Charger (Source: FleetCarma)

As one could gage, based on the lack of quick chargeable modes, current electric vehicles don’t have the capacity to make long road trips possible. Driving from Los Angeles to the lower edge of Colorado is about an 800-mile journey, and an electric vehicle would make that voyage difficult. This excursion is hard due to, not only the time it takes for charging the battery, but also the amount of charging stations available.

Charging stations aren’t readily available to everyone in the United States, as building this infrastructure is one of the challenges electric vehicle producers face. The U.S. Department of Energy recorded that there are 16,838 electric stations with 44,753 charging outlets in the country.  Looking at the map they provide as to where these stations are located, it’s clear and understandable that the east coast and west coasts of the United States are more densely populated than areas like Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Nevada and Mexico. When these regions are rife with charging centers, you’d expect the demand for EVs would also be higher.

When one looks at how the demand of a good or product can increase, price/cost and quality become key factors in predicting demand. Quality seems to be directly correlated to overall cost. Typically, someone will pay less for a good or service they deem of lesser quality. The same applies for the reverse logic: someone will pay more for a good or service they deem of higher quality.

This idea brings into play the possibility that electric cars will, at some point in time, be considered more logical to buy than gas-driven cars, since EVs will be of similar or better quality than their counterparts and also cost less. A report from the Rocky Mountain Institute specified that there are 15 EV models under $30,000 with multiple models that have batteries lasting up to 200 miles. Cars with internal combustion engines can seem a bit more logical with these current numbers, especially if you’re traveling long distances.

But it’s worthy to say electric cars are on their way to becoming cheaper. A new report from Cowen & Co. details that electric cars will be cheaper than their gas partners by the early- to mid-2020s, due to falling battery prices and costs that traditional car makers will deal with to ensure their vehicles abide by fuel-efficiency standards. President Barack Obama enacted these standards in 2012 to strengthen the pull toward the cleaner energy of electric cars, and at the time, dissenters existed.

“The president tells voters that his regulations will save them thousands of dollars at the pump,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in 2012, “but always forgets to mention that the savings will be wiped out by having to pay thousands of dollars more upfront for unproven technology that they may not even want.”

When the cheapness and functionality is clearly accelerating past gas-fueled cars, it will then be up to producers of EVs to make sure supply is on the right level to meet increased demand.

Right now, even though electric vehicles make up for 1 percent of total car sales, the sales of EVs have been growing. Forbes stated that EV sales increased by 36 percent in 2016 from 2015, and have went up at a yearly growth rate of 32 percent over the recent five years.

This rate is primed to grow more and more, as the world becomes more comfortable with phasing out vehicles with internal combustion engines. CNN listed the countries that were planning to completely rid their economies of gas-powered vehicles. France and Britain announced that they would ban sales of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. India is aiming to get rid of them by 2030. And Norway wants new passenger cars and vans sold in 2025 to all be electric.

China is one of the leading pioneers in the development of vehicles using clean energy. By 2025, states The New York Times, Beijing hopes for one out of every five cars sold to utilize alternative fuel.

The issue facing EV manufacturers in the U.S. now, according to auto sales and information site Edmunds, is that once government subsidies for buyers run out, the market for EVs could crash. This line of thinking is partially based off how Georgia accounted for 17 percent of U.S. EV sales before it dropped to 2 percent after its $5,000 tax credit was eliminated. But states like California, spending $449 million over seven years on doling out these payments, are thinking of spending even more money, $3 billion according to the Los Angeles Times. This move could raise state deductions for EVs from around $2,500 to about $10,000, making a Chevrolet Bolt EV around the same price as a gas-fueled Honda Civic.

The incentives don’t end there, though, as energy company Ovo has devised a way to offset some of the electric cost applied when charging your vehicle at home.

“It provides an economic benefit for electric vehicle owners,” Ovo CEO Stephen Fitzpatrick said. “So they get more use of out of the vehicle that they’ve got parked in the driveway.

When rates for electricity are low during hours of overall less electricity use, the charger by Ovo will fill up the car’s battery. When the rates are higher, the battery would start charging someone’s home or sell the energy back to the grid. One could sell energy back to the grid for up to 25 cents at peak time, while electricity costs about 5 cents a kilowatt-hour during “off-peak” hours.

“In other words, the value of the electricity that’s stored in the battery goes up by a factor of five,” Fitzpatrick said.

Education: A Catalyst in Gender Pay Gap

Briana Grubb

Professor Gabriel Kahn

JOUR 469

October 11, 2017

Education: A Catalyst in Gender Pay Gap

 

In President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address, he stated that women “make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.” If a woman had a dollar, or even 77 cents, for every time she heard that statistic, it would cover lunch for a week. While this statistic, a ratio of two medians for full-time, full-year workers, can be problematic in that it doesn’t account for pay for the same work, it is true that a gender pay gap still exists in the United States; the female-to-male earnings ratio in 2015 was only 0.80 (U.S. Census Bureau).

Determining the causes of the gender pay gap is not a simple task. Communication surrounding the disparity is plagued by inaccuracies, as evident in Obama’s SOTU. Media coverage tends to say that the gap is caused by discrimination. Claudia Goldin, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, explains that while this was once the case, it is no longer a significant cause. She also reasons that another popular argument, categorical differences such as competitiveness and negotiation skills, doesn’t go the full degree in explaining the pay gap either. When featured on the Freakonomics podcast “The True Story of the Gender Pay Gap,” she deemed that the main reason for disparity is the high cost of temporal flexibility, valued more by women than men.

Temporal flexibility is “the variation in the number of hours worked and the timing of the work” (Oxford Reference).  Women value this flexibility so highly because they disproportionately have caregiving obligations—watching the kids, looking after their parents, assisting sick family members, etc.—which require them to work differently. It is important to note that not all women desire this temporal flexibility. In fact, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that in 2006, women without children or spouses earned 96 cents for every dollar a man earned. The gap is virtually nonexistent between men and women who place similar amounts of importance on temporal flexibility. But since many other women disproportionately dedicate time to caregiving without compensation, they are willing to pay the high costs for flexibility of hours scheduled and worked.

This high price that women pay is reflected in their salaries. Glassdoor reports that the top five jobs in which women earn less than men are the following: computer programmer, chef, dentist, c-suite, and psychologist, all of which have at least a 27.2% base pay difference. The costs of temporal flexibility in these types of jobs are the highest because they are so specialized. The workers aren’t substitutable, so the handoffs are costlier. These handoff costs are reciprocated to costly workers, who work fewer or their own hours and thus cause more handoffs.

When women enter these types of careers, they are initially paid similar wages to their male counterparts. However, when they begin to have children, or start caring for someone else, they can no longer adhere to the requested hours set by their employers. Since they cannot devote all of the hours needed by their clients to them, they don’t receive raises, aren’t made partners, and can’t grow their careers. Women work less employer-requested hours and consequently notice negative effects on their salaries. The high cost of temporal flexibility is a partial cause of vertical segregation, defined by Stanford University’s Topic Report as “the overrepresentation of a clearly identifiable group of workers in occupations or sectors at the top of an ordering based on desirable attributes.” In this case, men are overrepresented as c-suite workers, dentists, etc. because they possess a desirable trait—a low value on temporal flexibility.

The difference in the value of temporal flexibility by gender also influences horizontal segregation, “the concentration of men and women in professions or sectors of economic activity” (Stanford).  In choosing occupations, men tend to choose sectors where levels of responsibility are high. The UNC Population Center published North Carolina’s largest jobs by sex, and men’s were drivers, managers, supervisors, laborers, and salespersons. The majority of these do not allow for flexibility in work hours, an adverse effect of requiring lots of responsibility. Inversely, many women go into careers that are compatible with their family lives. In North Carolina these were elementary school teachers, nurses, secretaries, and health aides. These types of occupations offer more part time employment opportunities and have smaller penalties for career pauses, so women gravitate toward them.

There is a bright side though! In 2012, Pew found in its analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau data that the number of women enrolled in college outnumbered men by 11%, (See Appendix A). And in September 2017, the unemployment rate of women ages 16 and up was higher than men’s of the same age, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Female earnings increased 2.7% from 2014-2015, while men’s only increased 1.5%. Hence, the gender pay gap is shrinking. Hannah Rosin, in her Atlantic feature, “The End of Men,” argues that economic success is shifting away from being determined by attributes typical of men, e.g. physical strength and stamina. More women are entering the work force, and thus many new jobs are being created, replacing the domestic work women used to do for free. The typical working wife earns on average 42.2% of the household annual income, and four out of ten mothers are now the primary moneymakers in their families. Wage gaps are shrinking for these ideologically normal women who have traditional families and are of high socio-economic statuses. But how can the United States shrink the gender pay gap for all of its women?

An area with huge potential to decrease the gender pay gap for everyone is U.S. school systems. Primary education is an enormous hindrance on working parents, especially in the case of mothers who disproportionately handle childcare. It’s also a huge handicap for working single-mothers and other non-traditional working caregivers. Primary education reforms can reduce the amount of temporal flexibility that working women need.

Take for example Germany, which ranked 13th best in global gender pay in 2016 (the U.S. ranked 45th out of 144 countries). Kerri Shigo, former Senior Marketing Manager at Microsoft, moved to Munich with her husband and four children in 2008. Shigo had previously worked part-time at Microsoft to take care of her children. Upon moving to Germany, she took a long-term break from working. In conversation, Shigo expressed that she regretted quitting work for the years that she lived abroad. A large factor that led to this regret was the pre- and primary-schooling in Germany. Her youngest child attended kindergarten, Germany’s version of pubic preschool, from age three to six. The kindergarten school week ran Monday through Friday, and days lasted from 8:00 am until 4:00 pm. Kindergarten school days are set-up so that mothers who need to drop-off and pick-up their children can still work a full eight-hour workday. Another benefit of the German school system is its calendar year, which runs on a somewhat year-round schedule; students are in class for two months, then they have a break that alternates between one and two weeks. Working mothers don’t have to worry about arranging flexibility of timing at work to care for their children during a lengthy summer vacation. Instead, their holidays align more closely with their children’s, so they can use their paid vacation for the other breaks.

Germany’s public school system is supportive of reducing the amount of temporal flexibility that working moms need, effectively contributing to its smaller gender pay gap. It would be beneficial for the United States to reform its education system, borrowing from some of Germany’s ways. Lowering the age in which children start school would allow working-mothers to return to their jobs after childbirth earlier, if they choose to do so. Shifting the school day to more accurately reflect the work day could allow women to work on their companies’ hours instead of their own. Lastly, reforming scheduling of the school year to eliminate a lengthy summer break and instead have shorter breaks more reflective of the holidays would let mothers better align their paid time off with their children’s breaks.

Education is merely one route to take in diminishing the U.S. gender pay gap. There are several other approaches and combinations of approaches that would also be effective. What is important is that the causes of the disaprity become more widely known, so that more action can be taken to help mitigate the already shrinking gender pay gap.

 

 

**UPDATE (10/11/17 at 9:59 am). This Fortune article brings up the interesting question of how to navigate maternity leave (temporal flexibility) in the Canadian political landscape.

 

 

APPENDIX A

This graph, from the World Economic Forum, highlights the Global Gender Gap Index in contrast to its four subindexes, which determine its value. A Y-Axis value of zero equals inequality, and an X-Axis value of one equals equality. The Education Subindex is much higher than the Economic Subindex, as illustrated by the current environment in the United States—more women are in college than men, yet they are still earning less in their post-graduate careers. This difference indicates a need for a higher Economic Subindex to raise the Global Gender Gap Index.

 

Many people lost their manufacturing jobs to robots, but will the same thing happen with trucks?

Trucking is the backbone of the U.S. and international supply chain, delivering and exporting nearly 13 billion tons of finished and unfinished goods from factories overseas to doorsteps across America and vice versa. The next step in trucking — taking drivers out of the equation — will yield cheaper consumer goods and safety but could cause unemployment for well over three million people.

U.S. Department of Transportation

Uber has been investing in self-driving technology since launching their Advanced Technologies Group in 2015 out of Pittsburgh. While most companies are still focused on autonomous cars, Uber has started developing autonomous trucks in their division Otto.

One of their competitors, a startup called Embark, just received series A funding for $17 million. Embark has partnered with trucking manufacturer Peterbilt, which will undoubtedly give them a leg up against other self-driving truck companies.

Google has also entered the self-driving truck sphere too with Waymo, its autonomous driving division. Google sued Uber for taking its proprietary laser systems that they used for self-driving capabilities. A former manager at Waymo illegally downloaded information that he used to found Otto.

Google’s self-driving truck

These three self-driving competitors could threaten nearly two million jobs according to an Obama era White House report, though no one can really say when that will happen and many disagree on a time frame. 

The industry is dominated by white males with an average age of 45. Around 95 percent of people who work in the industry are male and 75 percent are white. That matches up surprisingly well with the rest of the U.S., which is 77 percent white. So therefore, most people who drive trucks in the US, and who could also be displaced by automation, make up a large majority of the population. If trucking were to ever be completely automated in anyway a large portion of the workforce will go away and have trouble finding another line of work.  

Some experts including economic sociology lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, Steve Viscelli, disagree with the dire estimates some people, like the White House, are floating.  

“There’s a dichotomy of it’s either never gonna happen is one response or it’s going to happen and we’re going to lose 3 million trucking jobs,” Viscelli said. He admits it’s hard to tell with tight-lipped Silicon Valley executives.

Still, based on the research he’s done for his book, The Big Rig, which explores how long-haul trucking has declined recently, there are many obstacles that these companies need to surmount before automation can replace jobs.

The mechanization of non-driving movement, the one thing that truck drivers have over automation, is a problem that has to be solved if big rig automation will take over the human element, Viscelli said. Port to warehouse and/or store trips will likely happen sooner as there are less tedious steps in between. In those direct routes, all the truck has to do is drive.

But for places that don’t have easily accessible loading docks or none at all and have variables that aren’t taken accounted for in the computer, trucking companies will still need humans to drive. There are other tasks that truck drivers do — opening and closing doors, inspecting the truck, performing ad hoc maintenance and driving in narrow city streets filled with pedestrians — that a robot simply can’t do and won’t be able to do any time soon on a large scale.

Viscelli estimates that real labor disruption won’t take place for at least three to ten years.

Mapping roads in a way that is compatible with these trucks is yet another problem. Google claims that they have mapped 99 percent of public roads in the United States, as of 2014. But, that’s only including public roads. There are just over four million miles of paved roads in America, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Even if that is only including public roads, they haven’t covered around 40 thousand miles of roads, or 8 round trips from L.A. to Miami. A massive investment of time is required to make sure maps provide a good enough base to automate with.

Viscelli said basic sensor limitations hold back trucking as well. Most light detection and ranging (LIDAR) systems in use on these prototype trucks can only see at three to four hundred feet. Driving at 55 miles per hour, it will take over 400 feet to stop a truck with an air brake system according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Waymo’s truck also uses ultrasonic sensors and radar.

Integrating and processing nearly 6 million data points every few seconds from different sensors requires a lot of computational power and technical computer programming, also adding to the time it will take for these trucks to be pervasive on the road.

In an economic sense, the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t make sense yet. It will cost more to total a truck due and possibly kill people on the road due to faulty automation programming or equipment.

Jerry Lake, who runs a trucking business with his son and wife out of small-town Montrose, Colorado, says the variables that he faces daily on the road are hard for a machine to predict. He’s been driving trucks, on and off for 51 years, that’s 72 percent of his life.

“In this situation there are lives at stake with traffic around a self-driving truck,” Lake said. “I have a problem with all the variables you run into — accidents and weather — that the truck can react in time and the drivers can’t always do that either.”

One of the hardest difficulties for these trucks to overcome is visibility on the spectrum of white. Though Waymo, Embark and Otto trucks have omni-directional cameras, they have trouble determining if what’s in front of it is snow, fog or a white trailer, according to Lake, though they also use ultrasonic and radar to see object. A human would be much better at judging what visibility conditions are like.

Lake transports fuel around the Colorado foothills for Shell and used to transport jet fuel for the Montrose airport. He said it wouldn’t make sense for him to ever consider buying a self driving truck to add to his small fleet of two. Most of the driving he and his son do are off the interstate, between Montrose and Grand Junction, about 65 miles one way. Conditions on those roads harder to predict.  

Trucking jobs, though at risk like they have never been before, will still exist for a very long period of time. Regional trucking is still important; artificial intelligence would have trouble keeping up with a combined 70 years of driving experience in Lake’s company. In their promotional video, Otto still has truckers taking over once the truck gets off of the interstate, and many current drivers think that it will be human and machine working together.

But those who are employed in large trucking companies, contracted out by even larger multinational corporations, are the ones who can lose as they look to replace more people with automation to keep costs low. Keeping costs low will translate to lower prices in the store for consumers, but at the expense of a large portion of the population being unemployed and failing to reach their productive capacity.

Manufacturing jobs are an important point of comparison as they were the first sector to make use of automation. The first automation technology was installed by General Motors in their factory in 1961. Since the 1980s, the manufacturing sector has lost a lot of jobs. It went from around 19 million to its lowest point at 11 and a half million in 2010, likely in part due to the Great Recession.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Even more, a study by the National bureau of Economic Research, showed that one robot per 1,000 people could reduce the employment to population ratio by as much as 0.34 percentage points and reduce wages by as much as 0.5 percent. The graph above still shows a resurgence in jobs, but it will likely never go back to that 20 million number.  

For trucking, it illustrates that while automation could cause job loss, humans are still needed in some capacity to fix things when they break down and monitor them for safety. Automation may even reduce the sleep-deprivation that many truckers have by allowing them to sleep more on straight stretches of road without having to stop.

There’s still many obstacles these companies need to overcome before they can put these machines on the road. That includes the people that drive trucks as they will likely get in the way of any legislation that would legalize self-driving trucks with their livelihoods on the line. So for now, truck drivers will not face drastic unemployment, and may not for a long time because the human element can react better than any robot can. They could be on the road in three years or longer than 10 — it’s almost impossible to predict.

Lake still doesn’t see any benefits from automating trucking because for him it wouldn’t accomplish much.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea period to even be developing these trucks” he said. “I don’t even know what the advantage is or what they are trying to accomplish other than the fact that they can do it. Then you’re taking jobs away from people in America.”

The New American Monopolies

When was the last time you used a search engine other than Google? When was the last time you bought a book online from somewhere other than Amazon?

You probably can’t think of a time because Amazon and Google essentially have monopolies over their respective corners of the internet. While we might notice how are choice of airline or cable company is extremely limited, we recognize less the monopolistic qualities of these internet giants.

Just because Google and Amazon don’t look like what we picture a monopoly to be it doesn’t mean they don’t have monopoly power.

A Brief History of Antitrust in the United States

In order to look at whether these tech giants have monopoly power we need to look historically at the laws designed to prevent this kind of power.

The United States Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1980 in an effort to prevent companies from having monopolies that stifle competition, harm consumers or raise prices. The Sherman Act along with the subsequent Federal Trade Commission Act and Clayton Act are the core of American antitrust law.

These antitrust regulations were enforced fairly aggressively by the Justice Department from the 1930s until the 1960s. Then came Robert Bork, the Yale Law professor and supreme court nominee. Bork argued that the main concern of regulator should be solely if prices for the consumer were dropping. His ideas became the policy of the US Department of Justice when he became solicitor general under Richard Nixon and they have remained the mindset of the government until today. Bork’s ideas on antitrust are at the center of American antirust regulation enforcement. His influence is the reason why there has been a decline in antitrust regulation enforcement over the last 50 years.

In Move Fast and Break Things Jonathan Taplin argues that Amazon, Google and Facebook would all be prosecuted under antitrust laws if it weren’t for Bork.

Are Google and Amazon Monopolies?   

When you think of a monopoly Google or Amazon are probably not what you picture. You might think of the oil and steel barons of the late 19th and early 20th century or the telecomm monopoly AT&T once had. Or you might even think of the board game Monopoly.

Unlike the traditional monopolies, Google and Amazon lack a tangible product. They don’t have physical control over all production of steel or ownership of all phone lines. With Google or Amazon there isn’t anyone and anything standing in the way of someone creating a new search engine or e-book market. Their businesses lie within cyberspace they aren’t necessarily tangible. In a way, they have a monopoly of eyes. They have majority control over the platforms people use to consumer information of buy things online. They have a monopoly of users.

Legally, The Supreme Court of the United States has defined monopoly power as “the power to control prices or exclude competition,” this definition also includes an assumption that the company has a majority market share. Using this legal definition as a guide let’s see if Amazon and Google have monopoly power.

Amazon and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, have many different aspects of their businesses. Therefore, we will only look at one part of each of company. For Google, we will look at search and search for advertising. For Amazon, we will be analyzing the e-book market.

86% of all e-book sales in the United States occurred on Amazon in 2016, according to Authors Earnings’ February 2017 report. Amazon clearly has majority market power. They have the ability to control prices or even stop all books from a publisher from being sold on Amazon. Since they are the largest marketplace for e-books it would be detrimental for a publisher if their books were not sold on Amazon.

In 2014, Amazon and Hachette, a publisher, were in a dispute over pricing Amazon stopped all presales of Hachette books and caused shipping delays. In this case Amazon was exhibiting more monopsony qualities, when one buyer controls a market, because through their control of the distribution of books they are the largest buyer of books. Since Amazon is the largest book, online and print, seller Hachette was forced to bend to Amazon’s will. Hachette was ultimately able to win a little and in the resulting deal with Amazon was able to gain more control over how their e-books are priced on Amazon. As a whole because Amazon occupies such a dominant share of the e-book market its sheer dominance allows it to set prices.

Source: Stat Counter

Google, like Amazon with their sector, holds a large majority of the search market. According to Stats Counter, in September 2017 Google had an 85% market share of internet search in the United States. Google overwhelming dominates the search market This means they are also able to have market power over search advertising. Alphabet and Facebook essentially have a duopoly over all online advertisings with more the 60% of all internet ad revenue, according to an analysis by Reuters of their quarterly reports.

Google has such control over the search market that it excludes all other competitors. Even if some other search engine all of a sudden became a better search engine they wouldn’t be able to succeed because Google has control over the search engine market.

Further proof of the market consolidation of the search market is the Hergindhal-Hirschman Index (HHI) score, which measures the concentration in a particular market. Antirust agencies consider a market with a score of 2,500 to be highly concentrated. The search market has a score of 7,402, off the charts.

While Google and Amazon may not look like what we picture a monopoly to be the exemplify all the qualities of monopoly power.

Are These Monopolies Good?

Google and Amazon essentially have monopoly power over their respective corners of the internet market, but is this power a bad thing?

For the consumer Amazon’s immense control over the e-book market looks like a good thing because it produces lower prices. Bork would argue that Amazon’s monopoly power is a good thing because it lowers prices for consumers. However, the Bork line of thought fails to consider is possible effects of a monopoly power beyond the price consumers pay. As we saw with the Amazon-Hatchett dispute of 2014, Amazon has the ability to undermine the supply chain of e-books. There might be positive effects for the consumer, but Amazon’s power can harm publishers and authors.

Monopoly power can also lead to a stagnation in innovation. If a company does not have another company with the potential to compete with them there is no motivation to innovate. If you have such a large market share there is no incentive or need to innovate to get new users or to maintain your exciting user base.

For example, even if Bing had a substantially better product it would still barley make a dent in Google’s user base. It wouldn’t lead to Google to innovate as well, because their market power is so large and strong. Without competition, users lose out on getting better products and futures.

An example of the positive results of having a competition can be seen with Facebook and Snapchat. Facebook is the most successful and popular social media platform, but Snapchat has had a growing user base and also the love of investors. Facebook tried to buy Snapchat for $3 Billion, but Snapchat turned them down. By not consolidating Facebook and its subsidiaries, including Instagram, became a competitor of Snapchat. Facebook felt like it had to compete. This has led to each company having to innovate.

Instagram Story

Snapchat Story

Facebook chose to basically copy Snapchat’s features as their method of innovation to try and protect their existing user base. Meanwhile, Snapchat is trying to develop new features to draw more users in. An example of this is Snapchat and Instagram stories. Instagram introducing stories was clearly an attempt to copy Snapchat stories, but in order differentiate themselves from Snapchat Instagram had to try and create a better version of stories. While Instagram stories was more of a cloning than an innovation it was still Instagram having to develop new features to be competitive. In the end though, it seems like Facebook’s cloning of Snapchat features has just allowed them to gain more market power. Currently Snapchat has the largest share of new users, but their share of new users is shrinking and Instagram’s is growing. Overall, this competition between Facebook and Snapchat benefits the consumer.

How to Deal with These Monopolies

Those who align with Robert Bork would argue that there is no need to break up Amazon or Google, because the prices for consumers are not being raised. In the case of Google there was never even a price paid by consumer.

But as we explored there are downsides to these monopolies, so what should we do about them? Are our antitrust laws from over a century ago built to regulate companies with products the bills’ author could have never imagined?

Jonathan Taplin has purposed a series of possible ways to break up or regulate digital monopolies like Amazon and Google. In a New York Times opinion piece, he laid out three possible regulatory options: option one is to block the major digital players from acquiring each other. Another possibility is to treat them like public utilities—which would require them to license out their patents. Or a third option would be to remove the “safe harbor” clause from the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which according to Taplin allows companies “to free ride on the content produced by others.”

Actually, breaking portions of these new monopolies would require the Justice Department to return to its pre-Bork hardline position on antitrust. So maybe the best way to deal with these tech monopolies is to institute some creative regulations to curtail some of the more negative effects of their monopoly power.

Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/14/technology/amazon-hachette-ebook-dispute.html

http://fortune.com/2017/07/28/google-facebook-digital-advertising/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2013/11/13/facebook-wouldve-bought-snapchat-for-3-billion-in-cash-heres-why/#45529df343de

https://www.recode.net/2017/9/19/16308788/snapchat-instagram-sign-ups-new-users-us-global