Ask an Economist

E.g., Sunday, September 20, 2020
E.g., Sunday, September 20, 2020
Question:
Please advise my going to become an economist. I was an average mathematics major as an undergraduate with a G.P.A. of 3.19 overall with a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics. I have about the average IQ for economists, but I know nothing about economics. Now that I am 41 this year, I am thinking of starting anew in a brand new area of applied mathematics. Is this advisable this late in life to switch careers from mathematics to economics given that the two share a common bond in mathematical economics and are theoretical in microeconomics?

Would the transition be better if I pursued pure mathematics instead, because my experiences has been lately in proof making? What can I look forward to? How and what should I be looking into, to start off, if economics is a good choice? I am a highly curious person. Plus, I have worked hard, I have been doing pure mathematics on my own since 2004 until presently; but, it has been slow going; so, I thought that by going into something that has a better return in investments of my intellectual energy, I should try microeconomics?
Answer:

The prospect of a mid-life career change would be daunting for anyone.  In the end, you’ll have to make that difficult decision on your own.  But I can give you a few tips on how you might begin to explore whether a career in economics...

Question:
A commodity (let's say a vegetable like squash or tomato) that is grown in Mexico and transported to the US and is being sold at 1.29/lb.
After about a month when the commodity has less than 2 weeks of shelf life it may be sold at .69/lb and then discarded after another week.

1) Why would the store not further discount these items at let's say .30/lb to clear the complete stock? ( I understand it is so as not to let the global/US prices of the commodity go down.)
2) Is wasting better for the store than to sell it at a discount?
3) Even if customers stop buying fresh commodity and start to wait until the price goes down to .30/lb. Isn't it economically profitable to the store to actually sell it than waste it ?

Thanks
Answer:

Food waste arises from preferences, incentives, and constraints. Retailers have time and other resource constraints which implies that it simply will not be worth it to sell every last item of food in every instance. It can be said that there is...

Question:
Hi there,

Okay, so this is going to be a really stupid question but I need to know the answer to this. There is a message board about collecting video games and we got into a argument about the definition of the word "rarity." With these games, we all know the exact amount of copies printed for each title. Say Game A has 2000 copies printed and Game B has 5000 copies printed. Assuming that no copies are lost or destroyed, Game A will always be rarer, correct? Someone else is arguing that the availability of copies on the secondary market changes this.

If Game A has 20 copies available on the marketplace right now and Game B only has 2 copies, would Game B be considered to be rarer overall? At that moment in time, sure, but overall, I would say no. Is either of us correct? Would the monetary value of the game on the secondary market change the definition of rarity? Thanks for your time!
Answer:

In the strictest (or standard) sense of the word, you would be correct that game A is “rarer,” given that there are fewer of these in existence than game B. However, the other person is not totally wrong because, in the words of economists, the “...

Question:
Because of QE, the money supply has increased substantially since 2008. Why aren't we seeing more inflation?
Answer:

As noted, the Federal Reserve has significantly expanded its balance sheet from about $800 billion prior to the Financial Crisis, to roughly $4.5 trillion as of November, 2014. The Fed expanded its balance sheet by buying long-term assets and...

Question:
My friend is buying a new cable internet modem so he can quite leasing one from the cable provider. We both currently have a DOCSIS 3.0 modems which support speeds up to 400 Mbps. We both currently subscribe to internet service of less than 200 Mbps, so we're not even using the full capability of the modems now.

Currently, DOCSIS 3.1 modems are widely-used as they support speeds up to 2 Gbps (5 times the bandwidth of the 3.0 standard). Of course they cost more. In the real-world situation my friend faces, should he pay $117 for the 3.0 modem or $149 for the 3.1 modem?

My argument for 3.1 is this: Modems last a long time. About 7 years ago, I had subscribed to faster internet service and was only receiving about 1/3 the bandwidth I was paying for. I learned that I needed a modem that supported the faster speed. After research, I learned I needed a 3.0 modem (the current standard at the time). I bought the new modem and instantly experienced the significantly faster internet I was paying for. I've had my current modem for seven years (and I'll upgrade to 3.1 if I ever subscribe to gigabit service). Even at a life expectancy of 7 years the difference is 38 cents per month.

In many regions, gigabit internet is becoming standard. In the next several years, I anticipate that gigabit will be the default service offered by providers. If you have a 3.0 modem, you effectively will only be able to harness up to 40% of the capacity you're subscribed to.

His argument for 3.0 modem is this: He's had 75 Mbps internet service for years now and he's fine. He lives alone (38 year old male). He claims he is certain he won't partner with anyone. He says he will never need more than 400 Mbps anyways. If he ends up with gigabit service and can only use 40% of it, it won't matter.

Answer:

Individual consumers have different preferences and information, which guide those individuals to choose what is best for themselves.  Your friend seems quite determined that he will not use faster internet even if gigabit service were to be...

Question:
I recently read a story about China stockpiling commodities.
https://www.agriculture.com/news/business/doud-china-is-stockpiling-world-s-grain-supplies

Mr Doud, the chief agricultural negotiator for the U.S. trade representative, has put out statistics saying that China has been stockpiling large amounts of the world’s residual supplies of grains and other commodities and says that stockpiling these commodities is “depressing prices for every other farmer across the globe,”. But why would stockpiling lead to depressing prices? It would seem to me that taking residual commodities off the market (stockpiling) would have the opposite effect; that it would create greater competition for the remaining supplies, which would lead to higher prices.
Answer:

The impact of stockpiling commodities on prices depends on the timeframe. While the stockpiling is occurring, your reasoning is accurate. The stockpiling is removing supplies from the market, creating more intense competition for the remaining...

Question:
Can a market failure occur when there is a high amount of risk within the market leading producers and consumers to avoid the market?
Answer:

To answer this question, it is critical to agree on the definition of "market failure." In what follows, by "market failure" we will mean a situation where a free market fails to provide an efficient allocation of goods and services (i.e., risk...

Question:
At the risk of sounding like a socialist, I wanted to ask about potential economic potential of a maximum wage. Sweden tried it with a 12:1 ratio, failed sadly, but I wondered if a less extreme idea would be viable. Say 100 times the minimum wage is the most anyone could earn in gross taxable wages. I'd probably say it would be fair to exclude athletes and entertainment industries. It would be a hard sell for congress so this is purely a theoretical question. Short of how the CEOs would feel, what is the viability and potential impact on the economy?
Answer:

I am not sure there is any deep reason why a government would want to set a cap on wages. What purpose would it serve, other than to curb income inequality by lopping off the top rungs of the ladder? If that is desirable, then there may be other...

Question:
I have been thinking about open market operations that the federal reserve performs to control the money supply and I have a question that I do not fully understand and it is bothering me. An answer to this question will be really appreciated.

Question: Let’s say that if the central bank is keeping the base money at 6% of the GDP then as the GDP expands then the central bank will also have to increase the money supply to keep it at 6% of the GDP. In that case the central bank will perform open market operations to pump extra money in the economy by buying treasury bills. Some of those treasury bills that central bank has on its balance sheet will mature and the central bank will have to replenish those by buying new treasury bills to keep the money supply constant at 6% GDP. So as the economy grows larger and larger, the central bank will be holding more and more treasury bills on its balance sheet and will have to conduct more and more open market operations to replenish the maturing treasury bills? Does that also imply that in an ideal world with no recession and constant GDP growth the central bank will always increase its balance sheet and the balance sheet of the central bank will not go down? Also, if the federal debt is paid off somehow then the central bank cannot use the treasury bill for open market operations so will they use some other type of instruments such as etfs to conduct open market operations? Thank you very much.
Answer:

The money supply and the size of the central bank’s balance sheet are closely connected. Currently and historically, the sum of currency and bank reserves (a narrow definition of the money supply) account for almost all of the Fed’s liabilities....

Question:
The way the economy is today, would it be bad if rich countries (US, EU and Japan) print money and instead of doing the QE (top bottom) inserted the money on a bottom up approach? And I know about the risk of inflation, but isn't it what we want right now? A little bit?

1) I'm talking here about rich countries with deflation or very little inflation, so a bit more of extra money in the market wouldn't be bad (it would be up to them to calculate this amount)

2) The money could be give to the poorest in the society. This money would go straight back to the economy since lower classes save very little (usually they spend the extra money or pay debts). So instead of the trickle down economics (which usually doesn't work) we would have a trickle up economics. Australia did it just after the 2008 GFC and it was one of the only developed countries that didn't go into recession. (although it took the money from its budget).

3) The QE amounted in trillions of dollars and not much of this money went to the real economy in terms of investment and the creation of jobs. A lot of it created an inflation of assets such as the growth of the stock market in US, a housing price hike in world cities such as NY, London, Sydney, LA and so on and even Art prices exploded...but not much to the real economy.

4) Corporations don't need more money in the form of tax breaks and cheap loans (they are swimming in cash). They need consumers to consume! So they know they have a market and be confident to invest in new projects. And with the squeeze of the middle class in rich countries, we are not consuming as much as we need to keep the economy growing.

5) I don't know how much money would be enough to kick start (or improve) the economy of Japan, Europe and US without a dangerous inflation but it could be done in 4 installments along the year to the poorest families. Image something like 4 x 200 USD in one year. This money would make a big difference for low-income families and would flood directly to the economy...and companies would know that the money would come and they could prepare themselves.

6) The dollar is pretty strong now and it's becoming a problem for the US and the rest of the world. So printing a bit might not hurt much.

7) A few years ago negative interest rates were seen as something out of this world. But now Japan, Switzerland and Sweden have it. We just need to think out of the box to improve this economy in a more inclusive way....no middle class, no economy and no democracy!

8) Obviously, this wouldn't work with developing countries with weak currencies and inflation...but for US, EU and Japan...why not?
Answer:

There are several issues here. First, the US central bank, the Fed, is an independent monetary authority and does what it thinks best to keep inflation and unemployment low. They cannot be "asked" to print more money or change interest rates....

Question:
Dose any branch of the field of economics have a term for when producers cease to compete at the production level, but continue to compete fiercely in marketing. The example I have in mind for this is the sports shoe industry (Rebok, Nike, Adidas, etc.), where production has been subcontracted to East Asian companies that specialize in finding the lowest cost producers in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc., where the same manufacturer can be in the business of making shoes in the same factory for several companies (Rebok, Nike) at the same. And what precisely are the theoretic conditions that enable this to happen? Are production costs that their absolute lowest so that no production competition is possible?
Answer:

The term you are looking for is product differentiation. This is the name we give to a class of models (most prominently, the Hotelling linear city and Salop circular city models) where firms may have identical production costs and competition is...

Question:
Has the advent of the 401K retirement plan impacted the stock market? It seems to me that the massive flow of cash that must be invested immediately would drive up prices. I understand that prior to 401Ks, retirement plans tended to invest in the host company's stock rather than the general market.
Answer:

In principle, if most companies offering retirement plans switched to 401(k)'s simultaneously and no new stocks were issued (i.e., no change on the supply side of the stock market), I would expect a substantial increase in the stock prices, as...

Question:
In the recent Canadian federal election, the winning Liberal party's platform included running a "small" fiscal deficit of about C$10B each year for 3 years to invest in infrastructure. The commentary about this that most surprised me was this would not increase the accumulated debt, and in fact would still contribute to reducing the debt, albeit more slowly.

Does that make sense? My understanding is that any fiscal year you end up with a deficit means you're borrowing more to make up the shortfall, and thus adding to the accumulated debt. Or are there technical aspects during the year that do otherwise?
Answer:

Given that the standard definition of government spending does not include the repayment of maturing debt, your understanding is correct. In particular, during the three years of running the deficit as planned, the Canadian federal government...

Question:
I was just curious if there was some law or regulation somewhere that stipulated that an insurance company had to be a for profit business? If you had the capital to cover the costs, could you run a insurance company as a npo and funnel profits into a cost sharing fund or something like that?
Answer:

No, there is nothing preventing non-profit organizations from offering insurance. Indeed, this is quite common in health care, with non-profit health insurers accounting for over 60% of health plans with more than 100,000 people enrolled (...

Question:
In news and other articles it often is stated "the cost of something could reach billions" or some such statement. Do these statements mean anything?
Answer:

It means that once the dust has settled, insurance companies have paid out, homes have been rebuilt, infrastructure redone, people have moved out, businesses rebuilt, and so on, the total cost of all that would reach billions. These "billions"...

Question:
Hello. First of all, this idea about answering economic questions is just wonderful and very helpful to simple citizens, but to people like me, too, who are studying economics and want to ask some things. My question has to do with the rate between two currencies. I know the basics but I would like a deeper answer on what it means for the countries the two currencies represent. For example, how can we understand which country is more powerful when we know the rate between their currencies. A few examples, such as with the euro and dollar, would be appreciated in order to understand it better. Thank you in advance!!
Answer:

The rates don’t reflect relative power. For example, 1 UK pound equals about 1.56 USD. That does not at all mean that UK is more powerful. Similarly, a US dollar approximately exchange for 122 Japanese yen currently. By no imagination, it means...

Question:
In light of the current pandemic, and constant feuding about what it means for our economy, I wanted to ask what the best long term solution is for reopening the United States economy. Is it in the best interest of our economy to reopen soon, losing lives, or is minimizing the death in the long term a better economic strategy?
Answer:

In short, we do not know, especially so because nothing like this has hit the US in modern times. The Great Depression was a massive disrupter and devastator but caused ultimately by economic forces from within. This time around, the fundamentals...

Question:
I keep seeing this number used instead of actual dollar numbers. Isn't most government spending a part of GDP? If $1 billion spent on a battleship raises the GDP by $1 billion, doesn't that fatally skew the percentage formula?
Answer:

Let me start by reminding you that GDP is a measure of the total amount of goods and services produced in an economy, say the USA, in a year. So it sums the total value in dollars of everything that has been produced in the country in a given...

Question:
Using the worst case scenario (Illinois), what are the economic implications of underfunded pension plans?
Answer:

The problem of underfunded pension plans is complex. Some possible economic effects are as follows.

1. Plan beneficiaries will suffer economically in retirement unless they are bailed out by taxpayers. Whether and how much to bail them out...

Question:
At what point does it become profitable for the producer of an agricultural good to begin seeking alternative uses to its main product, similar to the way the corn, soy and cotton industries founded boards to research new uses for their product? If this principle has a name, what is it called for further reading on the subject.
Answer:

If the principle has a name, I suppose it would be DIVERSIFICATION.  But, given the inclusion of the words “boards to research new uses for their product”, the questioner may also be asking about how do agricultural industries decide whether...

Question:
In Canada, where I live, there has been much talk lately about the need to build more pipelines to export oil from Alberta. Western Canadian Select (WCS), the benchmark for bitumen from the oil sands, trades at a discounted price compared to higher quality products like West Texas Intermediate (WTI), for example. While the difference in quality accounts for most of the price differential between the two, the rest of the price discount can be explained by export bottlenecks, apparently. Since oil production in Canada exceeds the capacity of existing pipelines to export the oil to refineries in the US, oil producers turn instead to rail companies to export the oil.

1) Why does a transportation bottleneck cause Canadian oil to trade at a discounted price? Is it simply because rail companies have more leverage in this situation, as they have an effective monopsony as a buyer, a.k.a. near-monopoly over transportation? And if that's the case, is the oil sold to the rail company, who is able to negotiate a discounted price at which to purchase the oil from the producer?

I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that rail companies seek to secure long-term contracts with clients, so when oil producers want to use rail services just for the short-term, until new pipelines can be built, rail companies refuse to pay a high price for the commodity being transported (alternatively, rail companies demand a higher fee to transport the commodity). But again, I'm not clear about whether or not rail companies actually purchase the oil and then sell it on to refineries. And if a Canadian rail company does purchase the oil, then the revenue stays in Canada, doesn't it?

2) I have read that rail transport only adds marginal export capacity compared to what's needed, so perhaps the oil producer/rail transaction has a negligible effect on price? If that's true, then I'm really confused.

3) Is it simply just that a transportation bottleneck causes excess oil supply to build up, reducing its market price? But I thought that a bottleneck would equate to less supply, since it can't be exported as quickly, and therefore its market price should rise.
Answer:

Great question!  In general, we don’t need a monopsonistic setting to explain crude differentials between WCS and WTI.  In a competitive market, prices for the same product (oil, corn, etc.) can diverge in different markets for two...

Question:
What would happen if the minimum wage laws were repealed? Would businesses pay their employees a penny an hour?

If raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would be good for the economy, wouldn't raising it to $20 be better? If not, at what point are the good economic effects of a minimum wage outweighed by the bad?
Answer:

If minimum wage laws were repealed, the vast majority of U.S. workers would not have their wages impacted. Through supply and demand, competitive market forces drive up the wage rates of most workers to levels considerably above the current...

Question:
Was it Truman's intention to begin paying down the debt after WW2? If so, what happened to prevent it? And was there any way that the public would have known that the debt was not to be whittled down to the same extent that had always been attempted previously? Was it the result of an announced policy, or simply something that was never gotten around to?
Answer:

To begin with, the premise of this question is somewhat mistaken.  As was true in earlier wars, WW II did cause a large expansion of federal government debt both absolutely and relative to GDP.  Indeed, the debt/GDP ratio reached about...

Question:
What are the major pieces of literature on Agricultural economics as well as the household names when it comes to Agricultural economic research?

I am mathematics major student with an MA in Economics, I am developing an insatiable interest in Agricultural economics and would like to read more on research in this area. I would like to be guided on the body of literature making names in this field.

I will particularly be interested in works that apply econometric techniques using time series econometrics and forecasting, panel data.
Answer:

Handbook of Agricultural Economics

Editors: Bruce L. Gardner and Gordon C. Rausser

Volume 1, Part A, Pages 3-741 (2001)

Agricultural Production

Volume 1, Part B, Pages 745-1209 (2001)

Marketing, Distribution and...

Question:
Why has Saudi Arabia released so much oil for sale that prices for that have dropped so fast? Does that country have a lot of debt? Does it relate indirectly to the economic slow down in China?
Answer:

Currently, Saudi Arabia’s foreign exchange reserve is about $600 billion. Saudi’s oil export is about 8 million barrels per day, or about 2800 million barrels per year. At $100 per barrel, their revenue from oil exports would be about $280...

Pages