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Archive for November 2016

Books to make you think this summer

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It’s – finally! – summer again. After three winters in a row, Helanya and I are looking forward to some sun, sea and sand (and watermelon, and ice-cold beer, and cricket on the tele, and litchis, and did I mention sun?). And what better way to enjoy summer than with excellent local and international books, fiction and non-fiction to make you think. Here’s what I’m recommending for those long, lazy days on the beach:

2016book1Nomavenda Mathiane’s excellent Eyes in the Night tells the true story of the life and times of the author’s grandmother, Gogo Makhoba. Apart from the title (I don’t quite understand the relevance), the book is an eye-opener on a neglected part of South African history: the tale of a young girl’s adventures during and after the Anglo-Zulu war of the late nineteenth century. It is an incredible story of resilience in the face of almost unthinkable atrocities. And yet, with the author resisting the urge for melodrama, grandmother okaMakhoba and her experiences of running from the English Redcoats, working in the household of the horrible Oubaas, and then running away to Zulu missionaries who convert her to Christianity, complicates our often oversimplified version of history. Who stole land, and at what cost? How did Christianity affect Zulu traditions? What are the differences between township and traditional Zulu culture? It is good to be reminded that history is never black and white. Through her grandmother’s extraordinary life, Mathiane gives South Africans a vibrant picture of our own interconnectedness and, for lack of a better word, complicatedness. Eyes in the Night is a book I enjoyed thoroughly and is my book of the summer.

2016book2Deon Meyer is a household name, and not only in South Africa. Yet his stories are as South African as they come. He has produced another gem with Koors (as far as I can see, still only available in Afrikaans). What happens when 95% of humanity is wiped out by a deadly virus? How do we rebuild civilization? How do societies develop? Yes, this is the fictional story of a young South African boy and his dad trying to survive the aftermath of a deadly virus, but it is more than that: it is a philosophical reflection on the roots of development. What role for specialisation, for trade, for politics, for religion in the creation of societies, and how do these interact as these societies become more complex over time? (Sidenote: political economists familiar with the literature on stationary and roving bandits would particularly enjoy this. If I have to be critical, I would have liked to see more economics – for example, the birth of currency in this post-apocalyptic world, or the emergence of debt and credit, although I guess these are less sexier topics.) Combine this fascinating setting with a murder plot and you’ve got a book that is much like all his others: unputdownable. And I promise: you won’t be able to predict the twist at the end…


I’ve just started Richard Baldwin’s The Great Convergence, but have seen enough to recommend it. Globalization is not popular, yet it continues to lift many out of poverty. Baldwin’s clear analysis of an increasingly complicated phenomenon helps us understand how the the cost of moving goods, ideas and people has shaped, and will continue to shape our economies – and politics. Richard Evans is a historian I greatly admire, and he seems to have produced a wonderful new account of the nineteenth-century in Europe: The Pursuit of Power. (Sidenote: I also love the cover.) The Information Nexus presents an intruiging new thesis that explains the rise of capitalism not so much as an accumulation of capital but instead as an improvement in our ability to record and process information.


Johan Norberg (great name) shows why we should be a little less despondent about the events of 2016: the world is still a much better one than the one of we inhabited a decade or five decades earlier. One way to summarise the book: ‘200 000 people were lifted out of poverty yesterday’ is a newspaper headline that could have appeared every single day the last decade. Donker Stroom is an award-winning true story of an Afrikaner writer and poet and his adventures in England during the Anglo-Boer War. Still unread, but it comes highly recommended.

I will post a couple of my Finweek columns over the next few weeks, but this will be the last personalised blog post for the year. Thanks again for continuing to read, and share my posts: I appreciate all the feedback and support (and criticisms) I receive.

2016 has been a tough year in many respects. Let’s hope 2017 will be filled with happy surprises.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 29, 2016 at 14:06

How Uber makes the world a better place

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The first thing students are taught in any introductory microeconomics course is that the price of something, let’s say chauffeur services, and the quantity of it that consumers want is depicted by a negative-sloping demand curve. The difference between what consumers are willing to pay for a chauffeur ride (the demand curve) and what the chauffeur asks (the market price), is what is known as the consumer surplus. The bigger the consumer surplus, the better for society.

But even though the idea of consumer surplus is used in many applications, measuring it has always been problematic. That is because, in the real world, demand and supply move together, and it is therefore difficult to establish the exact shape of a demand curve.

That was, until Uber. A team of economists (including Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame) recently published an NBER Working Paper that uses almost 50 million UberX ‘consumer sessions’ to identify a demand curve for taxi services, and then calculate the consumer surplus that these services generate. A ‘consumer session’ is basically when someone logs onto the UberX app and requests the price for a proposed trip. The consumer either accepts the price and wait for an Uber driver to pick them up, or they don’t, and find alternative transport.

What makes Uber unique is that its prices vary according to demand (for its services) and supply (the availability of drivers). This unfortunately also means that it is not possible to simply calculate a demand curve when the price increases by 10%, because the increase might be the result not of greater demand by consumers for Uber trips, but of lower supply (having fewer drivers on the route). The research team use a clever trick to get around this. Say the algorithm predicts that the price must increase by 1.249. This is then rounded down to 1.2 for the consumer. Other times the algorithm suggests the price must increase by 1.251, but the app then rounds this up to 1.3. It is this discrete difference when the price is essentially the same which the authors exploit using regression discontinuity analysis.

uber_advertIf this sounds very geeky, the results are worth the wait. First, the authors find that demand is quite inelastic (around 0.5). This means that if prices increase by 10%, demand will only fall by 5%. Second, they compute the dollar value of consumer surplus in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco to be roughly $2.8 billion annually. This is more than six times Uber’s revenue in those cities. Put another way, for each $1 spent on an UberX ride at the lowest price, the authors estimate that the consumer ‘receives’ $1.57 in extra surplus. In short, Uber generates massive benefits for society-at-large.

Why does Uber generate so much consumer surplus compared to normal taxi operators? Another NBER Working Paper, written by Judd Cramer and Alan Krueger, suggests that it is because of the higher capacity utilisation rate of Uber drivers: “UberX drivers spend a significantly higher fraction of their time, and drive a substantially higher share of miles, with a passenger in their car than do taxi drivers.” There are four reasons for this. First, Uber’s better matching technology (an app that anyone can download on their phones). Second, the larger scale of Uber’s usage in comparison to taxi companies. Third, highly inefficient taxi regulations which limit the number of routes or time periods taxi drivers can operate. Fourth, Uber’s flexible labour supply model and pricing model which match supply with demand.

South African regulators have had varied responses to Uber’s entrance in the local market. There has been opposition from the taxi industry, sometimes violent. Proponents of Uber, on the other hand, often highlight the entrepreneurial and job-creating opportunities the service creates.

What this research shows, though, is that Uber’s main benefit is the massive surplus it generates for consumers. According to the Levitt research team, one day’s worth of consumer surplus in the four US cities they analyse is worth about $18 million. “If Uber were to unexpectedly disappear for a day, that is how much consumers would lose in surplus.”

Aside from this consumer surplus, Uber services create many positive externalities, from lower congestion and pollution levels to semi-skilled employment to, perhaps more tenuously, greater social interaction and cohesion – I’ve had some fascinating conversations with Uber drivers, and know of one driver that was offered a scholarship by a client. But, most importantly, when regulators and policy-makers debate the pros and cons of Uber and other such services that will almost certainly appear in the next few years, it is worth remembering one of the basic principles of introductory economics: the immense benefits society derives from the additional consumer surplus.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 20 October.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 23, 2016 at 08:56

How long-distance flights are good for business

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When, a few weeks ago, Tim Harris, CEO of the Western Cape’s investment and trade promotion agency Wesgro, claimed that Cape Town’s business community is likely to benefit from five new routes and four expansions at Cape Town International Airport, I was doubtful. Sure, the four new routes – which include British Airways flying three times a week to Gatwick, Lufthansa to Frankfurt three times a week, Kenya Airways to Nairobi and Livingston, as well as an Airlink route to Maun in Botswana – is great for tourism. But it was unlikely, I imagined, to stimulate sustainable investment in the city.

That is, until I read a new study investigating the impact of international long-distance flights on local economic development. The authors, Filipe Campante of Harvard’s Kennedy School and David Yanagizawa-Drott of the University of Zurich, use a fantastically innovative approach to identify a causal link between long-distance flights to a city and that city’s economic growth. They go one step further by identifying the reason for this growth impact: more flights result in a higher frequency of business links that generate investment.

So how do they do this? Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott exploit the fact that cities that are just under 6000 miles apart are distinctly more likely to have direct air links, as compared to cities slightly above that threshold. This is because of regulations that make flights longer than 12 hours much more expensive. Consider, for example, flights between Milan and Shanghai (5650 miles) and Madrid and Shanghai (6350). The first route between Milan and Shanghai opened in 2003; the route between Madrid and Shanghai only opened this year. The authors show that, globally, city pairs with more likely connections (below 6000 miles) do indeed have more connections than pairs just above 6000 miles.

But does this matter for economic growth, and if so, how? First, using satellite-measured night lights, the authors show that areas close to airports with connections just below the 6000-mile threshold grew faster between 1992 and 2010 than those with connections above the threshold. They also show that this is not just displacement of economic activity from elsewhere in the city. Second, long-distance connections increase a city’s desirability for other connections, increasing the amount of medium-distance connections and the overall quality of air links. Third, long-distance connections are good for business. The authors geolocate over half-a-million foreign-owned companies all over the world, as well as their owners. They show that in cities with direct connections, there are likely to be far stronger business links: for instance, they find over three times as many ownership links between Milan and Shanghai as between Madrid and Shanghai.

These effects are sizable. Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott estimate that a given increase in connections generates about a similar proportional increase in ownership links. “The evidence suggests that most of this increase constitutes capital flowing from relatively richer to relatively poorer countries: three-quarters of the increase in business connections could be attributed to companies in high-income countries owning companies in in middle-income ones, and a quarter in the opposite direction.” The lesson is that the movement of people leads to the movement of capital. Expect more investment in Cape Town from entrepreneurs in London and Frankfurt.

Such research also raises uncomfortable questions. Even if a route is unprofitable for a carrier, the benefit of having that route to a city’s business community and society-at-large, especially in the long run, may justify government support. Is there perhaps justification for a national carrier like South African Airways to fly to long-haul destinations like Rio de Janeiro, Beijing or Atlanta, even if these routes are unprofitable, with support from taxpayers? I would hesitate to go this far, but it does suggest that cities should do everything they can to attract long-distance flights. This can include anything from offering hospitality services to tired crew members to expanding the capacity of the airport (or even commissioning the construction of a new one).

Over the last century, the cost of human travel has fallen significantly. This has connected the world, allowing the movement of people and capital to destinations where they are likely to have the largest impact. Cities that have been disconnected have lost out; those with more frequent long-distance flights have benefited most. The good news for South Africa is that the barriers of the 6000 mile limit and air regulations have less impact now than it did in the past; the bad news is that, because these things matter less, competition from other long-distance destinations will increase. Let’s hope policy-makers in our big cities – people like CEO Tim Harris – are up for the challenge.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 6 October.