Legonomics: there's money in them bricks

Your childhood was more expensive than you remember.

Tyler Cowen links to an interesting post looking at the economics of Lego. The bulk of the post is a hefty, data-filled look at how Lego is actually much the same price as it always has been:

The general trend seems to be that at least in the last couple decades, LEGO has not gotten any more expensive. Let’s next look a little closer into the price of a brick since 1990.

Figure 5 The price per piece of LEGO since 1990 – Adjusted for inflation

Average Real Price Per Piece 1990-2012

From what our data shows, it seems that the notion that LEGO is increasing in price is false at least in regards to the last couple decades. Since around 2006, the average price of a piece of LEGO has remained relatively stable between 10 and 13 cents apiece.

But the best part is the short discussion at the bottom of the post about the secondary market for Lego:

On the website BrickLink you can find almost any set that LEGO has ever produced. In addition, the site keeps records of trends in the market and value of individual pieces. This site is invaluable to a LEGO collector and has given many the ability to grow their collections. Before the advent of this site and sites like eBay, collecting LEGO required going to garage sales. There are now whole sites dedicated to buying LEGO as an investment, but that is a topic for another article.

If someone is going to do a data analysis of the lego market, this is the one I'd like to see. I'd be particularly interested to find out if there are any arbitrage opportunities left in the Lego world. While the prices of individual second-hand bricks vary wildly, the prices of complete sets are relatively stable, being set by Lego rather than the aggregation of thousands of Lego collectors. That means that it may be possible to buy up sets of Lego, break them up, and sell them for a profit on BrickLink. But, of course, the minute anyone realises that, the value of the pieces will plummet due to oversupply…

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR