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Posts Tagged ‘risk’

Hurricanes and the social rate of discount

With first Houston, then several Caribbean islands and Florida suffering dreadful flooding and destruction from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many are questioning whether more should be spent on flood prevention and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Economists would normally argue that such questions are answered by conducting a cost–benefit analysis.

However, even if the size of the costs and benefits of such policies could be measured, this would not be enough to give the answer. Whether such spending is justified would depend on the social rate of discount. But what the rate should be in cost-benefit analyses is a highly contested issue, especially when the benefits occur a long time in the future.

I you ask the question today, ‘should more have been spent on flood prevention in Houston and Miami?’, the answer would almost certainly be yes, even if the decision had to have been taken many years ago, given the time it takes to plan and construct such defences. But if you asked people, say, 15 years ago whether such expenditure should be undertaken, many would have said no, given that the protection would be provided quite a long time in the future. Also many people back then would doubt that the defences would be necessary and many would not be planning to live there indefinitely.

This is the familiar problem of people valuing costs and benefits in the future less than costs and benefits occurring today. To account for this, costs and benefits in the future are discounted by an annual rate to reduce them to a present value.

But with costs and benefits occurring a long time in the future, especially from measures to reduce carbon emissions, the present value is very sensitive to the rate of discount chosen. But choosing the rate of discount is fraught with difficulties.

Some argue that a social rate of discount should be similar to long-term market rates. But market rates reflect only the current generation’s private preferences. They do not reflect the costs and benefits to future generations. A social rate of discount that did take their interests into account would be much lower and could even be argued to be zero – or negative with a growing population.

Against this, however, has to be set the possibility that future generations will be richer than the current one and will therefore value a dollar (or any other currency) less than today’s generation.

However, it is also likely, if the trend of recent decades is to continue, that economic growth will be largely confined to the rich and that the poor will be little better off, if at all. And it is the poor who often suffer the most from natural disasters. Just look, for example, at the much higher personal devastation suffered from hurricane Irma by the poor on many Caribbean islands compared with those in comparatively wealthy Florida.

A low or zero discount rate would make many environmental projects socially profitable, even though they would not be with a higher rate. The choice of rate is thus crucial to the welfare of future generations who are likely to bear the brunt of climate change.

But just how should the social rate of discount be chosen? The following two articles explore the issue.

Articles
How Much Is the Future Worth? Slate, Will Oremus (1/9/17)
Climate changes the debate: The impact of demographics on long-term discount rates Vox, Eli P Fenichel, Matthew Kotchen and Ethan T Addicott (20/8/17)

Questions

  1. What is meant by the social rate of discount?
  2. Why does the choice of a lower rate of social discount imply a more aggressive climate policy?
  3. How is the distribution of the benefits and costs of measures to reduce carbon emissions between rich and poor relevant in choosing the social rate of discount of such measures?
  4. How is the distribution of the benefits of such measures between current and future generations relevant in choosing the rate?
  5. How is uncertainty about the magnitude of the costs and benefits relevant in choosing the rate?
  6. What is the difference between Stern’s and Nordhaus’ analyses of the choice of social discount rate?
  7. Explain and discuss the ‘mortality-based approach’ to estimating social discount rates.
  8. What are the arguments ‘for economists analysing climate change through the lens of minimising risk, rather than maximizing utility’?
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Interest rates – too low, for too long?

Interest rates have been at record lows across the developed world since 2009. Interest rates were reduced to such levels in order to stimulate recovery from the financial crisis of 2007–8 and the resulting recession. The low interest rates were accompanied by extraordinary increases in money supply under various rounds of quantitative easing in the USA, UK, Japan and eventually the eurozone. But have such policies done harm?

This is the contention of Brian Sturgess in a new paper, published by the Centre for Policy Studies. He maintains that the policy has had a number of adverse effects:

 •  There will be nothing left in the monetary policy armoury when the next downturn occurs other than even more QE, which will compound the following problems.
 •  It has had little effect in stimulating aggregate demand and economic growth. Instead the extra money has been used to repair balance sheets and support unprofitable businesses.
 •  It has inflated asset prices, especially shares and property, which has encouraged funds to flow to the secondary market rather than to funding new investment.
 •  The inflation of asset prices has benefited the already wealthy.
 •  By keeping interest rates down to virtually zero on savings accounts, it has punished small savers.
 •  By rewarding the rich and penalising small savers, it has contributed to greater inequality.
 •  By keeping interest rates down to borrowers, it has encouraged households to take on excessive amounts of debt, which will be hard to service if interest rates rise.
 •  It has lowered the price of risk, thereby encouraging more risky types of investment and the general misallocation of capital.

Sturgess argues that it is time to end the policy of low interest rates. Currently, in all the major developed economies, central bank rates are below the rate of inflation, making the real central bank interest rates negative.

He welcomes the two small increases by the Federal Reserve, but this should be followed by further rises, not just by the Fed, but by other central banks too. As Sturgess states in the paper (p.12):

In place of ever more extreme descents into the unknown, central banks should quickly renormalise monetary policy. That would involve ending QE and allowing interest rates to rise steadily so that interest rates can carry out their proper functions. Failure to do so will leave the global financial system vulnerable to potential shocks such as the failure of the euro, or the fiscal stresses in the US resulting from the unfinanced spending plans announced by Donald Trump in his presidential campaign.

Although Sturgess argues that the initial programmes of low interest rates and QE were a useful response to the financial crisis, he argues that they should have only been used as a short-term measure. However, if they were, and if interest rates had gone up within a few months, many argue that the global economy would rapidly have sunk back into recession. This has certainly been the position of central banks. Sturgess disagrees.

Articles
Damaging low interest rates and QE must end now, think thank warns The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (23/1/17)
QE has driven pension deficits up, think-tank argues Money Marketing, Justin Cash (23/1/17)
Hold: The ECB keeps interest rates and QE purchases steady as Mario Draghi defends loose policy from hawkish critics City A.M., Jasper Jolly (19/1/17)
Preparing for the Post-QE World Bloomberg, Jean-Michel Paul (12/10/16)

Paper
Stop Depending on the Kindness of Strangers: Low interest rates and the Global Economy Centre for Policy Studies, Brian Sturgess (23/1/17)

Questions

  1. Find out what the various rounds of quantitative easing have been in the USA, the UK, Japan and the eurozone.
  2. What are the arguments in favour of quantitative easing as it has been practised?
  3. How might interest rates close to zero result in the misallocation of capital?
  4. Sturgess claims that the existence of ‘spillover’ effects has had damaging effects on many emerging economies. What are these spillover effects and what damage have they done to such economies?
  5. How do low interest rates affect interest rate spreads?
  6. Have pensioners gained or lost from QE? Explain how the answer may vary between different pensioners.
  7. What is meant by a ‘natural’ or ‘neutral’ rate of interest (see section 3.2 in the paper)? Why, according to Janet Yellen (currently Federal Reserve Chair, writing in 2005), is this somewhere between 3.5% and 5.5% (in nominal terms)?
  8. What are the arguments for and against using created money to finance programmes of government infrastructure investment?
  9. Would helicopter money be more effective than QE via asset purchases in achieving faster economic growth? (See the blog posts: A flawed model of monetary policy and New UK monetary policy measures – somewhat short of the kitchen sink.)
  10. When QE comes to an end in various countries, what are the arguments for absorbing rather than selling the assets purchased by central banks? (See the Bloomberg article.)
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Has QE stimulated or dampened investment?

It is now some seven years since the financial crisis and nearly seven years since interest rates in the USA, the eurozone, the UK and elsewhere have been close to zero. But have these record low interest rates and the bouts of quantitative easing that have accompanied them resulted in higher or lower investment than would otherwise have been the case? There has been a big argument about that recently.

According to conventional economic theory, investment is inversely related to the rate of interest: the lower the rate of interest, the higher the level of investment. In other words, the demand-for-investment curve is downward sloping with respect to the rate of interest. It is true that in recent years investment has been low, but that, according to traditional theory, is the result of a leftward shift in demand thanks to low confidence, not to quantitative easing and low interest rates.

In a recent article, however, Michael Spence (of New York University and a 2001 Nobel Laureate) and Kevin Warsh (of Stanford University and a former Fed governor) challenge this conventional wisdom. According to them, QE and the accompanying low interest rates led to a rise in asset prices, including shares and property, rather than to investment in the real economy. The reasons, they argue, are that investors have seen good short-term returns on financial assets but much greater uncertainty over investment in physical capital. Returns to investment in physical capital tend to be much longer term; and in the post-financial crisis era, the long term is much less certain, especially if the Fed and other central banks start to raise interest rates again.

“We believe that QE has redirected capital from the real domestic economy to financial assets at home and abroad. In this environment, it is hard to criticize companies that choose ‘shareholder friendly’ share buybacks over investment in a new factory. But public policy shouldn’t bias investments to paper assets over investments in the real economy.”

This analysis has been challenged by several eminent economists, including Larry Summers, Harvard Economics professor and former Treasury Secretary. He criticises them for confusing correlation (low investment coinciding with low interest rates) with causation. As Summers states:

“This is a little like discovering a positive correlation between oncologists and cancer and asserting that this proves oncologists cause cancer. One would expect in a weak recovery that investment would be weak and monetary policy easy. Correlation does not prove causation. …If, as Spence and Warsh assert, QE has raised stock prices, this should tilt the balance toward real investment.”

Not surprisingly Spence and Warsh have an answer to this criticism. They maintain that their critique is less of low interest rates but rather of the form that QE has taken, which has directed new money into the purchase of financial assets. This then has driven further asset purchases, much of it by companies, despite high price/earnings ratios (i.e. high share prices relative to dividends). As they say:

“Economic theory might have something to learn from recent empirical data, and from promising new thinking in behavioral economics.”

Study the arguments of both sides and try to assess their validity, both theoretically and in the light of evidence.

Articles
The Fed Has Hurt Business Investment The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (26/10/15) [Note: if you can't see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
I just read the ‘most confused’ critique of the Fed this yea Washington Past, Lawrence H. Summers (28/10/15)
A Little Humility, Please, Mr. Summers The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (4/11/15) [Note: if you can't see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
Do ultra-low interest rates really damage growth? The Economist (12/11/15)
It’s the Zero Bound Yield Curve, Stupid! Janus Capital, William H Gross (3/11/15)
Is QE Bad for Business Investment? No Way! RealTime Economic Issues Watch, Joseph E. Gagnon (28/10/15)
Department of “Huh!?!?”: QE Has Retarded Business Investment!? Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Brad DeLong (27/10/15)
LARRY SUMMERS: The Wall Street Journal published the ‘single most confused analysis’ of the Fed I’ve read this year Business Insider, Myles Udland (29/10/15)
The Fed’s Loose Money, Financial Markets and Business Investment SBE Council, Raymond J. Keating (29/10/15)
How the QE trillions missed their mark AFR Weekend, Maximilian Walsh (4/11/15)
Financial Markets In The Era Of Bubble Finance – Irreversibly Broken And Dysfunctional David Stockman’s Contra Corner, Doug Noland (8/11/15)

Questions

  1. Go through the arguments of Spence and Warsh and explain them.
  2. Explain what are meant by the ‘yield curve’ and ‘zero bound yield curve’.
  3. What criticisms of their arguments are made by Summers and others?
  4. Apart from the effects of QE, why else have long-term interest rates been low?
  5. In the light of the arguments on both sides, how effective do you feel that QE has been?
  6. How could QE have been made more effective?
  7. What is likely to happen to financial markets over the coming months? What effect is this likely to have on the real economy?
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The risks of fossil fuel investment

Many UK coal mines closed in the 1970s and 80s. Coal extraction was too expensive in the UK to compete with cheap imported coal and many consumers were switching away from coal to cleaner fuels. Today many shale oil producers in the USA are finding that extraction has become unprofitable with oil prices having fallen by some 50% since mid-2014 (see A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2) and The price of oil in 2015 and beyond). So is it a bad idea to invest in fossil fuel production? Could such assets become unusable – what is known as ‘stranded assets‘?

In a speech on 3 March 2015, Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world, delivered at an insurance conference, Paul Fisher, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, warned that a switch to both renewable sources of energy and actions to save energy could hit investors in fossil fuel companies.

‘One live risk right now is of insurers investing in assets that could be left ‘stranded’ by policy changes which limit the use of fossil fuels. As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.

… As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.’

Much of the known reserves of fossil fuels could not be used if climate change targets are to be met. And investment in the search for new reserves would be of little value unless they were very cheap to extract. But will climate change targets be met? That is hard to predict and depends on international political agreements and implementation, combined with technological developments in fields such as clean-burn technologies, carbon capture and renewable energy. The scale of these developments is uncertain. As Paul Fisher said in his speech:

‘Tomorrow’s world inevitably brings change. Some changes can be forecast, or guessed by extrapolating from what we know today. But there are, inevitably, the unknown unknowns which will help shape the future. … As an ex-forecaster I can tell you confidently that the only thing we can be certain of is that there will be changes that no one will predict.’

The following articles look at the speech and at the financial risks of fossil fuel investment. The Guardian article also provides links to some useful resources.

Articles
Bank of England warns of huge financial risk from fossil fuel investments The Guardian, Damian Carrington (3/3/15)
PRA warns insurers on fossil fuel assets Insurance Asset Risk (3/3/15)
Energy trends changing investment dynamics UPI, Daniel J. Graeber (3/3/15)

Speech
Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world Bank of England, Paul Fisher (3/3/15)

Questions

  1. What factors are taken into account by investors in fossil fuel assets?
  2. Why might a power station become a ‘stranded asset’?
  3. How is game theory relevant in understanding the process of climate change negotiations and the outcomes of such negotiations?
  4. What social functions are filled by insurance?
  5. Why does climate change impact on insurers on both sides of their balance sheets?
  6. What is the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)? What is its purpose?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘unknown unknowns’. How do they differ from ‘known unknowns’?
  8. How do the arguments in the article and the speech relate to the controversy about investing in fracking in the UK?
  9. Explain and comment on the statement by World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, that sooner rather than later, financial regulators must address the systemic risk associated with carbon-intensive activities in their economies.
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Pensioner hazard

In his Budget on March 19, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced fundamental changes to the way people access their pensions. Previously, many people with pension savings were forced to buy an annuity. These pay a set amount of income per month from retirement for the remainder of a person’s life.

But, with annuity rates (along with other interest rates) being at historically low levels, many pensioners have struggled to make ends meet. Even those whose pension pots did not require them to buy an annuity were limited in the amount they could withdraw each year unless they had other guaranteed income of over £20,000.

Now pensioners will no longer be required to buy an annuity and they will have much greater flexibility in accessing their pensions. As the Treasury website states:

This means that people can choose how they access their defined contribution pension savings; for example they could take all their pension savings as a lump sum, draw them down over time, or buy an annuity.

While many have greeted the news as a liberation of the pensions market, there is also the worry that this has created a moral hazard. When people retire, will they be tempted to blow their savings on foreign travel, a new car or other luxuries? And then, when their pension pot has dwindled and their health is failing, will they then be forced to rely on the state to fund their care?

But even if pensioners resist the urge to go on an immediate spending spree, there are still large risks in giving people the freedom to spend their pension savings as they choose. As the Scotsman article below states:

The risks are all too obvious. Behaviour will change. People who no longer have to buy an annuity will not do so but will then be left with a pile of cash. What to do with it? Spend it? Invest it? There are many new risky choices. But the biggest of all can be summed up in one fact: when we retire our life expectancy continues to grow. For every day we live after 65 it increases by six and a half hours. That’s right – an extra two-and-a-half years every decade.

The glory of an annuity is it pays you an income for every year you live – no matter how long. The problem with cash is that it runs out. Already the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that the reform ‘depends on highly uncertain behavioural assumptions about when people take the money’. And that ‘there is a market failure here. There will be losers from this policy’.

We do not have perfect knowledge about how long we will live or even how long we can be expected to live given our circumstances. Many people are likely to suffer from a form of myopia that makes them blind to the future: “We’re likely to be dead before the money has run out”; or “Let’s enjoy ourselves now while we still can”; or “We’ll worry about the future when it comes”.

The point is that there are various market failings in the market for pensions and savings. Will the decisions of the Chancellor have made them better or worse?

Articles
Pension shakeup in budget leaves £14bn annuities industry reeling The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (20/3/14)
Chancellor vows to scrap compulsory annuities in pensions overhaul The Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Harriet Meyer (19/3/14)
Labour backs principle of George Osborne’s pension shakeup The Guardian, Rowena Mason (23/3/14)
Osborne’s pensions overhaul may mean there is little left for future rainy days The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/3/14)
Let’s celebrate the Chancellor’s bravery on pensions – now perhaps the Government can tackle other mighty vested interests Independent on Sunday, Mary Dejevsky (23/3/14)
A vote-buying Budget The Scotsman, John McTernan (21/3/14)
L&G warns on mis-selling risks of pension changes The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (26/3/14)
Budget 2014: Pension firms stabilise after £5 billion sell off Interactive Investor, Ceri Jones (20/3/14)

Budget publications
Budget 2014: pensions and saving policies Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: documents HM Treasury (March 2014)
Freedom and choice in pensions HM Treasury (March 2014)

Questions

  1. What market failures are there in the market for pensions?
  2. To what extent will the new measures help to tackle the existing market failures in the pension industry?
  3. Explain the concept of moral hazard. To what extent will the new pension arrangements create a moral hazard?
  4. Who will be the losers from the new arrangements?
  5. Assume that you have a choice of how much to pay into a pension scheme. What is likely to determine how much you will choose to pay?
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Flooding the insurance market

Britain has faced some its worst ever weather, with thousands of homes flooded once again, though the total number of flooded households has fallen compared to previous floods. However, for many households, it is just more of the same – if you’ve been flooded once, you’re likely to be flooded again and hence insurance against flooding is essential. But, if you’re an insurance company, do you really want to provide cover to a house that you can almost guarantee will flood?

The government has pledged thousands to help households and businesses recover from the damage left by the floods and David Cameron’s latest step has been to urge insurance companies to deal with claims for flood damage as fast as possible. He has not, however, said anything regarding ‘premium holidays’ for flood victims.

The problem is that the premium you are charged depends on many factors and one key aspect is the likelihood of making a claim. The more likely the claim, the higher the premium. If a household has previous experience of flooding, the insurance company will know that there is a greater likelihood of flooding occurring again and thus the premium will be increased to reflect this greater risk. There have been concerns that some particularly vulnerable home-owners will be unable to find or afford home insurance.

The key thing with insurance is that in order for it to be provided privately, certain conditions must hold. The probability of the event occurring must be less than 1 – insurance companies will not insure against certainty. The probability of the event must be known on aggregate to allow insurance companies to calculate premiums. Probabilities must be independent – if one person makes a claim, it should not increase the likelihood of others making claims.

Finally, there should be no adverse selection or moral hazard, both of which derive from asymmetric information. The former occurs where the person taking out the insurance can hide information from the company (i.e. that they are a bad risk) and the latter occurs when the person taking out insurance changes their behaviour once they are insured. Only if these conditions hold or there are easy solutions will the private market provide insurance.

On the demand-side, consumers must be willing to pay for insurance, which provides them with protection against certain contingencies: in this case against the cost of flood damage. Given the choice, rational consumers will only take out an insurance policy if they believe that the value they get from the certainty of knowing they are covered exceeds the cost of paying the insurance premium. However, if the private market fails to offer insurance, because of failures on the supply-side, there will be major gaps in coverage.

Furthermore, even if insurance policies are offered to those at most risk of flooding, the premiums charged by the insurance companies must be high enough to cover the cost of flood damage. For some homeowners, these premiums may be unaffordable, again leading to gaps in coverage.

Perhaps here there is a growing role for the government and we have seen proposals for a government-backed flood insurance scheme for high-risk properties due to start in 2015. However, a loop hole may mean that wealthy homeowners pay a levy for it, but are not able to benefit from the cheaper premiums, as they are deemed to be able to afford higher premiums. This could see many homes in the Somerset Levels being left out of this scheme, despite households being underwater for months. There is also a further role for government here and that is more investment in flood defences. If that occurs though, where will the money come from? The following articles consider flooding and the problem of insurance.

Insurers urged to process flood claims quickly BBC News (17/2/14)
Flood area defences put on hold by government funding cuts The Guardian, Damian Carrington and Rajeev Syal (17/2/14)
Flooding: 200,000 houses at risk of being uninsurable The Telegraph (31/1/12)
Govt flood insurance plan ‘will not work’ Sky News (14/2/14)
Have we learned our lessons on flooding? BBC News, Roger Harrabin (14/2/14)
ABI refuses to renew statement of principles for flood insurance Insurance Age, Emmanuel Kenning (31/1/12)
Wealthy will have to pay more for flood insurance but won’t be covered because their houses are too expensive Mail Online, James Chapman (7/2/14)
Buyers need ‘flood ratings’ on all houses, Aviva Chief warns The Telegraph, James Quinn (15/2/14)
Wealthy homeowners won’t be helped by flood insurance scheme The Telegraph(11/2/14)
Costly insurance ‘will create flood-risk ghettos and £4.3tn fall in house values’ The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (12/2/14)
Leashold homes face flood insurance risk Financial Times, Alistair Gray (10/2/14)

Questions

  1. Consider the market for insurance against flood damage. Are risks less than one? Explain your answer.
  2. Explain whether or not the risk of flooding is independent.
  3. Are the problems of moral hazard and adverse selection relevant in the case of home insurance against flood damage?
  4. To what extent is the proposed government-backed flood insurance an equitable scheme? Should the government be stepping in to provide insurance itself?
  5. Should there be greater regulation when houses are sold to provide better information about the risk of flooding?
  6. Why if the concept of opportunity cost relevant here?
  7. How might household values be affected by recent floods, in light of the issues with insurance?
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Zero-hours contracts: the ultimate flexible labour market?

Despite the prolonged stagnation in the UK, unemployment has not soared. In fact, over the past two years the ILO unemployment rate (see here for a definition) has fallen slightly – from 8.6% in October 2011 to around 8.0% today. What is more, the claimant count rate is considerably lower than the ILO rate – at around 4.4%.

Part of the reason for the relatively good unemployment figures is the rise in ‘zero-hours contracts’. These allow employers to cut the hours that people work without laying them off. The Office for National Statistics estimates that last year (2012) 250,000 people, or 0.84% of the workforce, were on such contracts.

But just what is meant by ‘zero-hours contracts’? According to the ONS:

People on zero-hours contracts are classified as being in employment regardless of the number of hours they actually worked during the survey reference week. This includes anyone who was not required to work any hours during the reference week whilst remaining on their current contract of employment. The continued existence of the contract of employment is the key determinant of their employment status in these situations.

If people are working less than they would like to, this is classified as underemployment, but such people do not appear in the unemployment statistics. Such contracts thus mask the true extent of surplus labour in the economy.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) puts the figure much higher than the ONS. In the Summer 2013 issue of its Labour Market Outlook, it estimates that one million workers are on zero-hours contracts.

Many employers use such contracts, including many voluntary-sector and public-sector organisations, including the NHS, local councils and Buckingham Palace. They are also used by many small and medium-sized enterprises and many well-known large companies, such as Sports Direct, Amazon, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld. It gives them the flexibility to adjust the hours they employ people. It allows them to keep people in employment when demand is low. It also makes them more willing to take on staff when demand rises, as it removes the fear of being over-staffed if demand then falls back.

But many workers dislike such contracts, which give them fewer employment rights and fewer hours than they would like to work. It also makes it difficult to budget when future income is uncertain. It also make credit and mortgages harder to obtain, as people have no guaranteed income. Another complaint is that companies may use the threat of lower hours as a tool to bully staff and get away with poorer working conditions.

In May of this year, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, announced that he was setting up a review of zero hours contracts.

Note that zero hours are not the only form of flexible working. Other examples include: ‘self-employed’ workers, contracted separately for each job they do for a company; people paid largely or wholly on commission; on-call working; part-time working, where the hours are specified in advance, but where these are periodically re-negotiated; overtime; people producing a product or service for a company (perhaps at home), where the company varies the amount paid per unit according to market conditions.

The following videos and articles look at the issue in some detail: at the extent of the practice and at its benefits to employers and its costs (and some benefits) to workers. Both The Guardian and the BBC have an extensive range of articles on the topic.

Webcasts
Do zero hours contracts create real jobs? BBC Newsnight, Allegra Stratton (14/8/12)
Record number of ‘Zero Hours Contracts’ ITV News on YouTube, Laura Kuenssberg (2/5/13)
Britons rally against ‘Zero Hour’ contracts Al Jazeera on YouTube (4/8/13)
Anger at Amazon working conditions Channel 4 News (1/8/13)
Government to include Amazon in its zero hours probe Channel 4 News (2/8/13)
Councils using zero hours contracts BBC London, Warren Nettleford (31/7/13)

Podcasts
The real economy: Labour market BBC Today Programme, Evan Davis (24/8/11)
Zero hour contracts ‘just the norm’ BBC Today Programme, Rochelle Monte and Peter Cheese (5/8/13)

Articles
Zero-hours contracts: One million British workers could be affected Independent, Nigel Morris (5/8/13)
Zero hours contracts “spreading like wildfire”, official stats show Union News, Pete Murray (1/8/13)
Zero-hours contracts: what are they? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (30/7/13)
Buckingham Palace uses zero-hours contracts for summer staff The Guardian, Simon Neville, Matthew Taylor and Phillip Inman (30/7/13)
Nick Clegg: business department will investigate zero-hours contracts The Guardian,
Patrick Wintour, Simon Neville, Matthew Taylor and Phillip Inman (31/7/13)
Zero-hours contracts are not unavoidable The Guardian, Phillip Inman (1/8/13)
ONS admits it underestimated number of zero-hours contracts The Guardian, Simon Neville (1/8/13)
Zero-hours contract workers – the new reserve army of labour? The Guardian, Philip Inman (4/8/13)
Zero-hours contracts cover more than 1m UK workers The Guardian, Simon Goodley and Phillip Inman (5/8/13)
Zero-hours contracts use by councils needs to be moderated The Guardian, Vidhya Alakeson (5/8/13)
If zero-hours contracts are driving this ‘recovery’, it’s a lousy kind of recover The Guardian, Deborah Orr (9/8/13)
ONS increases its estimate of workers on zero hours contracts Financial Times, John Aglionby (1/8/13)
Zero Hours Herald Scotland, Ian Bell and Scott Dickson (4/8/13)
Sports Direct protests planned over zero hours contracts Channel 4 News (3/8/13)
Cable warns of exploitation of zero-hours contracts BBC News (5/8/13)
Q&A: What are zero-hours contracts? BBC News (5/8/13)
Record number of 16-24s on zero hours contracts at work BBC Newsbeat, Jim Reed (15/5/13)
Figures show 18-24s most likely on zero-hours contract BBC Newsbeat, Jim Reed and Amelia Butterly (5/8/13)
Andy Burnham calls for ban on zero hours contracts BBC News (28/4/13)
Zero-hours contracts: What is it like living on one? BBC News, Sean Clare (5/8/13)
Small Talk: Zero-hours contracts? Key for growth Independent, David Prosser (5/8/13)
Zero Hour Contracts Manchester based law firm, Emma Cross (30/7/13)

Data
People and proportion in employment on a zero-hour contract ONS (31/7/13)
Estimating Zero-Hour Contracts from the Labour Force Survey ONS (26/7/13)
One million workers on zero hours contracts, finds CIPD study CIPD, Michelle Stevens (5/8/13)
Labour Market Outlook CIPD

Questions

  1. Distinguish between open unemployment, disguised unemployment and underemployment?
  2. Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility? Which type or types of flexibility do zero-hours contracts give the firm?
  3. Identify the various benefits to employers of zero-hours contracts?
  4. What are the costs and benefits to workers of such contracts?
  5. Identify what forms of flexible contracts are used for staff in your university or educational establishment. Do they benefit (a) staff; (b) students?
  6. Are zero-hours contracts fair?
  7. In what ways do zero-hours contracts transfer risks from employers to employees?
  8. If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
  9. From the perspective of the employer, how do the benefits of zero-hours contracts compare with other forms of flexible working?
  10. Consider the arguments for and against (a) banning and (b) regulating zero-hours contracts.
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The London Olympics legacy: a cost–benefit analysis

Did the benefits of the London Olympics outweigh the costs? The government’s UK Trade and Industry (part of the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills) has just published a report, London 2012, Delivering the economic legacy, which itemises the economic benefits of the games one year on. It claims that benefits to date are some £9.9 billion.

This compares with costs, estimated to be somewhere between £8.9 billion and £9.3 billion, although this figure does not include certain other costs, such as maintenance of the stadium. Nevertheless, according to the figures, even after just a year, it would seem that the Games had ‘made a profit’ – just.

The £9.9 billion of benefits consist of £5.9 billion of additional sales, £2.5 billion of additional inward investment and £1.5 billion of Olympic-related high value opportunities won overseas. Most of these can be seen as monetary external benefits: in other words, monetary benefits arising from spin-offs from the Games. The ‘internal’ monetary benefits would be largely the revenues from the ticket sales.

In a separate report for the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, Report 5: Post-Games Evaluation, it has been estimated that the total net benefits (net gross value added (GVA)) from 2004 to 2020 will be between £28 billion and £41 billion.

But benefits are not confined just to internal and external monetary benefits: there are also other externalities that are non-monetary. The Culture, Media & Sport report identified a number of these non-monetary externalities. The Summary Report itemises them. They include:

• The health and social benefits of more people participating in sport
• Inspiring a generation of children and young people
• A catalyst for improved elite sporting performance in the UK
• Setting new standards for sustainability
• Improved attitudes to disability and new opportunities for disabled people to participate in society
• Greater social cohesion as communities across the UK engaged with the Games
• Increased enthusiasm for volunteering
• Accelerated physical transformation of East London
• Beneficial socio-economic change in East London
• Important lessons learned for the co-ordination and delivery of other large-scale public and public/private projects

But with any cost–benefit analysis there are important caveats in interpreting the figures. First there may be monetary and non-monetary external costs. For example, will all the effects on social attitudes be positive? Might greater competitiveness in sport generate less tolerance towards non sporty people? Might people expect disabled people to do more than they are able (see)? Second, the costs generally precede the benefits. This then raises the question of what is the appropriate discount rate to reduce future benefits to a present value.

Perhaps the most serious question is that of the quantification of benefits. It is important that only benefits that can be attributed to the Games are counted and not benefits that would have occurred anyway, even if connected to the Games. For example, it is claimed in the UK Trade & Industry report that much of the Olympic park and stadium for the Winter Olympics in Russia was “designed and built by British businesses”. But was this the direct result of the London Olympics, or would this have happened anyway?

Another example is that any inward investment by any company that attended the London Olympics is counted in the £2.5 billion of additional inward investment (part of the £9.9 billion). As the London Evening Standard article below states:

In London, it credited the Games with helping seal the deal for the £1.2 billion investment in the Royal Albert Docks by Chinese developer ABP, the £1 billion investment in Croydon by Australian shopping centre developer Westfield with UK firm Hammerson and the £700 million investment in Battersea Nine Elms by Dalian Wander Group.

It is highly likely that some or all of these would have gone ahead anyway.

Then there are the £5.9 billion of additional sales. These are by companies which engaged with the Olympics. But again, many of these sales could have taken place anyway, or may have displaced other sales.

Many cost–benefit analyses (or simply ‘benefit analyses’) concern projects where there are strong vested interests in demonstrating that a project should or should not go ahead or, in this case, have gone ahead. The more powerful the vested interests, the less likely it is that the analysis can be seen as objective.

Webcasts and Podcasts
Have Olympics and Paralympics really boosted trade? Channel 4 News, Jackie Long (19/7/13)
Economy boosted by Olympics Sky Sports News, Amy Lewis (19/7/13)
Olympic investment boost to last decade – Cable BBC News (19/7/13)
Did the UK gain from the Olympics? BBC Today Programme (19/7/13)

Articles
Government announces almost £10bn economic boost from London 2012 Specification Online (19/7/13)
Olympic Legacy Boosted Economy By £10bn, Government Insists The Huffington Post (19/7/13)
Olympics are delivering economic gold but volunteering legacy is at risk The Telegraph, Tim Ross (19/7/13)
Vince Cable: Case for HS2 still being made The Telegraph, Christopher Hope and Tim Ross (19/7/13)
Olympic legacy ‘gave London a £4bn windfall’ London Evening Standard, Nicholas Cecil and Matthew Beard (19/7/13)
London 2012 Olympics ‘have boosted UK economy by £9.9bn’ BBC News (19/7/13)
The great Olympic stimulus BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (19/7/13)
London Olympics still costing the taxpayer one year on Sky Sports (19/7/13)
Mayor missed long-term London Olympic jobs targets, says report BBC News, Tim Donovan (19/7/13)
Olympics legacy: Have the London 2012 Games helped Team GB develop a winning habit? Independent, Robin Scott-Elliot (19/7/13)
London 2012 added up to more than pounds and pence The Guardian, Zoe Williams (19/7/13)

Government Reports
London 2012 – Delivering the economic legacy UK Trade & Investment (19/7/13)
London 2012: Delivering the economic legacy UK Trade & Investment (19/7/13)
Report 5: Post-Games Evaluation: Summary Report Department for Culture, Media & Sport (July 2013)
Report 5: Post-Games Evaluation: Economy Evidence Base Department for Culture, Media & Sport (July 2013)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between gross and net benefits; monetary and non-monetary externalities; direct costs (or benefits) and external costs (or benefits).
  2. How should the discount rate be chosen for a cost–benefit analysis?
  3. Give some examples of monetary and non-monetary external costs of the Games.
  4. What are the arguments for and against including non-monetary externalities in a cost–benefit analysis?
  5. Why might the £9.9 billion figure for the monetary benefits of the Games up to the present time be questioned?
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The capital adequacy of UK banks

The Prudential Regulation Authority is the new UK authority in charge of banking regulation and is part of the Bank of England. In a report published on 20/6/13, the PRA found that UK banks had a capital shortfall of £27.1 billion (see Chart 1 below for details) if they were to meet the 7% common equity tier 1 (CET1) ratio: one of the capital adequacy ratios (CARs) specified under the Basel III rules (see Rebuilding UK banks: not easy to do and Chart 2 below).

CET1 includes bank reserves and ordinary share capital (‘equities’). To derive the CET1 ratio, CET1 is expressed as a percentage of risk-weighted assets. As Economics for Business (6th ed) page 467 states:

Risk-weighted assets are the total value of assets, where each type of asset is multiplied by a risk factor. …Cash and government bonds have a risk factor of zero and are thus not included. Inter-bank lending between the major banks has a risk factor of 0.2 and is thus included at only 20 per cent of its value; residential mortgages have a risk factor of 0.35; personal loans, credit-card debt and overdrafts have a risk factor of 1; loans to companies carry a risk factor of 0.2, 0.5, 1 or 1.5, depending on the credit rating of the company. Thus the greater the average risk factor of a bank’s assets, the greater will be the value of its risk weighted assets, and the lower will be its CAR.

The data published by the PRA, based on end-2012 figures, show that the RBS group is responsible for around 50% of the capital shortfall, the Lloyds Banking Group around 32%, Barclays around 11%, the Co-operative around 5.5% and Nationwide the remaining 1.5%. HSBC, Santander and Standard Chartered met the 7% requirement. The PRA found that banks already were taking measures to raise £13.7bn, but this still leaves them requiring an additional £13.4 for current levels of lending.

So what can the banks do? They must either raise additional capital (the numerator in the CAR) or reduce their risk-weighted assets (the denominator). Banks hope to be able to raise additional capital. For example, Lloyds is planning to sell government securities and US mortgage-backed securities and hopes to have a CET1 ratio of around 10% by the end of 2013. Generally, the banks aim to raise the required level of capital through income generation, the sale of assets and restructuring, rather than from issuing new shares.

What both the Bank of England and the government hope is that banks do not respond by reducing lending. While that might enable them to meet the 7% ratio, it would have an undesirable dampening effect on the economy – just at a time when it is hoped that the economy is starting to recover. As Robert Peston states:

I understand that both Barclays and Nationwide feel a bit miffed about being forced to hit this tough so-called leverage ratio at this juncture, because they are rare in that they have been supporting economic recovery by increasing their net lending.

They now feel they are being penalised for doing what the government wants. So I would expect there to be something of a spat between government and regulators about all this.

Articles
Factbox – Capital shortfalls for five UK banks, mutuals Standard Chartered News (20/6/13)
UK banks ordered to plug £27.1bn capital shortfall The Guardian, Jill Treanor (20/6/13)
Barclays, Co-op, Nationwide, RBS and Lloyds responsible for higher-than-expected capital shortfall of £27.1bn The Telegraph, Harry Wilson (20/6/13)
UK banks need to plug £27bn capital hole, says PRA BBC News (20/6/13)
Barclays and Nationwide forced to strengthen BBC News, Robert Peston (20/6/13)
Five Banks Must Raise $21 Billion in Fresh Capital: BOE Bloomberg, Ben Moshinsky (20/6/13)
Will Nationwide be forced to become a bank? BBC News, Robert Peston (4/7/13)

PRA news release and data
Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) completes capital shortfall exercise with major UK banks and building societies Bank of England: Prudential Regulation Authority (20/6/13)

Questions

  1. Explain what are meant by the various Basel III capital adequacy requirements
  2. What are the banks which were identified as having a capital shortfall doing about it?
  3. Would it be desirable for banks to issue additional shares? Would this make the banks more secure?
  4. Would the raising of additional capital allow additional credit creation to take place? Explain.
  5. What other constraints are there on bank lending?
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Going nuclear

The UK government has just given the go-ahead for the building of two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The contract to build and run the power station will go to EDF, the French energy company.

The power station is estimated to cost some £14 billion to build. It would produce around 7% of the UK’s electricity. Currently the 16 nuclear reactors in the UK produce around 19%. But all except for Sizewell B in Suffolk are due to close by 2023, although the lives of some could be extended. There is thus a considerable energy gap to fill in the coming years.

Several new nuclear power stations were being considered to help fill this gap, but with rising capital costs, especially following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, potential investors pulled out of other negotiations. Hinkley Point is the only proposal left. It’s not surprising that the government wants it to go ahead.

All that remains to agree is the price that EDF can charge for the electricity generated from the power station. This price, known as the ‘strike price’, is a government-guaranteed price over the long term. EDF is seeking a 40-year deal. Some low carbon power stations, such as nuclear and offshore wind and wave power stations, have high capital costs. The idea of the strike price is to reduce the risks of the investment and make it easier for energy companies to estimate the likely return on capital.

But the strike price, which will probably be agreed at around £95 per megawatt hour (MWh), is roughly double the current wholesale price of electricity. EDF want a price of around £100 per MWh, which is estimated to give a return on capital of around 10%. The government was hoping to agree on a price nearer to £80 per MWh. Either way, this will require a huge future subsidy on the electricity generated from the plant.

There are several questions being asked about the deal. Is the strike price worth paying? Are all the costs and benefits properly accounted for, including environmental costs and benefits and safety issues? Being an extremely long-term project, are uncertainties over costs, performance of the plant, future market prices for electricity and the costs of alternative forms of power generation sufficiently accounted for? Will the strike price contravene EU competition law? Is the timescale for construction realistic and what would be the consequences of delays? The articles consider these questions and raise a number of issues in planning very long-term capital projects.

Articles
Hinkley Point: Britain’s second nuclear age given green light as planning permission is approved for first of new generation atomic power stations Independent, Michael McCarthy (19/3/13)
Will they or won’t they? New nuclear hangs in the balance ITV News, Laura Kuenssberg (19/3/13)
Hinkley Point C: deal or no deal for UK nuclear? The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (19/3/13)
New nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point C is approved BBC News (20/3/13)
Britain’s Plans for New Nuclear Plant Approach a Decisive Point, 4 Years Late New York Times, Stanley Reed and Stephen Castle (15/3/13)
Nuclear power plans threatened by European commission investigation The Guardian (14/3/13)
New Hinkley Point nuclear power plant approved by UK government Wired, Ian Steadman (19/3/13)
Renewable energy providers to help bear cost of new UK nuclear reactors The Guardian, Damian Carrington (27/3/13)
Europe backs Hinkley nuclear plant BBC News (8/10/14)

Information/Reports/Journal Articles
Environmental permitting of Hinkley Point C Environment Agency
NNB Generation Company Limited, Radioactive Substances Regulations, Environmental Permit Application for Hinkley Point C: Chapter 7, Demonstration of Environmental Optimisation EDF
Greenhouse Gas Emission of European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) Nuclear Power Plant Technology: A Life Cycle Approach Journal of Sustainable Energy & Environment 2, J. Kunakemakorn, P. Wongsuchoto, P. Pavasant, N. Laosiripojana (2011)

Questions

  1. Compare the relative benefits of a construction subsidy and a subsidised high strike price from the perspectives of (a) the government (b) EDF.
  2. What positive and negative externalities are involved in nuclear power generation?
  3. What difficulties are there in valuing these externalities?
  4. What is meant by catastrophic risk? Why is this difficult to take account of in any cost–benefit analysis?
  5. What is meant by a project’s return on capital? Explain how discounted cash flow techniques are used to estimate this return.
  6. What should be taken into account in deciding the rate of discount to use?
  7. How should the extra jobs during construction of the plant and then in the running of the plant be valued when making the decisions about whether to go ahead?
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