It is commonplace to use cost–benefit analysis (CBA) in assessing public policies, such as whether to build a new hospital, road or rail line. Various attempts in the past few months have been made to use CBA in assessing policies to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. These have involved weighing up the costs and benefits of national or local lockdowns or other containment measures. But, as with other areas where CBA is used, there are serious problems of measuring costs and benefits and assessing risks. This is particularly problematic where human life is involved and where a value has to be attached to a life saved or lost.
Take the case of whether the government should have imposed a lockdown: an important question if there were to be a second wave and the government was considering introducing a second lockdown. The first step in a CBA is to identify the benefits and costs of the policy.
Identifying the benefits and costs of the lockdown
The benefits of the lockdown include lives saved and a reduction in suffering, not only for those who otherwise would have caught the virus but also for their family and friends. It also includes lives saved from other diseases whose treatment would have been put (even more) on hold if the pandemic had been allowed to rage and more people were hospitalised with the virus. In material terms, there is the benefit of saving in healthcare and medicines and the saving of labour resources. Then there are the environmental gains from less traffic and polluting activities.
On the cost side, there is the decline in output from businesses being shut and people being furloughed or not being able to find work. There is also a cost from schools being closed and children’s education being compromised. Then there is the personal cost to people of being confined to home, a cost that could be great for those in cramped living conditions or in abusive relationships. Over the longer term, there is a cost from people becoming deskilled and firms not investing – so-called scarring effects. Here there are the direct effects and the multiplier effects on the rest of the economy.
Estimating uncertain outcomes
It is difficult enough identifying all the costs and benefits, but many occur in the future and here there is the problem of estimating the probability of their occurrence and their likely magnitude. Just how many lives will be saved from the policy and just how much will the economy be affected? Epidemiological and economic models can help, but there is a huge degree of uncertainty over predictions made about the spread of the disease and the economic effects, especially over the longer term.
One estimate of the number of lives saved was made by Miles et al. in the NIESR paper linked below. A figure of 440 000 was calculated by subtracting the 60 000 actual excess deaths over the period of the lockdown from a figure of 500 000 lives lost which, according to predictions, would have been the consequence of no lockdown. However, the authors acknowledge that this is likely to be a considerable overestimate because:
It does not account for changes in behaviour that would have occurred without the government lockdown; it does not count future higher deaths from side effects of the lockdown (extra cancer deaths for example); and it does not allow for the fact that some of those ‘saved’ deaths may just have been postponed because when restrictions are eased, and in the absence of a vaccine or of widespread immunity, deaths may pick up again.
Some help in estimating likely outcomes from locking down or not locking down the economy can be gained by comparing countries which have taken different approaches. The final article below compares the approaches in the UK and Sweden. Sweden had much lighter control measures than the UK and did not impose a lockdown. Using comparisons of the two approaches, the authors estimate that some 20 000 lives were saved by the lockdown – considerably less than the 440 000 estimate.
Estimating the value of a human life
To assess whether the saving of 20 000 lives was ‘worth it’, a value would have to be put on a life saved. Although putting a monetary value on a human life may be repugnant to many people, such calculations are made whenever a project is assessed which either saves or costs lives. As we say in the 10th edition of Economics (page 381):
Some people argue ‘You can’t put a price on a human life: life is priceless.’ But just what are they saying here? Are they saying that life has an infinite value? If so, the project must be carried out whatever the costs, and even if other benefits are zero! Clearly, when evaluating lives saved from the project, a value less than infinity must be given.
Other people might argue that human life cannot be treated like other costs and benefits and put into mathematical calculations. But what are these people saying? That the question of lives saved should be excluded from the cost–benefit study? If so, the implication is that life has a zero value! Again this is clearly not the case.
In practice there are two approaches used to measuring the value of a human life.
The first uses the value of a statistical life (VSL). This is based on the amount extra the average person would need to be paid to work in a job where there is a known probability of losing their life. So if people on average needed to be paid an extra £10 000 to work in a job with a 1% chance of losing their life, they would be valuing a life at £1 000 000 (£10 000/0.01). To avoid the obvious problem of young people’s lives being valued the same as old people’s ones, even though a 20 year-old on average will live much longer than a 70 year-old, a more common measure is the value of a statistical life year (VSLY).
A problem with VSL or VSLY measures is that they only take into account the quantity of years of life lost or saved, not the quality.
A second measure rectifies this problem. This is the ‘quality of life adjusted year (QALY)’. This involves giving a value to a year of full health and then reducing it according to how much people’s quality of life is reduced by illness, injury or poverty. The problem with this measure is the moral one that a sick or disabled person’s life is being valued less than the life of a healthy person. But it is usual to make such adjustments when considering medical intervention with limited resources.
One adjustment often made to QALYs or VSLYs is to discount years, so that one year gained would be given the full value and each subsequent year would be discounted by a certain percentage from the previous year – say, 3%. This would give a lower weighting to years in the distant future than years in the near future and hence would reduce the gap in predicted gains from a policy between young and old people.
Given the uncertainties surrounding the measurement of the number of lives saved and the difficulties of assigning a value to them, it is not surprising that the conclusions of a cost–benefit analysis of a lockdown will be contentious. And we have yet to see what the long-term effects on the economy will be. But, at least a cost–benefit analysis of the lockdown can help to inform discussion and help to drive future policy decisions about tackling a second wave, whether internationally, nationally or locally.
- When Does the Cure Become Worse Than the Disease? Applying Cost-Benefit Analysis to the Covid-19 Recovery
Journal of Medical Ethics, blog, Derek Soled, Michelle Bayefsky and Rahul Nayak (19/5/20)
- How much did the Covid-19 lockdown really cost the UK?
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (6/9/20)
- The UK lockdown: Balancing costs against benefits
VoxEU, David Miles (13/7/20)
- How Economists Calculate The Costs And Benefits Of COVID-19 Lockdowns
Forbes, Chris Conover (27/5/20)
- Coronavirus Is Giving Cost-Benefit Analysts Fits
Bloomberg, Cass R. Sunstein (12/5/20)
- “Stay at Home, Protect the National Health Service, Save Lives”: a cost benefit analysis of the lockdown in the United Kingdom
Wiley Online Library, David Miles, Mike Stedman and Adrian Heald (13/8/20)
- COVID-19 is Forcing Economists to Rethink the Value of Life
RealClearPolicy, James Broughel (20/8/20)
- A cost–benefit analysis of the COVID-19 disease
Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Robert Rowthorn and Jan Maciejowski (28/8/20)
- Living with Covid-19: Balancing Costs against Benefits in the Face of the Virus
National Institute Economic Review, vol. 253, David Miles, Mike Stedman and Adrian Heald (28/7/20)
- How Many Lives Has Lockdown Saved in the UK?
medRxiv, Rickard Nyman and Paul Ormerod (21/8/20)
- What are the arguments for and against putting a monetary value on a life saved?
- Are QALYs the best way of measuring lives saved from a policy such as a lockdown?
- If the outcomes of a lockdown are highly uncertain, does this strengthen or weaken the case for a lockdown? Explain.
- What specific problems are there in estimating the number of lives saved by a lockdown?
- How might the age distribution of people dying from Covid-19 affect the calculation of the cost of these deaths (or the benefits or avoiding them)?
- How might you estimate the costs to people who suffer long-term health effects from having had Covid-19?
- What are the arguments for and against using discounting in estimating future QALYs?
- The Department of Transport currently uses a figure of £1 958 303 (in 2018 prices) for the value of a life saved from a road safety project. Find out how this is figure derived and comment on it. See Box 12.5 in Economics 10th edition and Accident and casualty costs, Tables RAS60001 and RA60003, (Department of Transport, 2019).
In the current environment of low inflation and rising unemployment, the Federal Reserve Bank, the USA’s central bank, has amended its monetary targets. The new measures were announced by the Fed chair, Jay Powell, in a speech for the annual Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium (this year conducted online on August 27 and 28). The symposium was an opportunity for central bankers to reflect on their responses to the coronavirus pandemic and to consider what changes might need to be made to their monetary policy targets and instruments.
The Fed’s previous targets
Previously, like most other central banks, the Fed had a long-run inflation target of 2%. It did, however, also seek to ‘maximise employment’. In practice, this meant seeking to achieve a ‘normal’ rate of unemployment, which the Fed regards as ranging from 3.5 to 4.7% with a median value of 4.1%. The description of its objectives stated that:
In setting monetary policy, the Committee seeks to mitigate deviations of inflation from its longer-run goal and deviations of employment from the Committee’s assessments of its maximum level. These objectives are generally complementary. However, under circumstances in which the Committee judges that the objectives are not complementary, it follows a balanced approach in promoting them, taking into account the magnitude of the deviations and the potentially different time horizons over which employment and inflation are projected to return to levels judged consistent with its mandate.
The new targets
Under the new system, the Fed has softened its inflation target. It will still be 2% over the longer term, but it will be regarded as an average, rather than a firm target. The Fed will be willing to see inflation above 2% for longer than previously before raising interest rates if this is felt necessary for the economy to recover and to achieve its long-run potential economic growth rate. Fed chair, Jay Powell, in a speech on 27 August said:
Following periods when inflation has been running below 2%, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 per cent for some time.
Additionally, the Fed has increased its emphasis on employment. Instead of focusing on deviations from normal employment, the Fed will now focus on the shortfall of employment from its normal level and not be concerned if employment temporarily exceeds its normal level. As Powell said:
Going forward, employment can run at or above real-time estimates of its maximum level without causing concern, unless accompanied by signs of unwanted increases in inflation or the emergence of other risks that could impede the attainment of our goals
The Fed will also take account of the distribution of employment and pay more attention to achieving a strong labour market in low-income and disadvantaged communities. However, apart from the benefits to such communities from a generally strong labour market, it is not clear how the Fed could focus on disadvantaged communities through the instruments it has at its disposal – interest rate changes and quantitative easing.
Modern monetary theorists (see blog MMT – a Magic Money Tree or Modern Monetary Theory?) will welcome the changes, arguing that they will allow more aggressive expansion and higher government borrowing at ultra-low interest rates.
The problem for the Fed is that it is attempting to achieve more aggressive goals without having any more than the two monetary instruments it currently has – lowering interest rates and increasing money supply through asset purchases (quantitative easing). Interest rates are already near rock bottom and further quantitative easing may continue to inflate asset prices (such as share and property prices) without sufficiently stimulating aggregate demand. Changing targets without changing the means of achieving them is likely to be unsuccessful.
It remains to be seen whether the Fed will move to funding government borrowing directly, which could allow for a huge stimulus through infrastructure spending, or whether it will merely stick to using asset purchases as a way for introducing new money into the system.
- In landmark shift, Fed rewrites approach to inflation, labor market
Reuters, Jonnelle Marte, Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider (27/8/20)
- 5 Key Takeaways From Powell’s Jackson Hole Fed Speech
Bloomberg, Mohamed A. El-Erian (28/8/20)
- Fed adopts new strategy to allow higher inflation and welcome strong labor markets
Market Watch, Greg Robb (27/8/20)
- Fed to tolerate higher inflation in policy shift
Financial Times, James Politi and Colby Smith (27/8/20)
- Fed inflation shift raises questions about past rate rises
Financial Times, James Politi and Colby Smith (28/8/20)
- Dollar slides as bond market signals rising inflation angst
Financial Times, Adam Samson and Colby Smith (28/8/20)
- Wall Street shares rise after Fed announces soft approach to inflation
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/8/20)
- How the Fed Is Bringing an Inflation Debate to a Boil
Bloomberg, Ben Holland, Enda Curran, Vivien Lou Chen and Kyoungwha Kim (27/8/20)
- The live now, pay later economy comes at a heavy cost for us all
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/8/20)
- The world’s central banks are starting to experiment. But what comes next?
The Guardian, Adam Tooze (9/9/20)
- Find out how much asset purchases by the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB have increased in the current rounds of quantitative easing.
- How do asset purchases affect narrow money, broad money and aggregate demand? Is there a fixed money multiplier effect between the narrow money increases and aggregate demand? Explain.
- Why did the dollar exchange rate fall following the announcement of the new measures by Jay Powell?
- The Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, also gave a speech at the Jackson Hole symposium. How does the approach to money policy outlined by Bailey differ from that outlined by Jay Powell?
- What practical steps, if any, could a central bank take to improve the relative employment prospects of disadvantaged groups?
- Outline the arguments for and against central banks directly funding government expenditure through money creation.
- What longer-term problems are likely to arise from central banks pursuing ultra-low interest rates for an extended period of time?
Share prices are determined by demand and supply. The same applies to stock market indices, such as the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 in the UK and the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 in the USA. After all, the indices are the weighted average prices of the shares included in the index. Generally, when economies are performing well, or are expected to do so, share prices will rise. They are likely to fall in a recession or if a recession is anticipated. A main reason for this is that the dividends paid on shares will reflect the profitability of firms, which tends to rise in times of a buoyant economy.
When it first became clear that Covid-19 would become a pandemic and as countries began locking down, so stock markets plummeted. People anticipated that many businesses would fail and that the likely recession would cause profits of many other surviving firms to decline rapidly. People sold shares.
The first chart shows how the FTSE 100 fell from 7466 in early February 2020 to 5190 in late March, a fall of 30.5%. The Dow Jones fell by 34% over the same period. In both cases the fall was driven not only by the decline in the respective economy over the period, but by speculation that further declines were to come (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But then stock markets started rising again, especially the Dow Jones, despite the fact that the recessions in the UK, the USA and other countries were gathering pace. In the second quarter of 2020, the Dow Jones rose by 23% and yet the US economy declined by 33% – the biggest quarterly decline on record. How could this be explained by supply and demand?
In order to boost aggregate demand and reduce the size of the recession, central banks around the world engaged in large-scale quantitative easing. This involves central banks buying government bonds and possibly corporate bonds too with newly created money. The extra money is then used to purchase other assets, such as stocks and shares and property, or physical capital or goods and services. The second chart shows that quantitative easing by the Bank of England increased the Bank’s asset holding from April to July 2020 by 50%, from £469bn to £705bn (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But given the general pessimism about the state of the global economy, employment and personal finances, there was little feed-through into consumption and investment. Instead, most of the extra money was used to buy assets. This gave a huge boost to stock markets. Stock market movements were thus out of line with movements in GDP.
Stock market prices do not just reflect the current economic and financial situation, but also what people anticipate the situation to be in the future. As infection and death rates from Covid-19 waned around Europe and in many other countries, so consumer and business confidence rose. This is illustrated in the third chart, which shows industrial, consumer and construction confidence indicators in the EU. As you can see, after falling sharply as the pandemic took hold in early 2020 and countries were locked down, confidence then rose (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But, as infection rates have risen somewhat in many countries and continue to soar in the USA, Brazil, India and some other countries, this confidence may well start to fall again and this could impact on stock markets.
A final, but related, cause of recent stock market movements is speculation. If people see share prices falling and believe that they are likely to fall further, then they will sell shares and hold cash or safer assets instead. This will amplify the fall and encourage further speculation. If, however, they see share prices rising and believe that they will continue to do so, they are likely to want to buy shares, hoping to make a gain by buying them relatively cheaply. This will amplify the rise and, again, encourage further speculation.
If there is a second wave of the pandemic, then stock markets could well fall again, as they could if speculators think that share prices have overshot the levels that reflect the economic and financial situation. But then there may be even further quantitative easing.
There are many uncertainties, both with the pandemic and with governments’ policy responses. These make forecasting stock market movements very difficult. Large gains or large losses could await people speculating on what will happen to share prices.
- Illustrate the recent movements of stock markets using demand and supply diagrams. Explain your diagrams.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for shares?
- Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation. How are the concepts relevant to the recent history of stock market movements?
- Explain how quantitative easing works to increase (a) asset prices; (b) aggregate demand.
- What is the difference between quantitative easing as currently conducted by central banks and ‘helicopter money‘?
- Give some examples of companies whose share prices have risen strongly since March 2020. Explain why these particular shares have done so well.
The LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance has just published a paper looking at the joint impact of Covid-19 and Brexit on the UK economy. Apart from the short-term shocks, both will have a long-term dampening effect on the UK economy. But they will largely affect different sectors.
Covid-19 has affected, and will continue to affect, direct consumer-facing industries, such as shops, the hospitality and leisure industries, public transport and personal services. Brexit will tend to hit those industries most directly involved in trade with Europe, the UK’s biggest trading partner. These industries include manufacturing, financial services, posts and telecommunications, mining and quarrying, and agriculture and fishing.
Despite the fact that largely different sectors will be hit by these two events, the total effect may be greater than from each individually. One of the main reasons for this is the dampening impact of Covid-19 on globalisation. Travel restrictions are likely to remain tighter to more distant countries. And countries are likely to focus on trading within continents or regions rather than the whole world. For the UK, this, other things being equal, would mean an expansion of trade with the EU relative to the rest of the world. But, unless there is a comprehensive free-trade deal with the EU, the UK would not be set to take full advantage of this trend.
Another problem is that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have weakened the economy’s ability to cope with further shocks, such as those from Brexit. Depending on the nature (or absence) of a trade deal, Brexit will impose higher burdens on trading companies, including meeting divergent standards and higher administrative costs from greater form filling, inspections and customs delays.
- Referring to the LSE paper, give some examples of industries that are likely to be particularly hard hit by Brexit when the transition period ends? Explain why.
- Why have university finances been particularly badly affected by both Covid-19 and Brexit? Are there any other sectors that have suffered (or will suffer) badly from both events?
- Is there a scenario where globalisation in trade could start to grow again?
- Has Covid-19 affected countries’ comparative advantage in particular products traded with particular countries and, if so, how?
- The authors of the LSE report argue that ‘government policies to stimulate demand, support workers to remain in employment or find new employment, and to support businesses remain essential’. How realistic is it to expect the government to provide additional support to businesses and workers to deal with the shock of Brexit?
Is there a ‘magic money tree’? Is it desirable for central banks to create money to finance government deficits?
The standard thinking of conservative governments around the world is that creating money to finance deficits will be inflationary. Rather, governments should attempt to reduce deficits. This will reduce the problem of government expenditure crowding out private expenditure and reduce the burden placed on future generations of having to finance higher government debt.
If deficits rise because of government response to an emergency, such as supporting people and businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, then, as soon as the problem begins to wane, governments should attempt to reduce the higher deficits by raising taxes or cutting government expenditure. This was the approach of many governments, including the Coalition and Conservative governments in the UK from 2010, as econommies began to recover from the 2007/8 financial crisis.
‘Modern Monetary Theory‘ challenges these arguments. Advocates of the theory support the use of higher deficits financed by monetary expansion if the money is spent on things that increase potential output as well as actual output. Examples include spending on R&D, education, infrastructure, health and housing.
Modern monetary theorists still accept that excess demand will lead to inflation. Governments should therefore avoid excessive deficits and central banks should avoid creating excessive amounts of money. But, they argue that inflation caused by excess demand has not been a problem for many years in most countries. Instead, we have a problem of too little investment and too little spending generally. There is plenty of scope, they maintain, for expanding demand. This, if carefully directed, can lead to productivity growth and an expansion of aggregate supply to match the rise in aggregate demand.
Government deficits, they argue, are not intrinsically bad. Government debt is someone else’s assets, whether in the form of government bonds, savings certificates, Treasury bills or other instruments. Provided the debt can be serviced at low interest rates, there is no problem for the government and the spending it generates can be managed to allow economies to function at near full capacity.
The following videos and articles look at modern monetary theory and assess its relevance. Not surprisingly, they differ in their support of the theory!
- Modern monetary theory: the rise of economists who say huge government debt is not a problem
The Conversation, John Whittaker (7/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory: How MMT is challenging the economic establishment
ABC News, Gareth Hutchens (20/7/20)
- What is Modern Monetary Theory and is it THE answer?
Sydney Morning Herald, Jessica Irvine (2/7/20)
- MMT: what is modern monetary theory and will it work?
MoneyWeek, Stuart Watkins (14/7/20)
- MMT: the magic money tree bears fruit
MoneyWeek, Stuart Watkins (17/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory is no Magic Money Tree
Adam Smith Institute, Matt Kilcoyne (20/5/20)
- “Modern Monetary Theory” Goes Mainstream
Forbes, Nathan Lewis (10/7/20)
- How Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have become Magic Money Tree huggers
The Scotsman, Bill Jamieson (16/7/20)
- Ignore the impacts of debt-fuelled stimulus at your peril
Livewire, David Rosenbloom (14/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory, explained
Vox.com, Dylan Matthews (16/4/19)
- Compare traditional Keynesian economics and modern monetary theory.
- Using the equation of exchange, MV = PY, what would a modern monetary theorist say about the effect of an expansion of M on the other variables?
- What is the role of fiscal policy in modern monetary theory?
- What evidence might suggest that money supply has been unduly restricted?
- When, according to modern monetary theory, is a rising government deficit (a) not a problem; (b) a problem?
- Is there any truth in the saying, ‘There’s no such thing as a magic money tree’?
- Provide a critique of modern monetary theory.