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)
- Consider the market for insurance against flood damage. Are risks less than one? Explain your answer.
- Explain whether or not the risk of flooding is independent.
- Are the problems of moral hazard and adverse selection relevant in the case of home insurance against flood damage?
- To what extent is the proposed government-backed flood insurance an equitable scheme? Should the government be stepping in to provide insurance itself?
- Should there be greater regulation when houses are sold to provide better information about the risk of flooding?
- Why if the concept of opportunity cost relevant here?
- How might household values be affected by recent floods, in light of the issues with insurance?
There are a number of surveys that attempt to measure the spending intentions of people in the run up towards Christmas. For example a recent study carried out by YouGov found that people in the UK planned to spend an average of £599 on presents for their family and friends. This represented a 5.8% increase on the previous year. Planned total spending on Christmas was estimated to be a staggering £22 billion.
Respondents to another survey, carried out by the hotel chain Travelodge, stated that on average they planned to buy presents for 12 people. This study also found that the average expected spend on each present was £28.70 – an increase of £1.70 on the previous year. A rather obvious question for anyone interested in economics is whether this is either a sensible or an efficient way of allocating resources. One way to think about how an economist might approach this issue is to ask yourself the following questions after you have opened a present on Christmas day.
• How much money do you think the person who gave you the present paid for it?
• Ignoring the sentimental value, if you had not received this present how much would
you be willing to pay to purchase it?
Exactly 20 years ago the economist Joel Waldfogel posed questions very similar to these to a group of 86 students studying an intermediate microeconomics module at Yale University in the USA. On average the respondents to the questions estimated that friends and family had spent $438 on the gifts they had received that Christmas. Unfortunately their willingness to pay for these same gifts was $313 on average. Economists would argue that this is an example of economic inefficiency because the recipients’ valuation of the gifts – as measured by their willingness to pay – was only 71.5% of the price paid by the person who gave them the presents. This means that it is possible to make the person who received the gift better off without making the person who purchased the gift any worse off. This argument can be illustrated with a simple example.
Assume you have purchased a Liverpool football club shirt as a present for Sir Alex Ferguson and it cost you £50! Rather surprisingly Sir Alex likes the shirt but would have only been willing to pay £20 if he was buying it for himself. Imagine now that you have given him £50 cash instead of the shirt. This would not make you any worse off – your cash outlay would remain unchanged. However, Sir Alex would now be able to spend the £50 cash in a way which would give him far more satisfaction than the Liverpool football shirt would have given him. Sir Alex can therefore be made better off without making you worse off. The present in this example generates a deadweight welfare loss of £30. Waldfogel concluded from his later research based on a larger sample of people that, on average, people’s valuations of their presents is about 90% of the money actually spent on them. If this figure is accurate, it suggests that over £2 billion will be wasted in the UK this Christmas.
The size of the deadweight welfare loss depends on how well the person who is buying the present knows or understands the preferences of the recipient. The closeness of age, friendship or family relationship are all likely to influence the accuracy of this knowledge. Interestingly, Waldfogel found that presents from grandparents to grandchildren were the most inefficient: i.e. the difference between the recipient’s valuation of the gift and the price paid for the present was the greatest. The study also found that grandparents were more likely to give their grandchildren cash gifts.
Do economists always advise people to give cash as presents? Thankfully the dismal science can find some positive things to say about giving gifts. The previous analysis can be criticised in a number of different ways. It assumes that the recipients are perfectly informed about all the potential gifts that are available. If the person buying the present can find an item that the recipient was unaware of, then it is possible that economic welfare might be increased. It has also been assumed that the pleasure or value people obtain from an item is not influenced by who has purchased it. It may be the case that people place a greater value on an item when it is a gift from somebody else. In the previous example, perhaps Sir Alex would value the Liverpool shirt at £60 if you had purchased it for him as a present. The analysis has also ignored the possibility that the person buying the present derives pleasure from trying to find a gift that they think the person would like. Perhaps people feel a ‘warm glow’ when they see the happiness of somebody opening their present on Christmas day.
A final interesting economic explanation for buying presents is that they might act as an effective signal in a situation where there is asymmetric information. It can be argued that this is the case in relationships where people have private information about their true feelings towards one another. One way of communicating these feelings is by simply telling someone how you feel about them. However, this might not be an effective signal, as someone who does not have such strong feelings could say the same things as someone who does! However, by taking the time and trouble to buy someone a present that they really like, you are able to signal more effectively how you really feel about them. The signal can be particularly strong if the person buying the present really dislikes shopping. Just giving someone cash, or not taking the time to buy a present the person really likes, might signal that you simply could not be bothered to exert the effort because your feelings are not that strong. The potential consequences of giving your partner money are amusingly demonstrated in the following clip: The Economics of Seinfeld: What’s the right Gift to give; cash?
Perhaps giving presents instead of cash is an economically efficient way of dealing with situations where asymmetric information is potentially an important issue.
British households plan to spend £820 on Christmas YouGov (11/11/13)
Brits ‘to spend more on Christmas presents this year with average gift costing £28.70’ Daily Mirror (13/11/13)
Christmas shoppers hit the sales in biggest spending spree since the recession began Daily Express (15/12/13)
Bah, Humbug The Joy of Economics: Making Sense out of Life, Robert J. Stonebraker (22/05/13)
What many economists don’t understand about Christmas Quartz, Tim Fernholz (19/12/13)
The Economics of Gifts Greg Mankiw’s Blog (24/12/06)
The case against Christmas presents The Guardian (19/12/13)
Grinchonomics or how the Economist stole Christmas Economics in Plain English (16/12/10)
The true value of the 12 days of Christmas reveals giving cash may be the most cost-effective gift Perth Now, Jessica Irvine (21/12/13)
- Explain what is meant by the term ‘allocative efficiency’. Use a diagram to help illustrate and explain your answer.
- Draw an indifference curve diagram to illustrate the potential welfare costs of giving presents instead of cash.
- Assess whether giving someone a gift card is more economically efficient than giving them a present.
- Using a simple numerical example, explain how economic welfare could be higher if someone buys a present that the recipient was unaware of. What factors might you have to take into account when carrying out this economic analysis?
- Explain what is meant by the term ‘asymmetric information’. Provide a number of examples to help illustrate your answer.
- What properties must a signal have if it is to successfully overcome problems caused by asymmetric information?
In an apparent U-turn, the Chancellor, George Osborne, has decided to cap the interest rates and other charges on payday loans and other short-term credit. As we have seen in previous news items, the sky-high interest rates which some of the poorest people in the UK are being forced to pay on these loans have caused outrage in many quarters: see A payday enquiry and Kostas Economides and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, the payday loan industry has been referred by the OFT to the Competition Commission (CC). The CC is required to report by 26 June 2015, although it will aim to complete the investigation in a shorter period.
It was becoming increasingly clear, however, that the government would not wait until the CC reports. It has been under intense pressure to take action. But the announcement on 25 November 2013 that the government would cap the costs of payday loans took many people by surprise. In fact, the new body, the Financial Conduct Authority, which is due to start regulating the industry in April 2014, only a month ago said that capping was very intrusive, arguing that it could make it harder for many people to borrow and push them into the hands of loan sharks. According to paragraph 6.71 of its consultation paper, Detailed proposals for the FCA regime for consumer credit:
The benefits of a total cost of credit cap has been looked at by the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol. This report highlighted that 17 EU member states have some form of price restriction. Their research was ambiguous, on the one hand suggesting possible improved lending criteria and risk assessments. On the other, prices may drift towards a cap, which could lead to prices increasing or lead to a significant reduction in lenders exercising forbearance. Neither of these latter outcomes would be beneficial for consumers. Clearly this is a very intrusive proposition and to ensure we fully understand the implications we have committed to undertake further research once we begin regulating credit firms and therefore have access to regulatory data.
The government announcement has raised questions of how imperfections in markets should be dealt with. Many on the centre right argue that price controls should not be used as they can further distort the market. Indeed, the Chancellor has criticised the Labour Party’s proposal to freeze gas and electricity prices for 20 months if it wins the next election, arguing that the energy companies will simply get around the freeze by substantially raising their prices before and after the 20 months.
Instead, those on the centre right argue that intervention should aim to make markets more competitive. In other words, you should attempt not to replace markets, but to make them work better.
So what is the reasoning of the government in capping payday loan charges? Does it feel that, in this case, there is no other way? Or is the reasoning political? Does it feel that this is the most electorally advantageous way of answering the critics of the payday loan industry?
Webcasts and podcasts
Payday Loans To Be Capped By Government Sky News (25/11/13)
New law to cap cost of payday loans BBC News, Robert Hall (25/11/13)
Osborne: ‘Overall cost’ of payday loans to be capped BBC Today Programme (25/11/13)
George Osborne announces cap on payday loan charges amid concerns ITV News (25/11/13)
UK to cap payday lenders’ interest charges Reuters, Steve Slater, Paul Sandle, Kate Holton and William James (25/11/13)
Capping payday loans: from light touch to strong arm Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (25/11/13)
Payday loans: New law to cap costs BBC News (25/11/13)
Payday loan ‘risk to mortgage applications’ BBC News (26/11/13)
Q&A: Payday loans BBC News (25/11/13)
George Osborne is playing social democratic catch-up on payday loans The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/11/13_
Payday loans cap: George Osborne caves in following intervention led by Archbishop of Canterbury Independent, Oliver Wright (25/11/13)
The principle, the practice and the politics of fixing payday loan prices: why? And why now? Conservative Home, Mark Wallace (25/11/13)
George Osborne and the risky politics of chutzpah New Statesman, Rafael Behr (26/11/13)
Chancellor too quick off the mark on payday lending cap The Telegraph, James Quinn (25/11/13)
Crap and courage of convictions: the political problem with Osborne’s payday loan plan Spectator, Isabel Hardman (26/11/13)
Payday loan calculator
Payday loan calculator: how monthly interest can spiral BBC Consumer (7/11/13)
- What types of market failing exist in the payday loan industry?
- What types of controls of the industry are being proposed by George Osborne?
- What is the experience of Australia in introducing such controls?
- What alternative forms of intervention could be used to tackle the market imperfections in the industry?
- What were the proposals of the FCA? (See paragraph 6.6 in its document, Detailed proposals for the FCA regime for consumer credit.)
- According to a representative example on Wonga’s website, a loan of £150 for 18 days would result in charges of £33.49 (interest of £27.99 and a fee of £5.50). This would equate to an annual APR of 5853%. Explain how this APR is calculated.
- The proposal is to allow a relatively large upfront fee and to cap interest rates at a relatively low level, such as 4% per month, as is the case in Australia. Explain the following comment about this in the Faisal Islam article above: “The upfront fee, in theory, should change the behavioural finance of consumers around taking the loan in the first place (there are ways around this though). So this is an intervention based not on lack of competition, but asymmetries of information in consumer finance.”
- Comment on the following statement by Mark Wallace in the Conservative Home article above: “If overpriced payday loans should be capped, why not overpriced DVDs, sandwiches or, er, energy bills?”
- Compare the relative advantages and disadvantages of George Osborne’s proposal with that of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury (see the news item, Kostas Economides and the Archbishop of Canterbury).
Australia is a rich country. It is one of the few to have avoided a recession. This has been the result partly of successful macroeconomic policies, but largely of the huge mining boom, with Australia exporting minerals to China and other fast growing Asian economies.
But has this growth brought happiness? Are Australians having to work harder and harder to pay for their high standard of living? Indeed, do higher incomes generally result in greater happiness? The following articles explore this issue, both in an Australian context and more broadly. They look at some recent evidence.
For example, in one study, Canadian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese university students were asked what they held to be most important for assessing the worth of their lives. The crucial finding was that although higher incomes may be a contributing factor to increased happiness and well-being, especially for poorer people, other factors are more important. These include developing fulfilling personal relationships, whether with partners, family members or friends; gaining knowledge and wisdom; having enjoyable hobbies; having financial security (as opposed to higher incomes); having a worthwhile career; living a moral life; helping other people.
The question then arises whether our economic systems and incentives are geared towards achieving these outcomes. Or are we encouraged to consume more and more and to seek higher and higher incomes to feed our addiction to consumption?
Is there an information problem here? Do many individuals perceive that money will buy them happiness, whereas, in reality, money can’t buy them love?
Australia: Where the good life comes at a price BBC News Magazine, Madeleine Morris (24/2/13)
Australia has the know-how to boost wellbeing Sydney Morning Herald, Matt Wade (8/9/12)
Money can’t buy you the good life Independent, Roger Dobson (24/2/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Yes, Money Does Buy Happiness: 6 Lessons from the Newest Research on Income and Well-Being The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (10/1/13)
The fact is, the richer you are, the happier you are The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/13)
Money buys happiness? I wouldn’t bank on it The Telegraph, Christopher Howse (6/2/13)
Who Says Wealth Doesn’t Buy Happiness? The Wealthy Do CNBC, Robert Frank (4/2/13)
More Proof That Money Can’t Buy Happiness Business Insider, Aimee Groth (28/1/13)
Money Changes Everything The New York Times, Adam Davidson (5/2/13)
Why are the Chinese so sad? Maclean’s (Canada), Mitch Moxley (4/2/13)
First World Happiness Report Launched at the United Nations The Earth Institute, Columbia University (2/4/12)
World Happiness Report The Earth Institute, Columbia University, John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs (eds.) (2/4/12)
Well-being evidence for policy: A review New Economics Foundation, Laura Stoll, Juliet Michaelson and Charles Seaford (3/4/12)
- Distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. Is higher income a necessary or sufficient condition (or both or neither) for an increase in happiness? Does a person’s circumstances affect the answer to this question?
- Explain what is meant by ‘rational behaviour’ at the margin in the traditional economic sense?
- If a person always behaved rationally, would they be happier than if they did not? Explain.
- Explain how information asymmetry between the two or more parties involved in a transaction may make people worse off, rather than better off, even though they were behaving rationally.
- Explain what is meant by diminishing returns to income.
- Do richer countries get happier as they get richer?
- How would you set about measuring happiness?
- What do you understand by the term ‘hedonic elevation and decline’? Does this provide an accurate description of you own purchasing behaviour? If so, explain whether or not you would like to change this behaviour.
- When people make economic decisions, these are normally made with bounded rationality. How may this affect the desirability of the outcomes of the decisions?
- In explaining bankers’ behaviour, Christopher Howse (author of the second Telegraph article above) states: ‘It’s the power game that keeps them happy, not the money itself. When I say “keeps them happy” I mean “feeds their addiction”. It is a negative kind of satisfaction. A morning spent without the distraction of making big bucks is a morning left exposed to the empty horror of being a little rational animal on the bare surface of the Earth lost in space.’ Do you agree? Explain why or why not.
- When people are addicted to something, would doing more of it be classed as irrational? Explain.
- Why are the Chinese so sad?
Barclays’ Chief Executive, Bob Diamond, has resigned following revelations that Barclays staff had been involved in rigging the LIBOR in the period 2005–9, including the financial crisis of 2007–9.
So what is the LIBOR; how is it set; what were the reasons for Barclays (and other banks, as will soon be revealed) attempting to manipulate the rate; and what were the consequences?
The LIBOR, or London interbank offered rate, is the average of what banks report that they would have to pay to borrow from one another in the inter-bank market. Separate LIBORs are calculated for 15 different lending periods: overnight, one week, one month, two months, three months, six months, etc. The rates are set daily as the average of submissions made to Thomson Reuters by some 15 to 20 banks (a poll overseen by the British Bankers’ Association). Thomson Reuters then publishes the LIBORs, along with all of the submissions from individual banks which are used to calculate it.
Many interest rates around the world are based on LIBORs, or their European counterpart, EURIBORs. They include bond rates, mortgage rates, overdraft rates, etc. Trillions of dollars worth of such assets are benchmarked to the LIBORs. Thus manipulating LIBORs by even 1 basis point (0.01%) can result in millions of dollars worth of gains (or losses) to banks.
The charge, made by the Financial Services Authority, is that Barclays staff deliberately under- or overstated the rate at which the bank would have to borrow. For example, when interbank loans were drying up in the autumn of 2008, Barclays staff were accused of deliberately understating the rate at which they would have to borrow in order to persuade markets that the bank was facing less difficulty than it really was and thereby boost confidence in the bank. In other words they were accused of trying to manipulate LIBORs down by lying.
As it was the LIBORs were rising well above bank rate. The spread for the one-month LIBOR was around 1 to 1.2% above Bank Rate. Today it is around 0.1 to 0.15% above Bank Rate. Without lying by staff in Barclays, RBS and probably other banks too, the spread in 2008 may have been quite a bit higher still.
The following articles look at the issue, its impact at the time and the aftermath today.
A Libor primer The Globe and Mail, Kevin Carmichael (3/7/12)
60 second guide to Libor Which? (3/7/12)
Explaining the Libor interest rate mess CNN Money (3/7/12)
Fixing Libor Financial Times (27/6/12)
LIBOR in the News: What it is, Why it’s Important Technorati, John Sollars (2/7/12)
Libor rigging ‘was institutionalised at major UK bank’ The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (1/7/12)
Barclays ‘attempted to manipulate interest rates’ BBC News, Robert Peston (27/6/12)
The Libor Conspiracy: Were the Bank of England and Whitehall in on it? Independent, Oliver Wright, James Moore , Nigel Morris (4/7/12)
Fixing LIBOR The Economist (10/3/12)
Cleaning up LIBOR? The Economist (14/5/12)
Eagle fried The Economist, Schumpeter (27/6/12)
Barclays looks like the victim Financial Post, Terence Corcoran (3/7/12)
Inconvenient truths about Libor BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/7/12)
Timeline: Barclays’ widening Libor-fixing scandal BBC News (5/7/12)
The elusive truth about Barclays’ lie BBC News, Robert Peston (4/7/12)
Rate Fixing Scandal Is International: EU’s Almunia CNBC, Shai Ahmed (4/7/12)
Bank-Bonus Culture to Blame for Barclays Scandal The Daily Beast, Alex Klein (3/7/12)
Libor scandal ‘damaging’ for City BBC Today Programme, Andrew Lilico and Mark Boleat (5/7/12)
Libor rate fixing: see each bank’s submissions Guardian Data Blog, Simon Rogers (3/7/12)
Sterling interbank rates Bank of England
- Using data from the Bank of England (see link above), chart two or three LIBOR rates against Bank rate from 2007 to the present day.
- For what reason would individuals and firms lose from banks manipulating LIBOR rates?
- Why would LIBOR manipulation be more ‘effective’ if banks colluded in their submissions about their interest rates?
- Why might the Bank of England and the government have been quite keen for the LIBOR to have been manipulated downwards in 2008?
- To what extent was the LIBOR rigging scandal an example of the problem of asymmetric information?
- In the light of the LIBOR rigging scandal, should universal banks be split into separate investment and retail banks, rather than erecting some firewall around their retail banking arm?
- What are the arguments for and against making attempts to manipulate LIBOR rates a criminal offences?