Each year the BBC hosts the Reith Lectures – a series of talks given by an eminent person in their field. This year’s lecturer is Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England. His series of four weekly lectures began on 2 December 2020. Their topic is ‘How we get what we value’. As the BBC site states, the lectures:
chart how we have come to esteem financial value over human value and how we have gone from market economies to market societies. He argues that this has contributed to a trio of crises: of credit, Covid and climate. And the former Bank of England governor will outline how we can turn this around.
In lectures 2, 3 and 4, he looks at three crises and how they have shaped and are shaping what we value. The crises are the financial crisis of 2007–9, the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. They have challenged how we value money, health and the environment respectively and, more broadly, have prompted people to question what is valuable for individuals and society, both today and into the future.
The questions posed by Carney are how can we establish what is valuable to individuals and society, how well are such values met by economies and how can mechanisms be improved to ensure that we make the best use of resources in meeting those values.
Value and the market
In the first lecture he probes the concept of value. He explores how economists and philosophers have tried to value the goods, services and human interactions that we desire.
First there is ‘objective value’ propounded by classical economists, such as Adam smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx. Here the value of goods and services depends on the amount of resources used to make them and fundamentally on the amount of labour. In other words, value is a supply-side concept.
This he contrasts with ‘subjective value’. Here the value of goods and services depends on how well they satisfy wants – how much utility they give the consumer. For these neoclassical economists, value is in the eye of the beholder; it is a demand-side concept.
The two are reconciled in the market, with market prices reflecting the balance of demand and supply. Market prices provided a solution to the famous diamonds/water paradox (see Box 4.2 in Economics (10th edition) or Case Study 4.3 in Essentials of Economics (8th edition) – the paradox of ‘why water, which is essential for life, is virtually free, but diamonds, which have limited utility beyond their beauty, are so expensive.’ The answer is to do with scarcity and marginal utility. Because diamonds are rare, the marginal utility is high, even though the total utility is low. And because water is abundant, even though its total utility is high, for most people its marginal utility is low. In other words, the value at the margin depends on the balance of demand and supply. Diamonds are much scarcer than water.
But is the market balance the right balance? Are the values implied by the market the same as those of society? ‘Why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland?’ – another paradox highlighted by Carney.
It has long been recognised that markets fail in a number of ways. They are not perfect, with large firms able to make supernormal profits by charging more and producing less, and consumers often being ill-informed and behaving impulsively or being swayed by clever marketing. And many valuable things that we experience, such as human interaction and the beauty of nature, are not bought and sold and thus do not appear in measures of GDP – one of the main ways of valuing a country.
What is more, many of things that are produced in the market have side-effects which are not reflected in prices. These externalities, whether good or bad, can be substantial: for example, the global warming caused by CO2 emissions from industry, transport and electricity production from fossil fuels.
And markets reflect people’s biases towards the present and hence lead to too little investment for the future, whether in healthcare, the environment or physical and social infrastructure. Markets reflect the scant regard many give to the damage we might be doing to the lives of future generations.
What is particularly corrosive, according to Carney, is the
drift from moral to market sentiments. …Increasingly, the value of something, some act or someone is equated with its monetary value, a monetary value that is determined by the market. The logic of buying and selling no longer applies only to material goods, but increasingly it governs the whole of life from the allocation of healthcare, education, public safety and environmental protection. …Market value is taken to represent intrinsic value, and if a good or activity is not in the market, it is not valued.
The drift from moral to market sentiments accelerated in the Thatcher/Regan era, when governments were portrayed as inefficient allocators, which stifled competition, innovation and the movement of capital. Deregulation and privatisation were the order of the day. This, according to Carney, ‘unleashed a new dynamism’ and ‘with the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, the spread of the market grew unchecked.’
But this drift failed to recognise market failures. It has taken three crises, the financial crisis, Covid and the climate crisis to bring these failures to the top of the public agenda. They are examined in the other three lectures.
The Reith Lectures
- Distinguish between objective and subjective value.
- If your income rises, will you necessarily be happier? Explain.
- How is the concept of diminishing marginal utility of income relevant to explaining why ‘A Christmas bonus of £1000 means less to Mark Zuckerberg then £500 does to someone on a minimum wage.’
- Does the use of social cost–benefit analysis enable us to use adjusted prices as a measure of value?
- Listen to lectures 2, 3 and 4 and provide a 500-word summary of each.
- Assess the arguments Mark Carney uses in one of these three lectures.
Under the auspices of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), banks around the world are working their way towards implementing tougher capital requirements. These tougher rules, known as ‘Basel III’, are due to come fully into operation by 2019.
This third version of international banking rules was agreed after the financial crisis of 2008, when many banks were so undercapitalised that they could not withstand the dramatic decline in the value of many of their assets and a withdrawal of funds.
Basel III requires banks to have much more capital, especially common equity capital. The point about equity (shares) is that it’s a liability that does not have to be repaid. If people hold bank shares, the bank does not have to repay them and does not even have to pay any dividends. In other words, the money raised by issuing shares carries no obligation on the part of the bank and can thus provide a buffer against large-scale withdrawal of funds.
Under Basel III, banks have to maintain sufficiently large ‘capital-adequacy ratios’. As Essentials of Economics (7th edition) explains:
Capital adequacy is a measure of a bank’s capital relative to its assets, where the assets are weighted according to the degree of risk. The more risky the assets, the greater the amount of capital that will be required.
A measure of capital adequacy is given by the capital adequacy ratio (CAR). This is given by the following formula:
Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1) capital includes bank reserves (from retained profits) and ordinary share capital (equities), where dividends to shareholders vary with the amount of profit the bank makes… Additional Tier 1 (AT1) capital consists largely of preference shares. These pay a fixed dividend (like company bonds), but although preference shareholders have a prior claim over ordinary shareholders on the company’s (i.e. the bank’s) profits, dividends need not be paid in times of loss.
Tier 2 capital is subordinated debt with a maturity greater than 5 years. Subordinated debt holders only have a claim on a company (a bank) after the claims of all other bondholders have been met.
Risk-weighted assets are the total value of assets, where each type of asset is multiplied by a risk factor. Under the Basel III accord, cash and government bonds have a risk factor of zero and are thus not included. Interbank 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 under 60% of the value of the property 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.
Basel III gives minimum capital requirements that are higher than under its predecessor, Basel II. Thus, by 2019, banks must have a common equity capital to risk-weighted assets of at least 4.5% and a Tier 1 ratio of at least 6.0%. The overall CAR should be at least 8%. In addition, the phased introduction of a ‘capital conservation buffer’ from 2016 will raise the overall CAR to at least 10.5 per cent.
Over the past few years, banks have increased their capital cushions significantly and many have exceeded the Basel III requirements, even for 2019.
But the Basel Committee has been reconsidering the calculation of risk-weighted assets. Because of the complexity of banks’ asset structures, which tend to vary significantly from country to country, it is difficult to ensure that banks’ are meeting the Basel III requirements. Under proposed amendments to Basel III (which some commentators have dubbed ‘Basel IV’), banks would have to compare their own calculations with a ‘standardised’ model. Their own calculations of risk-based assets would then not be allowed to be lower than 60–90% (known as ‘the output floor’) of the standardised approach.
While, on the surface, this may seem reasonable, European banks have claimed that this would penalise them, as some of their assets are less risky than the equivalent assets in other countries. For example, Germany has argued that mortgage defaults have been rare and thus German mortgage debt should be given a lower weighting than US mortgage debt, where defaults have been more common. If all assets were assessed according to the output floor, several banks, especially in Europe, would be judged to be undercapitalised. As The Economist article states:
Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate that global, non-American banks could see risk-weighted assets rise by an average of 18–30%, depending on the level of the output floor. Extra capital of €250bn–410bn could be needed, a tall order when earnings are thin and investors wary. The committee’s reviews of operational and market risks would add even more.
This question of an output floor was a sticking point at the Basel Committee meeting in Santiago, which ended on 30 November. Although some progress was made about agreeing to rules on risk weighting that could be applied globally, a final agreement will have to wait until the next meeting, in January – at the earliest.
Basel bust-up: A showdown looms over bank-capital rules The Economist (26/11/16)
Bank regulators fail to agree on new rules Manila Standard (2/12/16)
Bank chief Claudio Borio urges regulators to ‘stay strong’ Weekend Australian, Michael Bennet (29/11/16)
Final Basel III rules meet resistance from Europe The Straits Times (2/12/16)
This Is the Absolutely Worst Time to Weaken Global Bank Rules American Banker, Mayra Rodriguez Valladares (2/12/16)
New Basel banking rules’ impact on European economy Financial Times, Frédéric Oudéa (28/12/16)
Banks like RBS still look risky, but getting too tough could cause greater problems The Conversation, Alan Shipman (1/12/16)
International banking supervisory community meets to discuss the regulatory framework BIS Press Release (1/12/16)
Basel III: international regulatory framework for banks Bank for International Settlements
Basel III phase-in arrangements Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, BIS
Basel Committee on Banking Supervision reforms – Basel III, Summary Table Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, BIS
- Why do reserves in banks have a zero weighting in terms of risk-based assets?
- What items have a 100% weighting? Explain why.
- Examine the table, Basel III phase-in arrangements, and explain each of the terms.
- If banks are forced to operate with a higher capital adequacy ratio, what is this likely to do to bank lending? Explain. How are funding costs relevant to your answer?
- Explain each of the items in the Basel III capital-adequacy requirements shown in the chart above.
- What is the American case for imposing an output floor?
- What is the European banks’ case for using their own risk weighting?
- Why is it proposed that larger ‘systemically important banks’ (SIBs) should have an additional capital requirement?
- How does the balance of assets of American banks differ from that of European banks?
The Brexit vote has caused shockwaves throughout European economies. But there is a potentially larger economic and political problem facing the EU and the eurozone more specifically. And that is the state of the Italian banking system and the Italian economy.
Italy is the third largest economy in the eurozone after Germany and France. Any serious economic weaknesses could have profound consequences for the rest of the eurozone and beyond.
At 135% of GDP, Italy’s public-sector debt is one the highest in the world; its banks are undercapitalised with a high proportion of bad debt; and it is still struggling to recover from the crisis of 2008–9. The Economist article elaborates:
The adult employment rate is lower than in any EU country bar Greece. The economy has been moribund for years, suffocated by over-regulation and feeble productivity. Amid stagnation and deflation, Italy’s banks are in deep trouble, burdened by some €360 billion of souring loans, the equivalent of a fifth of the country’s GDP. Collectively they have provisioned for only 45% of that amount. At best, Italy’s weak banks will throttle the country’s growth; at worst, some will go bust.
Since 2007, the economy has shrunk by 10%. And potential output has fallen too, as firms have closed. Unemployment is over 11%, with youth unemployment around 40%.
Things seem to be coming to a head. As confidence in the Italian banking system plummets, the Italian government would like to bail out the banks to try to restore confidence and encourage deposits and lending. But under new eurozone rules designed to protect taxpayers, it requires that the first line of support should be from bondholders. Such support is known as a ‘bail-in’.
If bondholders were large institutional investors, this might not be such a problem, but a significant proportion of bank bonds in Italy are held by small investors, encouraged to do so by tax relief. Bailing in the banks by requiring bondholders to bear significant losses in the value of their bonds could undermine the savings of many Italians and cause them severe hardship, especially those who had saved for their retirement.
So what is the solution? Italian banks need recapitalising to restore confidence and prevent a more serious crisis. However, there is limited scope for bailing in, unless small investors can be protected. And eurozone rules provide little scope for government funding for the banks. These rules should be relaxed under extreme circumstances. At the same time, policy needs to focus on making Italian banking more efficient.
Meanwhile, the IMF is forecasting that Italian economic growth will be less than 1% this year and little better in 2017. Part of the problem, claims the IMF, is the Brexit vote. This has heightened financial market volatility and increasead the risks for Italy with its fragile banking system. But the problems of the Italian economy run deeper and will require various supply-side policies to tackle low productivity, corruption, public-sector inefficiency and a financial system not fit for purpose. What the mix of these policies should be – whether market based or interventionist – is not just a question of effectiveness, but of political viability and democratic support.
The Italian Job The Economist (9/7/16)
IMF warns Italy of two-decade-long recessionThe Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/7/16)
Italy economy: IMF says country has ‘two lost decades’ of growth BBC News (12/7/16)
What’s the problem with Italian banks? BBC News, Andrew Walker (10/7/16)
Why Italy’s banking crisis will shake the eurozone to its core The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (16/8/16)
If You Thought Brexit Was Bad Wait Until The Italian Banks All Go Bust Forbes, Tim Worstall (17/7/16)
In the euro zone’s latest crisis, Italy is torn between saving the banks or saving its people Quartz, Cassie Werber (13/7/16)
Why Italy could be the next European country to face an economic crisis Vox, Timothy B. Lee (8/7/16)
Forget Brexit, Quitaly is Europe’s next worry The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/7/16)
Italy IMF Country Report No. 16/222 (July 2016)
Economic Outlook OECD (June 2016) (select ‘By country’ from the left-hand panel and then choose ‘Italy’ from the pull-down menu and choose appropriate time series)
- Can changes in aggregate demand have supply-side consequences? Explain.
- Explain why there may be a downward spiral of asset sales by banks.
- How might the principle of bail-ins for undercapitalised Italian banks be pursued without being at the expense of the small saver?
- What lessons are there from Japan’s ‘three arrows’ for Italy? Does being in the eurozone constrain Italy’s ability to adopt any or all of these three categories of policy?
- Why may the Brexit vote have more serious consequences for Italy than many other European economies?
- Find out what reforms have already been adopted or are being pursued by the Italian government. How successful are they likely to be in increasing Italian growth and productivity?
- What external factors are currently (a) favourable, (b) unfavourable to improving Italian growth and productivity?
Jim Slater, who has just died at the age of 86, was a tycoon of the 1970s, probably unknown to most reader of this blog. But his legacy lives on and many will question whether the actions of the banking sector and big business today is a reflection of the lessons that were not learnt 40 years ago.
Slater was a businessman: perhaps the businessman in the 1970s, building up a company that in today’s money and the height of its success, would have been worth billions. Buying and selling companies, asset stripping and investing created Slater Walker, which shot to success and then crumbled to failure, taking with it a bailout from the Bank of England of £110 million. You might look at that figure and compare it with the bail outs of more recent times and think – peanuts. But think about how prices have changed and convert £110 million into today’s money and that’s a hefty bail out. A key question is whether the willingness of the government and Bank of England to bail out key banks and financial sector businesses has encouraged the irresponsible lending that led to the credit crunch. Was there a moral hazard? Had Slater Walker been left to fail, would the world look a slightly different place?
Perhaps a little extreme, but I wonder, if we were to look back over the past 50 to 60 years, whether we would find other cases of key businesses being bailed out, which set a precedent for other companies to grow, without necessarily taking full responsibility for it. Jim Slater will certainly leave a legacy behind him .
Jim Slater and the warning from the 1970s that we ignored BBC News, Jonty Bloom (20/11/15)
- What is meant by asset stripping?
- If a company like Slater Walker had not been bailed out, do you think the economy would have suffered?
- If Slater Walker had been left to fail, would that have changed the business model of some of our largest banks and reduced the chance of a financial crisis 40 years later?
- Do you think the concept of moral hazard is relevant here?
Lloyds Banking Group has announced that it plans to reduce its labour force by 9000. Some of this reduction may be achieved by not replacing staff that leave, but some may have to be achieved through redundancies.
The reasons given for the reduction in jobs are technological change and changes in customer practice. More banking services are available online and customers are making more use of these services and less use of branch banking. Also, the increasingly widespread availability of cash machines (ATMs) means that fewer people withdraw cash from branches.
And it’s not just outside branches that technological change is impacting on bank jobs. Much of the work previously done by humans is now done by software programs.
One result is that many bank branches have closed. Lloyds says that the latest planned changes will see 150 fewer branches – 6.7% of its network of 2250.
What’s happening in banking is happening much more widely across modern economies. Online shopping is reducing the need for physical shops. Computers in offices are reducing the need, in many cases, for office staff. More sophisticated machines, often controlled by increasingly sophisticated computers, are replacing jobs in manufacturing.
So is this bad news for employees? It is if you are in one of those industries cutting employment. But new jobs are being created as the economy expands. So if you have a good set of skills and are willing to retrain and possibly move home, it might be relatively easy to find a new, albeit different, job.
As far as total unemployment is concerned, more rapid changes in technology create a rise in frictional and structural unemployment. This can be minimised, however, or even reduced, if there is greater labour mobility. This can be achieved by better training, education and the development of transferable skills in a more adaptive labour force, where people see changing jobs as a ‘normal’ part of a career.
Lloyds Bank cuts 9,000 jobs – but what of the tech future? Channel 4 News, Symeon Brown (28/10/14)
Lloyds Bank confirms 9,000 job losses and branch closures BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (28/10/14)
Lloyds job cuts show the technology axe still swings for white collar workers The Guardian, Phillip Inman (28/10/14)
Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions Cabinet Office (July 2009)
Fair access to professional careers: a progress report Cabinet Office (30/5/12)
- Is a reduction in banking jobs inevitable? Explain.
- What could banks do to reduce the hardship to employees from a reduction in employment?
- What other industries are likely to see significant job losses resulting from technological progress?
- Distinguish between demand-deficient, real-wage, structural and frictional unemployment. Which of these are an example, or examples, of equilibrium unemployment?
- What policies could the government pursue to reduce (a) frictional unemployment; (b) structural unemployment?
- What types of industry are likely to see an increase in employment and in what areas of these industries?