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?
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?
Boris Johnson gave a speech on 30 June outlining his government’s approach to recovery from the sharpest recession on record. With the slogan ‘Build, build, build’, he said that infrastructure projects were the key to stimulating the economy. Infrastructure spending is a classic Keynesian response to recession as it stimulates aggregate demand allowing slack to be taken up, while also boosting aggregate supply, thereby allowing recovery in output while increasing potential national income.
A new ‘New deal’
He likened his approach to that of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. This was a huge stimulus between 1933 and 1939 in an attempt to lift the US economy out of the Great Depression. There was a massive programme of government spending on construction projects, such as hospitals, schools, roads, bridges and dams, including the Hoover Dam and completing the 113-mile Overseas Highway connecting mainland Florida to the Florida Keys. Altogether, there were 34 599 projects, many large-scale. In addition, support was provided for people on low incomes, the unemployed, the elderly and farmers. Money supply was expanded, made possible by leaving the Gold Standard in 1934.
There was some debate as to whether the New Deal could be classed as ‘Keynesian’. Officially, the administration was concerned to achieve a balanced budget. However, it had a separate ’emergency budget’, from which New Deal spending was financed. According to estimates by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, the total extra spending amounted to nearly 40% of US GDP as it was in 1929.
By comparison with the New Deal, the proposals of the Johnson government are extremely modest. Mostly it amounts to bringing forward spending already committed. The total of £5 billion is just 0.2% of current UK GDP.
Focusing on jobs
A recent report published by the Resolution Foundation, titled ‘The Full Monty‘, argues that as the Job Retention Scheme, under which people have been furloughed on 80% pay, is withdrawn, so unemployment is set to rise dramatically. The claimant count has already risen from 1.2m to 2.8m between March and May with the furlough scheme in place.
Policy should thus focus on job creation, especially in those sectors likely to experience the largest rise in unemployment. Such sectors include non-food retail, hospitality (pubs, restaurants, hotels, etc.), public transport, the arts, entertainment and leisure and a range of industries servicing these sectors. What is more, many of the people working in these sectors are young and low paid. Many will find it difficult to move to jobs elsewhere – partly because of a lack of qualifications and partly because of a lack of alternative jobs. The rising unemployment will raise inequality.
The Resolution Foundation report argues that policy should be focused specifically on job creation.
Policy makers should act now to minimise outflows from the hard-hit sectors – a wage subsidy scheme or a National Insurance cut in those sectors would reduce labour costs and discourage redundancies. Alongside this, the Government must pursue radical action to create jobs across the country, such as in social care and housing retrofitting, and ramp up support for the unemployed.
Dealing with hyteresis
The economy is set to recover somewhat as the lockdown is eased, but it is not expected to return to the situation before the pandemic. Many jobs will be lost permanently unless government support continues.
Even then, many firms will have closed and others will have reassessed how many workers they need to employ and whether less labour-intensive methods would be more profitable. They may take the opportunity to consider whether technology, such as AI, can replace labour; or they may prefer to employ cheap telecommuters from India or the Philippines rather than workers coming into the office.
Policies to stimulate recovery will need to take these hysteresis effects into account if unemployment is to fall back to pre-Covid rates.
- Coronavirus: Boris Johnson pledges ‘new deal’ to build post-virus
BBC News (30/6/20)
- Boris Johnson hails his economic plan as a new ‘New Deal.’ Try ‘small deal’ instead
MarketWatch, Pierre Briançon (30/6/20)
- Boris Johnson announces state-led post-coronavirus relaunch
Financial Times, George Parker, Jim Pickard and Chris Giles (30/6/20)
- How does Boris Johnson’s ‘new deal’ compare with Franklin D Roosevelt’s?
The Guardian, Richard Partington (30/6/20)
- Coronavirus: Ministers urged to stave off ‘second wave’ of unemployment with major job creation plan
PoliticsHome, Matt Honeycombe-Foster (29/6/20)
- Biggest job creation package in peacetime needed to deflect increase in UK unemployment, think tank reports
Independent, Alan Jones (29/6/20)
- UK needs ‘biggest-ever peacetime job creation plan’ to stop mass unemployment
The Guardian, Richard Partington (29/6/20)
- The International Labour Organization was founded after the Spanish flu – its past lights the path to a better future of work
The Conversation, Huw Thomas, Frederick Harry Pitts and Peter Turnbull (17/6/20)
- Seven charts on the coronavirus jobs market
BBC News, By Lora Jones and Daniele Palumbo (16/6/20)
- Covid, hysteresis, and the future of work
Vox, Richard Baldwin (29/5/20)
- The economy won’t snap back after Covid-19
Financial Times, Tim Harford (5/6/20)
- Addressing The Covid-19 Shock -Keeping People In Work And Businesses Afloat
Forbes, Linda Yueh (20/3/20)
- Cutting labour taxes brings back the jobs lost to COVID-19
Vox, Christian Bredemeier, Falko Juessen and Roland Winkler (28/6/20)
- What are the arguments for and against substantial increased government expenditure on infrastructure projects?
- Should the UK government spend more or less on such projects than the amount already pledged? Justify your answer.
- What are the arguments for and against directing all extra government expenditure towards green projects?
- Look through the Resolution Foundation report and summarise the findings of each of its sections.
- What are the arguments for and against directing all extra government expenditure towards those sectors where there is the highest rate of job losses?
- What form could policies to protect employment take?
- How should the success of policies to generate employment be measured?
- What form does hysteresis play on the post-Covid-19 labour market? What four shocks mean that employment will not simply return to the pre-Covid situation?
Three international agencies, the IMF, the European Commission and the OECD, all publish six-monthly forecasts for a range of countries. As each agency’s forecasts have been published this year, so the forecasts for economic growth and other macroeconomic indicators, such as unemployment, have got more dire.
The IMF was the first to report. Its World Economic Outlook, published on 14 April, forecast that in the UK real GDP would fall by 6.5% in 2020 and rise by 4% in 2021 (not enough to restore GDP to 2019 levels); in the USA it would fall by 5.9% this year and rise by 4.7% next year; in the eurozone it would fall by 7.5% this year and rise by 4.7% next.
The European Commission was next to report. Its AMECO database was published on 6 May. This forecast that UK real GDP would fall by 8.3% this year and rise by 6% next; in the USA it would fall by 6.5% this year and rise by 4.9% next; in the eurozone it would fall by 7.7% this year and rise by 6.3% next.
The latest to report was the OECD on 10 June. The OECD Economic Outlook was the most gloomy. In fact, it produced two sets of forecasts.
The first, more optimistic one (but still more gloomy than the forecasts of the other two agencies) was based on the assumption that lockdowns would continue to be lifted and that there would be no second outbreak later in the year. This ‘single-hit scenario’ forecast that UK real GDP would fall by 11.5% this year and rise by 9% next (a similar picture to France and Italy); in the USA it would fall by 7.3% this year and rise by 4.1% next; in the eurozone it would fall by 9.1% this year and rise by 6.5% next.
The second set of OECD forecasts was based on the assumption that there would be a second wave of the virus and that lockdowns would have to be reinstated. Under this ‘double-hit scenario’, the UK’s GDP is forecast to fall by 14.0% this year and rise by 5.0 per cent next; in the USA it would fall by 8.5% this year and rise by 1.9% next; in the eurozone it would fall by 11.5% this year and rise by 3.5% next.
The first chart shows the four sets of forecasts (including two from the OECD) for a range of countries. The first four bars for each country are the forecasts for 2020; the other four bars for each country are for 2021. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The second chart shows unemployment rates from 2006. The figures for 2020 and 2021 are OECD forecasts based on the double-hit assumption. You can clearly see the dramatic rise in unemployment in all the countries in 2020. In some cases it is forecast that there will be a further rise in 2021. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
As the OECD states:
In both scenarios, the recovery, after an initial, rapid resumption of activity, will take a long time to bring output back to pre-pandemic levels, and the crisis will leave long-lasting scars – a fall in living standards, high unemployment and weak investment. Job losses in the most affected sectors, such as tourism, hospitality and entertainment, will particularly hit low-skilled, young, and informal workers.
But why have the forecasts got gloomier? There are both demand- and supply-side reasons.
Aggregate demand has fallen more dramatically than originally anticipated. Lockdowns have lasted longer in many countries than governments had initially thought, with partial lockdowns, which replace them, taking a long time to lift. With less opportunity for people to go out and spend, consumption has fallen and saving has risen. Businesses that have shut, some permanently, have laid off workers or they have been furloughed on reduced incomes. This too has reduced spending. Even when travel restrictions are lifted, many people are reluctant to take holidays at home and abroad and to use public transport for fear of catching the virus. This reluctance has been higher than originally anticipated. Again, spending is lower than before. Even when restaurants, bars and other public venues are reopened, most operate at less than full capacity to allow for social distancing. Uncertainty about the future has discouraged firms from investing, adding to the fall in demand.
On the supply side, there has been considerable damage to capacity, with firms closing and both new and replacement investment being put on hold. Confidence in many sectors has plummeted as shown in the third chart which looks at business and consumer confidence in the EU. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the above chart.) Lack of confidence directly affects investment with both supply- and demand-side consequences.
Achieving a sustained recovery will require deft political and economic judgements by policymakers. What is more, people are increasingly calling for a different type of economy – one where growth is sustainable with less pollution and degradation of the environment and one where growth is more inclusive, where the benefits are shared more equally. As Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, states in his speech launching the latest OECD Economic Outlook:
The aim should not be to go back to normal – normal was what got us where we are now.
- Why has the UK economy been particularly badly it by the Covid-19 pandemic?
- What will determine the size and timing of the ‘bounce back’?
- Why will the pandemic have “dire and long-lasting consequences for people, firms and governments”?
- Why have many people on low incomes faced harsher consequences than those on higher incomes?
- What are the likely environmental impacts of the pandemic and government measures to mitigate the effects?