It is now some seven years since the financial crisis and nearly seven years since interest rates in the USA, the eurozone, the UK and elsewhere have been close to zero. But have these record low interest rates and the bouts of quantitative easing that have accompanied them resulted in higher or lower investment than would otherwise have been the case? There has been a big argument about that recently.
According to conventional economic theory, investment is inversely related to the rate of interest: the lower the rate of interest, the higher the level of investment. In other words, the demand-for-investment curve is downward sloping with respect to the rate of interest. It is true that in recent years investment has been low, but that, according to traditional theory, is the result of a leftward shift in demand thanks to low confidence, not to quantitative easing and low interest rates.
In a recent article, however, Michael Spence (of New York University and a 2001 Nobel Laureate) and Kevin Warsh (of Stanford University and a former Fed governor) challenge this conventional wisdom. According to them, QE and the accompanying low interest rates led to a rise in asset prices, including shares and property, rather than to investment in the real economy. The reasons, they argue, are that investors have seen good short-term returns on financial assets but much greater uncertainty over investment in physical capital. Returns to investment in physical capital tend to be much longer term; and in the post-financial crisis era, the long term is much less certain, especially if the Fed and other central banks start to raise interest rates again.
“We believe that QE has redirected capital from the real domestic economy to financial assets at home and abroad. In this environment, it is hard to criticize companies that choose ‘shareholder friendly’ share buybacks over investment in a new factory. But public policy shouldn’t bias investments to paper assets over investments in the real economy.”
This analysis has been challenged by several eminent economists, including Larry Summers, Harvard Economics professor and former Treasury Secretary. He criticises them for confusing correlation (low investment coinciding with low interest rates) with causation. As Summers states:
“This is a little like discovering a positive correlation between oncologists and cancer and asserting that this proves oncologists cause cancer. One would expect in a weak recovery that investment would be weak and monetary policy easy. Correlation does not prove causation. …If, as Spence and Warsh assert, QE has raised stock prices, this should tilt the balance toward real investment.”
Not surprisingly Spence and Warsh have an answer to this criticism. They maintain that their critique is less of low interest rates but rather of the form that QE has taken, which has directed new money into the purchase of financial assets. This then has driven further asset purchases, much of it by companies, despite high price/earnings ratios (i.e. high share prices relative to dividends). As they say:
“Economic theory might have something to learn from recent empirical data, and from promising new thinking in behavioral economics.”
Study the arguments of both sides and try to assess their validity, both theoretically and in the light of evidence.
The Fed Has Hurt Business Investment The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (26/10/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
I just read the ‘most confused’ critique of the Fed this yea Washington Past, Lawrence H. Summers (28/10/15)
A Little Humility, Please, Mr. Summers The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (4/11/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
Do ultra-low interest rates really damage growth? The Economist (12/11/15)
It’s the Zero Bound Yield Curve, Stupid! Janus Capital, William H Gross (3/11/15)
Is QE Bad for Business Investment? No Way! RealTime Economic Issues Watch, Joseph E. Gagnon (28/10/15)
Department of “Huh!?!?”: QE Has Retarded Business Investment!? Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Brad DeLong (27/10/15)
LARRY SUMMERS: The Wall Street Journal published the ‘single most confused analysis’ of the Fed I’ve read this year Business Insider, Myles Udland (29/10/15)
The Fed’s Loose Money, Financial Markets and Business Investment SBE Council, Raymond J. Keating (29/10/15)
How the QE trillions missed their mark AFR Weekend, Maximilian Walsh (4/11/15)
Financial Markets In The Era Of Bubble Finance – Irreversibly Broken And Dysfunctional David Stockman’s Contra Corner, Doug Noland (8/11/15)
- Go through the arguments of Spence and Warsh and explain them.
- Explain what are meant by the ‘yield curve’ and ‘zero bound yield curve’.
- What criticisms of their arguments are made by Summers and others?
- Apart from the effects of QE, why else have long-term interest rates been low?
- In the light of the arguments on both sides, how effective do you feel that QE has been?
- How could QE have been made more effective?
- What is likely to happen to financial markets over the coming months? What effect is this likely to have on the real economy?
Many UK coal mines closed in the 1970s and 80s. Coal extraction was too expensive in the UK to compete with cheap imported coal and many consumers were switching away from coal to cleaner fuels. Today many shale oil producers in the USA are finding that extraction has become unprofitable with oil prices having fallen by some 50% since mid-2014 (see A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2) and The price of oil in 2015 and beyond). So is it a bad idea to invest in fossil fuel production? Could such assets become unusable – what is known as ‘stranded assets‘?
In a speech on 3 March 2015, Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world, delivered at an insurance conference, Paul Fisher, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, warned that a switch to both renewable sources of energy and actions to save energy could hit investors in fossil fuel companies.
‘One live risk right now is of insurers investing in assets that could be left ‘stranded’ by policy changes which limit the use of fossil fuels. As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.
… As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.’
Much of the known reserves of fossil fuels could not be used if climate change targets are to be met. And investment in the search for new reserves would be of little value unless they were very cheap to extract. But will climate change targets be met? That is hard to predict and depends on international political agreements and implementation, combined with technological developments in fields such as clean-burn technologies, carbon capture and renewable energy. The scale of these developments is uncertain. As Paul Fisher said in his speech:
‘Tomorrow’s world inevitably brings change. Some changes can be forecast, or guessed by extrapolating from what we know today. But there are, inevitably, the unknown unknowns which will help shape the future. … As an ex-forecaster I can tell you confidently that the only thing we can be certain of is that there will be changes that no one will predict.’
The following articles look at the speech and at the financial risks of fossil fuel investment. The Guardian article also provides links to some useful resources.
Bank of England warns of huge financial risk from fossil fuel investments The Guardian, Damian Carrington (3/3/15)
PRA warns insurers on fossil fuel assets Insurance Asset Risk (3/3/15)
Energy trends changing investment dynamics UPI, Daniel J. Graeber (3/3/15)
Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world Bank of England, Paul Fisher (3/3/15)
- What factors are taken into account by investors in fossil fuel assets?
- Why might a power station become a ‘stranded asset’?
- How is game theory relevant in understanding the process of climate change negotiations and the outcomes of such negotiations?
- What social functions are filled by insurance?
- Why does climate change impact on insurers on both sides of their balance sheets?
- What is the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)? What is its purpose?
- Explain what is meant by ‘unknown unknowns’. How do they differ from ‘known unknowns’?
- How do the arguments in the article and the speech relate to the controversy about investing in fracking in the UK?
- Explain and comment on the statement by World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, that sooner rather than later, financial regulators must address the systemic risk associated with carbon-intensive activities in their economies.
In his Budget on March 19, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced fundamental changes to the way people access their pensions. Previously, many people with pension savings were forced to buy an annuity. These pay a set amount of income per month from retirement for the remainder of a person’s life.
But, with annuity rates (along with other interest rates) being at historically low levels, many pensioners have struggled to make ends meet. Even those whose pension pots did not require them to buy an annuity were limited in the amount they could withdraw each year unless they had other guaranteed income of over £20,000.
Now pensioners will no longer be required to buy an annuity and they will have much greater flexibility in accessing their pensions. As the Treasury website states:
This means that people can choose how they access their defined contribution pension savings; for example they could take all their pension savings as a lump sum, draw them down over time, or buy an annuity.
While many have greeted the news as a liberation of the pensions market, there is also the worry that this has created a moral hazard. When people retire, will they be tempted to blow their savings on foreign travel, a new car or other luxuries? And then, when their pension pot has dwindled and their health is failing, will they then be forced to rely on the state to fund their care?
But even if pensioners resist the urge to go on an immediate spending spree, there are still large risks in giving people the freedom to spend their pension savings as they choose. As the Scotsman article below states:
The risks are all too obvious. Behaviour will change. People who no longer have to buy an annuity will not do so but will then be left with a pile of cash. What to do with it? Spend it? Invest it? There are many new risky choices. But the biggest of all can be summed up in one fact: when we retire our life expectancy continues to grow. For every day we live after 65 it increases by six and a half hours. That’s right – an extra two-and-a-half years every decade.
The glory of an annuity is it pays you an income for every year you live – no matter how long. The problem with cash is that it runs out. Already the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that the reform ‘depends on highly uncertain behavioural assumptions about when people take the money’. And that ‘there is a market failure here. There will be losers from this policy’.
We do not have perfect knowledge about how long we will live or even how long we can be expected to live given our circumstances. Many people are likely to suffer from a form of myopia that makes them blind to the future: “We’re likely to be dead before the money has run out”; or “Let’s enjoy ourselves now while we still can”; or “We’ll worry about the future when it comes”.
The point is that there are various market failings in the market for pensions and savings. Will the decisions of the Chancellor have made them better or worse?
Pension shakeup in budget leaves £14bn annuities industry reeling The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (20/3/14)
Chancellor vows to scrap compulsory annuities in pensions overhaul The Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Harriet Meyer (19/3/14)
Labour backs principle of George Osborne’s pension shakeup The Guardian, Rowena Mason (23/3/14)
Osborne’s pensions overhaul may mean there is little left for future rainy days The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/3/14)
Let’s celebrate the Chancellor’s bravery on pensions – now perhaps the Government can tackle other mighty vested interests Independent on Sunday, Mary Dejevsky (23/3/14)
A vote-buying Budget The Scotsman, John McTernan (21/3/14)
L&G warns on mis-selling risks of pension changes The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (26/3/14)
Budget 2014: Pension firms stabilise after £5 billion sell off Interactive Investor, Ceri Jones (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: pensions and saving policies Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: documents HM Treasury (March 2014)
Freedom and choice in pensions HM Treasury (March 2014)
- What market failures are there in the market for pensions?
- To what extent will the new measures help to tackle the existing market failures in the pension industry?
- Explain the concept of moral hazard. To what extent will the new pension arrangements create a moral hazard?
- Who will be the losers from the new arrangements?
- Assume that you have a choice of how much to pay into a pension scheme. What is likely to determine how much you will choose to pay?
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?
Despite the prolonged stagnation in the UK, unemployment has not soared. In fact, over the past two years the ILO unemployment rate (see here for a definition) has fallen slightly – from 8.6% in October 2011 to around 8.0% today. What is more, the claimant count rate is considerably lower than the ILO rate – at around 4.4%.
Part of the reason for the relatively good unemployment figures is the rise in ‘zero-hours contracts’. These allow employers to cut the hours that people work without laying them off. The Office for National Statistics estimates that last year (2012) 250,000 people, or 0.84% of the workforce, were on such contracts.
But just what is meant by ‘zero-hours contracts’? According to the ONS:
People on zero-hours contracts are classified as being in employment regardless of the number of hours they actually worked during the survey reference week. This includes anyone who was not required to work any hours during the reference week whilst remaining on their current contract of employment. The continued existence of the contract of employment is the key determinant of their employment status in these situations.
If people are working less than they would like to, this is classified as underemployment, but such people do not appear in the unemployment statistics. Such contracts thus mask the true extent of surplus labour in the economy.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) puts the figure much higher than the ONS. In the Summer 2013 issue of its Labour Market Outlook, it estimates that one million workers are on zero-hours contracts.
Many employers use such contracts, including many voluntary-sector and public-sector organisations, including the NHS, local councils and Buckingham Palace. They are also used by many small and medium-sized enterprises and many well-known large companies, such as Sports Direct, Amazon, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld. It gives them the flexibility to adjust the hours they employ people. It allows them to keep people in employment when demand is low. It also makes them more willing to take on staff when demand rises, as it removes the fear of being over-staffed if demand then falls back.
But many workers dislike such contracts, which give them fewer employment rights and fewer hours than they would like to work. It also makes it difficult to budget when future income is uncertain. It also make credit and mortgages harder to obtain, as people have no guaranteed income. Another complaint is that companies may use the threat of lower hours as a tool to bully staff and get away with poorer working conditions.
In May of this year, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, announced that he was setting up a review of zero hours contracts.
Note that zero hours are not the only form of flexible working. Other examples include: ‘self-employed’ workers, contracted separately for each job they do for a company; people paid largely or wholly on commission; on-call working; part-time working, where the hours are specified in advance, but where these are periodically re-negotiated; overtime; people producing a product or service for a company (perhaps at home), where the company varies the amount paid per unit according to market conditions.
The following videos and articles look at the issue in some detail: at the extent of the practice and at its benefits to employers and its costs (and some benefits) to workers. Both The Guardian and the BBC have an extensive range of articles on the topic.
Do zero hours contracts create real jobs? BBC Newsnight, Allegra Stratton (14/8/12)
Record number of ‘Zero Hours Contracts’ ITV News on YouTube, Laura Kuenssberg (2/5/13)
Britons rally against ‘Zero Hour’ contracts Al Jazeera on YouTube (4/8/13)
Anger at Amazon working conditions Channel 4 News (1/8/13)
Government to include Amazon in its zero hours probe Channel 4 News (2/8/13)
Councils using zero hours contracts BBC London, Warren Nettleford (31/7/13)
The real economy: Labour market BBC Today Programme, Evan Davis (24/8/11)
Zero hour contracts ‘just the norm’ BBC Today Programme, Rochelle Monte and Peter Cheese (5/8/13)
Zero-hours contracts: One million British workers could be affected Independent, Nigel Morris (5/8/13)
Zero hours contracts “spreading like wildfire”, official stats show Union News, Pete Murray (1/8/13)
Zero-hours contracts: what are they? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (30/7/13)
Buckingham Palace uses zero-hours contracts for summer staff The Guardian, Simon Neville, Matthew Taylor and Phillip Inman (30/7/13)
Nick Clegg: business department will investigate zero-hours contracts The Guardian,
Patrick Wintour, Simon Neville, Matthew Taylor and Phillip Inman (31/7/13)
Zero-hours contracts are not unavoidable The Guardian, Phillip Inman (1/8/13)
ONS admits it underestimated number of zero-hours contracts The Guardian, Simon Neville (1/8/13)
Zero-hours contract workers – the new reserve army of labour? The Guardian, Philip Inman (4/8/13)
Zero-hours contracts cover more than 1m UK workers The Guardian, Simon Goodley and Phillip Inman (5/8/13)
Zero-hours contracts use by councils needs to be moderated The Guardian, Vidhya Alakeson (5/8/13)
If zero-hours contracts are driving this ‘recovery’, it’s a lousy kind of recover The Guardian, Deborah Orr (9/8/13)
ONS increases its estimate of workers on zero hours contracts Financial Times, John Aglionby (1/8/13)
Zero Hours Herald Scotland, Ian Bell and Scott Dickson (4/8/13)
Sports Direct protests planned over zero hours contracts Channel 4 News (3/8/13)
Cable warns of exploitation of zero-hours contracts BBC News (5/8/13)
Q&A: What are zero-hours contracts? BBC News (5/8/13)
Record number of 16-24s on zero hours contracts at work BBC Newsbeat, Jim Reed (15/5/13)
Figures show 18-24s most likely on zero-hours contract BBC Newsbeat, Jim Reed and Amelia Butterly (5/8/13)
Andy Burnham calls for ban on zero hours contracts BBC News (28/4/13)
Zero-hours contracts: What is it like living on one? BBC News, Sean Clare (5/8/13)
Small Talk: Zero-hours contracts? Key for growth Independent, David Prosser (5/8/13)
Zero Hour Contracts Manchester based law firm, Emma Cross (30/7/13)
People and proportion in employment on a zero-hour contract ONS (31/7/13)
Estimating Zero-Hour Contracts from the Labour Force Survey ONS (26/7/13)
One million workers on zero hours contracts, finds CIPD study CIPD, Michelle Stevens (5/8/13)
Labour Market Outlook CIPD
- Distinguish between open unemployment, disguised unemployment and underemployment?
- Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility? Which type or types of flexibility do zero-hours contracts give the firm?
- Identify the various benefits to employers of zero-hours contracts?
- What are the costs and benefits to workers of such contracts?
- Identify what forms of flexible contracts are used for staff in your university or educational establishment. Do they benefit (a) staff; (b) students?
- Are zero-hours contracts fair?
- In what ways do zero-hours contracts transfer risks from employers to employees?
- If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
- From the perspective of the employer, how do the benefits of zero-hours contracts compare with other forms of flexible working?
- Consider the arguments for and against (a) banning and (b) regulating zero-hours contracts.