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.
Should economists have foreseen the credit crunch? A few were warning of an overheated world economy with excessive credit and risk taking. Most economists prior to 2007/8, however, were predicting a continuation of steady economic growth. Inflation targeting, fiscal rules and increasingly flexible markets were the ingredients of this continuing prosperity. And then the crash happened!
So why did so few people see the downturn coming? Were the models used by economists fundamentally flawed, or was it simply a question of poor assumptions or poor data? Do we need a new way of modelling the economy, or is it simply a question of updating theories from the past? Should, for example, models become much more Keynesian? Should we abandon the new classical approach of assuming that markets are essentially good at pricing in risk and that herd behaviour will not be seriously destabilising?
The following podcast looks at these issues. “Aditya Chakrabortty’s joined in the studio by the Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott, as well as Roger Bootle, the managing director of Capital Economics, and political economist and John Maynard Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky. Also in the podcast, we hear from Nobel prize-winning economist, Elinor Ostrom, Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, and UN advisor and developmental economist Daniel Gay.”
The Business: A crisis of economics Guardian podcast (25/11/09)
See also the following news items from the Sloman Economics news site:
Keynes is dead; long live Keynes (3/10/09)
Learning from history (3/10/09)
Macroeconomics – Crisis or what? (6/8/09)
The changing battle grounds of economics (27/7/09)
Repeat of the Great Depression – or learning the lessons from the past? (23/6/09)
Animal spirits (30/4/09)
Keynes – do we need him more than ever? (26/10/08)
- Why did most economists fail to predict the credit crunch and subsequent recession? Was it a problem with the models that were used or the data that was put into these models, or both?
- What was the Washington consensus? To what extent did this consensus contribute to the current recession?
- What is meant by systemic risk? How does this influence the usefulness of ‘micro’ financial models?
- What particular market failures were responsible for the credit crunch?
- What is meant by ‘rational behaviour’? Is it reasonable to assume that people are rational?
- Is macroeconomics too theoretical or too mathematical (or both)? If you think it is, how can macroeconomics be reformed to improve its explanatory and predictive power?
- Does a ‘really good economist’ need to have a good grounding in a range of social sciences and in economic history?
Whilst some economists predicted the banking crisis of 2007/8 and the subsequent global recession, many did not. Was this a failure of macroeconomics, or at least of certain macroeconomic schools of thought, such as New Classical economics? Or was it a failure to apply the subject with sufficient wisdom? Should the subject be radically rethought, or can it simply be amended to take into account aspects of behavioural economics and a better understanding of systemic risk?
The four linked articles below from The Economist look at the debate and at the whole state of macroeconomics. The other articles pick up some of the issues.
Will the ‘crisis in macroeconomics’ lead to a stronger subject, more able to explain economies in crisis and not just when they are working well? Will a new consensus emerge or will economists remain divided, not only about the correct analysis of how economies work at a macro level, but also about how to tackle crises such as the present recession?
What went wrong with economics The Economist (16/7/09)
The other-worldly philosophers The Economist (16/7/09)
Efficiency and beyond The Economist (16/7/09)
In defence of the dismal science The Economist (6/8/09)
How to rebuild a shamed subject Financial Times (5/8/09)
What is the point of economists? Financial Times – Arena (28/7/09)
Macroeconomic Models Wall Street Pit (23/7/09)
Macroeconomics: Economics is in crisis – it is time for a profound revamp Business Day (27/7/09)
- Distinguish between ‘freshwater’, ‘saltwater’ and ‘brackish’ macroeconomics.
- Explain why economists differ over the efficacy of fiscal policy in times of recession. To what extent does the debate hinge on the size of the multiplier?
- Why is the potential for macroeconomics higher now than prior to the recession?
- What is meant by the ‘efficient market hypothesis’? How did inefficiencies in financial markets contribute to the banking crisis and recession?
- Should economists predict the future, or should they confine themselves to explaining the present and past?
On July 8 the UK government published its long-awaited White Paper on reform of the system of banking regulation. Several commentators had called for the abolition of the ‘tripartite’ system of regulation, whereby responsibility for ensuring the stability and security of the banking system is shared between the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the Bank of England and the Treasury. Some have advocated a considerable strengthening of the role of the Bank of England and even abolishing the FSA. What is generally agreed is that there needs to be ‘macro-prudential’ regulation that looks at the whole banking system and at questions of systemic risk and not just at individual banks. Several of the articles below debate this issue.
The government’s White Paper proposes keeping the tripartite system but also strengthening various aspects of regulation. Amongst other things, it proposes giving the FSA powers to ‘penalise banks if their pay policies create unnecessary risks and are not focused on the long-term strength of their institutions’. It also proposes setting up a ‘new Council for Financial Stability – made up of the FSA, the Bank of England and the Treasury – to meet regularly and report on the systemic risks to financial stability’. Banks would also be required to increase their capital adequacy ratios. The first two articles below give an outline of the proposals. The detailed proposals are contained in the third link, to the Treasury site.
Chancellor moves to rein in ‘risky’ banks Independent (9/7/09)
Banks to face tougher regulation BBC News (8/7/09)
Reforming financial markets HM Treasury (8/7/09)
Treasury sees devil in the detail Financial Times (7/7/09)
How to police the banking system Independent (8/7/09)
City regulation: a quick guide Telegraph (8/7/09)
Treasury White Paper: what it means for the financial services industry Telegraph (8/7/09)
Key issues: Financial regulation BBC News (8/7/09)
Alistair Darling accuses banks of ‘kamikaze’ attitude to loans Telegraph (5/7/09)
HSBC boss on banking reform BBC News video (3/7/09)
Bankers ‘want to be proud of what they do’ BBC Today Programme, Radio 4 (7/7/09)
Divisions on display at Mansion House BBC Newsnight video (18/6/09)
Who should supervise the banks? BBC Newsnight video (18/6/09)
Governor wants more bank powers BBC News video (17/6/09)
King puts spotlight on banks too big to fail Times Online (21/6/09)
Mervyn King: Banks cannot be too big to fail Edmund Conway blog, Telegraph (17/6/09)
The City doesn’t need any more rules Telegraph (6/7/09)
Treasury admits ‘intellectual failure’ behind credit crisis Telegraph (8/7/09)
Bankers to face draconian pay veto Times Online (8/7/09)
- What do you understand by macro-prudential regulation? What would be the difficulties of applying regulation at this level?
- Why may liquidity ratios and capital adequacy ratios that are deemed appropriate by individual banks be inappropriate for the banking system as a whole?
- If banks are too big to fail, why does this create a moral hazard?
- Examine the case for splitting universal banks into retail banks and investment banks.
- Examine the arguments for and against regulating the level and nature of remuneration of senior bank executives.