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Daniel and Richard Susskind in their book “The Future of the Professions” set out two possible futures for the professions. Either:
• They carry on much as they have since the mid 19th century, but with the use of technology to streamline and optimise the way they work
• Increasingly capable machines will displace the work of current professionals

Their research suggests that, while these two futures will exist in parallel for some time, in the long run the second future will dominate. The actuarial profession is particularly vulnerable. As the Susskinds write:

Accountants and consultants, for example, are particularly effective at encroaching on the business of lawyers and actuaries.

Actuaries both here and in other countries are waking up to what is coming, but the response of the profession is a whole has been quite slow.

For the actuarial profession, we will see the extension of some trends which have already begun, eg:

  • Automation of processes not just leading to greater efficiencies but reconfiguring both what work is done and how it is done, eg propensity pricing and pensions valuations
  • Para professionalization, like CAA Global for instance
  • Globalisation
  • Specialisation
  • Mergers of businesses as markets consolidate
  • Flexible self employment

And the emergence of trends that have hardly started at all yet, eg:

  • The end of reserved roles for actuaries
  • Different ways of communicating advice (Richard Susskind got into trouble with the Law Society in the mid 1990s for suggesting that most legal communication between lawyers and their clients would be delivered via email in the future, which would strike us as an obvious observation now)
  • Online self-help for users of actuarial advice (ask discussed by the Pensions Policy Institute in their report last year)
  • The advance of roboactuaries and their assistants

Focusing on the last of these, a paper produced by Dodzi Attimu and Bryon Robidoux for the Society of Actuaries in July 2016 explored the theme of robo actuaries, by which they meant software that can perform the role of an actuary. They went on to elaborate as follows:

Though many actuaries would agree certain tasks can and should be automated, we are talking about more than that here. We mean a software system that can more or less autonomously perform the following activities: develop products, set assumptions, build models based on product and general risk specifications, develop and recommend investment and hedging strategies, generate memos to senior management, etc.

They then went on to define a robo actuarial analyst as:

A system that has limited cognitive abilities but can undertake specialized activities, e.g. perform the heavy lifting in model building (once the specification/configuration is created), perform portfolio optimization, generate reports including narratives (e.g. memos) based on data analysis, etc. When it comes to introducing AI to the actuarial profession, we believe the robo actuarial analyst would constitute the first wave and the robo actuary the second wave

They estimate that the first wave is 5 to 10 years away and the second 15 to 20 years away. We have been warned.

One of the implications of this would be far fewer actuarial students required and, in my view, a much smaller appetite amongst actuarial firms for employing students while they were sitting actuarial examinations, particularly the core rather than specialist ones. This in turn would suggest an expansion of the role of universities in supporting students through these stages of their actuarial education, massively increasing the IT and data analysis skills of the next generation of actuarial students and developing far more opportunities for students to develop skills more traditionally seen as “work-based”, such as presentation, project management and negotiation skills. Some universities, such as my own at the University of Leicester, are using the preparatory work in anticipation of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries’ launch of Curriculum 2019 to do all of these things.

But universities and the education professionals in general face their own challenges from the rise of technology and increasingly capable machines:

  • The development of learning labs offering personalised learning systems
  • Online education networks, like Moodle, once used just to support traditional university teaching activities, but now starting to actively supplant them
  • Other online education platforms, like the Khan Academy
  • The rise of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. For instance, more people have signed up to Harvard University’s MOOCs in one year than have enrolled at the University in its 377 year history

The actuarial profession and the higher education sector therefore need each other. We need to develop actuaries of the future coming into your firms to have:

  • great team working skills
  • highly developed presentation skills, both in writing and in speech
  • strong IT skills
  • clarity about why they are there and the desire to use their skills to solve problems

All within a system which is possible to regulate in a meaningful way. Developing such people for the actuarial profession will need to be a priority in the next few years.

Of course it is still possible to laugh at what Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (here and here) have not managed to do yet, despite their vast ambitions. But it should not blind us to the fact that those ambitions will be realised in our working lifetimes in many cases. And we need to start preparing now.

 

 

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The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA), through its Actuarial Research Centre, is inviting research teams and organisations to submit proposals for a research project on modelling pension funds under climate change. The research is intended to address the need for pensions actuaries to understand the potential magnitude of climate change impacts, and hence if and when climate change might be relevant to the funding advice they give. What areas in particular might be useful to look at through the lens of a pension actuary?

The current concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is around 400 parts per million by volume (ppmv), or a little over 140% of the generally accepted pre-industrial level of 280 ppmv. What level we can cap this at depends on how we respond in every country in the world. There are therefore many opinions about it:

Source: IPCC AR5: Fig 2.08-01 

Here RCPs stand for Representative Concentration Pathways, and are meant to be consistent with a wide range of possible changes in future anthropogenic (i.e. human) greenhouse gas emissions. RCP 2.6 assumes that emissions peak between 2010-2020, with emissions declining substantially thereafter. Emissions in RCP 4.5 peak around 2040, then decline. In RCP 6.0, emissions peak around 2080, then decline. In RCP 8.5, emissions continue to rise throughout the 21st century. What this means is that the best we can hope for now is a scenario somewhere between RCP 2.6 and RCP 4.5, with the US Government’s Environmental Protection Agency appearing to believe that RCP 6.0 is the most realistic scenario. As you can see, RCP 4.5 assumes an eventual equilibrium at around 500 ppm, or about 180% of pre-industrial levels and RCP 6.0 an equilibrium at around 700 ppmv, or about 250% ppmv.

Equilibrium climate sensitivity is defined as the change in global mean near-surface air temperature that would result from a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration. A doubling of the pre-industrial level to 560 ppmv (ie between the RCP 4.5 and RCP 6.0 assumption) has been projected to result in a range of possible outcomes:

Source: IPCC 2007 4th Assessment Report, Working Group 1 (Figure 9-20-1)

This is certainly a bit of a we know zero kind of graph, but has worryingly fat tails indicating reasonable chances of 10 degrees plus added to average global temperatures. To put this in context, let’s use the approach taken in Mark Lynas’ excellent “Six Degrees“, where the combined research into the effects of each additional degree above pre-industrial global temperatures is collated to allow us to view them as distinct possible futures. Some examples are as follows:

One degree

We are nearly here (around 0.8ᵒ so far):

  • Return of the “Mid-west American dust bowl” but with greater vengeance
  • Increase in hurricane activity
  • Loss of low lying islands, eg Tuvalu

Two degrees

The “safe” level we are trying to limit increases to:

  • Release of greenhouse gases begin to alter the oceans. May render some parts of southern oceans toxic to Ca CO3 and thus to one of life’s essential building blocks, plankton.
  • Heatwaves like 2003 which killed 35,000 people in Europe and led to crop losses of $12 billion and forest fires costing $1.5 billion will occur almost every other summer.
  • Crippling droughts can be anticipated in Los Angeles and California
  • From Nebraska to Texas the anticipated drought would be many times worse than the 1930s “dust bowl” phenomenon.
  • Polar bears would probably become rapidly extinct.
  • Mediterranean countries will become drier and hotter with significant water shortages.
  • IPCC estimate sea level rise of 18 to 59 cms.
  • Monsoons would increase in India and Bangladesh leading to mass migration of its populations.
  • International food price stability will have to be agreed to prevent widespread starvation.

Three degrees

  • Africa will be split between the north which will see a recovery of rainfall and the south which becomes drier. This drier southern phase will be beyond human adaptation. Wind speeds will double leading to serious erosion of the Kalahari desert.
  • Indian monsoon rains will fail. ·
  • The Himalayan glaciers provide the waters of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers. In the early stages of global warming these glaciers will release more water but eventually decreasing by up to 90%. Pakistan will suffer most, as will China’s hydro-electric industry.
  • Amazonian rain forest basin will dry our completely with consequent bio-diversity disasters
  • Australia will become the world’s driest nation.
  • New York will be subject to storm surges. At 3° sea levels will rise to up to 1 metre above present levels.
  • In London, a 1 in 150 year storm will occur every 7 or 8 years by 2080.
  • Hurricanes will devastate places as far removed as Texas, the Caribbean and Shanghai.
  • A 3° rise will see more extreme cyclones tracking across the Atlantic and striking the UK, Spain, France and Germany. Holland will become very vulnerable.
  • By 2070 northern Europe will have 20% more rainfall and at the same time the Mediterranean will be slowly turning to a desert.
  • More than half Europe’s plant species will be on the “red list”
  • The IPCC in its 2007 report concluded that all major planetary granaries will require adaptive measures at 2.5° temperature rise regardless of precipitation rates. US southern states worst affected, Canada may benefit. The IPCC reckons that a 2.5° temperature rise will see food prices soar.
  • Population transfers will be bigger than anything ever seen in the history of mankind.

Three degrees obviously needs to be avoided, let alone ten, but the problem is that business as usual for the finance industry may not be the way to get there. As some recent research has suggested, financial market solutions to environmental problems, such as carbon trading, may be ineffective. As the authors state: By highlighting the tenuous and conflicting relation between finance and production that shaped the early history of the photovoltaics industry, the article raises doubts about the prevailing approach to mitigate climate change through carbon pricing. Given the uncertainty of innovation and the ease of speculation, it will do little to spur low-carbon technology development without financial structures supporting patient capital.

Patient capital is something developed economies have been seeking for some time, whether it is for infrastructure investment, development projects or new energy sources, and no good way to create it within the UK private sector has been found yet, including various initiatives to try and get an increase in pension scheme investment in infrastructure projects. It therefore seems to me to be the wrong question to ask what impacts climate change are likely to have on the assumptions used for pension scheme funding, when it is the impact of the speculation which pension scheme funding encourages which is one of the main drivers of our economies towards the worst possible climate change outcomes.

A more productive research question in my view would be to bring in legislators and pensions lawyers as well as environmental scientists and others researching and thinking in this area alongside actuaries to look at how we could change the regulatory framework within which pension scheme funding and investment within other financial institutions where actuaries are central takes place. There is already research into what changes may be necessary to international law to reflect the new Anthropocene era the planet has entered, where the dominant feature is the impact of human activity on the environment. In my view this should be extended to the UK legislative and regulatory landscape too.

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For a brief period this week, before the Panama leaks brought everyone back in the room, one of the BBC’s main headlines was that a change to the UK State Pension was projected to make around three-quarters of people currently in their 20s and two-thirds of those currently in their 30s worse off than under the current arrangements. Figures of £19,000 and £17,000 “over the course of their retirement” were bandied around.

The reason the analysis had been carried out by the Pensions Policy Institute (PPI) was that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is required to carry out an impact assessment of such proposed changes and had given the PPI the task.

First of all, the full summary of the analysis, coverage of which on the BBC has at least started to become a little more measured by today, is as follows:

PPI nSP

As you can see, the numbers that came out were weekly losses of up to £17 per week for some groups and weekly gains of up to £13 per week for others. These numbers were themselves based on complicated projections about how benefit changes would be phased in and also how much the State Second Pension would pay people many decades into the future (the DWP paper can be found here). They were then aggregated by multiplying by the number of weeks in retirement until the pensioner was expected to die, based on the current State Pension Age timetable and the principal projections from the ONS 2015 Life Tables. The total amounts expected to be paid to people in retirement, however, were not (for those in their 20s this would be around 24 x 52 x 155.65 (the start rate for the new State Pension) as a minimum = £194,250 in 2015 terms). Neither was any explanation made of just how many years people were being projected to live. For £17 a week to translate into £21,000, the person currently in their 20s will need to be in retirement for nearly 24 years. It is not clear exactly when this person is expected to retire: the current tables only go up to a date of birth of 6 April 1978 (when State Pension Age is expected to be 68) with a vague intention to increase it to 69 by the late 2040s. An assumption of a retirement age of 69 looks consistent with the projections, which indicate a life expectancy at that age of 22.95 years for males and 24.81 years for females born in 1995.

And that last bit leads me on to why this particular news story is in my view just foolish. I tend to get a bit crotchety whenever anyone projects anything as a fact to a date beyond my personal life expectancy (less than 33 more years, according to the ONS). We are talking about people being worse off in the 2050s and 2060s. Here are a few more projections for you with those kinds of timelines:

  • World population will be 9 billion by 2050 (UN – currently it’s 7 billion)
  • Total energy demand in CO2 equivalent doubles from current levels by 2060 (IPCC)
  • Banking assets in London exceed 9 times UK GDP by 2050 (Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England)
  • 60% of government bonds across all countries will be classified as junk by 2050 (Standard & Poors)

The vast majority of people are going to be better off who retire in the next 15 years (at least in terms of their State Pension), as will most people retiring in the decade after that. Beyond that we are in the region of the unknowable – almost certainly a very different-looking world which will have required several further adjustments to state pensions before we get there. So please let’s not waste time having foolish arguments about made up winners and losers.

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S&P sovereign credit ratings

The Treasury is consulting on the tax relief that should be available in future for pension schemes and their members. The principles for any reform that it has set out are:

  • it should be simple and transparent;
  • it should allow individuals to take personal responsibility;
  • it should build on the success of automatic enrolment; and
  • it should be sustainable.

Simplicity, transparency, personal responsibility and sustainability mean different things to different people, which means that the precise meaning of these principles will depend on the politics of the people proposing them. However the words themselves are difficult to argue with, which is presumably why they have been chosen.

It has then set out 8 questions that it would like answered in response to its consultation. The consultation ends on 30 September. I have set out my responses below. I hope that they will sufficiently incense one or two more people into making their views heard, before the chance disappears.

1. To what extent does the complexity of the current system undermine the incentive for individuals to save into a pension?

On this question I think I agree with Henry Tapper at the Pension PlayPen. He says the following:

In summary, millions of pounds of tax relief is wasted by the Treasury helping wealthy people avoid tax…Incentives are available to those on low earnings who pay no tax, but this message is not getting through, we need a system that resonates with all workers, not just those with the means to take tax advice.

I then think I agree with the following:

The incentive should be linked to the payment of contributions and not be dependent on the tax or NI status of the contributor – if people are in – they get incentivised.

That would certainly make the incentive to the pension scheme member clearer and potentially easier to understand. The other simplification I would support would be the merging of income tax and national insurance contributions – many of the sources I have referenced below are trying to solve problems caused by the different ways these two taxes are collected. This simplification would be an essential part of any pension reforms in my view.

2. Do respondents believe that a simpler system is likely to result in greater engagement with pension saving? If so, how could the system be simplified to strengthen the incentive for individuals to save into a pension?

This is the invitation to support TEE (ie taxed-taxed-exempt, the same tax treatment as for ISAs). I have up until now been persuaded by Andrew Dilnot and Paul Johnson’s paper from over 20 years ago that this was not a good idea. This pointed out that the current EET system:

  • Avoids problems with working out what level of contributions are attributable to individuals in a DB system
  • Does not discourage consumption in the future relative to consumption now

I have changed my mind. The first point has already been addressed in order to assess people against the annual allowance, although this may need to be further refined. The second point is more interesting. As Paul Mason has pointed out in Postcapitalism, the OECD 2010 report on policy challenges, coupled with S&P’s report from the same year on the global economic impacts of ageing populations point to the scenario pensions actuaries tend to refer to when challenged on the safety of Government bonds, ie if they fail then the least of your problems will be your pension scheme. The projections from S&P (see bar chart above) are that 60% of government bonds across all countries will have a credit rating below what is currently called investment grade – in other words they will be junk bonds. In this scenario private defined benefit schemes become meaningless and the returns from defined contribution schemes very uncertain indeed. A taxation system which seeks to extract tax on the way in rather than on the way out then looks increasingly sensible.

I think that both the popularity of ISAs and the consistently high take up of the tax free cash option by pensioners, however poor the conversion terms are in terms of pension given up, suggest that tax exemptions on the way out rather than on the way in would be massively popular.
3 Would an alternative system allow individuals to take greater personal responsibility for saving an adequate amount for retirement, particularly in the context of the shift to defined contribution pensions?

Based on my comments above, I think the whole idea of personal responsibility for saving adding up to more than a hill of beans for people currently in their 20s may be illusory. People do take responsibility for things they can have some control over. Pension savings in the late twenty-first century are unlikely to be in that category.
4 Would an alternative system allow individuals to plan better for how they use their savings in retirement?

As I have said I favour a TEE system like ISAs. I think some form of incentive will be required to replace tax exemption, such as “for every two pounds you put in a pension, the Government will put in one” with tight upper limits. The previous pensions minister Steve Webb appears to broadly support this idea. Exemption from tax on the way out (including abolition of the tax charges for exceeding the Lifetime Allowance) would also aid planning.
5 Should the government consider differential treatment for defined benefit and defined contribution pensions? If so, how should each be treated?

I think this is inevitable due to the fact that defined contribution (DC) schemes receive cash whereas defined benefit (DB) schemes accrue promises with often a fairly indirect link to the contributions paid in a given year. In my view taxation will need to be based on the current Annual Allowance methodology, perhaps refined as suggested by David Robbins and Dave Roberts at Towers Watson. The problem with just taxing contributions in DB is that you end up taxing deficit contributions which would effectively amount to retrospective taxation.

A further option discussed in Robbins and Roberts is making all contributions into DB schemes into employee contributions. I would go further and apply this to both DC and DB schemes – a sort of “reverse salary sacrifice” which could be encouraged by making the incentives on contributions only available on employee contributions, which would then be paid out of net pay. Any remaining accrual contributions made by employers in a DB scheme would be taxed by an adjustment to the following year’s tax code.
6 What administrative barriers exist to reforming the system of pensions tax, particularly in the context of automatic enrolment? How could these best be overcome?

I think everything points to the need for the retirement of DB for all but the very largest schemes. It would be better to do this gradually starting soon through an accelerated Pension Protection Fund (PPF) process rather than having it forced upon us in a hurry later in the century when PPF deficits may well be considerably higher than the current £292.1 billion.
7 How should employer pension contributions be treated under any reform of pensions tax relief?

As I have said, I think they should be converted into employee contributions based on higher employee salaries. This would make it clearer to people how much was being invested on their behalf into pension schemes.
8 How can the government make sure that any reform of pensions tax relief is sustainable for the future.

They can’t, and any change now will almost certainly be revisited several times over the next 50 years. However, systems where people feel they can see what is going on and which are tax free at the end are currently very popular and I would expect them to remain so for the foreseeable future. That takes care of political sustainability in the short term. What about longer-term economic sustainability? Faced by an uncertain and turbulent next 50 years where I have argued that personal responsibility (rather than communal responsibility) for pensions will seem increasingly irrelevant, I think what I have proposed will allow us to transition to a system which can be sustained to a greater degree.

We are entering what may prove to be a traumatic time for the world economy if Postcapitalism is even half right. Pensions taxation seems a good place to try and start to move our financial institutions in a more sustainable direction.

Nick Foster is a former pensions actuary who now lectures at the University of Leicester

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Election forecasts

The result of the forthcoming General Election is not in much doubt it would seem. Eight different polling organisations’ latest polls are shown above, and the similarities between them are so much more striking than the differences. It appears that we will be going through the motions of a process which is to a large extent predetermined on 7 May. The election result is not where the uncertainty lies.

However, the day afterwards, when the general public no longer has any say in what happens, is still deeply uncertain. Although the parties have all let us have their manifestos, details about how they would behave in the event of a distribution of seats which seems to be largely already decided in most cases (presumably because the parties think we might vote differently if we knew) are very sketchy. Does this meet the definition of democracy, ie a system of government by the whole population? The Electoral Reform Society would say not. I would argue it does.

If the election result is largely as expected what would it tell us about the views of the electorate? I think it would tell us:

  • They don’t want austerity on the scale of 2010-12 again (which is one reason why the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats together don’t appear likely to get a majority);
  • They are not as obsessed with immigration policy as the two main parties think they are (which is why they seem prepared to vote for a range of different approaches to managing immigration with no approach commanding majority support);
  • They don’t want a referendum on whether to stay in the EU (which is why the Conservatives and UKIP together will not be able to get a majority); and
  • They don’t support the current student fees system and don’t believe it is indistinguishable from a graduate tax (which is another reason why the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives together seem unlikely to get a majority).

There are probably several other attitudes amongst the electorate that can equally well be divined in the negative in a similar way (the BBC summaries of the parties’ positions on a range of issues can be found here), but the point is that a finely balanced pattern of parties of the type we look likely to end up with does not represent an inability to make a decision. It does however represent a determination not to allow any single party to make decisions. That seems to meet a reasonable definition of democracy to me.

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There have been a lot of predictions already for 2015. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development predicts employment in the UK increasing by half a million, GDP growth of 2.4% and earnings growth of between 1% and 2%, ie keeping its predictions reasonably close to what happened in 2014 and/or what the OBR, OECD and IMF are predicting. The annual FT economists’ survey resulted in an average conclusion amongst 90 economists that GDP growth would increase from 2.4% pa to 2.5% pa around election time and then on to 2.6% pa soon after. I could go on but I think you get the general idea – small changes around current economic statistics with a remarkable level of agreement amongst the experts. It’s enough to make you want to use these predictions to populate your models with, which is of course the general idea.

But before you get any idea that these people know more about 2015 than you do, consider what was being said about the oil price only 6 months ago in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Fiscal sustainability report. Here is the graph:

Oil predictions

Once again, there was a trend of projecting a price rather similar to the current one and a remarkable level of agreement amongst the experts. Here is what has actually happened subsequently:

Brent crude oil price

Now I don’t want to pick on these forecasters in particular, after all the futures prices indicated that these views were the overwhelming consensus. But the oil price is a fundamental indicator in most economic models – Gavyn Davies details how the latest fall in oil prices has changed his economic forecasts here – with implications for inflation and GDP growth, and dependent upon predictions about many other areas of the political economy of the world which impact supply (eg OPEC activity, war in oil-producing areas) and demand (eg global economic activity). So an ability to see a big move in oil prices coming would seem to be a clear prerequisite for being able to make accurate economic forecasts. It seems equally clear that that ability does not exist.

Economic forecasts generally tell us that things are not going to change very much, which is fine as long as things are not changing very much but catastrophic over the short periods when they are. Despite the sensitivity testing that goes on in the background, most economic and business decisions are taken on the basis that things are not going to change very much. This puts most business leaders in the individualist camp described here, ie a philosophical position which encourages risk taking. Indeed even if some of the people advising business leaders are in the hierarchist camp, ie believing that the world is not predictable but manageable, to anyone with little mathematical education this is indistinguishable from an individualist position.

The early shots of the election campaign have so far been dominated by the Conservative Party branding Labour’s spending plans (which to the extent they are known appear to involve quite severe fiscal tightening, although not as drastically severe as Conservative ones) as likely to cause “chaos”, while the Labour Party wants to wrap itself in the supposed respectability of OBR endorsement of their economic policies. Neither of them has a plan for another economic crisis, which concerns me.

What are desperately needed are policies which are aimed at reducing our vulnerability to the sudden movements in economic variables which we never see coming. We should stop trying to predict them because we can’t. We should stop employing our brightest and best in positions which implicitly endorse the assumption that things won’t change very much because they will.

What sort of an economy would it have to be for us not to care about the oil price? That’s what we need to start thinking about.

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From time to time I get asked about my banner header showing successive Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts for GDP growth against actual GDP growth and, in particular, what has happened since. The OBR produces its forecasts twice a year, in March and December, and the latest one is here. However I have resisted updating my banner to date for a number of reasons:

  • The statement that economic forecasts are wildly inaccurate has become a truism that, in my view, no longer needs additional evidence in support; and
  • To be completely honest, once actual GDP growth started to increase (as was inevitable eventually, and particularly once the Government’s austerity boot’s grip on the economy’s neck started to weaken), the graph no longer looked quite as amusing.

However, I have recently started to question the first of these assumptions so here is an updated graph:

OBR update 2014

Notice how the point at which growth peaks and starts to fall is moving closer with each new forecast. This is as much a part of their models as putting back the upward path a quarter or two with each successive forecast was while that path was still actually falling. Be assured that the OBR will not forecast the next fall before it actually happens.

What concerns me is the forecast consensus which is starting to build around 2014-2018 of GDP growth between 2% and 3% pa (currently narrowing as a forecast to 2.5% – 2.8% pa). This is despite the OBR themselves making no more than a claim of 20% probability of growth staying in this range, as the following fan chart shows:

OBR fan chart

However I don’t see this fan chart turning up in many news reports and therefore my concern is of an election campaign fought under the illusion of a relatively benign economic future. I think it is likely to be anything but, particularly as the Government is likely to stick the boot back in post election whoever wins.

There seems to be no chance of stopping the OBR and others publishing their forecasts, too many people seem to value the power of the story-telling however implausible the plot, so the only course available seems to be to rubbish them as often as we can. That way it may just be possible, despite all the noise about predictions of economic recoveries and collapses we cannot possibly foretell being used to try and claim our political support more generally, to keep in mind that we know zero. And make better decisions as a result.

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Sometimes the best explanations of things come when we are trying to explain them to outsiders, people not expected to understand our particular forest of acronyms, slangs and conventions which, while allowing speedier communication, can also channel thinking down the same tired old tracks time after time. Such an example I think is the UK Government Actuary’s Department (GAD) paper on Pensions for Public Service Employees in the UK, presented to the International Congress of Actuaries last month in Washington.

Not a lay audience admittedly, but one sufficiently removed from the UK for the paper’s writers to need to represent the bewildering complexity of UK public sector pension provision very clearly and concisely. The result is the best summary of the current position and the planned reforms that I have seen so far, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in public sector pensions.

There are two points which struck me particularly about the summary of the reforms, designed to bring expenditure on public service pensions down from 2.1% of GDP in 2011-12 to 1.3% by 2061-62.

The first came while looking at the excellent summary of the factors contributing to the decline of private sector pension provision. Leaving aside the more general points about costs and risks, and those thought applicable to the (mainly) unfunded public service schemes which have been largely addressed by the planned reforms, I noticed two of the factors thought specific to funded defined benefits (DB) plans:

  • A more onerous burden on trustees of plans, including member representation, and knowledge and understanding; and
  • Company pension accounting rules requiring liabilities to be measured based on corporate bond yields.

As the GAD paper makes clear, the Public Service Pensions Act will result in a significant increase in interventions on governance in particular in some public sector schemes. The Pensions Regulator’s recent consultation on regulating public service pension schemes is also proposing a 60 page code of practice be adopted in respect of the governance and administration of these schemes. This looks like the “onerous burden” which has been visited on the private sector over the last 20 years all over again.

The other point is not directly comparable, as company pension accounting rules do not apply to the public sector. However, as pointed out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this week, supplementary tables to the National Accounts calculating public sector pensions liabilities will be required of all EU member states from September this year onwards, to comply with the European System of Accounts (ESA) 2010. These are carried out using best estimate assumptions (ie without margins for prudence) and a discount rate based on a long term estimate of GDP growth (as compared to the AA corporate bond yield required by accounting rules).

The ONS released the first such tables published by any EU member state, for 2010, in March 2012. This for the first time values the liabilities in respect of unfunded public sector pension entitlements, at £852 billion, down from £915 billion at the start of the year.

I think there is a real possibility that publication of this information, as it has for DB pension schemes, will result in pressure to reduce these liabilities where possible. An example would be one I mentioned in a previous post, where mass transfers to defined contribution (DC) arrangements from public sector schemes following the 2014 Budget have effectively been ruled out because of their potential impact on public finances. If such transfers reduced the liability figure under ESA 2010 (which they almost certainly would) the Government attitude to such transfers might be different in the future.

The second point concerned the ESA 2010 assumptions themselves. There was a previous consultation on the best discount rate used for these valuations, ie the percentage by which a payment required in one year’s time is more affordable than one required now, with GDP growth coming out as the preferred option. Leaving aside the many criticisms of GDP as an economic measure, one option which was not considered apparently was the growth in current Government receipts, although this would seem in many ways to be a better guide to the element of economic growth relevant to the affordability of public sector provision. Taking the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts from 2013-14 to 2018-19 with the fixed ESA 2010 assumptions for discount rate and inflation of 5% pa and 2% pa respectively gives us an interesting comparison.

ESA v OBRThe CPI assumption appears to be fairly much in line with forecasts, but the average nominal GDP and current receipt year on year increase over the next 6 years of forecasts are 4.47% pa and 4.61% pa (4.72% pa if National Accounts taxes are used rather than all current receipts) respectively. A 0.5% reduction in the discount rate to 4.5% pa would be expected to increase the liability by over 10%.

Another, possibly purer, measure of economic growth, removing as it does the distortions caused by net migration, would be the growth of GDP per capita. If we take the OBR forecasts for real GDP growth per capita and set it against the long term ESA 2010 assumption of 1.05/1.02 – 1 = 2.94% the comparison is even more interesting:

Real GDP v ESAIn this case the ESA assumption is around 1% pa greater than the forecasts would suggest, making the liability less than 80% of where it would be using the average forecast value.

The ESA 2010 assumptions are intended to be fixed so that figures for different years can easily be compared. It would clearly be easy to argue for tougher assumptions from the OBR forecasts (although the accuracy of these has of course not got a great track record), but perhaps more difficult to find an argument for relaxing them further.

Whether the consensus holds over keeping them fixed when and if the liability figures start to get more prominence and a lower liability becomes an important economic target for some of the larger EU member states remains to be seen. However if the assumptions cannot be changed, since public sector benefits now have a 25 year guarantee in the UK (other than the normal pension age now equal to the state pension age being subject to review every 5 years), then the cost cap mechanism (ie higher member contributions) becomes the only available safety valve. So we can perhaps expect nurses’ and teachers’ pension contributions to become the battleground when public sector pension affordability becomes a hot political issue once more.

We can poke fun at the Government’s enthusiasm to take on the Royal Mail Pension Plan and its focus on annual cashflows which made it look beneficial for their finances over the short term, but we may also look back wistfully to the days before public sector pensions stopped being viewed as a necessary expense of delivering services and became instead a liability to be minimised.

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Towers watson surveyAs a quick illustration of the differences between how businesses in the UK and Germany approach change this chart from the recent Economist Intelligence Unit research carried out for Towers Watson takes some beating. To UK eyes, an insane proportion (45%) of German businesses are proposing to make physical changes to their workplaces by 2020 to accommodate a greying workforce. There is an even more dramatic contrast when the issue of flexible working hours is raised. Less than half of UK businesses intend to offer more flexible working hours by 2020, compared to over three quarters of German businesses.

Neither are we interested in training our older workers apparently. Only 28% of UK businesses intend to ensure that the skills of their older employees remain up to date, compared to 48% of German businesses.

So where are UK businesses preparing to manage change then? Giving employees more choice over their benefits is cited by 60% of UK businesses, compared to 45% in Germany and the European average of 48%.

But is this the positive step it is presented as? It seems unlikely to me that these UK businesses that don’t want to invest in older workers’ working environments or give them flexibility over hours or location or train them is interested in providing any choice over benefits that doesn’t also cut their costs. There are going to be some battles ahead over exactly how the pensions changes in the Budget are to be implemented. Judging from this survey, they are going to be hard fought.

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Unemployment

We are only six months into the Bank of England’s new regime of giving forward guidance about what circumstances might lead them to adjust the Base Rate and they are already in a bit of a mess with it. Whether forward guidance is abandoned or not is still in the balance, amid much confusion. However, much of this confusion seems to be due to the challenge that events have provided to the assumption that the Bank of England could make reasonably accurate economic predictions.

It turns out that not only did the Bank not know how fast unemployment would fall (not a surprise: the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) minutes from August make clear that they suspected this might be the case), but neither did they know, when it did fall, what a 7% unemployed economy would look like. The Bank has been very surprised by how fragile it still is.

Back in August 2013, when unemployment was still at 7.7%, the MPC voted to embrace the forward guidance which has now fallen on its face. This said that: In particular, the MPC intends not to raise Bank Rate from its current level of 0.5% at least until the Labour Force Survey headline measure of the unemployment rate has fallen to a threshold of 7%, subject to the conditions below.

The “conditions below” were that all bets would be off if any of three “knockouts” were breached:

1. that it would be more likely than not that CPI 18 to 24 months ahead would be at 2.5% or above (in fact it has just fallen to 2%);

2. medium-term inflation expectations no longer remained “sufficiently well anchored” (the gently sloping graph below would suggest it hasn’t slipped that anchor yet); or

3. the Financial Policy Committee (FPC) judged monetary policy posed “a significant threat to financial stability”. More difficult to give an opinion on that one but, looking beyond the incipient housing market bubble, it is difficult to see that monetary policy is causing any other instability currently. Certainly not compared to the instability which would be caused by jacking up interest rates and sending mortgage defaults through the roof.

Source: Bank of England implied spot inflation curve

Source: Bank of England implied spot inflation curve

So it seems that there has been no clear knock out on any of these three counts, but that the “threshold” (it was never a target after all) of 7% is no longer seen as significant a sign of economic recovery as it had been believed it would only last August.

Fun as it is to watch the illusion of mastery of the economy by the very serious people flounder yet again, as what is an intrinsically good piece of economic news is turned into a fiasco of indecision, I think the Bank is right to believe that it is far too early to raise interest rates. I say so because of two further graphs from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) latest labour market statistics, which were not included in their infographic on the left.

The first is the graph of regional unemployment, which shows very clearly that large areas of the UK are still nowhere near the magic 7% threshold: the variations are so wide and, in austerian times, the resources to address them are so limited that it makes sense not to be overly dazzled by the overall UK number.

Regional unemployment

The second is the graph of those not looking or not available for work in the 16-64 age group since the 1970s. As you can see, it has recently shown a very different pattern to that of the unemployment graph. In the past (and borne out by the data from 1973 to around 1993) the number not available to work has tended to mirror the unemployment rate as people who could manage without work withdrew from the job market when times got tough and came back in when things picked up. However in the early 90s something new started to happen: people withdrawing from the job market even when unemployment was falling. There has been a steady increase in their number until it finally started to fall only last year. So what is happening?

Not in labour force

One of the factors has been a big increase in the number of people registered as self employed, rising from 4.2 million in 1999 to 5.1 million in 2011. However, many of these people are earning very little and I suspect that at least some of them would have been categorised as unemployed in previous decades. There must therefore be some doubt about whether 7% unemployed means what it used to mean.

The Bank of England have shown with their difficulties over forward guidance that it is very hard to look forward with any degree of precision. It should be applauded for admitting that it doesn’t know enough at the moment to start pushing up interest rates.

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