There are many papers about model risk, and the dangers of blindly relying on algorithms or metrics without allowing for human judgement at any point in any subsequent analysis (in effect “baking in” whatever analysis was done at the time the computer model or algorithm was constructed as the final word), but these can often descend into the same level of technical impenetrability as the programmes they are attempting to critique.

I watched the film Sully: Miracle on the Hudson for the first time this week, on the anniversary of the landing on the Hudson. In the final scenes there is a hearing (spoiler alert!), where the evidence presented up until that point based on computer simulations, with and without pilots involved, was leading to the unanimous conclusion that Sully and Skiles could have turned back to La Guardia or Teterboro airports rather than landing on the Hudson River in January. However Sully had appealed to have the video recordings of the pilot simulations shown to the hearing, and these revealed the pilots responding to the catastrophic bird strikes which had taken out both engines (again something later confirmed when the actual engines were recovered, but which the simulations themselves did not accept because of the instrument readings on one of the engines from the aircraft) by calmly immediately setting course for La Guardia or Teterboro with no decision or response or recovery time needed at all. When a 35 second allowance for this was inserted into the simulations, the results were fatal crashes in both cases.

What struck me was how invisible this deficiency in the programming of the simulation would have been without a cockpit recording of the simulations. In many of the programmes we use to automate judgement-heavy processes, such as recruitment, many of the capital allocation decisions in financial institutions or even A-level grades, we do not have anything equivalent to a cockpit recording available to us. Perhaps we wait until either events prove us wrong (bad) or those on the receiving end of our automated decisions start to complain in sufficient numbers for us to reconsider (worse). What if quite a large proportion of the cost savings from automating these processes is in fact illusory as a result of our not putting enough time and attention into the original programming and/or not setting aside enough budget for maintaining it and challenging its decisions with parallel processes which do allow for human judgement? How much bigger is this problem going to become in the era of machine learning, where the programmes we are running are themselves several steps of abstraction away from those originally written by humans?

Our ability to programme machines to carry out billions of calculations in seconds would have been regarded as miraculous only a few decades ago and is still pretty astonishing to us now. We need to start thinking a lot more about how we can live alongside these ever more capable machines amicably over the long term. And it can’t be only programmers who get to see what the machines are doing – whatever the technical problems of allowing the equivalent of a cockpit recording to be made which can be understood by any of us, they need to be solved with as much urgency as the process automation itself. All of our decision-making processes need to be understandable and challengeable by the society in whose name they are carried out. It’s time to get serious now about our miracles.

NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fiscal space is defined as the difference between a nation’s sovereign debt-to-GDP ratio and the limit beyond which the nation will default unless policymakers take fiscal steps that are outside of anything they have done historically. That limit is sometimes referred to as the fiscal cliff, just to ram home the imagery of fixed physical limits beyond which disaster beckons.

How much fiscal space does the UK have? Moody’s have an answer, which depends most heavily on when you ask the question. In September 2019 it was as follows:

This shows the UK with a fiscal space (the “dynamic” means they assume interest rates increase as borrowing does, due to “crowding out” arguments – ie government borrowing pushing up the price of borrowing for everyone – so beloved of most economists) of around 175% of GDP, with this then projected to fall over the following 5 years as rates “normalized”. While the cost of borrowing seems to be dynamic, the actual borrowing itself is not allowed to be in these calculations – it is assumed that they just add to debt without increasing the revenue components of the primary balance.

Well of course then we had 2020, at which point (June 2020) Moody’s appear to have stopped talking about fiscal space and instead are now focusing on something called “debt affordability”. What happened to dynamism and crowding out? Not explained:

However despite this triumph of debt affordability, they then produce another graph to indicate that governments still need to be bearing down on debt to GDP ratios:

As they say in the document “rating implications will depend on governments’ ability to reverse debt trajectories ahead of potential future shocks”. Remember this was in June 2020. Let’s also remind ourselves of another graph:

Requiring governments to reverse debt trajectories in this environment is insane and likely to result in more deaths if not ignored. However as recently as last month in their issuer comment for the UK they said:

However, compared to the government’s March budget (that was quickly overtaken by events), there are some initial signs that fiscal policy outside of investment is likely to be less expansive than previously announced. What remains unclear is whether this ambition will be able to withstand the political pressures that seem to be inevitable given the government’s previous commitments. Even before the Spending Review, longer-term spending commitments for health, education, and defence had already been announced. Together, these three areas account for around 60% of total expenditure.

I have been hard on Moody’s in this piece, they are most certainly not alone. But this attempt to divorce sovereign debt levels from what is actually going on in countries needs to stop as does the constant discounting of the value of any government spending at all. Political pressures to spend more on health and education are not always things that governments need to “withstand” in order to look good in a Moody’s graph. There are far more important things at stake.

 

Burt Kwouk and Peter Sellers in 1975’s The Return of the Pink Panther. Photograph: Allstar/ITC

Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival a few nights ago regaled us with many tales from his new book Troy. They were full of people making The Tough Decisions based on The Science or, as they tended to call it then, Prophecy. The seer Aesacus interpreted a dream about a flaming torch meaning Priam and Hecuba needed to kill the son Hecuba was carrying to stop him from bringing the destruction of Troy. Noone could bring themselves to kill the baby, who grew up to be Paris, and Troy was indeed destroyed. However rather than ignore The Science, they outsourced the deed, ultimately to the random wildlife roaming Mount Ida and so it never got done. Now my question would not be why they ignored The Science, but why they felt that The Science was something to be consulted with in secret with no second opinion and then enacted in a half-hearted way because they didn’t really believe it anyway. It’s almost as if there was no actual science in existence to give them an alternative.

One of the other interesting things Stephen said was in response to the question of whether there was value in students studying the classics at school. His very strongly argued case rested on two main points:

  • The value of learning stories made up not by a single writer but by a people; and
  • The greater level of understanding of much other art if you know “the second language” of the classics.

It is of course a highly elitist argument, but as a way of understanding an Elite which are currently following The Science in a direction they don’t really believe in, perhaps more relevant than it has ever been. Because if we are ruled by a group speaking in a second language and resistant to evidence-based policy perhaps we need to start acting accordingly.

Currently we are reading a lot in the media about how terrifyingly quickly Government debt is growing and how urgently we will need to cut Government spending once the pandemic is over, even on those key workers we have realised our (by any historical standards) fantastically rich economy cannot do without. I am thinking of the Institute of Fiscal Studies of course, the Adam Smith Institute and ultimately all arguments of this sort end up including the Cato Institute too. Now I could start to rebut these claims, pointing out that Government debt is not particularly big, that it is currently very cheap and that the last thing we will need for an economic recovery from it is austerity or whatever the Johnson Government decide to rebrand such a policy to make it politically acceptable.

But I am not going to waste my ink, particularly not now. One reason would be that there is an element of Jonathan Swift’s dictum at play here, ie:

Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.

But another, in my view much more powerful, reason is that we are pretty universally experiencing a trauma which has triggered fight, flight or freeze responses that have impaired our thought processes quite significantly. As Joanne Stubley from the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust puts it so well:

Whilst the wish to be involved and to contribute clearly may have altruistic, reparative aims inherent in it, there is also a growing sense of competition that is emerging – competition for who is the expert, who will lead the research, the clinical pathways mapping or write the best paper on Covid 19. This jostling for position may be fuelled by survival anxieties both in relation to the threat of the virus (life and death anxieties that propel us to action) but perhaps also anxiety for what will occur when the threat has passed. We have lived with the reality of austerity in the NHS for many years, and services have become accustomed to the competition inherent in the marketplace economy. With the threat of serious economic downturn and recession looming, this causes further anxiety in relation to the long-term viability of services. Holding in mind a compassionate, thoughtful position that allows for cooperation becomes so much more difficult when this part of the brain is turned down when under threat – survival in the immediate threat does not make use of this more sophisticated mode of thought and behaviour.

Put simply, we don’t know what we are experiencing yet. It is too soon to say on almost any level. If someone is giving you a prognosis on what will happen economically under different exit strategies from Lockdown then they do not yet have the data to know what they are talking about. Noone does. The best thing that science (as opposed to The Science) can tell us currently is that we don’t know.

So we don’t know and we can’t think. We therefore need to be very cautious about what we do next.

 

“We won’t go back to normal, because ‘the normal’ was the problem.”

For me the turning point came on 12 March, when the FTSE 100 fell by 639 points or around 11% of its value in one day. What were the newspaper headlines that day?

Only the Times and the Financial Times had the stock market fall on their front page at all. Everyone else led with some variant on the Prime Minister saying that many families would lose loved ones. The attention switch was so complete that when KPMG published their UK Economic Outlook for March 2020 the following week – forecasting a main scenario for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the UK to fall by 2.6% in 2020 then grow by 1.7% in 2021, and a downside scenario for GDP to contract by 5.4% in 2020 and by another 1.4% in 2021, representing a slightly more severe recession than the downturn experienced in 2008-09 – nobody noticed that either (19 March and 20 March headlines here and here respectively), sandwiched as it was between the announcement that schools were to close and the Prime Minister saying that we had 12 weeks to turn the tide.

KPMG’s report was an example of damage function modelling of course: trying to model changes in economic activity due to some phenomenon and summarising that change in terms of a change in GDP. I have recently been quite exercised by similar considerations with regard to climate change damage functions and the inconsistencies of the ones in most current use with climate science. However it has become increasingly clear to me that I may have been missing the point. I realise I was focusing on damage functions because I felt they were leading to extreme optimism in the modelling of the impact of climate change on our economies and that it was this link which was most likely to get the attention of policymakers (and other actuaries!).

But of course GDP is only ever a proxy for some of the things we regard as important, rather than something that is important in itself, and a flawed one too. As Diane Coyle’s excellent book, GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History, makes clear. Its problems include:

  • It under-records growth by failing to capture fully the increase in the range of products in the economy;
  • It becomes a worse measure as the world economy consists less and less of material items, eg online activities; and
  • It can show positive growth caused by clearly unsustainable practices and those which deplete natural resources.

When KMPG released their economic outlook, it was as if they were trying to drag a weary world population away from the windows and balconies from which they are still trying to connect with each other and what is still real in the world back to the Monopoly game that they have set up in the front room.

It took a lot to get our behaviour to follow this change in attention. When Wuhan went into lockdown on 23 January, I was talking to Stuart McDonald, now a member of the COVID-19 Actuaries Response Group, about the talk he was planning to do at the University of Leicester on 18 March and deciding he would probably need to add a few slides about coronavirus. Italy went into lockdown on 9 March and yet on 12 March we had a second call where we still felt on balance that it might go ahead as long as we took sensible precautions, but by this time it was almost entirely about getting accurate messaging out about COVID-19. We called it off the following day. The UK finally went into lockdown on 23 March.

So perhaps it is no wonder that we have so far been unable to change human behaviour to anything like the same extent in response to climate change, which is a bit like COVID-19 in slow motion, progressing unseen with each stage of its development effectively locking us into the next steps in its relentless escalation. In the same way that movement restrictions may not slow down the increase in new cases for perhaps around a week, stopping carbon emissions now would still see us locked into further warming for 40 years. And even with the greater immediacy of coronavirus, it has only been when we have decided we care more about saving each other than maintaining our GDP that real progress has become possible.

My view is that some things that must be different post COVID are already clear. I think as a society we are going to demand more resilience, for example:

  • Resilience of our health service – this means much higher levels of spending, building deliberate over-capacity into the system in normal times;
  • Resilience of our food supplies, for example strengthening domestic supply chains;
  • Resilience of our population, so that we do not have 1.6 million food parcels needing to be given out in a year by the Trussell Trust, in the absence of a pandemic, for instance; and
  • Resilience of our infrastructure – to everything from floods to banking crises to pandemics to storms and heatwaves.

The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) has therefore shown great timing in its launch of its 2020 thought leadership campaign The Great Risk Transfer. The campaign aims to examine the trend of the transfer of risk from institutions to individuals, and how people can be better equipped to manage the financial risks they now face. I think the campaign rightly highlights the fact that risk transfer is all one way, but it clearly also goes way beyond the finance sector. Rail franchises never took on any real risk, it appears, even before the pandemic. Nor have PFI contracts, despite the price tag. By contrast the incremental removal of risk pooling by corporations for their employees and/or government for their citizens over the last 40 years has been relentless and in one direction only.

As Andrew Simms, one of the Green New Deal Group, said on Twitter yesterday about taking lessons for the climate emergency from the pandemic crisis:

Those roads with a fraction of the traffic, the drop in aviation, the economic shift to put public health & well-being first, the speed with which the brain adapts to the new normal: as someone said, these things are a postcard from the future we need to get to. Let’s take notes.

Images from the Birmingham Climate Strike on 20 September 2019

On the day millions have taken to the streets across the globe to demand a more urgent response to the climate emergency, it seems a good time to write about the crossbench Decarbonisation and Economic Strategy Bill, originally tabled by Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis in March this year, which has now been formally launched. This “Green New Deal Bill”, as it has been dubbed, sets out a legislative framework for the changes that are needed to make the Green New Deal (a programme of action neatly summarised in the Green New Deal Group’s fifth report here) a reality. The impacts of these proposals would be far-reaching and radical, changing the way our economy operates and what we value. As well as revolutionising the way we live, this would also significantly affect the current work of actuaries and provide many opportunities for people with the actuarial skill set to be centrally involved.

The main proposals which I think would impact actuaries are as follows:

  • Bring offshore capital back onshore to make sure that government, not markets, can make the big economic decisions. This would obviously impact all businesses operating in financial markets. There would also be large movements in the value of some businesses as a result of economic decisions which have previously been left to the market now being made by government. Modelling the impacts of such changes and helping businesses manage the transition are examples of where actuaries can add value here. We are already seeing increasing disinvestments from coal, but this would seem to be just the start of a much wider realignment (one possible view of the potential is discussed here).
  • Greater coordination between the Bank of England, the Treasury and the Debt Management Office. This means the end of the independence of the Bank of England by the look of it, with monetary policy and fiscal policy run in much closer cooperation with each other. It also means more regulation for banks and the supported emergence of local banks and a new national investment bank.
  • New bonds, nationally and locally, and new pension arrangements targeted at the green renewal of our infrastructure. For instance, tax rules on pension schemes could be changed to require a minimum percentage of assets invested in such bonds in order to continue to qualify for tax relief.
  • New objectives for business, and new kinds of businesses. For instance, the UK-based Corporate Accountability Network argues that the whole focus of corporate reporting will have to change, and so too then would corporate behaviour because there is very strong evidence that what is reported by any organisation is what becomes important to it. The Green New Deal Bill provides for changes to both company law and accounting to embrace the need for legally required and enforceable reporting on progress towards any company becoming carbon neutral. This will certainly lead to new business structures as a result and, I would imagine, many new business opportunities for those with actuarial skills as a result.
  • Replacing our measures of progress. This is something I have long supported. The main problem is that there are many possible candidates for this, but that also means that there is a great opportunity for actuaries to be involved in constructing appropriate indices which are globally respected, thereby helping to change what we value away from our current GDP and FTSE fixations.

Of course there are also opportunities for those with actuarial skills to block the transition to an economy that isn’t constructed in such a way as to make environmental destruction inevitable. Employers like these would probably make those with the actuarial skillset very lucrative offers to use their skills. I hope that most of us, and particularly those just at the start of their careers, will resist such offers. We now know that tobacco firms hid the evidence of the damage done by their products for decades and firms such as Exxon have done the same in denying the science on climate change for over 40 years. Please don’t be part of the problem when you could be such a valuable part of the solution.

At Leicester, we intend to launch a new module on our MSc Actuarial Science with Data Analytics programme next year, specifically on the ideas behind the Green New Deal and focusing on the areas where ideas still need to be developed (one of the most exciting things about the Green New Deal is that it is still an area of live discussion, with many of the policy details still being developed). I would welcome any input from members of the Green New Deal Group or those with research interests in this area who would be interested in helping us develop the detailed curriculum of this module before launch.

This is an exciting time for those who are comfortable working with data and communicating what they have found in it. Let’s make sure that those skills are applied to the needs of 99% of the global community.

The War Room with the Big Board from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, ”Dr. Strangelove”. Source: ”Dr. Strangelove” trailer from 40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD, 2004 Directed by Stanley Kubrick

In 1960, Herman Kahn, a military strategist at the RAND Corporation, an influential think tank which continues to this day, wrote a book called On Thermonuclear War. It focused on the strategy of nuclear war and its effect on the international balance of power. Kahn introduced the Doomsday Machine (which Kubrick used in his film “Dr Strangelove” alongside many other references from the book) as a rhetorical device to show the limits of John von Neumann’s strategy of mutual assured destruction or MAD. It was particularly noteworthy for its views on how a country could “win” a nuclear war.

For some reason Kahn came to mind as I was looking through Resource and Environment Issues: A Practical Guide for Pensions Actuaries, from the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries’ Relevance of Resource and Environment Issues to Pension Actuaries working party, which summarises the latest thinking on the climate change-related issues scheme actuaries should be taking into consideration in their work. I will come back to why.

The section which particularly caught my attention was called How might pensions actuaries reflect R&E issues in financial assumptions? This section introduces two studies in particular. First, we have the University of Cambridge Sustainability Leadership (CISL) report on Unhedgeable risk: How climate change sentiment impacts investment. This posits three “sentiment” scenarios (paraphrased slightly for brevity – see the report for details of the models used):

  • Two degrees. This is defined as being similar to RCP2.6 and SSP1 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR5. Resource intensity and dependence on fossil fuels are markedly reduced. There is rapid technological development, reduction of inequality both globally and within countries, and a high level of awareness regarding environmental degradation. It is believed that under this scenario global warming will not raise the average temperature by more than 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures.
  • Baseline. This is a world where past trends continue (i.e. the business-as-usual scenario), and there is no significant change in the willingness of governments to step up actions on climate change. However, the worst fears of climate change are also not expected to materialise and temperatures in 2100 are only expected to reach between 2°C and 2.5°C. This scenario is most similar to the IPCC’s RCP6.0 and SSP2. The economy slowly decreases its dependence on fossil fuel.
  • No Mitigation. In this scenario, the world is oriented towards economic growth without any special consideration for environmental challenges. This is most similar to the IPCC’s RCP8.0 and SSP5. In the absence of climate policy, the preference for rapid conventional development leads to higher energy demand dominated by fossil fuels, resulting in high greenhouse gas emissions. Investments in alternative renewable energy technologies are low but economic development is relatively rapid.

The modelled long-term performance for a range of typical investment portfolios is worrying:

CISL suggest quite different investor behaviour depending upon which climate change path they think the world is taking: moving into High Fixed Income if No Mitigation seems to be the direction we are heading, but adopting an Aggressive (ie 60% equities, 5% commodities) asset allocation if the Two Degrees scenario looks most likely.

Elsewhere the report suggests hedging via cross-industry diversification and investment in sectors with low climate risk. For example under No Mitigation, it is possible to cut the maximal loss potential by up to 47% by shifting from Real Estate (in developed markets) and Energy/ Oil & Gas (in emerging markets) towards Transport (in developed markets) and Health Care/ Pharma (in emerging markets). However over 50% of losses in all scenarios remain unhedgeable (ie unavoidable through clever asset allocation alone).

The second report (Investing in a time of climate change) from Mercer in 2015, focuses on the following investor questions:
• How big a risk/return impact could climate change have on a portfolio, and when might that happen?
• What are the key downside risks and upside opportunities, and how do we manage these considerations to fit within the current investment process?
• What plan of action can ensure an investor is best positioned for resilience to climate change?

The section I was drawn to here (it’s a long report) was Appendix 1 on climate models used, and particularly those estimating the physical damages and mitigation costs associated with climate change. The three most prominent models used for this are the FUND, DICE and PAGE models, apparently, and Mercer have opted for FUND. They have then produced some charts showing the difference between the damages exepcted for different levels of warming predicted by the FUND model compared to DICE:

The result of this comparison, showing lower damage estimates by the FUND model, led the modellers to “scale up” certain aspects of the output of their model to achieve greater consistency.

Both of these reports have been produced using complex models and a huge amount of data, carefully calibrated against the IPCC reports where appropriate and with full disclosure about the limitations of their work, and I am sure they will be of great help to pension scheme actuaries (although there does some to be some debate about this). However I do wonder whether as a profession we should be spending less time trying to find technical solutions in response to worse and worse options, and more time trying to head off the realisation of those sub-optimal scenarios in the first place. I also wonder whether the implicit underlying assumption about functioning financial markets and pension scheme funding is a meaningful problem to be grappled with at 3-4° above pre-industrial averages as some of this analysis suggests.

In the summary of Mark Lynas’ excellent book Six Degrees: Our Future on A Hotter Planet, the three degree increase for which damages are being estimated is expected to lead to Africa […] split between the north which will see a recovery of rainfall and the south which becomes drier […] beyond human adaptation. Indian monsoon rains will fail. The Himalayan glaciers providing the waters of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers [will decrease] by up to 90%. The Amazonian rain forest basin will dry out completely. In Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, East Peru and Bolivia life will become increasingly difficult due to wild fires which will cause intense air pollution and searing heat. The smoke will blot out the sun. Drought will be permanent in the sub-tropics and Central America. Australia will become the world’s driest nation. In the US Gulf of Mexico high sea temperatures will drive 180+ mph winds. Houston will be vulnerable to flooding by 2045. Galveston will be inundated. Many plant species will become extinct as they will be unable to adapt to such a sudden change in climate.

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.[and] food prices [will] soar. Population transfers will be bigger than anything ever seen in the history of mankind. [The feedback effects from the] Amazon rain forests dry[ing] out and wild fires develop[ing] [will lead] to those fires [releasing] more CO2, global warming [intensifying] as a result, vegetation and soil begin[ning] to release CO2 rather than absorb[ing] it, all of which could push the 3° scenario to a 4°-5.5° [one].

The last time the world experienced a three degree temperature rise was during the geological Pliocene Age (3 million years ago). The historical period of the earth’s history was undoubtedly due to high CO2 levels (about 360 – 440ppm – almost exactly current levels). I would suggest that our biggest problem under these conditions is not that over 50% of losses on pension scheme investments remain unhedgeable.

In his recent article for Social Europe, the unbearable unrealism of the present, Paul Mason presents two graphs. The first is the projection by the United States’ Congressional Budget Office of the ratio of debt to gross domestic product until 2048 in the United States.

The second is a chart from the IPCC showing how dramatically we need to cut CO2 emissions to avoid catastrophic and uncontrollable breakdown.

Mason feels that capitalism is too indebted to go on as normal and too structurally addicted to carbon. In his view Those who are owed the debt, and those who own rights to burn the carbon, are going to go bankrupt or the world’s climate will collapse. This feeling is echoed by George Monbiot here, where he cites a paper by Hickel and Kallis casting doubt on the assumption that absolute decoupling of GDP growth from resource use and carbon emissions is feasible and summarises some alternative approaches to the capitalism he feels no longer has the solutions.

Others dispute this, claiming that the Green New Deal is the only chance we have (here, here and here) to prevent irreversible climate change.

Whether you agree with any of these predictions or none of them, agree that we face a climate emergency or feel that is too extreme a description, it all brings me back to Kahn and Dr Strangelove. We seem to have replaced the MAD of the cold war with the MAD of climate change, except that this time we do not even have two sides who can prevent it happening by threatening to unleash it on each other. It is just us.

What we really cannot afford to be doing, via ever more complex modelling and longer and longer reports, is giving the impression that the finance industry can somehow “win” against climate change rather than joining the efforts to avert it as far as possible.

Since my last post on the strike, where I set out my reasons for not joining it, a lot has happened. The strike has forced UUK back to the negotiating table, overseen by ACAS, on a deal originally presented as done. The consultation period on the new arrangements has been postponed. University Vice Chancellors are scurrying to distance themselves from the UUK negotiating position and side with their own striking lecturers. As most observers admit, including most recently the Head of Public Sector Pensions at KPMG in the tweet below, the UCU have won the communications battle. Victory appears to be total.

However there remains a problem, which we seem to be facing increasingly in recent years from Trump to Brexit, and that is this: what to do when the victory you have won is based on campaign arguments which are fundamentally untrue, not backed by evidence or existing pensions legislation, and ultimately undeliverable? Just keep saying no to any workable option which is put to you?

How untrue? Well let’s go back to the now famous letter to the FT signed by many famous lecturers across the UK, including David Spiegelhalter, Ben Goldacre and Steven Haberman (notable as he is deputy director of the Actuarial Research Centre). This was itself a response to a FT story based on the audited accounts, where the pension deficits were merely being updated in line with what had previously been agreed and bore no relation to the negotiations about the March 2017 valuation. As the audited accounts state quite clearly:

The trustee regularly monitors the scheme’s funding position as part of the overall monitoring of FMP introduced followed the 2014 valuation. The monitoring is based on the assumptions used for the 2014 actuarial valuation (updated for changes in gilt yields and inflation expectations). The monitoring does not involve the same detailed review of the underlying assumptions (including the financial, economic, sectoral assumptions for example) that takes place as part of the full actuarial valuation, the next full actuarial valuation being due as at 31 March 2017. Therefore the amounts shown for liabilities in the funding position below are not indicative of the results of the 2017 valuation.

So arguing about these assumptions was futile. The letter also showed an unexpected lack of understanding (particularly from Steven Haberman, who must have spent enough time in the company of pensions actuaries who carry out these kinds of negotiations all the time to know better) about what the assumptions shown in the accounts meant. In particular, there is a note saying that the general salary assumption is only being used for the recovery plan contributions rather than to calculate the scheme deficit. That means that, if you think the assumption is too large, it will be overstating the value of future contributions and therefore understating how large those contributions need to be. So rather than making the scheme seem more unaffordable, it would be making it seem less.

Then there is the mortality point – a massive misunderstanding. The assumptions do not say that life expectancy is increasing by 1.5% pa which would clearly be absurd. They are saying that mortality improvements (ie the percentage by which the expected probability of death of a 70 year old in 2020 is less than that of a 70 year old in 2019) are assumed to be 1.5% pa. Stuart McDonald gently put Ben Goldacre right on this point here.

However the bigger overall point is that individual assumptions are not the thing to focus on here anyway, but the overall level of prudence or otherwise in a basis. And the facts around this are considerably clearer.

  • We know that the initial valuation proposed by the USS Trustee to the Pensions Regulator and the covenant assessment on which it was based (ie the willingness and ability of the employers in UUK to continue paying contributions) were both rejected. As this initial valuation disclosed a deficit of just over £5 billion, then the proposal resulting in a £7.5 billion deficit which was finally presented to the Joint Negotiating Committee would appear to be as low as the Trustee could reasonably go and still get the valuation past the Regulator.
  • The S179 valuation of the scheme (this is the valuation all occupational pension schemes who pay levies to the Pension Protection Fund as insurance against the failure of their employer(s), which is done on the same valuation basis for all schemes) at the last valuation as at 31 March 2014 showed a deficit of £8.95 billion (compared to the £5.3 billion funding deficit disclosed). The latest “more prudent” valuation proposed is therefore still unlikely to be proposing a target which goes anywhere near 100% funding on this basis (the scheme was only 82% funded in March 2014 when, as you can see below, nearly 40% of schemes were in surplus on this measure). There is therefore no justification for the repeated assertion by the UCU that the scheme is not under-funded.

Source: Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee report on defined benefit pension schemes 20 December 2016

One last point on the campaign. Some of it seems to have been directed personally at the USS Trustee. This is the body with no other job than to protect the security of the pensions that lecturers have already built up. Why would anyone want to turn on them? Bill Galvin, the Group CEO at USS Ltd, the Trustee company, has set out responses to some of the other misconceptions here. I would urge anyone with an interest in this dispute to read them.

So, if the deficit is what it is and there is no scope for weakening the funding assumptions any further and maintaining current benefits on these funding assumptions involves contribution increases which are unacceptable to both scheme members and the employers, what is this dispute about now? The time has come for lecturers to decide what they want. Of course the basic premises of pension scheme funding can be argued about (and I direct anyone interested in the long history of actuarial debate in this area to read chapter 6 of Craig Turnbull’s A History of British Actuarial Thought which traces this from 1875 to 1997), and perhaps ultimately legislative change might be brought about if a new argument could be won in this area. But that is a long term objective and the funding of this scheme needs to be agreed now. If a £42,000 cap for 3 years while negotiations continue on a long term structure of the scheme which doesn’t leave all risk with scheme members is not acceptable, then we need to decide pretty quickly what is. Because once we move to a DC arrangement, the chances of us moving back to any form of risk sharing subsequently are in my view remote. There will always be other uses for that money.

However there are many possible alternative structures and many ways of sharing the risks between employers and scheme members. In particular let’s not get too obsessed with Collective Defined Contribution schemes, the enabling legislation for which has yet to materialise. Consider all the alternatives and let proper negotiations commence!

The FTSE All-Share Index, originally known as the FTSE Actuaries All Share Index, along with the FTSE 100, represent nearly all of the market capitalisation and the top 100 companies by size listed on the London Stock Exchange respectively. They are mentioned in all BBC news bulletins. When they go up, we all feel better. When they go down, they are seen as portents of doom.

Let me show you a different actuaries’ index instead:

Figure 1 shows the ACI and each of the components. The composite ACI represents the average of the six components (with sign of change in cool/cold temperatures reversed). The ACI is increased by reduction in cold extremes, consistent with increased melting of permafrost and increased propagation of diseases, pests, and insects previously less likely to survive in lower temperatures. A positive value in the ACI represents an increase in climate-related extremes relative to the reference period.

The threat of climate change is real, independent of speculative trading and the news media cycle, and increasing with each degree of warming we are unable to stop. Alongside this are the increasing risks of extreme weather events, which is most neatly described for North America currently by the Actuaries Climate Index. This focuses on six components in particular which have the most impact on human societies:

  1. Frequency of temperatures above the 90th percentile (T90);
  2. Frequency of temperatures below the 10th percentile (T10);
  3. Maximum rainfall per month in five consecutive days (P);
  4. Annual maximum consecutive dry days (D);
  5. Frequency of wind speed above the 90th percentile (W); and
  6. Sea level changes (S).

It then tracks them all over time, as shown in the graph above.

It seems clear to me that we should be reacting much less to the booms and busts of economic cycles and much more to climate-related threats. This is for two main reasons:

1. More people are at threat of death or injury as a result of climate change than even the 2008 crash in our financial systems. The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. However, the additional deaths are already here. Taking just two examples from the WHO:

  • In the heat wave of summer 2003 in Europe for example, more than 70,000 excess deaths were recorded, with the frequency of such events steadily increasing.
  • Globally, the number of reported weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60,000 deaths, mainly in developing countries, which means that 40,000 of those deaths pa can already be directly attributed to climate change.

On the other hand, the 500,000 additional cancer deaths and 10,000 additional suicide deaths since 2008 cannot be attributed directly to the 2008 crash, as the analysis shows. These are more a result of the austerity policies which have been applied since 2008. Unnecessarily.

Climate change on the other hand does not care whether we react to it or not. It will relentlessly change the chemistry and biology of everything around us as the Earth and the inhabitants of the Earth adapt. We may survive it, in reduced numbers, or we may not. The Earth does not care. Responding to the threat will not make more climate-related events happen unless our response is to, by and large, ignore it.

2. One depends on the other. We cannot base our economies on a FTSE-led GDP-growth-at-all-costs model because it is not physically possible to maintain it without losing the environment from which our growth originates. As Finbarr Livesey points out in his excellent From Global to Local, the circular economy which the overwhelming consensus of studies show would increase employment and contribute to economic growth is taking a long time to arrive. In Europe, where we consume around 16 tonnes of stuff each per year, figures from Siemens in 2016 suggest that 95% of it and its energy value is lost through the life cycle of the products themselves.  As Kate Raworth  and others have pointed out, we need to focus on different measures of success if we are going to direct our economies in a more sustainable, less volatile and doom-laden direction.

There are plans to extend the Actuaries Climate Index to Europe (including the UK in this instance!), with a recent feasibility study concluding “that the prospects for constructing an analogue to the Canada-US ACI over the European region are promising”. I hope we see such an index soon, because, as Randall Munroe illustrates here, we have not been here before.

I look forward to the day when a new global actuaries’ climate index is on every news bulletin, making us feel better when it goes down and seeing any rise as a portent of doom. Because this time it really would be.

Great infographic from futurism.com summarising the likely impacts of each additional degree in warming which I thought was definitely worth sharing!

 

Global Warming Scenarios

Oceanic whitetip shark. (2014, August 29). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved
11:13, July 22, 2017
from https://simple.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Oceanic_whitetip_shark&oldid=4875771.

Changing people’s behaviour is hard. Even if we have agreed that it needs to change, actually acting on this new knowledge is hard enough, but getting that agreement in the first place by shifting our beliefs is even harder.

It gets worse. The research suggests that providing risk information is ineffective in changing behaviour. You might need to read that again before it sinks in: risk information is ineffective in changing behaviour.

Professor Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, and her team have been looking at the four behaviours responsible for the majority of premature deaths worldwide: smoking, eating too much, drinking too much (alcohol) and moving too little. The original focus of their work concerned how people responded to genetic test results indicating a greater predisposition to diabetes, cancer and other diseases. What they found is that the genetic test may get someone past the first barrier, ie agreeing that they need to change their behaviour, but not the second part, ie actually doing it.

As Marteau says: Few of us would swim in waters signed as shark-infested. On the other hand, when the risk of future disease is up against the pleasures of current consumption, it doesn’t tend to compete very well. Marteau summarises their findings as follows:

Put simply, we overestimate how much our behaviour is under intentional control and underestimate how much is cued by environment.

In my view, this research is directly applicable to the financial services industry and explains a lot of behaviours which have up until now often been considered as separate rather than related problems, eg:

  • The failure of consumers to shop around adequately in the annuities and investment markets (we know we should but get easily discouraged by the difficulty of the process);
  • The stampede to take transfer values out of defined benefit pension schemes (the possibility of immediate consumption trumping deferred gains); and
  • The surge in the tax take at HMRC caused by people removing all of their cash from defined contribution pension schemes (same again).

Turning to my own profession for a moment, and looking on the Become an actuary part of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries website, we find: Actuaries use their skills to help measure the probability and risk of future events. A little further on we find: It is essential that actuaries have excellent communication skills to enable them to communicate actuarial ideas to non-specialists in a way that meets the needs of the audience.

So, in a nutshell, producing risk information and then communicating it.

As a pensions actuary, I spent most of my time overseeing calculations which underpinned reports to clients which I would then summarise in presentations in order to get them to move a little bit further towards fully funding their pension schemes than where they were starting from. And then we had to condense the whole of that process into a single meeting where we tried to persuade the people who were actually doing the funding as part of the negotiation of the final deal. While, unconsciously, I am sure that just my presence was having some kind of placebo or nocebo effect, all of my conscious effort was directed on providing risk information and communicating it.

And actuaries are not alone in focusing on the provision of risk information as the most important element in guiding consumer behaviour. From the Financial Conduct Authority’s Retail Distribution Review, to the Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise, we are obsessed with it.

However if we are going to really change behaviour in response to the many risks these consumers face, we need to be spending much less time on producing risk information (which coincidentally may be done for us in the future by increasing capable machines anyway)and much more time focusing on the design of the financial environment we all operate within.

But if changing the environment is so much more effective for changing behaviour, perhaps what we need is a framework of standardised definitions to characterise any interventions we make. Fortunately the social scientists are way ahead of us on this and have produced just such a framework. TIPPME (typology of interventions in proximal physical micro-environments) has been developed and demonstrated by applying it to the selection, purchase and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. As the authors state: This provides a framework to reliably classify and describe, and enable more systematic design, reporting and analysis of, an important class of interventions. This then allows evidence to be collected into what works and what doesn’t in changing behaviour across populations.

Our physical health and what interventions cause us to look after it better are thought sufficiently important for a coordinated approach to designing the risk environment, rather than the piecemeal legislation and partial solutions offered by commercial providers we have had to date, to be worthwhile. I would suggest that our financial health needs to be given similar consideration. This looks like a promising way forward that could result in truly evidence-based financial regulation, with the prospect of lasting change to the way we help consumers navigate a path through the financial seas. Far away from the sharks.