Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/g0b_tx3i0_8. This image is from Unsplash and was published prior to 5 June 2017 under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Catch 22 can in no way be compared to actuarial practice. One puts its characters in impossible positions, with constantly shifting targets, rewards often inversely proportional to the social usefulness of the characters’ actions and against a backdrop inordinately preoccupied with death. The other has recently been on our TV screens directed by George Clooney.

The most recent link between the two was provided by John Taylor’s excellent Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) presidential address last month. He encouraged us all to look at Jimmy Reid’s 1972 speech at Glasgow University (an extract showing the passion with which it was delivered can be seen here). So I did. John picked out the following passage:

I am convinced that the great mass of our people go through life without even a glimmer of what they could have contributed to their fellow human beings. This is a personal tragedy. It’s a social crime. The flowering of each individual’s personality and talents is the precondition for everyone’s development.

Inspiring as that is, my eye was drawn to a different passage of Jimmy Reid’s speech:

Society and its prevailing sense of values leads to another form of alienation. It alienates some from humanity. It partially dehumanises some people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human beings, self-centred and grasping. The irony is, they are often considered normal and well adjusted. It is my sincere contention that anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else.

They remind me of the character in the novel, Catch 22, the father of Major Major. He was a farmer in the American Mid West. He hated suggestions for things like Medicare, social services, unemployment benefits or civil rights. He was, however, an enthusiast for the agricultural policies that paid farmers for not bringing their fields under cultivation. From the money he got for not growing alfalfa he bought more land in order not to grow alfalfa. He became rich. Pilgrims came from all over the state to sit at his feet and learn how to be a successful non-grower of alfalfa. His philosophy was simple. The poor didn’t work hard enough and so they were poor. He believed that the good Lord gave him two strong hands to grab as much as he could for himself. He is a comic figure. But think, have you not met his like here in Britain? Here in Scotland? I have.

This got me thinking about the investment requirements of the Green New Deal, as this would need to be a huge programme of work to transform our infrastructure and economy away from the carbon-burning planet-trashing Doomsday machine it currently is, which in turn would need huge levels of investment.

I have previously written about some of the views about how we might reduce our current reliance on carbon: the one with the most coherence in my view being the Green New Deal.

However there is a problem. Since our current system, the one which needs to be transformed, is currently predominantly doing the financial sector’s equivalent of rewarding people for not growing alfalfa (for example the misallocation costs estimated by SPERI at £2.7 trillion between 1995 and 2015 from having too large a financial sector here), any Green New Deal spending, at least to start with, is going to have to come from the Government.

The authors of the latest report from the New Economics Foundation anticipate that the massive increase in public spending required to make it happen would be between £20 billion and £40 billion a year. This level of public spending is inconsistent with our current ways of measuring fiscal space, or the room for additional Government spending. Government borrowing is normally expressed in terms of a percentage of GDP and has historically been around 1.3% pa in normal times (ie other than wartime or bailing out the banks). They therefore suggest:

  • The development of a new framework, defined in terms of the threshold beyond which there is a significant risk of adverse economic effects. This would have prevented the damaging austerity policies since 2010, for instance.
  • The parallel development of a tool which would allow policymakers to accurately assess the implications of holding back fiscal space compared with the implications of borrowing for investment, and therefore allow politicians to come to an informed view on the best combination of fiscal intervention or fiscal prudence at a given point in time, including with respect to climate related risks.
  • More explicit cooperation between the Bank of England and the Treasury, including the use of a new public investment bank (or network of banks) such as a green national investment bank (GNIB) – to increase commercial lending to green industries.

A particular interesting aspect of the GNIB is the proposal to make it independent of political interference. In the same way as those economists who argue for independent central banks so that governments don’t pursue damaging monetary policy in particular for electoral gain, some advocates of the GNIB believe it could be used as a backstop against governments underusing fiscal space for ideological reasons.

Richard Murphy points out that https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/individual-savings-account-statistics shows £40 billion was saved in cash ISAs in 2017 / 18, and suggests that Green ISAs, backed by a Green Investment Bank and paying, say, 3% a year would be more attractive than current cash ISAs, therefore potentially meeting the GND funding requirements on their own.

Simon Wren Lewis, in his discussion of the many of the arguments around the Green New Deal and how it should be funded, makes the following excellent point (amongst many others):

No one in a 100 years time who suffers the catastrophic and (for them) irreversible impact of climate change is going to console themselves that at least they did not increase the national debt. Humanity will not come to an end if we double debt to GDP ratios, but it could come to an end if we fail to combat climate change.

The Catch 22 of the title originally described the catch which kept pilots flying highly dangerous missions in World War 2 – they could only get out of them by being certified insane, but the very fact of trying to get out of them showed that they were in fact sane and therefore they had to keep flying. If we want far fewer actuaries to be employed in not growing alfalfa in the future and far more working on making the finance structures of our economy work better, whether to support a Green New Deal or more generally, we first need to embrace the idea that our current economic priorities are indeed insane.

 

I have just finished teaching the Business Macroeconomics module on the BSc Mathematics and Actuarial Science programme at the University of Leicester for the first time, as part of our response to the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries’ (IFoA) Curriculum 2019 exercise, which has refreshed and in many cases entirely revamped what is expected to be learnt by actuarial students.

Actuarial students are not expected to be experts in economics, but they do need to know enough to be able to ask sensible questions and also to be aware of what is available to them from economics when tackling business problems. One stimulus for the revamp of the Business Economics subject by the IFoA was the general feeling that actuaries had, in some cases, been drawing on a narrower range of economic thought than needed to fully address all dimensions of the increasingly complex and multidisciplinary problems we face as a profession.

One of my key references when structuring the course (while not wanting to depart too far from Sloman, the source of most of the syllabus, in my first year of teaching it) was The Econocracy: The Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts, by Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins. As graduates from economics degrees themselves, they make a very convincing case for how economics as it is taught at university has little to do with the real world, often uncritically setting out a model based on rational individuals and an economic system that tends towards equilibrium. They advocate amongst other things the teaching of different schools of economics and also a greater focus on economic history. As the new IFoA syllabus had specifically added these last two points as part of the review, I felt encouraged that this was also criticism shared by the actuarial profession. Indeed, the Actuarial Research Centre of the IFoA have recently engaged Dr Iain Clacher on a project to understand how economics interacts with the actuarial profession, with the following initial conclusions:

  • The current regulatory environment may be counter-productive in some cases, particularly if it is based on too narrow an economics focus.
  • The much more quantitative approach to economics which has been dominant for the last 60 years or so may be pushing us towards a world where we think less.
  • There is scope for the actuarial profession to take much more from economics in trying to understand what is really going on.

One quote from The Econocracy which particularly struck me was:

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it is now possible to go through an economics degree without once having to venture an opinion.

One of my objectives in teaching this module was therefore to change that, and to try and focus as much as possible on giving students the opportunity to develop opinions as they grapple with trying to understand what is really going on.

Have I succeeded? Well while it would not be true to say that I have been entirely successful, neither would it be accurate to say that I have not succeeded at all. I changed the examination from one where 80% of the marks were for multiple choice questions to one where only 16% were, with 60% devoted to four long questions requiring, at least in part, higher order skills of analysis and the ability to make an argument. The examination was 70% of the overall module mark, with 30% for a 3,000 word mini project which investigated whether the Office for National Statistics were correct in their proposal to re-designate student loans within the national accounts and asking students to comment with reasons on whether they agreed with the approach taken for valuing student loans for sale. And I broadened out the references within the course significantly, for example:

Amongst many many others.

Students found it tough at times, as some of the feedback I received made clear. Much of macroeconomics can be counter-intuitive, particularly for first year undergraduates. But those who engaged with the module definitely ventured opinions along the way! There was a lot of reading required, for much of which I provided more concise lecture notes, but there is plenty of scope for being more targeted next year in what we dig into in more detail. There will be less on the schools of thought at the beginning next time, as in my view it makes much more sense drawing this out as particular aspects of economic theory are being discussed – much better I think to work on the students’ comfort in group working initially, so as to get them discussing the subject more openly earlier. I also did not use the material built around the Core Project’s The Economy as much as I would have liked this time, although it was available to the students. I will be discussing how I can remedy this at the RES Nuffield Foundation Workshop: Teaching and Learning with CORE at the University of Warwick this week!

It has been a very stimulating experience and greatly increased my understanding of how actuaries have traditionally approached economics questions, while also allowing me to explore ways in which I would want those approaches to change. I look forward to Year Two!

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.

I have seen two very different pictures of the future of professional life over the last year or so. The first, which I wrote about over a year ago, was presented in The Future of the Professions by Richard and Daniel Susskind, and has been much debated since within the actuarial profession for what the implications might be for the future. In summary, the Susskinds 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. Indeed Richard Susskind has gone further in setting out what that future might look like for the legal profession, where he sets out future strategies for surviving in a world of increasingly capable machines as:

  • providing more for less (ie charging less (in particular the end of time cost fees), alternative billing arrangements such as “value billing”, making efficiencies and collaboration strategies where clients come together to share costs);
  • liberalising services (ie allowing a wider range of people to provide legal services); and
  • technology (ie online services in all of their forms to make the delivery of these cheaper, increasing use of data scraping, text mining, etc to replace what was previously done through expert judgement).

So far, so expected. The relentless increase in technological capability is bound to demand increased efficiency and leaner organisations competing ruthlessly in a pitiless market, right?

Enter an alternative vision for the future. Pointing out that we have been here before and that Keynes had speculated in 1930 that

In quite a few years – in our own lifetimes I mean – we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.

David Graeber, in his latest book Bullshit Jobs, points out that this never happened, despite pretty much all of the technological developments and income increases which Keynes predicted. He suggests that this future which the Susskinds are predicting is already happening in terms of needing fewer people to fill the meaningful roles within organisations but that, rather than employing fewer people, we are either creating “bullshit” jobs which even the people doing them can see no point to or bullshitizing existing roles for which the meaningful need has passed. It is as if the organisations themselves have attempted to maintain the outward appearance of the same structures by disguising the hollowing out of so many of their functions with simulated business.

It is an intriguing alternative vision of how the professional world might develop which has come in for some criticism, the most serious of which Graeber attempts to address in his book. One of the reasons he thinks the situation has been allowed to develop is that noone believed that capitalism could produce such an outcome. But that is only if you accept the rational profit maximising principle, which many economists have now abandoned as an explanation for corporate or individual behaviour. Graeber gives one particularly important example of this in the creation of Obamacare, where Barack Obama “bucked the preferences of the electorate and insisted on maintaining a private, for-profit health insurance system in America”, quoting him as follows:

I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have,” Obama said, continuing on the health care theme. “Everybody who supports single-payer health care says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents one million, two million, three million jobs [filled by] people who are working at Blue Cross, Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?”

So which vision of the future is more likely? I think, at the moment, there is probably more evidence for the Susskind vision, mainly because he has been working in this area for 30 years and therefore many of his predictions, such as the use of email to provide legal advice, have had time to emerge. Many of the stories in Graeber’s book ring true for me and are similar to experiences I have had at times myself, but he has only obtained 300 of them. The YouGov poll which highlighted that 37% of working adults say their job is making no meaningful contribution to the world – but most of them aren’t looking for another one, was based on a sample size of 849. There was also a similar result (in this case 40%) from a survey in the Netherlands, for which I couldn’t easily find the sample size. However this does also lend some weight to one of Graeber’s other contentions in the book that the financial industry might be considered a paradigm for bullshit job creation, as the following graph (from a working paper on this issue by Stolbova et al) shows that the Netherlands and the UK are by far the most financialised economies in the EU.

There are other parts which ring less true for me. For instance, I do not recognise the alternative “non-managerial” university exam paper production process to that shown below (which is just the academic staff sending the exam to a teaching assistant to print and the teaching assistant confirming that he/she has done so) as ever having been remotely acceptable, but this may just reflect the fact that I have been working in academia for a far shorter time than Graeber. However there is no doubt that this is an interesting and useful field of enquiry and potentially concerning for all of us trying to support our graduates in negotiating a meaningful and rewarding entry into the workplace.

There is likely to be significant disruption over the next couple of decades in how we do things and it seems likely to me that there will be many seeking to protect familiar organisational and power structures along the way, as our assumptions about what we want and how we are prepared to have it provided to us are seriously challenged in sometimes unnerving ways. Of the sustainability of these protections ultimately, I am less sure.

 

While the NHS has been asked to find £22 billion in savings by 2020, the latest figures from the Student Loans Company show that over £13 billion has been found to fund student loans for 2016/17 alone, without increasing the Government’s deficit and without appearing in the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement until some time in the 2040s. How is this possible?

The key difference is that the money the Government provides in student loans are seen as just that: loans. However, unlike any other kind of loan (and the reason that commercial banks declined to join the SLC – which was the original plan and the reason it was set up with a company structure), only between 40 and 45% is expected ever to be repaid, the repayment term is limited to a maximum of 30 years and the payments limited to a percentage of earnings above a minimum earnings threshold (which is about to increase to £25,000 pa). It is in reality a graduate tax masquerading as a loan, with the “sticker price” of £9,250 pa (which is of course a real price for overseas students) just used to ensure students don’t feel like they are paying this tax on someone else’s behalf. However the payments made by the Government since 2011 as “loans” have not led to any outcry about uncosted commitments, or passing the bill onto future generations which you might expect. Which is surprising, as it has meant that Higher Education has effectively been allowed to sidestep the austerity policies applied to just about every other Government department completely.

One might think that the architect of such a scheme would be quite popular within the Higher Education space. Far from it. Since the announcement of his appointment as the new Chancellor at the University of Leicester, the Leicester branch of the UCU has widened the campaign it is already running against the Joint Negotiating Council’s decision to close the USS pension scheme to further defined benefit accrual to embrace a #WillettsOut position. The students who occupied the corridor outside the Leicester VC’s office for two days similarly had Willetts’ removal on their list.

Apart from elements of his voting record (he was strongly in favour of an elected House of Lords and was strongly against the ban on fox-hunting. TheyWorkForYou additionally records that, amongst other things, he was strongly in favour of the Iraq War, strongly in favour of an investigation into it, moderately against equal gay rights, and very strongly for replacing Trident), the main charges against him seemed to date from an article about him in the Guardian from 2011.

Now without minimising the differences of opinion which I and many of my colleagues will clearly have with David Willetts on a wide range of issues, I do think we are in danger of surrounding ourselves with the comfortable cushions of like-minded individuals all equally in the dark about the regulatory changes in store for us and at risk of all the worst consequences of Group Think. I would therefore like to put forward an alternative view.

The University of Leicester is facing, along with the rest of the Higher Education sector, serious challenges over the coming decades in response to an expansion of the proportion of young people going to university which no political party is going to want to reverse (and which I, for one, would not want them to). David Willetts was the chief driver of much of these reforms and has a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve, set out in his book A University Education. He is currently a visiting professor at King’s College London where he works with the Policy Institute at King’s, a visiting professor at the Cass Business School, Chair of the British Science Association, a member of the Council of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and an Honorary Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. However his real passion is around social mobility, something which I believe is important to many of us here at Leicester, and which has led him to a role as Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation. As a former cabinet minister and shadow cabinet minister from 1996 until 2014, Willetts is very well connected, a formidable debater and would make a fierce friend of the University, fighting Leicester’s corner in what is likely to be an increasingly challenging period.

David Willetts would undoubtedly bring significant challenge with him. Arguing with him (I watched him in debate with Stefan Collini and a variably outraged university audience at the Senate House last year) can sometimes feel like doing battle with a hammer. But it may be that this is what we need to respond successfully to the new world which is coming rather than yet another comfortable cushion to make us feel better. Let’s welcome him inside the tent.

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.

If the models are correct we are heading for a Zombie Apocalypse

Let’s forget the strapline of this blog for a moment and assume that the models are correct. The Pension Protection Fund (PPF) is targeting “self-sufficiency” by 2030, ie no more levies from sponsors of pension schemes required for it to independently fund all the future benefits of every scheme member whether they are already in the PPF or going to end up in it with only the insufficient assets their former employers allocated to their former pension schemes for company. BHS has concluded a very high profile deal in the last couple of weeks to set up a new self-sufficient scheme for its former employees. The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) has proposed a funding plan which targets self-sufficiency less a “covenant” (ie amount of money feasible to get out of the university sector in the future) by 2031. John Ralfe mentioned a few other examples in his article from 2015.
These are schemes which have been dubbed “zombie” schemes on the basis that they are basically dead, with no new money or new members coming in, but nevertheless dragging themselves along the floor year after year until all of their members have stopped twitching.
What does the UK pensions world look like in 2030? Well according to various sources:
• UK population will have increased to 70.6 million (assuming Scotland and Northern Ireland are still in it) with 21.4% of them over the age of 65 (S&P)
• Credit rating of UK will have fallen to A, with a further fall to BBB by 2035 assuming no change in economic policy (also S&P)
• Average life expectancies at birth in UK would be over 85 for women and 82.5 for men (Imperial College and WHO)
• Benefit outgo from defined benefit pension schemes is £100 billion more than contribution income pa (Hymans Robertson)

This does not sound like a happy place for our zombies to be negotiating with the occasional limb getting torn off as multiple doors are slammed in their faces. Although the self-sufficiency route is now a common approach amongst large schemes, it is largely untested. No scheme as far as I am aware has actually managed to run in a self-sufficient manner for any appreciable length of time, whereas the more expensive buy out route (where the benefits for members are purchased in the form of contracts with an insurer) is by comparison well established.

So off into this volatile landscape our zombies will be let loose, trying to run themselves like little insurance companies, but without the scale or diversification or experience which makes insurers (mostly) survive for long periods. However that better track record comes at a price which schemes are currently reluctant to pay. There is a good chance that this experiment will not end well.

My guess for 2030? That the volatile landscape will have claimed some casualties amongst the self-sufficient zombies and put them into the PPF with much bigger deficits than if they had gone there straight away. And then all the other zombies will T-U-R-N A-R-O-U-N-D V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y and follow them there. At which point the PPF will realise that they are undead no longer.

Ha-Joon Chang invites you to get involved in economic debate and not leave it to the experts in the latest RSA Animate of his Economics: The User’s Guide.

Well worth 12 minutes of your time!

Go on pick a card

It is election time for the UK Actuarial Profession. The annual Council election is our chance to have our voices heard and to help in setting the strategic direction of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA). And this year I am running!

I think the next 10 years could be one of the most formative periods the profession has seen – with politics and economics at something of a turning point globally, and the place for actuaries and the finance industry more generally within that open to question as never before. I feel, as a former pensions actuary who now works with the actuaries of the future every day, that I have something to contribute to the process of actuaries finding their place in this new world.

So if you are a member of the IFoA please watch my video below and, if you share my priorities for the profession, I would greatly appreciate your vote.

Group of pins

Two women were fighting on my train the other morning. It was a packed train, with people standing the length of the carriage, so I didn’t see it so much as hear it. The first woman felt she had been pushed by the other one and complained very loudly and with much swearing. The second woman made some comment about the first woman’s mother and it escalated from there, getting louder and louder. Neither was prepared to let the other have the last word and, seeing the impact the mother comment had had, the second woman used it again. At which point the first woman hit her. The other passengers had been sitting and standing grim-faced up until this point, but now one or two intervened. One, who had the bearing of a lay preacher, attempted to assume sufficient authority to stop the argument. He was ignored. Another one stood and put the second woman in his seat and stood between them.

The second woman continued to make comments, but as much to herself as to the first woman. She kept stamping her feet in frustration. She was clearly in unbearable discomfort, but not from any physical pain. Finally she called the police and, as we pulled into New Street Station, started to give a physical description of her assailant. “Everyone on the train saw it” she said several times, while the passengers around her stared in any direction but hers.

I don’t know what happened next in the lives of these two women, although an announcement was made a couple of days later on the same service that police were working their way through the train for witness statements about the incident. They never appeared in my carriage, and I am not sure what I would have said if they had. And I don’t know what your reaction to my story is – whether that the other passengers, including me, should have acted differently or some commentary on the behaviour of the two women. I am, however, reasonably confident that you will have a reaction, perhaps quite a strong one, despite my limitations as a narrator. The reason I am confident about this is that I found myself, involuntarily, completely absorbed in the dispute, upset when one of the women expressed upset, constructing back stories for each of them, questioning their strategic wisdom at various points and, by the time we arrived at New Street Station and I dispersed with all the other witnesses, emotionally drained. And a look at the faces around the carriage suggested to me that most of my fellow passengers reacted similarly.

Why am I telling you this? Because it is a clear example of our domesticated brains in action. The almost physical pain this argument caused me and most of my fellow passengers is the reason we can travel from Sutton Coldfield to Birmingham every day with rarely an incident. It is often referred to these days, in pejorative terms, as Group Think. The shared assumptions and behaviours which allow us to live alongside each other in peace. I then get on a second train each day from Birmingham to Leicester, which I tell everyone is a great train to work on. But this is only because I can trust the 80 or so other passengers not to start an argument. The police could not cope if everyone behaved like the two women in my story. When the police do make an appeal for witnesses, they do so secure in the knowledge that nothing they say or do will encourage more than a handful to come forward, so strong is our group instinct to stay out of each other’s lives if we can. It is not indifference but survival. You need very strong structures to counteract the very strong instinct for Group Think.

However the reason Group Think is used pejoratively is that we have had vivid demonstrations of its power to make large groups of people behave stupidly. For example, herding behaviour in financial markets often causing the very problems people are trying to protect themselves from by going with the crowd. Or regulatory regimes which seem to encourage monocultures to develop, whether in finance, health, education, politics or academia, based on shared assumptions rather than encouraging diversity, because monocultures are easier to regulate. Many professions, including the actuarial profession, have introduced specific professional guidance to encourage whistle-blowing where appropriate, ie standing up to the policies and practices of their own organisations in most cases, which often means doing battle with Group Think. How successful such initiatives prove to be remains to be seen.

Encouraging challenges to Group Think is hard. It normally means going out of your way to allow views to be expressed you don’t agree with. It makes getting your own way harder to achieve. It can seem to us like the opposite of strong leadership and decisiveness when we seek out opinions that will make decision-making more complex. But we have made our society so complex and organisationaly fragile that this is what we are going to need to do more of in the future to stop it all from crashing down around us.