What is the value of a human life?

Imagine you are an economist in the Department of Transport advising the Minister who has to chose between two alternative transport options. One is significantly more expensive than the other but will have a greater impact on road safety because it improves a major blackspot, notorious for fatal accidents between pedestrians and cyclists. Alternatively, if you were working for a health authority, you might have to advise on allocating scarce resource between areas which particularly benefit the elderly, such as hip replacements, or putting the money into areas which benefit other sectors of the population such as paediatrics. Although it might seem difficult and subjective, economists working in these areas have to place monetary values on a human life.

One way of valuing a human life is the VSL (Value of a Statistical Life) which uses  the money a person would pay to save one human life. This is not asking what they would pay to save their life or that of a member of their family or a friend, but the value they would place on an anonymous life. Alternatively, rather than carrying out surveys, economists consider future average earnings. Therefore the value of a life varies according to the age of the people being considered, hence actions which save a child’s life are more valuable than those which benefit the elderly. More problematical, this implies that saving lives in a high-income area is of greater value to society than in a depressed region.  Unsurprisingly, there is very little international agreement about the answer. The UK government figure is around €2.02m while the USA Department of Transport figure is €8.75m, indicating the way the VSL varies according to income levels.

A study in Sierra Leone illustrated this by looking at people’s preferred transport options to get from the capital, Freetown, across water, to the airport. By examining the different methods of travel (ferry, water taxi or  hovercraft) and considering the duration of the journey and the risks involved, the study found that the VSL of an African traveller ($577,000) was lower than that of a non-African traveller ($924,000) which was largely explained by the level of income, with higher income earners choosing the safest method – water-taxi-  even  though it was more expensive and took longer.

A new approach, used particularly in healthcare economics, estimates the “Value of a Statistical Life Year” (VSLY) which measures the value of one additional year of life. If a medical process, such as a heart transplant for an elderly patient, costs £50,000 and increases life expectancy by one year yet costs £60,000 then in economic terms it is not cost-effective. However if the same treatment were provided for a child which increased their life expectancy by fifty years, then it would be extremely cost-effective. This approach has been made more sophisticated by introducing the idea of a Quality-Adjusted Life Year which is defined by NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) as:

 “A measure of the state of health of a person or group in which the benefits, in terms of length of life, are adjusted to reflect the quality of life. One QALY is equal to 1 year of life in perfect health.
QALYs are calculated by estimating the years of life remaining for a patient following a particular treatment or intervention and weighting each year with a quality-of-life score (on a 0 to 1 scale). It is often measured in terms of the person’s ability to carry out the activities of daily life, and freedom from pain and mental disturbance.”

The World Health Organisation uses a range of between one and three times per capita GDP of the country per additional QALY while a value of £30,000 per QALY has been identified as the upper limit for treatments deemed cost effective in the UK,  approximately the value of per capita GDP.

Whether this figure is too low is a question for politicians rather than economists.

Advertisements

Why bother with GDP?

Modern GDP statistics (“the value of goods and services produced in a given period”) have their origin in the USA around the 1930s with the work of Kuznets, who produced the first national income data in order to see the impact of the Great Depression on the US economy. They became more important during the Second World War when the UK government, prompted by Keynes, and the US government needed to be able to manage the war effort to maximum effect while still providing enough resources for consumption.

A major criticism of GDP is that it takes no account of what is produced, merely its value. As a result,  disasters can be good for GDP if they involve countries reconstructing roads or buildings damaged in the disaster. War is also a good way of boosting GDP since it will involve producing more tanks, weapons and aircraft! Similarly, two forks are, in GDP terms, as useful as a knife and fork, but less useful in reality when trying to spread butter. GDP and GDP per capita also take no account of how the income is shared among the population. A rich oil producing country might have a high GDP per head but, if the income is concentrated in the hands of a few, the standard of living of the majority might be below that of a country with a lower average of GDP.

Measurement of GDP is difficult since it is impossible to measure every transaction and therefore relies on surveys e.g. the Living Costs and Food Survey for about 5,000 households and monthly surveys of approximately 45,000 businesses. The development of technology has made the measurement of GDP more difficult. The UK Government set up an inquiry under Charlie Bean – OB and former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England – who identified activities which are now much harder to measure and value such as using Google Maps rather than buying a paper OS map or streaming films rather than buying or renting DVDs. Another problem is that many things have become cheaper and better – my new DVD recorder is easier to use and records more than a previous model but, in GDP terms, it is less valuable because it is cheaper.

There have been many debates over what should be included in GDP and although these might seem largely irrelevant, they matter when trying to compare countries’ GDP. In the past certain things, such as the sale of cannabis in cafes in Holland were legal and therefore recorded while a similar purchase in Romford would not be counted. However Eurostat wanted consistency among its members and decided that all transactions for goods or services involving money were to be recorded, whether they are legal, illegal, good or bad. Therefore, in a purely numerical way, those who argue in favour of increasing GDP as being a key government objective, could argue that encouraging the sale of drugs or prostitution is as valid as increased spending on education or health – something even an economist would find hard to justify! More relevantly sales of guns in the UK are part of the shadow economy but in the US they are legal, widespread and contribute to GDP.

GDP data is particularly suspect in developing countries where a significant percentage of production takes place in the hidden economy; for example, in Zimbabwe only 6% of the labour force is formally employed. Similarly, my purchase of bottled water from Sainsbury’s is counted in the UK’s GDP, but the effort of an African villager who spends hours walking to and from a stream to collect “free” water has no value according to GDP statistics. There are also basic measurement difficulties in LDCs, such as obtaining accurate population figures, accurately measuring inflation and valuing the hidden economy, e.g. only half the maize produced in Nigeria is sold in a shop or market.

There is now a consensus that we are trying to measure too many things in our single GDP number and, although we can improve it by using GDP per head or median GDP or NNP, it is still deficient.

Economists have therefore started both to consider other possible methods of estimating economic activity and to develop alternative measures which go beyond simply the output of goods and services. One way of tackling the former is to look at light intensity to indicate economic activity in different areas with increases in intensity over time indicating growth. Such methods indicate that the proportion of economic activity occurring in villages, and not always measured, is more significant than thought and therefore the GDP of many developing countries is, similarly, larger than previously calculated. It also provides a fascinating snapshot of the difference between the North and South Korean economies.

However a major concern is how we measure the damage which our focus on output is doing to the environment. China’s focus on growth has resulted in 40% of its river water being undrinkable and one cannot always see the stars at night because of pollution. GDP does not take into account depreciation of natural resources lost to build houses and factories and damage to the environment but this is not easy to do. How does one put a monetary value on a rainforest, beautiful view or footpath by a river? One way is to make an estimate based on how much people pay to see them and, for things which benefit the environment, how much it would cost to replicate them. The UK government in 2012 formed the “Natural Capital Committee” to advise the government on things such as ‘forests, rivers, minerals and oceans’ and by 2020 the ONS must include a measure of natural capital in the UK’s national accounts. The aim is to move towards sustainable growth. Along the same lines, a US think tank has invented Earth Overshoot Day – the date when the earth used up its regenerative capacity for the year. In 2018 this occurred on 1st August.

Other measures include the Genuine Progress Index – a measure of economic welfare which is currently in use in Maryland. GDP is the base but invisible “goods” e.g. leisure time, volunteering, & housework are added while “regrettables” e.g. crime prevention spending such as burglar alarms, pollution and commuting time are subtracted. The Happy Planet Index tries to measure what matters – namely sustainable wellbeing for all and tells us how well nations are doing at achieving long, happy, sustainable lives.  Some countries have followed Bhutan which developed a Gross National Happiness index which sets out priorities such as psychological well-being, health, education, living standards, good governance and ecological resilience. Before adoption, all new projects must undergo a GNH impact review. We carry out an annual happiness survey as does the OECD and many of its members. These focus on six key variables which determine happiness – GDP/head, healthy years of life expectancy, having people to turn to, trust in others, freedom to make decisions and donations to charity.

An Ageing Population

The world is getting older and this has significant implications for the working population, those who have retired and those about to enter employment. The country facing the most immediate crisis is Japan with its rapidly ageing population. Those over 65 years old now account for 28% of their population and their life expectancy is 84 – the highest in the world. It is predicted that over half of the babies born there today will live to over 100 years old.  In addition, it has the lowest birthrate since its records began 120 years ago and therefore its population is falling. In the UK the population is ageing. The proportion aged 65 or over in 2016 was 18% of the population (11.8 million) and the ONS predict that by 2066 this figure will have increased to 26% of the total population (20.4 million).

We can expect this to result in an increasing budget deficit as pension payments increase because of longer life expectancy. Governments will face increasing costs of health care as people live longer and consume more health care which is becoming increasingly expensive for those in later life as medical science has improved. Linked to this, the tax burden on those of working age will increase as the proportion of the population not working increases. Partially offsetting this, there has been an increase in the proportion of older people working as their health has improved; for example, in the UK, the proportion of over 70s working has more than doubled in the last ten years but it is still only one in twelve. However if people are working longer, their ability to provide care for elderly relatives will diminish. A key concept to consider is the “Old age dependency ratio” (OADR) – the number of people of State Pension age (SPA) per 1,000 people of working age. In the UK this is forecast to increase significantly beyond 2030, therefore suggesting either increased taxes, reduced levels of care, increased immigration,reduced real pensions or making the elderly pay an increased proportion of costs currently paid by the state.

The impact on the structure of the economy is also significant. Many older people live in houses which are too large for them, bought when they had children who have now left home. A shortage of suitable smaller accommodation, combined with the relatively high costs of down-sizing prevents some of them from moving, thereby restricting the supply of housing for younger families. There is also an increasing need for workers in the NHS and care industries to look after the rising number of elderly people. There is also a regional impact since proportionately more elderly people live in rural and coastal areas, placing a proportionately higher burden on local authorities and the NHS in those areas. Another issue is that over the past few years, the relative income of UK pensioners has increased due to the introduction of the “Triple Lock” in 2011 – a government commitment to increase pensions annually by the highest of average earnings, the rate of inflation or a minimum of 2.5%.  Since then both inflation and earnings growth have been low and the 2.5% increase has therefore increased pension incomes relative to earnings. This is supported by a government study which looked at the percentage of people in 2015/16 of different age groups reporting it “quite or very difficult to get by financially” which showed that the lowest percentage of those in difficulty were the two highest age groups, 65 – 74 and 75 and over, which reported 3.1% and 1.4% respectively. These returns compare with the next lowest, the 16 – 24 age group, who reported 5.8% in difficulty.

 

Brexit, the WTO and the Irish Border

The World Trade Organisation was established in January,1995 to promote free trade since it believes that it provides benefits in the form of greater choice and lower prices, stimulates economic growth, raises incomes and promotes world peace. It also acts as a forum for negotiations to reduce tariff barriers,  provide technical assistance for developing countries and  resolve trade disputes between its 164 members. For example, in August 2018, Turkey complained to the WTO about US sanctions on Turkish exports of aluminium and steel. If, after investigation and consultation, the WTO believes a country has broken its rules, it can authorise retaliatory tariffs.  Until the Brexit referendum, the WTO had not featured  in UK newspapers. However since the vote and the lack of progress in  talks with the EU, there has been increased interest in its role in regulating world trade  since, if no agreement is reached, the UK will fall back on WTO rules following its departure from the EU on 29th March.

Anyone wishing to join the WTO must agree to accept all its rules, particularly the  ‘Most Favoured Nation’ agreement whereby countries  must apply the same tariff to similar goods, irrespective of the exporting country, unless there is a free trade agreement between the importing and exporting countries. Thus if we leave the EU without an agreement, the EU will apply the same 10% tariff on UK car exports into the EU as it does to those coming in from other non-EU countries. Similarly, if the UK government were to announce a unilateral move to zero tariffs on agricultural products from the EU, without a trade deal, we could not levy tariffs on agricultural goods from elsewhere.

A significant concern is that WTO rules do not reduce regulatory barriers. At present, because of the Single Market, a UK car manufacturer can sell products as easily in Rome as Romford. This will cease if there is no agreement with the EU and therefore we would expect UK goods to be inspected when entering the EU, in the same way that British goods entering  Japan are currently examined to ensure that they meet EU standards. This might not seem a major problem but exporters fear that administrative burdens of completing customs forms and the delays to drivers at borders will be significant, therefore increasing costs.  This will be particularly important for those trading in perishable goods, some medical products which need to be refrigerated, and companies currently operating with minimal stocks in order to reduce costs.

A third concern is that WTO rules do not currently provide as much freedom for trade in services as they do for trade in goods. At present, for example, UK banks provide services for individuals, businesses and other banks across the EU without needing to duplicate all of their physical locations overseas. Leaving the EU will make trade in services, which make up 80% of the UK’s GDP, far more difficult and explains why UK financial consultants, bankers, accountants, etc are moving staff and  have established physical locations overseas.

Some in favour of leaving the EU argue that these arguments will not be significant since much non-EU trade is done under WTO rules. However the Economist pointed out (4th August 2018) that the UK would be the only large country trading solely on WTO rules and many other countries have arrangements in place to reduce the administrative customs burdens which hinder trade.

The problem with the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is also causing difficulties in our negotiations with the EU since two almost incompatible ideas need to be reconciled. On the one hand, the EU is insisting that, unless there is a new  form of customs union between the UK and the EU (which some pro-Brexiteers resist since it will reduce our ability to sign other deals), there must be a border between the UK and the EU to allow for customs checks to ensure that goods pay the appropriate tariffs and meet regulatory standards. For England, Scotland and Wales, this will be a sea border. However between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it will be a land one. Not only will this be  hard to enforce since there are many possible routes between the two, there are also very major political difficulties in re-establishing a hard border which relate to historical issues between the two countries. The idea of a “back-stop” which would allow free trade between the two countries would involve a different regulatory regime for Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK, something which is equally politically difficult to accept.

It is difficult to predict what the effects on our trade will be until the Brexit agreement is reached. As part of the EU, we currently benefit from free trade treaties between the EU and other countries and we do not know whether we will be able to negotiate to keep these agreements. A recent example of this is the recently-signed EU-Japan trade deal which we hope to replicate. However the Japanese have made it clear that it will not be ready to be signed by 29th March and, given the importance of Japan-UK trade, this is potentially a serious issue. Indeed, Dr Fox’s claim in 2017 that  the UK would be able to replicate up to 40 EU free trade deals, immediately we leave the EU is not going to happen. So far we have signed  agreements with Australia, Chile, the Faroe Islands, some African nations, Israel,  Palestine and Switzerland. The failure to sign agreements is already impacting on British businesses trading with Asia since goods now being shipped will not arrive until after 29th March and exporters do not know whether they will be liable to tariffs or potentially might even be sent back to the UK. If there is no deal by 29th March, then 18th April becomes the next key date since, by then, the UK must confirm whether it will make contributions to the EU’s 2019 budget which are due by the end of April. A decision to make these payments will  require a vote in Parliament. If we do not make these payments, then our relations with the EU will deteriorate further and the chances of a trade deal will diminish even further.

Venezuela

In the 1970s, Venezuela was a South American success story. It has the largest oil reserves in the world and wealthy Venezuelans flew to Europe on shopping sprees; indeed, Concorde, as well as flying businessmen and women between Europe and the USA, also flew to Venezuela. For twenty years, it had the highest growth rate and the least income inequality in South America and remained the richest country in South America until 2001.

Today, GDP is predicted to fall 26% by the end of 2019 and  inflation is 1.7 million per cent with the IMF estimating it will reach 10 million per cent by the end of 2019. Historically, this makes it comparable to the hyperinflation in Germany in the 1920s, Hungary after the Second World War and, more recently, Zimbabwe. (The worst example of hyperinflation is, currently, still Hungary in 1946, when, at inflation’s peak, prices doubled every 15 hours, compared to Zimbabwe where prices doubled every 24.7 hours.)

It is hard to imagine the effects of hyperinflation. Prices in shops are no longer displayed – customers find out when they come to pay. Everyday items are scarce, even if they could be afforded with farmers hoarding food because they can get more from selling their produce tomorrow rather than today. Hospitals have run out of medicines, with operations postponed because of a shortage of anaesthetics. Infant mortality rose 30% last year and in 2017, the average adult weight fell 24lb. Savings and pensions have become worthless and 10% of the population have left, including half the doctors. Crime has increased and the suicide rate has risen. Barter has returned to the economy and some people have taken to using  eggs as a substitute currency.

So how did it get to this state? At the end of the 1990s, it elected Hugo Chavez, a socialist president, who embarked on a programme of public spending involving free healthcare, improved education and subsidised housing, all of which were financed by the country’s vast oil revenues. His government took over the steel, agriculture and mining industries and installed new managers who lacked the experience and skills of their predecessors. As a result, real GDP has fallen by 46% since the start of 2014. The state-owned oil industry was used as a source of finance and starved of investment by the government. However, the fall in oil prices reduced government revenues, with the government having to replace lost revenues by printing more money. This created the classic conditions for hyperinflation. In economic terms, we can explain this by looking at the Fisher equation MV = PQ (money supply x the velocity of circulation equals the average price level x the quantity of goods and services produced). M is rising rapidly as the government prints more and V, which is how fast money is being used, is also rising rapidly since people are trying to spend it as fast as possible. Therefore the left hand side of Fisher’s equation is rising rapidly. On the right hand side, which, by definition, must equal the left hand side, the quantity of goods produced is falling because of poor economic management, therefore the price level increases – a classic case of inflation “caused by too much money chasing too few goods”.

 

Do we have a housing crisis?

Last week it was announced that an American businessman had bought a house in St James’s Park, near Buckingham Palace, for £95 million. As you might expect, the house has a pool, gym, staff quarters and private gardens. At the other end of the scale, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently reported that 40% of 25 – 34 year olds are not able to afford a 10% deposit to buy the cheapest house in their neighbourhood. In London, approximately twenty years ago, 90% would be able to afford the deposit whereas today only 33% can afford the deposit. Because of the difficulty faced by people getting on to the housing crisis, newspapers have been talking about a housing crisis for some time.

A sign of the housing crisis is the high price of housing, signifying either excess demand or restricted supply. Focusing first on the demand for housing, for many years buying a house was an ideal way of building up wealth for potential homeowners, thus increasing the demand for housing. Not only did borrowers previously receive tax remission for mortgage payments, the price of houses increased more or less continuously and so one could borrow, knowing that when the mortgage was repaid, the increase in the value of the house would more than have covered the cost of the mortgage. More recently the Government introduced the ‘Help to Buy Scheme’ in 2013, (now extended to 2023) which lends, interest fee, up to 20% of the cost of a new build home (40% in London) to borrowers who have been able to raise a 5% deposit, meaning they only need a mortgage for 75% of the value. It has helped to finance the construction of 170,000 homes of which 140,000 have been purchased by first-time buyers. But it has been expensive, costing taxpayers nearly £8 billion since 2013, and providing considerable profits for house builders as demand increased more than supply, thereby pushing up prices. Another criticism has been that the scheme has not helped the low-paid since they have not taken as much advantage of the scheme as those with higher incomes. In addition, we are seeing that buyers of homes using the scheme who now wish to sell, have found that their property has fallen in value since future buyers are not eligible for the help to buy assistance. There have also been a number of suggestions to boost supply. These include allowing more building on green belt land and introducing measures (not yet introduced) to help older buyers down-size and therefore free up larger homes.

Why are we so concerned about declines in house building and house purchases? Apart from the social and political issues which result from people not being able to afford to buy their own house, having to pay excessive rents or sleeping on the streets, there are significant economic implications of a failing housing market. Firstly, if  building slows, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, etc, lose their jobs and firms making bricks, providing carpets, furniture, ovens, fridges, etc, also experience a decline for their products and services and subsequently cut back on labour. As a result, incomes fall and, given the multiplier effect, the impact on the economy will be significant. It is worth noting that the multiplier effect will be large since so much of the expenditure involved in housing is domestic – i.e. there is relatively little leaked out of the economy in the form of imports.

Another way in which the housing market affects the economy is that a poorly-functioning housing market, causing high prices in booming areas, makes it difficult for firms to expand their labour force because workers cannot afford to move into the area. A final issue occurs via the wealth effect – the idea that households’ consumption is determined not only by their income but also by their wealth. For most people, their house is the main source of their wealth. Therefore, a booming housing market makes existing homeowners feel richer and they therefore spend more, believing that they have less need to save since their increasingly valuable house is adding to the value of their assets. Since the financial crisis, the housing market declined. When house prices dropped, people felt poorer and therefore felt the need to save more. This reduced consumption at a time when aggregate demand was already falling, thereby exacerbating the problems faced by the economy.

However, recently, after ten years of decline, the number of mortgages issued has increased and there was the highest number of first time buyers last year for 12 years, according to the government’s annual English Housing Survey, published in January. The increase was linked to the Help to Buy scheme, loans from parents and grandparents and a relaxation in the mortgage market. However we have also seen the slowest growth in house prices for six years, possibly down to Brexit uncertainty and last year receipts from stamp duty (a tax on house purchases) fell, largely because of the slowdown hitting the top end of the market.

How are we really doing?

This post looks at the current state of the economy.  Although the data may seem to be a few months out of date, it is the latest available and indicates a difficulty for economic bodies such as the Bank of England who try to control the economy. Their task is made even more difficult because, for example, not only are the Labour Force Survey figures out of date, they also do not respond quickly to changes in the economy since employers often wait a few months before hiring or firing workers to see if changes they experience are permanent or temporary.

GDP growth slowed at the end of 2018 from 0.4% to 0.3% in the three months to the end of October. This was largely due to a 0.8% fall in the manufacturing sector, particularly the manufacture of vehicles and pharmaceuticals. Our productivity continues to disappoint having been almost flat for 10 years, and about 20% below what it would be if it had grown at the trend rate for the last ten years. Investment has fallen for the last nine months, unlike our G7 partners who have experienced double digit growth.

However, the labour market continued to do well between August and October with the number of people in work increasing to 32.48 million, 396,000 more than a year earlier. The employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 years in work) was 75.7%, higher than a year earlier (75.1%) and the joint-highest estimate since comparable estimates began in 1971 while the unemployment rate (unemployed people as a proportion of all employed and unemployed people) was 4.1% or 1.38 million people. As a result, the proportion of people inactive was approximately 21%, again the joint lowest since 1971.

Inflation, measured by the CPI, dropped to 2.1% in December, the lowest since January 2017 when it was 1.8%, caused by falling air fares and oil prices (causing falling petrol and diesel prices among other things). Employee average weekly earnings increased by 3.3% over the year, giving a real increase of 1.2%, a welcome change from recent years when the rate of inflation has exceeded the increase in earnings. However, over the year, poverty increased, with 14 million people (22% of the population) in relative poverty (defined as 60% of the median income after housing costs). This includes more than 4 million children, with more than half of the children in single parent families in poverty. Food bank use has increased by 13% in the last year.

The balance of payments current account deficit increased to £26.5 billion between July to September, 2018, which equated to 5% of GDP, the largest deficit recorded for two years in both value and percentage of GDP terms. Contributing to this was an increase in the deficit on trade in goods and services, as the service sector surplus fell, and an increase in the primary income deficit caused by an increased net outflow of profits from FDI in the UK. (Primary income is the net flow of profits, interest and dividends from investments in other countries and net remittance flows from migrant workers). The majority of the deficit was financed by foreigners purchasing UK shares and UK investors selling part of their overseas portfolios.

Finally – an apology to younger readers. The latest government figures have shown that the share of UK wealth held by those over 65 has grown to 36% of the total, averaging £1.1 million.  The proportion of over 65s who are millionaires increased from 7% in 2006 to 20% in 2016. This wealth is in the form of property, their pension funds, holdings of shares and other savings. The biggest losers were those in the 35 – 44 age group whose share has dropped from 15% to 10% (although the value of their wealth rose from £180,000 to £190,000. This is a major change over the last 20 years when 21% of pensioners were in poverty.