Tl;dr for the TSC

A few months back the UK Parliament’s Treasury Select Committee (TSC) invited anyone and everyone to submit in 3,000 words their views about post-crisis monetary policy. I can imagine that TSC members’ junior researchers must have been thrilled by the prospect of reading all the submissions for their political masters on the 16 open-ended essay questions set in the terms of reference.

I read all thirty four of the written submissions and post the tl;dr for each below so you wouldn’t have to. Thirty four. I hope that the authors who see each of their 3,000+ word missives so ruthlessly and flippantly précised (with potential misreading) take this in the good spirit in which it is done.

Why did I do this? Erm… It seemed like a better idea at the start than it did by the end?

Actually, three reasons. First, political support for Bank operational independence has been sagging. The Prime Minister has been drawing attention to distributional inequitiesassociated with QE. The Chancellor had to make a statement to Parliament in support of QE after City rumours of private briefings in which he inferred that backing for further rounds of QE would no longer be forthcoming. Senior Conservative politicians have publicly attacked the Bank (for example, here or here). And the Labour front bench have been airing prospective reforms that would remove operational independence. It was in this political context that the TSC, which holds the Bank to account, launched its inquiry into post-2008 monetary policy. I wanted to get a sense as to what the submissions said.

Second, I read a lot of policymakers, academics and investment bank stuff about QE. Much of it is very good. But this is a genuine free for all from bloggers, academics, finance professionals, think tanks, former policymakers and private unaffiliated individuals who could be bothered to express a view. I found in the submissions some perspectives that were genuinely new and interesting to me. Reading them has sparked a bunch of thoughts.

Third, I submitted myself, and so was interested as to where my views sat within the body of submissions.

I also learned during the course of reading these about the Cobden Centre, which appears to have done a decent job of making its presence felt rather firmly. The Centre which appears to campaign for an end to fiat money was founded by Steve Baker MP, a member of the TSC, who used to work in IT at Lehman Brothers before turning to politics. Affiliates of the Centre submitted five of the thirty four written testimonies and gave one of the three oral testimonies. I have no sense as to whether these submissions were coordinated or not, but thought it striking that only one of the five written submissions mentioned their affiliation in their self-description.  Four of these written submissions can probably be summed up with the words ‘buy gold’; the fifth was fascinating. I have put these together at the end.

The summaries are in the order shown on the Parliamentary website, but grouped into policymakers, academics, finance folk, think tank, unaffiliated, and Cobden; I include Twitter handle where I could find it. They start long and get shorter…

 

Current and former MPC members

Ben Broadbent, Deputy Governor Monetary Policy, Bank of England

Monetary policy can affect nominal quantities, but not real ones over the long term. Real bond yields are set globally, diverging due to local risk premia or the market’s currency expectations. As a small open economy, our real rates are imported and low policy rates are a symptom, not a cause. Target saving can’t be a thing if savings rate falling. QE works. DB pension deficit not our fault, but probably haven’t hit growth much. Precautionary hiking to lean against the wind of financial imbalances appropriate only if macropru unavailable; BoE has FPC. Distributional impact analysis shouldn’t leave out impact of looser policy on overall income of both savers and borrowers (Cloyne 2016). Low productivity leads to low rates, not vice-versa. When QE is unwound BoE balance sheet will, nevertheless, need to be pretty big given regulations and banks’ demands for reserves.

Professor David Miles, ex-MPC member

Like @moyeenislam, reckons post-QE will still see huge reserve balances for banks, but QE need for duration will be absent. So BoE should own UKTBs to limit capital risk.*

*But he knows there aren’t enough T-Bills and so is flagging that the UK government needs to change its debt profile and shift it much shorter as QE unwinds. It could also be interpreted as an area for monetary-fiscal collaboration that saw the BoE signal that it will be a steady holder of short-term financing instruments for HMT and so HMT can benefit from lower debt service costs (if term premia proves to be positive).

Andrew Sentance, PWC and former member of the MPC (October 2006 – May 2011) @asentance

Rate cuts and QE were appropriate responses to crisis but ushered in generally above-target inflation but not stronger growth. Much of the time the BoE was ‘looking through’ ‘one-offs’, but this looks a little silly over a decade. Adverse consequences from post-08 monetary policy felt in housing (boosting prices), pensions (elevating deficits), savings (incentivising people to spend or buy risky assets) and productivity (zombies and service sector getting trade boost from GBP weakness that made it unnecessary to invest). Hike rates.

There is also an oral testimony that you can watch here from Charlie Bean and David Miles,as well as Detlev Schlichter – a guy from (you guessed it) the Cobden Centre.

 

Academics

Professor Huw Dixon, Cardiff Business School @Econdixon

Policy of financial repression is being pursued and is mistaken given economic output and employment are around ‘natural’ levels, hurting savers and retail banks and helps hedge funds and investment banks. Inequality a problem but not one for monetary policymakers. Hiking rates to 3-4% will boost confidence. Doesn’t seem to understand basic monetary economics double-entry book-keeping.

Professor Emeritus Sheila Dow, University of Stirling, and former special advisor on monetary policy to the Treasury Select Committee (2001-10) @sheilacdow

Distributional effects of monetary policy changes should be analysed ex ante as they impact effectiveness of policy transmission. Also, in concerning itself with aggregates rather than distribution, a value judgement is made that market processes ensure a just distributional outcome (wages and salaries reflect worth, etc). Distributional impact of monetary policy can create social problems that require fiscal spend to fix. Bank-HMT cmte should form to discuss interdependencies.

Professor Richard A. Werner, D.Phil. (Oxon), Chair in International Banking, University of Southampton who invented the term Quantitative Easing as a recommended policy for Japan in 1995 @ProfessorWerner

Interest rates are not a useful tool of monetary policy but should rise. BoE should desist QE, try to steepen the curve, and pressure UK banks to lend to non-financial SMEs. Bank credit creation determines nominal GDP growth. HMT should stop issuing bonds and borrow from banks.

Isaac T. Tabner, PhD, CFA, DipPFs, Senior Lecturer in Finance, University of Stirling Management School @IsaacTabner

Lower interest rates make house prices rise, absent generalised deflation.

Roger E. A. Farmer, Research Director for Macroeconomics, NIESR @farmerrf

There is no NAIRU or natural rate of interest. If inflation doesn’t rise, BoE should hike rates while either HMT does coordinated fiscal easing or BoE buys lots of equities. FPC can and should maintain a price for the average value of publicly traded equities that is consistent with full employment.

Lord Skidelsky, cross-bencher and Keynes biographer @RSkidelsky

Near-ZIRP & QE have probably helped at the margin but the distributional impact has been counterproductive and adverse, threatening independence. Fiscal is better. British Investment Bank. People’s QE.

Tony Yates, Professor of Economics, University of Birmingham @T0nyyates

QE was necessary (although not flawlessly executed); Forward Guidance was pants; inflation target should be raised to 4%; MPC should declare expected rate path; and an institutional architecture should be prepared for large-scale private asset market intervention, technocratic fiscal coordination, and introduction of helicopter money.

Professor Philip Haynes, University of Brighton @profpdh

QE boosted asset prices, including house prices. Rents too. And wealth inequality. Monetary policy should target credit at productive investment, working with the Chancellor.

Professor Mariana Mazzucato @MazzucatoM and research fellow Matteo Deleidi, University of London

Lower rates boost household demand for housing and goods, pushing debt higher; corporates investment intentions don’t respond to changing price of debt. Fiscal expansion would’ve been better than QE.

Eric J. Levin, Reader in Economics (Retired), University of Stirling and Robert E. Wright, Professor of Economics, University of Strathclyde

Viscous loop in play: demographics forcing up savings rates, pushing down demand and interest rates, wrecking pensions funding and boosting demand for bonds.

Professor Francis Breedon, Queen Mary’s University of London

QE could have been £2bn cheaper if executed via HMT issuing directly to BEAPFF (although this would have been illegal under Art 123 of Lisbon Treaty).

 

Finance folk

Association of British Insurers (although written by NIESR) @BritishInsurers

QE has increased DB pension deficits and lowered annuity rates. Under Solvency II, lower interest rates increase both the value of liabilities and the quantity of capital that insurers need to hold to insure their non-market risk, creating a trade-off between the fund’s valuation and its solvency. The highly sensitive nature of these movements to interest rates can generate volatility, which is a challenge to manage, dis-incentivises the insuring of longevity risk, and acts pro-cyclically. 50bp rate change moves Risk Margin by 20%.

Robin Churchouse (Finance Director) and Andrew McPhillips (Chief Economist), Yorkshire Building Society @Yorkshire_BS

Savers hit by QE, and markets have grown dependent on central bank support. Target saving not really observed, but nor have low rates reduced saving. Distribution is a matter for HMT.

Professor Mark Blyth, Brown University, @MkBlyth and Eric Lonergan, fund manager at M&G @ericlonners

QE1 was good, less so later versions. Success of policy 1980-2008 maybe dependent on coming from starting position of anachronistically high real rates. Monetary policy largely out of road; heli-money to households is the way the BoE should best respond to a downturn, should it come before rates are high enough to be cut in response.

Toby Nangle, Global Co-Head of Multi Asset, Columbia Threadneedle Investments @toby_n

Target saving a thing, but jury out on how big. QE sorta worked by boosting asset prices but houses are assets too. Death of DB pension system accelerated by QE, but regs and global environment too; low rates an opportunity for HMT. Nangle-Goodhart. Awesome charts.

Building Societies Association @BSABuildingSocs

QE was necessary, but further rate cuts, and in particular negative rates, could be counterproductive. Target savers abound, their number boosted by rising house prices and falling rates. Brexit will hit investment and economic growth.

Peter Dixon, senior economist at Commerzbank AG @commerzbank

Monetary policy is overburdened in the UK but the BoE has done a decent job. Target saving is a thing.

Neil Smith, Altus Investments & Plymouth University @NelsonSmythe

QE is bad unless it’s People’s QE. Abba Lerner was right and the UK should embrace Functional Finance.

 

Think tanks

Tomorrow’s Company, think tank @Tomorrows_co

QE sort of worked by boosting asset prices and household wealth (unsustainably), but a shame it was needed. Sectoral flows approach taken and monetary toolbox empty, absent overt monetary financing. Companies never reduced their hurdle rates so diminished monetary transmission. BoE chat kept GBP firm, undermining international rebalancing.

Positive Money, think tank @PositiveMoneyUK

Banks don’t really lend to businesses any more so low rates & QE just boosts asset prices (incl housing) and heighten inequality, especially between generations. People’s QE.

New Economics Foundation, think tank @NEF

Loans make deposits. QE1 stopped a liquidity crunch but made the rich richer. Bank lending overwhelmingly secured on property so property cycle key. BoE should target inflation, finl stability, inequality, house price inflation and employment at a regional level, public and trade deficits and ecological considerations. And a pony.

Jubilee Centre, a Christian think tank @JubileeCentre

The system is broken. Move to 100% reserve-based banking, complete household deleveraging, and abolish LOLR as well as tax breaks associated with incurring debt.

pH report

The UK population is ageing. We can prove it. Also, monetary policy isn’t set up to deal with this.

 

Unaffiliated

Michael R Garrard, a straight-talking autodidact

This man has been successively ripped off, is rightly pissed off, and is articulate. Reckons MPC is not in control: private companies are.

Richard Simmons studied as an economist and has worked in businesses

QE should fund big venture capital funds that can equity-finance early, mid, late-stage projects or infrastructure, with spin-out privatisations profiting the state.

Ralph Musgrave, economics blogger and unsuccessful British National Party PPC in the 2010 General Election @RalphMus

Today’s regime is a dog’s dinner! People’s QE.

 

Cobden Centre @CobdenCentre

I thought it best to group all the affiliates of the Cobden Centre together (where affiliates are defined as people described by the Cobden Centre on their website as their authors, founding fellows, directors etc). The Cobden Centre campaigns for an end to fiat money and was co-founded by Steve Baker MP who sits on the TSC.

Toby Baxendale, former vendor of wet fish and co-founder of The Cobden Centre @TobyBaxendale; Max Rangeley, founder of ReboundTAG @NotesfromMax

QE is immoral; shift to 100% reserve banking and a low tax regime should happen. The global liberal elite should be worried. Things will end badly.

Alasdair Macleod, Head of Research at Goldmoney @MacleodFinance

Buy gold. We need a policy of sound money to build solid foundations for economic growth, and a gold standard works deliver sound money. Buy gold.

Vishal Wilde, student who ‘devote[s] his life to fighting for Freedom and Justice because he believes God’s Will is a Free and Just Will’ and has written for the Adam Smith Institute

Multiple monies in circulation and free banking would be great.

Keith Weiner, founder of the Gold Standard Institute USA @kweiner01

Whatever the question, gold is the answer.

Anthony J. Evans, ESCP Europe Business School and IEA @anthonyjevans

BoE should target nominal income rather than inflation. Policy is too loose and has generated malinvestment. Markets provide better answers than policymakers. Some nice framing of epistemological questions.

 

–Fin–

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Saving up

The deadline for written submissions to the Treasury Select Committee’s inquiry into the effectiveness and impact of post-2008 monetary policy is on Sunday. They put out a call for thoughts a few months ago with a very long list of very open-ended questions some time ago, and the very first one on the list is really interesting.

Their first question concerns “the effectiveness of holding Bank rate near zero and whether extremely low rates can encourage more, rather than less, saving”.

My first thought was that the UK parliament is contemplating following Turkish President Erdogan into the realms of neo-Fisherism. This would be quite a thing.

My second thought was the IPSOS cross-country survey that ING commissioned and analysed a little over a year ago about attitudes to saving in a low or negative rate environment. I found this pretty fascinating stuff. And even if it didn’t deliver a knock-out blow to the conventional notion that lower interest rates discourage rather than encourage savings in aggregate , it did find a considerable minority (14.5%) of UK consumers saved more in response to falling interest rates (although this proportion was much lower than the 27% who indicated that they had reduced saving in response to lower rates). The sample size is small, it lacks a time-series, is democratically rather than plutocratically-weighted. As such it is hard to draw from it sufficient inference to overturn the notion that lower rates would reduce saving/ increase borrowing or the inverse. But still.

 

My third thought though was my kids. I have blogged about the Nangle household bank twice before. My 7 year old ‘target saves’ for big ticket items, using compound interest to his advantage. If I cut rates would he save more or less? As I was on a train I put out a quick ten minute Twitter poll (to test your views on the matter). This is what I got back:

(Although Lorcan did also advise me to ditch this idea altogether.)

Most of the tiny sample of people replying reckoned lower rates = lower saving. This is how stuff tends to work in the real world, right? Lower rates encourage borrowing over saving. But my kids can’t borrow at an interest rate; they can only save at one. They literally ‘save up’ for things rather than debt-finance their spending ambitions. And the interesting thing is that they are not the only ones. In fact, I reckon that I could make the case that the group of people ‘saving up’ in the UK is bigger than it has ever been. And almost all of them are, like my 7 year old, are target savers, accruing savings for a big ticket item.

Two distinct and pretty large cohorts of people who are engaged in saving-up spring to mind.

The first cohort consists of those for whom credit is unavailable by design. This cohort includes highly creditworthy agents seeking to purchase items for which credit is not available (eg, housing, vehicles, plant) due to the lending appetite of lenders, and the macroprudential environment. If you’re a Millennial a few years out of university working in even a highly paid job and like the idea of buying a flat, you are probably in this category. Also in this category are people deemed so uncreditworthy by all lenders that no one will lend to them. Lower rates seem likely to increase savings and reduce borrowing for these agents as they are forced to save up rather than access finance.

Macroprudential regulation has the effect of changing the size of this cohort of agents for whom lower rates means more saving up rather than more consumption. As house prices have risen (partly due to low rates) and macroprudential policy has impeded mortgages from being advanced at ever-higher multiples of salaries, so prospective home-purchasers (first time-buyers and those moving up the housing chain) will be required to save up to a greater extent than in previous times. The chart below from @resi_analyst  shows the level of first time buyer deposit required as a proportion of their disposable income, calculated using the Council of Mortgage Lenders median loan to value and median loan-to-income ratios. It’s an amazing chart. Saving up is clearly a more central aspect today than it may have been in previous times among aspiring homeowners.

First time buyer deposits required as a proportion of disposable income

first-time-depo

The second cohort is those for whom credit will never be available no matter the macro prudential environment owing to the thing for which they are saving up. This cohort consists of people who want to generate a specific retirement income that they can look forward to spending. With the private sector defined benefit system a shadow of its former self, and retirement *the biggest lifetime purchase, bigger than a house* this cohort is probably large and growing.

This isn’t market failure, it’s just a thing. No lender is going to lend money to someone on an uncollateralized basis specifically so that the borrower can stop working (forever) and go spend their borrowed money  (although there is a market for heavily-over-collateralized lending designed to be repaid upon death). And so, for these folks, lower rates (and associated bond, dividend and rental yields that come from higher asset prices), will likely increase savings and reduce borrowing. Bottom line: these folks are forced to save up more than they would otherwise as rates fall to generate the same target retirement income. Or they could alternatively invest in riskier assets in the hope of getting higher returns, or adjust down their retirement ambitions through some combination of less time spent in retirement or lower income in retirement.

Savings rates tend to be higher amongst those in the two decades before retirement, in preparation for retirement. This cohort is better paid and so outsized economic influence per individual, and is larger in relation to the general population than it has been. Furthermore, the defined benefit pension system is meaningfully less-inclusive than it has been in previous periods, potentially leading to a change in savings behaviours. As such, we can speculate that the impact of lower rates in forcing higher levels of saving in this cohort is higher today than it would have been in previous times. The chart below is an elementary effort to capture the changing saving habits required over time to purchase a private pension income equivalent to 40% of median salary over time. As interest rates have fallen so required savings rates for ‘saver-uppers’ have increased, and at an economy-wide level the level of saving up is further boosted by the ageing demography.

Level of target savings required to deliver private income of 40% of median income in retirement[1]

saving-up

There is in addition a third group that is large and unstable in the form of defined benefit pension scheme sponsors, some of which sit in the camp of ‘saver-uppers’ who must save more as rates fall, and some of which sit in the camp of agents that can access borrowing who can save less as rates fall. The potential requirement of a pension fund-sponsor to ‘save-up’ for the retirement of its workers is contingent upon the market’s perception of its expected longevity. Businesses with a long-expected life can borrow from future profits to fund the retirement needs of past and current workers. Businesses with an uncertain life-expectancy will be unable to borrow to fund the short-fall at attractive rates, and will need to increase saving – and increasingly so in a lower rate environment. The shift towards a lower rate environment itself, given the unavoidable system-wide mismatch of pension fund assets and liabilities from an actuarial and accounting perspective, has increased the number of institutions sponsoring defined benefit pension schemes in deficit, a proportion of which have an uncertain life-expectancy.

So where does this leave me? With more questions than answers I’m afraid. How large and important are these different groups in the UK financial landscape, and to what extent are their actions swamped by the opposite actions of others? If they are important, what is the relative importance of: a) the combination of high house prices and macro prudential policy caution; b) the decline of the private sector defined benefit pension system; c) the demographic bulge working its way through the UK’s population pyramid. Is this all just another way of calling long-dated bonds a Giffen Good?

And my 7 year old? What did he do when I cut the Nangle household bank rate? Well in the end I didn’t. In matters of parenthood, as in matters of Eurosystem financial plumbing, it’s worth listening to what Lorcan says.

 

[1] This required level of saving is based on an age-indiscriminate savings rate, that savings are into annuity-purchase products, and that that inflation-linked annuity rates can be proxied by nominal long-dated Gilt yields.

Pocket money rate cuts

Talk in the Nangle household has turned to interest rates cuts. Specifically, the prospect of rate cuts from the ‘Bank’ I run for my kids on which I pay 10% per week that I have previously described here.

As I’ve explained, I founded the Bank as a way to combat the weekly pocket money flush where money *had* to be spent on *something, ANYTHING!*. This behaviour was then followed by complaints that they could never afford things that they might actually want. Giving them APRs on balances that are enjoyed by only the more dubious loan sharks did the trick.

Those of you older than 10 will have spotted immediately the flaw in the initial design – that the Bank is a redistribution mechanism from me to them that rewards saving to such an extreme extent that it could quickly cause it (and me with it) to go bankrupt. By being the Bank, I am borrowing wonga from my kids at outrageous rates.

For this reason I was particularly careful to spend a good deal of time at the inception of the Bank talking to the kids about how the rate would be set weekly and could be changed at my discretion. I even raised the possibility of negative rates at some point in the future, which drew cries of disbelief and outrage from my 8 year old.

Fast forward a year and it’s rate cut time. Why? Because, basically, my 6 year old gets it. From his 60 pence a week pocket money he has, with the help of compound interest, amassed a fortune of £50, giving him an unearned income of £5 per week and rising that he sinks back into the Bank. My 8 year old meanwhile has maintained both a balance of between £2-15, and a healthy scepticism of the value of saving for its own sake – preferring to save for something specific, buying it, then starting again.

My 6 year old looks at my 8 year old and wonders why she doesn’t save more. My 8 year old looks at my 6 year old and wonders why he values the abstraction of a ledger entry over all the stuff she has actually bought. Differing perspectives, both valid. I am very proud of them both.

My sky high APR has crushed the kids’ aggregate demand and on my son’s current trajectory, he will soon own the house. Yes, the Bank has embedded a useful lesson about how it *might* be useful to defer consumption. But, the house. Something must be done, and it’s name is financial repression.

The motivation to cut rates comes from a desire on my part to deleverage, or at least ease the pace of leverage growth to which my children are willing counterparties. But with such different marginal propensities to consume, should I cut the Bank rate or introduce a tiered set of rates that preserves high rates of interest on small balances, is less generous to larger balances, and penalises hoarding?

I worried that a tiered rate regime might be too complicated and could incentivise odd behaviour so I asked my 8 year old what she would do if marginal rates sloped downwards and went negative from £40 out. I had expected her to say that she would keep excesses in piggy bank cash. But her answer was intriguing and, if the ING survey is to be believed, specifically Anglo-Saxon:

‘I would get mummy to start a second bank with a positive interest rate and put the extra money in that instead’.

And so it seems that, in the Nangle household at least, negative rates would be greeted principally by a portfolio balance effect and a reach for yield rather than a dash for cash.

At the end of the original pocket money blog I reflected that what I had created was less a Bank and more a defined contribution pension system. Perhaps the logical next step is to take a leaf out of Osborne’s book and introduce a Lifetime ISA to compete with the current system. But for now, we have opted for a tiered rate regime which is far from perfect. It does serve to reduce my risks, and remains more generous than anything else around.

Amount of contributions required to save a balance of £100

LISA

 

LDI and the Efficient Market Hypothesis – my fictional pub chat with John Ralfe

A couple of weeks back I wrote a work piece about asset allocation. John Ralfe (@JohnRalfe1) sent a mini-Tweetstorm response and invited me to have public discussion about it on Twitter. I think that this would be better done over a pint in a pub, but since John doesn’t actually live in London and I wasn’t proposing to get on the train to Nottingham I’ve written this blog.

Given that my initial piece was a work thing (as opposed to a personal blog thing) I’m not going to go into it here, although you can easily read it on my employer’s website. It is basically an outline of how strategic asset allocation processes tend to operate, and active asset allocation can prospectively operate under forthcoming Local Government Pension Authority reform. Real Friday night stuff.

But John’s critique of it is not actually dependent upon the piece’s contents, so don’t worry about reading it to make sense of this blog. I understand John as instead wanting to critique the very notion that defined benefit pension funds should make ever asset allocation decisions.

For folks of you not familiar with John, he has quite a reputation in the world of institutional pension management. As former head of corporate finance for Boots (the biggest pharmacy chain in the UK) in the early noughties he was credited for shifting Boots’ pension assets out of equities and into bonds in an effort to match estimated liabilities with cashflows from fixed income securities (I am hazy on the detail, and you should ask him). This made headlines in not only trade press but mainstream press. As a 26 year old fixed income fund manager I followed the whole thing with great interest. Everyone in the industry did. Importantly, I understood his call to shift assets not as a call on the likely returns from the equity or the bond market, but rather a decision that Boots as a sponsor of a large pension fund should not be making calls on the likely returns from the equity and bond markets – even over very long investment horizons. Instead, they should be taking risks in its area of expertise (pharmacy retailing, and associated businesses).  The development of pensions regulation, invention of the Pensions Regulator and the Pension Protection Fund, the development of accountancy rules (think FRS17, IAS19 etc), and the frankly unreliable and volatile risk markets has led to the mass popularisation of this approach in the UK. I have met many a company finance director expressing the desire to want to get pensions out of the boardroom, and some of my day job involves helping them do so. So while it may not be technically true, I think of John as the founding father of LDI – Liability Driven Investment – in the UK.

LDI is a mammoth thing in the UK – so mammoth that anyone with a remote interest in finance or financial markets without a passing understanding of it should probably read up to familiarise yourselves with it. I draw a horribly crude thumbnail sketch in paragraphs below, but this is a very readable, short non-technical overview. In fact, as I’ve argued here the conditions that have led to its success are sufficiently mammoth a thing that they need to be considered when contemplating non-traditional monetary policy in the UK.

Around about the time that John invented LDI (or at least brought into the mainstream), markets were experiencing what we now refer to as the dotcom crash. This was accompanied by accountancy scandals at Enron, Worldcom, et al that ultimately brought about the dissolution of Arthur Andersen – one of what were the big five global accounting firms. Equity markets were all over the place and the vast bulk of UK defined benefit pension schemes were thrown into massive deficits. Why were they thrown into deficit? To answer this we need to step back and ask of what a defined benefit pension actually consists. The answer to this question has (I believe) changed from a legal perspective over the decades, and has ultimately landed as a form of deferred pay that ranks pari passu with senior unsecured creditors (this off-the-top-of-my-head legal definition is complicated by the creation of the PPF a few years back, and I’m happy to insert a snappy more correct definition of the legal status of someone’s defined benefit pension assets not yet in payment).

Firms that have promised to pay their retired ex-staff monthly payments until death don’t know the exact size of the final bill for which they have put themselves on the hook. They employ actuaries to estimate the size and timing of likely future payments that they have promised to make. Changes in the actuaries’ estimates of likely mortality developments will impact their assessment of payment sizes and timings; financial market volatility will not. Reasonable actuarial estimates of these likely payments can be huge for individual companies. Mega-humongous-huge for the UK in aggregate.

And so it would be weird if accountants didn’t want to represent within the financial statements of a firm some clues pertaining to these often very sizeable liabilities. But rather than reflecting the terminal (estimated) value of liabilities (eg, I owe Deborah £100 fifty years from now if she doesn’t first die), accountants decided that a more sensible approach would be to reflect the estimate of terminal liabilities discounted using market interest rates, so arriving at the present value of liabilities. So instead of showing that I owed Deborah £100, the accounts would show that I owed Deborah around [£100/(1+50yr bond yield)^50] which, when using a yield of 5% equates to me owing Deborah £8.71. This may sound barmy, but if I were to put £8.71 into a fifty year zero coupon bond at a yield of 5% I would get back £100 in fifty year’s time – just in time to pay off my debt to Deborah. So the accountants thought this a sensible approach, and put this way it does sound pretty reasonable.

What has happened in recent years is that bond yields have fallen (with my understanding of structural drivers of bond yields outlined here). Furthermore, bond yield declines have been most substantial during equity market falls (think flight to quality, anticipation of lower interest rates and lower inflation in forthcoming years due to the disruption associated with financial market crisis, etc). So using the example of my debt to Deborah, let’s say that 50yr bond yields fall from 5% to 3%, the present value of the debt I owe Deborah will have risen from £8.71 to £22.81. It is important to note that the amount I owe Deborah hasn’t changed (it is still £100), but the liability reflected in financial statements will have grown almost three-fold due to changes in market rates used to turn terminal values into present values. By discounting terminal values (estimated by actuaries) back to present values, accountants could present stakeholders with a fair picture of firms’ financial health in a manner consistent with the efficient market hypothesis which won Eugene Fama his Nobel prize.

Getting back to pension schemes being thrown into massive deficit by the dotcom crash, we can see that while the terminal value of pension liabilities did not change (ok, they did go up a bit as actuaries have for many years increased their life-expectancy expectations) the present value of liabilities shot up as bond yields fell, and – for funds that chose to invest in equities rather than cashflow-matching bonds – asset values fell. Falling assets and rising liabilities made for a toxic mix, the result of which has been wholesale closure of defined benefit pension schemes, the diversion of large amounts of corporate income into financial assets in order to begin to plug the deficit (especially in an environment which saw the birth of the Pensions Regulator and Pensions Protection Fund in the UK). Here’s a picture of the ongoing death of DB pensions from the Pension Regulator’s excellent annual Purple Book :

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 22.29.00

Meanwhile Boots pension funding levels would have been largely unaffected by falls in yields and falls in equity markets from the point at which it did the asset switch. It had largely closed down the mismatch between accountants’ estimates of the present value of actuaries’ estimates of ultimate cashflows payable to defined benefit pensioners by buying long-dated cashflows (in the form of fixed cashflows associated with bond coupons and principal payments). So while the accountants’ estimates of the present value of liabilities soared, so the value of assets also soared as bond prices rose (both being a function of long-dated yield collapse).

This has been a long preamble, and could have been skipped if John and I had met in the pub. Despite it being long I have skipped any discussion of real rates versus nominal rates (more than a little important), and a whole host of other real life (but complicating from a blog perspective) issues/ factors. But we have to move on to John’s Twitterstorm that he has since asked me to answer (a few times).

Here it is in text, with links to the original tweets embedded:

1 “Strategic Asset Allocation”, as correctly applied to an individuals fund, is a category mistake when applied to a DB pension fund @toby_n

2 A DB pension fund is not a self contained economic entity, but simply part of the capital structure of the sponsor @toby_n

3 Asset/liability mis-match in DB pension fund changes capital structure & increases financial risk for sponsor just like gearing @toby_n

4 If a sponsor wants to increase gearing, then directly borrow – transparent & tax efficient – not indirectly thro DB fund @toby_n

5 If a sponsor believes in “SAA” in DB fund, then borrow long term debt & buy financial assets & explain why to shareholders @toby_n

As you can see, it’s an entirely reasonable position from the founding father of LDI in the UK. And John makes very strong points that it would be silly to refute if one accepts his premises (which I have tried to relate in paragraphs above but may have got wrong, and with no John in pub, hard to know). Furthermore, his premises (if these indeed are his premises) are tricky to theoretically refute, rooted as they are in Nobel prize-winning stuff. The issues I have with John’s position (and the whole LDI edifice) can probably be summed up in a rambling question and a couple of observations.

My question:

Given that LDI is a hedge against changes in an accountant’s present value calculation of an actuary’s estimate of terminal cash flows, what is the best way to judge the correct price of this hedge; or rather, is it ever possible to overpay for this hedge, and if so, what tools would I need to employ to understand whether I was overpaying?

I have written about this before in relation to whether house prices (as an effective hedge) can ever be too expensive. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I suspect that hedges can be too expensive and asset prices can be wrong (and have bet my career on this suspicion). But I don’t observe anything in the LDI approach to help frame this judgement. Instead I understand it placing what looks to be an intolerable burden on the efficient market hypothesis to determine that a hedge must always be appropriately priced. In other words, this approach lends itself to the conclusion that it is impossible to overpay if you are paying the market price, no matter what the market price.

This leads on to my two observations:

  1. The size of UK defined benefit liabilities is larger than the market of physical hedging instruments on a duration-weighted basis.* Simply put, while it might be theoretically possible for  DB funds to collectively go down the LDI route, (an practically possible for some of them to go down the LDI route), it is not practically possible for them to collectively so do. This will be of surprise to no one working in UK fixed income markets, but surely throws doubt on the idea that pension funds seeking to hedge liabilities can do so without distorting the price of that hedge (seeming to undermine a central tenet behind the use of the efficient market hypothesis by accountants and actuaries).
  1. While fixed rate assets can be used to match accountants’ estimates of actuaries’ estimated liabilities, this is true because of the tautological construct. And as such while I accept that the LDI approach will be the very best possible hedge against my accountants’ estimate of my actuaries’ estimates of my liabilities, I am not convinced that the reality of the tautology should define the investment structure of pension fund assets in the UK (especially given observation 1 above, and my unwillingness to believe that it is impossible to overpay for a hedge). Fixed rate corporate bonds, equities, and commercial property are all just claims on corporate profits. Despite all being but claims on future profitability/ future economic activity, only one of these claims has any place in a full LDI construct. That just seems odd to me.

If I was having my pint with John rather than answering his Tweetstorm in this overly-long blog, I would expect he would parry by repeating point 2-4 (which are super-strong points). And I would probably repeat my question and observations. And I genuinely don’t know what would happen after that. I’m fairly sure that neither of us would change the other’s mind. But I also hope that we would emerge the wiser about the other’s position (and perhaps even with enhanced respect for each other’s position). Hence the interest in the pint.

 

 

* I should share my extremely back-of-envelope workings so that they can be properly challenged.

The Pension Regulator’s annual Purple Book indicates that UK private sector DB pensions have combined liabilities on a buy-out basis of £2.1 trillion. They also say that a 10bps fall in Gilt yields increases these liabilities by 2%, inferring a duration of around 20yrs.

Let’s look at how much UK fixed income duration exists that might be used to match these liabilities. (Yes, I know that most LDI is done synthetically, but can’t get away form the idea that the duration has to reside somewhere. This may be my fatal gap in understanding.)

First, let’s take the entire stock of UK fixed income securities (as represented in the BAML Broad Sterling Market UK00 index). This has a face value of £1.47 trillion, but a market value of £1.78tn and a duration of 10.2yrs. Leaving aside curves in our hunger for UK duration *of any description* let’s call this £908 billion of 20yr equivalent duration paper.

And let’s add on to this the entire stock of inflation-linked Gilts with a market value of £540bn and a duration of 12.4yrs and call this another £335bn of 20yr equivalent duration paper. Summing these together we get to £1.24 trillion of 20yr duration equivalent paper.

What about the missing £857bn of 20yr duration securities that needs to be bought so that DB pension funds can cashflow match? It doesn’t look like it exists.

John Ralfe has written a reply here that you should have a read of. 

When is housing too expensive a hedge to hold?

I ended the last post saying “that the way I (and I think we) think of housing is better described as a hedge than as a punt. The price of the hedge is still important, but the goal for many is to be hedged so that they can stop worrying about their massive and unhedged liability.” What did I mean?

Well, if you don’t own a property and wouldn’t qualify for social housing, renting is a large, volatile and unavoidable expense. And owning your own home is a means to (almost) perfectly hedge the large, volatile and unavoidable expense of renting. If housing is a hedge and you own less housing than you will ultimately expect to be consuming (eg, you have a one-bed flat and are planning a large family) then you are basically short, rather than long, property. As the Bank said back in 2006 ‘when house prices rise, typically rents do too — so renters face higher housing costs’. So, if I live in an up and coming area, my rent will rise faster than average. We can’t stop and get off the UK housing market just because we’re not enjoying the ride.

But after the last post (about which Katie was characteristically kind) Tom Bowker posed a killer question:

Why is this a killer question? Two reasons.

  1. It is pertinent. As Tom suggests, it looks like I studiously avoided discussing any framework that might be used to work out whether it is a cheap or expensive hedge in my previous post on house prices.
  2. It is relevant beyond housing. It is a question that has been occupying almost every UK boardroom in the land. Not that they are obsessing on the price of housing as a hedge, but rather because they have been struggling on the price of hedging their defined benefit pension liabilities. And Tom’s question is about houses as hedges. As I suggested in the last blog, the London property market “make(s) me feel a bit like a de-risking defined benefit pension scheme”.

If we get are allowed to get a little geeky, the analogy of defined benefit pension schemes is not as tenuous as it might sound:

  • Pension scheme sponsors are short a stream of long-dated future debt-like cash-flows that will vary in line with the product of inflation, demographic factors and an idiosyncratic factor related to their scheme membership. There is a structural shortage of hedging instruments (long-dated inflation-linked bonds) given lack of supply and foreign demand.
  • Renters are short a stream of long-dated future debt-like cash-flows that will vary in line with the product of aggregate rental inflation, demographic factors, and an idiosyncratic factor related to the property in which they live. There is a structural shortage of hedging instruments (houses) given lack of supply and foreign demand.

As such, both renters and pension scheme sponsors are at risk of fluctuations in some combination of long-term real interest rates, a form of inflation, some demographic considerations, and some idiosyncratic factors. And their ability to hedge appears frustrated by structural supply-demand imbalances. Furthermore, it turns out that the way in which UK boardrooms monitor the price of their pension hedge can be used to monitor the price of housing as a hedge.

Long-dated inflation-linked, conventional Gilt yields plus a mix of high-yield and investment grade credit spreads vs UK residential rental yields*

housing ditty

  Pension schemes has had their regulatory incentives changed meaningfully over the past couple of decades and this has prompted a good deal of hedging. How can we monitor the changing price of the hedge to defined benefit pension scheme sponsors? I would suggest a combination of long-dated inflation-linked yields, long-dated conventional gilt yields and some combination of investment grade and high yield credit spreads (to account for a rough measure of inflation risk, long-dated real rate risk, and market risk premia that might be employed by schemes to match liabilities). And how can we monitor the changing price of the hedge to renters? I would suggest the residential rental yield. Both are shown in the chart above. It don’t think that it is unreasonable to suggest that attempts by pensions to hedge their liabilities have impacted the price of the hedge available to renters.

I believe that hedging activity in the pensions world has changed the economics of hedging in the housing world. Because pension funds have increasingly wanted to hedge their (plain vanilla) inflation risk (but there has been insufficient supply of hedging instruments), the cost of hedging inflation has become very expensive. This manifests in suppressed long-dated real yields (boosting the price of long-dated inflation-linked bond prices), and has contributed to a rise in price of other forms of inflation hedging (like housing). I should be clear at this point that connecting pension hedging to house prices is (today) a minority position. What is the upshot of this minority view? Well, although housing looks (to me) overvalued as a punt given my expectation of a rise in debt-service ratios over the next couple of years (eg it is a hedge that fewer people will be able to afford if rates rise, dampening demand), it doesn’t look like the most expensive hedge out there given changes in cost of other forms of inflation hedging (for those with the means to hedge). And there’s the tax incentive too (eg, as an owner you pay yourself rent out of your gross income, as a renter you pay someone else rent out of your net income). Which is not insubstantial.

 

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* The residential rental yield is pulled together by taking the product of the average Nationwide house price in 2012 and Countrywide’s rental survey yield for 2012 as an anchor, and then the projecting this average rental forwards and backwards in time using the rental subcomponent of the RPI. This was then divided by the Nationwide house price time series to create a rental yield. It is massively imperfect and I’d be delighted if someone wanted to send me a better time series. The rental yield looks quite high to me, but this (I suspect) is because I live in London. In London the tax incentive to buy will be stronger given higher marginal tax rates associated with higher incomes. And it is also the market in which some folk look to hedge their domestic political risk (eg wealthy foreigners living in unstable regimes seeking a bolt-hole where the rule of law is strong).