Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Hinkley Point C: who benefits?

Since mid-2013 I have made about ninety edits to the Wikipedia page for Hinkley Point C. It's personal: I was born in Taunton and my parents live about ten miles from the site. Most edits relate to the economics of the project. I also use Hinkley Point C in my corporate finance lectures to discuss uncertainty, discounting and risk.

The figures below use discounting* to estimate different scenarios for the project. The project is very difficult to estimate without knowing the operating profits - in this case, the estimate is from from Peter Atherton at Liberium Capital. I am in favour of renewable energy and the benefits of trade. However, the project appears expensive for consumers from every angle taken.

'Best case' scenario
i) Construction costs** of £18bn from EDF ii) operating profits at £5bn/year iii) decommissioning costs at the lower end of the range of estimates for a similar sized Magnox reactor and iv) a 2.2% discount rate, as used by the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) (p. 17) to represent the cost of government borrowing. Remarkably, the NDA now uses negative medium-term discount rates, on the basis these "represent the real-term cost of government borrowing which at the present time, creates a negative rate because the interest payable on UK gilts is less than the rate of inflation – typically in the past the rate was higher than inflation which produced a ‘positive’ discount rate". 

This 'best case' scenario at a 2.2% discount rate has lifetime profits of around £100bn, but if Hinkley Point C were funded by the UK government at lower discount rates the 'best case' would be even more profitable for the producer.

'Worst case' scenario
i) Construction cost estimate of £18bn from EDF  ii) operating profits at £2bn/year, which is 40% of the estimate from Peter Atherton iii) decommissioning costs at the higher end of the range of estimates for a similar sized Magnox reactor*** and iv) a 13% discount rate, as used in Green and Staffall (p.38) for the no support scenario. High discount rates mean higher subsidies because the project is considered more risky. Disappointingly, the authors distance themselves from their assumptions, saying that "Commission staff specified the WACC [discount rate] values that they wished us to use for nuclear stations and the policy scenarios that we are testing" (p.3). Even with these pessimistic assumptions, the 'no support' scenario only just fails to break even: 

Alternative discount rates
Assuming financial support, i.e.: less risk, a 10% discount rate was proposed by Green and Staffall. Now, all scenarios are profitable, with the 'best case', as above, showing lifetime profits for the producer of around £100bn:

Taken together, it is difficult to imagine this project as anything other than an expensive burden for consumers: with government support from the UK and France, the project is more likely to be financed at lower discount rates. Alternatives, given the falling costs of wind and solar technologies, would be less of a burden on the consumer. If these predictions are even approximately right, other renewables will continue to fall in price but consumers will be locked into a 35-year contract for difference at £92.50/MWh plus inflation.

The tragedy here is that HM Treasury have failed to publish their cost-benefit analyses and justify their use of such high discount rates and pessimistic assumption regarding other technology costs. If they had, the project would have had greater public scrutiny. Instead, the estimated costs to consumers, and returns to investors, remain shrouded in unnecessary secrecy****.

Calculations are available here.

*  For these estimates, the project is assumed to have a 35-year lifetime and steady cash flows, hence the discounting formula used is PV=C*1/r(1-1/(1+r)^n). For decommissioning, the discount formula is C/(1+r)^n).   
** Compared with Taishan NPP (China), Flamanville (France) and Olkiluoto (Finland), Hinkley Point C is the most expensive.  
*** Estimated as 43% of the costs to decommission Magnox reactors (p.14). Hinkley Point C will generate 3200MWh, compared with 7405MWh for the ten Magnox reactors. Because of the effects of discounting over 35 years, the decommissioning costs are relatively low, from £0.1bn (best case) to £5.7bn (worst case). The best and worst case scenario are based on the range used by the NDA (p. 12) using the discount rates above. 
**** There is some good news, in that the European Commission adjusted the 'gain-share mechanism'. Rather than a 50-50 profit share if the project returned above 15%, the revised mechanism will see the UK taxpayer get 60 per cent of any profits above a 13.5% return. However, from the figures above, it appears this is above the project's expected return and the bulk of the profit goes to the producer. There are measures to claw back profits if the construction costs are lower that expected (p. 66), i.e.: EDF will bear the bulk of the construction risk.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

This is a short(ish) review of the INET Paris Conference (8-11 April 2015 at the OECD).  INET announced that Clive Cowdrey, of the Resolution Foundation, has joined their Governing Board. To get an idea what this means for INET, watch his speech about inequality at the Opening Plenary here (32:45 to 41:50).

My personal opinion is that INET are sucessfully challenging the orthodoxy. At times, however, this can be slow and inward-looking, especially when the grounds of the debate themselves are unchallenged. My conference notes include examples of speakers referring to 'negative equilibrium real rates', the 'Bernanke-Summers debate', 'QE being better than nothing' and 'the transition to markets (as) the challenge ahead' - as if the agenda were only set by the world's media.

However, I didn't go to hear familiar debates, but to hear new ones. Andrew Sheng joked about adding 'tragédie' to the conference title 'liberté, égalité, fraternité'... to spell 'LEFT'. In that vein, he spoke about central banks 'not knowing how to reduce their balance sheets' and the spillover costs of QE to developing economies. He concluded by arguing that central banks have minimal control of 'final settlement' in the markets. Given there is so much media rhethoric about returning to normal, the illusion of central bank control needed to be challenged.

On that same, LEFTish theme, Lord Turner discussed fiscal policy, suggesting we should not accept slow growth but consider 'debt write offs, defaults or monetizations' with explicit and permanent government deficits financed by the central bank. On Greece, Lord Turner thought that 'exit or restructuring are inevitable'. Given almost everyone in the UK talks about balancing the government's books, this puts Lord Turner somewhere alongside the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru.

Gerald Epstein's research strikes me as a little odd, given the general public are in little doubt that central banks have been captured by financial interests. However, the ensuing discussion led me to this post by Rob Parentheau, where he describes Eurozone QE as 'a mutual assisted suicide pact with finanzkapital in the eurozone'. Presumably, there is no Hippocratic Oath to prevent the doctor/economist/finance minister administering long bouts of intolerable pain.

INET finally had a panel on Africa and capital flight. The problem was defined by Vera Mshana: 'Africa loses more from capital flight than it receives in aid'. The chief beneficiaries of these flows are European banks, who are often closely entangled with corrupt regimes according to Léonce Ndikumana. Surprisingly, data on who might, or might not be, considered corrupt is co-ordinated by Reuters via World Check. The panel were passionate about making the system better and, as the discussion reminded us, much of the capital flight from Africa is a consequence of profit-seeking and transfers to an offshore parent company.

In summary, this was a good conference, provided you avoided familiar names and re-hashed debates. With the Resolution Foundation on board, the direction of future research looks promising.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

"We should all be pluralist now"


At the first QAA meeting to discuss the UK economics curriculum, a senior academic said that "we should all be pluralist now". After 15 months, the review of standards against which UK degrees are peer reviewed is drawing to a close. The revised subject benchmark statement for economics (SBSE) will be published this summer, in time for the 2015-16 academic year.

During the consultation, I finished my PhD and took up a Senior Lecturer position at De Montfort University. However, I continued to work with the committee, along with Joe Richards from Rethinking Economics, and to push for a statement that meets academic and student calls for greater pluralism.

Below are my comments after the last meeting, on 1st June 2015. The final decision on wording lies with the committee chair, and RES Executive Committee member, Eric Pentecost. I am broadly in favour of the changes agreed so far, on the basis that it is better to publish than delay another 12 months, and be stuck with the more narrowly defined 2007 SBSE QAA.

I collected a lot of material during this process. Where these are in the public domain, I have added them to an open Mendeley project. I also archived the ISIPE student letter materials and correspondence from their Basecamp project, including the supporters list: this material is available to ISIPE members on request. I have early correspondence from setting up Rethinking Economics, and was given a copy, by Robert Skidelsky, of his correspondence regarding INET and the CORE project. If you are interested in using this material for research, please get in touch.

Although I am no longer a PhD student, I am actively involved as a Trustee for Post-Crash Economics... the campaign for pluralism goes on!

Post-Consultation Draft SBSE Comments
Neil Lancastle
1 June 2015

Nature and context of economics

This section is improved by dropping the word ‘scarce’; re-wording to include ‘phenomena’, ‘past and present’ and ‘evolve’; including finance (‘financial stability and instability’) and distribution as dynamic analyses; adding ‘historical, political, institutional, social and environmental contexts’; ‘evidence-based’ and including 'qualitative data analysis'.

I preferred the previous wording ‘the study of economics requires an understanding of resources, agents, institutions and mechanisms’ to ‘various interpretations of commonly observed economic phenomena exist, due to observational equivalence, and hence explanations many be contested’. The new sentence would be improved without the middle phrase, ie: simply ‘various interpretations of commonly observed economic phenomena exist, and hence explanations may be contested’.

The addition of ‘ethical’ as a context would deal, in part, with consultation suggestions to emphasise ethics.

The additional wording ‘methodology of science’ seems unnecessary.

Section 2.3 is much improved, and suggests interdisciplinary thinking.

The aims of degree programmes in economics

This section is improved with the bullet point ‘to foster an understanding of alternative approaches…’ although I prefer the wording ‘different and frequently contested ways…’

There are other improvements: appreciate ‘the criteria for simplification’; including the word ‘welfare’ and adding the bullet point ‘to develop in students an ability to interpret real world economic events and critically assess a range of types of evidence’.

Subject knowledge and understanding

This section is much improved, in particular dropping the phrases 'core' and ‘a coherent core’; including a study of ‘financial cycles… the role of money creation, banking and the financial system’; and removing the repetition of numeracy skills in multiple paragraphs.

I would prefer ‘understand different methodological approaches’ rather than ‘appreciate different methodological approaches’.

Subject-specific skills and other skills

This is much improved by the addition of Section 5.2 on skills that employers value (evidenced research, communication, economic history and context, pluralism, interdisciplinary synthesis, critical judgment, proportionality and awareness of limitations).

The transferable skills have been improved by the inclusion of ‘psychological biases’; expected re-wording by the chair of the sections around equilibrium, dis-equilibrium and dynamics; inclusion of ‘conflicts of interest’; and a bullet point on markets and market failure.

The subject-specific skills would appear to be common to other subjects (abstraction; analysis, deduction and induction; quantification; and framing)…I don’t think it makes sense to delay publication, but perhaps the QAA can advise on a more appropriate section heading.

The section on numeracy is improved: it is written in simpler English, and includes critical thinking about the sources and selective use of data. The more general wording would seem to address the consultation suggestion to encompass big data and new data sources.

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

This section is improved by including ‘use of practitioners’ as a teaching approach; and by the broadening of 'context' to include historical, political, institutional, international, social and environmental (but see above regarding ethical context).

Benchmark Standards

This section is improved by replacing ‘economic theory and’ with ‘economic theories (and) interpretations’; and by the broadening of 'context' to include historical, political, institutional, international, social and environmental (but see above regarding ethical context).

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Boom Bust Boys

I've seen the new film Boom Bust Boom at two private views: with an audience at De Montfort University and again at SOAS: there was a third private view as part of the excellent INET 2015 Conference "Liberté, égalité, fragilité" (blog post to follow).  The film is great fun... an overview of a Minskian alternative to neoclassical economics, the debate about reforming economics education, and a reminder that private credit is behind almost every bubble. However, at both private views the audience highlighted the film's superficial analysis of power. Ben Timlett, one of the co-directors, liked the suggestion from the SOAS audience to include a puppet of Marx.

The issues of power and gender are endemic to economics. When we were collecting signatures for the ISIPE open letter, we had a real problem finding senior economists to represent our campaign. The early signatories were 90% male, based mainly in Europe and the US. We were so concerned that we began a campaign within the campaign to make our supporters list more diverse. As Daniel Kahneman said in the film, we might not find it easy to de-bias ourselves as individuals, but organisations should be able to. This lack of diversity exists across academia, with only 11% of UK economics professors being female. Things are a little better at Reteaching Economics, with over 40% female members. To borrow the slogan from another campaign, reforming the economic system 'has to be about more than white men' and the film might have done more to counteract these biases.

With these caveats, the film does a great job of outlining a Minskian alternative to neoclassical macroeconomics; discussing the history of financial crises from tulips to railways to sub-prime mortgages; and giving a very accessible critique of neoclassical models. All done with cartoons and puppets, interspersed with interviews, including a double act between Hyman Minsky (the puppet) and his son, Alan. For this Minskian alternative, things are not as bad as Paul Mason suggested when he wrote that 'the radical, pro-Minsky faction is at a disadvantage because it does not possess a complete alternative model of capitalism'. There are plenty of stock-flow consistent Minsky models with debt, including my own, and this modelling tradition has depth and breadth. However, the problems within economics cannot be solved by new models alone.

The film made some useful policy recommendations, including a reminder by Andy Haldane of the need to separate the dangerous (speculative, Ponzi) activities of banks from their steady (hedge) activities. There could have been more discussion of the nature of crisis today, which Kahneman wryly observed 'hasn't ended yet'. The role of offshore finance could also be explored more deeply. Like Kindleberger's 'Manias, Panics and Crashes', the film identifies the role of private credit in forming bubbles, but might have dug into Eurodollar markets, financialisation and offshore credit markets. Creditor-friendly regulators bailed out these powerful, private interests, sowing the seeds of present crises.

Would I recommend this film?  Yes. The cartoons and puppets are great fun; it makes a useful contribution to the debate about alternatives to neoclassical economics; and it is a reminder that private credit is behind almost every bubble. The film is very accessible, to a non-technical audience, which has to be a good thing. Perhaps the solution is to follow up with a second film that analyses the power and politics behind private credit: central banking, offshore finance, gender, tax avoidance, inequality, austerity and so on. Minsky is ignored, not because everyone is swept up blindly by euphoria, but because it is in the interests of those in power to keep the bubble going.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

It's out! The revised UK economics curriculum

Update 4/12/2015 
There was a final review meeting on 1st June 2015, after this Blog post was written. My summary of these discussions is available here. Some changes were accepted  in the final version of the SBSE, available here, in particular:
The phrases 'due to observational equivalence' and 'methodology of science' were dropped
Different methodological approaches are 'understood' rather than the weaker 'appreciated'
'Psychological biases' are included
'A range of evidence' is critically assessed, and methods are 'critically understood'
Despite intense lobbying, 'ethics' was not accepted as an acceptable context alongside 'historical, political, institutional, international social and environmental'. Instead, ethics is a subject area that is 'linked to'.

It's out! The UK's subject benchmark statement for economics (SBSE), against which the quality of UK economics degrees is judged, has been published online. The QAA can withdraw degree awarding powers and the right to be called a university if it is not satisfied with standards and quality. This draft 2015 SBSE appears nine months after Rethinking Economics represented student voices at the QAA committee. The QAA have a survey to gather comments from 'anyone with an interest in higher education in the UK' including students, academic staff and graduate employers.

This brief post is to review changes since the 2007 SBSE, by mapping them against student calls for theoretical, methodological and interdisciplinary pluralism.

Theoretical pluralism

There is a new statement that ‘various interpretations of commonly observed economic phenomena exist, due to observational equivalence, and hence explanations may be contested. It is therefore important that economic phenomena are studied in their relevant historical, political, institutional and international contexts' (Section 2.2). Resources are no longer 'scarce' (Section 2.1) and economics is more modestly described as 'a social science' rather than 'a key discipline in the social sciences’ (Section 2.3). The phrase ‘a coherent core of economic principles’ has been replaced with the more open-minded 'relevant principles' (Section 4.1) and the threshold levels required by students refer to 'economic theories and interpretations' rather than just a single 'theory'. Finance and income distribution have been reclassified as dynamic analyses (Section 2.2.) and the subject specific skills include 'market failure' and 'conflicts of interest' (Section 5), perhaps in recognition of Minsky and Marx.

Methodological and interdisciplinary pluralism

The problems with abstraction have been highlighted, with students expected ‘(to appreciate) the specific assumptions that guide the criteria for simplification’ (Section 3.1). Students will be assessed on their ability to use 'evidence and knowledge of institutional and historical context' (Sections 6 and 7). In terms of their role in the broader academy, economists are said to engage with a wider range of disciplines, including ‘finance, international relations, law, ethics and philosophy’.

What is left out?

There are notable absences, and this list is not exhaustive. Although governments were accepted as economic entities, financial institutions were not; and legal and ethical contexts are not included (Section 2.2). The relationship with mathematics and management remains muddled: mathematics is used and management is informed (Section 2.3). Evidence is evaluated and assessed, but never critically. The role of government and the System of National Accounts were rejected as topics, as was re-wording to encompass qualitative and mixed methods. Students are asked to 'appreciate history (of economic thought)' but not to understand it; and there is no requirement to appreciate or understand ethical issues.