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Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing

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Finance

The coming crisis

This post contains my own personal opinion (I work in finance and this is neither official advice nor representative of what my employer thinks – caveats done with, let’s talk turkey). There’s been a lot of words spilled in the last few months over inflation and [interest] rates and energy prices.

I’ve become convinced that we’re about to see a change in the shape and nature of British society that we haven’t seen in 50 years. I won’t rehearse the arguments here about how much energy prices are going to rise or what inflation is doing to our paychecks.

I also don’t want to make this a doomsday post. What I want to do here is spell some things out clearly and then offer some help (mostly by signposting you to others who are much better at this than me). If you want to skip my longer discussion about what is going on, just go to the end where I’ll make some recommendations you might already know, but hopefully will provide some tools for managing budgets and thinking about insulating yourself against rising prices.

Inflation hasn’t hit us yet. Nor have rises in interest rates. We’re still only really just seeing the impact on housing of changes wrought first by Margaret Thatcher and then exacerbated by the Financial Crash of 2007-8 (It hit the US earlier than the UK).

Which is why I’m worried. An inflation shock like this – specifically because it’s driven by factors coming from outside the UK cannot be controlled – it can only be prepared for and survived.

There’s been lots of discussion over interest rate rises. So I’m going to do write a short 101 on why interest rates are rising (and will continue to rise, perhaps has high as 4%). Classical economics suggests that inflation is driven by people wanting to buy more things, by growth being such that the sellers can increase prices because people can pay more. In that scenario you raise interest rates to make people poorer. Simple as that. Poorer people buy less. If they buy less sellers can’t keep raising prices and hence inflation stops.

This is fine. It is also literally economics for toddlers.

Actual inflation comes in many varieties and the kind we have here isn’t the one I describe above. It’s what we call exogenous supply side inflation. Those fancy words mean the following: exogenous – coming from outside. Supply side – meaning that prices are rising not because people want to buy more stuff but because the goods themselves literally cost more to make and provide. So, if we put that together we see that this inflation shock is best seen as prices for the things themselves rising because of outside factors which are largely beyond our (and our government’s) control.

For instance, there has been a food crisis globally because of supply chains which, when Russia invaded Ukraine became a catastrophe. Food may be more expensive here but it can still be bought. In places like Egypt, there is literally no grain regardless of how much people are prepared to pay. This is a global problem and the food is being shipped to places who can pay more – like the UK. This means that prices go up because a shortage of supply means EVERYONE EVERYWHERE has to pay more just to get what they used to get. No one is trying to get more here, we’re all trying to get what we had before and discovering there isn’t enough to go around.

Into this scenario we have a central bank with a strange mandate and only one tool to achieve it. They have been mandated to keep inflation at 2% +/- 1%. Their only real tool is interest rates. This may sound ludicrous and it is. However, there are good [limited access link] reasons that this mandate and this tool sit with the (currently) independent Bank of England.

I’m not interested in rehearsing those arguments or those as to how we got here (hint: decades of exporting inflation). We are here, now. We discussed above why people often think raising interest rates cures inflation. As you’ve probably guessed, in this case it can’t work. Indeed, raising interest rates has literally no intersection with exogenous supply side inflation because no one who is involved in the rising prices is impacted by those rising interest rates. Even worse, if interest rates are rising where those goods are made/created then they are only going to make our inflation experience worse as those increased costs will be passed onto us.

Now, you could argue that this will necessarily make us poorer and so make us buy less.

Well. Yes. We’re being hit by rising inflation AND rising rates. So not only are goods becoming more expensive, but our own lives are becoming more expensive and hence we can buy less.

Except.

Except this doesn’t mean we buy less because for most people, in a normal environment, they aren’t running a profligate personal spending lifestyle. We buy what we need, we save and we plan for the future if we can/have the bandwidth.

The situation we’re in now means we find ourselves not able to even afford what we could buy yesterday. It’s not that we can’t afford these extras, it’s that we can’t afford to stand still. This is bad for us all – both individually and also as a society because this kind of stress has no real outlet or safety valve. Not least because the ‘help’ we’re getting from the system is to make our lives even harder.

As the pandemic showed – we’re prepared to put up with a lot as a society if we’re in it together and if we feel there are effective measure in place for us all to make it through. Raising interest rates at this point is literally the opposite of that.

So we’re falling backwards as a base case. Ordinary people hit on all sides.

And still interest rates are going to keep rising because when all you have is a hammer your problems tend to look a lot like nails. I have every confidence that the BoE understands everything I’ve written above. I also have every confidence that the current executive of the British government doesn’t.

This means that not raising interest rates is impossible for the establishment.

A couple of reasons why

  1. Politically, the reasoning is the simple (idiotic) version that we’ve just trashed. But the reasoning holds and so there is immense pressure to rein in inflation. Not least because people are (absolutely rightly) very frightened for societies where inflation runs out of control. There is a high tolerance towards suffering if it holds back the kind of political turmoil we saw in the 1930s.
  2. The bank wants to bring inflation down and believes that by making people poorer it can achieve this end.

Newflash – inflation will fall. Like the sun will come out after a storm. Neither the fall in inflation that will hit next year nor the reappearance of the sun after rain have anything to do with ANY actions taken by people. It may look like raising interest rates works when we look back, but let’s be clear – they will have had negligible impact. As an aside – in 2008 the BoE had a webpage where you could model the impact of changes to the base rate. Here’s a fun fact. It is generally assumed that a change to interest rates takes at least 18months to work its way through the system. Ie, if rates rise today it won’t be until 2024 that you see the real impact. It is the same with inflation The scary headline is today, but trust me, you won’t feel the worst of the impact for another 2 years. Yes. 2 years.

This is why I’m worried and why I’m writing this post now. The worst is very much still to come. It is unlikely that even a competent government who cares about the poor can do anything to help with this crisis. It can, however, make things much worse.

Opinions are divided on how to manage a high inflation environment that leads to recession because it’s been rare and so varied each time. Economists like to think they know the rarefied truth. They do not. (queue gnashing of teeth by amateur economists from across the spectrum with their own takes – they’re all still wrong)

However, one might think that investment in future industries like renewables would make sense. yes it would. But rising interest rates mean that the government can’t afford to be splashy with our cash even if they want to be because they too are paying more to borrow.

You could say that we hold off on raising rates. Except we can’t because central banks across the world are doing exactly the same as the BoE. There’s a complex relationship between exchange rates, currencies and what we call the risk free rates (basically the government cost of borrowing) of each of those currencies . If we leave our interest rate low while others raise theirs then guess what…yep, our currency depreciates relative to others and we get…inflation!!!

So we’re left with mitigation. Both at a societal level but also at a personal level.

So here’s my thoughts on that because this is the most important thing. None of the below is easy and none of it is necessarily going to fix anything but it may well help and I hope it doesn’t come to it but I know I’ve just refreshed by monthly budget and the changes in energy costs really frightened me.

  1. Create a monthly budget. Be really honest and look at what you’re spending your money on and figure out how much buffer you’ve got. This is just general good practice but right now it might be the difference between entering into debt and not. There are lots of good websites that offer FREE budgeting software if the idea of doing it yourself is too hard. Even the government has one.
  2. Where it’s a case of disposable income being mashed then look at turning down your boiler or radiators by a couple of degrees, about being fanatical about lights and turning off monitors and tvs and pcs at night.
  3. Where you can’t afford to live the lifestyle you have now (and I’m sorry if this is a euphemism for not being able to afford heating and lighting and food). Start talking to service suppliers, think about what can be binned (like TV subscriptions and gyms and, and, and.). Where that’s not enough start thinking more drastically about talking to landlords, electricity/gas suppliers about payment plans.
  4. Follow people like Martin Lewis and Jack Munroe on twitter and at their actual sites. Money Saving Expert was once a gimmick. Right now it’s essential reading.
  5. Think about how, for food and other items, you can club together with others to buy in bulk. For many people buying in bulk alone is out of the question, but we can do it as a team.
  6. Savings often go out of the window at times like this but please, save. Save to pay for bills, save for emergencies, because as sure as we don’t they’re going to come along and kick us up the arse anyway.

I am ALWAYS happy to help think through what you can do and I hope the above has been even a little useful. As a I started – there are many who are better at this than me – but right now I’m so nervous about what’s to come I wanted to say something no matter if it only helps one person.

Back to front

There’s a lot of discussion about algorithms at the moment. Algorithms are nothing more than recipes. If people say ‘algorithm’ they normally mean the recipe for whatever they’re talking about. A mathematical algorithm for finding a solution? Think the recipe for finding the solution.

Why do I care about algorithms and whether we should really call them recipes (the analogy isn’t perfect, don’t @me, I’m quite aware)? Mainly because the discussion about algorithms in the public sphere relates almost exclusively to social media and how these processing recipes lead users to ever more extreme and unpleasant content.

I’ve been quite concerned with this book over the last few days. Reminded as I was by a lecture by the author in which they said something I had entirely missed in my general thinking about the kind of content we’re shown online. I am almost embarrassed to admit it as well – because I like to think I ruminate on economics quite a lot.

As a reminder, the book is called: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power and is written by Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff has written a lot about this subject but this book is (despite the cover being uninspiring) a very good piece of work.

I don’t want to talk too much about the book except I want to draw out one key idea because it should turn your world upside down a bit.

First though. We have been told all over the place by tech-bros, concerned citizens (I’m in this category), opinion piece writers and others that the algorithms which we look at blaming for the slow radicalisation of people as bland and formerly innocent as our grandmothers, our friends and our children are i) in need of fixing and ii) often beyond understandding.

We’re told that these algorithms are often the product of unconscious bias (such as when facial recognition software didn’t recognise PoC as human or when Google associated PoC with gorillas in image search software). We’re told it’s a side effect but one which makes them money and so they’re loathe to change their ways. We’re told it’s the tail wagging the dog – unfortunate but fixable.

Zuboff dismisses this idea and reminds us these companies have made their fortunes by learning about us. So far so not surprising. Yet Zuboff then reminds the economically literate among us what that learning is good for. It’s not good for knowing what we did in the past because we can’t make money from that. Nor is it good for knowing what we’re doing now – again, I can make money on what you’re interested in NOW but it’s not the prize. The real prize from this learning is to know what you’re trending towards tomorrow – because then I can make real money from knowing your future tastes and preferences.

Zuboff then reminds us about the point of advertising – not simply to let us know a product is available, but to create a felt need we didn’t know we had and then sell us the solution for that sudden new found desire.

In short, these algorithms are designed to do two things.

  1. They’re designed to predict what we’ll want to buy tomorrow
  2. They’re designed to push us into buying products we don’t know we needed today.

Algorithmic drift into showing you more extremist material such as racist content, anti-vax nonsense, anti-elite conspiracies serve the two goals above. Why? Because these drifts don’t exist in a vacuum – social media companies (and let’s be honest, we’re only really talking Google and FB in liberal societies) are selling these predictions to companies – telling them they can guarantee purchases and eyeballs on adverts. Deliberate drift to extreme material is proven to guarantee both of those things.

Furthermore, there is an argument which goes like this: SM companies could see extremist material was both attractive to many people and a direction society was moving in, in part because of their exposure via SM companies’ activities, and they had a choice:

i) do they change their business model to avoid these excesses, or

ii) do they lean into extremism knowing their activity will appreciably shift society that way and thereby increase their revenue

Zuboff, among others, suggest only the second of those two options can be true without regulation.

So in the discussion around free speech this week (and possibly next?) you’ll see lots of back and forth over whether private companies have the right yadda yadda yadda. What you won’t see (yet) is much on whether these companies deliberately created these environments exactly with the intent of fostering extreme content to increase revenues.

My proposition is this: the tail never wagged the dog. The algorithms we’ve seen were designed explicitly to monetise user data by predicting their behaviour and nudging them towards it in order to create opportunities for companies they were pitching their services to. This has always been the dog wagging its tail.

Over the next few months as regulation becomes a more central concern of liberal governments (with the possible exception of the current far right UK conservative government) one key plank of companies’ defence will be it wasn’t their fault – they were, at worst, as surprised as us by the outcomes. Do not believe them. This isn’t about free speech – that is a distraction – and a different argument. This is about whether companies with our personal lives stored on their servers should be required to treat that data not as if it’s their never ending gold mine but as if it’s something to which privacy and political standards around propaganda and manipulation should be applied.

The financial impact of Covid 19

I’ve just read and watched the unprecedented statement from the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shortly after him, within a matter of hours or days the US Congress will come to a similar place – with their own twist on it of course.

Someone asked me just what this money is. Where does it come from and what is it really – a loan, a repo or something else, maybe money printing.
The answer is, qualitatively the same for all people putting in place fiscal stimulus right now.

It’s based on several things but probably the best analogue are the warbonds which had no maturity but would be called at the appropriate time (the last of which weren’t called until last decade). It is unprecedented. It’s also impossible to foresee the long term consequences of this. I’m sure people are thinking about them. Ironically perhaps – this is how you get inflation because supply side is going to become more and more strained the longer borders are closed and people can’t work. Prices can and will go up because of that – not because we’ve got more money. However, this will clearly be offset by people not actually having money. It’s a hugely risky strategy – but clearly the risks of doing nothing will be worse. Rishi Sunak has just promised to cover 80% of salary up to 2500 per month indefinitely. This is astonishing and tremendously welcome but tells you just how scared everyone is by the economic impact of this. If you’re not taking this seriously right now then you are, simply, a fool. A government composed of right wing nationalists and fiscal conservatives for whom Hayek and the Chicago school remain idols have just announced Universal Basic Income and an effective socialisation of salary and all of society’s risks. This is the tiger making dinner for the rabbit, it’s the coyote apologising to Roadrunner. (and for those in the know…don’t be Peck.) The term unprecedented here is both correct and far too small to underscore what’s going on.

Back to the question of ‘how do we pay for this?’

Well I mentioned warbonds earlier. Specifically those from WWI and II. They didn’t think about how they would repay – the nation was supposed to be facing an existential crisis. So they borrowed from a future they hoped was there to be borrowed from. The sense of desperation here is the same. We fail and it’s a generational depression to make the financial crisis look like losing your lunch money vs. losing your house and being forced to live on the street.

If we successfully meet this challenge? Well then we’ll worry about the implications then. What’s clear is no western country, especially the UK, will be the same after this. The US still has a journey to go on but they too will be no less different after this is over and, perhaps a silver lining, but this will be a real insulation against partisan politics and especially popularists because the virus respects nobody. It’s not an innoculation but like a large volcanic eruption can stall climate change, this can stall the growth of populism if only for a time.

I’m not sure there’s anything further to say – beyond this point everything is speculation. There are precious few voices I’m interested in listening to on this right now – I’m kind of absorbing lots and filtering 95% of it as the noise people make when they’re scared – it’s all shouting and fear and fastening onto any details which people see that appear new.

Yet the above is relevant. The government is doing something beyond the wildest fantasies of any serious economist I know – including me. You may criticise them all you like but I’ll have less respect for you if you do (see my reference to Peck). I guarantee you, you don’t know better and you wouldn’t do better. The choices made today by Sunak and by other European countries ahead of him this week and by the US over the weekend are literally undreamt of – not simply because the world economy was never structured to allow it (and there’ll be a lot of previously important influencers in the system who will now either fall into line or disappear into irrelevance) but because fundamentally literally no one could imagine this situation and moreover, no one can foresee the consequences of this in a month, a year or a decade.

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