The RMT Is Right, Just This Once

I used to be an investment banker.  This apparently makes me a class enemy to some in the Labour movement.  Although I voted Labour throughout the Blair years, I have been told that my vote is not welcome.  This is the kind of debate, I suppose, that will inform the leadership competition.  Electability or purity?  My point here in bringing this up as a preliminary is so that you do not think I am an automatic union partisan.  I think on this occasion — for the first time — the RMT is right, and if I as a generally unsympathetic person think so, perhaps they are.

It is a principle of employment  law that you cannot  arbitrarily make adverse changes to people’s contracts.  In fact, you can’t ever change a contract without the agreement of the other side.  Public sector management seems to act as if in ignorance of this surprisingly often.  When I was in private equity, we would never have done that.  Sure, we would have fired people who were incompetent and made people performing activities that were no longed needed redundant, but no-one gains from having a disgruntled workforce — and what is more likely to make them disgruntled than trying to change their contracts against their will?

Here’s how you handle this TfL situation if you are a competent private sector manager.  You say to the workforce, “guys, we need to run an all-night service.  We need volunteers to work ten weeks of nights a year.  We are offering an uplift of five grand.  Who’s up for it?”.  You then find out if you get enough people who want to do it.  We can assume that the current uplift of two grand is inadequate, both for the reasons that it looks inadequate — an extra 100 quid a month in your pocket after the government has taken its cut does not look like a good deal — and because the RMT have chosen to strike rather than accept it.

One of two things now ensues.  With luck, you get enough volunteers to run your service.  Maybe the younger drivers think they can go to Ibiza a couple of times a year and its worth it to them.  Maybe the older ones value spending time with their families more.  This is fine.  If you don’t get enough volunteers, you either up the offer or recruit.  Maybe you recruit specialist night drivers — there is some evidence that the adverse health effects of shift work are more to do with the disruption of shift changes than the nocturnal activity.  You might have to pay more for these specialist night drivers.  The union should not want to stop you doing this.

This may of course result in your service becoming more expensive.  This has to be paid for.  The obvious thing to do is increase prices to users of the night time service.  Most of us have had one drink too many in Soho and ended up taking a cab which might cost £30.  If the alternative is a tube which is twice the normal tube price, say £8, that’s a good deal, right?

Although I still think that £49,673 is quite a high non-graduate starting salary, I do think it is fair enough for the RMT to say that it is not on to impose night working on their members.  It is a major adverse contractual change and drivers can reasonably insist on the right not to do it; the response is to pay them more until enough of them agree.

UK Deficit No Longer A Problem

There has been controversy recently over the Conservative claim that the UK deficit has `halved’, based on the observation that £91bn is not half of £153bn:

As the Conservatives correctly argue, the most natural way of considering the deficit is a proportion of the size of the economy.  On this measure, they say it has indeed halved.  I will offer a couple of brief arguments as to why the Conservatives are right to say this.  Then I will suggest they could have gone further and argued that the problem is basically solved.  (They may have chosen not to do this because they consider it will be valuable in the election as a way of harming other more spendthrift parties.)

1).  The deficit as a proportion of GDP is the way the bond markets look at deficits.  This is the correct perspective to take, because it is the bond markets who are funding the deficit.  They look at debt to GDP (%) and the deficit is the rate of change of debt to GDP (also %).  He who pays the piper calls the tune.

2).  Relatedly, looking at the absolute number makes no sense.  If I ask you whether a £5,000 overdraft is a problem, you will ask me what the person who has the overdraft makes in a year.  If they have no income, it’s a big problem.  If they make £80,000 a year, it is no problem at all.

Now I will look at what they could have said.

The UK budget balance as a % of GDP is currently estimated at -4.5% of GDP.  (All of my numbers are going to come from the table on p. 96 of the 13 December 2014 issue of The Economist.  They caveat their number as being either from `The Economist poll or an Economist Intelligence Unit estimate/forecast’.  We do not need to worry about this as the number is about right; they are just allowing for the fact that they are making an estimate for the whole of 2014 slightly before it ends.)

We now need to know where we have come from in order to know how far we have come.  The first benchmark is the Maastricht criterion.  Although the UK is not looking to join the Euro, that is a relevant benchmark of UK peers.  It requires the deficit to be 3% or less of GDP.  (Again, note that the criterion is expressed as a % of GDP because that is the only sensible way of looking at it.)

I saw estimates before the last election that the previous administration was looking to borrow 15% of GDP p.a.  That was terrifying, not least because 1.15^5 = 2.01 i.e. 15% a year doubles debt to GDP in a single parliament.  That is a doubling of the national debt before you get another chance to intervene.

Now, perhaps that 15% was a politically influenced estimate.  More neutrally, all sides agree that the deficit has reduced from around 10%.  Let us take that number.  Now consider this: you can run a deficit at the same level as your nominal GDP growth without changing your debt to GDP number.  Since that is what bond markets care about, it should be what you care about as well.  GDP growth for 2014 is 3.0%.  So imagine we want to get from 10% to 3%, then the distance we want to travel is 7.0%.  We have actually moved from 10% to 4.5% i.e. a distance of 5.5%.  5.5% divided by 7.0% = 79% i.e. we really only have another 20% of the distance to go.

Now I am the first to think we should continue to bear down on the deficit, and in particular it is a really bad idea to fund OpEx with debt rather that Capex — meaning you can borrow to fund actual investments in actual pieces of infrastructure which pay you actual GDP benefits but you cannot sensibly borrow to keep the lights on or to pay benefits — but it still the case that a lot of the work has been done.  I would at this stage like to see the deficit number reduce only slightly but shift spending into sectors which will produce a GDP return.

Two ideas: the Germans lend EUR16bn a year to their famed SME sector.  The Israelis generated a globally successful tech start-up  industry by `pouring money into elite universities and creating a clever system to attract venture capital’ (The Economist again, p. 76).

Peston suggests that it is fashionable in the City to ignore the deficit:

I do not doubt it.  The truth is always in fashion.

Scotland Has no Feasible Currency Options on Independence

Originally written in response to an article by Monbiot here:

One immediate problem is that Monbiot begs the question, in that he assumes the conclusion he is trying to prove as a premise in his argument. This can be seen throughout the first four paragraphs. He aims to conclude that Scotland should be an independent country starting from a set of rhetorical questions premised on Scotland being a country. True but irrelevant, since the question at issue is exactly whether Scotland should be an independent country. To see this more clearly, note that his argument, if valid, goes through for anything you call a country: Wales, London, Pimlico, the local pub. Should Pimlico accept the hegemony of Westminster…?

A more serious problem is that whether or not Monbiot is right that there is a much better possibility in the offing depends on whether there is a feasible path to get there. Otherwise he is arguing that we would all be better off living on the moon in gold houses. True, but irrelevant, because we can’t do it. Here the currency problem comes to the fore. Monbiot concedes that Scotland might have no control over its currency post-independence, and seeks to minimise that difficulty by arguing that this represents no change against the status quo. Maybe, but the problem is much worse than that. Scotland in fact has no viable currency options post-independence.

The possibilities are a) keep the pound or b) join the Euro.

a). in fact splits into two possibilities. a1). is to obtain agreement from Westminster to retain the use of the pound on the same basis as the remaining-UK (RUK). a2), also known as Sterlingisation or the Panama option, is to use the pound without agreement from Westminster.

It is possibility a1). that all Westminster parties have ruled out. The pro-independence camp here argues that the Westminster parties are bluffing here. They are not. RUK cannot afford to bluff here. The pro-independence camp says they will not take on their share of UK debt (£100bn) if Westminster does not let them use the pound. Westminster is in fact going to bite that bullet if need be. RUK is already on the hook for the entire current amount of UK debt. This is because RUK has already been required by international bond markets to state that it will be standing behind all current UK debt because the international bond markets were not prepared to accept the risk that they might end up holding Scottish debt. (There is an interest rate at which they would be prepared to do so, but it is much higher than either the UK or RUK rates, because an independent Scotland would not have a Aaa rating.) So this option will not be available.

Possibility a2) is where the pound is just used to make retail purchases in Scotland. It is true that Westminster cannot stop this and nor need it. It is simply not a problem for RUK, just as it is not a problem for the US that Panama uses the dollar. However, Westminster can and must prevent Scotland from issuing pound-denominated debt. It cannot be allowed since Scotland would be issuing debt for which RUK would be responsible. (This is fact is the other way around. No authority could be given to Scotland to issue debt.) Similarly, the Bank of England will not guarantee Scottish banks because it would not be in a position to regulate them. Since Scotland will continue to be in a financial deficit position after independence, like the UK and RUK, it will need to issue debt. So this option will not be available.

Possibility b). is the Euro. This again splits into two possibilities like the above, but no one has proposed b2) (`Euroisation’) which has the same fatal problems as a2). So b) means EU membership.

The first problem here is that Spain would have to veto membership or risk fission, starting with Catalonia.

The second problem here is that you don’t join on UK conditions. You join on currently available conditions. That means no opt outs and no rebate. The latter in particular is going to be particularly expensive.

Thirdly, today’s letter from the former European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs:

is germane here. Key points:

– you can’t join the Euro if you just reneged on your debt as postulated above;

– you can’t join the Euro without a stable central bank (I imagine that means at least three to four years)

– you can’t join the Euro if you have been `sterlingised’ for the candidacy period.

So this option is also impossible.

There are no more options.


Jerome Kerviel, accused of being a rogue trader, is now on trial. SocGen lost $7bn in the incident which heads the list of major trading losses.

How did he do it?

This is actually a very similar situation to Nick Leeson at Barings – number 11 in the top list. They were both involved in forms of arbitrage, which exploits tiny differences in price which ‘shouldn’t’ really be there. In fact, pricing theory fairly obviously requires that there can’t be a price difference between two identical items. If that were false – say if one loaf of bread had a different price to an identical one – then I could make a risk free profit by buying at the low price and selling at the high price. And there can’t be a risk free profit because everyone would pile in. You can see that what would happen would be that the prices would equalise.

Now this is what the arbitrageurs exploit. It all hinges on what ‘identical’ means. Not quite identical introduces some risk. Leeson was buying one product in Osaka and selling the same product in Singapore. Clearly if the product is the same, exactly, there is no risk. You might ask what might cause a price difference – there might be transient local factors such as someone big in Osaka decides to buy something. And then there could be a delay before Singapore catches up. And that catch-up process is exactly what the arbs do.

Kerviel was involved in arbing equity index futures and underlying equities. Equities are stocks, indices are groups of stocks like the FTSE-100 and equity index futures is just a bet on where the FTSE-100 will be in six months from now. Clearly you can do that on a risk free basis if you, say, sell the index and buy all the stocks in it. [Incidentally, if you want to be an insider trader but don’t want to go to prison, maybe you could buy an index in which the stock you can’t trade figures and then sell everything in the index except the one you aren’t allowed to trade…but I don’t recommend it…]

Why is it dangerous?

There are two common factors between this case and Leeson. In both, the alleged misdeeds were possible because the trader and the back office person were effectively the same person. Leeson actually did his own monitoring, an extraordinary failure which rightly cost the jobs of many at Barings. I could go further and say it was so remarkable that everyone involved in the company deserved to lose all their cash, but I know there were lots of Barings debentures held by grannies and I suspect we can’t expect them to have known what they were doing. While Kerviel came from back office himself and knew the control systems and would have known how to defeat them. I also will claim that back office types are rather easy for front office traders to browbeat and this history will have played a part in Kerviel’s psychology and the desire to get somewhere fast.

Secondly, because you are exploiting tiny price differences, you need to trade in vast amounts. And all the time. The control problem comes when you do not have offsetting equal and opposite trades but wind up taking huge uncovered positions. Leeson sorted this out with a fax purportedly evidencing a large receivable from a hedge fund. Towards the end, he was drawing in funding from all over Asia, which should have alerted someone.

What is odd about this case?

You can’t make large amounts of money from arbitrage. You just can’t, because risk and reward are closely linked. You can see from the loaf of bread example that that has to be true. So if you are a manager in an I-bank, you need to get very concerned if your arbitrage desk is making large profits.

Now this leads to the strange consequence that Kerviel must have been concealing large profits. And this is what you see.

“During the largely procedural first day of the trial, Kerviel’s lawyer said Societe Generale would have been clearly able to see data showing Kerviel’s extraordinary profits of 1.4 billion euros at the end of 2007”

Note that this is profit not revenue, and that SocGen as a whole might typically make a net profit around EUR600m in a quarter. Do you think you could spot Kerviel in there?

“Seated on a plastic chair in front of rows of lawyers in black garb, the ex-trader said his annual salary at Societe Generale was 48,000 euros in 2006 with an annual bonus of 60,000 euros”

Now that is not a lot of money for traders. They might typically expect to make 5% to 10% of what they produce, or more in some cases where they are reliably producing large returns. Apparently Kerviel was expecting to make EUR300,000 for 08, on a declared profit of EUR60m. That’s a 0.5% return. You can see that this is not enough. Someone with that type of track record could just set up on their own, use the track record to raise funds, and trade themselves for maybe 50%. There is another type of arb there.

The GBPEUR exchange rate in 07 was 0.67, so we are talking about someone earning a salary of £32k. This is not far north of what we used to pay graduate trainees in London. So what we have here is someone being paid back office amounts, a French I-bank culture in which you shouldn’t really pay very much or have high quality people, and back office resentment of the flash and the furious.

“Lawyers also read a transcript of a conversation between Kerviel and SocGen’s ex-investment bank chief Jean-Pierre Mustier when the scandal broke, in which Mustier reportedly said: “If you won 1.4 billion euros, that means you’re very good. What you did was a pain, but it’s not a big deal.”

If Kerviel can make that out, then Mustier has failed in a stunning way to understand what arbitrage is. It is a French word, after all. It may be difficult to see how Kerviel can avoid jail, but he cannot have been on his own in this one.

BP and irrationality

This has gone beyond sensible levels, with BP now being asked to pay theoretical costs like those relating to people not visiting Florida beaches which are clean because they might not have been and also the wages of oil workers at other companies who have been laid off because of the moratorium on deepwater drilling. The shares are off 16% overnight, prompting an RNS announcement by the company that it believes the share price move is unjustified by the financial state of the company. RNS stands for Regulatory News Service and is the stock market channel for officially mandated announcements, like this one (dramatic unjustified price action) or other reasons (e.g. someone buys 5% of the company).


The CDS (Credit Default Swap) price represents the price of insurance against insolvency of the company. This means the market thinks there is 6% of that now. Unfortunately I am forced to agree. The trade is no longer ‘will the reasonable costs of the cleanup be less than the share price decline?’ – that continues to be true with the latter number now around £49bn. But it is clear that costs way beyond ‘reasonable’ will be imposed because, remarkably, Obama is suffering on approval rating on this more than Bush did with Katrina.

Now I chose to take this risk, I can take the loss and that’s what markets are about. So if I get screwed, it’s no one else’s problem. I am also still confident that if the company survives, it will be worth 650p again in three years. But look at this:


Of course, the political asymmetry is that none of those people vote in the US. But maybe we need an ad campaign featuring suffering grannies. And maybe this gets diplomatic now. After all, it is hard to see what BP have done wrong here. We are still at the level of punishment being exacted on a no fault basis: if it is proved that BP were negligent in some way, this will kick off. But right now, as far as we know, they were engaged in a legal operation, they conducted it in accordance with regulatory standards, they have worked hard at fixing the problem by various means, it is admitted on all sides that what they are trying to do is unprecedentedly hard and they have paid a lot of compensation claims. What else do the Americans want?


Thanks to Dave H. for pointing me at this IFS document:

The public finances: 1997 to 2010

Now there are two unperceptive ways to come at this document, depending on your political stance. You can claim it proves that Labour spent all the money and the Tories will sort it out. But that forgets that RPI was 18% in the first year of the Thatcher administration – the tired claim then would be to blame Big Jim. Or alternatively, you can say that the recovery is fragile, and severe cuts now endanger it. That ignores the fact that £156bn is not a feasible amount of borrowing every year for five years nor can it be justified, as I previously argued.

Neither of these approaches are useful of course, and this document is more balanced than that. My views are post-political. I have one objective and one only: balance the books. Beyond that, I don’t care who is in Downing Street. Governments of both stripes will fail to tackle the structural deficit while doing other annoying and pointless things. Labour will fail to tackle it while recruiting an unproductive army into the public sector in a version of the payroll vote writ large. The Conservatives will fail to tackle it while being antagonistic in Europe – our largest trading partners. Or maybe this time it’s different…?

People assume I am right wing because I keep wanting to cut social security. But my primary motivation for that is just that we need to cut the deficit and it is the largest slice of the pie, by some distance. So you need a smarter response than just to suggest cutting traditional right wing shibboleth items like defence instead. Because I don’t care. I think probably it would be good to help people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and maybe we do have a security threat emanating from those place, but we probably have to take that risk because we haven’t got enough money for two new aircraft carriers and a Trident replacement.

The second reason for cutting social security is derives from the question: ‘what is it good for?’ I know what I get from the NHS and the Education spend. Both are public sector monoliths which probably waste 1/3 of the money put into them, and we should fix that. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t get a benefit from every pound you put in. In education, you could double the spend and still get results. The law of diminishing returns would only bite seriously when you got to to gold plating levels. But we are a million miles away from that. You could give every child in the country 13 years of one-to-one tuition with a specialist graduate teacher paid £60k plus a £10k bonus per A-grade and you would see immense benefits from that. Likewise with the NHS – put money in, and people will live longer and better. What do I get from social security apart from bribing people who can’t be bothered to feed themselves not to chuck a brick through my window? Why isn’t it a protection racket?

So what does the document say?

“Both parties inherited large structural deficits from their predecessors: 4.8% of national income in 1978–79 and 2.8% of national income in 1996–97.”

“By year 11 of their terms in office, both governments were recording exactly the same structural deficits: 2.6% of national income in both 1989–90 and 2007–08.”

Here’s the problem:

Now the standard left response here is to say that the way this gets completely out of hand after year 11 of the Labour administration is because the bankers are responsible for a global financial crisis. In which case I desire you to point me to the section of the pie charts in
cuts which show bank bailout spending, and also why it isn’t true that the first sign of the crisis was a crash in subprime mortgages in the US. Some bankers may be to blame for that, but not I-banks, and it has more to do with excess saving by the Chinese than anything else. But there is plenty of material in the document for you to use against me if you disagree. I think it’s wrong though, primarily because the situation had got out of hand before the crisis and all of that money will come back and may even make a profit.

“On the eve of the financial crisis, the UK had one of the largest structural budget deficits among either the G7 or the OECD countries and a higher level of public sector debt than most other OECD countries, though lower than most other G7 countries. Most OECD governments did more to reduce their structural deficit during the period from 1997 to 2007 than Labour did. This fiscal position formed the backdrop to the financial crisis.”

That wraps it up for me. So what’s the answer? Slay an equal number of sacred cows on both sides. Cut defence, though it’s only £38bn so it won’t help much. Cut the NHS – even though that will do damage, it is better than cutting education in terms of being economically adverse. Do not cut £1bn out of science spending – it is futile and about the most disadvantageous choice available – the leverage multiple on that will be higher than elsewhere. Leave education spending alone. Which again, only leaves social security as the major source of cuts.


This is a pair of pie charts showing the UK Government’s income and expenditure from a couple of months ago. This will doubtless be revised after the emergency budget on 22 June. You can see the size of the problem here. The difference between cash in and cash out is made up by borrowing. At the time these graphs were were produced, the gap was £704bn – £541bn = £163bn.

These numbers are generally expressed as a proportion of GDP. The limit under the Maastricht criteria was 3%. The UK is not in the Eurozone, but reports these numbers anyway. The situation improved somewhat recently to around £156bn p.a., but that is still bad at 11.6% of GDP.

UK borrowing below forecast, still worst since WWII

The questions are these.


Why is it OK for some people to spend other people’s money? If we continued on the previous path without cutting public spending, we would borrow maybe an additional £1,000bn over the course of a parliament. It would take probably 40 or 50 years to pay that back at best. We are spending it now, but will not hang around to pay it back. Why should people graduating with me this year have to pick up that tab?

Do we need cuts?

There are still people who want to borrow more and spend more. “Now is not the time to be making severe cuts to the economy. Cuts too deep and too soon risk the economy falling back into recession,” said Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, which has warned that the plans could increase unemployment and the benefits bill. Well, that’s true – but what is the alternative?

Where to cut?

If you want to solve a cashflow problem, you have to reduce spending and increase income (or taxes). The government has decided this split will be 80/20. If you want to do something serious about this problem, you have to look at the largest item, which is by far social security spending at £231bn p.a. on the above pie charts.

To put that in perspective, the LHC, which is the most expensive scientific experiment ever built, cost £5.6bn. What would the UK economy be like if we built 41 LHC’s in Leeds every year?