Sunday, 10 May 2020

COVID-19 and our food system: The pandemic on our plate?

Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) has just issued a wide-ranging critique of our global food system. “Is the next pandemic on our plate? Our food system through the lens of Covid-19” is a strong and urgent call for fundamental reform in the wake of COVID-19. It was written by Peter Stevenson, CIWF’s chief policy advisor and leading commentator on the future of food, farming and animal welfare.

This has particular resonance for the EU in view of the European Green Deal: and especially the “Farm to Fork” strategy, which refers to “designing a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system”.

The key message from CIWF is that COVID-19 has highlighted the danger of ignoring potential crises until they are hard upon us. Other crises – climate change, antibiotics resistance, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity and pollution – are rapidly coming down the line. We are doing too little to tackle these pending disasters. And in each case our food system plays a major part in generating these problems. We must change the way we farm, and what we eat.

The main supporting messages are:
  • Serious diseases can jump from wild animals to humans. In addition, the crowded, stressful conditions in factory farms can be the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases, some of them zoonotic. Also the high level of disease in factory farms leads to the routine use of antimicrobials: driving antimicrobial resistance in animals, and in turn undermining their efficacy in human medicine. Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreaks are associated with intensive domestic poultry production. Our cruel abuse of wild and farmed animals is damaging our health.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Now is the time for Europe to raise taxes on hydrocarbons

The collapse in hydrocarbon prices provoked by the Covid-19 crisis has opened up an opportunity for Europe to advance the de-carbonization of the economy. Because the price of oil and other fossil fuels have fallen so much, it makes economic and political sense to increase duties on hydrocarbons and thereby keep renewables competitive. Taking this action would represent a major step towards realizing the European Green Deal, which aims “to ensure effective carbon pricing throughout the economy”.[1]

As can be seen from the chart below, the price of crude oil fell very abruptly, down by two thirds from around $55‒$60/barrel, where it had been hovering in recent years, to $20/barrel or less—the lowest (nominal) level in two decades. The price for certain blends on certain days even fell below zero, as suppliers had to unload excess stocks for which they had no storage capacity. The process started in January-February, when some major producers engaged in a price war, but accelerated with the onset of the Covid-19 crisis. At the time of writing the price has recovered to nearer $30/barrel, which still represents a fall of 50 percent.

                                     Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency
Other hydrocarbon prices have fallen in parallel. The spot price for gasoline has collapsed from $2/gallon to $0.5/gallon. Less dramatically, natural gas prices have fallen in the last three months from around $2.50/MBtu to around $1.70/MBtu.[2] Coal in international markets has gone from $45/ton to $35/ton.

Statistics in the time of pandemics

Pandemic statistics have become an important input into economic and social policy-making, but suffer from weaknesses that need urgently to be addressed.

From the 1990s international bodies, in particular the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nations Statistical Commission, have put substantial efforts into providing high-quality statistics on macroprudential risks to assist policy-making for the economy. If only because economic policy-making now requires also analysis of the progression of, and prospects for the impact of, the Covid-19 and any pandemic in the future, it is critical that similar enhancements are made to the pandemic statistics.

In general, one would expect statistics on a pandemic to be produced on a global basis, given the global nature of the pandemic and the crucial role of interconnectedness in determining its spread. The relevant specialist UN agency in this regard is the World Health Organization (WHO), which does publish statistics, but they are derived from national sources and it is not clear that there is any standardization. Moreover, the WHO has recently been drawn into political attempts to scapegoat it for the pandemic, which may cause any immediate efforts at a statistical initiative to run into further difficulty.

Given all that, the relevant European agencies, in collaboration upwards to the global institutions and downwards to the nationals, should take the lead in devising a set of high-quality statistics for this area. And if a European standard emerges, it would likely be adopted in other parts of the world too, especially if developing countries can be helped with technical assistance in implementation. In any case, the issues that arise in a standard-setting exercise are of themselves of use more widely.

Brexit transition: time to extend

Prime Minister Johnson has delivered on his election commitment to “get it done” and formally take the UK out of the EU. He announced that the transition period (during which almost nothing changes) ends by 31 December 2020. In order to prepare for the eventuality that by 31 December 2020 there is “no deal”, he has stated that if a deal is not in sight by end-June the UK will withdraw from the discussions. Coincidentally, after June it is legally difficult for the EU to affect an extension of the transition period.

But the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent economic shock make the argument for a significant extension overwhelming. The question is how to make the wise course of action also the politically expedient and feasible one.

The UK now has the highest number of deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic of any country in Europe, and daily rates continue much higher than in the other high-mortality countries. As the UK continues to perform markedly worse than comparators, the clamour for focused action will intensify. Clearly, bringing down the death rate and ultimately cautiously reopening the economy are the highest—arguably the only--priorities.

Any government would struggle to handle both the pandemic and the Brexit negotiations at the same time, and the current government was discombobulated by Johnson’s absence during his sickness (and his earlier holiday). Tackling the pandemic cannot wait; in contrast, the Brexit timetable is entirely artificial. Therefore, the end of the transition period should be put back by four years.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Life outside the Euro—Monetary and financial issues for the EU periphery and beyond

Conference of the European Political Economy Project (In association with SEESOX)

St Antony’s College, 23 January, 2020

European countries that have not adopted the Euro face a complex set of issues regarding their interactions with those countries that have adopted it, and ultimately have to decide whether and when to join the Euro and the banking union (BU). Similarly, EU member states that have adopted the Euro face complex issues in their relationships with the non-Euro member states. The eight member states outside the Euro are economically and politically important. They have a total population of 105 million people, a significant number and more than any individual member state that has adopted the Euro. They range from among the richest to the poorest EU members.

On 23 January 2020 the European Political Economy Project (EuPEP) of the St. Antony’s European Studies Centre (ESC) hosted a conference that looked instead at monetary and financial issues for those countries that are not at the core, i.e. have not (yet) adopted the Euro—defined as the EU “periphery” in this context. Much research on EU integration looks at the “core” EU member states, defined here as those that have adopted the Euro as their currency, and focuses on them in analysing the speed and priorities for taking forward the European project. This conference sought instead to look at the policy choices and experiences of the countries at present not in the core.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

How do monetary, micro- and macroprudential policies interact? Take-aways from an Austrian National Bank workshop

The global financial crisis provoked a wholesale reassessment of prudential policy and the framework within which it is conducted, and also led central banks to adopt very accommodate stances using an array of unconventional instruments. The Austrian National Bank (OeNB) workshop was an occasion to look back on the choices made in the wake of the crisis—especially choices about institutional structure, governance, and the coordination of policies—and to reflect on how our understanding of the interaction among monetary, microprudential, and macroprudential policies has evolved over the subsequent ten years. (Other financial sector policies such as consumer protection are important but less closely related to central banking.)

One reaction to the financial crisis was to give new prominence to macroprudential oversight, concerned with the stability of the (financial) system as a whole. New institutions were established and tools were created or adapted. (Prior to the crisis, macroprudential concerns centered on dollarization and to some extent rapid credit growth in emerging market countries.)

Another reaction, seen in many countries, was to widen the central bank mandate to encompass more responsibility for prudential and also crisis management functions. The wider mandate reflects the pivotal role played by central banks in handling the crisis.