As the western democracies gradually reopen, moving from the ‘confined-by-Covid’ era in to the ‘living-with-the virus’ phase (as distinct from post-Covid, on the basis that only smallpox has so far been eradicated by inoculation), tensions created in a new period of moral and political hazard are becoming evident.
Moral hazard and difficult choices
The number of those double-vaccinated has passed 71% of the UK adult population. As ‘pingdemic’ joins the viral lexicon and since Freedom Day on July 19th more than a million-and-a-half citizens have been required to self-isolate having been zapped by the NHS Track & Trace’s hypersensitive, hyperactive application while Delta variant cases were escalating among the young, the inevitable question has been posed: “what is the point in vaccination if not to allow a restoration of freedoms among those who have had both doses?”.
Who should be exempt from isolation, especially if in addition to proof of double vaccination a ping-ee can also show a current negative PCR covid test? The popular answer is ‘key workers’ but as we all rush to buy and don a dayglo-coloured hi-viz jacket to demonstrate our credentials, how far does the definition of ‘key worker’ extend? And assuming there is an answer, does that mean everyone else is superfluous because their job is not deemed essential? If in economics QE asset inflation has created growing divisions between the ‘haves’ (the asset rich) and the have-nots (the asset poor) with the self-evident political consequences seen as a contributing factor behind mass populism, does the distinction between Covid ‘key worker’ and everyone else create a new division where none existed before? Will there be consequences here too?
Perhaps it is not surprising, as suggested by the chief executive of Iceland plc, that people in droves are rushing either to delete the NHS app or to switch off their bluetooth: is that itself not an act of moral hazard? Discuss.
The same moral arguments can be made about vaccine passports and the potential for a two-tier society. Westminster is making the case that in England, anyone wishing to access the hospitality and other ‘event’ sectors needs to show proof of vaccination. Universities are moving towards a similar policy to be implemented in September for access to campus. No proof=no vaccine=no entry. Clearly the carrot is the encouragement to be vaccinated and to be a full member of society; the stick is those opting out will find themselves increasingly marginalised and excluded. In France, mandatory Covid passports were introduced earlier in July for theatres, night clubs and sporting venues, soon to be expanded to restaurants and cafes. Popular reaction has been swift: reminiscent of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ fuel tax riots (hi-viz in a very different context), last weekend 160,000 French demonstrated around the country in protest. Italy’s new Green Pass system is similar to that of France: its introduction has had two contrasting effects, one producing a surge in youth vaccinations, the other the inevitable demonstrations.
In the US where, after an inoculation programme that in its early phase was as successful as ours in the UK, momentum has been lost and the percentage of the adult population fully vaccinated has stalled at little over 50%. Pro- and anti-vaxxers have broadly divided down age, class and political lines, the majority of refuseniks being among the young, the poor and with the percentage of Republicans refusing inoculation significantly outstripping Democrat voters (as one US commentator said, were Donald Trump to declare the vaccine “A Good Thing, everyone should have it”, the job would be completed in double-quick time). President Biden has resorted to simple bribery, offering a $100 cash inducement for the un-jabbed to be fully vaccinated, likely to be seen as an affront to those who have done their civic duty and been vaccinated voluntarily while the unwilling are rewarded financially for their indolence, half paid for from the taxes of those already inoculated. Unable to enforce compulsory vaccination, Biden is making twice-weekly compulsory testing for all federal workers a condition of being able to go to work. Meanwhile, several high-profile, large US employers including Netflix and others have gone further and publicly declared to their workforces, “No jab, no job”. They are clearly taking a calculated risk that in their businesses employees will quickly see the light that whatever the objections might be to a needle twice in the arm, life on the dole is much the worse alternative.
Moral and political hazard extends to vaccinating children under 18. On one hand the medical evidence indicates that children contracting Covid are the least likely to be seriously unwell and the risk of death from the virus is vanishingly small. On the other hand, children can still be vectors, spreading the virus to their elders. The moral dilemma is that vaccinating the under 18s brings little or no direct benefit to the child and they are as susceptible as anyone else to side-effects, but it helps break the transmission mechanism to adults; it would be the first time in the UK that an inoculation programme has ever proceeded on such a basis. England has shied away from it (“under review” for 12-17 year-olds); in Scotland, however, the devolved government this week announced that while it would consider the Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation advice it would not rule out mass-immunisation of 12-17 year-olds anyway, noting that other countries have done so successfully.
Other behavioural factors at work
Other behaviours are being tested too. The workplace evolution and the relationship between employer and employee, the prolonged, enforced work-from-home regimes in many countries have changed working practices in sectors in which ‘WfH’ is practicable. Governments have typically devolved decision-making about future working practices to businesses themselves. Financial services illustrates the divide: at polar opposites, Goldman Sachs has made it very clear that it expects a full return to the office, five days a week (hint: make that six); Schroders on the other hand, already using flexible hot-desking before Covid, has said that there is no compunction at all physically to return to the office so long as results are not impaired by working from home; if you’re curious, Jupiter lies in between with three days a week in London from September, two working from home. As employees and employers dance the dance of the seven veils around each other, and mixing metaphors, depending on who has the whip hand at any particular time in asserting their point of view, businesses and employees will have to adapt to avoid casualties. Time will tell what effect the evolution in employee and employer behaviours has on productivity, business development and its effect on the wider economy.
Relevance to investors
Why are these relevant to investors? Because as we have said many times before, economics is simply the sum of all human interactions denominated in pounds, dollars, euros and any other currency. Societal and economic behavioural changes challenge economic norms and historic economic relationships. Those who subscribe to theories of enduring stability in relationships or rely upon mean reversion find themselves at sea when such theories are not only tested but disrupted or even de-bunked. Earlier this year, in the immediate aftermath of the vaccine announcements, economists were almost falling over themselves to increase GDP forecasts, sometimes by multiples rather than percentages. It is already evident as the virus lingers to a greater or lesser extent in different countries that confidence in the future remains fragile and markets’ preoccupations have shifted perceptibly from the fear of inflation to momentum and confidence in growth. It is a time when strong, confident leadership makes all the difference, moral hazard and all.
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