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Banks, budgets and birthdays

Three years on from its inception, the Observatory has posted over 650 articles and collected more than 2.5 million page views. With tensions in the banking sector, a new first minister in Scotland, and the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement coming up, there’s plenty more to be covered.

The seed of an idea that grew into the Economics Observatory was first planted exactly three years ago, in late March 2020. As the pandemic first hit the UK, the economic research community came together to answer questions from policy-makers and the public about the economics of the Covid-19 crisis.

But even then, we anticipated that demand for expert economic analysis and evidence would last well beyond the immediate concerns of those challenging times. And so it has proved. In the months and years since inception, we have published more than 650 articles, and this week racked up over two and a half million page views of our website.

Broad topics include the public health crisis, the climate crisis, rising inflation and the cost of living crisis, the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – and now the banking crisis. For example, in a recent piece, John Turner, one of our lead editors, explains why Silicon Valley Bank failed – and more on banks, rising interest rates and the wider economy is in the pipeline.

We have also expanded our original remit to address questions about the global economy, while continuing to focus on what’s happening in the UK. This week, for example, as strikes continue in several sectors, Phil Tinline looks at whether the country’s trade unions can recover the power they had back in the 1960s and 1970s.

With the announcement of Humza Yousaf as the new leader of the Scottish National Party and Scotland’s new first minister, Stuart McIntyre (University of Strathclyde), another of our lead editors, outlines the big economic policy challenges facing him and his team. This builds on our series on the economics of Scottish independence, curated by Stuart and Graeme Roy (University of Glasgow), another of our lead editors.

One of the big economic news stories in the UK this past month has been the government’s Spring Budget. Many of the economic experts and organisations that work with us at the Observatory are key contributors to the in-depth independent evaluation of economic policy announcements like this, and their implications for families, firms, public finances and the economy.

As ever, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) provided detailed pre- and post-match analysis. So too did the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), the Resolution Foundation (which focuses on living standards of low and middle-income households) and, with a Scottish perspective, the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde.

Here at the Observatory, Charlie Meyrick wrote a short analysis of what the Chancellor of the Exchequer billed in advance as a boring budget. And Edmund Cannon (University of Bristol) contributed a piece on the implication of the abolition of the lifetime allowance on what can be drawn from private pensions. He concludes that a higher limit would have been a more desirable measure, both for deterring the use of pensions for tax avoidance and for reducing incentives for early retirement. We will soon be publishing an article on changes to childcare provision set out in the budget announcement.

Meet on the ledge

Several upcoming in-person events over the next three months are likely to interest Observatory readers. The spring is generally a busy time of year for meetings in economic research and policy-making – and no fewer than six conferences are worth exploring.

Economic History Society 2023 annual conference (#EHS2023), University of Warwick, 31 March-2 April

First up is the annual gathering of the UK’s economic historians, which is starting today and features several researchers who’ve written for us on key questions: what can looking back at the past teach us about dealing with pandemics, recessions and related crises? Can it help us to think through how best to ‘build back better’, notably in the aftermath of war? And what can we learn from historical experiences of such contemporary challenges as inflation, industrial action and forced migration?

One of the conference’s plenary sessions, the Tawney Lecture, will be delivered by Jane Whittle (University of Exeter) on women and work in the early modern economy. Another features Daniel Sgroi (University of Warwick) discussing research on the measurement of national wellbeing in the past, which we featured recently on the Observatory. His study uses a technique from data science known as text analysis to infer people’s mood over long periods of time from the language in millions of digitised books. The results reveal the big influences on peaks and troughs in human happiness: income, health, aspirations and avoidance of major conflicts.

Joint Royal Economic Society/Scottish Economic annual conference (#RES2023), Glasgow, 3-5 April

Two annual gatherings of UK economists are being combined this year into a joint RES/SES conference in Glasgow. The programme includes the RES presidential address by Carol Propper (Imperial College London) on choice, competition and quality in healthcare. Carol is one of our founding lead editors, and author of a recent Observatory piece about the knock-on effects of the cost of living crisis on people’s physical and mental health, and on an already strained NHS.

Further highlights include plenary lectures by Silvana Tenreyro (London School of Economics, LSE, and the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee), who contributed to our ECO magazine on the climate crisis and will be talking about quantitative easing and quantitative tightening; economic historian Leah Boustan (Princeton University) on US attitudes to immigration and the roots of polarisation; Raghuram Rajan (University of Chicago), former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief economist and former governor of India’s central bank; and Dani Rodrik (Harvard University), co-director of Economics for Inclusive Prosperity.

Bennett Institute for Public Policy 2023 annual conference, Cambridge, 14 April

The Bennett Institute is co-directed by Diane Coyle (University of Cambridge), another of our lead editors. Its annual conference includes a keynote by Anna Vignoles, who was very supportive of the Observatory’s early development – including interviewing University of Glasgow Principal Anton Muscatelli about universities in the pandemic – and who is now director of the Leverhulme Trust. Anna will explore the importance for a resilient and prosperous economy of having a thriving research and development (R&D) sector, which in turn is inextricably linked to the health of the country’s education and skills system. 

#EconomicPolicy, Stockholm, 20-21 April

The Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) will be holding the half-yearly meeting of the journal Economic Policy in a hybrid format – online and in Stockholm at the Swedish central bank. This will feature a series of new studies of the economics of sanctions, conflict and political violence.

There will also be a public policy session on a new research report by Philippe Martin (Sciences Po) and colleagues on how firms in Europe respond to energy shocks like the spike in gas and electricity prices in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Philippe will explore the implications for a wide range of national and supranational policies, including energy subsidies and energy efficiency incentives for households and businesses, reforms of European’s electricity market, and the transition to cleaner energy sources.

ESCoE conference on economic measurement 2023 (#ESCOE2023), London, 17-19 May

The Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence (ESCoE) will hold its annual conference, organised in partnership with the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS), at King’s College London. The programme includes discussion of measurement and statistics for productivity, innovation, labour markets and net zero. The Observatory will be running a workshop on the final day entitled ‘The language of (economic) data is visualisation’.

Adam Smith tercentenary week, Glasgow, 5-10 June

Finally, in early June, the University of Glasgow will be hosting a week of activities to celebrate the 300th birthday of Adam Smith, widely thought of as the founding father of economics (though not the advocate of free market capitalism, as he is often portrayed).

Confirmed speakers include Gita Gopinath at the IMF, economics Nobel laureate Angus Deaton (Princeton University), Deidre McCloskey (University of Illinois at Chicago) and another of our lead editors, Tim Besley (LSE). The Observatory will also be publishing the next issue of ECO magazine to coincide with the event – focused on what we can learn from the great economists of the past in tackling today’s big challenges.

What’s going on

Later in the year, Barcelona will host the 2023 annual congress of the European Economic Association; and in early 2024, the American Economic Association annual meeting will be in San Antonio, Texas. But the date we really want you to save is the week beginning 13 November 2023, when we’ll be holding the 12th annual Festival of Economics with Bristol Ideas. Recordings of previous editions are available here.

To coincide with the Adam Smith 300 celebrations, we are running a student competition with the University of Glasgow, with a task of redesigning the front cover of one of Smith’s two great works – The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments – for the 21st century.

You should also be aware of the Young Economist of the Year competition, just launched by the RES and Discover Economics as an opportunity for school students to write about contemporary economic problems facing the UK and the world. Topics include the wages of top sports people, the prices of tickets for gigs, the impact of robots and artificial intelligence, regulation of Big Tech firms, and the trade-offs between economic growth and preventing climate change.

Finally, next week on the Observatory, we’ll be adding to our extensive set of pieces on the economics of Northern Ireland. Esmond Birnie (Ulster University) will examine the economic implications of the Windsor Framework, the new legal agreement between the UK and the European Union (EU) over the status of the nation relative to the UK’s internal market and the EU’s single market. And as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April, John Turner and colleagues will evaluate the size of the peace dividend that has resulted from ending a three-decades long conflict in Northern Ireland.

Author: Romesh Vaitilingam, Editor-in-Chief
Picture by Helin Loik-Tomson on iStock
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