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Finally Someone Noticed

I have been puzzled since the withdrawal agreement terms first emerged that the UK is to be credited with no more than its subscribed capital on exit from the European Investment Bank. The EIB makes serious money, has not paid dividends and must be the most solvent bank around, This from the House of Lords Committee yesterday:

https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/eu-financial-affairs-subcommittee/news-parliament-2017/brexit-eib-report-published/

‘The Government failed to provide a satisfactory explanation of its negotiation position on the return of the UK’s capital. As a profitable business, there seems to be a plausible case that the UK should receive some share of that profit. A 16.1 percent share of the EIB’s retained earnings would be €7.6 billion, almost 20 percent of the UK’s financial settlement of £35–39 billion.’

The UK gets just €3.5 billion. The implied price-to-book is a steal for the surviving shareholders.

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Statistical Codology

Tim Harford, in his column last Saturday in the Financial Times, laments the innumeracy which pervades the popular press and much of the political debate. There are people unable to remember the difference between a million and a billion constantly pontificating on weighty economic issues of all descriptions in both print and broadcast media. My favourite category of statistical codology is the university ranking tables now produced in profusion by various self-appointed scorekeepers, notably the Times Higher Education Supplement which ought to know better. The Irish newspapers reported last week the sad news that Trinity College Dublin had fallen from 117th best university in the whole wide world to a mere 120th according to this venerable source. It has fallen behind the University of York, the shame of it, and has managed to stay just an inch ahead of the University of Oslo (phew!).
Unreported was the even sadder news that the Cork City football team, last season’s Irish champions, are now ranked a humble 160th in the world, down from the heady heights of 157th this time last year and just a corner-kick ahead of Croatia’s Rijeka FC. This vital info can be gleaned from footballdatabase.com, who must be wondering why their number-crunching attracts so little coverage.
There is a simple reason. Football fans know that these rankings mean nothing whatsoever. If anyone really needed to know whether Cork or Rijeka boasts the better team, say if they were drawn against one another in some competition, the matter takes ninety minutes to resolve. How though do you check if Trinity or Oslo has the better university? A ninety-minute showdown between the staff of the two institutions would be quite a spectacle but could turn ugly.
The attraction of the university rankings for journalists is precisely that they are meaningless and accordingly incontrovertible. The winner in the latest league table for world’s best university was none other than the University of Oxford, whose distinguished alumni include Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron and just about all the other folks who have been doing such a spiffing job on Brexit. Which does not mean that Oxford is a poor university. It just means that the concept of university league tables is for the birds. Football league tables (based on the results of actual matches between the teams in each league) are at the upper end of respectable scientific practice by comparison. It looks like Dundalk will relieve Cork of their title as the season draws to a close. But since each team will have played 36 games against the rest this really does suggest that Dundalk have the best team.
However daft the concept and dodgy the statistical methodology, the university tables have their uses. The recent declines in the rankings for the Irish colleges have fuelled demands from their presidents for extra taxpayer cash. A few years back the same tables were showing an advance up the rankings, proof positive, according to the same people, that public spending on universities was delivering the goods and should be increased.
Brexit provides another example of the innumeracy which annoys Tim Harford. The UK’s annual and recurring net contribution to the EU budget has recently been running at about £9 billion per annum, a large number with lots of zeroes. This number, not to be confused with the once-off exit bill, has been ventilated by Brexiteers as, quite properly, a potential ongoing benefit to the Treasury of a full exit. Another figure in circulation is the population of the EU-27 which comes in around 450 million, not quite so large a number but lots of zeroes too. There have been regular assertions that the loss of the UK’s money will cause great damage to the finances of the EU-27: the political editor of the Sunday Express Camilla Tominey ventured that it would ‘bankrupt the European Union’ on a BBC programme, without challenge, a few months back. Nobody at the BBC, it would appear, has thus far bothered to divide the larger of these two big numbers by the smaller. The answer turns out to be £20 per head per annum. Total government revenue in the EU-27 is close to £4,000 billion. The UK’s £9 billion will be missed, but not noticed.
Some people are good at figures but most are not and are lost with very large numbers. Tim Harford’s solution is a call for better statistical training in schools and universities. Even at Oxford this looks a wee bit optimistic. There is however no excuse for the sloppiness about statistical matters in well-resourced media organisations. Here’s another very large number: the BBC gets about £3.5 billion per annum from the license fee, surely enough to engage the services of a statistician, or to buy everyone a pocket calculator. (courtesy the Farmers Journal).

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Boris Builds a Bridge

In a competitive field yesterday’s bridge across the English Channel, proposed in a solo run by foreign secretary Boris Johnson, must rank as the zaniest piece of headline-hunting since the Brexit referendum. The occasion was the visit to Britain of French president Emmanuel Macron, to meet Theresa May rather than Boris. May and Macron agreed an Anglo-French committee to consider future, but unspecified, collaborative projects, just the ticket to fill out an otherwise thin official communique from the two leaders. How to upstage?

The Boris Bridge worked a treat, reported deadpan as a news story by the BBC, prominent in the Daily Mail and the front-page lead in the Telegraph. The Express was able to offer a real scoop:

‘Emmanuel Macron has jumped at the chance of building a giant bridge linking the UK and the EU after Boris Johnson floated the idea during meetings yesterday, it has been revealed.’

Revealed to the Express only. Denials that the bridge is on any official agenda were duly issued on both sides of the channel and the wretched FT, read mainly by foreigners, did not mention the story at all.

A day later the BBC and the newspaper websites finally got round to phoning a few engineers, some of whom were unsporting enough to mention the last two great Anglo-French collaborations, Concorde, cost over-run 450%, and the channel tunnel, a snip at just 80% over budget.

The British media, including the BBC, have done an appalling job in covering the continuing Brexit circus.

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On Dividing Large Numbers by Other Large Numbers

Conservative backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, welcoming today’s Economists for Free Trade report predicting a bright post-Brexit future for the UK economy, remarked that the loss of the UK’s £9 billion per annum net contribution to the budget would render the EU ‘effectively insolvent’, according to the Guardian.

They should therefore be threatened with immediate suspension of the UK’s payments, forcing the EU to do a deal. Nine billion divided by the EU-27 population of 450 million works out at £20 per capita per annum.

Mr. Rees-Mogg has been described as a possible future leader of the Conservative party and has performed strongly in straw polls of party activists.

Is it OK if I lie down for a while?

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The UK’s Brexit Bill and the European Investment Bank

The annex to the EU-27 negotiating position released yesterday in Brussels states clearly that the UK will be departing the European Investment Bank, in which it is a 16.1% shareholder.

The UK will expect to be credited with the value of these shares when the exit bill comes to be totted up. How much are they worth?

According to the latest accounts the EIB had net worth of €66.2 billion at end 2016, and has been posting annual profits around €2.7 billion. By Brexit Day (March 29th 2019) the UK share of net worth should be at least €11 billion, not a small amount in the context of the row about money which has already commenced.

There are complications: the EIB retains all earnings and does not pay dividends, so owning shares has not been much fun. But as a result it has a CET1 ratio of 26.4 and leverage under 9, as well as a AAA credit rating, high liquidity and ECB access. This will be the last European bank to go bust.

There is very substantial uncalled capital, in the UK’s case €35.7 billion. This is in effect an option against the shareholders and hence a contingent liability. However there seems to be very low likelihood that this capital will ever be called. If it were called from all shareholders leverage would drop towards 2!

When the UK is ejected, who buys the shares? It could most conveniently be the EIB itself, from reserves. The bank looks to be over-capitalised. Numerous other angles will arise – the EIB shares are a substantial item and have been overlooked.