Interest rates have, for some years, been the main tool of monetary policy and of steering the macroeconomy. Across the world interest rates were lowered, in many cases to record lows, as a means of stimulating economic growth. Interest rates in the UK have been at 0.5% since March 2009 and on 2nd May 2013, the ECB matched this low rate, having cut its main interest rate from 0.75%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Low interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing for both firms and consumers and this in turn encourages investment and can boost consumer expenditure. After all, when you borrow money, you do it to spend! Lower interest rates will also reduce the return on savings, again encouraging spending and for those on variable rate mortgages, mortgage payments will fall, increasing disposable income. However, these above effects are dependent on the banks passing the ECB’s main interest rate on its customers and this is by no means guaranteed.
Following the cut in interest rates, the euro exchange rate fell almost 2 cents against the dollar.
Interest rates in the eurozone have been at 0.75%, but a 0.25 point cut was widely expected, with the ongoing debt crisis in the Eurozone continuing to adversely affect growth and confidence. A lack of trust between banks has also contributed to a lack of lending, especially to small and medium sized enterprises. The ECB has injected money into financial institutions with the aim of stimulating lending, but in many cases, banks have simply placed this extra money back with the ECB, rather than lending it to other banks or customers. The fear is that those they lend to will be unable to repay the money. In response to this, there have been suggestions of interest rates becoming negative – that is, if banks want to hold their money with the ECB they will be charged to do it. Again, the idea is to encourage banks to lend their money instead.
Small and medium sized businesses have been described as the engine of growth, but it is these businesses who have been the least able to obtain finance. Without it, they have been unable to grow and this has held back the economic recovery. Indeed, GDP in the Eurozone has now fallen for five consecutive quarters, thus prompting the latest interest rate cut. A key question, however, will be how effective this quarter of a percent cut will be. If banks were unwilling to lend and firms unwilling to invest at 0.75%, will they be more inclined at 0.5%? The change is small and many suggest that it is not enough to make much of a difference. David Brown of New View Economics said:
The ECB rate cut is no surprise as it was well flagged by Draghi at last month’s meeting. Is it enough? No. The marginal effect of the cut is very limited, but at least it should have some symbolic rallying effect on economic confidence.
This was supported by Howard Archer at HIS Global Insight, who added:
Admittedly, it is unlikely that the trimming of interest rates from 0.75% to 0.5% will have a major growth impact, especially given fragmented credit markets, but any potential help to the eurozone economy in its current state is worthwhile.
Inflation in the eurozone is only at 1.2%, which is significantly below the ceiling of 2%, so this did give the ECB scope for the rate to be cut. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) After all, when interest rates fall, the idea is to boost aggregate demand, but with this, inflation can emerge. Mr Draghi said ‘we will monitor very closely all incoming information, and assess any impact on the outlook for price stability’. The primary objective of the ECB is the control of inflation and so had inflation been somewhat higher, we may have seen a different decision by the ECB. However, even then, 5 consecutive quarters of negative growth is hard to ignore.
So, if these lower interest rates have little effect on stimulating an economic recovery, what about a movement away from austerity? Many have been calling for stimulus in the economy, arguing that the continuing austerity measures are stifling growth. The European Council President urged governments to promote growth and job creation. Referring to this, he said:
Taking these measures is more urgent than anything … After three years of firefights, patience with austerity is wearing understandably thin.
However, Mr. Draghi urged for policymakers to stick with austerity and continue to focus on bringing debt levels down, while finding other ways to stimulate growth, including structural reform. The impact of this latest rate cut will certainly take time to filter through the economy and will very much depend on whether the 0.5% interest rate is passed on to customers, especially small businesses. Confidence and trust within the financial sector is therefore key and it might be that until this emerges, the eurozone itself is unlikely to emerge from its recession.
ECB ready to enter unchartered waters as bank cuts interest rate to fresh low of 0.5pc The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/5/13)
Draghi urges Eurozone governments to stay the course on austerity Financial Times, Michael Steen (2/5/13)
Eurozone interest rates cut to a record low of 0.5% The Guardian, Heather Stewart (2/5/13)
ECB’s Draghi ‘ready to act if needed’ BBC News (2/5/13)
Eurozone interest rates cut again as ECB matches Bank of England Independent, Russell Lynch (3/5/13)
Margio Draghi urges no let-up in austerity reforms after Eurozone rate cut – as it happened The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rate to record-low 0.5% in desperate measure to drag Eurozone out of recession Mail Online, Simon Tomlinson and Hugo Duncan (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rates, open to further action Reuters, Michael Shields (2/5/13)
Eurozone loosens up austerity, slowly Wall Street Journal (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rate, not enough to pull the region out of recession The Economic Times of India (2/5/13)
Euro steady ahead of ECB interest rate announcement Wall Street Journal, Clare Connaghan (2/5/13)
European Central Bank (ECB) cuts interest rates BBC News (2/5/13)
All eyes on ECB as markets expect rate cut Financial Times, Michael Steen (2/5/13)
- How is a recession defined?
- Using an aggregate demand/aggregate supply diagram, illustrate and explain the impact that this cut in interest rates should have.
- On which factors will the effectiveness of the cut in interest rates depend?
- Using the interest rate and exchange rate transmission mechanisms to help you, show the impact of interest rates on the various components of aggregate demand and thus on national output.
- What would be the potential impact of a negative interest rate?
- Why did the low inflation rate give the ECB scope to cut interest rates?
- What are the arguments for and against austerity measures in the Eurozone, given the 5 consecutive quarters of negative growth?
In a carefully argued article in the New Statesman, the UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, considers the slow recovery in the economy and whether additional measures should be adopted. He sums up the current state of the economy as follows:
The British economy is still operating at levels around or below those before the 2008 financial crisis and roughly 15 per cent below an albeit unsustainable pre-crisis trend. There was next to no growth during 2012 and the prospect for 2013 is of very modest recovery.
Unsurprisingly there is vigorous debate as to what has gone wrong. And also what has gone right; unemployment has fallen as a result of a million (net) new jobs in the private sector and there is vigorous growth of new enterprises. Optimistic official growth forecasts and prophets of mass unemployment have both been confounded.
He argues that supply-side policies involving “a major and sustained commitment to skills, innovation and infrastructure investment” are essential if more rapid long-term growth is to be achieved. This is relatively uncontroversial.
But he also considers the claim that austerity has kept the economy from recovering and whether policies to tackle the negative output gap should be adopted, even if this means a short-term increase in government borrowing.
But crude Keynesian policies of expanding aggregate demand are both difficult to implement and may not take into account the particular circumstance of the current extended recession – or depression – in the UK and in many eurozone countries. World aggregate demand, however, is not deficient. In fact it is expanding quite rapidly, and with the sterling exchange rate index some 20% lower than before the financial crisis, this should give plenty of opportunity for UK exporters.
Yet expanding UK aggregate demand is proving difficult to achieve. Consumers, worried about falling real wages and large debts accumulated in the years of expansion, are reluctant to increase consumption and take on more debts, despite low interest rates. In the light of dampened consumer demand, firms are reluctant to invest. This makes monetary policy particularly ineffective, especially when banks have become more risk averse and wish to hold higher reserves, and indeed are under pressure to do so.
So what can be done? He argues that there is “some scope for more demand to boost output, particularly if the stimulus is targeted on supply bottlenecks such as infrastructure and skills.” In other words, he advocates policies that will simultaneously increase both aggregate demand and aggregate supply. Monetary policy, involving negative real interest rates and quantitative easing, has helped to prevent a larger fall in real aggregate demand and a deeper dive into recession, but the dampened demand for money and the desire by banks to build their reserves has meant a massive fall in the money multiplier. Perhaps monetary policy needs to be more aggressive still (see the blog post, Doves from above), but this may not be sufficient.
Which brings Dr Cable to the political dynamite! He advocates an increase in public investment on infrastructure (schools and colleges, hospitals, road and rail projects and housing, and considers whether this should be financed, not by switching government expenditure away from current spending, but by borrowing more.
Such a strategy does not undermine the central objective of reducing the structural deficit, and may assist it by reviving growth. It may complicate the secondary objective of reducing government debt relative to GDP because it entails more state borrowing; but in a weak economy, more public investment increases the numerator and the denominator.
He raises the question of whether the balance of risks has changed: away from the risk of increased short-term borrowing causing a collapse of confidence to the risk of lack of growth causing a deterioration in public finances and this causing a fall in confidence. As we saw in the blog post Moody Blues, the lack of growth has already caused one ratings agency (Moody’s) to downgrade the UK’s credit rating. The other two major agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch may well follow suit.
The day after Dr Cable’s article was published, David Cameron gave a speech saying that the government would stick to its plan of deficit reduction. Not surprisingly commentators interpreted this as a split in the Coalition. Carefully argued economics from Dr Cable it might have been, but political analysts have seen it as a hand grenade, as you will see from some of the articles below.
When the facts change, should I change my mind? New Statesman, Vince Cable (6/3/13)
Keynes would be on our side New Statesman, Vince Cable (12/1/11)
Exclusive: Vince Cable calls on Osborne to change direction New Statesman, George Eaton (67/3/13)
Vince Cable: Borrowing may not be as bad as slow growth BBC News (7/3/13)
Vince Cable makes direct challenge to Cameron over economic programme The Guardian, Nicholas Watt (7/3/13)
Vince Cable Says George Osborne Must Change Course And Borrow More To Revive Growth Huffington Post, Ned Simons (6/3/13)
David Cameron and Vince Cable at war over route to recovery Independent, Andrew Grice (6/3/13)
Vince Cable: Borrowing may not be as bad as slow growth BBC News, James Landale (6/3/13)
David Cameron: We will hold firm on economy BBC News (7/3/13)
David Cameron: We will hold firm on economy BBC News (7/3/13)
Clegg Backs Cable Over Controversial Economy Comments LBC Radio, Nick Clegg (7/3/13)
It’s plain what George Osborne needs to do – so just get on and do it The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (6/3/13)
Vince Cable’s plan B: a “matter of judgement” BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/3/13)
George Osborne needs to turn on the spending taps The Guardian, Phillip Inman (12/3/13)
- Why has monetary policy proved ineffective in achieving a rapid recovery from recession?
- Distinguish between discretionary fiscal policy and automatic fiscal stabilisers.
- Why has the existence of automatic fiscal stabilisers meant that the public-sector deficit has been difficult to bring down?
- In what ways has the balance of risks in using discretionary fiscal policy changed over the past three years?
- In what ways is the depression of the late 2000s/early 2010s (a) similar to and (b) different from the Great Depression of the early 1930s?
- In what ways is the structure of public-sector debt in the UK different from that in many countries in the eurozone? Why does this give the government more scope for expansionary fiscal policy?
- Why does the Office of Budget Responsibility’s estimates of the tax and government expenditure multipliers suggest that “if fiscal policy is to work in a Keynesian manner, it needs to be targeted carefully, concentrating on capital projects”?
- Why did Keynes argue that monetary policy is ineffective at the zero bound (to use Dr Cable’s terminology)? Are we currently at the zero bound? If so what can be done?
- Has fiscal tightening more than offset loose monetary policy?
The UK has always been an attractive place for investment, as foreign companies look to cities such as London for stable investment opportunities. This provides not only jobs and output, but also tax revenue for the government. However, one drawback is the lost tax revenue through tax avoidance schemes and big businesses say that if the UK is to remain competitive it needs to look at cutting taxes and bureaucracy.
In recent months, we have seen cases of individuals being prosecuted for tax evasion and more recently in the USA, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have been criticized by the Senate for allegedly moving an estimated £13bn to offshore accounts. (Microsoft and HP deny any wrong-doing). It is cases like this that provide an argument for governments to cut business rates and avoid losing business and jobs to other tax havens. Lord Fink, who is a Director of Firms located in a variety of tax havens said:
’I don’t see why the UK should not compete for jobs that at present are going to the Cayman Islands’
Tax havens are obviously attractive to firms, as they provide a means of retaining more of a firm’s earnings and hence their profits. By offering a much lower rate of tax than countries such as the UK, they help to ease the tax burden on wealthy individuals and investors in hedge funds, along with many others.
The question is, do these lower tax rates discourage investment into the UK and thus would a relaxation of Revenue Customs’ rules mean an increase in inward investment and the other positive things that this would bring? Or would a decrease in tax rates for wealthy investors send the wrong message?
In a time of austerity, tax cuts for the rich are never going to be a popular policy – at least not amongst the ‘non-rich’ – in truth, the majority of the population. Furthermore, many simply see tax havens as morally wrong – or as George Osborne put it ‘morally repugnant’. The use of them provides the better off with a means of paying less to the taxman, whilst the worse off continue to pay their share.
The controversy surrounding tax havens is perhaps even more of an issue given the size of the public-sector deficit. With tax havens being used by those who should be paying the most, tax revenues are lower than would be the case without tax evasion and avoidance. Is this adding to the burden of basic rate tax payers?
This doesn’t help the gap between government expenditure and revenue, which has contributed to the largest amount of UK public-sector borrowing in August 2012 since records began. Net borrowing reached £14.4bn, as things like corporation tax receipts fell and benefit payments rose. Money that should go in to the government’s coffers is undoubtedly making its way into tax havens, but does that also mean that jobs are making their way out of the country? If tax rates in the UK were cut, cities such as London may become even more attractive places to invest, which could potentially create a much needed boost for the economy. But, at what cost? The following articles consider the controversy of tax havens.
Microsoft and HP rapped by US Senate over tax havens BBC News (20/9/12)
Morally repugnant tax avoiders can rest easy under David Cameron Guardian, Tanya Gold (21/9/12)
Britain could prevent the use of tax havens by ending ‘archaic’ business rules Telegraph, Rowena Mason (21/9/12)
UK public-sector borrowing hits record high of £14.4bn BBC News (21/9/12)
The top Tory who wants to make Britain a tax haven for millionaires Guardian, Martin Williams and Rajeev Syal (20/9/12)
Make UK a tax haven to attract investment from millionaires, urges Tory treasurer Mail Online, Daniel Martin (21/9/12)
Microsoft saved billions using Irish tax havens Irish Times, Genevieve Carbery (21/9/12)
Microsoft, HP skirted taxes via offshore units: U.S. Senate Panel Reuters, Kim Dixon (21/9/12)
Danny Alexander says tax avoidance ‘adds 2p in every £1 to basic tax rate’ Independent, Oliver Wright (24/6/12)
- What are the key features of tax havens?
- Briefly explain the arguments in favour of tax havens and those against. Think about them from all points of view.
- Explain the way in which a cut in UK tax rates could create jobs and how the multiplier effect may provide a boost for the UK economy.
- If tax rates were cut, how might this affect an individual’s decision to work? What about an individual’s decision to invest? Use indifference analysis to help explain your answer.
- How does tax avoidance and evasion affect public sector borrowing? Is there any way a cut in tax rates on foreign investment could improve the government’s finances?
- Do you think there is any truth in the argument that the UK is losing out to other countries because of its higher tax rates? Is a reduction in tax rates necessary to help us compete?
In the third and final part of this blog, we look at the G8 summit at Camp David on 18 and 19 May 2012. Ways of averting the deepening global economic crisis were top of the agenda.
In terms of the global economy, the leaders agreed on three main things. The first was that they supported Greece remaining in the euro. According to the communiqué:
We agree on the importance of a strong and cohesive eurozone for global stability and recovery, and we affirm our interest in Greece remaining in the eurozone while respecting its commitments. We all have an interest in the success of specific measures to strengthen the resilience of the eurozone and growth in Europe
The second was a commitment to ‘fiscal responsibility’ and the clawing down of public-sector deficits.
We commit to fiscal responsibility and, in this context, we support sound and sustainable fiscal consolidation policies that take into account countries’ evolving economic conditions and underpin confidence and economic recovery.
The third was commitment to boosting economic growth. (Click on chart for a larger image.) On the supply side this would be through measures to stimulate productivity. On the demand side this would be through policies to stimulate investment.
(For a PowerPoint of the chart, click on the following link: Quarterly Growth.)
To raise productivity and growth potential in our economies, we support structural reforms, and investments in education and in modern infrastructure, as appropriate. Investment initiatives can be financed using a range of mechanisms, including leveraging the private sector. Sound financial measures, to which we are committed, should build stronger systems over time while not choking off near-term credit growth. We commit to promote investment to underpin demand, including support for small businesses and public-private partnerships.
But the communiqué was short on details. How will fiscal consolidation be achieved? Does this mean a continuation of austerity measures? And if so, what will be the impact on aggregate demand? Or if fiscal consolidation is slowed down, what will be the impact on financial markets?
If a growth in investment is central to the policy, what will be the precise mechanisms to encourage it? Will they be enough to combat the deflationary effect on demand of the fiscal measures?
And how will productivity increases be achieved? What supply-side measures will be introduced? And will productivity increases be encouraged or discouraged by continuing austerity measures?
Lots of questions – questions raised by the articles below.
Capitalism at a crossroads Independent (19/5/12)
Barack Obama warns eurozone to focus on jobs and growth The Telegraph (20/5/12)
G8 Summit: World leaders push for Greece to stay in the eurozone The Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (19/5/12)
Obama sees ’emerging consensus’ on crisis Sydney Morning Herald, Ben Feller and Jim Kuhnhenn (20/5/12)
G8 leaders tout economic growth, fiscal responsibility CNN (20/5/12)
G8 focuses on Eurozone Gulf News (20/5/12)
G8 leaders back Greece amid tensions France 24 (20/5/12)
G8 splits over stimulus versus austerity Financial TimesRichard McGregor and Kiran Stacey (19/5/12)
Cameron is consigning the UK to stagnation Financial Times, Martin Wolf (17/5/12)
Time to end ‘Camerkozy’ economics Financial Times, Ed Miliband (18/5/12)
Obama: Eurozone ‘must focus on jobs and growth’ BBC News (20/5/12)
World leaders back Greece, vow to combat financial turmoil Reuters, Jeff Mason and Laura MacInnis (19/5/12)
Germany isolated over euro crisis plan at G8 meeting in Camp David Guardian, Patrick Wintour (19/5/12)
G8 leaders end summit with pledge to keep Greece in eurozone Guardian, Ewen MacAskill (19/5/12)
G8 summit ends with few tangible results Xinhua, Sun Hao (20/5/12)
Camp David DeclarationG8 (19/5/12)
- To what extent are economic growth and fiscal consolidation (a) compatible; (b) incompatible objectives? How might a Keynesian and a new classical economist respond to these questions?
- What supply-side measures could be introduced by the EU?
- Why might dangers of protectionism increase in the coming months?
- What would be the impact of a Greek default and exit from the eurozone on other eurozone economies?
- What monetary policy changes could be introduced by the eurozone governments and the ECB in order to ease the sovereign debt crisis of countries such as Grecce, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland?
There seems to be consensus among most politicians on both sides of the Atlantic that there needs to be a reduction in government deficits and debt as a proportion of GDP. But there is considerable debate as to how such reductions should be achieved.
Conservatives, Republicans and centre right parties in Europe, such as Greece’s Νεα Διμοκρατια (New Democracy) party, believe that there should be tough policies to reduce government expenditure and that the deficit should be reduced relatively quickly in order to retain the confidence of markets.
Politicians on the centre left, including Labour, many Democrats in the USA and centre-left parties in Europe, such as François Hollande’s Socialists, argue that the austerity policies pursued by centre-right governments have led to a decline in growth, which makes it harder to reduce the current deficit.
Then there is debate about what is happening to the structural deficit – the deficit that would remain at a zero output gap. Politicians on the centre right argue that their austerity policies are leading to a rapid reduction in the structural deficit. This, combined with the supply-side policies they claim they are implementing, will allow growth to be resumed more quickly and will increase the long-term growth rate (i.e. the growth in potential output).
Politicians on the centre left argue that deep cuts, by reducing short-term growth (even making it negative in some cases, such as the UK), are discouraging investment and construction. This in turn will lower the growth in potential output and make it harder to reduce the structural deficit.
The following podcast and articles consider these arguments – arguments that are often badly put by politicians, who often use ‘questionable’ economics to justify their party line.
A grand economic experiment (also at) More or Less: BBC Radio 4 (first part), Tim Harford (4/5/12) (Programme details)
The fine art of squeezing: Britain vs America BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/5/12)
The Slippery Structural Deficit Wall Street Journal (blog), Matthew Dalton (11/5/12)
The right kinds of austerity policy Financial Times (1/5/12)
We can fix up the old status quo to get out of this mess The Olympian, David Brooks (11/5/12)
Europe’s austerity drive is a misdiagnosis of its problems Gulf News, Joseph Stiglitz (13/5/12)
How Nick Clegg got it wrong on debt Guardian, Polly Curtis (9/5/12)
Ten Reasons Wall Street Should Be (Very) Worried About The U.S. Debt Forbes, Bruce Upbin (4/5/12)
- Distinguish between the structural and cyclical budget deficit.
- Explain the distinction between stocks and flows. Which of the following are stocks and which are flows: (a) public-sector deficit; (b) public-sector debt; (c) public-sector net cash requirement; (d) debt reduction; (e) a bank’s balance sheet?
- Under what circumstances will a reduction in the public-sector deficit lead to: (a) a reduction in the public-sector debt (total); (b) a reduction in the public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP?
- How would you decide what is the desirable level of the public-sector deficit: (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
- Explain and comment on the following statement from the Stephanie Flanders article: “What is clear is that America has been able to ‘cut its debt (sic) further and faster’ than Britain – but this has not been the result of any closet commitment to austerity. Quite the opposite.”