Now here’s a gloomy article from Robert Peston. He’s been looking at investors’ views about the coming years and sees a general pessimism about the prospects for long-term economic growth. And that pessimism is becoming deeper.
It is true that both the UK and the USA have recorded reasonable growth rates in recent months and do seem, at least on the surface, to be recovering from recession. But, according to investor behaviour, they:
seem to be saying, in how they place their money, that the UK’s and USA’s current reasonably rapid growth will turn out to be a short-lived period of catch-up, following the deep recession of 2008-9.
So what is it about investor behaviour that implies a deep pessimism and are investors right to be pessimistic? The article explores these issues. It does also look at an alternative explanation that investors may merely be being cautious until a clearer picture emerges about long-term growth prospects – which may turn out to be better that many currently now predict.
The article finishes by looking at a possible solution to the problem (if you regard low or zero growth as a problem). That would be for the government to ‘throw money at investment in infrastructure – to generate both short-term growth and enhance long-term productive potential.’
Note that Elizabeth also looks at this article in her blog The end of growth in the west?.
The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)
- What is meant by the ’25-year yield curve for government bonds’? Why does this yield curve imply a deep level of business pessimism about the long-term prospects for UK economic growth?
- What are the determinants of long-term economic growth?
- Looking at these determinants, which ones suggest that long-term economic growth may be low?
- Are there any determinants which might suggest that economic growth will be maintained over the long term at historical levels of around 2.6%?
- Do demand-side policies affect potential GDP and, if so, how?
- What policies could government pursue to increase the rate of growth in potential GDP?
- What current ‘dramas’ affecting the world economy could have long-term implications for economic growth? How does uncertainty about the long-term implications for the global economy of such dramas itself affect economic growth?
- Is long-term growth in real GDP an appropriate indicator of (a) economic development and (b) long-term growth in general well-being?
The growth rates of the Western world have been somewhat volatile for the past decade, with negative growth sending economies into recession and then varying degrees of economic recovery. Growth rates elsewhere have been very high, in particular in countries such as China and India. The future of economic growth in the west is hotly debated and whether the western world has been forever changed by the credit crunch remains to be seen.
The article below from the BBC, written by Robert Peston, the Economics Editor, addresses the question of the future of the western world. Opinions differ as to whether the west is finally recovering from the recession and financial instability or if the credit crunch and subsequent recession is just the beginning of many years of economic stagnation. The article in particular focuses on the yield curve and the trends in government debt or gilts. This tends to be a key indicator of the expectations of the future of an economy and how confident investors are in its likely trajectory. Though technical in places, this article provides some interesting stances on what we might expect in the coming 2-3 decades for economic performance in the West.
Note that John also looks at this article in his blog Cloudy Skies Ahead?
The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)
- Which factors affect the economic growth of a nation?
- Confidence from consumers, firms and investors is always argued to be crucial to the future economic growth and in many cases, the recovery of an economy. Explain why this factor is so important.
- What is the yield curve and what does it show?
- How can the yield curve be used to offer predictions about the future strength of an economy?
- Why are governments seen as the safest place to lend?
- If Larry Summers is correct in saying that it is a negative equilibrium interest rate that is needed to generate full employment growth, what does this suggest about the future economic performance of the western world?
- In the article, there is a list of some of the key things that make investors anxious. Review each of these factors and explain why it is so important in generating anxiety.
When governments run deficits, these must be financed by borrowing. The main form of borrowing is government bonds. To persuade people (mainly private-sector institutions, such as pension funds) to buy these bonds, an interest rate must be offered. Bonds are issued for a fixed period of time and at maturity are paid back at face value to the holders. Thus new bonds are issued not just to cover current deficits but also to replace bonds that are maturing. The shorter the average term on existing government bonds, the greater the amount of bonds that will need replacing in any one year.
In normal times, bonds are seen as a totally safe asset to hold. On maturity, the government would buy back the bond from the current holder at the full face value.
In normal times, interest rates on new bonds reflect market interest rates with no added risk premium. The interest rate (or ‘coupon’) on a bond is fixed with respect to its face value for the life of the bond. In other words, a bond with a face value of £100 and an annual payment to the holder of £6 would be paying an interest rate of 6% on the face value.
As far as existing bonds are concerned, these can be sold on the secondary market and the price at which they are sold reflects current interest rates. If, for example, the current interest rate falls to 3%, then the market price of a £100 bond with a 6% coupon will rise to £200, since £6 per year on £200 is 3% – the current market rate of interest. The annual return on the current market price is known as the ‘yield’ (3% in our example). The yield will reflect current market rates of interest.
These, however, are not ‘normal’ times. Bonds issued by many countries are no longer seen as a totally safe form of investment.
Over the past few months, worries have grown about the sustainability of the debts of many eurozone countries. Bailouts have had to be granted to Greece, Ireland and Portugal; in return they have been required to adopt tough austerity measures; the European bailout fund is being increased; various European banks are having to increase their capital to shield them against possible losses from haircuts and defaults (see Saving the eurozone? Saving the world? (Part B)). But the key worry at present is what is happening to bond markets.
Bond yields for those countries deemed to be at risk of default have been rising dramatically. Italian bond yields are now over 7% – the rate generally considered to be unsustainable. And it’s not just Italy. Bond rates have been rising across the eurozone, even for the bonds of countries previously considered totally safe, such as Germany and Austria. And the effect is self reinforcing. As the interest rates on new bonds are driven up by the market, so this is taken as a sign of the countries’ weakness and hence investors require even higher rates to persuade them to buy more bonds, further undermining confidence and further driving up rates.
So what is to be done? Well, part of the problem is that the eurozone does not issue eurobonds. There is a single currency, but no single fiscal policy. There have thus been calls for the eurozone to issue eurobonds. These, it is argued would be much easier to sell on the market. What is more, the ECB could then buy up such bonds as necessary as part of a quantitative easing programme. At present the ECB does not act as lender of last resort to governments; at most it has been buying up some existing bonds of Italy, Spain, etc. in the secondary markets in an attempt to dampen interest rate rises.
The articles below examine some of the proposals.
What is clear is that politicians all over the world are trying to do things that will appease the bond market. They are increasingly feeling that their hands are tied: that they mustn’t do anything that will spook the markets.
Bond market hammers Italy, Spain ponders outside help Reuters, Barry Moody and Elisabeth O’Leary (25/11/11)
German Bonds Fall Prey to Contagion; Italian, Spanish Debt Drops Bloomberg Businessweek, Paul Dobson and Anchalee Worrachate (26/11/11)
Rates on Italian bonds soar, raising fears of contagion Deutsche Welle, Spencer Kimball (25/11/11)
Brussels unveils euro bond plans Euronews (23/11/11)
Germany faces more pressure to back eurobonds Euronews on YouTube (24/11/11)
Bond markets Q&A: will the moneymen hit the panic button? Guardian, Jill Treanor and Patrick Collinson (7/11/11)
Why we all get burnt in the bonfire of the bond markets Observer, Heather Stewart, Simon Goodley and Katie Allen (20/11/11)
Retaining the confidence of the bond market is the key to Britain’s success in the EU treaty renegotiations The Telegraph, Toby Young (19/11/11)
Boom-year debts could bust us BBC News, Robert Peston (25/11/11)
UK’s debts ‘biggest in the world’ BBC News, Robert Peston (21/11/11)
Markets and the euro ‘end game’ BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (24/11/11)
The tricky path toward greater fiscal integration The Economist, H.G. (27/10/11)
The tricky path toward greater fiscal integration, take two The Economist, H.G. (23/11/11) and Comments by muellbauer
European Economy, Statistical Annex Economic and Financial Affairs DG (Autumn 2011) (see Tables 76–78)
Monthly Bulletin ECB (November 2011) (see section 2.4)
Bonds and rates Financial Times
UK Gilt Market UK Debt Management Office
- Explain the relationship between bond yields and (a) bond prices; (b) interest rates generally.
- Using the data sources above, find the current deficit and debt levels of Italy, Spain, Germany, the UK, the USA and Japan. How do eurozone debts and deficits compare with those of other developed countries?
- Explain the various proposals considered in the articles for issuing eurobonds.
- To what extent do the proposals involve a moral hazard and how could eurobond schemes be designed to minimise this problem?
- Examine German objections to the issue of eurobonds.
- Does the global power of bond markets prevent countries (including non-eurozone ones, such as the UK and USA) from using fiscal policy to avert the slide back into recession?
As the prospects for the global recovery become more and more gloomy, so the need for a boost to aggregate demand becomes more pressing. But the scope for expansionary fiscal policy is very limited, given governments’ commitments around the world to deficit reduction.
This leaves monetary policy. In the USA, the Federal Reserve has announced a policy known as ‘Operation Twist’. This is a way of altering the funding of national debt, rather than directly altering the monetary base. It involves buying long-term government bonds in the market and selling shorter-dated ones (of less than three years) of exactly the same amount ($400bn). The idea is to drive up the price of long-term bonds and hence drive down their yield and thereby drive down long-term interest rates. The hope is to stimulate investment and longer-term borrowing generally.
Meanwhile in Britain it looks as if the Bank of England is about to turn to another round of quantitative easing (QE2). The first round saw £200bn of asset purchases by the Bank between March 2009 and February 2010. Up to now, it has resisted calls to extend the programme. However, it is now facing increased pressure to change its mind, not only from commentators, but from members of the government too.
But will expansionary monetary policy work, given the gloom engulfing the world economy? Is there a problem of a liquidity trap, whereby extra money will not actually create extra borrowing and spending? Many firms, after all, are not short of cash; they are simply unwilling to invest in a climate of falling sales and falling confidence.
Articles on Operation Twist
Fed takes new tack to avoid U.S. economic slump Reuters, Mark Felsenthal and Pedro da Costa (21/9/11)
How the Fed Can Act When Washington Cannot Associated Press on YouTube (20/9/11)
Analysis: Fed’s twist moves hurts company pension plans Reuters, Aaron Pressman (21/9/11)
What is Operation Twist? Guardian, Phillip Inman (21/9/11)
Operation Twist in the Wind Asia Times, Peter Morici (23/9/11)
Operation Twist won’t kickstart the US economy Guardian, Larry Elliott (21/9/11)
Stock markets tumble after Operation Twist … and doubt Guardian, Julia Kollewe (22/9/11)
‘Twist’ is a sign of the Fed’s resolve Financial Times, Robin Harding (22/9/11)
All twist, no shout, from the Fed Financial Times blogs, Gavyn Davies (21/9/11)
Twisting in the wind? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (21/9/11)
Restraint or stimulus? Markets and governments swap roles BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/9/11)
FOMC Statement: Much Ado, Little Impact Seeking Alpha, Cullen Roche (21/9/11)
Why the Fed’s Operation Twist Will Hurt Banks International Business Times, Hao Li (21/9/11)
The Federal Reserve: Take that, Congress The Economist (21/9/11)
Articles on QE2
Bank of England’s MPC indicates QE2 is a case of if not when The Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (21/9/11)
Bank of England quantitative easing ‘boosted GDP’ BBC News (19/9/11)
Bank of England minutes indicate more quantitative easing on the cards Guardian, Julia Kollewe (21/9/11)
Fed and Bank of England publications
Press Release [on Operation Twist] Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (21/9/11) (Also follow links at the bottom of the Press Release for more details.)
Minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee Meeting, 7 and 8 September 2011 Bank of England (21/9/11) (See particularly paragraphs 29 to 32.)
- Explain what is meant by Operation Twist.
- What determines the extent to which it will stimulate the US economy?
- Why would quantitative easing increase the monetary base while Operation Twist would not? Would they both increase broad money? Explain.
- What is meant by the liquidity trap? Are central banks in such a trap at present?
- To what extent would a further round of quantitative easing in the UK drive up inflation?
- Why are monetary and fiscal policy as much about affecting expectations as ‘pulling the right levers’?
In the past few days, the euro has been under immense speculative pressure. The trigger for this has been the growing concern about whether Greece would be able to force through austerity measures and cut its huge deficit and debt. Also there has been the concern that much of Greece’s debt is in the form of relatively short-term bonds, many of which are coming up for maturity and thus have to be replaced by new bonds. For example, on 19 May, Greece needs to repay €8.5 billion of maturing bonds. But with Greek bonds having been given a ‘junk’ status by one of the three global rating agencies, Standard and Poor’s, Greece would find it difficult to raise the finance and would have to pay very high interest on bonds it did manage to sell – all of which would compound the problem of the deficit.
Also there have been deep concerns about a possible domino effect. If Greece’s debt is perceived to be unsustainable at 13.5% of GDP (in 2009), then speculators are likely to turn their attention to other countries in the eurozone with large deficits: countries such as Portugal (9.4%), Ireland (14.3%) and Spain (11.2%). With such worries, people were asking whether the euro would survive without massive international support, both from within and outside the eurozone. At the beginning of 2010, the euro was trading at $1.444. By 7 May, it was trading at $1.265, a depreciation of 12.4% (see the Bank of England’s Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data
If the euro were in trouble, then shock waves would go around the world. Worries about such contagion have already been seen in plummeting stock markets. Between 16 April and 7 May, the FTSE100 index in London fell from 5834 to 5045 (a fall of 13.5%). In New York, the Dow Jones index fell by 8.6% over the same period and in Tokyo, the Nikkei fell by 7.6%. By 5 May, these declines were gathering pace as worries mounted.
Crisis talks took place over the weekend of the 8/9 May between European finance ministers and, to the surprise of many, a major package of measures was announced. This involves setting aside €750bn to support the eurozone. The package had two major elements: (a) €60bn from EU funds (to which all 27 EU countries contribute) to be used for loans to eurozone countries in trouble; (b) a European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism (a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV)’), which would be funded partly by eurozone countries which would provide €440bn and partly by the IMF which would provide a further €250bn. The SPV would be used to give loans or loan guarantees to eurozone countries, such as Greece, which were having difficulty in raising finance because of worries by investors. The effect would also be to support the euro through a return of confidence in the single currency.
In addition to these measures, the European Central Bank announced that it would embark on a ‘Securities Markets Programme’ involving the purchase of government bonds issued by eurozone countries in difficulties. According to the ECB, it would be used to:
.. conduct interventions in the euro area public and private debt securities markets to ensure depth and liquidity in those market segments which are dysfunctional. The objective of this programme is to address the malfunctioning of securities markets and restore an appropriate monetary policy transmission mechanism.
Does this amount to quantitative easing, as conducted by the US Federal Reserve Bank and the Bank of England? The intention is that it would not do so, as the ECB would remove liquidity from other areas of the market to balance the increased liquidity provided to countries in difficulties. This would be achived by selling securities of stronger eurozone countries, such as Germany and France.
In order to sterilise the impact of the above interventions, specific operations will be conducted to re-absorb the liquidity injected through the Securities Markets Programme. This will ensure that the monetary policy stance will not be affected.
So will the measures solve the problems? Or are they merely a means of buying time while the much tougher problem is addressed: that of getting deficits down?
Webcasts and podcasts
Rescue plan bolsters the euro BBC News, Gavin Hewitt (10/5/10)
The EU rescue plan explained Financial Times, Chris Giles, Emily Cadman, Helen Warrell and Steve Bernard (10/5/10)
Peston: ‘Crisis is not over’ BBC Today Programme (10/5/10)
Greece ‘will get into even more deep water’ BBC Today Programme (11/5/10)
EU ministers offer 750bn-euro plan to support currency (including video) BBC News (10/5/10)
EU sets up crisis fund to protect euro from market ‘wolves’ Independent, Vanessa Mock (10/5/10)
Euro strikes back with biggest gamble in its 11-year history Guardian, Ian Traynor (10/5/10)
Debt crisis: £645bn rescue package for euro reassures markets … for now Guardian, Ian Traynor (10/5/10)
The E.U.’s $950 Billion Rescue: Just the Beginning Time, Leo Cendrowicz (10/5/10)
Eurozone bail-out (portal) Financial Times
Bailout does not address Europe’s deep-rooted woes: Experts moneycontrol.com (11/5/10)
An ever-closer Union? BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (10/5/10)
Eurozone crisis is ‘postponed’ BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (10/5/10)
Multi-billion euro rescue buys time but no solution BBC News, Lucy Hooker (11/5/10)
No going back The Economist (13/5/10)
It is not Greece that worries EURO: It is China that teeters on a collapse Investing Contrarian, Shaily (11/5/10)
Data and official sources
For deficit and debt data see sections 16.3 and 18.1 in:
Ameco Online European Commision, Economic and Financial Affairs DG
For the ECB statement see:
10 May 2010 – ECB decides on measures to address severe tensions in financial markets ECB Press Release
- Why should the measures announced by the European finance ministers help to support the euro in the short term?
- Why should the ECB’s Securities Markets Programme not result in quantitative easing?
- Explain what is meant by sterlisation in the context of open market operations.
- What will determine whether the measures are a long-term success?
- Explain why there may be a moral hazard in coming to the rescue of ailing economies in the eurozone. How might such a moral hazard be minimised?
- Why should concerns about Greece lead to stock market declines around the world?
- What is the significance of China in the current context?