High levels of government debt and the adverse effect this has on the economy has been a key influencing factor in the fiscal consolidation efforts across the world. A key factor providing evidence in support of the connection between high government debts and low economic growth was a paper by two Harvard economists. However, the data used in their research has been called into question.
As we saw in a previous post, It could be you, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff presented a paper back in January 2010. Their research suggested that when a country’s debt increases above 90% of GDP, economic growth will slow considerably. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the above chart.) As you might expect, given the timing of this research, policymakers were intrigued. For those governments in favour of cuts in government spending and increases in taxation to bring the government debt down, this research was dynamite. It seemed to provide the evidence needed to confirm that if left to grow, government debt will have a significantly adverse effect on growth. Here was evidence in favour of austerity.
But, did a simple error create misleading information? A student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was trying to replicate the results found by Reinhart and Rogoff, but was unable to do so. Thomas Herndon contacted the Harvard professors and they sent him the spreadsheets they had used in their calculations. Looking through it, an error in calculating the average GDP was spotted. However, the student and his supervisors also engaged in further research and came across other inconsistencies. This led to a draft working paper being published in April. The paper did find the same correlation between high debt levels and low growth, but the outstanding results found by Reinhart and Rogoff disappeared. Responding to the error, the Harvard professors said:
We are grateful to Herndon et al. for the careful attention to our original Growth in a Time of Debt AER paper and for pointing out an important correction to Figure 2 of that paper. It is sobering that such an error slipped into one of our papers despite our best efforts to be consistently careful. We will redouble our efforts to avoid such errors in the future. We do not, however, believe this regrettable slip affects in any significant way the central message of the paper or that in our subsequent work.
So, how might this correction and the implications affect government policy? Are we likely to see a reversal in austerity measures? Only time will tell.
Seminal economic paper on debt draws criticism Wall Street Journal, Brenda Cronin (16/4/13)
Reinhart, Rogoff … and Herndon: The student who caught out the Profs BBC News, Ruth Alexander (20/4/13)
Reinhart and Rogoff publish formal correction Financial Times, Robin Harding (8/5/13)
The 90% question The Economist (20/4/13)
Reinhart and Rogoff correct austerity research error BBC News (9/5/13)
Harvard’s Reinhart and Rogoff publish formal collection CNBC, Robin Harding (9/5/13)
Rogoff and Reinhart should show some remorse and reconsider austerity The Guardian, Heidi Moore (26/4/13)
The buck does not stop with Reinhart and Rogoff Financial Times, Lawrence Summers (5/5/13)
Meet Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, the Harvard professors who thought they had austerity licked – and Thomas Herndon, the student who proved them wrong Independent, Tim Walker (22/4/13)
Growth in a time of debt American Economic Review (May 2010)
Does high public debt consistently stifle economic growth? A critique of Reinhart and Rogoff Political Economy Research Institute, Herndon, Ash and Pollin (April 2013)
- How do high government debts arise?
- In order to reduce government debts, cuts in government spending and increases in taxation are advocated. How does theory suggest that these changes in fiscal policy will affect economic growth?
- What are the arguments (a) in favour of and (b) against austerity measures?
- How might the correction made by Reinhart and Rogoff affect policymakers and their austerity plans?
- What are the key messages from Reinhart and Rogoff’s paper?
With the UK and eurozone economies in recession and with business and consumer confidence low, the Bank of England and the ECB have sprung into action.
The ECB has cut its main refinancing rate from 1% to an all-time low of 0.75%. Meanwhile, the Bank of England has embarked on a further round of quantitative easing (QE). The MPC voted to inject a further £50 billion through its asset purchase scheme, bring the total to £375 billion since QE began in March 2009.
And it is not just in Europe that monetary policy is being eased. In Australia and China interest rates have been cut. In the USA, there have been further asset purchases by the Fed and it is expected that the Japanese central bank will cut rates very soon, along with those in Korea, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
But with consumers seeming reluctant to spend and businesses being reluctant to invest, will the new money in the UK and elsewhere actually be lent and spent? Or will it simply sit in banks, boosting their liquidity base, but doing little if anything to boost aggregate demand?
And likewise in the eurozone, will a 25 basis point reduction in interest rates (i.e. a 0.25 percentage point reduction) do anything to boost borrowing and spending?
It is like pushing on a string – a term used by Keynesians to refer to the futile nature of monetary policy when people are reluctant to spend. Indeed the evidence over the past few years since QE started is that despite narrow money having risen massively, M4 lending has declined (see chart).
For a PowerPoint of the chart, click here.
The following articles look at the conundrum
Draghi-King Push May Mean Bigger Step Into Zero-Rate Era BloombergBusinessweek, Simon Kennedy (4/7/12)
QE and rate cut as central banks play stimulus card Independent, Ben Chu (6/7/12)
QE is welcome, but not enough Independent, Leader (6/7/12)
Interest rates cut to spur growth China Daily, Wang Xiaotian, Ding Qingfen and Gao Changxin (6/7/12)
Rate cuts shake global confidence Sydney Morning Herald, Eric Johnston, Clancy Yeates and Peter Cai (7/7/12)
Global Policy Easing Presses Asia to Cut Rates BloombergBusinessweek, Sharon Chen and Justina Lee (6/7/12)
Economic slowdown raises alarm in China, Europe Globe and Mail, Kevin Carmichael (5/7/12)
Bank of England sets sail with QE3 BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (5/7/12)
The twilight of the central banker The Economist (26/6/12)
The case for truly bold monetary policy Financial Times, Martin Wolf (28/6/12)
- Is the world economy in a liquidity trap?
- What advice would you give politicians around the world seeking to boost consumer and business confidence?
- Are we witnessing “The twilight of the central banker”? (See The Economist article above.)
- Explain the following extracts from the Martin Wolf article: “In a monetary system, based on fiat (or man-made) money, the state guarantees the money supply in the interests of the public. In normal times, however, actual supply is a byproduct of lending activities of banks. It is, in brief, the product of privately operated printing presses… In the last resort, the power to create money rests properly with the state. When private sector supply is diminishing, as now, the state not only can, but should, step in, with real urgency.”
- Should monetary policy in the UK be combined with fiscal policy in providing a stimulus at a time when the government can borrow ultra cheaply from the Bank of England? Does this apply to other governments around the world?
- Why did Asian share prices fall despite the stimulus?
A negative outlook for the UK economy – at least that’s what Moody’s believes. The credit rating agency has put the UK economy’s sovereign credit rating, together with 2 other European nations (France and Austria) on the ‘negative outlook’ list.
The UK currently has a triple A rating and we have been able to maintain this despite the credit crunch and subsequent recession. However, with weak economic data and the continuing crisis in the eurozone, Moody’s took the decision to give the UK a ‘negative outlook’, which means the UK, as well as France and Austria have about a 30% chance of losing their triple A rating in the next 18 months.
Both Labour and the Coalition government have claimed this decision supports their view of the economy. Labour says this decision shows that the economy needs a stimulus and the Coalition should change its stance on cutting the budget deficit. However, the Coalition says that it shows the importance the Credit ratings agencies attach to budget deficits. Indeed, Moody’s statement showed no signs that it feels the UK should ease up on its austerity measures. The statement suggested the reverse – that a downgrade would only occur if the outlook worsened or if the government eased up on its cuts. The Coalition’s focus on cutting the deficit could even be something that has prevented the UK being put on the ‘negative watch’ list, as opposed to the ‘negative outlook’ list. The former is definitely worse than the latter, as it implies a 50% chance of a downgrade, rather than the current 30%.
The triple A rating doesn’t guarantee market confidence, but it does help keep the cost of borrowing for the government low. Indeed, the UK government’s cost of borrowing is at an historic low. A key problem therefore for the government is that there is a certain trade-off that it faces. Moody’s says that 2 things would make the UK lose its rating – a worsening economic outlook or if the government eases on its austerity plans. However, many would argue that it is the austerity plans that are creating the bad economic outlook. If the cuts stop, the economy may respond positively, but the deficit would worsen, potentially leading to a downgrade. On the other hand, if the austerity plans continue and the economy fails to improve, a downgrade could also occur. The next few days will be crucial in determining how the markets react to this news. The following articles consider this issue.
The meaning of ‘negative’ for Mr Osborne and the UK BBC News, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (14/2/12)
Relaxed markets remain one step ahead of Moody’s move The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (14/2/12)
George Osborne tries to be positive on negative outlook for economy Guardian, Patrick Wintour (14/2/12)
Moody’s wants it may cut AAA-rating for UK and France Reuters, Rodrigo Campos and Walter Brandimarte (14/2/12)
Moody’s rating decision backs the Coalition’s path of fiscal consolidation The Telegraph, Damian Reece (14/2/12)
Moody’s rating agency places UK on negative outlook BBC News (14/2/12)
Britain defends austerity measures New York Times, Julia Werdigier 14/2/12)
- What does a triple A rating mean for the UK economy?
- Which factors will be considered when a ratings agency decides to change a country’s credit rating? What similarities exist between the UK, France and Austria?
- Which political view point do you think Moody’s decision backs? Do you agree with the Telegraph article that ‘Moody’s rating decision backs the Coalition’s path of fiscal consolidation’?
- If a country does see its credit rating downgraded, what might this mean for government borrowing costs? Explain why this might cause further problems for a country?
- How do you think markets will react to this news? Explain your answer.
- What action should the government take: continue to cut the deficit or focus on the economic outlook?
- Why has the eurozone crisis affected the UK’s credit rating?
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?
If you are an Irish resident, you may be feeling very worried! As Irish debt levels reach new heights, the bill will once again fall on the tax payer. Irish government borrowing is almost 12% of GDP, but with two key banks requiring a bail out, government borrowing is expected to treble this figure to some 32% of GDP. The Anglo-Irish bank requires approximately £30 billion and Allied Irish also requires more cash. The Irish Finance Minister said:
‘The state has to downsize these institutions to prevent them becoming a systemic threat to the state itself.’
The Irish have already faced a round of austerity cuts and with the latest banking catastrophe, the next round is about to start. There are concerns that the Irish economy could move into a downward spiral, with more money being removed from the economy causing more people to lose their jobs, which will weaken public finances further and mean that more borrowing will then be required. It is hardly surprising to find a pessimistic mood on the streets of Ireland.
However, with a new interdependent world, this crisis will not only be felt by Ireland. The UK exports a large amount to Ireland – more than to Spain or Italy. With Irish tax-payers facing higher burdens and unemployment still relatively high, UK exporters may feel the squeeze. Other countries on the periphery of Europe, such as Portugal, Greece and even Spain are also feeling the pressure. There are concerns of a ‘two-speed Europe’. Below are some articles about the Irish crisis. Do a search and see if you can find any information on the problems in Greece, Spain or Portugal.
Ireland: a problem soon to be shared BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (30/9/10)
European recovery hope grows despite Ireland’s swelling deficit Guardian, Richard Wachman (30/9/10)
Ireland bank rescue spurs global debt concerns The World Today (ABC News), Peter Ryan (30/10/10)
Irish debt yields in new record despite better job data BBC News (28/9/10)
Euro Govt-bonds fall after overdone rally on Ireland, Spain Reuters (30/9/10)
Ireland’s love affair with masochism Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (30/9/10)
EU austerity drive country by country BBC News (30/9/10)
Anglo-Irish was ‘systemic threat’ BBC News (30/9/10)
- What do we mean by government borrowing?
- With such high levels of government debt, what would you expect to happen to interest rates on government debt? Explain your answer.
- When deciding whether or not to bail out the banks, what process could a government use?
- The Irish Finance Minister talks about the institutions becoming a ‘systemic threat’. What does he mean by this?
- Why might the UK economy suffer from the problems in Ireland?
- To what extent do you agree that there is a two-speed Europe, with the core economies, such as France and Germany making good economic progress, but the peripheral economies still suffering from the effects of recession?
- How might the situation in Ireland affect other members of Europe? Will there be an impact on the euro exchange rate?