Tag: sovereign debt

The history of macroeconomic thought has been one of lively debate between different schools.

First there is debate between those who favour active government intervention (Keynesians) to manage aggregate demand and those who favour a rules-based approach of targeting some variable, such as the money supply (as advocated by monetarists) or the rate of inflation (as pursued by many central banks), or a hybrid rule, such as a Taylor rule that takes into account a weighted target of inflation and real output growth.

Second there is debate about the relative effectiveness of monetary and fiscal policy. Monetarists argue that monetary policy is relatively effective in determining aggregate demand, which in turn affects output in the short run but only prices in the long run. Keynesians argue that monetary policy can be weak in the short run if the economy is in recession. Quantitative easing may simply be accompanied by a decline in the velocity of circulation. It’s not enough to make more money available and keep interest rates close to zero; people must have the confidence to borrow and spend. Keynesians argue that in these circumstances fiscal policy is more effective.

Third there is the debate about the size of the state and the extent of government borrowing. Libertarians, following the views of economists such as Hayek, argue that reducing the size of the state and reducing government borrowing will create a more dynamic economy, where the private sector will expand to take up the slack created by a reduction in the size of the public sector. Their approach to policy involves a mixture of cutting deficits and market-orientated supply-side policy. Economists on the left, by contrast, argue that economic growth is best stimulated in the short term by increases in government spending and that supply-side policy needs to be interventionist, with the government investing in infrastructure, research and development, education and health. Such growth policies, they argue can be targeted on the poor and help to arrest the growing inequality in society.

These debates have been given added impetus by the global financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent recession, slow recovery and possibility of a slide back into recession. The initial response of governments and central banks was to stimulate aggregate demand. Through combinations of expansionary fiscal policy, interest rates cut to virtually zero and programmes of quantitative easing, the world seemed set on a course for recovery. But one result of the policies was a massive expansion in government deficits and debt. This led to increasing criticisms from the right, and a move away from expansionary to austerity fiscal policies in order to contain debts that were increasingly being seen as unsustainable. And all the while the debates have raged.

The following podcast and articles look at the debates and how they have evolved. The picture painted is a more subtle and nuanced one than a stark ‘Keynes versus Hayek’, or ‘Keynesians versus monetarists’.

Podcast
Keynes v Hayek: The debate continues BBC Today Programme, Nicholas Wapshott and Paul Ormerod (23/12/11)

Articles
Von Hayek Revisited – Warts and All CounterPunch, David Warsh (26/12/11)
Fed up with Bernanke Reuters, Nicholas Wapshott (20/12/11)
Paul Krugman Versus Milton Friedman Seeking Alpha, ‘Shareholders Unite’ (6/12/11)
Keynes Was Right New York Times, Paul Krugman (29/12/11)
Keynes, Krugman, and Austerity National Review Online, William Voegeli (3/1/12)
The Madness of Lord Keynes The American Spectator, Samuel Gregg (19/12/11)
Central Bankers vs. Natural Stock Market Cycles in 2012 The Market Oracle, David Knox Barker (28/12/11)
Now is the time to eat, drink and be merry Financial Times, Samuel Brittan (29/12/11)

Questions

  1. To what extent is quantitative easing consistent with (a) Keynesian and (b) monetarist approaches to macroeconomic policy?
  2. What is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’ and what are its implications for monetary policy? Have we witnessed a liquidity trap since the beginning of 2009?
  3. What are the arguments for and against an independent central bank?
  4. Explain Milton Friedman’s assertion ‘that it was the Fed’s failure in 1930 to pursue “open market operations” on the scale needed that deepened the slump’.
  5. What are the implications of growing government deficits and debt for policies to avoid a slide back into recession?

The European Central Bank does not provide direct support to eurozone countries by buying new bonds. However, it can give indirect support by helping banks buy such bonds. In a move announced on 8 December, the ECB will increase the maximum term of its ‘longer-term refinancing operations’ (LTROs) from the current 13 months to three years. In other words, it will effectively provide three-year loans to banks by purchasing banks’ assets on a ‘repurchase (repo)’ basis, whereby banks agree to buy back the assets at the end of the three-year term.

The hope is that banks will use these loans (at an annual rate of 1%) to purchase new bonds from countries such as Italy and Spain. If banks are more willing to buy them, this should help reduce the interest rate at which governments are forced to borrow. Banks would benefit from the ‘carry trade’, whereby they borrow at a low interest rate (from the ECB) and lend at a higher rate to governments by buying their bonds.

To encourage banks to take advantage of these new longer-term repos,the ECB announced that the assets it was prepared to purchase would include securitised assets with a rating of single A (the highest rating is AAA). In other words, it would accept assets with a ‘second-best rating’.

But although the scheme would allow banks to make a clear gain from a carry trade, banks may be reluctant to use such loans to increase their holdings of sovereign debt of countries with large debt to GDP ratios, given concerns in the market about the riskiness of such assets.

Articles and podcast
ECB repo extension a fillip for sovereigns Financial News, Matt Turner (15/12/11)
Doubts over ECB move to boost bond sales Financial Times, Tracy Alloway (15/12/11)
ECB Chief Plays Down Hopes for Bigger Bond Purchases Wall Street Journal, Tom Fairless And Margit Feher (15/12/11)
Eurozone crisis ‘misdiagnosed’ BBC Today Programme, George Magnus (16/12/11) (second part of podcast)
Banks snap up €500bn in loans from European Central Bank Guardian. Larry Elliott (22/12/11)
Analysis: ECB cash to give indirect boost via banks Reuters, Natsuko Waki and Steve Slater (22/12/11)
Demand for ECB loans rises to €489bn Financial Times, Tracy Alloway and Ralph Atkins (21/12/11)
ECB’s rescue of eurozone banks is temporary BBC News, Robert Peston (21/12/11)

ECB Press release
ECB announces measures to support bank lending and money market activity ECB (8/12/11)

Questions

  1. Explain how repos work. What is the difference between repos and reverse repos?
  2. What is meant by the term ‘carry trade’?
  3. Why may banks be unwilling to gain from the carry trade possibilities of the ECB’s new 3-year LTROs by using them to fund the purchase of new sovereign bonds? What risks are entailed by their doing so?
  4. How do these new long-term repo operations differ from quantitative easing? Explain whether or not the effect is likely to be similar
  5. What are the arguments for and against the ECB engaging in a round of substantial quantitative easing?

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.

Articles
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

Data
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

Questions

  1. Explain the relationship between bond yields and (a) bond prices; (b) interest rates generally.
  2. 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?
  3. Explain the various proposals considered in the articles for issuing eurobonds.
  4. To what extent do the proposals involve a moral hazard and how could eurobond schemes be designed to minimise this problem?
  5. Examine German objections to the issue of eurobonds.
  6. 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?

At its meeting on 26 October, the eurozone countries agreed on a deal to tackle the three problems identified in Part A of this blog:

1. Making the Greek debt burden sustainable
2. Increasing the size of the eurozone bailout fund to persuade markets that there would be sufficient funding to support other eurozone countries which were having difficulties in servicing their debt.
3. Recapitalising various European banks to shield them against possible losses from haircuts and defaults.

The following were agreed:

1. Banks would be required to take a loss of 50% in converting existing Greek bonds into new ones. This swap will take place in January 2012. Note that Greek debt to other countries and the ECB would be unaffected and thus total Greek debt would be cut by considerably less than 50%.

2. The bailout fund (EFSF) would increase to between €1 trillion and €1.4 trillion, although this would be achieved not by direct contributions by Member States or the ECB, but by encouraging non-eurozone countries (such as China, Russia, India and Brazil) to buy eurozone debt in return for risk insurance. These purchases would the form the base on which the size of the fund could be multiplied (leveraged). There would also be backing from the IMF. Details would be firmed up in November.

3. Recapitalising various European banks to shield them against possible losses from haircuts and defaults. About 70 banks will be required to raise an additional €106.4 billion by increasing their Tier 1 capital ratio by 9% by June 2012 (this compares with the Basel III requirement of 6% Tier 1 by 2015).

On the longer-term issue of closer fiscal union, the agreement was in favour of achieving this, along with tight constraints on the levels of government deficits and debt – a return to something akin to the Stability and Growth Pact.

On the issue of economic growth, whilst constraining sovereign debt may be an important element of a long-term growth strategy, the agreement has not got to grips with the short-term problem of a lack of aggregate demand – unless, of course, the relief in markets at seeing a solution to the debt problem may boost business and consumer confidence. This, in turn, may provide the boost to aggregate demand that has been sadly lacking over the past few months.

Certainly if the reaction of stock markets around the world are anything to go by, the recovery in confidence may be under way. The day following the agreement, the German stock market index, the Dax, rose by 6.3% and the French Cac index rose by 5.4%.

Eurozone crisis explained BBC News (27/10/11)
Leaders agree eurozone debt plan in Brussels BBC News, Matthew Price (27/10/11)
Eurozone agreement – the detail BBC News, Hugh Pym (27/10/11)
10 key questions on the eurozone bailout Citywire Money, Caelainn Barr (27/10/11)
European debt crisis: ‘Europe is going to have a very tough winter’ – video analysis Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/10/11)
Eurozone crisis: banks agree 50% reduction on Greece’s debt Guardian, David Gow (27/10/11)
The euro deal: No big bazooka The Economist (29/10/11)
Europe’s rescue plan The Economist (29/10/11)
European banks given just eight months to raise €106bn The Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (26/10/11)
EU reaches agreement on Greek bonds Financial Times, Peter Spiegel, Stanley Pignal and Alex Barker (27/10/11)
Unlike politicians, the markets are seeing sense Independent, Hamish McRae (27/10/11)
Market view: Eurozone rescue deal buys time FT Adviser, Michael Trudeau (27/10/11)
Greece vows to build on EU deal, people sceptical Reuters, Renee Maltezou and Daniel Flynn (27/10/11)
Markets boosted by eurozone deal Independent, Peter Cripps, Jamie Grierson (27/10/11)
Has Germany been prudent or short-sighted? BBC News blogs, Robert Peston (27/10/11)
Germany’s Fiscal union with a capital F BBC News blogs, Stephanie Flanders (27/10/11)

Questions

  1. What are the key features of the deal reached in Brussels on 26 October?
  2. What details still need to be worked out?
  3. How will the EFSF be boosted some 4 or 5 times without extra contributions fron eurozone governments?
  4. Why, if banks are to take a 50% haircut on their holdings of Greek debt, will Greek debt fall only to 120% per cent by 2020 from just over 160% currently?
  5. On balance, is this a good deal?