To finance budget deficits, governments have to borrow. They can borrow short-term by issuing Treasury bills, typically for 1, 3 or 6 months. These do not earn interest and hence are sold at a discount below the face value. The rate of discount depends on supply and demand and will reflect short-term market rates of interest. Alternatively, governments can borrow long-term by issuing bonds. In the UK, these government securities are known as ‘gilts’ or ‘gilt-edged securities’. In the USA they are known as ‘treasury bonds’, ‘T-bonds’ or simply ‘treasuries’. In the EU, countries separately issue bonds but the European Commission also issues bonds.
In the UK, gilts are issued by the Debt Management Office on behalf of the Treasury. Although there are index-linked gilts, the largest proportion of gilts are conventional gilts. These pay a fixed sum of money per annum per £100 of face value. This is known as the ‘coupon payment’ and the rate is set at the time of issue. The ‘coupon rate’ is the payment per annum as a percentage of the bond’s face value:
Payments are made six-monthly. Each issue also has a maturity date, at which point the bonds will be redeemed at face value. For example, a 4½% Treasury Gilt 2028 bond has a coupon rate of 4½% and thus pays £4.50 per annum (£2.25 every six months) for each £100 of face value. The issue will be redeemed in June 2028 at face value. The issue was made in June 2023 and thus represented a 5-year bond. Gilts are issued for varying lengths of time from 2 to 55 years. At present, there are 61 different conventional issues of bonds, with maturity dates varying from January 2024 to October 2073.
Bonds can be sold on the secondary market (i.e. the stock market) before maturity. The market price, however, is unlikely to be the coupon price (i.e. the face value). The lower the coupon rate relative to current interest rates, the less valuable the bond will be. For example, if interest rates rise, and hence new bonds pay a higher coupon rate, the market price of existing bonds paying a lower coupon rate must fall. Thus bond prices vary inversely with interest rates.
The market price also depends on how close the bonds are to maturity. The closer the maturity date, the closer the market price of the bond will be to the face value.
Bond yields: current yield
A bond’s yield is the percentage return that a person buying the bond receives. If a newly issued bond is bought at the coupon price, its yield is the coupon rate.
However, if an existing bond is bought on the secondary market (the stock market), the yield must reflect the coupon payments relative to the purchase price, not the coupon price. We can distinguish between the ‘current yield’ and the ‘yield to maturity’.
The current yield is the coupon payment as a percentage of the current market price of the bond:
Assume a bond were originally issued at 2% (its coupon rate) and thus pays £2 per annum. In the meantime, however, assume that interest rates have risen and new bonds now have a coupon rate of 4%, paying £4 per annum for each £100 invested. To persuade people to buy old bonds with a coupon rate of 2%, their market prices must fall below their face value (their coupon price). If their price halved, then they would pay £2 for every £50 of their market price and hence their current yield would be 4% (£2/£50 × 100).
Bond yields: yield to maturity (YTM)
But the current yield does not give the true yield – it is only an approximation. The true yield must take into account not just the market price but also the maturity value and the length of time to maturity (and the frequency of payments too, which we will ignore here). The closer a bond is to its maturity date, the higher/lower will be the true yield if the price is below/above the coupon price: in other words, the closer will the market price be to the coupon price for any given market rate of interest.
A more accurate measure of a bond’s yield is thus the ‘yield to maturity’ (YTM). This is the interest rate which makes the present value of all a bond’s future cash flows equal to its current price. These cash flows include all coupon payments and the payment of the face value on maturity. But future cash flows must be discounted to take into account the fact that money received in the future is worth less than money received now, since money received now could then earn interest.
The yield to maturity is the internal rate of return (IRR) of the bond. This is the discount rate which makes the present value (PV) of all the bond’s future cash flows (including the maturity payment of the coupon price) equal to its current market price. For simplicity, we assume that coupon payments are made annually. The formula is the one where the bond’s current market price is given by:
Where: t is the year; n is the number of years to maturity; YTM is the yield to maturity.
Thus if a bond paid £5 each year and had a maturity value of £100 and if current interest rates were higher than 5%, giving a yield to maturity of 8%, then the bond price would be:
In other words, with a coupon rate of 5% and a higher YTM of 8%, the bond with a face value of £100 and five years to maturity would be worth only £88.02 today.
If you know the market price of a given bond, you can work out its YTM by substituting in the above formula. The following table gives examples.
The higher the YTM, the lower the market price of a bond. Since the YTM reflects in part current rates of interest, so the higher the rate of interest, the lower the market price of any given bond. Thus bond yields vary directly with interest rates and bond prices vary inversely. You can see this clearly from the table. You can also see that market bond prices converge on the face value as the maturity date approaches.
Recent activity in bond markets
Investing in government bonds is regarded as very safe. Coupon payments are guaranteed, as is repayment of the face value on the maturity date. For this reason, many pension funds hold a lot of government bonds issued by financially trustworthy governments. But in recent months, bond prices in the secondary market have fallen substantially as interest rates have risen. For those holding existing bonds, this means that their value has fallen. For governments wishing to borrow by issuing new bonds, the cost has risen as they have to offer a higher coupon rate to attract buyers. This make it more expensive to finance government debt.
The chart shows the yield on 10-year government bonds. It is calculated using the ‘par value’ approach. This gives the coupon rate that would have to be paid for the market price of a bond to equal its face value. Clearly, as interest rates rise, a bond would have to pay a higher coupon rate for this to happen. (This, of course, is only hypothetical to give an estimate of market rates, as coupon rates are fixed at the time of a bond’s issue.)
Par values reflect both yield to maturity and also expectations of future interest rates. The higher people expect future interest rates to be, the higher must par values be to reflect this.
In the years following the financial crisis of 2007–8 and the subsequent recession, and again during the COVID pandemic, central banks cut interest rates and supported this by quantitative easing. This involved central banks buying existing bonds on the secondary market and paying for them with newly created (electronic) money. This drove up bond prices and drove down yields (as the chart shows). This helped support the policy of low interest rates. This was a boon to governments, which were able to borrow cheaply.
This has all changed. With quantitative tightening replacing quantitative easing, central banks have been engaging in asset sales, thereby driving down bond prices and driving up yields. Again, this can be seen in the chart. This has helped to support a policy of higher interest rates.
Problems of higher bond yields/lower bond prices
Although lower bond prices and higher yields have supported a tighter monetary policy, which has been used to fight inflation, this has created problems.
First, it has increased the cost of financing government debt. In 2007/8, UK public-sector net debt was £567bn (35.6% of GDP). The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that it will be £2702bn (103.1% of GDP in the current financial year – 2023/24). Not only, therefore, are coupon rates higher for new government borrowing, but the level of borrowing is now a much higher proportion of GDP. In 2020/21, central government debt interest payments were 1.2% of GDP; by 2022/23, they were 4.4% (excluding interest on gilts held in the Bank of England, under the Asset Purchase Facility (quantitative easing)).
In the USA, there have been similar increases in government debt and debt interest payments. Debt has increased from $9tn in 2007 to $33.6tn today. Again, with higher interest rates, debt interest as a percentage of GDP has risen: from 1.5% of GDP in 2021 to a forecast 2.5% in 2023 and 3% in 2024. What is more, 31 per cent of US government bonds will mature next year and will need refinancing – at higher coupon rates.
There is a similar picture in other developed countries. Clearly, higher interest payments leave less government revenue for other purposes, such as health and education.
Second, many pension funds, banks and other investment companies hold large quantities of bonds. As their price falls, so this reduces the value of these companies’ assets and makes it harder to finance new purchases, or payments or loans to customers. However, the fact that new bonds pay higher interest rates means that when existing bond holdings mature, the money can be reinvested at higher rates.
Third, bonds are often used by companies as collateral against which to borrow and invest in new capital. As bond prices fall, this can hamper companies’ ability to invest, which will lead to lower economic growth.
Fourth, higher bond yields divert demand away from equities (shares). With equity markets falling back or at best ceasing to rise, this erodes the value of savings in equities and may make it harder for firms to finance investment through new issues.
At the core of all these problems is inflation and budget deficits. Central banks have responded by raising interest rates. This drives up bond yields and drives down bond prices. But bond prices and yields depend not just on current interest rates, but also on expectations about future interest rates. Expectations currently are that budget deficits will be slow to fall as governments seek to support their economies post-COVID. Also expectations are that inflation, even though it is falling, is not falling as fast as originally expected – a problem that could be exacerbated if global tensions increase as a result of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Israel/Gaza war and possible increased tensions with China concerning disputes in the China Sea and over Taiwan. Greater risks drive up bond yields as investors demand a higher interest premium.
Information and data
- Why do bond prices and bond yields vary inversely?
- How are bond yields and prices affected by expectations?
- Why are ‘current yield’ and ‘yield to maturity’ different?
- What is likely to happen to bond prices and yields in the coming months? Explain your reasoning.
- What constraints do bond markets place on fiscal policy?
- Would it be desirable for central banks to pause their policy of quantitative tightening?
In this third blog about inflation, we focus on monetary policy to deal with the problem and bring inflation back to the target rate, which is typically 2 per cent around the world (including the eurozone, the USA and the UK). We ask the questions: was the response of central banks too timid initially, meaning that harsher measures had to be taken later; and will these harsher measures turn out to be excessive? In other words, has the eventual response been ‘too much, too late’, given that the initial measures were too little?
Inflation rates began rising in the second half of 2021 as economies began to open up as the pandemic subsided. Supply-chain problems drove the initial rise in prices. Then, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the adverse effects on oil, gas and grain prices, inflation rose further. In the UK, CPI inflation peaked at 11.1% in October 2022 (see chart 1 in the first of these three blogs). Across the whole EU-27, it peaked at 11.5% in October 2022; US inflation peaked at 9.1% in June 2022; Japanese inflation peaked at 4.3% in January 2023.
This raises the questions of why interest rates were not raised by a greater amount earlier (was it too little, too late?) and why they have continued to be raised once inflation rates have peaked (is it too much, too late?).
The problem of time lags
Both inflation and monetary policy involve time lags. Rising costs take a time to work their way through the supply chain. Firms may use old stocks for a time which are at the original price. If it is anticipated that costs will rise, central banks will need to take action early and not wait until all cost increases have worked their way through to retail prices.
In terms of monetary policy, the lags tend to be long.
If central bank interest rates are raised, it may take some time for banks to raise savings rates – a common complaint by savers.
As far as borrowing rates are concerned, as we saw in the previous blog, loans secured on dwellings (mortgages) account for the majority of households’ financial liabilities (76.4% in 2021) and here the time lags between central bank interest rate changes and changes in people’s mortgage interest rates can be very long. Only around 14 of UK mortgages are at variable rates; the rest are fixed, typically for between 2 to 5 years. So, when Bank Rate changes, people on fixed rates will be unaffected until their mortgage comes up for renewal, when they can be faced with a huge increase in payments.
Only around 21% of mortgages in England were/are due for renewal in 2023, and with 57% of these the old fixed rates were below 2%. Currently (July 2023), the average two-year fixed-rate mortgage rate in the UK is 6.81% (based on 75% loan to value (LTV)); the average five-year rate is 6.31% (based on 75% LTV). This represents a massive increase in interest rates, but for a relatively small proportion of homeowners and an even smaller proportion of total households.
But as more and more fixed-rate mortgages come up for renewal, so the number of people affected will grow, as will the dampening effect on aggregate demand as such people are forced to cut back on spending. This dampening effect will build up for many months.
And there is another time lag – that between prices and wages. Wages are negotiated periodically, normally annually or sometimes less frequently. Employees will typically seek a cost-of-living element in wage rises that covers price rises over the past 12 months, not inflation in the past month. If inflation is rising (or falling), such negotiations will not reflect the current situation. There is thus a time lag built in to such negotiations. Even if higher interest rates reduce inflation, the full effect can take some time because of this wages time lag.
Other time lags include those involving ongoing capital projects. If construction is taking place, it will take some time to complete and in the meantime is unlikely to be stopped. Higher interest rates will affect capital investment decisions now, but existing projects are likely to continue to completion. As more projects are completed over time, so the effect of higher interest rates is likely to accumulate.
Then there is the question of savings. During the pandemic, many people increased their savings as their opportunities for spending were more limited. Since then, many people have drawn on these savings to fund holidays, eating out and other leisure activities. Such spending is likely to taper off as savings are reduced. Again, the interest rises may prove to have been excessive as a means of reducing aggregate demand.
These time lags suggest that after some months the economy will have been excessively dampened and that the policy will have ‘overshot’ the mark. Had interest rates been raised more rapidly earlier and by larger amounts, the peak level of rates may not have needed to be so high.
Perhaps one of the biggest worries about raising interest rates excessively because of time lags is the effect on corporate and government debt. Highly indebted companies and countries will find that a large increase in interest rates makes servicing their debt much harder. For example, Thames Water, the UK’s biggest water and sewerage company accumulated some £14 billion in debt during the era of low interest rates. It has now declared that it cannot service these debts and is on the brink of insolvency. In the case of governments, as increasing amounts have to be spent on servicing their debt, so they may be forced to cut expenditure elsewhere. This will have a dampening effect on the economy – but with a time lag.
The distribution of pain
Those with large credit-card debt and large mortgages coming up for renewal or at variable rates will have borne the brunt of interest rate rises. These people, such as young people with families, are often those most affected by inflation, with a larger proportion of their expenditure on energy and food. Other people adversely affected are tenants where landlords raise rents to cover their higher mortgage payments.
Those with no debts will have been little affected by the hike in interest rates, unless the curbing of aggregate demand affects their chances of overtime or reduces available shifts or, worse still, leads to redundancy.
Excessive rises in interest rates exacerbate these distributional effects.
- UK homeowners face huge rise in payments when fixed-rate mortgages expire
The Guardian, Richard Partington (17/6/23)
- Economic ‘Bazball’ will have replaced UK’s safety-first approach to inflation and growth by 2025
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/7/23)
- The Bank of Canada just hiked interest rates for the sixth time — is it too late?
The Conversation, Alexander David (27/10/22)
- Monetary Policy Report Press Conference Opening Statement
Bank of Canada, Tiff Macklem (12/7/23)
- Some reflections on Monetary Policy past, present and future
Bank of England, Speech, Michael Saunders (18/6/22)
- Expectations, lags, and the transmission of monetary policy
Bank of England, Speech, Catherine L. Mann (23/2/23)
- Europe’s monetary policy shift comes (too) late
DW, Henrik Böhme (6/9/22)
- Nobel Prize-winning economist says there’s no need for the Fed to keep hiking interest rates
CNBC, Sam Meredith (14/7/23)
- Three Uncomfortable Truths For Monetary Policy
IMF, Speech, Gita Gopinath (26/6/23)
- Inflation’s return changes the world
Financial Times, Martin Wolf (4/7/23)
- The next revolution in monetary policy is underway
Reuters, Felix Martin (30/6/23)
- Inflation may be coming down but its unequal effects can still have a big impact on wellbeing
The Conversation, Alberto Prati (19/7/23)
- Why central banks should stop raising interest rates
The Conversation, Muhammad Ali Nasir (27/9/23)
- Bank of England’s ‘regrettable’ mistakes fuelled inflation, its former top economist says
Sky News, Daniel Binns (5/9/23)
- For what reasons might a central bank be unwilling to raise interest rates by more than 0.25 or 0.5 percentage points per month?
- What instruments other than changing interest rates does a central bank have for influencing aggregate demand?
- Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation.
- Why might using interest rates to curb inflation be problematic when inflation is caused by adverse supply shocks?
- How are expectations of consumers and firms relevant in determining (a) the appropriate monetary policy measures and (b) their effectiveness?
- How could a careful use of a combination of monetary and fiscal policies reduce the redistributive effects of monetary policy?
- How might the use of ‘forward guidance’ by central banks reduce the need for such large rises in interest rates?
This is the second of three blogs looking at high inflation and its implications. Here we look at changes in the housing market and its effects on households. Another way of analysing the financial importance of the housing and mortgage markets is through the balance sheets and associated flow accounts of the household sector.
We used the concept of balance sheets in our blog Bank failures and the importance of balance sheets. In the blog we referred to the balance-sheet effects from interest rate hikes on the financial well-being of financial institutions.
The analysis is analogous for households. Again, we can identify two general effects: rising borrowing and debt-servicing costs, and easing asset prices.
The following table shows the summary balance sheet of the UK household sector in 1995 and 2021.
Source: National balance sheet estimates for the UK: 1995 to 2021 (January 2023) and series RPHA, ONS
The total value of the sector’s net wealth (or ‘worth’) is the sum of its net financial wealth and its non-financial assets. The former is affected by the value of the stock of outstanding mortgages, which we can see from row 3 in the table (‘loans secured on dwellings’) has increased from £390 billion in 1995 to £1.56 trillion in 2021. This is equivalent to an increase from 70 to 107 per cent of the sector’s annual disposable income. This increase helps to understand the sensitivity of the sector’s financial position to interest rate increases and the sizeable cash flow effects. These effects then have implications for the sector’s spending.
Housing is also an important asset on household balance sheets. The price of housing reflects both the value of dwellings and the land on which they sit, and these are recorded separately on the balance sheets. Their combined balance sheet value increased from £1.09 trillion (£467.69bn + £621.49bn) in 1995 to £6.38 trillion (£1529.87bn + £4853.16bn) in 2021 or from 128% of GDP to 281%.
The era of low inflation and low interest rates that had characterised the previous two decades or so had helped to boost house price growth and thus the value of non-financial assets on the balance sheets. In turn, this had helped to boost net worth, which increased from £2.78 trillion in 1995 to £12.29 trillion in 2021 or from 319% of GDP to 541%.
Higher interest rates and wealth
The advent of higher interest rates was expected not only to impact on the debt servicing costs of households but the value of assets, including, in the context of this blog, housing. As Chart 3 in the previous blog helped to show, higher interest rates and higher mortgage repayments contributed to an easing of house price growth as housing demand eased. On the other hand, the impact on mortgaged landlords helped fuel the growth of rental prices as they passed on their increased mortgage repayment costs to tenants.
Higher interest rates not only affect the value of housing but financial assets such as corporate and government bonds whose prices are inversely related to interest rates. Research published by the Resolution Foundation in July 2023 estimates that these effects are likely to have contributed to a fall in the household wealth from early 2021 to early 2023 by as much as £2.1 trillion.
The important point here is that further downward pressure on asset prices is expected as they adjust to higher interest rates. This and the impact of higher debt servicing costs will therefore continue to impact adversely on general financial well-being with negative implications for the wider macroeconomic environment.
- The Mortgage Crunch
Resolution Foundation, Simon Pittaway (17/6/23)
- Peaked Interest?
Resolution Foundation, Molly Broome, Ian Mulheirn and Simon Pittaway (17/7/23)
- UK inflation to fall to lowest level since March 2022 but Bank of England still tipped to hike interest rates
City A.M., Jack Barnett (17/7/23)
- Mortgage payments set to jump by £500 for one million households
BBC News, Tom Espiner (13/7/23)
- Interest rates: Big rise less likely after inflation surprise
BBC News, Daniel Thomas, Faisal Islam & Dharshini David (19/7/23)
- Rising Mortgage Costs. What Can Be Done?
NIESR blog, Max Mosley and Adrian Pabst (17/7/23)
- UK interest rates forecast to rise less sharply after inflation falls to 7.9%
The Guardian, Richard Partington (19/7/23)
- Mortgage costs: More Scots falling behind on repayments
Herald Scotland, Kristy Dorsey (18/7/23)
- What possible indicators could be used to assess the affordability of residential house prices?
- What do you understand by the concept of the monetary policy transmission mechanism? How do the housing and mortgage markets relate to this concept?
- What factors might affect the proportion of people taking out fixed-rate mortgages rather than variable-rate mortgages?
- What is captured by the concept of net worth? Discuss how the housing and mortgage markets affect the household sector’s net worth.
- What are cash-flow effects? How do rising interest rates effect savers and borrowers?
- How might wealth effects from rising interest rates impact younger and older people differently?
- Discuss the ways by which house price changes could affect household consumption.
March 2023 saw the failure of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), a regional US bank based in California that focused on financial services for the technology sector. It also saw the forced purchase of global-banking giant, Credit Suisse, by rival Swiss bank, UBS. These events fuelled concerns over the banking sector’s financial well-being, with fears for other financial institutions and the wider economy.
Yet it is not the only sector where concerns abound over financial well-being. The cost-of-living crisis, the hike in interest rates and the economic slowdown continue to have an adverse impact on the finances of households and businesses. Furthermore, many governments face difficult fiscal choices in light of the effects of recent economic shocks, such as COVID and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on the public finances.
Balance sheets and flow accounts
When thinking about the financial well-being of people, business and governments it is now commonplace for economists to reference balance sheets. This may seem strange to some since it is easy to think of balance sheets as the domain of accountants or those working in finance. Yet balance sheets, and the various accounts that lie behind them, are essential in analysing financial well-being and, therefore, in helping to understand economic behaviour and outcomes. Hence, it is important for economists to embrace them too.
A balance sheet is a record of stocks of assets and liabilities of individuals or organisations. Behind these stocks are accounts capturing flows, including income, expenditure, saving and borrowing. There are three types of flow accounts: income, financial and capital. Together, the balance sheets and flow accounts provide important insights into the overall financial position of individuals or organisations as well as the factors contributing to changes in their financial well-being.
The stock value of a sector’s or country’s non-financial assets and its net financial worth (i.e. the balance of financial assets over liabilities) is referred to as its net worth. Non-financial assets include produced assets, such as dwellings and other buildings, machinery and computer software, and non-produced assets, largely land.
An increase in the net worth of the sectors or the whole country implies greater financial well-being, while a decrease implies greater financial stress. Yet a deeper understanding of financial well-being also requires an analysis of the composition of the balance sheets as well as their potential vulnerabilities from shocks, such as interest rate rises, falling asset prices or borrowing constraints.
UK net worth
The chart shows the UK’s stock of net worth since 1995, alongside its value relative to annual national income (GDP) (click here for a PowerPoint). In 2021, the net worth of the UK was £11.8 trillion, equivalent to 5.2 times the country’s annual GDP. This marked an increase of £1.0 trillion or 9 per cent over 2020. This was driven largely by an increase in land values (non-produced non-financial assets).
In contrast, the stock of net worth fell in both 2008 and 2009 at the height of the financial crisis and the ensuing economic slowdown, which contributed to the country’s net worth falling by over 8 per cent.
The chart shows that net financial assets continue to make a negative contribution to the country’s net worth. In 2021 financial liabilities exceeded financial assets by the equivalent of 19 per cent of annual national income.
Non-financial corporations and the public sector together had financial liabilities in excess of financial assets of £3.4 trillion and £2.5 trillion respectively. However, once non-financial assets are accounted for, non-financial corporations had a positive net worth of £607 billion, although their value was not sufficient to prevent the public sector having a negative net worth of £1.2 trillion. Meanwhile, households had a positive net worth of £11.4 trillion and financial corporations a negative net worth of £4.9 billion.
Vulnerabilities and the balance sheets
The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) resulted from balance sheet distress. Some argue that this distress can be attributed to a mismanagement of the bank’s liquidity position, which saw the bank use the surge in funds, on the back of buoyant activity among technology companies, to purchase long-dated bonds while, at the same time, reducing the share of assets held in cash. However, as the growth of the technology sector slowed as pandemic restrictions eased and, crucially, as central banks, including the Federal Reserve, began raising rates, the value of these long-dated bonds fell. This is because there is a negative relationship between interest rates and bond prices. Bonds pay a fixed rate of interest and so as other interest rates rise, bonds become less attractive to savers, pushing down their price. As depositors withdrew funds, Silicon Valley Bank found itself increasingly trying to generate liquidity from assets whose value was falling.
A major problem with balance sheet distress is contagion. This can occur, in part, because of what is known as ‘counterparty risk’. This simply refers to the idea that one party’s well-being is tied directly to that of another. However, the effects on economies from counterparty risks can be amplified by their impact on general credit conditions, confidence and uncertainty. This helps to explain why the US government stepped in quickly to guarantee SVB deposits.
There is, however, a ‘moral hazard’ problem here: if central banks are always prepared to step in, it can signal to banks that they are too big to fail and disincentivise them for adopting appropriate risk management strategies in the first place.
Subsequently, First Citizens Bank acquired the commercial banking business of SVB, while its UK subsidiary was acquired by HSBC for £1.
Interest rates and financial well-being
In light of the failures of SVB and Credit Suisse, the raising of interest rates by inflation-targeting central banks has raised concerns about the liquidity and liabilities positions of banks and non-bank financial institutions, such as hedge funds, insurers and pension funds. As we have seen, higher interest rates push down the value of bonds, which form a major part of banks’ balance sheets. The problem for central banks is that, if this forced them to make large-scale injections of liquidity by buying bonds (quantitative easing), it would make the fight against inflation more difficult. Quantitative easing is the opposite of tightening monetary policy and thus credit conditions, which are seen as necessary to control inflation.
Yet the raising of interest rates has implications for the financial well-being of other sectors too since they also are affected by the effects on asset values and debt-servicing costs. For example, raising interest rates has a severe impact on the cashflow of UK homeowners with large variable-rate mortgages. This can substantially affect their spending. The UK has a high proportion of homeowners on variable-rate mortgages or fairly short-term fixed-rate mortgages. Also for a large number of households their mortgages are high relative to their incomes.
In short, falling asset values and increasing debt-servicing costs from rising interest rates in response to rising inflation tends to dampen spending in the economy. The effects will be larger the more burdened with debt people and businesses are, and the less liquidity they have to access. This has the potential to lead to a financial consolidation in order to restore the well-being of balance sheets. This involves cutting borrowing and spending.
Such a consolidation could be exacerbated if financial institutions become distressed and if it were to result in even larger numbers of people and businesses facing greater restrictions in accessing credit. These balance sheet pressures will continue to weigh on the policy responses of central banks as they attempt to navigate economies out of the current inflationary pressures.
- What is recorded on a balance sheet? Explain with reference to the household sector.
- What is meant by net worth? Does an increase in net worth mean that an individual’s or sector’s financial well-being has increased?
- What is meant by ‘liquidity-constrained’ individuals or businesses? What factors might explain how liquidity constraints arise?
- It is sometimes argued that there is a predator-prey relationship between income and debt. How could such a relationship arise and what is its importance for the economy?
- Why might a deterioration of a country’s balance sheets have both national and international consequences?
- Explain the possible trade-offs facing central banks when responding to inflationary pressures.
Last year was far from the picture of economic stability that all governments would hope for. Instead, the overarching theme of 2022 was uncertainty, which overshadowed many economic predictions throughout the year. The Collins English Dictionary announced that their word of the year for 2022 is ‘permacrisis’, which is defined as ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’.
For the UK, 2022 was an eventful year, seeing two changes in prime minister, economic stagnation, financial turmoil, rampant inflation and a cost of living crisis. However, the UK was not alone in its economic struggles. Many believe that it is a minor miracle that the world did not experience a systemic financial crisis in 2022.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the biggest land war in Europe since 1945, the most serious risk of nuclear escalation since the Cuban missile crisis and the most far-reaching sanctions regime since the 1930s. Soaring food and energy costs have fuelled the highest rates of inflation since the 1980s and the biggest macroeconomic challenge in the modern era of central banking (with the possible exception of the financial crisis of 2007–8 and its aftermath). For decades we have lived with the assumptions that nuclear war was never going to happen, inflation will be kept low and rich countries will not experience an energy crisis. In 2022 all of these assumptions and more have been shaken.
With the combination of rising interest rates and a massive increase in geopolitical risk, the world economy did well to survive as robustly as it did. However, with public and private debt having risen to record levels during the now-bygone era of ultra-low interest rates and with recession risks high, the global financial system faces a huge stress test.
Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister, started 2023 by setting out five pledges: to halve inflation, boost economic growth, cut national debt as a percentage of GDP, and to address NHS waiting lists and the issue of immigrants arriving in small boats. Whilst most would agree that meeting these pledges is desirable, a reduction in inflation is forecast to happen anyway, given the monetary policy being pursued by the Bank of England and an easing of commodity prices; and public-sector debt as a percentage of GDP is forecast to fall from 2024/25.
Success in meeting the first four pledges will partly depend on the effects of the current industrial action by workers across the UK. How soon will the various disputes be settled and on what terms? What will be the implications for service levels and for inflation?
A weak global economy
Success will also depend on the state of the global economy, which is currently very fragile. In fact, it is predicted that a third of the global economy will be hit by recession this year. The head of the IMF has warned that the world faces a ‘tougher’ year in 2023 than in the previous 12 months. Such comments suggest the IMF is likely soon to cut its economic forecasts for 2023 again. The IMF already cut its 2023 outlook for global economic growth in October, citing the continuing drag from the war in Ukraine, as well as inflationary pressures and interest rate rises by major central banks.
The World Bank has also described the global economy as being ‘on a razor’s edge’ and warns that it risks falling into recession this year. The organisation expects the world economy to grow by just 1.7% this year, which is a sharp fall from an estimated 2.9% in 2022 according to the Global Economic Prospects report (see link below). It has warned that if financial conditions tighten, then the world’s economy could easily fall into a recession. If this becomes a reality, then the current decade would become the first since the 1930s to include two global recessions. Growth forecasts have been lowered for 95% of advanced economies and for more than 70% of emerging market and developing economies compared with six months ago. Given the global outlook, it is no surprise that the UK economy is expected to face a prolonged recession with declining growth and increased unemployment.
The current state of the UK economy
Despite all the concerns, official figures show that, even though households have been squeezed by rising prices, UK real GDP unexpectedly grew in November, by 0.1%. This has been explained by a boost to bars and restaurants from the World Cup as people went out to watch the football and also by demand for services in the tech sector.
At first sight, the UK’s cost of living crisis might look fairly mild compared to other countries. Its inflation rate was 10.7% in November 2022, compared to 12.6% in Italy, 16% in Poland and over 20% in Hungary and Estonia. But UK inflation is still way above the Bank of England’s 2% target. The Bank went on to tighten monetary policy further, by increasing interest rates to 3.5% in December. Further rate rises are expected in 2023. In fact, the markets and the Bank both expect the main rate to reach 5.2% by the end of this year. With the consequent squeeze on real incomes, the Bank of England expects a recession in the UK this year – possibly lasting until mid-2024.
The UK is also affected by global interest rates, which affect global growth. Global interest rates average 5%. A 1 percentage point increase would reduce global growth this year from 1.7% to 0.6%, with per capita output contracting by 0.3%, once changes in population are taken into account. This would then meet the technical definition of a global recession. This means that the Bank’s November economic forecast, which was based on a Bank Rate of 3%, may worsen due to an even larger contraction than previously expected. The resulting drop in spending and investment by people and businesses could then cause inflation to come down faster than the Bank had predicted when rates were at 3%.
There could be some positive news however, that may help bring down inflation in addition to rate rises. There has been some appreciation in the pound since the huge drop caused by the September mini-budget that had brought its value to a nearly 40-year low. This will help to reduce inflation by reducing the price of imports.
As far as workers are concerned, pay increases have been broadly contained, with 2022 being one of the worst years in decades for UK real wage growth. Limiting pay rises can have a deflationary effect because people have less to spend, but it also weighs on economic growth and productivity. Despite the impact on inflation, there is a lot of unrest across the UK, with strike action continuing to be at the forefront of the news. Strikes over pay and conditions continue in various sectors in 2023, including transport, health, education and the postal service. Strikes and industrial action have a negative effect on the wider economy. If wages are stagnating and the economy is not performing well, productivity will suffer as workers are less motivated and less investment in new equipment takes place.
The UK economy is also under threat of a prolonged recession due to the proportion of households that lack insulation against financial setbacks. This proportion is unusually large for a wealthy economy. A survey conducted prior to the pandemic, found that 3 million people in the UK would fall into poverty if they missed one pay cheque, with the country’s high housing costs being a key source of vulnerability. Another survey recently suggested that one-third of UK adults would struggle if their costs rose by just £20 a month.
The pandemic itself meant that over 4 million households have taken on additional debt, with many now falling behind on repaying it. This, combined with recent jumps in energy and food bills, could push many over the edge, especially if heating costs remain high when the present government cap on energy prices ends in April.
However, there could be some better news for households with the easing of COVID restrictions in China. This could have a positive impact on the UK economy if it helps ease supply-chain disruptions occurring since the height of the global pandemic. It could reduce inflationary pressure in the UK and other countries that trade with China by making it easier – and therefore less costly – for people to get hold of goods.
- Define the term ‘deflation’.
- Explain how an appreciation of the pound is good for inflation.
- Discuss the wider economic impacts of industrial strike action.
- Why is it important for the government to keep wages contained?