In his blog, The bond roller coaster, John looks at the pricing of government bonds and details how, in recent times, governments wishing to borrow by issuing new bonds are having to offer higher coupon rates to attract investors. The interest rate hikes by central banks in response to global-wide inflationary pressures have therefore spilt over into bond markets. Though this evidences the ‘pass through’ of central bank interest rate increases to the general structure of interest rates, it does, however, pose significant costs for governments as they seek to finance future budgetary deficits or refinance existing debts coming up to maturity.
The Autumn Statement in the UK is scheduled to be made on 22 November. This, as well as providing an update on the economy and the public finances, is likely to include a number of fiscal proposals. It is thus timely to remind ourselves of the size of recent discretionary fiscal measures and their potential impact on the sustainability of the public finances. In this first of two blogs, we consider the former: the magnitude of recent discretionary fiscal policy changes.
First, it is important to define what we mean by discretionary fiscal policy. It refers to deliberate changes in government spending or taxation. This needs to be distinguished from the concept of automatic stabilisers, which relate to those parts of government budgets that automatically result in an increase (decrease) of spending or a decrease (increase) in tax payments when the economy slows (quickens).
The suitability of discretionary fiscal policy measures depends on the objectives they trying to fulfil. Discretionary measures can be implemented, for example, to affect levels of public-service provision, the distribution of income, levels of aggregate demand or to affect longer-term growth of aggregate supply. As we shall see in this blog, some of the large recent interventions have been conducted primarily to support and stabilise economic activity in the face of heightened economic volatility.
Discretionary fiscal measures in the UK are usually announced in annual Budget statements in the House of Commons. These are normally in March, but discretionary fiscal changes can be made in the Autumn Statement too. The Autumn Statement of October 2022, for example, took on significant importance as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, tried to present a ‘safe pair hands’ following the fallout and market turbulence in response to the fiscal statement by the former Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, on 23 September that year.
The fiscal impulse
The large-scale economic turbulence of recent years associated first with the global financial crisis of 2007–9 and then with the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, has seen governments respond with significant discretionary fiscal measures. During the COVID-19 pandemic, examples of fiscal interventions in the UK included the COVID-19 Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), grants for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, the COVID-19 Job Retention Scheme (better known as the furlough scheme) and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme.
The size of discretionary fiscal interventions can be measured by the fiscal impulse. This captures the magnitude of change in discretionary fiscal policy and thus the size of the stimulus. The concept is not to be confused with fiscal multipliers, which measure the impact of fiscal changes on economic outcomes, such as real national income and employment.
By measuring fiscal impulses, we can analyse the extent to which a country’s fiscal stance has tightened, loosened, or remained unchanged. In other words, we are attempting to capture discretionary fiscal policy changes that result in structural changes in the government budget and, therefore, in structural changes in spending and/or taxation.
To measure structural changes in the public-sector’s budgetary position, we calculate changes in structural budget balances.
A budget balance is simply the difference between receipts (largely taxation) and spending. A budget surplus occurs when receipts are greater than spending, while a deficit (sometimes referred to as net borrowing) occurs if spending is greater than receipts.
A structural budget balance cyclically-adjusts receipts and spending and hence adjusts for the position of the economy in the business cycle. In doing so, it has the effect of adjusting both receipts and spending for the effect of automatic stabilisers. Another way of thinking about this is to ask what the balance between receipts and spending would be if the economy were operating at its potential output. A deterioration in a structural budget balance infers a rise in the structural deficit or fall in the structural surplus. This indicates a loosening of the fiscal stance. An improvement in the structural budget balance, by contrast, indicates a tightening.
The size of UK fiscal impulses
A frequently-used measure of the fiscal impulse involves the change in the cyclically-adjusted public-sector primary deficit.
A primary deficit captures the extent to which the receipts of the public sector fall short of its spending, excluding its spending on debt interest payments. It essentially captures whether the public sector is able to afford its ‘new’ fiscal choices from its receipts; it excludes debt-servicing costs, which can be thought of as reflecting fiscal choices of the past. By using a cyclically-adjusted primary deficit we are able to isolate more accurately the size of discretionary policy changes. Chart 1 shows the UK’s actual and cyclically-adjusted primary deficit as a share of GDP since 1975, which have averaged 1.3 and 1.1 per cent of GDP respectively. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The size of the fiscal impulse is measured by the year-on-year percentage point change in the cyclically-adjusted public-sector primary deficit as a percentage of potential GDP. A larger deficit or a smaller surplus indicates a fiscal loosening (a positive fiscal impulse), while a smaller deficit or a larger surplus indicates a fiscal tightening (a negative fiscal impulse).
Chart 2 shows the magnitude of UK fiscal impulses since 1980. It captures very starkly the extent of the loosening of the fiscal stance in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) In 2020 the cyclically-adjusted primary deficit to potential output ratio rose from 1.67 to 14.04 per cent. This represents a positive fiscal impulse of 12.4 per cent of GDP.
A tightening of fiscal policy followed the waning of the pandemic. 2021 saw a negative fiscal impulse of 10.1 per cent of GDP. Subsequent tightening was tempered by policy measures to limit the impact on the private sector of the cost-of-living crisis, including the Energy Price Guarantee and Energy Bills Support Scheme.
In comparison, the fiscal response to the global financial crisis led to a cumulative increase in the cyclically-adjusted primary deficit to potential GDP ratio from 2007 to 2009 of 5.0 percentage points. Hence, the financial crisis saw a positive fiscal impulse of 5 per cent of GDP. While smaller in comparison to the discretionary fiscal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was, nonetheless, a sizeable loosening of the fiscal stance.
Sustainability and well-being of the public finances
The recent fiscal interventions have implications for the financial well-being of the public-sector. Not least, the financing of the positive fiscal impulses has led to a substantial growth in the accumulated size of the public-sector debt stock. At the end of 2006/7 the public-sector net debt stock was 35 per cent of GDP; at the end of the current financial year, 2023/24, it is expected to be 103 per cent.
As we saw at the outset, in an environment of rising interest rates, the increase in the public-sector debt to GDP ratio creates significant additional costs for government, a situation that is made more difficult for government not only by the current flatlining of economic activity, but by the low underlying rate of economic growth seen since the financial crisis. The combination of higher interest rates and lower economic growth has adverse implications for the sustainability of the public finances and the ability of the public sector to absorb the effects of future economic crises.
- Autumn Statement 2023: When is it and how will it affect me?
BBC News (16/11/23)
- What is the Autumn Statement?
House of Commons Library (13/11/23)
- Putting the fiscal toothpaste back into the tube: It’s time to normalise the euro area fiscal stance in 2024
VoxEU, Niels Thygesen, Roel Beetsma, Massimo Bordignon, Xavier Debrun, Mateusz Szczurek, Martin Larch, Matthias Busse, Mateja Gabrijelcic, Laszlo Jankovics and Janis Malzubris (30/6/23)
- Euro zone should tighten fiscal policy in 2024 to curb inflation, European Fiscal Board says
Reuters, Jan Strupczewski (28/6/23)
- Hutchins Center Fiscal Impact Measure: Federal, State and Local Fiscal Policy and the Economy
Brookings, Eli Asdourian, Louise Sheiner, and Lorae Stojanovic (27/10/23)
- IFS Green Budget
Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson and Ben Zaranko (eds) (October 2023)
- Explain what is meant by the following fiscal terms: (a) structural deficit; (b) automatic stabilisers; (c) discretionary fiscal policy; (d) primary deficit.
- What is the difference between current and capital public expenditures? Give some examples of each.
- Consider the following two examples of public expenditure: grants from government paid to the private sector for the installation of energy-efficient boilers, and welfare payments to unemployed people. How are these expenditures classified in the public finances and what fiscal objectives do you think they meet?
- Which of the following statements about the primary balance is FALSE?
(a) In the presence of debt interest payments a primary deficit will be smaller than a budget deficit.
(b) In the presence of debt interest payments a primary surplus will be smaller than a budget surplus.
(c) The primary balance differs from the budget balance by the size of debt interest payments.
(d) None of the above.
- Explain the difference between a fiscal impulse and a fiscal multiplier.
- Why is low economic growth likely to affect the sustainability of the public finances? What other factors could also matter?
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?
We have examined inflation in several blogs in recent months. With inflation at levels not seen for 40 years, this is hardly surprising. One question we’ve examined is whether the policy response has been correct. For example, in July, we asked whether the Bank of England had raised interest rates too much, too late. In judging policy, one useful distinction is between demand-pull inflation and cost-push inflation. Do they require the same policy response? Is raising interest rates to get inflation down to the target rate equally applicable to inflation caused by excessive demand and inflation caused by rising costs, where those rising costs are not caused by rising demand?
In terms of aggregate demand and supply, demand-pull inflation is shown by continuing rightward shifts in aggregate demand (AD); cost-push inflation is shown by continuing leftward/upward shifts in short-run aggregate supply (SRAS). This is illustrated in the following diagram, which shows a single shift in aggregate demand or short-run aggregate supply. For inflation to continue, rather than being a single rise in prices, the curves must continue to shift.
As you can see, the effects on real GDP (Y) are quite different. A rise in aggregate demand will tend to increase GDP (as long as capacity constraints allow). A rise in costs, and hence an upward shift in short-run aggregate supply, will lead to a fall in GDP as firms cut output in the face of rising costs and as consumers consume less as the cost of living rises.
The inflation experienced by the UK and other countries in recent months has been largely of the cost-push variety. Causes include: supply-chain bottlenecks as economies opened up after COVID-19; the war in Ukraine and its effects on oil and gas supplies and various grains; and avian flu and poor harvests from droughts and floods associated with global warming resulting in a fall in food supplies. These all led to a rise in prices. In the UK’s case, this was compounded by Brexit, which added to firms’ administrative costs and, according to the Bank of England, was estimated to cause a long-term fall in productivity of around 3 to 4 per cent.
The rise in costs had the effect of shifting short-run aggregate supply upwards to the left. As well as leading to a rise in prices and a cost-of-living squeeze, the rising costs dampened expenditure.
This was compounded by a tightening of fiscal policy as governments attempted to tackle public-sector deficits and debt, which had soared with the support measures during the pandemic. It was also compounded by rising interest rates as central banks attempted to bring inflation back to target.
Monetary policy response
Central banks are generally charged with keeping inflation in the medium term at a target rate set by the government or the central bank itself. For most developed countries, this is 2% (see table in the blog, Should central bank targets be changed?). So is raising interest rates the correct policy response to cost-push inflation?
One argument is that monetary policy is inappropriate in the face of supply shocks. The supply shocks themselves have the effect of dampening demand. Raising interest rates will compound this effect, resulting in lower growth or even a recession. If the supply shocks are temporary, such as supply-chain disruptions caused by lockdowns during the pandemic, then it might be better to ride out the problem and not raise interest rates or raise them by only a small amount. Already cost pressures are easing in some areas as supplies have risen.
If, however, the fall in aggregate supply is more persistent, such as from climate-related declines in harvests or the Ukraine war dragging on, or new disruptions to supply associated with the Israel–Gaza war, or, in the UK’s case, with Brexit, then real aggregate demand may need to be reduced in order to match the lower aggregate supply. Or, at the very least, the growth in aggregate demand may need to be slowed to match the slower growth in aggregate supply.
Huw Pill, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England, in a podcast from the Columbia Law School (see links below), argued that people should recognise that the rise in costs has made them poorer. If they respond to the rising costs by seeking higher wages, or in the case of businesses, by putting up prices, this will simply stoke inflation. In these circumstances, raising interest rates to cool aggregate demand may reduce people’s ability to gain higher wages or put up prices.
Another argument for raising interest rates in the face of cost-push inflation is when those cost increases are felt more than in other countries. The USA has suffered less from cost pressures than the UK. On the other hand, its growth rate is higher, suggesting that its inflation, albeit lower than in the UK, is more of the demand-pull variety. Despite its inflation rate being lower than in the UK, the problem of excess demand has led the Fed to adopt an aggressive interest rate policy. Its target rate is 5.25% to 5.50%, while the Bank of England’s is 5.25%. In order to prevent short-term capital outflows and a resulting depreciation in the pound, further stoking inflation, the Bank of England has been under pressure to mirror interest rate rises in the USA, the eurozone and elsewhere.
Blogs on this site
Information and data
- How may monetary policy affect inflationary expectations?
- If cost-push inflation makes people generally poorer, what role does the government have in making the distribution of a cut in real income a fair one?
- In the context of cost-push inflation, how might the authorities prevent a wage–price spiral?
- With reference to the second article above, explain the ‘monetary policy conundrum’ faced by the Bank of Japan.
- If central banks have a single policy instrument, namely changes in interest rates, how may conflicts arise when there is more than one macroeconomic objective?
- Is Russia’s rise in inflation the result of cost or demand pressures, or a mixture of the two (see articles above)?
Central bankers, policymakers, academics and economists met at the Economic Symposium at Jackson Hole, Wyoming from August 24–26. This annual conference, hosted by Kansas City Fed, gives them a chance to discuss current economic issues and the best policy responses. The theme this year was ‘Structural Shifts in the Global Economy’ and one of the issues discussed was whether, in the light of such shifts, central banks’ 2 per cent inflation targets are still appropriate.
Inflation has been slowing in most countries, but is still above the 2 peer cent target. In the USA, CPI inflation came down from a peak of 9.1% in June 2022 to 3.2% in July 2023. Core inflation, however, which excludes food and energy was 4.7%. At the symposium, in his keynote address the Fed Chair, Jay Powell, warned that despite 11 rises in interest rates since April 2022 (from 0%–0.25% to 5%–5.25%) having helped to bring inflation down, inflation was still too high and that further rises in interest rates could not be ruled out.
We are prepared to raise rates further if appropriate, and intend to hold policy at a restrictive level until we are confident that inflation is moving sustainably down toward our objective.
However, he did recognise the need to move cautiously in terms of any further rises in interest rates as “Doing too much could also do unnecessary harm to the economy.” But, despite the rises in interest rates, growth has remained strong in the USA. The annual growth rate in real GDP was 2.4% in the second quarter of 2023. Unemployment, at 3.5%, is low by historical standards and similar to the rate before the Fed began raising interest rates.
Raising the target rate of inflation?
Some economists and politicians have advocated raising the target rate of inflation from 2 per cent to, perhaps, 3 per cent. Jason Furman, an economic policy professor at Harvard and formerly chief economic advisor to President Barack Obama, argues that a higher target has the benefit of helping cushion the economy against severe recessions, especially important when such there have been adverse supply shocks, such as the supply-chain issues following the COVID lockdowns and then the war in Ukraine. A higher inflation rate may encourage more borrowing for investment as the real capital sum will be eroded more quickly. Some countries do indeed have higher inflation targets, as the table shows.
Powell emphatically ruled out any adjustment to the target rate. His views were expanded upon by Christine Lagarde, the head of the European Central Bank. She argued that in a world of greater supply shocks (such as from climate change), greater frictions in markets and greater inelasticity in supply, and hence greater price fluctuations, it is important for wage increases not to chase price increases. Increasing the target rate of inflation would anchor inflationary expectations at a higher level and hence would be self-defeating. Inflation in the eurozone, as in the USA, is falling – it halved from a peak of 10.6% in 2022 to 5.3% in July this year. Given this and worries about recession, the ECB may not raise interest rates at its September meeting. However, Lagarde argued that interest rates needed to remain high enough to bring inflation back to target.
The UK position
The Bank of England, too, is committed to a 2 per cent inflation target, even though the inflationary problems for the UK economy are greater that for many other countries. Greater shortfalls in wage growth have been more concentrated amongst lower-paid workers and especially in the public health, safety and transport sectors. Making up these shortfalls will slow the rate of inflationary decline; resisting doing so could lead to protracted industrial action with adverse effects on aggregate supply.
Then there is Brexit, which has added costs and bureaucratic procedures to many businesses. As Adam Posen (former member of the MPC) points out in the article linked below:
Even if this government continues to move towards more pragmatic relations with the EU, divergences in standards and regulation will increase costs and decrease availability of various imports, as will the end of various temporary exemptions. The base run rate of inflation will remain higher for some time as a result.
Then there is a persistent problem of low investment and productivity growth in the UK. This restriction on the supply side will make it difficult to bring inflation down, especially if workers attempt to achieve pay increases that match cost-of-living increases.
Sticking to the status quo
There seems little appetite among central bankers to adjust inflation targets. Squeezing inflation out of their respective economies is painful when inflation originates largely on the supply side and hence the problem is how to reduce demand and real incomes below what they would otherwise have been.
Raising inflation targets, they argue, would not address this fundamental problem and would probably simply anchor inflationary expectations at the higher level, leaving real incomes unchanged. Only if such policies led to a rise in investment would a higher target be justified and central bankers do not believe that it would.
- What happens in Jackson Hole doesn’t stay in Jackson Hole
CNN, Elisabeth Buchwald (26/8/23)
- Fed Chair Powell calls inflation ‘too high’ and warns that ‘we are prepared to raise rates further’
CNBC, Jeff Cox (25/8/23)
- Inflation? This man holds the key
Politico, Geoffrey Smith and Carlo Boffa (24/8/23)
- Global inflation pressures could become harder to manage in coming years, research suggests
Independent, Christopher Rugaber (27/8/23)
- Christine Lagarde warns of long-term inflation risks after global economic upheaval
Financial Times, Martin Arnold and Colby Smith (25/8/23)
- No appetite at Fed, ECB for changing inflation goal
Reuters, Ann Saphir, Howard Schneider and Balazs Koryani (25/8/23)
- Is it time for Fed to raise interest rate target to 3%? Experts weigh in
mint, Nishant Kumar (22/8/23)
- What is the UK inflation rate and why is it so high?
BBC News (16/8/23)
- If you think the UK’s high-inflation cycle has run its course, think again
The Observer, Adam Posen (26/8/23)
- Use an aggregate demand and supply diagram (AD/AS or DAD/DAS) to illustrate inflation since the opening up of economies after the COVID lockdowns. Use another one to illustrate the the effects of central banks raising interest rates?
- Why is the world likely to continue experiencing bigger supply shocks and greater price volatility than before the pandemic?
- With hindsight, was increasing narrow money after the financial crisis and then during the pandemic excessive? Would it have been better to have used the extra money to fund government spending on infrastructure rather than purchasing assets such as bonds in the secondary market?
- What are the arguments for and against increasing the target rate of inflation?
- How do inflationary expectations influence the actual rate of inflation?
- Consider the arguments for and against the government matching pay increases for public-sector workers to the cost of living.
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.
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- 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?