In the current environment of low inflation and rising unemployment, the Federal Reserve Bank, the USA’s central bank, has amended its monetary targets. The new measures were announced by the Fed chair, Jay Powell, in a speech for the annual Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium (this year conducted online on August 27 and 28). The symposium was an opportunity for central bankers to reflect on their responses to the coronavirus pandemic and to consider what changes might need to be made to their monetary policy targets and instruments.
The Fed’s previous targets
Previously, like most other central banks, the Fed had a long-run inflation target of 2%. It did, however, also seek to ‘maximise employment’. In practice, this meant seeking to achieve a ‘normal’ rate of unemployment, which the Fed regards as ranging from 3.5 to 4.7% with a median value of 4.1%. The description of its objectives stated that:
In setting monetary policy, the Committee seeks to mitigate deviations of inflation from its longer-run goal and deviations of employment from the Committee’s assessments of its maximum level. These objectives are generally complementary. However, under circumstances in which the Committee judges that the objectives are not complementary, it follows a balanced approach in promoting them, taking into account the magnitude of the deviations and the potentially different time horizons over which employment and inflation are projected to return to levels judged consistent with its mandate.
The new targets
Under the new system, the Fed has softened its inflation target. It will still be 2% over the longer term, but it will be regarded as an average, rather than a firm target. The Fed will be willing to see inflation above 2% for longer than previously before raising interest rates if this is felt necessary for the economy to recover and to achieve its long-run potential economic growth rate. Fed chair, Jay Powell, in a speech on 27 August said:
Following periods when inflation has been running below 2%, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 per cent for some time.
Additionally, the Fed has increased its emphasis on employment. Instead of focusing on deviations from normal employment, the Fed will now focus on the shortfall of employment from its normal level and not be concerned if employment temporarily exceeds its normal level. As Powell said:
Going forward, employment can run at or above real-time estimates of its maximum level without causing concern, unless accompanied by signs of unwanted increases in inflation or the emergence of other risks that could impede the attainment of our goals
The Fed will also take account of the distribution of employment and pay more attention to achieving a strong labour market in low-income and disadvantaged communities. However, apart from the benefits to such communities from a generally strong labour market, it is not clear how the Fed could focus on disadvantaged communities through the instruments it has at its disposal – interest rate changes and quantitative easing.
Modern monetary theorists (see blog MMT – a Magic Money Tree or Modern Monetary Theory?) will welcome the changes, arguing that they will allow more aggressive expansion and higher government borrowing at ultra-low interest rates.
The problem for the Fed is that it is attempting to achieve more aggressive goals without having any more than the two monetary instruments it currently has – lowering interest rates and increasing money supply through asset purchases (quantitative easing). Interest rates are already near rock bottom and further quantitative easing may continue to inflate asset prices (such as share and property prices) without sufficiently stimulating aggregate demand. Changing targets without changing the means of achieving them is likely to be unsuccessful.
It remains to be seen whether the Fed will move to funding government borrowing directly, which could allow for a huge stimulus through infrastructure spending, or whether it will merely stick to using asset purchases as a way for introducing new money into the system.
- In landmark shift, Fed rewrites approach to inflation, labor market
Reuters, Jonnelle Marte, Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider (27/8/20)
- 5 Key Takeaways From Powell’s Jackson Hole Fed Speech
Bloomberg, Mohamed A. El-Erian (28/8/20)
- Fed adopts new strategy to allow higher inflation and welcome strong labor markets
Market Watch, Greg Robb (27/8/20)
- Fed to tolerate higher inflation in policy shift
Financial Times, James Politi and Colby Smith (27/8/20)
- Fed inflation shift raises questions about past rate rises
Financial Times, James Politi and Colby Smith (28/8/20)
- Dollar slides as bond market signals rising inflation angst
Financial Times, Adam Samson and Colby Smith (28/8/20)
- Wall Street shares rise after Fed announces soft approach to inflation
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/8/20)
- How the Fed Is Bringing an Inflation Debate to a Boil
Bloomberg, Ben Holland, Enda Curran, Vivien Lou Chen and Kyoungwha Kim (27/8/20)
- The live now, pay later economy comes at a heavy cost for us all
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/8/20)
- The world’s central banks are starting to experiment. But what comes next?
The Guardian, Adam Tooze (9/9/20)
- Find out how much asset purchases by the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB have increased in the current rounds of quantitative easing.
- How do asset purchases affect narrow money, broad money and aggregate demand? Is there a fixed money multiplier effect between the narrow money increases and aggregate demand? Explain.
- Why did the dollar exchange rate fall following the announcement of the new measures by Jay Powell?
- The Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, also gave a speech at the Jackson Hole symposium. How does the approach to money policy outlined by Bailey differ from that outlined by Jay Powell?
- What practical steps, if any, could a central bank take to improve the relative employment prospects of disadvantaged groups?
- Outline the arguments for and against central banks directly funding government expenditure through money creation.
- What longer-term problems are likely to arise from central banks pursuing ultra-low interest rates for an extended period of time?
Share prices are determined by demand and supply. The same applies to stock market indices, such as the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 in the UK and the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 in the USA. After all, the indices are the weighted average prices of the shares included in the index. Generally, when economies are performing well, or are expected to do so, share prices will rise. They are likely to fall in a recession or if a recession is anticipated. A main reason for this is that the dividends paid on shares will reflect the profitability of firms, which tends to rise in times of a buoyant economy.
When it first became clear that Covid-19 would become a pandemic and as countries began locking down, so stock markets plummeted. People anticipated that many businesses would fail and that the likely recession would cause profits of many other surviving firms to decline rapidly. People sold shares.
The first chart shows how the FTSE 100 fell from 7466 in early February 2020 to 5190 in late March, a fall of 30.5%. The Dow Jones fell by 34% over the same period. In both cases the fall was driven not only by the decline in the respective economy over the period, but by speculation that further declines were to come (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But then stock markets started rising again, especially the Dow Jones, despite the fact that the recessions in the UK, the USA and other countries were gathering pace. In the second quarter of 2020, the Dow Jones rose by 23% and yet the US economy declined by 33% – the biggest quarterly decline on record. How could this be explained by supply and demand?
In order to boost aggregate demand and reduce the size of the recession, central banks around the world engaged in large-scale quantitative easing. This involves central banks buying government bonds and possibly corporate bonds too with newly created money. The extra money is then used to purchase other assets, such as stocks and shares and property, or physical capital or goods and services. The second chart shows that quantitative easing by the Bank of England increased the Bank’s asset holding from April to July 2020 by 50%, from £469bn to £705bn (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But given the general pessimism about the state of the global economy, employment and personal finances, there was little feed-through into consumption and investment. Instead, most of the extra money was used to buy assets. This gave a huge boost to stock markets. Stock market movements were thus out of line with movements in GDP.
Stock market prices do not just reflect the current economic and financial situation, but also what people anticipate the situation to be in the future. As infection and death rates from Covid-19 waned around Europe and in many other countries, so consumer and business confidence rose. This is illustrated in the third chart, which shows industrial, consumer and construction confidence indicators in the EU. As you can see, after falling sharply as the pandemic took hold in early 2020 and countries were locked down, confidence then rose (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart).
But, as infection rates have risen somewhat in many countries and continue to soar in the USA, Brazil, India and some other countries, this confidence may well start to fall again and this could impact on stock markets.
A final, but related, cause of recent stock market movements is speculation. If people see share prices falling and believe that they are likely to fall further, then they will sell shares and hold cash or safer assets instead. This will amplify the fall and encourage further speculation. If, however, they see share prices rising and believe that they will continue to do so, they are likely to want to buy shares, hoping to make a gain by buying them relatively cheaply. This will amplify the rise and, again, encourage further speculation.
If there is a second wave of the pandemic, then stock markets could well fall again, as they could if speculators think that share prices have overshot the levels that reflect the economic and financial situation. But then there may be even further quantitative easing.
There are many uncertainties, both with the pandemic and with governments’ policy responses. These make forecasting stock market movements very difficult. Large gains or large losses could await people speculating on what will happen to share prices.
- Illustrate the recent movements of stock markets using demand and supply diagrams. Explain your diagrams.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for shares?
- Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation. How are the concepts relevant to the recent history of stock market movements?
- Explain how quantitative easing works to increase (a) asset prices; (b) aggregate demand.
- What is the difference between quantitative easing as currently conducted by central banks and ‘helicopter money‘?
- Give some examples of companies whose share prices have risen strongly since March 2020. Explain why these particular shares have done so well.
The LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance has just published a paper looking at the joint impact of Covid-19 and Brexit on the UK economy. Apart from the short-term shocks, both will have a long-term dampening effect on the UK economy. But they will largely affect different sectors.
Covid-19 has affected, and will continue to affect, direct consumer-facing industries, such as shops, the hospitality and leisure industries, public transport and personal services. Brexit will tend to hit those industries most directly involved in trade with Europe, the UK’s biggest trading partner. These industries include manufacturing, financial services, posts and telecommunications, mining and quarrying, and agriculture and fishing.
Despite the fact that largely different sectors will be hit by these two events, the total effect may be greater than from each individually. One of the main reasons for this is the dampening impact of Covid-19 on globalisation. Travel restrictions are likely to remain tighter to more distant countries. And countries are likely to focus on trading within continents or regions rather than the whole world. For the UK, this, other things being equal, would mean an expansion of trade with the EU relative to the rest of the world. But, unless there is a comprehensive free-trade deal with the EU, the UK would not be set to take full advantage of this trend.
Another problem is that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have weakened the economy’s ability to cope with further shocks, such as those from Brexit. Depending on the nature (or absence) of a trade deal, Brexit will impose higher burdens on trading companies, including meeting divergent standards and higher administrative costs from greater form filling, inspections and customs delays.
- Referring to the LSE paper, give some examples of industries that are likely to be particularly hard hit by Brexit when the transition period ends? Explain why.
- Why have university finances been particularly badly affected by both Covid-19 and Brexit? Are there any other sectors that have suffered (or will suffer) badly from both events?
- Is there a scenario where globalisation in trade could start to grow again?
- Has Covid-19 affected countries’ comparative advantage in particular products traded with particular countries and, if so, how?
- The authors of the LSE report argue that ‘government policies to stimulate demand, support workers to remain in employment or find new employment, and to support businesses remain essential’. How realistic is it to expect the government to provide additional support to businesses and workers to deal with the shock of Brexit?
In a little over a decade economies around the world have experienced two ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ shocks. First, there was the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, which saw an unsustainable expansion of banks’ balance sheets that resulted in a global economic slowdown. Now in 2020, a global health emergency has meant unprecedented falls in economic activity. In both cases, the public sector has been the economy’s shock absorber but this has had dramatic effects on its financial wellbeing. We consider here the effect on the UK public finances and reflect on their sustainability in light of the recent Fiscal Sustainability Report published by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR).
The COVID-19 pandemic saw the government initiate a range of fiscal interventions to support people and businesses. Interventions directly affecting public-sector spending included a series of employment support measures. These included the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, commonly referred to as the furlough scheme, the Self-employed Income Support scheme, a ‘Kickstart Scheme’ of work placements for universal credit recipients aged between 16 and 24 and a ‘Job Retention Bonus’ whereby employers can receive a one-off payment of £1,000 for every furloughed employee continuously employed from the cessation of the Job Retention Scheme on 31 October through to 31 January 2021.
Further spending interventions have included small business grant schemes, such as the Coronavirus Small Business Grant Fund, the coronavirus Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund and the Coronavirus Local Authority Discretionary Grants Fund.
Meanwhile, taxation relief measures have included a business rates holiday for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses and a reduced rate of VAT of 5 per cent for hospitality, accommodation and attractions until 12 January 2021.
OBR’s central scenario
The OBR in its Fiscal Stability Report in July 2020 attempts to assess the wellbeing of the public finances not just in the short term but in the medium and longer term too. This longer-term perspective allows it to assess the sustainability of the public finances.
Its analysis is based on some key assumptions, including population growth and future demands on public services, but, understandably, the timing of this report has necessitated some key assumptions around path of the economy, including the extent to which the economy will experience scarring effects, also known as hysteresis effects. While the analysis does not incorporate the Chancellor’s measures announced in its summer statement on the 8 July, including the kickstart scheme, job retention bonus and the reduced rate of VAT, which would have a material effect on this year’s numbers, the OBR concludes that there would be less significant impact on its medium-term analysis.
In what it describes as its ‘central scenario’ the OBR forecasts that national output (real GDP) will fall by 12 per cent in 2020 before growing by 9 per cent in 2021 and 4 per cent in 2022. National output therefore reaches its pre-virus peak at the end of 2022. However, 20 quarters on from the pandemic shock in Q1 2020 output is estimated to be 3.2 per cent less than it would otherwise have been, while the cumulative loss of output is expected to be 6.4 per cent over the period. The cumulative loss of output in the 20 quarters following the financial crisis (Q2 2008) is estimated to have been 9.3 per cent of actual cumulative output.
While national output is expected to be permanently lower because of the pandemic, consistent with hysteresis, the forecast assumes that the longer-term growth rate is unaffected. In other words, there is not expected to be what some now refer to as ‘super hysteresis’, whereby the scarring effects have persistent effects on rates of capital accumulation, innovation and productivity, which therefore depress structural economic growth rates.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is expected to peak at 11.9 per cent in the final quarter of this year, before falling to 8.8 per cent in Q4 2021 and 6.3 per cent in Q4 2022. By Q4 2025 the unemployment rate is forecast to be 5.1 per cent, one percentage point higher than the OBR was forecasting at the time of the Budget in March.
Spending and receipts
Chart 1 shows shows the predicted paths of (nominal) public-sector receipts and expenditures as a percentage of (nominal) GDP. Receipts are expected come in at £740 billion this financial year (excluding the impact of the summer statement measures), some £133 billion lower than was forecast at the time of the March budget. This will amount to a 10 per cent fall in receipts in the financial year, driven by a much-shrunken economy. However, the fact that nominal GDP falls somewhat more means that the receipts-to-GDP ratio ticks up slightly. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Public-sector spending is expected to be higher in 2020/21 than was forecast in the March by £135 million (excluding the summer statement measures) reflecting the COVID-19 interventions. This would result in spending rising to £1.06 trillion, a 20 per cent rise in the financial year. It would also mean that public-sector spending as a share of GDP rises to 54 per cent – its highest since 1945/46.
Going forward, in cash terms receipts are permanently lower than forecast because GDP is lower, though as a share of GDP cash receipts increase very slightly, but remain below what was expected at the time of the March budget. Spending in cash terms is expected to fall back by close to 8 per cent next financial year before increasing by 3 per cent per year up to 2024/25. This means that the spending-to-GDP ratio falls back to around 43 per cent by 2024/25, a couple of percentage points higher than was forecast back in March.
Deficits and debt
The difference between spending and receipts is known as public-sector net borrowing. While the extent of borrowing can be inferred by inspection of Chart 1, it can be seen more readily in Chart 2 which plots the path of public-sector net borrowing as a share of GDP.
The OBR is now forecasting a budget deficit of £322 billion (excluding the summer statement measures) in 2020/21 compared to £55 billion at the time of the March Budget. This would be equivalent to over 16 per cent of GDP, the highest since the Second World War. In a follow-up presentation on the Fiscal Stability Report on the 14 July the OBR suggested that the inclusion of summer statement measures could mean the deficit being as high as £375 billion, implying a deficit-to-GDP ratio of just shy of 19 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Deficits represent borrowing and are therefore a flow concept. The accumulated deficits over the years (minus any surpluses) gives total debt, which is a stock concept. The public-sector’s net debt is its gross debt less its liquid assets, principally deposits held with financial institutions and holdings of international reserves. This is also affected by Bank of England interventions, such as the Term Funding Scheme which enables banks and building societies to borrow funds at close to Bank Rate for up to four years. Nonetheless, the key driver of net debt-to-GDP ratio going forward is the persistence of deficits.
Chart 3 shows the expected path of the net debt-to-GDP ratio. The OBR expects this to exceed 100 per cent in 2020/21 for the first time since 1960/61. This reflects an increase in cash terms of the stock of net debt to £2.2 trillion, up from £1.8 trillion at the end of 2019/20, as well as a fall in GDP. By 2024/25 the net debt stock is expected to have risen to £2.6 trillion, £600 billion more than expected at the time of the March budget, with the net debt-to-GDP ratio still above 100 per cent at 102.1 per cent. (Click herefor a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The higher debt-to-GDP ratio raises longer-term questions about the sustainability of the public finances. The government is currently reviewing its fiscal rules and is expected to report back in time for the autumn budget. A key question is what debt-stabilising level might be considered appropriate. Is it the 102 per cent that the OBR is predicting at the end of 2024/25 (the medium-term horizon)? Or is it the 75 per cent that was being forecast for this point back in the March budget? This has profound implications for the fiscal arithmetic and, specifically, for the primary balance (the difference between non-interest spending and receipts) that the public sector needs to run.
If the government accepts a higher debt-to-GDP ratio as a ‘new norm’ that eases the fiscal arithmetic somewhat. However, some economists would be concerned about the economic consequences of larger public-sector debts, most notably so-called potential crowding-out effects on private-sector investment if upward pressure on interest rates was to materialise (see the news item MMT – a Magic Money Tree or Modern Monetary Theory?).
Even if the higher stabilising debt level was deemed appropriate, the OBR’s report analysis suggests problems in the government meeting this because it could still be running a primary deficit of 3.7 per cent of GDP by 2024/25. Therefore, even with interest rates expected to be lower than economic growth rates in 2024/25 (a negative growth-corrected interest rate) that enable governments to run primary deficits and yet maintain debt-to-GDP ratios, the debt-stabilising primary deficit for 2024/25 is estimated at only 3.2 per cent. All in all, this points to difficult fiscal choices ahead.
- What do you understand by the term financial wellbeing? What might this mean in respect of the government?
- What is meant by the fiscal arithmetic of government debt? Explain the factors that determine the fiscal arithmetic and the path of government debt?
- What is the difference between an increase in the size of a government deficit and an increase in the stock of government debt?
- Discuss the economic argument that, following the COVID-19 pandemic, government should avoid a return to an agenda of fiscal austerity ?
- What is the difference between the budget deficit, the primary deficit and the structural deficit?
- What are hysteresis effects? Discuss their relevancy in the design of the UK’s COVID-19 interventions.
Is there a ‘magic money tree’? Is it desirable for central banks to create money to finance government deficits?
The standard thinking of conservative governments around the world is that creating money to finance deficits will be inflationary. Rather, governments should attempt to reduce deficits. This will reduce the problem of government expenditure crowding out private expenditure and reduce the burden placed on future generations of having to finance higher government debt.
If deficits rise because of government response to an emergency, such as supporting people and businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, then, as soon as the problem begins to wane, governments should attempt to reduce the higher deficits by raising taxes or cutting government expenditure. This was the approach of many governments, including the Coalition and Conservative governments in the UK from 2010, as econommies began to recover from the 2007/8 financial crisis.
‘Modern Monetary Theory‘ challenges these arguments. Advocates of the theory support the use of higher deficits financed by monetary expansion if the money is spent on things that increase potential output as well as actual output. Examples include spending on R&D, education, infrastructure, health and housing.
Modern monetary theorists still accept that excess demand will lead to inflation. Governments should therefore avoid excessive deficits and central banks should avoid creating excessive amounts of money. But, they argue that inflation caused by excess demand has not been a problem for many years in most countries. Instead, we have a problem of too little investment and too little spending generally. There is plenty of scope, they maintain, for expanding demand. This, if carefully directed, can lead to productivity growth and an expansion of aggregate supply to match the rise in aggregate demand.
Government deficits, they argue, are not intrinsically bad. Government debt is someone else’s assets, whether in the form of government bonds, savings certificates, Treasury bills or other instruments. Provided the debt can be serviced at low interest rates, there is no problem for the government and the spending it generates can be managed to allow economies to function at near full capacity.
The following videos and articles look at modern monetary theory and assess its relevance. Not surprisingly, they differ in their support of the theory!
- Modern monetary theory: the rise of economists who say huge government debt is not a problem
The Conversation, John Whittaker (7/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory: How MMT is challenging the economic establishment
ABC News, Gareth Hutchens (20/7/20)
- What is Modern Monetary Theory and is it THE answer?
Sydney Morning Herald, Jessica Irvine (2/7/20)
- MMT: what is modern monetary theory and will it work?
MoneyWeek, Stuart Watkins (14/7/20)
- MMT: the magic money tree bears fruit
MoneyWeek, Stuart Watkins (17/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory is no Magic Money Tree
Adam Smith Institute, Matt Kilcoyne (20/5/20)
- “Modern Monetary Theory” Goes Mainstream
Forbes, Nathan Lewis (10/7/20)
- How Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have become Magic Money Tree huggers
The Scotsman, Bill Jamieson (16/7/20)
- Ignore the impacts of debt-fuelled stimulus at your peril
Livewire, David Rosenbloom (14/7/20)
- Modern Monetary Theory, explained
Vox.com, Dylan Matthews (16/4/19)
- Compare traditional Keynesian economics and modern monetary theory.
- Using the equation of exchange, MV = PY, what would a modern monetary theorist say about the effect of an expansion of M on the other variables?
- What is the role of fiscal policy in modern monetary theory?
- What evidence might suggest that money supply has been unduly restricted?
- When, according to modern monetary theory, is a rising government deficit (a) not a problem; (b) a problem?
- Is there any truth in the saying, ‘There’s no such thing as a magic money tree’?
- Provide a critique of modern monetary theory.