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?
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.
On 3 November, the Bank of England announced the highest interest rate rise in 33 years. It warned that the UK is facing the longest recession since records began. With the downturn starting earlier than expected and predicted to last for longer, households, businesses and the government are braced for a challenging few years ahead.
The Monetary Policy Committee increased Bank Rate to 3% from the previous rate of 2.25%. This 75-basis point increase is the largest since 1989 and is the eighth rise since December. What is more, the Bank has warned that it will not stop there. These increases in interest rates are there to try to tackle inflation, which rose to 10.1% in September and is expected to be 11% for the final quarter of this year. Soaring prices are a growing concern for UK households, with the cost of living rising at the fastest rate for 40 years. It is feared that such increases in the Bank’s base rate will only worsen household circumstances.
There are various causes of the current cost-of-living crisis. These include the pandemic’s effect on production, the aftermath in terms of supply-chain problems and labour shortages, the war in Ukraine and its effect on energy and food prices, and poor harvests in many parts of the world, including many European countries. It has been reported that grocery prices in October were 4.7% higher than in October 2021. This is the highest rate of food price inflation on record and means shoppers could face paying an extra £682 per year on average.
There is real concern about the impact of the interest rates rise on the overall economy but, in particular, on peoples’ mortgages. Bank of England Governor, Andrew Bailey, warned of a ‘tough road ahead’ for UK households, but said that the MPC had to act forcefully now or things ‘will be worse later on’.
However, it could be argued that there was a silver lining in Thursday’s announcement. The future rises in interest rates are predicted to peak at a lower rate than previously thought. Amongst all the mini-budget chaos, there was concern that rates could surpass the 6% mark. Now the Bank of England has given the assurance that future rate rises will be limited and that Bank Rate should not increase beyond 5% by next autumn. The Bank was keen to reassure markets of this by making clear the thinking behind the decision in the published minutes of MPC meeting.
With the Bank warning of the longest recession since records began, what does this actually mean? Economies experience periods of growth and periods of slowdown or even decline in real GDP. However, a recession is defined as when a country’s economy shrinks for two three-month periods (quarters) in a row. The last time the UK experienced a recession was in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. During a recession, businesses typically make less profits, pay falls, some people may lose their jobs and unemployment rises. This means that the government receives less money in taxation to use on public services such as health and education. Graduates and school leavers could find it harder to get their first job, while others may find it harder to be promoted or to get big enough pay rises to keep pace with price increases. However, the pain of a recession is typically not felt equally across society, and inequality can increase.
The Bank had previously expected the UK to fall into recession at the end of this year but the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that GDP fell by 0.3% in the three months to August. The Bank is predicting that GDP will shrink by 0.5% between May and August 2023, followed by a further fall of 0.3% between September and December. The Bank then expects the UK economy to remain in recession throughout 2023 and the first half of 2024.
With the higher interest rates, borrowing costs are now at their highest since 2008, when the UK banking system faced collapse in the wake of the global financial crisis. The Bank believes that by raising interest rates it will make it more expensive to borrow and encourage people not to spend money, easing the pressure on prices in the process. It does, however, mean that savers will start to benefit from higher rates (but still negative real rates), but it will have a knock-on effect on those with mortgages, credit card debt and bank loans.
The recession in 2020 only lasted for six months, although the 20.4% reduction in the UK economy between April and June that year was the largest on record. The one before that started in 2008 with the global financial crisis and went on for five quarters. Whilst it will not be the UK’s deepest downturn, the Bank stressed that it will be the longest since records began in the 1920s.
Those with mortgages are rightly feeling nervous about the impact that further increases in mortgage interest rates will have on their budgets. Variable mortgage rates and new fixed rates have been rising for several months because of this year’s run of rate rises but they shot up after the mini-Budget. The Bank forecasts that if interest rates continue to rise, those whose fixed rate deals are coming to an end could see their annual payments soar by an average of £3000.
Homebuyers with tracker or variable rate mortgages will feel the pain of the rate rise immediately, while the estimated 300 000 people who must re-mortgage this month will find that two-year and five-year fixed rates remain at levels not seen since the 2008 financial crisis. However, the Bank said that the cost of fixed-rate mortgages had already come down from the levels seen at the height of the panic in the wake of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget, which sent them soaring above 6%.
There is a fear of the devastating impact on those who simply cannot afford further increases in payments. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) said an extra 120 000 households in the UK, the equivalent of 400 000 people, will be plunged into poverty when their current mortgage deal ends. The analysis assumes that mortgage rates remain high, with homeowners forced to move to an interest rate of around 5.5%. For people currently on fixed rates typically of around of 2% which are due to expire, this change would mean a huge increase. Such people, on average, would find the proportion of their monthly income going on housing costs rising from 38% to 54%. In cash terms this equates to an average increase of £250, from £610 a month to £860 a month.
In addition to these higher monthly home-loan costs threatening to pull another 400 000 people into poverty, such turmoil in the mortgage market would increase competition for rental properties and could result in rents for new lets rising sharply as the extra demand allows buy-to-let landlords to pass on their higher loan costs (or more).
Since the mini-Budget, the level of the pound and government borrowing costs have somewhat recovered. However, mortgage markets and business loans are still showing signs of stress, adding to the prolonged hit to the economy. The Bank now forecasts that the unemployment rate will rise, while household incomes will come down too. The unemployment rate is currently at its lowest for 50 years, but it is expected to rise to nearly 6.5%.
Looking to the future
It is the case that the lasting effects of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the energy shock have all played their part in the current economic climate. However, it could be argued that the Bank and the government are now making decisions that will inflict further pain and sacrifice for millions of households, who are already facing multi-thousand-pound increases in mortgage, energy and food bills.
There have been further concerns raised about the possible tax rises planned by the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. If large tax rises and spending cuts are set out in the Autumn Statement of 17 November, the Bank of England’s chief economist has warned that Britain risks a deeper than expected economic slowdown. This could weigh on the British economy by more than the central bank currently anticipates, in a development that would force it to rethink its approach to setting interest rates.
There is no doubt that the future economic picture looks painful, with the UK performing worse than the USA and the eurozone. The Bank Governor, Andrew Bailey, believes that the mini-Budget had damaged the UK’s reputation internationally, stating, ‘it was very apparent to me that the UK’s position and the UK’s standing had been damaged’. However, both the Governor and the Chancellor or the Exchequer agree that action needs to be taken now in order for the economy to stabilise long term.
Jeremey Hunt, the Chancellor, explained that the most important thing the British government can do right now is to restore stability, sort out the public finances and get debt falling so that interest rate rises are kept as low as possible. This echoes the Bank’s belief in the importance of acting forcefully now in order to prevent things being much worse later on. With the recession predicted to last into 2024, the same year as a possible general election, the Conservatives face campaigning to remain in government at the tail end of a prolonged slump.
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- Define the term ‘recession’ and how is it measured.
- Explain what happens to the key macroeconomic indicators during this period of the business cycle.
- Which policies would governments normally implement to get a economy into the
- expansionary/recovery phase of the business cycle and how do they work?
- What is the issue of raising interest rates during a downturn or recession?
- With unemployment expected to rise, explain what type of unemployment this is. What policies could be introduced to reduce this type of unemployment?
On 23 September, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced his mini-Budget. It revealed big tax-cutting plans with the aim of stimulating economic growth. See the blog From Reaganomics to Trussonomics for details. However, the announcement triggered a crisis of confidence in the markets. The government says the measures will kickstart economic growth, but with the tax cuts funded through extra government borrowing, markets have raised alarm over the plans, sending the pound plunging.
On Monday 26 September, traders in the UK awoke to see that the pound had fallen to the new lowest level on record against the dollar of $1.03. Although it came at a time when the markets expected the pound to weaken, the announcement pushed a fall in the pound beyond previous expectations. Concerns about where the extra money would come from to pay for the tax cuts were reflected in market movements. A weaker currency suggests investors’ faith in a country’s economic prospects is wavering.
What does a falling pound mean?
The pound’s value affects everyone – from shoppers to business owners and investors. The main impacts of the falling pound include:
- Higher prices. A fall in the value of the pound will increase the price of goods and services imported into the UK from overseas. When the pound is weak against the dollar, it costs more for companies in the UK to buy things such as food, raw materials or parts from abroad. Firms are likely then to pass on some or all those higher costs to their customers.
- Higher mortgage repayments. By increasing inflation, a falling pound is likely to push the Bank of England to raise interest rates to counter this. With two million people in the UK on a tracker or variable rate mortgage, monthly costs could increase substantially. Lenders are also likely to increase the rates charged on credit cards, bank loans or car loans.
- Further pressure on energy costs. The price of all of the gas that the UK uses is based on the dollar – even if the gas is produced in the UK. As oil prices are based on the dollar, petrol and diesel could also be more expensive for UK drivers as it costs more to be imported by fuel companies. Although the dollar price of oil has been falling in recent weeks, consumers are not likely to see the benefit at the pump due to the slide in the value of the pound.
- Stronger sales for UK firms who sell goods abroad. Some businesses in the UK could get a boost from a fall in the value of the pound. A cheaper pound makes it less expensive for people from around the globe to buy goods and services from British firms, making them more competitive.
- More expensive trips abroad. The plunge in the pound means that people’s holiday money won’t stretch as far, particularly for anyone planning a trip to the USA. The depreciation of the pound could also see airlines face sharply increased costs, with fuel and aircraft leases often denominated in dollars.
Threat to confidence
The Bank of England said a weaker outlook for the UK economy as well as a stronger dollar were putting pressure on sterling. However, market responses were clear that Kwarteng’s mini-Budget was threatening to undermine confidence in the UK. The pound plunged to its lowest since Britain went decimal in 1971, as belief in the UK’s economic management and assets evaporated.
By Tuesday 27 September, there were expectations that the Bank of England would have to raise interest rates to counter the extra spending in the mini-Budget. Economists from the City suggested the slump in the pound would not just force the Bank of England into raising rates at the next MPC announcement in November, but to intervene now by announcing an emergency interest rate rise to support the currency. This sent mortgage activity into a frenzy as brokers worked around the clock to help clients secure deals before lenders pulled their products or replaced them with more expensive ones. By the end of the week there were 40% fewer products available than before the mini-Budget.
The Bank of England
In August, the Bank predicted that the UK would go into recession, lasting some 15 months. It did so as it raised interest rates by the highest margin in 27 years (0.5 percentage points) in a bid to keep soaring prices under control. Higher interest rates can make borrowing more expensive, meaning people have less money to spend and prices will stop rising as quickly. The Bank of England is expected to raise interest rates by an even larger amount to combat the inflationary impact of the mini-Budget, as a weakening pound drives up costs of imports. The money markets are pricing a doubling of UK interest rates to more than 5% by next summer.
On Thursday 29 September the cost of government borrowing was rising to levels many economists thought were concerning. After the mini-Budget, the UK Debt Management Office, which borrows on behalf of the government by issuing new government bonds (‘gilts’), plans to raise an additional £72bn before next April, raising the financing remit in 2022/23 to £234bn. The investors in bonds are mainly large institutions, such as pension funds.
New bonds are issued at a fixed payment per annum based on the face value. If interest rates rise, then new bonds must pay a higher amount per annum to attract purchasers. Old bonds with a relatively low payment per year will fall in value. For example, if a £100 bond issued a while back paid £2 per annum (a nominal 2%) and interest rates on equivalent assets rose to 4%, the market price of the bond would fall to £50, as £2 per annum is 4% of £50. This percentage of the market price (as opposed to the face value) is known as the ‘yield’. With worries about the rise in government borrowing, bond prices fell and yields correspondingly rose. Investors were demanding much higher interest rates to lend to the UK government.
The Investment Director at JM Finn compared investing in government bonds to sloths, they’re low risk and typically don’t move. This is because lending to the UK is usually considered as an ultra-safe bet. However, some bonds fell in price by 20% in two days (26–28 September).
There was concern that the mini-Budget threatened the financial health of Britain’s biggest pensions and insurance companies, which together manage trillions of pounds of people’s cash. These companies hold large amounts of UK government bonds and the fall in their price was significantly reducing the value of their assets.
The Bank of England thus announced that it would step in to calm markets, warning that continued volatility would be a ‘material risk to UK financial stability’. The Bank would start buying government bonds at an ‘urgent pace’ to help push their price back up and restore orderly market conditions. It would set aside £65bn to buy bonds over 13 working days. It is hoped that the Bank’s action will now ease the pressure on pension funds and insurance companies.
But the purchase of bonds increases money supply. This was the process by which money supply was increased during periods of quantitative easing (QE). Increasing money supply, while helping to dampen the rise in interest rates and stabilise the financial markets, is likely to lead to higher inflation. The Bank of England had previously planned to do the opposite: to engage in quantitative tightening (QT), which involves selling some of the stock of (old) bonds which the Bank had accumulated during the various rounds of QE.
Despite the Bank of England’s action which helped to curb the fall in the sterling exchange rate, some analysts warned it could fall further and could even reach parity with the dollar. There are concerns that the Bank is simply firefighting, rather than being able to solve the wider problems. There is now growing pressure on the government to make clear the financial cost of its tax cuts and spending plans.
Criticism from the IMF
There has been widespread criticism of the government’s plan, with the International Monetary Fund warning on Tuesday 27 September that the measures were likely to fuel the cost-of-living crisis and increase inequality. The stinging rebuke from the IMF arrived at the worst moment for the UK government. The IMF works to stabilise the global economy and one of its key roles is to act as an early economic warning system. It said it understood the package aimed to boost growth, but it warned that the cuts could speed up the pace of price rises, which the UK’s central bank is trying to bring down. In an unusually outspoken statement, the IMF said the proposal was likely to increase inequality and add to pressures pushing up prices.
Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England also criticised the government, accusing them of ‘undercutting’ the UK’s key economic institutions. Mr Carney said that while the government was right to want to boost economic growth, ‘There is a lag between today and when that growth might come.’ He also criticised the government for undercutting various institutions that underpin the overall approach, including not having an OBR forecast.
What is next for the economy?
Before the announcement, the Bank had expected the economy to shrink in the last three months of 2022 and keep shrinking until the end of 2023. However, some economists believe the UK could already be in recession. The impacts of the mini-Budget have so far not alleviated fears of the UK diving into recession. However, the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, also warned that little could be done to stop the UK falling into a recession this year as the war in Ukraine continued. He added that it would ‘overwhelmingly be caused by the actions of Russia and the impact on energy prices’.
Despite the external pressures on the economy, it is clear that recent market activity has damaged confidence. The Bank has already said it will ‘not hesitate’ to hike interest rates to try to protect the pound and stem surging prices. Some economists have predicted the Bank of England will raise the interest rate from the current 2.25% to 5.75% by next spring.
The Bank’s action of emergency bond purchases helped provide Kwarteng with some respite from the financial markets after three days of turmoil, which included strong criticism of the mini-Budget from the International Monetary Fund, about 1000 mortgage products pulled and interest rates on UK government bonds hitting their highest level since 2008.
On 3 October, at the start of the Conservative Party annual conference, Kwarteng announced that the planned cut in the top rate of income tax from 45% to 40% would not go ahead. This showed that the government would change course if pressure was strong enough. That day, the sterling exchange rate against the dollar appreciated by around 0.5% to around $1.12.
But this was not enough. The pressure was still on the government. There were urgent calls from the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee to bring forward the government’s financial statement, which was not due until 23 November, by at least a month. The government was urged to publish growth forecasts as soon as possible to help calm the markets. In response, on 4 October the government agreed to bring the financial statement forward to late October along with the forecasts of its impacts from the OBR.
However, Truss and Kwarteng have so far resisted this pressure to bring analysis of their tax plans forward. They have refused independent analysis of their plans until more than six weeks after receiving them, despite more calls from Tory MPs for Downing Street to reassure the markets. The Prime Minister and Chancellor said they would only publish the independent forecasts on 23 November alongside a fiscal statement, despite them being ready on 7 October.
Longer term impacts
Amongst all the activity in the week following the mini-Budget, there are real concerns of the longer-term impacts the budget will have on the economy. Some experts predict that the lasting effects of the ‘mini’ Budget will be felt far beyond the trading floors. Large tax cuts the government claimed would boost growth have instead convinced markets the UK’s entire macroeconomic framework is under threat. Although this turmoil has been the short-term result, it’s important to step back and think about how the effects of this abrupt shift in economic policy will be felt far beyond the trading floors.
Sterling’s partial recovery a few days after the mini-Budget reflects an increased confidence that there will be a large interest rate rise coming on November 3. However, the bleak economic outlook has removed any fiscal headroom the government may have had. The largest tax cuts in five decades need funding, while spooking the markets means another £12.5bn a year added to the debt interest bill. However, Kwarteng remains committed to debt falling eventually.
It is estimated that there needs to be a fiscal tightening of around £37–£47bn by 2026/27. Even more could be required to ensure that tax revenues cover day-to-day spending or for even a small margin for error. Many have therefore called for a U-turn on the measures announced in the mini-Budget beyond abolishing the cut to the top rate of income tax. Performing a U-turn on some of the tax cuts would make the fiscal tightening much more achievable. However, it could be politically detrimental. Much lower taxes will mean less public spending. Some suggest that this trade-off was ignored when those tax cuts were announced, but market pressure has now put it centre stage.
The Prime Minister has since admitted that mistakes were made in the controversial ‘mini’ Budget that sparked market turmoil in the last week of September. However, a day before reversing the cut in the top rate of income tax, she said she would not retreat on her plan to deliver £45bn of unfunded tax cuts, insisting it would help deliver growth, but admitted: ‘We should have laid the ground better and I have learned from that.’
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- From mini-budget to market turmoil: Kwasi Kwarteng’s week – video timeline
The Guardian, Elena Morresi and Monika Cvorak plus sources as credited (30/9/22)
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The Guardian, Rowena Mason and Aubrey Allegretti (30/9/22)
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- Sterling hits all-time low: two things can turn this around but neither is straightforward
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- Explain how the announced tax cut will stimulate economic growth.
- What is the impact of the weakened pound on UK households and businesses?
- Draw a diagram illustrating the way in which the $/£ exchange rate is determined.
- How is UK inflation likely to be affected by a depreciation of sterling?
- Are there any advantages of having a lower pound?