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?
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.
- 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.
Inflation across the world has been rising. This has been caused by a rise in aggregate demand as the global economy has ‘bounced back’ from the pandemic, while supply-chain disruptions and tight labour markets constrain the ability of aggregate supply to respond to the rise in demand.
But what of the coming months? Will supply become more able to respond to demand as supply-chain issues ease, allowing further economic growth and an easing of inflationary pressures?
Or will higher inflation and higher taxes dampen real demand and cause growth, or even output, to fall? Are we about to enter an era of ‘stagflation’, where economies experience rising inflation and economic stagnation? And will stagnation be made worse by central banks which raise interest rates to dampen the inflation but, in the process, dampen spending.
Despite the worries of central banks, with inflation being higher than forecast a few months ago, forecasts (e.g. the OECD’s) are still for inflation to peak fairly soon and then to fall back to around 2 to 3 per cent by the beginning of 2023 – close to central bank target rates.
In the UK, annual CPI inflation reached 5.4% in December 2021. The UK Treasury’s January 2022 new monthly forecasts for the UK economy by 15 independent institutions give an average forecast of 4.0% for CPI inflation for 2022. In the USA, annual consumer price inflation reached 7 per cent in December 2021, but is forecast to fall to just over the target rate of 2% by the end of 2022.
If central banks respond to the current high inflation by raising interest rates more than very slightly and by stopping quantitative easing (QE), or even engaging in quantitative tightening (selling assets purchased under previous QE schemes), there is a severe risk of a sharp slowdown in economic activity. Household budgets are already being squeezed by the higher prices, especially energy and food prices. And people will face higher taxes as governments seek to reduce their debts, which soared with the Covid support packages during the pandemic.
The Fed has signalled that it will end its bond buying (QE) programme in March 2022 and may well raise interest rates at the same time. Quantitative tightening may then follow. But although GDP growth is still strong in the USA, Fed policy and stretched household budgets could well see spending slow and growth fall. Stagflation is less likely in the USA than in the UK and many other countries, but there is still the danger of over-reaction by the Fed given the predicted fall in inflation.
But there are reasons to be confident that stagflation can be avoided. Supply-chain bottlenecks are likely to ease and are already showing signs of doing so, with manufacturing production recovering and hold-ups at docks easing. The danger may increasingly become one of demand being excessively dampened rather than supply being constrained. Under these circumstances, inflation could rapidly fall, as is being forecast.
Nevertheless, as Covid restrictions ease, the hospitality and leisure sector is likely to see a resurgence in demand, despite stagnant or falling real disposable incomes, and here there are supply constraints in the form of staffing shortages. This could well lead to higher wages and prices in the sector, but probably not enough to prevent the fall in inflation.
- Inflation will probably melt away in 2022 – central banks will do far more harm trying to tackle it
The Conversation, Brigitte Granville (14/1/22)
- Stagflation and why it matters
The Week, Chas Newkey-Burden (1/10/21)
- Surging inflation could dwarf other issues in the political landscape as households feel the strain
Sky News, Ed Conway (19/1/22)
- Inflation is back, and there’s plenty more in the pipeline
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (19/1/22)
- UK inflation jumps to highest level in 30 years
Financial Times, Chris Giles (19/1/22)
- UK workers’ pay rises fall behind inflation amid cost-of-living crisis
The Guardian, Richard Partington (18/1/22)
- UK faces a pay squeeze – and higher interest rates look likely
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (18/1/22)
- Inflation: why it’s temporary and raising interest rates will do more harm than good
The Conversation, Muhammad Ali Nasir (22/11/21)
- Inflation: why it is the biggest test yet for central bank independence
The Conversation, Anton Muscatelli (14/12/21)
- Three more interest rate rises loom after Bank’s borrowing cost shock
The Telegraph, Russell Lynch and Tim Wallace (16/12/21)
- US Stagflation: The Global Risk Of 2022 – OpEd
Eurasia Review, Dan Steinbock (17/1/22)
- If prices keep rising, a nightmare scenario for the US economy is a real possibility
CNN, Paul R La Monica (12/1/22)
- Will inflation in the UK keep rising?
Bank of England (10/12/21)
- Under what circumstances would stagflation be (a) more likely; (b) less likely?
- Find out the causes of stagflation in the early/mid-1970s.
- Argue the case for and against the Fed raising interest rates and ending its asset buying programme.
- Why are labour shortages likely to be higher in the UK than in many other countries?
- Research what is likely to happen to fuel prices over the next two years. How is this likely to impact on inflation and economic growth?
- Is the rise in prices likely to increase or decrease real wage inequality? Explain.
- Distinguish between cost-push and demand-pull inflation. Which of the two is more likely to result in stagflation?
- Why are inflationary expectations a major determinant of actual inflation? What influences inflationary expectations?