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?
China has been an economic powerhouse in recent decades – a powerhouse that has helped to drive the world economy through trade and both inward and outward investment. At the same time, its low-priced exports have helped to dampen world inflation. But is all this changing? Is China, to use President Biden’s words, a ‘ticking time bomb’?
China’s economic growth rate is slowing, with the quarterly growth in GDP falling from 2.2% in Q1 this year to 0.8% in Q2. Even though public-sector investment rose by 8.1% in the first six months of this year, private-sector investment fell by 0.2%, reflecting waning business confidence. And manufacturing output declined in August. But, despite slowing growth, the Chinese government is unlikely to use expansionary fiscal policy because of worries about growing public-sector debt.
The property market
One of the biggest worries for the Chinese economy is the property market. The annual rate of property investment fell by 20.6% in June this year and new home prices fell by 0.2% in July (compared with June). The annual rate of price increase for new homes was negative throughout 2022, being as low as minus 1.6% in November 2022; it was minus 0.1% in the year to July 2023, putting new-home prices at 2.4% below their August 2021 level. However, these are official statistics. According to the Japan Times article linked below, which reports Bloomberg evidence, property agents and private data providers report much bigger falls, with existing home prices falling by at least 15% in many cities.
Falling home prices have made home-owners poorer and this wealth effect acts as a brake on spending. The result is that, unlike in many Western countries, there has been no post-pandemic bounce back in spending. There has also been a dampening effect on local authority spending. During the property boom they financed a proportion of their spending by selling land to property developers. That source of revenue has now largely dried up. And as public-sector revenues have been constrained, so this has constrained infrastructure spending – a major source of growth in China.
The government, however, has been unwilling to compensate for this by encouraging private investment and has tightened regulation of the financial sector. The result has been a decline in new jobs and a rise in unemployment, especially among graduates, where new white collar jobs in urban areas are declining. According to the BBC News article linked below, “In July, figures showed a record 21.3% of jobseekers between the ages of 16 and 25 were out of work”.
The fall in demand has caused consumer prices to fall. In the year to July 2023, they fell by 0.3%. Even though core inflation is still positive (0.8%), the likelihood of price reductions in the near future discourages spending as people hold back, waiting for prices to fall further. This further dampens the economy. This is a problem that was experienced in Japan over many years.
Despite slowing economic growth, Chinese annual growth in GDP for 2023 is still expected to be around 4.5% – much lower than the average rate for 9.5% from 1991 to 2019, but considerably higher than the average of 1.1% forecast for 2023 for the G7 countries. Nevertheless, China’s exports fell by 14.5% in the year to July 2023 and imports fell by 12.5%. The fall in imports represents a fall in exports to China from the rest of the world and hence a fall in injections to the rest-of-the-world economy. Currently China’s role as a powerhouse of the world has gone into reverse.
- Using PowerPoint or Excel, plot the growth rate of Chinese real GDP, real exports and real imports from 1990 to 2024 (using forecasts for 2023 and 2024). Use data from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database. Comment on the figures.
- Explain the wealth effect from falling home prices.
- Why may official figures understate the magnitude of home price deflation?
- Explain the foreign trade multiplier and its relevance to other countries when the volume of Chinese imports changes. What determines the size of this multiplier for a specific country?
- How does the nature of the political system in China affect the likely policy response to the problems identified in this blog?
- Is there any good news for the rest of the world from the slowdown in the Chinese economy?
Last year was far from the picture of economic stability that all governments would hope for. Instead, the overarching theme of 2022 was uncertainty, which overshadowed many economic predictions throughout the year. The Collins English Dictionary announced that their word of the year for 2022 is ‘permacrisis’, which is defined as ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’.
For the UK, 2022 was an eventful year, seeing two changes in prime minister, economic stagnation, financial turmoil, rampant inflation and a cost of living crisis. However, the UK was not alone in its economic struggles. Many believe that it is a minor miracle that the world did not experience a systemic financial crisis in 2022.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the biggest land war in Europe since 1945, the most serious risk of nuclear escalation since the Cuban missile crisis and the most far-reaching sanctions regime since the 1930s. Soaring food and energy costs have fuelled the highest rates of inflation since the 1980s and the biggest macroeconomic challenge in the modern era of central banking (with the possible exception of the financial crisis of 2007–8 and its aftermath). For decades we have lived with the assumptions that nuclear war was never going to happen, inflation will be kept low and rich countries will not experience an energy crisis. In 2022 all of these assumptions and more have been shaken.
With the combination of rising interest rates and a massive increase in geopolitical risk, the world economy did well to survive as robustly as it did. However, with public and private debt having risen to record levels during the now-bygone era of ultra-low interest rates and with recession risks high, the global financial system faces a huge stress test.
Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister, started 2023 by setting out five pledges: to halve inflation, boost economic growth, cut national debt as a percentage of GDP, and to address NHS waiting lists and the issue of immigrants arriving in small boats. Whilst most would agree that meeting these pledges is desirable, a reduction in inflation is forecast to happen anyway, given the monetary policy being pursued by the Bank of England and an easing of commodity prices; and public-sector debt as a percentage of GDP is forecast to fall from 2024/25.
Success in meeting the first four pledges will partly depend on the effects of the current industrial action by workers across the UK. How soon will the various disputes be settled and on what terms? What will be the implications for service levels and for inflation?
A weak global economy
Success will also depend on the state of the global economy, which is currently very fragile. In fact, it is predicted that a third of the global economy will be hit by recession this year. The head of the IMF has warned that the world faces a ‘tougher’ year in 2023 than in the previous 12 months. Such comments suggest the IMF is likely soon to cut its economic forecasts for 2023 again. The IMF already cut its 2023 outlook for global economic growth in October, citing the continuing drag from the war in Ukraine, as well as inflationary pressures and interest rate rises by major central banks.
The World Bank has also described the global economy as being ‘on a razor’s edge’ and warns that it risks falling into recession this year. The organisation expects the world economy to grow by just 1.7% this year, which is a sharp fall from an estimated 2.9% in 2022 according to the Global Economic Prospects report (see link below). It has warned that if financial conditions tighten, then the world’s economy could easily fall into a recession. If this becomes a reality, then the current decade would become the first since the 1930s to include two global recessions. Growth forecasts have been lowered for 95% of advanced economies and for more than 70% of emerging market and developing economies compared with six months ago. Given the global outlook, it is no surprise that the UK economy is expected to face a prolonged recession with declining growth and increased unemployment.
The current state of the UK economy
Despite all the concerns, official figures show that, even though households have been squeezed by rising prices, UK real GDP unexpectedly grew in November, by 0.1%. This has been explained by a boost to bars and restaurants from the World Cup as people went out to watch the football and also by demand for services in the tech sector.
At first sight, the UK’s cost of living crisis might look fairly mild compared to other countries. Its inflation rate was 10.7% in November 2022, compared to 12.6% in Italy, 16% in Poland and over 20% in Hungary and Estonia. But UK inflation is still way above the Bank of England’s 2% target. The Bank went on to tighten monetary policy further, by increasing interest rates to 3.5% in December. Further rate rises are expected in 2023. In fact, the markets and the Bank both expect the main rate to reach 5.2% by the end of this year. With the consequent squeeze on real incomes, the Bank of England expects a recession in the UK this year – possibly lasting until mid-2024.
The UK is also affected by global interest rates, which affect global growth. Global interest rates average 5%. A 1 percentage point increase would reduce global growth this year from 1.7% to 0.6%, with per capita output contracting by 0.3%, once changes in population are taken into account. This would then meet the technical definition of a global recession. This means that the Bank’s November economic forecast, which was based on a Bank Rate of 3%, may worsen due to an even larger contraction than previously expected. The resulting drop in spending and investment by people and businesses could then cause inflation to come down faster than the Bank had predicted when rates were at 3%.
There could be some positive news however, that may help bring down inflation in addition to rate rises. There has been some appreciation in the pound since the huge drop caused by the September mini-budget that had brought its value to a nearly 40-year low. This will help to reduce inflation by reducing the price of imports.
As far as workers are concerned, pay increases have been broadly contained, with 2022 being one of the worst years in decades for UK real wage growth. Limiting pay rises can have a deflationary effect because people have less to spend, but it also weighs on economic growth and productivity. Despite the impact on inflation, there is a lot of unrest across the UK, with strike action continuing to be at the forefront of the news. Strikes over pay and conditions continue in various sectors in 2023, including transport, health, education and the postal service. Strikes and industrial action have a negative effect on the wider economy. If wages are stagnating and the economy is not performing well, productivity will suffer as workers are less motivated and less investment in new equipment takes place.
The UK economy is also under threat of a prolonged recession due to the proportion of households that lack insulation against financial setbacks. This proportion is unusually large for a wealthy economy. A survey conducted prior to the pandemic, found that 3 million people in the UK would fall into poverty if they missed one pay cheque, with the country’s high housing costs being a key source of vulnerability. Another survey recently suggested that one-third of UK adults would struggle if their costs rose by just £20 a month.
The pandemic itself meant that over 4 million households have taken on additional debt, with many now falling behind on repaying it. This, combined with recent jumps in energy and food bills, could push many over the edge, especially if heating costs remain high when the present government cap on energy prices ends in April.
However, there could be some better news for households with the easing of COVID restrictions in China. This could have a positive impact on the UK economy if it helps ease supply-chain disruptions occurring since the height of the global pandemic. It could reduce inflationary pressure in the UK and other countries that trade with China by making it easier – and therefore less costly – for people to get hold of goods.
- Define the term ‘deflation’.
- Explain how an appreciation of the pound is good for inflation.
- Discuss the wider economic impacts of industrial strike action.
- Why is it important for the government to keep wages contained?
Over the decades, economies have become increasingly interdependent. This process of globalisation has involved a growth in international trade, the spread of technology, integrated financial markets and international migration.
When the global economy is growing, globalisation spreads the benefits around the world. However, when there are economic problems in one part of the world, this can spread like a contagion to other parts. This was clearly illustrated by the credit crunch of 2007–8. A crisis that started in the sub-prime market in the USA soon snowballed into a worldwide recession. More recently, the impact of Covid-19 on international supply chains has highlighted the dangers of relying on a highly globalised system of production and distribution. And more recently still, the war in Ukraine has shown the dangers of food and fuel dependency, with rapid rises in prices of basic essentials having a disproportionate effect on low-income countries and people on low incomes in richer countries.
Moves towards autarky
So is the answer for countries to become more self-sufficient – to adopt a policy of greater autarky? Several countries have moved in this direction. The USA under President Trump pursued a much more protectionist agenda than his predecessors. The UK, although seeking new post-Brexit trade relationships, has seen a reduction in trade as new barriers with the EU have reduced UK exports and imports as a percentage of GDP. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s November 2022 Economic and Fiscal Outlook, Brexit will result in the UK’s trade intensity being 15 per cent lower in the long run than if it had remained in the EU.
Many European countries are seeking to achieve greater energy self-sufficiency, both as a means of reducing reliance on Russian oil and gas, but also in pursuit of a green agenda, where a greater proportion of energy is generated from renewables. More generally, countries and companies are considering how to reduce the risks of relying on complex international supply chains.
Limits to the gains from trade
The gains from international trade stem partly from the law of comparative advantage, which states that greater levels of production can be achieved by countries specialising in and exporting those goods that can be produced at a lower opportunity cost and importing those in which they have a comparative disadvantage. Trade can also lead to the transfer of technology and a downward pressure on costs and prices through greater competition.
But trade can increase dependence on unreliable supply sources. For example, at present, some companies are seeking to reduce their reliance on Taiwanese parts, given worries about possible Chinese actions against Taiwan.
Also, governments have been increasingly willing to support domestic industries with various non-tariff barriers to imports, especially since the 2007–8 financial crisis. Such measures include subsidies, favouring domestic firms in awarding government contracts and using regulations to restrict imports. These protectionist measures are often justified in terms of achieving security of supply. The arguments apply particularly starkly in the case of food. In the light of large price increases in the wake of the Ukraine war, many countries are considering how to increase food self-sufficiency, despite it being more costly.
Also, trade in goods involves negative environmental externalities, as freight transport, whether by sea, air or land, involves emissions and can add to global warming. In 2021, shipping emitted over 830m tonnes of CO2, which represents some 3% of world total CO2 emissions. In 2019 (pre-pandemic), the figure was 800m tonnes. The closer geographically the trading partner, the lower these environmental costs are likely to be.
The problems with a globally interdependent world have led to world trade growing more slowly than world GDP in recent years after decades of trade growth considerably outstripping GDP growth. Trade (imports plus exports) as a percentage of GDP peaked at just over 60% in 2008. In 2019 and 2021 it was just over 56%. This is illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint). Although trade as a percentage of GDP rose slightly from 2020 to 2021 as economies recovered from the pandemic, it is expected to have fallen back again in 2022 and possibly further in 2023.
But despite this reduction in trade as a percentage of GDP, with de-globalisation likely to continue for some time, the world remains much more interdependent than in the more distant past (as the chart shows). Greater autarky may be seen as desirable by many countries as a response to the greater economic and political risks of the current world, but greater autarky is a long way from complete self-sufficiency. The world is likely to remain highly interdependent for the foreseeable future. Reports of the ‘death of globalisation’ are premature!
- Explain the law of comparative advantage and demonstrate how trade between two countries can lead to both countries gaining.
- What are the main economic problems arising from globalisation?
- Is the answer to the problems of globalisation to move towards greater autarky?
- Would the expansion/further integration of trading blocs be a means of exploiting the benefits of globalisation while reducing the risks?
- Is the role of the US dollar likely to decline over time and, if so, why?
- Summarise Karl Polanyi’s arguments in The Great Transformation (see the Daniel W. Drezner article linked below). How well do they apply to the current world situation?
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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- Government is undercutting UK institutions, says former Bank governor
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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)
- Mark Carney accuses Truss government of undermining Bank of England
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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?