Interest rates have, for some years, been the main tool of monetary policy and of steering the macroeconomy. Across the world interest rates were lowered, in many cases to record lows, as a means of stimulating economic growth. Interest rates in the UK have been at 0.5% since March 2009 and on 2nd May 2013, the ECB matched this low rate, having cut its main interest rate from 0.75%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Low interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing for both firms and consumers and this in turn encourages investment and can boost consumer expenditure. After all, when you borrow money, you do it to spend! Lower interest rates will also reduce the return on savings, again encouraging spending and for those on variable rate mortgages, mortgage payments will fall, increasing disposable income. However, these above effects are dependent on the banks passing the ECB’s main interest rate on its customers and this is by no means guaranteed.
Following the cut in interest rates, the euro exchange rate fell almost 2 cents against the dollar.
Interest rates in the eurozone have been at 0.75%, but a 0.25 point cut was widely expected, with the ongoing debt crisis in the Eurozone continuing to adversely affect growth and confidence. A lack of trust between banks has also contributed to a lack of lending, especially to small and medium sized enterprises. The ECB has injected money into financial institutions with the aim of stimulating lending, but in many cases, banks have simply placed this extra money back with the ECB, rather than lending it to other banks or customers. The fear is that those they lend to will be unable to repay the money. In response to this, there have been suggestions of interest rates becoming negative – that is, if banks want to hold their money with the ECB they will be charged to do it. Again, the idea is to encourage banks to lend their money instead.
Small and medium sized businesses have been described as the engine of growth, but it is these businesses who have been the least able to obtain finance. Without it, they have been unable to grow and this has held back the economic recovery. Indeed, GDP in the Eurozone has now fallen for five consecutive quarters, thus prompting the latest interest rate cut. A key question, however, will be how effective this quarter of a percent cut will be. If banks were unwilling to lend and firms unwilling to invest at 0.75%, will they be more inclined at 0.5%? The change is small and many suggest that it is not enough to make much of a difference. David Brown of New View Economics said:
The ECB rate cut is no surprise as it was well flagged by Draghi at last month’s meeting. Is it enough? No. The marginal effect of the cut is very limited, but at least it should have some symbolic rallying effect on economic confidence.
This was supported by Howard Archer at HIS Global Insight, who added:
Admittedly, it is unlikely that the trimming of interest rates from 0.75% to 0.5% will have a major growth impact, especially given fragmented credit markets, but any potential help to the eurozone economy in its current state is worthwhile.
Inflation in the eurozone is only at 1.2%, which is significantly below the ceiling of 2%, so this did give the ECB scope for the rate to be cut. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) After all, when interest rates fall, the idea is to boost aggregate demand, but with this, inflation can emerge. Mr Draghi said ‘we will monitor very closely all incoming information, and assess any impact on the outlook for price stability’. The primary objective of the ECB is the control of inflation and so had inflation been somewhat higher, we may have seen a different decision by the ECB. However, even then, 5 consecutive quarters of negative growth is hard to ignore.
So, if these lower interest rates have little effect on stimulating an economic recovery, what about a movement away from austerity? Many have been calling for stimulus in the economy, arguing that the continuing austerity measures are stifling growth. The European Council President urged governments to promote growth and job creation. Referring to this, he said:
Taking these measures is more urgent than anything … After three years of firefights, patience with austerity is wearing understandably thin.
However, Mr. Draghi urged for policymakers to stick with austerity and continue to focus on bringing debt levels down, while finding other ways to stimulate growth, including structural reform. The impact of this latest rate cut will certainly take time to filter through the economy and will very much depend on whether the 0.5% interest rate is passed on to customers, especially small businesses. Confidence and trust within the financial sector is therefore key and it might be that until this emerges, the eurozone itself is unlikely to emerge from its recession.
ECB ready to enter unchartered waters as bank cuts interest rate to fresh low of 0.5pc The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/5/13)
Draghi urges Eurozone governments to stay the course on austerity Financial Times, Michael Steen (2/5/13)
Eurozone interest rates cut to a record low of 0.5% The Guardian, Heather Stewart (2/5/13)
ECB’s Draghi ‘ready to act if needed’ BBC News (2/5/13)
Eurozone interest rates cut again as ECB matches Bank of England Independent, Russell Lynch (3/5/13)
Margio Draghi urges no let-up in austerity reforms after Eurozone rate cut – as it happened The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rate to record-low 0.5% in desperate measure to drag Eurozone out of recession Mail Online, Simon Tomlinson and Hugo Duncan (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rates, open to further action Reuters, Michael Shields (2/5/13)
Eurozone loosens up austerity, slowly Wall Street Journal (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rate, not enough to pull the region out of recession The Economic Times of India (2/5/13)
Euro steady ahead of ECB interest rate announcement Wall Street Journal, Clare Connaghan (2/5/13)
European Central Bank (ECB) cuts interest rates BBC News (2/5/13)
All eyes on ECB as markets expect rate cut Financial Times, Michael Steen (2/5/13)
- How is a recession defined?
- Using an aggregate demand/aggregate supply diagram, illustrate and explain the impact that this cut in interest rates should have.
- On which factors will the effectiveness of the cut in interest rates depend?
- Using the interest rate and exchange rate transmission mechanisms to help you, show the impact of interest rates on the various components of aggregate demand and thus on national output.
- What would be the potential impact of a negative interest rate?
- Why did the low inflation rate give the ECB scope to cut interest rates?
- What are the arguments for and against austerity measures in the Eurozone, given the 5 consecutive quarters of negative growth?
Over the past five years the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has been closely studying the market for personal bank accounts in the UK. Last week, it announced its latest findings and the evidence seems to suggest that there remains a lack of competition in the market.
On the positive side, it reports that there has been a large fall in unarranged overdraft fees. However, despite this, according to the OFT banks still make on average £139 per year from every active current account. Furthermore, concentration has increased with the four largest banks (Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC and RBS) now accounting for 85% of the market and there has been little new entry. It appears that one of the key factors in enabling these main players to dominate the market and reap high profits is a lack of consumer switching behaviour. According to the OFT chief executive, Clive Maxwell:
Customers still find it difficult to assess which account offers the best deal and lack confidence that they can switch accounts easily. This prevents them from driving effective competition between providers.
Despite all these concerns, the OFT declined to refer the market to the Competition Commission for a more in-depth investigation and potential remedial action. Instead, the OFT will look at the market again in 2015. Richard Lloyd, the executive director at the consumer organisation Which?, was disappointed with this decision and was quoted in the The Guardian as saying:
Everyone – consumers, the government, leading bankers and now the OFT – seems to agree that big change is needed in banking, and that much greater competition on the high street is urgently needed to make the banks work for customers, not bankers.
Whilst at least for the moment, the Competition Commission will not get the chance to take action, there are still several reforms underway that may affect competition in the market. First, the OFT is increasing pressure on banks to allow consumers to have portable account numbers that they can take with them if they switch provider. Second, as a result of the Independent Commission’s review, banks will be required to switch a customer’s account in one week, rather than the average of 18 days it currently takes, and this process will become much more seamless. Finally, Lloyds has agreed to sell over 600 branches to the Co-op in order to meet the European Commission’s requirements following the government bail-out of the bank in 2008. This will increase the Co-op’s share of the current account market to 7%. It will be interesting to see how these reforms affect the market. If there is not substantial evidence of increased competition then the market is likely to face more scrutiny from the competition authorities.
Bank accounts: OFT says significant change needed BBC (25/01/13)
OFT: banks failing consumers The Economic Voice (25/01/13)
Let’s make bank accounts as easy to switch as mobiles The Telegraph, Andrew Oxlade (28/01/13)
OFT chief calls for more competitive banking sector The Telegraph, Denise Roland (30/01/13)
- What type of market structure best fits the banking industry?
- What are the barriers to entry in this market?
- What are the key features of the market that reduce consumer switching behaviour?
- Do you think most people are more likely to switch their mobile phone or current account provider? Explain.
- Why does limited consumer switching reduce the intensity of competition?
- Do you think the current reforms will result in a substantial increase in competition?
Oligopoly: it’s a complex market structure and although closer to the monopoly end of the ‘Market Structure Spectrum’, it can still be a highly competitive market. The characteristics are well-documented and key to the degree of competition within any oligopoly is the number of competitors and extent to which there are barriers to entry.
The greater the barriers and the fewer the competitors the greater the power the established firms have. This can then spell trouble for pricing and hence for consumers. The following articles are just some examples of the oligopolies that exist around the world and some of the benefits and problems that accompany them.
Oligopoly of PSU oil cos reason for high ATF prices The Indian Express, Smita Aggarwal (30/4/12)
Group energy buying hits the UK headlines Spend Matters UK/Europe(18/1/11)
German cartel office probes petrol companies on pricing Fox Business (4/4/12)
Gov’t unveils steps to lower fuel prices Yonhap News (19/4/12)
How big banks threaten our economy Wall Street Journal, Warren Stephens (29/4/12)
UK Governance: Call for Whitehall to simplify the landscape for SME suppliers to win more government contracts The Information Daily (26/4/12)
Pumping up the price: fuel cartels in Germany April 2012
Energy profit margins up by over 700% October 2011
Every basket helps October 2011
The art of oligopoly December 2010
- What are the assumptions of an oligopolistic market structure?
- Consider (a) the energy sector and (b) the banking sector. To what extent does each market conform with the assumptions of an oligopoly?
- In the ‘Spend Matters’ article, a group of people in a Lincolnshire village formed a local buying consortium to negotiate deals for heating oil. What could we refer to this as?
- To what extent is an oligopoly in the public interest?
- Explain how barriers to entry in oligopolies affect the competitiveness and efficiency of a market.
- Illustrate how an oligopolistic market structure can fix prices and hence exploit consumers.
- How have the actions of the big oil companies in both the UK and Germany been against independent retailers and the consumer interest?
- What action can governments take to break up oligopolies? Will it always be effective?
If you are lucky enough to have piles of money earning interest in a bank account, one thing you don’t want to be doing is facing the dreaded tax bill on the interest earned. It is for this reason that many wealthy people put their savings into bank accounts in Switzerland and other countries with strict secrecy laws. Countries, such as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Andorra, Liberia and the Principality of Monaco have previously had laws in place to prevent the effective exchange of information. This had meant that you could keep your money in an account there and the UK authorities would be unable to obtain any information for their tax records.
However, as part of an ongoing OECD initiative against harmful tax practices, more and more countries have been opening up to the exchange of information. In recent developments, Switzerland and the UK have signed an agreement, which will see them begin to negotiate on improving information exchange. In particular, the UK will be looking at the possibility of the Swiss authorities imposing a tax on any interest earned in their accounts by UK residents. This tax would be on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs. One concern, however, with this attempted crack down on tax evasion is that ‘innocent’ taxpayers could be the ones to suffer.
The following articles consider this recent development. It is also a good idea to look at the following link, which takes you to the OECD to view some recent agreements between the UK and other countries with regard to tax policy and the exchange of information. (The OECD)
UK in talks over taxing Britons’ Swiss bank accounts BBC News (26/10/10)
Doubts on plans to tackle tax evasion Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (21/10/10)
HMRC letters target taxpayers with Swiss bank accounts BBC News (25/10/10)
Spending Review: Can the taxman fix the system? BBC News, Kevin Peachey (22/10/10)
Britain, Switzerland agree to begin tax talks AFP (26/10/10)
Treasury to get £1 billion windfall in Swiss deal over secret bank accounts Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/10/10)
Swiss to help UK tax secret accounts Reuters (25/10/10)
The OECD’s Project on Hamful Tax Practices, 2006 Update on Progress in Member Countries The OECD, Centre for Tax Policy and Administration 2006
A Progress Report on the Jurisdictions surveyed by the OECD global forum in implementing the internationally agreed tax standard The OECD, Centre for Tax Policy and Administration (19/10/10)
- Is there a difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion?
- If there is crack down on tax evasion, what might be the impact on higher earners? How could this potential policy change adversely affect the performance of the UK economy?
- If tax evasion is reduced, what are the likely positive effects on everyday households?
- Is clamping down on tax evasion cost effective?
- What might be the impact on people’s willingness to work, especially of those on higher wages, if there is no longer a ‘haven’ where they can save their money?
- How could tax reform help the UK reduce its budget deficit?
Under the Basel II arrangements, banks were required to maintain particular capital adequacy ratios (CARs). These were to ensure that banks had sufficient capital to allow them to meet all demands from depositors and to cover losses if a borrower defaulted on payment. Basel II, it was (wrongly) thought would ensure that the banking system could not collapse.
There were three key ratios. The first was an overall minimum CAR of 8%, measured as Tier 1 capital plus Tier 2 capital as a percentage of total risk-weighted assets. As Economics 7th edition page 509 explains:
Tier 1 capital includes bank reserves (from retained profits) and ordinary share capital, where dividends to shareholders vary with the amount of profit the bank makes. Such capital thus places no burden on banks in times of losses as no dividend need be paid. What is more, unlike depositors, shareholders cannot ask for their money back. Tier 2 capital consists largely of preference shares. These pay a fixed rate of interest and thus do continue to place a burden on the bank even when losses are made (unless the bank goes out of business).
Risk-weighted assets are the value of assets, where each type of asset is multiplied by a risk factor. Under the internationally agreed Basel II accord, cash and government bonds have a risk factor of zero and are thus not included. Inter-bank lending between the major banks has a risk factor of 0.2 and is thus included at only 20 per cent of its value; residential mortgages have a risk factor of 0.35; personal loans, credit-card debt and overdrafts have a risk factor of 1; loans to companies carry a risk factor of 0.2, 0.5, 1 or 1.5, depending on the credit rating of the company. Thus the greater the average risk factor of a bank’s assets, the greater will be the value of its risk weighted assets, and the lower will be its CAR.
The second CAR was that Tier 1 capital should be at least 4% of risk weighted assets.
The third CAR was that equity capital (i.e. money raised from the issue of ordinary shares) should be at least 2% of risk weighted assets. This is known as the ‘core capital ratio’.
Before 2008, it was thought by most commentators that these capital adequacy ratios were sufficiently high. But then the banking crisis erupted. Banks were too exposed to sub-prime debt (i.e. debt that was excessively risky, such as mortgages on property at a time when property prices were rapidly declining). Much of this debt was disguised by being bundled up with other securities in what were known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs). On 15 September 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy: the largest bankruptcy in history, with Lehmans owing $613 billion. Although its assets had a book value of $639, these were insufficiently liquid to enable Lehmans to meet the demands of its creditors.
The collapse of Lehmans sent shock waves around the world. Banks across the globe came under tremendous pressure. Many held too much sub-prime debt and had insufficient capital to meet creditors’ demands. As a result, they had to be bailed out by their governments. Clearly the Basel II regulations were too lax.
For several months there have been discussions about new tighter regulations and, on 12 September 2010, central bankers from the major countries met in Basel, Switzerland, and agreed the Basel III regulations. Although the overall CAR (Tier 1 and 2) was kept at 8%, the Tier 1 ratio was raised from 4% to 6% and the core Tier 1 ratio was raised from 2% to 4.5%, to be phased in by 2015. In addition there were two ‘buffers’ introduced.
As well as having to maintain a core Tier 1 ratio of 4.5%, banks would also have to hold a ‘conservation buffer’ of 2.5%. “The purpose of the conservation buffer is to ensure that banks maintain a buffer of capital that can be used to absorb losses during periods of financial and economic stress. While banks are allowed to draw on the buffer during such periods of stress, the closer their regulatory capital ratios approach the minimum requirement, the greater the constraints on earnings distributions.” In effect, then, the core Tier 1 ratio will rise from 2% to 7% (i.e. 4.5% minimum plus a buffer of 2.5%).
The other buffer is a ‘countercyclical buffer’. This will be “within a range of 0% – 2.5% of common equity or other fully loss absorbing capital and will be implemented according to national circumstances.” The idea of this buffer is to allow banks to withstand volatility in the global economy. It will be phased in between 2016 and 2019.
The Basel III agreement will still need to be ratified by the G20 countries meeting at Seoul on 10 and 11 November this year. That meeting will also consider other elements of bank regulation.
So will these extra capital requirements be sufficient to allow banks to withstand any future crisis? The following articles discuss this question.
Global bankers agree new capital reserve rules BBC News (12/9/10)
Q&A: Basel rules on bank capital – who cares? BBC News, Laurence Knight (13/9/10)
Basel III and Sound Banking New American, Charles Scaliger (17/9/10)
Wishy-washy rules might come back to haunt regulators Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins (18/9/10)
Basel III proposal released Newsweek, Joel Schectman (17/9/10)
New Bank Rules May Not Prevent More Meltdowns FXstreet, Henrik Arnt (16/9/10)
Basel III CBS Money Watch, Mark Thoma (14/9/10)
Basel III: To lend or not to lend Investment Week, Martin Morris (16/9/10)
Taming the banks The Economist (16/9/10)
Basel’s buttress The Economist (16/9/10)
Do new bank-capital requirements pose a risk to growth? The Economist, guest contributions
Myners: New rules ‘ignore bank liquidity’ BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston and Lord Myners (18/9/10)
Official press releases and documents
Group of Governors and Heads of Supervision announces higher global minimum capital standards Bank for International Settlements Press Release (12/9/10)
The Basel iii Accord Basel iii Compliance Professionals Association (BiiiCPA)
Details of the new capital requirements Bank for International Settlements
Details of the phase-in arrangements Bank for International Settlements
- What impact will a higher capital adequacy ratio have on banks’ behaviour?
- For what reasons may the Basel III regulations be considered too lax?
- When there is an increase in deposits into the banking sector, banks can increase loans by a multiple of this. This bank deposits multiplier is the inverse of the liquidity ratio. Is there a similar bank capital multiplier and, if so, what determines its size?
- Why will Basel III be phased in over a number of years? Is this too long?