At its meeting on 6 May, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee decided to keep Bank Rate at 0.1%. Due to the significant impact of COVID-19 and the measures put in place to try to contain the virus, the MPC voted unanimously to keep Bank Rate the same.
However, it decided not to launch a new stimulus programme, with the committee voting by a majority of 7-2 for the Bank to continue with the current programme of quantitative easing. This involves the purchase of £200 billion of government and sterling non-financial investment-grade corporate bonds, bringing the total stock of bonds held by the Bank to £645 billion.
The Bank forecast that the crisis will put the economy into its deepest recession in 300 years, with output plunging 30 per cent in the first half of the year.
Monetary policy and MPC
Monetary policy is the tool used by the UK’s central bank to influence how much money is in the economy and how much it costs to borrow. The Bank of England’s main monetary policy tools include setting the Bank Rate and quantitative easing (QE). Bank Rate is the interest rate charged to banks when they borrow money from the BoE. QE is the process of creating money digitally to buy corporate and government bonds.
The BoE’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) sets monetary policy to meet the 2% inflation target. Maintaining a low and stable inflation rate is good for the economy and it is the main monetary policy aim. However, the Bank also has to balance this target with the government’s other economic aims of sustaining growth and employment in the economy.
Actions taken by the MPC
It is challenging to respond to severe economic and financial disruption, with the UK economy looking unusually uncertain. Activity has fallen sharply since the beginning of the year and unemployment has risen markedly. The current rate of inflation, measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), declined to 1.5% in March and is likely to fall below 1% in the next few months. Household consumption has fallen by around 30% as consumer confidence has declined. Companies’ sales are expected to be around 45% lower than normal and business investment 50% lower.
In the current circumstances, and consistent with the MPC’s remit, monetary policy is aimed at supporting businesses and households through the crisis and limiting any lasting damage to the economy. The Bank has used both main monetary tools to fulfil its mandate and attempt to boost the economy amid the current lockdown. The Bank Rate was reduced to 0.1% in March, the lowest level in the Bank’s 325-year history and the current programme of QE was introduced in March.
What is next?
This extraordinary time has seen the outlook for the all global economies become uncertain. The long-term outcome will depend critically on the evolution of the pandemic, and how governments, households and businesses respond to it. The Bank of England has stated that businesses and households will need to borrow to get through this period and is encouraging banks and building societies to increase their lending. Britain’s banks are warned that if they try to stem losses by restricting lending, they will make the situation worse. The Bank believes that the banks are strong enough to keep lending, which will support the economy and limit losses to themselves.
In the short term, a bleak picture of the UK economy is suggested, with a halving in business investment, a near halving in business sales, a sharp rise in unemployment and households cutting their spending by a third. Despite its forecast that GDP could shrink by 14% for 2020, the Bank of England is forecasting a ‘V’ shaped recovery. In this scenario, the recovery in economic activity, once measures are softened, is predicted to be relatively rapid and inflation rises to around the 2 per cent target. However, this would be after a dip to 0.5% in 2021, before returning to the 2 per cent target the following year.
However, there are some suggestions that the Bank’s forecast for the long-term recovery is too optimistic. Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG UK, fears the UK economy could shrink even more sharply than the Bank of England has forecast.
Despite the stark numbers issued by the Bank of England today, additional pressure on the economy is likely. Some social distancing measures are likely to remain in place until we have a vaccine or an effective treatment for the virus, with people also remaining reluctant to socialise and spend. That means recovery is unlikely to start in earnest before sometime next year.
There are also additional factors that could dampen future productivity, such as the impact on supply chains, with ‘just-in-time’ operations potentially being a thing of the past.
There is also the ongoing issue of Brexit. This is a significant downside risk as the probability of a smooth transition to a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the EU in January is relatively small. This will only increase uncertainty for businesses along with the prospect of increased trade frictions next year.
The predictions from the Bank of England are based on many assumptions, one of which is that the economy will only be gradually released from lockdown. Its numbers contain the expectations that consumer and worker behaviour will change significantly, and continue for some time, with forms of voluntary social distancing. On the other hand, Mr Bailey expects the recovery to be much faster than seen with the financial crisis a decade ago. However, again this is based on the assumption that measures put in place from the public health side prevent a second wave of the virus.
It also assumes that the supply-side effects on the economy will be limited in the long run. Many economists disagree, arguing that the ‘scarring effects’ of the lockdown may be substantial. These include lower rates of investment, innovation and start ups and the deskilling effects on labour. They also include the businesses that have gone bankrupt and the dampening effect on consumer and business confidence. Finally, with a large increase in lending to tide firms over the crisis, many will face problems of debt, which will dampen investment.
The Bank of England does recognise these possible scarring effects. Specifically, it warns of the danger of a rise in equilibrium unemployment:
It is possible that the rise in unemployment could prove more persistent than embodied in the scenario, for example if companies are reluctant to hire until they are sure about the robustness of the recovery in demand. It is also possible that any rise in unemployment could lead to an increase in the long‑term equilibrium rate of unemployment. That might happen if the skills of the unemployed do not increase to the same extent as they would if they were working, for example, or even erode over time.
What is certain, however, is that the long-term picture will only become clearer when we start to come out of the crisis. Bailey implied that the Bank is taking a wait-and-see approach for now, waiting on the UK government to shed some light about easing of lockdown measures before taking any further action with regards to QE. The MPC will continue to monitor the situation closely and, consistent with its remit, stands ready to take further action as necessary to support the economy and ensure a sustained return of inflation to the 2% target. Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, suggested that the central bank is signalling that ‘more QE is coming, if not in June, then in August’.
Bank of England publication
- How could the BoE use monetary policy to boost the economy?
- Explain how changes in interest rates affect aggregate demand.
- Define and explain quantitative easing (QE).
- How might QE help to stimulate economic growth?
- How is the pursuit of QE likely to affect the price of government bonds? Explain.
- Evaluate the extent to which monetary policy is able to stimulate the economy and achieve price stability.
Now here’s a gloomy article from Robert Peston. He’s been looking at investors’ views about the coming years and sees a general pessimism about the prospects for long-term economic growth. And that pessimism is becoming deeper.
It is true that both the UK and the USA have recorded reasonable growth rates in recent months and do seem, at least on the surface, to be recovering from recession. But, according to investor behaviour, they:
seem to be saying, in how they place their money, that the UK’s and USA’s current reasonably rapid growth will turn out to be a short-lived period of catch-up, following the deep recession of 2008-9.
So what is it about investor behaviour that implies a deep pessimism and are investors right to be pessimistic? The article explores these issues. It does also look at an alternative explanation that investors may merely be being cautious until a clearer picture emerges about long-term growth prospects – which may turn out to be better that many currently now predict.
The article finishes by looking at a possible solution to the problem (if you regard low or zero growth as a problem). That would be for the government to ‘throw money at investment in infrastructure – to generate both short-term growth and enhance long-term productive potential.’
Note that Elizabeth also looks at this article in her blog The end of growth in the west?.
The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)
- What is meant by the ’25-year yield curve for government bonds’? Why does this yield curve imply a deep level of business pessimism about the long-term prospects for UK economic growth?
- What are the determinants of long-term economic growth?
- Looking at these determinants, which ones suggest that long-term economic growth may be low?
- Are there any determinants which might suggest that economic growth will be maintained over the long term at historical levels of around 2.6%?
- Do demand-side policies affect potential GDP and, if so, how?
- What policies could government pursue to increase the rate of growth in potential GDP?
- What current ‘dramas’ affecting the world economy could have long-term implications for economic growth? How does uncertainty about the long-term implications for the global economy of such dramas itself affect economic growth?
- Is long-term growth in real GDP an appropriate indicator of (a) economic development and (b) long-term growth in general well-being?
The growth rates of the Western world have been somewhat volatile for the past decade, with negative growth sending economies into recession and then varying degrees of economic recovery. Growth rates elsewhere have been very high, in particular in countries such as China and India. The future of economic growth in the west is hotly debated and whether the western world has been forever changed by the credit crunch remains to be seen.
The article below from the BBC, written by Robert Peston, the Economics Editor, addresses the question of the future of the western world. Opinions differ as to whether the west is finally recovering from the recession and financial instability or if the credit crunch and subsequent recession is just the beginning of many years of economic stagnation. The article in particular focuses on the yield curve and the trends in government debt or gilts. This tends to be a key indicator of the expectations of the future of an economy and how confident investors are in its likely trajectory. Though technical in places, this article provides some interesting stances on what we might expect in the coming 2-3 decades for economic performance in the West.
Note that John also looks at this article in his blog Cloudy Skies Ahead?
The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)
- Which factors affect the economic growth of a nation?
- Confidence from consumers, firms and investors is always argued to be crucial to the future economic growth and in many cases, the recovery of an economy. Explain why this factor is so important.
- What is the yield curve and what does it show?
- How can the yield curve be used to offer predictions about the future strength of an economy?
- Why are governments seen as the safest place to lend?
- If Larry Summers is correct in saying that it is a negative equilibrium interest rate that is needed to generate full employment growth, what does this suggest about the future economic performance of the western world?
- In the article, there is a list of some of the key things that make investors anxious. Review each of these factors and explain why it is so important in generating anxiety.
When governments run deficits, these must be financed by borrowing. The main form of borrowing is government bonds. To persuade people (mainly private-sector institutions, such as pension funds) to buy these bonds, an interest rate must be offered. Bonds are issued for a fixed period of time and at maturity are paid back at face value to the holders. Thus new bonds are issued not just to cover current deficits but also to replace bonds that are maturing. The shorter the average term on existing government bonds, the greater the amount of bonds that will need replacing in any one year.
In normal times, bonds are seen as a totally safe asset to hold. On maturity, the government would buy back the bond from the current holder at the full face value.
In normal times, interest rates on new bonds reflect market interest rates with no added risk premium. The interest rate (or ‘coupon’) on a bond is fixed with respect to its face value for the life of the bond. In other words, a bond with a face value of £100 and an annual payment to the holder of £6 would be paying an interest rate of 6% on the face value.
As far as existing bonds are concerned, these can be sold on the secondary market and the price at which they are sold reflects current interest rates. If, for example, the current interest rate falls to 3%, then the market price of a £100 bond with a 6% coupon will rise to £200, since £6 per year on £200 is 3% – the current market rate of interest. The annual return on the current market price is known as the ‘yield’ (3% in our example). The yield will reflect current market rates of interest.
These, however, are not ‘normal’ times. Bonds issued by many countries are no longer seen as a totally safe form of investment.
Over the past few months, worries have grown about the sustainability of the debts of many eurozone countries. Bailouts have had to be granted to Greece, Ireland and Portugal; in return they have been required to adopt tough austerity measures; the European bailout fund is being increased; various European banks are having to increase their capital to shield them against possible losses from haircuts and defaults (see Saving the eurozone? Saving the world? (Part B)). But the key worry at present is what is happening to bond markets.
Bond yields for those countries deemed to be at risk of default have been rising dramatically. Italian bond yields are now over 7% – the rate generally considered to be unsustainable. And it’s not just Italy. Bond rates have been rising across the eurozone, even for the bonds of countries previously considered totally safe, such as Germany and Austria. And the effect is self reinforcing. As the interest rates on new bonds are driven up by the market, so this is taken as a sign of the countries’ weakness and hence investors require even higher rates to persuade them to buy more bonds, further undermining confidence and further driving up rates.
So what is to be done? Well, part of the problem is that the eurozone does not issue eurobonds. There is a single currency, but no single fiscal policy. There have thus been calls for the eurozone to issue eurobonds. These, it is argued would be much easier to sell on the market. What is more, the ECB could then buy up such bonds as necessary as part of a quantitative easing programme. At present the ECB does not act as lender of last resort to governments; at most it has been buying up some existing bonds of Italy, Spain, etc. in the secondary markets in an attempt to dampen interest rate rises.
The articles below examine some of the proposals.
What is clear is that politicians all over the world are trying to do things that will appease the bond market. They are increasingly feeling that their hands are tied: that they mustn’t do anything that will spook the markets.
Bond market hammers Italy, Spain ponders outside help Reuters, Barry Moody and Elisabeth O’Leary (25/11/11)
German Bonds Fall Prey to Contagion; Italian, Spanish Debt Drops Bloomberg Businessweek, Paul Dobson and Anchalee Worrachate (26/11/11)
Rates on Italian bonds soar, raising fears of contagion Deutsche Welle, Spencer Kimball (25/11/11)
Brussels unveils euro bond plans Euronews (23/11/11)
Germany faces more pressure to back eurobonds Euronews on YouTube (24/11/11)
Bond markets Q&A: will the moneymen hit the panic button? Guardian, Jill Treanor and Patrick Collinson (7/11/11)
Why we all get burnt in the bonfire of the bond markets Observer, Heather Stewart, Simon Goodley and Katie Allen (20/11/11)
Retaining the confidence of the bond market is the key to Britain’s success in the EU treaty renegotiations The Telegraph, Toby Young (19/11/11)
Boom-year debts could bust us BBC News, Robert Peston (25/11/11)
UK’s debts ‘biggest in the world’ BBC News, Robert Peston (21/11/11)
Markets and the euro ‘end game’ BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (24/11/11)
The tricky path toward greater fiscal integration The Economist, H.G. (27/10/11)
The tricky path toward greater fiscal integration, take two The Economist, H.G. (23/11/11) and Comments by muellbauer
European Economy, Statistical Annex Economic and Financial Affairs DG (Autumn 2011) (see Tables 76–78)
Monthly Bulletin ECB (November 2011) (see section 2.4)
Bonds and rates Financial Times
UK Gilt Market UK Debt Management Office
- Explain the relationship between bond yields and (a) bond prices; (b) interest rates generally.
- Using the data sources above, find the current deficit and debt levels of Italy, Spain, Germany, the UK, the USA and Japan. How do eurozone debts and deficits compare with those of other developed countries?
- Explain the various proposals considered in the articles for issuing eurobonds.
- To what extent do the proposals involve a moral hazard and how could eurobond schemes be designed to minimise this problem?
- Examine German objections to the issue of eurobonds.
- Does the global power of bond markets prevent countries (including non-eurozone ones, such as the UK and USA) from using fiscal policy to avert the slide back into recession?
As the prospects for the global recovery become more and more gloomy, so the need for a boost to aggregate demand becomes more pressing. But the scope for expansionary fiscal policy is very limited, given governments’ commitments around the world to deficit reduction.
This leaves monetary policy. In the USA, the Federal Reserve has announced a policy known as ‘Operation Twist’. This is a way of altering the funding of national debt, rather than directly altering the monetary base. It involves buying long-term government bonds in the market and selling shorter-dated ones (of less than three years) of exactly the same amount ($400bn). The idea is to drive up the price of long-term bonds and hence drive down their yield and thereby drive down long-term interest rates. The hope is to stimulate investment and longer-term borrowing generally.
Meanwhile in Britain it looks as if the Bank of England is about to turn to another round of quantitative easing (QE2). The first round saw £200bn of asset purchases by the Bank between March 2009 and February 2010. Up to now, it has resisted calls to extend the programme. However, it is now facing increased pressure to change its mind, not only from commentators, but from members of the government too.
But will expansionary monetary policy work, given the gloom engulfing the world economy? Is there a problem of a liquidity trap, whereby extra money will not actually create extra borrowing and spending? Many firms, after all, are not short of cash; they are simply unwilling to invest in a climate of falling sales and falling confidence.
Articles on Operation Twist
Fed takes new tack to avoid U.S. economic slump Reuters, Mark Felsenthal and Pedro da Costa (21/9/11)
How the Fed Can Act When Washington Cannot Associated Press on YouTube (20/9/11)
Analysis: Fed’s twist moves hurts company pension plans Reuters, Aaron Pressman (21/9/11)
What is Operation Twist? Guardian, Phillip Inman (21/9/11)
Operation Twist in the Wind Asia Times, Peter Morici (23/9/11)
Operation Twist won’t kickstart the US economy Guardian, Larry Elliott (21/9/11)
Stock markets tumble after Operation Twist … and doubt Guardian, Julia Kollewe (22/9/11)
‘Twist’ is a sign of the Fed’s resolve Financial Times, Robin Harding (22/9/11)
All twist, no shout, from the Fed Financial Times blogs, Gavyn Davies (21/9/11)
Twisting in the wind? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (21/9/11)
Restraint or stimulus? Markets and governments swap roles BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/9/11)
FOMC Statement: Much Ado, Little Impact Seeking Alpha, Cullen Roche (21/9/11)
Why the Fed’s Operation Twist Will Hurt Banks International Business Times, Hao Li (21/9/11)
The Federal Reserve: Take that, Congress The Economist (21/9/11)
Articles on QE2
Bank of England’s MPC indicates QE2 is a case of if not when The Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (21/9/11)
Bank of England quantitative easing ‘boosted GDP’ BBC News (19/9/11)
Bank of England minutes indicate more quantitative easing on the cards Guardian, Julia Kollewe (21/9/11)
Fed and Bank of England publications
Press Release [on Operation Twist] Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (21/9/11) (Also follow links at the bottom of the Press Release for more details.)
Minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee Meeting, 7 and 8 September 2011 Bank of England (21/9/11) (See particularly paragraphs 29 to 32.)
- Explain what is meant by Operation Twist.
- What determines the extent to which it will stimulate the US economy?
- Why would quantitative easing increase the monetary base while Operation Twist would not? Would they both increase broad money? Explain.
- What is meant by the liquidity trap? Are central banks in such a trap at present?
- To what extent would a further round of quantitative easing in the UK drive up inflation?
- Why are monetary and fiscal policy as much about affecting expectations as ‘pulling the right levers’?