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’?
What will happen to interest rates over the next two or three years? There is considerable disagreement between economists on this question at the moment.
There are those who argue that recovery in the UK, the USA and Europe is faltering. With much tighter fiscal policy being adopted as countries attempt to claw down their deficits, there is a growing fear of a double-dip recession. In these circumstances central banks are likely to keep interest rates at their historically low levels for the foreseeable future and could well embark on a further round of quantitative easing (see Easy money from the Fed?). But what about inflation? With demand still expanding in developing countries and commodity prices rising, won’t cost pressures on inflation continue? Those who forecast that interest rates will stay low, argue that the pressure on commodity prices will ease as global demand slows. Also, in the UK, now that sterling is no longer depreciating, this will remove a key ingredient of higher inflation.
These views are not shared by other economists. They argue that interest rates could soar over the next two years. In fact, one economist, Andrew Lilico, the Chief Economist at Policy Exchange argues that interest rates in the UK will reach 8% by 2012. Central to their argument is the role of the money supply. The monetary base has been expanded enormously through programmes of quantitative easing. And yet, consumer credit has fallen. When the economy does eventually start to recover strongly, Lilico and others argue that there is a danger that consumer credit and broad money will expand rapidly, thereby fuelling inflation. But won’t the spare capacity that has built up during the recession allow the increase in aggregate demand to be met by a corresponding increase in output, thereby keeping inflation low. No, say these economists. A lot of capacity has been lost and output cannot easily expand to meet a rise in demand.
It’s not uncommon for economists to disagree! See, by reading the articles below, if you can unpick the arguments and establish where the disagreements lie and whose case is the strongest.
America’s century is over, but it will fight on Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/8/10)
Rates to remain low for foreseeable future Interactive Investor, Rhian Nicholson (18/8/10)
BoE gets benefit of doubt on inflation – for now Reuters, Christina Fincher (19/8/10)
BGilts reflect continued uncertainty AXA Elevate, Tomas Hirst (23/8/10)
A bull market in pessimism The Economist (19/8/10)
Interest rates ‘may hit 8%’ by 2012 says think tank BBC News (22/8/10)
Interest rates ‘may hit 8pc’ in two years Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (21/8/10)
Bernanke Must Raise Benchmark Rate 2 Points, Rajan Says Bloomberg, Scott Lanman and Simon Kennedy (23/8/10)
Inflation, not deflation, Mr. Bernanke Market Watch, Andy Xie (22/8/10)
Inflation comes through the door and wisdom flies out of the window Telegraph, Liam Halligan (21/8/10)
British Government Securities, Yields Bank of England
Bankstats: Data on UK money and lending Bank of England
- Summarise the arguments of those who believe that interest rates will stay low for the foreseeable future.
- Summarise the arguments of those who believe that interest rates will be significantly higher by 2010.
- What factors will be the most significant in determining which of the two positions is correct?
- Why are the yields on long-term bonds a good indicator of people’s expectations about future inflation and monetary policy?
- Why has consumer credit fallen? Why might it rise again?
- Why may unemployment not fall rapidly as the economy recovers? Is this an example of hysteresis?
The US economic recovery is slowing. As consumer and business confidence wanes, so there is growing talk of a double-dip recession. So what’s to be done about it? How can aggregate demand be boosted without spooking the markets?
One solution would be for a further fiscal stimulus. The one instituted in January 2009 in the depth of the recession has virtually worked itself out, with many short-term projects financed by the stimulus having come to an end. But any further stimulus would cause further worries about America’s balooning public-sector deficit, which already is predicted to be some 10.6% for 2010 (up from 1.1% in 2007).
The alternative is to use monetary policy. But, with the Federal Reserve rate already at between 0% and 0.25% (where it has been since the end of 2008), there is no scope for further cuts in interest rates. If monetary policy is to be used to give an additional boost to the economy, then further quantitiative easing is necessary. This is what the Federal Reserve decided to do on 10 August. As the Independent (see link below) states:
The US Federal Reserve decided last night to extend its $1.55 trillion programme of quantitative easing in an attempt to rejuvenate an economic recovery that the central bank admitted was turning out “more modest” than it expected.
The interest rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee bowed to calls from across the financial markets to extend its support, saying it would pump new money into the markets at a rate equivalent to about $200bn a year, and it left the duration of its efforts open-ended.
So how successful is this policy likely to be? The following articles look at the issues.
‘Light’ quantitative easing for slow US economic recovery New Statesman (11/8/10)
Fed sets the printing press rolling again to juice recovery Independent, Stephen Foley (11/8/10)
US Federal Reserve reveals plan to buy government debt Herald Scotland, Douglas Hamilton (11/8/10)
Some questions and answers on the Fed`s new policy Money Control (11/8/10)
Fed downgrades recovery outlook Financial Times, James Politi and Michael Mackenzie (10/8/10)
Fed acts as US recovery loses steam ABC News, Peter Ryan (11/8/10)
Top Fed Official, Warns Fed Risks Repeating Past Mistakes Huffington Post, Thomas Hoenig (11/8/10)
Austerity or stimulus? Some economists ha
The Fed must address Main Street’s credit crunch The Economist, Guillermo Calvo (15/8/10)
The Fed has options to lower real interest rates The Economist, Mark Thoma (15/8/10)
Fear of renewed recession in America is overblown; so is some of the optimism in the euro area The Economist (12/8/10)
Analysts’ view: Economists divided on effectiveness of Fed move Reuters (11/8/10)
If the Fed’s going to monetise debt, now’s the time to do it The Economist, Laurence Kotlikoff (13/8/10)
A former Fed official offers advice to Ben Bernanke The Economist, Joseph Gagnon (17/8/10)
America’s century is over, but it will fight on Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/8/10)
Federal Reserve documents
Press Release on monetary policy Federal Reserve (10/8/10)
Information on Federal Open Market Committee Federal Reserve
- What are are the arguments for using quantitative easing?
- Explain the process by which quantitative easing increases (a) narrow money and (b) broad money.
- How has the US and global economic situation changed since June 2010?
- Could the Fed’s policy be described as one of quantitative easing or merely one of maintaining the existing quantity of money? Explain.
- What are dangers in pursuing a policy of quantitative easing?
- What are the arguments for pursuing tight fiscal policy at the same time as loose monetary policy?
- Why does Thomas Hoenig claim that the Fed risks repeating past mistakes?
- How could the real rate of interest be reduced if the nominal rate is virtually zero and cannot be negative?
- Explain what is meant by ‘seigniorage’ (see the final The Economist article above).