The past decade or so has seen large-scale economic turbulence. As we saw in the blog Fiscal impulses, governments have responded with large fiscal interventions. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, led to a positive fiscal impulse in the UK in 2020, as measured by the change in the structural primary balance, of over 12 per cent of national income.
The scale of these interventions has led to a significant increase in the public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio in many countries. The recent interest rates hikes arising from central banks responding to inflationary pressures have put additional pressure on the financial well-being of governments, not least on the financing of their debt. Here we discuss these pressures in the context of the ‘r – g’ rule of sustainable public debt.
Public-sector debt and borrowing
Chart 1 shows the path of UK public-sector net debt and net borrowing, as percentages of GDP, since 1990. Debt is a stock concept and is the result of accumulated flows of past borrowing. Net debt is simply gross debt less liquid financial assets, which mainly consist of foreign exchange reserves and cash deposits. Net borrowing is the headline measure of the sector’s deficit and is based on when expenditures and receipts (largely taxation) are recorded rather than when cash is actually paid or received. (Click here for a PowerPoint of Chart 1)
Chart 1 shows the impact of the fiscal interventions associated with the global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, when net borrowing rose to 10 per cent and 15 per cent of GDP respectively. The former contributed to the debt-to-GDP ratio rising from 35.6 per cent in 2007/8 to 81.6 per cent in 2014/15, while the pandemic and subsequent cost-of-living interventions contributed to the ratio rising from 85.2 per cent in 2019/20 to around 98 per cent in 2023/24.
Sustainability of the public finances
The ratcheting up of debt levels affects debt servicing costs and hence the budgetary position of government. Yet the recent increases in interest rates also raise the costs faced by governments in financing future deficits or refinancing existing debts that are due to mature. In addition, a continuation of the low economic growth that has beset the UK economy since the global financial crisis also has implications for the burden imposed on the public sector by its debts, and hence the sustainability of the public finances. After all, low growth has implications for spending commitments, and, of course, the flow of receipts.
The analysis therefore implies that the sustainability of public-sector debt is dependent on at least three factors: existing debt levels, the implied average interest rate facing the public sector on its debts, and the rate of economic growth. These three factors turn out to underpin a well-known rule relating to the fiscal arithmetic of public-sector debt. The rule is sometimes known as the ‘r – g’ rule (i.e. the interest rate minus the growth rate).
Underpinning the fiscal arithmetic that determines the path of public-sector debt is the concept of the ‘primary balance’. This is the difference between the sector’s receipts and its expenditures less its debt interest payments. A primary surplus (a positive primary balance) means that receipts exceed expenditures less debt interest payments, whereas a primary deficit (a negative primary balance) means that receipts fall short. The fiscal arithmetic necessary to prevent the debt-to-GDP ratio rising produces the following stable debt equation or ‘r – g’ rule:
On the left-hand side of the stable debt equation is the required primary surplus (PS) to GDP (Y) ratio. Moving to the right-hand side, the first term is the existing debt-to-GDP ratio (D/Y). The second term ‘r – g’, is the differential between the average implied interest rate the government pays on its debt and the growth rate of the economy. These terms can be expressed in either nominal or real terms as this does not affect the differential.
To illustrate the rule consider a country whose existing debt-to-GDP ratio is 1 (i.e. 100 per cent) and the ‘r – g’ differential is 0.02 (2 percentage points). In this scenario they would need to run a primary surplus to GDP ratio of 0.02 (i.e. 2 percent of GDP).
The ‘r – g‘ differential
The ‘r – g’ differential reflects macroeconomic and financial conditions. The fiscal arithmetic shows that these are important for the dynamics of public-sector debt. The fiscal arithmetic is straightforward when r = g as any primary deficit will cause the debt-to-GDP ratio to rise, while a primary surplus will cause the ratio to fall. The larger is g relative to r the more favourable are the conditions for the path of debt. Importantly, if the differential is negative (r < g), it is possible for the public sector to run a primary deficit, up to the amount that the stable debt equation permits.
Consider Charts 2 and 3 to understand how the ‘r – g’ differential has affected debt sustainability in the UK since 1990. Chart 2 plots the implied yield on 10-year government bonds, alongside the annual rate of nominal growth (click here for a PowerPoint). As John explains in his blog The bond roller coaster, the yield is calculated as the coupon rate that would have to be paid for the market price of a bond to equal its face value. Over the period, the average annual nominal growth rate was 4.5 per cent, while the implied interest rate was almost identical at 4.6 per cent. The average annual rate of CPI inflation over this period was 2.8 per cent.
Chart 3 plots the ‘r – g’ differential which is simply the difference between the two series in Chart 2, along with a 12-month rolling average of the differential to help show better the direction of the differential by smoothing out some of the short-term volatility (click here for a PowerPoint). The differential across the period is a mere 0.1 percentage points implying that macroeconomic and financial conditions have typically been neutral in supporting debt sustainability. However, this does mask some significant changes across the period.
We observe a general downward trend in the ‘r – g’ differential from 1990 up to the time of the global financial crisis. Indeed between 2003 and 2007 we observe a favourable negative differential which helps to support the sustainability of public debt and therefore the well-being of the public finances. This downward trend of the ‘r – g’ differential was interrupted by the financial crisis, driven by a significant contraction in economic activity. This led to a positive spike in the differential of over 7 percentage points.
Yet the negative differential resumed in 2010 and continued up to the pandemic. Again, this is indicative of the macroeconomic and financial environments being supportive of the public finances. It was, however, largely driven by low interest rates rather than by economic growth.
Consequently, the negative ‘r – g’ differential meant that the public sector could continue to run primary deficits during the 2010s, despite the now much higher debt-to-GDP ratio. Yet, weak growth was placing limits on this. Chart 4 indeed shows that primary deficits fell across the decade (click here for a PowerPoint).
The pandemic and beyond
The pandemic saw the ‘r – g’ differential again turn markedly positive, averaging 7 percentage points in the four quarters from Q2 of 2020. While the differential again turned negative, the debt-to-GDP ratio had also increased substantially because of large-scale fiscal interventions. This made the negative differential even more important for the sustainability of the public finances. The question is how long the negative differential can last.
Looking forward, the fiscal arithmetic is indeed uncertain and worryingly is likely to be less favourable. Interest rates have risen and, although inflationary pressures may be easing somewhat, interest rates are likely to remain much higher than during the past decade. Geopolitical tensions and global fragmentation pose future inflationary concerns and a further drag on growth.
As well as the short-term concerns over growth, there remain long-standing issues of low productivity which must be tackled if the growth of the UK economy’s potential output is to be raised. These concerns all point to the important ‘r – g’ differential become increasingly less negative, if not positive. If so the fiscal arithmetic could mean increasingly hard maths for policymakers.
- The budget deficit: a short guide
House of Commons Library (8/6/23)
- If markets are right about long real rates, public debt ratios will increase for some time. We must make sure that they do not explode.
Peterson Institute for International Economics, Olivier Blanchard (6/11/23)
- The UK government’s debt nightmare
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- National debt could hit 300% of GDP by 2070s, independent watchdog the OBR warns
Sky News, James Sillars (13/7/23)
- How much money is the UK government borrowing, and does it matter?
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- Cost of national debt hits 20-year high
BBC News, Vishala Sri-Pathma & Faisal Islam (4/10/23)
- Bond markets could see ‘mini boom-bust cycles’ as global government debt to soar by $5 trillion a yea
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- The counterintuitive truth about deficits for bond investors
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- UK government borrowing almost £20bn lower than expected
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- Controlling debt is just a means — it is not a government’s end
Financial Times, Martin Wolf (13/11/23)
- What is meant by each of the following terms: (a) net borrowing; (b) primary deficit; (c) net debt?
- Explain how the following affect the path of the public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio: (a) interest rates; (b) economic growth; (c) the existing debt-to-GDP ratio.
- Which factors during the 2010s were affecting the fiscal arithmetic of public debt positively, and which negatively?
- Discuss the prospects for the fiscal arithmetic of public debt in the coming years.
- Assume that a country has an existing public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio of 60 percent.
(a) Using the ‘rule of thumb’ for public debt dynamics, calculate the approximate primary balance it would need to run in the coming year if the expected average real interest rate on the debt were 3 per cent and real economic growth were 2 per cent?
(b) Repeat (a) but now assume that real economic growth is expected to be 4 per cent.
(c) Repeat (a) but now assume that the existing public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio is 120 per cent.
(d) Using your results from (a) to (c) discuss the factors that affect the fiscal arithmetic of the growth of public-sector debt.
In his blog, The bond roller coaster, John looks at the pricing of government bonds and details how, in recent times, governments wishing to borrow by issuing new bonds are having to offer higher coupon rates to attract investors. The interest rate hikes by central banks in response to global-wide inflationary pressures have therefore spilt over into bond markets. Though this evidences the ‘pass through’ of central bank interest rate increases to the general structure of interest rates, it does, however, pose significant costs for governments as they seek to finance future budgetary deficits or refinance existing debts coming up to maturity.
The Autumn Statement in the UK is scheduled to be made on 22 November. This, as well as providing an update on the economy and the public finances, is likely to include a number of fiscal proposals. It is thus timely to remind ourselves of the size of recent discretionary fiscal measures and their potential impact on the sustainability of the public finances. In this first of two blogs, we consider the former: the magnitude of recent discretionary fiscal policy changes.
First, it is important to define what we mean by discretionary fiscal policy. It refers to deliberate changes in government spending or taxation. This needs to be distinguished from the concept of automatic stabilisers, which relate to those parts of government budgets that automatically result in an increase (decrease) of spending or a decrease (increase) in tax payments when the economy slows (quickens).
The suitability of discretionary fiscal policy measures depends on the objectives they trying to fulfil. Discretionary measures can be implemented, for example, to affect levels of public-service provision, the distribution of income, levels of aggregate demand or to affect longer-term growth of aggregate supply. As we shall see in this blog, some of the large recent interventions have been conducted primarily to support and stabilise economic activity in the face of heightened economic volatility.
Discretionary fiscal measures in the UK are usually announced in annual Budget statements in the House of Commons. These are normally in March, but discretionary fiscal changes can be made in the Autumn Statement too. The Autumn Statement of October 2022, for example, took on significant importance as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, tried to present a ‘safe pair hands’ following the fallout and market turbulence in response to the fiscal statement by the former Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, on 23 September that year.
The fiscal impulse
The large-scale economic turbulence of recent years associated first with the global financial crisis of 2007–9 and then with the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, has seen governments respond with significant discretionary fiscal measures. During the COVID-19 pandemic, examples of fiscal interventions in the UK included the COVID-19 Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), grants for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, the COVID-19 Job Retention Scheme (better known as the furlough scheme) and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme.
The size of discretionary fiscal interventions can be measured by the fiscal impulse. This captures the magnitude of change in discretionary fiscal policy and thus the size of the stimulus. The concept is not to be confused with fiscal multipliers, which measure the impact of fiscal changes on economic outcomes, such as real national income and employment.
By measuring fiscal impulses, we can analyse the extent to which a country’s fiscal stance has tightened, loosened, or remained unchanged. In other words, we are attempting to capture discretionary fiscal policy changes that result in structural changes in the government budget and, therefore, in structural changes in spending and/or taxation.
To measure structural changes in the public-sector’s budgetary position, we calculate changes in structural budget balances.
A budget balance is simply the difference between receipts (largely taxation) and spending. A budget surplus occurs when receipts are greater than spending, while a deficit (sometimes referred to as net borrowing) occurs if spending is greater than receipts.
A structural budget balance cyclically-adjusts receipts and spending and hence adjusts for the position of the economy in the business cycle. In doing so, it has the effect of adjusting both receipts and spending for the effect of automatic stabilisers. Another way of thinking about this is to ask what the balance between receipts and spending would be if the economy were operating at its potential output. A deterioration in a structural budget balance infers a rise in the structural deficit or fall in the structural surplus. This indicates a loosening of the fiscal stance. An improvement in the structural budget balance, by contrast, indicates a tightening.
The size of UK fiscal impulses
A frequently-used measure of the fiscal impulse involves the change in the cyclically-adjusted public-sector primary deficit.
A primary deficit captures the extent to which the receipts of the public sector fall short of its spending, excluding its spending on debt interest payments. It essentially captures whether the public sector is able to afford its ‘new’ fiscal choices from its receipts; it excludes debt-servicing costs, which can be thought of as reflecting fiscal choices of the past. By using a cyclically-adjusted primary deficit we are able to isolate more accurately the size of discretionary policy changes. Chart 1 shows the UK’s actual and cyclically-adjusted primary deficit as a share of GDP since 1975, which have averaged 1.3 and 1.1 per cent of GDP respectively. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The size of the fiscal impulse is measured by the year-on-year percentage point change in the cyclically-adjusted public-sector primary deficit as a percentage of potential GDP. A larger deficit or a smaller surplus indicates a fiscal loosening (a positive fiscal impulse), while a smaller deficit or a larger surplus indicates a fiscal tightening (a negative fiscal impulse).
Chart 2 shows the magnitude of UK fiscal impulses since 1980. It captures very starkly the extent of the loosening of the fiscal stance in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) In 2020 the cyclically-adjusted primary deficit to potential output ratio rose from 1.67 to 14.04 per cent. This represents a positive fiscal impulse of 12.4 per cent of GDP.
A tightening of fiscal policy followed the waning of the pandemic. 2021 saw a negative fiscal impulse of 10.1 per cent of GDP. Subsequent tightening was tempered by policy measures to limit the impact on the private sector of the cost-of-living crisis, including the Energy Price Guarantee and Energy Bills Support Scheme.
In comparison, the fiscal response to the global financial crisis led to a cumulative increase in the cyclically-adjusted primary deficit to potential GDP ratio from 2007 to 2009 of 5.0 percentage points. Hence, the financial crisis saw a positive fiscal impulse of 5 per cent of GDP. While smaller in comparison to the discretionary fiscal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was, nonetheless, a sizeable loosening of the fiscal stance.
Sustainability and well-being of the public finances
The recent fiscal interventions have implications for the financial well-being of the public-sector. Not least, the financing of the positive fiscal impulses has led to a substantial growth in the accumulated size of the public-sector debt stock. At the end of 2006/7 the public-sector net debt stock was 35 per cent of GDP; at the end of the current financial year, 2023/24, it is expected to be 103 per cent.
As we saw at the outset, in an environment of rising interest rates, the increase in the public-sector debt to GDP ratio creates significant additional costs for government, a situation that is made more difficult for government not only by the current flatlining of economic activity, but by the low underlying rate of economic growth seen since the financial crisis. The combination of higher interest rates and lower economic growth has adverse implications for the sustainability of the public finances and the ability of the public sector to absorb the effects of future economic crises.
- Autumn Statement 2023: When is it and how will it affect me?
BBC News (16/11/23)
- What is the Autumn Statement?
House of Commons Library (13/11/23)
- Putting the fiscal toothpaste back into the tube: It’s time to normalise the euro area fiscal stance in 2024
VoxEU, Niels Thygesen, Roel Beetsma, Massimo Bordignon, Xavier Debrun, Mateusz Szczurek, Martin Larch, Matthias Busse, Mateja Gabrijelcic, Laszlo Jankovics and Janis Malzubris (30/6/23)
- Euro zone should tighten fiscal policy in 2024 to curb inflation, European Fiscal Board says
Reuters, Jan Strupczewski (28/6/23)
- Hutchins Center Fiscal Impact Measure: Federal, State and Local Fiscal Policy and the Economy
Brookings, Eli Asdourian, Louise Sheiner, and Lorae Stojanovic (27/10/23)
- IFS Green Budget
Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson and Ben Zaranko (eds) (October 2023)
- Explain what is meant by the following fiscal terms: (a) structural deficit; (b) automatic stabilisers; (c) discretionary fiscal policy; (d) primary deficit.
- What is the difference between current and capital public expenditures? Give some examples of each.
- Consider the following two examples of public expenditure: grants from government paid to the private sector for the installation of energy-efficient boilers, and welfare payments to unemployed people. How are these expenditures classified in the public finances and what fiscal objectives do you think they meet?
- Which of the following statements about the primary balance is FALSE?
(a) In the presence of debt interest payments a primary deficit will be smaller than a budget deficit.
(b) In the presence of debt interest payments a primary surplus will be smaller than a budget surplus.
(c) The primary balance differs from the budget balance by the size of debt interest payments.
(d) None of the above.
- Explain the difference between a fiscal impulse and a fiscal multiplier.
- Why is low economic growth likely to affect the sustainability of the public finances? What other factors could also matter?
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?
UK house prices have been falling in recent months. According to the Nationwide Building Society, average UK house prices in September 2023 were 5.3% lower than in September 2022. This fall reflects the increasing cost of owning a home as mortgage rates have risen. The average standard variable rate mortgage was 3.61% in August 2021, 4.88% in August 2022 and 7.85% in August 2023. A two-year fixed rate mortgage with a 10% deposit had an interest rate of 2.48% in August 2021, 3.93% in August 2022 and 6.59% in August 2023. Thus over two years, mortgage rates have more than doubled. This has made house purchase less affordable and has dampened demand.
But do house prices simply reflect current affordability? Given the large increase in mortgage costs and the cost-of-living crisis, it might seem surprising that house prices have fallen so little. After all, from September 2019 to August 2023, the average UK house price rose by 27.1% (from £215 352 to £273 751). Since then it has fallen by only 5.8% (to £257 808 in September 2023). However, there are various factors that help to explain why house prices have not fallen considerably more.
The first is that 74% of borrowers are on fixed-rate mortgages and 96% of new mortgages since 2019 have been at fixed rates. More than half of people with fixed rates have not yet had to renew their mortgage since interest rates began rising in December 2021. These people, therefore, have not yet been affected by the rise in mortgage interest rates.
The second is that interest rates are expected to peak and then fall. Even though by December 2024 another 2 million households will have had to renew their mortgage, those taking out new longer-term fixed rates may find that rates are lower than those on offer today. This could help to reduce the downward effect on house prices.
The third is that rents continue to rise, partly in response to the higher mortgage rates paid by landlords. With the price of this substitute product rising, this acts as an incentive for existing homeowners not to sell and existing renters to buy, even though they are facing higher mortgage payments.
The fourth is that house prices do not necessarily reflect the overall market equilibrium. People selling may hold out for a better price, hoping that they will eventually attract a buyer. Houses thus are taking longer to sell. This creates a glut of houses at above-equilibrium prices, with fewer sales taking place. At the same time, these higher prices depress demand. People would rather wait for a fall in house prices than pay the current asking price. This creates more of a ‘buyers’ market’, with some sellers being forced to sell well below the asking price. According to Zoopla (see linked article below), the average selling price is 4.2% below the asking price – the highest since 2019. Nevertheless, with sellers holding out and with reduced sales, actual sale prices have fallen less than if markets cleared.
So will house prices continue to fall and will the rate of decline accelerate? This depends on confidence and affordability. With interest rates falling, confidence and affordability are likely to rise. This will help to arrest further price falls.
However, with large numbers of people still on low fixed rates but with these fixed terms ending over the coming months, for them interest rates will be higher and this could continue to have a dampening effect on demand. What is more, affordability is likely to rise only slowly and in the short term could fall further. Petrol and diesel prices remain high and home energy costs and food prices are still well above the levels of two years ago. Inflation generally is coming down only slowly. The higher prices plus a rising tax burden from fiscal drag1 will continue to squeeze household budgets. This will reduce the size of deposits and the monthly payments that house purchasers can afford.
Over the longer term, house prices are set to rise again. Lower interest rates, rising real incomes again and a failure of house building to keep up with the growth in the number of people seeking to buy houses will all contribute to this. However, over the next few months, house prices are likely to continue falling. But just how much is difficult to predict. A lot will depend on expectations about house prices and incomes, how quickly inflation falls and how quickly the Bank of England reduces interest rates.
1 With tax thresholds frozen, as people’s wages rise, so a higher proportion of their income is taxed and, for higher earners, a higher proportion is taxed at a higher rate. This automatically increases income tax as a proportion of income.
- House Price Index – September 2023
Zoopla, Richard Donnell (28/9/23)
- UK home sellers increase discounts to secure deals, Zoopla data shows
Financial Times, Joshua Oliver (28/9/23)
- Buyer’s market! House hunters bag £12k off average asking price, says Zoopla
This is Money, Jane Denton (28/9/23)
- House price growth remained weak in September
Nationwide HPI Reports (2/10/23)
- UK mortgage approvals hit six-month low as interest rates cool market
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/9/23)
- UK house prices are plummeting at the most rapid pace in over a decade
Euronews, Daniel Harper (2/10/23)
- House prices fall across all UK regions for first time since 2009
Financial Times, Valentina Romei (2/10/23)
- Will house prices fall in 2023?
The Times, Hannah Smith and Georgie Frost (4/10/23)
- First-time buyers in UK drop by a fifth as higher mortgage costs bite
The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (27/9/23)
- England worst place in developed world to find housing, says report
The Guardian, Robert Booth (5/10/23)
- UK homeowners face huge rise in payments when fixed-rate mortgages expire
The Guardian, Richard Partington (17/6/23)
- UK house prices: Where the cheapest areas to buy are, and how far prices could fall
i News, Zesha Saleem (29/9/23)
- Why are house prices falling?
Independent, Vicky Shaw (7/9/23)
- Use a supply and demand diagram to illustrate the situation where house prices are above the equilibrium.
- Why does house price inflation/deflation differ (a) from one type of house (or flat) to another; (b) from one region of the economy/locality to another?
- Find out why house prices rose so much (a) in the early 2000s; (b) from 2020 to 2022.
- Find out why house prices fell so much from 2008 to 2010. Why was this fall so much greater than in recent months?
- Find out what is happening to house prices in two other developed countries of your choice. How does the current housing market in these countries differ from that in the UK?
- Paint possible scenarios (a) where UK house prices continue to fall by several percentage points; (b) begin to rise again very soon.
Central bankers, policymakers, academics and economists met at the Economic Symposium at Jackson Hole, Wyoming from August 24–26. This annual conference, hosted by Kansas City Fed, gives them a chance to discuss current economic issues and the best policy responses. The theme this year was ‘Structural Shifts in the Global Economy’ and one of the issues discussed was whether, in the light of such shifts, central banks’ 2 per cent inflation targets are still appropriate.
Inflation has been slowing in most countries, but is still above the 2 peer cent target. In the USA, CPI inflation came down from a peak of 9.1% in June 2022 to 3.2% in July 2023. Core inflation, however, which excludes food and energy was 4.7%. At the symposium, in his keynote address the Fed Chair, Jay Powell, warned that despite 11 rises in interest rates since April 2022 (from 0%–0.25% to 5%–5.25%) having helped to bring inflation down, inflation was still too high and that further rises in interest rates could not be ruled out.
We are prepared to raise rates further if appropriate, and intend to hold policy at a restrictive level until we are confident that inflation is moving sustainably down toward our objective.
However, he did recognise the need to move cautiously in terms of any further rises in interest rates as “Doing too much could also do unnecessary harm to the economy.” But, despite the rises in interest rates, growth has remained strong in the USA. The annual growth rate in real GDP was 2.4% in the second quarter of 2023. Unemployment, at 3.5%, is low by historical standards and similar to the rate before the Fed began raising interest rates.
Raising the target rate of inflation?
Some economists and politicians have advocated raising the target rate of inflation from 2 per cent to, perhaps, 3 per cent. Jason Furman, an economic policy professor at Harvard and formerly chief economic advisor to President Barack Obama, argues that a higher target has the benefit of helping cushion the economy against severe recessions, especially important when such there have been adverse supply shocks, such as the supply-chain issues following the COVID lockdowns and then the war in Ukraine. A higher inflation rate may encourage more borrowing for investment as the real capital sum will be eroded more quickly. Some countries do indeed have higher inflation targets, as the table shows.
Powell emphatically ruled out any adjustment to the target rate. His views were expanded upon by Christine Lagarde, the head of the European Central Bank. She argued that in a world of greater supply shocks (such as from climate change), greater frictions in markets and greater inelasticity in supply, and hence greater price fluctuations, it is important for wage increases not to chase price increases. Increasing the target rate of inflation would anchor inflationary expectations at a higher level and hence would be self-defeating. Inflation in the eurozone, as in the USA, is falling – it halved from a peak of 10.6% in 2022 to 5.3% in July this year. Given this and worries about recession, the ECB may not raise interest rates at its September meeting. However, Lagarde argued that interest rates needed to remain high enough to bring inflation back to target.
The UK position
The Bank of England, too, is committed to a 2 per cent inflation target, even though the inflationary problems for the UK economy are greater that for many other countries. Greater shortfalls in wage growth have been more concentrated amongst lower-paid workers and especially in the public health, safety and transport sectors. Making up these shortfalls will slow the rate of inflationary decline; resisting doing so could lead to protracted industrial action with adverse effects on aggregate supply.
Then there is Brexit, which has added costs and bureaucratic procedures to many businesses. As Adam Posen (former member of the MPC) points out in the article linked below:
Even if this government continues to move towards more pragmatic relations with the EU, divergences in standards and regulation will increase costs and decrease availability of various imports, as will the end of various temporary exemptions. The base run rate of inflation will remain higher for some time as a result.
Then there is a persistent problem of low investment and productivity growth in the UK. This restriction on the supply side will make it difficult to bring inflation down, especially if workers attempt to achieve pay increases that match cost-of-living increases.
Sticking to the status quo
There seems little appetite among central bankers to adjust inflation targets. Squeezing inflation out of their respective economies is painful when inflation originates largely on the supply side and hence the problem is how to reduce demand and real incomes below what they would otherwise have been.
Raising inflation targets, they argue, would not address this fundamental problem and would probably simply anchor inflationary expectations at the higher level, leaving real incomes unchanged. Only if such policies led to a rise in investment would a higher target be justified and central bankers do not believe that it would.
- What happens in Jackson Hole doesn’t stay in Jackson Hole
CNN, Elisabeth Buchwald (26/8/23)
- Fed Chair Powell calls inflation ‘too high’ and warns that ‘we are prepared to raise rates further’
CNBC, Jeff Cox (25/8/23)
- Inflation? This man holds the key
Politico, Geoffrey Smith and Carlo Boffa (24/8/23)
- Global inflation pressures could become harder to manage in coming years, research suggests
Independent, Christopher Rugaber (27/8/23)
- Christine Lagarde warns of long-term inflation risks after global economic upheaval
Financial Times, Martin Arnold and Colby Smith (25/8/23)
- No appetite at Fed, ECB for changing inflation goal
Reuters, Ann Saphir, Howard Schneider and Balazs Koryani (25/8/23)
- Is it time for Fed to raise interest rate target to 3%? Experts weigh in
mint, Nishant Kumar (22/8/23)
- What is the UK inflation rate and why is it so high?
BBC News (16/8/23)
- If you think the UK’s high-inflation cycle has run its course, think again
The Observer, Adam Posen (26/8/23)
- Use an aggregate demand and supply diagram (AD/AS or DAD/DAS) to illustrate inflation since the opening up of economies after the COVID lockdowns. Use another one to illustrate the the effects of central banks raising interest rates?
- Why is the world likely to continue experiencing bigger supply shocks and greater price volatility than before the pandemic?
- With hindsight, was increasing narrow money after the financial crisis and then during the pandemic excessive? Would it have been better to have used the extra money to fund government spending on infrastructure rather than purchasing assets such as bonds in the secondary market?
- What are the arguments for and against increasing the target rate of inflation?
- How do inflationary expectations influence the actual rate of inflation?
- Consider the arguments for and against the government matching pay increases for public-sector workers to the cost of living.