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?
On 23 September, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced his mini-Budget. It revealed big tax-cutting plans with the aim of stimulating economic growth. See the blog From Reaganomics to Trussonomics for details. However, the announcement triggered a crisis of confidence in the markets. The government says the measures will kickstart economic growth, but with the tax cuts funded through extra government borrowing, markets have raised alarm over the plans, sending the pound plunging.
On Monday 26 September, traders in the UK awoke to see that the pound had fallen to the new lowest level on record against the dollar of $1.03. Although it came at a time when the markets expected the pound to weaken, the announcement pushed a fall in the pound beyond previous expectations. Concerns about where the extra money would come from to pay for the tax cuts were reflected in market movements. A weaker currency suggests investors’ faith in a country’s economic prospects is wavering.
What does a falling pound mean?
The pound’s value affects everyone – from shoppers to business owners and investors. The main impacts of the falling pound include:
- Higher prices. A fall in the value of the pound will increase the price of goods and services imported into the UK from overseas. When the pound is weak against the dollar, it costs more for companies in the UK to buy things such as food, raw materials or parts from abroad. Firms are likely then to pass on some or all those higher costs to their customers.
- Higher mortgage repayments. By increasing inflation, a falling pound is likely to push the Bank of England to raise interest rates to counter this. With two million people in the UK on a tracker or variable rate mortgage, monthly costs could increase substantially. Lenders are also likely to increase the rates charged on credit cards, bank loans or car loans.
- Further pressure on energy costs. The price of all of the gas that the UK uses is based on the dollar – even if the gas is produced in the UK. As oil prices are based on the dollar, petrol and diesel could also be more expensive for UK drivers as it costs more to be imported by fuel companies. Although the dollar price of oil has been falling in recent weeks, consumers are not likely to see the benefit at the pump due to the slide in the value of the pound.
- Stronger sales for UK firms who sell goods abroad. Some businesses in the UK could get a boost from a fall in the value of the pound. A cheaper pound makes it less expensive for people from around the globe to buy goods and services from British firms, making them more competitive.
- More expensive trips abroad. The plunge in the pound means that people’s holiday money won’t stretch as far, particularly for anyone planning a trip to the USA. The depreciation of the pound could also see airlines face sharply increased costs, with fuel and aircraft leases often denominated in dollars.
Threat to confidence
The Bank of England said a weaker outlook for the UK economy as well as a stronger dollar were putting pressure on sterling. However, market responses were clear that Kwarteng’s mini-Budget was threatening to undermine confidence in the UK. The pound plunged to its lowest since Britain went decimal in 1971, as belief in the UK’s economic management and assets evaporated.
By Tuesday 27 September, there were expectations that the Bank of England would have to raise interest rates to counter the extra spending in the mini-Budget. Economists from the City suggested the slump in the pound would not just force the Bank of England into raising rates at the next MPC announcement in November, but to intervene now by announcing an emergency interest rate rise to support the currency. This sent mortgage activity into a frenzy as brokers worked around the clock to help clients secure deals before lenders pulled their products or replaced them with more expensive ones. By the end of the week there were 40% fewer products available than before the mini-Budget.
The Bank of England
In August, the Bank predicted that the UK would go into recession, lasting some 15 months. It did so as it raised interest rates by the highest margin in 27 years (0.5 percentage points) in a bid to keep soaring prices under control. Higher interest rates can make borrowing more expensive, meaning people have less money to spend and prices will stop rising as quickly. The Bank of England is expected to raise interest rates by an even larger amount to combat the inflationary impact of the mini-Budget, as a weakening pound drives up costs of imports. The money markets are pricing a doubling of UK interest rates to more than 5% by next summer.
On Thursday 29 September the cost of government borrowing was rising to levels many economists thought were concerning. After the mini-Budget, the UK Debt Management Office, which borrows on behalf of the government by issuing new government bonds (‘gilts’), plans to raise an additional £72bn before next April, raising the financing remit in 2022/23 to £234bn. The investors in bonds are mainly large institutions, such as pension funds.
New bonds are issued at a fixed payment per annum based on the face value. If interest rates rise, then new bonds must pay a higher amount per annum to attract purchasers. Old bonds with a relatively low payment per year will fall in value. For example, if a £100 bond issued a while back paid £2 per annum (a nominal 2%) and interest rates on equivalent assets rose to 4%, the market price of the bond would fall to £50, as £2 per annum is 4% of £50. This percentage of the market price (as opposed to the face value) is known as the ‘yield’. With worries about the rise in government borrowing, bond prices fell and yields correspondingly rose. Investors were demanding much higher interest rates to lend to the UK government.
The Investment Director at JM Finn compared investing in government bonds to sloths, they’re low risk and typically don’t move. This is because lending to the UK is usually considered as an ultra-safe bet. However, some bonds fell in price by 20% in two days (26–28 September).
There was concern that the mini-Budget threatened the financial health of Britain’s biggest pensions and insurance companies, which together manage trillions of pounds of people’s cash. These companies hold large amounts of UK government bonds and the fall in their price was significantly reducing the value of their assets.
The Bank of England thus announced that it would step in to calm markets, warning that continued volatility would be a ‘material risk to UK financial stability’. The Bank would start buying government bonds at an ‘urgent pace’ to help push their price back up and restore orderly market conditions. It would set aside £65bn to buy bonds over 13 working days. It is hoped that the Bank’s action will now ease the pressure on pension funds and insurance companies.
But the purchase of bonds increases money supply. This was the process by which money supply was increased during periods of quantitative easing (QE). Increasing money supply, while helping to dampen the rise in interest rates and stabilise the financial markets, is likely to lead to higher inflation. The Bank of England had previously planned to do the opposite: to engage in quantitative tightening (QT), which involves selling some of the stock of (old) bonds which the Bank had accumulated during the various rounds of QE.
Despite the Bank of England’s action which helped to curb the fall in the sterling exchange rate, some analysts warned it could fall further and could even reach parity with the dollar. There are concerns that the Bank is simply firefighting, rather than being able to solve the wider problems. There is now growing pressure on the government to make clear the financial cost of its tax cuts and spending plans.
Criticism from the IMF
There has been widespread criticism of the government’s plan, with the International Monetary Fund warning on Tuesday 27 September that the measures were likely to fuel the cost-of-living crisis and increase inequality. The stinging rebuke from the IMF arrived at the worst moment for the UK government. The IMF works to stabilise the global economy and one of its key roles is to act as an early economic warning system. It said it understood the package aimed to boost growth, but it warned that the cuts could speed up the pace of price rises, which the UK’s central bank is trying to bring down. In an unusually outspoken statement, the IMF said the proposal was likely to increase inequality and add to pressures pushing up prices.
Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England also criticised the government, accusing them of ‘undercutting’ the UK’s key economic institutions. Mr Carney said that while the government was right to want to boost economic growth, ‘There is a lag between today and when that growth might come.’ He also criticised the government for undercutting various institutions that underpin the overall approach, including not having an OBR forecast.
What is next for the economy?
Before the announcement, the Bank had expected the economy to shrink in the last three months of 2022 and keep shrinking until the end of 2023. However, some economists believe the UK could already be in recession. The impacts of the mini-Budget have so far not alleviated fears of the UK diving into recession. However, the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, also warned that little could be done to stop the UK falling into a recession this year as the war in Ukraine continued. He added that it would ‘overwhelmingly be caused by the actions of Russia and the impact on energy prices’.
Despite the external pressures on the economy, it is clear that recent market activity has damaged confidence. The Bank has already said it will ‘not hesitate’ to hike interest rates to try to protect the pound and stem surging prices. Some economists have predicted the Bank of England will raise the interest rate from the current 2.25% to 5.75% by next spring.
The Bank’s action of emergency bond purchases helped provide Kwarteng with some respite from the financial markets after three days of turmoil, which included strong criticism of the mini-Budget from the International Monetary Fund, about 1000 mortgage products pulled and interest rates on UK government bonds hitting their highest level since 2008.
On 3 October, at the start of the Conservative Party annual conference, Kwarteng announced that the planned cut in the top rate of income tax from 45% to 40% would not go ahead. This showed that the government would change course if pressure was strong enough. That day, the sterling exchange rate against the dollar appreciated by around 0.5% to around $1.12.
But this was not enough. The pressure was still on the government. There were urgent calls from the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee to bring forward the government’s financial statement, which was not due until 23 November, by at least a month. The government was urged to publish growth forecasts as soon as possible to help calm the markets. In response, on 4 October the government agreed to bring the financial statement forward to late October along with the forecasts of its impacts from the OBR.
However, Truss and Kwarteng have so far resisted this pressure to bring analysis of their tax plans forward. They have refused independent analysis of their plans until more than six weeks after receiving them, despite more calls from Tory MPs for Downing Street to reassure the markets. The Prime Minister and Chancellor said they would only publish the independent forecasts on 23 November alongside a fiscal statement, despite them being ready on 7 October.
Longer term impacts
Amongst all the activity in the week following the mini-Budget, there are real concerns of the longer-term impacts the budget will have on the economy. Some experts predict that the lasting effects of the ‘mini’ Budget will be felt far beyond the trading floors. Large tax cuts the government claimed would boost growth have instead convinced markets the UK’s entire macroeconomic framework is under threat. Although this turmoil has been the short-term result, it’s important to step back and think about how the effects of this abrupt shift in economic policy will be felt far beyond the trading floors.
Sterling’s partial recovery a few days after the mini-Budget reflects an increased confidence that there will be a large interest rate rise coming on November 3. However, the bleak economic outlook has removed any fiscal headroom the government may have had. The largest tax cuts in five decades need funding, while spooking the markets means another £12.5bn a year added to the debt interest bill. However, Kwarteng remains committed to debt falling eventually.
It is estimated that there needs to be a fiscal tightening of around £37–£47bn by 2026/27. Even more could be required to ensure that tax revenues cover day-to-day spending or for even a small margin for error. Many have therefore called for a U-turn on the measures announced in the mini-Budget beyond abolishing the cut to the top rate of income tax. Performing a U-turn on some of the tax cuts would make the fiscal tightening much more achievable. However, it could be politically detrimental. Much lower taxes will mean less public spending. Some suggest that this trade-off was ignored when those tax cuts were announced, but market pressure has now put it centre stage.
The Prime Minister has since admitted that mistakes were made in the controversial ‘mini’ Budget that sparked market turmoil in the last week of September. However, a day before reversing the cut in the top rate of income tax, she said she would not retreat on her plan to deliver £45bn of unfunded tax cuts, insisting it would help deliver growth, but admitted: ‘We should have laid the ground better and I have learned from that.’
- Pound hits all-time low against dollar after mini-budget rocks markets
The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (26/9/22)
- The pound: Why is it falling?
BBC News, Tom Edgington (27/9/22)
- Falling pound: What does it mean for me and my finances?
BBC News, Lora Jones (28/9/22)
- Bank of England steps in to calm markets
BBC News, Daniel Thomas and Noor Nanji (29/9/22)
- Government is undercutting UK institutions, says former Bank governor
BBC News, Dearbail Jordan (30/9/22)
- Bank of England in £65bn scramble to avert financial crisis
The Guardian, Larry Elliott, Pippa Crerar and Richard Partington (28/9/22)
- From mini-budget to market turmoil: Kwasi Kwarteng’s week – video timeline
The Guardian, Elena Morresi and Monika Cvorak plus sources as credited (30/9/22)
- Truss and Kwarteng resist pressure to bring analysis of their tax plans forward
The Guardian, Rowena Mason and Aubrey Allegretti (30/9/22)
- Mark Carney accuses Truss government of undermining Bank of England
The Guardian, Kalyeena Makortoff (29/9/22)
- Lasting effects of ‘mini’ Budget will be felt far beyond the trading floors
The Times, Torsten Bell (1/10/22)
- ‘Big impact’: UK economic chaos, pound plunge hit businesses
ABC News, Sylvia Hui and Kelvin Chan (30/9/22)
- Bank of England bonds rescue has two ugly implications: more inflation and an even weaker pound
The Conversation, Costas Milas (30/9/22)
- Sterling hits all-time low: two things can turn this around but neither is straightforward
The Conversation, Jean-Philippe Serbera (26/9/22)
- Explain how the announced tax cut will stimulate economic growth.
- What is the impact of the weakened pound on UK households and businesses?
- Draw a diagram illustrating the way in which the $/£ exchange rate is determined.
- How is UK inflation likely to be affected by a depreciation of sterling?
- Are there any advantages of having a lower pound?
With the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, stock markets around the world fell dramatically, with many indices falling by 30% or more. In the USA, the Dow Jones fell by 37% and the Nasdaq fell by 30%. In the UK, the FTSE 100 fell by 33% and the FTSE 250 by 41%.
But with a combination of large-scale government support for their economies, quantitative easing by central banks and returning confidence of investors, stock markets then made a sustained recovery and have continued to grow strongly since – until recently, that is.
With inflation well above target levels, central banks have ended quantitative easing (QE) or have indicated that they soon will. Interest rates are set to rise, if only slowly. The Bank of England raised Bank Rate from its historic low of 0.1% to 0.25% on 16 December 2021 and ceased QE, having reached its target of £895 billion of asset purchases. On 4 February 2022, it raised Bank Rate to 0.5%. The Fed has announced that it will gradually raise interest rates and will end QE in March 2022, and later in the year could begin selling some of the assets it has purchased (quantitative tightening). The ECB is not ending QE or raising interest rates for the time being, but is likely to do so later in the year.
At the same time economic growth is slowing, leading to fears of stagflation. Governments are likely to dampen growth further by tightening fiscal policy. In the UK, national insurance is set to rise by 1.25 percentage points in April.
The slowdown in growth may discourage central banks from tightening monetary policy more than very slightly. Indeed, in the light of its slowing economy, the Chinese central bank cut interest rates on 20 January 2022. Nevertheless, it is likely that the global trend will be towards tighter monetary policy.
The fears of slowing growth and tighter monetary and fiscal policy have led many stock market investors to predict an end to the rise in stock market prices – an end to the ‘bull run’. This belief was reinforced by growing tensions between Russia and NATO countries and fears (later proved right) that Russia might invade Ukraine with all the turmoil in the global economy that this would entail. Stock market prices have thus fallen.
The key question is what will investors believe. If they believe that share prices will continue to fall they are likely to sell. This has happened since early January, especially in the USA and especially with stocks in the high-tech sector – such stocks being heavily represented in the Nasdaq composite, a broad-based index that includes over 2500 of the equities listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange. From 3 January to 18 February the index fell from 15 833 to 13 548, a fall of 14.4%. But will this fall be seen as enough to reflect the current economic and financial climate. If so, it could fluctuate around this sort of level.
However, some may speculate that the fall has further to go – that indices are still too high to reflect the earning potential of companies – that the price–earnings ratio is still too high for most shares. If this is the majority view, share prices will indeed fall.
Others may feel that 14.4% is an overcorrection and that the economic climate is not as bleak as first thought and that the Omicron coronavirus variant, being relatively mild for most people, especially if ‘triple jabbed’, may do less economic damage than first feared. In this scenario, especially if the tensions over Ukraine are diffused, people are likely to buy shares while they are temporarily low.
But a lot of this is second-guessing what other people will do – known as a Keynesian beauty contest situation. If people believe others will buy, they will too and this will push share prices up. If they think others will sell, they will too and this will push share prices down. They will all desperately wish they had a crystal ball as they speculate how people will interpret what central banks, governments and other investors will do.
- What changes in real-world factors would drive investors to (a) buy (b) sell shares at the current time?
- How does quantitative easing affect share prices?
- What is meant by the price-earnings ratio of a share? Is it a good indicator as to the likely movement of that share’s price? Explain.
- What is meant by a Keynesian beauty contest? How is it relevant to the stock market?
- Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation and illustrate each with a demand and supply diagram. Explain the concept of overshooting in this context.
- Which is more volatile, the FTSE 100 or the FTSE 250? Explain.
- Read the final article linked above. Were the article’s predictions about the Fed meeting on 26 January borne out? Comment.
Donald Trump has suggested that the Fed should cut interest rates by 1 percentage point and engage in a further round of quantitative easing. He wants to see monetary policy used to give a substantial boost to US economic growth at a time when inflation is below target. In a pair of tweets just before the meeting of the Fed to decide on interest rates, he said:
China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low. Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates, even though inflation is very low, and instituted a very big dose of quantitative tightening. We have the potential to go up like a rocket if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing. Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!
But would this be an appropriate policy? The first issue concerns the independence of the Fed.
It is supposed to take decisions removed from the political arena. This means sticking to its inflation target of 2 per cent over the medium term – the target it has officially had since January 2012. To do this, it adjusts the federal funds interest rate and the magnitude of any bond buying programme (quantitative easing) or bond selling programme (quantitative tightening).
The Fed is supposed to assess the evidence concerning the pressures on inflation (e.g. changes in aggregate demand) and what inflation is likely to be over the medium term in the absence of any changes in monetary policy. If the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) expects inflation to exceed 2 per cent over the medium term, it will probably raise the federal funds rate; if it expects inflation to be below the target it will probably lower the federal funds rate.
In the case of the economy being in recession, and thus probably considerably undershooting the target, it may also engage in quantitative easing (QE). If the economy is growing strongly, it may sell some of its portfolio of bonds and thus engage in quantitative tightening (QT).
Since December 2015 the Fed has been raising interest rates by 0.25 percentage points at a time in a series of steps, so that the federal funds rate stands at between 2.25% and 2.5% (see chart). And since October 2017, it has also been engaged in quantitative tightening. In recent months it has been selling up to $50 billion of assets per month from its holdings of around $4000 billion and so far has reduced them by around £500 billion. It has, however, announced that the programme of QT will end in the second half of 2019.
This does raise the question of whether the FOMC is succumbing to political pressure to cease QT and put interest rate rises on hold. If so, it is going against its remit to base its policy purely on evidence. The Fed, however, maintains that its caution reflects uncertainty about the global economy.
The second issue is whether Trump’s proposed policy is a wise one.
Caution about further rises in interest rates and further QT is very different from the strongly expansionary monetary policy that President Trump proposes. The economy is already growing at 3.2%, which is above the rate of growth in potential output, of around 1.8% to 2.0%. The output gap (the percentage amount that actual GDP exceeds potential GDP) is positive. The IMF forecasts that the gap will be 1.4% in 2019 and 1.3% in 2020 and 2021. This means that the economy is operating at above normal capacity working and this will eventually start to drive up inflation. Any further stimulus will exacerbate the problem of excess demand. And a large stimulus, as proposed by Donald Trump, will cause serious overheating in the medium term, even if it does stimulate growth in the short term.
For these reasons, the Fed resisted calls for a large cut in interest rates and a return to quantitative easing. Instead it chose to keep interest rates on hold at its meeting on 1 May 2019.
But if the Fed had done as Donald Trump would have liked, the economy would probably be growing very strongly at the time of the next US election in November next year. It would be a good example of the start of a political business cycle – something that is rarer nowadays with the independence of central banks.
- What are the arguments for central bank independence?
- Are there any arguments against central bank independence?
- Explain what is meant by an ‘output gap’? Why is it important to be clear on what is meant by ‘potential output’?
- Would there be any supply-side effects of a strong monetary stimulus to the US economy at the current time? If so, what are they?
- Explain what is meant by the ‘political business’ cycle? Are governments in the UK, USA or the eurozone using macroeconomic policy to take advantage of the electoral cycle?
- The Fed seems to be ending its programme of quantitative tightening (QT). Why might that be so and is it a good idea?
- If inflation is caused by cost-push pressures, should central banks stick rigidly to inflation targets? Explain.
- How are expectations likely to affect the success of a monetary stimulus?
Growth in the eurozone has slowed. The European Central Bank (ECB) now expects it to be 1.1% this year; in December, it had forecast a rate of 1.7% for 2019. Mario Draghi, president of the ECB, in his press conference, said that ‘the weakening in economic data points to a sizeable moderation in the pace of the economic expansion that will extend into the current year’. Faced with a slowing eurozone economy, the ECB has announced further measures to stimulate economic growth.
First it has indicated that interest rates will not rise until next year at the earliest ‘and in any case for as long as necessary to ensure the continued sustained convergence of inflation to levels that are below, but close to, 2% over the medium term’. The ECB currently expects HIPC inflation to be 1.2% in 2019. It was expected to raise interest rates later this year – probably by the end of the summer. The ECB’s main refinancing interest rate, at which it provides liquidity to banks, has been zero since March 2016, and so there was no scope for lowering it.
Second, although quantitative easing (the asset purchase programme) is coming to an end, there will be no ‘quantitative tightening’. Instead, the ECB will purchase additional assets to replace any assets that mature, thereby leaving the stock of assets held the same. This would continue ‘for an extended period of time past the date when we start raising the key ECB interest rates, and in any case for as long as necessary to maintain favourable liquidity conditions and an ample degree of monetary accommodation’.
Third, the ECB is launching a new series of ‘quarterly targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO-III), starting in September 2019 and ending in March 2021, each with a maturity of two years’. These are low-interest loans to banks in the eurozone for use for specific lending to businesses and households (other than for mortgages) at below-market rates. Banks will be able to borrow up to 30% of their eligible assets (yet to be fully defined). These, as their acronym suggests, are the third round of such loans. The second round was relatively successful. As the Barron’s article linked below states:
Banks boosted their long-term borrowing from the ECB by 70% over the course of the program, although they did not manage to increase their holdings of business loans until after TLTRO II had finished disbursing funds in March 2017.
Whether these measures will be enough to raise growth rates in the eurozone depends on a range of external factors affecting aggregate demand. Draghi identified three factors which could have a negative effect.
- Brexit. The forecasts assume an orderly Brexit in accordance with the withdrawal deal agreed between the European Commission and the UK government. With the House of Commons having rejected this deal twice, even though it has agreed that there should not be a ‘no-deal Brexit’, this might happen as it is the legal default position. This could have a negative effect on the eurozone economy (as well as a significant one on the UK economy). Even an extension of Article 50 could create uncertainty, which would also have a negative effect
- Trade wars. If President Trump persists with his protectionist policy, this will have a negative effect on growth in the eurozone and elsewhere.
- China. Chinese growth has slowed and this dampens global growth. What is more, China is a major trading partner of the eurozone countries and hence slowing Chinese growth impacts on the eurozone through the international trade multiplier. The ECB has taken this into account, but if Chinese growth slows more than anticipated, this will further push down eurozone growth.
Then there are internal uncertainties in the eurozone, such as the political and economic uncertainty in Italy, which in December 2018 entered a recession (2 quarters of negative economic growth). Its budget deficit is rising and this is creating conflict with the European Commission. Also, there are likely to be growing tensions within Italy as the government raises taxes.
Faced with these and other uncertainties, the measures announced by Mario Draghi may turn out not to be enough. Perhaps in a few months’ there may have to be a further round of quantitative easing.
- ECB statement following policy meeting
Reuters, Larry King (7/3/19)
- European Central Bank acts to boost struggling eurozone
BBC News, Andrew Walker (7/3/19)
- The European Central Bank Tries to Avoid Repeating Past Mistakes
Barron’s, Matthew C. Klein (8/3/19)
- ECB pushes back rate hike plans, announces fresh funding for banks
CNBC, Silvia Amaro (7/3/19)
- Why the ECB Followed the Fed’s Flip-Flopping
Bloomberg, Mohamed A. El-Erian (7/3/19)
- Central Banks Don’t Have the Answer and Markets Know It
Bloomberg, Robert Burgess (7/3/19)
- Missing out on monetary normalisation
OMFIF, David Marsh (12/4/19)
- The ECB is attempting to get ahead of event
Financial Times, The editorial board (8/3/19)
- Explainer: What is the fuss about European Central Bank TLTRO loans?
Reuters, Balazs Koranyi (4/3/19)
- Investigate the history of quantitative easing and its use by the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB. What is the current position of the three central banks on ‘quantitative tightening’, whereby central banks sell some of the stock of assets they have purchased during the process of quantitative easing or not replace them when they mature?
- What are TLTROs and what use of them has been made by the ECB? Do they involve the creation of new money?
- What will determine the success of the proposed TLTRO III scheme?
- If the remit of central banks is to keep inflation on target, which in the ECB’s case means below 2% HIPC inflation but close to it over the medium term, why do people talk about central banks using monetary policy to revive a flagging economy?
- What is ‘forward guidance’ by central banks and what determines its affect on aggregate demand?