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?
Friday 5 August 2011 saw the end of a very bad fortnight for stock markets around the world. In Japan the Nikkei 225 had fallen by 8.2%, in the USA the Dow Jones had fallen by 9.8%, in the UK the FTSE 100 was down 11.6% and in Germany the Dax was down 14.9%. In the first five days of August alone, £148 billion had been wiped off the value of the shares of the FTSE 100 companies and $2.5 trillion off the value of shares worldwide.
But why had this happened and what are likely to be the consequences?
The falls have been caused by the growing concerns of investors about the health of the global economy and the global financial system. There are worries that the European leaders at their summit on 21 July did not do enough to prevent the default of large countries such as Spain and Italy. There are concerns that the US political system, following the squabbling in Congress over raising the sovereign debt ceiling for the country, may not be up to dealing with the country’s huge debts. Indeed, the rating agency, Standard & Poor’s, downgraded the USA’s credit rating from AAA to AA+. This is the first time that the USA has not had top rating.
Then there are worries about the general slowing down of the world economy and how this will compound the problem of sovereign debt as it hits tax revenues and makes it harder to reduce social security payments. Underlying all this is the fear that the problem of indebtedness that contributed to the banking crisis of 2007/8 has not gone away; it has simply been transferred from banks to governments. As Robert Peston states in his article, linked to below:
The overall volume of indebtedness in the economy is therefore still with us – although it has been shuffled from financial sector to public sector.
And if you took the view four years ago that the quantum of debt in the system was unsustainably large, then you would argue that by propping up the banks, the day of reckoning was being postponed, not cancelled.
… just like the awakening in 2007 to the idea that many of the housing loans and associated financial products were worthless, so there is a growing fear that a number of financially overstretched governments, especially in the eurozone, will not be able to repay their debts in full.
Which brings us to the consequences. Key to the answer is confidence. If governments can reassure markets over the coming days and weeks that they have credible policies to support highly indebted countries in the short term and to sustain demand in the global economy (e.g. through further quantitative easing in the USA (QE3)); and if they can also reassure markets that they have tough and credible policies to reduce their debts over the longer term, then confidence may return. But it will not be an easy task to get the balance right between sustaining recovery in the short term and fiscal retrenchment over the long term. Meanwhile consumers are likely to become even more cautious about spending – hardly the recipe for recovery.
Markets turmoil: What you need to know BBC News, Jonty Bloom (5/8/11)
Turmoil on stock markets persists as share prices fall BBC News, Robert Peston (5/8/11)
Global stock market crash – video analysis Guardian, Larry Elliott and Cameron Robertson (5/8/11)
S&P downgrade US AAA credit rating BBC News, Marcus George (6/8/11)
U.S. loses AAA credit rating Reuters, Paul Chapman (6/8/11)
U.S. loses AAA credit rating from S&P CNN (5/8/11)
US loses AAA rating ITN (6/8/11)
Shares slump amid euro fears Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (4/8/11)
What triggered the turmoil? Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor and Edward Hadas (5/8/11)
Fears eurozone woes will spread BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (5/8/11)
FTSE 100 tumbles in worst week since height of the crisis The Telegraph, Richard Blackden (5/8/11)
Global recession fears as stock markets tumble to nine-month low The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (3/8/11)
Global markets on the brink of crisis Guardian, Larry Elliott (5/8/11)
A week of financial turmoil: interactive Guardian, Nick Fletcher, Paddy Allen and James Ball (5/8/11)
Turmoil on stock markets persists BBC News (5/8/11)
Bank worries bring echoes of 2008 BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (5/8/11)
The origins of today’s market mayhem BBC News, Robert Peston (5/8/11)
Time for a double dip? The Economist (6/8/11)
Rearranging the deckchairs The Economist (6/8/11)
High hopes, low returns The Economist (4/8/11)
The debt-ceiling deal: No thanks to anyone The Economist (6/8/11)
Six years into a lost decade The Economist (6/8/11)
Debt crisis Q&A: what you need to know about Standard & Poor’s credit rating The Telegraph, Richard Tyler (6/8/11)
U.S. Will Roll Out QE3 After S&P Rating Cut, Li Daokui Says Bloomberg (6/8/11)
China flays U.S. over credit rating downgrade Reuters, Walter Brandimarte and Gavin Jones (6/8/11)
US credit rating downgraded to AA+ by Standard & Poor’s Guardian, Larry Elliott, Jill Treanor and Dominic Rushe (5/8/11)
Reaction to the US credit rating downgrade Guardian (6/8/11)
Market turmoil and the economics of self-harm Guardian, Mark Weisbrot (5/8/11)
Week ahead: Markets will sort through credit downgrade Moneycontrol (6/8/11)
S&P statement on lowering US long-term debt to AA+ Guardian (6/8/11)
Stock market indices
FTSE 100: historical prices, 1984 to current day Yahoo Finance
Dow Jones Industrial Average: historical prices, 1928 to current day Yahoo Finance
Nikkei 225 (Japan): historical prices, 1984 to current day Yahoo Finance
DAX (Germany): historical prices, 1990 to current day Yahoo Finance
CAC 40 (France): historical prices, 1990 to current day Yahoo Finance
Hang Seng (Hong Kong): historical prices, 1986 to current day Yahoo Finance
SSE Composite (China: Shanghai): historical prices, 2000 to current day Yahoo Finance
BSE Sensex (India): historical prices, 1997 to current day Yahoo Finance
Stock markets BBC
- Why have share prices been falling?
- Does the fall reflect ‘rational’ behaviour on the part of investors? Explain.
- Why does ‘overshooting’ sometimes occur in share price movements?
- Why has the USA’s credit rating been downgraded by Standard & Poor’s? What are the likely implications for the USA and the global economy of this downgrading?
- How is the downgrading likely to affect the return on (a) existing US government bonds; (b) new US government bonds?
- Why might worries about the strength of the global recovery jeopardise that recovery?
- To what extent has the debt problem simply been transferred from banks to governments? What should governments do about it in the short term?
Every six months the Bank of England publishes its Financial Stability Report. “It aims to identify the major downside risks to the UK financial system and thereby help financial firms, authorities and the wider public in managing and preparing for these risks.”
In the latest report, published on 17 December 2010, the Bank expresses concern about the UK’s exposure to problems overseas. The two most important problems are the continuing weaknesses of a number of banks and the difficulties of certain EU countries in repaying government bonds as they fall due and borrowing more capital at acceptable interest rates. As the report says:
Sovereign and banking system concerns have re-emerged in parts of Europe. The IMF and European authorities proposed a substantial package of support for Ireland. But market concerns spilled over to several other European countries. At the time of writing, contagion to the largest European banking systems has been limited. In this environment, it is important that resilience among UK banks has improved over the past year, including progress on refinancing debt and on raising capital buffers. But the United Kingdom is only partially insulated given the interconnectedness of European financial systems and the importance of their stability to global capital markets.
The Bank identifies a number of specific risks to the UK and global financial systems and examines various policy options for tackling them. The following articles consider the report.
Bank warns of eurozone risks to UK as EU leaders meet Independent, Sean O’Grady (17/12/10)
Deep potholes on the road to recovery Guardian, Nils Pratley (17/12/10)
It’s reassuring that regulators are still worried about financial stability The Telegraph, Tracy Corrigan (17/12/10)
Europe is still searching for stability and the UK must find it too Independent, Hamish McRae (17/12/10)
Shafts of light between the storm clouds The Economist blogs: ‘Blighty’ (17/12/10)
Financial Stability Report, December 2010: Overview Bank of England
Financial Stability Report, December 2010: Links to rest of report Bank of England
- What are the most important financial risks facing (a) the UK; (b) eurozone countries?
- What is the significance of the rise in banks’ tier-1 capital ratios since 2007?
- Which is likely to be more serious over the coming months: banking weaknesses or sovereign debt? Explain.
- What is being done to reduce the risks of sovereign default?
- Why might the weaker EU countries struggle to achieve economic growth over the next two or three years?
- How do interest rates on government debt, as expressed by bond yields, compare with historical levels? What conclusions can you draw from this?
- What is likely to happen to bond yields in the USA, the UK and Germany over the coming months?
- What has been the effect of the extra £200 billion that the Bank of England injected into the banking system through its policy of quantitative easing?
In the aftermath of the credit crunch and the recession, many banks had to be bailed out by central banks and some, such as Northern Rock and RBS, were wholly or partially nationalised. Tougher regulations to ensure greater liquidity and higher proportions of capital to total liabilities have been put in place and further regulation is being planned in many countries.
So are banks now able to withstand future shocks?
In recent months, new threats to banks have emerged. The first is the prospect of a double-dip recession as many countries tighten fiscal policy in order to claw down debts and as consumer and business confidence falls. The second is the concern about banks’ exposure to sovereign debt: i.e. their holding of government bonds and other securities. If there is a risk that countries might default on their debts, then banks would suffer and confidence in the banking system could plummet, triggering a further banking crisis. With worries that countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland might have problems in servicing their debt, and with the downgrading of these countries by rating agencies, this second problem has become more acute for banks with large exposure to the debt of these and similar countries.
To help get a measure of the extent of the problem and, hopefully, to reassure markets, the Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS) has been conducting ‘stress tests’ on European banks. On 24 July, it published its findings. The following articles look at these tests and the findings and assess whether the tests were rigorous enough.
Bank balance: EU stress tests explained Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins, Emily Cadman and Steve Bernard (13/7/10)
Seven EU banks fail stress test healthchecks BBC News, Robert Peston (23/7/10)
Interactive: EU stress test results by bank Financial Times, Emily Cadman, Steve Bernard, Johanna Kassel and Patrick Jenkin (23/7/10)
Q&A: What are the European bank stress tests for? BBC News (23/7/10)
Europe’s Stress-Free Stress Test Fails to Make the Grade Der Spiegel (26/7/10)
A test cynically calibrated to fix the result Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau (25/7/10)
Europe confronts banking gremlins Financial Times (23/7/10)
Leading article: Stressful times continue Independent (26/7/10)
Europe’s banking check-up Aljazeera, Samah El-Shahat (26/7/10)
Finance: Stressed but blessed Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins (25/7/10)
Were stress test rigorous enough? BBC Today Programme, Ben Shore (24/7/10)
Banks’ stress test ‘very wooly’ BBC Today Programme, Peter Hahn and Graham Turner(24/7/10)
Stress test whitewash of European banks World Socialist Web Site, Stefan Steinberg (26/7/10)
Stress tests: Not many dead BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (23/7/10)
Not much stress, not much test Reuters, Laurence Copeland (23/7/10)
Stress-testing Europe’s banks won’t stave off a deflationary vortex Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (18/7/10)
European banking shares rise after stress tests BBC News (26/7/10)
Euro banks pass test, gold falls CommodityOnline, Geena Paul (26/7/10)
2010 EU-wide Stress Testing: portal page to documents CEBS
- Explain what is meant by a bank stress test?
- What particular scenarios were tested for in the European bank stress tests?
- Assess whether the tests were appropriate? Were they too easy to pass?
- What effect did the results of the stress tests have on gold prices? Explain why (see final article above).
- What stresses are banks likely to face in the coming months? If they run into difficulties as a result, what would be the likely reaction of central banks? Would there be a moral hazard here? Explain.
There has been much in the news recently about the attempts of governments around the world to tackle two problems: (a) soaring deficits and debt and (b) a slow recovery and a possible slide back into recession. As the previous news item, Over stimulation? Trying to prevent a double dip as Japan’s debt soars, reported, Japan’s approach has been to tackle the second problem first and to give a massive fiscal boost to the economy. Its debt can be tackled later as the economy, hopefully, recovers.
The Irish government, by contrast, in its Budget on 9 December announced sweeping cuts in government expenditure. This included substantial pay cuts for public-sector employees. Getting the public-sector deficit down (projected to be 11.6% of GDP in 2010) was the government’s major priority.
Greece too is under tremendous pressure to cut its public-sector deficit and debt. Forecast to be 125% of GDP in 2010, its public-sector debt is the highest in the eurozone. There are serious worries as to whether Greece will be able to fund the debt.
Meanwhile in the UK, Alistair Darling presented the government’s pre-Budget report. This took a mid-course between the two objectives. He announced modest increases in tax, including a 1% increase in national insurance contributions from 2010, and modest increases in benefits. The overall effect was pretty neutral, leaving the projected public-sector deficit at around 12.6% of GDP in 2010/11, hopefully falling to around 4.4% by 2014/15 as economic growth increases tax revenues. So was this the best compromise: not too tough so as to stifle recovery and not too expansionary so as to cause a soaring of debt and difficulty in funding the necessary borrowing?
So what is the correct balance? Are the situations very different in the four countries or have they merely chosen to prioritise them differently? Should countries make cuts early in order to get their deficits down and avoid a collapse in confidence, but risk falling back into recession? Or should they get growth firmly established before tightening fiscal policy? The following articles look at the issues.
Key points: The pre-Budget report at-a-glance BBC News (9/12/09)
Alistair Darling to borrow more this year (including video) BBC News (9/12/09)
Walking the line BBC News, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders’ blog (10/12/09)
Larry Elliott’s analysis on the pre-budget report (video) Guardian, Larry Elliott and Mustafa Khalili (9/12/09)
Pre-budget report: All boxed in Guardian (10/12/09)
Tax and mend Economist (9/12/09)
Darling defends economic forecasts (including video) Financial Times, Chris Giles and George Parker (9/12/09)
Prevarication and Newspeak will not fix our finances Financial Times, Willem Buiter (9/12/09)
Is UK government debt really that high? BBC News, Richard Anderson (22/12/09)
The measures announced in the pre-Budget report along with a video of the speech, press releases and the full report as a PDF document can be found at the Treasury’s Pre-Budget Report 2009 site.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has a part of its site dedicated to the pre-Budget report. This contains briefings and analysis. See Pre-Budget Report 2009
Why Greece Could Be the Next Dubai Time, Adam Smith (9/12/09)
Greece’s debt crisis signals problems for the European Central Bank Guardian, Nils Pratley (8/12/09)
Greek stocks fall 6% on fears over the country’s debt BBC News (8/12/09)
Greek stocks fall 6% on fears over the country’s debt (video) BBC News (8/12/09)
Greece threatens bankruptcy, and the eurozone The Atlantic, Megan McArdle (8/12/09)
Greece Struggles to Stay Afloat as Debts Pile On New York Times, Rachel Donadio and Niki Kitsantonis (11/12/09)
Greece ‘worthy’ of eurozone place BBC News (14/12/09)
Greek PM to unveil steps to allay deficit fears Forbes, Dina Kyriakidou (14/12/09)
Default lines The Economist (3/12/09)
Greeks denying gifts BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (29/1/10)
Davos 2010: Greece denies a bail-out is needed BBC News (28/1/10)
Ireland suffers harshest budget in decades Financial Times, John Murray Brown (9/12/09)
Strong medicine fails to soothe Irish Financial Times, John Murray Brown (9/12/09)
Irish Wince as a Budget Proposal Cuts to the Bone New York Times, Sarah Lyall (9/12/09)
A time to grin and bear it Irish Times (10/12/09)
German government heads for record debt BBC News (29/12/09)
German minister warns of fiscal crackdown Financial Times, Bertrand Benoit (17/12/09)
Goverment’s draft budget includes record debt levels Deutsche Welle (16/12/09)
The banking crisis: Till debt us do part Times Online, David Smith and Jenny Davey (13/12/09)
Sovereign debt burdens keep traders on red alert Fiinancial Times, David Oakley (12/12/09)
- Are the objectives of tackling recession and getting the public-sector deficit and debt down contradictory aims, or is it merely a question of sequencing?
- To what extent are the situations in the UK, Japan and Ireland similar? Should they be following similar macroeconomic policies?
- Why does it matter if a country has a rising public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Distinguish between a cyclical deficit and a structural deficit. Why has the UK’s structural deficit got worse? Will it fall as the economy recovers, or will it be only the cyclical deficit that falls?
- Why does Greece’s debt crisis signal problems for the European Central Bank?
- What determines a country’s sovereign credit rating?