From the Economist – good video on government bonds and debt through the ages with some great graphics.
It asks the question is government debt a concern today? They state that as long as a country’s GDP is growing faster than the country’s debt accumulating in interest then it grow its way out of debt with no fiscal cost. It also questions why interest rates today are low? Central banks such as the RBNZ and the US Federal Reserve set the interest rates and will keep them low until the economy starts some sort of recovery. They are able to do this as there is little to no inflationary pressure in the economy – remember most central banks have an inflationary target. This does mean that savers lose out as the return they get is very low. Furthermore implementing a programme of quantitative easing floods the market with cash which in turn leads to a lower cost of borrowing.
Below is a link to a very good interview with RBNZ Governor Adrian Orr on Radio NZ ‘Morning Report’ programme. Loads of good material on monetary policy – useful for discussion purposes with my A2 class today – online.
The Monetary Policy Committee decided to implement a Large Scale Asset Purchase programme (LSAP) of New Zealand government bonds. The programme will purchase $30 billion of New Zealand government bonds, across a range of maturities, in the secondary market over the next 12 months. The programme aims to provide further support to the economy, build confidence, and keep interest rates on government bonds low. The low OCR – 0.25%, lower long-term interest rates, and the fiscal stimulus recently announced together provide considerable support to the economy through this challenging period.
Just covering this with my A2 class and have gone through the theory with them. The liquidity trap is a situation where monetary policy becomes ineffective. Cutting the rate of interest is supposed to be the escape route from economic recession: boosting the money supply, increasing demand and thus reducing unemployment. But John Maynard Keynes argued that sometimes cutting the rate of interest, even to zero, would not help. People, banks and firms could become so risk averse that they preferred the liquidity of cash to offering credit or using the credit that is on offer. In such circumstances, the economy would be trapped in recession, despite the best efforts of monetary policy makers.
The graph below shows a liquidity trap. Increases or decreases in the supply of money at an interest rate of X do not affect interest rates, as all wealth-holders believe interest rates have reached the floor. All increases in money supply are simply taken up in idle balances. Since interest rates do not alter, the level of expenditure in the economy is not affected. Hence, monetary policy in this situation is ineffective.
Policies to overcome a liquidity trap
Quantitative easing (QE) is a type of monetary policy used by central banks to stimulate the economy when standard monetary policy has become ineffective. Governments and central banks like there to be “just enough” growth in an economy – not too much that could lead to inflation getting out of control, but not too little that there is stagnation. Their aim is the so-called “Goldilocks economy” – not too hot, but not too cold. One of the main tools they have to control growth is raising or lowering interest rates. Lower interest rates encourage people or companies to spend money, rather than save.
But when interest rates are almost at zero, central banks need to adopt different tactics – such as pumping money directly into the economy. This process is known as quantitative easing or QE.
Helicopter Drop. Milton Friedman advocated bypassing the commercial banks and money could be paid directly to consumers . This policy was termed a ‘helicopter drop’ to indicate the idea of a central bank dropping money from a helicopter. If deflation is a real problem, the Central bank could give money credits which have to be spent by a certain date – to stop people just saving the extra money.
Another very informative clip from the FT. Some of the salient points include:
Since the global financial crisis the Bank of England, US Fed, Bank of Japan and European Central Bank have bought assets and printed US$12 trillion.
Can interest rates return to what has been normal in the past – say 5% instead of close to 0%.
US Fed plans to shrink its balance sheet later this year – monthly reduction US$6bn in its assets. But this is a very small amount when you consider that the Fed holds US$4.5 trillion
But this is not happening elsewhere. Bank of Japan and European Central Bank are still printing money and buying assets. With Brexit the Bank of England faces huge uncertainties regarding their balance sheets.
Interest rates will remain low partly due to: ageing population, low productivity growth and a savings glut. This has reduced the attractiveness of capital spending.
Sad news yesterday of the passing of John Clarke. As well as his Fred Dagg character he was part of ‘Clarke and Dawe’ which aired on ABC Australia in which prominent figures speak about matters of public importance. Below is the time they look into what Quantitative Easing actually is. Very amusing and his sense of humour will be missed.
There is growing anxiety that policymakers in the developed world will need to consider some radical approaches to tackling the next downturn. Quantitative easing (the buying of government bonds using the money of the central bank) is limited and with interest rates already a record lows a further drop is unlikely to stimulate much more aggregate demand. Fiscal policy could be employed – tax cuts and increases in government spending. However the issue here is how much fiscal stimulus can government’s afford with the debt they already have? See table
Government policy in recent years has done little to improve the economic climate. Although there has been many rounds of quantitative easing the productivity of those in work has been poor leading to lethargic growth levels. This ultimately limits real wage growth and tax revenue to reduce government debt levels. Economies are now doomed to many years of weaker growth with lackluster demand which will mean more radical policies outside the square. Some policy options could be:
Fusing Monetary and Fiscal Policy
An option discussed in The Economist was to finance public spending and the tax cuts by printing more money. This could be more effective than Quantitive Easing (QE) as the money now bypasses the banking system and goes straight into the pockets of the consumers. This would hopefully encourage consumers to spend money straight away instead of going through the process of borrowing money from the bank as is the case with QE.
Incomes Policy – wage-price spiral
The aim of an incomes policy in the 1960’s and 70’s was to link the growth of incomes to the productivity so as to prevent the excessive rises in factor incomes which raise costs and hence prices. However the idea here is to generate higher incomes at all levels by using tax incentives and to encourage a wage-price spiral. This seems bizarre in the context of the 1970’s as this is what governments were trying to solve.
Capital spending on infrastructure is seen as a much more effective tool to stimulate growth than tax cuts. Unlike tax cuts, capital spending goes directly into the circular flow and it attracts complementary spending elsewhere in the economy more than any other intervention. It is estimated that a third of roads in the USA are in a poor state and over 10% of its bridges are not structurally sound. However although it might sound a good idea, infrastructure spending can be wasteful as even many years of capital spending in Japan hasn’t had the desired effect of boosting the economy.
Where to from here?
The problem, then, is not that the world has run out of policy options. Politicians have known all along that they can make a difference, but they are weak and too quarrelsome to act. America’s political establishment is riven; Japan’s politicians are too timid to confront lobbies; and the euro area seems institutionally incapable of uniting around new policies.
The US Federal Reserve announced on 18th December a tapering of its bond-buying program to $75bn a month beginning in January. This video from Paul Solman of PBS is a useful guide about the process and asks economists (including Robert Shiller) their opinion on the matter. Recently the Fed said that it would lower its monthly long-term Treasury bond purchases to $40 billion and mortgage-backed securities to $35 billion a month.
Fed Chair Ben Bernanke recently testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services and acknowledged the troubling employment conditions. Unemployment rate at 7.6% remains well above its longer-run normal level, and rates of underemployment and long-term unemployment are still much too high. Bernanke indicated that he would continue quantitative easing because of the unemployment figures but this method doesn’t seem to be working when you consider the lack of job growth – see graph. The U.S. Federal Reserve is currently purchasing US$85 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities and Treasury securities each month as part of its quantitative easing programme. This programme places downward pressure on long-term interest rates, and is intended to promote economic activity. However the S&P* earnings per share (eps) has grown above 70% since the bottom of the last cycle but job growth has been under 5%.
*The S&P 500® is widely regarded as the best single gauge of large cap U.S. equities. There is over USD 5.58 trillion benchmarked to the index, with index assets comprising approximately USD 1.3 trillion of this total. The index includes 500 leading companies and captures approximately 80% coverage of available market capitalisation.
“The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”
Should investors focus on the short run or long run? The majority are looking at short run gains rather than a long term focus as they are most likely driven by instant financial rewards after the GFC.
Investors are also looking to see if the significant monetary expansion over the last 5 years will lead to inflationary pressures. Niels Jensen of Credit Writedowns has been writing on this for awhile and has come up with a couple of reasons why we shouldn’t be worried about it. Firstly many investors don’t seem to have grasped the difference between the monetary base and the money supply.
The monetary base is the total amount of a currency that is either circulated in the hands of the public or in the commercial bank deposits held in the central bank’s reserves.
The money supply is the entire stock of currency and other liquid instruments in a country’s economy as of a particular time. The money supply can include cash, coins and balances held in checking and savings accounts.
See above for some figures from Neils Jensen
As he points out it is the money supply, not the monetary base, which influences inflation. The chart below shows that there is no growth in bank lending despite the QE measures of printing money.
“As so aptly demonstrated in a recent IMF paper, the interaction between inflation and the economic cycle is very different today when compared to the 1975-1994 period. Whereas inflation back then was pro-cyclical, it is largely non-cyclical today with inflation well anchored around 2% regardless of the underlying economic conditions – see chart below. The obvious implication of this is that inflation should behave relatively well even as (if) economic fundamentals improve.” Source: Credit Writedowns
Lately there has been a lot of media coverage about an Excel error by academics Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart – co-authors of ‘This Time is Different’ – 2009. A student from University of Massachusetts tried to replicate one their models regarding growth rates when a country has a public debt of greater than 90% of GDP. Rogoff and Carmen stated that with this level of public debt growth in a country falls to a mean of -0.1%. However using the same data the student found that a figure of 2.2% was applicable in this context.
However Rogoff and Reinhart have been cautious about saying that high debt causes slower growth rates but it does highlight the validity of analysis connecting debt and austerity to growth rates. Adam Posen in the FT stated that the claim of a clear tipping point for the ratio of Government Debt to GDP past which an economy starts to collapse doesn’t hold. Following the second world war the US, UK, Belgium, Italy and Japan had public debt greater than 90% of GDP but there was not much of an effect on their economies. In Italy and of late in Japan stagnation in economies led to slowly rising debt levels. In the UK and US in the 1950’s growth returned and debt levels declined. What this is suggesting is
Slow growth is at least as much the cause of high debt as high debt causes growth to slow.
But a certain amount public debt is necessary for future development of any economy especially when you think about the construction of infrastructure and government spending on education. Both of which contribute to future growth and in theoretical terms move the production possibility curve outwards. This in turn creates growth and subsequently income for a government.
USA – Mad Spending v EU – Nervous Austerity
With one side of the Atlantic – USA – involved in quantitive easing (printing money) and the other – EU – with severe austerity, maybe somewhere in between would be a logical way to go about things. But is moderation a choice for policy makers when they have already gone so far down the track of their respective plans?
Final thought What can be concluded is that too much debt has costs for growth but the degree of those costs is dependent on the reasons for debt accumulated and what path the economy is actually taking.