John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Interest rates

POPULISM IS A CRISIS OF ENTITLEMENT, AND HIGHER INTEREST WILL SQUEEZE SOME COUNTRIES MORE THAN OTHERS

The Federal Reserve Bank of the United States raised interest rates last December. This was the first rate rise in almost ten years. At the time three more rate increases were forecast this year. The Federal Reserve’s policy on interest rates can have a global effect.

Ireland’s fiscal squeeze of the 1980 to 1987 period, of which I had direct experience, was caused  by the Federal Reserve’s decision to tackle  US inflation by raising interest rates and restricting the money supply.

A rise in interest rates this year would affect countries differently.

If a country has a big government debt, by comparison with its annual tax revenue, it will have to make more cuts or tax increases to accommodate to a higher interest rate.

If a country’s economy is growing slowly, and it  has low future growth potential, because it has an ageing society, the effect of an interest rate rise will be even more severe.

Goldman Sachs recently compared the situations of Germany, France , Italy and Spain.

If there was a 100 basis points increase in interest rates ,

+ Germany would have to trim its budget by 0.5% of GDP,

+ France and Spain by 0.75% of their GDP, but

+ Italy would have to trim its budget by 1%.

This is because the

+ Italian government debt is 140% of the Italian annual GDP,

+  the French and Spanish debts around 100% of their GDP while

+  Germany’s is only around 75%

These effects would come about slowly. If countries have debts with long maturities , it will take a while for a rise in interest rates to have their full effect. General inflation is not a problem today, but sectors of the global economy can become over heated.

Goldman Sachs did not do similar calculations for smaller countries like Greece, which has a debt/ GDP ratio of 180%, or for the UK, whose ratio is 90%.

But both countries are facing difficult futures, partly because of their own freely taken  democratic decisions, in Greece’s case quite long ago, but in the UK’s case very recently. Euro zone countries are able to keep interest rates low because the ECB is buying their bonds, but there are prudential limits to this. If a country’s banks buy an undue amount of  their  own government’s bonds, that can create an unhealthy linkage between to solvency of the banks and the solvency of the government.

The Goldman Sachs calculations do not take full account of human factors like the lack of dynamism which can arise when countries come to believe they are “entitled “ to a certain standard of income, without taking account of the value of what they can sell to the rest of the world.

Ageing societies, with large retired populations, are particularly prone to this sense of entitlement because they feel that the work that they did in the past, entitles them to a good standard of living today. Unfortunately the money their work earned is long spent, and pensions can only be paid out of what can be earned in the future.

If that money does not come in, people will look for someone to blame. Often the blame takers are immigrants, even though these immigrants are often the ones who are paying the taxes and earning the money ,that support the entitlements of many native residents. For example , EU immigrants in the UK pay much more in taxes than they take out in benefits, but that was ignored by UK voters.

This gap between expectations and what can be afforded , is the explanation for the so called “populism” we see among ageing populations in the UK, the US and elsewhere.

Populism is really a crisis of entitlement.  

Populism will become more severe if ,  and when, interest rates rise.

We need an informed electorate that votes knowledgeably, an electorate that accepts that  interest rates, free trade, immigration and demographics are all interlinked with one another.

We need  to  find better ways of explaining the links between

+   the prospect of  higher international interest rates, and the desirability of reducing government debt levels

+   the importance of preserving open markets and overseas earnings  if we are to afford decent pensions,

+    the link  between allowing immigration, and having enough young people to work and pay taxes in future

+    the fact that  decisions, twenty years ago,  to have fewer children, are liable to  affect what  welfare  states will be able to afford , twenty years from now

 

HOW TO REDUCE UNCERTAINTY AND INCREASE INVESTMENT

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Interest rates are low, so it should be attractive for companies to borrow to invest in new products and markets.

But United States companies are not doing so to the hoped for extent. Instead they are spending about $500 billion every year buying back their own shares.

Share buy backs keep up the value of their shares, which is good for their shareholders.  But they are not all that beneficial to the economy, in so far as they reward holders of financial assets, without creating new job opportunities through investment. They also may increase inequality in US society, because shareholders tend to be better off than the average citizen.

 But do the Companies have a real choice here?

Companies should only invest if the risk/ reward ratio of the proposed investment is good. Investment is inherently riskier than share buy backs, so the prospective rate of return on the investment must be above a hurdle that is set in advance. A lot depends on prospective demand in the market place.  If society is ageing, there may be fewer, and most cautious, potential customers, and that raises the hurdle which a proposed investment must surmount.

A related uncertainty, discouraging investment decisions, is the long run growth potential of mature developed economies.

Is it 3% a year, as in the past 60 years, or just 1%, as it was in previous centuries?  Economists differ on this. Some technologies add measurably to growth and GDP, other just make life easier without adding to the same extent to GDP.

If the political future is uncertain, and there are threats of protectionism, that also increases the risk of any investment that depends on exports.  Brexit is a good example of this, and so is the volatility and seeming irrationality of voter behaviour in other countries, including the US.

Against this uncertain background, Central Banks are trying to stimulate the economy by cutting interest rates.  This is supposed to encourage investment by reducing its cost, but that is happening very slowly, if at all. It also means that governments can borrow very cheaply, which may tempt them into mistakes.

A persistent low interest rate policy undermines the financial models of insurance companies and pension funds, which have to pay insurance claims and pensions out of interest they get on investments. If the interest rates stay very low, the money may not be there to meet the pension and insurance obligations. This is a further economic uncertainty.

We now have a big mismatch between savings and investments. We have a surfeit of savings, chasing very few convincing investment opportunities

So the policy of low interest rates cannot continue forever.

If low interest rates are not stimulating the economy sufficiently, what can, or should, be done?

If companies are not investing, perhaps governments should step in to stimulate the economy by investing on their own account.  This is what was done during the Depression of the 1930’s in some countries, like Germany and the US.

Whereas privately owned companies have to be satisfied that an investment will yield a return to their own bottom line, a government can take a longer and broader view of the return on the investment it makes.

An investment by government is financially justifiable if the eventual return, in extra taxes paid at some stage in the future, as a result of the extra economic activity generated by the investment, exceeds the cost of servicing and repaying the extra debt undertaken.

It can also take non financial benefits into account if it is satisfied it will have no problem servicing its extra debts from other sources.

But because the factors to be taken into account in assessing a government investment are so much wider, the calculations to be made are much more subjective and uncertain.

For example, how does one compare the return on an investment in additional places in a university sociology faculty, with the return on an investment in improving a lightly trafficked road?

It all depends on future trends and needs, and a multiplicity of other factors which are matters of pure judgement.

There is, however, another limitation on government investment that must be considered…the impact of ageing on the solvency of governments, thirty or more years from now.

A government’s   debt/GDP ratio may be 90% or less today, and, on that basis, it may be able to justify borrowing more to invest more.

But some important future liabilities of governments are left out of these official Debt/GDP calculations.

Predictable future increases in public pension liabilities and age related expenditures generally are not included in the Debt/GDP ratio.

Apparently an average 64 year old consumes six times as much healthcare as an average 21 year old.

When, over the next 20 years, the number retired increases relative to the number at work, and the number of 64 year olds increases relative to the number of 21 year olds, the resultant increase in government spending, relative to its receipts, will worsen dramatically, unless policies are changed in the meantime.

The numbers aged 65 or over in Ireland will increase by 97% by 2060, as against an average increase of 60% in the EU as a whole. By then, on present policies, age related spending by government would absorb 8.7 percentage points more of GDP than it does  today, which is twice the average EU increase.

Most EU countries could see their debt to GDP ratios increase to 400% of GDP by 2050, if pension and age related policies are not changed.

Uncertainty about how this might be done is a factor holding back countries, like Germany, which seemingly can afford to invest more, from doing so, because Germany is ageing rapidly on the basis of  its historic low birth rate.

All this uncertainty is leading to stagnation.

I believe the best way to avoid stagnation induced by uncertainty would be for governments in developed countries to produce a comprehensive, demographically based, scenarios for the economy for the next 30 years.

These scenarios should set out the menu of decisions that  may need to be taken and the consequences of taking, or of not taking them.  Obviously the EU could coordinate some of this work and the assumptions used, but the choices to be set out would be for national politicians.

These scenarios would be extremely controversial and subject to vigorous questioning from all sides.  But they would orientate  politics towards the things we can actually change, and away from the localism, emotionalism, and xenophobia we are seeing at the moment in some countries.

 

THE EU’S SYSTEM FOR KEEPING EURO STATE BUDGETS ON TRACK IS AS IMPORTANT AS EVER NOW…..ESPECIALLY WHEN INTEREST RATES ARE LOW

Bond markets are notoriously fickle. They often seem to be driven by sentiment rather than deep analysis. The experience of 2006-2008 shows that they are not infallible. They are not a good guide to long term economic prospects. Rating agencies seem to follow sentiment rather than lead it. They are like a bus driver who is looking out the back window of the bus rather that at the road in front.

This is the context in which France and Italy should be assessing the wisdom of submitting draft budgets this month to the European Commission, in accordance with the Stability and Growth Pact,  that go back on commitments they had previously given to reduce their budget deficits to below 3% of GDP.

The low rate of interest at which most European governments can borrow at the moment can be explained by two factors, which are not necessarily permanent

1.) Sovereign bonds, that is bonds issued to allow governments to borrow, are treated as entirely risk free assets in the balance sheets of banks under the rules the EU has set for calculating the solvency and adequacy of capital of banks.  This is a somewhat artificial assumption, in that it implies that there is a ZERO risk that a European Government will ever default on its bonds ie. fail to pay all the interest due and repay the bond in full and on time. The scale of debt relative to income of some European countries might lead some to question this assumption, unless of course there is a big surge in either inflation or economic growth

2.) Prevailing interest rates are now so low, the amount of money seeking a home is so great, and high yielding investments are so scarce, that it is not surprising that investors are turning to government bonds, and thus driving down their interest rate. But if the flow of funds slowed, or if the availability alternative better yielding investments were to increase, the demand for government bonds would immediately slow. Then the interest on government bonds would have to increase, if governments were to sustain their borrowing levels.

It is against this background that the budget plans to be submitted by member governments of the euro  on 15 October will have to be assessed. The European Commission, in assessing the draft budgets of member states, would be unwise to assume that present low interest rates on government bonds are a permanent condition.

Ironically, while governments may defy the European Commission, they would not be able to defy the bond markets, if, for any reason, bond markets were to change their minds about sovereign bonds, and look for a higher interest rate. Bond markets can be less forgiving and less attentive to rhetoric or political argument than the European Commission or Ministerial colleagues in the European Council of Ministers.

That could happen quickly, leaving little time for adjustment. 

It is less likely to happen if the EU’s system for coordinating the budget policies of the 18 euro area states (the Two Pack and the Six Pack) are seen to be respected, especially by the big countries like France and Italy. This is backed up in a very specific way by Article 126 of the European Treaties.

If the system is defied, or reinterpreted in a way that removes its meaning, the fickle bond markets could get nervous again.

Ireland knows, better than most, how difficult that can be for a state that needs to borrow to fund services, or repay maturing debts. 

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