Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Big Lie #1 - Austerity is needed to appease the bond markets

It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war. It could equally be the first casualty of politics as well. Given the extent to which politicians have appeared to play fast and loose with language and semantics in recent times it is perhaps unsurprising that their collective credibility and reputation, both at home and abroad, appears to be following the same trajectory as that of a test firing of a North Korean rocket. Whether it is politicians being "economical with the actualit√©", or Orwellian doublespeak of the type invoked by David Cameron recently where the term austerity has been magically redefined to mean "efficiency", the first casualty of UK political debate now always seems to be the English language. Of course none of this is accidental. It is all designed to disguise the reality behind a particular policy or action so that the voters are hoodwinked into believing in an illusion. 

One of the biggest fictions we are currently being expected to swallow is the one regarding the necessity of the current coalition government's deficit reduction measures and their apparent success. The argument that has been advanced by those on the Right on an almost daily basis since the last general election in 2010 is that the only way the Government can finance its deficit is if it can establish the confidence of the bond market. And the only way it can do that is if it slashes spending. And the central piece of evidence used to corroborate this claim has been the yields of government bonds or gilts. 

Gilt yields are currently at historic lows despite the Government running up record budget deficits over the last four years. Now we are told that these low yields are a direct result of the confidence that the bond market has in the Government's economic strategy. We are told that the Government cannot, or dare not, borrow any more money to stimulate the economy otherwise gilt yields would rise dramatically. We are told that our economy would then go the same way as that of Italy, or Spain, or worse still Greece! But how much of this is really true? The answer is hardly any of it. The reality is that our gilt yields are low because our borrowing has been almost completely self-financed over the last four years. That self-financing has come in the form of Quantitative Easing (QE). 

Up until April 2002 the last Labour government ran a financial surplus in its accounts. Then over the next six years this turned into a modest deficit of approximately £35bn per annum. While not ideal, these deficits were nevertheless sustainable in the long term as they typically increased the national debt by a smaller proportion than the corresponding annual increase in GDP due to economic growth. As a result the debt-to-GDP ratio was actually declining after 2006 despite the nominal debt level still increasing, and as a result it was actually more serviceable. It is therefore economic fantasy to suggest, as some on the Right have done, that these deficits caused the financial crash. The real cause was the set of economic policies implemented by the Thatcher and Major governments in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly with regards to the liberalization of consumer credit, laissez-faire bank deregulation and a wholly disfunctional housing policy. The result was the worst recession in living memory and a national debt that has increased to £1022bn. Of this total, over £500bn has been added since the start of 2008 - almost half the total. So why have gilt yields remained so low when the supply of gilts from the Government to the bond market has been so huge? The answer is QE. 

Since 2008 the Bank of England (BoE) has "printed" an additional £325bn of new money in the form of Quantitative Easing and used this money to purchase UK gilts. Irrespective of the fact that this was done through the secondary bond market, the net result is that 65% of all the new gilts issued by the Government since 2008 have in effect been acquired by the BoE. That means that only about £180bn have actually been purchased by the private sector, or £45bn per annum. That is only fractionally more than were purchased each year prior to the crash, and this has been going on for nearly four years now. In fact QE has been operating for so long now that the financing of government deficit spending has become semi-detached from the bond market to such an extent that it is almost operating in a parallel economic universe. That is partly why yields are so low and as you can see it has nothing at all to do with the international financial markets supporting the deficit reduction plans of the coalition. 

But that is not the whole story, for one of the additional consequences of the financial crash is that UK banks are now forced to hold more assets to strengthen their balance sheets. As a result UK banks have needed to buy more UK gilts themselves in order to increase their own financial stability. It is therefore highly debateable if there has been any significant increase in the purchase of UK gilts by overseas investors in recent years, yet capital flight from the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) has driven up the relative demand for UK gilts.

Only yesterday did we see further worries about the Spanish economy driving yet more capital away from the Eurozone and forcing it to look for safer havens elsewhere. The result was a further drop in UK gilt yields. And all of this is happening at a time when the supply of UK gilts, contrary to popular opinion, has actually been significantly reduced, or has at least been far less than the headline figure of the UK government deficit. So, given these two complementing drivers, it should hardly be any surprise that UK gilt yields are so low, irrespective of the general state of the economy, which in case you had missed it, is lurching from one recession to another. That is hardly the sort of performance that is usually associated with inspiring the confidence of international investors. 

You can of course look at all this from another perspective: that of the balance between supply and demand and its effect on market prices. Low gilt yields are an indication of excess demand and insufficient supply. Consequently they represent a market price signal that says: "The market wants more!" In which case why should we not supply more gilts to the market, particularly when we can put those gilts to good use? Those who believe in the power of markets, and the price signals that they send, cannot have it both ways. If high yields are a sign that government borrowing is too high, then low yields can be a sign that it is too low. And as I pointed out previously, when it comes to low interest rates you can have too much of a good thing. Ultimately banks, including central banks, cannot push money out into the economy when there is no demand, or no cost to holding it. In such circumstances monetary policy is like pushing against of piece of string and a coordinated and complementary fiscal policy is then also needed. 

Of course the real tragedy is that despite having access to what has effectively been free money for four years, both the last Labour government and the current coalition have failed to do anything effective or imaginative with it. Rather than using it to stimulate a programme of infrastructure investment, it has instead been used to refinance the banks, and indirectly to prop up house prices. Once again successive governments and the Bank of England have shown that they are more worried about negative equity than they are about unemployment; that they prize inflated asset values over real economic growth. As a result, all this free money has in effect been used to insulate the rich from the consequences of their own mal-investment rather than improving and protecting the lives of the poor. 

The choice of austerity is therefore a political choice not an economic one. Just because there is a lot of debt in the economy does not mean that there is no money at all. It just means that all the money is in the pockets of the wrong people. The current government with its tax cuts for the rich and its attacks on the incomes of the poor clearly wishes to keep it there.

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