QE

Fiscal silly season

We are entering fiscal silly season. As the budget approaches, we should brace for impact with breathless reporting of context-free statistics about inflation, interest rates and government debt.

The story is likely to go something like this. Inflation is rising. This raises costs on government debt because some of it (index-linked bonds) pays an interest rate linked to inflation. Costs associated with quantitative easing (QE) will also increase because QE is financed by central bank reserves which pay Bank Rate (the Bank of England’s policy rate of interest). Since inflation is rising the Bank will have to raise interest rates to control it. This will increase the financing costs of QE and the cost of issuing new debt for the Treasury.

The conclusion — sometimes implied, sometimes explicit — is usually some version of “the situation is unsustainable therefore the government will have to make cuts”.

While each part of the story is technically correct in isolation, the overall narrative — debt is out of control and the situation is going to get worse because of inflation — doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

These stories are rarely presented with sufficient context. Instead, journalists tend to rely on statistical soundbites such as “public debt is the highest since … ”. This is rarely if ever accompanied by the fact that debt/GDP is a fairly meaningless number.

The problems associated with government debt essentially boil down to the fact that debt involves redistribution. In the case of the government this means redistribution in the form of transfers from tax payers to bond holders. This is politically difficult. (This is also why “but currency issuer …” responses to these issues are largely beside the point — the problems of debt management are ultimately political not technical).

The ratio of debt to GDP tells us very little about the current political difficulties arising from debt servicing. Instead, the relevant magnitudes are total interest payments and tax revenues.

Total interest payments are equal to the debt stock multiplied by the effective interest rate on government debt. Focusing on the debt stock in isolation is thus equivalent to representing the area of a rectangle by the length of one side.

A better indicator of the risks associated with public debt is the ratio of government interest payments to tax revenues, as plotted in the figure below.

source: macroflow

Interest payments on government debt have indeed risen recently. A spike in June triggered media articles about the highest interest payments on record. In context, such statistics are shown to be meaningless. Interest payment have risen to around 6% of taxation over a four quarter period, compared with all-time lows of about 5.3%. (Calculated on a 12 monthly basis this rises to around 6.5%). It is hard to see signs that the sky is falling.

In fact, this indicator overstates current interest costs. This is because much of the interest paid by the Treasury is paid to the Bank of England which holds a substantial chunk (currently around 37%) of UK government debt as a result of QE (see chart below). Most of this interest is returned directly to the Treasury. Since the start of QE, this has saved the Treasury over £100bn in interest costs.

source: macroflow

Adjusting for this reduction in interest payments produces the figure below: net interest payments sum to around 4.7% of tax revenues over the last four quarters (or 5.2% on a rolling 12 monthly basis).

source: macroflow

What of the dangers ahead? It is true that if inflation rises, then interest costs will rise, all else equal. But the scale of these rises is not predetermined, and will be affected by policy.

First, persistent inflation is far from a certainty. If if inflation does persist in the short term, the Bank does not need to raise interest rates. Hikes in response to price pressures due to pandemic reopening and supply side bottlenecks will do more harm than good — instead the Bank should wait until the economic recovery is clearly underway. In this context, interest rate increases would likely be a good sign, and would be offset by rising tax revenues. Further, the Bank could introduce a “tiered reserve” system which would serve to hold down the rate paid on a substantial proportion of outstanding debt. Short term and index-linked debt can be rolled over at longer maturities, delaying the point at which higher rates would feed into higher interest payments.

In summary, simple claims such as “a one percentage point rise in interest rates and inflation could cost the Treasury about £25bn a year” are not useful without context and explanation of the long list of assumptions required to produce such a figure. The policy conclusions derived from such claims should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Season’s Greetings and enjoy the festive period!

Corbyn and the Peoples’ Bank of England

Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for ‘Peoples’ Quantitative Easing’ – public investment paid for using money printed by the Bank of England – has provoked criticism, including an intervention by Labour’s shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie. It seems the anti-Corbyn wing of the Labour party has finally decided to engage with Corbyn’s policy agenda after several weeks of simply dismissing him out of hand.

Critics of the plan make two main points: that the policy will be inflationary and that it dissolves the boundary between fiscal policy and monetary policy. It would therefore, they claim, fatally undermine the independence of the Bank of England.

The first point is inevitably followed by the observation that inflation and the policy response to inflation – interest rate hikes and recession – hurts the poor. As ever, the first line of attack on economic policies proposed by the left is to claim they will hurt the very people they aim to help. Leslie falls back on the old trope that the state must `live within its means’. It is well-known that this government-as-household analogy is nonsense. But what of the monetary argument?

Inflation is not caused by printing money per se. It is instead the result of a combination of factors: wage increases, supply not keeping pace with demand, and shortages of commodities, many of which are imported.

By these measures, inflationary pressure is currently low – official CPI is around zero. Since this measure tends to over-estimate true inflation, the UK is probably in deflation. There is finally evidence of rising wages – but this comes after both a sharp drop in wages due to the financial crisis and an extended period in which wages have grown at a slower rate than output. The pound is strong, reducing price pressure from imports.

More importantly, the purpose of investment is to increase productive capacity and raise labour productivity. Discussion of monetary policy usually revolves around the ‘output gap’ – the difference between the demand for goods and services and the potential supply. Putting to one side the problems with this immeasurable metric, the point is that investment spending increases potential output as well as stimulating demand, so the medium-run effect on the output gap cannot be determined a priori.

The issue of central bank independence is more subtle – certainly more subtle than the binary choice presented by Corbyn’s critics. That central banks should be free from the malign influence of democratically elected policy-makers has been an article of faith since 1997 when the Labour government granted the Bank of England operational independence. But, as Frances Coppola has argued, central bank independence is an illusion. The Bank’s mandate and inflation target are set by the government. In extremis, the government can choose to revoke ‘independence’.

More relevant to the current debate is the fact that the post-crisis period has already seen significant blurring of the distinction between monetary and fiscal policy. In using its balance sheet to purchase £375bn of securities – mostly government bonds – the Bank of England has, to all intents and purposes, funded the government deficit. The assertion that the barrier is maintained by allowing debt to be purchased only in the secondary market is sleight of hand: while the government was selling new bonds to private financial institutions the Bank was simultanously buying previously issued government bonds from much the same financial institutions.

At this point, critics will object that the Bank was operating within its mandate: QE was enacted in an attempt to hit the inflation target. This is most likely true, although during the inflation spike in 2011, there were suggestions the Bank was deliberately under-forecasting inflation in order to be able to run looser policy; as it turned out, the Banks’ forecasts over-estimated inflation.

None of this alters the fact that quantitative easing both increases the ability of the government to finance deficit spending and has distributional consequences; QE reduced the interest rate on government bonds while increasing the wealth of the already wealthy. Crucially, there won’t be a return to ‘conventional’ monetary policy any time soon. At a panel discussion at the FT’s Alphaville conference on ‘Central Banking After the Crisis’ featuring George Magnus and Claudio Borio among others, there was consensus that we have entered a new era in which the distinction between monetary and fiscal policy holds little relevance; there will be no return to the ‘haven of familiar monetary practice‘ in which steering of short-term interest rates is the primary mechanism of macroeconomic control.

The issue which has triggered this debate is the long-term decline in UK capital expenditure – both public and private. An increase in investment is desperately needed. Corbyn isn’t the first to suggest ‘QE for the people’ – a number of respectable economic commentators have recently called for such measures in letters to the Financial Times and Guardian. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the FT, recently argued that ‘the case for using the state’s power to create credit and money in support of public spending is strong’. Former Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, Adair Turner, has made similar proposals.

I agree, however, with the view that it makes more sense to fund public investment the old-fashioned way – using bonds issued by the Treasury. Where I disagree with Corbyn’s critics is on the sanctity of `independent’ monetary policy; the Bank should stand ready to ensure that these bonds can be issued at an affordable rate of interest.

Why has Corbyn – supposedly a throwback to the 1980s – proposed this new-fangled monetary mechanism? Rather than some sort of populist gesture, I suspect this reflects a status quo which has elevated the status of monetary policy while downgrading fiscal policy. This, in turn, reflects the belief that the government can’t be trusted to make decisions about the direction of the economy; only the private sector has the correct incentive structures in place to guide us to an optimal equilibrium. Monetary policy is the macroeconomic tool of choice because it respects the primacy of the market.

Given that the boundary between fiscal and monetary policy has broken down at least semi-permanently, that status quo no longer holds. It is now time for a serious discussion about the correct approach to macroeconomic stabilisation, the state’s role in directing and financing investment and the distributional implications of monetary policy. It is to Corbyn’s credit that these issues are at last being debated.