Fiscal expansionism is on the menu for the UK

Today has opened with UK future fiscal policy taking some headlines. This is the result of various factors of which the most obvious is that we are in an election campaign with politicians competing to win the fiscal equivalent of kissing the most babies. But there is more to it than that as we have been observing over the past few years. Underlying the situation has been a shift in the general establishment view bring expansionary fiscal policy back into favour. This was reflected last week by the valedictory speech of outgoing ECB President Mario Draghi.

In other regions where fiscal policy has played a greater role since the crisis, we have seen that the recovery began sooner and the return to price stability has been faster. The US had a deficit of 3.6% on average from 2009 to 2018, while the euro area had a surplus of 0.5%.

That baton was rapidly taken up by his successor Christine Lagarde who was perhaps hoping that people would forget she was responsible for disastrously introducing exactly the reverse in Greece and Argentina.

Christine Lagarde has asked Germany and the Netherlands to use their budget surpluses to fund investments that would help stimulate the economy. The soon-to-be president of the ECB said there ‘isn’t enough solidarity’ in the single currency area. ( Financial Times)

Back in the UK

The Resolution Foundation gives us a new perspective on the post credit crunch era and a new definition of austerity.

The austerity programme delivered since 2010 has produced an unprecedentedly long pause in the real-terms spending growth that has characterised the majority of the post-WWII period. Total managed expenditure (TME) increased by just £5 billion (or 0.6 per cent) between 2010-11 and 2018-19, with this eight-year flatlining eclipsing the six-year pause recorded in the 1980s and far outstripping any other previous period of austerity.

As you can see austerity is defined as government spending not growing in real terms or very little. Looking at their chart the 1980s actually looks more severe so I am not sure about “far outstripping” although there is a difference here.

Government spending per person is set to
come very slightly under £13,000 in 2019-20 (in 2018-19 prices), which remains 3.6 per cent down on the 2010-11 peak of £13,465.

On that basis there has been so more genuine austerity. Let me welcome their use of the GDP deflator as the inflation measure which has a couple of flaws ( it can be erratic and is prone to revisions) but is better than the woeful CPIH.

Looking Ahead

The current government has announced ch-ch-changes already.

The current plans result in spending rising
to 40.6 per cent of GDP; still well down on the immediate postcrisis peak of 46.6 per cent, but slightly above the ratio recorded just before the crisis struck, and well up on the 37.4 per cent of GDP logged between 1985-86 and 2007-08.

So austerity is over and they think more might come from any Conservative victory as Chancellor Javid is a fan of this.

In more concrete terms, during his bid for the Conservative
Party leadership back in the summer he outlined plans for a
£100 billion (multi-year) “National Infrastructure Fund” targeted outside London.

So as you can see the trajectory looks upwards.

They point out that Labour looks even more ambitious.

Its 2017 election manifesto included more than £70
billion in new spending pledges, comprising £48.6 billion of dayto-day spending (covering both departmental spend and social security payments) and £25 billion of capital (as part of a pledge to deliver a ten-year £250 billion “National Transformation Fund”).

They are not entirely sure it will repeat this but think it will in terms of spending totals.

But the party has outlined a range of additional
ambitions in recent months that imply that it intends to set out a 2019 manifesto pledge that is similar in scale to the 2017 one.

If we switch to comparing with the size of the economy we are told this.

Our modelling suggests that a ‘Conservative’ approach that
delivers on the Spending Round commitments on current
spending and thereafter maintains the value of that expenditure as a share of GDP, alongside delivering a £20 billion annual boost to the capital budget (on the assumption that something along the lines of the proposed “National Infrastructure Fund” is delivered over five years), would lift TME to 41.3 per cent of GDP
by 2023-24.

And the alternative.

Following a Labour approach that tops up the post-Spending Round baseline to the tune of £49 billion of current spending and £25 billion of capital spending by 2023-24, lifts TME to 43.3 per cent of GDP. That would take us back to 1982-83, and would stand as the ninth highest spending total in the entire post-war period.

So both will be opening the fiscal taps the difference simply being how much.

We then arrive at an issue which leaves the Resolution Foundation in something of a class of one ( h/t Brian Clough).

Even before accounting for any post-election spending surge, the fiscal rules look set to be broken, leaving the UK effectively without a fiscal anchor.

Maybe it bothers you if you live in the political world but as we have observed over the past decade they end up singing along with Earth Wind and Fire.

Every man has a place, in his heart there’s a space,
And the world can’t erase his fantasies
Take a ride in the sky, on our ship fantasii
All your dreams will come true, right away

Comment

The conventional view is to then ask how this can be afforded or paid for? We are all familiar with the question how will this be funded? But times are different now driven by factors such as this.

Bank of America sees a risk that yields on some Treasuries will go negative by 2021 as the Fed cuts rates all the way to zero ( Bloomberg )

In such a scenario then the UK would if market relationships stay as they are have its whole yield curve go negative, or if you prefer be paid to borrow at all maturities.

That may or may not happen but we do know that we can borrow very cheaply right now. The UK benchmark ten-year Gilt yield is a mere 0.7% and even if we borrow for fifty years the yield is only 1.1%. Thus borrowing as a means of financing deficits is quite plausible in a world where there is a hunt for yield. The only issue is how much we would be able to borrow? With a sub-plot that hopefully we would borrow over the very long-term to trim the future risks of doing so. Just to be clear I am not advocating large extra borrowing just observing that circumstances have changed. That reinforces even further my point about fiscal rules.

Also it would be helpful to note the plans of the Liberal Democrats and the nationalist parties. The SNP in Scotland seem set to have some role to play and whilst winning seems unlikely for the Lib Dems they could quite easily find themselves in a coalition government again.

The rub as Shakespeare would put it is that we now seem hooked on stimulus and as the monetary injections fail to give much of a hit we are now searching for a new high. This brings us back to economic growth as it lack of it and of course in the “green era” whether we should have any at all?

Podcast

 

NB

The fiscal numbers quoted by Mario Draghi were on this basis.

Average cyclically adjusted primary balance as a percentage of potential GDP

 

The UK has opened the fiscal taps and started a fiscal stimulus

The credit crunch era has seen some extraordinary changes in the establishment view of monetary policy. The latest is this from the Peterson Institute from earlier this month.

On October 1, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government raised the consumption tax from 8 percent to 10 percent. Our preference would have been that he not do it. We believe that, given the current Japanese economic situation, there is a strong case for continuing to run potentially large budget deficits, even if this implies, for the time being, little or no reduction in the ratio of debt to GDP.

Indeed they move on to make a point that we have been making for a year or two now.

Very low interest rates, current and prospective, imply that both the fiscal and economic costs of debt are low.

The authors then go further.

When the interest rate is lower than the growth rate—the situation in Japan since 2013—this conclusion no longer follows. Primary deficits do not need to be offset by primary surpluses later, and the government can run primary deficits forever while still keeping the debt-to-GDP ratio constant.

As they mean the nominal rate of growth of GDP that logic also applies to the UK as I have just checked the 50 year Gilt yield. Whilst UK yields are higher than Japan we also have (much) higher inflation rates and in general we face the same situation. As it happens the UK 50 year Gilt yield is not far off the annual rate of growth of real GDP at 1.17%.

They also repeat my infrastructure point.

To the extent that higher public spending is needed to sustain demand in the short run, it should be used to strengthen the supply side in the long run.

However there are problems with this as it comes from people who told us that monetary policy would save us.

Monetary policy has done everything it could, from QE to negative rates, but it turns out it is not enough.

Actually in some areas it has made things worse.One issue I think is that the Ivory Towers love phrases like “supply side” but in practice it does not always turn out to be like that. Also there is a problem with below as otherwise Japan would have been doing better than it is.

And the benefits of public deficits, namely higher activity, are high…….The benefits of budget deficits, both in sustaining demand in the short run and improving supply in the long run are substantial.

Are they? There are arguments against this as otherwise we would not be where we are. In addition it would be remiss of me not to point out that one of the authors is Olivier Blanchard who got his fiscal multipliers so dreadfully wrong in the Greek crisis.

UK Policy

If we look at the latest data for the UK we see that in the last fiscal year the UK was not applying the logic above. Here is the Maastricht friendly version.

In the financial year ending March 2019, the UK general government deficit was £41.5 billion, equivalent to 1.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) ; this is the lowest since the financial year ending March 2002 when it was 0.4%. This represents a decrease of £14.7 billion compared with the financial year ending March 2018.

In fact we were applying the reverse.

Fiscal Rules

The Resolution Foundation seems to have developed something of an obsession with fiscal rules which leads to a laugh out loud moment in the bit I emphasise below.

Some of the strengths of the UK’s approach have been the coverage of the entire public sector, the use of established statistical definitions, clear targets, a medium term outlook, and a supportive institutional framework. But persistent weaknesses remain, including the disregard for the value of public sector assets, reliance on rules which are too backward or forward looking, setting aside too little headroom to cope with forecast errors and economic shocks, and spending too little time building a broad social consensus for the rules.

Actually the “clear targets” bit is weak too as we see them manipulated and bent. But my biggest critique of their obsession is that they do not acknowledge the enormous change by the fall in UK Gilt yields which make it so much cheaper to borrow.

Today’s Data

That was then but this is now is the new theme.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in September 2019 was £9.4 billion, £0.6 billion more than in September 2018; this is the first September year-on-year borrowing increase for five years.

Actually there was rather a lot going on as you can see from the detail below.

Central government receipts in September 2019 increased by £4.0 billion (or 6.9%) to £61.2 billion, compared with September 2018, while total central government expenditure increased by £4.3 billion (or 6.8%) to £67.6 billion.

As to the additional expenditure we find out more here.

In the same period, departmental expenditure on goods and services increased by £2.6 billion, compared with September 2018, including a £0.9 billion increase in expenditure on staff costs and a £1.6 billion increase in the purchase of goods and services.

The numbers were rounded out by a £1.6 billion increase in net investment which shows the government seems to have an infrastructure plan as well.

It is noticeable too that the tax receipt numbers were strong too as we saw this take place.

Income-related revenue increased by £1.7 billion, with self-assessed Income Tax and National Insurance contributions increasing by £1.1 billion and £0.6 billion respectively, compared with September 2018.

VAT receipts were solid too being up £500 million or 4%. But the numbers were also flattered by this.

Over the same period, interest and dividends receipts increased by £1.6 billion, largely as a result of a £1.1 billion dividend payment from the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).

Stamp Duty

We get an insight into the UK housing market from the Stamp Duty position. September was slightly better than last year at £1.1 billion. But in the fiscal year so far ( since March) receipts are £200 million lower at £6.3 billion.

Comment

We find signs that of UK economic strength and extra government spending in September. They are unlikely to be related as the extra government spending will more likely be picked up in future months. If we step back for some perspective we see that the concept of the fiscal taps being released remains.

Over the same period, central government spent £392.4 billion, an increase of 4.5%.

The main shift has been in the goods and services section which has risen by £11.6 billion to £145.7 billion. Of this some £3.5 billion is extra staff costs. Some of this will no doubt be extra Brexit spending but we do not get a breakdown.

As to economic growth well the theme does continue but it also fades a bit.

In the latest financial year-to-date, central government received £366.5 billion in receipts, including £270.0 billion in taxes. This was 2.8% more than in the same period last year.

How strong you think that is depends on the inflation measure you use. It is curious that growth picked up in September. As to the total impact of the fiscal stimulus the Bank of England estimate is below.

The Government has announced a significant increase in departmental spending for 2020-21, which could raise GDP by around 0.4% over the MPC’s forecast period, all else equal.

If we move to accounting for the activities of the Bank of England then things get messy.

If we were to exclude the Bank of England from our calculation of PSND ex, it would reduce by £179.8 billion, from £1,790.9 billion to £1,611.1 billion, or from 80.3% of GDP to 72.2%.

Also it is time for a reminder that my £2 billion challenge to the impact of QE on the UK Public Finances in July has yet to be answered by the Office for National Statistics. Apparently other things are more of a priority.

 

 

The UK government has opened the spending taps

Today we open with some good news as the UK Office for National Statistics has been burning the midnight oil and has come up with this.

The total package of current price GDP improvements increases the size of the economy in 2016 by approximately £26.0 billion, around 1.3% of GDP……Average growth of volume GDP over the period from 1998 to 2016 has been revised up 0.1 percentage point to 2.1% per year.

Actually they have also decided the credit crunch impact was not quite as bad as previously thought.

The peak-to-trough fall of the 2008 economic downturn in GDP has been revised from 6.3% to 6.0% and the UK economy is now estimated to have returned to its pre-downturn levels one quarter earlier in Quarter 1 2013.

Those who can remember back then will recall that it was a period when the labour market data signalled an upturn in the economy a year or so before the output or GDP data. You may recall there were fears of a “triple-dip” back then and from back then ( January 2013) here is Howard Archer in The Guardian.

While we believe the economy is essentially flat at the moment, it is worrying to note that GDP in the fourth quarter of 2012 was 3.3% below the peak level seen in the first quarter of 2008. We suspect that GDP will not return to the level seen in the first quarter of 2008 until the first half of 2015 – a gap of seven years.

As you can the perception is very different now. This takes us back to all of yesterday when we noted that the opening of 2018 in Germany is now thought to be very different to what we think now.

Also there was something to make supporters of nominal GDP targeting follow the advice of Iron Maiden and run for the hills.

 In the decade leading up to the financial crisis, average nominal GDP growth remains unchanged at 5.0%, while there has been a slight upward revision from 3.6% to 3.7% in the period following the financial crisis.

For those unaware there are more than a few around who argue that targeting a nominal GDP growth rate of 5% would produce something of an economic nirvana. The theory is that if we then get the inflation target of 2% per annum then economic growth would be 3%. Or if you prefer Hallelujah we are saved! Meanwhile they got it and the economy then collapsed. You could not make it up. The more subtle point is to wonder if the Bank of England was actually targeting this? This seems unlikely as let’s face it they so rarely hit any target on a consistent basis. Oh and I do not expect this to deter supporters of nominal GDP targeting as there are other problems as you may have already spotted which they choose to look away from.

Also I note that these revisions support my view that the service sector is larger than our statisticians have told us.

Service industries has been revised upwards in both the pre- and post-crisis periods, and accounts for 90% and 85% of total GVA growth in these periods respectively.

If we now move onto today’s news then we see that the consequence of the UK economy being recorded as larger is that our national debt to GDP ratio has been lower than we thought it was. We will have to wait for the full chained volume data set to discover exactly how much.

Also I can specify now something I mentioned before which was the boost to UK GDP by switching from using the RPI to the CPI as it was in the 2011 Blue Book which had average upwards revisions to GDP of 0.23%.

Today’s Data

Let me get straight to the crucial point which is that the spending taps have been opened by the UK government.

Central government receipts in July 2019 decreased by £0.4 billion (or 0.5%) compared with July 2018, to £67.9 billion, while total central government expenditure increased by £4.1 billion (or 6.5%) to £67.6 billion.

Please ignore the receipts numbers for now as I will explain later. But as you can see expenditure has risen again as we saw this in June. Here is some further detail on this.

In the same period, departmental expenditure on goods and services increased by £1.6 billion, compared with July 2018, including a £0.7 billion increase in expenditure on staff.

We need a deeper perspective and it is provided by this.

In the latest financial year-to-date, central government received £246.5 billion in income, including £182.5 billion in taxes. This was 2.3% more than in the same period last year.

Over the same period, central government spent £260.3 billion, an increase of 5.3%.

As you can see in the fiscal year so far the UK government has opened the spending taps. Whilst the report does not explicitly point this out much of the extra spending has been in the areas mentioned above, as we see expenditure on goods and services up by £7.2 billion and staff costs up by £2.4 billion.

This has had a consequence for the deficit as we look at the July and then the fiscal year to date numbers.

Borrowing (public sector net borrowing excluding public sector banks) in July 2019 was in surplus by £1.3 billion, a £2.2 billion smaller surplus than in July 2018; July 2018 remains the highest July surplus since 2000………….Borrowing in the current financial year-to-date (April 2019 to July 2019) was £16.0 billion, £6.0 billion more than in the same period last year; the financial year-to-date April 2018 to July 2018 remains the lowest borrowing for that period since 2002.

Care is needed here because this is much lower than we saw in the past crisis but none the less after a lot of false dawns the UK government seems to be actually fulfiling its promises to spend more.

Receipts

I did promise to address this as they were heavily affected this July by the QE programme of the Bank of England.

This month interest and dividend recipts were down £1.5 billion compared to July 2018. This fall was largely because of a £2.0 billion reduction in dividend transfer from the Bank of England Asset Purchase Facility Fund (BEAPFF) to HM Treasury.

So if we are looking for the impact of the UK economy on the numbers it showed some growth not a fall.

If we were to exclude these transfers, then central government receipts would decrease by £0.6 billion to £67.3 billion in July 2019 and decrease by £2.6 billion to £65.7 billion in July 2018.

Actually there has been an issue this fiscal year as well.

So far in this financial year-to-date (April to July 2019), £3.5 billion in dividends have transferred from the BEAPFF to HM Treasury, compared with £5.9 billion in the same period last year.

So as you can see without this receipts were positive in July and growth in the fiscal year so far was better than the 2.3% quoted. It is curious that the Bank of England numbers are ebbing and flowing because they have the same £435 billion holdings so I will investigate later.

Comment

We see that the UK government has indeed opened the spending taps. How much of it is Brexit driven is hard to say but at least some of it must be. Can we afford it? With a thirty-year Gilt yield just above 1% ( 1.03%) then we certainly can in terms of repayments. The catch is in terms of the national debt and the amount of capital borrowed but in relative terms that has been falling recently.

Debt (public sector net debt excluding public sector banks) at the end of July 2019 was £1,807.2 billion (or 82.4% of gross domestic product, GDP), an increase of £29.6 billion (or a decrease of 1.3 percentage points of GDP) on July 2018.

Whether any extra spending would be well spent is an entirely different matter. But we find ourselves in a position where this time around it is cheap to borrow.

Meanwhile of course these numbers are for a government that has now been mostly removed…..

 

 

 

Will Italy get a 250 billion Euro debt write-off from the ECB?

Up until now financial markets have been very sanguine about the coalition talks and arrangements in Italy. I thought it was something of calm before the storm especially as these days something which was a key metric or measure – bond yields – has been given a good dose of morphine by the QE purchases of the European Central Bank. However here is a  tweet from Ferdinando Guigliano  based on information from the Huffington Post which caught everyone’s attention.

1) Five Star and the League expect the to forgive 250 billion euros in Italian bonds bought via quantitative easing, in order to bring down Italy’s debt.

My first thought is that is a bit small as whilst that is a lot of money Italy has a national debt of 2263 billion Euros or 131.8% of its GDP or Gross Domestic Product according to Eurostat. So afterwards it would be some 2213 billion or 117% of GDP which does not seem an enormous difference. Yes it does bring it below the original 120% of GDP target that the Euro area opened its crisis management with but seems hardly likely to be an objective now as frankly that sank without trace. Perhaps they have thoughts for spending that sort of amount and that has driven the number chosen.

Could this happen?

As a matter of mathematics yes because the ECB via the Bank of Italy holds some 368 billion Euros and rising of Italian government bonds and of course rising. However this crosses a monetary policy Rubicon as this would be what is called monetary financing and that is against the rules and as we are regularly told by Mario Draghi the ECB is a “rules based organisation”. Here is Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty and the emphasis is mine.

Overdraft facilities or any other type of credit facility with the European Central Bank or with the central banks of the Member States (hereinafter referred to as ‘national central banks’) in favour of Union institutions, bodies, offices or agencies, central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of Member States shall be prohibited, as shall the purchase directly from them by the European Central Bank or national central banks of debt instruments.

Now we hit what Paul Simon would call “troubled water” as the ECB has of course been very close to the highlighted part. The argument for QE purchases rested on the argument that buying in the secondary market was indirect and not direct or as the ECB puts it.

There will be no primary market purchases under the PSPP, regardless of the type of security, as such purchases are not allowed under Article 123 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

It is a bit unclear as to when they become available but if I recall correctly as an example the Bank of England limit is one week.

The reason for this is to stop a national government issuing debt and the central bank immediately buying it would be a clear example of round-tripping. The immediate implication would be a higher money supply raising domestic inflation dangers  although there would be an initial boost to the economy. We did look at an example of this a couple of years ago in the case of Ghana and whilst we never get a test tube example in economics the Cedi then fell a substantial amount and inflation rose . Thus the two worrying implications are inflation and a currency plunge on a scale to cause an economic crisis.

Would this happen in the case of Italy? That depends on how it plays out. Inside the boundaries of the Euro maybe not to a  great extent initially but as it played out there would be an effect as Italy would not doubt be back for “More,More,More” once Pandora’s Box was open and of course others would want to get their fingers in the cookie jar.

Oh and if we go back to the concept of the ECB being a “rules based organisation” that is something that is until it breaks them as we have learnt over time.

Fiscal Policy

You will not be surprised to learn that they wish to take advantage of the windfall. Back to the tweets of Ferdinando Guigliano

5) The draft agreement would see the Italian government spend 17 billion euros a year on a “citizens’ income”. The European Commission would contribute spending 20% of the European Social Fund

That raises a wry smile as we mull the idea of them trying to get the European Commission to pay for at least some of this. Perhaps they are thinking of the example of Donald Trump and his wall although so far that has been more of a case of a “Mexicant” than a “Mexican.”

Next came this.

According to , the 5 Star/League draft document says there would be a “flat tax”… but with several tax rates and deductions

So flat but not flat well this is Italy! Also we see what has become a more popular refrain in this era of austerity.

Italy’s pension reform would be dismantled: workers would be able to retire when the sum of their retirement age and years of contribution is at least 100.

Over time this would be the most damaging factor as we get a drip feed that builds and builds especially at a time of demographic problems such as an aging population.

So a fiscal relaxation which would require some changes in the rules of the European Union.

The two parties want to re-open European Treaties and to “radically reform” the stability and growth pact. The coalition would also want to reconsider Italy’s contribution to the EU budget.

Market Response

That has since reduced partly because the German bond market has rallied. Partly that is luck but there is an odd factor at play here. You might think that as the likely paymaster of all this Germany would see its bonds hit but the reality is that it is seen as something of a safe haven which outplays the former factor. On that road it issued some two-year debt yesterday with investors paying it around 0.5% per annum. Also I think there is such a shock factor here that it takes a while for the human mind to take it in especially after all the QE anaesthetic.

The Euro has pretty much ignored all of this as I use the rate against the Yen as a benchmark and it has basically gone “m’eh” as has most of the others so far.

Comment

There are quite a few factors at play here and no doubt there will be ch-ch-changes along the way. But the rhetoric at least has been raised a notch this morning.

We are in favor of a consultative referendum on the euro. It might be a good idea to have two euros, for two more homogeneous economical regions. One for northern Europe and one for southern Europe. ( Beppe Grillo in Newsweek)

I do not that the BBC and Bloomberg have gone into overdrive with the use of the word “populists” as I mull how you win an election otherwise? If we stick to our economics beat this is plainly a response of sorts to the ongoing economic depression in Italy in the Euro era. Also it was only on Monday when the Italian head of the ECB was asking for supra national fiscal policy. For whom exactly? Now we see Italy pushing for what we might call more fiscal space.

Meanwhile if we look wider we see yet more evidence of an economic slow down in 2018 so far.

Japan GDP suffers first contraction since 2015

Very painful for the Japanese owned Financial Times to print that although just as a reminder Japan is one of the worst at producing preliminary numbers.

An expansion of fiscal policy in the Euro area might help to keep Italy in it

After the action or in many ways inaction at the Bank of England last week there was a shift of attention to the ECB or European Central Bank. Or if you prefer from Governor Mark Carney to President Mario Draghi. This is because tucked away in a rather familiar tale from him in a speech in Florence was what you might call parking your tanks on somebody else’s lawn. It started with this.

One is the ECB’s OMTs, which can be used when there is a threat to euro area price stability and comes with an ESM programme. The other is the ESM itself.

Actually rather contrary to what Mario implies Outright Monetary Transactions or OMTs were never required as the ECB instead expanded its bond puchases via the Quantitative Easing programme which is ongoing currently at a flow of 30 billion Euros a month. One might also argue the European Stability Mechanism has caused anything but in Greece however the fundamental point is that via such mechanisms monetary policy has slipped under and over and around the border into fiscal policy. For example after the progress in the coalition talks in Italy the financial media has moved onto articles about the Italian national debt being un affordable when in fact the factor that has made it affordable is/are the 342 billion Euros of it that the ECB has purchased. The Italy of 7% bond yields at the time of the Euro area crisis would not have reached now in the same form whereas the current Italy of around 2% yields has.

But there is more than tip-toeing onto the fiscal lawn below.

So, we need an additional fiscal instrument to maintain convergence during large shocks, without having to over-burden monetary policy. Its aim would be to provide an extra layer of stabilisation, thereby reinforcing confidence in national policies.

As no doubt you have already recognised that particular lawn has been mined with economic IEDs as Mario then implicitly acknowledges.

And, as we have seen from our longstanding discussions, it is certainly not politically simple, regardless of the shape that such an instrument could take: from the provision of supranational public goods – like security, defence or migration – to a fully-fledged fiscal capacity.

The only one of those that is pretty non contentious these days is the security issue and that of course is because of the grim nature of events in that area. However the movement of ECB tanks onto the fiscal lawn continued.

But the argument whereby risk-sharing may help to greatly reduce risk, or whereby solidarity, in some specific circumstances, contributes to efficient risk-reduction, is compelling in this case as well, and our work on the design and proper timeframe for such an instrument should continue.

All of that is true and just in case people missed it then the ECB broadcasted it from its social media feeds as well.

Why has Mario done this?

One view might be that as he approaches the end of his term he feels that he can do this in a way he could not before. Another ties in with a theme of this website which is to use the words of Governor Carney that monetary policy may not be “maxxed out” but there are clear signs of fatigue and side-effects. Mario may well have had a sleepless night or two as he thinks of his own recent words about the Euro area economy.

When we look at the indicators that showed significant, sharp declines, we see that, first of all, the fact that all countries reported means that this loss of momentum is pretty broad across countries. It’s also broad across sectors because when we look at the indicators, it’s both hard and soft survey-based indicators.

Where this fits in with my theme is that this is happening with an official deposit rate of -0.4% and not only an enormously expanded balance sheet but ongoing QE. Thus the sleepless nights will be when Mario wonders what  to do if this also turns out to be ongoing? The two obvious monetary responses have problems as whilst what economists call the “lower bound” has proved to be yet another mirage that is so far and plunging further into the icy cold world of negative interest-rates increases the risk of a dash to cash. The second response which ties in with the issue of policy in Germany is that the ECB is running out of German bunds to buy so firing up the QE operation again is also problematic.

Fiscal Policy

The problem puts Mario on an Odyssey.

And if you’re looking for a way out
I won’t stand here in your way.

In terms of economic theory there is a glittering prize in view here but sadly it only shows an example of what might be called simple minds. This is because at the “lower bound” for interest-rates in a liquidity trap  fiscal policy will be at its most effective according to that theory. So far go good until we note that the “lower bound” has got er lower and lower. There was of course the Governor Carney faux pas of saying it was at 0.5% and then not only cutting to 0.25% but planning to cut to 0.1% before the latter was abandoned but also some argued it was at 0% and of course quite a bit of the world is currently below that.

So Mario is calling for some fiscal policy and as so often all eyes turn to Germany which as I have pointed out before is operating fiscal policy but one heading in the opposite direction as I pointed out on the 20th of November.

Germany’s federal budget  surplus hit a record 18.3 billion euros ($21.6 billion) for the first half of 2017.

This poses various problems as I then pointed out.

With its role in the Euro area should a country with its trade surpluses be aiming at a fiscal surplus too or should it be more expansionary to help reduce both and thus help others?

As you can see Mario is leaving the conceptual issue behind and simply concentrating on his worries for 2018. This of course is standard Euro area policy where changes come in for an emergency and then find themselves becoming permanent. Although to be fair they are far from alone from this as I note that Income Tax in the UK was supposed to be a temporary way of helping to finance the Napoleonic wars.

Comment

This speech may well turn out to be as famous as the “Whatever it takes ( to save the Euro) one. In terms of his own operations Mario has proved to be a steadfast supporter of it but the monetary policy ammunition locker has been emptied. It is also true that it means he has been something of a one-club golfer because the Euro area political class has in essence embraced austerity and left Mario rather lonely. Now his time is running out he is in effect pointing that out and asking for help. Perhaps he is envious of what President Trump has just enacted in the United States.

There are clear problems though. We have been on this road before and it has turned out to be a road to nowhere in spite of many talking heads supporting it. In essence it relies in the backing of Germany and it has been unwilling to allow supranational Eurobonds where for example Italy and Greece could borrow with the German taxpayer potentially on the hook. If anything Germany seems to be heading in the direction of being even more fiscally conservative.

If we look wider we see that at the heart of this is something which has dogged the credit crunch era. If you believe one of the causes of it was imbalances well the German trade surplus has if anything swelled and now it is adding fiscal surpluses to that. Next if we look more narrowly there are the ongoing ch-ch-changes in Mario’s home country Italy. From the Wall Street Journal.

Both parties vowed to scrap or dilute an unpopular pension overhaul from 2011 that steadily raises the retirement age. Economists say the parties’ fiscal promises, if enacted in full, would greatly add to Italy’s budget shortfall, likely breaking EU rules that cap deficits at 3% of gross domestic product. Italy’s public debt, at 132% of GDP, is the EU’s highest after Greece.

So is it to save the Euro or to keep Italy in it?

Could US fiscal expansionism lead us to QE4?

The credit crunch era has been one where monetary policy has taken centre stage. There are many ways of expressing this but one is that technocrats ( central bankers) have mostly run the economic show as elected politicians have chosen to retreat to the sidelines as much as possible. Whatever you may think of President Trump he is not someone who is happy to be on the sidelines as he has exhibited publicly once or twice with some pushing and shoving. But more importantly we are seeing something of a shift in the balance of US economic policy as the monetary weapon gets put away at least to some extent but the fiscal one seems to be undergoing a revival.

A relatively small reflection of this was last night’s budget deal. We have become used to talk of a US government shutdown followed by an eleventh hour deal and no doubt there is a fair bit of both ennui and cynicism about the process. But as the Washington Post notes as we as giving the national debt can another kick there was this in the detail.

According to outlines of the budget plan circulated by congressional aides, existing spending caps would be raised by a combined $296 billion through 2019. The agreement includes an additional $160 billion in uncapped funding for overseas military and State Department operations, and about $90 billion more would be spent on disaster aid for victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires.

An increase in military spending was a Trump campaign promise so it is no surprise but spending increases come on top of the tax cuts we saw at the end of last year.

The Trump Tax Changes

According to the US Committee for a Responsible Fiscal Budget there was much to consider.

The final conference committee agreement of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) would cost $1.46 trillion under conventional scoring and over $1 trillion on a dynamic basis over ten years, leading debt to rise to between 95 percent and 98 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2027 (compared to 91 percent under current law). However, the bill also includes a number of expirations and long-delayed tax hikes meant to reduce the official cost of the bill. These expirations and delays hide $570 billion to $725 billion of potential further costs, which could ultimately increase the cost of the bill to $2.0 trillion to$2.2 trillion (before interest) on a conventional basis or roughly $1.5 trillion to $1.7 trillion on a dynamic basis over a decade. As a result, debt would rise to between 98 percent and 100 percent of GDP by 2027.

This is a familiar political tactic the world over where the numbers depend on others taking the difficult decisions in the future! One rather sneaky move is the replacement in terms of income tax thresholds of inflation indexation by the US Consumer Price Index by the chained version which is usually lower. So jam today but more like dry toast tomorrow.

Won’t this boost the economy?

There are enough problems simply doing the direct mathematics of government spending and revenue but the next factor is how do they effect the economy? Well the US Congress has given it a go.

The Joint Committee staff estimates that this proposal would increase the average level of output (as measured by Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) by about 0.7 percent relative to average level of output in the present law baseline over the 10-year budget window. That
increase in output would increase revenues, relative to the conventional estimate of a loss of $1,456 billion over that period by about $451 billion. This budget effect would be partially offset by an increase in interest payments on the Federal debt of about $66 billion over the budget
period.

The idea of tax cuts boosting the economy is a reasonable one but the idea you can measure it to around US $451 billion is pure fantasy. To be fair they say “about” but it should really be if you will forgive the capitals and emphasis “ABOUT“. Anyway for the moment let us move on noting that there is already a fair bit of doubt about the impact on the US deficit over time from US $1 trillion or so to a bit over US $2 trillion.

What is the deficit doing?

According to the US CBO ( Congressional Budget Office) it has been rising anyway in the Trump era.

The federal budget deficit was $174 billion for the first four months of fiscal year 2018, the Congressional
Budget Office estimates, $16 billion more than the shortfall recorded during the same period last year.
Revenues and outlays were higher, by 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, than during the first four
months of fiscal year 2017.

As you can see revenues are doing pretty well and in fact are being led by taxes on income being up by 8%. However spending rose even faster at an annual rate of 5% which at a time of economic growth gives us food for thought. There was one curious detail and one familiar one in this.

Social Security benefits rose by $11 billion (or 4 percent) because of increases both in the number of beneficiaries and in the average benefit payment.

That seems odd at a time of economic growth but the next bit reminds us that the rise in inflation has a cost too due to index-linked bonds called TIPS.

Outlays for net interest on the public debt increased by $13 billion (or 14 percent), largely because of differences in the rate of inflation.

More Spending?

It looks as though we will find out more about the much promised infrastructure plan next week. From Bloomberg.

President Donald Trump expects to release on Monday his long-awaited plan to generate at least $1.5 trillion to upgrade U.S. roads, bridges, airports and other public works, according to a White House official.

How much of this will come from the government is open to debate. The modern methodology is to promise some spending ( in this case US $200 billion) and assume that the private-sector will do the rest. One of the more extraordinary efforts on this front was the Juncker Plan in the Euro era which assumed a multiplier of up to twenty times. But returning stateside we can see that there will be upwards pressure on spending but so far we are not sure how much.

Comment

In my opening I suggested that the United States was switching from monetary expansionism to fiscal expansionism. Let me now introduce the elephant in this particular room.  From the Atlanta Fed

The GDPNow model forecast for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the first quarter of 2018 is 4.0 percent on February 6, down from 5.4 percent on February 1.

They may well be somewhat excitable but if we look at the 3.2% predicted by the New York Fed the view is for pretty solid economic growth. So the fiscal position should be good especially if we add in the fact that for all the media hype treasury bond yields are historically still rather low. Yet none the less the fiscal pump is being primed. Or to put it more strictly after a period of pro-cyclical monetary policy we now seem set for pro-cyclical fiscal policy.

There are obvious implications for the bond market here as there will be increases in supply on their way. No doubt for example this has been a factor in pushing the thirty-year bond yield above 3%. You might have expected more of an impact but I am increasingly wondering about something I suggested some time ago that the path to higher interest-rates in the United States might be accompanied by QE4 or a return to bond buying by the US Federal Reserve. Should the economy slow at any point which would boost the deficit on its own then we could see it. Also this could be a factor in the weaker US Dollar as in is it falling to reflect the risks of a possible return to Quantitative Easing?

The deep question here is can we even get by these days without another shot of stimulus be it monetary,fiscal or both?

Me on Core Finance TV

 

 

 

Fiscal policy was on the march at Jackson Hole

Over the weekend many of the world’s central bankers were guests of the Kansas Federal Reserve in Jackson Hole Wyoming. In terms of location I believe it was chosen because a previous chair of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker was a keen fisherman. However this late August symposium has become one which influences the economic winds of change as central bankers discussed easing policy in response to the credit crunch and in more recent times a speech was given on what were perceived to be the wonders of Forward Guidance. Michael Woodford was very clever in suggesting to a group who wanted to believe that they could influence events via mere speaking or what has become called Open Mouth Operations.

I shall argue that the most effective form of forward guidance involves advance commitment to definite criteria for future policy decisions.

They are still at that today to some extent although the definite criteria theme has mostly been ignored especially in the UK where it went wrong for the Bank of England almost immediately.

What about now?

The problem for the central bankers is that to coin a phrase that monetary policy may be “maxxed out” or as it is put more formally below.

despite attempts to set economies on normalization paths after the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis, the scope for countercyclical monetary policy remains limited: benchmark interest rates have continued to hover near or even below zero.

This is from a paper presented on Saturday by Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko of the University of California Berkeley. In their conclusion they go further.

Although economists do not believe that expansions die from old age, the prolonged U.S. expansion will end sooner or later and there is serious concern about the ability of policymakers in the United States and other developed countries to fight the next economic downturn. Indeed the ammunition of central banks is much more limited now than before the Great Recession and it is unlikely that expansionary monetary policy can be as aggressive and effective as it was during the crisis.

Actually if monetary policy had been effective the paper would not be necessary as the various economies would have responded and we would be on a road where interest-rates were say 2/3% and central bank balance sheets were shrinking, In reality such interest-rates to quote Star Wars are “far, far away”.

Fiscal policy

If monetary policy has less scope for action then our central planners face being irrelevant so they will be grasping for an alternative and fortunately according to our two valiant professors it is at hand.

With tight constraints on central banks, one may expect—or maybe hope for—a more active response of fiscal policy when the next recession arrives.

The problem with this the familiar theme of the “bond vigilantes” turning up.

It is certainly conceivable (see e.g. Aguiar et al. 2017) that a significant fiscal stimulus can raise doubts about the ability of a government to repay its debts and, as a result, increase borrowing costs so much that the government may find its debt unsustainable and default.

This of course was last seen on a major scale in the Euro area crisis particularly in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. Of course the European Central Bank intervened by buying bonds and later followed another part of Michael Woodford’s advice by introducing a larger and more widespread QE or bond buying program. So we have seen central banks intervening in fiscal policy via a reduction in bond yields something which government’s try to keep quiet. We have individual instances of bond yield soaring such as Venezuela but the last few years have seen central banking victories and defeats for the vigilantes. In another form that continued this morning as I note that a North Korean ballistic missile passed over Japan but the Nikkei 225 equity index only fell 87 points presumably influenced by the way that the Bank of Japan buys on down days.

What about more overt fiscal policy?

Apparently this can work.

We find that in our sample expansionary government spending shocks have not been followed by persistent increases in debt-to-GDP ratios or borrowing costs (interest rates, CDS spreads). This result obtains especially when the economy is weak. In fact, a fiscal stimulus in a weak economy may help improve fiscal sustainability along the metrics we study.

Indeed this for them is essentially a continuation of past work.

This constraint on monetary policy coincides with a resurgence in activist fiscal policy (Auerbach and Gale, 2009), which has moved from a focus on automatic stabilizers to a stronger reliance on discretionary measures, reflecting not only necessity but also growing evidence of the effectiveness of such policy to fight recessions (e.g., Auerbach and Gorodnichenko, 2012, 2013).

Also I am reminded that we should never believe something until it is officially denied.

Given the nature of the sample analyzed, our results should not be interpreted as an unconditional call for an aggressive government spending in response to a deteriorating economy.

The UK

Jonathan Portes who is an advocate for fiscal policy has written this in Prospect Magazine.

The answer is very technical—£100 billion or so of the extra debt relates to the Bank of England’s Asset Purchase Facility. Briefly, the BoE makes loans to banks and buys corporate bonds, in return for cash (“central bank reserves”).

He suggests that as this has been mostly ignored( not on here) we could borrow for other purposes.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here as I note that North Korea has done its bit as bond markets have risen today and yields fallen. For example the UK ten-year Gilt yield has dropped to 1% giving us food for thought with inflation at either 2.6% ( CPI) or 3.6% ( RPI). A clear factor in the expected push for fiscal policy is that bond yields are so low as conventional UK Gilt yields do not go above 1.7% and other countries such as Germany Switzerland and Japan can borrow for much less. Against such bond yields theoretical analysis is always likely to look good so the first issue is whether they would be maintained in a fiscal expansion. Or to put it another way are central banks being asked here for a type of QE to infinity?

Next is the issue of how a fiscal stimulus is defined as for example countries which have stopped borrowing and run a surplus like Germany and Sweden are relatively rare. Most have continued to borrow and run annual fiscal deficits albeit usually declining ones. Thus the ballpark seems to have shifted to increasing deficits rather than having one at all which is the sort of “junkie culture” road that monetary policy went down. If we look back to a past advocate of fiscal stimulus John Maynard Keynes he was also someone who suggested that when the growth came there would be a period of payback.

What we also find ourselves mulling is the difference between the specific and the general. I am sure that everyone can think of a project that would provide plenty of benefits and gains but as we move to a more generalist position we find ourselves facing a reality of Hinkley Point and HS2. To be fair our two professors do acknowledge this.

Bridges to nowhere, “pet” projects and other wasteful spending can outweigh any benefits of countercyclical fiscal policy.

As a conclusion the Ivory Tower theory is that fiscal policy will work. There are two catches the first is that if they were even regularly right we would not be where we are. The next is that on some measures we have been trying it for quite some time.

In reality the establishment seems likely to latch onto this as we have discussed before.