Negative interest rates are fun for Governments

£30bn infrastructure programs! Ending taxation!

When bond yields are negative in real terms (as they are in Germany, the US and the UK) it leads to weird economic incentives.

Jonathan Portes has previously written about how interest rates this low mean that the government could embark on a £30bn infrastructure investment package for just the income raised each year by the now-defunct pasty tax. Portes, who is the director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, argued that:

If the government were, as I suggest, to fund a £30bn (2 per cent of GDP) investment programme, and fund it by borrowing through issuing long-term index-linked gilts, the cost to taxpayers - the interest on those gilts - would be something like £150m a year. . .

Twenty, or fifty, years from now, economic historians will look back at the decisions we are taking now. I cannot imagine that they will be anything but incredulous and horrified that – presented with these charts and figures – policymakers did nothing, international organisations staffed with professional economists encouraged them in their inaction, and commentators and academic economists (thankfully, few in the UK) came up with ever more tortuous justifications.

Today, Tyler Cowen argues that there is a dangerously underexamined hidden assumption in Portes' argument:

Keep in mind that the interest rates on quality government debt are down, in part, because the risk premium is up.  Non-governmental investments are perceived as riskier. . .

You might think the government investments are “low hanging fruit” in terms of quality.  Maybe yes, maybe no, but the low real interest rate doesn’t signal that, rather it signals merely that people expect to be repaid.

In this argument for more government investment, the notion of government investments as low hanging fruit is doing a lot of the work.

Cowen doesn't seem to be taking a fair approach to the situtation. Government investments aren't low hanging fruit so much as all other investments are unfeasibly risky. The long-term usefulness of transport, energy or education infrastructure, for instance, is little changed due to the current economic climate, so the multiplier for investment in them remains the same as it ever was.

But if investment in infrastructure is too risky, Matt Yglesias suggests another use for negative real interest rates: Stop collecting taxes. Yes, all of them:

Normally you face a tradeoff. Taxes impose costs on the present-day population that might impair wealth creation over the long-term, but to avoid taxes by borrowing you need to pay interest to creditors.

But the real interest rate we're being asked for is low. Less than zero. So what's the tradeoff?

Why not sell as many negative-yield ten-year bonds as the market will buy (sell enough bonds and presumably interest rates will rise) and let that auction revenue "crowd out" taxes as a way of financing government activities?

The really interesting thing about such a plan would be seeing the political fallout. In so many economic arguments, taxation, spending and size of government are used interchangably; lefties like big government, high taxes, and high spending, and right-wingers the opposite. But put a massive disconnect between the taxing and spending sides of government, and who knows which side of the line people will fall? Are the Taxpayers Alliance in favour of low taxes or small government? What about David Cameron?

The Bank of England at night. Could negative real interest rates change politics? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.