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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.