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
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.