QE, zero rates, and a Chinese surprise

It's central bank mania!

It's central bank day, and for once all three reporting banks – the Bank of England, European Central Bank and Bank of China, which for the second month in a row announced its decision after the Bank of England – have done something interesting.

The Bank of England announced, as expected, that it would be increasing its quantitative easing program by a further £50bn. In the accompanying statement, it struck a sombre note:

UK output has barely grown for a year and a half and is estimated to have fallen in both of the past two quarters. The pace of expansion in most of the United Kingdom’s main export markets also appears to have slowed. Business indicators point to a continuation of that weakness in the near term, both at home and abroad. In spite of the progress made at the latest European Council, concerns remain about the indebtedness and competitiveness of several euro-area economies, and that is weighing on confidence here. The correspondingly weaker outlook for UK output growth means that the margin of economic slack is likely to be greater and more persistent.

The new round of asset purchases will also have been encouraged by the consistently falling inflation. Textbook QE raises inflation, and although the economy isn't behaving according to many textbooks these days, the Bank will still have wanted to wait until it was within spitting distance of its mandate before acting.

Minutes later, however, the Bank of China stole some of the shine, by cutting its interest rates for a second month running. It lowered its benchmark interest rate by 0.25 per cent, and also lowered its one-year lending rate by 0.31 per cent.

Business Insider's Sam Ro sums up why that matters:

China's growth rate has been decelerating lately, which had some economists concerned that its economy would land hard. In a hard landing, the unemployment rate picks up and the economy risks sinking all the way into recession. China is the second largest economy in the world. And for most economies, China is also the main source of growth.

Falling interest rates could mean that the Chinese central bank is starting to get edgy.

Finally, an hour ago the ECB announced its monthly move on interest rates. And they went for some unconventional monetary policy! Admittedly, not as unconventional as paying for people's holidays: they lowered the deposit rate to zero per cent (as well as cutting its main refinancing rate to 0.75 per cent and the emergency funds rate to 1.50 per cent). If you park your money with the central bank, they won't give you a penny cent.

Alphaville's Izabella Kaminska explains the reasoning:

A positive deposit rate was the last thing anchoring money market rates to zero — or vague profitability. This is because banks could arbitrage the difference between the rates they received at the ECB and the rates money market funds were able to invest at.

By cutting the deposit rate, the ECB is killing this arbitrage. There will not be any profit associated with taking money from non-banks and parking it at the ECB for a small profit. Non-banks won’t even be able to get zero. This will leave real-rates exposed to further deterioration. The ECB, of course, is hoping that non-banks will choose to channel that money into risky assets instead…

With the deposit rate where it is, the ECB has well and truly reached the zero bound. The only way down now would be to ban money. Their call, it seems.

Mario Draghi, the head of the ECB. 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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.