Government Bond Markets: Unfeeling Psychopaths or Rational Keynesians?

We're blaming the fire alarm for the fire.

With the latest round of “markets can’t handle democracy” after a minor selloff in BTPs (Italian government bonds) following their election, the idea that “government finance is too important to be left to the markets” is emerging from the swamp of Guardian comment threads, and shambling back into the mainstream. With all but a few Austrian dead-enders acknowledging that austerity has been disastrous for growth, the accusation of market culpability is a serious one.

The case for the prosecution is that government bond markets irrationally panicked at modest debt increases following the 2008 financial crisis, demanding appeasement in the form of “austerity”, ideally targeted at the poor and vulnerable. (One may need to sprinkle the preceding sentence with the word “neoliberal” to get the full flavour). This case was made most recently in a paper by Paul DeGrauwe of VoxEu, and is noticeable for attracting sympathetic comments from normally sensible people.

Professor DeGrauwe argues convincingly that the countries which instigated the largest austerity programmes suffered the worst damage from markets in terms of both quantity and price of fresh borrowing (his Figure 1 below). He goes on to note that none of the austerity measures introduced pacified markets.

He draws the slightly eccentric conclusion from this that markets love and demand austerity. Possibly for reasons of space he omits that the two biggest rallies in EU peripheral sovereign debt before the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) were driven by monetary actions—the injection of ECB liquidity into the market via SMP and later LTRO. But he does note that the prospect of unlimited monetary intervention by the ECB in the form of OMT is what appears to have convinced markets that investing in the periphery is safe.

So there you have it: fiscal measures did nothing to convince markets to buy peripheral debt; monetary measures were repeatedly successful.

Yet the conclusion drawn is that:

Austerity dynamics were forced by fear and panic that erupted in the financial markets and then gripped policymakers.

What worked: hint - not austerity

What worked: hint – not austerity.

Panic is a funny word. Jumping out of a moving bus can look like panic. However, if the driver—let’s call him Jean-Claude—is absolutely adamant that he wants to drive said bus off a cliff (think of M. Trichet’s threats to pull the repo-able status of Greek debt and later refusal to allow the ECB to get involved in a rescue), and the conductor (Wolfgang) is similarly vehement about fiscal assistance—jumping out starts to look quite rational. The ECB (especially) and the core countries spent most of 2010–mid-2012 declaring an absolute refusal to assist the peripheral nations. As a result, Europe’s money supply began to resemble a badly-sloping field, where all the liquidity is drained from one end (the periphery) and swamps the core.

Where’d all the money go?

The huge underperformance of peripheral growth owes at least as much to monetary as to fiscal factors. Hence, despite the UK’s utterly dire fiscal performance—and misguided austerity, my homeland never suffered remotely the sort of spread explosion that Euroland saw. Similarly, Denmark—even whilst retaining a peg to the Euro—didn’t suffer contagion. The “panic” Professor DeGrauwe refers to looks a lot more like a rational response to a thoroughly dysfunctional system. The end of this panic coincided nicely with the introduction of monetary measure—the OMT—with the potential to provide Italy with the sort of central bank support that the UK has enjoyed.

From Wikipedia. Look, I’m busy.

In this case, blaming the markets is actually blaming the alarm for the fire, and measures to control spread volatility like measures to prevent fire casualties by removing the alarms. Professor Paul Krugman has been vocal about the indisputable absence of “bond vigilantes” from markets spared the various monetary perversions that Euroland is subject to. The fit between spreads and recession looks a whole lot worse once you include countries which aren’t in the Euro. Looking at the above chart, lifted off Wikipedia, UK fundamentals nestle in the middle of a group of countries which were in deep trouble, whereas Japan has so much debt it’s literally off the scale of the chart (at 230 per cent of GDP). But neither has seen any significant rise at all it its credit spreads. I suggest therefore that Eurowonks stop throwing stones in glass houses.

This piece was originally posted on Some Of It Was True…, and is reposted with permission.

Xavier Rolet, the Chief Executive of the London Stock Exchange, poses for photographs in front of giant letter blocks spelling the word 'Bonds'. Photograph: Getty Images

Pawe? Morski is a fund manager who blogs at Some of it was true…

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.