Why the US bond market matters

Felix Martin's "Real Money" column.

On 22 May, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the board of governors of the US Federal Reserve, made what must have seemed to innocent observers an innocuous remark: he suggested that the era of nearzero interest rates in the US could not last for too much longer and that the Fed might begin to wind down its policy of quantitative easing (QE) later this year.

The reaction of the world’s financial markets was swift and dramatic. First, the interest rate on US government bonds jumped. Then the world’s currency markets went haywire. The US stock market battled on for a few more weeks before it, too, took fright and embarked on a precipitous descent.

People who are not finance professionals might be forgiven for asking what all the fuss is about. Why, after all, should these inconsequential remarks matter so much – and so what if the interest rate on US government bonds rises by a mere 1 per cent? Is any of this relevant to normal people who don’t spend their time buried in the back pages of the Financial Times? The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

The government bond market is the axis on which the financial system of every modern, capitalist economy turns. The interest rate at which the government can borrow is the most important price in the economy – the one on the basis of which the price of every other financial asset and, indirectly, all other prices and wages are set.

Companies and individuals pay interest rates on their borrowing at rates set as a markup over the government’s rate. So if the UK government can borrow for a term of ten years at 2 per cent, then a financially robust and well-established company might be able to borrow at 3.5 per cent; and a flightier, less well-capitalised, more speculative one might be able to borrow at, say, 7 per cent. You or I, meanwhile, might be able to borrow at an even higher rate than that. When the interest rate the government pays moves, so do all the others. Thus, the interest rate on government bonds affects the entire economy.

In this matter, as in so many others, the US is more important than every other country. It is not just that the interest rate on US government bonds is the reference point for the largest economy in the world. The US dollar is also the world’s de facto reserve currency – it’s the only currency that almost anyone anywhere is ready to accept and so everybody wants to keep a precautionary store of it.

As a result, US interest rates filter through to the entire international economy as well. The US dollar is the primary currency of international finance – so that when the interest rate on US government bonds goes up, it becomes more costly not only for the US treasury to borrow at home but also for any government, company or individual almost anywhere in the world to borrow from abroad. Nor is that the end of the story. The differential between the interest rates on government bonds in different countries is a key determinant of exchange rates.

All other things being equal, if the interest rate on the US government’s bonds rises when the interest rate on the British government’s bonds remains unchanged, investors will try to rebalance their investments towards US bonds and away from British ones. As they do so, they will drive down the value of the pound sterling relative to the US dollar.

Even small changes in the interest rate on US government bonds can have a big effect on the relative value of currencies in this way – especially in the emerging markets. In the few weeks since Bernanke made his remarks, the currencies of Mexico, South Africa and Brazil, for example, have all lost more than a tenth of their value against the US dollar. This is extreme volatility of exchange rates and it can be highly disruptive of international trade and finance.

In short, the interest rate on American government bonds is the single most important regulating factor in the world economy. It’s no wonder that James Carville, Bill Clinton’s electoral strategist, reflected ruefully in 1993, “I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope . . . but now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”

So is it a good or a bad thing that US interest rates are on the rise following Bernanke’s recent pronouncements? It used to be easy to answer to that question. The link between the central bank policy or base rate and government bond yields was simple. When the economy was in rude health, the central bank would hike its policy rate and the interest rate on government bonds would rise; and when the economy was running out of steam, it would cut and bond yields would fall. Higher rates meant a healthier economy.

Since 2009, however, this transparent link between the bond market and the central bank has evaporated. With central bank policy rates stuck at zero, the bond market has had to take its cue not from monetary policy itself but from officials’ speeches and journalists’ scoops. The utterances of central bank officials such as Bernanke have become major economic data in their own right. The medium has become the message.

The result has been to turn investing in government bond markets into a kind of monetary Kremlinology, in which every passing comment of central bankers is minutely parsed for clues to the true direction of policy. In June, the new Kremlinologists concluded from Bernanke’s latest oracle that the global economy was in robust enough shape to tolerate a rise in the all-important interest rate on US government bonds.

For all our sakes, we had better hope that the divinations of the new Kremlinologists turn out to be more accurate than those of the old ones.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Photograph: Getty Images

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage