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

Felix Martin is a macroeconomist, bond trader and the author of Money: the Unauthorised Biography

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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder