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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25 times people used Brexit to attack Muslims since the EU referendum

Some voters appear more interested in expelling Muslims than EU red tape.

In theory, voting for Brexit because you were worried about immigration has nothing to do with Islamophobia. It’s about migrant workers from Eastern Europe undercutting wages. Or worries about border controls. Or the housing crisis. 

The reports collected by an anti-Muslim attack monitor tell a different story. 

Every week, the researchers at Tell Mama receive roughly 40-50 reports of Islamophobic incidences.

But after the EU referendum, they recorded 30 such incidents in three days alone. And many were directly related to Brexit. 

Founder Fiyaz Mughal said there had been a cluster of hate crimes since the vote:

“The Brexit vote seems to have given courage to some with deeply prejudicial and bigoted views that they can air them and target them at predominantly Muslim women and visibly different settled communities.”

Politicians have appeared concerned. On Monday, as MPs grappled with the aftermath of the referendum, the Prime Minister David Cameron stated “loud and clear” that: “Just because we are leaving the European Union, it will not make us a less tolerant, less diverse nation.”

But condemning single racist incidents is easier than taking a political position that appeases the majority and protects the minority at the same time. 

As the incidents recorded make clear, the aggressors made direct links between their vote and the racial abuse they were now publicly shouting.

The way they told it, they had voted for Muslims to “leave”. 
 
Chair of Tell Mama and former Labour Justice and Communities Minister, Shahid Malik, said:

“With the backdrop of the Brexit vote and the spike in racist incidents that seems to be emerging, the government should be under no illusions, things could quickly become
extremely unpleasant for Britain’s minorities.

“So today more than ever, we need our government, our political parties and of course our media to act with the utmost responsibility and help steer us towards a post-Brexit Britain where xenophobia and hatred are utterly rejected.”

Here are the 25 events that were recorded between 24 and 27 June that directly related to Brexit. Please be aware that some of the language is offensive:

  1. A Welsh Muslim councillor was told to pack her bags and leave.
  2. A man in a petrol station shouted: "You're an Arabic c**t, you're a terrorist" at an Arab driver and stated he “voted them out”. 
  3. A Barnsley man was told to leave and that the aggressor’s parents had voted for people like him to be kicked out.
  4. A woman witnessed a man making victory signs at families at a school where a majority of students are Muslim.
  5. A man shouted, “you f**king Muslim, f**king EU out,” to a woman in Kingston, London. 
  6. An Indian man was called “p**i c**t in a suit” and told to “leave”.
  7. Men circled a Muslim woman in Birmingham and shouted: “Get out - we voted Leave.”
  8. A British Asian mother and her two children were told: "Today is the day we get rid of the likes of you!" by a man who then spat at her. 
  9. A man tweeted that his 13-year-old brother received chants of “bye, bye, you’re going home”.
  10. A van driver chanted “out, out, out”, at a Muslim woman in Broxley, Luton
  11. Muslims in Nottingham were abused in the street with chants of: “Leave Europe. Kick out the Muslims.”
  12. A Muslim woman at King’s Cross, London, had “BREXIT” yelled in her face.
  13. A man in London called a South Asian woman “foreigner” and commented about UKIP.
  14. A man shouted “p**i” and “leave now” at individuals in a London street.
  15. A taxi driver in the West Midlands told a woman his reason for voting Leave was to “get rid of people like you”.
  16. An Indian cyclist was verbally abused and told to “leave now”. 
  17. A man on a bike swore at a Muslim family and muttered something about voting.
  18. In Newport, a Muslim family who had not experienced any trouble before had their front door kicked in.
  19. A South Asian woman in Manchester was told to “speak clearly” and then told “Brexit”. 
  20. A Sikh doctor was told by a patient: “Shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out.”
  21. An abusive tweet read: “Thousands of raped little White girls by Muslims mean nothing to Z….#Brexit”.
  22. A group of men abused a South Asian man by calling him a “p**i c**t” and telling him to go home after Brexit.
  23. A man shouted at a taxi driver in Derby: "Brexit, you p**i.”
  24. Two men shouted at a Muslim woman walking towards a mosque “muzzies out” and “we voted for you being out.”
  25. A journalist was called a “p**i” in racial abuse apparently linked to Brexit.