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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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump