Cheap money, what is it good for?

Cheap money, what is it good for

Cheap money should help to stimulate the world economy, but is it working?

Following the leave campaign winning the Brexit referendum, which will see the UK leave the EU two years after the Prime Minister notifies the European Council of its intention to do so, there was much fear about what this would mean for the strength of the UK economy.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, issued a statement immediately following the result in which he aimed to calm market sentiment.

He acknowledged that Brexit would result in a period of uncertainty and adjustment, but there would be no initial changes in the way people are able to travel, or in the way that products and services are sold.  In a calm demeanor, he reassured us that the Bank of England would not hesitate to take additional measures, as required.

What kind of additional measures did he have in mind?

Well, Carney went on to say specifically that “… as a backstop, and to support the functioning of the markets, the Bank of England stands ready to provide more than 250 billion pounds of additional funds through its normal market operations.”

What did he mean by this?

Well, traditionally, central banks have aimed to control monetary policy by influencing interest rates. By lowering interest rates a central bank hopes to stimulate the economy by lowering the required rate of return on business investments, which should increase the total amount of investment in the economy.

As recently as ten years ago, it was unthinkable that a responsible central bank would try to stimulate the economy by turning on the printers and pumping new money into the economy. But this is what Carney was suggesting, “the Bank of England stands ready to provide more than 250 billion pounds of additional funds“.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, central banks have increasingly resorted to this new and unconventional policy known as quantitative easing. The US has engaged in three rounds of quantitative easing, purchasing an estimated $4.5 trillion in financial assets. And the UK has also been busily printing money, purchasing more than £375 billion in financial assets.

QE is new and unconventional, but notice how carefully Carney finessed his words.

“The Bank of England stands ready to provide more than 250 billion pounds of additional funds through its normal market operations.”

There is absolutely nothing “normal” about printing money in order to prop up the economy. This behaviour was traditionally the province of banana republics like Zimbabwe and the Weimar Republic, and in both of those cases it led to rampant hyperinflation. The Bank of England’s website even acknowledges this, stating “Quantitative easing (QE) is an unconventional form of monetary policy where a Central Bank creates new money electronically to buy financial assets, like government bonds.” (emphasis added)

However, mid-last week, Carney’s “normal market operations” appear to have finally hit a bump in the road.

The FT reported that the Bank of England’s new programme to buy long-dated UK government bonds had run into trouble as pension funds and insurance companies were refusing to sell. “The Bank of England fell £50m short in its gilt purchase target … , and even then only secured [as much as it did] by paying well above market price,” said Darren Bustin, head of derivatives at Royal London Asset Management.

Is the Bank of England’s money no good?

Why might these institutions be refusing to sell their long-dated bonds?

A few reasons.

Firstly, by printing money and lowering long term interest rates, the Bank of England is, in effect, siphoning money out of the pockets of old people.

Pension funds have long term liabilities which will not fall due for many years. In order to be able to provide for their members during retirement, these institutions need to buy long-dated assets, which will provide revenue over a long period of time. With interest rates continuing to fall, it makes sense that these institutions would prefer to hold onto their long term bonds, which will provide a steady stream of fixed coupon payments.

Already this year, 10-year gilt yields have fallen from 2% to a staggering low of 0.56%, which has led to worsening funding shortfalls for UK pension funds. Lower interest rates mean that pension funds expect to earn less from their bond portfolios in future, and so will be less able to pay their members’ pension entitlements. This means that employees, worried about their standard of living during retirement, are now under pressure to save even more than before (exactly the opposite of what the Bank of England is hoping to achieve).

The second reason that these institutions may be reluctant to part with their bonds in exchange for cash is that, as central banks continue to engage in quantitative easing, money is becoming increasingly worthless.

If we think of interest rates as the “price” of money, then we can see that in many countries money has never been less valuable.

Here is a list of prevailing central bank interest rates in some of the world’s major economies (as of today, August 14th 2016):

  • Bank of Japan: -0.1%
  • European Central Bank: -0.4%
  • Swiss National Bank: -0.75%
  • Sweden’s Riksbank: -0.5%
  • U.S. Federal Reserve: 0.4%
  • Bank of England: 0.25%
  • Reserve Bank of Australia: 1.5%

Cheap money should help to stimulate the world economy, but is it working?

The evidence doesn’t seem too positive.

Low rates are meant to encourage business investment, but in a low growth world where companies and governments are already heavily indebted it is easy to understand why this may not happen.  Moreover, if banks absorb the cost of negative interest rates themselves, then this lowers their profit margins and may make them less likely to lend money.

As we saw in Germany on Friday, one bank has now decided to pass on negative interest rates to its retail clients. In other words, it will now penalise thrifty individuals for having savings in the bank. If enough other banks follow this lead and make more customers pay to hold their money in the bank, then customers may start putting cash under the mattress or stashing it in a safe. This would reduce the total amount of deposits held in banks and could potentially set off a bank run.

Cheap money, what is it good for?

(Image Source: Flickr)

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