Forgive us our debts!

An open letter to Messrs. Osborne and Balls

Dear George and Ed,

Are you seeking a policy that you can surprise markets with on the first day after the General Election, just as Gordon Brown managed when he made the Bank of England independent in 1997, that you cannot talk about ahead of the election, but has no cost and will probably boost your chances of winning the 2020 election?

Well here it is – tell the Bank of England to cancel all the government bonds it has bought through its QE policy intervention in financial markets. I am sure your advisers have already produced papers looking into this for you. Obviously if one of you announces it before the election, the other will denounce it as dangerous and totally irresponsible but I think it works for whichever of you is Chancellor in May.

The Bank of England bought £375bn of gilts in their quest to support the UK economy between 2009 and 2012, which represents about 25% of the total gilts outstanding and about 23% of UK GDP. Since the Bank of England is an arm of the UK government (though acts independently when setting monetary policy) then these gilts represent debt that the UK owes to itself – each year the government pays interest on these gilts to the Bank of England, which books the interest as income and can be used to pay a dividend back to the government. On the national balance sheet, the gilts are an asset of the Bank of England but a liability of the government, and so cancel each other out. Although when QE was originally announced in 2009, it was expected to be temporary and would be unwound (ie the gilts sold back into the secondary market) when policy was to be tightened again, it is now clear that this remains a long way away and policy tightening will initially be implemented through interest rate increases. These gilts will be held for a long time.

The advantage to you in cancelling these gilts is that the ratio of debt to GDP falls from around 90% of GDP to around 70% of GDP and the UK balance sheet suddenly looks much healthier in absolute terms and compared with the major European countries as well as the US and Japan. The pressure from being an economy with too much debt disappears and gives you as politicians much more flexibility in how rapidly you need to deal with the debt. Further, ahead of the 2020 election you will have lots of very attractive charts showing that the UK has much less debt than all those around – what a sound economy the UK will seem to be!

What are the downsides? – well, the Bank of England will technically be bankrupt since the value of the bulk of its assets fall to zero, but that doesn’t matter because it can then print the money it needs to rebuild its capital base. This will enable to others to say that it represents pure money printing on a permanent basis, which may be argued to be hugely inflationary and risky. But this has been the case for almost 6 years now with QE and there are still no signs of these inflationary risks – all that is happening is that the pretence that QE will be reversed has been taken away. Also it does rather suggest that the Bank of England is not actually independent of the government – however, since the financial crisis it is very clear that governments and central banks around the world have been working together rather than independently of each other – central bank independence is a convenient illusion.

A bold act to start the next government which costs nothing to implement and provides lots of advantages to you ahead of the next election – what’s not to like?

Kind regards,

Jeremy

Gilts or Kilts

In recent weeks the gap in opinion polls between those in favour and those against Scottish independence has narrowed from about 10% to about 5%. With some months of campaigning still to go, the vote on 18 September looks increasingly likely to be close. What are the likely political, economic and market implications of a Yes vote?

Political implications

  • Negotiating the split. The SNP envisage 18 months of negotiations prior to becoming independent on 24 March 2016. However, they would be negotiating with the UK government and there is a general election due in May 2015 which could easily lead to a change in the governing party or coalition. The outgoing government is unlikely to deem the negotiations as an important priority, and the new government may well have more pressing policy priorities than reaching an agreement with Scotland – the power is biased towards the UK Government in the timing and pace of any negotiation.
  • Impact on Westminster parliament. Should a new government be led by Labour, then they face the risk that after March 2016, with an independent Scotland in place, the Scottish Labour MPs would have no right to vote at Westminster. This could easily deprive such a government of their majority and could lead to a general election or a change in the governing party. Such a scenario gives a very strong incentive for a Labour-led government not to reach an agreement with the SNP. A UK parliament with no Scottish members would mean a near permanent majority for the Conservative party and a clear rightward shift in the political debate in the rest of the UK.
  • EU membership. Under current EU law, Scotland would have no automatic right to become a member of the EU – in theory, it would have to negotiate terms and win a unanimous vote from all the other countries. This is by no means certain as Spain in particular is likely to vote against such a move, given its concern about setting any precedents when its own Catalan people are calling loudly for independence.
  • United Nations. If Scotland were to leave the UK, it would be likely to reduce the global political influence of the rest of the UK. Its permanent seat on the UN Security Council might well be called into question, as it would be the smallest country with that privilege. Even today, with Scotland, the UK is less than 1% of the world population.

Economic implications

  • Currency. All three major UK parties at Westminster have been clear that they would not agree to a currency union with Scotland. In practice, however, they could not stop Scotland from using the pound, though in that situation Scotland would have no influence over the UK’s monetary policy set by the Bank of England. In theory (again), if Scotland were to become a member of the EU then any new member of the EU has to adopt the Euro as its currency. Creating a brand new Scottish currency is also possible, but would create the need for foreign exchange transactions and heavy costs for Scottish businesses.

 

 

 

A negotiated agreement, which created a formal currency union, would allow Scotland to keep the pound and possibly have a Scottish member on the MPC. However, events in the Eurozone in recent years highlight the dangers and effective loss of sovereignty in being a small country in a currency union when there is no fiscal or political union.

  • Banking system. RBS is the largest Scottish bank with a balance sheet of over £ 1 trillion at the end of 2013 (and this has halved over the last 5 years) with capital of almost £60 billion; given the size of the Scottish economy, a Scottish government could not credibly act as backstop should RBS get into financial difficulties again, whereas currently RBS does benefit from being an institution of systemic importance in the UK that the government is committed to supporting in extremis. Scotland’s ratio of banking assets to GDP is 12:1, which is higher than the peak levels seen in Iceland in 2007. It is likely that RBS would choose to relocate its headquarters to London, which would lead to the loss of a significant number of jobs in Edinburgh.
  • Dividing assets and liabilities. Scotland is about 8.5% of the UK’s economy and population. The SNP is claiming just about all of the UK’s North Sea Oil, its major resource asset, since it would lie in Scottish territorial waters, but only expects to take on 8.5% of the National Debt. The UK government might argue that North Sea Oil belongs to the UK today and so be prepared only to cede 8.5% of the resource asset. The stream of revenue from taxation on North Sea Oil is a key source of money to pay for future welfare spending in Scotland, and the SNP’s economic forecasts assume much greater tax revenues in future years than the forecasts of the current UK government.
  • Credit rating. As a relatively small and new country, with a reasonably high initial level of debt, Scotland would be likely to have a lower credit rating than the rest of the UK, even if there were a strong currency union in place; this will increase borrowing costs for Scotland. There is an additional danger that by reducing the size of the UK economy, and with investors implicitly believing that in a crisis the UK would come to Scotland’s rescue, that the UK’s credit rating would in fact be lower as well. Both countries could lose out.
  • Tax revenues. A number of Scottish-headquartered companies have indicated that it may be commercially necessary or desirable to have a UK headquarters for their business outside Scotland, due to all the uncertainties regarding currency, trade, tax, EU membership and regulation. This might substantially reduce the corporate tax revenue to a new Scottish government from Scottish companies.
  • Prices. Many companies in the UK have national pricing policies, which effectively subsidise providing goods and services to less central regions such as Scotland. Tesco have already indicated that they might adopt a national Scottish pricing policy, which would mean higher prices for Scottish shoppers.

Market implications

  • Currency markets. Sterling is likely to be viewed as a less attractive currency, since it may be backed by a smaller country and tax base than it is currently, and would generally carry less weight or influence in wider world affairs. The most likely market response to a Yes vote in the referendum would be for Sterling to fall against the other major currencies, and gilt yields to rise.

 

 

 

  • Effect on business investment. For business, a vote for independence would undoubtedly create a whole range of issues, about which there would be uncertainty and risk. On pensions, for example, there are completely separate EU regulations for pension funds which cover more than one country.  This may require large extra contributions by companies to deal with current deficits.   In financial services, many providers may judge that it would be preferable to be regulated by the FCA alone rather than by both the FCA and a new Scottish regulator, paying extra regulatory fees. Firms carrying out regulated activities might seek to move employees outside Scotland. All such uncertainties would be likely to lead to delays in investment spending by businesses.
  • Scottish bonds. A new market in Scottish government debt would need to be created, and such debt would be likely to trade at higher yields than the debt of the UK. UK government debts are called gilts and any Scottish government debt has already being colloquially labelled as “kilts”.

The possibility that Scotland might vote NO, but with a very small majority should also be considered.This could be the worst possible outcome since the SNP would undoubtedly believe that a second referendum, in say two years, might enable them to get over the line. International investment into Scotland would be likely to be damaged as investors would have no clarity on Scotland’s legal status and the UK government might well believe that it would derive little benefit from supporting the Scottish economy by, for example, relocating civil servants there.

In the long term, both Scotland and the rest of the UK could be viable, solvent, independent but closely allied, political entities – if both existed today, there would be no obvious reason or need to suggest they form one larger country. However, the transition from the current version of the UK to a smaller version would create major political and economic uncertainties that would be likely negatively to affect business and the economy in the short term. The period of negotiations spanning a UK general election is particularly unhelpful in this regard, and the ramifications on Scotland’s relationship to the EU are significant, but extremely unclear.

It is striking that with less than five months until the referendum, how many major unanswered questions there are about what would happen in the event of a YES vote. In no particular order, these are (i) what currency would Scotland use and how much influence would Scotland have over its monetary policy? (ii) would a newly independent Scotland be a member of the EU and on what terms? and (iii) what happens if no satisfactory agreement can be reached in any negotiations between Scotland, the UK government and the EU? Clear answers to these questions would provide a much more satisfactory basis for Scottish voters to make an informed choice.

For now, assuming a NO vote with a reasonable majority, there are no investment implications. A narrow NO vote or a YES vote would be likely to be negative (but not hugely so) for the bond markets and for the currency, but the weaker currency would be likely to be a positive for the stock market. The impact on financial markets would depend on how constructive the UK government and the European Commission choose to be in dealing with the Scottish representatives seeking to create a new country.

UK Economic Policy – Sticking to Plan A (plus a bit)

Last week as investors worried about the Greek elections, the Spanish bank bailout and the Federal Reserve meeting, George Osborne and Mervyn King made significant announcements about UK economic policy. Since coming to power, the UK’s approach to managing the economy can be described as a slow but steady tightening of fiscal policy over the medium term, to avoid an austerity-driven recession as seen in parts of Europe, combined with an extremely easy monetary policy.

The complicating factor to this logical response to the UK’s problems was capital requirements that had been placed on UK banks following the banking crisis – much more exacting prudential requirements with regard both to capital and to liquidity risks had forced the banks into buying large amounts of gilts (UK government bonds). Whilst one side of this coin meant that banks’ balance sheets were better protected, the other side of that coin is a reduced emphasis on the attractions of lending to small and medium sized businesses, which is a vital but nonetheless risky activity for banks.

Mr. Osborne announced a scheme to offer both government guarantees and cheap funding for banks that lend to the domestic personal and small business sectors – at £80bn this is approximately 5% of total existing lending to these sectors. Mr. King announced that going forward banks would not have to hold such large amounts of liquid gilts on their balance sheets, and thus would be able to make more loans (which are less-liquid assets) to business. There are few details yet but assessments of how much this might mean are around £150bn.

These announcements are clearly aimed at allowing the QE policy to work more effectively, which until now has worked to inject lots of money into the financial system. However, little of it has found its way into the real economy – thus financial asset prices (in particular the price of gilts) have been supported but with only a small impact on growth. The banks are receiving very strong guidance that they should be lending.

There remain though both demand and supply problems with this new approach, which are likely to mean that it will have only limited success. First, with regard to the demand for bank loans, the banks consistently report subdued demand to borrow. Certainly the housing market is slow (apart from Central London, which is beset with Greek, Russian and Middle Eastern investors seeking a safe home for part of their wealth) – falling house prices is not an incentive to borrow heavily and a lack of confidence in employment prospects or future pay increases is endemic. Similarly the subdued state of demand that many small businesses face will mean that very few are seeking to borrow to expand. Where there is demand to borrow from small businesses, it is usually to cover slow trading (or poorer credit risks). On the supply side, the credit boom conditions of 2002-2007 is now over and banks are not prepared to lend on the optimism-fuelled terms that were available then. Instead, they are reverting to lending terms similar to those on before 2002, which feel now much more restrictive to businesses.

Osborne and King are sticking with Plan A, but trying to make sure more liquidity gets into the real economy. It will help at the margin to boost private sector growth as the public sector continues to be cut back, but the general desire of most people and companies is to reduce their debt rather than increase it. This combined with the major uncertainties within the European economies, will prevent a rapid recovery. There are risks to gilt prices since the banks are being told that they do not need to own so many gilts, but the prospects for UK equity prices are positive given their very low valuations and the (minor) benefits to growth of this adjustment in policy.