ICAEW chart of the week: Government bond yields

11 December 2020: Ultra-low or negative yields provide governments with an opportunity to borrow extremely cheaply, but what will happen if and when interest rates rise?

Government 10-year bond yields

Germany -0.61%, Switzerland -0.59%, Netherlands -0.53%, France -0.36%, Portugal -0.02%, Japan +0.01%, Spain +0.02%, UK +0.26%, Italy +0.58%, Greece +0.60%, Canada +0.76%, New Zealand +0.91%, USA +0.95%, Australia +1.02%

On 9 December, the benchmark ten-year government bond yield for major western economies ranged from -0.61% for investors in German Bunds through to 0.95% for US Treasury Bonds and 1.02% for Australia Government Bonds, as illustrated in the #icaewchartoftheweek.

One of the more astonishing developments of the last decade or so has been the arrival of an era of ultra-low or negative interest rates, even as governments have borrowed massive sums of money to finance their activities. This is not only a consequence of weak economic conditions and the slowing of productivity-led growth, but it has also been driven by the monetary policy actions of central banks through quantitative easing operations that have driven down yields by buying long-term fixed interest rate government bonds in exchange for short-term variable rate central bank deposits.

For bond investors this has been a wild ride, with the value of existing bonds sky-rocketing as central banks have come calling to buy a proportion of their holdings, crystallising their gains. The downside is the extremely low yields available to debt investors on fresh purchases of government bonds, which in some cases involve paying governments for the privilege of doing so.

Yields vary according to maturity, with yields on UK gilts ranging from -0.08% on two-year gilts through to 0.26% for 10-year gilts (as shown in the chart) up to 0.81% on 30-year gilts. In practice, the UK issues debt with an average maturity between 15 and 20 years, so the current average cost of its financing is higher than that shown in the chart at between 0.48% and 0.77% being the yields on 15-year and 20-year gilts respectively. This has the benefit of locking in low interest rates for longer, in contrast with most of the other countries shown that tend to issue debt with an average maturity of less than ten years.

Quantitative easing complicates the picture, as by repurchasing a significant proportion of government debt and swapping it for central bank deposits, central banks have reversed the security of fixed interest rates locked in to maturity with a variable rate exposure that will hit the interest line immediately if rates change. 

In theory, this should not be a problem, as higher interest rates are most likely to accompany stronger economic growth and hence higher tax revenues with which to pay the resultant higher debt interest bills, but in practice treasury ministers are not so sanguine. In leveraging public balance sheets to finance their responses to COVID-19 – on top of the legacy of debt from the financial crisis – governments have significantly increased their exposure to movements in interest rates, just as other fiscal challenges are growing more pressing.

Expect to hear a lot more over the coming decade about the resilience of public finances as governments seek to reduce gearing and reduce their vulnerability to the next unexpected crisis, whenever that may occur.

This chart was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: Fiscal interventions

10 July 2020: Fiscal interventions reach £190bn as the Chancellor Rishi Sunak pours even more money into the economy in an attempt to keep it from stalling.

Components of £190bn in fiscal interventions - as set out in text below.

The Chancellor’s summer statement is the subject of this week’s #icaewchartoftheweek, with the £30bn ‘plan for jobs’ being the latest in a series of fiscal interventions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
 
The measures announced included £9bn for a £1,000 job retention bonus for furloughed workers, £4bn for work placements and boosting work searching, skills training and apprenticeships, a £5bn boost for the hospitality and leisure industries in the form of a cut in VAT and discounts on eating out, and £12bn in economic stimulus. The latter includes over £5bn on infrastructure projects (as announced by the Prime Minister last week), £3bn to make homes energy-efficient and £4bn for a temporary cut in SDLT on housing sales under £500,000.
 
This brings the total amount of fiscal interventions to £190bn or around 9% of GDP, once an extra £33bn in spending on health and other public services is incorporated. This was also ‘announced’ yesterday, albeit by means of a small footnote buried inside one of the accompanying documents!
 
As a consequence, the fiscal interventions can be broadly split between £77bn being spent on supporting household incomes (£54bn on the furlough scheme, £15bn on the self-employed income support scheme and £8bn on universal credit), £30bn to support businesses (£13bn in business rates and other tax reliefs and £17bn in grants and other support), £53bn for public services and other (£39bn on health and social care and £14bn on public services and other spending), and £30bn in economic stimulus through the ‘plan for jobs’.
 
Businesses have also benefited from support with their cashflows through the deferral of £50bn in tax payments and £73bn of loans and guarantees.
 
This is not the end of the story for fiscal interventions. Not only are there are a number of sectors such as local government, universities, and manufacturing where rescue packages may be needed, but the Chancellor made clear that this announcement only covered the second of a three-phase response.
 
The third phase – rebuilding the economy – will be set out later in the year. How much additional money will be involved is anyone’s guess.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the month: Cabinet government

26 June 2020: The prime minister has announced a reduction in the number of government departments. How big is the cabinet compared to the rest of the world?

The news that the UK Government is reducing the number of government departments by one prompts the #icaewchartofthemonth to take a look at the size of government executives across the world.
 
As the chart highlights, with 26 members, the UK cabinet is one of the largest amongst major economies – comprising the prime minister Boris Johnson, 21 department ministers and four ‘ministers attending cabinet’. This does not include the Cabinet Secretary or other officials, meaning that cabinet meetings generally involve more than 30 people in total.
 
Compare that with the more compact 16-member German federal cabinet (Chancellor Angela Merkel and 15 departmental ministers) and the ten-member Chinese state council executive (comprising the premier Li Keqiang, five vice-premiers and four other senior departmental ministers).
 
It is certainly much larger than FTSE-100 company boards, where the average size is 11, and very few listed companies have more than 16 board members.
 
There is some debate around whether reducing the size of the UK cabinet would be more conducive to effective government. Some suggestions that the merger of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to form the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in September is the first step on the way to that goal – with further mergers possible. However, although there will be one fewer departmental minister, there is a reasonable prospect of the minister responsible for development at the FCDO being invited to attend cabinet given its importance to the government’s global agenda.
 
Of course, merging departments is not the only way to achieve a slimmer cabinet – for example, the 31-member Russian cabinet (not shown in the chart) rarely meets as one body. Instead, there are regular meetings of the 10-strong prime ministerial group (the prime minister Mikhail Mishustin and nine deputy prime ministers) and occasional meetings of the 20-strong cabinet praesidium that includes the most senior ministers as well.
 
The UK Cabinet also works in this way to a certain extent, with critical decisions often being made in smaller groupings of senior ministers, such as the 9-member National Security Council, the 9-member Climate Change Committee or the 12-strong EU Exit Operations Committee for example. Canada, with its 37-member cabinet, also operates through a series of cabinet committees ranging from around 8 to 15 members. However, in both cases, the full cabinet still meets regularly and remains the formal executive body for authorising government actions.
 
With rumours of a cabinet reshuffle in the UK this autumn, it will be interesting to see whether moves to reduce the size of the cabinet will actually take place or whether we will see further development of cabinet committees as the places to be ‘in the room where it happens’.

This chart of the month was originally published by ICAEW.