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: US federal deficit

30 October 2020: The US federal government spent $3.1tn more than it received in the year to 30 September 2020, more than three times the $1.0tn deficit incurred in 2019.

Chart showing US federal deficit for the year to 30 Sep 2020. Receipts £3.4tn, deficit $3.1tn and outlays $6.5tn.

The #icaewchartoftheweek is on the $3.1tn deficit incurred by the United States federal government, according to its preliminary financial results for the 2020 fiscal year published by the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, a unit of the US Department of the Treasury. 

Analysis by the US Congressional Budget Office reports that receipts of $3.4tn were 1% lower than in the previous financial year, which can broadly be split into a 6% increase in the first half from October 2019 to March 2020 and a 7% decrease in the second half of the year ending in September. 

As illustrated by the chart, the principal sources of revenue are $1.3tn in social security payroll tax deductions and $1.6tn in personal income taxes, together with $0.2tn in corporate income taxes and $0.3tn from excise taxes, customs duties, estate and gift taxes and other net receipts.

Outlays of $6.5tn in FY2020 were $2.1tn or 47% higher than in the FY2019, reflecting a 7% increase in the first half and an 87% increase in the second half. These increases were principally driven by the fiscal response to the coronavirus pandemic, including $0.6tn for small business furlough programmes, a $0.4tn increase in unemployment compensation, $0.3tn more in refundable tax credits, $0.2tn in emergency health measures and over $0.1tn for the Coronavirus Relief Fund. Other increases included $0.1tn in student loan subsidies, $0.3tn in federal reserve investments and $0.2tn in other increases, offset by a $0.1tn reduction in interest costs.

Outlays can broadly be split between $4.7tn of ‘mandatory’ spending on welfare, $0.3tn in interest costs and $1.5tn in ‘discretionary’ spending by the federal government. 

Welfare comprises spending on social security (principally pensions), Medicare and Medicaid (healthcare), veterans, income security (unemployment benefits and tax credits) and the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, while spending on the federal government is dominated by the $0.7tn spent on defence, followed by $0.2tn on education, $0.1tn on homeland security and justice, $0.1tn on transport and $0.4tn on everything else.

It is important to stress that these receipts and outlays relate only to the federal government and exclude what is normally in the region of $3tn in receipts and spending of state and local governments across the US. There is usually a surplus at the state and local level but this year is likely to be different as state and local tax revenues collapse and spending to tackle the pandemic locally continues to grow.

External public debt was $21.0tn at 30 September 2020, an increase of $4.2tn or 25% over the $16.8tn the US federal government owed a year previously, reflecting borrowing to fund the $3.1tn deficit and a net $1.1tn in lending, principally to businesses as part of the coronavirus response.

Even more borrowing is probable irrespective of which candidate wins the presidential election next week as the US struggles to get the pandemic under control and the increasing likelihood that Congress will pass a multi-trillion dollar stimulus bill after the election is over.

This chart was originally published on the ICAEW website.

ICAEW chart of the week: United States of America

4 September 2020: It is back to school for the #icaewchartoftheweek with some graphical geography to illustrate the 50 states and one district that together comprise the United States of America.

Map of the USA split into five regions: West 70m people, Southwest 43m, Midwest 69m, Southeast 86m, Northeast 64m.

Surprisingly, there is no single official set of regions for the USA, with states classified differently according to which federal agency is responsible for the classification. For example, the US Census Bureau uses four regions (the Northeast, the Midwest, the South and the West), while the Bureau of Economic Analysis allocates the states between eight regions, the Office of Management and Budget uses 10, the federal court system 11, and the Federal Reserve 12.

For the purposes of this particular chart, we have allocated the states based on an unofficial but commonly accepted grouping of states: the West, the Midwest, the Northeast, the Southwest and the Southeast. Unlike the census regions, Delaware, Maryland and Washington DC are included as part of the Northeast, while Arizona and New Mexico (part of the West in some classifications) are combined with Texas and Oklahoma to form the Southwest, with the remaining Southern states constituting the Southeast region.

In terms of population, this gives five regions of which three – the West with 70m, the Midwest with 69m and the Northeast with 64m – are pretty close to the UK’s current population of 67m. The Southeast’s 86m population is almost 30% more than the UK (being closer to Germany’s 84m), while the Southwest’s 43m is around 35% less than the UK’s population (slightly below Spain’s 47m).

Although the UK is around a fifth of the size of the USA in terms of population, it is much much smaller in terms of area, with the USA’s 9.84m square kilometres more than 40 times the UK’s 0.24m square kilometres. That is around eight times as much space per person as for the UK.

Image of table showing the states of the USA by region. For the table itself, click on the link at the end of this post to go to the ICAEW website


This chart of the week was originally published on the ICAEW website.

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.

ICAEW chart of the month: UK international trade

Imports £718bn: EU £369bn, EFTA £34bn, USA £87bn, Other Americas £26bn, Asia-Pacific £138bn, Other £64bn. Exports £673bn: EU £297bn, EFTA £29bn, USA £133bn, Other Americas £29bn, Asia-Pacific £108bn, Other £77bn.

With recent changes in ICAEW communications, the ICAEW Public Sector team has started an #icaewchartofthemonth to complement the #icaewchartoftheweek.

The first #icaewchartofthemonth was published on the ICAEW’s Insights Hub (icaew.com/insights) on Friday 31 January 2020 and is on the UK’s international trade. It highlights how important the £718bn in imports and £673bn in exports in the year to 30 September 2019 are to the economy of the UK.

As the UK Government starts to negotiate new trade arrangements with countries around the world, the EU will be the highest priority. Imports into the UK of £369bn represent 51% of total imports and exports to the 27 EU countries of £297bn are 44% of total exports. This is followed by the USA, where imports of £87bn and exports of £133bn represent 12% and 20% respectively.

Trade relationships with countries in the Asia-Pacific region will also be very important, in particular China (imports £60bn and exports £39bn), Japan (£17bn and £15bn) and the 10-country Association of South East Asian Nations (£22bn and £19bn).

https://www.icaew.com/insights/features/2020/jan-2020/uk-international-trade