ICAEW chart of the week: Real interest rates

The ICAEW chart of the week looks at how real interest rates – net of inflation – remain stubbornly negative despite recent increases in the Bank of England base rate.

Chart with three lines - nominal yields on government debt, the Bank of England base rate and real yields on government debt. See text for details.

A feature of the economy since the financial crisis has been negative real interest rates, with the Bank of England reporting a -2.33% implied spot yield on 10-year government gilts as of 30 April 2022. This compares with a base rate of 0.75% on that day (since raised to 1%) and a nominal yield of +1.9%. With further increases in interest rates likely as the Bank of England seeks to bring inflation under control it is possible that real interest rates will become less negative over the next few months, at least assuming inflation peaks and doesn’t accelerate out of control.

Negative real interest rates are generally considered to be stimulative to the economy, reflecting the monetary policy support that the Bank of England has been providing since the financial crisis almost a decade and a half ago. Economic theory suggests that this should encourage spending and investment, as the nominal interest earned on savings will not be sufficient to offset the erosion in the value of money as prices rise over time.

The chart highlights how real interest rates were -2.59% in January 2020, before falling to almost -3.08% in June 2020 and bouncing around between -2.50% and -3.00% until November 2021 when they fell to -3.33%. They have since increased to -2.33% in April and to -2.20% as of 10 May 2022. Over that same period, nominal interest rates similarly based on government bond yields have fallen from 0.53% in January 2020 to 0.13% in July 2020 before increasing to between 0.3% and 0.4% until January 2021 after which they bounced between 0.8% and 1.0% until December 2021 since when rates have gradually increased to 1.92% on 30 April 2022, falling slightly to 1.86% on 10 May 2022. During this time, the Bank of England base rate was reduced from 0.75% in January 2020, to 0.25% and then 0.10% in March 2020 where it stayed until increasing to 0.25% in December 2021, to 0.50% in February 2022 to 0.75% in March 2022 and to 1.00% in May 2022.

The yields used in the chart are only one way of measuring real and nominal interest rates, and it is important to note that the former depend on the inflation expectations of market participants at particular points in time, which are not the same as the actual rates of inflation that are or will be experienced.

The challenge for the Bank of England over the next few months in tackling the current surge in inflation is how to take away the economic stimulus theoretically provided by negative real interest rates without causing a collapse in asset prices and a potential recession. A series of tough calls for even the most hardened policy makers.

ICAEW chart of the week: Government borrowing rates

Our first chart of 2022 highlights how the cost of government borrowing remains extremely low for most of the 21 largest economies in the world, despite the huge expansion in public debt driven by the pandemic.

Government 10-year bond yields: Germany -0.13%, Switzerland -0.07%, Netherlands 0.00%, Japan 0.09%, France 0.23%, Spain 0.60%, UK 1.08%, Italy 1.23%, Canada 1.59%, USA 1.65%, Australia 1.79%, South Korea 2.38%, China 2.82%, Poland 3.87%, Indonesia 6.38%, India 6.51%, Mexico 8.03%, Russia 8.38%, Brazil 10.73%, Turkey 24.21%.

Our chart of the week illustrates how borrowing costs are still at historically low rates for most of the 21 largest national economies in the world, with negative yields on 10-year government bonds on 5 January 2022 for Germany (-0.13%) and Switzerland (-0.07%), approximately zero for the Netherlands, and yields of sub-2.5% for Japan (0.09%), France (0.23%), Spain (0.60%), the UK (1.08%), Italy (1.23%), Canada (1.59%), the USA (1.65%), Australia (1.79%) and South Korea (2.38%).

This is despite the trillions added to public debt burdens across the world over the past couple of years as a consequence of the pandemic, including the $5trn added to US government debt since March 2020 (up from $17.6trn to $22.6trn owed to external parties) and the more than £500bn borrowed by the UK government (public sector net debt up from £1.8trn to £2.3trn) for example.

Yields in developing economies are higher, although China (2.82%) and Poland (3.87%) can borrow at much lower rates than Indonesia (6.38%), India (6.51%), Mexico (8.03%), Russia (8.37%) and Brazil (10.73%). The outlier is Turkey (24.21%), which is experiencing some difficult economic conditions at the moment. Data was not available for Saudi Arabia, the 19th or 20th largest economy in the world, which has net cash reserves.

With inflation higher than it has been for several years, real borrowing rates are negative for most developed countries, meaning that in theory it would make sense for most countries to continue to borrow as much as they can while funding is so cheap. However, in practice fiscal discipline appears to be reasserting itself, with Germany, for example, planning on returning to a fully balanced budget by the start of next year and the UK targeting a current budget surplus within three years.

For many policymakers, the concern is not so much about how easy it is to borrow today, but the prospect of higher interest rates multiplied by much higher levels of debt eating into spending budgets just as they are looking to invest to grow their economies over the rest of the decade. Despite that, with the pandemic still raging and an emerging cost of living crisis, there may well be a temptation to borrow ‘just one more time’ to support struggling households over what is likely to be a difficult start to 2022.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Consumer Prices Index

My chart this week looks at how price rises have accelerated over the last few months, with consumer price inflation reaching 4.2% in October, the highest it has been for a decade.

Line chart showing how the Consumer Prices Index has increased from 106.7 in Oct 2018 to 107/6 in Apr 2019 to 108.3 in Oct 2019 (a +1.5% increase over a year earlier) to 108.5 in Apr 2020 to 109.1 in Oct 2020 (up 0.7% over the year) to 110.1 in Apr 2021 to 113.6 in Oct 2021 (a 4.2% annual increase).

The Office for National Statistics published its latest estimates for inflation on Wednesday 17 November, reporting a 12-month increase in the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) of 4.2% and a 12-month increase in the Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ house costs (CPIH) of 3.8%, both of which are the highest they have been since November 2011 when CPI was 4.8% and CPIH was 4.1%.

CPI and CPIH are calculated using a basket of goods and services to assess the level of inflation experienced by consumers, with the current index set to 100 in July 2015.

The ICAEW chart of the week shows how CPI fell before increasing from 106.7 in October 2018 to 107.6 in April 2019 and 108.3 in October 2019, an annual increase of 1.5% that was within the 1% to 3% Bank of England target range. This was followed by smaller increases to 108.3 in April 2020 and 109.1 in October 2020, a 0.7% annual increase in CPI driven in part by the pandemic. The index hovered around that level for several months until starting to increase more rapidly from March onwards as the economy started to re-open, reaching 110.1 in April 2021 and continuing to increase sharply to 113.6 in October 2021, an annual increase of 4.2%.

The Governor of the Bank of England is required to write to the Chancellor of the Bank of England whenever inflation is more than 1% above or below the 2% target and he did so on 23 September when inflation reached 3.2% and he will again now that it has reached 4.2%. Part of the explanation he has given and will give are ‘base effects’, where price discounting during 2020 at the height of the first and second waves of the pandemic suppressed some of the inflation that is being experienced now.

Further letters are likely over the next few months as even if prices don’t rise any further, given how the index bounced around the 109 level between September and March 2021. This means inflation should continue to stay substantially above 3% for the next four months or so unless prices were to fall again, which is unlikely given how global commodities and supply constraints continue to feed into rising domestic prices. A 12-month CPI-inflation rate of 5% appears more than likely at some point in the next few months.

The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) isn’t panicking at this stage given that the annualised rate of inflation over the last three years (comparing October 2021 with October 2018) is an almost on-target 2.1% and their expectation that inflation rate will come down once the flat inflationary period of a year ago starts to drop out of the comparison. However, they are sufficiently concerned about the steep slope in the CPI in the last few months to signal that interest rates may need to rise if prices continue to increase at the pace seen in recent months.

The MPC’s original plan was to hang tight through what they hoped would be a short inflationary spurt as the economy emerges from the pandemic. In the event it looks like they won’t be able to hold that line, with higher interest rates a distinct possibility in the coming months.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

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.