Fiscal Policy will now take centre stage as France has shown

by Shaun Richards

One of our themes is now fully in play. We have observed over the past year or two a shift in establishment thinking towards fiscal policy. This had both bad and good elements. The bad was that it reflected a reality where all the extraordinary monetary policies had proved to be much weaker than the the claims of their supporters and even worse for them were running out of road. The current crisis has reminded us of this as we have had, for example, two emergency moves from the US Federal Reserve already, in its role as a de facto world central bank.

A more positive factor in this has been the change we have been observing in bond yields. We can get a handle on this by looking back at the world’s biggest which is the US Treasury Bond market. Back in the autumn of 2018 when worlds like “normalisation” ans phrases like “Quantitative Tightening” were in vogue the benchmark ten year yield saw peaks around 3.15%. Basically it then spent most of a year halving before rallying back to 1.9% at the end of last year and beginning of this. But this move took place in spite of the fact that we have the Trump Tax Boost which was estimated to have an impact of the order of one trillion US Dollars. I mention this because as well as the obvious another theme was in play which was that the Ivory Towers were wrong-footed yet again. The Congressional Budget Office has had to keep reducing its estimate of debt costs as the rises it expected turned into falls. Also whilst I am on this subject I am not sure this from January is going to turn out so well!

In 2020, inflation-adjusted GDP is projected to grow by 2.2 percent, largely because
of continued strength in consumer spending and a rebound in business fixed investment. Output is
projected to be higher than the economy’s maximum sustainable output this year to a greater degree
than it has been in recent years, leading to higher inflation and interest rates after a period in which
both were low, on average.

Best of luck with that.

Meanwhile we have seen a fair bit of volatility in bond yields but the US ten-year is 0.8% as I type this. Even the long bond ( 30 years) is a relatively mere 1.4%.

Thus borrowing is very cheap and only on Sunday night the US Federal Reserve arrived in town and did its best to keep it so.

 over coming months the Committee will increase its holdings of Treasury securities by at least $500 billion and its holdings of agency mortgage-backed securities by at least $200 billion.

Step Forwards France

There was an announcement yesterday evening by President Macron which was announced in gushing terms by Faisal Islam of the BBC.

The €300 billion euro fiscal support package announced by Macron for the French economy, to ensure businesses dont go bust and taxes/ charges suspended, is worth about 12% of its GDP – in UK terms that would mean £265 billion…

This morning the French Finance Minster has given some different numbers.

French measures to help companies and employees weather the coronavirus storm will be worth some €45bn, the country’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire said on Tuesday. ( Financial Times)

He went on to give some details of how it would be spent.

He told RTL radio the package of financial aid, which includes payments to temporarily redundant workers and deferments of tax and social security bills, would help “the economy to restart once the corona virus epidemic is behind us”. Previously he had referred to “tens of billions of euros”.

Now let us look at the previous position for France. We had previously note that France was in the middle of a fiscal nudge anyway as the first half of 2019 saw quarterly deficits of 3.2% and 3.1% of GDP respectively, The third quarter was back within the Maastricht rules as it fell to 2.5% of GDP but we still had a boost overall and as you can see below the national debt to GDP ratio went over 100%

At the end of Q3 2019, Maastricht’s debt reached €2,415.1 billion, up €39.6 billion in comparison to Q2 2019. It accounted for 100.4% of gross domestic product (GDP), 0.9 points higher than last quarter. Net public debt increased more moderately (€+15.0 billion) and accounted for 90.3 % of GDP.

Of course debt to GDP numbers have gone out of fashion partly because the “bond vigilantes” so rarely turn up these days. There was a time that a debt to GDP ratio above 100% would have them flying in but they restricted their flying well before the Corona Virus made such a move fashionable. The French ten-year yield is up this morning but at 0.27% is hardly a deterrent in itself to more fiscal action. However whilst it is still as low as it has ever been before this stage of the crisis a thirty-year yield of 0.8% is up a fair bit on the 0.2% we saw only last week. Another factor in play is this.

Third, we decided to add a temporary envelope of additional net asset purchases of €120 billion until the end of the year, ensuring a strong contribution from the private sector purchase programmes. ( ECB )

Whilst only a proportion of the buying we can expect monthly purchases of French government bonds to rise from the previous 4 billion Euros or so and accordingly the total to push on from 434.4 billion. Also whilst President Lagarde was willing to express a haughty disdain for “bond spreads” I suspect the former French Finance Minister would be charging to the rescue of France if necessary.

One feature of French life is that taxes are relatively high.

The tax-to-GDP ratio varies significantly between Member States, with the highest share of taxes and social
contributions in percentage of GDP in 2018 being recorded in France (48.4%), Belgium (47.2%) and Denmark
(45.9%), followed by Sweden (44.4%), Austria (42.8%), Finland (42.4%) and Italy (42.0%). ( Eurostat )

Short Selling Bans

France along with some other European nations announced short-selling bans this morning which stop investors selling shares they do not own.

#BREAKING French market regulator bans short-selling on 92 stocks: statement ( @afp )

I pointed out that these things have a track record of failure

These sort of things cause a market rally in the short-term but usually wear off in a day or two.

The initial rally to over 4000 on the CAC 40 index soon wore off and we are now unchanged on the day having at one point being 100 points off. Of course some policy work will be writing a paper reminding us of the counterfactual.

Comment

I am expecting a lot more fiscal action in the next few days. The French template is for a move a bit less than 2% of GDP. That will of course rise as GDP falls.

The French government was assuming the economy would shrink about 1 per cent this year, instead of growing more than 1 per cent as previously predicted, Mr Le Maire said. ( Financial Times)

Frankly that looks very optimistic right now. The situation is fast moving as doe example Airbus which only yesterday expected to remain open announced this today.

Following the implementation of new measures in France and Spain to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Airbus has decided to temporarily pause production and assembly activities at its French and Spanish sites across the Company for the next four days. This will allow sufficient time to implement stringent health and safety conditions in terms of hygiene, cleaning and self-distancing, while improving the efficiency of operations under the new working conditions.

Let me now shift to the other part of the package.

Mr Le Maire said ammunition to prop up the economy also included €300bn of French state guarantees for bank loans to businesses and €1tn of such guarantees from European institutions. ( FT )

The problem is how will this work in practice? The numbers sound grand but for example the Bank of England announced up to £290 billion for SMEs only last week which everyone seems to have forgotten already! One bit that seemed rather devoid of reality to me at the time was this.

The release of the countercyclical capital buffer will support up to £190bn of bank lending to businesses. That is equivalent to 13 times banks’ net lending to businesses in 2019.

Returning to pure fiscal policy I am expecting more of it and would suggest it is aimed at two areas.

  1. Supporting individuals who through not fault of their own have seen incomes plunge and maybe disappear.
  2. Similar for small businesses and indeed larger ones which are considered vital.

Just for clarity that does not mean for banks and the housing market where such monies have a habit of ending up.

Meanwhile a country which badly needs help is still suffering from the “ECB not here to close bond spreads” of Christine Lagarde last week as its ten-year yield has risen to 2.3%. Her open mouth operation has undone a lot of ECB buying.