What can the UK do in the face of an economic depression?

by Shaun Richards

We are facing quite a crisis and let us hope that we will end up looking at a period that might have been described by the famous Dickens quote from A Tale of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

The reason I put it like that is because we have examples of the worst of times from food hoarders to examples of an extreme economic slowdown. On a personal level I had only just finished talking to a friend who had lost 2 of his 3 jobs when I passed someone on the street talking about her friend losing his job. Then yesterday I received this tweet.

Funny, Barclays quoted me 18% interest on a £10k business loan this morning to keep my employees paid, unfortunately the state will now need to pay them. Bonkers! ( @_insole )

If we look at events in the retail and leisure sector whilst there are small flickers of good news there are large dollops of really bad news. Accordingly this is a depression albeit like so many things these days it might be over relatively quickly for a depression in say a few months. Of course the latter is unknown in terms of timing. But people on low wages especially are going to need help as not only will they be unable to keep and feed themselves they will be forced to work if they can even if they are ill. In terms of public health that would be a disaster.

Also I fear this from the Bank of England Inflation Survey this morning may be too low.

Question 2b: Asked about expected inflation in the twelve months after that, respondents gave a median answer of 2.9%, remaining the same as in November.

Whilst there are factors which will reduce inflation such as the lower oil price will come into play there are factors the other way. Because of shortages there will be rises in the price of food and vital purchases as illustrated below from the BBC.

A pharmacy which priced bottles of Calpol at £19.99 has been criticised for the “extortionate” move.

A branch of West Midlands-based chain Jhoots had 200ml bottles of the liquid paracetamol advertised at about three times its usual price.

The UK Pound

If we now switch to financial markets we have seen some wild swings here. The UK Pound always comes under pressure in a financial crisis because of our large financial sector and as I looked at on Wednesday we are in a period of King Dollar strength. Or at least we were as it has weakened overnight with the UK Pound £ bouncing to above US $1.18 this morning. Now with markets as they are we could be in a lot of places by the time you read this but for now the extension of the Federal Reserve liquidity swaps to more countries has calmed things.

Perhaps we get more of a guide from the Euro where as discussed in the comments recently we have been in a poor run. But we have bounced over the past couple of days fro, 1.06 to 1.10 which I think teaches us that the UK Pound £ is a passenger really now. We get hit by any fund liquidations and then rally at any calmer point.

The Bank of England

It held an emergency meeting yesterday and then announced this.

At its special meeting on 19 March, the MPC judged that a further package of measures was warranted to meet its statutory objectives.  It therefore voted unanimously to increase the Bank of England’s holdings of UK government bonds and sterling non-financial investment-grade corporate bonds by £200 billion to a total of £645 billion, financed by the issuance of central bank reserves; and to reduce Bank Rate by 15 basis points to 0.1%.  The Committee also voted unanimously that the Bank of England should enlarge the Term Funding Scheme with additional incentives for SMEs (TFSME).

Let me start with the interest-rate reduction which is simply laughable especially if we note what the business owner was offered above. One of my earliest blog topics was the divergence between official and real world interest-rates and now a 0.1% Bank Rate faces 40% overdraft rates. Next we have the issue that 0.5% was supposed to be the emergency rate so 0.1% speaks for itself. Oh and for those wondering why they have chosen 0.1% as the lower bound ( their description not mine) it is because they still feel that the UK banks cannot take negative interest-rates and is nothing to do with the rest of the economy. So in an irony the banks are by default doing us a favour although we have certainly paid for it!

QE

Let us now move onto this and the Bank of England is proceeding at express pace.

Operations to make gilt purchases will commence on 20 March 2020 when the Bank intends to purchase £5.1bn of gilts spread evenly between short, medium and long maturity buckets.  These operations will last for 30 minutes from 12.15 (short), 13.15 (medium) and 14.15 (long).

But wait there is more.

Prior to the 19 March announcement the Bank was in the process of reinvesting of the £17.5bn cash flows associated with the maturity on 7 March 2016 of a gilt owned by the APF.

As noted above, and consistent with supporting current market conditions, the Bank will complete the remaining £10.2bn of gilt purchases by conducting sets of auctions (short, medium, long maturity sectors) on Friday 20 March and Monday 23 March (i.e. three auctions on each day).

So there will be a total of £10.2 billion of QE purchases today and although it has not explicitly said so presumably the same for Monday. As you can imagine this has had quite an impact on the Gilt market as the ten-year yield which had risen to 1% yesterday lunchtime is now 0.59%. The two-year yield has fallen to 0.08% so we are back in the zone where a negative Gilt yield is possible. Frankly it will depend on how aggressively the Bank of England buys its £200 billion.

The next bit was really vague.

The Committee also voted unanimously that the Bank of England should enlarge the Term Funding Scheme with additional incentives for SMEs (TFSME)……

Following today’s special meeting of the MPC the Initial Borrowing Allowance for the TFSME will be increased from 5% to 10% of participants’ stock of real economy lending, based on the Base Stock of Applicable Loans.

Ah so it wasn’t going to be the triumph they told us only last week then? I hope this will do some good but the track record of such schemes is that they boost the banks ( cheap liquidity) and house prices ( more and cheaper mortgage finance).

We did also get some humour.

As part of the increase in APF asset purchases the MPC has approved an increase in the stock of purchases of sterling corporate bonds, financed by central bank reserves.

Last time around this was a complete joke as the Bank of England ended up buying foreign firms to fill its quota. For example I have nothing against the Danish shipping firm Maersk but even they must have been surprised to see the Bank of England buying their bonds.

Comment

There are people and businesses out there that need help and in the former case simply to eat. So there are real challenges here because if Bank of England action pushes prices higher it will make things worse. But the next steps are for the Chancellor who has difficult choices because on the other side of the coin many of the measures above will simply support the Zombie companies and banks which have held us back.

Also this is a dreadful time for economics 101. I opened by pointing out that unemployment will rise and maybe by a lot and so will prices and hence inflation. That is not supposed to happen. Then the UK announces more QE and the UK Pound £ rises although of course it is easier to state who is not doing QE now! I guess the Ivory Towers who so confidently made forecasts for the UK economy out to 2030 are now using their tippex, erasers and delete buttons. Meanwhile in some sort of Star Trek alternative universe style event Chris Giles of the Financial Times is tweeting this.

In a moment of irritation, am amazed at how little UK public science has learnt from economics – making mistakes no good economist has made in 50 years Economists have been beating themselves up for a decade Shoe now on other foot…

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