Posts Tagged ‘Interest rate’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If only interest rates were higher; it’s the lament of savers everywhere. Then they could enjoy a nice little income from hard-won savings. Some don’t merely sigh; they grimace; they are angry. They worked hard all their life. They saved hard, putting off holidays, sacrificed transitory pleasures today for security, and slowly built a nest egg. But, thanks to record low interest rates, and that policy straight from the devil’s workshop called quantitative easing, central banks seem to want to punish the prudent and reward the feckless. You can feel their anger, and you may share their anger. It is just that they are wrong. And they are wrong for a simple reason.

Dr Ros Altmann is very clever indeed. Until recently she was director general of SAGA, and is generally thought of as something of a guru; an expert on all things pensions. But she is especially famous for her hugely critical views relating to the Bank of England’s recent monetary policy. Her argument runs likes this: low interest rates penalise savers, they penalise those who are retired, and those who are trying to find a way to fund their retirement. She rarely misses an opportunity to slate the government and its central bank whenever it does anything to advance the course of low interest rates. If the anti-quantitative easing (QE) lobby has a face, it is that of Ms Altmann.

But think about this for a moment. If the economy is growing, if real incomes are rising, and if productivity is getting better all the time, then surely we can afford higher interest rates.

Or consider this. Why do we need savings? Across the global economy savings equal investment – they have to, it is a matter of definition. GDP equals consumption plus investment. Savings equals income minus consumption. Income equals GDP. For the economy as a whole, we need savings to fund investment. If we all try to save more, without a corresponding rise in investment, the result is an immediate fall in GDP.

So we save to fund investment. Does that not mean that in the long run, the reward for savings should be a function of the return on investment?

If our savings fund very low risk investment, that generates very little in the way of returns. Why do we think we should get a higher interest rate?

Consider the economy. It has had a very poor few years. There has been no shortage of money, no shortage of savings, but the money has found its way into bonds, and into mortgages. What money has not done – or at least has not done enough – is find its way into more risky assets.

“QE has hastened the demise of our pensions system,” said Dr Altmann earlier this year. She continued: “As scheme deficits rise, their sponsor company’s money is being forced into the scheme rather than expanding or modernising the company itself – thereby increasing the risk that the company will fail and the scheme will be forced into the PPF, with all members’ pensions reduced.”

She makes a good point. The return on bonds is incredibly low. Pension schemes need to generate a certain proportion of their income from bonds, and since bonds pay out such low yields that means pension schemes need to buy even more bonds to meet regulatory requirements.

The truth is that a good argument could be made to say that savers deserve a higher return on the money if their savings yielded better results, created more wealth. Borrowers could afford to pay higher interest rates if, as a result of their borrowing, they made more profits, and enjoyed higher income.

This connection between savings, investment and the return on savings versus the return on investment gets forgotten, overlooked.

It would be a good thing if interest rates rose, but only if they rose because all of a sudden savings were being used to fund innovation, and as result created more wealth.

This, of course, is why savers need to re-evaluate, and start looking at putting their savings in assets other than low risk, low yielding bonds.

© Investment & Business News 2013

file0001931487912

The threat posed by debt just won’t die down. Last week we reported that the Bank of England’s figures suggest that the UK cannot afford much higher interest rates. New figures from the Resolution Foundation suggest that the situation is even worse than the Bank of England suggested.

“If interest rates rise 1 per cent,” said the Bank of England in its latest Financial Stability Report, “households accounting for 9 per cent of mortgage debt would need to take some kind of action — such as cut essential spending, earn more income (for example, by working longer hours), or change mortgage — in order to afford their debt payments if interest rates rise…If interest rates rise by 2 per cent,” continued the Bank, “ditto, except that that it will be households accounting for 20 per cent of mortgage debt who will be so cursed.”

The Resolution Foundation has also taken a look at the story of the UK’s household debt, and its conclusions are even more disturbing.

Before the crisis of 2008 household debt across much of the developed world was worryingly high. Some countries, such as Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway had it worse. Nonetheless with a ratio of household debt to gross house disposable income of 174, it was worryingly high in the UK. The good news is that it has since fallen, and the ratio at the end of 2012 was 146.

Alas, according to estimates from the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) it is set to rise again – not by much, for sure, but any rise is worrying. The OBR does in fact project that there will be a household debt to disposable income ratio of 151 by 2017 . To put that in context the ratio was just 112 in the year 2000. In the US, at the end of 2012 the ratio was 106.

According to the Resolution Foundation, at the end of 2012 no less than 3.6 million households were spending more than a quarter of their disposable income on debt repayments. Debt levels, however, are expected to rise as the government attempts to kick life into the UK housing market by encouraging greater mortgage lending.

But in its most recent report the Resolution Foundation looked at households whose debt repayments make up more than half of disposable income, or those in so-called debt peril. Right now, around 2 per cent of all households are in this position. If things carry on the way they are supposed to, and rates rise in line with Bank of England projections and real wages increase in line with projections for GDP, the Resolution Foundation estimates that the percentage number of households in debt peril will rise to just under 3 per cent by 2017. This is similar to the level seen in 2007, in fact.

If rates rise by 2 percentage points more than expected, the foundation estimates that the percentage number of households in debt peril will rise to 4 per cent. If, in addition to this, wages fail to rise with GDP, but rather – as has been the case in recent years – increases in wages continue to be outstripped by inflation the Foundation estimates that the number of households in debt peril will rise to 5 per cent.

Okay, you might say, but if this is the case then the Bank of England may not let interest rates rise. Unfortunately, central banks may have less say over the matter than is generally thought. See: The Great Reset 
There are all sorts of combinations and permutations.

But the points to remember are these: as rates rise in the US, the Bank of England may be forced to either up rates, or let the pound fall. If rates rise, debt levels in the UK will increase. If the pound falls, inflation will pick up, real wages may fall, and once again debt to income may fall.

In short, we may be in big trouble whatever happens.

But just bear this in mind. Debt does not matter if the percentage interest on debt is less than the percentage increase in income. What the UK really needs is for incomes to rise, and for this to happen it needs improving productivity, which comes from more investment.

© Investment & Business News 2013

204

Zombies are everywhere. They dominate the TV and offerings at the cinema. They are rife across the economy too. Some say interest rates need to go up; that there are too many companies that are being artificially propped up by low interest rates. They say that if the cost of borrowing goes up the zombies will be slain, and the economy can get on with the serious business of growing again.

One of the problems with taking a look at this issue is that there is very little, if any, hard data. How many zombie companies are out there? Does anyone know? If the media repeats the same thing often enough, it may feel as though it is true – because we keep reading about zombie companies they must be out there.

Last week Capital Economics attempted to take an objective look at what it called the zombification of the UK economy. There is an oddity concerning the logic of saying the economy is being overrun by zombie companies. The evidence for this claim is partly that insolvency levels are low. Does that not strike you as a circular argument? There must be lots of zombie companies out there because the level of bankruptcies is low.

Capital Economics said the low levels of liquidation could “be explained in part by the fact that corporate profitability has held up surprisingly well and by the consequences of the 2002 Enterprise Act in encouraging business rescue over liquidation.”

It also suggested, not unreasonably, that even if there are companies out there that have a kind of zombie feel about them, this may simply be a symptom of the fact that the UK is in the midst of its worse economic downturn ever recorded.

If these zombie companies were allowed to fail, is there not a danger that unemployment would surge? Maybe it would be better to purge the zombies when the economy is recovering.

But let’s say that there is something in this idea of zombie companies. This is a view typically held by those on the right-er wing of the political spectrum who see the solution as creative destruction. (You don’t have to be right wing to hold those views, but that is how it normally is.) Advocates of upping interest rates typically sign up to what’s called the Austrian school of thought. Let the markets decide, and let central banks step back and stop interfering.

But here is an alternative idea for dealing with zombie companies. Keep interest rates low, but increase the minimum wage.

Such a policy shift would have several beneficial effects. So called zombie companies with poor levels of productivity, may find they cannot survive if they have to pay their staff more money. So, such a change would destroy the zombie companies.

According to the Austrian economic theory, the companies that can afford to pay their lowest paid staff a higher wage could then move into the vacuum created by the destruction of zombie companies.

But what about the downside of an increase in the minimum wage? See Is it time to increase the minimum wage?

©2013 Investment and Business News.

Investment and Business News is a succinct, sometimes amusing often thought provoking and always informative email newsletter. Our readers say they look forward to receiving it, and so will you. Sign-up here