In this morning’s blog post, Brian Keeley mentioned quantitative easing (QE) as one way governments can stimulate the economy, and (in an unrelated move) the European Central Bank has just announced it is launching a QE initiative amounting to 60 billion euros a month until September 2016. But what is quantitative easing?
First we have to understand the role of interest rates, the main weapon in central banks’ armouries. The rate set by a central bank is soon followed by other banks, thereby influencing the “price of money” – how much you have to repay on a loan, how much the bank will pay you for your savings and how much the government will pay to borrow money.
Central banks set different rates, depending on the type and length of the loan. In general, the shorter the payback period, the higher the rate. The rate most often referred to as “interest rates” is the so-called base rate or prime rate used to calculate the other interest rates.
As Brian said, central banks use interest rates for two main reasons. First, rates may be raised to “cool” the economy when there are fears about inflation. The idea is that by making credit more expensive, demand will be restrained and prices will not rise so quickly. Second, when economic growth is too slow, a cut in interest rates makes it cheaper to borrow money to purchase goods or to invest in a business, thereby stimulating growth.
In April 2009, the average interest rate set by the central banks of the Group of Seven nations fell to 0.5% and has been hovering around this level since. What happens when money is so cheap it can’t get any cheaper? In other words, what can governments do when interest rates can no longer be cut because they are so low already?
Quantitative easing is one possibility. The central bank injects money into the economy by buying certain financial products, notably government bonds (also known as gilts). The sellers are expected to use the money to lend to businesses and households or to invest (although they may just leave it in bank deposits or send it offshore). The US Federal Reserve applied quantitative easing during the banking crisis that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and the Bank of Japan adopted a similar approach to dealing with the crisis in the 1990s following the crash of the property market.
The media often present this as “the government printing money”. The reason is that instead of borrowing money in the usual way by issuing new bonds, the government, through the central bank, simply creates the money and uses it to pay the banks and other financial institutions it intends to help.
We’ve become so used to describing the crisis in terms of trillions of dollars that the ECB’s 60 billion euros a month, seem modest by comparison (and it is compared to the $3.7 trillion the Federal reserve spent buying bonds in the US QE programme). But to put that into perspective, in March 2009 when the Bank of England announced it was making available £75 billion to buy gilts and corporate debt as part of its QE strategy, that was one and a half times the total value of all banknotes and coins circulating in the UK at the time.
If quantitative easing succeeds in making government bonds more attractive, the interest paid on these bonds does not have to be as high as it was previously. As I write, that seems to be happening. The Financial Times’ latest headline is “Eurozone bonds on fire after ECB launches QE”, with the paper reporting drops to record lows in the interest rates on 10-year government bonds in Eurozone countries.
That’s good news for governments who have to borrow money and to finance the debt they have already accumulated. But it may not be good news for everybody, pensioners for instance. Pension funds are massive holders of government bonds, so a drop in the interest paid on them (the yield) translates directly into a loss of income to the funds. And since the pensions industry uses bond yields to calculate pension payments such as annuity income, pensioners will be affected. Company pension schemes could be affected too. The yield on government bonds is an important element in calculating the future liability of pension funds, and when yields fall, liability increases.
Few people can have been very surprised when the IMF announced this week that it was lowering its growth projections for this year. It feels like that’s been the story of the recovery in much of the OECD – a succession of disappointments and dashed hopes. Today, seven years after the financial crisis, growth remains well below where it was pre-crisis and unemployment well above.
All this begs a question: Is there something wrong with the economy? Some leading economists fear there is, and they’ve given it a name – “secular stagnation.” The expression was coined in the 1930s and famously revived in 2013 by Larry Summers, a former US Treasury Secretary. It may sound strange, but all it really means is “persistent stagnation.” Whatever you call it, it’s causing a lot of concern, including, no doubt, among the global movers and shakers at Davos this week.
What is persistent stagnation? As The Economist notes, it’s a “baggy concept” that’s hard to pin down. Still, there are a few ideas that crop up repeatedly. Most notable is the idea that it describes a period when interest rates can’t be pushed low enough to provide the economy with the stimulus that it needs.
To explain: In normal economic times, interest rates are among central banks’ most powerful weapons. When the economy’s overheating, central banks can raise rates, making it more expensive to borrow, which puts a brake on consumers and businesses; when the economy’s cooling, they can send rates back down to encourage consumers and businesses to borrow and invest more.
That weapon’s currently proving much less effective. Inflation is very low, as are real interest rates – in other words, the return on money once inflation is accounted for. Today, many economists believe the economy would need a real rate of interest well below zero in order to shift money out of what Martin Wolf calls the “global savings glut” and into productive investment. But because inflation is so low, that would require nominal (or advertised) interest rates to also go well below zero. And that, by general agreement, can’t happen.
Yes, it’s true that some national central banks, such as in Sweden and Denmark and, more recently, Switzerland, have experimented with negative nominal interest rates, as did the European Central Bank (ECB) in 2014. But the rates weren’t much below zero and usually didn’t apply to all the rates set by the bank. This “zero lower bound” limit on interest rates explains why central banks have sought other ways to boost the economy in recent years, most notably quantitative easing – a step the ECB is widely expected to follow this week.
So what’s causing this situation? There’s no shortage of theories, but broadly speaking a range of factors – often interrelated and self-sustaining – may be dragging down the economy, both in the short and longer term. Take unemployment: Despite some recent signs of improvement in the jobs market, joblessness remains worryingly high in many OECD countries. As time goes on, at least some of those without work risk seeing their skills become outdated, may lose the will to go on searching for work or may become unfairly stigmatised as “unemployable”. That robs the economy both of workers and of workers’ spending power.
Business investment is also an issue (albeit a complex one). In theory, the current low interest rates should make this an ideal time for businesses to borrow. In practice, this doesn’t seem to be happening, probably because of economic uncertainty and because many firms are already sitting on large stockpiles of cash.
There are longer-term drags on the economy, too, such as the slowdown in population growth and the ageing of our societies, which will leave a rising number of retirees dependent on a declining number of workers. And there’s widening inequality – as highlighted at Davos by Oxfam – which may play a role by reducing overall consumption, as Robert Peston notes: “The poor in aggregate spend more than the rich (there are only so many motor cars and yachts a billionaire can own, so much of the super-rich’s wealth sits idle, as it were).”
So, if interest rates won’t work to boost the economy, what will? An OECD paper released this week at Davos argues for a comprehensive stimulus package, especially in the euro area and Japan, where signs of stagnation are arguably strongest. It calls for action in four main areas: Encouraging investment by, for example, establishing public-private partnerships and reducing the incentives for firms to buy back shares; supporting SMEs and entrepreneurs; promoting trade by, for example, making customs procedures more efficient and liberalising the services sector; and raising employment by supporting job-seekers and encouraging women and older workers into the workforce.
“Secular Stagnation: Evidence and Implications for Economic Policy,” by Łukasz Rawdanowicz, Romain Bouis, Kei-Ichiro Inaba and Ane Kathrine Christensen (OECD, 2014)
What Do Company Data Tell Us?” by Adrian Blundell-Wignall and Caroline Roulet (OECD, 2014)
OECD Insights: From Crisis to Recovery (OECD, 2010)
The attacks that took place in Paris on 7, 8 and 9 January are part of a global, complex, diffuse and multi-faceted threat of which the bloodiest zones of action are presently in the Middle East and Africa, including within the confines of the Maghreb and the Sahel. The emergence of Salafist Jihadism in this area dates back to the early 2000s. When the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) moved further south and jihadists arrived from Afghanistan and Pakistan following the events of 11 September 2001, terrorist activities quickly merged with the trafficking of weapons, drugs, cigarettes and human beings.
The international community was slow to recognize the magnitude of the threat. The European Union developed a strategy for the Sahel in 2011, followed in 2013 by the United Nations and soon after by the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States and the Sahel G5 (Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania). The international community has thrown its support behind these initiatives which all share a long-term approach involving working simultaneously on the key areas of security, governance and development.
The Atlas of the Sahara-Sahel is intended to inform these strategies. The publication is the fruit of the Sahel and West Africa Club Forum, which took place in November 2013 in Abidjan. The Forum called into question the various “security and development” initiatives as well as their scale and level of consistency. The stakeholders in attendance embarked on a dialogue concerning the need to strengthen co‑operation among the regions of North, West and Central Africa.
The Atlas looks at the situation from the perspective of this macro-regional scale. The 250‑page publication, including some 150 maps and graphs, addresses security challenges in the Sahara-Sahelian area by considering the mobility of its territories and populations in conjunction with the socio-economic networks that connect them.
Given that the inhabitants are concentrated along roads and in towns (most people living in the Sahara-Sahel are urbanites), the Sahara-Sahel is neither empty nor immobile. The roads and towns form the framework of this area associated with mobile societies that are organised on the basis of social and trade networks more than ties to the state. The movement of people and goods within that framework — associated with nomadism, transhumance, trade and migration, but also with trafficking and violence — is the main focus of the Atlas.
Borders are superimposed onto these mobile areas that have long been and continue to be marked by the movement of such networks. Close to 17,000 km of boundary lines have been demarcated in recent history. While these lines are not obstacles to the movement of people, they are symbols of the strong political and institutional dividing lines between Morocco and Algeria, for example, but also between the geopolitical areas of the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Transnational trafficking organisations and terrorist groups, whose activities rely on a complex web of spatial, economic and social mobility, use the borders to exploit trans‑Saharan networks. This is a major challenge for stabilisation strategies.
The same can be said for the regional threats facing countries other than Mali. For example, Niger is “caught” between instability in Mali to the east, southern Libya to the northwest — an area rife with terrorists groups and where conflicts between Arab and Tubu tribes are commonplace — and Boko Haram to the south.
All of this is combined with forced migration and trafficking in heavy weapons and drugs. West Africa and the Maghreb are used as a convenient, low-risk transit area for traffickers: institutions’, police and justice budgets are small, and the potential for corruption is high due to the low salaries of civil servants and members of the security forces. The proceeds from trafficking activities also finance (at least in part) rebel or jihadist groups that are often mere links in global criminal networks operating on five continents.
That is why the countries concerned must work at the regional level if they wish to succeed, as most of the dangers that threaten them are expressed at that level. It is also crucial that any analysis of the Sahara-Sahel be grounded in the reality of that area, namely, the fact that it is a territory shared by countries on both sides of the desert. The implication here is that strengthened co-operation on the part of the countries involved is indispensable. But such co‑operation must not be seen only through the prism of the urgent need for short-term stabilisation. The countries concerned should and must develop their complementarities in all domains. Sharing leads to interdependency which in turn results in a higher degree of motivation to jointly solve shared problems.
In addition to the need for trans-Saharan dialogue, there is an even greater need for international co‑operation and dialogue. A number of Sahel strategies have been developed since 2011. While this is a positive sign of the international community’s commitment, these efforts must be made on behalf of the affected populations and must tackle three challenges:
- The capacity for dialogue and the ability to propose concerted and joint implementation.
- The ability to adapt the geographical scale of the response to the area affected by terrorism and trafficking; for example, Nigeria and Libya are facing very critical situations but are not central to the existing strategies.
- The capacity to simultaneously implement security and development activities.
Un Atlas du Sahara – Sahel : géographie, économie, insécurité (l’article de Laurent Bossard en français)
Les défis sécuritaires au Sahel Débat avec Laurent Bossard et Emmanuel Nkunzumwamsur Africa N°1
Modern welfare economics suggests that lifetime income is a main determinant of how well individuals fare in economic terms. However, most analyses of income inequality are based on yearly data that might be poorly correlated with lifetime incomes. Typically, these analyses include individuals of different age and educational attainment, whose incomes in a given year may be little representative of their long-term incomes. As sample composition changes over time, it is unclear whether the increase of inequality that is often found in cross-sectional analyses corresponds to a similar evolution of long-term inequality or is simply due to sample changes.
In a recent study, we pinned down the evolution of intra-cohort lifetime earnings inequality in Germany. Starting with the cohort born in 1935, we computed the distribution of lifelong earnings among employees who were born in a same year. Our analysis exploits a rich dataset of the German social security system that includes monthly information about earnings, employment status, sickness and other variables of interest for some 240,000 individuals. Based on this, we built a sample that covers about 80 % of the West German labor force in a typical year.
For the cohorts born between 1935 and 1952, we can compute for each individual his or her lifetime earnings, defined as discounted earnings received between age 17 and age 60. For these cohorts we can thus compare lifetime inequality to annual inequality using the Gini coefficient. We find that the distribution of lifetime earnings for these cohorts is rather compressed, with a Gini coefficient that is less than two thirds of the average value of the Gini coefficients of the distributions of yearly earnings. In other words, yearly earnings show far greater inequality than lifetime earnings. This big difference is caused by the mobility of the individuals in the distribution of yearly earnings during their life cycle – the fact that the same individual may rank low in the distribution of annual earnings in some years and rank high in others. Over a lifetime, the ups and downs offset each other to some extent and make the income distribution less unequal.
But how is lifetime inequality evolving over time? Is it increasing, similarly to what is happening in terms of annual inequality?
It is instructive to compare the lifetime inequality experienced by the baby-boomers – who in Germany were born in the 1960s – with their parents. The parents correspond to the oldest cohorts in our sample, while the baby-boomers are now entering their fifties, so that their lifetime earnings cannot be measured yet. In order to gauge the evolution of long-term inequality up to the baby-boomers, we generalized the concept of lifetime earnings to one of up-to-age-X earnings (UAX). These are defined as the present value of earnings received until some age X and discounted to the year when the individual turned age 17. Lifetime earnings are thus a special case of UAX for X equal to 60.
The figure below shows the Gini-coefficient of representative UAX distributions for all cohorts in our sample, the youngest being born in 1972. It shows an upward trend of lifetime inequality, with a secular rise from the cohorts born in the mid-1930s to those born in the early 1970s. (The figure refers to men; our findings for women are qualitatively similar, albeit less strong.)
Gini coefficients of UAX for cohorts 1935-1972, men only
Source: Research Data Centre of the German Pension Insurance System (FDZ-RV), own calculations using weighted data.
In quantitative terms, the intergenerational change that we have detected is considerable. Take for instance the cohort born in 1935 (fathers) and the cohort born in 1963 (sons). The Gini-coefficient of the UA-45 distribution for the fathers equals almost 0.13. The Gini-coefficient of the UA-45 distribution for the sons equals 0.23. This implies a rise of inequality by 85 % and substituting the 1963 cohort with the 1972 cohort yields a rise of inequality by about 100 %. This marks a deep difference between the baby-boom generation and its parents.
Our rich dataset allows us to detect further striking intergenerational change in terms of labor-market outcomes. An important dimension of it relates to pay uncertainty – i.e. the extent to which employees of different cohorts could count on the labor market in order to achieve stable living standards. Statistically, pay uncertainty can be measured by the transitory variance of wages measured when the cohort was 40-years-old. The earnings histories of the baby-boomers and their fathers reveal that pay uncertainty has doubled from one generation to the next.
Another striking intergenerational mutation pertains to exclusion from the labor market. This can be captured by the fraction of a cohort that experienced more than twelve months of unemployment before reaching age 40. For those born in 1935, only 2.3 % of them experienced more than one year of unemployment before they turned 40. For the cohort born in 1963, 28.2 % had that experience. This means that in contrast to their fathers, a substantial fraction of the baby-boom cohort lacked a full integration in the labor market.
In sum, from one generation to the next, Germany has moved from having a rather homogeneous workforce to having a quite heterogeneous one. Compared to their parents, German baby-boomers are substantially more unequal in terms of long-term earnings, are subject to a much stronger pay uncertainty, and are considerably more likely to experience long spells of unemployment. Arguably, this intergenerational change has lowered the cohesion of the workforce and its members’ feeling of sharing a common fate – with potentially far-reaching social and political implications.
Income inequality from a lifetime perspective, Giacomo Corneo, Freie Universität Berlin School of Business & Economics Discussion Paper, Economics, 2014/30