A Better Fiscal Rule

Neville Hill and I originally wrote this piece in early summer 2019, but never quite finished it. As all the excitement over fiscal rules ahead of the 2019 UK General Election kicked-off, we wrote up a précis which was published by FT Alphaville.

We then submitted a longer version to the Society of Business Economists’ annual Rybzynski Prize and were delighted to be shortlisted. Since then we have received a number of requests for the longer version. Here it is:

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Fiscal rules have never been so prevalent among nations, but most fiscal rules fall victim to charges of ineffectiveness, over-complexity, asymmetry and harmful pro-cyclicality. The succession of fiscal rules – national and supranational – to which the United Kingdom has made itself subject since 1992 are no exception. We argue for a new fiscal rule that might help secure fiscal credibility that is intuitive, counter-cyclical and potentially symmetrical.

Today the United Kingdom targets a falling debt stock as a percentage of GDP and a cyclically-adjusted budgetary balance over the medium-term. Eurozone member states are subject to a plethora of deficit constraints and an obligation to reduce the debt stock to 60% of GDP.

Most of these rules are being met. But these rules are no longer fit for purpose in a world where policy rates are low and central banks have little room to ease.

Why a fiscal rule?

The economic, political and social consequences of each of debt default and high inflation are severe.[1] And there appears to be a limit to the proportion of total economic output that can be directed by a government towards public debt service, bounded by political, social and financial market parameters.[2] Furthermore, while monetary sovereigns can always summon into existence more money to service debt, there are good reasons why they might not always want to.[3] As such there is a powerful imperative towards limiting or reducing debt on the part of governments seeking to maximise long-term fiscal flexibility.

But while long term fiscal sustainability is a goal upon which every government can agree, the short-term incentives to increase spending can prove politically irresistible.[4]

Fiscal rules are means by which governments can seek to bind themselves (and demonstrate to others that they are bound) to the masts of fiscal rectitude. And while mixed, the evidence suggests that episodes of significant debt reduction have been associated with the introduction and use of fiscal rules across a number of countries over many decades.[5]

Fiscal rules fall into one of four categories – budget balance rules (maximum deficit), debt rules (creating upper limits on government debt), expenditure rules (limiting growth of expenditure) and revenue rules (generally targeting revenue as a percentage of GDP). [6] Each of these approaches have sought to secure debt and, consequently, monetary sustainability. Debt rules go directly to target an upper bound for government debt stock, while the others provide intermediate targets that will restrain or reduce the level of government debt. The rules are all asymmetric – they instruct governments to cut deficits or debts, but do not set a lower bound, or instruct more expansionary policy. That may reflect the fact that they were largely designed in the wake of the fiscal and monetary policy failures of the 1960s-1980s, when there was a compelling need to demonstrate fiscal and monetary credibility.[7]

What’s the problem?

Existing fiscal frameworks recognise the prospective dangers attached to a high and spiralling stock of debt, but are not designed to see the dangers of inappropriate deleveraging. Pro-cyclical fiscal tightening (raising taxes and cutting government spending in the midst of a slowdown or recession) can be especially damaging to the economy,[8] and the rules described above, targeting maximum debt stocks or government deficits, are prone to signal the necessity of fiscal tightening at precisely the moment of maximum pain.[9] Critically, they assume that monetary policy will be free to administer short-term demand management and so may be mis-specified when rates are at or near the lower bound.[10]

And they willfully ignore information embedded in financial market prices, seeing markets only as prospective constraints to fiscal flexibility: a capricious and constant source of risk. This, as we discuss below, presents another source of asymmetry: governments cannot ignore the message of very high borrowing rates, no matter what their fiscal rules are.

Simply put, while any fiscal rule will be clunky, the existing rule set poses meaningful problems and dangers when policy rates are at or close to the lower bound, as they have been for the past decade.

A better fiscal rule

A key aim of fiscal rules is “sustainability”: to ensure public finances are managed to avoid the risk of default or inflation. And although the size of a government’s debt obviously has implications for sustainability, it is not the only metric that matters. Nor is it the most important.

Sustainability is the economic and political capacity of the state to meet its financial obligations. We think debt interest service as a percentage of GDP is a better metric than debt stock when it comes to capturing the concept of sustainability. When debt service is very high, governments find it challenging to dedicate tax revenues to paying coupons on bonds. But conversely, when it is low it would suggest there is room for fiscal expansion.

Debt service is a product not of stock alone, but of the size, tenure and type of existing debt stock, the growth in economic output, primary fiscal balance, choice of new issuance, and the level of market interest rates. These factors, furthermore, are interdependent.[11] In summary, debt service is a function of the past fiscal legacy that must be managed, the present economic environment that is ever-changing, and external expectations as to future economic and monetary conditions. Furthermore, it responds to changes in its determinants fairly slowly, especially if the debt and issuance tenure is long (see Appendix). That means fiscal rules based on debt service targets will generally only necessitate gradual changes in fiscal policy, not abrupt dislocative shifts.

Debt stock and debt service then are related, but distinct. They can move in opposite directions for decades as a glance at recent United Kingdom budgetary history can show. In 1980 the United Kingdom spent 5.2% of GDP towards servicing government debt; debt to GDP stood at 46.2%. Fast forward almost forty years and we can see debt service as a percentage of GDP having fallen to 2.7% of GDP (2.0% of GDP after the fiscal impact of QE is taken into account), while debt to GDP had almost doubled at 89% of GDP. This startling fall in debt stocks and interest costs moreover is not unique to the United Kingdom (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figures 1 & 2: Debt stocks as % of GDP since 1978; Interest costs as % of GDP since 1978

Fig 1-2

Instances where interest costs have reached 5% of GDP have tended to be met by alarm in Finance Ministries, and fiscal adjustment programmes have tended to follow (Canada’s 1985 and 1995 Plans, Italy 1988 and 1995 Plans, the UK’s 1976 IMF programme and 1980 Medium-Term Financial Strategy).[12]

There have been multiple other instances where fiscal adjustments have been delivered by G7 governments – most recently the UK’s 2012-2020 programme of austerity that seeks to target debt stock. But as Blanchard and Tashiro (2019) argue in relation to Japan – where debt-to-GDP is more than 2.5X higher that seen in the UK and debt service is 30% lower than the UK as a percentage of respective GDP – the appropriate fiscal policy for the Ministry of Finance may well be an increase rather than a reduction in primary deficits over coming years, given the macroeconomic challenges of re-anchoring inflation expectations in firmly positive territory and delivering higher levels of economic growth while the Bank of Japan remains at the effective lower bound. A higher debt stock is not a desirable end in itself, but nor is it necessarily a greater danger than an inappropriately tight fiscal policy when debt service is low.

The reason for this fall in debt costs despite the surge in debt was the collapse of market interest rates. In 1980 long term Gilt yields stood at 13.9%, and by 2017 they had fallen to 1.0% This decline in market interest rates reflects changing market expectations of economic growth and inflation. But the fall in market interest rates from a fiscal policy perspective appears to have been taken as an event rather than as a signal. A government’s decision to ignore the information embedded in asset market prices short-circuits the ability of easy monetary conditions to prompt economically stimulative fiscal policy; refocusing fiscal rules towards debt service would remove this short-circuit. Fiscal rules focused on debt service also remove an asymmetry. As we have seen time and again in the past, markets pricing extremely high rates provoke or necessitate a restrictive policy from governments. But extraordinarily low borrowing costs do not provoke the opposite – a stimulative policy – as governments are often constrained by nominal targets for the stock of their debt or the size of their deficits.

A symmetrical fiscal rule?

While a new fiscal rule that targeted a maximum debt service ratio would be a vast improvement on the current fiscal rules, it is worth exploring whether there are further benefits to be had by also setting a minimum debt service ratio. We believe that so doing would deliver three principle benefits.

Firstly, it would introduce more powerful counter-cyclical fiscal impulse. The government would be prompted to take the initiative to invest when the cost of so doing was lowest, the need was at its highest, and the potential knock-on inflationary consequences of which would be helpful rather than counterproductive.

Second, it would introduce a mechanism by which fiscal and monetary policy coordination might be enhanced. Lower interest rates – signalling expectations that economic output was far below potential – would prompt a looser fiscal policy to boost output, while higher rates would prompt fiscal retrenchment.[13] Furthermore, when the central bank undertakes large scale purchases of government debt (QE) it not only reduces interest rates in government bond markets, but government debt interest is reduced further by the central bank returning the difference between its policy rate and the yield to maturity of the government bonds it holds back to the government. At present, that reduces UK government debt service by 0.7% of GDP.

Thirdly, introducing a policy that forcefully and automatically addresses the Keynesian ‘liquidity trap’ removes downside uncertainty over the course of long-term economic growth and inflation. As such its adoption could keep interest rates and long-term bond yields at higher levels than they would otherwise be, and other UK financial assets might attract a reduced risk premium (associated with the prospect of obviating stagnation). But the symmetrical nature of the rule would also provide assurance that fiscal contraction would come onto the agenda if inflationary expectations became unanchored.

Again, we believe more research is required before a target for the lower bound of debt service is selected but would envisage that it would reasonably be around 2% of GDP. In 2018 the United Kingdom’s debt service costs amounted to 2.7% of GDP before the fiscal dividends of QE are counted and 2.0% after.

Most fiscal rules fall victim to either the charge of ineffectiveness, over-complexity or harmful pro-cyclicality. The succession of fiscal rules – national and supranational – to which the United Kingdom has made itself subject since 1992 are no exception. We believe that this proposal is worthy of examination as a potential exception to this charge sheet.

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Appendix: Term of debt matters

When looking at a government’s debt dynamics we can see that term structure matters. Among developed bond markets included in the Bloomberg Barclays Global Treasury index, the UK has the longest average maturity (figure 2.1) – standing at more than twice the weighted average maturity of US government debt. Looking more closely at the UK’s refinancing requirements, we can see that they fall unevenly across time as principal and interest payments are, by their nature, somewhat lumpy (figure 2.2).

Figures 2.1 and 2.2: Weighted average maturity of developed government bond markets; Term structure of UK government debt, June 2019 – assuming RPI yoy at 3%

Fig 3-4

Bond market yields – determined by the price at which investors are willing to buy existing bonds in the secondary market, and rates of interest at which borrowers are willing to originate new borrowings – can vary meaningfully from decade to decade. The term of existing and new borrowings impacts how quickly these market-driven yields will inform fiscal sensitivities.

The relatively high term length of UK debt reduces the fiscal sensitivity to changing market expectations around the future course of the Bank of England’s Bank Rate, economic growth, and inflation (where a drop in each of these has historically corresponded to a fall in market yields).

To illustrate this let’s consider a (relatively bleak) scenario for the UK (table 2.1) over the next fifty years. In the first decade we model bond yields at levels not too distant to where they are today, sluggish nominal GDP growth, and a primary deficit (government budget balance before interest costs) of 1.5% of GDP. This scenario is consistent with a stable debt stock as a percentage of GDP, and gradually falling debt service costs.

From 2029-2039 we model a shock to bond yields, rising dramatically to 6%, nominal growth slowing to an even more derisory 3% per annum, and a larger primary deficit of 2% of GDP per annum. From 2039 onwards, we model a combination of continued derisory nominal GDP growth, a fiscal tightening such that the government runs a small primary surplus, and a fall in bond yields to 3%. The Retail Price Index (to which current inflation linked Gilts are indexed) is modeled to stay steady at a growth rate of 3% per annum.

Table 2.1: scenario to illustrate the implications of financing term

table 2

Figures 2.3 and 2.4 show how the modeled scenario can have quite differing implications for both the fiscal cost of debt service and for the contemporary stock of debt as a percentage of GDP. The purple line assumes that primary deficits and refinancing needs are met exclusively through the issuance of new five-year bonds at the modeled marginal bond yield (which is assumed to be stable across all maturities). This choice of tenor sees interest costs rise rapidly to 7% of GDP between 2029 and 2039 before receding even more rapidly to 4% over the subsequent five years. Debt to GDP rises from 2029 until 2044 when it reaches 135% before beginning a glacial decent, reaching 127% by 2071. The grey line illustrates the impact using the same assumptions but this time assuming that financing needs are met through the exclusive issuance of ten-year bonds. The light blue line shows the impact of issuing exclusively twenty-year bonds and the dark blue the impact of issuing exclusively thirty-year bonds.

Figures 2.3 and 2.4: Interest as a % of GDP; debt as % of GDP

Fig 5-6

Concerns that a fiscal rule associated with the fiscal costs of debt service rather than debt stock might put the government at the mercy of markets capture a truth that governments’ fiscal costs of debt are determined in part by market yields.

But every government seeking to finance its expenditures through the bond market will already be sensitive to market yields; the degree to which governments have heightened or dampened sensitivity to market movements is very much in their control of their debt management functions. Shifting to a fiscal rule that focused on debt service would put the question as to how much sensitivity the government wanted to have to market rates firmly in the hands of the hands of the government.

References:

Blanchard, O. 2019. ‘Public Debt and Low Interest Rates’. American Economic Review 109, no. 4: 1197–1229 https://www.aeaweb.org/aea/2019conference/program/pdf/14020_paper_etZgfbDr.pdf

Blanchard, O & Leigh, D. 2013. ‘Growth Forecast Errors and Fiscal Multipliers’, IMF Working Paper No 13/1 https://www.imf.org/~/media/Websites/IMF/imported-full-text-pdf/external/pubs/ft/wp/2013/_wp1301.ashx

Blanchard, O. & Tashiro, T. 2019. ‘Fiscal Policy Options for Japan’, PIIE Policy Brief 19-7, May 2019. https://piie.com/system/files/documents/pb19-7.pdf

Borensztein, E. & Panizza, U. 2008. ‘The Costs of Sovereign Default’, IMF Working Paper 08/238, 2008. https://www.imf.org/~/media/Websites/IMF/imported-full-text-pdf/external/pubs/ft/wp/2008/_wp08238.ashx

Broadbent, B. 2014. ‘Monetary policy, asset prices and distribution’, speech given a the Society of Business Economists Annual Conference, October 23. https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/-/media/boe/files/speech/2014/monetary-policy-asset-prices-and-distribution

Debrun, X. & Kumar, M. S. 2007. ‘Fiscal Rules, Fiscal Councils and All That: Commitment Devices, Signalling Tools or Smokescreens?’ in: Banca d’Italia (eds.) Fiscal Policy: Current Issues and Challenges, Papers presented at the Banca d’Italia workshop held in Perugia, 29–31 March 2007, pp. 479–512. https://www.bancaditalia.it/pubblicazioni/altri-atti-convegni/2007-fiscal-policy/Debrun_Kumar.pdf?language_id=1

Fischer, S. 1996. ‘Why are Central Banks Pursuing Long-Run Price Stability?’ Jackson Hole Symposium, August. https://www.kansascityfed.org/publicat/sympos/1996/pdf/s96fisch.pdf

HM Treasury, 2017. Charter for Budget Responsibility: autumn 2016 update. January. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/583547/charter_for_budget_responsibility_autumn_2016_update_final_for_laying_web.pdf

Hughes, R., Leslie, J. & Pacitti, C., 2019. ‘Britannia waives the rules?’, Resolution Foundation, October. https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/app/uploads/2019/10/Britannia-waives-the-rules.pdf

IMF, 2002. Assessing Sustainability, May. https://www.imf.org/external/np/pdr/sus/2002/eng/052802.pdf

IMF, 2009. ‘Fiscal Rules – Anchoring Expectations for Sustainable Public Finances’, Fiscal Affairs Department, December http://www.imf.org/~/media/Websites/IMF/Imported/external/np/pp/eng/2009/_121609pdf.ashx

IMF Fiscal Rules Dataset, 1985-2015. http://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/fiscalrules/map/map.htm

Lledó, V., Sungwook, Y., Fang, X., Mbaye, S, Kim, Y. 2017. ‘Fiscal rules at a glance’, International Monetary Fund, Washington DC, March. https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/fiscalrules/Fiscal%20Rules%20at%20a%20Glance%20-%20Background%20Paper.pdf

Mauro, P. (ed). 2011. Chipping Away at Public Debt: Sources of failure and Keys to Success in Fiscal Adjustment, John Wiley & Sons.

Mauro, P., Romeu, R., Binder, A., & Zaman, A. 2013. ‘A Modern History of Fiscal Prudence and Profligacy’, IMF Working Paper No. 13/5, International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2013/wp1305.pdf

Portes, J. & Wren-Lewis, S., 2014. ‘Issues in the Design of Fiscal Policy Rules’, Department of Economics Discussion Paper Series No.704. May. https://www.economics.ox.ac.uk/materials/papers/13342/paper704.pdf

Rogoff, K. 1987. ‘Equilibrium Political Budget Cycles’, NBER Working Paper 2428. http://www.nber.org/papers/w2428.pdf

Romer, C. D., & Romer, D.H. 2019. ‘Fiscal space and the aftermath of financial crises: how it matters and why’, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, BPEA Conference Draft’, March 7-8. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Fiscal-Space-and-the-Aftermath-of-Financial-Crises.pdf

Summers, L.H. 2014. ‘US economic prospects: secular stagnation, hysteresis and the zero lower bound’, Business Economics Vol 49, No2. National Association for Business Economics. http://larrysummers.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/NABE-speech-Lawrence-H.-Summers1.pdf

[1] See for example Borensztein. & Panizza. (2008), Fischer (1996).

[2] See IMF (2002) on the degree to which fiscal sustainability can be understood as a political concept.

[3] While the limiting factor on private sector or foreign-currency-denominated sovereign indebtedness is creditworthiness, the degradation of which can be observed in financial instability, the limiting factor on monetary sovereign debt and deficits is the acceptability of the currency, the degradation of which is manifest in monetary instability – via currency weakness, inflation, and/ or a fracturing of the financial system.

[4] These are the so-called ‘shortsightedness’ and ‘common pool’ problems. For shortsightedness see Rogoff (1990); for ‘common pool problem’ see Debrun and Kumar (2007).

[5] Debrun and Kumar (2007), IMF (2009).

[6] See IMF Fiscal Rules Dataset (2016) for a catalogue of past and present fiscal rules at the national and supranational level, and Lledó, et al (2017) for a history of fiscal rules by country.

[7] Sovereign debt markets exist not only to finance government deficits (or rather sterilise the monetary impact of fiscal payments in excess of tax receipts), but also to provide funding benchmarks for private bond issuers, and to serve as high quality collateral for the domestic financial system. Sovereigns not requiring external financing have issued full yield curves of benchmark securities for these reasons.

[8] Blanchard & Leigh (2013).

[9] Romer & Romer (2019) examine the motivations attached to large and small-scale episodes of austerity across the OECD since 1990 and find instances where the communicated rationale for pro-cyclical austerity was misplaced fear of loss of market access.

[10] This criticism is certainly not universal, with Wren-Lewis and Portes (2017) and Hughes, Leslie & Pacitti (2019) notable attempts to incorporate monetary constraints to a fiscal rule. Towards the end of 2019 the Conservative Party announced that the UK’s fiscal framework (requiring a cyclically-adjusted deficit below 2% by 2020-21 and the delivery of a reduction in the net debt to GDP ratio each year unless the Treasury judges that there has been a ‘significant negative economic shock to the UK economy’ (HM Treasury 2017)) would be replaced by a requirement to run a balanced current budget excluding capital expenditure from 2022, a 3% of GDP limit to net investment and a 6% of tax revenues maximum for debt interest costs, beyond which government must reassess its borrowing plans with the goal of stabilizing debt stock. While a step in the right direction, this approach retains the asymmetry of previous fiscal rules.

[11] A simple shorthand for estimating the change in debt as a percentage of GDP is the equation: , where r and g represent the interest rate and growth rate respectively (in either real or nominal terms), while d and p represent the stock of debt and primary surplus (each as a proportion of GDP). Setting Δd to zero delivers a framework for achieving a stable debt to GDP ratio. Simply put, a higher rate of economic growth, a lower interest rate, and a higher primary budget surplus are all things that help to reduce debt stock.

[12] See Mauro (2012).

[13] There is a further question as to whether a symmetric fiscal rule should be set to target interest costs net of the Bank of England’s Asset Purchase Facility (APF) payments. Doing so would turbo-charge monetary-fiscal coordination by delivering to the Bank of England a mechanism to provide direct and immediate fiscal space that must be deployed by the Treasury if the lower bound of interest costs as a percentage of GDP was not to be breached. This is because coupons paid on the gilts held in the APF by the Treasury are returns to the Treasury (minus financing costs) , and as such quantitative easing: a) delivers real fiscal dividends in the form of a lower net interest cost; b) could require the Treasury to ramp up debt issuance such that the minimum debt interest payment rule was met. The degree to which such levels of coordination would threaten the Bank’s independence and institutional credibility need though to be considered in weighing this option, as would the costs of unwind.

How equal could UK property wealth be, given the current physical stock?

When trying to estimate inequality in Britain, it sort of depends what you’re looking at.

While UK income inequality rose significantly in the 1980s, it has stayed pretty steady since the early 1990s. Wealth inequality is greater by an order of magnitude, and wealth in the UK means private pension wealth (42% of household wealth) and property (35% wealth), with physical and financial wealth making up the other 24%. I have blogged before about wealth taxes, which I think are a good idea in principle. They may even feature as a key issue in the US Presidential election, depending on who gets the Democratic nomination. But it seems likely that the topic of wealth taxation will be off the agenda for some time in the UK.

The ONS calculates splits UK wealth inequality (with a Gini coefficient^ of 0.63) into net financial wealth (0.91), private pension wealth (0.72), and net property wealth (0.66). I’m guessing that with each of these having a higher Gini than the Gini for total wealth, some households have more pension but less property, some less property and more financial wealth etc.

Gini coefficients for UK wealth and income

gini1

The biggest driver of private pension wealth is whether you are in a pension scheme at all. Only 53% of individuals (aged 16-State Pension age) are in an active scheme, and this is after the +10% bump up that came from auto-enrollment .

If you are in a scheme, the biggest driver of your pension wealth is whether you are in a Defined Benefit scheme or a Defined Contribution scheme. I wrote a thread on the latest data here , and leave you with this cool ONS chart from the threads that shows pension wealth by age and scheme type. This is a big deal, and I would expect it to become an increasingly big deal.

db dc

But, as Arlo Guthrie said, that’s not what I’m here to tell you about. I’m here to talk about property inequality. Or rather, I want to know what level of wealth inequality is embedded in the physical stock of UK property wealth.

The seed of this question grew in the run-up to the General Election. Basically. if you’re going to apply wealth taxes to property (as an asset that can’t flee the country), then given my assumption that wealth inequality is way higher than income inequality (see first chart above), doesn’t this mean that people with top-quartile incomes aren’t going to be able to afford to live in their homes? (Yes, I know, tiny violin time.)

In order to make some headway I asked @resi_analyst for advice, and he kindly pointed me to annual transaction data files. With around 4-5% of residential properties changing hands each year it is maybe not a stretch to infer that they are a reasonable sample of the UK residential stock. I like this a lot more than looking at the (excellent) ONS Wealth & Assets Survey data because the WAS is a survey, while transactions represent a much bigger dataset.

And this is what I found, looking at easily-available from the last six years. The chart is log-scaled and shows the proportion of properties sold by price-point. So in the first 10 months of 2019 the median residential property transaction value was £235k. A quarter of properties changed hands for £355k or more, and 1% of properties changed hands for £1.26m or more. The stuff in the very top one percent is a bit whacky, and is driven by a very small number of super-high property transactions.

UK residential transactions by percentile price point, 2013-Oct 2019

dist1

This top-tail is interesting, but very small. I could imagine some of these being split up into flats (although a fair few are Belgravia flats already), and as such the structure of inequality in the property stock could be amended pretty easily. This would all require building work to do and my question is around the physical stock as it stands today.

If we remove the top-priced property from the distribution and examine only the bottom 99% on transaction values, things look a bit different (still requiring a log-scale, mind).

dist2

I applied a bit of VBA code kindly left hereto then calculate the Gini coefficients of the transaction values.

I was quite surprised by what I found.

Firstly, in contrast to the net property wealth data from the ONS, the level of inequality embedded in the value of physical private residential stock is actually not too far away from the level of income inequality in the UK. Taking out the top and bottom percentile of transactions (of course) makes this even more the case:

gini2

Secondly, if we were to take transaction values as a good proxy for the value of the stock, we have seen an increasing convergence between income inequality (dark blue line) and the embedded inequality attached to the physical stock of UK residential property (red line). Moreover, this isn’t a function of those whacky idiosyncrasies at the very top of the distribution of property transactions. We can see this to be true by looking at the Gini coefficient of the 1-99%ile of transaction values (light blue line).

gini3

The data exists to calculate this going back to 1995, but sadly the ONS data file is too monstrous for me to deal with in simple Excel.

Why is my estimate of the stock of private property stock value inequality so different from the net property wealth measure of inequality from the ONS?

  • Firstly, the whole point of my inquiry was to see how equal property wealth could be, given the current physical stock of property that is in place today. This is very different to measuring the current level of inequality that resides in property assets.
  • Secondly, the ONS net property wealth is calculated by netting mortgage debts off against the value of residential property owned. So If I buy a house for £235k with a mortgage of £200k, my net property wealth is £35k. That’s what net means. I care about the £235k while the ONS cares about the £35k.
  • Third, there are only 20m private sector residential dwellings (out of a total 24.2m dwellings), and I am looking at value-inequality within this dataset. The ONS reckons that there are 27.6m households. It’s not immediately clear to me how households are defined, as they appear to be defined in a way that is detached from homes. Regardless of this quirk, we know that there are a *lot* of households who don’t own.
  • Lastly, there are lots of wild assumptions in my data: that transactions are a decent proxy for the evolution of stock values; that things observed in England & Wales are true for the UK as a whole; that excluding BTL and offshore purchases doesn’t screw things up. Each of these could be wrong.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Somewhere between ‘a lot’ and ‘almost all of’ the value of a residential property is tied up in its locational value, and this locational value is significantly a function of the proximity to cash flows that flow from employment. If high paying employers set up in a given locality it’s going to boost the locational value of the area. Simples.

 

^ To quote George Banham of the Resolution Foundation, the Gini coefficient measures inequality on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality (a situation where one person has all the wealth).

Electoral maths for (parents of) 6yr olds

As I’ve tweeted, my six year old asks lots of questions about UK politics. And he has views.

But most recently he’s been asking how I will vote in the forthcoming General Election. I think he’s concerned that he’s getting different answers from different grown ups who he considers role models.

Beyond the whole ‘there are differing views, each legitimate’ chat, I decided to try to teach him about first past the post system as a way of explaining the concept that people don’t even always vote for the party with whom they most identify. Without an understanding of the electoral system, voting for your non-favourite party is kind of baffling (put brilliantly here by Douglas Adams).

First past the post is not tricky, but he is six. And I’m aware that I can sometimes complicate stuff. So rather than subject him to a verbal onslaught I told him that I had made a super-simple game for him that would explain. The point of this post is to share method with other parents who might be interested to convey the idea to their kids.

Imagine you are 18 and are getting ready to vote, I said. There are fourteen voters and six parties in your election. Who do you vote for? I passed him the pad of paper and told him to fill in the last box. He handed it back.

I asked him why he voted differently. He told me. That’s it.

Developed Market Privilege

With Boris Johnson proroguing parliament the chat has turned again to whether UK is becoming an Emerging Market (EM). Sure – suspending democracy to avoid losing power is a bold move for any British government/ monarch. But what does it actually mean to go full-EM?

The IMF definition of an Emerging Market studiously avoids words like dictatorship and democracy, focusing instead on income per capita and export diversification, but leaving plenty of wiggle room to change minds if an upstart somehow qualified as Developed. The World Bank scrapped the definition completely in 2016. MSCI and JP Morgan have their own convoluted definitions that control the entry into their widely followed equity and bond indices, respectively. Under any of these definitions the UK is miles away from going EM. But it’s a conversation with a very smart tweep about a year ago that really sticks in my mind.

If you live in a Developed Market it means that you are pretty likely to be well-off individually (when measured on a global scale). But it also means that you benefit from Developed Market Privilege: your government can run counter-cyclical monetary and fiscal policy.

Reducing (rather than raising) interest rates, and loosening (rather than tightening) government purse strings when an economic downturn comes might sound like common sense. And for Developed Market economies it is. But if you are an Emerging Market (EM) economy, things aren’t quite as simple. For EM economies, rate cuts and easier fiscal policy (that might help cushion the blow of a slowing or shrinking economy) might well be met by currency weakness, rising inflation, and a higher risk premium applied to the country’s debt and financial instruments by foreign (and domestic) investors, all of which might be somewhat counterproductive to the happiness of EM citizens. Bottom line, in the words of my interlocutor “at the risk of provoking the fixed-income goblins, the shibboleth is ‘in risk-off, am I buying or selling your debt?’”.

So being EM sounds not exactly brilliant, but also actually something that has a concrete definition relating to how credibility issues lead directly to currency weakness and financing issues. Given that pretty much everyone knows that a central bank can control the level of bond yields (if it is willing to pay a high enough price) this sounds like a story of Exchange Rate Pass Through (EPRT). A high EPRT should indicate EM-hood. A low ERPT might deliver DM-privilege. It’s actually a bit tricksy to calculate ERPT. Professor Kirsten Forbes is pretty awesome on this whole EPRT issue, and has the benefit (from my perspective) of having served on the MPC and looked at where the UK sits in all of this.

Taking both Forbes’ EPRT data, and looking also at what happens in risk-off situation, we get chart 1. The dark blue blobs are considered Developed Markets in bond indices, the blue diamonds are considered Emerging Markets. Higher ERPT are higher in the chart, and lower ERPT are lower in the chart. The average EPRT for his small sample of Developed Markets is lower than the average EPRT for this small sample of Emerging Markets, but there is not really much in it.

Chart 1: Exchange-Rate Pass-Through coefficient, vs Local bond-equity correlation coefficient 2004-15

erpt

One reason why ERPT differences might be so slight is precisely the different reaction functions of the central banks in EM and DM respectively. And this could be the thing that is informing the real distinction shown on the horizontal axis of the chart and observed by my clever friend: in risk-off I buy your sovereign debt if you’re DM and sell your debt if you’re EM. (Eg, perhaps Turkey’s ERPT was contained in 2004-15 precisely because every time there was a downturn that caused its local equity market to weaken, fiscal and monetary policy-makers may have collectively tightened sufficiently to push bond yields higher but protect the currency from moves that delivered higher inflation pass-through.)

So I think that the chart tells a story, and it’s one of control. Being rich, diversified, and having strong institutions has put a bunch of countries’ sovereign debt into that bracket labelled ‘safe assets’. These assets are bought by investors when things get hairy, bestowing upon respective governments the ability to deliver counter-cyclical policy (cutting rates and boosting government borrowing and spending when things get tough). This Developed Market Privilege is something that countries around the world have sought. Developed Market Privilege delivers enhanced control over your destiny – a form of economic sovereignty that is far from universal.

So is the UK going full-EM? It doesn’t seem that investors have yet given up on Gilts, although long Gilts look as though they have underperformed Bunds and Treasuries as the risk of a disorderly Brexit have increased. UK inflation isn’t soaring despite extended currency weakness. These things tend not to be linear, but I think it’s too early to declare the UK a banana republic quite yet. That said, the institutions on which the UK’s Developed Market Privilege depend appear to me to being eroded by the day.

 

 

Doing stuff for free

As I occasionally muse on Twitter, Diane Coyle’s stuff is fascinating and wonderful. If you’ve read her GDP book or any of her papers (and you ought to) I’ve nothing really to add.

But I have made a cut-out-and-keep picture of my understanding of some of the issues raised in trying to capture changes to GDP and productivity (with apologies to Diane). This is for me rather than you. It’s a bit messy, but here it is. And I like it enough to share, because prosthletise as I do, not everyone is familiar with the basic outline of these ideas.

If you’ve read this far, I expect you have one of 3 thoughts: 1) I already know this; 2) you’ve taken something simple and made it look complex, kthxbye; 3) can you explain? The rest of this blog helps people with thought number 3.

The big black line is the Production Boundary: a threshold between stuff that happens when you Do Stuff For Money (ie, captured in GDP), and when you Do Stuff For Free (ie, everything else).

Breaking the diagram into smaller pieces, let’s start with the up arrows:

When you find a new and better way to Do Stuff For Money (DSFM), this tends to be good for GDP growth and is good for the growth of GDP/ hour worked (generally thought of as productivity growth). On the diagram, this is #1 arrow on the left and captures all sorts of things from the invention of the harvester-reaper, to the roll-out of basic management training. Many if not most of the things we *all* agree about as boosting productivity do so through this arrow.

When you find a new and better way to Do Stuff For Free (DSFF), this doesn’t *directly* touch GDP growth or productivity growth. On the diagram, this is the #2 arrow on the right and captures things like the first order effects of the invention of Wikipedia or the computer language Python, learning how to cook better food, writing a blog etc. This saves us time and/ or is an improvement on what came before. It is good stuff that increases what economists would call the consumer surplus, but won’t deliver a first order boost to GDP.

There are a lot of other lines on this chart. All the other lines cross the black Production Boundary line.

When a red line crosses the production boundary from right to left it boosts GDP. When a red line goes from left to right it reduces GDP.

Famously, marrying your housekeeper reduces GDP as they pass from DSFM to DSFF (#3), even if the stuff they do doesn’t change (although in fairness it might). Divorcing your spouse and paying them to do stuff they would otherwise do for free (#4) strikes me as less conventional, but would deliver a GDP boost. What either means for aggregate GDP/ hour I guess depends upon how much you pay them per hour (as a monetary measure of their value) versus how the output per hour of the rest of the population is valued.

And now we come to some interesting bits.

Inventing and manufacturing something like a washing machine that saves us time and improves our non-market lives boosts GDP and consumer surplus (so arrow #5 is upward sloping). That is, if people generally do their own washing rather than pay someone else to so do. And so the activity of washing clothes shifts from the DSFF to the DSFM side of the Production Boundary.

And there have been some innovations like the self-scan checkout that move tasks from the DSFM side of the Production Boundary to the DSFF side (#6). Here, firms boost output/ profit per employee by substituting a combination of capital and customer labour for their own low skill labour. Unlike the washing machine, this is a slight hit to consumer surplus, getting shoppers to do the work that firms had previously paid staff to do (although maybe reduced queue-times make up for the hit; also, maybe some people enjoy scanning). So the end result is a slight decrease in consumer surplus and higher firm profit.

Online travel agents – like self-scan check outs – boost measured output per employee by shifting some of the work to the customer. But I reckon that the proposition is a cheaper outcome for the customer (#7). So GDP takes a first order hit as offline travel agencies shrink.

And lastly there is the case that Tim Harford wrote up about Microsoft Office. Tim’s mischievously makes the case that having office workers all writing their own PowerPoint presentations, doing their own expenses, etc, rather than what they are presumably experts in doing is an insult to the principle of division of labour, and a negative drag on productivity. I’ve popped this one in at #8 sloping down from DSFF to DSFM rather than just being an arrow of questionable direction sitting on the left hand of the production boundary. The logic is built on Tim’s blog: that having to do stuff in which you are not expert but which is not very taxing (ie, make bad PowerPoint presentations) may be a welcome relief from your actual work. It might even be thought of as a pretty rubbish, but fully-paid, work break. I don’t think I agree with Tim, but I 1) can’t think of another good example off the top of my head, 2) am keen to get symmetry in the diagram, 3) love Tim’s stuff.

Who cares?

Well, I think everyone actually cares about each of GDP, GDP/ hour and general welfare. But I also think that different people are incentivised to really care a lot about one angle more than another.

Government treasury departments care a lot about raising and spending money. For this, GDP is the most immediate concern. It is hard to tax stuff that is neither money flow or money stock, and GDP is money flow. Wikipedia may be awesome, but it is hard to get a cut of the welfare they deliver in order to pay nurses’ and teachers’ salaries. Things that boost GDP in some taxable way are good for governments that seek to resource spending decisions with tax.

Financial analysts and investors care about revenue, profitability, and spare capacity. For this, GDP is important, but output per employee is – I reckon – even more so. Changes in output per hour inform at the macro level the amount of spare capacity there is in an economy, and a boost in output/ hour can boost on a sustainable basis the ultimate level of GDP in a non-inflationary manner (keeping central banks away from the brake pedal). Output/ hour is also important for understanding how corporate profit margins will change. For example, if firms automate, they can produce more revenue per employee; if the cost of automation is not high this will boost profitability, helping boost firm values. And firms and investors will care a lot if some innovation (that they don’t own) shifts stuff across the production boundary. It could maybe wipe out an industry’s viability.

Citizens care about welfare improvement. We shouldn’t obsess over GDP growth if it is associated with reduced consumer surplus. That said, the correlation between measured GDP per capita and different measures of welfare is strong (maybe related to governments’ ability to intervene to raise outcomes being contingent on taxing GDP, don’t know). Have a follow of the brilliant @MaxCRoser https://twitter.com/MaxCRoser for a plethora of great charts, many of which show that places with plenty of GDP tend to get better health outcomes. Like this chart of maternal mortality and GDP/ capita, reproduced here from https://ourworldindata.org/

There is sooo much more to write on this, but frankly, I am poorly qualified to write it and Diane Coyle’s stuff reads much better. Also, check out the Bean Review.

Trump’s Libra/ Nature of Money Nightmare

So Trump has weighed into the nature of money chat on Twitter overnight. It had to happen sooner or later, so seems a good prompt to break my blogging holiday.

Facebook Libra looks fascinating, although to be honest I’m still trying to work out what the point of it actually is. To recap, Facebook has announced that it will launch a new cryptocurrency in 2020. Unlike Bitcoin et al it will be 100%-backed by an as yet undisclosed basket of fiat currencies. And Facebook + partners reckon they can get through the anti-money laundering regs that they’ll need to navigate so that we can all hold Libra in digital wallets and spend it on stuff on the internet. Money serves as a medium of exchange, a store of value and a unit of account. It kind of looks like Facebook could check all three boxes. Or maybe not?

The white paper makes a big play of Libra being stable, and thus filling a hole to serve underbanked folk around the world. As a portfolio manager I assumed that they equated stability to one of two things.

  1. Stable might mean non-volatile against my base currency. So the value of Libra shouldn’t jump around too much versus other stuff I call money like, for example, Japanese yen (if I’m Japanese) or South African rand (if I’m S African). But what if the yen and Rand jump around versus each other (spoiler: they do, and a lot!)? does Libra look more stable to the Japanese or to the South African Libra-holder? And, if somewhere in the middle of these two, what about to the American or Venezuelan holder? This is not clear.
  1. Or stable might mean non-volatile against the real value of a basket of domestic goods and services in my home country (this makes more sense to me). This maybe solves for my South African vs Japanese Libra-holder quandary if the Lira and yen have very high exchange-rate pass-through rates. But they don’t. In fact exchange-rate pass almost always through looks spooky-low.

So stable means something else I guess. Perhaps, as inferred in Trump’s tweet, the bar to stable is being less volatile against the USD than Bitcoin (a super low bar), or maybe it means as-stable-as-quants-can-get-it (perhaps setting the composition of reserve assets backing Libra from an optimisation that seeks minimum volatility against a user-weighted fiat currencies?). Who knows.

Why might I care? Because if a thing-trying-to-be-money is to be a store of value, its value should be well-correlated to movements in the price of the thing I want to buy. Which is one reason that central banks are so concerned with anchoring inflation expectations. Stability is required for the store of value box to be checked. And this needs to be checked to be money.

But let’s take Trump’s anxious third tweet in his thread – the one where he worries for the fate of the dollar.

In a scenario where Libra has supplanted the dollar as a medium of exchange it’s not a stretch to imagine that it really would become stable. Pastrami on rye sandwiches in New York delis could be priced the same in Libra from one day to the next. Their dollar price (if you wanted to calculate it) would fluctuate. How would the FOMC fulfil its inflation mandate? I guess that the dollar-Libra exchange rate would become one of the most important elements of monetary policy. The idea that the US might have to try to peg the dollar to a basket of currencies, the composition of which is decided by tech geeks who have decamped to Switzerland it the stuff of Trump’s nightmares.

How does Trump stop his nightmare unfolding? We get to tweet number 2:

From a finance-person perspective Libra looks like a multi currency money market ETF. But it also looks like an assault on the State’s ability to control our monetary lives.

Ill-regulated, Libra looks like a super-easy way to evade present or future capital controls (units recorded on the blockchain in Switzerland so I guess that if a country permissions its citizens to exchange their local currency for Libra, that’s it). And I can also see that it might be a way for e-commerce to once and for all rid themselves of individual countries’ fiscal reach (if transactions all take place on the Libra cyberledger, I can see that geographical fiscal jurisdiction might get tricksy). In an extreme scenario where Libra displaces a national currency as the medium of exchange I can see it leading governments to lose a major tool of macroeconomic policy as well as seigniorage.

But States really really don’t like firms playing fast and loose with people’s money. Despite what you might infer from the GFC and its aftermath, retail client money is super-highly regulated. And States would be loathe to throw away the ability to impose capital controls or tax domestic transactions at some point in the future. FinTech is a powerful thing, but so is FinReg.

What to do with our magic money tree

Governments are not households. Governments can – with the threat of their monopoly use of violence – invent taxes that people have to pay; households can’t. Governments can change bank regulations such that banks effectively have to buy their debts; households can’t. Monetary sovereigns like the United Kingdom can invent brand new money to pay their bills; households can’t.*

But if governments can invent brand new money to pay their bills, why do they bother inventing taxes or borrowing at all? Inventing money sounds a lot easier than taxing people so it’s worth asking why more governments don’t just do it. More specifically, what are the arguments against the United Kingdom engaging in monetary financing? Or, in the parlance of British politics, why not use the actual real life magic money tree that definitely does exist despite the protestations of our leaders?

One argument against tapping the magic money tree is the illegality of so doing under the Maastrict Treaty. But given the successful efforts of Brexiteers, this looks soon to be irrelevant as we exit the European Union and Take Back Control.

A second answer that lots of people yell is Zimbabwe.

To be fair, pretty much *everyone* agrees that monetary financing budget deficits is very problematic when *too big*. It’s just that no one can quite agree what *too big* means. In extremis, monetary finance will certainly threaten/ destroy monetary stability. But plenty of countries have deployed monetary financing without collapsing into hyperinflation. Hyperinflation is something that tends to be associated with the collapse of a state’s ability to project power within its borders (with an unclear direction of causality!) rather than simple monetary financing. Indeed, of the 152 countries for which the IMF researched the central bank legal framework in 2012, 101 permitted monetary financing. Hyperinflation has not been quite so widespread.

However, we run into trouble way before we get to Zimbabwe. And while I’m planning to return to this issue with a bit more nuance in the future, I think we can imagine the sort of trouble that might lie ahead with a very basic hand-wavy thought experiment.

When there is unused slack in the economy – people unemployed or underemployed, idle hospitals, schools, factories, offices etc – the government can run budget deficits, spend money and deploy these unused resources without generating cost-push inflation. This is not contentious. The counterpart to this budget deficit will be either new claims on government (assets in the form of bonds for folks with a low propensity to spend to switch their money into), or brand new money plucked from the magic money tree.** Both forms of fiscal stimulus create demand and use up economic slack. Yay! Adair Turner reckons that a pound imagined into existence by the government and spent would likely be more stimulative than a pound borrowed from folks who can afford to save, and I’m not going to quibble with him on this. But even advocates of monetary finance like Turner worry out loud that maybe it might become too tempting for politicians to restrain themselves from inventing more and more money as elections draw close.

However, rather than retread these worries let’s think about the political difficulties attached to *unwinding* these differently funded fiscal stimuli.

It’s pretty simple (when times are good) for politicians to make the case that we should prudently pay down debt (delivering a fiscal tightening). Blair and Brown did it. Clinton did it. Even though governments are *not* households, people generally think that they are near enough the same thing (they’re not) that such a line resonates.

The politics of unwinding monetary financing look harder. If governments invent new money when times are bad (delivering a fiscal stimulus), I think it would be tricky to sell the message when the economy improves that things are just so great that taxes need to rise to fund a big bonfire of money (delivering a fiscal tightening). I can’t prove it, but I think that ordinary (voting) people would get very cross about this idea, maybe cross enough to vote out the idiots trying to set light their money. Someone might even suggest that instead of a money bonfire, maybe taxes shouldn’t rise at all. Or maybe the tax proceeds could be used to build something that most folks might agree is needed at any given time – a new school, hospital, bridge, or something else that involves bidding real life people away from what they would otherwise be doing into some particular government-directed endeavour. But the whole point about raising taxes in this scenario would be to unwind the prospectively inflationary impact of an economy running at full tilt – precisely the sort of thing that comes from trying to build a new bridge when everyone is fully-employed already.

Some folks reckon that the whole point if monetary finance is defeated if you articulate its reversibility, and so concern about unwind is not only premature but completely misses the point. But it seems quite possible that absent a well-articulated exit strategy, folks in financial markets will infer that any future tightening will need to come through tighter monetary policy than the counterfactual pushing interest rates up.

And so while governments are *not* households, the household budget constraint *doesn’t* apply, there definitely absolutely really *is* a magic money tree, (and the problems of governance are not necessarily insoluble), it is not clear that this insight solves as many problems as one might hope.

PS: The brilliant people at Planet Money have done a podcast on this subject which is *much* better than this blog – do listen! Since I pulled a muscle and stopped running my podcast consumption has dropped so it’s only now (as finishing) the blog that I caught up on it. I thought about just tweeting the link to their show instead of hitting post on this blog but didn’t as they don’t quite get into the politics of unwinding monetary finance which I thought might be of interest.

* OK, crypto. Maybe even stock. I’ll deal with this another time.

** Many will argue that money is a claim on government, as a form of tradable deferred tax obligations. Ok, fine. But putting that in the middle of my otherwise semi-readable paragraph isn’t hugely helpful.

Second thoughts on miniBOTs

I generally operate on the principle that if people can show me how I’ve misunderstood something I will take that as a win. If they can do this without making me feel a complete fool, that’s an unnecessary but welcome bonus.

After blogging a couple of early (fairly negative) thoughts about miniBOTs yesterday, I had a bit of feedback. What followed was a brief epiphany during which I realised I was wrong and miniBOTs could actually be an awesome idea.

The epiphany was based on the notion that if there is slack in the Italian economy (which there surely is), and that this slack could be engaged without crowding out the private sector by the government doing generally helpful-to-long-term-human-goals-sort-of-stuff (again, likely true). This could be upgrading infrastructure, developing human capital, regional/ sectoral development financing, that sort of thing. And (importantly) the financing vehicle – miniBOTS – could be used by the government in a manner that was revenue-neutral or even revenue-accretive.

It would work like this:

  • Step 1: government puts out tender for xyz contract, payable in a certain value of miniBOTs;
  • Step 2: contractors bid for and win contract, then sell miniBOTs to folks owing large back-taxes at a discount.
  • Step 3: government collects back-taxes (and/ or taxes on the grey/ black economy that now steps into the sunlight with lower effective tax rates) that were otherwise lost. So debt doesn’t actually rise.

Reckoning that miniBOTs might trade sub-par (because, you know, some other government might turn up and think the whole idea was a bit whacko and stop accepting them as taxes in lieu of euros), contractors would probably want a few more miniBOTs than plain old euros for a given job, implying a financing yield (in terms the ratio of miniBOTs to Euros, or rather discount to par).* In other words, I believe that this new good-for-Italy-using-up-slack expenditure would cost more in miniBOTs than it would otherwise have done in plain euros.

But costing more miniBOTs than euros could be okay if a) it deploys slack productively; b) it is making investments that are possible that would have been impossible without miniBOTs, and; c) would ultimately be financed by gathering back-taxes/ black economy taxes. (The folks owing back-taxes buy the miniBOTs because – now there is a discount to par value of a potentially temporary nature – it costs them less, and they seize their chance.)

So rather than being an interesting money thing, it could actually be a bit of an elaborate tax amnesty/ tax cut in which government contractors also get a little richer than they otherwise might.

However, this epiphany lasted only 53 seconds.

My mind had sort of taken a temporary leave of absence, and I’d forgotten Gresham’s Law: the idea that bad money drives out good.

In other words the miniBOTs get bought by ordinary folk at the point at which they pay their taxes (and they then deliver them to government in lieu of euros), and there is no reason why back-taxes/ black economy taxes ever get touched.

The government still has to pay more miniBOTs than euros for stuff (because otherwise why would people take them) and legit taxpayers would buy them at a price below par (because otherwise why bother). And so the whole thing becomes self-defeating as miniBOTs collect in the Italian treasury rather than among the population as a whole, who prefer to amass monetary assets in euros unless tempted by discounts to par (and hence higher implied financing rates for the state) on miniBOTs. (And the scheme introduces scope for political favours to be awarded to connected contractors who might even repay this political debt through future party funding.)

Meanwhile, the Commission would likely look at miniBOTs as debt (because selling future receivables look very much like debt, as any credit card receivable securitization analyst will tell you), and given they look to be zero-coupon, would likely see them as tradable to next put date (see footnote), which is to say having very short term structure no matter how irredeemable they profess to be.

There is a second way that miniBOTs are interesting, and that is as an asset conjured our of nothing that has value to people in such a way as to create demand for a permanent stock (eg, a currency). In such a light, the scheme looks pretty identical to the creation of a new form of Outside Money, but as a Chartalist myself I think that for it to actually properly work the state would need to require the payment of taxes in miniBOTs rather than simply accept the payment of taxes in miniBOTs. In accepting rather than requiring, we get back into Gresham’s Law problems: the miniBOTs would need to have an implicit financing cost. And because of this the state would endure a weaker fiscal position than it would otherwise have (paying more miniBOTs than it would have needed to pay euros, but receiving back an equal number of miniBOTs to the number of euros it would otherwise have received in tax revenue). If the state chose to only accept taxes in the form of miniBOTs this changes things. But I think that this then touches on the legal tender issues discussed in the previous blog.

I’m still up for being persuaded of their merits. And if I wanted to shoe-horn Italians out of the Euro without actually bothering to make and win the case with them that this was what they would be doing (stirring up a fight with Brussels, maybe demonizing them along the way to the domestic population), miniBOTs seem a reasonable thing to introduce.

Absent this motivation, I still can’t see these merits right now. There could be a decent portion of folks who reckon a tax amnesty or tax cut would be self-funding. I know there is a decent minority of the population who think that Italy should leave the Euro. Advocates of these positions should make their case without engaging in bait and switch tactics.

Chances are you’ve thought about this more than me. If you can communicate simply and coherently why miniBOTs make senses in a way that doesn’t involve leaving the Euro please blog it (in English, sorry).

* It has been put to me that miniBOTs won’t have a term (ie a date at which they will necessarily turn into euros) and so my whole blog is somewhat off-base. But if I bought an irredeemable zero coupon euro-denominated security that was puttable at par, I would consider the term to be the first put date, and then measure its yield as a function of the discount to par and distance from par. (To get a bit more technical the first put date is the date at which it is advantageous for the holder to put the securities to the issuer, and this will actually depend on the price of all of the other securities on that issuer’s yield curve as well as the put date). I can’t think why anyone else (including the Commission) would not do the same.

—-

Update: the Bank of Italy has put out a PDF with their initial take on miniBOTs. It is the clearest thing I have read, and I was surprised and delighted that it did not contradict my understanding as conveyed in this blogpost and it’s predecessor.

Quick thoughts on mini-BOTs

So everyone in London has got excited about mini-BOTs – Italy’s prospective parallel currency after Munchau on Monday and then Dizard today have written about them in the FT.

A quick recap:

  • Italy has been a growth laggard (average GDP growth since 2004 has been 0%, although there has been steady slow growth since 2014), and has high levels of debt (c.130% of GDP).
  • March 4 saw the Italians go to the polls. Conventional wisdom saw the outcome as a likely stalemate unless the right-wing populist Lega Nord (the League) and the left-wing populist Five-Star Party could come together in coalition. As someone on Twitter put it, this would be like imagining the audience of BBC Question Time putting aside their differences and forming a government.
  • Five Star wants things like a Universal Income; The League wants things like flat taxes. In each party’s mind their own favoured policies probably pay for themselves with an exploding renaissance of growth. In everyone else’s minds (including each others) these policies probably lead to an exploding renaissance of debt issuance.

So there is this idea kicking around that they fund their wish-lists not by issuing currency (which they can’t do because the ECB is the monetary sovereign), and not by issuing bonds (which I guess they reckon the markets won’t like and the Commission will get prissy about as it will break all manner of rules). Instead they want to issue mini-BOTs – small-bill government debt that looks and feels very like Euro notes. And look and feel very much like money.

But would mini-BOTs be money?

They don’t look like they would be legal tender. But this might not be a big deal. Legal tender is a pretty narrow legal definition. My basic understanding is that it means something that law courts understand as being unlawful to refuse in payment of a debt. And in the Euro area, the Commission is pretty blunt about how only the euro is legal tender here. They also (helpfully) explain that although non-official (euro) currencies “have no legal tender status, parties can agree to use them as private money without prejudice to the official currency”.

In the UK we use lots of things as money that have no status as legal tender. Scottish and Northern Irish banknotes are not actually legal tender. Furthermore, 1p and 2p coins are legal tender for sums only below 20p, 50p coins are legal tender for sums not exceeding £10.

This isn’t the first time we have seen this sort of thing. Even in Italy there is some precedent for creatively using local currencies that are backed by state obligations as a currency, albeit at a local level. This nice story via Lorcan Roche Kelly tells of a local community that introduced a local currency that was backed by state debts. In fact, it looks in many ways to be a municipal version of mini-BOTS which provided credit to the local government and liquidity to the local economy.

But governments don’t usually do this sort of thing unless they are in trouble. So the signalling is pretty terrible.

  • Argentina issued one-year small-bill bonds (nicknamed Patacones) to its civil servants in a short-lived effort to keep its currency pegged to the US dollar. These were widely accepted (at a discount to US dollars) and McDonalds quickly launched their Patacombo meal. Patacones could be used to settle tax obligations with the state, just like mini-BOTs.
  • California issued state IOUs under Schwartzenegger in 2009 in a similar effort to cover its gaping budget holes, just as it had in 1992 and 1993. These IOUs were paid to vendors doing business with the state as federal law prohibit IOUs to state employees. I don’t know whether there is any European Directive that prohibits Eurozone countries from doing the same but somehow I doubt it. California didn’t turn out too bad? Well, banks only accepted these IOUs for five days before closing down this option according to wiki. The California Budget crisis rolled on until both spending was cut and taxes (and university tuition costs) were raised, as well as the rebound in the (national) economy that boosted tax takes.

Despite this, mini-BOTs might actually qualify as money by the rules of some monetary bean-counters (depending on their term). Whether they were used as a unit of account would determine where they sat in my Venn. Mini-BOTs would look and feel like money, but if they have a term to them (a date at which they can be redeemed for actual euros) I reckon that they just have just a lot of euro-moneyness.

In fact, they would likely turn out to be a strong reminder that the Italian state is not the monetary sovereign, and the subject of a big fight in Brussels as the Commission (rightfully IMHO) called them out as debt which would need to be included in Eurozone-specific debt numbers. And it is the prospect of this incipient fight that is roiling markets.

Moneyness of betting tips

In a gently mocking (but good-natured) tone, Lorcan Roche Kelly asked me yesterday (rhetorically) how much moneyness I thought a tip on the horses had. Answering rhetorical questions tends to win few friends, but I think it is an interesting one.

As background, money tends to be thought of as the stuff that functionally happens to satisfy three conditions: serving as store of value, unit of account, and medium of exchange. I still quite like this old Venn I made for a talk I gave on money:

In a conventional monetary aggregate sense, definitions of money vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and within jurisdiction over time. The grey shaded sections in the two tables below show how UK M4 and Eurozone M3 monetary aggregates are defined and differ at a high level.

So, for example, UK households’ deposits with agencies of the UK central government don’t count as money to a UK monetary bean-counter, while Eurozone household deposits with agencies of Eurozone central governments do count as money to Eurozone monetary bean-counters. To someone less interested in counting monetary beans this seems a bit silly, but follows from having to draw the line somewhere – and the Bank give a nice primer on this here.

If you reflect that there are many many shades of grey, the appeal of an approach that recognises the extent of this gradation is significant. Hence the attraction of moneyness.

I think that maybe all Stuff apart from notes, coins and bank reserves administered by the central bank (ie, the stuff that sits in the part of the Venn that takes medium of exchange and store of value) has some money-like quality, however tiny, and that this portion of its value is its moneyness.

I like to think that the moneyness of a thing as being some function of its duration, creditworthiness and secondary market liquidity.

So I consider a small sight deposit in a highly creditable bank to have near full moneyness. A bond due to be repaid in thirteen months by a monetary sovereign (eg, UK government) would also (in my understanding, although not in a monetarist’s sense) have very high amounts of moneyness. The amount of moneyness would be lower for debts with more distant maturities, although longer-dated securities’ moneyness can be bolstered by the degree to which they are accepted and can be borrowed against as high quality collateral. Changing collateral haircut schedules in repo flowing from a change in view from a credit rating agency or central bank can quickly change the moneyness attached to long-duration instruments; changing secondary market liquidity conditions or changing regulations regarding rehypothecation could also be a big deal for aggregate moneyness. Shadow-banking folk have been banging on about this (perhaps using different terms) for years.

So, back to Lorcan’s dig. I actually think it is a genius of a question because it takes things to an extreme (the moneyness not even of a betting slip but of a betting tip!).

The tip in question was for Circus Couture, which was offered at 12/1 on the 4:20 at Ascot. According to our tipster these odds were far too good. Maybe 4/1 was fair. Is there moneyness attached to this tip? Sounds silly, but let’s take it apart.

We can think of a betting slip as a really really short-dated super-high yield ultra-junky bond. A 12/1 outsider is like a zero coupon bond offered at 7.70 and maturing the same day at par. If the bid-offer spread that is the raisin d’etre of bookmaking did not exist, there was perfect liquidity in this choice market and the odds were stable I can see that there is a case to be made that the slips value would be close to its moneyness at somewhere close to 7.7% of par. This recognizes for the market a role in altering the moneyness of contracts as information develops, and this strikes me as a not unreasonable characterization of real life.

But no-one bets on a horse based on the view that the odds are fair. A bookie’s whole business model is to get on the inverse of punter-facing odds to extract a steadyish return for services rendered, and this is hardly a secret. And I think punters walks into a betting shop seeking excess returns (as well as leisure services), and am not sure they are even risk-neutral. So I wonder to what degree the moneyness of the betting slip (and, actually, the moneyness of any credit security) should not be discounted using a rate higher than that used to value it to account not only for the perceived risk of pay-off, but also the uncertainty of pay-off. (There is probably a big literature on how financial markets proxy uncertainty as risk so that they can get it into models, but I haven’t sought it out.)

Moving on to the tip itself, if I put a bet on Circus Couture with the view that 4/1 was the fair price, this would be akin to buying a bond at 7.70 with a view that the fair price was 20. The value of the tip to me and anyone who believes the tipster is around 12.3 cents in the dollar. But the moneyness of the tip is zero, precisely because it accounts for my differences with the market.

I think this is just be a long way of saying that a tip is not ‘Stuff’, so it has no moneyness in the framework I set out. But given that money is a medium by which subjective views as to what value constitutes is triangulated (on a monetary wealth X conviction-weighted basis) *as well as a thing*, it feels weird to say that each and every of the individual subjective views that together coagulate into a market price are themselves without measurable worth (or measurable moneyness). Or rather that the worth of each view corresponds precisely to its market impact (the degree to which it moves the market price), and any account of moneyness that includes market price will be correspondingly impacted.

This leads me to the view that a good betting tip* (that is ultimately right) has no moneyness even if a bad betting slip (attached to an ultimately losing horse) does (prior to the race!). But if there was a way to securitize betting tips…

* In the end the tip was bad – the horse came in fifth – so maybe zero worth