According to many market commentators, the UK debt market is looking sick and is at a critical juncture. It is amongst the most unloved government markets in the developed world, which is understandable given the British inability to save in the boom times. Now there is justifiable scepticism that markets will not be able to absorb the forthcoming huge government debt issuance once the Bank of England stops providing life support to the gilt market when it ends the quantitative easing program.
This consensus view is typified in PIMCO’s monthly investment outlook in which the UK bond market is singled out as a market that must be avoided. In their opinion, the gilt market is resting on a bed of nitroglycerin. PIMCO point to the UK’s relatively high level of government debt, potential for sterling to fall and domestic accounting standards that have driven real yields on long dated inflation linked bonds to exceptionally low levels.
We agree these are issues that face the UK economy and have commented on these points previously. However, like any consensus, it makes sense to investigate if this is correct, priced in, and when it might come to an end.
Firstly, the IMF forecasts that for 2009 that the UK government will have a relatively large annual deficit of -11.5% of GDP, which is below that of the USA (-12.5%) but almost triple Germany’s government deficit (-4.2%). However the UK’s total outstanding gross debt stands at 68.7% of GDP, which compares favourably with the USA (84.8%) and Germany (78.7%). The UK government has responded in aggressive Keynesian fashion to the downturn, if this medicine works then the action will be short term in its nature and will not leave the UK with a permanent debt burden, or the increase in debt could alternately be curtailed by the arrival of a more fiscally stringent government in this year’s election. The UK has very little foreign debt and has been prudent by having the longest maturity debt profile in the G7. Outstanding debt and re-financing needs would therefore appear relatively manageable on an international basis. Not all outcomes will be bad.
Secondly, with regard to fears that our exchange rate could fall, the exchange rate has already collapsed by 22% on a trade weighted basis since 31 July 07. So a lot of the necessary adjustment has already taken place. This adjustment process is very beneficial for an open economy such as the UK, especially when many of our trading partners are locked into using the relatively strong Euro currency. By having a flexible currency and control over domestic interest rates, the UK is arguably in as good a position as anyone to grow our way out of our debt problem.
Finally, accounting standards have indeed distorted gilt yields as we have previously mentioned here. However, this accounting standard is designed to improve company accounts in terms of disclosing assets and liabilities of company pension schemes and this is surely a good accounting standard that should be adopted by many other regulators. The fact that better pension regulation in the UK results in lower long term rates makes long dated bonds – especially UK linkers – look dear internationally. But this dampening influence on gilt yields is a distortion that is likely to persist unless the regulation and the accounting oversight of this significant employee benefit are changed.
The view that the UK gilt market is one to avoid has some punch in the short term, but the consensus is exaggerating the risks the UK gilt market faces. Even if one agrees with the consensus, it is important to see if this view is priced into markets and when this will eventually come to an end. I agree with the direction of the consensus, absorbing that much new supply will be negative for gilts in the short term. However in the longer term the UK has the chance to adjust to the crisis through fiscal stimulus, financial reform and a falling exchange rate that might well provide the medicine required. The consensus that a bed of nitroglycerin is a dangerous place to rest like any consensus view should be challenged. Don’t forget, a bed of nitroglycerin could be exactly what the sick UK economy needs as it is one of the oldest and most useful drugs for restoring patients with heart disease back to good health!