This was the week we witnessed the funeral of austerity. Those who used to worship at its altar now urge countries to throw caution to the wind. Fiscal orthodoxy, practised over decades since the debt crises and inflation of the 1970s and 1980s, has been replaced with fiscal activism.
As the IMF and World Bank annual meetings wrap up in virtual form in Washington this weekend, many of the most senior figures at the top — and in the research departments — of these institutions have been singing a new tune on fiscal policy this week.
Carmen Reinhart, the eminent economic historian who is now chief economist at the World Bank, recommended countries should borrow heavily during the pandemic. “While the disease is raging, what else are you going to do?” she asks. “First you worry about fighting the war, then you figure out how to pay for it.”
Ms Reinhart was a leading advocate of austerity a decade ago after publishing a research paper which concluded that at a similar stage in the 2008-09 financial crisis — to where we are now — high levels of public debt undermined economic performance. It concluded that, “traditional debt management issues should be at the forefront of public policy concerns”.
The IMF itself warned after that global financial crisis that “many countries face large retrenchment needs going forward”, but now it tells all countries that have access to financial markets to issue debt and to spend without the prospect of austerity later. As she reached for inspiration from the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Kristalina Georgieva, head of the IMF, said, “Only one thing matters — to be able to dare”.
Both advanced economies and many emerging ones have keenly taken the advice to heart as they have battled coronavirus. The IMF estimates that countries have increased spending or cut taxes by $11.7tn so far — 12 per cent of global gross domestic product in 2020. To put this in perspective, just over a decade ago and after months of bickering, the G20 nations finally agreed a stimulus worth 2 per cent of global GDP for two years after the financial crisis.
In terms of fiscal policy, this time really is different.
The fiscal consensus that prevailed until the past few years was built on the lessons learnt internationally after the boom decades of the 1950s and 1960s. The experience was that raising or lowering taxes and changing public expenditure was too slow in most political systems to be effective in taming the economic cycle and, instead, tended to amplify it. Monetary policy — set ideally by independent policymakers in central banks — took on that role.
The second part of this fiscal consensus accepted that the best policy would target longer-term stability in public finances, ensuring debt and deficits met broad rules of thumb that would almost always ensure that compliant countries would face no difficulties in financing themselves. This would allow them to concentrate on improving the efficiency of their tax systems and public spending.
That consensus was still dominant at the time of the 2008-09 financial crisis, culminating in the Toronto G20 summit declaration in 2010 that highlighted “the importance of sustainable public finances” and warned that “countries with serious fiscal challenges need to accelerate the pace of consolidation”. Greece, for example, had already lost the confidence of its lenders.
Fiscal over monetary policy
The question now is why has the thinking changed so radically. Answers cover three distinct categories: bitter experience of the past decade, changed circumstances and raw politics.
There is little doubt that the 2010s was a difficult decade for almost all economies around the world, with underlying growth considerably lower than hoped at the time of the Toronto summit. Most of this had more to do with a global fall in underlying productivity performance than with tax and public spending strategies, but even with the potential for growth lowered, economic performance disappointed, largely because monetary policy did not have the ammunition to stimulate economies sufficiently.
The world’s big economic blocs never achieved the conditions that would have induced rapidly rising wages and inflation, so interest rates could rise towards more normal levels, despite the drama of officials such as Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank doing “whatever it takes”. Monetary policy simply could not have provided the $11.7tn boost that fiscal policy managed this year.
After the past decade, instead of jealously guarding their independence, leasing central bankers now talk of the need for fiscal policy to help keep inflation from falling. In recent weeks, Jay Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman, said “the recovery will go faster if we have both tools [fiscal and monetary] working together”, while Andrew Bailey, Bank of England governor, called for “a very close and sensible co-ordination” of the two economic policies.
Long gone is the notion, supported by former UK chancellor George Osborne, that it was imperative to have a credible plan to reduce deficits in the public finances because that would give households the confidence to spend rather than save.
There are also economic circumstances that did not apply until recently. The main change, most notably highlighted by Olivier Blanchard, former IMF chief economist, is that with government borrowing costs in advanced economies below or close to zero — at almost all durations — and likely to remain so, countries could afford to service considerably higher levels of debt without posing a greater long-term burden on their finances because economies were likely to grow faster than the interest on debt. “The issuance of debt without a later increase in taxes may well be feasible,” Prof Blanchard said in January 2019.
The example he gave was for a one-off increase in debt, which at the time was seen as an otherworldly scenario because few countries ever borrow a huge chunk of money for a strictly limited period in peacetime. But in 2020, the pandemic has arguably provided just this situation and the one-off nature of deficits has been used by the IMF as the justification for supporting the large-scale borrowing that countries are undertaking.
Finally, there is no longer any desire for austerity after the difficult 2010s, so the political and public mood fits with the new economics. Arguably, austerity sowed the seeds of its own destruction by raising support for populist politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson who had no truck with difficult budgetary issues and rarely saw any problem with public spending largesse.
After the financial crisis, President Barack Obama and Democratic politicians joined forces with Republican fiscal hawks in the difficult process of reducing the US deficit only to watch Donald Trump gain popularity with enormous tax cuts in 2017. There is no mood around Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, to play that game again if he wins on November 3.
Prominent economists and former Democratic party officials, Jason Furman and Larry Summers, have provided the intellectual underpinning of the shift in the party’s stance. They argued last year that there were still costs and benefits of lowering government borrowing, but “the benefits of a reduced probability of a fiscal crisis do not outweigh the costs of deficit reduction”.
In the UK, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has ruled out austerity as the way to resolve the nation’s public finance difficulties and, even in Germany, the bastion of fiscal probity, politicians such as economy minister Peter Altmaier now boast about introducing “the biggest stimulus programme of all time” in response to coronavirus.
Too early to bury austerity
It would be wrong, however, to say that everyone has signed up to the new consensus that deficits and public debt do not matter any more. Even within the IMF, there are tensions. While its managing director urges countries to dare to do new things, officials still insist on austerity for countries that are forced to borrow from the fund.
Oxfam, the anti-poverty charity, complains that the IMF has pushed austerity measures on 80 per cent of countries forced into its lending programmes during the coronavirus pandemic. “This austerity drive will hurt the countries it claims to help and flies in the face of the fund’s own research findings, showing it worsens poverty and inequality,” says Ana Arendar, Oxfam’s head of inequality policy.
But it is not just lenders who worry that countries might in time need a more conservative approach to fiscal policy.
“Much will depend on whether the fiscal legacy of the virus is simply a step increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio — because of a huge but temporary burst of additional borrowing,” says Robert Chote, who has just stepped down as the head of the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility. “Or whether we find ourselves confronting a big increase in the structural budget deficit as well.
“A rise in the structural deficit would strengthen the case for consolidation [austerity] measures, but you still wouldn’t want to go at it too quickly,” he adds.
In the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that the crisis is likely to require higher health and social care spending in future, far in excess of any benefit from lower borrowing costs. It said this week the UK would ultimately need to find tax rises of probably around 2 per cent of GDP to limit a likely persistent rise in public debt.
With ageing populations across advanced economies, this is likely to become an ever more pressing issue in the decade ahead. Austerity might have been buried for now, but if governments’ luck does not hold on borrowing costs and when ageing hits, there is no guarantee it will not be resurrected.
‘It has never been like this’: US house price spiral worries policymakers
House prices are rising in many major economies. This FT series explores whether these increases are sustainable.
A decade ago, the average house in Ohio’s leafy state capital Columbus would sit on the market for almost 100 days before being sold. Today, a similar property sells in just 10 days.
“It has never been like this,” said Michael Jones, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker Realty with more than 20 years’ experience in central Ohio. “It’s unprecedented.”
US policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned about the rising price of housing for both homeowners and renters, as the broadest global house price boom for at least two decades drives up living costs.
“Today, it is harder to find an affordable home in America than at any point since the 2008 financial crisis,” Marcia Fudge, US housing and urban development secretary, said at a recent congressional hearing.
Nationally, house prices in May were 16.6 per cent higher than the year before, according to the latest S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index update — the biggest jump in more than 30 years of data and up from 14.8 per cent in April.
“A month ago, I described April’s performance as ‘truly extraordinary’, and [now] I find myself running out of superlatives,” said Craig Lazzara, global head of index investment strategy at S&P Dow Jones Indices.
The pace of price growth and sales has been particularly fast in smaller cities, suburban enclaves and towns.
Columbus’s housing market has exploded since the start of the pandemic, as historically low interest rates, remote working, increased demand for larger homes and a relatively limited supply of houses for sale sparked a feeding frenzy among prospective homebuyers and a windfall for sellers.
Homes in Columbus sold more quickly than in any other large metropolitan US area, according to Zillow, the property website. Almost three-quarters of Columbus properties were under contract in less than a week in April. Other fast-moving areas included Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah.
The fierce competition means many properties are selling at a significant premium to their listing price, favouring those on higher incomes or younger first-time buyers whose parents are willing to stump up the cash required to win a bidding war.
FT Series: Global house prices — raising the roof
House prices are rising in many major economies — but is it sustainable?
Part 1: How the pandemic has triggered the broadest global house price boom in more than two decades
Part 2: Buyers flock to smaller US cities, renewing policymakers’ concerns about affordability and risk
Part 3: Netherlands grapples with the social consequences of rapidly rising house prices
Part 4: Why Berlin’s renters want to expropriate their homes from Germany’s publicly listed landlords
Part 5: Should house prices count in inflation data, and what can central banks do about the economic effects?
Columbus’s average sale price has jumped 15.8 per cent in the past year, according to Columbus Realtors, the local industry body of which Jones is president.
“People say to me, ‘Don’t you love this market?’” he said at a recent open house for an almost 6,000 square foot family home with a listing price of just under $1m in a residential neighbourhood east of downtown Columbus.
“I say, ‘Not especially, because I represent buyers and sellers alike’,” he added. “Somebody is a loser here.”
Other places have experienced even more frenetic sales. Median home prices in Austin, Texas, have risen 40 per cent year on year, according to online real estate brokerage Redfin. Buyers have also flocked to Phoenix, Arizona, where prices are almost 30 per cent higher in the same period. In Detroit, Michigan, they have risen 56 per cent.
Suburban enclaves and smaller towns have also benefited. Redfin reported last month that median home prices in “car-dependent” US areas had surged at twice the pace of those in “transit-accessible” cities since the start of the pandemic — with the former gaining 33 per cent while the latter increased 16 per cent.
Across the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the US, Columbus, along with St Louis, Missouri, and Tampa, Florida, logged some of the biggest net increases in people arriving in the area, according to an analysis of US Postal Service records of mailing address changes by commercial real estate and investment firm CBRE.
Most moves came from the “surrounding area”, defined as a few hours’ drive from the householder’s previous address, the analysis suggested.
The house price spiral is feeding into the rental market too. According to Apartment List, a listings website, national median rent has risen 11.4 per cent so far this year, more than three times the average increase in the same period in the previous three years.
“The high cost of housing keeps millions of families up every night,” Fudge warned. “They wonder if they can afford to keep a roof over their head — and still manage to keep their lights on, to pay for their prescriptions, to put food on their tables.”
Industry experts say the pace of price growth is set to slow as supply begins to catch up with demand.
The number of existing-home sales rose 1.4 per cent month on month in June, according to the National Association of Realtors. Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the industry body, said supply had “modestly improved in recent months due to more housing starts and existing homeowners listing their homes, all of which has resulted in an uptick in sales”.
Real estate experts and economists surveyed by Zillow expect price growth to peak this year and then ebb.
“At a broad level, home prices are in no danger of a decline due to tight inventory conditions, but I do expect prices to appreciate at a slower pace by the end of the year,” Yun said.
Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin, said “homes that would have gotten 20 offers are now getting only two or three”.
But she added that while “we are already seeing demand start to stagnate”, prices were not coming down significantly — suggesting that policymakers’ concerns about affordability are likely to persist.
Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell recently said that today’s trend looked distinctly different to the one a decade ago that pre-empted what was at the time the worst recession since the Great Depression — but he called the problem of housing affordability “a big one”.
“Housing prices are moving up across the country at a high rate,” he told a congressional committee last month.
Although he acknowledged that it was “not being driven by the kind of reckless, irresponsible lending that led to the housing bubble that led to the last financial crisis”, he warned that it “makes it more difficult for entry-level buyers to get into the housing market, so that is a concern”.
Square’s $29bn bet on Afterpay heralds future for ‘buy now, pay later’ trend
Jack Dorsey’s biggest gamble to date has sent ripples around the fintech and banking world, with investors betting that Square’s $29bn all-stock deal to acquire Afterpay signals the “buy now, pay later” trend has staying power.
BNPL relies on an emerging thesis that millennials and Gen Z consumers distrust traditional credit, but still want to borrow money to buy goods. Afterpay allows shoppers to split the cost of goods into four instalments with no interest — but a late fee if payments are missed.
“We think we’re in the early days of the opportunity facing us,” said Square’s chief financial officer Amrita Ahuja, speaking to the Financial Times. “From a buy now, pay later perspective, we see, with online payments alone, a large and growing opportunity representing $10tn in payments volume by 2024.”
The deal sees Square join an increasingly crowded space, alongside big players such as Sweden’s Klarna, Silicon Valley-based Affirm and PayPal, with Apple also exploring the market. The sector also faces a brewing regulatory battle, as legislators question an industry that lends money in an instant, often without a traditional credit check to ensure a consumer will be able to pay off their debt.
“This decade is going to be the upheaval of the banking industry,” Klarna’s chief executive Sebastian Siemiatkowski, said on CNBC on Monday. “I’m a little bit surprised to see consolidation happening this early, at this level, but at the same point in time I think this is directionally what we’re going to see.”
BNPL has exploded in popularity over the past year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic-driven boom in online shopping, but industry executives said it had shown strong growth well before the pandemic, alongside a broader trend for more flexible financing among traditional lenders.
Leading into 2020, banks including JPMorgan Chase, American Express and Citigroup each launched flexible payment options tied to existing credit cards as an answer to point-of-sale financing.
The past 18 months have seen a meaningful uptick in the number of retailers willing to adopt the extra financing option. “There’s a little bit of FOMO setting in,” said Brendan Coughlin from Citizens Financial Group.
Afterpay was among the pioneers in BNPL. It was founded by Sydney neighbours Nick Molnar and Anthony Eisen in 2014, and today facilitates global annual sales of $15.6bn.
The company went public on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2016 at a valuation of A$165m (US$122m). In May 2020, Chinese tech giant Tencent paid about A$300m for a 5 per cent stake in the Australian group, which was by then worth about A$8bn.
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The Afterpay tie-up will enable Square to offer BNPL services to its millions of merchants, who processed payments worth $38.8bn in its most recent quarter, while also tapping into Afterpay’s clients, which include Amazon and Target.
The company will also integrate Afterpay into its Cash App, which has about 70m users and is slowly being built out as a one-stop financial services shop for payments, cryptocurrency, saving and investing.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got probably the most compelling super app outside of China,” said DA Davidson’s Chris Brendler, who is an investor in both companies.
Investors appear convinced. Despite the deal coming at a 30 per cent premium to Afterpay’s most recent stock price, the news sent Square’s share price up 10 per cent by Monday’s close.
“This is certainly a bull market deal,” said Andrew Atherton, managing director at Union Square Advisors. “People are rewarding Jack Dorsey for being bold and for making a big bet.”
Square’s entry into BNPL comes as the sector is becoming increasingly competitive.
Klarna increased its valuation from $11bn in September 2020 to $46bn in June of this year, making it the most valuable standalone company in the industry.
Shares in Affirm, the US online lender led by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, rose 15 per cent on Monday following news of the Afterpay deal. Affirm, which went public in January and is now valued at $17bn, recently expanded its partnership with Shopify to offer BNPL services to the ecommerce platform’s US merchants.
PayPal first moved into BNPL back in 2008 when its then-parent eBay bought Bill Me Later. A year ago, PayPal launched Pay in 4, a six-week instalment offering that is free for both consumers and merchants, alongside its longer-term PayPal Credit service.
Earlier this year, Apple was recruiting staff for its payments division with experience in BNPL, as it looks to expand Apple Pay and its Wallet app. Bloomberg reported last month that the iPhone maker was working with Goldman Sachs to develop an Apple Pay Later service.
Industry executives warn, however, that the more crowded market could erode the businesses’ margins, while flustered consumers may also be put off by the rapidly growing number of checkout options.
“The current state of affairs, where you have seven buttons when you go to checkout, I don’t think is a sustainable state of affairs,” said one consumer finance executive at a top US bank. “I think we are in an interim period.”
A bigger threat still is the sector’s immature and inconsistent regulatory environment.
“It’s what everyone is calling the Wild West,” said Alyson Clarke, an analyst at Forrester. “There is no onus on them to make sure that you are of financial health to be able to repay that loan.”
Some companies do a “soft” credit check that briefly examines a person’s position but “not as much as they should be doing if they are lending you money”, Clarke said. “Afterpay doesn’t do any of that.”
A survey of Australian consumers, compiled by the country’s financial regulator in 2020, suggested 21 per cent of BNPL users missed a payment in the previous 12 months. Almost half of them were aged 18 to 29. Morgan Stanley analysts have estimated Afterpay makes about $70m a year on late fees.
The UK’s financial regulator has said BNPL players should be forced to adhere to its credit rules as a “matter of urgency”. In the US, a government consumer protection agency issued guidance urging caution around “tempting” BNPL deals.
In a hint at further possible tensions, Capital One in December became the first major credit card company to block its customers from using its cards to pay off BNPL purchases, calling the practice “risky for customers and the banks that serve them”, according to Reuters.
Afterpay board member Dana Stalder said the company welcomed regulation. “Buy now, pay later is just a friendlier consumer product,” he said. “Consumers understand that, they’re not dumb. This is why they are voting with their feet.”
Additional reporting by Richard Milne
UK pushes floating wind farms in drive to meet climate targets
In waters 15km south-east of Aberdeen, renewable energy companies are preparing to celebrate yet another landmark in the drive to end Britain’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Five wind turbines, each taller than the Gherkin building in the City of London, fixed to 3,000-tonne buoyant platforms have been towed to the UK North Sea from Rotterdam where they will form part of the Kincardine array, the world’s biggest “floating” offshore wind farm.
Wind farm developers have dabbled since the 2000s with floating technology to overcome the limitations of conventional offshore turbines. These are mounted on structures fixed to the seabed and are difficult to install beyond depths of 60m, which makes them unsuitable for waters further from shore where wind speeds are higher.
Floating projects, which are anchored to the seabed by mooring lines, are rapidly moving from the fringes to the mainstream as countries turn to the technology to help meet challenging climate targets.
Britain was the first country to install a floating offshore wind farm off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland in 2017. But existing floating projects are modest in size. The Kincardine array has an electricity generation capacity of 50MW compared to 3.6GW for the world’s largest conventional offshore wind farm.
Now the bigger wind developers are stepping up a gear with plans to build more schemes on a larger scale.
Denmark’s Orsted, Germany’s RWE, Norway’s Equinor along with the UK’s ScottishPower and Royal Dutch Shell are some of companies on a long list of bidders vying to build floating schemes in an auction of seabed rights for about 10GW of offshore wind projects in Scottish waters. The bidding round closed in mid-July with the winners expected to be announced in early 2022.
The UK is separately examining an auction exclusively for floating wind in the Celtic Sea, the area of the Atlantic Ocean west of the Bristol Channel and the approaches to the English Channel and south of the Republic of Ireland.
Developers expect the costs of floating projects to fall rapidly as more projects are deployed. In 2018 floating wind costs were estimated at more than €200 per megawatt hour, nearly double the cost of nuclear power in the UK.
The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, a UK technology and research centre, is hopeful developers will be able to build “subsidy free” floating projects at prices below forecast wholesale electricity costs in auctions as early as 2029. Conventional offshore wind developers reached this inflection point in a UK government auction in 2019.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the UN’s COP26 climate summit later this year, has set a 1GW floating target out of a total 40GW offshore wind goal by 2030. He has underlined the importance of accessing the “windiest parts of our seas” as part of the UK’s goal to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
Other countries including France, Norway, Spain, the US and Japan are pursuing the technology, which experts said would particularly appeal to countries with limited access to shallow waters, or where the geology of the seabed makes it impossible to install conventional “fixed-bottom” turbines.
WindEurope, an industry body, predicts one-third of all offshore wind turbines installed in Europe by 2050 could be floating.
Countries pursuing floating wind are interested in it “not just as an opportunity to deliver net-zero targets. It has a real potential to be a driver of economic growth as well,” said Ralph Torr, a programme manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.
Much like how the UK supply chain has lost out to foreign companies in the construction of conventional wind offshore farms — despite Britain having more than anywhere else in the world — there are concerns the mistakes will be repeated for floating technology. Manufacturing work for the Kincardine project was carried out in Spain and Portugal and the turbines and foundations assembled in Rotterdam.
Competition with other markets was already high as they all tried to gain a “first-mover advantage”, said Torr, who warned the UK government’s 1GW floating wind target by 2030 was not “going to unlock huge investment in the supply chain or infrastructure because it’s [just] a handful of projects”.
The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and developers are urging the government to commit to a second target in 2040 for floating wind, which they believe would provide confidence to industry to invest in the necessary facilities in Britain.
“Because floating [wind] becomes economic in the 2030s, it’d be much better to understand what the longer term pipeline is,” said Tom Glover, UK country chair at RWE. He added that in the Scottish seabed rights auction, developers had to “provide a commitment and an ambition for Scottish content”, which should benefit the local supply chain.
Wind developers are conscious that UK suppliers need time to gear up. Christoph Harwood, director of policy and strategy at Simply Blue Energy, which is developing a 96MW floating scheme off the coast of Pembroke in Wales, said projects that were larger than the earliest floating schemes but were not yet at a full commercial scale would be important in that process.
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“If the UK supply chain is to benefit from floating wind, don’t rush into 1GW projects, take some stepping stones towards them,” he said.
Tim Cornelius, chief executive of the Global Energy Group, which carries out offshore wind assembly work at the Port of Nigg on the Cromarty Firth in north-east Scotland, said the size of floating wind turbines offered opportunities to UK suppliers.
The floating turbines are much bigger than their conventional offshore counterparts so need to be built closer to their point of installation, which precludes using the lowest cost manufacturers in China and the Middle East.
The floating turbines require “an astonishing amount” of deepwater quayside space at ports, Cornelius explained. His company is looking at creating an artificial island for quaysides in the Cromarty Firth in Scotland, which he says would require a “material investment but is entirely justifiable as long as developers are prepared to commit”.
But he warned that “as it currently stands, the [UK] supply chain isn’t in a position to be able to support the aspirations of the [floating offshore wind] industry”.
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