Much of the money lent to governments can be bought and sold daily in the markets in the form of government bonds. This government borrowing usually has the highest rating from credit agencies, or AAA, because investors often believe that money lent to governments is as safe as you can get. Governments, they argue, will pay all the interest owing on time, and will be able to repay the loan at the end of its life without difficulty.
They take this optimistic view for a couple of good reasons. Most governments control their own currencies, so they can always print enough to pay back the money if all else fails. Governments have draconian taxation powers, so they normally lay their hands on large sums from people and businesses resident in their areas to meet the bills. These powers mean governments can normally borrow to pay interest and borrow again to repay expiring loans.
History tells us, however, that from time to time despite these advantages governments do default – they do not pay all the interest or they fail to repay the capital on time. Yesterday rumours about the Greek governent’s excessive borrowing and financial difficulties culminated in a Ratings Agency downgrading Greek government bonds to the lowest grade, or junk bond status. This followed a period when investors sold or stayed away from Greek government bonds, driving their price down and demanding ever higher interest rates to reward any new loans to the Greek authorities. Greece is having to offer 21% per annum to borrow money for two years.
Greece as a Euro member does not control her own currency, so one of the two reasons why investors often think a government will always be able to repay does not apply. Euro zone countries have the added hazard that they can only print the money needed if the Euro authorities agree. Although Greece does have strong taxing powers, her electors seem to be in no mood to either pay more tax or to watch their public spending being cut. As a result the markets are telling the Greeks that they are being unrealistic. This is producing an accelerated crisis where Greece cannot borrow enough money at any sensible rate of interest to be able to carry on as she has been doing. She has run out of money to pay the state wages and benefits. She needs an emergency loan. As readers of this site will know, borrowing ever larger sums, and borrowing to pay the interest, is not a sustainable option for a government any more than for an individual. Cutting spending earlier is not only less painful but is the only realistic option.
Why does all this mater to Britain, some ask? Because the UK government is seeking to borrow a similar sum relative to the size of its economy this year as the Greek government is doing. If you adjust the UK understated official figures for the debts and obligations of the state the UK, like Greece, is already a heavily indebted country. The UK has just prevented a Greek style public finance crisis by printing the huge sum of £200 billion to cover all its borrowing needs for the last year. Most experts and even the government now believe it cannot do this again next year. Money printing has delayed a Greek style crisis but cannot be relied on to do so again.
So now getting the UK through without a Greek collapse relies on the UK following stricter and more responsible public spending policies than the Greeks have been prepared to do. The markets so far have been kind to the UK. They have assumed that after the election any government will get on with substantial cuts in spending to prevent a bond market collapse. Yesterday a leading think tank asked the important question of all the political parties – how will they each make the cuts needed on the scale and within the timeframe required to avoid a Greek outcome? This Thursday’s debate provides the ideal platform for a response. How the public react to each party’s programme, and how the leaders respond to that challenge, are now important to the future cost of borrowing for UK taxpayers. On current policies we are too similar to the Greek situation. The next few days matter for our financial solvency and success.
The wider ramifications of the Greek collapse will be measured in slower Euroland growth, more market fears about other highly borrowed Euroland countries like Portugal and Spain, and worries about European banks. Banks above all rely on government paper as “reliable assets”. European banks will not have dumped all their Greek government bonds, and have plenty of government bonds outstanding to other high borrowing countries. The governments that helped prop up banks with dodgy private sector paper could now become part of the problem for the banks with their own overextended credits. The bonds fall sharply in value in a Greek style meltdown, leaving banks that own too many of them yet again with damaged capital and reserves.
Promoted by Christine Hill on behalf of John Redwood, both of 30 Rose Street Wokingham RG40 1XU