London
CNN Business

After a brutal three-week battle with bond markets, UK Prime Minister Liz Truss conceded defeat on Friday. She fired her finance minister and scrapped her economic program by promising to reinstate a big tax hike on corporations.

Truss said she acted in the national interest to ensure economic stability and to “reaffirm our fiscal discipline”. But it’s unclear whether Truss has done enough to convince skeptical investors, and Friday’s announcement did nothing to quell speculation about whether she can keep her job.

The price of 30-year UK government debt, which has been hit in recent weeks, fell after the press conference. The British pound, which has gained ground in recent days on talk of a government rethink, fell 1% to trade at $1.12.

“What the markets want to see is a clear picture, how it all fits together,” said Charlie Bean, a former deputy governor at the Bank of England. “Otherwise, you will see sterling and gilts come under pressure again.”

Investors rejected an announcement by the Truss government in late September that it would cut taxes while increasing borrowing to produce faster growth, citing concerns that the plan would drive up inflation just as the Bank of England is trying to reduce it. There were also fears about the sustainability of government debt and rapidly rising interest rates.

The pound fell to an all-time low against the US dollar, and bond prices fell, raising yields. That pushed mortgage rates much higher, and brought some pension funds to the fore.

The Bank of England had to announce three separate interventions to avoid a full-scale catastrophe in the UK government bond market.

Truss said Friday that by increasing Britain’s corporate tax from 19% to 25%, the country would raise £18 billion ($20 billion), which she said would be “a down payment on our full medium-term fiscal plan.”

But reviving the United Kingdom’s credibility will not be so easy.

“The government’s growth agenda is dead,” former finance minister Philip Hammond told the BBC. “I’m afraid to say that we have spent years and years of hard work to build and maintain a reputation as a party of fiscal discipline and competence in government.”

The deal was not certain. In fact, investors continued to speculate openly about whether Truss could remain in his role, even as Jeremy Hunt took over as finance minister.

“Markets are crying out for more to be done to restore confidence in the UK government,” Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, said on a call with clients. “One way to do that, I think, is to get rid of Truss.”

Truss has said she is serious about limiting UK government debt as a share of economic activity, but the numbers don’t add up. About £25 billion ($28 billion) worth of new tax cuts are still in place, on top of the huge cost of winter energy subsidies. There is still no chance of stabilizing the debt-to-GDP ratio by 2024-2025, according to Capital Economics.

That’s putting investors on edge, especially since more details on Truss’ revised plan aren’t formally expected until October 31. Bean thinks that that date, which has already been brought forward, may need to be moved up again.

“As far as the markets are concerned, they want to see a substantial change in direction,” he said.

The government said on Friday that Hunt was sticking to his predecessor’s Halloween timetable.

Bryn Jones, head of fixed income at Rathbones, said his team bought longer-dated UK government bonds this week. They benefited as prices rose in anticipation of the U-turn. On Friday, however, they sold those holdings, choosing to take a profit.

“Buy the rumor, sell the story,” Jones said, citing a well-worn adage among investors.

As investors grapple with the latest developments, government policymakers and the Bank of England will be on notice.

The central bank is particularly alert as its program to buy up to £65 billion in bonds – announced on September 28 – ended on Friday. Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey said earlier this week that it would not be extended.

The central bank secured almost £19.3 billion ($21.5 billion) of bonds until Friday. That is far below what he could have bought. But his willingness to act as a buyer of last resort was a balm for markets, and it is unclear whether angst will return when he steps back.

Global dynamics could also make it harder for UK markets to find their footing even as the government backs down.

As high inflation continues, fueling uncertainty about how much more interest rates will have to rise, many investors are choosing to hold cash instead of debt. Their decision to sit on the sidelines is sharpening swings in the bond market at a sensitive moment.

“I would expect the liquidity challenges to continue,” said UBS strategist Rohan Khanna. “I don’t think they’re going that fast.”

Traders and regulators will be monitoring how the coming days unfold. So will politicians, with many saying that Truss could be running on borrowed time if things don’t pick up in the markets soon.



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