Monday, September 27, 2010

How to limit looming interest rate rises

It's a pretty safe bet we'll get another rise in the official interest rate this year and several more next year.

A rise next Tuesday is possible, though the Reserve Bank board has a predilection for changing rates on Melbourne Cup day, after it has seen the quarterly consumer price index figures.

After the minutes of last month's board meeting and the speech the governor, Glenn Stevens, gave last week, there's not much doubt rates will be rising soon enough.

Why? Because the economy is already growing at trend (3.3 per cent over the year to June) with little spare capacity (the unemployment rate is down to 5.1 per cent), but the strength of job advertisements suggests further growth in employment is coming and the Reserve is expecting an acceleration to above-trend growth.

What's worrying the Reserve is that, whereas business investment spending has been flat (though at a remarkably high level relative to gross domestic product), the survey of firms' capital expenditure plans suggests it could grow by as much as 24 per cent in nominal terms next financial year, with mining accounting for most of that.

Although sky-high commodity prices will be feeding incomes and flowing into consumption, it's such huge rates of increase in physical investment that will make the resources boom so big and so potentially inflationary - ''the largest minerals and energy boom since the late 19th century'', according to Stevens.

Our history tells us it's investment booms and improvements in the terms of trade, rather than recessions, that pose the greatest challenges for macro-economic policy - mainly because mismanaged booms invariably lead to recessions.

Because booms are such pleasant things, in the past governments have tended to ignore the building inflation pressure until it can be ignored no longer. Then they panic, jam on the brakes, keep raising interest rates because they don't seem to be working and eventually the economy runs off the road and crashes, hurting passengers and bystanders alike.

Rest assured the Reserve won't be letting that happen this time. Having already returned the stance of monetary policy - the level of interest rates - to normal (or ''neutral'') levels, it will tighten further to keep the economy growing pretty much in line with the trend rate to prevent inflation pressures building up.

What's more, the Reserve will act pre-emptively, basing its moves on its forecast for inflation rather than waiting to see hard statistical proof a problem is building. (Actual inflation figures are important mainly because they're used to revise the forecasts.)

With the economy already so close to full capacity, we can be sure any forecast for growth much above trend, or for inflation heading up out of the target range, implies the need for higher rates, and higher rates will be forthcoming. One thing the economic managers have going for them in this boom rather than those of the past is the floating exchange rate. By floating up, it helps to limit the build-up of inflation pressure by redirecting some part of demand into the now-cheaper imports.

And by limiting demand for the products of non-mining export and import-competing industries - particularly manufacturing, education and tourism - it frees up labour and other resources to meet the ever-expanding needs of the minerals sector. This helps limit wage inflation.

Even so, if anything like the expected increase in investment spending occurs, rates have a fair way to go yet.

One thing that could limit the need for further rate rises is subdued consumer spending as households seek to get on top of their debts. Consumers take a breather, thus leaving more room for investment spending.

The ratio of household debt to disposable income has been steady for the past few years and it would be nice to see it falling over coming years. But how long it will take for the boom to overwhelm households' present restraint is anyone's guess. Mine is: not long.

Remember that, though it may not be long before commodity prices fall back from their present heights - while remaining high relative to their long-term trend - the investment phase of the boom could run and run, perhaps for a decade.

So, barring some global or China-centred catastrophe, it's reasonable to expect the exchange rate and interest rates to be uncomfortably high for many years to come. But is there anything the government could do to take some of the pressure off rates?

Without wishing to give comfort to the dishonest nonsense talked by the opposition - which implies that all interest rate rises (even those needed merely to return the official rate from the emergency lows achieved during the financial crisis) are the simple and direct consequence of the government's failure to slash its spending - there is something that could be done.

While the government will have its work cut out turning last financial year's $54.8 billion budget deficit into the now-promised surplus by 2012-13 - and this turnaround will exert a useful restraint on demand - the real challenge will come thereafter.

By all the ignorant logic of Costelloism, governments can ease up once the budget is back to surplus, granting tax cuts and allowing strong growth in spending - just as John Howard and Peter Costello did in the resources boom Part 1.

But just as this behaviour left the Reserve needing to raise interest rates somewhat more than would otherwise have been necessary, so Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan will face a similar choice. This, of course, is because tax cuts and increased spending add to private demand.

The answer is for Labor to continue its present strictures on tax cuts and spending, allowing the budget surplus to grow ever-bigger each year, something that could be readily justified to the mesmerised punters as needed to pay back our supposedly stupendous public debt.