Saturday, September 25, 2010

Setting rates by the rules has worked a treat

I touch wood as I say this - hubris has a long history in economics - but we're doing a lot better at the day-to-day management of our economy than we used to.

That's clear when you compare our management with most of the rest of the developed world at present, but it's also clear when you look back on our performance over the years.

When I got into this business 36 years ago, the economy was out of control. So was the budget deficit. And monetary policy wasn't much better.

But progressively from the election of the Hawke government in 1983 we've got things under control. How? Micro-economic reform has helped by making the economy more flexible, more resilient in the face of shocks to the economy, and less inflation-prone.

The floating exchange rate has been a great boon, shifting up or down in just the direction needed to help us cope with a particular shock, in precisely the way predicted by the textbook.

But also because of macro-economic reform: improvement in the way we deploy the instruments of macro management - monetary policy and fiscal policy. We've adopted ''frameworks'' or rules to guide the conduct of policy, we've stuck to them, and they've worked.

With monetary policy, for instance, we adopted the latest fashion of making the central bank independent of the elected government and giving it an inflation target. We designed our own flexible target - to hold inflation between 2 and 3 per cent, on average, over the cycle - which foreigners criticised as too high and too imprecise, but eventually came to accept (and imitate) as more sensible than their lower, less flexible targets.

Guess what the inflation rate has averaged over the 17 years we've been pursuing that target? Excluding the one-off effect of the introduction of the goods and services tax in 2000, 2.5 per cent - bang in the middle of the target.

And while we've been keeping inflation under control we've made steady progress in lowering unemployment.

We've been particularly well served by the three econocrats who've had charge of the Reserve Bank and monetary policy over that time. Bernie Fraser pioneered the new way of operating - he showed his successors how it was done - and had a great feel for how the economy was travelling.

Ian Macfarlane was highly perceptive in discerning changes in the forces affecting the economy, being the first to identify the role the financial economy played in the severe recession of the early 1990s and the implications of a protracted period of ''balance-sheet repair'' (now known as ''deleveraging''). He was never taken in by the fashionable enthusiasm for the (elegant but stupid) ''efficient markets hypothesis''.

Glenn Stevens has been notable for the courage with which he has, when necessary, raised interest rates without political fear or favour, and for the alacrity with which he's changed direction when the economic winds have switched suddenly, as they did in September 2008.

He's built on the lead of his predecessors in greatly increasing the role of ''liaison'' - systematic consultation with big firms and industry groups in each of the states - in seeking to bridge the gap between casual anecdotal evidence and belated, oft-revised official statistics.

I particularly admire his realism and frankness about economists' poor forecasting record. As he said in a speech this week: ''The future is of course unknowable, and economic forecasts unfortunately are not very reliable. But we have no option but to try to form a view of how things will probably unfold.''

After outlining the Reserve's present ''central forecast'' he added: ''Of course that central forecast could turn out to be wrong. Something could turn up - internationally or at home - that produces some other outcome. We spend a fair bit of time thinking about what such things could be.''

The Reserve's handling of monetary policy over the 17 years hasn't been perfect, of course. In 2007, for instance, it waited too long to raise rates, having been wrong-footed by a couple of misleading results for the consumer price index.

But while at any moment there's never a shortage of people willing to criticise the Reserve's actions - particularly people living in Canberra, for some reason - when you look back on the record you don't find a lot to complain about.

When the Reserve first enunciated its inflation target many people thought it meant the central bankers cared only about inflation. Some suspected it was imposing a 3 per cent speed limit on the growth of gross domestic product.

No one says that today. Under the inflation-targeting regime, the level of unemployment has been a lot better in the past decade than it was in the previous two. And though the same can't be said of all the world's central bankers, it was never true that our Reserve had a one-eyed view of economic management.

Even so, I don't remember any of his predecessors spelling it out more clearly than Stevens did this week. Answering the question of what the objectives of monetary policy were, he said: ''Put simply, our job is to preserve the value of money over time and to try, so far as possible, to keep the economy near its full-employment potential.''

He added that ''over the long run, these are mutually reinforcing goals, not conflicting ones''. Just so. When the Fraser government first adopted the slogan Fight Inflation First, many people had doubts, including me.

But the Reserve's successful implementation of inflation targeting has proved the slogan right (in a way Malcolm Fraser and his treasurer, John Howard, never could). Keep inflation always under control and, in time, unemployment will come right.

Note, however, that once the economy is close to full employment (of all factors of production, not just labour), as it is now, then our medium-term trend rate of growth of about 3.25 per cent a year - also known as our ''potential'' growth rate - does set a non-inflationary speed limit for the economy.

Note, too, that nowhere did Stevens (or any of his predecessors) say keeping interest rates low is an objective of policy. Interest rates are seen as a means to the end of low inflation and unemployment, not an end in themselves.

But if inflation is kept under control then nominal interest rates will at least be a lot lower than in the days when our inability to control price rises saw mortgage interest rates up at 17 per cent.