Monday, July 25, 2011

Don't wish a fall in interest rates on us

So you like the sound of a cut in interest rates? Don't get your hopes up. It's possible, but not probable. And remember, rates go down only when times get tougher. Is that what you want?

Though the likelihood is that hysteria over the imminent devastation to be wrought by the carbon tax accounts for the greatest part of the present caution among consumers, vague anxiety over the incomprehensible goings on in Greece is probably also contributing.

I don't believe in troubling trouble until trouble troubles me - especially when there's nothing you can do about it. But it seems I'm in a minority. Scare yourself over some event that with any luck won't happen? Yeah, why not? Got to get some excitement in your life.

The surest way for us to get a cut in interest rates would be for some major disaster in Europe - say, a disorderly debt default by Greece that caused the flighty financial markets to spread contagion to other highly indebted members of the euro area - to bring about another global financial crisis.

Should it happen, it would be similar to what we experienced after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, with one exception: the financial markets are less likely to freeze up the way they did then. This time, no bank, central bank or government could say they had no inkling it was coming - which is what reduces the likelihood of a disaster being allowed to happen.

What we would get is the same wave of fear and uncertainty among consumers and businesses sweeping instantaneously around the world to every country that has television news - even those with little direct connection to the debt problems, including China (as happened last time) and us (ditto). We wouldn't be human if we didn't act like sheep.

We now know what happens when consumers and businesses around the globe become uncertain about the future and so suspend any plans they may have had for new spending until the outlook becomes clearer: international trade plummets, industrial production dives and world commodity prices crash.

The first time that happened it didn't take the Reserve Bank long to figure out what it needed to do: slash interest rates. It cut the official interest rate by 4 percentage points in five months. It would take it even less time to come to a similar conclusion this time.

If you could enjoy some such huge cut in your mortgage rate while being completely sure you and yours would keep their jobs, what a wonderful world this would be for those schooled by politicians and the media to take an utterly self-centred view of the economy. Trouble is, with everyone around you panicking, you couldn't be at all sure of keeping your job.

But let's step back from the worst-case scenario to something more probable. The truth is that despite all the self-pitying, over-hyped gloom, the Reserve retains a ''bias to tighten'' - its expectation that sooner or later it will need to raise interest rates, not cut them.

Why? Because we're in the middle of the biggest commodity boom, and the early stages of the biggest mining construction boom, we've experienced in 140 years. And because it's delusional to imagine all the benefit from that boom is penned up in Western Australia.

To be more specific, it's because the Reserve's first responsibility is to keep inflation in check and inflation is showing signs of breaking out. In particular, wages are growing at the relatively fast rate of 4 per cent.

Were labour productivity improving at the 2 per cent or even 1.5 per cent rate we've enjoyed in the past, that would be nothing to worry about. But productivity improvement has been particularly limited for some years, meaning ''unit labour costs'' (the average cost of labour per unit of production) are rising at a rate that will add to employers' price pressure.

How do you slow down wages growth? By using an increase in interest rates to slow the growth in borrowing and spending - demand - and, hence, the derived demand for labour.

All this says the Reserve will be scrutinising the consumer price index figures we get on Wednesday with particular concern.

It's true, however, that significant parts of the economy are doing it tough at present. Some of this is the unavoidable and actually helpful consequence of the resources boom's effect on the dollar, but in the case of retailing it's a self-inflicted bout of caution.

So, despite its worries about inflation, the Reserve will be reluctant to raise interest rates while the weakness in retail sales and other parts of the economy raise a question about the ongoing strength of demand. If underlying inflation in the June quarter comes in at about 0.7 per cent, it will be happy to stay its hand and await a clearer picture. Were the underlying increase to be as high as 1 per cent, it would probably still avoid raising rates at its board meeting the following Tuesday, but would be most uncomfortable about it.

When will it raise rates? When it sees signs consumers are losing their caution, or if the unemployment rate were to keep falling.

But what would prompt it to cut rates in the absence of global catastrophe? A lower than expected rise in underlying inflation next week plus, over the next few months, continuing consumer caution leading to further weakness in economic activity and a significant rise in unemployment.

You may wish for a rise in joblessness to bring about a cut in your mortgage rate, but that would be selfish and quite possibly foolhardy.