Monday, February 13, 2012

What happens now on interest rates

Until last week, the financial markets and most business economists thought the Reserve Bank had several rate cuts up its sleeve and would start doling them out this month. The smarter ones don't think that any more.

When the Reserve failed to cut the official interest rate last week, some observers swung to the opposite view of expecting no further cuts for the foreseeable. And with all the fuss about the banks' small "unofficial" increases in mortgage rates, you can bet the punters are now convinced rates are heading back up.

Needless to say, the official rate is unlikely to rise. With luck, it won't need to be cut further. But if the outlook for the economy deteriorates, it will be.

Since the Reserve cares most about the rates households and businesses actually pay, and has no desire to tighten the interest-rate screws, the tiny unofficial increase will be one factor - but only one - favouring another cut in the official rate sooner rather than later.

Why didn't the Reserve cut last week? Because you may have convinced yourself the economy's in trouble, but the Reserve hasn't.

For the markets and business economists to have been so sure the Reserve would cut, it was necessary for them to be convinced of the truth of one or both of two propositions.

First, that the outlook for the world economy is now worse than it was late last year. It's true that, in recent times, the Reserve has judged the state of the rest of the world to be the greatest single threat to the continuing growth of our economy.

But almost all the news we've received from abroad so far this year has been reassuring. Things have calmed down a lot in the euro zone, with the actions of the European Central Bank making people a lot less worried about the European banks than they were, with sovereign bond yields falling back to more sensible levels, with banks able to raise funds with new bond issues, with Greece looking like it may reach a deal with its saviours, and with world sharemarkets looking up.

None of this implies the Europeans don't have a lot more to do, nor that there's little chance of something somewhere suddenly going badly wrong. The continuing risk that things could deteriorate in Europe remains the greatest single reason the Reserve could cut rates again this year.

But you do have to say the improvement in conditions in Europe so far this year makes it easier to believe the Europeans will muddle through.

As for the United States, its economy isn't roaring, but it is doing better than it was, growing fast enough to slowly reduce unemployment. For China, it's slowed a bit, but is still growing strongly.

The second proposition you'd need to believe to have been so confident the Reserve would cut last week is that the domestic economy is clearly slowing.

The tribulations of particular parts of the economy - notably manufacturing and retailing - have generated so many negative headlines I've no doubt many people are convinced the economy's in trouble.

Certainly, the belief the economy is slowing is widely held. But that's what happens when the news is mixed, with the bad bits trumpeted and the good bits played down. Just why the commercial media regard misinforming the public in this way as good for business I'm blowed if I know.

Do they imagine only the Labor government will suffer if they succeed in talking the economy down? Do they think it's like "a Martian ate my baby"? It's just entertainment and no one actually believes them?

The unrecognised truth is, the economy's speeding up a little, not slowing down. That's because we're recovering from the effects of the bad weather this time last year. Abstract from the weather effect and the economy's been travelling at about its medium-term trend annual rate of 3.25 per cent for the past two years or so, and is expected to grow at that rate this year.

With the unemployment rate steady at just 5.2 per cent and underlying inflation in the centre of the target range and expected to stay there for the next two years, you'd have to conclude the economy is right on normal.

In which case, the present level of interest rates - close to their own trend rate - must surely be pretty right. But it's clear from the Reserve's rhetoric that it retains a weak "bias to ease" (cut rates further): "the current [favourable] inflation outlook would, however, provide scope for easier monetary policy should demand conditions weaken materially".

How would such a weakening be manifest? Well, obviously by a deterioration in the world economy. Were Europe to implode, the flow-on to the rest of the world would be considerable - even for us. In this case we know how the Reserve would react: by slashing interest rates in a few big, bold steps.

But the requisite material weakening could also be brought about by a deterioration in essentially domestic factors.

The way the Reserve sees it, the economy is being hit by two powerful but opposing shocks: the expansionary effect of the once-in-a-century mining construction boom and, against that, the contractionary effect of the high exchange rate, which has reduced the international price competitiveness of our export and import-competing industries.

At present, the two conflicting forces are roughly offsetting each other, leaving the economy travelling at its trend rate. Should it become clear the high exchange rate is doing more restricting than the construction boom is doing expanding, which would show itself in slowly but steadily rising unemployment, the Reserve will cut rates further.