Saturday, September 24, 2016
It was the announcement of a new agreement between the elected government, represented by the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, and the newly appointed governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr Philip Lowe, recorded in a "statement on the conduct of monetary policy".
The statement re-affirmed the government's willingness to allow the Reserve, our central bank, to set "monetary policy" - to manipulate the level of short-term and variable interest rates paid and charged in the economy, so as to influence the strength of demand - without reference to the wishes of the politicians.
The length of the period of continuous growth in the economy is measured from the end of June 1991, the last quarter of contraction during the severe recession of the early 1990s.
It's no coincidence that the era of central bank independence began just a few years later in 1993, first informally under the Keating government and then formally under the Howard government in 1996, at the time of the appointment of Ian Macfarlane as governor.
Handing control of interest rates from the pollies to the econocrats has been a huge success, though it's important to remember that, in the time since then, the economy contracted - got smaller - in the December quarter of 2000 and again in the December quarter of 2008, with unemployment rising significantly on both occasions.
That's why I always say it's been 25 years since our last severe recession. We've had two small recessions since then, though they were too short and shallow for anyone but economists to remember them.
But their very mildness is testimony to the success of the move to central-bank independence. The econocrats move interest rates up or down according to their best judgement on what's needed to keep the demand for goods and services as stable as possible.
The pollies were too inclined to let the approach of the next election influence whether rates should be going up or down.
Of course, another factor has contributed to the vastly improved management of our economy: all the "micro-economic reform" of the 1980s and '90s.
The floating of the dollar, the removal of import protection, the move to enterprise wage bargaining and myriad small acts of deregulation in particular industries have greatly increased the degree of competition within our economy, making it more flexible in its ability to cope with economic shocks and less inflation-prone.
So the managers of the macro economy have found it easier to keep the economy on an even keel, avoiding extremes in inflation or unemployment.
When we joined the rich-world fashion of making central banks independent, we adopted another new idea of making a target for the rate of inflation the main guide for decisions about changing interest rates.
While other countries set hard and fast inflation targets of zero to 2 per cent, we set a target that not only was higher - 2 to 3 per cent - but was also less hard and fast.
We were required to hit our target only "on average, over the cycle". So when you take the average of the inflation rate over a reasonable period, the result always has to be 2-point-something.
We were criticised for our target's fuzziness, but we've since won that argument. The others weren't able to achieve their "hard-edged" targets and had to modify them, whereas we've always achieved ours, even though we've been outside the range for 46 per cent of the time.
This week, in his regular testimony before a parliamentary committee - one of the conditions of accountability and transparency required in return for the Reserve's independence - Lowe argued that the target's flexibility meant there was no need to change it, even though it seems likely the world has entered a period of lower inflation.
This third version of the statement on the conduct of policy contained two minor changes. "On average, over the cycle" became "on average, over time".
The two words mean much the same thing. How long is "over time"? As the statement says, it means "the medium term". How long's that? We're not told, but I'd put it somewhere between five and 15 years.
The second change made clearer the link between monetary policy and the stability of the financial system.
In setting interest rates, the Reserve will take account of the need to ensure people can always borrow, lend and make payments, and ensure the failure of a particular financial institution doesn't cause any doubt about the stability of the others.
When the inflation target was first adopted, some people feared it meant the Reserve wouldn't worry about unemployment or growth. More than 20 years later, we know those fears were unwarranted.
The Reserve sees low and stable inflation as a precondition for achieving strong growth in employment and income.
And so it's proved. The Reserve has shown that the best way to keep unemployment low is to keep recessions as shallow and far apart as possible.
The flexibility built into the formulation of the inflation target is designed to keep inflation in perspective, absolving the Reserve of the obligation to crunch the economy whenever inflation pops its head above 3 per cent, or madly rev up the economy whenever inflation drops below 2 per cent.
Monetary policy is the primary "arm of policy" used to achieve "internal balance" - price stability and full employment or, more simply, low inflation and low unemployment.
It does need backup, however, from the other arm, "fiscal policy" - the manipulation of government spending and taxation in the budget - whose primary goal is "fiscal sustainability" - making sure public debt doesn't get too high.
There's much more to the story, but that's enough for now.