Saturday, December 22, 2018

How we killed off Australia's inflation problem

Before we let 2018 go, do you realise it’s the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the Reserve Bank’s target to achieve an inflation rate of between 2 and 3 per cent? It’s a milestone worth celebrating.

Why? Because it’s worked so well. For the past quarter century, we’ve had inflation that has fallen within the target range “on average, over time” and hence been low and stable.

This week the Reserve Bank issued a volume of papers from its conference to discuss inflation targeting, and whether it needed to change. (Conclusion: it didn’t.)

In that 25 years we haven’t had a serious worry about inflation – which certainly can’t be said of the 20 years before the target was unveiled in 1993.

In those earlier years we were continually worried about high inflation. It reached a peak of 17 per cent in the mid-1970s, averaged about 10 per cent for that decade and 8 per cent during the 1980s.

All the other advanced economies had high inflation rates at the time, but ours was higher and took longer to fix.

Our problem was usually linked with excessive growth in wages, and the “wage explosions” of the mid-1970s and early 1980s prompted the authorities to jam on the brakes, leading inevitably to severe recessions.

Even though inflation remained high, a third and more severe recession in the early 1990s was more the consequence of the authorities’ overdone attempt to end a boom in commercial property prices.

It’s not by chance that this year we reached 27 years of continuous growth since that recession. Before it, we had recessions about every seven years, all of them caused by the authorities jamming on the brakes – and then, when we crashed into recession, stepping on the accelerator, a “stop/go policy”.

The first reason we haven’t needed to worry much about inflation since then is that, as part of the adoption of the inflation target, responsibility for setting interest rates was moved from the politicians to the econocrats running an independent central bank.

They’ve been a much steadier hand on the interest-rate lever, moving rates up or down according to the needs of the business cycle, not the political cycle.

Another reason we’ve stopped worrying about inflation is that this year is also the 35th anniversary of the floating of our dollar in 1983. A floating exchange rate – which, remarkably, has almost always floated in the direction needed to keep the economy on an even keel – has made it a lot easier for the Reserve to keep inflation low and stable.

A third reason is the extensive program of “micro-economic reform” begun by the Hawke-Keating government in the 1980s – including the deregulation of many industries and the decentralisation of wage-fixing – which has made our economy much less inflation-prone than it used to be.

Yet another factor was the realisation at the time the inflation target was adopted – informally by the Reserve in 1993, and then formally by the incoming Howard government in 1996 – that the key to lower inflation was to get “inflation expectations” down to a reasonable level.

Why? Because there’s a strong tendency for the expected inflation rate in the minds of shopkeepers and union officials to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they expect prices to keep rising rapidly, they get in first with their own big price or wage rises.

We’ve spent the past 25 years demonstrating that if you can get everybody expecting inflation to stay low, you have a lot less trouble ensuring it actually does.

The hard part was how to get from the high expectations of the late-1980s to the low expectations we’ve had for most of the past 25 years.

Bernie Fraser, Treasury secretary turned Reserve Bank governor, the man who introduced the target, knew what to do: define what was an acceptably low inflation rate – between 2 and 3 per cent, on average - and keep the economy comatose until you actually achieved the target, then keep it low until everyone had been convinced that “about 2.5 per cent” was what today we’d call “the new normal”.

How did Fraser achieve this? He did the opposite of what his predecessors did whenever they realised they’d hit the economy harder than they’d intended to. Despite knowing we were in for a bad recession, he let the interest-rate brakes off only slowly, and didn’t hit the accelerator.

In other words, he made the recession of the early ‘90s longer and harder than it could have been. I think he decided that, since we were in for a terrible belting anyway, he’d make sure we at least emerged from the carnage with something of value: a cure for our inflation problem that wasn’t just temporary, but lasting.

And that’s what he delivered. With low inflation expectations embedded, he was able to stimulate the economy to grow faster and get unemployment down. It went from 11 per cent after the recession to 5 per cent today.

At the time the inflation target was adopted, some people worried it meant the Reserve didn’t care about unemployment. As events have demonstrated, that was wrong. To Fraser, low inflation was just a means to the ultimate end of low unemployment.

I rate him the best top econocrat we’ve had in 50 years. He was wise and caring, with the best feel for how the economy worked. Peter Costello gets the credit for formally adopting Fraser’s inflation target, pursued by an independent Reserve Bank.

But another person also deserves credit – Dr John Hewson. It was Hewson who, as Coalition shadow treasurer, made the most noise about the need for an independent central bank with an inflation target.

Fraser decided he’d better get on with specifying his own target before “some dickhead minister” tried to impose a crazy one on him.