Monday, December 2, 2019

Lowe should rescue a PM lost in the Canberra bubble

Dr Philip Lowe, governor of the Reserve Bank, is one of the smartest economists in the land. You don’t get a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unless you’re super-sharp. But the question now is whether he has the courage to stand up to a wilful Prime Minister whose confidence far exceeds his comprehension.

Scott Morrison, as we know, is refusing to do what Lowe – with the support of the international agencies and most of our economists – has been begging him to do: use his budget to come to the rescue of monetary policy and its ever-feebler efforts to stop the economy slowing almost to stalling-speed.

Morrison is desperate to deliver a budget surplus. So desperate he’s convinced himself that failing to do so would cost him more political support than would allowing the economy to continue failing to lift voters’ living standards, and be so weak that a shock from abroad could push us into recession.

How any politician could come to such a self-harming conclusion is hard to fathom. Perhaps it’s that the 28 years since our last severe recession have robbed the latest generation of Liberal pollies of their economic nous.

Morrison’s so green he hasn’t learnt the first rule of politics: if you stuff up the economy, they throw you out. If that’s news to you, remember the 1961 credit squeeze, which brought Bob Menzies within a whisker of having his career cut short.

Remember how the 1975 recession dispatched with Gough Whitlam, the recession of the early 1980s finished Malcolm Fraser and the 1990 recession caught up with Paul Keating despite a one-term reprieve granted by Liberal fumbling of the 1993 election.

The question for Lowe is how he responds to the Prime Minister’s misreading of his own best interests (not to mention ours). Does Lowe stand back and watch an overconfident leader dice with political death by pretending that monetary policy hasn’t reached the end of its useful life and that blood can still be squeezed from the stone? Or does he announce he’s done all he sensibly can and turn the economy’s problem back to the one (elected) person who could fix it if he came to his senses?

Conventional monetary policy (interest-rate manipulation) has lost most of its power because household debt is at record levels, because the official interest rate is almost at zero, and because rates are already so low that another few cuts won’t make much difference.

Further, as Lowe explained in his speech last week, there’s little to be gained from deciding to progress to QE – "quantitative easing". It’s not capable of lowering rates much further and, in any case, comes at a cost.

As Lowe himself has acknowledged, it creates a moral hazard. For as long as Lowe pretends monetary policy is still effective, he’s running cover for the person who could do something effective, but chooses not to.

And it’s not just the absence of a positive, it’s also the continuation of a negative. Everything that causes the budget to take more out of the economy than it puts back in government spending causes private demand to be weaker.

Consider the way continuing bracket creep (only partly countered by the new middle income-earners’ tax offset) takes a bigger bite out of households’ wage income before they can spend it. Fiscal policy is actually counteracting monetary policy.

In his speech outlining the "limitations of monetary policy" and his lack of enthusiasm for unconventional measures, Lowe noted that their modest benefits needed to be balanced against their possible adverse side-effects.

Such as? First, they may change incentives in an unhelpful way. Providing the banks with ready liquidity during emergencies may encourage them not to bother holding their own adequate buffers, thus making further crises more likely.

Similarly, "the willingness of a central bank to use its full range of policy instruments might create an inaction bias by other policymakers [and] this could lead to an over-reliance on monetary policy," he said. But which policymakers could he possibly have in mind?

A second possible side effect is reducing the efficiency with which resources are allocated throughout the economy. Low interest rates and flattening the yield curve (pushing long-term interest rates down to the level of short-term rates) can damage banks’ profitability, leaving them with less capacity to lend.

There are also risks to the stability of the financial system when low interest rates cause the prices of property or shares (and borrowing) to boom at a time when the economy’s actually weak.

Finally, a third side-effect is a blurring of the lines between monetary policy and fiscal policy. "If the central bank is buying large amounts of government debt at zero interest rates, this could be seen as money-financed government spending," and so damage a country’s credibility internationally.