Monday, March 8, 2021

QE is a lobster pot: easy get it, hard to get out unscathed

Since the global financial crisis and more so since the coronacession, the normal way things work in financial markets has been turned on its head. Standard monetary policy (the manipulation of interest rates) has stopped working so, led by the US Federal Reserve, the biggest rich economies have plunged into “quantitative easing” (QE) and other “unconventional policies” which, frankly, are weird and wonderful.

Heading our response to this topsy-turvy world has been Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe. There’s never a shortage of smarties thinking they could do a much better job than the governor – whoever he happens to be – but Lowe’s getting a double dose of second-guessing. I don’t envy him – I’m just glad it’s him making the impossible calls, not me.

Lowe’s having to respond to forces way beyond his control. We’ve seen official interest rates around the world fall to zero because of a lasting global imbalance between saving and investment (or, alternatively, because the US Fed stuffed up). With interest rates already so low, further rate cuts ceased to have much effect in encouraging borrowing and spending on consumption and investment goods.

Undeterred, the Fed leapt into QE - buying longer-dated second-hand government bonds with created money - and soon was joined by the Europeans, Brits and Japanese. This did little to stimulate demand for goods and services, but did inflate the prices of houses, shares and other assets, as well as lowering your exchange rate relative to everyone else’s.

The Europeans went even further down the crazy paving to “negative” interest rates (where the lenders pay the borrowers to borrow their money) and now the Americans are considering it.

Lowe resisted cutting our official interest rate to zero and engaging in QE, until the pandemic prompted the big boys to do yet more of it. His hesitation revealed his scepticism about the benefits and risks of QE, though he did want to keep the Reserve at the demand management top table.

In any case, he didn’t think he could go on letting the big boys devalue their currencies at the expense of our industries’ international price competitiveness – especially when the return to top-dollar iron ore prices was pushing up our “commodity currency”. Had he not acted, exporters and importers would be screaming abuse and unemployment would be worse.

But this has plunged Lowe into a world of second-guessers. Some smarties are criticising him for not cutting the official rate to zero early enough and not doing much more QE. But others – businessman Andrew Mohl, in the Financial Review, for instance - are making the opposite criticism: why is he engaging in behaviour every ex-central banker knows is bad policy and highly risky?

I think the RBA old boys’ association’s fears about QE make more sense than the critique of the shoulda-done-double brigade. But everyone needs to remember Lowe had little choice but to join the big boys’ high-risk game, where they’ll worry about the fallout later.

It’s a delusion that, in the years before the arrival of the virus, growth would have been much stronger had Lowe acted earlier and harder. These critics conveniently ignore the obvious truth – which Lowe quietly but continually spoke of - that growth was weak not because he wasn’t trying hard enough to stimulate it, but because the elected government had its policy arm (the budget; fiscal policy) pushing in the opposite direction as it sought the glory of a budget surplus.

The shoulda-done-double brigade refuse to accept that monetary policy has lost its potency partly because fixing the economy with monetary policy is their only expertise and way of earning a living, and partly because their Smaller Government political inclination makes them disapproving of using increased government spending – though never tax cuts – to stimulate demand.

The RBA old boys’ association (and they are all boys) is right that we ought to be thinking a lot more about the reasons “unconventional” measures have formerly been verboten. QE doesn’t do what monetary policy’s supposed to, but does foster asset-price inflation, does risk boom and bust in asset markets, does favour the better-off, and does foster “beggar-thy-neighbour” exchange-rate contests.

The most immediate and worrying aspect of this is what it’s doing and will do to house prices and the affordability of home ownership. It’s literally true, but not good enough, for Lowe to say the Reserve doesn’t, and shouldn’t, target house prices. Saying the stability of the housing market isn’t the Reserve’s department won’t, and shouldn’t, save the central bank from copping most of the blame should something go badly wrong. (Little blame will go to the distortions caused by tax policy and local planning rules.)

People have been predicting a collapse in house prices for decades, but the more house prices are allowed to move out of line with household incomes – and the more highly geared the nation’s households become - the greater the risk the Jeremiahs’ prophecies come to pass.

It makes no sense for the people living on a big island to bid the prices of their fairly fixed stock of houses higher and higher and higher, then tell themselves how much richer they all are. Is this prudent central banking?

The equanimity with which some people contemplate negative interest rates is remarkable. Sometimes I think too much maths can make economists mad. The arithmetic works the same whether you put a minus sign or a plus sign in front of an interest rate, but the humans don’t. It’s not much better when you think paying oldies a zero interest rate on their savings a matter of no consequence.

When central bankers manipulate interest rates to encourage or discourage borrowing and spending, they are knowingly distorting prices and behaviour in the financial markets. Conventionally, they have minimised their distortion of market signals by limiting themselves to affecting short-term and variable interest rates.

But QE takes their distortion further out along the maturity “yield curve”, interfering with the market’s ability to decide how much more a saver should be paid for tying up their money for 10 years rather than one. When you move to negative interest rates, you rob pension and insurance funds of the ability to match their financial assets with their long-term liabilities.

One of the signals the market should be sending via longer-term yields (interest rates) on government bonds is the inflation rate it’s expecting down the track. This, by the way, explains why the Reserve is wise to buy only second-hand government bonds – that is, buy them at a market-set price – rather than buying them direct from the government, even though it’s buying them with newly created money either way.

As the economy’s CCO – chief confidence officer – Lowe is in no position to bang on about the costs and risks involved as the big boys force us further down the crazy paving of unconventional monetary policy. It’s the more academically inclined outside monetary experts who should be urging caution rather than criticising Lowe for not doing double.