Sunday, May 1, 2022


UBS HSC Online Economics Day

I want to talk to you today about the two “arms” or “instruments” of macroeconomic management – monetary policy and fiscal policy – used by the economic managers to stabilise aggregate demand, to smooth it out as much as possible as the economy moves through the ups and downs of the business cycle. Their goal is to achieve “internal balance” – low inflation and low unemployment – but, like most balancing acts, this combination isn’t easy to achieve and maintain. That’s because the thing that makes it easy to achieve low inflation is a low rate of growth in aggregate demand – GDP – but low growth usually means high or rising unemployment. On the other hand, the thing that makes it easy to achieve low unemployment is a high rate of economic growth, but high growth usually means rising inflation pressure, as the demand for goods and services runs ahead of the economy’s ability to supply those goods and services.

In other words, there is much potential for conflict between the two objectives of macro management, low inflation and low unemployment. They don’t easily fit together, but we do want both of them. So achieving both at the same time is the great challenge the macro managers – the RBA and the elected government, as advised by Treasury – must continually struggle to achieve.

Both policy arms should push in the same direction

In principle, both arms of policy are capable of being used either to speed up demand or slow it down. For instance, if you use monetary policy to lower interest rates, that should encourage borrowing and spending and so strengthen demand. If you use monetary policy to raise interest rates, that should discourage borrowing and spending and so weaken demand. But similarly, if you use fiscal policy to increase government spending and/or cut taxes, that should stimulate demand, whereas if you use fiscal policy to cut government spending and/or increase taxes, that should restrict demand.

Again in principle, at times when the macro managers feel they have a bigger problem with high unemployment than with high inflation, they should have both arms of policy pushing in the same direction: to strengthen demand. At times when the managers feel they have a bigger problem with high inflation than with high unemployment, they should have both arms of policy pushing in the direction of restraining demand. To put it another way, the economic managers will have more trouble achieving internal balance when, for some reason – perhaps political – they have the two arms pushing in opposite directions.

But the two arms have differing strengths and weaknesses

In practice, however, it’s often not that simple. That’s because the two arms have differing sets of strengths and weaknesses. In practice, the managers have found that monetary policy is better at slowing demand than at speeding it up. This is particularly true at times when household debt is very high – as it is at present – meaning that cutting interest rates isn’t very effective in encouraging people to take on even more debt, whereas increasing interest rates is highly effective in limiting people’s ability to keep borrowing and spending. A second reason why monetary policy is less effective in encouraging spending and more effective in discouraging spending is that interest rates in recent years have been so close to zero. There’s been little scope for them to be cut, but much room for them to be increased.

By contrast, fiscal policy is probably better at boosting demand than at slowing demand. This is mainly because the budget is controlled by politicians, who find it a lot easier to increase spending or cut taxes than to cut spending or increase taxes. To put it another way, the things you do to encourage demand are politically popular, whereas the things you do to discourage demand are politically  unpopular, so it makes sense for the encouragement to be done mainly by politicians through the budget, and most of the discouragement to be done by unelected independent bureaucrats through monetary policy.

The ever-changing ‘policy mix’

This brings us to the key decisions the economic managers must make about the relative roles to be played by the two arms at any point in time. Which of the two arms should take the lead, while the other arm plays a subsidiary, supporting role? If monetary policy is better at slowing demand, while fiscal policy is better stimulating demand, which arm plays the leading role will depend on whether, at the time, high inflation or high unemployment is the main problem. As the problem changes, so will the mixture of the two policy arms.

For many years, the “policy mix” was for monetary policy to be the primary policy instrument used to achieve internal balance, with fiscal policy playing a subsidiary supporting role. This worked well when the primary policy problem was seen as high inflation rather than high unemployment.

But when the economic disruption of the pandemic arrived, with its need to lockdown the economy, the policy mix reversed, with fiscal policy becoming the main instrument, and monetary policy playing the supporting role.

Now, however, with the all the fiscal and monetary stimulus having caused the economy to bounce back strongly from the two lockdowns, the economic managers’ greatest need is to ensure the surge in imported inflation doesn’t get built into the price-wage spiral. So inflation has become the big worry and monetary policy has returned to primacy in the policy mix. As well, this year’s budget papers say the government has transitioned to the second phase of its medium-term fiscal strategy which is to “focus on growing the economy in order to stabilise and reduce debt”. So the policy mix has returned to where it was before the arrival of the pandemic.

Now let’s look in more detail at recent developments, first in monetary policy, and then fiscal policy.

Recent developments in monetary policy

Because of the seven successive years of below-trend growth after 2011-12, the Reserve Bank had cut its cash rate from 4.25 pc at the end of 2011, to 0.75 pc at the end of 2019. It’s not hard to see why it kept the official interest rate low and getting lower for so long: the inflation rate had been below its target range; wage growth had been weak, the economy had yet to accelerate and had plenty of unused production capacity.

Then the arrival of the virus led the RBA to cut rates twice in one month, March 2020, lowering the rate to 0.25 pc. Despite its previously expressed reservations, the RBA also joined the US Federal Reserve and other major central banks in engaging in quantitative easing, QE. It announced its intention to buy sufficient second-hand government bonds to ensure the “yield” (interest rate) on three-year bonds was about the same as the cash rate.

In November 2020, the RBA cut the cash rate even further to 0.1 pc, along with the target for three-year government bonds. It announced the further measure of spending $100 billion every six months buying second-hand government bonds with maturities of 5 to 10 years. Note that all the QE measures were intended to lower the interest rates paid by governments and private firms on longer-term borrowing.

In May 2022, following news that the inflation rate had jumped to 5.1 pc, the RBA announced its decision to raise the cash rate by 0.25 pc points to 0.35 pc to “begin withdrawing some of the extraordinary monetary support that was put in place to help the economy during the pandemic”. This would “start the process of normalising monetary conditions” and returning to “business as usual”. Ensuring that inflation returns to target over time “will require a further lift in interest rates over the period ahead”. Note that this will involve the RBA taking its foot off the accelerator, so to speak, not jamming on the brakes. The RBA also announced that, having ended further QE bond purchases in February, it would now move to QT – quantitative tightening – by not “rolling over” (renewing) its bond holdings as they reach maturity.

Recent developments in fiscal policy

At the time of its election in 2013, the Coalition government expressed great concern about the high budget deficit and mounting public debt it inherited, resolving to quickly get on top of both. But the budget didn’t return to balance until 2018-19. Then the pandemic caused the budget’s automatic stabilisers to go into reverse and return the budget to a large deficit. The government’s massive fiscal stimulus has added further to the deficit and public debt.

The budget deficit reached a peak of $134 billion (6.5 pc of GDP) in 2020-21, and is expected to fall to $80 billion (3.5 pc) in 2021-22, then have fallen to $43 billion (1.6 pc) in 2025-26. The budget is projected still to be in a deficit of 0.7 pc of GDP in 2032-33. The gross federal public debt is projected to reach a peak of 44.9 pc of GDP ($1.1 trillion) in June 2025, before beginning a slow decline as a proportion of national income.

With the election over, the government is likely to come under pressure from macro-economists to tighten fiscal policy somewhat and reduce the budget deficit, so as to hasten the decline in the public debt as a proportion of GDP, as well as to help monetary policy return inflation to the target range.