Showing posts with label central banks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label central banks. Show all posts

Monday, March 6, 2023

RBA inquiry should propose something much better

The inquiry into the Reserve Bank, due to report this month, will be disappointing if it does no more than suggest modest improvements in the way it does its job. The question it should answer is: should we give so much responsibility to an institution with such a limited instrument – interest rates – and with such a narrow focus?

In Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe’s lengthy appearance before the House of Representatives Economics Committee last month, he spent much of his time reminding critics that he only has one tool, so he can’t do anything to resolve the problems they were complaining about.

He’s right. But if the problems are real, and he can’t do anything about them, why should the central bank be the top dog when it comes to managing the economy, and Treasury’s job be limited to worrying about debt and deficit?

Shouldn’t the greatest responsibility go to an institution with more instruments, and ones capable of doing more tricks?

By the way, if you’re wondering why I’ve had so much to say recently about the limitations of monetary policy and the questionable convention of making it dominant in the management of the macroeconomy, it’s because it’s the obvious thing to do while we’re holding an inquiry into Reserve Bank’s performance.

Frenchman Olivier Blanchard, one of the world’s top macroeconomists, recently caused a storm when he tweeted about “a point which is often lost in discussions of inflation and central bank policy”.

“Inflation,” he wrote, “is fundamentally the outcome of the distributional conflict between firms, workers and taxpayers. It stops only when the various players are forced to accept the outcome.”

Oh, people cried, that can’t be right. Inflation is caused when the demand for goods and services exceeds the supply of them.

In truth, both propositions are correct. At the top level, inflation is simply about the imbalance between demand and supply. At a deeper level, however, “distributional conflict” between capital and labour can be the cause of that imbalance.

Businesses add to inflation when they seek to increase their profit margins. Workers and their unions add to inflation when they seek to increase their real wages by more than the productivity of labour justifies.

But this way of thinking is disconcerting to central bankers because – though there may well be a way of reducing inflation pressure by reducing the conflict between labour and capital – there’s nothing the Reserve can do about it directly.

Central banks’ interest-rate instrument can fix the problem only indirectly and brutally: by weakening demand (spending) until the warring parties are forced to suspend hostilities. So distributional conflict is the first thing monetary policy (the manipulation of interest rates) can’t really fix.

Then there’s inflation caused by other supply constraints, such as the pandemic or wars. Again, monetary policy can’t fix the constraint, just bash down demand to fit.

The next things monetary policy doesn’t do are fairness and effectiveness. When we’re trying to reduce inflation by reducing people’s ability to consume goods and services, it would be nice to do so with a tool that shared the burden widely and reasonably evenly.

A temporary increase in income tax or GST would do that, but increasing interest rates concentrates the burden on people with big mortgages. This concentration means the increase has to be that much greater to achieve the desired slowing in total consumer spending.

A further dimension of monetary policy’s unfairness is the way it mucks around with the income of savers. Their interest income suddenly dives when the Reserve decides it needs to encourage people to borrow and spend.

In theory, this is made up for when the Reserve decides to discourage people from borrowing and spending, as now. In practice, however, the banks drag their feet in passing higher interest rates on to their depositors. But it’s rare for the Reserve even to chivvy the banks for their tardiness.

Governments need to be free to encourage or discourage consumers from spending. But where’s the justification for doing this by riding on the backs of young people saving for a home and old people depending on interest income to live on?

The next thing monetary policy doesn’t do is competition. What’s supposed to keep prices no higher than they absolutely need to be is the strength of competition between businesses. You’d think this would be a matter of great interest to the Reserve, especially since there are signs that businesses increasing their “markups” are part of the present high inflation.

But only rarely does the Reserve mention the possibility, and only in passing. It gives no support to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s efforts to limit big firms’ pricing power.

The final thing monetary policy doesn’t do is housing. The Reserve is right to insist that its increases in interest rates aren’t the main reason homes have become so hard to afford.

The real reason is the failure of governments to increase the supply of homes in the places people want to live – close to the centre of the city, where the jobs are – exacerbated by their failure to provide decent public transport to outer suburbs.

But the ups and downs of mortgage interest rates must surely be making affordability worse. To this, Lowe’s reply is that, sorry, he’s got a job to do and only one instrument to do it with, so he can’t be worried about the collateral damage he’s doing to would-be young home buyers.

Well, he can’t be worried, but his political masters can. And if they’re not game to fix the fundamental factors driving up house prices, they should be willing to create an instrument for the short-term management of demand that doesn’t cause as many adverse side effects as using interest rates does.

The one big thing going for monetary policy as a way of keeping the economy on track is that the Reserve’s independence of the elected government allows it to put the economy’s needs ahead of the government’s need to sync the economy with the next election.

But, as various respected economists have pointed out, there’s no reason the government can’t design a fiscal instrument, giving another body the ability to raise or lower it within a specified range, and making that body independent, too.

It’s the Reserve Bank inquiry’s job to give the government some advice on why and how it should make a change for the better.


Monday, February 27, 2023

The rich world should think twice about 'central bankism'

For the best part of 30 years, the governments of the advanced countries have outsourced the management of their economies to independent central banks. For many of those years, this change looked to have been a smart one. Now, not so much.

If the central banks’ efforts to get on top of the huge and quite unexpected surge in inflation that followed the pandemic go too far, and the rich countries end up in a severe recession, the inevitable search for someone to blame will lead straight to the door of the central bank.

After all, it was the central bank that, ignoring all the cries of pain, insisted on raising interest rates as far and fast as it did. And, as would by then be obvious, it misjudged and went too far.

It ignored the first rule for econocrats using a policy tool notorious for its “long and variable lags”: if you keep tightening until you’re sure you’ve got inflation beat, you’re sure to have gone too far.

You kept telling us it wasn’t your intention to cause a recession, but we got one anyway. So, were you lying to us, or just incompetent?

That’s my first point: if we do end up in recession, the independent central banks will get the blame, and there’ll be a posse of angry voters around the world demanding they be stripped of their independence.

But even if – as we hope - the worst doesn’t come to the worst, there’ll still be a strong case for our politicians to ask the obvious question: surely there must be a better way to run a railroad?

The rich world moved to central bank independence in the 1990s for strictly pragmatic reasons: because governments couldn’t be trusted to move the interest rate lever up and down to fit the economic cycle, not the political cycle.

Fine. But this is a democracy. How come a bunch of unelected bureaucrats have been given so much power? The fact is, independent central banking’s legitimacy comes solely because a duly elected government saw fit to grant it that freedom, and the present government hasn’t seen fit to take it away. Yet.

The trick is, if a central bank really stuffs up, voters will be furious, and they’ll turn on the only people they can turn on: the government of the day. You may think that, should a government of one colour be tossed out because of the central bank’s almighty stuff-up, the incoming government of the other colour would be mighty pleased with the central bank.

No way. What it would think is: if those bastards could do it to the others, they could just as easily do it to us. The new government’s first act would be to clip the central bankers’ wings.

The broader point is that independent central banking was not ordained by God. It’s just a policy choice we made at a time when it seemed like a good idea. When circumstances change, and we realise it wasn’t such a good idea, we’ll be perfectly equipped and entitled to change to a different policy arrangement we hope will work better.

Of course, moving away from economic management by interest-rate manipulation wouldn’t please everyone. It wouldn’t please academic economists who’d devoted their lives to the study of monetary economics (and right now, are hoping for a well-paid spot on the Reserve Bank board).

Nor would it suit the industry that, over the past 30 years, has grown up on the pavement outside the central bank’s building, so to speak. All the money market dealers who make their living betting on whether the central bank will change rates this month and by how much. Nor the economists who write the professional punters’ tip sheets.

And it’s a safe bet it wouldn’t suit the big banks, who’d much prefer the economy to be run by their mates down the road in Martin Place, rather than all those unknown bureaucrats and politicians in Canberra.

When you let one institution run the economy day to day for so long, it starts to get proprietorial. It’s in change of the economy and, when problems arise, it must be the outfit that takes charge and does what’s necessary to fix things.

There’s never a time when you admit that some other institution – the government and its Treasury advisers, for instance – should take the running because their instrument, the budget, is more multifaceted and suited to the problem than is your one-trick-pony instrument, interest rates.

And you do this even when the official interest rate is not far above zero. You tell everyone who thinks you’re out of ammo and should leave the running to Treasury and fiscal policy, they’re wrong, and resort to quantitative easing and other “unconventional measures”.

I reckon a big part of the reason what we thought was a problem of holding the economy together while we dealt with the pandemic turned into the worst inflationary episode in 30 years was the uncalled-for intervention of central banks, pushing themselves to the front of the fiscal parade.

And this from the institution that’s spend decades telling us it knows more about inflation than everyone else, cares more about inflation than anything else, and accepts ultimate responsibility to protect us from the supreme evil of inflation.

Today’s conventional wisdom says the present inflation surge was caused by big pandemic and war-caused supply shortages coming at a time when demand had been overstimulated. But a big part of that overstimulation occurred because central banks insisted on coming in over the top of those who were better equipped to respond to the pandemic and, indeed, were responsible for ordering and policing the lockdowns: the federal and state governments.

In Australia, nowhere was this overkill more apparent than in housing. While both federal and state governments were instituting temporary incentives to encourage home building, the central bank was not only slashing the official interest rate to near zero, it was lending to the banks at a hugely concessional rate, and buying second-hand government bonds, so the banks could offer home buyers two and three-year fixed-interest loans.

Throw in a temporary, pandemic-caused shortage of imported building materials, and you have much of our inflation surge being explained by an astonishing 27 per cent leap in the cost of a newly built home.

Why wasn’t there any co-ordination between the three arms of government that caused this avoidable inflationary disaster? Because the central bank is independent. It acts on its own volition.

But also because, when your only tool is a one-trick pony, you end up wearing blinkers. When you can only join the game by putting rates up or putting them down, you just can’t afford to worry about anyone who may be sideswiped in the process.