Showing posts with label interest rates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label interest rates. Show all posts

Friday, June 7, 2024

The RBA has squeezed us like a lemon, but it's still not happy

Let me be the last to tell you the economy has almost ground to a halt and is teetering on the edge of recession. This has happened by design, not accident. But it doesn’t seem to be working properly. So, what happens now? Until we think of something better, more of the same.

Since May 2022, the Reserve Bank has been hard at work “squeezing inflation out of the system”. By increasing the official interest rate 4.25 percentage points in just 18 months, it has produced the sharpest tightening of the interest-rate screws on households with mortgages in at least 30 years.

To be fair, the Reserve’s had a lot of help with the squeezing. The nation’s landlords have used the shortage of rental accommodation to whack up rents.

And the federal government’s played its part. An unannounced decision by the Morrison government not to continue the low- and middle-income tax offset had the effect of increasing many people’s income tax by up to $1500 a year in about July last year. Bracket creep, as well, has been taking a bigger bite out of people’s pay rises.

With this week’s release of the latest “national accounts”, we learnt just how effective the squeeze on households’ budgets has been. The growth in the economy – real gross domestic product – slowed to a microscopic 0.1 per cent in the three months to the end of March, and just 1.1 per cent over the year to March. That compares with growth in a normal year of 2.4 per cent.

This weak growth has occurred at a time when the population has been growing strongly, by 0.5 per cent during the quarter and 2.5 per cent over the year. So, real GDP per person actually fell by 0.4 per cent during the quarter and by 1.3 per cent during the year.

As the Commonwealth Bank’s Gareth Aird puts it, the nation’s economic pie is still expanding modestly, but the average size of the slice of pie that each Australian has received over the past five quarters has progressively shrunk.

But if we return to looking at the whole pie – real GDP – the quarterly changes over the past five quarters show a clear picture of an economy slowing almost to a stop: 0.6 per cent, 0.4 per cent, 0.2 per cent, 0.3 per cent and now 0.1 per cent.

It’s not hard to determine what part of GDP has done the most to cause that slowdown. One component accounts for more than half of total GDP – household consumption spending. Here’s how it’s grown over the past six quarters: 0.8 per cent, 0.2 per cent, 0.5 per cent, 0.0 per cent, 0.3 per cent and 0.4 per cent.

A further sign of how tough households are doing: the part of their disposable income they’ve been able to save each quarter has fallen from 10.8 per cent to 0.9 per cent over the past two years.

So, if the object of the squeeze has been to leave households with a lot less disposable income to spend on other things, it’s been a great success.

The point is, when our demand for goods and services grows faster than the economy’s ability to supply them, businesses take the opportunity to increase their prices – something we hate.

But if we want the authorities to stop prices rising so quickly, they have only one crude way to do so: by raising mortgage interest rates and income tax to limit our ability to keep spending so strongly.

When the demand for their products is much weaker, businesses won’t be game to raise their prices much.

So, is it working? Yes, it is. Over the year to December 2022, consumer prices rose by 7.8 per cent. Since then, however, the rate of inflation has fallen to 3.6 per cent over the year to March.

Now, you may think that 3.6 per cent isn’t all that far above the Reserve’s inflation target of 2 per cent to 3 per cent, so we surely must be close to the point where, with households flat on the floor with their arms twisted up their back, the Reserve is preparing to ease the pain.

But apparently not. It seems to be worried inflation’s got stuck at 3.6 per cent and may not fall much further. In her appearance before a Senate committee this week, Reserve governor Michele Bullock said nothing to encourage the idea that a cut in interest rates was imminent. She even said she’d be willing to raise rates if needed to keep inflation slowing.

It’s suggested the Reserve is worried that we have what economists call a “positive output gap”. That is, the economy’s still supplying more goods and services than it’s capable of continuing to supply, creating a risk that inflation will stay above the target range or even start going back up.

With demand so weak, and so many people writhing in pain, I find this hard to believe. I think it’s just a fancy way of saying the Reserve is worried that employment is still growing and unemployment has risen only a little. Maybe it needs to see more blood on the street before it will believe we’re getting inflation back under control.

If so, we’re running a bigger risk of recession than the Reserve cares to admit. And if interest rates stay high for much longer, I doubt next month’s tax cuts will be sufficient to save us.

Another possibility is that what’s stopping inflation’s return to the target is not continuing strong demand, but problems on the supply side of the economy – problems we’ve neglected to identify, and problems that high interest rates can do nothing to correct.

Problems such as higher world petrol prices and higher insurance premiums caused by increased extreme weather events.

I’d like to see Bullock put up a big sign in the Reserve’s office: “If it’s not coming from demand, interest rates won’t fix it.”

Read more >>

Monday, March 11, 2024

RBA will decide how long the economy's slump lasts

The media are always setting “tests” that the government – or the opposition – must pass to stay on top of its game. But this year, it’s the Reserve Bank facing a big test: will it crash the economy in its efforts to get inflation down?

There’s a trick, however: when the Reserve stuffs up, it doesn’t pay the price, the elected government does. This asymmetry is the downside of the modern fashion of allowing central banks to be independent of the elected government. Everything’s fine until the econocrats get it badly wrong.

It’s clear from last week’s national accounts that the economy has slowed to stalling speed. It could easily slip into recession – especially as defined by the lightweight two-successive-quarters-of-negative-growth brigade – or, more likely, just go for a period in which the population keeps growing but the economy, the real gross domestic product, doesn’t, and causes unemployment to keep rising.

Because interest rates affect the economy with a lag, the trick to successful central banking is to get your timing right. If you don’t take your foot off the brake until you see a sign saying “inflation: 2.5 per cent”, you’re bound to run off the road.

So now’s the time to think hard about lifting your foot and, to mix the metaphor, ensuring the landing is soft rather than hard.

Here’s a tip for Reserve Bank governor Michele Bullock. If you get it wrong and cause the Albanese government to be tossed out in a year or so’s time, two adverse consequences for the Reserve would follow.

First, it would be decades before the Labor Party ever trusted the Reserve again. Second, the incoming Dutton government wouldn’t feel a shred of secret gratitude to the Reserve for helping it to an undeserved win. Rather, it would think: we must make sure those bastards in Martin Place aren’t able to trip us up like they did Labor.

Last week’s national accounts told us just what we should have expected. They showed that real GDP – the nation’s total production of goods and services – grew by a negligible 0.2 per cent over the three months to the end of December.

This meant the economy grew by 1.5 per cent over the course of 2023. If that looks sort of OK, it isn’t. Get this: over the past five quarters, the percentage rate of growth has been 0.8, 0.6, 0.5, 0.3 and 0.2. How’s that for a predictable result?

Now you know why, just before the figures were released, Treasurer Jim Chalmers warned that we could see a small negative. It’s a warning we can expect to hear again this year.

If you ignore the short-lived, lockdown-caused recession of 2020, 1.5 per cent is the weakest growth in 23 years.

But it’s actually worse than it looks. What measly growth we did get was more than accounted for by the rapid, post-COVID growth in our population. GDP per person fell in all four quarters of last year.

So whereas real GDP grew by 1.5 per cent, GDP per person fell by 1 per cent. We’ve been in a “per-person recession” for a year.

It’s not hard to see where the weaker growth in overall GDP is coming from. Consumer spending makes up more than half of GDP, and it grew by a mere 0.1 per cent in both the December quarter and the year.

At a time when immigration is surging, and it’s almost impossible to find rental accommodation, spending on the building of new homes fell by more than 3 per cent over the year.

Of course, this slowdown is happening not by accident, but by design. Demand for goods and services had been growing faster than the economy’s ability to supply them, permitting businesses of all kinds to whack up their prices and leaving us with a high rate of inflation.

Economists – super-smart though they consider themselves to be – have been able to think of no better way to stop businesses exploiting this opportunity to profit at the expense of their customers than to knock Australia’s households on the head, so they can no longer spend as much.

For the past several decades, we’ve done this mainly by putting up interest rates, so people with mortgages were so tightly pressed they had no choice but to cut their spending. The Reserve began doing this during the election campaign in May 2022, and did it again 12 more times, with the last increase as recently as last November.

It would be wrong, however, to give the Reserve all the credit – or the blame – for the 12 months of slowdown we’ve seen. It’s had help from many quarters. First is the remarkable rise in rents, the chief cause of which is an acute shortage of rental accommodation, affecting roughly a third of households.

Next are the nation’s businesses which, in their zeal to limit inflation, have raised their wages by about 4.5 percentage points less than they’ve raised their prices. Talk about sacrifice.

And finally, there’s the federal government, which has done its bit by restraining its spending and allowing bracket creep to claw back a fair bit of the inflation-caused growth in wage rates. As a consequence, the budget has swung from deficit to surplus, thereby helping to restrain aggregate demand.

It’s the help the Reserve has had from so many sources that risks causing it to underestimate the vigour with which spending is now being restrained. It’s far from the only boy standing on the burning deck.

Last week some were criticising the Reserve for popping up in November, after doing nothing for five months, and giving the interest-rate screws another turn while, as we now know, the economy was still roaring along at the rate of 0.2 per cent a quarter.

The critics are forgetting the politics of economics. That isolated tightening was probably the new governor signalling to the world that she was no pushover when it came to the Reserve’s sacred duty to protect us from inflation.

In any case, a rate rise of a mere 0.25 per cent isn’t much in the scheme of things. It’s possible that quite a few hard-pressed home buyers felt the extra pain. But when did anyone ever worry about them and their pain? It was the central bankers’ duty to sacrifice them to the economy’s greater good – namely, preventing the nation’s profit-happy chief executives from doing what comes naturally to all good oligopolists.

The looming stage 3 tax cuts should give a great boost to the economy, of course, provided seriously rattled families don’t choose to save rather than spend them.

What matters most, however, is by how much unemployment and underemployment rise before the economy resumes firing on all cylinders. So far, the rate of unemployment has risen to 4.1 per cent from its low of 3.5 per cent in February last year.

By recent standards, that’s still an exceptionally low level, and a modest increase in the rate. But for a more definitive assessment, come back this time next year.

Read more >>

Monday, March 4, 2024

Contrary to appearances, the stage 3 tax cuts will leave us worse off

It’s time we stopped kidding ourselves about the looming tax cuts. They’re what you get when neither of the two big parties is game to make real tax reforms, and the best they can do is lumber us with yet another failed attempt to wedge the other side.

If you want real reform, vote for the minor parties, which may be able to use their bargaining power in the Senate to get something sensible put through.

The stage 3 tax cuts always were irresponsible, and still are. They’ve caused interest rates to be raised by more than they needed to be, and they’ll leave us with substandard government services, as well as plunging us back into deficit and debt.

Only an irresponsible (Coalition) government would commit themselves to making a huge tax cut of a specified shape more than six years ahead of an unknowable future, hoping they could trick Labor into making itself an easy political target by opposing them.

Back then, the Libs thought the budget was returning to continuing surpluses. Wrong. They didn’t think there’d be a pandemic. Wrong. They had no idea it would be followed by an inflation surge and a cost-of-living crisis.

Only an irresponsible (Labor) opposition would go along with legislating the tax cuts five years ahead of time, then promise not to change them should it win the 2022 election.

Let’s be clear. Just because Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s changes made the tax cuts less unfair, that doesn’t make them good policy. And just because many families, hard-pressed by the cost-of-living crisis, will be pleased to have the relief the tax cuts bring, that doesn’t mean the tax cuts are now good policy.

Don’t be misled by the Reserve Bank’s acceptance of Albanese’s claim that his changes would not add to inflation. Any $20 billion-a-year tax cut is a huge stimulus to demand, imparting further upward pressure on prices.

All the Reserve was saying was that diverting a lump of the tax cut from high-income earners to middle and low earners wouldn’t make much difference to the degree of stimulus. Why wasn’t it worried about a $20 billion inflationary stimulus? Because it had known it was coming for years, and had already taken account of it, increasing interest rates sufficiently to counter its future inflationary effect.

Get it? Had there been no huge tax cut in the offing, interest rates would now be lower than they are, and causing less cost-of-living pain.

As the Grattan Institute’s Brendan Coates and Kate Griffiths have reminded us, the big loser from the stage 3 tax cuts – whether the original or the revised version – is the budget.

The budget has done surprisingly well from the return to full employment, the effect of continuing high commodity prices on miners’ payments of company tax and from wage inflation’s effect on bracket creep. So much so that it returned to a healthy surplus last financial year. It may well stay in surplus this financial year.

Great. But next year it’s likely to return to deficit and stay there for the foreseeable future. Why? Because we can’t afford to give ourselves a $20 billion annual tax cut at this time. As if we didn’t have enough debt already, we’ll be borrowing to pay for our tax cut.

In theory, of course, we could pay for it with a $20 billion-a-year cut in government spending. But, as the Coalition was supposed to have learnt in 2014 – when voters reacted badly to its plans for big spending cuts, and it had to drop them post-haste – this is a pipe dream.

No, in truth, what voters are demanding is more spending, not less. The previous government went for years using fair means or foul – robo-debt, finding excuses to suspend people’s dole payments, neglecting aged care, allowing waiting lists to build up – to hold back government spending as part of its delusional claim to be able to reduce taxes.

As Dr Mike Keating, a former top econocrat, has said, we keep forgetting that the purpose of taxation is to pay for the services that our society demands, and which are best financed collectively.

So when we award ourselves a tax cut we can’t afford, the first thing we do is condemn ourselves to continuing unsatisfactory existing services, and few of the additional services we need.

Those additional services include education – from early education to university – healthcare, childcare, aged care, disability care and defence. (Another thing the Libs didn’t foresee in 2018: our desperate need to acquire nuclear subs.)

But don’t hold your breath waiting for any politician from either major party to explain that home truth to the punters. No, much better to keep playing the crazy game where the Libs unceasingly claim to be the party of “lower, simpler and fairer taxes” and Labor says “I’ll see you and raise you”.

Anyone who knows the first thing about tax reform knows that achieving that trifecta is impossible. But if the Liberal lightweights realise how stupid repeating that nonsense makes them seem to the economically literate, they don’t care.

All they know is that the punters lap up that kind of self-delusion. Which, of course, is why Labor never calls them out on their nonsense.

The other thing we do by pressing on with tax cuts we can’t afford is sign up for more deficits and debt. Coates and Griffiths remind us that the high commodity prices the budget is benefitting from surely can’t last forever.

If you exclude this temporary benefit, Grattan estimates that we’re running a “structural” budget deficit of close to 2 per cent of gross domestic product, or about $50 billion a year in today’s dollars.

We’re ignoring it now, but one day we’ll have to at least start covering the extra interest we’ll be paying. How? By increasing taxes. How else? Ideally, we’d introduce new taxes that improved our economic efficiency or the system’s fairness. Far more likely, we’ll just be given back less bracket creep.

It’s the pollies’ bipartite policy of not stopping bracket creep by indexing the income tax scales each year that makes their unceasing talk of lower tax so dishonest and hypocritical. They’ve demonised all new taxes or overt increases in existing taxes, while keeping bracket creep hidden in their back pocket.

Which is not to argue we must eradicate it. Most of the tax reform we’ve had – notably, the introduction of the goods and services tax – has come with the political sweetener of a big, bracket-creep-funded cut in income tax. (Would-be reformers, please note.)

Another name for bracket creep is “automatic stabiliser”. When spending is growing strongly and inflation pressure is building, bracket creep is one of the budget’s main instruments working automatically to help restrain demand by causing people’s after-tax income to rise by a lower percentage than their pre-tax income.

The pollies can’t just let bracket creep roll on for forever. You have to use the occasional tax cut to return some of the proceeds. But July 2024 turned out to be quite the wrong time to do it.

So even if the Reserve starts to cut interest rates towards the end of this year, the tax cuts mean rates will stay higher for longer than they needed to.

Read more >>

Monday, December 18, 2023

How full employment has changed the economy

This may be the first time you’ve watched the managers of the economy using high interest rates and a tighter budget to throttle demand to get inflation down. But if it isn’t your first, have you noticed how much harder they’re finding it to catch the raging bull?

It explains why both the previous and the new Reserve Bank governor have been so twitchy. How, after they seem to have made as many interest rate rises as they thought they needed, they keep coming back for another one.

The economy isn’t working the way it used to. Have you noticed that, although consumer spending stopped dead in the September quarter, and overall growth in the economy slowed to a microscopic 0.2 per cent, there’s been so little weakness in the jobs market?

Although there’s no doubt about how hard most households have been squeezed over the course of this year, how come the rate of unemployment has risen only marginally from 3.5 per cent to a still-far-below-average 3.9 per cent in November?

And if the economy’s been slowing for the whole of this year, how come the budget balance is getting better rather than worse, with Treasurer Jim Chalmers achieving a surplus last financial year and hoping for another in the year to next June?

There are lots of particular things that help explain these surprising results – world commodity prices have stayed high; some parts of the economy change earlier than others – but there’s one, more fundamental factor that towers over all the others: this is the first time in 50 years that we’ve been trying to slow a runaway economy that’s reached anything like full employment.

It turns out that throttling an economy that’s fully employed is much harder to do. Households are more resilient and, after a period when it’s been hard to get hold of all the workers they need, businesses have been far less inclined to add to the slowdown by shedding staff.

Remember that we reached full employment by happy accident. Between the unco-ordinated stimulus of state as well as federal governments, plus the Reserve cutting rates to near-zero, we (like many other rich economies) hit the accelerator far too hard during the pandemic.

This was apparent after the pandemic had eased and before the Morrison government’s final budget in March last year. But there was no way Scott Morrison was going to hit the budget brakes just before an election.

So the econocrats in the Reserve and Treasury resigned themselves to second prize: an unemployment rate much lower than what they were used to and felt comfortable with.

Because the pandemic had also caused us to close our borders and thus block employers’ access to skilled and unskilled immigrant labour, the econocrats got far more than they expected: unemployment so low we hit full employment.

The jobs market is getting less tight, with the number of job vacancies having fallen a long way, but last week’s figures for November showed how strong the labour market remains.

Sure, unemployment rose a fraction to 3.9 per cent, but this is no higher than it was in May last year. And the month saw total employment actually grow, by more than a remarkable 61,000 jobs during the month.

After all this slowing and all this pain, the rate at which people of working age are participating in the labour force by either having a job or actively seeking one has reached a record high.

And almost 65 per cent of the working-age population has a job – a proportion that’s never been higher in Australia’s history.

Employment is still growing strongly, partly because of the rebound in immigration, with foreign students in particular filling part-time job vacancies.

But also, it seems, because more hard-pressed families are trying to make ends meet by taking second jobs. In past downturns, those jobs wouldn’t have been there to be taken.

To force households to spend less, they’re being hit with three sticks. Obviously, by raising mortgage interest rates. Also by employers, taken as a group, raising the wages they pay by less than they’ve raised their prices (have you noticed how Chalmers avoids referring to the cut in real wages by just blaming “inflation”?).

And, third, by the government allowing bracket creep to take a bigger bite out of what pay rises the workers do manage to get.

But there’s another factor that’s been working in the opposite direction, adding to households’ ability to keep spending: over the year to November, the number of people with jobs rose by more than 440,000. That’s a full-employment economy.

All the extra people with jobs pay income tax. All the part-time workers able to get more hours pay more tax. All the people getting second jobs pay more tax. Add the bigger bite out of pay rises, and you see why Chalmers’ budget’s so flush.

But note this: the many benefits of full employment come at a cost – “opportunity cost”. As a coming paper by Matt Saunders and Dr Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute will remind us, “opportunity cost makes it clear that when resources are used for one purpose, they become unavailable for other purposes”.

So when we’re at or close to full employment, any developer, business executive or politician seeking our support for any project because “it will create jobs” should be laughed at. Where will the workers come from to fill the jobs? You’ll have to pinch them from some other employer.

This is especially true when the jobs you want to create are for workers with specialist skills.

According to a federal government report, in October last year there were 83 major resource and energy projects at the committed stage, worth $83 billion. But about two thirds of these were for the development of fossil fuels, including the expansion of nearby ports.

Really? And this at a time when the electricity grid needs urgent reconfiguration as part of our move to a low-carbon economy, but projects are being deferred because you can’t get the workers?

As Saunders and Denniss conclude, “With rapid population growth and the stated need to transform our energy system, the real cost of spending tens of billions of dollars building new gas and coal projects is the lost opportunity to invest in the infrastructure and energy transformation the Australian economy needs.”

I think Jim Chalmers needs to explain the iron law of opportunity cost to his boss. And make sure Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen’s in the meeting.

Read more >>

Friday, December 15, 2023

Chalmers finds a better way to get inflation down: fix the budget

There’s an important point to learn from this week’s mid-(financial)-year’s budget update: in the economy, as in life, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

The big news is that, after turning last year’s previously expected budget deficit into a surplus of $22 billion – our first surplus in 15 years – Treasurer Jim Chalmers is now expecting this financial year’s budget deficit to be $1.1 billion, not the $13.9 billion he was expecting at budget time seven months’ ago.

Now, though $1.1 billion is an unimaginably huge sum to you and me, in an economy of our size it’s a drop in the ocean. Compared with gross domestic product – the nominal value of all the goods and services we expect to produce in 2023-24 – it rounds to 0.0 per cent.

So, for practical purposes, it would be a balanced budget. And as Chalmers says, it’s “within striking distance” of another budget surplus.

This means that, compared with the prospects for the budget we were told about before the federal election in May last year, Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher have made huge strides in reducing the government’s “debt and deficit”. Yay!

But here’s the point. We live in the age of “central bankism”, where we’ve convinced ourselves that pretty much the only way to steer the economy between the Scylla of high inflation and the Charybdis of high unemployment is to whack interest rates up or down, AKA monetary policy.

It ain’t true. Which means Chalmers may be right to avoid including in the budget update any further measures to relieve cost-of-living pressures and, rather, give top priority to improving the budget balance, thereby increasing the downward pressure on inflation.

The fact is, we’ve always had two tools or instruments the managers of the economy can use to smooth its path through the ups and downs of the business cycle, avoiding both high unemployment and high inflation. One is monetary policy – the manipulation of interest rates – but the other is fiscal policy, the manipulation of government spending and taxation via the budget.

This year we’ve been reminded how unsatisfactory interest rates are as a way of trying to slow inflation. Monetary policy puts people with big mortgages through the wringer, but lets the rest of us off lightly. This is both unfair and inefficient.

Which is why we should make much more use of the budget to fight inflation. That’s what Chalmers is doing. The more we use the budget, the less the Reserve Bank needs to raise interest rates. This spreads the pain more evenly – to the two-thirds of households that don’t have mortgages – which should be both fairer and more effective.

Starting at the beginning, in a market economy prices are set by the interaction of supply and demand: how much producers and distributors want to be paid to sell you their goods and services, versus how much consumers are willing and able to pay for them.

The rapid rise in consumer prices we saw last year came partly from disruptions to supply caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war. There’s nothing higher interest rates can do to fix supply problems and, in any case, they’re gradually going away.

But another cause of the jump in prices was strong demand for goods and services, arising from all the stimulus the federal and state governments applied during the pandemic, not to mention the Reserve’s near-zero interest rates.

Since few people were out of job for long, this excessive stimulus left many workers and small business people with lots to spend. And when demand exceeded supply, businesses did what came naturally and raised their prices.

How do you counter demand-driven inflation? By making it much harder for people to keep spending so strongly. Greatly increasing how much people have to pay on their mortgages each month leaves them with much less to spend on other things.

Then, as demand for their products falls back, businesses stop increasing their prices and may even start offering discounts.

But governments can achieve the same squeeze on households by stopping their budgets putting more money into the economy than they’re taking out in taxes. When they run budget surpluses by taking more tax out of the economy than they put back in government spending, they squeeze households even tighter.

So that’s the logic Chalmers is following in eliminating the budget deficit and aiming for surpluses to keep downward pressure on prices. This has the secondary benefit of getting the government’s finances back in shape.

But how has the budget balance improved so much while Chalmers has been in charge? Not so much by anything he’s done as by what he hasn’t.

The government’s tax collections have grown much more strongly than anyone expected. Chalmers and his boss, Anthony Albanese, have resisted the temptation to spend much of this extra moolah.

The prices of our commodity exports have stayed high, causing mining companies to pay more tax. And the economy has grown more strongly than expected, allowing other businesses to raise their prices, increase their profits and pay more tax.

More people have got jobs and paid tax on their wages, while higher consumer prices have meant bigger wage rises for existing workers, pushing them into higher tax brackets.

This is the budget’s “automatic stabilisers” responding to strong growth in the economy by increasing tax collections and improving the budget balance, which acts as a brake on strong demand for goods and services.

There’s just one problem. Chalmers has joined the anti-inflation drive very late in the piece. The Reserve has already raised interest rates a long way, with much of the dampening effect still to flow through and weaken demand to the point where inflation pressure falls back to the 2 per cent to 3 per cent target.

We just have to hope that, between Reserve governor Michele Bullock’s monetary tightening and Chalmers’ fiscal tightening, they haven’t hit the economy much harder than they needed to.

Read more >>

Monday, September 11, 2023

How Philip Lowe was caught on the cusp of history

Outgoing Reserve Bank boss Dr Philip Lowe was our most academically outstanding governor, with the highest ethical standards. And he was a nice person. But if you judge him by his record in keeping inflation within the Reserve’s 2 to 3 per cent target – as some do, but I don’t – he achieved it in just nine of the 84 months he was in charge.

Even so, my guess is that history will be kinder to him than his present critics. I’ve been around long enough to know that, every so often – say, every 30 or 40 years – the economy changes in ways that undermine the economics profession’s conventional wisdom about how the economy works and how it should be managed.

This is what happened in the second half of the 1970s – right at the time I became a journalist – when the advent of “stagflation” caused macroeconomists to switch from a Keynesian preoccupation with full employment and fiscal policy (the budget) to a monetarist preoccupation with inflation and monetary policy (at first, the supply of money; then interest rates).

My point here is that it took economists about a decade of furious debate to complete the shift from the old, failing wisdom to the new, more promising wisdom. I think the ground has shifted again under the economists’ feet, that the macroeconomic fashion is going to swing from monetary policy back to fiscal policy but, as yet, only a few economists have noticed the writing on the wall.

As is his role, Lowe has spent the past 15 months defending the established way of responding to an inflation surge against the criticism of upstarts (including me) refusing to accept the conventional view that TINA prevails – “there is no alternative” way to control inflation than to cut real wages and jack up interest rates.

If I’m right, and economists are in the very early stages of accepting that changes in the structure of the economy have rendered the almost exclusive use of monetary policy for inflation control no longer fit for purpose, then history will look back more sympathetically on Lowe as a man caught by the changing tide, a victim of the economics profession’s then failure to see what everyone these days accepts as obvious.

Final speeches are often occasions when departing leaders feel able to speak more frankly now that they’re free of the responsibilities of office. And Lowe’s “Some Closing Remarks” speech on Thursday made it clear he’d been giving much thought to monetary policy’s continuing fitness for purpose.

His way of putting it in the speech was to say that one of the “fixed points” in his thinking that he had always returned to was that “we are likely to get better outcomes if monetary policy and fiscal policy are well aligned”. Let me give you his elaboration in full.

“My view has long been that if we were designing optimal policy arrangements from scratch, monetary and fiscal policy would both have a role in managing the economic cycle and inflation, and that there would be close coordination,” Lowe said.

“The current global consensus is that monetary policy is the main cyclical policy instrument and should be assigned the job of managing inflation. This is partly because monetary policy is more nimble [it can be changed more quickly and easily than fiscal policy] and is not influenced by political considerations.”

“Raising interest rates and tightening policy can make you very unpopular, as I know all too well. This means that it is easier for an independent central bank to do this than it is for politicians,” he said.

“This assignment of responsibility makes sense and has worked reasonably well. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to something better. Monetary policy is a powerful instrument, but it has its limitations and its effects are felt unevenly across the community.”

“In principle, fiscal policy could provide a stronger helping hand, although this would require some rethinking of the existing policy structure. In particular, it would require making some fiscal instruments more nimble, strengthening the (semi) automatic stabilisers and giving an independent body limited control over some fiscal instruments.”

“Moving in this direction is not straightforward, but some innovative thinking could help us get to a better place,” Lowe said.

“During my term, there have been times where monetary and fiscal policy worked very closely together and, at other times, it would be an exaggeration to say this was the case.”

“The coordination was most effective during the pandemic. During that period, fiscal policy was nimble and the political constraints on its use for stabilisation purposes faded away. And we saw just how powerful it can be when the government and the Reserve Bank work very closely together.”

“There are some broader lessons here and I was disappointed that the recent Reserve Bank Review did not explore them in more depth,” Lowe said.

So was I, especially when two of Australia’s most eminent economists – professors Ross Garnaut and David Vines – made a detailed proposal to the review along the lines Lowe now envisages. (If Vines’ name is unfamiliar, it’s because most of his career was spent at Oxbridge, as the Poms say.)

But no, that would have been far too radical. Much safer to stick to pointing out all the respects in which the Reserve’s way of doing things differed from the practice in other countries – and was therefore wrong.

In question time, Lowe noted that one of the world’s leading macroeconomists, Olivier Blanchard, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund (and former teacher of Lowe’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), had proposed that management of the economy be improved by creating new fiscal instruments which would be adjusted semi-automatically, or by a new independent body, within a certain range.

Lowe also acknowledged the way the marked decline over several decades in world real long-term interest rates – the causes of which economists are still debating – had made monetary policy less useful by bringing world nominal interest rates down close to the “zero lower bound”.

How do you cut interest rates to stimulate growth when they’re already close to zero? Short answer: you switch to fiscal policy.

But what other central banks – and, during the pandemic, even our Reserve Bank – have done was resort to unconventional measures, such as reducing longer-term official interest rates by buying up billions of dollars’ worth of second-hand government bonds.

Lowe said he didn’t think this resort to “quantitative easing” was particularly effective, and he’s right. I doubt if history will be kind to QE.

However, there’s one likely respect in which the ground has shifted under the economists’ feet that Lowe – and various academic defenders of the conventional wisdom – has yet to accept: the changed drivers of inflation. It’s not excessive wages any more, it’s excessive profits.

More about all this another day.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Fixing inflation doesn't have to hurt this much

They say that the most important speeches politicians make are their first and their last. Certainly, I’ve learnt a lot from the last thoughts of departing Reserve Bank governors. And, although Dr Philip Lowe still has one big speech to go, he’s already moved to a more reflective mode.

Whenever smarty-pants like me have drawn attention to the many drawbacks of using higher interest rates to bash inflation out of the economy, Lowe’s stock response has been: “Sorry, interest rates are the only lever I’ve got.”

But, in his last appearance before a parliamentary committee on Friday, he was more expansive. He readily acknowledged that interest rates – “monetary policy” – are a blunt instrument. They hurt, they’re not well-targeted and do much collateral damage.

“Monetary policy is effective, but it also has quite significant distributional effects,” he said. “Some people in the community are finding things really difficult from higher interest rates, and other people are benefiting from it.”

Higher interest rates don’t have much effect on the behaviour of businesses – except, perhaps, landlords who’ve borrowed heavily to buy investment properties – but they do have a big effect on people with mortgages, increasing their monthly payments and so leaving them with less to spend on everything else.

That’s the object of the exercise, of course. Prices – the cost of living – rise when households’ spending on goods and services exceeds the economy’s ability to produce those goods and services. So economists’ standard solution is to use higher interest rates to squeeze people’s ability to keep spending. Weaker demand makes it harder for businesses to keep raising their prices.

Trouble is, only about a third of households have mortgages, with another third renting and the last third having paid off their mortgage. This is what makes using interest rates to slow inflation so unfair. Some people get really squeezed, others don’t. (Rents have been rising rapidly, but this is partly because the vacancy rate is so low.) What’s more, some long-standing home buyers don’t owe all that much, so haven’t felt as much pain as younger people who’ve bought recently and have a huge debt.

Who are the people Lowe says are actually benefiting from higher interest rates? Mainly oldies who’ve paid off their mortgages and have a lot of money in savings accounts.

In theory, the higher rates banks can charge their borrowers are passed through to the savers from whom the banks must borrow. Some of it has indeed been passed on to depositors, but the limited competition between the big four banks has allowed them to drag their feet.

So the “significant distributional effects” Lowe refers to are partly that the young tend to be squeezed hard, while the old get let off lightly and may even be ahead on the deal. And the banks always do better when rates are rising.

All this makes the use of interest rates to control inflation unfair in the way it affects different households. And note this: how is it fair to screw around with the income of the retired and other savers? They do well at times like this but pay for it when the Reserve is cutting interest rates to get the economy back up off the floor.

But as well as being unfair, relying on interest rates to slow the economy is a less effective way to discourage spending. Because raising interest rates directly affects such a small proportion of all households – the ones with big mortgages – the Reserve has to squeeze those households all the harder to bring about the desired slowdown in total spending by all households.

In other words, if the squeeze was spread more evenly between households, we wouldn’t need to put such extreme pressure on people with big mortgages.

Lowe has been right in saying, “Sorry, interest rates are the only lever I’ve got.” What he hasn’t acknowledged until now is that the central bank isn’t the only game in town. The government’s budget contains several potential levers that could be used to slow the economy.

We could set up an arrangement where a temporary rise in the rate of the goods and services tax reduced the spending ability of all households. Then, when we needed to achieve more spending by households, we could make a temporary cut in the GST.

If we didn’t like that, we could arrange for temporary increases or decreases in the Medicare levy on taxable income.

Either way of making it harder for people to keep spending would still involve pain, but would spread the pain more fairly – and, by affecting all or most households, be more effective in achieving the required slowdown in spending.

The least painful way would be to impose a temporary increase or decrease in employees’ compulsory superannuation contributions. That way, no one would lose any of their money, just be temporarily prevented from spending it at times when too much spending was worsening the cost of living.

Our politicians and their economic advisers need to find a better way to skin the cat.

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Monday, July 31, 2023

Another rise in interest rates is enough already

Whatever decision the Reserve Bank board makes about interest rates at its meeting tomorrow morning – departing governor Dr Philip Lowe’s second-last – the stronger case is for no increase. Indeed, I agree with those business economists saying we’ve probably had too many increases already.

If so – and I hope I’m wrong – we’ll miss the “narrow path” to the sought-after “soft landing” and hit the ground with a bang. We’ll have the recession we didn’t have to have. (That’s where recession is measured not the lazy, mindless way – two successive quarters of “negative growth” – but the sensible way: a big rise in unemployment over just a year or so.)

For those too young to know why recessions are dreaded, it’s not what happens to gross domestic product that matters (it’s just a sign of the looming disaster) but what happens to people: lots of them lose their jobs, those leaving education can’t find decent jobs, and some businesses collapse.

Market economists usually focus on guessing what the Reserve will do, not saying what it should do. (That’s because they’re paid to advise their bank’s money-market traders, who are paid to lay bets on what the Reserve will do.)

That’s why it’s so notable to see people such as Deloitte Access Economics’ Stephen Smith and AMP’s Dr Shane Oliver saying the Reserve has already increased interest rates too far.

Last week’s consumer price index for the June quarter gave us strong evidence that the rate of inflation is well on the way down. After peaking at 7.8 per cent over the year to December, it’s down to 6 per cent over the year to June.

As we’ve been told repeatedly, this was “less than expected”. Yes, but by whom? Usually, the answer is: by economists in the money markets. Here’s a tip: what money-market economists were forecasting is of little interest to anyone but them.

That almost always proves what we already know: economists are hopeless at forecasting the economy. Even after the fact, and just a week before we all know the truth. No, the only expectation that matters is what the Reserve was expecting. Why? Because it’s the economist with its hand on the interest-rate lever.

So, it does matter that the Reserve was expecting annual inflation of 6.3 per cent. That is, inflation’s coming down faster than it thought. Back to the drawing board.

The Reserve takes much notice of its preferred measure of “underlying” inflation. It’s down to 5.9 per cent. But when the economy’s speeding up or slowing down, the latest annual change contains a lot of historical baggage.

This is why the Americans focus not on the annual rate of change, but the “annualised” (made annual) rate, which you get by compounding the quarterly change (or, if you can’t remember the compounding formula, by multiplying the number by four).

Have you heard all the people saying, “oh, but 6 per cent is still way above the target of 2 to 3 per cent”? Well, if you annualise the most recent information we have, that prices rose by 0.8 per cent in the June quarter, you get 3.3 per cent. Clearly, we’re making big progress.

But the next time someone tells you we’re still way above the target, ask them if they’ve ever heard of “lags”. Central Banking 101 says that monetary policy (fiddling with interest rates) takes a year or more to have its full effect, first on economic activity (growth in gross domestic product and, particularly, consumer spending), then on the rate at which prices are rising. What’s more, the length of the lag (delay) can vary.

This is why central bankers are supposed to remember that, if you keep raising rates until you’re certain you’ve done enough to get inflation down where you want it, you can be certain you’ve done too much. Expect a hard landing, not a soft one.

Since the road to lower inflation runs via slower growth in economic activity, remember this: the national accounts show real GDP slowing to growth of 0.2 per cent in the March quarter, with growth in consumer spending also slowing to 0.2 per cent.

How much slower would you like it to get?

The next weak argument for a further rate rise is: “the labour market’s still tight”. The figures for the month of June showed the rate of unemployment still stuck at a 50-year low of 3.5 per cent, with employment growing by 32,600.

But the nation’s top expert on the jobs figures is Melbourne University’s Professor Jeff Borland. He notes that, in the nine months to August last year, employment grew by an average of 55,000 a month – about double the rate pre-pandemic.

Since August, however, it’s grown by an average of 35,600 a month. Sounds like a less-tight labour market to me.

And Borland makes a further point. Whereas the employment figures measure filled jobs, the actual number of jobs can be thought of as filled jobs plus vacant jobs – which tells us how much work employers want done.

This is a better indicator of how “tight” the labour market is. And, because vacancies are falling, the growth in total jobs has slowed much faster. Since the middle of last year, part of the growth in employment has come from reducing the stock of vacancies.

Another thing the Reserve (and its money-market urgers) need to remember is that, when it comes to slowing economic activity to slow the rise in prices, interest rates (aka monetary policy) aren’t the only game in town.

Professor Ross Garnaut, also of Melbourne University, wants to remind us that “fiscal policy” (alias the budget) is doing more to help than we thought. The now-expected budget surplus of at least $20 billion means that, over the year to June 30, the federal budget pulled $20 billion more out of the economy than it put back in.

Garnaut says he likes the $20 billion surplus because, among other reasons, “we can run lower interest rates”.

One last thing the Reserve board needs to remember. Usually, when it’s jamming on the interest-rate brakes to get inflation down, the problem’s been caused by excessive growth in wages. Not this time.

Since prices took off late in 2021, wages have fallen well behind those prices. Indeed, wages haven’t got much ahead of prices for about the past decade. And while consumer prices rose by 7 per cent over the year to March, the wage price index rose by only 3.7 per cent.

This has really put the squeeze on household incomes and households’ ability to keep increasing their spending. And that’s before you get to what rising interest rates are doing.

Dear Reserve Bank board members, please remember all this tomorrow morning.

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Friday, July 28, 2023

Why inflation is easing while rents are rising - and will keep going

It never rains but it pours. With the prices of so many things in the supermarket shooting up, now it’s rents that are rising like mad. Actually, while the overall rate of inflation is clearly slowing, rents are still on the up and up. What’s going on?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ consumer price index (CPI) showed prices rising by 0.8 per cent over the three months to the end of June, and by 6 per cent over the year to June. That’s down from 7.8 per cent over the year to December.

But rents in Sydney rose by 7.3 per cent over the year to June, up from 3.3 per cent over the year to December. Rents in Melbourne are now up by 5 per cent, compared with 2.2 per cent to last December.

But hang on. Those increases seem low. I’ve been reading and hearing about rent increases much bigger than that. What gives?

You’ve been reading about bigger rent increases than the CPI records because what gets most notice in the media is what economists call “advertised” rents – the asking price for presently vacant properties that have been listed with real estate agents.

So, this is the most relevant price for someone who’s decided to rent, or is wishing to move. Remember, however, in normal times landlords don’t always get as much as they ask for initially. Times like now, when the market’s so tight, they may end up with more.

But, each month, only 2 or 3 per cent of properties have a change in tenants. So most people are existing renters, wanting to sit tight, not move. It’s a safe bet they’re paying less that the price being asked of new tenants. And, though their rent will be increased soon enough, it hasn’t been yet.

The stats bureau’s increases are lower than the asking price because they include the rents actually being paid by all capital-city renters, not just the new ones.

But if the asking price is a lot higher than the average of the rents being paid by everyone, this is a good sign the average will keep going up. The rent increase is working its way through the system, so to speak.

But why are asking prices rising so much? Ask any economist, and they’ll tell you without looking: if the demand for rental accommodation exceeds the supply available, prices will rise.

That’s true. And the way we know it’s true is that vacancy rates are much lower than usual.

It’s when vacancy rates are low that landlords know now would be a good time to put up the rent. If the landlord has borrowed to buy the rental property, the rise in the interest rates they’re paying will make them very keen to do so.

But more than half of all rental properties are owned debt-free. Those landlords will probably also be keen to take advantage of this (surprisingly rare) chance to increase their prices by a lot rather than a little.

When demand is outstripping supply, the economists’ knee-jerk reaction is that we need more supply. Rush out and build a lot more rental accommodation.

But the economists who actually study the rental market aren’t so sure that’s called for. If you look back over the past decade, you see little sign that the industry has had much trouble keeping the supply up with demand.

If anything, the reverse. Until the end of 2021, rents went for years without rising very fast. Especially compared with other consumer prices, and with people’s incomes. Indeed, there were times when rents actually fell.

You didn’t know that? That’s because the media didn’t tell you. Why? Because they thought you were only interested in bad news. (And they were right.)

What’s too easily forgotten is all the ructions the rental market went through during the pandemic. What’s happening now is a return to something more normal. It’s all explained in one of the bureau’s information papers.

Official surveys show that renters tend to younger and have lower incomes than homeowners, and to devote a higher share of their disposable (that is, after-tax) income to housing costs. This is why so many renters feel the recent rent rises so keenly. And also, why the pressure is greater on people renting apartments rather than houses.

The pandemic, with its changes in population flows, vacancy rates and renters’ preferences, had big effects on rents and renters. Early in the pandemic, demand for rental properties in the inner-city markets (that is, within 12.5 kilometres of the CBD) of Sydney and Melbourne declined, as international students returned home, international migration stopped and some young adults moved back in with their parents.

Some landlords offering short-term holiday rentals switched to offering longer-term rental, further increasing the supply of rental accommodation. And the need to work from home prompted some renters to move from the inner city to suburbs further out, where the same money bought more space.

This is why inner-city rents fell during the first two years of the pandemic. Also, state governments introduced arrangements helping tenants who’d become unemployed or lost income to negotiate temporary rent reductions.

But inner-city rental markets began tightening up in late 2021, as the lockdowns ended and things began returning to normal. Some singles who’d gone back home or packed into a share house began seeking something less crowded. And, eventually, international students began returning.

So, we’ve gone from the supply of rental accommodation exceeding demand, back to stronger demand. Rents that were low or even falling are going back up.

As an economist would say, with the pandemic over, the rental market is returning to a new “equilibrium” – a fancy word for balance between supply and demand.

What we’re seeing is not so much a “crisis” as a catch-up. One reason it’s happening so fast is the higher interest rates many landlords are paying. But another reason renters are finding it so hard to cope with is that other consumer prices have risen a lot faster than their disposable incomes have.

Read more >>

Monday, July 24, 2023

Beating inflation shouldn't just be left to higher interest rates

Everyone’s heard the surprising news that last financial year’s budget is now expected to run a surplus of about $20 billion, but few have realised the wider implications. They strengthen the case for relying less on interest rates to fight inflation.

But first, the news is a reminder of just how bad economists are at forecasting what will happen to the economy – even in not much more than a year’s time. Which shows that economists don’t know nearly as much about how the economy works as they like to imagine – and like us to believe.

Then-treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s budget in March last year forecast a budget deficit in 2022-23 of $78 billion. By Jim Chalmers’ second go at the budget last October, that became a deficit of about $37 billion.

By the following budget, in May, the best guess had turned into a surplus of $4 billion. And just two months later – and that financial year actually over – the best guess is now a surplus of about $20 billion.

That’s a forecasting turnaround, over the course of only about 15 months, of almost $100 billion, or 4 per cent of gross domestic product.

What did Treasury get so wrong? It grossly underestimated the growth in tax collections. This was partly because it assumed a fall in the prices of our key commodity exports that didn’t happen, thus causing the company tax paid by our miners to be higher than expected.

But mainly because collections of income tax were much higher than expected. The economy grew at close to full capacity, so more people found jobs and many part-time workers got more hours or became full-time.

A huge number of new jobs have been created, almost all of them full-time. Do you realise that a higher proportion of people aged over 15 have paid employment than ever before? The rate of unemployment fell to its lowest in 50 years and many people who’d been unable to find a job for many months finally succeeded.

Obviously, when people find work, they start paying income tax, and stop needing to be paid unemployment benefits. So full employment is excellent news for the budget.

But the rapid rise in the cost of living during the year caused workers to demand and receive higher pay rises, even though those rises generally fell well short of the rise in prices.

So all the people who already had jobs paid more tax, too. But not only that. Our “progressive” income tax scale – where successive slices of your income are taxed at progressively higher rates – means that pay rises are taxed at a higher rate than you paid on your existing income.

Ordinary mortals call this “bracket creep”. Economists call it “fiscal drag”. Either way, the higher rate of tax workers paid on their pay rises also made a bigger-than-expected contribution to income tax collections and the budget balance.

Note that this unexpected move from deficit to surplus in the financial year just past, this underestimation of the strength of tax collections, has implications not only for the size of the government’s debt at June 2023, it has implications for the size of tax collections in the next few years, as well as for the amount of interest we’ll have to pay on that debt this year and every year until it’s repaid (which it won’t be).

In Frydenberg’s budget in March last year, the projected cumulative deficit for the five financial years to June 2026 was just over $300 billion. By the budget in May, this had dropped to $115 billion.

And now that we know last year’s surplus will be about $20 billion, the revised total projected underlying addition to government debt should be well under $100 billion.

Get it? Compared with what we thought less than 16 months ago, the feds’ debt prospects aren’t nearly as bad as we feared. And the size of our “structural” deficit – the size of the deficit that remains after you’ve allowed for the ups and downs of the business cycle – isn’t nearly as big, either.

Which suggests it’s time we had another think about our decision in the late 1970s – along with all the other rich economies – to shift the primary responsibility for managing the macroeconomy from the budget (“fiscal policy”) to the central bank and its interest rates (“monetary policy”).

One of the arguments used by the advocates of this shift was that fiscal policy was no longer effective in stimulating the economy. But our remarkably strong growth since the end of the pandemic lockdowns shows how amazingly effective fiscal policy is.

It’s now clear that fiscal “multipliers” – the extent to which an extra $1 of deficit spending adds to the growth in real GDP – are much higher than we believed them to be.

We know that a big part of the recent leap in prices was caused by shocks to the supply (production) side of the economy arising from the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. But central banks have argued that a second cause was excessive demand (spending), which happened because the stimulus applied to cushion the effect of lockdowns proved far more than needed.

If so, most of that stimulus came from fiscal policy. Our official interest rate was already down to 0.75 per cent before the pandemic began. So, further proof of how powerful fiscal stimulus still is.

But another implication of the $20 billion surplus is that the stimulus wasn’t as great – and its ultimate cost to the budget wasn’t as great – as we initially believed it would be.

In the budget of October 2020, the expected deficit of $214 billion in 2020-21 was overestimated by $80 billion. In the budget of May 2021, the expected deficit of $107 billion in 2021-22 was overestimated by $75 billion. And, as we’ve seen, the deficit for 2022-23 was initially overestimated almost $100 billion.

This says two things: the fiscal stimulus caused the economy to grow much faster than the forecasters expected, even though the ultimate degree of stimulus – and its cost to the budget – was much less than forecasters expect.

Economists know that the budget contains “automatic stabilisers” that limit the private sector’s fall when the economy turns down, but act as a drag on the private sector when the economy’s booming.

We’ve just been reminded that the budget’s stabilisers are working well and have been working to claw back much of the fiscal stimulus, thereby helping to restrain demand and reduce inflation pressure.

Whenever departing Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has been reminded of the many drawbacks of using interest rates to manage the economy, his reply has always been: sorry, it’s the only instrument I’ve got.

True. But it’s not the only instrument the government has got. It should break the central bank’s monopoly on macro management and make more use of fiscal policy.

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Friday, May 19, 2023

Chalmers and Lowe: good cop, bad cop on the inflation beat

Have you noticed? There’s a contradiction at the heart of Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ budget. Is it helping or harming inflation?

Both Chalmers and Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe are agreed that our top priority must be to get the rate of inflation down. That’s fine. Everybody hates the way prices have been shooting up. The cost of living has become impossible. Do something!

But while Lowe seems to be just making it all worse, jacking up mortgage interest rates higher and higher, nice Mr Chalmers is using his budget to take a bit of the pressure off, helping with electricity bills, cutting prescription costs and so on.

It’s as though Lowe is the arsonist, sneaking round the bush to start more fires, while Chalmers is the Salvos, turning up at the scene to give the tired firefighters a kind word, a pie and a cup of tea.

Is that how you see it? That’s the way Chalmers wants you to see it, and Lowe knows full well it’s his job to be Mr Nasty at times like this.

But what on earth’s going on? Has the world gone crazy? No, it’s just the usual dance between brutal economics on one hand, and always-here-to-help politics on the other.

Let’s start from scratch. Why do we have an inflation problem? Because, for the past 18 months or so, the prices of the things we buy have been shooting up, rising much faster than our wages, causing the cost of living to become tough for many people.

Why have prices been rising so rapidly? Partly because the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s attack on Ukraine caused international shortages of building materials, cars, computer chips and fossil fuels. But also because the massive increase in our governments’ payments during the pandemic left us cashed up and spending big on locally made goods and services.

When the suppliers of the stuff we buy can’t keep up with our demand for it, they raise their prices. The media may call this “price gouging”, but economists believe it’s what happens naturally in a market economy – and should happen because the higher price gives the suppliers an incentive to produce more. When they do, the price will come down.

When inflation takes off like this, what can the managers of the economy do to stop prices rising so fast? They can do nothing to magically increase supply; that takes time. But what they can do is reduce demand – discourage us from spending so much.

How? This is where it gets nasty. By squeezing households’ finances so hard they have to cut their spending. Once demand for the stuff they’re selling falls back, businesses are much less keen to raise their prices.

At present, households are being squeezed from all directions. The main way is that wages aren’t keeping up with the rise in prices. As well, more of the wage rises people are getting is being eaten up by income tax, thanks to “bracket creep”.

And the fall in house prices means home-owning households aren’t feeling as wealthy as they were.

All that’s before you get to Mr Nasty, raising the interest rates paid by people with mortgages, which is particularly tough on young home owners, with more recent, much bigger mortgages.

(You may wonder if this extra pressure on, say, only about 20 per cent of all households is either fair or the most effective way to get total household spending to slow. And you may be right, but you’d be way ahead of the world’s economists, who think the way they’ve always done it is the only way they could do it.)

But what part is the budget – “fiscal policy” – supposed to play in all this? It should be helping put the squeeze on, not reducing it. Now do you see why some are questioning whether Chalmers’ $14.6 billion “cost-of-living relief package” will help or hinder the cause of lower inflation?

The budget balance shows whether government spending is putting more money into the economy, and its households, than it’s taking out in taxes. If so, the budget’s running a deficit. If it’s taking more money out than it’s put back in, the budget’s running a surplus.

The way the Reserve Bank judges whether the budget is increasing the squeeze on households, or easing it, is to look at the size and direction of the expected change in budget balance from one year to the next.

The budget papers show the budget balance is planned to change from an actual deficit of $32 billion last financial year, 2021-22, to an expected surplus of $4 billion in this financial year, ending next month.

That’s an expected tightening of $36 billion, equivalent to 1.6 per cent of the size of the whole economy, gross domestic product.

No doubt such a change is adding a big squeeze to household incomes. But then the budget balance is expected to worsen in the coming financial year, 2023-24, to a deficit of $14 billion. That’s an easing of pressure on households’ finances equivalent to 0.7 per cent of GDP.

Put the two years together, however, and its clear the budget will still be putting a lot of squeeze on households – on top of all the other squeeze coming from elsewhere.

Somewhere in there is most of Chalmers’ $14.6 billion relief package. As a matter of arithmetic, it’s undeniably true that, had the package – which, by the way, is expected to reduce the consumer price index by 0.75 percentage points – not happened, the squeeze would be, say, $10 billion tighter than it’s now expected to be.

But there’s no way, looking at that – and all the other sources of squeeze – the Reserve will be saying, gosh, Chalmers is adding to inflation pressure, so we’d better raise rates further.

Chalmers has said the “stance” of fiscal policy adopted in the budget is “broadly neutral”. Not quite. So, I’ll say the nasty word Mr Nice Guy doesn’t want to: the stance is “mildly contractionary”.

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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.

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Friday, March 3, 2023

Now the hard part for the RBA: when to stop braking

In economics, almost everything that happens has both an upside and a downside. The bad news this week is that the economy’s growth is slowing rapidly. The good news – particularly for people with mortgages and people hoping to keep their job for the next year or two – is that the slowdown is happening by design, as the Reserve Bank struggles to slow inflation, and this sign that its efforts are working may lead it to go easier on its intended further rises in interest rates.

But though it’s now clear the economy has begun a sharp slowdown, what’s not yet clear is whether the slowdown will keep going until it turns into a recession, with sharply rising unemployment.

As the Commonwealth Bank’s Gareth Aird has said, since the Reserve Bank board’s meeting early last month, when it suddenly signalled more rate rises to come, all the numbers we’ve seen – on economic growth, wages, employment, unemployment and the consumer price index – have all come in weaker than the money market was expecting.

What’s more, he says, only part of the Reserve’s 3.25 percentage-point rate increase so far had hit the cash flow of households with mortgages by the end of last year.

“There is a key risk now that the Reserve Bank will continue to tighten policy into an economy that is already showing sufficient signs of softening,” Aird said.

That’s no certainty, just a big risk of overdoing it. So while everyone’s making the Reserve’s governor, Dr Philip Lowe, Public Enemy No. 1, let me say that the strongest emotion I have about him is: I’m glad it’s you having to make the call, not me.

Don’t let all the jargon, statistics and mathematical models fool you. At times like this, managing the economy involves highly subjective judgments – having a good “feel” for what’s actually happening in the economy and about to happen. And it always helps to be lucky.

This week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ “national accounts” for the three months to the end of December showed real gross domestic product – the economy’s production of goods and services – growing by 0.5 per cent during the quarter, and by 2.7 per cent over the calendar year.

If you think 2.7 per cent doesn’t sound too bad, you’re right. But look at the run of quarterly growth: 0.9 per cent in the June quarter of last year, then 0.7 per cent, and now 0.5 per cent. See any pattern?

Let’s take a closer look at what produced that 0.5 per cent. For a start, the public sector’s spending on consumption (mainly the wage costs of public sector workers) and capital works made a negative contribution to real GDP growth during the quarter, thanks to a fall in spending on new infrastructure.

Home building activity fell by 0.9 per cent because a fall in renovations more than countered a rise in new home building.

Business investment spending fell by 1.4 per cent, pulled down by reduced non-residential construction and engineering construction. A slower rate of growth in business inventories subtracted 0.5 percentage points from overall growth in GDP.

So, what was left to make a positive contribution to growth in the quarter? Well, the volume (quantity) of our exports contributed 0.2 percentage points. Mining was up and so were our “exports” of services to visiting tourists and overseas students.

But get this: a 4.3 per cent fall in the volume of our imports of goods and services made a positive contribution to overall growth of 0.9 percentage points.

Huh? That’s because our imports make a negative contribution to GDP, since we didn’t make them. (And, in case you’ve forgotten, two negatives make a positive – a negative contribution was reduced.)

So, the amazing news is that the main thing causing the economy to grow in the December quarter was a big fall in imports – which is just what you’d expect to see in an economy in which spending was slowing.

I’ve left the most important to last: what happened to consumer spending by the nation’s 10 million-odd households? It’s the most important because it accounts for about half of total spending, because it’s consumer spending that the Reserve Bank most wants to slow – and also because the economy exists to serve the needs of people, almost all of whom live in households.

So, what happened? Consumer spending grew by a super-weak 0.3 per cent, despite growing by 1 per cent in the previous quarter. But what happened to households and their income that prompted them to slow their spending to a trickle?

Household disposable income – which is income from wages and all other sources, less interest paid and income tax paid by households – fell 0.7 per cent, despite a solid 2.1 per cent increase in wage income – which reflected pay rises, higher employment, higher hours worked, bonuses and retention payments.

But that was more than countered by higher income tax payments (as wages rose, with some workers pushed into higher tax brackets) and, of course, higher interest payments.

All that’s before you allow for inflation. Real household disposable income fell by 2.4 per cent in the quarter – the fifth consecutive quarterly decline.

That’s mainly because consumer prices have been rising a lot faster than wages. So, falling real wages are a big reason real household disposable income has been falling, not just rising interest rates.

Real disposable income has now fallen by 5.4 per cent since its peak in September quarter, 2021.

But hang on. If real income fell in the latest quarter, how were households able to increase their consumption spending, even by as little as 0.3 per cent? They cut the proportion of household income they saved rather than spent from 7.1 per cent to an unusually low 4.5 per cent.

If I were running the Reserve, I wouldn’t be too worried about strong consumer spending stopping inflation from coming down.

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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.

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Monday, February 20, 2023

Central banking: don't mention business pricing power

Despite the grilling he got in two separate parliamentary hearings last week, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe’s explanation of why he was preparing mortgage borrowers for yet further interest rate increases didn’t quite add up. There seemed to be something he wasn’t telling us – and I think I know what it was.

We know that, as well as rising mortgage payments, we have falling real wages, falling house prices and a weak world economy. So it’s not hard to believe the Reserve’s forecasts that the economy will slow sharply this year and next, unemployment will rise (it already is), and underlying inflation will be back down to the top of the 2 per cent to 3 per cent target range by the end of next year.

So, why is Lowe still so anxious? Because, he says, it’s just so important that the present high rate of inflation doesn’t become “ingrained”. “If inflation does become ingrained in people’s expectations, bringing it back down again is very costly,” he said on Friday.

Why is what people expect to happen to inflation so crucial? Because their expectations about inflation have a tendency to be self-fulfilling.

When businesses expect prices to keep on increasing rapidly, they keep raising their own prices. And when workers and their unions expect further rapid price rises, they keep demanding and receiving big pay rises.

This notion that, once people start expecting the present jump in inflation to persist, it becomes “ingrained” and then can’t be countered without a deep recession has been “ingrained” in the conventional wisdom of macroeconomists since the 1970s.

They call it the “wage-price spiral” – thus implying it’s always those greedy unionists who threw the first punch that started the brawl.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a lot of truth to that characterisation. In those days, many unions did have the industrial muscle to force employers to agree to big pay rises if they didn’t want their business seriously disrupted.

But that’s obviously not an accurate depiction of what’s happening now. The present inflationary episode has seen businesses large and small greatly increasing their prices to cover the jump in their input costs arising from pandemic-caused supply disruptions and the Ukraine war.

Although the rate of increase in wages is a couple of percentage points higher than it was, this has fallen far short of the 5 or 6 percentage-point further rise in consumer prices.

So Lowe has reversed the name of the problem to a “prices-wages spiral”. In announcing this month’s rate rise, he said that “given the importance of avoiding a prices-wages spiral, the board will continue to play close attention to both the evolution of labour costs and the price-setting behaviour of firms in the period ahead”.

Lowe admits that inflation expectations, the thing that could set off a prices-wages spiral, have not risen. “Medium-term inflation expectations remain well anchored,” but adds “it is important that this remains the case”.

If that’s his big worry, Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy doesn’t share it. Last week he said bluntly that “the risk of a price and wage spiral remains low, with medium-term inflation expectations well anchored to the inflation target.

“Although measures of spare capacity in the labour market show that the market remains tight, the forecast pick-up in wages growth to around 4 per cent is consistent with the inflation target.”

So, why does Lowe remain so concerned about inflation expectations leading to a prices-wages spiral that he expects he’ll have to keep raising the official interest rate?

There must be something he’s not telling us. I think his puzzling preoccupation with inflation expectations is a cover for his real worry: oligopolistic pricing power.

Why doesn’t he want to talk about it? Well, one reason could be that the previous government has given him a board stacked with business people.

A better explanation is that he’s reluctant to admit a cause of inflation that’s not simply a matter of ensuring the demand for goods and services isn’t growing faster than their supply.

Decades of big firms taking over smaller firms and finding ways to discourage new firms from entering the industry has left many of our markets for particular products dominated by two, three or four huge companies – “oligopoly”.

The simple economic model lodged in the heads of central bankers assumes that no firm in the industry is big enough to influence the market price. But the whole point of oligopoly is for firms to become big enough to influence the prices they can charge.

When there are just a few big firms, it isn’t hard for them reach a tacit agreement to put their prices up at the same time and by a similar amount. They compete for market share, but they avoid competing on price.

To some degree, they can increase their prices even when demand isn’t strong, or keep their prices high even when demand is very weak.

I suspect what’s worrying Lowe is his fear that our big firms will be able keep raising their prices even though his higher interest rates have greatly weakened demand. If so, his only way to get inflation back to the target band will be to keep raising rates until he “crunches” the economy and forces even the big boys to pull their horns in.

It’s hard to know how much of the surge in prices we saw last year was firms using their need to pass on to customers the rise in their input costs as cover for fattening their profit margins.

We do know that Treasury has found evidence of rising profit margins – “mark-ups”, as economists say – in Australia in recent decades.

And a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has found that mark-ups in the US grew by 3.4 per cent in 2021.

But for Lowe (and his predecessors, and peers in other central banks) to spell all that out is to admit there’s an important dimension of inflation that’s beyond the direct control of the central banks.

If he did that, he could be asked what he’s been doing about the inflation caused by inadequate competition. He’d say competition policy was the responsibility of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, not the Reserve. True, but what an admission.

In truth, the only person campaigning on the need to tighten competition policy in the interests of lower inflation is the former ACCC chair, Professor Rod Sims. Has he had a shred of public support from Lowe or Kennedy? No.

Final point: what’s the most glaring case of oligopolistic pricing power in the country? The four big banks. Since the Reserve began raising interest rates, their already fat profits have soared.

Why? Because they’ve lost little time in passing the increases on to their borrowing customers, but been much slower to pass the increase through to their depositors. Has Lowe been taking them to task? No, far from it.

But his predecessors did the same – as no doubt will his successors, unless we stop leaving inflation solely to a central bank whose only tool is to fiddle with interest rates.

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Friday, February 17, 2023

Inflation is too tricky to be left to the Reserve Bank

The higher the world’s central banks lift interest rates, and the more they risk pushing us into recession, the more our smarter economists are thinking there has to be a better way to control inflation.

Unsurprisingly, one of the first Australian economists to start thinking this way is our most visionary economist, Professor Ross Garnaut. He expressed his concerns in his book Reset, published in early 2021.

Then, just before last year’s job summit, he gave a little-noticed lecture, “The Economic Consequences of Mr Lowe” – a play on a famous essay by Keynes, “The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill”.

Academic economists are rewarded by their peers for thinking orthodox thoughts, and have trouble getting unorthodox thoughts published. Trick is, it’s the people who successfully challenge the old orthodoxy who establish the new orthodoxy and become famous. John Maynard Keynes, for instance.

In his lecture, Garnaut praised the Australian econocrats who, in the late 1940s, supervised the “postwar reconstruction”. They articulated “an inclusive vision of a prosperous and fair society, in which equitable distribution [of income] was a centrally important objective”.

The then econocrats’ vision “was based on sound economic analysis, prepared to break the boundaries of orthodoxy if an alternative path was shown to be better”.

It culminated in the then-radical White Paper on full employment, of 1945, under which policy the rate of unemployment stayed below 2 per cent until the early 1970s.

Garnaut’s earlier criticism of the Reserve was its unwillingness to keep the economy growing strongly to see how far unemployment could fall before this led to rising inflation. “We haven’t reached full employment [because] the Reserve Bank gave up on full employment before we got there.”

Now, Garnaut’s worry is that “monetary orthodoxy could lead us to rising unemployment without good purpose”.

“Monetary orthodoxy as it has developed in the 21st century leads to a knee-jerk tendency towards increased interest rates when the rate of inflation... rises.

“I have been worried about the rigidity of the new monetary orthodoxy since the early days of the China resources boom.” He had “expressed concern that an inflation standard was replacing the gold standard as a source of rigidity in monetary policy”.

Ah. That’s where his allusion to Churchill comes in. In 1925, when he was Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, Churchill made “the worst-ever error of British monetary policy” by following conventional advice to suppress the inflationary consequences of Britain’s massive spending on World War I by returning sterling to the “gold standard” (Google it) at its prewar parity.

The consequence was to plunge Britain into deep depression years before the Great Depression arrived.

“If we continue to tighten monetary policy – raise interest rates – because inflation is higher that the target range, then we will diminish demand... in ways that seriously disrupt the economy.

“High inflation is undesirable, and it is important to avoid entrenched high inflation. But not all inflation is entrenched at high levels. And inflation is not the only undesirable economic condition.

“There is a danger that we will replace continuing improvement to full employment with rising unemployment – perhaps sustained unnecessarily high unemployment.

“That would be a dreadful mistake. A mistake to be avoided with thoughtful policy.”

Such as? Garnaut has two big alternative ways of reducing inflation.

First, whereas in the early 1990s there was a case for independence of the Reserve Bank because, with high inflation entrenched, it needed to do some very hard things, he said, “what we now need is an independent authority looking at overall demand, and not just monetary policy.

“We need an independent body playing a role in both fiscal and monetary policy... It would be able to raise or lower overall tax rates in response to the macroeconomic situation.”

Second, we shouldn’t be using higher interest rates to respond to the surge in electricity and gas prices caused by the invasion of Ukraine.

Because of the way we’ve set up our energy markets, the increases in international prices came directly back into Australian prices. This put us in the paradoxical position of being the world’s biggest exporter of liquified natural gas and coal, taken together, but most Australians became poorer when gas and coal prices increased.

“Many Australians find this difficult to understand. If they understand it, they find it difficult to accept.

“Actually, it’s reasonable for them to find it unacceptable,” he said.

So, what to do? We must “insulate the Australian standard of living from those very large increases in coal, gas and therefore electricity”.

How? One way is to cause domestic energy prices to be lower than world prices. The other is to leave prices as they are, but tax the “windfall profits” to Australian producers caused by the war, then use those profits to make payments to Australian households – and, where appropriate, businesses – to insulate them from this price increase.

By causing actual prices to be lower, the first way leaves the Reserve less tempted to keep raising interest rates. Which, in turn, should avoid some unnecessary increase in unemployment.

There are two ways to keep domestic prices lower than world (and export) prices. One is to limit exports of gas and coal to the extent needed to stop domestic prices rising above what they were before the invasion.

The other way is to put an export levy (tax) on coal and gas, set to absorb the war-cause price increase.

Either of these methods could work, Garnaut said. Western Australia’s “domestic reservation requirement” specifying the amount of gas exporters must supply to the local WA market, has worked well – but this would be hard to do for coal.

This week Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy said the measures the government actually decided on could reduce the inflation rate by three-quarters of a percentage point over this year.

Garnaut’s point is that we’ll end up with less unemployment if we don’t continue leaving the whole responsibility for inflation to an institution whose only tool is to wack up interest rates.

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