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

Saturday, June 1, 2019

As you were: getting back to budget surplus no longer urgent

Sometimes, changes in fashion are shocking. In economics, the fashion leaders are top American economists. Their latest fashion call is highly relevant to Australia’s circumstances, but will shock a lot of people: stop worrying so much about debt and deficit.

Among the various big-name economists advocating this change of view, the one who made the biggest splash was Professor Olivier Blanchard, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his presidential lecture for the American Economic Association early this year.

Blanchard was formerly chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, and had a big influence on the advanced economies’ response to the global financial crisis. He offered a simpler version of his lecture in a paper for the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

When governments spend more than they raise in taxes, they cover their deficit by borrowing via the sale of government bonds. If you run deficits for many years, you rack up much debt.

So the conventional wisdom – which we heard from both sides in the election campaign – has long been that, as soon as the economy has recovered from its downturn, governments should raise more in taxes than they spend, so as to run an annual budget surplus. They use the surplus to buy back some of the bonds the government has issued, and thus reduce its debt.

Why do most people – and many economists still - think this is the right thing to do? Because when you borrow money you have to pay interest. The more you borrow, the more interest. And the only way to stop having to pay interest is to repay the debt.

Blanchard calls this the “fiscal [or budgetary] cost”. In the end, interest payments and repayments of principal have to be covered by the higher taxes extracted from people, which may discourage them from working or distort their behaviour in other ways.

But Blanchard realised there may be no fiscal cost because interest rates are so low – especially for governments, whose debt is regarded as risk-free (or “safe” as he calls it). Governments are almost always able to repay their debts because, unlike the rest of us, they can get the money they need by increasing taxes. Or they could simply print more money.

Safe interest rates in the rich economies – including Australia – are so low that, after you allow for inflation, the “real” interest rate may be close to zero, or even negative. If they’re zero they’re costing the government nothing.

If they’re negative, the lender is actually paying the government to borrow from them (once you remember that, because of inflation, the lender will be repaid in dollars with less purchasing power that the dollars originally borrowed).

But that’s not all. A government’s revenue-raising capacity tends to grow in line with the size of the economy – nominal gross domestic product. And nominal GDP almost always grows faster than the nominal safe interest rate.

If so, the government can go on, year after year, paying the interest on its debt and continuing to run a budget deficit - provided it isn’t too big – without its debt growing relative to the size of the economy.

Now, you may object that interest rates are so low at present only because it’s taking so long for the world economy to recover from the global financial crisis and the Great Recession.

But if interest rates are higher in the future, that will be because there’s stronger demand to borrow relative to the supply of funds available, and this, in turn, should mean the economy is also growing at a faster rate.

In any case, Blanchard and others have shown that nominal GDP growth has been higher than the safe interest rate for decades.

So, unless budget deficits are very high, the value of the debt should decline over time as a percentage of GDP. This, in fact, is the way all countries got on top of the massive debts they incurred during World War II.

The second conventional reason for worrying about government debt is the cost to the economy, which Blanchard calls the “welfare cost”. When governments borrow to fund their deficit spending, they compete with private sector borrowers, driving up the interest rates firms have to pay and so “crowding out” some business borrowers.

This causes firms’ investment in renewing or expanding their businesses to be lower than otherwise which, in turn, leads to less economic growth and job creation than otherwise.

(That’s the standard argument, used since Milton Friedman’s day. It’s still relevant to an economy as huge as America but, in an economy as small as ours, it stopped applying after we floated the dollar and our financial markets became integrated with the global market. In Australia, if crowding out happens, it does so via the inflow of borrowed foreign capital causing our exchange rate to be higher than otherwise and thus making our export and import-competing industries less price competitive.)

But Blanchard argues that, in fact, the welfare cost of high government debt is probably small. If the average rate of return on business investment projects is higher than the rate of growth in nominal GDP, this implies there is a cost to the welfare of people in the economy.

On the other hand, if the safe interest rate is lower than the rate of growth in nominal GDP, this implies a welfare benefit from the government debt. Putting the two together implies that the welfare cost, if any, wouldn’t be great.

Blanchard is quick to warn, however, that these arguments don’t “add up to a licence to issue infinite amounts of [government] debt”. Debt and deficit make sense when government spending is countering the weakness in private sector spending. When this fiscal stimulus succeeds in restoring strong growth in private sector spending, governments should pull back to avoid excessive inflation pressure.

And, to be on the safe side, government borrowing should be used mainly to support investment in needed infrastructure, education and healthcare, so it’s adding to the economy’s productive capacity, not just to consumption.
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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Interest rate cuts are coming, which isn't good news

The Reserve Bank may have decided not to cut interest rates right now, but it’s likely to be only a few months before it does start cutting, and it’s unlikely to stop at one. So, is it just waiting until after the election? I doubt that’s the reason.

The Reserve has moved interest rates twice during election campaigns – raising them in 2007 (much to the surprise of Peter Costello, whose mind was on politics at the time) and cutting them in 2013 – so, had Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe considered an immediate cut was needed, I doubt he would have hesitated to make it.

The Reserve acts independently of the elected government, so it is – and must be seen to be - apolitical. Lowe’s predecessor, Glenn Stevens – who instigated both those previous moves – decided that the only way to be genuinely apolitical was for him to act as soon as he believed the best interests of the economy required him to, regardless of what the politicians were up to at the time.

I doubt his former deputy and understudy, Lowe, would see it any differently.

So, is Lowe’s judgement that a rate cut isn’t needed urgently bad news or good for Scott Morrison – or, conversely, for Bill Shorten?

First point: stupid question. What matters most is whether it’s good or bad news for you and me, and the economy we live in, not the fortunes of the people we hire to run the country for us. The rest is mere political speculation.

The media invariably judge a fall in interest rates to be good news and a rise bad news. But this is far too narrow a perspective. For a start, it assumes all their customers have mortgages and none are saving for a home deposit or for retirement. The retired are absolutely hating the present protracted period of record low interest rates.

For another thing, it assumes that our loans or our deposits are the only things that matter to our economic wellbeing. That the central bank’s movement of interest rates has no implications for, say, our prospects of getting a decent pay rise, or of hanging onto our job.

The fact is that central banks use the manipulation of interest rates to influence the rate at which the economy’s growing. They raise rates when everything’s going swimmingly and, in fact, needs slowing down a bit to keep inflation in check.

They cut interest rates when things aren’t going all that well – when, for instance, low wage increases are causing anaemic growth in consumer spending and this is giving businesses little incentive to expand their operations, or when a rise in unemployment is threatening.

Penny dropped? A cut in interest rates is a portent of tougher times ahead, whereas a rise in rates says the good times are rolling and will keep doing so for a while yet.

So it’s not at all clear that, had he cut rates, Lowe would have been doing Morrison a favour politically and doing Shorten a disservice.

In Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s budget speech a month ago – it seems an eternity – he used the phrase “strong growth” 14 times. Turned out Morrison was basing his case for re-election on the claim that the Coalition had returned the economy to strong growth – after the mess those terrible unwashed union people had made, as they always do.

That claim is now not looking so believable. It was in trouble even before the budget, when we learnt in March that the economy had suffered a second successive quarter of weak growth, slashing the rise in real gross domestic product during 2018 to just 2.3 per cent – rather than the 3 per cent the Reserve had been talking about.

This was the first sign that, having left its official interest rate steady at 1.5 per cent for more than two and a half years, the Reserve needed to think about using a cut in rates to help push the economy along.

The next sign came just a fortnight ago, when the release of the consumer price index showed that, while some prices fell and others rose during the March quarter, on balance there was no change in the cost of the typical basket of goods and services bought by households.

This caused the annual rate of price increase to fall from 1.8 per cent to 1.3 per cent – at a time when the Reserve had gone for more than three years assuring us it would soon be back in the Reserve’s target range of between 2 and 3 per cent.

So, quite a blow to the Reserve’s assurances that the economy was getting stronger, and a sign it should be thinking seriously about cutting rates to kick things along. (Prices tend to rise faster the faster the economy is growing so, paradoxically, very low inflation is a worrying sign.)

In which case, why has Lowe hesitated? Because, I suspect, he’s waiting for the third shoe to fall. Employment has been growing faster than you’d expect in a weak economy, so he may be waiting for signs it’s slowing, too.

And he’d want to be confident a cut in interest rates didn’t restart the housing boom in Sydney and Melbourne, which has left too many people with far too much debt.
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Saturday, February 9, 2019

The economy isn’t in trouble, but let’s cut interest rates anyway

Rather than merely acknowledging that the next move in interest rates is as likely to be down as up, I think the Reserve Bank should get on with cutting them. But not for the reason you may imagine.

There are plenty of people – many of them in the media – silly enough to believe a fall in interest rates is always good, and a rise always bad. They have a mortgage-centred view of the universe.

They forget that lower rates are bad news for people living off their savings – or saving for a home deposit.

More particularly, they forget that central banks use interest rates to keep the economy on an even keel. Judged the conventional way, central banks cut interest rates when they judge the economy to be weak or weakening.

So, even for those with mortgages, a cut in rates is no reason to celebrate. They’ll be paying less interest, sure, but only because, in the econocrats’ judgement, there’s now a greater risk they’ll lose their job, be put on a short working week, or go for year or two without a pay rise.

Is that what you’re hoping for? I’m not. Nor do I think it’s our certain fate. The biggest risk we face is talking ourselves into a downturn – for no better reason than it would be something new to talk about.

Telling ourselves that a fall in house prices – something we’ve experienced many times before and lived to tell the tale – is the start of an avalanche.

Or, when Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe moves from saying the next move in rates is up, to saying the chances are evenly balanced between up and down, leaping to the conclusion he’s really saying a cut is imminent.

It isn’t. It isn’t because, as he made plain in a speech on Wednesday – and reiterated in the statement on monetary policy on Friday – he remains confident the economy has slowed a bit, but no worse. His revised forecast is for the economy to grow by an above-trend 3 per cent this year.

And a rate cut isn’t imminent because he said it wasn’t. “[The board] does not see a strong case for a near-term change in the cash rate. We are in the position of being able to maintain the current policy setting while we assess the shifts in the global economy and the strength of household spending.”

He also said that “what we are seeing looks to be a manageable adjustment in the housing market”.

So a rate cut isn’t imminent. According to Lowe, a cut would require “a sustained increase in the unemployment rate”. Which, judged by conventional standards, is good news. It means he believes the economy will continue plugging on.

But my point is different. Lowe is pursuing a conventional, business-as-usual approach to managing the economy because he assumes nothing fundamental has changed.

His conventional thinking is that it’s weak wage growth that’s driving the economy’s relative stagnation. It hasn’t occurred to him it’s the other way round: the economy’s stagnation is the cause of weak wage growth.

I think it’s clear the phenomenon of “secular (that is, long-lasting) stagnation” – exceptionally low inflation, low wage growth, low real interest rates, low business investment, low productivity improvement and low economic growth – applies to our economy as well as to the United States and the other advanced economies.

Every symptom on that list applies to us (bar the long-past mining investment boom). And stagnation isn’t a bad way to describe our position, where growth over the 10 financial years since the global financial crisis has averaged less than 2.6 per cent a year and only one year (2011-12) has been above trend.

One thing that’s become clear in America and other advanced economies is that secular stagnation – the causes of which economists are still debating – has caused conventional estimates of the NAIRU (“non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment” – the lowest rate to which unemployment can fall before wage and price inflation begin to worsen) to be far too high.

In those countries, unemployment has fallen well below where the NAIRU (sounds a bit like the island) was thought to be, without any sign of price inflation or excessive wage growth.

The same can be said of us. The Reserve estimates our NAIRU to be “about 5 per cent”. Our actual unemployment rate has been at 5 per cent or so for some months, while the latest reading for underlying inflation is 1.75 per cent and for the wage price index is 2.2 per cent.

So, we’re at the supposed NAIRU without the slightest sign of inflation pressure. Indeed, underlying inflation has been below the 2 to 3 per cent target range since the end of 2015, and Lowe is forecasting it won’t get up into the target range until the end of next year.

This suggests that, in our newly stagnant world, the true NAIRU is a lot lower: 4.5 per cent, maybe 4 per cent. And since, as Lowe reminds us, the RBA’s objectives include “delivering on full employment”, he should be trying harder to get unemployment down to the true NAIRU.

How? By using the one instrument available to him: cutting interest rates to loosen a monetary policy that’s tighter than it needs to be.

Until recently, Lowe’s best reason for not lowering rates was a desire to avoid adding fuel to the boom in house prices (“asset-price inflation”). But now that constraint has lifted, there’s no reason to hesitate.

You could argue that, with households already so loaded with debt, a rate cut may not do much to boost consumer spending. But it probably would lower the dollar, which would improve our industries’ price competitiveness internationally, encouraging them to hire more workers. We’ve got little to lose.
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Saturday, December 22, 2018

How we killed off Australia's inflation problem

Before we let 2018 go, do you realise it’s the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the Reserve Bank’s target to achieve an inflation rate of between 2 and 3 per cent? It’s a milestone worth celebrating.

Why? Because it’s worked so well. For the past quarter century, we’ve had inflation that has fallen within the target range “on average, over time” and hence been low and stable.

This week the Reserve Bank issued a volume of papers from its conference to discuss inflation targeting, and whether it needed to change. (Conclusion: it didn’t.)

In that 25 years we haven’t had a serious worry about inflation – which certainly can’t be said of the 20 years before the target was unveiled in 1993.

In those earlier years we were continually worried about high inflation. It reached a peak of 17 per cent in the mid-1970s, averaged about 10 per cent for that decade and 8 per cent during the 1980s.

All the other advanced economies had high inflation rates at the time, but ours was higher and took longer to fix.

Our problem was usually linked with excessive growth in wages, and the “wage explosions” of the mid-1970s and early 1980s prompted the authorities to jam on the brakes, leading inevitably to severe recessions.

Even though inflation remained high, a third and more severe recession in the early 1990s was more the consequence of the authorities’ overdone attempt to end a boom in commercial property prices.

It’s not by chance that this year we reached 27 years of continuous growth since that recession. Before it, we had recessions about every seven years, all of them caused by the authorities jamming on the brakes – and then, when we crashed into recession, stepping on the accelerator, a “stop/go policy”.

The first reason we haven’t needed to worry much about inflation since then is that, as part of the adoption of the inflation target, responsibility for setting interest rates was moved from the politicians to the econocrats running an independent central bank.

They’ve been a much steadier hand on the interest-rate lever, moving rates up or down according to the needs of the business cycle, not the political cycle.

Another reason we’ve stopped worrying about inflation is that this year is also the 35th anniversary of the floating of our dollar in 1983. A floating exchange rate – which, remarkably, has almost always floated in the direction needed to keep the economy on an even keel – has made it a lot easier for the Reserve to keep inflation low and stable.

A third reason is the extensive program of “micro-economic reform” begun by the Hawke-Keating government in the 1980s – including the deregulation of many industries and the decentralisation of wage-fixing – which has made our economy much less inflation-prone than it used to be.

Yet another factor was the realisation at the time the inflation target was adopted – informally by the Reserve in 1993, and then formally by the incoming Howard government in 1996 – that the key to lower inflation was to get “inflation expectations” down to a reasonable level.

Why? Because there’s a strong tendency for the expected inflation rate in the minds of shopkeepers and union officials to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they expect prices to keep rising rapidly, they get in first with their own big price or wage rises.

We’ve spent the past 25 years demonstrating that if you can get everybody expecting inflation to stay low, you have a lot less trouble ensuring it actually does.

The hard part was how to get from the high expectations of the late-1980s to the low expectations we’ve had for most of the past 25 years.

Bernie Fraser, Treasury secretary turned Reserve Bank governor, the man who introduced the target, knew what to do: define what was an acceptably low inflation rate – between 2 and 3 per cent, on average - and keep the economy comatose until you actually achieved the target, then keep it low until everyone had been convinced that “about 2.5 per cent” was what today we’d call “the new normal”.

How did Fraser achieve this? He did the opposite of what his predecessors did whenever they realised they’d hit the economy harder than they’d intended to. Despite knowing we were in for a bad recession, he let the interest-rate brakes off only slowly, and didn’t hit the accelerator.

In other words, he made the recession of the early ‘90s longer and harder than it could have been. I think he decided that, since we were in for a terrible belting anyway, he’d make sure we at least emerged from the carnage with something of value: a cure for our inflation problem that wasn’t just temporary, but lasting.

And that’s what he delivered. With low inflation expectations embedded, he was able to stimulate the economy to grow faster and get unemployment down. It went from 11 per cent after the recession to 5 per cent today.

At the time the inflation target was adopted, some people worried it meant the Reserve didn’t care about unemployment. As events have demonstrated, that was wrong. To Fraser, low inflation was just a means to the ultimate end of low unemployment.

I rate him the best top econocrat we’ve had in 50 years. He was wise and caring, with the best feel for how the economy worked. Peter Costello gets the credit for formally adopting Fraser’s inflation target, pursued by an independent Reserve Bank.

But another person also deserves credit – Dr John Hewson. It was Hewson who, as Coalition shadow treasurer, made the most noise about the need for an independent central bank with an inflation target.

Fraser decided he’d better get on with specifying his own target before “some dickhead minister” tried to impose a crazy one on him.
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Monday, December 17, 2018

ACCC wins watchdog of the year, as others lick their wounds

It’s been an infamous year for Australia’s economic regulators. Most ended it with their lack of vigilance exposed, their reputations battered and their ears stinging from judicial rebuke.

The biggest loser is the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, followed by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority. But the mismanagement of the national electricity market became more apparent. And neither the Reserve Bank nor Treasury emerged unscathed.

Just one regulator had a good year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. It worked hard, discharging its duties with vigour and initiative, taking on powerful business interests, seeking and being granted hugely increased maximum penalties, and fighting to make up for the negligence of its fellow regulators.

As the others have been found wanting, its role has been expanded. And as next year we see the government’s response to this year’s seemingly endless revelations of regulatory failure, it’s role may well be further widened. That’s what tends to happen when rival regulators’ failures become apparent.

It’s been a watershed year. From now on, life will never be the same for regulators found wanting under the microscope of public scrutiny.

Much of that scrutiny came from the banking royal commission, of course. Its interim report in September criticised ASIC for "rarely" going to court "to seek public denunciation of and punishment for misconduct," and being too accommodative when negotiating penalties with the companies it polices.

APRA faced criticism for a "lack of action" in response to widespread misbehaviour in superannuation, including cases where thousands of members were kept in higher fee accounts, rather than being moved into no-frills MySuper products.

But the royal commission wasn’t the only critic of economic regulators this year. I’ve said plenty elsewhere about the failure of the national electricity market’s three (and now four) official operators and regulators to prevent the massive blowout in retail power prices.

One of the many things the Turnbull government did in its vain attempt to fend off pressure for a royal commission was to get the Productivity Commission to report on competition in the financial sector.

The commission confirmed competition in banking was weak and made one eye-opening revelation: part of the problem was that, in their concern to ensure the stability of the banking system, APRA and the Reserve Bank weren’t too worried about ensuring this did as little as possible to inhibit price competition between the big banks.

The commission noted that when APRA had imposed limits on new interest-only lending, it and the Reserve had looked the other way while all four big banks used this as an excuse to jack up interest rates on new and existing interest-only loans.

It recommended that a “consumer champion” be appointed to join APRA, ASIC, Treasury and the Reserve on the co-ordinating Council of Financial Regulators. No prize for guessing the ACCC was the champion the commission had in mind. Nor for reading between the lines that the commission suspected the Reserve and Treasury had been “captured” by the bankers they were supposed to be regulating.

The ACCC has done what little it could over the years to oppose the misregulation and oligopolisation of the national electricity market, and its reports this year revealed what went wrong.

Last week it acted on three fronts. Its preliminary report on digital platforms took on Google and Facebook, greatly expanding our understanding of the questionable ways they operate and working on ways they could be regulated.

ACCC boss Rod Sims has long worried publicly about the state governments privatising their electricity businesses and ports in ways that maximised their sale price by inhibiting price competition. The banker-led Baird-Berejiklian government in NSW is the worst offender.

Last week Sims announced the ACCC was taking the Botany port operator to court, alleging its agreement with the NSW government is anti-competitive and illegal.

And last week the ACCC released its final report on factors influencing residential mortgage prices, commissioned at a time when the banks were threatening to pass the new “major bank levy” straight on to their customers.

The report covered similar territory to the earlier Productivity Commission report, noting again the way the banks had used APRA’s move on interest-only loans as an opportunity for “synchronised pricing”.

But the ACCC’s analysis of pricing dynamics in an oligopolistic market like banking revealed far more realism (and advanced economics) than the Productivity Commission’s trademark introductory textbook neo-classicism. The more I see, the more I like.
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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What's making homes hard to afford and what we could do

There aren't many material aspirations Australians hold dearer than owning their own home - but dear is the word. There are few greater areas of policy failure.

The rate of home ownership, of which we were once so proud, has been falling slowly for decades. And as the last high home-owning generations start popping off, it will fall much faster.

We've been debating this issue for years, while it's just got worse. Yet we have a better handle on the causes of the problem, and what needs to be done, than ever.

Let me see if I can pull a lot of the elements together and give you the big picture.

Don't let anyone tell you the younger generation would be happy to stay renting forever. Nuh.

And while the hurdle of owning a home and a mortgage seems almost insurmountable to the young, jumping it is just the start of our property ambition. Most people want to keep moving up to a bigger and better home. Every promotion we get makes us wonder whether we can afford a better place.

This preoccupation with the quality of our housing is the first part of the reason house prices have risen so high: ever growing demand.

Don't forget that our newly built houses are much grander than they were even 10 years ago. And most older houses have been renovated and extended to make them better.

When two-income families became common people thought "great, now we can afford a bigger mortgage on a better place".

When we got on top of inflation in the early 1990s and interest rates fell so far, people could have paid off their mortgage faster, or bought a boat, but more people said "great, now we can afford a bigger mortgage on a better place".

Trouble is, you can't satisfy increased demand for better houses – particularly better-located houses - by building more places on the outskirts of the city. And when a lot of people decide to move to a better place at the same time, the main thing they do is bid up the prices of existing houses.

One change in recent decades is the growth of the services sector and the knowledge economy (more workers knowing how to do things; fewer workers making things), which means many of the jobs have gravitated to the CBD and nearby suburbs.

So the meaning of "position" has changed from good views to "proximity" to the centre. In theory, the amount of land within 10 kilometres of the GPO is fixed. In practice, factories and warehouses can be moved further out, while detached houses can be replaced by townhouses and low-rise or high-rise units.

Even so, in every city, property prices have risen more the closer homes are to the centre.

Another source of increased demand for housing is our high population growth, caused by our policy of high immigration.

Then there's foreigners' investment in our housing, though this isn't as big a cause of higher prices as many imagine because – in principle but not always practice - foreigners are only supposed to buy newly built or "off-the-plan" homes. That is, create their own supply.

Another source of greater demand is Paul Keating's introduction of capital gains tax in 1985 and John Howard's introduction of a 50 per cent discount on the tax in 1999. This has made owner-occupied homes (which are exempt from the tax) and, thanks to negative gearing, rented-out homes, more attractive as a form of investment, relative to shares.

So house prices are higher partly because we've acquired a second motive for home-ownership: not just the security and freedom of owning the home you live in, but also the prospect of homes becoming much more valuable over time.

Of course, increased demand leads to higher prices only if supply fails to keep up. And that's where our governments – state and federal – have failed us.

It's better now, but for ages state governments failed to do enough to permit the building of more homes on the edge of cities. We got more immigrant families, but not more homes to put them in.

Worse, state governments have allowed people in inner and middle-ring suburbs and their councils to resist the pressure for more medium-density housing – more units – from people wanting to live closer to where the jobs and facilities are.

Just last week the Reserve Bank published estimates that this resistance to higher density had added more than $300,000 to the average Melbourne house price and almost $500,000 to the Sydney price, over the past two decades.

So, who pushed housing prices so high? We did. Who failed to do what was needed to counter the increase? Our governments.

The feds failed to limit the growth in demand (by limiting immigration and fixing the tax system), while the states did too little to increase supply (by discouraging the building of new homes on the outskirts and by permitting a first-in-best-dressed mentality by people in inner and middle-ring suburbs).

Why are they allowing the proportion of home owners to decline? Because most things they could do to genuinely help first home buyers would come at the expense of existing home owners, who have more votes than the youngsters.

If young people and their parents don't like that, the answer's more pressure at the ballot box. Wheels that squeak more.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Times get tougher for the oldies

Glenn Stevens, governor of the Reserve Bank, is used to getting letters from angry citizens. Aside from the ones demanding to know why the Reserve can't solve all our problems by just printing more money, in days past most would have come from small-business people complaining about the latest increase in the official interest rate, which had taken their overdraft rate to ruinous levels.

These days, most come from angry retirees complaining about yet another cut in rates. Doesn't he realise people are trying to live on the interest on their savings?

That's the trouble with interest rates, of course, they cut both ways – a cost of borrowers, but income to savers. The media assume we're all borrowers, so they boo rate rises and cheer rate cuts, adding insult to the oldies' injury.

Like all central banks, the Reserve raises interest rates when it wants to slow the economy by discouraging borrowing and spending, and cuts rates when it wants to speed things up – as now. It jumps that way because households' and businesses' debts total a lot more than their savings.

When I was a young economic journalist in the 1970s, the retired were always complaining about high inflation. Their cost of living was rising rapidly, but they had to live on "fixed incomes" that didn't keep pace.

We eventually solved that problem. Interest rates caught up with higher inflation and, as well, we moved to adjusting pensions regularly in line with prices and then with wages. By the early 1990s we finally had inflation back under control.

How times change. These days, most people retire with superannuation or other savings, which they use to supplement – or occasionally replace – their pension. And since they need to live on the earnings from their savings, they need those earnings to be steady, not go up and down like the share market.

Thus the retired like to put most of their savings in interest-bearing bank accounts, term deposits or pension funds that have most of their money in bonds. So these days a lot of retired are back to living on "fixed incomes", meaning they hate to see interest rates falling.

Our official interest rate is down to 2 per cent, a record low, having been cut 10 times since late 2011. The rates paid to savers are only a little higher. Even so, our rates are relatively high compared with most advanced countries. They're near zero in most developed economies, and in parts of Europe you actually have to pay the bank a tiny percentage to persuade it to hold your money.

I'll let you into an open secret: Stevens will be retiring as governor next September, though since he'll only be 58 – just a boy, really – I doubt he'll be putting his feet up.

He said a few things last week that make you think he's turning his mind to retirement. And he doesn't like what he sees.

"My guess is that global interest rates are still going to be very low for a good part of the decade ahead," he told the Australian Business Economists.

It's likely the US Federal Reserve will raise its official interest rate a fraction this month. But Stevens doesn't see US rates rising far. The European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan were "a long way from even thinking about higher interest rates". And the Europeans are openly contemplating further cuts.

So the average official interest rate in the major money centres may be very low for quite a while, he said.

Trouble is, "in a low interest-rate world, the problems of providing retirement incomes will become ever more prominent".

The very low level of yields (returns) on government bonds and other fixed-interest securities means the prices of such securities are very high (it was actually rising bond prices that caused yields to go so low).

So these days it costs you or your pension fund a lot just to buy securities that pay such low amounts of interest. Which is another way of saying you now need to retire with a lot more savings than you did to maintain a given standard of living.

Added to that, we're living longer and so need our savings to last longer.

Stevens said the retiree can, of course, respond to the reduced attractiveness of fixed-interest securities by holding more of her savings in dividend-paying shares. This involves accepting more risk of volatility, of course.

Certain well-known Aussie companies pay big, steady dividends, which usually come with refundable income tax rebates (known as franking credits) attached. Most people would also be hoping to see these dividends grow over time, as inflation continues.

"It certainly seems that many Australian listed corporates feel the pressure from shareholders to deliver that, even some whose earnings are inherently volatile," Stevens said.

Can the corporate sector realistically promise growing dividends over a long period? Not without being prepared to take on greater risk by investing in new projects.

"How much of that risk an older shareholder base will allow boards and managements of listed entities to take is an important question," he said.

"Overall, in a world where a bigger proportion of the population wants to be retired and living (even if only in part) off the return on their savings, those returns are likely, all other things equal, to be lower."

A good argument for delaying retirement.
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Monday, October 19, 2015

Banks ponder their next game with interest

Actual mortgage interest rates have fallen from 7.1 per cent to 4.7 per cent over the past five years, but let one bank – Westpac – increase its rate by 0.2 percentage points and the righteous indignation knows no bounds.

It may not be the end of the world, but it's certainly the end of the housing boom as we know it. Well, maybe.

But outrage is a poor substitute for understanding. Why did Westpac move? Why now? Will the other three big banks match it? And will the Reserve Bank cut the official interest rate to counteract the banks' "unofficial" increase?

Standard economic theory offers little guidance to the classic oligopolistic behaviour we get from our banks. "Game theory" is supposed to be the way economists analyse the strategic decisions of oligopolists, but I doubt it offers much help, either.

Westpac made its rate move at the same time as it joined the other big boys in announcing plans to raise more share capital. The big four are acting in expectation that the government will accept a recommendation of the Murray report that it make Australia's banking system "unquestionably strong" (that is, safe) but requiring it to hold a lot more equity (shareholders') capital.

Part of this is the intention to increase the big four's capital requirement by more than the smaller banks' increase so as put the two groups on a more equal regulatory footing. Westpac gave the cost of this requirement that it hold more capital as its justification for increasing mortgage interest rates.

It's true the requirement does increase the big banks' "cost of intermediation" – that is, the cost of borrowing from some people and lending to others, which is represented by the size of the gap between the interest rate paid to depositors and the rate charged to borrowers.

In principle, this extra cost could be passed back to depositors in the form of lower deposit rates, passed forward to borrowers in the form of higher borrowing rates, or left with the banks' shareholders in the form of lower profits. Or some combination of the three.

Obviously, bank customers would prefer that the banks and their shareholders bear the cost. And there's no reason it shouldn't happen. Our big banks have long been extraordinarily profitable – making a return on equity of 15 per cent a year – in a business that's virtually government-guaranteed.

They could easily take the hit. There's nothing sacred about 15 per cent. And in an intensely competitive banking market that's probably what would happen. In our world, however, "greedy" (read profit-maximising) banks will protect their profitability to the extent that market conditions allow.

And right now they do. It's clear Westpac's intention is to pass the higher cost on to its borrowers. Its three big competitors now must decide whether to follow suit or leave it hanging out to dry as they try to win market share from it.

Going on past behaviour, they'll follow suit. After all, a few months ago when ANZ bank raised its interest rate on investor mortgage loans by about 0.25 percentage points, the other three lost little time in doing the same. The justification was the same: the cost of the tighter capital-adequacy requirement.

But this doesn't guarantee that, this time, the others will follow Westpac immediately or by as much as 0.2 per cent – which, by the way, also applies to investor loans.

One question all this raises is whether the banks are raising rates by more than required to recoup their higher costs. The Murray report said a 0.1 or 0.15 percentage-points rise would cover it.

So, why so much, and why now? Because, at the present exceptionally low rates, the demand for home loans exceeds supply, with the banks under pressure from the authorities and sharemarket analysts to avoid lending too much – to ordinary home-buyers, not just investors.

If you have to cut back your rate of lending, why not do it by raising your prices? This suggests the housing boom may indeed be reaching its closing stages.

One reason the other banks may delay following Westpac is the talk that the Reserve will respond by cutting the official interest rate on Melbourne Cup day. They'd love to be able to hide a rate rise behind a less-than-full pass-through of a rate cut.

The Reserve may oblige, but I won't be holding my breath. Nothing in its rhetoric to date suggests it's keen to cut rather than wait. And I doubt if it would want to be seen as trying to prolong the house-price boom.
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Monday, June 29, 2015

Debt-and-deficit brigade may bring us down

If the economy runs out of steam in the next year or two – and maybe even falls backwards – with unemployment climbing rapidly, there'll be plenty to share the blame: federal and state governments, federal and state Treasuries, and the utterly discredited credit-rating agencies.

The one outfit that will deserve little blame – but will get plenty – is the Reserve Bank. It shouldn't be criticised because it's had its monetary accelerator close to the floor for ages.

The official interest rate has been at or below 2.5 per cent for almost two years, but growth in real gross domestic product has remained stubbornly below trend.

If the economy does run out of puff it will be for a reason macro-economists have known was a significant risk for several years: the mining construction boom – which at its height accounted for about 8 per cent of GDP – is now rapidly coming to an end, with little likelihood that non-mining business investment (or anything else) will be strong enough to fill the vacuum it's leaving.

It's possible the Abbott government's surprisingly poor management of the economy is damaging business confidence, but the more powerful reason business isn't investing is simply that it has plenty of spare production capacity and doesn't see that expanding its capacity would be profitable.

So what can we do to reduce the risk of the economy losing momentum? It ought to be obvious. The Reserve has been dropping hints for months and earlier this month governor Glenn Stevens came right out and said it.

Fiscal policy – broadly defined to include state as well as federal budgets – needs to be pushing in the same direction as monetary policy (interest rates), not pulling against it. As Stevens pointedly noted, "public investment spending fell by 8 per cent over the past year".

Breaking down that contraction, it was caused by the states, not the Feds, with NSW by far the greatest offender. I suspect its poles-and-wires businesses have slashed their investment spending (no bad thing), with general government failing to take up the slack for fear of losing its precious AAA credit rating. So much for all last week's boasting about record infrastructure spending.

All this may have escaped the notice of Joe Hockey and his state counterparts – not to mention their federal and state Treasuries – but last week's statement by the International Monetary Fund's review team gave it top billing.

"The planned pace of [budgetary] consolidation nationally (Commonwealth and states combined) ... is somewhat more frontloaded than desirable, given the weakness of the economy, the size and uncertainty around the resource boom transition and the possible limits to monetary policy," the statement says.

"Increasing public investment (financed by more borrowing rather than offsetting measures) would support aggregate demand [GDP] and ensure against downside risks." Hint, hint.

"It would also employ [construction] resources released by the mining sector, catalyse private investment, boost productivity, take advantage of record-low borrowing rates, and maintain the government's net worth." Oh, that's all.

"Indeed, IMF research suggests that economies like Australia – with an output gap [spare production capacity], accommodative monetary policy and fiscal space – benefit most from debt-financed infrastructure investment, with the growth boost largely containing the impact on the (low) debt-to-GDP ratio."

The statement says the Feds should broaden the scope of investments they support – which may be, and certainly ought to be, a hint that they should be supporting urban public transport projects, not just yet more expressways.

And as well as direct funding, the statement says, the Feds could consider guaranteeing states' borrowing for additional investment, which "would keep accountability with the states but reduce their concerns about credit ratings".

That's one way to overcome the state governments' obsession with the credit ratings set by outfits that contributed greatly to the global financial crisis by granting AAA ratings to securities ultimately written off as "toxic debt".

State governments are letting these operators decide what's responsible and what's not? It's time state Treasuries stopped paying these characters to set arbitrary limits on borrowing for infrastructure spending, and state governments stopped putting retention or restoration of their AAA-rating status symbol ahead of their duty to provide their states with adequate infrastructure.

As for the Feds, Treasury should make it easier for its political masters to walk away from all their debt-and-deficit nonsense by abandoning its age-old objection to distinguishing between capital and recurrent spending.

These two artificial Treasury disciplinary devices – bulldust credit ratings and pretending all federal spending is recurrent – threaten to cause us to slip into an eminently avoidable recession. If that happens, we'll know who to blame.
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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Why monetary policy still packs a punch

Perhaps the biggest question in macro-economic management today is whether monetary policy has lost most of its power to get the economy moving. To many of us the answer seems obvious. But this week a Reserve Bank heavy popped up to challenge the newly emerging consensus.

Whether you look at the way the major developed countries' resort to massive "quantitative easing" (creating money) hasn't exactly got their economies booming, or at the way our big cuts in the official interest rate haven't seen us return even to average ("trend") growth, it makes you doubt if "monetary policy" - the manipulation of monetary conditions - still packs a punch.

Consider our story. The Reserve Bank began cutting the official interest rate as long ago as November 2011. By August 2013 it had reduced it by 2.25 percentage points to a historic low of 2.5 pc. This year it's made more cuts to 2 per cent.

And yet the economy continues growing below trend and isn't expected to return to healthy growth before 2016-17.

Enter Dr Christopher Kent, an assistant governor of the Reserve. In his speech this week he didn't deny the facts: interest rates have been very low for a long time without there being any noticeable pick-up in growth.

But he did dispute the conclusion that this meant monetary policy had lost its power to stimulate economic growth. His point is that when we look at the position in the way I've just done, we're implicitly assuming "ceteris paribus" - that all else remained equal while the only thing that changed was the level of the official interest rate.

Obviously, a lot of other things changed over the period. To take just the most obvious examples, the big fall in coal and iron ore prices, the movement in the dollar and the impact of "fiscal policy" - the effects of the federal and state budgets.

To try to take account of all the things that change, not just interest rates, you need to use a sophisticated econometric model of the economy. And when Kent's people at the Reserve do this, their estimates "tentatively suggest that the overall effect of monetary policy has not changed significantly in recent years".

Such models have two kinds of variables "exogenous" and "endogenous". Exogenous variables are set by the modeller, whereas endogenous variables are determined by the model and its assumptions about how the economy works.

Kent says that in modelling work using a "dynamic stochastic general equilibrium" model (don't ask), estimates of the endogenous relationships based on the figures up to 2008 (the time of the global financial crisis) are about the same as estimates based on figures since then.

"This suggests that the period of below-trend growth in gross domestic product over the past few years may not reflect a change in the monetary policy transmission mechanism," he says.

"Rather, the model attributes below-trend growth to sizeable exogenous forces or shocks. The sharp fall in commodity prices has played an important role of late. Also, weakness in private investment - beyond that which can be explained by subdued domestic demand and falling commodity prices - has made a sizeable contribution to below-trend growth."

I think here he's alluding to the adverse effect on business investment of the still-too-high dollar.

"The model also suggests that consumption growth has been a bit weaker than in the past," he says.

Measuring the effects of monetary policy in isolation from other changes that may be happening at the time, this modelling tells us that a cut in the official interest rate of 1 percentage point will lead the level of real GDP to be between about 0.5 per cent and 0.75 per cent higher than it otherwise would be in two years' time.

It will also lead the level of prices to rise by a bit less than 0.25 percentage points a year more than otherwise over the next two to three years.

Of course, one part of the economy that has strengthened in response to low interest rates is housing construction. It's up by about 9 per cent over the past year.

Kent says housing is typically the most interest-rate sensitive sector and its response to date is "broadly consistent with historical experience".

Consumer spending, however, has so far been "a bit weaker over recent years than suggested by historical experience".

But much of that history captures the unusual period, from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, of adjustment to the easier access to housing credit permitted by the deregulation of the banks and to the economy's return to low inflation.

In that period, household debt increased substantially and household saving fell to rates much below earlier norms. This allow households' consumption spending to grow faster than their incomes.

Since then, however, households' behaviour has reverted to its earlier norms, with a higher rate of saving and greater emphasis on repaying mortgages as early as possible.

If you ignore the growth in borrowing for investment property, but take account of the rising balances in mortgage offset accounts, the rest of household debt has fallen by 4 percentage points of annual household disposable income since early 2000.

Kent thinks many households are using the lower rates to repay their mortgages more quickly (rather than to borrow and spend more) and that some retired households are responding to their lower interest income by limiting their consumption.

As for non-mining business investment, businesses will start expanding their activities when they're closer to running out of spare production capacity. Business investment doesn't usually lead, it follows.

Kent concludes that monetary policy is working pretty much the way it always has, but is pushing against "some strong headwinds", including the huge fall-off in mining investment, tightening budgets at state and federal level and an exchange rate that's still higher than you'd expect it to be considering how far export prices have fallen.
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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Very low rates are more worrying than you think

Never thought I'd see the day when Treasury willingly surrendered the leadership of the nation's economists to the Reserve Bank, but it happened this week.

The new Treasury secretary, John Fraser, has broken a tradition lasting more than two decades to speak about the budget at a luncheon of the Australian Business Economists on the following Tuesday.

This follows the absence of Budget Statement No. 4 from last week's budget papers. It's the statement I call Treasury's sermon, but a disappointed Saul Eslake, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, calls Treasury's "thought leadership essay".

But Dr Philip Lowe, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, personfully stepped into the breach with a ground-breaking speech about "what seems to be a transition to a world in which global interest rates are lower, at least for an extended period, than we had previously become used to".

Does that sound like a good problem to have? Don't be so sure. Interest rates are two-edged: a cost to borrowers, but income to lenders. No one enjoys suffering a drop in their income, as many oldies have been reminding us lately.

The central banks of the US, the euro zone and Japan have for some years had their official (overnight) interest rates set at or near zero. At the other extreme, the yields (interest rates) on 10-year government bonds in these countries are at "extraordinary low levels".

These very low nominal rates mean savers investing in risk-free assets (government bonds) are earning negative real rates of return – because nominal rates are lower than the rate of inflation. "They also mean the time value of money is negative," Lowe says.

Huh? Say you win $10,000 in a lottery, but are offered the choice of receiving the money now or in three years time. Which would you pick?

Most people would want the money now. If you've got it now you can either use it to buy something and enjoy what you've bought for three years, or you can lend the money to someone else for three years and be rewarded by the interest you charge them.

When you think about all that, you realise the truth of the economists' saying that "a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow". That's the time value of money. The actual amount of that value is determined by the interest rate you could earn if you had the dollar today, or the rate you'd avoid having to pay to be able to spend today a dollar you didn't have.

This analysis isn't about the effects of inflation, but about the value of the use of money over time. So the time value of money is the real interest rate (the nominal interest rate minus the expected inflation rate).

Time value means that if I had to pay you $10,000 in three years time, the amount I'd have to set aside today would be less than that because the money I set aside could be earning interest between now and then.

If I knew the interest rate was, say, 4.5 per cent, I could work out how much I had to set aside today to have $10,000 in three years time. The process of working this out is called "discounting". It's compound interest in reverse.

The initial amount you'd need turns out to be $8763, which is called the "present value" of $10,000 in three years.

All this is standard stuff for economists and business people evaluating investment projects or managing invested funds. It's deeply ingrained in the way they've been taught to think.

That's why it's quite shocking for Lowe to say the time value of money is now negative. He's saying that, for goodness knows how long, a dollar today is worth less than a dollar tomorrow.

Another implication is that there's now no compensation for postponing consumption to tomorrow – which, of course, is what savers are doing.

How do we find ourselves in this remarkable situation? The "proximate" (most obvious) cause is the actions of the big central banks and their "quantitative easing" (creation of money). But, Lowe says, central banks don't act in a vacuum, they respond to the world they find themselves in.

That world is one where more people want to save, but fewer people want to invest in new physical assets. In such a world, the interest rate, which is what "equilibrates" saving and investment, falls.

If this situation is long-lasting, Lowe says, it poses "new questions and challenges". It changes a lot of our unconscious rules about how the world works.

For a start, for people seeking to fund future liabilities – such as employers with defined-benefit pension schemes, or even just people saving to amass an adequate lump sum to retire on – it just got a lot harder. The present value of future liabilities is now higher, meaning you have to put more in to reach your target.

Second, lower rates mean the present (that is, discounted) value of a stream of future income from an asset is now higher. This, in turn, means the asset is worth more and so will now have a higher price.

This is brought about by savers, dissatisfied with the low returns on risk-free assets (government bonds), seeking the higher returns from riskier assets (say, shares of companies with high dividend rates) and thereby pushing up their prices.

Third, if the cost of (financial) capital has fallen but firms don't lower their "hurdle rates" – the expected rate of return required before potential physical investment projects get the go-ahead – then we don't get the growth in business investment spending needed to get the economy moving (and don't have increased demand for the use of savings working to get interest rates back up).

We just have to hope businesses eventually learn how the rules have changed and adjust accordingly.
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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why monetary policy stimulus is less effective

The advent of "stagflation" in the 1970s - the previously unknown combination of high inflation with high unemployment - led to a loss of confidence in Keynesian policies, with primary responsibility for management of the macro economy being shifted to monetary policy and with fiscal policy taking a lesser role.

Four decades later, the wheel may be turning again. The two hot stories in the world of macro management are the decline in effectiveness of monetary policy and a consequent resurgence of interest in active fiscal policy.

Last week Dr Philip Lowe, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, gave a speech explaining the monetary policy story, so let's look at that today and leave the fiscal story for another day. (Monetary policy refers to the central bank's manipulation of interest rates - and, these days, its creation of money - and fiscal policy refers to the government's manipulation of taxation and government spending in the budget.)

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, the big developed countries' central banks cut their official interest rates virtually to zero in their efforts to stimulate demand, avert a depression and get their economies moving again.

When this didn't seem to be having much effect, but being unable to cut their official rates below what economists pompously call "the zero lower bound", first the US and Britain, then Japan, then the euro zone resorted to an unorthodox practice known as "quantitative easing": central banks buying bonds from the commercial banks and paying for them by creating money out of thin air.

The main way this stimulated their economies was by pushing down their exchange rates relative to the currencies of those countries that didn't resort to QE - us, for example.

The Europeans got so desperate to get their economies moving their next step was to do something formerly believed impossible: they cut their official interest rate below zero - meaning the central bank charges its commercial banks a tiny percentage for allowing them to deposit money in their central-bank accounts. In a few cases, the commercial banks have passed on this "negative interest rate" to their business depositors.

As Lowe says, the present global monetary environment is "quite extraordinary". There's been unprecedented money creation by major central banks, official interest rates are negative across much of Europe, long-term government bond yields (interest rates) in most advance countries are the lowest in history and lending rates for many private-sector borrowers are the lowest ever.

Had anything like this much stimulus been applied in earlier decades, economies would be booming and inflation would have taken off. Instead, though the US and British economies are now growing moderately, Japan and the rest of Europe remain mired, with considerable idle capacity. Inflation rates are low almost everywhere and inflation expectations have generally declined, not increased.

But why have things changed so much? Lowe says it's partly because the GFC was the biggest financial shock since the Great Depression and so has required a much bigger dose of monetary stimulus than usual, which is taking longer than usual to work.

But it's also partly because monetary policy is less effective. "Economic activity does not appear to have responded to the stimulatory monetary conditions in the way that occurred in the past and inflation rates have been very low," he says.

The single most important factor causing the change, he says, is the very high levels of debt now existing in many advanced economies.

One of the "channels" through which stimulatory monetary policy works is by the lower interest rates encouraging people to borrow so as to bring forward future spending. This has worked well in the past, but the high stock of debt acquired from past episodes has left many households, businesses and banks (and even in some cases, perversely, governments) unwilling to add to their debt.

Rather, they're using the low interest rates to help "repair their balance sheets" by paying down their debts.

One aspect of easy monetary policy that is still working normally, however, is the rapid rise in the prices of assets such as property and shares.

Another thing that's different is the flow-on from demand to prices. Both workers and firms seem to perceive their pricing power to have been reduced. More worried about keeping their jobs, workers are accepting much lower wage rises. More worried about losing customers, firms are more cautious about putting up their prices.

So how is all this affecting us in Australia? Lowe says one big effect is to leave us with an exchange rate that's higher than it should be; that hasn't fallen as much as the fall in our mineral export prices implies it should have.

This has required the Reserve Bank to cut our official interest rate by more than it thinks ideal. It's done this partly to reduce our interest rates relative to other advanced countries' rates and so put some downward pressure on our dollar, but mainly to make up for the inadequate stimulus coming from the still-too-high exchange rate.

The big drawback to our very low interest rates is the boom in asset prices: for shares and, more worryingly, houses.

Second, Lowe says, the same factors affecting global monetary policy are evident in Oz, although to a lesser extent. Our banks, businesses and governments don't have excessive levels of debt, but our households do. So, many are using the fall in mortgage interest rates to step up their repayments of principal rather than increase their consumer spending.

Retirees living on interest earnings seem to have cut their consumption rather than eat into their capital.

Our wage growth is surprisingly low, contributing to low inflation.

Lowe's conclusion, however, is that our monetary policy is still working. And once the major advanced economies have fully recovered from the Great Recession - which could take as long as another decade - global monetary policy will return to normal.
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