Glenn Stevens on monetary policy

I’ve long had a great deal of time for the Reserve Bank of Australia. It is an institution made up of human beings, so they make mistakes from time to time (for a while, for example, their relentless optimism about China reminded one of a sell-side analyst) but it has been a strong institution for decades, successfully developing successive generations of governors and senior managers. Successful organisations tend to promote from within. The RBA publishes thoughtful analysis, and the speeches of senior managers are usually well-worth reading. I don’t recall any major innovations originating at the RBA, but they’ve avoided policy debacles like the MCI experiment, or rapid policy reversals.  All things considered – and setting to one side the serious issues around Note Printing Australia – I think the RBA has had a reasonable claim to having been one of better advanced country central banks in recent decades. At times, no doubt, fortune has favoured them. And perhaps too, there is a little in the old proverb about the grass always being greener on the other side.

Anyway, I was reading Glenn Stevens’ most recent (and quite short) speech, “Issues in Economic Policy”, on some of the challenges the Australian authorities, and the Reserve Bank in particular, face at present. The Governor grouped his remarks under four headings:

  • Negotiating turbulence (the international environment)
  • Accepting adjustment
  • Maintaining stability, and
  • Securing prosperity (a rather general discussion of the place of microeconomic reform)

What struck me, and prompted this post, was how scarce references to inflation were in the speech.  The Reserve Bank’s primary policy responsibility is the conduct of Australia’s monetary policy.  As the (non-binding) Statement on the Conduct of Monetary Policy between the Treasurer and the Governor put it:

Both the Reserve Bank and the Government agree on the importance of low inflation.

Low inflation assists business and households in making sound investment decisions. Moreover, low inflation underpins the creation of jobs, protects the savings of Australians and preserves the value of the currency.

In pursuing the goal of medium-term price stability, both the Reserve Bank and the Government agree on the objective of keeping consumer price inflation between 2 and 3 per cent, on average, over the cycle. This formulation allows for the natural short-run variation in inflation over the cycle while preserving a clearly identifiable performance benchmark over time.

There are only two references to inflation in the speech.  In the main one he observes:

A period of somewhat disappointing, even if hardly disastrous, economic growth outcomes, and inflation that has been well contained, has seen interest rates decline to very low levels. The question of whether they might be reduced further remains, as I have said before, on the table.

But the thrust of what followed was a bit surprising:

But in answering that question, it is not quite good enough simply to say that evidence of continuing softness should necessarily result in further cuts in rates, without considering the longer-term risks involved. Monetary policy works partly by prompting risk-taking behaviour. In some ways that is good: in some respects, there has not been enough risk-taking behaviour. But the risk-taking behaviour most responsive to monetary policy is of the financial type. To a point, that is probably a pre-requisite for the ‘real economy’ risk-taking that we most want. But beyond a certain point, it can be dangerous.

Deciding when such a point has been reached is, unavoidably, a highly judgemental process. And that is after the event, let alone beforehand. My judgement would be that policy settings that fostered a return to the sort of upward trend in household leverage we saw up to 2006 would have a high likelihood, some time down the track, of being judged to have gone too far. That is not the case at present, given the current rates of credit growth and so on. But the point is simply that in meeting the challenge of securing growth in the near term, the stability of future economic performance can’t be dismissed as a consideration.

It was as if the authors of the BIS Annual Reports had managed to infiltrate the RBA’s speechwriting team. The point of this post is not to make the case for further cash rate cuts in Australia. On the surface, some further easing looks warranted to me, but I’m not close enough to the Australian data to be confident of that view. My point is that the Governor looks here to be risking taking his eye off the inflation ball, and downplaying short-term macro stabilisation for some ill-defined concern about the longer-term. In any economy adjusting to an investment slump a reasonable case might be made that insufficient risk-taking is going on. And since there are no reliable direct benchmarks for the appropriate degree of risk-taking, a simpler benchmark might be levels of excess capacity in the economy. An unemployment rate of 6 per cent – above any estimates of NAIRU that I’ve seen – might reasonably suggest a need for rather more risk-taking across the economy, if the people who are unemployed are relatively quickly to find jobs.

The Governor goes on to note that “policy settings that fostered a return to the sort of upward trend in household leverage we saw up to 2006 would have a high likelihood, some time down the track, of being judged to have gone too far”. Central bankers worry about periods of rapid growth in credit and asset prices, but it is a curious historical episode to cite. After all, Australia came through that period of leveraging up (which had more to do with the interaction of planning restrictions and rapid population growth as with anything to do with monetary or banking policy) rather well. And if some of that was down to the good fortune of the terms of trade, it isn’t obvious that countries like New Zealand or Canada suffered seriously from the aftermath of rather similar domestic credit booms (although of course, post-2007 growth has been weak almost everywhere). There was little or no evidence that lending standards became pervasively and seriously too loose in Australia (or New Zealand or Canada) during the pre-2007 booms

Perhaps I’m over-interpreting the Governor, but his comments have a bit of a feel about them of the Swedish Riksbank’s ill-fated experiment in using monetary policy to lean against household debt accumulation, rather than keeping their eye firmly focused on the medium-term outlook for inflation. Economists and central bankers don’t know that much about appropriate levels of debt or about what macro policy can do about them. By contrast, we have a stronger sense of when the numbers of people unemployed are above normal, and a rather better (although far from foolproof) sense of what monetary policy can do about that, especially in periods when core inflation pressures (domestically and globally) are pretty quiescent (core inflation measures in Australia seem to be at or below the midpoint). And in Australia, the Reserve Bank’s Act explicitly enjoins the Bank to run monetary policy in a way that best contributes to “the maintenance of full employment in Australia”.  For practical purposes that doesn’t override a medium-term focus on keeping inflation near-target, but it does rank rather higher in the statutory list of considerations than visceral unease about the possibility, at some point down the track of excessive risk-taking.

On an unrelated point, for any readers interested TVNZ’s Q&A programme yesterday pre-recorded an interview with me, to be shown tomorrow. The questions were mostly around the Reserve Bank of New Zealand: actions, inactions, and frameworks. Unless I said something I really didn’t mean to say, I don’t think there is anything in the interview that regular readers won’t have encountered before. One question – how worried should we be about the New Zealand economy – caught me a little by surprise, and I’ve been reflecting further on that. I might jot down some thoughts on that here on Monday.

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