The Monetary Policy Statement

If anything I came away from today’s Monetary Policy Statement and (the bulk of it that I saw) the Governor’s press conference more convinced that I was yesterday that the OCR should have been raised by 50 basis points today.

There were a couple of elements in the minutes that were a little more encouraging than one might have feared.

There was the fact that a 50 point increase was clearly seriously considered, and debated. There was the fact that that debate was actually disclosed in the minutes (I think that is a first). There was the explicit comment not ruling out 50 point increases in the future. And there was, at last, a slow start to the process of unwinding the huge punt on the future of bond rates taken on in the LSAP intervention of 2020 and 2021.

It could have been worse. There clearly is an element of unease around the Committee table around the rise in inflation expectations, even for the longer-term horizons the Bank has often previously used to reassure itself there was no particular problem.

But…..when 2 year ahead inflation expectations of relatively more-informed observers have increased (as they have) by 29 basis points since you last met, an increase of the OCR by 25 basis points – especially as those survey respondents will already have expected such an increase and factored it into their inflation expectations – isn’t getting on top of things, even slightly, rather it is just falling a bit further behind. Whether thinking about inflation or inflation expectations, the MPC has fallen short of the Taylor principle – that at very least one should raise (lower) the OCR to the extent inflation and/or expectations rise (fall). The real OCR is now lower than it was when they descended from the mountain top in November, even as all measures of inflation (including the core inflation ones) have moved considerably higher. In the Bank’s own words, all the core measures are now above the top of the target range.

And, of course, the real OCR is now materially lower than it was two years ago, even though (core) inflation has been high and rising and – again on the Bank’s own reckoning – the labour market is unsustainably tight, the unemployment rate is too low to be sustained.

And yet the Committee made no attempt anywhere in the document to justify why real monetary conditions now would prudently, on the balance of probabilities (and they even invoked the “least regrets” language again), be so much looser than they were two years ago.

Linked to that, and perhaps my major criticism of the document itself, is that there was no sustained effort to analyse and explain why the Bank’s core inflation forecasts had been so wrong, why core inflation was now above the top of the target range, or what the MPC had learned from that experience that now gave them greater confidence that they understood the inflation process sufficiently well to keep on with the “slowly does it” approach to adjusting the OCR. In the circumstances it is a pretty inexcusable oversight – and it was a bit disappointing that no journalists asked about the issue/omission.

If one goes back to those minutes, the MPC lists a few reasons not to raise the OCR by 50 points:

  • there were the LSAP sales, but that is a clearly just there to bulk out the paragraph, since the body of the document says any impact of the LSAP, including sales, is now very small, and the Governor reiterated that point even more strongly in the press conference. In any case, the bond sales don’t even start for several more months.
  • there was the fact that interest rates had increased quite a bit late last year.  Which is fine, but there isn’t any sign that (say) inflation expectations have dipped.
  • there was Omicron, which seems to have been a factor, even though monetary policy operates with lags that run well beyond the next 3-6 weeks of the peak Omicron wave, and
  • there was this strange line: “They also noted that conditional on the outlook, the OCR is expected to peak at a higher level than assumed at the November Statement.”.   They have certainly raised the peak of the tightening cycle quite a bit, but……that would normally be an argument for getting on it with now, not just carrying on in the slow and measured way, even though you think –  as the MPC appears to –  that another 240 basis points of increases will be required.

There are more than a few puzzles in the document. For example, the peak of the OCR cycle (3.4 per cent) seems to be well above the Bank’s estimate of neutral rates – chart suggests something around 2 per cent – and both core and headline inflation eventually come down a lot. But the economic forecasts suggest this all happens by “magic”, since the output gap only goes negative in the year to June 2025, and the unemployment rate looks as though it never gets above the NAIRU. It reinforces the point that the model – the understanding of the inflation process and what has gone on in the last couple of years – is at best weak, and possibly missing in action.

At this point I should make clear that I do not have a strong view on where the OCR cycle should peak. I tend to think it is a fool’s errand given how little we know, and so I concentrate on the next few quarters. But the Bank is clearly uneasy about inflation expectations, thinks there is a lot more to do, and yet seems to want to get there very slowly, running in the process risks of things getting even further away on them. 50 basis points would have prudent, especially at a time when no one supposes there is much risk that a few months down the track there would have been cause for regret, having raised the OCR to the fearsome level of (about) -2 per cent.

Is there reason to think economic activity may not do that well this year? Indeed there is, although the eventual opening of the borders will add to (not detract from) capacity (including labour market capacity) and inflation pressures), and core inflation having once got this high – and the Bank expects it to stay this high for at least the next year – doesn’t typically come down by magic. It typically requires some policy force – a little more than is implied by real monetary conditions a lot easier than they were before Covid and this inflation surge got underway. As it is, the Bank is probably painting a rose-tinted picture all round: core inflation falls surprisingly easily, and productivity growth actually picks up a bit. Perhaps it will happen, but there is no compelling case made (and the Bank’s answers to the productivity question were particularly half-hearted.

I could go on on other matters but will end just noting three points briefly:

  • since yesterday’s post, Bob Buckle and Peter Harris have been reappointed to MPC positions for further three year terms.  There was no question to the Governor about how he can possibly justify –  the more so in the current circumstances –  the blackball placed on anyone with a serious ongoing engaged analytical or research interest in monetary policy.    The final appointment is made by the Minister of Finance, but he can appoint only those nominated by the Bank’s Board and no doubts that Orr dominates the Board on such matters, 
  • there was no attempt by the Bank to justify or explain away the more-than $5 billion in losses run up on the LSAP and –  more disappointingly –  no questions from the assembled media,
  • there was not a single question about the appointment to the senior deputy position responsible for macroeconomics and monetary policy (and to the MPC) of someone so manifestly underqualified –  with no relevant qualifications or experience – as Karen Silk.

Perhaps the FEC members might do a little better when the Governor next appears there?

UPDATE: I had to go and pick up a child and so missed the last few minutes of the press conference. I gather the Governor explained that the strange cover was in honour of his departing chief economist, who told us last time he was going to coach his son’s cricket team. It is a nice touch…….for someone who appears to have been forced out in the great Orr restructuring.