The author has been described by News Ltd as an "iconoclast", "Svengali", a pollie's "economist muse", and "pungently accurate". Fairfax says he is a "Renaissance man" and "one of Australia’s most respected analysts." Stephen Koukoulas concludes that he is "85% right", and "would make a great Opposition leader." Terry McCrann claims the author thinks "‘nuance’ is a trendy village in the south of France", but can be "scintillating" when he thinks "clearly". The ACTU reckons he’s "an enigma wrapped in a Bloomberg terminal, wrapped in some apparently well-honed abs."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The RBA is worried about the unintended consequences of monetary policy

Glenn Stevens delivered a 'solid' speech last week. Solid being a favoured, if over-exercised, bromide for central bankers. Stevens made a few interesting remarks, which, if I can say so, echoed points I've consistently pushed here.

First, the local media and local economists have not been dispassionate in assessing Australia's economic circumstances. As I've said before, if you predicted a raft of rate cuts late last year on the basis of a weak Australian economy, you were indisputably right for the wrong reasons. Stevens comments:

Yet the nature of public discussion is unrelentingly gloomy, and this has intensified over the past six months. Even before the recent turn of events in Europe and their effects on global markets, we were grimly determined to see our glass as half empty. Numerous foreign visitors to the Reserve Bank have remarked on the surprising extent of this pessimism. Each time I travel abroad I am struck by the difference between the perceptions held by foreigners about Australia and what I read in the newspapers at home.

The good news is that Stevens's speech has had an immediate impact on editorial behaviour, and hamstrung the more hysterical gloomers. Most of the major media outlets have jumped aboard, with a notable shift in the tenor of output in the big broadsheets. Let's see how long that lasts.

The second point, which Stevens would never admit, is that the RBA are worried about the effects of excessively low interest rates on asset prices, and housing in particular. This has been compounded by the fact that the RBA made a policy mis-step in cutting rates too hard between November and today on the basis of flawed survey data, financial market speculation, and subjective forecasts.

In his speech, I was intrigued to see Stevens warning Australians against relying on trend house price growth, and defensively arguing that the RBA was not cutting interest rates to bolster asset prices. For mine, this is a subtle tell apropos the RBA's policymaking mistakes. Suddenly they are worried about unintended consequences:

You don’t have to be a believer in bubbles to think that a return to sizeable price increases and higher household gearing from still reasonably high current levels would be a risky approach. It would surely be a false basis for confidence. The intended effect of recent policy actions is certainly not to pump up speculative demand for assets.

This is not exactly right. First, the RBA thinks there has been massive underbuilding in the housing sector, and would like to see a big increase in appropriately located and constructed housing supply over the years to come. They have said this repeatedly.  Second, the RBA (now) knows--as I warned years ago--that it is not going to get investments of scarce capital in risky housing supply while asset prices are declining.

The most germane thing about asset prices is this. On the one hand, the RBA knows that the Australian banking and mortgage insurance systems have been heavily criticised by institutional investors for their high exposures--60% on average for the banks--to Australia's supposedly over-valued housing market. This is unambiguously regarded as Australia's No. 1 macroeconomic risk. The RBA spends considerable time and effort meeting privately with global investors trying to convince them otherwise.

The RBA further knows that if house prices were to decline materially, it would imperil the entire financial system. The disaster-delivery-device would, of course, be the banks. Slumping prices would slash the value of collateral on bank balance sheets. This could cause credit rationing that further accentuates the price falls, and so on. Rest assured, the RBA would do everything possible to resist this outcome, and would absolutely use interest rates to support asset prices. This is an integral part of the RBA's "financial stability" mandate, which it is very focussed on.

It is also true that the RBA has been somewhat unnerved by the recent house price action, with, thus far, a failure to see any obviously positive response to the central bank's anxious cuts.

Now I don't think there is much chance of this negative asset price/bank credit rationing feedback loop coming to pass. But it is precisely the sort of scenario that gives Glenn Stevens and Phile Lowe heart palpitations.

(As a technical aside, I think it is fascinating to see the RBA referencing Australia's new "daily" house price index data, noting that while prices stabilised in the first four months of 2012, they started slipping again over mid April and May.)

Recent RBA rate cuts have, therefore, been motivated partly to afford some relief to the struggling housing sector. And there would be much more if the value of housing started plummeting.

This brings me to a third observation. The RBA saw house prices surge nearly 14% across Australia's capital cities in 2009 in response to its ultra low rates. It watched as Melbourne house prices jumped a remarkable 35% over 2009 and 2010. It genuinely wants to avoid a repeat of this saga. That is to say, it does not want to have to slash rates to the point where they start stimulating unseemly asset price growth.

A fourth nugget buried in Stevens's speech was his belated nod in the direction of Australia's poorly served, and numerically superior, savers (as opposed to borrowers), which regular readers would know has been a topic of much discontent here:

We cannot neglect the interests of those who live off the return from their savings and who rightly expect us to preserve the real value of those savings. Popular discussion of interest rates routinely ignores this element, focusing almost exclusively on the minority of the population – just over one-third – who occupy a dwelling they have mortgaged. The central bank has to adopt a broader focus. And to repeat, it is not our intention either to engineer a return to a housing price boom, or to overturn the current prudent habits of households. All that said, returns available to savers in deposits (with a little shopping around) remain well ahead of inflation, and have very low risk.

I would contend that on the basis of the latest information, the real returns being earned by Aussie savers are probably 50-70 basis points too low, especially if you assume core inflation rises in Q2 as a function of fading tradeable disinflation.

Current monetary policy settings reflect too much questionable insurance, and not enough fact. Don't get me wrong. The world could end next month, and, as I've explained in detail before, the RBA could be easily compelled to cut the cash rate to 1.9% or lower. But that is not my expected "modal case" for policy right now.

Finally, Stevens returned to a favourite narrative, which I have highlighted in recent presentations. And that concerns the migration of the global centre of economic gravity away from the North Atlantic towards "Chindia". This has been an entirely unplanned and coincidental boon for resources-rich Australia, which hubris-laden policymakers have resisted acknowledging as a critical explanatory variable in our post-GFC economic performance. Stevens redresses this imbalance somewhat, which was comforting to see:

We face a remarkable period in history. The centre of gravity of the world economy seems to be shifting eastwards – towards us – perhaps even faster than some of the optimists had expected. Granted, that is partly because the relative importance of Europe seems to be shrinking, perceptibly, under the weight of its internal problems. But even if the Europeans manage the immediate problems well, there is no mistaking the long run trend. That this comes just as a very unusual period for household behaviour in Western advanced countries (including Australia) has ended, has been a remarkably fortuitous combination for Australia.