Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Primer on Monetary Policy in Australia

A recent speech by Australian Reserve Bank governor;

I turn now to arguments about monetary policy and inflation. The first one that I want to address is the assertion that monetary policy, in adjusting interest rates, is ineffective in controlling prices, because it is failing to restrain demand. More than once I have seen people state that the rises in interest rates seemed not to make much difference.

But if it were really true that the sequence of adjustments that took place to raise the cash rate from its low of 4.25 per cent in 2001 to 7.25 per cent today made no difference to the economy or inflation, it would follow that we could reduce the cash rate by 300 basis points tomorrow and nothing would change. If we put it like that, surely not many people could seriously believe that the changes to interest rates have made no difference.

More realistically, people might think that it is the changes in rates that matter, more than the level, and that the changes were too small. In this view, interest rate changes should perhaps have been bigger, so as to give more of a ‘shock’ to behaviour on each occasion (though they should presumably also have been less frequent – otherwise the level of rates we would have reached would have been much higher).

I suppose it is possible that a different sequence of changes, including some bigger ones, would have changed behaviour in the economy. We cannot know because that alternative scenario cannot be run, but as everyone knows, the Board has on occasion in the recent past considered larger movements. So the idea of larger changes is not absurd.

Yet it is hardly as though interest rate changes were so small that no‑one noticed. There are few issues reported at more length than interest rates; no‑one could say they were unaware of what was happening. Beginning with the March 2005 rate change, moreover, the extent of coverage in the media has been far more intense than it had been prior to then, and far more intense than is the case in other comparable countries. We could debate the reasons for that, but they do not matter for present purposes. On every one of those occasions, there was no shortage of dramatic media coverage, and no shortage of predictions of serious consequences for indebted households, the economy and so on. If we were looking for announcement effects, surely they should have been at work through this period.

My own view is that monetary policy is most effective when actions are seen to be consistent with the factual evidence available on the economy, a sensible assessment about future risks, and a framework that has a clear medium‑term objective for policy. Apart from that, we have to accept that the likely effect of any one move of 25 or even 50 basis points is, while uncertain, probably only modest. It is the combination of changes, and more particularly the level reached, that will do most of the work.

A second version of the ‘ineffectiveness’ argument holds that (1) the price rises are coming from factors beyond the control of any Australian policy, and particularly from abroad, from which it follows that (2) monetary policy cannot do anything about them. For some people, it follows that it is therefore (3) futile, and unnecessarily disruptive, to try.

I have already addressed the question of whether all the price rises can be put down to a few special factors, obviously not under our control. The fact is that the price rises are broader than that.

But even if all the initial impetus for higher prices comes from events abroad, we still have to decide how we will respond to that shock. In the case of energy prices, while the world price of oil in US dollars certainly is completely outside our control, it is the Australian dollar price of oil that actually matters for the Australian motorist. That price is lower at present than it might have been, because of the rise in the exchange rate. Insofar as interest rates have a bearing on the exchange rate, they can affect petrol prices, indirectly, and have done so.

Looking across the economy more generally, we can all see that the main external event of recent years is the rise in the terms of trade, which is obviously completely exogenous as far as Australia is concerned. But higher resource prices generate additional income, which then affects demand for goods and services at home. That is expansionary, and puts pressure on prices for non‑traded goods and services. Even though monetary policy cannot stop the initial shock – of course we cannot stop the Chinese demand for resources – we can, and should, seek to condition the economy’s subsequent response to that shock, rather than simply letting domestic overheating go unchecked. Tighter policy will dampen domestic demand and contain the pick‑up in non‑traded prices as well as raising the exchange rate, which makes imports cheaper, exports less competitive and fosters a move of productive resources into the parts of the economy where more production is needed. That is an appropriate form of adjustment to such a shock, particularly if the shock is likely to be fairly persistent.

So even when events beyond our control occur to put pressure on prices, we should still respond, and that response can be quite effective.

Another line of argument takes quite a different tack. It argues not that monetary policy is ineffective, but in fact that it makes the problem worse by actually raising prices. The logic here is that interest payments are a cost to business activity, and that raising this cost will simply result in businesses passing it on.

It is obviously true that interest is a cost, and for a business to stay solvent it has to cover that along with its other costs in its selling price. But when interest rates rise, can business just pass this cost on without losing sales? It might be possible initially, but since higher interest rates do eventually slow demand, it will get more difficult to raise prices in due course. So when some people say that higher rates will just push up prices, I think the answer is that it is the strength of demand that allows that, and the rise in interest rates will, in time, dampen demand. All the historical evidence is that monetary policy is quite effective in that regard.

I turn now to other arguments, not that monetary policy is ineffective, but that it is not terribly precise. One common expression is that it is a blunt instrument. People rarely define what they mean by that term, but I think they have in mind two things. First, if inflation is rising because particular prices are moving a lot, monetary policy cannot focus precisely on exactly those particular prices, or those particular features of economic behaviour causing the price rises. It is a general, rather than specific, instrument in that sense. Second, I think that when people say ‘blunt’, they mean ‘unfair’ – particularly that when interest rates rise, this affects households who owe money on a home loan. (Presumably the same argument would mean that it is equally unfair to savers to put interest rates down when the economy is weak.)

As I noted before, it is not actually true that the recent rise in inflation is confined to just a few items. To that extent, the use of a general instrument would seem quite appropriate. But there are also a couple of other quite important points to make in regard to the ‘blunt instrument’ critique.

The first is that the transmission channels for monetary policy are much wider than just the impacts on households with home loans. Most businesses have debts, too.2 Floating rate debt costs more for them to service as interest rates rise, which presumably causes some of them to reconsider some things they might have been doing or planning. So the ‘cash flow’ channel of monetary policy affects business.

Monetary policy also affects what economists would call inter‑temporal decision‑making. Incentives to save, as opposed to consume, alter. It is commonly observed that many Australians save rather little, but the household saving rate has in fact risen noticeably in recent years, largely unnoticed by conventional opinion. I do not claim that the increase is mainly due to rising interest rates, but I do not think we should assume that these incentives do not matter. Despite Australia’s extensive use of foreign saving to build up our economy, the bulk of our productive investment is financed via domestic saving of one form or another.

Changes in interest rates affect asset values over time, through effects on discount rates, expected earnings growth and so on. These feed through into behaviour in several dimensions – via the cost of capital to firms, wealth effects and so on. Through complex channels, monetary policy can sometimes also affect the non‑price terms of credit, particularly if it manages to affect expectations about future growth, creditworthiness and risk appetite.

Then there is the exchange rate, as I have already mentioned. Numerous factors affect exchange rates, and the relationships are hard to pin down. However, interest rate differentials between countries do matter to exchange rates, along with expectations about how those differentials may change (a function of growth expectations), factors affecting trade positions (such as commodity prices in our case), investor risk preferences and so on. I have already discussed the case of petrol, but there is surely little doubt that the prices of tradable goods and services generally are lower today than they would have been if the exchange rate had been at its long‑run average level. This is the case even with much more muted short‑term pass‑through of exchange rate changes than we used to have. In other words, changes in the exchange rate alter the terms at which the rest of the world supplies goods and services to Australia in a way that is stabilising for prices.

All these are channels for monetary policy’s effects. They operate at different speeds, and to differing extents in different episodes – but they are all there, and I would say that they are all working at present. The transmission of monetary policy is not just about home loan rates, as important a channel as that is.

Secondly, to say monetary policy is a blunt instrument begs the question: where are the sharp instruments? It is not obvious that there are all that many. People mention supply‑side reforms of various kinds and unquestionably these have been extremely important over the years. To the extent that more can be done, that is all to the good for Australians’ standard of living. But they are long term. It is hard to deploy them in a hurry. And many of them are very general – ‘blunt’ even – rather than specific.

Many people will appeal, perhaps not unreasonably, to the possibility of using fiscal policy to counter inflation pressure. For some time now, fiscal policy has not been actively deployed to manage the business cycle. The focus has mainly been on achieving and then maintaining a structurally sound, long‑run fiscal position and, subject to that, making tax and spending decisions aimed at various other objectives that governments have. This does not preclude allowing the budget’s ‘automatic stabilisers’ to operate over the cycle (though it might be observed that, with an elongated upswing like the one we have been having, it is getting more difficult to decide what should be thought of as a temporary rise in revenue and what can be assumed to be permanent).

It strikes me that in the popular discussion about fiscal policy, many participants talk past each other because they are looking at different time dimensions. It is not unreasonable to say that if the budget is perpetually in surplus, there is no debt to speak of and no other looming large unfunded liability, taxes should probably, over some long‑run horizon, be lower. This, it seems to me, is the economic case for structural reductions in taxes, which some observers articulate. Others argue that such reductions should be delayed, for cyclical reasons, given that demand needs to slow to contain inflation. So there is a structural case for taxes to fall, and a cyclical case for them not to. It is no doubt difficult for any government to reconcile these two, equally valid, points of view, the more so if the same tension persists for a number of consecutive years.

Leaving that aside, let us give some thought to just how effective an instrument budgetary policy is likely to be. If inflationary pressures were just due to specific, narrow issues (which, as is clear above, I doubt), precise targeting of the sources of inflationary pressure via tax and spending measures could nonetheless be exceedingly difficult at a technical level, let alone politically.

If it is accepted, on the other hand, that inflation is sufficiently general that overall demand has to slow, the amount of slowing has to be the same regardless of whether it comes via monetary policy or fiscal policy. It would be somewhat differently distributed across sectors and regions, as the impact of interest rate and exchange rate effects obviously would not overlap exactly with the tax or spending measures that would occur in their place. I would hazard a guess, though, that a good many people who are today paying higher interest rates would instead pay higher taxes in a world where fiscal policy was used more actively to manage the business cycle. We are unlikely, I submit, to witness a situation where income taxes are raised only for those without home loans, or only for those living in Western Australia and Queensland, or those working in the mining sector.

Then there are the time lags in implementing fiscal measures. The Budget occurs once a year, and has a very long and gruelling process in the lead up. I am not expecting to be stampeded by people in this room wishing to do that more often. The economy could conceivably look rather different in mid May when the Budget occurs than it did when the budget processes began, and different again by the time the measures actually take effect. Monetary policy has its full effects with a long lag, but we at least get to reconsider each month, and if need be we can reverse direction quickly.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing that fiscal policy does not matter to the cyclical outcomes, or that fiscal policy should not be made with an eye to the cycle as well as to the structural position. To the extent it can be, of course that is welcome. I am not here to offer any particular suggestion on what fiscal policy should do at present. I am simply saying that the task of fine‑tuning fiscal policy for stabilisation purposes, if that were thought desirable, is unlikely to be any more straightforward than that of using monetary policy. Fiscal policy, in its own way and for its own reasons, is also likely to prove a fairly blunt instrument. Inevitably, even with fiscal policy ideally calibrated for the conjunctural position, monetary policy would still have a lot of work to do managing inflation.

Central Bank Operating Procedures: How the RBA Achieves Its Target for the Cash Rate
Glenn Otto

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