This week’s abolition of the local federal debt limit is a welcome development, but only because a debt limit in absolute dollar terms is not a well specified fiscal rule and was never intended to serve as such. The US debt limit, from which Australia’s took its inspiration, was also never intended to be a binding constraint on government borrowing, although threatened to become one on the back of poor fiscal outturns.
The US debt ceiling was first put in place in the 1930s. Its purpose was to alleviate the US Treasury from having to seek Congressional authorisation for each individual debt issue. Instead, Treasury was given discretion to issue debt within the overall limit specified by Congress, but not in the expectation that it would serve as a binding constraint on government borrowing. Since 1960, the US debt limit has been amended by Congress 78 times. More recently, the US debt limit has been politicised and used a proxy fiscal rule, but is unfit for this purpose. Government borrowing is ultimately a product of government spending in excess of revenue and it is government spending that needs to be controlled.
A net debt limit specified as a share of GDP rather than in absolute dollar terms is a better specification and a useful addition to a suite of fiscal rules designed to impose fiscal discipline, as I have argued elsewhere.
A traditional objection to fiscal rules is that they might force a fiscal consolidation or prevent the operation of automatic stabilisers so that fiscal policy becomes pro- rather than counter-cyclical. However, as argued in my AFR op-ed Monday, this is only a problem in the absence of an independent monetary and exchange rate policy. An inflation targeting central bank and a floating exchange rate allows fiscal policy to focus on supply-side issues and long-run fiscal sustainability without being pre-occupied by aggregate demand management and macroeconomic stabilisation.
The 30th Anniversary of the Floating of the Australian Dollar
I have an op-ed in today’s AFR on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the decision to float the Australian dollar. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of implicit inflation targeting by the Reserve Bank, although a formal inflation target was not adopted until August 1996. As I note in the op-ed, the combination of these two macroeconomic institutions fundamentally changed the role of fiscal policy in the economy. Yet much of our macroeconomic policy debate remains stuck in the pre-float era. Full text below the fold (may differ somewhat from edited AFR text).
The Financial System Inquiry – Dealing RBA Governance Back In
I participated in a roundtable discussion on the Financial System Inquiry’s draft terms of reference organised by federal Treasury. Item 7 of the draft terms of reference states that:
In reaching its conclusions, the Inquiry will take account of, but not make recommendations on the objectives and procedures of the Reserve Bank in its conduct of monetary policy.
This can be read a number of ways. I think the intent is to take RBA independence and inflation targeting off the table, but it can also be read as shutting down any consideration of RBA governance. The RBA is internationally anomalous in failing to separate monetary policy decision-making from the overall governance of the bank. This puts the board in the position of oversighting itself in the conduct of monetary policy, the bank’s most important function.
As I argue in this paper, external board members are also conflicted in being notionally appointed to represent particular interests and perspectives, but their role as monetary policy decision-makers requires them to put aside these interests in favour of the public interest. This results in the contributions of individual board members to monetary policy deliberations being suppressed, reducing transparency and accountability in the conduct of monetary policy. The RBA is also exceptional in affording a government representative voting rights (as opposed to non-voting representation) in setting monetary policy.
I also argued at the roundtable, consistent with my article in yesterday’s AFR, that the role of both the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act and the Foreign Investment Review Board needed to be explicitly included in the terms of reference because of their implications for the cost of capital and the financial system’s international integration with global capital markets. I briefly canvass reform options for the regulation of foreign direct investment in this article in the December issue of Infinance.
My concern is that unless RBA governance, the role of FATA and the FIRB are explicitly raised in the final terms of reference, these issues will not be adequately examined by the Inquiry.
Submissions on the draft terms of reference close Thursday 5 December. If you think these are important issues, it is not too late to put in a submission.
I have an op-ed in the Business Spectator discussing a recent CPA Australia report and its claim that “nothing has been saved during the 20 years of compulsory superannuation contributions”:
The CPA report argues that households anticipate the tax-free benefit they will receive from their superannuation account balance on retirement by increasing their current levels of borrowing and consumption. This increased borrowing is claimed to have fully offset the increased saving via compulsory superannuation contributions. Hence the report’s conclusion that “superannuation savings minus household debt effectively equals zero”.
This surprising result reflects a questionable feature of the report’s methodology. The report counts borrowing for housing on the liabilities side of household balance sheets, but does not count housing equity on the assets side. The report defines household saving as household financial wealth less debt, including housing debt.
The report defends this approach on the basis that few retirees access housing equity to fund their retirement, whether through reverse mortgages, downsizing or relocating the family home. As the report notes, the means test for the age pension encourages the movement of financial assets into the home rather than taking equity out of the home. Stamp duty on property transactions is another factor discouraging the realisation of housing equity. Whereas mortgage debt in retirement needs to be serviced, the value of the family home does not directly affect the cost of living in retirement.
In fact, it is always possible to change the incentives that currently discourage households from realising housing equity for the purposes of funding retirement. In principle at least, housing equity is available to fund retirement, even if this is not a popular choice. We should not completely discount the role of housing equity as a source of retirement saving when it is such an important part of household net worth.
Scott Sumner has a new paper published by the Mercatus Centre, Why the Fiscal Multiplier is Roughly Zero. The argument will be familiar to regular readers of his blog, but the paper serves as a nice summary of what has become known as the Sumner critique. As Scott would be the first to concede, this is not a new or unconventional idea, but somehow the economics profession lost sight of this basic insight into monetary-fiscal interactions during the global financial crisis.
The Sumner critique is particularly relevant to a small open economy like Australia, where the entire institutional framework for macroeconomic policy is arguably built around this insight. With a floating exchange rate and an inflation targeting monetary policy, the change in the budget balance as a share of GDP from one year to the next is a macroeconomic irrelevance by design. This allows fiscal policy to focus on microeconomic and supply-side issues.
In testimony before various parliamentary committees, former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry and RBA Governor Glenn Stevens explicitly acknowledged monetary offset in the context of the 2008-09 fiscal ‘stimulus’, but resorted to the argument that it was better to rely on a mix of macroeconomic instruments rather than monetary policy alone, citing alleged adverse side-effects from very low interest rates. In the US context, Sumner notes the real reason for such arguments: politically, the monetary authority cannot be seen to be explicitly undermining the efforts of the fiscal authority.
In Australia, it is often argued that the government should not cut government spending or return the budget to surplus because it would supposedly be contractionary for the economy. This not only ignores the role of fiscal policy within Australia’s macroeconomic policy framework. As Scott notes, the assumed underlying ‘estimates of fiscal multipliers become little more than forecasts of central bank incompetence.’
Australia as Poster Child for the New Market Monetarism? (March Quarter Edition)
The national accounts were out yesterday, so time to update our graph of the (log) level of nominal GDP relative to its low inflation period trend. The Australian economy still sits 4% below the NGDP level stabilisation benchmark suggested by the new market monetarists, implying that monetary policy has been too tight:
The new market monetarists argue Australia was a poster child for NGDP stabilisation during the financial crisis, but I interpret things differently. Prior to the onset of the financial crisis, inflation was out of control (CPI inflation running at 5%) and nominal GDP growth was running in the double-digits. The financial crisis saved the RBA from having to induce a domestic recession to bring inflation under control. The RBA was most successful when international conditions were doing the work for them.
Lest this look like the luxury of hindsight, I was arguing much the same thing in August 2008.
The Future Fund’s creator, former Treasurer Peter Costello, does not have much faith in the ability of sovereign wealth funds to promote fiscal responsibility:
Now I put aside $60 billion in the Future Fund. People say “oh well you could have put aside 70 or $80 billion or something like that.” But I make this point. If we’d put aside more they’d probably just have borrowed more.
Foreign Exchange Market Intervention a Risk to Taxpayers
I have an op-ed in the Business Spectator arguing that foreign exchange market intervention is a risk to taxpayers who would be better served if the RBA matched its foreign currency assets and liabilities. I also debunk the notion that Australia is a victim of a ‘currency war’:
It has been argued that Australia is somehow a victim of a ‘currency war’ being waged between foreign central banks engaged in quantitative easing. Yet there is nothing unusual about the effects of quantitative easing on exchange rates.
Quantitative easing is simply a change in the operating instrument of the central bank, from a price variable (the official interest rate) to a quantity variable (base money).
In itself, quantitative easing tell us nothing about whether central bank policy is easy or tight. Low inflation and low interest rates in countries like Japan and the United States imply policy settings are if anything too tight, not too easy.
The exchange rate is just one of the channels through which a change in monetary policy is transmitted to the rest of the economy and quantitative easing does not fundamentally alter this transmission mechanism.
In previous decades, Australians worried about a low exchange rate and capital flight. In the current international environment, foreign capital inflows are an affirmation of our relatively sound economic fundamentals and not a bad problem to have.
An excellent op-ed by Doug Irwin on why US monetary policy is too tight:
The Divisia M3 and M4 figures for the US money supply, calculated by the Center for Financial Stability, show that the money supply is no higher today than in early 2008. For all the fretting about the Fed’s accommodative policy, the money supply has barely increased and is way off its previous trend. This represents a very tight policy compared to Friedman’s rule that growth in the money supply should be limited to a constant percentage. The lack of growth in the money supply is an important reason why US inflation and inflationary expectations remain under control. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s latest market-based estimate of the 10-year expected inflation rate is 1.32 per cent.
Restructuring Prudential Bank Regulation in the Light of the GFC
‘Restructuring Prudential Bank Regulation in the Light of the GFC’ is the topic of this year’s free Warren Hogan Memorial Lecture to be given by Professor Charles W. Calomiris, Henry Kaufman Professor of Financial Institutions at Columbia Business School, a Professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Charles is one of the most interesting economists working in this important area of public policy. You can register to attend the lecture by following the above link.
Jessica Irvine has rounded-up another Shadow RBA Board, including yours truly. Like the overlapping ANU Shadow Board, the News Ltd version makes normative rather than positive predictions, ie, what the RBA ‘should’ do rather than what it ‘will’ do.
This distinction probably isn’t very meaningful if the starting point for each month’s normative forecast is the existing cash rate. If the starting point re-sets every month, the Shadow rate track cannot deviate far enough or long enough from the actual rate to be economically significant. A Shadow Board needs to take its previous decisions as the starting point and develop an independent interest rate path. Even then, the difference between the Shadow and actual rate tracks may not amount to very much.
The US Shadow Open Market Committee and the UK’s Shadow Monetary Policy Committee were established specifically to critique current policy from a monetarist perspective, as well as advocating reform of existing monetary institutions. This has not prevented significant differences of opinion on these bodies. For example, the Shadow MPC includes supporters and opponents of QE for the UK. As I have argued here previously, QE is an entirely orthodox monetarist policy prescription. It represents no more than a change in operating instrument and QE in itself does not indicate whether policy is easy or tight. Monetary conditions could still be too tight even in the presence of large scale outright bond purchases by the central bank if money demand is strong enough.
We were also asked where we would like to see the official cash rate in 12 months time. My expectation is 100 bp lower than the current rate, but I do not think this will be a particularly easy monetary policy stance. There is a good case to be made that that the world equilibrium real interest rate and potential output have declined as a result of the bad public policy decisions taken globally during and after the financial crisis and now reflected in record low bond yields. How much of this is cyclical and how much becomes permanent depends on where public policy goes from here.
Monetary policy will need to reflect this, but will not do much to address what are ultimately supply-side problems.
I have an op-ed in today’s Business Spectator arguing that the euro crisis should be viewed primarily as a vindication of Milton Friedman’s pioneering 1953 essay, ‘The Case for Flexible Exchange Rates.’
Not mentioned in the op-ed, but Friedman’s essay had its origins in a 1950 memo he wrote as a consultant to the Office of Special Representative for Europe, United States Economic Cooperation Administration. The essay references many of the problems with exchange rate regimes in Europe at that time.