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Money too tight to mention: The Reserve Bank of Australia’s financial stability mandate and low inflation

I have a new publication in the journal Economic Analysis and Policy on the evolution of the RBA’s financial stability mandate and its relationship to the inflation target. Copyright restrictions prevent posting full text online, but DM if interested.

Nic Gruen has a similar take here.

posted on 12 October 2018 by skirchner in Monetary Policy

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Don’t Sacrifice the Inflation Target on the Altar of Financial Stability

I have an op-ed at The Conversation on what happens when the RBA sacrifices its inflation target on the altar of financial stability.

posted on 16 May 2018 by skirchner in Monetary Policy

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Donald Trump has a chance to shape US monetary policy for years

I have an op-ed in today’s AFR on how Obama’s neglect gives Trump the chance to own the leadership of the Federal Reserve Board. Full text below the fold (may differ slightly from published version).

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posted on 14 February 2018 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Monetary Policy

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Wayne Swan on Monetary Offset and the GFC

Former Treasurer Wayne Swan is releasing some of his briefing notes from the GFC ahead of the launch of his upcoming memoir, The Good Fight. The first instalment from a meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence with the Prime Minister, Treasury Secretary and other senior officials on 4 August 2008 is remarkable for its acknowledgement of monetary offset. Indeed, the notes could just as easily have been written by Scott Sumner:

There are three broad considerations the Government would need to keep in mind in taking a decision to engage in discretionary [fiscal] action:

• The Reserve Bank through its control over interest rates, determines the overall level of aggregate demand in the economy, and the Bank would likely take account of any fiscal stimulus in its monetary decisions – that is, more spending would keep interest rates higher than otherwise…

The bottom line is that in the event of a shallow downturn, discretionary [fiscal] action may not achieve any noticeable outcomes in terms of growth and unemployment, but would leave rates higher, erode the [budget] surplus and put at risk the Government’s fiscal credibility.

These costs of course need to be weighed against the potential political costs of being seen to do nothing…

Needless to say, the ‘political costs’ argument won in the end, with the first discretionary fiscal stimulus announced in October 2008.

posted on 12 August 2014 by skirchner in Economics, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy

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Is John Edwards a Ricardian?

John Edwards’ ‘Beyond the Boom’ is a welcome follow-up to his 2006 ‘Quiet Boom’, which I reviewed at the time in conjunction with Ian Macfarlane’s Boyer Lectures.

I agree with the argument that economic reform should not be sold on the basis of a faux crisis or economic failure narrative. If proposed reforms are worth doing they are worth doing regardless of where we sit in relation to the business cycle or the budget outlook.

John notes that households saved the Howard government’s tax cuts and that household saving would have been lower in their absence. This is an important observation, because it demonstrates the private saving offset to changes in public saving. Possibly to spare his readers the jargon, John didn’t mention this as an example of Ricardian equivalence, but it is clearly relevant here. I made much the same argument at the time.

It is perhaps worth noting that John was rather more sympathetic to tax cuts in ‘Quiet Boom,’ where he says that:

It may well be worthwhile to reduce the top marginal income tax rate, or to encourage more workforce participation by older Australians or to increase the incentives to move from social security support to paid employment.

Those arguments remain valid, regardless of the state of the budget. While balancing the budget over time is important, this should not come at the cost of reducing incentives for labour market participation.

John also notes that during the financial crisis, the increase in private sector saving more than offset the decrease in public sector saving from the fiscal stimulus. He doesn’t mention that this is at odds with the dominant narrative around the stimulus, which is that it worked because we ‘went early, went large and went households.’ If the stimulus worked, John’s analysis implies that it was not through household consumption spending. I would like to have seen John spell out these implications in more detail (my take is here).

John maintains we should limit the current account deficit to 3.3% of GDP to contain growth in external liabilities. This is close to the average since 1960 and so is certainly achievable based on historical experience. However, in ‘Quiet Boom’ John shows how conditioning macro policy on a view about the appropriate size of the current account deficit got us into a lot of trouble. Tim Geithner’s attempt to get the G20 to sign up to a 4% of GDP limit on current account imbalances was similarly mistaken in my view. We cannot know in advance the appropriate rates of saving and investment, from which it follows that the appropriate current account deficit is also unknown.

John maintains that the government has a revenue rather than a spending problem, but this is necessarily a joint problem. The normative issue is to define what government should be doing and raise revenue accordingly.  In that sense, the expenditure side is analytically prior to the revenue side, regardless of what is driving changes in the budget balance over any given period. The test both revenue and expenditure measures need to pass is whether they improve incentives to work, save and invest. Higher average tax rates do not pass that test and would be at odds with the aims of the tax reform process and raising labour force participation. Balancing the budget is important, but should not come at the expense of microeconomic incentives. Balancing the budget and stabilising net debt as a share of GDP will be a somewhat hollow achievement if it comes at the expense of a smaller economy that yields less revenue for government in absolute terms.

John is spot on in arguing that Australia’s economic future lies in integration with Asia through trade in services. I would add that there are even larger gains to be had through increased trade in capital and labour. Regional free trade agreements will be important in defining the parameters of our engagement and deserve close attention from policymakers. The G20 would do well to focus on the successful conclusion of regional and multilateral trade deals.

Alex Tabarrok says the Reserve Bank deserves a lot of credit, but I do not think we can attribute Australia’s relative economic outperformance to the conduct of monetary policy. Australia adopted inflation targeting along with the rest of the world. Australia’s senior central bankers largely trained in north America and think much like Ben Bernanke. It cannot be said Australia followed a different intellectual approach or that we know something foreign central bankers do not.

At the onset of the crisis, CPI inflation was running at an annual rate of 5%, nominal GDP at 11% and inflation expectations were coming unhinged. In the absence of a global downturn, the RBA would probably have needed to engineer a severe domestic slowdown to bring inflation back to target. In that sense, the downturn in the world economy did the RBA a favour. Monetary policy is neutral in the long-run, so I don’t think we can give the central bank too much credit for a 23 year expansion.

posted on 03 July 2014 by skirchner in Economics, Monetary Policy

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ECB to Adopt QE in H2 2014

I have an op-ed in Business Spectator arguing that the ECB will likely resort to QE in the second half of this year. This will be a vindication of the long-standing criticisms of ECB monetary policy made by the new market monetarists. Inflation outcomes, nominal GDP and the euro exchange rate are all consistent with monetary policy having been too tight rather than too easy. The emerging divergence between ECB/BoJ and Fed monetary policy should set the stage for broad-based USD outperformance.

posted on 11 April 2014 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Monetary Policy

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De-Risking the RBA

I had an op-ed in the AFR over the break on the federal government’s injection of funds into the RBA’s Reserve Fund. The article notes that the public policy issue is not the subtraction from the budget bottom line from the injection, but whether the benefits of holding foreign exchange reserves are worth the risk of potential valuation losses and forgone income on higher yielding domestic assets. Foreign exchange reserves are not necessary for the effective conduct of monetary and exchange rate policy in Australia. An alternative policy approach is to hold smaller reserves. Full text below the fold (may differ slightly from published AFR text).

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posted on 13 January 2014 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Monetary Policy

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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).

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posted on 09 December 2013 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy

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Credit Controls Won’t Fix Housing

I have an op-ed in the AFR making the case against macro-prudential regulation in relation to lending for housing. Text below the fold (may differ slightly from published version).

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posted on 03 October 2013 by skirchner in Economics, House Prices, Monetary Policy

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Why the Fiscal Policy Multiplier is Zero

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.’

posted on 13 September 2013 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy

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Scott Sumner Enjoyed His Time in Australia

Scott Sumner enjoyed his time in Australia, presenting at the Centre for Independent Studies’ Consilium conference on the Gold Coast and the Economic Society of Australia (New South Wales) in Sydney. You can read Scott’s account here.

Scott’s presentation covered similar ground to his article in the Winter issue of our journal Policy. I did a video interview with Scott that should be available soon. Watch this space.

Scott says some nice things about the Centre for Independent Studies in the post linked above. Many potential overseas speakers are reluctant to make what is admittedly a long trip to Australia. But take it from Scott, if you come to Australia, we will show you a good time!

One thing I learned as a result of my presentation at Consilium was that then Treasurer Jim Cairns offered the RBA Governorship to Charles Goodhart in the early 1970s (who wisely turned it down). This was quite possibly the only good idea Jim Cairns ever had. So there is at least some historical precedent for my long-standing suggestion for an internationally competitive process for filling senior positions at the RBA.

posted on 29 August 2013 by skirchner in Economics, Monetary Policy

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Scott Sumner in Australia

Scott Sumner will be in Australia next month as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies. He will be attending our Consilium conference on the Gold Coast, but will also be doing a seminar with the Economic Society of Australia (NSW) in Sydney.

Scott has written an article in the latest issue of our journal Policy, ‘A New View of the Great Recession.’ It is an excellent introduction to some of the ideas informing what Lars Christensen has dubbed ‘the new market monetarism.’

I’m also pleased to read that Scott will be attending next year’s Mont Pelerin Society meeting, where he will be on a panel on The Coming Threat of Inflation. As Scott notes on his blog:

The 500 classical liberals in the audience will be surprised to learn that the threat is that inflation will be too low over the next 5 years.

In fact, MPS includes quite a few market monetarists, especially among the younger members (I’m young by MPS standards!) This should not be surprising since the new market monetarism is firmly in the orthodox monetarist tradition of Milton Friedman, one of the Society’s founding members. Unfortunately, many of the older MPS members are still wedded to fighting the inflation battles of the 1970s. They need to move on!

posted on 22 July 2013 by skirchner in Classical Liberalism, Economics, Monetary Policy

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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.

posted on 06 June 2013 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Monetary Policy

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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.

posted on 18 April 2013 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Foreign Investment, Monetary Policy

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Why US Monetary Policy is Too Tight

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.

posted on 16 October 2012 by skirchner in Economics, Financial Markets, Monetary Policy

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