Australia gets ready for QE but claims to reject negative interest-rates

by Shaun Richards

So far the credit crunch era has been relatively kind to Australia. A major factor in this has simply been one of location as its huge natural resources have been a boon and that has been added to by its proximity to a large source of demand. Or putting it another way that is why we have at times given it the label of the South China Territories. However times are now rather different with the headlines being occupied by the subject of the various trade wars and as we have noted along the way this is particularly impacting on the Pacific region. Thus we find that the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia has given a speech this morning on unconventional monetary policy as they too fear that the super massive black hole that was the impact of the credit crunch may be pulling them towards an event horizon.

Why?

If we look at the state of play as claimed by Philip Lowe you may be wondering why this speech is necessary at all?

The central scenario for the Australian economy remains for economic growth to pick up from here, to reach around 3 per cent in 2021. This pick-up in growth should see a reduction in the unemployment rate and a lift in inflation. So we are expecting things to be moving in the right direction, although only gradually.

This is straight out of the central banking playbook where you discuss such moves and then imply they will not be necessary. They think it is a way of deflecting blame and speaking of deflecting blame interest-rate cuts are nothing to do with them either.

low interest rates are not a temporary phenomenon. Rather, they are likely to be with us for some time and are the result of some powerful global factors that are affecting interest rates everywhere

If interest-rates are indeed set by “powerful global factors” then we could trim central banks down to a small staff surely?

Banks

As ever it turns out to be all about “The Precious! The Precious!” for any central banker.

At the moment, though, Australia’s financial markets are operating normally and our financial institutions are able to access funding on reasonable terms. In any given currency, the Australian banks can raise funds at the same price as other similarly rated financial institutions around the world, and markets are not stressed.

You might think that plunging into unconventional economic policy might be driven by the real economy but oh no as you can see there is a different driver. In spite of the effort below to say Australia is different this means that it has learnt nothing and will make the same mistakes.

We are not in the same situation that has been faced in Europe and Japan. Our growth prospects are stronger, our banking system is in much better shape, our demographic profile is better and we have not had a period of deflation. So we are in a much stronger position.

Again this is a central banking standard as they claim “this time is different” and then apply exactly the same policies!

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QE it is then

We get various denials which I will come to in a bit but the crux of the matter is below.

My fourth point is that IF – and it is important to emphasise the word IF – the Reserve Bank were to undertake a program of quantitative easing, we would purchase government bonds, and we would do so in the secondary market.

The explanation of why he would choose this option will certainly be popular with Australia’s politician’s.

The first is the direct price impact of buying government bonds, which lowers their yields. And the second is through market expectations or a signalling effect, with the bond purchases reinforcing the credibility of the Reserve Bank’s commitment to keep the cash rate low for an extended period.

You may note that he has contradicted himself with the second point as he has already told us that low interest-rates are “are likely to be with us for some time”.  He then points out again that he has already acted this year.

It is important to remember that the economy is benefiting from the already low level of interest rates, recent tax cuts, ongoing spending on infrastructure, the upswing in housing prices in some markets and a brighter outlook for the resources sector.

That also gets awkward because having cut interest-rates by 0.75% already this calendar year Governor Lowe is implying we could get to his QE threshold quite quickly.

Our current thinking is that QE becomes an option to be considered at a cash rate of 0.25 per cent, but not before that. At a cash rate of 0.25 per cent, the interest rate paid on surplus balances at the Reserve Bank would already be at zero given the corridor system we operate. So from that perspective, we would, at that point, be dealing with zero interest rates.

Why QE?

Well he is clearly no fan of negative interest-rates.

More broadly, though, having examined the international evidence, it is not clear that the experience with negative interest rates has been a success.

Indeed he may even have read yesterday’s post on here.

Negative interest rates also create problems for pension funds that need to fund long-term liabilities.

Or perhaps he has been a longer-term follower.

In addition, there is evidence that they can encourage households to save more and spend less, especially when people are concerned about the possibility of lower income in retirement. A move to negative interest rates can also damage confidence in the general economic outlook and make people more cautious.

Although this bit is quite a hostage to fortune and may come back to haunt Governor Lowe.

The second observation is that negative interest rates in Australia are extraordinarily unlikely.

Comment

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It is hard not to have a wry smile as central bankers catch up with a point I was making about a decade ago.

Given these considerations, it is not surprising that some analysts now talk about the ‘reversal interest rate’ – that is, the interest rate at which lower rates become contractionary, rather than expansionary

I argued it was in the region of 1.5% and Australia is now well below it so it is I think singing along with Coldplay.

Oh no I see
A spider web and it’s me in the middle
So I twist and turn
Here am I in my little bubble

As to why the RBA is preparing the ground for even more monetary action then let me switch to Deputy Governor Debelle who also spoke today. This starts well.

Over much of the past three years, employment has grown at a healthy annual pace of 2½ per cent. This has been faster than we had expected, particularly so, given economic growth was slower than we had expected.

But in a reversal of the Meatloaf dictum that “two out of three aint bad” we get this.

But the unemployment rate has turned out to be very close to what we had expected and has moved sideways around 5¼ per cent for some time now………Then I will look at wages growth and show that the lower average wage outcomes of the past few years have reflected the increased prevalence of wages growth in the 2s across the economy.

The next issue is that does the mere mention of QE operate in the same manner as The Candyman in the film? If so that is at least 2 mentions in Australia so at the most we have 3 to go before it appears.

Finally with a ten-year bond yield already at 1.06% or about 1.5% lower than a year ago, what extra is there to be gained?

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