Desperation or just the next step? QE in Australia: Michael Workman

Desperation or just the next step? QE in Australia: Michael Workman
Desperation or just the next step? QE in Australia: Michael Workman
We consider the reasons why the RBA may consider implementing Quantitative Easing (QE).
There would need to be a sharp downturn in economic activity which is not in our forecasts.
Some QE options are more likely than others, based on other central bank experiences and the nature of Australia’s financial system. Negative interest rates look unlikely.
We believe that the RBA sees the Effective Lower Bound (ELB) for the cash rate to be around 1.0%.
We do not believe that the Zero Lower Bond (ZLB) will happen here.
A lower Australian dollar (AUD), say below USD0.70, is preferred because it will obviate the need for QE.
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Desperation or just the next step? QE in Australia: Michael Workman


The RBA cash rate is currently at a record lows and, in our view, set to go slightly lower. Our forecast is for a 25 basis point rate cut in November, bringing the RBA cash rate to a new record low of 1.25% after the September quarter inflation update. But conventional monetary policy is reaching its limits here. While real GDP growth is close to decade averages, inflation and wages are still trending lower. So a cash rate of 1.0% is a clear possibility. But that could be the low point, or the ELB, before unconventional monetary policies (UMPs), like QE, are introduced here.

Why are rates being cut to such low levels? Essentially it is because inflation is very low. However, low interest rate are not lifting activity where it is most required. Namely, in non-resources business investment. Ever lower cash rates are required because economic growth rates can be significantly higher than they currently are in order to return inflation to the target range of 2-3%.

The “neutral cash rate” – the one where full employment co-exists with mild inflation - is clearly moving lower since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). It has not stabilised. This is a global phenomenon and in the US the Fed currently believes the real neutral Fed funds rate has declined to zero.1

However, one of the costs of low interest rates is overstimulation of the housing market, necessitating APRA’s macro-prudential new controls over lending to home buyers and developers. We suspect there may be another tweak of the controls if the risks around the housing sector are not abating sufficiently quickly. Housing credit growth is moderating but offshore capital flows into local residential and commercial property remain relatively strong. State government tax hikes on foreign investors’ residential investment are a recent development. Higher property taxes usually slow investment activity.

UMPs, like QE, have been used effectively since the GFC, to stimulate activity and overcome the lack of liquidity in parts of the financial system. Research from other central banks indicates that it has been effective in lowering longer term interest rates and flattening interest rate curves.2 But that the costs may rise if QE remains in place for an extended period. 

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Desperation or just the next step? QE in Australia: Michael Workman

Of course, Australia’s monetary policy arrangements are not the only factor influencing domestic activity and the level of the Australian Dollar (AUD). They are not done in complete isolation in a world of open capital flows and floating currencies.

If the US Fed proceeds to lift interest rates later this year, then the effect should be to lift the USD and lower the AUD. A lower AUD, say near USD0.70, would provide a boost to the Australian economy through stronger export growth. It also shifts price relativities in goods and services markets to favour local producers.

While indicating that the possibility is “very remote”, RBA Assistant Governor Chris Kent, recently discussed the RBA’s studies on UMPs in an interview with Bloomberg. Kent flagged that unconventional policies would not be used on a pre-emptive basis. But rather only after symptoms of economic stress had materialised that warranted policy action.

Governor Glenn Stevens has also stressed that the RBA’s current inflation targeting framework is flexible enough for inflation to undershoot the target for a reasonable period of time. These comments cover the current situation where there is above-potential economic growth and reasonable growth in the labour market, but low inflation. It also appears to indicate that the RBA is reluctant to use UMPs. There would need to be greater downside risks to economic activity and, as part of that, upside risks to the national unemployment rate.  

Possible UMP options

RBA Assistant Governor Christopher Kent, in a recent interview, stated that a combination of UMPs used concurrently may be more effective than a single one. So we could expect more than one unconventional policy tool to be employed in Australia should the need arise.

Most Likely Options

We consider the most likely QE options for the RBA to be as follows. The list is not exhaustive, but they appear realistic.

1. Explicit forward guidance from the RBA that provides a high degree of certainty that the cash rate will stay low for a long time. Credible forward guidance in publications and speeches lowers interest rates along the interest rate term structure. This in turn supports financial asset prices and would apply some downward pressure to the currency. Markets and investors would benefit from regular updates on the RBAs reasons for maintaining expansionary monetary policy settings. 

Large scale domestic bond market asset purchase programs. Asset purchases raise the price of assets being purchased, and lower their
yields. Lower yields on these assets in turn encourage investors to
purchase other types of assets, pushing up their prices and generating positive wealth effects. Preferred assets for purchase are likely to be 
Federal and State government debt. 

However a reduction in the long term yields from corporate and 600 government bond asset purchase may not have a significant impact on household or business borrowing costs in Australia. As interest rates go lower the transmission of monetary policy to bank lending rates may become less effective. 

Looking at other countries with very low or negative policy rates shows that deposit rates have not declined to the same extent as central bank policy rates. This has limited the extent to which banks can reduce their lending rates without reducing their margins and profitability.

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Desperation or just the next step? QE in Australia: Michael Workman


Excluding banks and financials, the Australian corporate bond market is relatively small. This means lower yields for these securities would have 

a limited impact on overall business borrowing costs, especially if interest rates are already low.

Asset purchases are likely to have implications for the value of the Australian dollar. Foreigners hold a significant share of government bonds outstanding. The Australian dollar will be sold if foreigners reduce their holdings of these assets in response to lower yields and redirect their money back offshore.

Offering a Bank of England type Term Funding Scheme where the RBA lends significant amounts to the commercial banks at the prevailing cash rate to ease commercial banks’ cost of funding. This enables the banks to pass on the full extent of any interest rate cuts.

Financing government infrastructure spending via purchase of Federal and State Government bonds of varying maturities. It could be done in tandem with the current Federal Government asset recycling program. It involves State Governments receiving a 15% premium from the Federal Government for an asset sale that is then used to finance infrastructure that is intended for future sale.

Fortunately, Infrastructure Australia has a list of projects, across the States, which would produce the most effective medium and longer term economic and social outcomes. We have recently published research on the shortfall in public infrastructure investment in Australia.

Unlikely policy options

We consider the following options to be less likely in Australia:

Negative interest rates (NIR). Assistant Governor Kent has said that NIR would pose problems for the banking system and put the money market fund industry at risk. Governor Stevens has also said that the likelihood of negative rates in Australia is “low” and that it could damage bank earnings. This in turn could lead to higher lending rates and lower credit supply, which is the opposite effect to what was intended.

NIR are initially applied between the central bank and commercial banks at a wholesale level. But in Germany, some banks are now applying them to retail depositors.

It may also pose potential risks for funding Australia’s current account deficit. We make the observation that so far, no country with a current account deficit has implemented negative rates.

The purchases of foreign assets over and above normal reserves management. Kent has said that purchases of foreign assets would be seen internationally as overt exchange rate targeting. RBA Governor Stevens has previously been criticised for trying to “talk down” the valuation of the Australia dollar. G20 member countries, which includes Australia, agreed not to target their exchange rates for competitive purposes.

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Desperation or just the next step? QE in Australia: Michael Workman


We have canvassed what we see as the most likely options should QE policies be introduced. However we emphasise that it would take a significant downshift in economic growth and a rise in the unemployment rate for the RBA to consider UMP. We see the most likely options as forward guidance and bond market asset purchases. Ideally, a concerted effort to lift activity via publicly-funded infrastructure programs in transport, ports, airports and education would augment it. The aims are to stimulate activity, drive the economy towards full employment and keep inflation within the target band without financial instability. It’s a learning curve at a new, extraordinarily low level of global interest rates. 

 Michael Workman is senior economist, Commonwealth Bank.

Quantitative Easing

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