RBA minutes and governor’s speech closed the door on any further stimulus, for now: Westpac's Bill Evans

RBA minutes and governor’s speech closed the door on any further stimulus, for now: Westpac's Bill Evans
RBA minutes and governor’s speech closed the door on any further stimulus, for now: Westpac's Bill Evans

EXPERT OBSERVER

The theme around the economic outlook from both the July Board Minutes and the Governor’s speech, which was delivered 90 minutes after the release of the Minutes, is best summarised by the conclusion in the Minutes “Economic conditions had stabilised and the down turn had been less severe than earlier expected” .

However, appropriately, the outlook hinged on developments around the virus both domestically and globally. The Board concludes, “However the nature and speed of the economic recovery remained highly uncertain”.

Perhaps the best “summary” of the degree of positive surprise to the Board is set out in the Minutes when the Board refers to the Bank’s original forecast of a 20% reduction in hours worked in the June quarter.

Having fallen by 9.5% in April and a further 0.7% in May, hours worked recovered by 4% in June (not known at the time of the Board meeting) resulting in the overall fall being only around a third of the Board’s original expectations.

From my perspective the most interesting insights in the Minutes and the Speech are around the discussion of policy options.

The Minutes discuss “How the elements of the Bank’s March policy package could have been configured differently” ­– setting a lower cash rate (say 0.1%) or purchasing more bonds than necessary to achieve the target bond rate.

The Board concluded that there was “no need to adjust the package of policy measures in Australia in the current environment”.

The policies which were considered included: “negative interest rates; foreign exchange intervention; the purchase of private sector assets; and direct government financing”.

The conclusion was “all such options entail significant costs and involve very difficult trade offs and, for some policies, there are legitimate questions about their effectiveness”.

These issues were covered in more detail in the Governor’s speech.

He quickly dismissed negative interest rates confirming the Board’s view in the Minutes as being “extraordinarily unlikely”. He accepted that the main potential benefit was “downward pressure on the currency” (in the Q and A he did extol the benefits of a lower currency) but referred to a dislocation of the supply of credit and “encourage people to save more”. Unfortunately, as with the last time he referred to negative rates (November last year) he did not provide any detail to the dynamics he had in mind.

In contrast, he spent a great deal of time discussing direct government financing partly, I expect, because Stan Fischer ( Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve during the Janet Yellen period) “recently argued that central bank financing of government spending may be appropriate in some circumstances” provided there are strong safeguards to avoid the inflation problem which might result  from printing money. That could be done principally through the central bank determining the degree of financing – not the government. While recognising this argument he dismissed money printing for Australia since the government was able to finance itself in the market on very favourable terms, therefore maintaining fiscal discipline.

The practice of QE which the RBA now embraces is considered different because the RBA only buys in the secondary market and the government is committed to paying interest to the RBA rather than just issuing an “IOU” to the RBA which might threaten its profits; its contribution to government revenue and, potentially, requiring a recapitalisation. In the Fischer model that policy is close to printing money where the central bank has control of the process.

While I felt that the arguments around negative rates were not developed there were some serious arguments against intervention in the FX markets. These arguments against intervening (including when the AUD is broadly in line with fundamentals) are complicated by “financial risks to the public balance sheet” and “complicate international relationships”.

While these assessments are fairly definitive he did conclude that “the Board has not ruled out future changes while” recognising that there are limitations to what more can be achieved through monetary policy”.

He clearly supported the use of fiscal policy maintaining that the government’s balance sheet is sound with low debt ratios compared to most countries.

With interest rates at record lows “the public balance sheet is well placed to smooth out the shock to private incomes and support the economy through the pandemic”.

The speech and the Minutes present unified cases for steady policy while still leaving the door slightly ajar for further stimulus if absolutely necessary.

In the Q and A I reminded the Governor of the final words in a recent speech from Deputy Governor Debelle which concluded “ the Reserve Bank will maintain the current policies to keep borrowing costs low and credit available, and stands ready to do more as the circumstances warrant.” I asked for some clarity on “do more” but, given the theme of the speech, did not make any progress.

The key to any future policy developments might lie with the Australian dollar – certainly the Governor was particularly enthusiastic in his admiration for a low AUD.

Bill Evans is the chief economist at Westpac 

 

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Rba Rate Decision Bill Evans

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