Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Inside story. How the Aussie dollar floated, 30 years ago today

1983 was the year

It was Sunday March 6 1983, hours after the election that swept Labor’s Bob Hawke to victory. Australia’s 39-year old Treasurer-elect Paul Keating was pacing a bedroom in Canberra’s Lakeside Hotel greeting his team of would-be economic advisors. Australia’s most powerful bureaucrat, the Treasury boss John Stone was about to present them with the “Red Book”, the incoming government brief that would tell them everything Treasury knew about the state of the budget and the economy.

But the room was too small.

“Keating talked to the manager and said: ‘Look I need some better space’,” remembers Barry Hughes. Hughes was an economics professor who had caught the early flight from Adelaide.

“The manager said there was plenty of room in the lobby, but the lobby was crawling with journalists. The upshot was, it being Sunday and Canberra pubs not open on Sunday, we all went down in the lift right into the basement, went through all the plumbing and ended up in the empty saloon bar. It was about two o'clock in the afternoon.”

Stone opened the conversation not by talking about the Red Book, but by recommending a devaluation - a big one, immediately.

“Stone amazed us by saying he wanted 10 per cent. What was amazing was firstly the amount, and secondly the fact that the Fraser government had been keeping the dollar high as a sort-of anti inflation policy. We had always thought Stone supported it,” Hughes says.

Worried about Australia under Labor, investors had been converting their Australian dollars to US currency and whisking them out of the country. An astonishing $3 billion had left the country in a matter of weeks, the same as $24 billion today.

Short of draconian currency controls the only way to stem the tide was to make converting Australian to foreign dollars more expensive, and the only way to do that was to devalue the Aussie.

But doing it - as Stone had Keating do in his first act as Treasurer (actually it was before he was Treasurer, he had to visit Kirribilli House to ask the outgoing government to do it) only enriched the traders. They were able to convert their US dollars back to Australian dollars at a cheaper price.

Peter Jonson was incensed. By then head of the Reserve Bank’s research department, he couldn’t see the sense in manually adjusting the dollar to staunch such flows. It allowed the speculators to make easy money by punting on near certain outcomes.

Shortly after he joined the Bank in the early 1970s he had asked the then deputy governor Harold Knight why the dollar hadn’t already been floated.

“Harry replied that, like Saint Augustine, he wished to be made pure, but not yet,” Jonson says. “Those were almost his exact words.”

Knight became the governor a few years later and maintained his opposition to a float right up until he left in late 1982, months before Labor came to power. Jonson says his replacement Bob Johnston had no such reservations.

“I kept making the point personally to Johnston and to the treasurer that in effect over that weekend in March 1983 speculators had made $300 million,” he says. “They had done it at the expense of the taxpayer. I left Keating in no doubt as to my view: it wasn’t right that that should happen under a Labor government.”

Jonson had a better idea. He wanted buyers of dollars to negotiate with sellers of dollars and agree on a price. Then they could make money off each other...

Jonson had some experience setting the price of the dollar. By the early 1980s the rate was adjusted weekly and later daily by a committee of four - Stone or his delegate, the Reserve Bank governor or his delegate, and the heads of the finance and prime minister’s departments or their delegates. They posted the result at 9.30 each morning and had to accept whatever foreign exchange would flow in to the country at that price and whatever would flow out for the next 24 hours. For a while Jonson had the related job of determining the “forward rate”, also posted at 9.30 am. It was the rate at which the Australian government agreed buy and sell dollars some time into the future.

“I was feeling comfortable at 9.16 one morning when a colleague told me President Reagan had been shot,” he recalls. We didn’t know whether he would survive. New Zealand had kept its market closed, meaning we would be the first in the world to open. I had to decide whether to close our market or to pick a price and hope it was right.” Jonson sipped his coffee, picked a price and at 9.25 told his colleague to open and make sure Reagan wasn’t dead.

By mid 1983 the entire weight of opinion within the Bank had swung toward a float. Much of the rest of the world had been floating for a decade.

The Bank’s international division undertook “an exercise to look at the options for a more market oriented exchange rate system”. It bundled up the documents in what it called a “War Book” and kept it ready. The then Treasury head John Stone says that he too was in favour of a float by then and points to a memo he sent to Keating in October which supported the Bank “to the extent of agreeing that some change in the system is warranted”. It said the change “should be undertaken in stages”.

Hughes has a different recollection.

“Stone was absolutely adamantly opposed,” he says. “Whatever he says now, he was flatly adamantly opposed to floating the dollar.”

Des Moore was Stone’s deputy at the Treasury. He remains a sceptic. “My scepticism has been reinforced by the difficulties facing smaller nations which have had to go back to a fixed rate or a quasi fixed rate,” he says. “You need a means of protecting the rate from rapid flows.”

In Hawke’s office the newly appointed economics advisor Ross Garnaut pushed for a float. Keating’s office was unanimously in favour. The Reserve Bank had dropped its opposition, and by December foreign money was flowing in to the country as the economy picked up. The government faced the opposite problem. Speculators were punting on the dollar being sharply revalued to stem the flow, increasing the value of the money they had poured in.

The Reserve Bank had turned its back on the daily business of adjusting the rate. On some days Stone did it on his own. Hawke and Keating held a series of private meetings to which they did not invite the Treasury.

On the morning of Friday December 9 in the Cabinet room of the old parliament house Hawke made it official. He was courteous and invited Stone to speak, but Stone says he was “merely going through the motions”.

“Stone used every argument under the sun to delay the float - to delay the freeing of the market,” Hughes says.

“And then Hawke addressed Stone directly.”

“He said to Stone: ‘You have a reputation as a bogeyman amongst my left wing colleagues. Given that it is almost Christmas, in the spirit of Christmas, I wouldn't dare to let them know what you just said and take their boogeyman away from them’.”

Keating had wanted Stone to appear beside him in the historic press conference that followed. He had to make do with Bob Johnston.

Then Johnston flew back to Sydney and directed the Bank to “abolish the foreign exchange control department, today”.

“The relevant officials said we can't do it today,” Peter Jonson recalls.

“And Bob said: Yes, you are going to do it today”.

“Why? So that no-one could turn back.”

“It was like a commander burning the boats to ensure the troops were committed to the battle.”

In the treasury there was confusion about what the decision meant.

“I was responsible for foreign investment,” Moore remembers. “As soon as the decision was made, staff came to me and said: now that the exchange controls have been removed we need to get rid of foreign investment controls”.

“I said, hang on a second, before we do anything like that we need to check with Keating. When we actually got a message to him he said: ‘Wait, I’ll check with my colleagues’, and of course that wasn’t what he wanted.”

The dollar traded uneventfully on Monday December 12. It opened at around 90 US cents and stayed there for six weeks before climbing to a peak of 96 US cents, and then diving and at times climbing in the decades that followed, never again returning to those opening heights until the most recent mining boom.

The movements have enriched traders, at times impoverished and revitalised exporters, and alternately cut and swelled Australian’s buying power.

Going back to having the price set by manually seems unthinkable. And yet...

Peter Jonson spent a decade building the case for a float and much of the subsequent two decades singing its virtues.

Long since retired from the Bank and from a career working in financial markets he wonders now whether Australia shouldn’t be aggressively intervening to drive the dollar down.

“The currency is way too high,” he says. “It is making Australia’s costs too high - you are seeing it with Holden and Qantas. We will need to either bring the dollar down or suffer a recession which will do it for us”.

Johnson suggests a tax on capital inflows.

“John Howard famously said: ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’. It is equally clear we have the right to discourage the excess capital that is flowing in and creating the high exchange rate that’s putting excess pressure on Australian industries.”

Barry Hughes, never a doubter about the worth of floating the dollar, can also see the case for limits.

“I like to think of it as ‘wide tramlines’ around a floating figure. You may not be able to work out exactly what the fair value is, but you should at least be able to work out fair value to within plus or minus 15 per cent,” he says.

The float as we have known it isn’t completely fixed, just as the dollar was never completely fixed. The one constant still with us is the spirit of continual reassessment which brought about the float thirty years ago this week.

Peter Martin worked in the Treasury in 1983.

In The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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