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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Low growth ahead. Why the Reserve Bank won't ride to Abbott's rescue

Don't expect another cut in interest rates

It's true that Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens is holding open the possibility of further cuts. It remains, he said last week, "on the table". But further cuts are far less likely than they would have been, for three reasons also spelled out in last week's speech.

One is that the Australian dollar has plunged to about where the Reserve Bank wants it. In the past Stevens has said it was "too high", overvalued, "and not just by a few cents".

Invited to repeat his comments last Wednesday he said merely that the dollar was "adjusting, as you would expect".

He had previously nominated a target of US75¢. The dollar has since fallen to US73¢, a six-year low. If the wish for a much lower dollar was ever a secondary consideration in Stevens' decisions about interest rates, it isn't now.

Another reason is his fear there will come a point when further cuts encourage dangerously reckless borrowing. "Monetary policy works partly by prompting risk-taking behaviour," he said in Sydney last week. "Beyond a certain point, it can be dangerous."

Although that hadn't been the case to date, Stevens said in the future he would need to look more closely at whether further cuts boosted "sustainable economic growth rather than simply boosted growth".

And another reason – the most important – is that the bank is in the process of lowering its ambition. It is preparing to accept a more modest rate of economic growth than it was only months ago.

Let me explain...

Next Friday the bank will release its latest forecasts for economic growth. It is likely to revise them down, as it has done in each of the past four quarters. This time the revision should bring them so low as to be inconsistent with its widely understood target for economic growth, which is somewhere between 3 and 3.25 per cent.

The bank calls its target "trend growth". The trend for the past decade or so, it is thought to be the sweet spot above which inflation starts to climb and below which unemployment starts to rise.

The bank cuts, or lifts, interest rates until it gets growth back to trend, or so it had been thought. Until Wednesday.

Stevens began his discussion of the trend by pointing out that, oddly, jobs growth has picked up this year even though growth had been, "according to the available statistics, below trend".

It's been well below trend at present 2.3 per cent, although currently forecast by the bank to return to 3.25 per cent in 2016-17 – and it defies conventional wisdom for the unemployment rate to be falling, as it has been all year, while growth remains anaemic.

Stevens said it was possible that either the employment statistics or the growth statistics were wrong. It was possible too that our present unusually restrained wage growth was keeping people in work who otherwise be out of work.

But then he raised another possibility: that the actual trend is "lower than the 3 per cent or 3.25 per cent we have assumed for many years".

If so, the Reserve Bank would have no reason to cut rates from here on, even if it was to forecast growth never reaching 3 or 3.25 per cent, as it may be about to do next Friday.

This isn't as bad as it sounds, he hastened to add. What matters for ordinary Australians is growth per head. This needn't dip much as total growth dips because Australia's population growth is growing more slowly.

It is a measure of how new the governor's thoughts are that until now the bank's quarterly roundup of economic statistics hasn't even included growth per head. The update is scheduled for next Wednesday.

If not 3 to 3.25 per cent, what is the bank's new growth target? Modelling by former Reserve Bank official Paul Bloxham suggests it's 2.50 to 2.75 per cent, which is not too far away from what we have now. He believes that as things stand, growth any higher than 2.50 to 2.75 per cent will push up inflation and not be welcomed by the bank.

If so, an end to rate cuts may be the least of our problems. The budget deficit forecasts are predicated on a rebound in economic growth to 3.25 per cent. If the rebound doesn't happen, if growth misses the target by 0.50 percentage points, future budget deficits will be far deeper than forecast in May – as much as $10 billion per year deeper by 2020 and $30 billion per year deeper by 2025, according to the parliamentary budget office.

Extra tax, whether from the GST or somewhere else, will become essential. Tony Abbott used to say that the former government didn't have have a revenue problem, it had spending problem. Whether that was true or not, it won't be true for Abbott now. He'll have to raise revenue from somewhere.

His efforts to do it will probably depress growth further. The Reserve Bank has made it clear there are limits to how much it can help him out.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald