Let’s stop using interest rates to throttle people with mortgages

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It’s largely by chance that the Reserve’s need to jam on the demand brakes has coincided with the worst shortage of rental accommodation in ages, thereby spreading the squeeze to another third of households. Had this not happened, the Reserve would have needed to bash up home buyers even more brutally than it has.

Inflation has eroded shoppers’ ability to keep spending, sparking declines in sales for many businesses.

Inflation has eroded shoppers’ ability to keep spending, sparking declines in sales for many businesses.Credit: AP

Clearly, it would be both fairer – and thus more politically palatable – and more effective to use an instrument that directly affected a much higher proportion of households. This should mean the screws wouldn’t have to be tightened so much, another advantage.

One obvious alternative tool would be to temporarily move the rate of the goods and services tax up (or, at other times, down) a percentage point or two.

Another alternative, one I like, is to divide compulsory employee superannuation contributions into a part permanently set at 11 per cent, and a part that could be varied temporarily between plus several percentage points and minus several points.

This would leave all workers – whose spending is the key to inflation – as the main driver in stabilising and managing inflation and unemployment.

Its great attraction is that it involves the government temporarily fiddling with people’s ability to spend, without actually taking any money from them. Surely, this would be the least politically painful way to manage demand.

Experience with central-bank dominance has shown us one big advantage: the economic car has been driven markedly better when the brake and the accelerator are controlled by econocrats independent of the elected government.

But this simply means we’d have to set up an independent authority to control all the instruments of macro management, whether monetary or fiscal.

Not all our economists have been too stuck in the mud of orthodoxy to think these new thoughts. They were canvased by professors Ross Garnaut and David Vines in their submission to the Reserve Bank inquiry – which, predictably, was brushed aside by a panel of economists anxious to stay inside the box.

A century ago, Australians were proud of the way we showed the world better ways of doing things, such as the secret ballot and votes for women. These days, our economists are dedicated followers of international fashion.

This means the country that should be leading the way to better tools to manage demand will wait until it becomes fashionable overseas. Why should we be first? Because our unusual practice of having mainly variable-rate home loans means our use of the interest-rate tool bites a lot harder and faster, thus making our monetary policy a lot blunter than theirs.

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Economists may not fret much about how badly some punters are hurting as the economic managers rapidly correct the consequences of their gross miscalculations – the Reserve played a big part in the excessive stimulus during the COVID lockdowns – but one day the politicians who carry the can politically for these miscalculations will revolt against the arrogance of their economic gurus.

Reserve Bank governors – and, in earlier times, Treasury secretaries – privately congratulate themselves for being the last backstop protecting the nation against inflation. When no one else cares, they do. When no one else will impose a cost of living crisis on spendthrift consumers, they will.

Don’t you believe it. If they cared as much as they think they do, they’d care a lot more about effective competition policy. But when the economists leading the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission – Allan Fels and later, Rod Sims – were battling to get more power to reject anticompetitive mergers, they got precious little support from their fellow economists.

While the (Big) Business Council was lobbying privately to retain the laxity, backed up on the other side by a few Labor-Party-powerful unions that had done sweetheart deals with their big employers, the Reserve and Treasury were missing in action.

The people at the bottom of the inflation cliff boast about the diligence of their ambulance service, while doing nothing to help the people at the top of the cliff trying to erect a better safety fence.

If you were looking for examples of oligopolies with pricing power, you could start with the big four banks. If you were looking for examples of “regulatory capture” – where the bureaucrats supposed to be regulating an industry in the public interest get sweet-talked into going easy – you could start with the Reserve and banking (with Treasury not far behind).

In the natural conflict between the goals of financial stability and effective competition, the Reserve long ago decided we’d worry about competition later.

But the more concentrated we allow our industries to become, the more often the Reserve will have to struggle to control inflation surges, and the harder it will be to bash home-buyers on the head.

Ross Gittins is the Sydney Morning Herald economics editor.

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