The RBA has put rates up now on the belief that the financial crisis is behind us, and it has to return to its established role of controlling inflation.
That this decision was likely was flagged by the speech by Anthony Richards last week, which implied that the RBA, having ignored the house price bubble created by private credit growth in the preceding two decades, was worried about the renewal of the bubble initiated by the Government’s First Home Vendors Boost (I refuse to call it by its official name, since the money clearly went to the vendors, while the buyers copped only higher prices).
Needless to say I am all for trying to contain the house price bubble, which I regard as a disguised Ponzi scheme that has sucked Australian households into unsustainable debt levels. It is quite possible that the increase in interest rates (which is sure to be fully passed on by lenders and will add $20 a week to the servicing costs of a now commonplace $400,000 home loan), combined with the phasing out of the Vendors Boost, will be enough to prick the bubble–especially if it is followed by another rise next month.
But the RBA is doing this in the belief that the economy will return to normal after the recent mild recession–normal meaning growing at about 3% per annum in real terms, and faster than that as it rebounds from the recession.
Unfortunately “normal” in our post-War experience has also involved a return to a rising private debt to GDP ratio. Every recession has involved a fall in debt-driven demand, and every recovery has involved a return to debt rising faster than income. As the global financial crisis has made many people realise, this is simply a formula for avoiding a crisis now by having a bigger one in the future.
I doubt that the RBA appreciates this even today. It is still mired in a neoclassical way of thinking about the economy, which myopically ignores the impact of debt-driven demand on the economy. This is why it can put up rates now in the belief that this will merely fine tune the economy’s performance–reducing the likelihood of inflation in the future.
I think it is likely that the RBA will achieve far more than it intends. The last time the RBA put rates up to attempt to control an asset price bubble that was already out of hand was back in 1989. That exacerbated the economic downturn that was already in train as the debt bubble of the 1980s started to collapse. I expect the outcome of this rate rise will be similar: a downturn that is already in train as a debt bubble bursts will be made worse by this increase in rates at a time of greatly heightened financial fragility.
The problem this time is I believe far worse than 1990. Then the household sector had a relatively low level of debt–the mortgage debt to GDP ratio was a comparatively trivial 18 percent, compared to its now record level of 87.5%. It was therefore possible for the financial sector to lend willy-nilly to households, something neoclassical economists facilitated by their enthusiastic deregulation of the financial sector.
Who is there to lend to today? All sectors of the economy except the government are carrying record levels of debt. Thus while the Vendors Boost and other enticements encouraged some additional borrowing by the already massively leveraged household sector–and gave us a household debt to GDP ratio that now exceeds America’s–I simply can’t imagine who (apart from the government) the financial sector can now sell debt to.
As a result, I doubt that we will see any sustained acceleration in the debt to GDP ratio, with the consequence that the debt-financed component of aggregate demand will be anaemic at best. Since that has been the major source of growth in aggregate demand for many years now, I expect that economic growth will be substantially less than the RBA anticipates.
If so, just as it killed a dragon that wasn’t there by its inflation-fighting rate rises up until March of 2008, it may be taming a lion that is sound asleep with its rate rises now. If economic growth does in fact stay well below levels that reduce unemployment in the coming two years, then there will be very good grounds for revoking the independence that the RBA has had in setting monetary policy. We may as well hand it back to the politicians, if the alternative is to leave it with neoclassical economists who don’t understand the dynamics of our credit-driven economy.