Sorry, not convinced. It sounds to me like a commercial message from the economists’ union. Why give those plum appointments to businesspeople when you could be giving them to us? When you leave the “technical analysis” just to the hundreds of economists working in the Reserve, you risk them suffering from “group think”, we’re told.
And you’d escape group think by having a committee dominated by professional economists? Economics is the only profession that doesn’t suffer from “model blindness” – the inability to see factors that have been assumed away in the way of thinking about issues that’s been drummed into them since first year uni?
I don’t think so. It’s inter-disciplinary analysis that might improve the decisions, but that’s something most economists hate. After reading Kay and King’s Radical Uncertainty, I’m happier than ever with the idea that the governor and his minions should be put through their paces by people chosen for their real-world experience, not their membership of the economists’ club.
Leigh was on stronger ground when he asked why governments had stopped including a union boss along with all the businesspeople.
But Leigh’s main criticism was that the Reserve had been “too timid in focusing on getting inflation up into the target band”. For the “amateurs” reading this, he meant why hadn’t the Reserve cut the official interest rate earlier and harder since the global financial crisis, so as to get demand growing faster, creating more employment, lifting real wages and the inflation rate in the process.
After his board’s February meeting, Lowe announced that it would be doing $100 billion more “quantitative easing” (buying second-hand government bonds with created money, so as to lower longer-term public and private interest rates). Leigh asked why he hadn’t been more purposeful and announced $200 billion in purchases.
When you’re looking for things to criticise, saying that whatever’s just been done should have been done earlier or bigger is the easiest one in the book. Various other dissident economists are saying what Leigh’s saying.
Rate cuts have run out of puff
But, as so often with economists, they’re not drawing attention to the assumptions – explicit and implicit – that lie behind their policy recommendations. Their key assumption here is that cutting interest rates is still as effective in encouraging borrowing and spending as the textbooks say it is.
If households are saving more than we’d like, the reason is that interest rates are too high; if businesses aren’t investing enough, the reason is that rates are too high. So, although interest rates have been at record lows for years, just a couple more cuts (achieved by conventional or unconventional means) would do the trick and get the economy growing strongly.
And although household debt is at record highs, this wouldn’t inhibit people’s willingness to load themselves up with more. Leigh and his mates seem to be having trouble with the concept of “diminishing returns” – that the third ice cream you eat never tastes as good as the first.
Though Lowe can’t or won’t admit it, the obvious truth is that, in the world economy’s present circumstances – “secular stagnation” and all that – monetary policy has pretty much run out of puff. Which explains why he’s been moving into unconventional monetary policy so reluctantly and why, for the whole of his term, he’s been pressing the government to make more use of its budget (fiscal policy) to get the economy moving.
Some of Lowe’s critics, being monetary specialists, have (like the Reserve itself) a vested interest in continuing to flog the monetary policy horse. Other’s deny the effectiveness and legitimacy of using fiscal policy to manage demand, as part of their commitment to Smaller Government.
But perhaps the most revealing exchange came when Leigh accused the Reserve of failing to act on what its own econometric model of the Australian economy, MARTIN, (as in Martin Place) would be telling it. The reply from Lowe’s deputy, Dr Guy Debelle (whose PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a match for Leigh’s from Harvard) was dismissive.
“I would just note that macro models don’t do a very good job of modelling the financial sector [of the economy]. They failed pretty poorly in 2007 [the global financial crisis] when macro discovered finance. I think there’s an issue around transmission [the paths through which a change in interest rates leads to changes in other economic variables] which these models don’t take into account,” Debelle said.
“They’re linear. Actually, they assume that financial markets don’t exist, broadly speaking.”
I find it reassuring that our econocrats understand how primitive econometric models of the economy are, and don’t take their results too seriously.
Ross Gittins is the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.