With interest rates in the US dangerously close to zero, surely this
provides pause for thought for the Reserve Bank of Australia.
What happens if the economy slows and the central bank has no further
room for activist policy? Deflation may set in.
Generations of Australians have been schooled to believe that inflation
can never fall far enough and that deflation is an affliction too exotic
to contemplate seriously.
Japan has skewered that perception. Japanese interest rates stand at
0.1 per cent, yet growth remains anaemic. The problem is that nominal
interest rates cannot be forced below zero, yet falling prices have raised
the real interest rate. In turn, higher real interest rates have further
There is increasing fear that similar recessionary dynamics may hit the
US. Yet, paradoxically, the Federal Reserve's strongest ally is the fact
that inflation expectations remain high.
With inflation expectations around two per cent, the US already has
something the Japanese cannot get: negative real interest rates. Federal
chairman Alan Greenspan has 125 basis points of room to move, but
inflation effectively adds another 200 points of stimulus and he may need
What about Australia? With reasonable growth and the cash rate at 4.75
per cent, the RBA is blessed both with less need to stimulate, and
more room to move, than its US counterpart. But to declare that
the possibility of a liquidity trap does not exist in Australia
would be foolish.
The RBA can shift nominal interest rates down as far as zero if
recession hits. But, as with the US and Japan, the extent to which this is
stimulatory depends crucially on inflation expectations.
Further, the Howard government's fiscal irresponsibility during good times
limits the scope for further fiscal stimulus during bad times.
Australia, of course, has an inflation target of two to three per cent.
The key is whether this target is policed symmetrically.
Is the RBA as committed to cutting rates to boost inflation when it
falls below two per cent as it is to raising rates when it breaches the
three per cent ceiling? Current bond market returns suggest that the RBA
is erring on the hawkish side.
By comparing rates of return on nominal and inflation-indexed 10-year
bonds, we can estimate the market's inflation expectations. The two yields
now differ by about 2.25 per cent. But this cannot simply be read as the
expected rate of inflation: nominal bonds incorporate a risk premium of
about half a percentage point to account for the risk that inflation will
erode their purchasing power. Hence the market expects inflation to
average 1.75 per cent over the next decade.
Apparently the market does not believe the RBA is committed to its
Allowing the perception to spread that the actual target is simply
'less than three per cent' may have been a useful tactic to establish the
bank's credibility in a high-inflation era. But when deflation is stalking
the global economy, insisting on a rate above two per cent becomes just as
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