Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Reserve Bank: little less conversation, just stick to action on rates, please

By Tony Aspromourgos - posted Tuesday, 16 September 2003

The extraordinary rise of residential property prices over recent years has led most to the view that not only the growth of prices, but also their level - at least in some segments of the market - are unsustainable. The cause of that boom has been a set of factors which combined to fuel a firestorm.

Partly, the price growth was itself a correction - the tendency of the market to make lagged jumps rather than smooth adjustments. The relative unattractiveness of equities also contributed excessive investor interest in housing. This was underpinned by a deep Australian conviction of the inevitability of real capital gain in residential property, further supported by negative gearing. Bad policy - the first-home buyers' grants and, perhaps, reduced capital gains taxation - added yet more tinder to the flames. Finally, low interest rates eased borrowing constraints.

The last of these factors is the preserve of the Reserve Bank. But how well has it handled its responsibilities in this developing situation?


In May 2002, when the Governor fronted the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, he clearly signalled the view that rates were well below normal levels and should be expected to rise. In central bank parlance, official interest rates were substantially below "neutral" and playing an expansionary role in the economy.

But apart from a one-quarter percentage point rise, the foreshadowed rate rises never came. That was not a mistake: various uncertainties - not least, a war in the Middle East - intervened.

More surprising was that 12 months on, in June 2003, again appearing before the House Committee, the Governor made a volte face. Now, instead of rates rising towards "neutral" (around six per cent), they were mooted to require reduction.

Certainly his June 2003 commentary was hedged with qualifications. But the core judgement was that the RBA faced something of a policy dilemma - with the balance of probabilities favouring a rate cut.

The dilemma was that international factors were looking to be contractionary for the economy (favouring a cut), whereas the domestic housing boom needed to be reined in (favouring, if not an increase, then at least holding rates steady).

The fear in relation to housing was and remains that a downward correction in prices will induce "distress", which in turn might significantly impact upon domestic economic activity. More generally, the growth of household debt makes interest rate increases a very delicate operation for the policy makers.


Then, two months after the mid-2003 statement to the House Committee the RBA shifted again. Its August Statement on Monetary Policy (pdf, 26kb) indicated that the prospect of a rate cut was now off - a conclusion confirmed last week. The balance of forces had shifted: the international outlook had improved and the housing boom was showing rather limited signs of abating.

Now, the RBA is not merely an observer of these forces. It is an influence as well. The Governor's mid-2003 statement contributed to maintaining the housing boom. Many in the housing market (and in the market for loans for other purposes, drawing on housing equity) took that statement as grounds for a belief that their borrowing capacity would not be curtailed in the near future - and might even be increased.

The June 2003 commentary was an error of judgement by the Governor.

No doubt some disagreement has occurred within the RBA over the appropriate settings for monetary policy in the tricky circumstances the Australian economy has been in. The key issue is the extent to which monetary policy should concern itself with asset, as well as commodity price, inflation. The answer partly hinges upon the linkages between asset price behaviour and aggregate expenditures.

(In further relation to policy disagreements, the leaking of Treasury's view in mid-2003, that a rate cut was warranted, was an extraordinary and unprecedented instance of apparent bureaucratic vandalism in relation to the conduct of monetary policy.)

In any case, the RBA's public shifts of judgement over the past 16 months compromise the credibility of its future statements. And it seems to have been unnecessary. What would have been lost if no foreshadowing of rate rises in mid-2002, and of rate falls in mid-2003, had occurred?

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

An edited version of this article was published in The Australian Financial Review on 4 September 2003.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Associate Professor Tony Aspromourgos is Associate Professor of economics at the University of Sydney.

Related Links
Reserve Bank of Australia
University of Sydney
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy