Losing Interest In Our Rate Obsession

As the 20th century opened there were 18 central banks around the world. One hundred years later there were 173.

But none of them have as tight a grip on the political culture as Australia’s Reserve Bank.

No other country grants so much mystical significance to their central bank’s interest rate decisions. We are obsessed.

Last Tuesday the bank lowered the cash rate to 3 per cent, releasing another torrent of claims and counterclaims. Wayne Swan declared it was testimony to his great management of the economy. Joe Hockey said the rates had been dropped to “emergency levels”. Retail banks were threatened. Peter Costello’s name was invoked.

Politicians have deified the Reserve Bank. It’s unusual for a politician to publicly second guess the board’s encyclicals. Happily, commentators do not share their faith. So last week, as always, columns were written and talking heads talked. Is the bank’s board being bold, prudent, reckless, negligent? Take your pick.

We’re so used to these theatrics that we don’t realise how unusually Australian it all is.

But compare how foreign politicians and parties view their interest rate movements.

For the British Conservative Party, low interest rates are merely a feature of a healthy economy – and not a particularly central one. Here’s a Google search of the Conservative Party website. The most concrete claim they make is that their hard-won fiscal credibility keeps interest rates low.

The Australian Liberal Party’s website shows a completely different picture. Here, low interest rates are themselves the goal. Interest rates will be lower under the Coalition. They’re higher under Labor. Gillard finally admits she has forced up interest rates. And on and on and on.

We can play the same game with the labour parties, although to be fair the difference is not as stark. Here’s the ALP, and here are their British cousins.

And the Americans? Well, in the 32,000 word, 55 page Republican Party platform (PDF), interest rates are mentioned … once. Even though it’s pretty plausible that extremely low Federal Reserve rates were a major cause of the financial crisis.

So yes, Australians are a bit different. Interest rates are the bread and butter of the political contest – as Australian as asylum seekers. The federal Liberal campaign in 2004 was almost entirely structured around interest rates.

In April this year Bill Shorten even suggested that knowledge of Reserve Bank meetings was central to political leadership in this country. Yes, we smugly all laughed as Shorten tried to correct Tony Abbott’s factual error with his own factual error (the bank meets the firstTuesday of every month, not the second). But more important was why Shorten thought Abbott’s mistake was a big deal: “when you want to be the alternative Prime Minister of Australia, interest rates is just such an important issue”.

And all this rhetoric for something governments have almost no control over.

The Reserve Bank is independent; it makes its decisions in private, pretending to know nothing of the busy political world outside its boardroom. When parties take credit for rate cuts or damn their opponents for rate rises, they are simply bluffing. They have no direct control over the rates. They have little indirect either. Of all the sources of inflation in a modern, open, liberal economy, national governments can only really influence one or two.

In other words, our politicians are playing a game with pieces they don’t control, but it’s worse than that. If rates go up, mortgage holders will hate it. If they go down, then the economy may be going down as well, but the Mum and Dad homeowner will be delighted. Throw into this mix the typical contrarian lines: the economy is “over-heating”; what about retirees? Nobody can win this game, but everybody is desperate to play.

A more interesting issue has arisen in recent years: we’re learning that even the Reserve Bank has only so much power over economy-wide interest rates.

Australia grew accustomed to the big four banks dancing to the tune of the Reserve Bank’s decisions. During the Howard years rate cuts were dutifully passed on to consumers. But history may record that as an anomaly – a short decade where retail banks and the central bank were aligned.

We tend to imagine anything that lasts a few years is natural and permanent. But Australia’s banking sector is still evolving since the financial liberalisation of the 1980s. So too is the Reserve Bank itself; it only achieved full independence in 1996.

When the Global Financial Crisis came, the close relationship between banks and the central bank broke. Few regretted this breakup more than the Labor Government. Now we have the embarrassing spectacle of a Government trying to bully mortgage rates down, and an Opposition pretending they possess a magic hammer that would set the banking system straight again.

Nothing frustrates politicians like powerlessness. For much of the 20th century, governments were able to control prices across the economy. They had many levers to do so – tariffs and taxes and quotas and so forth – and the public expected governments to pull those levers.

But the 20th century was a long time ago. The Reserve Bank cash rate is one of the few centrally planned prices left, and even then it set by a body independent of the government of the day.
When the Reserve Bank cut rates last week, Wayne Swan proclaimed this was the early Christmas present Australia’s hard-working families deserved.

But if rate cuts are gifts, does that mean rate rises are punishments? Of course not. Sometimes prices go up and sometimes prices go down. Our political culture needs to stop being so futilely obsessed with the Reserve Bank.