The RBA has made some BIG mistakes!

RBA mistakes

If Australia slips into a recession, it will mostly likely be the RBA’s fault. It has completely botched the management of interest rates to the detriment of borrowers, the economy, and the bond market. Here’s why…  

In its defence

Firstly, in the RBA’s defence, is has been navigating uncharted territory over the past 2.5 years. There was a lot of uncertainty about what damage a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic could cause. At the beginning, no one knew how long lockdowns would last for or whether pharmaceutical companies would ever be able to formulate a vaccine. There was a lot of uncertainty and no pandemic experience to guide decision making.

Secondly, the RBA did react very quickly with some good initiatives as soon as Covid hit in March 2020, namely:

  • It slashed the cash rate by 0.75% in March 2020 and then by 0.15% in November 2020, so that the cash rate was ostensibly zero (target rate was 0.10%).
  • It launched its Term Funding Facility where it ended up lending $188 billion to the banks at a fixed rate of only 0.10% for 3 years. The banks used this facility to offer customers very cheap mortgage fixed rates – often below 2% p.a. – which gave borrowers confidence and improved household cash flow during what was a tumultuous period. The RBA closed this facility in June 2021.
  • It also participated in what’s called yield curve control. This means it actively participated in the bond market to maintain the 3-year bond rate at 0.10% (the cash rate), often through buying government bonds i.e., QE.  

All three of these measures were appropriate, timely and necessary.

What it did wrong

In my view, the RBA made three critical mistakes.

Firstly, the RBA’s Governor, Lowe adopted the unusual practice of providing forward interest rate guidance. Up until last year, Lowe relentlessly assured Australians that the RBA would not raise rates until 2024. Yes, he did say that his prediction was conditional upon the RBA’s economic expectations, which did not include higher inflation at the time. But my point is that historically, the RBA says very little and lets the free market decide what the future holds.

Secondly, it began raising the cash rate too late and it’s probably hiking it too quickly. I think it was obvious by the first half of 2021 that the Australian economy was very resilient. Sure, lockdowns did cause some economic pain, but as soon as they were lifted, spending bounced back strongly. It has now aggressively increased rates by 1.75% in only four months. The RBA has only done that once before where in 1994 it increased rates by 2.75% over 5 months. It’s aggressive. Perhaps too aggressive. 

Finally, without much warning, it abandoned its yield curve control which crashed the bond market! When the RBA first initiated yield curve control, it only took 11 days and purchasing $27 billion of government bonds to get the 3-year bond rate to equal the cash rate i.e., 0.10%. After that initial intervention, the RBA didn’t have to do much at all. However, in July 2021 it announced that it would be winding back its yield curve control and completely abandoned it in late October 2021. Consequently, between September and early November 2021, the 3-year bond rate increased 10-fold i.e., jumped from 0.10% to above 1.00%! This caused bond values to crash and increased borrowing costs for banks and corporates.

Why Australia is different to the US

It is true that other developed countries have been raising interest rates quickly too. The US Federal Reserve has hiked rates by 2.25% this year so far. And the Bank of England has hiked rates by 1.50%.

The big difference is that these countries have higher inflation readings. US inflation is 9.1% and UK is 9.4% compared to 6.1% for Australia.

Importantly, in the US, wage inflation is more than double our rate i.e., 5.4% versus 2.4%, which could further fuel inflation, so higher interest rates are necessary (as discussed here).

Different countries require different responses.

The RBA has ruined any prospect of decent wage inflation

Prior to the pandemic, the RBA was gradually cutting rates to stimulate the economy which in turn would hopefully stimulate wage inflation.

Whilst there’s lots of commentary regarding why wage inflation remained persistently low in most developed countries before the pandemic, no one really knows for sure, including me, of course. However, my best guess is that the globalisation of the workforce and technology are two of the biggest contributors.

Workforce globalisation means that Australian businesses, large and small, can hire offshore staff at a significantly lower cost which creates downward pressure on wages here in Australia (for some jobs).

Technology assists by achieving greater efficiency, especially through automation. This means businesses need fewer staff.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that lots of people can do their job just as well, remotely. I think this will exacerbate workforce globalisation and continue to weigh on wage inflation.

In addition, if the RBA’s aggressive rate hikes send Australia into a recession, which is entirely possible, it will risk undoing all its pre-pandemic efforts to generate sustainable wage inflation.

What the RBA should have done

Firstly, the RBA should have stuck with its historic policy of not providing any interest rate guidance and allowed a free market to do to its thing. This is what central banks have been doing for decades. In fact, US Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan once famously said “If you think you understand what I am saying, you do not understand what I am saying” because he would purposely try to bamboozle his audience by saying a lot but nothing at the same time. Governor Lowe should have done the same thing and avoided irresponsibility by inviting Australians to believe that rates wouldn’t change until 2024.

“If you think you understand what I am saying, you do not understand what I am saying”

Alan Greenspan, Chairman, US Federal Reserve

Secondly, at sometime during 2021, it should have been obvious to the RBA then that zero interest rates were no longer required. It could have begun gradually increasing rates each month – say by only 0.10%. This would have allowed it to slowly return to pre-pandemic levels whilst measuring the impact of the rate hikes to ensure they didn’t overdo it.

Finally, abandoning yield curve control virtually overnight caused unnecessary damage. It should have gradually winded it back. If the RBA is prepared to intervene and manipulate the 3-year bond yield, then it has the responsibility to remove that intervention in a way that minimises market disruption.

The RBA is under review

Federal Treasure Chalmers announced a review of the RBA which will report to the government by March 2023. Both sides of politics promised to conduct this review, if elected.

It is widely expected that the RBA’s board composition will change as a result e.g., more academics and fewer businesspeople. Also, the next Governor of the RBA (Lowe’s appointment ends in September 2023) is expected to be an external appointment. It will be interesting to see what other changes are recommended.

The RBA must take responsibility

Overall, the RBA’s initial response to the pandemic is hard to criticise. It acted swiftly and its initiative helped Australians through a difficult time and preserved the health of the underlying economy.

However, its removal of its pandemic support measures couldn’t have been more different. Unfortunately, its actions (or lack of action) may cause some economic pain, albeit likely to be temporary. The RBA Review is perfectly timed. Let’s hope it can learn from its mistakes.