Pandemic could kill off governments' credit rating bogeyman
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This was published 6 months ago

Opinion

Pandemic could kill off governments' credit rating bogeyman

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that an economic shock as big as the pandemic is breaking down longstanding rules – written and unwritten - about how the national economy should be managed.

One rule is the rigid demarcation between fiscal (budgetary) policy and monetary (interest-rate) policy. Another is that the states leave management of the macro economy to the feds, and stick to a Good Housekeeping approach to their own budgets. A third is that there should be free trade and movement between the states.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe during a Senate select committee hearing.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe during a Senate select committee hearing.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

A corollary of the strict separation of fiscal policy and monetary policy is that the federal government and its Treasury should leave all public comment about the appropriate levels of interest rates and the dollar to the independent Reserve Bank, while the Reserve makes no public comment on the appropriate levels of government spending, taxation and budget deficits.

On that convention, Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe has been stretching the friendship almost since the day he took the job in 2016. His problem is that macro management works best when both arms of policy are pushing in the same direction: either moving the economy along or holding it back.

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But whereas his goal has been to use low interest rates to stimulate a weak economy and get unemployment down, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government’s goal has been to tighten fiscal policy and turn the budget deficit into a surplus.

Lowe hasn’t been able to resist the temptation to note - repeatedly - that he could do with more help from fiscal policy. And as the level of interest rates has fallen further and further towards zero, he’s been more and more outspoken. Now the official interest rate has reached the “effective lower bound” of 0.25 per cent, he’s been even more importuning.

But in his evidence to the House of Reps economics committee a fortnight ago, he moved to putting the hard word on the premiers. Replying to a question about fiscal stimulus, he said: “I think we need both the federal government and the state governments carrying their fair share.

“The federal government, I understand, has announced measures so far equivalent to roughly 7 per cent of gross domestic product ... The measures to date from the state governments add up to close to 2 per cent of GDP ...

“The challenge we face is to create jobs, and the state governments do control many of the levers here. They control many of the infrastructure programs. They do much of the health and education spending. They’re responsible for much of the [regular] maintenance of much of Australia’s infrastructure.

“So I would hope, over time, we would see more efforts to increase public investment in Australia to create jobs, and the state governments have a really critical role to play there.”

At the national cabinet meeting on Friday, we’re told, Lowe told the premiers they should collectively spend $40 billion over the next two years – equivalent to 1 per cent of GDP per year – on job creation measures, including infrastructure, social housing and training.

Trouble is, the states have already done about as much as they can without exceeding the borrowing limits set by the credit-rating agencies, and so endangering their triple-A ratings. So what’s Lowe’s solution to that problem? Dooon worry about ’em.

At the parliamentary hearing, he said: “From my perspective, creating jobs for people is much more important than preserving the credit ratings. I have no concerns at all about the state governments being able to borrow more money at low interest rates. The Reserve Bank is making sure that’s the case.”

At one level, this is a sign of the momentous times we live in. Governments around the world are borrowing massively as the only way they can think of to overcome the coronacession. With interest rates on long-term government borrowing at unprecedented lows, what have they go to fear?

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In effect, they’re daring the three big American for-profit rating agencies to downgrade them. And so far, those supposedly righteous judges haven’t accepted the dare. Perhaps they’re remembering the time after the global financial crisis when one of them had the temerity to downgrade US government bonds. No one took any notice.

The presumed penalty for being downgraded is that the bond market increases the interest rate it requires to lend to you. But what if the market has stopped listening? In any case, with interest rates ultra-low, why should anyone fear having to pay a tiny fraction more?

At another level, however, this is Lowe telling Treasuries, federal and state, that the jig is up. Ever since the mid-1980s, they’ve used the threat of a rating downgrade as a stick to wave over the heads of the spending ministers, to limit their spending. They’ve used the rating agencies as the ultimate policemen enforcing Smaller Government.

Not any more, it seems. Right now, apart from the appalling prospects for unemployment, Lowe has bigger worries: the push from the proponents of “modern monetary theory” urging governments to stop funding their budget deficits by borrowing from the public and just print the money they need.

In Lowe’s mind, this would be the ultimate breach of the separation of fiscal policy and monetary policy. The elected government would be telling the independent central bank how much money to create.

Lowe would be willing to bend the rules a lot to avoid this ultimate breach. He certainly wouldn’t want the rating agencies adding to the pollies’ temptation to print rather than borrow. But he would be willing to resort to “unconventional measures” and buy big quantities of second-hand Commonwealth and state government bonds and so ensure their interest-rates stay ultra-low.

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