Coalition Must Take Now Risks with Policies & leaders

Time to Take Risks

In yesterday’s Commentary I argued that, given the latest Newspoll (and for policy reasons too), the Coalition should “change courses” asap. I also sent a letter to OZ (unpublished) advocating the cancellation of Turnbull’s membership of the Liberal Party. My advocacies are based on my perspective that, although risky, the Coalition needs to take risks now if it is to have any chance of winning the election and that an improved set of policies would in any event provide a better starting point in Opposition to a Labor government.

It was encouraging to receive a number of responses in basic agreement with this approach. And in his article yesterday’s Herald Sun (see Bolt on Abbott as Possible Leader), and again in his presentation last night  on Sky News, Andrew Bolt rejected the idea of a new leader who is “a near-unknown that no one hates” because “such risk-aversion rarely ends well”. Instead, he suggests that Abbott would be best and that “helping him will mean that the Liberals after the election will again be overwhelmingly conservative, given how many of the Left are resigning or likely to lose”.

Of course, in principle nobody wants yet another change in leadership. But while Morrison has tried hard, the polling and such limited policy changes as he has offered, are clearly insufficient to swing voters. This is particularly the case with the  policy that will be most important in the period prior to the election – energy. Yet  Morrison has just rejected the idea of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and has ignored the adverse economic effects from the retention of the Coalition’s target to reduce emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030. Except for possible initial “voluntary” falls, the promised lower electricity prices would only occur if dictated by Federal Energy Minister Taylor.

However, in today’s Herald Sun, Terry McCrann points out, first, that while “the government’s proposed 26-28 per cent cuts are anything but timid, (they) are among the biggest cuts proposed by any country anywhere in the world”. And, second, that Labor’s proposed cuts in emissions of 45 per cent are equivalent to 55 per cent in per capita terms, which  would be “entirely and exactly pointless. Those cuts can’t and won’t move the ‘Earth’s temperature’ even by one-ten-thousandth of a degree” (see Labor’s 45% Emissions Cuts Equal 55% per Cap: McCrann).

This analysis could provide a basis for a leader of the Coalition to at least moderate its emissions target and tell voters that Labor’s energy policy would cause much greater economic damage than the Coalition’s. Abbott as a leader would be well placed to convey that to voters if the Liberal’s were prepared to take that risk.

Monetary Policy

These days not many observers of the politico/eco scene take a close interest in monetary policy and many look to central banks to just keep them as low as possible without considering possible adverse economic effects. But it is important to recognise that “low” interest rates may have such adverse effects, including over a period of time. On 11 March I had a letter published in the AFR pointing out that the household saving ratio fell from 10% in 2008-09 to just over 5% today and this has been reflected in an increase in household debt and may account for “an increased tendency to reduce spending rates on consumption and housing. One possible explanation is that monetary policy allowed interest rates at relatively low levels for too long, resulting in higher borrowings and excessive debt levels” (see letter as published below).

In short, the recent slow-down in economic growth may be partly reflecting a pause in spending as household debt reaches levels which consumers and small businesses judge to be too high in present “risky” political conditions.  Almost coincidentally, it was reported that RBA experts found that, ”all else being equal, a 1 per cent drop in interest rates would, over the long run, boost house prices by 17 per cent. The cash rate has been slashed from 4.75 per cent throughout most of 2011 to its current record-low level of 1.5 per cent as the central bank attempte­d to offset the end of the mining boom and encourage activit­y in the housing and consumption sector” (see RBA Analysis Suggests “Low” Interest Rates Stimulate Housing Construction).

In other words, the RBA may have allowed interest rates to go down too far or to go too low for too long, resulting, first, in excessive house prices and debt and, second, that this may have contributed to the current slow-down in GDP.  If this is correct it may mean that, contrary to some analysts, there should not be any further reduction in interest rates – unless of course an unlikely recession occurs.

Interestingly, the US Federal Reserve has made four increases in interest rates whereas our RBA Head, Phillip Lowe, after threatening increases, has backed off. Of course, it would not be a good time politically for Lowe to increase rates even if he felt the inclination: from that viewpoint better to stay at present rates. Note that the head of the US Fed, Jerome Powell, has been under pressure from Trump to “keep rates low” with a view to help maintaining the strong growth in the US. But in what has been described as an “unusual” interview in public, Powell has asserted his independence (see Fed Chair Makes Unusual Interview). Lowe would be well advised to make his independence clear when he reports RBA monthly meetings to Treasurer Frydenberg.

Rate Cut Wrong in an Era of High Debt
(Letter by Des Moore published in AFR, 11 March 2019)

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