In the 1970’s and 1980’s the global economy was battling the menace of stagflation – high inflation and high unemployment. In order to counteract this, monetary policy was seen as responsible for controlling the inflation rate through the adoption of targeting. The New Zealand government was the first country to introduce this through the Reserve Bank Act 1989 which gave the responsibility of the central bank to keep inflation between 0-2% (later changed to 1-3%). Monetary policy should therefore play the lead role in stabilizing inflation and unemployment with fiscal policy playing a supporting role with automatic stabilisers – economic stimulus during economic downturns and economic contractions during high growth periods. Fiscal policy is therefore focused on long term objectives such as efficiency and equity.
In the post financial crisis world the usefulness of monetary policy is dubious. The natural rate of interest has now dropped to historical low levels. The natural rate of interest being a rate which is neither expansionary or contractionary. The issue for the central banks is how to bring about a stable inflation rate when the natural rate of interest is so low.
Historical Natural Rates of Interest
In the 1990’s the natural rate of interest globally was approximately between 2.5% and 3.5% but by 2007 these rates had decreased to between 2 – 2.5% – see graph. By 2015 the rate had dropped sharply and as can be seen from the graph near zero in the USA and below zero in the case of the euro zone. The reasons for this decline in the natural rate were related to the global supply and demand for funds:
- Shifting demographics and the ageing populations
- Slower trend productivity and economic growth
- Emerging markets seeking large reserves of safe assets
- Integration of savings-rich China into the global economy
- Global savings glut in general
Therefore the expected low natural rate of interest is set to prevail when the economy is at full capacity and the stance of monetary policy in neutral. However this lower rate means that conventional monetary has less ammunition to influence the economy and this will mean a greater reliance and other unconventional instruments – negative interest rates. In this new environment recessions will tend to be more severe and last longer and the risks of low inflation will be more likely.
Future strategies by to avoid deeper recessions.
Governments and central banks need to be a lot more creative in coping with the low natural rate environment. Fiscal policy could be used in conjunction with monetary policy with the aim of raising the natural rate. Therefore long-term investments in education, public and private capital, and research and development could be more beneficial. More predictable automatic stabilisers could be introduced that support the economy during boom and slump periods. Additionally unemployment benefit and income tax rates could be linked to the unemployment rate. The reality is that monetary policy by itself is not enough especially as the natural rate of interest and the inflation rate are so low. What can be done:
- The Central Bank would pursue a higher inflation target so therefore experiencing a high natural rate of interest which leaves more room to cut to stimulate demand. The logic of this approach argues that a 1% increase in the inflation target would offset the harmful effects of an equal-sized decline in the natural rate
- Inflationary targeting could be replaced by a flexible price-level of nominal GDP, rather than the inflation rate.
Monetary policy can only do so much but with global interest rates at approximately zero there needs to be the support of the politicians to enlist a much more stimulatory fiscal policy. Monetary policy has run out of ammunition and we cannot rely on central banks to fight recessions. However a less politicised fiscal policy, which is free to act immediately, has the ammunition to revive the economy.
Monetary Policy in a low R-star World – FRBSF Economic Letter
The Economist: September 24th 2016 – The low-rate world