When monetary policy reaches its limits, what of fiscal policy?

Property ObserverJune 24, 20150 min read


In a recent address to the Economic Society of Australia, the Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens hit the nail on the head when he remarked that “monetary policy alone can’t deliver everything we need and expecting too much from it can lead, in time, to much bigger problems”.

What was particularly important in this address was the (implicit) suggestion that the answer goes hand in hand with another question; what should we expect from fiscal policy?

Though at first sight it might appear to be a rather tenuous link, a decent review of the taxation system and more generally of the revenue side of the fiscal equation, may be a big help in taking some of the burden off monetary policy from its current constraints.

Stevens is not alone in suggesting that too much might be being expected of central bankers in promoting growth and reducing unemployment. Similar sentiments have come from former Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke.

It is useful to distinguish two aspects to the question of whether we expect too much of monetary policy. The first is whether we can expect it to work when the economy is on the downswing in the same degree as when it is on the upswing. In particular, can we expect an easing of monetary policy to stimulate growth as effectively as a tightening of monetary policy can choke it off.

Central banks for the most part have a brief of keeping inflation within a certain range and, with that done, to assist in keeping the economy’s growth rate near to trend; in the best of worlds, consistent with full employment.

Expectations about what more accommodating monetary policy can do for a sluggish economy have at times had to take a reality check here and in other parts of the world. Bringing interest rates down and making the assets side of bank balance sheets more liquid via “quantitative easing” can stimulate the real economy only to the extent that the binding constraint on spending by consumers and business is a financial one.

But in an environment where producers expect sluggish or even falling domestic or export demand, one would also expect to see sluggish investment demand, regardless of interest rates or the willingness of banks to lend. In other words, slow growth in demand may well mean expected rates of return from investment in new plant are revised down as much as interest rates.

As Stevens noted in his address, lower interest rates may not help consumption expenditure much either in present circumstances, since household sector’s debt burden means that it “has the least scope [compared with government and corporations] to expand their balance sheets to drive spending”.

And, as plenty of commentators have noted, injections of liquidity and easing credit conditions may be channelled into financial assets which don’t have significant stimulatory effects on the real side of the economy, which is where we need it for growth and reduced unemployment.

Some have even argued that a lengthy period of easy monetary policy has adverse distributional effects benefiting owners of stock and property. However the precise distributional effects of seem rather complex and less than clear cut, and will depend in part on whether or not accommodatory monetary policy stimulates the economy and hence employment growth.

The second and perhaps broader aspect related to expectations about what monetary policy can and should do is that it is often asked to effectively make use of a limited toolbox to deal with conflicting objectives. One could be forgiven for thinking that in this country we have only one macro policy instrument - interest rates – to both control inflation and manipulate growth in economic activity.

The obvious elephant in the room here is fiscal policy.

In his address Stevens actually raises an old and interesting idea about fiscal policy: that it can have a stimulatory role perfectly consistent with “sound financing” (to borrow a perverted phrase with which Keynes’ was forced to do battle); where stimulatory expenditure and any increased debt are on the capital or investment side of the budget.

Such fiscal stimulus may even have what some economists refer to as a “crowding-in” effect: a positive impact on expectations about growth, as Stevens notes. This idea also provides a bulwark against the nonsense about fiscal contraction or consolidation (as it’s euphemistically called) being necessary to stimulate the economy.

The caution here from the Governor is also sound it seems; that capital expenditure is not overnight, so the confidence boost is probably more important for the short-term than the actual direct impact on government expenditure.

In any case, if fiscal policy in general and government expenditure in particular is to come back into its own as a macro policy instrument, reform of the revenue base and thus the tax system is paramount.

But note here, a significant driver of tax reform should be the sustainable funding of an expenditure side which fulfils its macro economic role as a generator of demand growth and its social role in generating infrastructure.

Tax reform should not be seen exclusively as code for a lower taxes, this being an end, the means to which to point of is government withdrawing from its expenditure responsibilities. Unfortunately, this latter view seems to dominate much discussion in this country.

From a macro policy standpoint, looking at tax or more appropriately at the revenue side of the fiscal equation may well have a positive spin-off for monetary policy, leaving it to focus, if that is the continued wish of the political masters, on inflation.

And if one is worried about complex adverse distributional effects of monetary policy, expenditure on infrastructure, done properly, would surely help redress inequality by lifting the social wage.

Graham White is Associate Professor, School of Economics at University of Sydney. He can be contacted here.


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