Thursday, 9 June 2016

One-way traffic - or is it?

Today's Monetary Policy Statement (here are the links to the press release, the full thing, and the webcast press conference) went much as expected - overwhelmingly, forecasters had expected the Bank to stand pat, and it did, and generally they (and the Bank) expect one more 0.25% cut somewhere down the track, assuming that the next GDP and CPI data don't spring any major surprises.

The likely track of interest rates consequently didn't get a lot of airtime at the press conference, partly because it was assumed as obvious, and partly because the media were much more concerned about other things, especially the housing market and the prospect of further potential macroprudential controls. They were also somewhat interested in various accountability issues: has the Bank failed to keep inflation high enough? Has it been communicating well enough?

I was left wondering, though, whether this blasé assumption of a bleedingly obvious track for interest rates is as well founded as people seem to think. For one thing, as the Statement said (p28), the world's an uncertain place: "the paths key variables ultimately take may differ from the projection because of changes in economic relationships, the wide range of uncertainty around key assumptions, and unforeseen developments". Economies don't always play nice with consensus forecasts, even strongly or widely held ones.

And I was also struck by this graph, where the Bank showed how interest rates would need to behave if things panned out differently - if the Kiwi dollar didn't depreciate (the green line), or if house prices kept rocking along and people started to splurge some of their winnings (the red line).

I don't think there's a person in the country that thinks interest rates could go up in the next year or eighteen months. But that's essentially the same as saying, there's a zero probability of the "spend some of our housing gain" scenario. And I don't think it's a zero probability at all: on the contrary, it sounds like an entirely possible, and entirely understandable, way that things might play out.

I wouldn't say the current consensus on interest rates has become an outright "Nonsensus, n: a belief held by a majority or large dominant proportion of a population that is nevertheless complete bollocks" (as 'Lew' wittily put it on Twitter the other day). But I would say it's on the complacent side: interest rates have departed from the script in the US, the eurozone, Japan or Australia in recent months, and they could very easily do the same here.

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