Monday, 25 July 2016

Are monetary conditions too tight?

The Reserve Bank's latest quarterly survey of expectations popped up in my inbox the other day, and as usual I was at a loss to answer the question 'What is your perception of monetary conditions'.

It's the 'conditions' bit that throws me. The question is intended "to capture respondents' broad perceptions of current monetary policy settings and their expectations of the future stance of policy in one quarter's time and one year out", which looks as if it is probing about the interest rate setting side of monetary policy.

But interest rates are only part of overall monetary conditions as experienced by firms and households: the other big factor is the exchange rate (and arguably there are others - the willingness of banks to lend, the ability of firms to raise capital through bond or equity issues). So I'm never too sure what (say) the CFO at a big company might be feeling overall about monetary conditions: is the crimping effect of low export profit margins when the exchange rate might be high more important than the availability of cheaper finance when interest rates might be low?

And so every now and then (last time was in February) I'm driven to power up the spreadsheet and recalculate the old Monetary Condition Index (the 'MCI'), which attempts to blend interest rates and exchange rates into an overall assessment of the tightness or looseness of monetary conditions. Here is is, using RBNZ monthly data up to June and last Friday's data (after the RBNZ's economic update) for July.

It looks as if we are experiencing overall monetary conditions that are modestly on the tight side of our long-term average: going by the MCI alone, you'd say that the RBNZ definitely ought to cut the Official Cash Rate at its next opportunity on August 11. You'd want overall monetary conditions to be on the easier side, not the tighter side, when inflation is tracking below target.

"Going by the MCI alone" is a big qualification, though. For one thing, businesses don't seem to be feeling very squeezed by the exchange rate, as you can see in this chart from the ANZ's latest Business Micro Scope survey of small businesses. The exchange rate is listed there as a problem for a few, but it's well down their list of worries compared, in particular, to finding skilled employees (and compared to the burden of regulation, which is a topic for another day). And of course there's the potential impact of lower interest rates on floating rate mortgages and the housing market (aggravated by the fact that lower bond yields are feeding through to lower fixed rate mortgages as well).

So who knows - maybe the RBNZ will stay its hand on August 11. But if the be-all and end-all of monetary policy is overall monetary conditions conducive to getting inflation where it ought to be, the MCI logic says, cut the OCR.

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