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The Reserve Bank needs to start being accountable for its decisions

By Henry Thornton - posted Wednesday, 31 December 2003

Congratulations to Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Ian Macfarlane, for finally biting the bullet on monetary policy. Policy has been too loose for too long but his first move to restore an appropriate monetary policy is welcome nevertheless.

He will need at least two further 25bp rate hikes (or one of 50bp) to restore a broadly "neutral" monetary policy, ideally with one tomorrow. Indeed, we believe he needs to go further in the New Year, to engineer a positively tight monetary policy.

As importantly, while it tightens further, the Reserve Bank needs to explain better what it is doing. The Bank is now formally independent of political government and has the power to set interest rates. However, many in government believe the Bank does not fully accept the accountability that goes with this power. Specifically, many in government feel that the Governor's explanations for the rate rise have been inadequate. While the RBA has the power, the Treasurer is left to explain why rates have risen and will rise further.


This month we outline how the Bank should explain why interest rates have to rise further. No doubt it will be able to craft a more polished and complete account but we believe our outline will provide a useful framework.

So far the RBA has concentrated on explaining that inflation, while under control now and likely to go lower, will at some future time be likely to move above the target range, when the exchange rate stops rising. The Governor says himself that forecasts are unreliable, which leaves any objective observer asking of rate rises "why now?" and "how much?". No doubt the Treasurer and the Prime Minister, like the markets and the media, are asking themselves the same questions.

The Bank did give an immediate one-page explanation when it tightened in November. This was followed by a 48-page quarterly statement on monetary policy. Some people may simply have not wanted to understand but the ensuing confusion seems due in part to the RBA not emphasising that the tightening is as much about maintaining financial system stability as about achieving the inflation target.

Since words have not resonated, a simple graphic image may help. Especially one that can draw out the clear distinction between what lies ahead and some of the policy mistakes in Australia's past.

Take this instructive chart which compares the "neutral" cash rate and where the cash rate has actually been set:

Neutral and actual cash interest rates.


A "neutral" cash rate is defined as the past 12-months of inflation plus the normal real (inflation adjusted) bond yield, here proxied by the yield on indexed bonds.

It shows that for more than 15 years the cash rate has usually been set very close to "neutral". When the actual rate is above "neutral", monetary policy is tight; when it is below, policy is easy. Since the mid-1980s, there have only been three episodes when the cash rate has departed significantly from "neutral" for an extended period.

The first, and most damaging, was in the late-1980s, when the monetary tightening caused "the recession we had to have" and shook the financial system severely. There were reasons at the time but hindsight does not view this use of policy discretion favourably. The second was a significant victory, in 1995 and 1996, when the Reserve Bank did not follow the "neutral" rate higher but held its ground, confident that the "neutral" rate would fall in due course.

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This article was first published on on November 30, 2003.

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About the Author

Henry Thornton (1760-1815) was a banker, M.P., Philanthropist, and a leading figure in the influential group of Evangelicals that was known as the Clapham set. His column is provided by the writers at

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