The RBA and the paradox of perfection

Matthew Haupt

Wilson Asset Management

Central banks (including ours) are faced with two choices: “rescue” the world from its economic slowdown; or stand aside and let the inevitable correction take place.

In reducing the cash rate to a record low of 1.25 per cent, Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) governor Philip Lowe has joined his global peers in falling for the paradox of monetary policy perfection. This global obsession by the highly intelligent, increasingly interventionist and ultimately human central bankers has dominated financial markets in the 12 years since the global financial crisis (GFC).

The record low interest rate environment and unprecedented liquidity from quantitative easing has inflated asset prices, particularly equities and property.

Will they have the self-control to let financial markets correct, or will they continue in their pursuit of monetary policy perfection?

The S&P 500 index has climbed 307 per cent since the GFC and the ASX All Ordinaries index has increased by 110 per cent. This rally in share prices is inconsistent with the underlying economic story. For example, US corporate debt has increased 65 per cent with interest costs jumping only 23 per cent. Despite this increased leverage at minimal costs, corporate profits have only moved up 29 per cent. Similarly, the surge in east-coast Australian real estate prices beggars belief when rental yield is considered.

The creation of this policy environment was driven by necessity; the GFC required a strong response.

Yet despite the risks, the same toolkit has been deployed in less justifiable circumstances, such as economic stagnation. The removal of an appropriate hurdle rate has simultaneously led to the gross mispricing of risk within the financial system and the exhaustion of central banks’ arsenal. The unintended consequences may take us full circle – remember that the GFC was caused by a property bubble.

Lowe cited rising unemployment and falling property prices as the major concerns underpinning his move to cut the cash rate. In doing so, the RBA has significantly reduced its ability to stimulate the economy if conditions are negatively impacted by material and unexpected events, such as an abrupt end to Chinese stimulus.

Stubbornly, Lowe and other central bankers may take solace in the fact they are steering their economies towards their target inflation rates, but their relevance is diminishing under the shadow of asset bubbles.

Rescue or stand aside

Australia’s central bank, like that of all advanced economies, is faced with two choices: “rescue” the world from its economic slowdown; or stand aside and let the inevitable correction take place.

The axiom that highlights the dominance of central banks in financial markets – “you can’t fight the Fed” – has never been truer. Central banks have determined the world’s financial fate for more than a decade. Will they now have the self-control and humility to let financial markets correct, or will they continue in their interventionist agenda in the pursuit of monetary policy perfection?

The importance of this choice cannot be overstated.

On the one hand, it could lead to asset bubbles driven by zero or even negative interest rates and further quantitative easing in major economies. The resulting burst would be unprecedented.

On the other hand, central banks, led by the US Federal Reserve, could normalise the monetary policy environment and begin the correction that would mirror the reality of the business and market cycle. The latter course of action would require modesty, resilience and an outright abandonment of the paradox of perfection.

Matthew Haupt is a Lead Portfolio Manager with Wilson Asset Management , responsible for WAM Leaders (ASX: WLE).

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Matthew Haupt
Lead Portfolio Manager
Wilson Asset Management

Matthew has more than 15 years’ experience in the investment industry working as both a portfolio manager and analyst. Matthew is the Lead Portfolio Manager responsible for WAM Leaders.

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