Australians love talking about interest rates and the bulk of economic commentary day-to-day is about whether or not the Reserve Bank of Australia will be putting them up, or down or leaving them steady at their next monthly meeting.
This is no doubt linked to the huge interest of most Australians in house prices and the fact that household debt levels are amongst the highest in the world.
A small change in interest rates can have a significant impact on those with large mortgages.
Are interest rates too high or too low?
Having watching the RBA over the last 30 years or so, I have learnt a few lessons when it comes to working out whether interest rates are too high, too low or just right.
These lessons boil down to the following observable and easily tested facts on the economy.
If the economy is registering a decent rate of economic growth, say around 3 per cent, there are sufficient jobs are being created to keep annual wages growing by about 3.5 per cent and most importantly, annual inflation is hovering around 2.5 per cent and looks like staying at that rate, the prevailing interest rate is about right.
It seems simple when it is laid out that way.
Right now, economic growth is slowing to below 3 per cent and based on the data on housing, consumer finances and the global economy, it is probably on a path to about 2 per cent by the second half of 2019. Adjusting for population growth, the economy is getting uncomfortably close to a recession.
At the same time, wages growth is struggling to pick up from record lows and is stuck at a weak 2.25 to 2.5 per cent. This is too low and wages growth is being held back by the simple fact that there aren’t enough jobs being created to get unemployment and unemployment sufficiently low to spark a pick-up in wages.
Then there is inflation. The December quarter results released last week showed annual underlying inflation at 1.8 per cent.
This confirmed that annual inflation has been below the bottom of the RBA target range of 2-3 per cent for 3 consecutive years and it has been below the mid-point of the target for 5 years.
This is the clearest indicator of all that interest rates in Australia are restrictive, or too high in other words.
Mortgage holders should shop around
It might seem odd to conclude this when the official interest rate is 1.5 per cent and most mortgage holders can shop around and get an interest rate around 4 per cent.
But such is the change in the domestic and global economy in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Inflation and therefore interest rates around the world are low.
Of all industrialised countries, the US has the highest interest rates at 2.5 per cent and there is a real possibility it will be cutting those rates at the end of 2019.
Interest rates in Europe and Japan are negative. They are 0.75 per cent in the UK and in Canada, rates are 1.75 cent.
In an ideal climate for Australia, GDP growth should be higher, wages growth stronger and inflation should be above current levels.
It’s not rocket science to work out a formula to work out how policy makers in Australia could achieve that – lower interest rates are the answer.
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