By Jason Walls
Economists and Reserve Bank watchers are awaiting March 27, when new Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr takes over, with great anticipation.
Orr is seen by many as a highly capable economist and a great communicator, with financial markets eager to assess his approach to monetary policy.
It’s only nine more sleeps.
In the meantime, it’s just four more sleeps until the next Official Cash Rate (OCR) review on Thursday.
You would be forgiven if you didn’t know it was coming. In terms of what to look out for, no one is expecting much of anything from the OCR review.
The OCR will remain on hold at its record low of 1.75%, and its very unlikely outgoing Acting Governor Grant Spencer will do anything to rock the boat.
The event which has really got economists talking is the unveiling of the Policy Targets Agreement (PTA), likely to be announced later this week, according to ASB.
With a new Government and RBNZ Governor, the document is highly significant – especially given the current review of the RBNZ Act and the changes Finance Minister Grant Robertson has indicated he plans to make.
Details of the plan to add employment to the Reserve Bank’s mandate alongside price stability will be watched closely.
“I understand the limits of monetary policy, Robertson told me last week, “so we want [the Reserve Bank] to be considering maximising employment but, unlike a particular inflation target, we would not be seeking a particular employment target through monetary policy.
“What we want is the bank to play its appropriate role in maximising employment that will not include a specific employment target.”
This will come as welcome news to some, such as former head of the Reserve Bank’s Financial Markets team Michael Reddell, who has been advocating for a non-numeric focus.
But the specific wording of how employment fits into the bank’s mandate is important.
Westpac Senior Economist Michael Gordan is not a fan of the phrase “maximising employment” and thinks the PTA would be better served if the phrase “full employment” was used.
“’Full’ employment – in the sense of a level that’s sustainable over the long run – is more symmetrical than the Finance Minister’s preferred phrasing of “maximising” employment. The latter is more likely to come into conflict with the RBNZ’s inflation goals at some point in the future.”
But Cameron Bagrie of Bagrie Economics says both “maximising employment” and “full employment” are both problematic, as it’s difficult to frame objectives around terms like this.
“That’s like trying to win a cricket match by maximising the number of sixes you hit; the strategy might come off once in a while, but there’s a fair chance it won’t.”
Will the price stability focus change?
On inflation, Robertson says “the indication I gave as far back as last year is we would maintain the broad inflation target that has been in existence.”
The current PTA between Robertson and Spencer outlines the bank’s commitment to keeping inflation between 1% and 3% on average over the medium term, with a focus on keeping future average inflation near a 2% target midpoint.
The 2% target was added when Graeme Wheeler took over in 2012.
“He did so mainly to send a message he wouldn’t be comfortable running at/near the top of the 1% to 3% band, as was perceived to be the soft target of [Alan] Bollard,” says BNZ senior economist Craig Ebert.
“Removing the reference to 2%, per se, would simply [suggest] a return to what we had.”
But some economists, such as Capital Economics’ Paul Dales, believe inflation targeting is not as important as it used to be.
He says in the future, central banks will put less emphasis on inflation and more emphasis on financial stability.
But for now, he is not picking any changes to the PTA in terms of how it targets inflation.
Reddell says the reference to the 2% midpoint should be retained.
“In the current climate, getting rid of the 2% reference would reinforce Reserve Bank’s biases towards delivering inflation too low (core has been around 1.4% for years now) and risk undermining the focus on employment/unemployment the Government tells us they plan to add.”