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Sent: 22-09-2009 15:42:01
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What is Normal?Email Marketing Business Opportunity - Helen BairstowUnexpected Consequences of SegmentationThe Easiest way to do a Client NewsletterWhy Warren Buffett won't buy a NewspaperNew Longevity IndexHow do I use ATC articles for my clients?
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What is Normal?

Click here to buy - A How To Book of SMSF's by Tony Negline
John Robertson

Interest rates should return to normal levels according to many commentators. But what is normal and will it ever happen again?

Australia's Reserve Bank and many market commentators are discussing a return to more normal interest rate settings. A cash rate of 6% is referred to as being closer to the norm than the currently prevailing 3%.

Around the world, finance ministers are considering how to revert to normal fiscal conditions. There is a consensus that current deficits should be maintained for the time being but there is agreement that they should be hauled back to something more normal.

Unfortunately, the economic body is not like the human body with a universally recognized normal body temperature of 37°C. Significant departures from the normal body temperature are unambiguous danger signs and there is no argument over a return to normal being a good thing.

In economics, there is no such immutable target. There can be an infinitesimal number of acceptable combinations and a similar number of undesirable outcomes. An appropriate level of interest rates, for example, could be anything from a 0% to 20% depending on what is happening to other economic variables.

In Australia, the average cash rate since 1960 has been 7.3%. However, that average has traversed inflation as high as 18% and as low as zero, an exchange rate that moved from 148 to 50 U.S. cents and average output growth of 3½% which was the product of several recessions and peak output growth of 8%.

A year ago, we saw a set of economic outcomes many standard deviations from the norm even while policy settings were close to average. The a priori probability of such a combination of circumstances would have been extraordinarily low.

The mere fact that those events transpired means that policy must now be conducted with one eye on the possibility that such a catastrophe once again emerges as a threat. To the extent that such outlier events influence our thinking, historical averages can no longer act as a guide to what constitutes sound policy.

In the past week in Australia, the Commonwealth Treasurer announced that his department had reappraised Australia's population growth outlook. Population growth rates are now expected to rise from the previously anticipated 0.7% a year to 1.2% between now and 2049 resulting in an additional 7 million people than previously anticipated.

Subject to changes in the labor force participation rates, population growth sets the tone for national output growth. Australia can now expect stronger output growth than, for example, the 2% rate of growth projected in the last Intergenerational Report prepared by the Treasury. A higher population growth rate also implies that interest rates should generally be higher. Of course, the extent to which interest rates have to be adjusted will also depend on how domestic productivity growth changes in response to the change in the rate of population expansion.

Another consideration is international monetary settings. If the European, U.S. and Japanese central banks set interest rates to help keep asset prices aloft, as they have been prone to do especially in the USA, Australia will be unable to withstand the pressure. Its asset prices will react similarly. Genuinely offsetting policy could require very high unemployment inducing interest rates.

Unemployment levels are going to be a key test for policy settings. The current consensus is for global growth in the coming 10 years to be slower than in the previous 10 years. Unemployment rates will struggle to decline under this scenario leaving pressure on policymakers to keep employment supportive policies in place.

Among the lessons of the past year is the need to identify and manage risks. As a community, we might decide that the risk of inflation, for example, is not as great as the risk of widespread high unemployment.

If inflation emerges, we know how to react: raise interest rates quickly and forcefully. However, we are on a less sure analytical footing in understanding the connection between monetary policy and employment growth. Monetary policy is less effective in supporting employment than in cutting inflation. Since the connection between inflation and interest rates is relatively clear-cut, we might be able to afford to wait for the evidence to mount before taking anti-inflation action rather than risk a detrimental employment effect.

Being more acutely aware of the risks after our 2008 experiences may require a different policy balance going forward. Inflation first, the slogan behind the policies of the last 20 years, might give way to a greater emphasis on employment growth if the current consensus becomes reality. What becomes normal cannot be divorced from contemporary priorities.

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