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Reserve Bank of Australia being reviewed after big mistakes w/ Peter Tulip – EP149

The Reserve Bank of Australia has allegedly made some bad calls in recent years and now the Australian Treasurer has commissioned a major review. This episode’s guest, Dr Peter Tulip of the Centre for Independent Studies, has long pushed for a review of the RBA. Peter, a former RBA and US Fed economist, thinks the RBA can learn from other central banks such as the Fed and Sweden’s Riksbank, and it can avoid future bad policy decisions which cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. 

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Here’s a video clip of Peter’s conversation with show host Gene Tunny to give you a flavour of what is covered in the episode.

About this episode’s guests – Dr Peter Tulip

Peter Tulip is the Chief Economist at the Centre for Independent Studies, a leading Australian think tank. Peter has previously worked in the Research Department of the Reserve Bank of Australia and, before that, at the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors. He has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

Peter’s twitter handle: @peter_tulip 

Links relevant to the conversation

Peter’s previous appearance on Economics Explored: https://economicsexplored.com/2022/04/11/the-high-cost-of-housing-and-what-to-do-about-it-w-peter-tulip-cis-ep134/

Australian Treasurer’s 20 July 2022 announcement of RBA review:

https://ministers.treasury.gov.au/ministers/jim-chalmers-2022/media-releases/review-reserve-bank

Peter’s CIS paper on the RBA: https://www.cis.org.au/publication/structural-reform-of-the-reserve-bank-of-australia/

Kevin Warsh’s review of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee: https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/transparency_and_the_bank_of_englands_monetary_policy_committee.pdf

This is the 2010 Statement on the Conduct of Monetary Policy that Peter refers to at the end of the episode:

https://www.rba.gov.au/monetary-policy/framework/stmt-conduct-mp-5-30092010.html

This is the most recent statement:

https://www.rba.gov.au/monetary-policy/framework/stmt-conduct-mp-7-2016-09-19.html

Transcript: Reserve Bank of Australia being reviewed after big mistakes w/ Peter Tulip – EP149

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Peter Tulip  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored. Many of us, including me, think that the Reserve Bank has been making big mistakes and is in need of structural reform.

Gene Tunny  00:15

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional Economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 149 on the review of Australia’s Central Bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia, or RBA. This review was announced by Australia’s new Labour government on the 20th of July, 2022. 

My guest this episode, is Dr. Peter Tulip. Peter has long pushed for a review of the RBA, and he’s been extensively quoted in local media on what needs to change. Peter thinks that the RBA has made some big mistakes in the past, and it could learn from other central banks, such as the US Federal Reserve, and the Bank of England, as he explains in this episode. 

Currently, Peter is the Chief Economist at the Centre for Independent Studies. And before that, he’s worked at the RBA, and at the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors. So, he knows how central banks work on the inside, and his perspective is a valuable one. 

This is Peter’s second appearance on the show. He previously appeared in Episode 134 on the high cost of housing. So, if you haven’t listened to that yet, please listen to it after this episode; it’s great. 

In the show notes, you can find relevant links and details of how you can get in touch with any questions, comments or suggestions. Please get in touch and let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. 

Righto. Now for my conversation with Peter Tulip on the review of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. 

Peter Tulip, Chief Economist at the Centre for independent studies, welcome back to the program.

Peter Tulip  02:01

Good, Gene, how are you? 

Gene Tunny  02:03

Good. Thanks, Peter. It’s great to be chatting with you again. I’m keen to speak with you about the review of the Reserve Bank of Australia that was announced earlier this week by the treasurer, Jim Chalmers. One of our colleagues, Steven Kirschner; Stephen has been on the show before too. He wrote that the RBA review is; he wrote about it that everything is on the table, and that’s good. So, it is a very expansive review. The only thing it looks like they’ve left off the table to me, is that they’re not reconsidering the split in responsibilities between the Reserve Bank and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority. They obviously still see a role for that as a separate entity, rather than rolling, prudential regulation back into the RBA. But other than that, it seems like a very broad ranging review. Are you generally happy with what’s been announced?

Peter Tulip  03:02

I’m delighted. Many of us have been calling for something like this for a long time. And the terms of reference are fairly deep and broad. The people running the review, first class, and there’s a good mix of people too. I mean, they’ve got a central banker, an academic and central bureaucrat. And any substantial reform, the RBA is going to require integrating those three perspectives. So, that’s useful also.

Gene Tunny  03:41

Right, okay. So, we’ve got an international expert, someone who’s been on the committee, the Monetary Policy Committee in the UK;

Peter Tulip  03:49

The Financial Policy Committee, slightly different. That’s financial stability rather than monetary policy.

Gene Tunny  03:55

All right. Okay. But she’s had a senior position in the Canadian Central bank, is that right? Caroline Wilkins? 

Peter Tulip  

Yeah, sure.

Gene Tunny  

And also, Renee A. Fry-McKibbin, who is an academic at the Australian National University, so highly regarded macro Economist, and also Gordon Brewer, who I worked with in the Treasury many years ago. And I mean, I think Gordon’s an excellent choice for that. So, yeah, it looks like;

Peter Tulip  04:24

And before that, Gordon worked at the RBA, so it’s good to have some internal experience.

Gene Tunny  04:31

Right, okay. But it wasn’t exactly what the RBA wanted, was it? Even though it looks like the RBA has had some role in shaping the terms of reference, I saw an interview with Jim Chalmers on, was either Coffee show or the Today show here in Australia. And he was saying that the RBA said some input in the terms of reference, but originally, they just wanted to review themselves, didn’t they? Which would have been a great idea if you think about it.

Peter Tulip  04:58

To be credible, it needs to be external and independent. They’ll have a secretariat, which will be largely staffed, I think, from Treasury and the RBA. So, they’ll be able to call on the resources of the bank, and it’ll be informed by the bank by insiders, but the ultimate judgments will be independent and external, which I think they need to be.

Gene Tunny  05:26

Well certainly will, particularly if they’ve got Rene on the review committee. So, Rene is the editor of the Economic Record here in Australia, which is the top Economics journal here, and she’s well known in the economics profession and her husband, Warwick McKibbin, is actually a former board member, isn’t he? I mean, she’s obviously a separate person to Warwick. But I mean, I’m wondering if this is a way that Warwick’s views are actually getting inputted into the review in some way, even though obviously, she’s her own individual.

Peter Tulip  06:03

Yeah. His views will clearly get a lot of weight. But Rene is an expert in her own right. Yes.

Gene Tunny  06:09

Yeah, along with other economics colleagues. So, it’s not going to be something that the Reserve bank is going to necessarily get its way on, which is good. There’s going to be input from a broad range of sources, including yourself, I mean, I’m guessing you’ll be making a submission to the review.

Peter Tulip  06:26

I’ve already written my submission. I mean, so I did a big paper calling for reform of the RBA, just a few months ago. In the context that this review has been called for. And I set forward my views on what I was hoping the review would look at and what it would conclude. So, I’ve done my bit, and now it’s up to them.

Gene Tunny  06:48

Great., I mean, you’ve certainly been one of the most influential people in in this discussion so far. And you wrote a fascinating AFR piece earlier this year, which was titled Reserve Bank must be made accountable for inflation mistakes. So, might chat about that in the moment. But to begin with Peter, could you tell us why do you think this review was necessary in the first place? Is it because of those inflation mistakes?

Peter Tulip  07:14

Can I give a long answer to that? So, there are three levels of an answer in increasing areas of being controversial. The first and simplest answer is that, it’s just good practice to regularly review your monetary framework every few years, in the light of new research and new experience. People are writing about these frameworks all the time, and you need to, every now and then have a stock take of that. And this is what all of our foreign, not all, most other Central banks do. It’s standard amongst foreign central banks to have regular reviews. And the format of those varies, and we’ll talk a bit about that. Some of them are external, some of them are internal. Some of them have a heavy academic focus. Some of them are on; the Bank of Canada does is on a regular five years schedule. Others are more ad hoc. So, that’s one thing. It’s just regular practice. 

The second bigger argument is that the Reserve Bank has been missing its targets that prior to the pandemic, the inflation rate was well below the target of 2 to 3%. And the unemployment rate for an even longer period was well above estimates of its sustainable or full employment level. And so, particularly with the inflation rate, which is the reserve bank itself describes as a key performance indicator, when you’re persistently failing to hit your targets, there is there has to be a presumption that a review is necessary that otherwise there’s just no accountability at all. 

And then the third layer of arguments I gave, which is more controversial, is that many of us, I mean, including me, think that the Reserve Bank has been making big mistakes, and is in need of structural reform. And it’s great to have a chance to hear those views. And these are arguments that part of them are related to the composition of the board that these are decisions for the government and parliament often, rather than for the bank itself. And so, you need some kind of external review to evaluate this widespread argument.

Gene Tunny  09:53

Yeah, I think they’re good points. Peter, can ask you about that inflation target of 2 to 3%. Now, there could be two possibilities couldn’t there? It could be that either the 2 to 3% target doesn’t make sense, or we should review that target; we should, maybe we could downgrade it or just set it at 2% or have it at 1 to 2%? Or another possibility is the Reserve Bank; I mean, it was derelicting its duty. So, is that right? There are two possibilities there, there could be; and this is why a review would be desirable because you’d either look at the appropriateness of the target, and also whether the Reserve Bank is actually doing what it would need to do to achieve that target.

Peter Tulip  10:36

Correct. So, the reviews that other Central banks have had, often have had a strong focus on the specification of the targets. And that should be part of this review. And there are many people that would prefer a different target to the 3%. There are some people who think the inflation target should be lower, there are some people who think it should be higher. There are respectable arguments for both that the review should be considering. And that should be an important part. In my view, those arguments are really secondary, oh sorry, I should also say, there are other people who want to target a different objective completely, such as nominal income. And we’ll talk about that later on. 

In my view, those arguments are really secondary. That for most of the past decade, the bank has not been hitting its targets, it hasn’t even been trying to hit them. So, it’s a bit pointless specifying worrying about how you exactly define the target. If the bank isn’t just going to ignore. The most important question is governance, and how can we change the incentives of the RBA so that it actually does hit the targets it’s given? And you need to get that right before you worry about what that target actually is.

Gene Tunny  12:04

Okay, a bit of follow up on that. Peter, you’re saying that it hasn’t even been trying to achieve those targets?

Peter Tulip  12:11

Sorry, I’m wording that too strongly. You’re right.

Gene Tunny  12:13

I think I understand the point you’re making. I want to just explore that a bit. 

Peter Tulip  12:18

Can I give you an example? 

Gene Tunny  

Yes, please.

Peter Tulip  

So, in November 2019, just before the pandemic came along, the Reserve Bank issued a set of forecasts, and it had underlying inflation staying outside the target range for the whole horizon. And it had unemployment exceeding the bank system, it’s a full employment for the whole horizon. 

Gene Tunny  

So, inflation was below 2%?

Peter Tulip  

Yeah. Unemployment was I think, being forecasted 5% or higher, varying depending on the horizon. And despite what you would think is an obviously unsatisfactory outlook. The Reserve Bank didn’t change interest rates, either at that November meeting or subsequent meetings until the pandemic came along. And it did so because it was worrying about other things, in particular, financial stability. So, there was a disregard, or at least down weighting the bank statutory responsibilities in the legislation that says, the objectives stability of the currency, which we interpret is 2 to 3% inflation, and full employment, which we would interpret now as the preferred terming, that other Central banks uses, maximum sustainable employment, which were estimated about four and a half percent. So, there was a down weighting of those objectives in favor of this new objective that the bank invented about indebtedness, and we’ll talk about that later on too.

Gene Tunny  14:01

Okay, so shouldn’t central bank be concerned about indebtedness and the related issue of financial stability? I mean, that’s ultimately what they’re concerned about, isn’t it that if they’re worried that monetary policy, if it’s too loose, if it’s too accommodative, then households could take on too much debt and then get into trouble at a later date and that could have adverse economic consequences.

Peter Tulip  14:28

Sure. So, we know from the global financial crisis, that if your banks start failing, then it’s catastrophic for the economy. Australia had a similar experience in; when was it? In the early 1990s. When several of our small banks failed and some of our big banks came close. And again, that that was one of the worst recessions Australia’s had in living memory. So, yes, financial stability matters a huge amount. The question is how you deal with that? And what’s the appropriate instrument for that? And there’s a very large volume of research saying that it’s not interest rates or monetary policy, it’s prudential policy. And they were in particular, about the capital requirements that banks are required to have. And the way to avoid a repetition of the GFC is not to put 270,000 people unemployed, is to raise your capital requirements. So that if in the event of losses, banks making losses on their loans, banks have sufficient equity to cover that. And so, the important objective is, yes, we do very much want to avoid a repetition of the GFC. The way to do that is with high capital requirements.

Gene Tunny  16:04

This 270,000 jobs number Peter, is this from an analysis by, is it Andrew Lee and?

Peter Tulip  16:15

And Isaac Gross. So, Andrew Lee is now an assistant Treasurer, he’s a government minister. And Isaac Gross is an academician at Monash University of Economists. And they, just recently, published a paper in the economic record, which you were referring to before. That’s the journal that Renee A. Fry-McKibben edits. Where they found that, yes, the reserve bank kept interest rates too high, between 2016 and 2019. And because of these worries about debt, and because of that, unemployment was 270,000, higher than it should have been.

Gene Tunny  17:08

Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, I’ll take the point there about; if you do run that simulation, and I think they use the Reserve Bank’s own macro-economic model Martin, I think they’d call it. And so, look, yeah, good point. I mean, if I were on the board, I’m probably one of those who wouldn’t have minded them having kept the rates where they are. I probably wouldn’t have supported cutting them, as that model would suggest, given that I would have those concerns about financial stability. But I do recognize that there are a variety of views. And I’ve been interested to learn about that literature that you’ve written about, and also Steve Kirschner talked about when I spoke with him on nominal GDP targeting. And I want to have a closer look at that. 

Peter Tulip  18:00

I’m happy to argue the merits of that particular argument further if you want, but what’s maybe a more important point to make here is that the process was bad. Yes, the bank never really explained or defended its position in public, that there seems to have been a real lack of scrutiny of the decision. So, there are people such as yourself, who were sympathetic to what the bank did. But those arguments, I would say, the large majority of expert opinion is on the other side, which is that you should regulate these considerations with prudential policy, not with monetary policy, that the most direct instrument is almost always the most efficient, and involves the least collateral damage? Yeah. 

And even though, a majority of expert opinion in a majority of other central banks were explicitly opposed to the bank, there was no real defense of that position in the bank’s documentation. Beyond a few brief sentences. The bank never quantified its concerns, was never actually very precise, even about whether it was really worried about the level or the growth rate of indebtedness. It didn’t even say what; no discussion of what’s the best way to measure this, no real clear discussion of the consequences of this. But maybe even more important, even though most expert opinion was against the bank, there was no; counter arguments were never addressed. 

So, in the paper I wrote that earlier this year, I mentioned another half a dozen arguments against the bank’s focus on indebtedness, any one of which I think would be fatal. And none of these were publicly addressed. Just to give one, a lot of research studies find that low interest rates don’t actually have almost negligible effect on indebtedness, that the debt to GDP ratio has a numerator and a denominator. And low interest rates will encourage both. And a lot of research says that actually, you have a bigger effect on GDP than you do on the debt. So, low interest rates have a greater effect on the capacity to repay, or to bear a burden than on the actual burden itself. Insofar as what the bank was doing, it was counterproductive. And there are more arguments and people; rather than going through succession of arguments on it. Yeah, actually, this is the paper. It’s called structural reform of the Reserve Bank of Australia. I mentioned a lot of further reasons as to why the bank was wrong in targeting indebtedness at the expense of its core objectives.

Gene Tunny  21:35

Yeah. I’ll put a link in the show notes to that paper for sure. Peter, in fact, I’ve got it in front of me, it’s a Centre for Independent Studies analysis paper, 36, April 2022. And in that paper, I mean, you, I mean, it’s Frank and fearless for sure. You’re someone who used to work at the bank. And you’ve probably still got a lot of friends there at the bank. But you mentioned or you talked about their poor communication and poor process. Now, I mean, you’re talking about that before. What do they need to do better? How do we improve it? I’m guessing this would be one of your hopes for what the review recommends. But how do we improve the process in the communication?

Peter Tulip  22:27

So, let’s start with this particular issue, the bank needs to fully explain itself, that it needs to outline the pros and cons of its arguments and address obvious counter arguments. And preferably, if something is important, you need to say what’s the evidence, both consistent with the bank’s position and how do we address evidence that people think weakens the position? And some kind of quantification of these effects is, well, I mean, some of these things can be measured, and there is substantial research on aspects of this question. And that really needs to be discussed and its relevance to policy explained. 

So, that’s dealing with one specific error, and why that’s important, is, unless you do that, mistakes will happen. And so, regardless of your position, on this particular question of indebtedness, the process was clearly flawed. That if you keep making big decisions that slip hundreds of thousands of people out of work, without a full, open public discussion, sometimes you’re going to make mistakes. And when you make mistakes, they will persist. An open discussion is the best antidote to making serious mistakes. Because this was not just a one off, the bank has a record of very controversial decisions that run counter to mainstream economics. For example, Warwick McKibbin, we mentioned earlier, was pushed out of the bank when he objected to its policy. This is back in the late 80s, early 90s of targeting the current account deficit. The bank had interest rates far too high, because it was worried about the current account deficit. Warwick McKibbin said that that was wrong. And essentially, he was told he wasn’t welcome. So, he left.

So, this is a cultural problem within the bank, its resistance to criticism and to scrutiny, even internal scrutiny.

Gene Tunny  25:09

Peter, can I just ask what are they doing now? So, at the moment, they do publish; there’s a decision, there’s a monetary policy decision every month regarding what they do with the cash rate, there’s a page or so of, you know, discussion of where the economy’s at and some sort of; all they make clear what their decision is, you’d like to think there’s some logical connection with their analysis of the economy in that decision. The governor does make himself available to give speeches, he appears that I mean, parliamentary committees, from time to time. So, what more needs to be done? And are there any examples around the world of how it’s done better?

Peter Tulip  25:54

Yeah, I think most Central banks are clearer and more transparent than the RBA. Where it matters most is in reasons better decision. So, where transparency, I think is most necessary is for the banks to say why it made a decision, and why its choice was preferable to alternatives. So, for example, at the moment, the bank with the rising rates, the market expects to be going up about 50 basis points a month, the next few months. It would be very useful, in fact, I think it’s necessary for the bank to say, what would be the consequences of alternative choices? Suppose interest rates were to rise slower, and interest rates could rise higher, and what would be the unemployment and inflation consequences of those alternatives? My guess is that a faster path of increases would give us lower inflation and higher unemployment, in both cases, bringing those variables closer to the bank’s targets. 

So, why is that not the preferred choice? That strikes me as the central requirement for transparency, explaining why you’re not doing something different, and the bank doesn’t really do that. It certainly doesn’t quantify it. But other central banks do. The Federal Reserve, the Risk bank are prominent examples. I mean, all it takes is just a little four panel chart to show; again, this is the Goldilocks path in the middle, and this is too high and this is too low. And these are the consequences and we pick the path, the Goldilocks path with the best outcomes. Other central banks do that as a matter of routine, so should the RBA.

Gene Tunny  28:05

Right, so you’re talking about the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England? Okay. 

Peter Tulip  28:09

The Bank of England does it in a slightly different way with scenario analysis. That would not be my preferred model. Either the Riksbank or the Fed approaches, or just very clearly convey the central issues in the monetary policy position.

Gene Tunny  28:27

Yeah. In preparing for our chat, Peter, one thing I noticed was a review that was done of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee by Kevin Walsh, 2014. Actually, I may have learned about that from you. I’m trying to, I can’t remember exactly, but I thought that was very good. If I’m reading one of his tables correctly, it does suggest that we have very low transparency here in Australia relative to those other countries. I think that’s.

Peter Tulip  28:57

So, about Kevin Walsh, he used to be a governor of the Federal Reserve and went to the Bank of England. This is an example of the kind of external reviews we were talking about, specifically to review their processes for transparency and openness. And it ended and it’s a very good thoughtful report, and anyone interested in that issue, I strongly recommend it. As part of his review, he looked up the Central bank practices and then yeah, the RBA was terrible. And the RBA is partly rectified. It as been more opened since that report was done. And in particular one, one of his glaring findings was that Australia was the only country he looked at where the Central bank didn’t give regular press conferences and and other countries find that a very useful way of explaining that as decision, and in particular, having important decisions challenged and defended. But since then, Philip Lowe has started getting press conferences, so, that’s a great thing. I’d still like them to be more frequent. He only does them occasionally, I would think you should do them, at least quarterly.,

Gene Tunny  30:34

Yeah. They certainly need to improve their communication. I’ll have to think myself about what that would best look like. I quite like the idea of having scenarios or having different, you know, looking at what different policy parts could mean for inflation and unemployment, but also being honest about what’s the uncertainty around that. And I mean, one of the things that our Governor, Philip Lowe has got into trouble for in the last few months is just the fact that their forecasts appear to have been just so bad. Perhaps, if they’re more honest about just how unreliable economic forecasts can be, given that the economy is hit by shocks all the time, and I mean, we’re not even sure we’re properly modelling the underlying mechanisms. Perhaps that would have; he would be held in high regard now. But everyone’s mad at him because he was, people were taking his word for it, that interest rates would stay where they were until 2024. And so, he’s in a heap of trouble now.

Peter Tulip  31:37

If I can comment on that. So, I think people exaggerate how bad these forecast errors were, and in particular, their relevance to the review. You have to remember that Jim Chalmers came out in support of a review of the RBA, over a year ago. So, before inflation took off, in fact, back a year ago, inflation was below the target. So, what’s happened? There are these unusually large forecast errors, but they’re not the reason we’re having a review. And forecasting is difficult, and in particular, if you’re forecasting in the middle of a pandemic that you’ve never been through before, you’ve got no historical experience to go by. And as it turned out, vaccines came on stream very much quicker than expected. And they worked much better than they’re expected. And the RBA got that wrong. You know what, no one can forecast accurately. I’ll be impressed with criticisms about the bank’s forecast record from people who actually do forecasts better than the bank. Hearing a lot of criticisms that we’re forecasting for people that don’t actually present forecasts themselves makes me roll my eyes a bit. Yeah, fair point. And the bank will always make forecast errors. And it has processes to improve its forecast performance and it does reviews of its models and this and the databases and things like that. The review will probably look at that. I’ve actually been involved in that process. I don’t see great scope for change or even questioning what the bank is doing there.

Gene Tunny  33:48

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Gene Tunny  34:22

Now back to the show. 

Okay, can I ask you about this transparency, like how we improve that? One of the suggestions that came from a panel member at the conference of economists last week when we’re in Hobart, you were there? I can’t remember. Sorry, Peter, were you in that session? You were in that session, weren’t you? There was that recommendation that I forgot who made it. But that part of members of the board of the Reserve Bank that their deliberations or their decisions are published or someone’s got a dissenting opinion that’s published. So, we get more communication from the board members. And so, we understand that there is a difference of views and that could help the public understand the deliberations and realise that the Reserve Bank isn’t this all-seeing, all-knowing entity that’s fully in command, or maybe that’s the wrong way of putting it. But maybe that would make people realise that they’re human, and mistakes can be made. And so, when we have a governor who says, oh, interest rates will remain this, at this level until 2024, we should realise, well, he’s talking about based on these assumptions. I mean, you can never guarantee anything. But what do you think about that idea of having more information about what different board members are thinking?

Peter Tulip  35:51

I think that’s a great idea, partly to improve the incentives have individual board members, that individual board members should be accountable for their decisions. And at the moment, there isn’t any individual accountability, these decisions are presented as decisions of the board. And so, I think there’s no incentive for a board member to say, I think this decision is wrong. The research says opposite. We need to pursue an alternative course of action. So, partly, there’s inadequate challenge within the board process, as and as a result, less need for the bank to defend itself. But also, it means the public is not brought into these highly consequential debates and decisions. And that would improve things. And where a board is divided on a particular course of action or a particular piece of analysis, this is where external research and external opinions are most valuable. But no one knows that. So, people talk about monetary policy, including you and me, but we’ve got no idea whether we’re talking about something that the board regards has completely settled, or as a 50-50 decision. And so, a lot of what we say is not relevant. And there are big questions on which further evidence would be useful. That we don’t know about.

Gene Tunny  37:30

Right. On the members of the board, you’ve been quite prominent in the media recently, and in the commentary on this RBA review, you’ve made the point that the level of expertise of board members is not really where it should be. I mean, obviously, there are some that have the expertise. But are you arguing for more economists on the board rather than business people? Is that correct?

Peter Tulip  38:01

Yes. And to be precise, more monetary policy experts. And this would be my number one recommendation for reform of the RBA. We talked earlier about the bank making mistakes, the first place that they should be caught and challenged is at the board level. But at the moment, the board seems to be operating as a rubber stamp for the governor, and that’s not good. I mean, so Phil Lowe is a very talented economist who gets lots of things right. But he is human and he’s just one person and he makes mistakes. You’ll have you will have fewer mistakes, if the decisions were instead, made by a committee of experts.

Gene Tunny  39:04

And is that what they’ve got in the States or in England or in or in the UK?

Peter Tulip  39:09

Yeah. So, I mean, that’s an interesting comparison. So, in 1959, when the RBA board was being set up, it was actually common to have non economists making monetary policy decisions. But since then, other Central banks have decided these are technical questions on which research is relevant and needs to be apply. So, they’ve moved to monetary policy committees, overwhelming, really comprised with monetary policy experts. Actually, it’s not just experts, but they have some of the leading economists in the world on monetary policy, sitting on their monetary policy committee. These the people that wrote the textbooks I learned my monetary policy from are often on the FOMC, or the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. So, whereas other countries have stars making their monetary policy decisions, we have part-time amateurs.

Gene Tunny  40:19

Yeah. Well look at who’s been the Federal Reserve Bank Governor in the US. You’ve had Ben Bernanke. You’ve had, I mean, he’s made huge contributions to macroeconomics. Janet Yellen.

Peter Tulip  40:33

The deputy of Stanley Fischer.

Gene Tunny  40:35

Right. And he’s the person who wrote the textbook;

Peter Tulip  40:39

And Bernanke and Frederick Michigan. Yeah, they’ve written textbooks on how to do monetary policy.

Gene Tunny  40:48

Okay. Yeah, good point. That’s a very good point,

Peter Tulip  40:52

Let’s say a bit more about the composition of the board. So, there are two parts of it, you would get better decisions with more experts on the board. And it’s just like, any other technical decision being made by a government bodies on immunisation or building a bridge or whatever you want. You don’t want business leaders making these decisions, you want experts in the field. Within that, you want a diversity of views. So, you want a mix of hawks and doves, for example, some empirical people, some theoretical people. Instead of that diversity of expertise, sorry, that diversity of views, we have a diversity of expertise, that there are some members of the board that are capable of challenging the governor, but most are not. And that results in groupthink and status quo bias and other flaws in decision making that we see in our monetary policy decision.

Gene Tunny  41:59

Yeah. So, look, I agree with you on that, Peter. And I think the government will find it, I mean, I don’t think that I’ll accept a recommendation along those lines, unfortunately. They’ll probably want to have a trade union member on the board. I think there’s going to be a push for that. Some people pushing for, let’s have a regional representative on the board. I mean, I don’t necessarily think we should be selecting people for the board for that reason. But what you’re going to have is, you’re going to have; there are people who are sceptical of experts, because there’s this general view out there now in western economies, that look, experts have led us down. And you know, people are upset about things that happened during the pandemic, and even before then. So, there’s a larger scepticism about experts. And there’s this issue of democracy, isn’t there? I mean, so, there could be an objection. Well, we don’t want all these technocrats running things. We think there should be some democratic element there. But then I think the issue there is that if you don’t have an independent Central bank, then you get worse inflation outcomes.

Peter Tulip  43:15

See, you’re raising several issues there, Gene. So, think about the other big important decisions that have been made in the news lately. I’m going to say public health. Do you want doctors and Epidemiologists making decisions on whether vaccines are approved? Or do you want business leaders?

Gene Tunny  43:36

I want the doctors and the Epidemiologists for sure. 

Peter Tulip  43:41

If a bridge is being built, you want that decision to be made by engineers or by business people? I mean, so in other areas, government policy, we rely exclusively on people that prompt eminent experts with technical expertise, and monetary policy is the same. It used to be that the values of monetary policy and even the objectives were vague and not clearly decided. And so, the board had a lot of discretion as to why monetary policy should be set but that’s no longer the case. Central bank has moved to a world of clearly defined objectives, essentially set by the government by the elected representatives. So, they decide that the objectives of the RBA are full employment and inflation of 2% to 3%. And it then becomes a technical question as to how to best achieve that, and that’s the decision that should be made in the national interest. It should not be made by representatives of sectional interests. Excellent point. And this interacts with the other recommendation we’re talking before about public votes. 

So, if you have a representative of say, the mining industry or the agricultural industry; industries that are heavily exposed to the exchange rate, do you want them making decisions that affect the exchange rate for the national interest or that will affect their sectional interests? I mean, if it’s the sectional interest one, they’ll always be voting for lower interest rates, and a depreciation of the exchange rate, and their constituencies will be expecting and demanding that. So, if you do have so called sectional interests, but you want the vote to be a national interest, you would need to keep the votes private. And this is an unusual way of dealing with a conflict of interest. Normally, we think conflicts of interest are best dealt with by transparency, not by secrecy.

Gene Tunny  45:58

Okay, what about the banks themselves, the staff on the banks themselves? Do you have views on how our reserve bank, how it compares with its peers with the Federal Reserve or Bank of England in terms of its ability to analyse the economy and to provide the advice to the board?

Peter Tulip  46:20

Yes. So, as background to that, before I worked at the Reserve Bank, I worked with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, I was on the staff there for 11 years. I also worked at the OECD, on monetary policy, going on around the world talking to Central bankers about how they were sitting, making their decisions. And so it’s interesting, I mean, that background shows real differences in character and culture between different Central banks. I mean, have you noticed that just in government departments, different cultures, but even with Central banks, where they’re technically doing the same decision from different countries, they vary enormously. The RBA tends to be much less interested in research, and much less interested in technical modelling than other Central banks. And most clearly, with the Fed where the Fed has 400 PhDs on his staff, essentially putting together its forecast. The RBA has a very different human capital model, where academic qualifications and less important promotion and research is not ending, external research is not expected of most staff. And again, that is something that the review could look at a lot of people. I mean, there are differences on views as to whether that’s appropriate, and reflects lots of reasons that I mean, culture and history is a lot of it.

Gene Tunny  48:08

Yeah. So, your big recommendations for this review, or what you hope to get out of this review, improvements in transparency and communication.

Peter Tulip  48:18

Can I list them in order? Yes, please. 

Number one, we want more monetary policy experts on the board. 

Number two, we want those members to be individually accountable. That means public votes and public explanations of decisions. 

And third, the bank needs to be more open and transparent. And in particular, needs to do clear reasons for its decisions, and why alternatives are not taken. They would be my three main recommendations.

Gene Tunny  48:53

Okay. So, no changes to the inflation targeting regime, this flexible inflation targeting regime they talk about?

Peter Tulip  49:00

That’s why I have views on that. But as I said before, I think they’re secondary. So, the main changes I would make is, first of all, every time there’s a change in government or change in governor, there’s a new agreement between the bank and the government called the agreement on the statement of conduct of monetary policy. And that is where the target is specified in detail, which I think is appropriate. Currently, that says the main objective of the bank is inflation 2 to 3%. In my view, it should also specify full employment, or to be precise, maximum sustainable employment as an objective of equal status to the inflation rate. So, in legislation, the bank has a dual mandate that’s not reflected in the agreement on the statement of conduct and I think that causes a lot of confusion. People think that when people read the bank’s explanations of what it does, they often think that the bank is an inflation nutter. Which it’s not, it takes its unemployment objective very seriously. And it does it in this vague way, because flexible, inflation targeting, which should be specific about what flexibility is required and what isn’t. There would be other changes, but that would be the main one I would make.

Gene Tunny  50:31

Do you think there’ll be any changes to that framework? There seems to be a view from the RBA, and I guess from others that the inflation targeting approach seems to have worked pretty well in keeping inflation low over the last few decades, I mean, you mentioned, there is that issue of the times it might have meant we had higher unemployment than otherwise.

Peter Tulip  50:56

No, that was because they abandoned their inflation target. They had inflation too low, accompanied by excess unemployment, you would have sold both of those problems with lower interest rates. It didn’t do that, because it did invent this other objective of indebtedness that it should not have done. And it certainly shouldn’t have done it without a more open, transparent and accountable process. So, I think the main proposal for a change in the framework is for nominal income targeting, which Warwick McKibbin and Steve Kirschner and numerous other monetary policy experts think would be preferable. I think that’s a minority position. And I think you’re right, that the consensus of informed opinion doesn’t think that the framework needs to change much. I mean, I think there are some minor tweaks that shouldn’t be implemented. 

Nominal income targeting is not popular, partly because no other Central bank does it. So, there’s no example to show that it works. And the RBA is not a pace setter in these things. It’s a follower, not a leader, which is useful in a lot of ways. But also, the American literature on nominal GDP targeting some phrases in terms of nominal GDP targeting, which would just be inappropriate for Australia, because we have such volatile terms of trade. And we don’t want monetary policy being jerked around to target the coal price. Which just would mean big dislocations for most households. Not much apparent benefit.

Gene Tunny  53:02

Yeah. There seem to be some recognition of that in that panel discussion in;

Peter Tulip  53:08

So, Warwick McKibbin has said, you would target a slightly different variable, maybe some measure of nominal income. And that makes more sense. Warwick keeps contrasting his arguments for nominal income targeting with inflation targeting, which is what the bank says it is that it’s not what the bank is, in practice. In practice, the bank has a dual mandate. And we’re its main argument, as I take it is that inflation targeting is wrong, because activity is an appropriate objective of the Central bank and being explicit about the dual mandate would avoid that confusion.

Gene Tunny  53:50

Yeah. Okay. I’m just thinking about the tweaks; one tweak that seems clear to me that needs to be made is clarification on this point about what do you do about indebtedness? So, one way or the other, make that clear. Is the bank targeting financial stability or not?

Peter Tulip  54:09

And in my view, I mean, it’s the bank as an institution needs to worry about financial stability, but primarily, it should be dealt with, with prudential policy, not monetary policy.

Gene Tunny  54:23

And by that, you mean the Prudential Regulation Authority, which is looking at the banks and, you know, in looking at their balance sheets and making sure that they don’t make a bunch of risky loans.

Peter Tulip  54:34

Well, the nature of banking is you make risky loans. The big question is whether you’ve got an equity buffer to deal with those risky loans in the event that they all go sour at once. I mean, there are arguments about lending controls. That’s another controversial argument. But for this review, what’s going to be relevant is the status of financial stability within monetary policy. And in my view, I liked the wording. I think it was the 2009 agreement that the government had with the RBA, which said financial stability is an objective of the RBA, but it’s secondary, it’s subordinate to the core objectives. Or it should be said to be subordinate to the core objectives of full employment and stable inflation.

Gene Tunny  55:39

Okay. I’ll look that up and put in the show notes. Right, Peter, that’s been great. I mean, there are so many other aspects of this, I guess we could explore but we’ll probably have to wrap up because you’ve been generous with your time so far. Any final thoughts before we go? Anything we missed that you think is important to convey?

Peter Tulip  55:58

Oh no. I think it’s been good discussion of the key points. People who do want more, again, a lot of it is in my earlier paper.

Gene Tunny  56:11

Yes. You’ve been incredibly influential on this, Peter. So, well done. I saw you on ABC the other day, and it’s terrific that you’ve had this impact. And let’s say we get a really high-quality review with some recommendations that improve monetary policy in the future. 

Peter Tulip  56:34

Thanks for that, Gene. That’s great.

Gene Tunny  56:35

Pleasure. Thanks, Peter.

Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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