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16 Jun 2023 - Hedge Clippings | 16 June 2023



Hedge Clippings | 16 June 2023

Inflation: No Pain, No Gain.

Paul Keating will long be remembered for his "recession we had to have" comment, made way back in 1990. The self-styled "World's Greatest Treasurer" embraced the attention the comment gave him at the time, and has frequently dined out on it ever since. 33 years later we're back to facing another recession - with a number of leading business figures this week putting the chances at 50:50. Anecdotal evidence indicates that sections of the economy, and/or the community, are closer than others (if not there already), but meanwhile we're still treading the "narrow path" that Philip Lowe is trying to take the economy down, inflicting economic pain to achieve an inflationary gain.

The causes - and hopefully the effects - of the 1990's recession and today's recession - or should that be tomorrow's - are quite different, although there are some parallels. The excesses of the '80's led to the crash of '87, which flowed to Australia, as did high inflation. By 1992 unemployment was 11 per cent, and mortgage rates topped 17%. This time around, we're still hostage to global tides and currents, and as such the economic after-effects of the GFC, QE, COVID, and Ukraine, but we are thankfully a long way from approaching the levels of 1992.

Where Keating was keen to deflect responsibility (nothing's changed!) even to the extent of implying he should be given the credit, this time around all the criticism has been directed at Philip Lowe thanks to his forward guidance in March 2020 that rates, then at an unprecedented level of 0.1%, would remain there for an "extended period". In November of that year, in an attempt to stimulate an economy he's now trying to cool, he defined that period as "at least three years". In February 2021, he made his now famous prediction that the RBA's expectation was that rates would "not increase until 2024 at the earliest".

While all the finger pointing is going on, and with the benefit of hindsight, let's remember the timeline: In March 2020, when Lowe's forward guidance mentioned an "extended period" of low rates, COVID-19 had just emerged. Later that month the government declared a state of emergency, 14 day quarantines, and a national lockdown. In NSW, indoor and outdoor gatherings were limited to two people. In July 2020, Victoria commenced a 16 week lockdown.

Consequently in the June quarter of 2020, GDP fell 6.7%, then rebounded in the following four quarters, before falling 2.1% in September 2021.

The RBA's targeted inflation band was (and remains) 2-3%. In December 2020 inflation came in at just 0.09%, resulting in the RBA's February 2021 guidance that "the Board will not increase the cash rate until actual inflation is sustainably within the 2 to 3% target range". At that stage inflation had not been above 2% for more than one quarter since September 2014, and by June 2020 it had dipped -0.3%.

Lowe and the RBA Board undoubtedly misjudged the post COVID rebound, and can be excused for not foreseeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, but two things emerge: Firstly, for the previous six or seven years they had been battling LOW inflation, and particularly given COVID, they were keen, or possibly desperate, to stimulate the economy. Secondly, fellow central bankers around the world made the same mistakes. However, Lowe is on the outer, particularly with Chalmers, who unlike Keating in 1990, is looking for a scapegoat.

So where to now? Earlier this week the Federal Reserve held US rates steady for the first time in a year, despite projecting that inflation will persist, leaving their options open to move rates higher going forward. In Australia, May's unemployment level fell back to 3.6%, contradicting the weak March GDP number of 0.2%, the weakest result since September 2021.  

The strong employment numbers re-inforced expectations for further rate rises in July, and possibly again before the end of the year. July's RBA decision will rest heavily on yesterday's numbers prior to the release of the June CPI figure, not due for release until 26th of July. As for the technical confirmation of a recession, or otherwise, that won't be known until early December when the September quarter's GDP result is announced.

By that time Australia's economic journey down the "narrow path" will have been confirmed, along with Philip Lowe's walk down a wooden plank.

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