Liam Dann: Why higher interest rates will be a big relief

OPINION:

Even though it is going to hit me in the back pocket, I feel a sense of relief that interest rates are rising.

That’s not because I’m especially worried about inflation.

I’m in favour of doing what’s needed to keep it in check, but I’m increasingly of the view that the worst of it will pass through as the global supply chain un-knots itself and the New Zealand economy settles down from pandemic weirdness.

My relief is not because higher rates might finally cool the housing market, either. Although that would be nice.

My favourite thing about higher interest rates is the safety-net they provide if the global financial system crashes … again.

Monetary policy stimulus should be something for special occasions – a shot of adrenaline for economies when they are in trouble.

It has proved a powerful tool.

But when you get addicted to anything you adapt to it. It stops having any special effect and its power is diminished.

So it’s good news that New Zealand is setting out on a path back to some kind of historic norm for interest rates.

Last week, the Reserve Bank hiked the official cash rate for the second time in two months, this time to 0.75 per cent, and forecast at least another seven hikes.

That would take the OCR to around 2.5 per cent by the middle of 2023.

Based on current margins that probably means mortgage rates north of 6 per cent.

Contrast that with Australia, where the Reserve Bank this month held the cash rate at a record low of 0.1 and stuck fast to projections which forecast no hikes before 2024.

Given the double whammy of inflation pressure – from global forces and the domestic economic recovery – almost nobody believes Australian rates will be on hold for that long.

But regardless, New Zealand is clearly well ahead of the global pack.

That’s going to feel tough, kind of like resistance training.

If our economic rebound slows next year, people are going to look across the Tasman and wonder why we’re so far ahead on interest rates.

That’s one of the reasons I don’t think we need to be panicking and leaping ahead with double rate hikes of 50 basis points.

There’s a risk that if we don’t follow a very clear and measured pace, some people will be caught out with debts they can no longer afford to service.

Traditionally, some of the most vulnerable to these kind of shocks have been property developers.

The last thing we want to do in this country is engineer an abrupt halt to the construction boom which is just starting to address the supply side issues in the housing market.

I’m of the view that a steady, well-signalled policy approach is preferable in economics.

Creating a fair and stable platform that allows people to plan and do things that create wealth; that’s whole the whole point of this policy stuff.

We got that on Wednesday from the RBNZ.

Some economists think that the forecast rate track is optimistic and our economic growth will slow before rates get that high.

Others worry more about inflation getting embedded and fear we’ll need to lift rates higher or faster.

That’s all part of the central bank balancing act and I think the RBNZ has left room to adjust policy as needed in either direction.

The wild-card would be another external shock – like a global market meltdown – that upends the narrative.

Central banks don’t tend to use the fear of an external shock as a specific reason for hiking rates.

They have to play what’s in front of them.

That is to say, they work with the data they have and extrapolate likely scenarios from there.

They can’t make assumptions about the timing of external shocks.

I won’t make assumptions about the timing of the next crash, either.

But I do fear there are risks building as the big players, like the US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank, try to pull back on monetary policy stimulus, raise rates and bring things back to normal.

All that global debt creates a lot of high-flammable fuel for the next major crisis.

What will the spark be?

Weird, wild west markets like cryptocurrencies and NFTs worry me.

Maybe that’s just because I’m old and I don’t understand them.

But even if we concede that they may have some social value and utility beyond speculative investment (and I don’t yet), that doesn’t mean they aren’t in dangerous bubble territory.

The internet turned out to be useful enough but we still had a dot.com bubble and a tech wreck at the turn of the millennium.

Or maybe the spark will be that old faithful, a property market meltdown

We’ve seen already this year how exposed China’s markets are to property sector crashes.

Whatever it is, history tells us it’s coming.

Hopefully not for a few more years, so the world can emerge from the shadow of Covid.

But unless we get another five or more years of stability, New Zealand will be caught running relatively high levels of Crown debt.

That means there will be less capacity for the government to bail us out.

We’ll be more reliant than ever on monetary policy to stimulate growth.

I’m not keen on the austerity required to get government debt back down much faster than already projected.

So I’ll take gladly my interest rate medicine.

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