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BFCSA: RBA governor Glenn Stevens presses for difficult policy decisions

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RBA governor Glenn Stevens presses for difficult policy decisions

Australian Financial Review Apr 20 2016 12:39 PM

John Kehoe


Reserve Bank of Australia governor Glenn Stevens has urged political leaders to adopt the country's economic reform playbook of the 1980s and 90s, by educating the community on why difficult policy changes are necessary and relentlessly prosecuting the case.

After warning in a set speech that easy money policies of central banks were reaching their limits, Mr Stevens called on governments around the world to take more responsibility for reviving growth, including through sound infrastructure investments financed by ultra low borrowing costs.

Responding to questions from investors in New York, the governor invoked the economic reform success of Australia in past decades, to encourage politicians to pursue tough policies to boost weak productivity and living standards.

"In my limited experience, countries that have had successful reform, I think it's a combination of the recognition that there really isn't any choice – we have to do it, and a leader or a group of leaders who can articulate why that's so and say 'I've got a plan, and the plan will work, follow me'," Mr Stevens said.

"In my own country, I think back in the 80s and 90s was an example, and we're not the only one, but we were a case where a strong leadership, who had an idea what to do and who seized the moment and got the community, albeit in some cases a bit grudgingly, to come along."

"That was successful."

The Bob Hawke and Paul Keating Labor governments in the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by the John Howard-led Coalition government in the latter 1990s, reformed the tax system, slashed tariffs, floated the currency, privatised public assets, exposed protected industries to competition, increased labour market flexibility and deregulated the financial system.

The sweeping reforms are often lauded by economists for underpinning 24 years of unbroken economic growth.

Mr Stevens, who was speaking in an international context at the Credit Suisse conference, said it would be "very disappointing" if politicians around the world were unable to pursue similar bold reforms.

He implored politicians to champion the need for reform, rather than relying on ultra loose monetary policy to revive growth.

"The appetite in communities may not be strong, but they mightn't be being told the full degree of necessity, and they certainly need to be," he said.

The comments coincide with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unofficially kicking off the federal election campaign and arguing he was better placed than opposition leader Bill Shorten to manage the economic transition away from mining to other industries.

Business groups and economists, however, remain frustrated that neither side of politics is so far embarking on the type of big economic reforms to tax and industrial relations, that Mr Stevens hinted may be needed.

The governor was cautious to avoid being overly prescriptive in the type of optimal policies. One example he suggested was not to "slow down the re-allocation of capital from old industries to new ones".

Locally, that could be applied to not subsidising the car making sector or local steel industry, which are struggling against cheaper imports.

Globally, the economy is stuck in a low growth rut. The International Monetary Fund this month downgraded its 2016 global growth forecast to a sluggish 3.2 per cent and warned of downside risks from collapsing emerging market currencies, the low oil price, a China slowdown and rising geopolitical instability.

The IMF called for an "immediate and proactive" response from governments and central banks.

Earlier in his speech, Mr Stevens cautioned against calls for central banks to directly pump cash into the pockets of households and governments via so-called "helicopter money" drops.

"The main complication is surely that it would be a lot easier to start doing helicopter money than to stop, if history is any guide," Mr Stevens said.

Later in unscripted remarks, Mr Stevens said before such unconventional steps, governments with the debt capacity should invest in infrastructure and take advantage of very low interest rates.

"The nice thing about infrastructure is if you could do it in a proper way, it kind of helps demand but it also helps long run supply," he said.

"It's a productivity enabler for many other sectors of the economy."

"Frankly, the problems in getting infrastructure going, certainly in my country, aren't finding the money. There are other things - governance and the right project, that sort of thing."


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