Policy actions during COVID
The interest rate to near zero, set a target for the 3-year government bond yield, enhanced its forward guidance, commenced a program of purchasing government bonds, and provided long-term, low-cost funding to the banking system. I will explain each of these actions in more detail shortly. The overall aim of all these monetary policy actions has been to support economic activity in Australia through several channels. The policy actions have underpinned record-low funding costs across the financial system and for governments. Lower borrowing costs free up cash flow for households and businesses, some of which are spent. The lower interest system support the flow of credit to families and businesses.of Australia (RBA) has taken many complementary policy actions to support the Australian economy since the onset of COVID. The RBA has lowered its policy
Lower interest rates also support asset prices, boosting balance sheets, consumption, and investment. Finally, a lower structure of interest rates leads to a lower Australian dollar value than would otherwise be the case. The result is a more robust Australian economy. The policy response has evolved over the pandemic period as information about the extent of the pandemic and its economic impact has unfolded. The initial policy decisions were taken in March 2020, including an unscheduled meeting on March 18. Further measures were announced in September and November 2020 and in February 2021.
In September 2020, as the end-September deadline for the drawdown of funding under the TFF approach, the Board decided to expand the TFF to provide additional low-cost funding equivalent to 2 percent of lending in the banking system. It also decided to extend the drawdown period for this and the additional funding linked to business lending to June 2021. In October, the Board changed its forward guidance to focus on actual outcomes for inflation rather than expected outcomes in guiding its future policy decisions. At the November 2020 Board meeting, the Board decided on a further package of measures to support the economy:
- a reduction in the cash rate target, the 3-year yield target, and the interest rate on new drawings under the TFF to 10 basis points from the previous rate of 25 basis points, a reduction in the interest rate on ES balances from 10 basis points to zero
- Introducing a government bond purchase program focuses on the yield curve’s 5 to 10-year segment. The RBA would buy $100 six months, purchasing bonds issued by the Australian Government (AGS) and the Australian states and territories (semis).
The Board took this decision given the assessment that Australia was facing a prolonged period of high unemployment, and inflation was unlikely to return sustainably to the target range of 2–3 percent for at least three years. In February 2021, the Board announced that it would purchase an additional $100 billion of government bonds after the first program was completed to support the Australian economy further as it recovered. Those purchases are underway now. The policy actions taken to deliver low funding costs have had several complementary elements and have been mutually reinforcing in underpinning low-interest rates across the economy. Next, I will explain each of these actions in detail.
Policy rate reduction
The first policy action I will discuss is reducing the cash rate target. This has been the primary lever of monetary policy for more than three decades. The effect of this reduction in the cash rate on financial markets and the economy have been similar to the experience over those three decades. The decrease in the cash rate provides stimulus to the economy through several channels. When the cash rate is lowered, it reduces funding costs for the banking system, which in turn flows through to lower borrowing rates for households and businesses. These lower borrowing rates stimulate borrowing and economic activity. The lower cash rate also boosts the cash flow of existing borrowers. It supports asset prices, including housing prices, promoting household wealth and spending. In addition, it puts downward pressure on the Australian dollar, which is stimulatory for the economy.
Instances. The Board has reduced the cash rate target to what it assesses to be the effective lower bound of 10 basis points. The Board has stated that it does not see negative rates as appropriate in Australia in the current circuWhen the cash rate target is reduced, the ES rate is also reduced. I see there are at least two reasons for this. First, there is uncertainty about the efficacy of negative interest rates, including because of the negative effect on savers. Second, and at least as important, there were other actions that the Bank coulBankke to provide monetary stimulus, which we have taken. Been a different thing that is important to highlight in this episode. At the same time as the cash rate target was reduced in March and November 2020, the remuneration rate on ES balances was also reduced (Graph 1). The remuneration rate on ES balances is the RBA’s interest rate on deposits banks hold with the RBA (I will refer to it as the ES rate in the remainder of this speech). The ES rate is also reduced when the cash rate target is reduced.
Cash Market Rates
Typically, this is unimportant; it almost always equals who manages the bankisystem’sm’s accounts at the RBA. But this time around, the ES rate has much more significance. In the past, the cash rate target set by the Board was the primary anchor for money market rates and hence the whole structure of interest rates in the Australian financial system. The actual cash rate, the overnight interest rate at which banks borrow and lend their balances at the RBA, was almost always equal; to the rate target. The RBA conducted its daily market operations to keep the size of ES balances small, with minimal ‘excess liquidity in the market. Demand and supply pressures in the market invariably ensured the cash rate traded at the cash rate target each day.
Because of the policy actions, I will discuss shortly, particularly the bond purchases and the TFF, ES balances are now substantial, around $200 billion. But, the banking system has massive deposits at the RBA. There is now a large amount of liquidity in the system. Some banks still need to borrow overnight in the market to ensure their balance with the RBA remains positive, but these amounts are minimal. And there are a lot of banks with large ES balances who are willing to lend to them.
Given this balance of demand and supremely, the actual cash rate is trading just above the ES rate of zero, which is what the banks receive if thdon’tn’tthdon’tn’t lend their excess balances. The real cash rate had declined to around three basis points and has been around that level since November when the ES rate was reduced to zero. In technical terms, given a large amount of liquidity in the system due to tRBA’sA’s policy actions, the RBA is now effectively operating a floor system rather than the corridor system that had been the case for the that ast few decades. A small spread above the corridor floor reflects a small credit premium and transaction costs.
The Board had fully expected this outcome of the actual cash rate declining below the cash rate target, given the significant increase in lividity in the system. e real cash rate is still the anchor of the structure of interest rates in the Australian financial system. But the ES rate, rather than the cash rate target, is now the primary determinant of the cash rate. ES balances will remain high for several years until the funds provided to the banking system under the TFF are paid and until the government bonds the RBA has bought mature. While ES balances are at a high level, the ES balance rate will continue to be the main anchor of the cash rate.
The reduction in the cash rate target, the remuneration on ES balances, and the actual cash rate have seen all short-term interest rates in the Australian financial system decline tolevels, including the important interest rate benchmark, the Bank Bill Swap Rate (BBSW) (Graph 2). The lower BBSW rate translates directly to lower borrowing costs for the interest rates that reference it, particularly business borrowing rates. As the graph shows, the B results even further because of the availability of low-cost funding to the banking system.
Money Market Rates
In turn, these short-term interest rates, along with the low-cost funding available through the TFF, have reduced the funding costs to the banking system, resulting in large declines in household and business borrowing rates (Graph 3).
Variable Lending Rates
TRBA’sA’s policy announcements have enhanced forward guidance about tBoard’sd’s expectations for the future path of monetary policy. The forward direction describes the economic conditions the Board would be looking to see before considering raising the cash rate. That is, the advice is based on the state of the economy (in technical terms, the advice is state-based). TBoard’sd’s direction has evolved over the past year to emphasize outcomes rather than forecasts. The Board has stated that it will not increase the cash rate until actual inflation, not forecast inflation, is sustainably within the target range. In addition, it has been said this will require a lower rate of unemployment and a return to a tight labor market.
At the May Board meeting earlier this week, the Board reiterated that in its central scenario, these conditions are unlikely to be met until 2024 at the earliest. That sort of guidance is meaningful for financial market participants and economists. But many people are interested in tBank’sk’s views about how long it will be before the economy reaches these conditions. They want to know how long it will be before interest rates rise. Hence, the BBankhas Bankided a possible timeframe alongside its description of the state of the economy required before considering a rise in the cash rate. This complements the 3-year government bond yield target and has helped underpin the low-interest rates across the economy. But I would highlight that the state of the economy is the key determinant of policy settings, not the calendar.
Turning to government bond purchases have been comprised of three elements (Graph 4):
- assets to maintain the 3-year yield target
- since November 2020, the bond purchase program
- investments to address market dysfunction.
RBA Bond Purchases
Face Value: Cumulative from March 20, 2020
I will explain each of these in more detail.
Three-year yield target
From March 2020, the RBA commenced purchasing government bonds focussed on the three-year point of the yield curve. This is because, in Australia, most borrowing is at variable rates that key off the front part of the yield curve. This contrasts with other markets, such as the US, where longer-term yields are more important benchmarks for borrowing rates. The 3-year yield target has helped anchor the Australian yield curve and has had significant traction in lowering borrowing rates for households and businesses, together with the other policy measures adopted. It has also helped reinforce tRBA’sA’s forward guidance regarding the cash rate.
Characterizing the policy as a yield target, not yield curve control, is appropriate. The RBA targets one particular yield on the curve, not trying to control the angle as a whole. I will come back to this when talking about the bond purchase program. To maintain this target, the RBA has conducted auctions to buy the 3-year target bond when the yield has moved above the mark in a material and sustained way. Such purchases have been necessary on relatively few occasions. Much of the time, the market has had sufficient confidence in the sustainability of the target that the yield has been anchored close to the target, which was 25 basis points from March to November 2020, and then ten basis points (Graph 5).
Three-year Australian Government Bond Yield
In March 2021, the Board agreed that it would not consider removing the yield target completely or changing the target yield of 10 basis points when reviewing the yield target bond later in the year. Initially, the target was for the April 2023 bond maturity. Subsequently, the target was changed to the April 2024 maturity, which became the closest bond maturity to the 3-year horizon.
If the Board were to maintain the April 2024 bond as the target bond rather than move to the next bond maturity that becomes closest to the 3-year horizon, the maturity of the target would gradually decline until the bond finally matured in April 2024. The Board will consider extending thematurity at the July meeting.
In the past couple of months, while the 3-year government bond rate has remained very close to tBoard’sd’s target, the 3-year swap rate has risen relative to the 3-year government bond rate. The swap rate often trades above the government bond rate because it involves more credit risk. But the spread between the two has recently widened by around 20 basis points. In part, this reflects tmarket’st’s expectations about the future direction of monetary policy. The market is assigning some probability to the scenario that the cash rate could be higher in 2024 than tBoard’sd’s current forward guidance. This expectation is reflected in the swap rate but not the April 2024 bond rate because the BBankis eBanking bond rate remains at the target.
This move upward in the swap rate will put some upward pressure on longer-term household and business borrowing rates. But the effect is unlikely to be that large. Overall funding costs for banks remain at historic lows. Moreover, the 3-year yield target still plays a significant role in anchoring that part of the curve. If the yield targwasn’tn’ttargwasn’tn’t there, the government bond curve and swap rates would still be higher.
Bond purchase program
In November 2020, the Board announced a quantity-based bond purchase program complementary to the 3-year yield target. The Board decided to implement this policy for several reasons. Longer-term Australian Government bond yields were higher than those in other advanced countries. This proved that the size of other centrbanks’ks’ bond purchase programs affected longer-term Australian bond yields beyond the anchoring effect of tBank’sk’s 3-year yield target. This, in turn, contributed to a higher exchange rate, restraining the recovery of the Australian economy.
The bond purchase program announced in November 2020 was for the purchase of $100 billion in bonds of maturities of around 5 to 10 years over the following six months. It includes bonds of the Australian and state and territory governments, with $80 billion allocated to the Australian Government and $2Governmentmenthe state and territory governments. In February 2021, the Board announced an additional $100 billion with the same composition and rate of purchase of $5 billion weekly. The bonds are purchased in the secondary market through transparent auctions.
The Board opted not to extend the yield target to a longer horizon for several reasons. First, the yield target reinforces tBoard’sd’s forward guidance on the cash rate. Three years is a reasonable horizon over which the Board has some confidence about the economic outlook. Beyond that horizon, the economic outlook is considerably less certain, and with it, certainty about monetary policy settings. Second, further out along the yield curve, other factors influence yields more, particularly global developments. The RBA does not, and will not, directly finance governments. At the same time, the bond purchases are lowering the finance cost for governments – as is the case for all borrowers – the BBankis nBankroviding direct finance. There remains a strong separation between monetary and fiscal policy.
How do bond purchases work?
You might recall that economics textbooks used to talk about monetary policy in terms of buying and selling government bonds to control the money supply. But since the late 1980s, short-term policy interest rates rather than bond purchases to affect the money supply have generally been the primary tool of monetary policy. After the global financial crisis, bond purchases returned to the central bank toolkit in several advanced countries. When interest rates fell to their lower bound after the GFC in some economies, including the US and Europe, central banks in several economies again turned to bond purchases, often known as quantitative easing (QE), to provide additional stimulus. (Japan had been in such a position a decade earlier).
How do bond purchases work to provide a stimulus?
When the central bank buysBankond, it puts downward pressure on government bond yields. You can think of the central bank beinBank an additional buyer of government bonds in the market. More demand for government bonds increases the price of bonds and lowers bond yields. In turn, the lower bond yields flow through to lower borrowing rates for households and businesses (Figure 1). From there, the transmission is similar to the cash rate reduction I discussed earlier.
Stylized transmission mechanism
When the RBA buys a bond, it credits the account of the bBankthatBankbuys the bond from. TRBA’sA’s balance sheet gets bigger: on the asset side, there is the government bond, and on the liability side, there is the bank’s deposit in Bankform of a higher exchange settlement balance. The money supply has increased, though in electronic form rather than physical. When the bond matures, the Government repaysGovernmentment as it does any other bondholder. TRBA’sA’s balance sheet shrinks: its bond-holdings decline, and a decline matches this in exchange settlement balances.
The investor now has more money in their bank account, which does not pay them much return. The banks are generally intermediaries in this transaction. In turn, the bonds the banks sell to the RBA have probably been bought from an investor in government bonds, such as a super fund. The iThis incentivizes these investors to switch to other assets to earn a higher rate of return. This increases the price of other assets, such as equity, andfixed-income investments. The bond investor might be a foreign investor. They may choose to invest the money in assets in other , leading to a lower exchange rate.
So bond purchases work through several channels to put downward pressure on interest rates for the Government, houseGovernmentmentnesses, and pressure the exchange rate. There is also another important channel by which bond purchases operate. This is often referred to as the signaling effect. As I said earlier, bond purchase programs have been introduced by central banks when policy interest rates have been reduced to around their lower limit. The bond purchases reinforce the view that the central bBankwillBankkeeping the policy rate low for a long period (the bond purchases support the forward guidance).
The presumption is that the central bBankwillBankp its bond purchases before it begins to raise its policy rate. That does not mean the day the bond purchases stop is when the policy rate increases. Rather, it is a statement about the sequencing of policy actions. There may well be quite a period between those two actions. Since the financial crisis, there has been a research program into the effects of bond purchases or QE. Recently, I was involved as an external adviser in a review by the Bank of England of its QE Program. That review summarised the state of the research into the effects of quantitative easing. The study highlighted that much of the research has focussed on the impact of QE on financial conditions, particularly bond yields and interest rates. It noted that there is much less research on the effects of QE on output and inflation.
How should we think about the size of the bond purchase program? How stimulatory is it?
The general assessment of the research literature is that the stock of central bank bond purchases matters rather than the flow. That is, the total size of the assets affects bond yields and financial conditions, including the exchange rate, rather than how many bonds the central bank each week. The two are closely related. But one important implication is that the stimulus remains in place even when the bond purchase program finishes. The trigger only begins to unwind as the bonds that the central bank has Bankht matured.
The RBA’s estimate of the impact of the $100 billion bond purchase program announced in November was that it would reduce the 10-year bond yield by around 30 basis points. The lower results would put some downward pressure on the exchange rate. This estimate of the impact of bond purchases on outcomes was based on a review of the experience in other economies, including the literature referred to in the Bank of England report.
We assess that this estimate has turned out to be close to the mark. We have reached this assessment in several ways, but all arrive at a similar conclusion. Bond yields started to decline ahead of the actual announcement of the bond purchase program at the November RBA Board meeting as the market formed the expectation that such a program was increasingly likely. So the estimate of the impact has to take this into account.
The US yield provides a reference point for global developments affecting bond yields. Graph 6 shows the decline in the spread between Australian and US 10-year bond yields between September and November last year as market expectations of a bond purchase program increased and were then realized with the announcement at the November Board meeting. Again this decline in the spread amounts to around 30 basis points.
Government Bond Yields
To repeat, we assess that the bond purchase program announced in November reduced longer-term government bond yields by around 30 basis points. In turn, this led to a lower exchange rate and easier financial conditions than otherwise would have been the case. The impact of these easier economic conditions on output and inflation is harder to calibrate.
We do not have any direct Australian experience to draw on, although we are accumulating relevant expertise now. Again, we can draw on the expertise in other economies, noting that the outcomes in those other cases are significantly influenced by their particular circumstances and the different structures of financial systems across economies. For example, longer-term government bond yields have a much more direct relationship with mortgage rates in the.
An important thought to bear in mind at this point is that when a central bank announces a bond purchase program, the market will form some expectation of the total size of the program. For example, when the RBA announced its $100 billion purchase program in November that would run for six months, the market likely assumed that further bond purchases would be beyond that. That is, it was unlikely that there was only going to be one program. And that has turned out to be the case here in Australia, with the Board announcing a further $100 billion of purchases at its February meeting.
Hence the announcement effect of the program on bond yields and the exchange rate will include some impact from tmarket’st’s assessment of the whole size of the bond purchase program, not just the size of the first one that is announced.
Moreover, as the economy evolves over the life of the bond program, the market will adjust its assessment of the program’s total expected size, which will affect bond yields and broader financial conditions. (This is similar to how the market adjusts its expectations for the future path of cash rate as the state of the economy changes).
This makes estimating the impact of bond purchase programs quite challenging. It is hard to separate what the market had already anticipated regarding future bond purchases. It is one explanation of why empirical work finds that subsequent QE programs have a smaller effect than the first program.
don’tn’tdon’tn’t have good measures of the expectations of market participants about the size of the whole program of bond purchases, particularly at the time of the initial announcement. There is no obvious bond market equivalent to the OIS curve, which provides a read on tmarket’st’s expectations about the future path of the policy rate. There are surveys of markeconomists’ts’ expectations of future bond purchases by the RBA. Still, they are not necessarily the same as the expectations of participants in the financial markets who determine bond yields and the exchange rate.
As I mentioned, the bond purchase program aimsownward pressure bond yields and the exchange rate to provide sstimulateralian economy. The RBA is not targeting any particular level of bond yields other than the 3-year target or the exchange rate. Nor is it targeting any special spread between Australian Government bond yields and US Government bond yields.
We assess that the bond purchase program has continued to keep longer-term yields in Australia about 30 basis points lower than they otherwise would have been and the exchange rate lower than otherwise. But I recognize that depends on your counterfactual assessment: where would yields (and the exchange rate) have been if the bond purchashadn’tn’tpurchashadn’tn’t occurred?
Yields will move as the Australian and global economies evolve. Earlier this year, there was a rise in bond yields both globally and in Australia. This rise in yields reflected better outcomes in the Australian and global economies. The surge also reflected an increase in tmarket’st’s expectations for future inflation.
Yields rising because economic conditions are improving is a desirable outcome. It is not one that the RBA and other central banks would seek to resist. The bond purchases are still working to ensure yields are lower than they otherwise would be and continue to stimulate the economy. But the bond purchases are not intended to hold the whole structure of crops down at any particular level.
Inflation expectations reflected in bond yields have risen to the point that is, at best, barely reaching centrbanks’ks’ inflation targets, certainly not anything more. Bond markets have moved from expecting a reasonable chance of deflation to expecting low inflation. And that outcome is only achieved with the large stimulus in place currently.
The bond market is not pricing any material risk of an inflation breakout. In Australia, inflation estimates in the bond market have reached 2 percent in a year. That is only just reaching the bottom of tRBA’sA’s inflation target range.
I mentioned that the consensus is that the size of the bond purchase program is relevant for assessing the degree of the stimulus. I have shown the size along two dimensions. The first is the size of the program relative to GDP. Graph 7 shows the size of the bond purchase program in Australia close to those in other countries. The second is the size relative to the bonds on issue. Both metrics are relevant in assessing the degree of the stimulus.
Central Bank Government Bond Holdings*
TRBA’sA’s purchase program started later but is on a faster upward trajectory than other central banks. The graph shows that by the end of the current bond program, the RBA will have purchased bonds equal to around 10 percent of GDP.
The size of the government bond market is smaller in Australia than in nearly every other economy. This is not true in some other countries, especially the US. In recent months, the RBA has often been buying bonds at a faster weekly pace than the Australian Office of Financial Management (AOFM) has been issuing. Hence tRBA’sA’s share of the bond market is rising faster than in other economies.
In considering the impact of the bond purchase program, we need to be mindful that tBank’sk’s bond purchases do not cause dysfunction in the market by the BBankholdBanktoo large a share.
As I said earlier, government bond yields are a very important benchmark and anchor of the financial system. We do not think we are close to that point, but it is certainly something we are alert to. For example, we would not want our bond purchases to push bond yields higher (rather than lower) because of market dysfunction, which resulted in an illiquidity premium.
Purchases to address market dysfunction
In March and April 2020, as was the case for many other central banks, the RBA bought government bonds in the secondary market to alleviate the dysfunction in the Australian government bond market. These purchases helped to restore the functionality of this important pricing benchmark in the Australian financial system, which serves as the risk-free pricing curve for most financial assets.
The government bond curve is an important reference point for other interest rates, priced as a spread to it. The risk-free rate is often the relevant discount rate to determine equity prices. Hence the government bond market must be functioning properly.
The dysfunction was evident in the heightened interest rate volatility in the bond market, reflecting the reduced liquidity even in the US Treasury market (Graph 8). There were wide bid/offer spreads, and bond dealer inventories were large and constrained by capital and risk considerations. As a result, the RBA bought bonds across the maturity spectrum out to 10 years. Since early May 2020, as market conditions improved, the RBA ceased purchases.
AGS Bid-offer Spreads
These purchases also boost the system’s liquidity and put downward pressure on government bond yields. Even though their original motivation differed, they still achieved the same effect now as bond purchases under the bond purchase program.
There was some volatility in the bond market inas bond yields rose. Bid/offer spreads in the market widened, though much less than in March/April 2020. The BBankrespBankd to this by bringing forward some purchases under the bond purchase program, increasing the amount purchased at one of its regular auctions, buying $4 billion rather than the normal $2 billion. This action, along with the media release following the March Board meeting and the governor’s speech, helped restore more orderly functioning to the market. We were not concerned that bond yields were rising or the volatility per se, but rather market functioning.
Term Funding Facility
The Term Funding Facility allows the banking system to borrow from the RBA for three years cheaper than market rates. It has two main goals. The first is to lower funding costs for the entire banking system so that the cost of credit to households and businesses is low. In this regard, it complements the 3-year government bond yield target and the forward guidance.
The second objective is incentivizing lenders to extend credit to loans to small and medium-sized businesses, they will have access to an additional five dollars.. Lenders can borrow additional funds from the RBA if they have increased recognition to trade since the start of the scheme. For every extra dollar lent to large companies, lenders will have access to an additional dollar of funding under the TFF. For every extra dollar of
The TFF was announced in March 2020. Banks could borrow up to 3 percent of their total lending (around $90 billion) until the end of September 2020 (against high-quality collateral). Banks had until March 2021 to draw down any additional allowances they might have accumulated from lending to businesses. The size and duration of the TFF were extended in September 2020, when a further 2 percent could be accessed until the end of June 2021 (the deadline for drawing down other allowances related to business lending was also extended to this date).
The initial borrowings were at 25 basis points, while from November 2020, the borrowing rate was lowered to 10 basis points for new drawdowns. This is materially below the cost of banks obtaining 3-year funding.
In the program’s first phase, the bulk of the funds were drawn down in the weeks leading up to the end of September 2020 deadline (Graph 9). We expect borrowing under the TFF to ramp up in the coming weeks as the end-of-June deadline approaches.
Term Funding Facility
The date for final drawings under the TFF is June 30, 2021. Given that financial markets in Australia are operating well, the Board announced earlier this week that it is not considering a further extension of the TFF.
But it is important to remember that the Term Funding Facility will provide stimulus while the funds borrowed by the banking system are outstanding. It will continue to provide low-cost funding to the banking system and keep downward pressure on borrowing rates for businesses and households throughout the next three years until the funds are repaid.
In Australia, the monetary policy response to the pandemic aims to ensure borrowing costs in the economy remain low for households, businesses, and governments and provide an environment that supports credit growth. The monetary response comprised several different but complementary actions. The monetary policy package has worked broadly as expected in supporting the economy. The recovery in the Australian economy has significantly exceeded earlier expectations, reflecting the sizeable fiscal and monetary policy support and favorable health outcomes. But significant financial consent will be required for quite some time to come.