The Reserve Bank needs to acknowledge the failures of the inflation target

A comprehensive review of inflation released today by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work reveals that the inflation targeting in place since the early 1990s is not the neutral policy many assume it is. In that time inflation has missed the target more from below than above, and has coincided with a shift of national income away from workers to profits as wages have stagnated.

One clear example of the bias of a low-inflation target is the stagnant growth of real household income per capita during the years prior to the pandemic when inflation growth was below the Reserve Bank’s target rate of 2%.

For a record 33 straight months from September 2016 through May 2019 while real household incomes flatlined, the Reserve Bank kept the cash rate stable at 1.5% despite throughout all this period inflation was below 2%.

And yet as soon as inflation goes above the target ceiling of 3% the Reserve Bank seeks to increase interest rates quickly to reduce economic activity and also wages growth, even though wages lag well behind inflation.

“As the Federal Government undertakes its review of the RBA’s mandate and operations, these broad political-economic dimensions of monetary policy must be considered carefully,” said Dr Greg Jericho, Labour Market and Fiscal Policy Director at the Centre for Future Work.

“There is no evidence at all that a tight labour market, rising wages, or labour costs more generally have anything to do with the surge in inflation since the COVID pandemic. To the contrary, the evidence is clear that wages have had a dampening impact on inflation in this period.

“The Reserve Bank and the Federal Government need to take a more careful, balanced look at the nature, causes, and consequences of the upsurge in inflation since the pandemic, before leaping to conclusions that are unjustified – and imposing policy responses that do more harm than good.

“Since the end of 2019 real wages have fallen 3.1% and are expected to fall even further. The inability of wages to keep up with inflation has seen real wages fall back to 2012 levels. This highlights how the real victims of rising inflation have been workers, and the last thing they should be asked to do is suffer even more in the interests of pursuing an arbitrary inflation target.”

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