Australia's central bank governor makes joke, screws everything up

Monetary policy: not very funny

Central bankers shouldn't make jokes, that much is clear. The Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Glenn Stevens, made one yesterday, and it didn't go down well. Here's the joke:

As some of you may know, the Reserve Bank Board meeting was in Brisbane yesterday at which we deliberated for a long time to leave the cash rate unchanged.

A rib-tickler, I'm sure you'll agree. The joke here (and having to explain a joke is never a good sign) is that they didn't do anything – the cash rate stayed at 2.75 per cent – so the thought of deliberating for a long time over it is funny.

Except the problem is 1. that's not really funny at all and 2. what everyone thought he meant is that they seriously considered changing the cash rate, meaning it was more likely to change next time. And given they thought that, they acted on it, selling the australian dollar hard and selling it fast. Via FT Alphaville:

Oh no! The joke was confirmed as such shortly after, but not before a lot of people had lost a lot of money. The contrite deputy governor, Philip Lowe, said today that he'd spoken to his boss:

They were meant to be a light-hearted remark after what, he reports to me, was a very light-hearted introduction. I think some people in the financial markets and perhaps the press misinterpreted the intention of those remarks.

If we're looking for teachable moments here (and we're always looking for teachable moments), there are two to take home. Firstly, in a world where forward guidance is increasingly a standard tool in the central banker's kit, the words they use to communicate are more and more important. They can bring down economies, and should be treated with care.

Secondly, if you are the governor of a central bank, don't try and make off-the-cuff jokes during press conferences. It's likely to go wrong.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.