OIA: unexpected bouquets and brickbats

I have been critical over the years of the Reserve Bank’s approach to Official Information Act requests.  I made mention of it, in passing, just this morning.   The long-established practice had been to withhold absolutely anything they could conceivably get away with, and to delay as long as possible anything they really had to release.   The presumptions of the Act (well, specific provisions actually), of course, operate in the opposite direction.

In the last couple of weeks I had lodged requests for a couple of pieces I had written while I was still working at the Bank in 2014.   One was the text of a speech, on New Zealand economic history and the evolution of economic policy, to a group of Chinese Communist Party up-and-coming officials, delivered as part an Australia New Zealand School of Government programme (in which they got to hear from John Key, Gerry Brownlee, Iain Rennie, no doubt a few others, and me).     The other was a discussion note I had written on how best to think of New Zealand’s economic exposure to China.    The second request was lodged only late on Monday.    I could not envisage any good (lawful) reason for them to withhold the material, but that often hasn’t stopped the Reserve Bank in the past.  If they released the material at all, I was anticipating a 20 working day wait.

But this afternoon, I received both documents in full.  I was shocked.  I took the opportunity to send a note to the Bank thanking them for the prompt response.  And as I have often been critical here of aspects of the Bank’s handling of various things, including OIA requests, I thought I should take the opportunity to record my appreciation openly.    Who knows what prompted the change, but it is an encouraging sign.  Perhaps the “acting Governor” (a sound caretaker, unlawful as his appointment may be) is making a positive difference?

On the other hand, I’ve usually been pretty openly positive about The Treasury’s approach to OIA requests.  One isn’t always happy with their decisions, but there is a strong sense that they generally do all they can to be as open as possible.    There is the look and feel of an agency that seeks to comply with the spirit of the Act, as well as the letter.

But not when it comes to the Rennie review.   Some time ago, they refused a journalist’s request for the terms of reference for the review.   They also refused to release some of the papers associated with the Rennie review (including drafts of the report) that I had requested some time ago .   In July they told me they wouldn’t release papers because of “advice still under consideration” (even though that is not a statutory ground, and Rennie is neither a minister nor an official, and even though I had not then requested a copy of the final report which had been delivered in April).

But time has moved on, and so early last week I lodged a fresh request.  This time I asked for:

I am requesting copies of :

  • the draft supplied to Treasury on 5 April 2017
  • the report delivered to Treasury on 18 April 2017
  • the version of the report sent out for peer review
  • the completed report incorporating any comments provided by the peer reviewers.
  • copies of comments supplied on the draft paper by peer reviewers
  • file notes of meetings Rennie or assisting Treasury staff had with non-Treasury people in the course of undertaking the review (including the Board of the Reserve Bank).

I am also requesting copies of any advice to the Minister of Finance or his office on the Rennie review, and matters covered in it, since 18 April 2017.

And this afternoon I got a response from The Treasury, refusing to release any of this material.

Their justification?

This is necessary to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials.

That is, in principle, a valid statutory ground (unless public interest considerations trump it).  But…..Iain Rennie is not an official or a Minister, but was rather a contractor to The Treasury.

But what about the advice to the Minister himself (or his office)?  Well, according to Treasury,  “Mr Rennie’s report has not been tendered to the Minister of Finance, nor has any other Treasury advice on this issue since the report was commissioned.”

So, the report which was requested by the Minister of Finance himself (he told a journalist so in April which is how news of the review became public), which was finalised more than six months ago, has not been sent to the Minister of Finance at all, and nor has any advice from Treasury been sent.  Since oral briefings are covered by the Official Information Act, we must then assume that a notoriously hands-on minister has no idea what is in a report he requested, and which was finished six months ago.   Perhaps, but it seems unlikely.

Treasury tries to claim in its letter “that this work was commissioned to inform Treasury’s post-election advice”.  But that certainly wasn’t the impression the Minister of Finance was giving in April, when this was presented as his own initiative.   But even if that story is true, it still isn’t grounds for withholding a six months old consultant’s report paid for with public money.  It is official information, and releasing the report is not the same –  at all –  as releasing Treasury’s views on it.

There were three external reviewers of the draft report.  Comments were sought from:

  • Charles Goodhart, an academic and former Bank of England official and MPC member,
  • Don Kohn, former vice-chair of the Fed, and currently a member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee, and
  • David Archer, former Assistant Governor of the Reserve Bank and now a senior official at the Bank for International Settlements.

The comments of the first two are withheld on the standard ground “to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers and officials”, but neither Goodhart nor Kohn is either an official (of New Zealand or –  in Goodhart’s case of anywhere) or a Minister, and these are comments on a draft report I’m seeking, not something ever likely to get as far as the Minister of Finance.

Archer’s comments are withheld on different grounds:

  • “the making available of that information would be likely to prejudice the entrusting of information to the Government of New Zealand on the basis of confidence by the Government of any other country or any agency of such a Governoment or by an international organisation”

But there is no indication that Archer was commenting on behalf of an international organisation, but rather was offering personal views (rather than confidential “information”).   It isn’t, say, confidential information about the business of, say, the BIS.

  • “to protect information which is subject to an obligation of confidence where the making available of the information would likely prejudice the supply of similar information or information from the same source and it is in the public interest that such information should continue to be supplied”.

There is no evidence that (a) Archer’s comments, made presumably in a personal capacity, were subject to an “obligation of confidence”, or (b) that publishing his comments on a draft report would make him less likely to provide such comments (not clearly “information” in any case) on future Treasury consultants’ reports on Reserve Bank issues.      And nor is there any reason why this clause should apply any more to Archer’s comments than to those of Goodhart and Kohn –  for which it has not been invoked.

It is all (a) incredibly obstructive and (b) not remotely convincing.  I will be appealing The Treasury’s decision to the Ombudsman.  Perhaps some journalist might consider asking Steven Joyce if it is really true that he has no idea what is in the Rennie report that he asked for eight months ago, which was completed six months ago, and which is held by his own department.  Even if that is true, it is not good grounds under the Act for withholding a consultant’s report, let alone drafts of it.

So, well done Reserve Bank.  And it is a shame about The Treasury.

 

 

 

 

 

Reforming the Reserve Bank: some challenges for the new government

There will be more important issues facing the incoming government –  even in what are, broadly speaking, economic areas.

There are house prices, for example, where two successive governments have done nothing material to solve the structural problems that have been evident for 15 years now (present for longer).  It is a matter of (in)justice as much as anything.

Or reversing the dismal productivity performance, epitomised by the last five years or no productivity growth at all.

aus vs nz ral gdp phw 2

Or reversing the dismal export performance which has seen exports as a share of GDP slipping –  not usually a path to sustained prosperity –  and which is forecast, by Treasury, to keep slipping (all else equal).

x to gdp

But if these things matter much more to our longer-term prosperity,  it doesn’t make an overhaul of the Reserve Bank less important.    And action on that front is now quite pressing.  Apart from anything else, the Bank has an (unlawfully appointed) caretaker Governor, and whoever is appointed as the new Governor –  under current legislation wielding huge amounts of power singlehandedly – will surely want to know quite what the shape of the job they are taking on is.   If the three parties who will be part of the new government are to be believed, any change isn’t just going to be limited to some slightly different words in the new Governor’s Policy Targets Agreement.

I wrote a post last week on the possible implications for monetary policy of a new government.   I’ll reproduce below the bits of that post that are relevant to the sort of Labour-led government we will actually have.

But the Reserve Bank isn’t just a monetary policy agency.  If anything, the case for legislative reform is even stronger in respect of the other functions (notably the extensive financial regulatory functions the Governor exercises under various acts) than it is for monetary policy.   These issues have less immediate political salience of course.  But whereas for monetary policy there is, at least, a statutorily-required Policy Targets Agreement which can be used as a legal basis to hold the Governor to account, there is nothing remotely similar in respect of the prudential regulatory powers.   The Governor –  whoever he or she may be –  exercises huge discretionary power, especially over banks, with little or no means for anyone to hold the Governor to account.  You might like LVR limits (I don’t).  But, whatever the merits of such controls, the Governor can impose or remove completely those controls on the basis of little more than a personal whim.  There are process hoops he or she would have to jump through, but no substantive constraints.  The same goes for debt to income limits.  Or higher, or lower, capital requirements on banks.

It is simply far too much power to vest in any one person – especially an unelected person, who cannot easily be removed from office.   A new Governor might be a truly exceptional person, blessed with wisdom and judgement far above the average.  But we have to build our institutions around typical people –  and typical public sector chief executives (including Governors), are typically average, a mix of strengths and weaknesses, insights and blindspots.

It isn’t the way in which other central banks and financial regulatory agencies are typically structured and governed.  No other country that has reformed its institutions in the last 40 years has given a Governor anything like as much personal power as our system does –  and even those who wrote our legislation would be flabbergasted at how much power our Governor actually wields since back then no one envisaged such an active discretionary regulatory role for the Bank.

Perhaps as importantly, it isn’t the way we govern almost anything else in New Zealand:

  • public companies have boards,
  • charities have boards,
  • the judiciary has several layers of appeal, and in the higher courts benches of judges decide cases rather than individuals,
  • the Cabinet itself is a decision-making committee, with the Prime Minister not much more –  in extremis –  than primus inter pares.  Prime Ministers can typically be ousted quickly by a party caucus.
  • Crown entities (from a school Board of Trustees to a major central government entity like the Financial Markets Authority) are governed by decisionmaking Boards.

Chief executives typically play an important role, but it is almost always an executive role, advising on and implementing a strategy set by others, and ensuring that the organisation itself functions effectively.     In areas of policy in particular, single decisionmakers are very rare, and in areas of policy with as much discretion as those the Reserve Bank exercises unknown.  And recall that governance structures don’t exist for the good times, or the occasions when everyone agrees; they are about resilience in tough times, resilience to inevitable human frailty.

It isn’t just a matter of policy discretion, moving away from the highly-unusual and risky single decisionmaker approach.   There are oddities such as the Reserve Bank being responsible for its own legislation –  something very unusual for a regulatory agency –  and thus, often, for reviewing its own performance.  We’ve seen that just this week: industry complaints that the Reserve Bank is reviewing its own performance as insurance industry prudential regulator.   No doubt the regulatory agency has useful input to such reviews, but they just can’t bring the degree of detachment and independence to a review of their own performance that the public should expect.

And then there is transparency.  The Reserve Bank has sought to claim over the years that it is highly transparent. In what matters, it is anything but.   The Bank scores well in transparency over things it knows almost nothing about: they will happily tell us what they think will happen to the OCR in 2019, for example.   But, unlike most government agencies or Parliament itself, they won’t, as a matter of course, publish submissions made on regulatory proposals.  They provide particular secrecy to the submitters with the deepest pockets and the strongest interest in limiting regulation (banks themselves), and rely on a provision of the Act that was never intended to cover such submissions and which is well overdue for reform.     They won’t publish the background papers to Monetary Policy Statements, even many months down the track (I did once succeed in getting 10 year old papers released).  They won’t publish minutes of the advisory Governing Committee meetings.  They won’t publish, even with a lag, even anonymised, the advice and recommendations the Governor receives when reviewing the OCR.  Like many government agencies, they are persistently obstructive, pushing the very limits of the Official Information Act.

I could go on, but won’t today.  Perhaps especially in a small country, an excellent central bank can be a significant part of the set of economic institutions that can help to shape and improve our economic performance.   We need better from the Reserve Bank –  not just specific decisions, but better supporting analysis, and a more robust and open institution (not one attempting to silence critics) than we’ve had in recent years.  And so reform shouldn’t just be about the odd line of legislation here and there, but about (re)building a capable, open, and accountable institution that supports better quality decisionmaking.  Finding the right person to be Governor, as one part of a new set of governance institutions, is a big part of that.  And that is where the urgency needs to begin.  Simply relying on names generated by a search and application process that began under the outgoing government, where applications closed even before the incoming Prime Minister became leader and gave much hope to her side, where applicants are all being interviewed and vetted by a Board of private company directors (and the like) appointed by the previous government –  and apparently content with how things have been – is most unlikely to be a good basis for identifying the right person.  And, again, it isn’t the way they do things in other countries.

I don’t want to be misread as suggesting that the Reserve Bank is more important than it really is.    Better macroeconomic management –  keeping the economy fully-employed, in a context of price stability – and appropriate financial system regulation, significant as they are, do not offer the answers to our long-term economic performance problems.  Those answers rest with structural policy choices that the Bank has no special role in.   But (a) good governance of very powerful institutions matters in its own right, and (b) in the short-medium term central bank choices, including around monetary policy, do make a real and material difference to economic performance.  Ours has been poor over the last decade.  In particular, we simply shouldn’t be in a position where the unemployment rate has been above any credible estimate of the long-run sustainable rate (or the NAIRU) for the whole of this decade so far.   Most other countries with their currencies, and own monetary policies, aren’t in the same situation.   This country can do so much better.  A better-led central bank, operating under reformed laws and institutional arrangements, can be one part of that mix.

(And now that the National-led government is leaving office, I am hopeful that the OIA request I lodged again 10 days or so ago for the Rennie review report and associated papers might at last lead to some documents being released.)

Here are the bits of last week’s post on what a Labour-led government might mean for monetary policy, (for ease of reading I’ve not block-quoted the material).

—————————————————————————————————————————

And what if Labour leads the next government, requiring support of the Greens and New Zealand First for legislation?  [We’ve already had confirmation, as I suggested then, that the Singaporean model is simply not going to happen.]

In that case, legislative reforms are more certain, but somewhat similar questions remain about what difference they might make.

Thus, the Labour Party campaigned on amending section 8 of the Act to include some sort of full employment objective.   They haven’t provided specific suggested wording, and would no doubt want official advice on that.  The Greens have endorsed that proposal and there is no obvious reason why New Zealand First would oppose it. But they might want to try to get some reference to the exchange rate or the tradables sector included, whether in the Act itself or in the Policy Targets Agreement.

Winston Peters’ private members bill [from a few years back] sought to amend the statutory goal of monetary policy (section 8 of the Act) this way (adding the bolded words)

The primary function of the Bank is to formulate and implement monetary policy directed to the economic objective of maintaining stability in the general level of prices while maintaining an exchange rate that is conducive to real export growth and job creation.

[As I noted then, this wording goes too far and asks the Reserve Bank to do something that is impossible (real exchange rates are real phenomena, not monetary ones).  I hope Labour and the Greens would not accept it, but we must presumably expect something of the flavour to find it way into the ACT or the PTA.]

 

I’ve also previously suggested that if Labour is serious about the full employment concern, it might make sense to amend section 15 of the Act (governing monetary policy statements) to require the Bank to periodically publish its estimates of a non-inflationary unemployment rate (a NAIRU), and explain deviations of the actual unemployment rate from that (moving) estimate.  In principle, something similar could be done for the real exchange rate, but the (theoretical) grounds for doing so are rather weaker.  Perhaps the political grounds are stronger, and such a change might encourage the Bank to devote more of its research efforts to real exchange rate and economic performance issues.

But –  and I deliberately use the same words I used above –  such legislative changes are not ones that would, on their own, make any practical difference to the conduct of monetary policy.  Reflecting back on the 25 years of advice I gave to successive Governors on the appropriate OCR, I can’t think of a single occasion when the advice would have been likely to be different under this formulation than under the current wording.

The Labour Party and the Greens also campaigned on legislative reforms to the monetary policy governance model (including a decisionmaking committee with a mix of insiders and relatively expert outsiders, and the timely publication of the minutes of such a committee.)   Although those proposals would represent a step in the right direction, they are rather weak. In particular, since Labour proposed that all the committee members would be appointed by the Governor, the change would largely just cement-in the undue dominance of the Governor.    But I’d be surprised if they were wedded to those details, and it shouldn’t be too hard to reach a tri-party agreement on a decisionmaking structure for monetary policy –  probably one that put more of the appointment powers in the hands of the Minister of Finance (as elsewhere) and allowed for non-expert members (as is quite common on Crown boards –  or, indeed, in Cabinet).

So legislative change in that area –  probably quite significant change –  seems like something we could count on under a Labour-led government.

But whether it would make much difference to the actual conduct of policy over the next few years still largely depends on who is appointed as Governor.   Not only will whoever is appointed as Governor going to be the sole decisionmaker until new legislation is passed and implemented –  which could easily be 12 to 18 months away –  but that individual will be an important part of the design of the new legislation and the sort of culture that is built (or rebuilt) at the Reserve Bank.

As I noted earlier, the appointment process for the Governor has been underway for months.  Applications closed at a time –  early July –  when few people would have given the left much chance of forming a government.  And the Board, all appointed by the current government and strong public backers of the conduct of policy in recent years, have the lead role in the appointment.   Perhaps a new Labour-led government would reject a Bascand nomination.  But even if they did so, they have no idea which name would be wheeled up next.

There are alternatives, if the parties to a left-led government actually wanted things done differently at the Bank.   First, they could insist that the Bank’s Board reopen the selection process, working within the sorts of priorities such a new government would be legislating for.  Or they could simply pass a very simple and short amending Act to give the appointment power to the Minister of Finance (which is how things work almost everywhere else).  Of course, there is still the question of who would be the right candidate, but at least they would establish alignment of vision from the start –  a reasonable aspiration, given that the Reserve Bank Governor has more influence on short-term macro outcomes than the Minister of Finance, and yet the Minister of Finance has to live with the electoral consequences.

Over time, governance changes are important as part of putting things at the Reserve Bank on a more conventional footing (relative to other central banks, and to the rest of the New Zealand public sector).   I think some legislative respecification of the statutory goal for monetary policy  –  along the lines Labour has suggested –  is probably appropriate: if nothing else, it reminds people why we do active monetary policy at all.   But on their own, those changes won’t make any material difference to the conduct of monetary policy  –  or even to the way the Bank communicates –  in the shorter-term (next couple of years) unless the right person is chosen as Governor.  Perhaps so much shouldn’t hang on one unelected individual, but in our system at present it does.

Symbols matter, but so does substance.  It will be interesting to see which turns out to matter more to a new government with New Zealand First support.

In closing, there is a long and interesting article in today’s Financial Times on some of the challenges – technical and political –  facing central bankers.  As the author notes, in many countries authorities are grappling with a mix that includes very low unemployment and little wage inflation.  In appointing a Governor for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, it would be highly desirable to find someone who recognises, and internalises, that the challenges here are rather different.  Unlike the US, UK, or Japan (for example) New Zealand’s unemployment rate is still well above pre-recessionary levels –  when demographic factors are probably lowering the NAIRU –  and real wage inflation, while quite low in absolute terms, is running well ahead of (non-existent) productivity growth.    There are some other countries – the UK and Finland notably –  that also have non-existent productivity growth, but it is far from a universal story.  Productivity growth carries on in the US and Australia and (according to a commentary I read last night) in Japan real output per hour worked is up 8.5 per cent in the last five years (comparable number for New Zealand, zero).

Some of these issues are relevant to monetary policy (eg unemployment gaps) and some are relevant to medium-term competitiveness (wages rising ahead of productivity growth).  We should expect a Governor who can recognise the similarities between New Zealand’s experiences and those abroad, but also the significant differences, and who can talk authoritatively about what monetary policy can, and cannot, do to help.  Perhaps even, as a bonus, one who might even be able to provide some research and advice to governments on the nature of the economic issues that only governments can act to fix.

 

The tech sector…and ongoing economic underperformance

The 13th annual TIN (“Technology Investment Network”) report was released a couple of days ago.  I’ve largely managed to ignore the previous twelve –  breathless hype and all –  but for some reason I got interested yesterday, and started digging around in the material that was accessible to the public (despite lots of taxpayer subsidies the full report is expensive) and then in some of the New Zealand economic data.   Perhaps it was the seeming disconnect between the rhetoric from the sector, and its public sector backers, and the reality of an economy that has had no productivity growth at all for five years, and where exports as a share of GDP have been falling (and are projected by The Treasury to keep on falling).

The centrepiece of the report is an analysis of “New Zealand’s top 200 technology companies” (by revenue) where, as far I can tell, “New Zealand’s” here means something about the base of the company being in New Zealand, whether it is owned here or not.  I’m not quite sure either what the definition of a “technology” company is, and it is worth remembering that almost every type of economic activity uses technology in ways that were inconceivable even 50 years ago.  Often new technologies are developed and adopted inside companies that wouldn’t think of themselves primarily as “technology companies”.   No one doubts the important pervasive role that technology plays, in New Zealand and in any moderately-advanced economy.   But the TIN Report appears to focus on a pretty broadly-defined group of companies in biotech, ICT, and (more than half) in “high-tech manufacturing”.

Here are the top 10 companies from the list

Date founded Total revenue ($m)
Datacom 1965 1157
Fisher & Paykel Appliances 1934 1146
Fisher & Paykel Healthcare 1934 894
Xero 2006 295
Gallagher Group ca. 1938 232
Orion Health 1993 199
Douglas Pharmceuticals 1967 190
Tait Communications 1969 175
NDA Group 1894 175
Temperzone 1956 175

Perhaps most immediately striking was the gap between the first three companies on the list and the rest of them.   But I also realised that I’d visited quite a few of these companies (the Reserve Bank’s business visits programme), in some cases a long time ago.  Tait was one of the good news stories we used to tell in the 1980s –  economic times were tough, and we had a selection of (sometimes rather desperate) anecdotes of economic transformation.  So I dug out –  as best I could –  the dates each of these firms was founded.    Of the top 10, as many (one each) had been founded in the 19th century as in the 21st century, and only one more had been founded in the last three decades of the 20th century, even as the New Zealand economy was being liberalised.      It isn’t exactly the image one has of really top-tier technology companies.  Sure IBM and Hewlett-Packard have been round for a while now, but Google, Facebook, and Amazon all date from the last 25 years  –  and they’ve managed to dominate world markets, not just been big in New Zealand.

Actually, a somewhat similar point even found its way into the TIN press release

Companies with over $20 million revenue grew at twice the rate of companies below NZ$20 million.  The 90 companies with revenues NZ$20 million and over grew at 8.4%, compared to just 3.8% revenue growth for the 110 companies with under $20 million in revenue.

Nominal GDP in New Zealand grew by 5.9 per cent in the year to June, and yet the second tier of New Zealand based technology companies could only manage sales growth of 3.8 per cent in the last year (and even that number is subject to a form of survivor bias –  some firms that did worse will have dropped out of the list).  I was, frankly, astonished at quite how weak the revenue growth seemed to have been.

The headline TIN were keen to highlight was that the annual worldwide sales of the TIN 200 companies had now passed $10 billion (just a bit more than Foodstuffs supermarkets).   $10 billion isn’t a trivial sum of course, but New Zealand GDP last year was $268 billion dollars (and gross sales are higher than GDP) –  so worldwide sales of these 200 companies were just under 4 per cent of New Zealand’s GDP.    They were also keen to highlight 43000 people employed around the world.  Again, not a small number but just over 2.5 million people are employed in New Zealand at present.    In many of these companies, overseas employment –  an important part of making the businesses successful –  is quite a large share of the total.  For many of the companies, data aren’t easily accessible, but from Fisher and Paykel Healthcare’s latest annual report I learned that of its 4100 employees, 1800 are overseas.

Writing of the $10 billion revenue number, the TIN Managing Director noted

It is not just a number but a marker that indicates that our technology exporters are well and truly entrenched as a critical part of New Zealand’s economic growth

Perhaps he isn’t aware that there has been no productivity growth for five years?

But what of “exports”?  We are told that these 200 firms have “more than NZ$7.3 billion sourced through exports”.   They carefully describe that in their headline as “the equivalent of 10 per cent of all New Zealand’s exports”, but some media rather loosely translated this into a story that these tech companies now account of 10 per cent of New Zealand’s exports.

Without access to the full report, it is difficult to know quite how they calculate the number.  But almost certainly, a lot of that $7.3 billion –  perhaps total overseas sales –  will in fact be counted as other countries’ exports.  Chinese-owned Fisher & Paykel Appliances, for examples, manufactures in Thailand, Mexico, China and Italy.    Fisher and Paykel Healthcare manufactures in Mexico, and presumably most of that production goes to the United States.   And if, say, Datacom has big operations in Australia, much of the value-added from that operation will accrue to Australian employees.

I don’t have a problem with any of that.  It is how successful international businesses work.  In most cases, the relevant intellectual property is probably being generated in New Zealand, and the value of that should be captured by those doing the work, and the owners of the relevant businesses (in many, perhaps most, cases, New Zealanders).

But how does all this fit with the overall economic performance story.  One of the public sector funders of the TIN report was quoted in a Newsroom story yesterday

Victoria Crone, chief executive of one of the sponsors of the report, Callaghan Innovation, said technology was a key for growth in New Zealand’s economy. “Every dollar invested in the tech sector creates three dollars of growth in the New Zealand economy. Doubling or tripling the contribution of dairy or tourism by simply expanding these sectors is simply not practical given their respective demands on land, water and infrastructure.

“By contrast all the tech sector needs to expand is more brains, more ideas and more capital to bring them to market.”

Which might all sounds fine, but how have those tech sectors actually been doing?  Getting too deeply into the line items of our export data isn’t really my thing but (for example) SNZ publish a summary breakdown of merchandise exports, with a category of “elaborately-transformed manufactures” (not all of which would typically be thought of as anything like “technology exports”).    Here is how elaborately-transformed manufactures on the one hand, and primary products on the other, have done as shares of total merchandise exports, going back to 2003  (just before the first TIN Report was published).

share of merch exports

And over that period, total merchandise exports have fallen from 21.4 per cent of GDP to 18.6 per cent of GDP.

What about services exports –  the weightless economy and all that?

Again, it is a challenge to break out the things that most people will think of as “technology exports”, so I’ve erred on the side of including more items rather than less.   There is greater detail for the last few years, but to go back further the data are less disaggregated.    From the annual services exports data I summed four categories

Services; Exports; Charges for the use of intellectual property nei
Services; Exports; Telecommunications, computer, and information services
Services; Exports; Other business services
Services; Exports; Personal, cultural, and recreational services

The latter because the largest component of it appears to be film and TV exports (Weta workshops, Peter Jackson etc).

These components of services exports are, as one would perhaps hope, a larger share of total services exports than was the case 15 or 20 years ago.    Unfortunately –  and unusually for advanced economies –  services exports in total have not been growing as a share of GDP.    This chart shows these four components of services exports as a share of GDP.

tech services exports

It looks quite sensitive to the exchange rate (as one might expect), but whatever the reason the share in the most recent year is still around where it was in 2000 or 2001.  Even with, for example, those amped-up film subsidies.

Still on the trail of (overall) success stories, I thought I’d check out the investment income account of the balance of payments.  New Zealand shareholders will still be better off –  as I noted earlier –  even if there aren’t exports directly from New Zealand if their offshore operations are generating profits.  Whether those profits are remitted to New Zealand or reinvested in the business abroad, it is a gain for New Zealanders (and captured in the Gross National Income numbers, although not in GDP –  the latter is about production in New Zealand).   The published data in the investment income account isn’t broken down by economic sector, but there is data on different types of income.    I focused on two columns

Primary Income; Inv. income; NZ inv. abroad; Direct inv.; Income on equity etc; Dividends and distributed branch profits
Primary Income; Inv. income; NZ inv. abroad; Direct inv.; Income on equity etc; Reinvested earnings

Unfortunately, the data are patchy to say the least so I can’t show a time series chart.  And bear in mind that these profits are from direct overseas investment by New Zealand firms in all economic sectors.    But here are the total returns under these two headings for the five years to 2000 and for the last five years, both expressed as a percentage of GDP (over those five year periods).

profits on NZ inv abroad

Remember that these are profits from firms in all sectors, but if there are big transformative tech sector profits they must be pretty well hidden.

When, many years ago now, I read Brian Easton’s economic history of New Zealand since World War Two, one of the things I noted then was the evidence Easton had gathered for how the composition of New Zealand’s exports had changed rapidly in the past.

Back in the 1960s, in the Official Yearbook Statistics New Zealand reported a high-level table of the composition of our exports.  The traditional products were these

Meat
Dairy
Wool
Fruit and vegetables
Animal by-products

In 1962, these products made up 85 per cent of (estimated) total goods and services exports.  Just a decade later in 1972, those same products made up only 67 per cent of total goods and services exports.  Subsidies probably played a part –  counteracting the additional cost imposed by our own tariffs and import quotas.  Then again, film subsidies (or Rocket Lab subsidies) anyone?

In earlier decades, new technology  –  it was all technology that made it possible –  meant that dairy products went from being only for the domestic market to being our second largest exports in 30 years.

By contrast, the performance of today’s New Zealand based tech sector seems pretty distinctly underwhelming.  I’m sure there are plenty of good firms, and plenty of able people trying to build them –  New Zealand isn’t short of able people, or of a regulatory environment that makes it easy to start new businesses –  but in aggregate the results should really be seen as rather disappointing.  Vic Crone talks of how, in her view, “all the tech sector needs is more brains, more ideas, and more capital to bring them to market”.    New Zealand has never had a problem with any of those three.  It looks rather more as though the opportunities just aren’t here – in a location so remote –  to any great extent, and the challenges of remoteness are just compounded by a real exchange rate that has got persistently out of line with the deteriorating relative competitiveness of the New Zealand economy.

The taxpayer –  through Callaghan and NZTE – has been helping pay for this report, and the associated puff pieces made available to the public.  One can only hope that a new government (of whatever stripe) might start by asking some hard questions, of those agencies and of MBIE and Treasury, that look behind the hype.  I’m not optimistic –  all sides seem to have a stronger interest in believing the spin than in confronting the real and persistent underperformance.  Then again, the good thing about being a pessimist is that just occasionally one can be pleasantly surprised.

 

 

OCR cuts as plausible as increases

The CPI data for the September quarter were released yesterday.  They were the last for the period Graeme Wheeler was Governor of the Reserve Bank –  charged with targeting inflation – although of course the lags mean that policy choices Wheeler made will still be influencing inflation through next year.    The target Wheeler willingly signed up for five years ago was 2 per cent CPI inflation.  In his time in office, he saw annual inflation that high only once (of 20 observations).  On his preferred core measure –  which is probably the best indicator of the underlying trend in inflation –  September 2009 was the last time core inflation was as high as 2 per cent.

In fact, here is that (sectoral factor) measure of core inflation back a decade or so.

core inflation

There are various readings one could put on that chart.  On the one hand, core inflation (on this measure) has been astonishingly stable in the last six years or so.   That would normally be to the credit of the Governor concerned.   Then again, the same Governor explicitly signed up for a focus on 2 per cent inflation, and there has been no sign that the trend in inflation is any closer to fluctuating around 2 per cent than it was in 2012.

On the other hand, at the start of chart, back in 2006/2007 at the peak of the last boom, inflation was clearly too high (relative to the target the government had given us).   Partly for that reason, I continued to recommend OCR increases throughout most of 2007.  With hindsight –  but probably only in hindsight – those increases weren’t needed.  But my point here is to recognise that the gap between actual core inflation and the target midpoint (2 per cent) was materially larger then that it is now.  As it happens, we didn’t have this particular core measure in 2007, but when we sat around the table debating what Alan Bollard should do with interest rates then, we knew a best estimate of core inflation was around 3 per cent (we were also pretty confident that the unemployment was well below a sustainable level).  In fact, at the time the Bank’s Board was asking uncomfortable questions as to quite how 3 per cent annual core inflation squared with the statutory mandate of “a stable general level of prices” (I wrote a, from memory, slightly casuistical paper in response.)

So, if there are legitimate questions about the conduct of monetary policy right now –  the Bank having already undone its 2014/15 mistake –  they pale in comparison with those that should have been being asked in 2007.  (As I recall it, Stephen Toplis was raising such questions then, and attracting the ire of the then Governor).

What do yesterday’s inflation data show?

I’ve previously shown a table of six core inflation measures

Core inflation, year to Sept
CPI ex petrol 1.8
Trimmed mean 2
Weighted median 2
Factor model 1.8
Sectoral factor model 1.4
CPI ex food and energy 1.5

A couple of those measures are actually bang on 2 per cent.  On the other hand, the Reserve Bank has been consistently clear in recent years that its favoured measure is the sectoral factor model (a statistical exercise that searches of underlying common trends in the disaggregated components of the CPI), and international comparisons often use a CPI ex food and energy measure (it is the one core measure the OECD reports for its member countries).

Hawks might be inclined to dismiss the Bank’s preference for the sectoral factor model as just “cover for a reluctance to raise the OCR to where it ‘should’ be”.  I think they would be wrong to do so.  It isn’t that long since the median core inflation measure was running materially below the sectoral factor model number, and the Bank was then asserting that the core inflation measure was a better guide.   I wasn’t fully convinced at the time, but it seems that they were probably right.

We only have consistent data for all six core measures back three years or so, but even that is enough to illustrate the point.  In this chart I’ve shown the sectoral core measure and the median of the other five measures.

core inflation measures oct 17

The gap between the two lines was larger a couple of years ago than it is now.  I don’t think many observers will find it that credible that in the sort of economy we’ve experienced in the last couple of years “true” core inflation has picked up as strongly as the blue line suggests.  The general understanding of how inflation works, in settled and stable economies, is that there is lots of short-term noise, but that the underlying trend –  the bit monetary policy should usually focus on –  is pretty sticky and slow-moving.   Personally, I find it more convincing to believe that core inflation has been pretty consistently low for several years than to suppose it has gone through the quite large cycles some of the other measures suggest.  In support of this proposition, over the almost 25 years for which we have estimates from the sectoral factor model, it is easy –  with hindsight –  to tell a persuasive story about what was going on in that series.  Less so with some of the other measures.

One other way to illustrate the point is to compare the sectoral factor model numbers to a couple of the other core inflation indicators for which there is a long run of data.    This compares the sectoral factor model and the factor model (an earlier iteration, using a similar class of filtering techniques).

core measures

Or in this one a comparison of the sectoral factor model with the CPI ex food and energy (in the latter I haven’t manually excluded the 2010 GST spike).

core measures 2

You will struggle to find an economist who thinks that, in an economy like New Zealand’s, the underlying trend in inflation is anything like as noisy as those other measures suggest.

We don’t have a formal Policy Targets Agreement at present, but for some years now PTAs have included this phrase

For a variety of reasons, the actual annual rate of CPI inflation will vary around the medium-term trend of inflation, which is the focus of the policy target.

There isn’t much sign either that the medium-trend of inflation is fluctuating around 2 per cent –  where it supposed to have been –  or that it has been increasing and getting any closer to target.

Here is another way of looking at the issue.   Headline inflation is thrown around by changes in taxes and government charges, and although SNZ don’t (unfortunately) publish a series of CPI inflation excluding taxes and charges (as many other countries’ statistical agencies do), they do publish a series of non-tradables inflation excluding government charges and the cigarettes and tobacco component (the latter having been the subject of repeated large tax increases in recent years, which have nothing to do with the underlying inflation process).  The data only go back 10 years or so, but here is what that chart looks like.

NT ex govt charges and tobacco oct 17

This measure of core non-tradables inflation is off its lows (in 2010, 2012, and 2015) but shows no sign of racing away.    Construction cost pressures play a big role in this series, but even with the pressures in that sector, this measure of non-tradables inflation is currently running at only around 2.25 per cent.   The 2014 peak was (a bit) higher. (Consistent with this story, wage inflation –  although quite high relative to productivity growth –  has also been showing no signs of acceleration).

I saw one commentary yesterday suggesting that if non-tradables inflation was above 2 per cent that was grounds for thinking about tightening –  after all, 2 per cent is the inflation target midpoint.  Actually, for decades non-tradables inflation has averaged well above tradables inflation.  Our benchmark in discussions at the Bank was often along the lines of “a 2 per cent inflation target means tradables inflation averaging about 1 per cent and non-tradables inflation averaging about 3 per cent”.  As it happens, for the 17 years the Bank has data on its website, tradables inflation has averaged 1.0 per cent, and non-tradables inflation has averaged 3.2 per cent (CPI inflation averaged 2.2 per cent).

If the Reserve Bank is serious about ensuring that core inflation fluctuates around  per cent, they will need to be seeing quite a lift in non-tradables inflation from here.  There is nothing in the data suggesting that lift is already getting underway.  And, of course, that is largely why their own projections haven’t shown any OCR increases for some considerable time.

Against this backdrop, the troubling question remains why every commentator (I’ve seen) has been focused on the timing of a potential OCR increase (even if all agree it is probably still some time away).    Core inflation is persistently below target, the best measure of core inflation shows little or no sign of picking up, and –  not irrelevantly – the unemployment rate is still above any credible estimates of the long-run sustainable rate.  It is not as if rapid productivity growth is driving prices downward either –  some sort of “good low inflation”.  Instead, there is no aggregate productivity growth.  And few commentators seem to envisage GDP growth (headline or per capita) accelerating from here.  Even if there are some encouraging signs in the world economy at present, it isn’t at all clear to me why one would think the next OCR change was any more likely to be an increase than a cut.

I wouldn’t be pushing for an OCR cut at present, but it isn’t hard to envisage how we might be better off if the OCR was a bit lower than it is now.   I’ve resisted the argument that house price inflation should be an additional factor in OCR decisions, and I’m not about to reverse that stance just because house price inflation is (temporarily?) subdued, but for those who did want to give house price inflation some extra weight even that argument against further OCR cuts probably has to be put to one side for now.

In conclusion, I noticed this paragraph in the BNZ commentary on yesterday’s numbers

What is peculiar to New Zealand, however, is the very confused governance picture we have at the moment. Not only do we have a caretaker governor but we also don’t know who the incoming government is or what its expectations are for future fiscal stimulus, the Policy Targets Agreement and the Reserve Bank Act itself. Until these questions are answered it is very difficult to make any meaningful comment on future RBNZ action with any degree of certainty.

I’d largely agree with all that. It remains possible that the Bank could be operating under a different PTA as soon as next week (it happened to varying degrees in each of 1990, 1996, 1999 and 2008), and even then the (unlawful) caretaker Governor has little or no effective mandate to do anything much, minding the store until a permanent appointee is in place.  Of course, even when all those uncertainties are resolved –  Governor, and any (or no) changes to the PTA or Act – it will still be hard “to make any meaningful comment on future RBNZ action with any degree of certainty”.   Doing so would require a degree of knowledge about future inflation pressures not gifted to central banks, or to private forecasters.  We (more or less) know what we see now, and not much beyond that (ever).

 

 

 

Debate debased

On the Herald website yesterday morning, I noticed a headine “As an immigrant, I’m terrified of Winston Peters”.    I ignored it, as clickbait.  But it was still there last night, so out of curiosity I opened the story.   The Herald is, after all, one of the main media outlets in the country, sometimes still approximating a serious newspaper, and immigration policy is one of the issues that, in a New Zealand context, I’ve given a lot of thought to.

With such a florid, emotionally overwrought, headline, I had low expectations of the article.  But I still wasn’t prepared for what I found.    The author, Ben Mack, is described as a “lifestyle columnist” for the Herald.   His previous columns include a, borderline offensive, piece on “18 reasons why New Zealand is like North Korea”.

He’s an American citizen, and despite the headline isn’t really an immigrant at all.   He is apparently here on a temporary work visa, having previously been here on a student visa.   Quite how the economic prospects of New Zealanders would have been impaired by an apparent shortage of New Zeaaland “lifestyle columnists” isn’t clear, but set that to one side for the moment.   Apparently he has hopes of eventually being granted New Zealand residency and staying on.  Many do, but it isn’t an entitlement.  When you go to a country to work on a temporary visa, you might well have to go home again –  I know, I’ve done it three times.   It is up to New Zealanders, and the New Zealand government, to decide how many people, and who, it allows to settle permanently among us.  That’s not unusual.  It is how pretty much every country in the world operates.  I suspect Barack Obama might have been too conservative to Mr Mack’s tastes and preferences, but under the Obama Administration –  as under the present US government –  the United States grants one-third as many residence visas, per capita, as New Zealand does.

But, as a temporary resident in New Zealand, Mr Mack is apparently “terrified” by Winston Peters – a long-serving democratically elected member of a long-established Parliament.   Why?  Well, that isn’t really clear.

His article begins

Winston Peters is gaslighting the entire country. Sound extreme? If anything, I think it’s an understatement, actually.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “gaslighting” as to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.”

That’s exactly what Mr Peters is doing. And it’s long past time we did something about it.

I’m glad he provided a dictionary definition because I’d never heard of “gaslighting” myself.   I still can’t say I recognise the phenomenon,   And as for “it’s long past time we did something about it”, surely (a) it is called democracy, freedom of expression etc etc –  all that stuff they don’t have in North Korea, and (b) the relevant “we” here is New Zealand citizens and voters (the latter category, even under our unusually liberal law, not including people on temporary work visas).

I get that Winston Peters isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (he isn’t really mine).  In fact, only 7.2 per cent of voters opted for his party.  92.8 per cent didn’t.  That’s almost as many as the 93.7 per cent of voters who didn’t opt for the Green Party.   But, you know, it is democracy.  I’m sure MMP is a strange concept to visiting Americans –  and I’m not a fan of it myself – but it was the freely chosen system adopted by New Zealand voters. If you get 5 per cent of the vote, your party gets seats in Parliament.  Personally, I think the threshold should be lower, but again the rules are the rules and one shouldn’t tamper with them lightly.  New Zealand First has now been around for almost 25 years, and the high point of its electoral support was 1996, when the party got 13.4 per cent of the vote.  And in a proportional representation system –  and such systems are pretty common –  it is rare for a single party to win a majority of seats in Parliament, and in the absence of a taste for “grand coalitions” –  arrangements that undermine the potency of political opposition, a vital part of a parliamentary democracy – that means that at times smallish parties that could readily work with either main party can get to exercise quite a bit of clout.

But –  and here is where a bit of perspective and experience of New Zealand might have come in handy to Mr Mack – not usually that much at all.   New Zealand First was in coalition with National in the mid 1990s –  Winston Peters as Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer –  and it was in partnership with Labour for a few years from 2005 –  Winston Peters serving a Foreign Minister, and generally accepted as having done a reasonable job.   And what changed?  1996 is a while ago now, but I can recall:

  • a small increase in the inflation target, never subsequently reversed,
  • free doctor’s visits for kids under six, never subsequently reversed, and
  • a referendum on reform of New Zealand Superannuation, in which the cause Peters was advocating lost decisively.

Oh, and I think there was a Population Conference.

The 2005 to 2008 term was even less memorable, unless you were a Ministry of Foreign Affairs bureaucrat: their Minister secured them a great deal of additional money and the prospect of various new embassies.

I’m sure there was other stuff, but none of it was transformative.

Whether New Zealand First never made much difference because of Peters’ own limitation as a government politician or because he was always a minority party and legislation actually requires 61 votes, or some combination of the two, or other reasons altogether is an interesting question.  But even if the opposition bark was in some way genuinely “terrifying”, the track record in office has been such as to not leave much trace.

Mack continues

Let me get this out of the way: I have zero respect for a man who, for decades, has made populist xenophobia his stock-and-trade, and who seems to delight in causing misery for entire groups of people (his abuse of the press – people simply doing their jobs like everyone else – is unacceptable enough).

I’m sure in journalism school they do – or did –  encourage people to use words carefully.   And when young journalists didn’t, grizzled sub-editors did it for them.  But perhaps that discipline no longer exists?    The Oxford dictionary –  Mack’s own source –  defines “xenophobia” as a ‘deep-rooted fear of foreigners’.    Perhaps Peters does have that fear –  I’ve never met the man –  but I doubt Mack could produce any serious evidence for it.  Instead, as with many pro-immigration people –  be it the Greens, or the New Zealand Initiative –  “xenophobia” has become a substitute for “thinking that, just possibly, one of the highest rates of immigration in the world might not always be benefiting New Zealanders”.

And I can’t say I have much time for how Peters handles the media but…..it is a free country.

Mack continues

What’s worse is his red herring that he’s “looking out for New Zealanders”, trotting out all kinds of nonsense about how us immigrants are supposedly pushing this great nation to breaking point.

He’s ignoring that it’s immigrants who have helped build this country. It’s thanks to immigrants New Zealand punches far above its weight on the international stage than a nation with fewer people than most big cities has a right to.

Actually, I suspect “breaking point” is Mack putting words in Peters’ mouth.   But I really hope that all the politicians we elect –  and those who sought office but missed out –  could comfortably put their hand on their heart (although I guess that is more of an American idiom) and declare that they are, first and foremost, “looking out for New Zealanders”.   A pretty basic expectation surely?  Reasonable –  and unreasonable –  people might differ on what is in our best interests.  That’s the stuff of politics.  But I’m only interested in voting for parties that are interested in pursuing our best interests.   I suspect all of them fit that bill, even if none align very well with what I personally think of as our best interests.

As for the second paragraph in that little excerpt, I have no idea what he’s talking about.  I’m sure that some of those who’ve immigrated to New Zealand in the last 25 years or so –  the current wave of large scale non-citizen migration –  have made a great contribution.  Most will have done well for themselves (if they hadn’t presumably they’d have gone home again), but in what way does Mr Mack think we now “punch above our weight” more than we were doing in 1990 (say)?  In economic terms, we’ve slipped a bit further down the international league tables in that time.  Hundreds of thousands more New Zealanders have left for the better opportunities they find abroad.  Are our universities better ranked internationally? Our media more influential?   Mostly, what has happened is that our population has grown rapidly and that, compounded with our crazy land use laws, have made housing ever more unaffordable.  And New Zealand firms have found it ever harder to compete internationally.

It’s absolutely gaslighting when you look around and have no idea who is infected with New Zealand First’s noxious anti-immigrant extremism: Co-workers, classmates, friends, family, fellow shoppers at the supermarket, the clerk at the post office, the teller at the bank, the bus driver, the usher at the movie theatre …

Oh, no…..ordinary New Zealanders might share some unease about the rate of immigration in New Zealand.  How unacceptable.  Some economists do too.  And here I’m not just talking about myself.  Gareth Morgan-  who seemed to draw his votes mostly from pretty left-liberal places and professional people –  was expressing some unease too.

When you’re an immigrant like I am, you start to get a bit paranoid, wondering who might secretly want to see you forcibly removed from the country you now call home. Believe me, always having to be suspicious is incredibly damaging to your health and quality of life.

When you come on a temporary visa, you have no entitlement to stay. I quite get that worrying that the rules might change could be unsettling.  But elections are like that, not just in respect of immigration but, for example, pension ages, water rights, taxation of capital assets and so on.  Countries –  their citizens and voters –  get to make choices, and every choice has people on the other side of it.

And then the rhetoric rises to new levels of absurdity

It’s even more frightening when people with influence – like Duncan Garner recently – spout the same extremist views as Peters, then bizarrely claim it’s not xenophobic to say things like “immigration is great, but I’m not sure our traditional standard of living is enhanced by it”.

Yeah, nah bro. That’s dog-whistle politics 101. It’s the same kind of thing Hitler and the Nazis said during their rise to power. It’s the same thing the likes of Richard Spencer, Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland, Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos and others spout with sickening regularity. It’s the kind of hateful rhetoric that has caused real harm.

It’s the kind of hate speech that can get people killed because it can inspire folks to physically attack immigrants.

Lets just state it simply: to prefer a low rate of immigration is not an illegitimate position.  You might think, as I do, that a high rate of immigration to New Zealand has been quite economically damaging to New Zealanders.   You might prefer social cohesion rather than ever-increasing cultural diversity.  You might just prefer to live in a small, sparsely-settled country.  Or you might just fear that politicians will never sort out of the housing market and the only way your kids will get a foothold, under say age 60, is if the population pressures (all policy-induced) are ended.   They are all arguable views –  some about evidence, some just about preferences.  They are conversations societies need to be able to have among themselves, in a mutally respectful way.    As a reminder, there is only one OECD country that actively aspires to take more immigrants than New Zealand does –  and that is Israel, where the door is open to all (but only those) who share the Jewish faith and ancestry.  The New Zealand status quo is exceptional, not normal.  Perhaps it benefits most New Zealanders –  I doubt it –  but that is the issue that should be able to be debated.

Mack continues

You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating again: many immigrants sacrifice literally everything to come to New Zealand for a better life. I am one of them. In coming here, I gave up a well-paying job with serious potential for career advancement at one of the largest news organisations in Europe (an organisation which took a chance on hiring me when I had a woefully skint resume and didn’t speak a word of German at the time).

I had a nice apartment in Berlin, enjoyed the luxuries of living on a continent where I could take a one-hour flight for as little as $30 to experience a completely new culture, and had close friendships with people I’ll never forget (all the more important when you’re like me and struggle with making friends).

To which my reaction is mostly “And……?”     Yes, moving continents on a temporary work visas is a risk.  Plenty of things in life are.  And if you find it difficult to make new friends, sometimes staying at home makes sense.  Recall, that Mack comes from a far richer country than New Zealand, and if by some chance he doesn’t end up getting residence –  something he has no entitlement to –  it isn’t clear why that is our problem.

What truly makes my blood run cold is now Peters has power. Make no mistake: Peters being “kingmaker” is the worst thing to happen to this country in modern times.

I am not exaggerating.

Yes you are.  See 1996 and 2008.    (And personally, I worry a lot more about politicians of all parties who for 25 years, after each election, have done nothing to reverse our slow relative economic decline.)

And he ends – after rants at the unfitness of office of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition

A change in mindset is well overdue. When we watched the 2016 US presidential election with open-mouthed shock, many felt that such a thing could never happen here, that at least a dangerous figure like Trump could never gain power in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Guess what: it’s happened.

We need to galvanise our outrage and fear into action. As much as we might like to, we can’t ignore someone like Peters. His Trumpian style of bigoted nationalism is here, now. Instead, he must be repudiated at every turn. On panels. At press conferences. At political gatherings. At workplaces. At schools. Around dinner tables. Online. Everywhere.

If New Zealand wants to have a prosperous, less hateful future, it’s time to step up, now.

The lives of thousands of people truly depend on it.

The question is: what side of history do you want to be on?

I guess he’s new to the country, a temporary resident at this stage, but has he encountered the difference between a single decision-maker system (all executive authority in the US is vested in the President) and a system of Cabinet government?  In whichever government emerges in the next week or so, members of the National Party or the Labour Party will hold either a majority of the positions, or all the positions.  Perhaps Mr Mack could devote his political energies to securing change in his own country, where he is presumably entitled to vote.

What isn’t clear in any of this is what, specifically, in New Zealand First immigration policy Mr Mack objects to.   I’ve written about it previously, drawing attention to the lack of any real specificity, and the lack of any real change to immigration policy when New Zealand First was part of government.  Personally, I count that as a flaw, but it might be a reason for Mr Mack to consider toning down his hyperventilated rhetoric.   At best –  from the perspective of someone who thinks our immigration policy is much too liberal, whether the immigrants come from Ontario, Oregon, Bangalore, Beijing, Buenos Aires or Birmingham –  we might end up with a system that reduced the average inflow to around the per capita rates Barack Obama was presiding over, in turn more liberal than the systems of many other advanced countries.  But I doubt anything like that will happen, and New Zealand will continue its slow relative decline.  Probably it will always be a nice place to live –  if very remote.  And while I’m not a fan of “what side of history do you want to be on” arguments, I’d prefer to vote for someone –  if there were such a candidate –  who was going to offer a serious prospect of reversing 70 years of relative economic decline for New Zealanders, and on building on the strengths that once made New Zealand one of the very richest and most successful nations on earth.

You might wonder why I bothered devoting so much space to Mr Mack.  His views aren’t, in themselves, very important or, apparently, grounded in much understanding of New Zealand economic history or cross-country comparative experiences.    But his column was published by one of our leading media outlets –  supposedly more than just a portal for any view anyone wants to express.  And it is inconceivable that the same outlet would publish anything so overwrought from someone on the other side of the issue  (  and nor would I encourage them to do so).  It is just the sort of contribution the New Zealand debate doesn’t need.  But, of course, the strong suggestion in Mr Mack’s column is that he isn’t interested in debate, or dialogue…..instead disagreement, in his view, should invite ostracism.

There was a much better piece on The Spinoff last week from Jess Berentson-Shaw of the Morgan Foundation, encouraging serious debate and dialogue on immigration policy issues.   I don’t agree with all of what she has to say – indeed, I suspect that when we got to the details of specific policies we might not agree on much at all –  but it is a much more constructive, eirenic, approach to thinking about how a civilised society can grapple with complex and multi-dimensional issues, in this case immigration.  She was prompted  by the faux furore over Duncan Garner’s recent column

Discussing what we value and what matters in immigration will help. Having a decent framework for the issues that matter is a really good start, so let’s continue along this constructive track. I want to buy my undercrackers in a tolerant society that can talk more reasonably about this stuff.

I might come back to some of his specifics, and her links to a brief paper by Peter Wilson and Julie Fry on a possible framework for evaluating immigration policy.

And finally, when I was responding to David Hall last week –  who objected to any suggestion immigration policy and emissions reduction policy should be linked in New Zealand –  I went back to read his introduction in the BWB Texts book Fair Borders.    Having read that introduction several times, I’m still not quite clear what specific immigration policy he would favour for New Zealand.  But I was struck by this brief comment

To echo an argument by migration scholar Alan Gamlen, if we cannot justify our migration policy while looking into the eyes of those it affects, we need to think again.

And, actually, I agree totally.  But I wonder who doesn’t?  (And actually the same comment could be made for all areas of policy.)   There are many people who are at least emotionally sympathetic to an open borders approach who seem unable to conceive that there might be reasoned, moral, and defensible arguments for –  following the practice of all states –  and putting limits on who might come and settle among us.  But I also suspect that in Hall’s quite “the eyes of those it affects” doesn’t include the New Zealanders who are already here.  Economic prosperity and stable ordered societies aren’t mostly a matter of luck, but of consistent discipline and hard work over centuries.  Successful societies need to guard what they’ve built –  not in some in insular sense, closed to outside ideas, or even in some sense of “our wealth is at the expense of your poverty” (it just isn’t) – but because what is hard- and painstakingly built can be too easily corroded, put at risk, and eventually destroyed.    They are particularly important economic considerations for an extremely remote nation with few obvious economic opportunities, which has already been in relative economic decline for 70 years.

 

 

 

Active monetary policy exists because unemployment matters

Monetary policy as we know it today –  discretionary choices made by central banks (or Ministers) –  is a relatively new thing.    Of course, money has been around for a very long time, and the state has often had a role in specifying the metal content of various units of money, and (not unrelatedly) what money was acceptable in settlement of tax obligations.  But there was no such thing as “monetary policy” in, say, the 16th century –  when prices rose across Europe, it was because the additional gold and silver being mined in South America, adding to purchasing power of (first) Spaniards and then more generally.     The gold rushes of the mid 19th century –  in which New Zealand had a small part –  had qualitatively similar effects.

Even in the heyday of the classical Gold Standard –  the few decades prior to World War One –  when central banks did exist in a growing number of countries (although not, for example, the US, Australia, Canada or New Zealand, there wasn’t much to monetary policy.  Convertibility into gold, at a fixed (government-set) parity, was at the heart of the regime, and variations in official interest rates –  eg by the Bank of England or the Banque de France – were largely about managing pressures on gold reserves.   If there was a net loss of reserves from the UK, the Bank of England would typically raise its interest rates.  It wasn’t a mechanical process, and central banks would at times borrow from each other to tide themselves over what were thought to be purely temporary pressures.   In places without central banks –  New Zealand was an example –  banks were obliged by law to convert their notes into gold on demand.  Banks themselves had to manage pressures on their own reserves –  whether gold, or balances held with banks in London –  by altering the interest rates they offered, and varying their credit standards (tightening credit would reduce demand for imports).

Across much of the world, World War One disrupted these arrangements.  New Zealand suspended gold convertibility on the outbreak of the war, and never restored it.  Much of the world attempted to go back onto gold in the 1920s – the UK famously restoring convertibility in 1925 –  as part of trying to restore normalcy and monetary stability.  But the restoration didn’t last.  Many authors see the attempt to return to gold, in a somewhat hybridized manner, as a key cause of the Great Depression, and by the mid 1930s the Gold Standard had been largely abandoned.  The imperatives of short to medium-term macroeconomic stabilisation displaced the belief in fixed parities.  Voters –  this was the new age of universal suffrage –  demanded that governments “do something”.  And the evidence is pretty clear that countries that went off gold earliest –  or devalued earliest –  recovered soonest from the Depression.  The imperative of doing something about really severe cyclical unemployment drove monetary actions and monetary regime choices, including the establishment in 1934 of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.

There was an attempt after World War Two to re-establish something that looked like a system based on gold (the US offered governments –  only –  convertibility into gold, while other countries had fixed exchange rates to the US dollar), but it was a much different beast.  Most countries had quite tight controls on cross-border capital flows –  of the sort that had not previously existed in peacetime in democratic societies –  which allowed countries to use counter-cyclical domestic fiscal and monetary policy to do more to promote something akin to full employment, without too readily putting the exchange rate pegs in jeopardy.   It didn’t end the business cycle (of course), and didn’t avoid periodic exchange rate crises but for a time –  a couple of decades –  it more or less worked.  But pushed too far, under pressure of various political and demographic shocks, it broke down into the era of the Great Inflation –  loosely, from around the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s.

And thus monetary policy as we recognise it today really only dates back a few decades.  The major Western economies floated their exchange rates in the early 1970s, New Zealand and Australia did in the mid 1980s, and some advanced OECD countries (eg Sweden and Norway) only did so in the 1990s.  Tiny Iceland only floated in 2001.  Inflation targeting –  whether formally (as pioneered by New Zealand) or less formally –  makes sense only in the context of a pretty flexible (probably floating) exchange rate.  It is a regime that exist with twin goals in mind, whether or not they are written down in statute book somewhere or not.

Floating your currency allows a country to choose its own inflation rate.   That was a big consideration in the 70s and 80s: if, like Switzerland, you wanted to maintain low inflation, you couldn’t do so with a fixed exchange rate to the rest of the world that was running an inflation rate of 10 per cent.  But it also allows your country to cope better with severe adverse real economic shocks; in particular shocks specific (or more intense than typical) to your particular country.    I wrote last week about the Finnish situation in the late 80s and early 90s.    We had it pretty tough here during that period, but it was nothing like as bad as the Finnish experience – despite big structural reforms going on at the same time –  because we had our own monetary policy and could allow interest rates to fall, and the exchange rate, when times turned tough.   We didn’t give up on inflation – in fact this was the period we were getting inflation to target for the first time –  but we had an institutional arrangement that provided a better mix of low inflation and somewhat-mitigated real economic downturns.    (In fact, it wasn’t so different back in the 1960s when, faced with a big fall in the terms of trade, New Zealand chose to devalue its nominal exchange rate –  an active monetary choice –  rather than attempt to force the adjustment through lower domestic prices and wages.  Most observers –  then and now –  would have thought that alternative would have been much more costly, in unemployment and lost output.)

All of this so far is really a rather long prelude to articulating a disagreement with an eminent former colleague.

Last week, Reuters ran an article under the heading “New government in New Zealand could spell changes for pioneering central bank”, with a particular focus on what a Labour-led government might mean.   The article quoted various people (including me –  my own thoughts were elaborated here) but the comments that caught my eye were those by Arthur Grimes.  These days Arthur is a researcher at Motu –  mostly focused on issues other than macroeconomics –  a professor (of wellbeing and public policy), and generally one of the “great and the good” of New Zealand economics (president of the Association of Economists etc).  But in his younger days he spent 15 years or so at the Reserve Bank, rising to Head of Economics and then Head of Financial Markets before leaving for the private sector and academe.  In that time, he was one of those closely involved from the Bank’s side in the design of the Reserve Bank Act, and was also involved in the practical development of inflation targeting (the two developed in parallel).    Later, he ended up on the Reserve Bank’s Board, serving as chair of the Board until about four years ago.   As chair of the Board, he probably should be seen as having had prime responsibility for the appointment of Graeme Wheeler as Governor.    In many respects, were he to be interested, Grimes could have been the best of the status quo candidates to replace Wheeler permanently.

Grimes is pretty deeply committed to the status quo on monetary policy (I’m not sure what his views now would be on single decisionmaker vs a committee, although interestingly he has been a longserving Board member of the Financial Markets Authority,  where decisionmaking responsibility rests with the Board not the chief executive).

And that commitment to the status quo was on display in the Reuters article.

“It’s a huge change. We’ve had over 25 years of an extraordinarily successful monetary policy that has been copied around the world,” said Arthur Grimes, RBNZ’s chief economist in the early 1990s and Board Chair between 2003 and 2013. Any change without careful consideration and analysis would be “extraordinary”, he added.

For 28 years, New Zealand’s central bank has had the single aim of keeping inflation between a set range. But Labour wants to add employment to the bank‘s mandate, a goal shared by NZ First which also wants to broaden the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s (RBNZ) focus to include greater management of the local dollar’s value against other currencies.

Grimes, however, argues that history proves monetary policy cannot have a sustained impact on employment.

“It would be like having someone who is running for health minister argue for a cancer drug to be used for heart issues,” said Grimes

I’m not sure what benchmarks Grimes is using to describe New Zealand’s monetary policy as “extraordinarily successful”.  There is no doubt that inflation has been much lower and more stable than it was in the 1970s and 1980s –  although not much different than it was in the 15 years prior to 1967 –  but that is true almost everywhere.  So if one is going to argue that the specifics of the way the New Zealand target/Act are specified have been “extraordinarily successful”, and need protecting, one would need to show that that particular specification has led us to have better outcomes than, say, other advanced countries that did inflation targeting differently, that specified things (formally) less tightly, than put less emphasis on formalised accountability mechanisms, or which even kept “dual mandate” types of language in their statutes and official communications/rhetoric.    The United States and Australia might be obvious cases to look at.  But it would be impossible, as far as I can see, to demonstrate such superior New Zealand performance.

Now it is no doubt true that the New Zealand (and near-parallel Canadian) early experiences with inflation targeting did influence other countries’ choices to some extent.  But it would be flattering (and fooling) ourselves to suppose that the specifics of the New Zealand model have been widely copied at all.    Indeed, in several important areas –  including governance/accountability –  what is striking is how few countries have gone the same way we did.   We remain, I think, the only inflation targeting country to have (a) twice changed its target, and (b) where monetary policy has been an election issue for some parliamentary parties or other every single election since the 1989 Act was passed.  Even on the specification of the mandate, a Reserve Bank Bulletin article a few years ago highlighted just how a wide a range of ways mandates and overarching goal for monetary policy are specified even among advanced country inflation targeters.    It is not, after all, as if what the Labour Party has proposed involves tossing out inflation targeting.  That would indeed be extraordinarily bold – not necessarily wrong, as there are plausible alternatives bruited about internationally – without a lot more work.  But simply adding a formal statutory recognition that we have active discretionary monetary policy because of concerns about shocks that can take unemployment well away from its full employment (non-inflationary) level isn’t radical or extraordinary at all.

Analogies can be powerful rhetorical devices, so it is always worth testing analogies that people propose to see if they capture a useful and valid point or not.  And it was Grimes’s analogy that really prompted this post.  He suggests that adding something –  and recall that all of us are reacting to a general point not specific proposed wording –  about unemployment to the Reserve Bank’s statutory monetary policy mandate

“It would be like having someone who is running for health minister argue for a cancer drug to be used for heart issues,” said Grimes

And that is simply an invalid analogy (assuming, as I imagine both Grimes and I do as non-medical laymen, that there is no connection between cancer drugs and heart issues).  It is generally recognised that monetary choices can have output and employment consequences and that, at times, those effects can be large, and persistent enough to be troubling for individuals and (voting) populations.     Of course, no one argues (I think) that monetary policy choices today will affect the unemployment rate 15 years hence.  If there are problems there, you need a different set of tools (labour market reforms, welfare reforms etc).  But a succession of monetary policy choices today can, if mistaken, leave the unemployment rate away from a long-term sustainable rate for some considerable time.   One could mount a plausible argument –  for example –  that the fact that the New Zealand unemployment rate has been above all official estimates of the NAIRU for some years now, while at the same time core inflation has been below target, might be one of those examples.  Choices –  risks taken, or not, under uncertainty –  have consequences.

And that sort of example (demand shocks, or surprises) is the easy case –  after all, getting inflation back to target and getting unemployment down work in the same direction.  For plenty of shocks it works the other way.  A big boost to oil prices tends to raise CPI inflation.  Attempting to prevent, or reverse, those inflation effects can only be done by monetary policy actions that would raise unemployment.   The Reserve Bank –  and those setting its specific goals –  have always considered that would (normally) be an inappropriate response.  In those circumstances, we allow a bit more inflation temporarily –  and a permanently higher price level –  to avoid unnecessary departures of the unemployment rate from its sustainable level.   We articulated that logic in public right from the very first days of inflation targeting (it is explicit in the first Monetary Policy Statements –  which I wrote and Grimes commented on).

Don’t get me wrong. There are some arguments for not including the unemployment references in the Reserve Bank Act. I was persuaded by them for a long time, even if I no longer am.    But they are fine judgements at the margin, nothing remotely like the suggestion of snake-oil peddling implicit in Arthur Grimes’ medical analogy.    Price and wage rigidities –  that exist for rational and efficient reasons –  mean that in the short to medium term, targeting inflation and targeting unemployment are inextricably linked (not mechancially, but inextricably).

Other people recognise this.   I’ve linked previously to the writings of leading academic in the field, Lars Svensson (also former monetary policy board member in Sweden, and former independent reviewer of New Zealand monetary policy), who favours explicit statutory recognition of the role that deviations of unemployment from a long-run sustainable rate play in monetary policy.    The Reuters article quotes Phil Lowe, current RBA Governor, in defence of such language in the RBA Act (although I’d argue that the RBA experience illustrates that words make less difference than people).  Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke have similarly been comfortable in the United States, and although Alan Greenspan was a well-known hard money man (favouring, at least in principle, a “true zero” inflation average), (a) he was never that keen on inflation targeting itself, preferring to keep a considerable measure of discretion to himself, and (b) he was not averse to talking about unemployment (“we are keenly interested in what we can do to maximise sustainable employment growth and to reduce unemployment” as his biographer records him noting at a Jackson Hole conference at which Don Brash was one of the speakers).

So, of course, the specific wording a Labour-led government might seek to introduce  –  should things go their way –  should be carefully scrutinised.  But it wouldn’t be extraordinary at all to make such a change, rather it would be a pretty straightforward translation into statute of the reasons why we have a discretionary and active monetary policy in the first place.   If we didn’t care about the output and employment consequences of adjusting to shocks, we might as well just go back to the Gold Standard, or a fixed exchange rate.

Not a word of this would be particularly surprising to Arthur Grimes.  A few years ago, on leaving the Reserve Bank Board, he gave a series of lectures in the UK on central banking.   They were a pretty robust defence of the status quo, broadly defined.  In some places, I thought he claimed too much, but the underlying economics wasn’t much different than anything I’ve articulated here.   There was, for example, a nice piece on the exchange rate system headed “A floating exchange rate is the worst exchange rate regime (except for all the others that have been tried)”.  I’d agree with him entirely.  And what reasons does he give?  This is from his conclusion

Third, dynamics do matter. The evidence shows that countries that adopt a hard peg may experience greater persistence in economic cycles than those with a floating currency. If domestic prices and costs can adjust easily, a hard peg may not be problematic. But in a country with sluggish domestic price adjustment, the hard peg can result in persistent real sector imbalances as we have seen both in the upward and downward direction for several Euro-zone countries.

If we rule out a soft peg as being the worst of all worlds, how should a country decide whether to adopt a hard peg or a floating rate? The trade-offs are complex: How flexible is domestic price adjustment? How diverse are the country’s trading partners, and hence what are the effective currency impacts of pegging to a specific country or bloc? How likely is it that a government will adopt sensible economic reforms under one or other regime?

In the end, a floating rate appears to have advantages, especially in relation to persistence of real sector variables, over a hard peg. However, if the political economy is such that a country with weak policies is more likely to adopt reforms under a hard peg than under a float, then it may be better for it to retain a hard peg and be forced to reform its other policy settings.

Ultimately, in terms of long run economic performance, the choice of regime does not matter much, so we cannot expect substantive changes in long term outcomes through a change in the exchange rate regime. But while the long term destination may not change, the quality of the ride does differ depending on the chosen vehicle.

Ignoring unemployment in choosing monetary policy regimes, and conducting monetary policy, might be more like caring only about the speed at which one drove from Auckland to Wellington, not the comfort or the safety of the journey.    No one does.  In practice, no one ignores unemployment in monetary policy design either.  The question is whether explicit recognition of that fact, in statute or even in the Policy Targets Agreement, in conjuction with the appointment of a good Governor, might (a) assist communications, around what the Reserve Bank really exists for, and (b) at times, produce better outcomes, and better accountability for performance against the unemployment dimension of what we care about in monetary policy management.   Reasonable people can reach different conclusions on that point, but whichever side one lands it simply isn’t a terribly radical choice.  And, on the other hand, the status quo –  whether around the Bank itself, or short to medium term, economic outcomes, or the ongoing political debate around these issues-  isn’t so obviously superior that we should not explore alternatives.

Property prices gone crazy: Island Bay edition

Much of the media coverage of the housing market in recent months has been on prices having levelled off, or even fallen back a bit in some places.   Such things happen –  regulatory interventions have an affect for a time, elections create risks of new regulatory interventions, credit standards ebb and flow, as do restrictions on Chinese capital flows –  without necessarily signalling any more fundamental change in the market.    I noticed a Canadian article just the other day highlighting that in Vancouver house prices are already back up to the levels they were before the substantial tax on non-resident foreign buyers was imposed.  That shouldn’t be surprising.  The big trends in house prices are mostly about land use restrictions.  Neither in Vancouver nor in New Zealand have those restrictions been materially liberalised in ways that might foreshadow a significant structural fall in house prices.     And with the leaders of both our major political parties unwilling to suggest that lower house prices would be a good thing, it is difficult to be optimistic that that situation will change here, no matter which group of parties finally gets to form a government.

The situation in Auckland is, of course, far more serious than in the rest of the country.   Million dollar houses are two a penny there.   But the other day, I heard of a house sale in my own suburb, Island Bay, that left me pretty gobsmacked about the extent of the unjust redistributions of wealth that central and local governments have continued to enable and exact.

It was this house, 34 Derwent St

34 derwent st

It looks to have been very nicely restored (see the photos) but:

  • it is 113 sq metres only, with a single bathroom,
  • it is only 429 sq metres of land,
  • it has no views, and
  • as you see from the photo, it is in under a hill (on the west side, from whence would come the afternoon sun) and is very close to the house on the north.

And yet two months ago it sold for $1,047,000.

If you don’t value sun, it is quite conveniently located: there is a supermarket just around one corner, and a cinema just around another.  The bus stop is perhaps 100 metres away, and the primary school perhaps 200 metres away.

But it isn’t the most salubrious part of the street (nothing wrong with it, but they are mostly smaller workers’ cottages dating from around 1910), and did I mention the hill and the lack of sun?    Island Bay is a pleasant family spot, with a safe and swimmable beach (even if the water is not much above freezing even in February), but it is a typically a degree or two cooler than the inner city, let alone than seaside places a bit further north in greater Wellington.   It isn’t exactly Grey Lynn, even in proximity to the central city.

As a teenager, I lived a bit further down the same street, albeit in a somewhat sunnier spot (having come from Auckland, we bemoaned the lack of sun even there).  And my own first house was couple of hundred metres away.  That house was much the same size as 34 Derwent St –  although nowhere as nice as the newly-renovated interior – on a section that was almost 50 per cent larger.  It had limited morning sun, but at least got good afternon sun, and had a modicum of a view.  I sold that house in January 1995 for (in today’s dollars) $235000.    There has been some productivity (and real income) growth since then –  but real GDP per hour worked is up only 26 per cent.

How have we allowed the market to become so rigged and dysfunctional that 34 Derwent St now sells for $1,047,000?   Why do none of the main political parties appear to have the courage and vision to want to change this?    What, in their plans, would prevent the situation continuing to get worse –  wealth transferred from the young to the old, from those without to those with?