The role of fiscal policy has been much-debated in recent years. I think the consensus view now is that discretionary adjustments to fiscal policy make little difference to GDP in normal times, because monetary policy typically acts to offset any demand effects. By contrast, if interest rates can’t go any lower (or central banks for whatever reason are reluctant to take them lower) then discretionary fiscal policy adjustments can have quite material impacts on near-term GDP behaviour.
These debates focus on demand effects. If the government spends less, without changing tax policy, spending across the economy as a whole is likely to be dampened to some extent, all else equal. But there are also stories about confidence effects. If the overall economic and fiscal situation is sufficiently fragile, then in principle tough and credible new fiscal initiatives could lift confidence sufficiently that the confidence effects overwhelm the demand effects. This was the vaunted “expansionary fiscal contraction”. I’m not sure I could point to any examples in advanced countries, but others read the evidence and case studies a little differently. I’m not wanting to buy into debates about Greece here – but “credible” was perhaps the operative word in the previous sentence.
Before 2008, there was a variety of historical episodes that people often turned to when looking at the effects of fiscal contractions. The UK experience in the early 1980s and the Canadian experience in the mid-1990s got a lot of attention. I think the best read on the Canadian episode (with more extensive treatment here) was that substantial fiscal contraction did not have adverse effects on the Canadian economy because interest rates fell sharply,the Canadian exchange rate fell in response, and the United States – Canada’s largest trading partner – was growing strongly.
And then there was New Zealand’s experience around 1990/91. After several years of significant fiscal consolidation (which had been sufficient to generate material primary surpluses), new fiscal imbalances had become apparent by late 1990. In a major package of measures in December 1990, and in the 1991 Budget, substantial cuts to government spending were made. In combination with the earlier efforts (which were probably more important), these cuts helped lay the foundation for the subsequent decade or more of surpluses.
Former director of the Business Roundtable, the late Roger Kerr, was prone to argue that it was an example of an expansionary fiscal contraction. I’ve repeatedly argued that it wasn’t. Certainly, the recession troughed at much the same time as the 1991 Budget and the subsequent recovery was pretty strong. And, as Kerr noted, the academic economists who publicly argued that the fiscal contraction could only depress the economy further and would prove largely self-defeating ended up looking a little silly. But the recovery had much more to do with the very substantial fall in real interest rates – as inflation was finally beaten – a substantial fall in the exchange rate, and with the recoveries in other advanced economies than with any confidence effects resulting from the tough fiscal policy measures. By mid-1991, the new National government’s political position was so fragile that no one could have any great confidence that the fiscal stringency that was announced would be sustained (and, indeed, several of the higher profile measures were subsequently reversed). The rest of the macroeconomic policy framework, including the Reserve Bank Act, were in jeopardy. Elected in October 1990 with a record majority, the National party was 15-20 points behind in the polls only a year later, and only scraped narrowly back into government in 1993.
A few years ago, there was renewed debate here around the appropriate pace of fiscal consolidation. At the time, the government had large deficits, and the exchange rate had risen uncomfortably strongly from the 2009 lows. Some argued for a faster pace of fiscal consolidation, arguing that to do so would ease pressure on interest rates and the exchange rate. It had been the thrust of Treasury advice, and some outsiders were also making the case. Among them was then private citizen Graeme Wheeler, who had had a meeting with John Key and Bill English and had reportedly cited the experience on 1991, noting that monetary policy could offset any demand effects of faster fiscal consolidation. Reports of this conversation had been passed back to the Reserve Bank.
Not many people at the Reserve Bank knew much about that earlier period. Newly-returned to the Reserve Bank from a secondment to Treasury, I wrote an internal paper discussing the interplay between fiscal and monetary policy over 1990 and 1991, including addressing some of the “expansionary fiscal contraction” arguments. It drew extensively on previously published material, on the now-archived files I had maintained during the late 1980s and early 1990s (as manager responsible for the Bank’s Monetary Policy (analysis and advice) section, and from my private diaries.
The Reserve Bank finally released this paper yesterday, with a limited number of deletions (I have appealed these deletions to the Ombudsman, given that they relate to events of 25 years ago, and in some cases involve deleting quotes from my own private diaries). The Bank is obviously uncomfortable about the paper. Despite the fact that the paper draws extensively from contemporary records – most of which are in the Bank’s archives – and was run past (in draft) several of senior people from the Reserve Bank in the early 1990s, the Bank has included a disclaimer on each page suggesting that the paper is primarily based on my memories, which it can’t vouch for. But, to be clear, it draws primarily on contemporary records, trying to document and explain historical events, and then to interpret them to an audience used to different ways of conducting monetary policy. Different people may read the same evidence in different ways, and access to a fuller range of records could alter some perspectives. As an example, while my files had copies of many Treasury papers, and records of many meetings with Treasury officials, I did not have access to a full set of Treasury papers comparable to the collection of Bank papers I used. As background, Graeme Wheeler was the Treasury’s Director of Macroeconomics in 1991.
A copy of the paper is here (two separate links, as that is how I got it from them).
This was an extremely tense period. The Reserve Bank Act had come into effect on 1 February 1990, and although both main parties officially supported it, it was contentious in both caucuses. In the National Party caucus, Sir Robert Muldoon and Winston Peters had been the leading sceptics. The Labour Party was almost equally split, and Jim Anderton had left the party over the direction of economic policy. Going into the 1990 election, no one knew which wing would dominate the (probable) new National government, nor which tack the Labour Party would take once it was in Opposition. Economic times were tough, and patience with the Reserve Bank was wearing rather thin as the disinflationary years dragged on. It wasn’t helped by the system for implementing monetary policy that we were using (documented here) which at one point led to our efforts being described by Ruth Richardson in Parliament as comparable to those of Basil Fawlty in the comedy classic. (Treasury and the Bank were actively at odds over the implementation arrangements – they variously hankered after money base targets or, on occasion, exchange rate rules).
Last night I reread some of my diaries from the period, and dipped into Ruth Richardson’s book, and Paul Goldsmith’s biography of Don Brash, and was reminded just how fraught the period was. We spent most of 1991 not knowing whether, or how long, the monetary policy framework would last, and whether the senior management would survive. Ruth Richardson records that even at the end of 1991 when the worst of the pressures were beginning to ease, the Prime Minister Jim Bolger, in a meeting of senior ministers, canvassed the possibility of changing the Reserve Bank Act to provide an impetus to growth.
The Bank had for some time publicly argued that there was no problem with the exchange rate. As a result the Bank’s position with the new government was not helped by a change of stance quite late in the piece: the new view was that a lower real exchange rate was likely to be required to rebalance the New Zealand economy. This was an important theme in the Reserve Bank’s 1990 post-election briefing, and took the incoming Minister of Finance quite by surprise. The Reserve Bank openly making the case for a lower exchange rate seemed to provide ammunition for some of her caucus and Cabinet colleagues who were less convinced of the overriding importance of macroeconomic stabilisation.
She would have been more aghast had she realised that until the very eve of the election the Reserve Bank had been planning to recommend stepping back from the 0-2 per cent inflation target itself. This had been the outcome of some mix of unease over how (excessively) mechanical the first Policy Targets Agreement had been, and a wish to allow room for the desired depreciation in the exchange rate. The suggestion had been to keep a medium to longer-term focus on a 0-2 target, or perhaps redefine it to 1-2 per cent, but to add a 0-4 per cent “accountability range”, within which inflation could fluctuate without triggering severe accountability consequences. We stepped back from that recommendation at the last minute, in large part because of the view that to have recommended that sort of change would have left Ruth Richardson out to dry, as the only defender of a 0-2 per cent target, exposing her to (in the words of my diary two days before the election) “Peters’ and Muldoon’s ridicule and Bolger’s incomprehension”.
In terms of the fiscal policy dimensions, one of the Reserve Bank’s deletions in from this extract from my diary a couple of days after the election:
We had a marathon session in Don’s office (from 8-11) going thru para by para agreeing on a text with DTB finally showing his impatience with the last minute chaos. Changed fiscal tack in favour of a tough stance now, to help cement-in any exchange rate depn and, as important as anything it seemed, to help the Richardson faction in Cabinet.
What this captures is the somewhat uncomfortable extent to which the Reserve Bank (and Treasury, as we shall see) in this period were focused on supporting, or at least not undermining, those political players supporting the sorts of frameworks and reforms that the Bank and Treasury favoured. In the Bank, senior management came to a view in 1991 that saving the framework (the Act) was, for now, more important than price stability itself (as least in the short-term). Sceptics of this stategy – I was one – caricatured it as “the Reserve Bank Act is more important than price stability”.
Even with the benefit of long hindsight, I’m not sure what to make of the approach taken at the time. On the one hand, it is somewhat distasteful – neither the Governor nor the rest of us were elected – but on the other hand, perhaps it is just what inevitably happens in any fraught and controversial period. As it happens, we probably gave quite unnecessary ammunition to the opponents of reform through this period. In small part this was because we communicated badly and ran an implementation system that – with hindsight – was pretty bizarre. But more importantly, we held monetary policy too tight for too long – not to make any points, or reinforce any positions, but simply because we misread how strong the disinflationary forces were by then. In a serious recession, that was black mark against the Bank (and I was one of the more hawkish people on the Reserve Bank side).
During 1991, the Treasury became very focused on supporting the political position of Ruth Richardson as Minister of Finance. Some of this is captured in the paper. But much of I didn’t include, since the focus of the paper had been on the fiscal/monetary interplay. On page 15 of the paper, the Bank seems to have deleted some of this extract from my 4 September diary”
David [Archer] and I had lunch with Graeme Wheeler and Howard [Fancy] and were treated to a litany of gloom, of how we needed to be supporting the macro policy mix and helping get the recovery going and being very concerned about the political risks. As GW said “I wouldn’t want history to look back on me as a policymaker and say that in my confidence about the framework I hadn’t taken adequate precautions” – referring to the Bank. He was going on about how we had a “near-perfect” mon pol framework for the medium-term but that at the moment we needed to be more flexible. Both were concerned to play down 0-2, with vacuous waffle about “best endeavours” but taking the view that, in effect, 2-4% inflation wouldn’t worry them. ….. Apparently Bolger is getting worried about 1981/1932 re-runs: mass demonstrations, violence in the streets etc.
Only a few months previously the Treasury had been openly sceptical that macro policy was sufficiently tight. It wasn’t always clear how well Treasury was reading the politics either – I had a very good relationship with Ruth Richardson’s own economic adviser, Martin Hames, and on the evening of the deleted extract above I recorded a long conversation with Martin in which “he still claims there are no real threats: says things were a lot worse at times in Oppn”.
This has been become rather a long post. It is partly about providing some context for those who think about reading the whole paper. Here are a few of my bottom lines:
- Had we been running a now-conventional system of monetary policy implementation, many of the less important of these tensions and ructions would not have arisen. When demand and inflation ease – whatever the source – the OCR is generally cut.
- While, with the benefit of hindsight, New Zealand was probably always going to settle at a low inflation rate (all other advanced economies did) that wasn’t remotely clear at the time. In particular, the initial passage, and the survival, of the Reserve Bank Act was a much closer-run thing than is generally recognised. Infant mortality was a real threat
- Neither the Reserve Bank nor the Treasury covered themselves with glory through this period in their macroeconomic analysis and policy advice.
 Murray Sherwin presciently argued that we should adopt an OCR. I’m still embarrassed by the note I wrote in response to that suggestion.
 David was the Bank’s deputy chief economist, and Howard was Treasury’s macro deputy secretary.