I saw this Bernard Hickey piece yesterday afternoon, and have been mulling on it since.
Finance Minister Bill English has admitted the Government and Reserve Bank are in discussions with banks to ensure they don’t prematurely force dairy farmers into mortgagee sales that could trigger a dangerous spiral lower in land values.
If accurately reported (which it may not be), it is somewhat disconcerting. What bothers me is the notion that the Minister of Finance (and perhaps the Governor of the Reserve Bank, although there is no confirmation of any involvement by the Bank) thinks he knows better than banks how to run their own businesses. Ministers of Finance often aren’t very good at presiding over the government’s own businesses – Solid Energy or Kiwirail anyone?
During the 2008/09 recession I did quite a lot of work at Treasury on dairy debt. Debt, and dairy land prices, had run up extremely rapidly in the previous few years, and there was concern about what the fall in commodity prices, and the seizing up in international funding markets, might mean for the dairy sector as a whole, and for those who financed them. I reminded the perennial optimists that the long-term real average dairy payout had been around $4.50 and that it would seem unwise to be planning (whatever one might hope for) on anything much higher in the medium-term future.
During that period, I took to describing dairy debt as “New Zealand’s subprime”. My point here was not that large losses were inevitable (in fact, in that episode NPLs did pick up quite notably, although not in a systemically-threatening way), but that the nature of the risk exposures were not generally well understood. At the time, banks were very dependent on wholesale market funding, and few offshore investors appreciated just how large New Zealand banks’ exposures to farms were (I recall checking out the US flow of funds data and finding that in an economy 100 times our size, farm debt in the US was only around 10 times that in New Zealand).
It was also never entirely clear that the Australian parents really appreciated the scale of the dairy debt boom, and competitive credit-supply war, their New Zealand subsidiaries had gotten into. And, of course, the market in agricultural land was not the most liquid in the world – like many markets there was reasonable liquidity in booms, and almost none in busts. That illiquidity meant that it was very difficult for anyone to know the true value of the collateral underpinning dairy debt. As it was, dairy land prices fell very sharply (and never subsequently fully recovered the boom time peaks) even with very few forced sales. One of the risks of lending secured on farm land was that if one lender got very worried and starting a round of forced sales, it would seriously undermine the market value of the collateral other banks were holding. They all knew that – and they also knew about the goodwill in the rural community that had been burned off in the period of financial stress in the 1980s. And that created an incentive for what I describe as “hand-holding” – each tacitly agreeing (probably not in ways that create legal difficulties) to approach forced sales very very cautiously. That might seem a good outcome in some respects, albeit at the expense of transparency. In 2009 perhaps, with hindsight, it was: the downturn in dairy prices proved short-lived, and the recovery in the payout bought time for banks to manage out of their worst exposures.
But we didn’t know then, and we don’t know now, how long the low payouts will last for, and what either a market-clearing or equilibrium price for dairy land is. And when I say “we”, I include experts, stray bloggers, and the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Reserve Bank. Uncertainty is a key feature of economic life, and one that people in positions of power too readily underestimate. There is probably a selection bias – people without a strong self-belief (and belief in their own views) tend not to end up at the top of politics. In some dimensions, the current position seems more worrying than the 2009 episode. Not much new debt has been taken on in recent years, and there hasn’t been a recent spiralling-up in land values. That suggests little risk of a systemic threat to the health of the banking system (but as I have noted previously it is not clear that the minimum risk weights the Reserve Bank requires on dairy exposures are really high enough). But, on the other hand, whatever is dragging milk prices so deeply down now is not the side-effect of a global liquidity crisis, the direct effects of which were reversed pretty quickly. Global commodity prices have now been trending down for several years, and there is little obvious reason to expect the trend to be reversed – although no doubt there will be plenty of volatility.
Perhaps there is nothing more to this story than a natural politician’s desire to sound sympathetic to business owners who find themselves in difficult conditions. I hope so. But the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Reserve Bank hold a lot of power over banks, and the fact that those statutory powers exist suggests it is even more important that the Governor and Minister avoid putting pressure on banks to make decisions that might suit a politician, but might not be in the interests of bank shareholders. Banks aren’t popular, but they are legitimate and important businesses, who are expected to make a return and act in the best long-term interests of shareholders. Plenty of times some discerning forbearance may have helped through a key customer in difficult times, but forbearance – whether by bank or regulator – can also be a recipe for worse problems, and bigger losses, down the track. The risks of that are much greater when people with no financial stake weigh in to try to tilt the attitudes of lenders. Neither the Minister nor the Governor has the information to make those calls well regarding dairy debt. In the Governor’s case, it is little more than a year since he gave this relentlessly optimistic speech, and I’m sure that without too much difficulty I could find similar examples from the Minister of Finance – it is, after all what ministers do.
Here is a link to my own piece on dairy debt from a couple of months ago.