I’m still puzzling over the academic who told Radio New Zealand’s listeners yesterday that he didn’t agree with me that New Zealand was remote: “we are, after all, in the middle of this great ocean, the Pacific”. I keep looking at the globe, conscious that perhaps I have a eurocentric view of the world, but….we still look about as remote as they come. And it is a sort of remoteness which, historically, hasn’t been conducive to really high levels of economic performance for lots of people (see Tristan de Cunha, St Helena, Bouvet, and even Samoa, Kiribati, or Fiji). Henry Kissinger is reported to have described Chile as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica”. Much the same could be said of New Zealand, one of the Antarctic Rim countries.
But, on another topic, I noticed that Kiwibank and NZ Post were in the news this morning.
Late last week, Radio Live was reporting a story that Kiwibank was being prepared for sale, and they asked for my thoughts on that. That interview is here.
There was never a good economic case for setting up Kiwibank. Our banking market was, and is, pretty competitive, and there were few material regulatory barriers to new entrants. And the historical track record, here and abroad, is that government-owned banks are more prone to getting into costly trouble than private-owned banks (and some of them cause quite enough trouble). In a modern New Zealand context, think of the Bank of New Zealand, DFC, and the (different sort of case of the) Rural Bank. Overseas, examples abound.
But, of course, the case for Kiwibank was never mostly about economics. It was mostly about nationalism, and some mix of political product differentiation and the political circle turning. Jim Anderton has resigned from the Labour Party in 1989, having been suspended from Labour’s caucus when he refused to vote for the sale of the Bank of New Zealand (then still predominantly government-owned). And now Jim Anderton was back, as Deputy Prime Minister in a Labour-Alliance government. Not only could the government own businesses, but it could – so it was claimed – build good new ones. This speech by Jim Anderton captures the flavour. This centre-left government would be different from its predecessor, and the establishment of Kiwibank would be one important marker of that difference.
The Reserve Bank and (more importantly) Treasury opposed the establishment of Kiwibank. There weren’t obvious gaps in the market that other new entrants couldn’t fill, and establishing any new business is risky.
The National Party opposed the establishment of Kiwibank, but has never been willing to commit to selling it (in full or in part), even when Don Brash was leader in the 2005 election.
The actual track record of Kiwibank has been less bad than many of the opponents feared. NZ Post was able to recruit some capable people who have built a reasonably substantial bank, that now has around $19 billion of assets. Kiwibank grew very rapidly in its early years, and when institutions – especially new entrants – grow rapidly, it is wise to worry about the credit standards: it is most easy to write loans to people whom other lenders are reluctant to lend to. Kiwibank had a few ill-judged forays into particular market segments, but appears to have built a reasonably self-sustaining bank, which came through the recession of 2008/09 with little more damage than the larger banks sustained. My own reaction to that record was that, as taxpayers, we should be thankful for small mercies, and take the opportunity to sell before something went wrong.
But it has never been quite clear how much money Kiwibank has really made, and in particular whether it has ever sustainably succeeded in covering the cost of the taxpayers’ capital invested (and reinvested) in the bank. Banking is a highly leveraged business, and since the government’s finances are already heavily directly exposed to the overall health of the New Zealand economy, there were no obvious diversification gains for it in establishing a bank in New Zealand. We needed a good rate of return to justify the risk.
One of the reasons it has never been clear just how profitable Kiwibank has been is that Kiwibank and its parent NZ Post were intertwined, operating (most obviously) from the same physical locations. During the early years in particular, there was a lot of incentive for NZ Post (with its government appointed Board) to help ensure that Kiwibank was a success, and to err in favour of Kiwibank in any allocation of costs or charging for shared services. I got involved with these issues briefly in my time at Treasury and even then it seemed impossible for outsiders to know whether costs were being allocated appropriately. Several years on one might have hoped all these issues were adequately resolved, so I was a little surprised to see this comment from Bill English in the Herald this morning.
He said there had been discussions over whether NZ Post was subsidising Kiwibank.
“Certainly through the start-up phase it has been but NZ Post can’t afford to keep cross-subsidising the bank,” he said.
Which doesn’t give one a great deal of confidence that, even over the last few years, the Kiwibank accounts give a full representation of the returns from a standalone banking business. I don’t read the literature as suggesting that the economies of scale in retail banking are huge (so a small bank could be profitable) – and we have both big and small banks co-existing in the New Zealand market – but I doubt it could be shown that Kiwibank had been a good investment for the taxpayer. Fortunately, it hasn’t been a disastrous one.
So I’d be all in favour of Kiwibank being sold. There is just no good reason for the government to be involved in the business of retail banking. Even today, the barriers to new private sector entrants are quite low, and even if there is some independent concern about New Zealand-owned banks, then we have SBS, TSB, Co-op, and Heartland.
One key strand in New Zealand’s approach to banking is the idea that no institution, and no depositor/creditor, is totally immune from failure and the risk of losing one’s money. I don’t think that is a politically tenable stance, and am among those who favour New Zealand adopting some form of deposit insurance (as most other countries have done). But it is a particularly difficult model to sustain in respect of a government-owned bank.
Yes, governments have been willing to allow creditors of SOEs to lose money – the banks who had lent to Solid Energy most notably among them – but a handful of banks, mostly foreign, is a rather different matter than hundreds of thousands (800000 apparently) of retail depositors (and voters). Governments can say all they like that no one is guaranteed, but it isn’t obvious why anyone would – or should – believe them. After all, a standard element in the Reserve Bank’s approach is that if a bank gets into difficulties, the Reserve Bank will look to its shareholders to recapitalize the bank concerned. The New Zealand government owns all the shares in NZ Post, the immediate (struggling) parent of Kiwibank. The credit rating agencies also take that view: S&P, for example, noted last year that
we consider that Kiwibank has a “high” likelihood of receiving extraordinary support from the New Zealand government, reflecting the bank’s “very strong” link and “important” role to the government.
The unpriced implicit support Kiwibank has from the government skews the domestic banking market and undermines the efficiency of the financial system, all while continuing to pose material financial risks for the New Zealand taxpayer.
And it is not as if the governance of Kiwibank looks particularly strong either. I was quite surprised to find, looking through the list of directors, that not a single one of them has a background in retail banking.
At very least I think it would make sense to restructure the NZ Post group, removing Kiwibank and making it a standalone SOE in its own right. Going by the comments from the Minister, if the story Radio Live ran had anything behind it, that was the mostly likely form.
A sale would also make sense, but I don’t see any chance of it happening under the current government. One could conjure up all sorts of imaginative options that might mitigate the political uproar – recall the size of the petition around the partial sales of the government stake in three power companies – but I can’t see why this government would regard it as worth the political risk. And no potential coalition partner really cares enough to want to make a sale a “bottom line” in any deal – while NZ First might well care enough on the opposite side.
Kiwibank shares could, for example, be distributed to all adults – on current book value that might be around $300 each – so that it was truly the “people’s bank”. But then there would no single dominant shareholder, and the rating agencies would get nervous, and so would the Reserve Bank. It would have quite high direct costs, and the opposition parties would no doubt sell it (accurately) as prelude to those individual parcels being bought up by one or another of the other banks.
I’ve seen suggestions that perhaps the New Zealand Superannuation Fund should become a key shareholder in Kiwibank. I reckon that would be even worse than direct state ownership, since the NZSF faces neither market nor political disciplines.
I don’t really like the idea of a partial privatization, with the government retaining the majority shareholding. It still has most of the moral hazard/bailout risks associated with the current ownership model, with more risk that the private shareholders would seek to aggressively (and quite rationally) exploit such advantages. It was, more or less exactly, the model used with the Bank of New Zealand in the late 1980s.
In truth, the best value for the taxpayer probably lies in what is the least politically attractive option: a straight trade sale, probably to one of the existing large participants in the market. That was how the previous Postbank was sold, back in 1988. It is what happened to Trustbank in 1996, and to Countrywide a couple of years later. And, of course, Lloyds concluded that the best value from the National Bank was through a trade sale to ANZ. The government might get a price well above book value in such a sale, even recognizing that banks are less inclined to aggressive expansion than they were a decade ago, and that some of the Australian banks might be uneasy about overweighting their exposure to New Zealand. But even to propose such a sale would surely be seen by the government’s political advisers as an unadulterated gift to the Opposition.
And so it seems likely that, for the foreseeable future, the government will not just be the largest owner in New Zealand of dairy farms, funds managers, trains and planes, power companies, and legal firms, but will remain the owner of a modest-sized, not outstandingly successful, retail bank.
UPDATE: In casting around for any summary analysis that has been done/released on Kiwibank’s long-term performance, I found this chart of return on assets (not equity) in a Treasury report from a couple of years back.
The results shouldn’t be very surprising, but they do reinforce the point that even if Kiwibank is currently earning reasonable rates of returns (eg in the most recent year), it has a long way to go to deliver the sorts of cumulative returns to taxpayers that private sector shareholders might have expected (especially as none of the private comparators were start-ups).