Exchange rate: no rebalancing in view

It doesn’t seem long –  and, in fact, it isn’t long –  since people were squabbling over a bit of a fall in the exchange rate.  The National Party was blaming the Labour-led government, while the government seemed to be taking some credit for the fall and talking about a rebalancing of the economy that they claimed was underway.  To support their claims, they not infrequently invoked the support of the rather left-wing Governor of the Reserve Bank.

And now they’ve all gone quiet again as the exchange rate has rebounded again.  On the Reserve Bank’s TWI measure, the rebound has been about 6 per cent.   Even by the standards of this decade –  when the exchange rate has been reasonably stable –  it isn’t that big a move.

TWI 18

The level now is about the same as the level at the time the choice of the new goverment was decided in October 2018.  It poses new fresh inflationary threat (which seemed to be the National Party concern when it was falling) and no greater buffering, or signal of rebalancing, as the government and the Governor had liked to claim.

What of longer-term comparisons?  Here I like to use the OECD’s real relative unit labour cost measure –  partly because there is a long run of data.     Here is how the longer-term picture looks (the dot representing today’s estimated level).

TWI 18 2

On average, the real exchange rate has been high since around 2003 (with a sharp but shortlived dip in the 2008/09 recession).   Even the lows the Prime Minister and Governor liked to talk up had still been a bit above the 15-year average (the grey line); current levels even more so.

But I’ve also shown (yellow line) the average for the entire period since 1980.  The current level of the real exchange rate is about 18 per cent above that long-term average.

That would make sense, and be welcome, if – for example – the last 35+ years had been ones in which New Zealand had been chalking up a stellar productivity growth performance, if New Zealand firms had been successfully many more foreign markets lifting the foreign trade share of the New Zealand economy.  But, of course, that hasn’t been the story at all.   There were short periods when it sometimes looked as if these sorts of developments were actually happening, but they’ve never lasted, and none of those periods have been in the last 15 years (when the real exchange rate has consistently averaged high).  Instead, our productivity levels have drifted further behind those in other advanced economies –  including, notably, over the last five years when there has been little productivity growth at all –  and foreign trade shares of our economy have stagnated and then shrunk.  Indicators of the relative size of the tradables sector of our economy have also not been encouraging.

These aren’t developments that should leave anyone very comfortable.  In the shorter-term, there isn’t much obvious impetus for strong domestic growth –  commodity prices are easing, confidence is weak, population growth is ebbing –  and the risks to the global outlook seem to be mounting, and perhaps even crystallising.  Then again, if things go badly wrong in the short-term, the exchange rate can –  and probably will –  move quite quickly.

The bigger concern is that there is no sign of an economy rebalancing towards some better – higher productivity, more outward-oriented, tomorrow.  And the persistently high exchange rate, over decades, seems to have been reflecting deeply misguided policies that have helped produce the last few decades of disappointing economic performance, all combined with a depressing indifference from the leading figures in all our main political parties.  There is little chance of breaking out of the slow spiral of continued relative decline without a quite materially different approach.  Part of making that work would be likely to involve the real exchange rate revisiting –  settling –  the sorts of lows we experienced at times in the first 15 or so years after liberalisation.    Even back then, when senior figures talked of rebalancing, it was mostly wishful thinking –  since the lows were purely the results of short-term cyclical forces.  These days, such talk bears even less relation to reality –  and to the scale of the challege before us.  But perhaps it generates a favourable news story for a day or two.

Voices in support of Anne-Marie Brady

Many, perhaps most, readers will have seen the article by Matt Nippert on the front page of yesterday’s Herald, about Professor Anne-Marie Brady and indications that her car may have been sabotaged.  This, of course, comes in the wake of break-ins to Professor Brady’s home and office, that are still –  months afterwards –  being investigated by the Police.  The strong suspicion has been that agents of the People’s Republic of China were involved in the break-ins, including (inter alia) because of what was, and wasn’t, taken, and letters that Professor Brady had received.  Yesterday’s article included this comment from Brady about the very slow-moving investigation.

She was unwilling to comment on the lengthy and still unfinished Police investigation, but told the New York Times in September the lack of comment or public action from government to date was “starting to look like procrastination”.

Official Wellington might be thought to have a strong interest in the investigation not coming to a conclusion, and it has (sadly) become difficult to have much confidence in the independence and integrity of the Police when it involves issues that matter to governments.

Nippert also included this section

The ongoing investigation …. had raised the temperature of local debate on the issue of China.

Commentary in local Chinese-language media has been an especially heated, with a recent op-ed by Morgan Xiao – published simultaneously by SkyKiwi, the Mandarin Pages and the New Zealand Chinese Daily News – describing Brady and other New Zealand-Chinese democracy activists as “anti-Chinese sons of bitches” who should “get out of New Zealand”.

Freeman Yu, whose New Zealand Values Alliance has started a petition urging the government to follow Australia’s lead and curb China’s local influence, was also called out by Xiao.

Yu said the language used in local debate had recently hardened, with “extreme expressions used in the Cultural Revolution”.

“The language used in their articles expressed intense hatred for different voices and the freedom of speech,” he said.

Comments sections on (for example) Stuff often don’t reveal humanity at its finest, but this is a description of a published op-ed.   New Zealanders should get out of New Zealand?

I know Professor Brady only slightly.  We’ve talked a couple of times and exchanged emails from time to time over the last year.  I’ve found her contribution to the New Zealand debate –  which seems to involve stepping a bit beyond her personal comfort zone (academics are often most comfortable behind the scenes) –  on these issues invaluable.   Such debate as there now is wouldn’t be occurring without her.

But Geremie Barmé and John Minford know Professor Brady very well.     Barmé and Minford are both emeritus professors at the Australian National University where Barmé was formerly Director, Australian Centre on China in the World and Chair Professor of Chinese History at Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific in Canberra.   They now live near Featherston –  which perhaps accounts for the number of China books I found in a Featherston secondhand bookshop recently –  and host The Wairarapa Academy for the New Sinology.  Their website has a fascinating collection of material, which I’ve linked to occasionally.

They have today put out a statement about Professor Brady, her work, her position and so on.   I’ve reproduced it here (with permission).

17 November 2018

Re: Professor Anne-Marie Brady

To Whom It May Concern,

Professor Anne-Marie Brady is a noted specialist in China’s domestic and foreign politics at the University of Canterbury. Her work on contemporary China, and its increasingly controversial global engagement, contributes directly to the national interest of New Zealand. It is also having a considerable impact internationally, not only in academic circles but also in political debates and policy formulation among the major allies and trading partners of this country.

As teachers and mentors of Professor Brady — John Minford was one of her undergraduate teachers at the University of Auckland; Geremie Barmé was a supervisor of her doctoral work at the Australian National University — we are proud of her achievements and we strongly support her ongoing academic research work and engagement with issues of public, national and international significance.

In February this year, we were profoundly disturbed to read media reports about break-ins at Professor Brady’s workplace and of her home office, resulting in the theft of electronic equipment and research materials. The details of the break-ins, still a subject of police investigation, suggested that Professor Brady was being subjected to intimidation for her internationally recognized work on official Chinese strategies to influence the politics and societies of foreign countries, in particular New Zealand. (See: We were shocked by the latest media reports — on 16 November — that, during routine Warrant of Fitness maintenance, it was discovered that her vehicle may well have been purposely tampered with. There are indications that this was done to endanger the occupants of the vehicle: Professor Brady, her husband and their three teenage children. (See: )

The freedom from fear was long ago recognized as a basic human right; academics should be able to pursue their work, and their daily lives, without being subjected to intimidation. In any modern democracy worthy of the name, academic freedom and independent research are crucial “public goods”. They are also germane to university life.

As residents of New Zealand and as independent scholars — our main institutional affiliation is with The Australian National University as emeritus professors — we hereby express our deep concern about the on-going threats to Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s research and private life.

We hope that others whose research and teaching involves contemporary China will offer her and her important work collegial encouragement, as well as public support.

Furthermore, we also hope that the New Zealand authorities take the threats against Professor Brady seriously. We appeal to the Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Jacinda Ardern, and her coalition partner the Foreign Minister, the Rt. Hon. Winston Peters, to address directly the issues raised by her work which she has further articulated in practicable, and succinct, formal advice to the government.

Since September 2017, Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s work has attracted overwhelmingly positive global attention. It has also been subjected to vilification by Chinese officialdom. Regardless, her work continues to influence the debate about China’s “sharp power” on the international stage, and it contributes to practical policy discussions in Europe, North America and in Australia. This work remains ever more pressingly relevant to the public life, and the future, of her homeland.


Geremie R. Barmé
Professor Emeritus of History
The Australian National University
Founding Director, Australian Centre on China in the World
Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities

John Minford
Professor Emeritus of Chinese
The Australian National University
Sin Wai Kin Distinguished Professor
Hang Seng University of Hong Kong

To me, the most important lines in the statement are those addressed to our political leaders

We appeal to the Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Jacinda Ardern, and her coalition partner the Foreign Minister, the Rt. Hon. Winston Peters, to address directly the issues raised by her work

(To which I would add “and the leaders of the National Party, so recently in government”.)

They might also speak about, for example, things like that appalling op-ed from various Chinese-language local media.

Shameful as the government’s stance on, say, Xinjiang is –  the refusal to add our voice to the protest by our friends and allies –  we can’t change China.  But we  –  they –  have no such excuse when it comes to New Zealand itself, our political system, the environment facing freedom-loving ethnic Chinese New Zealanders, and the actions of the People’s Republic of China and its agents here.

And yet Matt Nippert’s article reminds us again of the supine, scared of their own shadow, attitude of the government.

Since May the Herald has been seeking to interview Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about the governments’ China policy in light of Brady’s research and legislative action in Australia.

The Prime Ministers’ Office has regularly put off the request

Simply refusing to engage on such vital issues with a serious journalist from our largest newspaper is astonishing, and a telling commentary on how corrupted our political system appears to have become.  Perhaps as telling is the utter silence from the National Party on the government’s refusal to engage.

UPDATE: I would strongly recommend this new piece, by the commentator on China issues who goes under the label Jichang Lulu, to anyone at all interested in the PRC influence issues as they relate to New Zealand.


The Prime Minister continues to shame us

The Prime Minister has been attempting to defend her handling of the meeting with the Malaysian Prime Minister, following his apparently quite forthright comments on the South China Sea.  She parrots a line about not taking sides in the dispute, but surely she knows that when you don’t take sides between a bully and his (or her) victim you side with the bully.  And when you say

New Zealand’s position on the issue had been “utterly consistent”, and the country had never taken sides, she said, adding all claimants should uphold international law, and the law of the sea.

and yet fail to point out which party –  the PRC –  consistently refuses to uphold international law in this area, you make yourself a party to the abuse, the aggression, aiding the new status quo in which the PRC has taken control.  It really is like not taking sides when Germany takes Czechoslovakia or Poland.

But perhaps journalists could also ask the Prime Minister to explain New Zealand’s absence from this list

Australia, Canada, and the European Union as a whole, but not New Zealand, are part of an approach to Beijing over the abuses in Xinjiang.

Life –  even foreign policy – really has to be more than the sums of the deals, or the sum of the donations.

The Government’s stance is these areas –  much the same as the Opposition’s –  shames us.

UPDATE:  A reader sends me this (I’m not sure from which publication)

“We decided not to sign it because we have raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang directly with Chinese authorities,” a spokesman for Ardern told Newsroom when asked if New Zealand had joined the protest.

“New Zealand concerns have been registered by the Prime Minister with senior counterparts, including yesterday with Premier Li. Concerns have also been raised at officials’ level, including through New Zealand’s bilateral human rights dialogue with China, and at the UN in Geneva,” the spokesman said.

This is pathetic.     As if none of the other countries has made direct or bilateral comments, and –  as noted here –  other countries (including the US, UK, and Australia) were much more visible and vocal at the recent UN human rights review on China.   There are those old lines about “stronger together”, and people being known by the company they keep.   I don’t think trade agreements and the like should drive our policy stances –  our values should – but you have to wonder what the EU (with whom New Zealand wants to sign of an agreement) makes of a New Zealand government so supine it won’t join its (erstwhile) friends in this process.   Perhaps unilateralism is an option for the US, but it is the same Prime Minister who regularly reminds us, and the world, about the merits of acting together.  Just not when it comes to never ever upsetting Beijing?

More kids means more education spending

I’m tied up with other commitments today, but I happened to notice this chart from the OECD.

education spending

Since today is also the day the primary/intermediate teachers’ strike hits Wellington, it seemed timely.

In some ways, it is quite a striking chart.  New Zealand devotes the second largest share of GDP to education of any OECD country, exceeded only by super-rich Norway (as far as I can see this is an estimate of total public and private spending).

And yet, once one looks even a bit more closer it is less interesting than it might have seen.  For example, at the other end of the chart both Ireland and Luxembourg have GDPs that are flattered by unusual effects –  in Ireland’s case, the impact of their corporate tax system (which ends up exaggerating the true economic value occurring in Ireland, and does not reflect value accruing to the Irish), and in Luxembourg’s case, the fact that a lot of the GDP arises from people who work in tiny (financial centre) Luxembourg but live across the border in various neighbouring countries (their kids won’t be using Luxembourg’s schools).

And in our case, who uses schools and universities?  Mostly children and young people, and if you don’t have many children you’ll need to spend less (as a share of GDP) on education.   As this chart shows, of the OECD countries only Turkey, Mexico and Israel have a higher total fertility rate at present than New Zealand does.   Our TFR this particular year was 1.9 (births per woman) while that for, say, Japan was about 1.4.  That makes a big difference to how much needs to be spent on schools (all else equal about a third more).  Iceland spends as much on schools as we do, but with quite a bit smaller a birth rate.

Total fertility rate (2016)

And the other thing that marks us out relative to most OECD countries, although not all, is a high rate of immigration.  Not all migrants, by any means, have children with them when they move here (temporarily or permanently) but some do.  It all adds to the amount (share of GDP) needing to be spent on education.

Both birth rates and migration rates are just one of those things that people doing education budgets just have to take as given.    The other thing that you’d expect to influence education spending quite substantially is class sizes –  even at tertiary level the old Oxford/Cambridge tutorial system is a lot more resource intensive than, say, stage 1 lectures with 350 young people with largish tutorials run by honours students. But there tends to be more of a focus on school class sizes.  Unfortunately, the charts in the OECD Education at a Glance publications don’t have New Zealand data for pupil/teacher ratios, but here is the chart.

Average class size in primary education, by type of institutions (2016)


What I found striking is how wide the range of practices is.  It isn’t just that richer countries have smaller class sizes –  Chile is at one end and Costa Ricas at the other –  even though my understanding of the educational research is that smaller class sizes is mostly just a luxury item, with little or no impact on educational outcomes.   Shifting from one end to the other is likely to have significant implications for the cost of primary school education.  I have no idea where New Zealand would sit on the chart: I’m always a bit surprised how small my children’s class sizes have been, but that probably just marks me out as an old fogey, recalling classes in the mid-high 30s back in the early 1970s.

I don’t have any particular conclusion to this post, other than the caution that a high share of GDP devoted to schooling sheds –  on its own – precisely no light on the reasonableness, or otherwise, of the teachers’ claims, and their strike.  Having said that, I’d have preferred my daughter’s Principal not to have been using public resources to email us all urging parents to support the industrial action, join the protest rally etc.

Making the Trump administration look less bad

I’m no fan of Donald Trump.  He is unworthy of the office he holds, and almost every week there is new data to reinforce that view.   And if his character is unworthy, there is no offset in the way in which he attempts to govern or in the clarity and excellence of his thought or vision.

And yet, when it comes to the People’s Republic of China, our Prime Minister –  probably with the full support of the Leader of the Opposition –  manages, somehow, to leave the US Administration looking as though –  for the moment at least – it is on the side of the angels.   And as if it is our governments that are simply all about “the deal” –  be it an “FTA” upgrade, party political donations. or just students flowing to our public universities that have made themselves so dependent on not upsetting the thugs in Beijing.

Then there is Scott Morrison.  I guess he probably won’t be Australia’s Prime Minister for long, but a couple of weeks ago he gave a pretty good speech under the heading “The Beliefs That Guide Us”.  Sadly, I didn’t see it reported here at all (from the Australian media there is a good commentary on it here) but it comes in stark contrast to the way in which our governments (present and past) behave and talk (or simply refuse to talk).  Rhetoric is, of course, easier than action, but at least the words were good (emphasis added).

Our foreign policy defines what we believe about the world and our place in it.

It must speak of our character, our values.  What we stand for. What we believe in and, if need be, what we’ll defend. This is what guides our national interest.

I fear foreign policy these days is too often being assessed through a narrow transactional lens.   Taking an overly transactional approach to foreign policy and how we define our national interests sells us short.

If we allow such an approach to compromise our beliefs, we let ourselves down, and we stop speaking with an Australian voice.

We are more than the sum of our deals. We are better than that.

And what does Morrison regard as the “beliefs that guide our interests”?

We believe that the path to peace and liberty demands the pursuit of prosperity through private capital, rights to own property, entrepreneurialism and free and open markets. That is what lifts people out of poverty.

We believe that acceptance should not be determined by race or religion. Rather, we accept people by their words and judge them by their actions.

We believe in freedom of speech, thought, association and religion.

We believe in peaceful liberal democracy; the rule of law; separation of powers; racial and gender equality where every citizen has choice and opportunity to follow their own paths and dreams.

A fair go for those who have a go – that is what fairness means in Australia.

We believe in the limits of government – because free peoples are the best foundation to show mutual respect to all.

We believe in standing by our mates, side by side with nations that believe the same things we do.

Few or none of those things would be embraced by the People’s Republic of China, or the Party that controls it.  As he goes on to point out, by omission in listing the sorts of nations which do.

From the United Kingdom and the democracies of Europe to the United States and Canada. From the state of Israel to the city state of Singapore. From Japan and South Korea in North Asia to New Zealand, across the ditch.

He goes on later to observe, of Australia’s participation in various conflicts

We have done this because we believe it is right. Being true to our values and principles [will] always be in our interest.

Whereas, so it seems, in our Prime Minister’s mind (and that of her Opposition counterpart) not only are the two in constant tension, but the values and principles of this nation are constantly sacrificed to some short-sighted, limited, and mercenary conception of “interest”.    It is shameful to watch.

What of the US Administration?  You might think, as I do, that the focus on the US-China bilateral trade deficit is wrongheaded and economically illiterate.  Which isn’t to say that there are no real economic issues that it is right for the US Administration to take the lead in addressing –  with, so it appears, pretty widespread endorsement across the political spectrum in the US.  Even if you think –  as I generally do –  that intellectual property protections generally reach too far, and even if you recall that most rising powers have attempted to gain an edge by purloining the technology or insights of firms/countries nearer the technological frontier, China’s approach is particularly systematic, aggressive, and unacceptable.  It needs to be called out.  China doesn’t offer anything like an open market in many areas (services and investment notably), and if  –  in the longer-run –  those choices will mostly harm the Chinese, I don’t have any problem with a big and powerful country attempting to encourage change.  They are the sort of changes most in the West probably looked towards when China was allowed into the WTO.  It was clearly a sick (if opportunistic) joke when New Zealand agreed to deem China a “market economy”, when it remains far from that –  and, in many respects, getting further from it.

But it isn’t just about trade and investment.  Last month, the Vice-President gave a pretty forceful speech on the Administration’s approach to the People’s Republic of China.    There was a trade dimension

Over the past 17 years, China’s GDP has grown 9-fold; it has become the second-largest economy in the world. Much of this success was driven by American investment in China. And the Chinese Communist Party has also used an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and industrial subsidies doled out like candy, to name a few.

But there was so much more. The military position for example

And using that stolen technology, the Chinese Communist Party is turning plowshares into swords on a massive scale…

China now spends as much on its military as the rest of Asia combined, and Beijing has prioritized capabilities to erode America’s military advantages – on land, at sea, in the air, and in space. China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies.

Beijing is also using its power like never before. Chinese ships routinely patrol around the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan. And while China’s leader stood in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2015 and said that his country had “no intention to militarize the South China Sea,” today, Beijing has deployed advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles atop an archipelago of military bases constructed on artificial islands.

and systematic issues with a more individual impact

Nor, as we hoped, has Beijing moved toward greater freedom for its people. For a time, Beijing inched toward greater liberty and respect for human rights, but in recent years, it has taken a sharp U-turn toward control and oppression.

Today, China has built an unparalleled surveillance state, and it’s growing more expansive and intrusive – often with the help of U.S. technology. The “Great Firewall of China” likewise grows higher, drastically restricting the free flow of information to the Chinese people. And by 2020, China’s rulers aim to implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life – the so-called “social credit score.” In the words of that program’s official blueprint, it will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

And when it comes to religious freedom, a new wave of persecution is crashing down on Chinese Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims…

Last month, Beijing shut down one of China’s largest underground churches. Across the country, authorities are tearing down crosses, burning bibles, and imprisoning believers. And Beijing has now reached a deal with the Vatican that gives the avowedly atheist Communist Party a direct role in appointing Catholic bishops. For China’s Christians, these are desperate times.

Beijing is also cracking down on Buddhism. Over the past decade, more than 150 Tibetan Buddhist monks have lit themselves on fire to protest China’s repression of their beliefs and culture. And in Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imprisoned as many as one million Muslim Uyghurs in government camps where they endure around-the-clock brainwashing. Survivors of the camps have described their experiences as a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.

And the sort of influence activities that Anne-Marie Brady has written about here

I want to tell you today what we know about China’s actions – some of which we’ve gleaned from intelligence assessments, some of which are publicly available. But all of which is fact.

As I said before, Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach to advance its influence and benefit its interests. It’s employing this power in more proactive and coercive ways to interfere in the domestic policies and politics of the United States.

The Chinese Communist Party is rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and federal officials.

He explicitly championed Taiwan as an example of a better way –  a country, actively threatened by China, and which is not only free and democratic, but more prosperous than China.

As far as I can see a few people in the US quibbled at the margins, but there was no great dissent from the broad thrust of the speech. It characterises the regime, and its threat, in a way that many or most experts seem to regard as pretty descriptively accurate.  The PRC is a threat to its own people of course, but abroad –  to countries in the region who espouse the sorts of values Scott Morrison talked of, and in the internal political processes of countries like our own, Australia, or the US (and many others).

It wasn’t just a one-shot effort from Pence, who is representing the President at this week’s summit meetings.  In the Washington Post yesterday there was a report of new interview with Pence.  With political theatre in mind, the interview took place as Pence’s plane flew across the contested South China Sea.  The report included

The vice president said this is China’s best (if not last) chance to avoid a cold-war scenario with the United States.

In addition to trade, Pence said China must offer concessions on several issues, including but not limited to its rampant intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, restricted access to Chinese markets, respect for international rules and norms, efforts to limit freedom of navigation in international waters and Chinese Communist Party interference in the politics of Western countries.

and ended thus

I asked him what would happen if Beijing doesn’t agree to act in Asia in a way that can avoid a cold war with the United States.

“Then so be it,” Pence said. “We are here to stay.”

Who knows whether his boss really means it – or will still mean it in six months time –  but at least it was being said.   And there is an interesting article in today’s Financial Times, highlighting the apparent bipartisan support (including among business leaders) for a more robust stance.  There was also an interesting Bloomberg column which observed

Trump usually gets the blame (or credit, depending on where you stand) for souring relations. He’s not the real culprit, though. The man truly responsible is China’s president. Xi has altered the course of Chinese policy in ways that made a showdown with the U.S. almost inevitable, whoever sat in the White House.

Even that interview wasn’t all that can be set to the credit of Mike Pence in this sort of area: speaking out about manifest evil, actions that don’t align with the sorts of values countries like the US, Australia, and (once upon a time at least) New Zealand sought to espouse and –  rather imperfectly to be sure – operate by.  There was Pence’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, where he talked plenty bluntly and openly.

“The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse,” Pence said.

And then there is the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, our Prime Minister.

On the day the Chinese deputy foreign minister warned other countries not to “obstruct” China’s growing activity in the Pacific, it was as if our Prime Minister was just falling into line when, in an interview yesterday, she refused to even address the issue of China’s activities in the Pacific.

When she met Aung San Suu Kyi –  who, as far as I can see has no New Zealand economic “interests” to threaten –  her language seemed to be much more muted than Pence’s

“We, of course, share the concern of the international community around what has happened in Rakhine State, and the ongoing displacement of the Rohingya,” Ardern said following the meeting.

As the Newsroom report puts it

[Aung San Suu Kyi] has also been stripped of the US Holocaust Museum’s Elie Weisel award and Freedom of the City awards, which were revoked by Edinburgh, Oxford, Glasgow and Newcastle.

While in Singapore, Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Suu Kyi was “trying to defend the indefensible”.

But Ardern said she did not detect any defence from Suu Kyi during their meeting.

And US Vice President Mike Pence also had firm words for Suu Kyi during the pair’s meeting in Singapore.

“This is a tragedy that has touched the hearts of millions of Americans. The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse.”

Suu Kyi was brief in her remarks, saying each country knew their own situation best. “So we are in a better position to explain to you what is happening and how we see things panning out.”

Sounds pretty defensive to me.   When the Trump Administration and Mahathir Mohamad are more willing to speak out on human rights abuses than a New Zealand Prime Minister, something is very wrong.    “Kindness” and “empathy” might be her watchwords, but I didn’t suppose she meant them for tyrants and those who abet gross and systematic abuses.

And what of the PRC regime.  Here was how the Herald reported her

Ardern said before her meeting with Premier Li that she would be raising human rights issues with him but they were kept to the closed door session.

In her opening remarks she said: “New Zealand’s relationship with China is incredibly important to us. We see that relationship being incredibly important not just from an economic perspective but from a regional perspective.”

Only sweetness and light in public –  this, after all, from someone who only a few months ago pledged stronger ties between Labour and the Chinese Communist Party –  and if she politely indicated in private the odd area of possible difference, who really cares?  I’m sure the Chinese won’t.  After all, her party president is on record –  not behind closed doors – lauding the regime and its leader.

Has she ever said tried to lead ther discussion and debate at home about the character of the regime?   Has she ever said anything openly critical about one of the most dreadful regimes on the planet –  about its activities at home (a couple of weeks ago she said she “might” raise Xinjiang privately) –  and –  more importantly –  about its activities abroad, let alone its activities in New Zealand?  Even “small” things like, for example, the presence in our Parliament of a former PLA intelligence official, close to the PRC Embassy, who acknowledges misrepresenting his past to get into the country, and who has never once said anything critical of the regime.  Decent people shake their heads in disbelief (as I do each I write this), but not the Prime Minister.   Or arranging –  with the National Party –  to award a Queen’s Birthday honour to a non-English speaking Chinese-born businessman, who associates closely with MPs (and mayors) from all sides of politics, seems to arrange party donations (partly with a view to getting additional MPs into Parliament) and who the record shows is very closely associated with the Chinese Communist Party and the regime –  back in China, and here.

The local media seemed taken with the fact that Mike Pence was reported to have asked to be seated next to our Prime Minister at one of the summit dinners.  But strangely, while the local media talked up how the PM might raise such issues as steel and aluminium tariffs, or even speculated on the (manifold) political and personal differences between the two of them,  I didn’t notice anyone speculate on the possibility that China, and New Zealand’s rather shameful and supine attitude to the PRC, might have been among Pence’s list of talking points, amid the pleasantries and fine food.  I’m sure our allies welcomed the P8 purchases, and even the additional money New Zealand and Australia are (for how long?) throwing at the Pacific, but someone who won’t utter an open word of disapproval of such a regime, who won’t even speak out about the disgrace of Opposition MP, Jian Yang, who does nothing –  and refuses to openly take seriously –  the domestic interference issues is hardly someone showing any sign of living by those sorts of values that Scott Morrison enunciated in his speech.  And yet I suspect they represent rather well the values of most individual New Zealanders –  just not our political classes, who seem to act as if “values” are just some nice-to-have for other people, not something integral to how they live and act and speak.

It is pretty shameful when the Trump adminstration –  for now at least –  puts our country in such a poor light, on such a significant (and potentially a defining) issue. I remain sceptical about Trump’s willingness to follow through (on almost anything) or indeed about US administration’s willingness to pay much of a price to, say, defend Taiwan (and, if perchance, the trade strategy puts real pressure on, the temptation to action  – and distraction – there may only increase –  the Falklands weren’t invaded when Argentina was prospering).  The South China Sea is already, in effect, lost.  And no outsider can do much about China’s awful internal record.  But words still matter.  They express what we care about, what we value (more than just a deal).

And on these issues, the Trump administration at least has the words.  Jacinda Ardern –  and Simon Bridges –  sit cravenly silent.  It is as if, to upend Scott Morrison’s words, they think New Zealand is defined solely as the sum of our deals. It is shameful.

More thoughts on financial crises and economic performance

In my post yesterday, focused specifically on Geoff Bascand’s speech on financial stabilty, financial crises etc, I used this chart

crisis costs

to, again, raise questions about just how much of the poor economic performance over the last decade or so can really be ascribed specifically to the financial crisis (bank failures, large loan losses etc).  After all, the US was the epicentre of the crisis, and my other group of countries (long-established advanced countries, also with floating exchange rates –  Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Israel, and Japan)  didn’t have domestic financial crises.

I’d been playing around with that data with a view to writing a post about an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, The Crisis Next Time: What We Should Have Learned from 2008″, by Carmen and Vincent Reinhart (she an academic researcher, and he a senior market economist and formerly a senior Fed official).    The Foreign Affairs website is having open access this month, so the link should work for anyone wanting to read the (accessible and not overly long) article itself.

I thought the article was a bit of a mixed bag (and this post ends up only partly being about the article).  Carmen Reinhart, in particular, has been at the forefront of efforts to remind that recessions associated with financial crises are often more severe than other recessions.  That is a useful reminder, but hardly surprising.  Mild recessions tend not to generate many loan losses, and even if the banking system wasn’t rock solid in the first place, nothing too serious is likely to follow.  But if resources have been severely misallocated in the first place, supported by ample new credit, then when the correction occurs –  and views about what is profitable have to be revised –  it isn’t surprising that the associated recession can be deep and the financial system can come under stress.  In New Zealand, for example, it wasn’t the financial system crisis (failure of DFC, repeated near-failures of the BNZ) that made the 1991 recession so serious; rather than pressures on the financial system were part of the same aftermath of excess –  over-inflated expectations – that the entire economy was caught up in, combined with some serious efforts to break the back of high trend rates of inflation.

As the Reinharts point out, the problems can then be particularly severe in a country that has few or no macro policy levers left open too it –  a fixed exchange rate or a common currency, tied to the fortunes of a group that may not share the particular problems you did (thus, for example, Ireland in a euro-area in which Germany is the largest economy).  Adjustment can be a lot slower without the ability to adjust the nominal interest and exchange rates.  Perhaps more than the authors, I’m a sceptic on the euro.

For my purposes, there is a convenient couple of sentences in the Reinhart article

Financial crises do so much economic damage for a simple reason: they destroy a lot of wealth very fast. Typically, crises start when the value of one kind of asset begins to fall and pulls others down with it. The original asset can be almost anything, as long as it plays a large role in the wider economy: tulips in seventeenth-century Holland, stocks in New York in 1929, land in Tokyo in 1989, houses in the United States in 2007. 

It usefully highlights a key difference between, say, the US (or Ireland or Iceland) late last decade, and the experiences of the group of non-crisis floating exchange rate countries whose experience is reflected in that first chart above.   Stock markets in those latter countries took a short-term hit, of course, but there was no sustained loss of (perceived) wealth akin to what happened in the crisis countries.

It isn’t entirely clear from the article how much the authors want to focus mostly on the depth of the initial recession and how much on the disappointing economic outcomes in many countries over the last decade.  But both are mentioned, and there seems to be a tone that conflates the two in a way that I’m not surely is overly helpful (given the goal of learning lessons that can help better prepare us for future severe adverse events).  There also seems to be a very strong focus on the demand side, and none at all on the supply side (no mention at all of productivity growth).

And yet, if we look across the OECD as a whole, the unemployment rate was right back down to where it had been in 2007.  If (and there is) a disappointment about the last decade as a whole, it can’t be now about excess labour supply (unemployed workers) –  slow as the unemployment rate was to come down, it did eventually.  As it happens, the unemployment rate in the US (epicentre of the crisis) is now lower than in the median of my non-crisis floating exchange rate group –  which wasn’t the case in the years running up to 2008.

I have plenty of criticisms for the way many central banks (including our own) handled the years after the 2008/09 crisis and recession.  In some cases, actually tightening when it wasn’t necessary or appropriate, and often a hankering for some sort of return to “normal” interest rates (that may have prevailed in the previous couple of decades) when as has become increasingly apparent something about what is “normal” has changed.  Throw in the lack of any pro-activity in addressing the existence of the near-zero lower bound on nominal interest rates (itself arising from regulatory and legislative choices), and it is clear that more could –  and should –  have been done in many countries.

But even if such changes (in macro policy) had been made, the differences in economic outcomes would probably have been at the margin:  helpful (eg in a New Zealand context, getting core inflation back to 2 per cent, and getting unemployment down to the NAIRU perhaps two or three years earlier), but it is unlikely that it would have made much difference to productivity growth, or indeed to levels of real GDP per capita today.

In yesterday’s post, I showed a chart comparing labour productivity growth trends in the US (epicentre of the financial crisis) and in the group of non-crisis floating exchange rate advanced economies.  But what about multi-factor productivity?

The OECD only has MFP data for a subset of member countries.  Of my sample of non-crisis advanced countries, they don’t have data for Norway and Israel.  But here is the comparison for the US and the group of four non-crisis advanced countries, all normalised to 2007.

MFP crisis.png

In both cases –  although perhaps more starkly so for the non-crisis countries –  it is clear that the slowdown in productivity growth was underway well before the recession (and crisis).  The financial crisis (centred in the US) cannot be to blame for something that is (a) apparent across crisis and non-crisis countries (especially when the non-crisis countries are less productive than the US to start with), and (b) when the phenomenon got underway before the crisis or recession did.

(The Conference Board Total Economy database does have MFP estimates for my full group of non-crisis countries.   They use a different model to estimate MFP, but the same two key observations hold in their data: the slowdown was apparent in both lots of countries well before the crisis/recession, and (if anything) the US has done better than the non-crisis group both before and since its crisis.)

But what about some of the euro-area countries you ask?  And the Reinharts themselves rightly point out how poor the economic performance of Italy (and Greece) has been.  The OECD doesn’t have MFP estimates for Greece, but here are the estimates for three other embattled euro-area countries: Portugal, Spain, and Italy.

MFP crisis 2

All three countries have been in deep trouble for a long time now –  the estimated level of MFP peaking around 2000.   On this score, the trends don’t look materially different over the last decade than over the years leading up to 2007.    Whatever the cause of their problems with productivity, it can’t have been the financial crises these countries went through.

And perhaps nor would you expect it.  Readers might recall a wrenching financial crisis that Korea went through in 1998.   And here is the OECD estimate of multi-factor productivity for Korea.

mfp crisis 3

You can see the 1998 crisis/recession in the data, but as a short-term blip.  In the decade after the crisis, Korea productivity growth kept on at much the same rate experienced in the decade prior to that crisis –  before (presumably) joining in the global slowdown this decade.  (That had also been the experience of the United States in earlier crisis episodes –  estimates suggest that the 1930s, for all its problems (around demand shortfalls) was a period of strong MFP growth.)

There is lots to learn from the searing experience of crisis, recession, and slow growth in the advanced world over the last decade or more.   But I still reckon there needs to be a much more careful unpicking of the different strands of the story than central bankers –  who tend to see the world through money and finance lenses, and who are often keen to champion their future role –  are prone to.  To me, the cross-country evidence just doesn’t square with a hypothesis in which the financial crisis itself plays any large part in the sustained disappointing performance of so many countries over what is now such a long time.

Central bankers meanwhile might be better off rethinking the merits of arrangements like the euro, or of the continued passivity around the near-zero lower bound, both of which look as though they have the potential for causing very major problems the next time there is a serious economic downturn.

We need better foundations for financial stability policy

Adrian Orr is now 7.5 months into his term as Governor and we still haven’t had an on-the-record speech from him about either main strand of his responsibilities: monetary policy or financial supervision and regulation.  Is he just not engaged on these issues?

But yesterday, his deputy Geoff Bascand delivered  –  in Australia –  a substantive speech on financial stability issues.  There were a few good elements in the speech.  For example, I was pleased to see this in the conclusion

The capital review gives us all an opportunity to think again about our risk tolerance – how safe we want our banking system to be; how we balance soundness and efficiency; what gains we can make, both in terms of financial stability and output; and how we allocate private and social costs.

It may be that the legislation underpinning our mandate can be enhanced, for example, by formal guidance from government or another governance body, on the level of risk of a financial crisis that society is willing to tolerate.

At present, the legislation is drafted so broadly and loosely that a single unelected and unaccountable official gets to make any such choices.  He (as it typically is) gets to make choices in a pretty much unconstrained way and we (including our elected political leaders) just have to live with the consequences.    Whether the sort of formal guidance Geoff refers to in that second paragraph is (meaningfully) feasible is open to question, but we need to improve on the current situation.  If such guidance isn’t feasible –  if society can’t write down its preference and give them as a mandate for the technocrats –  the big decisions around banking supervision policy frameworks (as distinct from the application of them to individual institutions) should be made by elected politicians (the Minister of Finance).

But, sadly, most of the speech just wasn’t that good.  It had plenty of politicially popular lines, and there was even the obligatory reference to the Reserve Bank as a tree god.  On climate change we had this

Climate change presents significant financial stability risks both through the direct implications of physical events for insurers, farmers and households, the indirect effects on insurance availability and property values, and through the potential social and economic disruption it promises.

We are working on developing a climate change strategy, which will be informed by discussions with banks and insurers in due course. Our role as a regulator is to try to ensure that financial institutions are adequately managing these risks, even though the horizon for their realisation could be decades away.

Given that the best evidence for New Zealand is that projected increases in global temperature are probably neutral and at best slightly positive for New Zealand in economic terms, and that all sorts of relative price changes occur every year changing the economics of all manner of businesses banks might have lent on, all this should amount to nothing.  But we know the Governor is a zealot –  why, he bets billions of dollars of your money on particular views of the economics of climate change, while so obscuring the choice there is no effective accountability –  so no doubt there will be pages and pages of bureaucratic bumpf from an agency with no expertise in the issue (or mandate), simply adding to compliance costs (especially for small institutions).

There was a rather lame attempt to defend the Bank’s involvement in the bank conduct review.  I noticed that the Governor had a bit of spat with ACT MP David Seymour at FEC last week on just this issue, which ended with the Governor (to whom any concept of deference or politeness seems unknown) responding as follows

When Seymour persisted, Orr simply said: “I am right, you are wrong”.

My own take is that they are probably both right.  Seymour is right on the fundamental point –  the bank conduct review was about politics and perhaps about Orr advancing his standing, not about financial soundness and efficiency (the Bank’s statutory mandate).  And if Orr is correct –  about the law giving him scope to do this –  it is only because the legislation was written –  guided by Bank officials – far too broadly in the first place.

But what bothers me rather more is the Bank’s weak understanding of the nature of financial crises, systemic risks, and so on.  These are concerns I’ve raised over several years in various contexts, including the cases the Bank has made for LVR restrictions and the (longed-for) debt to income restrictions.

For example, they continue to claim that

Household sector indebtedness represents the New Zealand financial system’s single largest vulnerability.

Yes, household debt is the largest component of financial system assets, but that is a quite different proposition.  As their stress tests have repeatedly shown, banks’ housing portfolios are constructed in a sufficiently cautious way that even very large adverse shocks (rising unemployment and falling house prices) wouldn’t threaten the soundness of the banks.   They run this cross-country chart of credit to households as a share of GDP.


Yes, there is a lot more household credit than there was. That is the inevitable consequence of things like land-use restrictions than make urban land artificially scarce (and highly-priced).  And in New Zealand’s case, household debt to GDP is still a touch lower than it was going into the last recession (and at that time the servicing burden was also much heavier).  Despite all the angst, bank housing portfolios came through that severe recession unscathed –  as they did in Australia, Canada, and the UK.

But perhaps my biggest problem with the speech is a combination of three things:

  • the attempt to suggest that the system is very fragile –  at least without wise bureaucrats –  and that crises are always just around the corner, coming for us,
  • the continued failure to pay attention to the experiences of countries that had significant asset and credit booms and didn’t have a domestic financial crises, and
  • the inexcusable failure – in a central bank –  to distinguish between countries with floating exchange rates (which greatly assist adjustment in the face of shocks) and those without.

In combination, the Reserve Bank leads us towards quite misleading conclusions about the economic costs of financial crisis.  By overstating those costs –  hugely overstating –  they seek to strengthen their own position (and our respect of them) as regulators; the people who will do everything to keep us safe. (As commonly, one never sees mentioned in the speech that in all the financial crises they like to cite, there were in fact banking regulators who no doubt thought they were doing their job well.)

Of my first bullet, they say

First, why does financial stability matter? The answer is that bank crises are frequent and bank crises hurt.

Since the mid-1970s there have been over 140 banking crises around the world.

and (without any backing for this claim)

Serious incidents (that could have led to a crisis) are more common than people realise.

Yes, there have been lots of crisis, although since (depending on your definition) there are getting on for 200 countries in the world, even the number the Bank cites is less than one crisis per country over 45 years.

But there haven’t been many at all in stable, well-managed, floating exchange rate countries.  And in countries like ours –  for example, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Norway –  the only financial crises in 100 years have related to the period just after liberalisation when everyone was just getting grips with what a market financial system meant (and when, for that matter, regulators also didn’t cover themselves with glory).    Of course, well-run banking systems can run into trouble, but since it is New Zealand that our Reserve Bank is supposedly focused on one might expect some grounding in the Australasian experience.   That experience just doesn’t suggest danger (massive credit losses) lurks continually.

The Reserve Bank has long been keen on citing the experience of Ireland as somehow relevant to New Zealand.  It pops up again in this speech

The consequences in terms of employment are also severe. After the GFC, Ireland’s unemployment rate rose from 4.6 percent in 2006 to 15 per cent in 2012

And yet –  prosperity and geography aside –  what is the biggest relevant difference between New Zealand and Ireland?   We get to set our own interest rates, and our exchange rate can adjust freely, while Irish monetary policy is set in Frankfurt for the entire euro-area, and they have no nominal exchange rate to adjust.  The Reserve Bank knows very well that floating exchange rate exist in large part because they provide greater leeway to cope with severe adverse economic or financial shocks.  Thus it was from the beginning –  at the time of the Great Depression –  and is now too.    I did post a few years ago –  which I can’t now see –  documenting that no floating exchange rate advanced country has ever experienced an increase in its unemployment rate of the magnitude Ireland put itself through.  I could commend to the Reserve Bank the experience of Iceland (which went through a financial crisis which, in many respects, was even nastier than Ireland’s, and yet had only a fairly moderate increase in its unemployment rate).

And then there is the hoary old chestnut about just how expensive financial crises supposedly are.  Here is Bascand

Since the mid-1970s there have been over 140 banking crises around the world. And they have had large costs for the affected economies and societies.

On average a bank crisis costs a country 23% of its GDP, while public debt increases by around 12 percent.3 The amounts are higher for advanced economies.

That footnote records that the numbers are calculated as deviations of actual GDP from its (pre-crisis) trend.

They sound like scary numbers, and if true (in some meaningful sense) they might even be so  (although even if a crisis happens every 20 years, a loss of 23 per cent of one year’s GDP is roughly a loss of 1 per cent of the total GDP over that full period).  But they aren’t meaningful, on a number of accounts.

First, the calculations (implicitly) assume that any deviation from the pre-crisis trend is a result of the crisis itself –  and not, for example, the misallocation of real resources that might well have occurred even if the financial system had stayed sound.  At best, these numbers conflate the two effects.

Relatedly, the estimate ignore things that might have getting underway in the year or two prior to the crisis.  Thus, as I’ve shown before, productivity growth in the United States had already begun to slow very markedly a couple of years before the crisis hit.


A small amount of that might make its way into the pre-crisis trend measures, but most of it won’t.

And thirdly, the Bank –  and many of their peers among other keen regulators –  makes no attempt to compare the experiences of countries that went through serious financial crisis and those that did not.   US economic performance over the last decade has been underwhelming to say the least.  The US was at the epicentre of the 2008/09 financial crises.  But it is simply a step far too far to conclude that the extent to which the US has done less well than in the previous decade is the measure of the cost of the financial crisis, especially if other countries that didn’t have a crisis also did less well than they had done the previous decade or so.

I’ve touched on this issue before, including in this post last year.   Of course, finding good comparators isn’t just a matter of a random into the OECD bag of countries.  For a start, as I’ve already noted (and as the Reserve Bank knows), a fixed exchange rate tends to exacerbate the severity of any shock.  The United States –  epicentre of the financial crisis –  is a floating exchange rate country.   Some floating exchange rate countries –  notably the UK and Switzerland –  were caught up in the 2008/09 crisis primarily because of the exposure of their internationalised banking sector to the US and its housing debt instrument (rather than because of domestic credit exposures).  But there are six well-established floating exchange rate advanced countries that didn’t have a serious domestic financial crisis at all in 2008/09:  New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Norway, Israel, and Japan.

Here is how the US experience, on real GDP per capita, compares with the median of those non-crisis floating exchange rate advanced economies

crisis costs

The US experience was a little worse than that of the median of this group of countries, but the differences are small, and there is a lot of variability in the experience of the non-crisis countries (since 2007 Israel has done much better than the US, while Norway has done much worse).   And as I noted in the earlier post, the comparison still tends to exaggerate any contribution of financial crises themselves, as the US had less fiscal leeway than all the other floaters except Japan, and the US had less monetary policy leeway (running into the lower bound) than New Zealand, Australia, and Norway.

That’s GDP per capita.  But what productivity?  Quite a lot of the arguments about the cost of financial crises attempt to build a story about persistent dampening effects on innovation, risk-taking etc, reflected in the productivity numbers.  Here is the chart, showing the same comparison countries, for real GDP per hour worked (OECD data).

crisis costs 2

Perhaps this chart is a bit more favourable to the story, depending on how you read it. Over the whole period –  pre and post crisis –  the US managed faster labour productivity than the median of the six non-crisis countries.  But perhaps the slowdown in productivity growth is a bit more in the US than the others (even if, as the earlier chart showed more clearly) the slowdown pre-dated the crisis?  Then again, the level of labour productivity in the US is higher than in all but one (Norway) of my non-crisis collection of countries, so if there was a global productivity growth slowdown (for whatever reason) you might be expect the US to be hit more visibly than the other countries (that sitll had catch-up and convergence opportunities).   Even among the non-crisis countries, there is considerably divergence –  since 2007 Australia has had the strongest productivity growth and Norway the weakest.  (Remarkably, Iceland –  savage financial crisis and all –  has had faster labour productivity growth than all these countries.)

I’m not wanting to suggest that recessions and financial crises don’t have costs.  At an individual level almost inevitably they do, and at a national level recessions are rarely pleasant or welcome (that’s why we have active monetary policy).  But we deserve much more searching analysis from our central banks and financial regulators (and those holding them to account, including national Treasurys) when they bidding to persuade us to entrust them with so much power, and  the deference due to people who make so much difference (so they claim).

A good starting point remains this very long-term chart (due originally to Nobel laureate Robert Lucas)


As I noted in a long-ago post

It is a quite simple chart of real per capita GDP for the United States, back as far as 1870.  These are Angus Maddison’s estimates, the most widely used set of (estimated) historical data, and as Maddison died a few years ago they only come as far forward as 2008.  The simple observation is that a linear trend drawn through this series captures almost all of what is going on.  More than perhaps any other country for which there are reasonable estimates, the United States has managed pretty steady long-term average growth rates over almost 140 years.  And yet, this was a country that experienced numerous financial crises in the first half the period.  Lists differ a little, but a reasonable list for the US would show crises in 1873, 1884, 1893, 1896, 1901, 1907, perhaps 1914, and 1929-33.  There were far more crises than any other advanced countries experienced.

And yet, there is no sign that they permanently impaired growth, or income.

If we are to have good financial stability policy, and confidence in it, it needs to be based on good searching robust and honest analysis, that recognises the puzzles and the ambiguities in the data, not the sort that rushes to support the conclusions policymakers have already settled on.