LVR limits revisited

The Reserve Bank was out the other day with some research on the impact on house prices of the successive waves of loan to value limit restrictions put in place from 2013 to 2016.     It was a rare Reserve Bank discussion paper –  pieces typically designed to end up in a journal publication –  to get some media attention.   That was, no doubt, because of the rather bold claims made in the non-technical summary to the paper

Overall, we estimate that the LVR policies reduced house price pressures by almost 50 percent. ,,,,, When it becomes binding, LVR policy can be very effective in curbing housing prices.

Since nationwide average house prices (QV index measure) increased by about 40 per cent over the four years from September 2013 (just prior to the first LVR restrictions coming into effect) to September 2017), you might reasonably suppose that the researchers were suggesting that, all else equal, LVR restrictions had lowered house prices by almost 40 per cent (in other words, without them house prices would have increased by around 80 per cent).  Of course, that isn’t what they are claiming at all.

The paper was written by several researchers in the Bank’s Economics Department (two of whom appear to have since moved on to other things), and carries the usual disclaimer of not necessarily representing the views of the Bank itself.  Nonetheless, on an issue as contentious as LVRs, it seems safe to assume that senior policy and communications people will have been all over the communications of the results.  Even if the Governor himself didn’t see it, or devote any time to it, it seems likely this paper carries the effective imprimatur of the Assistant Governor  (Head of Economics),  the Deputy Governor (Head of Financial Stability) and (at least in the bottom line messages) the Head of Communications too.

In the paper, the authors attempt to identify the impact of the various waves of LVR controls using (a) highly-disaggregated data on property sales, and (b) the fact that shortly after the first LVR restrictions were put in place, the Bank buckled to political and industry pressure and exempted lending for new builds from the controls (even though, generally, such lending is riskier than that on existing properties).  By looking at the relationship between prices of new and existing properties before and after the various adjustments to LVR limits, they hope to provide an estimate of the effect on existing house prices of the LVR controls.

Trying to identify the statistical effects of things like LVR controls is hard, but I’m a bit sceptical of this proposed new approach.  After all, if new and existing houses were fully substitutable a new regulatory intervention of this sort could be expected to affect prices of both more or less equally.  People who were more credit-constrained (by the restrictions) would switch to buying new houses, and those who less affected by the contros (eg cash buyers) would switch more to existing houses.

In practice, of course, the two aren’t fully substitutable, for various reasons (including that most new builds are occurring in different locations –  even in the same TLA – than most existing houses), but in the Reserve Bank research paper I didn’t see any discussion of the issue at all.  If there is no substitutability at all then the research approach looks as though it should be reasonable, but that seems unlikely too.

But I’m more interested in whether the reported results are anywhere near as impressive as the authors claim.

As a reminder, here is their chart of house price inflation developments, with the various LVR interventions marked.

LVR1

And here is their summary table of those successive interventions.

LVR2.png

And here is their summary table of the impact of these LVR adjustments on house prices, as estimated from their model.

LVR3

My focus is on the last two lines of the table: the estimated percentage effect on the various different intervention on existing house prices in Auckland and the rest of New Zealand  (the three asterisks suggest that the results are highly statistically significant).

Take the initial LVR controls first (which had the added effect of being something out of the blue, shock effects of a tool never previously used in New Zealand).  Recall too that, at the time, the big concern was about Auckland house prices and associated financial stability risks.    On this particular set of model estimates, the effect on house prices outside Auckland –  where there wasn’t a particular problem –  was larger than the effect inside Auckland.  In both cases, the effect (2 to 3 per cent) isn’t much different to previous estimates, or (indeed) to the sorts of numbers that were being tossed around internally before the controls were imposed.  It was generally expected that the controls would have a temporarily disruptive effect, lowering house prices for a while, but the effects would wear off over the following few years. (There are some model estimates on page 9 of this paper the Bank published in 2013.)

And what about the second wave of controls (which tightened financing restrictions on investors in Auckland, and eased them for everyone outside Auckland)?  On these latest estimates, those restrictions had no discernible impact on prices in the Auckland market at all, even though they were avowedly put in place because of explicit gubernatorial concerns about investor property lending in Auckland.  On, on the other hand, the moderate easing in the rules outside Auckland was so potent that it full unwound the price effects of the first wave of controls.

And, finally, the third wave of controls.  These represented a substantial tightening in investor-finance restrictions (especially outside Auckland), and a reversal in the easing (in wave 2) of the owner-occupier financing restrictions outside Auckland.   And yet, even though the rule changes were materially larger for borrowers outside Auckland, there is no estimated effect on house prices outside Auckland at all (even though, in wave 2 the easing in owner-occupier restrictions, now reversed, was supposed to have had a large effect).  And although the Auckland rule changes are smaller those outside there is no estimated effect on Auckland prices at all.  These results aren’t very plausible and suggest that – even if the results are statistically significant –  the strategy they used to identify the effect on prices isn’t that good.

One could also note that if one added up the effects across the three columns (which isn’t kosher, but still…….) the total effect outside Auckland is basically zero (actually slightly positive).  Even in Auckland, the total is about 5 per cent.

One of the reasons why simply adding up the estimated effects isn’t kosher is because everyone has always recognised that LVR restrictions are unlikely to have long-term effects on house prices.  They disrupt established established financing patterns, and thus can dampen house prices a bit in the short-term, but the effects dissipate with time.

In fact, the Reserve Bank researchers illustrate exactly that point in this chart which (if I’m reading them correctly) relates to the first wave of LVR controls.

LVR4

As the authors themselves observe

Figure 5 plots the point estimates with 95 percent confidence intervals. Overall, the effect of the first LVR policy on house prices occurs within the first three months and is relatively stable over a six-month period. Thereafter, the moderating effect declines somewhat (to around 1.5 percent after 12 months), perhaps owing in part to individuals having saved up the required deposit under the policy and a price differential having opened up between existing and newly built houses.

Any substantial effects on house prices don’t seem to last long.

To be fair to the Bank, and the former Governor, they never claimed house price effects would last for long.  The argument was that LVR restrictions reduced financial system risks by altering the composition of bank balance sheets.  That is another contentious claim, but it isn’t touched on in the current paper and so I won’t deal with it further here either.

So what led them to write (and their bosses to approve) the extravagant claim that LVR policies reduced house price pressures by almost 50 per cent?    It seems to be this

The moderating effect of LVR 3 was clearly seen in Auckland with a 2.7 percent reduction in house prices. This LVR 3 effect is both statistically and economically significant, as during the same period the average house price increased by 5.8 percent.

Overall, we estimate that the LVR policies reduced house price pressures by almost 50 percent.

But

  • as the table above shows, there was no estimated effect on all (from LVR3) outside Auckland,
  • even inside Auckland, and granting their estimates, 2.7 per cent is under a third of pre-LVR price increases during that specific period (the 5.8 per cent that happened anyway, plus the 2.7 per cent they claim to have reduced prices by).
  • as the chart aboves shows, on their own estimates, the dampening effects of LVR controls seem to dissipate relatively quickly (in that case half of the effect had unwound within 12 months).
  • the estimate seems to take no account of the ongoing house price inflation outside the arbitrarily chosen period they measure.

Contrary to their claims, LVR policy is not very effective in curbing house prices.  Indeed, its staunchest advocates never really claimed otherwise (for them it was mostly about financial stability), which does leave one wondering why today’s Reserve Bank management are publishing such overblown (and undersupported) claims to be made.  As I noted earlier, over a period when nationwide house prices rose by about 40 per cent, this latest model suggests no sustained impact at all on house prices outside Auckland –  despite significant interruptions to established financial structures and effective property rights –  and probably quite limited effects in Auckland too.

Overblown claims about what LVR controls can do for house prices (especially with no discussion at all of efficiency/distributional costs etc) risk distracting attention from the real regulatory failures that explains the dysfunctional housing market.  And they also detracting from the credibility of the Reserve Bank, whose legitimacy depends in part of being authoritative when it speaks.

 

 

A sadly diminished central bank

Under the Reserve Bank Act as it stands at present, before a Governor is formally appointed the Minister of Finance is required to reach agreement on a Policy Targets Agreement (on monetary policy) with that person.  It is a strange system –  again one no other country has chosen to follow in law.  A Governor-designate may, for example, not know a great deal about monetary policy before taking up the job.  And it also appears to give a great deal of policy-setting power to an unelected official, treating the Governor-designate as almost an equal with the elected Minister of Finance.   Since the Governor-designate will generally be ambitious for the role –  and as even potential Governors give some deference to, for example, electoral mandates – in fact the Minister of Finance has the greater say.

The system is shortly to be replaced.  Here is what the Minister of Finance had to say in his announcement on the Reserve Bank reforms in late March.

Currently, the PTA is an agreement between the Minister of Finance and the Governor. Looking forward, as the MPC will be collectively responsible for making monetary policy decisions, it would be inappropriate for the Governor to be the sole member of the MPC to agree the operational objectives for monetary policy. As a result, we are changing to a model where the Minister of Finance sets the operational objectives for monetary policy. These objectives will be set after nonbinding advice from the Reserve Bank and the Treasury (as the Minister’s advisor) is released publicly.

The approach the Government has agreed to for the setting of operational objectives going forward was recommended by the Independent Expert Advisory Panel. This approach imposes discipline on the decisions of the Minister, given the fact that the Minister’s decision will need to take account of publicly disclosed advice from the Reserve Bank and the Treasury. Further accountability measures, such as requiring the Minister to justify decisions before the House, will be considered in the detailed design of this policy proposal.

It is also intended that the setting of monetary policy objectives going forward will involve greater transparency and public input. Decisions on monetary policy objectives are important, and therefore public debate and understanding should be required.

There are still a few unanswered questions, details to be fleshed out, but that looks a largely sensible approach.  I especially welcome the emphasis on

a) the routine pro-active disclosure of official (Treasury and Reserve Bank) advice on the setting of the operational objectives for monetary policy, and

(b) greater ex ante transparency, public input, and public debate.   Setting the operational objectives for monetary policy is the key bit of policy around macroeconomic stabilisation, and is far too important to be done secretly by the Minister and a few internal advisers.  In almost other area of multi-year policy, proposed frameworks would be open for much more public consultation, scrutiny and debate.  I’ve written previously about the much more open approach adopted to the five-yearly refresh of monetary policy targets in Canada.

So, well done Minister.

But despite the admirable promises about the future, in the most recent PTA (that signed with Adrian Orr in late March, a day before he took office), the process seems to have borne no resemblance to what the Minister promises for the future.

There was no public consultation (indeed, the Treasury papers that have been released talk of some consultation with some market economists in 2016 –  under a different government with a different view on monetary policy and the Reserve Bank).

The Treasury advice to the Minister has been pro-actively released (I wrote about it here), but it was disturbingly thin in key areas (issues around the effective lower bound for nominal interest rates, and the next recession).

And what of the Reserve Bank?  One might expect that the Reserve Bank itself would have the greatest concentration of official expertise on monetary policy and related issues –  not just drafting issues, but the key economic issues, including some of those monetary management issues that are just over the horizon).  One certainly wouldn’t want only Reserve Bank perspectives taken into account –  after all, one key part of the PTA involves the Minister, acting in the public interest, disciplining and holding to account the Reserve Bank –  but it would be astonishing if they didn’t have useful perspectives to add.   Perspectives that really should be seen by both the Minister of Finance and by the Governor-designate.  The Minister’s statement about future arrangements would suggest that, at least in principle, he’d agree.

When the Policy Targets Agreement was released I noted that I had lodged an Official Information Act request for the Reserve Bank’s analysis and advice on PTA issues, but that I didn’t really expect much, because I expected to be obstructed and delayed.

There was a bit of delay, in that the Bank took almost the full 20 working days to respond when –  as will shortly be clear –  they could have (and by law should have) responded almost immediately.

This was what I asked for

Copies of any papers relating to the new Policy Targets Agreement signed earlier this week.  I am interested in any advice to the Minister or his office, and any advice provided to the then Governor-designate, as well as any substantive internal advice or analysis papers prepared or obtained in the period since the current government was formed.

and this was the response

The Reserve Bank didn’t provide advice about the Policy Targets Agreement (PTA) to Adrian Orr prior to his start as Governor, and advice to the Minister of Finance was provided by the Treasury rather than the Reserve Bank.

That is a categorical statement: no advice (written or oral) to the Minister of Finance, and no advice (written or oral) to the Governor-designate.

In a follow-up email exchange, I also clarified with them that there were no “substantive internal advice or analysis papers prepared or obtained in the period since the current government was formed” either.

And there was also nothing of this sort in the Briefing for the Incoming Minister released late last year either.

It is almost literally incredible –  ie impossible to believe.  Public servants of my acquaintance have suggested that the Bank might just be lying, but I don’t believe that.  Or perhaps I crafted my request too narrowly?  Perhaps they had done substantive analytical pieces before the election rather than after it, but given the differences in emphasis between the two main parties it doesn’t seem likely that one would really be a substitute for the other.  And they probably will have provided comments to Treasury on drafts of its advice to the Minister, but nothing in that advice is a distinctively Reserve Bank contribution.

It seems rather a sad commentary on what the organisation seems to have become over recent years.  There has been much talk about collective monetary policy decisionmaking –  and ministerial commitments to legislate –  and yet the new Governor apparently neither sought nor received any advice from his (new) senior colleagues on the drafting of the Policy Targets Agreement, the key macroeconomic stabilisation policy document.  The Reserve Bank has substantial experience with the conduct of monetary policy here,  substantial exposure to what is done in other countries, and a significant research capability funded by taxpayers (presumably, at least in part, to shed light on such issues).   The Minister of Finance says he wants future PTAs (or their equivalent) to benefit from (published) advice from both the Reserve Bank and the Treasury, and yet he sought –  or at least received –  none this time from the Reserve Bank.  And yet the Bank itself, if its OIA response is to be believed, had done no substantive analysis or internal advice on PTA issues in the months between the government  – with, for example, its new emphasis on employment – taking office and the signing of a new PTA.

It seems like some sad mix of abdication of responsibility, and the sidelining of the institution that is supposed to be centre of official professional expertise in the area.

It is a far cry from, for example, the approach taken fifteen years earlier.  In April 2002 Don Brash resigned as Governor, and Rod Carr was appointed to act, holding the fort until a new permanent appointment could be made.  That process in turn spanned a general election.  At the time, Reserve Bank senior management took the view that it would prudent and useful for us to invest quite heavily in preparing background papers which could assist the Minister of Finance, The Treasury, the Board, and whoever was being considered for appointment as Governor to (a) get to grips with the issue, and (b) see where our reading of the evidence and arguments had led us to.  The resulting 100 page document is here.    And that wasn’t the limit of our involvement.  We provided advice to Alan Bollard (before he took office) for his discussions with the Minister of Finance, and participated directly in at least one (I say “at least” because I attended one  myself) of his meetings with the Minister on detailed issues around the negotiation of the Policy Targets Agreement.   It wasn’t a climate in which Reserve Bank staff and management perspectives were necessarily overly welcome –  the Bank was to some extent seen as almost an ideological “enemy” (see, as one cause, Don Brash’s 2001 speech I wrote about recently) and there was a great deal of opposition in the Beehive to the idea of anyone internal getting the job as Governor.     But it didn’t stop the Bank preparing and supplying what was (to my mind) reasonably good quality analysis and advice.

As I’ve said previously, the Reserve Bank certainly shouldn’t have a monopoly on advice/analysis in this area –  and much of its analysis on various issues in recent years has been less good than it should –  but the apparent complete lack of any serious analysis or advice to the Minister or the Governor-designate reflects pretty poorly on all involved –  Minister, “acting Governor”, Governor-designate.   It tells of a sadly diminished central bank.

Designing monetary policy committees, revisited

(This post is likely to interest only those with a relatively detailed interest in the reform of the Reserve Bank.)

A month or so ago the Minister of Finance announced the outline of his planned legislative reforms of the monetary policy provisions (objectives and decisionmaking) of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act.  According to the material released then

What are the next steps for progressing the outcomes of Phase 1 of the Review?
Officials will advise the Minister of Finance on detailed implementation issues associated with the high-level Phase 1 decisions by late May.

so presumably Treasury is beavering away at present, with the Reserve Bank chipping in to try to retain as much effective control with the Governor and his management team as possible.  Unless, that is, the new Governor is taking a quite different –  and more open and legitimacy-focused –  approach than the Deputy and Assistant Governor he inherited from Graeme Wheeler.   Legitimacy is a key focus in a major new book (Unelected Poweron the institutional design of central banks –  and other autonomous government policy/regulatory agencies – published a week or so ago, and written by Paul Tucker former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England.

I’ve written various posts on aspects of the detailed design issues.  And in a post last week, I dealt with a recent conference presentation on these and related issues by two former central bank officials, one of whom was David Archer, former Assistant Governor (and successively head of financial markets and head of economics) of the Reserve Bank, and now head of the department for central bank studies at the Bank for International Settlements (a “club” for central banks).

I’ve been learning from –  and often disagreeing with – David for almost 35 years now, since he was briefly my boss in my first year out of university, when I was tossed a paper he was writing on reforming the operational aspects of monetary policy and asked for my comments.  He was my boss in a couple of other stints, and then for most of his last few years at the Reserve Bank, he was head of economics and I was head of financial markets.  Frustrating as he could sometimes be –  and I’m sure the sentiment was reciprocated at times – I reckon that in many respects he’d have made a pretty good Governor, at least of a monetary policy focused central bank.  These days he has the advantage of moving among a bunch of very able experts, and perhaps the disadvantage that those people are mostly insiders (formally or not), and his employer is an organisation that doesn’t need to worry much about legitimacy.  Readers may think I’m given to idealism, but on a pragmatism-idealism scale, I’m further to the pragmatic/political end of the spectrum and David towards the idealistic/technocratic end.

As I hope was apparent in post last week, there is a great deal David and I agree on in the context of designing laws, and associated rules, for monetary policy.

  • moving away from a single decisionmaker model (an innovation in the 1989 Act that no one chose to follow, and which has become increasingly less appropriate),
  • that public confidence in the legitimacy of the institution is crucial if operational independence is to be sustained,

Thus far, most people would agree. But we go further:

  • groupthink is a serious risk in any institution, and in any Monetary Policy Committee, and groupthink can seriously undermine the advantages of establishing a committee,
  • free-riding is also a risk in any such committee, and thus
  • a Monetary Policy Committee should have a clear majority of outside members,
  • and those members should be individually accountable for their advice and their vote,
  • a diversity of views/perspectives should be sought, and encouraged (consistent with the high degree of uncertainty and the risks of groupthink in any institution),
  • a role for parliamentary scrutiny (in my case) or approval (in David’s) for people nominated to serve on an MPC,
  • proper and substantive minutes of MPC meetings should be published, with no more than a short lag.  Such minutes should capture and convey the differing perspectives that individual members bring to the discussion (whether about specific OCR decisions, or the approach the committee is taking to monetary policy).  A parallel exists in the form of the range of (majority and minority) opinions judges of higher courts often deliver in deciding cases.
  • individual MPC members should be free to give speeches or interviews articulating their perspective on monetary policy issues, and not be bound to present only a majority institutional view,
  • appointment terms should be staggered, and of a significant length.   David favours prohibiting reappointment, although I’m more hesitant about going that far (because very long term weakens the effective accountability we both seek).
  • periodic external reviews of monetary policy have an important role to play, and should be an established feature of the system (rather than, say, a response to specific episodes of discontent).

Since my post last week, David and I have been exchanging notes on a couple of the issues where our views diverge.  (There are probably others –  while I’d not be averse to a single non-New Zealand member of an MPC, David would  – on past form –  be more open to a larger foreign participation.  For me, one element of legitimacy is about –  in Paul Tucker’s phrase –  perceptions of “values compatibility”.  The New Zealand public need to be confident that an autonomous central bank is working for them, and that is more likely –  at the margin – when the decisionmakers are themselves drawn from that community).  David has given me permission to quote from our exchange.

In my earlier post, I quoted from the Archer/Levin slides

The MPC should formulate a systematic and transparent strategy that guides its specific policy decisions over the coming year or so.

and observed

Easy enough to write down, but hard to make it mean anything particularly specific.

In response he noted (emphasis and link added)

As in my comments on Rennie, and as in Andy’s presentation, I see 3 layers for policy. Call them framework, strategy and tactics. They correspond roughly with what goes into a PTA; the policy reaction function that goes into the forecasting model (alternatively, a Taylor rule or alternative rule that captures the systematic aspects of policy in pursuit of the target(s)); and the stuff around nowcasting and forecasting. Andy and John Taylor and others argue that the Fed should be articulating its strategy, and disclosing that, though Andy is more open on the form in which the strategy is articulated that John appears to be. You and I argue that the RBNZ should disclose its model, also so that the systematic parts of the Bank’s thinking are on display. We’re all talking about central banks being more open about the systematic elements that are under the their control, to improve discipline and legitimacy.

So I actually think we’re in a similar place. We might disagree on whether a Taylor Rule type of PRF [policy reaction function] “dumbs down” the policy process too much – in my view, the ability of the Taylor Rule (or variants thereof) to capture the essence of policy needs is remarkable and telling, as is the regularity with which departures from TRs have turned out to be mistakes. And we share the view that central banks should be required to explain why they think this time is different, which is helped by having a publicly disclosed benchmark.

We both agreed that forecasting is of little value.

Part of the context here is about proposals in the US to require, by law, the Federal Reserve to publish the reasons why its interest rate decisions deviate from the recommendations of, say, the Taylor rule (a fairly simple, but at times surprisingly useful, guide to how central banks (should/do) run monetary policy (using just a neutral interest rate, an output (or employment) gap, and the gap between the inflation rate and target).  David is more sympathetic to something along those lines than I am, and sees the primary role of an MPC as to formulate and articulate a strategy to guide monetary policy.

In response I wrote

I’m inclined to agree that the Taylor rule seemed to do a remarkably good job for a period, although am less sure of its value in the last 5-10 years, because one of the key questions that central banks have had to grapple with (implicitly or explicitly) is what is happening to the natural interest rate itself –  and Taylor can’t offer useful insights on that.  As you note, I would favour the RB publishing its forecasting model, including the reaction function (as part of much greater sense of input-transparency all round), altho I’m more sceptical about the ability of the reaction function to really represent all the contingencies a committee of policymakers (esp an individualistic one) is likely to have in mind.  I’d probably put more weight on the potential for good minutes –  of the sort you suggest –  combined with a requirement for MPC members to publish their individual estimates of key system parameters (neutral interest rate, NAIRU –  akin to the final observation in the Fed dot-plot) to provide a steer as to thinking, and something later to use for some sort of accountability.

In other words, I’m all in favour of an MPC publishing lots of its inputs (eg the background staff papers it receives) and a lot about individual members’ priors.  Like David, I favour the publication of good minutes.   But I’m sceptical that an MPC can usefully go very much beyond what is captured in a PTA –  the bit the Minister of Finance controls.   There is just too much uncertainty about how the economy works at any particular point in time –  more so in the last decade with a great deal of uncertainty about “the” neutral interest rate – for statements of MPC strategy to add very much value.

Our other area of disagreement seems to be over the type of people who should be appointed to serve on a statutory Monetary Policy Committee.

In his announcement of the proposed New Zealand reforms, the Minister of Finance indicated his view on that issue as follows:

External members will have knowledge and experience in relevant policy areas (such as economics, finance, banking, or public policy). However, members will not be limited to monetary policy experts. External members will need to be free from conflicts of interest and will not be on the MPC to represent a particular sector.

It is worth noting that there is no particular reason to expect that most of the internal members will be monetary policy experts either.  At present, for example, the Governor is chief executive for a broadranging organisation, and may not have had a strong background in monetary policy (neither Brash, Bollard nor Wheeler did), and the current deputy governor is a career public servant with an economics background mostly in labour and fiscal issues.

I wasn’t unhappy with Grant Robertson’s description of the sort of people he expected would be appointed.  But in the Archer/Levin slides, they argued

…..the MPC should comprise a diverse group of experts who are individually accountable for their policy decisions.

To which I responded briefly.

I’m not totally persuaded by the “experts” line myself –  one needs lots of expert input/advice to policy, but when it comes to decisionmaking, soundness is at least as important as cleverness.

To which David responded (we both agreed that the value of outsiders shouldn’t be in bringing a better class of business anecdote to the table –  the role the external advisers play at present)

….the big issues in policy-making, the ones that impact on welfare, concern choices of framework and choices of strategy. Right now, as you also argue, the greatest attention by far should be on whether policy design is right. Do we have the right tools? Can we get interest rates to move enough in response to demand perturbations, without banging into lower bounds? What do we think about the appropriate speed of response? If we had a price level “attractor”, would that help induce stronger responses to negative perturbations that risk acquiring a deflationary dynamic? When might asset prices or other indicators of collective manias sensibly affect policy making? Questions about the variability of the exchange rate come into play in open economies. These are the things that can make a real difference. Tactics don’t. So if we’re staffing a policy committee, we should staff it to be capable of handling such questions, and bring a diversity of approach to the thinking on them. From my observation, it’s in relation to these questions where Group Think has its greatest hold. People find it easy to disagree on timing and tactics, but find it very hard to challenge accepted frameworks.

Hence I come down in favour of a diversity of people with the expertise and inclination to handle evaluations of frameworks and strategy, rather than something aimed to reflect the composition of society or of economic activity. And I acknowledge a cost to that approach: political legitimacy is less readily supported, because the policy committee members are not obviously “like us”.

It is an ambitious vision.  I wasn’t persuaded though

…..where we disagree is whether one looks to the MPC members primarily as expert analysts and decisionmakers/communicators in one, or as customers/purchasers for expert analysis, and then decisionmakers/communicators.  I can’t think of many (any?) bodies in our society that function in the former way.  …..  I guess I”m inclined to think that I want MPC members (including the Governor) who will create a climate that encourages debate, and research, and engagement –  inside and outside the Bank –  on all the sorts of issues you raise, and more, rather than being those experts themselves.  It doesn’t mean I’m opposed to have some genuine experts on the committee, but it might be undesirable (even if enough were available) for them all to be experts. For a start, those people won’t necessarily have the (eg) communications skills a public agency needs, or the institutional political skills.  And realistically, not one of the Governors in my career (here and abroad, …..) has been what I would call a monetary policy expert.   Arguably, none of the deputy governors have been either.  Perhaps that should be changed, but there are pretty slim pickings, and frankly what worried me more about Graeme wasn’t his lack of expert background as his lack of openness to debate/challenge scrutiny.  Realistically also, even if we had resident academics who were strong in these areas, many might be better used –  and themselves prefer –  to be based in the academy, generating research and then interacting with policy people, than devoting large chunks of their time to “tactics” and related stuff.
You also note that “People find it easy to disagree on timing and tactics, but find it very hard to challenge accepted frameworks.”.   Maybe, altho your great chart from the Sept 08 FOMC [reproduced in last week’s post] argues against that (at a time when it counted).
On my telling, an MPC should be a balanced panel of people, dominated by outside non-executives, but drawing on high level technical expertise (staff and outside resources).  Since I favour separating monetary policy and regulatory functions into separate institutions, I would favour seeking a monetary policy expert as Governor (and chief executive).   To me, the parallel is with something like the Cabinet –  drawing on expert advice, sometimes ignoring it completely, without themselves being the experts.   That seems more like the way in which we typically run institutions in our society (a telecoms company board will typically benefit from having some people who really know tech/telecoms but will rarely be exclusively comprised of such people).
David responded, having emphasised his view that frameworks and strategies, rather than specific OCR decisions, are mainly what we want an MPC for.

How does one evaluate alternative frameworks and strategies? With extensive modelling exercises, and empirical evaluation of results of different frameworks and strategies at work in practice in comparable countries. Evaluating, making sense of, and extracting the lessons from such research is thus the main task. The expertise required should be sufficient to evaluate research effectively, but not necessarily to design and conduct that research. What the candidate MPC member needs is sufficient training in economics to understand the research they are being presented with. There’s a specialised vocabulary involved. Different research methods take quite some time to understand, especially in terms of the implicit assumptions involved in the choice of method. Perhaps most importantly, even very experienced lay people struggle to grasp the general equilibrium mind set, which is crucial to comprehending how the macroeconomy responds to various impulses over the time frames relevant to the design of frameworks and strategies.

…. Experts should not be equated with PhDs with great track records for research and publication (though they shouldn’t rule the person out).

I’m not persuaded.  There is certainly a need for plenty of background research, and the synthesising and application of that research to a New Zealand context. But I don’t think decisionmakers need to be literate in the issues in the sort of depth David suggests, and I think there is a real risk that – even if enough such people could be found in New Zealand –  such a panel of people might prove more interested in the esoterica of some of the debates (and the important issues that really matter, like the near-zero lower bound) than about actually making good OCR decisions that deliver inflation consistently at or near whatever target the Minister of Finance has set.  This is a point Paul Tucker makes in his book: reputation is a key element of public sector accountability, but for it to work, the appointed policymakers have to care about the stuff the public is looking for from th institution.   People with a stronger interest in the international conference circuit (I’m caricaturing, but it is a risk) than in short-medium term New Zealand macro outcomes, won’t end up with very much effective domestic accountability.

Tucker also makes a point I’ve made here repeatedly.   Requiring technical expertise to be brought to bear before decisions are made does not mean that the technical experts should be the decisionmakers.   We need to bring a lot of technical expertise to bear around monetary policy (tactical decisions and framework design) but in my view much of that expertise should reside on the staff of the Reserve Bank, and it should be one of the prime roles of the Governor to (a) foster such expertise, and (b) ensure it is exposed to external challenge and scrutiny (and alternative external perspectives) and (c) to ensure the results, and alternative interpretations, are translated into language decisionmakers –  on the MPC –  can make sense of, and can question and challenge (and where those decisionmakers have the incentive to do so).  I’m sure there is a place for some monetary policy experts on an MPC –  including among the externals – but the MPC should no more be dominated by such people than (say) major decisions on war and peace should be made by generals (no matter how valuable their technical advice might be).    Legitimacy is rarely achieved simply by technical expertise.

These are important issues to be thought through in the design of the new MPC for New Zealand, and in the process of making the first wave of appointments (which will establish much of how the MPC works).  In practice, in a New Zealand context (given limited pools of candidates) I’m not sure how far apart David Archer and I would end up being, but I hope Treasury and the Minister are giving some thought to the sorts of issues raised here.

 

Productivity Commission and the path of least resistance

The Productivity Commission’s draft report on making a transition to a low-emissions economy is out this morning.   It is a 503 page document and so, of course, I haven’t read very much of it.  But electronic search is a wonderful tool.

As I noted yesterday, despite having had a fairly large (by international standards) fall in emissions per unit of GDP since 1990, New Zealand has had one of the larger increases in total gross emissions of any OECD country.  What reconciles those two observations isn’t some incredible surge in New Zealand’s productivity and GDP per capita – as is generally recognised, we haven’t done well on those scores –  but a large increase in the population.  And most of that increase in population is due to the planned immigration of non-citizens to New Zealand.  In other words, it is more or less a direct result of the policy adopted by successive governments (including the current one).

For any given set of technologies and relative prices, more people means more emissions both directly (more transport, more power) and indirectly –  people need to earn a living and so emissions associated with, for example, manufacturing or agriculture also rise.   As a rough first approximation, if we’d stayed with the rate of non-citizen immigration New Zealand had in the late 1970s and much of the 1980s, total gross emissions in New Zealand now would be at least 20 per cent lower.  For governments that want to materially reduce emissions that should be something to ponder (especially as New Zealand average units of GDP are themselves quite carbon-intensive)  It is, of course, water under the bridge now.  But the same high non-citizen immigration targets are still in place and, all else equal, will continue to drive up emissions in future.    Given those immigration policy pressures, more of a (costly) burden of adjustment has to be imposed on the economy through other instruments.   As marginal abatement costs here are widely accepted to be higher than those in most other advanced countries, the likely adverse economic effects on New Zealanders are large.

But you don’t get much of a sense of any of this from the Productivity Commission’s report.  There are quite a few references to the role of population in the growth of emissions.  It even makes one of their formal findings

Finding 2.7     Economic and population growth have been important underlying factors in New Zealand’s rising emissions. Over the last 25 years, New Zealand’s emissions per person and emissions per unit of output have decreased, but the increase in population and output has caused overall emissions to increase.

Flowing from this short discussion.

Strong population growth and economic growth have been key underlying drivers of New Zealand’s rising emissions since 1990. Between 1990 and 2015, New Zealand’s real GDP nearly doubled. During the same period, population growth was higher than most other developed countries (Figure 2.10). More people means greater consumption of goods and services that contain emissions (eg, more vehicle use, and greater demand for electricity). Economic growth (and, indirectly, population growth) means more emissions-intensive goods and services are produced, leading to higher emissions.

And there is the odd passing observation, such as that

Future population growth will provide a challenge in bringing down transport emissions.

although no apparent recognition of the connections to agricultural emissions.

But the Commission has chosen to treat population growth (past and future) as some sort of exogenous given.  For example, they report some results of some commissioned modelling exercises, and in each of the scenarios exactly the same future population growth is assumed.  That might make sense in a country where population changes were almost entirely the result of developments in natural increase (or even of the emigration choices of nationals), neither of which should be any sort of policy lever.  It makes no sense at all in a country where most of the population growth (last quarter century and next) is directly the result of policy choices.

No analytical sense that is.  But perhaps it makes sense if you are a government agency feeling your way with a new government that is strongly committed to the “big New Zealand” mentality and to current immigration policy, and where much of that government seems more interested in having New Zealanders don hair shirts and feel the pain (or alternatively conjure up imaginary futures in which a forced adjustment to net-zero emissions won’t come at aggregate economic cost to New Zealanders).  The path of least resistance politically presumably led the Commission to conclude that it was better (“safer”) not to mention immigration (policy) at all.

And so they didn’t.   In the entire 503 pages there is a single reference to immigration.

But that is just part of the (reproduced in full) Terms of Reference for the inquiry, set out by the previous government.

New Zealand’s response also needs to reflect such features as its high level of emissions from agriculture, its abundant forestry resources, and its largely decarbonised electricity sector, as well as any future demographic changes (including immigration).

It feels a lot like abdication, and not at all like the sort of free and frank analysis and advice that a body like the Productivity Commission should be providing if it is to be any long-term use.  The Commission seems to have been so scared of upsetting its liberal readers –  political and other –  that it isn’t even willing to address the issue.

It would be one thing if they’d devoted some substantive discussion to the issue and concluded, whether on the basis of reasoned analysis or modelling, that the economic benefits to New Zealanders from the immigration policy were sufficiently large, and the marginal abatement costs of other approaches in a portfolio of measures to reduce emissions were sufficiently small, that winding back non-citizen immigration targets should not be part of a preferred response strategy.  Reasonable people could debate that sort of proposition and the evidence advanced for it.  But the Productivity Commission chose to totally ignore the issue.   Since as an institution they don’t seem to be gung-ho enthusiasts for the economic benefits of New Zealand’s immigration policy (see my discussion of their narrative of New Zealand’s economic underperformance) it looks a lot like playing politics, going along with a Labour/Greens (and their acolytes) narrative.  In the short run that might make it more likely they get a hearing from the government. In the long run, that sort of approach to issues won’t stand them  –  or the cause of good policymaking and analysis in New Zealand, already enfeebled enough – in good stead.

(It was also noticeable that amid all the happy talk in the document, there was no sign of any attempt to estimate, or model, the likely real economic costs of the sorts of carbon reduction policies the Commission is dealing with.   There is an entire chapter reporting initial modelling results, but –  as far as I could see –  no reference to the implications for GDP per capita (or any of the cognate national accounts measures).  No doubt, the average New Zealander in 2050 will be wealthier than we are today, but the relevant issue for policy isn’t that baseline, but the deviations from it.  In particular, they should have focused much more attention on what the economic implications of various possible policy levers –  perhaps including immigration policy –  might be, and how best to minimise the economic costs to New Zealanders of making the adjustment the government is planning to target.     And it is fine for enthusiasts for aggressive policies to talk of unpriced externalities etc, but even with those unpriced externalities our economic performance over decades has been startlingly poor, and it isn’t obvious why removing them won’t further worsen economic outcomes.  That might be an acceptable trade-off, but there doesn’t seem to be anything much in this report suggesting just how large those costs and benefits might be.)

 

Emissions, population growth, and the Productivity Commission

Early tomorrow morning the Productivity Commission will be releasing its draft report on how New Zealand can transition to a low emissions economy.   The report was commissioned by the previous government, but this will be the first real test for the Commission in dealing with the new government –  for whom this is an issue dear to the heart.   The Commission has been trailing the report, with links to a recent presentation.   Like most Commission reports it will, presumably, be long, and full of lists of findings and recommendations.   My main interest is whether they again –  as they did in their earlier issues paper – manage to entirely avoid the elephant in the room:  the role that deliberate (immigration) policy has played (and continues to play) in driving up the population, and driving up emissions, in a country that is pretty widely-recognised as having some of the highest marginal abatement costs anywhere.

On that latter point, don’t just take my word for it.  Here was the Ministry for the Environment –  official advisers on these things –  in their report last year.

mfe

(not, it appeared, that MfE had done any more thinking about it than that)

Bear in mind too that Statistics New Zealand project that New Zealand’s population will increase by another 25 per cent by 2050 –  the date by when the current government aims to have net carbon emissions to zero – and all (net) that projected population increase is due to immigration policy.

One key indicator around emissions is total emissions per unit of GDP.  On that measure, New Zealand has the second highest emissions of any OECD country, just behind Estonia.

nz and estonia

But we seem to be heading for number 1.   That our emissions per unit of GDP are high isn’t that surprising, given the large role that pastoral farming plays in our economy.  It may even be that New Zealand –  temperate climate and all – is a relatively efficient place for such farming emissions to occur.

As the chart shows, emissions per unit of GDP have been falling in New Zealand.  Even if that first chart might suggest a modest fall, in fact it only illustrates how energy-inefficient much of the former Soviet bloc actually was.   Here is a chart showing the reduction in total emissions per unit of GDP from 1990 to 2015 (the latest OECD data) for all the OECD countries for which there is complete data.  There are four countries missing, but looking at their incomplete data, it doesn’t as though including them would change the picture.

emissions 2

On that metric –  the change in intensity – New Zealand hasn’t done badly at all.  Of the countries to the right of us on the chart, six were former Soviet-bloc countries (formerly highly resource –  including energy –  inefficient).   And the Irish numbers are badly distorted by the way in which GDP  in the last 20 years has been increasingly artificially boosted by aspects of their corporate tax regime, counting as GDP stuff that doesn’t actually happen –  or generate emissions –  in Ireland (details here).  Relative to most of the old OECD, New Zealand emissions per unit of GDP have fallen more than most –  which is all the more striking because our productivity performance has been so poor.

And yet, for the OECD as a whole gross emissions increased by only 2 per cent from 1990 to 2015, while in New Zealand they increased by 24 per cent.  The big difference isn’t that somehow New Zealand has become relative more carbon-inefficient –  we haven’t (see previous chart) – but simply that we have a whole lot more people.  And the overwhelming bulk of that population growth is due to New Zealand’s immigration policy (natural increase – itself boosted by immigration – offset by the net outflow of New Zealand citizens would have given us a population increase of only around 250000 from 1990 to 2015).

There seems to be a real squeamishness about confronting this, pretty straightforward, series of facts:

  • production here is more carbon-intensive than elsewhere among advanced economies,
  • marginal abatement costs here are higher than those in most other parts of the advanced world,
  • more people drive up total emissions, all else equal, and
  • in New Zealand trend population growth –  over the last 25 years, and in the projections to 2050 –  is mostly due to active non-citizen immigration policy.

(In fact, you might have supposed that emissions/climate issues might have featured in the Fry/Wilson book on a multi-dimensional approach to thinking about immigration policy, but no.)

And here a few of the cross-country charts of the relations between population growth and gross emissions.  This one is for all energy sectors (including transport).

emissons 3

New Zealand is very close to the line (and the line remains upward sloping even if one excludes rapidly industrialising Chile, Turkey, and Korea –  the three dots at the top of the chart).

The relationship shouldn’t be a surprise: more people means, all else equal, more requirement for power, more need for transport, and so on.  Over time, production processes tend to become more efficient, but for any given production technologies, more people will tend to mean more emissions.

Much the same relationships is present (again unsurprisingly) for total gross emissions.

total emissions

and even, more to my initial surprise, for agricultural emissions

ag emissions

In fact, as I noted in an earlier post

Somewhat to my surprise there is actually even a (weak) positive relationship between population growth and per capita emissions and emissions per unit of GDP.  I’m not quite sure why that would be, although in New Zealand (and Australia’s) case, the migrants are moving to some of the OECD countries with, already, the highest emissions per capita and per unit of GDP.

The apparent relationship between agricultural emissions and population growth (even across advanced economies) is both interesting, and particularly germane to New Zealand.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, it is plausible that if New Zealand had had much lower immigration (and thus lower population growth) and, thus, a lower real exchange rate (according to the Reddell model), the political constraints on tightening water-quality standards (especially affecting dairy industry competitiveness) and on introducing agriculture to something like the ETS would have been less intense.  The lower exchange rate would have provided a competitiveness offset.  So it is likely that, all else equal, our immigration policy has even driven up our agricultural emissions.

None of which might matter much if

(a) there was compelling evidence that very high rates of non-citizen immigration had been boosting domestic productivity, or

(b) if the marginal abatement costs for emissions in New Zealand were low.

But neither appears to be so.   And thus, if one cares at all about minimising the cost to New Zealanders of a forced policy adjustment towards a net zero carbon emissions world –  as distinct from simply forcing us all to don a hair shirt and feel the pain –  rethinking our immigration policy really should be high on the list of options for responding to the carbon goals the new government (and, less ambitiously, its predecessor) have set for themselves.  I hope  –  but am not optimistic, based on the “part preview” I linked to above  –  that the Productivity Commission, who are supposed to be politically neutral analysts, have recognised this in their report.  But perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.  We’ll see tomorrow.

It isn’t as if the issues haven’t been raised with them.   Here is the link to my brief submission to their inquiry.

World War One and the New Zealand economy

Earlier this week, in the lead up to ANZAC Day today, The Treasury drew attention to an interesting conference paper written a few years ago by Brian Easton on “The impact of the Great War on the New Zealand economy”.   From the opposite end of the political spectrum, Eric Crampton described it as “really great”.  I’m not sure I’d go that far, but for anyone interested in aspects of New Zealand’s economic history –  especially bits on which there are few systematic treatments (and often only patchy data) – it is certainly worth reading.

Easton’s focus is less on the details of how the economy did during the war than on supporting

my contention that the war experience fundamentally affected the way we governed New Zealand.  I shan’t be surprised if economic historians from other countries come to similar conclusions about their economies.

As Easton notes, the war itself took up a lot of resource.

How much diversion of resources? We dont know with any precision. During the war the troops overseas at any time, plus those in domestic training – amounting to at least 65,000 and even 100,000 men, over a fifth of the labour force – were not available for civilian production, but they were still consuming. Similarly there were workers diverted to producing war goods. There are no annual labour force figures at this time, so we don’t know the precise impact of having so many workers unavailable for domestic production. Some of the labour deficit would have been made up by running down the unemployed (although that was not a huge reserve), by drawing women into the labour force (although we dont know how many) and by working longer hours.

Other authors note that the number of women drawn into the labour force actually wasn’t that large.   In the 1916 Census, for example, there were 100000 women in paid employment, up from 90000 in the 1911 Census –  an increase as a proportion of the total female population, but not much of one (given the underlying rate of population growth). But it does appear that those people (male and female) in employment were  working a lot of overtime –  although data were only collected on female and youth overtime.

Easton surmises that resources equal to perhaps a third of GDP were diverted to the war –  similar to estimates of the resources devoted to World War Two.   Rich countries –  and New Zealand was then one of the very richest –  could afford to devote a large share to the war (since pre-war living standards were so much further above subsistence than in poorer countries).   One thing that made the New Zealand experience of World War One very different from that of World War Two, is that in the first war we had nothing like the massive influx of American troops seen after 1941 (our war was entirely overseas).

The war was financed by a mix of taxes and debt.

One of the most radical changes in our tax system occurred over the six years to 1919/20. Income tax made up just 9 percent of total tax receipts in 1913/14, behind customs duties (58%), land tax (13%) and death duties (10%). Six years later income tax was the single largest source of tax revenue at 39%, with the other three behind: customs 30%, land tax 9% and death duties 6%.

As for debt, here is a chart of the estimated public debt as a share of GDP.

ww1 debt

The level of debt – mostly domestic debt – roughly doubled, but there was so much inflation (despite, as Easton notes, resort to price controls) that the debt ratios themselves didn’t increase that much (nothing like the extent experienced in, say, the UK).  That didn’t stop our government claiming –  and securing –  a small portion of German reparation obligations after the war.

And that the demand impetus was led from the public sector rather than the private sector is evident in the ratio of trading bank advances to deposits.  There was plenty of deposit growth but pretty subdued growth in private credit.

adv to dep ratio

One aspect not touched on by Easton is that such rapid inflation was made possible by one of the very first New Zealand policy initiatives  –  the suspension of the Gold Standard.  In a very early post I wrote about that here, including the fact that gold convertibility was never resumed in New Zealand, and for the next 20 years (until the Reserve Bank was established) our monetary arrangements were idiosyncratic, and not really anchored at all.

But as I noted, Easton’s main concern in his paper is with the legacy of World War One for our economic management.    He argues, of the rehabilitation polices for returned servicemen

There is rarely a single event which initiates what proves to be a major policy, although there can be steps which accelerate its development. The rehab policies after the Great War might be thought of as starting the practice of widespread home ownership. Similarly the war’s broadening of the role of income tax was on the way to today’s dominant role of income tax in the revenue system. It seems likely that the administration of veterans’ pensions was part of the basis for the social security one set up in 1939.

And of the state control of exports during the war

….. by 1917 New Zealand had an agreement with the British Government that all the supplies available for exports would be requisitioned for the British market.

At the end of the war there was a considerable quantity of meat and wool in store. As shipping became available it, plus the normal annual production, was unloaded on the British market, as were South American supplies. Prices collapsed. Private enterprise seemed to have fail again, and the farmers turned to the public sector. In February 1922 the government, with dirigiste (‘Farmer Bill’) Massey at the forefront, passed legislation which established the Meat Producers Board with very wide powers. Although interrupted by the 1922 election, the Dairy Board was created almost as quickly.

We may ponder whether these producer boards would have been established as early – or at all – had there been no commandeer, had there been no Great War.

Perhaps more dubiously Easton argues for other longlasting legacies

This was most evident in the draconian wage and price freeze which the government of Robert Muldoon introduced in May 1982. The earlier war administrations would have been admiring. Of course, in ways that Muldoon never fully appreciated, New Zealand had moved on. The unwinding of centralised economic control that the successor government – the Rogernomes – undertook might be said to represent the end of the centralised Second World War approach to economic management of forty years earlier, itself a response to the Great War approach to economic management a further twenty-five years back.

Frankly, all of that seems a stretch in a New Zealand specific sense.   As he notes “I’m not sure that New Zealand was particularly more centralised than many of the other war economies”, and cross-country comparisons are often enlightening.  Ireland, for example, was long even more inward-looking than New Zealand.

Which isn’t to suggest that wars don’t have longlasting consequences –  economic, as well as political, social and personal.  Many scholars would ascribe the severity of the Great Depression in significant part to the conduct of policy (perhaps inevitable –  inflation, build-up of debt etc) around World War One.  Perhaps more locally, we wouldn’t have had a central bank as early as 1934 without the earlier war, and then the Depression.  Taxes and government spending seem permanently higher –  but who is say that that wasn’t an almost inescapable outcome of the worldwide lift in prosperity (and there is little sign that taxes are lower, or regulation less pervasive, in countries that stayed out of both wars).

On which note, perhaps I can end with the famous quote from John Maynard Keynes from The Economic Consequences of the Peace about the way in which global markets worked in the years prior to World War One.

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.

He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighbouring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. 

But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable.

And not a preferential trade agreement, attempting to reach behind borders and control this, that or the other aspects of other countries’ policies, in sight.

If anyone is interested, here is an early (surprisingly frequently read) post on New Zealand’s economy in World War Two.    There certainly seems to be a gap in the market for a good modern treatment of New Zealand economic history, and the history of economic policy, from say 1914 to 1945, encompassing the two wars.

For various other countries’ economic experience in World War One, I recommend Broadberry and Harrison’s The Economics of World War 1.

 

Immigration policy and wellbeing: Part 2 (aggregate economic outcomes)

Last week I wrote some brief introductory remarks about the new book by economists Julie Fry and Peter Wilson, Better Lives: Migration, Wellbeing and New Zealand.  

Unfortunately, like so much of the current bureaucratic and political enthusiasm in New Zealand for focusing on “wellbeing”, the book seems to be built on a straw man.   To listen to Treasury’s champions of the “living standards framework”, or Cabinet minister championing the proposed “wellbeing” framework for the Budget, you would suppose that all key decisions in the past have only ever been made on the basis of the impact on GDP (per capita) or some similar national accounts indicator.   That that notion is just nonsense takes no time at all to demonstrate: no one seriously supposes that we have a huge welfare system because governments have believed that by doing so GDP per capita will be maximised.   Raising the NZS eligibility age would most likely increase GDP per capita (and maybe even GDP per hour worked) but as a society we’ve chosen to leave it at 65.  And so on.   Advocates of almost any policy will try to argue for some material economic benefits (or to minimise the costs), but public support for this, that or the other policy is only occasionally directly dependent on expected real GDP per capita gains.

It is the same straw man that suffuses the Fry/Wilson book (and the various associated articles or interviews I’ve seen).    Their claim is that immigration policy has been driven by a near-exclusive focus on boosting real GDP per capita (or, again, some variant –  eg real net national income (NNI) per capita) –  economic considerations, and that they are preparing the way for something richer and better.  Here is the last two sentences of the book.

We are confident that using a wellbeing approach is the right way to think about migration.  It enables us to consider important broader issues that a simple focus on per capita GDP allows us to ignore.  The result should be a more effective and more sustainable immigration policy for New Zealand.

But in the entire book, not once did they seek to demonstrate that anyone individually (or New Zealand governments as a whole) has been driven solely by a focus on something like real GDP per capita.  That isn’t surprising.   Here is a summary table of residence visa approvals in 2016/17.

Category Number
Skilled Migrant         24,140
Residence from Work           2,353
Investor           1,418
Entrepreneur              594
Business Immigration Policy – Other*              141
Subtotal  (Skilled/Business)         28,646
Partner         10,914
Parent           1,820
Dependant Child           1,937
Sibling and Adult Child              346
Subtotal  (Family)         15,017
Refugee Quota           1,218
Samoa Quota           1,121
Pacific Access Category              655
Convention Refugees and Protected Persons              236
Refugee Family Support              302
Other special residence policies              489
Subtotal (International/humanitarian)           4,021
Total        47,684

I’m sure that in the first category (the Skilled/Busines sub-total) policy is driven primarily by economic considerations, perhaps encapsulated in a goal of lifting productivity and real GDP per capita.   But nobody supposes that parent or sibling visa policies were motivated by national economic considerations, let alone the two Pacific quotas or the refugee and related policies.  We take refugees because it is the sort of people that we are, and doing so captures or reflects things we care about, without too much consideration for economics.

Even in respect of the people here with short-term work rights, national economic benefit has never been the only consideration.  We didn’t enter a plethora of new Working Holiday visa schemes to maximise the GDP per capita of New Zealand, but through some mix of benevolence (its good for young people to see the world) and (so it seems) a pursuit of other countries’ votes for a Security Council place for New Zealand.  Even the recognised seasonal employer (RSE) scheme bringing temporary workers from the Pacific, is as much about aid to those countries and their people, and boosting political relationships with those countries, as it is about possible economic gains to New Zealanders.

And yet the authors claim that they are offering a whole new way of seeing immigration policy issues, thinking of dimensions other than the economic implications.    They know it isn’t so –  I heard one of the authors interviewed on Newshub Nation explicitly note that “of course politicians look at many of these things now” –  in which case you have to wonder what the fuss is about.  They seem to be arguing that if it were developed their framework (which is really no more than a concept at present –  a bid for consultancy contracts from government departments to flesh it out?) might enable a greater degree of transparency around the considerations guiding immigration policy decisions.  But you can’t help wondering what they have to offer that the release of Cabinet papers and regulatory impact statements, and the availability of speeches/interviews of relevant ministers does not already provide.   There is, perhaps, a bureaucrat’s appetite (and both authors are former bureaucrats) for tidiness –  boxes to tick, and perhaps a common agreed evaluation framework –  but not much of life is like that.

The authors adopt a list of 12 other considerations that they think immigration policy should take into account –  11 from the OECD, plus a Treaty of Waitangi dimension.  One could debate the relevance or role of many of them, but equally I could throw in five quite different factors.  No doubt, at one extreme, the National Front, and at the other extreme open borders globalists could throw in their own five distinctive angles.  There is no aggregation framework, no way for officials or “expert” advisers to decide which factors should count and to what extent.  What there is is the political process, messy as it often (perhaps inevitably) is.  As it is, Fry’s and Wilson’s own political worldviews –  if rarely directly stated –  suffuse the book (although they might be hard for many bureaucratic and political readers to recognise, since so many of them share that sort of worldview).

Perhaps all the Fry/Wilson (conceptual)framework might be useful for is reminding fellow economists on the odd occasion when some might be tempted to think that immigration policy is, or should be, only about aggregate economics (GDP and all that).  If some economists ever fall into that trap –  and I doubt many do –  few others do.

In some ways, the most interesting part of the book is an attempt to suggest thinking about New Zealand immigration policy through a Treaty of Waitangi lens.  I’m sceptical –  and think they avoid most of the hard issues – but want to come back and devote a separate post to that material.

Today I wanted to focus on the bit of the book that bugged me, and puzzled me, most.

There are repeated claims –  in the book text itself, and in associated articles/interviews – that New Zealand’s immigration policy has produced good economic outcomes for New Zealanders (at least in aggregate).    One chapter starts this way

“Migration is good for economies.  But is it good for people?”.

The final chapter beings

“But despite its economic benefits, migration remains a controversial topic”

In their presentation at Treasury a couple of weeks ago, Fry asserted that

“Immigration is economically beneficial, but the public is not fully comfortable”

And in a Newsroom column the other day they note that

“justifying high levels of migration by the fact that it boosts GDP or even GDP per capita has done little to resolve debates about migration”

To be clear, the authors aren’t championing a claim that there are large economic benefits (and they are focused on per capita gains, or lifts to productivity, not headline GDP effects).  In fact, they explicitly claim that

“The available evidence suggests that in modern times, the economic effects of immigration to New Zealand are likely to be positive but modest at best.”

But, remarkably, they offer no evidence for the claim that the effects have been positive at all (lifting economywide productivity –  and as they note, our productivity record has been pretty woeful –  of lifting the per capita incomes of New Zealanders (as distinct from the gains, reflected in average GDP, to the migrants themselves.     They make no attempt to engage with the stylised facts of New Zealand’s economic performance –  or even the huge scale (relative to most other countries) of our migration programme (permanent and temporary).

For “evidence” they seem to refer readers on several occasions to Julie Fry’s previous book (with Hayden Glass) Going Places: Migration, Economics and the Future of New Zealand.  In that book (which does touch on some of my arguments about rather worse results –  described as “a plausible idea but difficult to prove or disprove”) the authors have no sustained discussion of the New Zealand experience – poor productivity growth, despite huge immigration inflows, weak tradable sectors, limitations of geography –  and also adduce no empirical evidence of the economic benefits of large scale immigration (as it has actually been run) for New Zealanders.    That latter omission isn’t surprising as –  as even advocates of high immigration acknowledge –  there are no such papers.  But, if anything, in Going Places Fry and Glass seemed more cautious  –  noting the importance of the quality of the migrants, and doubts about how well New Zealand has been doing on that score –  than Fry and Wilson are in Better Lives.

It is all doubly perplexing because on the one hand they repeat standard lines about how immigration, even of the unskilled, probably hasn’t made much differences to wages, while at the same time arguing that large inflows of unskilled migration (notably in the US) had, by lowering the cost of various household services (childcare, gardening etc) enabled many more women (in particular) to move into the labour force.  You really can’t have it both ways.

I’m not sure why in the latest book they seem so confident that New Zealand’s large scale planned immigration programme (three times the size per capita of the US programme –  under such nativists as Clinton and Obama –  and larger, per capita, than those of any other OECD country) over the last quarter century or more has been economically beneficial.

There seemed to me at least three possibilities:

  • the first was that they had made a rhetorical or positioning choice.  After all, if they had taken a stance that our immigration policy, as run, had actually been costly to New Zealanders, most of their other list of “wellbeing” considerations would fall away.   We might still want to take some refugees, but there would be any other very compelling case for large numbers of other migrants –  open borders ideology aside.  Moreover, since their target audience is typically pretty pro-immigration (officials, National/Labour/Greens politicians, and other “urban liberals”) casting doubt on whether there had been any economic gains might have led those people to simply refuse to consider their arguments, and the framework they were touting.
  • the second was that they had just taken the international economics literature –  which tends to produce results suggesting gains in productivity and per capita income (often implausibly – incredibly – large estimates) from immigration, and assumed that (a) these estimates were valid, and (b) they applied to New Zealand, without any specific consideration of New Zealand’s actual experience, or
  • third, that the authors had themselves thought hard about the New Zealand experience, including its overall economic performance in the context of a large scale immigration programme, and had come to an independent view that there had been gains to productivity etc here (and perhaps didn’t have space in this book to write up those views –  arguably, the economic effects are the focus of the book).

And so I asked the authors. Of the third bullet I noted

If the latter, I’m a bit puzzled as to how you deal with such stylised facts as the persistently high real interest and exchange rates, the decline in the foreign trade shares of GDP, and the long-running weakness of business investment.   Where do you turn for evidence –  formal statistical or the marshalling of other material –  of the gains you proclaim?   And how, for example, do you grapple with the fact that (true) fixed factors –  land and natural resources –  appear to play a much larger role in NZ than the (almost non-existent) role in typical models, or than in many norther European economies.
A few days later I got a response.

On your specific question, we didn’t write the book to resolve the issue of the effects of migration on GDP or any of its components or derivatives, like TFP.  Indeed, the core element of the book is that GDP and its derivatives are poor metrics of welfare, both generally and in relation to migration.   If you are using a wellbeing framework, what matters is the capabilities that people have to lead the lives they value, not their command over commodities. So the effect of migration on GDP, GDP per capita or TFP isn’t the focus.

Which might be fine in the abstract, but really rather avoids the specific issue.  If they didn’t think productivity or real GDP per capita outcomes were meaningful –  and most will beg to differ –  why would they keep on repeating a claim that there have been gains to New Zealanders on exactly these counts?  And if they do believe there have been gains –  as they state repeatedly in the book and associated media material –  where are the New Zealand specific arguments and evidence for those claims?  It isn’t as if there is a single mention made only in passing: the proposition that New Zealand immigration policy has been economically beneficial to New Zealand suffuses the book.