Debt: dodgy analysis from the IMF

I should really be doing something else, but I just read Brian Fallow’s column in today’s Herald outlining his views on why the government shouldn’t relax its own fiscal rules.   Reasonable people can differ on that –  and as per my post yesterday I’m certainly not arguing for the government to raise debt levels (per cent of GDP) from here.  But what caught my eye was some IMF “analysis” Brian quoted.

He introduced his article noting that on IMF data (or any other measure you like) New Zealand’s net or gross government debt is quite low as a share of GDP.  On my preferred measure, net debt is about 8 per cent of GDP.    But he goes on

A third reason for being cautious about ramping up government debt is that not all of its obligations are on the balance sheet.

In particular, there is the future additional cost of superannuation and health spending as the population ages.

The IMF has had a stab at calculating the net present value (NPV) of those increased costs out to 2050. We can think of that as how big a pot of money we would need to have set aside, earning compound interest, if those liabilities were fully funded.

It reckons the NPV of the pension spending increase out to 2050 is 54 per cent of GDP. That is $150b in today’s dollars, only partially offset by $38b in the New Zealand Superannuation Fund. The NPV of the expectable health spending increase is even larger, at 66 per cent of GDP.

When those two factors are accounted for, New Zealand is no longer a fiscal outlier, but sits in the middle of the range for advanced economies, between Germany (with its challenging demographics) and Ireland (with its debt crisis legacy).

That sounded interesting, so I dug out the chart Brian appears to be referring to from the latest IMF Fiscal Monitor publication.

IMF fiscal monitor implied debt chart

I don’t know quite how the IMF did their health and public pension numbers, or how comparable their estimates are across countries.  But just take them as what they are (our pension numbers are high because, unlike many countries, we haven’t done anything to raise the NZS age).   Allegedly, New Zealand is now in the upper half of the indebted advanced countries.

But this is a nonsense chart, adding apples and oranges.    It might make some sense if every country had the same starting deficit/surplus, in which case future differences in discretionary spending associated with ageing might be the only difference in the projected future debt paths across countries.

In fact, some countries are in (cyclically-adjusted) surplus, and some are in (cyclically-adjusted) deficits.     Israel, for example, is estimated to have structural deficits of 3.5 per cent of GDP, and the US is now estimated to have structural estimates of about 6 per cent of GDP.   Israel is much further down that IMF chart than we are, but annual deficits of 3.5 per cent of GDP  (before the effects of additional ageing) soon compound into very large numbers.

And New Zealand?   Here are the IMF’s own estimates of the average cyclically-adjusted fiscal balance for 2018-2023 (their forecast period).

fisc balances IMF

On the IMF’s own numbers we have the largest (structural) surpluses projected over the next few years of any advanced economy.  Structural surpluses of 2 per cent per annum, in a country with high real interest rates, compounds to a very big (positive) NPV really quite quickly.

As it happens, Germany is also projected to be running quite large surpluses. No wonder markets aren’t remotely worried about fiscal/debt risks in either Germany or New Zealand.     You simply can’t sensibly start with today’s debt, add one bit of additional future spending, and not take account of the baseline fiscal parameters that, in countries like New Zealand, mean we already have material fiscal surpluses (on the books, and in prospect).   Fiscal people at the IMF sometimes liked to quip that IMF stood for “It’s mostly fiscal” (the problems, and macro solutions, that is).  But they really should be producing better fiscal analysis than this (even if, perhaps, their main interest is big countries with both high debt and ongoing deficits).

None of which means I think NZS shouldn’t be changed. To my mind –  as voter –  failure to do so is both a fiscal and moral failure.  But, despite those future pressures, by international standards our fiscal position remains very strong, and there is –  objectively –  plenty of time to adjust (even if I personally might prefer the adjustment had already begun years ago).



Split the Reserve Bank in two

In the last few months, I’ve run a couple of posts making the case for splitting the prudential regulatory/supervisory functions of the Reserve Bank out into a standalone prudential regulatory agency.  The main post was here, with some follow-up comments here.  The case for structural reform has been further strengthened, in my view, by the results of the recent New Zealand Initiative survey on regulated entities, in which it is clear that most respondents have little or no respect or regard for the Reserve Bank in its supervisory roles (as distinct from the inevitable disagreements with a regulator that should be expected/encouraged).   There are good arguments in principle for structural separation, and there is no sign (say) that despite those in-principle arguments the Reserve Bank has been doing a superlative job anyway.

As I noted in the earlier post, in most OECD countries (outside the euro-area, where central banks no longer have a monetary policy job to do), banking regulation and supervision is done by a body other than the central bank.

But if we look at advanced countries that do have their own monetary policies, I could find only three others –  Czech Republic, Israel, and the United Kingdom –  in which the same agency is responsible for monetary policy as for prudential supervision.   The US is –  in this area as so many –  a curious hybrid system, in which the Federal Reserve has some –  but not remotely all – responsibility for prudential supervision.  But as far as I could tell, the following OECD countries have monetary policy and prudential supervision conducted by separate agencies:

Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Korea, Japan, Poland, Chile, Turkey, Mexico, Switzerland, and Iceland

I’m not sure that Turkey or Mexico offer models of governance for New Zealand, but the presence on that list of small well-governed countries like Norway, Sweden and Switzerland –  as well as tiny Iceland –   gave me pause for thought.

Perhaps of most direct relevance to us in Australia’s place in that list.

Some others have also made the case for structural separation, including my former colleague Geof Mortlock.  Geof has a new substantive column out today forcefully making the case for change.   Geof and I have been disagreeing about things for 35 years since we started at the Bank in adjoining offices a couple of weeks apart.  He spent most of his Reserve Bank career in the regulatory side of the Bank and for the last decade or so has been a consultant on banking risk/regulatory issues, including a stint at the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority.      Judging by the occasional emails we exchange and occasional comments here, I suspect we still don’t agree about very much –  quite probably including the substance and extent of financial system regulation and supervision.

But I agree with almost everything in his column today. I encourage you to read it, and I hope that Treasury officials working on Reserve Bank reforms and the Minister of Finance (and his associates) not only read it, but heed it.  It is an overdue change, and if the chance for reform isn’t grasped now the issue is likely to drift for another decade or two, with weak governance, weak accountability, and a regulatory body that is unlikely to command the respect it should earn whether from regulated entities, overseas supervisors or (most importantly) the New Zealand public.

Here is Geof’s list of the main reasons for change

  • It would reduce the concentration of excessive power in one government agency. Currently, the Reserve Bank has a very wide range of powers compared to most central banks in the OECD. It has responsibility for monetary policy, foreign exchange reserves management, currency intervention, operating significant parts of the payment system and securities settlement system, prudential regulation of banks, insurers and NBDTs, regulation of money laundering, regulation of the payment system, financial stability oversight, macro-prudential regulation and currency management. I will stop there. The sentence is already too long!  So is the range of functions under one agency. This concentrates excessive power in the Reserve Bank. It also creates potential and actual conflicts of interest, as I argue later in this article. A narrower span of functions would reduce this concentration of power and avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Removing regulatory functions from the Reserve Bank would enable the supervisory agency to focus on the job at hand without being distracted by the other central bank tasks, particularly monetary policy. ………the Reserve Bank has tended over the years to accord much greater emphasis, attention, management oversight, resourcing and public reporting to the monetary policy function than to its regulatory responsibilities. The Reserve Bank Board, likewise, has generally paid much greater attention to the monetary policy function than to financial sector regulation. (That said, the Board has performed very poorly in all of its monitoring roles. Sadly, it has been little more than a compliant rubber stamp and cheer leader for senior management).
  • Separation of the regulatory functions would also enable the Reserve Bank to focus on its core role of monetary policy and related functions, undistracted by the many regulatory issues which it currently oversees. This would likely be conducive to a more focused and effective central bank. It would help the central bank to lift its game in monetary policy – i.e. to keep inflation broadly around the mid-point of the inflation target range; something that it has consistently failed to achieve in recent years.
  • Separation of the regulatory functions would enable a senior management team to be appointed with the skills, knowledge and experience to perform the role effectively – i.e. people with deep knowledge of, and practical experience in, banking, insurance and financial regulatory issues. The current senior management team – and its predecessors – generally lack the skills, knowledge and experience required for the role.  …..
  • It would enable the regulatory agency to build the depth of knowledge and skills in its staff to perform the functions required of them. Currently, although the Reserve Bank has able people in the supervisory area, it lacks the depth and breadth of knowledge and industry experience to do the job as effectively as it should. ……

He adds a couple of other considerations that resonated with me

  • Separation of the supervisory function from the Reserve Bank would also remove potential conflicts of interest between the Bank’s functions. For example, there is a conflict of interest between the Reserve Bank’s role as owner and operator of core parts of the payment and settlement systems [notably the NZClear securities settlement system], and its supervisory responsibilities in these areas. It is rather like the referee of a rugby game also being an active player on the field. Even worse, this referee gets to write the rules of the game!
  • It would ensure that macro-prudential supervision policy is directed at the promotion of financial system stability rather than being used as a de facto monetary policy instrument or for other nefarious purposes that do not necessarily anchor to financial stability. Reflecting this, I very much doubt that, had the responsibility for macro-prudential policy been allocated to a separate prudential regulator, and not the Reserve Bank, the macro-prudential policy tools would have been used as aggressively and relatively clumsily as has been the case under the Bank.

I’m hopeful more than convinced of the argument in that final sentence.

Of course, structural separation is no panacea.  A new agency would need to be built from scratch, even if it took over the existing Reserve Bank staff.  It isn’t as if the field of suitable candidates to lead such an agency is thick on the ground, and building the sort of expertise and culture that the job requires will be the work of several years.  But, on the one hand, we face that challenge anyway: the Governor can’t simply ignore, or pay only lip-service to, the shocking feedback in the NZ Initiative survey.  And, on the other hand, if we don’t make a start –  and put in place structural preconditions that increase the chances of better institutions in the longer-term – things are unlikely to ever reach the standard they should.

It remains disconcerting that the second stage of the Reserve Bank Act review is being led jointly by the Reserve Bank and the Treasury, in a climate in which the Minister of Finance has shown little interest in these sorts of issues.  The situation is crying out for leadership from the government, and not allowing the existing Reserve Bank management to persuade the Minister to settle for something as little different as possible from the inadequate status quo.

(Geof’s comment on the severe weaknesses of the Reserve Bank Board echo my own over the years.  Neither their Annual Reports nor the minutes of their meetings record any dissatisfaction with management ever – even though their primary role is holding the Bank to account, and the Bank is made up of fallible human beings.    I wrote a few weeks ago about the “Charter” (really a code of conduct) the Board has devised for itself.  The “charter” talks of the Board’s right to advise the Governor, and asserts a right to be heard

The Board may advise the Governor on any matter relating to the performance of the Bank’s functions and the exercise of its powers. The Governor is not required to act on the Board’s advice, but is required to have regard to it.

Where advice relates to matters of significance, the Board may give that advice to the Governor in writing, having first discussed the matter with the Governor in a Board meeting.

The Board will maintain a record of any formal Board advice given to the Governor.

There was no record in the minutes over the last couple of years of any material oral advice (despite (a) legal requirements to maintain records of public affairs, and (b) some difficult issues, including –  for example –  the Toplis affair).  So I lodged an OIA request seeking copies of any written advice.

There was none of course. In fact, the Board chair went so far as to claim that this was a mark of the effectiveness of the Board.   I think he must have left off an “in”.    Geof’s term –  and I think I’ve used it before too –  was cheerleaders.  But hopeless at almost anything else, and useless to the citizenry. )

Is vapid rhetoric all our leaders can offer?

The Prime Minister gave what she billed as a “pre-Budget” speech yesterday to the leading business lobby group, Businss New Zealand.  It was, I’m pretty sure, her first prime ministerial speech mainly on economic matters.  In introducing her speech  she indicated that she would

outline our plans for the economy and how we want to partner with New Zealand businesses to bring about transformative change for the good of all New Zealanders.

and a few sentences later she added

We are committed to enabling a strong economy, to being fiscally responsible and to providing certainty. We have a clear focus on sustainable economic development, supporting regional economies, increasing exports, lifting wages and delivering greater fairness in our society.

But in the rest of the speech there was almost nothing there.   There were slogans, and feel-good phrases.  But there was no plans for the economy.  No plans to lift productivity –  a point she touched on not infrequently during the election campaign –  and barely even an acknowledgement of the problem, no plans to reverse the decline in the export/import shares of GDP in New Zealand, and no sign that she –  or her advisers or her Minister of Finance –  have a serious well thought-through story of how New Zealand ended up underperforming as badly as it has done, let alone how we might reverse the underperformance.

Governments of both political parties deserve credit for keeping the government’s finances more or less in order.  As I noted yesterday, that is more than most large OECD countries have managed in recent decades.  But it isn’t a substitute for policies that might finally offer a credible path out of the 70 years of relative economic decline –  drifting a bit further behind even as every country is richer than it was – that New Zealand has experienced.

Instead, we get attempts to shift the goalposts, aided and abetted by The Treasury.

On that score how we measure our success is important. In the past we have used economic growth as a sign of success. And yet a generation of New Zealanders can no longer afford a home. Some of our kids are growing up living in cars. Our levels of child poverty and homelessness in this country are much too high.

We all want a strong economy. But why do we want it? What is it for? It is vital that we remember the true purpose of having a strong economy is for us all to have better lives.

Well, sure.  GDP isn’t an end in itself, but it (and cognate measures) are a pretty important means to those ends, and a reflection of how well a society is providing for itself.    And how does the Prime Minister suppose that the crushing specifics of (New Zealand) poverty 100 years ago –  when New Zealand was the richest country on earth – became largely non-existent today?  By achieving sustained productivity growth.   And if we now score badly on some of the poverty indicator measures, it isn’t entirely surprising when productivity (real GDP per hour worked) isn’t even two-thirds of that in countries like France, Germany, the United States, and the Netherlands.  When it now also lags well behind Australia too.

In her speech, she claims that her plans are already clear

We have already spelled out our ambitious agenda to improve the wellbeing and living standards of New Zealanders through sustainable, productive and inclusive growth.  Now we want to work with business and investors to get on with it and to deliver shared prosperity for all.


We will encourage the economy to flourish, but not at the expense of damaging our sovereignty, our natural resources or people’s well-being. Our plans have been spelled out from the beginning, in the Speech from the Throne, in the first 100-days plan, and very soon you will see more detail in our first Budget.   ……

You will see a clear plan to build a robust, more resilient economy. You will see a strong focus on delivering economic growth, on running sustainable surpluses and reducing net debt as a proportion of GDP.


There was little of substance on this score in the Speech from the Throne.  And much as I wish it were otherwise, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the “clear plan” for stronger sustained real economic (and productivity) growth in the Budget.  There is nothing in anything the government has said so far that suggests they or their advisers really grasp the issues.     Quite why simply wishing businesses would “get on with it” would now be expected to produce better outcomes than we’ve seen in recent decades is a bit beyond me.

Of course, there are nods in the direction of things Labour (or their partners believe in)

My Government is keen to future-proof our economy, to have both budget sustainability and environmental sustainability, to prepare people for climate change and the fact that 40 percent of today’s jobs will not exist in a few decades.

I’d love to see some data on what proportion of jobs that existed 40 years ago don’t exist today (the majority of the jobs that existed in the Reserve Bank I joined in 1983 don’t exist any more).  But while the government worries about work –  setting up a new tripartite forum involving the CTU and Business New Zealand – actual employment rates don’t seem to be the problem.

E rates by age

(Lack of) productivity is.   It is productivity growth that underpins any long-term growth in real incomes and living standards.

There is talk of skills, when OECD data have shown that New Zealander workers have some of the highest levels of skills anywhere in the OECD (indeed, the chair of the Productivity Commission was retweeting an OECD chart to that effect just a few days ago).

There is talk that “no-one has the same job for life any more”.  Perhaps, but there is data overseas suggesting that average length of time with a single employer is little different now than it was 30 years ago.

There is talk of “lifting R&D spending”, and the government has out for consultation at present its plan for new R&D subsidies, but no sense that the Prime Minister or her advisers have thought at all hard about why firms might not have found it worthwhile to do more R&D spending (or why, by contrast, firms in some rich countries with no R&D subsidies do a great deal).

There was lot of rhetoric

Business can be assured that this Government will support those who produce goods and services, export and provide decent jobs for New Zealanders.

But little substance, and nothing that shows signs of pulling it all together into a coherent narrative.

And, for all the mentions of climate change and related issues, nothing at all about how faster overall productivity growth –  and a stronger export/import orientation –  might be achieved in the face her government’s commitments to sharply reducing net emissions in a country with high marginal abatement costs.  “High marginal abatement costs” has meaning: it costs to do this stuff, and the cost is likely to be reflected in lower levels of economic activity (and productivity) than otherwise.  Perhaps the government disagrees –  and perhaps her audience were too polite to challenge her –  but there is nothing in the speech suggesting she has thought hard about squaring that circle.  There seems to be lots of wishful thinking, and not much substance.

And then there were “the regions”

And the regions need not fear they will be neglected. We have committed $1 billion per annum towards the new Provincial Growth Fund and over coming months there will be more detail about how this spending will be targeted. After all, nearly half of us live outside our main cities and our provinces also need to thrive if New Zealand is to do well.

The Provincial Growth Fund aims to enhance economic development opportunities, create sustainable jobs, contribute to community well-being, lift the productivity potential of regions, and help meet New Zealand’s climate change targets.

There might be a bit of a lolly scramble, redistributing the current cake.  But there is nothing from the government, or from the architects of the PGF –  and nothing in the announcements to data (eg here and here) suggesting that the government has any concept of how overall productivity growth rates, nationwide or in the regions, might be lifted.  (And not once was the real exchange rate mentioned.)

Perhaps defenders of the government would push back on one or another point.  But there is no sign of any sort of integrated narrative –  a rich understanding of how we got to our current sustained underperformance or, reflecting that, how might hope to reverse the decline.  No doubt in an attempt to woo her business audience, there weren’t even any references to tax system changes (CGT and all that) in this economic speech.

Perhaps that isn’t entirely the government’s fault.  The Treasury seems at sea as well.  But we don’t elect bureaucrats, and we do elect governments.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to be misinterpreted as suggesting that the Opposition was any less bad.  The new Leader of the Opposition also gave his first economic speech this week.   There were a few bits where I was nodding my head as I read

Labour and NZ First are more focused on government intervention. They believe they know how to run your businesses better than you do.

Shane Jones’ $1 billion Provincial Growth Fund is a good example. It’s terrible policy.

Now I’m sure there are some worthy projects that will get funded. But it will shift businesses from focusing on becoming more productive to chasing a subsidy from Matua Shane.

That’s not how to drive long-term productivity improvements.

Couldn’t disagree, but what did Bridges have to offer

When I was Economic Development Minister, our plan for the economy was set out in the Business Growth Agenda.

The BGA comprised over 500 different initiatives all designed to make it easier to do business by investing in infrastructure, removing red tape, and helping Kiwis develop the skills needed in a modern economy.

Some of those were big, some were small. I’ll admit some weren’t as exciting spending a billion dollars every year.

But together they were effective.

New Zealand has one of the best performing economies in the developed world.

500 initiatives and we still had barely any productivity growth in the last five years.  And, as I recall, one of the BGA goals was a big increase in the export (and, presumably, import) share of GDP: those shares have actually been shrinking.  Productivity levels languish miles behind the better advanced economis, and the gaps showed no sign of closing.

He ends

New Zealand is a great country. And if we maintain our direction and momentum of recent years we can make it even better for our kids.

Moving into opposition is a chance for National to look at our position on certain issues, and understand the things that New Zealanders want us to focus on.

Although the one thing I hope you’ll take from my speech is we won’t be changing our focus on the economy.

If we don’t start seeing a lot more hard-headed thinking –  and a quite material change of direction – from our political leaders and their advisers, a country that really was once the best place in the world to bring up kids, will increasingly be a country where wise parents can only counsel their kids that if they want first world living standards, the best option is to leave.     In my lifetime, 970000 (net) have already done so.  The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition –  representing two sides of the same coin when it comes to our economic failure – are younger than me, but in just the 37 years the Prime Minister has lived, a net 780000 of our fellow New Zealanders have left.   Outflows of that scale – which, of course, ebb and flow with short-term developments in Australia and here –  just don’t happen in normal, successful, countries.