Treasury and modish ideological agendas

You might have thought that there were real and important issues for The Treasury to be generating research and advice on.   Things like, for example, the decades-long productivity underperformance and the associated widening gap between New Zealand and Australia.  Or a housing and urban land market which renders what should be a basic –  the ability to buy one’s own house –  out of reach for so many New Zealanders.    Or even just preparing for the next recession.   Analytical capability is a scarce resource, and time used for one thing can’t be used for others.

But instead…..

In a post last night about various papers presented at the recent New Zealand Association of Economists conference, Eric Crampton alerted his readers last night to a contribution from Treasury’s chief economist (and Deputy Secretary) Tim Ng and one of his staff.

I did not attend Treasury’s session in which they noted Treasury’s diversity and inclusion programme which saw the scrubbing of the word “analysis” from Treasury’s recruitment ads as overly male-coded. Those interested in priorities at Treasury might wish to read the paper.

And so I did.   I’m not sure I could recommend anyone else do so, except to shed light on what seems to have become of a once-capable rigorous high-performing institution.   We’ll see later the background to the “overly male-coded” stuff, but –  in fairness to Treasury –  the first Treasury job advert I clicked on did still look for

  • Critical thinking, analytical ability and learning agility
  • An ability to drive discussion and provide critical analysis

[UPDATE: As Eric notes in a comment below, he has now amended his reference to “analysis”.]

There is no standard disclaimer on the paper, suggesting that we should take it as very much an institutional view (perhaps not surprisingly, when one of the authors is a member of the senior management of The Treasury).

The Ng/Morrissey paper has several sections.  The first relates to what the authors describe as “women’s (in)visibility within mainstream economic theoretical approaches, in particular, with respect to the conception of ‘rational man’.

A well-known trope in economics (and in critiques of economics and of economists) is that of the rational individual, one who is self-interested and seeks to maximise their own welfare, and who is consistently rational in the sense of diligently and correctly applying the calculus of constrained optimisation using complete information. Sometimes this actor is explicitly referred to as a man (especially in writings earlier than the mid-20th century – no doubt at least partly reflecting the linguistic conventions of the time). At other times, it has been argued that this is implicit in the way in which the scope of the subject is defined for the purposes of research or pedagogy.

In my years of formal economics study –  some decades ago now –  I don’t recall any aspect of economic analysis ever being framed in terms that focused on men, or male involvement in the market.  Since I focused mainly on macroeconomic and monetary areas, perhaps it was different in other sub-disciplines, but I doubt it.    And if standard simplifying assumptions –  as much about tractability as anything – about rationality are a common feature in models, those assumptions are not, actively or implicitly, focused on male perspectives.   They are a proposition that people will use the information they have, that they will pursue the best interests of themselves, their families, or other things they care about.  None of which should be terribly controversial.

But Ng and Morrissey seem to think something terribly important is missing.

We look at the degree to which mainstream theory adequately captures the value of the roles typically undertaken by women, especially unpaid care work, and examines how alternative models, such as those based on the mother/child relationship, could improve economic understanding and policy advice in contemporary developed economies.

They go on

There is a consensus from a number of notable authors that the new paradigm would have the mother / child relationship at its heart as this provides a more accurate depiction of fundamental human interaction.

Both Orloff (2009) and Strassman (1993) identified human’s dependency in infancy and old age, and often in between, as unchosen but present. By identifying dependency as natural they resist the negativity now associated with the term. Folbre (1991) considers how this negativity came about and suggests that women’s dependency was created as a fact through discourse, in the vocabulary used in the political and economic census, which tied non-earning women to earning or moneyed males.

Held (1990) makes her case by identifying the inherent dependency within the relationship between the mothering person and the child, and based on her observation of children as ‘necessarily dependent’, she puts this need at the centre of human interaction. Hartsock (1983) makes a similar argument in asserting mother/ infant as the prototypical human interaction. The importance of this relationship is discussed by Fineman (1995) who suggests the classic economic focus on the sexual relationship neuters the mother from her child.

I struggle to see how any this –  even if it has any substantive merit –  has any relevance to the sort of work, and advice, The Treasury should be providing.  But no doubt it goes down well with the Ministry for Women.

The authors do offer some thoughts on the potential relevance. They begin thus

The implications of the above for policy depend to some extent on the degree to which gender roles and preferences are socially constructed (rather than innate). If the latter, then policy settings (e.g. labour market regulation) have a role not only in recognising different gender roles and preferences, but also in possibly reinforcing or leaning against gender roles that contribute to gender inequality. A more comprehensive microeconomic and measurement approach that incorporates care work would support better analysis of policy settings to promote better gender equality over the longer run.

But even this is almost content-free.    Whether things are socially constructed (society having evolved the way it did for reasons that presumably had survival value) or innate, what role is it of The Treasury to be trying to impose its vision on how people organise their lives?    What, after all, does “gender equality” mean –  beyond individual equality of opportunity, before the law – if there are indeed innate differences (on average) between men and women?

It is a very heavy-handed feminist analysis

A number of feminist theorists have noted the value of paid employment for women. It has been suggested as being ‘constitutive of citizenship, community, and even personal identity’ (Schultz, 2000:1886). It has also been proposed to be a vehicle for participation in society and entitlement to social insurance rights (Lister, 2002:521). Of course paid work also has benefit to women in terms of poverty alleviation (Lawton and Thompson, 2013; Ben-Galim et al, 2014; Thompson and Ben-Galim, 2014).

Whereas I’m quite sure my grandmothers (and even my mother) would not have seen paid employment as a positive for them (or for their families).  Both would have seen it as constraining their ability to be heavily involved in church and community activities.  Nor, in today’s terms, is there any recognition of the fact that many families would prefer one parent (often the mother) to be able to stay at home fulltime with young children, but find that a near-impossible choice to make given the dysfunction that is the housing market.   (And, as a voluntary stay-at-home parent –  albeit male –  I don’t feel remotely disenfranchised or devalued as a result of that household choice.)

Four pages of the paper is devoted to a rather strained attempt to demonstrate the potential value of a gendered lens on macroeconomics  (Ng is a macroeconomist, indeed a former Reserve Bank colleague of mine).    Some charts show basically no difference between the cyclical behaviour of male and female unemployment rates, but the authors are undeterred

Of course, this descriptive commentary is just that – we are not attempting here to make strong empirical claims about gender differences relevant to the cyclical labour market behaviour. Instead the idea is to simply to illustrate, with a bit of introspection, the directions in which policy thinking – macroeconomic in this case – could be enriched if a gender lens is taken, exploring the possible links between behaviour within the household regarding participating in the labour market vs. other activities, and the possibly gendered impacts of macroeconomic phenomena on employment, which is an important contextual factor for within-household decisions. A public policy which aspires to be relevant to different groups in society, including different genders, and cognisant of the possibly different impacts of policy on those groups, could be strengthened by taking more of this kind of approach.

For all the blather –  and without denying that it can be interesting to understand differences in how different population groups (male and female, old and young, European and Maori, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and pagan, and so on) behave –  there is, it seems, nothing there.

Having failed to demonstrate a problem –  except perhaps an agenda to pursue –  the authors push on to look at the participation of women in the economics discipline.  This. it appears, is key (to what, one might ask?)

Education is our critical starting point. Those who study economics will later be those who practise economics, those who work in policy making, and those who undertake economic research. In order to ensure diverse perspectives are represented within that work, particularly with respect to gender and other distributional consequences of economic policy, it is important to have diversity within those who study economics. As this paper specifically focuses on gender, we will consider the position of women in economic education, in particular. Such a focus is supported by New Zealand’s international obligations through the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

When authors have to invoke CEDAW (twice in two paragraphs) and UN SDGs you know they are on substantively weak ground.

As the authors demonstrate, numbers of people studying economics have been in decline (not just in New Zealand).  That probably should be of concern, at least to agencies wanting to employ economists.   The authors present numbers suggesting that, at least at high school level, the drop has been particularly concentrated among girls (personally –  and I have both a son and a daughter doing high school economics at present –  that seems a wise choice on the girls’ part, so mind-numbing (and non-economic) is much of what is taught as economics at high school).

At an advanced tertiary level, it seems that perhaps a third of the economics students are female (in 2014, 31.4 per cent of economics doctorates were awarded to women).  Ng and Morrissey don’t like this at all.

What is our impressionistic conclusion about these patterns in participation in economics education by gender? There appears to be a “pipeline” problem with both genders, and some evidence that the proportion of women is falling – a double whammy in terms of the female economist pipeline in particular. Evidence is accumulating on a number of smoking guns relating to the way in which economics itself is taught and perceived, how leaders in the field are presented, and questions about the social construction of our identity as economists. It appears that a lot of work is needed on several fronts to improve the female pipeline into the profession.

But what, specifically, is the problem?  They don’t say?  Do they have a problem with the fact that 97.5 per cent of speech langugage pathologists are women or that 98.3 per cent of automotive service technicians and mechanics are male (US data for 2016)?   Can they, for example, point to areas where The Treasury’s analysis and advice has been deficient because female students have chosen –  and over decades now it has been pure choice –  not to study economics?   They make no effort to do so in the paper.  The consistent undertone appears to be that Treasury (and economists) make policy, when in fact politicians make the big choices (and, as it happens, in New Zealand three of our last five Prime Ministers have been female).

Ng and Morrissey go on to a new section of the paper

This section reports some experience with a programme to increase gender diversity in an economic and financial Ministry, the New Zealand Treasury.

They perhaps don’t help their case by suggesting that the current head of the International Monetary Fund is an economist, when in fact she is a lawyer and politician.

Treasury is certainly at the forefront of politically-correct blather

In the context of the now well-established literature on the benefits of diversity for the quality of decision making, as well as an obligation to be a good employer, the Treasury has for some time had an active and comprehensive diversity and inclusion (D&I) programme. The discussion in Section 2 about the (non-)role of women in mainstream economic models and approaches, and the consequences of the potential “blind spots” this might imply for policy development, reinforces the importance of gender diversity in a Ministry focused on economics and finance such as the Treasury. Meanwhile, the gender imbalance in the economist pipeline discussed in Section 3 underlines why the Treasury cannot be complacent about this issue.

In fact, this stuff carries over to the Treasury Annual Report

The Secretary to the Treasury co-leads the diversity and inclusion work stream in Better Public Services 2.0 and is a Diversity Champion for the Global Women’s Champions for Change initiative.

Too bad he isn’t a champion of analytical excellence, or of fixing New Zealand’s deep-seated economic problems (but then, not being a New Zealander, he doesn’t have much motivation to care).

Consistent with all this, they run quasi-quotas.  They would probably object to the numbers being called quotas, but when you report your target near the front of your Annual Report, it must put a great deal of pressure on individual managers to hire to the quota, not to ability to do the job.

tsy quotas

Franly, citizens should be more worried about the proportions of people who are top-notch economic and policy analysts, not their skin colour or sex.

But not, apparently, at Treasury.  Here is Ng and Morrissey again

As the data above suggest, a clear issue is the lack of women in senior leadership positions, and part of the response includes obligations on managers to have regular career discussions with all staff on a regular basis and for succession planning to more systematically address possible sources of disadvantage for women. Within-grade gender pay gaps are regularly examined and the target of eliminating any such gaps explicitly included as a criterion in annual remuneration reviews. The parental leave and flexible working policies are regularly reviewed to check for gendered impacts.

But still with no attempt whatever to suggest how any of this has adversely affected Treasury’s policy advice.    Surely that should be the most important test?

It is also clear that The Treasury is dead-keen on the flawed concept of unconscious bias (here for some problems with the Australian public service experience), and the associated training/indoctrination.

Application of emerging insights from studies of unconscious bias have been quite influential in this work, and point to certain interventions and relatively simple changes in HR processes that may help to address some of these biases. For this paper, we took the opportunity to explore in some detail the Treasury’s recent use of a tool, Kat Matfield’s Gender Decoder, which provides an easy way of assessing the potentially different impacts on prospective male and female applicants of language used in job advertisements. The Treasury now has about two years of experience with using this tool as a way of reducing unintended gendered impacts on pools of job applicants

What of this tool?

The Gender Decoder is available on the web at This tool is based on the findings of Gaucher et al. (2011) which provide evidence that certain words in job ads appeal differently to each gender, which may be a channel to exacerbate existing gender imbalances by profession, especially in traditionally male-dominated occupations. The theoretical mechanism is essentially that words connoting individualism and agency (“leadership”, “ambitious”, “challenging”), or that reflect stereotyped male traits, tend to appeal more to male applicants, while words connoting communalism or that reflect stereotyped female traits appeal more to female applicants.

They attempt some analysis of Treasury’s experience with the tool  (emphasis added)

To look at gendered language in Treasury job ads in general and the possible impact of the use of this tool, we sampled 40 job ads posted by male and female hiring managers, 20 before and 20 after the introduction of the use of the tool in March 2016 as a recommended practice in Treasury recruitment.

Looking at the pre-2016 ads, it is notable that male and female hiring managers tended to code their ads towards their own gender, with male managers in particular tending to use strongly “masculine” language. Post 2016, male managers showed roughly balanced gender coding in their ads, while female managers showed a dominance of masculine-coded ads. The preponderance of strong gender coding increased after the introduction of the use of the tool, the opposite to what one would expect if the tool alerted managers to unintended or unnecessary gendered language in ads and if the managers wanted to attract gender-balanced pools of applicants (as they are encouraged to do by Treasury policy).

So those were “quotas” again, in that final sentence?  I’d hope Treasury managers, male and female, wanted the best pool of applicants, based on ability to do the job, not based on some institutional gender quota approach (that seems to disregard the fact –  demonstrated earlier in the paper –  that at least among economists, there will only be half as many women as men in the overall pool to atract applications from).

The authors reflect

Faced with this somewhat surprising result…..we looked at the nature of the jobs advertised themselves, and this exercise suggested to us some limits to the effect that scrubbing job ads of unintended gendered language can have on the gender split of applicants, including for economics jobs. The masculine-coded ads tended to be for jobs in the analytical functions of the Treasury, and “analysis” is coded as a masculine word by the Gender Decoder. Treasury also routinely presents itself as “ambitious” and a “leader” – another masculine-coded word – in the area of economic policy. The feminine-coded ads tended to be for “support” and corporate jobs, with an emphasis on “collaboration” – both feminine-coded words.

Dear, oh dear.  Treasury management has for some time been using an HR tool that treats “analysis” as some nasty male word.    Perhaps this paragraph should lead Ng and his senior management colleagues to rethink, and to wonder whether zeal and ideological presuppositions have not been not been outstripping evidence and analysis?

The Ng and Morrissey paper concludes this way

This paper has reviewed the position of women in economic theory, economics education and economics practice. We argued that the role of women and care work is insufficiently incorporated into mainstream economic models and approaches, and illustrated how a more gender-sensitive approach could enrich a particularly gender-blind sub-discipline – macroeconomics. We then documented the lack of a deep pipeline of women entering the profession, and the gender imbalance at senior levels in our own economic Ministry.


We conclude that the position of women in all three areas of economics is unsatisfactory. While the quality of management and decision making in general has been shown to benefit from diversity in general, in the delivery of quality economic policy advice that benefits all New Zealanders, it is particularly important that a diversity of perspectives is represented.

As a profession we have lots of work to do.

Eric Crampton has previously challenged  as “wishful thinking” (or worse) the Secretary to the Treasury’s repeated insistence on the substantive benefits from “diversity” (population diversity, rather than diversity of view).  Other recent New Zealand research has challenged that proposition too.

The Treasury seems to have become committed to the modish view that how one analyses an issue depends on where one comes from (at least race and sex, although presumably their logic applies to age, religion, birthplace, and all the other trendy identity markers).  As an institution, they now have a huge distance to go, lots of work to do, to restore a reputation for analytical excellence.  Between their institutional weaknesses and the lack of demand for excellence from our politicians, it is no wonder our serious economic problems aren’t seriously addressed.  Pursuing modish causes, no doubt ones in favour with the government of the day, is easier I guess.

The former Minister of Finance, Bill English, had many weak points in his political record.  Among them was his decision a few years ago to support the reappointment of Gabs Makhlouf as Secretary to the Treasury (when, within the law, he’d have been quite within his rights to have asked SSC to find someone who might actually restore the quality of Treasury we once had).    We are the poorer for that degradation of what was once a strong, robust, and analytically-driven institution.  Politicians make policy, and a good Treasury can’t force them to make good policy, but a poor Treasury gives them all the excuses they need to avoid tackling the real issues (while revelling in the feel-good content-lite nature of the coming Wellbeing Budget).

In the meantime, one has to wonder about the opportunity cost of the Ng/Morrissey paper.  Time spent writing it, is (taxpayers’) time that could have been used for tackling some real issues.




NZSF: engaging an alternative perspective

Andrew Coleman is one of New Zealand’s smartest economists, one of those people I learn something from almost every time I talk to him, or read something he has written.   Andrew currently divides his time between the University of Otago and the Productivity Commission.  But we disagree, it appears quite starkly, on the place of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.  I’ve written various posts, mostly quite critical of the Fund for a variety of reasons (some things in NZSF’s own control, others a reflection of the political choices that led to the establishment of the NZSF).    I favour winding up the Fund and using the proceeds to repay debt.

In response to a couple of posts in recent months, Andrew has posted substantive and thoughtful comments that appear to be intended as a defence of the current system, and the place of NZSF in that system.   The first set was here and the second set was posted here on Saturday night.

As I understand it, Andrew and I share a view that there should be a universal public pension scheme, that is not less generous (relative to, say, average wages) than the current system.  Where, I think, there is a difference is that I firmly believe that the age of eligibility for NZS should be increased, and that subsequent further increases in the age of eligibility should be linked to further improvements in life expectancy (there should also be rather tighter residence requirements for eligibility) .    This makes a material difference because under my preferred model, NZS spending does not keep on increasing as a share of GDP, and is a manageable expense/burden for society. By contrast, Andrew often appears to be writing in a context that treats the current eligibility rules as a given, and thus focusing on how best to finance those (political) commitments.

Andrew puts a lot of emphasis on save-as-you-go (SAYGO) funding models, as distinct from pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) models.  A funded defined benefit pension scheme is a classic SAYGO model –  employees and the employer put aside money each week for, say, 40 years, and at retirement there is, in principle, enough to finance the employee’s pension for the rest of his or her life.  The power of compound interest has been harnessed.   In principle, at least in respect of the employer’s contribution, it could have been done another way: the firm could simply have invested the money itself (including reinvesting in its own operations) and then paid its share of the pensions as they fall due.  The reason that isn’t a good model is that (a) pensions of this sort are deferred remuneration and individual employees (reasonably enough) want a secure and certain claim, and (b) firms come and go, management changes, businesses fail etc.   A separate legal entity – a superannuation fund, with a trust deed etc – is the preferred way to go, but not because one approach involves saving and the other doesn’t, but because of agency/governance/enforcement issues.

How does the NZS/NZSF model fit in to this sort of picture?

First, as I noted in some earlier comments to Andrew

Our difference is around the specific place for the NZSF. Personally, I see any connection between it and NZS as just political branding. NZSF is just a set of govt-owned financial assets, and one can’t really put ribbons round particular pots of money.

NZSF does not make any future NZS promises more affordable,  If it manages reasonable returns –  as one might expect over time – it modestly improves the government’s overall financial position, and hence its ability to meet all future spending aspirations at something like current tax rates.

I’d prefer to think of managing the government’s balance sheet and income/expenditure, both now and across time, in an overall way, rather than assigning individual pots of money to individual line items.  That seems likely to be more efficient. It is also more realistic, about the nature of how government finances will end up being managed.  Governments can’t bind themselves to not use one pot of money labelled for purpose X for purpose Y if subsequent pressures change.  Probably, nor should they.  Wars happen, disasters happen, the uncertain happens.

Thus, Andrew argues the economic merits of savings, and I wouldn’t disagree with him particularly.  But in my proposal to wind up the NZSF and use the proceeeds to reduce debt, there is nothing that would reduce either public or private savings.  All that would happen is that the government balance sheet would be less leveraged (less debt, fewer financial assets, no change to the operating balance).  I’m also quite relaxed about the notion that if a government is going to take on far-future financial commitments (like an NZS) scheme, it should probably have a stronger balance sheet (more savings, less net debt) than a government that did none of those sort of things.   A balance sheet with near-zero net debt –  when, as Andrew notes, the government is very long-lived –  and extensive real asset holdings, in a country with above-average population growth, looks pretty cautious to me. Excluding a handful of countries with non-renewable natural resource extraction proceeds (Norway, Abu Dhabi etc), our government finances are among the most conservatively managed in the world.

So the issue isn’t one of whether the government should save or not, but simply of how much it should save.  I’m not sure of the answer to that question, but there are both political and economic dimensions to any answer.

Among those economic questions is whether, and if so to what extent, additional government savings (or even compelled private savings) actually raises national savings.   If there was full offset (every dollar of additional public savings was offset by an equivalent reduction in private savings) there would be no obvious societal benefit at all (in fact, given the deadweight costs of taxation – and intermediation costs – there would net welfare costs to society).    I see no evidence that, for example, the Australian compulsory savings system has raised national savings rates in Australia.  As for government savings itself, there seems to be plenty of sign of at least some private offset.

Among the political, or political economy, questions are ones about the durability of large tax-funded holdings of government financial assets in a democratic society.  It is one thing for governments to hold large asset pools in societies with little or no democratic accountability (Singapore, Abu Dhabi and so on) or even when the assets arise from a non-renewable natural resource (as in Norway).    It is another matter altogether when the assets are tax-funded, and governments face voters every few years, in a country no longer particularly well-off by advanced country standards.  Such accumulations of assets invite electoral auctions. They also invite political jockeying to see that the assets are used in line with the priorities and preferences of those currently in power (or, indeed, of those who happen to be managing the money).

There also arguments advanced that it would be natural for any portfolio to have some significant equity exposure to (for example) secure some of the equity risk premium for the Crown.  Against some abstract benchmark in which the government was otherwise funded by lump sum taxes on the one hand, and simply paid NZS on the other, I would agree.  But that isn’t what government finances (here or abroad) look like.  Through the income tax system, the government already has an effective equity stake in every business enterprise in the country (28 per cent of all profits go to the Crown, 28 per cent of losses can usually be written off against future earnings).  And the Crown has an extensive base of real assets (equity exposures) –  whether shares in SOEs or the extensive holdings of schools, hospital, roads etc (which don’t produce a dividend stream, but save the Crown paying user fees which would include someone else’s dividend stream).

Perhaps there is a case for more Crown equity exposures, but that case really needs to be made convincingly against the backdrop of the overall public finances, not just thought of relative to future expected NZS payments.   It should also be thought about in the context of citizens’ own “risk budgets”: increased equity exposures taken on by Crown agencies should, rationally, be offset at least in part by reduced private holdings.

In his writings in this area, Andrew Coleman puts quite a lot of emphasis on government (and, by extension, NZSF) as a long-lived agent, better placed to invest in long-term assets than the private sector, and less prone to liquidity pressures.   I think he is mostly wrong about that, for a variety of reasons.  From an anecdotal perspective, NZSF seems to have had more asset allocation changes in the last decade or so than the modest superannuation scheme I’m a trustee of.    But, and much more importantly, the government (at least in a democracy) doesn’t stand remote from its citizens and taxpayers, and taxpayers/voters don’t like large losses, and (I’d argue) especially not when their personal finances are already under greater than usual stress.   NZSF will record large losses in the next serious global recession –  the more so, as NZSF hedges back to NZD –  and that recession is also likely to put stress on the New Zealand government’s operating balances.     There is likely to be heightened pressure on the government, and on those managing the Fund, to account for their losses, and perhaps to cut those losses.  It might be silly, wrong, or in some longer-term sense irrational, but no investment strategy should ever be operated without considering the extreme loss tolerances of the ultimate investor (in this case, not some detached Treasury official, but voters).   I’m sceptical that the public is comfortable with the potential for tens of billions of annual mark to market losses (the scale we could be looking at if NZSF gets much bigger), coming at a time when (say) taxes are being raised or public spending is being cut.  In other words, even if an NZSF strategy offered possible longer-term benefits, it would do so only at the cost of concentrating periods of pain.

Another aspect of Andrew’s argument is an assumption (implicit, and sometimes explicit) that governments can be trusted, and will typically be good economic stewards.  It is far from clear why we should expect them to be so, especially when entrusted with other people’s money.  Each citizen has a strong interest in their own future financial position, and (one hopes) that of their children and grandchildren.   As individuals, politicians no doubt have the same interest.  But let lose on a whole country, politicians have interests which are rather different –  often as focused on the next election as anything longer –  and with little accountability (beyond losing office) if things go wrong.  These same governments that Andrew wants us to entrust more of our money to are the same sorts of governments that did Think Big, that turned our economy inwards for decades from the 1930s, that take us into wars, that ran us into serious debt problems (whether in 1939 or 1990), and so on.  They are same group who cavalierly talk of pursuing net zero carbon targets, even if the consequence is that (on their own numbers) GDP is cut by 10 to 22 per cent, with the costs falling disproportionately on the poor).   I’m not some anarchist who wants to get rid of all government, but I don’t think the track record is particularly good, especially when governments want to commit our money/resources for the long-term.

And all this is before we look at the specifics of the way NZSF has actually been run:

  • overselling its investment returns in a rising market, while quietly noting that it takes 20 years of data to seriously evaluate their sort of risky strategies (which may do no real direct harm, but speaks to integrity),
  • used (together with ACC) to solve the previous government’s Kiwibank capital issues, in ways that inject no additional expertise to Kiwibank, while corroding effective accountability for this risky government-owned assets (no doubt at favourable pricing for NZSF, but at cost to the system),
  • the decision to reduce carbon exposures, purportedly as a normal risk-return call on business prospects, but nonetheless implemented in a way where the consequences can’t be monitored, and thus looked more like virtue-signalling and playing politics than a serious neutral investment stance,
  • the opportunistic bid to own part of all of the new light rail proposals. NZSF has little or no apparent experience in such assets, which themselves appear uneconomic, and thus the approach again smacks of politics and lobbying, more than pursuit of citizens’ longer-term interest.
  • the latest attempt to lobby for huge tax concessions (adding new distortions to the system) for projects (and project partners) they want to get involved in.

These problems will only get more serious if the Fund is allowed to grow larger. One experience which shook my confidence was involvement a decade ago in the then-government’s Jobs Summit, which occurred at the trough of the last recession.  The NZSF fund was small then, and the pressures were resisted, but it was likes bees round a honey pot as people (well-motivated and not) emerged with ideas of how the moneypot could be used to help.  Those pressures will return next time.

And all that is before the ethical investment question.    We all have exposures to all industries (legal, moral or not) through the tax system, but NZSF involves active choices to put our money in individual companies. You might not be comfortable with whaling companies, tobacco companies, arms companies, or even financial institutions like AMP. I’m not comfortable with exposures to hospital chains that do abortions, or conglomerates that produce pornography, and I’m not keen on funding McDonalds either. My point isn’t that my preferences are better than yours or vice versa, but investment is participation, it is support, and those investment choices are neither a natural nor necessary part of a New Zealand government.  (Neither is a large leveraged investment fund.)

In many respects, the governance provisions of the NZSF aren’t badly set up, if one is going to have a body of this sort.  But rules of that sort can only take one so far.  All Board members will have their own futures in mind –  and governments have lots of apppointments in their gift.  The same goes for the CEO.    And, of course, so many people now have business dealings with NZSF, including competing for investment mandates, that it is hard to ensure that ongoing robust scrutiny an asset of that size deserves.

As I’ve noted previously, one way to reduce some of the risks around NZSF would be to amend the legislation to prohibit the NZSF dealing with New Zealand or local governments (to buy or sell assets, or to invest in proposals floated by government agencies) –  or perhaps even just to restrict exposures to, say, 5 per cent of any project/deal.    It would restrict NZSF’s opportunities, but it would also restrict the scope for logrolling, sweetheart deals, and all the sort of stuff that simply shouldn’t happen in the idealised world some supporters envisage for NZSF.

Finally, in his most recent comments, Andrew posed this point

So here’s a question, in the interest of debate: Do you have similar issues with the ACC fund? And if not, what is different about the ACC fund that makes it better than the NZSF fund?

Actually, a few months ago I noted that I thought it was worth putting ACC onto a PAYGO basis –  and to the extent there are very long-term commitments on the Crown balance sheet, that should influence the overall structure of the Crown finances, including the extent to which the Crown saves (rather than have an individual ACC moneypot).  As it happens, the ACC investment performance has been better than that of NZSF.   But my views on ACC are influenced more by my long-term doubts about the merits, or the fairness, of treating all accident victims differently from those with very long-term illnesses or disabilities.

In conclusion, I think there two quite separate issues to evaluate, and we don’t help either conversation by conflating them (as the previous Labour government attempted to when it set up NZSF).  There is the question of what an appropriate NZS policy should be.  But then there are the, largely separable questions of:

  • what the appropriate overall shape of the government balance sheet, and income statement should look like, and
  • what, if any, role a standalone leveraged global investment fund has to play in such a balance sheet.

Answering either question needs to range widely, and consider likely private sector responses to public sector choices, governance constraints, and the long track record of ambitious government interventions here and abroad.




NZSF: from bad to worse

I’ve written various posts here about the conduct of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund when Adrian Orr was CEO.    Their investment returns have been no better than one might have hoped for given the amount of risk they (force taxpayers collectively to) take.  Formally, they will argue that their strategies are risky enough that one can really only judge based on 20 year runs of performance (the Fund is only 15 years old).   But they talk themselves up endlessly, making dubious claims about their contribution, and playing politics more often than sound economics.  We had the big call last year to reduce their carbon exposures, allegedly on the grounds that risk-return considerations didn’t support such investments any longer, but then they implemented the decision in a way that makes it impossible to see whether this big active management call was well-judged on financial grounds, or not.  As I say, they play politics more than good policy, good economics, or good finance.

Since Adrian Orr moved on, the Fund has been led by Matt Whineray, now confirmed as CEO.    From him we’ve seen the unsolicited bid to be owner or part-owner of the government’s planned new light rail projects.     As I noted when that news came out

I’m sure the government is delighted.  As their predecessors were when the NZSF and ACC teamed up –  off-market of course – to take part-ownership of Kiwibank, without actually providing any fresh expertise, and in the process reducing the transparency and accountability around (what is still 100% state-owned) Kiwibank.  But in the end these are votes of confidence from public servants, who know which side their bread is buttered on.

As I’ve written about here previously, NZSF aren’t great investment gurus.  They’ve made quite a lot of money taking big risks in a strongly rising global market, but the returns relative to risk, or to taxpayer’s cost of capital haven’t been particularly attractive and –  as even NZSF will acknowledge –  markets go down as well as up.   As for light-rail projects, the NZSF statement noted that around 2 per cent of the Fund is in infrastructure assets worldwide.  That doesn’t suggest any particular expertise in light-rail –  and they don’t point to any in the statement.   And almost any government project can be made viable for an investor if the associated contracts are skewed sufficiently favourably in the investor’s direction.

Perhaps a good deal can be constructed for NZSF (with appropriate pricing and risk shifting, silk purses for some parties can be created almost anywhere), but it doesn’t have the feel of NZSF doing its core job.  It has the feel of NZSF continuing to degrade the  New Zealand policy process, using its (our) moneypots to serve political ends.

This last week I see NZSF has had a press release out.

The NZ Super Fund has congratulated Bloom Energy on its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange.

“The public listing is a significant milestone for Bloom Energy as it works to deliver sustainable on-site electricity to organisations around the world,” said Acting Chief Investment Officer Mark Fennell. “We look forward to supporting Bloom Energy as a listed entity for mutual benefit.”

Bloom Energy appears to be fairly new company NZSF had invested in.   Unfortunately, it is one that NZSF has already lost money on.

Mr Fennell acknowledged that Bloom Energy, while performing strongly on listing (up 67%), was currently priced below the level at which the NZ Super Fund initially invested in the company.

But no matter.  Just stick the investment in the bottom drawer for long enough and hope it comes right…..

“As a long-term investor the NZ Super Fund’s primary focus is on what we buy an asset for and the value we ultimately realise. Our investment returns will only crystallise when we sell our stake. What our investment is worth at various interim time periods is not as important to the NZ Super Fund as it is to investors with a shorter investment horizon.”

Typically, the best estimate of what someone will see an asset for is closely related to the current market price for that asset.  I’m not sure why NZSF felt it necessary or appropriate to put out a press release on this occasion, but I’m quite uneasy about an organisation –  managing our money, not their own –  that thinks that in rising global markets, a mark to market loss is just irrelevant, and made so because somehow NZSF can take a longer view than some other investors.   Even NZSF should recognise that it would have been rather better for them to have paid the IPO price (had they done so, they’d already have been up 67 per cent), not whatever loss-making price they actually did pay.

And then, in this morning’s newspaper, comes news that NZSF is lobbying (via the Tax Working Group) for tax concessions –  subsidies and corporate welfare programmes –  for infrastructure businesses it wants to get involved it.  The full (quite short) submission is here, but the gist is that they want cut-price company tax rates (no more than half the company tax rate) for “nationally significant infrastructure projects” (one of the criteria for such projects would be “Alignment with the Treasury’s living standards framework”), protection against any changes in tax rates over the (multi-decade) life of the project, and exemptions from standard RMA, immigration etc procedures.

I’m all in favour of lower company (and capital income) taxes more generally.  Standard economic analysis supports that sort of policy, and all of us would be expected to benefit from adopting such a policy approach.  But that isn’t what is proposed by NZSF; it is just a lobbying effort to skew capital towards particular sectors they happen to favour.  It is a pretty reprehensible bid to degrade the quality of our tax system.  There is no economic analysis advanced in support of their proposal –  so little it almost defies belief –  no sense of considerations of economic efficiency, just the success of lobbying efforts in a few other countries (including two struggling middle income countries not known for the efficiency of capital allocation or quality of governance, and the United States –  which not only has plenty of poor infrastructure, but a corporate tax code  riddled with exemptions and distortions).

NZSF is clearly in favour with the new government.  But the cause of good policymaking and the cause of efficient allocation of capital would, almost certainly, be advanced if it were simply wound up and the proceeds used to repay debt.  We should also stop the pretence –  advanced repeatedly by Fund spokespeople –  that we have a “sovereign wealth fund”.  What we have is a speculative investment fund, financed with borrowed money, producing no better than respectable, high risk returns, making no real difference to important questions around state-funded age pensions, and increasingly at risk of being used to skew capital allocation towards favoured political ends, backed by threadbare (or non-existent) economic analysis.


Treasury advice on rushing the Reserve Bank bill

From a Treasury paper to the Minister of Finance, written in March and pro-actively released yesterday (emphasis added)

Legislative Timeline
14. Officials’ recommended timeline, set out in Annex 2, would see drafting instructions issued in tranches from the end of April, and Cabinet approval of draft legislation by the end of August. Consistent with previous decisions, the recommended process does not allow for public consultation on an exposure draft of the legislation prior to the Bill being referred to select committee. You should note that this timeline is indicative only, and will depend on how quickly decisions are made, securing time in the House and the length of the select committee process.

15. Officials’ proposed timeline will allow the first reading of the Bill when Parliament resumes in the first week of September. Assuming the normal six month select committee process, this would enable Royal Assent by the end of April 2019.

16. The bid for space on the legislative agenda suggested the legislation would be passed this year. However, we do not recommend passing the legislation in 2018. Doing so would require shortening either the policy and drafting process, the select committee process or both. Reducing the time for either of these processes risks compromising the quality of the final legislation, and will make it harder to build public support for the reforms. A substantive select committee process that builds public support is particularly important given that the changes are to one of New Zealand’s major economic frameworks and that only limited public consultation was conducted during the policy development process.

17. If you want to pass legislation in 2018 and run a full select committee process, the policy and drafting process would need to be completed by early June. While this is not impossible, it would greatly increase the risks around introducing legislation. Risks could include introducing legislation with provisions with unintended consequences or new processes that are unworkable. This would make significant amendments likely during the select committee and the committee of the whole House stages.

Since the bill introduced this week has to be reported back from select committee by 3 December, it seems likely the government wishes to pass the bill this year, contrary to Treasury’s fairly-trenchantly worded advice.

I’m a little torn.  I’m keen to see a statutory committee in place, and I don’t usually put much store in Treasury’s economic analysis (and see Eric Crampton on the limited number of economists they are recruiting), but they should know something about policy development and legislative processes.  And they clearly think this legislation is being rushed, in an unnecessary, inappropriate, and risky way.

Debating the Reserve Bank bill

The first reading debate yesterday on the Reserve Bank amendment bill wasn’t exactly Parliament at its finest.    There was plenty of courtesy on display (with one exception, which I’ll come to below) but not much rigour, and not much regard for the importance of building strong and robust, open and transparent, institutions.

The National Party voted against the first reading.  According to the party’s finance spokesperson, Amy Adams, they support the move to establish a statutory Monetary Policy Committee

I want to deal reasonably briefly with the monetary policy committee, because that is an area where we see a lot of merit in what has been proposed. Of course we want to go to select committee and see what comes in, and we may well find issues that need exploring, but, at this stage, I think the monetary policy committee makes good sense.

but they oppose the change to the statutory goal of monetary policy.  It isn’t entirely clear from her speech read together with those of her colleagues whether they oppose the change because it will make no difference, simply reflecting what the Bank already does, or because they think it will make a difference, and they don’t like the difference it might make.    The former seems a very weak ground on which to oppose legislation: it is a good thing, not a bad thing, to ensure that legislation and practice are kept in line (arguably, for example, the Reserve Bank of Australia’s and the Federal Reserve’s legislation should have been updated long ago).

As I noted in yesterday’s post, I don’t much like the formulation of the statutory objective for monetary policy contained in the bill.  That isn’t because I think it will be deeply damaging, just that the government and their advisers haven’t done a very good job in capturing what it is that we should expect from an active discretionary monetary policy.  National Party members were at pains to point out that there is no long-term tradeoff between price stability on the one hand and employment/unemployment on the other hand.  And, of course, that is quite right.  It has been well-known for decades.   But equally well-known –  and for even more decades –  is that there is a relationship in the shorter-term.  It is why we have an active monetary policy.     But there is no sense of that distinction in the drafting the government has brought before Parliament.

Thus, I repeat the suggested wording I included in yesterday’s post

“Monetary policy should aim to keep the rate of unemployment as low as possible, consistent with maintaining stability in the general level of prices over the medium-term.”

or the sort of wording I proposed last year when I was a discussant at the seminar where Labour launched its policy.

To promote and safeguard price stability and the highest degree of employment [or lowest degree of unemployment] that can be achieved by monetary policy

That drew heavily on the language used in the Reserve Bank Act in the 1950s, introduced by a National Party finance minister.

One wants the Reserve Bank to do all it can to keep unemployment low, but only to the point where that is not in conflict with medium-term price stability.  In severe recessions –  mostly what we worry about, since these are human lives that are scarred –  “all it can” is quite a lot.  I don’t think the government has the wording right, and the National Party is right to push back, but if they are as serious as they say about working constructively in the select committee, it should be possible to find better wording which reflects the signicant short-run potential of monetary policy, and the very limited medium to long-term potential to do anything other than maintain price stability (or some similar nominal goal).

The complacency of the National Party probably shouldn’t have surprised me, just coming off nine years in government, but it did.    There were ludicrous claims –  from one backbencher old enough to know better – that for 30 years “the economy has gone incredibly well”, odd suggestions that the inflation target and price stability were themselves in conflict, and more specific ones about about the excellence of the Reserve Bank’s stewardship, even the suggestion that the new Governor will do a “superb job”.  Perhaps they have forgotten already that it is only a few weeks since the Opposition leader had a press statement out criticising the Governor?   Perhaps they are unbothered by past debacles like the MCI, or more recent episodes where the single decisionmaking Governor started lashing out at his critics, while refusing to ever substantively engage on issues?

But perhaps the most disconcerting claim was that there had never been an issue around unemployment and monetary policy in New Zealand.   On the Reserve Bank’s own numbers New Zealand went through seven years of a negative output gap (2008 to 2015), core inflation has been below the target focal point for eight years now, and the unemployment rate was above the Bank’s own estimate of a NAIRU for eight years (only dropping down to around that level in the last year or so).    Now clearly that was a failure in terms of the objectives set for the Bank, even without any sort of explicit employment/unemployment objective; on average monetary policy should have been run with lower real interest rates over much of that period.  But it seems to me that there is a reasonable argument to be made that had the Bank been obliged to, say, use monetary policy to keep the unemployment rate as low as possible, consistent with medium-term price stability, we might have had slightly better outcomes –  notably for those people who were involuntary unemployed, a scarring experience, during that period.

Oddly, the Minister of Finance never makes this argument –  consistent with his refusal ever to disagree with, or criticise, the Governor when he himself was in Opposition.  He should.   The experience of the last decade isn’t greatly to the credit of the Reserve Bank.  Perhaps they mostly had the best of intentions.  But they did poorly, and real people suffered as a result.    A reorientation of the target, focusing a bit more on the short-term stabilisation aspects, without sacrificing medium-term nominal stability, with strong reporting requirements –  and the right people –  could have made some useful difference.   (And, to stress that I’m not going to be tarred as some inflationista, in my ideal world the inflation target itself would be lower than it is.)

I wanted to pick up comments from two other speeches.  The first was from Chloe Swarbrick of the Green Party.  Whatever my differences with the Green Party, they deserve considerable credit for being the first party to call for a statutory Monetary Policy Committee, and historically they have also put a lot of emphasis on securing greater openness and transparency from the Reserve Bank (and used to greatly annoy the Bank by regularly requesting copies of Reserve Bank Board minutes, inadequate as they are).

In the course of her speech yesterday she made this comment

I think this piece of legislation, this bill, is a fantastic starting point for providing greater transparency and accountability for one of our most fundamental institutions.  This is, ultimately, about democracy.

If only that were so.   At very best, in respect of the Monetary Policy Committee, it is a baby-step in the right direction.  More realistically, it is a step away from accountability, and towards more power for unelected people (not even technocrats) with no visibility, no public accountability, and a majority of whom will have been appointed by the previous government.

For all its weaknesses, one feature of the current system is that it is very clear who should be accountable when the Reserve Bank gets it wrong, or even makes a controversial call that reasonable people differ over.  It is the Governor.  Effective accountability isn’t very strong, since the Board is supine, Ministers typically afraid of openly disagreeing with Governors, and market economists often cowed (either by threats from the Governor –  as in the Toplis case –  or more generally by the need to maintain relationships, access, and so on to an entity that regulates their employer).  But responsibility –  credit and blame –  is clear.      The same goes for good monetary policy committee systems, such as those in the UK, the United States, or Sweden  (actually, the same goes for Parliament itself, or even your dysfunctional local council –  there is individual responsibility).   But recall that the Minister of Finance has already said that he wants decisionmaking to be by consensus, no public record of who is dissenting and why, no opportunity for MPC members to articulate their views publicly, and so on.  We’ll have published minutes, which looks on paper like a small step forward, but with the amount gagging the Minister seems to envisage, it is unlikely to be a material win for transparency.    It looks a lot like a fig-leaf.        Not only will accountability be diffused and weakened –  in a quite unnecessary way – but these closed systems weaken any incentive for anyone appointed as an external member to invest heavily in the process. Free-riding, going along with the Governor as much as possible, will offer the best risk-return strategy (after all, challenge the Governor and you could be sacked, or not reappointed, and there is no opportunity for your views –  in an area of huge uncertainty –  to get a public airing.

And what of democracy?   The Governor was appointed by the Board –  oh, the Minister took the name to Cabinet, but he could only take the name proposed by the Board (or tell them to go away and come back with another name of their choosing.   The Board –  when the Orr appointment was made –  had all been appointed by the previous government (clearly out of sympathy with any sort of employment focus).  The current Deputy Governor was appointed by the previous Governor –  him of silencing critics, undershooting inflation etc –  and his supine board.  Both these appointees will be members of the new MPC.   The one or two new internal appointees will be appointed by the Minister, but only on the recommendation of the Board, who in turn will be guided by the Governor.    As I noted yesterday, the external appointees will also be chosen by the Board and the Governor (and recall that the Governor is on the Board), subject to an effective gubernatorial veto.  These appointments won’t be made until next year, but even by early next year, a majority of the Board members –  shocking track record, no expertise in the field, no accountability or scrutiny at all – will have been appointed by the previous government.

That isn’t democracy.  You couldn’t even call it rule by technocrats or philosopher kings, since the Board members are themselves just a bunch of company directors, academics etc, with no expertise, no legitimacy, no mandate.  And yet the Labour Party thinks –  apparently with support from both National and the Greens –  that these people should decide who makes monetary policy, the principal lever of short-term stabilisation policy.  I believe in the importance of democracy.   This isn’t it.

It is simply normal practice to have major appointments made directly by the relevant minister (or Cabinet, or on advice by the Governor-General).  It is strikingly abnormal to have appointments to major discretionary roles –  in central banks, or elsewhere in government –  so much out of the hands of elected politicians.  It would be a material step backwards, especially given the weakened accountability the government is proposing.  The National Party spokesperson is apparently worried that external members might be political hacks or under political pressure.  On the one hand, the Governor (at present) is probably much more susceptible to pressure, since he has lots of other battles to fight, including around his financial stability responsibilities. But perhaps more importantly, the dominance of politically-appointed decisionmakers is the norm in central banks abroad.  Those countries manage macroeconomic stability just fine.  It is also the norm in New Zealand –  I devoted a whole post to go through other roles.  Politicians appoint the Police Commissioner, members of the Commerce Commission, the Parole Board, the Governor-General herself, and all individual judges.    There is no good reason why appointments to key, powerful, Reserve Bank roles should be different: ministers should appoint directly, and thus be fully accountable for, people who wield such power on our behalf.

The final contribution to the debate that I wanted to comment on was that of the ACT Party, David Seymour.   Whenever I’m tempted to consider supporting ACT, all I need do is listen to one of Seymour’s speeches.  Here are some lines from his speech yesterday.

Thank you, Madam Assistant Speaker. I rise, on behalf of the ACT Party, in opposition to this bill—this piece of ministerial vanity and economic vandalism.


Could it be that this is not just dumb policy; this is actually evil policy. This is an erosion of the independence of the central bank. This is the current Government attempting to take control of the printing presses—not quite Venezuelan style; just in a sort of smaller capacity than they’re used to. It is a way that this Government will be able to influence the supply of money, and I bet this House that, when this is place, and when their committee is making the decisions, we will no longer have independent monetary policy; we will have a pattern that will be detectable in a few electoral cycles, which will tell us that the money supplied goes up and inflation goes up and the economic sugar hit comes out right before an election, and then, once the election is gone, they take the punchbowl away and the New Zealanders get the economic instability that the Reserve Bank Act was designed to take away.

This is a black letter day in New Zealand lawmaking. The Minister either has no idea what he’s doing or he has every idea what he’s doing.

Reasonable people can debate the merits of altering the statutory objective.  Reasonable people can debate the design of a committee system.  Perhaps reasonable people can even debate whether a committee is a good idea, although we use them in almost every other aspect of public (and private –  company boards, tennis club committees, church synods etc) life.  But a contribution like this says more about the speaker than it does about the issues.    And, rightly or wrongly, there is just no sign in market pricing (eg gaps between conventional and indexed bonds) that the market shares Mr Seymour’s fears.

One hopes that Finance and Expenditure Committee deliberations will prove constructive, and that the government will be open to amendments.  Given that the chair and deputy chair of the committee are both part of the government (both holding Under-Secretary positions), I’m not that optimistic, but we’ll see.  I did notice one National Party speaker yesterday praising the committee chair (Michael Wood), and Wood’s speech in the debate was probably the best of them, so time will tell.

Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Monetary Policy) Amendment Bill

The first reading of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Monetary Policy) Amendment Bill is on Parliament’s order paper for today.      This bill is designed primarily to give effect to the policy decisions the Minister of Finance announced a few months ago, to change the statutory objective of monetary policy, and to create a statutory Monetary Policy Committee responsible for the conduct of monetary policy (details of which were set out here and here).

There are, however, some other changes proposed.  In particular, there seems to have been –  at last –  a recognition that the process used last year to appoint Grant Spencer as “acting Governor” was probably not lawful.   The proposed amendments would deal with any similar situation (created by the timing of an election) by allowing the extension of the term of an incumbent by (or a temporary appointment for) up to six months.   The ability to extend terms seems sensible (provided it can be done only once), although I’m less sure about the proposal to appoint a new person as Governor for six months.  But individual vacancies should matter less under the new model (at least as regards monetary policy) because of the move to a statutory committee.

In addition, the bill sensibly proposes to remove the age limit (age 70) for the Governor.   There was a strong case for some age limit with a single decisionmaker (given the extensive powers and the extreme practical difficulty of removing someone who was in clear mental decline) even if age 70 was probably now too young.  With a shift to a committee decisionmaking structure (at least for monetary policy) the issue becomes somewhat less important.  However, for now at least, the Governor still will wield enormous power around bank and non-bank financial regulation, so I’m not totally comfortable with the change.  Higher court judges, for example, must retire at 72.

There are lots of detailed provisions in the bill. some of which are sensible, and others fairly problematic. I will be making a submission to the select committee, and so will cover many of the issues in more detail then, with the benefit of a bit more time to reflect on how the specific provisions might work.

In the rest of this post, I wanted to come back to the two big changes that are being proposed.

I’ve been sympathetic for some time to the addition of a real economy dimension to the statutory objective for monetary policy.  The only case for active discretionary monetary policy is –  and always has been –  cyclical stabilisation.   We don’t need a Reserve Bank to deliver broadly stable price levels over the longer-term, and even if we have a Reserve Bank it doesn’t need to be active.  But there is a case for active monetary policy to limit the downsides from severe adverse shocks to money demand or aggregate demand –  the Great Depression was the most obvious example, and indeed the backdrop to the establishment of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.  Monetary policy should do what it can, subject to a longer-term nominal constraint (eg price stability).

I’m less keen on the specific formulation in the government’s new bill

The Bank, acting through the MPC, has the function of formulating a monetary policy directed to the economic objectives of—

(a) achieving and maintaining stability in the general level of prices over the medium term; and

(b) supporting maximum sustainable employment.

That formulation has a number of problems:

  • the whole concept of what monetary policy can do is to avoid (or keep to a minimum, consistent with price stability) periods of excess capacity.  Despite Treasury’s attempt to argue otherwise in the Explanatory Note to the bill, “maximum sustainable employment” is not a measure of excess capacity.  Unemployment is much closer to an excesss capacity measure.
  • the wording treats employment as good in itself, whereas labour is an input (a cost, including to those who supply it) and a high-performing high productivity economy might well be one in which people preferred  to work less not more.  Speaking personally, as a non-participant in the labour force I feel slightly judged by the wording –  as if, by not being a good Stakhanovite, I’m not doing my bit,
  • the wording makes no attempt to integrate the two dimensions of the goal,
  • it continues to suggest that active monetary policy is primarily about medium-term price stability.  As noted earlier, we don’t need monetary policy for that goal.  Instead, medium-term price stability is more like a constraint (a really important one) on the use of monetary policy to keep the economy operating close to capacity.

I’d prefer that the goal was specified as something like

“Monetary policy should aim to keep the rate of unemployment as low as possible, consistent with maintaining stability in the general level of prices over the medium-term.”

It isn’t anywhere near as radical as it might seem.  The working definition of “stability in the general level of prices over the medium-term” could be kept exactly as it now (ideally, lowered a bit once the lower bound issues are resolved).  But it is clearer, and better aligns with what we should look for from the Bank and the new MPC.

The Minister’s announcement a few months also (sensibly) proposed moving away from the current target-setting system (Governor and Minister agree before the Governor is appointed) to one where the Minister sets the objective and the MPC as a whole is responsible for implementing policy to give effect.

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.

Unfortunately, the bill before Parliament today materially waters down the (very welcome) promise in the last sentence.    Under that statement from the Minister, the operational objectives would be set only after both the Reserve Bank and the Treasury had provided advice, and that advice had been made publicly available.

In the bill itself, there is no reference to advice from Treasury, and no commitment that any such advice they proferred would be made public (although no doubt eventually an OIA request would bring it to light).   The Bank is required to give advice, but that advice remains specifically that of the Governor himself.  The Governor must consult with the other MPC members (but is not even specifically required to “have regard” to their views), and the Governor’s advice is now only to be published after the Minister has published the new operational objectives.

Interestingly, the bill explicitly requires public consultation by the Bank before it submits its advice on the operational objectives (“remit”), and it is required to “have regard” to those comments.  But instead of the consultation requirement being cast broadly, the Bank is able to determine “the matters the Bank considers would assist it to prepare its advice”.   Used wisely by a good Governor it wouldn’t be a problem, but legislation is largely about protecting the system from bad or weak individuals: in the case of a bad, weak, or just overconfident Governor, that person could deliberately rule anything s/ he found awkward out of scope when inviting public submissions.  And there is no requirement that the submissions themselves should be made public –  an omission that really should be corrected.

Much of the bill is about keeping as much power with the Governor as possible, while still instituting a committee.  Sadly, it is probably a recipe for a fig-leaf committee, rather than for the sort of real and positive change that is needed.    As just one example, although future Monetary Policy Statements will have to be approved by the MPC, the bill introduces (something I’ve previously suggested) a requirement that at least once every five years a longer-term report on the formulation and implementation of monetary policy be published.   But instead of, for example, mandating the commissioning of independent assessments and evaluations, this report will be the product of the Governor alone.   The Governor will be required to consult the other  MPC members and “consider” the “comments (if any) of the MPC on the draft”, but not even a majority of the committee can alter the direction of the report if the Governor doesn’t agree.   It is bizarre and inappropriate, but seems to reflect the Minister’s preference for a fig-leaf.   Based on some of his other comments, it is not obvious that the rest of the MPC could go public even if they disagreed strongly with the Governor’s assessment.

In previous posts, I have touched on the way in which the Minister’s proposals will effectively maintain the near-complete domination of monetary policy by the Governor.  Perhaps as disconcerting is that they also increase the power of the Bank’s Board –  that group of unaccountable company directors and academics who’ve proved totally useless in ever holding successive Governors to account, and who have backed Governors without exception even as they have seriously overstepped the mark.

The new MPC will comprise the Governor, a single Deputy Governor, 1-2 internals, and 2-3 externals (plus a non-voting Treasury observer).  By law, there must be a majority of internals.  All of these people will be appointed by the Minister of Finance, at least on paper, but in reality the Minister will continue to have almost no real say over the people who wield the most powerful short-term macro policy lever.    Recall that the Minister can only appoint as Governor someone whom the Board has recommended.  Board members themselves may have been mainly appointed by a previous government.  The same procedure will now apply to the appointment of the Deputy Governor, but in practice one would expect the Governor to have a major influence on the name put forward by the Board.   The internal candidates will also be appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the Board.  The Board will be required to consult the Governor on these appointments to the MPC, but as the appointees are most likely to be people already appointed by the Governor as (say) Chief Economist or Head of Financial Markets), the Board will have not have much effective say at all.

So the Governor –  who sets working conditions, and sets pay and conditions for the internals –  already has his majority.  But his control on the composition of the committee doesn’t stop there.  Because the Minister can only appoint the handful of externals on the recommendation of the Board, the Governor himself is a member of the Board, and the Board –  being non-experts themselves – is likely to be highly deferential to the Governor’s views on who should (and shouldn’t) be nominated.  There is no way the Board is going to recommend someone the Governor is uncomfortable with.  Good Governors will welcome challenge and diversity etc, but legislation isn’t really needed for good Governors, but for poor, weak, or insecure ones.

It is simply the wrong model.  It is, as far I can see, pretty much without precedent, leaving the elected Minister of Finance no degrees of freedom over who is appointed to conduct the most important part of short-term economic management policy.  We can, after all, hold the Minister to account.  We do nothing about the Governor, the Deputy Governor, or the MPC members all appointed, in effect, by the unelected Governor and unelected Board.   This isn’t how open and democratic societies are supposed to work.  It isn’t how central banks work in other comparable democratic countries, and it isn’t how we handle appointments to other major crown entities.

I’ve argued previously that a much superior model would be:

  • all members, including Governor and Deputy, appointed directly by the Minister of Finance,
  • a requirement for a clear majority of external members, and
  • non-binding confirmation hearings by FEC on all (external) appointees before they take office (mirroring the practice now adopted in the UK for the Bank of England MPC).

The amendment bill Parliament will be considering today does not really deal with the communications procedures etc that are envisaged –  most of that is delegated to a charter to be determined later.  The Minister has, however, already indicated that his bias is towards a system where decisions are reached by consensus if possible, and that although minutes will have to published, there would be no identification of individual dissenting votes or any ability for MPC members to openly express their own views on monetary policy and economic issues.   That will suit the Governor, but won’t advance the cause of good policymaking or of an open and accountable central bank.    The charters are supposed to be agreed between the Minister and the MPC (recall that the Governor will almost always have a built-in majority) but the bill provides that the first such charter –  from which it will be hard to deviate much for a long time –  will be agreed not with the first MPC but just between the Governor and the Minister.   No doubt, the Governor will ensure his personal and institutional interests are served.  Will the Minister care enough to look to the interests of the wider process and of the public?  (And will the Governor still be able to talk openly about climate change policy, infrastructure, capital gains taxes etc, and if he, then what about the rest of the committee, for whom monetary policy won’t be a fulltime job.)

As I said, this bill further increases the power of the Board.    Another example –  extraordinarily so given the Board’s own shocking record –  is that the Board will be required to approve a code of conduct for MPC members.   But instead of discussing those arrangements and provisions with the first MPC members, the bill provides for the Governor and the Board to cook up the code of conduct themselves, no doubt reflecting the interests and preferences of the Governor.

As for Board’s capability and credibility in this area, well where do I start?  In just the last couple of years:

  • they’ve backed the Governor in attacking a member of the public who brought to light a leak in an OCR annoucement,
  • they’ve backed the Governor is his attack on, and attempt to muzzle, BNZ’s chief economist,
  • they’ve demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the provisions of the Public Records Act (maintaining no minutes of any meetings involving the appointment of the new Governor),
  • they confirmed that they had provided no written advice to the Governor in recent years at all,
  • they have shown no sign of interest in resolving serious misconduct issues in a superannuation scheme they have considerable legal responsibility for.
  • their own code of conduct, when finally revealed, proved to have no conflict of interest provisions at all,
  • they seem to have no interest in acting to keep the current Governor on reservation, and
  • just this week, their chair has attempted to assert that Chatham House rules trump the Official Information Act.

A supine, lawless group.  Just the sort of people you would look to for leadership in this area…..     But, no doubt, just the sort of people who can be relied on to do the Governor’s bidding and avoid any openness, challenge, or serious scrutiny.  In fact, who can be relied on the ensure that the new MPC is little more than a figleaf.   One has to wonder who will be willing to accept appointment, for anything other than the status, the pay or perhaps just academic curiousity.  Those aren’t the sort of motives we need in a revamped Reserve Bank.

All in all, this legislation falls far short of what could, and should, have been.   The Governor should be a CEO servicing and supporting (and chairing) an open and accountable, ministerially appointed committee.  Instead, his empire –  his dominance –  will be intact.   It cements in the victory for the Bank establishment, and for the Governor personally.  I haven’t yet written about Stage 2 of the review now underway, but the possibility of good outcomes from that process took a big step back when the Minister agreed that the review would be jointly done by the Bank and Treasury (which side is going to be more motivated to fight its corner?) reinforced when it emerged that the review process is being led by a (seconded) member of the Reserve Bank’s own senior management team, who will have his own future, working for the Governor, to look to.




The Governor as a Green

No doubt the Green Party has its place.  Some people –  a small minority generally, although rather a large minority around where I live –  vote for it.    Under our parliamentary system, that earns them some MPs, and at present –  a first –  they even have a few ministers outside Cabinet.     The critical point here is that those people were elected, and can be tossed out again if the voters get disillusioned.   They and their supporters champion their causes, as people on the other sides of politics pursue their own causes and views.

But if the contest of ideas and worldviews is integral to our political system, our system of government has also historically relied on senior public servants and holders of appointed public offices doing the specific job they were appointed to, and not using (unelected) public office as a platform, openly or covertly, for advancing their personal political or policy agendas in areas for which they have no responsibility.     Of course, many such people will have personal views on all manner of political and policy issues.   But we expect them (a) to keep those views to themselves, and (b) not to allow those personal views to influence the conduct of their professional responsibilities.   Historically, some holders of really senior public service or judicial positions have quietly chosen not to vote at all.   Respecting these sorts of self-denying conventions is all the more important the more power the holder of a specific office wields (the Deputy Secretary, Corporate in the Department of Internal Affairs –  say –  is a different matter than the Chief Justice, the Commissioner of Police, or the Governor of the Reserve Bank).  Keeping the personal and the professional separate is part of that ethos.

Why do these rules and conventions matter?   Because the office is supposed to be more important than the officeholder.   And one of the strengths of our system of government has been avoiding, to a large extent, the politicisation of the public service, or of that top tier of state appointments.    A capable Chief Justice, a capable Commissioner of Police (is there such a thing?), a capable Secretary to the Treasury should command confidence across the political spectrum, across the community, for their technical expertise, good judgement, shrewd advice (or whatever mix of skills is relevant to the particular position).  And part of that  should involve being able to be confident that the holder of any particular position is not using his or her office as a platform to advance personal and political views on matters quite unrelated to the role to which they have been appointed.  Apart from anything else, these officeholders are being paid, from your taxes and mine, to do a specific job.

And the alternative approach is pretty unappetising, especially in a small country with (typically) a pretty thin pool of talent.   Perhaps the US is big enough that it can comfortably turn over thousands of positions each time the President changes, and still mostly staff senior ranks with capable people.   We almost certainly can’t.  Or consider the unsightly spectacle of the US Supreme Court: all the nominees, from whichever party, seem highly capable, but no one on either side now views the Court as some impartial body, disinterestedly applying the law and constitution.  It has become largely an extension of ideological politics, but beyond the usual accountability mechanisms.  Fortunately, even in the United States, the central bank has been relatively immune from partisanship –  perhaps partly because of the self-restraint exercised by most incumbents, limiting the extent to which they stray off reservation in their speeches etc.

Our new Governor seems to understand none of this. Or if he does understand it, he seems to care not a fig about our system of government: there are ideological causes to fight, and institutional turf battles to win.  In the first month or two in office we saw him talking openly about all manner of things that were simply nothing to do with his current job –  sustainable agriculture, climate change, infrastructure financing, capital gains taxes (and both sides of the bank conduct issues –  neither of them being a prudential issue).  A charitable person might have seen these as rookie errors –  a new appointee revelling in the spotlight and not quite sure where the limits were.  In Orr’s case, he has been around long enough that that never seemed very likely, and it is now clear that the way he started is the way he means to go on.  In the process he is destroying the institutional capital built up around the Reserve Bank –  as surely, and perhaps more damagingly, than his predecessor did by other means.

And for all his (stated) enthusiasm for openness, transparency, “demystifying” the Reserve Bank, and cartoons to aid communications, the Governor has not given a single speech on any of his core responsibilities during his now four months in office.  The Bank’s website tells us none is scheduled either. Nothing on monetary policy, nothing on the state of the economy, nothing on governance of the institution, nothing on financial regulation, nothing on financial stability.  Just nothing.

That doesn’t stop him sounding off on all manner of other topics.  There have been two more examples just recently.

I don’t usually follow Tagata Pasifika, but a reader yesterday sent me link to an interview that outlet had recently done with the new Governor.  I guess the Governor isn’t responsible for the headlines (“The Cook Islander keeping our economy afloat”) but, whatever his background, one had thought of the Governor as a New Zealander (unlike, say, the British Secretary to the Treasury), and perhaps more importantly, the Reserve Bank doesn’t “keep our economy afloat”.

Much of the interview was fairly heartwarming innocuous stuff about that one strand of Orr’s ancestry that is from the Cook Islands.  But as it went on, it became more troubling.  Interviewed as Governor, from the Reserve Bank premises, he was offering his thoughts on what “we” (Pacific people in New Zealand) could do to overcome poor outcomes (incomes, home ownership etc).  There was strange rhetoric about how people had sought to divide and conquer them, and that everyone needed to “work together”.  Predictably (perhaps even appropriately given his role), there was no suggestion that (for example) low home ownership rates might be improved if only the government freed up land markets, but weirdly there was talk about subsidised loans (I think from within the community) to get into housing –  which might seem a little at odds with the Governor’s day job (where he wields regulatory powers to stop willing borrowers and willing lenders getting together to take on a housing mortgage).

Even that mightn’t have been too bothersome.  But as we got towards the end of the interview, the left-wing rhetoric was really unleashed.  We were, listeners were told, facing challenges of “societal sustainability”: we can’t have, so the Governor told us, haves and have nots and all expect to get along together.  In such a world, said the Governor, one group will be locked in, and the other group locked out.

It would make great – if largely empty –  election rhetoric from, say, the Green Party (Metiria Turei’s proxy now governs the Reserve Bank?).  But it has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with the job the Governor is paid to do, and in which capacity he was conducting this interview.   It wasn’t even backed by any suggestion of serious analysis, but I guess it sounded good at the time.  It is hardly the sort of stuff that is going to command general respect for the Governor in his important day job.

“Doing stuff” about climate change seems to be one of the Governor’s personal causes, nay crusades.  It was there in some of those earlier interviews I wrote about previously, but it was on full, and prepared, display a couple of weeks ago, when the Governor was a panellist at the launch of something called the Climate Leaders Coalition.    They advertise themselves as 60 CEOs whose businesses, in some sense or other, allegedly account for nearly 50 per cent of New Zealand’s emissions –  a claim which seems like a bit of stretch, since (for example) although Fonterra is part of it, the farmer shareholders (who actually own the cows) aren’t.   Buried a bit further down the website, we find that these firms actually account for 8 per cent of employment in New Zealand.   I found it hard to take the grouping very seriously –  it seemed to involve a great deal of virtue-signalling and keeping on side with the new government –  even before I looked down the list and found that the Wellington City Council zoo was a member.

I guess virtue-signalling, lobbying, and generally kowtowing is what CEOs have to do in the regulatory state.  Here is what all the hullabaloo was about

We take climate change seriously in our business:
*We measure our greenhouse gas emissions and publicly report on them
*We set a public emissions reduction target consistent with keeping within 2° of warming
*We work with our suppliers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions

We believe the transition to a low emissions economy is an opportunity to improve New Zealand’s prosperity:
*We support the Paris Agreement & New Zealand’s commitment to it
*We support introduction of a climate commission and carbon budgets enshrined in law

All of which is pretty devoid of content or, arguably, demonstrably untrue.  The cause of a least-cost adjustment towards a lower-emissions economy –  economic efficiency – isn’t helped by every individual firm proposing some emissions reductions target that is somehow “consistent with” keeping within 2 degrees of warming –  one wants price signals and individual firms reacting based on the specifics of their own businesses and markets.  Some firms and industries might actually increase gross emissions, others might close down completely.  Then, of course, there is the claim that the transition to a low emissions economy is an opportunity to improve New Zealand’s prosperity: the government’s own consultative document suggests that a net-zero target by 2050 could come at a cost to GDP of 10-22 per cent, and no credible argument has been advanced as to how prosperity and productivity will be boosted by this big adverse shock (in a country still heavily reliant on animal emissions –  let alone international aviation emissions, not included in the official numbers.

In other words it was mostly feel-good stuff, worth some headlines on the day, but amounting to almost nothing.   It was self-interest on display (perhaps defensive self-interest, but self-interest nonetheless) –  which is fine; it is what businesses do, especially in face of looming regulatory constraints.

But what was the Governor of the Reserve Bank doing participating in this function, celebrating the event, cheering them on, all without adding a shred of economic analysis to the discussion?

You can watch the Governor’s part in the panel discussion (about an hour in at this link).  There was no sign from the Governor suggesting that he was participating simply in some sort of personal capacity – if that is even possible for high officials.  In fact, apparently rather the contrary: his speaking notes are available on the Reserve Bank website as his first and (so far) only gubernatorial speech.

Even the published text is like something from a crusade rally:

To see so many companies agree to the following is a moment of rejoice.


The best time to start this process is 30 years ago, or today. So I am privileged and proud to be a Kiwi sitting on this stage with so many New Zealand companies involved.

We are told that consumers will want “intergenerational justice” –  although I suspect most of the businesses present know that consumers typically want a decent product at a low price.

We are told that

Climate change, if not addressed, will create unforeseen social disruption and displacement.

I’m not sure how a public servant can state with such confidence that ‘unforeseen” things will in fact happen.

New Zealand can’t change the world. But, the world expects New Zealand to lead.
What do we have at risk?

Apparently almost nothing

We have less embedded costs and risks associated with making change (e.g., very limited fossil fuel production and dependency). We have least to lose and most to gain.


We can be a brand leader on climate change in the world given our starting point.

Surprisingly –  or perhaps not –  there is no mention of those animal emissions, and the absence as yet of economic ways of reducing emissions without eliminating the animals.  No mention of us having among the very highest per capita emissions in the advanced world, no mention of the importance of international shipping and aviation to the New Zealand economy, no mention of the policy-induced rapid population growth which drives hard against any other policy efforts to reduce emissions.  And, of course, no mention at all of the NZIER modelling featuring in the government’s own consultative document suggesting a very large real economic cost of adjustment, or of the Infometrics modelling featuring in the same document suggesting that the costs of adjustment will fall disproportionately on lower decile New Zealanders, and not very much at all on the highly paid like Mr Orr and the Climate Leaders Coalition members.

Orr never cites any evidence for his bizarre claim that the world expects New Zealand to lead in this area (in fact, given our size and different economic structure, it would be a sign of profound cynicism and unseriousness if “the world” actually did have such expectations.   But he does provide what he considers as evidence for why “we” can lead.

I have been fortunate to have witnessed great transformation in thinking and behaviours – such as the business commitment today – related to responsible investing.   My own experiences include involvement in:

  • The UN’s Carbon Disclosure Project (which the New Zealand Super Fund (NZSF) led and had pushed back at us by so many New Zealand businesses – there is no ‘I’ in denial);
  • Our leadership of the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds (IFSWF) on responsible investing, and the ‘One-Planet’ initiative that the NZ Super Fund only last week promoted and signed;
  • The NZSF’s own courage in reducing their carbon exposure and engaging companies and searching for new alternative energy uses; and

In other words, not a single private sector entity, and no real economic adjustment (no actual reductions in emissions) just various different gatherings of government agencies around the world.  As for the claim that the NZSF portfolio reallocation took “courage” –  and isn’t it bad form to boast of your own “courage” anyway? – whose money was on the line?  It certainly wasn’t the Governor’s –  and as I’ve pointed out before the change was done in such a non-transparent way that we can’t even keep track of how much money this reallocation will have made (Orr’s claim had in any case been that it was hard-headed business decision, justified by expected risk/return considerations).

There is, in the published speaking notes, some rather strained attempt to connect the Reserve Bank’s financial stability role to the climate change discussion, but almost all of that was missing from the version he actually delivered, and none of it is compelling in the New Zealand context.  Perhaps there is some story to be told about dairy debt exposures, if emissions prices are pushed up too quickly undermining farm profitability and driving down rural land prices –  but there was none of that even hinted at in the Governor’s notes. I guess it would have disturbed the feel-good mood of the day.  It might have suggested an economic cost, rather than the nonsensical claims the Governor associated himself with about the opportunity to improve prosperity.

It was the sort of stuff you might expect at a Green Party rally –  although probably at least some of them might be more honest about the likely cost of the hairshirt.

And all that was just the Governor’s published text.  In his actual comments (viewable at the link above) we saw the schoolboy clownish side of the Governor on display, flippantly suggesting that the Bank wouldn’t raise the OCR until carbon had been reduced to zero.  I don’t suppose anyone took him remotely seriously –  a problem in itself, since Governors (like Presidents of the United States) really should be able to be taken seriously –  but it displayed none of the gravitas and seriousness one might hope for in the holder of such a high office.   That isn’t just me getting old and pompous: here was the relevant line from the Board’s advertisement for the position of Governor

Personal style will be consistent with the national importance and gravitas of the role.

And then we had this nonsense

“Let’s have our moment of glory, but we are lagging behing the world. And today we’re leap-frogging at least back to the frontier on one part of it,”

“Moment of glory” or “leap-frogging at least back to the frontier” from that lot of not very specific commitments, Wellington Zoo leading the way to save the world?

It went on.  We were told that “social cohesion would be truly truly challenged if we don’t do something about climate change” –  really, in New Zealand, which might just get a bit warmer and more pleasant?  The audience was warned of nation-state failures, thus presumably the imperative for New Zealand to “take the lead” – “we can do it, we should do it.  Lets do it”.   It must have felt very good in that meeting that morning.

At least until the Governor began to denounce capitalism.    Modern-day capitalism, the audience was told, drives you to short-termism.  No sense that it might have contributed mightily – including sparking innovation to deal with costs, problems, and opportunities that arise – to the unrivalled material prosperity the world – in almost every corner –  enjoys today.  No, capitalism is the problem.  That must have been a bit awkward for the assembled CEOs –  or at least for their owners –  but no one seemed to challenge the Governor on that.   Which was probably just as well, as the Governor didn’t seem to have anything to back up his claims.   Rereading his published speaking notes, it was striking that not once did he identify any problems, costs, risks, or failures in government interventions.   Wise governments, wise central banks, wise regulators will save us………

It isn’t as if this sort of rhetoric is new.    A month or two back the Governor was sounding off nearer to his own territory, claiming that financial markets (lenders, borrowers, and all) were myopic and therefore regulation was needed.  But when I asked for any research or analysis done by or for the Bank in support of this proposition, it turned out there was none.  It was just off the top of his head.  But it must have sounded good at the time.

Reflecting on all this, I have a number of concerns.  Perhaps the least of them is the lightweight nature of the Governor’s contribution, which too often sound more like campaign speeches than the considered thoughts of a serious senior public official.   If this is how he comments when we do see or hear him, what must things be like in private?  If this is the standard we now get from top public servants, what must the rest of government be like (all those CEOs we –  rightly –  never hear from)?

A good test is always whether one would have the same reaction if someone you are criticising was saying things you agreed with.  In this case, I can unambiguously say yes.  I’d be embarrassed to have such lightweight crusading perspectives from someone so senior for any cause I supported.  And it is simply inappropriate for the central bank Governor to be weighing in on such issues at all –  whether climate change policy, infrastructure. taxation policy, immigration policy, welfare reform, land supply or whatever.  It isn’t his job, and we need to be able to have confidence that the Governor has just one agenda –  doing his job –  not using his pulpit to champion personal agendas.  If the Governor wants to pursue those causes, he should set up a think-tank or run for Parliament.

I don’t suppose that Adrian Orr is setting out to advance the cause of any particular political party.  And no doubt the views he expresses –  flippantly and more seriously –  are all his own.  But he only gets away with it because he is mostly advancing causes the current government and its support parties happen to agree with.  Imagine the outrage if he were attacking –  especially in a similarly lightweight way –  causes dear to the heart of the government?  I’m not, of course, suggesting he should do so –  whatever private views he might have on such things, neither we nor the government should know them.  The Governor is paid well, and given enormous power, to do a quite specific job, and he needs to learn to stick to his knitting.

Idly, one might suggest that the Reserve Bank Board should do its job.  Not only did they lay down that requirement for gravitas, but they added this criterion

The successful candidate will also demonstrate an appreciation of the significance of the Bank’s independence and the behaviours required for ensuring long-term sustainability of that independence.

Sounding off loudly (and lightly) in support of all manner of contentious causes represents a real threat to the sustainability of effective independence.  If this behaviour is tolerated, only politically-acceptable lackeys need apply for the Governor’s role in future, and incumbent Governors are likely to find it quite difficult to work with a different colour of government.  Both would be most unfortunate outcomes.

As I say, one might idly hope that the Reserve Bank Board would do its job, and pull the Governor back into line.  Then again, when has the Board ever done that?  They seem to see their role as being to have the back of the Governor –  whoever he is, whatever he does –  added to a sense that the law itself doesn’t really apply to them.

I’m no fan of the Green Party. But at least they put themselves to the people and got elected. They face the electorate again in two years.  The Governor has no such mandate, no such legitimacy, for running Green Party like rhetoric from his well-paid public bully pulpit.


Consumption, investment and wages (inflation) in New Zealand

After writing yesterday’s post, I noticed another somewhat-confused article on the “low wage” question.  The author of that piece seemed to want to look at after-tax wages, without then looking at the services those taxes might deliver.   Taxes are (much) higher in France or Denmark, but so is the range of government services.

One way of looking at the material standard of living question is to look at per capita consumption, again converted using PPP exchange rates.   Just looking at private consumption –  the things you and I purchase directly –  will also skew comparisons.    Take two hypothetical countries with the same real GDP per capita.  One has much lower taxes than the other, but health and education in that country are totally private responsibilities,  whereas in the higher tax country many of those services are delivered by the government, largely free to the user at the point of use.    Private consumption in the low-tax country will be much higher than in the high-tax country, but the overall actual consumption of goods and services may not be much different  (depending on incentive effects etc, a topic for another day).

For cross-country comparisons, the way to handle these differences is to use estimate of actual individual consumption: private consumption plus the bits of government consumption spending consumed directly by households (eg health and education).  Separate again is “collective consumption” –  things like defence spending, or the cost of central government policy advice, which have no direct or immediate consumption benefit to households.

Here is the data for the OECD countries for 2016, where the average across the whole of the OECD is 100.

AIC 2016

New Zealand does a little less badly on this measure than on the various income or productivity measures.  That is consistent with the fact that our savings rates tend to be lower than those in many other OECD countries and (relative to productivity measures) to high average working hours per capita.  On this measure in all the former communist countries now in the OECD the average person still consumes much less than the average New Zealander does.  Unlike many advanced economies, we have consistently run current account deficits.   Large current account surpluses –  Netherlands for example has surpluses of around 10 per cent of GDP –  open up the possibility of rather higher future consumption.

Having dug into the data this far, I decided to have a look at investment spending per capita.  I mostly focus on investment as a share of GDP, and have repeatedly highlighted here the OECD comparisons that show business investment as a share of GDP has been relatively low in New Zealand for decades, even though we’ve had relatively rapid population growth (and thus, all else equal, needed more investment just to maintain the existing capital stock per worker).   Here is the OECD data, for total gross fixed capital formation (“investment” in national accounts terms) and ex-housing (where there are a few gaps in the data).

investment ppp

You can probably ignore the numbers for Ireland (distorted by various international tax issues) and Luxembourg (lots of investment supports workers who commute from neighbouring countries).  But however you look at it, New Zealand shows up in the middle of the pack.  That mightn’t look too bad –  and, actually, was a bit higher than I expected to find – but when considering investment one always needs to take account of population growth rates.      Average investment spending per capita might be similar to that in France, Finland, or Germany, but over the most recent five years, the populations of those countries increased by around 2 per cent, while New Zealand’s population increased by 9 per cent.  Just to keep up, all else equal, we’d have needed much more investment spending (average per capita) than in those other countries.

Over the most recent five years, only two OECD countries had faster rates of population growth than New Zealand.  One was Luxembourg –  where, as far as we can tell, things look fine (lots of investment, lots of consumption, high wages, high productivity) –  and the other was Israel.  In Israel, average investment spending (total or ex-housing) was even lower than in New Zealand.  And as I highlighted in a post a few months ago, Israel’s productivity record has been strikingly poor.

But how has Israel done by comparison?  This chart just shows the ratio of real GDP per hour worked for New Zealand and Israel relative to that of the United States (as a representative high productivity OECD economy), starting from 1981 because that is when the Israel data starts.

israel nz comparison

We’ve done badly, and they’ve done even worse.

If productivity growth is the basis for sustained growth in material living standards –  and employee compensation –  how have wages been doing recently in New Zealand?

One way of looking at the question is to compare the growth in GDP per hour worked with the growth in wages.  If we look at nominal GDP per hour worked, we capture terms of trade effects (which can boost living standards without real productivity gains) and avoid the need to choose a deflator.  From the wages side, I still like to use the SNZ analytical unadjusted labour cost index series.  Perhaps there are serious flaws in it –  if so, SNZ should tell us – but, on paper, it looks like the best wage rates series we have.

Here is the resulting chart, with everything indexed to 1 in 1998q3, when the private sector LCI analytical unadjusted series begins.

NGDP and wages

When the series is rising, wages (as measured by this series) have risen faster than the average hourly value of what is produced in New Zealand.  A chart like this says nothing about the absolute level of wages (or indeed of GDP per hour worked), but it does suggests that over the last 15 years or so, wage rates in New Zealand have been rising faster than the value of what is produced in New Zealand.  That is broadly consistent with the rebound in the labour share of total GDP over that period.  There is some noise in the data, so not much should be made of any specific shorter-term comparisons, but even over the last five years –  when there has been so much public angst about wages – it looks as though wage inflation has outstripped hourly growth in nominal GDP (even amid a strong terms of trade).    All of which is consistent with my story of a persistently (and, so I argue, unsustainably) out-of-line real exchange rate, notably over the last 15 years or so.

New Zealand is a low wage, low productivty (advanced) country.  We don’t seem to do quite as badly when it comes to consumption, but investment remains quite low (relative to the needs of rapidly growing population) and wage earners have been seeing their earnings increase faster than the (pretty poor) growth in GDP per hour worked.  None of that is a good basis for optimism about future economic prospects, unless politicians and officials finally embrace an alternative approach, under which we might see faster (per capita) capital stock growth and stronger productivity growth, in turn laying the foundations for sustainably higher earnings (and higher consumption).  Most likely, a key component of any such approach would involve finally abandoning the “big(ger) New Zealand” mythology that has (mis)guided our leaders –  and misled our people – for decades.

A low wage, low productivity (advanced) economy

There was an article on Stuff the other day from Kirk Hope, head of Business New Zealand, suggesting (in the headline no less) that “the idea [New Zealand] is a ‘low-wage economy’ is a myth”.   I didn’t even bother opening the article, so little credence have I come to give to almost anything published under Hope’s name (when there is merit is his argument, the case is almost invariably over-egged or reliant on questionable numbers).   But a few people asked about it, including a resident young economics student, so I finally decided to take a look.

Hope attempts to build his argument on OECD wages data.   I guess it is a reasonable place to try to start, but he doesn’t really appear to understand the data, or their limitations, including that (as the notes to the OECD tables explicitly state) the New Zealand numbers are calculated differently than those of most other countries in the tables.

The reported data are estimated full-time equivalent average annual wages, calculated thus:

This dataset contains data on average annual wages per full-time and full-year equivalent employee in the total economy.  Average annual wages per full-time equivalent dependent employee are obtained by dividing the national-accounts-based total wage bill by the average number of employees in the total economy, which is then multiplied by the ratio of average usual weekly hours per full-time employee to average usually weekly hours for all employees.

That seems fine as far as it goes, subject to the limitation that in a country where people work longer hours then, all else equal, average annual wages will be higher.  Personally, I’d have preferred a comparison of average hourly wage rates (which must be possible to calculate from the source data mentioned here) but the OECD don’t report that series  (and I don’t really expect Hope or his staff to have derived it themselves).   Although New Zealand has, by OECD standards, high hours worked per capita, we don’t have unusually high hours worked per employee (the reconciliation being that our participation rate is higher than average) so this particular point probably doesn’t materially affect cross-country comparisons.

The OECD reports the estimated average annual wages data in various forms.   National currency data obviously isn’t any use for cross-country comparisons, so the focus here (and in Hope’s article) is on the data converted into USD, for which there are two series.  The first is simply converted at market exchange rates, while the second is converted at estimated purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates.   Use of PPP exchange rates –  with all their inevitable imprecisions –  is the standard approach to doing cross-country comparisons.

Decades ago people realised that simply doing conversions at market exchange rates could be quite misleading.   One reason is that market exchange rate fluctuate quite a lot, and when a country’s exchange rate is high, any value expressed in the currency of that country when converted into (say) USD will also appear high.  Take wages for example: a 20 per cent increase in the exchange rate will result in a 20 per cent increase in the USD value of New Zealand wages, but New Zealanders won’t be anything like that amount better off.  The same goes for, say, GDP comparisons.   That is why analysts typically focus on comparisons done using PPP exchange rates.

But not Mr Hope.   Using the simple market exchange rate comparisons, he argues

OECD analysis however shows that NZ is not a low-wage economy. We sit in 16th place out of 35 countries in terms of average wages.

(Actually, I count 14th.  And recall that it isn’t many decades since we were in the top 2 or 3 of these sort of league tables.)

But he does then turn to the PPP measures, without really appearing to understand PPP measures.

But the OECD analysis also shows that among those countries our relative Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), a measure of how much of a given item can be purchased by each country’s average wage, is lower.

New Zealand is included among a group of countries – Australia, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK – where wages don’t buy as much as they could.

That’s right: Australia – where the grass has always been deemed to be greener, and Switzerland – which has long been lauded for its quality of life.

There are several possible explanations for wages in this group being higher than their PPP.

The Nordic countries have high tax rates, which support their social infrastructure but dilute their spending power.

We have lower tax rates – but the costs of housing, as an obvious example, are a lot higher in PPP terms than in other countries.

In PPP terms, the estimated average annual wages of New Zealand workers, on these OECD numbers, was 19th out of 35 countries.   The OECD has expanded its membership a lot in recent decades –  to bring in various emerging economies, especially in eastern Europe (the former communist ones).  But of the western European and North American OECD economies (the bit of the OECD we used to mainly compare ourselves against), only Spain, Italy, and (perpetual laggard) Portugal score lower than New Zealand.  On this measure.

But to revert to Hope’s analysis, he appears to think there is something wrong or anomalous about wages in PPP terms being lower than those in market exchange rate terms.  But that simply isn’t so.  In fact, it is what one expects for very high income and very productive countries, even when market exchange rates aren’t out of line.   In highly productive economies, the costs of non-tradables tend to be high, and in very poor countries those costs tend to be low (barbers in Suva earn a lot less than those in Zurich, but do much the same job).     Poor countries tend to have PPP measures of GDP or wages above those calculated at market exchange rates, and rich countries tend to have the reverse.  It isn’t a commentary on policy, just a reflection of the underlying economics.

Tax rates and structures of social spending also have nothing to do with these sorts of comparisons.  They might be relevant to comparisons across countries of disposable incomes, or even of consumption, but that isn’t what Hope is setting out to compare.

But he is right –  inadvertently –  to highlight the anomaly that in New Zealand, PPP measures are below those calculated on market exchange rates.  That seems to be a reflection of two things: first, a persistently overvalued real exchange rate (a long-running theme of this blog), and second, the sense that New Zealand is a pretty high cost economy, perhaps (as some have argued) because of the limited amount of competition in many services sectors.

But there is a more serious problem with Hope’s comparisons, one that presumably he didn’t notice when he had the numbers done.   I spotted this note on the OECD table.

Recommended uses and limitations
Real compensation per employee (instead of real wages) are considered for Chile, Iceland, Mexico and New Zealand.

Wages and compensation can be two quite different things.   If so, the comparisons across most OECD countries won’t be a problem, but any that involve comparing Chile, Iceland, Mexico or New Zealand with any of the other OECD countries could be quite severely impaired.   In many respects, using total compensation of employees seems a better basis for comparisons that whatever is labelled as “wages” –  since, for example, tax structures and other legislative mandates affect the prevalence of fringe benefits – but it isn’t very meaningful to compare wages in one country with total compensation in another.

Does the difference matter?  Well, I went to the OECD database and downloaded the data for total compensation of employees and total wages and salaries.  In the median OECD country for which there is data for both series, compensation is about 22 per cent higher than wages and salaries.     I’m not 100 per cent sure how the respective series are calculated, but those numbers didn’t really surprise me.   Almost inevitably, total compensation has to be equal to or greater than wages.   (There is an anomaly however in respect of the New Zealand numbers.  Of those countries where compensation is used, New Zealand is the only one for which the OECD also reports wages and salaries.  The data say that wages and salaries are higher than compensation –  an apparently nonsensical results, which is presumably why the OECD chose to use the compensation numbers.)

So what do the numbers look like if we actually do an apples for apples comparison, using total compensation of employees data for each country.  Here I’ve approximated this by scaling up the numbers for the countries where the OECD used wages data by the ratio of total compensation to total wages in each country (rather than doing the source calculations directly).

compensation per employee

On this measure, New Zealand comes 24th in the OECD, with the usual bunch behind us – perpetual failures like Portugal and Mexico on the one hand, and the rapidly emerging former communist countries on the other.  On this estimate (imprecise) Slovenia is now very slightly above New Zealand.  By advanced country standards, we are now a low wage (low total employee compensation) country.

But it is about what one would expect given New Zealand low ranking productivity performance.   Here is a chart showing the relationship between the derived annual compensation per (FTE) employee (as per the previous chart) and OECD data on real GDP per hour worked for 2016 (the most recent year for which there is complete data).  Both are expressed in USD by PPP terms.

compensation and productivity

Frankly, it is a bit closer relationship than I expected (especially given that one variable is an annual measure and one an hourly measure).  There are a few outliers to the right of the chart: Ireland (where the corporate tax rules resulted in an inflated real GDP), Luxembourg, and Norway (where the decision by the state to directly save much of the proceeds from the oil wealth probably means wages are lower than they otherwise would be).    For those with sharp eyesight, I’ve marked the New Zealand observation in red: we don’t appear to be an outlier on this measure at all.  Employee compensation appears to be about what one would expect given our dire long-term productivity performance.

And that appears to be the point on which –  unusually –  Kirk Hope and I are at one.  He ends his article this way

We need to first do the hard yards on improving productivity, and then push for sustainable growth in wages.

If we don’t fix the decades-long productivity failure, we can’t expect to systematically be earning more.  Sadly, there is no sign that either the government or the National Party has any serious intention of fixing that failure, or any ideas as to how it might be done.

Incidentally, this sort of analysis –  suggesting that employee compensation in New Zealand is about where one might expect given overall economywide productivity –  also runs directly counter to the curious argument advanced in Matthew Hooton’s Herald column the other day, in which he argued that wages were being materially held down by the presence of Working for Families.   In addition, of course, were Hooton’s argument true then (all else equal) we’d should expect to see childless people and those without dependent children dropping out of the labour force (discouraged by the dismal returns to work available to those not getting the WFF top-up).   And yet, for example, labour force participation rates of the elderly in New Zealand –  very few of whom will be receiving WFF –  are among the highest in the OECD and have been rising.

And, of course, none of this is a comment on the merits, or otherwise, of any particular wage claim.

Unpicking the inflation numbers

On the face of it, the CPI numbers released earlier in the week seemed quite noteworthy.  The Reserve Bank’s preferred sectoral core measure of CPI inflation is still clearly below the 2 per cent the Bank has been told to focus on, and was last at 2 per cent in the year to December 2009, almost a decade ago.  But the sectoral core measure has increased again, now up to 1.7 per cent, having averaged about 1.4 per cent (without a lot of short-term noise) for the previous five years.   If the trends suggested by this series continue, sectoral core inflation could be back to 2 per cent some time next year.

sec core infl to june 18

That would, all else equal, represent good news not bad (after all, three successive governments now have taken the view that a target midpoint of 2 per cent inflation is best for New Zealand).

But even on this series alone there is still some reason for caution.  The sectoral factor model filters the data, and the nature of the filter means the endpoint estimates (in particular) are prone to revision, and as the paper I just linked to illustrates there are margins of error around any of these estimates.  I’m reluctant to back away from the sectoral factor model numbers –  it has generally been quite a good guide in the years since it was introduced, and tells plausible stories about history.  But, equally, it doesn’t make sense to focus only on this one series.

For example, the CPI ex-petrol is a very simple core measure.  Petrol prices are quite volatile.

CPI ex petrol to June 18

And yet the latest observation in this series is still a touch below the average inflation rate for the previous five years (and at 1.2 per cent well below the target midpoint).  And that is so even though the exchange rate has been unusually high in the last 12-18 months (headline CPI is sensitive to changes in the exchange rate).

There isn’t much sign of rising core inflation being an issue abroad either.  Here is the OECD data on CPI inflation ex food and energy, for the G7 grouping as a whole, and the median of the countries/areas with their own currencies (thus the euro area, like the US, is just one observation).

OECD core inflation jul 18

Both series bounce around a bit, but there isn’t much sign of any sort of breakout to a consistently higher rate of inflation.  Even among the G7, the latest observations suggest that if US core inflation is edging up a bit, that in the UK and the euro-area is falling back a bit (Japan’s June numbers aren’t available yet).

New Zealand might be different of course.  It isn’t obvious why we would be – eg our unemployment rate hasn’t fallen away further or faster than those in most other OECD countries –  but we might.   Here is the NZ version of the same series: CPI inflation ex food, vehicle fuels, and household energy.

cpi ex nz jul 18 2

Indirect taxes and government charges also complicate the interpretation of the inflation numbers.  Weirdly, SNZ still does not publish a straightforward series excluding these effects, to give us a clean read on market prices.  It is not as if these are trivial issues either –  there was the GST increase a few years ago, there are large increases in tobacco taxes every year (which have had the effect of materially increasing the tobacco weight in the CPI), and there are changes in things like ACC levies and (this year) in government subsidies for tertiary fees.

Here are some individual exclusion measures.

cpi ex jul 18

And here is a series SNZ does publish: non-tradables inflation excluding both central and local government charges and tobacco.

NT ex govt and tobacco jul 18

That might suggest a moderately encouraging story, of core non-tradables picking up.  But even if so, it would be the third pick-up in the past five or six years, and neither of the previous ones amounted to much.   Perhaps this time will be different?

One reason to think it might be a little different is developments in housing inflation: construction costs and rents make up quite a substantial proportion of non-tradables.

housing components

Rents are a much larger component of the CPI (9.2 per cent) than construction costs of new houses (5.5 per cent) but most of the cyclical fluctuations are in the construction cost component.   Construction cost inflation has been dropping away quite markedly since the start of last year (and for all the talk of renewed waves of housebuilding –  which I rather doubt will happen) there isn’t any obvious reason to think that phase of the cycle will reverse soon.   Some of the earlier increases in core non-tradables inflation will have reflected increasingly high inflation in construction costs, but since construction costs have been slowing for the last 18 months, the latest pick-up can’t be simply written off as a construction story.  But, whatever the story, core non-tradables inflation of only around 2.4 per cent is simply not going to be high enough to be consistent with core CPI inflation getting back to 2 per cent.  We’d need to see further increases in core non-tradables inflation from here, and with the rate of growth of demand having weakened it isn’t yet obvious that that is the most likely outcome.

And what do the bond markets make of the situation?  Recall that there are two indexed bond maturities either side of the 10 year nominal bond.

IIB breakevens jul 18

There has been some drift high in the inflation breakevens, or implied inflation expectations, over the last 12 months or so.  But however one looks at things, it is hard to see the market pricing average inflation for the next decade much higher than about 1.6 per cent.  That is still a long way from the target midpoint of 2 per cent.

So where does all that leave me?    At very least, there is no sign that core inflation is falling and perhaps some reason to be encouraged, and to think it is picking up.   But however one looks at the numbers, current core inflation isn’t even close to 2 per cent, and by this stage of a long-running cycle (especially one characterised by weak productivity growth) one might have hoped –  even expected –  that core inflation might be running a bit above any target midpoint.   Notwithstanding the sectoral core measure, it seems too early for too much encouragement –  perhaps things are finally on course for a return to 2 per cent, but there are conflicting signs, and not too many compelling reasons to yet think that this time will be different.

What of the outlook?   With ebbing population pressures, weak business confidence, no fixes for the over-regulated and dysfunctional urban land markets, and various policy proposals that not only engender uncertainty but could act as considerable drag on actual and potential growth (eg net zero emissions targets), it isn’t obvious why core inflation is likely to rise from here.   Headline measures will, as always, be tossed around by oil prices developments (and petrol taxes), and a weakening exchange rate will push prices up a little.    Some might argue that public sector wage pressures, and higher minimum wage rates, will themselves contribute to higher domestic inflation.   Perhaps so, although I remain a bit sceptical that they will amount to much (even if there are some material relative price changes).   And, although no one knows when, the next recession is coming –  here and abroad.  From an inflation perspective, including positioning ourselves for the next downturn, we’d have been better off if the OCR had been a bit lower over the last couple of years