A stuff-up by Statistics New Zealand

Many readers will recall the fiasco of the leak of an OCR announcement back in March 2016.  It turned out that the Reserve Bank’s systems were had been so lax for years that people in the lock-ups they then held could simply email back to their offices (or to anyone else) news of the announcement that was supposed to be being tightly held.  This weakness only came to light because someone in Mediaworks emailed the news of this particular OCR announcement to their office, and someone in that office emailed me (from memory I was supposed to go on one of their radio shows later that morning).  I drew the matter to the Bank’s attention.

In the wake of that episode, the Bank (rightly in my view) cancelled the pre-release lock-ups for journalists and analysts.  But other government agencies went right on, relying on trust more than anything else.   One notable example was Statistics New Zealand, which produces and publishes many of the most market-moving pieces of economic data.    When asked about any possible changes to their procedures (outlined here) following the Reserve Bank leak in 2016, they responded

Statistics NZ has not undertaken any reviews or made any changes to the department’s policy for media conferences following the Official Cash Rate leak at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and the subsequent Deloitte report into that leak released last week.

and

While Statistics NZ has never had a breach, if that trust is abused and an embargo is broken, offenders and their organisation would be barred from attending future media conferences.

As I noted back then

Unfortunately, that was probably the sort of discipline/incentive the Reserve Bank was implicitly relying on as well.

Unfortunately, after the confusion the Prime Minister gave rise to earlier in the week, confusing the crown accounts and GDP (which had some people abroad worried that the Prime Minister actually had had an advanced briefing), there was apparently more trouble this morning.  But this time, the fault was entirely with Statistics New Zealand, and not with those in the lock-up.

The embargo for the lock-up on gross domestic product (GDP) for the June 2018 quarter, held today, 20 September 2018, was lifted about one minute earlier than the planned time of 10.45am.

The lock-up is held in Stats NZ’s Wellington offices from 10am to 10.45am, to allow key financial media, bank economists, and other government agencies to understand the information and ask questions about GDP, before the embargo is lifted. It is held under strict embargo conditions.

Stats NZ staff in the lock-up check official New Zealand time on the Measurement Standards Laboratory of New Zealand (MSL) website.

However, a computer script (JavaScript) bug meant that the official time clock website that appeared on the staff member’s phone picked up the phone’s own time setting, which was slightly fast.*

In other words, those in the embargoed lock-up had the data –  and could communicate it to their dealing rooms – a minute earlier than anyone not in the lock-up got the data.     And it seems to have mattered.  GDP was higher than expected and the exchange rate jumped.   People who were in the lock-up got the jump on that.  I’ve heard that the exchange rate moved before 10:45 (the official release time), which isn’t surprising if people in the lock-up had been told the embargo had been lifted.

What is striking about the statement SNZ put out –  and it wasn’t exactly distributed widely (say, to all the people who got the GDP release itself) –  is that there is no mention at all of these possible early trades, which (in effect) distributed money/profits from one group of people (those not in the know) to another (those in the know).  Unlike the 2016 Reserve Bank leak, there seem to have been real financial consequences to this mistake.  And it isn’t clear that Statistics New Zealand is taking it that seriously.   When I asked about any investigation being undertaken, the implication of their reply was that there would be no further investigation or review beyond the narrow technical statement I linked to earlier. I hope that is not correct (and I hope, for example, the Reserve Bank is insisting on something more).

Writing about these data lock-ups in 2016 I noted of the SNZ situation

Is Statistics New Zealand that different?  There is, obviously, no policy message SNZ is trying to put across with its releases, and so no risks of different messages getting to different people.  But the security risks are the same.  Perhaps it is simply more efficient to have everyone in the same room, to clarify key technical points, but couldn’t the same end be achieved –  on a more competitively neutral basis (to analysts based abroad, say) –  by a dial-in (even webcast) conference call held a bit later on the day of the release?

That still seems right to me. I cannot see the case for a pre-release lock-up (and I can see a case for a technical conference call later in the day).   Mistakes will happen while they keep on with lock-ups.   The reliance on trust seems to be as strong as ever, and (as far as we know) that has been honoured.  This time, the stuff-up was by Statistics New Zealand themselves.   It was unnecessary, and it will at the margin (and especially in conjunction with the political contretemps earlier in the week) damage confidence in our statistics agency and the integrity of our data.

A picture in continuity

Here is a summary chart of the real GDP outcomes for the June quarter (expenditure and production), the hours outcomes (QES and HLFS), and the implied change in labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked), taking the average change in hours worked from the average growth in real GDP.

GDP q2 1

There was quite a bit more activity all round, but it took a larger percentage increase in labour inputs (hours) to get the published percentage increase in output (GDP).  In other words, labour productivity fell: not just the growth rate, but the level.

Here is the same chart for the previous quarter.

GDP q2 2

It was worse: less GDP growth, but also an even larger fall in GDP per hour worked.   Productivity growth for the first half of the year was -0.65 per cent.  That isn’t an annualised number, but an absolute change; a significant fall.

Perhaps you think this just shows how dreadful the new government is.  Here is the same chart showing the cumulative growth rates for the last six months of last year (in blue) and the first half of this year (in orange).

GDP q2 3

To me, the similarities are (much) more striking than the differences.    Importantly, the level of labour productivity fell in both halves.

Looked at from a productivity perspective –  and that really is where one should focus, especially when the unemployment rate is not too far from the NAIRU – it is a pretty dreadful performance.    Of course, simply looking at two six month periods on their own doesn’t tell one much, but nothing in these data is inconsistent with the poor productivity record for some years now.

And neither the last government nor this one appears to have any serious ideas for, or any serious interest in, fixing this failure.

 

 

Is this what leadership looks like?

When the news broke earlier in the year that Canterbury University academic Anne-Marie Brady’s house and office had been broken into, and that the only things taken seemed to relate specifically to her longrunning research work on the People’s Republic of China, the initial response from the government didn’t seem too bad.

Ardern said at the post-Cabinet press conference on Monday that “everyone would be concerned” if Brady had been targeted because of her academic work.

“If there’s evidence of that, we should be taking stock and taking action,” Ardern said. “I will certainly ask some questions.

“I would certainly want to be informed if there was evidence that this was a targeted action against someone who was raising issues around foreign interference.”

Brady  herself was impressed (although I think I thought –  and perhaps wrote – at the time that these comments seemed more designed to encourage the Prime Minister, rather than accurately describing any evidence to date of taking foreign interference “very seriously’).

“I am very heartened to see the Prime Minister is taking the issue of foreign interference activities in New Zealand very seriously and that she has instructed the security agencies to look into the break-ins I have experienced,” Brady said.

The story has been back in the media again thanks to the persistent efforts of Matt Nippert of the Herald.  Last weekend there was his widely-viewed (and linked to abroad) article “The curious case of the burgled professor”, and this morning the front page of the Herald has the story “SIS sweeps prof’s office“.

Electronic surveillance specialists from the Security Intelligence Service have carried out a search for listening devices at the University of Canterbury office of the professor revealed to be a possible target of Chinese espionage.

News of the sweep, confirmed by several university staff, comes as academic colleagues of Anne-Marie Brady came out in support of the China specialist….

The Herald understands a similar search for bugs by the Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) has also been conducted at Brady’s Christchurch home, the site of another suspicious burglary being investigated by authorities.

From what is reported in that story, and in Radio New Zealand’s interview this morning with Anne-Marie Brady, the Police and the SIS seem to be doing a pretty thorough job.  Brady herself praises what she has seen and heard of their efforts.

But what of the Prime Minister?  Remember that this is the “leader” of whom Matt Nippert has reported

She won’t talk about the general issue, and here she is (quoted in Nippert’s article this morning) on the specific one.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, asked about the case on Monday at her post-Cabinet press briefing, said she had yet to be briefed on whether the episode could be attributed to China.

“I have not received any further advice on that, but nor have I sought it. As it were, nothing has since been raised with me to suggest that it was, or wasn’t,” she said.

“Speaking more generally, what the underlying suggestion here is of foreign interference. I’ve been very, very cautious around always stipulating that New Zealand needs to be live to general issues of interference, and that’s something we keep a watching brief on.”

She hasn’t asked.  How convenient.  If she were really concerned about the issue, and the potential, you’d have thought she –  and her office –  would be all over an issue of this sort (as a matter of sovereignty, national security, defence of academic freedom etc, not as “interfering” in a potential criminal prosecution).

And as for that final paragraph, if that is “leadership” we’ve lost all sense of how a leader might actually act or speak.   Of course she probably isn’t in a position to make specific accusations –  especially not having asked for the information –  but what would have been so wrong about a clear and strong statement that she, and New Zealanders, would deplore and push back strongly against any foreign interference in New Zealand, and in particular if agents of a foreign power were found to have been responsible for the Brady break-ins.  She could even have gone on to say that if such evidence were found then –  even if it were not possible to launch criminal prosecutions (after all, we don’t have an extradition treaty with China) –  the damage to our bilateral relationship with such a country would be severe.

Instead we get this vacuous waffle

I’ve been very, very cautious around always stipulating that New Zealand needs to be live to general issues of interference, and that’s something we keep a watching brief on.

saying precisely nothing, from someone who appears to desperately hopes to avoid the issue.  Her response here is much weaker than her February one.

Does the Prime Minister stand for academic freedom in New Zealand, for the rights and freedoms of New Zealanders to do research, to speak out, to challenge other countries here in New Zealand, the rights of New Zealanders to be secure in their homes?  “Stand for” in the sense of being willing to pay a price to protect and defend?  Or is she more interested in doing everything possible to be able to look the other way, prioritising party fundraising, trade agreements, the interests of a few big corporates (and universities) and visits to Beijing over the values and freedoms of New Zealanders, including those like Professor Brady who’ve done in-depth research on PRC efforts here?

She, her party president, and their peers in the National Party together.