The China Council takes the stage

I have good memories of a young Don McKinnon.  It was early 1980, my first year at Victoria University, and Don McKinnon was a first-term National MP.  It was just a few months after the Soviet occupation/invasion of Afghanistan, and there was a strong push from many governments in the West against competing in that (northern) summer’s Olympic Games, to be held in Moscow.   Don McKinnon was invited along to articulate and defend the government’s stance. It was a pretty hostile audience as I recall –  the median student (or perhaps just the median of those who would turn up to lunchtime political meetings) was pretty left-wing (and of those who weren’t so left-wing not many had much time for the then Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon).  I no longer remember many of the details of the event, but I do recall McKinnon vigorously fighting his corner, and making the case that New Zealand athletes shouldn’t be part of one of tyranny’s great celebrations –  first Olympics in a Communist country) in the wake of such egregious aggression.   Those were days of considerably greater moral clarity about such regimes –  no doubt helped by the fact that there was not much trade with the Soviet Union, and our universities weren’t reliant on the Soviet market.

That was then.  Today’s Don McKinnon is full of years, knighted no less.  And any moral clarity on these sorts of issues appears to have been lost long ago.  For these days, Don McKinnon is chair of the (largely) taxpayer-funded New Zealand China Council, set up by the previous government to run propaganda around the People’s Republic of China, and help ensure that public discontent around supping with the devil never becomes too problematic.   Those aren’t their words of course, but the gist of the actual words they do use isn’t that different.     They don’t exist to do foreign diplomacy (that is what we have MFAT for), they don’t exist to do business (individual firms and universities for that, they exist to propagandise New Zealanders –  with our own money.

Mostly, the part-time Executive Director (of whom more below) speaks for the China Council.  But every so often –  perhaps whenever it seems as if a nerve has been touched – they wheel out the chair Don McKinnon.  There was an op-ed in the Herald this time last year, ably responded to by Simon Chapple of Victoria University –  a rare New Zealand academic willing to express scepticism.   Sir Don wanted us to “respect” the People’s Republic of China –  it was never made clear why, given the nature of the regime –  and if there were ever any issues well the great unwashed could trust the “relevant agencies” to deal with them (conveniently ignoring that fact that many of the issues raised by Anne-Marie Brady a few months earlier were not illegal –  they were questions of instead of right and wrong, surely matters for open debate.

Earlier this week Don McKinnon was back in the pages of the Herald.   Straw men abounded.    McKinnon opened with the Hauwei provisional decision taken by the GCSB.  You’ll recall that when decision was announced the China Council put out a statement lamenting the proposed ban.  I’m still a bit puzzled by that statement given that the chief executives of MFAT and NZTE sit on the Council’s Board and were presumably party to this public criticism of one of our intelligence agencies.

In his article this week, Don McKinnon has moved on a bit.

The substance of the decision is not for me to debate, but the risk is that it complicates the already complex management of the trade and economic relationship at a time of geopolitical tension.

but it really isn’t a much better stance from a former Foreign Minister, in a body largely funded by the taxpayer (not Huawei).   Shouldn’t he be lamenting the fact –  unquestioned –  that the PRC is engaged in far-reaching cyber-intrusions and intellectual property theft in much of the world, the sort of approach that might leave anyone cautious about letting a PRC regime-controlled company (as they all are) loose on a 5G network?

But what of those straw men?  This was the opening line of the article

The recent GCSB ruling in respect of Huawei must surely be a body blow for those who allege the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party are influencing New Zealand’s policy-making.

A “body blow”?  Well, perhaps if anyone were claiming that New Zealand governments always and everywhere do what the PRC would prefer.  But I’m not aware of any serious participant in these debates who says that. Beijing probably wasn’t too keen on New Zealand purchasing the P8 aircraft, and would presumably prefer we opted out of Five Eyes too.  But they must be absolutely delighted that former PLA intelligence official, Communist Party member, Jian Yang still sits in our Parliament – even after all that background, and the active misrepresentations to the authorities, is in the public domain.  Or that when new defence policy documents include a few mild but honest words, the only criticism in the political sphere is from an Opposition leader –  himself having signed us up to an aspiration to fusion of civilisations – concerned that the government might upset Beijing.  Or that the government refuses to participate in joint Western efforts to protest the gross abuses in Xinjiang (which the Opposition describe, PRC style, as vocational training camps).  Or that Yikun Zhang, with clear and strong ties to the regime and Party can manage to be awarded –  with bipartisan support –  royal honours for services to New Zealand.  How they must have chortled when they heard that.  Or that both Ardern and Bridges are apparently so scared of a Beijing reaction that neither can manage a forthright defence of Anne-Marie Brady, or of ethnic Chinese New Zealanders being intimidated –  here in New Zealand –  by Beijing.

Don McKinnon purports to believe that none of this is an issue at all.  Apparently we once –  years ago –  mentioned the South China Sea, and that was quite enough.  As for political donations, there are plenty of serious people around –  even people with ties to his own organisation –  who evince unease about that situation –  about, for example, another former Foreign Minister financing his mayoral campaign substantially with anonymous donations from the mainland.   McKinnon isn’t stupid, and will know all this, so one can only conclude he doesn’t care a jot – about the integrity of the political system of his own country.   The 1980 version of Don McKinnon wouldn’t have tolerated a KGB/GRU officer –  never once heard to criticise any aspect of the USSR –  in our Parliament.  2018 Don McKinnon thinks Jian Yang’s presence in Parliament is just fine –  apparently any concerns are “unsubstantiated” (you mean the ones he himself belatedly acknowledged?) –  and has the man sitting on the China Council’s advisory board.

The whole thing is suffused with that determination never ever to upset Beijing –  and whenever anything might (eg Huawei) the emphasis is on the PRC perspective, not the New Zealand one.   This reaches egregious extremes in this observation

National security is important but so too is our increasingly multi-faceted relationship with China.

National security isn’t everything.  Civil liberties and our democracy matter a great deal too.  But for a former longserving Foreign Minister to suggest, in writing (presumably carefuly drafted) that national security is something we should compromise on to keep the regime in Beijing happy is…….extraordinary (and that is probably too mild a word).

And this is one of the problems with the China Council.  They do now often include a ritual line about our “very different values”.  It is there in this week’s article too.  But, strangely –  conveniently for them –  they never ever spell out the nature of those differences.  Doing so might require them to speak or write in a way that suggested disapproval of aspects of the PRC –  or, and I hope this isn’t so, a genuine belief that the PRC system is just as good as our own, only different, and simply nothing to worry about.  So we never hear about (say) the imprisonment of a million or more people in Xinjiang, about fresh attacks on Christians in China, about the widespread theft of intellectual property, about a regime so insecure images of Winnie-the-Pooh are being banned, about the absence of the rule of law, about real military threats to free and democractic Taiwan, about the absence of freedom of speech, or even about the lawless  revenge abductions of a couple of Canadians this week.  Nothing.  And why?  Because there are deals and donations to keep flowing, and none of these things matter a jot –  in the only sense that reveals importance, a willingness to pay a price (probably quite a modest one, if at all).

McKinnon ends with two more incredible comments.  The first was

The risk of overreaction in New Zealand is all too real, however.

Really?  With our supine political and business class, desperate as ever to play the issues down, and no doubt grateful to Sir Don for putting pen to paper.   Some sign of any reaction among our purported leaders would be worthy of note.  But then the China Council’s view of “overreaction” seems to be any reaction whatever –  just let us get on with the deals and donations.  Trust us…..

And at the very end

The short step from rational debate to panic can come at a heavy cost.

So never ever upset Beijing, or the thugs with the baseball bats will extort a price.  But,trust us……they really are good guys, we are better for dealing with them, they’re good guys.  Really.

The thing that really staggers me about the China Council is that with all those senior figures and all that taxpayers’ money the quality and depth of their propaganda and advocacy is so limited.  They might have good practical arguments to make on some points, but making them should involve engaging substantively with the sort of detailed concerns being raised.  The China Council has never made any attempt to substantively engage with Anne_Marie Brady’s paper –  and, shamefully, has been totally silent on the apparent attempts to physically intimidate her (and thus to scare others).  And they are fellow New Zealanders.

As it happens, there was another good example yesterday of our cowering “leaders”.  Newsroom has an account of MFAT’s appearance at a parliamentary select committee, where much of the discussion seems to have been around the PRC, the “FTA”- upgrade, and so on.  I’m not going to excerpt the story, but read it and all you sense is fearfulness from both sides –  if the Opposition is critical it is that the government might have upset Beijing.  There is no sense of self-respect, no sense of values that matter, just a backdrop of deals and donations –  and that weirdly misplaced view about the significance of the PRC to New Zealand’s economic fortunes so actively fostered by yet another former Foreign Minister, Murray McCully.

And, finally, I must have hit a bit of nerve somewhere near the China Council.  After a post the other day, this tweet appeared on the Executive Director, Stephen Jacobi’s feed.

Which was a bit odd really.  I went back and looked at the post in question.   And I couldn’t find any examples of me calling him names.  I did note that “he appears to be Christian” but as on his Twitter page he calls himself an Anglican, and was tweeting a photo of an Advent service, that didn’t seem an unreasonable deduction.  And as one Christian to another, it can hardly count as name-calling.

So I had a look back at any of my other past posts I could find when I’d written about Jacobi (here, here, here, here and here were the ones I could find).   And yet anything resembling name-calling seemed thin on the ground (which was relief, because it is something I try hard to avoid –  perhaps not always successfully).   In one of those early posts I introduced Jacobi this way

The Council employs a part-time Executive Director, Stephen Jacobi.  He spent considerable time at MFAT, but from his own account his focus was Europe and North America (including as our deputy high commissioner in Canada) and in trade negotiations.  Since leaving MFAT in 2005 he has run his own consulting firm, and been employed as the public face of various trade-related bodies, including serving as Executive Director of the NZ US Council from 2005 to 2014.  He is articulate and readily available to the media, but has no specialist expertise in China or (indeed) on the workings of New Zealand democracy.   That isn’t a criticism –  after all, neither do I –  just to note that his arguments, and evidence, need to be reflected on and carefully examined, perhaps having regard to the interests that are paying him, not as coming from an expert authority in the area.

And that still seems right, and fair.  He is a paid lobbyist and advocate –  propagandist wouldn’t be too strong a word.  Those are, more or less, job descriptions.  I’m sure he believes most or all of what the job requires him to say.  It is just a shame that the institution for which he works seems to have abandoned all sense of good and evil when it comes to the PRC.

But in the search for anything that might resemble name-calling, I did across lots of arguments, analysis, and some evidence. I don’t particularly expect Jacobi or the China Council to engage with me –  although I’d be happy for them to do so – but the thing is that they don’t engage with China experts (notably Anne-Marie Brady) either.  Instead, they play distraction, suggest racism is at work, call debates “unedifying” rather than engage in them, or  –  as in this case –  suggest that all there is is name-calling.  With so many resources at their disposal, that approach doesn’t exactly redound to their credit.  With the politicians on side perhaps it doesn’t matter for now, but such large disconnnects between the values of a people, and the attitudes and practices of their “leaders”, are unlikely to last forever.  It was Scott Morrison who only a few weeks ago observed that we –  citizens of free and democratic countries –  have to be more than just the sum of our deals.  Or, as I added, of our political party donations.

Funding the Reserve Bank: focus on your statutory mandate

The Reserve Bank has been joining the ranks of the public sector agencies bidding for more money –  not just doing so in the conventional manner, behind closed doors in private discussions with relevant ministers, but in public.

There were some initial comments a few weeks ago, which I didn’t notice at the time, using this totally spurious argument

we are a net contributor to Crown revenue rather than a cost, and we’ve asked if we can hang on to a little more of what we make in order to fund extra work,” the Reserve Bank spokesman said.

The Reserve Bank generates a lot of money (mainly) by issuing zero interest bank notes (a statutory monopoly) and investing the proceeds in interest-bearing assets.  It takes little skill to collect this (what is in effect a) tax.     That income should have no bearing, formal or rhetorical, on how much of our resources the Reserve Bank is permitted to spend on other stuff –  mostly more bureaucrats to do regulation, analysis, and (see below) political positioning, of the sort many other cash-constrained bureaucracies in Wellington do.   Those activities do not generate even an iota of revenue for the Crown.

They were back with the begging bowl this week at the annual financial review undertaken by Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee.  I saw two accounts –  one from Newsroom, and one from interest.co.nz.      There were a couple of strange claims, including the Governor appearing to suggest that the CBL failure might have occurred because the Reserve Bank didn’t have enough staff.  I don’t regard that as a totally implausible story  –  then again, the system is not supposed to prevent all failures, and at least some concerns relate to what the Bank did do (suppression orders) rather than what it didn’t do.  But if staffing was a concern, and the Bank thought it didn’t have the resources to do the job Parliament had given it, surely the previous year’s Annual Reports would have said so.  And I’m pretty sure they didn’t.

Orr is also reported as claiming that

….now was the time to resource-up and ready the bank for a crisis.

“The time when under-resourcing most shows up is generally during a time of crisis and we aren’t in one of those times,” Orr said.

I doubt that is so. In a crisis it is all hands to the pump, and institutions pull through.  If there is under-resourcing (and that is an open question) it is more likely to affect progressing work programmes in more-normal times.

Perhaps it is why, 8.5 months into his governorship, we still haven’t had a substantive speech from the Governor on either monetary policy or financial stability/regulation?  But that can’t really be the explanation either –  after all, we’ve always only had one Governor, and his predecessors somehow managed.

The Reserve Bank’s finances are not very tightly managed (externally, by the minister or Parliament).  Under the current Act there is provision for (but not a necessity for) a five-yearly funding agreement, outlining how much the Bank can spend.   It isn’t a great model, for various reasons, even if it was a step forward on the total lack of formal controls that existed prior to the 1989 Act.

But my experience was that almost every year, the Reserve Bank’s actual spending undershot what was provided for in the Funding Agreement.  I knew they had had the odd tighter year this decade, but other than that it isn’t something I follow closely.  But here is interest.co.nz’s account of what the Bank said in its latest Annual Report released in October.

The Reserve Bank’s annual report, issued last month, showed it had undershot spending allowed through its funding agreement by $26.7 million over three years and paid a $430 million annual dividend. By June 30 the Reserve Bank had spent $173.1 million of a possible $199.8 million allowed by its 2015-2020 Funding Agreement, signed with the previous National-led government. Net operating expenses in the June 2018 year were $4.1 million below the funding agreement, despite rising $8 million year-on-year to $76 million.

“The $26.7 million cumulative underspending is expected to partially reverse in the last two years of the funding agreement, as capitalised expenditure on systems improvements is amortised to operating expenses, and the issuance of new banknotes continues. The Bank expects to be within the five-year aggregate expenditure provided for in the funding agreement,” the annual report said.

Bottom line?  They’ve been underspending again, and even though that is “expected to partially reverse” over the next two years, the forecast reversal is only partial and, once again, they expect to underspending the Funding Agreement allowance.  And, under the current statutory model there are no adverse consequences for the Bank if it were to have spent a little more than the Funding Agreement number anyway.  But the issue is moot –  they seem to have managed in a way that will actually underspend (again).

Which leaves another of Orr’s comments ringing a bit hollow

Orr in the select committee again pointed out the limitations of the five-yearly model, saying a “phenomenal” number of “unanticipated” events had happened in the last five years, and the same would be the case in the next five years.

And probably every five years since 1990, and yet the Bank still almost always underspends.

Having said that, this may be one of the areas in which there is some convergence of views between me and the Governor.  The five-year funding agreement model is crazy and should be scrapped.   No corporate – no government agency for that matter –  sets operating expenditure budgets five years in advance, and it is simply silly to expect to do so for the Reserve Bank.  It is fine to do rough medium-term plans to help ensure that foreseeable expenditure pressures are identified well in advance, but that is different from a binding five-year budget.

Where we may well diverge again is that I think the Reserve Bank’s policy, regulatory and related activities should be funded –  as most government agencies are – by means of detailed annual appropriations by Parliament (and will be forthrightly making that case when the current review of the Reserve Bank Act gets round to looking at funding issues).  I wrote about the issue in a post earlier in the year.   Here were some of my points:

A common argument –  at least among central bankers –  is that somehow central banks are different.  There is only one important respect in which they are: they earn far more than they spend.  But even that isn’t very important here.  Central banks make money largely through the statutory monopoly on currency issue, which is just (in effect) another form of taxation.  And spending and revenue are two quite different bits of government finance: IRD might collect lots of money, but it can only spend what Parliament appropriates.

And what of those arguments about avoiding back-door pressure?  Even they don’t mark out central banks.  After all, we don’t want ministers interfering in Police decisions either (a rather more important issue than a central bank), but Police are funded by parliamentary appropriation.  So is the Independent Police Complaints Authority.   There are plenty of regulatory agencies where policy might be set by politicians, but the implementation of that policy is set by an independent Board, and where backdoor pressure could –  in principle be applied.  Other bodies publish awkward reports that make life difficult for politicians.  But those bodies too are typically funded each year by parliamentary appropriation.  It is just how our system of government works.

When I wrote about this issue in 2015 (having only recently emerged from the Bank), I was hesitant about calling for radical change.   The funding agreement system itself could be tightened up in various ways, which might represent an improvement on what we have now.   But there isn’t any very obvious reason not to start with a clean sheet of paper, and build a new system –  aligned with how we manage public spending in the rest of government –  starting from the principle of annual appropriations, with a clear delineation by functions (monetary policy, financial system regulation, physical currency etc), and standard restrictions on the ability of ministers to reallocate funds across votes).

I’m not aware of any country that funds it central bank by annual appropriation.  But historically, central bank spending all round the world was subject to weak parliamentary control.  This is one of those areas where the international models aren’t attractive, and the standard should instead be the way in which we authorise spending across the rest of government.   This is a policy and regulatory agency ….  and should be funded, and held to account, accordingly.

But if the Governor really thinks he doesn’t have enough resources to do aspects of the job Parliament has given, perhaps he could look rather hard at how he prioritises.  In his FEC appearance the other day, he claimed to have been doing so, but in my observation his sense of priorities appears personal, idiosyncratic and even political, not at all well-aligned with the Bank’s statutory mandate.

Recall that the Governor has only been in office for just over eight months, but already we’ve had things like:

  • speeches on climate change, helping out his buddies in the government and in the liberal wing of the business community,
  • the “Reserve Bank as tree god” exercise, which surely didn’t just flow off the end of the Governor’s pen in an idle hour one Saturday afternoon. It will have consumed real resources, at an opportunity cost,
  • cartoon versions of the Monetary Policy Statements and Financial Stability Reviews,  and
  • swamping those individually modest items by several orders of magnitude there was the conduct inquiry of which I noted upon its release

Despite highlighting several times in the report that this was really none of their business (of course they phrased it more bureaucratically: “neither regulator has a direct legislative mandate for regulating the conduct of providers of core banking services”), they’d spent an estimated $2 million of public money to mount their bully pulpit, lecture the banks, lobby for more powers for themselves.  

It simply wasn’t their job, but it suited the Governor’s ambitions to sweep in and spend large amounts of public money –  for modest-sized agencies –  on a personal campaign, to discover what?

The waste goes on.  There is an advert out at the moment for a Manager, Performance and Corporate Relations.  There appears to be some real work associated with the role (some of the bureaucratic hoop-jumping all government agencies have to do) but part of the role is this

Leading a mid-sized team of specialists, the person appointed will provide leadership to organisation-wide initiatives such as the Bank’s Climate Change Strategy and Te Ao Maori framework.

There can be no possible need for whatever a “Te Ao Maori framework” actually turns out to be.   The Reserve Bank isn’t some social agency dealing with troubled individual families, where quite possibly individual cultural backgrounds matter.  It doesn’t really deal with ordinary people much at all –  that is not a criticism, it doesn’t need to.    It runs monetary policy –  which affects and benefits people quite regardless of ethnicity-  and it regulates banks (and other financial institutions) again –  one would hope –  regardless of the ethnicity of individual managers or shareholders.  Fortunately, the “principles of the Treaty of Waitangi” are not part of the Reserve Bank Act.     I don’t suppose the Bank will be spending a vast amount of money in this area, but every little bit reallocated to financial regulation would surely help, at least if you believe the Governor and his Deputy.  It has the feel of the Governor pursuing another personal political agenda at the expense of the taxpayer.

And then there is “the Bank’s Climate Change Strategy”.    I’ve touched on this before, but as a reminder the Reserve Bank is an office-bound organisation, with precisely two offices (main one and a small one –  probably unnecessary –  in Auckland).  For practical reasons (to do with specialist vaults) the Bank –  unlike most central government agencies –  owns a building in central Wellington, and if they own any vehicles at all it might be just one car.  They are a wholesaler of one physical product –  bank notes –  but they import that product from overseas producers, for whom the Reserve Bank is no more than a modest-sized customer (thus with little market power).  But they do, I suppose, travel to lots of overseas meetings (but last I looked, international air travel still isn’t captured in the agreed international carbon reporting framework or our own current government’s incipient net-zero goal).

There is just no obvious reason –  at least not one that isn’t ultra vires –  for the Reserve Bank to be spending public money on a “climate change strategy” at all.  It is a feel-good piece of political positioning, perhaps helping the Governor is his turf fights around the Reserve Bank Act, and assisting him in a cause that he clearly feels strongly about personally –  even if there is little sign of him thinking about it deeply.

I’ve written prevously about the sheer vacuity of much of this, especially in the New Zealand context –  our banking system hardly being heavily exposed to, say, oil producers.  There was a vapid box in the FSR a few weeks ago, and as I noted of it

The text burbles on about possible risks, but it all adds up to very little.     There are numerous risks banks and borrowers face every decade, every century.  Relative prices change, trade protection changes, external markets change, exchange rates change, technology changes, economies cycle, land use law changes.  Oh, and the climate changes.

If one looks at the structure of New Zealand bank (or insurer balance sheets) it just isn’t credible that climate change poses a significant risk to the soundness of the New Zealand financial system (that pesky law again).   Some individuals are likely to face losses from actual and prospective sea-level rises, but banks (and insurers) typically have diversified national portfolios.   People can’t have mortgage debt without insurance, and so the insurers are likely to be constraining people first.   Much the same surely goes for the rural sector?   Sure, adding agriculture into the ETS at the sort of carbon price some zealots have called for would be pretty detrimental to the economics of a dairy debt portfolio, but then freeing up the urban land market probably wouldn’t be great for residential mortgage portfolios, and we don’t see double-page spreads from the Reserve Bank on that issue, or the Governor trying to play himself into some more central role in that area.     It smacks of politics –  signalling the Governor’s green credentials –  more than anything legitimately tied to financial system soundness.

As it happens, the Bank yesterday released its “Climate Change Strategy“, a 10 point statement which seems almost equally devoid of content relevant to the statutory responsibilities of the Bank.  Instead, the Governor is offering political support to the government (that is the gist of the first paragraph) and bidding to be a player.  Here are two of their 10 points.

8.No single institution working alone can achieve meaningful progress on a global challenge such as climate change. Furthermore, it is not for financial policymakers to drive the transition to a low-carbon economy, nor is it the role of the Bank to advocate one policy response over another. That is the role of government.

9. However, appropriate action on a national or global level can only be achieved if individuals and entities are able to take action on a micro level. For this to occur, two conditions need to be met. First, there has to be proactive and effective leadership to drive our collective understanding of climate risks and to establish robust strategies to respond to those risks. Second, there has to be effective and timely dissemination of those assessments and strategies. Appropriate information will be vital in enabling entities and individuals to price and manage risks, facilitating the transition to a low-carbon economy, and ultimately contributing to both the soundness and efficiency of the financial system.

You might agree, disagree, or simply yawn, but when did this become an issue for a central bank, with important, powerful, but quite limited, statutory responsibilities?  And a central bank crying poor, claiming it doesn’t have enough money for its day jobs.   It is more like a creed than something one might reasonably expect from a central bank.

As part of the Bank’s statement we learn that

The Bank has also been welcomed as member of the Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System (NGFS). The Network was set up in December 2017 at the Paris ‘One Planet Summit’ to strengthen the global response required to meet the goals of the Paris agreement.

Head of Department Financial System Policy and Analysis Toby Fiennes says the Reserve Bank is very proud to have been accepted as a member of the NGFS.

“Playing our part globally, and as a leader in the Pacific region, is important both in terms of reinforcing New Zealand’s reputation as a ‘good global citizen’, and in providing us access to the latest thinking around the globe,” Mr Fiennes says.

(Among this small group of (excessively funded?) central banks and regulators is the central banking arm of the Chinese Communist Party. )

I guess it is the sort of feel-good, but empty, rhetoric one now expects from public servants.  And I guess when you see yourself as a tree god, the fit with an organisation devoted to “greening the financial system” must be almost complete?   But it is all empty.  “Playing our part globally” seems likely to involve little more than another round of international meetings to attend –  all those extra emissions – at the taxpayers’ expense, to advance Orr’s personal agenda at a time when he suggests the institution has insufficient money to do the job the taxpayer instructed them to do.  On an issue where there are no material financial system implications at all.

I’m open to the idea that the Bank might in fact need more financial resources, given the various jobs that (wisely or not) Parliament has instructed them to do.   There are other agencies and causes that might have a stronger case  and (on the other hand) some that should simply be wound up altogether.  But the Bank’s case would be that much more compelling if there weren’t repeated signs that the Governor was using the institution and public resources to advance personal, often quite political, agendas that reach beyond his statutory responsibilities.  He should be ensuring –  and the Board insisting –  that resources are rigorously prioritised to focus on the statutory mandate.

Human costs of big dislocations?

Puzzling the other day about the Prime Minister’s extraordinary performance –  tears at her official scheduled press conference, purporting to apologise on behalf of all New Zealanders for a single (awful) crime committed by a single private individual (and could we have imagined such a performance from Margaret Thatcher, Helen Clark, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Angela Merkel or any serious male leader?) I was wondering whether she was about to cry in public about the many other murders that happen each year in New Zealand –  45 to 50 in a typical year.

But when checking out that number, I found a nice time series prepared by the Police reporting the number of New Zealand murders annually since 1926, drawn from a search of their records.   As they note

Note that counting rules for murder statistics have changed over time (i.e. cases vs offences vs victimisations). Therefore, trend for homicide statistics over a long period (especially before 2007) should be interpreted with caution.

In other words if you want to compare the 2016 murder rate with that in 1926 you have been warned: the numbers may not be calculated in quite the same way.  But shorter-term movements should still be meaningful, even allowing for a bit of year-to-year fluctuation.   Fortunately, mass killings (eg Aramona) don’t happen every year.

This was the resulting graph (I hope they are right about zero murders in 1958, but it seems unlikely).

murders

I’ve circled a few surges that caught me by surprise:

  • the first was the apparently significant increase in the murder rate during the Great Depression –  by far the worst economic downturn and social dislocation in New Zealand in the last century,
  • the second was late in World War Two (those years don’t include the Stanley Graham shootings in 1941),
  • and the third was the period of rapid economic change and, latterly, very high unemployment over the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Are these surges just coincidental-  something largely random that masquerades as a pattern?  I don’t know, and I don’t know the literature at all in this area.  There were certainly global forces at work in the rise of violent crime in the 1970s and 80s, and in the subsequent decline, but it does look uncomfortably like a story in which –  at least in New Zealand –  big economic dislocations and high unemployment were associated with higher murder rates. I once wrote a speech for Don Brash –  as Governor –  in which we associated higher suicide rates with such dislocations (and hence why we needed good stable macro policy).  I’ve always been a bit embarrassed about it –  without evidence it probably over-egged the pudding –  but perhaps we were closer to the mark than I’d thought?

In terms of international experience, on a quick look I found this chart

murder us

The US data are easiest to read, and they don’t show the spikes we see in the New Zealand data  (it is a much bigger population, and so perhaps the New Zealand picture is just a small sample problem).    In Canada there is some suggestion of a spike in murder rates during the Great Depression, but not in Australia (where the depression was severe) or England and Wales (where it was not so bad).

I’m convinced good monetary policy has an important role to play in helping to avoid –  and limit – really bad economic dislocations.  High unemployment is quite scarring enough –  costly to individuals and to society as a whole –  but if it was associated with higher murder rates then doubly so.

Anyway, on such weak evidence I”m not trying to make strong arguments.  But I thought it was an interesting, somewhat surprising, chart, and perhaps experts have dug more deeply into these patterns.

Meantime, there many other gross failures of policy –  ones that are the direct responsibility of government –  that we see and hear no emotion from the Prime Minister about.  Prime Ministerial tears should, of course, be reserved to the privacy of the Prime Minister’s own home, but some genuine passion and energy about reversing the house price scandal or the decades of productivity underperformance –  both of which are likely to have cost lives, and certainly represented huge lost opportunities – would be welcome.  Or, rather nearer the justice system –  but this time the even more hands-on direct responsibility of central government –  there was the gross abuse one young New Zealander suffered (and still suffers) from the Crown in this episode, highlighted in this post.

Encouraging transparency and accountability

I’m travelling today and tomorrow, so just something brief now, and perhaps nothing tomorrow.

The government announced a couple of days ago that

From January, all Government ministers will have to release details of their internal and external meetings.

Minister for State Services (Open Government) Chris Hipkins said Cabinet had agreed to the release of summary information from their ministerial diaries from January 2019 onwards, with the first publication in February 2019.

To be specific

For each meeting in scope, the summary would list: date, time (start and finish), brief description, location, who the meeting was with, and the portfolio. The monthly summary will be published on the Beehive website within 15 business days following the end of each month.

It is a significant step forward, and will (or should) strengthen scrutiny and accountability of ministers.  There are some exceptions, and potential scope for the rules to be bent, but it goes beyond the publications practice for ministers in the UK and in New South Wales.   Together with the decision to pro-actively release Cabinet papers, it is another step towards delivering on the commitment to greater openness and transparency in government.

The (largely taxpayer-funded) lobby group Transparency International –  the ones who nonetheless host senior public servants giving secret speeches – has put out a statement welcoming the move.

“We are pleased that the Government acknowledges the need for transparency from its Ministers. Transparency is the antidote for corruption, every action they take makes New Zealand a better home for her citizens and reinforces New Zealand’s leadership in the global fight against corruption,” stated TINZ Chief Executive Officer Julie Haggie.

They suggest this should only be a first step

“We hope it is not long before all Parliamentarians are required to release their diaries and this requirement is codified in law so that it cannot be undone in the future by politicians fearful of transparency,” [chair Suzanne] Snively adds.

Not to disagree with that, but in many respects we have less to fear –  in our sort of political system –  from backbench members of Parliament than from senior officials (and even judges) exercising in some cases huge amounts of discretionary power.  Sometimes that is the ability to regulate directly, but even if they don’t have that particular power then the enforcement (or otherwise) of laws and rules made elsewhere opens up the potential for inappropriate influence, or even corruption.

The specific case I’m most interested in is the Governor of the Reserve Bank.  He will shortly lose his exclusive power to set and adjust the OCR himself, although he will still be hugely influential in monetary policy (and people will be keen to bend his ear or get the inside word).  But even once the new legislation is passed the Governor will retain his, largely untrammelled, powers as individual decisionmaker in regulating banks, and in enforcing (or not) a wide range of regulatory provisions affecting banks, non-banks, and insurers.  There is a great deal of money at stake in many of these decisions.

I’m not suggesting that anything very untoward goes on –  although successive Governors have each been involved in some questionable episodes.  But we (a) need to keep it that way, and (b) gain confidence in the way an institution is being run partly by means of transparency.   And what is good enough for elected Ministers of the Crown (who face scrutiny in Parliament every day) is surely a standard that should also be met by powerful unelected, largely unaccountable, officials.   I’d encourage the Governor to take the lead and announce that he will adopt the same standard, and if he doesn’t do so the Board and the Minister should prevail on him to reconsider.  If such transparency is good enough for ministers, it should be a standard expectation for the top tier of public officials.

Hope springs eternal, but I’m not very optimistic that the Governor will see such transparency as a positive virtue.  Readers will recall that the Ombudsman recently ruled in the Governor’s favour, allowing the Bank to withhold internal analysis and advice prepared for a Monetary Policy Statement at which the then (acting) Governor announced what the Bank was assuming about the impact of some major policy initiatives of the new government (including the now mired in controversy Kiwibuild), with no supporting detail or analysis.   Among the Ombudsman’s justifications was that, although his decision wasn’t made until almost a year after the request, his decision had to relate to the date on which my request had been made (ie very shortly after the relevant MPS).  To test this standard, I then re-lodged the request, so that a new decisions would have to be made about this analysis and information but on the basis that it is now a year old.

Absolutely not to my surprise, the Bank again rejected the request.  They do this even though, across the road, very similar sorts of background notes and briefing papers prepared for the Minister of Finance by Treasury staff as part of the Budget process are routinely, and pro-actively, released.

The Bank does condescend to observe that

In considering how long it is reasonable to withhold information of this nature, the Reserve Bank recognises that as time passes then release is less likely to have an inhibiting effect.

but concludes that a lag of more like five to ten years might be appropriate.  It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.  According to the Bank, citizens are not entitled to see background papers on such matters ( and in the end the Bank’s analysis of Kiwibuild probably didn’t change the OCR decision materially) even a year after they were written (using taxpayer resources).  It makes a mockery of the principles of the Official Information Act, further undermining the already limited accountability of an already over-mighty public official.

Ministers have set an encouraging lead. The Treasury sets a good example around papers feeding into the Budget process. It is surely time for the Governor –  encouraged by the Board, soon to be more directly answerable to the Minister through a directly-appointed chair – to get with 21st century standards of transparency and accountability.

 

 

Human rights, Helen Clark, and the PRC

Yesterday was, apparently, the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   Our former Prime Minister, former senior UN official, beloved of the Labour Party faithful, Helen Clark tells us so.

I can’t claim to be much of a fan of the United Nations, am not entirely convinced by the concept of “human rights”, and certainly don’t believe that any such rights flow from declarations of governments.  I’m not convinced some items in the declaration belong there.  But Helen Clark probably sees things differently.  She seems to be champion of all such things, worthy and not so much.   She’s a private citizen now, but it was only a year or so ago that our governments were championing her campaign to be Secretary-General of the United Nations and I’m told MFAT still uses her promote New Zealand foreign policy.

And what was our former Prime Minister actually doing yesterday on Human Rights Day?  Well, her Twitter feed says she was in the People’s Republic of China, attending something called the Imperial Springs Forum.

Is this some dissident forum, bravely championing the rights and freedom of the Chinese Communist Party’s subjects?   Silly, no of course not.     This was an event opened by the PRC’s Vice-President (open the report of the speech in Chrome and you’ll get a translation –  or Google a shorter version in English).  Here’s some of what he had to say

Wang Qishan said that the interests of all countries are deeply integrated and shared. China adheres to the path of peaceful development and advocates building a new type of international relations of mutual respect, fairness, justice, cooperation and win-win, and promoting the building of a community of human destiny that lasts for a peaceful and common prosperity. China will unswervingly follow its own path, do things in a down-to-earth manner, continue to learn from each other with sincerity and open mind, learn from each other, deepen cooperation, and always be a builder of world peace and global development. Contributors, defenders of the international order.

Doesn’t all that just describe so well the way in which the PRC operates?   Well, I guess “unswervingly follow its own [evil] path” might qualify.

Is the Imperial Springs Forum some quasi-independent body (if such an idea were even conceivable in today’s PRC? No, of course not.   Here is how one China watcher summarised it

All part of the same United Front work programme.  One of the leading figures behind it is apparently an Australian citizen Chau Chak Wing, of whom there are many rather gruesome stories to read (eg here), including some involving possible shadty dealings around the United Nations.   It seems to be a convenient –  for the PRC –  forum at which to gather prominent people from all over the world who will be polite and deferential, and treat the Party and the PRC as some sort of normal decent people –  not a bunch of brutal tyrants –  as a bunch somehow genuinely committed to open trade and free human development.   You can see the sponsors on the website here (and incidentially can see that our other former Prime Minister –  heavily involved in all things pandering to the PRC, including the New Zealand China Council –  Jenny Shipley was at last year’s event).

But what really struck me wasn’t what the PRC regime does.  We take them as evil and opportunistic –  they’ll use self-important people who make themselves available to be used.  It was more a case of what Helen Clark chose not to do.    There were quite a few tweets from her yesterday, including the one above about the Universal Declaration –  a document that China was a party to at its launch, and which the People’s Republic has made itself party to in 46 years in the United Nations.   Twitter is blocked in the PRC itself, but presumably there was some sort of VPN allowing the eminent former politicians and other attendees to carry on tweeting.

But there was not a word –  not even a subtle hint –  about the utter incongruity between the actions and expressed values of Helen Clark’s hosts –  the regime and its acolytes –  and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   On Human Rights Day.  You can read the whole declaration here but how about

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

The million of so Uighurs anyone?

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

As applied, say, to the PRC former head of Interpol?   Or

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

That would include those not-yet imprisioned Uighurs who’ve had PRC government spies forced into their homes?

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Forced organ donations?

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Where to start on what PRC subjects can’t do?

And then there was the article which really prompted me to turn to the keyboard today

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The mass internment of Uighurs seems to be substantially about their Muslim religion. Serious religious commitment involves an alternative and higher form of loyalty than that to the Party.   That’s a threat –  as it was to the Nazis, or the Communist rulers of the Soviet Union.  As it is, and ever has been, to the CCP and to Xi Jinping.  And it isn’t just the Muslims.  This happened in Chengdu over the weekend  –  where the New Zealand consulate had been wining and dining Beijing’s Confucius Institute people from New Zealand a few days previously.

(Great book by the way, on all manner of religious traditions in China.)

It is not exactly secret.  I’m sure Helen Clark –  and the consulate in Chengdu, broadcasting news of its latest meeting with the local CCP/PRC powers than be –  will have been aware of it.   Not a word, of course, from our authorities, and that isn’t surprising.  But not a word either from a former Prime Minister, former senior official of the United Nations in the PRC on Human Rights Day itself.

Does the fine rhetoric, the official declarations, mean anything at all, or is it all just for show, some sort of Potemkin village, just enough to keep the conference invites coming, but not to be taken seriously, at least as regards any country that offers enough hospitality?

Had Helen Clark said something –  whether about the Early Rain church (it being in the headlines), about the Uighurs, or about any other of the myriad breaches – what was the PRC going to do?  They were hardly going to toss her in prison were they?  At worst, she’d have been ignored by her hosts, and not invited back.  But so what?   She can hardly need the money, and the PRC is hardly going to reform because some international toadies turn up to meetings with them.  With the UN stint behind her she is the sort of person who could effectively speak up and speak out for “human rights” and freedom in the PRC  (and against its aggression and interference abroad, including in New Zealand, against its effort to intimidate ethnic Chinese New Zealanders or Anne-Marie Brady –  who, at least as suggested by her writing seems to be personally of the left.)

If she cared, if it meant anything.

Instead she joins the pantheon of the prominent, determined never ever to say a word upsetting to Beijing –  Don McKinnon, Jenny Shipley, John Key, Bill English, (Todd McClay, Simon Bridges, Jacinda Ardern) and…..that champion of human rights, Helen Clark.

(For anyone more interested in the Wang Yi case specifically there is some useful, inspiring, material linked to by Ian Johnson, the New York Times journalist and author of that book on religion in the PRC.)

 

The superannuation sky is not falling

When there isn’t much, if any, political or community impetus to do anything about a looming issue, it can still be useful to be told that the sky isn’t falling –  at least if that analysis is correct – but it probably isn’t an approach likely to attract too many readers.

The New Zealand Initiative last week released just such a report on New Zealand Superannuation, under the (slightly laboured) title Embracing a Super Model: The superannuation sky is not falling. (I was among those who provided comments on an earlier draft of the report.)

There are lots of interesting charts, even if perhaps most are familiar to anyone who has been reading in this area.  And there are helpful reminders of the (very) good features of our NZS system

There is a lot to like about the NZS model:

  • Low poverty rates: The material hardship rate for the elderly is low compared to other groups in New Zealand and is one of the lowest compared with European countries. The standard hardship rate for superannuitants is 3%, compared with 11% for the whole population and 18% for households with children.
  • Relatively affordable: NZS is more affordable than public pension schemes in many OECD countries, both today and in 2050. At around 8% of GDP, the projected public expenditure on NZS in 2050 is still lower than what many OECD countries are spending today. These include oft-acclaimed systems like in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
  • Simple and efficient: NZS does not distort incentives for employment and savings as much as means-tested systems. When an NZS surcharge was introduced from 1985 to 1998, people went to great lengths to avoid paying it by hiding their assets. The simplicity of a universal benefit also lowers administrative costs.

(although, as I noted in a post a few months ago some OECD data appear to raise questions about those relative poverty rates.)

Our system has the further merit, at least in my view, that it explicitly focuses on providing a modest level of income support, leaving the responsibility for any higher material standard of living in old age a matter for individuals and families.  (Having said that, the tax system we have had in place since 1988/89 –  taxing income on savings made out of after-tax income at least as heavily as income from labour –  is quite out of step with that particular vision.)

When it comes to recommendations for change, the New Zealand Initiative report is curiously bloodless.  I agree with some of their recommendations, disagree with others, and noticed an important omission.  But with no sense of any fiscal urgency, the author seems a little at sea.  For my tastes, there was a missing moral dimension – a sense of right and wrong.  Debates about how we care for our elderly seem almost inescapably moral in nature.  Of course, economists have little or nothing distinctive to add in that area, but the Initiative seems reluctant to even attempt to make a case.

Their first recommendation is one I’d agree with

Recommendation 1: Link the pension age to health expectancy

Doing so would save some money –  potentially quite a lot of money over time.  But to me, the stronger argument isn’t about saving money per se, but about a sense of right and wrong.    In an age when most people aged 65 are perfectly capable of working –  thanks to the changing nature of jobs and the improvements in the health status of people –  what possible case can there be for paying a near-universal living allowance, raised by taxes with all their deadweight costs, to everyone of that age?   No one argues –  the Initiative certainly doesn’t –  that people who are physically unable to work should have to, but that is true of people at any age (it is why, for example, we have the Invalids Benefit).   I also don’t have a problem with society agreeing that it doesn’t expect people past a certain age to provide for themselves (or within families), unless they particularly want to work.  But given the health status of most people aged 65 how can 65 possibly be the appropriate age now?   As a chart in the report illustrates, more than 50 per cent of men aged 65-69 are still in the labour force.

I’m much less convinced by the second recommendation

Recommendation 2: Index NZS to CPI only rather than both CPI and wages

• NZS is indexed to both inflation and the average ordinary time wage. Decoupling NZS from rises in wages is a way of ensuring productivity gains reduce the costs of NZS. The real purchasing power of NZS should remain the same while the real purchasing power of wages would increase.

Although it isn’t quite stated this way, this recommendation is an assertion that the relative living standards of a large chunk of elderly New Zealanders are too high (for the bottom four deciles of the over-65s, NZS makes up almost their income).  It is to guarantee a material increase in the relative poverty rate of older New Zealanders, substantially so over, say, a 20 or 30 year horizon. In fact, what would be likely to happen is that a whole raft of means-tested forms of assistance would be added to the system, detracting from one of the great strengths (see above) of the current system.  Also, even if the analysts recommending CPI indexation rather than wage indexation are willing to live with the full ramifications of such a system  –  in principle, 100 years from now the real value of NZS would be the same as now, even though real wages might be several multiples of what they are now –  the political system just won’t do so.   Break the link to wages now, and it is likely to be back a decade from now.

(One plausible compromise recommendation might be to lock in the real purchasing power of NZS at the point a person first receives it –  eg you might get 65 per cent of the average wage as it was when you turned 65 (or 68) –  and the person turning 65 (or 68) five years hence would get 65 per cent of average wages then.  Both would only be CPI-indexed from there forward, but future old people would get to share in the productivity gains the community manages to secure.  This approach would parallel how private defined benefit pension schemes work.)

What of the third recommendation?

Recommendation 3: Contributions to NZ Super Fund should not be at the expense of paying down debt

The Super Fund should not be relied on to reduce the future costs of NZS (it cannot do that), and contributions to the Fund should not come at the expense of paying down debt.

I get the impression that the New Zealand Initiative isn’t very keen on the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, but is reluctant to call a spade a spade and call for its disestablishment.  There is an analytical point to be made-  NZSF doesn’t materially affect the future affordability of NZS –  but there is an at least equally important debate to be had about whether runnning a highly-leveraged (wholly leveraged) investment fund trading world markets –  and making politically convenient plays whether around climate change, light rail, or whatever – is any sort of natural or appropriate role for government.   I don’t think so, and I doubt the Initiative does either, but they seem strangely unwilling to say it (I guess they want to keep on good terms with the government).  Note that the existence or not of the NZSF is a different issue from the question of whether governments running a welfare system, especially for old people, should also run much lower levels of net debt (even net assets) than some stylised government doing only law and order and infrastructure might. I think they should.

And what of the fourth recommendation

Recommendation 4: Productivity growth will make NZS – and everything else – more affordable

Faster rates of productivity growth relative to increases in the real interest cost of government borrowing can allow increased government spending without falling into a public debt spiral. Raising productivity growth is a way of making NZS (and everything else) more affordable, and gives future governments more options and flexibility to adjust to changing economic and political circumstances.

Well, of course, although on the narrow NZS point this is a less-strong argument than it appears.  When net debt is near-zero, debt servicing costs aren’t a particularly important consideration.  The Initiative argues for CPI-indexing partly so that productivity gains will improve the fiscal position, although that seems to me to put the emphasis in the wrong place.  Faster productivity growth –  and recall that ours has been lamentable for decades –  offers the prospects of better material living standards for almost everyone  including, as they note, flexibility about support for the elderly.

But in practice, this isn’t so much a New Zealand Initiative recommendation as an aspiration.   We’d all prefer that productivity growth had been, and would be in future, faster. But wishing it doesn’t make it so, and the Initiative hasn’t been particularly strong on identifying the key factors, or policy issues, that might explain that failing and offer credible New Zealand-focused pathways out of it.

Finally, turning back to NZS itself, it was striking that –  as far as I could see –  there was no discussion in the report of the rather weird aspect of our system: that in a country with so many immigrants and emigrants, we offer a universal benefit to anyone who has lived in New Zealand for 10 years after turning 20, including 5 years after turning 50.  It is made worse by the fact that we have Social Security Agreements with various countries, notably Australia and the UK, which mean that residency in those countries counts as residency in New Zealand for NZS purposes.  Is this affordable?  Perhaps so in the same sense the New Zealand Initiative notes that the overall NZS system could be afforded. But is it right?  Well, that seems like a moral question –  informed no doubt by analysis –  and one where I’m pretty clear what the answer should be. It is simply wrong.

Welfare systems should be about “looking after our own”, and if you went to Australia at 20 and spent your entire working life there, I don’t see any good reason for New Zealand taxpayers to support you back here in retirement (of course, we don’t know how material these numbers might be).  Or if you happened to come to New Zealand first at 55.    A graduated system, in which NZS payments are proportional to the time spent in New Zealand between 20 and 65, seems both fair and fiscally prudent.   Take the 10 year residency (real residency) as a starting point at which you might get, say, a third of the standard NZS at 65, and scale it up so that after say 30 years you get the full benefit.  (Will there be a few hard cases? No doubt, but that is where charity and family support should be expected to fill the gaps.)

It will be interesting to see what, if any, NZS policy the opposition National Party comes out with.  The previous government, at the very end of its term, and having changed leaders, did promise to phase in –  very very slowly – an increase in the NZS eligibility age to 67.  But only if they were re-elected, which they wern’t.  And doing nothing about other features of the system –  dealing with any life or health indexation (in full or in part) –  or the very short residency requirements.  With Labour and New Zealand First seemingly fully committed to the current parameters of the system, it would be a brave Opposition to campaign for change, especially from a party with little obvious sense of an ability to engage on matters of right and wrong.   One should probably never wish for a recession –  especially now given the limited capacity of the authorities in so many countries to respond –  but perhaps it will take a recession to get our leaders to more seriously address the NZS issue.  That was, after all, what it took in 1989 and then 1991 when Labour started, and National greatly accelerated, the move back to 65.

 

The China Council disgrace themselves and shame us

It is only a couple of weeks since the (largely) taxpayer-funded New Zealand China Council, which in its Annual Report –  signed off presumably by the heads of MFAT and NZTE (who sit on the Board) – was recently deploring what it regards as the “unedifying debate” about the extent of foreign (PRC) influence in New Zealand, was out in public with this lament

The New Zealand China Council is disappointed to learn plans for Huawei’s involvement in the development of Spark’s 5G network have been put on hold.

It didn’t seem to bother them that our intelligence services might have had serious concerns about threats to New Zealand’s national security. No, the bother seemed to be that a PRC company, under the thumb of the party/State (as all PRC companies are by law), had had it plans frustrated.   Surely, an outfit that had the interests of New Zealand and its people first and foremost would have been pleased to hear that any such threats was being stymied?   But then it has never really been clear whose interests the China Council, and its Board and staff, serve.  No doubt at least the public servants involved try to tell themselves they are really working in the interests of New Zealanders –  by pandering to Bejing at every opportunity –  and as for the rest of them (business people, MPs) why would they greatly care about New Zealand interests when personal interests are advanced by using taxpayers’ money in an attempt to keep the population quiet and Beijing happy?  We are told that both MPs, for example, have close ties to the PRC Embassy and to various PRC United Front bodies.  Jian Yang goes further than that –  not only a former PRC intelligence official and a Communist Party member, but he seems to spend inordinate amounts of his time –  paid as a New Zealand MP –  in some mix of business and propaganda in the PRC (in league with his party president Peter Goodfellow).

These people seem to have no values, represent no moral perspective, that might underpin New Zealand and its freedom and political system. They seem to act as if the PRC is just another normal country. More likely, of course, they know it isn’t and yet they just don’t care. There are deals to be done, donations to flow. And in the China Council’s case, our taxes are paying for it.

But what caught my eye over the weekend were a couple of tweets from the China Council’s Executive Director, former diplomat, Stephen Jacobi.  It is a personal account, but when you are the chief executive there is no credible distinction.

I’m no great fan of Destiny Church or Brian Tamaki, but in this single tweet Jacobi diminishes himself even further.   A New Zealand citizen, keen to have a programme he is promoting run in prisons –  but who hadn’t even got round to applying for funding/permission –  represents a threat apparently far exceeding that of the People’s Republic of China.  Yeah right.

Whether it is the theft of intellectual property, the intimidation of Anne-Marie Brady, the threats to ethnic Chinese New Zealanders (and the attempts to divide their loyalties), the way in which our political system is compromised by donation flows from people with close PRC associations, the presence in Parliament of Jian Yang (in particular) and Raymond Huo – neither of whom has ever uttered a public word critical of one of the worst regimes on the planet –  the presence of PRC-government funded workers (selected for political loyalty/reliability) in our school classrooms, the partnerships our universities have formed with this regime, and the way they’ve exposed themselves to economic pressure and threats from the regime, the way our mayors (and MPs) seem to fall over themselves to associate with the PRC, or a Leader of the Opposition who seems not to like non-binding agreements except when they aspire to fusing civilisations with the PRC (it was his signature on the BRI agreement last year)……and that’s just some of the stuff at home, let alone what they do in other countries and to their own people.   The PRC is, quite simply, consequential in a way that Destiny Church is unlikely ever to be, even in New Zealand. And, of course, Jacobi knows all this, but he has a job to do….and never mind about the facts or the threats.

The previous tweet –  actually retweeted –  on Jacobi’s feed was perhaps equally telling about how the powers that be in New Zealand see things

The Confucius Institutes, part of the PRC government’s worldwide programme attempting to influence opinion in their favour (or at least neutralise it) –  instruments of PRC foreign policy,  hosted and highlighted by the New Zealand consulate in Chengdu (where these people who labour for Beijing were visiting for the worldwide conference of the Confucius Institute movement).  I guess it is a bit confusing when your former senior official, Tony Browne, former New Zealand Ambassador to China, now sits on the global advisory board for the Confucius programme, advancing Beijing’s interests (while helping run training programmes for rising Communist Party officials).  The Newsroom article this morning on some of these issues is worth reading.

(I guess MFAT has form in these area. I’ve just been reading Anne-Marie Brady’s book about Rewi Alley and was struck –  if perhaps not surprised –  by the way New Zealand government’s were attempting to use that shameless fellow traveller and apologist, who openly defended and championed the PRC through the worst of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to advance their dealings with a vile regime –  the same party, same regime as now, just better suits and better technology.)

How much better for our taxes to be used to expose New Zealand kids, and New Zealand citizens, to the nature of the regime which, in sheer brutality and suppression of human freedoms, must now rank among the very worst we’ve seen?  But I guess that might disrupt the trade opportunities of the people on the China Council’s boards.  Deals might not go through, donations might be interrupted.  Well, frankly, values are things for which you are willing to pay a price. And it isn’t clear that China Council has any such values – and none of them ever utter any.

Are these people any worse than our political “leaders”?  Perhaps not –  although probably no elected politician would be quite as crass as Mr Jacobi –  but that is a standard so low, it is barely even worth considering.

At a personal level, Mr Jacobi appears to be a Christian himself.  This appeared on his Twitter account yesterday

There probably aren’t many Anglicans in the PRC, but I’m sure Mr Jacobi is well aware of the mounting campaign by Xi Jinping to domesticate, sinify, and (preferably) eliminate religion – Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or whatever – from China.  When the largest country in the world adopts that sort of approach –  not just around religion – it is a threat to us all.   As another more famous Anglican once put it

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

MEDITATION XVII
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

I’ve recently subscribed to a newsletter, Bitter Winter, from an Italian think tank on religious freedom (or lack of it) in the PRC.  These, perhaps, are the sort of evils our universities willingly partner with.   This is the sort of stuff our officials and politicians simply ignore.  But then these are the same people who disgrace themselves singing from the Party songbook about “vocational training” in Xinjiang.

That’s religious freedom.  Then there is political freedom (lack thereof), freedom of speech, freedom from surveillance, the rule of law, and so on. Not one of these the PRC has, or even claims to aspire to.  And yet MFAT, our politicians, and the China Council –  all funded by tax dollars – seem content to treat the PRC as a normal country, run by basically decent people, rather than as an evil regime with no moral core, a regime from which every decent person should keep their distance, and a regime which every decent person should avoid putting themselves in the thrall, and under the threat, of.

It isn’t even as if there is the excuse of novelty –  Nazi Germany was five years old in 1938, not 69 years old.   We know very well what the PRC regime is like –  even those who defend it know, even if they prefer to pretend otherwise. We could (and should) choose a distant and formal relationship –  if your firm wants to deal with Beijing, don’t expect help from the government –  but instead the deals and donations seemed to have warped any sense of decency, in ways that would have been unimaginable 45 years ago when New Zealand was first establishing diplomatic ties with the PRC.

 

 

Where have real house prices risen and fallen?

The QV house prices indices for November for each of the territorial local authority areas were released last week.  Much of the headline coverage is around the fact that in the last year Auckland prices have barely changed, while those in places like Dunedin, Invercargill, Palmerston North and Whanganui have shown double-digit rates of increase.  Even Wellington prices rose 7.4 per cent –  something brought home to me when a house across our driveway went for $2 million recently (a very big house).

Cycles are often not in synch from place to place and I’ve sometimes found it an interesting reference point to look back and see how (real) house prices have changed since the peak of the previous surge upwards in house prices, in mid 2007.  That, of course, was just before the onset of the last recession in New Zealand.

Here is a chart showing (mostly) the cities

house prices 2018 1

Auckland is, of course, still far worse –  total real increases (as well as levels) –  than any of the other cities.  But I was interested in a couple of things.

First over the (little more than a) decade. the increase in real house prices in Dunedin is well above that in many urban areas, and about the same as the increase in Wellington prices.  In the absence of population pressures, that Dunedin increase took me a bit by surprise.

And second was Christchurch.  There was a big rise in Christchurch prices a few years ago –  housing was in genuinely short supply following the earthquakes –  but looking back to before the recession and earthquake, and forward to today, Christchurch house prices haven’t increased in real terms very much at all.   Christchurch city has had less population growth than, say, Auckland or Wellington, but is still estimated to have 6 per cent more people than it had in 2007.

Much of the population growth (about 75 per cent of it) in greater Christchurch since the earthquakes has been in the Selwyn, in particular, and Waimakariri districts.  People sometimes talk about how responsive the two councils’ policies have been in facilitating this growth.  There is clearly something to that, but it is worth noting that neither locality seems to offer anything like the sort of easy ability to build and develop land that we can observe in many fast-growing places in the United States.  Real house prices in Selwyn, for example, have risen by about 20 per cent in the last decade.  And there is are enormous amounts of flat land in Selwyn.

And my other chart is of the TLAs at the bottom of the scale –  the places where real house prices are still lower than they were at the peak of the boom in 2007.

house prices 2018 2

Not, it seems, because (say) land use laws were freed up and the cost of bringing new houses to market has fallen.  In some of these places, prices are probably now below replacement cost (at least on existing land use regulation).    Most, if not all, look like the sorts of places that would benefit from the sort of much lower real exchange rate that I remain convinced has to be a part of any successful economic adjustment in New Zealand –  not that either main party seems to have any interest in effecting such a transition.

It is a sad and shameful record for our politicians.  One neither hears them talking of a goal to get house prices back down again, nor sees them implementing or advocating policies that might make a credible long-run difference.  I guess it won’t greatly matter for the kids of people like the Prime Minister or the Leader of Opposition, but what about the kids of the rest of us? It saddens me to listen to my kids talking about how difficult they think it will be to ever afford a house (in places with decent jobs), but it angers me how (practically) indifferent our political leaders –  central and local – seem.

Earnings advantage of the tertiary-educated

Skimming through the tweets of the chairman of the Productivity Commission –  who often includes interesting charts –  I spotted this picture.

returns to education

It is an interesting chart on a number of counts.  First, in every country shown, except the UK, the earnings advantage to tertiary educated workers is higher –  often materially so –  for older workers than for younger ones.  Second, all the countries at the far left of the chart are among the poorest of all those shown (the sample is OECD countries and “partner countries”).  And thirdly, of course, that New Zealand is over towards the far right of the chart, where the earnings advantage to tertiary educated workers is pretty low (and especially so for older workers).   The chart is drawn from this short OECD note.

Making sense of the numbers isn’t straightforward.    First, note that the chart isn’t claiming to illustrate returns to tertiary education, but the earnings margin of people who have had a tertiary education over those who haven’t.  The difference matters –  people who undertake tertiary education are different, in various dimensions, to people who don’t.    I’m in that older age group, and if I think back to my Auckland high school, only about 10 per cent of those who started in the third form made it to the seventh form.  Most of them probably did go on to university, and perhaps a few others did tertiary study later, but it was a cohort that was much more intellectually capable, on average, than the other group.   Since university was all but free to attend in those days, there weren’t even obvious financial barriers excluding capable people from poorer families.

These days, of course, a much larger share of young people undertake tertiary education.  But that probably means that the intellectual capability of the median tertiary qualifed person today is lower relative to that of the population as a whole than was the case 40 years ago.  It isn’t clear that is true if we compare the median of those with tertiary education and those without it (since the median of those without it is now likely to be quite a bit lower relative to that of the population as a whole).

Productivity performance in New Zealand has been poor for a long time, and we now start a long way behind the better-performing OECD countries.  If there were a lot of really good opportunities here then all else equal, and given how far behind we start, I might have expected the returns to enchanced skills (not, of course, the same as having a tertiary education) to be higher here than in many other countries.  The greater international mobility of people with better educational qualifications might have tended to work in the same direction.

But instead, those with tertiary educations aren’t doing well absolutely (low productivity country) or relative to those without.     And so you are left wondering quite why immigration policy is oriented towards recruiting lots of “skilled”  migrants –  particularly those with New Zealand tertiary education –  and why “education” policy is oriented towards encouraging yet larger proportions of people to undertake tertiary education.  None of which prevent’s Treasury’s living standards dashboard  – which we are told is going to help shape next year’s Budget – including the share of the population with a university degree of one of their “wellbeing indicators”.

(As far as I can tell, this particular chart also doesn’t taken of the fact that getting a tertiary education costs a lot of money –  directly (fees and living costs) and indirectly (foregone time in the labour force) and thus, if anything, probably overstates the advantage held by the tertiary educated.  There are other estimates of overall lifetime earnings advantages (or otherwise)).

Don’t legislate depositor preference

The government has underway a fairly comprehensive review of the Reserve Bank Act.  The first phase –  around monetary policy –  was pretty narrow in scope, rushed, and has resulted in not very good provisions now about to be legislated by Parliament.  I was always a bit sceptical about Phase 2, partly because of the way Phase 1 was handled and partly because the Minister of Finance had never displayed any particular interest in the issues.

But, for the moment anyway, I’m willing to revise my judgement.  Earlier last month a 100 page consultative document was released, the first of three as the Treasury and the Bank (aided by a somewhat questionable, secretive, independent advisory panel) work their way through the numerous issues involved in overhauling the Reserve Bank legislation and institutional design.

Yesterday, I attended a consultative meeting at The Treasury on the issues in the current document.  It was an interesting group of people and quite a good discussion, although even 2.5 hours is barely enough to do much more than scratch the surface on the wide range of issues in the document –  everything from the role of the Board to regulatory perimeter issues (including whether banks and non-bank deposit-takers should be subject to the same regulatory regime – most people seemed to think so).  Truly keen people can spend their summer preparing written submissions (due in late January).

What was striking –  part of what leads me to provisionally revise my view –  is just how much official resource is being put into this one review.  At yesterday’s meeting there were six members of the review team, and that wasn’t all of them –  and even they only report to their masters in the Reserve Bank and Treasury, many of whom will probably engage quite extensively on the issues. And the process has at least another year to run.  Despite having long championed the cause of reforming the Reserve Bank, I couldn’t help wishing that the same level of resource was being devoted to getting to the bottom of the causes, and compelling remedies, for New Zealand’s astonishingly poor long-term productivity performance.    There is little sign The Treasury has any resources devoted to that issue, the one that has the potential to make a huge difference to the lives of all New Zealanders.

But in this post I wanted to touch on just one specific issue that came up yesterday which surprised quite a bit and worried me quite a lot.   Chapter 4 of the document is devoted to the question of “Should there be depositor protection in New Zealand?”.  Of course, to the extent it adds in value at all, prudential regulation does help the position of depositors (reducing the probability of failure, and limiting the potential chaos if a major failure happens), but New Zealand’s legislation is unusual in that there is no explicit depositor protection mandate (the legislative goals are about the financial system, not individual institutions or their creditors).  Linked to that, we are now very unusual among advanced economies in having no system of deposit insurance.

I wrote about some of these issues, in response to a journalist’s queries, when the consultative document first came out.  But my focus then was on deposit insurance, and in particular on the realpolitik case I see for instituting deposit insurance, to give us the best chance that when a bank gets into serious trouble it will be allowed to fail, and its wholesale creditors –  the ones who really should know what they are doing –  can be allowed to lose their money.   Without deposit insurance, my view is that big banks will always be bailed out.  Perhaps they will even with deposit insurance, but by separating the interests of retail creditors from others, at least political options are opened.

But in focusing on deposit insurance, one thing I hadn’t really noticed in the chapter was the idea of providing depositors with additional protection by legislating depositor preference.  Depositor claims on the assets of a bank rank ahead of those of any other creditors.   Such a provision exists in the Australian legislation –  for Australian depositors.  It was a big part of the reason why New Zealand eventually insisted that Westpac’s retail business in New Zealand be locally incorporated (ie conducted through a New Zealand subsidiary).

To the extent I’d noticed the discussion of the depositor preference option, I’d assumed it was a bit of a straw man, there for completeness perhaps.  Surely, I thought, no one would seriously suggest that New Zealand adopt such a legislative preference.   But, going by the discussion at yesterday’s meeting, it seemed I was wrong and that officials are actually seriously considering this option.   They seem to see it as a complement to a deposit insurance scheme.  I think it would be quite wrongheaded.

In my incomprehension, I asked why  –  starting with a clean sheet of paper – anyone would think legislated depositor preference was a sensible route to consider.  The response seemed to be that it would be a way of reducing the cost of deposit insurance, and increasing the credibility of a deposit insurance scheme.  Both seem weak arguments, especially in the New Zealand context.

One argument sometimes advanced against deposit insurance is that in the event of a systemic financial crisis the cost could be so overwhelming that it would either over-burden public debt, potentially triggering a fiscal crisis, or lead to governments retrospectively walking away from the insurance commitment (simply legislating to not pay out).  In fact, we know that for reasonably governed countries that practical limits on the ability to take on new public debt are not very binding at all.   And we know that New Zealand has (a) very low levels of net public debt by advanced country standards, and (b) a banking system of only moderate size (relative to GDP) by advanced country standards.    Total household deposits with all registered banks are about $175 billion.  Not all of those would be covered by a deposit insurance scheme, even one that capped cover at a relatively high $200000.

Now lets assume something really really bad happens: banks lend so badly over multiple years that when the eventual reckoning happens loan losses are so large that 30 per cent of all bank assets are written off.   This would be absolutely huge –  far far beyond anything in Reserve Bank stress test, for beyond advanced country experience for retail-oriented banks.  But one can’t rule out by assumption utter disasters.  30 per cent of bank assets is currently about $175 billion as well.  There is about $40 billion of equity to run through, and then the creditors start bearing the losses.  Household deposits are about a third of non-equity liabilities, so in this extreme scenario the deposit insurer (and residual Crown underwriter) would face bills of up to perhaps $50 billion (a generous third of $135 billion of losses to be distributed across creditors and insurers).    And remember how extreme this scenario is: it assumes every bank in the system fails, and fails dramatically (not just slightly underwater), and that every household deposit is fully covered by deposit insurance.  In this really really bad, highly implausible scenario the bill presented to the depositor insurer is equal to less than 20 per cent of GDP.

Reasonable people can, of course, differ on whether deposit insurance is a good idea at all, just better than the likely alternative (my view), or something to be eschewed at all costs.  But in no plausible world would even a commitment of 20 per cent GDP overwhelm New Zealand public finances, or cast doubt on the ability of the New Zealand government to honour its obligations.   And none of this takes into account the likelihood that any deposit insurance scheme would be set up funded by insurance levies  Levy depositors, say, 20 basis points a year and you’ll be collecting (and setting aside) $350 million a year.  As I recall it, prudential policy (bank capital requirements) are currently set with a view to expecting systemic crises no more than once in a hundred years (the Governor the other day talked of extending that to once in 200 years).    If the really really bad systemic crisis hits in year 1, the government needs to borrow more upfront (recouped over time by the annual insurance fees).  If the really really bad crisis hits in year 150, there is a large pool of money standing ready, accumulated from those same annual insurance fees.

(Of course, in any scenario in which banks have lent so badly –  and regulators regulated so poorly –  that 30 per cent of all assets are written off, the economy is likely to be performing very badly for a while, and the public finances will be under some pressure anyway.  But those problems are there regardless of the resolution method chosen.)

The other argument I heard advanced for a legislated depositor preference is that it would reduce the cost of deposit insurance.    That might look like a superficially plausible argument, but it is almost certainly wrong in any economically meaningful sense.   Sure, if your bank is funded 50/50 by retail depositors on the one hand and wholesale creditors on the other, the chances that a deposit insurance fund will ever have to pay out to the depositors of that bank, in the presence of legislative preference, is very small (roughly speaking, losses would have to exceed 50 per cent of all the assets for depositors to be exposed to loss –  and thus the deposit insurer).    But if you don’t pay for your insurance one way you will pay for it another way.   If depositors have first claim on bank assets and all other creditors are legislatively subordinated, over time depositors are likely to earn lower interest rates than otherwise (less risk to compensate for) and other creditors more).   It might be hard to show this effect in the case, say, of the big Australian banks, but then no one seriously thinks the Australian government would do anything other than bail out those banks in the event of a crisis.  But we can see the pricing on existing subordinated debt issued by banks around the world – it yields, as you would expect, more than deposits.  It is much riskier.

Of course, it is true that legislating a depositor preference largely shifts the problem from the Crown balance sheet (underwriting the deposit insurer) to those of banks and their creditors.  That might look like a smart thing to do  –  internalising the issue and all that –  but in fact it is a subterfuge: trying to meet a public policy priority (depositor protection) by forcing banks to change their entire business model.  Much better to do things in a direct and transparent way: if you want deposit insurance, charge for it directly, and allow banks to determine how they operate their businesses (funding structures etc) given the insurance levies they face, and the market opportunities.  Doing so also operates more fairly – and efficiently – across different types of banks.  Depositor preference accomplishes nothing at all  in a bank that is 100 per cent deposit-funded, and such institutions should be competing on a competitively neutral basis with other banks with different mixes of funding.

In the consultative document, and again in the discussion yesterday, officials seemed to see a model in which wholesale creditors are exposed to more risk as a “good thing”, conducive to effective market discipline.  I’m with them on that point in so far as people -especially wholesale creditors –  who lend to banks should face a real risk of losing their money.  But depositor preference in effect says that the only way non-depositors can lend to banks is through instruments on which the losses mount extremely rapidly if anything goes wrong.  There is no good case for that (even if, as some do, you think it is reasonable to require banks to issue some tranche of subordinated or convertible debt).   It is a doubly surprising argument to hear mounted in New Zealand where for years –  and especially since 2008 –  we have been repeatedly reminded of the heavy exposure of our banks to offshore wholesale funding markets.   None of those holders has to take on exposure to New Zealand or New Zealand banks.   Legislate depositor preference and what you will do is to significantly increase the risk of those funding markets, for New Zealand, freezing, and yields on secondary market instruments going sky-high, at the first sign of any trouble, or even just nervousness.    Retail runs are one issue to think about, but as we saw globally in 2008 wholesale runs can be just as real, and perhaps more threatening (and lightning fast) –  I discussed the Lehmans story here.

I hope the legislated depositor preference option is taken off the table quickly.  It has the feel of clever wheeze intended to ease the path for deposit insurance.  Much better to make the case –  and there is a sound one –  for a properly funded deposit insurance scheme on its own merits.

On a totally different subject there was a surprising article in the Herald yesterday in which a former MPI official was discussing openly concerns held in 2008/09 about the potential financial health of Fonterra.   I was involved in this work at the time, working at The Treasury, and have always been a bit surprised that there wasn’t more open analysis of the issue at the time.  Just drawing on public information, the combination of:

  • a quite highly indebted cooperative,
  • largely frozen international credit markets (not just for banks),
  • highly-indebted farmer shareholders,
  • a model in which shareholder farmers could redeem their shares in Fonterra when their production dropped,
  • a drought the previous year (reducing production) and
  • low product prices, encouraging some farmers to further reduce production, and
  • the potential for some highly-indebted farmers to be sold up by their banks

was a pretty obvious basis for some vulnerability.    Fortunately, the particular extreme combination of risks never really crystallised.   One aspect of the 2008/09 crisis that was always interesting was –  in the words of one investment bank CEO at the time –  “one of the few markets that remain open is the New Zealand corporate bond market”.  That was because it was, and always has been, primarily a retail market, different from the situation in many other countries (reflecting regulatory differences).  In early 2009 Fonterra was able to run a highly successful domestic retail bond issue.  Subsequent changes to the Fonterra capital structure mean that in future serious downturns, redemption risk is no longer a consideration.  That, however, leaves more of the (liquidity) risk on farmers themselves.