The creeping corruption of official New Zealand

I’m not sure how many readers get and read the Sunday Star-Times (SST) newspaper.  Some weeks I flick through and wonder why we still do.  But yesterday as I turned the pages I was glad I had, because it was as if one page after another shone a light on some aspect or other of the degraded state of New Zealand public life.   And it got me thinking not just about those specific stories, but about others that had been in the news over the previous week.

Starting with the relatively small stuff, there was an SST story about NZTA.   The first bit of the story was about how

The New Zealand Transport Agency allowed a senior staffer to bid for a multi-million dollar contract in a ridesharing service that came with a $475,000 subsidy from the Government agency.

Surely that should have been totally unacceptable?  But not, it appears, to NZTA.  Despite, as the article notes, guidance from the State Services Commission that

“in general, having a private business in the same area as a public servant’s official responsibilities would be highly problematic and is most likely to be unacceptable”.

NZTA’s blithe response was to state that “it managed the obvious conflict of interest”.

Now, as I understand it, it wasn’t NZTA itself awarding the contract and (as it happens) the senior NZTA employee didn’t win the contract.  But why was such conduct allowed in the first place?  If you work for a government agency, you simply don’t do stuff in your private life where there could be any reasonable suggestion of a conflict of interest.

This particular story was, we were told, one of seven cases of employee conflict of interest NZTA had to disclose.  The other specific case cited in the article –  around an NZTA regional director who is also chair of a Maori tribal authority “involved in a project currently under construction” by NZTA –  seems, if anything, worse.  The fact that the regional director had agreed not to be involved in any matters relating to the project, doesn’t change the fact that all her staff and colleagues know her, and presumably know of her outside interests.  It is (well, should be) staggering that these arrangements are smiled on by NZTA.  (And it should be a little surprising that the journalist writing up the story seems to have made no effort to get comment from the Minister of Transport, or from the Opposition spokesperson.)

Elsewhere in the media last week – I think mainly in the Herald – was the story of the Supreme Court judge who had been off on holiday with a senior lawyer in a case that was currently before the Supreme Court.   In various articles I saw, uneasy lawyers were falling over themselves not to impugn the “personal integrity” of the judge –  I guess the (now retired) judge has colleagues and these lawyers might have to appear before them –  but frankly this just should not be acceptable conduct.  Apparently the rules allow the other side to object to such cosy holiday arrangements (or other possible conflicts) –  which didn’t happen in this case –  but as the articles noted that is hardly a cost or risk-free option for the other side’s counsel, risking getting offside with the judge (for having disrupted his or her –  in this case – holiday plans, and perhaps being seen to impugn their integrity).   But the onus shouldn’t be on opposing counsel: the rules should be strict, and the conduct of the judges should be (if anything) stricter.  Personal integrity here should include a conscious recognition of the need for justice to be seen, by fair-minded observers, as utterly impartial.

There is talk in the articles about how hard it is for judges, of the “small and tight-knit” legal community, of lifelong friends, and so on and so forth.    Nothing in that should make it acceptable behaviour for judges to be holidaying with lawyers who appear before them (and especially not in current cases, and for higher court judges).  When you take on the office of judge –  perhaps especially in our final court of appeal –  you should accept –  and the system should demand –  a high degree of restraint, and of distance, that people in most other roles won’t face.

But, being New Zealand, it isn’t clear that anything is happening about situations like this  (there is a specific –  somewhat belated –  application for a recall of the judgment in question, but this is a wider issue).  I saw no questions of the Chief Justice demanding answers as to how this can be acceptable behaviour, and no questions of the Minister of Justice and/or Attorney-General.   And not a peep from the Opposition, of course.

A bit further on in yesterday’s SST was a column about the Gordon Jon Thompson situation.  This was the lobbyist, and friend of the Prime Minister’s, brought in by the Prime Minister to serve as her chief of staff for several months, with exposure to all Cabinet papers, and heavy involvement in the appointment of Labour ministerial staff, all the time fully intending to return to his lobbying business.  If I’ve read correctly the various stories, throughout his time in the PM’s office, he remained a director of his lobbying firm, and never disclosed who his clients were, rendering it hard to take seriously the Prime Minister’s claims that matters relating to his clients were never discussed between them.    And then this morning we read that there is more

“The Prime Minister’s office has said she ‘seeks out Mr Thompson as a sounding board from time to time.’ However, none of the Prime Minister’s interactions with Mr Thompson appear in her ministerial diary released on the Beehive website.

“Last year, the Government undertook to publicly release details of Ministers’ diaries consistent with its promise to be the most open and transparent administration in New Zealand’s history. The Prime Minister has released details of phone calls and meetings with a wide range of people. So, why is she keeping her communications with Mr Thompson a secret?

Again, lots of people seem to fall over themselves to not impugn the “personal integrity” of those involved.  But their personal integrity is in question, because senior people need to recognise, and live in a way that respects, that the absolute avoidance of any appearance of conflicts is almost as important as the absolute avoidance of the substance.  Confidence in our system depends on people have good grounds to believe that the system works fairly, impartially, and with rules and degrees of self-restraint that bend over backwards to avoid actual or perceived conflicts.      The question isn’t whether laws have been broken or not –  although it looks as though the laws should be tightened –  but a matter of what is an acceptably high standard of behaviour from those holding public office.     Even if everyone in this affair had the best of intentions (which we can’t simply grant) conduct in this case cannot possibly have reached that level, if we are at all serious about decent and demanding standards in public life.

Then, of course, there is the ongoing Makhlouf affair.  Really serious misjudgements by one of our most senior public servants were on full display during the “Budget leak” affair a couple of weeks ago.  Notionally, Makhlouf’s employer is conducting an inquiry into that behaviour, but (a) this is the same State Services Commission that was putting out coordinated statements with Makhlouf as part of the original problematic series of events, and (b) even as the inquiry is ongoing, the State Services Commissioner was giving a gushy farewell speech at the Beehive farewell party for Makhlouf, including stressing how collegial the group of public sector CEOs is.   Perhaps we’ll even see this week the State Services Commissioner’s report, but how can anyone have any confidence in the integrity of the process, let alone in the willingness of top officials to take any responsibility, or express contrition, when they get things wrong –  as Makhlouf demonstrably did?   The cosy arrogance of the whole affair was further compounded last week when Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee held its hearings for Vote Finance.  The Minister of Finance turned up, but the Secretary to the Treasury simply absented himself.  He wasn’t sick, he wasn’t suspended while the SSC inquiry was ongoing, and he seems to have simply decided that serious scrutiny –  not from his chums at SSC but from Opposition MPs – whether about the systemic weaknesses that led to the problems in the first place, or about his own conduct, could be uncomfortable, and so stayed away, sending his underlings along to make excuses for him.   And, as we know, he leaves office later this week, flitting off to another job in another country.   Parliamentary scrutiny of public officials is supposed to be one of the features of our systems, but when it gets uncomfortable it clearly doesn’t matter to Makhlouf – nor, presumably, to Grant Robertson who might reasonably have insisted that Makhlouf turn up.

In a post last week on the ANZ/Hisco affair, I noted that –  whatever the prurient interest in a large private business’s issues with its now-departed CEO –  there should be greater focus on senior public officials who use the public purse (their time, paid for by the taxpayer) to advance personal causes, political or otherwise, for which they have no official mandate.   After all, while we can change banks, we are stuck with our central bank (our transport agency, our courts and so on).    As I noted

And when the Governor of the (monopoly) Reserve Bank never gives substantive speeches about things he is actually responsible for, plays fast and loose with the Official Information Act, claims he has no resources to properly oversee the bank capital system (internal models and all) that the Bank itself put in place, all while spending a million dollars on a Maori strategy (for a body with little or no public-facing role), devoting his time and professional energies to personal passions, be it climate change, infrastructure, or whatever, there is also nothing we can do about it.  The amounts involved –  money diverted from core functions (under budgetary pressure) to finance the Goveror’s personal causes and whims –  is probably already at least as much as the Hisco case over 10 years.  But we can’t change central banks, can’t dump our shares in the Reserve Bank.  Perhaps these issues (for some reason) excite fewer people, but when the abuses and slippages are by high government officials, they need to be taken much more seriously, precisely because exit isn’t (for us, citizens) an options.  The small(ish) stuff needs to be sweated.

Some readers may have thought I was slightly over-egging the point, but shortly after releasing that post, I had an email from a reader with yet another example of Orr abusing his office.  Next month, Orr is giving a speech to the financial industry group FINSIA (members can get continuing professional development credits for turning up to hear him) and my reader sent along the promotional email.  Orr’s speech is billed as “The Future of the Reserve Bank: The View from Tane Mahuta” (which itself was a bit puzzling because in responding to critics of his tree god nonsense Orr claimed that “we don’t see ourselves as a tree god”, and yet that seems to be exactly how his speech is billed.)    It is possible there could be some substantively interesting material –  after all, the next stage of the review of the Reserve Bank is supposed to see a discussion document out in the next couple of weeks.  And there is some mention of that review in the email FINSIA sent out hawking the Governor’s address.    But just as much space is given to this

The Bank is focusing on strategies that contribute to climate change sustainability and a commitment to a more culturally inclusive central bank with a higher degree of awareness of Te Ao Māori.

You can be sure that Bank’s communications people will have approved how the Governor’s speaking engagement is described in the FINSIA advert.

As I have noted many times before, the Bank has no mandate at all for the Governor’s climate change focus.  As he very well knows, it is largely irrelevant to monetary policy, and of very little relevance around financial stability in New Zealand.  It is a personal crusade –  using a public platform to advance his personal causes.  Much the same can be said for his Maori strategy: it bears no relation to the things Parliament asked him to do, and neither monetary policy nor financial regulatory policy bear down in systematically different ways on Maori than on non-Maori (any more than on red heads as distinct from others,  Christians as distinct from atheists, Labour voters as distinct from National voters, and so on).  It is simply a misuse of office, and of the scarce resources the taxpayer has put at the Governor’s disposal (recall, that this is the Governor who claims he is under-resourced to do basic elements of his financial regulatory role).    Perhaps it all plays well with members of the Labour and Greens caucuses, but that simply isn’t his job –  and it remains possible he could find himself working with a National-led government before his term is out.   How could they, or we, have any confidence in the impartiality of the Governor, or that he is using his office –  and resources –  strictly for the things Parliament mandated the Bank to do.

(And while people on the right often want to suggest that all the bad stuff emanates from the Minister of Finance –  same tendency evident in reverse when National-led governments are in offce – I took the opportunity to look up the Minister of Finance’s latest letter of expectation to the Governor.  These letters can’t add to or subtract from statutory obligations, but can be interesting/important nonetheless.    But, as it happens, none of the Governor’s personal obsessions  – climate change, the tree god, the “Maori strategy” –  were mentioned at all,  It was nice to have that level of confirmation that the abuse of office is all the Governor’s own doing.)

I could go on as regards the Bank. I’m involved at present in the consequences of highly problematic (at best) choices made by the Bank, dating back to when Orr was Deputy Governor, and for which neither he nor his current deputy –  responsible for the Bank’s work on “culture and conduct” in the financial system –  show any real sign of taking responsibility for, or fixing.  Come to think of it, the Financial Markets Authority –  financial regulator –  displays little energy either.  But that is enough for now.

These are just a handful of the sorts of episodes, great and small, that go on in New Zealand –  a country that likes to claim high standards of governance and accountability in public life.  They take different forms.  Already, the Shane Jones/Semenoff affair recedes into memory.  Police simply flout the law.  Or what of a statistics agency run so poorly that even the Census was botched, and yet no one loses their job?  And so we could go on. If we don’t start sweating the “small stuff” again, or simply get used to a ‘near enough is good enough”, or “never mind, decent individuals” standard, we’ll lose any traction in clinging onto the sort of standards a decent and open society should be insisting on from those who hold public office.  Good –  honest, open, rigorous, accountable – government is a rare and valuable thing.  Degraded government –  and we risk slipping down exactly that path  –  is a serious threat to the sort of standards New Zealanders once held dear.

Then again, what to expect in a country where the major Opposition party has a former PRC military intelligence official, close to the PRC embassy, (formerly?) a CCP member, sitting in its caucus, while its president sings the praises of Xi Jinping?  And the governing parties seem quite unbothered by any of that, having sold any soul they once had when it comes to anything to do with the regime in Beijing (in fact, this very week, the deputy leader of the Labour Party is in China aiming “to deepen…our relationship with China”.)  Xinjiang?  Hong Kong extradition laws?  Forced organ extractions?   South China Sea?  Systematic persecution of religious believers of all stripes?  Systematic repression of any dissenters?  Abduction of Canadian citizens?  Never mind, nothing to do with us, seems to be the combined National and Labour line.

Just another example of a corrupted and corroding system, where the only “value” left seems to be some mix of what can be got away with, and what generates a few more dollars or donations.  And barely anything left at all about what is right and decent.  Or about the notion that the only real test of someone’s values is what they will pay a price for.

(And, after all that, I never even got to the SST stories on the immigration system. Perhaps tomorrow.)

 

 

A run on the bank (well, building society)

Being a bit early for an appointment yesterday, I ducked into a secondhand bookshop and emerged with a history of Countrywide Bank (by Tony Farrington, published in 1997), to add to my pile of histories of New Zealand financial institutions and major corporates.   For younger readers, perhaps unfamiliar with the name, Countrywide grew up from the building society movement, became a bank in the late 1980s after deregulation, and was taken over by the National Bank (itself later taken over by ANZ) in the late 1990s.

As I idly flicked through the book, I came across the account of one of those little episodes in financial history that (as far as I know) are not that well documented: the run on the building society, in April 1985.  Literal physical retail bank runs –  people queuing in bank branches and out onto the street – just aren’t that common.   When there was a run on Northern Rock in the UK at the start of what become the widespread financial crisis of 2008/09, the story was told that it was the first retail run in the UK for 140 years.  I am not sure if that is strictly true, but (fortunately) such runs are rare.   Deposit insurance supposedly contributes to that, but so do well-managed banks.

In April 1985, it was still the very early days of the comprehensive new wave of financial liberalisation that had begun when the Labour Party had taken office the previous July.  And it was only six weeks since the exchange rate had been floated, and five weeks or so since the extreme pressure on liquidity had seen overnight interest rates trade up towards 1000 per cent.  One-month bank bill rates peaked at about 70 per cent, and three-month rates peaked at around 35 per cent before the Reserve Bank intervened to stabilise the situation.  The overall level of interest rates had risen enormously (even post liquidity stabilisation) and anyone left sitting on (say) long-term government bonds faced very substantial mark-to-market losses.   There was a great deal of uncertainty about who might flourish, and who not, in the new environment.  And the newly-floated exchange rate was not exactly stable.

According to the Countrywide history’s account, in early April there had been rumours circulating for several days about the viability of Countrywide, which crystallised on Wednesday 10 April when an Auckland radio station ran a comment from one of their journalists that “there is no truth in the rumour that Countrywide is in financial difficulty”, which seems to have made the rumour much more widely known than it had been.

Countrywide protested to the radio station (perhaps reasonably so, but inevitably it was futile –  what was done was done), and they prepared a media release supposed to highlight their strength, but it took several days to get this in daily newspapers.  Reading the release now, with 34 years hindsight, I’m not sure that as a nervous depositor I’d have been reassured by it –  indeed when financial institutions boast about how rapidly they had been growing (in a climate of big changes in relative prices, and a great deal of uncertainty) it is probably reason for increased unease.

By this time, deposit withdrawals were already increasing significantly, and management was at pains to ensure that no branch was in danger of running out of cash even briefly.    And by this time, management had tracked down how the rumours seem to have started –  in the failure of a totally unrelated trucking company Countrywide Transport Systems Limited.  By then, the knowledge wasn’t much use to them.  They’d planned a press release explaining where the rumour had come from, but before it could run they had to deal with a development completely from left field: a Social Credit (monetary reformers) MP had issued a press statement referring to “widespread rumours about the impending collapse of a major building society” (by this time there were only two majors).

Countrywide called in the Reserve Bank and the then Governor, Spencer Russell, managed to get hold of the MP concerned –  at Wellington airport –  within 45 minutes of the statement being issued.  Morrison retracted the statement, but it was too late. As the history records “hundreds of depositors demanded their money”.

The run seems to have been focused in Wellington (and Hamilton), with queues outside several branches – 50 metres down the street outside the main Lambton Quay branch.   By the end of the day, customers had pulled out $10 million of deposits (Countrywide’s total assets then were about $445 million).  The next day, Thursday, they lost another $9 milliom in deposits (not just “mums and dads”, with withdrawals by solicitors being particularly evident.

The powers that be engaged in a significant (and successful) effort to staunch the run, with statements from the Associate Minister of Finance, the Governor of the Reserve Bank and the chief executive of the National Bank all reassured the public that Countrywide was sound.  By the Friday, it was estimated only $1 million of panic withdrawals occurred.

(These numbers don’t fully add up but) the history records that total deposit losses over the period of the run were around $30 million –  a far from insignificant share of total deposits.  Countrywide estimated that the run had involved a  direct P&L hit of around $1m, arising from the need to liquidate assets (government stock) in a rush, and additional staff, advertising, and communications costs.

And then the money flooded back –  it is recorded at times there were long queues to deposit the funds that had been withdrawn just a few days previously.   And the history mentions –  without comment –  that people were often depositing the same cheque they had taken from Countrywide only a few days previously.  I don’t really remember the run –  I was a junior Reserve Bank economist doing monetary policy stuff, and yet there is no mention of the run in my diary at all –  but that factoid was grist to the mill in debates about financial stability for years to come.  If you were so concerned about the health of your bank (building society) as to run on the bank, spend an hour in a queue, forfeit your place in the queue for mortgage eligibility (this was a thing still in 1985), why would you (a) take a cheque from the very bank you were concerned about (the danger of mugged on Lambton Quay had to be small, for example), and (b) why would you then not bank it straight away and pay for expedited clearing?  I still don’t claim to fully understand the answer to either question.

Eligibility for mortgage lending was still an issue in early-mid 1985.  Banks and building societies had been liability-constrained, and thus the practice grew up of having to have a suitable “savings record” with a specific lender to get a (first) mortgage (at least if you didn’t work for a bank, an insurance company, or the Reserve Bank).  The lender was doing you a favour not (as now to a great extent) the other way around.   Pulling your money out of the financial institution you might want to borrow from really was a big issue. Of course, better to lose your place in the mortgage queue than to lose your deposit (had it come to that), but it was a hurdle many depositors faced then that they would not face now.

As it happened, times were a changing, and the history records that Countrywide eventually “relented” (their words) and restored to their place in the mortgage queue those who had pulled their money out in the run.  Before very long, those depositors would have found other lenders competing to lend to them.

There are quite a number of unanswered questions in the Countrywide history (unsurprisingly –  geeky monetary economists weren’t the target market for the book), and I had a look at various other books on my shelves to see if I could find any other angles.  There was nothing in Roger Douglas’s book or in the biography of (then Deputy Governor) Roderick Deane, but there was a brief mention in the history of the Reserve Bank published in 2006.   Here is the relevant text.

countrywide.png

But, of course, that passage only raises further questions, including ones about how the Governor (or the Associate Minister) could be confident in their assertions about the soundness of Countrywide.  Whatever the substantive health of the institutions, were their statements well-founded in verified and verifiable data, or were the statements to some extent a confidence-trick: well-motivated, but actually based on little or no more information than the public had?    (There are readers of this blog who would pose similar questions about the style of bank supervision adopted by the Reserve Bank to this day.)   The Bank’s files may offer some answers (or maybe not).  And was the statement of support from the National Bank chief executive supported by offers on unsecured liquidity assistance (that would be a clear signal of confidence that might have encouraged the Reserve Bank).

Perhaps  the authorities made a relatively safe call –  after all, resurgent inflation meant that the value of Countrywide’s loan collateral was rising. On the other hand, like all regulated entities in those days, Countrywide had had to hold significant amounts of government securities, and government security interest rates had risen sharply.    Many institutions –  notably the trustee savings banks –  had taken big mark to market losses, and there was a strong sense that the viability of some of them would have been in jeopardy, especially if there had been timely and clear mark-to-market reporting.  Add in the high and very variable wholesale funding costs (probably only a small proportion of Countrywide’s funding) and one is left wondering how robust an analysis lay behind the official statements of support.  There was another building society run –  on competitor United –  a few years later, and the Reserve Bank history records that that time United took the view that official statements of support (Governor and Prime Minister) were tardy.    What sort of rethinking went on internally after the Countrywide episode?

I’m not playing any sort of gotcha here.  If anything, it is more a plaintive appeal for some economic and financial historian to undertake a systematic treatment of the New Zealand banking and financial sector through the liberalisation period.    There were all manner of small crises and near-crises during this period (PSIS, the devaluation “crisis”, Countrywide, United, RSL, the DFC, NZI Bank, the BNZ (twice) and probably others that don’t spring immediately to mind.  There are serious scholarly treatments of the experience in the Nordic countries with liberalisation at about the same time, but surprisingly little about New Zealand.

Not, I suppose, that historians will be able to help answer the question of why panicking depositors took their money in a cheque and then, it appears, in many cases didn’t even rush to get the cheque cleared, or to bank it at all.

I’m sure there are readers who were involved to some extent in these matters, whether at the Reserve Bank or elsewhere. I’d welcome any perspectives or insights in comments.

More data on our feeble economic performance

The media coverage of the outgoing Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon’s political ambitions prompted me to dig out a post I wrote a year or so ago, inspired jointly by the Prime Minister and her Business Advisory Council (which Luxon chairs) and by an old article by Paul Krugman, “A country is not a company”.    As he ponders what to do next, I hope Luxon takes the time to read Krugman’s piece.  Of course, it is fair to note that the current crop of politicians –  across all parties – is generally so unimpressive, accomplishing so little for New Zealanders, that I wouldn’t want to be thought of as suggesting that retired CEOs would be any worse than (say) crown prosecutors, political advisers or whatever.

Also yesterday, the latest quarterly national accounts data were released.  The headline numbers seemed to be a touch higher than those who forecast these things in detail had expected, but not in a way that really changes the underlying picture: it has been a weak recovery (now eight or nine years into it) and whatever supported moderate growth appears to have been fading.

In that post from last year, I quoted a speech by the Prime Minister on the economy, including launching the Business Advisory Council.  I wasn’t that impressed, but did quote some of her aspirations.

Yesterday morning the Prime Minister gave her promised speech on the economy.  It was, frankly, astonishing how little there was there.   There was some mention of the problems

Our overall objective is to build a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy.

On each score we have some way to go. When it comes to productivity, the OECD has said we are “well below leading OECD countries, restraining living standards and well-being”

and

We need to transition from growth dominated by population increase and housing speculation, to build an economy, that as I said, is genuinely productive, sustainable and inclusive.

and

First we want to grow and share more fairly New Zealand’s prosperity.

That means the gap between the highest and lowest income and wealth deciles reduces, real per capita income increases; the value and diversity of our exports grows and home ownership increases.

In particular we want to build our exports and have export led growth.

Which is all well and good, but there is nothing –   nothing –  in the speech about what the government proposes to do

Another year on, how are we doing?

On productivity, shockingly poorly.  Recall that we start with labour productivity levels barely 60 per cent of those of the leading OECD countries (US and various northern European countries).

Here is a chart of labour productivity growth since just prior to the last recession. (As ever, I here average the two GDP measures and the two hours measures.)

GDP phw mar 19

The orange line is the average for the last five years.

Since the current government took office, total growth in labour productivity has been 0.2 per cent.  But there is quarter to quarter noise, and as the chart illustrates whatever is going on was in place well before the current government took office.   There is no sign this lot are doing anything that is producing new and better results, but since the start of  2012 total productivity growth has been not much more than 1 per cent.  That is over seven years.  It is a shockingly poor record.

What about that talk of “building exports and export-led growth”?  No doubt the PM and her ministers are repeatedly fed lines about how successful New Zealand’s strategy of signing up preferential trade agreeements with all manner of countries has been. There are certainly lots of documents, but here is a chart showing exports and imports as a share of GDP, starting from the same point as the previous chart, just prior to the last recession.

ex and im

The numbers bounce around a bit with fluctuations in commodity prices and in the exchange rate, but broadly speaking the share of our economy accounted for by foreign trade has been shrinking, not expanding.    That isn’t a good sign (those with longer memories will recall that the previous government once had a specific goal of raising the export share to 40 per cent).   There are much more important issues –  than busy, busy trade agreements –  that simply aren’t even being addressed, or (it seems) even recognised.

I don’t have a chart for it, but everyone recognises that nothing has yet been done that would make any material difference to the housing price disaster that successive waves of central and local governments have inflicted on us.

It isn’t clear that, on matters economic (which have real implications across numerous dimensions of “wellbeing”) this government is really any worse than its predecessor.    But what a low bar that would be.  Neither main party –  or, as far as one can tell, any of the minor parties –  seems interested in getting to grips with creating a climate that generates materially better economic outcomes.    Easier, I suppose, to just pretend.   That way, among other things, you don’t need top-notch economic advisers and institutions.  But what a betrayal of New Zealanders.

 

 

 

Vapid slogans and other top-level public sector vices

When I wrote last week about Gabs Makhlouf, outgoing Secretary to the Treasury (whose serious misjudgements around the “Budget leak” mean he really should already have gone), a former Treasury official got in touch to say that while what I said seemed reasonable, if anything I was probably a bit too generous to Makhlouf.  Perhaps, but it is probably better to err on that side.

Perhaps what my former colleague had in mind was something like the perspectives –  raw and brutal – in a truly remarkable column published at The Spinoff by Tony Burton, formerly (until just last month) the deputy chief economist at The Treasury.  The title tells you most of what you need to know: “How bosses’ obsession with vapid slogans borked the public sector”.  One can only assume Tony doesn’t intend to look for work in the New Zealand public sector ever again…or at least for not as long as Peter Hughes, and the CEs appointed in his image and likeness, are in place  (Tony’s background was as a UK academic, so I guess he can always head back there).    Anyone with the slightest interest in the degraded state of policy advice and the New Zealand public service should read it.

The first paragraph will give you a taster

Sometimes on a Tuesday morning you may hear a low, vaguely rhythmic rumble coming from a Treasury meeting room. A handful of its middle-aged Pakeha bureaucrats will have descended from the department’s working floors where budgets and economic predictions are done to assemble around the table. Stalin humiliated his politburo by forcing them to sing along to a recording of wolves howling. The Treasury leaders are probably attempting a waiata, but the sound they produce is a drone of submission eerily similar to its Soviet precursor. Welcome to the New Zealand public service in 2019.

and this, of The Treasury

The collapse in the organisation’s expertise has been so profound that Treasury even appointed an HR professional to the minister of finance’s office. Think about that for moment. The Treasury are government’s main economic and fiscal experts. An important way for Treasury to help the minister of finance is to provide some of those experts for his office. Yet Treasury appointed someone whose area of knowledge is running Treasury as an organisation. Imagine you went to see a GP and were told the office manager was the most qualified person in the practise to provide medical advice. That is the position Grant Robertson is in.

If anything, he seems to have it in for Peter Hughes even more than for Makhlouf (I guess the latter will be gone next week, while the former rules the roost of the New Zealand public service).  Of Hughes as head of MSD (Burton worked in MSD when he first came to New Zealand)

One of his first acts was to command all staff to heed ‘Peter’s Principles’, of which there were 10. (Yes, he really did issue 10 commandments from on high, though I understand it didn’t take 40 days.) The status given to expertise in the organisation’s culture is best exemplified by the last principle: “’Just do it!’ means … just do it”.

Astonishing.

There are a few bits where I’d disagree with his emphasis or interpretation (about history before his time) but it is really important reading –  entertaining, passionate, disdainful even, but raising profoundly serious concerns.  He doesn’t really offer solutions, but the first step to a solution has to be a broader awareness and acceptance of the problem.   There is no sign yet of that, and thus it remains difficult to be optimistic that anything will be much better when Peter Hughes finally gets round to appointing a new Secretary to the Treasury.

Nor is it clear that even the government, let alone the Opposition, really cares.

But New Zealanders pay the price for this decline and fall.

UPDATE:     A reader with knowledge of the secondees to Robertson’s office got in touch and suggested that the claim (see above) that “an HR professional” was appointed as one of Treasury’s secondees did not seem right.  I have lodged an OIA request with The Treasury to confirm one way or the other (which they could answer quickly but probably won’t), but further inquiries resulted in an email suggesting that one of the current Treasury secondees may be the person Burton had in mind.   Here is his LinkedIn page.     The person concerned is a relatively recent Treasury recruit, having joined in 2016, with degrees in Architecture and Public Policy.  Of his time before his secondment last year to the Minister’s office he writes

Analyst
Company Name:  The Treasury – New Zealand
Dates Employed:  Apr 2016 – Present
Employment Duration: 3 yrs 3 mos
Location: Wellington
I worked on fiscal and policy issues spanning state services to transport, and worked with Treasury leaders on its organisational strategy.

He appears to have worked on a range of policy issues, but also “worked with Treasury leaders on its organisational strategy”.  It has been suggested to me, from people who should know, that this role would have been based in Human Resources.

I would have to say that, if this is the person who was meant, the paragraph in the original article is at least slightly misleading (personally, I feel misled as a reader).   Again, if it is this person, they do not appear to be what most would think of as an “HR professional”.   One might debate what sort of people Treasury should hire as analysts – as Eric Crampton has done vocally – and even how experienced secondees to the Minister’s office should be (bearing in mind that the role is usually more about managing relationships and paper flow, founded on a knowledge of the organisation and its people and the potential significance of the issues, than on providing substantive personal analysis or policy advice to ministers), but this specific claim in Burton’s article does feel like something of an overreach.  Initially I had found it the most compelling single thing in the article –  it was something new to me and quite specific, coming from someone who  –  in my limited dealings with him over the years –  seemed pretty careful about detail.  I should have been more sceptical.

 

On the ANZ affair

I’m no great fan of David Hisco, perhaps even less of John Key, and hold no particular brief for the ANZ either. I don’t now, and never have, worked for commercial banks.   I’m an ANZ customer, although largely by inertia rather than enthusiastic loyalty –  I was a happy National Bank customer, uneasy about the ANZ takeover, but actually I’ve not had any bad experiences so never went to the effort of changing banks.   But even with all that, and a couple of days on from my initial one-paragraph comment, I’m still at a loss to understand (substantively) why the Hisco expenses issue is exciting so many people and generating so much coverage from so many (ok, yes I’m now adding to it).

As a reminder, the ANZ New Zealand operation is a subsidiary (there is a branch as well, but ignore that) of a large Australian bank that has been operating in New Zealand since 1840.   There aren’t many post-settlement entities that have been operating here continuously for longer than that (Anglican, Catholic, and Methodist churches, and ……?). In that time, ANZ hasn’t failed, hasn’t been bailed out by the Crown, and has provided bank services to New Zealand well enough to, these day, be the largest player in the New Zealand banking market.

As customers, I’d have thought the main two things we’d want from our banks were that (a) they didn’t lose our money (or through some TBTF mechanism get the government to bail them out, and (b) that they provided the transactions and recordkeeping services tolerably well enough.  People can moan about banks all they like, and it can be a hassle to change banks in the shorter-term, but here we are talking about a bank operating in New Zealand for 179 years and counting.   Plenty of banks and quasi-banks have come and gone from the market in that time, as customers (new generations thereof) have preferred one institution over another.    Even the fact that today’s ANZ has grown partly by takeovers (Rural Bank, Postbank, Countrywide, National Bank) doesn’t change that story very much –  the most recent of those takeovers was 15 years ago, and ANZ must have offered the best deal to the vendors (presumably believing they could add most value through the purchases).   People can badly misjudge takeovers but, decades on, ANZ is still here, strongly capitalised and profitable (it isn’t, for example, akin to RBS taking over ABN-AMRO at the end of a frenzied boom).

What else might bother people?  Well, there is always the issue as to whether banks are “excessively” profitable.  I suppose my instinctive bias here is that of an old-fashioned central banker, preferring a profitable bank to the alternative.  But even setting that to one side, I’ve always been rather sceptical of the “excessively profitable” story, partly because the balance sheets of the New Zealand subsidiaries don’t tell the full story: the profits are not just a return on balance sheet equity, but also on the implied support of the parent banks in Australia.  I’ve also tended to emphasise the relatively open regulatory regime we have here, allowing new entrants to set up and take advantage of any (allegedly) excess returns.  But even if there is less to those stories than I have allowed, the merits of such arguments –  which might argue for a more active Commerce Commission involvement –  really shouldn’t be materially affected by the question of a (now-departed) CEO’s expenses, legitimate or otherwise, properly documented and reported internally or not.

I also get that some people are bothered by the level of senior executive salaries.  To be honest, at times I’m inclined to share those concerns (at least a little), perhaps especially around people who are really only second-tier employees in big Australian banking groups.  But what of it?  It is a private business, in a market where customers have alternatives.  If I really don’t like the fact that ANZ remunerates its top managers so well, I could shift my banking to, say, TSB.  They won’t be paying their CEO and top management anything like as much as ANZ is.

And then, of course, there is a scale of this particular issue.  We are told that the amounts involved are mid tens of thousands of dollars, spread over 10 years, so perhaps $5000 a year.   In respect of a person whose total remuneration over that ten years probably averaged $2million a year.  It seems quite appropriate for the ANZ’s group chief executive to want to tidy things up, and to be uneasy about how these expenses may hav been reported internally (details of which the public haven’t been told), but why is it a matter of any public – or legitimate political –  concern.  It is a private company.   Perhaps some people might be puzzled as to quite why ANZ pushed Hisco out over what looks like quite a small matter –  the question has been asked, is there something more to it –  but again, it is a private company, and Hisco is well-equipped to look out for his own interests, including ensuring that he has had good legal advice etc.    Perhaps one might expect the Reserve Bank, as prudential regulator (and that is all), to ask the ANZ a few questions, to ensure that the expenses issue isn’t a cover for more serious problems on Hisco’s watch but assuming it isn’t –  an ANZ would be in serious trouble, including with the ASX, if they were misrepresenting that  – that is about all the legitimate regulatory/political interest I can see.

The story has been used by people on the left, including trade unions, to run a “a bank teller would never get away with it” sort of line. But even if that has some rhetorical force, it shouldn’t.  For better or worse, a bank teller –  one of thousands doing similar jobs, on standard contracts –  would simply not have found themselves in the sort of situation where there was ambiguity about what was acceptable, or what had been subject to an oral agreement.  And had they somehow done so, and been fired, they’d have had recourse to their union and to the protections of employment law.

In various articles in the last few days, I’ve seen references to the idea that the banks somehow owe New Zealand for its support (as if to justify public involvement in the Hisco-Key affair).  There have been silly references –  no doubt channelling flawed lines from our bombastic populist Governor –  that somehow the banks were bailed out by the governmment in 2008/09.  They simply weren’t.  There was no risk of any significant bank failing in New Zealand at that time, whether from the funding/liquidity side or from credit losses and insufficient capital.  It is certainly true that there were various Reserve Bank and government direct interventions during that period, but those interventions were not about “saving the banks”, as about limiting the potential damage to the economy that might have arisen otherwise (extremely risk-averse banks – in the middle of a global crisis – would have pulled in lending more aggressively etc).  And cutting the OCR was no “favour” – in downturns, market interest rates tend to fall, and the Reserve Bank’s hand on the OCR is really just meant to mimic that.   I don’t want to take this line too far –  there is some interdependence, and banks operate in a system governed by parameters the political system has set up (eg having our own currency etc) –  but the robustness of the banks in 2008/09 was a credit primarily to them, their owners/managers etc, not to the New Zealand authorities.

We’ve also heard people talking about about the case for a Royal Commission into something around banking, the call we heard last year in the context of the Australian Royal Commission.    And here there is the suggestion –  I saw it in the Herald this morning –  that somehow again the banks owe the Reserve Bank and the authorities, because the latter “went out on a limb”, or “stuck their necks out” to protect the banks.  That is simply rubbish.  Rather, the Governor of the Reserve Bank (and to a lesser extent the FMA) were playing a populist political card when they launched their inquiry last year  – in an area where, as even they acknowledged, they had no statutory powers.  After all the hullabaloo, they found basically nothing (not that surprising, given that different context in which banks operate here and in Australia, especially as regards superannuation), but it hasn’t stopped them using the issue to claim some sort of moral authority over these private banks, operating in markets where customers have choice.

But even if there had been something to the conduct/culture issues, surely those were supposed to be about public facing issues, things directly affecting customers.  Whether some small portion of David Hisco’s large expenses bill was questionable, seems –  to say it again –  like a matter for the Board and management of the ANZ, perhaps even for the staff (confidence in the integrity of your leader) but simply not a matter for government agencies at all.

I guess that among the sound and fury on this issue, there will be a range of interests and motivations.  Some will even be quite genuine and public spirited.  But it is hard not to read the coverage of the last few days and think that at least some people are playing distraction.  Banks are never likely to be that popular, perhaps especially not Australian ones (despite the fact that New Zealand benefits from having its bank part of bigger offsore groups) and they make a convenient scapegoat. Perhaps that is especially so when the old enemy of the left –  John Key –  is chair of the bank’s local board (as I’ve written here before, I happen to think it is unfortunate –  at best –  to have former politicians so quickly on such boards).    It shouldn’t have been a great week for the government –  what with the GJ Thompson affair, meningitis injections, and so on –  and it hasn’t been a great time for the Reserve Bank (all that pushback against their unsupported radical bank capital proposals) , and one is left   –  perhaps unduly cynically – thinking that in some quarters there will have been quite an interest in playing distraction by feeding a beat-up on the ANZ, for what really looks to be a rather small, albeit untidy, mostly internal affair.  For me, if they keep my money safe, do my transactions competently, and don’t rort others on any sort of systematic basis, I’ll be pretty content.

Throughout this note, I have stressed that bank customers have choices and alternatives.  Faced with overly powerful, weakly accountable, government agencies, citizens really don’t.     When Peter Hughes gives gushy speeches about Gabs Makhlouf –  the man he is supposedly investigating –  we are stuck with the clubby system.  When a Supreme Court judge thinks it is just fine to go on holiday with a senior lawyer in a case before the Supreme Court, we have few effective protections.  And when the Governor of the (monopoly) Reserve Bank never gives substantive speeches about things he is actually responsible for, plays fast and loose with the Official Information Act, claims he has no resources to properly oversee the bank capital system (internal models and all) that the Bank itself put in place, all while spending a million dollars on a Maori strategy (for a body with little or no public-facing role), devoting his time and professional energies to personal passions, be it climate change, infrastructure, or whatever, there is also nothing we can do about it.  The amounts involved –  money diverted from core functions (under budgetary pressure) to finance the Goveror’s personal causes and whims –  is probably already at least as much as the Hisco case over 10 years.  But we can’t change central banks, can’t dump our shares in the Reserve Bank.  Perhaps these issues (for some reason) excite fewer people, but when the abuses and slippages are by high government officials, they need to be taken much more seriously, precisely because exit isn’t (for us, citizens) an options.  The small(ish) stuff needs to be sweated.

On which note, I saw a piece on the ANZ affair by Auckland lawyer Catriona MacLennan, I very rarely agree with anything she writes, but her final paragraph did strike a nerve.

I have been on the board of a non-governmental organisation for three years. We are not paid a cent for our work, but I and the other board members would consider we had completely failed in our responsibilities if we let unauthorised expenditure go unchecked for nine years.

The Governor, the Bank’s Head of Financial Stability, and the (outgoing) chair of the Bank’s Board Audit Committee, might like to reflect on questions around unauthorised (operational) expenditure over at least as long a time.

Makhlouf on public debt

Gabs Makhlouf has now had his gushy official farewell, even as we await for the SSC report on his conduct and judgement during the Budget leak affair.  His term expires next Thursday (27th) and so with each passing day it looks more likely that the SSC will simply run out the clock, so as to further minimise the risk of an undue embarrassment to them (party to Makhlouf’s choices), to Makhlouf, or to The Treasury.

But, clearly not content with a post-Budget lull and a quiet last few weeks at work, Makhlouf has released a (final?) on-the-record speech, addressing the question “What is prudent debt?” in turn reopening debates, at least on the left, about the government’s approach to fiscal policy.   It is a rather odd affair, as the speech appears to have been given to a bunch of Treasury staff (“the Treasury’s Economic Forum”).

As I’ve written here previously I’m generally not convinced that the Treasury Secretary should be making public speeches.  The primary role of such an official is the administer The Treasury and advise the Minister of Finance (unlike, for example, the Governor of the Reserve Bank who wields independent policymaking power).  And whatever the merit of their views –  and there have been very able Treasury secretaries in other times and other places – in speaking openly they are either constrained to not depart far from current government policy (themselves partisan choices), or they create trouble for the government and undermine the willingness of ministers to engage privately with the free and frank advice officials are paid for.

But on this occasion I don’t have too much problem with the speech being put on-the-record.  It seems to reflect analysis and advice already provided to ministers, in a core area of Treasury’s responsibility, and if that advice itself hasn’t already been published –  and it should have been, pro-actively – it would almost certainly be made available in response to an Official Information Act request.

Moreover, although I have been very critical of numerous of Makhlouf’s speeches over the years (Google “croaking cassandra, makhlouf speeches” if you want examples) this speech was one of the better (not great, not that deep, but not bad) ones I’ve seen.     That doesn’t mean I agree with it all –  that isn’t the relevant criterion –  but that much of it is thoughtful and considered, and doesn’t just parrot glib, but perhaps conventional, cliches.   There is too much reference to “wellbeing” in it for my liking, but that is probably true of every public sector document at present –  please the masters –  and since it is mostly vacuous it is mostly relatively harmless.

Why “prudent” debt.  Because the term is explicitly used in the Public Finance Act –  governments are required to conduct fiscal policy consistent with maintaining a “prudent” level of debt.  They don’t have to tell us what they consider is prudent, but they do have to tell us what debt levels they are aiming at.   Quite what criteria are relevant to determining the prudence or otherwise of a particular level of debt isn’t spelled out, and so although the choices are ultimately for politicians to make, it is appropriate and indeed desirable for The Treasury to offer advice, at least on how best to think about the issue  (I’m less sure it is the place for The Treasury to put a number on prudence, as Makhlouf does, because their values and priorities won’t necessarily be those of the elected politicians.  But so long as they, and we, recognise that, and take their advice for what it is, it is still likely to be a useful contribution to the debate.)

Personally, I found the more persuasive part of the speech to be where he addressed the issue of buffers.   One’s view on how much debt the government should carry in normal times needs to be informed by one’s view of how badly adverse events could throw one off course, in ways that would lead a government to want to carry more debt for a time.  One can think of severe recessions, severe natural disasters, or even things like banking crises. In a severe adverse event, the last thing one wants to find is that one doesn’t have the fiscal flexibility (market or political) to facilitate prudent adjustment and absorption policies.    In a New Zealand context, a buffer of perhaps 20 percentage points of GDP seems sensible and reasonable.   One shouldn’t expect to use it in every downturn, but every few decades something very severe will come along, and one needs to have the flexibility to cope. And, on the other hand, 20 per cent won’t always suffice –  wars happen.

But beyond that, it was less clear how much substance there was to the speech –  or to the, as yet unpublished, supporting analysis.   For example, the Secretary seems (perhaps understandably) hesitant about criticising other countries, but he seemed reduced to trying to argue that there were substantive structural reasons why public debt should (prudently) be lower in New Zealand than it might be in some other countries, rather than just openly saying that levels of public debt in, say, the UK, France, US, Japan, Greece are higher than looks sensible.   His arguments for why debt here should be lower than in other countries don’t amount to much: small size (not clear how this is relevant at all), and exposure to natural disasters.  The latter might have some merit (although Japan’s experience of natural disasters in the last 150 years is much worse than New Zealand’s), but it isn’t exactly integrated to a structured framework.     And one could, quite reasonably, counter that our much more rapid population growth rate would naturally, and all else equal, lead to a higher prudent ratio of debt to GDP than one might observe in most countries (population growth doesn’t really get a mention).  On the other hand, our dismal productivity record might also be relevant, but again it doesn’t rate a mention.  And nor does the distinction between countries with floating and fixed exchange rate (the latter typically need more fiscal flexibility).

It was also a little surprising that, in a speech that bills itself as taking the “long view” there was no mention of how we might best think of past peaks in public debt ratios.  Depending on which measure one uses, thirty years ago public debt as a share of GDP might have been around the peak level Treasury now thinks appropriate.  What should we take from that earlier episode?    And there was no mention at all of the earlier period when, for decades, New Zealand ran public debt to GDP well in excess of 100 per cent of GDP.  How should we think about the prudence, or otherwise, of that record (and wouldn’t, for example, prudent debt levels (share of GDP) for 1913 New Zealand have been considerably higher than those for, say, 1913 United Kingdom?

There were also places where the political strains were showing.    On the one hand, the Secretary to the Treasury is right with the “governments have to ‘invest’ more” line.

And there is certainly an in-principle case for higher investment in New Zealand. The risks I discussed earlier – particularly climate change – will likely need to be managed through major investments. And as we discussed in He Puna Hao Pātiki, many of our social assets – social housing, and the healthcare and education estates – are aged and reaching the end of their useful life. In some places there is a critical under-provision of these essential social assets. High-quality infrastructure investment is needed to support urban growth and the supply of housing. Further investments in this physical capital can support the wellbeing of New Zealanders, and aid the development of our human and social capital.

You might agree or disagree with him, but it certainly reads as if he believes that there are big potential returns (economic and social) to lots more public investment.  And yet he spends the next page walking back from what this seems to imply, arguing (more or less) that it would be better if we had more unemployment so that these projects he favours wouldn’t crowd out private spending.  It is a pretty incoherent stance: if the projects are really as high-yielding as the Secretary makes them sound, we should welcome and embrace them now, even if other spending is crowded out.  And if they aren’t really that attractive, one should be cautious about championing them at any time.  But there is little sign that Treasury has faced or addressed that tension.

There also wasn’t much sign of the Secretary engaging with the record of government failure (perhaps not so surprising in an official more generally, but Treasury are supposed to be the guardians of good spending discipline).    Personally, there are several reasons why I don’t favour higher levels of public debt (and don’t regard the limits of what the market might lend as particularly relevant), including the continued stream of low quality projects governments manage to do even at present.  Wouldn’t a persuasive case for more debt involve, among other things, repeated case studies of the excellent and efficient ways governments spend and invest, with actual economic and social returns coming in at or above estimates generated at the time the relevant project proposal was approved.  This isn’t a benchmark of perfection – any investor, public or private, will get things wrong at times –  but of excellence, including showing how poor projects are recognised early and either remedied or terminated.  Given how weak the governance and accountability are, we should be very wary of letting governments loose with the credit card.

It was also striking that there was no mention in Makhlouf’s lecture of the way in which government social provision is likely to affect private sector savings behaviour.  One can largely agree with the welfare system as it is, and still recognise that without it, it is likely that the private sector as a whole would save more, notably for retirement.  That biases me towards thinking that the appropriate ratio of public debt to GDP in normal circumstances in an advanced country is really quite low.   In fact, for a comprehensive net debt measure, a benchmark of around zero per cent of GDP might be a reasonable starting point, with a resonant round number appeal (a bit like middle-aged people used to look forward to the day they become debt-free –  before governments messed up the housing market).  (As it happens, on the OECD’s broad measure –  general government net financial liabilities –  zero is about where New Zealand is now.)

A few other quick points:

  • it was good to see the Secretary specifically address MMT,
  • and it was good to see him refer, late in his speech, to the government’s growing use of Crown entity debt, in ways that erode the significance of the actual core Crown debt targets. Better perhaps for Treasury to encourage as to think about net debt more broadly – to encompass such things, and the NZSF assets –  than to run with putting a number on the variable the current government chooses to target,
  • it is a debate worth having, but I remain as unconvinced as ever – and I used to run the Reserve Bank’s financial markets function –  by the argument Makhlouf repeats that the government needs to have a significant level of gross debt to support (a) market functioning, and (b) optionality around future borrowing capacity.

Overall, not a bad speech, and better than many of Makhlouf’s.  One can’t help thinking that much of the material and many of the ideas might better have been released in a series of working papers or discussion documents –  to encourage expert debate more widely –  before the Secretary put his imprimatur on an official view.  But, in the end, next week  he’ll be gone, heading for Ireland, and we’ll be left to reflect and debate the best longer-term approaches for New Zealand.

Who knows, but by then we might even have a replacement for Makhlouf announced.  It is pretty shambolic that a week from his departure –  date known long ago –  the recruitment and appointment agency (SSC) hasn’t announced an appointment to what should be the most important public service job in New Zealand.

Can anything good come out of the ANZ?

ANZ’s New Zealand operation has had a bad run lately, what with the problems around the version of a model they were using for calculating operational risk capital, and then yesterday’s announcement of the loss of their CEO.    Perhaps it is a failure of imagination on my part, but I can’t claim that either episode greatly bothered me, whether as a customer or more generally.  Yes, both incidents suggest a degree of untidiness that isn’t ideal,  but it is a big organisation and they were pretty small issues.  Perhaps it suggests the local board doesn’t amount to much, but why would that surprise anyone?   Local incorporation is mostly about having (a) some assets that we can be reasonably sure will be available to meet local liabilities in the (very low probability) event of a major bank failure, and (b) having someone to prosecute if governance failures proved to have risen to a prosecutable standard (a reason for the otherwise questionable requirement for some of the directors to be locally resident).   Beyond that, it makes sense for the whole of the ANZ group to be able to be run, as far as possible, as a single entity.

But rather lost amid the headlines yesterday was a very useful new piece from the ANZ’s economics team, “Prospects for unconventional monetary policy in New Zealand”.   It is a very substantial piece of analysis, which gets into quite a lot of detail on how New Zealand might handle a situation in which the conventional limits of monetary policy had been exhausted (ie when the OCR has been cut to some modestly negative level).    I would encourage anyone with even a passing interest in the topic to read it.

Pretty much ever since this blog began in 2015 I have been lamenting the apparent failure of the Reserve Bank to take this issue very seriously.  It never popped up in Statements of Intent or gubernatorial speeches (in the days when we had a Governor who made them), even though many other countries had run into those limits in the last recession, and in most cases the pace of economic recovery had been disconcertingly slow.    Back in 2013 or 2014, perhaps the Bank had some small excuse –  the then management was so convinced the OCR was heading back up (and by a lot) that effective lower bounds just didn’t seem like an issue New Zealand needed to worry about.     But that was five years ago, and the OCR now is 1.5 per cent not the (say) 5 per cent the Bank might have hoped for.

In the last 18 months, there has been some movement by the Bank,  Last year, they published a Bulletin article surveying the experiences of other countries with unconventional monetary policy, and then offering some initial thoughts on options for New Zealand.   I wrote about that article here, welcoming the fact that it had been done, and the survey of other countries’ experiences, but regretting an apparent degree of complacency by the Bank about the New Zealand situation and the likely effectiveness of such policy tools.   That complacent tone characterised various comments the Governor has made at MPS press conferences: lots of handwaving, little hard analysis, and no engagement at all with just how slow the recovery was in most countries that were reduced in unconventional measures.    As I noted, central bank complacency risked coming at a cost –  a cost not to the comfortable central bankers themselves, but to those left unnecessarily unemployed for long periods of time.

The new ANZ piece is valuable for a number of reasons.  First, it will be more widely disseminated than the Reserve Bank article.  Second, it isn’t from the Reserve Bank (we need a wider range of discussion and debate around these isses and risks), and third, it goes into more operational detail (around important features of existing RB liquidity facilities etc) in several places than anything previously in the public domain.

I don’t agree with everything in the ANZ piece, and in particular I was surprised by the number of references to how distortionary or risky unconventional policies have been in other countries.  The rather bigger issue is that they mostly have not achieved much, at least once we got beyond the immediate crisis period (and this is a distinction the ANZ authors make).    As I’ve noted here repeatedly, there is little or no evidence that –  whatever the initial announcement effects –  long-term bond rates have fallen further relative to policy rates in countries that used unconventional policies than in countries that did not.

There was a useful reminder that some official RB interest rates will go negative well before the OCR itself gets to a negative number.    This is from their document

ANZ ZLB

The Bond Lending Facility is a facility whereby market participants can borrow bonds from the Reserve Bank (to support smooth market functioning) and, as the authors note, is little used.

The ANZ authors put more emphasis on the penalty on excess balances in settlement accounts.  I wrote about the Bank’s strange tiering policy in a recent post, but the gist is that the Bank determines for each bank what value of deposits at the Reserve Bank earn the OCR, and anything in excess of that earns 100 points less than the OCR.   Banks manage their settlement cash balances to minimise the extent to which anyone bears that lower return  But if the OCR were at -0.25 per cent, the rate on excess settlement account balances would be -1.25 per cent on current policies.   All else equal, that is a rate low enough that (a) no one else has imposed it, and (b) people might prefer to hold physical cash instead.

I’m a bit sceptical that this is a really important constraint on the ability of the Reserve Bank to use conventional monetary policy down to an OCR of around -0.75 per cent, since there is little reason to suppose the level of settlement cash balances would be rising as the OCR plumbed these new depths (if anything demand might be falling a bit), and banks would –  as the Bank would want –  be aggressively acting to limit the extent anyone bore the additional cost.   But it is an issue that is worth debating further, and which would become salient quite quickly if the Bank went beyond OCR cuts and started using unconcventional measures to boost settlement cash balances materially.  In earlier work, it was recognised that tiering policy would probably need to change if there was aggressive unsterilised asset purchases.

The authors rightly note many of the potential limitations of asset purchase options.  Sure, the Reserve Bank might be able to buy up a substantial portion of the government bonds on issue –  although some holders will be very reluctant sellers, having mandates that specify investment in government bonds –  but even if they could, what would be the channel whereby this would revive demand and economic activity (few borrowers took on long-term fixed rate debt).   And the Bank might be able to intervene heavily in the foreign exchange market –  perhaps on ministerial direction, to ensure the risks fall on the Crown –  but they’d likely be selling the New Zealand dollar when it was already undervalued, and if the OCR can’t go below -0.5 or -0.75 per cent, it isn’t likely that the exchange rate effect would be very large.  Intervening in the interest rate swaps market has been an idea around for a decade, and I’ve never been persuaded it would accomplish much.

But the options and issues really should be more widely debated, and the Reserve Bank and The Treasury should be taking the lead in encouraging open debate and serious scrutiny of the New Zealand specific issues.  As ANZ notes, perhaps interventions can be devised on the fly, but there is no excuse for finding ourselves in that position when we have had 10 years advance notice of the problem.  Adrian Orr’s tree god won’t offer the answers, no matter much Orr invokes Tane Mahuta.

My frustration is that thinking doesn’t seem to have advanced much at all in the ten years. I dug through some old files this morning, and among them I found a paper I’d written at Treasury in 2009 (benefiting from discussion with Reserve Bank staff)  on options if we reached the limits of conventional monetary policy.  I also found a discussion note I’d written in 2011 trying to engender some debate around the legislative provisions that support the near-zero lower bound on nominal interest rates, and was reminded of the report of a Bank working group I lead in 2012 on options if we faced near-zero interest rates (sparked by the intensity of the euro crisis then).  But nothing from either the Reserve Bank or The Treasury that has found its way into the public represents any advance on that thinking and work done up to a decade ago.  It really is pretty inexcusable.  It is almost as if our officials and minister think everything worked just fine in other countries after 2009 –  it clearly didn’t –  or they just don’t care.

Specifically –  and this is a criticism of the ANZ note as well (not even mentioning the issue) – there has been nothing done, no debate held, no analysis published, on dealing with fact that at present people can convert limitless amounts into hard currency, and will do so at some point once interest rates on other instruments (wholesale ones in particular) are substantially negative.   Here was what I wrote on that point in my post last year on the Reserve Bank’s article.

It is striking that the article does not engage at all with either of the two more radical options debated in other places and other countries:

  • reconfiguring the target for monetary policy.   This could take the form of a higher inflation target or, for example, the use of a price level or nominal GDP level target.  Each approach has its weaknesses, but either –  done in advance of the next serious downturn, not in midst when much of the opportunity is lost –  could help raise, and hold up, expectations about the path of the nominal economy, including inflation.
  • taking steps to material reduce the extent of the effective lower bound on nominal interest rates.

The latter remains my preference, for a number of reasons (including that the existing problem arises largely because central banks have  –  by law – monopolised note issue, and then not proved responsive to changing circumstances and technologies. Problems are usually best fixed at source.

If there is still a useful role for physical currency (I discussed some of these issues here), the ability to convert huge amounts of financial assets into physical currency, on demand, without pushing the price against you, is now a material obstacle to monetary policy doing its job in the next recession.    There is a good case for looking seriously at a variety of reform options, such as:

  • phasing out large denomination Reserve Bank notes (while perhaps again allowing private banks to offer them, on their own terms, conditions and technologies),
  • capping the physical Reserve Bank note issue, scaled to growth in, say, nominal GDP (perhaps with provision for overrides in the case of financial crisis runs),
  • putting a spread (between buy and sell prices) on Reserve Bank dealing in bank notes, or
  • auctioning a fixed quota of bank notes, and thus allowing the price to adjust semi-automatically  (when currency demand rises, as when the OCR goes materially negative) the cost of conversion rises.

These sorts of ideas are not new.  They do not get rid of the entire issue –  at an OCR of, say, -10 per cent, even transaction demand for bank deposits might dry up –  but they would go an awfully long way to ensuring that the next recession can be dealt with more effectively than the last.

If, for example, you thought the OCR was going to be set at -3 per cent for two years, then once storage and insurance costs are taken into account (the things that allow the OCR to be cut to around -0.75 per cent now), even a lump sum conversion cost (deposits into physical cash) of 5 per cent would be enough to keep almost everyone in deposits and bonds (even at negative yields) rather than physical cash.  That is a great deal leeway than the Reserve Bank has now.   Having that leeway –  and being willing to use it – helps ensure nominal rates don’t need to stay extremely low for too long.

In principle, many of these sorts of initiatives probably could be done in short order in the midst of the next serious downturn.  But we shouldn’t have to count on unknown crisis responses, the tenor of which have not been consulted on, socialised, and tested in advance.  It may even be that some legislative amendments might be required.

There is no excuse for not having these issue all sorted out well in advance, and having communicated clearly to the public (and ministers and markets) how they will be handled, secure in the knowledge that rigorous planning and risk identification has occurred.

In part, that is because of one other issue that ANZ piece doesn’t touch on (neither did the Reserve Bank article).  Once a new severe recession is upon us, people will fairly quickly begin to appreciate how few effective and credible options central banks and governments have, and react –  eg adjusting inflation expectations –  accordingly.  In 2009, the typical reaction was to expect a quick rebound, partly because that was how economies were perceived to have usually behaved, and partly because so many interventions were being thrown into the mix. Next time, people (markets) will go into a severe downturn with the memory of post-2009, an awareness of the unpropitious starting point, and an awareness of the distinct limitations of unconventional policy. All that is likely to exacerbate the downturn and further complicate effects at countercyclical stabilisation.  People will suffer as a result.

We need some leadership on these issues. If the Reserve Bank won’t or can’t provide it, the Minister of Finance –  who will bear responsibility before the voters –  needs to lead himself, and insist that his agencies do more and better, more openly, than they have done so far.

In the meantime, well done ANZ for a substantial piece of work. Once again, I’d encourage people to read it and think about the issues and constraints it raises.