Annual Report time

The Reserve Bank’s year ended last week on 30 June and it will, thus, shortly be time for the Bank’s Board of Directors to turn their minds to preparing their Annual Report.

Most of the powers of the Reserve Bank rest with the Governor personally, although late in the year the new Monetary Policy Committee picked up responsibility for the conduct of monetary policy.  The Bank’s Board has no day-to-day (or strategic for that matter) decisionmaking powers.  The job of the Board is, primarily, to hold to account those who do have decisionmaking powers.  In an ideal world, their Annual Report should be a masterpiece of real accountability –  these people are paid (not that well admittedly) to act on our behalf in evaluating the performance of the Governor and the Bank.

This is what the Act requires

board report.png

Section 53(1) simply tells the Board, in slightly more detail, that their job is to “keep under constant review” what the Governor, the MPC, and the Bank are up to.

In many respects, this framework has long been a bit of a joke.    The Board has limited expertise for some of its responsibilities (basically none re the monetary policy requirement above), has no resources, has the Governor himself sitting on the Board, and has been minded to set its role more as having the back of the Governor, rather than providing serious scrutiny (behind the scenes, let alone through the statutory Annual Report).   And this has finally been recognised in the circles that count: the government’s consultative document on the Reserve Bank Act review proposes that in future the Board should be turned into a decisionmaking body, with monitoring and accountability responsibilities moving elsewhere.

The additional feature that made it unlikely that the Board would really provide serious scrutiny was their involvement in appointments.  On paper, the Minister of Finance appoints the Governor and MPC members. But he can do so only on the recommendation of the Board.  The Board –  with no real expertise or democratic mandate –  controls the appointments and –  as is human nature – will want to validate their own choices and judgements.   Perhaps it might be different four years into a Governor’s term, but the current Governor has been in office for little more than a year, and the MPC members only three months.  There is some turnover on the Board, but the majority of the current Board members collectively made all thse appointments.

Each year since starting this blog, I’ve done a post on the Board Annual Report, sometimes one in prospect and one in retrospect.  Possibly there has even been some useful impact.  As I noted in last year’s post, the Board Annual Reports have improved somewhat over recent years.    In my view, last year’s report even warranted a (bare) pass mark.    But it was easy last year.  The new Governor had been in office for only three months – honeymoon period and all that – and his predecessors, lawful (Wheeler) and unlawful acting (Spencer), had gone.  If there were issues, mostly they were still the responsibility of the departed.

It will be interesting to see what the Board comes up with this year (we won’t see the published version until October).  There are a lot of issues they really should be addressing.  And as I was pondering the other day writing a post like this, my old Reserve Bank colleague –  now a consultant – Geof Mortlock sent me a copy of an open letter he had sent to the Board chair, Neil Quigley, copied to the Governor, the (acting) Secretary to the Treasury, and to Grant Robertson, Paul Goldsmith, James Shaw, and David Seymour (but not to the other Associate Ministers of Finance, Shane Jones, David Clark and David Parker).  In his letter, Geof outlines a series of questions/issues he believes the Board should be addressing in this year’s Annual Report.  I’m reproducing it here.

Mr Neil Quigley
Chairman
Board of the RBNZ
Dear Neil,
Further to my previous emails, I have given thought to the types of questions I would be addressing if I were a director on the RBNZ Board. Given that one of the Board’s main roles is to assess the performance of the Governor and the RBNZ across all of its functions, I would expect the Board, in its forthcoming annual report, to address a number of key matters that call into question the adequacy of the RBNZ’s performance in the last year.
Previous Board reports have been fairly light in content and uncritical of the RBNZ’s and Governor’s performance.  This has been a contuining weak point in the RBNZ governance arrangements.  I am hoping that this year’s report will be much more substantial and probing, given the rather troubling performance issues that have arisen in the past year (and indeed in prior years, for that matter). If the Board is to have value in the RBNZ governance process, it needs to demonstrate in its report that it has asked probing questions and held RBNZ senior management to account. It also needs to identify, in its report, the matters on which it has given advice to the Governor.  In addition, I would expect to see in its report a summary of the extent to which the Board has sought the views of external parties to provide it with supplemental information with which to assess the RBNZ’s performance and that of the Governor. This is important, given the need to avoid excessive dependency on the views of RBNZ management and staff in performing the Board’s assessment function.
In this context, I thought it might be useful to set out the types of questions I would expect the Board to enquire into and to report on in its annual report.  These are set out below.  I would be happy to elaborate on any of these matters if that would be helpful.
Questions the Board should be asking and forming a view on
Below is a list of the main questions I believe the Board needs to ask and form a publicly reported view on.
Monetary policy
–  Given that the inflation rate (on a range of measures) has been consistently below the mid point in the target range, why has the RBNZ not lowered the OCR to a greater degree and earlier than it has?  Is the Board satisfied on the analytical processes undertake and judgements made by the RBNZ in this regard?
–  Is the Board satisfied with the degree of transparency that has been revealed to date in statements made by the new Monetary Policy Committee, particularly as regards the possible divergence pr differences of views on the Committee and the capacity for individual members of the Committee to have their respective views publicly revealed so as to enhance transparency and accountability.
–  Is the Board satisfied that the Monetary Policy Committee is operating on the basis of a free and frank exchange of view and not hindered by undue dominance from the Governor?  Has the Board spoken one-on-one with members of the committee in this regard?
–  Is the Board satisfied that the RBNZ is giving sufficient attention to how it would seek to respond to a significant economic recession, having regard to the fact that the OCR is already very low and, in all likelihood, may be further reduced in coming months, and hence there is reduced scope to use the OCR to combat recessionary forces?  Is it satisfied that the RBNZ is putting in place a robust contingency plan for addressing the risks of a recession in a very low interest rate environment, and if so, on what basis has the Board reached that view?
Prudential policy
–  What enquiries has the Board made as to why the RBNZ did not discover the ANZ capital model breach at a much earlier stage than actually occurred?
–  Is it satisfied that the RBNZ has the systems, staff and policy framework required to enable it to reliably detect non-compliance by banks and insurers, and to detect emerging financial stress?
–  Is the Board satisfied that the RBNZ was sufficiently proactive in evaluating the adequacy of the bank director attestation issues that arose in ANZ (and might exist in the case of other regulated entities)?
–  What enquiries has the Board made with RBNZ senior management and external parties as to the adequacy of the RBNZ’s approach to banking and insurance supervision, having regard to the fact that the IMF assessed the RBNZ as being non-compliant with around 50% of the Basel Core Principles (i.e. the international standards on banking supervision), and that a similar failure applies in the case of insurance supervision?
–  Why does there appear to have been no significant actions taken by the RBNZ to make the necessary changes to its approach to banking and insurance supervision to bring it into alignment with international principles and best practice?  What has the Board done about this lack of action?
–  Is the Board satisfied with the adequacy of the RBNZ’s consultation processes on prudential policy issues, having regard to the serious concerns raised by many parties about the lack of meaningful consultation, the lack of transparency in RBNZ responses to issues raised in submissions, the failure of the RBNZ to adequately take into account many of the legitimate criticisms made of its policies and processes, and the lack of robust cost/benefit analysis?  What is the Board doing to address these concerns – eg raising the issues in question with the Governor and Minister?
–  In the case of the bank capital proposals, what enquiries has the Board made of parties outside the RBNZ to satisfy itself as to whether the capital proposals were well thought-through, thoroughly costed, and subject to rigorous external scrutiny (before they were released)?  Is the Board concerned at the level of criticism being made of the Governor and the RBNZ in respect of the bank capital proposals, and if not, why not?
–  Is the Board satisfied that the RBNZ has done sufficiently robust analysis of the issues in question to justify the extremely large increase in capital ratios being proposed, including in respect of assessing the existing probability of bank default, the level of economic contraction needed to trigger bank default (based on reverse stress testing), whether alternative approaches (such as bail-in debt, as being proposed by many other jurisdictions) would be a more cost-effective approach), and the assessment of the economic impacts of the proposals?  Has the Board made enquiries with external parties on these matters or merely relied on information and views provided to it by the RBNZ’s senior management?
–  Is the Board satisfied with the Governor’s handling of criticism made of him and the RBNZ with respect to the bank capital proposals, including as to whether the credibility of the RBNZ is being damaged by the way the RBNZ has been responding to criticism?
–  What performance metrics does the Board apply in assessing the RBNZ’s performance of its prudential regulatory and supervisory responsibilities?  How does it reach a view as to whether the RBNZ is performing satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily?  And, using whatever criteria the Board does use, what is its assessment? (The same question on performance metrics applies across all of the RBNZ’s functions.)
–  What analysis has the Board undertaken in relation to the RBNZ’s approach to bank recovery and resolution issues?  Is it concerned that the RBNZ is one of the few prudential supervisory authorities in the OECD that has not yet introduced recovery planning requirements for banks?  Is it concerned that the RBNZ has not undertaken any resolvability assessments or resolution planning of the major banks, other than for the limited (and, frankly, very odd) purpose of facilitating the separation of the subsidiaries from the parent banks?
–  Is the Board concerned that the RBNZ’s OBR policy is widely regarded as being unworkable in a systemic crisis and likely to cause financial instability if ever a government was daft enough to implement it?  Does the Board make enquiries as to why the RBNZ has not pursued resolution policies that entail a joint trans-Tasman resolution that seeks to minimise costs for NZ taxpayers by keeping the group intact, as opposed to making a presumption of separation of the NZ subsidiary from the parent bank?
–  Is the Board concerned that, in many key respects, the RBNZ has failed to implement policies that would bring it into alignment with international best principles and practice with respect to banking supervision, insurance supervision and bank resolution (as the IMF has pointed out)?
–  In all of these matters, to what extent has the Board engaged in an in-depth manner with external parties to enable it to be in a stronger position to assess the performance of the RBNZ?
Communications
–  Is the Board satisfied with the quality and frequency of public communications made by the RBNZ in respect of all of its functions?
–  How does the Board respond to criticisms made that the Governor has not given any serious, in-depth speeches on monetary policy, prudential policy, financial stability or other matters relating to the RBNZ’s functions since he assumed office?
–  What analysis does the Board undertake to compare the RBNZ’s quality of public communications with that of other central banks, such as the RBA, Bank of England, Bank of Canada, etc?
These are just a small selection of questions I would be asking if I were a director on the RBNZ Board.  I do hope that the Board’s annual report sheds light on the Board’s enquiries into these matters and provides a robust set of views as to what its assessment of performance is and the reasons for reaching those views.
Regards

(And lest anyone think we hunt as a pack, Geof and I disagree quite vigorously on various aspects of the Bank – including the nature, role of, and reasonable expectations from, prudential supervision, and regular readers of comments section here will have found various fairly strongly-worded criticisms of me and my views of various other issues.)

They are good questions and I’d echo many or most of them (although it isn’t the role of the Board to impose their judgement over that of the Governor’s on specific policy issues).  I’d add some around the Maori strategy, the tree god nonsense, and the prioritisation of resources when the Bank tells us it is resource-starved. I’d want to ask about the performance of the Deputy Governor (recall that they are supposed to report on his performance) as the key line manager responsible for prudential policy initiatives (notably, the bank capital proposals), and around the approach taken by the Board itself in selecting MPC members (eg, whether the Governor was too heavily involved in a committee that should act partly as a check on him, and whether suitable classes of able, expert, and available people were excluded from consideration from the start.).  I’d also be posing question about the adherence of the Bank to the letter and spirit of the Official Information Act and –  more pointedly still – about the Reserve Bank Board’s own adherence to the requirements of the Official Information Act and the Public Records Act (on the OIA, see this recent post for their cavalier disregard for the law).  Oh, and perhaps about their handling of the serious culture, conduct, and compliance concerns in the Bank’s superannuation scheme, where the Board appoints half the trustees, including the chair (each of whom serve solely at the pleasure of the Board).

The second terms on the Board of both the chair and deputy chair expire early next year and it is customary for Board members to serve only two terms.  This is the opportunity for them, leading the Board, to show us –  before the law is changed  –  what might have been, and to model at last serious monitoring and accountability.  It isn’t as if there are not pressing issues on which they should be explaining to us how they have held the Governor and Deputy Governor to account.  The shockingly poor process and seriously weak substance, all overlaid with populist spin. in the bank capital proposals should be central to that.

A new BIS paper that undermines the Reserve Bank’s case

At the end of my long post yesterday on the Reserve Bank’s latest efforts to spin the Governor’s plans to increase very markedly minimum capital ratios for locally-incorporated banks, I noted

PS.  As Martien Lubberink at Victoria has pointed out there is another international agency paper out just recently that really doesn’t help the Bank’s case much if at all. I might touch on that tomorrow.

His post is here (complete with the sly –  if obscure, presumably deliberately so –  dig at the Governor in the final paragraph).

The paper he was referring was recently published by the Bank for International Settlements as a Working Paper of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, with the title “The costs and benefits of bank capital – a review of the literature”.   The paper was released only a couple of weeks ago, and it should be studied carefully by anyone interested in the issues here in New Zealand, including (one hopes) the Reserve Bank.

The paper begins

In 2010, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision published an assessment of the long-term economic impact (LEI) of stronger capital and liquidity requirements (BCBS (2010)). This paper considers this assessment in light of estimates from later studies of the macroeconomic benefits and costs of higher capital requirements.

That earlier paper is referenced everywhere the issues are discussed, including in the Reserve Bank’s papers earlier in the decade, and in its consultative document for this review.   It supported –  to some extent made –  the (macro) case for higher capital ratios, in particular higher than had been in place up to that point (shortly after the crisis).  A review and update of the issues, by a group involving officials from the BIS, the Bank of England, the Banque de France, the Fed and Comptroller of Currency (among others) has to be taken seriously, including when the authors highlight the limitations of their own work, and outline areas needing further research.   The paper looks at many of the same studies the Reserve Bank cites but –  in Lubberink’s words –

The conclusions of the Basel Committee study, however, are different. They are much more modest than the findings of the RBNZ.

Before going on, I should say that I have serious problems with elements of the approach taken in the earlier and more recent BCBS papers (various points outlined at greater length in my own submission).   In particular, this work (and the Reserve Bank) treats all output losses in recessions associated with financial crises as being attributable to the financial crisis (bank failures etc) itself.  That is almost certainly wrong, and substantially overestimates the cost of crises themselves –  the loan losses that lead to bank failures arise from misallocations of investment resources (and/or overheated economies) and those misallocations will be corrected anyway (with likely output costs), whether or not any bank fails.   Remarkably –  and this is clearer in the more recent paper –  they also treat output losses in countries that didn’t have domestic financial crises (think Australia or Canada in 2008/09) as costs of financial crises, rather than allowing for the more plausible story that common third factors will have been driving, say, productivity growth slowdowns across the advanced world.  As I’ve argued (and as Cline, in a PIIE paper a few years ago, also made the case), if you want to isolate the output costs of financial crises, a better way is to look at the differential growth performance between (otherwise similar) countries that did and did not experience domestic financial crises.

A great deal turns –  in these sorts of modelling exercises – on how costly the modellers assume crises will be.  Both my points in the previous paragraph suggest the BCBS conclusions –  as to how much capital is likely to be warranted –  are likely to materially overstate the “true” numbers.

There are all sorts of other limitations to the BCBS work. For example, it focuses on “banks”, but doesn’t address the fact that for an individual country – think New Zealand –  a capital requirement on locally-incorporated banks won’t affect branches of foreign banks operating locally, or non-bank lenders.  Disintermediaton costs don’t figure.  It also, more generally, won’t apply to debt capital market funding.   Unlike the Reserve Bank, the BCBS paper does touch on the issue of alternative resolution mechanisms –  the Bank long favoured the OBR approach, but it was never mentioned in the consultative document, even though the more confident you are of OBR (I’m not, but they were) the less capital is required –  but it doesn’t touch on the issue of a banking system in which the large banks all have strong foreign parents.  And it doesn’t take account – in the macro calculations – of the possible income losses to New Zealanders from the higher equity returns to foreign shareholders (much of the overseas modelling seems assume redistribution of income within the country).  This latter point, in particular, has been covered in Ian Harrison’s papers.

On my reading, this is the bottom line chart in the BCBS paper.

bcbs chart.png

They report the net marginal economic benefit (slightly lower GDP each year, offset against savings from a less serious crisis decades hence) from higher bank capital ratios, drawn from a series of studies.    On these models there were really big gains in lifting capital ratios, up to around to around 9-10 per cent.  If there are gains at all –  and they don’t report margins of error around these estimates –  they are looking extremely small beyond about 13 per cent.    Perhaps that doesn’t sound too far from the 16 per cent number the Reserve Bank is proposing for the big banks but (among other limitations, many made inevitable by data limitations):

  • this modelling is done on actual capital ratios, not regulatory minima (a 16 per cent minimum ratio is likely to see banks aim for something between 17 and 18 per cent actual ratio), and
  • none of this modelling takes account of differences in accounting and regulatory treatment across countries: conventional wisdom, (backed by estimates done by PWC) suggest that effective capital ratios in New Zealand (and Australia) would be far higher if things were measured the same way they were done in various other advanced countries, and
  • none of it takes account of the regulatory floor in how risk-weighted assets are calculated.  As the Bank is quite open about, a significant part of what is proposing is that in calculating risk-weighted assets, the big banks will have a floor of 90 per cent of what the standardised rules would generate (the more normal floor is, as I understand it, about 72 per cent).  A 17.5 per cent headline actual capital ratio would, on RB proposed rules, be akin to something like 20 per cent in the sort of framework the BCBS authors are looking at.

Nothing in this paper suggests any reason for confidence that effective capital ratios of, say, 20 per cent of risk-weighted assets would be generating net economic benefits, even on the (overly pessimistic) macro assumptions the authors are using.  But that is what the Reserve Bank claims to believe.  The onus, surely, is on them to show us, and to engage on their assumptions and analysis – in open dialogue – well before decisions are made.

And then lets go back to the macroeconomic inputs.    If most of the costs of recessions associated with financial crises would have happened anyway (see above) then the output losses used in these models are substantially overstated.   Higher capital ratios make no difference to whether those losses occur.  Cline (the lower blue line in the chart) uses assumptions more similar to mine: you can see where the crossover point (to net costs) is for him.

Note too that real interest rates and the real cost of capital are higher in New Zealand than in most advanced countries.  The median (real) discount rate used in the studies the BCBS paper looks at is something like 3.5 per cent and none uses a real rate higher than 5 per cent.  A standard New Zealand Treasury guidance for cost-benefit analyses on regulatory proposals is (real) 6 per cent.  Using a higher discount rate materially reduces any benefits from a crisis assumed to arise, probabilistically, decades in the future.   And yet even on the studies reviewed by the BCBS, there is no consensus in favour of anything near as high as the effective capital ratios the Governor is proposing.

And, as I’ve pointed out previously, all this work implicitly assumes that any higher capital ratios can be made binding for decades to come.  Since there is no pre-commitment technology, and actual rules have been changed every few years, there should be a further discounting of any potential gains, particularly in light of the inevitable transition costs from big increases in capital requirements (which are frontloaded, and represents permanent losses, for what may be a temporary policy).

It was also interesting to be reminded, in an annex, of this feature of the earlier (LEI) BCBS modelling

The main results of the LEI appear in Table 8, p 29, of BCBS (2010).  The calibration used is the following:

• the probability of a crisis is 4.6% for a capital ratio of 7%, and declines at a diminishing rate to 0.3% for a capital ratio of 15%.

In other words, a probability of a crisis every 333 years with an (actual) capital ratio –  calculated as more conventionally abroad –  of 15 per cent.  And yet the Reserve Bank’s proposals were supposed to be calibrated to a crisis every 200 years, and yet still somehow generate effective capital ratios of 18 per cent plus for the big banks.

Now in many respects Martien Lubberink’s comment is fair, that for all sorts of reasons

studies on bank capital are more quicksand than a sound foundation for policy recommendations.

And yet, they have been repeatedly invoked by the Reserve Bank, and –  when read carefully – do still provide a commonsense test against which the benchmark the Governor’s ill-considered far-reaching proposals for New Zealand.

The whole exercise really should be suspended.  Come back to it perhaps in a few years’ time when a revised Reserve Bank Act is in place, and when there has been proper parliamentary and public scrutiny of the assignment of powers to the Reserve Bank (which policymaking powers should rest with ministers and which with agencies).  And use the intervening period to undertake some serious local research, working collaboratively with APRA (recognising the common risks, common ownership, likely common resolution) and engaging in workshops and seminars to tests the strengths and weaknesses of staff thinking and research well before decisionmaking authorities reach a provisional view.

And, in meantime, take comfort from the fact that before the IMF suddenly swung in behind the Governor, when there were no institutional pressures at play that international agency only a year ago told us, and told the world, that there were ample capital buffers in the New Zealand banking system.

IMF capital

The risks haven’t changed materially in that time, it is just that the gubernatorial whim has since been revealed.  Such whims are a terrible basis for making serious policy, especially when there are no checks, no appeals, on the Governor’s ability to impose such substantial transitional and ongoing costs on New Zealanders.

 

 

,

Reserve Bank still spinning

Earlier this week, the Reserve Bank published (almost all of) the submissions it received on the Governor’s proposal to increase very markedly the share of bank balance sheets that need to be funded by equity.

Welcome as it is to have the submissions –  it is easy to forget that not four years ago the Reserve Bank was still reluctant to publish any submissions it received at all (even though it was the norm for government agencies, parliamentary select committees, and so on) –  the Governor sought to use the occasion for some more spin in support of his proposal (on which he alone will, a few months from now, make the final decisions –  the rest of us, whether Minister of Finance, banks, businesses or citizens will simply be stuck with the results of his whim, with no mechanisms for appeal or review.)

Instead of just releasing the submissions –  which could have been done weeks ago, very shortly after submissions closed –  the Bank chose to release a 22 page document labelled “Summary of Submissions” and a lengthy and argumentative press release in the name of the Deputy Governor.

I haven’t read all the submissions, or even looked at them all, but one reader –  distracting himself from other stuff he should have been doing –  did look at them all, and sent me a spreadsheet with the names of the submitters, the length of each submissions, and broad tenor of any comments.

A good consultative process draws out perspectives or comments or evidence that the consulting agency may not have thought of, may have chosen to ignore, may have interpreted differently, may have missed the point of, or whatever.  Having received that material, the consulting agency would carefully consider those perspectives, (in principle) looking to make the best decision, open to a revised perspective.   Of course, that sort of openness is rare –  it runs against human nature, particularly where the people making the final decision are the people who proposed the scheme in the first place.

And a consultative process shouldn’t be thought of, or presented as akin to, a public opinion poll.   If one wanted to make such decisions by public opinion poll then I guess (a) we wouldn’t delegate them to a specialised agency, and (b) we would commission a properly structured poll.   Apart from anything else, (a) people who are opposed to what is proposed are typically more likely to submit than those in favour, and (on the other hand) (b) especially when the numbers involved are small, it is easy for a handful of low-information submissions to be generated on either side of the issue.

The Reserve Bank, however, has tended to present the submissions as something of an opinion poll.     There was the silly line that “in general, submitters support the Reserve Bank’s objective to ensure that New Zealand’s financial system is safe” –  yes, and we support motherhood and apple pie too.  The issue isn’t whether the system should be “safe”, but how safe, and at what cost, on what assumptions.  And then

There was significant and wide-ranging media and public interest in the How much capital is enough? (PDF 545 KB) paper, with written feedback from 161 submitters.

Yes, 161 submitters is a lot more than the nine submissions they received on the previous paper in the longrunning capital review  but in the grand scheme of things –  considering the scale of the changes the Bank is proposing – it isn’t many.   And more than 20 per cent of the submissions turned out to be six lines or less: whether the submitter was for or against what the Governor was proposing (and in some cases it really isn’t clear) there is no useful information for a proper consultative process in submissions that short (unless perhaps one of the big banks had submitted “Dear Adrian, We agree.  Do start soon.”, which they didn’t).

Thus, when the Deputy Governor says

Many submitters, particularly from the general public, support the proposed higher capital requirements for banks.

He is correct.  Many did.  Very briefly.  Usually without much engagement in the argumentation and issue (although one of the Governor’s mates did write in to offer support and some argumentation, although strangely even he referred to some evidence that capital ratios should be 13-14 per cent, which led him to the view that the Bank’s proposed (minimum) ratio of 16 per cent was “acceptable”.)

And look at this attempt to play the populist card – the public versus the banks – a bit further

Some submitters, in particular banks and business groups, question whether the proposed increases are too large and too costly.

As they know very well, there were a variety of other serious –  more than half a dozen lines long – submissions from people with no vested interests who were very sceptical of the Bank’s proposal, and of the argumentation and evidence in support of it.

You also have to wonder how well the Bank would be able to defend a claim (perhaps in a judicial review) that the consultative process was a sham.  The Deputy Governor again

Increasing the amount and quality of capital can be reasonably expected to mean that banks can survive all but the most exceptional shocks, Mr Bascand says. “We think the costs of doing so are outweighed by the benefits – someone’s cost is for society’s broader benefit.”

(do note the attempt to play vested interests again: “someone’s cost”).  Isn’t it still months until the final decision is supposed to be made?  And yet the Deputy Governor can confidently declare not just ‘in putting out the consultative document we thought it likely benefits would exceed costs”, but (present tense) “we think the costs…are outweighed by the benefits”.  And if the Deputy Governor already knows perhaps he could release that cost-benefit analysis that so many submitters and other commentators have been calling for.  I guess they haven’t yet back-fitted the numbers to suit the Governor’s conclusion yet.

Continuing with the spin, the Deputy Governor moved on to invoke support from the International Monetary Fund and the OECD, both of whom released comments on the New Zealand economy last week.

Following its recent mission to New Zealand, the International Monetary Fund has released a Concluding Statement that highlights the need for strengthening bank capital levels and that the proposals appear commensurate with the systemic financial risks facing New Zealand. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s latest Economic Survey of New Zealand expects increases in capital will likely have net benefits for New Zealand.

It is hard to make much of the IMF comments at this stage.  They are not much more than a couple of sentences in a press release, with no published supporting analysis.  And the Fund almost always backs the authorities – who are the people they talk to most  –  especially when central banks and regulators want to put more restrictions on banks. Why wouldn’t they?  Any economic costs don’t sheet home to them.  But the IMF’s support isn’t without its problem for the Reserve Bank.     Here is what they said

The new requirements would increase bank capital to levels that are commensurate with the systemic financial risks emanating from the dominance of the four large banks with similar concentrated exposure to mortgages, business models and funding structures.

Which, by logical deduction, appears to be saying that current levels of capital are grossly inadequate to the risks the New Zealand banking system faces. But there was no hint of these serious risks in past Financial Stability Report from the Reserve Bank (although they amped up the rhetoric in the latest one), and –  perhaps more to the point –  no hint of that in past IMF Article IV staff reviews or Executive Board discussions.  This snippet is from last year’s Article IV report, published as recently as June last year.

IMF capital

Not a word from staff, from the Board –  or, indeed, fron the New Zealand authorities in their published comments –  of a pressing need for a huge increase in minimum capital ratios.

The Deputy Governor also attempts to deploy the OECD in support.  They typically aren’t particularly expert in such matters, but here is what they actually said:

The Reserve Bank has proposed large hikes in bank capital requirements. High bank capital requirements reduce the cost from financial crises, but might also dampen economic activity through higher lending rates. On balance and nothwithstanding considerable uncertainty, increases in bank capital are likely to have net benefits, but the impacts should be carefully monitored.

Take it from me – I negotiated line by line wording on numerous OECD reports –  that is about as tepid as it gets.  It doesn’t even endorse the huge increases in minimum capital the Governor is proposing –  the comment is simply about “increases”, and there is a long way from current levels to what the Governor has planned.

And if you doubt my take on the OECD, here is their own slide from the presentation when they released the report in Wellington last week.

OECD capital.png

And these comparisons are just of headline required ratios (triangles are actuals I presume), while part of the Reserve Bank proposal is to materially increase the calculation of risk-weighted assets for the big 4 banks, to an extent that would, in effect, add another three percentage points or so to those New Zealand numbers, which already –  in the OECD’s words – “exceed those in other OECD countries”.

So, spin all the way down.    Complete with the observation about their continuing consultation –  fishing around to find some supporters perhaps

It is continuing its stakeholder outreach programme, which includes conducting focus groups to understand the public’s risk appetite, and engagement with iwi, social sector and industry groups, financial institutions and investors. It has also engaged three external experts for an independent review of its proposals.

They elaborate a little in the document that supposedly summarises the submissions.  On the iwi point “a workshop with Maori service providers” –  but why, what specific issues might there be for “Maori service providers” (whatever they are) from any others –  Catholic, Pacific, or whatever?   And the workshop they plan with “social service providers and NGOs” really looks like an attempt to drum up support for the shonky “social costs of crises” material they’ve run previously, and which Ian Harrison (in particular) has comprehensively demolished.  I will be lodging an Official Information Act request for the reports etc from any focus groups –  again it looks a lot like an attempt at distraction, a populist Governor trying to summon a mandate from “the people”, rather than from Parliament.

Also from that Summary of Submissions, this attempt to spin the issue (wasn’t this supposed to be a summary of submitters’ view and analysis?)

It’s about keeping New Zealanders, their investments, and the economy safe from the disastrous impacts of financial instability and the failure of a registered bank, which historical evidence suggests can be very long-lasting and go beyond just the financial costs for people.

Loaded language (and not even particularly well written).  Nothing like a bogeyman to scare people with I suppose, but surely only fairly geeky people even read a document like this.  Who is the Governor hoping to impress?  Not much sign of calm, balanced, detached and objective consideration, that’s for sure.

(Having said that, it was noticeable reading through the Summary itself how few arguments staff managed to find from the submissions in support of what the Governor was proposing.)

The other person who has weighed in this week is the Minister of Finance, with a rather plaintive appeal to everyone to get on and talk nicely, as if he was a harried parent pleading with children to just play nicely (“pleeeeeeease”) at the end of a long tiring day.   The Minister is reported to have called for a “mature debate”, observing

“I want to remind all parties that we are still in a consultation process. I am calling on all interested participants to listen to and work with each other constructively as this work is carried out.”

It wasn’t exactly authoritative.

Perhaps he might address his concerns specifically to the Governor, including via the Acting Secretary to the Treasury and the Bank’s Board (whose job to work for the Minister and the public to monitor and hold to account the Governor).   And perhaps he needs to wake up to the power asymmetries here: we have a single unelected official (largely appointed by some other unelected board members, all appointed by the previous government), championing huge increases in minimum capital requirements, having made no effort to socialise thinking or test reasoning before settling on a view, and is now judge and jury in a case he himself is prosecuting.  And the “defendants” –  not just banks, but the wider economy –  have no rights of appeal.  And the way the Governor has conducted himself –  dismissive of sceptical comments, strong elements of pre-meditation, no cost-benefit analysis, no serious analysis of the transition, no serious engagement with the Bank’s preferred resolutiuon tool (the OBR), “independent” experts handpicked by him to review the proposal (but barred from talking to anyone else without his permission) and so on –  doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.  He talks a lot about “making banks safer”, but all independent analysis  –  and their history –  suggests the banks are fairly safe already: we could reduce lots of risks in society to near-zero (the road toll for example) but the costs just aren’t worth it. He simply hasn’t made the case that this proposal –  which he cannot commit would even endure beyond his governorship – is worth the risks and costs.

The Minister of Finance does not have formal powers to stop the Reserve Bank.  It is right and proper that the Minister should not be able to interfere with supervisory decisions or judgements involving individual institutions, but what is going on here is probably the largest policy initiative (bigger than, eg, outsourcing/local incorporation) around bank regulation in many decades.  Big policy calls –  in areas where there is huge uncertainty (as the OECD, among others, says there is here) – really should be a matter for politicians.  At very least, they shouldn’t be a call for a one-man band with a bee in his bonnet (and without even any particular specialist technical expertise).

If the Minister really wanted to display some leadership he would call in the Governor (in consultation with the Secretary to the Treasury) and strongly urge that the entire review be put on hold.   There are several and sufficient reasons to do so:

  • the government has made provisional decisions around deposit insurance, but there has been no attempt to link that initiative and the bank capital proposal,
  • Phase 2 of the review of the Reserve Bank Act is well underway, and the provisional intention is that the Governor should no longer be the sole decisionmaker on matters of prudential policy, and that in future Treasury should play a stronger review role,
  • there is absolutely no urgency about doing anything about bank capital now (as every one recognises banks are strongly capitalised and have strongly capitalised parents, and it is only a few years since capital ratios were increased),
  • if anything, there is a strong case for doing nothing right now: the looming economic slowdown and diminished inflation pressures that are leading to OCR cuts remind us again of the approaching limits of conventional monetary policy.  The last thing we should be doing in that climate –  when stress tests etc show that bank balance sheets are sound –  is throwing more sand in wheels, potentially impeding credit availability over the next few years.

Of course, the Governor could refuse such a request, but he would be very unwise to do so.   The Governor has no public mandate, no independent source of legitimacy, and this is not an issue about the supervision of an individual institution –  it is about overall economic management, where the big parameters (eg inflation targets, debt targets……and financial stability goals, which are harder to pin down) should be made by those we elect, and can toss out again.   It should hardly be controversial if the Minister were to suggest to the Governor that he would be prepared to legislate so that in future changes in bank conditions of registration –  the lever the Bank uses –  could only be done by Order-in-Council, not simply on the Bank’s whim.  After all, that is how the prudential regime works for non-banks (and you’ll note there is no proposal in front of us to markedly increase capital requirements for non-bank deposit takers).

We need expert advice from the central bank – something we aren’t getting at present –  and expert independent adminstration of the rules, but the big policy calls (which involve significant risks, which no one can determine definitively) need to be the responsibility of the elected government.

For anyone interested, my own submission is here.

PS.  As Martien Lubberink at Victoria has pointed out there is another international agency paper out just recently that really doesn’t help the Bank’s case much if at all. I might touch on that tomorrow.

 

 

Emissions and immigration policy

Just listened to an RNZ interview with National’s climate change spokesman Todd Muller, around the silly question of whether or not a “climate emergency” should be declared.  Muller called it symbolism, but symbols have a place –  it is much worse than that, just empty feel-good virtue signalling  (whether or not you think our governments should be more aggressive in doing something to lower New Zealand emissions).

But Muller introduced his comments referring back to a sense as early as 1990 that something needed to be done.  And it reminded me of the single worst policy National and Labour have presided over for the last 30 years, in terms of boosting emissions from New Zealand: immigration policy.

New Zealand’s population in 1990 was about 3.3 million.  Today it is almost five million.  And here is a chart, using official data (which has some weaknesses, but the broad picture is reliable) of the cumulative inflow of non-New Zealand citizens since 1990.

PLT 2019

That data series was dumped last year, but you can add another 60000 or so people in the year since then.    Almost all of them needed explicit prior approval from New Zealand governments –  more than 1.1 million of them.

Over such a long period, the cumulative inflow becomes a little misleading.   It understates the impact.  Of course, over 30 years some of the migrants will have died, but many more will have had children (or even grandchildren).  Those children will (mostly) be New Zealand citizens, but that doesn’t change the fact that their presence –  and their emissions (resulting from their life and economic activity) – results from explicit immigration policy choices.

Those who are made uncomfortable by all this but simply wish to dismiss it will say “oh, but emissions and climate change are a global problem, and it doesn’t really matter where the people are”.  Strangely, this is not usually an argument the same people invoke when they favour (say) New Zealand oil and gas exploration bans, or other New Zealand specific actions that will have either no impact on global emissions, or only a trivial impact.

As you will no doubt recall, it is not as if New Zealand is already some low-emissions nirvana.  Per unit of GDP (average) emissions in New Zealand are among the very highest, and per capita (average) emissions are also in the top handful of OECD countries.    The typical migrant to New Zealand is not coming from a country that has higher emissions than we do.    Rather the reverse.  Of course, it isn’t easy to distinguish (empirically) the marginal and average emissions, but it is simply silly to suggest that the policy-driven rapid population growth has not had a material impact in boosting total New Zealand emissions –  migrants drive cars and fly, migrants live and work in buildings (that often use concrete), migrants have even helped maintain the economics of the dairy industry.  On a cross-country basis, I showed in an earlier post the largely unsurprising relationship betwen population growth and change in emissions over decades.  New Zealand’s experience was not an outlier (except perhaps in the sense of much faster –  policy-driven –  population growth, reflected in the emissions growth numbers.  If anything, and at the margin, New Zealand’s immigration policy has probably increased global emissions.

Of course, there would be a reasonable counter-argument to all this if it could be confidently shown that the high rates of immigration –  highest in the OECD for planned immigration of non-citizens over the period since, say, 1990 – had substantially boosted average productivity in New Zealand.  Then the additional emissions, and associated abatement costs (not small), would simply have to be weighed against the permanent gains in material living standards from the immigration itself.  But even the staunchest defenders of high –  or higher still – rates of immigration can’t show those sorts of productivity gains and (since demonstrating it would be a tall order) can’t even come up with a compelling narrative in which large productivity gains from immigration go hand in hand with the continued decline in our productivity performance relative to other advanced economies.

If the government (or the National Party) were serious about “doing our bit” (or just “being seen to do our bit”) about emissions and climate change, and if –  at the same time –  they really cared much about living standards of New Zealanders (‘wellbeing’ if you must), they would be taking immediate steps to cut permanent immigration approvals very substantially.  Not only would that lower population growth and emissions growth relatively directly, but it would result in a materially lower real exchange rate, which would greatly ease the burden on competitiveness that other anti-emissions measures are likely to impose over the next few years, would ease pressures on the domestic environment (and might even, thinking of my post earlier this week, ease the economic pressures on the dairy industry, while providing margins to deal directly with the environmental issues around that industry).

For the country as a whole –  New Zealanders –  it would be a win-win.   That isn’t to pretend there would not be some individual losers –  we’d need fewer houses, potentially developable land would be less valuable, and some industries (particularly non-tradables ones) that have come to rely on migrant labour would face some adjustments.  But, and lets face it, there is no sign the existing model –  in place in some form or another for several decades –  has worked well for the average New Zealander –  the productivity performance has been lamentable, and we’ve created a large rod for our own back on the emissions front.

But our political parties – every single one in Parliament, based on words and on their records in government –  would prefer to pretend otherwise, and keep on with the failed, corrosive, immigration policy, which hasn’t worked for us, is unlikely to ever do so (given our remoteness etc) and is so far out of step with what the bulk of advanced countries do.

 

The Government’s Industry Strategy

When I heard yesterday that the now-former Economic Development minister David Parker had made an encore appearance to launch something called “From the Knowledge Wave to the Digital Age”, I wondered why he would want to remind anyone of the Knowledge Wave, a conference held under the previous Labour government in late 2001. Of course, my impression of that event was somewhat jaundiced by the fact that my boss, then-Governor of the Reserve Bank Don Brash, had made a “courageous” and somewhat ill-judged speech at the conference –  against the advice of many of his senior staff, at least as to content – that with hindsight could have been read as an audition for his post-Bank forays with the ACT and National parties (although I’m 100 per cent sure it wasn’t intended that way).

But the bigger problem is that, for all the talk, all the ink spilled, at that conference and through the subsequent Growth and Innovation Framework nothing much changed for the better.  The productivity gaps (New Zealand vs other advanced countries) didn’t start to close, the economy didn’t become more foreign trade (outwards and inwards) oriented, there were no fresh waves of greenfields FDI.   Instead, we had a reasonably strong cyclical upswing (rapid house price inflation, general inflation showing signs of getting away)…..followed by a nasty recession and a sluggish subsequent decade.

David Parker gave a speech at the launch of what is supposed to be “the Government’s Industry Strategy”, and that is going to be my focus here.  I haven’t read the full 50 page document, but I’ve skimmed through it and will include a few observations drawn from that.

Perhaps how people react to “Industry Strategy”  is one of the ways one tells them apart.  I was a bureaucrat for a long time  (but in the era in which the Reserve Bank believed in letting markets work and eschewed direct government interventions as much as possible), but when I hear the words “Industry Strategy” my heart does not leap with excitement, rather I think of the Soviet Union, the eastern-bloc, the People’s Republic of China (that not-overly-productive middle income country), or even –  more mundanely –  New Zealand’s own past failures in this regard: plans and conferences and strategies, often with little to show for it (when we are fortunate) but often enough with white elephants to mark the landscape, or memories of money just poured down the drain.  But I guess it is different in today’s Labour Party, or in today’s MBIE –  the modern version of the Department of Industries and Commerce (too many in the National Party seem to have had the same inclinations).   The government has a plan, a strategy –  or a whole series of them –  not for the economy as a whole (getting the basic structures right etc) but for individual industries.  And, with little accountability and no market discipline at all, they are keen to use your money and mine to back those strategies, boldly going where private investors have, thus far, decided not to.

As often with David Parker, there are sometimes glimpses of recognition of real problems.

I believe there is no doubt we inherited an economy based on excessive property speculation and high rates of immigration driving consumption led growth. The latest OECD report on New Zealand confirms this.

The infrastructure deficit left behind – not just schools, hospital, roads and public transport, but also private and public housing – will take a decade to catch up.

This is serious, but the adverse effect on productive investment was also profound.

Low per capita investment in our productive businesses has inhibited the diffusion of technology, and the development of innovative new products and services.

I wouldn’t frame some of it quite that way (notably that Labour trope about “excessive property speculation”) but, broadly speaking, he isn’t wrong.   Perhaps a shame there is no mention of the real exchange rate, at all, but it isn’t nothing.

The problem is, though, that this is buried deep in a speech which is mostly full of breathless energetic accounts of great things already done and great stuff the government (and industry) are about to do.

The flip side of the enormity of the 4th industrial revolution on the future of work, is the correspondingly huge potential for business.
It is an exciting time.
A myriad of new ways of new products and services are being made possible.
Most improve productivity.
Many are needed to decarbonise the world to avoid catastrophic climate change, or to combat pollution of our rivers and oceans. Others will overcome debilitating disease, improving the lives of millions.
I believe that it is the duty of every government to address both the future of work, and to maximise the up-side by chasing down as many of these commercial opportunities as we can, so as to harness the new jobs and value.

(I’m still old-school enough to think of outrages when I see the word “enormity” but let that pass).

Notice that second to last line, it is the “duty” of governments to “chase down” commercial opportunities.   In part, presumably, because in the Minister’s view it is all some sort of zero-sum game.

It is a race. Others want the prizes that we seek. 

Which isn’t the way most economists think of economic growth and development, perhaps especially not in a country that start so far behind the global productivity frontiers.

And then it just becomes completely delusional

Since the 1970s successive governments have wrestled with our productivity challenges; how we add value, upskill and diversify our economy.

We should acknowledge the important milestones and efforts of yesteryear.

They show that when we together have a plan and chart a direction, our economy strides forward.

To repeat, there is no time in the last 46 years –  say, since the UK entered the EEC (the Minister’s reference point) –  when New Zealand has made any sustained progress in closing the productivity gaps to the other advanced economies.  Instead, as I illustrated in Monday’s post, they’ve kept on widening.  They are widening now, after five years –  both governments –  of no productivity growth.

Of course, the officials themselves know this –  even if they squirm in their chairs  –  and, to his credit, Parker didn’t stop them including this chart in the fuller document.

MFP parker

It isn’t the chart I’d have chosen myself, but it makes the point nonetheless.  And recall that all three of these countries were already materially richer, with higher levels of labour productivity in New Zealand, back in 1990.

In fairness, the Minister does have a place for the private sector

Government can direct investment towards the regions, and champion sectors where we see a comparative advantage, but it is the mobilisation of the private sector which delivers the jobs the big gains.

Better if they just left aside the picking winners –  or even propping up losers –  implicit in the first half of the sentence.

And this is where the Minister praises the Knowledge Wave and the Growth and Innovation Framework, going on to note

Our predecessors identified three priority areas. These were chosen because of their potential for export growth and because of the underlying importance that competence in the sector had to the wider economy. Spillover benefits.

The crucial sectors identified were ICT, biotechnology (with a food and beverage bent) and, thirdly, the creative sector and design.

They got it right and I am pleased to doff my cap to those who called it at the time.

Not that reference to export growth.   We get this guff

Our telco competence is a considerable achievement, and a prerequisite to the development of Xero, Vista, Coretex and a myriad of other companies that sell software as a service, which have flourished.

And the other sectors have boomed too.

Fisher and Paykel Healthcare. A2 Milk and a range of other food and beverage companies. Weta Workshops and its spinoffs. Now household names. Billions of dollars in enterprises that have helped build our country.

The Growth and Innovation framework is the GIF that keeps on giving. Computer gaming, robotics, customer service avatars, nutrient monitoring software.

The race is on.

Our TIN200 companies are growing strongly, with technology exports now our third largest export sector (after tourism and agriculture). New hires abroad as well as export sales growth are described in the TIN200 report on the table.

One can pick all sorts of holes in that  (massive film subsidies for example, or the fact –  as I’ve documented here before –  that on no proper statistical definition of exports are “technology exports” “our third biggest export sector.  But don’t worry about those sort of picky details.   Wouldn’t the Minister’s text lead an uninformed reader to suppose that the outward orientation of New Zealand’s economy had markedly increased since the early 2000s?   Nothing in the speech suggests otherwise, but (again) lurking in the full report was the sort of chart I run here regularly.

exports parker.png

It just hasn’t happened.   There are individual success stories, of course –  as there have been throughout our history –  but it doesn’t add up to much, when productivity growth has lagged further, and our export/import shares have gone sideways or downwards.     That, apparently, was the legacy of those earlier planners (actually I doubt all their words etc added up to much at all).

But the Minister is breathless in his enthusiasm and goes on

Kiwisaver and the Cullen Superannuation Fund have deepened our investment skills and capital markets.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise has been important in helping many exporters sector navigate their risky journey into new markets.

Our seed or angel investment capital market has matured. The innovation ecosystem has strengthened as management capability and globalisation ambitions have both grown.

We still suffer a gap in series A and B capital rounds, which this slide shows – something we have addressed in our latest Budget.

The $300m boost, and lead being shown by our largest NZ investor – the Guardians of the NZ Superfund – will attract private sector investment and help our firms to achieve their potential.

This will help to directly fill the current ‘capital gap’, and draw in other capital from NZ and abroad.

Give me leave to differ.   National savings rates haven’t improved materially, whatever NZTE has done –  let alone all those preferential trade agreements, which Parker is trying to negotiate more of – exports haven’t become a more important part of the economy, more firms aren’t showing they can foot it globally.       And when you are reduced to lauding a government money-pot, with no market disciplines and little accountability, as your catalytic hope, it is all a bit thin, and worrying to boot.      And I have no real idea what that final sentence means –  but if he means low rates of business investment, in reasonably well-run countries, private firms will invest eagerly to take advantage of profitable opportunities, when they exist.

The breathless energy continues

There is no time for delay. The seemingly exponential growth in opportunities will within just a decade or two morph into the law of diminishing returns.

At one level its simple, if we want these innovative parts of the economy to grow faster, we have to apply more of our precious resources to the task.

Don’t ask me what it means, but it would certainly good if there was some serious recognition from the top of government that our economic performance has really been pretty lousy for decades and an evident determination to get to the bottom of why, rather than just trying to pick a few more “winners”.

The gush goes on, sector by sector (you can read it for yourself), but haven’t we heard it all before.  They were probably discussing such things, enthusiastically, at the National Development Conference 50 years ago.

The speech ends with a full page on “Industry Transformation Plans”. I’m guessing they probably won’t come to much, so perhaps little harm done, except that more years pass, and more energy is devoting to avoiding the real issues.  Here is a sample of the Minister’s great enthusiasm for what government can and will do with these plans.

These describe an agreed vision for the future of a sector, and set out actions required to realise this vision.

Industry Transformation Plans are in train across large sectors of our economy – in agriculture with the Primary Sector Council for example.

Our first Industry Transformation Plan was the Construction Sector Accord. It was co-developed by an industry Accord Development Group. Industry leaders working with the Government.

Our next Industry Transformation Plans focus on four other priority sectors: food and beverage, digital technology, forestry and wood processing, and – as I have said – agritech.

The Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council and the Future of Work Tripartite Forum will provide strategic leadership.

Key components of each plan will include assessments of the opportunities and risks from digitalisation, the future of work and skills training.

Risk sharing between government, businesses and labour to enable skills training to upskill existing workforces will be crucial to avoid the rising inequality which will otherwise flow from the future of work.

Each plan will also set out decarbonisation pathways, ways to increase exports, as well as an assessment of capital constraints. Partnerships are needed.

Business, workers and government all have a stake in every industry and we need to partner to make a real difference for New Zealand.

It is almost literally incredible.  The hubris, the lack of any apparent recognition of the limits of government knowledge, the complete absence of any sense of the benefits of vigorous competition, of creative destruction even, or market disciplines and so on.  Bill Sutch might have been proud.

It is sad in a way.  I suspect David Parker is better than this, and knows that this sort of stuff just isn’t likely to be any more transformative than the last (or first) wave of goverment talkfests.  But when you aren’t willing to even think about tackling the real issues  – the real exchange rate doesn’t appear in the 50 page document either –  I guess you need a lot of sound and fury, lest –  just a year out from an election –  it look as if the government is doing nothing, has no ideas, or doesn’t really care.  Sadly, all the talk is likely to signify almost nothing, in making a real difference, reversing the economic underperformance, and even building (in the government’s own words) “an economy that is more productive, sustainable, and inclusive for all New Zealanders”.

 

Apocalypse Cow

That was the title of Wellington economist Peter Fraser’s talk at Victoria University last Friday lunchtime on why Fonterra has failed (it is apparently also a term in use in various bits of popular culture, all of which had passed me by until a few moments ago –  and a Google search).    Peter is a former public servant –  we did some work together, the last time Fonterra risks were in focus, a decade ago –  who now operates as a consultant to various participants in the dairy industry (not Fonterra).   He has a great stock of one-liners, and listening to him reminds me of listening to Gareth Morgan when, whatever value one got from purchasing his firm’s economic forecasts, the bonus was the entertainment value of his presentation.       The style perhaps won’t appeal to everyone, but the substance of his talk poses some very serious questions and challenges.

The bulk of Peter’s diagnosis has already appeared in the mainstream media, in a substantial Herald  op-ed a few weeks ago and then in a Stuff article yesterday.  And Peter was kind enough to send me a copy of his presentation, with permission to quote from it.

His starting point is with the misplaced belief among senior political figures 20 years ago that by allowing the creation of Fonterra –  using legislation to override the Commerce Commission – the door would be opened to the evolution –  in pretty short order –  of something equivalent to New Zealand’s Nokia.  In revenue terms, the promise had been

From a starting point of only $5B, they outlined a six-fold increase in revenues in only 10 years to $30B.

Critically, just under two-thirds of the $30B would come from what is euphemistically known as ‘value add’: specialised ingredients and biotech-heavy products.

So this was almost $20B of revenue from a starting point of ‘nothing’.

Actual revenue now, 17/18 years on, is about $20 billion (including a structural improvement in world dairy prices) and relatively little is from those vaunted specialised products.   The rate of return on that business, in turn, is barely higher than that on the bulk commodity business.

And

A much cited figure is the 2018 value report published by the International Farm Comparison Network (IFCN). This ranked Fonterra 17th out of the 20 companies in terms of value creation.

Its figures show while Fonterra collects the second largest amount of milk (and is the world’s largest milk exporter), its estimated turnover per kg of milk solids is only US60c.

By comparison, Danone is the 11th largest milk processor, but it turns over US$2.40 for every kg to make it the best performer. Nestlé is next at US$1.90 per kg. The average across the entire group is $1.00.

The “failure” is nicely illustrated in the share price (the non-voting shares were listed in 2012).   The comparison against the NZX index is stark, as is that against industry peers.

fraser 1

Apparently the share price fell further in June (and Peter told us that on Thursday the share price closed a touch below the initial valuation back in 2002).

Fonterra asset sales have been in focus this year.  They started when the market value of the company was much higher than it now is, and haven’t kept up, so that the ratio of market value to debt is now higher than it was.

fraser 2

For various reasons I don’t want to get into the fine details of DIRA, but as I understand the essence of Peter’s story is that:

  • farmers themselves never much cared about the added-value ideas (New Zealand’s Nokia and other dreams).  Why would they?  They are farmers, and their interests were primarily about a high price for their milk, and a high/rising price for their land.
  • between provisions in the legislation and in the constitution of Fonterra, the rules mean Fonterra has been paying materially too much (Peter says 50c per kg)  for milk purchased from suppliers,
  • dividends on the shares have been limited,  which doesn’t matter to (voting) farmer shareholders, but does matter to the outside shareholders, and retentions (or retaining earnings) –  now the main source of additional capital in a cooperative –  have also been low.
  • given Fonterra’s dominant market position, the too-high milk price also drives up the price of milk other industry participants have to pay.   That has encouraged more milk production – including “half way up Mt Cook”, and with associated environmental issues –  but also makes it difficult for firms to make profitable investments in other (value-added) products.

Peter again

…the idea of using the ingredients business as a springboard to a value creation business was part of the original concept and is actually a good one.

The problem is, it basically didn’t happen.  There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, Fonterra relies heavily on payout subordination so has very high gearing – something it seems the Board has failed to learn from after courting near disaster during the GFC.

This constrains Fonterra’s ability to borrow further, such as for acquisitions or to finance value creation activities.

The other problem is woeful levels of retentions, which are critical for a coop because without new capital from a growing milk supply, retentions are only other way of getting new capital.

So Fonterra remained a capital starved, deeply indebted and under performing farmer-owned cooperative.

That “near-disaster” ten years ago (his account here) was when I first met Peter.  Global funding markets was seizing up, world dairy prices had fallen sharply, land prices were falling, and lenders to dairy farmers were becoming seriously uneasy (including parents in Australia that hadn’t fully appreciated quite how much exposure, to a sector with very illiquid collateral, had been taken on).   In those days, struggling farmers had one buffer and Fonterra one exposure, that doesn’t exist today –  redemption risk (on the farmers’ own production-related shares in the co-op).

That particular risk has now been shifted back onto farmers, which probably leaves Fonterra’s own lenders a bit more comfortable (but in turn removed one discipline from the Board).  But there is still a hugely high level of debt (presumably largely from international markets and banks).

Peter argues that, unless something dramatic changes pretty soon, Fonterra is likely to run into crisis within the next five years or so (and, he argues, since the current government probably likes to believe it will still be in office five years hence, they really need to focus on this now).

I was among those at the presentation the other day who weren’t entirely sure how this mooted crisis would come about, or what form it might take.   After all, Fonterra isn’t a conventional company.  The traded shares –  the price of which has been falling away –  are not a direct stake in Fonterra.  The share price could go to zero (if, say, unit holders lost confidence there would ever be dividends, tied to value-added returns) without rendering the co-op itself insolvent.    The banks and bond markets that have lent to Fonterra are exceedingly unlikely to lose their money –  that is what (milk) payout subordination means –  but it is likely that quite a few of the existing facilities have caveats and covenants about financial conditions Fonterra has to meet.  And the asset sales programme of recent months seems fairly explicitly premised on the idea that the market price of the shares (and those the notional market value of the co-op) mattersa, including to lenders.    Presumably there has to be a risk that if Fonterra’s underperformance continues, lenders would become increasingly reluctant to renew existing facilities, and the costs of what credit they could still obtain would rise?

And, of course, there is only so much money to go around (perhaps rather less if commodity prices were to fall away sharply in a recession in the next few years), and what is paid to providers of capital (debt or equity) can’t be paid to farmers.  The dairy farm industry has an uncomfortably high, and rather concentrated, level of debt already. And dairy land values are underpinned, to a considerable extent, by the actual and expected milk price.  50 cents off the milk price for one year might not make much difference to land values, but if Fraser is right and prices are perhaps 50c too high generally, adjusting the milk price itself into line with that would severely impede the profitably of many dairy farms (as Fraser notes, on-farm costs have been rising, and much of any margin New Zealand dairy farmers had relative to the rest of the world appears to have been greatly eroded.  Fonterra also risks losing suppliers, and ending up with stranded assets.

The sketch outline of Peter Fraser’s story –  directional pressures – seems plausible to me, but here I’m mostly trying to tell his story rather than sign up to it all.  I don’t claim enough industry familiarity for that, and haven’t been exposed to serious alternative arguments –  if there are some, bearing in mind the repeated underperformance over a long time now.  The Fonterra statement to Stuff, in response to Fraser, didn’t instill great confidence

Fonterra managing director co-operative affairs Mike Cronin responded in a statement:
“Our focus right now is on the future of our co-op. We’re well down the path of a strategy review which will enable us to deliver on our potential and meet people’s expectations. We know where we want to go, but how we get there will take time. We will play to our strengths – our New Zealand provenance, our pasture-based farming model and our dairy know-how.”

Fraser’s presentation ended with these lines

fraser 3

That final line –  Westland as dress rehearsal –  is also where I want to end.    Fraser argues that, most likely, Fonterra will need extensive recapitalisation and that –  short of nationalisation –  there is no likelihood that the New Zealand market could provide the necessary capital, and thus that a foreign takeover is the most likely market solution.

Perhaps it would be the eventual market solution, but I struggle to believe that the market would be allowed to operate in such a case.  The politics of foreign ownership of Fonterra would be too much for any major political party –  in today’s climate – to swallow.  Most likely, we’d have government moneypots –  the New Zealand Superannuation Fund and ACC –  corralled to provide the new capital  (those two are already half owners of KiwiBank, and NZSF falls over itself to pursue politically-attuned projects).

If I read Peter correctly, he believes things could be turned around.  But that there is little sign of it from either Fonterra –  and no demand for it from their farmers –  or from the government.

 

40 years on

The almost-always-upbeat Herald “Business Editor at Large” Liam Dann had a column yesterday reflecting on the changes in the New Zealand economy  in the 30 years since he was studying 7th form economics in 1989.  “Studying” may be an overly generous term here: in Dann’s words

Let’s ignore the fact that I was a distracted surfer with a bad blonde haircut, prone to sitting with the most disruptive kids in the room.

As it happens, it is 40 years since I was studying 7th form economics (I was the nerdy kid).

In the 30 years since Dann’s 7th form economics teacher was bemoaning all that was wrong with the New Zealand economy then, inflation has come down, the unemployment rate is lower, and governments normally aim to run operating surpluses. We were in the middle of an extensive economic restructuring back then, and the full aftermath of the massive credit and asset price boom of the previous handful of years was just about to be felt (DFC, for example, failed in late 1989, while the second BNZ crisis was still another year away).    Net public debt in 1989 was about 40 per cent of GDP  –  not disastrous, but far from good either –  but (little recognised at the time or later) the government was already running primary surpluses (ie deficits were mostly financing costs, the real consequences of which were, in turn, overstated by the effects of inflation).

But I wondered how the comparisons looked with 1979, my 7th form year.   Inflation in 1979 had been even worse than it was by 1989 (when we were already well on the way to getting back to something like price stability), but on the other hand the unemployment rate in 1979 is estimated to have been (backdated HLFS estimates) only  about 1.4 per cent.  Quite a difference from today.     And, somewhat to my surprise when I checked the Treasury’s numbers, net public debt as a share of GDP in 1979 was much the same as it is now.  And if the financial sector in 1979 was still more regulated than it is today – I was regaling my kids yesterday with stories about how the last restrictions on current account foreign exchange transactions didn’t come off until 1982 –  at least at the time the policy changes were in the right direction (liberalising), not the wrong direction as we’ve now been for the past six years.

Some things are clearly better than in either 1979 or 1989 –  New Zealand’s terms of trade reached the end of a longrunning decline in about 1988 and (equally outside our control) have been quite a lot stronger since then.  For such small mercies we should be grateful (a 20 per cent lift in the terms of trade is roughly equivalent to a 6 per cent lift in average national incomes).

And I’m not here disputing that in material terms the average New Zealander is materially better off than our parents were in 1979 or 1989 (be it life expectancy, smartphones, cheaper cars, overseas holidays etc).  That is true of almost every country in the world (think Venezuela for the sorts of places that are exceptions.    And those also aren’t the arguments Liam Dann seems to be making when he says of the present –  the headline to his column  –   “The economic numbers that would have blown us away in the 1980s”.

Instead he talked about how hard it was (in prospect) to get a job as a young person in 1989.  Maybe, but as it happens the employment rates for 15-19 and 20-24 year olds are pretty similar now to what they were in 1989 (and, sure, more people go on to tertiary education now, but it will be a rare tertiary student now who doesn’t have a part-time job.

Now, in a way I have been a little unfair to Dann so far.  Despite the headline, I don’t think his intention was to be that upbeat.  Later in his column he notes high levels of private debt, and the incidence of homelessness (although weirdly he presents the latter as being in some sense the “price of economic stability” –  which is simply wrong.    But he avoids actually identifying the policy changes –  land use restrictions etc –  that have meant that whereas in 1979 (in particular, near the trough of a multi-year real house price slump) or in 1989, houses were relatively affordable, they simply are not today.  I’ve noted previously, that I bought my first house in 1989.  In today’s dollar terms, that house cost just under $300000, just down the road from where I live now.  The same house today would probably cost $850000+ (the median price now for this suburb is just over $900000).    It leaves me very glad I was 26 then, not 26 now.

Perhaps the worst of it is diminished ambitions.

Back in the late 1970s, people talked in terms of how we’d crippled out export prospects, recognising that a small country’s prosperity depended on lot on the ability to create a climate in which locally-based firms were taking on the world and winning.  People talked in terms of the tax on actual and potential exporters that tariffs and quotas represented, and looked forward to a day  when we’d stop tying two arms behind our back.  By 1989 many of these restrictions etc were well on the way to being removed, but everyone knew it took time for the gains to flow –  indeed, we had expert overseas advisers highlightin the significance of the real exchange rate (then temporarily boosted by the drive to get inflation down).

And yet 30 or 40 years on, the foreign trade shares of GDP (exports and imports) are much the same now as they were then.   There is still lots of talk about export-led growth etc, but no remotely credible story from our politicians or officials as to how this might –  at last – come to be.

And then, of course, there is the small matter of productivity. It isn’t everything, but (in words not original to me) when it comes to long-term average material living standards it is almost everything.

The 1970s were a disastrous decade for New Zealand productivity.  We slipped a long way down the OECD rankings in a single decade.

And here is an adaptation of a table I’ve shown here previously (I’ve just added a 1980 column), comparing average labour productivity in New Zealand and in the leading bunch of OECD countries.

Table 1: Labour productivity: New Zealand and a leading OECD group
GDP per hour worked
USD, constant prices, 2010 PPPs
1970 1980 1990 2017
New Zealand 21.4 22.7 28.5 37.3
Netherlands 27.5 40.2 47.7 62.6
Belgium 25 37.9 46.6 64.8
Denmark 25.1 34.8 44.7 64.9
France 21.6 32.0 43 59.8
Germany 22.3 32.2 40.6 60.5
Sweden 27.2 34.5 38.8 61.7
United States 30.9 35.9 41.8 64.2
Median of seven 25.1 34.8 43 62.6
NZ as per cent of median 85.3 65.2 66.3 59.6

We’ve lost quite a lot more ground since 1979/80 or 1989/90.  In fact, the period of worst relative performance on this metric has been in the last few years, when we’ve managed no productivity growth at all.  No individual year is disastrous, but cumulatively it represents as astonishing slippage, that should be alarming – and once seemed so to our elites.

(This table compares New Zealand with the OECD leading bunch now.  I also did the comparison against the seven countries in the leading bunch in 1989 (Italy was one of those countries).  We also kept on losing ground against them, although –  logically –  a bit less so.)

Relative to what might have been our potential –  the global advanced country productivity frontiers, in a countries none of which have anything like ideal policies –  we’ve done poorly on the economic fronts that really count.  Sure, we have achieved a much higher degree of macro stability –  and that is no trivial achievement, although most countries like us (small advanced) have done something similar.    But we’ve fallen further behind on productivity, and rendered the housing and urban land market seriously dysfunctional.  Firms don’t find it more attractive to trade globally from here.   And there isn’t much sign our “leaders”  –  political or bureaucratic –  care much, are interested in finding the answers or acting to bring about better tomorrows.

Liam Dann writes

It has struck me that were I to time-travel back and share New Zealand’s current economic statistics with Mr Shaw, he would be gobsmacked by the nation’s success.

To be honest, reflecting on what I’ve written here, if I could time travel back to 1989 and share New Zealand’s economic situation now with my 1989 self –  a young policy manager and economist at the Reserve Bank – the young me would have been gobsmacked by the extent of the failure and (more so) by the apparent indifference to it, the refusal to grapple with what it would take to make things better.  (Although I would have been pleasantly surprised by the inflation track record –  I recall in the early 90s casually offering a bet to one bank chief economist that inflation wouldn’t average below 3 per cent for the following 15 years.)

What is really depressing – with a son doing Year 12 economics this year (a year that focuses on macro) – is the thought that in thirty years time he might look back astonished at how poorly New Zealand has continued to do relative to countries that were once its peers.