Hopeless and complacent

I guess debate will rage for a long time about how well prepared and aggressive, or otherwise, governments around the world were when it became clear that the new and quite contagious coronavirus was becoming a large scale issue.  When all this is over there must a Royal Commission to investigate all aspects of the response (and lack of it).

But quite a lot about the New Zealand story (which may be little better or worse than most other advanced countries) is already clear to anyone who has kept their eyes and ears open as the situation has engulfed us.

On 23 January, the People’s Republic of China authorities locked down Wuhan, a huge city.  On 24 January our Ministry of Health issued a rather anodyne press release.  In that release, the Ministry claimed to be taking the outbreak “very seriously” (there appears to have been another statement two days earlier, but the link didn’t seem to be working this afternoon).   There was a further press release on the 27th where the words were upgraded to “extremely seriously”, but the fateful routinely-repeated line that

the likelihood of a sustained outbreak in New Zealand remains low. 

was first given to the public.   I wonder if they now regret that line, still being repeated more or less as late as last week, as the entire country is in lockdown, civil liberties shredded and economic activity slashed further.  I wonder at what point they really concluded that the risk was no longer “low”.  Just last weekend perhaps?  Or when?

It still isn’t clear quite what ‘extremely seriously’ actually meant in practice in late January. After all, there was no sign of them urging ministers to dramatically scale up either stocks of relevant equipment (in some cases, not even count how much equipment they had), add ICU beds, and their public tone remained emollient almost to the end.  Why is it that news reports only today tell us the Ministry is still trying to get its line and numbers straight?  It was, after all, just three weeks ago that the official Ministry of Health Twitter account was repeating a line that the world had more to fear from rumours, stigma etc than from the virus itself.  How anyone could have uttered, and repeated such lines, and still hold high public office, having uttered not a word of contrition, is really beyond me.  I presume that in some narrow technical sense they must have taken it seriously, perhaps even “extremely seriously”, but to what end?

Because whatever the Ministry of Health did, it clearly wasn’t adequate.   And more importantly, as the channellers of expert professional expertise on the health issues, there is no sign at all that they ever convinced either the Prime Minister and Cabinet or the heads of other major government departments to take the threat as one of utmost seriousness and urgency.  Is there on file somewhere, well hidden from the public, what I’ve described elsewhere as a “Whoop, whoop, pull up” memorandum, whether to Cabinet or other key departments heads, dated late January?  I’m pretty confident there isn’t, because nothing about the subsequent words or actions of ministers, the Prime Minister, or key government agencies suggested any such sense of urgency, a recognition of this as a major imminent threat to New Zealand, which demanded urgent action and urgent contingency plans then and there.      Were 100 of the ablest senior policy and operational people from across the public sector immediately dedicated to fulltime substantive contingency planning?  I’m pretty confident that they weren’t.

I’ve noted previously the sense of complacency, and China focus, in the transcripts of the Prime Minister’s press conferences since the start of the year (the first just after those Ministry of Health “extremely seriously” comments, and her comments don’t appear to have been out of line with those of the Minister of Health or the Director General.   And that same complacency, and China focus, was on public display in the way the economic package, announced early last week, came together.  For several weeks it appeared to be all about the specific industries hit by the China’s responses to the coronavirus, with a sense that it might take a few months or even quarters for those markets to get back to normal.  By the time they finally announced the package, reality was beginning to break over them, but even then in a barely serious way.   Faced with extreme and imminent threat, whether directly in New Zealand or, as some still hoped, in the rest of the world seriously affecting New Zealand’s economy, they used much of their bulked-up package not for temporary crisis responses but for permanently worsening the underlying fiscal position, on things that had nothing to do with the coronavirus situation (whether permanent benefit increases, or permanent business tax cuts) just as the biggest shock in at least 90 years was about to break over us.  It was breathtakingly complacent, politicised, and just did not address most of the main issues.  And that was barely 10 days ago (my contemporary comments here).

All of that could be clear up with a programme of radical transparency, pro-actively all major relevant papers from all government agencies. But I guess the government would prefer to keep us guessing; in fact going by their continuing communications approach they’d prefer to treat us, and hope we acted, as children.

But, as it happens, we already have some specifics about one particular agency that, for all its faults, puts more material in the public domain than most.  The Reserve Bank.

We first heard from them, almost in passing, on 29 January.  The Ministry of Health was, so they told us, already taking the coronavirus “extremely seriously”.  One of the Bank’s deputy chief executives gave a speech on the 29th observing –  probably added at the last minute

In recent months, coronavirus is a human tragedy that has emerged that we will need to monitor, through all three channels.  The SARS virus in the 2000s provides some potential parallels, particularly through the effects on travel and confidence.

Now I don’t really hold Christian Hawkesby to blame for not then being more concerned.  And The Treasury was making similar comments at the same time.  Neither outfits are experts in infectious diseases.  But the early comments of neither organisation betrayed any sense that the Ministry of Health was alerting any one that mattered –  public and private – to the nature of the threat, the real risk of wider spread, and the sheer scale of the disruption China was putting itself through to try to get control (although that latter point might have been something the economists would have noticed, and worried about).

There was a couple of weeks until we again heard from the Reserve Bank, in the Monetary Policy Statement on 12 February.  I won’t go through it all in detail again, but here was our central bank –  Governor and statutory Monetary Policy Committee –  in distinctly upbeat mood.  Sure, there was a small negative GDP effect immediately on account of the China closures and the New Zealand travel ban, but it would all soon be behind us. The Bank actually moved on this occasion to a more optimistic medium-term stance, actually adopting a tightening bias for the next OCR move.   Do note that the Secretary to the Treasury is a non-voting participant in the deliberations of the Monetary Policy Committee, and there is no sign in the minutes that she –  or any of the rest of them –  had been alerted to the imminent huge threat and already had in mind serious contingency planning .  It was really all backward-looking (just waiting for the China effects to pass).  If The Treasury displayed no sense of urgency, the Prime Minister displayed no sense of urgency, the Minister of Health displayed no sense of urgency or serious imminent threat, I think we can conclude none of them just missed the message.  That message was never sent.

Another two weeks on –  by now 25 February, really only a month ago, and  by then already serious epidemiologist types abroad were talking of that virus as something that would potentially affect 50 per cent of the world’s population – we heard from the Reserve Bank again.  This one was unusual, and frankly a bit puzzling.   I wrote about it here.   You see, the Bank had never really used Twitter for monetary policy messaging, and (as I noted at the time) it wasn’t really appropriate to be dropping random comments into the ether with no notice (not how serious central banks do things).  But this was the core of their tweet that day.

One of our jobs at the Bank is to forecast where we think the economy is heading. While there is still things that could trip up our prediction, we expect activity will pick up later this year, meaning more investment, more jobs & higher wages.

I saw it on my way into a meeting and expostulated along the lines of “what planet are they on?”, but later in the day offered a possible more charitable interpretation

My guess is that the tweet wasn’t really intended as monetary policy and related economic commentary at all.  My guess is the MPC wasn’t aware of it, and quite possibly the Governor was not either.   Perhaps someone down the organisation running the Twitter account just thought it would be a good idea to tell us a bit more about the Bank (“we do forecasts”).    But official communications need to be managed better than that –  an excellent central bank, best in the world, would certainly do so.

Sadly, what I’m very slowly learning is that when you think of a charitable and moderate interpretation of the Bank it is usually wrong.   I lodged an Official Information Act request asking for all material relevant to this tweet, including any reaction to it.  And the response arrived yesterday afternoon (you might think handling OIA requests is a bit of a distraction at present, but I had already indicated to them that in the circumstances I wouldn’t be bothered by any reasonable delays in replying).   They haven’t yet put the response on their website, and their response was not very complete (probably in breach of the law), but it makes clear that the absurd tweet, talking of the expected upswing in economic activity this year, was not only authorised by the Bank’s Chief Economist (a statutory appointee to the Monetary Policy Committee) personally, but that it was intended as part of a multi-week Twittter campaign advancing monetary policy messages.  It was planned that by mid-March this would be their message

We are picking the economy will get better in coming years, creating
more work and wealth for New Zealanders. But low interest rates will be
needed to support that growth for a little while yet.

Now, I need to be clear that the decision to authorise these tweets was made on 19 February, but there is no sign at all –  or else they would have to have released it –  of any rethink or revision before it went out on 25 February.

There was simply no sign of one of our major economic institutions –  these days often very well aligned with the government’s messaging –  displaying any urgency or awareness of the gathering threat whatsover.  It was just like everything we saw from the rest of government –  complacent and backward (China) focused.

And so it went on.  There was that strange speech (and questions and answers) of the Governor’s just over two weeks ago now.   We were assured we were nowhere near the need for any special monetary policy action.  That was followed quickly by further highly complacent interviews with other Bank senior managers – best characterised, as I did at the time, as almost unbelievable.   They finally buckled last Monday and cut the OCR, but still there was no hint in their statement even then, or the minutes (and recall the Secretary to the Treasury was part of that), of any serious awareness of what was about to break, of any serious pre-emptive policy, or of any serious practical contingency planning.

Perhaps by then the Reserve Bank was even worse than some parts of government.  Perhaps people near the top of the Ministry of Health, or the Minister of Finance/Prime Minister, implored Orr and his colleagues to open their eyes and get real.  But there is little or no sign of it.  After all, at the time Health was still spouting pretty upbeat lines about the risks here.

Orr went on that week to record an interview in which he described himself as really not overly worried, dismissing any possible comparisons to the depth of the Great Depression or the associated policy challenges.  That was barely 10 days ago.

And so it has still gone on.  Not just the Bank but the wider government has failed to adequately address the huge challenges facing the economy right now.  It is clear that there was no detailed planning undertaken in advance – if there had been, not only would we have seen more serious policy, actually addressing core issues, but even what has been announced –  mortgage holidays, business loan guarantees, and associated bank capital implications –  would actually have some details, not still be little more than statements of good intentions, even as they seem overwhelmed by what has hit them.

There are people around who want to believe in the notion of detailed and extensive advance planning.  People (very young ones) apparently believe in the tooth fairy too.  But all the evidence is to the contrary: they were backward looking, playing things down, perhaps simply unable to comprehend that something like this could hit – even with a full two months notice from Wuhan.  Whatever the explanation it is no excuse.   Would it have been hard to do something well?  Quite possibly, but this is the sort of stuff we really count on governments for –  they have the resources, the people, the intelligence networks etc etc, in a way that no one else does.  They could have done much more –  it is not as if no one out in the wider world was alerting us to the risks and threatss.  It would never have been enough, and wouldn’t have been perfectly fitted to the situation.  Instead, almost none of them even seemed to try.   They did nothing to front the situation with the public, indeed actively played down public concerns and presentations, and since I really don’t believe any of them consciously lied to the New Zealand public one can then only conclude that they didn’t believe it themselves, from the Prime Minister on down.    The Reserve Bank’s complacency –  nearer to the theme of this blog, and perhaps just a little better documented –  only became more egregious as time went on.

It is a simply huge failing.  Much of the stuff governments and their agencies do really doesn’t matter that much in the scheme of things.  The crisis that currently sweeps over us, sweeping away civil liberties, even Parliament, casting hundreds of thousands onto the welfare rolls and probably slashing GDP by a third or more, destroying countless businesses really does.  Our government – and probably most of their overseas peers – failed us badly, simply wasting very scarce time, whistling as they kept their spirits high, even as the boat was about to go under.  Could they have stopped it?   Who really knows now?  But they –  all of them –  Health, Treasury, Reserve Bank, ministers, and countless other agencies could, and should, have been a great deal better prepared and ready to act firmly.  They owed that to New Zealanders.  They let us down.