Macro policy pitfalls and options

The sad sight of someone who has seemed to be a normally honourable man –  Greens co-leader James Shaw – heading off down the path of Shane Jones-ism, is perhaps a general reminder of the temptations of politics and power, but also of much that is wrong about how the government is tackling the severe economic downturn we are now in.   Fiscal discipline around scarce real resources, always pretty weak at the best of times. is flung out the window and there is a mad scamper for ministerial announceables, and thus rewards to those who successfully bend the ear of ministers in a hurry.  Connections, lobbying, and the ability to spin a good yarn seem to become foremost, with a good dose of partisanship thrown in too.   The extraordinary large grant to a private business  planning to operate a school is just the example that happens to have grabbed the headlines, but there will be more no doubt through the list (apparently not all yet announced) of “shovel-ready projects”, and we’ve seen many through the Provincial Growth Fund almost from day one of its existence.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not opposed to the government running deficits –  even really rather large deficits – for a year or two.   Some mix of external events and government actions have tipped the economy into a severe recession and –  against a dismal global backdrop – the outlook is not at all promising.  Tax revenue would be down anyway, and that automatic stabiliser is a desirable feature of the fiscal system.   And one can make –  I have made –  a case for a pretty generous approach across the board to those, through no direct fault of their own, are caught in the backwash of the pandemic.  I’ve argued for thinking of such assistance as if we some ACC-like pandemic insurance, for which we paid the premiums in decades past through higher tax rates/lower government spending rates –  and thus lower debt – than would otherwise have been likely.

And some aspects of the government’s economic policy response have –  whatever their other faults –  had elements of that broadbased no-fault/no-favours approach.   I guess ministers couldn’t put a press statement for each individual who benefited from the wage subsidy, or the weird business tax clawback scheme.  But beyond that, and increasingly, what is supposed to be countercyclical stabilisation policy has become a stage for ministers to choose favourites, to support one and not another, to announce particular bailouts as acts of political favour.  It is a dreadful way to run things, rewarding not just ministerial favourites but the chancers and opportunists who are particularly aggressive in pursuing handouts.  So some tourist operators get handouts and other don’t.  Some sports got handouts and others don’t.     Favoured festivals –  I see the nearby festival on the list this morning –  get handouts.  And, in general, unless you are among the favoured, businesses (the myriad of small and low profile ones) get little or nothing at all.  James Shaw’s green school gets a huge capital grant and while no one –  of any ideological stripe –  should be getting such handouts, we can be quite sure no-one of a different ideological stripe than those associated with the governing parties would be getting one.    Perhaps many people involved really have the best of intentions, but frankly it is corrupt, and predictably so.

I was reading last night an open letter on economic policy that Keynes had addressed to Franklin Roosevelt in late 1933.  It was a bit of mixed bag as a letter, and had really a rather condescending tone, but the couple of sentences that caught my eye were these

“our own experience has shown how difficult it is to improvise useful Loan-expenditures at short notice. There are many obstacles to be patiently overcome, if waste, inefficiency and corruption are to be avoided”


Now, of course, elections have consequences, and one would expect a government of the left to be deploying public resources in directions consistent with (a) manifesto commitments, and (b) their own general sympathies.    But in this case (a) the government was elected on a promise (wise or not) of considerable fiscal restraint, and (b) whatever the broad tenor of their policy approach, we should not expect public resources to be handed to individuals or favoured groups and companies, solely on the basis of the ability of those entities to get access to, and bend the ear of, ministers.  And it is not necessary to do so to deploy very substantial fiscal resources –  whether with a focus on consumption, investment, or business etc support more generally.  Broadbased tools, that do not rely on rewarding favourites, aren’t hard to devise or deploy.

More generally, of course, monetary policy is an option that has barely been used at all.   We have a severe recession, with little or no relief in sight (including globally) and yet whereas, faced with a serious downturn, we usually see perhaps a 500 basis point fall in interest rates and a sharp fall in the exchange rate, we’ve had no more than a 100 basis point fall in interest rates and no fall at all in the exchange rate.  And not because of some alarming inflationary threat that means further monetary support can’t prudently be risked…..but because the appointed Monetary Policy Committee, faced with very weak inflation forecasts and lingering higher unemployment, choose to do nothing.  And those with responsibility for the Bank –  the Minister of Finance, and the PM and Cabinet –  seem to be quite content with this abdication.

The beauty of monetary policy, and one of the reasons it has been a preferred stabilisation tool for most of the time since countercyclical macro policy became a thing, is that even if ministers are the ones making the day to day decisions –  and they usually aren’t because we mostly have central banks with day-to-day operational autonomy –  they don’t get to pick which firm, which party favourite, gets the benefit of lower borrowing costs, who suffers from reduced interest income, or what is affected by the lower exchange rate.    It is broad-based instrument, operating without fear or favour, and doing so pervasively –  it takes one decision by the relevant decisionmaking body and relative prices across the whole economy are altered virtually immediately, not some crude process of ministers and officials poring over thousands of applications for grants and loans and deciding –  on who knows what criteria –  whether or not to grant them.  And it has the subsidiary merit, when used wisely, of working with market forces –  in times like these investment demand is weak and precautionary savings demand is high, so one would normally expect –  if no government agency were in the way – the market-clearing interest rate would fall a long way.

On the left there still seems to be a view that monetary has done a great deal, and perhaps all it could.  I saw the other day a commentary from retired academic Keith Rankin on fiscal and monetary policy.  He claims not to be a “left-wing economist” –  although I suspect most would see him as generally being on the left –  but has no hesitation in pegging me as “right-wing economist”.  Apparently “right-wing economists tend to have a philosophical preference for monetary policy over fiscal policy”.   Anyway….he was picking up on some comments I made in a recent interview on Radio New Zealand.

To a non-right-wing economist, Reddell’s position in the interview seems strange; Reddell argues that New Zealand has – so far during the Covid19 pandemic – experienced a large fiscal stimulus and an inadequate monetary stimulus. In fact, while the fiscal outlay is large compared to any previous fiscal stimulus, much of the money available may remain unspent, and the government is showing reluctance to augment that outlay despite this month’s Covid19 outbreak. And, as a particular example, the government keeps pouring salt into the running sore that is the Canterbury District Health Board’s historic deficit (see here and here and here and here); the Minister of Health showed little sign of compassion towards the people of Canterbury when questioned about this on yesterday’s Covid19 press conference.

Further, monetary policy has been very expansionary. In its recent Monetary Policy Statement (and see here), the Reserve bank has committed to ongoing expansions of the money supply through quantitative easing. Because the Reserve Bank must act as a silo, however, it has to participate in the casino (the secondary bond market) to do this; perhaps a less than ideal way to run monetary policy. Reddell has too much faith in the ability of the Reserve Bank to expand business investment spending.

Reddell is a committed supporter of negative interest rates – indeed he cites the same American economist, Kenneth Rogoff, who I cited in Keith Rankin on Deeply Negative Interest Rates (28 May 2020). This call for deeply negative rates is tantamount to a call for negative interest on bank term deposits and savings accounts; that is, negative ‘retail interest rates’. While Reddell does not address the issue in the short interview cited, Rogoff notes that an interest rate setting this low would require something close to a fully electronic monetary system to prevent people withdrawing wads of cash to stuff under the bed or bury under the house.

I struggle to see how anyone can doubt that we have had a very large fiscal stimulus this year to date.  One can debate the merits of extending (or not) the wage subsidy –  personally (despite being a “right-wing economist”) I’d have favoured the certainty my pandemic insurance scheme would have provided –  but it doesn’t change the fact a great deal has been spent.  Similarly, one can have important debates about the base level of health funding –  and I’ve run several posts here in recent years expressing surprise at how low health spending as a share of GDP has been under this government, given their expressed priorities and views –  but it isn’t really relevant to the question of the make-up of the countercyclical policies deployed this year.  With big government or small government in normal times, cyclical challenges (including serious ones like this year’s) will still arise.

And so the important difference seems to turn on how we see the contribution of monetary policy.  Here Rankin seems to run the Reserve Bank line –  perhaps even more strongly than they would –  about policy being “highly expansionary”, without pointing to any evidence, arguments, or market prices to support that.  It is as if an announced intent to swap one lot of general government low-interest liabilities (bonds) for another lot (settlement cash deposits at the Reserve Bank) was hugely macroeconomically significant.  Perhaps it is, but the evidence is lacking…whether from the Reserve Bank or from those on the left (Rankin and others, see below) or those on the right (some who fear it is terribly effective and worrying about resurgent inflation.

While on Rankin, I just wanted to make two more brief points:

    • first, Rankin suggests I “have too much faith in the ability  of the Reserve Bank to expand  business investment spending”.  That took me by surprise, as I have no confidence in the Bank’s ability to expand investment spending directly at all, and nor is it a key channel by which I would be expecting monetary policy to work in the near-term.  It really is a straw man, whether recognised as such, often cited by those opposed to more use of monetary policy.  Early in a recession –  any recession –  interest rates are never what is holding back investment spending –  that would be things like a surprise drop in demand, heightened uncertainty, and perhaps some unease among providers of either debt or equity finance.  Only rarely do people invest into downturns,  When they can, they will postpone planned investment, and wait to see what happens.  There is a whole variety of channels by which monetary policy works –  and I expect I’m largely at one with the Reserve Bank on this –  including confidence effects, wealth effects, expectations effects and (importantly in New Zealand) exchange rate effects.  Be the first country to take its policy rate deeply negative and one would expect a significant new support for our tradables sector through a much lower exchange rate.  In turn, over time, as domestic and external demand improved investment could be expected to rise, in turn supported by temporarily lower interest rates, but that is some way down the track.
    • second, as Rankin notes I have continued to champion the use of deeply negative OCR (and right now any negative OCR at all, rather than the current RB passivity).  As he notes, in the interview he cites I did not mention the need to deal with the ability to convert deposits into physical cash at par, but that has been a longstanding theme of mine.  I don’t favour abolishing physical currency, but I do favour a potentially-variable premium price on large-scale conversions to cash (as do other advocates of deeply negative policy rates).  Those mechanisms would be quite easy to put in place, if there was the will to use monetary policy.

From people on the left-  at least in the New Zealand media –  there also seems to be some angst that (a) monetary policy has done a great deal, and that (b) in doing so it has exacerbated “inequality” in a way that we should, apparently, regret.   I’ve seen this line in particular from’s Jenee Tibshraeny and (including again this morning) from Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan.  On occasion, Adrian Orr seems to give some encouragement to this line of thinking, but I think he is mostly wrong to do so

Perhaps the most important point here is the otherwise obvious one.  The worst sort of economic outcome, including from an inequality perspective (short or long term) is likely to be one in which unemployment goes up a long way and stays high, and where labour market participation rates fall away.  Sustained time out of employment, involuntarily, is one of the worst things for anyone’s lifetime economic prospects, and if some of the people who end up unemployed have plenty of resources to fall back on, the burden of unemployment tends to fall hardest on the people at the bottom, people are just starting out, and in many cases people from ethnic minorities (these are often overlapping groups).  From a macroeconomic policy perspective, the overriding priority should be getting people who want to work back into work just as quickly as possible.   That doesn’t mean we do just anything –  grants to favoured private companies to build new buildings are still a bad idea  – but it should mean we don’t hold back on tools with a long track record of contributing effectively to macroeconomic stabilisation because of ill-defined concerns about other aspects of “inequality”.

Asset prices appear to worry people in this context.    I’m probably as puzzled as the next person about the strength of global equity prices –  and I don’t think low interest rates (low for a reason) are a compelling story –  but it is unlikely that anything our Reserve Bank is doing is a big contributor to the current level of the NZX indices.  Even if it were, that would not necessarily be a bad thing, since one way to encourage new real investment is as the price of existing investment assets rises relative to the cost of building new.

And if house prices have risen a little (a) it is small compared to the 25 year rise governments have imposed on us, and (b) not that surprising once the Reserve Bank eased the LVR restrictions for which there was never a compelling financial stability rationale in the first place.

More generally, I think this commentators are still overestimating (quite dramatically) what monetary policy has done.   I read commentaries talking about “money flowing into the hands of asset holders” (Coughlan today) from the LSAP programme, but that really isn’t the story at all.  Across this year to date there has been little change in private sector holdings of government bonds, and certainly no large scale liquidation by existing holders (of the sort that sometimes happened in QE-type programmes in other countries).  Most investors are holding just as many New Zealand government bonds as they were.  All that has really happened is that (a) the government has spent a great deal more money than it has received in taxes, (b) that has been initially to them by the Reserve Bank, and (c) that net fiscal spending is mirrored in a rise in banks’ settlement account deposit balances at the Reserve Bank.  It would not have made any difference to anything that matters much if the Reserve Bank had just given the government a huge overdraft facility at, say, 25 basis points interest, rather than going through the bond issuance/LSAP rigmarole.  The public sector could have sold more bonds into the market instead, in which case the private sector would be holding more bonds and less settlement cash.  But the transactions that put more money in people’s pockets –  people with mortgages, people with businesses –  are the fiscal policy programmes.   Without them we might, reasonably, have anticipated a considerably weaker housing market.  Since few on the left would have favoured less fiscal outlays this year –  and neither would I for that matter –  they can’t easily have it both ways (Well, of course, they could, but the current government of the left has been almost as bad as previous governments of the left and right in dealing with the land use restrictions that create the housing-related dimensions of inequality.

Coughlan also seems to still belief that what happens to the debt the government owes the (government-owned and controlled) Reserve Bank matters macroeconomically.  See, on this, his column in last weekend’s Sunday Star-Times.   As I outlined last week, this is simply wrong: what matter isn’t the transactions between the government and the RB, but those between the whole-of-government and the private sector.  Those arise mostly from the fiscal policy choices.  The whole-of-government now owes the non-government a great deal more than it did in February –  reflecting the fiscal deficit.  That happens to take the form primarily of much higher settlement cash balances, but it could have been much higher private bond holdings.   Either way, the asset the Reserve Bank holds is largely irrelevant: the liabilities of the Crown are what matter.  And as the economy re recovers one would expect that the government will have to pay a higher price on those liabilities.   It could avoid doing so –  simply refusing to, engaged in “financial repression” –  but doing so would not avoid the associated real resource pressures. The same real resources can’t be used for two things at once.  Finally on Coughlan’s article, it seems weird to headline a column “It’s not a question of how, but if we’ll pay back the debt” when, on the government’s own numbers and depending on your preferred measure, debt to GDP will peak at around 50 per cent.  Default is usually more of a political choice than an economic one, but I’d be surprised if any stable democracy, issuing its own currency, has ever chosen to default with such a low level of debt –  low relative to other advanced countries, and (for that matter) low relative to our own history.

Monetary policy really should have been –  and should now, belatedly –  used much more aggressively.  It gets in all the cracks, it avoids the temptations of ministerial corruption, it works (even the RB thinks so), and it has the great merit that in committing claims over real resources the people best-placed to make decisions –  individual firms and households, accountable for their choices –  are making them, not politicians on a whim.

For anyone interested, the Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr is talking about the Bank’s use of monetary policy this year at Victoria University at 12:30pm today.  The event is now entirely by Zoom, and the organisers invited us to share the link with anyone interested.