Not that good really

The Reserve Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee yesterday ambled back from their extended summer break and delivered the first monetary policy communication for the year – no speeches, no sign of any substantive interviews, but we did finally get this OCR review and Monetary Policy Statement. Having given themselves 3.5 months one might have hoped for something very good and insightful – there has, after all, been a lot happening, and the Bank has the largest concentration of macroeconomists anywhere in the country, generously funded at taxpayers’ expense.

I didn’t have that much trouble with the policy bottom line. If they were never going to cut the OCR and scrap the LSAP (as I suggested on Monday would have been warranted), at least they weren’t carried away with the “inflation risks mounting” sentiment that seems to be sweeping markets. In fact, I rather liked Orr’s response to a question in which he reminded listeners that central banks – the Reserve Bank more than most – had been too ready after the 2008/09 recession to want to raise interest rates and get back towards “normal” (a favoured line of his predecessor Graeme Wheeler), nicely and rightly adding that no one now knows what is “normal”, at least when it comes to interest rates. If medium-term forecasting is a mug’s game (on which more below), the Governor/MPC look to be right in suggesting that OCR increases are unlikely to be warranted any time soon.

On policy, there was an interesting framing in which the MPC said that they would keep policy “stimulatory” “until it is confident that consumer price inflation will be sustained at the 2 per cent per annum target midpoint, and that employment is at or above its maximum sustainable level. One might argue that that framing – especially that “and” – was (a) ultra vires (since the Remit subordinates the employment dimension) and/or (b) not entirely consistent (if employment is above maximum sustainable levels (as estimated) it is less likely that the Bank will be able to satisfy itself that inflation will remain “at” 2 per cent. Perhaps we should read it a little dovishly, but it remains a little disconcerting that after all these years of undershooting the target midpoint, the Bank is still giving nothing to ideas like the average inflation targeting the Federal Reserve has adopted for the time being. “At or above 2 per cent” might have been a preferable formula, and if that required a change in the Remit well… we discovered subsequently the Minister was already in that game. And it should remain a little troubling that with all the stimulus the Bank claims to be throwing at the situation, on their forecasts it is still 2.5 years until core inflation gets back to 2 per cent. Not much sign of the least-regrets framework really being acted upon, as distinct from cited.

In that context, one of the oddities about the Bank’s forecasts is that 2-3 years hence the Bank tells us it thinks there will be a positive output gap of 1.4 per cent (output running ahead of potential) and yet they also think the unemployment rate by then will be no lower than 4.6 per cent. On the face of it, that suggests they think the NAIRU-equivalent unemployment rate will by then be in excess of 5 per cent. Perhaps they do (perhaps those higher minimum wages really do cost jobs?), perhaps they don’t, but we don’t know because the Bank doesn’t explain.

Which is another of the oddities of the document. I’m not a big fan of medium-term macroeconomic forecasting, and was openly sceptical of its value for years when I was inside the Bank (it is too long ago to recall whether I was so sceptical when I ran the forecasting function) but the Bank purports to believe. A lot of effort has typically gone into doing and writing up the forecasts. And if you go to the formulaic pages at the front of the MPS, we are still told of a threefold approach to policy.


Which seems to put a lot of emphasis not on the conjuncture (current situation) but on the outlook (projections, forecasts surely?). And yet when we got to chapter 5 of the MPS – devoted to the outlook – there is much less than a full page of text, and then a two page bullet point table which contains no economic analysis at all, and which doesn’t appear to add anything beyond the numbers in the table. This appears to be a new approach – there was much more text in November – and it isn’t obviously an improvement. We have the Bank’s numbers, but almost nothing at all about the thinking, analysis, and research that lies behind them.

Perhaps – given my scepticism on medium-term forecasting – that might be more pardonable if there was lots of really high quality analysis of the current and recent past situation. In times like the present, perhaps one really can’t improve on a decent understanding of where we are now, and what we are learning from incoming data. But there isn’t anything very serious on that score either. For example, there is no sustained analysis of the housing market – which seems all the more extraordinary in light of the Minister’s intervention this morning – no sign that the Bank has done serious work on unpicking the various factors driving it, or influencing their quite optimistic forecasts. There is, for example, reliance on a story about returning New Zealanders last year. Perhaps it is a big part of the story, but argumentation is never developed, alternative hypotheses are never tested, and there is barely any mention of the rather large reduction in the number of non-citizens arriving (as it happens, it also isn’t that clear what they are assuming about net migrations as and when borders reopen).

Similarly I didn’t see any serious analysis of why the Bank thought it had been so surprised about recent developments. Of course, they weren’t alone in that surprise, but they set monetary policy, and they have all those resources at their disposal. Was it that monetary policy had been surprisingly potent – whether OCR or LSAP? Was it that resources and consumption were just much more flexible than they thought? Was it housing? (but if so, an authoritative analysis of the housing market is all the more important surely?) I don’t know the answers, and am not pushing particular stories, but shouldn’t we expect fresh and authoritative insights from the Bank? But there is nothing there – and nothing in the comments of the Governor and his senior staff at the press conference yesterday. There are lists, there are charts (some moderately interesting), but little or no insight or analysis – and there have been no speeches etc offering it either. It is the weakness of the institution – they might get some individual calls right, but one can’t have any confidence that they really know what they are doing and deserve deference for their insights, research and authoritative insights and judgements. Instead we get things like populist digs at banks for not, in the Governor’s view, having lowered their lending rates “enough’ – as if he was either a politician or perhaps a competition regulator. Oh, and in a document of not much more than 30 pages of text, devoid of much serious analysis on core issues, there is three pages devoted to one of the Governor’s pet playthings – the “Maori economy”. Can we expect one on the Catholic economy, the lefthanders’ economy, or the Labour-voters economy next? Each would be equally irrelevant to the Bank’s macroeconomic monetary policy – one economy, one instrument – statutory focus.

But the MPS was yesterday, and then this morning – safely after the FEC had had its chance to question the Bank – we had the real monetary policy initiative of the week, with the Minister of Finance announcing that he had changed the Remit to which the Bank works. He can do that, and had signalled back in November that he might make such a change. The new Remit is here.

It is a pretty shoddy affair on the Minister’s part. The new Remit was dated 22 February – Monday. Presumably the Bank was well aware of it. But the Minister kept it quiet until today, and the Governor made no mention of it yesterday – when the journalists had their quarterly chance to grill the Governor on monetary policy topics (next time not until late May). From a government that used to talk of being the most open and transparent ever, from a central bank that likes to claim it is highly transparent, it was like a sick joke, designed to avoid serious scrutiny and have all the reportage based on press releases – the Minister’s puff piece, and the Governor’s fluff.

It was typical Robertson (and perhaps Orr too). Robertson has never shown any sign of being serious about better monetary policy or a better institution (if he had, for example, he wouldn’t have banned people with an active research interest in monetary policy from being considered for the Committee) but he is very assiduous about having it look as if he is making a difference. That remains the best way to understand the first round of Reserve Bank reforms, and is the best way to see today’s announcement. The government is under pressure for doing little or nothing on housing. The Minister knows that monetary policy has little or nothing to do with the New Zealand housing market policy disaster, but he needs to look as if he is doing something, win a news cycle or two, and perhaps even fend off a few of his left-wing critics who do blame the Bank.

If you doubt that interpretation, look at the specific changes the Minister has made. At the front of the document there is woolly political paragraph about the government’s wider economic goals. It has no binding effect on anyone, but to that long list Robertson has added

An effective functioning housing market is a critical component of a sustainable and inclusive economy and promotes the maintenance of a sound and efficient financial system.

Well maybe, but even if you, I, the Governor or the MPC agreed it is simply a statement of faith, and anyway the Reserve Bank – especially with its monetary policy hat on – has no impact in delivering “an effective functioning housing market”.

And then later in the document the Minister has added some words. The first ones are in a section that does bind the Bank. There is a list of things that, in pursuing price stability and supporting maximum sustainable employment the Bank is required to do. There is longstanding stuff about avoiding “unnecessary instability in output, interest rates, and the exchange rate”, about looking through one-off price shocks, and having regard to “the efficiency and soundness of the financial system”. To that list the Minister has added this

assess the effect of its monetary policy decisions on the Government’s policy set out in subclause (3

and that “Government’s policy”? It reads thus

The Government’s policy is to support more sustainable house prices, including by dampening investor demand for existing housing stock, which would improve affordability for first-home buyers.

How wet is that? So the MPC is only required to “assess” the impact of its decisions on the government policy, not act in pursuit of that “government policy” (which might well be ultra vires anyway). A Reserve Bank action will no impact on a government policy: government policy will still be what it will be. At most that is another paragraph in each MPS. And quite how monetary policy decisions will affect the mix between the despised “investors” and other potential buyers will be a mystery to almost everyone (the Bank has financial regulatory interventions that it can use – although borders on the ultra vires to do so – that might have an effect but…..this is monetary policy.

It was a feeble effort. On the one hand we should be glad that the Minister sees sense and doesn’t ask the Bank to pursue house prices – doing so would simply push unemployment higher than it needs to be – but much better if he’d simply done nothing on monetary policy – and he and his colleagues concentrated on the real issues – rather than this limp effort in performative display, stage-managed to minimise the risk of serious immediate scrutiny. The Governor was, I guess, much too diplomatic to point out the emptiness of today’s announcement, but how he’d have answered faced with a sceptical press conference would have been interesting. And how MPC colleagues might have answered if they were ever allowed to speak openly, if appointments had not simply been based on who met certain political and gender criteria, who wouldn’t ever make life awkward for the Governor.

(Oh, and if the Minister and Governor really weren’t trying to avoid scrutiny, the obvious thing would have been to have released the Reserve Bank advice, the Treasury advice, and any Cabinet paper when the new Remit was announced. Of course they didn’t.)

Monetary policy

Having taken their long summer break – not heard from since 11 November – the Reserve Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee will be out with their Monetary Policy Statement on Wednesday. Much has changed in the economic data and indicators, here and abroad, since then, and it will be interesting to see what the Governor and has committee have made of it all. There are some genuine surprises and puzzles that the Committee should have been grappling with – and most other macro economists and commentators too, but the rest of us don’t get to set monetary policy. And if the strength of the economic rebound is a surprise – and it would appear to have been to the Bank too – how resilient is that rebound likely to prove, and under what conditions?

I’m somewhat sceptical of the idea of a resilient rebound this year – and with more than a few questions/puzzles about quite which data we can really count on at present – but without a compelling explanation for last year, one has to be even more hesitant than usual about backing a view about the future (macro forecasting is mostly a mug’s game anyway).

My own approach to monetary policy would probably be the one – “least regrets” – the Bank has repeatedly articulated over the last couple of years, if rarely followed in practice. That is especially so because the last year has made me more sceptical than I was about attempting to use fiscal policy for macro stabilisation (as distinct, say, from income relief amid a lockdown). Interest rates are the prices that balance savings and investment intentions, and monetary policy is about allowing interest rates to do that job.

And so even if the level of economic activity – even in per capita terms – is now back to something like it was at the start of last year, we still have

  • a central bank that has done nothing to reduce the (true) effective floor on the nominal OCR (even if they have very belatedly ensured that banks can cope with modestly negative rate),
  • core inflation that is still (a little) below the midpoint of the target range, not having been at or above that midpoint for the best part of a decade),
  • inflation expectations (surveys and market prices) that are still typically below the target midpoint, often by quite a long way (and this is so even though there has been quite a –  welcome –  lift in recent months),
  • the unemployment rate (inevitably measured less precisely than usual) is still non-trivially above reasonable guesses at where a NAIRU might be,
  • most other countries’ economies are doing less well cyclically than New Zealand’s and if vaccination programmes are well underway in a few of them, anything like normality still seems quite a way away, 
  • there is a great deal of uncertainty (inescapable, unavoidable) about the environment in which firms and households will be operating, and uncertainty tends not to encourage either consumption or investment spending, and
  • if the US is having another fiscal splurge, more generally across advanced countries the pressure in the next year or two is likely to be towards fiscal consolidation –  not necessarily dramatically so, but certainly in contrast to last year.  There isn’t much sign New Zealand will be any exception to that (nor, in my view, should it).

And then there is the wider backdrop. Even if we recover from this unusual Covid recession more readily than many had expected, the issue that has increasingly dogged monetary policy over the last decade has not gone away: nominal policy interest rates in more and more countries (now including former high interest rate countries New Zealand and Australia) are now near zero leaving rather limited monetary policy capacity when the next serious recession – grounded in economic developments not infection ones – comes along. That might be 10 years away, but it might be only a handful. The best thing monetary policy can do to help ensure there is some policy leeway next time is to err strongly on the easing side at present, generating inflation (and inflation expectation) outcomes that are – for a change – in the upper part of the target range. The Bank could articulate something like the Fed’s average inflation targeting approach – or, since the Minister is the one supposed to set the target, the Minister could tell them to – but a decent start would be to start acting as if they would be totally comfortable if, by chance, core inflation averaged say 2.3-2.5 per cent over the next five years. That doesn’t require actively targeting such numbers, but it does require recognising that central banks (including our own) have consistently over-forecast inflation over the last decade, and still don’t adequately understand why they’ve made that mistake. So by being actively willing to embrace higher inflation outcomes, perhaps the Bank and the MPC might just give themselves a better chance of delivering outcomes around 2 per cent – what successive ministers of finance have asked them to do.

If it were me, then, I would still be cutting the OCR, perhaps to zero this time. It would add a bit more macroeconomic stimulus, and would also be more realistic – since we don’t know the future – than idle pledges to keep the OCR where it is for some arbitrary length of time (recall that their last, hawkish as it turned out, arbitrary commitment only expires next month). And I would continue to express a willingness to take the OCR negative – and not a grudging willingness, but a genuine “do what it takes” approach to getting the economy back to full employment and inflation back to target.

And what of the Large Asset Purchase programme? If it were me, I would discontinue it now. That isn’t inconsistent with my macro stance (see above) because as regular readers know I’ve long been of the view that the LSAP was not making much macro difference at all (even if it may, at the margin, have helped a little in stabilising bond markets in the couple of weeks of global flurry last March), while it continues to (a) act as distraction (enabling the Bank to look and sound as if it is doing more than it is, and (b) has led some people to believe that somehow monetary policy, notably the LSAP programme, is greatly exacerbating that unnatural disaster of the rigged New Zealand housing market. Scrap the LSAP and nothing of substance will change around the housing market – access to finance, access to (use) land, supply of finance, demand, or even the shorter-term interest rates that are relevant to most mortgage borrowers. (And, of course, more generally the unnatural disaster has almost nothing to do with monetary policy – and even for those who want to “blame” interest rates, bear in mind that very long-term market rates, that central banks have little direct hold over most of the time, have been falling for decades.)

Now I don’t for a moment suppose that the Bank will do anything of that sort, on any of what I’m suggesting about monetary policy. But I hope they do give us some sort of serious framework outlining the sorts of specific factors that might eventually lead them to discontinue the LSAP. It is, for example, hard to see how they could justify continuing it if (a) they now believe banks can adequately cope with negative interest rates, and (b) if they get to a point where they think the risks are no longer skewed to the downside.

On such things, I’ve been reading over the last week a new book by the British economist Jonathan Ashworth on the experience this century with central bank asset purchase programmes (it is 20 years next months since the Bank of Japan first launched its quantitative easing). Quantitative Easing: The Great Central Bank Experiment was published last year and clearly was completed on the very eve of Covid – a couple of 2020 references, but no mention of the Covid recessions/interventions at all. It is a really nice summary treatment and documentary record of the activities in this area of the Fed, the Bank of England, the ECB, and the Bank of Japan, up to and including the Fed’s partial withdrawal from QE, as it finally raised interest rates after 2015 and wound back the size of its balance sheet. Although the publisher – launching this new series of books on aspects of the global financial system – describes the approach of the series as “resolutely heterodox”, in fact the book is strikingly orthodox. It is, therefore, quite a nice summary of the likely way the Reserve Bank and The Treasury were seeing the possibilities, and limitations, of quantitative easing when they were advising the government at the start of last year. It is also a good single point of reference if, like me, memories of some of these programmes grow somewhat hazy over time. And for anyone wanting a good introduction it is a fairly accessible read.

The orthodox view tends to be that asset purchase programmes have had some, perhaps significant, macroeconomic benefits. The case is probably strongest in the midst of the 2008/09 crisis when both the UK and US launched such programmes (although with important differences between those programmes) although Ashworth seems to favour interpretations in which later programmes have also had useful effects. I’m more sceptical, for a variety of reasons. Much of the work in this area rests of event studies around the announcement of programmes, and so it is a shame that Ashworth does not engage with (for example) the published work of former senior St Louis Fed researcher Dan Thornton who has critically reviewed claims in that are (see, for example, this journal article, and this policy piece). Ashworth rightly highlights how wrong were the people who claimed a decade ago that the asset purchase programmes would lead to a huge upsurge of inflation (much the same claims are made in some quarters on the right about the latest asset purchase programmes) but doesn’t really probe deeply questions as to whether a large scale asset swap can really make very much sustained macro difference. He doesn’t, for example, engage with the idea that things might be different if a central bank was buying bonds yielding, say, 10 per cent, and paying zero interest on settlement cash balances (as would once have been the norm) than if the central bank is purchasing assets yielding under 1 per cent (sometimes under zero) and paying the full policy rate on the resulting settlement cash balances. And although he usefully looks at the Fed’s balance sheet wind-down pre-Covid, his conclusion that that policy choice had little or no macro impact doesn’t seem to lead him to reflect afresh on whether the earlier policy interventions really had as much sustained effect as many central bankers prefer to believe. (One of my own sceptical arguments over they ears has been that there was little sign that bond yields had fallen further relative to policy rates in countries that used the LSAP tool – say the US or UK – than they had in countries that did not – say New Zealand or Australia.)

One point Ashworth does usefully highlight – and which I hope the RB will touch on on Wednesday – is the stock vs flow distinction. If QE has an effect, it is from the transactions in the market at the time (the flow) or from the accumulated withdrawal of bonds from the market (a stock effect). He notes that the literature tends to favour the stock story. If that is correct – and if QE has much effect at all – then, for example, the Reserve Bank could discontinue the LSAP now and continue to assert that the stock of bonds they had purchased was continuing to have a material stimulatory effect.

And just in case you think that LSAP-scepticism might just be some Reddell idiosyncrasy, I can leave you with a couple of quotes, The first is from the body of the book, from Paul Krugman, quoted in 2015 observing of the unconventional monetary policy tools “the bad stuff [presumably inflation risks] unpersuasive, the good stuff maybe, but not really compelling, this has just not turned out to be the game changing policy too that people had expected”. The other quote is from the Foreword to the book by the eminent academic and former central banker, Charles Goodhart (also a former colleague of Ashworth’s). Goodhart clearly likes the book, and commends it to readers, but notes that his own view that beyond intense crisis periods – in which bond purchases can respond to liquidity and market dysfunction stresses – the direct effect on the real economy via interest rates [ and recall that Orr claims the LSAP works by affecting interest rates], either actual or expected, and on the portfolio balance, was of second-order importance. QE2, QE3 and QE Infinity are relatively toothless”.

As I’ve noted previously when you have a tool that largely involves swapping one lots of (longer-term) government liabilities for another lot of (shorter-term) government liabilities – both paying low but market interest rates – and when your swap doesn’t even displace many existing holders of the long-term assets, it is inherently unlikely that you could use such a tool to generate large or sustained macro effects. My best read of the experience to date – abroad, nicely described in the book, or at home – is that we’ve seen just what we should expect, but with lots of central bank handwaving (the need to be seen to be doing something) that has distracted people into thinking that the tool is much more powerful – for good or ill – than it actually is.

Not really

Late on Friday afternoon I saw a tweet from Stuff politics and economics journalist Thomas Coughlan linking to a new and substantive article he’d written under the headline “Reserve Bank repeatedly warned Government money printing would lead to house price inflation”. Several other journalists who’ve each had a bee in their bonnet about the Reserve Bank’s asset purchase programme weighed in in support. None of them is too keen on Grant Robertson, and so it was presented as if they’d found evidence that the Minister of Finance had spent the year ignoring things that were not only totally predictable, but of which he had been advised by his officials. The Bank knew (we are told), as did The Treasury, but Robertson fiddled while Rome burned. Or so the story goes.

Now I yield to no one in my distaste for this government’s 3.5 years of appalling indifference to the unnatural disaster that is New Zealand house prices. But on a first glance the Stuff story didn’t seem very plausible – even noting that Coughlan was drawing on papers he seems to have obtained from The Treasury (and which, to his credit, he provided links to). However, it was Friday afternoon and my appetite for chasing these things down isn’t what it once was. So it wasn’t until yesterday that I read carefully the article, and the official papers Coughlan cited.

Coughlan links to three official papers. The first of these is a joint paper from the Reserve Bank and The Treasury dated 29 January 2020 addressed to the Minister of Finance on “Institutional Arrangements for Unconventional Monetary Policy”. I’d be surprised if the Minister paid much attention to it at all, for several reasons:

  • it was more than 20 pages long,
  • it was signed out by two fairly junior people (one on each side of the street), and
  • all it asked was for the Minister to agree that officials keep working on the issues (not the substance of so-called unconventional monetary policy, but “institutional arrangements” for something officials explicitly say is a low probability event any time in the following two years).   The intention at the time was a report back by the end of July.

But even if the Minister had read, marked, and inwardly digested the full report, what else would he have found?

Coughlan notes that the report says that “as these tools have never been used in New Zealand before, the magnitude of the macroeconomic stabilisation benefits is highly uncertain”.  Well, indeed.  But what of it?  In fact, at least one of the tools on the list has never been used anywhere, so it is hardly surprising no one could be confident what effect it might have.   It is the sort of boilerplate statement that, in a report of this sort, any reader will quickly pass over.

Then we learn that “although UMP tools entail many of the same trade-offs as conventional monetary policy, the scale of the tradeoffs can be larger with UMP.  The trade-offs include fiscal risks, financial stability risks, distributional impacts, and the impact on financial market functioning”.  Not that the operative word is “can”, and the list of “tradeoffs” is still very generic.  However, officials refer to a Figure A.  In this table the orange-coloured items are “the more significant trade-offs”, and this box (below) is about the class of tools labelled “Large scale asset purchases, including domestic government bonds, foreign currency or foreign government bonds, and corporate bonds.


Note that

  • there is no mention of house prices at all
  • the observation is about what “may” happen, not what will happen
  • a reasonable reader might reasonably suppose that officials were talking mainly about bidding up the price of assets the central bank was purchasing in such operations –  the most obvious “more directly” effect, since conventional monetary policy doesn’t work by buying assets outright but by setting an overnight deposit rate.

And that is about it in the body of a 20+ page document.  There is, however, an Annex about specific possible tools.  Do Ministers read Annexes at the end of 20 page documents?  Not often is my guess, especially when all this is about hypotheticals (so officials were telling the Minister), and when the paper is about institutional arrangements not details of tools.    But had he got that far here is what the Minister would have learned from his officials about asset purchase programmes.

Not only is there is no reference to house prices at all, but officials explicitly tell the Minister that in a New Zealand context a lower exchange rate is likely to be the main transmission channel.

So that was the 29 January paper. One might reasonably criticise both officials and the Minister for the lack of urgency by then (Wuhan was in lockdown, the Ministry of Health had deemed the coronavirus a serious issue, and the NZ government was days away from stopping arrivals from China…….oh, and the Bank/Treasury had had 10 years to prepare for a crisis in which the OCR hit zero) but one could hardly say Grant Robertson was now fixed with knowledge that if monetary policy was eased in the next downturn house prices would go crazy. No one was proposing the Reserve Bank buy houses, and house prices weren’t even mentioned.

The next document Coughlan cites is a short aide memoire from The Treasury dated 9 March 2020, prompted by the speech the Governor was to give the next day on unconventional monetary policy. It is titled “Update on work on institutional arrangements for unconventional monetary policy”. There is no analytical substance in the note at all (nor would one expect there to be). It does note that the risks of needing unconventional tools at some point had increased due to Covid-19, but there was no sense of urgency, and officials simply noted that they were bringing forward the report-back date for some bits of the institutional arrangements work to the end of May. I count that as pretty damning – this was, after all, only a week before the MPC (with the Secretary to the Treasury sitting on it) finally confronted reality and cut the OCR sharply, and instituted a floor (OCR at 25 basis points) that not even Treasury seems to have envisaged, but none of this has anything to do with house prices, distributional effects, or the like.

The third paper is dated 16 March and is an aide memoire from The Treasury on large scale asset purchases, the MPC having announced that morning that the LSAP would be next cab off the rank if the Bank considered more policy support was needed (note that the Minister’s own Covid-response package was to be announced on 17 March). Unsurprisingly perhaps, there isn’t anything new in this note either. House prices, for example, are not mentioned at all. There is something similar to the bit from the January paper about how the portfolio rebalancing channel might “push up the price of a range of assets, helping to flatten yield curves” – a phrasing that clearly has in mind simply bidding up long-term bond prices – and a repeat of the point that the exchange rate effect might be particularly strong in New Zealand. (At this point, Treasury still doesn’t seem to have envisaged that the government would be issuing so many new bonds that total private holdings might not drop much, if at all.)

And a little later there is the repeat of the distribution line: “LSAPs have many of the same distributional impacts as conventional monetary policy, but can raise asset prices more directly than conventional monetary policy, creating wealth inequality. However, they can also mitigate inequality by supporting employment.”. One might challenge some of the Treasury’s economics, but there is no reason in any of this to think (or for the Minister to think) that they were referring to anything other than the direct effects on prices of assets the Bank itself might purchase. And no one was suggesting houses for that list.

And that is it. That is the set of documents Coughlan claims show that the Minister of Finance was repeatedly warned that asset purchases would send house prices further into the stratosphere. It seems like very slim pickings to me.

Of course, we don’t know what the Secretary to the Treasury and the Governor may have said to the Minister in their private conversations with him. But we do know quite a lot about the Bank was saying in public.

For example, there was that long speech (19 pages) that the Governor delivered on 10 March – when he was also doing everything possible to play down any sense that monetary policy might need to do anything soon. It was sold as some sort of framework for thinking about monetary policy issues and options when the OCR had got to, or very near, zero.

The Governor tells us about a BIS assessment of other countries’ asset purchase programmes

and something of the Bank’s own thinking (emphasis added)

and then something that looks a bit more directly relevant

But note that (a) here he refers to both low global interest rates and unconventional monetary policy, not just the latter, and (b) Figure 5 actually shows that house prices (and share prices) in New Zealand had increased more in New Zealand over the last decade than in advanced countries as a group (many of which had used asset purchase programmes).

The very next paragraph reads as follows

Not exactly some sort of smoking gun, and certainly no sense that the Bank thought that launching an LSAP early in a severe downturn would send house prices further into the stratosphere.

In fact, the Governor helpfully included this chart showing how the Bank thought the transmission mechanism would work

It is quite a complicated chart but note that (a) there is no channel to house prices that is different from the way they thought normal monetary policy works (ie through lower interest rates) and (b) the only separate channel they highlight in regard to an LSAP tool is the exchange rate.

On the final page of his long speech the Governor wraps up this way (again, emphasis added)

The Governor had his bases covered with a long list of issues, but note that even that final warning is (a) not specific to an LSAP tool, (b) never – as with the rest of the speech – mentions house prices, and (c) seems to be talking about prolonged period effects, not those in the first few months after an intervention.

Quite possibly the Minister of Finance didn’t read this speech either, but had he done so he’d still not have been fixed with the sort of knowledge, and implied guilt, Coughlan claims.

One could go on. One could look back to the Bank’s significant Bulletin article in 2018 on monetary policy options. It was a careful survey of some of the issues and overseas experience, but on skimming through it again I didn’t see references to house prices. Or the Governor’s substantial Newsroom interview in late 2019 – the one in which he expressed a distinct preference for a negative OCR over LSAP-type tools – where there was also no reference to house prices.

Or, since Coughlan claims the Minister was fixed with knowledge and that the Bank had clearly advised him, we could look at the Bank’s own Monetary Policy Statements last year. In May, for example. when it was still early days, but when the LSAP had been deployed and the OCR been cut, the Bank’s baseline scenario was that house prices would fall by 9 per cent over the rest of 2020. In August, several months on, they noted that “accommodative monetary policy is supporting household spending by limiting house price declines”. They weren’t telling the Minister of Finance the LSAP would cause house prices to explode because…..that wasn’t their view, and at most they thought all their interventions were limiting house price falls (as one would expect – see transmission mechanism chart above – with conventional stabilisation monetary policy).

One could go on. There are other telling quotes from the Governor and other senior officials – although of course never from external MPC members who exist, if at all, in some sort of purdah – and the actions of the Bank (eg suspending LVR restrictions) or the rolling out of stress test guesstimates based on falling house prices.

There is simply nothing in the paper trail to suggest that the Bank (in particular, but probably Treasury too) was vigorously highlighting to the Minister of Finance that if they were let loose with the LSAP tool house prices would starting rocketing upwards again. They just weren’t. (And for what it is worth, the Bank’s survey of expectations – mostly of economists – through last year consistently had house price inflation expectations at or below the expectations that existed at the start of last year.)

Now it is of course true that house prices have gone crazy again (yesterday a real estate agent put a brochure in our letterbox telling us of this little Island Bay house – 112 square metres of house, 259 square metres of section, no view – that just sold for $1.4 million). In a better world – more knowledge, more good analysis – our officials and economists would have anticipated such an outcome. But they (well, we) didn’t. Speaking only for myself, I expected that as in most recessions we would see a fall in house prices that wouldn’t last that long, or be that deep, but might take a few years to reverse. After all, in typical recessions (a) interest rates fall, often more than they did in 2020), (b) bank lending standards often tighten (as the survey suggested they did last year), and in this downturn the net inflow of migrants was also likely to be disrupted.

There are people – on both the left (including the journalists I mentioned earlier) and on the right – who want ascribe a lot of the blame (the different than normal outcome) to the LSAP. There is much use of the loose, and not very accurate, term “money printing”. In this lecture late last year I told my story on why I’m convinced that what is little more than a large scale asset swap (two very similar assets, differing only by maturity date) is not having much macro effect at all. And I echo the Reserve Bank’s own repeated view that to the extent the LSAP works it does so by lowering interest rates, and the fall in interest rates in not unduly large, or larger than the Bank’s own published forecasts repeatedly suggested was needed for macro-stabilisation purposes.

I’m not that confident of my own story, but for now it would emphasise macroeconomic forecasting errors. To date, and for reasons that still aren’t clear, the economic rebound has been much sharper than any forecaster – but notably the RB and the Treasury – expected. Perhaps that will last, or perhaps not, but for as long as it does, in an environment where governments keep land artificially scarce, people are more likely to be willing to bid house prices to even more outlandish levels than would have seem plausible when the Bank and Treasury were advising the Minister in the first half of last year of the likelihood that the Covid downturn would be quite deep and quite enduring.

(Of course, adding further distortions to the once-functional market for housing finance, pursuing political agendas more than hardheaded assessments of risk as with the RB’s new LVR controls announced today, can dampen some of those house price pressures for a time. But the solution to the house price debacle still lies where it always did, with the central and local governments that continue to make land for development artificially scarce in a land-abundant country. Blaming the Reserve Bank, blaming the banks, blaming the tax system, or blaming anything else is really just distraction.)

Reforming the Reserve Bank, continued

Submissions to Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand bill close today. This is the next stage in the ongoing overhaul of the Reserve Bank legislation, and this particular bill focuses on a new governance structure for the Bank, largely importing for monetary policy the provisions of the amending legislation passed a couple of years ago. In the process, the substantive regulatory powers that were part of the Act are being spun out, unchanged for now, into a separate piece of legislation.

There is a fair amount of sensible stuff in the bill. The single decisionmaker model, flawed and unusual for monetary policy, deeply unsuited to the regulatory functions, will finally be no more. The MPC now makes monetary policy – well at least on paper at does, perhaps it more true that MPC is the venue at which monetary policy is made – and in future the Bank’s new Board will be responsible for all the other functions of the Bank (notably all those highly contentious bank regulatory policy functions, and the application of supervisory policy to banks, non-bank deposit takers, and insurance companies). There are some small steps in the right direction on funding agreements, and a formalised responsibility for Treasury in monitoring the Bank in support of the Minister’s role in holding the Bank to account.

There are some problematic things as well. There is a worrying provision that allows someone with a conflict of interest to nonetheless act and or a vote on a matter if someone as lowly as the deputy chair of the Board thinks it is okay. There is the worrying disappearance of the “efficiency” constraints on the Bank’s interventionist enthusiasms from the statutory goals for prudential policy. And there is what I think is the wrongheaded choice to keep all the functions – really quite different functions, probably needing quite different sorts of people at the helm – in a single institution.

I made only a quite short submission focused on just two areas of the bill that I see as problematic:

  • the quite different (utterly different) governance models being established for two different, each complex, policy functions housed in the same institution, and
  • the key role the Bank’s Board – primarily responsible for corporate matters and financial regulation/supervision – will have in the appointment of key monetary policy decisionmakers, the Governor and (in particular) the external members of the Monetary Policy Committee, even though there is no reason to think the Board will have any macro expertise, or will treat it as a priority, and although they will have no effective public accountability for appointments these unelected people will control.

On the first point

The Bank has two prime functions. 

The first is the conduct of monetary policy, which is primarily the responsibility of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC).  The MPC operates under a Remit set by the Minister, outlining more specifically the goals for monetary policy.  The Governor chairs the MPC, and although the remaining members (three internal, three external) are appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the Board, the Governor himself has a great deal of say in those appointments, especially those of the internal members, whom the Governor appoints, remunerates, and allocates resources to (in respect of their line management functions).  That influence will be further strengthened under this bill because (rightly) the Deputy Governor will no longer be a statutory role.

The second main function is financial supervision and regulation, oversight of the financial system as a whole and prudential regulation of banks, deposit-takers, and insurance companies.  The Bank has extensive discretionary policymaking powers, especially as regards banks (the largest, by far, financial institutions in New Zealand).   This discretion exists not just as regards the application of clear policy to a specific institution’s circumstances, but as regards policy itself (notable recent examples in New Zealand have been around loan to value limits, and bank capital requirements).

This bill provides for a new Financial Policy Remit.  There is probably some merit in this innovation, although only time will tell (since we have not seen what such a Remit will look like or operate).  However, members should not be deceived by the use of the term of “Remit” for both monetary policy and financial regulatory functions.  The monetary policy remit is more or less binding on the MPC, clearly setting out a fairly widely-agreed target that is not too dissimilar to targets in a range of other advanced countries.  By contrast, section 201 makes clear that the financial policy remit is to be no more than the identification of things the Minister considers it desirable for the Bank to have regard to.       In other words, a huge amount of discretionary policymaking power is to be left with the Bank, in areas where there is no generally agreed right or wrong approach and thus little effective basis for holding the Bank to account for its exercise of those powers.    In the literature, notably for example former Bank of England Deputy Governor Sir Paul Tucker’s book Unelected Power, this lack of clarity (an unavoidable lack given our current state of knowledge) would be an argument for putting less policy-setting power in the hands of unelected officials, leaving contested policy choices to the Minister of Finance, working with expert advice from (in this case) The Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

What is striking, however, is the quite different governance model chosen for the Bank’s financial regulatory functions.  The powers of the Bank in this (and most other) areas will, in future, be vested in the Bank’s Board, and neither the Governor nor any other staff will be members of the Board.   There may be some merits in a governance model of that sort for some sorts of agencies.  In many Crown entities the chief executive is simply an employee of the Board.  That is, as I understand it, the situation at the Financial Markets Authority (albeit an agency that does not have extensive policymaking, as distinct from implementation, powers).  But it seems strangely anomalous to have two quite different governance models for two different, both prominent and complex, policy functions operating in the same institution.    And if there was a case for giving the chief executive (and fulltime experts) a stronger role in one or other of these functions, one might suppose it would be in the financial regulatory and policy side, where there is much greater ambiguity and uncertainty [including about goals, constraints, and transmission mechanisms]. 

It also seems anomalous that the monetary policy provisions have been written to make clear that the Governor is the key figure, including the prime public representative.  By contrast, for financial regulatory matters there will be a separate chair of a Board the Governor is not even a member of, and the Governor is at most an adviser to, and spokesman for, the Board.    While it is not unknown to have monetary policy and financial regulation done by different committees in the same institution (eg the UK) I’m not aware of any country that has chosen to create such gaping differences in the roles/powers of the Governor across those functions.   In one – the smaller (although more prominent) side of the Bank in future – he will be “kingpin”; in the other the Governor will have a diminished role that will only become clear with time.

Perhaps it might be a more pardonable outcome if the model has grown like topsy over a long period of times, but the two stages to the institutional reform of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand have been done as part of one process and by a single Minister of Finance.  It is not too late to step back and introduce greater alignment across the governance models used for the Bank’s two main functions.  Or to reserve more of the financial regulatory policymaking power to the Minister of Finance.

And on the second

Since 1989 the Governor has been appointed by the Minister of Finance, who may only appoint someone recommended by the Bank’s Board.  That in itself is a highly unusual model internationally. It is much more normal for the Minister of Finance (or the executive collectively) to be able appoint his/her own preferred candidate as Governor (that is, for example, the model in Australia, the UK, and – subject to Senate confirmation –  in the US).  Much the same model – Minister can appoint only people recommended by the Board –  was adopted for the other members of the Monetary Policy Committee in the 2018 amendments.

Whatever the possible merits of that model under the 1989 Act, the situation will be quite different under the provisions of this bill as drafted.  Under the 1989 model, the Board itself had few decision-making powers, none on any policy or operational matters, and its role was explicitly primarily about holding the Governor to account, and one of its key functions was the recommendation of the appointment of the Governor.  Whatever considerations influenced successive ministers in making Board appointments over the years, it was clear the Board had much the same (monitoring and accountability) responsibilities across all the functions the Bank/Governor were responsible for.   That remained more or less so under the 2018 amendments, in respect of the other MPC members.

But under this bill, the primary functions of the Board will in future be the conduct of the affairs of the Bank, other than those of the Monetary Policy Committee.  By far the largest of those functions will be financial system oversight and financial institution regulation and supervision (together with associated financial functions such as physical currency, payments systems, and the wholesale securities settlement system).    It seems likely that the bulk of the people appointed to the Board will be people with skills and background in and around financial institutions, and perhaps some people with a regulatory/corporate background.   That may be quite appropriate for the financial regulatory/oversight functions.  But macroeconomics and monetary policy is a quite different sort of role and requires a quite different set of skills, and it isn’t obvious that we (or future Ministers) can count on future Boards to have any real expertise in these matters, or any great interest (given that they will be busy doing the stuff the Board has prime responsibility for).    And when it comes to the appointment of the Governor in particular, isn’t there a serious risk that the Board will be more likely to emphasise skill sets relevant to their functions, those they see the Governor in each week/month, and not the skills necessary for the effective conduct of monetary policy?   And even if the Board members are well-motivated around monetary policy, what expertise or ability to judge are they likely to bring to the appointment/recommendation decisions.

I would strongly urge that these provisions be reviewed and amended.  In the Bill, Board members are to be appointed by the Minister but he/she will be required to consult with other political parties before making those appointments.  Why not, then, adopt, the same model for the appointment of the Governor and the appointment of other MPC members?  Doing that would not only make clear that monetary policy is not some secondary function, but would ensure that the Minister (a) has discretion to appoint people he/she is comfortable with (important since only the Minister has electoral accountability), (b) can draw on advice from The Treasury, the government’s key adviser on economic policy matters, and (c) adds a layer of reassurance (consultation with other parties) that still keeps tolerably low the risk of raw cronies being appointed to these important roles.   An alternative model to political party consultation – one I would prefer, and one used in the UK – is to provide for FEC itself to hold hearings on people being appointed to these before people can take up their appointments.  FEC would not have a formal power of veto, but the requirement for public scrutiny and the scope for hard questions also acts as an effective check in helping ensure that good quality candidates are consistently appointed.

There is really no excuse for such a dogs-breakfast. Yes, the MPC model is up and running, but has been in place for less than two years, and it would not require very large changes to bring the models applying to the two functions into greater alignment, and ensure appropriate control of appointments by the only people we – voters – can toss out; that is, the Minister of Finance.