Should have done better

A couple of months ago the Institute of Directors approached me about doing a talk to their members in Wellington on monetary policy as it had been conducted by the Reserve Bank over recent times. Somewhat to my surprise, my name had apparently been suggested to them by Alan Bollard.

I gave the talk this morning, and although the date was set ages ago it could hardly have been more timely given the labour market data yesterday, which in a way finally marks the completion of not just the last 18 months’ of monetary policy, but in some ways the last 14 years (for the first time since the 2008/09 recession we have core inflation a little above the Bank’s target midpoint and the unemployment rate back to something that must be close to the NAIRU.

The full text of my remarks, and a few more points I didn’t have time to deliver, are here

Monetary Policy in Covid Times IoD address 5 Aug 2021

What I set out to do was to review how the Bank had done, and what monetary policy had (and hadn’t) contributed over the last 18 months or so.  While I was quite critical in places, and headed the overall talk “Should have done better”, I was also willing to defend them, noting that the surge in house prices had little predictably to do with monetary policy, and was neither sought nor desired.

I’m not going to reproduce the full text in this piece, but here are a couple of sections from towards the end

The unemployment rate is now 4 per cent and the inflation rate – the sectoral core measure the Bank tends (rightly) to focus on – is 2.2 per cent.  Those are really good outcomes – first time in 10 years that core inflation had crept above the target midpoint.  After the last recession it took 10 years to get unemployment back down, not 10 months.

But those outcomes to celebrate aren’t much credit to monetary policy, since when the MPC was setting the policy that was having an effect now they thought their policy was consistent with much worse outcomes. 

But where to from here?  The MPC has belatedly terminated the LSAP.  They really should be ending the Funding for Lending programme, which was explicitly a crisis programme, a stop-gap for when they couldn’t cut the OCR further, and which was not operated on a competitively neutral basis.   But more likely the next step is the OCR.

One possible reason for caution is that coming out of the 2008/09 recession, central banks (and markets) were too keen to start getting interest rates back to what was thought of as “normal”.  The RBNZ made that mistake twice, and quickly had to reverse themselves.  But both times there was no sign of core inflation rising and the unemployment rates were still quite high, so quite different circumstances than we have now. 

[Figures 7 and 8]IOD2

IOD1

Some will doubt whether 4.0 per cent is the lowest sustainable rate of unemployment but it is getting pretty close to the cyclical lows of the last two cycles (and some measures may have raised the NAIRU a bit).  Wage inflation is rising faster than at any time since 2008, at a time when there is no productivity growth.    But the real guide – especially amid considerable ongoing uncertainty – is core inflation itself.  If it is above 2 per cent, and no one thinks it is about to drop back, then it is time to start tightening – not necessarily aggressively (there is no harm if core inflation goes a bit higher for a while, as it is likely to do), not part of some predetermined programme, but step by step, review by review, keeping a close eye on fresh data.   They need to be tightening at least a bit faster than inflation expectations are rising (on which new data next week).  And since the world economy could be derailed again, and fiscal policy (here and abroad) may start tightening, and very long-term interest rates are still at or near multi-decade lows, be ready to stop or reverse course if the data warrant that.  The great thing about monetary policy is that when the data change, policy can be altered quickly and easily.

The same can’t be said for fiscal policy.  There are plenty of things only government spending can do.  For example, income support to those rendered unable to earn because of pandemic restrictions.  There are plenty of other programmes for which one might make a careful well-analysed and debated medium-term case for spending taxpayers’ money on.  But cyclical stabilisation policy is a quite different matter.    Many fiscal programmes are – rightly or wrongly – hard to get underway, and slow to start (many of those “shovel ready” projects), some are easy to start but hard to stop.  And almost all involve playing favourites, rewarding one group or another – with other people’s money – according to the political preferences of the particular party in power.   Fiscal announceables, once announced, are very hard to take back off the table. 

By contrast, the MPC can and does act overnight, it can reverse itself, and it coerces no one, and picks no winners. Market prices shift and people and firms make their own choices whether or not more or less spending is now prudent for them.  There has rarely been a better illustration of how much more suited monetary policy is to short-term cyclical stabilisation than the surprises of the last year.  

And an overall assessment

How then should we evaluate the MPC’s performance?

It is clear they were poorly prepared.  There is really no excuse for that. It was always only a matter of time until the next severe shock came along.

When they finally began to appreciate the severity of the Covid shock their actions were in the right direction. 

But they can’t be credited with the good outcomes we are now experiencing – inflation and unemployment – because when policy was being set last year they expected their policy to deliver much worse outcomes, and did nothing about it.  We can’t blame them for the economic uncertainty, but they should be accountable for their own official forecasts and what they did with them[1].

The overall contribution of monetary policy to how things have turned out was pretty small.  Mostly what has happened was down to private demand reorganising itself and holding up much more than expected – notably by the Bank – greatly reinforced by the really big swing into structural fiscal deficits. 

As for monetary policy, the OCR cut was modest, and the exchange rate barely moved. The Bank claimed far too much for the LSAP, which was more noise than substance, and in the process they fed a narrative (“money-printing”) that made trouble for them and the government.  If they really believe the LSAP is as potent as they’ve claimed, perhaps they could make a start on tightening by first selling ten billion of bonds back to market.

And if they accomplished little buying lots of long-term bonds at the very peak of the market in the process they have run up big losses.  They dramatically shortened the duration of the overall public sector portfolio and then rates went back up.  These are real losses – at about $3 billion currently, four times the cost of the Auckland cycling bridge, without even the sightseeing bonuses.

We can’t realistically expect policy perfection but we can and should expect authoritative, open, and insightful communications. But MPC’s communications have been poor:

  • They never published the background papers they promised.
  • They never explained their weird ‘no OCR change for a year’ pledge.
  • There has been no pro-active release of relevant papers (unlike the wider central government approach to Covid).
  • They refuse to publish proper minutes – that actually capture the genuine uncertainties and inevitable, appropriate, differences of view, and which would allow individual members to be held to account.
  • Little serious research is published, and insightful analytical perspectives are rare.
  • From not one of them have we had a single serious and thoughtful speech on how the economy and policy are evolving.

In its first major test, the best grade we could give the MPC “could try harder, needs to avoid other shiny distractions, can’t continue to count on good luck”. Oh, and just as well for them that the individuals aren’t on the hook for those huge losses.

As with so many of our public institutions now, we deserve better.

[1] Note that just under three months ago, in the May Monetary Policy Statement, the MPC unanimously concluded that “medium-term inflation and employment would likely remain below its Remit targets in the absence of prolonged monetary stimulus” going on to note that “it will take time before these conditions are met”.

Those huge losses they have incurred for the taxpayer in running the LSAP – which by their own lights would have been unnecessary if the Bank had been better prepared – have not had much attention. They should. Some are inclined to downplay them on grounds of “think of all the macro good that was done”, but as I argue there is little evidence the LSAP made any useful macroeconomic difference to anything. Others downplay them on the feeble grounds that if the bonds are held to maturity the bond portfolio itself will not realise any losses (bonds are paid out at face value). But we can already see the cash cost to the taxpayer beginning to loom rather directly. The LSAP was simply an asset swap – the Bank bought long-term fixed rate bonds, and issued in exchange variable rate settlement cash deposits, on which it pays the OCR. The strong consensus now is that the OCR is about to rise quite a lot. Even if the OCR rises by 1 per cent and settles there indefinitely, the Bank (taxpayers) will be paying out hundreds of millions a year in additional interest. Of course, it could avoid those payments by selling the bonds back to the market – which it should be doing – but that would simply crystallise the losses on the bonds themselves. The taxpayer is materially poorer for the poor policy and operational choices of the Bank – they could have focused on short-term bonds (which are the maturities that matter in New Zealand), they could have had the banking system ready for negative rates, but instead they choice the flamboyant performative signalling routine of buying huge volumes of long-term bonds at what was (reasonably predictably) close to the very peak of the market. All while accomplishing little or nothing macroeconomically.

In a couple of months we’ll see the last Annual Report from the Bank’s old-style board (to be replaced next year). The Board has spent 31 years providing public cover for management. It is hard to envisage them changing approach at this later date. They really should, but the fact that they almost certainly won’t tells you why it was such a poor governance approach (even if the government’s replacement model if something of, at best, a curate’s egg sort of improvement).

(Circumstances, data, and perspectives do change. Some, but not all, of my views have shifted over the 18 months – as I’m sure everyone else’s has. The text of another lecture on monetary policy and Covid, from last December, is here.)