New Zealand and Australia

Yesterday’s post unpicked some of Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand’s speech in Sydney earlier this week.  As I noted, the goal of the speech seemed to be to leave readers with a sense that there really were good grounds for New Zealand to impose materially more onerous core capital ratios on locally-incorporated banks (recall that none of these requirements apply to any other lenders, banks or otherwise) than those imposed in Australia.   The gist of the case was, we were told

Our conservatism, relative to Australia, in our bank capital proposals reflects the higher macroeconomic volatility that we have endured, as I pointed out earlier.

Even over the nearly 30 years Bascand asked us to focus on, this wasn’t a very convincing argument.

As I pondered further the claim that New Zealand was exposed to materially more macroeconomic volality than Australia –  and the differences have to be “material” to support the material differences in proposed core capital requirements –  and conscious of the huge and wrenching Australian crisis of the 1890s, I’d just decided to look at a rather longer run of data when a reader, an academic economist, sent me an email making exactly the same point, and conveniently drawing my attention to this chart (from the Phil Briggs NZIER compilation of charts and text in New Zealand economic history).


It uses smoothed data because the estimates for the earlier decades, for both countries, are incredibly noisy.

But, if anything, over that 150 years, the Australian experience was more volatile than that of New Zealand.    Their financial crisis was much more severe than ours in the 1890s, and their experience of the Great Depression (including in the financial sector) is generally regarded as having been worse than ours, as examples.

You’ll recall that the Governor has chosen to attempt to calibrate his capital requirements so that, in principle, New Zealand experiences a financial (banking) crisis no more than once in 200 years.  We don’t have 200 years (of data, or experience) for New Zealand –  although the Australian data start from 1820 –  but if you want to mount arguments that we are (and will be) exposed to materially higher macro volatility than another country, it surely is only reasonable to look at as long a history of those two countries as one can reasonably get.  Unless, that is, one is using statistics/history for support –  for the boss’s whims –  rather than for illumination.

One can always discount history –  this, that or the other thing will always have been different, even if human nature isn’t –  but to mount a major policy case on a carefully chosen subset of history seems more akin to propaganda than to good policy process.

Or here is another chart.  Bascand included in his speech a chart on New Zealand GDP since 1965.   Here are the unemployment rates for the two countries since 1966 –  the official Australia data starts then and our series was backdated (from when the HLFS started in 1986) by Simon Chapple.  Not 200 years of data, but more than 50.

U rates long-term

Do those look like two economies prone to materially differing degrees of macroeconomic volaility?  If anything, Australia might have been a bit more volatile (over this particular period).  Peak unemployment rates in Australia in the Great Depression also appear to have been higher than those in New Zealand.

But I don’t want to mount an argument that Australia is more exposed to macroeconomic volatility than New Zealand is.   If anything, rather the contrary.  Over long periods, New Zealand and Australia have been two of the more similar countries on earth.  The modern countries emerged at much the same time, for almost all their histories they’ve had much the same exchange rate regimes, they’ve had strongly overlapping banking systems, they’ve been heavily dependent on foreign capital (especially in the development phase), they liberalised again at much the same time, they both run public debt sky high at much the same times, they both turned fairly inwards for a time, they’ve had pretty similar migration policies, they’ve mostly had very similar terms of trade cycles, and they’ve both had the rule of law (and similar legal systems) and democratic government throughout their modern histories.  They’ve been tolerably well-governed, tolerably successful in economic terms (Australia more than us in recent decades), with a high degree of financial stability in both countries for now well over 100 years –  with the sole exception of the brief period of shared craziness immediately after the 1980s liberalisation when no one (regulators, lenders or borrowers) really knew quite what they were doing.

2025 TOT

So if Adrian Orr and Geoff Bascand really want to mount a case for putting much more onerous capital requirements on in New Zealand than in Australia, it is simply absurd and untenable to  mount it on the basis of some intrinsic greater level of economic risk in New Zealand than in Australia.  It hasn’t been so in history, and they’ve not even sought to advance an argument for why it might be so in future.

Perhaps the Australians really have it wrong and superior wisdom rests with Messrs Orr and Bascand.  But, frankly, it seems unlikely.  Not only are the key Australian officials much more experienced in these matters than ours, and they have the additional worry that there is no prospect of parental support for their banks, but it is the New Zealand proposals which appear to put us out of line with (above) international benchmarks, despite the impressive long-term track record of financial stability here, the floating exchange rate regime, and a now well-established history of keeping governments out of credit allocation.

More generally, in banking systems that have so much in common, in economies with so much in common, surely we should have looked to our authorities to have worked closely with the Australians to have developed as common a regime as possible, recognising (inter alia) that if and when anything really goes wrong with any of the big 4 the problems will be trans-Tasman in nature and are likely to be resolved –  and be best resolved –  at a trans-Tasman political level.    I’m not suggesting Australian officials and politicians have our best interests at heart.  Both sides need to look after their own national interests, but those interests can be protected –  probably better protected –  by working closely together, on as common a framework as possibly, consistent with maintaining/pursuing an unquestionably strong banking and financial system.

As for New Zealand citizens and voters, we really should be demanding much higher standards from our top central bankers, who seem unable or unwilling to answer simple questions and challenges about what the Governor is proposing, or to do so in ways that are straightforward and reasonably defensible  That really should worry Grant Robertson, who is responsible for these men and for the institution.

The Deputy Governor goes to Sydney

Reserve Bank Deputy Governor (responsible for the financial stability portfolio) Geoff Bascand gave a speech in Sydney earlier this week.  The title was “Supporting sustainable economic growth through financial stability policy”, but it was really an effort to shore-up support for his boss’s radical bank capital proposals, and in particular to attempt to leave readers and listeners with some sense that there were robust grounds for having minimum core capital ratios materially higher (in headline terms, and in effect given differences in how rules are applied) in New Zealand than in Australia and that in the current climate there was lots of financial system risk.

Despite all the talk of consultation and review, I think it is now safe to assume the Governor won’t be backing down to any material extent.    The decision is due to be announced in “the first week of December” and since it is now mid-October the Governor must be very close to taking a final decision –  given that they still have to produce a Regulatory Impact Statement and a cost-benefit analysis to buttress whatever choice he makes, and (done reasonably) they take time.  Geoff wouldn’t have been sent off to sell the merits of the proposal in public, in Australia, if there were any prospect of any material turning.

The speech opened with a bit of a championing of inflation targeting.  It was a bit once over lightly (and Figure 2 leaves quite a bit to be desired) but it wasn’t really his main point.    Then we got a strange claim that

Usually our price stability and financial stability policies are complementary. However, the low interest rate world we live in complicates achieving both of our objectives, encouraging a build-up of leverage in the financial system. The persistent decline in long-term and short-term interest rates has supported very high levels of private sector leverage.

He made no effort to justify his claim around monetary policy at all (and recall that at the last MPS the Governor said interest rate mechanisms were working just fine), but the claim around leverage is pretty strange.  He says “a build-up of leverage in the financial system”, and yet the speech includes a chart illustrating the increase in the ratio of tier 1 capital to tangible assets over the last decade (that’s a reduction in leverage).  Then he talks about “very high levels of private sector leverage”.  And yet the chart under that paragraph shows that credit to households and businesses (including agriculture), as a share of GDP, is no higher now than it was in 2007 –  levels that did not lead to any particular economywide or systemic problems in New Zealand.  As for “leverage” –  debt to assets –  since asset prices (especially housing) have generally risen faster than GDP, economywide leverage must also have fallen.

For a senior official, with an economics background, responsible for financial stability to show little or no sign of having thought about why equilibrium interest rates now appear to be so low is…..well, quite a gap.  He seems confident that monetary conditions are ‘expansionary” but there looks to be little –  in credit growth, in asset price inflation, in wider consumer price inflation, in GDP growth rates relative to potential –  to support that proposition.

Then he moves onto his attempt to tell a story of heightened (financial stability?) risks.

We recognise that the risks globally are high, and New Zealand is particularly vulnerable to external events. Our economy is quite small – less than a fifth of the size of the Australian economy, and just like Australia, New Zealand is heavily reliant on commodity exports and is very open to financial capital flows. Commodity price movements in world markets determine the value of our key exports, as well as the price we pay for our imports, particularly those that are fuel-related. Monetary policy moves by foreign central banks may generate unfavourable fluctuations in our exchange rates.

Remarkably, that appears to be the only reference to exchange rates in the entire speech –  about how unhelpful they can be.  There is no sense that, in response to significant external shocks, both New Zealand and Australia have typically found exchange rate adjustment a helpful buffer.  I’ll come back to that point.

Then there is more of an attempt to convey a “New Zealand is more vulnerable” story, illustrated by reference to this chart.

bascand oct 1

It was a strange way to mount an argument – even if one thought the past two shocks (Asia crisis and “GFC”) were predictive of the future –  especially as he goes on to acknowledge that Australia’s term of trade (and thus incomes) have been pretty volatile.  Debt is nominal, and here is how growth in nominal GDP have compared in the two countries over much the same period.

bascand oct 2

Neither the frequency of fluctuations nor the amplitude of them look much different between New Zealand and Australia over this period.

Continuing his attempt to play-up differences we hear about nature

In addition to the disruptions in the global economic environment, the New Zealand economy is occasionally affected by weather-related shocks, such as droughts, that constrain the agricultural sector. In the past, we have also suffered severe damage to our infrastructure due to earthquakes.

Well, fine I suppose but (a) they have pretty savage droughts in Australia too, (b) droughts rarely pose any sort of systemic threat to the financial system, (c) Australia is materially more at risk (in economic terms) from climate change, and (c) the earthquakes story is mostly an issue about insurance (including supervision thereof) not banking, and about fiscal policy.  Perhaps there is a case for New Zealand to have lower public debt than Australia – although since his boss is champing at the bit for our government to spend and borrow more, I suspect that wasn’t the argument he was trying to make.

Then there is an attempt to play up housing exposures (apparently unaware that household debt ratios are higher in Australia than in New Zealand) and dairy exposures (but, remarkably, with no mention of the exchange rate as buffer), ending with this summary

That’s why maintaining financial stability in this highly vulnerable environment is challenging.

You might suppose that this “highly vulnerable environment” claim might have been backed by, say, stress test results.  But I guess they might have –  as previous ones have –  got in the way of Reserve Bank storytelling.   There is little or no credible basis for trying to claim that the New Zealand financial system is unusually or highly vulnerable.  Here, after all, is the Deputy Governor’s own chart.

bascand oct 3.png

Considerably more core capital than the banks had in the 00s, and we all know how modest the loan losses were in the subsequent, quite severe, recession, even coming after five years of rapid broad-based credit both (without even the moderating and guiding benefit –  so the Bank tells us – of Reserve Bank LVR restriction).

And then Bascand moves on more directly to making the case for the Governor’s planned swingeing increases in capital requirements for locally incorporated banks here.

Much of it is just a rehearsal of the same weak arguments we’ve heard all year.  There is the “very high” cost of crises, without any attempt to distinguish crisis effects from the misallocation resources in the preceding boom.  There attempts to minimise the (national GDP) cost of the insurance –  on Bascand’s own numbers from a previous speech perhaps $750 million per annum-  an argument which only works on implausibly large estimates of the costs of crises averted.

But there were new weak arguments. Thus

Also, it is worth recalling that capital requirements aren’t like other regulations, in that they don’t create an ‘expense’ for banks. Indeed, in an accounting sense, interest expenses would reduce for the same level of funding.

Does he really expect anyone to take seriously a claim that imposing a whole new funding structure on private sector businesses is really any different in spirit than all manner of other regulations –  especially when the Bank’s own numbers assume overall funding costs will increase.

On he ploughs

Our approach from the outset has been to set capital requirements at a level where we can be confident that these costs are outweighed by the benefits of a safer financial system.

But (a) we know from the published documents that the 1 in 200 year threshold was plucked out of the air at the very end of the process, and (b) since there is still no cost-benefit analysis how can they, let alone the public to whom they are accountable, be so “confident”?  It would be interesting to hear the Deputy Governor’s response to the recent paper issued by the BIS, reporting the work of various senior central bank officials, which would cast considerable doubt –  more generally –  on claims that anyone can be ‘confident” that such high minimum requirements as the Governor is planning offer a positive payoff.

The speech moves towards a conclusion with a page and a half on international comparisons.

We set our capital requirements according to the New Zealand specific risk environment, but we also acknowledge how we ‘stack up’ internationally, and why we may need a more capitalised banking system than those in other countries.

Recall that the Bank has never seriously engaged in public with the PWC work suggesting that effective capital requirements in New Zealand are already materially higher than those in most other advanced countries, and they not once produced any careful evaluation demonstrating how their requirements will stack up with those of APRA (in Australia and in their requirements for the entire banking groups).  Apart from anything else, APRA is a pretty well-regarded regulator on such things, and the benchmark would provide a useful basis for meaningful debate about just what is appropriate for New Zealand.  The short answer, of course, is that New Zealand’s core capital requirements will be materially more demanding than APRA’s, and even the total loss-absorbing capacity will be more demanding. Until now, the Bank has never attempted to articulate why it believes that is appropriate.

In his speech in Wellington in February (which I wrote about here), Bascand used a chart showing how capital ratios might compare across a selection of countries using S&P risk-adjusted capital (RAC) methodology.  He didn’t speak to it much, but it was helpful PR at the time as – the way S&P did things –  New Zealand’s current capital requirements produced the lowest capital ratios of any of the countries on the chart, and the Bank’s proposals put us only in the upper quartile of countries.

But the chart has been updated and this is the current version

bascand oct 4.png

Now – among this particular range of countries –  our current requirements produce ratios (on S&P’s methodology) that are more or less middle of the pack, and the Governor’s proposals would generate – again on the S&P methodology –  capital ratios higher than in any of these countries, other than Iceland.  And you will recall that tiny Iceland had an absolutely awful, world-scale, financial crisis only a decade ago.  Perhaps their caution, extreme risk aversion, is understandable.

Why did the estimated New Zealand capital ratios rise?  Because S&P revised their view of New Zealand’s economic and institutional position and concluded that we weren’t quite as bad as they thought previously.  Their assessments –  the BICRA scores –  move around a bit, and which category they put a country in then affects, quite substantially, the risk-weights applying to credit exposures in a particular country.    Because S&P think New Zealand is a riskier place than most advanced countries, risk weights used here in doing S&P’s calculations are higher than those in most other places.  And even so, on the Governor’s proposals, we still end with among the very highest capital ratios in the world.  If you think, for example, that risks here are greater than in Hong Kong (as S&P do) I have bridge for sale.  Or as risky, economically, as the UK –  where no one, but no one, knows what regime they will be under two week from now…..

International comparisons are hard to do well.  But the Reserve Bank has had a great deal of time to do better than this.  And yet appears not to have even tried. Not even around comparisons with Australia.

(Oh, and why does S&P take such a dim view of New Zealand.  Their methodology has long put great weight on the negative net international investment position.  Big changes (worsenings) in such positions do seem to have been associated with subsequent nasty macro adjustments, but New Zealand’s NIIP position has been at (or above) current levels for 30 years now.  If it were really an indicator of a serious vulnerability, it would almost certainly have crystallised by now.)

And before leaving this chart, I mentioned earlier that the Deputy Governor mentioned the exchange rate only once, and then unfavourably, in his entire speech.  But any serious macroeconomic analyst of financial stability risks recognises that a floating exchange rate can materially increase an economy’s resilience, especially when very bad events happen.  Part of the challenge of Greece and Ireland in the last crisis was that a fixed exchange rate (within the euro area) meant they had no capacity to use monetary policy to lean against demand excesses during the boom, and no capacity for the nominal exchange rate to adjust down when things went badly wrong.  That isn’t the New Zealand and Australian position. And yet on the Deputy Governor’s chart, almost half the countries have fixed exchange rates (and one other has bound itself to enter the euro in future).  That is a legitimate policy choice, but all else equal it would tend to require higher bank capital ratios to cope when things go badly wrong.

The final substantive section of the speech is headed “Relationship with Australia”.  Remarkably, it is a mere three sentences long, two of which are really just mechanical statements about “working closely together while pursuing respective national interests”, and nothing at all (for example) about crisis resolution (even though any banking crisis in one of the big four is inevitably going to be trans-Tasman in nature, and highly political).  The substance, such as it was, was an attempt to defend taking a tougher line on capital than APRA does.

This is the entire “argument”

Our conservatism, relative to Australia, in our bank capital proposals reflects the higher macroeconomic volatility that we have endured, as I pointed out earlier.

That is just pitifully poor, coming from such a senior figure, speaking to an international audience.  And it is not as if it was backed up with detailed discussion in the official consultative documents.  No, that’s it.

Remarkably, he doesn’t even engage with the difference between the New Zealand and Australia numbers in his own S&P chart (see above).  On S&P’s estimates –  and Bascand is quoting them, not me –  New Zealand bank Tier One capital ratios already higher than those in Australia, and would be far higher if Orr’s plans are proceeded with.  And that within a framework –  S&P’s –  that already marks New Zealand down as somehow less sound than Australia (we are grouped with Iceland, Malaysia, Mexico and the like).  Those differences –  alleged greater vulnerabilities – already captured, and we still come out with far higher core capital ratios than Australia.

It is a story –  well, more accurately, a line – I don’t find persuasive at all.

When Geoff Bascand gave his speech in Wellington earlier in the year the question of the appropriate degree of conservatism relative to other countries came up.  I wrote this.

In the question time yesterday, the Deputy Governor was given the opportunity by a sympathetic questioner to articulate why the Bank should be conservative relative to many other overseas banking regulators.   He didn’t offer much: there was a suggestion that New Zealand is particularly subject to shocks, and a claim that New Zealanders are strongly risk-averse (but not evidence, let alone that these preferences are stronger than those of people in other advanced countries).  I can identify grounds on which some regulators might sensibly be more conservative than the median:

  • if you were in a country with a bad track record of repeated financial crises.  But that isn’t New Zealand,
  • if you were in a country where much of credit was government-directed (directly or through government-owned banks).  But that isn’t New Zealand.
  • if you were in a country that depended heavily on foreign trade and yet had a fixed nominal exchange rate. But that isn’t New Zealand.
  • or no monetary policy capability of its own. But that isn’t New Zealand.
  • or if you were in a country where the public finances were sick.  But that isn’t New Zealand,
  • or if you were in a country where the big banks were very complex and you weren’t confident you understood the instruments. But that isn’t New Zealand.
  • or if you were in a country where the big banks had no cornerstone shareholder, were mutuals, or where the cornerstone shareholder was from a shonky regime. But that isn’t New Zealand.

The case just doesn’t stack up.

In particular –  and these are speeches given by the Head of Financial Stability –  there is no attempt to engage with the simple fact that the risks the Australian authorities face are much greater than those New Zealand authorities face precisely because our banks are owned by their banks and parental support is a credible prospect in all but the worst shocks.  By contrast, there is no cornerstone or dominant shareholder of any of the Australian banks and no one for the Australian authorities to look to if things ever go really badly wrong there.  And they could, as they could here.

If this was the best case the Reserve Bank could put up –  sending out the least-bad of their senior tier to a professional audience in Australia (it was not a junior manager making the case to the local Rotary Club) –  we should be even more worried about what is going on at the Bank, and the ability to top statutory officeholders to make and articulate good policy, than even I had feared.  Perhaps we should feel a little sorry for Bascand –  he has, after all, to make the case for the boss’s whims –  but he is himself a senior figure, a highly-remunerated senior holder of a statutory office.  If the case as is threadbare as this speech made it seem, the onus is surely on people on him to do something about it.




What was and what might have been

Yesterday’s short post –  which countries were rich or highly productive in 1900 and which are now –  wasn’t really about New Zealand at all (it was an article about the US and Argentina that prompted me to dig out the numbers).   But it prompted a question about New Zealand from a reader that sent me off playing around with the relevant spreadsheets again.

The question was along the lines of when were we at our economic peak (relative to other countries) and, given that we no longer are what it might have taken, in terms of different growth rates, for us to match the leading group now.

As a reminder, for historical periods the standard collection of reference data is that by the late Angus Maddison.  He collated estimates of real GDP per capita for a wide range of countries.  The numbers are only as good as the estimates made by the researchers Maddison drew from.  Perhaps they could be improved on  –  some researchers have tried for individual countries –  but for now they are still the standard starting point.   For more recent decades, I prefer to use real GDP per hour worked estimates (which will tell more about an economy’s productive performance, the wage rates it will support etc), either from the OECD or the Conference Board (the latter for a much wider range of countries).

My first chart yesterday was the top group as at 1900 – a date chosen just as a nice round number.

1900 GDP pc

The top five countries on this chart were the top five pretty much all the way from about 1890 to just prior to World War Two.   Here is how New Zealand did relative to (a) the median of those five countries, and (b) to the country that would emerge after World War Two as the clear leader, the United States.

NZ rel to others pre war.png

There is a bit of noise in the year-to-year estimates (particularly those for New Zealand), so I’m not putting any weight on that 1920 peak,  But abstracting from year to year noise the picture is reasonably clear.  Relative to this group of countries –  highest incomes anywhere at the time –  New Zealand did just fine in the quarter-century to the start of World War One.  We were, there or thereabouts, right up with the very richest. On these estimates, the number one slot moved around among the UK, the US, New Zealand and Australia.

Wars are dreadful things.  But they tend to be relatively less bad for countries producing food and wool, and not facing any physical destruction to their own country.  Even better perhaps for distant neutrals, as the US was until mid-1917.

New Zealand’s relative decline in the 1920s is notable (and not inconsistent with a story I’ve run for some years, about the lack of any really favourable idiosyncratic productivity shocks favouring New Zealand based industries, of the sort we’d had in the 30-40 years prior to World War One).

But perhaps what is interesting is the recovery –  especially relative to the United States – in the 1930s.  In 1939, for example, we were basically level-pegging again with this top group of countries –  a touch behind the US (No. 1), a touch ahead of Switzerland (No. 2).

Was everything then fine as late as the start of World War Two?  I’d argue not.   First, business cycles matters and don’t always run in phase across countries.  The United States, in particular, was very slow to recover from the Great Depression. Here is the unemployment rate

fredgraph U 30s

That is an unemployment rate in excess of 15 per cent at the end of the 1930s. In New Zealand, by contrast, the unemployment rate had been under 6 per cent as early as the 1936 census and the numbers registered as unemployed dropped away very sharply in the following few years, especially in 1938.

I was reading the other day an academic volume The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America, and was rather struck by the parallels between New Zealand in the late 1930s and some of the Latin American case studies (from the 70s and 80s).  Most of those experiences ended very badly.  New Zealand authorities were running very expansionary policies in the late 1930s which certainly boosted GDP and employment in the short-run, but culminated in the imposition of extensive foreign exchange controls at the end of 1938 and would almost certainly have ended in a highly public debt default in 1939 or 1940 if we hadn’t been –  as it were –  “saved by the war” (first, the British desire to avoid serious ructions in the run-up to the war, and then the intensified demand for our primary exports etc once the war began).

Consistent with that story is that after the war, when all three economies were pretty much fully employed –  and none had been directly physically affected by the conflict – New Zealand’s GDP per capita was well behind (10-20 per cent depending on the precise year and country) those of Switzerland and the United States.  Our heyday really had been the pre World War One period.

The second strand of my reader’s question really related to how far behind we now are.

Here was my second chart from yesterday, showing the top-20 real GDP per hour worked countries (from the Conference Board database) in 2018.

GDP phw 2018

I’m happy to set aside Norway (markedly boosted by oil/gas) and Luxembourg (city state with some material tax distortions) and focus on the next group of countries (Switzerland to Belgium) I’ve highlighted here in various posts.    On this measure, the median real GDP per hour worked exceeds that of New Zealand by 68 per cent.

New Zealand implemented a huge range of policy reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The aspiration was to make material inroads on closing the gaps that had opened between New Zealand and the OECD leaders.  Sadly, the gap has actually widened.  1990 is a common starting point for comparisons –  not only was it well into the reform period, but it was just prior to the New Zealand (and other advanced country) recession of 1991, so comparisons are not messed up but that particular cyclical issue.   In 1990, the median of that group of seven leading OECD countries was “only” 56 per cent ahead of New Zealand.

But what if things had been different?  How much more rapid productivity growth (than we actually experienced) would we have to have had since 1990 to have caught up with this leading bunch?   That is 28 years.  We”d have needed productivity growth that was 1.85 percentage points faster on average, each and every year.

Would that have been possible?   Who knows.   28 years seems a bit ambitious. But I did have a quick look at the data for some emerging OECD countries. Over the last 20 years or so, these countries have had productivity growth rates (on average over that long period) in excess of 1.85 percentage points above those of the median of that “leading bunch” of OECD countries:  South Korea, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia.

Would it have been possible for us? Who knows?  Would it be possible now, for the next 25 or 30 years?   I don’t know.  Personally, I’d be a bit surprised if we could close the gap that quickly, or fully.  But for now we are still going backwards (relatively)… we have, more or less, for 100 years.   And there seems no great sense of angst, unease or urgency among any of political parties, or the economic establishment.

What a diminished legacy for the next generation.




Dear Board members

You’ll recall that in Sunday’s newspaper Reserve Bank Board chair Neil Quigley declared, when asked by a journalist, that

Orr’s chequered behaviour is not something on which the Reserve Bank chairman, Neil Quigley, is prepared to act.

“I have not received a formal complaint from any party about the governor’s interaction with them,” he said. “The Board has full confidence in Adrian Orr’s leadership.”

Such an underwhelming attempt to avoid any pro-active responsibility to look into concerns in plain sight, let alone those under rocks.  He hadn’t had a “formal complaint” (but had presumably heard quite a few informal expression of concern) “from any party about the governor’s interaction with them” (suggesting that if someone had expressed concern to Quigley about how the Governor had treated other people, let alone other issues or processes, it wasn’t covered by his denial.  And all that without acknowledging the difficulty many people would have in formally complaining –  even if they had any confidence in the Board itself – given the Governor’s power over numerous financial sector businesses.  But it was all too much par for the course from the Board, which consistently seems to act as if it is more interested in covering for the Governor (whichever one) than in acting on behalf of the Minister and the public.

But as I noted the other day, Quigley’s narrow comment could be seen as a bit of an invitation for people to lodge expressions of concern.   I heard that someone had written to the chair of the Board expressing various concerns and calling on them to exert greater leadership in holding the Governor to account, and that in response Quigley had indicated the issue would be discussed at the Board’s regular meeting on Friday (Orr himself is a Board member, so one hopes at least some of the discussion occurs in his absence).  I decided to add my tuppenceworth to the mix and wrote to the Board last night.  As I’ve noted here, I’ve not had any bad interactions with the Governor myself, but what I’ve seen and heard of other episodes, and the succession of issues around poor process, poor policy substance, and poor communications were, to me, ample to think that the Board really needs to start taking these issues seriously.    It is hard to think of an advanced economy where so many people have had such broad-ranging concerns about an incumbent Governor –  and our one has more power than most.

The full text of my letter is here

Letter to RB Board re Orr October 2019 FINAL

Here is some of the text

You will, no doubt, be aware of the recent series of articles by the Stuff journalist Kate MacNamara. One does not have to be persuaded by all her arguments, or those of the individuals she quotes, to be seriously disconcerted by the perspectives on the Governor’s conduct that she reports. Some of the questionable conduct – the Governor’s treatment of Jenny Ruth at a recent press conference – was visible to all. Others weren’t. Perhaps all those other stories are false, perhaps all are grossly exaggerated. You would surely want to know whether or not that was so – MacNamara clearly having talked to people who are at least somewhat well-informed and the claims having been run prominently in a major mainstream media outlet – but you cannot have that assurance yourselves, or offer it to the public or Minister, without a serious review of the allegations, and of the wider “culture and conduct” that are claimed to have characterise the Governor increasingly in recent months. And yet your chair, when approached for comment, simply fell back on the line of “we haven’t received a formal complaint” (clearly suggesting you’d heard the informal unease many are feeling) as if that meant there was thus no need to do anything more. Frankly you owe it to the Governor, almost as much as to the public, to treat these issues seriously. If there is nothing to the stories – bullying, intimidation, bad-mouthing critics in public fora etc – surely the Governor’s name deserves to be cleared? If there is much to the stories, you need to act, and – having let things drift to this point – to be known to have acted.

And towards the end

Most recently, there was the statement released late last week by the Bank’s senior management – but clearly under the Governor’s aegis and in the Governor’s personal style. Anyone I know who has read it – and fortunately perhaps it hasn’t had much coverage – has been incredulous. How could the Governor of the central bank – the most powerful unelected person in New Zealand – be reduced to so much bluster, and attempts at distraction, trying to suggest that critics were raising unfair issues about Bank staff, when almost all concerns I’ve seen or heard have been about the Governor himself and, to a lesser extent, his senior management? The fact that his handpicked senior management went along with that statement, and were fully party to it, should itself raise further concerns for the Board (including because you also have statutory responsibility for keeping under constant review the performance of the Deputy Governor).

I could go on, but won’t. But there are ample prima facie reasons why the Board should be concerned about how the Governor is conducting himself and how he is conducting public affairs, and why that concern needs now to result in some open-minded but searching investigation and some serious accountability.

We should have a right to expect a Governor who is temperate, who displays gravitas, who demonstrates rigour, who recognises that every one of us has blindspots and is prone to making mistakes, who is open to genuine debate and challenge, who exercises a judicious authority, and models this sort of behaviour to the staff in the organisation he leads. You were responsible for Adrian Orr’s appointment. You need to act to ensure he operates in a manner consistent with those reasonable expectations. If you don’t, the Bank will be diminished – substantively, and in the eyes of domestic and foreign observers – the conduct of policy will be impaired, whatever potential Adrian has to be good Governor will never be realised, and your own standing as guardians of the public interests in the Bank will rightly -and perhaps irretrievably – be stained.

I gather from Neil Quigley that my letter will also be discussed by the Board on Friday.

I also wrote this morning to the Minister of Finance, partly to send him a copy of the letter to the Board, but also to highlight to him his responsibility for the Bank and for the Governor.

In many areas of the Bank’s operations the Governor operates independently of the Minister of Finance, and the Reserve Bank has day-to-day responsibilities for monitoring the Governor’s stewardship and conduct. But none of that diminishes your responsibilities as Minister of Finance. You appoint the Governor (on the Board’s recommendation) and the Deputy Governor, you appoint Board members (and now, specifically, the chair) and it is only on your recommendation that, if things got particularly bad, that either Board members or the Governor (or the Deputy Governor) can be removed from office. Moreover, you are the only person referenced in the Reserve Bank Act who is directly accountable to Parliament and to the public. If serious issues or concerns arise it is not satisfactory for a Minister of Finance to fall back on lines about operational independence or about leaving the Board to do its thing. You are responsible to ensure that all these appointees are doing their jobs to the high standards the public should expect from public officeholders.


These are serious matters and need to be addressed as such by both you and the Board. To the extent that concerns raised are either ungrounded or exaggerated, it is important that the Governor’s name be cleared. But to the extent that those concerns are warranted, it is important that they are addressed and issued remedied, for the sake of the Bank itself (including its staff), for the sake of good quality policymaking, in the interests of good governance in New Zealand more generally, and (frankly) for the Governor’s own sake. It isn’t good enough for the chair of the Bank’s Board – who is directly responsible to you – to suggest that not having received a “formal complaint” there is no need for the Board to do anything. Anyone charged with a monitoring responsibility needs to be much more pro-active than that.

One of criticisms of the Governor has been the lack of any serious or substantive speeches from him on topics he is responsible and accountable for.  As I noted to the Board, apart from anything else, such speeches can be one way of benchmarking the Governor’s performance.    As it happens, late this morning the Bank issued a speech by the Deputy Governor. I haven’t yet read it –  so reserve the right to disagree and criticise specifics (good serious speeches create the basis for intelligent discussion and debate) – but flicking through it it simply looks like a serious speech, of the sort a thoughtful central banker would give anywhere in the advanced world.  Of the sort unseen from Adrian Orr.  Bascand has his weaknesses (I’ve written about some of them here, including his apparent reluctance to make a stand) but back in 2017 he told media that he had applied to be Governor (which I wrote about here).  He missed out.  But whatever his other weaknesses, it is impossible to imagine that anyone would be raising the range of concerns –  process, substance, conduct –  had the Board and Minister appointed Geoff Bascand as Governor.



Prosperity then and now

I have a few other things on today, so these are just a couple of charts that are background for a post I may write tomorrow, prompted by this article.

The first shows the countries with the highest GDP per capita in 1900, expressed in international dollars, and taken from the Maddison project database.  Where I stopped is a bit arbitrary, but there is a reasonable step down from Chile to the next group of countries (ones in Europe).  Which countries make the list doesn’t depend on the precise choice of year (I checked 1913 and got the same list).

1900 GDP pc

I’ve also marked, in red, the countries that wouldn’t make a top-tier grouping today.

And here is the top tier of countries now, ranked by real GDP per hour worked (a better indicator of the capacity/possibilities of an economy, but for which there isn’t data for the earlier periods).   I’ve included a slightly larger number of countries, recognising that some of the very small ones (notably Luxembourg and Iceland) weren’t in the 1900 database.  For Ireland, I have followed the local authorities’ guidance and used their “modified GNI measure”.

GDP phw 2018

I find both the similarities and differences striking.

Most of the top-tier countries in 1900 are still there now.  Most of today’s top-tier countries (recognising that the oil exporters generally aren’t in the database) were there in 1900. Long-term persistence in prosperity is well-recognised in the literature.

But there are differences too.

In 1900, four Anglo countries topped the chart.  These days, only the United States is anywhere near the top.

And of the five southern hemisphere countries on the list in 1900, only one (Australia) is still there today.  All of the four who have dropped off the list are well below the lowest country on it (Ireland).

And the only Asian country that yet makes the list is Singapore (although Taiwan and Japan would take two of the next three places).


Holding the Bank to account: OIA requests

I was looking for something this morning on the Reserve Bank website and was surprised to find a very long list of Official Information Act responses this year.   When I counted, there were 50 for year to date, and it is only mid-October.

Here is the number of responses the Bank has on the website for each year since they started publishing.

RB OIA responses.png

I’m pretty sure it isn’t a consistent series.  Back in the earlier years, they seem to have only published the odd high-profile release (eg papers on South Canterbury Finance, or a joint one with The Treasury on the earthquakes).   They will, almost certainly have had more requests than were recorded here (even abstracting from the technical point that any request for information from a public agency –  be it ever so small a statistical query – is covered by the Official Information Act).

My interest is mainly in the years from 2015.  As it happens, I left the Bank in early 2015 and lodged a number of requests that year, perhaps a third of those shown.  I’ve remained a moderately active user of the Act –  which is what it is there for –  in requesting information from the Bank and the Board.  But the sharp increase in the number of responses shown  in the last couple of years has nothing directly to do with me.

I’m still a bit sceptical as to whether there is really a consistent series. I know that some of the responses I’ve had from the Bank have been published on the website and some not (ones to the Board seem to have been less likely to be published).  And this specific response –  to a National Party request asking for the number of requests the Bank had handled in a particular quarter –  confirms, by implication, that they are not publishing all the responses.  But a minimum of 50 requests over the course of this year to date is many more than the Bank was facing just a few years ago.

For such a powerful agency, making controversial policy and organisational changes, and subject to a review of its legislation, it doesn’t seem an unduly large number.  A few years ago, the Bank got very upset about the (then) rising number of OIA requests (this was 2015/16) suggesting that they were facing unreasonable burdens, threatening to charge etc etc.  As I pointed out at the time, there was no evidence they were facing as large a burden as (say) The Treasury –  which has 87 responses published so far this year – and I hope it has been something of a salutary lesson for them that the number of requests has only increased over the last few years.

The Reserve Bank Board may choose to do no serious scrutiny, to do little about holding successive Governors to account, but Parliament long ago provided for citizen scrutiny, through the (much abused and avoided) mechanisms of the OIA.  It is good to see people using those provisions.

Better still, of course, would be if the Board and the Minister of Finance were adequately doing their job, holding the Governor and the Bank to account on process, substance, and conduct.



Culture and conduct in question

Stuff’s new, apparently Canadian, journalist Kate MacNamara is doing a pretty good job of keeping up the pressure on the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Adrian Orr.  It is hard to believe a New Zealand journalist would have done so –  one column perhaps, but not three in a week.  Then again, I’m pretty sure we’ve never had a Reserve Bank Governor behaving in quite such an egregious and unacceptably poor way –  not as a single lapse of judgement either, but as a sustained pattern of behaviour.  Sadly, the conduct of the Board (and the Minister?) in such matters, of which more below, is all too typical of the New Zealand establishment.

MacNamara’s latest (“Orr’s culture and conduct in question”) was in the Sunday Star-Times yesterday.   She frames the issue as one of whether the desired end (a stronger banking system) justifies the means (Orr’s conduct).  I’m not sure that is the best way to frame the issue, but here is her take

In December, the Reserve Bank released its boosted capital reserves proposal and asked all interested parties to make submissions.

It would be an open process, the bank said, welcoming all views. But that characterisation was soon at odds with the governor’s behaviour.

Numerous parties involved in the submission process described a pattern of behaviour by Orr of belittling and berating those who disagreed with him.

Orr has penned his critics letters and threatened to broadcast them. He has confronted submitters on the sidelines of industry conferences. Sometimes he called them up at odd hours to tear a strip off them for their views.

And that is before starting on the not-particularly-robust analysis in support of the Governor’s proposal  –  for a huge increase in bank capital ratios, after years when the Bank assured us the system was sound and robust – that the Bank has, only slowly, been rolling out.  Cost-benefit analysis anyone?  Only after he has made his final decision –  for which there are no rights of appeal –  the Governor tells us.

As MacNamara notes, Orr wields an extraordinary level of power in this area –  unparalleled, as far as I know, anywhere in the advanced world.  He can wheel up a proposal, working to no very well defined parliamentary mandate, has only to jump through process hoops around consultation, and then makes the final decision all by himself.  There are no substantive appeals allowed, and the Minister of Finance cannot overrule him (though could, if he chose, bring other pressures to bear).

One of my criticisms of the Governor is that he doesn’t stay in his lane, and sounds off on all manner of highly political issues in pursuit of his personal ideological agendas (in ways we’d find quite unacceptable if other senior independent figures –  the Police Commissioner, the Chief Justice eg – were to do it).  Sadly, that has become quite common –  especially around climate change – among central bankers globally, and Mark Carney (Governor of the Bank of England) has made pretty clear his personal views on Brexit.  As MacNamara notes, apparently

To provide a little context, Orr was recently compared in his outspokenness to Bank of Engand governor Mark Carney.

Paul Waldie covers Carney in London as the European correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. Carney was previously governor of the Bank of Canada.

Carney has been criticised for playing politics in his estimations of the cost of Brexit in the United Kingdom.

But Waldie is emphatic. “He’s never rude. He’s never personal. He doesn’t hit back at his critics. He’s cool-headed.”

Carney provides no precedent for phoning adversaries after hours, neither blasting them from the lectern or on the sidelines of industry meetings and events.

He gives serious thoughtful speeches as well.

MacNamara concludes

On the contrary, Orr appears to be unrivalled among central bankers in the developed world for the tempestuous and personally directed venting of his views.

I’ve watched, and participated in, central banking for a long time, and that would be my view too.  MacNamara introduces another overseas expert on such matters.

Annelise Riles of Northwestern University’s Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, who’s studied the behaviour of central bankers and has even written a book about them, couldn’t think of a single comparator in contemporary times.

Central banks certainly use many channels to communicate with banks, she said. And it’s not uncommon for central bankers to let banks know how they feel.

“But berating them publicly is just not seen very much,” she said. And though private exchanges are less visible, she couldn’t think of any examples of bald incivility or hostility.

Central bank heads often aren’t even close to saints  (just think back a few years to the way Graeme Wheeler and his top team –  including the current Dep Governor – were used in a not-at-all subtle attempt to shut down criticism from the BNZ’s Stephen Toplis), but nonetheless Orr’s sustained pattern of conduct seems to stand out.  Perhaps the only “defence” one might make of it is that what you see is what you get –  he has always been known for these sorts of tendencies.  He can behave fine when he is on top in an unquestioned way, but put him under any sort of pressure and he isn’t someone to conduct himself with dignity, civility, and respect.

I haven’t had particularly bad experiences of Orr’s personal conduct myself. I had quite a bit to do with him in his two earlier stints in the Reserve Bank, but when he was Chief Economist I was in the Financial Markets Department and when he was head of financial markets and bank supervision I was in the Economics Department.  I saw shonky analysis in support of questionable policies, and didn’t have much time for his divisive style (which, remarkably, he owned up to in a farewell speech when he left the Bank the first time).  But I was left some mix of underwhelmed and bemused  –  at this extremely ambitious, outgoing, sometimes amusing, opportunistic, but not fundamentally serious person –  rather than having any particular sense of personal grievance.  When he was appointed Governor I wrote a couple of posts (one here) that I still think read as a pretty balanced treatment, if generous with the benefit of hindsight.

Others have had a much stronger view.  This comment was left on my Saturday post by Geof Mortlock, who worked directly under Adrian during both of Orr’s previous Reserve Bank stints.

None of what we are seeing with Adrian Orr surprises me in the least. It is precisely what I had expected when he was appointed as governor. The problems so clearly revealed now for all to see were very much evident to me and many others when Orr was deputy governor and head of financial stability in the period 2003 to 2007.  He created a sense of panic when there was no need for it. He engaged aggressively with Australian banks when mature, adult dialogue would have been far more effective and appropriate. He facilitated and abetted an aggressive and petulant fight with APRA, RBA and Aussie Treasury over trans-Tasman regulatory issues rather than seeking to resolve them in a considered, intelligent manner. He engaged aggressively with staff and routinely bullied them. He created a deep level of stress in the RBNZ among staff that contributed to the departure of some key people. I can attest to what it was like working with him. I and others departed the RBNZ because of the severe impact he had on morale and because of concerns over mismanagement of issues and because of the appalling culture that he and others created in the RBNZ. Bollard presided over much of this, either unaware or unconcerned, and did nothing to address the matter from what I could see.

Now that Orr is governor, his unsuitability for the job is evident for any impartial observer to see. The lack of judgement, unsuitable temperament, lack of maturity, inadequate knowledge of the issues and a serious failure to intelligently addressthe policy issues are all obvious to anyone who cares to look at his performance.

Sadly, the RBNZ Board seems to lack the competence or mettle to do anything about it. Its recent annual report was a pathetic effort at exercising meaningful scrutiny over Orr. Even more sadly we seem to have a minister of finance who is asleep at the wheel and either turning a blind eye to Orr’s appalling incompetence in handling the tasks entrusted to him or who is happy to see Orr playing an overtly political role that is totally inappropriate for someone holding office as governor.

It is time that the people with authority over Orr did something about his conduct, statements and handling of policy issues. The RBNZ’s credibility is at stake. And serious policy outcomes are under threat. Robertson and the Board need to take action to address the Orr problem.

Ah, the Board.  They got us into this mess.   Assuming they followed the provisions of the Act (and didn’t just take guidance from Grant Robertson) they are the one’s responsible for his appointment as Governor.  They don’t have many other specific powers, but they have an overarching responsibility to keep under “constant review” the performance of (a) the Bank, and (b) specifically, the Governor in whom most of the powers of the Bank are still personally vested.    If the Board isn’t satisfied they must advise the Minister in writing, and may go so far as to recommend the dismissal of the Governor.  (Regardless of the views of the Board, the Minister may also recommend dismissal of the Governor is satisfied that the Governor has not “adequately discharged” the responsibilities of his office.)

Last week I suggested that one omission from the first MacNamara article was any sign of having approached the Board.  I didn’t expect she’d get much if she asked, but what the chair said was likely to be telling, even if he simply stonewalled.   Anyway, for this week’s article MacNamara went to the chair, the economist academic (and Vice-Chancellor of Waikato) Neil Quigley and sought comment.  This is what she got.

Orr’s chequered behaviour is not something on which the Reserve Bank chairman, Neil Quigley, is prepared to act.

“I have not received a formal complaint from any party about the governor’s interaction with them,” he said. “The Board has full confidence in Adrian Orr’s leadership.”

Some people will argue that Quigley had little choice but to express full confidence (for a corporate board you back the incumbent until you sack him or her).  I don’t agree with that take, given that the Reserve Bank’s Board is explicitly set up as a monitoring and accountability body, with its own public reporting responsibilities etc separate from those of the Bank.     It isn’t an executive body.

But what startled me wasn’t the formulaic “full confidence” line  so much as the rest of the comment.  Here is how Eric Crampton phrased his response to Quigley’s comments

eric orr.png

Quite.   Of course, Orr doesn’t have much power over some people who have been badly treated by him –  for example, the academic Martien Lubberink –  but the general point, that one is dealing a very powerful man here, is well made.  How did the Board so diminish its own sense of its role that the only thing they’d be interested in is a “formal complaint”?  And why would they suppose anyone would bother them when the Board –  under Quigley and his predecessors (think of the Toplis business or the OCR leak) –  has a long record of really only acting as fronts for successive Governors (even on rare occasions when something approaching a “formal complaint” has been made).    It is almost like a climate in which everyone knows there has been, say, a culture of sexual harrassment in an organisation, perhaps starting from the top, but no one quite has the courage to lodge a formal complaint –  the fact that “everyone knows” something should still put a Board on notice that there is something to get to the bottom of, something that needs addressing.   Quigley and his colleagues surely are reading the newspapers and other commentary and they should be keeping an ear open on the cocktail party circuits etc they no doubt frequent. It is their job –  “constant review”, not simply responding to a “formal complaint”, whatever one of those might be in this context.

That is what serious people doing the Reserve Bank Board job would be doing.  But, of course, no one –  with the possible exception of the Governor –  has any confidence in the Board to do its job.  It is why the government has made an in-principle decision to remove that role from them, but in the meantime perhaps they do a public service in demonstrating just what a pointless useless entity there are.  I gather the Board has its monthly meeting on Friday,  It is time for a rethink, and for beginning to finally take seriously the growing concerns about the Governor, not waiting for “formal complaints” Perhaps Quigley’s comment could even perhaps spur a few people to consider lodging ‘formal complaints” –  not necessarily because as individuals they can’t cope with a rude bully, but because we should expect much better standards of behaviour from powerful public figures.

The whole episode –  the bank capital review –  has been characterised by poor process, poor substance, and astonishingly poor conduct, all of which are the Governor’s personal responsibility.  He needs to be called to account –  and not just by a journalist and a few specialist commentators –  by those formally charged with doing the job (Board and Minister), but also by his own senior managers (eg he has a deputy governor with a secure statutory position and earning $600000 per annum), decent people who must be getting increasingly uncomfortable with the boss’s style.   Apart from anything else, it is simply a shocking model for up and coming central bankers and financial system regulators.  People are shaped, for good and ill, by those who lead the organisations they are part of.   Rigour, detachment, courtesy, openness, gravitas, judiciousness and so on are the sorts of qualities we should expect to find in a Reserve Bank Governor.  Not one of them seems to characterise the incumbent.  It isn’t a single lapse of judgement, but a systematic pattern of  the sort of culture and conduct that should alarm anyone who cares about good governance and high-quality policymaking in New Zealand.