Debt default by the US government

There was a great deal of debt defaulted on during the Great Depression.   Businesses failed, farms went bust, and some mortgage borrowers defaulted too.    But a huge number of governments also defaulted on their obligations, not just in places like Greece or Argentina which had form in that regard, but including many of the governments of the richest countries in the world.  You could read about the New Zealand episode here.   Most countries in Europe (including the UK and France) defaulted on their (substantial) war debts to the United States –  in fact, only Finland paid in full.  But even the United States government defaulted.

There is an interesting and accessible new book out about that experience, American Default.   It is written by UCLA Chilean academic Sebastian Edwards (who has been used as an adviser and author here, including this paper at a Treasury/Reserve Bank conference a few years ago), who got onto the subject after acting as an adviser to law firms involved with sovereign defaults by Argentina after 2001.

Going into the Great Depression most countries were, directly or indirectly, on the Gold Standard (indirect in New Zealand’s case, where the banks managed the exchange rate to maintain parity with sterling which was fixed to gold).  But the US situation was a bit different than most.   After the experiences with inflation (and fiat money) during the Civil War, in the subsequent decades –  right up to the early 1930s –  US government bonds were issued with a provision (the “gold clause”) that entitled the borrower, at his/her own option, to be repaid in gold.  Many corporate bond contracts had similar provisions.  They were intended as a protection for the lender against unexpected inflation (arising when the fixed parity between dollars and gold was broken, or abandoned), and at least in the early decades must have allowed US borrowers to borrow more cheaply, and/or for longer-terms than they would have otherwise been able too.  In that respect, they were similar to the way in which many countries with a track record of high or variable inflation found it difficult to borrow in their local currency, and borrowed in foreign currencies instead.

By 1933, many countries (notably the UK) had already broken the link to gold.  But the US (and France and several other smaller European economies) hadn’t.  Breaking the link was part of what enabled those countries to begin recovering from the Depression (both by devaluing against gold-based currencies, and by allowing interest rates to be cut further).   By 1933, there was plenty of gold in the US, but no recovery –  indeed, Roosevelt took office in the midst of a banking panic.  As in many other countries, the price level had fallen significantly, such that the real value/burden of any debt contract outstanding was materially greater than had been expected only a few years earlier.

That said, the US government itself was not particularly heavily indebted.  Economic historian Peter Temin’s book on the Great Depression includes a table suggesting that gross debt of all level of US government in 1929 had only been about 35 per cent of GDP.  (By contrast, in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK general government public debt in 1929 had been in excess of 170 per cent of GDP.)   Corporate bonds outstanding seem to have been of a similar size.   Of course, in all cases these debt ratios rose as economies moved towards the depths of the Depression, as both real GDP and the level of prices fell.

It seems that Roosevelt didn’t have a clear strategy in mind when he took office (and the tie to gold hadn’t been a campaign issue).  The actual approach unfolded gradually over the year or two after he took office.  What did the US government do?

The first major step –  extraordinary in a free society –  was to simply outlaw private sector holdings of gold.   All but trivial amounts of gold had to be delivered to the government, with less than a month’s notice, for which holders were paid at the then still-current official price of gold (US$20.67 an ounce).   Private holdings of gold were forbidden for decades.  A few weeks later Congress passed a declaration explicitly prohibiting gold clauses in future securities issues, and abrograting (voiding) existing provisions.   The government then began buying up gold (in the international market) steadily raising the US dollar price of gold until in January 1934, with Congressional authorisation, the official price was reset at $35 an ounce (where it remained until 1971).  US citizens couldn’t get hold of gold, but the US remained willing to buy at the price from overseas sellers.

In effect, the US was off the Gold Standard and had devalued its exchange rate. Gold purchases were increasing the domestic monetary base. In combination, such measures should, and did, support a lift in US economic activity and in prices (commodity prices in particular, in USD terms, rose quite quickly and substantially as one might expect).

And, in the process, the US government managed a huge windfall gain for itself.  As another recent treatment of this episode (by Richard Timberlake, not referenced by Edwards) records, the book profits on the revalued gold was roughly equal to total Federal government revenues in 1934.  Compel citizens to sell you an asset at one price and then re-set the price, more in line with economic realities, and in the process transfer a great deal of wealth from citizens to the government.   It isn’t the sort of approach one would normally expect in a country with the rule of law.

But, of course, the interesting thing about the United States is the way the constitution sometimes intrudes in the freedom of governments to do just as they want.  Had a New Zealand, Australian, or British government adopted measures like those in the US, there would have been nothing much anyone could have done about it, once the parliamentary battle was lost.  But in the US many of these sorts of issues are only finally resolved at the Supreme Court, testing the validity of congressional or executive actions against the provisions and protections of the Constitution.

And that is what happened in this case, although only in respect of the abrogation of the gold clauses.  There were several cases taken, each with slightly different factual bases, covering both private and government obligations.    The claim wasn’t to be paid in physical gold –  private holdings of which were now illegal –  but to be paid the dollar value of the gold equivalent when the bond had been issued.  In dollar terms, that would be 69 per cent (35/20.67) more than otherwise.  There were substantial sums at stake.

As Edwards illustrates, the Supreme Court hearings were closely followed by markets and the press (and at the time the court was perceived to be roughly evenly divided between what might loosely be described as “conservatives” and those of a more moderate or “progressive” disposition).   Media coverage suggested that the government’s lawyers had not had the best of the hearings themselves.   The Court’s ruling was eagerly awaited, and with some trepidation by the government.  Contingency planning had been undertaken, and in Roosevelt’s papers is the draft text of an address he intended to deliver had the Court ruled comprehensively against the government, and papers outlining the actions he intended to initiate in response.    An adverse outcome wasn’t going to be acceptable.  Roosevelt seems to have regarded the abrogation of the gold clauses as an essential element in his overall strategy to lift economic activity and prices; indeed one of the key arguments made to the Supreme Court was around a justification of national emergency.

As it happens, the government won in practice.   The abrogation of the gold clauses, at least as applied to Federal government debt, was ruled unconstitutional (by an 8 to 1 margin).   But by a 5 to 4 margin, the Court ruled that the abrogation had not produced any damages to bond holders, and so those bondholders were prevented from taking further action (in something called the Court of Claims) against the government.  In other words, there were to be no practical consequences for having passed an unconstitutional law (I’m not entirely clear –  it isn’t discussed in the book – why having ruled it unconstitutional the Court didn’t overturn that provision, but clearly they didn’t).

Had the gold clauses in private and government bonds been allowed to stand, issuers would have been required to pay 69 per cent more (dollars) than otherwise (but, in effect, the same amount of gold).  In his book, Edwards seems to accept that this would have been a highly damaging, undesirable, and unacceptable outcome.  I’m less convinced.

For a start, they were the terms on which contracts had been entered into (at numerous different dates), and the cases before the Supreme Court all involved substantial and sophisticated issuers including the US government itself (although I understand that some residential mortgages at the time may also have contained the clause).  And it is not as if changes in gold parities and prices had never happened before (indeed, in other countries they had been frequent during World War One and the subsequent decade). No one, in contracting –  or purchasing – these bonds could credibly claim to have put no weight at all on the possibility of the US ever changing the gold price of dollars.  In fact, the US was still issuing bonds containing the gold clause into 1933, 18 months after the UK (for example) had gone off gold.

It is probably fair to suggest that no one really anticipated a deflationary event as severe and sustained as the Great Depression, but there is at least an arguable case that bankruptcy courts and limited liability exist to handle cases where things turn out unsustainably far from expectation.  But that is a case-by-case procedure, not a blanket transfer of wealth from lenders to borrowers.  In the US government case –  see the numbers earlier –  federal debt was not large and even Roosevelt acknowledged that losing the case would not have bankrupted the government.   Quite possibly the situation would have been different for some corporates.  But it is also worth remembering the whole point of the Roosevelt strategy (not so different in its end aims from those in many other countries), which was to markedly raise the economywide price level and reverse the sharp falls that had happened during the Depression.  To the extent that strategy was successful, the abrogration of the gold clauses would clearly leave lenders materially worse off than they would have been otherwise.  For borrowers in the tradables sector (admittedly probably a minority), the depreciation in the exchange rate itself markedly (and immediately) improved their capacity to service the debt, so it is even less obvious what the case was for the arbitrary use of government power to provide debt relief.

One of the government’s other arguments was that since the price level in the mid 1930s was materially lower than it had been a decade earlier, anyone who held the bonds throughout would be getting an unexpected windfall gain simply being paid out in dollars (since the purchasing power of those dollars was greater than it had been), let alone being paid out at the new higher gold price.  But even to the extent that argument was valid, it doesn’t take any account of secondary market trading in the affected securities.  A person who purchased a new issue bond in (say) 1926 might indeed be getting a windfall gain –  and windfall gains and losses happen all the time in economic life –  but a secondary market purchaser who’d purchased that bond in late 1932 would have lost out badly (and might well have put a high value on the gold clause as protection against just such an eventuality).

(To illustrate the windfall point, in the late 1980s and early 1990s New Zealand governments were determined to get inflation sustainably down. There wasn’t a great deal of confidence that would happen.  As late as November 1990, the 10 year bond yield averaged 12.96 per cent.  Actual CPI inflation in the subsequent 10 years averaged 1.8 per cent.  Similar windfall losses happened when inflation unexpectedly rose, and stayed up, in the 1970s.)

The sorts of revaluation effects the Roosevelt administration successfully tried to overturn happen not infrequently in systems where borrowers –  especially those not in the tradables sectors, without an export revenue hedge – have taken on considerable foreign currency debt, only for a substantial devaluation or depreciation in the exchange rate to occur.  It happened, for example, in New Zealand in 1984: much of the government’s debt was in foreign currency terms, and a 20 per cent devaluation immediately increased the servicing burden by 25 per cent.  Granted that New Zealand wasn’t in the depths of a depression in 1984 , but no one thought it would fair, reasonable (or even possible) to default on that additional servicing burden.

But in the early 1930s, both New Zealand and Australia were in the depths of really rather severe economic depressions –  perhaps not quite as bad as in the US, but certainly much worse than in, say, the UK.   Both countries had really large volumes of central, local (and state, in Australia) government debt issued abroad –  debt burdens far heavier than those facing the US government when Roosevelt took office.  The distinction between New Zealand or Australian pounds and pounds sterling wasn’t that clear in those days, but as the exchange rate diverged during the Depression, initially with government acquiescence and then at government direction (our own formal devaluation happened in early 1933) debts payable in London were suddenly costing the borrowers far far more than they had envisaged (in New Zealand pound terms).  And the price levels in New Zealand, Australia, and London were all quite a bit lower than initially envisaged.   New Zealand and Australian governments would have welcomed some debt relief on their overseas debts, but it never came: the powerful counterargument was “well, if we are going to successfully boost global price levels such relief won’t end up being necessary”.  And it wasn’t.

The big difference perhaps between the New Zealand and Australian cases and the US one in the 1930s is that the US debt was almost entirely held by domestic investors and was issued wholly under US domestic law.  The US didn’t need to tap international markets on a continuing basis, unlike both New Zealand and Australia.  And so New Zealand and Australia imposed defaults in respect of government  debt issued to domestic holders, but not to foreign ones, and the bulk of the (public) debt was foreign.  But rereading the account of the New Zealand (and Australian) experience in the 1930s, what is striking is the extent to which lenders were willing voluntarily to write down the value of their claims, voluntarily converting to less valuable (government) securities, apparently from some sense of “fairness” or the “national interest”.   One can wonder what sort of response Roosevelt would have achieved had he tried moral suasion rather than legislative coercion.   Perhaps it wouldn’t have worked for private sector issuers –  and for example, the New Zealand government used various legislative interventions in the 1930s to relieve farm debt –  but some case-by-case approach still seems preferable than the rather arbitrary use of legislative instruments to relieve all corporate borrowers from obligations they voluntarily entered into.  Especially, when the economy and the price level were just about to recover, improving (markedly) future servicing capacity.

Of course, had the US recovery subsequently been strikingly more robust and successful than those of other countries, there might be a stronger prima facie case for this (distinctive) debt relief component of Roosevelt’s strategy.  But it wasn’t.  As is well-recognised, it wasn’t until around 1940 that real GDP per capita in the US got back to 1929 levels (years behind, say, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK in that regard).  And the recovery in the price level also lagged.

Here is a chart of the price levels, indexed to 100 in 1929.

price levels

Prior to World War One, price level movements tended to be quite slow and gradual.  There was little sign anywhere of entrenched expectations of future trend changs (up or down).  After World War Two, inflation became an entrenched feature of the system.  In this period, things were in transition.   There were windfall gains and losses, falling heavily on different groups at different times.   But if deflation was the story of the Depression specifically, across all four countries the dominant theme of the period is a lift in the price level.  Even by 1939, in New Zealand and Australia and the UK price levels were more or less back to pre-Depression levels (it took a few years longer in the US).     There seems little obvious case for a borrower, not initially over-indebted, to use legislative powers to abrogate contracts freely entered into to remove significant value from lenders, at a time when the entire of macro policy was to drive up the price level.

A fair, and interesting, point Edwards makes (and which I also make in the treatment of the New Zealand default) is that there were few obvious adverse consequences from this US default.  There is little sign that borrowers became more reluctant to lend, or charged higher risk premia.  If so, that suggests that perhaps people in aggregate really did see it as a step not unjustifed in the extraordinary circumstances.

It is an interesting book about a now little-known episode in US history.  Edwards combines history, economics, and legal analysis, but presents in a way designed to appeal to the intelligent lay reader, not just to the geeky economic historian.  Debt default episodes –  here, there, and everywhere –  should be better understood.  We surely haven’t seen the last of sovereign defaults perhaps –  the way fiscal policy is going – even in the United States.

A stuff-up by Statistics New Zealand

Many readers will recall the fiasco of the leak of an OCR announcement back in March 2016.  It turned out that the Reserve Bank’s systems were had been so lax for years that people in the lock-ups they then held could simply email back to their offices (or to anyone else) news of the announcement that was supposed to be being tightly held.  This weakness only came to light because someone in Mediaworks emailed the news of this particular OCR announcement to their office, and someone in that office emailed me (from memory I was supposed to go on one of their radio shows later that morning).  I drew the matter to the Bank’s attention.

In the wake of that episode, the Bank (rightly in my view) cancelled the pre-release lock-ups for journalists and analysts.  But other government agencies went right on, relying on trust more than anything else.   One notable example was Statistics New Zealand, which produces and publishes many of the most market-moving pieces of economic data.    When asked about any possible changes to their procedures (outlined here) following the Reserve Bank leak in 2016, they responded

Statistics NZ has not undertaken any reviews or made any changes to the department’s policy for media conferences following the Official Cash Rate leak at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and the subsequent Deloitte report into that leak released last week.

and

While Statistics NZ has never had a breach, if that trust is abused and an embargo is broken, offenders and their organisation would be barred from attending future media conferences.

As I noted back then

Unfortunately, that was probably the sort of discipline/incentive the Reserve Bank was implicitly relying on as well.

Unfortunately, after the confusion the Prime Minister gave rise to earlier in the week, confusing the crown accounts and GDP (which had some people abroad worried that the Prime Minister actually had had an advanced briefing), there was apparently more trouble this morning.  But this time, the fault was entirely with Statistics New Zealand, and not with those in the lock-up.

The embargo for the lock-up on gross domestic product (GDP) for the June 2018 quarter, held today, 20 September 2018, was lifted about one minute earlier than the planned time of 10.45am.

The lock-up is held in Stats NZ’s Wellington offices from 10am to 10.45am, to allow key financial media, bank economists, and other government agencies to understand the information and ask questions about GDP, before the embargo is lifted. It is held under strict embargo conditions.

Stats NZ staff in the lock-up check official New Zealand time on the Measurement Standards Laboratory of New Zealand (MSL) website.

However, a computer script (JavaScript) bug meant that the official time clock website that appeared on the staff member’s phone picked up the phone’s own time setting, which was slightly fast.*

In other words, those in the embargoed lock-up had the data –  and could communicate it to their dealing rooms – a minute earlier than anyone not in the lock-up got the data.     And it seems to have mattered.  GDP was higher than expected and the exchange rate jumped.   People who were in the lock-up got the jump on that.  I’ve heard that the exchange rate moved before 10:45 (the official release time), which isn’t surprising if people in the lock-up had been told the embargo had been lifted.

What is striking about the statement SNZ put out –  and it wasn’t exactly distributed widely (say, to all the people who got the GDP release itself) –  is that there is no mention at all of these possible early trades, which (in effect) distributed money/profits from one group of people (those not in the know) to another (those in the know).  Unlike the 2016 Reserve Bank leak, there seem to have been real financial consequences to this mistake.  And it isn’t clear that Statistics New Zealand is taking it that seriously.   When I asked about any investigation being undertaken, the implication of their reply was that there would be no further investigation or review beyond the narrow technical statement I linked to earlier. I hope that is not correct (and I hope, for example, the Reserve Bank is insisting on something more).

Writing about these data lock-ups in 2016 I noted of the SNZ situation

Is Statistics New Zealand that different?  There is, obviously, no policy message SNZ is trying to put across with its releases, and so no risks of different messages getting to different people.  But the security risks are the same.  Perhaps it is simply more efficient to have everyone in the same room, to clarify key technical points, but couldn’t the same end be achieved –  on a more competitively neutral basis (to analysts based abroad, say) –  by a dial-in (even webcast) conference call held a bit later on the day of the release?

That still seems right to me. I cannot see the case for a pre-release lock-up (and I can see a case for a technical conference call later in the day).   Mistakes will happen while they keep on with lock-ups.   The reliance on trust seems to be as strong as ever, and (as far as we know) that has been honoured.  This time, the stuff-up was by Statistics New Zealand themselves.   It was unnecessary, and it will at the margin (and especially in conjunction with the political contretemps earlier in the week) damage confidence in our statistics agency and the integrity of our data.

A picture in continuity

Here is a summary chart of the real GDP outcomes for the June quarter (expenditure and production), the hours outcomes (QES and HLFS), and the implied change in labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked), taking the average change in hours worked from the average growth in real GDP.

GDP q2 1

There was quite a bit more activity all round, but it took a larger percentage increase in labour inputs (hours) to get the published percentage increase in output (GDP).  In other words, labour productivity fell: not just the growth rate, but the level.

Here is the same chart for the previous quarter.

GDP q2 2

It was worse: less GDP growth, but also an even larger fall in GDP per hour worked.   Productivity growth for the first half of the year was -0.65 per cent.  That isn’t an annualised number, but an absolute change; a significant fall.

Perhaps you think this just shows how dreadful the new government is.  Here is the same chart showing the cumulative growth rates for the last six months of last year (in blue) and the first half of this year (in orange).

GDP q2 3

To me, the similarities are (much) more striking than the differences.    Importantly, the level of labour productivity fell in both halves.

Looked at from a productivity perspective –  and that really is where one should focus, especially when the unemployment rate is not too far from the NAIRU – it is a pretty dreadful performance.    Of course, simply looking at two six month periods on their own doesn’t tell one much, but nothing in these data is inconsistent with the poor productivity record for some years now.

And neither the last government nor this one appears to have any serious ideas for, or any serious interest in, fixing this failure.

 

 

Is this what leadership looks like?

When the news broke earlier in the year that Canterbury University academic Anne-Marie Brady’s house and office had been broken into, and that the only things taken seemed to relate specifically to her longrunning research work on the People’s Republic of China, the initial response from the government didn’t seem too bad.

Ardern said at the post-Cabinet press conference on Monday that “everyone would be concerned” if Brady had been targeted because of her academic work.

“If there’s evidence of that, we should be taking stock and taking action,” Ardern said. “I will certainly ask some questions.

“I would certainly want to be informed if there was evidence that this was a targeted action against someone who was raising issues around foreign interference.”

Brady  herself was impressed (although I think I thought –  and perhaps wrote – at the time that these comments seemed more designed to encourage the Prime Minister, rather than accurately describing any evidence to date of taking foreign interference “very seriously’).

“I am very heartened to see the Prime Minister is taking the issue of foreign interference activities in New Zealand very seriously and that she has instructed the security agencies to look into the break-ins I have experienced,” Brady said.

The story has been back in the media again thanks to the persistent efforts of Matt Nippert of the Herald.  Last weekend there was his widely-viewed (and linked to abroad) article “The curious case of the burgled professor”, and this morning the front page of the Herald has the story “SIS sweeps prof’s office“.

Electronic surveillance specialists from the Security Intelligence Service have carried out a search for listening devices at the University of Canterbury office of the professor revealed to be a possible target of Chinese espionage.

News of the sweep, confirmed by several university staff, comes as academic colleagues of Anne-Marie Brady came out in support of the China specialist….

The Herald understands a similar search for bugs by the Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) has also been conducted at Brady’s Christchurch home, the site of another suspicious burglary being investigated by authorities.

From what is reported in that story, and in Radio New Zealand’s interview this morning with Anne-Marie Brady, the Police and the SIS seem to be doing a pretty thorough job.  Brady herself praises what she has seen and heard of their efforts.

But what of the Prime Minister?  Remember that this is the “leader” of whom Matt Nippert has reported

She won’t talk about the general issue, and here she is (quoted in Nippert’s article this morning) on the specific one.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, asked about the case on Monday at her post-Cabinet press briefing, said she had yet to be briefed on whether the episode could be attributed to China.

“I have not received any further advice on that, but nor have I sought it. As it were, nothing has since been raised with me to suggest that it was, or wasn’t,” she said.

“Speaking more generally, what the underlying suggestion here is of foreign interference. I’ve been very, very cautious around always stipulating that New Zealand needs to be live to general issues of interference, and that’s something we keep a watching brief on.”

She hasn’t asked.  How convenient.  If she were really concerned about the issue, and the potential, you’d have thought she –  and her office –  would be all over an issue of this sort (as a matter of sovereignty, national security, defence of academic freedom etc, not as “interfering” in a potential criminal prosecution).

And as for that final paragraph, if that is “leadership” we’ve lost all sense of how a leader might actually act or speak.   Of course she probably isn’t in a position to make specific accusations –  especially not having asked for the information –  but what would have been so wrong about a clear and strong statement that she, and New Zealanders, would deplore and push back strongly against any foreign interference in New Zealand, and in particular if agents of a foreign power were found to have been responsible for the Brady break-ins.  She could even have gone on to say that if such evidence were found then –  even if it were not possible to launch criminal prosecutions (after all, we don’t have an extradition treaty with China) –  the damage to our bilateral relationship with such a country would be severe.

Instead we get this vacuous waffle

I’ve been very, very cautious around always stipulating that New Zealand needs to be live to general issues of interference, and that’s something we keep a watching brief on.

saying precisely nothing, from someone who appears to desperately hopes to avoid the issue.  Her response here is much weaker than her February one.

Does the Prime Minister stand for academic freedom in New Zealand, for the rights and freedoms of New Zealanders to do research, to speak out, to challenge other countries here in New Zealand, the rights of New Zealanders to be secure in their homes?  “Stand for” in the sense of being willing to pay a price to protect and defend?  Or is she more interested in doing everything possible to be able to look the other way, prioritising party fundraising, trade agreements, the interests of a few big corporates (and universities) and visits to Beijing over the values and freedoms of New Zealanders, including those like Professor Brady who’ve done in-depth research on PRC efforts here?

She, her party president, and their peers in the National Party together.

Automation, future of work, and other distractions

The Labour Party, led by the now Minister of Finance, has made great play in recent years of the looming “threat” of automation, and the claimed need to think hard about the Future of Work.  There was a taskforce in Opposition, repeated references in ministerial speeches, and now even a Future of Work Forum.  I’ve always been a little sceptical: the application of new technology has been a key part of how living standards have improved over the last few hundred years, and I’m sure most people are hoping for further improvements for themselves and their children/grandchildren.   And employment rates seemed to be about as high as they’ve been for decades.

And so I was interested this afternoon flicking through today’s online Financial Times to find an article citing some new OECD work suggestiong that New Zealand is among the advanced countries with some of the lower propotions of jobs at significant risk of automation.  Here is the key chart from the OECD paper.

automation2

New Zealand fourth lowest share of jobs at high risk of being automated, and lowest in the OECD for the combined high and significant risks.

For the geeks, here is some text from the paper on how OECD researchers have been revising down their estimates.

automation 4

Automation will, no doubt, continue to happen.  It should.  We’ll generally be better off for it (even if some individuals will face difficult adjustments, as they did in every phase of activity –  indeed every business cycle – since the Industrial Revolution).  But particularly if this methodology is even approximately right, it reinforces my sense that the Labour Party – and now the government –  (probably with good intentions) use the Future of Work issue, and automation risks/possibilities, as a distraction from, and substitute for, their lack of interest/ideas in addressing the real economic elephant in the room: decades of underperforming productivity growth that mean we would now need a two-thirds lift in productivity (all else equal) to once again match the leading countries, most of whom we used to consistently outstrip.

As Morning Report reminded us today on the anniversary of women’s suffrage, we should celebrate the automatic washing machine, for all the time it freed up, and opportunities it allowed people (then largely women) to pursue.  It is only one of a myriad of such innnovations, past, present and future.

But New Zealanders get fewer of the gains than most advanced country citizens, as successive governments have done nothing to reverse the productivity failure.

 

An age of diminished expectations?

The Westpac McDermott Miller consumer confidence survey results are out this morning.  To the extent they get any media coverage, no doubt the focus will be on the headline result.  Here is the summary chart.

westpac 1

In Westpac’s words

Consumer confidence fell sharply in September, taking it to its lowest in six years.

There probably isn’t much predictive value in these results for actual economic data, but I find the results interesting in their own right: how people generally are feeling about their economic fortunes and the economy more broadly.  After all, respondents aren’t just the “ideological enemies” of the government.

The Westpac results don’t seem out of line with the most recent Colmar-Brunton poll (taken six weeks ago) in which respondents are asked a single question.

“And do you think during the next 12 months the economy will be in a better state than at present, or in a worse state?”

colmar brunton

The public no longer seem very optimistic at all.

But in some ways I was more interested in the longer-term trends in a couple of the sub-components of the Westpac index.   For example,

westpac 2.png

People are now less optimistic about improvements in their own personal position than at any time in the last 30 years outside periods when the economy was already in the midst of a recession (and materially lower than in the fairly shallow 1997/98 recession).  And look at the contrast between confidence levels from say 1994 to 2007 (across two different governments) and those now.  It looks a lot like a fairly steady trend decline.

And then there is the question about the longer-term prospects for the economy itself.  Respondents might not know much analytically about the issue, but their perceptions are interesting nonetheless.

westpac 3

The latest observation isn’t startlingly bad (and there was that sharp –  but brief – dip a couple of years ago) but look how diminished expectations are now (last three years or so) relative to the entire history of the series.  There are individual quarters that are weaker (though note, not in the 2008/09 or 1997/98 recessions) but in thirty years there has been no three year period where medium-term optimism has been weaker than over the last three years (under National and Labour governments).   And this pessimism isn’t tied to the last recession –  look how upbeat people briefly were in the couple of years after the recession ended.

(The medium-term picture is less bad in the ANZ’s consumer confidence survey, (which has a much shorter run of data) and it would interesting to know the precise question asked, to help understand that difference.)

Then again, in an economy that has managed very little labour productivity growth in the last five or six years, and none at all in the last three years, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise.

real GDP phw jul 18

In an economy where the promises of economic reform decades ago came to little  (for younger readers, that is the then Minister of Finance back in 1989/90)

caygill 1989 expectations

And where none of the political parties – especially not National or Labour that have led all our governments – seem to care much if at all, or have any serious proposals for turning around the continuing decades of underperformance, isn’t the public quite rational in being much less optimistic than they were?

A more interesting question is why they/we don’t find a way of demanding something better.

A bouquet for the Government

They don’t deserve many, but this announcement this morning is unambiguously positive.

Cabinet papers will be proactively released, Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins announced today.

The move is part of the Government’s wider plan to improve openness and reflects its commitment to the international Open Government Partnership.

The Cabinet papers will be released no later than 30 business days after a Cabinet decision. This process will be in place for Cabinet papers lodged from 1 January 2019, Chris Hipkins – who is also responsible for Open Government – said. ……

“Cabinet papers will be released within 30 business days of the Cabinet decision unless there is good reason not to publish. If we can publish it, we will.”

It will, almost certainly, end up less good than it sounds.  But it is a start.    The official papers upon which our governors make their official decisions should be open to public scrutiny, with only a short delay.  As the Minister’s press release notes

“This change is consistent with the spirit of the OIA which states that information should be made available unless a good reason exists for withholding it.

“Proactive release of official information promotes good government and transparency and fosters public trust and confidence in government and the public agencies.”

Of course, only time will tell how (a) this government chooses to run the system, and (b) whether future governments regard themselves bound by the newly-established practice (the law isn’t being amended to require pro-active release, but it probably should be).  I don’t suppose we will ever see any Cabinet papers that might deal with awkward issues around the relationship with the People’s Republic of China, or PRC interference in New Zealand public and commercial life.   Perhaps we shouldn’t either.  Some things – a few –  need to be not only deliberated in secret, but to able to have the relevant considerations and supporting evidence kept under wraps for a longer period.  And, reasonably enough in my view, they won’t be releasing papers relating to recommendations for honours (they say they will withhold papers relating to appointments as well, and that is more concerning).

What worries me a little more is that

Individual ministers will have responsibility for releasing Cabinet papers, which will be subject to an assessment to decide if there are good reasons to withhold any of the information.

If individual ministers are making the decision, how will we be confident that all ministers are applying more or less the same standard?  There is no suggestion of a central monitoring process, and there will be more or less ornery ministers, more or less politically uncomfortable issues, weaker and less confident ministers, and –  as our arrangements have developed –  ministers who hold ministerial warrants but aren’t part of Cabinet, or even of the government itself.  Will, for example, the Greens ministers be bound by this new Cabinet practice?

But if the principle is that the official papers upon which our governors make their official decisions should be open to public scrutiny, with only a short delay, shouldn’t this principle be extended –  either voluntarily, or mandatorily –  to other state agencies that make major policy decisions, that attract considerable public interest and scrutiny?

One could readily extend the principle to the boards of all Crown entities (subject to similar specific exclusions as the Cabinet will apply to itself).

But, of course, the entity I particularly had in mind was the Reserve Bank.   The Bank’s longstanding line has been that, even though they make vital economic decisions that can materially affect the short to medium term performance of the economy, it would be costly, damaging, and confusing to release the background papers that the Governor receives prior to making his or her decision.  After all, they tell us, there is the MPS or the press release, and the Governor holds a press conference once a quarter.  What more do we need to know, they argue?   They simply generally refuse to release background papers –  although I did once manage to get them to release some that were ten years old (to make the point that, at most, there is a time dimension to any decision on whether material can be released under the OIA).

But those arguments apply –  if at all –  just as much to decisions made by Cabinet, often on much more complex and sensitive issues than those the Reserve Bank deals with.  Cabinet decisions are announced by ministers, the PM holds press conferences, and ministers are generally pretty accessible to the media  (more so than most Governors).  But the Cabinet has rightly decided to release (most) Cabinet papers, and recognises that doing so is right and proper in a free and open society, and will over time enhance confidence.

The same should go for the Reserve Bank.  If the Governor is serious when he talks about being open and transparent –  as he seems to be on all matters that he isn’t responsible for –  he’d take the lead on this issue, and announce that in future the big folder of background papers prepared going into each Monetary Policy Statement, together with the (anonymised) written advice of his advisers on the OCR decision, would be routinely released (perhaps with a small number of redactions) six weeks after the OCR/MPS announcement to which they relate.  Six weeks is long enough that plenty of new data will have emerged since the papers were written (indeed, it will be close to the next OCR decision), and short enough to still be of use/interest to analysts in understanding the Bank’s thinking (recall that we still have no idea what analysis they used last year when they announced they were assuming half of the building associated with Kiwibuild houses would be offset by reduced other residential building activity).

And if the Governor won’t take the lead, the Minister of Finance should insist on this sort of approach as part of the legislation and procedures around the establishment of the new statutory Monetary Policy Committee.

Most likely the Bank will continue to fall back on spurious arguments about potential damage to the “substantial economic interests of New Zealand” (an OIA ground that hasn’t been well-tested), or risks of confusion.  Those arguments are just wrong, and risk sounding (or perhaps are) self-serving: powerful bureaucrats protecting their particular monopoly on information/advice.  Cabinet has been willing to step beyond those arguments, and we should expect the Reserve Bank Governor –  a very powerful unelected policymaker –  to be even more ready to do so (being, after all, unelected and thus with less legitimacy).  If he doesn’t do so willingly, he should be left with no choice.