I didn’t move to Australia; my bank came to me

I was in town for a meeting earlier in the week, and walking along Lambton Quay I noticed this gigantic advertisement adorning the wall of an office building.

TSB photo.jpeg

I’ve always quite admired TSB, as the little bank that could. When I paid more attention to these things, they seemed to have innovative products, good technology, and had to stand on their own feet.  Oh, and there was the feisty CEO who once told visiting central bankers worrying about pandemic risks and bank preparedness that in New Plymouth they had bigger risks to worry about, turning around as he spoke and pointing out the window at Mt Egmont, which will erupt again.

I guess they have always played the “local bank” line in their marketing to some extent, but it was the brazenness of that billboard that astonished me.  Both the message and, even more so, the location.   This is central Wellington, and if there is any sort of “ground zero” for commitment to an open outward-oriented economy surely it must be here.  Much as I dislike the word, New Zealand’s “globalists” disproportionately live and work here.  Within a radius of a couple of hundred metres from this billboard you capture Treasury, MBIE, the Reserve Bank, MFAT, the Ministry for Primary Industry, and the Productivity Commission.  Why, the “right-wing” business think-tank the New Zealand Initiative is just over the road –  Eric Crampton and Oliver Hartwich must just be grateful the billboard faces away from their offices and they don’t have to see this crass effort every time they look out the window.

Perhaps Gabs Makhlouf, Brook Barrington, Adrian Orr et al don’t get out for a lunchtime walk, but their minions do and they must be the target audience for this billboard – Lambton Quay is always at its busiest at lunchtime.

And firms spend money on marketing presumably because they believe it will work –  “work” in this context presumably being drawing in new customers (unless it is just designed to court more Shane Jones Provincial Growth Fund goodies for Taranaki –  TSB being owned by a community trust.)  Are Wellingtonians really going to be swayed by this sort of crude nationalism and economic illiteracy.  It scares me a bit if so.

I didn’t move to Korea and yet the screen I’m typing to was made by a Korean company, and the profits from its design and manufacture presumably accrued to the owners of Samsung.   I didn’t move to the United States, and yet the platform this blog uses is (I think) American, and the profits from what I pay for using it accrue to the owners of that company.   One could go on –  the car, the printer, the TV, the bottle of French wine, or those Californian oranges in the fruit bowl.  The jersey I’m wearing is American and the books on the shelves next to me are from all over the Anglo world –  there will (producers hope) have been profits associated with each of them.  And although there probably isn’t much profit involved, my morning newspaper is produced by an Australian-owned company.  And yet, like 400000+ others I live in Wellington.

It is trade, and it is a good thing –  usually mutually beneficial, and if there are occasional exceptions to that presumption, you wouldn’t expect them to be successfully highlighted down Lambton Quay (even if too many public servants are all too keen on the possibilities of clever government interventions in our lives).   I didn’t move to Australia, and yet the shareholders of ANZ invested some of their savings to provide banking services to New Zealanders like me.  That was good of them –  in fact the earliest progenitors of ANZ were setting banking services here in 1840 (10 years earlier than the founding of what became TSB) when there wasn’t much organised here at all.   The profits from those transactions accrue to the shareholders (many but not all of whom are in Australia), because they provide the risk capital that underpins the business.  And while the TSB talks of the profits “moving to” Australia, in fact successful businesses –  that find willing purchasers of their services –  typically reinvest many of the profits in the business, right here in New Zealand.    Banking is a big business –  some might think too big and views will differ on that, but that isn’t the line TSB is running –  so it takes lots of capital.  That will, often or even typically, mean generating quite large profits –  the returns on that capital.

(Although it is a bit of a distraction, one could note that of the five New Zealand owned banks, four are directly capital-constrained by their ownership structures –  Kiwibank being government-owned, TSB owned by a community trust, and SBS  and Coop being a (modestly-sized) mutuals –  and only one of the NZ-owned banks manages a credit rating better than BBB. Not one of those institutions could even begin to displace the major players, and the risks facing New Zealand would increase if they were to try.)

TSB’s billboard proclaims to sophisticated (as they like to think) Wellingtonians that TSB is “proudly supporting New Zealand”.  This sort of crass attempt to play some sort of crude nationalist card supports no one other than themselves –  and perhaps the Shane Jones-isation of New Zealand politics.  It diminishes, and reflects poorly on, those who commission the advert, who surely know better.  They should stop trying to gull New Zealanders with some weird autarkic vision that, if followed through on, would be bad for a big country, and totally crazy for a small one.

I once worked for someone who told me his maxim was that from choice he would always use an overseas provider if he could (as I recall this was in the Ansett vs Air NZ days) to keep the pressure on the New Zealand providers to work harder and produce excellent products and services.  I never went fully along with him, but having seen that distasteful TSB advert on Tuesday, it actually gave some small pleasure to be in an ANZ branch yesterday and to receive friendly, helpful, accommodating service on the small matter I wanted dealt with. I’d say I’d be happy to have seen the resulting profits accruing to Australian shareholders, but they were so helpful they even waived the small fee on the matter in question –  lifetime customer value and all that I suppose.

As for TSB, they really should do better.  I hope Wellingtonians passing that big advert look on with disdain, grateful instead for the opportunities that foreign trade and investment –  in both directions –  created, and continues to create, for New Zealanders.    Or would we welcome British consumers being regaled with billboards proclaiming “you didn’t move to New Zealand, so why should the profits on that leg of lamb?”.

Local listing for banks: a case for one in particular

There was a very strange article in the Herald yesterday from one Duncan Bridgeman claiming that it was, in the words of the hard copy headline Time to force Aussie banks to list in NZ”.

What wasn’t at all clear was why.

Bank profit announcements seemed to be the prompt for the column

Australian banks reaping huge profits from their New Zealand customers is a perennial scab that gets ripped off every time financial results come in.

I’m not persuaded the banks earn excessive profits here, but I know some other serious people take the opposite view.  But even if they are right, surely that is a competition policy issue –  the case for one of the new market studies perhaps, and any resulting recommendations.  There is nothing in the article explaining how forcing the Australian banks to sell down part of their New Zealand operations would affect, for the better, competition in the New Zealand banking services market.

The other prompt appear to be industry developments in Australia

Meanwhile, Australia’s big banks are starting to move away from vertical integration, partly because of conflicts of interest but also because their financial services model is unlikely to sustain the same profits over the longer term.

Suncorp, ANZ, CBA and NAB have all divested their life insurance operations. The latter two have also announced plans to spin off their wealth management operations. Westpac remains wedded to these areas of business but is expected to follow suit at some point.

And just last week financial services firm AMP, also heavily damaged by the banking royal commission, announced the sale of its wealth protection unit to US firm Resolution Life for A$3.3 billion and divulged plans to offload its New Zealand wealth management and advice businesses through a public offer and NZX listing next year.

But not one of those divestments has anything to do with core banking operations, unlike the approach Bridgeman appears to be proposing for the New Zealand bank subsidiaries.

A not unimportant word that one –   subsidiaries.  Presumably Bridgeman is fully aware, even though his article doesn’t mention, that all four Australian banks do the bulk of their New Zealand business not through branches, but through legally separate New Zealand subsidiary companies, with their own boards of directors (and statutory duties). (New Zealand compels them to do so, at least in respect of the retail business).

But when I read this paragraph I had to wonder if he really did appreciate that.

But if ever there was a time to raise the prospect of some form of domestic ownership and oversight of the banks, it is now.

The problem is it will never happen unless the Aussie banks are forced to by our politicians and regulators. After all, the last thing the banks want right now is another regulator to answer to.

Yet, why should it be accepted that four of this country’s five most profitable companies are effectively regulated in Australia?

The New Zealand subsidiaries are fully subject to New Zealand law: competition law, prudential regulation, financial conduct law, health and safety law.  The lot.  (Even the branches are subject to much New Zealand law, but leave them aside for now.)   The Reserve Bank of New Zealand sets minimum capital standards. minimum liquidity standards, disclosure requirements and so on.

Of course, since the New Zealand subsidiaries are part of much larger Australian-based banking groups, APRA’s regulations and requirements for the group can also be binding  –  not on the New Zealand business itself, but on the group as a whole.   APRA can, in effect, hold the local subsidiaries to higher requirements than those set by our Reserve Bank  (in just the same way that shareholders might voluntarily choose –  perhaps under rating agency pressure – higher standards than a regulator might impose), but it can’t undercut New Zealand standards for New Zealand operations.  Daft as they may be, New Zealand LVR restrictions are binding on banks operating in New Zealand.

Bridgeman goes on

Theoretically an Aussie bank could offload 25 per cent of the institution’s New Zealand assets and list the shares here separately. That would bring tax advantages to New Zealand investors who can’t use Australian franking credits, even though they are dual listed.

I presume he means selling off 25 per cent of the shares in the New Zealand subsidiary (rather than 25 per cent of the assets).  It would, no doubt, have tax advantages for New Zealand investors (and thus, in principle, the shares might command a higher price), and yet the banks haven’t regarded it as worth their while (value-maximising) to do so.    Bridgeman doesn’t look at question of why (presumably something about best capturing value for shareholders by holding all of the operations in both countries, and being able to  –  subject to legal restrictions and duties –  manage them together).

And he also doesn’t note that if, say, ANZ sold down 25 per cent of the shares in its New Zealand operation, the subsidiary will still be regarded by APRA as part of the wider banking group, and prudential standards will still apply to the group as a whole.  As they should –  after all, with a 75 per cent stake there would be a high expectation (from market, regulators and governments) of parental support in the event that something went wrong in New Zealand.

There is a suggestion that the article is a bit an advertorial for NZX

If a quarter of these assets were listed that would bring about $12.5b of capital to the local stock exchange – a badly needed injection at a time when the main market is shrinking.

But even then it isn’t clear what is meant.  It isn’t as if there is a new $12.5 billion (I haven’t checked his numbers) of local savings conjured up.   Buying one lot of shares would, presumably, mean selling some other assets.  In a country with quite low levels of foreign investment, the initial effect of any such floats would be to reduce that level further.  (Of course, in practice quite a few of the shares in any newly floated New Zealand subsidiaries would be picked up by foreign investment funds, leaving the alleged benefits of any compulsory selldowns even more elusive.)

Bridgeman ends with a rallying cry

And right now the Aussie banks are distracted with a battle on their home turf.

It’s the perfect time for some Coalition politicians to show some backbone and make a case for a change in this direction.

It might have appealed to Winston Peters once upon a time, but even if it weren’t a daft policy to start with, Bridgeman may have noticed that business confidence is at rather a low ebb right now.  Arbitrarily interfering in the private property rights of owners of private businesses – even if largely Australian ones –  wouldn’t be likely to do much to instill confidence in the soundness of policymaking.

As it is, they could start closer to home.  If governments really did want to focus on getting some more bank representation on the domestic stock exchange –  and it is not obvious why they would –  perhaps they could look at the New Zealand banks first.  After all, only one of them (Heartland) is sharemarket listed.  And the biggest of those New Zealand owned banks –  Kiwibank – is actually owned by the government itself.    In fact,  by three separate goverment agencies (NZ Post, ACC, and NZSF), none bringing obvious expertise to the business of retail banking, none themselves facing any effective market disciplines.  I’d be all in favour of a well-managed float of Kiwibank  (although once floated it might not last long as an independent entity).  There are good reasons (they’ve been there for years) for the government to consider seriously that option.  But there are no good reasons to force well-functioning locally regulated foreign-owned banks to sell down part of their operations in New Zealand.


Voting on monetary reform

This coming Sunday, voters in Switzerland get to vote on the future monetary system.  I don’t share the New Zealand Initiative’s enthusiasm for Switzerland –  the only OECD country since 1970 to have had slower productivity growth even than New Zealand –  but I do like the element of direct democracy in their system: binding referenda on matters initiated by citizens.  No doubt it produces some silly results at times, but that’s part of democracy –  not ideal, just better than the alternatives.    And it isn’t as if our own system is immune to silly policies, unaccountable institutions etc.

I’d forgotten that the Vollgeld referendum was coming up until I saw yesterday that the eminent Financial Times economics columnist Martin Wolf was expressing the hope that the Swiss vote for change this Sunday.  It isn’t clear that he really favours the general adoption of the specific system called for in the Swiss referendum but, in his words,

Finance needs change.  For that, it needs experiments.

Dread word that: experiments.  I remember the efforts we went to one year to get all uses of the word out of the OECD’s review of the New Zealand, in the midst of the reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s.   For better or worse, one can’t do randomised control trials in macroeconomics and monetary policy: “experiments”, if tried at all, have to be done on entire nations.

What are the Swiss being asked to vote on next week?  The Vollgeld (“full money”) initiative is described by its proponents here, and described/analysed by a couple of independent Swiss economists here.

The key element of the proposal is this

The 100% reserves requirement means that all sight deposits in Swiss Francs (CHF) in Switzerland would have to be entirely kept as reserves in the Swiss National Bank. This implies that commercial banks would not be able anymore to use a fraction of these deposits to finance their lending activities, as they currently do. Swiss money would then entirely become “sovereign money”, controlled by the Swiss National Bank.

Proponents of the Vollgeld approach put a great deal of emphasis on something they label as “money”.   As they note, the issuance of notes and coins is controlled by the state –  even if in practice, supply simply respond to demand –  and argue that the same should apply to other transactions balances (eg a traditional cheque account).    Some seem to argue from a principled position that money creation is a natural business of the state, and thus direct control over the quantity of transactions balances created is simply a logical corollary.   Of course, in New Zealand it was almost 80 years after the establishment of responsible government before the state here issued any payments media (coincidentally, but not inconsistently, we were the highest income country in the world through much of that period).  Personally, I’d continue to mount an argument for removing the current state monopoly on the issue of bank notes.

Others focus on more pragmatic arguments around monetary and financial stability.  If all demand deposits are fully backed by deposits at the central bank – or, at the limit, if all demand deposits were directly claims on the central bank – and were held on a separate balance sheet, there would be no more bank runs on demand deposits.

Ideas of this sort aren’t new.  Proponents often hark back to the so-called Chicago Plan proposed by some prominent US economists in the 1930s, and at one stage in his career as orthodox a figure as Milton Friedman favoured 100 per cent reserve requirements for demand deposits.

But if the broad ideas aren’t new then, as the independent Swiss economists observe, runs on demand deposits also aren’t the main issue in real-world financial fragility.  They put that down to the existence of deposit insurance –  although Vollgeld advocates argue that under their system deposit insurance could be got rid of – but whatever the explanation

…the main source of fragility of modern banks is …..rather the wholesale short term debt issued by banks and held by professional investors, including other banks. These investors, who are not insured, may suddenly stop lending to a bank (this is called a wholesale run) if they suspect that the bank may have solvency problems. This wholesale short term debt is an important source of funding for the banks in the current system, but it is also a source of fragility, as the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2009 has shown. The 100% reserves requirement would not apply to short term debt.

Wholesale funding markets seizing up was an issue even for Australasian banks in 2008/09.

Vollgeld advocates (at least those looking at the issue in detail) are aware of these other sort of “runs”, or market refusals to rollover funding at maturity, but don’t have a detailed response.

To tackle it, paragraph 2 of article 99a of the VGI mentions that the SNB would have the power to set a minimum duration for the debt issued by commercial banks. The VGI does not give much detail on this question, but it is clear that a new liquidity regulation would have to be introduced as a complement to the 100% reserve requirement. Indeed, financial stability can only be guaranteed in the Vollgeld system if the banks are strictly limited in their ability to issue wholesale short term debt as they do today.

I’ve long argued that the issue goes beyond even that.  One could have all –  or almost all – lending done by closed-end mutual funds (ie no early redemption at all, you just sell your claim on the open market) –  something like the model favoured by prominent US economist Larry Kotlikoff – and there would still be financial crises, they would just take a different form.   The nature of a market economy is that people get optimistic, and then over-optimistic, about particular industries, or the economy more generally.  And then opinion changes –  actual outcomes don’t quite meet expectations or whatever – and the flow of new investment, the flow of finance dries up.  The dot-com boom, and subsequent bust, were good examples of that.  So, in their way, were the Australasian post-deregulation booms and subsequent busts in the 1980s (they involved some bank failures late in the post-bust adjustment, but those failures were incidental).

And nothing in the Vollgeld proposals (or in similar Sovereign Money proposals in other countries, including New Zealand) deals with that.  Nor does it really deal with the fact that many countries –  including New Zealand and Australia and Canada –  have gone for a very long time without bank failures (except in that brief post-deregulation transition period), and yet not been immune to recessions, periods of ill-judged investments, or prolonged booms or prolonged periods of underperformance.

Some advocates of reform put a great deal of emphasis on the alleged problem that lending simultaneously creates deposits, at a systemwide level.  This is a feature not a bug.  Lending transfers claims on resources from one person to another, and both sides of that need to be recorded –  if I borrow to buy a house, the counterpart to that is that the seller of the house collects the proceeds of the sale.    These people tend to confuse the position of an individual bank –  for whom secure access to funding is absolutely critical – from the macroeconomics of the system as a whole.   No (later troubled) New Zealand finance company –  none of whom banked with the Reserve Bank – conjured its deposits out of nowhere: they first persuaded depositors and debenture holders to back their business model, and finance all manner of (often quite bad) projects.   The finance companies didn’t fail because they had on-demand deposits (mostly they didn’t) but because they made really bad loans, and were part of the associated misallocation of real resources.  Nothing in the Vollgeld initiative (or similar Sovereign Money proposals) seems to address that.

So why does someone as eminent as Martin Wolf encourage Swiss voters to vote for the Vollgeld initiative on Sunday?     Mostly, it seems from reading his article, because he grossly exaggerates the real economic cost of financial crises, conflating the headline events (runs on banks, wholesale or otherwise, bailouts etc) with the correction for the misallocation of real resources that occurrred during the boom years and (in the case of 2008/09) treating all the slowdown in productivity growth as a consequence of “the financial crisis” when signs of it were already apparent before the crises. (I dealt with some of these issues in this post some time ago. )   Changing the rules around transactions balances just wouldn’t make that much difference.  And although Martin Wolf and the Vollgeld advocates talk bravely of how such reforms might allow governments to more readily walk away from failing banks (ie the bits not offering transactions balances) at best that is aspirational.   AIG and the federal agencies weren’t offering transactions balances –  and were bailed –  and even in New Zealand one of the key motivations for the OBR model isn’t about transactions balances, but about maintaining the credit process (all the information on firms that enables banks to continue to provide working capital finance with confidence).

Over the years, I’ve spent lots of time looking at various monetary reform proposals.  When I was a young economist, Social Credit was still represented in the New Zealand Parliament, and their acolytes regularly wrote to the Governor and the Minister of Finance.  Their ideas genuinely were wrongheaded and dangerous.  In my experience, though, most such proposed reforms aren’t, and they often capture important elements of truth.  But the proponents typically oversell the likely gains from what they are proposing.  I don’t think the Vollgeld initiative model would be particularly damaging or costly –  although there are a lot of details not spelled out, and the transition could be very unsettling (especially in a world of zero or negative interest rates) – but it just wouldn’t offer the gains the proponents claim.  Monetary matters are rarely quite that important and in a market economy, human nature will have its head, and sometimes things will turn out badly.  More often, of course, real financial crises reflect wrongheaded policy interventions that skewed choices and incentives and made the bad outcomes more likely (I’d include both the US crisis of 2008/09, and the Irish crisis in that category –  and probably the Australasian and Nordic crises of the late 80s and early 90s).

In truth, calls for reform (from people like Wolf) and public support for ideas like the Vollgeld one (apparently perhaps 35 per cent of people may vote for it), probably stem more from some ill-defined sense that something is wrong (with economic and political outcomes).  Banks and monetary systems are a convenient target –  just like the idea here that somehow fixing monetary policy might make a material difference to our economic underperformance – but probably the wrong one.

Readers sometimes suggest that the Reserve Bank is reluctant to ever fully engage with alternative models. I’m not sure what they’ve been doing more recently, but when I was at the Bank I spent quite a bit of time over the years unpicking various proposals and trying to understand their strengths and weaknesses.  It wasn’t always very systematic, and often depended on the interests of individuals, but I’d be surprised if the Bank is that much different now.  We even used to send people along to debate some of those proposing alternative models.  A speech I did along those lines is here.   I’m not sure I’d stand by absolutely everything in it today, but we were an institution willing to engage.

Another Orr interview

The Governor of the Reserve Bank was interviewed over the weekend on Newshub Nation. Perhaps even fewer people than usual watched the programme, since it was  on over a holiday weekend, but I saw a few comments –  public and private –  suggesting it was a rather odd performance so I finally had a look myself.  I had to agree with the commenters.

There were three broad topics covered in the interview:

  • infrastructure finance,
  • bank conduct issues, and
  • mortgage lending.

Of those three topics, only the third is really within the ambit of the Governor’s responsibilities.

On infrastructure finance, you’ll recall that a few weeks ago the Governor weighed in on this issue, claiming to be speaking both in his former capacity of head of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund (NZSF) and in his current role as Governor.  He was venting about his frustration that NZSF had not been able to invest in infrastructure projects in Christchurch after the earthquakes.

“My single biggest frustration when I was at the Super Fund was the inability to be able to invest in New Zealand infrastructure.

“We never got to spend a single penny in Christchurch. I stopped going down. It became too hard,” Orr said.

“I went down, even once CERA [the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority] was formed, and the person said ‘it’s great to see you here, Minister [Gerry] Brownlee is very pleased you’re here. Now, tell me again which KiwiSaver fund you’re from’.”

Understandably, that upset Gerry Brownlee and prompted a rare criticism of a central bank Governor from the Leader of the Opposition and a suggestion that the Governor should stick to his knitting –  the core stuff he now has legal responsibility for.

Orr now claims he wasn’t being specifically critical of the Christchurch situation –  although see the quote – and that he was just making a general point, one he is not defensive about at all.  There isn’t, in his view, enough “outside capital” being brought into infrastructure development, here and abroad.

His mandate, so he claimed in this latest interview, was his obligation to contribute to “maximum sustainable employment” –  the words recently added to the Policy Targets Agreement governing the conduct of monetary policy.   As I’ve pointed out recently, this argument just doesn’t stack up: the words in the PTA are about the conduct of monetary policy (interest rates and all that) not a licence for the Governor to get on his bully pulpit and start lecturing us –  politicians and citizens –  about all manner of other policies he happens to think might be a good idea.   It is a doubly flawed argument because even the new monetary policy mandate is about employment –  not productivity or GDP per capita –  and the Governor will know very well that you can have a poor fully-employed economy or a prosperous fully-employed economy.   Infrastructure finance –  even well done –  has almost nothing to do with sustainable levels of employment.

In the latest interview, he was asked (very first question) about the recent bid by NZSF to invest in light rail in Auckland.  Instead of gently reminding the interviewer that such things aren’t his responsibility any longer, the Governor weighed in.  Any opportunity for outside capital should be welcomed, we were told.  The Governor went on to lament the “hang-ups” people have –  “people”, we were told, were the problem here, “getting in the way” of sensible solutions.  The Governor complained that all this leads to infrastructure being financed by debt or taxes, when it really should –  in his view –  be financed by equity (perhaps he didn’t notice that the NZSF itself was, and is, funded by debt and taxes, or that he has previously called for governments to take on more debt).  The Governor complained about politicians being scared of tolls, and argued that they “need to get over it”.     Challenged as to whether these were not political debates, the Governor argued that he was trying to get these out of the political debate –  as if mere citizens, the dread “people”, might not reasonably have a view not only on what projects should be done, but how they should be owned/financed.   Wrapping up that particular segment of the interview, the Governor opined that the wider economic benefits of light rail were “incredibly important” to maximising sustainable employment”.

It all remains, as I put it some weeks ago, very unwise and quite inappropriate.  Even if his views had merit (which, I would argue, they mostly don’t), these are issues which have nothing to do with the Reserve Bank (where the Governor wields a great deal of barely trammelled power).  As I put it in an earlier post

The Governor holds an important public office, in which he wields (singlehandedly at present) enormous power in a limited range of areas.  It really matters –  if we care at all about avoiding the politicisation of all our institutions –  that officials like the Governor (or the Police Commissioner, the Chief Justice, the Ombudsman or whoever) are regarded as trustworthy, and not believed to be using the specific platform they’ve been afforded to advance personal agendas in areas miles outside the mandate Parliament has given them.   We don’t want a climate in which only partisan hacks have any confidence in officeholders, and only then when their side got to appoint the particular officeholder.  And that is the path Adrian Orr seems –  no doubt unintentionally – to be taking us down. 

The arrogance of it all is pretty breathtaking too –  we “the people” are the problem.  Officials and politicians sometimes say things like that in private (feeling that they really deserve a better class of “people”), but generally not in public.  And the Governor seems to have no conception of the way in which genuine outside capital in a private project in a competitive industry, where all the gains and losses accrue to the private providers, differs from the public-private partnerships he waxes lyrical about (even while championing what would, at best, have been only public-public partnerships, since NZSF is just another pot of government money).    Contracting, in ways that both preserves the public interest and ensures continuity of high quality service, has proved hellishly difficult.   Providers of outside capital in PPPs –  whether state entities of the sort Orr has championed or private ones –  don’t care at all about the fundamental merits of a particular project, so long as they can write a contract that more or less guarantees returns to them.  In such a world, easy access to money can be a recipe for a smoother road to more really bad projects being done –  anyone recall the synthetic petrol plant, as an example of outside capital and guaranteed rates of return?

I’m not suggesting the Governor is totally wrong –  I’m pretty sympathetic to congestion pricing on city roads for example –  but in his official capacity, it is none of his business.    There is a vacancy coming up for Secretary to the Treasury; perhaps could apply for that position?  Or he could run for Parliament –  though probably not with that dismissive attitude to “the people” –  or retire and get a newspaper column.  But it is nothing to do with the Reserve Bank, and he jeopardises the Bank’s position –  both the ability to do its day job with general support, and increasing the chances of future partisan hack appointments –  if he goes on this way.

And what about his claim that infrastructure finance is really core to what the Reserve Bank does?  There was this from his public statement a couple of weeks ago

I have spoken about specific issues recently because increased infrastructure investment opportunities provide sound investment choices, risk diversification for financing goods and services, and improves maximum sustainable employment by relieving capacity constraints.

These are all core components of the Reserve Bank’s role and something we often speak about in our Financial Stability Reports.

In the last month, we’ve had a Monetary Policy Statement and a Financial Stability Report.  There were no mentions at all of infrastructure in the Monetary Policy Statement and, once again, a single mention in the Financial Stability Report –  a brief reference to “market infrastructure”.  The Governor just seems to be making it up on the fly, when these issues are no more part of his official brief than most other areas of government policy are.  

The second strand of the weekend interview had to do the ongoing banking conduct investigation  –  in which the Reserve Bank and the FMA demand banks and insurers prove their innocence, on points which (at least in the Reserve Bank’s case) are really not the government agency’s business.  There wasn’t much new in this part of the interview, apart from the somewhat surprising claim that the Reserve Bank has a very good insight into banks and insurers (which makes you wonder how CBL failed, or Westpac ended up using unapproved capital models for years, or how a few weeks ago the Governor could have been convinced there were no problems here, but now leaves open the possibility that he could recommend a Royal Commission).

As the Governor ran through his checklist of issues, it was more and more clear how little any of this had to do with the Reserve Bank’s statutory responsibilities.  He was concerned, for example, as to whether banks were “customer-focused”.  Personally, I rather hope that, as private businesses, they are shareholder-focused, working first in the interests of the owners.   Now, working in the interests of the owners does not preclude caring a great deal about good customer service (whether in banking or any other sector) but it shouldn’t be the prime goal.  And whether or not banks offer good customer service has very little to do with the Reserve Bank’s statutory focus on the soundness and efficiency of the financial system.    Perhaps we all wish it did, but some friendly customer-focused banks fail, and most flinty hardnosed one don’t, and vice versa.  There is no particular connection.

Similarly, the Governor was concerned about remediation when customers have problems with their banks.  Perhaps there is a role for some agency of government to take an interest (perhaps…..) but there is no obvious connection to the Reserve Bank’s prudential regulatory functions.  Over the years I’ve had plenty more complaints about my supermarket than about my bank, but (fortunately) no one seems to think governments should regulate customer service in supermarkets.

The Governor has found a partial defender in Gareth Vaughan at interest.co.nz.  But as Vaughan notes, it hasn’t typically been the Reserve Bank way

In 2015 when Australian authorities were probing high credit card interest rates, my colleague Jenée Tibshraeny tried to find someone, anyone, in a position of power in New Zealand to take an interest in credit card interest rates here that were at similar levels to Australia. This is what a Reserve Bank spokesman told Jenée;

“The Reserve Bank of New Zealand regulates banks, insurers, and non-bank deposit takers (NBDTs) at a systemic level – i.e. to make sure the financial system remains sound.”

“We don’t regulate from an individual customer protection perspective and don’t have comment to offer about pricing of products and services offered by banks, insurers and NBDTs,” a Reserve Bank spokesman said in 2015.

That stance is entirely consistent with the legislation the Reserve Bank operates under.  Vaughan concludes

Personally I welcome the Reserve Bank thinking of consumers, be they borrowers, savers or insurance policyholders. By taking an interest in consumer outcomes Orr is humanising the Reserve Bank, and making it more relevant to the general public.

However, if this is the path the Reserve Bank wants to go down, and has government support to do so, then perhaps phase 2 of the Government’s Reserve Bank Act review is a good opportunity to enshrine this more consumer outcomes focused role into the Reserve Bank Act. The terms of reference for Phase 2 are due to be published during June.

In a sense, that is the point.   Responsibilities of government agencies are something for Parliament –  the pesky “people” and their representatives again –  to assign, not for individual officials to grab.  I happen to disagree with Vaughan here –  between the FMA and generic consumer protection law, there is no obvious gap for the Reserve Bank –  but it should be a matter for Parliament.

It remains hard not to conclude that Orr is driving this populist bandwagon for two reasons:

  • to avoid letting the FMA take the limelight (the Reserve Bank has never been keen to play second fiddle to the FMA, especially on anything affecting banks) and
  • to distract attention from the Reserve Bank’s own poor performance as a prudential regulator, encapsulated in the recent scathing feedback in the New Zealand Initiative report.

He seems to have been remarkably successful so far – journalists seem to have been so pleasantly surprised by on-the-record media access to the Governor that they don’t bother asking the hard questions, and the Governor gets to portray himself as some sort of tribune of the abused masses (with or without evidence).

Personally, I find the sort of concerns outlined in today’s Australian about the Royal Commission itself , or concerns about the potential for these show trials to reduce access to credit, including (in particular) for small businesses, ones our officials or politicians might take rather more seriously.  But, probably, feel-good rhetoric is more satisfying in the short-term.

The final part of the Governor’s interview was about mortgage lending.  It wasn’t impressive.  The Governor declared that “we’re scared” about the high debt to income ratios evident among households with mortgages, but then in the next breath stressed that banks were very well capitalised and highly liquid etc.     Those two observations are simply inconsistent: if the Reserve Bank really has grounds to be scared (a) bad outcomes should be showing up in their stress tests (which they don’t) and (b) the Bank should be articulating a concern that banks are insufficiently capitalised and raising capital requirements further.  And it isn’t clear how the Governor thinks that, in a regulatory climate in which land prices are driven artificially high, ordinary people would be able to buy a house without a very high initial debt to income ratio.  But this seems to have become an evidence and argument-free zone, in favour of emoting about the “high debt” (not, as I noted last week, much higher relative to income than it was a decade ago).

The final question in the entire interview was about whether loans for Kiwibuild houses should be exempt from the LVR restrictions.  The Governor’s initial response was that he didn’t know, and couldn’t answer.  But then, pushed a little further, he expressed a view that such loans should be exempt……..they were, after all, about adding supply, and doing it quickly, and helping low income people into homes who might not otherwise be able to manage it.

Quite what was going on there wasn’t very clear.  There is already an exemption for people purchasing new houses (and any debt developers take on in the construction phase isn’t covered by LVR restrictions anyway).

The new dwelling construction exemption applies to most residential mortgage lending to finance the construction of a new residential property.

The construction loan should either be
(1) for a property where the borrower has made a financial and legal commitment to buy in the form of a purchase contract with the builder, prior to the property being built or at an early stage in construction. This could be traditional ‘construction lending’ where the loan is disbursed in staged payments, or it could be a loan to finance the purchase of a property, which will be settled (in one payment) once the build is complete.

(2) For a newly-built entire dwelling completed less than six months before the mortgage application. The dwelling must be purchased from the original developer (the contract to buy at completion can be agreed while the building is still being constructed).

This exemption didn’t exist when LVR were first rushed in by the previous Governor, but pretty quickly industry and political pressure built up and the Reserve Bank amended the policy.  In doing so, they revealed the fundamental incoherence of the LVR framework:  the Reserve Bank has always claimed that it is about protecting financial stability and reducing (their view) of excess risk in bank mortgage books.  And yet, lending on new properties –  all else equal – is riskier than lending on existing houses.  Existing houses are, for one thing, finished.  They are also in areas that have been occupied for some time.  By contrast, new houses –  especially in new subdivisions –  can be left high and dry when and if the property turns, or the economy turns down.  Think of the pictures of abandoned subdivisions on the outskirts of Dublin, or of some US cities in the last downturn.

And the Governor’s, apparently off the cuff, suggestion that credit restrictions should be easier for low income people who might not otherwise be able to get into a house, was distressingly reminiscent of the US policies –  political and bureaucratic – in the decade before the US crisis, which ended badly (for banks, and for many borrowers).   It is a recipe for encouraging banks –  supposed to be “customer-focused” in the Governor’s view –  to be more ready to lend to people relatively less able to support debt.  It is, frankly, irresponsible.   (And all this is before one even gets to questions about the extent to which Kiwibuild will simply crowd out other construction –  the Bank’s analysis on which they simply refuse to release, despite having opined on the issue in past MPSs.)

The quality of policymaking – official and political – in New Zealand has fallen away quite sharply in the last 15 or 20 years.  Sadly, Adrian Orr as Governor increasingly seems at risk of averaging it down further.  All while showing no sign of addressing the problems in his own backyard –  whether as regulator, analyst, or as sponsor.

Deposit insurance wouldn’t put credit ratings at risk

There was a curious paragraph in an article by Alex Tarrant on interest.co.nz last week on post-election positioning .  Tarrant was writing about, in particular, fiscal positioning and the possibility that whichever party leads the next government could find its fiscal commitments put under pretty severe pressure because of the policy exepctations of the minor parties (New Zealand First on its own, or in conjunction with the Greens).  He argues that if Labour ends up back in opposition

It will also allow Labour to imply that National must have offered more to Peters on big-spending policies than Labour was prepared to. The hope for Ardern and Grant Robertson would be that National suddenly finds itself being attacked on throwing fiscal responsibility out the window with a set of coalition bribes. And this after the entire campaign was fought by National on sound management of the government’s books and plans to repay government debt to 10% of GDP, from about 23% now.

This could be a huge boost for a resurgent Labour Party even if it does go back into opposition. “We wanted to form a responsible government, but couldn’t get NZ First to agree to responsible spending.”

Labour might even be able to point to how certain policies might have put the government’s credit rating at risk – my understanding is that NZ First’s and the Green’s bank deposit insurance schemes could fit this argument.

The government’s credit rating currently benefits from ratings agencies placing less weight on that government would bail out a failed bank here, with the Reserve Bank’s open bank resolution policy and there being no government deposit guarantee/insurance in New Zealand. If introducing one means rating agencies rethink this position, the argument would be that a lower credit score would lead to higher government borrowing costs. (Peters’ policy on deposit insurance regards majority-owned NZ-registered banks; the Greens want a broader scheme.)

The main bit of the argument didn’t strike me as terribly persuasive –  the warm feeling of fiscal virtue would surely be of little solace to most Labour people on the dark winter nights if they did end up back in opposition for another three years.

But what had really caught my eye was the specific suggestion that New Zealand First or Greens preferences for some sort of deposit insurance scheme might imperil the government’s credit rating.  I’d made a mental note to come back to it, but yesterday someone asked my view on the suggestion, which is the prompt for this morning’s post.

The New Zealand government’s credit ratings are very strong.   There are foreign currency and local currency credit ratings, but for New Zealand only the latter now matter (there is little or no foreign currency debt, and no apparent plans to raise more).  Of the three main ratings agencies, one gives the New Zealand government a AAA rating –  the best there is –  and the other two give the government an AA+ rating, just one notch down.   That makes sense.   We not only have a low level of government debt (per cent of GDP) but successive governments have proved to have the willingness and capacity to keep debt in check when bad stuff happens.  The last time the New Zealand government defaulted on its debt was in 1933 –  and we had lots of company then.

Relatedly, our banking system has been strong and pretty well-managed.  There were some pretty serious problems in the late 1980s, immediately post-liberalisation, particularly with financial institutions that had been wholly government-owned (Rural Bank, DFC, and BNZ).   But since then –  and before that period for that matter –  banks have been pretty strongly-capitalised, and appear to have done a pretty good job of making credit decisions.  Banks took too many risks (were too complacent) in the 2000s around funding liquidity –  and needed a lot of official support on that score during the 2008/09 international crisis period.  But despite a really big credit boom in the 2000s, even a severe recession and quite a slow recovery –  and levels of income (servicing capacity) typically quite a bit below what would previously have been expected –  led to no serious systemwide impairment of the banks’ assets.  Loan losses rose, as they do in every recession, but to quite a manageable extent.   It was a similar story in Australia, Canada and quite a few other advanced countries.  The government put itself on the hook for some finance company failures (through the deposit guarantee scheme) and the ill-advised AMI bailout.  But that was it.

And these days, almost a decade on, pretty demanding stress tests on banks’ loan portfolios suggest that even a savage recession and a very severe fall in house prices would not be enough to topple any of the banks, let alone the system as a whole.  That isn’t grounds for complacency –  in the wrong circumstances lending standards can deteriorate quite rapidly –  but on the sort of lending the banks have been doing over the last decade or two, the banking system itself looks pretty sound.

Rating agencies still worry a bit about the large negative net international investment position of New Zealand (the net claims of foreigners –  debt and equity –  on all New Zealand entities).  Personally, I think that is an overstated concern: the NIIP position has been large for 30 years, but hasn’t (as a share of GDP) been getting any larger.  Mostly it is the net offshore funding of the banking system.   What matters then, from a credit perspective, is the quality of the assets on bank balance sheets (see above).   In my reading of the literature, big increases in banks’ reliance on foreign funding have often been a warning sign (internationally).  That hasn’t been the story here for a long time.

New Zealand is the only OECD country now that does not have a deposit insurance system.   The official rhetoric for a long time has been that depositors need to recognise that they can, and will, lose their money if their bank fails.  It is supposed to promote market discipline.  The Open Bank Resolution tool was devised to try to buttress that “no bailouts” message –  or at least to give ministers options in a crisis.  The OBR is designed to ensure that a bank can be reopened immediately after it fails (thus keeping basic payments services going). It does so through a mechanism that involves “haircutting” the claims of creditors –  the size of the haircut designed to be larger than the plausible, but still unknown actual losses –  while providing public sector liquidity support and a government guarantee to the remaning claims.  Without such a guarantee, rational creditors would mostly withdraw the remaining funds they did have access to as soon as the failed bank reopened.  In practice, since in a small system with quite similar banks all banks are likely to face quite similar shocks, such a guarantee might well need to be extended to the other banks (although I’m not aware that this latter point has ever been conceded by authorities).

It is no secret that governments tend to bail-out failed banks, and often end up offering a degree of protection that goes beyond anything in formal deposit insurance system rules.  That is particular so for retail depositors, but in the last major crisis of 2008/09 it was often true of wholesale creditors too (eg extreme pressure was brought to bear on the Irish government, by other governments and EU entities, not to allow wholesale creditors to lose money when Irish banks failed).

The practice might, in some abstract world, be undesirable, but it happens.    There are some signs now that authorities are putting more effort into trying to build regimes that make it more feasible for wholesale creditors to be allowed to lose money, while not disrupting the continuity of payments systems etc.  But there is no sign of such movement as far as retail depositors are concerned.

And despite the rhetoric, New Zealand’s track record hasn’t been so very different.  Governments twice bailed out the BNZ in the late 80s and early 90s.  The temporary retail deposit guarantee scheme was introduced with bipartisan support in the midst of the 2008/09 crisis.  And AMI –  an insurance company, not even a bank –  was bailed out, on official advice, only a few years ago.    Of course, many small finance companies also failed, and there was no bailout to those depositors.   But a rational retail creditor of a significant retail bank is quite likely to assume that if there is a bank failure, he or she will in the end be protected by the government.

Rational ratings agencies know this too.   In their ratings –  or banks and of sovereigns –  they take account of the probability of official government support.     It is likely to be a matter of serious concern in a shonky banking system, and in a country with high pre-existing levels of government debt.  It isn’t likely to be of much concern in a country with a good track record of stable banking, a low level of government debt, and a good track of reining in fiscal pressures.  And that is true whether or not there is a formal deposit insurance scheme in place.

For a long time I was staunchly opposed to deposit insurance –  like pretty much everyone at the Reserve Bank.  But I changed my mind probably a decade ago.  I’m not so worried by the question of whether it is “fair” or not for ordinary depositors to face the risk of losing money –  there are plenty of other areas where such uncompensated losses happen (eg house prices fall back, or the value of one’s labour market skills drops) –  as by realpolitik considerations:

  • at point of failure, governments are almost certain, whatever they say now, to bail out retail depositors of major core institutions, and
  • a pre-specificed deposit insurance arrangement increases the chances of OBR itself being able to work, and thus of being able to impose losses on wholesale creditors (notably offshore ones).

In an earlier post I outlined a scenario:

Suppose a big bank is on the brink of failure.  Purely illustrative, let’s assume that one day some years hence the ANZ boards in New Zealand and Australia approach the respective governments and regulators, announcing “we are bust”.

Perhaps the Reserve Bank will favour adopting OBR for the New Zealand subsidiary (since the parent is also failing they can’t get the parent to stump up more capital to solve the problem that way).    But why would the Minister of Finance agree?

First, Australia doesn’t have a system like OBR and no one I’m aware of thinks it is remotely likely that an Australia government would simply let one of their big banks fail.  But in the very unlikely event they did, not only is there a statutory preference for Australian depositors over other creditors, but Australia has a deposit insurance scheme.

I’m not sure of the precise numbers, but as ANZ is our largest bank, perhaps a third of all New Zealanders will have deposits at ANZ.

So, if the New Zealand Minister of Finance is considering using OBR he has to weigh up:

  • the headlines, in which ANZ depositors in Australia would be protected, but ANZ depositors in New Zealand would immediately lose a large chunk of their money (an OBR ‘haircut’ of 30 per cent is perfectly plausible),
  • and, even with OBR, it is generally accepted (it is mentioned in the Bulletin) that the government would need to guarantee all the remaining deposits of the failed bank (otherwise depositors would rationally remove those funds ASAP from the failed bank)
  • and I’ve long  thought it likely that once the remaining funds of the failed bank are guaranteed, the government might also have to guarantee the deposits of the other banks in the system.  Banks rarely fail in isolation, and faced with the failure of a major banks, depositors might quite rationally prefer to shift their funds to the bank that now has the government guarantee.

And all this is before considering the huge pressure that would be likely to come on the New Zealand government, from the Australian government, to bail-out the combined ANZ group.  The damage to the overall ANZ brand, from allowing one very subsidiary to fail, would be quite large.  And Australian governments can play hardball.

So, the Minister of Finance (and PM) could apply OBR, but only by upsetting a huge number of voters (and voters’ families), upsetting the government of the foreign country most important to New Zealand, and still being left with large, fairly open-ended, guarantees on the books.

Or, they could simply write a cheque –  perhaps in some (superficially) harmonious trans-Tasman deal to jointly bail out parent and subsidiary  (the haggling would no doubt be quite acrimonious).  After all, our government accounts are in pretty reasonable shape by international standards.

And the real losses –  the bad loans –  have already happened.  It is just a question of who bears them.  And if one third of the population is bearing them –  in an institution that the Reserve Bank was supposed to have been supervising –  well, why not just spread them over all taxpayers?    And how reasonable is it to think that an 80 year pensioner, with $100000 in our largest bank, should have been expected to have been exercising more scrutiny and market discipline than our expert professional regulator (the Reserve Bank) succeeded in doing?  Or so will go the argument –  and it will get a lot of sympathy.

So quite probably there would be some sort of joint NZ/Australian government bailout of the Australian banks and their New Zealand subsidiaries.  The political incentives –  domestic and international –  are just too great to seriously envisage an alternative outcome.

But let’s suppose the Australian government was willing to jettison the New Zealand subsidiary and leave it entirely to us what to do.  The domestic political pressures to protect retail deposits will still be just as real.  In those circumstances, a pre-established deposit insurance scheme (eg for retail deposits up to perhaps $100000 per depositor) would make it more feasible for a Minister of Finance to (a) cap the government’s support, and (b) allow the OBR tool to be applied, under which wholesale creditors would be allowed to lose money.   It still might never happen –  there will still be unease about ongoing access to foreign funding markets for the other banks –  but the option is more feasible than at present (with no deposit insurance in place).  From a fiscal perspective, a pre-specified credible deposit insurance scheme –  funded by a levy, and backed by a credible bank supervision regime –  could actually reduce the fiscal risks associated with a banking crisis, rather than increase them.

Finally, it is worth keeping the numbers in some perspective.  At present, properly defined net Crown debt is about 9 per cent of GDP.    Total (book) equity of all our banks is currently around $37 billion.   Savage stress tests at present suggest little risk of a severe shakeout making material inroads on that buffer.    Banking systems tend not to lose much money on housing-dominated portfolios, when those loans are put in place in floating exchange rate systems without much government interference in the housing finance market.  But lets assume a really savage scenario, in which across the banking system all the equity is wiped out, and 50 per cent more, and the government chooses to recapitalise the banking system.  That would involve  the government assuming additional gross debt of around 20 per cent of GDP.  But much of that would be “backed” by the remaining good assets of the banking system (in time the recapitalised bank could be sold off again) –  it is only the amount the government injects that is beyond replacing existing equity that represents a net loss to the taxpayer.  That amount would be less than 10 per cent of GDP, even on these extremely pessimistic scenarios.   You’ll remember a recent post in which I cited some earlier New Zealand research suggesting that an increase in government debt of that sort of magnitude might raise bond yields by just a few basis points.

Of course, if New Zealand ever did face a really severe shakeout of this sort there would probably be many other problems –  including fiscal ones (tax revenues fall when economies shrink).  The sovereign credit ratings might well be cut.  Not only would there have been huge real losses of wealth within the community, but something very bad would have been revealed about the quality of our banking institutions, our private borrowers, and of our official regulators.  But, again, whether or not we had a formal deposit insurance scheme would almost certainly be a third-order issue in the midst of such a disaster.

At present, with very robust government finances, and a banking system which, to all appearances, is also extremely sound, the choice to introduce a well-structured deposit insurance scheme would be very unlikely to affect the government’s credit rating.   There is an argument that some observers –  rating agencies even? –  might see it as a refreshing dose of realism about how banking crises actually play out, establishing institutions that better respect that realism –  and which charge depositors (through a levy on protected deposits) for the insurance they will, almost inevitably, be provided with.  Priced insurance –  even if imperfectly priced –  is almost always better than unpriced insurance.

And in case anyone thinks deposit insurance is some sort of weird “out there” policy, not only does almost every other advanced country have such a scheme, but a few years ago Minister of Finance Bill English was quite happy to concede, in responding to parliamentary questions from Winston Peters, that there are reasonable arguments to be made for such a scheme (particularly in view of the quite different regimes operating in Australia and New Zealand for many of the same banks).  And he didn’t appear to worry that deposit insurance might threaten the government’s credit rating.

(I’ve argued here that a proper deposit insurance regime increases the chances of OBR being able to be used, especially for wholesale creditors.   My long-held view about OBR hasn’t really changed: it is mainly a tool that could prove quite useful in handling the failure of a small retail bank (eg TSB or SBS), at least if the relevant parliamentary seats (New Plymouth or Invercargill) were not, at the time of failure, held by the governing party.)

Bouquets and brickbats for the ANZ

In July last year, while the Reserve Bank was consulting on the latest extension in its (seemingly) ever-widening web of controls –  this one, restricting mortgages for residential investment properties to 60 per cent LVRs –  David Hisco, the chief executive of the local arm of the ANZ bank, went very public arguing that the Reserve Bank wasn’t going far enough.

Heavily increase LVR limits for property investors. The Reserve Bank wants most property investors around the country to have 40 percent deposits in future. We think they should go harder and ask for 60 percent. Almost half of house sales in Auckland are to property investors. Taking them out of the market will be unpopular amongst investors but it may end up doing them a favour. Of course this would mean less business for us banks but right now the solution calls for everyone to adjust.

It was an interesting stance.  As I noted at the time (a) there was nothing at all to stop the ANZ tightening up its lending conditions along those lines if they thought such restriction was prudent, but (b) the ANZ’s own economics team, in a piece issued the very same week, had been less than convinced of the case for even the Reserve Bank’s own more-modest proposed restrictions.

To us, the case for requiring investors to have a 40% deposit is not overly
strong. This is particularly considering the RBNZ’s own stress tests and the fact that most investor lending was already done at sub-70 LVRs anyway.

I noted then that

There must be some interesting conversations going on at the ANZ.  It would be very interesting to see the ANZ submission on the Reserve Bank’s proposals, and if the Reserve Bank won’t release it, there is nothing to stop ANZ itself doing so.  I’ll be surprised if they do, and even more surprised if the submission recommends limiting all investors throughout the country to LVRs not in excess of 40 per cent.

The Reserve Bank has long been quite resistant to releasing submissions made on regulatory proposals –  even though if, say, you make a submission to a select committee on a proposed new law that submission will routinely, and quite quickly, be published.  Under pressure, the Reserve Bank has slowly been backing away. First, they agreed to release submissions from entities they didn’t regulate, while refusing to release anything from regulated entities (banks in this case).  They rely in their defence on a provision of the Reserve Bank Act which, even if it legally means what the Bank has claimed it does, was never intended to enable permanent secrecy for submissions on general policy proposals.  The Bank has now reviewed its stance again, and has now agreed to release/publish submissions made by regulated entities but only if those entities themselves consent (and subject to normal provisions allowing commercially sensitive information to be withheld).  Partly presumably because I had appealed to the Ombudsman over the withholding of bank submissions on last year’s extension of the LVR controls, they have now decided to apply this new stance retrospectively.

Yesterday I received a letter from the Reserve Bank

The Reserve Bank has sought the consent of the registered banks to provide to you their submissions from the consultation on adjustments to restrictions on high-LVR residential mortgage lending. We have obtained consent from ANZ Bank to release its submission to the consultation. Accordingly, the submission from ANZ Bank is being provided to you under the provisions of section 105(2)(a) of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act 1989.  Some parts of the submission have been redacted by ANZ Bank as a condition of its consent.

Other registered banks have not provided consent and submissions provided by other registered banks continue to be withheld

Of course, ANZ could have released the submission itself months ago, but they still deserve credit for agreeing to the release even at this late date.   I hope this move foreshadows routine willingness to allow ANZ submissions to the Reserve Bank to be published.

The ANZ stance contrasts very favourably with that of the other banks.    Given the risks of regulators and the regulated getting too close to each other, at risk to the public interest, getting the submissions of regulated entities published should be a basic feature of open government, and the continued reluctance doesn’t reflect well on either the Reserve Bank or the other commercial banks.  What do they have to hide?

Apparently the Reserve Bank will be putting a link to the ANZ submission (as redacted) on their website shortly [now there, together with all the other LVR submissions and material they’ve released over the years] but for now here it is.


Perhaps to no one’s surprise, there is nothing in the submission suggesting that ANZ would have favoured a more restrictive approach (of the sort outlined by the chief executive a few weeks earlier).


It wouldn’t have cost them anything to have advocated the chief executive’s preferred position –  after all, it wasn’t likely that the Reserve Bank would adopt it anyway –  but there is no suggestion, not even a hint, that our largest commercial bank thought the Reserve Bank wasn’t going far enough.

I noted at the time

But I don’t suppose we will actually see ANZ move to ban all mortgages for residential investors with LVRs in excess of 40 per cent.  Instead, Hisco wants the Reserve Bank to do it for him.    That would enable him to tell his Board that he simply had no choice, and provide cover when profits fell below shareholder expectations.  That should be no way to run a business in a market economy –  although sadly too often it is.

Reality seems to be even worse, in some respects.   Not only did ANZ not pull its own LVR limits back to 40 per cent, they didn’t even take the opportunity of a (then) private submission to the regulator to make their case for a tougher policy.  Instead, it looks a lot like they were just going for the free publicity of a call for bold action, while never having had any intention of doing anything about it.   It isn’t exactly straightforward.  Of course, they are free to do it if they can get away with it, but it doesn’t look like the sort of ethical behaviour we might hope for from senior figures in major financial institutions.

Although the Reserve Bank was consulting on extending LVR restrictions, quite a lot of the ANZ’s submission is devoted to what appear to be mostly sensible concerns about the possible extension of the regulatory net to include debt to income limits.  The Reserve Bank is apparently about to launch a consultation on the possible addition of debt to income limits to its “approved” tool-kit (technically it doesn’t need anyone’s approval to use them).  I hope that the forthcoming consultative document takes seriously the practical problems various people, including the ANZ, have already raised.

I welcomed the recent decision of the Minister of Finance to require the Reserve Bank to undertake public consultation now, not just at the point they want to use DTIs.  Perhaps his motivations were somewhat mixed –  there is after all an election only a few months away –  but there is probably a better chance of the Governor taking submissions seriously now than at a point when the Governor has already decided he wants to use the tool, perhaps as a matter of urgency.    Having said all that, I was a little bemused at the suggestion from the Minister that the Reserve Bank should now do a cost-benefit analysis on the use of DTIs. I’m all in favour of such analysis, and am concerned that too often there is no attempt to quantify the costs and benefits of proposed interventions, but……it isn’t clear how one can do a cost-benefit analysis on an intervention except in the specific circumstances that might arguably warrant the deployment of the instrument.  One surely needs to know the specific threat to be able to evaluate the chance that a proposed intervention might mitigate the risks?

Deposit insurance

Late on Friday afternoon, Stuff posted an op-ed piece calling for the introduction of a (funded) deposit insurance scheme in New Zealand.  It was written by Geof Mortlock, a former colleague of mine at the Reserve Bank, who has spent most of his career on banking risk issues, including having been heavily involved in the handling of the failure, and resulting statutory management, of DFC.

As the IMF recently reported, all European countries (advanced or emerging) and all advanced economies have deposit insurance, with the exception of San Marino, Israel and New Zealand.   An increasing number of people have been calling for our politicians to rethink New Zealand’s stance in opposition to deposit insurance.   I wrote about the issue myself just a couple of months ago, in response to some new material from the Reserve Bank which continues to oppose deposit insurance.

Different people emphasise different arguments in making the case for New Zealand to adopt a deposit insurance scheme.  Geof lists four arguments in his article

  • providing small depositors with certainty that they are protected from losses up to a clearly defined amount;
  • providing depositors with prompt access to their protected deposits in a bank failure;
  • reducing the risk of depositor runs and resultant instability in the banking system;
  • reducing the political pressure on government to bail-out banks in distress – deposit insurance would actually make Open Bank Resolution more politically realistic.

Of these, I emphasise the fourth.  I’m not convinced that there is a compelling public policy interest in protecting depositors, small or otherwise (many schemes cover deposits of $250000, sometimes per depositor per bank).   There are plenty of other bad things in life that we don’t protect people from (the economic consequences of) –  job losses, fluctuating house values, road accidents, bad marriages and so on.  The ultimate state safety net is the welfare system, which provides baseline levels of income support.  Should “deposits” or “money” be different?  I’m not sure I can see good economic arguments why (although there are good reasons why in the market debt and equity instruments co-exist, and debt instruments generally require less day-to-day monitoring by the holders of those instruments).

And there is a  variety of ways of providing depositors with prompt access to funds following a bank failure.  A bailout is one of them.  OBR is another.  And deposit insurance, in and of itself, doesn’t ensure prompt access to funds; it just ensures that the insured amount is fully protected (minus any co-payment, or deductible).

I’m also not persuaded that deposit insurance reduces instability in the banking system.  International historical evidence has been that in many or most cases,  depositors can distinguish, broadly speaking, the weaker banks from the stronger banks in deciding whether to run (I would argue that the UK experience with Northern Rock is one recent observation in support of that proposition).  And anything that weakens, albeit marginally, market discipline (in this case, by reducing the incentive on deposits to monitor risk and respond accordingly) can’t be likely to contribute to greater stability in banking systems.  Deposit guarantees for South Canterbury Finance only postponed, and probably worsened, the eventual day of reckoning.

But I find the political economy arguments for deposit insurance (at least in respect of large banks) compelling.  I outlined the case more fully in my earlier post.  If we don’t want governments bailing out all the creditors of a failing bank (large and small, domestic and foreign), we need to build institutions that recognize the pressures that drive bailouts and take account of that political economy.  It is futile –  and probably costly in the long run  –  to simply pretend that those pressures don’t exist.  In its recent published material, the Reserve Bank again just ignores these arguments, but they know them.  In fact, I found a quote from Toby Fiennes, their head of banking supervision, who correctly observed a few years ago that

some form of depositor protection arrangement may make it easier for the government of the day to impose a resolution such as OBR that does not involve taxpayer support – in effect the political “noise” from depositor voters is dealt with,” said Fiennes

As I’ve noted previously, in the last thirty years:

  • The BNZ was bailed out by the government
  • Finance company (and bank) deposits were guaranteed by the government
  • AMI was bailed out by the government
And each of those bailouts/protections was done on the advice of the Reserve Bank and Treasury.  Two were put in place by National governments and the other (the 2008 deposit guarantee scheme) was done with the support of the then National Opposition.
We have let other institutions fail, and creditors lose their money.  Wholesale creditors of DFC lost material amounts of money in that failure (the few retail creditors were protected, mostly for convenience in dealing with the main creditors), various finance companies failed before the guarantees were put in place, and one other insurance company failed after the Christchurch earthquakes and was not bailed out.   So our governments have a track record of being willing to allow people to lose their money when financial institutions fail, if the number of people involved is quite small, or the creditors are foreign. But they have no track record of being willing to allow large numbers of domestic depositors/policyholders to lose money in the event of a financial institution failing –  and it is not as if these examples are all ancient history; two were resolved under the current government.

And it is not as if governments in other advanced countries have been any more willing to allow retail depositors to lose money.  Most of our major banks are Australian-owned, and Australia has relatively recently adopted a deposit insurance scheme, reinforcing the longstanding statutory preferential claim Australian depositors have over the assets of Australian banks.  In the event of the failure of an Australian-owned banking group, why should we suppose voters here will tolerate losing large proportions of their deposits when they see their counterparts in Australia –  in the same banking group –  protected?    The Australian government  –  in the lead in resolving such a failure – is unlikely to be receptive to such a stance either, and if they can’t force us to protect our depositors, there are lots of strands to the trans-Tasman relationship, and ways of exerting pressure if our government did choose to make a stand.

A deposit insurance scheme heightens the chances of being able to use OBR, and thus to impose losses on wholesale creditors, many of whom will be foreign.

But it doesn’t guarantee it.   I noticed that Geof’s article included this paragraph

Since the global financial crisis, many countries, including New Zealand, have developed policies that enable even large bank failures to be handled in ways that minimise the prospect of a taxpayer bail-out, by forcing shareholders, then creditors (including depositors), to absorb losses.

I am less optimistic than Geof here.  Countries have been moving in the right direction, of trying to establish resolution mechanisms that would enable bank failures to occur without taxpayer bailouts, and in which large and wholesale creditors would face direct losses.  But none of these mechanisms has really been tested yet.  I’m yet to be convinced that the authorities in Britain or the US would be any more ready to let one of their major banks fail, with creditors bearing losses, than they were in 2008.

I’m reminded of a story Alan Bollard once told us about his time as Secretary to the Treasury. Faced with the prospect of Air New Zealand failing, the Prime Minister of the time asked if Treasury could guarantee that if Air New Zealand failed the koru would be still be flying the following week.  Unable to offer any such assurance, the government decided on a bailout.  Faced with the prospect of the failure of one of our larger banks, the Prime Minister might reasonably ask the Reserve Bank and Treasury whether they could assure him that, if he went ahead and allowed OBR to be imposed, other New Zealand banks and borrowers would still be able to tap the international markets the next week.  At best, officials could surely only offer an equivocal answer.  Bailouts remain likely for any major institution (especially as, in our case, resolution of any major bank involves two governments).

I hope I am too pessimistic in respect of wholesale creditors.  And we shouldn’t simply give up because there is a risk that governments might blanch and bail out the entire institution.  But the best chance of governments being willing to impose losses on larger creditors in the event of failure, is to recognize that the pressures to bailout retail depositors will be overwhelming, and to establish institutions that internalize the cost of that (overwhelmingly probable) choice.  A moderately well-run deposit insurance scheme does that, by imposing a levy on banks for the insurance offered to their depositors.

As Geof notes, he has changed his stance on deposit insurance.   Looking around the web, I stumbled on  “Deposit insurance: Should New Zealand adopt it and what role does it play in a bank failure” a 2005 paper, by Geof and one of his colleagues (now a senior manager at TSB) on deposit insurance, which has been released under the OIA.   It is a useful summary of some of the counter-arguments.

One of the issues it covers is the question  of whether, instead of adopting deposit insurance, we could achieve much the same outcome by using the de minimis provisions in the OBR scheme.  Under those provisions (built into the prepositioned software) deposits up to a certain designated amount can be fully protected, and not subject to the haircut.

As I’ve noted previously, this provision might be useful if it was only a few hundred dollars –  effectively, say, protecting the modest bank balance of a very low income earner or superannuitant, who needed each dollar of a week’s income to survive.  It might be tidier to have all these small balances protected than to have all these people turning to food banks. It might also keep down the ongoing administrative costs of the statutory management, by keeping many very small depositors out of the net   But the de minimis provisions are not a serious substitute for deposit insurance, on the sort of scale that it is typically offered at.  Any preference for very small depositors comes at the expense of the rest of the creditors.  That might be tolerable for small balances in a large institutions with lots of funding streams.    It is much less so in a bank that is largely retail funded, and quickly becomes impossible in such banks once the level of protection rises above basic weekly subsistence levels.  And, of course, no one knows what the de minimis level is, so the risk (facing other creditors) cannot be properly priced.  By contrast, a deposit insurance scheme can be set, at priced, at pre-specified credible levels.

If we were to establish a deposit insurance scheme in New Zealand, there are many operational details to work through.  One, of course, is the pricing regime.   In his article, Geof notes that

‘the cost is small –  no more than a small fraction of a percentage point per annum on each dollar of bank deposit”

I’m less convinced that that is the correct answer.  There is a market price for insuring against the risk of bank failure, and associated losses on debt instrument.  That is what credit default swaps are for.  Historically, in the decade or so prior to the crisis, premia on Australian bank CDSs were very low.  We used them in setting the price for the deposit guarantee scheme in 2008, and from memory they had averaged under 10 basis points.  That isn’t so any longer,  and for the last few years the average premium has been more like 100 basis points (fluctuating with global risk sentiment) –  nicely illustrated here. Bank supervisors would, no doubt, tell us that these premia far overstate the risk of loss –  and I would probably agree with them (and certainly did in 2008, when we used historical pricing) –  but it is the market price of insurance.  Is there a good reason why government deposit insurance funds should charge less?

It is time to adopt a deposit insurance scheme in New Zealand –  not, in my view, because people necessarily should be insulated against losses, but because governments will do so anyway.  In the face of such overwhelming pressures (and track record here and abroad) we are best to build institutions that help limit and manage that risk, and which charge people for the protection that governments are offering them, while making it clearer and more credible that others –  outside that net –  will be expected to bear losses in the event of a bank failure.