The Governor on banking and deposit insurance

There was another interview the other day with new Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr.  This one, on interest.co.nz, focused on issues somewhat connected to the Reserve Bank’s responsibility for financial sector prudential regulation/supervision, and associated failure management responsibilities.

In the interview Orr touched again on an idea he has already alluded to in one of his interviews: the idea of getting a clearer, more quantified, sense from Parliament as to what it is looking for from the Reserve Bank in its conduct of regulatory policy.

It is an appealing idea in principle.  For monetary policy, Parliament has specified a goal of price stability, and in the Policy Targets Agreement the (elected) Minister of Finance gives that operational form (a focus on 2 per cent annual inflation, within a range of 1 to 3 per cent).   There is nothing similar for the extensive regulatory powers the Bank has.

In respect of banks, section 68 of the Act sets out the goals

68 Exercise of powers under this Part

The powers conferred on the Governor-General, the Minister, and the Bank by this Part shall be exercised for the purposes of—

(a)  promoting the maintenance of a sound and efficient financial system; or

(b)  avoiding significant damage to the financial system that could result from the failure of a registered bank.

Which is fine as far as it goes –  and what isn’t there (eg a depositor protection mandate) is often as important as what is.   But it isn’t very specific, and provides no guidance as to how to interpret the idea of an “efficient” financial system (as a result, it has been debated internally for decades), no sense of how sound the system should be (or even what a “sound system”, as distinct from sound institutions, might be.   And the same overarching provision (sec 68) has seen the Reserve Bank’s approach to bank regulation and supervision change very substantially over the years, with little or no involvement from Parliament.

There is a reasonable argument –  made quite forcefully in former Bank of England Deputy Governor Paul Tucker’s new book on such matters – that if in a particular aspect society’s preferences aren’t reasonably stable, and able to be written down reasonably well, then policymaking powers in that area should not be delegated to an independent agency (let alone what is formally a one-man agency).  With the second stage of the review of the Reserve Bank Act underway, Orr can obviously see a threat to the Bank’s powers, and thus he suggests an attempt be made to have Parliament articulate its preferences, and views on possible trade-offs, more directly.  If they could do so, having unelected decisionmakers then working to deliver on that mandate might be less democratically objectionable, and the Reserve Bank might have a greater degree of legitimacy in these areas than it does now.

And so the Governor told his interviewer

“For inflation targeting we’ve got a clear target [being] 1% to 3% on average. For the prudential regulation, – how do we articulate that target? In other words what is the risk appetite of the people of New Zealand as represented by Members of Parliament for banking regulation? Do you screw it down to one corner where nothing can happen – it’s very sounds but totally inefficient, or do you have trade-offs allowing firms to come and go and consumers to be aware etc? So that is going to be a really good, useful articulation that will come out of that,” says Orr.

At first blush it sounds promising, and I’m certainly not going to discourage an effort to try to uncover such an articulation of preferences.  But I am a little sceptical that anything very stable or useful will emerge from the process.  I’d prefer that all rule-making powers were removed back to the Minister of Finance (or indeed Parliament), leaving the role of the Reserve Bank as (a) technical advisers, and (b) implementers.

It might be fine to express a view that banking system regulation should be designed on a view that there should be no major bank failure on average more than once in a hundred years   – actually about the rate in New Zealand history –  or, indeed, five hundred years.    That might (and has in the past internally) be some help in how one calibrates capital requirements for banks.  It will, however, be almost no help in deciding whether LVR restrictions are a legitimate use of coercive, redistributive, government powers.  Or whether we care much about small institutions.  Or, indeed, whether the Reserve Bank should have the power to approve (or not)  the appointment of senior staff in banks.   And even if society could express a stable preference for a regime designed to deliver no more than one failure per 100 years, it provides very little basis for that other vital strand of the governance of independent agencies –  serious accountability.    Good luck could readily deliver a 50 year run of no failures without reflecting any great actual credit on the central bankers in charge at the time (who might have been doing fine, or doing a lousy job).  And if the one in a hundred year shock happens next year, it will still be very difficult to say with any certainty that the central bankers were doing the job they were asked to do –  they may well have been, and just got unlucky, and the public is likely to want scapegoats.    Elected politicians serve that role better than unelected technocrats.

But if there is anything more to the idea the Governor is toying with, it would be good to get some material into the public domain in due course, and have it scrutinised or debated.

In his latest interview, the Governor also touched again on the calls for a royal commission into conduct in the financial sector, as underway at present in Australia.  This time he is a lot more moderate, explicitly recognising that it isn’t his call.

Against the backdrop of the unacceptable conduct coming to light in Australia’s Royal Commission on financial services, Orr doesn’t believe New Zealand needs its own Royal Commission. However, he says the impact of the Australian one is certainly being felt in NZ.

“There will be not a single bank in New Zealand that is not, at the moment, really checking every cupboard for skeletons here in New Zealand. That is without doubt. This has really put the wind up the banks to say ‘hey, what is the alternative to sound regulation, it’s a Royal Commission’. We’re meeting collectively with the CEOs, we’re meeting individually with the chairs, and we always do on a regular basis,” Orr says.

“Is a Royal Commission necessary? At the moment in my personal opinion no, but I’m not the one who would call one anyway.”

Orr says while the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority is “being held up as some [sort of] global best practice,” and works alongside the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Reserve Bank of Australia with all having “heavy boots on the ground,” they’re still having “this cultural challenge.” Thus more hands-on regulation than the Reserve Bank’s light touch regulatory oversight of banks isn’t necessarily the best way forward.

But it is an odd mix of responses.  On the one hand, Orr seems to come across as something of a champion or defender of the banks in New Zealand.  That is no part of his role.  He is the prudential (soundness) regulator, in the public interest –  recall section 68 of the Act, quoted earlier – and his role (the Reserve Bank’s role) has almost nothing to do with conduct standards.

And he seems to be attempting distraction on other issues by conflating prudential/systemic issues with conduct issues.  Thus, when various people (including the IMF) have argued that New Zealand should adopt a prudential regulatory regime more akin to APRA’s (which, in effect, operates here to a considerable extent anyway, because APRA is focused on the entire Australian banking groups), Orr doesn’t engage in the substance of that debate, but attempts to muddy the water by making the point that a more intensive prudential regime in Australia hasn’t prevented some of the conduct issues coming to light in the Royal Commission.  Indeed, but why would one imagine it should?   They are two quite different issues.  In the same way, an investigation into whether the local supermarket was meeting minimum wage or holiday pay provisions for its staff wouldn’t expect to shed any light on food-handling issues in the same supermarket.

Part of the legitimacy of independent central banks involves them being seen to speak in an authoritative and trustworthy way.

But the comment from the Governor that led me to read the account of the interview was on the vexed subject of deposit insurance.   The article had this as (part of) its headline

RBNZ Governor says differences between deposit insurance & minimum deposit not frozen in OBR scenario are ‘technicalities’

That sounded like an intriguing claim.  You’ll recall that the Reserve Bank has long staunchly opposed deposit insurance (eg articles/speeches referenced here), even though people like The Treasury, the IMF, and various other commentators (including me and my former RB colleague Geof Mortlock) favour it.  The new Governor doesn’t seem to share the Bank’s long-running opposition.

Asked whether the Reserve Bank should get an explicit statutory objective to protect bank depositors and/or insurance policyholders, Orr says deposit protection, or deposit insurance, is “something that’s going to be here in the future.” NZ’s currently an outlier among OCED countries in not having explicit deposit insurance.

“I think that’s something that’s going to be here in the future. We need to work our way through what it means

I’m surprised that change of stance didn’t get more coverage.  Of course, whether or not we have deposit insurance isn’t a decision for the Reserve Bank; it is a matter for the government and Parliament.  Nonetheless, if the Reserve Bank Governor is going to withdraw the bank’s opposition, that removes a significant bureaucratic roadblock.  Well done, Governor.    (To be clear, I favour deposit insurance not as a first-best outcome, but as a second-best that makes it more likely that future governments will allow troubled financial institutions to fail, rather than bail out all the creditors.)

But it was the Governor’s next comments on the issue that were more troubling, and which suggest he hasn’t yet got sufficiently to grips with the issue before opening his mouth.

I think people have been talking across each other a lot,” Orr says.

“The bank here has got a policy called Open Bank Resolution. And that is the idea that if a bank is too large to fail, we have to keep it open. But we have to recapitalise. So the current owners or investors who have largely done their dough, how do you recapitalise it and how do you have the door open the next day?”

“As part of that open bank resolution, we’ve already said there can be a de minimis around depositors money that they will have access to. We just need to speak in better English to say ‘you know you are going to have some cash there, you are going to be able to get your sandwiches, meet your bills, do all of that on the Monday. Because if it didn’t happen that way, then that one bank failure creates all banks to fail, there’s [bank] runs everywhere’,” adds Orr.

When it was put to him that depositors having access to a de minimis sum if open bank resolution was implemented on their bank isn’t the same as explicit deposit insurance, Orr suggested the difference is merely technical.

“We could have a discussion through that legislation to say ‘economically it’s the same, could we call it the same, or is it part of a failure management?’ I believe it’s the same end outcome, the technicalities behind it are just technicalities. We need to be able to say to the public ‘if we’re shutting the bank down, what do you have access to, what is the guaranteed de minimis or minimum, or protection,’ and then we need to work out how is that going to be funded.”

There is a lot of mixed-up stuff in there.

For a start, the question of how we manage the failure of a bank in New Zealand has nothing whatever to do with the idea of foreign taxpayers bailing out New Zealand depositors.  I’m not aware that anyone supposed that was very likely.  Indeed, all our planning –  including the requirement for most deposit-taking banks to incorporate locally –  has been based on the idea that New Zealand is on its own (although for the Australian banking groups, whatever happens in the event of failure is likely to be negotiated by politicians from the two countries).   Instead the general issue here is

  • should a large bank simply be allowed to close if it fails, and handled through normal liquidation procedures (few would say yes to that).
  • if not, how best can the bank be kept open,
  • it could be bailed out by the government (benefiting all creditors, including foreign wholesale ones),
  • or the OBR tool could be used, in which all creditors’ claims would be immediately “haircut”, so that the losses fall on shareholders and creditors not on taxpayers but  the bank’s doors remain open.

Within the OBR scheme there has always been the idea of a de minimis amount which might not be haircut at all.  It isn’t an issue about liquidity –  as the Governor suggests –  because in the reopened bank everyone has access to some of their money.  It is an explicitly distributional issue.   For example, a welfare beneficiary might have only $100 in their account (living almost from day to day),  such accounts in total won’t have much money in them, so it might be easier (involve many fewer creditors, and less immediate resort to eg foodbanks) and in some sense fairer just to give people with such small balances immediate access to all their money and not have them share in any losses (or have to bother about ongoing dealings with those handling the failure).  It has mostly been seen as a matter of administrative convenience, but also of realpolitik (reduce the number of voters affected by losses in a failure).   And if these very small creditors are fully paid out, it does involve a transfer of wealth from all other creditors, but the amounts involved, even cumulatively, are pretty small.

In recent years, there has been talk of this de minimis amount creeping up.    There have even been suggestions of something as large as $10000 –  in other words, if you have less than $10000 in your (failed) bank, you wouldn’t face any losses.    It must be this sort of thing the Governor has in mind when he talks of the difference between deposit insurance and the de minimis being little more than “technicalities”.

But he is still wrong:

  • first, the de minimis would only apply where OBR was used, and OBR is only one option.  Even if looks like an attractive option, in some circumstances, for a large bank, it might not be a necessary or appropriate response to the failure of a small bank.
  • second, the de minimis is being paid out of other creditors’ money (it is essentially a (small) depositor preference scheme).   That might be tolerable for very small balances –  other creditors have an interest in lowering administrative costs of managing the OBR –  but is most unlikely to be defensible, or acceptable, for larger de minimis amounts,   Perhaps the Governor has in mind, the government chipping in directly to cover the larger de minimis amounts, but relative to a proper priced deposit insurance regime that seems far inferior, and different by degree, not just by “technicalities”.
  • third, no de minimis amount I’ve ever heard mentioned comes close to the sorts of payout (coverage) limits in typical deposit insurance schemes abroad.  As the author of the interest.co.nz piece points out  “Under Australia’s deposit insurance scheme, deposits are protected up to a limit of A$250,000 for each account-holder at any bank, building society or credit union that’s authorised by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority”.    Attempting to rely on the de minimis –  as people like the Governor sometimes do in advance of the failure –  is just a recipe for increasing the likelihood of a full bailout at point of failure, as the amount envisaged just won’t match public expectations/demands (as revealed in other countries).

To repeat, it is good that the new Governor appears to be shifting ground on deposit insurance.  But let’s not settle for half-baked responses, using a vehicle never designed to deal with the issue of deposit insurance.  Legislate and put in place a proper deposit insurance scheme, and levy depositors to pay for the insurance.

Do that and, as I’ve argued previously, the chances of being able to use OBR –  to impose losses on large and wholesale creditors, including foreign ones – will be materially increased.  Without sorting out deposit insurance properly, most likely any future government faced with a failure of a large bank will just fall back on the tried, true, and costly solution of a full state bailout.

 

 

A couple of Reserve Bank items

I had been meaning to write about a speech given last week by Grant Spencer of the Reserve Bank on so-called “macro-prudential policy”.  It was a thoughtful speech, as befits the man, and the last he will give as a public servant before retiring next week.

That it was thoughtful doesn’t mean that I generally agreed with Spencer’s (personal, rather than institutional) views.  There were at least two important omissions.  First, as it has done over the last half-decade (and more) the Bank continues to grossly underplay the importance of land-use restrictions in accounting for increases in the prices of houses (and particularly the land under them).  Until they get that element of the analysis more central, it is difficult to have much confidence in what they say about housing markets, housing risks, or possible Band-aid regulatory interventions of their own devising.    And second, they constantly ignore the limitations of their own knowledge.  I’m not suggesting for a moment that they are worse than other regulators in this regard –  who all, typically, have the same blindspot –  but it might matter rather more from a regulator than exercises, and wants to be able to continue to exercise, large discretionary intervention powers, with pervasive effects over the lives –  and financing options –  of many New Zealanders.   If they won’t openly acknowledge their own inevitable limitations, and discuss openly how they think about and manage the associated risks, how can we have any real confidence that they aren’t just blundering onwards, fired by good intentions and injunctions to “trust us” rather than by robust analysis.  In respect of both these omissions, I hope –  without much hope –  that the new Governor begins to put the Bank on a better footing.

When someone asked me the other day if there was anything new in the speech, one thing I noticed was how far the Bank’s current senior management appears to have come over the last few months around possible changes to the governance of the Bank’s main functions.   Casual readers might not notice the change, because it is presented as anything but.  Specifically, this is what Spencer had to say.

Given the planned introduction of a new decision making committee (MPC) for monetary policy, the Review should consider establishing a financial policy committee (FPC) for decisions relating to both micro and macro prudential policy. The Reserve Bank has supported a two-committee (MPC/FPC) model in place of the current single Governing Committee, for example in the Bank’s 2017 “Briefing for Incoming Minister”.

Of course, it is only a few months since the Bank’s expressed preference was simply to take the existing internal Governing Committee (the Governor and the deputies/assistant he appoints) and recognise it in statute, as the forum through which the Governor would continue to make final decisions.

And what of the claim that the Bank has –  not just does now –  supported a two-committee model, including in its Briefing to the Incoming Minister late last year?  At very best, that is gilding the lily.

As I noted at the time, both in the main text of that Briefing, and in the fuller appendix (both here) they devoted most of their effort to defending the existing Governing Committee model.    The main alternative they addressed was a Monetary Policy Committee  but even then the most they favoured was enacting the current Governing Committee model, perhaps with a few outsiders appointed by the Governor, and with the Governor remaining the final decisionmaker
“Provided the Governing Committee remains relatively small, we believe it should continue to make decisions by consensus, with the Governor having the final decision if no consensus can be achieved.  “
The only mention of a Financial Policy Committee is (from page 9)

The Reserve Bank considers that some evolution in its decision-making approach may be appropriate.  We recommend that the review of the RBNZ Act be limited to your stated change objectives.  We consider a review along these lines could be completed reasonably quickly and we would be happy to prepare a draft terms of reference, in consultation with the Treasury.  A variety of arrangements are possible and these are discussed, alongside the rationale for the Bank’s preferred model, in Appendix 6.

Other legislative changes that may be desirable over time include:

– Creating separate decision-making committees for monetary and financial policy

Note the suggestion to the Minister to keep the forthcoming review of the Act to the minimum of what Labour had promised (which dealt only with monetary policy), with some vague suggestion that at some time in the future –  but not in this review –  separate committees “may” be appropriate.  It could scarcely be called a full-throated endorsement of change.

Of course, the Bank lost various battles.  The first stage of the review is being led by Treasury (dealing with the monetary policy bits) and the second stage will look at (as yet unidentified issues).   And it seems they must have recognised that the ground is shifting, and that it would be hard to defend the current single decisionmaker models for the Bank’s huge regulatory (policy and operational) powers once momentum gathered behind a committee model for monetary policy.  Whatever the reason, it is a welcome move on the part of the current management.  Of course, we have no idea what the new Governor –  taking office in a few days –  thinks about suggestions to curtail his powers.

And just finally on the speech, one element of good governance is obeying, and respecting, the law.    Once again, Spencer’s speech and press release have been put out under the title “Grant Spencer, Governor”.  He simply isn’t.  At best he is “acting Governor”, a specific provision under the Reserve Bank Act.  A “Governor” has to be appointed for a minimum term of five years.   If it were a lawful appointment, there is nothing shameful in being acting Governor –  the one previous example, Rod Carr for five months in 2002, never purported to be the Governor.   As it is, my analysis stills suggests that the appointment was unlawful, and thus Steven Joyce and the Bank’s Board (by making the appointment) and Grant Robertson (in recognising it) both undermined the law and good governance and marred the end of Spencer’s distinguished career.  At very least, those provisions of the Act should be reviewed as part of Stage 2.

Meanwhile, we are still waiting for the now-overdue results of Stage 1, for the report of the Independent Expert Advisory Panel (which, as far as we can tell, has neither sought submissions nor engaged in consultation) and for the new Policy Targets Agreement which wil guide monetary policy from next week.

Still on matters re the Reserve Bank, there is a column in the Dominion-Post this morning by Rob Stock having a go at the Open Bank Resolution (OBR) and associated hair-cut of creditors and depositors option for handling a failed bank.  Like me –  and many other people, including the IMF and The Treasury –  Stock favours deposit insurance.  But he seems to see deposit insurance and OBR as alternatives, whereas I see them natural complements.  Indeed, the only way I can ever see the OBR instrument being allowed to work, if a substantial bank fails, is if deposit insurance is also in place.

Stock introduces his article with a straw man argument that ordinary depositors can’t really monitor banks and so shouldn’t be exposed to any financial loss if a bank fails.  Not even the first point is really true.  There are, for example, published credit ratings, and any changes in those credit ratings –  at least for major institutions –  get quite a lot of coverage.  A huge amount of information is reduced to a single letter, in a well-articulated series of gradations.   Should one have vast confidence in ratings agencies?  Probably not –  although perhaps not much less than in prudential regulators, based on track records.  But if your bank is heading towards, say, a BBB- rating and you have any material amount of money it would probably be a good idea to consider changing banks, or spreading your money around.    No one thought that South Canterbury Finance or Hanover were the same risk as the ANZ, at least until the deposit guarantee scheme made putting money in SCF rock-solid safe, whereupon many depositors rushed for the higher yields.

But there is a broader point that many risks in life aren’t able to be fully monitored, controlled, hedged, avoided or whatever  One might become a highly-specialised employee in a firm or industry that fails, or is taken out by regulatory changes.  Regions and towns rise and fall, and take house prices with them.  Governments might one day free up land use laws, reducing house and land prices to more normal levels.  Wars and natural disasters happen.  Chronic illness can strike a family. Even a marriage can be hugely risky.    For the median depositor there is typically much less at stake in their bank account (and typical losses –  percentage of liabilities – on failed retail banks aren’t that large).

Are there potential hard cases?  For sure, and Stock cites one of them.   If you’ve just sold your mortgage-free house –  for, say $1 million –  and are settling on another house next week and your bank failed in the course of that week, you could be exposed to quite a loss even though you’d had no desire to be a creditor of the bank.   Cases like that are one reason why I favour the Reserve Bank opening up electronic settlement accounts –  central bank e-cash if you like –  to the general public.  There wouldn’t be much demand, but on those rare occasions like the house settlement example, you might happily pay for the peace of mind of an effective government guarantee.  I’m looking forward to the new Reserve Bank Bulletin article on such matters next month.

I don’t think those few extreme examples warrant full insurance for all individual depositors, no matter the size of their balance.  There are many classes of people struck by not-easily-monitorable illiquid risks (see above) I’d have more sympathy with.  But I’m a political pragmatist, and as I argued previously I just cannot envisage an elected government allowing a major bank to fail, allowing all creditors to be haircut, if there is no protection at all.    That is especially so when, almost by construction, the Reserve Bank –  the government’s agent –  will have failed in its duties (and probably kept crucial information from the public, as in the recent insurance failure case) for the situation to have got to that point.    A full bailout will typically be the path of least resistance.

And a full bailout will mean not just bailing out the grandma with a $30000 term deposit, or the person changing homes with $1m temporarily on deposit, but bailing out wholesale creditors –  domestic and foreign –  with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of exposure.     Do that –  or set up structures that aren’t time-consistent and encourage people to believe in bailouts –  and any market discipline, even by the big end of town, will be very severely eroded.  And, in a crisis, we’ll be transferring taxpayers’ scarce resources to people   including foreign investors – who really should be capable of looking after themselves.  It has happened before and it will happen again.   But deposit insurance –  funded by levies on covered deposits – increases the chances of being able to impose losses on the bigger creditors if things go wrong.

Perhaps OBR would still never be used.  And there are costs to the banks in being pre-positioned for it.  But we shouldn’t easily give in to a view that any money lent to a bank is rock-solid, backed by government guarantees.  It is not as if there aren’t plausible market mechanisms that could deliver much the same result, at some cost to the depositor (eg a bank or money market fund that held only short-dated government or central bank liabilities).   But there is little evidence of any revealed demand for such an asset –  the cost presumably not being worth it to most people, to cover a very small risk.  By contrast, we voluntarily pay for fire or theft insurance –  often to cover what are really quite modest risks.

There may not be any more posts this week (and if there are, they won’t be of any great substance).   I have a couple of other commitments on Thursday and Friday and, as I’m sure many have discovered before me, broken bones seem to sap an astonishing amount of energy for something so small.

A curious suggestion

There was a curious suggestion in the New Zealand Initiative’s new report on the handling of the Canterbury earthquakes and possible ways ahead.  Almost in passing they suggested that perhaps one way of handling failed insurance companies might be to consider an insurance company version of the Open Bank Resolution (OBR) scheme, that now sits in the toolkit as one (not terribly credible, in my view) instrument that might be used by a government to help manage a bank failure.

I think I see what motivated the suggestion.  After the February 2011 quake, AMI failed, but instead of being allowed to close, with losses lying where they fell, the government (backed by –  questionable –  advice from The Treasury and the Reserve Bank) launched a bail-out.  No policyholder lost anything.   It set a terrible precedent –  and wasn’t cheap either (final costs as yet unknown).   And the OBR scheme had been motivated by a recognition that governments would probably prove relucant to let major banks close –  how, for example, would solvent firms make their payrolls next week if their bank, relied on for overdraft facilities, suddenly closed?   Rather than jump straight to a bailout –  which would be expensive, send terrible signals about future distress episodes, but which would keep the lights on and the doors open – the OBR option was designed to allow a failed bank to remain open without any direct injection of public money.  Losses would rest with creditors and depositors, but the payments system and the information-intensive business of business credit needn’t be directly disrupted.

As I say, the New Zealand Initiative people really only mentioned the issue in passing, but interest.co.nz picked up the reference and devoted a substantial article to it, including an interview with my former Reserve Bank colleague Geof Mortlock.  So it is worth giving more space to my scepticism than the NZI reference alone would typically warrant.

In doing so, it is worth stressing that:

  • banks and insurance companies are two quite different sorts of beasts,
  • keeping a failed company open and operational is, at least in concept, a very different issue than protecting depositors or policyholders once a failure has happened.

Most of rely on banks being there almost every day.  Whether we rely more on cash –  and thus use an ATM every week or so –  or mostly on direct electronic payments, we count on our bank being there.  Incomes flow into bank accounts –  be it wages, welfare payments, or whatever –  and we count on being able to use those accounts to make routine payments, including things as elemental as food.   Businesses often rely on bank credit to make routine payments, including such regular commitments as wages or materials.  For small businesses in particular, those credit relationships are not easily or quickly re-established (and perhaps especially not if a bank with a quarter of all the country’s small businesses failed).

So there is quite a plausible case that there is some wider public interest in keeping the doors of a (large) failed transactions bank –  Lehmans might be quite a different issue –  open, even if the bank has been badly managed enough to have failed.   There is a basic utility dimension to some of the core functionality.   That is the logic of OBR –  creditors (including depositors) should take losses, if losses there are, but keep the doors open and the payments flowing (even if the available credit balances are less than depositors had been counting on).

What about insurance companies?  I’m sure most of you are like me.  You pay your bills each year, and hope never to have any other contact with an insurance company ever.  And even when bad things do happen, there (a) isn’t the same immediacy as about buying today’s groceries, and (b) a bad thing happening today isn’t generally followed by another bad thing happening tomorrow.

And banks are prone to runs in ways that insurance companies aren’t.  They are just different types of contracts, for different types of products/services.

But focusing on insurance companies, it is worth unpicking the two possible (decent, economic) reasons why people might make a case for keeping a failed insurance company open, even with writedowns of policyholder claims.

The first relates to the immediate interests of people with claims outstanding at the point of failure.  Typically that will be quite a small number of people  (in which case there is no real public policy interest at all, and the failed company can simply be allowed to close, as was done with one other small insurer after the Christchurch quakes), but not always.   AMI was brought low by one specific set of events –  the Canterbury quakes –  affecting quite a large chunk of their policyholders.    Had AMI simply been left to fail, and normal commercial procedures taken their course, what would have happened?  The policyholders with claims outstanding at point of failure (including those with houses damaged/destroyed in the quakes) had no particular interest in AMI continuing to trade as a going concern.  They just wanted their claims settled, to the maximum extent possible.  Wouldn’t a liquidator have needed to work out how large those claims actually were –  an issue still in dispute in some cases –  and then made a final division of the assets (including reinsurance) assets of the firm among all the creditors, including policyholders with claims?

Policyholders with outstanding claims had two interests:

  • being paid out (whether in cash, or new home –  under replacement policies) in full, or as near as possible, and
  • being paid out expeditiously.

Liquidation is unlikely to bring about either, but neither is an OBR-type of instrument.  The whole point of an OBR is that losses fall on policyholders with outstanding claims, and a statutory manager operating under an OBR faces much the same issues as a liquidator –  needing to know the final value of all outstanding claims before final payments can be made and (thus) losses allocated.

So the interests of policyholders with outstanding claims can either be met by a bailout –  often at considerable direct Crown expense, and rather bad market discipline incentives (although the role of reinsurance might mean those effects as less bad for banks) –  or by a policyholder protection scheme, something similar in conception to deposit insurance.  This is an option canvassed in the interest.co.nz article (and which I also favour, as a second best).   Such a scheme –  funded by levies on policyholders with cover –  could be rather better tailored.

As I’ve noted, one reason OBR will probably never be used is because losses will fall as heavily on “innocent” grannies as on sophisticated offshore wholesale investors.   There is public sympathy for one group, but not the other.  Deposit insurance allows that distinction to be drawn.     No doubt the same goes for the creditors of insurance companies.  There is likely to be a great deal of sympathy for a poor family with a modest dwelling caught up in an extreme series of earthquakes –  and an unwillingness to see them face, say, a one-third write-down in the value of their claim.   But probably no one (other those directly involved) cares greatly if a family trust with a $4 million house in Fendalton and an expensive holiday home in Akaroa finds that, after the failure of their insurer, they can afford to spend only $2 million on a new house.   It was one of the offensive things about the AMI bailout that everyone –  rich and poor, sophisticated and not –  was bailed out in full.

And so I probably would favour some sort of statutory policyholder protection scheme.  I’d probably limit it to house insurance, fund it through levies on policyholders, and perhaps payout 100 per cent of claims for the first, say, $500000 of a claim, 50 per cent of the next $500000, and then leave people to the market for sums beyond that.   It would meet most of the probable and inevitable political demand, if and when a major insurer fails amid a claims-surge such as a natural disaster, would facilitate early settlement of a major chunk of any residential claim, and would keep separate the protection of small policyholders from the managment of the failed business itself.

But perhaps the argument for something like an “insurance OBR” is stronger on another count, which has nothing to do with those with outstanding claims on the failing company at the point of failure.     When an insurance company fails, your existing insurance policies with that company are no good.   You need to take steps, perhaps quite quickly, to replace the insurance.

Sometimes that will be easy enough.  If a small contents insurer failed today, out of the blue, most customers would have no great difficulty getting a new policy in place quite quickly.    But in other circumstances it could be quite difficult.  The failed insurer might have specialised in a particular type of insurance which few other companies offered (this was an issue when the big Australian insurer HIH failed).

In a domestic New Zealand context, there seem to be two sorts of plausible problems.  The first is that one company –  IAG, through its various labels –  has around 50 per cent of the general insurance market in New Zealand.   As the interest.co.nz articles notes, even the Reserve Bank has expressed some unease about this concentration.   Should IAG fail, it might be very difficult for customers to replace their policies quickly with other companies.   “Might” because other companies, including abroad, might be keen to pick up the customer base, especially if the failure resulted from a well-understood, limited, idiosyncratic event.     But even if this is an issue, it looks like an issue that should have been able to be taken into account when the various takeovers that led to IAG’s dominant position were approved.

Perhaps more of an issue is if we were to see a repeat of a large failure associated with a series of destructive earthquakes.  In the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes –  and indeed, after Kaikoura in 2016 –  people kept their existing house cover with their existing insurer, but insurers were very reluctant (typically simply refused) to extend cover.  Even alterations to an existing dwelling didn’t get covered, and it was almost possible for a new purchaser to get insurance.  It was quite rational behaviour by the insurers –  risk (of further quakes) around the affected locality, and unpriceable uncertainty, had increased a lot.  That complicated the house sales market for a time –  an inconvenience but not the end of the world.  But imagine that a large company simply failed, leaving most of their customers needing to replace their policies immediately (from personal prudence as well, typically, as from a requirement of a mortgage lender).   There would simply be no takers, at least in affected regions.  I don’t suppose banks would suddenly start selling up customers caught temporarily without insurance, but one can’t deny that there would be an issue.  Politicians would respond.

Something like an OBR for general insurance might be a remedy to that particular problem.  The failed company would remain open, and presumably existing policies would remain in place.

But is it worth it?  Personally, I’m a bit sceptical.  There is no widespread public interest in the continuity of insurance companies across all products.  Housing may well be different –  and would no doubt be seen so politically.  But in the event of a failure, in circumstances akin to AMI (natural disaster with ongoing extreme uncertainty) but in which the insurer was actually allowed to close, might not a less bad, less intrusive, intervention be something like an ad hoc intervention in which the Crown took over the existing residential insurance policies for six months after the failure, in the expectation that after six months policyholders would have been once again able to make private insurance arrangements.   It doesn’t look like a scheme that would materially undermine market discipline –  those with outstanding claims at point of failure would still be exposed –  but might recognise that in certain rare circumstances markets can simply cease to function for a time.  And still allow the salutary discipline of a failed entity passing into history.

In sum, I probably would favour a limited policyholder compensation scheme, funded by policyholders, at least for residential insurance policies. It isn’t a first-best policy, but in a second or third best world it seems better, and fairer, than generalised bailouts such as the AMI one.  But an OBR-type arrangement doesn’t seem appropriate for the general insurance industry –  it wouldn’t speed final resolution of claims, wouldn’t focus protections where the greatest public sympathies are likely to be.     If it didn’t involve the sort of panoply of new controls and provisions the bank OBR system does, it just doesn’t seem well-tailored as a general response.

 

 

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.)

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.