More thoughts on financial crises and economic performance

In my post yesterday, focused specifically on Geoff Bascand’s speech on financial stabilty, financial crises etc, I used this chart

crisis costs

to, again, raise questions about just how much of the poor economic performance over the last decade or so can really be ascribed specifically to the financial crisis (bank failures, large loan losses etc).  After all, the US was the epicentre of the crisis, and my other group of countries (long-established advanced countries, also with floating exchange rates –  Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Israel, and Japan)  didn’t have domestic financial crises.

I’d been playing around with that data with a view to writing a post about an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, The Crisis Next Time: What We Should Have Learned from 2008″, by Carmen and Vincent Reinhart (she an academic researcher, and he a senior market economist and formerly a senior Fed official).    The Foreign Affairs website is having open access this month, so the link should work for anyone wanting to read the (accessible and not overly long) article itself.

I thought the article was a bit of a mixed bag (and this post ends up only partly being about the article).  Carmen Reinhart, in particular, has been at the forefront of efforts to remind that recessions associated with financial crises are often more severe than other recessions.  That is a useful reminder, but hardly surprising.  Mild recessions tend not to generate many loan losses, and even if the banking system wasn’t rock solid in the first place, nothing too serious is likely to follow.  But if resources have been severely misallocated in the first place, supported by ample new credit, then when the correction occurs –  and views about what is profitable have to be revised –  it isn’t surprising that the associated recession can be deep and the financial system can come under stress.  In New Zealand, for example, it wasn’t the financial system crisis (failure of DFC, repeated near-failures of the BNZ) that made the 1991 recession so serious; rather than pressures on the financial system were part of the same aftermath of excess –  over-inflated expectations – that the entire economy was caught up in, combined with some serious efforts to break the back of high trend rates of inflation.

As the Reinharts point out, the problems can then be particularly severe in a country that has few or no macro policy levers left open too it –  a fixed exchange rate or a common currency, tied to the fortunes of a group that may not share the particular problems you did (thus, for example, Ireland in a euro-area in which Germany is the largest economy).  Adjustment can be a lot slower without the ability to adjust the nominal interest and exchange rates.  Perhaps more than the authors, I’m a sceptic on the euro.

For my purposes, there is a convenient couple of sentences in the Reinhart article

Financial crises do so much economic damage for a simple reason: they destroy a lot of wealth very fast. Typically, crises start when the value of one kind of asset begins to fall and pulls others down with it. The original asset can be almost anything, as long as it plays a large role in the wider economy: tulips in seventeenth-century Holland, stocks in New York in 1929, land in Tokyo in 1989, houses in the United States in 2007. 

It usefully highlights a key difference between, say, the US (or Ireland or Iceland) late last decade, and the experiences of the group of non-crisis floating exchange rate countries whose experience is reflected in that first chart above.   Stock markets in those latter countries took a short-term hit, of course, but there was no sustained loss of (perceived) wealth akin to what happened in the crisis countries.

It isn’t entirely clear from the article how much the authors want to focus mostly on the depth of the initial recession and how much on the disappointing economic outcomes in many countries over the last decade.  But both are mentioned, and there seems to be a tone that conflates the two in a way that I’m not surely is overly helpful (given the goal of learning lessons that can help better prepare us for future severe adverse events).  There also seems to be a very strong focus on the demand side, and none at all on the supply side (no mention at all of productivity growth).

And yet, if we look across the OECD as a whole, the unemployment rate was right back down to where it had been in 2007.  If (and there is) a disappointment about the last decade as a whole, it can’t be now about excess labour supply (unemployed workers) –  slow as the unemployment rate was to come down, it did eventually.  As it happens, the unemployment rate in the US (epicentre of the crisis) is now lower than in the median of my non-crisis floating exchange rate group –  which wasn’t the case in the years running up to 2008.

I have plenty of criticisms for the way many central banks (including our own) handled the years after the 2008/09 crisis and recession.  In some cases, actually tightening when it wasn’t necessary or appropriate, and often a hankering for some sort of return to “normal” interest rates (that may have prevailed in the previous couple of decades) when as has become increasingly apparent something about what is “normal” has changed.  Throw in the lack of any pro-activity in addressing the existence of the near-zero lower bound on nominal interest rates (itself arising from regulatory and legislative choices), and it is clear that more could –  and should –  have been done in many countries.

But even if such changes (in macro policy) had been made, the differences in economic outcomes would probably have been at the margin:  helpful (eg in a New Zealand context, getting core inflation back to 2 per cent, and getting unemployment down to the NAIRU perhaps two or three years earlier), but it is unlikely that it would have made much difference to productivity growth, or indeed to levels of real GDP per capita today.

In yesterday’s post, I showed a chart comparing labour productivity growth trends in the US (epicentre of the financial crisis) and in the group of non-crisis floating exchange rate advanced economies.  But what about multi-factor productivity?

The OECD only has MFP data for a subset of member countries.  Of my sample of non-crisis advanced countries, they don’t have data for Norway and Israel.  But here is the comparison for the US and the group of four non-crisis advanced countries, all normalised to 2007.

MFP crisis.png

In both cases –  although perhaps more starkly so for the non-crisis countries –  it is clear that the slowdown in productivity growth was underway well before the recession (and crisis).  The financial crisis (centred in the US) cannot be to blame for something that is (a) apparent across crisis and non-crisis countries (especially when the non-crisis countries are less productive than the US to start with), and (b) when the phenomenon got underway before the crisis or recession did.

(The Conference Board Total Economy database does have MFP estimates for my full group of non-crisis countries.   They use a different model to estimate MFP, but the same two key observations hold in their data: the slowdown was apparent in both lots of countries well before the crisis/recession, and (if anything) the US has done better than the non-crisis group both before and since its crisis.)

But what about some of the euro-area countries you ask?  And the Reinharts themselves rightly point out how poor the economic performance of Italy (and Greece) has been.  The OECD doesn’t have MFP estimates for Greece, but here are the estimates for three other embattled euro-area countries: Portugal, Spain, and Italy.

MFP crisis 2

All three countries have been in deep trouble for a long time now –  the estimated level of MFP peaking around 2000.   On this score, the trends don’t look materially different over the last decade than over the years leading up to 2007.    Whatever the cause of their problems with productivity, it can’t have been the financial crises these countries went through.

And perhaps nor would you expect it.  Readers might recall a wrenching financial crisis that Korea went through in 1998.   And here is the OECD estimate of multi-factor productivity for Korea.

mfp crisis 3

You can see the 1998 crisis/recession in the data, but as a short-term blip.  In the decade after the crisis, Korea productivity growth kept on at much the same rate experienced in the decade prior to that crisis –  before (presumably) joining in the global slowdown this decade.  (That had also been the experience of the United States in earlier crisis episodes –  estimates suggest that the 1930s, for all its problems (around demand shortfalls) was a period of strong MFP growth.)

There is lots to learn from the searing experience of crisis, recession, and slow growth in the advanced world over the last decade or more.   But I still reckon there needs to be a much more careful unpicking of the different strands of the story than central bankers –  who tend to see the world through money and finance lenses, and who are often keen to champion their future role –  are prone to.  To me, the cross-country evidence just doesn’t square with a hypothesis in which the financial crisis itself plays any large part in the sustained disappointing performance of so many countries over what is now such a long time.

Central bankers meanwhile might be better off rethinking the merits of arrangements like the euro, or of the continued passivity around the near-zero lower bound, both of which look as though they have the potential for causing very major problems the next time there is a serious economic downturn.

We need better foundations for financial stability policy

Adrian Orr is now 7.5 months into his term as Governor and we still haven’t had an on-the-record speech from him about either main strand of his responsibilities: monetary policy or financial supervision and regulation.  Is he just not engaged on these issues?

But yesterday, his deputy Geoff Bascand delivered  –  in Australia –  a substantive speech on financial stability issues.  There were a few good elements in the speech.  For example, I was pleased to see this in the conclusion

The capital review gives us all an opportunity to think again about our risk tolerance – how safe we want our banking system to be; how we balance soundness and efficiency; what gains we can make, both in terms of financial stability and output; and how we allocate private and social costs.

It may be that the legislation underpinning our mandate can be enhanced, for example, by formal guidance from government or another governance body, on the level of risk of a financial crisis that society is willing to tolerate.

At present, the legislation is drafted so broadly and loosely that a single unelected and unaccountable official gets to make any such choices.  He (as it typically is) gets to make choices in a pretty much unconstrained way and we (including our elected political leaders) just have to live with the consequences.    Whether the sort of formal guidance Geoff refers to in that second paragraph is (meaningfully) feasible is open to question, but we need to improve on the current situation.  If such guidance isn’t feasible –  if society can’t write down its preference and give them as a mandate for the technocrats –  the big decisions around banking supervision policy frameworks (as distinct from the application of them to individual institutions) should be made by elected politicians (the Minister of Finance).

But, sadly, most of the speech just wasn’t that good.  It had plenty of politicially popular lines, and there was even the obligatory reference to the Reserve Bank as a tree god.  On climate change we had this

Climate change presents significant financial stability risks both through the direct implications of physical events for insurers, farmers and households, the indirect effects on insurance availability and property values, and through the potential social and economic disruption it promises.

We are working on developing a climate change strategy, which will be informed by discussions with banks and insurers in due course. Our role as a regulator is to try to ensure that financial institutions are adequately managing these risks, even though the horizon for their realisation could be decades away.

Given that the best evidence for New Zealand is that projected increases in global temperature are probably neutral and at best slightly positive for New Zealand in economic terms, and that all sorts of relative price changes occur every year changing the economics of all manner of businesses banks might have lent on, all this should amount to nothing.  But we know the Governor is a zealot –  why, he bets billions of dollars of your money on particular views of the economics of climate change, while so obscuring the choice there is no effective accountability –  so no doubt there will be pages and pages of bureaucratic bumpf from an agency with no expertise in the issue (or mandate), simply adding to compliance costs (especially for small institutions).

There was a rather lame attempt to defend the Bank’s involvement in the bank conduct review.  I noticed that the Governor had a bit of spat with ACT MP David Seymour at FEC last week on just this issue, which ended with the Governor (to whom any concept of deference or politeness seems unknown) responding as follows

When Seymour persisted, Orr simply said: “I am right, you are wrong”.

My own take is that they are probably both right.  Seymour is right on the fundamental point –  the bank conduct review was about politics and perhaps about Orr advancing his standing, not about financial soundness and efficiency (the Bank’s statutory mandate).  And if Orr is correct –  about the law giving him scope to do this –  it is only because the legislation was written –  guided by Bank officials – far too broadly in the first place.

But what bothers me rather more is the Bank’s weak understanding of the nature of financial crises, systemic risks, and so on.  These are concerns I’ve raised over several years in various contexts, including the cases the Bank has made for LVR restrictions and the (longed-for) debt to income restrictions.

For example, they continue to claim that

Household sector indebtedness represents the New Zealand financial system’s single largest vulnerability.

Yes, household debt is the largest component of financial system assets, but that is a quite different proposition.  As their stress tests have repeatedly shown, banks’ housing portfolios are constructed in a sufficiently cautious way that even very large adverse shocks (rising unemployment and falling house prices) wouldn’t threaten the soundness of the banks.   They run this cross-country chart of credit to households as a share of GDP.


Yes, there is a lot more household credit than there was. That is the inevitable consequence of things like land-use restrictions than make urban land artificially scarce (and highly-priced).  And in New Zealand’s case, household debt to GDP is still a touch lower than it was going into the last recession (and at that time the servicing burden was also much heavier).  Despite all the angst, bank housing portfolios came through that severe recession unscathed –  as they did in Australia, Canada, and the UK.

But perhaps my biggest problem with the speech is a combination of three things:

  • the attempt to suggest that the system is very fragile –  at least without wise bureaucrats –  and that crises are always just around the corner, coming for us,
  • the continued failure to pay attention to the experiences of countries that had significant asset and credit booms and didn’t have a domestic financial crises, and
  • the inexcusable failure – in a central bank –  to distinguish between countries with floating exchange rates (which greatly assist adjustment in the face of shocks) and those without.

In combination, the Reserve Bank leads us towards quite misleading conclusions about the economic costs of financial crisis.  By overstating those costs –  hugely overstating –  they seek to strengthen their own position (and our respect of them) as regulators; the people who will do everything to keep us safe. (As commonly, one never sees mentioned in the speech that in all the financial crises they like to cite, there were in fact banking regulators who no doubt thought they were doing their job well.)

Of my first bullet, they say

First, why does financial stability matter? The answer is that bank crises are frequent and bank crises hurt.

Since the mid-1970s there have been over 140 banking crises around the world.

and (without any backing for this claim)

Serious incidents (that could have led to a crisis) are more common than people realise.

Yes, there have been lots of crisis, although since (depending on your definition) there are getting on for 200 countries in the world, even the number the Bank cites is less than one crisis per country over 45 years.

But there haven’t been many at all in stable, well-managed, floating exchange rate countries.  And in countries like ours –  for example, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Norway –  the only financial crises in 100 years have related to the period just after liberalisation when everyone was just getting grips with what a market financial system meant (and when, for that matter, regulators also didn’t cover themselves with glory).    Of course, well-run banking systems can run into trouble, but since it is New Zealand that our Reserve Bank is supposedly focused on one might expect some grounding in the Australasian experience.   That experience just doesn’t suggest danger (massive credit losses) lurks continually.

The Reserve Bank has long been keen on citing the experience of Ireland as somehow relevant to New Zealand.  It pops up again in this speech

The consequences in terms of employment are also severe. After the GFC, Ireland’s unemployment rate rose from 4.6 percent in 2006 to 15 per cent in 2012

And yet –  prosperity and geography aside –  what is the biggest relevant difference between New Zealand and Ireland?   We get to set our own interest rates, and our exchange rate can adjust freely, while Irish monetary policy is set in Frankfurt for the entire euro-area, and they have no nominal exchange rate to adjust.  The Reserve Bank knows very well that floating exchange rate exist in large part because they provide greater leeway to cope with severe adverse economic or financial shocks.  Thus it was from the beginning –  at the time of the Great Depression –  and is now too.    I did post a few years ago –  which I can’t now see –  documenting that no floating exchange rate advanced country has ever experienced an increase in its unemployment rate of the magnitude Ireland put itself through.  I could commend to the Reserve Bank the experience of Iceland (which went through a financial crisis which, in many respects, was even nastier than Ireland’s, and yet had only a fairly moderate increase in its unemployment rate).

And then there is the hoary old chestnut about just how expensive financial crises supposedly are.  Here is Bascand

Since the mid-1970s there have been over 140 banking crises around the world. And they have had large costs for the affected economies and societies.

On average a bank crisis costs a country 23% of its GDP, while public debt increases by around 12 percent.3 The amounts are higher for advanced economies.

That footnote records that the numbers are calculated as deviations of actual GDP from its (pre-crisis) trend.

They sound like scary numbers, and if true (in some meaningful sense) they might even be so  (although even if a crisis happens every 20 years, a loss of 23 per cent of one year’s GDP is roughly a loss of 1 per cent of the total GDP over that full period).  But they aren’t meaningful, on a number of accounts.

First, the calculations (implicitly) assume that any deviation from the pre-crisis trend is a result of the crisis itself –  and not, for example, the misallocation of real resources that might well have occurred even if the financial system had stayed sound.  At best, these numbers conflate the two effects.

Relatedly, the estimate ignore things that might have getting underway in the year or two prior to the crisis.  Thus, as I’ve shown before, productivity growth in the United States had already begun to slow very markedly a couple of years before the crisis hit.


A small amount of that might make its way into the pre-crisis trend measures, but most of it won’t.

And thirdly, the Bank –  and many of their peers among other keen regulators –  makes no attempt to compare the experiences of countries that went through serious financial crisis and those that did not.   US economic performance over the last decade has been underwhelming to say the least.  The US was at the epicentre of the 2008/09 financial crises.  But it is simply a step far too far to conclude that the extent to which the US has done less well than in the previous decade is the measure of the cost of the financial crisis, especially if other countries that didn’t have a crisis also did less well than they had done the previous decade or so.

I’ve touched on this issue before, including in this post last year.   Of course, finding good comparators isn’t just a matter of a random into the OECD bag of countries.  For a start, as I’ve already noted (and as the Reserve Bank knows), a fixed exchange rate tends to exacerbate the severity of any shock.  The United States –  epicentre of the financial crisis –  is a floating exchange rate country.   Some floating exchange rate countries –  notably the UK and Switzerland –  were caught up in the 2008/09 crisis primarily because of the exposure of their internationalised banking sector to the US and its housing debt instrument (rather than because of domestic credit exposures).  But there are six well-established floating exchange rate advanced countries that didn’t have a serious domestic financial crisis at all in 2008/09:  New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Norway, Israel, and Japan.

Here is how the US experience, on real GDP per capita, compares with the median of those non-crisis floating exchange rate advanced economies

crisis costs

The US experience was a little worse than that of the median of this group of countries, but the differences are small, and there is a lot of variability in the experience of the non-crisis countries (since 2007 Israel has done much better than the US, while Norway has done much worse).   And as I noted in the earlier post, the comparison still tends to exaggerate any contribution of financial crises themselves, as the US had less fiscal leeway than all the other floaters except Japan, and the US had less monetary policy leeway (running into the lower bound) than New Zealand, Australia, and Norway.

That’s GDP per capita.  But what productivity?  Quite a lot of the arguments about the cost of financial crises attempt to build a story about persistent dampening effects on innovation, risk-taking etc, reflected in the productivity numbers.  Here is the chart, showing the same comparison countries, for real GDP per hour worked (OECD data).

crisis costs 2

Perhaps this chart is a bit more favourable to the story, depending on how you read it. Over the whole period –  pre and post crisis –  the US managed faster labour productivity than the median of the six non-crisis countries.  But perhaps the slowdown in productivity growth is a bit more in the US than the others (even if, as the earlier chart showed more clearly) the slowdown pre-dated the crisis?  Then again, the level of labour productivity in the US is higher than in all but one (Norway) of my non-crisis collection of countries, so if there was a global productivity growth slowdown (for whatever reason) you might be expect the US to be hit more visibly than the other countries (that sitll had catch-up and convergence opportunities).   Even among the non-crisis countries, there is considerably divergence –  since 2007 Australia has had the strongest productivity growth and Norway the weakest.  (Remarkably, Iceland –  savage financial crisis and all –  has had faster labour productivity growth than all these countries.)

I’m not wanting to suggest that recessions and financial crises don’t have costs.  At an individual level almost inevitably they do, and at a national level recessions are rarely pleasant or welcome (that’s why we have active monetary policy).  But we deserve much more searching analysis from our central banks and financial regulators (and those holding them to account, including national Treasurys) when they bidding to persuade us to entrust them with so much power, and  the deference due to people who make so much difference (so they claim).

A good starting point remains this very long-term chart (due originally to Nobel laureate Robert Lucas)


As I noted in a long-ago post

It is a quite simple chart of real per capita GDP for the United States, back as far as 1870.  These are Angus Maddison’s estimates, the most widely used set of (estimated) historical data, and as Maddison died a few years ago they only come as far forward as 2008.  The simple observation is that a linear trend drawn through this series captures almost all of what is going on.  More than perhaps any other country for which there are reasonable estimates, the United States has managed pretty steady long-term average growth rates over almost 140 years.  And yet, this was a country that experienced numerous financial crises in the first half the period.  Lists differ a little, but a reasonable list for the US would show crises in 1873, 1884, 1893, 1896, 1901, 1907, perhaps 1914, and 1929-33.  There were far more crises than any other advanced countries experienced.

And yet, there is no sign that they permanently impaired growth, or income.

If we are to have good financial stability policy, and confidence in it, it needs to be based on good searching robust and honest analysis, that recognises the puzzles and the ambiguities in the data, not the sort that rushes to support the conclusions policymakers have already settled on.

The Fed and Lehmans

On the day of the US mid-term elections it seems appropriate to have a US topic.

I read a lot of books each year.  Many of them provide a fresh angle on some or other issue I’m interested in, but few lead me directly to change my mind.  Professor Laurence Ball’s The Fed and Lehman Brothers is one of the exceptions.   I wasn’t pre-disposed to expect much from Ball (a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins university): my impressions of him were formed by his visit to New Zealand 20 years ago when, as Reserve Bank professorial fellow at Victoria University, he somewhat embarrassed his hosts by suggesting that the conduct of key elements of fiscal policy should be handed over to independent technocrats.  Interesting idea I suppose, but given that the point of spending public money on the fellowship had been to buttress public support for an independent Reserve Bank, it didn’t really help, especially in an election year with Winston Peters in the ascendant.

But the new book looked intriguing. As it turned out, it was much more than that, and I’d go as far as to call it a “must-read” for any serious student of the 2008/09 financial crisis.

It is a very careful and detailed study focused largely on one question: could the US authorities have lawfully prevented the failure of Lehmans that fateful weekend in September 2008 if they had wanted to?   Key decisionmakers have claimed, at the time and subsequently, that there were no lawful options open to the Fed (Bernanke, for example, is quite explicit in his claim that the authorities could only have intervened in breach of the law).  Ball shows, pretty conclusively, that such claims are simply wrong.  The decision not to provide liquidity support to the Lehmans group was just that, a choice.  And he goes on to illustrate that although in law any decision to have provided liquidity support (or not) rested solely with the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, in fact the key player was the US Secretary to the Treasury, Hank Paulson, with the Fed apparently deferring to his preferences.

Under the Federal Reserve Act as it stood in 2008, the Fed could lend to non-banks (as Lehmans then was, and as Bear Stearns had been) only in “unusual and exigent circumstances”.  Most commentators will agree that in September 2008 –  a year into an unfolding financial crisis, shortly after the US government had intervened to support the mortgage agencies –  that particular strand of the legal test could readily have been passed, in respect of a major investment bank closely intertwined with the rest of the wholesale financial system in the US and abroad (Lehmans had major operations in London).  The other strand of the legal test was that any loans had to be “secured to the satisfaction of the Reserve Bank” making the loan.  There apparently wasn’t much (or any) case law on this provision, but it was generally accepted within the Fed that the Federal Reserve shouldn’t be lending if they weren’t pretty sure of getting their money back.

But what wasn’t in the statute was a requirement that the borrower itself still be solvent (positive net equity).   A financial institution’s directors would presumably have quite severe limits on their ability (or willingness to risk doing so) to trade while insolvent, but from the point of view of the Federal Reserve, considering providing lender of last resort liquidity support, the relevant issue wasn’t the solvency of the institution, but the adequacy of the specific collateral the Fed would receive to cover any loan.  Nonetheless, senior policymakers have since claimed that Lehmans was insolvent and that, in any case, there was insufficient good collateral to support a loan of the size that might have been required.    Ball challenges both claims.

He does so using an array of published material, including regulatory filings, bankruptcy examiners’ reports, and the report (and supporting documents) of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

On the solvency front, one issue Ball has to grapple with is that when Lehmans was placed in bankruptcy there proved to be a considerable shortfall in net assets: not just shareholders (who lost everything) but creditors lost significant sums (and some court cases are still unresolved).   But that is a quite different issue from whether there was positive net value in the business at the point where the decision not to provide liquidity support was being made.  Economists have long recognised the concept of “bankruptcy costs”, and Ball makes a pretty compelling case that the bankruptcy process itself resulted in significant transfers of value to other parties that would be unlikely to have occurred in a more orderly process (the three areas he singles out relate to the termination of derivatives contracts, the fire sale of subsidiaries, and the disruption of various investment projects (mainly in real estate) that Lehmans was party to.  But on a going concern basis Ball concludes his detailed analysis this way

…the best available evidence suggests that Lehman was on the border between solvency and insolvency based on realistic mark-to-market accounting, and it was probably solvent based on its assets’ fundamental values.

As noted earlier, the critical (legal) criterion wasn’t about institutional solvency, but about the specific collateral the Fed could have obtained.

You might have assumed –  in a hazy way I think I did –  that by the end Lehmans wouldn’t have had much decent collateral left.  Perhaps you assumed that if the Fed had lent, it would all have been “secured” on dodgy commercial real estate loans.  But, as Ball demonstrates, that view is quite wrong.    Lehmans had been funding a large proportion of its balance sheet (as was the norm then for investment banks) through repos using fairly high-quality securities (ones that Fed was happy to accept), and the run on Lehmans primarily took the form of counterparties not being willing to roll over this repo finance (itself an interesting phenomenon, given that repo contracts should have left any counterparty with a clean ownership of the collateral security in the event of bankruptcy). But to the extent the repos didn’t roll over –  and it was clear they wouldn’t have on the Monday morning without Fed support – Lehman would still have been left with the (good quality) securities.  It also had long-term funding on its balance sheet, which couldn’t go anywhere in the short-term.  Ball demonstrates that Lehman had sufficient volumes of good quality acceptable collateral that it could have secured a large enough Fed loan to have replaced all its short-term funding if necessary.   The numbers would have been large, but as Ball points out no larger than the amounts injected into AIG a few days later (for a risky equity stake), or lent to Morgan Stanley a short time later.

There is an important distinction to be made here.  The issue Ball is dealing with is not whether the US authorities should have taken over, and recapitalised, Lehmans.  His argument –  nested in the liquidity provisions of the Federal Reserve Act –  is that liquidity support could (lawfully) have been provided, and that had it been provided it would have opened the way to a less costly, less disruptive, resolution over the following months.  Perhaps it would have been possible to inject more private equity to the holding company and enable it to continue as a going concern.  But if not, the prospects for a takeover of the business would have been greater –  for example, a key obstacle to Barclays taking over Lehmans was the need for a shareholder vote which would have taken at least a month –  or it would have been possible to have sold subsidiaries –  including the valuable asset management subsidiary –  in a more orderly and competitive process.  At worst, a more orderly wind-down would have been facilitated.

One of the other things Ball documents is the work that had gone on inside the Fed over several months, right up to the fateful weekend, on possible liquidity support mechanisms for Lehmans.  It seems pretty clear that there was never a presumption inside the Fed that if a private buyer was not be found that Lehmans would simply be left to the tender mercies of the bankruptcy administrator.  (In fact, as he notes even when Lehmans was forced to file for bankruptcy, the Fed provided substantial liquidity support to keep the New York broker-dealer subsidiary open for several days until Barclays committed to purchase it.)

So why didn’t the Fed prove willing to provide liquidity support for the whole group?  Ball argues, pretty conclusively, that the key player here was Secretary to the Treasury, Hank Paulson.  In law, the Secretary to the Treasury (or anyone else in the Administration) had no role in such decisions.   And it is not as if, in the specifics of the time and system, Paulson had any greater political legitimacy than, say, Bernanke.  Both were appointed by (outgoing) President Bush, and both had been confirmed by the Senate.   Presumptively, Paulson was likely to be out of office in January 2009 no matter who won the election, while Bernanke had more of his term to run.  But, of course, the politics around Wall St “bailouts” had been turning increasingly nasty since the Bear Stearns intervention (where the Treasury had got involved, implicitly underwriting the Fed’s credit risk) and Paulson –  a strong personality –  was quite open that he didn’t want to be remembered by history as Mr Bailout.  Perhaps the distinction between well-collateralised liquidity support and (actual or implicit) equity support got bypassed in the heat of the moment.

But the other relevant aspect, given the political aversion to more “bailouts”, seems to have been a sense within the Fed that the pressures on Lehmans had been so well-foreshadowed, over months, that its failure wouldn’t prove that disruptive.  Key players now claim that that wasn’t their view –  Bernanke is on record claiming that he always knew it would be a “catastrophe” –   but Ball demonstrates that such claims are simply inconsistent with what the Fed was saying or doing at the time.  For example, the FOMC met two days after the Lehmans failure.  Had the Fed thought the Lehmans failure would prove “catastrophic”, or even just aggravating the severity of the recession, a cut to the Fed funds rate would surely have been in order.  There wasn’t one.  And the published records of the meeting show no sign of any heightened concern or anxiety about the financial system or spillover effects to the economy.  If that was the prevailing view at the top levels of the Fed, it makes more sense as to why central bankers would defer to political pressure not to have provided (liquidity) support for Lehmans.

Central bankers don’t emerge with much credit from Ball’s book.  Anyone can make mistakes in the heat of the moment –  even a large institution with a deep bench like the Federal Reserve –  but what is perhaps more troubling is the suggestion (which seems pretty convincing to me) that key players (Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson) had been spinning the situation in their memoirs, rather than confronting the specifics of the data and the law.  Perhaps I become a bit more sympathetic than I was to (former BOE Governor) Mervyn King’s choice to avoid memoirs, and a defence of his involvement, in his own post-crisis book.  Thank goodness then for the efforts of a careful, apparently dispassionate, academic like Ball.

Of course, to agree with Ball’s conclusion that the Fed could have provided liquidity support to Lehmans if it had wished to do so is not to immediately jump to the conclusion that they should have done so.   Although it isn’t the focus of his book, it is pretty clear that Ball thinks such support should have been given.

A counter-argument could have a number of strands:

  • first, Lehmans had been under pressure for months to raise additional outside equity, and had failed to do so.  Had they done so, even at deeply discounted prices, it is unlikely that the wholesale run would have developed as it did (and even had it done so, the politics of liquidity support might have been different),
  • second, had Lehmans been a bank supervised by the Fed it would probably not have been allowed to stay open even as long as it did without new capital.  In bankruptcy courts, the relevant test might be whether there are still positive net assets, but bank supervisors who are doing their job should have been intervening pretty strongly –  including using directive powers –  before any question arose as to whether net assets were still (perhaps barely) positive, and
  • third, there is still the unanswered question (which may never be satisfactorily resolved) as to just how much the Lehmans failure exacerbated the recession.  Counterfactual history is hard.   The consensus view at present is that the adverse effects were large, but if much of the disruption would have happened anyway –  even if Lehmans had been left limping for a couple of months on liquidity life-support –  the case for intervention is weaker than many would allow (and, for example, AIG’s plight was largely unrelated to the Lehmans failure).  After all, there is a salutary place for market discipline, including around the urgency of injecting new capital when dark clouds loom.

I was one of those who tended to welcome the decision not to “bail out” Lehmans (better still not to have intervened around Bear Stearns months earlier) but I probably haven’t distinguished clearly enough between liquidity and solvency support.   The latter option –  which wasn’t something the Fed could have done anyway –  isn’t the focus of this book, but Ball does make a pretty persuasive case around liquidity support, including based just on facts that were available at the time (on the aftermath, no one could be certain).

I could still mount a counter-argument based on the first couple of bullet points above.  Providing liquidity support in such circumstances would have sent a signal to boards and managers of other institutions that any urgency to raise new capital, at deep discounted prices, was less than it might have seemed.  On the information availabe at the time, that would have been unfortunate.   Then again, within days that whole argument was tossed out the window as the authorities rushed to respond to a deepening crisis.

But perhaps what finally gets me over the line in thinking the Fed made a mistake, in not lending and in deferring to Paulson (in a politicised time six weeks out from an election), is an assessment of the probabilities.  Perhaps the Lehmans failure really wasn’t that big a deal.  Perhaps the Fed at the time was justified in its view that a failure could be managed without too much spillover downside.  But operating in a world of heightened uncertainty, no one could really know.  There had to be a chance that simply allowing Lehmans to go into bankruptcy –  the largest bankruptcy in US history, all done in rush –  would prove very very disruptive and economically costly.  But if providing strongly-collateralised liquidity support, quite possibly at a high interest rate and with ample haircuts, could have alleviated that risk –  even if it was only a 10 per cent risk – it is hard not to conclude (even without the benefit of hindsight) that the central bank should have acted.  After all, lender of last resort provisions are put in statutes for a purpose –  and not just a decorative one.



Looking back to the deposit guarantee

12 October 2008 was a frantic day.  It was a Sunday, and I never work Sundays (well, two financial crises, one in Zambia, one in New Zealand, in 30+ years).  There was a call in the middle of our church service summoning all hands to the pump, to put in place a retail deposit guarantee scheme that day.   We did it.  My diary later that night records that we’d “delivered a brand spanking new not very good deposit guarantee scheme”, announced a few hours earlier.   It was a joint effort of the Reserve Bank and The Treasury.

I had recently taken up a secondment at The Treasury.  I’d been becoming increasingly uneasy about the New Zealand financial situation for some months (flicking through my copy of Alan Bollard’s book on the crisis I found wedged inside a copy of an email exchange he and I had had a month or so earlier about Lender of Last Resort options for sound finance companies, potentially caught up in contagious runs) but I hadn’t had any material involvement in the unfolding sequence of finance company failures.   But it was the escalating international financial crisis – this was four weeks after Lehmans, 3.5 weeks after the AIG bailout, two weeks after the US House of Representatives initially voted down TARP, and two weeks after the Irish government surprised everyone by announcing comprehensive deposit guarantees –  that really accelerated interest in the question of what, if anything, New Zealand should do, or might eventually be more or less compelled to do.    The initiative for some more pro-active planning came from The Treasury, but with some parallel impetus  –  including around guarantees – from the then Minister of Finance, Michael Cullen (who, a few days out from Labour’s campaign launch, was also looking for pre-election fiscal stimulus measures).

On Tuesday 7 October, there was a long meeting at the Reserve Bank, attended by both the Secretary to the Treasury, John Whitehead, and the Governor of the Reserve Bank.  My memory – and my contemporary diary impression – is that the Governor was considerably more focused on the managing the Minister’s political concerns than on any sort of first-best response.    But the outcome of that meeting was agreement to quickly work up a joint paper for the Minister which would not, at that stage, recommend introducing a deposit guarantee scheme, but which would outline the relevant issues and operational parameters, giving us something to work from if the situation worsened.

Which it quickly did, both on international markets, and with the political pressure, with the Prime Minister signalling that she wanted to be able to announce something about guarantees in her campaign launch that coming Sunday afternoon.

I and a handful of others on both sides of The Terrace scurried round for the next few days.  I see that in my diary I wondered what the best approach was: do nothing, allow some risk of the crisis engulfing us, and then pick up the pieces afterwards, or be more pro-active and take the guarantee route.  My conclusion –  and even today I wince at the parallel (but this was a late-at-night comment) – “I suspect that if the pressures really come on, the Irish approach is best”.   As relevant context, although much of the finance company sector was in solvency trouble (many had already failed) there were no serious concerns about the solvency of the banking system.   (Liquidity was, potentially, another issue.)

At Treasury we had recognised the importance of the Australian connection –  most of our banks being Australian-owned.     I’m not sure of the date, but we had taken the initiative –  at Deputy Secretary level –  of approaching the Australian Treasury to see if they were interested in doing some joint contigency planning around deposit guarantees, and had been told that the Treasurer had no interest in such guarantees and so our suggestion/offer was declined.

But even Australian authorities could look out the window and see that the global situation was deteriorating rapidly, and by late in the week that recognition was being passed back to authorities on this side of the Tasman.  Alan Bollard always kept in close contact with his RBA counterpart Glenn Stevens, and on the Friday my diary records (presumably told by some RBNZ person I was working with) “apparently Glenn S[tevens[ told Alan this afternoon that the RBA/authorities might fairly soon have to consider a blanket guarantee”.     In the flurry and uncertainty, one other senior RBNZ person –  still holding a senior position there –  told me that in his view nothing should be done here unless there were queues outside New Zealand banks.

Between a handful of people on the two sides of the street, we got a paper on deposit guarantee scheme possibilities out to the Minister of Finance on the Friday afternoon.  It was a mad rush, with some uneasy negotiated compromises (and everyone’s particular hobbyhorse concern got its own mention). I was probably too close to it to tell, and noted I wasn’t that comfortable with it, but when I got Alan Bollard’s signature he indicated he was happy with it.  I noted “lots of small details to sort out next week –  we hope only that, not implementation”.     To this point, we were focused mostly  on retail deposits, but I see in my diary that in The Australian on the Saturday there was talk from bank CEOs of a possible need for a wholesale guarantee scheme.

The full, unredacted, paper we wrote is available on The Treasury’s website.   The thrust of the advice was that (a) action was not necessary immediately, but (b) that should conditions worsen a scheme could be put in place at quite short notice.  The rest of the paper outlined the relevant issues, and the recommended features of any such scheme, and we advised against announcing a scheme until the remaining operational details had been sorted out, something we suggested could be done in the folllowing week.

These were the key features we suggested, largely accepted by the Minister.

dgs 1

One thing that puzzles me looking back now is why we were focused on guarantee options, rather than lender of last resort options.  The latter would have involved lending on acceptable collateral to institutions that we judged to be solvent, perhaps at a penal rate.  It was the classic response to the idea of a contagious run –  troubles elsewhere in the financial system spark concerns about other institutions, and people “run” –  cashing in deposits, retail or wholesale –  just in case.  A sound institution could, in principle, be brought down very quickly by such a run (empirically there are few such examples –  most actual runs end up being on institutions that prove to be at-best borderline solvent).

In the paper we sent to the Minister on 10 October we don’t seem to address that option at all.  I presume the reason we didn’t was twofold.  First, guarantees were beginning to proliferate globally.  And second, there probably is a pretty strong argument that if (a) you are convinced your banking system is sound, and (b) there are nonetheless doubts in the wider environment (in this case, a full scale global crisis, and a domestic recession), a guarantee is likely to be considerably more effective in underpinning confidence.  Not so much depositor confidence, as the confidence of bankers (and their boards).    Even if lender of last resort funding, on decent collateral, had been available without question, few bankers would have been happy to rely on that, and many would have been very keen to cut exposures, pull in loans, and reduce their dependence on the good nature of the Reserve Bank Governor.   A guarantee –  where the Crown’s money is at stake –  is a much stronger signal than a loan secured on the institution’s very best assets.   On the other hand, as the paper does note, once given a guarantee may not leave one with much leverage over the guaranteed institution.

Almost all of the subsequent controversy around the deposit guarantee scheme related in one form or another to one key choice.

All the systemically significant financial institutions in New Zealand were banks (not that all banks were systemically significant).  But they were not, by any means, the only deposit-taking institutions, and we were in the midst at the time of a finance company in which many companies were proving to be insolvent and failing.  Other finance companies appeared –  not just to the Reserve Bank, but to the market, and to ratings agencies – just fine.

Treasury and the Reserve Bank jointly recommended to the Minister that any deposit guarantee scheme include finance companies.  Why did we do that?

The simple reason was one of both fairness and efficiency.  Had we proposed to offer a guarantee only to banks (let alone only the big banks) then in a climate of uncertainty and heightened risk, there would have been an extremely high risk that such an action would have been a near-immediate death sentence for the other deposit-taking institutions, including ones with investment grade ratings, and in full compliance with their trust deeds.    We knew that finance companies (while small in aggregate) were riskier than our banks, but that was no good reason to recommend to the government a model that would have killed off apparently viable private businesses.  It still seeems, with the information we had at the time, an unimpeachable argument.  Classic lender of last resort models, for example, don’t differentiate by the size of the borrowing institution.

We weren’t naive about the risks –  including that there was still no prudential supervision of finance companies and the like –  and we explicitly recommended that risk-based fees (tied to ratings) be adopted, and the maximum coverage per depositor be much lower for unrated entities.   We included in the table an indicative fee scale, based credit default swap pricing for AA-rated banks in normal times, scaling up (quite dramatically) based on the much higher default probabilities of lower-rated entities.

We even included a indicative, totally back of the envelope, guess as to potential fiscal losses –  drawing on the experience of the US S&L crisis.  As it happens, actual losses were to be less than that number, even though the scheme as adopted by the Minister of Finance was less good than the one we recommended.  (Treasury provided some other –  but lower – loss estimates a few days after the actual announcement, but I can’t see those on the Treasury website and can’t now recall the approximate numbers.)

But all that was just warm up.   We’d been under the impression that the Prime Minister was going to announce, in her campaign launch speech, that preparatory work was underway on a deposit guarantee scheme.  That was probably her intention.  But that didn’t allow for the Rudd effect.  The Australian Prime Minister decided that he was going to announce an actual retail guarantee scheme for Australia that day –  the Sunday.  And so it was concluded that New Zealand had little choice but to follow suit.   As a matter of economics, there probably was little real choice but to follow the Australian lead.  But the timing was all about politics.  Neither economic nor financial stability would have been jeopardised if we hadn’t had a deposit guarantee scheme announced before the banks opened on Monday morning.  We’d have been much better to have taken a bit more time and hashed out some of the details with the Minister in his office in Wellington, not at campaign launches and then, as the day went on, airport lounges (at one point late that afternoon I –  who’d talked to the Minister perhaps twice in my life previously –  was deputed to ring Dr Cullen and get his approval or some detail or other of the scheme).   But I guess it might have left open a brief window in which critics might have suggested that New Zealand politicians were doing less for their citizens and their economy than their Australian counterparts.

The main, and important, area in which Dr Cullen departed from official advice was around the matter of fees.   We’d recommended that the risk-based fees would apply from the first dollar of covered deposits (as in any other sort of insurance).     The Minister’s approach was transparently political –  he was happy to charge fees to big Australian banks (who represented the lowest risks) but not to New Zealand institutions (including Kiwibank).  And so an arbitrary line was drawn that fees would be charged only on deposits in excess of $5 billion.   Apart from any other considerations, that gave up a lot of the potential revenue that would have partly offset expected losses.  The initial decision was insane, and a few days later we got him to agree to a regime where really lowly-rated (or unrated) institutions would have to pay a (too low) fee on any material increases in their deposits. A few days later again an attenuated pricing schedule was applied to deposit-growth in all covered entities.   But the seeds of the subsequent problems were sown in that initial set of decisions.

The weeks after the initial announcement were intense.  We rushed to get appropriate deed documents drawn up, dealt with endless request from institutional vehicles not covered who sought inclusion (property trust, money market funds etc), and set up a monitoring regime.  In parallel, we quickly realised that the way wholesale funding markets were freezing up suggested that a wholesale guarantee scheme was appropriate, and got something announced in a matter of weeks –  a much more tightly-designed, better priced scheme, operating only on new borrowing (but I’m biased as that scheme was mostly my baby).  As it happens, that scheme provided the leverage to actually get the big banks into the deposit guarantee scheme.  Once the government had announced the retail scheme the big banks had little incentive to get in –  they probably thought of themselves (no doubt rightly) as sound and as too big to fail –  and the scheme was an opt-in one (we couldn’t just by decree compel banks to pay large fees).   But the Minister of Finance –  probably reasonably enough –  insisted that if banks wanted a wholesale scheme (which they really did) it would be a condition that they first sign up to (and pay for) the retail scheme.  Perhaps less defensible was the Minister’s insistence that any bank signing up to the guarantee scheme indicate that it would avoid mortgagee sales of home owners in negative equity but still servicing their debt (the ability of banks to do so is a standard provision of mortgage documentation).

After the first few weeks of the retail scheme I had only relatively limited ongoing involvement, and so I’m not going to get into litigating or relitigating the South Canterbury Finance failure, and whether –  even the constraints the Minister put on –  and how that could by then have been avoided (the Auditor-General report some years ago looked at some of those issues).   The outcome was highly unfortunate, and expensive.  Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that the total cost of all the guarantee schemes – retail and wholesale – was considerably less than officials had warned was possible.  And it is simply not possible to know the counterfactual –  how things might have unfolded here had either no guarantees been offered, or if the finance companies and building societies had been excluded from day one.  Personally, I think neither would have provided politically tenable, but we’ll never know that, or how that alternative world played out.

But with the information we had at the time –  including, for example, the investment grade credit rating for SCF (which had outstanding wholesale debt issues abroad –  and actually my only meeting with SCF was about their interest, eventually not pursued, to try to use the wholesale guarantee scheme) –  the recommendation made on 10 October seem more or less right. Given the same information I’m not sure I’d advise something different now.  And once Australia had made the decision to guarantee retail deposits, there was little effective economic or political choice for New Zealand.   Had they not done so –  and there was real data, regarding increasing demand for physical cash in Australia, supporting Rudd’s action (rushed as timing was) – perhaps we could have got away with a well-designed wholesale guarantee only.   That would have been a first-best preferable world, but it wasn’t the set of facts we actually had to work with.


Ten years on

It is the season for books and articles reflecting on financial crises of a decade or so ago, the aftermath, and whatever risks might –  or might not –  be building today.  The collapse of Lehmans –  and the wise decision of the US authorities not to bail it out –  was 10 years ago this month, and although the US crisis had been underway for at least by a year by then, the Lehmans moment seems set to take a place in historical memory around the Great Recession rather parallel to the sharp falls in US share prices in October 1929 (the ‘Wall St crash’) and the Great Depression.  Not in any real sense the cause of what followed, but the emblematic moment in public consciousness nonetheless.

I’ve just been reading the big new book, Crashed: How a decade of financial crises changed the world, by esteemed economic historian Adam Tooze.  I might come back to it in a separate post, but for now would simply caution people that it is less good than his earlier books (around the Nazi economy, and the economic history of the West after World War One running into the Great Depression) had led me to hope.

But on a smaller scale, I picked up the Listener the other day and noticed on the front cover ’10 years after the GFC, former Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard warns of new risks’.  Conveniently, I see that the article is freely available online.  The sub-heading tantalises potential readers

Former New Zealand Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard warns that, although lessons were learnt from the global financial crisis, new risks have emerged that could trigger a repeat contagion..

Alan Bollard writes well, and often quite interestingly.  Extremely unusually (and in my view quite inappropriately), he actually published a book on his perceptions of the previous crisis in 2010, while still very fully-employed as Governor, a senior public servant.  There were quite severe limitations as to who, or what, he could be critical of (as I was reminded last night rereading my diaries of some crisis events I was closely involved in, and the Bollard published perspective on those events).     The Bank’s early reluctance to take seriously the emerging issues, as they might impinge on New Zealand, is not, for example, something you find documented in the book.

He must be in a somewhat similarly difficult position now.  He is Executive Director of the APEC secretariat, that grouping of Asian and Pacific (loosely defined) countries and territories, that includes China, Russia, the United States, Indonesia and so on.  I dare say Xi Jinping and Donald Trump won’t be watching nervously to see what Alan Bollard is saying, but the Executive Director knows that there are quite severe limits to what public servants can say while in office.

And, thus, much of the Listener article is a bit of a, perhaps slightly rose-tinted, rehash of some of the policy responses here and abroad (I will come back to deposit guarantee schemes on the tenth anniversary, next month).  There is some loose descriptive stuff on various developments in parts of the APEC region.  There was the suggestion that some countries (actually “much of the region”) in Asia is “anxiously worrying” about whether they could face a Japan-like low productivity future but to me, Japan still looks pretty attractive by regional standards.


(New Zealand, for example, is at 42.)

In fact, I looked in vain for the promised analysis or description of the “new risks” that might “trigger a repeat contagion”.   Perhaps that was never Bollard’s intent, but the Listener had to attract readers to a fairly tame advertorial for APEC somehow.  The most we get is

We need to remember that the global financial crisis was originally triggered by a building bubble, and that is still on the minds of regulators throughout the region.


Meantime, we are very worried about the likely effects of the growing trade wars. It is too early to judge, but the stakes are high – trade growth has been the big driver behind the immense improvement in living standards through the Asia-Pacific region ……We are now on the alert for signs that these trade frictions could weaken exchange rates, hurt commodity prices, hit stock markets or cause financial volatility, against an unusual background of tightening monetary policy and loose fiscal policy in the US.

But then what more could a serving diplomat, not hired to be a high-profile problem solver (unlike, say, the head of the IMF) really say?

And it all ends advertorial style

As a big trader, New Zealand has always been susceptible to these tensions. But one international platform where they play out is coming closer: in just over two years, New Zealand will commence its year of hosting Apec. The organisation is a voluntary, consensus-driven one, where for 30 years we have promoted regional economic ties and tried out new ideas for trade and investment. As the upcoming chair of Apec, New Zealand will have to contend with continuing antiglobalisation pressures, big-economy tensions, climate-change damage and financial risks in the region. It sounds daunting, but there are many positives: We have learnt some of the lessons of the global financial crisis; banking regulation is tougher; banking chiefs are more cautious; economic demand is still growing; and the Asia-Pacific region is tied ever more closely by its trade flows.

It could have been a paragraph from a speech by one of his political masters.   I guess one wouldn’t know that one of his members (the People’s Republic of China) poses an increasing political and military threat to another (Taiwan) or –  closer to his own territory –  that few major economies have very much effective macroeconomic firepower at all when the next crisis or severe recession hits.  And really nothing at all about financial sector risks.  His final sentence –  “September 2018 should be a month much better than September 2008” –  is almost certainly true (at least outside places like Turkey and Argentina) but not really much consolation to anyone.

In his column in the Dominion-Post this morning, Hamish Rutherford touches a theme of various recent posts here: the limited macro capacity of many countries.  He rightly highlights how low global interest rates are, and the much higher levels of government debt in many countries.

To make matters worse, interest rates are already so low that some economists are speculating that if the Reserve Bank was to respond to a slowdown by slashing interest rates, in a bid to stimulate the economy, it may find that little of the money finds its way to households.

Debt levels among the world’s leading economies are, by and large, far higher than they were a decade ago. In the US, as well as threatening to kick off a global trade war, President Donald Trump’s administration is running the kind of deficit that would be wise in a recession, but at the late stage of a long economic growth cycle appears reckless.

But there was one point I wanted to take issue on.  He argues

Back in 2008, New Zealand benefited from its largest trading partner, Australia, avoiding recession and having almost no debt. This time Australia’s debt is climbing and there are doubts as to whether Canberra will have the discipline to return to a surplus, as the political state becomes more populist.

I don’t think that is true about either the past or the present.  We didn’t get any great benefit out of Australia’s fiscal stimulus in 2008/09, largely because if fiscal stimulus hadn’t been used, the Reserve Bank of Australia would probably have cut their official interest rates further.  Fiscal policy can be potent when interest rates have the effective lower limit, but they hadn’t in Australia (or New Zealand).  More importantly, and for all the New Zealand eagerness to bag Australian politics and policies, here is the OECD’s series of the net financial liabilities of the general government (federal, state, and local) for Australia and New Zealand, expressed as a share of GDP.

debt govt au and nz

Australia’s net public debt has been consistently below that of New Zealand for the entire 25 years for which the OECD has the data for both countries.  The gap is a little smaller now than it was a decade ago, and (on a flow basis) the New Zealand budget is in surplus but Australia’s isn’t.  But if there is a desire to use large scale fiscal stimulus in the next serious downturn, debt levels themselves aren’t likely to be some technical or market constraint in New Zealand, and even less likely in (less indebted) Australia.

And finally in this somewhat discursive post, a chart I saw yesterday from the BIS.

real house prices BIS

A story one sometimes hears is that low interest rates have driven asset prices sky-high setting the scene for the next nasty crisis.  Even if there are elements of possible truth in such a story, the story itself mostly fails to stop to ask about the structural reasons why interest rates might be so low.   All else equal, had interest rates been higher asset prices probably would have been lower – and CPI inflation would have undershot targets even further.  But as this particular chart illustrates, across the advanced economies as a whole real house prices now are much same as they were at the start of 2008.  That isn’t true in New Zealand (or Australia for that matter).  Interestingly, even in the emerging markets –  centre of current market unease –  real house prices are still not 15 per cent higher than they were at the start of 2008, when interest rates generally were so much higher.

But then only rarely is the next major economic downturn or financial crises stemming from quite the same set of financial risks as the last one.

A modestly indebted advanced economy

Sometimes people like to give the impression that New Zealanders are highly indebted.   And so this summary chart, which I stumbled on this afternoon, is some helpful context.

total debt

Among advanced economies, only in Israel and Germany is total debt/GDP lower than in New Zealand.

And also among advanced economies, only Denmark, Israel, and Germany had less of an increase in economywide debt/GDP over the 10 years to the end of 2017 (encompassing the recession and aftermath and subsequent recovery).

A decade ago, a comparable chart would have looked quite different.  I recall getting someone to dig out the data in about 2008 or 2009 which showed that our total debt/GDP ratio had increased in the previous few years about as much as the increase in Japan in the late 1980s (and all the increase was business and household).   And with most other advanced countries having materially increased their debt/GDP ratios over the last decade, New Zealand a decade ago would have been nearer the middle of the pack for the stock of debt than it is now.

Total debt to GDP calculations include household, corporate, and government debt.    As I showed in a post a couple of weeks ago, household debt to GDP hasn’t changed much here.  Government debt to GDP has increased a bit, and corporate debt to GDP also won’t have changed much.

Of course, those who want to remain worried about the New Zealand situation –  if I recall rightly the Governor said he was `scared’ –  will point out the role that big increases in government debt played in many other advanced countries.  Household debt to GDP has not changed very much in some of those other countries either.   But who is government but a collection of households?  We are the ones who have to service government debt.  And in many of these other countries, the total debt/GDP numbers will be understated because public service pension liabilities (contractural obligations) are not typically included in the debt numbers.  In New Zealand, there are almost no such liabilities, and those there are are properly accounted for.

Add in the reduction in the ratio of the net international investment position (net liabilities) to GDP over the last decade, and the picture is one in which debt should be much less of a concern here than in almost all advanced economies, and than in many – perhaps most –  emerging markets economies.  In a better world –  more business investment, on a path to more productivity –  we might perhaps have hoped there would have been more business debt being taken on.


Financial Stability Report and a lack of accountability

When Parliament legislated to require the Reserve Bank to publish six-monthly Financial Stability Reports this is what they said in the two relevant clauses

162AA Purpose of accountability documents

The purpose of the 3 accountability documents required under this Part is as follows:…..

 (c)financial stability report: to—

(i) report on matters relating to the soundness and efficiency of the financial system and other matters associated with the Bank’s statutory prudential purposes; and

(ii) allow assessments to be made of the effectiveness of the Bank’s use of its powers to achieve its statutory prudential purposes. 

165A Financial stability reports

……(2) A financial stability report must—

(a) report on the soundness and efficiency of the financial system and other matters associated with the Bank’s statutory prudential purposes; and

(b) contain the information necessary to allow an assessment to be made of the activities undertaken by the Bank to achieve its statutory prudential purposes under this Act and any other enactment.

Financial Stability Reports over the years seem to do a passable job of reportage –  a collection of sometimes-interesting charts and some text recounting (although only rarely analysing, or putting in context) what has been going on on the financing side of the New Zealand economy.   There are usually some fairly perfunctory updates on policy issues the Bank is considering.

But what is very rarely there is the sort of information that would enable us to really assess the Bank’s use of its powers and the conduct of policy under the various relevant acts.  There is never any critical self-scrutiny; it is as if the Bank thought itself beyond error.

Of course, supply tends to respond to demand.  There is little searching scrutiny of the Reserve Bank at the Finance and Expenditure Committee, and not much more from the media (the level of questioning at the Governor’s press conference this morning seemed weaker than usual).

What do I have in mind about weaknesses in today’s document?

Remarkably, there is no substantive discussion in today’s Financial Stability Report of CBL, the insurance company, regulated by the Reserve Bank, that the Bank petitioned to have put into interim liquidation earlier in the year.   I’m not aware of any reason to think the Reserve Bank acted inappropriately in this matter, but it is a fairly significant institutional failure (on the Bank’s watch), and a fairly significant set of regulatory actions, including the (at least somewhat questionable) use of gagging orders to prevent the company telling its own shareholders and customers about regulatory interventions.  Then again, remarkably no journalist asked a single question on this topic.

Readers will also recall the scathing feedback on the Bank’s prudential regulatory side in the recent New Zealand Initiative report, and survey of regulated entities.  There was, for example, this chart, comparing Reserve Bank and FMA results for the KPIs where the Reserve Bank scores worst in the survey.

partridge 1

This report had come out since the last FSR.  In a newspaper interview a while ago, the Governor had appeared to indicate that he was going to take it seriously, with comments like these

“This place is a diamond, but it needs significant polishing in places,” Orr said in an interview in the Reserve Bank headquarters.

“We need to think much harder about how we behave, how we roll, how we explain, how we do things. That’s a cultural challenge for the bank.”


As well as posting the comments of the report on the Reserve Bank’s internal intranet, Orr had written to bank bosses with the message that: “Hey, this doesn’t print well. We hear you. We need to do something about it.”

Interestingly, he actually talked then of problems in the Bank’s own culture.  But in his main accountability document for the financial regulatory functions, there was no reference to the survey, no comment on cultural issues at the Bank (all while continuing to bash banks), no comment on improving the Bank’s own performance, no nothing.

And, remarkably, the Governor faced no questions on the matter, even though the survey had almost handed them the data with which to grill the Governor.  Perhaps the journalists have forgotten, but the counterpart to the delegation of extensive powers to unelected officials has to be serious scrutiny and accountability.  There appears to be almost none here.

Similarly –  and somewhat remarkably –  the Governor managed to avoid any questions about his “culture war” by noting that he and the FMA would be appearing before a select committee this afternoon, and suggesting deferrring questions.  But I don’t suppose he will be holding a press conference after that appearance, and questions from MPs are likely to be as weak as ever, more interested in associating with the Governor than in holding him to account.

And this failure to ask questions was perhaps more remarkable given that the press release the Governor put out with the FSR  bears the heading “Banking culture in the spotlight”.   Reading that headline one might have expected a substantive treatment, but in the press release there was just the unsubstantiated claim that “an ongoing driver of financial soundness is the conduct and culture of banks”.  To which one can only respond, well yes loans that turn bad tend, in sufficient volume, to be what brings down banks, but misjudgements about big picture credit quality, and the overoptimism that takes hold (of bankers and regulators) in boomtimes, aren’t the sort of stuff the Australian Royal Commission –  which the Governor always tries to associate with –  is about.  Here is what he had to say about that (cutesy picture and all)


Quite how evidence in an inquiry which has not yet reported can really illustrate anything conclusive –  let alone the connection to the soundness of the financial system –  is a bit beyond me.  The Governor seems more keen on his populism, and on associating himself with a highly political Australian inquiry, than on actually identifying specific reasons for concern here.   Perhaps he will explain himself this afternoon?

Reverting to other stuff, there was this extraordinary line in the Governor’s press release

The high dairy-farm indebtedness, and the fact that LVRs were necessary, reflects that banks’ allocative efficiency – eg deciding how much to lend to whom – can be impaired due to the pursuit of short-term, rather than longer-term, profits.

It is an almost incoherent sentence.  For a start, New Zealand bank loan losses have remained consistently low for several decades now –  even the farm losses in the last recession were pretty modest in the scheme of things.  Secondly, you can’t argue –  as a regulator –  that the fact you acted (in this case imposing LVRs) is evidence of a problem.  There might –  as I would argue –  have been no need for LVR controls in the first place –  after all, the Bank’s stress test results have consistently highlighted the resilience of New Zealand banks, and of the system as a whole.  And thirdly, if even there were to be a large stock of troubled lending that would not, of itself, suggest some systematic flaw n the way banks were allocating credit.  None of us –  not banks, not central banks –  operate in a full information world.  Sometimes, events will turn out differently than either lenders or borrowers expected.  That isn’t an indication of any sort of structural failing.   We might reasonably expect rather more substantive analysis before the Governor starts impugning the business decisions of private companies. but……there was nothing else in the report to back up his claims.  (And no cognisance of regulator failure either.)

Somewhat related to this was the pretty unsatisfactory discussion of the housing market, both in the document and the press conference.   The Bank consistently fails to recognise that land use regulation is the key factor explaining the high level of house and urban land prices: against that backdrop, bank lending practices are likely to be of little more than marginal importance.  Thus, they talk like this

housing fsr

But they never once recognise that if the mix of regulatory and population pressures keeps making land artificially scarce, high levels of bank credit are just necessary to accommodate people getting into the increasingly high-priced market.  In that case, credit is at worst a lubricant, a facilitator, but not either the cause or the real problem.  (The Bank might want to argue differently, but if so surely they owe us rather better and deeper analysis.)

There were a couple of interesting snippets in the report.  The smaller one was this comment on the next stage of the review of the Reserve Bank Act

Both the Reserve Bank and the Treasury have provided advice to the Minister of Finance on the scope for Phase 2. The terms of reference for Phase 2 will be published by the Government in June. Phase 2 will be a significant undertaking and could take a number of years to complete.

That suggests the untrammelled rule of the Governor alone –   in the financial stability area –  could continue for some considerable time.  That is unfortunate, especially as there is less effective accountability for the Governor around these functions than around monetary policy (where accountability is weak enough).  Nonetheless, I will look forward to seeing the announcement in June.

The other interesting snippet was Box C, a report on a benchmarking exercise undertaken in respect of a sample portfolio of dairy loans.

The exercise required the banks to measure the risk of the same portfolio of loans to 20 hypothetical dairy farms. These farms represented a range of characteristics and varying degrees of risk. Banks were then provided with financial data and descriptive information for each farm, as well as the details of the hypothetical loans.

The preliminary results of the exercise indicate significant differences in estimates across banks. The highest and lowest average risk weight for the whole hypothetical portfolio differed by 40 percentage points, leading to differences in the hypothetical capital requirement.

Variation in both PD [probability of default] and LGD [loss given default] was was significant. Figure C1 shows the range of average PD estimates across five groups, each containing four loans, ranging from the group of loans with the lowest estimated PDs to the group with the highest estimated PDs. Each line represents the estimates of one bank, before overrides. Absolute variation was largest at the mid- to high-risk end of the spectrum, but proportionate variation was large across all levels of risk. The model overrides applied by banks tended to reduce the variation across banks, but it remained significant.

dairy PD

These are big differences.  The Bank reports that

The provisional results show significant variation in model outcomes, even for the same level of underlying risk. The Reserve Bank is conducting further analysis of banks’ farm lending portfolios to see if patterns in actual risk estimates are consistent with the results of the hypothetical exercise. This work will help inform the Reserve Bank’s review of bank capital requirements.

There are at least two quite different ways of looking at such results.   One could treat them as evidence that “banks can’t be trusted” to get these things right, and that the Reserve Bank should just be setting all the key parameters that feed into calculations of capital requirements.  But one could also see them as a reminder of the uncertainty of the world in which we live, and that equally intelligent people can at times assess the risks of a particular type of loan quite differently.  There is –  or should be –  information in that difference.  That information would be lost if the Reserve Bank  was simply imposing its estimates, the more so as there is no particular reason to suppose that Reserve Bank staff are better able to assess risk than employees of an institution that has its own money on the line.

Without consistent evidence that one bank has been better than the others at assessing risks on particular types of loans, the Bank should be hesitant about what it does with the results of such benchmarking exercises.  As I’ve argued previously for stress tests, perhaps transparency is the best way forward.  Our Reserve Bank  – unlike say the Bank of England –  doesn’t publish stress test results for individual banks.   As the chart above illustrates, it also doesn’t publish information from benchmarking exercises by bank.  Perhaps they should.

Overall, it was another Financial Stability Report that –  for all the cutesy pictures –  fell well short of the level of self-scrutiny and openness that citizens should expect from such a powerful agency (and individual).   And the way the Bank completely passed over the very negative detailed feedback it had received only recently on its own performance, suggests that the cultural failures that dogged the Bank during the Wheeler years might be less likely to be seriously addressed under the new Governor than I’d hoped.

For example, if culture and conduct issues really worry the Governor, perhaps he should start closer to home, and demonstrate consistent excellence, transparency, and accountability as a regulator.  There is plenty of scope to clean up his own house. Physician heal thyself, and all that  (here and here).