PREFU thoughts

The debt numbers in yesterday’s PREFU are, to me, almost the least concerning aspects of the pages and pages of numbers/charts The Treasury published. My preferred debt measure – net core Crown debt, including the government financial assets held in the NZSF – is projected to peak at just under 40 per cent of GDP. As I’ve noted previously, numbers like that at the start of this year would have put us in the less-indebted half of the OECD countries then. By no obvious somewhat-objective metric is net debt at those sorts of levels particularly problematic, even if bond yields (and eventually, we assume, the OCR) do eventually head back in the direction of more-normal historical levels. And I hope neither main party – whether at this year’s election or that in 2023 – is going to make a fetish of specific timebound numerical targets for a particular debt measure (governments in few other countries do).

That said, the fiscal picture is not a rosy one. And it isn’t just because of Covid one-offs or because of the recession itself. Treasury produces estimates of the cyclically-adjusted balance, and this time gave us numbers that also stripped out those Covid measures. This is the resulting surplus/deficit chart.

CAB ex covid

Treasury estimated that there was a modest structural surplus over the second half of the 2010s, but now reckon the structural deficit will be around 1.5 per cent of GDP once we emerge from the immediate shadow of Covid. A three percentage point deterioration in the structural balance isn’t ruinous in and of itself – and is smaller than the moves in the previous decade – but it isn’t something to be entirely relaxed about either. It is the result of specific choices about permanent spending/tax choices. One would want to be comfortable that spending choices were of a particularly high quality.

I’m rather more bothered by the overall macroeconomic story, and the apparent complacency of The Treasury in these matters – not just as principal macro advisers to the government, but given that the Secretary to the Treasury is a non-voting member of the Reserve Bank Monetary Policy Committee. In four years time, the unemployment rate is forecast to still be materially above the NAIRU (and the output gap materially negative), and inflation is barely getting back to the target midpoint. A standard view of the monetary policy transmission mechanism is that monetary policy works with its fullest effects over perhaps an 18-24 month horizon. And yet on these projections not only has fiscal policy largely done its dash already, but there is hardly any further easing assumed in monetary policy (90 day bill rates drop to 0.1 per cent, but the OCR seems never to go negative). We have macroeconomic stabilisation policy to produce better cyclical outcomes than that. It has the feel of an approach that is just fine with people not likely to lose their jobs – Treasury and Reserve Bank officials – but shouldn’t be counted satisfactory to the rest of the population (and voters). Macro policy can’t solve structural failings, but it can address sustained cyclical weakness. A serious Opposition might make something of this, and reflect on the capabilities and priorities of our macro policy officials, and indeed on those (in the Beehive) who appoint/retain them.

One issue I’ve hammered on about here over the years is New Zealand’s rather woeful foreign trade performance. At the high tide of the latest wave of globalisation, we spent this century to date with the value of exports and imports shrinking as a share of GDP.

Treasury only produces volume forecasts for exports and imports in the PREFU. They aren’t pretty. Of course, (services) exports and imports are currently taking a large hit from closed borders, but Treasury assumes borders are reopened by the start of 2022.

Over the last economic cycle (2007/08 to the end of last year) the volume of New Zealand exports more or less kept pace with the growth rate in real GDP. But on Treasury’s forecasts over the full five years to 2023/2024, real GDP is projected to have risen by 8.4 per cent, while the volume of exports is projected to have risen by only 1.7 per cent. And whereas the volume of imports – things we consume, and use to produce – ran ahead of the growth in real GDP (quite significantly, as real import prices fell), even the latest forecast period to 2023/24 import volumes don’t even manage to keep pace with the subdued growth in real GDP.

As the prices of both exports and imports tend to grow more slowly than general prices (CPI, GDP deflator etc) and since Treasury projects the exchange rate goes nowhere over the next five years, these projections will be consistent with exports/imports falling to around a quarter of GDP. At the turn of the century they were around a third. And yet (growing) trade with the rest of the world is a key element in almost any country’s economic success – particularly for small countries.

The bottom line is perhaps expressed in lost GDP. We could do a simple comparison and look at nominal GDP for the years 2019/20 to 2023/24 from the Treasury’s HYEFU late last year and yesterday’s PREFU. Over those five years, Treasury now expects the value-added from all production in New Zealand will be $140 billion less than they thought just nine months ago. (For what it is worth, there is another $200 billion lost in the following five years, a period Treasury does not forecast in detail). These are really large losses, and on the Treasury numbers the associated wealth is never being made back. Nominal GDP matters for various reasons, including that most public and private debt is expressed in nominal terms.

But, of course, there is also plenty of focus on real GDP per capita. Over the last economic cycle (2007/08 to the end of last year), real GDP per capita. increased by about 1 per cent per annum. That was pretty underwhelming growth, reflecting the poor productivity performance and limited outward-oriented opportunities in turn reflected in weak business investment.

But here is rough comparison between the Treasury projections and a scenario in which we’d continued to stumble along at 1 per cent per annum growth in real per capita GDP.

scenario PREFU

On a rough estimate, the difference between the two lines is just over $100 billion – lost and never coming back. And although the two lines look as though they will eventually converge, my understanding of the Treasury projections beyond the official forecast period is that they don’t. Not only have we lost wealth upfront (that $100 billion) but our real annual income will always be a bit less than we previously thought.

None of these scenarios/numbers looks particularly unrealistically pessimistic to me. If anything, Treasury seems a bit more optimistic than I would be about the wider world economy – given how little has been done with monetary policy, the approaching political limits of fiscal policy, and the way that all societies look to be materially poorer than they would have thought just a few months ago, it is difficult to be very optimistic about the likely pace of sustained economic rebounds anywhere. And while Treasury assumes that we keep on in the medium-term with our modest productivity growht, it isn’t obvious even how that is going to be achieved – it is not as if either political party has any sort of serious economic plan. It doesn’t take aggressive fiscal consolidation here or abroad to think that private spending growth (consumption and investment) is likely to be really rather subdued for quite a long time to come.

Much of the political debate tends to turn on how much more debt governments have taken on, how much more public spending has been done. And there are important issues there, that deserve ongoing scrutiny, but at least as important is just how much poorer we now look likely to be than we thought just a few months ago. Fiscal policy redistributes among people in New Zealand, but even with all that fiscal support, as a country we are in aggregate so much poorer than we expected to be. And that will influence behaviour, choices, appetite for risk etc in the years ahead.

(Oh, and finally, I don’t have space to labour the point, but isn’t there something shameful when The Treasury reckons that – with no new fiscal or monetary stimulus – current structural features of the housing market (land use, immigration and whatever else) mean that they expect 7.4 per cent house price inflation in 2022/23 and a further 8.5 per cent the following year. That, not whether prices fall a bit this year as ,eg, unemployment rises, should be getting a lot more attention that it seems to be.)

Macro policy pitfalls and options

The sad sight of someone who has seemed to be a normally honourable man –  Greens co-leader James Shaw – heading off down the path of Shane Jones-ism, is perhaps a general reminder of the temptations of politics and power, but also of much that is wrong about how the government is tackling the severe economic downturn we are now in.   Fiscal discipline around scarce real resources, always pretty weak at the best of times. is flung out the window and there is a mad scamper for ministerial announceables, and thus rewards to those who successfully bend the ear of ministers in a hurry.  Connections, lobbying, and the ability to spin a good yarn seem to become foremost, with a good dose of partisanship thrown in too.   The extraordinary large grant to a private business  planning to operate a school is just the example that happens to have grabbed the headlines, but there will be more no doubt through the list (apparently not all yet announced) of “shovel-ready projects”, and we’ve seen many through the Provincial Growth Fund almost from day one of its existence.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not opposed to the government running deficits –  even really rather large deficits – for a year or two.   Some mix of external events and government actions have tipped the economy into a severe recession and –  against a dismal global backdrop – the outlook is not at all promising.  Tax revenue would be down anyway, and that automatic stabiliser is a desirable feature of the fiscal system.   And one can make –  I have made –  a case for a pretty generous approach across the board to those, through no direct fault of their own, are caught in the backwash of the pandemic.  I’ve argued for thinking of such assistance as if we some ACC-like pandemic insurance, for which we paid the premiums in decades past through higher tax rates/lower government spending rates –  and thus lower debt – than would otherwise have been likely.

And some aspects of the government’s economic policy response have –  whatever their other faults –  had elements of that broadbased no-fault/no-favours approach.   I guess ministers couldn’t put a press statement for each individual who benefited from the wage subsidy, or the weird business tax clawback scheme.  But beyond that, and increasingly, what is supposed to be countercyclical stabilisation policy has become a stage for ministers to choose favourites, to support one and not another, to announce particular bailouts as acts of political favour.  It is a dreadful way to run things, rewarding not just ministerial favourites but the chancers and opportunists who are particularly aggressive in pursuing handouts.  So some tourist operators get handouts and other don’t.  Some sports got handouts and others don’t.     Favoured festivals –  I see the nearby festival on the list this morning –  get handouts.  And, in general, unless you are among the favoured, businesses (the myriad of small and low profile ones) get little or nothing at all.  James Shaw’s green school gets a huge capital grant and while no one –  of any ideological stripe –  should be getting such handouts, we can be quite sure no-one of a different ideological stripe than those associated with the governing parties would be getting one.    Perhaps many people involved really have the best of intentions, but frankly it is corrupt, and predictably so.

I was reading last night an open letter on economic policy that Keynes had addressed to Franklin Roosevelt in late 1933.  It was a bit of mixed bag as a letter, and had really a rather condescending tone, but the couple of sentences that caught my eye were these

“our own experience has shown how difficult it is to improvise useful Loan-expenditures at short notice. There are many obstacles to be patiently overcome, if waste, inefficiency and corruption are to be avoided”

Quite.

Now, of course, elections have consequences, and one would expect a government of the left to be deploying public resources in directions consistent with (a) manifesto commitments, and (b) their own general sympathies.    But in this case (a) the government was elected on a promise (wise or not) of considerable fiscal restraint, and (b) whatever the broad tenor of their policy approach, we should not expect public resources to be handed to individuals or favoured groups and companies, solely on the basis of the ability of those entities to get access to, and bend the ear of, ministers.  And it is not necessary to do so to deploy very substantial fiscal resources –  whether with a focus on consumption, investment, or business etc support more generally.  Broadbased tools, that do not rely on rewarding favourites, aren’t hard to devise or deploy.

More generally, of course, monetary policy is an option that has barely been used at all.   We have a severe recession, with little or no relief in sight (including globally) and yet whereas, faced with a serious downturn, we usually see perhaps a 500 basis point fall in interest rates and a sharp fall in the exchange rate, we’ve had no more than a 100 basis point fall in interest rates and no fall at all in the exchange rate.  And not because of some alarming inflationary threat that means further monetary support can’t prudently be risked…..but because the appointed Monetary Policy Committee, faced with very weak inflation forecasts and lingering higher unemployment, choose to do nothing.  And those with responsibility for the Bank –  the Minister of Finance, and the PM and Cabinet –  seem to be quite content with this abdication.

The beauty of monetary policy, and one of the reasons it has been a preferred stabilisation tool for most of the time since countercyclical macro policy became a thing, is that even if ministers are the ones making the day to day decisions –  and they usually aren’t because we mostly have central banks with day-to-day operational autonomy –  they don’t get to pick which firm, which party favourite, gets the benefit of lower borrowing costs, who suffers from reduced interest income, or what is affected by the lower exchange rate.    It is broad-based instrument, operating without fear or favour, and doing so pervasively –  it takes one decision by the relevant decisionmaking body and relative prices across the whole economy are altered virtually immediately, not some crude process of ministers and officials poring over thousands of applications for grants and loans and deciding –  on who knows what criteria –  whether or not to grant them.  And it has the subsidiary merit, when used wisely, of working with market forces –  in times like these investment demand is weak and precautionary savings demand is high, so one would normally expect –  if no government agency were in the way – the market-clearing interest rate would fall a long way.

On the left there still seems to be a view that monetary has done a great deal, and perhaps all it could.  I saw the other day a commentary from retired academic Keith Rankin on fiscal and monetary policy.  He claims not to be a “left-wing economist” –  although I suspect most would see him as generally being on the left –  but has no hesitation in pegging me as “right-wing economist”.  Apparently “right-wing economists tend to have a philosophical preference for monetary policy over fiscal policy”.   Anyway….he was picking up on some comments I made in a recent interview on Radio New Zealand.

To a non-right-wing economist, Reddell’s position in the interview seems strange; Reddell argues that New Zealand has – so far during the Covid19 pandemic – experienced a large fiscal stimulus and an inadequate monetary stimulus. In fact, while the fiscal outlay is large compared to any previous fiscal stimulus, much of the money available may remain unspent, and the government is showing reluctance to augment that outlay despite this month’s Covid19 outbreak. And, as a particular example, the government keeps pouring salt into the running sore that is the Canterbury District Health Board’s historic deficit (see here and here and here and here); the Minister of Health showed little sign of compassion towards the people of Canterbury when questioned about this on yesterday’s Covid19 press conference.

Further, monetary policy has been very expansionary. In its recent Monetary Policy Statement (and see here), the Reserve bank has committed to ongoing expansions of the money supply through quantitative easing. Because the Reserve Bank must act as a silo, however, it has to participate in the casino (the secondary bond market) to do this; perhaps a less than ideal way to run monetary policy. Reddell has too much faith in the ability of the Reserve Bank to expand business investment spending.

Reddell is a committed supporter of negative interest rates – indeed he cites the same American economist, Kenneth Rogoff, who I cited in Keith Rankin on Deeply Negative Interest Rates (28 May 2020). This call for deeply negative rates is tantamount to a call for negative interest on bank term deposits and savings accounts; that is, negative ‘retail interest rates’. While Reddell does not address the issue in the short interview cited, Rogoff notes that an interest rate setting this low would require something close to a fully electronic monetary system to prevent people withdrawing wads of cash to stuff under the bed or bury under the house.

I struggle to see how anyone can doubt that we have had a very large fiscal stimulus this year to date.  One can debate the merits of extending (or not) the wage subsidy –  personally (despite being a “right-wing economist”) I’d have favoured the certainty my pandemic insurance scheme would have provided –  but it doesn’t change the fact a great deal has been spent.  Similarly, one can have important debates about the base level of health funding –  and I’ve run several posts here in recent years expressing surprise at how low health spending as a share of GDP has been under this government, given their expressed priorities and views –  but it isn’t really relevant to the question of the make-up of the countercyclical policies deployed this year.  With big government or small government in normal times, cyclical challenges (including serious ones like this year’s) will still arise.

And so the important difference seems to turn on how we see the contribution of monetary policy.  Here Rankin seems to run the Reserve Bank line –  perhaps even more strongly than they would –  about policy being “highly expansionary”, without pointing to any evidence, arguments, or market prices to support that.  It is as if an announced intent to swap one lot of general government low-interest liabilities (bonds) for another lot (settlement cash deposits at the Reserve Bank) was hugely macroeconomically significant.  Perhaps it is, but the evidence is lacking…whether from the Reserve Bank or from those on the left (Rankin and others, see below) or those on the right (some who fear it is terribly effective and worrying about resurgent inflation.

While on Rankin, I just wanted to make two more brief points:

    • first, Rankin suggests I “have too much faith in the ability  of the Reserve Bank to expand  business investment spending”.  That took me by surprise, as I have no confidence in the Bank’s ability to expand investment spending directly at all, and nor is it a key channel by which I would be expecting monetary policy to work in the near-term.  It really is a straw man, whether recognised as such, often cited by those opposed to more use of monetary policy.  Early in a recession –  any recession –  interest rates are never what is holding back investment spending –  that would be things like a surprise drop in demand, heightened uncertainty, and perhaps some unease among providers of either debt or equity finance.  Only rarely do people invest into downturns,  When they can, they will postpone planned investment, and wait to see what happens.  There is a whole variety of channels by which monetary policy works –  and I expect I’m largely at one with the Reserve Bank on this –  including confidence effects, wealth effects, expectations effects and (importantly in New Zealand) exchange rate effects.  Be the first country to take its policy rate deeply negative and one would expect a significant new support for our tradables sector through a much lower exchange rate.  In turn, over time, as domestic and external demand improved investment could be expected to rise, in turn supported by temporarily lower interest rates, but that is some way down the track.
    • second, as Rankin notes I have continued to champion the use of deeply negative OCR (and right now any negative OCR at all, rather than the current RB passivity).  As he notes, in the interview he cites I did not mention the need to deal with the ability to convert deposits into physical cash at par, but that has been a longstanding theme of mine.  I don’t favour abolishing physical currency, but I do favour a potentially-variable premium price on large-scale conversions to cash (as do other advocates of deeply negative policy rates).  Those mechanisms would be quite easy to put in place, if there was the will to use monetary policy.

From people on the left-  at least in the New Zealand media –  there also seems to be some angst that (a) monetary policy has done a great deal, and that (b) in doing so it has exacerbated “inequality” in a way that we should, apparently, regret.   I’ve seen this line in particular from interest.co.nz’s Jenee Tibshraeny and (including again this morning) from Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan.  On occasion, Adrian Orr seems to give some encouragement to this line of thinking, but I think he is mostly wrong to do so

Perhaps the most important point here is the otherwise obvious one.  The worst sort of economic outcome, including from an inequality perspective (short or long term) is likely to be one in which unemployment goes up a long way and stays high, and where labour market participation rates fall away.  Sustained time out of employment, involuntarily, is one of the worst things for anyone’s lifetime economic prospects, and if some of the people who end up unemployed have plenty of resources to fall back on, the burden of unemployment tends to fall hardest on the people at the bottom, people are just starting out, and in many cases people from ethnic minorities (these are often overlapping groups).  From a macroeconomic policy perspective, the overriding priority should be getting people who want to work back into work just as quickly as possible.   That doesn’t mean we do just anything –  grants to favoured private companies to build new buildings are still a bad idea  – but it should mean we don’t hold back on tools with a long track record of contributing effectively to macroeconomic stabilisation because of ill-defined concerns about other aspects of “inequality”.

Asset prices appear to worry people in this context.    I’m probably as puzzled as the next person about the strength of global equity prices –  and I don’t think low interest rates (low for a reason) are a compelling story –  but it is unlikely that anything our Reserve Bank is doing is a big contributor to the current level of the NZX indices.  Even if it were, that would not necessarily be a bad thing, since one way to encourage new real investment is as the price of existing investment assets rises relative to the cost of building new.

And if house prices have risen a little (a) it is small compared to the 25 year rise governments have imposed on us, and (b) not that surprising once the Reserve Bank eased the LVR restrictions for which there was never a compelling financial stability rationale in the first place.

More generally, I think this commentators are still overestimating (quite dramatically) what monetary policy has done.   I read commentaries talking about “money flowing into the hands of asset holders” (Coughlan today) from the LSAP programme, but that really isn’t the story at all.  Across this year to date there has been little change in private sector holdings of government bonds, and certainly no large scale liquidation by existing holders (of the sort that sometimes happened in QE-type programmes in other countries).  Most investors are holding just as many New Zealand government bonds as they were.  All that has really happened is that (a) the government has spent a great deal more money than it has received in taxes, (b) that has been initially to them by the Reserve Bank, and (c) that net fiscal spending is mirrored in a rise in banks’ settlement account deposit balances at the Reserve Bank.  It would not have made any difference to anything that matters much if the Reserve Bank had just given the government a huge overdraft facility at, say, 25 basis points interest, rather than going through the bond issuance/LSAP rigmarole.  The public sector could have sold more bonds into the market instead, in which case the private sector would be holding more bonds and less settlement cash.  But the transactions that put more money in people’s pockets –  people with mortgages, people with businesses –  are the fiscal policy programmes.   Without them we might, reasonably, have anticipated a considerably weaker housing market.  Since few on the left would have favoured less fiscal outlays this year –  and neither would I for that matter –  they can’t easily have it both ways (Well, of course, they could, but the current government of the left has been almost as bad as previous governments of the left and right in dealing with the land use restrictions that create the housing-related dimensions of inequality.

Coughlan also seems to still belief that what happens to the debt the government owes the (government-owned and controlled) Reserve Bank matters macroeconomically.  See, on this, his column in last weekend’s Sunday Star-Times.   As I outlined last week, this is simply wrong: what matter isn’t the transactions between the government and the RB, but those between the whole-of-government and the private sector.  Those arise mostly from the fiscal policy choices.  The whole-of-government now owes the non-government a great deal more than it did in February –  reflecting the fiscal deficit.  That happens to take the form primarily of much higher settlement cash balances, but it could have been much higher private bond holdings.   Either way, the asset the Reserve Bank holds is largely irrelevant: the liabilities of the Crown are what matter.  And as the economy re recovers one would expect that the government will have to pay a higher price on those liabilities.   It could avoid doing so –  simply refusing to, engaged in “financial repression” –  but doing so would not avoid the associated real resource pressures. The same real resources can’t be used for two things at once.  Finally on Coughlan’s article, it seems weird to headline a column “It’s not a question of how, but if we’ll pay back the debt” when, on the government’s own numbers and depending on your preferred measure, debt to GDP will peak at around 50 per cent.  Default is usually more of a political choice than an economic one, but I’d be surprised if any stable democracy, issuing its own currency, has ever chosen to default with such a low level of debt –  low relative to other advanced countries, and (for that matter) low relative to our own history.

Monetary policy really should have been –  and should now, belatedly –  used much more aggressively.  It gets in all the cracks, it avoids the temptations of ministerial corruption, it works (even the RB thinks so), and it has the great merit that in committing claims over real resources the people best-placed to make decisions –  individual firms and households, accountable for their choices –  are making them, not politicians on a whim.

For anyone interested, the Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr is talking about the Bank’s use of monetary policy this year at Victoria University at 12:30pm today.  The event is now entirely by Zoom, and the organisers invited us to share the link with anyone interested.

Writing off the Reserve Bank’s government bonds

From time to time I’ve been asked about the idea that the government bonds the Reserve Bank is now buying, and will most likely be holding for years to come, might be written off.   I thought I’d written an earlier post on the idea but I can’t find it –  perhaps it was just a few lines buried somewhere else – and the question keeps coming up.

The Reserve Bank’s own answer to the question –  I’ve seen it recently from both the Governor and the Chief Economist (the latter towards the end of this) – is to smile and suggest that, since they are the lender, it really isn’t up to them.    That, of course, is nonsense.  It is quite within the power of a lender to write-off their claim on a borrower, and that doesn’t require the borrower first to default or to petition for relief.   To revert back to some old posts, that is how ancient debt jubilees worked.

I guess that, in answering the way the do, the Bank is simply trying to avoid getting entangled in controversies that they don’t need.  I have some sympathy for them on that, and so just possibly it might be a tactically astute approach.  A better approach would be for them – as the specialists in such things, unlike the Minister of Finance – to call out the idea of that particular debt being written off for what it is: macroeconomically irrelevant.

In reality, of course, if the debt held by the Reserve Bank were to be written off, it would only be done with the concurrence of the government of the day.    Apart from anything else, if the Governor (or the Board, when the new Reserve Bank legislation is enacted) were to write off the Bank’s claims on the government, it would render the Bank deeply insolvent (very substantial negative equity).  You can’t have management of a government agency just deciding – wholly voluntarily – to render the agency deeply insolvent.

And that is even though the Reserve Bank is quite a bit different than most public sector entities, in that life would go –  operations would continue largely unaffected –  if the Reserve Bank had a balance sheet with a $20 billion (or $60 billion) hole in it.   The Bank isn’t a company, its directors don’t face standard penalties and threats, and –  critically – nothing about substantial negative equity would adversely affect the Bank’s ability to meet its obligations as they fall due.   The Reserve Bank meets its obligations by issuing more of its own liabilities (notes or, more usually, settlement cash balances).  People won’t stop using New Zealand dollars, and banks won’t stop banking at the Reserve Bank, just because there is a huge negative equity position.

(This isn’t just some hypothetical.  Several central banks have operated for long periods with negative equity; indeed I worked for one of them that had so many problems it couldn’t even generate a balance sheet for years at a time.  It also isn’t materially affected by arguments that seignorage revenue –  from the issuance of zero interest banknotes –  means that “true” central bank equity is often higher than it looks (much less so when all interest rates are near zero, and not at all if other interest rates are negative).)

The big reason why writing off the claims the Reserve Bank has on the government through the bonds it holds wouldn’t matter much, if at all, for macroeconomic purposes is that the Reserve Bank is –  in substance – simply a branch of the government.  Any financial value in the organisation accrues ultimately to the taxpayer, and the taxpayer in turn is ultimately responsible for the net liabilities of the Bank.  Governments can –  and sometimes do – default, but having the obligation on the balance sheet of a (wholly government-owned and parliamentarily-created) central bank doesn’t materially change the nature of the exposure.  If anything, governments have tended to be MORE committed to honouring the liabilities of their central bank –  their core monetary agency, where trust really matters –  than in their direct liabilities (thus, in New Zealand  –  as in the US or UK – central and local governments have –  long ago –  defaulted, but the Reserve Bank has never done so).

It is worth remembering what has actually gone on in the last few months.  There are several relevant strands:

  • the government has run a huge fiscal deficit, (meeting the gap between spending and revenue by drawing from its account at the Reserve Bank, in turn resulting in a big increase in banks’ settlement account balances at the Reserve Bank, as bank customers receive the net fiscal outlays),
  • the government has issued copious quantities of new bonds on market (the proceeds from the settlement of those purchases are credited to the Crown account at the Reserve Bank, paid for by debiting –  reducing –  banks’ settlement account balances at the Reserve Bank,
  • the Reserve Bank has purchased copious quantities of bonds on market (paying for them by crediting banks’ settlement accounts at the Reserve Bank).

In practice, the Reserve Bank does not buy bonds in quite the same proportions that the government is issuing them.  But to a first approximation –  and as I’ve written about previously – it does not make much macroeconomic difference whether the Reserve Bank is buying the bonds on market or buying them from the government directly.   In fact, it would not make much difference from a macroeconomic perspective if the Reserve Bank had simply given the government an overdraft equal to the value of the bonds it was otherwise going to purchase.     There are two caveats to that:

  • first, under either model the Reserve Bank has the genuine power to choose, and
  • second, that the fiscal deficit itself is not altered by the particular mechanism whereby the funds get to the Crown account.

But that seems a safe conclusion for now under our current institutional arrangements and culture.

From a private sector perspective, the net effect of the various transactions I listed earlier has been that:

  • private firms and households have been net recipients of government fiscal outlays, (which, in turn, boosts the non-bank private sector’s claims on banks)
  • banks have much larger holdings of (variable rate) settlement cash balances at the Reserve Bank.

Those settlement cash balances are the (relevant) net new whole-of-government debt.

By contrast, quite how the core government and the Reserve Bank rearrange claims between themselves just doesn’t matter very much (macroeconomically) at all.

Suppose the Minister of Finance and the Governor did get together and agree no payment needs to be made in respect of the bonds that Bank holds at maturity.  What does it change?   It doesn’t change is the appropriate stance of monetary policy –  determined by the outlook for the economy and inflation.  It doesn’t change the nature and extent of the Reserve Bank’s other liabilities –  which still have to be met when they mature.   And it doesn’t change anything about the underlying whole-of-government fiscal position.

I guess what people are worried about is that the government might feel it had to raise  taxes –  or cut spending –  more than otherwise “just” to pay off those bonds held by the Reserve Bank.  But remember that the Reserve Bank is just another part of government.  What would actually happen in that scenario is that settlement account balances held by banks at the Reserve Bank would fall (as, say, net taxes flowed into the government account at the Reserve Bank) –  and those are the new claims the private sector currently has on the government.    In other words, the higher taxes or lower spending still extinguish net debt to the private sector.   And if the government didn’t want to raise taxes/cut spending, it could simply issue more bonds on market.  In the process they would (a) repay the bonds held by the Reserve Bank, and (b) reduce settlement cash balances at the Reserve Bank, but (c) increase the net bonds held by the private sector.    Total private claims on whole of government aren’t changed.

(Now it is possible that at the point where the bonds mature, the Reserve Bank still thought that for monetary policy reasons settlement cash balances needed to be as large as ever.  If so, then of course they could purchase some more bonds on-market, or do some conventional open market operations. Neither set of transactions will change the overall claims of the private sector on the government sector –  net fiscal deficits are what do that.)

And what if the bonds were just written off?   As I noted earlier, write off the bonds and the Reserve Bank has a deeply negative equity position.   I don’t really think that is a sustainable long-term position.  It is a bad look in an advanced economy. It is a bad look if we still want to have an operationally independent central bank.  And we can’t rule out the possibility that, for example, risk departments in major international financial institutions might be hesitant about continuing to have the Reserve Bank of New Zealand as a counterparty, including for derivatives transactions, if it had a balance sheet with a large negative position –  even though, as outlined above, the Bank could unquestionably continue to pay its bills.  So at some point of other, the Bank would have to be recapitalised. But again that has little or no implications for the rest of the economy –  or the future tax burden.   The government subscribes for shares…and settles them by issuing to the Bank…more bonds.  The government, of course, pays interest to the Bank –  whether on bonds or overdrafts –  but, to a first approximation, Bank profits all flow back to the Crown.

This post has ended up being quite a lot longer than I really intended, as I’ve tried to cover off lots of bases and possible follow up questions.  Perhaps the key thing to remember is that what creates  the likelihood of higher taxes and lower spending (than otherwise) in future is unexpected/unscheduled fiscal deficits now.

Those deficits might be inevitable, even desirable (as many, perhaps most, might think of those this year as being), but it is they that matter, not  what are in effect the internal transactions between the core government and its wholly-owned Reserve Bank.   That is true even in some MMT world, provided one takes seriously their avowed commitment to keeping inflation in check over time.  You could fund the entire government on interest-free Reserve Bank overdrafts and the consequence would be explosive growth in banks’ settlement cash balances at the Reserve Bank.  But real resources are still limited (see yesterday’s post).  Over time, if you are serious about keeping inflation in check, you still have to either pay a market interest rate on those balances, or engage in heavy financial repression of other sorts, imposing additional imposts on the private sector just by less visible means.

Perhaps the other point worth remembering is the relevance of focusing on appropriately broad measures of true whole-of-government indebtedness, not ones dreamed up from time to time for political marketing purposes.

 

MMT

So-called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been attracting a great deal more attention than usual this year.  I guess that isn’t overly surprising, in view of (a) the severe recession the world is now in, and (b) the passivity and inaction (and the ineffectiveness of what actions they do take) of central banks, those with day-to-day responsibility for the conduct of monetary policy.

Until about three years ago I had had only the haziest conception of what the MMTers were on about.  But then Professor Bill Mitchell, one of the leading academic (UNSW) champions of MMT ideas, visited New Zealand, and as part of that visit there was a roundtable discussion with a relatively small group in which I was able to participate.  I wrote about his presentation and the subsequent discussion in a post in July 2017.   I’d still stand by that.  (As it happens, someone sent Mitchell a link to my post and he got in touch suggesting that even though we disagreed on conclusions he thought my representation of the issues and his ideas was “very fair and reasonable”.)  But not many people click through to old posts and, of course, the actual presenting circumstances are quite a bit different now than they were in the New Zealand of 2017.  Back then, most notably, there was no dispute that the Reserve Bank had a lot more OCR leeway should events have required them to use it.

Among the various people championing MMT ideas this year, one of the most prominent is the US academic Stephanie Kelton in her new book The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and How to Build a Better Economy (very widely available – I got my copy at Whitcoulls, a chain not known for the breadth of its economics section).   Since it is widely available –  and is very clearly written in most places – it will be my main point of reference in this post, but where appropriate I may touch on the earlier Mitchell discussion and this recent interview on interest.co.nz with another Australian academic champion of MMT ideas.

As a starting point, I reckon MMT isn’t particularly modern, is mostly about fiscal policy, and is more about political preferences than any sort of theoretical framework (certainly not really an economics-based theoretical framework).     But I guess the name is good marketing, and good marketing matters, especially in politics.

The starting proposition is a pretty elementary one that, I’d have thought, had been pretty uncontroversial for decades among central bankers and people thinking hard about monetary/fiscal interactions: a government with its own central bank cannot be forced –  by unavailability of local currency –  to default on its local currency debt.  They can always “print some more” (legislating to take direct control of the central bank if necessary).  So far so good.  But it doesn’t really take one very far, since actual defaults are typically more about politics than narrow liquidity considerations and governments may still choose to default, and the actual level of public debt (share of GDP) maintained by advanced countries with their own currencies varies enormously.

A second, and related, point is that governments in such countries don’t need to issue bonds –  or raise taxes – to spend just as much as they want, or run deficits as large as they want.  They can simply have the central bank pay for those expenses.  And again, at least if the appropriate legislation was worded in ways that allowed this (which is a domestic political choice) then, of course, that is largely true.  That means governments of such countries are in a different position than you and I –  we either need to have earned claims on real resources, or have found an arms-length lender to provide them, before we spend.    Again, it might be a fresh insight to a few politicians –  Kelton spent a couple of years, recruited by Bernie Sanders, as an adviser to (Democrat members of) the Senate Budget Committee, and has a few good stories to tell.  But to anyone who has thought much about money, it has always been one of the features –  weaknesses, and perhaps a strength on occasion – of fiat money systems.

Kelton also devotes a full chapter to the identity that any public sector surplus (deficit) must, necessarily, mean a private sector deficit (surplus).  Identities can usefully focus the mind sometimes in thinking about the economy, but I didn’t find the discussion of this one particularly enlightening.

It all sounds terribly radical, at least in potential.  One might reinforce that interpretation with Kelton’s line that “in almost all instances, fiscal deficits are good for the economy. They are necessary.”

But in some respects –  at least as a technical matter –  it is all much less radical than it is sometimes made to sound.   As a matter of technique and institutional arrangements, it is mostly akin to “use fiscal policy rather than monetary policy to keep excess capacity to a minimum consistent with maintaining low and stable inflation”.    Supplemented by the proposition that advance availability of cash –  taxes, on-market borrowing –  shouldn’t be the constraint on government spending, but rather that the inflation outlook should be.

Quoting Kelton again “it is possible for governments to spend too much. Deficits can be too big”.

What isn’t entirely clear is why, as a technical matter, the MMTers prefer fiscal policy to monetary policy as a stabilisation policy.    In the earlier discussion with Bill Mitchell, it seemed that his view was the monetary policy just wasn’t as (reliably) effective as fiscal policy.  In Kelton’s book, it seems to reflect a view that using monetary policy alone there is inescapable sustained trade-off between low inflation and full employment (a view that most conventional macroeconomists would reject), and that only fiscal policy can fill the gap, to deliver full employment.    Kelton explicitly says “evidence of a deficit that is too small is unemployment” –  it seems, any unemployment, no matter how frictional, no matter how much caused by other labour market restrictions.

I can think of two other reasons.  The first is quite specific to the current context.  Some might prefer fiscal policy because they believe monetary policy has reached its limits (some effective lower bound on the nominal policy rate).   Kelton’s book was largely finished before Covid hit –  and US rates at the start of this year weren’t super-low –  but it seems to be a factor in the current interest in MMT.     The other reason –  not really stated, but sometimes implied by Kelton – is that central bankers might have been consistently running monetary policy too tight – running with too-optimistic forecasts and in the process falling down on achieving what they can around economic stabilisation.  Since 2007 I’d have quite a bit of sympathy with that view –  although note that in New Zealand prior to 2007 inflation was consistently too high relative to the midpoint of the target ranges governments had set.  But it is, at least initially, more of an argument for getting some better central bankers, or perhaps even for governments to take back day-to-day control of monetary policy, than an argument for preferring fiscal policy over monetary policy as the prime macro-stabilisation tool.

But in general there is little reason to suppose that fiscal policy is any more reliably effective than monetary policy.  Sure, if the government goes out and buys all the (say) cabbages in stock that is likely to directly boost cabbage production.  If –  in a deep recession – it hires workers to dig ditches and fill them in again that too will directly boost activity.  But most government activity –  taxes and spending (and MMTers aren’t opposed to taxes, in fact would almost certainly have higher average tax rates than we have now) –  aren’t like that.  If it is uncertain what macro effect a cut in the OCR will have, it is also uncertain how  –  and how quickly – a change in tax rates will affect the economy, and even if governments directly put money in the pockets of households we don’t know what proportion will be saved, and how the rest of the population might react to this fiscal largesse.  In principle, there is no particular reason why fiscal policy should be better, as a technical matter, than monetary policy in stabilising economic activity and inflation.  But Kelton just seems to take for granted the superiority of fiscal policy, and never really seems to engage with the sorts of considerations that led most advanced countries –  with their own central banks, borrowing in local currencies –  to assign stabilisation functions to monetary policy, at arms-length from politicians, while leaving longer-term structural choices around spending and tax to the politicians.

These probably shouldn’t be hard and fast assignments. In particular, there are some things only  governments (fiscal policy) can do.  Thus, if an economy largely shuts down –  whether from private initiative or government fiat –  in response to a pandemic, monetary policy can’t do much to feed the hungry.  Charity and fiscal initiatives are what make a difference in this very immediate circumstances –  just as after floods or other severe natural disasters.    And we consciously build in some automatic stabilisers to our tax and spending systems.  But none of that is an argument for junking monetary policy completely, whether that monetary policy is conducted by an independent agency, or whether such agencies (central banks) just serve as technical advisers to a decisionmaking minister (as, for example, tended to be the norm in post-war decades in most advanced countries, including New Zealand).

The MMTers claim to take seriously inflation risk.  This is from the Australian academic interest.co.nz interviewed (Kelton has very similar lines, but I can cut and paste the other)

“They should always be looking at inflation risk. Because when we say that our governments can never become insolvent, what we are saying is that there is no purely financial constraint that they work under. But there is still a real constraint. So New Zealand has a limited productive capacity. Limited by the labour and skills of the people and capital equipment, technology, infrastructure and the institutional capacity of business organisations and government in New Zealand. That limits the quantities of goods and services that can be produced there is a limitation there. Also it depends on the natural resources of a country,” says Hail.

“If you spend beyond that productive capacity it can be inflationary and that can frustrate your objectives, frustrate what you’re trying to do. So it’s always inflation risks that’s important. Within that productive capacity, however, what it is technically possible to do the Government can always fund. So yes, you can fund any of those things but there’s always an inflation risk and that inflation risk is not specific to government spending. It’s specific to all spending.”

There is a tendency to be a bit slippery about this stuff.  Thus Kelton devotes quite some space to a claim that government spending/deficits can’t crowd out private sector activity.  And she is quite right that the government can just “print the money” –  so in a narrow financing sense there need not be crowing out –  but quite wrong when it comes to the real capacity of the economy.  Real resources can’t be used twice for the same thing.  When the attempt is made to do so, that is when inflation becomes a problem –  and the MMTers aver their seriousness about controlling inflation (and I take them at their word re intentions).

Partly I take them at their word because Kelton says “the economic framework I’m advocating for is asking for more fiscal responsibility from the federal government not less”.     And it certainly does, because instead of using monetary policy, the primary stabilisation role would rest with fiscal policy.  That might involve easy choices for politicians flinging more money around to favoured causes/people in bad times, but it involves exactly the opposite when times are good, resources are coming under pressure, and inflation risks are mounting.  Under this model, a government could be running a fiscal surplus and still have to take action to markedly tighten fiscal policy because –  in their own terms –  it isn’t deficits or surpluses that matter but overall pressure on real resources.  And they want fiscal policy to do all the discretionary adjustment.

Maybe, just maybe, that is a model that could be made to work in (say) a single chamber Parliament, elected under something like FPP, so that there is almost always a majority government.  Perhaps even in New Zealand’s current system, at a pinch, since to form a government the Governor-General has to be assured of supply.

But in the US, where party disciplines are weak, different parties can control the two Houses, and where the President is another force completely.     What about US governance in the last 30 years would give you any confidence in the ability to use fiscal policy to successfully fine-tune economic activity and inflation, while respecting the fundamental powers of the legislature (no taxation without representation, no expenditure without legislative appropriation)?   In a US context, I’m genuinely puzzled about that. [UPDATE:  A US commentator on Twitter objected to the use of ‘fine-tune” here, suggesting it wasn’t what the MMTers are about.  Perhaps different people read “fine-tune” differently, but as I read MMTers they are committed to maintaining near-continuous full employment, and keeping inflation in check, and even if some like rules –  rather than discretion –  it seems to me frankly no more likely that preset rules for fiscal policy would successfully accomplish that macrostabilisation than preset rules for monetary policy did.  “Successfully managed discretion” is what I have in mind when talking about “fine-tuning” in this context.]

But even in a relatively easy country/case like New Zealand using fiscal policy that way doesn’t seem at all attractive.    It takes time to legislate (at least when did properly).  It takes time to put most programmes in place, at least if done well –  and don’t come back with the wage subsidy scheme, since few events will ever be as broad-brush and liberal as that, especially if fine-tuning is what macro-management is mostly about.   And every single tax or spending programme has a particular constituency –  people who will bend the ear of ministers to advance their cause/programme and resist vociferously attempts to wind such programmes back.  And there are real economic costs to unpredictable variable tax rates.

By contrast –  and these are old arguments, but no less true for that  – monetary policy adjustments can be made and implemented instantly.  They don’t have their full effect instantly, but neither do those for most fiscal outlays –  think, at the extreme, of any serious infrastructure project.   And monetary policy works pretty pervasively –  interest rate effects, exchange rate effects, expectations effects (“getting in all the cracks”) –  which is both good in itself (if we are trying to stabilise the entire economy) and good for citizens since it doesn’t rely on connections, lobbying, election campaign considerations, and the whim of particular political parties or ministers.  And what would get cut if/when serious fiscal consolidation was required?  Causes with the weakest constituencies, the least investment in lobbying, or just causes favoured by the (at the time) political Opposition.     Perhaps I can see some attraction for some types of politicians –  one can see at the moment how the government has managed to turn fiscal stabilisation policy into a long series of announceables for campaigning ministers, rewarding connections etc rather than producing neutral stabilisation instruments –  but the better among them will recognise that it is no way to run things.  It is the sort of reason why shorter-term stabilisation was assigned to monetary policy in the first place.

Reverting to Kelton, her book is quite a mix.  Much of the first half is a clear and accessible description of how various technical aspects of the system work, and what does and doesn’t matter in extremis.   But do note the second half of the book’s title (“How to Build a Better Economy”): the second half of the book is really an agenda for a fairly far-reaching bigger government – (much) more spending, and probably more taxes.    There is material promoting lots more (government) spending on health, welfare, infrastructure, and so on –  all the sort of stuff the left of the Democratic Party in the USA is keen on.

That is the stuff of politics, but it really has nothing at all to do with the question of whether fiscal or monetary policy is better for macro-stabilisation.   I guess it may be effective political rhetoric –  at least among the already converted –  to say –  as Kelton does –  “cash needn’t be a constraint on us doing any of this stuff”.  But –  and this is where I think the book verges on the dishonest (or perhaps just a tension not fully resolved in her own mind) – the constraint, or issue, is always about real resources, which  – per the quote above –  can’t be conjured out of thin air.    Resources used for one purpose can’t be used for others, and even if some forms of government spending (or lower taxes?) might themselves be growth-enhancing in the long run, that can’t just be assumed, and almost certainly won’t be the case for many of the causes Kelton champions (or that local advocates of MMT would champion).

I can go along quite easily with much of Kelton’s description of how the technical aspects of economies and financial systems work, but the really hard issues are the political ones.   So, of course, we needn’t stop government spending for fear that a deficit will quickly lead to default and financial crisis, or because in some narrow sense we don’t have the cash available in advance.   But we still have to make choices, as a society, about where government programmes and preferences will be prioritised over private ones –  the contest for those scarce real resources, consistent with keeping inflation in check.    And we know that rigorous and honest evaluation of individual government tax, spending and regulatory programmes is difficult to achieve and maintain.  And we know that programmes committed to are hard to end,  And that government failure is at least as real a phenomenon as market failure –  and quite pervasive when it comes to many spending programmes.    And so while Kelton might argue that, for example, balanced budget rules (in normal circumstances, on average over the cycle) are some sort of legacy of different world, something appropriate and necessary for households but not a necessary constraint for governments, I’d run the alternative argument that they act as check and balance, forcing governments to think harder –  and openly account for –  choices they are making about whose real resources will be paying for the latest preferrred programme.

Kelton tries to avoid these issues in part by claiming that “outside World War Two, the US never sustained anything approximating full employment”,  and yet she knows very well that real resource constraints still bind –  inflation does pick up, and was a big problem for a time.  Hard choices need to be made –  not by the hour (government cheques can always be honoured) but over any longer horizon.

There are perfectly reasonable debates to be had about the appropriate size of government. but they really have nothing to do with the more-technical aspects of the MMT argument.  Even if, for example, one accepted the MMT claim that there was something generally beneficial about fiscal deficits, we could run deficits –  presumably still varying with the cycle –  with a government spending 25 per cent of GDP (less than New Zealand at present) or 45 per cent of GDP (I suspect nearer the Kelton preference).

This post has probably run on too long already.  Perhaps I will come back in another post to elaborate a few points.  But before finishing this post I wanted to mention one of the signature proposals of the MMTers – the job guarantee.  There is apparently some debate as to just how central such a scheme is –  that is really one for the MMTers to debate among themselves, although it seems to me logically separable from issues around the relative weight given to fiscal and monetary policy.   I covered some of the potential pitfalls in the earlier post and I’m still left unpersuaded that the scheme has anything like the economic or social benefits the MMTers claim for it, even as I abhor the too-common indifference of authorities (fiscal and monetary to entrenched unemployment.  In the current context, one could think of the wage subsidy scheme as having had some functional similarities, but it is a tool that kept people connected to (what had been) real jobs, and which works well for identifiable shocks of known short duration.  That seems very different from the sort of well-intentioned job creation schemes the MMTers talk about. From the earlier post

It all risked sounding dangerously like the New Zealand approach to unemployment in the 1930s, in which support was available for people, but only if they would take up public works jobs.  Or the PEP schemes of the late 1970s.   Mitchell responded that it couldn’t just be “digging holes and filling them in again”.  But if it is to be “meaningful” work, it presumably also won’t all be able to involve picking up litter, or carving out roadways with nothing more advanced than shovels.  Modern jobs typically involve capital (machines, buildings, computers etc) –  it accompanies labour to enable us to earn reasonable incomes –  and putting in place the capital for all these workers will relatively quickly put pressure on real resources (ie boosting inflation).   If the work isn’t “meaningful”, where is the alleged “dignity of work”  –  people know artificial job creation schemes when they see them –  and if the work is meaningful, why would people want to come off these government jobs to take existing low wage jobs in the private market?

And much of Kelton’s idealistic discussion of the job guarantee rather overlooked the potential corruption of the process –  favoured causes, favoured individuals, favoured local authorities getting funding.  It is a risk in New Zealand, but it seems a near-certainty in the United States.

Two charts

….on unrelated matters.

One of the objections sometimes raised to my advocacy of a deeply negative OCR is along the lines of “it will only lift asset prices”, with the implication –  and sometimes directly stated –  that that is what has happened in the last decade or so, even as policy rates in most of the advanced world fell from materially positive numbers to somewhere near zero.   In 2007, policy rates in the US and the UK had been over 5 per cent, in the euro-area 4 per cent, and in New Zealand and Australia higher than all those rates.   Only Japan was then in the extreme low interest rate club.

The asset price that tends to attract most attention in New Zealand is house prices (really house+ land).  The Bank for International Settlements maintain a nice quarterly database of real house prices for a large group of advanced and emerging economies.

Here is what has happened to real house prices for the largest advanced economies, and for the advanced economies as a whole, over the 12 years from the end of 2007 to the end of last year.

house prices to end 2019

Very little change at all.

The aggregate advanced economy measure only starts in December 2007, and for quite a lot of countries the data starts getting thin for earlier periods.   But for the UK, the euro-area, and the US, I had a look at the previous decade –  over which period policy interest rates hadn’t changed much at all (ups and downs of course during the period) – and in each case real house prices increases were much more rapid in that period than in the more recent (extremely low interest rate) one.   The US had experienced a 53 per cent increase in house prices –  and they had already fallen back from peak by the end of 2007 –  and the euro-area a 40 per cent increase.  In Japan –  very low interest rates throughout –  real house prices had fallen substantially over the 1997 to 2007 period.

Of course, within these aggregates for the last decade or so there is a lot of cross-country variation.  We all know real house prices in New Zealand and Australia have risen a lot.   In some other countries, they’ve fallen a lot.    But even in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, the rate of increase has been less in the last (low interest rate) 12 years than it was in the previous decade.

That shouldn’t really be a surprise.  After all, in principle, houses are reproducible assets (some labour, some timber, some concrete, some fittings) and in few countries is very much of land built on.   Moreover, interest rates aren’t where they’ve been as the result of some toss of a coin, or a draw from a random number generator; they reflect underlying changes in savings/investment imbalances, which central banks adjust policy rates to more or less reflect.

When a wide range of countries have had fairly similar interest rate experiences (and inflation outcomes; the check on whether monetary policy is out of step), and yet have had very different house price experiences, it probably suggests that some non-interest rate factors have been at work.   Of course, in some cases, that might just mean working off past crises –  although if you want to cite the US there (a) recall that by the end of 2007 real house prices had already fallen by 15 per cent from peak, and (b) that in the boom years nationwide real house prices in the US never rose as much as they did in, for example, Australia and New Zealand.

A more plausible story is that some combination and land-use restrictions and population pressures continue to explain a lot about differential house prices performance in the years since 2007.   In New Zealand and Australia, for example, we have had tight planning restrictions and rapid population growth.    I don’t know much about planning rules in central and eastern Europe, but there isn’t much population growth (deliberate understatement here) in countries with strong economic growth such as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Baltics.   It isn’t a simple one-for-one story, but taken across the advanced economies as a whole it just doesn’t look as though low interest rates are a credible part of the house price story –  house prices, in aggregate, not having done much at all.

Of course, had central banks completely ignored the market signals re savings/investment pressures and simply held policy rates up then no doubt house prices would have been lower.  Then again, we’d also have had persistent deflation and (more importantly) unemployment rates that stayed much higher for longer and more persistent losses of output.

On a completely different topic, I found myself yesterday on an email exchange with some fiscal hawks, very worried about the future level of public debt.

I’ve noted previously that on the Treasury budget numbers our ratio of net debt to GDP in 2023/24 would still be sufficiently modest by international standards that if we had had that high a debt ratio last year, we’d still have been (narrowly) in the less-indebted half of the OECD.

Another way of looking at things is to take the government at their word and assume that by the end of the forecast period the Budget is more or less back to balance, such that the nominal level of debt stabilises at the level forecast for the end of 2023/24.

If that were to happen that what happens to the debt ratio depends on how much growth in nominal GDP the economy manages in the years ahead.   If we assume that the terms of trade is stable (or that the only safe prediction is that we don’t know, so assume no change), then there are three components to the rate of growth of nominal GDP.    As an illustrative experiment I jotted down a range of possible average outcomes for each.

Average annual growth
Low High Average
Population 0 1 0.5
Productivity 0 1.5 0.75
Inflation 1 2 1.5
2.75

So I’d assume growth in nominal GDP averaging 2.75 per cent over the decades beyond 2024.  Of course, there will be booms and recessions in that time, but this is just an average.   And then I’ve taken two alternative scenarios –  one in which nominal GDP growth averages 2.25 per cent, and one in which it averages 3.25 per cent.   Those aren’t extremes, and one could envisage even higher or lower numbers.

But this is what a net debt chart looks like out to 2064.

net debt scenarios

Even on the worst of these scenarios this (exaggerated, because it excludes NZSF assets) net debt measure is back to 30 per cent of GDP by 2050.   That doesn’t seem too bad to me for a one in a hundred year shock (as the government likes to claim) or –  less pardonably –  a one in 160 year shock as the Reserve Bank Governor was talking up the other day.

Of course, fiscal hawks will say, “but what if another really nasty shocks happens in the meantime?”.  Well, of course we would have to face that if it comes –  and it could –  but, as I noted, our net debt at peak is not high by pre-crisis international standards, and isn’t even high by our own longer-term historical standards.

Governments might choose to lower the debt faster, although if real servicing costs remain low it is difficult to see why one would, since faster consolidation involves either higher taxes than otherwise (with real deadweight costs) or less spending than otherwise (and while each bit of spending has its own antagonists, there is a case to be made for most of it).   There is precisely no evidence that anything important would suffer if our net public debt took a trajectory something like the central scenario in that graph.

(Of course, it is a purely illustrative scenario, and the composition of nominal GDP growth does matter to the budgetary implications –  eg faster population growth means more infrastructure demand, faster inflation might mean some unanticipated inflation tax, faster productivity is more like pure gain –  but there is no reason to suppose that if governments can get back to balance (as they repeatedly have now for decades) that we will need anything much beyond that.  Getting back to balance will require discipline and focus –  and a strong credible recovery would help –  but since most of the fiscal measures to date have been avowedly temporary, doing so should not be beyond our political system, whichever group of parties happens to be governing by then.

Financing the government

In normal circumstances governments finance themselves primarily with visible legislated taxes, with a bit of additional debt on the side.

In New Zealand, over the last complete 10 years, core Crown revenue was $715 billion (mostly taxes) and debt contributed between $10 and $40 billion –  depending which gross or net measure you prefer.    That borrowing was almost all from the private sector, again as one would expect.  The Reserve Bank’s holdings of government bonds. for example, hardly changed at all (nor did bank settlement cash balances at the Reserve Bank).   And the government mostly had credit balances in its account at the Reserve Bank.

In the last couple of months, everything has been thrown up in the air.   On the Budget numbers I mentioned in Friday’s post, almost a quarter of government spending over the five years (including 2019/20) is expected to be financed by increased debt.   And on the Reserve Bank’s own numbers we could easily see at least half of that increase in debt take the form of Reserve Bank lending to the Crown (the forecast rise in net debt is $134 billion, and the Governor has talked of the possibility of raising further the current $60 billion limit on the LSAP programme).

That the Bank is buying those bonds on the secondary market, rather than getting some or all direct from the government (as some advanced country secondary banks are now doing to an extent), is a second or third order issue, making little or no macroeconomic difference.   The important point at present is that (a) the Bank is buying the bonds, and (b) the Bank is sterilising the liquidity effect on those purchases by paying an at-or-above market rate on the resulting settlement cash balances.

Oh, and the most important points of all were that the decision to buy bonds at all is (a) wholly a decision for the Monetary Policy Committee, and (b) working with an unchanged (from pre-crisis) mandate: delivering inflation near 2 per cent and, as much as it can consistent with that, supporting employment.  The government has given the Bank an indemnity, which makes the Bank feel more comfortable taking the associated interest rate risk, but if the government had not done so, it need not have stopped the Bank making the purchases if the MPC felt that was what the monetary policy mandate required.

I wrote about all this a month ago when there was first a flurry of concern about reported comments suggesting that at some point the Bank might buy bonds direct from the Crown, in a post intended to be basically supportive of the Bank.

Now, as you know, I don’t think the LSAP is making much difference at all now to anything that matters much to macroecononomic outcomes.  It is slightly perverse in that it involves shifting the duration of the Crown’s effective debt portfolio much shorter –  swapping long-dated government bonds for on-demand instantly repriceable settlement cash liabilities –  but if you believe interest rates are going to be low for quite some time, you might even downplay that.  Other than that, it probably does little harm –  and adds to our database of monetary experiments for future analysis – if little good.

But in the last couple of weeks there have been a number of comments from the Governor that suggest that something much more troubling is afoot.

The first hint I heard of it was when the Bank turned up to Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee on the day after the Monetary Policy Statement.  This is an extract from the post I wrote then.

Goldsmith asked the Governor about those comments a few weeks ago that the Bank could consider buying government bonds directly from the Crown, rather than (as at present) in the secondary market.  He seemed to just be wanting to close off the issue, but the Governor opened it up all over again, in a way that seems to have attracted no attention.

The expected answer would probably have been along the lines that there were no plans at present, the secondary market was working well, but if there ever were dysfunction there was really no macro difference in the Bank buying direct, so long as the decision rested with the Bank, consistent with the inflation target.   In backing the Governor on this point previously, that is what I have said.

Instead, the Governor launched into a discussion noting that while the Bank did not rule out lending direct to the Crown, that was really fiscal policy not monetary policy, that the central bank can always lend as much as fiscal policy requires, but that that would be a matter for the government to decide, not the Bank.

Goldsmith then challenged him on that, asking whether he was really saying that the Minister could decide whether the Bank would lend direct.  Orr reiterated the possibility of market dysfunction, while noting that at present markets were functioning well, but then repeated that what he called “pure monetary financing” would be a matter for the Minister of Finance to decide.

At this point, the Governor invited the Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand –  usually the safe pair of hands in that senior management cohort –  to comment.  He indicated that it would be a matter of ministerial direction, but which would involve a substantial process including looking at whether what the minister might be directing would still be consistent with the existing price stability etc target.  And then he tried to close things down by suggesting that this was all just an “esoteric discussion”.

Reasonably enough ACT’s David Seymour reacted to that, suggesting that if the Bank was seriously saying the Minister of Finance could direct them to lend to the government, in any amount he chose, it was “anything but esoteric”.

I went on to articulate the (possibly) relevant provisions of the Act as I saw them, concluding

But……there is no hint in this provision [section 12 override powers], or anywhere else in the Act, suggesting that the Minister of Finance can direct the Bank to lend to the government.  Perhaps the Bank and its lawyers think/worry that “lend to the government at zero interest up to $…billion” is an alternative “economic objective” within the meaning of section 12 of the Act.   But, at very least, it would be a stretch –  it isn’t an “economic objective”, but an instrument,  and favouring one specific party in the economy.    And note that if a government did attempt to impose such an “economic objective” there would still be nothing to stop the Bank setting interest rates for the rest of the economy at a sufficiently high level to counter the inflationary effects of this coerced lending.

I’m at a loss to know what the Governor and Deputy Governor mean.   I’m tempted to lodge an OIA request, but am not sure I’ll bother, as they would find myriad ways to refuse to release anything.  But journalists could directly ask the Bank what the Governor/Deputy Governor were on about?   MPs could use parliamentary questions to ask the Minister of Finance whether (a) he has received any advice as regard his direction powers over the Reserve Bank, and (b) whether he or Treasury believe he has the statutory power to compel the Bank to lend to the Crown.  Most everyone I’m aware of has always assumed they can’t –  and took great reassurance in that –  so if the powers that be now believe differently we deserve to know?    (Of course, if the government just wants more inflation, it can always raise the inflation target, but that is a rather different issue).

And there I left it, a bit puzzled, none the wiser, and even wondering whether Orr had perhaps confused some details and there really wasn’t anything to worry about.

At least until over this last weekend.  Then I happened to listen to a post-MPS presentation Orr had given to clients of Jardens (on 15 May), in which he touched on the issue and noted that (paraphrasing from my notes) “if we were to take a direction from the government to finance it directly – as distinct from what monetary policy needs might imply – we would have to have different legislation”

I then read an interesting interest.co.nz article reporting comments the Governor had given to their journalist Jenee Tibshraeny late last week in which this topic was addressed at some length.

Orr said it was up to government to decide if it wanted to go further and give the RBNZ the mandate to buy bonds for fiscal policy purposes, rather than monetary policy purposes – IE buy bonds to help pay for government spending initiatives rather than to keep inflation and employment in check.

“There’s no right or wrong,” Orr said.

“It’s just that it is different and you would need legislative and/or institutional instructions, because when I last looked at my job description, I’m not allowed to go off and buy whatever I feel like because I’ve got the ATM…

“That would take some significant transparency as well as operational structures to ensure everyone knew who was doing what, why, how, where, when.”

Asked whether he would be hesitant to go down this path if Robertson asked him to, Orr responded: “Yes, I mean, it really depends to what purpose… and under what conditions is this managed.

“Because you could take it to the extreme immediately and you’ve gone back in time 30, 40 years and the central bank is being used as the ATM for a government and it’s unclear whether we can control inflation anymore, and it’s back in the hands of the elected officials…

“It’s not for me to choose the policy. I would implement the policy, but I would be extremely cautious about making sure the risks are understood, managed and mitigated wherever they could be.

“And I imagine I would be surrounded by many many people with free and often unsolicited advice around whether it did or didn’t work… which is good…

“People are very passionate about the structures that have been built and you don’t muck around with them lightly.

“These things are achievable; they’re just different.”

On the one hand, it is good to know that the Governor seems to think that under current law he can’t just go and buy anything he likes (he probably can, but it has to be consistent with the Bank’s statutory functions, including the monetary policy Remit the Minister has given him, which in turn is subordinate to the Act).   But then note those Bascand comments earlier suggesting the Bank thinks it could be directed under existing legislation, even if that might involve overriding or changing the Remit.

The Bank has clearly been giving such radical options quite a bit of thought, not just as extreme contingency plans (Parliament, being sovereign, can empower almost anything) but as something they are quite openly talking about.    That suggests something that they are either keen on themselves, or which the Minister and/or Treasury has raised fairly seriously as a possibility.

Given the Governor’s longstanding belief in a bigger government and a more aggresssive use of fiscal policy, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if this were something he was championing (indeed, it would be the best explanation for why (a) he is the only one talking about it, and (b) doing so in a non-negative sort of way).

Going down such a path would, however, be a seriously retrograde step. Perhaps it might lift inflation expectations a bit –  governments acting to direct the central bank to lend to them will create some concern – but in a quite undesirable sort of way (even if Social Credit and the more rabid MMT enthusiasts might be salivating at the prospect).

For a start, there is no obvious need for such a mandate.  The New Zealand government is a highly creditworthy borrower which, on current government plans, will remain one of the least-indebted of all the advanced countries.   One can never rule out a new extreme global crisis that might seize up markets for a few days, but the prospects of the New Zealand government not being able to issue on market the quantity of debt believes it requires is slim indeed.   And the Crown already has an overdraft facility at the Reserve Bank that it can draw on to smooths ups and downs.

More disconcertingly, although technically the Reserve Bank could be required to lend to the government –  beyond anything consistent with the Remit –  and that wouldn’t immediately tip us into serious inflationary problems, it would be a highly distortionary policy.  In principle, the Bank could lend lots of money to the Crown at zero interest, and the government then further increases its spending beyond what would normally be consistent with the inflation target. If that happened, you would expect the MPC to start raising the OCR, to keep overall demand in check.  And then we’d be in the bizarre throwback world in which the government was borrowing for zero and the rest of the economy faced really quite high interest rates, squeezing out private sector activity to favour the government.

I’m not going to allow myself to be drawn into an inconsistency here.  At present, if anything, the presenting issue is that the Reserve Bank is not doing its core monetary policy job sufficiently well that either the market, survey respondents, or the Bank itself believe that inflation will be consistent with the target set for them.  If they persist in that stance, amid a really savage recession, I believe the Minister of Finance should act, using existing powers either to replace the key individuals (to ensure the current Remit is being followed) or to explicitly direct the Bank to adopt an easier monetary policy (consistent with the current Remit over the medium term).  Those powers are in the Act for a reason, to protect citizens.   There is no such power to direct the Bank to lend to the government and there has long been an international consensus that it would be quite unwise to provide for such a power.  It would be to step away from any sense that monetary policy operates in a neutral way, not setting out to favour or disadvantage any particular party or sector (private or public), and into a world where governments could regard control of the “printing press” as an acceptable way for them to finance their spending (or reluctance to tax) preferences.  With reasonable people, it isn’t some immediate path to hyperinflation, but it would be undesirable on numerous counts and further increase the politicisation of the Reserve Bank.

One can make an argument against central bank operational autonomy –  I sometimes come and go and whether there are real advantages that justify the costs and lack of accountability (part of the reason why I keep on about enhancing real central bank transparency) – but giving the government reason to think control of the printing press is a legitimate tool has nothing going for it at all.

We need some answers as to just what is going on.   When I tweeted about this on Saturday, Tibshraeny responded

That is encouraging, and I will look forward to her story.  But if Robertson –  who always seem conservative and risk averse (sometimes beyond what is warranted) – is not interested, then what cause is Orr championing, to what end, and why?

If he thinks more macroeconomic stimulus is required, try conventional monetary policy (would have helped, of course, if he’d sorted out those alleged “operational issues” some banks are claimed to have, but even those obstacles exist they can be overcome).  If the governments thinks it needs to spend more, the conventional options are still open to them –  higher taxes (probably not a great idea at present) or tapping the global market for public debt.  Maintaining that borrowing capability was, as you’ll recall, one of the main reasons why successive governments kept net debt low and stable.  (Of course. it also has a $40 billion fund –  which it insists on putting more money into, even as its new borrowings are large, to speculate on world markets –  much of which could be quite readily liquidated.)

 

 

Losing $128 billion

I don’t usually pay much attention to forecasts of nominal GDP.  Not many people in New Zealand really seem to.  But The Treasury takes nominal GDP forecasts more seriously than most, since nominal GDP (in aggregate) is, more or less, the tax base.

Out of little more than idle curiosity I dug out the numbers from last December’s HYEFU forecasts –  the last before the coronavirus –  and compared them to the numbers published in last week’s BEFU, accompanying the Budget.  And this was what I found.

Nominal GDP ($bn)
HYEFU BEFU Difference
2019/20 319.8 294.2 -25.6
2020/21 336.4 294.2 -42.2
2021/22 354.1 328.3 -25.8
2022/23 371.5 352.3 -19.2
2023/24 389.2 374.3 -14.9
Total 1771 1643.3 -127.7

Over the full five years, New Zealand’s nominal GDP is projected to be $128 billion less than The Treasury thought only a few months ago.

Recall that changes in nominal GDP can be broken down into three broad components:

  • the change in real GDP  (the volume of stuff produced here),
  • the change in the general price level (inflation), and
  • the terms of trade

On this occasion, changes in the terms of trade make only a tiny difference over the five years taken together.

General (CPI) inflation is expected to be lower than previously thought.    On average over the five years, the price level in the BEFU forecasts is about 1.8 per cent lower than in the HYEFU forecasts.  That accounts for about $33 billion in lost nominal GDP.

The balance –  the overwhelming bulk of the loss –  is real GDP.

I haven’t written anything much about The Treasury’s forecasts, which were done quite a while ago, and could not fully incorporate the final fiscal decisions the government made.  But for what it is worth, I reckon Treasury’s numbers were on the optimistic side –  quite possibly on all three components of nominal GDP.  On inflation, for example, they are more optimistic than the Reserve Bank (which finished its forecasts later), even as they assume tighter monetary conditions than the Bank does.

But the point I really wanted to make was that these forecast GDP losses will never be made back (in the sense that some future year will be higher to compensate –  resources not used this year mostly represents a permanent loss of wealth).  And that these losses occur despite all the fiscal support (and rather limited monetary support).   And fiscal here includes both the effects of the automatic stabilisers (mainly lower tax revenue as the economy shrinks) and the discretionary policy initiatives (temporary and permanent).

How large are those fiscal numbers?  Well, here is core Crown revenue (more than 90 per cent of which is tax)

Core Crown revenue ($bn)
HYEFU BEFU Difference
2019/20 95.8 89.5 -6.3
2020/21 101.6 87 -14.6
2021/22 106.5 94.6 -11.9
2022/23 112.7 104 -8.7
2023/24 117.7 109.9 -7.8
534.3 485 -49.3

Almost $50 billion the Crown was expecting but which it won’t now receive.  Some of that will be the result of discretionary initiatives –  the corporate tax clawback scheme, much of which will result in permanent losses, and the business tax changes announced in the 17 March package –  but the bulk of the loss will be the automatic stabilisers at work.

And on the expenditure side?

Core Crown expenses ($bn)
HYEFU BEFU Difference
2019/20 93.8 114 20.2
2020/21 98.8 113.5 14.7
2021/22 102 119.8 17.8
2022/23 106.3 118.6 12.3
2023/24 109.2 113 3.8
Total 510.1 578.9 68.8

Almost $70 billion of current spending the Crown didn’t expect to make only a few months ago.  A small amount of this will be the automatic stabilisers at work (the unemployment benefit), but The Treasury is pretty optimistic about unemployment.  Most of the change is discretionary policy initiatives (announced or provided for).

And here is the change in net debt

Net core Crown debt (incl NZSF) as at year end  ($bn)
HYEFU BEFU
2018/19 14.1 14.1
2019/20 14.6 47.6
2020/21 17.6 82.8
2021/22 17.1 111.7
2022/23 12.3 131.7
2023/24 3.9 138.2 134.3

That will be almost $135 billion higher than expected.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, I don’t have too much problem with the extent of overall fiscal support (although I would have structured it differently and made it more frontloaded –  consistent with the “pandemic insurance” model).

But even on this scale, fiscal policy is nowhere near enough to stop the losses.  Some of those losses are now unavoidable.  It is only five weeks until the end of 2019/2020, so we can treat $26 billion of nominal GDP losses (see first table) as water under the bridge now.   As it happens, fiscal policy looks to have more than fully “replaced” the income loss in aggregate (whether $27 billion from operating revenue and expenses in combination, or the $33 billion increase in net debt) –  not as windfall, but as borrowing (narrowing future choices).   (UPDATE: Even in quote marks “replaced” isn’t really quite right there, as without the fiscal initiatives it is near-certain that actual nominal GDP would have been at least a bit lower than The Treasury now forecasts, even for 19/20.)

But there is a great deal of lost income/output ahead of us, even on these (relatively optimistic) Treasury numbers.

Which is really where monetary policy should be coming in.   The Treasury assumes that monetary policy does almost nothing: there is no further fall in the 90 day rate (the variable they forecast), and as they will recognise as well as anyone inflation expectations have fallen, so real rates are little changed from where they were at the start of the year.  And although the exchange rate is lower throughout than they assumed in the HYEFU, the difference is less than 5 per cent –  better than nothing of course, but tiny by comparison with exchange rate adjustments that have been part of previous recoveries.  It isn’t entirely clear how The Treasury has allowed for the LSAP bond purchase programme, but whatever effect they are assuming…….there is still a great deal of lost output.

The Governor has often been heard calling for banks –  private businesses – to be “courageous”.  It is never quite clear what he means, but he apparently wants to risk other peoples’ money.  But the central bank is ours –  a public institution.   A courageous central bank, that had really grasped the likely severity of this slump, could have begun to make a real difference.  If they’d cut the OCR back in February, and taken steps to ensure that large amounts of deposits couldn’t be converted to physical cash, and then cut the OCR to deeply negative levels (perhaps – 5 per cent) as the full horror dawned, we’d be in a much better position now looking ahead.     Wholesale lending and deposit rates would be substantially negative at the short end, and even real rates on longer-term assets might be as low as they now, without much need for bond purchases.   Retail rates might also in many case be modestly negative –  perhaps for small depositors achieved through fees.   And, almost certainly, the exchange rate would have fallen a long way, assisting in the stabilisation and recovery goal.  There are winners and losers from such steps –  as there are from any interventions, or from choices just to sit to the sidelines –  but it is really just conventional macroeconomics: in a time of serious excess capacity and falling inflation expectations, act to seek to bring domestic demand forward, and net demand towards New Zealand producers.    Working hand in hand with the substantial fiscal support (see above), we’d be hugely better positioned to minimise those large future nominal GDP losses –  losses that at present, we risk never making back.

But neither the Governor nor, apparently, the Minister of Finance seem bothered.

Finally, if nominal GDP appears to be a slightly abstract thing, it is worth recalling that almost all debt is nominal and it is nominal incomes that support outstanding debt.  There is about $500 billion of (intermediated) Private Sector Credit at present (and some other private credit on top of that).  Most likely that stock won’t grow much over the next few years. But government debt will –  on Treasury’s numbers net debt rises by $134 billion.   Against those stocks, a cumulative loss of nominal GDP of $128 billion over five years is no small loss.  As noted earlier, amid all the uncertainties, the precise numbers are only illustrative, but the broad magnitude of the likely losses (on current policies) are what –  and that magnitude is large, if anything perhaps understated on The Treasury’s numbers.

 

Insufficient macro policy action

Before getting into the substance of this post, let me note that for a Budget allegedly ‘all about jobs’ our official data are so grossly inadequate that our next official employment/participation/unemployment data won’t be available until early August and then it will be only quarterly.  By contrast, the US and Canada released their April (monthly) data last week.  Here, Statistics New Zealand has shown no sign of being willing to release on an experimental basis –  for the duration of the crisis – the results of each monthly set of interviews they do (of which there are thousands) and sent out a note a couple of weeks ago suggesting that even the full quarterly labour market data may be less than ideal.  It is at times like these that the gaps in New Zealand’s official macroeconomic data are most glaring –  and yet there was no sign (I heard/saw) of anything in yesterday’s Budget to remedy these failings, the combined outcome of neglect by successive governments (mainly) and by SNZ itself.   Analysts are left looking to the data for other countries, and attempting to interpret them in light of the (typically smaller) falls in GDP expected in those countries.   Looking at those Canadian and US numbers suggests pretty severe labour market excess capacity here (no matter how many people are twiddling their thumbs but not technically unemployed or out of the workforce, under the cover of the wage subsidy scheme).

What of the Budget itself?

I’m really not bothered by the fiscal bottom lines.    If one takes the government/Treasury numbers at their word then in the year to June 2024, core Crown expenses will be about the same (share of GDP) as they were in the year to June 2014, while core Crown tax revenue will be about the same share as in the year to June 2015.    I’m not entirely convinced nominal GDP by then will be as high as Treasury supposes, but the critical point here is that most what the government is spending as a response to the crisis isn’t a permanent worsening in the structural primary balance.  If so, then as the economy recovers –  and future governments restrain themselves – we get back to balance, and then debt/GDP ratios drop away steadily, even if future potential nominal GDP growth were to be as low as 2-3 per cent.   When I saw those tax/spending comparisons, it reminded me of the fairly far-left commentator I saw yesterday suggesting that the Budget might have been the sort of thing Bill English might have brought down in the circumstances (not, of course, intended as a compliment to anyone, Labour or National).   In the detail, that probably isn’t quite right, but National threw money at Kiwirail too, and did all sorts of other spending people on the right didn’t much approve of.

What of the debt itself?  I try never to pay any attention to the government’s preferred net debt measure, and to at least focus on the measure that includes all the money in the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.  For some reason, not known to me, the government is going to put lots more money in the NZSF over the next few years –  beyond what the statutory formula provides for –  as if having a flutter on the world markets, at your risk and mine, was an important part of a recovery programme.  On that measure, net debt as per cent of GDP peaks in the year to March 2023 at 37.4 per cent (up from 4.6 per cent in June 2019).  On the then Crown net debt measure, the recent peak was about 48 per cent in 1990 –  at a time when real interest rates (servicing costs) were almost breathtakingly high.   And although there is a lot of folk memory about the pressures then, they were political more than economic, and it is worth remembering that in 1990, our overall net (negative) international investment position was quite a bit larger than it is now.   As I noted in a post a couple of weeks ago, a hundred years ago we had much more government debt again (per cent of GDP).

And international context isn’t irrelevant.   For international comparisons, I reckon the best measure is the OECD’s measure of net general government financial liabilities as a share of GDP.  In 2019 the OECD estimate that New Zealand (all layers of government) had net financial assets of 3 per cent of GDP.   Add, say 36 percentage points of GDP to that – the 32.8 from core Crown and a bit more from local authorities and other total Crown entities – and we’d have net financial liabilities of 33 per cent of GDP at peak.     Round it up to 35 per cent and if we’d have that much debt last year we’d still –  then – have had about the 14th lowest net debt ratio among the OECD countries.

Do I have instinctive bias toward net government debt being close to zero?  Yes, I do, but (a) disasters and good times will alternate, and (b) even though I often make the point that interest rates are low for a reason (and can’t just be assumed to be a windfall) the drop in real interest rates is larger than the slowdown in the underlying rate of growth in the economy.  It is quite rational to be more relaxed about higher debt ratios now than we might have been 30 years ago.

None of which is to say the a cavalier approach should be taken to the spending/tax choices that get us to the higher debt level.  All such choices have opportunity costs –  the possibility that the money could, perhaps should, have been used for better initiatives, perhaps with long-term payoffs for the economy or wider society.

I’m not entirely persuaded by the particular ways the government has gone about distributing money.   The wage subsidy scheme was initially conceived in a climate in which it might, almost reasonably, have been assumed that the old pattern of the economy would be back again very soon –  as soon as the PRC got on top of the virus.  As it is, the largest of those initally-affected sector (tourism) may well be the very last to get back to anything like pre-crisis normal –  and, for now, as matter of policy we don’t even want it to (given we have travel bans in place). In a sense, yesterday’s extension of the policy only reinforces that bias –  the people who can claim 50 per cent reductions in monthly revenue (from the same period last year) by next month are likely to be mostly firms in the tourism and associated sector.  But it may be many years –  who knows how the virus will progress globally, let alone here –  before anything like the pre-crisis capacity is required from those firms, if (as individual firms) they have a place at all.    And so we will be in the weird position where firms that face reality soonest and close in the next few weeks will see their workers miss on the extended wage subsidy, while those who cling on – whether from over-optimism or just supporting their workers short-term –  will get the money.

There are other oddities.  The company tax clawback scheme –  allow companies making losses now to offset those against past income and get a refund of past tax paid now –  will act as a gift for the firms that fail (since there will never be profits again) but only a loan to those that succeed.   Given that many of the firms that do fail will be in the sectors that are likely to come back only slowly, there seems no compelling public policy interest for that approach.

Or, as I’ve pointed out previously this week, the weirdness that see the new “bank of the IRD” lending to smallish businesses at a zero interest rate, even as retail lending rates for businesses that can’t get debt funding elsewhere, while existing borrowers are stuck with real interest rates that may have made sense last year but which aren’t fit for this year.

It isn’t that I’m opposed to a pretty liberal approach.   Earlier in the crisis I argued for thinking of assistance in terms of a national pandemic insurance policy –  under which, perhaps, we might guarantee 80 per cent of last year’s income for this year (or, as some commenters suggested, even just for six months).  Part of the attraction of that model was that it wasn’t tied to trying to keep existing firms in place –  it provided a buffer, and time, but left it up to individual firms’ owners to decide about what was best for the future, and treated equally those who had no work –  whether or not they still had a formal tie to a previous firm.   People suggested that the likely cost was too high, but actually I reckon total debt would have been no higher than what the government is now proposing, and the framework for the distribution of upfront assistance would have made more coherence.

But even though the pandemic insurance approach might have helped, at the margin, in securing a recovery, recovery itself was never the prime focus –  it was always primarily about income support, and buying time.  Recovery was always going to rest more on (a) the passage of time, (b) a recovery globally, and (c) domestic monetary policy.

I suspect that, even on the government’s fiscal plans yesterday, that is still the case, but unfortunately with almost nothing from monetary policy.

The one chart that caught my eye in the BEFU document was this one of the fiscal impulse measure.

impulse measure

I’ve written previously about the impulse measure, which was first developed perhaps 20 years ago by The Treasury to help give the Reserve Bank a better sense of how much discretionary fiscal policy was adding to demand.  In my experience, it wasn’t always that good for the most recent few years –  there is quite a lot of unpicking goes on working out what is potential output etc –  but that for forecast periods it was a good indicator, and for periods well enough in the past generally quite useful too.

In this chart, there are two periods of a substantial positive fiscal impulse –  around the time of the last recession, and now.  For the previous episode the positive fiscal impulse over the two years is equal to just over 4 per cent of GDP.    OECD estimates, done independently, suggest something of that magnitude or perhaps a bit higher.  There was a lot of fiscal support in the works –  not from crisis-response measures, but from the big easing in the fiscal policy the government had put in place before it realised a serious recession was upon us.

And what does Treasury think is happening now?    The total fiscal impulse across the two June years (2020 and 2021) is around 8 per cent of GDP, most of which is happening in the year just about to end.  Beyond that –  as really must happen if the fiscal situation is to be kept in check – the fiscal impulse, on current government policy, is really quite materially negative (perhaps almost implausibly so later in the period).

The fiscal impulse is reasonably materially larger –  optimistically, perhaps double –  than it was at the time of the last recession.  Then again, the adverse economic shock is much larger –  even if one were able to look through this quarter and next.

And, to be boring and repeating a point (that nonetheless seems to keep being made):

  • there was huge amounts of effective monetary support in the last recession (substantially lower real retail and wholesale interest rates, and a sharply lower exchange rate), for which there is no parallel at all this time (notwithstanding the big and expanded bond purchase programme), even if the Bank is inching ever so reluctantly towards a possible negative OCR next year, and
  • even though the unemployment rate rose only by just over 3 percentage points at peak, it still took 10 years after 2007 to get unemployment back to a level that some –  notably the Reserve Bank –  plausibly might consider a normal (NAIRU) sustainably level.

And in the years after 2008/09 we had the fruits of a strong terms of trade and a big boost to effective demand from the Christchurch repair and rebuild process.

It simply doesn’t seem credible that there is anything like enough policy stimulus in the works now, and (perhaps especially) looking just a few months ahead (the more so when we bear in mind that there is no certainty all the big fiscal numbers will be carried through, including because the election is close).   In a sense, as I noted in yesterday’s post, the Reserve Bank’s (more recent) forecasts tell that story, with inflation forecast to be below the bottom of the target range for the next two years, while the Bank sits on its hands.

It is also worth bearing in mind just how much of that fiscal assistance is heavily frontloaded.   Partly because of very restrictive government measures, economic activity in the last couple of months has been savaged.  Plausibly, nominal GDP in the first half the year will be $25 billion less than might normally have been expected.    That means an equivalent loss of national income.

Direct payouts from the government –  mainly the wage subsidy scheme but also the corporate tax clawback scheme –  has compensated many of the losers to a considerable extent.   Wage subsidy payments have already exceeded $10 billion and there is more to come in the next month or two.  If I recall the tables right, the tax clawback scheme has refunded something like $3 billion.

But there won’t be repeat of anything on that sort of scale.  Of course, the income/output losses in future quarters are unlikely to be as large either.    But my point really is that the output gap by later this year will still, almost certainly, be materially larger than anything we say in 2008/09, and already the biggest fiscal impulse will be in the past.

With no support from monetary policy – real retail rates are barely changed, and the exchange rate isn’t down much – everything rests on either domestic fiscal policy or some surprisingly strong global economic rebound.  Neither seems like a safe bet for getting us back to full employment any time soon.

This isn’t a plea for fiscal policy to do more, but for the government to wake up to the outlook and insist –  using formal statutory directive or appointment powers if necessary – that monetary policy start making a real difference.   I don’t suppose it will happen, especially not this side of the election: the government will prefer an “everything in hand, heroic saviours” narrative, even if the outlook is far from in hand.  I take them at their word when they say they care about full employment, invoking Peter Fraser and all that.  But the current set of policies simply is not likely to be consistent with achieving those sorts of outcomes in any reasonable timeframe.

(My other worry on front is that there are people who will criticise the government for doing too much on the fiscal side, but not many of them have credible alternative approaches to getting back to full employment rapidly – few, for example, embrace calls for more aggressive monetary policy.  It sometimes looks as if they don’t care.  There is that old maxim “it is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all”.  It isn’t an excuse for poor policy, but history would judge poorly any figures who were, in effect, indifferent to lingeringly high unemployment.)

Meanwhile, of course, there is also nothing that is at all likely to lift our longer-term economic performance – despite various bows in the direction of productivity in the Minister’s speech –  but sadly that doesn’t mark this Budget out from any of its predecessors this century.

 

The curate’s egg

It was a poor package.  On so many counts.  And my sense of that has only strengthened overnight.  Perhaps at best one might label it as a curate’s egg –  and rather more in the original meaning than the colloquial one.

It had the feel of a package that started as one thing, perhaps relatively small, two or three weeks ago when the government was still focused on the coronavirus as a China issue –  things that had happened, but which would now gradually if slowly sort themselves out – and on the small range of sectors materially directly affected by the China experience.  They were backward looking, and they refused to face up to what was clearly coming –  and it was as clear as day at least a week ago.  So then rushed changes were made to the package on the fly, including efforts to bulk it up to look enormous –  presumably solely for political reasons –  regardless of whether the components were relevant at all to the times or to the specific needs in responding to the situation that is upon us.   And at the same time, whether because they were caught by the momentum of their own process, or because they are still reluctant to front the severity of what awaits us, most of the really pressing issues were barely even addressed.

The government then has the gall to talk of a new round of measures in the Budget –  two months away –  allegedly to be focused on the recovery phase.  There is (a) absolutely no way they can wait until the Budget to do a lot more, and (b) the recovery phase is much more likely to be something to think about in next year’s Budget.  Remember the comments from Prof Michael Baker reported in the Herald a day or so ago: anyone who thinks this will be over by Christmas hasn’t thought hard enough.  Or, as he went on to rephrase, perhaps Christmas 2021.

I want to focus mostly on the economics, but the politicisation by the government was also unfortunate.   Crisis times, all in this together etc.  But there were the silly boasts that somehow this package was bigger than was done in 2008/09 –  which is true but irrelevant since (a) this is quite different sort of shock, (b) there was huge fiscal stimulus already put in place in the 2008 Budget, oblivious to what was just about to break, and (c) there was room for 575 basis points of interest rate cuts (and the exchange rate fell sharply).  There was, in fact, no discretionary fiscal stimulus in New Zealand during the recession itself: it wasn’t needed.   Then there were the attempts to wrap themselves in the cloak of Michael Joseph Savage –  Labour’s icon –  in “responding to the Great Depression”.  At least some of them are presumably historically literate enough to know that Savage didn’t take office until the worst of the Depression in New Zealand was long past and recovery was well underway.   Or the silly attempts to boast that their package was bigger than some others when (a) as we shall see, for coronavirus purposes a lot of their numbers were simply irrelevant, and (b) the scale of interventions globally is rising by the day (those other packages were last week’s news).      It isn’t exactly confidence-inspriring re the seriousness of the Prime Minister’s leadership in a crisis when she goes on TV to claim this would be the biggest package she announced, and then it becomes very evident that the numbers were simply cobbled together in a way that produces just barely that result – headline-grabbing rather than substantive policy.

What would have been much more welcome was evidence that the Minister and Prime Minister clearly understood what was going on, what the key issues were, what the relevant horizons were, and so on.  But there was little or none of that.

To get specific, this is the table summarising the package

package

We’ll get the easy bits out of the way first.  No one is going to argue with more resources going to health, although (a) some have asked why it wasn’t more (is that really all the sector can really use if we face 18 months of suppression strategies?), and (b) why this hadn’t been done at least six weeks ago.

And there probably isn’t much to quibble about (at least for now) re the sick leave and self-isolation support.

I didn’t see any details of the “redeployment package” although in his speech Robertson did make some comments, including mention of a package for Gisborne to be announced in the next few days. I guess the amounts are small, but mostly it seems to be a waste of time –  most likely before long hardly anyone (well apart from the health system and a few online retailers) will be taking on any new staff, and that could be the case for many months.  Face to face training doesn’t seem likely either.  It looks like just a legacy of where the package began weeks ago.

There is nothing to say about the “initial aviation support package” because they’ve said nothing about it, except that it apparently doesn’t include an Air New Zealand bailout.  Other than that, it isn’t entirely clear why this line item exists in the package, but I guess it bulked out the headline number.

And then we started getting to the big bucks.  Unfortunately, many of the big bucks are scheduled to be spent in several years time, and have nothing whatever to do with the coronavirus, whether stabilisation or recovery.   Because the thing that doesn’t get much attention in public consciousness is that the $12.1 billion number is total additional spending over four fiscal years.    That is an approach that makes sense in normal times (recognises the ongoing implications of new commitments) but it bears no relationship to the support provided for the coronavirus situation this year.

Thus, the business tax reforms they announced seem generally sensible.  I’ve argued against the previous government’s abolition of depreciation on buildings ever since the National Party adopted the policy in 2010. It was daft and without any good economic foundation, so I’m really glad to see it being scrapped.  Probably this was planned for this year’s Budget anyway (I hope so).  But it has nothing whatever to do with coronavirus, with stabilisation, or even with recovery.  And the bulk of the spend will be in future years.  It is simply in here to (a) bulk up the numbers, and (b) as some sort of political counterpoint to the next item, welfare benefits.

Raising welfare benefits permanently also has nothing to do with coronavirus.  Again most of the spending (at least $1.8 billion of it) won’t even be in the March 2021 fiscal year, and of the remaining billion probably only $700 million will be paid out in the next six months (largely the “winter energy payment”).  Raising welfare benefits permanently has long been a cause of the Green Party and probably much of the Labour Party.  There is talk that this too was going to feature in the (election-year) Budget.    If so, it is just in this package to (again) bulk out the headline number.

But the increase in welfare benefits now is much more pernicious than that.  Life on a benefit isn’t easy (and before anyone scoffs about what do I know, that isn’t just rhetoric: I have a close family member living on a long term benefit).   But what beneficiaries at least had going for them this year was certainty of income: the government was not going to default or closedown, unlike many private sector employers (with the best will in the world on their part).  They and public servants were safe.  And yet the government chooses to lock-in a permanent boost to its spending commitments (a) to those with the least degree of income uncertainty now, and (b) when the country is in the process of becoming a lot poorer and scarce resources need to be used wisely.   Raising benefits might or might not have been a reasonable luxury in settled times.  It is simply irresponsible and evidence of fundamental unseriousness to do so now.  (And before anyone tells me about the high marginal propensity to consume that beneficiaries have, let me remind you that now is not the time for stimulus or encouraging people to spend more: instead we are entering a phase of deliberately choosing to shrink the economy to give us the best hope of fighting of the effects of the virus).  Oh, and the unemployment rate is going to rise a lot, and one of the big challenges after this is all over is going to be reconnecting people with the labour market, at a time when wage inflation will have been depressed anyway.  In that context, higher benefit replacement rates (relative to wages) is really the last thing that makes sense in getting the economy back on track.

All of which leaves us with the centrepiece of the strategy, the wage subsidy scheme.  It is probably reasonable enough as far as it goes, but “as far it goes” is no more than a very short-term holding action, not remotely enough to really address much at all (it runs til June, the crisis will not, banks (for example) and other creditors will know that. So, before long, will most households).

But again there is a strong suspicion of political vapourware in the numbers.   The scheme is estimated to pay out $5.1 billion in the next three months.  That is a lot of money.

It is paid out at a rate of $7029.60 per full-time employee.  That means they expect to pay out for about 725000 fulltime equivalent employees (there is a lower rate for part-time employees).   That sounds like a lot.

In the latest HLFS, there were 2.6 million employees in total (including the self-employed). Of them 2.1 million were fulltime.  Applying the same ratio the package does (part-time staff are paid for at 60 per cent of the fulltime rate) to the 519000 part-time staff produces a full-time equivalent number of employees of 2.44 million.  In other words, the headline budget figure is premised on paying out in respect of 30 per cent of all employees in the coming quarter.   And this is even though the payment is capped at $150000 per employer, equivalent to compensating for only up to 21 staff.  And you can only get the payment is your monthly revenue is down 30 per cent year on year

Now, sure, there are lots (and lots) of businesses with fewer than 21 staff.   But lots of employees (by number) work for big organisations, both in the public and private sectors.  All those universities who were moaning about foreign students a few weeks ago could only each get $150000 (if total revenue had even fallen 30 per cent) even though they employ thousands of people each.

I am not saying that the $5.1 billion total is impossible.  But it seems unlikely.  And in particular it seems inconsistent with (a) the political messaging about the severity of the economic shakeout (even yesterday the Minister still wouldn’t accept that a recession was a done deal), and (b) the preliminary Treasury forecast the Minister was happy to wave around suggesting that at worst we’d have only about a 3 per cent fall in GDP.

I reckon I have been consistently one of the most pessimistic commentators about the economic effects.  It isn’t that hard to envisage GDP falling 5 per cent in the June quarter alone (reality could be a lot worse than that if suppression really comes to New Zealand), but that isn’t the sort of message the government is giving New Zealanders.   Either they aren’t being honest with us, or they’ve just bulked up the headline numbers (it isn’t as if any underlying assumptions about any of the forecasts have been released).

So for all the talk of a 4 per cent of GDP package etc, it would probably be more realistic at this stage to think in terms of immediate additional outlays (next few months) of no more than half that (and not even all that will be helpful).  Those are still big numbers: 2 per cent of annual GDP is 5 per cent of four months’ GDP.    The Minister released a chart suggesting the package will boost annual GDP itself by 2 per cent over the next year, but that too seems optimistic (but hard to tell how much without Treasury releasing their assumptions/workings).

But for whatever immediate good some elements of the package might do, it still largely fails to address the real and pressing issues.   In particular, in typical recession debt service costs for borrowers (new and existing, at least for floating rate borrowers) drop sharply, and returns to depositors drop sharply.  That reallocation is a natural and normal part of the rebalancing and stabilisation process.  Despite the spin from central bankers (abroad as well as here), 75 points just does not cut it: 500 points has been more like it in recessions (over a period when none has been as bad as what we are facing now).   Between a central bank that refuses –  adamantly promises –  not to cut further, and a failure to ever deal with the lower bound issues, nothing is on the way.  That has to change.  The government could and should simply insist on it changing now.   (Related to this, what fall in the exchange rate we’ve seen –  also a natural part of shock absorption –  is tiny compared to the usual recessions.)

And even more pressingly, in this unique sort of shock, the package does nothing about stabilising income expectations for firms or households in a way that would support banks being willing to (a) maintain existing credit exposures, and (b) be willing to significantly extend credit to cover the gaping net revenue holes that will be opening up for many firms (and households).    That needs urgent action.   With the best will in the world, and much harassment from the Governor and the Minister, banks are businesses too and have shareholders to answer to (primarily) and their own future existence to protect.   They can read things like this week’s Imperial College paper arguing that suppression strategies may need to be kept in place for most of the next 18 months.  If so, with no income guarantees –  and not even any certainty about what subsequent emergence looks like – as a bank you would often be in breach of your duties to extend more debt in many cases.  And many people –  firms and households –  would be reluctant to borrow more.   Better to manage and minimise exposures early, to whatever extent one feasibly can.

Of course, governments could lend direct.  But that simply isn’t realistic on any sort of scale.  Much better to think hard about the sort of idea I advanced in a post on Monday where the government passes emergency legislation guaranteeing –  in legally enforceable form (perhaps it could even just be done under the guarantee powers of the Public Finance Act, but better to get parliamentary sanction) – that no firm or household/individual would have net income in 2020/2021 (and perhaps even the following year) less than 80 per cent of that for the last year (for firms, the guarantee would be scaled to the extent they retained staff).   Doing so would give a floor –  and thus remove much of the variance in expectations – for households, firms, and for actual/potential lenders.  It should help underpin a willingness to extend credit.  It should also serve as an underpinning if we find ourselves adopting shorter-term expedients –  as say France has done –  of temporarily suspending utlilities bills or mortgage payments:  utility companies could themselves get bridging finance if banks knew household would still have most of their income, and banks themselves wouldn’t face the need to record impaired assets etc.

I want to come back, in a further post, this afternoon to my overall proposed package, including answering some of the questions/objections.  I still believe it is the best and fairest approach to take, complementing some of the other shorter-term cash income support measures (which would be nested within the guarantee).  But whatever the precise form of what they do, the government simply must act very quickly to ensure that credit is available. (And on that score the Reserve Bank temporary suspension of the scheduled increase in capital requirements is of second order significance, not remotely the main game.

Finally, I can only repeat a point I’ve made in various posts and numerous tweets over the last week: this is not the time for encouraging new private spending.  There will come a time for that, and it is likely that fiscal policy will have a significant role to play then.  But this is a time when we are deliberately scaling back the economy –  quite possibly savagely for months at a time – and discouraging spending in many areas.   We need to ensure have the income to live on, but for now much the most important economic priority is some set of guarantees –  supported by the strong Crown balance sheet – that means households are able to borrow, existing businesses are able and willing to borrow, and banks are genuinely willing to maintain and increase lending…..in the face of the most hostile and uncertain economic conditions of the lifetimes of almost all of us.

The government now needs to get serious and get down to real economic policy work.  It would be also good if they started authoritatively fronting with New Zealanders about just how tough things are going to get.    A lot of New Zealanders, who don’t obsessively follow the news or events abroad, really still have little no idea.

 

 

Thinking about fiscal policy

A few weeks ago the Minister of Finance announced that the government’s Budget would be delivered on 14 May.    That really isn’t far away now.  I noticed the Minister, on TVNZ’s Q&A yesterday, suggesting the timing was opportune in light of the coronavirus.     Perhaps, but contemplate some relevant dates.   Last year’s Budget was delivered on 30 May and according to the documents these were the relevant deadlines

budget 19

Assuming much the same sort of timetable holds this year, the economic forecasts the Budget draws on will have to be finalised in not much more than three weeks from now.  The tax and other fiscal forecasts are finalised later but they draw on the economic forecasts.  And who supposes that there will be any meaningfully greater certainty in three weeks time than there is now?  In truth, the Budget economic forecasts will be little more than (well, really less than given the long publication lags) one potentially useful scenario.     They simply aren’t going to be –  and can’t be –  any sort of useful guide for policy in the current climate, and I hope the Minister and the Treasury Secretary (the forecasts are Treasury’s and the Secretary has to sign off on them) start making that clear soon.    Consistent with that, in setting budgetary policy no one should be getting hung up on (for instance) whether the bottom line is a small surplus or small deficit.   Any such forecast number –  in a period of extreme uncertainty –  will be just meaningless.

In his interview yesterday the Minister of Finance seemed to be saying much the same sort thing as in his speech on Thursday.   Much of it was, at one level, sensible enough, but to me it fell a long way short in grappling with the likely severity of the issues, and the related uncertainty, and with the vulnerability of the world economy and the limitation of current macro policy.   Perhaps it was partly what he was (wasn’t) asked, but he is an experienced politician and knows how to get across the messages he wants to convey.    When community outbreak becomes a significant thing here, there is going to be a lot of economic disruption (even in the most optimistic cases abroad, eg Singapore, containment so far has appeared to rely on extensive social-distancing –  voluntary and compulsory –  none of which is conducive to holding up short-term GDP (or similar indicators).

But even pending that, what will be happening to tourism right now?  We know tourism from China collapsed a month ago –  first PRC restrictions and then our own –  but what about travel from other markets.  How many people are going to be keen on booking new trips, or even – if they have the option –  embarking on new trips now? I don’t know about you but I flicked through the travel sections of newspapers yesterday and today, wondering quite how many takers there would be.  Allowing for both direct and indirect effects, tourism is estimated to be about 10 per cent of the economy and about 55 per cent that is international tourism.  Even if international tourism only halves for the duration –  and it would be a lot lower than that if there is significant community outbreak here, that alone is equivalent to taking almost 3 per cent out of GDP.   Sure, there is scope for some switching –  more domestic tourism, as New Zealanders pull back on their foreign travel –  but a couple of nights in Picton is for most hardly a substitute for the trip to Disneyland.     And, of course, there are more and more reports of business travel –  typically higher-end – being cancelled.   And all of that is just one sector of the economy: that associated with foreign travel.   It takes no account of scenarios in which people are unable to work, whether because of illness, movement restrictions, school closures or whatever.

There is simply no way of knowing how long or how deep the economic effects will be, or (for example) what public psychology –  including eagerness to spend and to travel –  will be like as the world gets through the other side.  But with strongly asymmetric risks I reckon there is a pretty strong for an aggressive macro policy response.  And some part of that clearly has to be fiscal, especially given the failure of authorities –  here and abroad – to deal with lower bound constraints on monetary policy (covered in my post on Friday).  If you are sceptical that I’m over-egging the monetary policy limits point, I’m not nearly as pessimistic as the local ANZ economics team

Not as pessimistic only in that I think the OCR can usefully be cut further than they believe.  But if they are right and we really will be at the conventional limits of monetary policy by May (the day before the Budget in fact) people really should start worrying, because the ANZ economic scenario is not as bad as it could get.  And there are few additional buffers that people can really count on in planning and forming expectations (including of inflation).

There has been quite a bit of talk about how monetary policy (and aggregate fiscal policy for that matter) can’t solve immediate problems –  even bizarre articles from people who should know better suggesting there is some sort of either/or dimension between medical solutions and macro policy responses.  And that is true, of course.    Macro policy can never deal with the sectoral effects of sectoral-focused shocks.  Macro policy is about stabilising the wider economy.  Macro policy also can’t do a great deal in the very midst of a crisis –  financial or otherwise.  But what it can do in the midst of a crisis –  perhaps especially a disease one, where moral hazard concerns are less of a worry –  is better than nothing (easing servicing burdens, easing the exchange rate, signalling activity, leaning (a little) against collapses in confidence etc).  Perhaps more important is the value of such tools when either the immediate crisis passes and we are left with chronic weakness in demand (perhaps for a few quarters, perhaps longer) and during the recovery phase.   Macro policy tools work with a lag, and it is well to get adjustments in place pretty early (which is why monetary policy flexibility is so good to have: it is a very easy instrument to adjust, including to unwind when the need has clearly passed).

What sort of fiscal policy?   I’m not that interested in specific assistance packages to individual sectors.  In some cases, that sort of action might be justified, but much won’t really be –  and the announcement a couple of weeks ago of funding to promote non-Chinese tourism looks even sillier now.  Realistically, political considerations are likely to be more important than anything else in shaping those sorts of handouts, but (fortunately perhaps) such specific interventions/distortions/bailouts aren’t likely to be large enough to materially respond to wider weaknesses in aggregate demand.

And whatever you think of the case for more – even much more – government infrastructure spending, there are long lags to getting any such projects up and going.  The case for a second Mt Victoria tunnel in Wellington might be rock-solid –  and it is even in Grant Robertson’s constituency – but it is no sensible part of a response to a coronavirus-induced recession, even if (say) you worried about several waves of the virus over a couple of years.

Generalised tax cuts in income tax rates –  which might or might not make sense longer-term –  aren’t particularly effective because (a) the overwhelming bulk of any cut would go to higher-income households, (b) there is no particular incentive to spend (and some of the things higher income people might othewise spend on –  an extra overseas holiday –  aren’t likely to be so attractive in the next few months, and (c) as the Minister observed in his interview yesterday, such cuts tend to be permanent.

One could do, as Hong Kong announced last week, some sort of lump sum distribution –  perhaps $1500 payment to each adult.  It is much more concentrated ($ value) towards people likely to spend additional cash, but it is still less likely to be spent at the height of a crisis than in other circumstances, just because people will be (eg) staying away from shops.  But perhaps a more significant issue is precisely that it is one-off –  you might get a one-month lift to demand and activity, but the situation is reasonably likely to require longer-term support than that.

The point of this past was really to explore one other option I haven’t yet seen mentioned: an explicitly temporary reduction in the rate of GST.     The idea has been around for a while, it was tried by the United Kingdom as part of their macro policy response in 2009, and was discussed in some detail in a paper presented in New Zealand almost 15 years ago by the (then) academic economist Willem Buiter, who had also served as a member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee.

Buiter was invited to New Zealand as part of a focus in the mid-2000s (including this work) looking at possible tools that might enable more downward pressure to be maintained on aggregate demand –  keeping inflation in check –  without the concomitant upward pressure on the real exchange rate; the latter having become something of a sore point with both the Governor and the Minister of Finance.    One element of that involved inviting four international experts to offer advice.  The resulting papers, and discussant comments, are here.  Buiter was invited to focus on fiscal policy issues and his specific paper is here.  One of the options he explored (from p51 at the link) was using a temporary change in the rate of GST.

As a stabilisation option, supplementary to whatever monetary policy can do, a variable GST rate has one very big advantage relative to most fiscal options that are often touted.  Not only does a temporary cut put more money in the pockets of households –  and do so in a moderately progressive way (whatever lifetime consumptions patterns, in any particular period low income people typically spend a larger proportion of that period’s income, and face tighter credit constraints) –  but it provides an active incentive to spend now because you know that prices will be more expensive later.   Take as an example, an announcement that the rate of GST would be lowered by 2.5 percentage points for a year.  For a person/household facing the choice between saving and spending now, at the start of the period, it is akin to a 250 basis point cut in interest rates.  As the year goes on, the (annualised) effect gets even stronger (as we’ve seen with past GST increases, spending is brought forward to just before the increase).

There are all sorts of drawbacks with this instrument in general, whether used for temporary increases or temporary cuts, including judging when it would be appropriate to deploy the instrument (relative to, say, using monetary policy). Buiter favoured an independent committee –  akin to an MPC –  having the power to adjust the rate (something which I’m old-fashioned enough –  only Parliament should change tax rates –  to find abhorent).    But this is an unusually stark situation (and may well be starker still by Budget day) –  as, in a different way, was the UK financial crisis in 2008/09.    It is not just a matter of slowly accumulating pressures (or lack of demand pressures) but a stark, truly exogenous (to the New Zealand economy) event.  Defining a trigger for action shouldn’t really be a problem.  And we are very close to the limits of conventional monetary policy, so the tradeoff-among-instruments questions also presents less starkly than Buiter would have imagined.

One of the other drawbacks –  which the UK ran into –  is defining an exit point.   The period of weak demand around the world lasted much longer than any authorities expected in 2008 when they were devising responses to the financial crisis/recession.    The extent of that weakness was hard, perhaps impossible, to foresee.  With a pandemic virus perhaps it is a little easier – these things tend to sweep through in perhaps 12-18 months (even in 1918) so –  for example – a cut in the GST rate announced/implemented in May, to end at end of 2021 might seem reasonable (while still providing a substitution effect signal).  And if, spare us, at the end of the next year severe problems still faced us, then realistically choices could still be made then about whether to proceed with raising the GST rate or not (to not do so should require new legislation) –  there shouldn’t be (but who can really imagine) the same debates about whose fault it was the banks had failed etc.

One other drawback in the risk to inflation expectations.   Cut the rate of GST by 2.5 percentage points and the level of the CPI will fall by perhaps 2.1 per cent –  and the reported annual rate of inflation will be that much lower than otherwise for a year.   With a heightened risk of inflation expectations sliding away, there is a risk that those headline effects could accentuate the problem, even though none of the core inflation measures –  the ones most analysts emphasise –  would fall.   There is no easy way to know how large this effect would be, and it would be quite circumstance-dependent.  If, for example, the New Zealand dollar fell sharply –  as it usually does in severe adverse global events –  the direct price effects of more expensive imported tradable goods would lean against the GST effect on headline inflation (the UK, for example, had a sharp fall in its exchange rate around 2008/09).  And if the temporary GST cut was part of an aggressive multi-faceted (monetary and fiscal) stabilisation package, the (helpful) demand effects might well outweigh any risks of adverse headline effects on expectations.

The other downside concern might be implementation lags.  When I was around these sorts of discussions, IRD used to emphasise that these sorts of changes couldn’t be done overnight.  Announce on Budget day a GST cut starting three months hence, and the risk is that you worsen things in that three month period.   But when I went back to check the UK experience, I found that the policy had been announced on 24 November 2008, to come into effect on 1 December 2008.    If a change can really be implemented that quickly –  and hard to see why New Zealand IRD should be less capable than HMRC – a one week disruption might be tolerable.

Finally, relative to using monetary policy more heavily, fiscal options will tend to hold up the exchange rate more than otherwise.  That might be less of concern in a scenario in which it has fallen a lot anyway and –  as importantly –  monetary policy options are approaching their limits.

I am not, repeat not, recommending that the rate of GST be temporarily cut, even on the assumption that the economic situations looks as bad or worse late next month when final Budget decisions have to be made.   But, in a highly policy-constrained world, it looks like an option that should be pulled out of mothballs and looked at fairly closely by the Minister’s advisers, including a closer review of the strengths and pitfalls of the UK experience.   In situations like the one we seem to find ourselves in –  with the world one shock away from exhausting normal macro policy capacity, and that shock now seeming to be upon us –  it is probably better to err on the side of doing more rather than less, and to consider taking risks with instruments that would not normally count as ideal (in which category I put the variable GST).

And whether or not the Minister of Finance thinks it an option worth exploring, I’d welcome comments here, including from those closer to the operational details of GST than I am.