Interest rates

The Reserve Bank Monetary Policy Committee has had an unchanged membership for its life so far, but tomorrow’s decision (and MPS) will be the last for this group. The Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand moves on in January, the Chief Economist moves out in February, and the terms of two externals expire shortly thereafter (although one or both could be reappointed). On those changes, had an interesting article yesterday which more or less confirms that the chief economist had been restructured out as the Orr permanent-revolution (at least until he finds a suitable mix of lackeys) rolls on, reports on Orr openly insulting a fellow speaker at an event they were both speaking at, even as it ends up (seemingly) trying to retain at least a little RB favour/access with this line

Nonetheless, Orr is community-minded and isn’t afraid to stand up to those with corporate interests, who spinelessly try to discredit their regulator by attacking his personality.

In days gone by surely a sub-editor might have questioned the unqualified unsupported used of a term like “spinelessly”, especially when it is well known that Orr has been on record abusing people who criticise his approach or policies, including those with no “corporate interests” whatever.

Critical as I am of Orr (in particular) and the upper levels of the Bank more generally, I continue to more or less expect them to do “the right thing” on basic monetary policy stuff. It won’t be well done, it won’t be well-communicated, it won’t typically be supported by robust or insightful analysis, but this group don’t seem like the sort who are going to wilfully let core inflation get away on them. That must be a pretty common view, because although shorter-term inflation expectations (measured in the Bank’s survey of semi-experts etc) have increased markedly, five-year ahead expectations are little changed from where they were 3 or 4 years ago.

Were I in their shoes I would increase the OCR by 50 basis points tomorrow. There are really two reasons for that. The first is simple: there is not another review until February (because a few years ago the Bank rashly decided to give its monetary policy function a long summer holiday). With two reviews during that period perhaps it might have been okay to have done two 25 point moves (not that there is any particular problem with 50 point changes, especially when the possibility is openly being canvassed). But there is also the underlying macro situation. Core inflation took the Bank by surprise a lot over recent months, and if it is not now outside the 1 to 3 per cent target range, neither is such an outcome that should be contemplated lightly. And inflation expectations measures have moved up a lot. There is no guarantee that the numbers reported in surveys are actually the numbers firms and households have in mind when they themselves are transacting, but it wouldn’t be wise to jump to the conclusion otherwise. Here is the two year measure.

2 yr ahead nov 21

The level of expectations is back to around the peaks in the 00s (prior to that the target itself was lower) and the increase over the last 12-18 months has been sharp. Early last year we needed lower nominal interest rates just to stop real rates rising. Now, we need rising nominal rates to stop short-term real rates falling – such falls would be undesirable in a climate of full employment and high/rising core inflation. One of the basic precepts of inflation control is that, all else equal, short-term rates need to be increased (decreased) as least as much as any rise (fall) in inflation expectations. Since even a 50 basis point increase tomorrow would only take the OCR back to where it was at the start of last year, and on almost every measure expectations are materially higher than they were then – and core inflation itself is much higher – the prudent response would be a substantial increase in the OCR now.

And I say that as someone who is quite open-minded about where the OCR gets to next year and beyond. As a matter of general principle I don’t think forecasting beyond the next quarter or two makes much sense, and the pandemic uncertainties here and abroad only compound that (we still have no firm take on output losses in the September quarter and it will be December next week). But not all the straws in the wind necessarily point in the direction of repeated or substantial further increases. It isn’t obvious that the wider global environment is persistently different – in ways that would support higher neutral real interest rates – than it was two years ago (and recall that global policy rates were being cut in 2019), fiscal policy (here and abroad) seems more likely to be a contractionary influence (fiscal impulse) than an expansionary one over the next few years, and for New Zealand reopening borders could still be more of a drag on domestic demand than a boost, at least for as long as it is very difficult for Chinese tourists to travel. Government policy generally is hardly set to promote a sustained acceleration in productivity growth (and associated investment) – if anything, we will be lucky to avoid a worsening set of outcomes. And if you believe in housing wealth effects – I don’t at an aggregate level – there could be some drag from that source next year. And so on. 50 points now and then approach each review next year with a genuinely open mind seems to me the most sensible, and prudent, approach.

For all the talk of how low interest rates are at present, it is worth remembering that New Zealand rates remain high by international (advanced country) standards. Very long-term interest rates – one silver lining to the higher government debt is that we now have a few more indicators – are the best place to look, abstracting from short-term cyclical effects.

As of yesterday, our 30 year government bond rate was 2.93 per cent. The comparable US rate was 1.91 per cent. The inflation targets in the two countries are all-but identical (over horizons like that) and the US has a far worse public debt position – actual and outlook than New Zealand. And the US is, by advanced country standards quite a high interest rate country: the German government 30 year bond yield is about 0.0%.

What about real interest rates? The market in inflation-indexed bonds is less deep but the amounts on issues are not now small. The longest New Zealand indexed bond has 19 years to maturity, and yesterday was yielding 0.71 per cent. By contrast, a US 20 year inflation-indexed bond was yielding about -0.71 per cent (30 year indexed bonds were yielding -0.52 per cent). But, to repeat, by advanced country standards the US is a high interest rate country. Germany has a 30 year inflation-indexed bond currently yielding -1.98 per cent.

These are really large differences, which have implications for how we think about the exchange rate: expected risk-adjusted returns tend to equalise across countries through the exchange rate, and whether the difference is 100 basis points (on a 30 year nominal bond) or 140 basis points (on a 20 year indexed bond) they point towards an overvaluation relative to the USD of perhaps 30 per cent, and something even larger relative to the euro. You’ll recall that New Zealand exports and imports as a share of GDP have been increasingly sluggish this century. There is a connection.

The bond yield differences have been around for a long time and show little sign of closing on any sort of sustained basis. You might think there was some evidence to the contrary for the US, at least if you look just at the most-common comparison, that of 10 year nominal bond rates.

us and germany

But for some years now both countries have had 20 year inflation-indexed bonds (the US numbers are the US 20 year constant-maturity yield, and for New Zealand the closest of the 2035 and 2040 bond yields).

20 yr yields

Our rates did look to be converging on those of the US for a time – by the time we went into Covid US short-term rates were much higher than those in New Zealand (and even more so relative to most other advanced economies). But as emerge, the gap now seems to be right back to where it was (the last observation on the chart is a spread of 1.41 percentage points). It is a really large difference, and not at all out of line with differences (New Zealand rates higher) than we’ve experienced over most of the last 30 years.

These are differences that cannot reflect default risk or (credibly) inflation risk. They seem to reflect differences – actual and expected – in the savings/investment pressures in the two economies, which in turn explain the respective neutral interest rates (ie rates consistent with inflation being at target while the economy is fully employed).

Finally, a chart that intrigued me when I generated it, but in which I don’t place much confidence. One advantage of a wider range of government bonds is that one can back out of the resulting yield curve implied forward interest rates. Thus, with 2035 and 2040 indexed bonds, one can back out the implied 5 year real rate for the period between 2035 and 2040 (ie far into the future, and not influenced – in principle – by current cyclical pressures, or even current members of the MPC or current government ministers).

Yields on both bonds look very low at present (0.56 per cent and 0.71 per cent yesterday), but what about that implied five year forward rate? Here is that chart for the last few years.

implied forward 5 year rate

Earlier in the year it might have looked as though the “new normal” might have been expected to involve much higher real rates in the medium-term future. But as things stand right now, the implied forward rate is just a bit lower than it was in early 2020. I’m reluctant to put very much weight on this – thin market, quite sensitive to small changes in individual 2035 and 2040 yields etc – but for what it is worth – and for now – markets seem to be pricing a medium-term return to the sorts of real interest rates (strangely low, in many ways) we had a couple of years ago.

Markets have, of course, been known to be wrong (often), but I don’t feel blessed with the insight to offer a view on whether this implied view is right or wrong, let alone whether if it were to be wrong, in which direction any error might be. Used as we are to positive real interest rates, there is nothing natural or inevitable about them.

Inflation-indexed bonds: are they telling us anything?

Data from New Zealand’s inflation-indexed bond market has been a bit of a mystery for some time.

If one looks at US data, the gap between conventional and indexed government bond yields –  the “breakeven” or implied inflation expectation – makes sense.  Here is the data for the last five years or so.


The US inflation target is around 2 per cent and for the last couple of years the breakevens have been pretty close to that.  There was a period of real weakness in 2015/16 but it didn’t last that long, and even then the breakevens were only averaging around 1.5 per cent.   If you were inclined to focus on the severe limitations US monetary policy will face in the next serious recession, you might even think 2 per cent breakevens for the average of the next 10 years is a bit high –  after all, the Fed has struggled to get inflation to average 2 per cent in the last decade –  but that would be a non-consensus perspective, and I’ll leave it to one side for now.

The New Zealand indexed bond market was, for a long time, rather patchy to say the least.  Indexed bonds were tried for a while in the 1980s, and then one more-modern-style long-term indexed bond was issued in the mid-late 1990s (about the time I and a colleague wrote this article).  But The Treasury was never very keen, and there was a diminishing volume of public debt anyway.     If there is any upside to the higher volume of public debt this decade (in general I’m not convinced) it is the advent of a range of government inflation-indexed bonds.  There are four on issue now, with maturity dates out to 2040.

Unlike the situation in the US, no one makes readily available here constant-maturity data for either indexed or conventional bond yields.  When the “10 year bond yield” is quoted here, it is rarely actually 10 years.  But the Reserve Bank does publish a yield series for each of the indexed bonds.  If one time-weights the (September) 2025 and 2030 indexed bond yields, one gets this approximation to a 10 year indexed yield since September 2015. (I’ve also show the yield for the 2025 bond from the end of 2013 to September 2016, when it was at least moderately close to 10 years).

indexed bond yield NZ

The fall in long-term real interest rates is certainly striking –  consistent with the fact that five years ago the Reserve Bank and most of the market thought short-term interest rates would be more like 4 or 5 per cent looking ahead. In fact, of course, the OCR has been 1.75 per cent for the last couple of years, and is currently expected to remain low pretty indefinitely.

And what if we then take the Reserve Bank’s “10 year bond yield” series for conventional bonds, and subtract the indicative indexed bond series in the previous chart?


This is the chart that parallels the US one at the start of the post.  As you can see, the two charts (one daily, one monthly) look quite similar at the start.  Breakevens here were also around 2 per cent, the target set for the Reserve Bank.  But then they diverge –  the short term cycles are similar, but the levels are very different.  On this measure, it has been three years since the New Zealand breakeven rate got even to 1.5 per cent.  As of yesterday’s data, the gap was 1.34 per cent.

Meanwhile, of course, at every opportunity the Reserve Bank assures us that inflation expectations –  survey measures, which involve respondents staking no money, and rarely any reputation (since responses are published mostly in aggregated form) –  are “securely anchored” at 2 per cent.   And, rather than address the indicators from the indexed bond market, the Bank simply passes by in silence.

Over the years, there have been various stories put forward for why information from the indexed bond market should be discounted.  For a long time, there was only one maturity, and there really wasn’t all that much of that bond on issue (just over $1 billion).   Then there were stories about illiquidity –  not much trading in indexed bonds and few or no price-makers.   Glancing through the historical data for turnover in the Feb 2016 bond, there were lots of weeks when the outright trades totalled less than $5 million, and quite a few when there were no trades at all.

But these days there are four bonds on issue, totalling about $16 billion.  Talking to a funds manager recently, I learned that another bank has just become a pricemaker in indexed bonds, such that there are now three local and three offshore institutions offering two-way prices in these instruments.  And the Reserve Bank turnover data suggests that if these markets aren’t exactly awash with trade, there is now a respectable volume of secondary market turnover in at least the 2025 and 2030 maturities (and there isn’t much turnover in conventional bonds beyond 2030 either).

I queried the fund manager as to his view on why the New Zealand breakevens are so low.  He argued that it wasn’t now a market liquidity issue (although you have to think that if you wanted to dump a $200 million position it would still be a great deal easier in the conventional market than the indexed market).   His argument was the market was still new and that there limited interest still from the buy side, including the offshore market in particular.    I was a bit surprised by that, as I recalled (long ago) when the indexed bonds were being issued in the 1990s that a lot of demand initially came from offshore (it surprised us at the time, and New Zealand inflation indexation seemed like something more naturally appealing to local pension funds than to offshore funds).   But I looked up the data, and this is what I found.

Per cent of bonds in market held by non-residents, Oct 2018
Apr-23 67.7
Apr-25 52.2
Apr-27 67.1
Apr-29 75
Apr-33 46
Sep-25 50.7
Sep-30 37.6
Sep-35 21.3

And, sure enough, a materially smaller proportion of the indexed bonds is owned offshore than of the conventional bonds.   The offshore proportion isn’t trivial by any means, but it is smaller (and, if anything, looks to have been shrinking a bit over the last few years).

I don’t have a good story for why that might be.  After all, New Zealand indexed bonds offer some of the highest yields in the advanced world (our longest maturity yields 50 basis points more than the US 20 year indexed bond, and the US is now a high yielding advanced economy), and much of the story of the last few years has been of a search for yield.  Search for yields often involves sacrificing liquidity.  And (critical as I am of New Zealand economic performance) the creditworthiness of our bonds, indexed and nominal, looks better than ever in relative terms, as being among the handful of advanced countries with budget surpluses and low debt.

I did hear a story a while ago suggesting that the government has simply glutted the market by issuing too many inflation indexed bonds too quickly.  At one level it is an argument that looks a bit hard to refute (the resulting yields are high relative to equivalent maturity and credit risk conventional bonds), but standing back a bit I’m not sure how persuasive a story it is.  The world markets are big, New Zealand is small (and fairly sound), and the appetite for yield has been strong.

Which is partly why I don’t think it is safe for the Reserve Bank to simply ignore that New Zealand inflation breakevens.  They may well be telling us something about medium-term expectations of inflation (implicit expectations as much as explicit ones).  After all, core inflation this decade has averaged around 1.5 per cent, the Bank has (twice) proved too quick to tighten, and if inflation has picked up a little recently, it would be reasonable to think that there will be a downturn along again before too long.

sec factor model nov 2018

Perhaps there is a more compelling story that “exonerates” the Reserve Bank.  But it would be good to see them make it, and to be able to test the quality of their analysis and research.  Simply ignoring a pattern that has now persisted for three years –  breakevens averaging less than 1.5 per cent when the inflation target as 2 per cent –  seems not particularly responsible, not particularly transparent, not particularly accountable.