Interest rates: US and New Zealand

There is a bit of a story afoot that, somehow, the days of low interest rates are almost over.  There was even an editorial to that effect in the Herald yesterday, which seemed to hanker for higher interest rates here (without, for example, linking that preference to any good things –  much faster productivity growth –  that might make rather higher interest rates a welcome complement to greater economic success).

The idea that interest rates will soon be rising has been something of a constant (across much of the world) this decade.  Like the stopped clock, that line will no doubt eventually be proved correct.  But so far this decade, it seems to have been right (about policy rates) mostly when either:

  • there is some sort of crisis, in which domestic authorities are fighting a lower exchange rate (eg Turkey and Argentina), or
  • temporarily, when over-enthusiastic central banks misjudge inflationary pressures (eg New Zealand (twice) and a couple of other countries (eg Sweden and the ECB), or
  • on the back of massive, unsustainable, late-cycle fiscal stimulus (the US at present).

The Federal Reserve has now raised its short-term interest rate target quite considerably.  Then again, the US 10 year bond rate –  3.16 per cent as I type – is barely above the levels it reached at the end of 2013, five years ago.   And here is a chart that decomposes a 10 year yield into two parts, and using a 5 year yield, calculates the implied second half of that 10 year bond: a five year implied rate in five years time.

US 5x5

That rate has edged up a little recently, but is still a long way below where it was five years ago.   Markets recognise that short rates have risen, but seem to have no greater confidence that they are going to stay very high for very long.

What about New Zealand?  Here is much the same chart for New Zealand, drawn from the data on the Reserve Bank website.

NZ 5x5

No sign of any rebound at all.    The series isn’t at its (2016) low but –  as has been the case all decade –  each peak is lower than the one before.  Five years ago when the markets and the Reserve Bank were convinced the OCR was going up a long way, this implied forward rate was in excess of 5 per cent.  Yesterday it was 3.27 per cent.

Both charts so far have been of nominal interest rates?  What about real, inflation-indexed yields?   The New Zealand government now has a variety of maturities on issue, and this is how the yields have performed since the start of 2014.

IIBs oct 18

There is some volatility in the series, but the trend is pretty clearly downwards, even if one focuses just on the last 18 months or so.   With the passage of time each specific maturity has a shorter remaining time to run (in 2014 the 2025 maturity was an 11 year bond, and now it is just under a 7 year bond), but even adjusting for that the trend is still downwards.

Here is a chart showing the implied five year forward real rates from those indexed bond maturities.

implied forwards NZ IIBs

The continued downward trend evident in the previous chart isn’t so clear in this one.  But there is no sign of any trend rise in real long-term New Zealand yields at all.   And if we take the very longest of these series –  the grey line, which represents and implied five year real rate roughly 20 years from now (and which thus shouldn’t be much influenced by very short-term expectations of the OCR or the state of the economy) the implied forward yield has dropped by around a full percentage point in little more than a year.  Those are big moves for a very long-term security.

What about the US?  Here is the yield on a US government 20 year inflation-indexed bond, calculated as a constant maturity (ie always 20 years ahead, not fixed maturity dates as in my first NZ indexed bond chart above).

constant maturity 20 year iib

And here is the implied yield on a 10 year US indexed bond 10 years ahead (using the 10 and 20 year constant maturity series).

US 10 year implied

There is some sign of these very long-term implied US yields rising.  But even they aren’t setting new highs, or even surprising local highs of just the last few years.  Even with all that new government debt being taken on now, and projected into the future.

Perhaps the end of low interest rates really is nigh.  But there isn’t much sign of it in market prices at present –  none at all in New Zealand where, if anything, long-term and implied forward rates have just been keeping on falling.

Personally, my hunch is that yields (nominal and real) over the next decade could average lower –  not higher-  than those at present.   Mostly because when the next serious recession comes –  and there are plenty of things which could cause or compound it –  most advanced countries (and many emerging ones now) will have little capability, and perhaps even little willingness for some time, to do what it might take to get economies back on a firmer footing.   Look at how long it took last time round, even though going into that serious recession almost all countries had much more policy capacity –  and perhaps even political cohesion – at their disposal.

Later this morning, we’ll have the CPI data which may, at the margin, colour expectations about the near-term outlook.  But whatever those details, they want materially alter the picture of medium-term vulnerability, here and abroad.


Real interest rates

It is a while since I’ve done a real interest rate post, so here goes.

You’ll see stories from time to time about how low the New Zealand government’s borrowing costs are.

But it is still worth reminding ourselves of New Zealand’s long track record of having among the very highest average real interest rates in the advanced world.   Here, for example, are New Zealand, Australia, and the G7 countries for the last five years (the period chosen a bit arbitrarily, but a different set of dates wouldn’t substantially alter the relative picture).  I’ve just used average bond yields and average CPI inflation, from the OECD databases, but using (say) core inflation also wouldn’t materially alter the picture.

bond yields

Among these countries, we have one crisis-ridden hugely indebted euro-area country (Italy), one country with new substantial political and economic uncertainty –  and quite a lot of debt (the UK), one with extremely high levels of public debt (Japan), and one with recklessly large fiscal deficits and rising debt (the US).  And our real long-term government bond rates have been higher than all of them.

If we look at the situation today, the picture isn’t a lot different.  Italy has gone shooting past us, which should be no consolation to anyone (crisis pressures re-emerging there).  The gap between New Zealand and US real interest rates has narrowed quite a bit, as one might expect from the sequence of Fed interest rate increases in turn driven partly by unsustainable late-cycle fiscal expansion, but a 10 year US government inflation indexed bond was trading this week at 1.04 per cent, and a 10 year NZ government inflation indexed bond is trading at about 1.25 per cent.   Even that gap is substantially larger for 20 year indexed bonds.

As a reminder, our interest rates don’t average higher than those abroad because of:

  • superior productivity growth rates (we’ve had almost none in recent years),
  • macroeconomic instability (we have low stable inflation and low stable public debt),
  • public sector credit risk (see above –  and of the countries in the chart only Australia has comparably strong public finances),
  • weak banking systems (the Australian banks and their NZ subs have some of better bank credit ratings in the world),
  • risk around high levels of external indebtedness (not only is much of the external indebtedness on bank balance sheets –  see above –  but the New Zealand exchange rate has been persistently strong, not a feature you expect to see when risk concerns are to the fore).

Oh, and of the small OECD countries with floating exchange rates, over the last five years only Iceland (recently emerged from serious systemic crisis) and Hungary (IMF bailout programme as recently as 2008) had higher real interest rates than New Zealand.

At the heart of any explanation for this persistent real interest rate gap –  which has been there, on average, for decades –  must relate to factors influencing pressure on resources in New Zealand.   At some hypothetical world interest rate, there is  some mix of more demand for investment (housing, business, government) and a small supply of savings (households, business, government) than in most other OECD countries.    That incipient excess demand on resources is absorbed by having a higher domestic interest rate than in most other countries, and a higher real exchange rate.    That mix of adjustment will then squeeze out some of the incipient excess demand.  Global evidence suggests that overall savings rates aren’t very sensitive to changes in expected real returns.  Governments tend not to be very responsive to price signals, and people have to live somewhere (so although residential investment is highly cyclical, in the end everyone gets a roof over their head).  Much of the adjustment pressure is felt around genuinely discretionary, and market sensitive, investment spending: business investment, and especially that in sectors exposed to international competition.   It is the stylised story of New Zealand: moderate savings rates (overall), quite high rates of government and residential investment, modest rates of business investment, and a tradables sector which has managed little per capita growth for decades, and where international trade shares of GDP are stagnant or falling even a period when world trade blossomed.

And that is where my immigration policy story fits in.   Savings and investment pressures are aggregates of all sorts of forces and preferences, and so one can never say that a single factor “explains” the whole picture.  But if one is looking for areas where government policy – a non-market or exogenous influence –  plays a part, then New Zealand immigration policy over decades seems likely to be a significant part of the story.  Lots more people means lots more demand for investment just to maintain existing capital/output ratios.   New people need houses, and schools and roads and so on.  If this were a country where domestic savings (flow rates) were abundant –  and domestic savings are different from foreign savings because the act of saving domestically takes some pressure off domestic resources (incomes generated here not spent here) – it wouldn’t be a particular issue.  But that isn’t so in New Zealand.  Government policy choices may have influenced those outcomes to some extent –  I certainly favour a different tax treatment of savings –  but my reading of the international evidence leaves me sceptical that reforms in that area would make very much difference to desired savings rates (if only because income and substitution efforts tend to offset).

Instead, conscious and deliberate government policy drives up ex ante investment demand (at the world interest rate), and in the process tends to drive out the sort of investment that might have enabled those of already here to achieve better material standards of living.

(In a very small sample, it is perhaps worth noting that there are four OECD countries where policy is set to favour high rates of immigration.  They are New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Israel.  It should at least prompt a moment’s reflection among the immigration champions, that not one of those countries has been a stellar OECD productivity performer –  Australia and Canada have done better than New Zealand and Israel, but are nowhere near the OECD frontier, despite the abundance of fixed natural resources those two countries have.)

Inflation bonds and breakevens

I spent a large chunk of Friday interviewing funds managers.  In the course of our conversations, talk turned to the yields on government inflation-indexed bonds (a sensible asset for funds offering indexed pensions) relative to the yields on conventional government bonds.  There are a lot more inflation-indexed government bonds on issue now than there used to be, and I was encouraged to learn that, as a result, bid-ask spreads are also tighter.

The gap between nominal and indexed bond yields is what is known as the “breakeven” inflation rate –  the actual inflation rate that, over the life of the respective bonds, would generate the same return whether one was holding indexed or nominal bonds.   It can be seen as a proxy for market inflation expectations.

As regular readers know, one of my favourite charts is this one, showing the gap between those yields in New Zealand for the last few years.

IIB breakevens June 18

10 years from now is June 2028, so something nearer the average of the two series is at present a reasonable fix on a 10 year inflation breakeven for New Zealand.  But whichever series you use, the numbers have been consistently well below 2 per cent for several years now.  By contrast, at the start of the chart, it looks as though 10 year inflation breakevens were around 2 per cent (10 years ahead then was 2024, so the blue line was the more relevant comparator).

You might expect that a chart like this one would bother the Reserve Bank (paid to keep inflation around 2 per cent).  Instead, they simply ignore it.   Their statements repeatedly claim that inflation expectations are securely anchored at 2 per cent, relying on surveys of a handful of economists.  They simply ignore the indications from market prices.

It isn’t as if what we see in New Zealand is normal.   Here is the chart of US 10 year breakevens for the same period.

US breakevens jun 18

At something a little above 2 per cent, US breakevens are around the US inflation target (expressed in terms of the private consumption deflator, rather than the CPI-  which the bonds are indexed to).

What about other countries?  Courtesy of Fisher Funds, here are a couple of charts.  First the 10 year breakevens for the last year or so.

global breakevens

“DE” here is Germany.  As Fisher noted to us, it seemed a little anomalous that New Zealand 10 year breakevens are lower than those in Germany (although the German economy is one of the stronger in Europe, and they have no domestic monetary policy).

And here are the 20 year breakevens

20 year breakevens

BEI 2035 and BEI 2040 are New Zealand.   I’ve always tended to discount the UK numbers, because of the different tax treatment of indexed bonds there, but both the US and Australian breakevens look a lot closer to the respective inflation targets (2.5 per cent in the case of Australia) than is the case here.

One of the fund managers we talked to on Friday made a throwaway comment about people simply looking at the last headline CPI number.    Maybe, but annual headline CPI inflation in New Zealand for the last six years has averaged 1.0 per cent.   The Reserve Bank’s favoured core measure has averaged 1.4 per cent over the same period.  And the Reserve Bank has never reached the limits of conventional monetary policy (the OCR hasn’t gone lower than 1.75 per cent) – inflation could have been higher had they chosen differently.  It might not be irrational for investors to treat the track record of the last several years as a reasonable pointer to the period ahead.  After all, the last six years has been a period with a strong terms of trade, and sustained (albeit moderate) growth.    Even if, as all the fund managers we talked to suggested, we are now in a “late cycle” phase when inflation might be expected to pick up, “late cycle” phases tend to come just before the end of the cycle.  There will be downturns in the next 10 or 20 years.

What of other possible explanations for these now persistently narrow New Zealand inflation breakevens?  In years gone by there was almost no liquidity in the indexed-bond market (for a long time there was but a single indexed bond).  All else equal, that might mean investors demanding a higher yield to hold the indexed bond (relative to a conventional bond), narrowing the observed breakevens relative to “true” market expectations of future inflation.

But if it was true once, it must be a less important story now.  There are four indexed bonds on issue, each with principal of several billion dollars.  As I noted earlier, if bid-ask spreads are still wider than those (a) on nominal bonds, and (b) on indexed bonds in say the US, they are tighter than they used to be.  It isn’t an attractive instrument for high frequency trading, but these are multi-month, even multi-year, trends we are looking at.

The other possible story I heard a while ago was the suggestion that the government had glutted the market by issuing too many indexed bonds.    It had an air of plausibility about it.  It isn’t as if there are many natural holders of these instruments –  there are no indexed bond mutual funds in New Zealand, they don’t count as a separate asset class in many mandates, and so on.  Then again, in a low yield (and yield hungry) global environment, these instruments offer a pretty juicy yield (the government has a AAA or AA+ credit rating, and its 2040 indexed bonds are offering just over 2 per cent real –  there isn’t much around to match that combination).  Here is the 10 year indexed bond yield chart (again from Fishers –  ignore the UK again).

real 10 year yields

Over the last few years, this is the proportion of New Zealand government bond sales that have been in the form of indexed bonds.

indexed bond share

About 24 per cent of New Zealand government bonds on issue are currently inflation-indexed.

I’m not sure how that compares generally with other countries, but in the UK –  long a keen issuer of inflation indexed government bonds – the share is also about a quarter.  The British also appear to be winding back their issuance –  to 21 per cent of new sales this year.  According to a  FT story from earlier this year

Robert Stheeman, chief executive of the UK’s Debt Management Office, said that “no other country regularly issues a quarter of its debt in inflation-linked bonds”, which “gives us pause for thought”. In contrast Italy — the continent’s largest issuer of inflation-linked bonds — raises just 13 per cent of its debt in this way, according to figures from the DMO.

It may well have been prudent then for our own government to have wound back its issuance plans for index-linked bonds.  But that news has now been out since the Budget last month, and there is still no sign that 10 year breakevens are more than about 1.5 per  cent –  still well short of the 2 per cent inflation target, that was recently reaffirmed by the new government.

There is an OCR review announcement later this week.  We don’t get much analysis in a one page press release, but as the Governor mulls his decision, and his communications, and looks towards the next full Monetary Policy Statement, it might be worth him inviting his staff to (a) produce, and (b) publish any analysis they have, as to why we should not take these indications from market prices as a sign that inflation expectations are not really anywhere close to the 2 per cent the Bank regularly claims.  Perhaps there is a good compelling alternative story. If so, it would be nice of them to tell us.  But given the actual track record of inflation, it would be a bit surprising if breakevens persistently below 2 per cent were not telling us something about market expectations (right or wrong) of inflation.

Real interest gaps remain large

There has been a bit of coverage lately about the fact that New Zealand 10 year bond yields have dropped to around, or just slightly below, those in the United States.    Here is the chart, using monthly OECD data, of the gap between the two.

NZ less US

Since interest rates were liberalised here in the mid-80s, the only other time our 10 year rates have been lower than those in the United States was in late 1993 and very early 1994.  That phase didn’t last long.  Bear in mind that back then we were targeting an inflation rate centred on 1 per cent –  lower than the US, and lower than the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is charged with targeting now.

As the chart illustrates, the spreads moves around quite a bit, but the recent narrowing in the spread looks to be significant –  it is (roughly) a two standard deviation event.  Then again, so is the narrowing in the short-term interest rate spread.  Usually our short-term interest rates are well above those in the United States, but by later this year it is widely expected that their short-term interest rates will be higher than ours.   When that sort of reversal is expected to last for a while, it will be reflected in the bond yield spread as well.

NZ less US short

The Federal Reserve’s policymakers expect to raise the Fed funds rate to, and even at bit above neutral, in the next year or two (“longer-run” in the chart below is a proxy for FOMC members’ view of neutral), while there is nothing similar in our own Reserve Bank’s published projections.

Fed projections

I’ve made considerable play of the persistent gap between our real interest rates and those abroad.    Do these recent developments suggest that if there was a problem it is now just going away?

Well, the gap between our bond yields and those in some other advanced countries has also narrowed.    Even the gap between Australian bond yields and our own –  a gap which has been remarkably stable over 20 years –  is narrower than it was (although all else equal their higher inflation target should be expected to result in Australian yields typically exceeding our own).

But here is the gap between our 10 year bond yields and those in some other small inflation-targeting OECD countries.

nz less scandis

There doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary going on there (and 10 year bond yields in Switzerland –  like those in Japan and Germany –  are a bit constrained by being almost zero already).

And here is the gap between New Zealand’s 10 year bond yields and the median of yields in all those countries the OECD has data for for the entire 25 year period.

nz less median

If one simply focuses on the last 15 years –  when our inflation target was increased to 2 per cent (midpoint) –  the current spread is not very different to the average for that period.

There simply isn’t much sign of the persistent gap between our real long-term interest rates and those in other advanced countries going away.

In fact, dig just a little deeper and even the story vis-a-vis the US is a bit less encouraging.  Both countries now have long-term inflation-indexed government bonds, the yields on which are a pretty good read on long-term real interest rates.  US government inflation-indexed 20 year bond yields are currently about 0.9 per cent (even with pretty wayward US fiscal policy).  The Reserve Bank reports that our 17 year indexed bond yesterday yielded 1.82 and our 22 year bond was yielding 2.0 per cent.    A full percentage point gap on a 20 year bond –  even if a bit less than it was – still adds up to an enormous difference over time.  Markets aren’t convinced New Zealand and US real interest rates are sustainably converging any time soon (and, to those who want to throw in claims that the US is bigger or central to the system or whatever, recall that US bond 10 year yields are currently among the highest in the OECD –  in other words, it is quite possible for small advanced countries to have lower interest rates, over long terms, than the US).

The other thing markets don’t appear convinced about is that the Reserve Bank will achieve the 2 per cent inflation target (set for it again this week).   One can proxy this by looking at the gap between inflation-indexed bond yields (real yields) and nominal bond yields.

Here is the US version, using constant-maturity yields for the real and nominal series.

us breakevens

For the last year or so, markets have again been behaving as if the Fed is likely to deliver inflation around 2 per cent over the next 10 years.

But here is the (cruder) New Zealand version.   I’ve just used data on the RB website –  their 10 year nominal government bond yield, and the yields on the two indexed bonds either side of 2028 –  one maturing in September 2025, and the other maturing in September 2030.  Right now, 10 years ahead is almost exactly halfway between those two maturity dates.

NZ breakevens

Halfway between those two lines, for the latest observation, is a touch under 1.3 per cent.    It is a long way from the target of 2 per cent, and the gap is showing no signs of closing.

There are two challenges it seems:

  • if the government is at all serious about beginning to lift productivity growth and close the productivity gaps, they need to think a lot harder –  and be willing to do something about –  the things in the policy framework that continue to deliver us much higher real interest rates than those in other advanced countries,
  • and the new Governor has some work to do if he is to convince people that he is really serious about delivering future inflation averaging around 2 per cent.  Since the government itself just renewed that target, it should concern them –  and their representatives on the Reserve Bank Board –  that the target doesn’t appear to be taken that seriously by people investing money who have a direct stake in the outcome.

700 years of real interest rates

When I mentioned to my wife this morning that I’d been reading a fascinating post about 700 years of real interest rate data her response was that that was the single most nerdy thing I’d said in the 20 years we’ve known each other (and that there had been quite a lot of competition).   Personally, I probably give higher “nerd” marks to the day she actually asked for an explanation of how interest rate swaps worked.

The post in question was on the Bank of England’s staff blog Bank Underground, written by a visiting Harvard historian, and drawing on a staff working paper the same author has written on  bond bull markets and subsequent reversals.    It looks interesting, although I haven’t yet read it.

Here is the nominal bond rate series Schmelzing constructed back to 1311.

very long term nom int rates

And with a bit more effort, and no doubt some heroic assumptions at times, it leads to this real rate series.

very long-term real rates.png

Loosely speaking, on this measure, the trend decline has been underway for 450 years or so.   It rather puts the 1980s (high real global rates) in some sort of context.

In the blog post the series is described this way

We trace the use of the dominant risk-free [emphasis added] asset over time, starting with sovereign rates in the Italian city states in the 14th and 15th centuries, later switching to long-term rates in Spain, followed by the Province of Holland, since 1703 the UK, subsequently Germany, and finally the US.

In the working paper itself, “risk-free” (rather more correctly) appears in quote marks.  In fact, what he has done is construct a series of government bonds rates from the markets that were the leading financial centres of their days.     That might be a sensible base to work from in comparing returns on different assets –  perhaps constructing historical CAPM estimates –  but if US and West German government debt has been largely considered free of default risk in the last few decades, that certainly wasn’t true of many of the issuers in earlier centuries.  Spain accounts for a fair chunk of the series –  most of the 16th century  – but a recent academic book (very readable) bears the title Lending to the borrower from hell: Debt, taxes, and default in the age of Philip II.  Philip defaulted four times ‘yet he never lost access to capital markets and could borrow again within a year or two of each default’.  Risk was, and presumably is, priced.  Philip was hardly the only sovereign borrower to default.  Or –  which should matter more to the pricing of risk –  to pose a risk of default.

In just the last 100 years, Germany (by hyperinflation), the United Kingdom (on its war loans) and the United States (abrograting the gold convertibility clauses in bonds) have all in effect defaulted – the three most recent countries in the chart.  Perhaps one thing that is different about the last 30 or 40 years is the default has become beyond the conception of lenders.  Perhaps prolonged periods of peace –  or minor conflicts – help produce that sort of confidence, well-founded or not.

I’m not suggesting that real interest rates haven’t fallen.  They clearly have. But very very long-term levels comparisons of the sort in the charts above might well be concealing as much as they are revealing.    They certainly don’t capture –  say –  a centuries-long decline in productivity growth (productivity growth really only picked up from the 19th century) or changing demographics (again, rapid population growth was mostly a 19th and 20th century thing).  And interest rates meant something quite different in an economy where (for example) house mortgages weren’t pervasive –  or even enforceable – than they do today.

As for New Zealand, at the turn of the 20th century our government long-term bonds (30 years) were yielding about 3.5 per cent, in an era when there was no expected inflation.  Yesterday, according to the Reserve Bank, the longest maturity government bond (an inflation-indexed one) was yielding a real return of 2.13 per cent per annum.    Real governments yields have certainly fallen over that 100+ year period, but at the turn of the 20th century New Zealand was one of the most indebted countries on the planet  whereas these days we bask in the warm glow of some of the stronger government accounts anywhere.  Adjusted for changes in credit risk it is a bit surprising how small the compression in real New Zealand yields has been.

Why are NZ interest rates so persistently high (Part 2)?

In Friday’s post, I illustrated how persistent and large the gap between New Zealand long-term interest rates and those in other advanced countries has been (and remains).  The summary chart was this one

real NZ less G7

The gap is large and persistent whichever summary measure of other countries’ interest rates one looks at.

It is also there for short-term interest rates.  In this chart, I’ve shown average real short-term interest rates for the OECD monetary areas (17 countries with their own monetary policies, plus the euro-area) for the last 10 years, adjusting average nominal interest rates for average core inflation (the OECD reported measure of CPI inflation ex food and energy).

real short-term int rates oecd

Of the countries to the right of the chart, Iceland and Hungary have had full-blown IMF crisis programmes in the last decade, and Mexico and Poland had precautionary programmes.  That isn’t meant to suggest that New Zealand is crisis-prone, just to highlight how anomalous our interest rates look relative to those of the other more-established advanced economies.

In yesterday’s post I reviewed some of the arguments sometimes advanced to explain why New Zealand interest rates have been persistently higher than those in other advanced countries.   As I noted, these factors don’t look like a material, or compelling, part of the story:

  • size (of the country),
  • (lack of) economic diversification
  • market liquidity,
  • creditworthiness,
  • accumulated external indebtedness,
  • unusually rapid productivity growth

And, as I noted, none of those explanations has as a corollary a persistently strong real exchange rate.  A story that can make sense of New Zealand’s persistently high real interest rates needs to be able to make sense of the persistently strong exchange rate, and also of New Zealand’s persistently poor productivity performance.  As it is, in a country with a poor productivity performance and the disadvantages of remoteness, one might have expected to find persistently low interest rates and a persistently rather weak exchange rate.

At an economywide level, interest rates are about balancing the availability of resources with the calls on those resources.  In principle, they have almost nothing to do with central banks –  we had interest rates millennia before we had central banks.  They also don’t have anything necesssarily to do with “money”, except to the extent that money represents claims on real resources.

In any economy with lots of exceptionally attractive and profitable opportunities, firms will be wanting to do a lot of investment.  Resources used for investment today might well generate really strong returns in the future, but those resources can’t also be used for consumption (or producing consumption goods) today.  Interest rates play the role prices typically do –  acting as “rationing device”.  Higher interest rates today make some people willing to consume a bit less now, and they also help ensure that the only the investment projects with the higher expected returns go ahead.    In other words, interest rates help reconcile savings and investment plans.  (If they couldn’t adjust that way, the price level would do the adjustment –  and that is where central banks these days come in, adjusting the actual short-term interest rate to reconcile savings and investment plans while keeping inflation in check).

Sometimes the strong desire to undertake investment projects will be based on genuinely great new technologies.    Sometimes it might be just based on a pipe-dream (credit-fuelled commercial property development booms are often like that).   Sometimes, it will be based on direct government interventions (one could think of the Think Bg energy projects).  And sometimes, it will simply be based on rapid population growth –  people in advanced economies need lots of investment (houses, roads, shops, offices, schools etc).

Various factors can influence the desire to save.   If firms in your country have developed genuinely great new technologies, it may seem reasonable to expect the future incomes will be a lot higher than those today.  If so, it might be quite rational to spend heavily now in anticipation of those income gains (consumption-smoothing).  Some governments tend towards the spendthrift, and others towards the cautious end of the spectrum.  Tax and welfare rules might affect desire and willingness to save (although my reading of the evidence is that they affect more the vehicles through which people choose to save).   Demographics matter, and compulsion may also play a part.    Culture probably matters, although economists are often hesitant about relying on it as an explanation.  Business saving is often forgotten in these discussions, but can be a significant part of total savings.

But if, for whatever reason, people, firms and governments don’t have a strong desire/willingness to save at “the world interest rate”, then (all else equal) interest rates in your country will tend to be a bit higher than those in other countries.   And if firms, households and governments have a strong desire to invest (building capital assets) at “the world interest rate”, then (all else equal) interest rates in your country will also tend to be a bit higher than those in other countries.      Quite how much higher might well depend on how interest-sensitive that investment spending is (in aggregate).

Of course, we don’t get to observe actual supply curves for savings, or demand curves for investment.  We don’t know how much New Zealanders (or people in other countries) would choose to save or invest at “the world interest rate”.  Instead, we have to reason from what we do see –  actual investment (and its components) and actual savings.

Take savings rate first (and by “savings” here I mean national accounts measure –  in effect, the share of current income not consumed).  Net national savings rates in New Zealand have been similar, over the decades, to the median for the other (culturally similar) Anglo countries, but lower typically than in advanced (OECD) countries more generally.  Savings rates are somewhat cyclical, but as this chart illustrates, for some decades now they’ve cycled around a fairly stable mean (through big changes in eg tax policy, retirement income policy, fiscal policy, financial liberalisation etc).

net national savings.png

All else equal, if tomorrow we woke up and found that somehow New Zealanders had a much stronger desire to save then our interest rates would fall relative to those in the rest of the world.   But that is an illustrative thought-experiment only, not a basis for direct policy interventions.  A relatively low but stable trend savings rate over a long period of time –  especially against a backdrop of moderate government debt –  suggests something more akin to a established feature of New Zealand that policy advisers need to take account of.   A different New Zealand economy might well feature a higher national savings rate –  more successful firms, wanting to invest more heavily over time to pursue great profit opportunities, retaining more profits to reinvest –  but that would be an outcome of a transformed economic environment, not an input governments could or should directly engineer.   Higher saving rates are not, automatically, in and of themselves, “a good thing”.

By the same token, if we all woke tomorrow and (collectively) wanted to build less physical capital (“invest less” in national accounts terminoloy), our interest rates would fall relative to those in the rest of the world.  Actually, that is roughly what happens in a recession: pressure on scarce resources eases and so do interest rates (central banks typically helping the process along).  But less (desired) investment is not, in and of itself, “a good thing”.   Nor, for that matter, is more investment automatically desirable – in the last 40 years, investment/GDP was at its highest in the Think Big construction phase.

Whether over the last 40 years, or just over the last decade, investment/GDP in New Zealand has been very close to that of the typical advanced country.  On IMF data, investment/GDP for 2007 to 2016 averaged 22.0 per cent in New Zealand, and the median advanced country had investment as a share of GDP of 22.1 per cent.

But these investment shares for New Zealand happened with (real) interest rates so much higher than those in the rest of the world.  As I noted earlier, we can’t directly observe how much investment firms, households and governments would want to have undertaken at the “world” real interest rate –  perhaps 150 basis points lower than we actually had.

We might, however, reasonably assume that desired investment would have been quite a bit higher than actual investment.  Both because some investment –  whether by firms, households or (more weakly) government –  is interest rate sensitive, and because we’ve had much more rapid population growth than the typical advanced economy.   In the last 10 years, the median advanced country has had 6 per cent population growth, and we’ve had 13 per cent growth in population.   More people need more houses, shops, offices, road, machines, factories, schools etc.    All else equal, with that much faster population growth we’d have expected more investment here (as a share of current output) than in the typical advanced economy.  But all else isn’t equal, because our interest rates are so much higher.   That population-driven additional demand is one of the reasons why interest rates have been so much higher than those abroad.  Combine it with a modest desired savings rate, and you have pretty much the whole story.

As I noted earlier, some investment is more readily deterred by higher interest rates than others (“more interest-elastic” in the jargon).    Most of government capital expenditure isn’t –  government capex disciplines are pretty weak, and if (say) there are more kids, there will, soon enough, be more schools.  And more people will mean more roads.  A lot of household investment isn’t very interest-sensitive either: everyone needs a roof over their head and (by and large) they get it.    With a higher population growth rate than other countries, on average we devote a larger share of real resources to building houses than other advanced countries typically do (albeit less than might occur with well-functioning land markets).  Business investment is another matter altogether.  Businesses only invest if they expect to make a dollar (after cost of capital) from doing so.  All else equal, increase the interest rate and less investment will occur.  That won’t apply to all sectors, because in the domestically-oriented bits of the economy not only are interest rates higher, but the underlying demand is higher (more people).  And so non-tradables sector investment probably isn’t very materially affected.  But for the bits of the economy exposed to international competition (whether exporting, competing with imports, or supplying firms that do one of those) it is a quite different story.  An increased population here doesn’t materially increased demand, and a higher cost of capital makes it harder to justify investment in the sector.

And all that is before even mentioning the exchange rate.

In an open economy, the floating exchange rate system is what allows countries to have different (risk-adjusted) nominal interest rates.  Without a floating exchange rate, higher interest rates here would offer a “free lunch”, and the interest rate differences wouldn’t last.   With a floating exchange rate, one can have differences in interest rates across countries, but the exchange rate adjusts such that, overall, expected returns are more or less equal across markets.  Higher interest rates here are, roughly speaking, offset by an implicit expectation that one day our exchange rate will fall quite a lot.  It appreciates upfront, to create room for that future depreciation.

The exchange rate, of course, also serves as a “rationing device”.    Some of the high domestic demand spills over into imports.  And the higher exchange rate makes exporting less profitable, all else equal.  And so when we have domestic pressures (savings/investment imbalances at “world” interest rates) that put upward pressure on our interest rates, not only is business investment in general squeezed, but the squeeze falls particularly on potential investment in the tradables sector.  Firms in (or servicing) that sector face a double-whammy: a higher cost of capital, from the higher real New Zealand interest rates, and lower expected revenues as a result of the higher exchange rate.

We don’t have good data on investment broken down between tradables and non-tradables sectors. But we do know that overall business investment as a share of GDP has been towards the lower quartile among OECD countries (whether one looks back one, two, three or four decades), even though we’ve had faster population growth than most.  We also know that there has been no growth at all in tradables sector real per capita GDP since around 2000, and we know that the export share of GDP has been flat for decades (even though in successful economies it tends to be rising).   Those stylised facts are strongly suggestive of a situation in which:

  • lots of government investment takes place (market disciplines are weak),
  • lots of houses get built (even if not enough –  because people need a roof over their heads),
  • a fair amount of investment occurs in the non-tradables sectors, despite the high interest rates, but
  • a great deal of potential investment in the tradables (and tradables servicing) sectors has been squeezed out.

That is, roughly speaking, how we end up with rapid population growth and yet an investment share of GDP that is no different from that of a median advanced economy.  We know that population growth seems to adversely affect total business investment across the OECD (I ran this chart a few months ago)

Bus I % of GDP

And it is surely only commonsense to reason that tradables sector investment will have borne a lot more of the brunt than the non-tradables sectors.

I’m not getting into the details of immigration policy in this post.  Suffice to say that our immigration policy –  the number of non-citizens we allow to settle here –  is the single thing that has given New Zealand a population growth rate faster than that of the median OECD/advanced country in the last 25 years or so.  It is, solely, a policy choice.  Our birth rate is a little higher than that of the median advanced country, but we have a large trend/average outflow of New Zealanders.  So, on average, the choices of individual New Zealanders would have resulted in a below-average population growth rate (again, on average over several decades).  And that, in turn, would seem likely to have delivered us rather low real interest rates and a lower real exchange rate.  Real resources would have been less needed simply to meet the physical needs of a rising population, and more firms in the tradables sectors would have been able to have overcome the disadvantages of distance. And our productivity outcomes –  and material living standards – would, as a result, almost certainly have been better.

You can read about all this at greater length in a paper I did for a Reserve Bank and Treasury forum on the exchange rate and related issues back in 2013.

Why are NZ interest rates so persistently high (Part 1)?

On Friday, I illustrated (again) just how large and persistent the gap between New Zealand’s long-term interest rates and those in other advanced countries has been.   If anything, that gap has been larger in recent years (say, since 2009/10) than it was in the previous decade, but there has certainly been no sign of the gap shrinking.    It is at least as large now as it was 20 years ago.

Previous posts have illustrated that the gap is large and persistent however one cuts the data.  It exists whether one looks just at the big advanced economies (my charts on Friday focused on G7 countries) or just at the small ones (places like Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Israel).  Short-term interest rates are more variable than long-term ones, but on average the gap exists in short rates as well as long rates.  (If you aren’t convinced of the relationship between short and long rates, here are the average short and long-term interest rates for the last decade for each of the 18 OECD monetary areas –  ie countries with their own monetary policies, plus the euro-area as a bloc).

short and long term rates OECD

(The country on the far right of the chart is Iceland.)

Today’s post and tomorrow’s are about why those large and persistent gaps exist.  They will repeat material I’ve covered in earlier posts over the years, but readers come and go, old posts can be hard to find, and the issue hasn’t shown any signs of going away.   Much of today’s post is about a process of elimination: clearing away various possible explanations that, on my reading of the evidence, don’t take us very far.

10 years ago, the Reserve Bank wrote a short paper on exactly this issue.  It was part of our submission to the inquiry being undertaken into monetary policy by Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee.   I wrote the paper, but it was of course signed out by the powers that be, including the then Governor Alan Bollard and his deputy Grant Spencer.  Rereading it this morning, I don’t now agree with every word of that earlier document –  partly because my own thinking has gone beyond where we had got to then – but it still does a good job of laying the foundations.  I’d be surprised if today’s Reserve Bank sees any reason to disavow that 2007 interpretation.

In writing the earlier paper, one of our main concerns was to distinguish between things the Reserve Bank could sensibly be held responsible for and things that really had little or nothing to do with us.   In particular, so we argued, the Reserve Bank sets the OCR, and expectations about the future OCR affect longer-term interest rates, but that does not mean that over prolonged periods of time the Reserve Bank gets to decide the average level of real interest rates in New Zealand.

In a mechanical sense, then, if short-term interest rates are persistently higher than those in other countries it is because the Bank put them there. However, the OCR is not set arbitrarily. Rather, the Bank looks at actual inflation outcomes, and at all the data on the outlook for inflation, before setting the OCR with the aim of keeping inflation comfortably inside the target range over the medium-term. If the Reserve Bank was consistently setting the OCR too high, we would expect over time to see inflation averaging towards the bottom end, or perhaps below the bottom, of the target range. In fact, inflation has consistently averaged in the upper half of successive target ranges – this decade, for example, inflation has averaged 2.6 percent. If monetary policy had been set consistently too tight, the solution would be easy. But there is no sign of that.

It has, at times, been argued that New Zealand’s inflation target was too ambitious and that this might explain why New Zealand’s interest rates have been persistently higher than those in other countries. In the early years of inflation targeting, our inflation target was lower than those in other countries, but …… our target (midpoint at 2 percent) has been firmly in the international mainstream. The most common developed country inflation target (actual or implicit) is around 2 percent. ……there is no convincing reason why achieving an inflation target of around 2 percent should, over time, be any more demanding in New Zealand than it is in other developed countries.

One thing has changed since then.  (Core) inflation has been averaging a bit below the target midpoint, but even so the average inflation rate here over the last five or ten years has been very similar to that in the typical (median) advanced economy.    Monetary policy settings that have been a bit tighter than necessary can, at most, explain only a small part of the average gap between New Zealand and international interest rates (nominal and real).

As we pointed out 10 years ago, credit risk wasn’t a compelling explanation either.    That story feels even more robust today than it did then.    Our government finances aren’t the very strongest in the entire OECD, but they are among the best.   And the negative net NIIP position (the net indebtedness of all New Zealand entities to the rest of the world) is smaller, as a share of GDP, than it was 10 years ago.  Plenty of observers worry about high levels of private sector credit but (a) as a share of GDP it isn’t much different now than it was 10 years ago, and (b) the crisis literature tends to worry more about quick increases in debt ratios at least as much as high levels.

(Small) size isn’t really much of an explanation either.   There are a couple of possible strands to a story about size.  The first would be something about secondary market liquidity.  The New Zealand government bond market is tiny in comparison to those of, say, the United States, Japan, France, Italy, or even Germany.   That makes it difficult, or expensive, to offload a very large position, and might (in principle) given rise to an additional “illiquidity premium” in our long-term interest rates.

In practice, it doesn’t seem likely to be a material part of the explanation.  Over the last decade, for example, our real interest rates have been about as much above those of the small well-managed OECD countries as they have been above those of the G7 countries.   And the “illiquidity premium” is a story that should apply to bond rates more than to overnight rates and yet over the last few decades our short-term rates have been higher relative to our long-term rates than has been the experience of most other advanced countries.  Over the last decade, interpreting that relationship has been made more difficult as many other countries had short-term rates near-zero and felt unable to take them any lower even if they’d wanted to.    But even over the last decade, there has been no sign that New Zealand’s long-term interest rates have been surprisingly high, given where short-term rates were.

I covered off another possible small country story in a post last November

There is another possible story which hasn’t really entered the mainstream of the New Zealand debate, but should be covered off for completeness.  It notes that New Zealand is a small country, with quite a volatile terms of trade, and that the currencies of such countries offer less-good diversification opportunities, suggesting that anyone investing here would require a higher return than elsewhere.  It sounds initially plausible, but it has a number of problems.  The first is that our interest rates have been persistently higher than those in other not-large countries with their own currencies ……  And the second is that if this were an important channel, it would suggest that small countries face a higher cost of capital than large ones, which would limit the growth prospects of small countries.  But (badly as New Zealand specifically has done) there is no real sign that small countries typically grow (per capita, or per hour worked) more slowly than large ones.  At present, I don’t think it is a particularly strong candidate to explain New Zealand’s persistently high interest rates.  Apart from anything else, if this were the story, why would New Zealand have accumulated –  and maintained – such a large negative net international investment position (NIIP) (still among the largest of the OECD countries)?

Monetary policy doesn’t explain the gaps, and neither do size or credit risks considerations.  Here was the Reserve Bank summary a decade ago

Standing back, it seems unlikely that factors such as credit risk, size and market liquidity help very much at all in explaining the persistent gap between our real interest rates and those in other developed countries. Apart from anything else, if these factors were (collectively) an important influence, we would expect to see New Zealand firms and household taking on less debt than those in other countries. In fact, of course, one of the well-recognised facts about New Zealand is that our households are highly indebted by international standards, and that the nation as a whole has been unusually willing to borrow, and raise equity capital, from abroad.

Productivity growth doesn’t help as an explanation either.

If a country had very strong persistent productivity growth it would, all else equal, tend to have higher interest rates than would be seen in other countries.  There would be lots of profitable investment opportunities in that high productivity growth country, lots of (expected) income growth that people might be consuming in anticipation of, and so on.  And over time, that high-productivity growth country could expect to see its real exchange rate rise.  Unfortunately, high productivity growth isn’t the story of New Zealand in the last few decades.  Indeed, more often rather the reverse.  Over the last five years, we’ve recorded no labour productivity growth at all.  Over the last 10 years, at best we’ve only been around a middling OECD country for productivity growth, and over longer-terms still we’ve had one of the worst records anywhere.      I illustrated a few months ago, the depressing comparisons of productivity growth between New Zealand and the emerging economies of central and eastern Europe.

A more prominent explanation for New Zealand’s persistently high interest rates points to the large negative NIIP position and asserts that the explanation for high interest rates is pretty straightforward: lots of debt means lots of risk, and hence the need for a substantial risk premium on New Zealand interest rates.  Taken in isolation –  if someone told you only that a country had a large negative NIIP position this year –  it might sound plausible.  Once you think a bit more richly about the New Zealand experience it no longer works as a story.

Here was the Reserve Bank commentary on this possible story a decade ago.

But the fact that this correlation exists between net international positions and local interest rates does not explain very much at all. In particular, it does nothing to explain what leads countries such as New Zealand to take on such large amounts of foreign capital in the first place. More specifically (and given that the Crown now has no net debt), what motivates New Zealand firms and households to take the actions that lead to this accumulation of foreign capital? And having accumulated the foreign liabilities (and New Zealand’s, as a share of GDP, have not changed much in a decade), what makes higher interest rates sustainable here for prolonged periods?

First, our NIIP has been large (and negative) for a very long time now –  for at least the last 25 years, and over that time there has been no persistent tendency for the NIIP position to get better or worse for long.  By contrast, 20 years earlier than that New Zealand had almost no net foreign debt.  The heavy government borrowing undertaken in the 70s and 80s had markedly worsened the position.  It is quite plausible that foreign lenders might then have got very nervous and wanted a premium ex ante return to cover the risk. In fact, we know some (agents of) foreign investors got very nervous –  there was the threat of a double credit rating downgrade in early 1991.  But when lenders get very nervous, borrowers tend to change their behavior, voluntarily or otherwise, working off the debt and restoring their creditworthiness.   And in New Zealand, the government did exactly that –  running more than a decade of surpluses and restoring a pretty respectable government balance sheet.  But the large interest rate differential has persisted –  in a way that it did in no other advanced country (including those that went through much worse crises and threats or crises than anything New Zealand has seen in the last 25 years).

As I’ve already touched on, short-term interest rates are set by the Reserve Bank, in response to domestic inflation pressures. But long-term interest rates are set in the markets.  If investors had really been persistently uneasy about New Zealand’s NIIP position, we might not have seen it much in short-term interest rates, but should certainly have expected to see it in the longer-term interest rates. (That, after all, is what we see in various euro countries that have lapsed in and out of near-crisis conditions).   But in one obvious place one might look for direct evidence of such a risk premium, it just isn’t there.

And remember that when risk concerns about a country/currency rise, one of the first things one typically sees –  at least in a floating exchange rate country –  is a fall in the exchange rate.  It is a bit like how things work in equity markets.  When investors get uneasy about a company, or indeed a whole market, they only rarely succeed in getting higher dividends out of the company(ies) concerned.  If the companies were sufficiently profitable to support higher dividends the concerns probably wouldn’t have arisen in the first place.  Instead, what tends to happen is that share prices fall –  and they fall to the point where expected dividends, and the expected future price appreciations of the share(s) concerned, in combination leave investors happy to hold those shares. In that process, an increased equity risk premium is built into the pricing.

At an economywide level,  if investors had had such concerns about the New Zealand economy and the accumulated net debt position, the most natural places to have seen it would have been in (a) higher long-term bond yields, and (b) a fall in the exchange rate (and perhaps a persistence of a surprisingly weak exchange rate). But we’ve seen neither in New Zealand.  Had we done so, presumably domestic demand would have weakened, and net exports would have increased.  The combined effects of those two shifts would have been to have reduced the negative NIIP position, and reduced whatever basis there had been for investors’ concerns.  Nothing in the New Zealand experience over the last 20 years or more squares with that sort of story.

And that is the really the problem with the most common stories used to explain New Zealand’s persistently high interest rates. They simply cannot explain the co-existence of high interest rates and a high exchange rate over long periods.

My story attempts to.  More on that tomorrow.