Reducing non-citizen immigration by “tens of thousands”

Debate around New Zealand immigration policy continues to heat up.  That is what one should not only expect, but hope for, in an election year, especially in a country where non-citizen immigration is such a significant economic instrument, contributor to population growth etc, and even more so where –  despite all the talk of a skills-led immigration programme to lift overall New Zealand productivity – our productivity performance remains woeful.   And it isn’t as if the Think Big immigration experiment is a new thing, so that the gains might be just over the horizon (“the cheque is in the mail”).  Rather, the last few years have just been a somewhat intensified version of a strategy adopted for almost 30 years now.   Serious debate is long overdue.

Of course, some want to pretend that to pose any questions, raise any doubts, propose any cutbacks, about one of the most aggressive immigration programmes anywhere in the world is somehow “xenophobic”.  That’s just nonsense.  No doubt there are all sorts of reasons why some are in favour of large scale migration –  I’ve read New Zealand perspectives along those lines from libertarians and  from Marxists –  and all sorts of reasons why different people might now have some significant doubts.    Lack of any good robust evidence that New Zealanders have benefited economically from the large scale non-citizen immigration is only one of those reasons.     But when an experiment hasn’t shown clear signs of working after almost 30 years, it is almost a definition of insanity to expect different outcomes in future from keeping on doing the same thing.  And, while house prices shouldn’t be the main issue, for all the talk from the pro-immigration people that we should just “build more houses” (or free up the land) –  which I happen to agree with –  there is no sign at all of it happening to any great extent.  And it hasn’t in other places that got themselves into the mire of “town planning” and land use restrictions.

The government is keen to suggest that much of the high net migration numbers is about a return of New Zealanders from abroad.  In fact, of course, all that has happened is that the net flow of New Zealanders has slowed down (to near zero) at present.    Basically, all the 71000 or so net arrivals over the last year have been non-New Zealand citizens.   Here is the chart I’ve run many times before.

plt by citizenship apr 17

Over the last three months there has been an annualised net inflow (seasonally adjusted) of 75280 non-citizens, on a PLT basis.    (Relative to history it isn’t quite as high as it looks –  later SNZ research showed that in the 2002/03 boom there were more net permanent and long-term arrivals than the self-reported arrival/departure card estimates suggested –  but it is a large number, and large as a share of the population). That is around 35000 per annum more than were coming in, on average, in the decade prior to around 2012/13.       Almost all those non-citizens who come here require a discretionary decision by the New Zealand government (the exception being Australian citizens, for whom there is a long-term New Zealand government decision to allow free access).

Too few commentators focus on these non-citizen numbers.     Each of the main opposition parties seem to talk in terms of targeting the overall net PLT inflow.  NZ First talk in terms of, I think, 10000 to 15000, the Greens talk of 1 per cent of population, and now it appears that Andrew Little is talking of a target net inflow of around 20000 to 25000.      As I’ve noted before, and as many others have also argued, it is all but impossible, and not very sensible, to try to target the net PLT flow, and certainly not on a year to year basis.  The decisions of New Zealanders –  in turn heavily influenced by the state of the Australian labour market –  often play the largest role in fluctuations in the PLT numbers, and we don’t, can’t and shouldn’t try to control what New Zealanders do.

It is relatively straightforward, as a technical matter, to materially reduce (even by “tens of thousands”  –  Little’s language)  the net and gross inflow of non-citizens.  I outlined my own preferred approach in a post a week or two back.    Frankly, I’m a little sceptical that you could make quite that much difference if one focused narrowly on work visas, but even they offer a lot of potential.

The centrepiece of our medium-term immigration policy is the residence approvals programme.    Current policy is to offer around 45000 residence approvals each year.   Most of those approvals are offered to people who are already in New Zealand –  either on work or student visas  –  but over time it is the number of residence approvals on offer that largely determines the contribution of immigration policy to population growth (and, in the absence of good supply side policies) and to the pressure on roading infrastructure, house prices etc.    Many people only seek work or student visas to help them get points for residency.  If fewer residency places were on offer, there would be many fewer applicants for short-term positions.

The residence approvals target was reduced a little (from a range centred on 47500) last year.  But if I’ve done my calculations correctly on MBIE’s very unwieldy spreadsheet, 57623 people were approved for residence in the year to end of March 2017.     (UPDATE: I hadn’t done the calculations correctly, and the actual number seems to be 49991.  Readily accessible summary statistics – as we have in the rest of the economy –  would avoid such slips.)

Sometimes MBIE officials like to tell stories about being overwhelmed with good applicants in good times, whom it might be a shame to turn away.  But we now know, from MBIE’s own data, that that simply isn’t the situation.    Of the people applying for the most skilled stream in the residence approvals programme, more than half weren’t able to command an income as high as $49000 –  roughly what a starting primary school teacher earns – in the New Zealand labour market.    Our migrants might be more skilled than those in many other countries, but they aren’t very skilled at all, and most of them simply aren’t likely to be making a positive difference to the economic fortunes of New Zealanders (as a whole).

So let’s cut the target.  And in my view this is the nettle that the Labour Party really should grasp –  the key on which the whole programme turns.  If they want to look to their own past and their own traditions, it was one of the icons of the Labour movement, Norman Kirk who led the government that sharply cut back on non-citizen immigration, easing pressure on house prices and wider economic performance, in the mid 1970s.  Kirk did it by limiting open access for Britons.  In today’s term, the relevant metric is the residence approvals target (or “planning range”).

I’ve proposed pulling that target down to a range of 10000 to 15000 per annum.   But one doesn’t need to go that far to make a big difference.    For example, an incoming government could direct MBIE to ensure first that residence approvals for a year are capped at the upper end of the range (that would now be 47500 per annum).  Then they could, to provide a degree of certainty all round, announce that the target range would be reduced by another 20000, phased in evenly over a first electoral term, so that by the end of that term, the residence approvals target would be centred on 25000 people per annum.    That would still be getting on for twice as many approvals, per capita, as the number of green cards issued for US permanent residence.   It would be a thoroughly mainstream thing for a responsible centre-left party to do.    (As part of trying to refocus the programme on genuinely highly-skilled people I’d review and probably terminate the Pacific Access categories –  if we are serious about a skills-led economic programme we need to be hard-headed, but I don’t suppose a Labour Party with a big Pacific base could really do that.)

Of course, changing the residence approvals numbers doesn’t affect actual arrivals on day 1.  Even people approved overseas take some time to arrive, and I’m not suggesting cancelling approvals already granted.   But over time the reduced number of approvals will make a lot of difference (“tens of thousands” in fact) to the expected net inflows, even if all other visa programmes were unchanged.

But there are plenty of other changes that should be made.  We put far too much emphasis, in offering residence points, on people already having a job, or a firm job offer, in New Zealand.   Being at the ends of the earth, that isn’t always easy if you haven’t been willing to take the big risk and first relocate yourself and family to New Zealand (it isn’t exactly like moving from Brussels to Paris, or Dublin to London).  We probably do miss out on really skilled and innovative people who might otherwise come.  If we are going to give residence points for people already having a NZ job, or job offer, do it only for pretty highly paid roles –  perhaps those paying $100000 or more (you could age adjust it a bit too –  older people who are likely to be of real value as permanent residents should probably be earning rather more than that; younger people perhaps a bit less).    Again, changes like this will reduce the appeal of New Zealand work visas –  to what they should be (something where there is a specific short-term labour market need –  eg a temporary surge in demand like earthquake repairs).

What of short-term visas themselves?   A lot of government rhetoric has claimed that a huge upsurge in student numbers is a big part of the surge in net PLT immigration.    First, what we’ve seen in the last few years around students is as nothing compared to what saw 15 years ago.   Between 1997/98 and 2002/03 the number of people granted student visas increased by 70000.  Between 2012/23 and 2015/16 the increase was only 27000 (and MBIE data show that the number of valid student visas outstanding didn’t increase over the 12 months to February 2017).    As importantly, no one seriously questions that much of the increase in student visas –  mostly via lower-level PTE courses –  isn’t about the quality (or even cost) of our export education offerings, as about the residence points that such courses offer, both directly, and by providing access to a post-study “study to work” visa, which allows those completing these lower-level courses to work in any job they can find, no matter how relatively unskilled.      Severely cut back the ability of foreign students to work while doing lower-level courses, remove any residence points offered for such courses, and cut back on the “study to work” options and (the export incentives would drop away and) foreign student numbers would quite quickly fall back a long way.   One doesn’t even need to cut for every programme –  one can treat lower-level PTE courses differently to university degree courses, and even within university programmes treat post-graduate courses rather more generously.  We are happy to take –  even want –  really able people.  We shouldn’t be taking people who can’t even command $49000 per annum in the domestic labour market.

There were 25000 valid student visas outstanding earlier this year for PTE courses (and another 13000 or so for polytechs).  Halve those numbers and you make a material contribution to reducing the inflows of people (many of them working in quite lowly-skilled roles) by ”tens of thousands”.   It will be tough for those running the providers (the PTEs etc).  It was tough for many firms in the 1980s when export incentives and import protection were stripped away.  But they are changes that really need to be made.  Give some notice, sure, but many of the rule changes that facilitated the big inflows are themselves quite recent, so there shouldn’t be any sense of obligation to phase these concessions out very slowly.

I could go on, but won’t.   But as one last immigration thought for the day, I was rather puzzled by Fran O’Sullivan’s column in the Herald this morning.  Headed Forget immigration –  let’s talk wages, it was something of a mixed bag.    She seemed to recognise that immigration historically mostly raised total GDP and total population, and hadn’t been any sort of answer to New Zealand’s long-term productivity underperformance.    But her alternative was one that I suspect both pro-immigration economists like Eric Crampton, and sceptical ones like me, would both look at rather askance (to put in politely)

But if New Zealand is to evolve as a highly skilled economy it needs to set the bar higher, and pay decent wages which will also spur employers to take initiatives to drive greater movement on the productivity front.

This requires a major reset of the NZ economy – not simply using immigration to spur economic growth, then screwing the taps down when the cost of running things too hot becomes a political negative.

Where Labour is on point is with addressing the “Future of Work”.

Raising wages –  whether by government fiat (as in “pay equity” deals, or simply from employers swayed by the rhetoric) without the pre-conditions for growth in productivity is just a recipe for more unemployment (for New Zealanders), and the sort of insider/outsider bifurcated labour market that has given Spain what has long been one of the worst unemployment records anywhere.     We all want a high-wage high-productivity economy, but for everyone not just those who keep their jobs, and there is little evidence that putting the cart before the horse in the way O’Sullivan appears to suggest has ever worked on any sort of widespread basis.   The structural problems New Zealand faces aren’t mostly about bad choices by New Zealand firms (or indeed, foreign firms investing here) –  mostly they do their very best in the environment governments deliver to them –  but about that wider macro environment.

Higher real wages is a highly desirable outcome –  and on offer from policies that lead to closing the gap between New Zealand and world real interest rates (which, to be clear, has nothing to do with monetary policy) and allowing the real exchange rate to finally fall back to the sorts of levels that our dismal productivity performance suggests should have been warranted.  I hope that whatever Labour has in mind on the “future of work” it doesn’t involve leading with higher wage increases.  Rather, when they happen, consistent with low sustainable unemployment rates, it will be sign that we’ve got right much more of the rest of the policy mix.

 

Svensson and Labour’s monetary policy

In 1999, having been out of office for nine years, the Labour Party campaign platform included promises about monetary policy.  They undertook to change the Policy Targets Agreement –  and they did, adding the words (still) requiring the Bank to “seek to avoid unnecessary instability in output, interest rates and the exchange rate”.

But they also promised an independent inquiry into the operation of monetary policy.    It was then 10 years since the Reserve Bank Act had been passed, and we’d gone through both a wrenching but successful disinflation, and through one full business cycle since something like price stability had been established.    Some of elements of the management of that cycle hadn’t been the Reserve Bank at its finest:  use of the Monetary Conditions Index to guide short-term policy management had given us a (relatively short) period of quite astonishing interest rate volatility, not helped by being slow to appreciate the significance of the Asian financial crisis.

I don’t suppose Michael Cullen was ever a great fan of Don Brash’s.  But Brash had already been reappointed for a third term in 1998 (arguably fortunate that the reappointment was done before the nature of the MCI debacle was fully appreciated).   And Cullen was clearly uneasy about the volatility in New Zealand interest rates, and about the big cycles in the exchange rate.   There were also suggestions that he was a bit uneasy about the rule of a single unelected technocrat at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, and Labour at times seemed to look longingly across the water at the Reserve Bank of Australia (with a higher target, more flexible rhetoric, and a reputation for being a steady hand).    And, of course, Labour was coming into government with Jim Anderton as Deputy Prime Minister.  Anderton had still not been reconciled to the Reserve Bank Act framework at all.   So it was, all round, opportune to have an inquiry.

But of course whenever one sets up an independent inquiry, the name of the person appointed to conduct the inquiry tells one a lot about what the appointer is looking for.    There were all sorts of names bandied about at the time, including (for example) Bernie Fraser who had until recently been Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, and whose centre-left sympathies were not exactly unknown.  But the government settled on Swedish academic Lars Svensson.  Perhaps being Swedish  –  home of centre-left big government – lulled some on the left of New Zealand politics.  But, more importantly, Svensson was also a leading academic author on aspects of the (then still relatively new) theory and practice of inflation targeting.  He’d also spent some time in New Zealand a couple of years earlier, as the Reserve Bank professorial fellow.    In other words, it was never likely to be a terribly radical report.

And it wasn’t.    Which is not to say that it wasn’t a useful exercise, or that Svensson did not make some useful recommendations.  He did.  Some of the less important recommendations –  eg around the make-up of the Bank’s Board, and the publication of a Board Annual Report –  were even adopted.    Some others that should have been adopted –  for example, the introduction of a monthly CPI –  still, unfortunately, haven’t been.  Svensson also proposed legislating for committee decision-making for monetary policy, but his proposal of a committee of insiders (including the role I then held) went nowhere: among other reasons no doubt, Michael Cullen hadn’t come into politics to give statutory power to more Reserve Bank pointy-heads.

I was quite heavily involved in the review, both in contributing to the Reserve Bank’s own substantial submission to the inquiry and –  along with a couple of Treasury economists –  as part of the secretariat to the inquiry itself.  For an inquiry into the Bank, it was a bit of an odd arrangement  –  shortly after the inquiry began I was promoted into one of the half dozen top policy/management roles in the Bank and did the two roles in tandem –  but I guess it is a small country, and there was never much doubt about the overall favourable stance Svensson was likely to take.  He was a big fan of Don Brash, and the conclusions were his not those of the secretariat (in fact, flicking through notes stapled in my copy of the report yesterday I noticed that in some places we –  and the Bank –  urged Svensson to toughen up his comments, lest the report look in places a bit like a whitewash.)

But the main point of this post isn’t about history.  It was initially prompted by an observation in a column in the Sunday Star-Times the other day, in which their resident right-wing columnist was quoting Svensson from 2001.  Damien Grant, in commenting sceptically on Grant Robertson’s proposals,

Robertson might find it useful to know that when Cullen became finance minister he commissioned a review of the Reserve Act by Swedish economist Lars Svensson who concluded:

“It is beyond the capacity of any central bank to increase the average level or the growth rate of real variables such as GDP and employment.”

The understanding that monetary policy can only influence the value of money and nothing else is one of the few untarnished successes of modern economic thought. It is deeply disturbing that Grant Robertson does not seem to appreciate this.

As a commenter observed yesterday, no mainstream economist believes that monetary policy can change the long-term level of employment/unemployment/real GDP or whatever.  In the long-term monetary policy can only affect nominal variables.   Svensson certainly believed that then and believes it now.   I don’t know whether Grant Robertson does, but I expect so.

But equally, not many mainstream economists believe that active monetary policy typically has no effect (short to medium term) on real variables.   There is pretty general acceptance, I think, that the depth and severity of the Great Depression was in substantial part a matter of monetary mismanagement.  That’s a deliberately extreme example, but it both illustrates the point and (historically) provides some of the backdrop to modern more active discretionary monetary policy.  In earlier decades, adjustments in central bank interest rates (where central banks existed at all) were mostly about maintaining the gold (or silver) convertibility of the currency.  Domestic economic conditions didn’t play much of a role.    Really bad experiences like the Depression, along perhaps with the rise of universal suffrage (the more marginal got a say in politics), helped change that focus.

Writing in 2001, reviewing New Zealand policy, Lars Svensson had no doubt about the importance of real variables in the management of monetary policy.   He didn’t question section 8 of the Reserve Bank Act –  the focus on price stability.  But his articulation of flexible inflation targeting –  what the Reserve Bank saw itself practising – involved short-term trade-offs between pursuit of the inflation target, and the variability of the real economy.  At the time, as an academic, he focused explicitly on the trade-off with variability in the output gap (the gap between actual and potential output), and devoted several pages of the report to a discussion of the issue, describing it not just as a very short-term matter, but as a “short and medium term” issue.    (For anyone interested, the full report and associated documents are here.)     What he was talking about wasn’t at all inconsistent with the 1999 addition to the PTA, quoted above, about seeking to “avoid unnecessary instability in output”).    And there was only one tool –  the OCR.

Standing back from his more theoretical perspective, there was good reason why one might want explicit consideration of real variables in the official articulation of what an independent central bank was asked to do.   One doesn’t need active monetary policy if all one is concerned about is long-term stability in the general level of prices –  something passive like the Gold Standard would do it.    But the Reserve Bank Act –  and other comparable legislation abroad –  was about a regime for governing the discretionary active use of monetary policy.   We had –  and have –  such a policy because it was believed that discretionary monetary policy could make a difference, over meaningful horizons, to real economic outcomes (GDP, unemployment or the like) even if not to the trend or potential levels of those variables.

Some years later Lars Svensson himself became a policymaker, as a fulltime member of the executive board of Sweden’s Riksbank.  The Executive Board makes the monetary policy decisions in Sweden.    Many of my old Reserve Bank colleagues don’t agree, but I think Svensson proved to be an ideal person to have on a monetary policy decisionmaking committee.   He had strong expertise in the subject – albeit initially at a rather abstract level –  and a cast of mind which meant that he wasn’t just going to fall into line with the preferences of the Governor and the long-term staff advisers.  He strongly and opened argued against the Riksbank’s strategy, adopted several years back in the wake of the global recession of 2008/09, of trying to use monetary policy to lean against the accumulation of household debt, even at the expense of inflation undershooting the target (and unemployment remaining very high).   It was a costly failed experiment, which the Riksbank eventually abandoned.

His experience as a policymaker led Svensson to recraft how he thinks about the objective of the central bank and explicit role that unemployment should have in that thinking.   He hasn’t, of course, changed by one iota his belief that in the long-term the level of real variables is determined by a whole bunch of regulatory, demographic etc factors, but not by monetary policy.    He reflected on these issues a couple of years ago in a lengthy lecture, Some Lessons from Six Years of Practical Inflation Targeting (of which only the first 10 pages are directly relevant to this post), and in another article How to weigh unemployment relative to inflation in monetary policy?

He notes

Flexible inflation targeting involves both stabilizing inflation around an inflation target and stabilizing the real economy.  A clear objective for monetary policy contributes to monetary policy being systematic and not arbitrary. Furthermore, for central-bank independence to be consistent with a democratic society, it must be possible to evaluate monetary policy and hold the central bank accountable for achieving its objective. This requires that the degree of achieving the objective can be measured. A numerical inflation target allows target achievement with regard to inflation to be measured and the central bank to be held accountable for its performance regarding inflation stabilization. But if monetary policy also has the objective of stabilizing the real economy, that part of the objective must also be measurable, in order for monetary policy to be evaluated and the central bank be held accountable. Given this, how should stabilization of the real economy be measured?

and

Stabilization of the real economy can be specified as the stabilization of resource utilization around an estimated sustainable rate of resource utilization, accepting the conventional wisdom that the sustainable rate of resource utilization is determined by nonmonetary factors and not monetary policy and therefore has to be estimated. But how should resource utilization be measured? More precisely, besides inflation, what target variable (or variables) should enter the monetary-policy loss function? One can answer this question by interpreting the legislated mandate for monetary policy and by examining what economic analysis suggests about a suitable measure of resource utilization.

In Sweden, the Riksbank’s own act mentions only price stability.  But

 The Riksbank’s mandate for monetary policy follows from the Sveriges Riksbank Act 1988:1385 and the preparatory works of the Act, the Government Bill 1997/98:4 to the Riksdag (Swedish Government 1997) that contained the proposal for this legislation. In Sweden, the preparatory works of laws carry legal weight, since they contain guidance on how the laws should be interpreted. According to the Riksbank Act, the objective of monetary policy is “to maintain price stability.” The Bill further states (p. 1): “As an authority under the Riksdag, the Riksbank should, without prejudice to the objective of price stability, support the objectives of the general economic policy with the aim to achieve sustainable growth and high employment.”

(I didn’t know this when in 2014 we wrote a Reserve Bank Bulletin article on the statutory goals for monetary policy in a range of countries, the Swedish entry in which thus should thus be discounted, or read in the light of these Svensson comments.)

Svensson continues

The idea in the Bill is hardly that there is any conflict or tradeoff between sustainable growth and high employment. Furthermore, for many years Swedish governments have emphasized full employment as the main objective for general economic policy.  Also, in this context, high employment should be interpreted as the highest sustainable rate of employment, if we accept that monetary policy cannot achieve any level of unemployment and that the sustainable rate of employment is determined by nonmonetary factors. According to this line of reasoning, the Riksbank’s mandate for monetary policy is price stability and the highest sustainable rate of employment.

In practice, he argues that the unemployment rate –  and in particular the gap between the actual unemployment rate and the long run sustainable rate of unemployment (LSRU, determined by those non-monetary factors) should be the focus.   15 years ago his focus was on the output gap but

What does economic analysis say about the output gap as a measure of resource utilization? Estimates of potential output actually have severe problems. Estimates of potential output requires estimates or assumptions not only of the potential labor force but also of potential worked hours, potential total factor productivity, and the potential capital stock. Furthermore, potential output is not stationary but grows over time, whereas the LSRU is stationary and changes slowly. Output data is measured less frequently, is subject to substantial revisions, and has larger measurement errors compared to employment and unemployment data. This makes estimates of potential output not only very uncertain and unreliable but more or less impossible to verify and also possible to manipulate for various purposes, for instance, to give better target achievement and rationalizing a particular policy choice. This problem is clearly larger for potential output than for the LSRU.

and

Compared to potential-output estimates, estimates of the LSRU are much easier to verify, more difficult to manipulate and can be publicly debated. Independent academic labor economists can and do provide estimates of the LSRU and can verify or dispute central-bank estimates. Several government agencies have labor-market expertise and provide verifiable estimates of the LSRU. One could even think of an arrangement where an independent committee rather than the central bank provides an estimate of the LSRU that the central bank should use as its estimate, to minimize the risk of manipulation by the central bank. Furthermore, unemployment is better known and understood by the general public than output and GDP.

He concludes

Most importantly, it has much more drastic effects on welfare. As expressed by [academic labour economist, and former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member]   Blanchflower (2009):

Unemployment hurts. Unemployment has undeniably adverse effects on those unfortunate enough to experience it. A range of evidence indicates that unemployment tends to be associated with malnutrition, illness, mental stress, depression, increases in the suicide rate, poor physical health in later life and reductions in life expectancy. However, there is also a wider social aspect. Many studies find a strong relationship between crime rates and unemployment, particularly for property crime. Sustained unemployment while young is especially damaging. By preventing labour market entrants from gaining a foothold in employment, sustained youth unemployment may reduce their productivity. Those that suffer youth unemployment tend to have lower incomes and poorer labour market experiences in later life. Unemployment while young creates permanent scars rather than temporary blemishes. 

When unemployment rises, the happiness of both workers and non-workers falls. Unemployment affects not only the mental wellbeing of those concerned but also that of their families, colleagues, neighbours and others who are in direct or indirect contact with them.

Thus, I think there are strong reasons to use the gap between unemployment and an estimated LSRU as the measure of resource utilization that the central bank should stabilize in addition to stabilizing inflation around the inflation target.

Svensson proposes reduces all this to a “loss function”, to which, in principle at least, central bank monetary policy decisionmakers can be held to account, with formal weights attached to each of the inflation gap (from target) and the unemployment gap (from the LSRU).

Personally, I think he is rather unrealistic in supposing such a formulation is possible, at least as the basis for formalised accountability.    But if it is practically challenging (or even impossible), the sort of analysis he advances here isn’t unorthodox or out of the mainstream.  It is simply one plausible extension of the conventional economics of modern monetary policy, from one of the leading contributors to the academic literature (and someone who has himself been exposed to the real world challenges of policymaking).

I don’t know specifically what Svensson would make of the current debate in New Zealand, or of what the Labour Party (at quite a high level of generality) is proposing.    What we do know is that Labour is proposing nothing nearly as specific or formal as Svensson argues for: there would be no numerical unemployment target or an official external assessment of the NAIRU (or LSRU).  My impression would be that his reaction would be along the lines of “well, of course the unemployment rate –  and short to medium term deviations from the long-run level, determined by non-monetary factors – should be a key consideration for monetary policymakers; in fact it is more or less intrinsic to what flexible inflation targeting is”.   He might suggest there are already elements of that in the PTA, but that making it a little more high profile, with an explicit reference to unemployment, might be helpful.     I might be wrong about, but it could be worth Robertson or his advisers getting in touch with Svensson –  who retains an interest in New Zealand, and gave a paper here only a couple of years ago –  and asking.

 

Cosmetics (can) matter: Labour’s monetary policy proposals

I’ve already written a bit about Labour proposals on monetary policy (here and here) and, for now at least, I don’t want to write anything more about the proposed changes to the decision-making process or the plan to require the Monetary Policy Committee to publish its minutes.  If there are all sorts of issues around the details of how, I haven’t seen anyone objecting to the notion of moving from a single decisionmaker model to a a legislated committee, or objecting to proposals to enhance the transparency of the Bank’s monetary policy.    The Bank was once a leader in some aspects of monetary policy transparency, but is now much more of a laggard.

Where there has been more sceptical comment is around Labour’s proposal to add full employment to the statutory monetary policy objective.    At present, section 8 of the Reserve Bank Act reads as follows:

The primary function of the Bank is to formulate and implement monetary policy directed to the economic objective of achieving and maintaining stability in the general level of prices.

Responding to this aspect of Labour’s announcement hasn’t been made easier by the lack of any specificity: we don’t know (and they may not either) how Labour plans to phrase this statutory amendment.    There are some possible formulations that could really be quite damaging.  But there are others that would probably make little real difference to monetary policy decisionmaking quarter-to-quarter.  Probably each of us would prefer to know in advance what, specifically, Labour plans.  But this is politics, and I’m guessing that there is a range of interests Labour feels the need to manage.  In that climate, specificity might not serve their pre-election ends.  One could get rather precious on this point, but it is worth remembering that there are plenty of other things that may matter at least as much that we currently know little about.  Under current legislation, who becomes the Governor of the Reserve Bank matters quite a lot to shorter-term economic outcomes, and we have no idea who that will be.   The details of the PTA can matter too, and under the governments of both stripes the process leading up to the signing of new PTAs has been highly secretive (often even after the event).  For the moment, we probably just have to be content with the “direction of travel” Labour has outlined.

In some quarters, Labour’s plans for adding a full employment objective have been described as “cosmetic”, as if to describe them thus is to dismiss them.    That is probably a mistake.  When I went hunting, I found that cosmetics have been around for perhaps 5000 years (rather longer than central banks).   People keep spending scarce resources on them for, apparently, good reasons.     Why?  They can, as it were, accentuate the positive or eliminate the negative –  highlighting features the wearer wants to draw attention to, or covering up the unsightly or unwanted marks of ageing.    They (apparently) accomplish things for the wearer.

What is the relevance of all this to monetary policy?  Well, there has been a long-running discontent with monetary policy in New Zealand, especially (but not exclusively) on the left.  In the 28 years since the Act was passed there has not yet been an election in which some reasonably significant party was not campaigning to change either the Act or the PTA.  We haven’t seen anything like it in other advanced countries.   Personally, I think much of the discontent has been wrongheaded or misplaced –  the real medium-term economic performance problems of New Zealand have little or nothing to do with the Reserve Bank –  and many of the solutions haven’t been much better (in the 1990s, eg, Labour was campaigning to change the target to a range of -1 to 3 per cent and NZ First wanted to target the inflation rates of our trading partners, whatever they were).     But that doesn’t change the fact that there has been discontent –  and more than is really desirable.

I’m quite clear that there is no long-run trade-off adverse trade-off between achieving and maintaining a moderate inflation rate (the sorts of inflation rates we’ve targeted since 1990) and unemployment.  And since something akin to general price stability generally helps the economy function better (clearer signals, fewer tax distortions etc) there is at least the possibility that maintaining stable price might help keep unemployment a little lower than otherwise.  Milton Friedman argued for that possibility.

But I don’t think that is really the issue here.

Because it is not as if there are no other possible connections between monetary policy and unemployment.   Pretty much every analyst and policymaker recognises that there can be short-term trade-offs between inflation and unemployment (or excesss capacity more generally –  but here I’m focusing on unemployment).   Those trade-offs aren’t always stable, even in the short-term, or predictable, but they are there.    Thus, getting inflation down in the 1980s and early 1990s involved a sharp, but temporary, increase in the unemployment rate.  That was all but inescapable.  And when the unemployment rate was extremely low in the years just prior to 2008, that went hand in hand with core inflation rising quite a bit.  Monetary policy decisions will typically have unemployment consequences.    Unelected technocrats are messing, pretty seriously, with the lives of ordinary people.   It is all in a good cause (and I mean that totally seriously with not a hint of irony intended) but the costs, and disruptions, are real –  and typically don’t fall on the policymaker (or his/her advisers).

And it isn’t as if monetary policymakers are typically oblivious to the pain.   There was plenty of gallows humour around the Reserve Bank in the disinflation years, a reflection of that unease.  And yet often the official rhetoric is all about inflation –  as if, in some sense, what look like relatively small fluctuations around a relatively low rate of inflation, matter more than lives disrupted by the scourge of unemployment.

So perhaps that is why cosmetics can matter, and serve useful ends even in areas like monetary policy.     There isn’t that much difference, on average over time, in how the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, the Reserve Bank of Australia, or the Federal Reserve (or various other inflation targeting advanced country central banks) conduct monetary policy.   They each tend to react to incoming data in much the same way (again, on average over time).   In the financial markets, they probably each have much the same degree of “credibility” (people think the respective central banks are serious about their stated inflation targets).   And yet my impression is that the Federal Reserve, for example, talks much more about unemployment than the Reserve Bank of New Zealand does.   The Fed gives the impression that (a) it is aware, and (b) that it cares.  In the last decade or so at least, that has been much less so here.

In New Zealand, the problem has been compounded by a sustained period when the Reserve Bank turned out to have run monetary policy too tightly (including two tightening phases that had to be quickly reversed).  Over that period –  and today –  the unemployment rate (the number of people unemployed  – the phrase I always used to encourage staff to prefer when we replied to correspondence) has been persistently above estimates of the NAIRU (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment).

The Reserve Bank is entrusted with a great deal of discretion, in an area riddled with uncertainty and imprecision.  We don’t know exactly what the NAIRU is (nor does the Bank).  We don’t even know what “true” core inflation is, let alone what it will be over the 12-24 months ahead, the sort of period today’s monetary policy decisions affect. That makes signalling and symbols perhaps more important than otherwise.

It is also why lines like

“It is mathematically impossible to target two variables with one instrument.” 

while formally true, aren’t really the point here.   Voters –  or some subsets of them –  simply want to know that those other things matter –  and matter quite a lot –  to the people wielding the power.    And as there is quite a connection between monetary policy choices and fluctuations in the numbers of people unemployed, they aren’t irrational to do so.    After all, they might well note that the old argument –  “well if unemployment is too high, inflation will undershoot the target and the Bank will quickly correct that” doesn’t sound so compelling after years of an undershoot, and years when unemployment has lingered quite high.

There is a whole variety of ways to send the signals:

  • one can tinker with the PTA again (most of the changes of 28 years have had this quality about them –  including for example the current references to unnecessary variability in output, interest and exchange rates),
  • one can choose a Governor who is known to care (although typically technocrats won’t be much known at all),
  • one could require the Bank to publish estimates of the NAIRU and report regularly on how monetary policy was affecting the gap between actual unemployment and the NAIRU,
  • the Bank could regularly write about, or give speeches, highlighting the importance of unemployment (gaps) in its thinking, and expressing discomfort whenever unemployment has to be temporarily high.

Or one could tinker with section 8 of the Act and add a full employment reference.

Perhaps Labour actually has a combination of these sorts of approaches in mind.  Amending the Act is isolation might not do much (even in signalling and symbolism) in isolation, but it might encourage the appointment of a Governor who took seriously the concern (after all the Bank’s Board has to operate under the Act), and it might encourage the Governor, the Bank, and any future Monetary Policy Committee to address these issues more directly in their own communications.

And at a political level, if they are serious about prioritising full employment as one  over-arching goal of economic policy (which seems a worthy goal to me, even if there are good and bad ways of pursuing it), a change to the Reserve Bank Act might also signal –  what the monetary policy analysts already know – that in the medium to longer-term monetary policy and the Reserve Bank are no obstacle to full employment.

As I noted last week, in 1950 the incoming National government amended the Reserve Bank Act to specify an objective for monetary policy as follows

[The Bank] shall do all such things within the limits of its powers as it deems necessary or desirable to promote and safeguard a stable internal price level and the highest degree of production, trade, and employment that can be achieved by monetary action.

Something similar, in today’s language, seems at worst unobjectionable to me.  At best, it might strengthen public confidence in the Bank and encourage the Bank and its incoming Governor and Deputy Governor to convey with more conviction how seriously they take the overall economic environment –  real firms, real people –  within which the Bank exercises its considerable discretionary power.

Reflecting on all this over the weekend, another parallel struck me.  In wartime, the priority is to win the war.  In many ways it is as simple as that.  A single objective.   And yet combat generals, delegated power by political leaders, who become known as reckless with the lives of their men eventually forfeit trust, corroding the loyalty of those who serve them (and those who appoint them).   Wars involve losses of life, often heavy losses. No general can take on the role without being ready to see young men lose their lives, perhaps in very large numbers.  And yet –  at least in a free society –  we don’t want generals who are indifferent to the cost.  We want them to spend lives as if each one were precious.  Soldiers who believe that of their generals probably fight with more conviction and determination.  And societies give leeway and respect to those generals, allowing them to lead the battles that, in time, win the war.   It isn’t a dual objective –  in the end societies do what they need to to survive and prevail –  but it isn’t irrelevant either.

 

Slashing immigration really is quite easy

There is a story on the excellent new Newsroom site this morning on immigration.  When I printed it out at about 8am, it was running under the headline “Slashing net migration not easy”, although forty minutes later that had been revised to “Few answers to slashing net migration” [UPDATE: by 4:15pm the story is now running as “Slashing migration offers no easy answers”.]    Perhaps reflecting the preferences and presuppositions of the author, the URL for the story reads “immigration to rear its ugly head”, as if somehow there is something wrong with a serious discussion, in election year, about the number, and type, of people we allow to settle (or work) here.    But whether we should or not, if we (New Zealanders collectively) decided to cut back migrant numbers it is really quite easy to do so.  I’ll come back to that.

We are still waiting to see where Labour is going to land on immigration.   The other day housing spokesperson and campaign chair Phil Twyford was talking about what Labour might do on immigration.

Labour’s election chairperson Phil Twyford said Auckland was creaking under the weight of too many people and not enough investment in infrastructure.

and

Mr Twyford said details were still being worked out, but Labour policy would be to find a better balance.

“There is room to ease back particularly in the area of temporary work visas, and the blowout that has occurred in the so-called skilled migrant category.

“We think there’s flexibility there to ease back on the overall levels of immigration and that will take some of the pressure off Auckland.”

And yesterday Andrew Little was also commenting

Little said National had failed to manage immigration, especially by bringing in labourers when there were unemployed labourers here, and by the number of work visas issued.

But he said Labour would manage immigration, not cap it.

Bad as they are, stresses on Auckland –  housing or infrastructure –  aren’t the most compelling economic argument for cutting migrant numbers.  But if Labour is serious about making a difference there, it can’t just involve tweaks at the margin, or things that will affect numbers for just a year or two (since land markets, for example, will trade on expectations of future demand and supply pressures).  I guess we’ll see some details eventually.

What makes me sceptical that Labour’s talk in this area will amount to much is another comment from Andrew Little in the same article.

But asked if he welcomed signs Auckland house prices were falling, Little said no.

I’m sure there all sorts of political considerations about not scaring the (relatively small minority) of people who have taken on very large mortgages in the last few years, but really…….    When house prices in Auckland are ten times income a key marker of whether things are coming right will be a fall in house prices.   If all Little is saying is that prices will ebb and flow a bit, and that nothing structural has yet happened to reverse the inexorable trend rise in price to income ratios, then I agree with him.  But when houses are less affordable than they’ve ever been, we need politicians with the guts to say that they want to see house prices, especially in Auckland, a lot lower.

[UPDATE: In another report of the same interview Little confirms his reluctance to see prices fall    “Having the right number of houses, or closer to it, stabilises prices, it doesn’t collapse prices.”    That stance would be fine, if prices hadn’t got so out of whack over the last few decades. ]

It isn’t as if time will quickly take care of the problem if nominal house prices simply hold at current levels.  We have an inflation target centred on 2 per cent, so over time we can assume incomes will rise by around 2 per cent plus whatever growth in labour productivity the economy can manage.  For the last five years, that has been zero.     Here is what happens to price to income ratios, starting from 10 (around the current Auckland level) on three different productivity scenarios.

price to income scenarios

Depending on how optimistic you are, it could take 40 to 50 years to get house price to income ratios back to around three – the sort of level sustained over long periods in well-functioning US cities (and in many other places before land use regulation became the fashion). Perhaps you are sceptical New Zealand could get back to three. It would take 20 years or more just to get back to five.  That sort of adjustment makes the government’s NZS eligibility reform proposals look positively fast-paced.

But to revert to immigration –  which has the potential to play an important role in accelerating any adjustment that looser land use regulation, and perhaps even new government house building, might set in place –  Newsroom’s Shane Cowlishaw reckons there are few easy ways to cut immigration.    It is mostly quite a good article, made more difficult for the author by the refusal of either the Minister of Immigration or Winston Peters to be interviewed, and the fact that neither Labour nor New Zealand First have published any details of their policy in this area.

But, frankly, I think Cowlishaw’s conclusion is simply wrong.  It isn’t that hard at all, and actually the current government showed that with the baby steps they took last year (cutting the residence approvals target, and –  within that – suspending parent visas, and reducing the family category numbers).

I outlined what I’d do in a post a few weeks ago.   Here it is again, all focused on the bits of the net flow that are about immigration policy, the number of non-citizens we let in to live and work in New Zealand.

  1.  Reducing the residence approvals target from around the current 45000 per annum to, say, 10000 to 15000 per annum.  In per capita terms, that would be about the rate of legal immigration the US has, and would be similar to the rate we had in the 1980s.  Not exactly closing the door, but certainly pulling it over to some extent.
  2. Within that reduced target I would look to focus much more strongly on demonstrably highly skilled people (who offer the best chance of fiscal and productivity gains) and thus would
    • revisit, reduce and potentially eliminate the current Pacific access categories,
    • permanently eliminate parent visas, except (and even then capped) where there is an enforceable, insured, commitment to full financial support from the parent, or their New Zealand citizen child.
    • leave the refugee quota as it is
    • eliminate the additional points provided for job offers in regional areas (a measure that is tending to lower the average quality of the accepted migrants)
    • eliminate additional points for New Zealand specific qualifications,
    • eliminate additional points for jobs in areas of “future growth” or “absolute skill shortage”
    • more strongly differentiate points in favour of higher level qualifications,
    • perhaps establish a category akin to the US visa for those with extraordinary ability
  3. Eliminate the provision allowing foreign students studying here to work 20 hours a week.  If New Zealand tertiary institutions really have a product worth buying –  and some probably do –  they should stand on their own feet, as other exporters are required to.
  4. Reshape the work visa system with a view to (a) reduce the scope for lobbying and influence peddling, (b) reducing the total number of people here on work visas at any one time, and (c) provide much greater flexibility for employers to utilise work visa people for short specific periods in highly-skilled and well-remunerated roles.    Since there would be many fewer residence approvals places open (see above) this path would in any case be much less popular with prospective migrants.   Specific features might include:
    • no one could have a work visa for more than two three year stints
    • use an age-based matrix in which in normal circumstances no work visas might be issued to anyone under 30 for a role paying less than, say, (an inflation-indexed) $75000 per annum, increasing by (say) $25000 in each five year age window up to a cap so that for a person over 50 to get a work visas they would need to be in a role paying $200000 per annum or more.
    • no doubt there would need to be some exceptions to this, and it would not apply to say approvals for roles of less than perhaps three months, but the point is to get the focus not on official judgements of “skill shortages” but on attracting people, if we do, who are capable of commanding high salaries (loose proxy for skill) on market.

I’d also be rethinking (although this isn’t specific) the emphasis in the current points scheme on people who already have New Zealand work experience.  It was a well-intentioned reform –  a reaction against the experience in the 1990s of people coming in who for various reasons simply couldn’t get established in the New Zealand labour market using the sorts of skills/qualifications that got them entry in the first place.    But it has the effect of giving priority to relatively lowly-skilled people who managed to get in on temporary work or student visas, over people with much higher skills and much more potential to add value to New Zealanders over the long haul.

Little or none of these sorts of changes requires complex legislation. For better or worse, the details are mostly at the whim of the Minister or Cabinet.  They would make a substantial difference, and offer the prospect of a sustained reduction in the net inflow of non-citizens (although still lots of year to year variability in the PLT numbers, that include New Zealanders).   They would, among other things:

  • take immediate pressure off the housing market (current and expected future pressures),
  • lead to material downward revision in expected interest rates (possibly actual cuts, but at least pricing out any increases for a long time to come),
  • lead to a material fall in the nominal real and exchange rates, boosting the competitiveness of our struggling tradables sector,
  • force our export education industry to rely on the excellence of its product (or at least some mix of excellence and moderate cost) rather than what I’ve described as “export subsidies” from the immigration system.  Subsidies typically don’t build strong robust, sustainably internationally competitive, industries.  Rarely if ever have, rarely if ever will.
  • we’d strengthen regional economies relative to Auckland (an economy whose productivity growth has been underperforming even relative to that of the whole country),
  • get the government out of the business of picking winners in the labour market, or sectors/skills that somehow need a government hand on the scales to help them out, and,
  • over time, it would be likely to ease pressures holding down the wages of New Zealanders towards the lower end of the skill distribution.

Of course, the immediate response from much of the business sector is “but how will I get workers”.    It is a real and genuine issue for individual firms under current policy settings.   But individual firms simply don’t see the economy as a whole, or the adjustments that would take place across the whole economy if a policy package like the one I’ve outlined above was adopted.

Thus, individual firms treat migrant labour as increased labour supply.  And, for each of them, of course it is.  But migrants add demand as well as supply –  reasonable estimates (and the consistent historical view of New Zealand macroeconomists are that in the short-term the demand effects are stronger than the supply effects.  After all, immigrants have to live somewhere, shop somewhere, work in some building, and few bring their household appliances (etc) with them.  So an individual migrant might indeed ease an individual employer’s labour availability issues –  and if there are lots of migrants in a specific sector, they might even ease those constraints for the sector –  but for the economy as a whole:

  • in the short-term high inward migration exacerbates overall labour shortages in the economy, and
  • in the longer-term, high migration makes little or no difference to overall labour shortages (or, eg, to the unemployment rate).

That is true even if all the typical economist pro-immigration arguments, including those about potential productivity spillovers, hold  (which, of course, I don’t think they have in modern New Zealand).

So what would happen if a government were to announce a package like the one I’ve outlined above?  I’ve already sketched it out at a high level above.  But here is a bit more colour and flavour.

Whole sectors of the New Zealand economy employ many more people than otherwise because our population is growing so rapidly.   Activity in those sector would shrink, perhaps quite materially.   With a population growth rate around zero –  similar to those of many prosperous European countries –  not many people would be required to build new houses and road, and fewer people (for example) would be selling the stuff the stocks new houses (carpets, appliances etc).  Those people would need jobs elsewhere.  The prospect of lower interest rates would make more private investment attractive, but on its own that channel would take a while to work –  after all, overall domestic demand growth would weaken.  But the lower exchange rate –  actual and prospective –  would make a big difference to the competitiveness, and willingness to invest, of the tradables sector.   That investment will usually require workers –  to build it, and to staff it. So resources will shift within the economy.   Dairy farmers who couldn’t get Filipino workers could afford to bid up wages to some extent to attract potential New Zealand workers  (it doesn’t happen overnight, but markets work –  it will happen).  It would certainly be tough for (consumers of ) some domestically-oriented industries that have been heavily reliant on migrant labour (one could think of rest homes) but the whole point of an economic strategy that successfully reorients the economy towards a much more strongly-performing tradables sector is that tradables firms have it better relative to non-tradables firms.  (And non-tradables sector firms typically have pricing power that tradables sector firms don’t.)  It has been the other way round for too long, and we’ve seen the results (in eg, the charts I showed the other day).

Are there losers, even among New Zealanders, from such an approach?  Well, yes, of course.   It is almost impossible to re-orient the economy without there being losers.  Some of the people who will be worse off will be those holding urban land in or around our major cities (especially those who might otherwise have been thinking of selling).  Non-tradables firms often won’t find it attractive –  a business model geared to rapid population growth isn’t going to look so good under a model that no longer seeks to drive up population.  And there would inevitably be some workers in some firms/sectors who might find the adjustment difficult –  as is the case with any structural change, and as was the case as we moved (unconsciously no doubt) to skew the economy away from tradables firms towards non-tradables.

It is easy for economists to wave their hands and suggest big changes in economic structures and policies. It isn’t usually the economists themselves who are affected.  But our current strategy – the grand Think Big population experiment –  just isn’t working.  It wouldn’t be hard to change it, and in my assessment if we were to do so –  along the lines outlined above –  we put the New Zealand economy on a much better footing for sustained growth in productivity and real incomes/material living standards.  We’d also greatly ease those intense near-term stresses –  particularly housing and infrastructure in Auckland –  that rightly grab the headlines.

 

 

 

Possible Reserve Bank reforms: some reactions

Some of the media reaction to talk –  from both the government and the Labour Party –  of possible changes to the Reserve Bank Act  has been a bit surprising.  One leading journalist behind a paywall summed up both the review Steven Joyce has requested and Labour’s proposals as “utter balderdash”, apparently just because there are more important issues politicians should be addressing.  No doubt there are –  housing, the languishing tradables sector, non-existent productivity growth and so on –  but competent governments, backed by a large public service, can usually manage more than one thing at a time.    And although there are plenty of details to debate on Reserve Bank governance, they aren’t exactly divisive ideological issues.   A parliamentary under-secretary or Associate Minister handled most of the details of the 1989 Reserve Bank Act, in a government that did a great deal of other (often more important) stuff.

Bernard Hickey’s story on the government’s review and Labour’s proposals is headed Monetary Policy Reforms a Mirage.     That could be so.  If National is re-elected, they might advance no governance reforms.  Or they might just legislate for something very like the sort of internal committee that, in various shapes and forms, has been the forum in which the Governor made OCR decisions ever since the OCR was introduced.  But apparently at his post-Cabinet press conference, the Prime Minister –  who had rejected earlier Treasury advice in this area in 2012 –  opened up the possibility of a committee not just composed of insiders.

Meanwhile, English hinted Treasury might look at whether a rate-setting committee could include non-Reserve Bank personal. That would be a matter for the review, he said.

Beginning a process of discussing reform options tends to put a range of issues and options on the table.

The sort of decision-making and governance reforms being advanced by Labour and the Greens would be most unlikely to be “simply a mirage”.     There are number of concerns that what Labour is proposing does not go far enough, but again they are probably best seen as the starting point for a more detailed review if/when Labour and the Greens take office.  There is a risk that it could all come to not very much.   After all, even over the last 15 years the Reserve Bank has had a couple of Governor-appointed outsiders involved in the advice and decisionmaking process –  the Prime Minister’s brother is one of them at present –  and that hasn’t made much difference at all.  And requirements to publish minutes/votes can be subverted too.      But that it is why the appointment of the new Governor is so important.  If Labour and Greens are serious about reforming the way the Reserve Bank operates,  then if they become government they need to move quickly to find a person (perhaps a top team) they have confidence in, to work with The Treasury and the government to implement legislative reforms, and to lead the internal process changes to make the new, more open, vision a reality.    If they are serious about greater openness, they need to ensure they have a Governor who shares that reforming vision.   Such a Governor could make a considerable difference even if, for example, the new Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) were to have a majority of executive members.

In some ways, much the same goes for the, less substantively important, proposal to add some sort of full employment aspiration/objective to the statutory goal for monetary policy.    I’ve described it as virtue-signalling, but on reflection that might be slightly unfair.  In the narrow context of the Reserve Bank Act, it is probably about right –  if the Bank has had things a bit tight over the last few years, leaving unemployment higher than it needed to be, then often enough over the life of the Act, the unemployment rate has been below the NAIRU.   Changing the words of section 8 of the Act in isolation won’t make much difference. After all, Australia and the United States have wording Labour prefers, and yet the cyclical behaviour of their economies hasn’t, on average over time, been much different from New Zealand’s.

So I’m sure there is a bit of pure product-differentiation about Labour’s proposal in this regard.  That isn’t unusual. Most changes to the Policy Targets Agreements over the years –  from both sides of politics –  have been more about product differentiation than substance, about scratching itches rather than making much difference to how monetary policy is actually run.  For Labour there is probably is some perceived need to differentiate, and a desire to campaign (and govern?) on a whole-of-government commitment to promoting and facilitating full employment.   That is an unquestionably worthy goal.    If monetary policy choices aren’t going to make very much difference to the medium or long-term rate of unemployment, they can (and have) made quite a difference in the shorter term.  So one way of telling Labour’s story is that they want the word to get out to the public that they are committed to (medium-term) full employment, and they want the public to know that the Bank isn’t in any sense an obstacle to that, and to hear the Bank talking of the importance of the issue.  These are real people’s lives.   I noted yesterday

So the problem typically hasn’t been that the Reserve Bank doesn’t care about unemployment –  although they don’t mention it often, and there is little sense in their rhetoric of visceral horror at waste of lives and resources when unemployment is higher than it needs to be.

They probably should be talking about it more, with conviction.  The legitimacy of independent public agencies depends on part of people believing that those entities have the public interest at heart.  And everyone knows –  central banks acknowledge –  that in the shorter-term their choices do have (sometimes painful) implications for the numbers of people unemployed in New Zealand.  At a bloodless technocratic level, I’ve suggested Labour could amend the Act to require the Bank to regularly report on its estimate of the NAIRU, and how monetary policy is affecting the gap between the actual unemployment rate and the NAIRU.  But this isn’t just a bloodless technocratic concern.

So again, getting the right Governor matters –  someone who will talk convincingly and engagingly as if what they are about affects ordinary people, including those at the margins (vulnerable to unemployment and the resulting dislocation to their lives).

So, from the perspective of both strands of the Labour reform proposal, my concrete suggestion to them is that if they lead a new government after the election, they should quickly pass a one (substantive) clause amendment to the Reserve Bank Act.

Section 40 of the Act at present reads

40 Governor

(1) There shall be a Governor of the Bank who shall be appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the Board.

(2) The Governor shall be the Chief Executive of the Bank.

Simply deleting “on the recommendation of the Board” would make our practice much more consistent with that in most other countries.  It would remove the controlling influence of a Board appointed entirely by the previous government, and it would allow Labour to have in place to lead the rest of their Reserve Bank reforms, someone of their choosing, someone in whom they have confidence.  That is how other advanced democracies do things.  It isn’t about appointing party hacks –  it is how Janet Yellen, Mark Carney, Ben Bernanke, Glenn Stevens and Phil Lowe were all appointed; capable people who commanded the confidence of the government that appointed them.

(Although it isn’t a priority for me, making this change might actually strengthen the effectiveness of the Bank’s Board in holding the Governor to account.  At present, when the Board (in effect) appoints the Governor they have a strong interest in backing their own judgement, and providing cover for the Governor.   If they were responsible for monitoring the performance of a Governor directly appointed by the Minister, they’d have less vested interest in the individual, and perhaps be more ready to represent the interests of the Minister and of the public).

As I was finishing this post, I noticed a highly critical article on interest.co.nz by Alex Tarrant.  Although he isn’t quoted, it reads in part as if Tarrant has been interviewing his father, Arthur Grimes, one of the designers of the current Reserve Bank Act monetary policy provisions, and former chair of the Reserve Bank Board.   There is a lengthy discussion of time-inconsistency issues –  a regular theme of Grimes’s.    I’m not going to attempt to respond in any detail now, but would just observe that whatever the explanations for the rise of inflation in the 60s and 70s (and I’m not persuaded by the story Tarrant quotes), what Labour seems to be proposing is something not far removed from the sorts of formal wording, and policy rhetoric, routinely used at the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Federal Reserve.  One can debate whether it makes much sense to use such langugage, or whether the formal statutory provisions in those countries make much difference, but it is hard for any detached observer to suggest credibly that the Reserve Bank of Australia or the Federal Reserve have suffered greater difficulties with credibility, or with the willingness of the public and markets to take their words seriously, than the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has faced with the current section 8 wording.   If anything, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has had rather more problems –  odd experiments like the MCI, and two quickly-reversed tightening cycles in the last decade –  even if those particular mistakes and problems don’t have their roots in the wording of section 8.  And unlike other inflation targeting countries, there has never been an election since the Act was introduced in which some party or other (and not just the remnants of Social Credit) has not been campaigning for changes to the Reserve Bank Act or the PTA.  You don’t find anything like it in other inflation targeting countries.

Grant Robertson made my day

In an address at Victoria University at lunchtime, Labour’s finance spokesperson Grant Robertson launched his party’s monetary policy reform programme.   In an interesting move, the incoming Acting Governor, Grant Spencer, who would have to manage (for the Bank) the early stages of Robertson’s reform process if Labour leads the new government, attended, sitting very visibly in the front row.

The two main aspects of Labour proposal are:

  • broadening the objective from just price stability “to also include a commitment to full employment”
  • changing the decision-making structure for monetary policy, so that a committee would have legislated responsibility.  That committee would comprise four internals (including the Governor) and three external experts who would be appointed by the Governor (but in consultation with the Minister of Finance).

Labour would also require the Bank to release the minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee, including the results of any votes, within three weeks of the relevant OCR decision being announced.

I was interested to note a press release from the Greens in which they state

Labour plans to change the way we do monetary policy in New Zealand and the Green Party supports them fully. We’re now of a single mind on this.

The Greens have previously favoured the Reserve Bank Board –  whose members are mostly non-experts –  making OCR decisions, so I’m not clear if the “single mind” James Shaw refers to extends to that level of detail, or just to a shared commitment to (a) reform, and (b) a decision-making committee that would involve non-executive outsiders.

Bill Rosenberg of the CTU and I were discussants following Robertson’s address.   I wrote this morning a fuller version than I could use of my thoughts on the Labour proposal.

Reflections on Grant Robertson on the RB VUW 10 April 2017

I opened observing that when I got an outline late last week of what Robertson was going to say, I had blurted out that “Grant Robertson has just made my day”.  I’ve been arguing for governance reform for at least 15 years, and between the report the Minister of Finance has commissioned, and the shared commitment to reform of the Greens and now Labour, it looks as though change might finally happen.   There was a certain logic to the current single decision-maker system in 1989, but if it had a logic then –  in how we understood monetary policy, and the nature of the Bank’s functions –  it simply looks wrong today.  Other countries don’t do things that way.  We don’t either in other areas of public life.

What I’m most encouraged by is the commitment to involve outsiders, not just to cement-in a position for insiders.  Having said that,  I raised two main areas of concern:

  • the first is the Robertson proposal that the Governor should continue to be (in effect) appointed by the Board (in turn appointed by the current government), and that all the other voting members (inside and out) would be appointed by the Governor.  He qualifies this by noting that these appointments would be made in consultation with the Minister of Finance.    But that is a recipe that risks the Governor surrounding him or herself, deliberately or unconsciously, with people who think like the Governor, and will be reluctant to challenge the Governor too much.   The Minister might raise a few questions about a proposed appointee, but will be reluctant to second guess the Governor, and cannnot overrule him in this model.   Frankly, it is a model with a yawning democratic chasm and not a model I’m aware of being used in any other country.  It is one thing to delegate operational decisions to independent boards, but the members of those Boards should be appointed by those whom we elect –  ministers –  and whom we can toss out.
  • the second concern is that under the proposed model there would be four insiders and three outsiders.  That is the wrong way round, and most likely would be a recipe for the marginalisation of the outsiders (since the insiders have no independent status, and all work for, and have their pay etc set by the Governor, they can easily caucus and out-vote the externals).   I’d prefer two internals and three externals, all directly appointed by the Minister of Finance.

In response, Robertson noted that he was open to looking again at the ministerial appointment option.  He noted that it was awkward as putative Minister to be talking of giving himself such extensive appointment powers.  Perhaps, but that is the way most public sector boards work.  If he wants Labour precedent, Gordon Brown introduced the Bank of England statutory Monetary Policy Committee, to which the Chancellor appoints most of the members directly, and has to be consulted on the remaining two.

Robertson explained that he preferred to keep a majority of insiders because one of his priorities was to preserve the operational independence of the Bank. I was, and am, puzzled by that response. I noted to him that the RBA has a substantial majority of outsiders on its decision-making Board, and that they had operational independence.  The same goes for Sweden’s Riksbank.  I’m less optimistic about a re-think there, as Robertson also stated that he did not envisage allowing MPC members to make speeches or comments on monetary policy without the explicit prior consent of the Governor.  It seems he still has in mind an excessively Governor-dominated institution, and one in which it would be hard to ensure transparecny and the regular injection of fresh perspectives and alternative views.  If so, that would be unfortunate.

I noted some unease about his proposal that all the external appointees would be “expert”, and perhaps had that concern somewhat allayed when he stressed that in this context he did not intend “expert” to mean simply a narrow expert in specific aspects of monetary economics or the like.

My other main observation in this area is that the Labour proposal (deliberately and consciously) does not yet address the governance and decisionmaking for the Bank’s extensive financial regulatory functions.

But the most important omission seems to me to be the governance provisions for the Reserve Bank’s extensive financial stability and regulatory functions, under various different pieces of legislation.   There is no precedent anywhere for so much regulatory power to be in one person’s hands.  It wasn’t even an outcome that was consciously deliberated on by Parliament –  rather it grew up with a succession of amendments to the Act, and changes in regulatory philosophy over the years. And whereas a regulating Cabinet minister can be reshuffled or dumped whenever the Prime Minister chooses, a Governor of the Reserve Bank is secure for five years.

If individuals matter in monetary policy, even with something like the PTA, they are likely to matter hugely in the financial regulatory area, where there is nothing like the PTA to constrain or guide the Bank/Governor.  The economic impact of regulatory choices can be as large –  if less visible –  than those around monetary policy.  I really hope that Labour will be thinking hard about how to extend their governance reform ideas into the financial regulatory field.  Personally I think there should be three strands to that:

  • Removing some of the high level policy-setting power back to the Minister of Finance (so that the RB applies the rules etc and mostly doesn’t make the high level rules),
  • Move responsibility for the various pieces of legislation out of the Reserve Bank, probably to Treasury. This matter is already being touched in the Rennie review commissioned by the current Minister of Finance, and
  • Establishing a Financial Policy Committee, paralleling the Monetary Policy Committee, as the entity empowered to exercise whatever policymaking powers reside with the Reserve Bank. Again, a five-person committee (Governor, Deputy Governor, and three externals seems like a feasible solution).  The FPC would also be responsible for Financial Stability Reports.

Robertson acknowledged the deliberate omission and talked of it being “part of the conversation” moving forward.  I hope so.    This is the opportunity for a full overhaul of the governance model, not just tacking on an MPC to a model that doesn’t work that well in other areas either.

The other half of the address was about the idea of adding full employment to the goals for monetary policy.  I was (and am) much more sceptical, and nothing that was said in response to questions really clarified things much.    I get that full employment is an historical aspiration of the labour movement, and one that the Labour Party wants to make quite a lot of this year.  In many respects I applaud that.  I’m often surprised by how little outrage there is that one in 20 of our labour force, ready to start work straight away, is unemployed.  That is about two years per person over a 45 year working life.  Two years……     How many readers of this blog envisage anything like that for themselves or their kids?

But still the question is one of what the role of monetary policy is in all this, over and above what is already implied by inflation targeting (ie when core inflation is persistently  below target then even on its own current terms monetary policy hasn’t been well run, and a looser monetary policy would have brought the unemployment rate closer to the NAIRU (probably now not much above 4 per cent)).

I noted that I’m sceptical that the wording of section 8 of the RB Act is much to blame.  After all, for several years prior to the recession, our unemployment rate was not just one of the lowest in the OECD, it was also below any NAIRU estimates.  And when I checked this morning, I found that our unemployment rate this century has averaged lower than those of Australia, Canada, the US and the UK, and our legislation hasn’t changed in that times.  Robertson often cites Australia and the US.

The last few years haven’t been so good relatively speaking.  But if the legislation hasn’t changed and the (relative) outcomes have, that suggests it is the people in the institution who made a mistake –  they used the wrong mental model and were slow to recognise their error and respond to it.  Getting the right people, and a well-functioning organisation, is probably more important than tweaking section 8.

Robertson disputed my past characterisation (as “virtue signalling”) of his talk of adding a full employment objective.  But I still don’t see in what way I am wrong in that description.  It would send a single to key constituencies that Labour “feels the pain” and has an integrated commitment to advancing full employment, but what difference would it make to the Governor and his committee?  There wouldn’t be a numerical definition of full employment in the PTA, and since Robertson remains committed to the accountability framework of the Act, it is very hard to see how or why any given Governor would react much differently given a specific inflation target and a vague injunction to promote “full employment”.  A different Governor might make a difference –  hence, choose carefully –  but that sort of wording is unlikely to.

If they form a government later in the year, Labour (and the Greens) clearly will need to add some words to the PTA.  I drew the attention of those present to the 1950 amendment to the Reserve Bank Act, under which

[The Bank] shall do all such things within the limits of its powers as it deems necessary or desirable to promote and safeguard a stable internal price level and the highest degree of production, trade, and employment that can be achieved by monetary action.

I quite like it (and not just because a relative of mine was the responsible Minister of Finance).  It recognises that monetary policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that people (voters and politicians) care about other stuff.  In fact we don’t pursue price stability simply for its own sake, but for a better life for New Zealanders. But note the key phrase  “the highest degree of…employment that can be achieved by monetary action”.  That might not be much, at least once the unemployment rate is back near the NAIRU.

As today’s chair –  economic historian Gary Hawke –  noted the 1950 change was largely about signalling too, and it isn’t obvous it made an awfully large difference to actual monetary policy.  But that was my point.  If you want words –  or signals – it is easy enough to craft elegant formulations that express those aspirations, and even articulate a place for monetary policy in overall economic management. It is a quite different thing to expect a central bank, however governed, with a single instrument capable only of affecting nominal variables in the longer-run, to make much material difference over time in achieving the wider –  and laudable –  government goal of full employment.

Politically, it doesn’t help at all to make that distinction.  But analytically it looks pretty clear.  Well-crafted words –  a modern version of that 1950 formulation –  would do no harm, and I’d have no real problem  with them, but they won’t make much substantive difference either. But sometimes, I guess, symbols matter quite a lot.

Fiscal policy: in defence of the last Labour government

Bryce Wilkinson of the New Zealand Initiative was out yesterday with a comment, in the Initiative’s weekly newsletter, on the Labour/Greens proposal to establish a fiscal council.  I wrote about –  and welcomed – that proposal a week or so back.

Until I saw Bryce’s note, I had forgotten that the New Zealand Initiative had proposed the establishment of a fiscal council.   So add their names to the list of supporters:  the OECD (the technocratic wing of the European centre-left) favours a fiscal council, the Treasury’s independent reviewer of fiscal policy (a long-time senior IMF official) recommended a fiscal council, the New Zealand Initiative favoured a fiscal council, and even the (fairly right wing) 2025 Taskforce (of which Bryce was a member) favoured looking at something like a fiscal council.  And now our Labour Party and Green Party also do.   As many other OECD countries now have something of the sort, it all seems to amount to a reasonably strong case.

Of course, doing it well would be a challenge –  getting a succession of the right people would really matter.  But that is true of many of our public watch-dog and monitoring roles.

As Bryce notes, the current National-led government hasn’t adopted the recommendation.

Why not? Probably, it sees little need given its proven commitment to restoring fiscal surpluses. True virtue is its own witness. Establishing a superfluous agency to attest to its virtue would undermine it. To which our churlish response is that fiscal virtue is as ephemeral as the political winds and John Key’s promise to steer clear of New Zealand Superannuation was less than fiscally virtuous.

And he then asks

So why are Labour and the Greens on the virtuous side of this issue? After all, the last Labour government left National facing fiscal deficits for as far as the average geriatric eye could see.

That observation likely answers the question. Newly found virtue lacks credibility. Governments that can’t make credible commitments are weak governments. However, we hasten to add that this does not make it less of a virtue. A commitment to fiscal virtue is a fine thing.

I’ve already pointed out privately to Bryce that that seemed more than a little unfair to the previous government.   Let me explain why.

It is certainly true that when the current government took office in November 2008, official fiscal forecasts showed large deficits for many years into the future.  But the last fiscal initiatives of the outgoing Labour government had been the 2008 Budget, the parameters for which were set out in the Budget Policy Statement released at the end of 2007.

Throughout much of the previous Labour government’s term of office, a key theme of fiscal policy developments had been the surprising strength in revenue.  It was, in many respects, why the fiscal surpluses were so large during those years –   Treasury and the government kept being taken by surprise, and Treasury was (prudently) cautious about treating the surprises as permanent.  If it was just a series of one-offs, or something cyclical, it wouldn’t have made sense to increase spending or cut taxes in response.

The Treasury gradually revised upwards their assessment of the underlying fiscal position.  Unfortunately, they took a particularly optimistic stance by the end of 2007.  I can recall the then Prime Minister making much of the fact that Treasury was now assuming that most of the revenue gains would prove permanent (and thus could support some mix of increased spending and lower tax rates) without the risk of dropping back into deficits.  I joined Treasury on secondment in mid-2008 and I have seen documents written to the Minister of Finance during early 2008 stating that reassessment.  I was under the impression that some had been released, perhaps as part of the pro-active release of 2008 Budget papers, but on checking that link on the Treasury website, I couldn’t see the paper in question.

But the facts of the reassessment aren’t in dispute.  Several Treasury staff produced a paper last year on the process of getting back to surplus, including the background to the deficits.  Here is what they had to say

Over the period 2005-2008, the Treasury increased its estimates of structural revenues by around 1 percentage point of GDP each year, and by 2008 the Treasury considered most of the operating surplus was “structural”

and

When the tax reductions [along with further spending increases] were announced in Budget 2008, the Treasury was still predicting the operating balance to remain in surplus through the forecast period, albeit at a lower level.

With the benefit of hindsight, the degree to which the surpluses were structural was overestimated. Although the tax reductions announced in 2008 turned out to be well-timed from the perspective of stabilising the economy following the GFC, their permanent nature added to the subsequent structural deficits.

Here is the chart from the 2008 Budget Economic and Fiscal Update.

Figure 2.6 – Total Crown OBEGAL

Figure 2.6	- Total Crown OBEGAL.

Source: The Treasury

That document was signed off  by the Secretary to the Treasury as representing his best professional assessment of the economic and fiscal outlook, incorporating the effects of announced government policy.  In New Zealand –  unlike many countries – the forecasts are those of the professional advisers, not those of the Minister of Finance.

On the basis of the economic and fiscal information available to it, the Treasury has used its best professional judgement in supplying the Minister of Finance with this Economic and Fiscal Update. The Update incorporates the fiscal and economic implications both of Government decisions and circumstances as at 9 May 2008 that were communicated to me, and of other economic and fiscal information available to the Treasury in accordance with the provisions of the Public Finance Act 1989.

John Whitehead
Secretary to the Treasury

14 May 2008

The projected surpluses by the end of the forecast period were tiny –  essentially the budget was projected to be in balance by then.  The economic and revenue outlook had worsened over the first few months of 2008, after the broad parameters of the Budget had already been sketched out in the BPS.   As we now know, New Zealand was already in recession by May 2008.   But on best Treasury advice, the then Labour government thoiught they were leaving an essentially balanced budget, on top of an already very low debt level, not deficits.

Of course, the government was wrong in that assumption.  But, specifically, Treasury was wrong in its best professional advice.    Perhaps the government would have run quite expansionary discretionary fiscal policy anyway, even if Treasury had been less optimistic about how permanent the revenue was.  They were, after all, behind in the polls, and the PM’s office –  didn’t Grant Robertson work there? –  would no doubt have been putting a lot of pressure on the Minister of Finance.  But that hypothetical didn’t arise.    They didn’t have to make such awkward political choices –  their own professional advisers told them they could have tax cuts and spending increases, and still keep the budget in (modest) surplus.  The Opposition National Party shaped its, more generous, tax cutting promises on much the same sort of Treasury forecasts and estimates.  (And a few years earlier, the 2005 election had partly been a bidding war as to how best to spend the surplus –  not whether there really was a structural surplus).

It wasn’t Treasury at its finest.  It is, perhaps, a reason to be cautious about just how much a fiscal council might add.   Would such a body, faced with similar circumstances –  a long succession of revisions upwards in revenue –  have really reached materially different judgements about the outlook then?  Perhaps.  We can’t know, but back in 2008 Treasury was using its best professional judgement, and the mistakes were still made.

There is a bit of a tendency afoot to suggest that the current National-led government has done a better job of fiscal management than the previous Labour government did.  I’m not really convinced by that story.   I’d accept that the previous government might have had an easier job than the current government has –  since one inherited modest but growing surpluses, while the other inherited deficits.  The current government had some nasty shocks (earthquakes) but also some of the best terms of trade in decades and the weakest wage pressures.      But if we expect our politicians to be guided by professional advice in areas like this, the previous government did what most orthodox opinion advised them to, keeping on delivering surpluses and reducing outstanding debt.  Probably they should have emphasised tax cuts more than spending increases, but this particular debate is about overall fiscal balances.

By the end of Labour’s term, government spending as a share of GDP was rising a lot –  but then Treasury was telling the government the money was there to spend.  And for all the talk of how the new Labour/Greens rules commit a new left-wing government to keep spending at around current National government levels, that level is around the average level that prevailed under the previous Labour government.

core crown expenses

There are things I’d criticise about the previous government’s policy. Allowing big structural surpluses to build up, as happened in the first half of the term, set the scene for a big spend-up later (which would have been big tax cuts if National had won in 2005). It is probably better to recognise the limitations of knowledge and typically keep both surpluses and deficits small. But it is easier to say in hindsight than it might have been at the time.  And in 1999, the severe fiscal stresses of 1990/91 were pretty fresh in everyone’s memory.

Of course, this note has been a defence of the previous Labour government.  The Greens don’t have experience in government, and don’t have the same degree of historical credibility.    So in that sense, no doubt Bryce Wilkinson is right to argue that part of the motivation for the recently announced package is the desire to use commitments like this to help establish some credibility (even at the expense of burning off some of their own loyalists).

And I can only endorse Bryce’s final observation on the fiscal council proposal.

So three cheers to Labour and the Greens for this initiative. May they stick to it.