Two sides of the same coin

When, a couple of months ago, the current National-led government announced plans to tighten immigration policy in several areas, I summed up the changes as “a modest step that ignores the big picture“.

Yesterday, the Labour Party announced the immigration policy it will campaign on.  I’d use exactly the same words to describe their proposals.  Some of the changes –  the largest ones –  seem broadly sensible, but they won’t come close to tackling the real problems with New Zealand’s immigration policy.

In some ways the biggest difference between the two parties’ approaches is that National provided us with no estimates about what impact their changes would have on numbers (and the Prime Minister apparently claimed yesterday they would,  in fact, have no impact on numbers), while Labour is touting large numerical impacts but not acknowledging that they will actually have little or no medium to long-term effect on the net inflows of non-New Zealand citizens.

In many ways, none of this should be a surprise.  The “big New Zealand” strategy, revitalised over the last 25 years, has been a bipartisan project.   On either party’s policy, it remains one.   There is really no material difference between them –  just details which, while not unimportant, don’t affect the underlying strategy.  A strategy which, to the extent it had an economic performance objective behind it (recall how MBIE used to call our immigration policy, “a critical economic enabler”), has simply failed.  There is no reason to expect anything much better if future if we keep on with the same policies.

What determines the medium-term contribution of immigration policy to population growth is the residence programme, which aims to give out around 45000 residence approvals each year.  The government cut that target a little last year.  Labour’s policy doesn’t even mention it.   At 45000 approvals, the programme is roughly three times the size, in per capita terms, of the equivalent programme is the United States (where about one million green cards are issued each year).

But what of the proposals Labour did put forward.  Their policy document is here.   It is misconceived from the first sentences where they state

Migrants bring to New Zealand the skills we need to grow our economy

Have they not seen the OECD data showing that New Zealanders are among the most highly-skilled people in the advanced world, and that –  on average –  immigrants are a bit less skilled than natives?    On the scale the New Zealand immigration programme attempts to operate at, the typical new additions to the labour force from non-citizen migration are not as highly skilled as the people who are already here, and our own young people who enter, and move up in, the workforce each year.   There are, of course, no doubt some exceptionally talented people.   But most are people from poorer countries looking for better opportunities here for themselves and their families –  typically, too, people who couldn’t get into the richer and more successful Anglo countries.  (None of this is a criticism of the migrants –  pursing the best for themselves and their families is probably what all of us seek to do too – but it is a criticism of the policy framework that enables such large inflows of not overly-skilled people.)

Mostly Labour’s policy seems to be about fixing some pretty dubious changes made to the student visa system over recent years.   In fact, three-quarters of the total numerical impact of their policy comes (on their own numbers) from student visa changes.

Labour will stop issuing student visas for courses below a bachelor’s degree which are not independently assessed by the TEC and NZQA to be of high quality.

Labour will also limit the ability to work while studying to international students studying at Bachelor-level or higher. For those below that level, their course will have to have the ability to work approved as part of the course.

Labour will limit the “Post Study Work Visa – Open” after graduating from a course of study in New Zealand to those who have studied at Bachelor-level or higher.

Mostly, those seem like a broadly sensible direction of change.   That said, I’m slightly uneasy about relying on bureaucratic agencies to decide whether courses are “high quality” –  in principle, surely the market can take care of reputational and branding issues?

And while it might look good on paper, I’m a little uneasy about the line drawn between bachelor’s degree and other lines of study.  It seems to prioritise more academic courses of study over more vocational ones, and while the former will often require a higher level of skill, the potential for the system to be gamed, and for smart tertiary operators to further degrade some of the quality of their (very numerous) bachelor’s degree offerings can’t be ignored.  In the student visa data we already see some slightly suspicious signs (bottom right chart) of switching from PTEs to universities  I’d probably have been happier if the right to work while studying had been withdrawn, or more tightly limited, for all courses.   And if open post-study work visas had been restricted to those completing post-graduate qualifications.

Selling education to foreign students is an export industry, and tighter rules will (on Labour’s own numbers) mean a reduction in the total sales of that industry.   Does that bother me?  No, not really.  When you subsidise an activity you tend to get more of it.  We saw that with subsidies to manufacturing exporters in the 1970s and 80s, and with subsidies to farmers at around the same time.  We see it with film subsidies today.  Export incentives simply distort the economy, and leave us with lower levels of productivity, and wealth/income, than we would otherwise have.   In export education, we haven’t been giving out government cash with the export sales, but the work rights (during study and post-study) and the preferential access to points in applying for residence are subsidies nonetheless.  If the industry can stand on its own feet, with good quality educational offerings pitched at a price the market can stand, then good luck to it.  If not, we shouldn’t be wanting it here any more than we want car assembly plants or TV manufacturing operations here.

Labour estimates that their changes to student visas and post-work study visas will reduce numbers by around 17000, roughly evenly split between the two classes of changes.  But what they don’t tell you is that these will be one-off reductions in the total number of people here on those visas.    Since the number of people who settle here permanently is determined by the residence approvals programme, and that hasn’t changed, the changes Labour is promising around student visas –  while broadly sensible –  while make a difference to the net migration flow in the first year they are implemented (the transition to the lower stock level) and none at all thereafter.   They might change, a little, who ends up with a residence visa, but not how many are issued.  If you favour high levels of non-citizen immigration but just want the “rorts” tidied up, it makes quite a lot of sense.

The changes Labour proposes to work visas are also something of a mixed bag.  They are promising (but with few/no specifics) to make it harder for people to get work visas

Since 2011/12, the number of low-skill (ANZSCO 4 and 5) work visas issued has surged from 14,000 to 22,000. For example, the number of “retail supervisor” work visas has increased from 700 to 1,700. Labour will work with firms to train New Zealanders to fill skills gaps so we don’t have to permanently rely on immigration. A developed nation should be able to train enough retail staff to meet its own needs. Immigration should be a stop-gap to meet skills shortages, not a permanent crutch.

Labour will make changes that preserve and enhance the ability of businesses to get skilled workers to fill real skills gaps but which prevent the abuses of the system that currently happen.

The broad direction seems sensible enough –  after all, the official rhetoric about the gains from immigration relate to really highly-skilled people, but what does it mean specifically?

And I get much more wary about proposals to move to a more regional approach (on top of the additional points for regional jobs the government introduced last year, thus further reducing the skill level of the average migrant).  This is what they say:

Currently, few skill shortages are regionalised. This makes it hard for a region with a skills shortage in a specific occupation to get on the list if the shortage is not nationwide. Importantly it means that work visas are issued for jobs in regions where there is not actually a shortage which puts unnecessary pressures on housing and transport infrastructure there.

Labour’s regionalised system will work with local councils, unions and business to determine where shortages exist and will require that skilled immigrants work in the region that their visa is issued for. This will prevent skills shortages in one region being used to justify work visas in another, while also making it easier for regions with specific needs to have those skills shortages met.

Where skills shortages are identified, Labour will develop training plans with Industry Training Organisations so that the need for skilled workers is met domestically in the long-term. We will invest in training through Dole for Apprenticeships and Three Years Fees Free policies.

Frankly, it seems like a bureaucrat’s paradise, and just the thing for influential business groups that get the ear of some local council or other.  It is hard enough to ensure that local authorities operate in the interests of their people, without setting up more incentives that will allow local authorities to be used to pursue the interests of one particular class of voters.

More generally, it is an approach that suggests no confidence at all in market mechanisms to deal with incipient labour market pressures.  There is no suggestion in the document, at all, that higher wages might be a natural adjustment mechanism, whether to deal with increased demand in a particular region or for a particular set of skills.  Even the Prime Minister was running that line recently  –  and he isn’t from the party supported by the union movement.

Again, changes to reduce the number of work visas granted to people for fairly low-skilled occupations aren’t a bad thing, but they won’t make any difference to the average net inflow of non New Zealanders beyond the initial (quite small) one-off level adjustment.     And there is no willingness to rely on market mechanisms –  eg set a (say) $15000 per annum fee, and allow limited work visas for jobs where the employer is willing to pay the taxpayer that additional price.

There were two other initiatives in the package.  The first was the proposed new Exceptional Skills visa.

Labour will introduce an Exceptional Skills Visa. This visa will enable people with exceptional skills and talents that will enrich New Zealand society — not just its economy — to gain residency here. 

It will be available to people who can show they are in an occupation on the long-terms skills list and have significant experience or qualifications beyond that required (for example, experienced paediatric oncologist) or are internationally renowned for their skills or talents. Successful applicants will avoid the usual points system requirements for a Skilled Migrant Category visa and would be able to bring their partner and children within the visa. This visa will help grow high-tech new industries, meet the increasingly complex needs of the 21st Century and enrich our society. Exceptional Skills Visas for up to 1,000 people, including partners and children, will be offered every year

When I first saw reference to this I was quite encouraged.  And if it makes a little easier for people who are genuinely highly-skilled to get first claim on those 45000 residence approvals each year, then I don’t have any problem with it.   But it isn’t exactly the American exceptional ability visa, and we need to be realistic about New Zealand’s relative attractiveness (or lack of it) to people with really exceptional talents.   The suggestion that the programme will “help growth high-tech new industries, meet the increasinbgly complex needs of the 21st century” is probably little more than late 20th century vapourware.

As for the proposed KiwiBuild visas, I suppose they were politically necessary. You leave yourself open if you campaign on both big reductions in migrant numbers, and massive increases in house-building, if you don’t prioritise construction workers.  In fact, of course, this programme makes a one-off reduction in the number of people here –  reductions concentrated in the population group that probably has the least housing needs..  None of the medium-term pressures will have been eased at all, even if some dodgy rules around students do end tightened.

In passing, I was also interested in this comment

We will investigate ways to ensure that the Pacific Access Quota and Samoan Quota which are currently underutilised are fully met.

I guess there are really large numbers of Pacific voters in Labour’s South Auckland heartland.    These Pacific quotas, again, lower the average skill level of those we given residence approval too (since people only come in on those quotas if they can’t qualify otherwise, all within the 45000 approvals per annum total).  I imagine, too, that the Australian High Commission will have taken note of that line.

Overall, some interesting steps, some of which are genuinely in the right direction.  But, like the government, Labour is still in the thrall of the “big New Zealand” mentality, and its immigration policy –  like the government’s – remain this generation’s version of Think Big.  And it is just as damaging.    The policy doesn’t face up to the symptoms of our longer-term economic underperformance –  the feeble productivity growth, the persistently high real interest and exchange rates, the failure to see market-led exports growing as a share of GDP, and the constraints of extreme distance.  None of those suggest it makes any sense to keep running one here of the large non-citizen immigration programmes anywhere in the world, pulling in lots of new people year after year, even as decade after decade we drift slowly further behind other advanced countries, and se the opportunities for our own very able people deteriorate.

But that is Labour’s policy.  And that is National’s policy.

For anyone interested, the Law and Economics Association is hosting a seminar on immigration policy and economic performance on Monday evening 26 June.   Eric Crampton of the New Zealand Initiative and I will be speaking.  Details are here.

UPDATE: Here is what I said to Radio New Zealand yesterday afternoon on immigration, in a reasonably extended interview, partly on Labour’s announcement, but mostly on the more general issues.

Labour on housing

There was nothing positive to be said about the previous Labour-led government’s approach to housing and house prices.  There is nothing positive to be said about the current National-led government’s approach.  The rhetoric while they were in Opposition had been encouraging.  The substance of reform has been almost non-existent, all the while cloaked in fairly brazen, even offensive, rhetoric from both Prime Ministers (Key and English) suggesting that it was all a mark of success, a quality problem, and so on, along with suggestions that the government’s approach was working.    By that standard, I hope I don’t live to see a failed housing policy.

There have been some hopes, in some circles, that the Labour Party, if they were to lead a new government after this year’s election, might be different.  Their housing spokesman seems pretty impressive, and seems to understand the issues.  In a no doubt mutually beneficial move, he and Oliver Hartwich, head of the business-funded New Zealand Initiative, even did a joint op-ed on freeing-up the market in urban land.   Places where landowners can use their land pretty freely tend not to have the sorts of grossly dysfunctional housing markets New Zealand (and Australia, and the UK, and much of the US east and west coasts) have, even if those places are big and fast-growing.

I’ve liked the talk, but have been a bit sceptical that it will come to much.  In part, I’m sceptical because no other country (or even large area) I’m aware of that once got into the morass of planning and land use laws has successfully cut through the mess and re-established a well-functioning housing and urban land market.  In such a hypothetical country, we wouldn’t need multiple ministers for different dimensions of housing policy.  I’m also sceptical because there is a great deal local government could do to free up urban land markets, but even though our big cities all have Labour-affiliated mayors, there has been no sign of such liberalisation.    The Deputy Mayor of Wellington for example leads the Wellington City Council ‘housing taskforce”.  Paul Eagle is about to step into a safe Labour seat.   His taskforce seems keen on the council building more houses, and tossing more out subsidies, but nothing is heard of simply freeing up the market in land.  Or even of looking for innovative ways to allow local communities to both protect existing interests and respond, over time, to changing opportunities.

I first wrote about this last October, when Phil Twyford had put out a substantial piece on Labour’s housing programme.   There was a five point plan.  Reform of the planning system appeared on the list, but briefly and well down the list.    As I noted then

It has the feel of a ritual incantation –  feeling the need to acknowledge the point –  rather than being any sort of centrepiece of a housing reform programme.

Yesterday, my doubts only intensified.  Labour’s leader, Andrew Little, devoted the bulk of his election year conference speech to housing, complete with the sorts of personal touches audiences like (although he didn’t mention the tasteful lavender out the front of his current house, which I walk past each day).  Media reports say the speech went down well with the faithful.

This time there was a four point plan.  It was a lot like Twyford’s plan from late last year, with one omission.   The continuing features were:

  • the state building more “affordable” houses,
  • restrictions on “overseas speculators” buying existing houses,
  • making “speculators who flip houses with five years pay tax on their profits,
  • “ring-fencing” losses on investment properties.

But in the entire speech –  and recall that most of it was devoted to housing –  there was not a single mention of freeing up the market in urban land, reforming the planning system etc.  Not even a hint.    I understand that giving landowners choice etc probably isn’t the sort of stuff that gets the Labour faithful to their feet with applause.   But to include not a single mention of the key distortion that has given us some of the most expensive (relative to income) house prices in the advanced world, doesn’t inspire much confidence.     Planning reform isn’t going to be easy.  Few big reforms are under MMP.  It probably isn’t something the Greens are keen on.  And if the putative Prime Minister isn’t on-board, hasn’t yet internalised (or even been willing to simply state it openly) that this is where the biggest problems lie, it is hard to believe that a new government would really be willing to spend much political capital in reforming and freeing up the system, no matter how capable, hardworking and insightful a portfolio minister might be.

Probably reforms of this sort don’t play well in focus groups (although surely there is some responsibility on political leaders to help shape the debate, and change what people respond positively to?)   On the other hand, presumably the data suggest that people react well to attacks on “speculators”, “loopholes”, “subsidies”, which appeared numerous time in Little’s speech.

The headlines around the speech were around the leader’s official confirmation that Labour will prohibit people from offsetting tax losses from investment properties against other non-property income.   This is, apparently, to “close a loophole” to stop “speculators” receiving “subsidies”.     In fact, it is nothing of the sort.

For better or worse, New Zealand has a comprehensive income tax system in which different types of factor income are treated much the same, and taxed at much the same rate.  There are various exceptions, and lots of devil in the detail (thus, for example, the establishment of the PIE regime a decade or so gave an advantage to funds in widely-held entities over individually-held assets).  It has long been pretty fundamental to that system that one tots up all the gains and losses over the course of the year, and then pays tax only on the overall net income.  It would be absurd, for example, to take a business with five operating divisions and tax them on the basis only of the lines of business that made profits, even though several of the other divisions may have made large losses.    Since time is money, it wouldn’t be much consolation to say “oh, don’t worry, you can offset those losses against future profits in those particular operating divisions”.

But that is just what Labour proposes to do.    There is no “subsidy”, there is no “loophole”.   There is simply a conventional comprehensive income tax system at work.  If you lose money on one activity, you can offset it against gains on other activities.

And, if you are concerned about favourable tax treatments then, within the comprehensive income tax model, the clear and unambiguous feature of the tax system that favours one group of potential house purchasers over another is the non-taxation of imputed rents on owner-occupied houses.    Relative to other potential purchasers, this feature provides a big advantage to unleveraged owner-occupiers (ie mostly those in late middle age and the elderly).   This isn’t some idle Reddellian claim.  You can see the calculations worked out carefully in a Reserve Bank discussion paper, The tax system and housing demand in New Zealand, from a few years ago, showing how the features of the New Zealand tax system affect what different types of potential purchasers will be willing to pay.

Within a comprehensive income tax system, I’m at a loss to understand the economic logic behind Labour’s proposed policy.  Presumably it will be fine to buy a farm (or shares in a farm) and offset losses on that investment against labour income?  Presumably it will still be okay to set up a small sideline business which makes losses for several years in the establishment phase, and to offset those losses against labour income?   But not for residential investment properties (or, one assumes, for shares in companies mainly devoted to holding such properties?)   Even though setting oneself up as the owner of an investment property, renting a house to tenants, is a small business.  In fact, it is a way that many people get into business, taking risks to get ahead.

Much of the discussion in the time since Little gave his speech has been on what sort of people will be affected –  whether it is the evil “speculators”, as opposed to “Mum and Dad”.  I’m not sure if there is much data available on that in New Zealand, but they are having a very similar debate in Australia, and I was interested to see a list from Australian Tax Office data published on the ABC website as to who had claimed rental losses in Australia, by occupational group.  People can make of it what they will.  The occupational groups most likely to claim rental losses in 2013/14 were anaesthetists (28.7 per cent of them).  But 22 per cent of Police did as well.

I’m opposed to ring-fencing, if we are going to have a comprehensive income tax system.  And, I’m doubly opposed to singling out housing for ring-fencing.   If there is an economic logic to ring-fencing, apply it more generally or leave it alone.  As it happens, we tried something similar before.  From 1982 to 1991, there were restrictions put on loss-offsetting against labour income for “specified activities” (at the time, the bugbear was people investing in things like kiwifruit orchards).  Even then, loss-offsetting was limited to $10000 per annum (rather than zero).

Are there problems with the current tax treatment?  Arguably so.  Some would claim that the absence of a full capital gains tax is such a distortion, allowing people to run operating losses in the expectation of future capital gains.     As it happens, Labour proposes to address that by, in effect, imposing a capital gains tax on any sales of investment properties within five years (presumably these are typically the “speculators”).  But even if they weren’t, the argument still fails.  In even a moderately efficient market, there are no rationally-expected real future capital gains on offer across the market as a whole.  If there were, people would bid up the prices further now to take advantage of (and thus eliminate) those gains.     There are windfalls –  gains and losses –  from large actual changes in capital values of assets, but it isn’t a systematic distortion in the system.     (In principle, I don’t have too much problem with a capital gains tax that (a) applies only to real (inflation-adjusted) gains, (b) applies on a valuation basis rather than a realisations basis, and (c) treats gains and losses symmetrically.  In practice, no such systems exist).

Where there is a systematic distortion in the system is around the treatment of inflation.  In an ideal system, there would be no systematically expected inflation.  In practice, we have an inflation target centred on 2 per cent annual inflation.  As a result, roughly speaking, nominal interest rates are around 2 percentage points higher than real interest rates, and real assets should be expected to increase in value by around 2 per cent per annum, even if there is no change in their real value.      The two percentage point component of interest rates that is just inflation compensation isn’t real income (no one is better off as a result of receiving it; no one’s purchasing power is improved).  And yet it is taxed as real income.  And for those borrowers who can deduct expenses, interest is fully deductible, even though the inflation compensation component doesn’t reduce the borrower’s real income.   That is a systematic advantage to such borrowers, and one for which there is not a shred of economic logic.

In my preferred approach, the inflation compensation component of interest income would not be taxed.  And the inflation compensation component of interest expenses would not be tax deductible for anyone.    As the Reserve Bank discussion paper I linked to earlier showed, this change alone would make quite a substantial difference to how much highly-geared investment borrowers would be willing to pay.  And it would be a genuine improvement in the comprehensive income tax system as well, without singling out on class of purchasers of one class of asset.

But it is worth bearing in mind, that none of these issues can explain anything about house price inflation behaviour in the last 10 or 15 years.  Over that period:

  • the loss-offsetting rules have been much the same,
  • the introduction of the PIE system disadvantaged individual holders of investment properties relative to, say, holders of financial assets in PIE vehicles,
  • in 2005, the tax depreciation rules were tightened,
  • from 2010, depreciation on properties was no longer tax deductible,
  • the inflation target was raised in 2002, but for the last eight or nine years, inflation expectations have been trending down again,
  • maximum personal income tax rates were also cut in 2010 (reducing the value of deductibility and loss-offsetting).

Any of these “distortions” should be capitalised into the price pretty quickly once they are announced and understood,  The only new measures in the last decade or so have reduced the relative attractiveness of property investment  (and that is before even mentioning LVR controls).  It typically takes shocks to displace markets.  In principle, the advent of non-resident foreign purchasers could have been an example (in the presence of supply constraints), but we don’t have good data.  So could unexpected population growth.

We should probably also be sceptical as to how much difference ring-fencing, as Labour propose, might make.  When I was at the Reserve Bank we came and went in our views on tax issues around housing.  But the one consistent observation over the years was to point out that many different countries had quite different regimes for the tax treatment of housing.  Some allowed loss-offsetting, some didn’t.  Some had capital gains taxes, some didn’t (and all those who did had various different rules).  Some had differential income tax rates for capital and labour income. Some even made a stab at taxing imputed rentals.  But it wasn’t obvious that the differences in tax treatments explained much about the levels of house prices, or about cycles in them.    And in a well-functioning land market, land –  the asset value that is, in principle, affected by tax system changes –  is only a fairly small component of a typical house+land price.

What tax rules do is affect who owns which assets.  Thus, for decades our tax system has tended to treat all owners of investment properties pretty equally.   Loss-offsetting was part of that.   But so was the fact that we didn’t give favourable tax treatment (generally) to insurance companies and superannuation funds.  In many countries, assets held in those sorts of vehicles are more lightly taxed.  Not surprisingly, managers of those vehicles can afford to pay more for the assets, and a larger share of the assets end up in such vehicles.

Ring-fencing rules can be expected to have similar effects.     If “Mum and Dad” with one investment property can’t offset a bad year’s losses against other income, but have to carry it forward and wait for a good income year from property, while a superannuation fund with lots of investment properties can (either because it is less leveraged or because losses on some properties can be offset against profits on others) more properties will be held in such vehicles.  It isn’t clear what the public policy interest is in such an outcome?  More generally, the change will disadvantage people starting out in the rental services businesses relative to those who are better-established and have larger equity.

In the end, so-called “speculative” opportunities, on any sort of widespread scale, arise mostly because governments got themselves into the land market, and by regulatory interventions, disabled the market from working smoothly to increase supply in response to increases in demand, or changes in tastes.   Wouldn’t it be better, more in the interests of middle New Zealand (and economic efficiency) to address the problem at source –  fix the regulatory failures –  rather than falling back on rhetoric about speculators and subsidies, which at best in tackling symptoms, not grappling with causes?

Fix up the planning system and all this will be yesterday’s issue.  Fix up the inflation distortion and you’ll also have a better tax system.  But if the planning system isn’t fixed then, whatever other short-term stuff Labour does (including immigration changes) will only provide temporary relief, and in a few years time we’ll be back with the same old housing affordability problems.  What a lost opportunity that would have been.

PS.  I see that Labour is invoking the Reserve Bank in support of ring-fencing.  Perhaps the current Governor does favour such a change –  although we’ve not seen any economic analysis in support of it from them –  but if so, it is an example of a proposal which the Bank was against before it was for.    In 2005, at the request of the then Minister of Finance, a group of senior Reserve Bank and Treasury staff was asked to review policy options for dealing with house prices.  I was part of that group (as was Adrian Orr, and incoming acting Governor Grant Spencer, and the current Chief Economist at The Treasury).  There is a nice treatment of the ring-fencing issues on pages 19 to 22 of our report.

 

 

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.