New LSAP data

There have been various posts here over the last couple of years about the losses to the taxpayer resulting from the Reserve Bank’s Large Scale Asset Purchase (LSAP) programme. Some of these have been more about explaining than excoriating (the latest such explanatory post is here).

As I noted in that most recent post, in the early days of the LSAP the line item on the Reserve Bank balance sheet for the claim on the Crown indemnity was a rough but reasonable estimate of the total losses, based on market prices as at the successive balance dates. It became an increasingly inadequate indicator as the LSAP programme started to be unwound, with the longest-dated bonds being sold back to Treasury, losses being realised, and payments being made from the Treasury to the Reserve Bank under the indemnity.

But the amounts of those indemnity payments were not being routinely disclosed (eg the RB does not publish a monthly income statement) and analysts were reduced to picking up snippets of information from OIAed documents. It wasn’t exactly transparent.

Anyway, in an OIA request to the Treasury and in a conversation with someone from the Bank I suggested it would be helpful if the monthly indemnity payment amounts by Treasury were to be routinely disclosed. That way, whatever debates we might want to have about the merits or otherwise of the LSAP programme, at least we would all be working with the same numbers.

And thus it has come to be, and this morning a new spreadsheet on the Bank’s website went live with monthly updates on payments and receipts under the LSAP indemnity. The link to it is about half-way down this page.

Here are the two components

Here is the Bank’s own description of the numbers in the blue line

There were net transfers to Treasury for a while because the coupon rates the Reserve Bank was receiving were higher than the (OCR) funding cost.

And here is the chart showing total losses, realised and unrealised.

The total will keep fluctuating a bit from month to month as market rates change, but the variability will gradually diminish as (a) the size of the remaining LSAP portfolio continues to steadily shrink, and (b) the longest-dated bonds have been sold back first. But for at least the last eight months, something around $10bn in total losses has been the best (market price) guess.

There were two points to this post. The first was to use the new data to illustrate better than has been possible until now with hard numbers just what has happened with the LSAP gains and losses over time. And the second was to acknowledge the Bank and thank them for making the data available. The losses probably aren’t something the Bank is really comfortable with, but one shouldn’t be hiding from the hard numbers, and in publishing them regularly now the Bank apparently is not. And that is welcome.

$10 billion is, however, a lot of taxpayers’ money to have lost.

Keeping track of the LSAP losses

This is mostly a follow-up to my post last Saturday on the LSAP losses.

In that post I noted that while the LSAP was still running, the monthly line item on the Reserve Bank balance sheet recording the Bank’s mark-to-market claim on The Treasury under the indemnity was a reasonable proxy, on prevailing market prices, of the direct fiscal losses the LSAP programme would result in. And it was an official number.

The Reserve Bank published its monthly balance sheet for the end of March. The Bank’s claim under the indemnity as at 31 March stood at $7821 million.

However, as I also noted in Saturday’s post, this number is no longer even an approximate estimate of the direct fiscal losses from the LSAP programme. It is still a best guess, on market prices, of the unrealised losses on the bonds the Bank is still holding.

But the Bank’s holding of bonds are now much lower than they were at peak. In the programme as a whole, the Bank purchased government bonds with a face value of $53480 million and LGFA bonds with a face value of $1735 million. All of those purchases were covered by the indemnity.

However, since July last year the Bank has been selling back to The Treasury each month government bonds with a face value of $415 million. Total sales to date – most recently a parcel on Monday – total $4150 million. The resales programme is starting with the longest-dated (most risky) bonds, on which the largest percentage losses will typically have been made. As those bonds are sold back to The Treasury the Reserve Bank’s losses are realised, and their claim on the indemnity is met each month by The Treasury. (In addition, as the table below records, there were some payments from the RB to Treasury in the period before resales began, which may represent higher coupon payments to the Reserve Bank exceeding the Reserve Bank’s (OCR) funding costs during the very low OCR period.)

There appears to be no easy place to find the monthly indemnity payments (I have suggested to Treasury that in the interests of transparency it would be good if they or the Bank provided such a table), but there were some hard numbers, and some indications, in a November 2022 Treasury paper that I drew from in Saturday’s post

Actual market rates have changed since then, but the total payouts to date could be almost $2 billion.

In addition to the sales back to The Treasury, some of the bonds the Reserve Bank purchased have matured in their hands.

On the LGFA side, $216m (face value) matured in May 2021, $250m in April 2022, and another $250m this month.

In respect of government bonds, $1300m matured in May 2021 (and on those bonds the Crown appears to have roughly broken even from having done the LSAP purchases – the OCR, the Bank’s funding cost, having been 0.25 per cent throughout the period the May 2021 bonds were held), and another $7471 million (face value) matured a few days ago, 15 April 2023.

As a reminder, here is what the Reserve Bank is indemnified for

Whatever claim the Reserve Bank had in respect of the April 2023 bonds will presumably drop out of the reported indemnity claim balance sheet item in the next balance sheet and will have been met by Treasury in their monthly payment.

Total LSAP bond purchases were $55215 million (face value). Maturities and resales mean that the face value has been reduced by (face value) $9487 million [correction $13637m – the original number was just maturities]. The monthly reported indemnity claim item on the Reserve Bank’s balance sheet captures only the market-implied loss on the bonds still held. But the total direct fiscal losses on the programme – not reported very transparently – include the substantial realised losses already settled by The Treasury. Each month – while market bond rates remain high – the realised losses will mount and the indemnity claim item (while fluctuating from month to month) will be trending down. When the last bonds mature or are sold (several years away yet on current plans), the Reserve Bank balance sheet indemnity item will drop away to zero. But large losses will have been met by the taxpayer – on what we know at present, probably something like $10bn of them.

Understanding LSAP losses

There was an article on Business Desk yesterday that led with the suggestion that the LSAP losses now totalled almost $20 billion.

As soon as the article appeared I emailed the author and pointed out that the two numbers she was using could not be added together and that the best estimate of the direct fiscal losses were still around $10 billion. We had a few email exchanges and a telephone conversation, by which point she accepted that her number was wrong, but didn’t fully understand why she was wrong (apparently several other journalists were also confused), and indicated that there would be a further article forthcoming, using quotes I (and others?) had provided. I didn’t have the time for anything in depth yesterday but suggested I might write a post today that attempted a fuller and more intuitive explanation.

Unfortunately I didn’t print off the original piece and the article online has now been changed. The original opening has been modified to remove the explicit $20 billion assertion (it is still in the heading but with a question mark) and this note has been added at the start.

As it stands, the article now begins

But it isn’t “before” it at all. Instead, the number labelled as the mark-to-market losses on the LSAP portfolio is just, in effect, a subset of the Treasury estimate referred to in the first paragraph.

Note that everything in this post, in Jenny Ruth’s article, and in the Treasury papers referred to, deals only with the direct fiscal losses to the taxpayer from the LSAP programme. It does not deal with any possible offsetting savings by lowering general Treasury issuance costs or with possible macroeconomic benefits (or costs), not because either of these might not be important, but simply because the issue at hand is about the direct fiscal costs only.

Jenny Ruth’s article drew on the Treasury paper to the Minister of Finance, dated 6 December 2022, which I discussed (together with a follow up note from the Reserve Bank) in this recent post on the idea of tiering returns on the current very large level of settlement cash balances. The paper itself is included in the huge recent OIA release from the Minister of Finance, hosted on Treasury’s website. So too is one other Treasury paper I will draw from.

Here is the $10.5 billion number from the Treasury paper Ruth draws on

Note that there is a footnote at the end of that sentence. Here is the footnote, some of which was withheld

This, on its own, really should have been enough to suggest to any reader that the two numbers were approximating to the same thing, and thus could not be added together. (All that said, this paper was about tiering and so did not go into any great depth on how the various LSAP loss numbers were derived.)

But here it is worth taking a step back.

For the last 18 months or more I have been banging on about the rising scale of the direct fiscal losses associated with the LSAP. To illustrate that point I regularly used, both here and on Twitter, a chart of the line item on the Reserve Bank’s monthly published balance sheet of the Bank’s claim under the Crown indemnity the Minister of Finance has given them for any LSAP losses. I used that because (a) it was available monthly, and it was an official number and (b) because, while there were no realisations (bonds sold off again) it was a reasonable best estimate (the market price) at the time of what the actual direct fiscal losses were.

But, as I have pointed out, and as The Treasury itself has frequently pointed out, the indemnity claim itself does not represent the cost to the wider Crown finances. The indemnity claim is just a transfer from the Treasury to the Reserve Bank. Had the indemnity not been given, the Reserve Bank could still have done the LSAP. Instead of a large claim on The Treasury for the indemnity it would instead be showing large losses itself and deeply negative equity (as is the situation with the RBA, which did large scale bond buying, without an indemnity). Either way, taxpayers are worse off but they are worse off because of the LSAP (and subsequent movement in market prices for bonds) not because of the indemnity. The Reserve Bank balance sheet is consolidated into the Crown accounts, and transfers among entities included in that consolidation don’t make us taxpayers any worse (or better) off. They are really just intra-group transfers.

It is also worth noting – as many early sceptics did in their responses – that if the LSAP bonds were to be held to maturity by the Reserve Bank no indemnity claim would have been payable at all. The market price of the bonds approaching matiruty would have tended towards the face value of the bonds.

But that is not the same as saying there would have been no direct fiscal losses from the decision to do the LSAP.

What matters in assessing the direct fiscal costs is not the flows between the Reserve Bank and the Treasury (intra-group transfers) but the flows between the government as a whole (here, Treasury and Reserve Bank combined) and the private sector. The LSAP changed the private sector’s lending to the government from bond holdings to settlement cash balances at the Reserve Bank. This is the story I’ve been telling for ages that the LSAP is just a big asset swap. Treasury says the same thing (from that same 6 December paper)

In what follows, I’m treating the Reseve Bank and Treasury as one consolidated entity (whole-of-Crown). In decision making terms it doesn’t work that way (the RB MPC made independent decisions to do the LSAP), but I think the substance may be clearer if I do.

Take a very simplified example in which these are the only transactions whole-of-Crown does:

Step 1

  • the government issues $50 billion of long-term bonds to the private sector to finance $50 billion of spending,
  • the net effect of those two transactions is no change to the level of settlement cash balances (spending boosts settlement cash, but issuing bonds drains those balances)
  • in this scenario, the government now has $50 billion of long-term debt outstanding and no extra (RB) settlement cash balances outstanding

Step 2 (the LSAP)

  • the Reserve Bank (branch of government) buys back the $50 billions of bonds on the open market,
  • paying for its purchases boosts the total level of settlement cash by the full purchase price (for simplicity, assume also $50 billion)
  • having done this, the government (whole of Crown) now has a) no long-term debt outstanding (one division might have issued the debt while another has repurchased it, but they net to zero) and (b) $50 billion of extra settlement cash liabilities outstanding.

The government could have financed that $50 billion at the market interest rate on the long-term bonds.  Instead, it is now financing itself with settlement cash balances (in economic substance, borrowing from banks) on which its Reserve Bank arm pays the full OCR interest rate, reviewed every six weeks or so.

The direct fiscal cost of the decision to do the LSAP is the difference in the debt servicing costs in these two scenarios (how much whole-of-Crown pays the private sector).   Transfers between the government and the Reserve Bank themselves don’t add to or subtract from those numbers at all.

When the LSAP was underway, the Reserve Bank was probably buying back the bonds at yields to maturity of around 1 per cent.   In other words, the Crown was giving up, say, 1 per cent fixed rate financing and replacing it with variable rate financing.  Had the OCR averaged below that (approximate) 1 per cent over the remaining life of the bonds, there would have been a net direct fiscal saving.   If that seemed unlikely even in 2020, it wasn’t impossible (for the first year or more the OCR was 0.25 per cent).

But it hasn’t happened (or, to be strictly accurate, since we do not know what disasters might lie just around the corner, it now seems most unlikely to happen).  The OCR is now 5.25 per cent.  From here, in its latest OCR review the Reserve Bank indicated it isn’t sure where the OCR will go next.   The market is looking towards rate cuts at some point, but the market does not expect anything like an average of 1 per cent or less.  There will, almost certainly, be substantial net direct fiscal costs from the LSAP programme.   

That number was what The Treasury was estimating (reporting in early December) at about $10.5 billion.  Bond yields, changing from day to day, encapsulate implicit market expectations of future short-term rates, including the future path of the OCR over the remaining life of the relevant bond.  Thus, the mark-to-market value of a bond position is going to approximate to the estimated net direct fiscal losses from a decision to purchase those bonds (as Treasury notes in the first quote above).  They are two ways of looking at the same thing, not different losses that can be added together.

Current market bond yields are a little below those at the end of October, so Treasury’s best estimate now of the net direct fiscal losses would probably be a little lower.   Since we don’t know exactly the date as at which they came up with the $10.5 billion or the precise details of their methodology we can’t be quite sure how much lower, but $10 billion or perhaps a touch below look to be about right.  Those estimates too will, in principle, change every day.

As Jenny Ruth’s article notes, the Reserve Bank balance sheet for 31 March will be published on Tuesday, and we will get an update on the Bank’s claim on the Treasury under the indemnity.   However, the claim under the indemnity no longer approximates the total expected net fiscal direct losses (or the Reserve Bank’s own losses).  That is (mostly) because some of the LSAP bonds have been sold (back to Treasury), under a steady announced monthly programme, crystallising some of the Reserve Bank’s losses, and triggering payments from the government to the Reserve Bank under the indemnity (some of the shorter-term bonds have also been held to maturity).   I am not aware of where we might find an up-to-date time series of these payments, but in that big Treasury OIA release there is a 24 November 2022 paper to the Minister of Finance on monthly indemnity payments.  It includes a table of actual indemnity payments to date

indemnity 1


and one of expected payments over the followng year (on market rates prevailing when the estimates were done)

indemnity 2

Jenny Ruth reported (correctly) the Bank’s outstanding indemnity claim as at the end of February of around $8.75bn. But to get the total Reserve Bank losses under the indemnity one would have to add to that (a) the $438 million of known indemnity payments already made, and (b) any other indemnity payments between November and February, estimated in the Treasury papers then at another $1.1bn or so. In other words, a total a bit over $10 billion. Note that the entire interest rate yield curve for medium to long term bonds is lower now than it was in Oct/Nov (or in February) so accurate estimates now would be a bit lower – probably a touch below $10 billion.

If I think back to yesterday’s conversation I think one issue that may be playing on people’s mind is “yes, we know about the settlement cash payments you describe, but…..surely there are still those mark to market losses showing on the RB balance sheet”.

And that is true, but if the Treasury were to engage in full mark to market accounting of the value of its debts (which few entities do, or are required to be accounting standards, but which is nonetheless the economic substance), what would have happened to the market value of the debt Treasury had issued? It would have increased massively – low interest outstandings are very valuable when the market rate is so much higher. In fact, the market value of the increased value of the Treasury’s liability in respect of the LSAP bonds would be equal to the reduced market value of the Reserve Bank’s holdings of those LSAP bonds. The two net out – reverting to my oversimplified scenario it is as if the whole-of-Crown no longer has that debt outstanding at all.

The indemnity (claim and payments) matters a lot to the Reserve Bank. It doesn’t much matter to us, or to the Treasury. We face whatever gains (or losses) the LSAP gives rise to whether or not there was an indemnity. The remaining claim – latest estimate out on Tuesday – is (from our perspective) little more than an intra-group memo item. But as taxpayers we don’t care much about either the RB or the Treasury finances individually, but about the consolidated financial position, which is what determines the losses we ultimately have to bear.

Finally, because some LSAP bonds are being held to maturity (and there are losses arising from them, albeit often smaller) there will never be a single government accounts line item capturing the full net direct fiscal costs of the LSAP programme.

I hope this post has made things a bit clearer. I’m happy to engage with anyone on the points in it, or any that are relevant that I may have missed.

UPDATE (17/4): Jenny Ruth’s follow-up story written on Friday is here. Note that this line she was given by Treasury is wrong or at best misleading.

If the Reserve Bank sold the LSAP bonds on-market that would certainly and automatically drain settlement cash levels. If the Reserve Bank sold the bonds back to the Treasury that transaction alone would not affect banks’ settlement account balances at all (it would just deplete the government’s account at the RB). The effect on settlement cash would arise only as and when the Treasury issued new bonds on-market to replenish the government’s account and (in effect) replace the bonds the RB had sold back to them.

It is a small point, but since the Treasury line is now on the public record and there is evident lack of clarity in some quarters about the LSAP issues it is worth being as clear as possible. As per the post above, transfers/flows between the RB and Treasurydo not directly affect banks or the wider public. For many purposes (but not all) there are just intra-group transfers among branches of whole-of-government.

Interesting that the Minister of Finance asked for advice

In September last year, former Bank of England Deputy Governor Sir Paul Tucker published a substantial discussion paper suggesting paying a sub-market, or zero, interest rate on some portion of the huge increase in bank deposits at the central bank that had resulted (primarily) for the large-scale asset purchase programmes central banks had been running (in the Bank of England’s case since the 2008/09 recession, but in some countries – including New Zealand and Australia – just since 2020).

In late October, I wrote about Tucker’s paper, and you will get the gist of my view from the title of that post, “A Bad Idea”. The Herald’s Jenee Tibshraeny picked up on that post and the following day ran an article on the Tucker tiering proposal, with sceptical quotes from several people including me. There was a difference of view in those quotes. As in my post, I argued that such an approach could be adopted without impeding the fight against inflation but should not be adopted, while others (as eminent as the former Deputy Governor, Grant Spencer) suggested that not only that it should not be done, but could not (ie would tend to undermine the drive to lower inflation).

The essence of my “it could be done” line was the same as Tucker’s: monetary policy operates at the margin, and so what matters for anti-inflationary purposes is that the marginal settlement cash balances receive the market rate, not that all of them do. There was precedent, in reverse, in several (but not all) countries that ran negative policy rates, where the central bank applied the negative rate only to marginal balances, while continuing to pay a higher rate on the bulk of balances (thus supporting bank profits, although the argument made at the time was that doing so would help support the monetary transmission mechanism).

So far, so geeky. But it turns out that after Tibshraeny’s first article, the Minister of Finance sought advice on the Tucker proposal, not just once but twice (first from The Treasury and then later from the Reserve Bank). In yesterday’s Herald, she reports on the two documents she got back from an Official Information Act request to the Minister. She was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the material she obtained.

The Treasury advice, dated 6 December 2022, does not explicitly say that it was in response to a request from the Minister, but it seems almost certain that it was. Treasury is unlikely to have put up advice off its own bat on a matter that is squarely a Reserve Bank operational responsibility without formally consulting with the Reserve Bank and including some report of the Reserve Bank’s views in its advice. We can assume the Minister asked Treasury for some thoughts, and Treasury responded a few weeks later with four substantive pages.

I don’t have too much problem with The Treasury’s advice on a line-by-line basis. Their “tentative” view was that some sort of tiering arrangement could be introduced without undermining the effectiveness of monetary policy.

There were a couple of interesting things in the note nonetheless. For example, it was good to have this in writing

and it was also interesting to read that “in previous discussions with the Bank they have indicated that they would consider introducing a zero-interest tier if the OCR were negative”.

Treasury highlighted that a zero-interest tier in the current environment (large settlement cash balances, fairly high OCR) would be in effect a tax on banks with settlement accounts.

but strangely never engage with the question as to whether it would be appropriate for the Reserve Bank to impose such a tax (or whether they had in mind special legislation to override the Reserve Bank on this point).

They also note some potential reputational issues

but could have added that these might be particularly an issue if New Zealand was to adopt such an approach in isolation (they neither mention, and nor have I seen, any indication any other authorities have seriously considered this option).

The Treasury note ends recommending not that the issue be closed down and taken no further, but that if the Minister wanted to “pursue this option” he should seek advice from the Reserve Bank and they offered to help draft a request for advice.

And so the Minister turned to the Reserve Bank for further advice, and on 2 February 2023 they provided him four pages of analysis (plus a full page Executive Summary which is more black and white than the substantive paper itself). The Bank seems pretty staunchly opposed to the tiering idea, but on occasions seems to overstate its case. And, remarkably, they never even attempt to engage on the question as to whether the market-rate remuneration of the large settlement cash balances created by their LSAP (and Funding for Lending) programmes are any sort of windfall gain to the banks (a key element of Tucker’s argument).

But much of what they say is reasonable. From the full paper

There is no real doubt that it can be done, and they draw comparisons between regimes in some other countries, more common in the past, where some (legally) required reserves were not remunerated at all.

I largely agree with them on this

departing from them on that final sentence of paragraph 25 (any tier could, and sensibly would, be set on the basis on typical balances held prior to any announcement or consultation document), and in the first sentence of paragraph 26 (since, from the Bank’s perspective, benefits from the LSAP are supposed to be a good thing – the Governor repeatedly champions them – not bad).

The Bank attempts to play down the amounts at stake, suggesting any potential gains to the Crown (and thus, presumably, costs to those subject to the “tax) would be modest. But they include this

I guess when your MPC has thrown away $10bn of taxpayers’ money, $900m over four years doesn’t seem very much (and these calculations are materially biased to the low end of what could be raised without adversely affecting monetary policy) but…..$900m over four years buys a lot of operations, or teacher aids, or whatever things governments like spending money on.

It is also a bit surprising that although the Bank notes that such a tiering tax would be likely to be passed through to customers, they provide no substantive analysis as to how or to what extent, and thus what the likely incidence of such a tax would be. It isn’t that I disagree with the Bank, but the analysis isn’t likely to be very convincing to readers not already having the same view as them (tiering is a bad idea).

They make some other fair and important points, notably that hold a settlement account with the Reserve Bank would be likely to be less attractive if doing so was taxed, in turning providing an advantage to non-settlement account financial institutions (broader settlement account membership is generally a good thing, conducive to competition and efficiency). But then they over-egg the pudding. This line is from the Executive Summary – and draws on nothing in the body, so has the feel of something a senior person inserted at the last minute

One of the points commentators on central banks often have to make to less-specialist observers is that banks themselves have no control over the aggregate level of settlement cash balances. Individual bank choices – to lend or borrow more/less aggressively – affect an individual bank’s holdings but not the aggregate balances in the system. And thus banks cannot materially impede future LSAP-type operations since there is no reason why the Reserve Bank’s purchases need to be constrained only to entities that already hold settlement accounts at the Bank. If the Reserve Bank buys a billion dollars of NZ government bonds at premium prices from overseas investors/holders, the proceeeds will end up in NZ bank settlement accounts whether the local banks like it or not. Same goes for, say, large fiscal operations like the wage subsidy. What might be more accurate – and I made this point in my original post – is that a tiering model carried into the future might motivate local banks to lobby harder against renewed LSAPs. From a taxpayers’ perspective that would probably be a net benefit, but one can see why the Reserve Bank might have a different view.

While I don’t really disagree with the thrust of either the Reserve Bank or Treasury advice neither could really be considered incisive or decisive pieces. Perhaps the Bank’s piece was enough to persuade the Minister (although there is no indication in the OIA material or in Tibshraeny’s article that the Minister has abandoned interest). A tiering regime of the sort discussed in the RB/Tsy advice would be an opportunistic revenue grab, representing either an abuse of Reserve Bank power or a legislative override of monetary policy operational independence, with truly terrible signalling and precedent angles. It could be done – so could many many bad things – but it shouldn’t.

(If you want a typically-passionate opposing view, try Bernard Hickey’s column yesterday, from which I gather he has removed the paywall.)

Big mistakes were made. The LSAP was unnecessary, ill-considered, risky, and (as it turns out) very expensive. The Funding for Lending programme continued all the way through last year was almost incomprehensible (if cheaper and less risky). Mistakes have consequences and they need to be recognised and borne, not pave the way for still-worse compensatory fresh interventions.

I’m going to end repeating the last couple of paragraphs from my original post

It is, perhaps, a little surprising that neither set of official advice shows any sign of engaging with Tucker’s paper itself, or with the author, a very well-regarded and experienced figure.

Central bank losses and the BIS

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) is a club of central banks. That isn’t a pejorative label, just a straight factual description. 63 central banks (including the RBNZ) are the shareholders and the institution exists primarily to generate material for, and host meetings of, central bankers. They collate statistics and generate research with a central banking focus. They still provide some financial services to central banks. The chief executive (“General Manager”) is chosen from the ranks of highly-regarded senior central bankers (the current incumbent, Agustin Carstens was (among other things) formerly Governor of the Bank of Mexico and Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund).

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Adrian Orr had been citing material published recently by the BIS in defence of his suggestion that central bank losses from discretionary interventions really don’t matter and are more of an “accounting issue” than an economic one. When that material came out last month I drew attention to it, and (briefly) to the limitations, on Twitter, but since the Governor suggests that the BIS has the answers I thought it might be worth taking another look and unpicking what is, and isn’t, there in the two short BIS pieces. The first is an op-ed from Carstens, published in the Financial Times but the full text of which is on the BIS website and the second is a six page note by several BIS staff “Why are central banks reporting losses? Does it matter?

The Carstens op-ed is short enough I can take it paragraph by paragraph.

It begins with the title “Central banks are not here to make profits”. That is both true and a distraction. First, hardly any aspects of what governments do exist to make money, Second, unlike most arms of government, central banks should typically be at least modestly profitable (as monopoly provider of zero interest banknotes and of residual liquidity to the financial system). Third, when discretionary interventions are being considered the likely profits or losses, and the associated risk to taxpayers, should be at least one part of the full assessment of the pros and cons. And, finally, when interventions are being evaluated ex post, financial outcomes should be at least one part of a full assessment. Costs and benefits both matter.

As context here, one might note that the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, which used to have a low-risk small and stable balance sheet, made a profit each and every year for decades (without support from taxpayer indemnities). It was the normal state of affairs (seignorage earnings, with some volatility up and down as the proceeds of the note issue and the Bank’s equity were typically held in government bonds).

But on to the text

Unlike businesses, central banks are designed to make money only in the most literal sense. They have a mandate to act in the public interest: to safeguard the value of the money they issue so that people can make financial decisions with confidence. The bottom line for central banks is not profit, but the public good.

As noted, this does not mark out central banks from other government entities. Resources used, risks assumed, need to be rigorously evaluated along with programme effectiveness.

Today, following an extraordinary period in economic history, some central banks are facing losses. This is particularly true if they bought assets such as bonds and other securities to stabilise their economies in response to recent crises. Many will not contribute to government coffers for years to come.

“believing that by doing so” they would stabilise their economies. Note that in a formal sense that final sentence is not true of the RBNZ, since the Crown indemnity means losses from their interventions are borne directly by the taxpayer, not via impaired central bank capital. More generally, whatever the formal arrangements – and they differ widely across countries – mark to market accounting reminds us that the best guess is that large losses have already happened.

Does this mean that central banks are unsound? The answer is “no”. Losses do not jeopardise the vital role played by these institutions, which can and have operated effectively with losses and negative equity. And the unique nature of central bank tools means that sometimes losses are the price to pay for meeting their objectives – to support growth and jobs, ensure stable prices and help keep the financial system safe and stable.

In normal times, it is possible for central banks to both fulfil their mandates and earn profits without taking on significant financial risk. Traditionally, being the unique issuer of money provides a reliable revenue stream. But central banks with large foreign exchange reserves, built to cushion external shocks, will often experience ups and downs in income from exchange rate fluctuations. This means they sometimes make losses when pursuing their goal of a stable currency.

Agree entirely with the first two sentences, but they aren’t really the point and I’m not aware of any serious observer arguing to the contrary. The third sentence is much much more arguable, and neither in the brief op-ed nor in the longer Bulletin does the BIS really defend the claim. Most discretionary central bank interventions, if justified at all, should be stabilising and thus profitable (eg the Bank of England bond market interventions late last year). As Carstens notes, for countries with large foreign reserves holdings, exchange rate fluctuations will typically generate substantial year to year gains and losses simply from passive holdings but if that is an issue for Switzerland (where the BIS is based) it isn’t for most of the advanced country central banks we usually compare the Reserve Bank to. And there is likely to be a difference in how one sees passive structural positions and active discretionary interventions.

In times of crisis, central banks may also need to take on additional risks. And they do so with their eyes wide open. One example is the purchases of government bonds, including those made during the great financial crisis and more recently during the Covid-19 pandemic, in order to avert economic disaster by supporting financial stability, keeping credit flowing and boosting economic activity.

All this simply asserts what it does not show. But there is also an important distinction, not drawn here, between interventions to help restore market functioning (the initial QE back in 2008, and the initial bond buying in March 2020) which, support them or not (there are, after all, some moral hazard risks), should typically be expected to be profitable, perhaps even on a risk-adjusted basis, and large scale bond-buying with the goal of influencing the entire level of the yield curve. There is little evidence that many central banks (notably the RBNZ) really did much serious advance analysis on the use of this tool, the financial risks associated with it, the likely effectiveness of it, let alone exit strategies. In a NZ context, we should give no weight to the suggestion in the final sentence that the LSAP was necessary to “avert economic disaster”.

In the last decade, with inflation and interest rates low for a long period, these bond purchases boosted income. In fact, some central banks were able to transfer unusually large profits to governments. But in the wake of the pandemic and given the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, inflation has returned. This requires higher interest rates to contain spiralling prices – and exposes central banks to losses related to assets purchased in past successful rescue efforts.

Here Carstens touches on one of the problems with the 2020 QE interventions: central banks, including our own, seem to have been lulled into a degree of complacency about the risks they were taking on by the fact that QE done in other countries in the wake of the 2008/09 recession had not ended up costing central banks or taxpayers lots of money because the longer-term trend of falling real interest rates had continued. There was, however, no reason to suppose it would do so indefinitely, and a continuation was in any case less likely with bond yields near 1 per cent than with bond yields at, say, 5 per cent.

Central banks should put purpose above profits. Would it make sense for a central bank with large foreign currency reserves to increase their value by haphazardly triggering a devaluation of its own currency just to generate a windfall? Or for a central bank with domestic currency assets to keep interest rates low, even in the face of high inflation, just to preserve low-cost funding and generate profits? Such actions would be wildly inappropriate, violate their mandates and destabilise the economy.

By this point in the article, handwaving and straw men are well and truly to the fore. The issue is much more about the risk analysis – financial and otherwise – undertaken before the initial discretionary intervention (and at each stage of it), not how one clears up the mess afterwards. No one I know has suggested central banks should not allow interest rates to rise simply to protect their own financial positions, but there are serious questions about whether those (known to be) highly risky asset swaps should have been done in the first place.

The soul of money is trust. To operate effectively, business must maintain the trust of investors. And central banks must maintain the trust of the public.

Governments also have a role to play in the face of today’s central banks’ losses. Because these institutions are ultimately backed by the state, trust in money requires sound government finances and good financial management.

Blah, blah, blah. But one might add that maintaining the trust of the public in a modern era typically involves both demonstrated competence, openness and transparency, and acknowledgement of errors – not just patting people on the head and telling them “don’t worry, its complex, we are the experts and we have it in hand” even as staggering real losses are run-up and realised.

And finally

Losses matter because they may inflict a bruise on public finances but a far greater injury would result from central banks neglecting their mandates in order to avoid a loss. The public, via elected officials, have given central banks the job of price and financial stability because of their enormous societal benefits. Now, and in the long term, the costs from central bank losses are insignificant compared to the costs of runaway inflation and prolonged economic crisis.

Perhaps that first phrase is key. Losses matter, they are real. Nowhere does Carstens suggest they are “just an accounting issue”. The rest of that paragraph is really just handwaving and distraction, culminating in that outrageously misleading final sentence which seeks to suggest that there is some inescapable tradeoff between “insignificant” central bank losses and “runaway inflation and prolonged economic crisis”. There simply isn’t – and starkly there clearly wasn’t when central banks like the RBNZ launched and kept up their highly risk bond buying in 2020. With hindsight – and no matter what people might have claimed to believe back then – large scale bond-buying kept on well into 2021 or in some cases 2022 did not keep us from “runaway inflation and prolonged economic crisis”. Instead, overall central bank responses to Covid delivered us a really severe outbreak of (core) inflation, which central banks are now grappling to get back down again.

The Carstens piece is best seen as distractive spin for central banks by the chief executive of their own club. That needn’t necessarily mean there are no useful points their own lobbyist could ever make, but there were almost none relevant to the issues at hand, or the challenges that have been posed to Orr, in this piece.

More generally – and if this is a central bankers’ conceit, they probably aren’t the only interest group to suffer this fault – there is no sense anywhere in the Carstens piece that central banks might ever make mistakes, that some interventions might be worthwhile and appropriate and others not. But when central banks have done even their core job so poorly over the last couple of years – see core inflation rates across much of the world – the absence seems particular notable.

I’m not going to attempt a similar paragraph by paragraph treatment of the longer BIS staff note. It has some useful material in it, particularly for those less familiar with these issues, even if it has a strong focus on “whether losses matter for a central bank” (as they note, losses do not compromise a central bank’s technical ability to fulfil its mandate), rather than whether they matter for taxpayers, citizens, and those wishing to hold a central bank to account. I wanted to pick up briefly just the last couple of paragraphs, on how central banks should respond to losses.

“Effective communication” does not include trying to spin public audiences or MPs with assertions that real economic losses – that leave taxpayers poorer – are “just an accounting issue”. It should not include handwaving assertions about the wider benefits being “multiples” of the losses. It should include careful analysis and research evaluating the actual macroeconomic impact, including by comparison with the gains that less financially risky interventions might have offered. It should include careful ex ante disclosed risk analysis (the case for which was all the stronger for central banks coming late to the QE party, like the RBNZ or RBA). And it should include explicit recognition by central banks that they can, and sometimes do, make mistakes, even substantial ones. None of that has characterised the Reserve Bank of New Zealand through this episode.

And what of that final paragraph? It has the feel of editorial spin. Although it has become common in this field to claim that big financial losses are sometimes the price that has to be paid, there is rarely any rigorous attempt made to demonstrate the truth of that claim in respect of discretionary ad hoc interventions like the LSAP (or peer programmes abroad). Central banking done well should be profitable, from the nature of the institution – not because a central bank sets out to maximise profits (such a beast would be dangerous indeed) but because of its position in the market/economy and the monopolies the state gives it central bank.

Finally, and reverting specifically to New Zealand, one of my consistent criticisms of the LSAP programme is that there is no evidence in any of the material that has been released that the Reserve Bank or Treasury ever conducted or provided a robust analysis of what could go wrong when seeking the approval of the Minister of Finance for such huge punts on the bond market (and punts they were).

As just one example, consider this Treasury report to the Minister dated 1 May 2020 (so six weeks after the LSAP had been launched, and well after the initial US-led disruption to bond markets had settled down), in support of the Reserve Bank’s bid to expand the LSAP programme, and increase the associated financial risks. Here is the relevant bit of the financial risks section

Written in a way to suggest the programme was more likely to make money than lose it (despite the record low interest rates at the time) and with a “large but plausible” downside scenario involving the OCR only getting back to 1 per cent by this year, with no attempt at all to offer tail risk estimates of the extent of the possible loss. It simply isn’t the sort of analysis that should prompt any degree of confidence in either the Reserve Bank or the Treasury.

But this is the sort of stuff that Orr apparently stands by 100 per cent, with no regrets for anything he or the MPC were responsible for.

Central bank inadequacy and spin

Last Friday the Reserve Bank Governor, Adrian Orr, gave a keynote address to the Waikato Economics Forum. This event seems to have become part of the annual economic policy calendar, with Waikato University boasting that

The forum will bring together an outstanding lineup of top economists, business leaders and public sector officials, who will share their expertise on how we can address the major challenges facing our country today.

Sold that way, you might have thought that when a really senior and powerful public official turns up for a keynote address to an assembled economically literate audience he’d have delivered some fresh and interesting insights, going rather deeper than he might to, say, a provincial Rotary Club. Doubly so when in that official’s area of policy responsibility things have proved so challenging in the last few years, when so much taxpayers’ money has been lost, and when core inflation is so far outside the target range the government has set. It was just a couple of weeks after the latest Monetary Policy Statement, so would have been a great opportunity for the Governor to expand on the issues and shed light on how, and how rigorously and insightfully, he sees things .

Instead we got “Promoting economic wellbeing: Te Pūtea Matua optimisation challenges”, a title that held out little or no hope and offered less across a sprawling 12 pages of text. Attendees must have wondered whether it had really been worth getting out of bed early enough to hear the Governor at 7:40am. As for me, I read it twice, just to be sure.

Faced with major policy failures – and the core inflation outcomes cannot really be considered anything else, no matter how many allowances might be made – there is not a single fresh or interesting insight in the entire speech, In fact, it is the sort of address one of Orr’s junior staff could easily have given, as a “functions of the Reserve Bank” talk, to a Stage 2 university economics class.

Perhaps it would be one thing if (a) little or nothing interesting was going on in the economy or with inflation, or (b) if the Governor and other members of the Monetary Policy Committee were giving speeches on monetary policy matters every couple of weeks, although one might still – given the character of the audience – have reasonably expected more, including because good and thoughtful speeches offer insights into the quality and character of decisionmakers and their advisers. As it is, a great deal is going on, a great deal that has taken the Bank (and most others) by surprise, and that is still ill-understood (eg why did almost everyone get it wrong, what did we miss, what do we learn?), and serious speeches by MPC members on things to do with monetary policy, inflation etc are – unlike the situation in most other advanced countries – very rare. As far as I can see, the last serious monetary policy speech the Governor gave was to the Waikato forum a year ago, the chief economist has not given any speeches on monetary policy or inflation (nor, perhaps mercifully, has his boss), none of the external MPC members has ever given a speech on these topics or put their names to specific views or lines of analysis/reasoning/evidence, and the Deputy Governor’s last speech on monetary policy was 18 months ago, when the Bank was barely worried about inflation at all.

It is inexcusable in people who wield so much power, perhaps for good longer term but certainly for ill in the last couple of years. And it seems to speak of some combination of the utter arrogance Orr routinely displays when he does speak, and the probable absence of any fresh or interesting analysis in the entire institution. If they had such insights, such research, such analysis, surely they’d be wanting to impress us with it? But the Bank now publishes hardly any formal research and it is rare to find even an insightful chart in an MPS. If spin seems to be the order of the day, and it so often does (see below) they aren’t even very good at generating supporting material, let alone providing any serious accountability.

There really wasn’t much interesting in this keynote address at all, but I did want to highlight just a few of the spin lines.

On the straight economics there was this

Low and stable inflation is a necessary outcome for economic wellbeing in the longer term

I’m deeply committed to the case for price stability (ideally, an even lower inflation target than we have now) but this is simply overblown nonsense, which discredits the case for low and stable inflation. A more serious Reserve Bank in years gone by might, much more reasonably, have framed the point simply as “tolerating high inflation won’t make us any richer, and will come with all sorts of distortions and costs, and in the longer term if price stability doesn’t determine whether or not we are prosperous and productive, it is still the best limited contribution monetary policy can make.

Then there was the corporate spin

Looking ahead, in striving to be exceptional in our work,

Perhaps it is good to aim to be exceptional (although few people or institutions ever are), but…..the Orr Reserve Bank, when we get speeches like this, and few of his decisionmakers ever expose themselves to any sort of serious scrutiny, and when leading from the top the Governor is reluctant to ever express regret for anything he/they might have done, or failed to do. Great institutions – especially powerful public ones – acknowledge openly and learn from their mistakes.

I’ll skip the empty waffle about climate change (“we have a key part to play”) or the political posturing about the Treaty of Waitangi (which is apparently part of a “move from being a good to a great Central Bank” – who granted them even a rating of “good?)

At the end of the speech there is a section headed “Our research programme”, where Orr asserts

Te Pūtea Matua has a long tradition of pursuing policy-relevant research and as a full service central bank our research programme covers all three strands of work we are tasked to deliver.

It used to be true that the Bank had a strong record of policy-relevant research on things around monetary policy, inflation, and the cyclical behaviour of the economy. But no more – just check out how little research they’ve published in those areas in recent years, It has (sadly) never been true that the Bank has had any sort of sustained tradition in policy-relevant research around either its mushrooming financial regulatory and stability responsibilities (in fact, there were conscious decisions by successive Governors not to invest in such research), or its cash responsibilities, and there is no sign that has changed for the better. Instead, we just get spin like this.

And then in conclusion Orr asserts that

We are a learning institution and we enjoy collaboration.

Learning institutions engage, learning institutions aren’t prickly and defensive, learning institutions don’t just make stuff up, learning institutions don’t claim to regret nothing, learning organisations – especially amid the biggest surprises/policy failures in decades – don’t give keynote addresses like this. And collaborative institutions don’t engage in the sort of defensive abuse Orr is sadly all too well known for.

Learning organisations, agencies that are exceptional in their work, great central banks, don’t just make stuff up. Orr does.

The Herald’s Jenée Tibshraeny had a nice piece yesterday on just the latest example, from the question time after Orr’s Waikato speech. He was asked a question about central bank losses from things like the LSAP bond-buying programme (about 1.03 hrs into the video of the day), specifically citing the (recently newsworthy) losses the German central bank had been recording and disclosing. Instead of responding seriously and substantively, Orr blustered, attempting to imply that these were really just accounting issues (as if good record keeping doesn’t matter), muddying the waters by getting into questions about how much central bank equity matters, and condescendingly suggesting that while such issues “hurt the brain” people need to start exercising their brain, and “calm down”. The questioner himself clearly wasn’t satisfied, and asked a follow-up, but Orr simply talked out the clock, even suggesting (astonishingly) that the BIS – a bunch of technocrats in Basle – had explained it all for the public.

There are two points people like the BIS have made that are of course true, and as general points have never really been disputed by serious commentators and observers.

First, central banks don’t exist to maximise profit. They exist (in their monetary policy functions) to deliver low and stable inflation, and

Second, central banks can in principle function perfectly well with low, zero, or even negative equity (I spent a couple of years working for one that not only had negative equity but wasn’t even able to produce a proper balance sheet for a prolonged period).

But harping on those sorts of points is simply irrelevant in the face of the huge real losses to taxpayers that central banks have sustained in the last couple of years.

In New Zealand’s case, as it happens, the negative (or impaired) equity issue doesn’t even arise, since the Bank in advance wisely sought a government indemnity for any losses the LSAP might lead to. As a technical matter they didn’t need to – they could have run through all the equity the government had given them and recorded huge negative equity. Nothing about the Bank’s ability to function would have changed one iota, but some hard questions no doubt would have been asked, and Orr reasonably enough preferred to have any blame shared.

But none of that changes the fact that the MPC’s choices around the LSAP – signed off on by the Minister of Finance, with Treasury advice – have cost taxpayers in excess of $9 billion: not “just accounting issues” but real losses. That is what happens when a government agency (central bank) does a huge asset swap, transforming much of the government’s long-term fixed rate debt into effectively floating rate debt just before short-term rates rocket upwards. Had the LSAP programme never been launched – or even if it had been halted a few weeks in once bond markets had settled down from the US-led turbulence of March 2020 – taxpayers and the Crown would be that much better off, in real purchasing power terms. And none of Orr’s spin and distraction – and none of the BIS material – ever seriously engages with those real losses. Instead they respond to points that are not those serious critics are making.

And if one happens to think the LSAP made a meaningful economic difference – as Orr still seems to claim – then that only reinforces the point, since it added to the level of stimulus that helped deliver the core inflation, miles outside the target range, that central banks are now struggling to get under control and reverse. Better not to have had the real economic losses, and of course with hindsight we know the level of monetary stimulus was too large for far too long.

(As I’ve argued in numerous posts here over the last 3 years, I don’t believe the LSAP made much meaningful difference to anything – simply added huge risk, without any serious advance risk analysis, culminating in huge losses. I was encouraged to see in Tibshraeny’s article that the former Deputy Governor, Grant Spencer – able economist and former bank treasurer – seems to have the same view

“The main benefit was that it smoothed the disruption to the bond market that occurred in April/May 2020 when there was some real volatility in the bond market and bond rates spiked up,” Spencer said.

“After that, the rest of the purchases, I would say, had very little effect on the term structure of interest rates.”

Well quite. The initial intervention may not have been necessary but could have been highly profitable on a small scale. The latter purchases made no difference to short to medium interest rates (set by the OCR and expectations about it) and little to longer-term rates. Had they wanted short rates lower, the OCR could always have been cut by another 25 basis points, at no financial risk to taxpayers.

Orr seems to have backed away somewhat from a line he gave Tibshraeny in an interview last year, where he claimed that the macro benefits of the LSAP programme were “multiples” of the losses (and the Bank’s five-year monetary policy review last year provided no serious support for such claims) preferring now just to rely on bluster, distraction, and the hope that people will eventually get tired, or confused, and forget.

Orr’s comments on Friday reminded me that I’d heard that Orr had also been trying on the handwaving “it’s just an accounting issue” at FEC after the recent Monetary Policy Statement. I hadn’t listened in at the time and finally did so this morning.

If National Party members don’t always ask very good questions on this issue, at least they show no sign yet of being willing to let it go. In doing so, they bring out Orr at his prickly, blustering, and basically dishonest, worst.

Willis asked if it was not regrettable that there had been a direct fiscal cost from the LSAP programme of about $9bn. Orr’s response was a single word: No.

Willis followed up asking if he was really saying that these losses were justified. This time, she got a three word response “Yes, I do”.

Orr went on to state that he “100% stood by” the LSAP and its losses, getting a bit more expansive and asserting/reminding the Committee that central banks could operate with negative equity – as noted above, this is pure distraction in the NZ context since the Reserve Bank’s capital was not impaired at all (although taxpayers’ “equity interest” in the NZ government was) – and explicitly going on to assert that it was “an accounting issue not an economic one”. As applied to the LSAP, that is simply false, yet another outrageous attempt to mislead Parliament.

And he wasn’t finished. Willis asked if he was saying he had no regrets at all. His response? “Those were your words”, before falling back on his regrets for things he had no responsibility for – regrets Covid, regrets Ukraine, regrets Gabrielle, even passively regrets that New Zealanders are experiencing high inflation – but no regrets for any choices he made might have actually made, not ones that costs taxpayers $9 billion, and certainly not ones that led to core inflation of about 6 per cent and likely “need for” a recession. Spinning again, he repeated the line he is fond of that if they’d tightened one quarter earlier it would have made very little difference. No doubt so, but the big mistakes – perhaps pardonable, perhaps even understandable, but big mistakes nonetheless – weren’t about one quarter, but about fundamental misjudgements in 2020 and early 2021, on things Parliament has delegated Orr and his MPC responsibility for, as supposed technical experts. And yet they refuse to take any real responsibility, falling back on attempts to distract MPs and avoiding serious engagement with anyone else.

There has been a lot of focus in the last week or so on Rob Campbell’s mistakes, for which he has rightly paid a price and no longer hold Crown appointments.

But Orr managed to lose billions – having done no advance risk analysis, having talked rather negatively on bond-buying strategies only a few months prior to Covid – and delivered us very high core inflation, core inflation reflecting largely domestic demand imbalances well under Reserve Bank monetary policy influence, refuses to engage seriously, actively and repeatedly misrepresents things and misleads Parliament, and treats those to whom he is accountable with prickly disdain and no respect whatever, and yet keeps his job, and starts a second term later this month. It is a sad reflection on how degraded New Zealand politics and policymaking has become when accountability now appears to mean so little.


A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post here, prompted by a paper by the former Bank of England Deputy Governor Sir Paul Tucker. Tucker’s paper was written in the context of the huge losses central banks in many countries, including his own UK, have run up through their large scale asset purchase programmes, especially those undertaken in 2020 and 2021 when bond yields (actual and implied forwards) were already incredibly low. While central banks continue to hold the bonds, the losses are seen every year now as the funding costs on those bond positions (the interest paid on the resulting settlement cash balances) swamp the low earnings yields on the bonds themselves. Bond positions purchased at yields perhaps around 1 per cent are financed with floating rate debt now paying (in New Zealand) 3.5 per cent (a rate generally expected to rise quite a bit further).

Tucker explored the idea that central banks might in future choose not to fully remunerate all settlement cash balances (while still applying the policy rate at the margin), and that if they did not then politicians might in future be reluctant to authorise future LSAPs and associated taxpayer indemnities (this seemed like a bonus to me, but Tucker is a bit more open to the potential of QE generally than I am (for New Zealand). With $60 billion or so of settlement cash injections still in the system (although with other offsets, total settlement cash balances are less than that), there is a lot of money potentially at stake.

My post was pretty sceptical of the idea – it seemed like arbitrary “taxation” by an entity with no mandate and little accountability – and in a Herald article at about the same time I was pleased to see several former colleagues also expressing considerable scepticism. In the wake of my post I had a bit of an email exchange with Tucker and while that didn’t change my mind it did help clarify the importance of reaching a view on whether the LSAP additions to settlement cash balances had resulted in something akin to a windfall boost to bank profits or not. Here is Tucker

Now, reaching a definitive view on a matter like this isn’t easy. Formalised models might even help, although I’m a bit sceptical even they could ever offer anything very definitive, and – in arbitrary taxation at least as much as criminal justice – we might reasonably expect something close to a “beyond reasonable doubt” test to be applied (especially when no one compelled the state to ever do LSAPs at all). You could think of a hypothetical world in which such a windfall might appear to rise – central banks buy the bonds from pension or hedge funds who simply deposit the proceeds with banks and happily (or resignedly) just accept zero interest on the resulting deposits – but it doesn’t seem very plausible. Perhaps there are other hypotheticals, but it still seems a stretch (and we aren’t in the world decades ago where, for example, banks were forbidden from paying interest on transactions balances).

I don’t have the resources or data for the sort of in-depth analysis that might be required if governments and central banks were to be seriously considering the Tucker option. But what do the high-level indicators we do have show? This, inevitably, bleeds into the recent (and annual or semi-annual) ritual in which the political left and the popular media bemoan the profitability of the banking system more generally.

The first increase in the OCR was in October 2021. Until then, settlement balances had been earning 0.25 per cent per annum, so that even if banks had somehow been paying nothing on the counterpart deposits, the amounts involved would have been too small to have shown up in the aggregate data (0.25 per cent per annum on $60 billion is about $150m per annum). But we have aggregate data now up to and including this year’s June quarter.

I’m including some long-term charts here (from the Reserve Bank website data, going as far back as their data go), as background to some comments on bank profitability too.

There is return on assets

return on equity

and the net interest margin (shown on the same chart as the average interest rate earned on interest-earning assets)

It is early days – the much higher OCRs for the September and December quarters may shed more light in some months’ time – but at present there isn’t anything much pointing to windfall earnings, whether directly from the Tucker effect or from the LSAP or other Covid interventions. Returns dipped during the 2020 deep (if brief) downturn, and then seem to have returned to about pre-Covid average levels. If the net interest margin has risen a bit, in the June quarter it was at about the average level for the previous 15 years.

On the other hand, supporters of the Tucker story could point to this chart. It is interesting that interest-bearing liabilities have dropped to a record (over this 30 year period anyway) low but (a) perhaps it is less surprising given that, at least to June, the absolute level of interest rates remained very low (and well below the prolonged period 20 years earlier when the interest-bearing share of total liabilities was also unusually low) and (b) as yet, there is no sign of this reflected in unusually high bank returns (see earlier charts).

Time will tell, but to this point there is no smoking gun, in New Zealand anyway. Tucker does note that (at least in the UK context) windfall returns could be paid away in management bonuses, so that they wouldn’t show up in after-tax profit figures, but (a) that seems more like a UK issues (big bonuses in the City etc) and (b) you would expect to see it showing up in bank disclosures (eg CEO salaries etc) and I’m not aware of any sign it (yet) has.

More generally, what to make of the bank profits story? On a cyclical basis there were reasons one might have expected the last year to have been the best for some time: the economy was extremely overheated, unemployment was extremely low, and although house prices have been falling more recently they only peaked in November last year, having risen to an extraordinary extent over the previous 15 months or so. Banks tend to make lots of money in circumstances like that (and, on the other hand, to do poorly in deep recessions). Perhaps reflecting the abnormal and uncertain state of the Covid world over 2021/22, in fact none of those charts above suggest anything exceptional about bank profitability (at times, really high reported bank profits can themselves be a worrying financial stability indicator – lots of poor quality loans with high upfront fees and/or dodgy accounting can produce very flattering short-term numbers, all while storing up big future losses. Cyclically, the year ahead looks a lot less favourable for banks (as the ANZ CEO noted they are now writing a tiny fraction of the number of new mortgages they were doing at peak) and a recession (with all the attendant reduction in demand for products, reduction in servicing capacity, and outright losses) is generally agreed to be looming.

What about overall average rates of return? When they left aren’t making cyclical complaints, this tends to be where they focus. And of course the return on equity is better than you are going to get on a bank deposit, but it is also a great deal riskier.

One obstacle to analysing the issue in a specifically New Zealand context is that hardly any New Zealand banks are listed on the stock exchange as such, so we don’t have a good read on the value the market puts on them. But the big-4 banks are the dominant players in Australia too, housing lending makes up almost two-thirds of credit in Australia, and Australia has similarly absurd house price to income ratios in its largest cities. Historically, rates of return have also looked quite high

(One might also add that in recent decades the New Zealand and Australian banking systems have been amongst the most stable anywhere).

Then again, the market seems less impressed with the Australian banks than the New Zealand political left are. Price to book value ratios don’t look particularly impressive – for long-established “licence to print money” entities – and of the four big Australian banking groups, in three cases the first time the current share price was reached was well over a decade ago.

We (and Australia) have big banks. When regulation renders house prices absurdly expensive, you need entities that will facilitate very large amounts of debt. Big banks require lots of capital, and on lots of capital lots of money can and should be made. But if the left is so convinced there is money for jam on offer there is a readily accessible market response: buy more shares with their own savings.

Instead, from the party that wants to make us all poorer, force people to live in expensive townhouses, and do all they can to discourage cars and planes (oh, and free speech too), yesterday we got a proposal that there should be an “excess profits tax”. The Green Party’s discussion document is here. I guess it is mostly just political spin to try to keep up the radical left vote, but it really was an astonishingly threadbare document.

For precedent, we are reminded on a couple of occasions that there were excess profits taxes in World Wars One and Two. And since we actually conscripting people – and ordering them into the military or directed service – and restricting all manner of other economic activity probably few people had much problem with that (the idea of “conscripting capital” was (understandably) big on the left in New Zealand. But while the left may like to claim we are now in some “moral equivalent of war”, in fact we are running a market economy in which firms and individuals are free to come and go, invest or not, as they choose. We are also told about windfall taxes on energy companies in Europe at present, but again these are rather more equivalent to an actual wartime situation (very high returns to lower cost renewables producers for example are arising out of the foreign policy choices of governments around the Russian/Ukraine situation).

But nothing in the Greens’ document establishes a serious case for New Zealand now (eg for better or worse we aren’t tied into the global LNG supply chain)

And then there are the basics. This appears early on.

I followed the footnote to be sure I was using the same sources. From the Annual Enterprise Survey

So you can see the $103.3 billion. But you might also note the sharp fall in this measure of profits the previous year (Covid disruption and all that), and the smaller fall the year prior to that. Actual profits before tax on this measure were about 5 per cent high in the 2021 years than in the 2018 years.

And nominal GDP? Well, it was up 17 per cent over roughly the same period (calendar 2021 over calendar 2018).

Then we get charts like this.

I have no idea where any of the lines comes from but note (a) the orange line, which claims to be taken from the AES, has a latest observation LOWER than the one a couple of years earlier, and (b) while the Greens claim that “the graph below demonstrates that profits are already exceeding prepandemic levels; and are several times higher in real terms than in the 1990s” they fail to point out that real GDP is a lot higher than it was in the 1990s too.

How do those ratios look? From the national accounts we have a breakdown between compensation of employees on the one hand and returns to business (including labour income for self-employed operations). Wage and profit shares have ebbed and flowed but nothing about the last few years looks very unusual.

The same data are now available on a quarterly basis, but only since 2016 (and inevitably the more recent observations are subject ot revisions). This time I’ve just shown the two series as cumulative growth rates since 2016

Labour costs and non-labour components of the income measure of GDP have risen over the full period by almost exactly the same percentage (seasonally adjusting through the Covid lockdowns is a real challenge so I wouldn’t pay much attention to those particular quarters).

We are left wondering where all these excess returns the Greens are on about really are. If they mean house prices rising in 2020 and 2021, well of course I can quite understand (and we know they like the idea of a capital gains tax) but……house prices are now falling quite a lot, and excess profits taxes aren’t usually aimed at Mum and Dad (indeed the rest of the document is all about th rapacious capitalists).

One could go on, but I won’t. The Greens seem keener on planning to spend the proceeds of their tax than provide firm analytical underpinnings to it, and of course while feeding the narrative that somehow there is money for jam being left on the table, there seemed to be no mention of countervailing reductions in business taxation if/when there is a deep recession or windfall losses (and in the nature of windfalls, losses are as likely as gains). But why would anyone really be surprised?

The document has this line: “The Green Party considers that record profits during a time of economic hardship for many New Zealanders are immoral and unsustainable”. Except that whether one uses their AES measure, or national accounts measures there isn’t anything very remarkable about profits in recent years – except of course that there is lots of inflation, but even then as that final chart shows returns to labour in total have been growing at about the same rate of returns to providers of other resources.

A bad idea

There is increasing attention being paid (among a certain class of nerdy central bank watcher) to the scale of the losses to the taxpayer central banks have run up as a result of their large-scale bond purchases (particularly those) over the time since Covid broke upon us in early 2020. In New Zealand, the best estimate of those losses was about $9.5 billion as at the end of September (to its credit, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand marks to market its bond holdings – and thus its claim on the Crown indemnity – something many other central banks don’t do).

A particularly interesting paper in that vein turned up a couple of days ago, published by the UK Institute for Fiscal Studies and written by (Sir) Paul Tucker, formerly Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and now a research fellow at Harvard. The 50+ page paper has the title Quantitative easing, monetary policy implementation and the public finances. (Public finances are quite the topic of the month in the UK, but although many of the numbers in the paper are very up to date, I suspect the paper itself was conceived before the fiscal/markets chaos of recent weeks.)

Tucker is particularly clear on what QE actually was: it was a large-scale asset swap in which the Crown (specifically its Bank of England branch) bought back from the private sector lots of long-term fixed rate government bonds, and in exchange issued in payment lots of (in our parlance) settlement cash balances held by banks and on which the (frequently reviewed) policy interest rate (here the OCR) is paid in full. When such an operation is undertaken, the entities undertaking the swap (and the taxpayer more generally) will lose money if policy rates rise by materially more than was expected/implicit when the swap was done. It is not a new insight – and I’ve been running the asset swap framing here since 2020 -but Tucker puts its very clearly, and in a context (UK) where the focus is less on the mark to market value of the bond position, and more on the annual cash flow implications (over time they are two ways – with different emphases – of putting much the same thing).

Tucker seems, at best, a bit ambivalent about the 2020 QE, illustrating nicely that whereas the early UK QE was done when actual and implied forward bond yields were still quite high, that was by no means the case by the start of 2020. But as he notes, that is water under the bridge now. Big bond purchases did happen, partly because few central banks have really got rid of the effective lower bound (although here he is too generous to many central banks, including the BoE, since few sought to reach the practical limits of negative rates (on current technologies) when they could have in 2020). But whether or not QE could have been avoided, given the macro outlook as it stood in March 2020, (whether by more reliance on fiscal policy or deeper policy rate cuts) it wasn’t. Central banks now have large bond positions, purchased at exceedingly low yields, being financed at increasingly high short-term rates.

In New Zealand, for example, total settlement cash balances have just been hitting new highs, in excess of $50 billion

Not all of this is on account of the LSAP (New Zealand’s QE). Weirdly, the Reserve Bank is still making concessional funding available to banks under the crisis Funding for Lending programme, but at least they are paying on the resulting settlement cash balances what they are earning from the loans. And fluctuations in government spending, revenue, and borrowing also affect the level of settlement cash balances.

But you can think of the approximately $50 billion of LSAP bond purchases (over 2020 and the first half of 2021) as having a counterpart in the level of settlement cash balances. On $50 billion of settlement cash, the Reserve Bank pays out interest at a current annual rate (OCR of 3.5 per cent) of $1750 million per annum. All the conventional bonds were bought at much much lower yields than that (unlike the Bank of England, our Reserve Bank did buy some inflation indexed bond, but they were less than 5 per cent of the total purchases.) This is a large net cost to the taxpayer.

The policy thrust of Tucker’s paper is to explore the idea of cutting those costs by changing policy and not paying interest on the bulk of settlement balances (or paying a materially below-market rate). Central banks did not always pay market rates on settlement cash balances, but it has become the practice over the last 20-25 years (in the Fed’s case being rushed in in late 2008 to hold up short-term market rates, consistent with the Fed funds target, when large scale bond purchases began). New Zealand followed a similar path.

Paying different rates on different components of settlement cash balances is quite viable. For some years until early 2020, for example, the Reserve Bank paid full market rates on balances it estimated each bank needed to hold (to facilitate interbank payments etc), while paying a below market rate on any excess balances (which were typically small or nil). The ECB and the Bank of Japan introduced negative policy interest rates some years ago, but protected the banks by paying an above-market rate on most of their settlement cash holdings, only applying the negative rate at the margin.

As a technical matter there would be no obstacle to the Bank of England (or the Reserve Bank of New Zealand) announcing that henceforth they would pay zero interest on 80 per cent of balances – some fixed dollar amount per bank – while only paying the policy rate (the OCR) on the remaining balances. Since the OCR would still apply at the margin, that part of the wholesale monetary policy transmission mechanism should continue to function (compete for additional deposits and you would still receive the OCR on any inflows to your settlement account). The amounts involved are not small: in the UK context (they did QE a lot earlier) Tucker talks of “the implied savings would be between 30 billion and 40 billion pounds over each of the next two financial years” – perhaps 1.5 per cent of GDP. In New Zealand, if we assume the OCR will be 4 per cent for the next couple of years, applying a zero interest rate to $40 billion of settlement cash would result in a saving of $1.6 billion a year (almost half a per cent of GDP). You could pay for quite a few election bribes with that sort of money.

It is an interesting idea but it seems to me one that should be dismissed pretty quickly, even in the more fiscally-challenged UK (where they already impose extra taxes on banks). It would be an arbitrary tax on banks, imposed on them because it could be (no vote in Parliament needed), by a central bank that would be doing so for essentially fiscal reasons (for which it has no mandate). Tucker rightly makes the point that central bankers should not seek to do their operations in ways that are costly to the taxpayer when there are cheaper (less financially risky) options available, but the time to have had those conversations was in March 2020 (preferably earlier, in crisis preparedness) not after you’ve taken a punt on a particular instrument and the punt has turned out badly (and costly).

It might be one thing to decide not to remunerate settlement cash balances, and thus “tax” banks, when those balances are tiny (for a long time we ran the New Zealand system on a total of $20 million – yes, million – of settlement balances) and quite another when those balances are at sky-high levels not because of any choices or fundamental demands by banks, but solely as a side-effect of a monetary policy operation chosen by the central bank (and in both countries indemnified by the Crown). Even central banks have no particular interest in there being high levels of settlement balances (it isn’t how they believe QE works); it is just a side effect of wanting to intervene at scale in the bond markets. But central banks have a choice, while the banking system as a whole does not (banks themselves can’t change the aggregate level of settlement cash, which is totally under the control of the central bank). The Tucker scheme – which to be fair, it isn’t entirely clear he would implement were he in charge – forces banks to hold huge amount of settlement cash, and then refuses to remunerate them on those balances.

To implement it would be a fairly significant breach of trust. Here, the Reserve Bank has kept on (daftly) offering Funding for Lending loans arguing that it needs to keep faith with some moral commitment it claims to have made, despite the crisis being long past. I don’t buy the “anything else would be a betrayal” line there – where in any case the amounts involved are small (this funding might be 25 basis points cheaper than they could get elsewhere) – but it would much more likely to be an issue if the Bank (or overseas peers) suddenly recanted on the practice of paying market interest on all or almost all settlement balances. $1.6 billion a year, even divided across half a dozen banks, would attract attention.

I’ve heard a couple of suggestions as to why an additional impost on banks might be fair. One was that QE may have helped set fire to the housing market, boost bank lending and bank profits, and thus an additional tax now might be equivalent to a windfall profits tax. I don’t buy either strand of that argument – I don’t think the LSAP made that much difference, but if it did it was supposed to do so (transmission mechanism working) – but even if I did in 2020, we are now seeing the reverse side of that process: house prices are falling, housing turnover is falling, new loan demand is falling, and there will be loan losses to come. Most probably any effects will end up washing out.

The second was the bond market trading profits the banks may have made in and around the LSAP. Perhaps there were some additional gains, but it is hard to believe they were either large or systematic (and won’t have come close to $1.6 billion per annum).

And the third was the Funding for Lending programme. No one can pretend that was not concessional finance for banks (were it otherwise banks would not have used the facility at scale), but the amounts involved don’t compare: $15 billion of FfL loans might have a concessional element over three years of $100m or so, not really defensible, but not $1.6 billion per annum either.

The taxpayer is poorer as a result of the LSAP and how market rates turned out (as Tucker rightly notes, it needn’t have turned out that way, although by 2020 the odds were against them – and as I’ve pointed out often there is no sign in NZ at least that a proper ex ante risk analysis was done). Those costs have to be paid for and will mean, all else equal, that taxes are higher over time. But conventional fiscal practice is not to pick on one sector and put the entire additional tax burden on them (“broad base, low rate” tends to be the New Zealand mantra). And that is so even if some in the New Zealand political space – sometimes including the Governor – seem to have a thing about (evil and rapacious) “Australian banks”.

Tucker devotes some space to the question of how banks would react (other than heavy lobbying on both sides of the Tasman and fresh pressure for the Governor to be ousted). Even if short-term wholesale rates – the policy lever – aren’t likely to be changed, banks are unlikely to just sit back and take the hit: they may not be able to recoup all or even most of it, but it isn’t hard to envisage higher fees, higher lending margins, tighter credit conditions across the board, including as boards become more wary about New Zealand exposures. Non-bank lenders – who hold no settlement balances – would be at a fresh competitive advantage (akin to what we saw with financial repression of banks decades ago)

But unfortunate as it would be if a change of this sort of made now – essentially an ex post tax grab so focused it would come close to being a bill of attainder – I might almost be more worried about the future. One might have hoped that the episode of the last couple of years would have made central banks more cautious about using large-scale bond buying instruments (and finance ministries more cautious about underwriting them), with a fresh focus on removing the effective lower bound on nominal interest rates (or if they won’t do that then looking again at the level of the inflation target). But knowing that big bond purchases could be done freely, with the taxpayer capturing all of any financial upside, and banks (and customers) wearing all/most of any downside, skews the playing field dramatically (and also further reduces the financial incentive on governments to keep inflation down – since the real fiscal savings on offer rise the higher nominal interest rates are. And what of banks? If there really is a place for future QE – I’m sceptical but I’m probably a minority – up to now banks have had no really significant financial stake one way or the other, but adopt the Tucker scheme once and banks will know it could be used on them again, and they will become staunch opponents (in public and in private) of any future large scale bond buying operations for purely their own financial reasons. And that is no way to make sensible policy.

Tucker has produced a 50 page paper which will repay reading (for a select class of geeky reader – although it is pretty clearly expressed). Since it is 50 pages there is plenty there I couldn’t engage with in depth in this post, but in the end my bottom line was initially “count me unpersuaded”, and then the more I thought about it the more I hoped that no one here would seriously consider the option (ideally not in the UK other). Far better to accept that losses have been made, that those costs will have to be paid for by taxpayers’ generally, and to redouble the efforts to ensure that in future crises there is less felt need for central banks to engage in such risky operations. Central banking, well done, really should involve neither large risk nor large cost to the taxpayer, and there are credible alternatives, even if neutral real interest rates stay very low (as Sir Paul assumes, and as still seems most likely to me).

UPDATE: Thanks to the reader whose query made me realise that in my haste to produce some stylised numbers, I forgot that the LSAP bonds had been purchased at price well above face value. The actual settlement cash influence from all LSAP purchases (central and local government bonds) was $63.9 billion. The rest of the analysis is unchanged, but the numbers (floating rate financing cost) are larger.

Orr defending the LSAP

The Governor of the Reserve Bank must have been feeling under a bit of pressure recently about the LSAP programme. Losses have mounted and some more questions have started to be asked – by more than just annoying former staff – about value for money.

And thus on Thursday morning “Monetary Policy Tools and the RBNZ Balance Sheet” dropped into inboxes. It was an 10 page note setting out to defend the Bank and the MPC over the bond-buying LSAP programme and the inaptly-named Funding for Lending programme, the crisis facility under which the Bank is still – amid an overheated economy and very high core inflation – lending new money to banks.

Of course, the Monetary Policy Statement had been out the previous day. Had the Governor been serious about scrutiny and engagement, he’d have released his note a day or two before the MPS (or even simultaneous to the MPS). Then journalists could have read the paper and asked questions about it in the openly-viewed press conference. The Bank’s choice not to do so revealed their preferences. Oh, and then the note was released less than an hour before the Finance and Expenditure Committee’s hearing on the MPS, and since FEC no doubt had other things to consider it is unlikely any of the members had read the note before the hearing. That too must have been a conscious choice by the Bank (one that didn’t go down well with the Opposition members).

I noted earlier that the paper was 10 pages long, but there wasn’t a lot of substance. We still have nothing but the Bank’s assertions for their claims that the LSAP programme was worthwhile, and while we are told that they hope to provide some more analysis in a review document at the end of the year, attempting to kick for touch for another four months frankly really isn’t good enough. And, of course, we’ve heard nothing at all from the three non-executive MPC members who share responsibility for the programme. As it is, the 10 page note does not even provide a serious attempt at a rigorous framework for evaluating costs, benefits, and risks – there is more handwaving, and attempts to blur any analysis, than serious reasoning.

There are two separable strands. I am going to focus on the LSAP rather than the Funding for Lending programme (FLP), but it is worth making a few points on the latter:

  • the Bank claims that the FLP was necessary because banks were not yet operationally capable of managing a negative OCR, but the FLP was only finally launched in December 2020, and the Bank has separately told us that by that time banks’ system were in fact capable of coping with a negative OCR.   Sure, the FLP had been foreshadowed over the previous few months and probably had some impact on retail rates then, but then the possibility of a negative OCR had also been foreshadowed,
  • the FLP was misnamed from the start (creating of lot of unnecessary controversy at the time about housing finance), with the name feeding an entirely fallacious mentality that shortages of settlement cash were somehow a constraint on bank lending.  I am pleased to see that in this document the Bank (now that it suits) explicitly states “there is little evidence that higher settlement cash balances resulting from these programmes have directly impacted bank lending”.  Paying the full OCR on all settlement cash balances – a Covid novelty that continues – will also have that effect.
  • it remains extraordinary that the Bank is still undertaking new lending under the FLP until the end of this year.  It was a crisis programme, launched belatedly when crisis conditions had all but passed anyway, and there has been no clear justification for continuing new loans for at least the last year (recall the Bank wanted to raise the OCR last August).   Arguments about predictable funding streams just fall flat, when the entire economic and financial climate was so uncertain, and when banks like everyone else recognise that circumstances have moved on from where they were two years ago.  The Bank’s claim –  that somehow banks would not future bank commitments seriously if they terminated early – deserve little more than to be scoffed at.  And although the Bank will tend to play this down, we can tell that the FLP is relatively cheap funding –  if it were not, banks would not still be tapping the facility.  Similarly, arguing (as they do) that the OCR can offset the FLP is to concede the point: increases in the OCR should be leaning against real inflation pressures, not counteracting other lingering stimulatory crisis interventions.

But enough of the FLP, daft as it is still to be running it, the costs and risks are fairly small.

Not so the LSAP, where costs and risks are demonstrably high (now conceded by the Bank) while the alleged benefits are hard to pin down (not helped by the Bank making no serious public effort so far), and the water is being deliberately muddied by the Governor’s bluster and absence of careful delineation of the issues and arguments.

On financial costs, this from the Bank’s document is clear and straightforward (and I would hope might finally silence those who keep trying to claim they aren’t “real” costs, are all “within the Crown” or whatever).  The Bank is clear that the financial losses themselves are real.

The best estimate of the net cost of LSAP is measured by the value of the Crown’s indemnity – unrealised losses based on current market valuation, reflecting a higher OCR – and losses realised by RBNZ upon the sale of the Bonds.  

As to quantum, the claim under the indemnity fluctuates each day, and some of the Bank’s claim has now been paid by Treasury, but the Bank’s Assistant Governor was happy at FEC to use a ballpark $8bn figure. $8bn is roughly $1600 per man, woman, and child in New Zealand.

In the rest of this post, I am drawing on three sources of Bank comment: the 10 page document itself, the Bank’s appearance at FEC on Thursday (comments from Orr, Silk, and Conway, the chief economist), and the Governor’s full interview with the Herald (linked to in this article). Orr has made stronger claims orally than what is in the formal document, asserting twice that the wider economic gains of the LSAP programme were “some multiple” of the financial losses, following up to add that in his view it wasn’t even close. “Some multiple” must mean at least two, so at minimum the Governor is asserting (and recall there is no evidence advanced and not much argument) that the LSAP resulted in real economic gains of at least $16bn. At minimum, he is claiming a benefit of about 5 per cent of GDP at the time the LSAP was first launched. These are really huge claims, and you’d think he’d have at least some disciplined framework to demonstrate their plausibility (even just as ballpark estimates).

Instead, we are offering not much more than handwaving, and lines that at best veer close to outright dishonesty.

There seem to be three broad strands to whatever case Orr is trying to make:

  • there is the “least regrets” rhetoric,
  • there is talk (especially in the Herald interview) of the gains from bond market stabilisation back in March 2020, and
  • there is lots of talk (even the chief economist went down this line at FEC) about how much stronger than forecast the economy has been than was being forecast in 2020.

As Orr now tells it, “least regrets” meant the Bank would run monetary policy in such a way that it would prefer to see a grossly overheated high inflation situation (actual outcome) than a deep depression and entrenched deflation. Perhaps many people might share that preference if it was the only choice. But it wasn’t, and we’d be better off sacking and replacing all involved if they really want us to believe it was. Go back to 2020 and then when they were first talking about “least regrets” it was the much more reasonable framing (eg here) that, at the margin, and given that inflation had undershot the target for 10 years, they might be content with (core) inflation being a little above the target midpoint for a while rather than jump on things too early and risk keeping the unemployment rate higher than necessary for longer than necessary. Not everyone would necessarily have agreed with them on that, but it would have commanded pretty widespread assent (I wasn’t unhappy myself)….and in any case was entirely hypothetical at the time since, as I’ve documented in recent posts, actual inflation forecasts (Bank and private) were well below the target midpoint even as the Bank added no more stimulus beyond that (from OCR, LSAP, FLP or whatever) already embedded in the economic and inflation forecasts. So don’t be fooled by Orr rhetoric suggesting we should smile benignly on their handling of things because “the alternative was some Armageddon”. We pay him and his offsiders a lot of money to help ensure that those aren’t the choices.

Back when the LSAP programme was first announced – 23 March 2020 – there was a twin (related) motivation: generally to ease monetary conditions, and specifically to underpin the functioning of the government bond market. Global government bond markets were then in a mess, reflecting primarily US-sourced extreme illiquidity and flight to cash (at the time stock markets had been falling very sharply too). For those interested, here are a couple of links to what was going on at the time (here and here). Government bond rates were rising (even as policy rates had been cut): the disruption was real enough and it was getting very difficult to place paper. I’ve even gone on record here in the past stating that, even allowing for the moral hazard risks, I had no particular objection to some stabilising interventions, especially in the Covid context.

But here is a chart of US and NZ 10 year government bond rates for the month of March 2020 (with the US rates lagged a day to line with the NZ ones – changes in NZ bond rates in the morning are usually mostly a reflection of what has happened in the US overnight (the previous day for them).

You can see yields rising in that third week of the month even though both central banks had cut policy rates sharply that week (and the Fed had announced restarting of bond purchases). The NZ market is less liquid at the best of times than the US one. But yields in both countries peaked on 19 March (NZ).

As did the gap between New Zealand and US rates. Days before the Reserve Bank did anything or even announced their own LSAP (although they had foreshadowed that one might be coming).

And if the Reserve Bank announced its LSAP on 23 March, on the same day (but remember the time difference) the Fed greatly expanded its own bond-buying programme. Almost immediately New Zealand long-term bond yields were back down to around 1 per cent.

Simple charts of yields – of the most liquid part of each market – don’t directly get to the illiquidity in other markets, but all indications are that the worst (globally) was already over by the time the Reserve Bank made its announcement, and given the US-sourced nature of the shock, it seems far more likely that the US actions were the more decisive policy contribution to stabilising markets. I don’t want to begrudge the Bank its small part in domestic market stabilisation (and they had some other interventions, including thru the fxs swaps market – but remember it is the LSAP they are defending), but even if we run through to 10 April, total bond purchases by the RBNZ to that point was only $3.6bn. Sure, a willingness to go on intervening offered a bit of cheap insurance to market participants, but if Orr wants to make much of what those earlier operations contributed (and it really can’t be much, given lockdowns, extreme economic and policy uncertainty etc) it relates to less than a 10th of the risk the Bank eventually exposed the taxpayer to through the LSAP.

(And if you want to note that over the month New Zealand bond yields did not fall as much as those in the US, recall that at the start of much US policy rates had much more room to fall than NZ ones did – and expectations of future short rates are the main medium-term influence on bond yields).

The third broad strand of Orr’s defence now appears to rest on how unexpectedly strong the economy (and inflation) proved to be.

From the 10 page report

His new chief economist tried the same line at FEC, with less nuance, and Orr himself when asked by Nicola Willis what evidence there was of the net benefits of the LSAP responded succinctly “the economy we live in today”.

It really is borderline dishonest. After all, all those dismal 2020 sets of forecasts – the Bank’s, the Treasury’s, and the myriad private sector ones – all included the effects of the policy stimulus (including the LSAP), and views on the path of the virus itself, so the resulting massive forecast error (for which I am not particularly blaming anyone) logically cannot be proof – or even evidence – of the effectiveness of a single strand of monetary policy (LSAP), or even of macro policy taken together. Since Orr and Conway are smart people, and know this point very well, it must be a deliberate choice to continue to muddy the waters as they do. They never even address the probability – high likelihood in my view – that most economists simply got wrong the extent of the adverse demand shock. At very least any serious analysis would have to unpick the various elements.

Instead, in none of their written material, or the comments of Orr and his offsiders, has there been any attempt (even conceptually) to think about the marginal effects of the LSAP programme itself. It was a discretionary (and last minute) addition to the toolkit. And even if we granted them a free pass for the first $3.6 billion or so of purchases (see above) all the rest was their choice. We know the financial costs (that $8bn or so of losses) but the alleged huge gains (Orr’s “multiples”) are unidentified – no effort has even been made. As just one small example, when the Herald’s journalist asked Orr whether, for example, they could have done less LSAP and instead cut the OCR to zero (which as even the Bank notes has no material market risk), Orr simply avoided answering the question.

I’ve run through previously the various reasons to be sceptical that the LSAP had much useful macro effect (those vaunted $16bn of gains Orr would need to show). In particular, even if the impact on longer-term bond rates was as large as Orr has claimed (again numbers that have never been documented), it isn’t at all obvious how that would have translated to large useful macro gains. It is commonly understood that the most important element in the interest rate bit of the New Zealand transmission mechanism is the short-end. Short rates (1-2 year bond rates) shape most retail lending rates, and are themselves largely influenced by expectations of the future OCR. Had the Bank been interested, say, in managing down a 3 year bond rate – as the RBA was – it could have done that directly, at very little financial risk. But instead they focused their bond buying at the longer end of the yield curve. Government borrowing costs may have been a bit less than otherwise as a result, but monetary policy isn’t supposed to be about getting cheap finance for the government but about macro stabilisation. Few private borrowers take borrowing at long-term fixed rates.

The Bank also claims that the exchange rate may have been lower than otherwise as a result of the LSAP. Perhaps, but (a) it depends on the counterfactual (they could have lowered that OCR further instead but chose not to) and (b) in most models the real economic effects of exchange rate moves take quite a long time to be felt, and even the Reserve Bank argues (contrary to quite a lot of literature) that the impact of the LSAP was decaying over time.

And it is worth pointing out that, as their document notes, they used the LSAP because of issues around operational readiness of banks for negative OCRs, but whose responsibility over the previous decade had it been to have ensured that banks were operationally ready? The taxpayer was exposed to the massive financial risk from the LSAP – without, it appears, any robust prior risk analysis – because of the Bank’s own failures. Just maybe there were some macro gains, but in a better world we’d have got those without the huge financial risk (and $8bn of losses). (A former colleague noted to me the other day that if we’d wanted to throw around an extra $8bn we’d almost certainly have gotten more macro bang for the buck by just giving $1600 to every man, woman and child and setting them free to spend – probably would have seemed a bit more equitable too.)

Oh, and did I add that if the last big macro policy tool deployed – the LSAP – was really as potent as the Governor seems to claim, then given how overheated the economy has been and the fresh ravages of high core inflation, it might have been much better (and lower risk) if the keys to the ill-prepared drawer marked LSAP had never been found and the instrument left untouched. We pay central bankers to do (materially) less badly than this, even (especially?) in difficult and uncertain times.

Bottom line: there has so far been no serious attempt by the Reserve Bank to frame an analysis that looks at the marginal impact of the LSAP programme, whether numerically or conceptually. Until there is, everything else they utter on the subject is really just defensive bluster. The public deserves better from senior officials of such a powerful institution. But as so often with the Bank, the question again arises as to why those paid to hold the Governor and MPC to account seem utterly uninterested in doing so.