No contrition, not much sense of responsibility, and very little persuasive analysis

If you’d been given a great deal of delegated power and had messed up badly – not through any particular ill-intent, but perhaps you’d misjudged some important things or belatedly realised you didn’t have the knowledge to cope with an unexpected circumstance that you thought you had – and if you are anything like a normal decent person you would be extremely apologetic and quite contrite. Heck, borrow a friend’s car for the afternoon and come back with a dent in it – not even necessarily your fault – and most of us would be incredibly embarrassed and very apologetic. Bump into someone (literally) in the supermarket aisle and most of us will be quite apologetic – often enough proferring a “sorry” just in case, even if it is pretty clear it is the other person who knocked into us.

But the apparently sociopathic world of central banking seems to be different. The Reserve Bank (Governor and MPC) are delegated a great deal of power and influence. Back before the days of the MPC I used to describe the Governor as by far the most powerful unelected person in New Zealand (and more powerful individually than almost all elected people too). The powers – exercised for good or for ill – haven’t changed, they’ve just been (at least on paper) slightly diffused among a group of (mostly silent) people whose views we never quite know, and whose appointment is largely (effectively) controlled by the Govenor. (There was a nice piece in Stuff yesterday on the problems of the MPC, echoing many points made here over the years.)

It is not as if the Bank took on these powers reluctantly, or that the Governor had to have his arm twisted to do the job. The Bank championed the delegation (and reasonably enough) and every single member of the MPC took on the role – amply remunerated – entirely voluntarily. But they seem to have long since forgotten that counterpart to autonomy and operational independence that used to feature so prominently in all their literature, that great delegated power needs to be accompanied by serious accountability. Among decent people that would include evident contrition when things go wrong, no matter how good your intentions might have been, even if you thought you’d done just the best you personally could have.

The Auditor-General was reported yesterday raising concerns about the serious decline in standards of accountability in New Zealand public life. Whatever the situation elsewhere – and I have no reason to question the Auditor-General’s view – nowhere is it more evident than around the Reserve Bank, which exercises so much power with so few formal constraints. Much too little attention has been given to the fact that, having delegated them huge amounts of discretionary power to keep (core) inflation near 2 per cent, the Reserve Bank has messed up very badly over the last couple of years.

The issue here is not about intent or lack of goodwill, but about outcomes. When central banks were given operational autonomy it was on the implied promise that they’d deliver those sort of inflation outcomes, pretty much year in year out. The public wouldn’t need to worry about inflation because control of it – under a target set by elected politicians who would hold them to account – had been delegated to a specialist, notionally expert, agency, which would know what it was doing. 20 years ago the expectation on the Bank was fleshed out a little more: that they should do their job while avoiding unnecessary variability in interest rates, exchange rates, and output.

And what do we now have? Roughly 6 per cent core inflation, three years of annual headline inflation above the top of the target range, public doubts about just whether the Bank will deliver 2 per cent in future. Oh, and now the necessity (very belatedly acknowledged by the Bank yesterday) of a recession and a significant rise in unemployment to levels well beyond any sort of NAIRU to get inflation back in check. Add in the arbitrary wealth distributions – that no Parliament voted on – with the heavily indebted (including the government) benefiting from the unexpected surge of inflation the Reserve Bank has overseen, at the expense of those with financial savings. And the huge disruptions to lives and businesses from both the extremely overheated economy we’ve had for the last 12-18 months and the coming nasty shakeout. Oh, and that is not to mention more than in passing the $9.2 billion of LSAP losses the Reserve Bank up entirely unnecessarily (foreseeably).

It has not, to put it mildly, been the finest hour of the Reserve Bank. But there has been no a word of contrition – from the Governor or any of the rest of the Committee – and no real accountability at all (among other things, Orr and two of the MPC have been reappointed this year, with no sign of any searching scrutiny of their records or contributions).

Instead we just get lots of spin, and lightweight analysis. One of Orr’s favourite lines (repeated as I type at FEC this morning) is that the Reserve Bank was one of the very first central banks to tighten “by some considerable margin”, when in fact there were half a dozen OECD central banks that moved before our central bank did. We had claims from Orr a while ago that the macro benefits of the LSAP programme were “multiples” of those mark to market losses to taxpayers – a claim that quietly disappeared when they actually published their review of monetary policy. A few weeks ago Orr was telling Parliament that if it weren’t for the Ukraine war inflation would have been in the target range – notwithstanding the hard data showing core inflation was already very high well before the war – and then nothing more is heard of that claim when the MPS itself was published.

Yesterday we heard lots of bluster about workers, firms and households being enjoined to change their behaviour – even trying to damp down Christmas – as if inflation was the responsibility of the private sector, not the outcome of a succession of Bank choices and mistakes. But not a word from the Bank or Governor accepting any responsibility themselves.

To repeat, I don’t doubt that the Bank was well-intentioned throughout the last few years. Plenty of other people made similar mistakes in interpreting events. But it is the Reserve Bank and its MPC who are charged with – and paid for – the job of keeping the inflation rate and check. They’ve failed. Given that stuff-up they may now fix things up, but it is no consolation or offset to the initial huge series of mistakes. And not a word of contrition, barely even much acceptance of responsibility.

Which is a bit of a rant, but about a serious issue: with great power must go great responsibility, accountability….and a considerably degree of humility. Little or none has been evident here.

But what of the substance of the Monetary Policy Statement? Here I really had only three points.

The first is the glaring absence of any serious in-depth analysis of what has actually been going on with inflation, at a time of some of the biggest forecast errors – and revisions in the OCR outlook – we’ve seen for many years. For example, every chart seems to feature annual inflation, which is fine for headlines but tells you nothing about what has been happening within that one year period. What signs are there, for example, that quarterly core inflation might have peaked (or not) – eg some of the charts I included here? There seemed to be no disaggregated analysis at all, for example of the sort one economic analyst pointed to in comments here the other day. This from the organisation that is responsible for inflation, and which has by far the biggest team of macroeconomists in the country. We – and those paid to hold the Bank to account – really should expect better.

And almost equally absent was any persuasive supporting analysis for the really big lift in the forecast path of the OCR, now projected to peak at 5.5 per cent. My main point is not that I think they are wrong but that there is little or no recognition that having misread badly the last 2-3 years (in good company to be sure), there is little reason for them or us to have any particular confidence in their forecast view now. Models and sets of understandings that didn’t do well in preventing us getting into this mess probably haven’t suddenly become reliable for the getting out phase. But even granting that, the scale of the revision up seems disproportionate to the surprises in the new data of the last few months. It has the distinct feel of just another stab in the dark (but then I’ve been a long-term sceptic of the value of central bank OCR forecasts), with little engagement with either weakening forward indicators or the lags in the system (in the last 6 weeks the Bank has now increased the OCR by as much as it did in the first six months of the tightening cycle. With a recession already now finally in the forecasts based on what the MPC has already done (they don’t meet again until late February and the deepest forecast fall in GDP is in the quarter starting just 5 weeks later – the lags aren’t that short) they can’t really be very confident of how much more (if any) OCR action might be needed.

Finally, it is constantly worth bearing in mind the scale of the task. Core inflation has been running around 6 per cent and should be close to 2 per cent. That scale of reduction in core inflation hasn’t been needed/sought since around 1990. In 2007/08 inflation had got away on us to some extent, but a 1.5 percentage point reduction would have done the job of getting back to around 2 per cent. As Westpac pointed out in their commentary, the scale of the economic adjustment envisaged in these forecasts (change in estimated output gap) is very similar to what (the Bank now estimates) we experienced over 2008 to 2010.

The open question then is perhaps whether this sort of change in the output gap is likely to be sufficient: 13 years ago it delivered a 2 percentage point reduction in core inflation, but at present it looks as though we need a 4 percentage point reduction now. It isn’t obvious that other surrounding circumstances now will prove more propitious than then (eg for supply chains normalising now read the deep fall in world oil prices then).

Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t, but you might have expected a rigorously analytical central bank and MPC to have attempted to shed some light on the issue. But once again they didn’t.

(My own money is probably on a deeper recession next year, here and abroad but……and it applies to me as much as to anyone else … if you got the last 2-3 years so wrong you have to be very modest in your claims to have the current and year-ahead story right.)

Long summer holidays for the MPC

The Reserve Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee has its final meeting for the year on Wednesday, and then they shut up shop. For a long time. The next scheduled announcement is not until 22 February, a full 13 weeks (3 months) away. Nice job if you can get it, and although I’m sure management and staff will still be working for much of the intervening period, the same is unlikely to be said for the three non-executive members, who are generously remunerated by the taxpayer, utterly invisible, and only need to show up when meetings are scheduled.

This strange schedule has been in place for quite a few years now, having been adopted at a time when the OCR wasn’t being moved much at all (and when the Bank was raising the OCR, it often proved to have been a mistake). But having been in place for a while does not make it any more defensible or sensible. In fact, last year’s three month summer break almost certainly was one factor in how slow the MPC was to get on with raising the OCR once they’d finally made a start. On no reading of the data (contemporary data that is) did it make sense for us to have ended 2021 with the OCR still lower, in nominal terms, than it had been just prior to Covid. And having experienced the issue last summer (when perhaps it caught them by surprise) there was no excuse for not resetting the schedule for this summer.

One can always mount defences (for almost anything I suppose). Monetary policy works with a lag, the OCR adjustments can be just as large as they have to be, perhaps there is a bit of a tradeoff between time doing analysis and time spent preparing for meetings. But none of it is very convincing in this context. And it is out of step with their peers.

Here is a table of the monetary policy announcements dates over November to February for a fairly wide range of OECD country central banks. None, not even Sweden and tiny Iceland, are taking as long a break as our MPC (and although I didn’t tot up all the northern hemisphere summer meeting dates, it didn’t look as though any took as long a break then as our MPC takes now). The median country has a longest gap of seven weeks between meetings over this period.

[UPDATE: In addition, the South Korean central bank meets on 24 Nov, 13 Jan, and 23 Feb]

There are substantive macroeconomic arguments for (and against) a 75 basis point OCR adjustment this week, but one of arguments some have advanced is that they really need to go 75 basis points this week because they don’t have another opportunity until late February. But whose fault is that? It is entirely an MPC choice. They have a very flexible instrument and just choose to tie their hands behind their backs to give themselves a very long summer break.

The whole situation is compounded by the inadequacies of New Zealand’s key bits of macroeconomic data. We now have the CPI and the unemployment rate for mid-August (the midpoint of the September quarter). Most OECD central banks already have October CPI data, almost all have September unemployment rate data (and several have October unemployment rate data), and three-quarters of OECD countries already have September quarter GDP data (a few even have monthly GDP estimates).

The combination of slow and inadequate data and widely-spaced summer meetings really isn’t good enough, especially at a time when there is so much (perhaps inevitable) uncertainty about the inflation situation and outlook. The inadequacies of our national macroeconomic statistics cannot be fixed in short order (not that the government shows any interest in doing so anyway). But how often, and when, the MPC meets is entirely at the Committee’s discretion, and easily altered with little or no disruption other than to the holiday plans of some appointed and (supposedly) accountable policymakers (people who not incidentially – and pardonably or otherwise – have done such a demonstrably poor job of their main responsibility, keeping core inflation in the target range, in recent times.

The MPC should be announcing on Wednesday (a) an extra OCR review for a few days after the CPI release in January, and (b) a commitment to revisit the meeting schedule for future years to bring the length of the long summer break back to (say) no longer than the one the RBA takes. If they don’t journalists at the press conference and MPs at FEC should be asking why not.

(Writing this post brought to mind memories of Orr 20+ years ago when the OCR was first introduced championing having only four reviews a year. The OCR then was new, inflation was low and stable. One hopes that sort of thinking no longer lurks in the back of the Governor’s mind.)

Reviewing monetary policy

Way back in 1990 Parliament formally handed over the general responsibility for implementing monetary policy to the Reserve Bank. The government has always had the lead in setting the objectives the Bank is required to work to, and has the power to hire and fire if the Bank doesn’t do its job adequately, but a great deal of discretion has rested with the Bank. With power is supposed to come responsibility, transparency, and accountability.

And every so often in the intervening period there have been reviews. The Bank has itself done several over the years, looking (roughly speaking) at each past business cycle and, distinctly, what role monetary policy has played. These have generally been published as articles in the Bank’s Bulletin. When I looked back, I even found Adrian Orr’s name on one of the policy review articles and mine on another. It was a good initiative by the Bank, intended as some mix of contribution to debate, offering insights that were useful to the Bank itself, and defensive cover (there has rarely been a time over those decades when some controversy or other has not swirled around the Bank and monetary policy).

There have also been a couple of (broader-ranging) independent reviews. Both had some partisan intent, but one was a more serious effort than the other. When the Labour-led government took office in 1999 they had promised an independent review, partly in reaction to their sense that we had messed up over the previous few years. A leading Swedish academic economist Lars Svensson, who had written quite a bit about inflation targeting, was commissioned to do the review (you can read the report here). And towards the end of that government’s term – monetary policy (and the exchange rate) again being in the spotlight – Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee did a review.

When the monetary policy provisions of the Reserve Bank Act were overhauled a few years ago this requirement was added

It made sense to separate out this provision explicitly from that for Monetary Policy Statements (in fact, I recall arguing for such an amendment years ago) but the clause has an odd feature: MPSs (and the conduct of monetary policy itself) are the responsibility of the MPC, but these five-yearly longer-term reviews are the responsibility of “the Bank”. In the Act, the Bank’s Board is responsible for evaluating the performance of both management and the MPC, but the emphasis here does not seem to be on the Board. It seems pretty clear that this is management’s document, and of course management (mainly the Governor) dominates the MPC. Since the Board has no expertise whatever in monetary policy, it is pretty clear that the first of these reports, released last week, really was, in effect, the Governor reporting on himself.

And although plenty of people have made scathing comments about that, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong about a report of that sort. After all, it isn’t uncommon (although I always thought it odious and unfair given the evident power imbalance) for managers to ask staff to write about notes on their own performance, as part of an annual performance appraisal, before the manager adds his/her perspective. The insights an employee can offer about his or her own performance can often be quite revealing. And it isn’t as if the Bank’s own take on its performance is ever going to be the only relevant perspective (although, of course, the Governor has far more resources and information at his disposal than anyone else is going to have). The only real question is how good a job the Bank has done of its self-review and what we learn from the documents.

On which note, I remain rather sceptical about the case (National in particular is making) for an independent review specifically on the recent conduct of monetary policy. Some of those advocating such an inquiry come across as if what they have in mind is something more akin to a final court verdict on the Bank’s handling of affairs – one decisive report that resolve all the points of contention. That sort of finality is hardly ever on offer – scholars are still debating aspects of the handling of the Great Depression – and if there was ever a time when choice of reviewer would largely determine the broad thrust of the review’s conclusions this would be among them. Anyone (or group) with the expertise to do a serious review will already have put their views on record – not necessarily about the RBNZ specifically (if they were an overseas hire) but about the handling of the last few years by central banks generally. There is precedent: the Svensson review (mentioned above) was a serious effort, but the key decision was made right at the start when Michael Cullen agreed to appoint someone who was generally sympathetic to the RB rather than some other people, some of equal eminence if different backgrounds, who were less so. It would be no different this time around (with the best will in the world all round). A review might throw up a few useful points and suggestions, and would probably do no harm, but at this point the idea is mostly a substantive distraction. Conclusions about the Reserve Bank and about its stewardship are now more a matter for New Zealand expert observers and the New Zealand political process (ideally the two might engage). Ideally, we might see some New Zealand economics academics weighing in, although in matters macroeconomics most are notable mainly by their absence from the public square.

That is a somewhat longwinded introduction to some thoughts about the report the Bank came out with last week (120 pages of it, plus some comments from their overseas reviewers, and a couple of other background staff papers).

I didn’t think the report presented the Bank in a very good light at all. And that isn’t because they concluded that monetary policy could/should (they alternate between the two) have been tightened earlier. That took no insight whatever, when your primary target is keeping inflation near the middle of the target range and actual core inflation ends up miles outside the range. Blind Freddy could recognise that monetary policy should have been tightened earlier. When humans make decisions, mistakes will happen.

The rest of the conclusions of the report were mostly almost equally obvious and/or banal (eg several along the lines of “we should understand the economy better” Really?). And, of course, we had the Minister of Finance – not exactly a disinterested party – spinning the report as follows: “It is really important to note that the report does indicate that they got the big decisions right”. It should take no more than two seconds thought to realise that that is simply not true: were it so we would not now have core inflation so far outside the target range and (as the report itself does note) pretty widespread public doubts about how quickly inflation will be got down again. It would be much closer to the truth to say that the Reserve Bank – and, no doubt, many of their peers abroad – got most of the big decisions wrong. It has, after all, been the worst miss in the 32 years our Reserve Bank has been independent, and across many countries probably the worst miss in the modern era of operationally independent central banks (in most countries, after all, monetary policy in the great inflation of the 1970s was presided over by Ministers of Finance not central banks).

But there is no sense in the report at all of the scale of the mistake, no sense of contrition, and – perhaps most importantly in my view – no insight as to why those mistakes were made, and not even any sign of any curiosity about the issue. The focus is almost entirely defensive, and shows no sense of any self-critical reflection. There are no fresh analytical insights and (again) not even any effort to frame the questions that might in time lead to those insights. And no doubt that is just the way the Governor (who has repeatedly told us he had ‘no regrets’) would have liked it. And here we are reminded that this is very much the Orr Reserve Bank: the two senior managers most responsible for the review (the chief economist and his boss, the deputy chief executive responsible for monetary policy and macroeconomics) only joined the Bank this year, and so had no personal responsibility for the analysis, preparation and policy of 2020 and 2021 but still produced a report offering so little insight and so much spin. Silk, in particular, probably had no capacity to do more, but the occasional hope still lingered that perhaps Paul Conway, the new chief economist, might do better. But these were Orr’s hires, and it is widely recognised that Orr brooks no dissent, no challenge, and in his almost five years as Governor has never offered any material insight himself on monetary policy or cyclical economic developments. Even if they had no better analysis to offer – and perhaps they didn’t, so degraded does the Bank’s capabilities now seem – contrition could have taken them some way. But nothing in the report suggests they feel in their bones the shame of having delivered New Zealanders 6 per cent core inflation, with all the arbitrary unexpected wealth redistributions that go with that, let alone the inevitable economic disruption now involved in bringing inflation a long way back down again. It comes across as more like a game to them: how can we put ourselves in the least bad light possible with a mid-market not-very-demanding audience (all made more unserious as we realised that the Minister of Finance had made the decision a couple of months ago to reappoint Orr, not even waiting for the 120 pages of spin).

At this juncture, a good report would be most unlikely to have had all the answers. After all, similar questions exist in a whole bunch of other countries/central banks, and if the Reserve Bank has the biggest team of macroeconomists in New Zealand, there are many more globally (in central banks, academe, and beyond) but it doesn’t take having all the answers to recognise the questions, or the scale of the mistakes. In fact, answers usually require an openness to questions, even about your own performance, first. And there is none of that in the Bank’s report.

Thus, we get lame lines – of the sort Conway ran several times at Thursday’s press conference – that if the Bank had tightened a bit more a bit earlier it would have made only a marginal difference to annual inflation by now. And quite possibly that is so, but where is the questioning about what it would have taken – in terms of understanding the economy and the inflation process – to have kept core inflation inside the target range? What is it that they missed? (And when I say “they” of course I recognise that most everyone else, me included, also missed it and misunderstood it, but……central banks are charged by Parliaments with the job of keeping inflation at/near target, exercise huge discretion, carry all the prestige, and have big budgets for analytical purposes, so when central banks report on their performance, we should expect something much better than “well, we acted on the forecasts we had at the time and, with hindsight, those forecasts were (wildly) wrong”.) The question is why, what did they miss, and what have they learned that reduces the chances of future mistakes (including over the next year or two – if your model for how we got into this mess was so astray, why should the public have any confidence that you have the right model – understanding of the economy and inflation – for getting out of the mess? At the press conference the other day the Governor and the Board chair prattled on about being a “learning organisation” but you aren’t likely to have learned much if you never recognised the scale of the failure or shown any sign of digging deep in your thought, analysis, and willingness to engage in self-criticism. We – citizens – should have much more confidence in an organisation and chief executive will to do that sort of hard, uncomfortable, work than in one of the sort evident in last week’s report.

With hindsight one can make a pretty good case that no material monetary policy action was required at all in 2020. One might be more generous and say that by September/October 2020 with hindsight it was clear that what had been done was no longer needed. But that wasn’t the judgement the Reserve Bank came to at the time – and it is the Bank that has been tasked with getting these things right. Why? (And, of course, the same questions can be asked of other central banks and private forecasters, but the Reserve Bank is responsible for monetary policy and for inflation outcomes in this country.)

I may come back in subsequent posts to look at more detail at a number of specific aspects of the report (including a couple of genuinely interesting revelations) but at the big picture level the report does not even approach providing the sort of analysis and reflection the times and circumstances called for (in some easier times a report of this sort might have not been too bad, although you would always look for some serious research backing even then).

And if you think that I’m the only sceptic, I’d commend to you the comments from the former Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada. On page after page – amid the politeness (and going along with distractions like the alleged role of the Russian invasion) – he highlights just how relatively weak the analysis in the report is, how many questions there still are, and a number of areas in which he thinks the Bank’s defensive spin is less than entirely convincing.

New Zealanders deserved better. That we did not get it in this report just highlights again that Orr is not really fit for the office he holds. In times like those of the last few years – with all the uncertainties – an openness to alternative perspectives, willingness to engage, willingness to self-critically reflect, and modelling a demand for analytical excellence are more important than ever.

Reappointing Orr

Yesterday’s announcement from the Minister of Finance that he was reappointing Adrian Orr as Governor of the Reserve Bank was not unexpected but was most unfortunate. I was inclined to think another commentator (can’t remember who, so as to link to) who reckoned that it may have been Robertson’s worst decision in his five years in office was pretty much on the mark.

When Orr was first appointed, emerging out of a selection process kicked off by the Reserve Bank’s Board while National had still been in office, it seemed to me it was the sort of appointment that could have gone either way. I captured some of that in the post I wrote the day after that first appointment was announced, and rereading that post last night it seemed to at least hint at many of the issues that might arise and come to render the appointment problematic at best. Some things – a good example is $9.5 billion of losses to the taxpayer – weren’t so easy to foresee.

The timing of the reappointment announcement itself was something of a kick in the face for (a) critics, and (b) any sense that the better features of the new Reserve Bank legislation were ever intended as anything more than cosmetic. The Reserve Bank is tomorrow publishing its own review (with comments from a couple of carefully selected overseas people) of monetary policy over the past five years. Adding the statutory requirement for such a review made a certain amount of sense, but if there is value in a review conducted by the agency itself of its own performance, it was only going to be in the subsequent scrutiny and dialogue, as outsiders tested the analysis and conclusions the Bank itself has reached. But never mind that says Robertson, I’ll just reappoint Adrian anyway. Perhaps the Bank has a really compelling case around its stewardship of monetary policy – and just the right mix of contrition and context etc – but we don’t know (and frankly neither does Robertson – who has no expertise in these matters, and who appointed a Reserve Bank Board -the people who formally recommend the reappointment – full of people with almost no subject expertise).

But, as I say, the reappointment was hardly a surprise.

It could have been different. I’ve seen a few people say it would have been hard to sack Orr, but I don’t think that is so at all. No one has a right to reappointment (not even a presumptive right) and Robertson could quite easily have taken Orr aside a few months ago and told him that he (Orr) would not be reappointed, allowing Orr in turn the dignity of announcing that he wouldn’t be seeking a second term and would be pursuing fresh opportunities (perhaps Mark Carney would like an offsider for his climate change crusades?) Often enough – last week’s FEC appearance was just the latest example – Orr’s heart doesn’t really seem to be in the core bits of the job.

There are many reasons why Orr should not have been reappointed. The recent inflation record is not foremost among them, although it certainly doesn’t act as any sort of mitigant (in a way that an unexpectedly superlative inflation record in a troubled and uncertain world might – hypothetically – have).

There is nothing good, admirable, or even “less bad than most” about the inflation record. This chart is from my post last week

A whole bunch of central banks made pretty similar mistakes (and the nature of floating exchange rates is that each central bank is responsible for its country’s own inflation rate). Among the Anglo countries, we are a bit worse than the UK and Canada and slightly less bad than the US and Australia. Among the small advanced inflation targeters – a group the RB sometimes identified with – we have done worse than Switzerland, Norway, and Israel, and better than Sweden and Iceland. In a couple of years (2021 and 2022) in which the world’s central bankers have – in the jargon – stuffed up badly, Orr and his MPC have been about as bad on inflation as their typical peers.

You could mount an argument – akin to Voltaire on the execution of Admiral Byng – that all the world’s monetary policymakers (at least those without a clear record of dissent – for the right reasons – on key policy calls) should be dismissed, or not reappointed when their terms end, to establish that accountability is something serious and to encourage future policymakers to do better. You take (voluntarily) responsibility for inflation outcomes, and when you fail you pay the price, or something of the sort. Inflation failures – including the massive unexpected wealth redistributions – matter.

Maybe, but it was never likely to happen, and it isn’t really clear it should. As I’ve noted here in earlier posts until well into 2021 the Reserve Bank’s forecasts weren’t very different from those of other forecasters, and I’m pretty sure that was also the case in other countries. Inflation outcomes now (year to September 2022) are the result of policy choices 12-18 months earlier. With hindsight it is clear that monetary policy should have been tightened a lot earlier and more aggressively last year, but last February or even May there was hardly anyone calling for that. Absent big policy tightenings then, it is now clear it was inevitable that core inflation would move well outside the target range. There are plenty of things to criticise the Bank for – including Orr’s repeated “I have no regrets” line – but if one wants to make a serious case for dismissing Orr for his conduct of monetary policy it is probably going to have to centre on (in)actions from say August 2021 to February 2022 (whereafter they finally stepped up the pace) but on its own – it was only six months – it would just not be enough to have got rid of the Governor (even just by non-reappointment). The limitations of knowledge and understanding are very real (and perhaps undersold by central bankers in the past), and even if Orr and the MPC chose entirely voluntarily to take the job (and all its perks and pay) those limitations simply have to be grappled with. Were New Zealand an outlier it might be different. Had the Bank run views very much at odds with private forecasters etc it might be different. But it wasn’t.

I am, however, 100 per cent convinced that Orr should not have been reappointed. I jotted down a list of 20 reasons last night, and at that I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things.

I’m not going to bore you with a comprehensive elaboration of each of them, most of which have been discussed in other posts. but here is a summary list in no particular order:

  • the extremely rapid of turnover of senior managers (in several case, first promoted by Orr and then ousted) and associated loss of experience and institutional knowledge
  • the block placed –  almost certainly at Orr’s behest –  on anyone with current and ongoing expertise in monetary policy nad macroeconomic analysis from serving as an external member of the MPC
  • the appointment as deputy chief executive responsible for macroeconomics and monetary policy (with a place on the MPC) of someone with no subject expertise or relevant background
  • $9.5 billion of losses on the LSAP – warranting a lifetime achievement award for reckless use of public resources – with almost nothing positive to show for the risk/loss  
  • the failure to ensure that the Bank was positioned for possible negative OCRs (having had a decade’s advance warning of the issue), in turn prompting the ill-considered rush to the LSAP
  • the failure to do any serious advance risk analysis on the LSAP instrument, as being applied to NZ in 2020
  • the sharp decline in the volume of research being published by the Reserve Bank, and the associated decline in research capabilities
  • the way the Funding for Lending programme, a crisis measure, has been kept functioning, pumping attractively-priced loans out to banks two years after the crisis itself had passed (and negative OCR capability had been established)
  • lack of any serious and robust cost-benefit analysis for the new capital requirements Orr imposed on banks (even as he repeatedly tells us how robust the system is at current capital levels)
  • repeatedly misleading Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee (most recently, his claim last week that the war was to blame for inflation being outside the target range), in ways that cast severe doubts on his commitment to integrity and transparency
  • his refusal to ever admit a mistake about anything (notwithstanding eg the biggest inflation failure in decades) 
  • the fact that four and a half years in there has never been a serious and thoughtful speech on monetary policy and economic developments from the Governor (through one of the most turbulent times in many decades)
  • Orr’s active involvement in supporting and facilitating the appointment of Board members with clear conflicts of interest (Rodger Finlay especially, but also Byron Pepper)
  • his testiness and intolerance of disagreement/dissent/alternative views
  • his often disdainful approach to MPs
  • his polarising style, internally and externally
  • all indications are that he is much more interested in, and intellectually engaged by, things he isn’t responsible for than for the things Parliament has charged him with
  • organisational bloat (think of the 17-20 people in the Communications team or the large number of senior managers now earning more than $400000 pa)
  • the distraction of his focus on climate change, but much more so the rank dishonesty of so much of it – claims to have done modelling that doesn’t exist, attempts to suppress release of information on what little had been done, and sheer spin like last week’s flood stress test. It might be one thing for a bloated overfunded bureaucracy to do work on things it isn’t really responsible for if it were first-rate in-depth work. It hasn’t been under Orr.
  • much the same could be said of Orr’s evident passion for all things Maori –  in an organisation with a wholesale macroeconomic focus, where the same instruments apply to people of all ethnicities, religions, handedness, political affiliation or whatever.  What “analysis” they have attempted or offered has been threadbare, at times verging on the dishonest.
  • the failure to use the opportunity of an overhaul of the RB Act to establish a highly credible open and transparent MPC (instead we have a committee where Orr dominates selection, expertise is barred, and nothing at all is heard from most members)

And, no doubt, so on.  He is simply unfit to hold the office, and all indications are that he would have been so (if less visibly in some ways) had Covid, and all that followed (including inflation), never happened.   

But the crowning reason why Orr should not have been reappointed is that doing so has further politicised the position, in a most unfortunate way.

In the course of the overhaul of the Reserve Bank Act, Grant Robertson introduced a legislative requirement that before appointing someone as Governor the Minister of Finance needed to consult with other parties in Parliament (parallel provision for RB Board members).  It was a curious provision, that no one was particularly pushing for (in most countries the Minister of Finance or President can simply appoint the Governor, without even the formal interposition of something like the RB Board), but Robertson himself chose to put it in.  The clear message it looked to be sending was that these were not only very important positions but ones where there should be a certain measure of cross-party acceptance of whoever was appointed, recogising (especially in the Governor’s case) just how much power the appointee would wield.  That provision never meant that governments could not appoint someone who happened to share their general view of the world and economy, but there was a clear expectation that whoever was appointed would be sufficient to command cross-party respect for the person’s technical expertise, non-partisan nature, dispassionate judgement and so on.  Robertson simply ignored Opposition dissents on a couple of the Board appointees.  That was of second order significance, but it is really significant in the case of the Governor.  It isn’t easy to dismiss a Governor (and rightly so) so for a Minister of Finance to simply ignore the explicit unease and opposition of the two main Opposition parties in Parliament is to make a mockery of the legislation Robertson himself had put in place so recently.   The Opposition parties are being criticised in some places (eg RNZ this morning) for “politicising the position/appointment” but they seem to have been simply doing their job –  it was Parliament/Robertson who established the consultation provision –  and the consultation provisions, if they meant anything, never meant giving a blank slate for whomever the Minister wanted to offer up, no matter the widely-recognised concerns about such a nominee.   No one has a right to reappointment and when it was clear that the main Opposition parties would not support reappointment, Robertson should have taken a step back, called Adrian in and told him the reappointment could not go ahead, in the longer-term interests of the institution and the system.  If you were an Orr sympathiser, you might think that was tough, but….no one has right to reappointment, and the institution matters.

And, of course, now the position of the Governor has inevitably been put into play, with huge uncertainty as to what might happen if/when National/ACT form a government after the election next year.    (And here is where I depart from National’s stance –  I never liked the idea of a one year appointment, made well before the traditional pre-election bar on new permanent appointments.  We want able non-partisan respected figures appointed for long terms (it is the way these things work in most places), not for each incoming PM to be able to appoint his or her own Governor.)

A few months ago, anticipating that Orr would probably be reappointed, I wrote a post on what an incoming government next year could do about the Bank.    The key point to emphasise is that a new government cannot simply dismiss a Governor they don’t like (or nor should they be able to).  I saw a comment on a key political commentary site this morning noting that the process for dismissal isn’t technically challenging, which is true, but the substantive standards are quite demanding (the Governor can be dismissed only for specific statutory causes, and for (in)actions that occurred in his new term (which doesn’t start until March)).  Generally, we do not want Governors to be able to be easily dismissed (in most countries it is even harder than in New Zealand).   More to the realpolitik point, any dismissal could be challenged in the courts, and no one would (or should) want the prolonged uncertainty (political and market) such actions might entail.   Moreover, senior public figures cannot just be bought out of contracts.   

We still don’t know –  and perhaps they don’t either –  how exercised National and ACT would be about any of this were they to form a government next year, but unless Orr was himself minded to resign (as the Herald’s columnist suggests might happen) things would have to be handled carefully and indirectly (perhaps along lines in that earlier post of mine) to change the environment and the incentives around the institution.   Most of those changes should be pursued anyway, to begin to fix what has been done over the last few years    And if Orr were to be inclined not to stick around for long, perhaps an offer of appointment as High Commissioner to the Cooks Islands might smooth his way? 

Money supply

In my post last Friday I highlighted how the Governor of the Reserve Bank had just been making up stuff, and apparently knowingly misleading Parliament, to distract from the Bank’s own responsibility for New Zealand’s current very high core inflation. There may well be a case to be made that central banks did about as well as could reasonably be expected over the last couple of years – “reasonably be expected” here set by reference to the general views at the time of other expert observers (none of whom, admittedly, had chosen to take on statutory responsibility for inflation) but simply making stuff up blaming the Moscow bogeyman helps no one, and detracts from any serious conversation about what went on with inflation – core and headline – and why. To put my own cards on the table, there are many reasons why Adrian Orr should not be reappointed, but the poor inflation outcomes are not the most important of those reasons (of course, a superlative performance on inflation might have covered over a multitude of other sins and shortcomings).

After Friday’s post, someone got in touch to point out that I had not mentioned one other episode in that FEC appearance which could also reasonably be described as “making stuff up” and misleading Parliament. Opposition members were asking questions that included that rather loaded phrase “printing money”, to which Orr responded – apparently in reference to the LSAP – that the Reserve Bank did not create money, that all they did was to lower bond yields, and that banks etc were the people who increased the money supply.

In normal circumstances, the Governor’s comment would not be far wrong. The “money supply” – deposits with financial intermediaries (those included in the Bank’s survey) held by “the public” (ie people and firms not themselves included in the survey) – mostly increases in the process of private sector credit creation. For example, each new mortgage to purchase a house results simultaneously in the creation of either a deposit or a reduction in another mortgage as the house seller deals with the proceeds of the sale. Monetary policy operates typically by adjusting interest rates to influence, among other things, the demand for credit.

Some of the Reserve Bank’s emergency crisis tools don’t have any direct effect on the money supply measures the Reserve Bank compiles and reports. The Funding for Lending programme – a crisis programme that bizarrely is still injecting cheap liquidity now – simply lends money to banks (against collateral). That transaction boosts settlement cash balances held by banks at the Reserve Bank, but those balances aren’t part of “money supply” measures (they are deposits held by one lot of surveyed institutions – banks – at another surveyed institution – the Reserve Bank).

The LSAP is different. If, for example, a pension fund had been holding government bonds and had then sold those bonds to the Reserve Bank. the pension fund would receive payment from the Reserve Bank in a form that adds to that pension fund’s deposits at a bank. Settlement cash balances increase in the process, but so does the money supply (the pension fund’s deposits count in the money supply just the same way that your deposits do). Had the Reserve Bank bought all those tens of billions of dollars of bonds from local banks, the transaction would have boosted only settlement cash and not the money supply measures. But it didn’t. There were plenty of sellers – the Reserve Bank was eagerly buying at the top of the market – and some were local banks, and others were not. And so when the Governor suggested to Parliament that the Bank’s bond-buying did not increase the money supply, he wasn’t really being strictly accurate.

If you are now drumming your fingers are thinking this is all very technical and not really to the point, then in some respects you are correct. We’ve heard a lot about “the money supply” in the last couple of years. Most of it isn’t very accurate, but in many respects the difference doesn’t matter very much. “Money supply” measures (the formal ones referred to above) have not mattered very much to central bankers for decades, and that has been so whether inflation was falling sharply and undershooting inflation targets, or (as at present) proving very troublesome on the high side. The general view has been that money supply measures have not contained consistently useful information about the outlook for inflation, over and above what is in other indicators.

That does not mean – to be clear – that inflation is anything other than a monetary phenomenon for which central banks (and their masters) are responsible. It also does not mean that in extreme circumstances, in which say the government/central bank is flinging huge amounts of money at households without any intention of paying for those handouts now or later through higher taxes, that straight-out government money creation will not be a problem, paving the way for something that could end in hyperinflation. It is simply that specific official measures of the money supply have not proved very useful as inflation forecasters. Decades ago we hoped they did – and money supply growth targets were the rage for a decade or more in some central banks – but they didn’t.

And perhaps you can begin to see why if we go back a couple of paragraphs to the LSAP purchases. If the Reserve Bank purchases bonds from you and me (or our Kiwisaver fund) that will add to the money suply measures the Reserve Bank compiles and reports. If the Reserve Bank instead buy bonds from banks who bank with the Reserve Bank, it won’t add to the money supply measures. Does anyone really suppose there are materially different macroeconomic implications from those two different scenarios? The Reserve Bank doesn’t (from all they have said and written about how they think the LSAP works) and – for what it may be worth – I agree with them. You could add a third scenario, in which the Bank buys a bond from a non-bank entity that itself had bought the bond on credit. In that case, even RB purchasing from a non-bank won’t add to the money supply measures, but will (presumably) reduce any credit aggregates that captured the initial loan.

It might all have been different decades ago when, for example, central banks paid no interest on settlement cash balances, sometimes (as in New Zealand) banks were forbidden from paying interest on short-term or transactions deposits, and where banks were subject to variable reserve asset ratios. That was the world I started work in, but none of that is true today. Money supply measures usually aren’t very enlightening about inflation prospects, and these days neither even is the level of settlement cash balances (since the Reserve Bank pays the full OCR on whatever balances have accumulated). Thus, the LSAP may have been a dumb idea (and a very expensive one so it proved), but not because it may or may not have boosted official measures of the money supply to some extent. The pension fund that sold a government bond and now has bank CD in its books instead is no better or worse off because one asset wasn’t in the money supply official measures and the other one is. Neither are its members.

What matters is (mostly) two things: first, level and structure of interest rates, and second whether or not more purchasing power is put in the hands of public. The LSAP purports to change the former – which it seems was probably what the Governor was trying to claim at FEC the other day – but does not, and does not purport to, change the latter directly.

(By contrast, when for example the government sharply ran down its cash balances at the Reserve Bank and paid out at short notice a huge level of wage subsidy payments, not only did those payments boost the money supply measures (in most cases) but they put more purchasing power in the hands of the private sector (households supported by those payments). That isn’t a comment about the merits or otherwise of the wage subsidy scheme – I thought it was mostly great, directly counteracting what would otherwise have been a huge loss of purchasing power – just a description of how things work technically).

What about some numbers and charts?

This is a chart of annual growth in the Reserve Bank broad money measure

Annual growth rates have fluctuated a lot. There was a surge in the annual growth rate in 2020 (and a 3.5 per cent lift in the month of March 2020 alone, presumably largely reflecting the wage subsidy payments) but (a) it proved shortlived, (b) the peak was still materially below peaks in the 90s and 00s, and c) core inflation in the mid 90s and mid-late 00s did not get near the current core inflation rates (depending on your measure somewhere between 5 and 7 per cent).

For those of you who remember studying money in your economics courses, here is a measure of the velocity of money (in this case, quarterly nominal GDP divided by the broad money stock at the end of each quarter.

This measure of the money supply has been been growing faster than nominal GDP pretty much every year since 1988 (mostly just reflecting the fact that regulatory restrictions on land use have inflated house prices to absurd levels, driving up both money and credit as shares of GDP). You can see a bit of noise in 2020 – the big initial increase in the money supply I mentioned earlier and the temporary sharp reduction in GDP – but two years on there is nothing now that looks unusual.

Here is a chart of the level of broad money, expressed in logs (which means that if the slope of the line is unchanged so is the percentage rate of growth in the underlying series).

Nothing particularly out of the ordinary in money supply developments (on this formal measure) over the last few years.

But for anyone out there who still wants to put some weight on this official measure of the broad money supply, here is the chart of quarterly percentage changes.

Eyeballing it, the most recent three quarters (to September this year) appear to have had the weakest growth since 2009. a period when nominal GDP growth and core inflation falling away sharply. Since I don’t put much weight on money supply measures, as offering anything much about the inflation outlook, I wouldn’t emphasise the comparison myself.

Inflation is primarily a monetary phenomenon, and a national phenomenon (that was why the exchange rate was floated, to make it so), and something for which central banks are responsible and should be accountable. Core inflation has been – and still is – at unacceptably high rates, as a result of choices and misunderstandings by our central bank (their misunderstandings were widely shared, among private sector economists and in other countries, but that does not change the responsibility even if it might mitigate the appropriate consequences for those central bank decision makers). Monetary policy choices matter, a lot. But official measures of the money supply don’t usually shed much additional light, and have not done so over the last couple of years.

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.

Inflation and monetary policy

In a post a couple of weeks ago I outlined some reasons for scepticism about the case for increasing the OCR by 50 basis points specifically at the then-forthcoming OCR review. My point was mostly about the data hiatus – the OCR decision would be taking place almost 3 months after the most recent CPI data and more than 2 months since the last main labour market data. It seemed (and seems) foolish for the MPC to stick to its schedule of review dates, including the long summer holiday it will give itself after next month’s MPS. It remains highly problematic that New Zealand governments have penny-pinched on core statistics and as a result we have such slow and infrequent macro data (we got the September quarter CPI inflation data yesterday, Switzerland by contrast released September month data on 3 October).

But there were also some considerations in the macroeconomics

  • the reasonably long lags in monetary policy (the OCR really only having been aggressively tightened fairly recently)
  • weakening commodity prices,
  • relatively subdued nominal GDP growth, among the very lowest in the OECD,
  • and some indications in core inflation measures that at least things had not been getting worse (continuing to spiral upwards)

All the inflation rates were, of course, unacceptably high.

Of course, as was universally expected the MPC did raise the OCR by 50 basis points in their October review. And yesterday we got the September quarter CPI data, which took by surprise all those who’d published forecasts (and, I guess, almost any of us who’d heard their headline forecasts). The outcome was higher than the Reserve Bank’s last published forecast, but since that forecast was more than two months old and anyway isn’t broken down into headline and core components – and they’d given us no sense of an update in the October review – not too much weight should now be put on that particular aspect of the surprise.

I don’t do short-term components forecasting, so what follows isn’t about the extent of the surprise (immediate prior expectations vs outcomes) but about what to make of the actual outcomes and current inflation. First, I’ll step through and update the charts from the earlier post.

These two – commonly used abroad – core inflation measures might suggest a little room for encouragement. Both quarterly changes are still high (far too high), and the gap between them is unprecedented, but they both look as though they could be past their respective peaks.

Monetary policy always takes time to work, and as this Reserve Bank chart reminds us it was only late last year that new mortgage rates really started rising.

But then there are these two exclusion measures

neither of which offers any reassurance.

And the picture here is similar

and from these monthly food price components, a bit of a mixed bag, but at least nowhere near as bad now as a few months ago.

The building market has been one of “hottest” areas of the economy and the labour market, with staggering rates of increases

Those numbers are still high but seem to be beginning to move in the right direction.

And then there are rents. Rents now make up just over 10 per cent of the CPI. On a quarterly basis the rents item in the CPI increased by 1.2 per cent in the September quarter, as high (equally high) as it has been this cycle. On an annual basis, this is the picture

In the CPI rents are included using a stock measure – the rate of increase in the average rents being paid by all tenants. And there is a certain logic to that, but we also know that new rents are falling (not just the growth rate slowing, but the level of rents dropping)

The flow measure – new rents – is (naturally) noisier but it (also naturally) leads the stock measure. There is a lag from monetary policy to the CPI for numerous reasons, but one is the choice to include average prices rather than marginal prices for rents. New rents – the ones policy and market developments affect most immediately – have now been falling for several months.

For completeness, I’m including this chart of the Reserve Bank’s sectoral factor model measure of core inflation.

It used to be the Reserve Bank’s preferred measure (and mine too – I championed it when I was still at the Bank), and it is probably still the single best guide to historical core inflation, but (in the nature of the technique) it is prone to big and lagging revisions when inflation is moving a lot. When the September 2021 CPI came out last October the model estimated core inflation then to have been 2.7 per cent (high, but still inside the target range), but the model – learning from what has happened since – now reckons core inflation last September was already up to 3.8 per cent. At this point, there really isn’t any information (good or ill) in the latest quarterly observations (which in any case use annual rather than quarterly data).

Moving beyond the specific inflation data series, there are a few other considerations that seem relevant to me. The first is to remember the lags (something notably absent from any of the media coverage I heard or read). There are at least two that are relevant. First, the September quarter CPI is really a mid-August measure: there are some noisy components – notably petrol – sampled weekly, and food is captured monthly but the whole thing is centred on 15 August, which is now a bit more than two months ago. So we (and the RB) aren’t exactly using real-time data. And second, the OCR takes time to work – this isn’t in dispute and shows up in all the modelling work – and on 15 August the OCR was 2.5 per cent (it was raised at the MPS a couple of days later). In fact – and it is easy to forget this now – until 12 April, the OCR was no higher than 1 per cent, the level (designed to be somewhat stimulatory) it had been at immediately prior to Covid. Now, of course markets and market pricing anticipated OCR increases to come to some extent, but the market (let alone firms and households) have been repeatedly surprised, constantly revising up their view of what OCR would be required.

I’m also not about to take a view on what the Reserve Bank could or should do in November. Market economists have to, I don’t. There is another round of really important labour market data due out in a couple of weeks (of which the most important bits should be the employment and unemployment numbers rather than wages). Of course, it lags too – centred on mid-August (and I really don’t understand why a household survey collected by phone within a quarter can’t be processed much more quickly than SNZ manages) – but it will still represent an addition to our knowledge. If, for example, the unemployment rate were to have dropped further, the argument for a big OCR increase would inevitably strengthen, all else equal – people will cut central banks less slack now than they might have if we were dealing with core inflation at, say, 3.5 per cent.

But is always going to tempting to just ignore the lags, even after increases in the OCR of unprecedented pace this year. And the lags are real, the lags matter. Robert MacCulloch, macroeconomics professor at Auckland, yesterday reminded us of Milton Friedman’s take on that issue almost 55 years ago.

There was a time for 75 or even perhaps 100 basis point OCR increases – last November or February perhaps – but for now it is much less clear that now is one of those times (and few if any of those now calling for such large increases now were calling for them then).

Of course, it doesn’t help that the MPC chooses to take a long summer holiday. That really should be revisited now.

And just one last graph, since air travel prices were a non-trivial influence in yesterday’s headline (and exclusion) measures. More than a little noise in those series.

Accountability document with no accountability

Decades ago when I was young Reserve Bank annual reports were – uninteresting accounts aside – mostly a bit of an essay on the economy (I got to write some of 1984’s and if I recall correctly one sentence survived to publication). Since the Bank had no independent authority over anything – power rested with the Minister of Finance – that model of Annual Report made a certain amount of sense. If there was any “accountability” involved, it was mostly about judging the fine line involved in offering some analysis without at the same time unduly upsetting the Minister of Finance. (The Bank was, at least in principle, accountable for analysis and advice offered to the Minister, but nothing much of that ever saw the light of day, the then recent innovation of the OIA notwithstanding).

These days, of course, the Reserve Bank is a power in the land, conducting monetary policy (with considerable discretion, but within the broad Remit set by the Minister of Finance), setting much of prudential regulatory policy (and implementing it all, with non-trivial discretion), and so on.

In recent years, both the size of the institution (staff numbers) and the size of the Annual Reports have both been growing rapidly.

The 2017 Annual Report was the last one pre-Orr.

But with all the people and all the pages, any serious sense of accountability and accounting for performance, seems to have diminished almost to the point of invisibility.

Over the years of this blog, I’ve written a series of posts about how the Reserve Bank Board – existing, per statute, primarily, to hold the Governor and Bank to account – had almost completely abdicated that responsibility. Twenty years ago Parliament required them to publish an Annual Report, and the hope had been that it might help, just a little, to sharpen accountability. Instead, the reports proved to be little more than show, mostly apparently designed to provide cover for management, rather than scrutiny and accountability for the public, the Minister, and MPs. Occasionally they showed signs of doing a slightly less bad job, but this year in their final report (the old Board and the old governance model were disbanded from 1 July) they slumped to new levels of quiescent inactivity. Perhaps – being about to head out the door – they no longer cared much, but since the chair (and one other member) were being carried over onto the new Board that shouldn’t have been an acceptable excuse for the contempt for the public that their silence and passivity display.

The full Annual Report is here. The Board’s report is on pages 6-9.

Over the last year, inflation has blown badly beyond the target range set for the Bank and the MPC. On the Governor’s own telling, that is so even if one focuses on the range of core measures. The deviation from target is by far the largest seen in the now 30+ year history of inflation targeting (and as a forecasting error would have been large even by the standards of earlier decades).

At the same time, the Bank’s speculative punt on the government bond market – the LSAP – turned very sour, and cumulative mark-to-market losses on the position are now in excess of $9 billion. The losses don’t fall to the Reserve Bank’s account – the government provided an indemnity upfront – but the losses (2.5% of GDP or so) were directly resulting from choices made by the Reserve Bank, the body the Board was responsible for monitoring and holding to account.

Oh, and during the year, two of the external MPC members were reappointed (by the Minister, on the recommendation of the Board). Given developments on the watch of those members (see above), you’d have hoped that some searching questions were asked, and some serious analysis and review undertaken by the Board. The Board might even have explained why they recommended one member’s renewed term should expire in the (likely) middle of next year’s election campaign.

As it is, not one of those issues was mentioned in the Board’s Annual Report. There is a full page devoted to monetary policy, and not once is inflation (or price stability, or the target band, or any cognate words) even mentioned. Just this

We learn that they looked at lots of papers, but nothing at all as to how they reached a conclusion that the MPC had adequately done its job (there might be a reasonable case to make, but they don’t even try).

The massive losses to the taxpayer get not a mention (again, perhaps there is a case to be made that – as the Governor claims – the benefits mean the costs were worth it), nor the reappointment of the external MPC members.

So no sign of scrutiny, no accountability. But if we heard nothing at all from the Board on such matters of substance, where the Bank has legal responsibilities, the Board was apparently keen to have us know of its other interests

But even then, no sign of evaluation, no sign of challenge? Not even (say) a suggestion that if there is going to a Central Bank Network for Indigenous Inclusion – the case for which is very far from obvious – perhaps the central banks of places like Iceland, Ireland, Poland, the UK, and France might be invited to join.

Reading this bumpf brought to mind this extract I spotted in a recent OIA release of Board minutes from a few months ago

So notwithstanding the limited tasks that Parliament has actually assigned to the Bank, the Board (which includes the Governor) thought it important that they shbould be free to used taxpayers’ time and money to decide their own priorities on things they have no statutory responsibility for. A platform for the interests and ideologies of management and board members (and recall that hardly any of the new and more powerful Board have any relevant expertise on subjects the Bank is actually responsible for).

Of course, it has long been easy to scoff at the old Board. Perhaps they were in an awkward position – most had little relevant expertise, they had no independent resources, and management controlled the papers they saw – but they still took the job (and the modest emoluments) without actually doing the job.

What of management who were, in effect, responsible for the remaining 150 pages of the report (of which much is the accounts)? (“In effect” since the new Board had legal responsibility, but hadn’t been around during the year under review).

The Governor never wastes an opportunity to claim that the Bank is very transparent (it is anything but) and so of course you’d suppose that in his Annual Report, in a year when monetary policy outcomes were so poor (inflation) and expensive (LSAP) there would be an extensive and nuanced treatment of the issues, making the best case no doubt for the Bank but at least engaging on the record. Well, no one who had ever watched Orr would actually expect that, but it is what one might have hoped for if accountability in the New Zealand public sector meant anything at all. It isn’t as if the Bank (or the MPC) has yet published much else serious on these issues, and the Annual Report is actually mandated by Parliament as a principal accountability document.

There are several sections where one might look for substance. This is the “year in review” bit on monetary policy (throughout the document you have fight your way through the tree gods imagery)

Under neither “key outcomes” or “key achievements” do actual inflation outcomes even get a mention.

There was this introductory section, about the environment they faced

It devotes one sentence to the biggest deviation from target in the history of NZ inflation targeting, but even then simply notes the fact.

And then right upfront there is the Governor’s own two-page statement, where this is all there is on monetary policy and inflation. You’d barely know from this that inflation was an outcome for which central banks were responsible, and that New Zealand inflation was an outcome Orr and the MPC had been responsible for.

No analysis, no reflection, no accountability.

Things aren’t much better on the LSAP losses, and the large bet on the bond market that is still open now. The losses do get a mention deep in the Financial Overview (they are a legal financial claim on the government) but there is nothing of substance in the policy sections, and they have the gall to run a “Balance Sheet Optimisation” section near the front of the report, which doesn’t even mention the scale of the bet ($50bn or so) they are continuing to take on future New Zealand bond rates.

By contrast, there are two pages on matters Maori (bear in mind that the Bank’s instruments – monetary policy and banking regulation – are whole economy ones, not differentiating between Catholics, Greens, lefthanders, stamp collectors, or….or…or Maori). And endless references to climate change. Eric Crampton did the comparison

Accountability – in the face, this time, of huge deviations from desired outcomes (whether the inflation or the losses) – is non-existent. The Bank is presumably confident it can get away with all this because there is no sign that the government cares either. Neither party is doing its job.

We’ve heard previously Orr boldly claim that he regrets nothing about the last couple of years. There is an arrogance to it that is almost breathtaking. Here, on which note I’ll stop, is the Reserve Bank Board minutetaker’s record of Orr articulating the same story to the Board itself in May

(Even that latter claim has now been overtaken by events as they now recognise that core inflation is even higher than they thought then).

No regrets…..not for the arbitrary redistributions of wealth (which is what unexpected inflation does), not for the grossly overheated labour market which itself has collapsed businesses and livelihoods, and not for the coming (and most likely) recession required to squeeze core inflation back out of the system.

Nothing.

Where will the OCR be in 10 years?

I don’t want to comment extensively on yesterday’s Reserve Bank announcement. It may prove to be the right call (or not), but in the data hiatus – 2.5 months since the last CPI, two months since the latest HLFS – they are to some extent flying blind (New Zealand really needs more frequent and timely key official macro data), and it would have been better to have rescheduled the announcements (adding one) as suggested in my post the other day. And the very brief, almost passing, mention of having considered a 75 basis point increase – which would have made a lot of sense this time last year – highlights again just how non-transparent and non-accountable New Zealand’s MPC is, We don’t know whether, in the end, any of the members actually favoured a 75 basis point increase, or did the Committee just toy with the idea briefly so that they could put a hawkish reference in the minutes? In places like the UK, Sweden, and the US we would have much greater clarity, and potential accountability – and potential accountability focuses the minds of decisionmakers who can, under the New Zealand system, collect their fee, turn up for lunch, and never have to do or say anything.

But looking for some other data I remembered an email from the Reserve Bank statistics group a few weeks ago indicating that they were finally going to publish some of the new data from the Survey of Expectations that they have been collecting for the last couple of years.

The survey has long asked about expected near-term policy rates (previously the 90-day bill rate as proxy, more recently the OCR) but in 2020 they added two new questions, asking respondents where they thought the OCR would be in 10 years’ time (describing that as a proxy for a neutral rate), and what they thought the average OCR would be over the next 10 years. I thought they – and especially the first question – were good additions to the survey (if we could get individual MPC members to give us their numbers, akin to the Fed’s dot-plot it would be even better).

Anyway, here are the results (despite the extraneous labels Excel added in these are quarterly data, beginning with the Sept 2020 quarter)

The blue line (expectations for the neutral nominal rate) really took me by surprise. The first observation would have been captured around the end of July 2020 (I filled mine in on 20 July), and the second three months later, about the time long-term bond yields reached their all-time lows (and talk was of a possible negative OCR in 2021). And yet responses in the last couple of surveys aren’t much different – 2.42 per cent in the September 2022 quarter and 2.43 per cent in the September 2022 quarter. If you’d asked me to guess before the question was instituted, I’d have expected a much more cyclical series of responses (consistent with the variability we see in implied forward bond yields). And since the question is about nominal rates I wouldn’t have been very surprised now to have seen expected future nominal rates rising even if the real rates respondents had in mind weren’t changing much (core inflation undershot the target midpoint for the last decade, but perhaps it won’t in future).

The orange line is much less surprising. Back in 2020 there was a general expectation that the OCR would be very low for several years. As it became apparent that wouldn’t be the case, naturally the average expected over the subsequent 10 years tend to rise (and the intense pandemic period passes out of the 10-year window too).

Both questions are about nominal rates. But the same respondents are also asked about their inflation expectations for periods one, two, five and ten years ahead. In this chart, I’ve taken the nominal responses (previous chart) and adjusted them for respondents’ inflation expectations: the 10 year ahead expectation for the blue line, and the average of the two, five, and 10 year ahead expectations for the orange line.

For what it is worth, this group of respondents still think the longer-term neutral real OCR is just barely positive, and their view has hardly changed since near the worst of the Covid shock (first observation), despite the recent huge upsurge in (core) inflation. Average expected real OCRs have increased this year as the OCR has been raised much more rapidly than was expected a year ago.

I don’t have a strong view on whether respondents are right or not (and, on checking, my own responses to the survey questions haven’t been consistently different from the average).

But…..these survey respondents seem to have very different views from the future rates implied by market prices.

In this chart I’ve taken the yields on the Sept 2030 and Sept 2035 government indexed bonds and backed out the implied real rate for the five year period between Sept 30 and Sept 35 – a period which encompasses the 10 years ahead OCR question for the period the Bank has been running the survey.

At the time of the most recent survey, respondents thought the real OCR 10 years hence would be about 0.3 per cent. At around the same time, the market prices suggested an implied future five year real bond rate of around 2.75 per cent. Sure there would usually be a term premium between OCR and a five year rate, but it wouldn’t typically be anywhere near that large. And our indexed bond markets aren’t the most liquid in the world, but the implied future rates in the chart don’t seem particularly out of line with (for example) implied future nominal government bond rates (using the May 2031, May 32, and Apr 33 bonds all currently yielding a little above 4 per cent), suggesting implied future nominal rates much higher than the 2.4 per cent (or thereabouts) survey respondents expect for the OCR 10 years hence.

I don’t have any answers to offer as to who is going to be proved right – most probably neither (there will be cycles next decade too, as well as whatever structural shocks might unfold) – but it is interesting to see such large gaps between survey responses and market prices. And kudos to the Reserve Bank for collecting (and belatedly publishing) the survey data.

Towards this week’s OCR review

The Reserve Bank’s MPC will deliver their next OCR decision on Wednesday. The consensus seems to be (quite strongly, and I have no particular reason to differ) that the Bank will raise the OCR by another 50 basis points. At 3.5 per cent, the OCR would then be at the peak level it was (inappropriately) raised to in 2014, at a time when core inflation was well below the target midpoint and the unemployment rate was lingering high.

I’m less interested in what the MPC will do than in what they should do, and on that count I’m less convinced that the consensus call would be the appropriate one. In times like the last 2-3 years, no one should feel overly confident about any particular assessment of what monetary policy stance will prove to be needed: there is inevitably an aspect of feeling your way, knowing that when all the relevant data are available there is a fair chance you will be wrong one way or the other.

It isn’t the easiest situation in which to be making an OCR decision. We aren’t at the very start of a tightening cycle, rather the OCR has already been raised by 275 basis points since last October, and if that cumulative increase isn’t overly large by historical standards, the cuts in 2020 were also much smaller in total than in most prior easing phases (that would be so even if one included the 2019 cuts in a calculation). And most of the OCR increases have been really quite recent – it was only in mid April that the OCR was raised above the 1 per cent it had been when Covid hit, and we all know that monetary policy works with lags, often quite considerable ones.

But here, in some respects, the MPC has made a rod for its own back. At present, the most recent inflation data we have are for the June quarter. The midpoint of the June quarter (where the CPI is centred) was mid-May, a point at which (although more was expected over time) the OCR had only just been raised beyond 1 per cent. We’ll have the next release of the CPI on 18 October, and it would seem a great deal more sensible to have held off making the next OCR decision until then.

The annual cycle of OCR/MPS review dates was set a long time ago, and there used to be a view that the latest CPI didn’t often matter much so there wasn’t a particular problem with setting review dates just before the CPI release. But that was back in the days when the inflation rate was pretty stable (and low), not when it was well outside the target range, having been rising strongly (at least in annual terms for some time). It was even worse in July when the OCR review took place less than a week before the CPI was released.

Policymaking is suffering too from decades of underinvestment in macroeconomic data. Even when we get the September quarter CPI, that will have been centred in mid-August, and by then (eg) the United States will have had their September monthly data. I gather the Reserve Bank has now come round to wishing there was a monthly CPI – belatedly, since this was the same institution that frowned upon the idea 20 years ago when the then independent review of monetary policy, undertaken for the then government, by a leading overseas economist, highlighted the omission and recommended remedying it. Same goes for most of the labour market data: the June quarter data (latest we have) is centred (again) on mid May (although the new monthly employment indicator does represent some improvement in the New Zealand data in this area). We really need to be spending a bit more to get good quality monthly CPI and HLFS data, as almost all other OECD countries have. As it is, combining poor data with a weak MPC is not a recipe for good, robust, and trustworthy monetary policymaking.

And not too far down the track we will face again the MPC’s extended summer holiday, with no review of the OCR at all in the three months from 23 November to 22 February. That long holiday last summer almost certainly contributed to the OCR being increased more slowly than it should have been.

If it were me, I would have been postponing next week’s OCR review until a few days after the OCR review, delaying the next MPS until early December, and scheduling an additional OCR review at the end of January (after the December CPI data are available).

As it is, on the data we actually have to hand, I’m sceptical of the case for a 50 basis point OCR increase right now.

Some of the straws in the winds?

First, there was the relatively weak nominal GDP growth for the year to June (most recent we will have for quite a while yet) – the June quarter was 5.9 per cent higher than the June 2021 quarter, among the very lowest growth rates facing advanced country central banks. Nominal GDP is considerably easier to measure than real GDP, and is a relevant consideration in thinking about appropriate monetary policy.

Second, asset prices have been falling quite considerably. I’m not a great believer in wealth effects from house prices, but materially lower house prices will blunt the incentives for developers to continue to put in place new houses, and residential investment is one of the most cyclical components of the economy. There is a stronger argument for wealth effects from share prices, and share prices have also fallen back (eg the NZSE50 is below immediately pre-Covid levels), also dampening incentives for firms to undertake new business investment.

Third, if international New Zealand export commodity prices aren’t exactly weak, they are nothing like as strong as those in Australia (ANZ and RBA series respectively in the chart).

And then there are the core inflation measures. Much of the media and political attention has been (perhaps understandably) on the annual rate of inflation (complete with petrol tax cut distortions). That annual rate may well have fallen back a bit in September (petrol prices and all that), but it shouldn’t really be the focus. Ideally, we want to look at quarterly core meaaures – indicators of what is happening behind the headline “noise”. (And here the Reserve Bank’s factor model measures aren’t very useful, since they work on annual change data and thus often in effect function as lagging indicators in the face of big changes, even if they probably often provide the best medium-term and historical view.)

Here are the trimmed mean and weighted median measures (note that you cannot just multiply these by four to get an annualised rate)

and here are a couple of SNZ exclusion measures (CPI ex food and energy is most often used for international comparisons, simply because of data availability)

and here is one I’ve quoted a few times over the years, focused more (at least in principle) on the more domestically-generated bit of underlying inflation

Remember that all of these series are capturing prices as they were in mid-April, just short of six months ago.

There are a few potentially useful official monthly series. I’ve long kept an eye on these two from the Food Price Index

and there is the monthly rental data

Every single one of these series show a (not unexpected) trough in quarterly inflation in the June quarter of 2020 (the first, out-of-the-blue, “lockdown”). But more than a few also suggest that the sharpest increases in the inflation rate were occurring a year ago (perhaps 12-18 months on from the biggest fiscal and monetary stimulus), and that since then the quarterly inflation rates have been (high but) fairly stable or, on some measures have already fallen back a bit. And most of the most recent observations date from a time when the OCR was only just getting past 1 per cent.

If any hawkish readers are wanting to jump down my throat, can I take the chance now to stress that none of these inflation rates – from months ago – should be considered remotely acceptable. They are miles above the 2 per cent annual inflation the Reserve Bank is supposed to focus on delivering. We want inflation much lower than is evident in the most recent data.

But, again, monetary policy works with lags. And those lags may be particularly important to keep in mind when, as this year (and of necessity given how slow all central banks were to start) policy rates have been raised so sharply and quickly. Perhaps also relevant was the point in this nice post from a few days ago by Maurice Obstfeld, formerly chief economist of the IMF, highlighting that many advanced countries have (belatedly) been doing much the same thing, and those effects are likely to be mutually reinforcing. Recessions now seem unavoidable in a wide range of countries, and it isn’t clear that most central banks are taking other countries’ pending recessions into account in their own domestic policysetting.

As I said at the start of this post, only a fool would be overly confident about what monetary policy will prove to have been required over the coming year. And successful policy at this point will probably prove to have involved tightening at least a little more than, with hindsight, was strictly necessary. But on the data as they stand in New Zealand – long collection/publication lags and all – and if forced to make a decision this Wednesday (and the MPC is not forced to, the date is their choosing), I reckon there is a better case for a 25 basis point increase than for a 50 point increase. The key thing, of course, is to convey a sense that the MPC will do what it takes to deliver something near 2 per cent inflation before too long. But at this point it isn’t obvious that aggressive further OCR increases are really needed in New Zealand (Australia, the UK, or perhaps even the US may be in different positions, between even more belated starts to tightening cycles and positive shocks to demand from (eg) commodity prices or fiscal policy).