The Money Illusion

Or to give the book its full title, The Money Illusion: Market Monetarism, the Great Recession and the Future of Monetary Policy.

I was engrossed in the 2008/09 recession – and the associated financial crises – at the time it happened, as an official at the New Zealand Treasury, and it must have been very early in the piece that I started reading Professor Scott Sumner’s then new blog, also The Money Illusion. I’m not a regular reader now, but found much of what Sumner had to say about the conduct of monetary policy – mostly in the US – stimulating and thought-provoking, even (perhaps especially) when I didn’t end up agreeing. So I was keen buyer when his 400 page book appeared.

It is an interesting mixture of a book – partly textbook, partly personal intellectual autobiography, and partly a tract championing a different approach to policy (and history). It would be well worth reading for anyone interested in monetary policy, with a particular focus on the recession of 2008/09 and it aftermath, and possible reforms for the future. Were I an academic teaching a monetary economics class I’d encourage all my students to read it (and have commended it to my economics-student son), not as replacement for a textbook but as a practically-oriented complement to it.

I usually read books of this sort with a pen in hand. But flicking through the book again I see that the pen was hardly deployed at all in the first 60 per cent of the book, which is a really clear and useful introduction to how the monetary system works, through a slightly different lens than most will be used to. If I didn’t agree with it all – and there were a few straw men tackled – people coming to grips with the system and concepts and history will almost inevitably see things more clearly for having read it. It is an achievement in its own right.

The second part of the book is focused much more on the policies adopted, mostly by the Fed, in 2008/09, and on the way ahead (bearing in mind that the big was largely finished before Covid, although I doubt the thrust of Sumner’s arguments would have been much changed by the experience of the last 18 months). And it is there I start to differ (and thus have lots of marginal notes).

It isn’t, I think, that we differ that much on how the economy works (or even how monetary policy works). Like Sumner I’m a champion of the potency of monetary policy. It can’t make countries rich, or solve things like New Zealand’s decades-long productivity failure, but it can – and should – do all it can to keep the economy as fully-employed as (labour market regulation etc makes) possible consistent with keeping inflation in check. It really matters, given the pervasiveness of sticky wages and prices in the economy. Sumner’s previous book, on the US experience of the Great Depression, was a really nice illustration of both the potency of monetary policy, and the way that misguided regulatory interventions (in that case much of the New Deal) can mess up economic performance.

And I’d also endorse two of his specific criticisms of choices the Fed made in 2008.

The first was the failure to cut official interest rates at the FOMC meeting a couple of days after the Lehmans failure. I think everyone – including Bernanke – now recognises that it was a mistake, but it really was an almost incomprehensible one. The justification was that the FOMC saw the risks of higher inflation as balancing the risks of lower growth. Now, as I noted in my post yesterday, headline inflation in September 208 was high – oil price effects mostly – but it is still hard to see how smart people could have reached the conclusion that a cut in the Fed funds rates was more risky than sitting tight. There was, for example, nothing disconcerting about the medium-term inflation outlook revealed in the breakevens in the government bond market (and by this time the Fed had already cut the Fed funds rate by quite a lot over the previous year. This is, of course, consistent with one of Sumner’s themes: central banks really should be taking more of a lead from market-price indications (which embody more wisdom and perspectives than a few dozen economists in any central bank can, and – he hopes – with less risk of (eg) groupthink).

It was a bad call. But in isolation it can’t have mattered much. After all, the FOMC went on to cut over the next couple of months, reaching their (self-identified) floor in December 2008.

The second questionable call was the move to pay interest on excess reserves held at the Fed (“settlement cash” in New Zealand parlance). I’ve written about this move in an earlier post, reviewing a book by George Selgin. This step was taken to stop short-term interest rates falling further… the depths of the most serious recession in decades… underpinning the demand for (willingness to hold) settlement cash. Selgin argued that this move deepened and extended the US recession – an interpretation I challenged in the earlier post – but it certainly dramatically changed any relationship that had previously existed between money base measures and wider nominal variables (nominal GDP, inflation, or whatever) – one of Sumner’s points – and did nothing to assist in getting inflation and activity back on course. (Our Reserve Bank made a similar decision last March, moving to pay the OCR on all settlement cash balances and thus underpinning short-term rates, at a time when the Bank also thought it needed to do massive bond-purchasing programmes.)

And while Sumner constantly (and rightly) cautions about simplistic reasoning from price changes, one of his other points about this period – and how the Fed was too slow and unaggressive in its approach – is how surprising it was to see real interest rates trending up over much of 2008. Discount the extreme surge if you like – though Sumner will argue that changes in market prices like that (tied in with risk aversion, market illiquidity) probably in any case support monetary easing – but that real yields were higher in January 2009 than in January 2008 does not sit that comfortably with a story of an aggressively-easing Fed.


(At the time New Zealand had only a single indexed bond, then with about 7 years remaining to maturity. Yields on that bond did not start falling until November 2008, even though the economy had been in recession all year.)

But there is a tension in Sumner’s book. At least early on there is a sense that he thinks the Fed could have avoided the recession together if only they’d done a better job, but the specific failings he explicitly highlights cannot credibly have been large enough in effect to have avoided the recession (and further on in the book he notes that they might only have dampened the severity of the recession, which is a much weaker – and harder to test – claim).

In many ways his starting point is that the responsibility of a central bank is (or should be) to manage nominal spending in ways that avoid big and disruptive fluctuations (which often involve recessions, and sometimes exacerbate periods of banking stress). I have no particular problem with that. I still prefer something like inflation targeting (at least in countries like New Zealand and Australia) as the operational form that responsibility takes, while Sumner now prefers nominal GDP targeting (preferably in levels form, but in growth rates still better than nothing.

His bolder claim seems to be that if there is a recession – and he makes explicit exceptions for one where, as in March 2020, governments temporarily close down economies/societies – it is the fault of the central bank. And that is a step far too far for me. He might be right that in an ideal world no one would ever unconditionally forecast a recession, since they would also forecast that the central bank would take the steps required to forestall it. And so he might be right to say that neither the housing bust nor the associated financial crisis caused the US recession – central bank failure to react in time did – but that seems to me to simply assume away the problem, in a way that there are no easy or quick substantive or technical fixes for.

Here is a chart of US nominal GDP growth (note, as we see it now, not as people first saw it at the time).

us ngdp

Sumner thinks the Fed should aim to keep nominal GDP on a path consistent with about 5 per cent annual growth. Clearly that did not happen in 2008/09. Nominal GDP fell by more than 3 per cent in the worst 12-months and (consistent with then policy) there was never a later overshoot to get back on that 5 per cent annual growth levels track.

Here is a similar chart for New Zealand (from the low inflation era)

nz nom GDP

Our nominal GDP path is a lot noisier than that of the US – commodity price fluctuations are a key reason why NGDP targets are not a good idea for New Zealand (or Australia) – but you can see how much nominal GDP growth fell away in the two recessions (1997/98 and 2008/09) – and actually in the double-dip recession in 2010 too. Broadly speaking that doesn’t count as a successful outcome – but then nor does the real GDP recession, the rise in the unemployment rate, and (the extent of) the sharp fall in the core inflation rate.

But here’s the thing though. Had Alan Bollard – then the sole decisionmaker – been presented with credible forecasts at the start of 2008 that nominal GDP growth was going to go negative over the coming year, I have little doubt that he would have been prepared to cut the OCR sharply (he wasn’t exactly an anti-inflation hardliner). But he wasn’t. Not just from the internal forecasters, but from the wider forecasting community or the financial markets. Inflation breakevens weren’t plummeting, long-term real interest rates weren’t falling, the exchange rate wasn’t falling much (as late as May 2008 it was still higher than it had been at the end of 2006). The share market was falling back but (a) the New Zealand share-market wasn’t very representative of the wider economy, and (b) few if any one in New Zealand has ever put much weight on local share prices as an indicator. The Bank did not cut early or hard enough (and I was one of Bollard’s advisers until August 2008 and although I was one of those more focused on global risks I wasn’t recommending deep early cuts)….but we did not have the information on which to do so. I would argue that no one did. In a sense, it was the point of that period…..for a very long time no one understood quite how bad some of the lending had been, or who was exposed, or what the macro consequences (absent monetary offset) would be.

From all I read or saw of the US at the time, and since, I don’t think anyone in the US did either. It wasn’t as if the Fed was totally blind: they had been taken by surprise in 2007, but actually starting cutting in September (you can see in the chart above, nominal GDP growth was beginning to slow).

Could the Fed or the RB have done better? Almost certainly (some identifiable Fed mistakes above), but it is inconceivable that they could have prevented the recession – not because the techniques weren’t there, but because the information and understanding wasn’t.

One of my criticisms of Sumner’s book is that he largely avoids this issue, and more or less assumes much more was achievable over 2008/09 (the issues re the recovery are different but note that in NZ and in the US markets were often keener on tightenings than either central bank – and Sumner urges paying more attnetion to market prices). An example of what I have in mind is his treatment of Australia.

We are told that

Among all the developed countries, Australia was the one with that sort of devil-may-care attitude, and it breezed through the Great Recession with only minor problems. And yet from a conventional point of view the Aussies did the least aggressive monetary stimulus. Unlike most other developed countries, they did not cut interest rates to zero.

He goes on to present a table showing that average nominal GDP growth in Australia for 2006 to 2013 was much the same as in the previous decade (unlike the US and the euro-area).

And yet….the RBA was still raising interest rates into 2008 (I recall a conversation at a conference in early 2008 at which a very senior RBA figure expressed astonishment at what the Fed thought it was doing keeping on cutting), the RBA ended up cutting by 425 basis points, there was a huge fiscal stimulus, and yet here is the Australian nominal GDP growth chart.

aus nom GDP

And yet look how much nominal GDP growth fell away in that downturn (a bit more than in the US). And it wasn’t as if there were no real consequences, with the unemployment rate rising 2 percentage points.

I’m not saying it was a bad performance… might even have been about as good as the authorities could have managed. But that is sort of the point. Limitations of knowledge, understanding etc…..not just in central banks, but much more broadly.

I could go on, exploring some of this points and Sumner’s specific policy prescriptions in more depth. But this post has probably gone on long enough already. He favours targeting a futures contract on nominal GDP, which may be a reasonable idea (at least in the US context), but it isn’t going to change the basic problem around knowledge. In countries like New Zealand (as Sumner notes) something like an aggregate wages series would probably make more macroeconomic sense (but would have its own political problems). I’m all for using monetary policy aggressively, but there are limits to what short-term stabilisation can be hoped for, no matter the indicator, the specific target, the instruments, or the individuals.

(Rather than labour points about nominal GDP targeting, I’ll link to some remarks I made on the topic at a conference a few years back.)

Good books make you think, and think harder. The disagreements are often where the most value lies in forcing one to think harder about one’s own view. This one is worth reading and reflecting on. And I’m going to finish where the book does with a quote I endorse (even if a bit more relevant in the US than here):

In other words, the goal is a world in which policy makers don’t view fiscal stimulus or the bailout of bankrupt firms as a way of “saving jobs”, but rather as a sort of crony capitalism that favors one sector over another.

But there will still be recessions, real and nominal.

Inflation and monetary policy

No posts here for a while as I’ve been bogged down in trying to make sense of some events – little more than one week in history – from 30 years ago, where the uncertainty as to what actually happened (a precondition for making sense of what the events mean) is greatly magnified by really poor documentation and recordkeeping by….the Reserve Bank.

I was planning to return with something a bit more longer-term (perhaps tomorrow) but wasn’t yesterday’s inflation number interesting? It seems to have taken almost everyone – notably the people who do detailed components forecasts, including the Reserve Bank – by surprise to some extent.

Almost all the media focus has been on the headline number – 2.2 per cent increase for the quarter, 4.9 per cent for the year – because (I guess) it makes good headlines. (Excluding the two quarters when the GST rate was increased) it was the largest quarterly increase since June 1987 – an unexpected rise of 3.3 per cent, at a time when the Bank thought inflation was falling away, and when the Bank’s chief economist, Grant Spencer, was interviewed about the number that night he declared himself “flabbergasted”. That one number helped prompt an overhaul of, and marked improvement in, the Bank’s short-term inflation forecasting (not previously much of a priority).

But in annual terms, it is only 13 years since we had an inflation rate about this high. It was 5.1 per cent in the year to September 2008, a rate that may be beaten when the next CPI number is released in January, since last December’s (relatively modest) 0.5 per cent quarterly increase will drop out of the annual rate. Note that in the September 2008 quarter, the Reserve Bank had already (and appropriately) started cutting the OCR.

But my main interest is in core inflation. There are all sorts of different measures, from simple ones (useful for cross-country analysis at least) like the CPI ex food and energy, through varying degrees of complexity (and occasionally even special pleading by the people constructing them). For New Zealand though, my favourite measure – and the one the Bank openly favoured for some years (it is less clear how the current Governor and MPC see things) – is the sectoral factor model measure of core inflation. It was developed a decade or so ago by one of the Bank’s researchers, and initially got little attention even inside the Bank (mostly because the Governor and his advisers on the then Official Cash Rate Advisory Group were not really advised of it). I’ve been something of a lay evangelist for this measure ever since I realised it existed, and had some small role in getting this explanation of the measure published. The gist of what is going on is this

The sectoral factor model estimates a measure of core inflation based on co-movements – the extent to which individual price series move together. It takes a sectoral approach , estimating core inflation based on two sets of prices: prices of
tradable items, which are those either imported or exposed to international competition, and prices of non-tradable items, which are those produced domestically and not facing competition from imports.

Using very disaggregated data, it is an attempt to get at the systematic elements in the annual inflation numbers, recognising that tradables and non-tradables can be influenced by different systematic influences (notably the exchange rate in the case of tradables).

But the best argument for the series has been its usefulness – in some sense it “works”, telling useful stories, not subject to much revision, about what is going on in ways that square with what is going on with other things (notably capacity pressures, but also expectations) that are thought likely to be important influences on the trends in inflation, abstracting from the noise.

And the “noise” can be considerable. Here is annual headline inflation and the annual sectoral factor measure for the period since 1993 (as far back as the sectoral factor measure has been taken).

core oct 21

Big deviations have not been uncommon (although less so in the last decade), and spikes in headline inflation have never (yet) foreshadowed a commensurate increase in core inflation (as,say, stickier prices caught up with more flexible prices). If you did want a prediction of where core would be 12-24 months from now, historically today’s core inflation has been a much less bad (far from perfect of course) predictor than today’s headline inflation.

And so from here on I’m focusing solely on the core inflation measure. There are a few observations worth drawing from simply this chart.

First, the range in which core inflation has moved over 28 years has been 1.1 per cent to 3.5 per cent. And although the inflation target was centred on 1 per cent until the end of 1996 and 1.5 per cent until September 2002, the low in the series wasn’t then, but in late 2014 (a time when, curiously, the then-Governor was raising the OCR).

Second, over the 28 years not much time has been spent very close to the midpoint of the respective target range. In fact, the median gap between the core inflation estimate and the target midpoint has had an absolute value of 0.7 per cent over the history of the series. As it happens, yesterday’s core inflation estimate was 2.7 per cent, 0.7 percentage points above the target midpoint.

Third, for the first 15 years of the series core inflation was almost always at or above the target midpoint, and for the decade until last year it had been consistently below.

Now it is worth pausing here to note that prior to about 2012 the Reserve Bank (a) did not have the sectoral factor measure readily available to policy advisers, and (b) was not explicitly required to focus on the target midpoint. However, neither point really diminishes the usefulness of such comparisons because (a) sectoral core inflation was simply trying to put in a single measure something the Bank had constantly thought and written about since inflation targeting began, and (b) if Alan Bollard was personally disinclined to give much weight to the target midpoint, Don Brash certainly was (and revealed evidence – see those sectoral factor numbers from 2014 – suggests that Graeme Wheeler was more focused on where he thought in principle the OCR should be heading than on the target midpoint.

There are a couple more relevant observations. First, core inflation now (2.7 per cent) is about the same as it was (2.6 per cent) in the last year or so of Don Brash’s term (2001/02), and back then the target midpoint was 1.5 per cent, not the 2 per cent the Bank is now charged with. And, second, core inflation is still well below the 3.4/3.5 per cent seen in late 2006 and throughout 2007.

But perhaps the change in the inflation rate has been unusually sharp.

I put this chart on Twitter yesterday before the Bank published the sectoral core numbers.

core change

On the series now published, the sectoral core inflation rate rose by 0.3 percentage points in the latest quarter (so large but not exceptional). However, this sort of model is prone to end-point revision issues – new data leads the model to, in effect, res-estimate which recent prices moves were systematic and which were not. The previous estimate for sectoral core inflation for the year to March 2021 was 2.2 per cent. But that has now been revised up to 2.4 per cent. I don’t have (but the Bank should really publish) a database of historical real-time estimates, but a change from a previous estimate of 2.2 per cent in the year to March to one of 2.7 per cent for the year to June is likely to have been large by any standards.

What about changes from year to year? Again, I don’t have a real-time database, but here is how the annual rate of core inflation has changed from that a year earlier.

change in core

What we’ve seen so far – on current estimates which are subject to revision – is not exceptional. The rise in the rate of core inflation over the last year has been less than we saw around the turn of the century, and the magnitude of change is less than than the fall seen over 2009. But it isn’t a small change either.

When (last quarter, per the Bank’s published estimates) annual core inflation was estimated at 2.2 per cent, I was prepared to say (and did) that that rate of core inflation was unambiguously a good thing, given the target the government had set. After a decade of core inflation below the target midpoint, it was good to finally see an outcome on the other side, which would help to underpin medium-term expectations near the goal set for the Bank. That was doubly so because 2.2 per cent inflation went hand in hand with an unemployment rate right back down to pre-Covid levels (4 per cent) and probably pretty close to the NAIRU (itself a rate the Bank can’t meaningfully do anything about). I’d not have been uncomfortable with a core inflation rate going a bit higher still – not as a desired outcome, but not something to be too bothered about for a short period (as the MPC raised the OCR, which works with a lag). 2.7 per cent is somewhat less comfortable.

But quite a lot might have depended on where the unemployment rate (or other measures of excess capacity) was going. There have been two previous troughs in the unemployment rate. The first was in the mid 1990s, when the NAIRU appeared to be around 6.2-6.5 per cent. Core inflation reached its cyclical peak then at much the same time unemployment dropped into that range, and showed no signs of going higher. The second was just prior to the 2008/09 recession, when the unemployment rate was in the 3.4-3.9 per cent range. Core inflation had risen as the unemployment rate fell, but core inflation was not going higher in 2007, nor was it forecast to into 2008. In both cases, the Reserve Bank had been raising interest rates (or allowing them to rise) and things stayed more or less contained (before core inflation fell away in the two following recessions).

One of the great unknowns now is how things might have unfolded here without the Delta outbreak and the ongoing restrictions and lockdowns. We will get the HLFS numbers for the September quarter early next month, and the unemployment rate there is unlikely to have been much affected yet by the lockdowns etc. Most likely, the unemployment rate will be lower than 4 per cent, but how much?

But the outbreaks and restrictions did happen, and so even if the unemployment rate for the September quarter was in fact 3.6 or 3.7 per cent, it probably isn’t safe to assume anything of the sort as a December quarter starting point. Yes, most likely economic activity will eventually rebound when controls are finally lifted but (a) there isn’t the fresh policy impetus there was last year, and (b) for those who believe in house prices stories, the worst of this particular house price boom has most likely passed. It isn’t implausible that the unemployment rate for December and March could be back at or above 4 per cent.

What does it all mean for policy? No doubt the MPC is feeling vindicated in having raised the OCR at the last review, even amid the-then extreme Covid uncertainty, and even though the MPC is likely to have been very much taken by surprise by yesterday’s core inflation number. Absent Covid there was a strong case for a robust tightening of monetary conditions – reversing the LSAP bond purchases, ending the funding for lending programme, and getting on with OCR increases – and that case would have been considerably strengthened by yesterday’s outcome.

Perhaps fortunately, the MPC does not need to make another OCR decision until late next month, and that review will come with a full MPS which will allow them space to provide some careful and considered analysis of their own. We might hope that by late next month, something close to normality has returned or is on the brink of returning. There are no guarantees, but if that is the situation, the MPC should be starting to sell off the bonds, and ending the FfL programme (most likely they will do neither), and should probably still be considering seriously a 50 basis points OCR increase (albeit with one eye on the emerging China slowdown). We were told they had considered the option in August. There isn’t a need for panic or headless-chookery about the Bank having lost the monetary policy plot. But a fairly robust response does seem likely to be warranted next month, especially as the MPC has (most unwisely) scheduled decision dates in a way that gives them a long summer holiday with no OCR review at all in December and January.

Finally, I have been highlighting for a long time how the market-based indications of inflation expectations (from the indexed bond market) had consistently undershot the target midpoint for some years. Yesterday’s data seems to have prompted a move to (or above, depending on maturity) 2 per cent for the first time in a long time. That isn’t concerning – rather the contrary – but it will be worth keeping an eye on how those spreads – the breakevens – develop over the period ahead.

Monetary policy, expectations etc

I’ve been reading a few books lately on aspects of monetary policy, and might come back to write about some or all of them. But there has been quite a bit of discussion recently – on economics Twitter, and blogs – about a new working paper from a senior Federal Reserve researcher, Jeremy Rudd.

Judd’s paper runs under the title “Why Do We Think That Inflation Expectations Matter for Inflation? (And Should We?)”, which seems like a worthwhile question, especially at the moment when – and especially in the US – debates rages as to how just how transitory (or otherwise) the recent surge in inflation rates will prove. It is common to hear central bankers opining about how much may turn on whether these higher headline rates get into (alter, affect) the expectations about future inflation of firms and households.

If you come at these things from a New Zealand perspective, the most remarkable thing about the paper is probably that it was published at all. How well I recall getting rapped over the knuckles, with severe expressions of disapproval from Alan Bollard, when I used a quiet New Year’s Eve in the office a decade ago to write a short discussion note, circulated in that form only among a dozen or so senior colleagues, in which I had the temerity to suggest that we might consider advancing the case for a legislated Monetary Policy Committee. Not exactly radical stuff, given that it was the way most countries did things (and NZ now does things). When somewhat later word of the paper got out – a Treasury official who had a copy mentioned it in a reference in a paper that was OIAed – the Bank insisted on fighting all the way to the Ombudsman (where the Bank won) to prevent release. Sceptical perspectives on LVR restrictions, before they were put in place, were equally unwelcome, even internally. And when I say “unwelcome”, I don’t mean anything of the sort of “interesting arguments, but I’m not persuaded because of x, y, and z”, but much more of a “back in your box” sort of thing.

And both of those examples are just about internal circulation. I’m pretty sure that no Reserve Bank analyst, economist, researcher or the like has ever published anything that made the hierarchy even slightly uncomfortable in the entire 31.5 year history of the modern (operationally autonomous) Bank. Consistent with that, of course, even though we now have a Monetary Policy Committee with non-executive members, it operates totally under the thumb of the Governor and nothing of a diversity of view is ever heard. The contrast to, say, the Bank of England, Sweden’s Riksbank, or the Federal Reserve is stark.

I don’t want to appear all starry-eyed and naive here. Every institution – every central bank – has its limits, and even the more-open places seem to be quite a bit more open than they were. But it is inconceivable that anything like Rudd’s paper could have been published by the Reserve Bank, even though in many respects it is much less radical than some commentary has tried to suggest, or than the tone Rudd affects on page 1, with his

Economics is replete with ideas that “everyone knows” to be true, but that are actually arrant nonsense.


One natural source of concern is if dubious but widely held ideas serve as the basis for consequential policy decisions.2

I have no idea of Mr Rudd’s politics, but like many readers I was intrigued by the footnote to that sentence

2  I leave aside the deeper concern that the primary role of mainstream economics in our society is to provide an apologetics for a criminally oppressive, unsustainable, and unjust social order.

To be honest, I used to edit Reserve Bank research and analytical papers etc for publications and – keen on openness and diversity as I am (see above) – I’d have insisted that sentence come out. Attention-grabbing but quite unrelated to the substance of the paper (or the functions of the Bank) would no doubt have been the gist of my comment.

But what of the substance of the paper? There isn’t really much there that is new. Quite a bit of it is about the limitations of how formal macroeconomic models capture, and ground, a role for inflation expectations. I don’t think any of that will have surprised most readers, or disconcerted anyone who has been associated with the actual conduct of monetary policy in recent decades. Perhaps you might be slightly disconcerted by his point that the models often seem to put more weight on short-term expectations (where surprises/shocks can generate real consequences) but that “one of the few shreds of empirical evidence that we do have suggests that it is long-run expectations that are more relevant for inflation dynamics”.

But even then I’m not sure that you should be disconcerted, in part because nowhere in the entire paper are interest rates mentioned, or financial instruments, and I (at least) have always thought of the role of inflation expectations as potentially most important in the context of a willingness to borrow (in particular) given the prevalence still of long-term nominal debt contracts (particularly so in countries such as the US where long-term fixed rate debt is a large chunk of the market). A 5 per cent mortgage rate is one thing if I’m working with an implicit, perhaps even unconscious, sense that normal inflation is 5 per cent, and quite another if I’m working with 0 per cent inflation as my norm.

There is a school of thought (class of economic rhetoriticians) who will assert, sometimes quite strongly, that in the long-run inflation expectations are the only determinant of inflation. I had a boss for some years who regularly ran that line. And, to be sure, you can set up a model in which it is true, but that model typically won’t be very enlightening at all, since “inflation expectations” (however conceived or measured, and measurement is a real challenge) don’t occur in a vacuum. If we had the data in the early 1980s, New Zealand inflation expectations might well have been about 12 per cent (say), but inflation expectations were that high because of some mix of (a) the government and the Reserve Bank not having done much to get inflation any lower, and (b) the government and the Reserve Bank not being thought likely to do much in future to get inflation much lower. Policy tended to validate the expectations, but it wasn’t the expectations that determined inflation, but the policy itself. When policy stopped validating those high expectations, they came down (albeit often quite slowly, sensibly enough (on the part of those forming the expectations).

Those misperceptions can matter. When we were trying to get inflation down (to something centred on 1 per cent) in the late 80s and early 90s, no one put much weight on the chances of success. Quite probably many of us didn’t either (I recall a conversation with the-then Westpac chief economist in which I suggested that I’d be reluctant to bet on inflation averaging below 3 per cent for the following 20-30 years). That made it harder (and costlier) to get actual inflation down, but – through some mix of good luck, bureaucratic resolution, and close-run-thing political commitment – we did. And indications of expectations about future inflation followed. A 14 per cent bank bill rate by the mid 1990s no longer meant what it had in 1988, when the inflation targeting scheme was first hatched.

On the other hand, it seems likely (but I’m more open on this) that during the period over the last decade when core inflation was persistently low – repeatedly surprising the Reserve Bank, among others – the fact that indicators of inflation expectations mostly tended to hold up nearer the target midpoint may have helped, a little, avoid more of a fall in inflation itself (although even this is arguable since had inflation expectations fallen away more sharply and obviously, the Reserve Bank might well have used policy more aggressively than it did, including getting unemployment down earlier/further).

One of the other limitations of Rudd’s paper is that there is barely any mention of any country’s experience other than that of the United States. Of course, he is American, writing in an American institution for a primary audience that is America, but… In truth, there just is not that much data in any individual country (because no matter how many series and how high-frequency the data, there are only so many genuine cyclical episodes to study). In almost no other country in the world is it conceivable that someone would write such a paper without looking beyond their own borders, and own central bank. Even for the US, it should be more important, since the Fed focused on an index which doesn’t have a great deal of general public visibility, whereas many other inflation targeters will at least start from the CPI.

For me – as someone with (mostly) a policy focus – the most significant part of Rudd’s paper was the last few pages on “Possible practical implications” and “Possible policy implications”. I had a tick beside this paragraph

Another practical implication is rhetorical. By telling policymakers that expected inflation is the ultimate determinant of inflation’s long-run trend, central-bank economists implicitly provide too much assurance that this claim is settled fact. Advice along these lines also naturally biases policymakers toward being overly concerned with expectations management, or toward concluding that survey- or market-based measures of expected inflation provide useful and reliable policy guideposts. And in some cases, the illusion of control is arguably more likely to cause problems than an actual lack of control.

But for all the glib rhetoric that sometimes comes from senior central bankers, I wonder how many – if any – practical central bankers operate as if they really believe that everything (about future inflation) rests on inflation expectations. I’ve had many criticisms of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand over the years, but not even Don Brash acted and operated policy as if that was his view, and certainly none of his successors have.

Perhaps more interesting was this

Related to this last point, an important policy implication would be that it is far more useful to
ensure that inflation remains off of people’s radar screens than it would be to attempt to “re-anchor” expected inflation at some level that policymakers viewed as being more consistent with
their stated inflation goal. In particular, a policy of engineering a rate of price inflation that is
high relative to recent experience in order to effect an increase in trend inflation would seem to
run the risk of being both dangerous and counterproductive inasmuch as it might increase the
probability that people would start to pay more attention to inflation and—if successful—would
lead to a period where trend inflation once again began to respond to changes in economic

It harks back a bit to the definition of price stability Alan Greenspan once used to give, that it is when inflation isn’t a consideration for people (firms and households) in the ordinary course of their lives, but also seems to be a bit of dig at the current FOMC policy of aiming to run core inflation above target for a time. I’m probably more sympathetic to that approach than Rudd – including for New Zealand after a decade of undershooting the target – but his comment is a perspective that should be taken seriously.

HIs final main point is this

A related issue is more pragmatic. In some ways, the situation that arises from a focus on
long-term inflation expectations is similar to one in which a policymaker seeks to target a single
indicator of full employment—for instance, the natural rate of unemployment. Like the natural
rate, the long-run expectations that are relevant for wage and price determination cannot be directly measured, but instead need to be inferred from empirical models. Hence, using inflation
expectations as a policy instrument or intermediate target has the result of adding a new unobservable to the mix. And, as Orphanides (2004) has persuasively argued, policies that rely too
heavily on unobservables can often end in tears.

People (including central bankers) fool themselves if they think that survey responses, or implied breakevens from inflation-indexed bond markets, “are” inflation expectations (for the economy as a whole) themselves. They are what they are, and always have to be taken with at least some pinches of salt. In New Zealand, for example, household surveys regularly produce numbers suggesting households expect to average between 3 and 5 per cent over periods 1 to 5 years ahead, but no one has ever taken those absolute numbers seriously (there is little or nothing else anywhere in the economy suggesting that whatever people tell surveytakers they act as if they think inflation will be this high). At best, they are indicators, straws in the wind, and sometimes what look like good relationships then no longer do.

As an example of the latter, the Reserve Bank economics department at times articulated a line that the two-year ahead measure of inflation expectations in the Bank’s survey of informed observers) almost was a measure of core inflation itself.

expecs and core inflation

It held up quite well over the best part of 15 years, until it didn’t. It left the Bank too complacent through the following decade (but the error could equally have run the other way).

I guess my bottom line is that one should rarely put too much weight on any specific indicator, and perhaps especially ones that are hard to observe (or to know what one observes actually means). If we see medium-term inflation expectations – among informed observers – at 5 per cent, we (and central bankers) should be disconcerted, but it is highly unlikely that such an inflation expectations number will have been the first sign of trouble.

Changing tack, what of current monetary policy in New Zealand? There is an OCR review tomorrow. Expectations measures here don’t appear troublesome at all – even the inflation breakevens are getting nearer the target midpoint than we’ve known for some years. But core inflation has been rising, unemployment had fallen quite low, and a lot of indicators pointed to emerging capacity pressures. All that was, of course, before the latest Covid outbreak.

I still think there is a very good case for things the Reserve Bank MPC will not do tomorrow: discontinue the Funding for Lending programme, and start a well-signalled programme of bond sales to reverse the LSAP programme. But what of the OCR itself? I won’t be particularly critical of the MPC if they do raise the OCR by 25 basis points tomorrow, but I think if I was in their shoes I wouldn’t. There is a full forecast round and full MPS at the next review and a lot of uncertainty about the Covid outbreak and is its implications (as well as some emerging downside global risks, notably from China). Yes, monetary policy works with a lag, but the starting point for (core) inflation is not so high that we need to be in a hurry to raise the OCR in such an uncertain and unsettled climate. We will know a great deal more – including about vaccinations, and hopefully about exit pathways – on 24 November than we do now. If all is going really well by then, or if core inflation in the CPI later this month is really troubling, there need be no problem with going 50 basis points then, if the data support such a call. But I wouldn’t be rushing right now.


I hadn’t paid much attention to the renewed wave of restrictive regulation of the housing finance market being imposed by the Governor of the Reserve Bank this year, but a journalist rang yesterday to talk about the latest proposal which prompted me to download and read the “consultative document” the Bank released last Friday.

Why the quote marks? Because quite evidently this is not about consultation at all, simply trying to do the bare minimum to jump through the legal hoops to allow the Governor to do whatever he wants. The document was released on Friday 3 September. The consultation period is a mere two weeks, which is bad enough. But then they tell people who might be inclined to submit that ‘we expect to release our final decision in late September’ – at most nine working days after submissions close – with the new rules to come into effect from 1 October. And if you were still in any doubt there is that line they love to use: “we expect banks to comply with the spirit of the new restrictions immediately”.

WIth that sort of urgency and disregard for any serious bow in the direction of consultation and reflection, you’d have to assume the Bank had a compelling case for urgent action, such that (for example) a delay of even as much as a month would pose an unendurable threat to the soundness and efficiency of the financial system (still the statutory purposes these regulatory powers are supposed to be exercised for). And since the Bank is quite open about the fact that the new restrictions will impede the efficiency of the system, you’d expect an overwhelming case for a soundness threat, complete with a careful analysis indicating that these new controls – directly affecting huge numbers of ordinary people – were the best, least inefficient, response.

But there is nothing of the sort. Instead they are actually at pains to stress that the financial system is sound at present, so the worry is about what might happen if things went on as they are. But that can’t possibly be an issue that rides on a one month, it must be something about several more years.

But even then their case amounts to very little. For example, they point that if house prices were to fall 20 per cent from current levels some $4 billion of lending would be to borrowers who would then have negative equity, But that is hardly news. The typical first-home buyer has always – at least in liberal financial systems – borrowed at least 80 per cent of the value of the home they are purchasing. It is usually sensible and rational for them to do so (indeed 90 per cent would often be sensible and prudent). So a fall of 20 per cent in house prices would always put a lot of recent borrowers into a negative equity position. Note, however, that (a) $4 billion is not much over 1 per cent of total housing lending, and (b) it is $4 billion of loans, not $4 billion of negative equity. If I borrowed 82 per cent of the value of the house, the house fell in value 20 per cent, and I lost my job and had to sell up, the loss to the bank might be not much more than 2 per cent of the loan.

More generally, in the entire document there appears to be not a single mention of the capital position of banks operating in New Zealand, or the Reserve Bank’s capital requirements. You might recall that New Zealand banks have some of the highest effective capital ratios anywhere in the advanced world, and that the Bank is putting in place a steady increase in those capital requirements. Moreover, if you read the Bank’s document – at least as a lay reader – you might miss entirely the point that the capital rules, and the internal models banks use, require more dollars of capital for higher risk loans than for lower risk loans. It is how the system is supposed to work. There are big buffers, those buffers are getting bigger (as per cent of risk-weighted assets), and the dollar amount of capital required rises automatically if banks are doing more higher-risk lending.

Of course, the Bank says a significant fall in house prices is more likely now. But we’ve heard that sort of line from every Reserve Bank Governor at one time or another over 30 years now. As it happens – and for what little it is worth – I happen to think house prices may be more likely to fall than to rise further over the next 12-18 months (even put a number consistent with that in the Roy Morgan survey when their pollster rang a few days ago), but I don’t back my hunch by using arbitrary regulatory restrictions that – on their own telling – will force many first home buyers back out of the market.

And it might all be more compelling if the Bank showed any sign of understanding the housing market. Thus, we are told (more or less correctly) that immigration is currently low (really negative) and lots of houses are being built. But, amazingly after all these years, there appears to be no substantive discussion of the land-use regulations and the land market more generally. Perhaps there will be something of a temporary “glut” in dwelling numbers – at current prices – but unless far-reaching changes are made to land-use rules that won’t change the basic regulatory underpinning for land prices. We know the government’s RMA reforms aren’t likely to help – may even worsen the situation – including because if these were credible reforms, the effect would be showing through in land prices now. And we know from the PM and Minister of Finance – and possibly the National Party too – that they don’t even want to do reforms that would materially lower house/land prices.

It all just has the feel of more action for action’s sake. Perhaps the government isn’t too keen on first-home buyers being squeezed out, but at least when they are criticised for not fixing the dysfunctional over-regulated housing/land market they can wave their hands and talk about all the things they and their agencies do, however ineffectual. As even the Bank notes, LVR restrictions don’t make much difference to prices for long. And if there is a compelling financial stability case, it isn’t made in this document – which, again, offers nothing remotely resembling a cost-benefit analysis for respondents to address. This despite bold – totally unsubstantiated – claims in the paper that their new controls would be beneficial for “medium-term economic performance”.

Then again, why would they bother with serious analysis when the whole thing is a faux-consultation anyway.

At which point in this post, I’m going to turn on a dime and come to the defence of both the Bank and the government. A couple of weeks ago the Listener magazine ran an impassioned piece by Arthur Grimes arguing that the amendment to the Reserve Bank Act in 2018 was a – perhaps even “the” – main factor in what had gone crazily wrong with house prices in the last few years. Conveniently, the article is now available on the Herald website where it sits under the heading “Government has caused housing crisis to become a catastrophe”.

Grimes was closely involved in the design of the 1989 Reserve Bank Act, and for a couple of years in the early 1990s was the Bank’s chief economist (and my boss). He left the Bank for some mix of private sector, research, and academic employment, but also spent some years on the Reserve Bank’s board – the largely toothless monitoring body that spent decades mostly providing cover for whoever was Governor. These days he is a professor of “wellbeing and public policy” at Victoria University.

However, whatever his credentials, his argument simply does not stack up, and given some of the valuable work he has done in the past, on land prices, it is remarkable that he is even making it.

There is quite a bit in the first half of the article that I totally agree with. High house prices are a public policy disaster and one which hurts most severely those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the young, the poor, the outsiders (including, disproportionately, Maori and Pacific populations). But then we get a story that house prices have been the outcome of the interaction between high net migration and housebuilding. As Arthur notes, immigration has hardly been a factor in the last 18 months (actually it has been negative, even if the SNZ 12/16 model has not yet caught up) and there has been quite a lot of housebuilding going on.

And yet in the entire article there is nothing – not a word – about the continuing pervasive land use restrictions (and only passing mention about the past). If new land on the fringes of our cities – often with very limited value in alternative uses – cannot easily be brought into development (if owners of such land are not competing with each other to be able to do so) there is no reason to suppose that even a temporary surge in building activity will make much difference to a sustainable price for house+land. Instead, any boost to demand will still just flow into higher prices.

Remarkably, in discussing the events of the last year there is also no mention of fiscal policy – the boost to demand that stems from a shift from a balanced budget just prior to Covid to one that, on Treasury’s own numbers, is a very large structural deficit this year.

Instead, on the Grimes telling the problem is a reversion to “Muldoonism” – not, note, the fiscal deficits, but the amendment to the statutory goal for the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy enacted almost three years ago now. Recall the new wording

The Bank, acting through the MPC, has the function of formulating a monetary policy directed to the economic objectives of—

(a) achieving and maintaining stability in the general level of prices over the medium term; and

(b) supporting maximum sustainable employment.

The main change being the addition of b).

Grimes has been staunchly opposed to that amendment from the start, but his assertion that it makes much difference to anything has never really stood up to close scrutiny. It has long had more of a sense about it of being aggrieved that a formulation he had been closely associated with had been changed.

He has never (at least that I’ve seen) engaged with (a) the Governor’s claim (which rings true to me) that the changed mandate had made no difference to how the Bank had set monetary policy during the Covid period, (b) the more generalised proposition (that the Governor is drawing on) that in the face of demand shocks a pure price stability mandate (and the RB’s was never pure) and an employment objective (or constraint) prompt exactly the same sort of policy response, or (c) the extent to which the New Zealand statutory goals remains (i) cleaner than those of many other advanced countries and yet (ii) substantially similar (as the respective central banks describe what they are doing) to the models in, notably, the United States and Australia. Similarly, he never engages with the straight inflation forecasts the Bank was publishing this time last year: if they believed those numbers, the purest of simple inflation targeting central banks would have been doing just what the RB did (and arguably more, given that the forecasts remained at/below the bottom of the target range for a protracted period).

Grimes seems to be running a line that the LSAP was the problem

The central culprit has been monetary policy that has flooded the economy with liquidity. This liquidity in turn has found its way into the housing market.

But there is just no credible story or data that backs up those claims. Banks simply weren’t (and aren’t) constrained by “liquidity”. The LSAP was financially risky performative display, but it made no material difference to any macro outcomes that matter, including house prices.

There is quite a lot of this sort of stuff.

Grimes ends on a better note, lamenting the refusal of governments – past and present – to contemplate substantially lower house prices, let alone take the steps that would bring them about (his final line “And no politician seems to care enough to do anything about it” is one I totally endorse). But in trying to argue a case that a change to the Reserve Bank Act – that had no impact on anything discernible as it went through Parliament or in its first year on the books – somehow explains our house price outcomes (especially in a world where many similar price rises are occurring, and where there was no change in central bank legislation), seems unsupported, and ends up largely serving the interests of the government, by distracting attention from the thing – land use deregulation – that really would make a marked difference and which the government absolutely refuses to do anything much about.

Reading Michael Cullen

There aren’t many New Zealand political memoirs/autobiographies – and even fewer diaries (although I was recently reading John A Lee’s for 1936-40) – and most of them aren’t that good. Voracious book buyer that I am, I usually don’t buy them until they turn up very cheap in a charity shop or community book sale. After all, sometimes there are interesting snippets and you never know when some angle on some event might prove at least somewhat enlightening.

But I thought I’d make an exception for Michael Cullen. He had, after all, been an academic historian in an earlier life, and was unquestionably smart and funny, and had been Labour’s finance/economics spokesman for 17 years and Minister of Finance for nine years (terms really only rivalled in modern New Zealand by Walter Nash and Rob Muldoon). I’d probably have been better off waiting for the charity shop copies to turn up.

There were interesting bits and pieces. Early chapters of autobiographies are often complained about but I almost always like them. There was, for example, the ancestor who was the last person burned at the stake in England for heresy (twice actually). Or the snippet of Cullen and his first wife buying their first house in Dunedin in 1971 for $10500 – “only twice my annual gross salary” as a new lecturer (lecturers at Otago now seem to start at about $82000). Or the prize he won at about the same time for the best University of Edinburgh PhD history thesis that year – enough to pay off in full the 30 per cent deposit they’d borrowed from his wife’s parents. Or the picture of the Dunedin Labour Party in the 70s – including the raffle organiser (“Labour used to be a raffle-funded party”) who “made a Ponzi scheme look positively generous” by offering a first prize in one raffle a full book of tickets in the next raffle.

And there were the national politics snippets, including the observation/claim that David Lange had persuaded Roger Douglas to stay in politics in 1981 by promising that if/when Lange became leader Douglas would be his Minister of Finance. As Cullen notes, some things might have been quite different…..although it is interesting to wonder just how much. Cullen’s perspectives – as senior whip and then junior Cabinet minister (often written in counterpoint to Michael Bassett’s book on the period) – on the Lange/Douglas tensions over 1978/88 were worth having, including his suggestion that (given the tensions, that only built further) perhaps Lange should have sacked Douglas in April 1987.

But it tended to go downhill from there, dramatically so for his treatment of the nine years of the 5th Labour government, which takes up almost half the book. Much of it has about it the character of a family Christmas letter from proud parents who just don’t know when to stop. If you want a canter through the things the government did during those nine years, trivial and not, I guess this is the book for you. Almost everyone did everything ably. But to anyone who was around New Zealand at the time, you simply aren’t going to learn very much (although I was surprised to read that Jim Anderton had been – so Cullen claims – one of the ministers most keen on lower company taxes late in the government’s term).

Two things in particular struck me. The first was that while Cullen was a Labour Party MP and minister, clearly he was not a Labour Party person (consistent with this in the early days his then wife had been more active than he was), and there is very little on the internal ructions that convulsed the party a few decades ago. More generally, there is little insight anywhere in the book on the many really significant political figures Cullen worked with over the years, none at all on Helen Clark (or Heather Simpson for that matter). There was almost no insight on some of the key public servants, or anything on the tensions. interactions etc. And this 12 years after he left office. Cullen seems to have reasonably kind words for most people – exceptions I think being Richard Prebble, Don Brash and (mixed with some admiration/envy at his success) John Key – but no insights. And if he ever worked with Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern or Chris Hipkins when he was Deputy Prime Minister and they were in Clark’s office, you wouldn’t know it from the book.

Presumably Cullen kept no diaries, and he notes somewhere in the book that he hadn’t been very good at answering questions from researchers over the years about past events because his mental approach was to compartmentalise and then move on (and of course he carried a formidably huge load during those Clark years). And writing the book can’t have been helped by the knowledge that his time might be very short (as it turned out to be) and that between illness and Covid he was only able to make a single trip to Dunedin to consult his papers in the Hocken Library. In a bigger country, he’d almost certainly have had a research assistant he could have drawn on. As it was, he tells us he drew heavily on what happened to be available on the web.

But there is also a sense of someone who – despite the training as an historian (which he often reminds us of) – just wasn’t that reflective. 50 years on from that house purchase he told readers about, house prices are appallingly high – and these developments were going on on his watch too – but there is nothing on how, technocratically and politically, his generation bequeathed that disaster. He was Labour’s finance spokesman for 17 years, beginning as the reforms (which he mostly supported) were supposed to be starting to pay off in reductions in the productivity gaps between us and the rest of the advanced world. Under his watch there were various bows in the direction of aspiring to make a difference. And yet here we are, with the gaps wider than ever. There is no sign anywhere in the book of any reflection, self-questioning, or even curiosity about the failure. Perhaps the only note of regret about policy I recall is a regret that the government had not been more active in determining the strategy of Fonterra, the behemoth they enabled but which also failed to deliver.

Perhaps it would have been different if he’d had more time. Even on the text he did write it is not hard to see where a good editor could have insisted on cutting out at least 50 pages (of a 400 page book) – perhaps including the line that knighthoods were a good thing because they gave a lot of pleasure to the recipients.

Of course, part of my interest in the book was in its treatment of Reserve Bank issues, he having been the Minister responsible for the Bank through nine sometimes difficult years, and Opposition spokesman beginning little more than a year after the 1989 Reserve Bank Act had come into effect. The Reserve Bank monetary policy framework has not, shall we say, been without its controversies over those 30 years – including the often very antagonistic approach taken by Jim Anderton whose party at times rivalled Labour on the left in the 1990s.

But again, it was curiously bloodless. You’d not have known, for example, that in his early days (perhaps as late as the 1996 election, as I recall us debating it at the Bank at one election and I was working overseas in 1993)), he (as Labour’s spokesman) championed a change to the inflation target (then 0-2 per cent annual inflation, with caveats). But Labour’s proposal – they needed product differentiation from National, the Alliance, and New Zealand First – was to adopt a target range of -1 to 3 per cent inflation. As I recall it, part of the aim was to capture more of the headline inflation shocks (oil prices, tax changes etc etc), but it could have led to the curious world in which the Bank was supposed to be more or less indifferent to inflation going negative, which didn’t seem as though it would prove very robust at first confrontation with experience.

Perhaps charitably, Cullen does not mention the (frankly fairly incompetent) way we ran monetary policy over 1997 and 1998 (the infamous monetary conditions index) but nor does he mention his oft-expressed (and somewhat valid) concerns about the volatility of both the exchange rate and interest rates, or his calls for changes to the Policy Targets Agreement and/or for an independent inquiry into the conduct of monetary policy. As it happened, the PTA was changed when Cullen took office, to add a new form of words that was supposed to appear substantive but which, to this day, no one really knew what the words actually meant for policy (I’ve long argued “precisely nothing”). At the Bank we were sufficiently uneasy that in the first few weeks of the new government I was sent on a whistle-stop 10 day tour of the RBA, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England, the Bank of Canada, the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury to brush up our knowledge of, and perspectives on, operationalising foreign exchange intervention.

Out of office Cullen had called for an independent inquiry – which went over well with the left of his own party, and with the Alliance, with which Labour was mending fences. In office, he commissioned an inquiry, but consciously and deliberately chose as his reviewer someone who could be counted on not to make trouble – a leading academic author on inflation targeting, Lars Svensson (he could quite readily have chosen as reviewer any number of other quite reputable people – just one example being Bernie Fraser the former Governor of the RBA (and known as somewhat left-leaning). As it was, Svensson predictably made no difficulties and at times we (I was one of the small secretariat) had to talk him into revising down his effusive praise of Don Brash. He did propose adopting an MPC – but made up solely of executive staff of the Bank – a proposal that Cullen rejected, and what came out of the review were very minor changes indeed (the Governor to no longer chair the Bank’s Board, the Board to write an Annual Report). But he’d been seen to have had a review.

If there were ongoing government niggles re the Bank’s monetary policy they must have been quite limited for a while. In 2001 we’d been quite pro-active in easing monetary policy (somewhat burned by 1997/98) both in response to the global tech slowdown and after 9/11 (decisions I still think were warranted, but which some more hawkish people differ on). But Don Brash was still a bit of an issue. He’d made a high profile controversial speech to the government’s Knowledge Wave conference in 2001, stepping well outside areas he had any policy responsibility for (and, not surprisingly, championing policy approaches that weren’t really to Labour’s liking). Powers that be in the Beehive were understood to be not best pleased.

Nothing of all this in in the book.

Don Brash resigned as Governor on 26 April 2002 to seek selection as a National Party candidate at the forthcoming election (having been pro-actively recruited and given to understand he’d get a high list place, and perhaps a reasonable chance of being Minister of Finance – in the unlikely event National was to win). Cullen writes about this resignation, but comments only that he was “flabbergasted”, proceeding to write some generalised negative comments about Brash and his self-belief. As Don records in his own autobiography of his conversation with Cullen “I don’t think he was pleased but he was polite”, but he goes on to note “much more polite than Helen Clark was later in the day”. As I understood it, the PM had been (understandably in my view) outraged, felt it was something of a betrayal (to step straight out of high public office onto the campaign trail) and was specifically very aggrieved at the Bank’s Board (and specifically the then chair of the non-executive directors) – responsible to Cullen – for having written an employment contract that did not enforce a decent stand-down period. All of which might have been useful points for Cullen to have included, rather than just glib remarks (true or not) about Brash’s “extraordinary sense of self-belief”.

Appointing a new permanent Governor was a challenge. Under the law, the Governor had to be someone the Board nominated, but the Minister could reject a nomination and ask (endlessly, in principle) for another. Brash’s deputy, Rod Carr, filled in as (statutory) acting Governor including through the election campaign period, and assiduously sought to get the permanent role. Cullen records – and this I did not know – that the Board had formally recommended that Carr be made Governor.

I had nothing personal against Rod, but he was so dry that he made even Brash look slightly moist. I was not in the least convinced that he could adopt the somewhat more flexible approach I was looking for. I rejected the recommendation….Finding a replacement posed a problem, especially if my action was interpreted to mean a lack of commitment to the basic principles of the Reserve Bank Act. I was saved by Alan Bollard. He offered to put his name forward.

Of course, it would not have been hard to have found someone else, except that the understanding was that the word had gone out that no one associated with the Brash Reserve Bank was to be appointed. Thus, Murray Sherwin – until recently Deputy Governor, then Director General of Agriculture – would have made a good Governor, but he’d been of the Brash era. Less plausibly – though probably with politics more akin to Labour’s – another former Brash Deputy Governor Peter Nicholl (then Governor of the central bank of Bosnia) might have been keen (although I know the Bank’s Board wasn’t).

Again, what Cullen doesn’t record was the fascination with the RBA in the Beehive (including the 9th floor at the time). In some ways it was understandable – the RBA was run by a succession of competent people, the Australian economy was generally doing better than New Zealand’s, real interest rates were generally a bit lower (visiting RBA people would even encourage us to be more like them and we might get our interest rates down to “world” levels) and had been less volatile. My diary records a conversation with someone who had been to visit Peter Harris – now an MPC member, then Cullen’s main economic advisor – during this period, and Harris had apparently even toyed (perhaps not fully seriously) with the idea that they could get Glenn Stevens (then Deputy Governor of the RBA) as Reserve Bank Governor. The Prime Minister was known to want a policy target mirroring the Australian one (centred on 2.5 per cent inflation), something that Alan Bollard successfully resisted).

(Cullen goes on to record that he also knocked back SSC’s recommendation of Mark Prebble to be Secretary to the Treasury, primarily on ideological grounds. That was interesting but he never tells his readers that at the time – when Cullen was deputy PM – Prebble was chief executive of DPMC, that Clark had attacked that appointment in 1998 (again on ideological grounds) but had acquiesced in Prebble’s reappointment in 2000). It might have been interesting to have read some reflection on what changed.)

The period from late 2003 to the end of Labour’s term was a difficult one for monetary policy. Cullen does a little bit of sniping in the book – mainly at the idea that the Bank was engaged in targeting inflation forecasts (he words it a little differently but it is the implication of his repeated comments about an output gap focus) – but he displays almost no awareness of what was going on (including the sustained and significant rise in actual core inflation, the demand effects of rapid growth in population, the demand effects of the housing market (prices and volumes), the strong growth in the terms of trade, or the implications of fiscal policy. And I don’t think he once mentions the exchange rate, which became an increasing bugbear through this period, both for him and for his handpicked Governor. The best evidence for the proposition that throughout those years we did not tighten aggressively enough early enough is that core inflation moved to and beyond the top of the inflation target range (as benchmark, in the subsequent decade core inflation undershot, but never quite fell outside the bottom of the band).

There was an increasing search for some sort of circuit-breaker, with a particular focus then on things that might help dampen housing market pressures without necessitating further OCR increases and further rises in the real exchange rate. This culminated first in the Supplementary Stabilisation Instruments project, which Cullen claims to have known almost nothing of. This is the relevant extract from his book.

Both the Reserve Bank and the Treasury realised that in that situation [economic imbalances] the use of the official cash rate as almost the only means of dealing with such imbalances was far from satisfactory. It was rather like many anti-cancer drugs in causing significant collateral damage, so they had decided to work on what they called a Supplementary Stabilisation Instruments Project. This was their initiative, not mine, but it got John Key excited and he managed to invent all kinds of malign intentions the government had. I have no idea where the project went since it did not seem to produce any results.

Which simply wasn’t true. House prices became such a political problem there was a special unit set up in DPMC to look at what might be done, and John Whitehead and Alan Bollard agreed with Cullen to commission the SSI work. In a release at the time, Cullen claims that

He expressed concern at the impact of the high dollar on the export sector but said the Supplementary Stabilisation Instrument Project, the terms of which were drawn up by the Treasury and the Reserve Bank and released without reference to the government, would explore options to reduce pressure on the exchange rate by reducing monetary policy reliance on the OCR.

I can’t remember if the precise Terms of Reference were cleared by his office, but it was made very clear (from the Beehive) that difficult political options (capital gains taxes, public sector savings programmes, anything around the welfare system) were out of scope. These specific exclusions are mentioned in the published Terms of Reference (page 39 here). Cullen’s hands were all over this commission (my diary records a week or two prior an observation that Cullen, Bollard, and Whitehead had all apparently been keen on some particular tweaky tool I’d devised – I can’t recall what it was but am embarrassed that it seems to have been an LVR-based control).

The Minister goes on to claim that “I have no idea where the project went since it did not seem to produce any results”. Except that, readily available on the web, is our report to him on the analysis and possible tools, from March 2006.

And did it go no further then? Well hardly. Instead there was some considerable interest in the idea of a Mortgage Interest Levy – a scheme under which we might raise the cost of mortgages without raising the OCR – and I and a Treasury counterpart spent (what seems like) months devising something that might be workable, exploring fishhooks etc etc. That paper is here, as is the report to Dr Cullen.

And was this simply a bureaucratic conceit, or no interest to a busy Minister of Finance? Well, no. Actually, Cullen tried to persuade the National Party to go along. I knew this was so, but looking through some old papers found a press release from Michael Cullen, as Minister of Finance (9 February 2007), saying so and attacking Bill English (new National finance spokesperson) for not being willing to go along.

National leader John Key and finance spokesman Bill English are clearly at odds over the concept of a mortgage levy, which could potentially ease pressure on exporters, Finance Minister Michael Cullen said today.

…I can now reveal that Mr Key and Mr English were invited to a meeting in my office before Christmas to discuss alternatives to existing monetary policy instruments to tackle inflation.

…At that meeting Mr Key took a balanced and serious approach. Mr English though largely remained silent and his body language spoke volumes about his willingness to embrace new measures that may have a chance to help the New Zealand economy 

And so on.

And at that Cullen requested that further work be discontinued.

Cullen was a busy man, but it wasn’t as if this was an isolated project. The Minister continued to express concerns – quite serious ones. Not six years after his Svensson review had reported, Labour initiated a full-scale Finance and Expenditure Committee review of monetary policy (quite possibly intended more for shown than substance). More than once Cullen opened mused about the powers open to him under the Reserve Bank Act (but never used) to direct the Bank to pursue a different target (I wrote the internal paper musing on how we should respond, what options the Minister had, what constraints there were on him) and he also became increasingly critical of our public line that fiscal policy was adding to demand and inflation pressures, all else equal putting the real exchange rate and the OCR higher than they otherwise would be. Labour was on its late-term fiscal splurge (helped by Treasury advice that concluded the boom-time revenues were mostly permanent) and although the budget was still in surplus, running down that surplus actively added to the imbalances in the rest of the economy. For Cullen no doubt it was politically awkward – Labour was well behind and the polls, and the money was there. We were reduced to (among other things) writing boxes in the Monetary Policy Statement to explain our (entirely conventional view).

My point here is not that Cullen would necessarily have remembered all of this – busy man etc – but there is not even a hint of any of it. The book would have been much better with at least some of it, rather than the Christmas letter type of account.

Out of curiosity, I also looked for Cullen’s account of the genesis of deposit guarantee scheme. It is a somewhat self-serving account, including his attempt to blame the entire South Canterbury Finance situation on the National government that took office the following month. I wrote my own account of those few days here (I was very closely involved), and included this paragraph.

The main, and important, area in which Dr Cullen departed from official advice was around the matter of fees.   We’d recommended that the risk-based fees would apply from the first dollar of covered deposits (as in any other sort of insurance).     The Minister’s approach was transparently political –  he was happy to charge fees to big Australian banks (who represented the lowest risks) but not to New Zealand institutions (including Kiwibank).  And so an arbitrary line was drawn that fees would be charged only on deposits in excess of $5 billion.   Apart from any other considerations, that gave up a lot of the potential revenue that would have partly offset expected losses.  The initial decision was insane, and a few days later we got him to agree to a regime where really lowly-rated (or unrated) institutions would have to pay a (too low) fee on any material increases in their deposits. A few days later again an attenuated pricing schedule was applied to deposit-growth in all covered entities.   But the seeds of the subsequent problems were sown in that initial set of decisions.

They were his calls to make, and it was an election campaign, but perhaps a political memoir would be more helpful in revealing some of the tradeoffs, tensions, risks etc (or even the fact that – especially with Parliament dissolved – a Minister of Finance could issue such blanket guarantees with few/no checks and balances.

These were just the areas that I know something about in depth. So I’m left wondering what weight I should put on any of the rest, other than as chronology (which I too could get from the web).

On the front cover of the book, Helen Clark describes Cullen as “one of our greatest finance ministers”. There aren’t that many (relatively long-serving ones) to choose from but I’d hesitate to endorse the accolade. Running down the public debt was an achievement but (a) demographics, (b) a prolonged, but productivity-lite, boom, and (c) the terms of trade ran strongly in his favour, and the dam burst in the final three years of his term. I guess he has monuments to his name – Kiwisaver and the NZSF (“Cullen fund”) – but then so does Bill Birch from his time as Minister of Energy, and the best evidence to date is that Kiwisaver has not changed national savings rates, and it isn’t clear what useful function the big taxpayer-owned hedge fund has accomplished. Meanwhile Cullen – and Clark herself of course – bequeathed to the next government (who in turn bequeathed it to this one), the twin economic failures: house prices and productivity (the latter shorthand for all the opportunities foregone, especially for those nearer the bottom of the income distribution).

In that sense, what marks him out from a generation or two of New Zealand politicians, who have spent careers in office, and presided over the continuing decline?

MPC members speaking

When I finished yesterday’s post I realised there was plenty else that could have been said.

First, of course, is the way that the Reserve Bank’s housing graphic feeds a narrative that a fall in house prices would itself be a bad thing, at an economywide level. After all, presumably their mental model is symmetrical.

As I noted yesterday, their framing totally ignores the context in which house prices change. Were a government ever to summon up the intestinal fortitude to free up land use, we would expect to see house/land prices fall, and fall a long way. This would, of course, be tough for some individuals, but their losses would be largely offset by gains to others (the young, the poor, the renters), and for many people – owner-occupiers with modest or no mortgages – it would really make no difference at all. Speaking personally, I would cheer the day nationwide policy reforms meant real house/land prices dropped back, say, to where they were when I first entered the market in 1988. It would make no difference to my consumption, but would make the prospects of my children a great deal better.

It is just possible that such a reform might even spark a whole new wave of housebuilding, and perhaps even help lift economywide productivity (since land is better able to be used for things people – not governments – value most). But, of course, none of this appears in the Reserve Bank’s spin.

Wealth effects (at an economywide level) are generally thought of as much more powerful re non-housing assets. There was a nice piece yesterday by Michael Pettis, who writes mainly about China, headed Why the Bezzle Matters for the Economy. The “bezzle” is a phrase dreamed up by J K Galbraith to capture the notion that if someone has defrauded you and you don’t yet know it, both you and he think you have the wealth, and collectively society thinks it is wealthier than it really is. Until the fraud is discovered. Pettis generalises the point to apply to grossly-overvalued equity markets, or to physical investments that might have been put in place – by firms or governments – that in the course of time will just never pay off. One could think too of housing booms in which far too many physical houses end up getting built. The waste has already happened but it can take a considerable time, sometimes a specific shock, for societies to wake up, and adjust. Anyway, it is a good read – although quite unrelated to things RB.

But what I was really planning to write about today was the round of media interviews granted to various media outlets by the Reserve Bank senior management following last week’s MPS. The round of interviews seems to have become something of a ritual. FIrst there was the Governor (in Stuff). He seemed typically loose, not very rigorous, but also not very controversial.

Then the Deputy Governor popped up in an interview at Business Desk. You’ll recall that in a post late last week I took the Governor to task for having suggested to FEC that somehow the Bank was contractually bound to keep offering the Funding for Lending scheme for the next year plus, even as the MPC was saying it wanted to tighten monetary conditions quite a bit. It looked as though Bascand had been sent out in part to tidy up after the Governor (a job that, as a safer pair of hands who’d have made a less bad Governor, he seems to do a bit of). In that interview we learned that – at least in Bascand’s view – actually it wasn’t a matter of contract at all, but of “keeping our word”. He went on to add that

“I do place quite a lot of weight on RBNZ’s words being listened to and us being true to what we say. That’s where our credibility comes from,”

The same daft argument they adopted for sticking to their odd pledge in March 2020 not to change the OCR, either way and come what may, for a year. And on the other hand, the one they obviously discounted when (sensibly if belatedly) choosing to stop LSAP purchases. If you want to be credible, stick to making few (and sensible) pledges, and only ones that respect the extreme uncertainty every monetary policy maker faces when contemplating future policy moves.

Bascand went on to try to articulate a substantive case for keeping offering the Funding for Lending scheme (although never actually engaged with the distortions that accompany it), arguing about the FfL scheme that “one doesn’t really know” what impact changes in the scheme would have. But that is hardly a satisfactory answer both because (a) it is an implied admission that they are running a crisis-intervention instrument that they don’t really understand the effects of (but is having those effects now), and (b) because on their own telling the scheme will end next year, policy now is set on forecasts, so those forecasts must already be building in some view on what impact the end of the FfL scheme will have. But even if there was anything much to the Bank’s concern about precision – and there isn’t, since exchange rate reactions to OCR changes are never that predictable – nothing would stop them phasing the scheme out over a few months, enabling any observed effects to be taken account of as the OCR itself was being set.

So, to recap. To this point, we’d had the Governor suggest a contract and the Deputy Governor disavow that notion (and word). But then the Bank’s Chief Economist – who has not been let loose to do a single speech on-the-record in the 3+ years he has been a statutory officeholder – was interviewed by And up popped the idea of a contractual obligation again

Furthermore, Yuong confirmed the RBNZ would keep its Funding for Lending Programme (FLP) in place until the end of 2022 to uphold the “contractual arrangement” it made with retail banks last year.

His words, no paraphrasing.

Ha’s interview seemed to focus on the future of the LSAP, and here he seemed back on-message with all this talk about unpredictability and lack of precision.

Hesitation over going down an untrodden path

As for the LSAP, Ha said the RBNZ’s initial thinking is that it isn’t keen to actively sell the $54 billion of New Zealand Government Bonds it has bought from banks, fund managers, etc since March 2020.

By buying these bonds it put downward pressure on interest rates. Actively selling them before they mature would tighten monetary conditions.  

Ha said, “We know a lot more about how to calibrate tightening policy through an OCR. We know less about how you would do that through selling down government bonds.”

He was also wary of the RBNZ not flooding the market with bonds at a time Treasury’s bond issuance remains elevated ($30 billion of issuance is planned for the 2021/22 year).

“The key thing to remember is, on the way down, you sort of made a big splash about the LSAP. Markets are dysfunctional, you want to keep interest rates low,” Ha said.

“On the way out, you want to be quite methodical and want to be operational in the background. We’re not intending to send massive policy signals through the withdrawal of the LSAP programme.

“We largely see it now as just managing… the holdings of those assets on our balance sheet.”

So last year they were all gung-ho on how much they were achieving by buying bonds, but now it is all too hard, and they propose to simply sit on their hands (and risk more large losses to the taxpayer). And if the bond market was a bit dysfunctional briefly last March, it wasn’t through most of the period the Bank was buying heavily and it isn’t now. It simply defies belief that they can seriously believe that a pre-announced sales programme of, say, $2billion a month would create any difficulties for the market at all. What is more likely is that, in their heart of hearts, they know that LSAP bond sales wouldn’t make any material macro difference it all. They wouldn’t tighten conditions any more than the purchases – heavily focused at long maturities of little relevance to anyone much in the New Zealand market – themselves did. But it would a bit awkward to concede that, after all the spin last year.

The fourth policymaker interview (at least of those I noticed) was by the Assistant Governor (the deputy CE responsible for monetary policy) Christian Hawkesby with Bloomberg. Bloomberg seemed more interested in getting comment on the likely stance of policy, rather than details of which instrument. I was encouraged that Hawkesby told his interviewers that the MPC that a 50 point OCR increases was “definitely on the table” last week and “actively considered”, even as I wondered why we learned this from an interview with a specific paywalled proprietary outlet and not from, say, the minutes of the MPC meeting (or even, at a pinch, the Governor’s press conference). In an update to their story, Bloomberg reports that their story – and a sense that Hawkesby was still hawkish – moved both the exchange rate and the market pricing on an October OCR increase.

I’m left with a number of concerns:

  • on the specific of communications around the FfL scheme, three top managers over three days couldn’t even keep their lines consistent (“contract” or not),
  • the poor quality of what argumentation these highly-paid supposedly expert monetary policymakers are putting up about getting out of the crisis programmes, and
  • none of this (whether crisis programme arguments or the possibility of a 50bps OCR increase) was in the MPS or the minutes of the MPC meeting, which are supposed to be at the heart of the transparency and accountability around monetary policy, including because everyone has equal access to those public documents and knows when they will be released.

It really isn’t good enough.

One could go on to note that we’ve (again) heard nothing from the three “independent” non-executive members of the MPC. Of course, in a way that isn’t surprising: one has no relevant expertise at all (and never been heard from once) and all three were clearly carefully selected to not make waves and to provide reputational cover for the Governor’s continued control, despite the formal Committee structure, and formal commitments to greater transparency.

And, to be clear, if I am criticising the different lines Orr, Bascand, and Ha are running it is simply because they are supposed to be representing a decision already made, presumably with justifications agreed at the time. I’m all in favour of much more openness and diversity of view – both what should be captured in serious minutes, and that which serious speeches and lectures can provide. There is (always) real uncertainty about how the economy is working, and we should be able to see evidence of a serious contest of ideas and evidence. That sort of openness actually helps stimulate debate (internal and external) and scrutiny ex ante, as well as ex post accountability. Thus, you can see why the MPC members, perhaps the Governor most of all, just prefer to keep things the half-baked way they are.

Rising house prices do not make New Zealanders better off

I didn’t really read the housing section of last week’s Reserve Bank MPS – housing isn’t their responsibility and their analysis of it has rarely been up to much, often lurching unpredictably from one story to another. And their new material on house prices in each MPS only stems from the Remit change Grant Robertson foisted on them early in the year, knowing it would make no substantive difference to anything, but designed to look as though the government cared.

So it was only when the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan tweeted this chart yesterday that I noticed it.

RB house prices

The chart is prefaced with this text

The MPC sets monetary policy to achieve its inflation and employment objectives in the Remit. It considers the outlook for the housing market because house prices can influence broader economic activity, employment, and consumer price inflation (figure A5).

So we are presumably supposed to take this as the best professional view of the seven members of the Monetary Policy Committee. After all, it isn’t a throwaway line from a single member in an ill-considered press conference or interview comment. There is a bunch of different channels identified (and no obvious space constraints – they could easily have added more if they thought others were important), and nothing of substance gets into a Monetary Policy Statement without a fair degree of senior management scrutiny and review.

There are so many problems with this graphic it is difficult to know where to start. But perhaps first with the clear impression a casual reader would take away from this that the seven Robertson-appointed members of the MPC think that higher house prices are “a good thing”. After all, for most of the last decade inflation undershot the Bank’s target (unemployment lingered disconcertingly high for a disconcerting period of time too). More would have been better on both counts. Perhaps a charitable reader might wonder if the MPC really only had some short-term effects in view, but there is nothing in the substance of the chart or its title to suggest that.

And then there is the problem of the left-hand box: they start from “house prices” and “housing market activity” but these things never occur in a vacuum (as, for example, they would no doubt – and rightly – point out if they were talking about any other price (say, the exchange rate). Most often, surges in house prices (at least in New Zealand) have been associated in time with surges in economic activity driven by a range of different (policy and non-policy) factors.

But perhaps the biggest problem is with the claim – almost explicit in the top box of the second column – that higher house prices leave New Zealanders as a whole (remember, this is a whole-economy macroeconomic agency) better off. They don’t.

That they don’t, in principle, is easy enough to see. Everyone in the country needs a roof over his or her head. If I need a roof over my head for the rest of my life, ownership of one house meets my housing consumption needs. What matters is the shelter services the house priovides not the notional value the house might be sold at. Whether my house is valued today as $0.5m (roughly what I paid for it years ago), $1.75m (roughly what an e-valuer site tells me it is worth today) or $3.5m makes not the slightest difference to me. I still want to consume the bundle of services (location, size, sun etc) that this particular house provides.

Now, I might feel differently if I had a large mortgage: after all, negative equity gives the bank the right to foreclose (which can be both expensive and inconvenient), and even if the bank didn’t foreclose (mostly they don’t) it might also make it impossible for me to buy a similar house elsewhere if job opportunities suggested a move.

But this is where one needs to step back and think about the population as a whole. To a first approximation, for every apparent winner from higher (national) house prices there is a loser and for most – perhaps especially middle-aged owner occupiers – it makes no difference at all. There is no more economywide purchasing power created. And real gains that accrue to some people are offset by real losses to others. Owners of rental properties really are better off when real house prices go up. After all, they don’t own houses to live in them, but mostly for the profit they expect to make and the future consumption opportunities for themselves and their families. They can realise their gains and move on, or simply borrow against them.

But on the other hand, there are a lot of people made materially worse off by higher house prices – the people who don’t own a house now who either want to buy one in future or who are, and expect to, keep on renting. Consider someone just graduating from university who, a few decades ago, might have expected to buy a house after a couple of years working. But with real house prices in New Zealand as they are now not only does the deposit requirement push back any feasible purchase date, but the total amount of the lifetime income of the young graduate will have to devote to house purchase costs is so much greater. (Of course, real interest rates are lower than they were decades ago but recall that in the Bank’s scenario we are just thinking about house prices.) Earnings that are (eventually) used for the acquisition of a house can’t be used for other things. Earnings saved now to accumulate a deposit are not spent.

The story isn’t so different for long-term renters since in the medium-term (the adjustment isn’t instantaneous) if house prices are higher one can expect rents to be higher (than otherwise). In latter day New Zealand that has taken the form of rents holding up, or rising a bit, even as real interest rates have fallen a lot, which would otherwise have been expected to lower rents. Earnings spent (and expected to be spent) on rents can’t be spent on other things.

What (mostly) happens when house prices rise is that purchasing power is redistributed – usually towards those who have (houses) and away from those who have not (houses). Of course, it is further muddled by things like the Accommodation Supplement which shifts some of the losses onto the Crown……but that only means that taxes will be higher than otherwise in future. There is no net new purchasing power for society as a whole. (Were one inclined to an inequality story one might note that wealthier people tend to have lower marginal propensities to consume than poorer people.)

Are there possible caveats to this in-principle story? The story I used to tell was that, in principle, we might be better off from higher house prices if we all sold our houses to foreigners (at over the odds prices) and rented for the rest of our lives. But it was a story to illustrate the absurdity (and marginal relevance) of the point, and that was before the current government made such foreign house-buying illegal.

I’ve told you an in-principle story. The Bank likes to claim that the data don’t back this sort of story, And it is certainly true that there will often be a correlation between increases in house prices and increases in consumer spending. But that is mostly because – as I noted earlier – in the real world something triggers house price increases, and that something is often strong lift in economic activity and employment (in turn with triggers behind those developments). When the economy is running hot – and especially when land supply is restricted – buoyant demand, buoyant employment, rising wage inflation, increased turnover of the housing stock, and surges in house inflation are often happening at the same time. And in recessions vice versa. It isn’t easy to unpick chains of causation in the data.

Since higher house prices do not add to the lifetime purchasing power of New Zealanders as a whole, the Bank’s wealth effect story has to rest largely on some sort of view that households are systematically fooled by the house price changes. It is possible I suppose, at least the first time prices surge, but it doesn’t seem very likely. It isn’t as if surges in house prices – nominal and/or real have been uncommon in modern New Zealand.

The Bank also sometimes likes to highlight a story (it is there in that graphic) that even if the population doesn’t feel any wealthier, rising house prices might also boost consumption – at least bring it forward, without boosting lifetime consumption – by easing collateral constraints. In principle, a bank would lend even more to me secured on the value of my house than they might have done a couple of years ago. But again my ability to borrow a bit more has to be set against the reduced ability to borrow of the young graduate who now has to save even more in a deposit to get on the (residential mortgage) borrowing ladder at all. Sadly, in today’s bizarrely distorted housing market, we often find parents with freehold or lightly-indebted houses gifting or lending money to children, net effect on consumption probably roughly zero. With real house prices surging to fresh highs each cycle for decades now, it doesn’t seem that likely that many people are very collateral constrained.

For years I’ve been running a commonsense test over the Bank’s claims. This chart is of New Zealand real house prices

house prices aug 21

This series ends in December last year, so as of now we can probably think of real New Zealand house prices being four times what they were in December 1990 (I chose the starting point because that quarter was just prior to the 1991 recession getting underway, but you can see that real house prices hadn’t moved much for several years).

These are huge increases in real house prices, some of the very largest (for a whole country) seen anywhere over a comparable period (notably a period in which productivity growth was underwhelming). Were there to be much to the Reserve Bank’s wealth effects story (or its collateral constraints story) at the whole economy level mightn’t one have expected to see consumption as a share of national income rising, savings as a share of national income falling?

Of course there is all sorts of other stuff going on, but this is a really big – unprecedented in New Zealand – change in real (and nominal) house prices. But here is consumption as a share of national disposable income, back to the late 80s, just before house prices began to surge. The data are for March years.

consumption and NDI

The orange line is private sector (households and non-profits) consumption, while the blue line adds in public (government) consumption spending.

Of course, there are cycles in the series. There are two peaks, during the two big recessions (1991/92 and 2008/09): consumption tends (quite rationally) to be smoother than income. There is quite a dip in the early-mid 2000s, which can readily be shown to line up with the really big surpluses the government was running at the time – the country was earning a lot of income, but the Crown was temporarily sitting on a disproportionate share of that income.

And what of the house price booms. There were three during the period in the data (so not including the last year) – the few years running up to 1996, the period from 2003 to 2007 (particularly the early part of that period), and the period from about 2013 to about 2016. There is nothing in the consumption/savings data over those periods that would surprise someone who didn’t know about the house price surges.

And across the period as a whole, at best consumption has been flat as a share of income over 30 years of unprecedented house price increases. Looked at in the right light perhaps it has even been trending down a bit (private consumption as a share of income was as low in the March 2020 year as it was 16-17 years early when not only was the Crown running huge surpluses but real house prices were much lower.

I’m not suggesting any of this is definitive but when there is (a) no reason to think that New Zealanders as a whole are any wealthier when real house prices rise, and (b) no sign over decades in the macroeconomic data of the sort of effect the Bank likes to talk up, it might be safer to conclude that the effect just isn’t there to any meaningful macroeconomically significant effect.

Of course, as noted earlier there are all sorts of short-term correlations, typically resulting from common third factors at work, but the story the Bank seemed to be trying to tell in that graphic was neither representative of the economy as a whole, nor helpful.

The line I’ve run in this post is not new. In fact, 10 years ago now the Reserve Bank itself published an article in its then Bulletin discussing many of the same issues, and suggesting very similar sorts of conclusions (with, of course, 10 years less data). I was one of the authors of the article but – as was the norm – Bulletin articles carried the imprimatur of the Bank, and were not just disclaimed as the views of the authors.

Funding for lending

I was, conditionally, sympathetic to the Funding for Lending programme the Reserve Bank put in place late last year. At the time they thought (and it seemed plausible they were right) that more monetary stimulus was needed, and – through their own neglect and incompetence over several years – they asserted that a negative OCR could not yet be implemented. The announcement of the scheme clearly narrowed the gap between wholesale and retail interest rates, lowering the latter. This chart from this week’s MPS is one way of illustrating the point.


The effect was achieved by making it known the scheme was coming, and then available. Relatively little was actually borrowed, especially early in the piece.

The scheme works by offering funding to banks (only) at an interest rate equal to the OCR (floating rate, so the rate changes as the OCR does) for terms of three years. The loans are secured, but that isn’t much of a burden to the banks as (eg) they are allowed to simply bundle up their own residential mortgages into bonds the Reserve Bank will take as security (with a significant haircut – ie the value of the bonds has to exceed the value of the FfL loan).

It was a jerry-built scheme, but one could mount a reasonable third-best argument for having announced and deployed it last year. Among the problems with the scheme from the start:

  • it was offered only to registered banks, and not to any other (regulated) deposit-takers  (at odds with any notion of competitive neutrality, a principle that for a long time was important to the Bank),
  • by focusing on driving down retail rates (rather than both retail and wholesale) then it may have meant the exchange rate staying higher than otherwise,
  • lending for a three-year term at a floating OCR rate was, most likely, subsidised funding (it is highly unlikely any bank would have borrowed that cheaply on floating rate terms on market).

But perhaps one could tolerate those problems for a few months, while the negative OCR option was (so they said) not available.  And consistent with that I had not been particularly critical of it (even though by the time the scheme was officially deployed –  as distinct from announced, and announcement effects mattered –  the Bank was also telling us that the negative OCR obstacles had all been sorted out).

All that, of course, was many months ago, back when monetary policy tightenings looked a long way away, and the focus was still more on the risk of unemployment lingering high and core inflation staying very low.   The data moves, but the Bank doesn’t –  or is very slow to.

Where we stand now –  or at least earlier in the week –  was that core inflation was (a bit) above the midpoint of the target range, and the unemployment rate was so low even the Bank suggested (by implication) it was now at or below the NAIRU.   Tightening monetary conditions is clearly called for, and the Bank’s own numbers suggest they envisage quite a lot of tightening over quite an extended period.

So you might suppose that jerry-built interventions cobbled together late in a crisis would be among the very first things withdrawn.  As the Bank’s own document states

The FLP offers secured term central bank funding to registered banks, with the aim of lowering funding costs to stimulate lending growth across the economy and help reduce interest rates for borrowers.

Is the aim of monetary policy any longer to lower funding costs, stimulate lending growth or reduce interest rates? It certainly shouldn’t be, judging by the Bank’s own forecasts and statements.

And yet they insist they are going to keep right on offering the FfL scheme for the next 16 months. It makes no sense.

I was prompted to write this post after reading a Business Desk story this morning by Jenny Ruth. In it we were told that some banks had been borrowing more money this week, including on Wednesday. The amounts involved – $1.5 billion – aren’t huge but (a) the amounts haven’t usually been the issue, and (b) monetary policy works at the margin. But there was also this report of some comments the Governor had apparently made at FEC yesterday in which he ‘described the FLP as “a contract” that the RBNZ won’t break. “We have a clear contract. We thought it was best to honour that. We’re comfortable with honouring that contract,”

This was a new line.  When Jenny Ruth had asked the Governor at the press conference on Wednesday about FfL (and selling back LSAP bonds) we were simply given a line about preferring to use understood and predictable tools.  And so it prompted me to look up the Reserve Bank’s page on the Funding for Lending scheme.

On my way there I had to pass through a “Tools to support the economy” page, which –  still – is full of talk about what the Bank is doing to boost spending, boost jobs, encourage borrowing etc etc.  At very least the page needs updating – things have moved on from last year. 

The Funding for Lending programme page is here, with operational details here.  

And sure enough I found this

Participants may access the funding over a 2-year transaction period. The Bank reserves the right to extend (but not shorten) the transaction period.

Presumably this is what the Governor had in mind when he talked about a “contract”, but it is of course nothing of the sort (unless there are further signed documents the Bank isn’t disclosing, which I doubt).  It is a policy programme, much like the LSAP.  Recall that the LSAP was originally going to be kept going much longer, but circumstances changed and even the MPC concluded it was time to change policy and stop the bond-buying.  It didn’t betray anyone, no one regarded it as a breach of trust or anything of the sort.  If the Governor really regards himself (and his Committee) as somehow bound by that two-year period, it is even sillier than that pledge they made last March –  when they had no idea what was going on – not to change the OCR for a year come what may.

Now, just to be clear.  I am not suggesting that three year loans once made could or should be revoked.  The issue here is access to new loans, from a crisis programme, long after the crisis has past, and in a climate when the Bank itself says it expect to tighten steadily over a couple of years.

Does any of this matter?   I think it does, for a several reasons:

  • the MPC should not be making commitments it regards itself as bound by to periods well ahead where it has no idea what the economic circumstances will be.  Perhaps an initial six-month commitment might have been pardonable at launch, but another 16 months from here is simply indefensible.
  • since the MPC itself expects to raise the OCR steadily over the next couple of years (conditional of course on the economy) short-term market rates will tend to be above the OCR over that period.  Continuing to offer the FfL lending at OCR is not only cheap (subsidised) funding for banks (and recall only banks, not their competitors), but directly tends to undermine the effect of the market-led tightening that is going on.  Overnight rates really should apply to overnight money (or least money that reprices overnight not every 6-8 weeks).
  • and the longer the scheme runs the more it is likely to conflict with the MPC broader policy intentions.  This is so because under the rules from June next year banks can only borrow from the FfL to the extent that they are increasing their lending.  Perhaps there was an (arguable at best) policy goal to have banks increase lending this time last year, but on their own numbers and plans there is no such goal next year when (on their numbers) inflation will be near target and unemployment very low.  If the scheme continues to have any effect at all it will mean the OCR itself having to be pushed a little higher than otherwise.

The macroeconomic implications are probably pretty small, but it is simply bad policy by the Governor and Committee, grossly inadequately explained (if he really thought they were bound by honour or contract he should have developed the case in the MPS). The FfL scheme served a purpose – although given how the economy recovered more in prospect (from when first flagged) than by the time it became operational. But that time has long past now. The window should be closed, retail rates left to find their own level relative to wholesale rate, and the OCR should be deployed only after this abnormal crisis tool has been suspended.

On the MPS

In the end, of course, the bottom line of yesterday’s Reserve Bank announcement was unsurprising and perhaps inevitable – action deferred on account of Covid. It wasn’t as if they were on some statutory schedule, so they could easily have postponed the decision for a couple of weeks, but in the scheme of things the difference between that and waiting for the next scheduled review (6 October) isn’t great. It is clear from the Bank’s forecast numbers they had not been minded to raise the OCR by 50 basis points this time, so if need be they can always catch up by acting a bit more firmly in October.

There was even something to praise. The Bank had revamped the look of the document and – bad-wig new logo aside – it was a definite improvement, even if it is hard to be sure what (if anything) the front cover art might be supposed to represent. And there were, perhaps, a couple of more-interesting graphs than usual. Quite a bit of the media coverage seemed more focused on things the Bank isn’t responsible for – house prices – than on the things it is responsible for.

I guess I had two concerns about the document.

The first was about the analysis. Three months ago the Bank – with more macroeconomic resource than any other agency in the country – thought that well into next year the unemployment rate would be 4.7 per cent and seemed to see core inflation only converging very slowly on the target midpoint (from below). Instead, the unemployment rate is now 4 per cent and core inflation is above the target midpoint, but unless I missed something I saw hardly a mention of this forecasting error and no serious discussion or analysis of it.

Why does it matter? After all, the best of people make mistakes – even in recognising where the economy is at the time you were writing (the May forecasts weren’t finalised until 21 May, and both the CPI and HLFS are centred on the middle of each quarter (in this case 15 May). It isn’t so much the mistake itself I hold against them – although they should have done quite a bit better – but that if there is no analysis of how they made that mistake, and what the fact of the mistake has taught them about how the economy is working at present, how can we have any more confidence in the latest forecasts than in the last (wildly wrong) ones? And the MPS is supposedly an accountable document, not just an opportunity to brush the last set of numbers under the carpet and have another go at the dartboard to generate some new numbers. In particular, why when the momentum of the recovery in demand and activity (and inflation) took the Bank by (considerable) surprise do they think it has suddenly come to an end – implicit, for example, in unemployment rate projections that are 3.9 per cent for next March and 3.9 per cent for the following March (from 4 per cent at present). Or why, with core inflation having picked up quite strongly do they think it will settle as easily and quickly as implied in their numbers (bearing in mind that monetary policy has its greatest effect on inflation with a 12-18 month lag)? It was also a little surprising that there was no serious analysis of the role fiscal policy is, and is expected to, play in supporting (or dampening, as deficits are closed) demand and activity.

I am not running a strong alternative view here. They may prove to be right (and even by more than just chance, so for the right reasons) but there is no supporting analysis – no sign they understand the last 18 months or the last quarter – that should give anyone any more reason for confidence that in an amateur’s shot at a dartboard.

And, of course, if there is nothing in the body of the MPS, there are no speeches, no (searching) interviews, and the so-called minutes are as bland as ever, offering nothing even hinting at hard questioning, challenge, debate, or openness to alternative perspectives. No insight, no understanding, no challenge, no research, no scrutiny, all adds up to no authority. There is no sense that these people are any more than bureaucratic administrators.

The second concern was about policy, although perhaps in practice that boils down to absence of any serious analysis as well. The MPC has chosen to keep going with its jerry-built crisis funding programme, the Funding for Lending programme and to not do anything about reducing the stock of bonds it bought when it was trying to ease monetary conditions (ie until a few weeks ago, although mainly last year), decreeing that the OCR is its “preferred instrument”. Perhaps there is a case for leaving these crisis interventions on the books and jumping straight to the OCR, but if there is a serious case neither the Committee nor the Governor (as, supposedly, their spokesman) made it. Rather belatedly the Committee has now asked staff to prepare a paper on what to do about the LSAP, but why wasn’t that commissioned – and consulted on or published – months ago. When a journalist asked the Governor why MPC wasn’t acting first on the FFL and LSAP schemes, she was fobbed off with a spurious answer about the MPC preferring to operate with tools that were widely understood and which they themselves had a better, more precise, sense of how they would work.

Neither excuse seemed adequate. First, they are already having to factor into their forecasts now their views (implicit or explicit) on what impact the FFL and LSAP are having (and remember that most of the literature says that if there are material effects from schemes like the LSAP they are stock effects not flow effects). Second, the FFL is an explicit crisis intervention, when there is now no crisis, designed for an inability to use negative OCRs which no longer exists. Third, the FFL is explicitly discriminatory (only banks can access it). Fourth, you’ll recall how confident the Governor was last year about the power of the LSAP to influence monetary conditions – rhetoric that now seems to have disappeared completely. And fifth, there was no mention of the large losses (to the taxpayer) that the LSAP scheme has run up, and the substantial market risk the taxpayer is exposed to each day the scheme is left in place (by contrast conventional monetary policy instruments pose little or no financial risk to taxpayers ever).

Perhaps there is a case for their stance (although I doubt it) but it wasn’t made yesterday. The public should expect better from its highly-paid powerful officials.

And finally, two charts. I don’t have any confidence in the Bank’s analysis of house prices, or the new requirement the Minister foisted on them to talk about “sustainable prices”, but amid the breathless talk of the Bank picking a 5 per cent fall in house prices, it is perhaps useful just to focus on this MPS chart.

house prices MPS

Their scenario C is one in which nominal house prices hold steady. Their actual projections (line B) are less hopeful than that. Is it perhaps telling that the MPC shows line A – further strong price growth – out indefinitely – but line D (modest falls) only for a couple of years. Whatever the immediate cyclical situation – and some fall in the next 12-18 momths doesn’t seem that unlikely to be – nothing the government has done even begins to fix the structural failure (which the truncated y-axis in the chart minimises) and all the RB activity in this area is simply papering over cracks and running defence for the government.

The other chart doesn’t show anything new, but it is just nice to see it from a government agency.

MPS productivity

It is a dismal portrayal of the utter failure of successive governments (both National and Labour led). They simply use it as one part of a story as to why New Zealand neutral interest rates might have been falling – inadequate a story as it is, since our long-term real interest rates remain well above those elsewhere, even as productivity growth is worse than in most places. As it is, between things the government has little or no control over (Covid, abroad and here) and those things that are pure policy choice, it is more likely that the next few years will show even worse productivity growth outcomes than the last couple of a decades. The Bank itself – like a true believer – nonetheless projects that trend productivity growth in each of the next three years (ie including the one we are in) will be stronger than in any of the previous six years. That Tui ad springs to mind.

Looking towards the MPS

The Reserve Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee will release its Monetary Policy Statement tomorrow afternoon. We can expect substantial changes from the rather complacent, perhaps even dovish, statement/forecasts they released in May. The hard data have moved quite a lot and the Bank – with phalanxes of macroeconomic analytical resource – was far too slow to recognise what was going on.

Of course, it is anyone’s guess what the MPC will do. Unlike serious countries, or serious central banks, we’ve had no speeches from MPC members, and no position papers outlining how (and why) the MPC was likely to respond if and when the data indicated that tightening in monetary conditions was warranted. Normally, it isn’t much of an issue, since there is usually only a single moving part (the OCR) but we are now still living in the wake of last year’s extraordinary interventions. My focus here isn’t on what the Bank will, or won’t, do, but on what they should do, given the Remit the Minister of Finance has given the MPC.

NZIER run their Shadow Board exercise, in which a mix of (mostly) economists and (a few) people working in business or lobby groups offer their view on what the MPC should do. It is an interesting exercise, if only because respondents are asked to assign probabilities to their view (eg 25% chance the OCR should be 0.25 per cent, 50% it should be 0.5 per cent, and 25% it should be 0.75 per cent – an exercise the Governor used to ask his internal advisers to do, accompanying each of our specific recommendations). They’ve also this time asked not just about tomorrow’s OCR decision but about appropriate policy over the next year. Here are the last assessments.

shadow board aug 21

I’ve always struggled with the idea of 100 per cent certainty about any macro view, especially one about periods a year ahead. If I learned anything in decades of working on monetary policy it was how pervasive uncertainty (and unforecastability) is. If I were answering this particular survey I’d probably run with something like an 80-90 per cent view that the OCR should be higher now, but not much more than a 50 per cent view that it should be higher over 12 months. We just don’t know, and can’t know.

And that would be my first recommendation to the MPC: do not act as if you know more than you possibly can. The Bank insists on publishing economic projections several years ahead, but they rarely contain any useful information about what will happen over the following few years. But the key thing is not to become wedded to your own numbers, or desire to offer more certain than is sensibly possible. The last OCR tightening cycle the Bank undertook in 2014 was a mistake – the case for it was very weak at the time (as I and a couple of others argued internally, a few externally) and even more so with hindsight – but part of what led them astray was that the Governor had become entranced by his own numbers (projections and trend assumptions) and went round openly talking of a programme of OCR increases that would raise rates by a couple of hundred basis points. It creates something of a self-fulfilling momentum, complete with a feeling of needing to follow through.

So whatever the MPC decides on actual policy adjustments tomorrow, the words should emphasise how uncertain and changeable the environment (here and abroad) is, and that the Committee will be guided primarily by hard data (on core inflation and excess labour market capaciity) rather than by castles-in-the-air projections or programmes of tightening. We just do not know what is happening to natural/neutral interest rates – the belief that people did led central bankers, and markets for a time, astray last decade. And when data change there is no harm or shame in changing course; rather than is what central bankers doing their job are supposed to do. The job of the MPC is not to give a clear steer about the future, but (in a stylised way) to adjust short-term interest rates consistent with overall incipient savings/investment imbalances (normally, doing what the market would do if we didn’t have central banks).

The situation at present is complicated because the Bank last year deployed three distinct tools:

  • the OCR,
  • the Large-scale Asset Purchase programme (LSAP), and
  • the funding for lending programme, designed to narrow the wedge between wholesale and retail funding rates.

On the Bank’s own stated logic, I think an OCR adjustment should be the final step chosen if –  as seems to be the case – policy tightening is warranted.

Take the LSAP as an example.  The Bank has repeatedly claimed that the LSAP was highly effective in loosening overall monetary conditions, lowering both wholesale interest rates and the exchange rate.  If so, surely an obvious response now would be to start selling the bonds back to the market, at scale if need be?  After all, every day the Bank holds the bonds the taxpayer is exposed to unnecessary market risk (remember that they have lost us $3 billion or so to date), and there is no obvious good reason for the central bank’s balance sheet to be as bloated as it is for any longer than is strictly necessary. 

Now it is true that other central banks have been reluctant –  after the bond-buying of the last decade – to start actively offloading their bond holdings (although the Fed was doing so), but that was surely was mostly because economies and (in particular) inflation never recovered sufficiently robustly to warrant/require tighter monetary conditions.  By contrast, in New Zealand right now there is a pretty strong case for such a tightening.

Of course, if the Bank really doesn’t believe its own rhetoric (about the efficacy of the LSAP) it would still make sense for them to be getting a sales programme in place, but then they couldn’t claim that bond sales were a substitute for other actions.  As I’ve outlined in previous posts etc, my own view is that the New Zealand LSAP did little or nothing of any macroeconomic significance, but that isn’t what the Governor keeps telling us. 

The next step the Bank should be taking is to end the Funding for Lending programme.  It was a jerry-built crisis intervention that worked –  at a time when the MPC reckoned it could not take the OCR negative –  but we aren’t in a crisis now.     It isn’t a competitively neutral instrument –  only banks have access to it –  and if an efficiency mandate is disappearing out of the Reserve Bank legislation, the concern with economic efficiency and minimising favourable treatment for particular types of counterparties shouldn’t.   It should be discontinued now and the market left to settle the relationship between the OCR and retail and wholesale funding rates. 

What isn’t clear is quite how much impact ending the Funding for Lending programme would have on deposit rates.    The large positive margin between term deposit rates and either the OCR or bank bill rates that has prevailed over the last decade –  often 150 basis points –  is hard to make full sense of (and is larger than the comparable margin in Australia).   But the best guess has to be that removing new Funding for Lending might see that margin widen out from the 50 basis points it got down to back to something at least somewhat wider (perhaps another 50 basis points).

I don’t think I’ve seen mention of selling down the LSAP bonds or ending the Funding for Lending programme in any of the commentaries I’ve seen. I presume that is a sign the Bank has either suggested to banks no change is coming there any time soon or (at least) by silence left that impression.  But these crisis interventions really should be dealt with, and incorporated into the forecasts, before the Committee moves to consider OCR increases.

My read of the economic data is that there is a reasonable case for the MPC to validate quite a significant tightening in monetary conditions (I express it that way because both wholesale and, to some extent, retail rates have begun to move in anticipation).  I don’t think that is even a particularly difficult call.  I don’t base it on forecasts, but on where things stand right now (including, but again not to over-emphasise forecasts, how different things clearly are now from how most thought they would be late last year).     

What are the key variables in that story?  First, of course, is inflation itself –  but core inflation, not the (currently high) headline CPI numbers. On the Bank’s sectoral core factor model – a pretty smooth and persistent series – core inflation is now above the target midpoint for the first time in a decade.    That is a good thing –  (core) inflation should fluctuate around the target midpoint, and not have the midpoint treated as either a ceiling (as it seemed at times in the last decade) or a floor (as it sometimes seemed the previous decade).  But since the general sense was that it would take longer to get inflation back up, and we know policy works with a lag, it is a prima facie case itself for underpinning real interest rates at a higher level. 

And then there is the unemployment rate, at 4 per cent (for the June quarter, centred in May) down to pre-Covid levels.  I’m not going to run a strong independent view on what the NAIRU is for New Zealand but whatever it was a few years ago it is likely to be somewhat higher now, between things like higher benefit levels, higher minimum wages, higher statutory holiday provisions, reduced emphasis on getting people off benefits, and the disruption to labour-market matching from closed borders (both reductions in demand for certain roles and disruption in access to migrant labour).  To be clear, I’m not taking a view here on the wider merits of any of these policies, just noting as a macroeconomist that they are, taken together, likely to raise the unemployment rate consistent with stable inflation.

As it happens, in that same June quarter data we’ve already seen quite an acceleration in private sector wage inflation.  It could, I suppose, be random noise, but it doesn’t seem sensible now to assume so (given that it isn’t out of line with anecdotes, surveys or the unemployment rate itself).LCI private

Even if there is a bit of seasonality in the series, it is the highest quarterly increase since the peak of the labour market boom in the 00s –  when core inflation was definitely accelerating, and when there was still a bit more productivity growth to underpin wage increases than is likely to be evident right now (borders closed and all that).

June quarter data is centred on the month of May (SNZ survey throughout the quarter), but we also have the SNZ new monthly employment indicator that they take from hard (tax) data.  The number of filled jobs is reported to have risen by a further 1.1 per cent in the month of June. and in a series that goes back to 1999 there have been only a handful of months with faster growth in this series.  And over the last 22 years inward migration has mostly been quite strongly, adding to both demand for and supply of labour.  Since Covid, we’ve had consistent modest net outflows of people.    And yet according to SNZ there are now 2.1 per cent more jobs than there were at the end of 2019 (when the unemployment rate was also 4 per cent).  With fewer people here now than then (despite some natural increase), it all points to the unemployment rate heading lower again this quarter. 

Then, of course, there is inflation expectations.  In the Bank’s latest survey of semi-experts (I’m usually included, but somehow the survey email ended up in my Spam folder) , two year ahead expectations rose quite a bit to 2.27 per cent –  the highest the survey has recorded since June 2014.   Since shocks happen, these expectations measures aren’t great forecasts (nothing is) but as a read of how people are feeling and seeing things now they are what we have.

The Bank also does a survey of household expectations, which gets very little coverage. Again, there is no information in the survey on what future inflation will be, but what people think about inflation affects how they think about any specific level of nominal interest rates.  In the latest survey, a larger percentage of respondents expect higher inflation over the next year than at any time in the survey’s history.

household expecs 21

Point estimates –  which are harder for household respondents –  have also moved up quite a bit, for both 12 month and five year horizons.

It is a fairly elementary part of thinking about monetary policy that, all else equal, if inflation expectations move up and you don’t want inflation itself to go much higher, you want interest rates to move up at least as much as the expectations themselves have risen.

If I wanted to mount a counter-argument to my own case, I might cite –  as I often have over the years –  the breakeven inflation rates calculated using nominal and indexed government bond yields.   Very long-term breakevens are still well below 2 per cent (but have moved up) but using the 2025 indexed bond, implied inflation expectations for the next four years are now almost exactly 2 per cent –  not troublesome in a level sense, but far far higher than we were seeing pre-Covid.

The case for not acting now seems, frankly, threadbare.  Will the Australian economy be weaker this quarter and perhaps next?  To be sure, but it isn’t obvious there is a substantial impact on New Zealand (especially as travel flows were already very modest).  Sometimes there is a case for seeing how low the unemployment rate can be driven –  there was a good case for that for much of the pre-Covid –  but not when (core) inflation is already at or a bit above target, and most of the demand indicators suggest that core inflation would –  all else equal – rise further from here.

That doesn’t mean it is time to panic either.  Full employment and inflation near-target are good outcomes in themselves –  especially against the backdrop of the previous decade.  It isn’t time to over-react, or for whippings about how policy settings were too loose for too long, but simply for calmly and deliberately getting on with the job.

For me –  and given the rapid easing last year – that would mean a policy package tomorrow of (a) a programme of bond sales back to the market of $2 billion a month (which over two years would clean out the holdings), (b) a discontinuation now of the Funding for Lending programme, and (c) a 25 basis points OCR increase.

But if they don’t do either (a) or (b)  –  the former more symbolic on my telling than substantive, but wouldn’t be on their own –  the case for a 50 basis point OCR increase tomorrow looks pretty strong.  Not to foreshadow a string of future increases, but simply because we are at full employment, perhaps going beyond, and inflation is at or a bit above target, and perhaps looking to go beyond.  It would simply be a good solid sensible response to some good cyclical economic data (note that the structural fundamentals of the economy are as poor as ever, but that matters to the Reserve Bank only in, eg, interpreting wage inflation data).