A tweet from the Reserve Bank

I was in a meeting all morning and don’t have that much time this afternoon, so I should offer a special thanks to the Reserve Bank for suggesting a topic for today’s post.  It is prompted by this tweet, which turned up in my feed just as I was about to head into my meeting

The Bank used to use Twitter for not much more than sending out links to press releases etc.   But they seem to be trying to use it more actively, with a strategy (if any) that is less than entirely clear to the outsider.   For example, a couple of weeks ago there was the invitation to us all to submit questions via Twitter for the Governor’s MPS press conference –  which went rather badly when they only took two questions that were reframed as soft platforms for the Governor to declaim on some or other favoured topic.   Yesterday, there was a puff piece telling the world that the Bank was now 43rd most favoured employer for graduates in New Zealand.  I suppose that didn’t sound too bad –  small organisation and all that –  until I clicked on the link and found that the Bank came in behind 11 other government departments and a couple of local government entities.  Oh well, thanks for letting us know I guess.

This morning’s tweet has the potential to be quite a bit more concerning, on several counts.  Most concerning is that it reads as a statement of the institution’s view –  that of the MPC? – on matters directly relevant to monetary policy, launched into the ether with no notice at all.     That is no way to do monetary policy –  or rather it was the sort of way we did monetary policy 25 years ago, before we moved to a clearer, more scheduled, more predictable system.  This might seem like only a picky inside-the-Beltway issue, but this isn’t way things should be being done.  It would be interesting to know whether the MPC were consulted, or even advised, that a statement on the economic outlook was about to be made.

More substantively concerning is the content of the comments, perhaps especially when released in the middle of one of worst financial market trading days in several years.   Look at the substance of their new text: “we expect activity will pick up later this year, meaning more investment, more jobs, and higher wages”.      The link is to their cartoon summary of the Monetary Policy Statement, released almost two weeks ago, based on forecasts finalised almost three weeks ago.    Those were forecasts based on very short and quite limited negative coronavirus effect.    Those are the forecasts today’s statement links to.    How can they possibly still be the MPC’s best view now, when a growing range of medical experts now expect the virus to go round the world, infecting (in time) perhaps 40 to 70 per cent of the world’s population, with attendant disruption and uncertainty?  At very least, the risks to the happy upbeat story must be much more serious than the MPC thought them two or three weeks ago.

My guess is that the tweet wasn’t really intended as monetary policy and related economic commentary at all.  My guess is the MPC wasn’t aware of it, and quite possibly the Governor was not either.   Perhaps someone down the organisation running the Twitter account just thought it would be a good idea to tell us a bit more about the Bank (“we do forecasts”).    But official communications need to be managed better than that –  an excellent central bank, best in the world, would certainly do so.

Excellent central banks also communicate carefully and precisely about things bearing directly on their mandate.  A reader yesterday drew my attention to (something I’d missed) the way the Reserve Bank is falling short there too.   A good example was in the cartoon summary of the latest MPS, linked to in that tweet, where I found these

target 1

target 2

It isn’t just the cartoon version either.  Here from the MPC’s minutes

The Committee agreed that recent developments were consistent with continuing to meet their inflation and employment objectives

And my assiduous reader tells me the same phrasing pops up in comments made by the Governor, and in the last few MPS rounds as well.

Can you tell me what the Reserve Bank’s employment target is?

Trick question, as there isn’t one.

The MPC and the Governor surely know this, as their Remit –  the mandate set for them by the Minister of Finance –  is reproduced at the start of each Monetary Policy Statement.  Here is the central section

The current Remit sets out a flexible inflation targeting regime, under which the MPC must set policy to:

• keep future annual inflation between 1 and 3 percent over the medium term, with a focus on keeping future inflation near the 2 percent midpoint; and

• support maximum sustainable employment, considering a broad range of labour market indicators and taking into account that maximum sustainable employment is largely determined by non-monetary factors.

There is a clear and measureable inflation target, basically the one we’ve had for almost 20 years now.

And then there is a requirement to “support” maximum sustainable employment –  which is, more or less, what monetary policy tends to do when it acts to keep inflation near the inflation target.  There simply is not an employment target, so what are the Governor and MPC doing claiming that they’ve met this non-existent target.  It might be quite reasonable for them to argue that they believe they’ve done what they can to support keeping actual employment near maximum sustainable employment –  reasonable people might differ from them on that, but the debate would then be around an explicit mandate the Bank has been given.

Perhaps to many the loose language will seem harmless.   And perhaps when we are near to full employment it does little damage, but that won’t always be the case.  Come the next serious recession, unemployment will rise a lot/employment will fall a lot.  The Bank will do what it can to lean against those changes, but it won’t be failing –  not hitting a target –  just because the unemployment rate is high, perhaps even for several years (especially if the limits of monetary policy are reached).   More generally, it creates a sense in which someone there are equally important employment and inflation targets, when the Minister of Finance –  the one responsible for setting the target –  has clearly specified otherwise.

Mostly, it is probably some mix of sloppiness and the Governor’s ongoing efforts to play the “tribune of the masses” card.    And we should expect (demand) better than that from the Governor and the MPC – especially in formal written documents, whether aimed at the “specialists” Orr affects to despise or at a wider general audience.  You do not need to be sloppy in the use of language to communicate the essence of what you are supposed to be about.   From the Bank recently we’ve had loosely-grounded factual claims, outright misrepresentations, and repeated sloppy use of language to misrepresent the Bank’s mandate.  I’m guessing it would not go at all well with the Bank’s bank supervisors if they found the banks and financial institutions they regulate operating in so loose a way.  Apart from anything else, those supervisors might reasonably ask themselves “if things are this loose in what we see –  prepared for the public face –  what are things like where we cannot see, inside the organisation”.

These might be issues the Bank’s Board and the Minister of Finance –  both charged with keeping the Governor (and MPC) in line and accountable –  might be asked about.    I imagine they would just run defence for the Bank, but you never know.   Perhaps some journalist might approach an MPC member for comment –  and if, as most likely would happen, they simply refused to comment then report that stonewalling.

 

An unimpressive MPC

I didn’t expect to be particularly critical of the Reserve Bank after yesterday’s Monetary Policy Statement.  A journalist asked me yesterday morning what I’d say if they didn’t cut the OCR, and I noted to him that whether they cut or not, what I’d really be looking for was evidence of the Bank treating the issues in a serious way, alert to the magnitude of what was going on and the sheer uncertainty the world faces around the coronavirus.

They –  the almost a year old new Monetary Policy Committee –  did poorly on that score.  And in his press conference, I thought the Governor simply seemed out of his depth.  Much of what the Bank had to say might have seemed reasonable two weeks ago –  no doubt when the bulk of their forecasts were brought together – but the situation has been moving (deteriorating) quite rapidly since then.   They can’t update published forecasts by the day, but there was little sign in the record of yesterday’s meeting, or in the Governor’s remarks yesterday afternoon (or those of his senior staff), of anything more immediate or substantive.  The Governor seemed to attempt to cover himself by suggesting that the Bank”s line was consistent with some “whole of government” inter-agency perspective, but….that is (or should be) no cover at all, since Treasury and MBIE don’t face the same immediacy the Bank does (it had to make an OCR decision) and whatever the Ministry of Health might be able to pass along about the virus itself, it knows nothing about economic effects.  On those, the government should be able to look to the Bank for a lead.  Instead, we got something that seemed consistent with the lethargic, lagging, disengaged approach of our government (political and official) to the coronavirus situation.

Thus, remarkably, faced with one of the biggest out-of-the-blue economic disruptions we’ve seen for many years, arising directly and most immediately in one of the world’s two largest economies, we get three-quarters of the way through the press statement before there is any mention of the issue, ploughing our way through upbeat commentary including on the world economy.   Even when we do get there, the coronavirus effects are described only as an “emerging downside risk” –  for something which has already sharply reduced activity in parts of our economy.  It is the sort of language one might use for things where the effects are hard to see, not for something this visible, direct, and immediate.   And on the day when the head of the WHO –  who has often seemed to play defence for the PRC – was highlighting the scale of the global threat.  On a day when a CDC expert was on the wires noting that the only effective response is social distancing –  the more distant people stay the less economic activity there is.

The Bank loves to boast about how transparent it is. As I’ve noted, they are happy to tell us the (largely meaningless) forecasts for the OCR three years hence, but they are astonishingly secretive about their own analysis and deliberations.   Thus, we now get a “summary record” of the final MPC meeting.  Here is pretty much all we get to see about the coronavirus issue

The Committee discussed the initial assumption that the overall economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak in New Zealand will be of a short duration. The members acknowledged that some sectors were being significantly affected. They noted that their understanding of the duration and impact of the outbreak was changing quickly. The Committee discussed the monetary policy implications if the impacts of the outbreak were larger and more persistent than assumed and agreed that monetary policy had time to adjust if needed as more information became available.

….The Committee discussed alternative OCR settings and the various trade-offs involved.

There is no sense of the sort of models members were using to think about the issue and policy responses.  There is no sense of the key arguments for and against immediate action and how and why members agreed or disagreed with each of those points.  There is no sense of how the Bank balances risks, or of what they thought the downsides might have been to immediate action.  There is no effective accountability, and there is no guidance towards the next meeting.  Consistent with that, the document has one –  large meaningless (in the face of extreme uncertainty) – central view on the coronavirus effects, but no alternative scenarios, even though this is a situation best suited to scenario based analysis.   It is, frankly, a travesty of transparency, whether or not you or I happen to agree with the final OCR decision.

Consistent with that, there was no mention –  whether in the minutes or in the body of the document or in any remarks from the Governor –  of past OCR adjustments in the face of out-of-the-blue exogenous events.  Again, perhaps there are good reasons why the cuts in 2001 (after 9/11) or 2011 (after Christchurch) or –  less clearly –  around SARS in 2003 don’t offer good lessons for policy-setting now.  Presumably the MPC thought so, but they lay out no analysis or reasoning, and thus no way to check or contest (or even be convinced by) their thinking.  It really isn’t good enough.   Then again, in the press conference no journalist challenged the Governor on these omissions.

Similarly, there was no sign in any yesterday’s material or comments of having thought hard about the limitations on monetary policy (globally) as interest rates are near their effective lower bound.  All else equal, and with inflation well in check, that starting point should typically make central banks more ready to react early against clear negative demand shocks to do what can be done to minimise the risk of inflation expectations dropping away.  Perhaps again it still wouldn’t have been decisive this time –  and our Reserve Bank still has a little more leeway than many –  but to simply ignore the issue, and show no sign of having thought hard about the wider policy context, was pretty remiss.

From his tone in the press conference, it was as if the Governor really didn’t want monetary policy to have to play a part –  to do his job –  as if it was all just an unfortunate distraction from good news stories he’d been hoping to tell.   So he told one journalist that at best monetary policy would be a “bit player”: for individual sectors that is no doubt true (but then monetary policy is never about dealing with specific sectoral problems), but not really the point, since there has been a clear and significant, highly observable negative demand shocks, and a huge increase in uncertainty (often a theme of RB speeches etc over the last year).  In fact, in answer to another question the Governor was heard claiming that there was “no specific event” to consider reacting to (hundreds of millions of people locked down in China, second-largest economy in the world?) and –  worse –  then claimed that there was no need to act as we already have very low and stimulatory interest rates.  The problem with that argument is that they were just as low six weeks ago, and since then we’ve had a clear large negative demand shock.

Asked about the fact that implied long-term inflation expectations (from the government bond market) were barely above 1 per cent, the Governor took a lesson from politicians and simply refused to answer the direct question.  He then went to on to claim that the monetary policy foot was already on the accelerator, that we’ve had more positive global growth –  even as global projections are in the course of being revised down – and that if anything the question that should have been being asked was why we weren’t thinking about raising the OCR (“renormalising”).

One journalist thought to ask the Governor about the difference between the Bank’s GDP forecasts for the year ahead (2.8 per cent I think I heard) and those of various outside commentators (more like 2.0 per cent) and asked about the difference.  The Governor’s response was that of glib teenager: “0.8 per cent I think”.  Pushed a bit further, he indicated that he had no idea why the difference and (more importantly) no real interest. He claimed (fair enough) not to accountable for anyone else’s forecasts, but showed no interest in the cross-check (that used to be pretty standard around the MPC table) of understanding why the Bank is different from others, and why the Bank still thinks that is the best forecast.

There was also the line about market prices constantly adjusting and buffering……all this as the exchange rate rose the best part of 1 per cent on his announcement yesterday, rather undercutting any exchange rate buffering  of the economy that had been underway.

Oh, and then we had gung-ho political cheerleading for the government’s infrastructure spending plans.  He claimed to be “very excited” by it and rushing past any issues around “crowding out” was keen to talk up all the possibilities of “crowding in” accompanying new private sector investment etc.  No evidence, no analysis, but it probably went down well with the Labour Party.  Sadly, the Governor seems to do campaigning and cheerleading better than he does monetary policy, and there seems to be no serious and substantial figure on his team to compensate for those weaknesses (while, as far we can tell, the invisible unheard external MPC members just function as ciphers and political cover).

As an illustration of what the Bank simply seemed to be missing –  or choosing to ignore – a reader left this comment here last night

The shock from nCoV isn’t just confined to China. It’s spilling rapidly across the Asia-Pacific region…

I have just spent the past few days in Singapore and I write this on a flight to Hong Kong, which is maybe 15% occupied. Singapore is shutting down, which is worrying given its entrepôt status. Malls are emptying, as are hotels and restaurants. Traffic is thin. Companies are rolling out their business continuity plans which will further exacerbate the dislocation. This isn’t about just China, it’s region-wide.

The same reader sent me directly a photo of one of Changi airport’s main terminals at lunchtime yesterday, with this note “Changi T-3 unloading zone. Today, 12 noon. Not a soul in sight.. no cars no people..”

I noted yesterday that more or more people would be cancelling trips, business or leisure, in the face of some mix of risk aversion and sheer uncertainty.  That happened to me yesterday –  less about immediate threat than about the extreme uncertainty about the environment a few weeks hence.

And this morning we hear a local public health expert calling for our sluggish government to expand travel restrictions to people coming from various other countries (including Singapore and Hong Kong) where there is now established community outbreak. Or news of major international events in Hong Kong being cancelled. Or a major world telecoms convention in Barcelona being cancelled.

I’m not suggesting the Reserve Bank should have tried to turn itself into disease experts or even to pin their colours to a different central scenario.  But they simply don’t seem alert to the magnitude of what is already going on, including that huge rise in uncertainty, and they provided us with very little useful analysis about the way they think about monetary policy, demand shocks, risks, instrument stability etc –  nothing to give us any confidence in their stewardship.

Oh, and you’ll recall I mentioned yesterday their interesting –  and potentially positive – experiment in transparency, inviting real-time questions to the Governor during the press conference via Twitter.  As I’d noted in advance, one might well be sceptical about just which questions they would choose to answer.  Actuals were even worse than my expectations.  The Bank’s comms guy had clearly been primed not to expose the Governor to any searching questions, and only two were let through at all, essentially translated into patsy questions, allowing the Governor to wax eloquent on a couple of favoured themes.   No one forced them to adopt this particular approach to being more open.  But if they want kudos for it, they need to be seriously willing to allow real and searching questions to the Governor.

 

 

 

Coronavirus and the OCR

A month ago there were no commentators suggesting the OCR should be raised at the next review.   Since then we’ve watched day-by-day as the news about the coronavirus (now named “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes “COVID-19.”) has got relentlessly worse.   Against that backdrop, the case for an OCR cut today looks pretty unanswerable. Not because an OCR cut will make any material difference to March quarter GDP – it won’t –  but because the job of discretionary monetary policy is to lean against demand shocks, positive or negative, so long as inflation is well in check.

As I noted the other day, core inflation hasn’t got as high as the target midpoint for the whole of the last decade.  In that context, when there is a clear-cut (if not readily calculable) adverse demand shock, the Monetary Policy Committee would be remiss if it simply sat on the sidelines today, suggesting that they would merely be “watching closely” and be ready to act down the track.  In the current macro climate –  quiescent inflation, flat or falling inflation expectations –  there is simply no downside to acting now.    There is no particular virtue in instrument stability: the instrument exists to lean against macroeconomic instability (doing what it can to maintain “maximum sustainable employment”, in the current jargon).

Even a couple of weeks ago one might perhaps reasonably have reached a different view.  But now we have Chinese inbound tourism cut to almost nothing overnight (first as a result of Chinese restrictions and then our own), and confirmation from the universities that perhaps 60 per cent of their PRC students are still out of the country and unable to travel here.    We have much the same situation in Australia, a key economy for us, and in China itself –  one of the world’s largest economies –  huge economic disruption, and a spreading range of restrictions on movement, social gathering etc etc.  We see photos of largely empty streets or public transports in big Chinese cities that aren’t locked down, quite limited returns to work after earlier shutdowns, and so on. From Hong Kong there are reports of more cases, but again the bigger impact is probably people staying home, avoiding social gatherings etc.  Investment banks doing business in China –  ie quite severely constrained in their freedom to run negative lines –  have been marking down their 2020 Chinese and global economic forecasts.  Even the WHO –  which previously presented as relatively complacent – is now talking of this as

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva the vaccine lag meant “we have to do everything today using available weapons” and said the epidemic posed a “very grave threat”.

“To be honest, a virus is more powerful in creating political, economic and social upheaval than any terrorist attack,” Dr Ghebreyesus said.

“A virus can have more powerful consequences than any terrorist action.

I’ll leave the florid rhetoric to him, but if there was a good case for cutting the OCR after the 9/11 attacks and after the February 2011 earthquake (and I think there was) that case is at least as persuasive –  compelling in my view –  now.

It isn’t really clear to me why, faced with a decision to make today (not, say, a week ago as with the RBA), anyone would favour not cutting the OCR.   The OCR (monetary policy more generally) is designed to be flexible and responsive (easing and, if warranted later, reversing such easing).  The OCR isn’t about support for individual adversely affected sectors –  if that is really needed in some areas it is a fiscal policy/government matter –  but about stabilising the overall economy faced with (in this case) clear negative shocks.  The tool is fit for purpose.

One argument sometimes heard is that we shouldn’t do anything because things are so uncertain.  But that argument should run exactly the other way round. The high degree of uncertainty, which is probably now rising by the day, is exactly the conditions in which people put off spending, put off travel, are a bit warier about eating out, and so on. It represents a likely material adverse demand effect on top of the specific channels (tourists, students) we already knew about.  Think of travel.  You might have been planning a business trip into Asia.  You might be happy enough to go today, and yet you look ahead and wonder what things might be like when you want to get home again, let alone what conditions might be like if somehow you got sick.  I reckon we’ll see an increasingly number of non-essential trips postponed, whether business or leisure.  And that won’t be so just in New Zealand.   With each passing week, we’ll also see more spillover effects into spending elsewhere in the economy and the confidence surveys –  whatever we make of them –  are likely to take a hit.

There is also the argument that things will snap back once the virus is behind us.  No doubt that is the most sensible assumption, but an increasing number of commentaries are noting that a full snap back isn’t likely to be a matter of a few weeks: it seems increasingly likely that the level of economic activity over much of this year, in much of the world, will be weaker than otherwise –  perhaps not a lot by the end of the year, but that is still 10-11 months away.    And assuming things will simply snap back risks being a recipe for doing nothing with monetary policy when it was actually needed (there are plenty of things forecasters think will be shortlived, but turn out to drag on rather longer).

I’ve also heard a story that the Reserve Bank cutting the OCR by 50 basis points last August may have instilled in some a sense of unjustified worry, becoming a bit of an own goal. Is there a risk of something similar now?    First, the August cut wasn’t well-handled.  It may have been substantively justified, but was poorly communicated and was not clearly tied to specific and very visible adverse developments here and abroad.  As it happens, I don’t think the “own goal” effects, if they existed at all, lasted for long at all (little sustained evidence in eg confidence surveys).    What about a move now?  Sure it would be unexpected, in that surveys of economists were all picking no change.  But (a) those surveys were often done a week or more ago, (b) economists generally aren’t asked what they think the Bank should do, and (c) there is a very clearly identified adverse event, which every commentator will be focusing on.  It would be quite easy for the Bank to credibly justify a cut today, specifically tagged to the coronavirus (and referring to 9/11 and 2011).  And if in doing so the Bank raised a bit more public consciousness of the mounting economic issues, it would probably be no bad thing anyway.

Perhaps the final caveat I’ve seen is that global equity markets seem quite surprisingly sanguine.  If they aren’t pricing something quite bad –  or even high risk – why should central banks react?  It is a fair question.  One answer is a matter of different time-horizons.  Equity markets are pricing earnings prospects over the life of the firm, while central banks are (by design) supposed to be focused more on the short-term.  A few bad months might not rationally affect the value of most firms much, but might still warrant lower policy interest rates. It is just a different game.  But it is also worth noting that New Zealand markets are pricing an OCR cut by the end of this year.   If it is needed, and likely to be useful, in a coronavirus context, it is much more useful –  and more likely –  frontloaded.

Time (not long now) will tell what the Monetary Policy Committee decides to do.  I am encouraged by two things: first, was the MPC’s willingness to act decisively last August (even if the accompanying communications etc were hamfisted) on much less clear-cut evidence, and second by the fact that one of the external members of the MPC (retired economics professor, Bob Buckle) was heavily involved in The Treasury’s early work on pandemic economic effects last decade.

Whatever the MPC chooses to do, the Reserve Bank has introduced an interesting new exercise in transparency.  If you are on Twitter you can ask the Bank directly a question during the press conference this afternoon.

The OCR should be cut

The Reserve Bank Monetary Policy Committee releases its next Monetary Policy Statement and Official Cash Rate (OCR) decision next Wednesday –  the first we’ve heard from them since November.

Until a couple of weeks ago you could probably mount a pretty strong case for the status quo. If the MPC was right to have left the OCR unchanged at 1 per cent in November,  it probably looked as if that was still going to be the right decision in February.  I thought they should have cut in November, and so was still inclined to think they should cut now –  but it wasn’t a particularly strongly held view.  It is worth remembering that after all these years, the Bank’s favoured core inflation measure still isn’t back to 2 per cent (it was last there in 2009) and there wasn’t a lot in the wind suggesting it was likely to rise further.   But there hadn’t looked to be a lot in it.

The Reserve Bank’s Survey of Expectations, released at 3pm today, looks to be not-inconsistent with that sort of status quo story.  But the survey closed a week ago, and opened two weeks ago –  the Bank doesn’t tell us when responses came in, but I know I completed mine on 25 January.

Since then coronavirus has become a huge story.  From an economic perspective, the issue isn’t so much the number of deaths –  50 or so in total two weeks ago and 640 now, on official figures –  as the policy and personal responses, here (and in other similar countries) and in China.    Two weeks ago, perhaps optimists might have hoped a one week shutdown over Lunar New Year might break the back of the problem.  But then, of course, ever more cities in China were locked down, the PRC authorities banned most outbound tourism, countries starting putting restrictions on arrivals of non-citizens who’d been in the PRC, and finally New Zealand –  apparently dragged along by Australia –  banned the arrivals of anyone other than citizens (and their close family members) who’d been in China recently.  We’ve also seen dairy product prices falling, talking of serious disruption in the logging industry, and so on.   We’ve even seen some more-domestic effects, including the cancellation of the Lantern Festival in Auckland.  Oh, and there seems to be no sign in the PRC responses that suggests they think they’ve already got on top of the problem.

No one knows how long these effects will last, or whether things may yet get (perhaps materially) worse from here (I was talking to a journalist the other day about possible extreme scenarios, and it doesn’t really do to contemplate what would happen to world trade –  perhaps only for a short period – in such scenarios).

When I say ‘no one”, that of course includes the Monetary Policy Committee, who will have not a shred more information on the underlying situation –  and probably very little more on domestic economic effects – than you, I, or anyone else.   Any data available just yet –  perhaps daily air arrivals, or electronic transactions volumes in (say) Queenstown –  will be fragmentary at best, and there won’t even be new local business survey data for a few weeks.  So they have to work with what we know, perhaps how things would be likely to play out if the policy responses (here and abroad) remain much as they are for any length of time, and within a framework for thinking about risk and regret.

All of which looks a lot like the classic sort of shock monetary policy is designed to help manage (lean against).  Aggregate demand in New Zealand will take a not-insignificant hit: tourism and export education from the PRC is about 1 per cent of GDP, and tourist numbers will dry up almost completely for now, and (if our numbers are similar to those in Australia) the export education numbers are likely to more than halve.

These effects might not last long, but they are the situation we face now and no one has any idea how long the adverse effect will last.

But these aren’t the only demand effects.   Australia and the PRC are our two largest overall export markets: economic activity in China is likely to have taken a substantial hit this quarter, and Australian universities are (for example) even more dependent on the PRC student market than the New Zealand ones are.

And how would you respond to uncertainty if you were in business, or were (for example) a lending institution.  The rational response is to put projects on hold where possible.  That seems likely to happen –  perhaps on a very small scale initially (few new projects start each week, but mounting as the situation becomes more protracted (and perhaps doubts grow about just how quickly business might rebound).

Also, although the focus to date has been on services exports (tourism and export education), and a couple of goods export sectors, even if goods can be still shipped out to China, you have wonder how soon the flow of imports is going to be affected –  people who’ve been in China in the last 14 days can’t enter Singapore, Australia, PNG, Fiji, Taiwan or…..New Zealand (and, I understand it, much of New Zealand’s trade is trans-shipped through Australia or Singapore).  Ships need sailors.

I don’t know what the Reserve Bank will have chosen to do about their formal economic forecasts.  In their shoes, I’d probably publish ex-coronavirus forecasts, and then a series of scenarios around coronavirus effects (what else can they do: they usually treat other policies as a given, and in this case the ban of people who’ve visited the PRC is scheduled to lift next Sunday, but I doubt anyone much expects it will be, and more importantly neither they nor anyone else can credibly forecast the path of the virus, including how its is beginning to spread outside China).

But whatever they do in the body of the document is much less important than the policy call they make.     This is the time to cut the OCR. perhaps even by 50 basis points.  It would be a mix of risk-mitigation and responding to a real loss of demand (very rarely do we see such hard early evidence of a specific source of demand drying up so quickly).

The standard counter-argument is something along the lines of “early days”, “likely to rebound quite quickly –  eventually”, and so on.  But here is the thing about monetary policy: it can be adjusted quickly (to cut and to raise); it is the tool designed for short-term macro-stabilisation (unlike fiscal policy) and some of the channels –  notably those to the exchange rate –  work really quite quickly.  I’m not suggesting that cutting the OCR would make more than a trivial difference to GDP in the March quarter (the tourists and students still won’t have come), but if the effects are any longer-lasting we would start to see the benefits.

Twice before the Reserve Bank has cut the OCR is response to truly-exogenous external events.  The first was the unscheduled 50 basis point cut in September 2001 (a week or so after the terrorist attacks).  Here was the case we made then

“It seems more likely now that the current slowdown in the world economy will worsen. In these circumstances, New Zealand’s short-term economic outlook would be adversely affected, although any downturn might well be relatively short-lived.
“New Zealand business and consumer confidence will be hurt by recent international and domestic developments, and today’s move is a precaution in a period of heightened uncertainty.

I still reckon that was an appropriate response at the time, even though we had (a) no new survey or hard data, (b) there were no foreign or domestic government restrictions which would have the direct effect of biting into domestic demand in New Zealand and (c) the exchange rate –  already low –  was by this point almost 5 per cent lower than it had been on 11 September.  It was explicitly precautionary, but in a climate where our best judgement told us that if there was any effect it was going to be adverse (disinflationary).

The second such 50 point cut was in March 2011, after the severe February earthquake.    As the Governor put it at the time

“The earthquake has caused substantial damage to property and buildings, and immense disruption to business activity. While it is difficult to know exactly how large or long-lasting these effects will be, it is clear that economic activity, most certainly in Christchurch but also nationwide, will be negatively impacted. Business and consumer confidence has almost certainly deteriorated.

Going on to observe

We expect that the current monetary policy accommodation will need to be removed once the rebuilding phase materialises. This will take some time. For now we have acted pre-emptively in reducing the OCR to lessen the economic impact of the earthquake and guard against the risk of this impact becoming especially severe.”

We knew that the longer-term impact of the earthquake would be a big positive boost to demand (all that rebuilding activity, which would crowd out other activity in time) but still concluded that it was appropriate to cut early and quite hard to lean against adverse confidence effects etc (and some direct adverse demand effects –  eg to South Island tourism).    Perhaps we just got lucky, but it still looks like an appropriate response to me, even with years of hindsight.

In June 2003, SARS also played a role in the Bank’s decision to cut the OCR then.  I wasn’t involved in that decision –  I was working overseas –  so don’t have as strong a sense of the balance of factors.  One can mount an argument that it was unnecessary to have cut  –  the Governor eventually concluded as much –  but much of that argument was with the benefit of a hindsight that real-time decisionmakers could not have had (about how quickly the virus would be contained).

Set against the backdrop of those three cuts, I reckon the case for an OCR cut now –  even it had to be pullled back in six months’ time –  is stronger than in any of those other cases.  We have clear adverse domestic demand effects, that aren’t just about confidence but about policy choices in China and in New Zealand (and, more peripherally, in other countries), we don’t just have a one-day event which we live with the aftermath of (rather an ongoing situation, which is probably still worsening), the epicentre of the issue is in the world’s largest or second-largest economy which itself is taking a large negative economic hit for now, and Australia –   our other main trading partner, and major source of investment –  faces very similar issues to New Zealand.

Against that backdrop, it isn’t obvious what the downside would be to an OCR cut next week.  Core inflation is still below the target midpoint, and yet the demand shock is adverse.  Perhaps things resolve themselves very quickly in a couple of months and the Bank is slow to pull back the OCR cut.  The worst that could happen then might be core inflation going a bit above 2 per cent.  But since 2 per cent isn’t supposed to be a ceiling, and we’ve haven’t even been to 2 per cent in the last decade, that might count as a gain not a loss, in terms of supporting core medium-term inflation expectations.

Then, of course, think about really bad scenarios, and a world with very limited fiscal and monetary policy capacity to respond to a serious downturn. It really is important to keep those expectations up.  Recall that that was one of the stories the Reserve Bank told for a while after the unexpected 50 basis point cut last August.

But here is the implied inflation expectation measure from market prices, right up to today (the difference between yields on nominal and indexed 10 year government bonds)

IIB jan 2020

There was a bit of lift in this measure of implied expectations late last year (partly global, but a range of central banks were responding similarly).  But now we are pretty much back to where we were before the Bank cut the OCR unexpectedly sharply six months ago (and this even after bond yields have bounced off their lows earlier this week).   I guess we should take some comfort that implied expectations aren’t lower than those in August, but 0.98 per cent is a long way from 2.

And as one last straw in the wind, in 2017 the Bank (helpfully) added a couple of questions asking about respondents expectations for inflation five and ten years hence.  The answers have hewed pretty close to 2 per cent –  I usually put in 2 per cent for 10 years hence, noting that the current MPC/government won’t have any effect on those outcomes –  but when I opened the survey results today I noticed that even these expectations (which the Bank likes to boast of, as a sign of confidence) have been edging down.

long-term expecs

The differences are small, and in isolation I wouldn’t put much weight on them.  But not much is moving in the right direction, and these results were surveyed two weeks ago when most respondents thought the policy status quo was just fine for now.

It seems a pretty obvious call to me that they should cut on Wedneday –  absent some startling positive turn in the virus and related news between now and Wednesday morning –  rather than just idly handwringing about “watching and waiting”.  And the Governor/MPC was willing to make some big and unexpected calls (wisely or not) last year.    The Bank wouldn’t be the first central bank to move either.

Who knows whether or not the Bank will actually move on Wednesday – quite possibly not even them yet – but I’m sure the MPC will have been looking for some analysis of past responses to out-of-the-blue shocks and thinking about the similarities and differences here.    Whichever path they finally choose, that thinking should be laid out – not just noted – in the MPS and/or the minutes.

 

 

 

 

Easy to underestimate how far things may go

I was at a meeting earlier this week at which a funds manager from one of the leading firms in the New Zealand market was giving us a presentation on our money, their performance etc etc.  We had a light agenda and the presentation was basically over and I like to probe funds managers to see how they think about things.  So I asked him about the possibility of New Zealand getting to negative interest rates, deliberately phrased in  a fairly vague way (rather than, say, “what is the probability in the next 12 months?”).  You’ll recall that the OCR at present is 1 per cent.

Anyway, the funds manager’s response was that it was “highly unlikely”, going on to note that although a “couple of people” had been talking up the possibility that had been a while ago.  The implication was that those people had been, most likely, proved wrong.

I found it a really surprising answer.  Maybe many clients (at least on our fairly modest scale) don’t like talk about uncertainty, contingency etc and want to hear more definitive views from their funds manager.  If so, they are ill-advised.  The world isn’t like that.     And it isn’t 1990 when negative interest rates anywhere in the world might have seemed all-but inconceivable.

Closer to now and to home, even the Governor of the Reserve Bank has been quite open about the possibility of negative rates.

If someone asks me my question –  and they do from time to time –  my answer is along these lines: in many respects it would be surprising if we didn’t get to a negative OCR at some point in the next few years, just because the starting point is one per cent and we know so little about the future.  I often go on to add that after nine years since the last recession the chances of some fairly significant downturn at some point in the next few years must be quite high (statistically, the probability of a significant downturn in any particular year is never that low).

Fan charts are one of the techniques people use to illustrate the plausible ranges of uncertainty around macroeconomic (and similar) forecasts.  Here is an example, applied to the US, from an RBA Discussion Paper published a couple of years ago.

fan charts 1.png

Focus on the bottom-right chart.  Over a three-year ahead horizon, only 70 per cent of historical forecasting errors for the Fed funds target rate would be captured in a range five percentage points wide.

Our OCR system has only been running for 20 years, but I had a look at the historical record to see how much the OCR moved over a three year horizon. (One could do the exercise looking at outcomes vs RB forecasts, but that would be more time-consuming.)  The (absolute value) median change in the OCR over a three year horizon was 1.25 per cent.  Take a longer run of data and look at changes over three years in the 90 day bill rate since financial markets were liberalised here and the median change was 1.8 per cent.

Those are medians, so encompassing only 50 per cent of the changes.  From a starting OCR of 1 per cent, a reasonable description of the range of possibilities –  knowing precisely nothing about the macro outlook –  simply based on historical variability would be along the lines of a 50 per cent chance that the OCR three years hence would be in a range of -0.25 to 2.25 per cent, with a 25 per cent chance each that the OCR would be lower or higher than that the options encompassed by that range.     Simply based on historical variability, there might be something like a 30 per cent chance that the OCR would go negative, from this starting point, in the next few years.

Another way of looking at the issue is to look at how large the falls in short-term interest rates have been when the economy turned down.

For the pre-OCR period we had these examples:

1987 to 1989:   about 600 basis points

1991-1992:   about 700 basis points

1997-1998:   about 450 basis points

And since the OCR was adopted

2001:    175 basis points (not measured as a New Zealand recession)

2008-09:    575 basis points

Recessions in New Zealand look to have been associated with 500 (or more) basis points of cuts in short-term interest rates.

That isn’t particularly unusual: I was reading last night a recent speech by one of Fed Board of Governors who noted, in a quite matter-of-fact way, that the Fed has typically needed about 4.5-5 percentage points of policy leeway in recessionary periods in the last 50 years.

(Under current laws and technologies) the OCR can’t be cut by 500 basis points, but cut by 125 basis points from here and we would already be negative.

Of course, it might be reasonable to ask what is the appropriate starting point. The last time the OCR was raised was back in late 2014, and the OCR is already 250 points lower than it was then.   Since those OCR increases were never really warranted by the data (with hindsight –  and some with foresight – never really needed to meet the inflation target), perhaps 3.5 per cent isn’t really a sensible starting point.

But this year’s 75 basis points of OCR cuts have been in response to actual/forecast data on weakening economies and inflation pressures. If so, perhaps 1.75 per cent might be a reasonable starting point for comparison.  And if a recession hits in the next few years, historical experience suggests that (the equivalent) of 500 basis points of easing will be required.  Again, we can’t cut 500 basis points from 1.75 per cent, but we don’t need anything like that –  less than half in fact –  to get negative.

What are the chances of a recession in the next three years?   Well, no one can tell you with any great confidence.  But if we look at (a) the array of risks, locally but especially internationally, (b) the passage of time since the last recessions, and (c) the very limited conventional macro firepower authorities have at their disposal (and are known by markets to have at their disposal) it would be a brave forecaster –  or funds manager – who didn’t have such a possibility in their reasonable range of outcomes over the next few years.   One could add into that mix the fact that in most advanced economies inflation starts below target (quite different from, say, the New Zealand starting point in 2008).   With the best will (wishfulness?) in the world, I’d have thought a significant downturn, requiring a lot more macro policy support, had to be more than “highly unlikely”.

The Reserve Bank surveys professional expectations/forecasts of the OCR, but only a year ahead, and it only asks for point estimates, not (say) a band within which the forecaster would be fairly confident.  The latest survey has a range – for September next year –  of point estimates of 0.0 per cent to 1.25 per cent.  Even if the more pessimistic of the respondents might have pulled back their point estimates a bit, they aren’t responses suggesting negative rates in the next few years are “highly unlikely”.

I’m not sure whether anyone sells options on, say, bank bill futures in New Zealand.  If so, it would be interesting to know what the prices of those instruments are saying about the range of plausible outcomes for the next few years.

I suspect our fund manager was really just giving (a) his point estimate, and (b) implicitly at least, something about the next 12 months or so.  But the general point is independent of his specific comment: when the OCR is already 1 per cent and the economy is still relatively near a NAIRU (not deep in a downturn already), little or nothing from historical experience should give anyone grounds for confidently predicting that New Zealand will avoid a negative OCR at some point in the next few years.   Constantly thinking the OCR is as low as it will go has been a pretty consistent mistake of observers of New Zealand for 10 years now.

Deputy Governor talking up the economy

On Friday afternoon a reader sent through a copy of a Bloomberg story quoting Geoff Bascand, Deputy Governor, on the health of the New Zealand economy.    As reported, it was pretty upbeat to say the least.   But the foundations for such an upbeat tone seemed more akin to sand than to solid rock.  Storms expose houses built on sand.

This was the opening section of the article

New Zealand’s central bank doesn’t expect its new bank capital rules to present a headwind for the economy, which looks to be near the point of entering a recovery, Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand said.

“We don’t expect major economic impacts” from banks raising their capital buffers, Bascand said in an interview Friday in Wellington. Furthermore, latest developments are “supportive of the story that we’re near or around that turning point” in the economic cycle, he said.

Bascand had been interviewed by Bloomberg’s local reporter, Matthew Brockett, following the announcement on Thursday of the final bank capital decisions: very big increases in required bank capital ratios, even if some portion of that can be met a bit more cheaply than the Governor’s initial proposal had envisaged.  So I guess we should expect spin.  Bascand’s day job is as the senior manager responsible for financial stability, banking regulation etc.  All the advice and the documents published on Thursday emerged from his wing of the Bank.  But he is also a statutory member of the Monetary Policy Committee, with personal responsibility –  with his colleagues –  for actual delivering inflation rates near target, something the Bank hasn’t managed for years now.  For most of that time, the Bank has been consistently too optimistic about the economy, and about the prospects for getting inflation back to target (fluctuating around the target midpoint, perhaps especially in core inflation terms).

I guess the characterisation “doesn’t expect its new bank capital rules to present a headwind for the economy” is the journalist’s, and there is quite a lot of leeway in Bascand’s own words: “we don’t expect major economic impacts”.  If “major” here means “singlehandedly tip the economy into recession” then I suspect everyone would agree, but that shouldn’t be the standard.   The Bank’s own numbers tell us that they think the base level of GDP –  absent crises –  will be lower as a result of the change in the capital rules.  And their modelling effort focuses on the long-term, not the transition.  The headline out of last week’s announcement was that the transition period had been stretched out, from five years in the consultative document to seven years.  But (a) in making decisions now, and in the next couple of years, people will sensibly factor in changes in the regulatory environment that have already been announced (and are final, in the Governor’s words) –  expectations matter, as the Bank often (and rightly) tells us, with its monetary policy hat on and (b) for the big banks a significant chunk of the policy change is frontloaded, because the change in rules to increase risk-weighted assets calculated using internal models to 90 per cent of what would be calculated using the standardised rules happens right at the start.  That change alone is equivalent to a 20 per cent increase in minimum capital.

And it isn’t as if there are no hints of effects already, even before the final decisions were made.  The Governor and Deputy Governor clearly prefer to avoid addressing these data, but the Bank’s own credit conditions survey showed not only that credit conditions (a) have already been tightening, (b) are expected to continue tightening, and (c) respondents ascribe much of that effect to the impact of regulatory changes.

credit 4

Perhaps the banks were just making it up when they responded to this survey?  Perhaps, but the Bank was happy to cite either components of the survey in its recent FSR, just not these awkward ones.

And why wouldn’t much higher capital requirements, in a world where there is no full MM offset (as the Bank itself recognises), no full or immediate scope for disintermediation to entities/channels not subject to the Bank’s rules, constrain credit availability to some extent, especially in the early stages of a multi-year transition period?   And, as the Bank also keeps telling us, the availability of credit is one of lubricants to economic activity.  If credit isn’t as readily available, all else equal economic growth is likely to be dented.

And what about Bascand’s other big claim that indicators are

“supportive of the story that we’re near or around that turning point” in the economic cycle,

Count me sceptical.     At best, what we’ve seen so far might support the possibility of an inflection point.  If you want a nice summary, with charts, I thought last week’s ANZ economics weekly was about right.

It is worth remembering just how subdued economic growth rates have been this decade –  headline, not even per capita –  and that the slowing has been underway for several years.

GDP growth

On the home front, business confidence and related measure seem to have bounced a bit, but aren’t outside the range we’ve seen over the last couple of years  (when actual growth has been falling and low).   Some agricultural products prices are doing very well, but (a) surely the best estimate is that many of these lifts will be shortlived, and (b) debt overhangs and tightening credit constraints locally will limit the extent to which near-term income gains materially increase activity.  Bascand makes quite a bit of the promise of fiscal stimulus, but recall that on the Treasury fiscal impulse indicator there was a fairly substantial fiscal stimulus in the year to June 2019, and growth was low and slowing.

And that is before we start on the rest of the world.  Here is an ANZ chart of growth in world trade and industrial production

ANZ trade

Data out of Europe, Australia, and the PRC (the latter two being the largest New Zealand export markets) have remained pretty downbeat, even as sentiment ebbs and flows at the margin.  The latest Chinese export data offered little encouragement,  And there isn’t much optimism about the US either, with a considerable chunk of US forecasters expecting a recession in the next two years.   And all this against a backdrop in which people (markets in particular) know that there are quite severe limits on how much macro policy can do if a new serious downturn happens.  That alone is likely to engender caution.

The TWI doesn’t move independently of all these domestic and foreign influences, but it is worth noting that it is now a bit higher than it was when the Bank surprised everyone with their 50 basis point OCR cut in August.

TWI dec 19

Perhaps time will prove the Deputy Governor right, but at present I’d suggest his claims should be taken with a considerable pinch of salt.  Things probably aren’t getting worse right now, but it seems heroic –  against the backdrop of both domestic and foreign constraints and headwinds (including those capital changes) to be talking up the idea of a turning point in the economy.    And rather concerning if this is the sort of sentiment shaping the Bank’s monetary policy thinking right now, after a decade in which things have kept disappointing on the downside.   It doesn’t have that “whatever it takes” sound about it, of which we heard quite a bit in the wake of the August OCR cut.  It sounds more like the sort of spin we hear repeatedly from the Minister of Finance and Prime Minister, who go on endlessly about headline GDP growth rates here and abroad, and never once mention how much faster population growth is here than in most advanced countries.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the sudden mysterious, but very welcome, appearance of inflation expectations as a factor in the Bank’s storytelling about policy.    For a few weeks the Governor was outspoken in his desire to act boldly to boost inflation expectations, and do what he could to minimise the risk of hitting lower bound constraints in the next downturn.

And then, like the morning mist, all that concern was gone again –  totally absent in the presentation of the latest MPS.   If anything, inflation expectations measures had fallen a bit further from August to November.

I don’t typically pay much attention to the Reserve Bank’s survey measure of household inflation expectations.  Neither, I expect, do they.  But it has been running for a long time now, and the latest numbers –  finally released late last month – look as though they should be a bit troubling for the Bank.

household expecs 19

This series is nowhere near as volatile as the ANZ’s household expectations survey (although, for what it is worth, recent observations in that series have also been pretty low).   It began in the far-flung days when the inflation target was 0 to 2 per cent (centred on 1 per cent) and yet this is the first time ever that household year ahead inflation expectations (median measure) have dropped below 2 per cent.  At one level, that might be welcome –  the series has historically had quite an upward bias –  but when household expectations are converging towards professional and market expectations, and all those are below the 2 per cent target midpoint it shouldn’t be a matter of comfort at all.    This is the sort of drop the Governor claimed (at least in August and September) he was trying to prevent.   In the same survey, respondents are also asked whether they expect inflation to rise, fall, or stay the same over the next year (probably easier to answer than a point estimate).  There too respondents have become less confident that inflation is going to pick up.

For a brief period a few months ago it looked as though the Bank, and the Governor, were really taking seriously the challenges we face, in a context where conventional monetary policy just does not have much more leeway.  More recently, they seem more interested in talking things up again –  keeping pace with the political rhetoric, and perhaps playing defence re the bank capital changes.  A more realistic tone would offer a better chance of getting through tough times with as little damage as possible, including by better preparing firms and households for the risks that arise if the global downturn intensifies, with little monetary policy leeway, the risk of significant policy-induced tightening in credit conditions, and inflation (and particularly at present inflation expectations) falling away.

We are getting very late in the business cycle and we’d be better served by a strongly counter-cyclical central bank, rather than one playing defence for its own (deeply flawed) other policies, and whistling to keep spirits up (and political masters, making decisions about the future of the Bank, happy).  With the sort of mindset on display at present they risk being blindsided by events, in a context where –  as the Governor himself put it only a few months ago –  the costs and consequences of being wrong the other way (inflation gets to say 2.3 per cent) are pretty slight and inconsequential after a decade of such low inflation.

Compass gone wonky

Having delivered his Monetary Policy Statement, done his press conference, fronted up to the Finance and Expenditure Committee –  oh, and roiled the markets –  Reserve Bank Governor appears to have jumped on a plane for a quieter couple of days at conference in San Francisco.  I don’t begrudge him that –  the conference in question is usually pretty good (I got to go once) and this year’s programme looked as interesting as ever.  The topic was “Monetary Policy Under Global Uncertainty”.

The Governor was on a “Policymaker’s Panel” –  along with a Deputy Governor from Korea and a former Deputy Governor from Brazil.    It can’t have been a very in-depth panel (the programme allowed only 50 minutes in total), but we don’t hear much systematic from the Governor on monetary policy and so it was welcome that he chose to release his short (four pages or so of text) remarks.  I don’t think I’ve seen them covered in the local media at all.    That is perhaps a little surprising as, having greatly surprised commentators and markets in two MPSs in succession, his remarks to this FRBSF panel were under the heading Monetary Policy: A Compass Point in Uncertain Times.   Sounds like a worthy aspiration.  Shame about the execution.

But what did Orr have to say in his brief remarks?

First, he attempts to suggest that policy (etc) uncertainty isn’t really much of an issue in New Zealand.  Yes, he really does claim that, drawing on a measure – of the dispersion of GDP forecasts –  which isn’t an indicator of policy uncertainty at all.    Now, no one is going to claim that we have anything like the degree of policy uncertainty they face in the UK (or, thus, its major trading partners including Ireland). We don’t even have a “trade war”.   Then again, we had months of uncertainty around capital gains taxes, ongoing uncertainty about the future labour market regulatory regime, and now about the future water pollution regime. Oh, and bank capital requirements…..to name just a few.

Then we come to paragraph that I agree with, quite strongly, and yet it seems he no longer does.   In the light of the uncertainty (globally) he tells us

it is vital that monetary policy acts as a compass point for decision making

going on to note

For New Zealand, this means setting policy to achieve our price stability target and support maximum sustainable employment. It means acting decisively to prevent an unnecessary worsening in economic conditions and the un-anchoring of long-term inflation expectations. And it means recognising the limits of monetary policy.

I’m not going to disagree, but quite how he justifies his MPC’s decisions, and communications, in and around both the August and November MPSs is less clear.  As I noted the other day, in August –  when they did act “decisively” there was little attempt to invoke arguments about inflation expectations in support, then we had a couple of months of wheeling out such arguments, only for them largely to be abandoned last week when he chose to err on the side of caution, “unnecessarily” so, at least in my view, against a backdrop of inflation and inflation expectations below targets with (in their own words) downside risks.   Not much of guiding light there.

Then we get the sort of paragraph beloved of self-important central bankers

In discussing these topics, I will touch on how, since the Great Financial Crisis, central banks have been tasked with a widened set of objectives. On one hand, we appreciate the constraints faced by other institutes, and the peril that may have resulted from the crisis had central banks not stepped up to the task. On the other hand, central banks are sometimes expected to solve phenomena that are structural in nature, and that do not sit easily within the conventional realm of monetary policy. At the Reserve Bank, we are always exploring new policy options to meet our broadened mandate.

Except that, typically, central banks don’t have a wider mandate how than they did before.  That is certainly true of New Zealand –  where nothing at all (in legislation) has changed around regulation/supervision, and where the change to the formal goal of monetary policy was, in the Bank’s own telling, more cosmetic than substantive, designed to capture something about the way the Bank had long sought to operate, while altering some rhetoric.  The big change in New Zealand has been central bankers looking to extend their own reach, both within and beyond the mandate Parliament has given them –  whether LVR limits (arguably within the letter of the law), focus on “culture and conduct” (clearly not),  the Maori strategy (not), the green agenda (largely not) and so on.    Perhaps in a few corners of the world there has been a belief, by a few people, that central banks can markedly change structural growth outcomes.   If so, such a mantra has rarely, if ever, been heard here in the last decade. But it makes central bankers feel important and valued to pretend otherwise.

Keeping on through the speech, we do actually get some recognition that “policy uncertainty” –  and “regulatory requirements” –  were acting as a barrier to business investment in New Zealand.  As he notes, most of this doesn’t have much to do with monetary policy, except that monetary policy needs to take account of whatever is influncing overall demand and supply pressures/balances.

From a central bank perspective, uncertainty has one clear impact: it makes our job harder. Good monetary policy depends on reasonable forecasts. High uncertainty makes forecasting harder. There is more noise in the data and forecasts are more subject to revision. A consequence of this is that the Official Cash Rate (OCR) may be less predictable simply because the world in which we are making our decisions is less predictable.

Except that earlier he showed that chart (mentioned above) in which the dispersion of GDP forecasts has been quite a bit lower than usual in the last couple of years.  So it might be a fair point in principle, but in practice –  in recent months –  the real source of short-term uncertainty about the OCR has been……the Reserve Bank itself.    Not a point that Governor chose to address.

He then moves on to a section headed “Monetary policy response to uncertainty”.

First up is a straw man

Firstly, maintaining low and stable inflation enables organisations and individuals to carry out meaningful financial planning, by reducing overall uncertainty. This is something that is nearly impossible when prices are high and volatile or falling uncontrollably.

Neither is a world any advanced country has been dealing with in recent decades (I’m assuming he meant “inflation” was high and volatile), and in the case of “falling uncontrollably” never.

Then we do get to recent New Zealand policy

In particular, it is now more suitable for us to take a risk-management approach. In short, this means we look to minimise our regrets. We would rather act quickly and decisively, with a risk that we are too effective, than do too little, too late, and see conditions worsen. This approach was visible in our August OCR decision when we cut the rate by 50 basis points. It was clear that providing more stimulus sooner held little risk of overshooting our objectives—whereas holding the OCR flat ran the risk of needing to provide significantly more stimulus later.

And yet, wasn’t that title something about a reliable “compasss point”.   None of his August approach was flagged in advance, arguments for it unfolded only slowly even after the event, and then –  when there was still (on his own numbers) “little risk of overshooting our objectives” they abandoned that particular “least regrets” line, without explanation in advance, in the release, or subsequently.  He goes on

We can also address uncertainty through our communication and forward guidance, which are broad-ranging. We reveal our assessment of the economy—good or bad—to the public, so they can make decisions based on the best possible information amid the prevailing uncertainty. We voice the types of policies we believe may be needed to sustain long and prosperous growth—be they monetary, fiscal, or financial policies.

But that is almost exactly the opposite of what the Governor and MPC are doing.  We have still not had a single substantive speech from the Governor on monetary policy and the economy.  We haven’t at all from three of the statutory members of the MPC.  It is harder to make good decisions when central banks spring –  quite unnessary – surprises.  Oh, and actually it is no part of the Bank’s mandate to be opining on what policies are best for “long and prosperous growth” (although it is remarkable that structural policies appear not to be relevant to the Governor’s view of growth, productivity etc).

There is a final page on “Beyond conventional monetary policy” which I don’t have particular problem with.  It is good that the Governor again repeats his intention to publish their analysis. It is only a shame that (a) this process has been so long delayed, including under his predecessor, and (b) that the work done so far has not proceeded in a more open and consultative way, rather than being something akin to the “wisdom” delivered to the masses from the wise experts on the mountain top.

Orr ends in a typically upbeat tone.   I just want to highlight the last few sentences in which (as so often) he overreaches, partly in the process of distracting attentions from the failings in areas he is directly responsible for.

Yes, there is uncertainty. Yes, it is affecting us. No, monetary policy cannot directly resolve this issue. But we can offset its effects and empower others to fuel economic activity that will benefit us in both the short and long-term. There has never been a greater time to make use of accommodative monetary policy for investing in productive assets.

Yes, monetary policy has a (vitally) important stabilisation role.  It was why countries set up discretionary monetary policy many decades ago.   But it can do nothing to offset the blow to potential output created by policy uncertainty and other regulatory burdens.  It does nothing to boost our longer-term prosperity.  And as for the final sentence…….he falls into the trap again of trying to convince us that low interest rates are some exogenous gift, empowering whole new opportunities, when in fact interest rates –  long-term market-set ones and official OCRs –  are low for reasons that seem to have to do with diminished opportunities, diminished prospects for profitable investments.  Don’t get me wrong – given all that, the OCR should be lower (mimicking what real market forces would be doing if short-term interest rates were a market phenomenon), but when interest rates are falling in response to deteriorating fundamentals it is a stretch –  at very least –  to expect the sort of pick-up in business investment the Bank often forecasts but rarely gets to see.

It wasn’t a persuasive or particularly insightful set of comments.  Perhaps his San Francisco audience –  knowing little of New Zealand –  weren’t bothered, but we should be.  We should expect a lot more from such a powerful, not very accountable, public figure.

(And if you want a speech from a much more serious figure, try this one –  given at the same conference –  by Stephen Poloz, Governor of the Bank of Canada.  There is a depth and seriousness to it that is simply now not seen from senior figures in our own economic policy agencies.)