Reviewing Covid monetary policy – Part 2

In yesterday post, the first in this series, I tried to review and assess the Reserve Bank’s preparedness and its policy response to the Covid economic shock in the first 2-3 months (January to April 2020). They weren’t very well prepared, as it turned out, and this probably contributed to them rushing (and rushing The Treasury and the Minister) into some elements of the response that bore financial risks that were grossly proportionate to the likely economic or financial returns. But on the information they had at the time, and the way most other forecasters and commentators were thinking about the likely economic implications of Covid (and associated other policy responses), there wasn’t much doubt that a significant monetary policy response – easing monetary conditions – was well-warranted at the time. But there were mistakes – some perhaps not that consequential as it turned out (the pledge not to change the OCR, up or down, for a year come what may, but others (the LSAP, concentrated at the long end of the yield curve) much more so (in a variety of ways), and to a considerable extent foreseeably so on the information available at the time. And, as usual (but potentially mattering more in high stakes times) the Bank wasn’t very transparent.

A point I didn’t make explicitly yesterday, but should have, is that a stylised central bank (and among advanced countries there has never been one in recent decades) focused exclusively on inflation would have had no cause to have done anything different, given the data and the beliefs about (a) how the economy would behave, and (b) how the various possible monetary policy instruments would work.

Today I want to focus on the following year or so. Over that period, there weren’t a huge number of monetary policy initiatives (they really didn’t change the OCR at all, up or down, although did ensure that banks could cope with a negative OCR should the inflation outlook require such a rate in the future.

There were two significant policy announcements:

  • the extension of the LSAP (and the associated Crown indemnity) to a potential $100 billion of bond purchases, and
  • the establishment of the Funding for Lending scheme.

Inflation targeting has long been recognised as relying heavily on forecasts of inflation. Why? Because monetary policy actions don’t affect inflation anything like instantaneously. Prudent policy today will typically (but not always) be substantially informed by best view available on the outlook for inflation some way ahead. The lags matter.

Quite how long those lags are is a matter for some debate. The old phrase was “long and variable”. I had a quick look at the Monetary Policy Handbook the Bank likes to boast of, and which is supposed to give readers a good sense of monetary policy as the Bank sees it. The word “lags” appears only once, and that referring to implementation lags in fiscal policy. I also checked the Discussion Paper in which the Bank’s calibrated economic model, NZSIM, is described, and was a bit surprised to find this chart

which seems to suggest very short lags (compare the 90 day and inflation charts), shorter than most practical discussion assumes. It is likely that the length of lags depends a bit on the shock, and a bit on the circumstances, but most pundits seem to think of the biggest impact of monetary policy on inflation as taking perhaps 12-18 months.

(Note that if the lags were as long as is sometimes rhetorically asserted – two years or more – the June quarter 2022 inflation outcomes (most recent we have) would have been substantially influenced by shocks to monetary policy in the June quarter of 2020, and since there were few/no dissenters then on the information available then, most questions of holding the RB now to account for recent inflation outcomes would be rendered largely moot. But few if any observers act, or consistently speak, as if the lags – for the largest effects – are that long.)

Implicitly or explicitly, all forecasts of inflation (and especially those that incorporate recent or prospective monetary policy changes) have a view on the length of lags, and when the Bank or officials ever discuss lags you also get the impression they have something like 12-18 months in mind.

So what did the Bank’s forecasts look like during this period? (Here, for the record, I an going to assume – I hope uncontroversially – that the published numbers were the Bank’s – or MPC’s – best view at the time.)

Here are the Bank’s inflation forecasts for the three successive MPSs, May, August and November 2020

Note that Reserve Bank published inflation forecasts almost always come back to 2 per cent eventually – it is the goal set for the Bank, and the default way the models are set up is for monetary policy to adjust endogenously to the extent required to get inflation back to target.

But note that these forecasts appear to have embodied views about the shocks monetary policy was leaning against that were severely disinflationary. Even with endogenous monetary policy, in all three of these sets of forecasts the inflation rates 12-18 months ahead were around 1 per cent, the very bottom of the target range and well below the 2 per cent successive governments required the Bank to focus on achieving. By the February 2021 MPS – not shown – the inflation outlook 12-18 months ahead was for outcomes around 1.4 per cent.

The Bank usually has OCR forecasts, but during this period (a) they had pledged not to change the OCR, (b) they believed the OCR could not yet be taken negative, and (c) they believed (or said they believed) that the LSAP was doing, and would do, a lot of the adjustment . So they published forecasts of what an “unconstrained OCR” would look like if a hypothetical OCR were to be doing its usual job.

Here were those projections (the paths in the May and August MPSs were identical)

So each of the published sets of projections through this period – but particularly those in 2020 – implied inflation well undershooting the target midpoint, even with substantial monetary stimulus (whether coming from the LSAP – which the Bank believed to be effective – or the OCR or – later – the Funding for Lending programme).

On their numbers it was pretty clear cut. The case for an aggressively stimulatory monetary policy was strong, whether considered against some pure inflation target or the Remit the MPC was charged with working towards.

I haven’t mentioned the unemployment or output gap estimates. These were the unemployment rate forecasts, that take into account actual and endogenous future monetary policy

I don’t want to make much of them (in shocks like this most of the information is already in the inflation picture) but their best view through 2020 was the unemployment into 2022 would still be 6 per cent or thereabouts (well above any credible NAIRU estimate). By the Feb 2021 MPS there was a big revision downwards, but they reckoned then that this week’s unemployment number would be about 5 per cent (best guess a day out, something like 3 per cent).

The forecasts were, of course, wildly wrong. But (a) there is no reason to suppose they were anything other than the best view of the MPC/Governor at the time, and (b) on those forecasts, the purest of inflation targeters would have taken a similar view on how much monetary policy stimulus was required (arguably – it was an argument I made at the time – the projections argued for more).

It isn’t very satisfactory that an organisation we spend tens of millions of dollars a year on, and set up a flash new statutory committee to make the decisions, did that poorly. There is no getting away from the fact that they had the biggest team of macroeconomists in the country, and access to every bit of private or public data they would have requested.

But, they weren’t the only ones doing forecasts, putting their money and/or reputations on the line. Long-term bond yields, for example, were barely off their lows in early November 2020, when the Bank was finalising the last projections of 2020.

What were the published forecasts of other forecasters showing. Conveniently, NZIER each quarter publishes a collection in their Consensus Forecasts. Those numbers include projections from the five main retail banks, NZIER itself, the Reserve Bank and The Treasury. There are limitations to the comparisons – they report numbers for March years (as distinct from rolling horizons) – and each institution’s forecasts are finalised at different dates (and Treasury publishes numbers only twice a year). The data are slightly biased against the Reserve Bank, which typically finalises forecasts in the first or second week of the second month of the quarter, while the compilation is published in the middle of the final month of the quarter (so some will probably have updated their forecasts after the Reserve Bank publishes its MPSs).

But for what it is worth here are the comparisons for forecasts done in late 2020 and the first quarter of 2021.

In the September 202 comparison, the Reserve Bank’s numbers for both inflation and unemployment are very much middle of the pack (just a little less inflation and a little less unemployment than the mean response (NB: note to NZIER: medians are probably better)).

By the final quarter of 2020, the Reserve Bank had the lowest March 2022 inflation forecasts,,,,,,but not by much. 1.1 per cent – the mean response – was still a very long way below the target midpoint.

And in the March 2021 comparison – where those focusing on the Reserve Bank’s failures might have hoped to find them at odds with their peers, on the wrong side – the Bank’s inflation and unemployment forecasts sit right on the respective means (and the least-wrong forecaster – credit to them – still proved to be off on inflation by just less than 5 percentage points).

I think it is no small defence of the Reserve Bank, in making the monetary policy that was driving core inflation outcomes now, that it had very much the same sets of views as its local forecasting peers. There are other forecasters (eg Infometrics) but it isn’t obvious anyone doing and publishing forecasts was doing much better than the Bank when it mattered. If you disagree that it is “no small defence”, all I can really offer is “well, they’d be really culpable if the central tendency of private forecasters – each with fewer resources – had been materially less bad than them”.

Another comparison is with the NZIER’s Shadow Board exercise, which for each monetary policy review invites six economists (and a few others) to offer their views on what the Bank should (not “will”) be doing. Several of the bank chief economists are in the Shadow Board panel, as are Viv Hall (retired macro academic, and former longserving RB Board member), Prasanna Gai, macro professor at Auckland (and former overseas central banker/adviser), and Arthur Grimes (former chief economist of the RB and the National Bank).

Shadow Board members used to just be asked for an OCR view, with probability distribution, and given the chance to make comments (some take regularly, some occasionally, some hardly at all). So I look through each release starting with the June 2020 (non MPS) review. The question was posed about the degree to which respondents thought the RB should use (a) a negative OCR, and (b) further QE (ie an expansion of the announced QE programme) at each of (a) the upcoming meeting and (b) the coming 12 months.

In June 2020, of the six economist respondents two thought there was a strong chance that a negative OCR would eventually be required. Arthur Grimes thought there was a near-zero chance. Four of the six strongly favoured an eventual expansion of the QE programme. Prasanna Gai put that chance at 50 per cent. Arthur Grimes again assigned a near-zero probability. Sadly, neither Prasanna nor Arthur offered any comments in elaboration, so we don’t know whether they felt the LSAP would be ineffective, they had a more robust macroeconomic (inflation and/or unemployment) outlook, or what.

By the next review, enthusiasm for more stimulus had begun to fade somewhat (although Arthur – again with no comment – modestly increased his very low probability on more QE being appropriate.

By the September review the LSAP programme had been significantly expanded, but respondents views about the future hadn’t changed much. A couple thought a negative OCR quite likely to be required, but no one was keen on a further increase in the LSAP programme. Nothing much had changed in respondents’ views going into the November MPS (and one of the comments suggest a robustly different macro outlook).

By the February 2021 exercise, the question had changed. Respondents were now asked about the likely need for “tighter policy”, now and in the coming year. There was growing sense that a tighter policy stance would be required over the coming year, but only one respondent – Grimes – was confident that an immediate tightening was warranted.

Ah, you say “see, an academic who doesn’t even do monetary policy stuff these days bests the Reserve Bank”. Except for the awkward fact that this was the time Grimes chose to make comments and explain his stance. His explanation?

The RBNZ loosened monetary policy too much through 2020, causing soaring house prices (as well as other asset prices) which is very damaging for disadvantaged New Zealanders and for the next generation…..The tightening should continue until such time as house prices return to a much more affordable level provided the goods market does not enter deflation.  

In other words, whatever the merits of Grimes’s stance may or may not be, he wasn’t at all focused on the outlook for the CPI. Instead he favoured using monetary policy to target house prices, with the explicit proviso that deflation might be a risk for general consumer prices. But – whatever merits or otherwise there may be to his argument – the target he was proposing was not the one the government had charged the Bank with pursuing.

(To look ahead, in the April survey Grimes again focuses on house price inflation but does talk about a need to “head off incipient goods market inflation pressures).

Again, maybe someone to point to some other commentators who did better, but from among the usual range of suspects there was little or nothing marking out the Bank’s overall view on inflation or monetary policy in the second half of 2020 or even early 2021. What there had been of course was a huge kerfuffle over house prices – where at times the Bank didn’t help itself (the chief economist once suggesting rhe higher prices were good ands helpful), but where mostly I agree with Governor: house prices were not something the monetary policy arm of the Bank was supposed to focus on (construction costs are) and that it would be an inferior approach to monetary policy to make house prices a focus of monetary policy. It is not irrelevant that no other central bank does.

So there was massive forecasting failure, and a widely shared one. The good side of that was that the economy got back to capacity much faster than expected/feared. The (very) bad side is that the economy grossly overheated and substantial core inflation pressures compounded – in headline CPI terms – various one-off price levels shocks that orthodox monetary policy generally encourages central banks to “look through”. It wasn’t a forecasting mistake unique to New Zealand. it was, it appears, about how Covid, the resulting stimuli etc would work out – something for which neither central banks nor private forecasters had many useful precedents.

None of that means that there were not significant mistakes made by the Bank during the period in this post.

If –  as the forecasts suggested –  more monetary policy stimulus was warranted in August and November 2020, there was still no good reason for a massive expansion of the LSAP programme, still focused at the long end of the yield curve (where little borrowing occurred), still boosting the level of settlement cash (in a way that had next to no macroeconomic significance, given the settlement accounts paid a full OCR interest rate, but which fed a frenzy around “printing money” –  from both several journalists on the left, and a few economists on the right.  The Bank had the option of cutting the OCR further –  25 points isn’t nothing, even if perchance a modestly negative OCR might have created a few residual systems problems for a few banks.  Sure, some weren’t keen in the abstract on negative rates, but the beauty of conventional monetary policy (the OCR) is that it comes a little or no financial risk to the taxpayer.  Massively expanding the LSAP programme –  when even the Bank will acknowledge uncertainty about the strength of transmissions mechanisms –  opened the way to potential for further massive losses to the taxpayer, with no sign still (months on, crisis passed) of serious risk analysis or indications of the losses taxpayers might face in the worst case, if things went bad and bond yields (and then the OCR) rose sharply.  

(A common excuse (I even used it once or twice myself) is “well, it doesn’t matter too much if the economy is so much stronger”, except that (a) there is little serious evidence (and the Bank has published none) that the LSAP was what produced the strength, and (b) things have so overheated, that if the LSAP did contribute much there are now two strikes against it.  At worst, the Bank should have been much for focused on managing yields at the 2 and 3 year parts of the yield curve, where any potential good would have come at much less financial risk.)

And then there is the Funding for Lending programme.  There have serious issues around the fact that that crisis scheme is still lending now, but that is an issue for the next post.

Again, given the macro forecasts (see above, very similar to those of private forecasters), it isn’t unreasonable for the Bank to have been seeking to ease monetary conditions a bit further.  And that is what the Funding for Lending programme did –  helped (mostly in the announcement effect, more than in actual lending) to lower term deposit rates relative to the OCR.  It was conceived at a time when the Bank thought the OCR could not go negative, but was only finally put in place by a time when (so the Bank told us) those issues had largely been sorted out.

I wrote a post about the launch of the Funding for Lending scheme in November 2020 (“Funding for lending and other myths”). I stand today by everything in that post. The scheme wasn’t harmful, didn’t carry material financial risks, and probably helped ease conditions a bit (the Bank has claimed it is latterly equivalent to one 25 basis point OCR cut, which sounds plausible). But by the time it was deployed it simply wasn’t necessary – adjustments could have been made simply to the OCR (if the Bank had not been dogmatically wedded to the ill-advised March 2020 pledge not to change the OCR come what may). And, if you refresh your memory, the scheme fed narratives that somehow banks were settlement cash constrained (they had never been), and led to loud but futile arguments about whether access to the funds should be tied to expansions of particular favoured types of lending (when banks were more opportunity-constrained, were never cash constrained, and where if such access rules had been put in place the scheme would not have worked to the limited extent it did. The Bank itself was a significant part of the problem – it was the party that devised the misleading name, presumably in same wish by the Governor to be seen, again, “doing stuff”.

I’m going to stop this post here, and am not going to attempt a summing up except perhaps to suggest that in the broad thrust of monetary policy (stimulus provided) this period the Bank did no worse than anyone much else (and if that isn’t saying much, so many people inside and outside of government and of New Zealand misread how the economy would behave. Lags are a problem. A mechanical inflation targerer with that not uncommon view of the world might reasonably have counselled more. Where the Bank is more culpable during this period – both with hindsight and with perspectives available at the time – was in its use of unconventional instruments.

Reviewing Covid monetary policy – Part 1

After last week’s posts on the Reserve Bank’s handling of monetary policy, I thought it might be worthwhile to stand back and attempt a series of posts this week on how the Reserve Bank has handled things (mainly monetary policy) over the two and half years since, in late January 2020, Covid became an economic issue for New Zealand. In today’s post, I will look at the Bank’s preparedness and their responses over the first three months or so. In a second post, probably tomorrow, I will look at their handling of policy over the following year or so, and a third post will look at the more recent period. If it seems worthwhile, I might attempt a final post bringing it all together.

It is hardly a secret that I do not have a high regard for the Governor, but in this series I will be seeking to offer both brickbats and bouquets as fairly as I can, and to distinguish as far as possible between perspectives that were reasonably open to an informed observer at the time and those which benefit from hindsight. Both have their place. Even though every country’s circumstances differ, what was going on in other countries and central banks is not irrelevant to a fair assessment of the Reserve Bank’s handling of things. People with more time and resources are better placed to assess the variety of responses in other advanced countries, but I will draw on comparisons where I can and where I think it would be helpful. Finally, while my focus is on the people who mattered – the Bank and the MPC – I’m always conscious that I wrote a lot in real-time about how monetary policy was being and should be handled. Inevitably I’ve had to reflect on what I got right and wrong, and why.

One area in which the Bank does not score well throughout is transparency. The Bank often likes to boast about being very open and transparent – the Governor was at it again in his press release last week reacting last week to the Wheeler-Wilkinson paper – but it is anything but, and the gaps were more evident than usual over the Covid period. The Bank has been less willing than the government generally to release relevant background documents, nothing at all has been heard from most members of the MPC (despite it being one of the most difficult times for monetary policy in a decades), and there have been few serious and relevant speeches and little or no published research. In challenging and uncertain times when no one has any sort of monopoly on wisdom the stance the Governor has chosen to take – echoing the biases of successive Governors – is a poor reflection on the Bank. We are told that Bank staff are beavering away on their own review, but the Bank will not even commit to having that material available to the public before their consultation on the five-yearly review of the monetary policy Remit closes (and there is no sign, for example, of any sort of ongoing engagement with alternative views going on). Here it is always worth bearing in mind that the Reserve Bank has far more resources available to it (including the largest team of macroeconomists in the country) than any other relevant party in New Zealand. We should expect better. And the Governor’s assertion a couple of months back to Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee that he regrets nothing is neither true to the limitations of human knowledge/understanding, nor exactly reassuring that we are dealing here with an open and learning organisation.

Preparedness

When the first news of Covid cases emerged from China at the very end of 2019, the OCR was 1 per cent and the Bank had been struggling for some years to get (core) inflation up to the 2 per cent that successive governments had told them to focus on. By the end of 2019, they were not far away, but equally the economy was pretty full employed, the growth phase had run for 8 or 9 years, and prudent central bankers needed to be thinking about how they’d cope with the next recession. The effective lower bound on the nominal OCR really wasn’t that far away and in typical recessions perhaps 500 basis points of interest rate cuts had been required.

In a couple of respects, the Bank doesn’t score too badly:

  • as long ago as 2012, then outgoing Governor Alan Bollard had set up a working group (I chaired it) to think about how we would handle the next serious downturn. That group recommended, and there was no dissent from senior management, that steps be taken to ensure that the Bank’s systems and those of the banks could cope with modestly negative interest rates (which had already become a thing abroad),
  • in 2018, shortly after Orr took office, the Bank published a survey of options for what they referred to as “unconventional monetary policy”, citing the need to have thought through the issues in case the need arose in New Zealand (I discussed the article here).
  • well into 2019 the Governor gave a substantive interview in which he expressed his view that a negative OCR was preferable to using large-scale asset purchases in a future serious downturn. They seemed to have been thinking about the issue quite a bit.

The problem was that it didn’t seem to have occurred to them until very late in the piece to check if their preferred option was workable. Documents released under the OIA confirm that it wasn’t until December 2019/January 2020 that they thought to check, and pretty quickly the feedback from banks told them that – for many if not all banks – there were systems problems (both computer systems and documentation) that meant negative interest rates could not be implemented in short order.

(To be honest, I am still mystified on two counts: the first is how the Bank never checked over all those years, but the second is how the banks – often part of banking groups with operations in countries/markets that had dealt with negative rates elsewhere over the previous decade – were sufficiently remiss as not to have prepared either. How insuperable these obstacles really were in still hard to tell, but what matters is that the Reserve Bank and the MPC treated them as so, and were foreced into last minute changes of plan.)

The Bank was pretty slow off the mark to recognise the potential severity of Covid. By late January, some New Zealand exporters of luxury food products to China (notably crayfish) were reporting real problems. At the very end of January, New Zealand temporarily closed the border to arrivals from China (China have already restricted outflows from China), threatening both tourism and foreign students, and lockdowns were a thing in one of the world’s largest economies. But through February, the Bank took a fairly relaxed approach (which, in fairness to them, seems to have reflected a fairly relaxed approach across much of government – the Secretary to the Treasury sits on the MPC, and there is no sign that she injected any great sense of urgency to the deliberations on the February MPS, and published papers reveal no urgent whole of government effort to get ready for what might be coming). I was among those calling for a precautionary (Covid) OCR cut in February – at the time, there was no doubt that the Covid effects we were experiencing were, from a New Zealand perspective, pure adverse demand shocks. The Bank didn’t act, but what surprised me more was a couple of weeks later when they took to social media to talk up economic prospects for 2020 (an OIA request revealed that this wasn’t some rogue social media person, but was initiated/cleared by the Bank’s chief economist).

The global situation deteriorated into March, and not much was seen or heard of the Bank. But then on 10 March the Governor delivered a speech to an invited audience on monetary policy at very low interest rates. The Governor was keen to stress that this was all in abstract, there were no immediate plans to use any of them, but also

There was an indication that they would shortly be publishing background technical papers on each option (papers which, if they existed, never actually were published).

Note the preferred order. Note the date.

A couple of days later the Herald briefly reported some comments by the chief economist also downplaying the potential of asset purchase options.

On Monday 16 March, the deteriorating situation (virus, markets, economic dislocations), finally prompted the Bank to act. The centrepiece of the day’s announcements was that the OCR was cut by 75 basis points immediately (other central banks were making similar moves). But there were other elements to the day’s announcements, notably:

  • a year’s delay in the commencement of the higher bank capital requirements,
  • a move to pay the OCR interest rate on all settlement cash balances (previously each bank had a quota – linked loosely to daily interbank settlement requirements – above which only below market rates were paid).

Both moves made sense.

The Bank also indicated that it had discovered – 6 days on? – that banks could not operationally cope with a negative OCR, and issued a pledge that seemed strange and inappropriate at the time and seemed only more odd later: no matter what happened, the OCR would not be changed for the coming year. It simply made no sense. On the one hand, even if a negative OCR wasn’t really technically feasible, there didn’t seem to be any obstacle to an OCR of zero (or 1 or 10 basis points). And in an environment that was moving so fast and was so uncertain (that, for example, emergency unscheduled MPC announcements were needed) how could anyone pretend to the level of confidence in the economic and inflation outlook implied by a pledge that, come what may, the OCR would not be changed – up or down – for the coming year? Since the Bank won’t release the relevant documents and has never really engaged on the issue, it is hard to know what was going on in their minds, or what issues/risks they were thinking about (or not).

All that said, on the day the broad thrust of the moves was fairly widely welcomed (as just one example, here is the “Whatever it takes” (and “more will be necessary”) press release from the NZ Initiative. This was the day before the government’s own first significant Covid fiscal package (which I described at the time as, at best, good in parts).

The Covid situation deteriorated rapidly over the following week, with New Zealand’s “lockdown” (not envisaged in either fiscal or monetary announcements the previous week) announced and implemented. Economic activity was clearly weakening, as (eg) domestic travel dried up. Global equity markets were very weak and pressures spilled over into bond markets, initially in the US, but increasingly globally. Cash was king and bonds could be sold.

And on 23 March, the Bank announced that they had lurched to launching a $30bn large-scale asset purchase programme. Read the statement and it is clear that there were two separate considerations: one about the immediate pressures in the government bond market (yields were rising) and the second – more important – about the deteriorating economic situation. In their words

The negative economic implications of the coronavirus outbreak have continued to intensify. The Committee agreed that further monetary stimulus is needed to meet its inflation and employment objectives.

The following day – the “lockdown” having been announced by then – the Reserve Bank, the government and the retail banks had a further announcement (not primarily about monetary policy) : a six month mortgage holiday for those with severe Covid income disruptions, an (ill-fated) Business Finance Guarantee Scheme, and (from the RB, and with monetary policy implications) an easing in the core funding ratio requirement on banks.

There were various other announcements over the following days/weeks, but perhaps the last in the initial wave (and I’d forgotten it came a month later) was a 21 April announcement that the Bank was planning to remove LVR restrictions for 12 months.

It seems to me that the Bank’s broad approach over the period from mid-March to late April 2020 was consistent with a pretty widely held view of severe downside risks to both economic activity and inflation – widely held among informed observers in New Zealand and those overseas (looking at their own economies). Of course everyone recognised that (for example) ordering people to stay at home for weeks on end represented a reduction in the economy’s capacity to supply (good and services) and that the liberal wage subsidies would maintain immediate purchasing power (at least for wage and salary earners), but that there were good reasons to suppose that adverse demand effects would outweigh supply reductions. If so, downside risks to inflation and inflation expectations were very real (risks to expectations soon became apparent in survey measures) and, well, inflation and inflation expectations were what we wanted the monetary policy arm of the Reserve Bank to focus on.

What sort of demand effects might we see? Examples included:

  • schools and universities unable to receive foreign students (significant export industry), and uncertain when those restrictions might ease,
  • tourism itself was a net export earner for New Zealand,
  • the borders being closed meant few if any new migrants could arrive (the demand effects of new migrants typically outweigh supply effects over the short-term horizons relevant to monetary policy,
  • the previous recession had seen a material fall in nominal house prices (despite much larger interest rate reductions) and between (a) reduced immigration, (b) limited interest rate cuts, and (c) significant reductions in business income (not protected by wage subsidies) house price falls and consequent reductions in building activity seemed likely (for those fond of wealth effects, them too)
  • big fiscal outlays upfront meant higher taxes later. That, together with lost GDP, meant we were actually/prospectively poorer, and might less keen on future spend-ups
  • huge additional risk and uncertainty had been added to the economic environment ( no one knew when normality would return, what it would look like, how many disruptions – or deaths – there would be in the intervening months/years. A standard prediction would be that heightened perceptions of risk and real inescapable uncertainty would mean firms and households would respond by deferring spending, and particularly (very cyclical) investment spending,
  • and if all this happened globally then our export commodity prices could be expected to fall (even as headline inflation was lowered by oil prices briefly approaching zero).

I held many/most of those sorts of views. So did many/most forecasters in those early days. A fairly aggressive macro policy response was warranted on those sorts of scenarios. If inflation and inflation expectations were to fall sharply it could prove very hard to get them back up again. against that sort of troubled economic backdrop. I am not aware of many (if any) mainstream commentators or forecasters taking a drastically different view in those early days (even as everyone recognised the huge uncertainty).

That doesn’t mean an automatic tick for everything the Bank did. For me

  • the big OCR cut, if a little late coming, was quite the right thing to do (including against a backdrop of significant fiscal income support and some other stimulus)
  • making available additional liquidity if required also made sense,
  • as did the easing of the core funding ratio, which helped enable lower term deposit rates relative to the OCR,
  • but the pledge not to change the OCR further for a year made no sense then, and makes no sense now.  The Bank knew it was entering a climate of extreme uncertainty, it knew it might need all the monetary support it could get. No one else anywhere in the economy had any certainty at all about anything, and yet the Bank pretended to.  
  • the move to pay the OCR on all settlement cash balances made little sense if the Bank was really serious about delivering as much stimulus as it could (that floor stopped market rates drifting lower) [UPDATE: altho it did support a more precise control of very short-ter market rates at/near the OCR itself, that might have been impaired otherwise if the Bank was injecting more liquidity.  This was probably the intention, althoguh a little later in ended up impairing one channel through which the LSAP might have worked].

My focus is on the remaining two strands of the package.

Perhaps one can mount a decent case for a week or two of stabilising intervention in the government bond market in late March 2020.   The pressures would have sorted themselves out anyway (after Fed intervention) but if the RB wanted to do its little bit that in isolation probably did little harm (if reinforcing future moral hazard risks).   But the case for the sustained LSAP itself (initially $30bn) was never, and has never compellingly, been made.  The Bank was right, just a few weeks earlier, to be wary of what the LSAP could offer outside the white-heat of financial crisis.  It seemed to have been too readily swayed by some mix of a need to be seen doing stuff (having ruled out more on the OCR), and false parallels with choices some other central banks had made over the previous decade.  The Bank rushed into the LSAP mainly purchasing long-term government bonds with ever, it seems, addressing either the fact that very little borrowing in New Zealand occurs at long-term fixed rates (so even if they affected those rates a bit, so what?) and with no serious financial risk analysis at all (if any such document existed it would surely have been released by now).   This latter failure has cost the taxpayer very dearly, and any serious risk analyst (in the Bank or The Treasury –  who seem quite culpable here, as advisers to the Minister on the indemnity)) would have identified those downside risk scenarios.   It was a failure of controls that, in a private bank, would rightly alarm a supervisor.     (While my view on the LSAP still seems to be something of a minority view in New Zealand, it is quite consistent with that of Professor Charles Goodhart, a UK monetary economist that the Bank has drawn on over the years, writing –  in a Foreword to a book on QE completed just prior to Covid “the direct effect on the real economy via interest rates, whether actual or expected, and on portfolio balance, was of second order importance. QE2, QE3 and QE Infinity are relatively toothless”).  I absolve the Bank of claims that the LSAP was later to do much to influence asset prices or the CPI, but that was on grounds that it was a gigantic speculative punt in the bond market, at taxpayers’ risk, for an expected economic return that was always derisorily small. 

If I have a minority view on the LSAP –  simply was not appropriate even at the time as a monetary policy tool –  I may also have on the LVR restrictions.  I see numerous people commenting, including on my Twitter feed, that “well, maybe the Bank had to do something with monetary policy in March 2020, but why do they do anything with LVRs-  that really was inexcusable”.

And on that I simply disagree.  I have never been a fan on LVR restrictions and in that sense would always –  including now –  welcome their removal, but even on the Bank’s own terms suspension of the restrictions was the sensible thing to do back then (ideally a few weeks earlier).  LVR restrictions were intended to lean against reckless lending against rapidly rising collateral values, and in discussions inside the Bank in the early days on LVRs the mentality was that sensibly controls would be lifted if asset prices were to be falling, or otherwise the controls would exacerbate falls and potential illiquidity in the market, while doing little/nothing for financial stability.  In this particular (Covid) crisis there was a further factor, cited by the Bank in its announcement: a six month mortgage holiday for those severely affected by Covid could have run smack hard into LVR restrictions had the latter been left in place [UPDATE: since interest deferrals in particular would have amounted to an extension of further credit to the borrower, at a time when collateral values –  which in principle would need to be reassessed at any fresh credit extension – appeared to be (and were expected to be) falling.]   One might quibble that the mortgage holidays really did pose increasing financial stability (loan loss) risks down the track, but the banks were already amply capitalised.  Between early indications that house prices would fall –  as they did for the first couple of months –  and tightening bank credit standards anyway (something the Governor regularly inveighed against) suspending the LVR restrictions was definitely the right call with the information, and the (widely shared) economic outlook the Bank had at the time.

This has, almost inevitably been a long post. I’m going to stop here, with just one final brief observation.  When, as is often done, people now talk about high inflation being a problem almost everywhere, it is sometimes (and fairly) pointed out that it isn’t quite all (advanced) countries: Japan and Switzerland being two examples of countries with much more moderate inflation.  They were also two countries that didn’t do anything much with monetary policy in 2020.  However, that doesn’t really tell as anything about what was right to do, with the information at the time, in early 2020.  After all, both Japan and Switzerland went into Covid with policy rates already negative, and unable to do very much more with monetary policy.  Had they been able to do more perhaps they would have done so. Or perhaps not.  But we have no easy way of knowing.  In early 2020 countries (central banks) like NZ, Australia and the US were openly quite glad to have the leeway they did, to take the steps they did, in a climate in which many argued “just do whatever it takes”.

Next stage in Covid monetary policy tomorrow.

 

To what end?

It is two years today since my first post about pandemics (and the economy). Rereading it, and another the following week, over the weekend and it was interesting to reflect on what issues had (and hadn’t) sprung to mind. But back then, however fearful people might or might not have been initially, few would have supposed that two years on we’d be labouring under new, and even more onerous, restrictions, and that for the best part of two years few of us would have been able to travel.

I was quite supportive of the need for restrictions, especially at the border, for quite a long time. Even last year, when the government was so slow to roll out the vaccine, doing everything possible to keep the virus out would have seemed appropriate (ie more than the government actually did). As for domestic restrictions, in both 2020 and 2021 the government clearly overshot, imposing (and renewing) some restrictions that seemed more about asserting power and showing who was in control than about public health, and others that failed all tests of decent humanity. (None, of course, were ever justified by any sort of cost-benefit analysis – an abdication of any sort of decent policy analysis that I hope one day our politicians and senior officials look back on in shame.)

But that was then. Since late last year, the government’s approach has increasingly lost any coherence. Despite high vaccination rates, we’ve had extreme coercion used on those reluctant to get vaccinated, and we’ve lurched down a path of “papers please” where those who refuse to show their government papers are prohibited (either by law directly, or enabled by it) from undertaking many of the normal activities of life. All this as (a) it was clear that the biggest risk posed by the unvaccinated was to themselves, and (b) that lots of vaccinated people were getting Covid anyway, apparently often/mostly from other vaccinated people. Government guidelines as to when it would ease restrictions were repeatedly ignored by the government itself. The government meanwhile had confirmed that it had given up on elimination some time ago.

And then, of course, came Omicron – two months ago in other parts of the world. The experience of Omicron so far seems to be that it is highly highly infectious, partly as a result waves don’t last long, and among the vaccinated (even more so the boosted) the rates of serious illness and/or death seem remarkably low. In some places – the UK is the most obvious example – even with a lot of cases, numbers in hospital ICU care did not even increase during the Omicron wave (but there is a variety of experiences, depending in part on starting points). Nowhere, it seems, is there evidence of the spectre of “overwhelmed health system” having been realised (although you might expect, even hope, that systems would be put under some pressure).

As for our government, first it seemed that they shut down for the holidays. In normal times, no one would begrudge them that, but this was something more akin to “wartime” – a major threat unfolding, inter alia, just across the Tasman. You might have thought that all hands would have been on deck, led by the Prime Minister, with planning (and public consultation on those plans) advancing rapidly. And vaccination centres operating night and day to get vaccinated many more of those eligible for a third dose. Oh, and the child vaccination programme might have got going before Christmas too. But no, this was the government of complacency – we still don’t have their “plan” (apparently something is coming on Wednesday) – and now controls.

Even on what we have seen, policy is all over the place. Last week, they stopped allocating MIQ rooms for ordinary New Zealanders, but that was (a) done with no ministerial announcement, and (b) to affect arrivals a couple of months hence (when who knows what the environment will be). They keep telling us (sensibly, rightly) that Omicron will spread in the community, but then on Friday the government quietly put in place much-extended isolation requirements – of the sort that perhaps might make some sense (if complied with) in an elimination model, but which make no sense now – the more so as they will powerfully deter some from even getting tested.

And then yesterday we got the new general restrictions. From both the PM and the Director-General we were told they were still aiming to “stamp out” the outbreak, but even (especially?) they must know they are just making things up now – a Level 4 lockdown in August didn’t stamp out that outbreak (or wasn’t pursued long enough to), and this lot of restrictions is nothing like Level 4. The more realistic rhetoric/spin seems to be about “slowing the spread” – there are big adverts in the papers this morning enjoining us to get with the team, play our part.

But why do we want to “stop the spread”? I don’t. We are already two months behind much of the world – two months of repressive domestic restrictions and onerous border controls – and for what? Various other places are coming out the other side now, not having had particularly bad health experiences – England, Ireland, the eastern states of Australia, South Africa – while Ardern and her colleagues – apparently with little opposition from National – seem to be determined to try to slow the incoming tide. They’ve provided no supporting analysis, no cost-benefit analysis, there are no end-point dates for these controls (which may not do much “good” anyway, while disrupting lives), and no published criteria – not that on the past record they would ever stick to them – for getting controls off, getting our lives back to normal, binning the “papers please” regime, and opening the border (even just for New Zealanders).

Events are being cancelled all over the place, and whereas (say) we watched the Ashes test in Hobart a couple of weeks ago with large local crowds in attendance (in the middle of a not-small Omicron outbreak) the government is going to condemn us to the grim spectre of test matches with no crowds at all.

Of course, it could be worse. The government could – and may yet – resort to more onerous restrictions (have they done anything to prepare the public for several weeks of 30-40 deaths a day?) but it is unclear what they are trying to achieve, and how their cobbled-together policies fit a strategy. We hear talk about “flattening the curve” but that seems like a recipe for months and months of controls – the sort of restrictions that may appeal to public health professors and some left-wing politicians, but which should generally be anathema in a free and open society. There is talk, always talk, about getting our booster rate up – but (a) whose fault is it they weren’t offered earlier?, and b) even now, because of the delay, the percentage of our population with boosters is already higher than (say) the Australian share 6 weeks ago when their outbreak was getting underway.

People oriented to controls can always dream up reasons for delays – and I might have had a touch more sympathy if the government had shown itself ever willing to get rid of controls that were no longer self-evidently necessary – but they never attempt to show an overwhelming case. In an interesting Newsroom article over the weekend, on preparing for Omicron, Prof Michael Baker justified his case for more restrictions on the basis that “several hundred people” might die if we just let Omicron sweep through. Quite possibly – if one takes the Australian numbers as a guide – but 34000 people a year die in New Zealand, and that number fluctuates (easily plus or minus 1000) from year to year. It simply does not justify restrictions without limit, and lives lived – unable to sensibly plan – at the whim of politicians.

baker

And, of course, we are rightly reminded of the limitations of the public health system. It was a reasonable argument two years ago, but not now, when the government has done little or nothing to boost capacity over two years, and now wants to put us under their (somewhat half-hearted) controls anyway. Sure, there would be likely to be some weeks of extreme pressure on the system, but it is hard to conceive of any serious cost-benefit analysis – that value freedom at all – justifying society-wide restraints, indefinitely, to avoid a few weeks difficulty (and even some otherwise avoidable loss of life).

Now, of course, Omicron will be disruptive even if the government does nothing. Baker, in that same article, seemed to use that as justification for “oh well, we might as well just have lockdowns then”. But there is a big difference between government controls – backed by the coercive power of the state – and individuals and firms taking their own precautions, calibrated to their own individual risk and risk tolerance. I’m pretty sure no one would put off a quiet swim at a deserted beach, or a driving lesson for their child, except the state compelled them,

(And I say all this as someone who is almost 60, and hasn’t had the best of health in the last couple of years. There are risks to life, and – fully vaccinated and soon boosted – I’m quite happy to run those modest risks. I’m not happy seeing events cancelled willy-nilly at government fiat, or governments still stopping people travelling (indefinitely), and so on.)

There are lots of things the government could and should have done much better re Covid over the last 12-18 months. Had they been done we might be in a slightly better position now, but it is water under the bridge now, and nothing about the government or Ministry of Health gives any reason for confidence that we should put up with indefinite restrictions on their say so. They have the power of course, but they abuse and misuse it (down to and including the arrogant disdain evident in the way the government refuses to even put out case/hospitalisation data at a fixed time each day – a simple thing in some ways, but one that simply reveals their indifference and, quite possibly, incompetence).

Better to (a) scrap the vaccine pass system (which simply institutionalises repression, of the sort that should be alien to this country, for no significant public health benefit), (b) open the border to NZ citizens, and (c) cut the isolation requirements to something like those in the US and UK, with a view (d) to following the English lead and looking to remove all Covid restrictions by, say, 31 March (subject to renewal only by vote of Parliament, not arbitrary ministerial fiat with no consultation or transparency).

Oh, and release all the relevant Cabinet papers and ministerial briefings within two days of decisions having been made. These are our lives, our freedoms. We are not supposed to be just playthings of the government. The smallest regulatory changes in normal times have to go through proper (if often faux) consultative processes. Sometimes in emergencies needs must, but this was Omicron – they had the best part of two months to be prepared; do the analysis, test it in public, consult. Instead, perhaps we’ll see a “plan” on Wednesday, perhaps we’ll see the papers and analysis (if any exists) six months from now.

LSAP losses

The Minister of Finance and The Treasury appeared before Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee yesterday. It was encouraging to see National MPs asking questions about the Reserve Bank’s Large Scale Asset Purchase programme, which was undertaken with the agreement of both the Minister and The Treasury and which has now run up staggering losses for the taxpayer.

A standard way of estimating those losses is the mark-to-market valuation of the Bank’s very large LSAP bond portfolio. As of the latest published Reserve Bank balance sheet, for 31 October, those losses were about $5.7 billion. When the 30 November balance sheet is out, probably next week, the total losses will be lower (bond rates fell over November), but with a very large open bond position still on the books taxpayers are exposed to large fluctuations in the value of the position (up or down), with no good basis for supposing that the expected returns are likely to compensate for the risk involved. If there was a case for putting on a large open bond position early last year – I doubt it, but take that as a given for now – there is no case for one now, in a fully-employed economy with rising inflation, and with the conventional instruments of monetary policy – which expose taxpayers to no financial risk – working normally and effectively.

A post from a few weeks ago set out the issues.

I didn’t watch the whole 2 hours (link to the video above) but from exchanges with various people I think I have seen all the questions and answers relevant to the LSAP issues.

First, at about 43 minutes in, National’s Andrew Bayly asked the Minister of Finance (a) why, when Crown indemnity was approved the Minister did not then require a plan for unwinding the position (the Bank is currently talking about having a plan early next year, almost two years on), and (b) why there was no limit to the indemnity.

I’m not sure either question was that well-targeted, and the Minister had no real trouble responding. As he noted, the LSAP programme had been initiated in the middle of a crisis, time was short etc. And although there isn’t a limit on the indemnity itself there is a limit of how many bonds can be bought, and the government determines which bonds are on issue which amounts to much the same thing. That said, both responses take as more or less given that the idea of an LSAP had never occurred to anyone on any corner of the Terrace/Bowen St triangle until late March 2020. We know the Bank had been (rather idly) talking about the option for several years, including saying they’d prefer not to use it, but it seems they had not done the hard ground work, and neither had The Treasury nor the Minister insisted on it, well in advance. There is no sign any cost-benefit analysis for something like the LSAP was ever done, no analysis of likely Sharpe ratios, no analysis of potential peak taxpayer losses and so on. The Bank should be held accountable for that, but…the Minister is primarily responsible for holding them to account, and The Treasury is the Minister’s principal adviser (and the Secretary is a non-voting member of the MPC).

After the Minister left, Bayly returned to the LSAP (at about 68 minutes), supported by National’s new finance spokesman Simon Bridges. Bayly asked the Secretary to the Treasury whether an increase in the OCR would increase the liability for the Crown for the indemnity. The Secretary responded that the indemnity was net neutral from a whole of Crown perspective. What followed was a slightly confused discussion with Bridges ending up suggesting that the Secretary was “plainly wrong”. I don’t think the Secretary answered well, and she certainly didn’t answer in a way designed to help clarify the issues around the LSAP, but she is correct that the indemnity itself does not affect the overall consolidated Crown financial position (the claim the Bank currently has on its balance sheet is fully offset by an obligation the (narrowly defined) central government has on its balance sheet. It is quite likely that without the indemnity the MPC would have been very reluctant to have run a large-scale LSAP programme (the Bank’s own capital would not support the risk), but once the programme was established what determines the financial gains or losses is, in short, just the movement in market interest rates. The indemnity just reallocates any losses within the wider Crown accounts. In that particular exchange, The Treasury made none of this clear, and Secretary herself seemed a bit confused when the discussion got onto the different ways the bond position might eventually be unwound (there is little or no indemnity if the bonds are held to maturity, but that doesn’t mean there are no costs to the taxpayer). And thus (reverting to Bayly’s initial question) an increase in the OCR – particularly one now expected – doesn’t itself change the Reserve Bank’s claim under the indemnity

About 25 minutes further on, Bridges returned to the fray and a rather more enlightening conversation followed. Bridges asked whether the LSAP did not represent a significant increase in Crown financial risk. The Secretary agreed and both she and one of her colleagues explained – as I have here repeatedly – that what had gone on was that the Bank had bought back long-term fixed rate bonds, effectively swapping them for the issuance of settlement cash, on which the interest rate is the (variable) OCR. Unfortunately some of the discussion still got bogged down in matters of Crown accounting (the difference between the purchase price of the bonds and the face value, which is of no economic significance), and the Secretary was very reluctant to allow herself to be pushed into acknowledging that the position of the LSAP portfolio – implemented with her support – is deeply underwater. As a simple matter of analysis, she was never willing to distinguish between the mark-to-market loss to now, and the potential gains, losses, and risks on continuing to hold a large open position from here on. One is a given – now a sunk cost – and conflating the two (in the hope “something will turn up”) obscures any sense of accountability, including for the choices to keep running the position. She and her staff wouldn’t accept that sort of explanation from any other government agency running large financial risks.

Were the position to be liquidated today – as, at least in principle (crisis having passed, economy full-employed) it should be – a large loss for the taxpayer would be realised. At a narrow financial level it is as simple as that. If the position continues to be run – in the limit through to maturity, finally in 2041 – what will matter is where the OCR averages relative to what is currently priced into bond yields, but it won’t change the fact that the portfolio is starting behind – the OCR is already much higher than was expected at the time most of the bonds were bought. And if the portfolio is let continue to run, taxpayers are exposed to ongoing large risk for no expected return (there is no reason to suppose the Bank is better than the market at guessing where the OCR will need to go over the next 10-20 years).

(The current agreement between the Minister and the Bank requires that if the Bank looks to sell the LSAP bonds it do so only to the Treasury itself. Such a sale, of course, changes nothing of economic substance (purely intra-Crown transactions don’t) – the high level of settlement cash balances would still be there, earning whatever OCR the macro situation requires – but from a political perspective it would be convenient, as there would no longer be monthly updates on the Bank’s website as to the extent of the losses caused by the MPC’s rash choices (backed by The Treasury).

Treasury officials did chip in a couple of caveats. First, the Secretary noted that in assessing the overall LSAP programme one had to look also at the (any) macroeconomic benefits. In principle, of course that is correct, but (as I’ve argued previously) any such gains are unlikely to have been large:

  • the LSAP was designed to lower long-term bond rates, but these are a very small element in the New Zealand transmission mechanism,
  • it is hard to see much evidence here or abroad of sustained effects of LSAP-like programmes on long bond rates (eg movements beyond what changing expectations of future OCR adjustments themselves would simply),
  • the Bank always had the option of cutting the OCR further (on their own telling, to zero last year, and lower still since the end of last year), at no financial risk to the taxpayer, and
  • if there is a macro effect, perhaps it was modestly beneficial last year, but must be unhelpful now (recall that the literature suggests it is the stock of bonds that matters, not the flow of purchases, and we now have an overheated economy with above-target inflation.

And one of her deputies chipped in noting that there might have been some savings to The Treasury from having been able to issue so heavily at such low rates last year, the suggestion being that without the LSAP the Crown might not have been able to get away so many bonds so cheaply. There is probably something to that point, in an overall accounting, but (a) the effect is unlikely to have been large relative to the scale of the subsequent rise in bond yields, and (b) especially with hindsight a better model would have been for the Bank not to have been purchasing bonds and the Crown to have been issuing fewer.

The Select Committee discussion ended with the offer that National MPs could lodge a follow-up question for written response by the The Treasury. I hope they avail themselves of that offer.

The Treasury could be, and should be, much clearer and more upfront about the analytics of the LSAP issues, but it isn’t clear – given their involvement all along – that their incentives are in this case that well-aligned with the interests of the public in scrutiny, transparency, and accountability.

Lally’s paper on a cost-benefit analysis of Covid vaccine “mandates”

Earlier in the week I did a post that included economist (and former Victoria University academic) Martin Lally’s sketch outline of an approach to thinking about applying cost-benefit analysis techniques to Covid vaccine “mandates”. In that post I included a few suggestions, questions, and thoughts on aspects of Lally’s note and the wider issue of coercion in a Covid context.

Since then, Lally has extended his note into a fuller short paper. I offered to make it more widely available here

A COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS OF COVID-19 VACCINE MANDATES by Martin Lally

Here is his Abstract

Abstract

Covid-19 vaccine mandates for the general population must trade off the rights of those who object to being vaccinated against the costs that the unvaccinated impose upon the vaccinated, most particularly the increased risk to vaccinated people of death by covid-19.  This paper provides a methodology for doing so.  It is then applied to the case of New Zealand.  It reveals that even if the adverse impact of penalties on vaccine objectors (at least some of whom may have rational grounds for objecting) is as small as a reduction in their quality of life of 1% per year for a period of five years and the existence of unvaccinated people is entirely responsible for covid-19 infections amongst the vaccinated, the number of additional deaths amongst the vaccinated resulting from not adopting a vaccine mandate is too few to justify a policy of mandating.  However, unlike the general population, health workers come into frequent and close contact with large numbers of sick people, who are prime targets for covid-19, and therefore the vaccine mandate may be justified for these workers.

The paper largely speaks for itself. Lally lays out his assumptions (and sources) quite clearly, so anyone who disagrees can identify where (specifically) their disagreement arises and what alternative assumptions/approaches they would use.. As per the Abstract, he concludes that cost-benefit analysis does not support vaccine “mandates” in general, but one of the extensions of the earlier note is to explore the specific case of health care workers where his numbers suggest a cost-benefit analysis for compulsion may stack up. There is also a section at the end exploring the risks and incentives facing the young and the old faced with the offer of the vaccine.

To me, the most interesting part of the paper was his attempt to estimate how many lives (among the vaccinated) would need to be saved by coercing part of the population to be vaccinated to make such a policy pass a cost-benefit assessment. On his numbers (you can read the reasoning in the paper)

So, vaccine mandating would be warranted only if failure to do so leads to a pool of unvaccinated people who thereby induce at least 5,200 additional deaths from covid-19 amongst the vaccinated. 

And how likely is that?

I now consider whether at least 5,200 additional such deaths amongst the vaccinated could occur.  The worst case scenario for the 90% of the over 12s who vaccinate without mandating (4.2m*0.9 = 3.8m) is that they are all infected as a result of the existence of the unvaccinated people who might be induced into vaccinating.  In the absence of an effective vaccine, the proportion dying is the Infection Fatality Rate (IFR).  Recent surveys suggest figures of 0.3 – 0.4% for Europe and the Americas (Ioannidis, 2021, page 10), and 0.70% for Europe and 0.58% for the Americas (Meyerowitz-Katz and Merone, 2021, Figure 2).  The midpoint is about 0.5%, which implies 3.8m*0.005 = 19,000 dead.  However, this IFR relates to the entire population rather than only those over 12, and the latter IFR would be higher because the IFR is monotonically increasing with age.  Correction for this raises the IFR for the over 12s to about 0.60%.[1]  This implies 3.8m*0.006 = 23,000.  The vaccines reduce the risk of death by 85% to 88% on average over the first six months but rapidly wanes beyond that point (Nordstrom et al, 2021, Table 2 and Table 5).  If a booster is used at that point, the average reduction in the death rate would then be at least 85%.  This implies 23,000*(1 – 0.85) = 3,400 deaths amongst the vaccinated. 

This is the worst case.  It is inconceivable that all of the 3.8m vaccinated would be infected.  Amongst those infected, it is inconceivable that all would be infected as a result of the pool of unvaccinated people, i.e., some of the vaccinated would be infected even if there were no unvaccinated people because the vaccine does not eliminate the risk of its recipients transmitting the virus and therefore vaccinated people could be infected by other vaccinated people.  In fact, all of the vaccinated might become infected even if the unvaccinated pool did not exist, through the virus transmitting through the vaccinated.  Amongst those vaccinated who were infected as a result of the unvaccinated pool, some would be infected as a result of the vaccine objectors who will not succumb to the penalties, and a mandating policy cannot eliminate this group.  Taking account of all three of these points, the additional covid-19 deaths amongst the vaccinated in the absence of vaccine mandating would be significantly less than 3,400.

[1] Steyn et al (2021, page 14) cites age-related IFR data from Verity et al (2020, Table 1) and matches it to the New Zealand population proportions by age groups, which implies an IFR of 0.95%.  The same data can be used to estimate the IFR for the 12+ group, at 1.13%.  Both figures are unreliable because they are based upon IFR data from March 2020 from only one paper (Verity et al, 2020) rather than from recent surveys of the literature (as with Ioannidis, 2021 and Meyerowitz-Katz and Merone, 2021).  However, the increase of 19% (0.95% to 1.13%) can be applied to the preferred IFR estimate for the entire population of 0.5%, to yield 0.6% for the 12+ group.

It is quite simple, but illuminating, reasoning.

My point in running this post, and hosting Lally’s paper, is not to endorse all his reasoning or his conclusions. But it seemed like an interesting attempt to look at the issues rigorously – in a way that there is no sign officials and ministers have – which deserved to be available to a wider audience.

$5.7 billion

A few weeks ago I wrote a fairly discursive post on the losses the Reserve Bank had run up on its Large Scale Asset Purchase programme. I know some readers found the basic point a little hard to grasp (no doubt a reflection on my storytelling), so today I’m going to do a very stylised representation of what has gone on.

But first, as I noted in that post, as market interest rates rise losses mount. The Bank has now released its end-October balance sheet and this is the line item representing their claim on the Crown (the Minister of Finance indemnified the Bank for losses incurred).

lsap losses

So the losses have now reached $5.7 billion (roughly 1.6% of annual GDP). Market interest rates fluctuate each day, but as of yesterday’s rate current losses are likely to be very similar to those as at 31 October. Perhaps Covid has inured us to big numbers, but these are really large losses, which were quite avoidable.

Now I want to step you through a very stylised illustration of roughly what has gone on.

A severe shock hits (call it Covid, but it could be anything) and the government determines that it needs to run a large fiscal deficit. Say that (cash) deficit totals $70 billion. The government finances that deficit prudently by issuing (selling) long-term bonds, issuing $70 billion at par, and thus raising $70 billion in cash.

Once the government has borrowed and spent, its bank account balance (at the Reserve Bank) isn’t changed. And after recipients of the deficit spending and purchasers of the government bonds have all made their transactions, the aggregate balances held by banks in their settlement accounts at the Reserve Bank also haven’t changed.

But now assume the Reserve Bank enters the fray, deciding that it will launch a large scale bond purchase programme, in which it buys $50 billion of long-term government bonds (for simplicity, assume the same bonds the government just issued on market). The Bank pays for those bonds by issuing on-call liabilities (settlement cash balances), on which it pays the OCR interest rate.

What does the Crown’s overall debt exposure look like under those two stages?

Financing the fiscal deficit

Floating rate debt held by the private sector (settlement cash) $0

Long-term government bonds held by private sector $70bn

Add in the effect of the LSAP

Floating rate debt held by the private sector (settlement cash) $50bn

Long-term government bonds held by the private sector $20bn

The total amount owed by the Crown (government plus Reserve Bank) is $70 billion in both cases, but the risk to the Crown is substantially different.

The emergency having finished (by assumption in this stylised example), the Reserve Bank now has two choices. It can hold the bonds it purchased to maturity or it can sell them back to the market. One choices closes out the risky position they chose (rightly or wrongly) to run during the emergency, while the other leaves it running (for years).

Now assume that market interest rates rise sharply, across the curve (so long-term bond yields rise but so – perhaps gradually – does the OCR itself.

When market interest rates rise, the market value of a portfolio of long-term bonds falls. That is what has happened in New Zealand over the last year or so, reflected (in respect of the LSAP portfolio) in the chart at the start of this post.

If the bonds were sold back to the market, the Reserve Bank (and Crown as a whole) would realise less on the sale than they paid for the bonds. On present rates, a lot less. Selling the bonds back to the market would, however, restore the balance sheets as under the “Financing the fiscal deficit” scenario above. The private sector would hold no floating rate government debt (settlement cash) but lots of long-term bonds. All the risk would be with the private sector, although the Crown would have crystallised the large loss it let the Reserve Bank run up.

But what if, instead, the Reserve Bank just stuck the bonds in the bottom drawer and held them to maturity (last maturities not for 20 years)? The bonds would mature at par, and there might be little or no claim under the indemnity (depends on the initial purchase price relative to the face value). But, if things play out as current market prices envisage, the OCR would rise by quite a lot and (on average) stay much higher over the remaining life of the portfolio. Since the Bank is still holding the bonds, settlement cash would also stay high, and the Bank pays the full OCR on all settlement cash balances. Under that scenario, the Reserve Bank – having issued lots of floating rate debt, and having no matching floating rate asset – will be up for much higher interest costs.

Either way, the Crown (the taxpayer) has lost a great deal of money. If market rates play out as the yield curve currently predicts, either there will be a large payout under the indemnity, or the Reserve Bank’s future dividends to the Crown will be reduced. But the loss has already happened, it is just a matter of how it ends up being recorded/realised. $5.7 billion dollars of it. The Crown could probably have funded quite a few ICU beds for quite a few years with that sort of money…..but it has gone.

You’ll notice that I bolded some words in the previous paragraph. Even if the best estimate of future short-term rates is something like what the market currently prices, that is a very weak standard, and it is exceptionally unlike that actual short-term rates will follow exactly that path. They could be lower, but they could be higher (perhaps quite a bit higher or lower).

If the Reserve Bank sold the bonds it holds back to the market we (taxpayers) wouldn’t need to worry. The overall Crown would be back to having funded itself with long-term debt, and fluctuations in rates wouldn’t affect us (at least unless/until the bonds need rolling over years down the track).

But if the Reserve Bank keeps the bonds, we (taxpayers) keep the risk. Having had them drop $5.7 billion of our money so far, they keep the position open. From here, they could make us a bit of money, or they could lose a bit of money (well, actually “a lot” in either direction). But there is no obvious reason to have some bureaucrats speculating on bond markets – because that is what the LSAP portfolio now purely is – at our risk. It isn’t even as if these people – the MPC – have some demonstrated track record of generating attractive Sharpe ratios (returns relative to risk) for their punts. And if as individuals we do want to take punts, the market already has products for us.

Perhaps the key point here is that the $5.7 billion has already gone – that is what mark-to-market accounting measures – but the risk remains. From here we could lose another (say) $5.7 billion, or make a great deal of money, but there seems to be no effective accountability, for activities which – at this point, well beyond the crisis – is simply not a natural business of government. Monetary policy in a floating exchange rate system like ours normally involves next to no financial risk to the taxpayer.

Are there caveats to all this, or alternative approaches?

One possibility is that the government chooses to neutralise the risk the Reserve Bank continues to run. They could do that relatively easily, by issuing new bonds on market with the same maturity dates as those the Bank holds. All else equal that would eliminate the future floating rate exposure. They could probably do something similar (but hedging less effectively) with interest rate swaps. But it doesn’t seem terribly likely, or terribly sensible (including because it would simply further inflate balance sheets).

Since this is an entirely stylised exercise, I’ve been able to dwell in the simplified air of “sell” or hold”, as if “sell” was akin to selling a single excess car or house. But the Bank has more than $50 billion in bonds and it would not make sense to offload them all at once (doing so would be likely to push the price unnecessarily against the Bank/Crown). So when I say “sell” what I really have in mind is a steady pre-announced programme that would unwind the entire portfolio over 1-2 years. That means assuming quite a lot of risk in the menatime, but unfortunately that is the hole Orr and his colleagues dug for us.

Observant readers will have noticed that so far I’ve not mentioned at all any macroeconomic effects of the LSAP programme. The LSAP was launched with the intention of having stimulatory macroeconomic effects. I’ve always been sceptical there was much to the story, especially in the New Zealand context. The proceeds of the bond purchases were fully sterilised (that is what paying the OCR on all balances does), short-term rates were held low by (a) the OCR itself, and (b) some mix of RB statements and market expectations about the economic/inflation outlook, and long-term rates just don’t matter much to the transmission mechanism in New Zealand. But remember that the LSAP was explicitly sold as a substitute for the Bank last year not having been able (so it said) to take the OCR negative. It is now quite clear – even if it wasn’t at the time – that any such need had dissipated by this time last year. This year, inflation and unemployment have been overshooting and the OCR has begun to be raised. So even if you think – with the Bank – that the LSAP had a useful macroeconomic effect, any useful bits must have been concentrated in a few months last year. And it simply isn’t credible that any such gains were as large as the 1.6 per cent of GDP of our money that the Bank has….. lost. (Note that the literature on LSAPs suggests that any beneficial effects come from the stock of bonds hold not the flow of purchases, but the Reserve Bank continued its purchase programme well after it was clear the OCR itself could take any slack and now – when looking to tighten conditions – refuses to reduce risk to the taxpayer by making a start on reducing the Bank’s bond holdings.)

And all this from a weak and not very transparent, or accountable, institution. As per yesterday’s post, two of those responsible – MPC members – are moving on, and the Minister has to make various new appointments shortly. One of those most responsible – the MPC member responsible for monetary policy and financial markets – has just been given a big promotion. But none of them – internal, external, Governor or more specialist expert – has given any sort of adequate accounting for the public money they have lost.

(Where does the Minister himself fit into all this? I’m not particularly sympathetic to Robertson, who seems the epitome of a minister uninterested in holding anyone to account, but realistically on the dawn of a crisis, no Minister of Finance was likely to have turned down the Bank’s request for an indemnity, at least if The Treasury was onside with the Bank. No, the substantive blame here rests first and foremost with the Governor, the MPC, secondarily with the Bank’s Board and the Secretary to the Treasury, and only then with the Minister of Finance. But it is the Minister who is accountable to Parliament and the public, and who had failed to ensure that the Reserve Bank was fit for purpose (people, preparedness) going into a crisis like Covid.)

UPDATE: For those who have pointed out, or noticed, that I did not discuss here issues around actual settlement account balances over the last 20 months (or developments in the Crown account), they are discussed in the earlier post linked to above.

A cost-benefit approach to thinking about vaccine coercion

One of the (many) disillusioning aspects of the Covid response of the New Zealand government (politicians and public service) has been the apparent total absence of any use of cost-benefit analysis techniques to help inform thinking about policy responses. No cost-benefit analysis on any aspect of the policy response has ever been published (or hinted at), on the couple of occasions I’ve OIAed any such analysis (just to be sure) agencies have been quick to deny any such analysis exists, and when one independent agency (the Productivity Commission) did do a little exercise along these lines at one point last year it was shunned as almost “unclean”. And if there had been any slight excuse early last year about “no time” – not convincing even then – officials have had 22 months now to get toolkits in place. But they (and their political masters) seem to prefer seat-of-the-pants thinking, all with minimal transparency. (On that latter note, it is now three months since the current lockdowns began and not one piece of official advice, not one Cabinet paper has yet been released, despite the enormous economic and social costs of the choices the government has made.)

The point about cost-benefit analysis is not that using those techniques, or that way of thinking about the issue, will generate “the” right answer. On many of these things there is no “the” right answer. The merit lies in a combination of (a) forcing people to write down their assumptions, including which variables (even hard to estimate ones) should be relevant to a particular decision, and (b) then enabling users to get a sense of how much difference a different set of assumptions might make to the bottom line. Using the techniques facilitates disciplined thinking and transparency, the latter itself supporting scrutiny (especially important when such costly and often intrusive/restrictive decisions are involved.

Consultant economist and former Victoria University academic Martin Lally has been one of those attempting to apply a cost-benefit approach to thinking about Covid policy responses. I wrote here about one of his pieces from last year. I haven’t always agreed with his conclusions, but (as above) that isn’t the point. The value in such exercises is to prompt people to think harder about which assumptions they might disagree with, why, whether all the right variables are being taken into account, and what differences different assumptions might make.

On Saturday Lally sent out a short piece he had done, attempting to sketch how one might apply a cost-benefit type of approach to thinking about vaccine coercion (or – ugly Americanism – “mandates”). He has given me permission to reproduce it here, which I will then follow with my own thinking. It is a sketch outline, towards the sort of fuller cost-benefit analysis one might hope government agencies – with access to much more resource – would routinely be doing and revising.

Lally notes that he – like me – is fully vaccinated “without coercion”.

Vaccine mandates for the general population are proving to be extremely controversial.  Opponents point to the right to choose.  Proponents point to the costs that the unvaccinated impose upon the vaccinated, in particular the increased risk of death to some vaccinated people (because the vaccine is not perfect and the more so as the time since the vaccination increases) and the increased load on the health system from unvaccinated people leading to some (vaccinated) people receiving an inferior level of care for non-covid conditions than they otherwise would.

This is yet another example of the trade-offs we face in life, individually or socially, and is therefore capable of being illuminated (and possibly resolved) by cost-benefit analysis. 

To illustrate this, suppose that 400,000 New Zealanders will not be vaccinated unless coerced (10% of those above the age of 12).  This corresponds to the 10% of the over 12s who have not yet had a first dose, and therefore could reasonably be viewed as a lower bound on those for whom coercion will be required to achieve their vaccination.  Standard CBA for health issues involves discounts to QALYs [quality-adjusted life years] for imperfect health status.  For example, a person suffering from type 2 diabetes warrants a discount of about 20% per year of their remaining life.  The same principle applies to coercion, i.e., it reduces the quality of life of the coerced person.  These 400,000 objectors are likely to be of about average age and in good health, which implies about 40 years of remaining life.  Let W denote the annual discount on their quality of life arising from being coerced into vaccinating.  The QALY loss from the coercion is then 400,000 [people]*40 [individual years] *W = 16,000,000*W.

Now consider the costs that the unvaccinated impose on the rest, of the types mentioned above.  Let D be the estimated deaths from the existence of unvaccinated people, if coercion is not adopted compared to adoption of coercion.  The deaths here are of people likely to have low residual life expectancies and health problems that would lower their quality of life even if they didn’t die due to the existence of the unvaccinated.  Suppose the average residual life expectancy is ten years (generous as covid victims [fatalities] have an average of about five years), and the discount for health problems during this ten year period is 20%.

If coercion is adopted, the 400,000 people alive today who will suffer the coercion will experience a QALY loss of 16,000,000*W whilst the vaccinated avoid a QALY loss of D*10*0.8.  So, coercion is warranted if and only if D*10*0.8 exceeds 16,000,000*W. 

For example, suppose W is 5%, i.e., coercion is equivalent to a quality of life discount of 5% per year.  The parameter D would then have to exceed 100,000 for coercion to be justified, i.e., there would have to be at least 100,000 additional deaths amongst those alive today and vaccinated resulting from catching covid from an unvaccinated person or from inferior hospital care resulting from hospital overload due to unvaccinated people requiring covid treatment.  This is not plausible.  Alternatively, if W is 1% (coercion is equivalent to a quality of life discount of 1% per year), then D would have to exceed 20,000 for coercion to be justified, i.e., there would have to be at least 20,000 additional premature deaths amongst those alive today and vaccinated resulting from catching covid from an unvaccinated person or from inferior hospital care resulting from hospital overload due to unvaccinated people requiring covid treatment.  This too is not plausible. 

It is implausible that W is less than 1%, and it is implausible that D would be more than 20,000.  It follows that coercing people into being vaccinated does not seem to be a good policy choice.

If you think I am wrong, I invite you to supply a CBA consistent with your view.  Simply saying that unvaccinated people inflict damage on the rest of us is not enough.

It is a reasonable challenge.

In my case, it isn’t that I think his policy conclusion is wrong. I don’t think either vaccine coercion or the associated (coming) pass laws can be justified by the scale of the threat Covid poses. But I think Lally’s initial exercise – while illuminating – may overstate the case, at least on cost-benefit grounds (there are some – few – things no price should be placed on, or which we should be very reluctant to do so in the face all but the gravest threats).

Perhaps my greatest unease is around time horizons. The approach seems to treat Covid as something that within a few years will settle down to be either non-threatening or chronic/endemic or something society will choose not to do anything much about. Why do I say that? Because otherwise we have no basis for reaching any judgements (plausible or not) for many lives coercion might save – over, say, 50 or 100 years – but also because if it was to be treated as a permanent issue one would have to include effects not just for the current population cohort but for those yet to be born.

It seems a reasonable approach to me for now – and this is a place where real options analysis is relevant, taking account of irreversibilities – but if so then how credible is it to suppose (assume) that those subject to coercion will experience the same reduction in their quality of life for their entire remaining life (40 years on Lally’s assumption)?

As Lally notes when we exchanged (brief) notes on this, there are two classes of people subject to coercion, those who give in to it, and those who don’t. Lally’s approach does not seem to incorporate the effect of or on the latter group at all. I’ll come back to them.

But what of those who do give in to the coercion and get vaccinated? It seems quite plausible that, at least initially, many will be quite resentful and experience the reduced quality of life Lally mentions (a few may be relieved as coercion gets them out of a corner they’d boxed themselves into). Quite how intense that loss is may depend a bit on what motivated each individual resister. But if Covid settles into being a chronic thing that no one pays that much attention to in a few years hence, how plausible is that those coerced now will be still experiencing a significant (same annual) loss of wellbeing 30 years from now? If we, arbitrarily, allowed for this loss of quality of life for just the next five years then that cost would be reduced to only 1/8th of the scenario Lally uses.

What about what the coercion saves? Lally’s initial approach looks at lives saved this way: “additional premature deaths amongst those alive today and vaccinated resulting from catching covid from an unvaccinated person or from inferior hospital care resulting from hospital overload due to unvaccinated people requiring covid treatment”.

Again, this points to an implicit assumption about the issue being medium-term but not long-term. The potential impact on the health system – and thus on mortality risks for non-Covid conditions – is a real one at present, but surely can’t be with (say) a 10 year horizon, since healthcare capability can be added in that sort of timeframe. But although Lally highlights the potential deaths avoided, he does not factor into this simple model the losses from either severe Covid cases among the vaccinated, or the loss of quality of life to those whose treatment for other conditions is delayed. On our current understanding, he is no doubt right to play down the mortality risks from Covid to the vaccinated (probably quite few in number, and most likely to be people with remaining life expectancy well less than 10 years), but I have less of a sense of how large those other numbers might be.

As I noted, Lally’s approach does not take account of those on whom coercion will not work. That number might be small, at least after a few months, but what if it isn’t? And even if most of the resisters eventually given in (a) they are probably the ones who will face the greatest and longest-lasting loss of wellbeing (people who resisted from conviction rather than just hesitation), and (b) we know that people who lose their jobs in recessions can experience lifetime losses of income, a result that could well translate to some of this group.

And although repressive enough pass laws can probably reduce the risk of these resisters (a) getting Covid, and (b) passing it on to other (vaccinated) people, that is going to be a reduced risk not an eliminated one. A full cost-benefit analysis would need to include an assumption as to how many lives the compulsion exerted over this group might save. I’m not in a position to offer a number myself.

The other factor that would need to be taken into account in a fuller cost-benefit assessment is the cost-benefit of alternative options. For example, what if instead of vaccine “mandates” and pass laws, the government mandated the use of rapid antigen tests in places where particularly vulnerable people were present (eg rest homes, hospitals), or – at times when there was much Covid in a community – at the entrance to any large indoor event? Antigen tests are, after all, focused on identifying infectiousness, presumably the main (health) concern. That testing would have costs – there are no cost-free options – but relative to the vaccine coercion options some real savings (re issues discussed above). The Ministry of Health still appears to have some mysterious aversion to antigen tests, but there is no sign their distaste has ever been properly costed.

I don’t purport to know the appropriate parameter values for each of these variables. But it is the sort of exercise – done more fully – that officials should be presenting to ministers, and making available to outsiders for information and scrutiny.

Massive losses, for nothing

All sorts of items of public spending have attracted attention since March 2020 when the Covid-related spending really began. Some of the things money has been spent on – the wage subsidy for example – were large but necessary and appropriate. Some things, often quite small in scale, were pure waste. Others were dressed up under a Covid label but were really just poor-quality (but quite large scale) spending.

One of the items that has had almost no attention is the huge losses that have resulted from the Reserve Bank’s Large Scale Asset Purchase (LSAP) programme. I guess it is a bit harder to report on, since neither the Bank nor the government puts out press releases boasting of losing $4bn or so.

The government has, with no parliamentary authorisation or scrutiny, agreed to idemnify the Reserve Bank for any losses it incurs on the LSAP. That, at least, has the merit of encouraging/requiring some transparency. On the Reserve Bank’s balance sheet there are two line items, show in this chart

LSAP indemnity claims

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what the orange line is, since as I read the indemnity the liability is one-way only (Crown pays Bank if Bank loses) but it looks like it may reflect periods early on when the LSAP bonds were valued at more than they had been purchased at (lower yields than is). In any case, it is irrelevant now as the remaining number is tiny. The blue line – the Bank’s claim on the Crown – is where the focus should be. That claim was almost $4 billion at the end of September, and nominal yields have risen further this month.

Since the Bank discloses all its purchases, in principle someone could go through and identify the losses on each and every purchase undertaken over the period (more than a year) that purchases were undertaken. But for our purposes here, suffice to say that government bond yields are a lot higher than they were. Here are few medium-long term government bond yields

govt bond yields

Recalling that bond prices move inversely with yields, September/October last year would have been a great time to have been selling bonds (top of the market and all that). But the Reserve Bank went right on buying more bonds (albeit at a slower pace), all of which will now be valued at less than the Bank paid for them. They were still buying (lossmaking) government bonds right through the June quarter – when core inflation was already above the target midpoint, and unemployment was back at pre-Covid levels – not finally stopping the purchases until mid-July.

Accounting for the LSAP isn’t simple. In some quarters, there is a tendency to say “well, since the bonds are (almost) all government bonds and the Bank is owned by the government it is all a wash, and nobody is any the worse off”. That is simply wrong, as I will demonstrate shortly.

But it is also wrong to simply look at the indemnity claim (blue line in the first chart above). If all the bonds were held to maturity – in some cases 19.5 years from now – the indemnity claim would come back closer towards zero (since, whatever the market value of a bond now, eventually it will pay the full face value). But it would also be quite wrong to deduce from that correct observation that if only the bonds are held long enough no one is any worse off. Bottom-drawing doesn’t address the issue. (It is worth noting that a few of the bonds the Bank purchased have already matured).

Instead, we need to think about what difference has been made to the overall Crown finances as a result of the independent choices of the Reserve Bank and its Monetary Policy Committee. Assume the rest of the government would have made exactly the same choices they did – spending, taxes, bond and Treasury bill issuance- and assess the marginal financial impact of the Bank’s choices and actions.

The government, of course, did quite a lot of spending and quite a lot of borrowing through the course of the Covid crisis. The Reserve Bank publishes tables of the monthly influences on settlement cash (deposits banks hold at the Reserve Bank). There is a weirdly long lag (for data which really should be available next day), but for illustrative purposes between March 2020 and August this year the government issued domestic debt (bonds and bills) on market, net of maturities, that raised $73.2 billion of cash. Over the same period, its cash outgoings exceeded cash revenue by $33.6 billion. In other words, the government issued a great deal more debt than the net spending it needed to fund. As a result, the balance in the government’s account at the Reserve Bank went up sharply. The balance used to be kept just modestly positive, but this is how things have unfolded since the start of last year.

CSA balance

Mostly the government issued so much debt because it expected to need the cash. Tax revenue came in a lot stronger than the fiscal forecasts had allowed, as the economy rebounded more strongly than forecast (and inflation came in stronger than forecast). But the debt issuance plans were about fiscal policy. As it happens, the Crown ended up issuing a lot of debt earlier than it needed to, at yields that were mostly attractive. The gain to the taxpayer arises from the fact that the bonds were issued last year at, say, 0.5 per cent rather than this year (or next year?) at 2 per cent.

But as far as the Reserve Bank was concerned, all that was a given.

And, incidentally, it is also why a large part of the huge increase in the size of the Reserve Bank’s balance sheet since Covid began is also a given, largely outside the Bank’s control.

When the government overfunds (raises more than its net outgoings) all else equals that reduces the balances commercial banks hold at the Reserve Bank. The net of tax payments, settlement of bond purchases, and government disbursements results in money flowing from the private sector (who bank with commercial banks) to the Crown.

But when Covid began, aggregate settlement cash balances held by commercial banks were about $7 billion, and had been so for some years. A net $40 billion drain to the Crown (see numbers above) needed to be funded somehow.

In normal times, if there were to be a persistent drain it would typically be countered by (funded by) a large buildup in the stock of short-term Reserve Bank loans to the financial system (typically fx swaps or repurchase agreements. Those loans would be rolled over quite often, until the underlying imbalance (government borrowing more than it needed to) was remedied. Doing so would have been pretty much of a wash all round: the Bank would be paying something like the OCR on the Crown Settlement Account, and earning something close to the OCR on its short-term collateralised loans. There would have been little or no market risk or credit risk (the loans would have been well-collateralised) and short-term interest rates would have been kept near the OCR. Most likely, the Bank would have made a small profit (monopoly provider of settlement cash is a position of some strength).

But nothing like this happened.

Instead, we had the LSAP. Now, to be clear, the LSAP was not launched with the intention of filling a hole in system settlement cash. No doubt at the time the Bank assumed that the government would, more or less, be borrowing as required to fund its own deficit, and that if anything, borrowing might be a bit less than the deficit at least while the programme was scaled up (recalling the global bond market illiquidity pressures in March 2020). The Bank’s primary intention – this isn’t a matter of dispute – was simply to lower market interest rates, buying bonds and driving (as they expected) a long way up aggregate system settlement cash balances. Had the government more or less funded just what it was spending over the last 18-20 months, then all else equal settlement cash balances now would be a lot higher than the $37 billion they were last Friday. Recall too that the Bank changed its policy in March 2020 such that all settlement cash balances – without limit – now earn the OCR (previously there was a quota system in which the Bank really only fully remunerated banks for the balances they “needed” to hold for interbank settlement to operate smoothly).

The intent of the policy was to take a big punt on interest rates (that is why they sought and obtained a Crown indemnity). The intent was to buy tens of billions of dollars of long-term fixed rate bonds to which the counterpart would be tens of billions of floating rate settlement account deposits. The Bank initially expected that all those deposits would be held by banks, but because the government overfunded the real counterpart is now in the much-increased balance in the Crown settlement account. But it was a large scale asset swap, which would turn very costly if bond yields went up rather than down. It represented a staggering amount of market risk, assumed by unelected (and not very accountable officials) on a scale with no precedent in New Zealand central banking history.

Views will differ on whether the LSAP made (or is still making) any material sustained difference to (mainly) long-term government bonds rates, and whether even if so that made (or is making) any material difference to New Zealand macroeconomic outcomes. I’ve been consistently somewhat ambivalent on the former, although my reading of the international experience with QE leaves me fairly sceptical. But since long-term interest rates do not matter in the transmission mechanism here in a way they do in (in particular) the United States – since very few fix mortgages for more than a couple of years, and most corporate borrowing is swapped back to floating – I’ve been consistently sceptical that the bond-buying programme (heavily focused at the long end) was making any material macro difference (the more so once the Bank decided to pay OCR on all settlement cash balances, actively preventing one possible transmission mechanism from working). Even if I did – which I do not concede at all – that usefulness ended long ago now (given what we know of the subsequent inflation outcomes and the push to raise the OCR quite aggressively now).

Whatever useful macro impact the Bank might sought last year – simply exploring the hypothetical – could as readily have been achieved by cutting the OCR further, including into modestly negative territory. And using that mechanism would not have involved big financial risks for the taxpayer

And instead now they are stuck with tens of billions of dollars of bonds, many with very long-term maturities, sitting on the Bank’s balance sheet, while the cost of funding (the counterpart liability) looks set to rise quite rapidly further.

In the end, what the MPC has done in effect is to neutralise or reverse the gains the Crown would otherwise have made through the good luck (mostly) of issuing so heavily last year when interest rates were so low, over and above what they were spending then. The Crown will borrow less in the next (more expensive) couple of years and the CSA balance wil no doubt over time be returned to more normal levels. Because more than all the excess bond issuance was, in substance, reversed through the Reserve Bank’s action, bringing tens of billions of long-term bonds back onto the wider Crown balance sheet. If they were to sell the bonds now (or in a scheduled programme over the next couple of years) the loss would be crystallised. That might be a good thing, to help sharpen debate and accountability. But whether the bonds are sold back now or held to maturity, the loss has already occurred. (This is not to say that rates might not go lower – perhaps even much lower – again in future, but that is just another bet at the expense of taxpayers, and no more likely than that bond yields rise further from here, deepening our (taxpayers’) losses.

But it as well to keep the choices by two parts of government separate, reflecting the different sets of decisionmakers. In borrowing as it did (and probably largely by luck re the revenue rebound) the government’s overfunding programme saved taxpayers a lot of money (for which there is no line item in the government accounts). By contrast, the Reserve Bank’s choices — quite conscious and deliberate ones – have cost the taxpayer a great deal of money.

The LSAP simply was not necessary, and it clearly was not well thought through. If there was an arguable case for some action in March 2020, that need quickly passed, and any bonds purchased then could relatively easily have been offloaded back to the market – probably at a profit (crisis interventions should generally be profitable) – by late last year. One might blame the Minister of Finance for providing the indemnity, but the main responsibility rests with the (supposed) technical experts at the Bank and on the MPC (albeit appointed by Robertson). It has cost us billions of dollars already – a $4bn loss is $800 per man, woman, and child, and most families could think of better things to do with such money – and the Bank now sits with a huge open market risk position, the value of which fluctuates by the day.

Having outlined my story – on which I will welcome comments – it is worth pondering why this hasn’t been an issue elsewhere or previously. A lot of bonds have been purchased by central banks in the decade after the 2008/09 crisis. Most likely there will have been two reasons. The first may be around transparency. It is great that we have the indemnity claim is reported each month.

But the much bigger factor must surely have been the continuing decline in global bond yields over the decade. This chart shows long-term bond yields for some of the more significant places where central banks reached effective lows on policy interest rates and engaged in large-scale asset purchases.

long bonds

When yields just keep trending downwards, having built up a portfolio of long-term bonds is (a) profitable, and (b) much less likely to be controversial. Who knows how much this was a subconscious backdrop to Reserve Bank (and Treasury/Minister) thinking here.

Finally, throughout this post I have treated government and Reserve Bank choices are separable and assumed both parties would have done what they did pretty much regardless of what the other did (around debt issuance and bond purchases). That seems sound for the most part, although the extent of the Crown overfunding is such that it is conceivable that without the LSAP – pouring huge amounts in settlement accounts – pressure (including from the Bank) might have mounted on the government to wind back the borrowing programme more aggressively than it did. But even if there is something to that argument, it is unlikely it would have become salient for several months – it took quite a while for the extent of the economic rebound to be fully appreciated, and by that time the bulk of the LSAP purchases had already been done.

As for where to from here, the losses from the LSAP have already occurred – the mark to market estimates largely capture that – but that is no excuse for the Bank continuing to maintain a large open position in the bond market. The bonds can’t be offloaded very quickly, but there is no reason not do so in a steady predictable preannounced way over the next year or two (say $2 billion a month). Given the extent of the CSA balance, there could even be merit in considering a partial government repurchase of the LSAP portfolio (say half of it). Doing that would not change the substance, but would put duration choices around the public debt and overall Crown liabilities back more nearly where they belong, with The Treasury and the Minister of Finance.

Vaccinations by age

Still on health matters, I’ve been intrigued for a while at what was happening to vaccination rates stratified by age. For all that politicians and the media burble on, emote even, about differences by ethnicity, the data on Covid itself seem crystal clear: by far the biggest demographic risk factor for getting seriously ill or dying of Covid (and thus of resulting in pressure on the health system) is age. The Hendy et al modelling used this data (from this 2020 paper).

age factor covid death

I’ve seen people suggest these absolute numbers may be out of date, and epidemiologists can argue about that, but my point simply is that no one seems to dispute the significance of age. It isn’t just a linearly increasing risk: the risks for (say) the over-80s are far far higher than those for even people in their 50s.

The government of course recognised this initially in allowing old people to get vaccinated before (progressively) most of the rest of us. If you are my age, it is only about six weeks since one could get a first dose, and so many (like me) will be getting second doses only in the next few weeks. But the very elderly have had a lot of time to have had both doses of the vaccine. And, so you would think, people in that age range would generally have a strong personal incentive to get vaccinated – and their children to encourage them to do so. Public spirit might be necessary to help encourage the young, but for the very old death from Covid is a non-trivial risk (and thus the strict rules one hears rest homes have in place). The rest of us have a strong interest in these old people getting vaccinated because pressure on the health system is one of the key perceived constraints on opening up.

And so I’ve been a bit surprised that the vaccination rates among the elderly have not been higher. The Ministry has come and gone a bit on how much information it makes available, but for now it seems to have settled on promoting this chart.

moh vaccine by age

None of the elderly age bands have yet got to a 90 per cent second dose vaccination rate, and only one (the 80-84 group) has got to 95 per cent for even a first dose. And these people have had months.

But the real situation seems to be even less good than the Ministry of Health portrays it. The denominator they use in all their charts and tables is not the population in that age group as estimated by our official statistics agency, SNZ, but something called the “Health Service User population” (HSU), which is defined thus

The Health Service User population estimate counts the number of people who received health services in a given year. Someone is counted in the population if their associated National Health Index (NHI) number received public health services; or was enrolled with a primary health organisation (PHO). 

I suppose they must have their reasons, but using this HSU measure seems to assume away part of the problem – people unknown to the health system seem, all else equal, less likely to be turning up (to the health system) for a vaccine. Of course, it is a hard count (administrative data) and the SNZ population numbers are only (informed) estimates. But some people just don’t go to the doctor very often (I know in my 20s I prided myself on not having been for a decade).

Anyway, here is the difference it makes

hsu popn

There are some anomalies. I’m not sure how there can be so many more 90+ health service users than SNZ think there are in the country (and they keep track of deaths, and there can’t be that much migration among the over 90s), and the 80-84 band is a bit of a surprise too, but the key point is that both for older ages (65+) and the the 12+ population as a whole, the HSU appears to undercount the population by 3.5 per cent. All else equal then, vaccination rates are a bit overstated.

Here is how the two measures look for first doses for the older age groups

vaccination rates hsu vs snz

Using the SNZ population numbers, not quite 90 per cent of the elderly have yet had a first dose. And yet we hear almost nothing about this from our government, our health bureaucrats (who seem to champion the messaging of politicians) or even – so far as I could see – in the perspectives provided by the opposition political parties.

Here is the same chart for second doses.

2nd dose vacc rates by age

Not much more than 80 per cent of even the 75+ population have had two doses, many months into the programme. And this is the demographic most exposed to serious illness death, and the demographic that thus poses the greatest threat to the health system if/when Covid gets more established here.

Using the SNZ population estimates here are the vaccination rates for each age-band.

vacc rates by SNZ age

Can better be managed? Well, it would appear so from the experiences of other countries. At an aggregate level, for example, Portugal has about 85 per cent of the population with two doses (about 95 per cent of the 12+ population). I’ve been keeping an eye for some time on NHS data for England (and remember that a lot of people in England have already had the virus itself), and they appear to be showing close on 100 per cent of those 70-74 having had two doses (albeit rates tail off somewhat above that age band).

But when it comes to Covid, Australia still appears to be the country most similar to us, including in that they were slow to get their vaccination programme going. This is the latest set of charts

aus vacc rates

Of course, Australian states and territories have a quite diverse range of experiences with Covid (ACT, NSW, and Victoria with ongoing outbreaks) but their record in getting the elderly vaccinated seems to be consistently (NT aside perhaps) better than New Zealand’s, with particularly impressive numbers in ACT (where all but one age-band over 40 have 95 per cent first dose rates, and most second doses done).

Perhaps there are denominator issues in those other countries too, but even if so the bottom line remains one in which the New Zealand elderly vaccination rates are just not that good, given the risks (to their own health, and – indirectly – to the wider freedoms and opportunity of the community more generally).

And there is no sign our politicians are taking this very seriously.

On a final note re age, the Hendy et al modelling released last week (and touted by the government) assumes the same vaccination rate for all eligible age bands. That seems somewhat unrealistic, even if at some point in the middle distance all age bands were to eventually converge to very similar vaccination rates. It seems unfortunate that model estimates using a range of different assumptions about the age pattern of vaccination rates have not been published. Superficially, it would seem that very high vaccination rates among the very old might be more valuable – in reducing death and serious illness, and facilitating opening up – than very high rates among some of the younger cohorts. In a brief exchange on Twitter last week with one of Hendy’s co-authors, he indicated that (a) they had done some such modelling, and (b) that sometimes one could get counter-intuitive results. Which is fine, but it would be helpful for the public to be able to see this sort of material, especially when the government itself if touting the modelling of these particular researchers. In its absence, it looks as though the government should be putting a lot more emphasis on getting elderly vaccination rates well up than is evident at present.

Puzzling over the New Zealand macro data

I have no doubt that our labour market has been tight and that core inflation has been rising (finally above the target midpoint). It won’t make that much difference in the long-run, but it is a shame the “Level 4 lockdown” didn’t come a day or two later because if it had the Reserve Bank would, appropriately enough, have raised the OCR. I also don’t have any reason to doubt that there was a lot of GDP growth in the June quarter.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some puzzles.

According to the official data the New Zealand economy is quite a lot bigger than it was pre-Covid, Of the two quarterly measures of real GDP, one was 5.3 per cent higher in the June quarter than it had been in the December 2019 quarter and the other was 4.3 per cent higher. Average the two and the best guess is a lift of 4.8 per cent. That’s a lot, especially for a country that has (a) had at best mediocre productivity growth in normal times, and (b) has had the borders largely closed to new migrants (and quite difficult even for returning New Zealanders) for almost all of that period.

Ah well, perhaps it is all the cyclical stimulus, with fiscal and monetary policy “finally” (as some might put it) coming to the party and giving the economy a well-overdue boost. But……according to SNZ, the unemployment rate in the June quarter was exactly the same as it had been in the December 2019 quarter, and so was the employment rate, so there was no sign that suddenly we’d been able to get hitherto-unutilised resources producing.

So where might the reported growth have come from? Statistics New Zealand does not publish an official quarterly series for labour productivity, but we can derive one ourselves. In this chart I’ve shown growth in labour productivity, using a measure in which the two measures of real GDP and the two hours measures (HLFS and QES) are all set to equal 100 at the start of the chart, and the resulting real GDP per hours worked indicator is calculated and shown.

New Zealand’s productivity growth has been mediocre for a long time – little over 10 per cent in total in almost 15 years – and yet according to this indicator, calculated entirely with official statistics, closing the border (with all its ramifications), and for that matter diverting material resources into testing, MIQ, enforcement etc) has resulted in no deterioration in productivity growth. If anything, productivity growth over the last 18 months has been a bit higher than usual (but such is the noise, and routine potential for revisions we probably should not make too much of that lift).

How can this be? In the depths of lockdowns there was some sign of “averaging up” – low productivity workers (notably in tourism and hospitality) will have been disproportionately likely to have lost jobs/hours, and even if everyone else was only as productive as ever, the economywide average would have risen. But if, as there probably was, there was something to that story 18 months ago (and perhaps right now), it can’t really have been the story in June when – as a already noted – employment and unemployment rates were right back to pre-Covid levels.

So if less than half the reported real GDP growth came from labour productivity, and none came from a reduction in the unemployment rate or increase in the employment rate, where did it come from? The only other possibility is more labour inputs. And (unusually) the HLFS and the QES happen to agree: whether hours worked (HLFS) or hours paid (QES), hours in the June quarter were about 3 per cent higher than they’d been in December 2019 (all data seasonally adjusted). And that isn’t (mainly) individuals working longer hours, as both the HLFS (people employed) and the QES (filled jobs) suggest quite a significant increase in the number of people working.

And why is that? Because SNZ tells us that the population has been growing still quite rapidly: the “working age population” for example is estimated to have been 2.5 per cent higher in June 2021 than in December 2019. The official total population is estimated to have risen by 1.9 per cent over the same period.

How come? Well, this is the story SNZ currently tells.

The orange line represents natural increase (births less deaths), which will be measured accurately. Natural increase is quite stable, and quite modest, at just over 0.5 percentage points contribution per annum. The variability – and the huge measurement uncertainty – comes with the net migration numbers.

According to SNZ we had the three biggest quarterly net migration inflows in the 30 year history of the population series in the September and December quarters of 2019 and the March quarter of 2020 (something not showing in their contemporaneous estimates). And on their reckoning, net migration has been positive throughout the entire Covid period, dipping very slightly negative for a single quarter.

Perhaps it is all true. But here, on the other hand, is the monthly series of net arrivals and departures from New Zealand (all citizenships, all purposes) since the start of last year.

As one might have expected, there were really big net outflows over the three months to April (Covid having first become a significant issue near the peak of the tourist season), but there has also been a steady outflow ever since. In the year to June, for example, a net outflow (all purposes) of 35226 people, with only a single month seeing a net inflow. (The net outflow continued in July and August). SNZ, by contrast, estimate – and it is an estimate, not a full count unlike the air traffic numbers – net migration inflow of about 5000 over that year.

You wouldn’t expect the two series to match exactly. There will have been people (New Zealanders and foreigners) going and coming who were not away for long, but in any sort of net sense those numbers must have gotten very small as the months went on – hardly any holidaymakers for example. Whatever the precise composition we know that there were few people in New Zealand in June 2021 than there had been either in June 2020 or in December 2019, even if SNZ claims that the official resident population has kept on increasing.

If so, it is a bit of a mystery where all those extra hours/jobs are, given that the employment and unemployment rates haven’t changed. One might reasonably suggest that the GDP (and hours/jobs) numbers themselves build on estimates of the population that are more than usually uncertain.

One other way of looking at things is to see how Australia is reported to have done. It helps that the ABS reckons that by the June quarter of this year, Australia’s unemployment rate was also back to pre-Covid levels. As it happens, labour productivity is also estimated to have risen quite a bit in Australia – up by 2.1 per cent over the 18 months to June 2021. Of course, Australian productivity growth has typically outstripped New Zealand’s, but it still seems surprisingly high given that their borders were also closed.

But the ABS also reckons that real GDP in Australia in the June 2021 quarter was only 1.6 per cent higher than it had been in December 2019. And before anyone mentions Victorian lockdowns, NSW Delta, or whatever…..this was June, when things were looking good across Australia and New Zealand (remember the “bubble”).

And if GDP growth was less than productivity growth then….hours worked are estimated to have fallen. by about 0.5 per cent.

So what explains the difference?

Here is the ABS version of the population growth components chart.

Again, natural increase has been low but stable, but (a) Australia doesn’t show anything like the NZ net migration spike pre-Covid (the Australian 2019 numbers looked much as they had for the previous few years), and (b) net migration since the middle of last year has been consistently negative. These data are only to March 2020, but the population number implicit in Australia’s June GDP and GDP per capita numbers is consistent with a small quarterly net inflow in the June quarter.

I don’t have answers, only questions. But recall that (a) over the 18 months from December 2019 to June 2020 Australia had much the same experience of Covid as we did, (b) in both countries, unemployment was back to pre-Covid levels in June 2020, and (c) Australia had very stringent restrictions on its nationals leaving Australia (unlike New Zealand) so it seems a little hard to believe that Australia (the much richer country) has had material net migration outflows while we have had modest inflows. The total arrivals and departures data for Australia also show big net outflows, except in the June quarter of this year.

Perhaps it is true. Perhaps too productivity growth (in both countries) really held up rather strongly through the uncertainty and disruption of Covid. Or perhaps – perhaps especially in the New Zealand case – much will just end up getting revised away. The biggest annual revisions are due over the next three months, and often they have been big indeed. There are other challenges, such as the 3 per cent levels gap between the production and expenditure measures of GDP.

On the productivity front, it would defy almost all conventional economic models if productivity growth was really no worse than usual amid closed borders, rampant uncertainty etc etc (with no discernible cyclical effects either). Those firms in today’s media sending staff abroad uncertain when they can come home clearly don’t believe travel and face to face contact don’t matter.

And then, of course, we have all the uncertainties about SNZ measurement of the latest lockdown to look forward to. As I recall last year, their estimates for last June treated school inputs and outputs as having continued largely unchanged, a story that probably won’t have rung true to most parents, and doesn’t now seemed backed by literature on loss of learning in lockdowns.