Questions

I’m a bit puzzled as to quite what has gone on in the New Zealand economy over the last year.

Of course, to some extent Statistics New Zealand must share that puzzlement. On their two real GDP measures – and there is no particular reason to favour one rather than the other – they aren’t sure whether by the December quarter last year real GDP was a bit higher or a bit lower than it was a year earlier. One measure shows a 1.2 per cent increase, and the other a 0.9 per cent fall. I tend to average the two measure, so a best guess now might be the GDP in December 2020 was about the same as in December 2019.

two GDP measure

The difference in the New Zealand GDP measures is almost the least of my concerns. Unfortunately there is always some difference in these two measures (trying to measure the same thing) and things have been a bit more difficult than usual during 2020 (especially so in the June quarter). We’ll keep getting that history revised for several years.

In Australia, the (generally highly-regarded) ABS reconciles their two real GDP measures: according to them Australia’s real GDP in the December quarter was 1.1 per cent lower than in the December 2019 quarter. On the face of it, such a difference seems plausible. We both had closed international borders, but Australia had more intensive sustained closed internal borders, and a few more Covid restrictions in place. (As it happens, if one looks at 2020 as a whole the falls in real GDP in New Zealand and Australia were more similar, reflecting our horrendous June quarter.)

But dig a little deeper and things get more curious. I’m really interested in labour productivity, and have regularly run here charts of labour productivity growth (and lack of it). So I checked out the hours data. We have two measures in the New Zealand: the HLFS measure of (self-reported) hours worked, and the QES measure (based on sample surveys of firms) of hours paid.

According to the QES, hours paid in the December 2020 quarter were 0.3 per cent higher than in the December 2019 quarter. That didn’t sound too implausible, especially if GDP (see above) hadn’t changed much over the period as a whole.

Unfortunately, the HLFS reports an increase of 3.9 per cent in hours worked over the same period. And while there are always differences in the two measures (a) over a full year they aren’t usually anywhere near that large, and (b) there was nothing like such a difference in the first year of the 1991 and 2009/09 recessions. Oh, and if one was going to expect a difference in 2020 one might have thought hours paid would have held up better than hours worked (between government wage subsidies, employers trying to hold onto staff, and public servants (eg immigration and biosecurity staff who don’t have much to do, but who couldn’t be laid of, by government decision). And since the HLFS employment rate – reported by the same people – fell by 0.8 percentage points over the year (and the unemployment rate rose) it really doesn’t seem very likely that the hours worked really jumped by 4 per cent.

In Australia, by contrast, the employment rate also fell by 0.8 percentage points last year and hours worked fell by 3.5 per cent. Which sounds fairly plausible: some job losses and a wider group of people working fewer hours than previously.

So what does all this mean for productivity? In the ABS official series, real GDP per hour worked rose by 2.5 per cent from December 2019 to December 2020. That seems plausible, not because Covid and closed borders were good for productivity but because tourism and related sectors (including eating out) have been particularly hard-hit, and those are typical low wage/low productivity sectors. Even if no individual worker is any more productive, the temporary loss of those lower-skilled jobs/hours will have averaged up real GDP per hour worked over the whole economy. A clue that this is what is going on is that the lift in average reported productivity was much larger in the June quarter (more Covid restrictions), unwinding to some extent subsequently,

What about New Zealand? I usually report an indicator of labour productivity growth calculated by averaging the two GDP series and the two hours series. If I do that for last year, we experienced -2.1 per cent average growth in real GDP per hour worked. And I simply do not believe that. But even if I just use the QES hours paid measure, we end up with a 0.1 per cent fall in real GDP per hour worked for the year, much worse (on those estimates, which will be revised over time) than Australia.

Closed borders etc should be bad for productivity. If we had true estimates, adjusted for changes in capacity utilisation, we might expect to see a fall in both countries. But there isn’t really a credible explanation for New Zealand doing quite so much worse than Australia last year (in December on December comparisons), other than problems with the data.

But then I’m also left with doubts about the GDP numbers themselves. Partly because in putting together quarterly estimates of GDP – and they really are just estimates at this stage – Statistics New Zealand needs to have some sense of how many people are here, as something to calibrate their sample surveys with. And there are oddities there too, highlighted by comparisons with Australia.

Recall that both countries have had largely closed borders since about this time last year. In the year to December 2019, Australia’s population was estimated to have risen by 1.5 per cent, while ours was estimated to have risen by 1.9 per cent. And yet in the year to December 2020 our population is estimated to have increased by 1.7 per cent, and Australia’s by 0.7 per cent. Both countries have rates of natural increase, that don’t change much year to year, of currently about 0.5 per cent per annum.

Of course, as we know people have continued to cross the borders, but in greatly reduced numbers. In New Zealand, for example, a net 39000 more people left New Zealand from the end of December 2019 to the end of February 2021 (more than the natural increase over that period). There have been net outflows (mostly quite small now) each month since March last year (125000 outflow from March to February). And yet the SNZ estimate is that the official (resident) population measure has grown almost as rapidly in 2020 as in 2019. Now, of course, lots of holidaymakers went home/came home – they were always “resident” at home, wherever they were spending at the time. Lots of temporary dwellers went home/came home. But the rate of population increase SNZ is reporting doesn’t make very much sense. Again, especially relative to Australia, which has had a 180000 net outflow over the twelve months to February (and presumably quite similar dynamics to New Zealand – lots of people leaving and really only Australian citizens and permanent residents coming in).

Perhaps both numbers are right, perhaps one country’s is and the other’s isn’t. Both are using (what I thought were similar) model estimates. But on the face of it, the Australian change in resident population looks a lot more plausible than New Zealand’s (and I’m not even reporting here GDP per capita numbers).

It isn’t obvious that we have any really good, timely, independent checks on these New Zealand numbers. I’m not offering answers, just highlighting questions and uncertainties. Unfortunately it might be a few years yet until we have a really good steer on what went on last year (if ever re the June quarter specifically) and what the new emergent trends are, including re relative productivity performances of Australia and New Zealand.

A year on

24 January last year was the date of my first post on the coronavirus, specifically the potential for significant economic damage and disruption if it turned into something significant beyond China. At the time, there was no great prescience involved; it was simply that I follow China news reasonably closely, combined with the fact that I’d been fascinated by the economics of pandemics since I’d spent a lot of time on an earlier whole-of-government planning and preparedness exercise in the 2000s, when health authorities worried that an avian influenza would mutate into easy human-to-human transmission. For some time I’d had in the back of my mind to write a post about some of that work, about the potential scale of the near-term economic losses, and the sorts of economic interventions that might be called for.

A year on, I’m not really that interested in looking at how, for example, unconditional forecasts compared with outcomes (although as it happens I filled in my responses to the Reserve Bank’s Survey of Expectations the following day, and looking through those numbers now I must still have regarded widespread economic disruption affecting New Zealand as still being a very low probability). Rather I’m more interested in reflecting on what I’ve learned and what has surprised me, about economic behaviour and economic policy, given the way the virus itself has unfolded (the latter not being something economists had anything particular to offer on).

The thing I’ve found most surprising, given the severity of the virus, is the apparent resilience of private demand. My mental model 10 months ago was that private demand – consumption and investment – would fall quite sharply and stay quite low for a prolonged period (you can no doubt find me running that line in numerous posts through much of last year), and that that would be so whether or not a particular country was successful at keeping the virus out altogether, mostly stamping it out (eg NZ), or not. There were several reasons why that seemed plausible to me:

  • there were lost income-earning opportunities, which couldn’t be directly replaced while the pandemic persisted because –  for example –  people couldn’t travel internationally, or faced higher costs, more restrictions, and/or more uncertainty in doing so (eg I was supposed to be doing an overseas consulting trip in late Feb/early March 2020, and we cancelled not so much for fear of the virus in the other country, but from fear of having unknowable trouble/expense/disruption getting home again),
  • specifically, and for example, foreign students couldn’t come here, and although many were already here the longer the pandemic (and associated uncertainty) lasted the fewer were likely to be here (more go home, hardly any come).  Even if people were happy to study online from abroad, they wouldn’t be adding as much to demand here (food, travel, accommodation etc),
  • cross-border tourism was going to become all-but impossible, and if not impossible then that much more costly and uncertain,
  • inward immigration –  a key factor in New Zealand demand cycles –  was likely to be materially dampened for some time to come,
  • since no one knew how long the virus, and associated disruptions, would persist, private investment – the most cyclically variable part of GDP –  was likely to be particularly hard-hit.  Even allowing for some new spending on capital equipment directly associated with responding to the virus, it seemed likely that both from the demand-side and the financing side investment activity would fall away quite sharply –  perhaps especially in the sectors directly adversely affected, but more generally too.   Any disruptions to cross-border supply chains would only reinforce that
  • And even if New Zealand got more or less on top of things behind largely-closed borders, the economic losses in other countries that didn’t seemed likely to be severe.  The state of world economic activity typically matters a lot for New Zealand, including through commodity price channels. Investment, in particular, seemed likely to be hard hit.
  • more generally, uncertainty seemed likely to be a huge consideration, affecting households, firms, banks.  Pretty much everyone in fact, here or abroad.  At a household level, for example, even if a wage subsidy or similar protected your job in the narrow lockdown period, the economic environment had turned much more hostile and uncertain.  Losing a job, and finding it harder than usual to get another, was likely to affect spending and activity now.
  • (I also expected house prices to fall temporarily, perhaps by 10-20 per cent in real terms, as had happened in the previous recession, but unlike the Reserve Bank I’ve never believed that overall house price developments have much impact, one way or the other, on private consumption spending.)

And all this was reinforced by a recognition that in typical recessions we see these sorts of demand contractions, increases in unemployment, increased caution by lenders (and by investors) even when –  as usually –  interest rates are cut a long way.  And this time, interest rates hadn’t really been cut by that much at all –  in some countries almost not at all, but even in New Zealand by some fairly-modest fraction of what we normally see (75 basis points vs, for example, the 575 basis points of cuts in 2008/09).  So monetary policy would be doing something but not very much….and I thought those effects would be mutually reinforcing as the private sector recognised how little monetary policy was doing.    As just another example, serious downturns here usually see the exchange rate fall a lot, which is helpful in buffering the downturn.

There was, of course, fiscal policy. Fiscal policy also typically turns somewhat stimulatory during the worst of recessions, and we could expect more this time round – as indeed we saw, whether in countries (like NZ) with no much initial government debt, or in others with historically high debt to GDP ratios.

And yet, and yet…..if one is to believe a variety of economic indicators, the level of economic activity now doesn’t seem far from what it was a year ago. GDP is a badly lagging indicator, but on both measures real GDP in the September quarter was a bit above where it had been at the end of last year. Treasury’s activity index is partial, but more timely, and for what it is worth suggests that in December activity was about 1.5 per cent higher than a year earlier, and this in a country where there are now fewer people actually physically here (people who need to eat, need accommodation, take holidays etc) than were here last year. (Of course, there was still a lot of lost output back in March/April 2020, and most of that will never be recovered, but that isn’t my point here).

Of course, the unemployment rate has risen – although we won’t know the Dec quarter outcome for another week or so. But even if the December number is a bit higher, no one seems to expect anything dreadfully bad now – I don’t think any projections for the unemployment rate are now as bad as those in any of the past three New Zealand recessions.

It is all a bit surprising, on a number of counts.

One thing I clearly got wrong was in assuming that when New Zealanders couldn’t travel abroad – a non-trivial chunk of total spending by New Zealanders – they would mostly save, at least for a time, what they couldn’t spend abroad. As I noted last autumn, it didn’t seem that likely that a week in Whangamata in July was going to seem that attractive if you’d been hoping to holiday in Fiji, the Sunshine Coast, or more far-flung northern hemisphere places. And no one seemed likely to take up skiing when they previously holidayed in the sun in midwinter. Add in the economic uncertainty – see above – and it seemed not very likely there would be a lot of expenditure-switching towards the local economy. And yet there clearly has been. Whether people have been taking more holidays at home – especially over the summer – buying a car or a boat, eating out more, or committing to house alterations etc, the expenditure switching seems to have occurred, on a quite large scale. So much so that despite the really dramatic loss of overseas tourist spending – and some dip in foreign student spend – and the weakness in the wider world economy, overall economic activity seems to have recovered surprisingly well.

Perhaps it won’t last. Perhaps it isn’t well-measured. But for now at least it is hard to dispute the overall story. There are still, clearly, sectoral holes – pictures of near-empty carparks/bus parks in former overseas tourist hotspots – but the overall story seems surprisingly strong. Not boom times of course: unemployment is up fairly materially, but right now it has the feel of a quite-mild downturn overall. Consistent with that, and even though inflation expectations themselves have fallen, core inflation in the year to December was right where it had been in the year to December 2019 – a bit below target, still, but not falling as one might have expected (as the Reserve Bank did expect).

What explains it? Well, clearly there was more scope for expenditure-switching than I’d supposed. And that is good to know. But it can’t be anything like the whole story. After all, the wider world economy continues to materially underperform (relative to, say, expectations at the end of 2019), and uncertainty remains high (recall all those optimists about trans-Tasman bubbles back in the middle of last year, and compare that with the current situation – where even when/if Australia unilaterally reopens again to us, you’d surely be hesitant about booking when you don’t know the regulatory climate at the time you travel out, let alone what you might face coming home. No one has a good sense of when major industries – foreign tourism or export education – will return to normal, no one knows when population growth will resume, no one knows when the world economy will again be firing on all cylinders.

Of course, some will credit monetary policy. All those people talking up the “money printing” theme, and tying that into the unexpected surge in house prices. I don’t buy that story because – like the Reserve Bank – I think quantitative easing works mostly by changing interest rates and – see above – interest rates just haven’t changed by unusually large amounts. Perhaps there are some headline effects that neither the Bank nor I have paid enough heed to, but even if so such effects are unlikely to last for long. Oh, and of course the exchange rate – usually a key part of the monetary transmission mechanism – is no lower now than it was a year ago.

What about fiscal policy? There was, of course, a lot of fiscal support provided in the middle of last year, mostly in direct income support. A small amount of that is permanent (boost to household demand), notably the increases in welfare benefit levels, but by far the largest chunk was the wage subsidy. And large as that was (a) it has long since ended, and (b) it wasn’t large enough to replace all the private sector income loss (see how much GDP fell in the June quarter, even as jobs and basic household demand were supported by the wage subsidy payments. And as far I can tell there isn’t a lot of fiscal stimulus happening now (beyond what was already in the works and forecasts a year ago) – I’m sure there are some specific projects getting underway, but since little is ever really “shovel-ready” it just can’t be much relative to the scale of the wider economic challenges.

I don’t have strong conclusions, just puzzles. Why are people spending as strongly as they are, especially when we are reminded every day of our own vulnerability to new Covid outbreaks, lockdowns etc etc? It isn’t obvious that people have adequately factored in the real level of uncertainty.

Among the puzzles is that if unemployment is up and yet GDP is also flat or a bit up on a year ago, and the number of people here is a bit less than it was – that seems to suggest a boost to productivity that doesn’t make a lot of sense. When there was talk of really big job losses, people recognised that a lot of lowly-skilled people might lose their job, averaging up productivity even if no actual person was more productive, but now we are dealing with quite modest job losses. Even if GDP hasn’t fallen we’ve had material dislocations in individual sectors and those usually take time to work through. And – even with all the advances of technology – if we’d been told people couldn’t travel for a year – work and leisure travel – most would have assumed that would be a drag on productivity. Perhaps not instantly, but over time. And certainly not a boost. Business travel took place for a reason – and not the “joy” of long haul flying.

So some things don’t seem quite right. And in some cases not that sustainable. But quite what gives and when, who knows.

As for policy, my own position is that more macroeconomic policy support remains warranted. The case is simple: inflation and inflation expectations are below target and the unemployment rate is above any sort of NAIRU. I’d focus on monetary policy, which is the tool best-suited to short-term demand stimulus (as distinct from the income replacement imperative in March/April). If anything, over the last year I’ve become more wary of fiscal policy for countercyclical purposes. It gets presented as some sort of free lunch when it isn’t, and involves whichever lot holds power at the time making real resource commitments – to their own ideological biases – that are difficult to change later and which often don’t stand close scrutiny re the quality of the spending. By contrast, monetary policy attempts to mimic what real economic forces (savings, investment) would be doing to market interest rates, and involves no politician or public servant committing any real resources, or controlling anyone’s spending. Those best placed to spend more do, those more hesitant don’t, and interest rates can – or should be able to – be adjusted without limit (if central banks had done their jobs) to provide what support is needed, including drawing demand towards New Zealand (whereas fiscal policy focused on government spending) only tends to further increase the real exchange rate, and the excessively inward orientations of the New Zealand economy.

Productivity, Productivity Commission, and all that

I’ve written various pieces over the years on the Productivity Commission, both on specific papers and reports they have published, and on the Commission itself. I was quite keen on the idea of the Commission when it was first being mooted a decade or so ago. There was, after all, a serious productivity failure in New Zealand and across the Tasman the Australian Productivity Commission had become a fairly highly-regarded institution. But even from the early days I recall suggesting that it was hard to be too optimistic about the long-term prospects of the Commission, noting (among other things) the passing into history of the early Monetary and Economic Council, which had in its day (60s and early 70s) produced some worthwhile reports. In a small, no longer rich, country, maintaining critical mass was also always going to be a challenge, and agencies like The Treasury might be expected to have their beady eye on any budgetary resources allocated to the Commission, and on any good staff the Commission might attract or develop (a shift to another office block at bit further along The Terrace was unlikely to be much of a hurdle).

What I probably didn’t put enough weight on in those early days was the point that if governments weren’t at all interested in doing anything serious about New Zealand’s decades-long productivity failure, there really wasn’t much substantive point to a Productivity Commission at all, unless perhaps as something to distract the sceptics with (“see, we have a Productivity Commission”).

Ten years on, it isn’t obvious what the Commission has accomplished. There have been a few interesting research papers, some reports that may have clarified the understanding of a few policy points. But what difference have they made? Little, at least that I can see. Is the housing market disaster being substantively addressed? Is the state sector better managed? Is economywide productivity back on some sort of convergence path? Not as far as I can tell. Mostly that isn’t the Commission’s fault, although my impression is that the quality of the reports has deteriorated somewhat in recent years. But if politicians don’t care about fixing what ails this economy, why keep the Commission? It might be no more pointless than quite a few other government agencies and even ministries, but they all cost scarce real resources.

For the last 18 months I’ve been looking to appointment of the new chair of the Commission, replacing Murray Sherwin who has had the job for 10 years, as perhaps one last pointer to the seriousness – or otherwise – of Labour about productivity issues. There wasn’t much sign the Minister of Finance or Prime Minister cared much at all – or perhaps even understood the scale of our failure – but just possibly they might choose to appoint a new chair of the Productivity Commission who might lead really in-depth renewed intellectual efforts to address the failure, perhaps even in ways that might, by the force of their analysis and presentation, make it increasingly awkward for governments (Labour or National) to simply keep doing nothing. I wasn’t optimistic, partly because I’d watched Robertson and Ardern do nothing for several years, but also because – to be frank – it really wasn’t clear where they might find such an exceptional candidate even had they wanted one.

But then they removed all doubt last week when they announced the appointment of Ganesh Nana as the new chair. There is a strong sense that he is too close to the Labour Party. If that wasn’t ideal, it might not bother me much – especially given the thin pickings to choose a chair from among – if it were matched with a high and widespread regard among the economics and policy community for his rigour and intellectual leadership, including on productivity issues. Or even perhaps if he knew government and governent processes inside out (Sherwin, after all, was a senior public servant rather than himself being an intellectual leader). I don’t suppose the Nana commission is simply likely to parrot lines the Beehive would prefer – and can imagine some of Nana’s preferences being uncomfortable for them from the left – but this is someone who has spent 20+ years in the public economics debate in New Zealand, from his perch at BERL, and yet as far as I can tell his main two views of potential relevance are that (a) inflation targeting (of the sort adopted in most advanced economies) is a significant source of New Zealand’s economic underperformance, and (b) that a much larger population might make a big difference (notwithstanding use of that strategy for, just on this wave, the last 25 years or so.

Then there was this bumpf from the Minister’s press statement announcing the appointment

Ganesh Nana said he is excited to take up the position and looks forward to working with other Commission members and staff to focus on a broad perspective on productivity.

“Contributing to a transformation of the economic model and narrative towards one that values people and prioritises our role as kaitiaki o taonga is my kaupapa.  This perspective sees the delivery of wellbeing across several dimensions as critical measures of success of any economic model.

“Stepping into the Productivity Commission after more than 20 years at BERL will be a wrench for me and a move to outside my comfort zone.  However, this opportunity was not one I could ignore as the challenges facing 21st century Aotearoa become ever more intense.

“The role and nature of the work of the Commission is set to change in light of these pressing challenges.  I am committed to ensure the Commission will increasingly contribute to the wider strategic and policy kōrero,” Dr Nana said.

Whatever that means – and quite a bit isn’t at all clear to me – it doesn’t suggest any sort of laser-like focus on lifting, for example, economywide GDP per hour worked, in ways that might lift material living standards for New Zealanders as a whole.

(And then there was the unfortunate disclosure in the final part of the Minister’s press statement that the government has agreed that while functioning as a senior economic official, paid by the taxpayer, Nana is to be allowed to retain his almost half-share in his active economic consulting firm BERL. There is the small consolation that the Commission itself will not contract any business with BERL, but that should not be sufficient to reassure anyone concerned about what is left of the substance or appearance of good governance in New Zealand.)

A couple of weeks ago the Productivity Commission released a draft report on its “Frontier Firms” inquiry. The Commission does not control the inquiries it does – they are chosen by the government – and this one also seemed a bit daft to say the least, since “frontier firms” always seem much likely to arise from an overall economic policy environment that has been got right, rather than being something policymakers should be focusing on directly. But the Commission might still have made something useful, trying to craft something a bit more akin to a silk purse from the sow’s ear of a terms of reference.

I had thought of devoting a whole post to the draft report, and perhaps even making a formal submission on it, but since the report will be finalised under the Nana commission that mostly seems as though it would be a waste of time. And there is the odd useful point in the report, including the reminder that our productivity growth performance has remained dreadful by the standards of other modestly-productive advanced economies, and that we have relied on more hours worked, and the good fortune of the terms of trade, to avoid overall material living standards slipping much recently relative to other advanced economies. Productivity growth – much faster than we’ve achieved – remains central to any chance of sustainably lifting those material living standards and opening up other lifestyle etc choices.

But mostly the report is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Just before the draft report was released the Commission released a short paper on immigration issues that they had commissioned. I wrote about that note, somewhat sceptically, at the time – sceptical even though the gist of the author’s case might not be thought totally out of line with some of my own ideas. It turned out that the Fry and Wilson work was the basis for the Commission’s own discussion of immigration in the draft report, a discussion that neither seems terribly robust nor at all well-connected to the “frontier firms” theme of the report. Perhaps the RSE scheme has problems, perhaps some low-skilled work visas are issued too readily, but…..apple orchards and vineyards didn’t really seem to be the sort of “frontier firms” the Commission had in mind in the rest of the report.

Perhaps my bigger concern was about their attempts to draw lessons from other countries. They, reasonably enough, suggest that there might be lessons from other small open advanced economies, perhaps especially relatively remote ones. But then they seem to end up mostly interested in places like Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands – all of which are in common economic area that is the EU (two even with the euro currency, most with no disadvantages of remoteness). I don’t think there was a single reference to Iceland, Malta, or Cyprus. Or to Israel – that country with all the high-tech firms and a productivity performance almost as bad as ours. And – though it might not be small, it has many similar characteristics to New Zealand – no mention at all of Australia. Remote Chile, Argentina and Uruguay get no mention – even though two of those three have had strong productivity growth in recent times – and neither, perhaps more surprisingly, do any of the (mostly small) OECD/EU countries in central and eastern Europe, many of which are now passing New Zealand levels of average labour productivity.

There wasn’t any systematic cross-country economic historical analysis or a rigorous attempt to assess which examples might hold what lessons for New Zealand. Instead, there a mix of things that might be music to the ears of a government that wants to be more active, and perhaps to punt our money again on the emergence of some mega NZ excellent firm(s) – without any demonstrated evidence that it (or its officials) can do so wisely or usefully – plus the odd thing that must have appealed to someone (eg the material on immigration – a subject that might still usefully warrant a full inquiry of its own, if the government would allow it, and when better than when we are in any case in something of a hiatus).

This will probably be the last post for this year, so I thought I’d leave you with a couple of charts to ponder.

The first is a reminder of just how little we know about what is going on with productivity – or probably most other aggregate economic measures – right now. As regular readers will know, I have updated every so often an economywide measure of labour productivity growth that averages the two different real GDP series (production and expenditure) and indexes of the two measures of hours (HLFS hours worked, QES hours paid).

mix of econ data

First, there is the huge difference in the two GDP measures. Whichever one one uses – but especially the expenditure measure – suggests a reasonable lift in average labour productivity this year (on one combination as much as 5 per cent). In the period to June there was an argument about low productivity workers losing their jobs, averaging up productivity for the remainder, but how plausible is that when hours are now estimated to be down only 1% or so on where they were at the end of last year (much less than, say, the fall in the last recession)? And thus how plausible is the notion of an acceleration in productivity growth given all the roadblocks the virus, and responses to it, have put in place this year. And although SNZ’s official population estimates have the population up 1.5 per cent this year (to September), if we take the natural increase data and the total net arrivals across the border data, they suggest a very slight drop this year in the number of people actually in New Zealand. I’m not sure, then, which of the economic data we can have any confidence in, although I’ll take a punt that the single least plausible of these numbers is the expenditure GDP one, and any resulting implication of any sort of real lift in productivity this year. SNZ has an unenviable job trying to get this year’s data straight.

But, of course, the real productivity challenge for New Zealand was there before Covid was heard of, and most likely be there still when Covid is but a memory. As we all know, New Zealand languishes miles behind the OECD productivity leaders (a bunch of northern European countries and the US), but in this chart I’ve shown how we’ve done over the full economic cycle from 2007 to 2019 relative not to the OECD leaders but to the countries that in 2007 either had low labour productivity than we did, or were not more than 10 per cent ahead of us then. For New Zealand I’ve shown both the number in the OECD database, and my average measure (which has the advantage of being updated for last week’s GDP release).

productivity 07 to 19

Whichever of the two NZ measures one uses, we’ve done better only than Greece and Mexico. Over decades Mexico has done so badly that the OECD suggests labour productivity in 2019 was less than 5 per cent higher than it had been in 1990. Even Greece has done less badly than that.

(As a quick cross-check, I also looked at the growth rates for this group of countries for this century to date. We’ve still done third-worst, beating the same two countries, over that period.)

It is a dismal performance. And there isn’t slightest sign that our government cares, or is at all interested in getting to the bottom of the problem, let alone reversing the decades of failure. Talking blithely about alternative measures of wellbeing etc shouldn’t be allowed to disguise that failure, which blights the living standards of this generation and the prospects of the next.

(And, sadly, there is no sign any political opposition party is really any better.)

Monetary policy in 2020

On Saturday I did a guest lecture to the Master of Applied Finance course at Victoria University. Martien Lubberink, who runs the course, invited me along to talk to the students about the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy this year (as it happens, most years for the best part of two decades I used to do a lecture to this same course articulating and championing the monetary policy framework and the Bank’s conduct of policy).

There wasn’t a great deal in the lecture that hasn’t already been covered in one or (many) more posts over the course of the year, but if anyone is interested here are the slides I used

Activity over substance VUW presentation 12 Dec 2020

and this is the story I was trying to tell

Notes for VUW MAF lecture on 2020 mon pol 12 Dec 2020

For the most part, I tried to look at what the Bank has, and hasn’t, done on their own terms. I didn’t, for example, spend lots of time on whether negative OCRs would “work”, but rather took as given the Bank’s repeatedly stated view that they would. I didn’t challenge the “least regrets” approach they have claimed, since the second half of last year, to be guiding them, but looked at how they had done relative to that worthy aspiration. I took for granted their embrace of the notion that in downturns when both inflation forecasts undershoot and unemployment forecasts overshoot aggressive monetary action is warranted. And against the backdrop of all that sort of thing I suggested that the year was best characterised as one of lots of activity, and rhetoric, and not a great deal of monetary policy substance.

For example, I included these two indicative charts comparing (real) interest rate and (nominal) exchange rates this year and in each of the three previous recessions since inflation targeting was adopted.

activity over substance

Whatever the impact of the LSAP and the funding for lending programme etc, the bottom line remains that key financial market prices just haven’t moved very much (and that is another area where I take as given – but also agree with the Bank – that to the extent those programmes work they do so largely by altering interest and exchange rates).

I ended the lecture with some thoughts on how we should evaluate the Bank’s monetary policy performance this year. From my notes

How should we evaluate the Bank’s performance?

We always have to be careful, when evaluating government agencies, not to hold them to unreasonable standards.  In this talk I’ve tried to ensure that I use either information that was available to them when they made decisions, their own rhetoric and arguments, or common international central banking practices and standards.   We can’t blame the RB, for example, for not pre-emptively easing a year ago in anticipation of a pandemic no one –  no central banker anyway –  could reasonably know about.

But we, and should, criticise them for:

  • The failure to recognise and respond to the emerging risks early (monetary policy works with a lag, risks around being near the lower bound were well known),
  • The failure, having decided that the negative OCR was a preferred option, to have ensured the bulk of the system was operationally ready (almost inexcusable, and has meant we have had monetary conditions tighter than otherwise for most of the year,
  • The failure to operate as if “least regrets” was actually guiding policy – the evidence for this not being my independent analysis, but their own numbers,
  • Falling back on exuberant spin regarding the impact of the LSAP, when realistically the effective impact is likely to have been small,
  • Opening the way to the “$100bn money printing” rhetoric by adopting LSAP rather than a mod-point on the yield curve target (as the RBA initially did, and even the LSAP the RBA is now doing is much smaller relative to the size of the economy),
  • Allowing the (second-best) sensible FFL instrument to also be framed as some dangerous money printing exercise,
  • Lack of serious transparency – whether the utter refusal to publish background analysis/research behind the mon policy choices/instruments, even in extremely unsettled times and when the rest of govt was being proactively transparent, or the continued invisibility and silence of the non-executive members of the MPC, and
  • The lack of effective communications and framing. There have been few speeches all year, hardly any published research, nothing from the non-exec MPC members.  Instead, they’ve largely left the framing of issues to critics –  notably the ones who think the Bank has done too much and is to blame either for house price inflation and some looming general inflation.  There has been nothing authoritative from the Bank, and they seem constantly to have been running to catch up.

    It has been a poor performance, that reflects poorly on all those involved: the Governor, his senior staff, the invisible non-exec MPC members, the Board (paid to hold management to account) and the Minister with responsibility for management and the Board.

    Of course, it is fair to ask how much difference a better monetary policy –  substance and presentation –  might have made.  By now, perhaps not a lot substantively – the mon pol lags are longer –  but into next year it would have helped lay the foundations for a strong recovery, a lift in inflation, and a rapid return to full employment (we can’t afford the 10 years it took after 2007).  And, agree with them or not, the RB would stand higher in informed opinion, and if we value the idea of an operationally independent central bank, that would have to have been a good thing.  It would truly have been a least regrets strategy.

At the end of the lecture, we had some time for questions. Perhaps the best question was the one I could not give a compelling answer to: why – given their projections, given their avowed “least regrets” approach – has the Bank and MPC not been willing to do more?

I had noted that there were similar issues with central banks in a number of other countries, and indeed that it was striking how relatively little monetary policy had done in this downturn and period of greatly-heightened uncertainty. You can see it in, for example, the published projections of the Reserve Bank of Australia, the ECB, and probably others too – where for several years to come not only is inflation expected to be below target, but unemployment is above general estimates of the respective NAIRUs. As our Governor notes, that is a combination that points in the direction of a lot of monetary policy support.

(As just one example of what is going on elsewhere, the ECB released its latest projections late last week.

ECB inflation

Three years out inflation is still barely back to 1.5 per cent, compared with a target of just under 2 per cent. In these same projections, the unemployment rate rises further from here.)

Central banks could do more to boost the recovery in activity and employment. The quiescent inflation numbers – their own projections – tell us that. In fact, those projections (and market and survey expectations) are best seen as a constraint limiting how much central banks can do; a constraint that when inflation projections are below target should be thought of as a non-binding constraint (especially when central banks around the world have had an upward bias to their inflation forecasts for the last decade).

So why don’t they do more? I don’t know. They don’t say – especially not our Reserve Bank which talks one set of rhetoric (often quite good rhetoric) and acts inconsistently with that rhetoric. Perhaps there is something in the story that active-government left-liberal Governor doesn’t want to use monetary policy because he wants to put pressure on the government to run bigger deficits and further increase public spending. I hope that isn’t a part of the story – it would be profoundly inconsistent with our democratic institutions of government for a non-elected official (and his lackeys on the MPC) to refuse to do their job simply to try to advance their personal political preferences in other areas. Perhaps they don’t believe the rhetoric (they themselves use) and doubt that monetary policy can do much more good in stabilising the economy. Perhaps there is some secure-public-employee indifference to the scandal of prolonged and unnecessarily high unemployment (which never affects senior central bankers, and probably rarely their children): it did, after all, take 10 long years after 2007 to get unemployment in New Zealand back down again. Perhaps there is some embarrassment that with all those years of advance notice they didn’t get their act together and ensure that banks were operationally ready for negative OCRs? Perhaps, globally, there is some discomfort that with all those years advance notice – most having got to the lower bound in the last recession – nothing (repeat nothing) has been done anywhere to make the lower bound less binding, and enable the sorts of deeply negative interest rates that (for example) former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff has called for.

Sure, it is easy for people to talk about all the fiscal stimulus that has been provided instead of monetary policy. But those published central bank forecasts – here or in other countries – capture all those effects. It is the job of monetary policy to estimate all the other effects and then, if the inflation outlook is below target and the unemployment outlook is above NAIRU-type estimates, to do more, to do what it takes. with monetary policy. That is what we have discretionary monetary policy for. (There are, of course, hard cases where the inflation and unemployment strands aren’t aligned, but as our own Governor has repeatedly pointed out this year, this isn’t one of those times.)

So, I really don’t know the answer to the student’s question. But I should (as should anyone who follows central banks closely), because they should be telling us. Instead, we’ve had a year of few speeches, no visibility (still) for the non-executive MPC members, little or no published research, a refusal to release background documents and analysis, and little or no attempt to articulate and defend a robust framework. 10 days or so ago, for example, the Governor gave a speech to an Australian audience on New Zealand monetary policy this year. As far it went, and by Orr’s standards, it wasn’t a bad speech but it addressed none of these questions. That isn’t good enough, and reflects poorly on everyone involved – the Governor, the MPC, the Board supposed to hold them to account, and the Minister of Finance with overall responsibility for the Bank, for monetary policy, and for economic performance more broadly.

There has been a lot of rhetoric, a lot of busy-work, but not a lot of monetary policy doing what it is there for, and not much transparency and accountability either.

Funding for lending and other myths

There is a huge number of stories around at present on various aspects of monetary policy and the (successive) governments-made housing market disaster (the two being, in fundamentals, quite unrelated). Were I in fine full health and energy I’d no doubt be writing about many of them. Instead, I’m going to focus here just on the controversy around the Reserve Bank’s so-called Funding for Lending programme, the details of which were announced last week.

It isn’t always inviting to defend the Reserve Bank, since they are often (as here) their own worst enemy, but on the essence of the FLP programme I’m mostly going to. That doesn’t mean I think it is a particularly good scheme – there is a perfectly straightforward way to lower interest rates (the OCR), which influences the exchange rate as well, that they simply refuse to use. And they have named the scheme in a way that actively misleads and invites misunderstanding from those who haven’t thought hard about monetary systems.

All the FLP programme really is is a scheme to lower interest rates a bit more without changing the OCR. That isn’t just my take; that is the official Reserve Bank view. Here is the graphic from the MPS last week as to how they think the thing works

FLP 2

Even that is a bit inaccurate since – as the Governor explicitly noted in his press conference the other day – the expectation that the Bank will be willing to offer funds (not a dollar has yet been transacted) has already done the job. Retail deposit interest rates have fallen relative to the OCR.

But you will note that nothing in that graphic talks about a channel in which additional funds are now available in ways that enable banks to lend in ways, at rates ($m), they couldn’t otherwise.

There are at least two good reasons for that.

The first is that banks are simply not funding constrained. In fact, they are awash with central bank provided funding/liquidity: total settlement cash balances that were about $7bn pre-Covid are now about $24bn. If lending is not occurring at present to the sort of borrowers that some politicians or commentators might prefer – and you have to wonder what such private transactions have to do with them – it isn’t because banks are facing some sort of funding constraint (actual or prospective – there is no uncertainty that adequate funding will be available, including because the Reserve Bank’s core funding requirements – on precise types of funding – have been markedly relaxed for the duration). The Governor made basically that point in his press conference the other day: if not much new business lending is happening at present that is most likely because there is considerable (much larger than usual) economic uncertainty – not anyone’s fault, not anything that can quickly be allayed. That uncertainty affects both prospective lenders and prospective borrowers. Market reports – and the RB credit conditions survey – indicate that banks have tightened their effective credit standards, which is surely what one would expect – probably even hope for, from prudent bankers – in such a climate. There will always be chancers, keen to borrow, but in such a climate banks should probably be particularly cautious about potential business borrowers without strong collateral who are particularly keen to borrow.

So at a system level (and we have no reason to suppose it is different at an individual bank level), settlement cash – which is what the Bank is willing to supply – simply isn’t a constraint on lending. (It wasn’t really even in the 2008/09 recession here, although then New Zealand banks and their parents had reasonable concerns about ongoing access to specific classes of desirable funding.)

As importantly, at an aggregate level any Funding for Lending programme lending does not replace other funding/deposits. In the normal course of bank business in a floating exchange rate economy, and for the system as a whole, deposits arise simultaneously with lending. All bank lending either results in a reduction in someone else’s loan or adds to deposits. That is true within the banking system as a whole, although not for any individual bank (if Bank A increases lending particularly aggressively most of the new deposits may end up at other banks in the system). Any Funding for Lending loans to banks add to their liabilities, but they (collectively) don’t need those liabilities to increase lending. What FFL loans will do, in direct balance sheet terms, is to increase bank borrowing from the Reserve Bank, and increase bank lending to the Reserve Bank (settlement cash balances). And that is it. All the other deposits will still be there.

Now this isn’t to suggest that the FFL scheme is futile. It is not. As the Reserve Bank notes, it is a way of lowering interest rates a bit more. And that is really all. It does that partly through signalling effects and partly (ultimately) because each individual knows it can compete a bit less aggressively in the term deposit market and still be sure (individually) of having ample funds. If all banks respond similarly, there won’t be systematic drains from any of them. And there won’t be much need for many actual FFL loans to occur at all. Time will tell whether the scheme is much used, but if it isn’t that is almost a bonus: it worked (lowering term deposit interest rates relative to the OCR) by the Bank’s willingness to provide, without needing actually to provide much at all.

From banks’ perspectives they’d probably prefer (at least in aggregate) not to use FFL much at all. After all, they borrow at the OCR and then the additional settlement cash (in aggregate) just earns them the OCR, and in the process they just blow up their balance sheets a bit more. But they probably like the option value of knowing the Bank is willing to lend at the OCR – which happens to be roughly where short-term interest rates are.

Which is a (perhaps longwinded) way of saying that the controversy over whether the Bank should have tied these loans to “productive lending” – a weird notion in itself, but that is a topic for another day – is strange and largely empty. I suppose the Bank could have insisted it would only lend under FFL to the extent banks increased their business lending, but had they done so there would have been a very real prospect that the mechanism would not have worked at all. As noted above, banks are not funding constrained and – as almost everyone seems to agree, with the possible exception of Andrew Bayly – to the extent business lending is not growing (it doesn’t usually in recessions), it has little or nothing to do with availability of funding. The scheme is designed to lower interest rates, and seems to have done that. Tying eligibility to particular types of lending – that just aren’t attractive at present, to most borrowers or lenders – would have markedly reduced the effectiveness of the tool, with no gains for the actual lending the politicians purport to champion. That, in turn, would have been a recipe for deepening and lengthening, a bit more than necessary, the recession. Some seem not to mind that, but one would have hoped that neither the government (which made employment an explicit focus for the Bank) nor a responsible Opposition would want that.

But to repeat, the Reserve Bank are supposed to be experts in this stuff, and yet they directly contributed to the problem by so egregiously mislabelling the scheme, in a way that led laypeople to think that somehow “funding” was the constraint on lending (or that up to $28 billion would be pouring into new lending, when in fact the simple availability of new settlement cash will probably no difference whatever to the stock of loans on bank balance sheets). Had they called it a supplementary short-term interest rate management tool it would have been more accurate – but I guess would have sounded less glamorous at the time.

Finally, note that unlike the LSAP programme, the FFL does not involve any material financial risk to the Crown or the Bank, so there was no need for a Crown indemnity. Any FFL loans are fully-collateralised on highly-rated securities, and the Bank’s haircut requirements are usually quite demanding, and all the loans are on floating rate terms (the OCR, as it potentially changes), matching the floating rate liability the Bank will also be assuming (the additional settlement cash balances).

Productivity and GDP

Tomorrow morning we finally get Statistic New Zealand’s first guess at June quarter GDP. If I’m being critical in that sentence, it is through the use of the “finally” – emphasising just how long (unusually long internationally) the delays are in producing national accounts data – rather than in the word “guess”. I don’t suppose SNZ will use the term itself, but I think everyone recognises just how difficult it has been for statistics agencies to get an accurate read on what went on in the second quarter this year, when so many economies were so severely affected by some mix of lockdowns and private cboices to reduce contacts/activities. There are likely to be big revisions to come, perhaps for some years to come, and most likely we will never have a hugely reliable estimate – scholars may continue to produce papers on the topic for decades to come. That is also a caveat on the inevitable comparisons that will be made tomorrow, in support of one narrative or another, about how well/badly New Zealand did relative to other advanced countries. Most/all of them – and their statistical agencies – will have had similar measurement and estimation problems.

We do, however, have some aggregate data on the second quarter, including estimates from the Household Labour Force Survey (HLFS) and the Quarterly Employment Survey ((QES) on, respectively, hours worked and hours paid. Each of these surveys – one of households, one of firms (in sectors covering most of the economy) – had their own challenges in the June quarter.

Over time, the growth in hours worked and hours paid tend to be quite similar (unsurprisingly really). From 2014 to 2019, the quarterly growth in hours worked averaged 0.74 per cent per quarter, and quarterly growth in hours paid averaged 0.65 per cent. From quarter to quarter there is quite a lot of variability, which also isn’t surprising given the way the data are compiled (as an example, my household was in the HLFS for a couple of years and I would answer for all adult members of the household: for hours, I’d give them a number for my wife’s hours that broadly reflected my impression of whether she’d had a particularly taxing time in the reference week or not, but it was impressionistic rather than precise). Partly for that reason, when I report estimates of quarterly growth in labour productivity, I use both an average of the two measures of GDP and an average of the two measures of hours.

But in the June quarter there was a huge difference between HLFS hours worked (-10.3 per cent) and QES hours paid (-3.4 per cent). Some of that will be measurement problems and natural noise. But quite a bit of it will, presumably, reflect the wage subsidy scheme. The wage subsidy scheme ensured that most people who were employed stayed employed during the June quarter – although by the end of the quarter the unemployment rate had risen quite a bit – but many of those whose incomes were supported by the wage subsidy may have been doing much reduced, or barely any at all, hours actually worked during the reference week (when they were surveyed). For some components of GDP the QES series had typically been used as one of the inputs, which would have been quite problematic for the June quarter (and, to a lesser extent) in September.

Statistics New Zealand has published a guide to the sorts of adjustments it is going to make to produce its first guesstimate of GDP tomorrow. They seem to be making a significant effort in a number of areas, and presumably this information – and direct contact with SNZ – is what has led private bank forecasters to converge on predictions that GDP will (be initially reported to) have fallen in the June quarter by something like 11-12 per cent (by contrast, in its August MPS the Reserve Bank expected a fall of 14.3 per cent, and that seemed to be a fairly uncontroversial estimate at the time).

I don’t do detailed quarterly forecasts so I do not have a view on what the initially reported estimate of the GDP fall will be, let alone what the “true” number towards which we hope successive revisions will iterate might be.

I have, however, long been uneasy – and think I wrote about this here back in April – but how, for example, SNZ were really going capture the decline in output in the public sector. Output indicators for the core public sector are a problem at the best of times, but there are plenty of stories of government departments that didn’t have sufficient laptops for all staff, or didn’t have server capacity to enable staff with laptops to all work from home simultaneously. And that is before the drag reduced effectiveness and productivity – if it were generally so productive everyone would have done it already – and the inevitable distraction/disruptions of young children at home. All these people were paid throughout, and were no doubt recorded as “working” – in an hours paid sense – but skimming through the SNZ guide I see no indication of any sort of adjustment for this sector. And in respect of public hospitals – much less busy than usual, with elective surgeries cancelled etc – there is also no sign of a planned adjustment to the measured contribution to GDP.

And this note from the guide

  • The method for school education will not be changed. Activity is assumed to be unchanged, with remote learning assumed to be a direct substitute for face-to-face learning.

didn’t strike me as entirely consistent with (a) changes to the requirements for getting NCEA passes this year (reduced number of credits students are required to achieve, (b) reports of the difficulties many students had (or the fact that the government was still trying to dish out free routers to poor households – allegedly mine – as recently as a couple of weeks ago, or (c) my observations from my kids about how relatively little many of their teachers seemed to do during the period. Some kids – including a couple of mine – have even have learned more during time at home than time at school but (a) I doubt that generalises, and (b) it certainly won’t show up in more NCEA credits, since schools actively reduced the number of credits they offered.

So those are just a few straws in the wind that leave me suspecting that whatever is published now is probably something of an overestimate of value-added in the June quarter.

I’m also a bit uneasy when I think about what sort of monthly track (implied) is required to have generated “only”, say, an 11 per cent fall in GDP during the June quarter, bearing in mind that real GDP had already fallen 1.6 per cent in the March quarter as a whole.

There was a pretty strong view back in April/May that during the so-called “Level 4” restrictions economic activity was likely to have been reduced by almost 40 per cent below normal (the Reserve Bank’s 37 per cent estimate was here, and I think The Treasury’s estimate was even weaker).

But even if one assumes that in May and June economic activity was right back up to the level prevailing on average during the March quarter (in much of which there must have been little or no Covid effect, even though by the last few days of the period the “lockdown” was in place), April (almost all of which was in lockdown) must have been no weaker than 67 per cent of the March quarter average level to generate an 11 per cent fall for the quarter as a whole.

And that just doesn’t really ring true. We know, for example, that there were no foreign tourists arriving in the June quarter, and levels 2 and 3 restrictions were in place for quite a while. We know too the firms that swore they met the legal requirements for the extended wage subsidy.

If instead, and for example, we assume that May and June were back up to 95 and 97 per cent respectively of March quarter levels of economic activity – which sounds more or less plausible – then April has to have been no weaker than 75 per cent of the March quarter to generate an 11 per cent fall for the June quarter as a whole. And that doesn’t really square with any contemporary estimates about how binding the so-called Level 4 restrictions were. Perhaps they were all wrong and things just weren’t so badly constrained at all, but count me a bit sceptical for now. We’ll see, but in and of itself tomorrow’s release may not shed much light we can count on.

And on the other hand, there is the question of the implied change in labour productivity (defined as real GDP per hour worked). Assume that the HLFS is a somewhat reasonable representation of hours actually worked during the quarter and one is working with a reduction in hours of 10.3 per cent.

Suppose then that the bank forecasters (I looked at ANZ, Westpac, and ASB) are right and GDP is reported to have fallen by 11-12 per cent. That would produce a “headline” – well, there are no headlines, because SNZ does not report this measure directly – drop in labour productivity of perhaps 1 or 1.5 per cent for the quarter.

That might, on the surface, sound plausible. All sorts of things must worked less efficiently under voluntary or regulatory restrictions around the virus. If anything across the range of sectors that normally involve extensive face-to-face contact it might sound like a reasonable stab – albeit perhaps on the small side – as a representative drop. Remember that even in places where gross output was maintained, often slightly more inputs will have been required to keep up output.

But what do we see in other countries? Finding quarterly productivity estimates for most other countries isn’t easy. The UK publishes an official whole economy series, but with a fair lag (so the Q2 estimates are not yet available, even though they publish monthly GDP). Australia does publish official estimates of real GDP per hour worked in the same release as the GDP numbers. The initial ABS estimate is that real GDP per hour worked rose quite sharply in the June quarter.

aus covid productivity

The US does not report official whole economy productivity, but labour productivity in the non-farm business sector is estimated to have risen by 10.1 per cent. In both cases, output fell, but hours worked fell even faster. Canada also reports a significant rise in average labour productivity in the June quarter even as real GDP also fell sharply.

What is going on here? It isn’t that Covid is suddenly making everyone, or even whole swathes of industry, materially more productive – the longed-for elixir of renewed productivity growth. Almost certainly what is going on is compositional change: the people who were working fewer hours (or not all) will have tended to be disproportionately in relative low wage/low labour productivity sectors/roles. One can think of bar staff, waitresses, office and motel cleaners, barbers and so on. On the other hand, a fairly large proportion of higher-paying jobs could be done, more or less effectively, with little or no face to face contact. And in Australia, for example, the hugely capital intensive resources sector will have been hardly affected at all by the Covid restrictions. Most individual sectors/roles might have maintained – more or less – their productivity, but for many lower paying ones the effective demand (and output) was just no longer there. Averaging those who were still producing/working one ends up with higher average productivity even if no individual is any more productive than ever.

Each country’s restrictions, and underlying economic structures, were/are a bit different. But on the face of it, it is a little hard to construct a story in which average labour productivity hardly changed in New Zealand when in other advanced economies it rose a lot. We were very stringent on shops and cafes/restaurants/bars. We had a large tourism sector that was very hard hit, and typically isn’t a hgh paying sector.

Now perhaps that HLFS estimates of hours worked (-10.3 per cent) is itself all wrong – although presumably other countries must have had similar issues – but if GDP comes out tomorrow with a reported fall similar to the reported fall in hours worked, it will be just another puzzle to add to the mix – and to hope for some significant revisions down the track. Of course, if (a) HLFS hours is a reasonable guide, and (b) other countries’ productivity estimates are a reasonable guide, then all else equal one might have expected a fall in GDP even less than the one those private forecasters are picking. And – even amid the great uncertainty – that really would be a surprise.

What difference did lockdowns make?

I’ve written a couple of posts over the months drawing on work by Waikato economics professor John Gibson. Back in April there was this post, and then last month I wrote about an empirical piece Gibson had done using US county-level data suggesting that government-imposed restrictions in response to Covid may have made little consistent contribution to reducing death rates (in turn consistent with evidence suggesting that much of the decline in social contact, and economic activity, was happening anyway, in advance of government restrictions).

Fascinating as I found that paper, I was never entirely convinced how far the point would generalise, It seemed implausible, for example, that government restrictions and “lockdowns” would never make much difference – even if, in practice, the particular ones used in US counties might, on average, not have. After all, at the extreme, if a population (wrongly) regarded the threat from a particular pandemic as fairly mild, and yet some megalomaniacal government nonetheless banned all cross-border movement and ordered that no one was to leave their home for six weeks it is quite likely that – gross over-reaction as the government’s reaction might be – fewer lives would be lost from the virus under extreme lockdown than with no government restrictions. Then again, if the public was right and the government was wrong, such a lockdown would not save any material number of virus deaths, but would come at an enormous cost, whether in economic terms or personal and civil liberty.

That earlier paper also used only US data, and although there is an enormous richness in US data – since restrictions were imposed at state and county level – there is the entire rest of the world, even just the advanced world, to consider. As it happens, Professor Gibson has now done another short paper looking at (much of) the OECD countries – most of the advanced world. Here is his abstract.

A popular narrative that New Zealand’s policy response to Coronavirus was ‘go hard, go early’ is misleading. While restrictions were the most stringent in the world during the Level 4 lockdown in March and April, these were imposed after the likely peak in new infections I use the time path of Covid-19 deaths for each OECD country to estimate inflection points. Allowing for the typical lag from infection to death, new infections peaked before the most stringent policy responses were applied in many countries, including New Zealand. The cross-country evidence shows that restrictions imposed after the inflection point in infections is reached are ineffective in reducing total deaths. Even restrictions imposed earlier have just a modest effect; if Sweden’s more relaxed restrictions had been used, an extra 310 Covid-19 deaths are predicted for New Zealand – far fewer than the thousands of deaths
predicted for New Zealand by some mathematical models.

Professor Gibson does not seem at all taken with the Prime Minister’s “go hard, go early” catchphrase. He argues that the New Zealand government went hard, but actually rather late. He begins the paper with this chart, comparing restrictions in New Zealand and several other advanced island countries (ISL being Iceland).

Gibson 1

And observes

Up until mid-March the New Zealand response generally lagged the other countries in Figure 1. Moreover, the initial response, from 3 February, required foreign nationals arriving from China to self-isolate for 14 days. In late February, this extended to travelers coming from Iran. Subsequent genomic sequencing of confirmed cases in New Zealand from 26 February until May 22 shows representation from nearly all the diversity in the global virus population, and cases causing ongoing local transmission were mostly from North America (Geoghagen et al. 2020). Thus, aside from self-isolation being poorly policed, restricting travelers from certain countries (for example, China, Iran) is ineffective at keeping the virus out, unless all countries in the world simultaneously impose the same restrictions. Without such coordination, the virus can spread to third countries, from whence it can enter New Zealand. It is like bolting one door on a stable with many exterior doors, with horses free to roam around inside so that a smart horse (aka ‘a tricky virus’) can escape through any of the other doors.

And goes on to note that

The evidence in Figure 1 is open to at least two criticisms. First, different comparator countries may allow alternative interpretations. Secondly, comparing with responses of other countries may not be the right metric. Sebhatu et al (2020) find a lot of mimicry; almost 80 percent of OECD countries adopted the same Covid-19 responses in a two-week period in midMarch: closing schools, closing workplaces, cancelling public events and restricting internal mobility. These homogeneous responses contrast with heterogeneity across countries in how widely Covid-19 had spread, in population density and age structure, and in healthcare system
preparedness. One interpretation of this contrast is that some governments panicked and followed the lead of others, rather than setting fit-for-purpose Covid-19 responses that reflected their local circumstances. So another approach to study policy timing is to compare policy responses with the spread of the virus in each country.

Gibson adopts an approach of working back from data on Covid deaths – imprecise as that it, it is generally regarded as better than direct estimates of case numbers, which are hugely affected by just how much testing has been done – to estimate when there must have been a turning point in infection numbers to be consistent with the observed deaths data. That involves using an estimate, informed by experience, of the lag from infections to deaths (he mentions a couple of papers estimating lags of three to four weeks). Gibson produces results for 34 OECD countries, although unfortunately (for New Zealand comparisons) not for Australia.

The results in Table 1 show that the inferred inflection date in infections ranges from February 23 to 4 June, and for the median OECD country occurred on 23 March. For New Zealand, the approach in Figure 2 suggests new infections peaked on March 16, over a week before the strictest restrictions began on 26 March. Even if a shorter lag from infections to deaths is assumed, the peak in new infections in New Zealand still will have occurred before the Level 4 lockdown began. New Zealand is amongst 17 countries whose peak policy stringency occurred after the likely turning point in infections. So based on comparing policy
timing with likely progress of the virus, the ‘go early’ claim seems untrue.

He argues that it matters

It matters that policy restrictions are applied too late. Over two-thirds of variation in Covid-19 death rates (as of August 18) across these 34 OECD countries is due to baseline characteristics: deaths are higher in more populous countries, with higher density, higher shares of elderly, immigrants and urbanites, and fewer hospital beds per capita and having land borders (Table 2). If the country-specific mean of the OxCGRT policy stringency index is included it provides no additional predictive power. However, if the time-series of policy stringency is split at the inflection point in infections for each country (based on Table 1), prepeak policy stringency is negatively associated with Covid-19 death rates while post-peak policy stringency has no statistically significant effect on death rates. A similar pattern is apparent if the (likely) dates of peak new infections are controlled for, or if the maximums of the stringency index are used rather than the means. Thus, it seems to matter more to ‘go early’ than to ‘go hard’.

Gibson goes on to deal with concerns about endogeneity, re-running tests looking at policy responses relative to those of other nearby countries. Doing that tends to confirm the thrust of the earlier results.

there is a precisely estimated negative elasticity of death rates with respect to the policy stringency that was in place prior to the peak of new infections and an insignificant effect of policy stringency after the inflection point in infections has occurred.

But even then the effects appear to be quite small

gibson 2

And what of New Zealand?

gibson 3

or, in the slightly less-loaded framing from the abstract

if Sweden’s more relaxed restrictions had been used, an extra 310 Covid-19 deaths are predicted for New Zealand – far fewer than the thousands of deaths predicted for New Zealand by some mathematical models.

Of course, all those 310 would have been people, with grieving families, but on this model, we would have had a rate of deaths per million still in the lower half of OECD countries (rates akin to many eastern European countries, and Norway) not to those of (most of) northern Europe, including Sweden.

Having read and reflected on the paper, and engaged on a couple of points with Professor Gibson, I thought there were still several points worth making in response:

  • unlike his earlier paper, this paper makes no claims about what was known, or not known, by New Zealand and other countries’ governments in mid-late March. Even if the true number of new infections had started to decline even prior to the New Zealand “lockdown” policymakers could not have used this methodology at the time (since the deaths – the foundation of the timing estimate – had not yet happened). Reviews with the benefit of hindsight are not without their considerable uses – most real-world reviews are of that sort – but it is important to be clear that that is what this paper is. Politicians, of course, use their own take on hindsight to reinforce their preferred narratives,
  • the results may depend quite a bit on the correct specification of the model, and in particular on whether the other variables included (country population, population density, elderly share of the population, foreign-born share of the population, per cent living in urban area, available hospital beds per capita, and the presence/absence of a land border) have a robust foundation. The one I was particularly sceptical about was country population, as I could not see a good reason for it to affect Covid death rates. I asked Gibson about it and he re-ran the model without that variable and in summary “the basic pattern of results in terms of the policy variables stays the same, and particularly the contrast between pre-peak and post-peak stringency”. As it happens, this variant produces a lower estimate of New Zealand deaths with Swedish-level restrictions than the models reported in the paper itself. (Gibson, however, continues to think a population variable has a sensible structural interpretation.)

If we take Gibson’s results at face value they seem pretty appealing (and, in many respects, not that surprising, since we know – from papers since released – that officials in mid-late March were not recommending a lockdown of anything like the stringency of what the government actually imposed).

That said, it isn’t clear to me what the nature (and quantification) of any tradeoffs around economic costs and loss of liberties might be. There is a reasonable argument – and it is the stance I take myself – that the extreme restrictions on economic activities and liberties should be counted as a very large cost, justifiable (if ever) only in the face of the most severe and near-certain threat. What sort of society are we when we tolerate a government banning a swim in the sea, banning funerals, banning any public celebration of Easter, banning utterly safe economic activity (a sole practitioner going to his or her place of business)? But perhaps there is a counter-argument if maintaining the sort of moderate death rate Gibson envisages also required that we kept Swedish-type restrictions in place right through the last six months? It is possible – but needs for work, more modelling – that the total economic costs might have been similar or even higher. But then should one put a higher price on the most extreme episodes not just weight all losses equally? Perhaps there is a clearer-cut argument there in respect of restrictions on liberties than on the narrower GDP effects, perhaps especially when we recognise that different people value different things, different freedoms, different obligations in different ways. And that arbitrariness and unpredictability of use of extreme controls should itself be represented as carrying, and imposing, a heavy cost.

My position all through has been that the government over-reacted in adopting the full extent of its so-called “Level 4” restrictions. But the issues in my mind then was a difference between a New Zealand “level 4” and the somewhat less severe approach adopted in Australian states. With the benefit of hindsight, a paper like that of Professor Gibson poses more questions – and the sort of the questions that need to be posed, since the virus hasn’t gone away and (for example) we see Israel being forcibly locked down again. I hope his paper gets some scrutiny from, and engagement with, some of the more thoughtful of the champions of the New Zealand government’s approach. Perhaps he is quite wrong and his conclusions just aren’t sound, but they look like results that should warrant serious engagement, perhaps even a question to the Minister of Health, the one who the other day was trying to pretend the government does not (implicitly or explicitly) put a dollar value on human life in making its spending/regulatory decisions.

LSAP, deposits, bonds, house prices etc

There has been a flurry of commentary in the last couple of weeks about the (alleged) impact of the Reserve Bank’s Large Scale Asset Purchase programme. Much of it has seemed to me really quite confused. I don’t really want to pick on individual people – none of whom, as far as I’m aware, is a macro or monetary economist – although, for recency if nothing else, Bernard Hickey’s column yesterday is as good an example as any. But the Reserve Bank itself has not helped, tending to materially oversell what the LSAP programme has actually done.

There is, for example, a complaint (there in the headline of Hickey’s article) that “printed money being parked, not invested or spent”. But this seems to completely ignore the fact – it isn’t contested – that really only Reserve Bank actions affect the stock of settlement cash. All else equal, when the Bank buys an assets from someone in the private sector, that purchase will boost aggregate settlement cash, and only some other action by the Reserve Bank will subsequently alter the level of settlement cash. When private banks lend (borrow) more (less) aggressively, that may change an individual bank’s holding of settlement cash, but it won’t change the system total. Some of my views and interpretations may be idiosyncratic or controversial, but this one isn’t. It is totally straightforward and really beyond serious question. For anyone who wants to check out the influences on the aggregate level of settlement cash balances, the Reserve Bank produces a table – only monthly and too-long delayed in publication – detailing them (table D10 on their website). I’ll come back to those numbers.

Now, of course, the transactions that give rise to changes in settlement account balances aren’t always – or even normally – primarily with banks themselves. If the Reserve Bank bought a government bond I was holding, that would increase – more or less simultaneously – (a) my balance in my account at my bank, and (b) my bank’s balance in its account at the Reserve Bank. And because the government banks with the Reserve Bank, the same goes for (say) government pension payments: all else equal, they add to the recipient’s own deposits at his/her bank, and also to that recipient’s own bank’s deposits at the Reserve Bank (in normal times, the Reserve Bank does open market operations that roughly neutralise these fiscal flows – revenue or spending).

Much of the coverage of the LSAP purchases suggests that there has been a big net transfer of cash (deposits, settlement cash) from the Reserve Bank to private sector bondholders in recent months. Thus, we get stories and narratives about what “rich people” and other bond holders are (and aren’t – often the point) doing with all the cash they are now holding. But it simply isn’t a narrative relevant to New Zealand over recent months. The Reserve Bank publishes a table showing holdings of government securities (Table D30). Again, it is only monthly and we only have data to the end of July. But over the five months from the end of February to the end of July, secondary market holdings of New Zealand government securities (ie excluding those held by the Reserve Bank and EQC) increased by around $10 billion. It simply is not the case that funds managers, pension funds and the like (private bondholders generally) are suddenly awash with extra cash. In fact, collectively they have more tied up in loans to the Crown than they had back in February.

None of which should be really very surprising. After all, the government has run a massive (cash) fiscal deficit over the last six months – a reduced tax take and programmes that put lots of extra money into the accounts of businesses and households.

We can get a sense of just how large from that Influences on Settlement Cash table (D10) I referred to earlier. In the five months March to July the government paid out $23.8 billion more than it received. There is some seasonality in government flows, but for the same period last year the equivalent net payout (“government cash influence”) was $4.5 billion (and $4.9 billion in the same period in 2018). That is a lot of money put into the accounts of firms and households – the largest chunk will have been the wage subsidy payments, but there was also the corporate tax clawback, and various other one-offs, as well as the effect of the weaker economy in reducing the regular tax-take.

Over those five months the government has also issued, on-market as primary issuance, a great deal of debt (bonds and Treasury bills) offset by maturities (and early repurchases of maturing bonds by the Reserve Bank). Over the five months, the net of all these on-market transactions was $34.4 billion – as it happens, a whole lot more than the cash deficit for that period.

Now, of course, we know that the Reserve Bank – another arm of government – has been entering the secondary market to buy lots of government bonds. For the five months, the cash value of those purchases was $27.2 billion.

Take those two debt limbs together and issuance has exceeded RB LSAP purchases by about $7.2 billion.

And those are almost all the main influences on aggregate settlement cash balances. Other Reserve Bank liquidity management transactions can at times have a significant influence, but over these five months the net effect was tiny, at around $300m.

So broadly speaking, over the five months from the end of February to the end of July, the total level of settlement cash balances increased by about $16.4 billion (to $23.8 billion at the end of July). Roughly speaking, a cash deficit (also, coincidentally) of $23.8 billion, and net debt sales by the NZDMO/RB combined of $7.2 billion. And a few rates and mice.

Another way of looking at it is that the $23.8 billion “fiscal deficit” has been financed by $7.2 billion of net debt sales to the private sector, and by the issuance of $16.4 billion in Reserve Bank demand deposits (another name for settlement cash balances).

(And thus the biggest effect of the LSAP programme itself has really just been to change the balance between those last two numbers – consistent with the line that I keep running that to a first approximation the LSAP is just a large-scale asset swap, exchanging one set of low-yielding government liabilities (that anyone can hold) for another set of low-yielding government liabilities (that only banks can hold, while banks themselves assume new liabilities to their own depositors).

But taking the private sector as a whole what has happened over the last few months is that the fiscal policy choices (spending and revenue) have put lots more money in the pockets (and bank accounts) of firms and households. And the government as a whole (NZDMO/RB) has offset the settlement cash effects of that in part by (net) selling really rather a lot (by any normal standards) of net new bonds to private sector investors/funds managers etc. They, in turn, have less cash. Firms and ordinary households have more (at least than they otherwise would).

There have been strange arguments – and the Reserve Bank Governor sometimes feeds this silly line – that banks are not “doing their bit” by lending more to businesses, even though – we are told – they have so much more settlement cash. But this is a wrongheaded argument, because systemwide availability of settlement cash has rarely, if ever, in recent times (last couple of decades) been a significant constraints on bank lending. Aggregate settlement cash balances barely changed over the previous decade and plenty of lending occurred. In a severe and quite unexpected recession, it would generally be more reasonable to suppose that lack of demand from creditworthy borrowers, some caution among banks as to quite what really is creditworthy, and sheer uncertainty about the economic environment would explain why there wasn’t much new business lending occurring. In fact, sensible bank supervisors would typically welcome that outcome. And remember my point right at the start, even if banks were doing lots of new business lending, it would not change the level of settlement cash balances in the system as a whole by one jot.

So then we get to the question of house prices. Many people – me included – expected that we would have seen house prices beginning to fall already. Severe recessions and considerable uncertainty tends to have that affect. Often, tighter bank lending standards reinforce that. So what did we miss? I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me:

  • I have not been surprised by the extent of the fall in retail interest rates.  That fall has been small in total, and modest by the standards of significant past recessions.  When people idly talk about lower lending rates driving up house prices, they seem completely oblivious to the way –  whether over 1990/91, after 1997/98, or in 2008/09 –  falling interest rates initially went hand in hand with flat or falling house prices.  Interest rates were, after all, falling for a reason in the middle of a recession.  One can argue that trend lower interest rates are raising trend house prices (I don’t think so, but that is for another day) but there isn’t really a credible story that this modest fall in interest rates –  amid a big and uncertain recession –  is raising house prices now, in and of itself,
  • we also know that people who usually hold bonds are not suddenly finding themselves at a loose end, unable to invest their cash in government bonds and having to fall back on buying a house instead.  The aggregate figures tell us instead they are holding a lot more bonds than they were (and as a trustee of super funds that do have substantial bond exposures, I know our advisers have not come and urged us to sell out and buy houses).
  • but we’ve also had a highly unusual combination of events that together probably do explain why, to now anyway, house prices are holding up in most places, perhaps even rising.  
  • we’d never previously gone into a recession with binding LVR limits in place.  The Bank removed those limits when the recession began –  sensibly enough –  for a flawed policy –  and consistent with the way they’d always talked of operating, enabling some people who regulation had forced out of the market to get back in.  Regulatory credit constraints were eased.
  • We also had the mortgage holiday scheme, which had two legs to it.  The first was that banks generally agreed to show forbearance to people who would have otherwise had trouble servicing their mortgage over this period, allowing them to defer to later payments due now.  Mostly that was probably pretty sensible, and banks might done something along those lines for most customers even with no heavy-handed government involvement.  But then the Reserve Bank engaged in questionable regulatory forbearance, telling banks that even though the credit quality of their residential loan books had deteriorated –  people unable to pay, even if perhaps just for a time, but with threats of rising unemployment –  they could pretend otherwise, at least for the purposes of the capital requirements the Reserve Bank imposes on locally-incorporated banks.
  • And, third, we’ve had an unprecedented series of fiscal support measures, putting lots (and lots) of taxpayer money into the accounts of businesses (mostly, directly) and households, to offset to a considerable extent the immediate substantial loss of market incomes and GDP.

My approach then is to reason from the counterfactual.   Suppose these actions had not been taken, what then would we have expected to have seen in house prices?

I reckon it would be a safe bet that house prices would have fallen.  Sure, retail interest rates would still have come down, but as I noted earlier that happens in almost every recession, and the falls are typically larger than those we’ve seen this year.   But even just suppose the virus had done as it did, here and abroad, and that the anti-virus choices (policy and private) were as they were.  There would have been a huge increase, almost immediately, in unemployment, and a large number of households would have been thrown onto no more than the unemployment benefit, and many of those that weren’t would have running very scared.  The cashed-up might still have been interested in buying, at low interest rates, but there would have lots of sellers –  whether forced by the bank, or people just needing to cut their debt urgently –  and that wave of desired selling would have fed doubts that would have left buyers more wary than otherwise.    But it was the fiscal policy choices that put additional money in the pockets of those who might otherwise have been rushing to sell.

The thing is, that for all the moans and laments about house prices rising a little, no one seems to have been arguing that we should not have taken a generous approach to supporting households through recent months.  Given the logic of the LVRs, probably most people think it reasonable that those restrictions were suspended.   Few people think banks should have been more hard-hearted (even if a few geeks like me might be uneasy about the capital relief the RB provided). 

And it is those that are the choices that really mattered.  (They are also why I remain sceptical that any strength in the housing market will last much longer, given that the fiscal support is rapidly coming to an end, unemployment is rising (and is expected to continue to do so), the world economy looks sick, we’ve been reminded afresh of virus uncertainty, and deferred debt has not gone away.  Time will tell.)

Now none of this is to suggest we should be at all comfortable with the level of house prices in New Zealand.  They are a disgrace, and the direct responsibility of successive governments of all stripes, and of their local authority counterparts.    But given that all of them refuse to address the real issues –  opening up land use on the fringes of our towns and cities in ways that would bring land prices dramatically down – they can’t really be surprised by where we are now.

And it is has nothing whatever to do with the LSAP programme:

  •  which has not put more money in the hands of people who buy houses,
  • has not made any material difference to wholesale or retail interest rates over the relatively short-term maturities most New Zealand borrowers borrow at (even if there is a case that the might have a material difference to long-term rates, benefiting really only the government as borrower),
  • may have actually held short-term interest rates up a little, if the Reserve Bank is being honest in its claim that it preferred using the LSAP to cutting the OCR further this year,and
  • which has not enabled, empowered, or encouraged the government to run any larger deficits than it would otherwise have chosen to run (which could readily have been financed on-market, except perhaps in the torrid week or two in late March when global bond markets were dysfunctional.   Government deficits put money in the pockets of people.  Most people –  me included –  think they were right to do so (even if we might quibble about details).

Observant readers may have noticed that the government issued much more debt over those five months than the deficits it ran.  Without the LSAP, these transactions in isolation would have tended to drain the level of settlement cash.  But that would not have happened in practice.   Either the NZDMO would have spread out its issuance a bit more, or the Reserve Bank would have done (routine for it) open market operations to stabilise the aggregate level of settlement cash balances at levels consistent with their target level of short-term interest rates.

Other observant readers might wonder how the LSAP can be so relatively unimportant (in many ways almost as unimportant as the MMT authors might suggest).  A key issue here is that the yields the (whole of) government is paying on bonds is very similar now to the yield (the OCR) it is paying on unlimited settlement cash balances.   One could imagine a different world in which things would work out differently.  It used to be common for settlement cash balances to earn either zero interest, or a materially below market rate.  So if, say, the Reserve Bank was buying bonds at yields of 10  per cent –  where they were in the early 1990s –  and paying zero interest (or even a significant margin below market) on settlement cash balances, each individual bank would be very keen to get rid of any settlement cash building up in its account.  They still couldn’t change the total level of settlement cash balances but they could, for example, bid deposit rates down aggressively, which would (among other things) be expected to materially weaken the exchange rate.  But on current policy –  only adopted in March –  the Bank pays the full OCR on all and any settlement cash balances.  25 basis points isn’t a great return, but it is probably high enough –  relative say to bank bill yields – that banks aren’t desperate to offload settlement cash.  The transmission mechanism is then muted, as a matter of policy choice.

Finally, note that –  because of the inadequacies of the Bank’s data publication (influences on settlement cash really should be daily, published daily, in times like this) – all my numbers refer only to the period to the end of July.  But note that since the end of July the level of settlement cash balances has fallen further ($19 billion as of last Friday).  I haven’t tried to unpick what specifically has gone on in any detail, but my guess is that the cash fiscal deficit has diminished, while heavy bond and bill issuance by DMO has continued.  The Reserve Bank has stepped-up its own purchases but the bottom line remains one in which (a) if anything the Bank is draining funds from banks, although in doing so not really constraining any one or any thing, while (b) it is fiscal choices –  pretty widely supported ones –  that have still been putting money in the pockets of people who might, for example, be holding houses (and owing the attendant debt).  Unsurprisingly, bank deposits have risen in recent months, exactly as one should have expected.

And there endeth the lecture,  My son (doing Scholarship economics) asked about this stuff the other day and I ran him through most of this material.  My wife suggested I’d had my best schoolmaster’s voice on at the time.  I suspect the tone of this post is somewhat similar.  I hope the substance is some help in clarifying some of the issues. 

Pandemic income insurance

Way back on 16 March, the day before the government brought down the first of its pandemic economic response packages, I ran a post here in which – among other strands of an approach to the rapidly worsening economic situation – I suggested that the government should legislate quickly to provide, for the coming year, a guarantee that no one’s income would fall below 80 per cent of what it had been in the previous year. The proposed approach was to treat individuals and companies in much the same way. The underlying idea was to provide some certainty – to individuals, firms and lenders – without offsetting all losses (society was going to be poorer) and without locking people in to employment or business relationships that may have been sensible/profitable previously, but which wouldn’t necessarily be in future. And to recognise that individual firms and people are better placed to reach those judgements – about what makes sense for the future, what makes sense (say) to borrow to support – that government ministers or officials.

I knew that any such scheme might be very expensive, and rereading the post I see that I proposed it even though I was talking about economic scenarios for potential GDP losses that were materially worse than most think we will now actually face. But part of the mindset was the parallel with ACC – our no-fault accident compensation system. Being able to treat people in a fairly generous way when a serious pandemic – that was no one’s fault – hit could be conceptualised as one of the bases for the low-debt approach successive governments had taken to fiscal policy over recent decades. And it did not require governments to pick winners – firms they thought might/should flourish – or pick favourites.

Since it was sketch outline of a scheme, dreamed up over the previous few days, I was always conscious that there were lots of operational details that would have to be worked through before an idea of this sort could be implemented, and any scheme would need to be carefully evaluated for the risks that might lie hidden just beneath the surface. But evaluated not relative to standards of perfection, but relative to realistic alternatives approaches in a rapidly unfolding crisis.

I wrote a couple of other posts (here and here) touching on aspects of the pandemic insurance idea, and as I reflected a bit further and discussed/debated the idea with a few people, I suggested some potential refinements, including greater differentiation between companies and individuals. Other people, here and abroad, also suggested ideas that had some similarities in spirit to what I was looking to achieve.

Of course, nothing like the pandemic insurance scheme was adopted. Instead, we had a flurry of schemes and of individual bailouts, the main attraction of which seemed to be a steady stream of announceables for Cabinet ministers in election year (generally a negative in terms of the public interest, in which similar cases should be treated similarly), all while offering little or no certainty to individuals, firms, or their lenders.

I’ve continued to regard something like the pandemic insurance scheme as a superior option that should have been taken, but mostly I moved onto writing about other things. But the return of community-Covid, more or less severe government restrictions on economic (and other) activity, and arguments about whether and for how long the wage subsidy should be renewed only reinforced that sense that there would have been a better way. But a few tweets aside, I hadn’t given the issue much thought for a while until a few weeks ago a TVNZ producer got in touch to say that they had found reference to the pandemic insurance idea in an OIA response they had had from The Treasury, and asking if I’d talk to them about it.

It was only late last week that I got to see the response Treasury had provided (Treasury having fallen well below their usual past standards has still not put the response – dated 12 August – on their website (or even acknowledged my request for a copy of the same material). A little of the subsequent interview with TVNZ was aired as part of their story on Saturday night, itself built around the notion that the government had rejected this (appealing sounding) idea.

OIA Response Pandemic Insurance etc

The TVNZ OIA request had actually been for material on “helicopter payments”, which was refined to mean

“one-off payments made by the Government to citizens with the purpose of stimulating the economy,

(which in some respects does not describe the pandemic insurance idea well at all).

And yet most of the material in the quite lengthy OIA response (77 pages) turned out to be about the work The Treasury had undertaken on the pandemic insurance idea over the couple of weeks from 7 April, including some advice to the Minister of Finance.

There seems to have been quite serious interest in the option, and there is paper to the Minister of Finance providing a fair and balanced outline of the scheme – merits and risks – dated 9 April

tsy pandemic

and suggesting that if the Minister was seriously interested Treasury would do more work and report later in the month. Although there is no more record of the Minister’s view, he must have been sufficiently open for more work to have been done, including drawing in perspectives from operational agencies (including IRD and MSD) on feasibility and operational issues.

My impression is that Treasury did a pretty good job in looking at the option.

tsy pandemic 2

That final paragraph was always one of the key attractions to me.

As I went through the papers, I didn’t find too many surprises. The issues and risks official raised were largely the ones I’d expected – including, for example, the risk that some people might just opt out of the labour market this year and take the 80 per cent guarantee, and issues around effective marginal tax rates for those facing market incomes less than 80 per cent. Perhaps the one issue I hadn’t given much thought to was a comment from IRD about the risk of firms being able to shift revenue and/or expenses between tax years, with the observation that existing rules were not really designed to control that to any great extent. But, and operating in a second-best world, the officials involved generally seem to have regarded few of these obstacles as insuperable, bearing in mind the pitfalls of (for example) the plethora of alternative schemes.

The work seems to have come to an end on or about 23 April with Treasury finally deciding not to recommend the pandemic insurance approach. This email is from a Principal Advisor heavily involved in the evaluation to the Secretary and key (on the Covid issues) Deputy Secretary.

tsy pandemic 3

It probably shouldn’t surprise readers that I think the wrong call was made in the end, but equally it is probably not that surprising that the decision went the way it did. One reason – not, of course, acknowledged in the Treasury papers – is how slow officials were (across government) in appreciating the seriousness of what was already clearly unfolding globally – and as a major risk to New Zealand – by the end of January. As I’ve noted before there is no indication in any of the papers that have been released, or public comments at the time, that (for example) Ministers or the heads of the key government departments had begun serious contingency planning – devoting significant resource to it – any time before mid-March. This particular work didn’t get underway until well into April, by when a great deal had already begun to be set in stone, and when rolling out bite-sized new announcements – robust or not – no doubt seemed, and was, easier than a new comprehensive approach.

As it happens, even though there was a great deal of concern back in April about the affordability of the pandemic insurance scheme, with the benefit of hindsight there is a reasonable argument that it could even have been cheaper than the approaches actually adopted (GDP losses having been less severe, on a sustained basis, than feared in April), which in turn might have left more resources for the stimulus and recovery phase (pandemic insurance – like wage subsidies – was always more about income support and managing uncertainty in the heat of the crisis than about post-crisis recovery stimulus).

From my perspective, the post was mostly about recording my pleasant surprise at how seriously the pandemic insurance idea (mine, and some other variants) was taken by officials, and by what appears to have a pretty good job in evaluating it as an option, in what will have been very trying and pressured times.

From this vantage point – with the advantage of knowing how the first six months of the virus went, and with a sense of the economic ramifications – I still reckon it would have been a better approach. And yet – and I don’t recall seeing this in Treasury’s advice (perhaps it isn’t the thing for officials to write down) I can also see political pitfalls – around very large payouts to some companies, even if they weren’t gaming the system – that might have made it impossible, and unsustainable if tried, without (at least) a very strong degree of political leadership and marketing that such a no-fault no-favour approach was a better way to have gone. As I noted in an earlier post, I’d have hated having the Crown pay out to casino companies, but I would have endured for the sake of a fair across the board scheme. But every single person, every single lobby group, would have found some potential recipient to excoriate.

The TVNZ interviewer asked me about the pandemic insurance idea still had relevance for the future. My initial response to him was that yes it did, and that we might be much better off to have the infrastructure required to make it work in place and on the shelf ready to go for when future pandemics happen. Taxes will, after all, be a bit higher than otherwise as we gradually lower debt ratios, amid repeated talk of being ready for the next major adverse event, whether earthquake, volcano or pandemic.

And yet reflecting on it again over the weekend, I’m no longer quite so confident of that answer. More detailed work, and more thought, is probably required once this pandemic is behind us to strike the right balance – individuals vs firms, generosity in a no-fault shock vs moral hazard as just some of the examples of issues to be thought through, and planned for, ideally in a way that would survive contact with a new real severe adverse shock.

Macro policy pitfalls and options

The sad sight of someone who has seemed to be a normally honourable man –  Greens co-leader James Shaw – heading off down the path of Shane Jones-ism, is perhaps a general reminder of the temptations of politics and power, but also of much that is wrong about how the government is tackling the severe economic downturn we are now in.   Fiscal discipline around scarce real resources, always pretty weak at the best of times. is flung out the window and there is a mad scamper for ministerial announceables, and thus rewards to those who successfully bend the ear of ministers in a hurry.  Connections, lobbying, and the ability to spin a good yarn seem to become foremost, with a good dose of partisanship thrown in too.   The extraordinary large grant to a private business  planning to operate a school is just the example that happens to have grabbed the headlines, but there will be more no doubt through the list (apparently not all yet announced) of “shovel-ready projects”, and we’ve seen many through the Provincial Growth Fund almost from day one of its existence.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not opposed to the government running deficits –  even really rather large deficits – for a year or two.   Some mix of external events and government actions have tipped the economy into a severe recession and –  against a dismal global backdrop – the outlook is not at all promising.  Tax revenue would be down anyway, and that automatic stabiliser is a desirable feature of the fiscal system.   And one can make –  I have made –  a case for a pretty generous approach across the board to those, through no direct fault of their own, are caught in the backwash of the pandemic.  I’ve argued for thinking of such assistance as if we some ACC-like pandemic insurance, for which we paid the premiums in decades past through higher tax rates/lower government spending rates –  and thus lower debt – than would otherwise have been likely.

And some aspects of the government’s economic policy response have –  whatever their other faults –  had elements of that broadbased no-fault/no-favours approach.   I guess ministers couldn’t put a press statement for each individual who benefited from the wage subsidy, or the weird business tax clawback scheme.  But beyond that, and increasingly, what is supposed to be countercyclical stabilisation policy has become a stage for ministers to choose favourites, to support one and not another, to announce particular bailouts as acts of political favour.  It is a dreadful way to run things, rewarding not just ministerial favourites but the chancers and opportunists who are particularly aggressive in pursuing handouts.  So some tourist operators get handouts and other don’t.  Some sports got handouts and others don’t.     Favoured festivals –  I see the nearby festival on the list this morning –  get handouts.  And, in general, unless you are among the favoured, businesses (the myriad of small and low profile ones) get little or nothing at all.  James Shaw’s green school gets a huge capital grant and while no one –  of any ideological stripe –  should be getting such handouts, we can be quite sure no-one of a different ideological stripe than those associated with the governing parties would be getting one.    Perhaps many people involved really have the best of intentions, but frankly it is corrupt, and predictably so.

I was reading last night an open letter on economic policy that Keynes had addressed to Franklin Roosevelt in late 1933.  It was a bit of mixed bag as a letter, and had really a rather condescending tone, but the couple of sentences that caught my eye were these

“our own experience has shown how difficult it is to improvise useful Loan-expenditures at short notice. There are many obstacles to be patiently overcome, if waste, inefficiency and corruption are to be avoided”

Quite.

Now, of course, elections have consequences, and one would expect a government of the left to be deploying public resources in directions consistent with (a) manifesto commitments, and (b) their own general sympathies.    But in this case (a) the government was elected on a promise (wise or not) of considerable fiscal restraint, and (b) whatever the broad tenor of their policy approach, we should not expect public resources to be handed to individuals or favoured groups and companies, solely on the basis of the ability of those entities to get access to, and bend the ear of, ministers.  And it is not necessary to do so to deploy very substantial fiscal resources –  whether with a focus on consumption, investment, or business etc support more generally.  Broadbased tools, that do not rely on rewarding favourites, aren’t hard to devise or deploy.

More generally, of course, monetary policy is an option that has barely been used at all.   We have a severe recession, with little or no relief in sight (including globally) and yet whereas, faced with a serious downturn, we usually see perhaps a 500 basis point fall in interest rates and a sharp fall in the exchange rate, we’ve had no more than a 100 basis point fall in interest rates and no fall at all in the exchange rate.  And not because of some alarming inflationary threat that means further monetary support can’t prudently be risked…..but because the appointed Monetary Policy Committee, faced with very weak inflation forecasts and lingering higher unemployment, choose to do nothing.  And those with responsibility for the Bank –  the Minister of Finance, and the PM and Cabinet –  seem to be quite content with this abdication.

The beauty of monetary policy, and one of the reasons it has been a preferred stabilisation tool for most of the time since countercyclical macro policy became a thing, is that even if ministers are the ones making the day to day decisions –  and they usually aren’t because we mostly have central banks with day-to-day operational autonomy –  they don’t get to pick which firm, which party favourite, gets the benefit of lower borrowing costs, who suffers from reduced interest income, or what is affected by the lower exchange rate.    It is broad-based instrument, operating without fear or favour, and doing so pervasively –  it takes one decision by the relevant decisionmaking body and relative prices across the whole economy are altered virtually immediately, not some crude process of ministers and officials poring over thousands of applications for grants and loans and deciding –  on who knows what criteria –  whether or not to grant them.  And it has the subsidiary merit, when used wisely, of working with market forces –  in times like these investment demand is weak and precautionary savings demand is high, so one would normally expect –  if no government agency were in the way – the market-clearing interest rate would fall a long way.

On the left there still seems to be a view that monetary has done a great deal, and perhaps all it could.  I saw the other day a commentary from retired academic Keith Rankin on fiscal and monetary policy.  He claims not to be a “left-wing economist” –  although I suspect most would see him as generally being on the left –  but has no hesitation in pegging me as “right-wing economist”.  Apparently “right-wing economists tend to have a philosophical preference for monetary policy over fiscal policy”.   Anyway….he was picking up on some comments I made in a recent interview on Radio New Zealand.

To a non-right-wing economist, Reddell’s position in the interview seems strange; Reddell argues that New Zealand has – so far during the Covid19 pandemic – experienced a large fiscal stimulus and an inadequate monetary stimulus. In fact, while the fiscal outlay is large compared to any previous fiscal stimulus, much of the money available may remain unspent, and the government is showing reluctance to augment that outlay despite this month’s Covid19 outbreak. And, as a particular example, the government keeps pouring salt into the running sore that is the Canterbury District Health Board’s historic deficit (see here and here and here and here); the Minister of Health showed little sign of compassion towards the people of Canterbury when questioned about this on yesterday’s Covid19 press conference.

Further, monetary policy has been very expansionary. In its recent Monetary Policy Statement (and see here), the Reserve bank has committed to ongoing expansions of the money supply through quantitative easing. Because the Reserve Bank must act as a silo, however, it has to participate in the casino (the secondary bond market) to do this; perhaps a less than ideal way to run monetary policy. Reddell has too much faith in the ability of the Reserve Bank to expand business investment spending.

Reddell is a committed supporter of negative interest rates – indeed he cites the same American economist, Kenneth Rogoff, who I cited in Keith Rankin on Deeply Negative Interest Rates (28 May 2020). This call for deeply negative rates is tantamount to a call for negative interest on bank term deposits and savings accounts; that is, negative ‘retail interest rates’. While Reddell does not address the issue in the short interview cited, Rogoff notes that an interest rate setting this low would require something close to a fully electronic monetary system to prevent people withdrawing wads of cash to stuff under the bed or bury under the house.

I struggle to see how anyone can doubt that we have had a very large fiscal stimulus this year to date.  One can debate the merits of extending (or not) the wage subsidy –  personally (despite being a “right-wing economist”) I’d have favoured the certainty my pandemic insurance scheme would have provided –  but it doesn’t change the fact a great deal has been spent.  Similarly, one can have important debates about the base level of health funding –  and I’ve run several posts here in recent years expressing surprise at how low health spending as a share of GDP has been under this government, given their expressed priorities and views –  but it isn’t really relevant to the question of the make-up of the countercyclical policies deployed this year.  With big government or small government in normal times, cyclical challenges (including serious ones like this year’s) will still arise.

And so the important difference seems to turn on how we see the contribution of monetary policy.  Here Rankin seems to run the Reserve Bank line –  perhaps even more strongly than they would –  about policy being “highly expansionary”, without pointing to any evidence, arguments, or market prices to support that.  It is as if an announced intent to swap one lot of general government low-interest liabilities (bonds) for another lot (settlement cash deposits at the Reserve Bank) was hugely macroeconomically significant.  Perhaps it is, but the evidence is lacking…whether from the Reserve Bank or from those on the left (Rankin and others, see below) or those on the right (some who fear it is terribly effective and worrying about resurgent inflation.

While on Rankin, I just wanted to make two more brief points:

    • first, Rankin suggests I “have too much faith in the ability  of the Reserve Bank to expand  business investment spending”.  That took me by surprise, as I have no confidence in the Bank’s ability to expand investment spending directly at all, and nor is it a key channel by which I would be expecting monetary policy to work in the near-term.  It really is a straw man, whether recognised as such, often cited by those opposed to more use of monetary policy.  Early in a recession –  any recession –  interest rates are never what is holding back investment spending –  that would be things like a surprise drop in demand, heightened uncertainty, and perhaps some unease among providers of either debt or equity finance.  Only rarely do people invest into downturns,  When they can, they will postpone planned investment, and wait to see what happens.  There is a whole variety of channels by which monetary policy works –  and I expect I’m largely at one with the Reserve Bank on this –  including confidence effects, wealth effects, expectations effects and (importantly in New Zealand) exchange rate effects.  Be the first country to take its policy rate deeply negative and one would expect a significant new support for our tradables sector through a much lower exchange rate.  In turn, over time, as domestic and external demand improved investment could be expected to rise, in turn supported by temporarily lower interest rates, but that is some way down the track.
    • second, as Rankin notes I have continued to champion the use of deeply negative OCR (and right now any negative OCR at all, rather than the current RB passivity).  As he notes, in the interview he cites I did not mention the need to deal with the ability to convert deposits into physical cash at par, but that has been a longstanding theme of mine.  I don’t favour abolishing physical currency, but I do favour a potentially-variable premium price on large-scale conversions to cash (as do other advocates of deeply negative policy rates).  Those mechanisms would be quite easy to put in place, if there was the will to use monetary policy.

From people on the left-  at least in the New Zealand media –  there also seems to be some angst that (a) monetary policy has done a great deal, and that (b) in doing so it has exacerbated “inequality” in a way that we should, apparently, regret.   I’ve seen this line in particular from interest.co.nz’s Jenee Tibshraeny and (including again this morning) from Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan.  On occasion, Adrian Orr seems to give some encouragement to this line of thinking, but I think he is mostly wrong to do so

Perhaps the most important point here is the otherwise obvious one.  The worst sort of economic outcome, including from an inequality perspective (short or long term) is likely to be one in which unemployment goes up a long way and stays high, and where labour market participation rates fall away.  Sustained time out of employment, involuntarily, is one of the worst things for anyone’s lifetime economic prospects, and if some of the people who end up unemployed have plenty of resources to fall back on, the burden of unemployment tends to fall hardest on the people at the bottom, people are just starting out, and in many cases people from ethnic minorities (these are often overlapping groups).  From a macroeconomic policy perspective, the overriding priority should be getting people who want to work back into work just as quickly as possible.   That doesn’t mean we do just anything –  grants to favoured private companies to build new buildings are still a bad idea  – but it should mean we don’t hold back on tools with a long track record of contributing effectively to macroeconomic stabilisation because of ill-defined concerns about other aspects of “inequality”.

Asset prices appear to worry people in this context.    I’m probably as puzzled as the next person about the strength of global equity prices –  and I don’t think low interest rates (low for a reason) are a compelling story –  but it is unlikely that anything our Reserve Bank is doing is a big contributor to the current level of the NZX indices.  Even if it were, that would not necessarily be a bad thing, since one way to encourage new real investment is as the price of existing investment assets rises relative to the cost of building new.

And if house prices have risen a little (a) it is small compared to the 25 year rise governments have imposed on us, and (b) not that surprising once the Reserve Bank eased the LVR restrictions for which there was never a compelling financial stability rationale in the first place.

More generally, I think this commentators are still overestimating (quite dramatically) what monetary policy has done.   I read commentaries talking about “money flowing into the hands of asset holders” (Coughlan today) from the LSAP programme, but that really isn’t the story at all.  Across this year to date there has been little change in private sector holdings of government bonds, and certainly no large scale liquidation by existing holders (of the sort that sometimes happened in QE-type programmes in other countries).  Most investors are holding just as many New Zealand government bonds as they were.  All that has really happened is that (a) the government has spent a great deal more money than it has received in taxes, (b) that has been initially to them by the Reserve Bank, and (c) that net fiscal spending is mirrored in a rise in banks’ settlement account deposit balances at the Reserve Bank.  It would not have made any difference to anything that matters much if the Reserve Bank had just given the government a huge overdraft facility at, say, 25 basis points interest, rather than going through the bond issuance/LSAP rigmarole.  The public sector could have sold more bonds into the market instead, in which case the private sector would be holding more bonds and less settlement cash.  But the transactions that put more money in people’s pockets –  people with mortgages, people with businesses –  are the fiscal policy programmes.   Without them we might, reasonably, have anticipated a considerably weaker housing market.  Since few on the left would have favoured less fiscal outlays this year –  and neither would I for that matter –  they can’t easily have it both ways (Well, of course, they could, but the current government of the left has been almost as bad as previous governments of the left and right in dealing with the land use restrictions that create the housing-related dimensions of inequality.

Coughlan also seems to still belief that what happens to the debt the government owes the (government-owned and controlled) Reserve Bank matters macroeconomically.  See, on this, his column in last weekend’s Sunday Star-Times.   As I outlined last week, this is simply wrong: what matter isn’t the transactions between the government and the RB, but those between the whole-of-government and the private sector.  Those arise mostly from the fiscal policy choices.  The whole-of-government now owes the non-government a great deal more than it did in February –  reflecting the fiscal deficit.  That happens to take the form primarily of much higher settlement cash balances, but it could have been much higher private bond holdings.   Either way, the asset the Reserve Bank holds is largely irrelevant: the liabilities of the Crown are what matter.  And as the economy re recovers one would expect that the government will have to pay a higher price on those liabilities.   It could avoid doing so –  simply refusing to, engaged in “financial repression” –  but doing so would not avoid the associated real resource pressures. The same real resources can’t be used for two things at once.  Finally on Coughlan’s article, it seems weird to headline a column “It’s not a question of how, but if we’ll pay back the debt” when, on the government’s own numbers and depending on your preferred measure, debt to GDP will peak at around 50 per cent.  Default is usually more of a political choice than an economic one, but I’d be surprised if any stable democracy, issuing its own currency, has ever chosen to default with such a low level of debt –  low relative to other advanced countries, and (for that matter) low relative to our own history.

Monetary policy really should have been –  and should now, belatedly –  used much more aggressively.  It gets in all the cracks, it avoids the temptations of ministerial corruption, it works (even the RB thinks so), and it has the great merit that in committing claims over real resources the people best-placed to make decisions –  individual firms and households, accountable for their choices –  are making them, not politicians on a whim.

For anyone interested, the Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr is talking about the Bank’s use of monetary policy this year at Victoria University at 12:30pm today.  The event is now entirely by Zoom, and the organisers invited us to share the link with anyone interested.