National’s five-point plan

At the end of my post yesterday morning I noted briefly

Of course, if Labour’s approach is bad, at least (being the government) it is on the table.  It is now less than two months until voting starts and we have no idea what National’s approach might be, but no reason to suppose it would be materially different or better.

Within a couple of hours we had a plan from National, or at least what Todd Muller describes as “the framework for the party’s Plan to create more jobs and a better economy”.   Just like the Prime Minister, he has a five-point plan, outlined in a speech given in Christchurch yesterday.   If you want the potted version there is even a one-page graphic.

graphic nat

I was no more impressed than with Muller’s previous speech, although at least he has dropped the (historically ill-grounded) paeans to Michael Joseph Savage.   There still seems to be a great deal of me-too-ism about it: we’ll be just like Labour only more competent.   If he has values and a political philosophy, they seem to bear little or no relationship to those the National Party was built on.    It is the sort of speech any (losing) centrist Labour Party leader could have given.

It is explicitly an economic speech, but there was no obvious economic framework, no sign that he or his advisers had thought hard about what has ailed the New Zealand economy for a long time, about how National might fix it, and how that might tie together with the immediate recovery needs (having been accused by one commenter yesterday of being an “armchair theorist”, here was my post-Covid note on such issues).

Anyway, to step through the speech.  First, there was the flawed framing.

According to the Reserve Bank, New Zealand faces its worst economic downturn for 160 years. I don’t think the magnitude of that has yet sunk in to the public or the media. That’s partly because, these past few weeks, everyone has quite rightly been more preoccupied with the shambles at the border and in our quarantine centres. But, if the Reserve Bank is to be believed, ahead of us lies the greatest economic and jobs crisis that anyone in this room has ever known.

Even though the fall in the GDP in the month of April was absolutely huge –  could we have measured it, perhaps 40 per cent –  no one supposes that what lies ahead is worse than New Zealand’s experience of the Great Depression.   Most likely, what we face is something more like, perhaps a bit worse than, the severity of the late 80s and early 90s.  That’s quite bad enough.

And a scale of loss and dislocation that National, at least in this framework speech, appears to have no answer for.

Thus, we learn that they are quite happy with macro policy as it stands and don’t appear to think the Reserve Bank needs to be doing anything more (than the little they have done so far).  And we get rather florid rhetoric on fiscal policy, supported by (it appears) nothing.

Since the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the economic and political debate in New Zealand has tended to be on the quantity of borrowing or debt repayment each year. These remain critically important. Getting back to fiscal surplus and then paying down debt to 20 per cent of GDP is necessary, not least because New Zealand will inevitably confront another natural, economic or health disaster in the next couple of decades or beyond. But just as important is to focus on the quality of spending.

Labour forecasts net core debt will reach 53.6 per cent of GDP in 2024 under their policies. That’s an eye-wateringly high level. We will work hard to try to keep it lower than that, which would put New Zealand in a better position to recover. But of far greater longer-term importance is that Labour projects that under its policies, but with a far stronger economic environment than we face today, net core debt will still be as high as 42 per cent by 2034. That means Labour intends a mere 11 per cent reduction in net core debt, over a decade. At that rate, we will not get back to the safe 20 per cent mark until perhaps the mid-2050s.

National does not regard Labour’s attitude as anything like prudent. It would leave an enormous debt, not so much to our children but to our grandchildren. And it would leave our children and grandchildren – and also ourselves – profoundly vulnerable were the global economic and strategic outlook anything other blissful for three successive decades. Covid-19, the trade war between the US and China and this city’s recent history all say that is not a safe bet.

There aren’t many specifics there but Muller is clear that National would be spending less (not necessarily a lot less, but less) than Labour, so that source of support for a faster demand recovery is apparently off the table.   He plays up the debt numbers but never mentions the large assets (NZSF) on the other side, which mean that even the peak debt numbers would last year have put us among the less indebted half of the OECD.  He never engages at all with the possibility that lower long-term interest rates might –  just might –  make a higher long-term debt ratio sensible.  And, of course, there is no hint of when he expects to get back to 20 per cent of GDP, or on what sort of path.

(To be clear, I am not a fan of high levels of public debt, but on a proper measure we’d peak at around 40 per cent of GDP even on this government’s numbers.  And like most rhetorical fiscal hawks in the current context, he offers no other path for a prompt return to full employment).

And then, of course, there is the question of how seriously to take the talk of future fiscal restraint. There was this, for example,

Let me tell you what that means in practice. In 2020/21 and 2021/22, my Government will not be scared of investing more in retraining, if we are confident it will genuinely improve productivity, lower unemployment, increase the tax take, reduce the cost of welfare and improve wellbeing over the following decade. My Government will not be scared of investing over the next decade more in the first 1000 days of life, if we are confident it will improve outcomes from the school system for a generation. Similarly, social housing and mental health. Nor will my Government be afraid of investing more in roads and public transport, if we are confident they will still be improving New Zealand’s productivity 50 or 100 years hence. And my Government will not be afraid to invest more in water storage or carbon-replacement technologies, if they will support higher living standards and greater wellbeing on an even longer timeframe.

It would be surprising if a public transport project now were boosting productivity 100 years hence, but you are left wondering what Muller wouldn’t be spending on.

Now, to be fair, he tells us there will be a series of major speeches outlining details of the five point plan.   But the gist –  what was in yesterday’s speech –  wasn’t encouraging,   Of their headings

Responsible Economic Management consisted of nothing but rhetoric.  We can probably all agree that quality of spending matters, but there is little in National’s track record suggesting they’ve done much better on that in the past (just different specific waste) and –  more importantly –  no clue as to why we’d think they’d better in future.  Labour has been spraying money at favoured entities in recent weeks, but which ones (specifically) is National opposing?

Delivering infrastructure had this promise

Before the end of this month, I will announce the biggest infrastructure package in this country’s history. It will include roads, rail, public transport, hospitals, schools and water.

My heart sank somewhat.  A new and different Think Big? But lets see the specifics.

Muller boasts of delivery, but wasn’t it the previous National government that put in place the contracting structure for Transmission Gully.  And I’m always a bit surprised at National using the Christchurch repair and rebuild process as a plus.

Reskilling and retraining our workers is flavour of the day (it was a big part of the PM’s speech the other day too), this time with rhetoric about capturing something called the “Creativity Wave” in the 2020s.    But from a party offering no more macro stimulus to demand (see above), uninterested in our high real exchange rate, and (previously) opposed to fees-free it all has the feel of rhetoric and displacing headline unemployment figures at present.   When there are jobs on offer, firms and individuals tend to invest in the skill development required.

A Greener, Smarter Future may be good political rhetoric, or the sort most Labour ministers could have delivered, but seems about as empty.   This section concludes thus

National’s vision is of a post-Covid economy that is greener, smarter and better than the one we had before.

Sounds fine, but what (specifically) is the government’s role in getting there, and what is National proposing to do to give us some hope of achieving all this environmental stuff while also reversing the decades-long decline in relative productivity?  Nothing was on offer in this speech.

And finally, there was

Building Stronger Communities.  I’m sure Muller is genuine about some of this, but what of this gratuitous line

Every community needs strong community institutions to maintain and enhance their social capital. Many of those institutions were damaged a generation ago, and I don’t believe they have been repaired.

Another opportunity for Muller to have a go at the reforms instituted by the 4th Labour government and by his own mentor and former boss Jim Bolger?  So the decline of churches, sport clubs, Scouts and Guides, marriage and so on is down the evil reforms of the 80s and 90s is it?  If so, which of those reforms does he think specifically contributed and which is he proposing to undo?    Of course, the answer to the latter question is “none of them”.  It is just shallow opportunistic political rhetoric.

I don’t really disagree with Muller that

our opponent doesn’t believe in having a plan, hasn’t delivered on her promises, and has a track record of failure across the board.

But when he claims

Ladies and Gentlemen, in the end, I have a very simple message for you and all New Zealanders this election campaign: National has a plan to rebuild our communities and our economy, to get Kiwis back to work and to deal with the economic and jobs crisis.

There was nothing at all in the speech to lead any reasonable observer to think it was so.   Perhaps those future “major speeches” will give us something concrete, as part of a serious well-thought-out strategy that links the immediate challenges with the longer-term deep-seated problems in the New Zealand economy.  But on what we’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t be optimistic about that.

 

Economic policy malaise

Reflecting on the economic outlook, it hasn’t been the best of weeks.

Across the Tasman, a large chunk of Australia –  key market/source of exports, imports, investment etc – is locked down again for six weeks.   It is a reminder, including to anyone contemplating investment decisions, how easily things can be blown off track again.  And that is in a country with a death rate still (slightly) lower than New Zealand’s.  The coronavirus situation in much of the rest of the world doesn’t look that great either, and with it the outlook for the world economy.  Perhaps, at the margin, that troubled world economy contributed to the decision announced this morning to close Comalco.

Closer to home, the NZIER QSBO results were out.   ANZ’s commentary summed it up succinctly but bleakly under the heading “Worrying”.  Of course the June quarter outcomes will have been dreadful, but the forward-looking indicators weren’t really much better.   These sorts of surveys don’t always have much predictive power –  more unexpected stuff happens –  but they paint a pretty bleak picture of how businesses were seeing things just a couple of weeks ago.  Again from the ANZ

Today’s data will be worrying for the RBNZ and Government; firms are reportedly hunkering down, shedding workers, and cutting prices. But more monetary stimulus is needed, and an aggressive, front-loaded approach is warranted.

And all that is despite the massive fiscal spend over the last four months, which has for now replaced a fair chunk of the lost private sector income during that period, even as it saddles us –  and future governments –  with much more severe constraints on fiscal freedom of action in the years to come.    All that income support (in one form or another) will have helped keep private spending quite a bit higher than otherwise.  All the talk was about “tiding over”, but to what, to when?  It has always had the feel of a policy approach dreamed up back in late February/early March when the government (and Reserve Bank) were still refusing to take very seriously that economic shock that was already engulfing the world.

In that context, it was interesting to have confirmation from the Prime Minister that the wage subsidy scheme will not be extended further –  and given that firms get it as a lump sum, presumably the bulk of what will ever be paid out even under the extended scheme will already have been paid out.     Ending the scheme seems appropriate –  extending it the first time was probably more about politics than economics.    Anything else would have looked like a bizarre attempt to freeze chunks of the economy as they were six months ago, refusing to face the reality of a changed world.    But the scheme was putting large amounts of cash in the pockets of people in the private sector, supporting spending and holding GDP higher than otherwise.  And what comes after it?

Part of the answer, of course, is the higher-than-otherwise benefit paid to those who’ve lost their jobs as a result of Covid.   But it is only for 12 weeks, is still mostly about income replacement (buying time) rather than supporting a self-sustaining recovery in underlying economic activity, and of course many people just won’t be eligible for it.  Perhaps the government will decide to extend this scheme, but even if that were to happen it has its own problems (deterring the search for a new job).

One might, perhaps, have hoped for signs of a serious, rigorous, well-thought-out strategy from the Prime Minister.  As it happens, she gave a pre-election speech to her party’s Congress on Sunday.   As her party is odds-on favourite to dominate the next government I read it, twice actually.  In the speech the Prime Minister purported to offer a plan – a five-point plan even.

Today I am announcing our 5 point plan for our economic recovery.

It’s about investing in our people, it’s about jobs, preparing for our future, supporting our small businesses, entrepreneurs and job creators and positioning ourselves globally.

Sadly, she showed no sign of actually understanding how economies work or prosperity arises.    Anyone, what of the five points?

Which brings me to point one of our plan – investing in our people.

Whence follows a list of handouts, which might (or might not) individually make sense, but by no stretch of the imagination or language can be called investments.  Income support is fine, but it is no basis for recovery.

Perhaps this was a little closer to “investment”

That’s why we made a $1.6 billion investment in trades and apprenticeships training, which includes making all apprenticeships free.

We’ve also made those areas of vocational training where we need people the most like building and construction and mental health support workers – all free. The potential impact of these policies is huge.

Except that this is the government that had already introduced the fees-free policy, only for it be revealed that it was mostly income support too (transfers to people who would already have been undertaking tertiary education anyway).    And the new measures could have a feel of measures designed more to keep headline unemployment down than to actually revive the economy.

Even the Prime Minister recognises that training isn’t much use if there are no jobs.

But retraining isn’t enough if there aren’t jobs to go into at the end of it.

And this is where the second part of our plan kicks in, what I like to simply call, jobs, jobs, jobs.

She proceeds to run through some government initiatives.

First is the Big New Zealand Upgrade Programme designed to tackle our core infrastructure deficit. We announced it at the beginning of the year, and it amounts to $12 billion of road, rail, public transport, school and health capital funding. It could not have come at a better time.

That programme may or may not have merit, but as she says it was announced in January,  judged appropriate/necessary then –  pre-Covid.  It was factored into economic forecasts, including those of the Reserve Bank, then.  On to some other spending.

As part of our COVID response we have committed funding to providing an additional 8000 public houses, bring the total number of state and transitional houses to be built by this Government to over 18,000 by 2024 – thank you Megan Woods and Kainga Ora.

It is the largest house building programme of any Government in decades, and I’m proud of it.

But when we’re talking about infrastructure, it’s not just about the projects we in the government are responsible for, we also have the opportunity to partner with communities, with iwi and local government.

That’s what the $2.6 billion worth of shovel ready projects we announced earlier this week were all about.

Things like Home Ground, a project by the Auckland City Mission that will provide 80 apartments with wrap-around support and care, or the Poverty Bay Rugby Park Grandstand, least Kiri Allen stage a sit-in, right through to the Invercargill inner-city development.

It would take someone closer to the detailed data than I am to unpick quite how much of this is really new spending, and how much is just putting details to spending programmes (like the PGF) already allowed for.  Nor is there any sense of (a) displacement (lots more state houses will, almost certainly, mean fewer private houses being built) or (b) value-for-money (what is the taxpayer doing funding the Invercargill city redevelopment, throwing more money at KiwiRail or –  wonder of wonders –  tens of millions at the Wanganui port.

And then at the end of the “jobs, jobs, jobs” section we get this

Collectively these projects are estimated to create over 20,000 jobs in the next five years.

No analysis to support that number (and we’ve seen before how PGF job estimates are concocted) but even if it is correct, total employment in New Zealand is about 2.8 million people.   “Jobs, jobs, jobs”, even on the PM’s numbers, looks tiny.

She goes on to list a few environmental jobs projects.  Perhaps they are worthwhile, but they certainly aren’t a private sector led recovery.

But moving along

That brings me to the third plank of our plan – preparing for the future.

The whole of that plank is here

Restoring our environment is one thing, decarbonising it is another.

Investments in waste management and improving energy generation will be key- and this is where I am signalling there is more to come.

Preparing for the future also means supporting our businesses to innovate, especially as we go through a period of digital transformation.

There will be few among us who haven’t changed our routines and habits as a result of COVID-19. By the end of lockdown I can confirm that Damien O’Connor did indeed discover the unmute button on zoom.

We want to support our small businesses through this digital transition, which is why we established a $10 million fund to incentivise e-commerce and train more digital advisors.

It’s also why we will keep encouraging innovation in all forms. So we’ve created a $150 million fund to provide loans to R&D-intensive businesses.

Well, okay.  If you are of the left, you might find that appealing, but even then you’d have to concede there wasn’t much to it, not much that will help generate a rapid and strong economic recovery.

But there is, it appears, a role for the private sector.

All of this builds to the fourth part of our plan, supporting our small businesses, our entrepreneurs and our job creators

Which sounds good, until you read the text and realise that all she has to offer is the wage subsidy scheme, and the small business interest-free loan scheme, which was extended for a few months.    Income support etc has its place, but it isn’t the foundation for a strong robust economy or a rapid return to full employment.

And what of the final plank?

And the final plank of our five-point plan is to continue to position New Zealand globally as a place to trade with, to invest in, and eventually to visit again.

This has been an export-led lockdown, and so too will it be an export-led recovery.

Sounds good as an aspiration, but frankly seems unlikely.   What does Labour have to offer specifically?

That’s why a few months ago we provided $200m to help exporters re-engage with international markets, and support firms looking to export for the first time.

It’s also why we continue to expand our trade relationships. The limitations of the last few months didn’t stop us launching our free trade agreement talks with the UK …

We are investing $400 million in tourism because we know it is part of our future, and because open borders will be again too. It is not a matter of if, but when it is safe.

And on that, we already have work underway.

We are progressing with all the checks and balances needed for a trans-Tasman bubble, and also on reconnecting with our Pacific neighbours. We have a framework in place that will help Cabinet make a decision on when quarantine free travel with these parts of the world should resume.

All pretty small beer really.  No one supposes that a UK preferential trade agreement is going to matter very much, and in recent weeks we’ve heard David Parker fulminating about the frustrations of the EU’s position on trade negotiations with them.   And, of course, this is the economy that –  for all the talk of trade agreements –  has had foreign trade shares (exports and imports) falling as a share of GDP this century, the high point of this wave of globalisation.   There is also no sense of recognising that the real exchange rate remains very high –  not down at all, despite the big hit to one of our main tradables sectors.   And all this was nicely complemented by the government’s primary industries strategy announced early in the week and now championed as Labour Party policy, which (as the economist Cameron Bagrie pointed out) involved primary exports falling as a share of GDP over the next decade, even as that sector was supposedly going to help lead the recovery.

And that was it.  That, apparently, was the government’s economic recovery plan.

Typically we look to monetary policy at the main counter-cyclical stabilisation tool.  Ideally, it might be complemented by good pro-productivity structural reforms – of that sort successive New Zealand governments have lost interest in –  but they take time to design well and implement –  whereas monetary policy can be deployed very quickly.

Of course, in the context of the Covid shock it would have made sense to have deployed fiscal policy and monetary policy together.  Even if monetary policy can be deployed very quickly, it does not put money in the pockets of households instantly (and in the context of a “lockdown” and the immediate (quite rational) fear-induced drop in economic activity, there was a place for immediate income support.  But if monetary policy does not work instantly that is why it should be being deployed aggressively and early.  Had monetary policy been used aggressively and early –  starting back in February when the first OCR cut should have been done – by now we would be seeing quite a lot of the fruits (the full effects of monetary policy adjustments typically take 12-18 months), providing a stimulus to demand and activity as the fiscal support is wound back (as it is being, on announced government policy).

As it is, we have had almost nothing from monetary policy.  The OCR was cut belatedly, then an irrational floor was put on the OCR by a Monetary Policy Committee that was still struggling to comprehend the severity of what they were facing.  And because the Reserve Bank reacted only slowly and to a very limited extent, we’ve ended up with hardly any fall in real interest rates at all (inflation expectations have fallen almost as much as the OCR).   The exchange rate hasn’t fallen at all.  The Reserve Bank likes to make great play of their LSAP programme, but it mostly works –  if at all –  by lowering interest rates and underpinning inflation expectations.  And since we know expectations have fallen, and real interest rates have barely fallen, at the very best the LSAP programme can only have stopped things tightening.  In the Prime Minister’s words, this is a really severe global economic downturn……and yet monetary policy has done almost nothing; none of that necessary support is now in place even as the fiscal income support winds back and the domestic and world economies remain deeply troubled.

Of course, the failure of the Reserve Bank to do anything much useful rests initially with the Governor and his committee (the one he so dominates that we’ve never heard a word from any of the three external members, the one he ensured had no one with serious ongoing expertise in monetary policy appointed to it).  But they are officials, ultimately accountable to the elected government.  In fact, ever since the Parliament made the Bank operationally autonomous in 1989, the Act has always recognised that officials could get things wrong, and allowed for the Minister of Finance to directly override (transparently) the Bank.  The current government carried those provisions into its reform of the Reserve Bank, but now –  in a really severe economic downturn, in which the Reserve Bank is simply not doing its job –  they seem too conservative, too scared, to use well-established statutory powers.  They are happy to put in place limited zero-interest loan schemes for small businesses, but unwilling to ensure that –  amid the bleak economic outlook –  market prices for business and household credit are anywhere near that low.   In effect, that means they prefer to let more businesses fail, more people end up languishing on the dole, more “scarring” (a point the PM made in her speech) as if wishful thinking and idle hope was a substitute for serious policy.

Right from the start of the coronavirus, this government’s approach has been –  in essence –  to provide lots of income support and hope that the world gets back to normal pretty quickly.   It was a dangerous and deluded approach from the start, something that becomes more evident with each passing month.  All the more so as other countries’ governments are similarly failing to do much that might support a robust recovery elsewhere.  The current New Zealand government seems to have no ideas, no plan, to be unwilling to use the (low cost) powers they do have to help get relative prices better attuned to supporting recovery.  There is a growing risk that we are drifting into another of those periods –  perhaps worse this time –  as we saw after 2008, when it took 10 years to get the unemployment rate back to something like normal (with little or no productivity growth), and no one much among the political elites (either side) seemed to really care.

Of course, if Labour’s approach is bad, at least (being the government) it is on the table.  It is now less than two months until voting starts and we have no idea what National’s approach might be, but no reason to suppose it would be materially different or better.

 

On the trail of negative interest rates

I’m still less than entirely well, so posts here will stay less frequent and less regular than usual for a while yet.   That means things like last week’s OCR decision pass by with little comment (my only one will be, in what conceivable world five years ago would a severe global recession, the drying up of a major local export industry, falling inflation and inflation expectations here and abroad, and recognised downside risks be met with precisely no monetary policy action?).

But I see that the Governor has been out giving interviews –  the ones I noticed were with Stuff and the Herald – and some of his comments conveniently tie in with what I was wanting to write about the results of an OIA request to the Bank that belatedly turned up in my inbox on Monday, on the elusive question of what the Bank is (and isn’t) doing about negative interest rates.

You’ll recall that in the second half of last year the Governor was dead-keen on the option of negative interest rates.  It wasn’t just a passing comment, but a very substantial interview.   Who knows, perhaps the rest of the MPC didn’t agree with him, but he was supposed to be the spokesman for the Committee as a whole.  We don’t know what the other MPC members –  the ones who don’t, at least on paper, work for Orr –  think, and they seem to exist in a state of purdah, refusing ever to make speeches or give interviews.

As recently as the Governor’s speech on 10 March this year –  when he and his colleagues were still attempting to play down the economic challenges of Covid – the Governor outlined his preferred tools.  He promised then that

We will provide our full analysis of each of these tools against the principles we hold in coming weeks – so that people can fully understand our thinking and, of course, provide input.

None of that analysis has ever been published.  The list of tools was clearly organised in order of the Governor’s then preference: forward guidance (just a variant on what they always do) was first, and then

Negative OCR

Reduction of the OCR to the effective lower bound (the point at which further OCR cuts become ineffective), which may be below zero. The Reserve Bank could consider changes to the cash system to mitigate cash hoarding if lower deposit rates led to significant hoarding.

Not only did a negative OCR appear to be in play, but that really encouraging second sentence suggested they might actually have considered doing something –  they are technically easy things to do – to allow the OCR to have been cut even further below the negative levels which at present could lead to large-scale shifts into physical cash.

That was then.  A few days later the MPC decreed that in fact that OCR would not be changed, up or down, from 0.25 per cent for a year, claiming the matter was really ou of their hands as “banks weren’t ready”.

It was, and remains, a very strange argument given that:

  • several other advanced countries had had negative official rates for some years,
  • a large share of global government bonds had been trading with negative yields for some years,
  • in New Zealand the first negative yields (on indexed government bonds) were recorded last year, at about the time of that interview the Governor gave,
  • the Reserve Bank had shown revived interest in these issues for a couple of years, and
  • that eight years previously an internal working group (set up by the then Governor, chaired by me) recommended that relevant departments should ensure that (a) the Bank’s own operating systems, and (b) commercial banks’ systems could cope with negative interest rates.  Those recommendations were accepted at the time.

In other words, if the Bank’s claims now are really true, commercial banks seem to have been astonishingly (or conveniently, since banks hate negative interest rates) remiss and (more importantly, since it is a powerful public agency) the Reserve Bank ((Governor, Deputy Governor, MPC –  and the Board paid to hold them to account) had to have been asleep at the wheel.  Given a decade’s advance notice of the risk that market-clearing interest rates would go negative here too, they would appear to have done nothing.  That would be egregious neglect –  for which people at the bottom, the involuntarily unemployed, would pay the price.

The Bank, of course, likes to claim that it is highly transparent –  they have been at it again this week – even as they remain as obstructive as possible on anything they don’t want to be transparent about.    The negative interest rates situation has been one of those topics.  For example, they’ve staunchly refused to release any of the background or advisory papers the MPC received running up to 16 March, on this or any aspect of monetary policy (as a reminder, the government itself has been pro-actively open, even with papers that may embarrass some or other bits of government).

I had one go with an Official Information Act request that got nowhere.  But it is a bit harder to stonewall Parliament, and thanks to the efforts of the National Party members of the Epidemic Response Committee we got some useful material out of the Bank.    The Bank didn’t want to draw any attention to this material, but it was there on Parliament’s website, and I wrote about it here.

The Bank told MPs that they’d started to take things seriously at the end of last year

More broadly, bank supervisors raised the issue of preparedness for negative interest rates at banking sector workshops in December 2019.

In late January 2020, the Reserve Bank’s Head of Supervision sent a letter to banks’ chief executives formally requesting they report on the status of their systems and capability.

By late January, of course, Wuhan was already locked-down.

The Bank told the MPs that there had been a range of issues identified, and while they hoped banks were doing something about them, it didn’t want to put any pressure on banks because they were busy people, and had other priorities (which, even if so, would not have been the case had the Bank done its job several years earlier).

None of this was very satisfactory.  They never explained –  or were pressured to –  their own past failures, nor why these alleged readiness issues had not been obstacles in other advanced countries (the euro-area, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Japan), the prevalence of negative wholesale rates abroad.

A few weeks later again, the Governor told the Finance and Expenditure Committee (hearing on the May MPS) that a letter had gone out to banks just the previous week apparently urging or requiring them to have systems ready by the end of the year.   I then lodged a further OIA request

OIA 16 may

Section 105 is the dreadful provision in the Reserve Bank Act which allows the Bank to avoid any scrutiny of its bank regulatory activities under the OIA.  When the response to this OIA arrived this week, they had invoked it to allow themselves (so they claimed) to refuse to release anything in response to item (a) in my request.    This is a provision that, to the extent it had any merit, is designed to protect highly sensitive individual institution material in the middle of a banking crisis (in fact, of course, anything commercially confidential is already protected, and reasonably so, under the OIA).  The readiness of banks’ systems and document for negative interest rates is clearly not primarily –  barely at all – a prudential issue, but primarily a monetary policy one.  But that doesn’t stop the Bank –  the ones that always claim to be so transparent.

However, the Bank did belatedly release what I was after under the second and third strands of my request.  The full response is here.

The 29 January letter is on page 4 of the response.  It is a catch-all letter from the head of bank supervision drawing attention to various issues large and small that the Bank wanted to deal with this year (among the latter, the Bank’s Maori strategy).  Here is the relevant text on negative interest rates

wood negative

Okay I guess, but with little or no sense of urgency.

There is a three page table summarising the responses from each individual bank (although remarkably one banks appears to have never even responded), complete with this interesting  somewhat defensive observation from the Reserve Bank which I had not initially noticed.

“We acknowledge the banks’ responses to our letter of 29 January were a preliminary assessment of their readiness to implement negative interest rates.”

The table is interesting.  Of the 19 banks, a fair number are described as ready, but it is fair to note that a number of issues are also highlighted, in some cases in enough detail to be genuinely somewhat enlightening.    This is all, however, material that could have been pro-actively published in March, and which the Governor –  and those commenting on his draft speech –  must have been aware of on 10 March.

Perhaps it is also worth noting that these are individual bank responses, without the benefit of any RB pushing and prodding to better understand how binding perceived constraints might be, what workarounds might be possible, let alone with any sign of the Bank itself having learned from the experience of their counterparts in countries that had operated with negative interest rates for years.

Anyway, all this was then somewhat overtaken by the new letter, dated 7 May.  It is from the Deputy Governor, Geoff Bascand to the chief executives of banks.    This must have represented the Bank’s (or MPC’s) thinking at the time of the May MPS, although there is no hint –  of course –  of it in the minutes of the MPC meeting.   The letter set out a deadline of 1 December 2020 for banks to ensure that they were capable (with status reports due yesterday).  That wasn’t news, but what was was how limited the Bank’s requirement’s (and ambitions) now are, in the middle of the deepest economic slump in a long time.

Bascand letter

In other words, they’ve just given up on negative retail interest rates.    It isn’t true that in other countries there have been no negative retail interest rates, even with policy rates slightly negative (here is story from just last year of negative retail mortgage rates in Denmark, and recall that lending rates are usually higher than funding rates).  And, of course, look back up to the quote from the Governor’s March speech –  as recently as then they were open to the possibility of taking the steps that might allow the OCR usefully to be cut more deeply than other countries have done.

Coming back to today, what also interested me was that the Governor continues to muddy the waters on this.  In his interview with Stuff there are quite a few comments about negative interest rates.

The Reserve Bank is still warning retail banks to get ready for a negative official cash rate. Rolling this out has been said to be difficult because banks systems weren’t ready and some contracts with depositors didn’t envisage a negative interest rate – effectively a charge on depositors.

Orr said most banks were in a good position to deal with negative rates.

“Some large multinational banks have been dealing with negative interest rates for a long time and some of the smaller banks, which have much simpler systems, are good to go,” Orr said.

“Only a handful of banks” were having difficulty with negative rates.

Orr appeared to downplay the extent to which a negative rate would impact all areas of a bank.

“What we’re doing at the moment is double checking with all of the banks, so they’re not trying to get absolutely everything capable of a negative [rate] because we don’t need absolutely everything.

“We’re saying it’s a small proportion; it’s the wholesale side of the business,” Orr said.

Ordinary depositors likely wouldn’t notice a difference because rates would still be positive for depositors.

“Internationally the experience has been that banks have been highly reluctant to go below zero for a deposit.

“In fact, retail banks’ reluctance to pass on negative rates to consumers are likely to act as a brake on the Reserve Bank’s appetite to push rates lower.

“There is a limit to how far negative wholesale rates can go in large part because the retail rates end up holding up,” he said.

Read that and you wouldn’t know that the Reserve Bank had told banks they didn’t need to bother about negative retail rates –  in fact, you’d get the impression it was banks that could never envisage offering such products, even though they are on offer in other countries.

But you’d also get the impression that the Governor was more concerned for banks than for the New Zealand economy and the people who become unemployed because monetary policy isn’t doing its job.  If his Committee had aggressively cut the OCR another 100 basis points, to (say) the -0.75 per cent often envisaged as an effective floor until steps are taken to disincentivise cash hoarding, not only would the banks that had prepared themselves got on with things, and presumably been advantaged, but the others would have snapped to pretty quickly and got workarounds in place.  (That, after all, must have been what happened in other countries, and is more like the way the rest of government operated –  when a wage subsidy was decided on, MSD wasn’t given nine months to do systems testing etc; when a small business loan scheme was decided on IRD didn’t months to prepare).

And there is no sign at all of the Reserve Bank taking seriously steps to remove the obstacles to a more deeply negative OCR, even though those obstacles are all of the public sector’s making.

Perhaps none of this would matter very much if you believed the spin about what good monetary policy was doing overall, including through the LSAP programme.    But it is just spin.   Benchmark term deposit rates have been falling a bit more recently, but that means they are now 85-90 basis points lower than they were at the start of the year.  But, of course, expectations of future inflation have also fallen quite a lot.  There is a range of possible measures, but a reasonable pick might be a fall of about 60 basis points.  In other words, real retail deposit rates are down perhaps 30 basis points in the midst of a savage slump for which there is no obvious end.   The exchange rate is usually a key buffer for New Zealand, a significant part of how the monetary transmission mechanism works.  It bounces around a bit, but at present the TWI is sitting almost bang-on the average level for the second half of last year.  For all the handwaving and big numbers (around the LSAP) monetary policy just isn’t doing its job, and the Bank seems to have little interest in it doing so.

On Monday I went to hear a speech the Governor gave.  In the course of that address he seemed to defend monetary policy doing not much on the grounds that “the expenditure had to be immediate”.  And at one level, for the March/June quarters no one is really going to dispute that –  monetary policy doesn’t work that fast, and there was a need (or a good case) for lots of immediate income support, especially for people rendered unable to work by government fiat.  But that was then.    Wage subsidies have replaced lost income (a large chunk of it) for a few months –  at the expense of an increased involuntary burden on taxpayers to come – but meanwhile we are still in a deep recession, still have our borders largely closed, and the state of the world economy appears to be worsening.  Monetary policy should have been positioned –  and should now be positioned, it isn’t too late –  to support domestic demand and activity through the (probably protracted) recovery phase –  much lower interest rates, and a much lower exchange rate.  As it is, monetary policy –  designed as the primary countercylical tool – has done almost nothing and the Bank seems quite unbothered about that.

It isn’t good enough.  We need better from the Governor and his Committee (including, for example, to actually hear the excuses of the rest of the Committee members), and we need the Bank’s Board –  hopeless cause I guess –  to be doing its job holding the Committee to account.  But, of course, the person who could make this all happen is the Minister of Finance, who has long-established directive powers, but seems to prefer to do nothing, content to spend taxpayers’ money while doing nothing to remove the roadblock to getting market price signals better aligned with responding aggressively to our economic plight.  Don’t rock the boat, don’t be bold, don’t worry too much about the actual unemployed seems to be the government’s approach.  Robertson and his boss like to invoke memories of the first Labour government, but it is hard to imagine those big figures in Labour’s history being happy to sit by and see a central bank wave its arms and do nothing to get us quickly back to full employment.

 

 

 

 

 

Measuring how much monetary policy has eased

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the work former Reserve Bank researcher Leo Krippner had been doing – over much of the last decade –  on trying to reduce all the influences on the government bond yield curve to a single number, to represent the effects not just of changes in the OCR (or similar rates in other countries) but also what are loosely called ‘unconventional policies’ undertake in the presence of the (actual or effective) lower bound on the OCR itself, whether central bank jawboning or, for example, asset purchase programmes.

As I noted then

This work wasn’t very relevant to New Zealand itself for a long time (there were internal sceptics as to whether it should even be done)….and yet now it is. (In his speech a couple of weeks ago the Governor even suggested the Bank might publish a semi-official series of such a measure.)   Leo’s work has been recognised in various places abroad –  cited in public by at least one Fed Reserve president, and honoured by the house journal of the central banking community, Central Banking magazine ..,  Leo left the Reserve Bank last year, but is continuing to update his work and earlier this week circulated a note with a Shadow Short Rate series for New Zealand, now that we operate with a formal OCR floor (and ceiling) and in the presence of the MPC’s commitment to buy $30 billion of government bonds over the coming year.

The size of the LSAP programme has been increased substantially since then.

Still more recently, Leo has updated his models for the other advanced economies he looks at, in a way that enables us to look at consistent estimates of the extent of monetary easing across eight advanced economies/areas.

Here is Leo’s estimate of the extent of the overall easing, as reflected in the Shadow Short Rate estimates for each country, since the end of last year (to the end of May).

SSR

Perhaps three things stand out from this chart:

  • little or no effective easing in the countries/monetary areas where the official short-term rate was already negative.  Perhaps central bank interventions were relevant in other markets, perhaps for a time they stopped government bond rates rising much, but on this metric, no effective easing relative to the position just a few months back.
  • the largest easing has been in the United States and Canada.  That is no surprise: official short-term rates late last year were quite a bit higher in the US and Canada than anywhere else in this group of advanced economies,
  • Leo’s estimate of the New Zealand SSR suggests an easing equivalent to 117 basis points.    Recall that the OCR itself was cut by 75 basis points and so, if one accepts this as a good estimate for how much some mix of the LSAP programme and forward guidance is doing, all the rest is not thought to be worth more than about 40 basis points.    Not exactly consistent with the tone of the continued rhetoric from the Governor, who repeatedly insists –  he was at again on CNN yesterday (whoever runs their Twitter account seemed breathlessly excited that the Governor was on CNN) –  how much difference his MPC’s LSAP programme is making.

Leo has taken his estimates of the SSRs all the way back to the 1990s (the more yield curve information the better for trying to distill what is normal and what is not).  So out of interest I had a look at what happened in the previous severe recession.

When the recession of 2008/09 started all these countries except Japan had official policy rates clearly above zero.  In those circumstances, the SSR is much the same as the official rate.

In this chart, I’ve shown the median SSRs for (a) the big 4 central banks in the sample (US, euro-area, UK, Japan) and (b)  all eight central banks from mid-2007 to the end of 2014.

SSR2

On these measures, monetary policy kept easing (on the whole) until well into 2013 –  in some cases by official rate cuts, in some by QE measures, in some cases by forward guidance (or perhaps just growing doubts in markets about when official rates might ever need to rise).

In this chart, I’ve shown the fall in the estimated SSRs for each country from mid-2007 (about the peak in rates, including in New Zealand) to (a) mid-2009, and (b) to the lowest point in the period in the chart.

SSR3

One almost needs a different scale to compare these estimates with those for the  –  more savage –  economic downturn we are now in the midst of (see first chart).

And bear in the mind that in both episodes inflation expectations have fallen quite a lot in many most of these countries.  Adjust for that and the differences in the falls in the real (inflation-adjusted) SSRs would be even more stark.

Now it is certainly true that back in 2013 (say) longer-term government bond yields were still quite a bit higher than they are now (in the US, for example, 10 year rates in mid 2013 were about 2 per cent).  But then estimates of neutral rates have also fallen over that period.

I’m not entirely convinced by the SSR approach.  I set out some of the reasons in my earlier post, and in exchanging notes with Leo I don’t think he would disagree with any of those individual points.   Perhaps the simplest to explain point is one Leo himself included in his paper releasing the New Zealand results: the SSR is not a rate that can be transacted (unlike an OCR), and in New Zealand longer-term interest rates don’t tend to directly affect many borrowers other than the government itself (and monetary policy isn’t supposed to be about shaping the government’s behaviour –  it is a market mechanism, designed to change relative prices facing private sector firms and households).    I’m also a little uneasy about the fact that the Reserve Bank’s LSAP is explicitly targeting mainly long-term interest rates –  which, among other things, is impairing what information might be in those rates, which relate to periods well beyond the current crisis –  while, say, the Australian and US asset purchase programmes are (sensibly) targeted at the shorter end of the bond yield curve (horizons relevant to this recession, and in a sense trying to mimic what a lower policy rate itself will tend to bring about directly if those central banks were willing to cut their policy rates further).

There is also the point I noted in my earlier post that for New Zealand Leo treats the effective floor on the OCR as being 0.25 per cent.  But since that last post, the Governor has explicitly reiterated that it is a temporary floor only –  now only 9 months until the commitment expires –  as he did again yesterday in his CNN interview.  Leo advises that if the effective floor were set a bit lower, the SSR estimate itself would be closer to the OCR.  In other words, the extent of the fall in the New Zealand SSR may actually be skewed higher than is really warranted.

If I have my doubts about the indicator, it is still of some value in providing summary estimates across both time and country, it is the sort of methodology the Bank has in the past expressed enthusiasm for (without tying itself to specific numbers), his approach has received approbation from his peers in yield curve modelling etc, and Leo’s estimates are made available, including on his website.   And they leave us with the twin points that:

  • the extent of monetary policy easing in New Zealand this time is little more than that of the cut in the OCR itself,
  • the extent of the falls in the SSRs in all countries (even Japan) is much less than we saw in the period of the last serious recession.

It is fine for central bankers to talk –  as the Governor does –  of fiscal policy carrying the main load at present but

a)  there was significant fiscal support provided in all these economies (including New Zealand)  in the last episode as well,

b) fiscal policy operates coercively (relying wholly on the sovereign power to tax) and for many purposes –  other, say, than basic income support –  is inferior to monetary policy for stabilisation and recovery purposes,

c) in most if not all these countries recovery after 2008/09  –  best proxied probably by a return to normal of unemployment rates –  took (a) far longer than was expected then, and (b) far longer than most are still envisaging for a recovery now from this more severe downturn, and

d) fiscal policy has its limits (quite probably close to being reached, and more “political” than technical), in a way that monetary policy properly run –  ie not imposing an artificial floor on policy rates –  does not.  It is all the odder that central banks like ours (with the acquiescence of excessively conservative politicians) are acting so starkly to hold up interest rates at time when very  weak investment demand and a high precautionary savings demand would almost certainly deliver short-term market-clearing interest rates that are deeply negative (and while “market-clearing” might seem bloodless to you, what it means in practice is clearing the labour market and supporting a prompt return to full employment).

 

 

 

 

Recovering

It is very difficult to get a good sense right now of how much excess capacity there is, here or other countries  In New Zealand’s case, part of that is about the gross inadequacies of our official statistics.  We are one of only two OECD countries without official monthly employment/unemployment data (the other is Switzerland) –  and if this has been a long-running deficiency, it seems more striking than ever from a government that amended the central bank act to highlight the focus it wanted on avoiding as much as possible excess labour market capacity.

Of course, there is a variety of less formal, or less fit-for-purpose, partial indicators.  We know how many people get the unemployment benefit but many people looking for work are not (rightly in my view) eligible for the unemployment benefit.  There is a new SNZ indicator using IRD data and providing a monthly employment indicator which should be quite useful in normal times, but isn’t when the government is paying firms to keep people notionally on the payroll, even if doing little or no work.   And although SNZ collects HLFS survey data steadily through the quarter, they seem uninterested in making even that partial monthly data available (larger margins of error as it would inevitably have).    We’ll only finally get the June quarter HLFS data in August.

There are other hints of excess capacity.  The wage subsidy scheme paid out in respect of some staggering share (around half) of New Zealand workers and the self-employed, but that is now very backward-looking since the bulk of the eligibility related to the severe regulatory restrictions on many/most business during the government’s so-called “Level 4” period, from late March to late April.     Most of the employees covered would not have been made unemployed even if no wage subsidy had then been on offer.

The new wage subsidy scheme comes into effect this week.  The rules were tweaked again last week, and although this scheme only covers eight weeks (rather than twelve in the original scheme), the expected cost (close to $3.5 billion) suggests a lot of excess capacity still exists, or is expected to exist.  Not, of course, that we have any official data on that.

Of course, other countries have also had the mix of regulatory restrictions (“lockdowns”), self-chosen reductions in social and commercial activity, and the impact of the sharp disruption to world economic activity.   Labour is generally not being particularly fully-employed at present.  But in most advanced countries, even those with monthly labour force survey data, this excess capacity does not really show up in the official unemployment rate at present –  after all, most other countries have deployed some form or other of fiscal support designed to keep workers attached to firms, even if for now they are doing little or nothing.   In most countries, the monthly official unemployment rate has risen this year, but mostly not by much (and there are vagaries in the statistics such that in Italy the official unemployment rate has fallen).

Only three OECD countries are reporting really large increases in their official unemployment rates.  These are percentage points changes this year to date.

Canada                                                  +8.1

Colombia (new to the OECD)           +9.5

United States                                       +9.8

The US numbers came out on Friday night.  There is some controversy about the monthly change, but all the caveats (including those from the BLS themselves) suggest that the “true” or “underlying” number is even higher than the reported number.

I’m not putting much weight on Colombia (knowing almost nothing about it), but we have every reason to suppose that the dislocation of the economy in New Zealand over recent months in New Zealand was at least as large as those in the US and Canada (whether one looks at a regulatory restrictions index, mobility data, or stylised indicators like the degree of dependence on the labour-intensive foreign tourism sector).  Forecasts of the drop in June quarter GDP are higher for New Zealand than for most other advanced countries.

The “true” increase in excess capacity to last month (the US and Canadian data are for May) in New Zealand is almost certain to have been at least as large as those in the US and Canada.    One might think in terms of an unemployment rate equivalent of at least 13 per cent, which would be (by some margin) the worst New Zealand had experienced since the 1930s.

One can debate the merits of the wage subsidy scheme –  and even more so the extended version, which seems focused on tying workers to firms that are least likely to recover any time soon, if ever – but without it we would have a much clearer sense of just how severe the labout market excess capacity actually is.  (Even if, as I have favoured, one took a more generous approach to individuals facing serious income loss this year.)    Perhaps even when all the wage subsidy schemes have passed the official unemployment rate will be “only” in the high single figure range –  although if the schemes expire in September I’m still sceptical of that –  but for now it is all but certain that the excess capacity in the labour market, that needs reabsorbing one way or the other, is well into double-digit percentages.  And political debate about what needs to be done should operate with those sorts of numbers in mind.

On which note, I’ve been reflecting over the last few days on what it takes to see full employment restored.   It isn’t like, for example, everyone simply coming back to work after the summer holidays.   Everyone –  individuals and firms –  planned on summer holidays and planned on returning.  By contrast, even in New Zealand with (for now) almost no Covid, that isn’t the parallel at all.  The income lost over the last couple of months – probably well in excess of $20 billion, relative to normal expectations – isn’t coming back.  The border is still largely closed. The virus still stalks the earth, with associated heightened uncertainty.  The world economy is in a severe recession and (rightly or wrongly) almost all forecasters think it will take several years for activity levels to get back to normal.  So if wealth has taken a hit already, and some significant sources of external demand are either restricted (by regulation) or impaired, where is the demand going to come from to quickly reabsorb workers who are either already displaced, or who are hanging in some temporary wage-subsidy limbo.

You see occasional talk of people “doing their bit” for New Zealand businesses by going out and spending more than usual, but it is a bit hard to envisage it happening on any significant or sustained scale.  I tried some introspection.  My household hasn’t been materially adversely economically affected by Covid shocks, and there doesn’t seem to be any material employment risk.  And yet we aren’t spending any more than usual, possibly a bit less.  Why would it be otherwise?   We’ll have a break in the school holidays, but then we always do (and when we booked the other day it was a bit shorter than it might have been, Auckland Museum having had to cancel/postpone the exhibition we hoped to see). Many shops are still a pain to go in to.   And I find myself still slightly shell-shocked after the last few months and a bit more cautious and abstemious than otherwise.  And if I thought about “doing my bit” on any serious scale – there are always jobs around the house than could be done –  then I’d contemplate the dramatic change in the fiscal position.  I’m not suggesting some full-blown Ricardian effect here, but (whether I approved of the scheme or not) it seems rather less likely than it was a few months ago that my kids will get fees-free tertiary education, and even if a centre-right government were to be elected  tax cuts seem less likely than they did.  And even prospects for the kids to get part-time jobs don’t seem what they were (and there are probably people needing the jobs more anyway).  Oh, and I’m conscious that another round of Covid restrictions, and economic dislocation, isn’t impossible or even unlikely.

Perhaps you are different.  Perhaps you are energetically contemplating spending more aggressively.  But I suspect most people won’t be, even those (notably in the public sector) fairly confident of keeping their jobs).

In a typical serious recession, changes in incentives (relative prices) do quite a lot of the work.   Lower real interest rates ease pressure on the most-indebted but (more importantly) they draw spending forward.  Often those changes in real interest rates have been rather large.  Sometimes, tax rates (income or consumption) are cut.  And, particularly in countries with a fair bit of foreign debt and not typically treated as international safe-havens (or home bases for pools of savings), the exchange rate falls a lot, drawing demand (from locals and foreigners) towards New Zealand.  Oh, and of course sometimes the government itself does a lot more direct spending on goods and services.

(Oh, and of course there is always pro-productivity and pro-investment micro reforms but…….this is modern New Zealand.)

The key point is that if, at some like current real wages, we are to get back fairly quickly to full employment (which, in my view, should be a high policy priority, given the dreadful scarring effects sustained periods of unemployment can have on some individuals) it needs quite a lot of people to spend quite a bit more than they otherwise would, to replace the demand that has (for now at least) disappeared or been somewhat impaired).

Of those mechanisms:

  • real interest rates have barely changed.    The Reserve Bank can huff and puff all it likes about possible portfolio balance effects etc from its LSAP programme, but if they don’t change prices in ways that encourage more spending than was happening at the start of the year (and they haven’t) it is really little more than sound and fury (and, just possibly, having stopped things getting worse),
  • the exchange rate is now about the same level it averaged last year,
  • consumption tax rates haven’t changed, and although there have been some business tax changes (a) most of the effects will be intra-marginal (flowing to people who woin’t change their behaviour, and (b) uncertainty is very bad for business investment (ie even if the effects are in the right direction, they are likely to be very weak for now)

The government is, of course, spending a lot.  Most of that isn’t direct spending on goods and services  (consumption and investment) but income transfers in one guise or another.  Even there however, the largest and most concentrated spend has already happened over the last three months (with some more in the next couple of months).

From the “fiscal hawk” side of the debate, one hears quite a bit of worry about fiscal excess and heavy future burdens.  I come and go on how sympathetic I am to those complaints and warning, but mostly I end up not being that sympathetic (and I noticed over the weekend a centre-right UK think-tank, Policy Exchange, taking what appeared to be a similar stance, of for different reasons).  And why?  Because if we are concerned at all about getting people back into work faster than simply allowing nature to take its course –  recessions will heal themselves eventually, but it could take quite a few years (perhaps tourism will be back to normal levels in 2025?) –  someone (many actually) have to be willing to spend more now than they were otherwise planning to.  I’d much prefer that monetary policy were doing its job –  not just here, but in Australia and most other developed countries –  because I think much lower interest rates and a much lower exchange rate would do a lot (as they did after 1933, 1967, 1991, 1998, and 2008/09), by changing relative prices/incentives, but it isn’t.   And with a hole this deep –  and borrowing costs this low (which don’t make fiscal policy a “free lunch”) and on-market borrowing this easy – it would imprudent for fiscal policy to be doing no more than just letting the automatic stabilisers work.  And, in truth, at least on the domestic interest rate leg, letting monetary policy do its job also involves people taking on more debt now than they’d otherwise planned to (voluntarily chosen and all that, but debt nonetheless).

If we are starting from (effectively) perhaps double-digits effective rates of unemployment, it is far from clear that anything like enough macro policy stimulus is being done.  If fiscal policy hasn’t reached its political limits –  it is nowhere near the market limits, but neither should we test those –  it must be much closer than it was and, on the other hand, monetary policy is doing almost nothing.  That is really inexcusable, If Orr and the rest of the MPC want to take on themselves some sort of mantle of Hayek or Mellon (as caricatured) as do-nothing liquidationists, Robertson, Ardern Peters, Shaw (and, it seems, Muller and Goldsmith) shouldn’t be standing idly by, by default offering their imprimatur.

(The post was headed “Recovering”: unfortunately, I am doing so only slowly from some bug I’ve picked up, so posts this week may continue to be patchier than I’d like.)

Two charts

….on unrelated matters.

One of the objections sometimes raised to my advocacy of a deeply negative OCR is along the lines of “it will only lift asset prices”, with the implication –  and sometimes directly stated –  that that is what has happened in the last decade or so, even as policy rates in most of the advanced world fell from materially positive numbers to somewhere near zero.   In 2007, policy rates in the US and the UK had been over 5 per cent, in the euro-area 4 per cent, and in New Zealand and Australia higher than all those rates.   Only Japan was then in the extreme low interest rate club.

The asset price that tends to attract most attention in New Zealand is house prices (really house+ land).  The Bank for International Settlements maintain a nice quarterly database of real house prices for a large group of advanced and emerging economies.

Here is what has happened to real house prices for the largest advanced economies, and for the advanced economies as a whole, over the 12 years from the end of 2007 to the end of last year.

house prices to end 2019

Very little change at all.

The aggregate advanced economy measure only starts in December 2007, and for quite a lot of countries the data starts getting thin for earlier periods.   But for the UK, the euro-area, and the US, I had a look at the previous decade –  over which period policy interest rates hadn’t changed much at all (ups and downs of course during the period) – and in each case real house prices increases were much more rapid in that period than in the more recent (extremely low interest rate) one.   The US had experienced a 53 per cent increase in house prices –  and they had already fallen back from peak by the end of 2007 –  and the euro-area a 40 per cent increase.  In Japan –  very low interest rates throughout –  real house prices had fallen substantially over the 1997 to 2007 period.

Of course, within these aggregates for the last decade or so there is a lot of cross-country variation.  We all know real house prices in New Zealand and Australia have risen a lot.   In some other countries, they’ve fallen a lot.    But even in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, the rate of increase has been less in the last (low interest rate) 12 years than it was in the previous decade.

That shouldn’t really be a surprise.  After all, in principle, houses are reproducible assets (some labour, some timber, some concrete, some fittings) and in few countries is very much of land built on.   Moreover, interest rates aren’t where they’ve been as the result of some toss of a coin, or a draw from a random number generator; they reflect underlying changes in savings/investment imbalances, which central banks adjust policy rates to more or less reflect.

When a wide range of countries have had fairly similar interest rate experiences (and inflation outcomes; the check on whether monetary policy is out of step), and yet have had very different house price experiences, it probably suggests that some non-interest rate factors have been at work.   Of course, in some cases, that might just mean working off past crises –  although if you want to cite the US there (a) recall that by the end of 2007 real house prices had already fallen by 15 per cent from peak, and (b) that in the boom years nationwide real house prices in the US never rose as much as they did in, for example, Australia and New Zealand.

A more plausible story is that some combination and land-use restrictions and population pressures continue to explain a lot about differential house prices performance in the years since 2007.   In New Zealand and Australia, for example, we have had tight planning restrictions and rapid population growth.    I don’t know much about planning rules in central and eastern Europe, but there isn’t much population growth (deliberate understatement here) in countries with strong economic growth such as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Baltics.   It isn’t a simple one-for-one story, but taken across the advanced economies as a whole it just doesn’t look as though low interest rates are a credible part of the house price story –  house prices, in aggregate, not having done much at all.

Of course, had central banks completely ignored the market signals re savings/investment pressures and simply held policy rates up then no doubt house prices would have been lower.  Then again, we’d also have had persistent deflation and (more importantly) unemployment rates that stayed much higher for longer and more persistent losses of output.

On a completely different topic, I found myself yesterday on an email exchange with some fiscal hawks, very worried about the future level of public debt.

I’ve noted previously that on the Treasury budget numbers our ratio of net debt to GDP in 2023/24 would still be sufficiently modest by international standards that if we had had that high a debt ratio last year, we’d still have been (narrowly) in the less-indebted half of the OECD.

Another way of looking at things is to take the government at their word and assume that by the end of the forecast period the Budget is more or less back to balance, such that the nominal level of debt stabilises at the level forecast for the end of 2023/24.

If that were to happen that what happens to the debt ratio depends on how much growth in nominal GDP the economy manages in the years ahead.   If we assume that the terms of trade is stable (or that the only safe prediction is that we don’t know, so assume no change), then there are three components to the rate of growth of nominal GDP.    As an illustrative experiment I jotted down a range of possible average outcomes for each.

Average annual growth
Low High Average
Population 0 1 0.5
Productivity 0 1.5 0.75
Inflation 1 2 1.5
2.75

So I’d assume growth in nominal GDP averaging 2.75 per cent over the decades beyond 2024.  Of course, there will be booms and recessions in that time, but this is just an average.   And then I’ve taken two alternative scenarios –  one in which nominal GDP growth averages 2.25 per cent, and one in which it averages 3.25 per cent.   Those aren’t extremes, and one could envisage even higher or lower numbers.

But this is what a net debt chart looks like out to 2064.

net debt scenarios

Even on the worst of these scenarios this (exaggerated, because it excludes NZSF assets) net debt measure is back to 30 per cent of GDP by 2050.   That doesn’t seem too bad to me for a one in a hundred year shock (as the government likes to claim) or –  less pardonably –  a one in 160 year shock as the Reserve Bank Governor was talking up the other day.

Of course, fiscal hawks will say, “but what if another really nasty shocks happens in the meantime?”.  Well, of course we would have to face that if it comes –  and it could –  but, as I noted, our net debt at peak is not high by pre-crisis international standards, and isn’t even high by our own longer-term historical standards.

Governments might choose to lower the debt faster, although if real servicing costs remain low it is difficult to see why one would, since faster consolidation involves either higher taxes than otherwise (with real deadweight costs) or less spending than otherwise (and while each bit of spending has its own antagonists, there is a case to be made for most of it).   There is precisely no evidence that anything important would suffer if our net public debt took a trajectory something like the central scenario in that graph.

(Of course, it is a purely illustrative scenario, and the composition of nominal GDP growth does matter to the budgetary implications –  eg faster population growth means more infrastructure demand, faster inflation might mean some unanticipated inflation tax, faster productivity is more like pure gain –  but there is no reason to suppose that if governments can get back to balance (as they repeatedly have now for decades) that we will need anything much beyond that.  Getting back to balance will require discipline and focus –  and a strong credible recovery would help –  but since most of the fiscal measures to date have been avowedly temporary, doing so should not be beyond our political system, whichever group of parties happens to be governing by then.

Doing more

I had a long chat yesterday to a reader who’d read a forward-looking piece I’d written recently and was concerned that in the halls of power there might be insufficient appreciation of just how serious the economic situation is.  My caller was just about to lay off a fairly large chunk of the staff in his company.

I was inclined to share his view –  although it is hard to know what ministers/officials really think, as distinct from the official happy-talk – and have been uneasy that, for example, official forecasts of the unemployment rate getting to, perhaps 7 or 9 per cent were giving some a sense that really things weren’t so bad, and that more or less enough was being done at a policy level.  After all, actual headline unemployment rates are much higher in some other countries (US and Canada), and the unemployment rate here was higher than those forecasts back in 1991/92.  Just this morning on RNZ, the Governor of the Reserve Bank seemed to be suggesting that everything was in hand, and not much more needed to be done by policymakers as a whole.

I went straight from that call to a Zoom seminar put on by the Law and Economics Association on economic policy responses to Covid-19.   There were three economists speaking, none of whom I would usually associate with calls for a more active and interventionist state –  Eric Crampton (New Zealand Initiative), Andreas Heuser (Castalia consultants, and formerly Treasury), and Richard Meade (of Cognitus, also consultants).  The slides for all three presentations are here (and I think they said they are planning to put the video up as well).  None seemed remotely comfortable with the current situation or content that what needed to be done had been done.

I found it interesting that all three were advocating more-liberal state-sponsored/provided access to interest-free credit.

Heuser’s focus was on business credit, noting the risks (of widespread insolvency) that our more onerous lockdown (relative to Australia) had created and the lack of success of the government’s business loan guarantee scheme (and that the new interest-free scheme is available but offers meaningful amounts only for quite small businesses).  He seemed to be arguing for more generous bank-administered schemes (in which, for example, any government credit is more directly subordinated).

Eric Crampton’s focus was mostly on other aspects, but he repeated his enthusiasm for the scheme the Initiative was proposing a couple of months ago, allowing individuals to borrow from the state quite readily.  Repayments would then be made over many years through the tax system –  akin to the way student loan repayments are done – with borrowings to be interest-free up to a reasonable threshold (linked to your past taxable income) and carrying an interest rate for amounts beyond that.

My main interest, though, was in Meade’s proposal, which has apparently been around for a while but which I’d not noticed previously.  He starkly puts the problem this way

meade 1

And goes on to note that both firms and households rely on each other, and (in the large) none could really be confident of their own viability if they cannot be confident of the other’s.  He argues that the numerous support measures rolled out since mid-March have been too scatter-gun and selective to provide any widespread confidence or (thus) willingness to spend.   And they do this, on his telling, even as they rack up a huge fiscal costs, which will be paid (directly, or through foregone options) by generations to come.

His proposal has these features.

meade 2

(Note that his second line means big businesses and existing beneficiaries/public servants would not be eligible.)

As Meade notes, in an ideal world, such a framework would have been put in place three months ago, so that as we headed into the worsening Covid downturn everyone would have had much greater clarity about the buffers that would be in place.  But not having done so then does not mean, so he argues, that it should not be adopted now.

It is an interesting proposal, and among its features Meade sees these

Importantly, they replace government-imposed qualifying criteria and favoured cost lines with “self-selection criteria” and “self-prioritised cost lines”:

– They are “incentive compatible” in that taking out loans is a choice to personally pay higher taxes, which protects against over-borrowing (likely a lesser evil anyway);

– They otherwise rely on households using their private information to determine how much “income insurance” they need to remain able to pay their priority bills, keep their house(etc), and obviate the need for bluntly targeted subsidies.

Relative to the status quo, what Meade is proposing has some appeal, especially around certainty.  If you can’t know what the wider economic environment will look like, at least you can have a sense of what buffers you might have available, and those your customers might have available to them.

But I don’t see what Meade is proposing as viable, in least in the way he proposes (as a substitute for really big additional fiscal outlays).

The first reason is that while he presents it as “ex post income insurance”, it is really nothing of the sort.   When you buy income insurance –  whether privately or through ACC –  you pay your premium along with everyone else and hope you never collect on the policy.  If you do have to collect on the policy, the cost is covered a little by your previous premia, but mostly by the premia of the people who will never claim.

By contrast, Meade’s suggestion isn’t income insurance, but simply “liquidity insurance” –  as he notes, anti-slavery laws mean you can’t generally borrow secured on your future income, but Meade’s scheme ensures you can borrow if your income takes a sharp hit (his concern here is mostly for people for whom the welfare system provides a very low income replacement rate). But you, and only you, will pay every cent of the amount you borrow –  secured, through the tax system, secured against your estate, so really only written off in extremis.    

And he wouldn’t even make it available to big companies, even though big companies employ lots of people, make lots of investment choices etc etc.

And although his aim is to support confidence and demand  –  by giving everyone a sense that everyone else has access to liquidity and, thus, spending power –  I don’t think it would have done that very effectively (even relative to the policies the government has adopted), particularly note for households.  Lots of people –  having just lost their job, or fearing doing so –  would be very very reluctant to take on lots of new debt in the middle of a crisis, and instead would choose to cut their spending to the bone –  precisely what Meade hoped to avoid.    For small and (particularly) medium businesses, what Meade proposes is better than what we have, but still suffers from the weakness that (a) many firms probably won’t be coming back, and there is no particular public interest in them doing so (one motel in Rotorua is much the same as another, and so on) and (b) many businesses simply will not support more debt.

And the political system would just not be willing to stand by and say “well, you are on your own –  you had the option to borrow and chose not to do so”.  It would intervene with grants as well (as it has done, is doing).   That is actually more like (although still not close to) what a risk-pooling insurance scheme looks like –  those of us lucky enough not to lose our jobs help fund the support for those who did lose theirs (in, as Meade puts it, an “unprecedented correlated shock” where people find themselves in deep strife (again in his words) “through no fault of their own”.   (I could also note that many households –  any with significant equity in their house –  have significant borrowing capacity anyway, without a new scheme).

I wrote about Meade’s scheme for two reasons.

The first is that I was struck by the fact that all three speakers at yesterday’s seminar favoured interest-free loans, including to businesses.  Meade’s was the most developed model presented, and encompassed both households and businesses.  The government seems to agree that zero interest is about the right rate at present –  that is the rate it is lending at to those SMEs borrowing under its latest facility, and these won’t be the safest conceivable borrowers around.    So these market-oriented –  perhaps even “right-wing” – economists reckon zero interest makes sense at present, and the centre-left Minister of Finance seems to think so too (his revealed preference). The one person who doesn’t, of course, is the Governor of the Reserve Bank, who was heard on RNZ this morning  saying that retail rates were “about right at present”.    We all have a pretty good idea of where mortgage rates are at present –  nowhere near zero –  but check out interest.co.nz’s table of the multiplicity of business lending rates.     We are in weird position where, faced with a huge deflationary adverse shock, the central bank’s Monetary Policy Committee is holding interest rates, for existing and new customers, well above where they should be.

The second reason for highlighting Meade’s scheme is that it gives me an opportunity to champion again my own proposal, first outlined in mid-March, which was designed to achieve quite a lot of what Meade was looking for.    That was the proposal that the Crown would guarantee 80 per cent of last year’s net income for 2020/21, for individuals and for firms.  Unlike Meade’s scheme, it would be quite costly to the Crown –  although I believe no more costly than the scattergun approach currently being rolled out will end up costing –  but it also offers genuine insurance, in which over time all chip in to cover some of the losses of those who were most severely adversely affected.

The most recent write-up of that proposal was in this post.   That was a while ago now.  I still reckon the basic framework remains the best option for conceptualising assistance (I saw other assistance as, in effect, credits that would be netted off against the “income insurance entitlement”).

In the spirit of ACC, if I were devising the scheme from scratch now, I might consider capping the payout at 80 per cent of individual incomes of up to $150000, with no compensation for losses on the income above that threshold.  I might also consider guaranteeing not 80 per cent of last year’s net income for companies, but guaranteeing company net income at zero (or last year’s reported loss) –  in other words, insuring that hitherto profitable companies did not go deeply negative, while recognising that profit variability is a much more natural phenomenon –  every business every year – than labour income extreme variability.  Each of those refinements would save money, but they would also complexify the system in ways that would have to be carefully considered if any government were to think the broad approach had merit.   The broadbrush simplicity and certainty of the scheme –  not playing favourites, not distinguishing large and small, simply buying time and providing some certainty –  was the appeal of the scheme.

Of course, many of these schemes  –  and the government’s own interventions – are focused on the immediate situation, stabilising things in the short-term.  But a year from now it is most unlikely that the economy –  ours, or those in other advanced countries –  will be anything like right again.  There won’t be huge new fiscal capacity –  not because of technical limits, or market constraints, but the realities of public tolerance –  and that is where monetary policy should be doing its job.  Much lower interest rates now aren’t mostly about boosting demand/activity now (the lags are simply longer than that) but about putting in place the right price signals –  cost of domestic credit, returns to domestic depositors, and (perhaps most importantly) the exchange rate –  that will support bringing private demand forward, and drawing private demand towards New Zealand producers, to get as back to full employment just as quickly as possible.

A mixed bag

The Reserve Bank’s Financial Stability Report this morning was something of a mixed bag, to say the least.

I’ll deal with the positive bits first. the discussion of stress tests of bank balance sheets, in the face of the very severe adverse economic shocks (of the sort we are seeing now –  whether the more optimistic takes of official agencies, or rather more severe economic loss/slow recovery scenarios).

Here is their summary take

Stress tests

Which is good, both the prominence of the discussion (this clip is from the cartoon summary) and the bottom-line conclusion.

The Bank discusses three scenarios

stress 2

And here was the summary commentary

stress 3

As they note, these conclusions – now in the midst of an actual unfolding event –  are not dissimilar to those from past stress tests. In at least one of those, house prices falling almost 50 per cent and unemployment staying around 12 per cent for several years didn’t create too many problems.  And it is a combination of a deep, reasonably sustained, fall in house prices AND a substantial sustained rise in unemployment that gives rise to substantial losses on residential loan books.  If just house prices fall, people will usually keep on paying their mortgage (including because few can effectively just walk away), and if just unemployment rises (and house prices fall only say 10 per cent), people might be in trouble, but banks can still recover most of their money.

So all of this is good –  the discussion, and the robust banking system.  It was the standard message the Bank used to tell people.  But then it became inconsistent with the other “causes”.  Wheeler wanted to put on LVR restrictions, for which stress test results were inconvenient.  And then the new Governor got a bee in his bonnet about wanting banks to have much more capital in their overall funding mix.  So for a year or more, while he tried to make his case for much much higher effective bank capital ratios, the stress test results –  consistent over years –  were played down, and often almost dismissed.

Then, of course, reality interjected itself, and now the Governor is quite content to run lines about how sound and robust our banking system is –  in the face of such a savage shock –  and how enlightening stress test results, preliminary as the current ones are, can be.

I would encourage people to believe the Governor on this one.  But changing your tune so dramatically, when it also happens to suit –  central bank Governors and supervisors will always want to play down risk once a crisis looms – isn’t that great for your longer-term credibility.  If the Board and Minister were doing their jobs, it is an issue they would take note of, and seek to remedy.

That was the good bit of the FSR.

There was also lots of spin.  It is old ground and I’m not going to repeat it all here.  Suffice to say that they continue to claim that monetary policy has done a lot, both through the OCR and the LSAP.   That means they are keen to emphasise the current level of the OCR, but not how little it has changed since the economic situation changed –  surely the only relevant metric, even in their modelling.  They talk about falls in interest rates, but never once mention the drop in inflation expectations, which means real interest rates haven’t changed much at all.  And they continue to hype the benefits of the LSAP, far beyond anything a careful reading of the data will support.

And then there was the notable omission.   Despite “efficiency” appearing in all their governing legislation as a consideration in shaping and applying prudential policy, there appeared to be no mention at all of the huge and persistent margin between retail term deposit rates in New Zealand and rates on other domestic liabilities with the same credit risk.  I discussed the issue at some length in a post last week.

retail and wholesale margins

(Yes, it was a little embarrassing to end that post suggesting that the Bank look again at its Core Funding Ratio requirement, only to learn shortly after that they had already done so quietly in March.  I should have remembered that, although in my slight defence I had checked on the Bank’s Core Funding Ratio page which then –  and still today –  does not mention the reduction, suggesting that the CFR is still 75 per cent.)

There appears to have been a further fall in term deposit rates overnight.  But if ANZ –  offering the lowest rates of the main banks at present –  is offering 1.8 per cent here for 6 month term deposits, six month bank bill rates are about 0.25 per cent. one year swap rates are also about 0.25 per cent.    And at the same time, ANZ in Australia is offering 0.9 per cent for six month AUD term deposits.   Here is chart using data from the RBA website.

RBA retail

Over the last decade, retail rates have been very close to wholesale rates, and although there is a gap at present, it is far smaller than the comparable New Zealand gap.  (And, of course, Australia’s inflation target is higher than New Zealand’s, so if depositors treated that target as credible, retail deposit rates in Australia (inflation target midpoint 2.5 per cent) would be deeply negative, while even with those new ANZ rates New Zealand’s would be barely negative at all.)

Given that the Reserve Bank has eased the CFR it is a bit puzzling why such a large wedge endures: it cannot be an sustainable equilibrium market outcome for instruments of identical credit risk (and at the margin, retail term deposits may have less credit risk than wholesale, given that bailout probabilities range from very high to almost certain).

In the circumstances one might have hoped for some analysis of this issue from the Bank in the FSR –  it being relevant both to the efficient functioning of the financial system, and to the effective stance of monetary policy (given MPC’s refusal to cut the OCR further).  It cannot be about credit ratings or ratings agency insistence (given that these are the same banking groups).  Perhaps there is some small element of customer resistance to lower rates here, but that doesn’t really stack up given how far retail rates have fallen over the years in Australia.

One possibility is that the Bank’s cut in the OCR is not being treated by the banks as credible relief for any material period of time.  The easing was announced at the height of the mid-March panic, and no timeframe was put on it.  There is still no timeframe, and no discussion in the FSR of how banks’ funding managers and Board might treat such indeterminant regulatory relief.  If, for example, banks thinks the Reserve Bank might snap the CFR back to 75 per cent once offshore funding conditions ease –  and a chart in the FSR suggests that might not be too far away, at least in price terms –  they’d be very hesitant about changing their entire funding, and marketing, strategy, and risk alienating customers they might need to court very soon.  I don’t know if that is the explanation, but it would certainly be consistent with what we’ve seen (movement not seen) in markets.  If the Bank was serious about closing these gaps –  and perhaps it isn’t  –  the sort of multi-year commitment to a lower CFR –  as I proposed in last week’s post –  would be a better approach to take.  As it is, we seem stuck with this gross inefficiency in our markets, and with retail interest rates well above those in (notably) Australia, despite the very difficult economic times and (on the Bank’s own telling) below-target inflation outlook.

And if there was no discussion of how banks might behave when given no timeframe (re the CFR) , I could also see no discussion of how banks might respond when there is a timeframe.  The Bank has removed the LVR restrictions for a year, and delayed the commencement of the higher capital requirements for a year.  In Covid-time, a year might seem an awfully long time, but it really isn’t if you are running a business like the big banks.    If the Governor is really going to insist next year that minimum bank capital requirements have to start rising again, that will very soon –  if not already –  be affecting bank behaviour, pricing, and so on.

The Governor has made much of buffers, and leeway, (all supported by no specific calculations), but if he is determined to stick with 2019’s plan, just delayed a year, that will impede credit availability to support the recovery.   Again, given the Governor’s confidence about stress tests etc, it would be far better to simply scrap the higher capital requirements –  perhaps keep a few useful detailed refinements –  and suggest the Bank will take another look in  five years’ time.  If the Governor is right about the stress tests, in a really savage adverse shock, those proposed higher capital requirements will prove never to have been needed.  And if he is wrong, the next five years will be spent working through loan losses and gradually rebuilding capital ratios to current levels –  much higher ones still can wait quite a few years (by when, on current government plans, new legislation will have provided a better governance framework for bank regulation, and removed the Governor’s sole power to pursue regulatory whims).

Just how little interest rates have fallen

There was a little flurry of media coverage over the weekend about the latest set of cuts in retail mortgage interest rates.  But it is worth keeping these changes in some perspective.

The Reserve Bank publishes monthly data for the “special” rates advertised for new borrowers (or those moving to another bank) and we can get a read of current rates from bank websites, as summarised in the tables on interest.co.nz.

So how much have residential mortgage rates fallen since the coronavirus slump began?  As it happens, rates had been pretty stable for several months up to February, so this chart compares the latest rates on offer with the average for the period November to February.

special mortgages

For most maturities, that’s not nothing.

On the hand, these are nominal interest rates.  And we know that the expected future inflation rate has fallen.   There is a variety of measures, survey-based and market.  The one the Reserve Bank has typically paid most attention to is the two-year ahead measure in its quarterly Survey of Expectations.  On that measure, inflation expectations have fallen by 0.62 percentage points since the pre-crisis period (the one year ahead measure shows a larger fall, the ANZ one year ahead measure a smaller fall).

Apply that fall in inflation expectations to those “specials” and the real –  inflation-adjusted – version of the chart now looks like this.

specials 2

I guess there is still a slight reduction in longer-term real rates, but…..not many people in New Zealand fix for four or five years.  The market is concentrated on the shorter-term fixed rates (at present, it appears, the 18 month term) and there has been no reduction in real interest rates there at all.

Term deposit rates have come down a bit more too.  But here is how the chart of those rates looks if we compare current rates with those around the turn of the year.  I’ve shown the nominal rates and real rates (using the same drop in inflationn expectations as above) on the same chart.

TD may 20

Pretty much across the board, real term deposit rates have risen slightly since the crisis began (including at what appears to be the most competitive part of the market, for terms of 6-12 months).  It is an odd response to a really serious economic slump.

Don’t blame the banks, or depositors for that matter; this is about choices made by the Reserve Bank Monetary Policy Committee – the prominent ones (Orr especially) and those faceless unaccountable external ones (Buckle, Harris, Saunders), all appointed by the current Minister of Finance.

The Governor keeps talking about getting interest rates as low as possible.  But they clearly aren’t – term deposits are mostly still a bit above 2 per cent (and far higher than in Australia) –  and yet the MPC has pledged, and repeatedly reiterated its dogmatic commitment based on no published analysis, to not cut rates any further until at least next March, still 10 months away.

And yet this is a really serious downturn.   Everyone seems to agree on that.  All the unemployment predictions –  even with the temporary cover (keeping people out of the official statistics) of the wage subsidy scheme –  involve higher peaks than we saw in the 2008/09 recession.  Even with big fiscal commitments, nominal GDP is expected to be way lower than previously expected, and the Bank expects to undershoot the bottom of its inflation target for a couple of years (for which there was nothing comparable in 2008/09).

How, then, did retail rates (real and nominal) behave over 2008/09?  Recall that that was an event that had its foundation in financial system problems, and even if the credit concerns weren’t specific to New Zealand the problems affected our banks’ access to funds, pricing etc.

The data are bit thinner for that period.   The Reserve Bank was only publishing “standard” mortgage rates, and single (six month) term deposit rate.  Oh, and it is a bit less clear when to date comparisons from.  Retail rates had gone on rising into 2008 (with the Bank’s acquiescence) as offshore funding costs were rising, and at the other end, shorter-term rates kept dropping further into 2009 than longer-term fixed rates did.    Inflation expectations also fell during that recession, on the Bank’s two-year ahead measure perhaps by about half a per cent.

But this is what happened from the end of 2007 to April 2009. (Changing start or end dates changes some of the numbers –  either way – by up to perhaps 50 basis points, mostly small on the scale of this chart.)

0809 retail

In other words, falls in retail rates (at the horizons where most of the business was written) of hundreds of basis points.   And that, in the Bank’s view (correctly as it turned out) was consistent with keeping inflation in the target range, even if not quite as high as they would have liked).

The Governor keeps claiming that his Large Scale Asset Purchase programme –  buying huge amounts of government bonds now yielding less than 1 per cent, in exchange for issuing huge amount of Reserve Bank deposits currently yielding 0.25 per cent –  is hugely effective and a fully adequate substitute for choosing not to do more with the OCR.    One can get down in the weeds of detailed arguments about what the LSAP may or may not be doing at the margin to bond rates or swaps rates, but whatever those effects may be –  and I reckon we are pretty safe in concluding that they are mostly small –  the rates that firms and households are actually receiving/paying is the bottom line.

In real terms, the household rates shown above have hardly moved at all, and there is little or nothing to suggest that picture facing businesses will be materially better (eg headline SME rates have fallen no further, and many larger businesses have facilities on which they pay a fixed margin over bank bill rates.  Bank bill rates have fallen by about 1 per cent since the start of the year, so in real terms a fall of perhaps 0.4 percentage points.  The contrast to 08/09 remains striking.

Of course, there is also the exchange rate.  The Governor claims to be successfully influencing it as well.   It is always difficult to know where to date comparisons for exchange rates, but here I’ve shown the fall in the exchange rate in the last two recessions:

  • for 08/09 the average in April 2009 relative to the average for the second half of 2007, and
  • for the current event, yesterday’s TWI relative to the average for the second half of 2019

TWi recessions

Monetary policy just is not doing its bit, even once all the fiscal support is factored into the projections.  That is a pure choice by the MPC.

We don’t know why they’ve just chosen not to do their job –  aiming for 2 per cent inflation and, as much as they can consistent with that, supporting a speedy return to full employment.  Last year, MPC seemed to embrace their mandate with some gusto. Now they appear like stunned animals caught in the headlights, uninterested in doing what they are paid for –  all while their spokesman keeps claiming to be doing a lot.

It is pretty reprehensible, and I find it quite remarkable that the MPC –  all of them, not just the Governor –  have not been asked harder questions about their failures.  Instead, much of the media seem to treat their acknowledged failure to ensure that banks’ operational systems etc were ready for negative rates as just “one of those things”, as if it could happen to anyone –  never for example drawing the contrast with Y2K, when the Bank proactively ensured it and the banks were ready, with contingency plans as well.   And notwithstanding that all of the data in this post are readily available, none has been yet heard to ask the Governor –  and his MPC –  why they are content with such trivial changes in real interest rates even when, with all their avowed enthusiasm for it, in combination fiscal policy and monetary policy in combination still have the Bank quite openly acknowledging that inflation will undershoot, and apparently not very bothered about the unemployed either.

Of course, the Minister of Finance bears responsibility for all this, and for all the individuals involved. Perhaps an Opposition that wanted to ask hard questions about the government’s stewardship at present –  even perhaps flag a different more pro-active approach –  might ask him just why he thinks it is appropriate for real interest rates to have hardly changed at all (and the real exchange rate not much more), even as he is willing to lend to the weakest business credits are far lower rates than his central bank’s monetary policy would support more generally.

Financing the government

In normal circumstances governments finance themselves primarily with visible legislated taxes, with a bit of additional debt on the side.

In New Zealand, over the last complete 10 years, core Crown revenue was $715 billion (mostly taxes) and debt contributed between $10 and $40 billion –  depending which gross or net measure you prefer.    That borrowing was almost all from the private sector, again as one would expect.  The Reserve Bank’s holdings of government bonds. for example, hardly changed at all (nor did bank settlement cash balances at the Reserve Bank).   And the government mostly had credit balances in its account at the Reserve Bank.

In the last couple of months, everything has been thrown up in the air.   On the Budget numbers I mentioned in Friday’s post, almost a quarter of government spending over the five years (including 2019/20) is expected to be financed by increased debt.   And on the Reserve Bank’s own numbers we could easily see at least half of that increase in debt take the form of Reserve Bank lending to the Crown (the forecast rise in net debt is $134 billion, and the Governor has talked of the possibility of raising further the current $60 billion limit on the LSAP programme).

That the Bank is buying those bonds on the secondary market, rather than getting some or all direct from the government (as some advanced country secondary banks are now doing to an extent), is a second or third order issue, making little or no macroeconomic difference.   The important point at present is that (a) the Bank is buying the bonds, and (b) the Bank is sterilising the liquidity effect on those purchases by paying an at-or-above market rate on the resulting settlement cash balances.

Oh, and the most important points of all were that the decision to buy bonds at all is (a) wholly a decision for the Monetary Policy Committee, and (b) working with an unchanged (from pre-crisis) mandate: delivering inflation near 2 per cent and, as much as it can consistent with that, supporting employment.  The government has given the Bank an indemnity, which makes the Bank feel more comfortable taking the associated interest rate risk, but if the government had not done so, it need not have stopped the Bank making the purchases if the MPC felt that was what the monetary policy mandate required.

I wrote about all this a month ago when there was first a flurry of concern about reported comments suggesting that at some point the Bank might buy bonds direct from the Crown, in a post intended to be basically supportive of the Bank.

Now, as you know, I don’t think the LSAP is making much difference at all now to anything that matters much to macroecononomic outcomes.  It is slightly perverse in that it involves shifting the duration of the Crown’s effective debt portfolio much shorter –  swapping long-dated government bonds for on-demand instantly repriceable settlement cash liabilities –  but if you believe interest rates are going to be low for quite some time, you might even downplay that.  Other than that, it probably does little harm –  and adds to our database of monetary experiments for future analysis – if little good.

But in the last couple of weeks there have been a number of comments from the Governor that suggest that something much more troubling is afoot.

The first hint I heard of it was when the Bank turned up to Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee on the day after the Monetary Policy Statement.  This is an extract from the post I wrote then.

Goldsmith asked the Governor about those comments a few weeks ago that the Bank could consider buying government bonds directly from the Crown, rather than (as at present) in the secondary market.  He seemed to just be wanting to close off the issue, but the Governor opened it up all over again, in a way that seems to have attracted no attention.

The expected answer would probably have been along the lines that there were no plans at present, the secondary market was working well, but if there ever were dysfunction there was really no macro difference in the Bank buying direct, so long as the decision rested with the Bank, consistent with the inflation target.   In backing the Governor on this point previously, that is what I have said.

Instead, the Governor launched into a discussion noting that while the Bank did not rule out lending direct to the Crown, that was really fiscal policy not monetary policy, that the central bank can always lend as much as fiscal policy requires, but that that would be a matter for the government to decide, not the Bank.

Goldsmith then challenged him on that, asking whether he was really saying that the Minister could decide whether the Bank would lend direct.  Orr reiterated the possibility of market dysfunction, while noting that at present markets were functioning well, but then repeated that what he called “pure monetary financing” would be a matter for the Minister of Finance to decide.

At this point, the Governor invited the Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand –  usually the safe pair of hands in that senior management cohort –  to comment.  He indicated that it would be a matter of ministerial direction, but which would involve a substantial process including looking at whether what the minister might be directing would still be consistent with the existing price stability etc target.  And then he tried to close things down by suggesting that this was all just an “esoteric discussion”.

Reasonably enough ACT’s David Seymour reacted to that, suggesting that if the Bank was seriously saying the Minister of Finance could direct them to lend to the government, in any amount he chose, it was “anything but esoteric”.

I went on to articulate the (possibly) relevant provisions of the Act as I saw them, concluding

But……there is no hint in this provision [section 12 override powers], or anywhere else in the Act, suggesting that the Minister of Finance can direct the Bank to lend to the government.  Perhaps the Bank and its lawyers think/worry that “lend to the government at zero interest up to $…billion” is an alternative “economic objective” within the meaning of section 12 of the Act.   But, at very least, it would be a stretch –  it isn’t an “economic objective”, but an instrument,  and favouring one specific party in the economy.    And note that if a government did attempt to impose such an “economic objective” there would still be nothing to stop the Bank setting interest rates for the rest of the economy at a sufficiently high level to counter the inflationary effects of this coerced lending.

I’m at a loss to know what the Governor and Deputy Governor mean.   I’m tempted to lodge an OIA request, but am not sure I’ll bother, as they would find myriad ways to refuse to release anything.  But journalists could directly ask the Bank what the Governor/Deputy Governor were on about?   MPs could use parliamentary questions to ask the Minister of Finance whether (a) he has received any advice as regard his direction powers over the Reserve Bank, and (b) whether he or Treasury believe he has the statutory power to compel the Bank to lend to the Crown.  Most everyone I’m aware of has always assumed they can’t –  and took great reassurance in that –  so if the powers that be now believe differently we deserve to know?    (Of course, if the government just wants more inflation, it can always raise the inflation target, but that is a rather different issue).

And there I left it, a bit puzzled, none the wiser, and even wondering whether Orr had perhaps confused some details and there really wasn’t anything to worry about.

At least until over this last weekend.  Then I happened to listen to a post-MPS presentation Orr had given to clients of Jardens (on 15 May), in which he touched on the issue and noted that (paraphrasing from my notes) “if we were to take a direction from the government to finance it directly – as distinct from what monetary policy needs might imply – we would have to have different legislation”

I then read an interesting interest.co.nz article reporting comments the Governor had given to their journalist Jenee Tibshraeny late last week in which this topic was addressed at some length.

Orr said it was up to government to decide if it wanted to go further and give the RBNZ the mandate to buy bonds for fiscal policy purposes, rather than monetary policy purposes – IE buy bonds to help pay for government spending initiatives rather than to keep inflation and employment in check.

“There’s no right or wrong,” Orr said.

“It’s just that it is different and you would need legislative and/or institutional instructions, because when I last looked at my job description, I’m not allowed to go off and buy whatever I feel like because I’ve got the ATM…

“That would take some significant transparency as well as operational structures to ensure everyone knew who was doing what, why, how, where, when.”

Asked whether he would be hesitant to go down this path if Robertson asked him to, Orr responded: “Yes, I mean, it really depends to what purpose… and under what conditions is this managed.

“Because you could take it to the extreme immediately and you’ve gone back in time 30, 40 years and the central bank is being used as the ATM for a government and it’s unclear whether we can control inflation anymore, and it’s back in the hands of the elected officials…

“It’s not for me to choose the policy. I would implement the policy, but I would be extremely cautious about making sure the risks are understood, managed and mitigated wherever they could be.

“And I imagine I would be surrounded by many many people with free and often unsolicited advice around whether it did or didn’t work… which is good…

“People are very passionate about the structures that have been built and you don’t muck around with them lightly.

“These things are achievable; they’re just different.”

On the one hand, it is good to know that the Governor seems to think that under current law he can’t just go and buy anything he likes (he probably can, but it has to be consistent with the Bank’s statutory functions, including the monetary policy Remit the Minister has given him, which in turn is subordinate to the Act).   But then note those Bascand comments earlier suggesting the Bank thinks it could be directed under existing legislation, even if that might involve overriding or changing the Remit.

The Bank has clearly been giving such radical options quite a bit of thought, not just as extreme contingency plans (Parliament, being sovereign, can empower almost anything) but as something they are quite openly talking about.    That suggests something that they are either keen on themselves, or which the Minister and/or Treasury has raised fairly seriously as a possibility.

Given the Governor’s longstanding belief in a bigger government and a more aggresssive use of fiscal policy, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if this were something he was championing (indeed, it would be the best explanation for why (a) he is the only one talking about it, and (b) doing so in a non-negative sort of way).

Going down such a path would, however, be a seriously retrograde step. Perhaps it might lift inflation expectations a bit –  governments acting to direct the central bank to lend to them will create some concern – but in a quite undesirable sort of way (even if Social Credit and the more rabid MMT enthusiasts might be salivating at the prospect).

For a start, there is no obvious need for such a mandate.  The New Zealand government is a highly creditworthy borrower which, on current government plans, will remain one of the least-indebted of all the advanced countries.   One can never rule out a new extreme global crisis that might seize up markets for a few days, but the prospects of the New Zealand government not being able to issue on market the quantity of debt believes it requires is slim indeed.   And the Crown already has an overdraft facility at the Reserve Bank that it can draw on to smooths ups and downs.

More disconcertingly, although technically the Reserve Bank could be required to lend to the government –  beyond anything consistent with the Remit –  and that wouldn’t immediately tip us into serious inflationary problems, it would be a highly distortionary policy.  In principle, the Bank could lend lots of money to the Crown at zero interest, and the government then further increases its spending beyond what would normally be consistent with the inflation target. If that happened, you would expect the MPC to start raising the OCR, to keep overall demand in check.  And then we’d be in the bizarre throwback world in which the government was borrowing for zero and the rest of the economy faced really quite high interest rates, squeezing out private sector activity to favour the government.

I’m not going to allow myself to be drawn into an inconsistency here.  At present, if anything, the presenting issue is that the Reserve Bank is not doing its core monetary policy job sufficiently well that either the market, survey respondents, or the Bank itself believe that inflation will be consistent with the target set for them.  If they persist in that stance, amid a really savage recession, I believe the Minister of Finance should act, using existing powers either to replace the key individuals (to ensure the current Remit is being followed) or to explicitly direct the Bank to adopt an easier monetary policy (consistent with the current Remit over the medium term).  Those powers are in the Act for a reason, to protect citizens.   There is no such power to direct the Bank to lend to the government and there has long been an international consensus that it would be quite unwise to provide for such a power.  It would be to step away from any sense that monetary policy operates in a neutral way, not setting out to favour or disadvantage any particular party or sector (private or public), and into a world where governments could regard control of the “printing press” as an acceptable way for them to finance their spending (or reluctance to tax) preferences.  With reasonable people, it isn’t some immediate path to hyperinflation, but it would be undesirable on numerous counts and further increase the politicisation of the Reserve Bank.

One can make an argument against central bank operational autonomy –  I sometimes come and go and whether there are real advantages that justify the costs and lack of accountability (part of the reason why I keep on about enhancing real central bank transparency) – but giving the government reason to think control of the printing press is a legitimate tool has nothing going for it at all.

We need some answers as to just what is going on.   When I tweeted about this on Saturday, Tibshraeny responded

That is encouraging, and I will look forward to her story.  But if Robertson –  who always seem conservative and risk averse (sometimes beyond what is warranted) – is not interested, then what cause is Orr championing, to what end, and why?

If he thinks more macroeconomic stimulus is required, try conventional monetary policy (would have helped, of course, if he’d sorted out those alleged “operational issues” some banks are claimed to have, but even those obstacles exist they can be overcome).  If the governments thinks it needs to spend more, the conventional options are still open to them –  higher taxes (probably not a great idea at present) or tapping the global market for public debt.  Maintaining that borrowing capability was, as you’ll recall, one of the main reasons why successive governments kept net debt low and stable.  (Of course. it also has a $40 billion fund –  which it insists on putting more money into, even as its new borrowings are large, to speculate on world markets –  much of which could be quite readily liquidated.)