Kiwibank: a retrograde step

I wrote about Kiwibank last week, noting that there had never been a good economic reason for the Crown to have established it, and that there was not a good economic reason for the Crown to continue to own it.   Doing so undermines (modestly) the efficiency of the financial system, and poses unnecessary risks for taxpayers.

I take it that the Minister of Finance agrees.  Listening to him on Morning Report, unable to give any reason why the government should own a bank other than “it is government policy that we do so”, one almost felt a little sorry for him.  Then again, he is the Deputy Prime Minister.

What to make of yesterday’s announcement from New Zealand Post?  The plan is that NZ Post will sell 45 per cent of its stake in Kiwi Group Holdings (KGH) to ACC (20 per cent) and the New Zealand Superannuation Fund (25 per cent), at a price which values KGH at $1.1 billion.

In some ways, the price tells us what we need to know about Kiwibank.  The book value of shareholders’ equity in KGH as at 31 December 2015 was $1.304 billion, and yet the sale is going to go through at the equivalent of $1.1 billion (or perhaps lower if due diligence shows up some problems).   That is around 85 per cent of book value.

When I checked yesterday, the four Australian banks appeared to be trading on the stock exchange at anything from 1.2 to 2.1 times book value.  And the Reserve Bank of Australia ran this nice chart in their last Financial Stability Review


Note where the Australian and Canadian banks have been trading.  By contrast, banks in much of the rest of the world, where there have been real doubts about asset quality or earnings potential have been trading at or below book value since the 2008/09 recession.

The deal also values KGH at eight times last year’s earnings ($137 million).  A quick check suggests that five listed Australian banks (the four operating here and the Bank of Queensland) are trading, on average, at prices around 11.5 times last year’s earnings.

Kiwibank just isn’t a very profitable bank.  Last week I showed this slightly-dated Treasury chart:

bank roa

But, of course, there are other reasons for a fairly low price:

  • Given the government’s determination not to privatize Kiwibank (even partially), there were no other possible takers.  ACC and NZSF no doubt knew that.
  • ACC and NZSF will, apparently, be locked in for the first five years (beyond the next two elections), unable to sell out, and yet without effective control (individually or jointly).  Some finance guru could no doubt value that (loss of) option, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be a trivial amount.

As Michael Cullen noted yesterday, if there had been a sale into private ownership it would have “almost certainly led to a higher price” for NZ Post.

At one level, the price of the transaction does not matter unduly, as all the buyers and sellers are ultimately owned by the New Zealand government.  In fact, the price should probably be the least of the worries.

The cleaner alternative approach to deal with Kiwibank (KGH) would have been for the government itself to have simply purchased KGH from NZ Post, and established KGH as a proper SOE, subject to proper SOE monitoring and accountability arrangements.  In the short-term, it would have made little or no difference to Kiwibank which option was chosen.  And it would have had the advantage of totally and immediately separating NZ Post and Kiwibank, enabling the directors and managers of NZ Post to focus solely on their troubled business.   But, of course, doing so would have involved immediate Crown cash outlays (to NZ Post, even if much of it came back shortly thereafter as a special dividend), while yesterday’s clever wheeze involves cash flowing into the Crown accounts (from those other government entities, ACC and NZSF) via the special dividend NZ Post will pay.  The cash flows don’t change the economic value to the overall Crown balance sheet.

Although the deal has been presented as making it easier for the owners to provide any future capital injections to Kiwibank that might be thought warranted (beyond what retained earnings –  the way most banks grow –  would allow), that isn’t an argument for the particular form of yesterday’s deal, as opposed to simply taking KGH directly into Crown ownership as an SOE.    After all, central government has considerably deeper pockets than either ACC or the NZSF.   At least on the basis of last year’s Annual Report, the proposed KGH investment (at $210m) will already be ACC’s largest single equity investment.


It would also appear to be the largest equity holding for NZSF.  These don’t seem like organisations with sufficiently deep pockets that they would (or should anyway) be wanting much more exposure to a single entity, a minor (not overly financially successful) player in its own sector, than they will already have if this deal is completed.

I’m extremely wary of the state owning a bank, but if we are going to own it, I’d rather the question of any additional capital was being decided by the elected representatives of the owners, who we can kick out.

The deal has been presented by NZ Post as offering benefits to Kiwibank through the “long-term investment horizons” and “expertise” of ACC and NZSF investment managers.  For better or worse, the central government has actually tended to have a longer-term investment horizon than either institution (NZ Post in its current form was set up almost thirty years ago, the predecessor Post Office based bank ran under central government for well over 100 years).   And as for investment expertise, well, yes no doubt.  But Kiwibank is a retail bank, and neither ACC nor NZSF has any particular expertise in retail banking –  and nor would one expect, or want, them to (after all, as NZSF’s head of investment’s noted in last year’s Annual Report, NZSF is statutorily prohibited from having control of operational businesses).  Both ACC and NZSF are funds managers.  They seem to do that job moderately well (I’m much more skeptical of NZSF, but that is a topic for another day), through some mix of strategic asset allocation and tactical stock selection, but that isn’t the sort of expertise that helps generate a strong profitable retail bank.

Curiously, the sorts of expertise ACC or NZSF might have already seem rather well represented on the Kiwibank board, not one of whom has retail banking experience or apparent expertise.  Perhaps the Board will change under the new ownership, but why should we suppose that government funds such as ACC or NZSF will be better able to nominate suitable directors than NZ Post was (and in any case, for now NZ Post will retain the majority shareholding).

The paper-shuffling doesn’t have the feel of a long-term arrangement.  ACC, in particular, seems unlikely to be a natural holder of a 20 per cent stake in any company, and NZSF probably shouldn’t be.  A constant risk around NZSF has been that it would be used for political purposes: a large pool of money just waiting for people with “good ideas”  –  and a major ownership stake in a politically totemic, modestly performing,  bank is just an example of that sort of risk.

And so this deal has the feel of short-term opportunism.  Immediate cash inflows for the government rather than immediate cash outflows (with no difference in economic value between the two), and a way of making it perhaps just a little easier to privatize the bank if political conditions were to change.  No doubt for now, if ACC and NZSF wanted out, the Crown would repurchase the shares.  But if the political winds change a little, then, for example, the five year minimum holding periods could be waived if it suited the Crown to do so, and it might be rather easier for NZSF and ACC to dribble their shares out into private institutional hands gradually, at one remove from the decisions of politicians, than for politicians to choose a trade sale, or even a modest IPO.

I favour privatization, but also favour good government, and clear transparent lines of accountability.  This deal doesn’t look the way we should be running things.  We have a fairly good framework for Crown-owned operating businesses, the State-Owned Enterprises Act.  It should be used for Kiwibank (and KGH) and when the time comes the debate around privatization, partial or full, should be had directly and openly, between politicians, and citizens (as was done with the power companies, and all past privatisations), not by reshuffling holdings of major Crown assets into arms-lengths agencies that can offer little or nothing new to Kiwibank, and face neither market discipline, or effective public accountability themselves (indeed, in the case of NZSF, that lack of effective political accountability was the whole point of the governance structure).

Having said that the SOE Act has been a pretty good framework over 30 years for governing Crown-owned operating businesses, I was somewhat disconcerted to note yesterday how politicized the NZ Post press statement was.    The statement from Bill English and Todd McLay headed “Kiwibank to remain 100 per cent Govt owned” was fairly factual and descriptive in nature.   Michael Cullen’s statement, by contrast, was considerably more rhetorical: “Stronger circle of Crown owners proposed for Kiwibank”,  “these two Crown investors –  both essential parts of the New Zealand fabric”, “time to broaden the bank’s support base within the wider public sector”, “a rare opportunity”.      (Mind you, where the NZ Post statement really overstepped the mark for me was when they compared assets under management at ACC ($32bn) and NZSF ($28bn) with the sum of assets and liabilities of Kiwibank ($38 billion).  I’ve never heard anyone previously refer to the size of a bank by adding together than assets and liabilities.)

Overall, it seems like an unstable model (perhaps deliberately so).  We have a small underperforming bank that will be owned by three government owners, instead of one, none with any great expertise in the business the bank is actually undertaking.  One will still have effective control, but less so than previously.  And if things go wrong, no one of the direct shareholding parties will be able to call the shots to sort things out, and the risks are likely to fall back on central government anyway.

UPDATE: My unease has just been increased reading these comments from Bill English on the ending of the NZ Post guarantee.

“It wasn’t really an effective guarantee, but now that’s been replaced by an arrangement where the Government underwrites any capital requirements related to the bank coming under pressure,” he said.

“That’s yet to be finalised in detail, but there’ll be a capital facility there so that depositors know that if anything went wrong with Kiwibank then the Government is able to stand behind it,” he said.

“It’s a capital facility. It’s not like a deposit guarantee because in New Zealand we don’t have deposit guarantees, but it is a facility that Kiwibank can call on if in extreme circumstances it needed to repair its capitalisation,” he said.

Perhaps it just makes explicit the reality, and we will need to see the details (will this facility be priced?).  Better to have a properly priced deposit insurance scheme across the entire system, and get the state out of owning –  or underwriting the equity of – banks.



I’m still puzzling over the academic who told Radio New Zealand’s listeners yesterday that he didn’t agree with me that New Zealand was remote: “we are, after all, in the middle of this great ocean, the Pacific”.    I keep looking at the globe, conscious that perhaps I have a eurocentric view of the world, but….we still look about as remote as they come.  And it is a sort of remoteness which, historically, hasn’t been conducive to really high levels of economic performance for lots of people (see Tristan de Cunha, St Helena, Bouvet, and even Samoa, Kiribati, or Fiji).  Henry Kissinger is reported to have described Chile as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica”.  Much the same could be said of New Zealand, one of the Antarctic Rim countries.

But, on another topic, I noticed that Kiwibank and NZ Post were in the news this morning.

Late last week, Radio Live was reporting a story that Kiwibank was being prepared for sale, and they asked for my thoughts on that.  That interview is here.

There was never a good economic case for setting up Kiwibank.  Our banking market was, and is, pretty competitive, and there were few material regulatory barriers to new entrants.  And the historical track record, here and abroad, is that government-owned banks are more prone to getting into costly trouble than private-owned banks (and some of them cause quite enough trouble).  In a modern New Zealand context, think of the Bank of New Zealand, DFC, and the (different sort of case of the) Rural Bank.  Overseas, examples abound.

But, of course, the case for Kiwibank was never mostly about economics.  It was mostly about nationalism, and some mix of political product differentiation and the political circle turning. Jim Anderton has resigned from the Labour Party in 1989, having been suspended from Labour’s caucus when he refused to vote for the sale of the Bank of New Zealand (then still predominantly government-owned).   And now Jim Anderton was back, as Deputy Prime Minister in a Labour-Alliance government.  Not only could the government own businesses, but it could –  so it was claimed –  build good new ones.  This speech by Jim Anderton captures the flavour.  This centre-left government would be different from its predecessor, and the establishment of Kiwibank would be one important marker of that difference.

The Reserve Bank and (more importantly) Treasury opposed the establishment of Kiwibank.   There weren’t obvious gaps in the market that other new entrants couldn’t fill, and establishing any new business is risky.

The National Party opposed the establishment of Kiwibank, but has never been willing to commit to selling it (in full or in part), even when Don Brash was leader in the 2005 election.

The actual track record of Kiwibank has been less bad than many of the opponents feared.  NZ Post was able to recruit some capable people who have built a reasonably substantial bank, that now has around $19 billion of assets.  Kiwibank grew very rapidly in its early years, and when institutions –  especially new entrants –  grow rapidly, it is wise to worry about the credit standards: it is most easy to write loans to people whom other lenders are reluctant to lend to.  Kiwibank had a few ill-judged forays into particular market segments, but appears to have built a reasonably self-sustaining bank, which came through the recession of 2008/09 with little more damage than the larger banks sustained.   My own reaction to that record was that, as taxpayers, we should be thankful for small mercies, and take the opportunity to sell before something went wrong.

But it has never been quite clear how much money Kiwibank has really made, and in particular whether it has ever sustainably succeeded in covering the cost of the taxpayers’ capital invested (and reinvested) in the bank.  Banking is a highly leveraged business, and since the government’s finances are already heavily directly exposed to the overall health of the New Zealand economy, there were no obvious diversification gains for it in establishing a bank in New Zealand.  We needed a good rate of return to justify the risk.

One of the reasons it has never been clear just how profitable Kiwibank has been is that Kiwibank and its parent NZ Post were intertwined, operating (most obviously) from the same physical locations.  During the early years in particular, there was a lot of incentive for NZ Post (with its government appointed Board) to help ensure that Kiwibank was a success, and to err in favour of Kiwibank in any allocation of costs or charging for shared services.  I got involved with these issues briefly in my time at Treasury and even then it seemed impossible for outsiders to know whether costs were being allocated appropriately.  Several years on one might have hoped all these issues were adequately resolved, so I was a little surprised to see this comment from Bill English in the Herald this morning.

He said there had been discussions over whether NZ Post was subsidising Kiwibank.

“Certainly through the start-up phase it has been but NZ Post can’t afford to keep cross-subsidising the bank,” he said.

Which doesn’t give one a great deal of confidence that, even over the last few years, the Kiwibank accounts give a full representation of the returns from a standalone banking business.  I don’t read the literature as suggesting that the economies of scale in retail banking are huge (so a small bank could be profitable) –  and we have both big and small banks co-existing in the New Zealand market –  but I doubt it could be shown that Kiwibank had been a good investment for the taxpayer.  Fortunately, it hasn’t been a disastrous one.

So I’d be all in favour of Kiwibank being sold.  There is just no good reason for the government to be involved in the business of retail banking.  Even today, the barriers to new private sector entrants are quite low, and even if there is some independent concern  about New Zealand-owned banks, then we have SBS, TSB, Co-op, and Heartland.

One key strand in New Zealand’s approach to banking is the idea that no institution, and no depositor/creditor, is totally immune from failure and the risk of losing one’s money.  I don’t think that is a politically tenable stance, and am among those who favour New Zealand adopting some form of deposit insurance (as most other countries have done).  But it is a particularly difficult model to sustain in respect of a government-owned bank.

Yes, governments have been willing to allow creditors of SOEs to lose money –  the banks who had lent to Solid Energy most notably among them –  but a handful of banks, mostly foreign, is a rather different matter than hundreds of thousands  (800000 apparently) of retail depositors (and voters).   Governments can say all they like that no one is guaranteed, but it isn’t obvious why anyone would –  or should –  believe them.  After all, a standard element in the Reserve Bank’s approach is that if a bank gets into difficulties, the Reserve Bank will look to its shareholders to recapitalize the bank concerned.  The  New Zealand government owns all the shares in NZ Post, the immediate (struggling) parent of Kiwibank.   The credit rating agencies also take that view: S&P, for example, noted last year that

we consider that Kiwibank has a “high” likelihood of receiving extraordinary support from the New Zealand government, reflecting the bank’s “very strong” link and “important” role to the government.

The unpriced implicit support Kiwibank has from the government skews the domestic banking market and undermines the efficiency of the financial system, all while continuing to pose material financial risks for the New Zealand taxpayer.

And it is not as if the governance of Kiwibank looks particularly strong either.  I was quite surprised to find, looking through the list of directors, that not a single one of them has a background in retail banking.

At very least I think it would make sense to restructure the NZ Post group, removing Kiwibank and making it a standalone SOE in its own right.  Going by the comments from the Minister, if the story Radio Live ran had anything behind it, that was the mostly likely form.

A sale would also make sense, but I don’t see any chance of it happening under the current government.  One could conjure up all sorts of imaginative options that might mitigate the political uproar –  recall the size of the petition around the partial sales of the government stake in three power companies –  but I can’t see why this government would regard it as worth the political risk.  And no potential coalition partner really cares enough to want to make a sale a “bottom line” in any deal –  while NZ First might well care enough on the opposite side.

Kiwibank shares could, for example, be distributed to all adults –  on current book value that might be around $300 each –  so that it was truly the “people’s bank”.  But then there would no single dominant shareholder, and the rating agencies would get nervous, and so would the Reserve Bank.  It would have quite high direct costs, and the opposition parties would no doubt sell it (accurately) as prelude to those individual parcels being bought up by one or another of the other banks.

I’ve seen suggestions that perhaps the New Zealand Superannuation Fund should become a key shareholder in Kiwibank.  I reckon that would be even worse than direct state ownership, since the NZSF faces neither market nor political disciplines.

I don’t really like the idea of a partial privatization, with the government retaining the majority shareholding.  It still has most of the moral hazard/bailout risks associated with the current ownership model, with more risk that the private shareholders would seek to aggressively (and quite rationally) exploit such advantages.  It was, more or less exactly, the model used with the Bank of New Zealand in the late 1980s.

In truth, the best value for the taxpayer probably lies in what is the least politically attractive option: a straight trade sale, probably to one of the existing large participants in the market. That was how the previous Postbank was sold, back in 1988.  It is what happened to Trustbank in 1996, and to Countrywide a couple of years later.  And, of course, Lloyds concluded that the best value from the National Bank was through a trade sale to ANZ.  The government might get a price well above book value in such a sale, even recognizing that banks are less inclined to aggressive expansion than they were a decade ago, and that some of the Australian banks might be uneasy about overweighting their exposure to New Zealand.  But even to propose such a sale would surely be seen by the government’s political advisers as an unadulterated gift to the Opposition.

And so it seems likely that, for the foreseeable future, the government will not just be the largest owner in New Zealand of dairy farms, funds managers, trains and planes, power companies, and legal firms, but will remain the owner of a modest-sized, not outstandingly successful, retail bank.

UPDATE:  In casting around for any summary analysis that has been done/released on Kiwibank’s long-term performance, I found this chart of return on assets (not equity) in a Treasury report from a couple of years back.

bank roa.png

The results shouldn’t be very surprising, but they do reinforce the point that even if Kiwibank is currently earning reasonable rates of returns (eg in the most recent year), it has a long way to go to deliver the sorts of cumulative returns to taxpayers that private sector shareholders might have expected (especially as none of the private comparators were start-ups).