An unserious organisation, with serious consequences

I wasn’t planning to write anything more today, but then I got an email from the Reserve Bank.

You’ll be aware that almost three months ago the Reserve Bank released a consultative document, in which the Governor proposed to massively increase the amount of equity capital banks have to have just to keep on doing the business they are doing now.

As this was, apparently, the culmination of a multi-year review (in fact, the final numbers seem to have been very much a last-minute affair) you might have supposed that a serious central bank would have all its arguments straight and evidence (or at least sustained reasoning, engaging alternative perspectives) at hand in accessible form to support all their claims.  They’d probably have anticipated all the plausible area of disagreement or challenge, and had good responses readily to hand.

Whether they supposed, for some reason, that everyone would embrace their schemes with open arms and uncritical spirit, or what, actual experience has been anything but that.  When they finally responded to OIAs and released the background papers, it turned out that one of them had only been written several weeks after the consultation paper was released.  And in his speech a couple of weeks ago, the Deputy Governor was promising that they would soon publish an Analytical Note explaining their estimates of the likely impact on interest rates (which still hasn’t seen the light of day).

At the Monetary Policy Statement in February, there was a considerable attention on the proposed capital changes.  In fact, the Bank even proactively included a box in the text (page 35).   There were various claims, some numerical and some not.  These were a couple of examples

The Bank expects that the spread of banks’ lending rates to the rates at which they borrow will settle in the range of around 20 to 40 basis points higher as a result of the proposed changes, although the exact effect is uncertain.

Higher bank capital requirements could also improve the government’s fiscal position. A higher share of bank equity funding would likely increase tax revenue from the banking sector since debt funding is tax-deductible while equity funding is not.

There were lots of questions at the Governor’s press conference as well, including his claim (not made in the text) that the Bank’s proposed new capital ratios would be “well within the range of norms” seen in other countries.

That was all very interesting, but I wanted to know a bit more, and assumed they would simply have material to hand to support their claims.  It would, you’d have thought, have been in their interests to do so –  after all, they obviously believe in what they are proposing, and would presumably want to carry us with them, supported by robust evidence and analysis.  Or so you’d have thought.

And so I lodged a fairly simple Official Information Act request, for the material supporting those claims.   That was on 13 February.  This afternoon –  the day before the last date by when a response was due – I got this letter.

OIA barclay

In which they take to themselves a whole another 20 working days.    Not because whatever they have needs to be collated or compiled, but allegedly because of “ongoing consultations”.  One can only assume that is a shorthand for “there wasn’t much, if anything, there, but give us time and we’ll see what we can drum up”.

It is both so ludicrous and so telling that I’m not going to waste the time of the Ombudsman’s office complaining.  I’ll just let it stand –  a powerful public figure makes claims in support of a far-reaching proposal on which he is prosecutor, judge, and jury –  and can’t, or won’t, produce any evidence or analysis to support his specific claims.   Sadly, it isn’t the first time.

If you want sceptical analysis and argument:

  • Ian Harrison’s substantive document, “The 30 billion dollar whim” is here, and
  • my succession of posts on unanswered questions and unconvincing analysis are here.

As for the Governor, he seems to have time to play tree gods, and for spending other people’s money on Maori cultural advice (recall, that this was going to improve the quality of monetary policy and financial regulatory policy decisions), just not for the serious stuff.

The Bank is at growing risk of becoming a profoundly unserious organisation, but one whose whims have serious consequences for the rest of us.

It isn’t good enough.  The Bank’s board is charged with protecting us from Governors not doing their job properly. It is about time they took some responsibility.

Pondering localism

I’m spending much of the day at Local Government New Zealand’s Localism Symposium

When it comes to centralisation, New Zealand is an outlier amongst developed countries, with decision making heavily concentrated in central government politicians and officials. For every tax dollar spent by local authorities, Wellington spends $7.30.

This is not a record to be proud of. Comparisons with OECD countries show that productivity per capita and decentralised decision making are correlated, and on both measures New Zealand ranks back of the developed world pack. More practically, New Zealand’s diverse communities have long outgrown one-size-fits-all policy making, and there is a growing acceptance that we need to devolve and decentralise decision making to celebrate and leverage our differences.

The challenge is how do we do it?

Local Government New Zealand and The New Zealand Initiative have joined up to develop a policy roadmap on just how to devolve and deconcentrate power through our Localism Project.

On 28 February 2019, LGNZ and the Initiative will present the first cut of this work at the Localism Symposium. We invite interested parties to come and critique our work in a workshop session in Wellington to help develop a robust framework through which communities can have their decision making powers restored, and share insights into public perceptions of localism and local government.

Count me sceptical.  I’m unpersuaded the local authorities should get more power.  Given the choice between the New Zealand government –  of whatever stripe –  and Wellington City Council, I’ll take the former any day.  Not only are they generally more competent (and regular readers will know I’m no fan of any recent government) but it is a great deal easier to monitor them and hold them to account.   Then again, perhaps I’m just a died-in-the-wool central government bureaucrat (“you can take the boy out of the bureaucracy, but not the bureaucracy out of the boy”).   But what could one reasonably expect of the council of one of my old haunts, Kawerau (population <7000)?

And I’m more than a little sceptical about whether there is any meaning in that reported correlation: after all, the United States has plenty of fiscal decentralisation, but New Zealand is about the same size (population) as the median US state.

The New Zealand Initiative has been championing varieties of decentralisation models for some time.    I wrote, sceptically, here about one of their earlier reports.   As I noted, among various other points

I’m a South Islander by birth and inclination, and if someone proposed a genuine federal model for New Zealand –  South Island, lower North Island, and Upper North Island –  I’d probably be emotionally sympathetic to it.  But even then I’d refer supporters to the Australian experience, and wonder just how much genuine decentralisation would occur and for how long. 

Australia struggles to maintain effective federalism.

In the material they’ve sent out for the workshop today, there are some interesting ideas I could probably support and even champion.  For the rest, I guess I’ll be a voice of critique…..and open to being persuaded that more of the case is persuasive than I think now.  I suspect a really compelling case for decentralisation relies either on geography, strong and settled regional identity, or history.  We are a small country, fairly recently settled, and there will be few people for whom (say) the sense of being a Taranaki-ite is at least as important as being a New Zealander (unlike, say, the situation in Scotland or Texas).    To that point, US state boundaries haven’t changed in a very very long time, while two of the four local government areas I lived in while growing up simply don’t exist any more – abolished at the stroke of a ministerial pen.

Had we kept the provincial government system  –  avoided the Vogel money grab –  perhaps we’d now have a similarly long tradition of decentralised government. In days of easy travel and easier technology it is hard to create a stable and enduring constituency –  other than local government politicians and officials –  for trying to create it de novo.   And –  although we can’t run the experiment –  I’d bet against it having made much difference to things that ail us, like house prices or productivity.

I did notice however that the New Zealand Initiative’s enthusiasm for Switzerland –  which really does have lots of decentralisation –  carries over into the material.  The Initiative has long been keen on singing the praises of Switzerland, which is much richer than we are.  But, as a reminder to people, here are the productivity growth performances of the OECD countries since 1970 (when the OECD databases start).  This is total growth in real GDP per hour worked from 1970 to 2017.

Switz

Bad as New Zealand’s productivity growth performance has been over this period, Switzerland is still the only OECD country to have had (slightly) less productivity growth.    And it isn’t just the early part of the period: for the period since 2000 you need to go to two decimal places to separate the (lower quartile) productivity growth rates of the two countries.

Switzerland is rich, and pleasant in many respects.  But relative to the rest of the OECD it used to be much richer.  Appealing as the Swiss decentralisation seems in some ways –  and much of that reflects deeply rooted histories of separate distinct communities, including linguistic and religious differences –  it isn’t obvious why it offers some path to better productivity growth in New Zealand.

Fixing the housing mess is also claimed as one of the possibilities of the sort of reforms LGNZ and the New Zealand Initiative are suggesting.  Did I ever mention –  why, yes I think I did – that Switzerland not only has very high house prices, very high levels of household debt, and very low levels of home ownership?    Not outcomes to envy.   They aren’t (I presume) because of decentralisation, but they’ve happened despite it.

 

The apostle of the tree god

There wasn’t going to be a post today but then someone sent me the link to a super-soft interview the Herald’s Liam Dann had done with Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr.   Had the Bank’s own PR consultants been scripting the interview it would scarcely have been softer (in fact, they might have advised a couple of serious questions to give the resulting interview a bit of credibility).

Orr will by next week have been in office for 11 months, wielding vast amounts of policymaking power singlehandedly, and yet we’ve still not had a single speech on either of his main areas of responsibility; monetary policy, and the regulation of much of the financial system.  But there is still time to play the tree god line (that’s the Herald headline: “Orr embraces the forest god”).

I’ve written about this silliness before.  Extracts

The latest example was the release on Monday of a rather curious 36 page document called The Journey of Te Putea Matua: our Tane Mahuta.   Te Putea Matua is the Maori name the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has taken upon itself (such being the way these days with public sector agencies).  It isn’t clear who “our” is in this context, although it seems the Governor  – himself with no apparent Maori ancestry – wants us New Zealanders to identify with some Maori tree god that –  data suggest –  no one believes in, and to think of the Reserve Bank as akin to a localised tree god.  Frankly, it seems weird.  These days, most New Zealanders don’t claim allegiance to any deity, but of those of us who do most –  Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, of European, Maori or any other ancestry – choose to worship a God with rather more all-encompassing claims.

But the Governor seems dead keen on championing Maori belief systems from centuries past.    In an official document of our central bank we read

A core pillar of the evolving Māori belief system is a tale of the earth mother (Papatūānuku) and the sky father (Ranginui) who needed separating to allow the
sun to shine in. Tāne Mahuta – the god of the forest and birds – managed this task after some false starts and help from his family. The sunlight allowed life to flourish in Tāne Mahuta’s garden.

This quote appears twice in the document.

All very interesting perhaps in some cultural studies course, but what does it have to do with macroeconomic management or financial stability?  Well, according to the Governor (in a radio interview on this yesterday) before there was a Reserve Bank “darkness was on our economy”.  The Reserve Bank was the god of the forest, and let the sun shine in.  Perhaps it is just my own culture, but the imagery that sprang to mind was that of people who walked in darkness having seen a great light.   But imagine the uproar if a Governor had been using Judeo-Christian imagery in an official publication.

On the same page we read

Many of these birds feature on the NZ dollar money including the kereru, kaka, and kiwi – core to our belief system and survival.

I’m a bit lost again as to who “our” is here.  I’m pretty sure I’m like most New Zealanders; I never saw a bird as “core” to my “belief system”.  Perhaps the Governor does, although if so we might worry about the quality of his judgements in other areas.

As I say, it is an odd document.  There are pages and pages that have nothing whatever to do with monetary policy or the financial system.  Some of it is even quite interesting, but why are we spending scarce taxpayers’ money recounting stories of New Zealand general history?  …. There is questionable history,….highly questionable and tendentious economic history, and overall a tone (perhaps comforting to today’s liberal political elite) that seems embarrassed by the European settlement of New Zealand.     There is lots on the difficulties and injustices that some Maori faced, and little or nothing on the advantages that western institutions and society brought.  Reasonable people might debate that balance, but it isn’t clear what the central bank –  paid to do monetary policy and financial stability –  is doing weighing in on the matter.

As I noted earlier, in a radio interview yesterday the Governor claimed that prior to the creation of the Reserve Bank ‘darkness was on our economy’, that the Reserve Bank had let the sunshine in, and that Australia and the UK had somehow turned their backs on us at the point the Bank was created.   In fact, here it is – Reserve Bank as tree god –  in the document itself.

The Reserve Bank became the Tāne Mahuta of New Zealand’s financial system, allowing the sun to shine in on the economy.

I think there was a plausible case for the creation of a central bank here, but to listen to or read the Governor you’d have no idea that New Zealand without a Reserve Bank had been among the handful of most prosperous countries in the world.  Here from the publication, writing about the period before the Reserve Bank was created

The infrastructure funding was further hindered by the banks being foreign-owned (British and Australian) and issuing private currency. Credit growth in New Zealand was driven by the economic performance of these foreign economies, unrelated
to the demands of New Zealand. Subsequent recessions in Britain and Australia slowed lending in New Zealand when it was most needed.

Very little of this stands much scrutiny.  You’d have no idea from reading that material that the New Zealand government had made heavy and persistent use of international capital markets, such that by 1929 it –  like its Australian peers –  had among the very highest public debt to GDP ratios (and NIIP ratios) ever recorded in an advanced country.  You’d have no idea that New Zealand was among the most prosperous countries around (like Australia and the United States, neither of which had had central banks in the decades prior to World War One).   You’d have no idea that the economic fortunes of New Zealand, trading heavily with the UK, might reasonably be expected to be affected by the economic fortunes of the UK –  terms of trade and all that.   Or that economic cycles in New Zealand and Australia were naturally quite highly correlated (common shocks and all that).  And of course –  with all the Governor’s talk about how we could “print our own money” – within five years of the creation of the Reserve Bank, itself after recovery from the Great Depression was well underway, that we’d not unrelatedly run into a foreign exchange crisis that led to the imposition of highly inefficient controls that plagued us (administered by the evil twin of the tree god?) for decades.  Or even that persistent inflation dates from the creation of the Reserve Bank

One can’t cover everything in a glossy pamphlet, even one that seems to purport to be aimed at adults (including Reserve Bank staff according to the Governor), but there isn’t much excuse for this sort of misleading and one-dimensional argumentation, aka propaganda.

The propaganda face of the document becomes clearer in the second half.   Among the issues the government’s review of the Reserve Bank Act is looking at is whether the prudential and regulatory functions of the Bank should be split out into a new standalone agency, a New Zealand Prudential Regulatory Authority.  …. There are arguments to be made on both sides of the issue, but you wouldn’t know it from reading about the Governor’s vision of the Bank as a Maori tree god, where one and indivisible seems to be the watchword.      Everything is about “synergies”, and nothing about weaknesses or risks, nothing about how other countries do things, nothing about the full range of criteria one might want to consider in devising, and holding to account,  regulatory institutions for New Zealand.

I don’t have any problem with officials, including from affected agencies, offering careful balanced and rigorous advice on the pros and cons of structural separation. But that is a choice ultimately for ministers and for Parliament.  And among the relevant considerations are issues of accountability and governance.  Neither word appears in Governor’s propaganda piece.   But then tree gods probably aren’t known for accountability.  New Zealand government regulatory institutions should be.   If ministers and Parliament decide to opt for structural separation, I wonder how the Governor will revise his document –  his tree god having been split in two.

Among the tree god’s claims about financial regulation and what the Bank brings to bear was this breathtaking assertion, prominently displayed at the head of a page (p27).

The Reserve Bank is highly incentivised to ‘get it right’ when it comes to prudential regulation. We have a lot at risk

It is an extraordinary claim, that could be made only be someone wilfully blind –  or choosing to ignore –  decades of serious analysis of government failure, and the institutional incentives that face regulators, regulatory agencies, and their masters.

There is nothing on the rest of that page to back the tree god’s claim.   On any reasonable and hardheaded analysis, the Reserve Bank has very weak incentives to “get it right”, or even to know –  and be able to tell us –  what “get it right” might mean.   When banks fail, neither the Reserve Bank Governor nor any of the tree god’s staff have any money at stake (at least in their professional capacity, and as I recall things, Reserve Bank staff – rightly –  aren’t allowed to own shares in banks).  It is all but impossible to get rid of a Reserve Bank Governor, and it is even harder to get rid of staff (for bad policy or bad supervision).  Most senior figures in central bank and regulatory agencies of countries that ran into financial crises 10 years ago, stayed on or in time moved on to comfortable, honoured (a peerage in Mervyn King’s case) retirements, or better-remunerated positions in the private sector.

And when the Reserve Bank uses its powers in ways that reduce the efficiency of the financial system, or stopping willing borrowers and willing lenders writing mortgage contracts, where are incentives on the Reserve Bank to “get things right”.  There are no personal consequences –  the Governor and his senior staff either won’t have, or would have no problem getting, mortgages.  The previous Governor got to exercise the bee in his bonnet about housing crises, and to play politics, with no supporting analysis and no effective accountability.    The current head of the tree god opines that lenders and borrowers can’t be trusted –  but tree gods apparently can –  but when challenged produced no analysis to support his claim.  That sort of system creates incentives for sure, but they aren’t to “get it right”.

End of extracts.  2019 here again.

The Governor was at it again in the interview, including running his bizarre version of economic history in which “sunshine” was let in upon the New Zealand economy in 1934  (there was also the surprising claim that the banks had chosen to graft themselves into the Reserve Bank, apparently oblivious to the fact that the main banks have been around New Zealand a lot longer than the Reserve Bank).

The Governor claims his metaphor is wildly popular –  except among “two bloggers” apparently (although I could give him a rather longer list of sceptics) –  and I’m sure it is in some quarters. It probably sounds cool, accessible, relevant and so on. But metaphors can be used for good and for ill, and the Governor attempting to have us all think of the Bank as akin to a tree god doesn’t serve the public interest well at all, even if it happens to suit his personal campaigns.

There were plenty more questionable claims made by the Governor is the course of the interview.  Some of them literally invite questions –  they might be true, or they might not, we just don’t know.  For example, the Governor claims that his proposed new capital requirements will be “in the pack” by international standards, but they’ve not yet shown any evidence to support this claim (especially once one takes account of their irrational distaste for cheaper Tier 2 capital, and for the high minimum overall risk weights they are planning to impose).  It should be a simple matter to put the evidence and analysis out there for scrutiny, but instead apparently we are simply supposed to trust this apostle of the tree god.

Then there was the claim –  made in the consulative document but not supported with one shred of serious analysis or evidence –  that the Bank’s proposed capital requirements will make the economy not only safer but also more efficient.  I’ve shown this chart previously

something for all

In today’s interview he explicitly asserted that New Zealand –  and all other advanced economies –  are to the “south-west” of that green dot.     Perhaps he’s right, but you’d think there would be some support offered for these “free lunch” claims.  It isn’t in the consultative document, it wasn’t in the Governor’s interview.  Perhaps  (at last) it will be in the Deputy Governor’s speech next week?

The interview ended with a super-soft invitation to the Governor to campaign for more taxpayer’s money, more staff, and more financial resources.   Perhaps there is a case for more  (actually I suspect there is).   But the idea that we should put more of our scarce money in his hands isn’t as persuasive as it should be when we get repeated doses of this tree god silliness, attempts at playing politics, repeated bold claims that just aren’t supported (complete with assertions that people who disagree him haven’t read his documents –  the problem is, they have), diversions onto all manner of things that just aren’t his responsibility, and a lack of serious –  as opposed to superficial –  transparency and accountability.

UPDATE: The interview and accompanying article might have been incredibly soft, but in many respects the sub-editors of the hard-copy Herald say it all with their headline on the front page of Saturday’s business section: “How Maori myth is guiding the Reserve Bank”.    Were it so –  and even I don’t think it really is –  it would explain a lot about the policy and comms mis-steps……

And as a commenter overnight observed

It shows how bad things have gotten in New Zealand – not so much that he makes these examples but because no one else even thinks to challenge it. Imagine the reaction if the Bundesbank president started discussing policy in terms of Odin and Thor…. he’d get locked up…

 

Unfit to govern

I’m probably the sort of person the National Party used to count on voting for them.   National was the only party I was ever a member of, the only party I ever canvassed for. There were family connections, and there were the founding principles, every one of which I identified with (and do still).   Even in Wellington, middle-aged conservatives might reasonably have been assumed to support National, even if (at times) through gritted teeth.  One of those founding principles talked, perhaps slightly quaintly, of “countering Communism”, and it seemed to be something taken fairly seriously throughout the post-war decades.  There was a suggestion of some values; a suggestion of things that mattered beyond just the next business deal.  Friends and allies, people and countries with whom we shared those values, seemed to count too.

But over the last couple of decades, New Zealand political figures, and the National Party ones in particular, seem to have binned any sense of decency, integrity, or values when it comes to Chinese Communist Party ruled China. I don’t suppose that individually most of them have much sympathy for PRC policies and practices, but they just show no sign of caring any longer.  Deals, donations, and indifference seem to be the order of the day.

Over the last couple of years the depths the party, its leaders and MPs, have been plumbing have become more visible.  In 2017, in government, they signed up to a Memorandum of Understanding with the PRC on the Belt and Road Initiative.  In that document they –  Simon Bridges as signatory –  committed to “promote” the “fusion of civilisations”.      Plenty of people will probably dismiss such statements as “meaningless”, the stuff of official communiques.  But decent people –  under no duress whatever –  don’t sign up to things suggesting that today’s equivalent of Nazi-ruled Germany is a normal and decent regime.  Of course, they would probably dispute the parallel, but that’s just willed deliberate blindness.

Later that same year we learned that the National Party had had a former PLA intelligence officer, Communist Party member, sitting in their parliamentary caucus.  It seems to be generally accepted that Jian Yang, of such a questionable background, is one of the party’s largest fundraisers.   Presumably the leaders (Key and Goodfellow) were aware of his past, but lets be generous and assume that most of the caucus was as unaware as the public.    But for the past 18 months, everyone has known.    They also know –  because Jian Yang acknowledged as much –  that he deliberately misrepresented his past to get into New Zealand, telling us that Beijing had told him (and others in his position) to do so.   Breathtakingly, there is no sign that official agencies in New Zealand have done anything about those admissions, but National is now out of office so I guess one can’t blame them for that.

But what the National Party –  leader, president, MPs, and all those holding office in the party –  is responsible for is the fact that Jian Yang still sits in Parliament, still sits in the National caucus, is still a National spokesman (on a couple of minor portfolios), with the express support of successive leaders, and (apparently) in ongoing business relationships with the party president (he who trots of to Beijing to praise the regime and its leader).   And not one MP, not one national councillor, no other officeholder –  not one –  has broken ranks, and been willing to openly question (or deplore) just what has gone on.  Doing so might, I suppose, jeopardise their individual futures.  But values are the things you are willing to risk for, to pay some price for.    Rumour hath it that some people within the party aren’t entirely comfortable, but so what, if you aren’t willing to do, or say, anything?

A few months ago we had the egregious former Minister of Trade, and foreign affairs spokesperson, Todd McClay plumbing new depths.    In an interview with Stuff, he championed the PRC regime interpretation of the mass internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, noting that

“the existence and purpose of vocational training centres is a domestic matter for the Chinese Government.”

If he’d just kept quiet at least there might have been some doubt about his decency, but he opened his mouth and left no doubt.  He was spinning for the CCP regime in Beijing.

Since then even the regime in Beijing has more or less admitted that, of course, that line isn’t true.  But we’ve heard nothing more –  and certainly no apology –  from Mr McClay or his leaders.

And, of course, every so often the National Party leader Simon Bridges pops up if there is ever the slightest sign that anyone in the current government is expressing even the mildest reservations about the regime in Beijing.  Never mind that the Defence strategy document stated no more (considerably less) than was obvious to blind Freddy, it was too much for Mr Bridges.  Never mind that reservations about Huawei seem to be increasingly widely shared by governments and intelligence agencies across the western world, it might lead to furrowed brows and discontent in Beijing, and we couldn’t have that could we?   Never mind too that, in government and in practice it is hard to conceive that things would have been any different on that particular score under National –  I don’t suppose even National is quite so far gone in Beijing’s thrall that they would simply walk away from Australia, the United States, a growing number of other western countries, and what appears to be assessments of our own intelligence services.    No sense at all in anything Bridges –  or any other National Party figure – says that the PRC itself has changed: bad as the regime always was, it has now become worse.

But it was comments the other day from National’s third-ranked member and finance spokesperson, Amy Adams, that really left me open-mouthed in astonishment.  Both at what she said –  even if it wasn’t far from what had seemed to be the National stance in practice –  but also at the lack of any other coverage of, or follow-up to, those remarks.    In an interview with NBR, (behind a paywall but here) we are told

National’s finance spokeswoman Amy Adams has accused the government of putting the economy at risk by offending China.

“The first thing is you don’t p[…] off your major trading partner and, let’s be really clear about this, China is our single biggest trading partner.”

Quite extraordinary.

One could clear the small things out the way first. For example, governments don’t trade with China, firms in New Zealand trade with firms in the PRC.  Sure, governments set some of the terms on which that trade occurs, but government isn’t a business.

One might also note that if the PRC is the largest “trading partner” for New Zealand firms, it is very similar in size to Australia in terms of total New Zealand trade.  Until about five years ago, the EU in total accounted for more of New Zealand’s trade than the PRC.  Australia remains by far the largest source of foreign investment in New Zealand.     And these days exports to each of our largest “trading partners” –  in an economy (New Zealand) that doesn’t trade much with the rest of world by international standards – account for about 5 per cent of  GDP, in total.  For many decades, a much larger proportion of our GDP was accounted for by trade with the UK.

Oh, and a large proportion of New Zealand exports (not all of course) are commodities, and if not sold in one market they will be sold in some other part of the global market.   PRC babies seem unlikely to stop drinking infant formula.

But what really staggered me was the bald sense in which National’s finance spokesperson appears to think that the interests and priorities of foreign governments are what should matter most to our government. Not our values, not our people.  On her telling, we’d never annoy Australia about anything (apple import cases to the WTO, illegal migrants/asylum-seekers on Nauru, New Zealand citizens being deported from Australia).    We’d never have taken on France over nuclear-testing (at a time when the UK was entering the EU, and trade access to our largest market was substantially in danger).  We’d never have fought for Imperial Preference for our exports to the UK in the 1930s.  We’d never have banned nuclear ships (the US wasn’t our largest trading partner, but the US and EU together were hugely important markets, and we relied on the UK government (Thatcher) to fight our corner for EU market access).  The then Australia government wasn’t best-pleased with that New Zealand policy choice either.   And more generally –  and much more dominant – Canada would never ever stand for itself on anything that involved the United States, or Ireland vis-a-vis the UK.  I suspect Denmark and the Netherlands had had significant trade ties to Germany pre-1940, but they didn’t exactly put out the welcome mat to Hitler.  Southern African countries chose to limit trade with Rhodesia, and confront South Africa, because they considered they had a just cause.  And so on.    (Note that I’m not endorsing all these causes, just noting the willingness of governments to upset their closest “trading partner”.)

Of course, this almost certainly isn’t what Ms Adams believes at all.   Presumably as a senior minister she had no problem at all with the fact that at times we had, and have, open differences with Australia.  In any relationship, no matter how important, there are going to be differences from time to time, and in international relations governments (at least democratic ones) aren’t supposed to act for themselves, or even for small favoured groups, but for the citizenry as a whole.

Instead, the Adams approach –  presumably endorsed by her leader –  is about a particular thuggish regime. It seems to be that we should defer entirely to Beijing’s prickly style and never ever do or say anything that might upset them, never display any self-respect, and simply engage in either anticipatory compliance or abject penitent submission.  Worse, apparently we should even make excuses for them –  or retail their propaganda lines, as per Todd McClay.  It is classic domestic abuse situation, and yet championed by someone who aspires to be a senior minister of a free country, perhaps even aspires to be the Prime Minister.   In fact, someone who was the Minister of Justice, who led legislative attempts to respond to the family violence problems.  I’m quite sure it wasn’t her advice to victims –  “oh, don’t upset him…ever”.    So why does she propose that our foreign policy towards the international abuser par excellence be essentially just that?  Act that way and all you do is encourage the abuser, and lock yourself further into the cycle of abuse, humiliation and loss of any sort of self-respect.

Of course, the difference here is that Adams ask us (citizens) to bear the abuse and humiliation –  leaders who remain silent in the face of evil, leaders who won’t stand up for the integrity of the system, and even spend our money to run PR-front organisations to champion the pro-Beijing perspective –  all to benefit a few specific businesses that have (consciously and knowingly) over-exposed themselves to a thuggish regime, and the substantial flow of donations to their own political parties.    Politicians like Adams simply encourage the over-exposure, and encourage the false subservience of victimhood.   If our businesses were dealing with organised crime, or with shonky people who didn’t pay their bills, we’d either insist or encourage them to cut their exposures.  If you deal with the Mafia you are on your own –  in fact, society will shun you, not tolerate you asking for us to pander to the leaders.  But when it is the PRC –  organised coercive threat if ever there was such –  our leaders simply want us to defer, and complain when their opponents show any sign of not being quite deferential enough to the bully.  And they simply let evil pass by, and in so doing make themselves complicit with –  and thus partly responsible themselves –  for the evil.

In his Beijing-deferential interview on the Herald website the other day, David Mahon tried to frame the current PRC upset with New Zealand as “the Chinese see it as akin to infidelity”.    What a sickening image, but perhaps one that brings us right around to the abused-spouse parallel.  New Zealanders made no vows to Beijing – although perhaps our craven political leaders did –  but when the merest squeaks are heard, the abuser – freshly drunk on newfound power – seems to feel free to attempt to squash and silence, while politicians, lobby groups and business interests cheer on not the abused “spouse” but the abuser.   New Zealand “leaders ” have been among the most sycophantic and compliant anywhere in the western world, so perhaps there is a sense that they can’t afford to let us get away with some renewed self-respect.  That, after all, might encourage others to think and act for themselves, for the values of their peoples.   Better to foster the illusion –  assisted by local politicians and academics –  that the PRC holds our prosperity in its hand.

It simply doesn’t. It never did.

But that’s New Zealand politics, that seems to be today’s National Party. It is sickening.

 

 

“This country has prospered over the past decade, while other economies have suffered”

Or not.

The title to this post was taken from the latest column from veteran political journalist Barry Soper.  Apparently he had had some readers get in touch, not entirely convinced by his PRC-related articles earlier in the week.

They all ignore the fact that this country has prospered over the past decade, while other economies have suffered.

The Key Government’s management of the global financial crisis has been lauded but without the free trade agreement, signed in the Chinese capital as the final act of the Clark Government, this country wouldn’t be where it is today.

The puerile keyboard warriors’ bile is too vile to repeat but it seems to be based on envy, that the Chinese, after generations of deprivation, have shown the world they can compete and are a force to be reckoned with.

I’m not sure quite what he bases these assertions on (although it is the sort of line that less well-grounded champions of Beijing, including former Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, have repeatedly tried to run).  “Be grateful, peasants” seems to be the tone, for the CCP in Beijing has graciously bestowed its bounty upon you.

I don’t want to waste much time on the alleged PRC success story.    When you do so much damage to yourself, and then stop the self-destruction, of course you’ve got plenty of ground to make-up, and with half-decent policies you can do some of that quite quickly.   Here are the latest Conference Board productivity estimates.

China GDP phw feb 19

The PRC……not even half the levels of Korea or (decades of underperformance) New Zealand, not a third of Taiwan or a quarter of Singapore.     Who could possibly envy that sort of performance?  There was no obvious reason why China could not have matched the performance of Korea, Japan, or Taiwan.  Except that they chose to adopt, and continue to run, a system that consistently produces poor economic results.

But what I was really interested in was the assertion that New Zealand has had a really good economic performance over the last decade “while other economies have suffered”.  I guess if Greece, or even Italy, is your benchmark it isn’t too far wrong.  But then almost everyone does better than those troubled euro-crippled economies.

One comparison I like, and which I’ve run before, is between New Zealand and the United States.   Were there anything to the “we owe such a debt to Beijing, and have done so well ourselves” story, an obvious place to look might be a comparison with the United States.  After all, the US was the epicentre of the financial crisis itself, their central bank got to the limits of what it could do, and no one thinks Beijing someone “saved” the US.   And yet here is how real GDP per capita compares across the two countries since late 2007, when the last recession began.

US and NZ comparison GDP

We’ve mostly done very slightly better than the US over the decade or so, but there really isn’t much in it.   Certainly not a case of the US suffering and us “prospering”, whether thanks to Beijing or any other cause.

And to the extent we’ve done a touch better, it certainly isn’t reflecting stronger productivity growth.  The data are indexed to 100 in 2007.

US nz productivity

It isn’t just an us versus the US comparison either.  Over that decade, real GDP per hour worked rose by 4.4 per cent, but in the median OECD country productivity growth was 8.9 per cent.

And if Beijing and the (so-called) free trade agreement were the source of any special New Zealand prosperity, exports might be an obvious place to look.  Except that over the previous decade New Zealand exports actually fell a little as a share of GDP.  In the United States, and in all but a handful of other OECD countries, exports became a larger share of the economy.

Even on more purely cyclical measures, New Zealand still doesn’t stand out (at least on the good side).  The unemployment, for example, has come down a long way, but it is still quite a bit above the lows reached before the recession (at a time when demographics will be tending to lower the “natural” rate of unemployment).    In the United States, by contrast, the unemployment rate is below pre-recession levels. That is also true across the G7 as a whole, the EU as a whole, and the OECD as a whole (individual bad euro-area countries notwithstanding).

And if you don’t like the idea of comparing against the US –  even though it was the centre of crisis, and doesn’t owe anything in particular to Beijing –  here is how we’ve done against another group of countries, each now with productivity levels similar to those in New Zealand (and few doing much trade with the PRC).   Since all these countries started (in 2007) with productivity well behind global frontiers, all should have been able to do okay even if productivity growth at the frontier (eg US and northwest Europe) slowed.

small countries

Many did pretty well.  As for us – Beijing (alleged) beneficence notwithstanding –  either worst or second worst depending on your preferred measure.

As I noted earlier on, there are countries that have done a great deal worse than us.   But the suggestion that we have “prospered” over the last decade –  in some way materially outstripping the rest of the advanced world –  isn’t just a myth. It is worse than that.   And the people who run the story, whether as senior journalists or senior politicians should know better.

Countries mostly make their own prosperity.  We once did –  those decades when we really did lead the world.    We could again, although that might involve facing facts.  But these days politicians and their acolytes in the media seem more interested in playing distraction; in this case continuing to corrupt our system, supported by motivated fantasy stories about our (alleged) success and our (alleged) debt to Beijing.

 

MPC remit and charter

The Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Reserve Bank today released the Remit and Charter for the new statutory Monetary Policy Committee, that takes effect from 1 April.  The Remit largely replaces the Policy Targets Agreement structure in place since 1990, and future remits will be set directly by the Minister of Finance, after advice from the Reserve Bank (among others) and associated public consultation.  The Charter is mostly new, governing how the MPC is supposed to operate in some key, outward-facing, dimensions. It complements various detailed statutory provisions.   Even though both documents are this time agreed between the Governor and the Minister, it is clear that the Minister has taken the lead: the press release is issued by the Minister alone, and although it is now reproduced on the Bank’s website, contains various bits of political spin.

The contents of the new Remit are in many respects pretty similar in substance to the current PTA, but there are a couple of changes worth noting.

One looks like an error.  In the Context section the Remit states that

“(the Act) requires that monetary policy promote the prosperity and wellbeing of New Zealanders”

That line took me by surprise so I went back and checked the new legislation.    The relevant provision actually states

The purpose of this Act is to promote the prosperity and well-being of New Zealanders,

Those are two different things.  The Remit –  which the Governor has voluntarily signed on to – can reasonably be read as suggesting that monetary policy should be conducted with “wellbeing” in mind.  The Act sets out statutory objectives for monetary policy (the things the MPC is supposed to pursue and take into account), simply stating that Parliament has put the legislation in place believing that the monetary policy goals (and other powers the Bank has, including regulation and supervision) will conduce to the wellbeing of New Zealanders.  The Remit shouldn’t have been worded that way.

My second observation about the Remit is more positive (and would be more positive still if the document hadn’t been released in a format in which one can’t copy and paste extracts).    It is stated that “monetary policy contributes to public welfare by reducing cyclical variations in employment and economic activity whilst maintaining price stability over the medium-term”.  I like that formulation, which is much closer to what I recommended should be the statutory goal for monetary policy.  Price stability is the constraint, economic stabilisation is the primary purpose.   Whether or not the wording is quite consistent with the actual new legislative goal is something for the MPC, and those paid to hold them to account, to work out.

What of the Charter?

My overarching unease about the MPC is that it will be dominated the Governor.  That is partly through the channel of the inbuilt management majority (and the Governor hires the other managers), and partly because of the heavy say the Governor will have in who gets appointed to the (minority) external positions.

But it is reinforced by the relentless, and explicit, drive for “consensus”.   This is from the Charter

consensus

“Consensus” isn’t a recipe for getting the best answers, but for lowest common denominator answers that everyone can live with.  It isn’t really a recipe for a robust examination of competing arguments and analyses either –  at least unless one has exceptional people (which is always unlikely, almost by definition) –  and especially when management has (a) an inbuilt majority, and (b) control of all the research and analysis resources (and of the pen in drafting MPSs etc).   The risk remain that outsiders, knowing they are inevitably outnumbered, and having ‘consensus’ waved in their faces will simply go along, free-riding.

The formal transparency model chosen is likely, at the margin, to reinforce this risk.  We are told that the record of the meeting will be published at the same time as the OCR announcement (2pm on Wednesday, following an MPC meeting that morning).  Even allowing for various preliminay meetings, the “record” of the meeting will inevitably be heavily pre-drafted by staff who work to the Governor, and the ability of outside MPC members to get any alternative perspectives included is going to be an uphill struggle.  Most central bank MPCs release minutes with something of a lag.   All that said, time will tell how it works out.

One interesting provision in the Charter was this

charter 1

charter 2

It was interesting for two reasons.  First, this provision appears to accept that significant operational decisions around monetary policy are the responsibility of the MPC.  That was not (is not, in my view) clear from the legislation.   If so, it is welcome, especially if it involves an expectation by the Minister that, for example, any future quantitative easing and similar decisions would also be a matter for MPC.  We’ll have to see.

Presumably this provision is supposed to cover the longstanding arrangements for possible foreign exchange intervention.  When I was at the Bank, the OCR Advisory Group (internal forerunner to the MPC) was the forum in which the Governor made in principle decisions on intervention, and specific timing choices etc were then dealt directly between the Governor and the Financial Markets Department.

If so, the specific provisions go much too far.   Perhaps there is a case at times for not announcing foreign exchange intervention immediately in some circumstances.  But there are no grounds for leaving the MPC to decide for itself when, if ever, specific information on intervention will be released (the implied movements in the Bank’s fx position come out more than a month later, and even then without comment of explanation).    At present, there probably is not much practical importance attaching to this point, but the system should be started as we mean to go on.  Much better to have insisted that all market intervention (size and nature, although not counterparties) should be disclosed within 10 days of such intervention.  Apart from anything else, these are big financial risks the taxpayer is (given no choice in) assuming.

My final observation on the charter offers kudos to the Minister.  There has been a great deal of talk about the need to seek consensus (which is still in the charter) and the claim had been made that this meant all MPC members should speak, if at all, with a single voice.  Bank management championed this (self-interestedly no doubt), despite the successful examples of countries like the UK, the US, and Sweden, and a year ago it seemed that they had persuaded the Minister of their view.  It was one reason why good people would probably have been deterred from applying for the external positions –  facing a built-in internal majority, and with no ability to articulate in public alternative perspectives, it wasn’t obvious that the positions offered more than sightseeing (looking at the innards of how the Bank works).  I’ve banged on about the issue for months, and I know others have also raised concerns.

And so imagine the pleasant surprise I got when I  got towards the end of the charter.

charter 3

I don’t have any particular problems with (a) or (b), although I can imagine some future disputes about what does and doesn’t contribute to the “overall effectiveness” of the monetary policy decision etc, since things that might muddy the water a bit in the short-term could easily strengthen the institution, and its accountability, in the medium term.  I also had no problem with (d) which is pretty much how Reserve Bank staff have operated for many years.

What caught my eye was (c), under which it appears that members of the MPC –  internal and external –  will be free to comment in public, expressing their own views on the economic situation, risks, and monetary policy.   On monetary policy itself, they are required to draw on official communications “as appropriate” –  and I’m sure they will, as appropriate.  But it doesn’t bind MPC members to agree with committee decision, or to endorse all the arguments the Governor himself might offer in support of the decision.  On the economy etc, they can say what they like (in substance) provided they do so politely  (as people typically do in transparent foreign central banks) and let their colleagues know in advance what they’ll be saying.  It is a material step forward relative to what we’ve been promised (although time will tell whether anyone, internal or external (and thus vetted for tameness by the Governor) ever utilises these provisions).

What is also interesting is some of the detail.  There is now an explicit written requirement that any off-the-record private remarks about monetary policy or the economic outlook have to be consistent with official MPC communications.  Presumably this also applies to the Governor (there is no suggestion it doesn’t) so if there are off-the-record expletive-laden rants at private commercial functions in future, at least they won’t be offering any insights on the economy and monetary policy.  Perhaps that Rotary Club advertising the Governor as offering candid perspectives on the New Zealand economy –  if you pay – will have to revise its plans?  More probably, the Governor probably won’t regard himself as bound by the rules.

And then there was the final sentence.  Any on-the-record remarks (occasions at which they will be made) will have to (a) notified to the public in advance, and (b) with full text on the Bank’s website in real-time.   In principle, this looks fine and sensible (although it is far from what has been practised by management up til now).  In practice, it will prevent MPC members giving interviews, and appears designed to ensure that the only communications are speeeches with written texts to which MPC members adhere closely.  But, again, there is no suggestion that these rules don’t apply to the Governor –  and his views are inevitably most market-moving.   So can we look forward to an end to off-the-record speeches from the Governor on matters of substance, and to wild departures from the prepared and published text.   After all, as the document says, MPC members shouldn’t provide, or look as though they are providing, new information to private subsets of people.     (Personally, I suspect the document goes a little too far.  It would probably be unfortunate if, say, the Governor cannot (as the document appears to suggest) give an interview to, say, Morning Report or one of the main current affairs programmes, so long as there is adequate public notification as to when and where he will be speaking.)

As I’ve said on various previous occasions, I’m pretty ambivalent about the monetary policy legislative amendments, and particularly about the MPC, which looks set to be a Governor-dominated creature, not too different in effect from what we’ve had for the last 29 years.  But credit where it is due.  There are some welcome aspects in the details of today’s announcement and I, quite honestly, hope the new system works better than I expect it to.    Who knows, the less closed nature of the rule may even help attract a better class of candidate to consider the MPC position.

For now, of course, we are still left guessing who four of the seven MPC members will be.

See, not so hard after all

Back in November 2017, just after the government took office, the Reserve Bank in its Monetary Policy Statement identified various assumptions they had made about the impact of various of the new government’s policies.  Some of these assumptions made quite a difference to the outlook, but no analysis or reasoning was presented to give us any confidence in the assumptions they were (reasonably or unreasonably) making. One of those new policies was KiwiBuild.

Seeing as the Bank is a powerful public agency, it seemed only reasonable to request copies of any analysis undertaken as part of arriving at the assumptions policymakers were using.   The Bank refused and many many months later the Ombudsman backed them up (if ever there was a case for an overhaul of the Official Information Act, this was a good example).  The Ombudsman did point out that he had to rule as at the date the request had been made.  So, a year having passed, I again requested this material.  The Bank again refused (and I haven’t yet gotten round to appealing to the Ombudsman).     Quarter after quarter the Monetary Policy Statements talk about KiwiBuild, but we’ve never seen any supporting analysis.   A state secret apparently.

Until yesterday that is.  In the latest Monetary Policy Statement there was the usual discussion of KiwiBuild –  potentially a big influence on one of the most highly-cylical parts of the whole economy –  but there was also a footnote pointing readers to an obscure corner of the Bank’s website, and a special background note on KiwiBuild, and the assumptions the Bank is making.  All released simultaneous with the statement itself.   See, it just wasn’t that hard.  And has the sky fallen?

(As it happens I remain rather sceptical of the assumption that KiwiBuild is going to be a significant net addition to total residential investment over the next decade.  Why would it, when the main issues in the housing market are land prices and, to a lesser extent, construction costs, and it isn’t obvious how KiwiBuild deals with either of them?  If it proves to be a net addition, it will probably be because it is a subsidy scheme for the favoured –  lucky – few.)

As for the overall tone of the monetary policy conclusions to the statement, count me sceptical.  At one level it is almost always true that the next OCR move could be up or down –  and in that sense most forecasting (especially that a couple of years ahead) is futile: useless and pointless.   But for the Governor to suggest that the risks now are really even balanced, even at some relatively near-term horizon, seems to suggest he is  falling into the same trap that beguiled the Bank for much of the last decade; the belief that somewhere, just around the corner, inflation pressures are finally going to build sufficiently that they will need to raise the OCR.   We’ve come through a cyclical recovery, the reconstruction after a series of highly-destructive earthquakes, strong terms of trade, and a huge unexpected population surge, and none of it has been enough to really support higher interest rates. The OCR now is lower than it was at the end of the last recession, and still core inflation struggles to get anywhere 2 per cent.    There is no lift in imported inflation, no significant new surges in domestic demand in view, and as the Bank notes business investment is pretty subdued.  Instead actual GDP growth has been easing, population growth is easing, employment growth is easing, confidence is pretty subdued, the heat in the housing market (for now at least) is easing.  Oh, and several of the major components of the world economy –  China and the euro-area  –  are weakening, and the Australian economy (important to New Zealand through a host of channels) also appears to be easing, centred in one of the most cyclically-variable parts of the economy, construction.   It was surprising to see no richness or depth to any of the international discussion –  and to see the Bank buying into the highly dubious line that any slowing in China is mostly about the “trade war”.   Few other observers seem to see it that way.

From a starting point with inflation still below target midpoint after all these years, it would seem much more reasonable to suppose that if there is an OCR adjustment in the next year or so, it is (much) more likely to be a cut than an increase.      Time will tell, including about how long the 1.5 per cent lift in the exchange rate will last.

Commendably, the Bank is now talking openly about many other economies have limited capacity to respond to a future serious downturn.  That is welcome acknowledgement, but it would count for more if the Bank were taking seriously the real (if slightly less binding) constraints New Zealand will also face in the next future serious downturn.

A couple of other things in the document caught my eye.  One was this chart

NAIRU 2019

The Bank seems to be trying to tell us that it really has no idea whether the unemployment was above or below the NAIRU at any time in the last 17 years.  I don’t suppose in practice they operate that way, but when they present a chart like this it is a bit hard to take seriously the other bits of their economic analysis.

The other specific was some rather upbeat comments on productivity performance in recent years, which has led the Bank to the view that they now to expect no acceleration in productivity growth in the years ahead.  The Governor always seems to err on the (politically convenient) upbeat side.  I’m not sure quite how the Bank derives their productivity measure –  I’m guessing as some sort of per person employed measure –  but as a reminder to readers here is the chart of real GDP per hour worked, the standard measure of labour productivity.  To deal, to some extent, with the noise in the individual series, I use both measures of quarterly GDP and both (HLFS and QES) measures of hours.

real GDP phw dec 18

There has been no labour productivity growth for the last three or four years, and little for the last six or seven.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bank is right to expect no acceleration (on current policies), but if we keep on with near-zero labour productivity growth it is a rather bleak prospect for New Zealanders.

A great deal of the press conference was taken up with questions –  generally not very sympathetic –  about the Governor’s proposals to increase substantially capital requirements for banks.   In the course of the press conference he and Geoff Bascand made some reasonable points –  including about the merits of putting the big 4 banks and the smaller banks on a more equal footing in calculating requirements – and at least fronted up on the other questions.  It is just a shame this was being done reactively now, rather than pro-actively when the proposals were first released in December.

I remain rather sceptical of the Bank’s case –  in which everything is a win-win, in which the economy is safer, more prosperous, and even with lower interest rates.  If you doubt that I’m characterising their bold claims correctly, this is the stylised diagram that leads the consultative document.

something for allIt is a free lunch they are claiming to offer.  I suspect few will be convinced.

In the course of the press conference, the Governor asserted that the Bank’s proposals will, if implemented, mean that future capital ratio requirements would be “well within the range of norms” seen in other countries.  I found that a surprising claim, and there is nothing –  not a word – in the consultative document to back it up.  If true, it would be material in thinking about the appropriateness of the Bank’s proposals.  But where is the evidence (granting that this is something that can’t be answered in a ten second Google search)?  I’ve lodged an Official Information Act request for the analysis the Governor is using to support his claim.  It would, surely, be in his interests to have such analysis out there.

Also at the press conference, there was the hardy perennial claim that inflation expectations are “well-anchored” at 2 per cent, and everyone believes that monetary policy is just fine.  As my hardy perennial response, here are inflation breakevens from the government bond (indexed and conventional) market.  The last observation is today’s data.

IIB breakevens feb 19

People with money at stake don’t seem to believe you Governor.  Last time things got this low a series of OCR cuts only helped, at least partially, rectify the position.

And, finally, who does the Bank suppose gets any value at all from the cartoon version of the statement?  For example

cartoon

Is the Monetary Policy Statement now a set text in intermediate school?  If the kids are especially naughty do they have to read it twice?   Even your average MP, sitting on the Finance and Expenditure Committee and supposedly holding the Bank to account, has to be able to cope with a little more than that.  I’m not expecting much of the new statutory MPC, but perhaps they could prevail on the Governor to drop the cartoons and simply write in reasonably accessible English?

Later this morning we get the Remit (PTA replacement) and Charter for the new Monetary Policy Committee.  I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts about them tomorrow.