Officials in pursuit of more powers

It is a big few weeks for the Reserve Bank and, in particular, the Governor.   This week the Monetary Policy Committee is gathering for its deliberations leading to next week’s  Monetary Policy Statement.  A couple of weeks later there is the Governor’s six-monthly Financial Stability Report,  and the week after that we are told that the Governor will descend from the mountain-top and reveal his decision on bank capital.   There are at least two press conferences scheduled (MPS and FSR) and given that he has deliberately chosen to release the momentous capital decision only after the FSR press conference one has to hope that he will make himself available to explain and defend his choices (and, although he has staff, all the decisions –  and responsibility for them –  are his alone).

Meanwhile stories rumble around about the possibility that the Bank’s Board has,for once, found its voice and suggested to the Governor that he needed to change his style.  I heard yesterday another version of a story that culminated in the Governor yelling at the chair of the Board after the latter (so it was reported) suggested that aspects of the Governor’s conduct were unacceptable.   I have no way of knowing whether these stories are true, or are just wishful thinking, but given the quiescent and deferential track record of the Board over many years, it would be perhaps a little surprising if there was nothing to the stories now.

One of the other projects the Reserve Bank has underway, which attracts less attention and controversy, is that around the future of cash.  It is both an apt issue to be focusing on and, at the same time, something of an odd one.  And, remarkably, in the discussion document the Bank put out a few months ago there was no mention –  at all, as far as I can see – of the most immediately pressing issue: the limits on the ability to cut the OCR that arise because of the (near) free option people have to shift from bank deposits etc to physical cash.

The future of (physical) cash is somewhat of an odd issue to be focusing on because cash outstanding has been rising relative to GDP.    This chart is from the Bank’s discussion document

cash 1.png

It tends to exaggerate the point, by starting from the trough.  Here is a longer-term chart from a post I wrote on these issues a while ago

notes and coin

All else equal, when interest rates are very low (and inflation is low too) people are more ready than otherwise to hold on to physical cash.  Of course, quite who is actually holding the cash, and for what purpose, is a bit of a mystery, one not really addressed in either the Bank discussion document or in the poll results they published last week, framed in terms of a high preference for using electronic payments media whenever possible.

The Bank included an interesting chart in its document illustrating that although the ratio of cash to GDP is quite low in New Zealand, the rise in that ratio wasn’t out of line with what has been seen in quite a few other advanced countries.  Sweden and Norway –  where the ratios have fallen –  are outliers.

cash 3.png

There is quite a strong suggestion that in the most recent period a big part of what is holding up currency in circulation was the surge in overseas tourism, especially from China.

cash 4

Overseas tourism remains one of the areas where physical cash is much more likely to be used than in normal domestic spending.

Notwithstanding these routine and entirely legitimate uses of physical cash, it is still hard not to conclude that a large chunk of the physical cash on issue –  in excess of $1000 per man, woman, and child –  is held to facilitate illegal transactions, including tax evasion.   That was Rogoff’s view, and as I wrote about here he –  against my priors – converted me to that way of thinking.

So there would seem to be no risk of cash disappearing from the New Zealand scene any time soon.   And yet the monetary policy constraint arguments, that the Bank simply doesn’t address in its discussion document, suggest that if anything the use of Reserve Bank cash (and especially the potential use of cash) should be constrained more tightly than at present.  The Governor may repeatedly assert that unconventional monetary policy options will do just fine, but few other people would look at the international experience of the last decade without thinking that monetary policy ran into limits.  Those limits arise mostly because of the non-interest bearing nature of the cash and the near-free option of converting into physical cash if returns on other short-term securities go, and are expected to stay, materially negative.

This limit need not exist, or at very least could be greatly eased.  Abolish the $100 note, for example, and at very least you double physical storage costs of secure large cash holdings.  Abolish the $50 note and you more than double the costs again (while the ability to give your kids pocket money in cash, or to use cash at the school fair isn’t materially affected).  That was, basically, Ken Rogoff’s argument in the US (restrict central bank notes to no more than $20 bills).  I’ve argued for one of a range of more-wholesale solutions that have been proposed: put a physical limit (perhaps indexed to nominal GDP) on the volume of currency in circulation (perhaps with overrides for bank runs), and auction the right to purchase new issuance (there is no reason why newly-issued cash has to trade at par).  Do that –  perhaps even set the limit fairly generously –  and the effective lower bound, as a convertibility risk issue, is abolished at a stroke.

This is coming close to being a fairly immediate issue.  No one supposes the Reserve Bank could, on current technologies, usefully cut the OCR by 200 basis points or more in a new recession, and yet in typical New Zealand recession something more like 500 basis points has been required.

It is pretty staggering that they haven’t addressed these considerations at all in their document.  Instead, having had submissions (lots of them) on the first consultation document, they issues another consultation document (deadline for submissions tomorrow) bidding for more Reserve Bank powers over the currency system.

The currency system seems to have rubbed along tolerably well for the 85 years since Parliament gave the Reserve Bank a statutory monopoly on the issuance of bank notes  (it seemed to function just fine in the earlier decades as well: whatever the case for setting up a Reserve Bank there was never a robust case for the statutory monopoly on bank notes).

But none of that deters the Reserve Bank.  It is a rare bureaucracy that looks to shrink itself, or is averse to an expansion of its powers, and the modern Reserve Bank seems to be no exception.  This is their bid

cash 5.png

As they note, there is no need for any such powers at present.  Which really should be determinative.  It isn’t like preparing for an extreme national disaster, where it makies sense to have some precautionary powers on the books.  This is about a payments media that is gradually being used less and less (for payments) and where change is exceptionally unlikely to happen overnight.     Were there ever to be severe problems, surely Parliament could address such issues when they arose, rather than inventing new laws now –  and delegating the use to unelected, not very accountable, officials –  just on the off chance?

There should be a strong pushback against this bid for power.  Their (short) document makes no compelling case for legislative action –  and more discretionary regulatory power – now.  Indeed, as they note

There is a host of international examples where cash system participants have found different solutions to fit their unique economies.

It is what the private sector does –  innovate in response to market incentives and opportunities.  They worry –  as busy bureaucrats will –  that “no single organisation has system-wide oversight of the cash system or a formal role to support it”.   There is no such organisation for, say, the corner dairy sector either.  Nor an obvious need for one –  let alone for the government to be taking charge.  They complain that they don’t have information gathering powers over participants who aren’t banks, but offer no analysis or convincing demonstration as to why they should have such powers.

They offer no analysis either as to why the market could adequately manage issues around ATMs or other processing machines, or even for the quality of the notes retained in circulation.    Much of it seems to be made up on the fly –  so it seems, to catch the decisionmaking process around other changes to the RB Act.  Thus they talk of powers to compel banks to distribute cash, but seem to have thought through very of this bid for power for hypothetical circumstances.  This, for example, is the last substantive paragraph of the document.

How accountability would be defined under such regulation, and therefore how sanctions could be applied, warrants further consideration. Banks could be held collectively accountable for the provision of cash services, meaning that banks would share the responsibility for providing access to cash, and all banks within scope would face sanctions for each case of noncompliance. This would be a novel regulatory structure in New Zealand, but might be practically workable and might encourage greater cooperation among banks. Alternatively, each bank could be individually accountable for the provision of certain services in certain areas. However, this presents challenges around how accountability is allocated. Both options present considerable practical challenges, which will need to be investigated in consultation with relevant parties if any policy is developed.

Doesn’t exactly instill much confidence.

Many of the problems the Reserve Bank worries about (perhaps arising one day) would, in any case, largely be a reflection of the statutory monopoly on banknotes. So perhaps a better legislative route would be to look at repealing that restriction –  simple one clause amendment to the Act would do it –  and allow banks to issue their own notes.   Perhaps it is now a little late for that, but we don’t know if we keep on ruling out the opportunity for innovation.  It might be considerably cheaper for banks to issue their own notes (as they issue their own deposits) –  since they wouldn’t have to worry about returning them to a central point for value –  and, conceivably, technological innovation might even allow interest-bearing bank notes  (it is the zero interest nature of  the existing notes that creates the lower bound issue for monetary policy).

Bids for new regulatory powers are often a response to issues, problems (or possible future risks) thrown up by existing regulatory or legislative interventions.  The Bank’s latest bid for more discretionary powers seems exactly in that class of bureaucratic initiatives.   The Minister of Finance should say firmly no to this latest bid, should insist on the Bank openly addressing the effective lower bound issue, and might consider asking the Bank what public policy end –  other than higher taxes –  is served by maintaining the 85 year old monopoly on note issuance.  We got rid of most statutory monopolies a long time ago.

 

Keep the focus on monetary policy

As we approach the OCR decision this afternoon and as some market economists are now talking about the possibility that the OCR could be below 1 per cent before too long, there has been more and more talk about whether fiscal policy should be brought to bear, to stimulate demand and (in some sense) assist monetary policy in its macroeconomic stabilisation role.  Just this morning there was an editorial in the Herald, a column on Stuff, and a comment from Bernard Hickey at Newsroom.   Some of the discussion is about what should be done now, and the rest is about contingency planning –  what happens when the next serious recession happens if the OCR is still constrained.

Much of the discussion seems to stem from people on the left who aren’t that happy with the government’s fiscal policy.  As someone not on the left, it has always seemed strange to me that Labour and the Greens pledged themselves to keep much the same size of government (and much the same debt) as National –  especially when, at the same time, you were running round the country talking about severe underspending on this, that, and the other thing.   I’m also of the view that structural budget surpluses are a bad thing, in principle, when net government debt is already acceptably low (on the OECD measure of net general government financial liabilities, New Zealand is now about 0 per cent of GDP, which seems like a nice round number – an anchor – to target).  There is an argument there –  whether from left or right – for some fiscal adjustment (taxes or spending), which might have the effect of a bit more of a boost to demand.

But those arguments really have almost nothing to do with the situation facing monetary policy.    They are fiscal and political arguments that should be made, and scrutinised, on their own merits: the arguments would be as good (or not) if the OCR was still 2.5 per cent as they are now, and you can be pretty sure that people on the left would have been making them then anyway?   The Governor of the Reserve Bank, for example, (a pretty staunch representative of the centre left) seemed keen on more infrastructure spending a year ago.  I guess he is a voter to so is entitled to his opinion, but it really doesn’t have much to do with monetary policy.

The general arguments that led countries around the world to adopt monetary policy more exclusively as the primary stabilisation policy tool have not changed.  Monetary policy can be adjusted quickly (to ease or tighten), operates pervasively (gets in all the cracks, without making specific distributional calls), is transparent, and so on.  If we had a fixed exchange rate –  as individual euro area countries largely do –  it would be a bit different (individual countries don’t have the monetary policy option any longer) but we have a floating exchange rate system which, mostly, works well for New Zealand.

To the extent that there is a monetary policy connection to the current calls for fiscal policy to be used (or the ground prepared to use it), it has to do with the looming floor on nominal interest rates.  International experience suggests that, on current laws and technologies, short-term nominal interest rates can’t be reduced below about -0.75 per cent without becoming ineffective (as more and more people shifted from other financial instruments into physical cash).  We don’t know quite where that floor is, as no central banks has been willing to take the risk of going further, but there is a fair degree of consensus (and it has long been my view too).

But that still means that in a New Zealand context there is 200 basis points of OCR cuts that could be used if required.    That isn’t enough for a typical New Zealand recession (rates have often been cut by 500bps), but is still quite a degree of leeway if what we are entering were to turn out to be a fairly mild slowdown in New Zealand.  It could (I’m not hedging here).   That capacity should be used energetically, not timorously.   So the issue –  monetary policy needing “mates” deployed now –  is not immediate.  It is about preparing the ground.

And there, the best macro stabilisation option remains the one the Reserve Bank –  and other central banks –  have done nothing active about, but really should.  Authorities (and it probably needs political support to do so) should be moving to make the effective floor on short-term nominal interest rates much less binding than it is.   It binds because the practice of central banks –  perhaps backed by law – has been to sell banknotes, in unlimited quantities, at par.   That practice can be changed.  It could be as simple as putting an (adjustable) cap on the volume of notes in circulation (quite a bit above the current level, but not at a level that would be transformative) and then, say, auctioning the right to buy additional tranches of bank notes from the Reserve Bank.  In normal times –  with the OCR at, say, current levels – the auction price would be at par.  If the OCR were cut to, say, -3 per cent (and be expected to stay there for some time) the auction price would move well above par, acting as a disincentive on people to attempt to make the switch from deposits to cash.  There is a variety of other ideas in the literature, as well (no doubt) as much less efficient regulatory interventions that could prevent really large-scale conversions happening.

Unusual as such options may sound, this is where the authorities –  here and abroad –  should really be concentrating their energies: giving monetary policy more leeway, in ways that will buttress market confidence that monetary policy will do the job when it is required.  At present, by contrast, when market participants contemplate a severe downturn they look into an abyss wondering what, if anything, will eventually be done, by whom, and for how long.  In a serious downturn that will just worsen the problem, driving down inflation expectations as economies slow (note that in the RB survey out yesterday, medium-term inflation expectations fell away quite noticeably –  and this while we still have conventional monetary policy to use).   And if there are objections that all this is somehow “unnatural”, bear in mind that had the inflation target been set at zero (rather than 2 per cent), as was the normal average inflation rate for centuries, we’d already have run into these practical limits, and been unable to get real interest rates even as low as they are now.

So there is plenty to be done with monetary policy, and the work programme to do it should be something open and active, drawing in the Bank, the Treasury, the Minister, and other interested parties.  The time to do preparation is now, not in the middle of a surprisingly severe downturn.

I have a few other reasons –  than “it shouldn’t be necessary” –  to be wary of calls for large scale fiscal stimulus now.  Just briefly:

  • there would be little agreement on what should be done –  these are inherently intensely political issues.  There is lots of talk of infrastructure gaps etc, but no agreement on what those are, let alone recognition of the twin facts that (a) the best projects, with the highest economic returns, have probably already been done, and (b) New Zealand government project evaluation is not such as to inspire confidence that new projects would add economic value.    And suppose there were attractive roading projects –  perhaps central Wellington and the second Mt Vic tunnel? – we know the attitude of the government’s support partner to new major roads.  Not a thing.  So what should we then spend on?  Uneconomic new railway lines?  Or what?  Perhaps some just favour more consumption or transfers spending – which might be fine if you are a lefty who believes in permanently bigger government, but if you aren’t the issue has to be addressed of how programmes once put in place are unwound later.
  • I don’t rule out the possible case for discretionary fiscal stimulus in the event of a new severe recession (especially if the authorities refuse to address the monetary policy issues above) but my prediction is that (in many ways fortunately) the political appetite for large deficits would not last very long, and that therefore we should preserve the option for when it might really be needed.  It isn’t now.   I take much of the rest of the world after 2008 as illustrations of my point: in late 2008 all the talk was of fiscal stimulus, but within two or three years all the political pressure was to pull deficits back again.  I don’t see why New Zealand would be any different (and that is to our credit, since low and stable debt has become established as a desirable baseline).
  • And thirdly, a point we don’t often hear from champions of more fiscal stimulus, relying more on fiscal policy and less on monetary policy to support economic activity and demand will, all else equal, put more upward pressure on the real exchange rate, further unbalancing an already severely-unbalanced economy (see yesterday’s long-term chart of the real exchange rate).  In a severe recession –  when the NZD tends to plummet –  that isn’t a particular problem, but it should be a worry now (when the TWI is still a bit higher than it was a year ago, let alone thinking about the longer-term imbalances.

Perhaps the Governor and the (experts-excluded) Monetary Policy Committee will proactively address some of these issues this afternoon. I do hope so. If not, I hope some journalists take the opportunity to push the Governor on why he (and the Minister and Treasury) aren’t actively pursuing work to make the lower bound on nominal interest rates much less binding, in turn instilling confidence in the capacity of New Zealand policy to cope conventionally with a severe downturn if/when it happens.

Oh, and I do hope some journalists might also ask the Governor this afternoon about the justification for ruling out from consideration for appointment to the Monetary Policy Committee

“any individuals who are engaged, or who are likely to engage in future, in active research on monetary policy or macroeconomics”

The Governor is, after all, a Board member and was one of the three person interview panel.    What was it that he –  or the Board generally –  were afraid of?    Expertise?  An independent cast of mind?  Of course, it isn’t only active researchers who have such qualities –  indeed, not all of them do either –  but it simply seems weird, and without precedent in serious central banks elsewhere in the advanced world, to simply disqualify from consideration for the (part-time) MPC anyone with the sort of background that many other central banks (Australia, the UK, the euro area, Sweden, the United States, and so on) have found useful, as one part of a diverse committee.

Can anything good come out of the ANZ?

ANZ’s New Zealand operation has had a bad run lately, what with the problems around the version of a model they were using for calculating operational risk capital, and then yesterday’s announcement of the loss of their CEO.    Perhaps it is a failure of imagination on my part, but I can’t claim that either episode greatly bothered me, whether as a customer or more generally.  Yes, both incidents suggest a degree of untidiness that isn’t ideal,  but it is a big organisation and they were pretty small issues.  Perhaps it suggests the local board doesn’t amount to much, but why would that surprise anyone?   Local incorporation is mostly about having (a) some assets that we can be reasonably sure will be available to meet local liabilities in the (very low probability) event of a major bank failure, and (b) having someone to prosecute if governance failures proved to have risen to a prosecutable standard (a reason for the otherwise questionable requirement for some of the directors to be locally resident).   Beyond that, it makes sense for the whole of the ANZ group to be able to be run, as far as possible, as a single entity.

But rather lost amid the headlines yesterday was a very useful new piece from the ANZ’s economics team, “Prospects for unconventional monetary policy in New Zealand”.   It is a very substantial piece of analysis, which gets into quite a lot of detail on how New Zealand might handle a situation in which the conventional limits of monetary policy had been exhausted (ie when the OCR has been cut to some modestly negative level).    I would encourage anyone with even a passing interest in the topic to read it.

Pretty much ever since this blog began in 2015 I have been lamenting the apparent failure of the Reserve Bank to take this issue very seriously.  It never popped up in Statements of Intent or gubernatorial speeches (in the days when we had a Governor who made them), even though many other countries had run into those limits in the last recession, and in most cases the pace of economic recovery had been disconcertingly slow.    Back in 2013 or 2014, perhaps the Bank had some small excuse –  the then management was so convinced the OCR was heading back up (and by a lot) that effective lower bounds just didn’t seem like an issue New Zealand needed to worry about.     But that was five years ago, and the OCR now is 1.5 per cent not the (say) 5 per cent the Bank might have hoped for.

In the last 18 months, there has been some movement by the Bank,  Last year, they published a Bulletin article surveying the experiences of other countries with unconventional monetary policy, and then offering some initial thoughts on options for New Zealand.   I wrote about that article here, welcoming the fact that it had been done, and the survey of other countries’ experiences, but regretting an apparent degree of complacency by the Bank about the New Zealand situation and the likely effectiveness of such policy tools.   That complacent tone characterised various comments the Governor has made at MPS press conferences: lots of handwaving, little hard analysis, and no engagement at all with just how slow the recovery was in most countries that were reduced in unconventional measures.    As I noted, central bank complacency risked coming at a cost –  a cost not to the comfortable central bankers themselves, but to those left unnecessarily unemployed for long periods of time.

The new ANZ piece is valuable for a number of reasons.  First, it will be more widely disseminated than the Reserve Bank article.  Second, it isn’t from the Reserve Bank (we need a wider range of discussion and debate around these isses and risks), and third, it goes into more operational detail (around important features of existing RB liquidity facilities etc) in several places than anything previously in the public domain.

I don’t agree with everything in the ANZ piece, and in particular I was surprised by the number of references to how distortionary or risky unconventional policies have been in other countries.  The rather bigger issue is that they mostly have not achieved much, at least once we got beyond the immediate crisis period (and this is a distinction the ANZ authors make).    As I’ve noted here repeatedly, there is little or no evidence that –  whatever the initial announcement effects –  long-term bond rates have fallen further relative to policy rates in countries that used unconventional policies than in countries that did not.

There was a useful reminder that some official RB interest rates will go negative well before the OCR itself gets to a negative number.    This is from their document

ANZ ZLB

The Bond Lending Facility is a facility whereby market participants can borrow bonds from the Reserve Bank (to support smooth market functioning) and, as the authors note, is little used.

The ANZ authors put more emphasis on the penalty on excess balances in settlement accounts.  I wrote about the Bank’s strange tiering policy in a recent post, but the gist is that the Bank determines for each bank what value of deposits at the Reserve Bank earn the OCR, and anything in excess of that earns 100 points less than the OCR.   Banks manage their settlement cash balances to minimise the extent to which anyone bears that lower return  But if the OCR were at -0.25 per cent, the rate on excess settlement account balances would be -1.25 per cent on current policies.   All else equal, that is a rate low enough that (a) no one else has imposed it, and (b) people might prefer to hold physical cash instead.

I’m a bit sceptical that this is a really important constraint on the ability of the Reserve Bank to use conventional monetary policy down to an OCR of around -0.75 per cent, since there is little reason to suppose the level of settlement cash balances would be rising as the OCR plumbed these new depths (if anything demand might be falling a bit), and banks would –  as the Bank would want –  be aggressively acting to limit the extent anyone bore the additional cost.   But it is an issue that is worth debating further, and which would become salient quite quickly if the Bank went beyond OCR cuts and started using unconcventional measures to boost settlement cash balances materially.  In earlier work, it was recognised that tiering policy would probably need to change if there was aggressive unsterilised asset purchases.

The authors rightly note many of the potential limitations of asset purchase options.  Sure, the Reserve Bank might be able to buy up a substantial portion of the government bonds on issue –  although some holders will be very reluctant sellers, having mandates that specify investment in government bonds –  but even if they could, what would be the channel whereby this would revive demand and economic activity (few borrowers took on long-term fixed rate debt).   And the Bank might be able to intervene heavily in the foreign exchange market –  perhaps on ministerial direction, to ensure the risks fall on the Crown –  but they’d likely be selling the New Zealand dollar when it was already undervalued, and if the OCR can’t go below -0.5 or -0.75 per cent, it isn’t likely that the exchange rate effect would be very large.  Intervening in the interest rate swaps market has been an idea around for a decade, and I’ve never been persuaded it would accomplish much.

But the options and issues really should be more widely debated, and the Reserve Bank and The Treasury should be taking the lead in encouraging open debate and serious scrutiny of the New Zealand specific issues.  As ANZ notes, perhaps interventions can be devised on the fly, but there is no excuse for finding ourselves in that position when we have had 10 years advance notice of the problem.  Adrian Orr’s tree god won’t offer the answers, no matter much Orr invokes Tane Mahuta.

My frustration is that thinking doesn’t seem to have advanced much at all in the ten years. I dug through some old files this morning, and among them I found a paper I’d written at Treasury in 2009 (benefiting from discussion with Reserve Bank staff)  on options if we reached the limits of conventional monetary policy.  I also found a discussion note I’d written in 2011 trying to engender some debate around the legislative provisions that support the near-zero lower bound on nominal interest rates, and was reminded of the report of a Bank working group I lead in 2012 on options if we faced near-zero interest rates (sparked by the intensity of the euro crisis then).  But nothing from either the Reserve Bank or The Treasury that has found its way into the public represents any advance on that thinking and work done up to a decade ago.  It really is pretty inexcusable.  It is almost as if our officials and minister think everything worked just fine in other countries after 2009 –  it clearly didn’t –  or they just don’t care.

Specifically –  and this is a criticism of the ANZ note as well (not even mentioning the issue) – there has been nothing done, no debate held, no analysis published, on dealing with fact that at present people can convert limitless amounts into hard currency, and will do so at some point once interest rates on other instruments (wholesale ones in particular) are substantially negative.   Here was what I wrote on that point in my post last year on the Reserve Bank’s article.

It is striking that the article does not engage at all with either of the two more radical options debated in other places and other countries:

  • reconfiguring the target for monetary policy.   This could take the form of a higher inflation target or, for example, the use of a price level or nominal GDP level target.  Each approach has its weaknesses, but either –  done in advance of the next serious downturn, not in midst when much of the opportunity is lost –  could help raise, and hold up, expectations about the path of the nominal economy, including inflation.
  • taking steps to material reduce the extent of the effective lower bound on nominal interest rates.

The latter remains my preference, for a number of reasons (including that the existing problem arises largely because central banks have  –  by law – monopolised note issue, and then not proved responsive to changing circumstances and technologies. Problems are usually best fixed at source.

If there is still a useful role for physical currency (I discussed some of these issues here), the ability to convert huge amounts of financial assets into physical currency, on demand, without pushing the price against you, is now a material obstacle to monetary policy doing its job in the next recession.    There is a good case for looking seriously at a variety of reform options, such as:

  • phasing out large denomination Reserve Bank notes (while perhaps again allowing private banks to offer them, on their own terms, conditions and technologies),
  • capping the physical Reserve Bank note issue, scaled to growth in, say, nominal GDP (perhaps with provision for overrides in the case of financial crisis runs),
  • putting a spread (between buy and sell prices) on Reserve Bank dealing in bank notes, or
  • auctioning a fixed quota of bank notes, and thus allowing the price to adjust semi-automatically  (when currency demand rises, as when the OCR goes materially negative) the cost of conversion rises.

These sorts of ideas are not new.  They do not get rid of the entire issue –  at an OCR of, say, -10 per cent, even transaction demand for bank deposits might dry up –  but they would go an awfully long way to ensuring that the next recession can be dealt with more effectively than the last.

If, for example, you thought the OCR was going to be set at -3 per cent for two years, then once storage and insurance costs are taken into account (the things that allow the OCR to be cut to around -0.75 per cent now), even a lump sum conversion cost (deposits into physical cash) of 5 per cent would be enough to keep almost everyone in deposits and bonds (even at negative yields) rather than physical cash.  That is a great deal leeway than the Reserve Bank has now.   Having that leeway –  and being willing to use it – helps ensure nominal rates don’t need to stay extremely low for too long.

In principle, many of these sorts of initiatives probably could be done in short order in the midst of the next serious downturn.  But we shouldn’t have to count on unknown crisis responses, the tenor of which have not been consulted on, socialised, and tested in advance.  It may even be that some legislative amendments might be required.

There is no excuse for not having these issue all sorted out well in advance, and having communicated clearly to the public (and ministers and markets) how they will be handled, secure in the knowledge that rigorous planning and risk identification has occurred.

In part, that is because of one other issue that ANZ piece doesn’t touch on (neither did the Reserve Bank article).  Once a new severe recession is upon us, people will fairly quickly begin to appreciate how few effective and credible options central banks and governments have, and react –  eg adjusting inflation expectations –  accordingly.  In 2009, the typical reaction was to expect a quick rebound, partly because that was how economies were perceived to have usually behaved, and partly because so many interventions were being thrown into the mix. Next time, people (markets) will go into a severe downturn with the memory of post-2009, an awareness of the unpropitious starting point, and an awareness of the distinct limitations of unconventional policy. All that is likely to exacerbate the downturn and further complicate effects at countercyclical stabilisation.  People will suffer as a result.

We need some leadership on these issues. If the Reserve Bank won’t or can’t provide it, the Minister of Finance –  who will bear responsibility before the voters –  needs to lead himself, and insist that his agencies do more and better, more openly, than they have done so far.

In the meantime, well done ANZ for a substantial piece of work. Once again, I’d encourage people to read it and think about the issues and constraints it raises.

Has monetary policy run its course?

In one of the world’s most prominent economics platforms, the economics columnist for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf uses this week’s column for a piece headed “Monetary policy has run its course”, with a subheading “It has made secular stagnation worse.  Fiscal alternatives look a safer bet.”.    That headline was guaranteed to get my attention, disagreeing as I do with all three limbs of the apparent argument.

Wolf draws on various other papers, but doesn’t really make his case in a compelling way.  Take secular stagnation first.  There are various definitions: Wolf uses one of “chronically weak demand relative to potential output”, while the FT’s own lexicon uses a materially diferent version

Secular stagnation is a condition of negligible or no economic growth in a market-based economy.

On the former definition, most of the OECD is estimated to be back somewhere near a zero output gap, and the unemployment rate now in several major economies (but not New Zealand) is lower than it was going into the last recession (and there is a striking fact that the worst performers are all in the euro common currency, a system Wolf tends to be keen on).  That has happened without big new surges in overall ratios of private debt to GDP.

On the latter definition, even in countries with high starting levels of productivity, productivity growth has slowed but not stopped.  Per capita GDP across the OECD is now about 10 per cent higher in real terms than it was in 2007.  Not stellar, but it means that 10 per cent of all the output growth managed in the last several hundred years (since the Industrial Revolution) has been in the last decade alone.

I think there are credible stories under which monetary policy wasn’t used sufficiently aggressively in, and following, the last recession –  partly because both markets and central banks misjudged things and expected a strong rebound, so were always looking towards the first (or subsequent) tightenings.  But is very difficult to construct a story, in which monetary policy has made any material (adverse) difference to population growth, productivity growth, actual innovation opportunities or the like.    And even if, for argument’s sake, there was some effect in the frontier economies, most OECD economies (including large ones like the UK, Japan, Italy, Spain, Canada, South Korea) are nowhere near the frontier.

Having said that, there is little doubt that neutral real interest rates have fallen away very substantially over the last 15 years or more.  They are now at levels that are pretty much without historical precedent.  This is the first chart in the article.

ft chart

That means there are issues.  There is an effective lower bound, at present, on short-term nominal interest rates.  No one knows precisely where that bound is, but there is a degree of consensus that taking your policy interest rate much below -0.75 per cent will lead to fairly large scale conversion of deposit balances into physical cash (not, primarily, transactions balances –  where the inconvenience would dominate – but large wholesale balances).  The limit now exists wholly and solely because (a) governments monopolise physical currency issue, and (b) pay zero interest on physical currency.  Zero might not be much, but for a multi-million dollar fund, it is a lot more than -3 per cent (for the same credit risk).

Quite a few countries (including the euro area) are at or very near that floor already.  Other countries, including New Zealand, Australia, and the United States are not.   But even in those countries, a severe recession in the next few years would be likely to exhaust conventional monetary policy capacity (our Reserve Bank could cut by perhaps 2.5 percentage points, but it has often needed to cut by more than 5 percentage points in previous downturns).

Wolf isn’t apparently keen on doing anything about that, observing that a need for materially negative nominal official interest rates

would, to put in mildly, create a wasps’ nest of technical, financial and political problems.

Not nearly as many problems as doing nothing, and allowing persistently high unemployment for multiple years might create.

There are two broad options for creating more monetary policy space.   The first is to raise the inflation target (and reading a central banking magazine yesterday I noticed that a Swedish Deputy Governor is calling for exactly that), and the second –  and more reliable –  is to remove, or markedly ease, that near-zero effective lower bound.   No government or central bank has done so (and there are not overly complex ways of doing so), and that passivity –  apparently endorsed by Wolf – is increasing the risk of problems when the next serious downturn gets underway.  If interest rates can’t, for now, be cut far, people will quickly recognise that, not expect it, and adjust their behaviour, and asset holdings, accordingly.

Is there reason for unease about some of these options?  Perhaps.  If we were to allow short-term interest rates to go materially negative, no one knows how far they might eventually go.  There are good theoretical reasons to think not too far (human innovation hasn’t died, there are naturally productive (positive returns) assets (land or fruit trees) but no one knows with certainty.  Would it matter if interest rates went, and stayed, materially negative?  I’m not convinced it would, allow it would certainly be a symptom of something odd.   But such philosophising shouldn’t get in the way of actively preparing to handle the next serious downturn.  Neither central banks nor governments seem to be doing what they could on that score (and although the issue is a bit less immediately pressing in New Zealand, it is true here too).

Which brings me to the third limb of Wolf’s argument: “Fiscal alternatives look a safer bet”.   “We need more policy instruments he argues”.  In many respects, the rest of the article is a teaser for a conclusion around more aggressive use of fiscal policy.   (“More aggressive? perhaps Antipodean readers wonder, but as a chart in the article illustrates OECD net government debt as a share of GDP has trended quite strongly upwards in the last fifty years as, generally, has government spending.).  He asserts boldly:

If the private sector does not wish to invest, the government should decide to do so.

And yet who is “the government”, except a collective representation of the voters, themselves “the private sector” in one form or another.  There is no sense of trying to understand why the private sector might not choose to invest more heavily and then, if those things are in the gift of governments (tax, regulation, policy uncertainty or whatever), fix them.

And nothing at all on the near-certain “political problems” and constraints around the large scale and persistent (for it is something structural he is championing, not just a short-term cyclical response) aggressive use of fiscal policy, whether for consumption or investment.  Monetary policy has its problems, but if central bankers and politicians got on and fixed some of the regulatory (lower bound) obstacles, it would be a much more reliable tool to deploy.   At worse, even left-wingers (such as Wolf, and the Democratic economists he cites –  Laurence Summers, Olivier Blanchard, and Jason Furman) should want to have monetary instruments to hand, rather than some all-or-nothing wager on fiscal policy, when there is no political consensus at all (anywhere) on using fiscal policy in the ambitious way they suggest.

Wolf is right that central banks can’t deal with structural secular stagnation –  although they can do the important job of leaning against serious cyclical downturns, as they did in 2008/09. But even on the most optimistic of readings, it seems unlikely that aggregate fiscal policy is going to be able to either, whether for technical or political reasons.  And so-called secular stagnation should simply not be regarded as an acceptable excuse for poor productivity growth and weak investment in countries that are far from the productivity frontier, New Zealand pre-eminent (for how far it has drifted behind) among them.

Planning for the next recession

In a post earlier this week, I made passing reference to a new opinion piece on Newsroom headed “Why we need a recession plan”.  The article is written by another former Reserve Banker, Kirdan Lees, who these days divides his time between the University of Canterbury and economic consulting.  His article is organised around a list of five reasons, although it combines his arguments about the form any such plan should take.

I strongly agree that we need some serious, credible and open planning for the next recession (whenever it comes, but it is now eight or nine years since the last one and neither the foreign nor domestic outlooks are looking particularly rosy).  Indeed, in respect of monetary policy, it is a case I’ve been making for about as long as this blog has been running.    The case might have seemed a bit abstract four years ago –  especially to anyone who paid much attention to the Reserve Bank’s pronouncements (that interest rates were rising, and inflation would soon be getting back to target).  It should be much more pressing now, as the growth phase has got old and yet (New Zealand) interest rates are at record lows and inflation still isn’t back to target.  But, unfortunately, there has been nothing serious from the Bank –  under Wheeler, (unlawful) Spencer, or Orr.  They claim to believe there just isn’t a problem; that monetary policy can do as much as ever.

This is, more or less, Kirdan’s first reason.

Reason 1: The outlook now points to recession risk with little room for interest rates to do much

But interest rates have never been so low, leaving little headroom for monetary policy to kick in. Mortgage and lending rates can’t fall by much if the big banks are to retain margins. 

As a reminder, the real obstacle is around wholesale deposit interest rates. By common consensus, official interest rates could be lowered to perhaps -0.75 per cent, but any lower and the strong incentives are for people (including particularly wholesale investors) to convert their assets into physical cash and use safe-deposit boxes and strongrooms.  Conventional monetary policy no longer works then.     That means our Reserve Bank could cut the OCR by up to around 250 basis points –  more than many advanced country central banks could –  but in typical recessions they’ve needed to cut interest rates by 500 basis points (575 basis points last time, and the recovery then was very muted).

There are ways around this lower bound constraint, but the Reserve Bank and the government have shown no signs of any action (or even any serious analysis).  In principle, things could be done in a rush in the middle of the next recession, but that is almost always a bad way to make good policy, and by failing to clearly signal in advance that the authorities have credible responses in hand they are likely to worsen the problem (see below).

Kirdan doesn’t seem to see much scope for doing anything to increase the flexibility of monetary policy.  His focus is on fiscal alternatives.

Reason 2: By the time Treasury calls a recession it’s too late to trigger a fiscal stimulus plan

Not just Treasury of course.  Economic forecasters and analysts are hopeless at recognising recessions until they are well upon us (among the reasons why no one at all should take any comfort from the latest IMF update –  international agencies are among the worst in recognising things before they break).

It would always be better to have good forecasts, even so-called nowcasting (where is the economy right now –  given that our most recent national accounts data relates to the July to September period last year, and even that is subject to revision).      Kirdan is an optimist and believes we can do (materially) better than just waiting for the GDP data.

Today, a myriad of timely data exists: across transport movements, customs data, privately held data on small businesses (such as Xero) and consumption (such as Paymark). A small panel of experts could use that data to gauge recession risk and tell us when to pull the trigger.

In principle, of course, all these data are available to Statistics New Zealand (which could require them to be provided under the Statistics Act), and if the data could be available to “a small panel of experts” it could presumably be available to the Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

But even if these data can provide a few weeks advance notice of negative GDP quarters, there are bigger questions which more-timely data can’t answer.   The first is how long any downturn will last.  That matters quite a lot.   A couple of weak quarters might sensibly lead the Reserve Bank to consider a cut to the OCR, and probably the exchange rate would be weakening anyway.   But that is very different from a couple of weak quarters foreshadowing a deep and prolonged recession.   Telling the difference isn’t easy.  And who seriously supposes that –  in a democracy –  we are going to hand over to a panel of experts (self-appointed or otherwise) decisions about when to trigger big fiscal stimulus programmes which –  whatever their composition –  have huge distributional consequences.  These are inherently political choices, which will benefit from technical input, but the accountability needs to rest with those we elect (and can eject).

On which note

Reason 3: Economic theory can help: a fiscal plan needs to follow three principles
When it comes to fiscal stimulus principles, macroeconomists have their own triple-T: stimulus needs to be timely, targeted and temporary.

Which looks fine on paper, but is much less help in practice.  If you want “timely”. monetary policy can typically be adjusted faster than fiscal policy –  exchange rates, for example, adjust almost instantly to monetary policy surprises, and often in anticipation of monetary policy actions.   And monetary policy moves are designed to be temporary, but without tying anyone’s hands: you raise the OCR again when you are pretty sure inflation is going to back to target.

In the UK they tried what looked like a clever fiscal wheeze in the last recession: cutting the rate of VAT for a year, and only a year.  It looked like a fairly sensible move at the time it was announced –  encouraging people to bring forward consumption.  And it probably would have been if the downturn had been short and sharp, but it wasn’t.  More generally, people like the IMF championed fiscal stimulus in 2008/09, but again implicitly on the view that economies could rebound quickly.  When they didn’t, the mix of economic and political arguments about “austerity” took hold and only complicated the handling of the economy.

Of course, if you get can get your legislation through Parliament you can write cheques (electronic equivalent) quite quickly –  Kirdan is keen on focusing temporary additional spending on “poorer families” –  but you can’t do the same for the sort of infrastructure spending that those keen on fiscal stimulus often champion.

Kirdan’s reason 4 had me puzzled.

Reason 4: Trotting out the same tired approach will provide the same tired results 

One of the enduring traits of fiscal policy is tacking on extra spending in good times and taking away spending just when it is needed.

Hard to disagree too much with that second sentence –  pro-cyclical fiscal policy is a problem.

But even if you think there is a role for some active counter-cyclical fiscal policy, I wasn’t clear on the connection to what came next

Governments seeking a labour boost need a better targeted fiscal stimulus. That means targeting labour-intensive industries such as such as health and education, construction, horticulture, accommodation and retail industries. ….

But identifying labour-intensive industries is not enough. Maximum effectiveness comes from targeting the labour-intensity of the entire supply chain: labour-intensive industries that in turn use labour intensive inputs from other industries are the best bets for fiscal stimulus.

It seems to be an argument for, in effect, targeting reductions in average labour productivity –  by focusing on boosting industries that are (directly or indirectly) more labour-intensive.  Perhaps –  just possibly –  there is a case for something of the sort, as a pure short-term palliative, in a very deep economic depression, but in an economy where lack of productivity growth has been a decades-long problem (and particularly evident in the most recent growth phase) targeting low productivity industries doesn’t seem a particularly sensible medium-term approach.

Which brings us to the last point in Kirdan’s article

Reason 5: Articulating a trigger for the fiscal plan shapes the expectations of Kiwi businesses

I don’t think ministers can articulate a highly-specific trigger for action –  so much will depend on context (what is going on here and abroad) –  and attempting to do so is only likely to create a rod for the government’s back.  But where I do agree is that there needs to be a clear and credible commitment from both the government and the Reserve Bank that prompt and firm action will be taken if the economy turns down substantially, and particularly if that is in the context of a serious global event.

Kirdan’s focus is fiscal, and I have no problem with his points that (for example) debt to GDP should be expected to rise in a severe downturn, without threatening the medium-term commitment to moderate debt levels.  In fact, we would probably agree that there should be some public debate now about how the next downturn should be handled, as there is a risk that we get a serious downturn and the government is still fixated on its medium-term debt target (and avoiding leaving a target for National to attack them), even if that isn’t what is needed in the short-term.

But in my view, the argument generalises.  One of the problems we face going into the next severe downturn –  whenever it occurs –  is that (a) every serious observers knows that monetary policy has limited capacity, even in New Zealand and much more so in many other places (in the euro-area for example, the policy rate is still negative), and (b) that there are real political/social constraints on the flexibility of fiscal policy in many places (partly because debt levels are often high, partly because of distributional considerations, partly memories of post-stimulus austerity).  I’m not necessarily defending these constraints, just attempting to identify and describe them.

Faced with these limitations, the quite-rational response to a downturn will be to assume that there isn’t that much authorities will be able to do about it.  That, in turn, will deepen any downturn, and be likely (for example) to lower inflation expectations, making the recovery job even harder (it is going to be even harder to generate inflation in the next recession than it was in the last one).   Perhaps the general public don’t yet recognise these constraints, but many more-expert observers already do, and the news will rapidly spreads if and when a serious downturn gets underway.  What, people in Europe would reasonably ask, can the ECB do?  How much, Americans will reasonably ask, will the Fed be able to do?  And what appetite will there be for much large scale on the fiscal front.   These things matter to us, even if our government has more fiscal leeway than most, precisely because recoveries from serious recessions often result from the combined efforts of many authorities at home and abroad.  Many engines are likely to be missing in (in)action next time round.

I’m critical of our own government and Reserve Bank on these issues.  It isn’t clear that other countries’ authorities are doing anything much more –  there seems too much of simply hoping the situation will never arise and interest rates will get back to “normal” first.   But we can’t do anything about other countries, and we can get ready –  and have the open conversations – ourselves, taking account of the probable constraints other countries will face.     There may well be a place for some fiscal action in the next serious domestic recession, but monetary policy is better-designed for stabilisation purposes and we could be taking action now that would give people and markets much greater confidence that the lower bound won’t bind.      To the extent there is a role for fiscal policy, it is more likely to be used well if there is open debate and contingency planning now –  although my expectation is that, however much advance discussion there is, political constraints (community tolerance) will bite quite quickly.  We shouldn’t need discretionary fiscal policy in a short sharp recession, and it is unlikely to be there long enough in a deep and prolonged recession.

Finally, to anticipate comments about quantitative easing programmes.  Reasonable people can interpret the evidence about those programmes differently (I tend towards the sceptical, once we got out of the midst of the immediate crisis) but I’m not aware of anyone who regards even large scale QE programmes as more than pallid supplements to what conventional monetary policy could usually be able to do.

A serious Reserve Bank would be engaging –  indeed leading, given its role in stabilisation policy –  this sort of discussion and debate.  At our Reserve Bank the Governor has now been in office for 10 months and we’ve had not a single speech on monetary policy issues.  Quite extraordinary really.

(UPDATE: In my post last Friday about stress tests and the Reserve Bank’s plans to increase bank capital requirements, I referred to a letter the Governor had sent to a journalist who had written a critical article.  I noted then that I had lodged an OIA request for the letter, and that the Bank is legally required to respond as soon as reasonably possible.  Given that the letter was already in the public domain (the recipient being a private citizen) there were no obvious grounds for any deletions, except perhaps the name of the recipient.  The letter had been written only a couple of weeks ago, so there were no search problems, and no good “holiday period” grounds for delay.  That request was lodged nine days ago and I’ve still not had a response (and we also still haven’t seen the background papers the Governor promised in the letter that he was just about to release).     As it happens, the recipient of the letter –  Business Desk’s Jenny Ruth –  has now sent me a copy, which I appreciate, but that doesn’t justify this small scale Reserve Bank obstructionism around a major public initiative –  capital requirements –  in which the Governor will act as a one-man prosecutor, judge and jury in his own case –  at potentially large cost to the rest of us.)

 

Three central bankers

Three heads of central banks feature in this (perhaps rather bitsy) post.

The first is one of the heroes of modern central banking, Paul Volcker.  Now aged 91, and clearly ailing, he has a new (co-authored) book out tomorrow, part memoir and part (apparently) his perspectives on various public policy challenges now facing the US.  (His successor Alan Greenspan, now aged 92, also had a new book out a couple of weeks ago.   At this rate, Don Brash –  a mere stripling at 78  –  could be just getting going.)

There are various articles and interviews around (I liked this one with the FT’s Gillian Tett) but what I wanted to write about was an extract from the Volcker book, published last week by Bloomberg (and which a reader drew to my attention), under the heading “What’s wrong with the 2 per cent inflation target”.     Volcker was, of course, the person who as head of the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987 took the lead role in ensuring that monetary policy was finally run sufficiently tightly, for long enough, to get US inflation enduring down.   One can debate how much was the man, and how much was an idea whose time had come, but it was on his watch that the hard choices were made.

This was, of course, before the days of formal inflation targeting.  Volcker has never been a supporter, citing approvingly in his article Alan Greenspan’s famous response to a mid -1990s challenge from Janet Yellen.

Yellen asked Greenspan: “How do you define price stability?” He gave what I see as the only sensible answer: “That state in which expected changes in the general price level do not effectively alter business or household decisions.” Yellen persisted: “Could you please put a number on that?”

The Fed finally came to do so, now adopting its own numerical target (2 per cent annual increases in the private consumption deflator.

Volcker takes the opportunity to blame us, writing of his visit to New Zealand in 1988 (when I recall meeting him).

The changes included narrowing the central bank’s focus to a single goal: bringing the inflation rate down to a predetermined target. The new government set an annual inflation rate of zero to 2 percent as the central bank’s key objective. The simplicity of the target was seen as part of its appeal — no excuses, no hedging about, one policy, one instrument. Within a year or so the inflation rate fell to about 2 percent.

The central bank head, Donald Brash, became a kind of traveling salesman. He had a lot of customers. After all, those regression models calculated by staff trained in econometrics have to be fed numbers, not principles.

He is probably a little unfair.  Rightly or wrongly, the rest of the world would have got there anyway (eg Canada adopted an independent inflation target very shortly after we did), and in time it was the New Zealand inflation target that was revised up to fall more into line with an international consensus centred on something around 2 per cent. His bigger point is that he doen’t like tight numerical targets: some of his reasons are defensible, but it is also worth recalling the Volcker was in his prime in an age when there was much less transparency and accountability more generally.

But my bigger concern with the article, and argument, is about what comes across as complacency about the risks the US (and many other countries) face when the next serious recession hits.  He is opposed to any steps to push inflation up to, or even a bit above, 2 per cent, and he also  doesn’t propose doing anything to remove, or even ease, the constraint posed by the near-zero lower bound on nominal interest rates.

Deflation, or even a period when monetary policy is constrained in its ability to bring the economy back to normal levels of utilisation following a serious recession, just doesn’t seem to be a risk that bothers him, provided financial system risks are kept in check.

The lesson, to me, is crystal clear. Deflation is a threat posed by a critical breakdown of the financial system. Slow growth and recurrent recessions without systemic financial disturbances, even the big recessions of 1975 and 1982, have not posed such a risk.

I found that a fairly breathtaking claim.  After all, the effective Fed funds interest rate in 1974 had peaked at around 13 per cent, and in 1981 it had peaked at around 19 per cent.  There was a huge amount of room for real and nominal interest rates to fall.  Right now, the Fed funds target rate is 2.0 to 2.25 per cent.

For most of history the Federal Reserve didn’t announce an interest rate target, but in this chart I’ve shown the change in the actual effective Fed funds rate (as traded) for each of the significant policy easing cycles since the late 1960s.

fed funds cuts

The median cut was 5.4 percentage points (not inconsistent with the typical scale of interest rate cuts in other countries, including New Zealand, faced with serious downturns).  Some of those falls were probably falls in inflation expectations, but even in the last three events –  when inflation expectations have been more stable –  cuts of 5 percentage points have been observed. (I was going to use the word “required” there, but there seems little doubt that policy rates would have been cut further after 2007 –  consistent, for example, with standard Taylor rule prescriptions –  if it had not been for the lower bound on nominal rates.)

And what of the current situation?  With a Fed funds target rate of about 2 per cent, if a serious recession hit today the Federal Reserve has conventional policy leeway of perhaps 2 percentage points (if they treat 0 to 0.25 per cent as the floor next time as they did last time) or perhaps as much as 2.75-3 percentage points (if they treat the effective floor as more like the -0.75 per cent a couple of European countries have operated with).  The Fed has given no public hint that they would actually be prepared to take policy rates negative in the next recession, so for now markets can only guess –  and perhaps hope.   But either way, the conventional monetary policy leeway is much less than was used in any of the significant US downturns of the previous 50 years.   That should be worrying someone like Paul Volcker more than it seems to, especially when three other considerations are taken into acount:

  • when markets know those limitations –  and firms and households will quickly learn them when the recession comes –  inflation expectations are likely to drop away more quickly than usual, because no one will be able to count on the Fed being able to keep inflation near target,
  • US fiscal policy has been so badly debauched that there is going to be little (political) leeway for material discretionary fiscal stimulus in the next recession, and
  • most other advanced countries have even less conventional monetary policy capacity now than the US does (and even less than usual relative to past history).

Reasonable people can quibble about the place of formal inflation targeting, but there needs to be much more urgency in planning to cope with the next serious recession, whatever its source or precise timing.

As readers know, I was not one of the biggest fans of former Reserve Bank Governor Graeme Wheeler.  But in Herald economics columnist Brian Fallow’s article last Friday there was some quotes from a recent speech Wheeler had given in Washington that had me nodding fairly approvingly as I read.

If the advanced economies face a recession in the next few years, much of the burden for stimulus will fall on fiscal policy, Wheeler says. The scope to cut interest rates is limited as policy rates in several countries remain at or near historic lows. Countries accounting for a quarter of global GDP have policy rates at or below 0.5 per cent, whereas policy cuts in recessions have often been of the order of 5 percentage points.

“In such a situation central banks would rely on additional quantitative easing and governments would face considerable pressure to expand their budget deficits through spending increases and/or tax cuts.”

They are words that need more attention even in a New Zealand context, where the OCR is only 1.75 per cent.  It was 8.25 per cent going into the last serious downturn.

Wheeler’s speech (a copy of which Brian Fallow kindly, and with permission, passed on) – to a conference on sovereign debt management –  is mostly about debt management issues.  It has a number of interesting charts from various publications, including this sobering one.

wheeler chart

Perhaps what interested me was that in his discussion of the issues and risks, Wheeler seemed not to touch at all on the two approaches often used in very heavily indebted countries –  even advanced countries – facing serious new stresses: default and/or surprise sustained inflation.   To the credit of successive New Zealand governments, fiscal policy here is in pretty good shape, and debt is low, but looking around the world it would perhaps be a surprise if Greece is the only advanced country to default on its sovereign debt (or actively seek to inflate it away) in the first half of this century.

And finally, our own current Governor.  He has just brought up seven months in office without a substantive public speech on the main policy areas he has responsibility for; monetary policy and financial stability.   It is quite extraordinary. He has been free with his thoughts on climate change, infrastructure financing, tree gods, and so on and so forth, while batting away questions about the next serious recession and its risks in a rather glib, excessively complacent, way (hint: QE and its variants is not –  based on international experience – an adequate answer).

Anyway, the Governor has repeatedly told us about his commitment to greater openness and communications.  I’ve been a sceptical of that claim –  both because every Governor says it in his or her own way, but also because of the track record that is already building.  There have been, as I said, no substantive speeches from Orr on his main areas of legal responsibility.  Speeches that are published apparently bear little or no relationship to what the Governor actually says to the specific audience.  There have been no steps taken to, say, match the RBA in making generally available the answers senior central bankers give in Q&A sessions after speeches, and we heard not long ago of a speech Orr gave to a private organisation, commenting loosely on matters of considerable interest to markets and those monitoring the organisation, but with no external record of what was said.

And it seems that there is likely to be another example today.  The next Monetary Policy Statement is due next week, as is the joint FMA-RB statement on bank conduct and culture (FMA responsibility that the Governor has barged into), both surely rather sensitive matters.  And yet the Governor is giving a significant speech this evening at the annual meeting of the lobby group Transparency International.

Guest Speaker: Adrian Orr

Adrian’s speech will encourage discussion about the relevance of transparency, accountability and integrity in the New Zealand financial sector.

Adrian Orr will be introduced by State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes, and thanked by new Justice Secretary, Andrew Kibblewhite.

And yet his speech –  to Transparency International, introduced by the State Services Commissioner, thanked by the head of the Prime Minister’s department –  on transparency, is to be, well, totally non-transparent.  From the Reserve Bank’s page for published speeches

Upcoming speeches
There is nothing scheduled.
It seems like a bad look all round: for Transparency International (admittedly a private body) and its senior public service people doing the introductions, and for the Bank itself.   This isn’t some mid-level central banker doing a routine talk to the Taihape Lions Club, but the Governor himself on a topic of a great deal of interest –  to a body itself reportedly committed to more transparency and better governance.
I’d encourage the Bank to rethink, and to make available a script (or preferably a recording, given the Governor’s style) of his speech, and of the subsequent Q&A session.  It should be standard practice, and Transparency International would be a good place to start.

Inflation and the tax system

When I went looking for the interim report of the Tax Working Group, I found that various other papers had been released.   These include background papers prepared by the Treasury and IRD secretariat looking at various possible options for reducing other taxes if, for example, new capital taxes were to provide more government revenue.

Among them was a short and rather unconvincing paper on productivity.   It was notable for highlighting how difficult it was to give any concrete meaning to the aspiration repeatedly expressed by the Minister of Finance, and included in the terms of reference, of “promoting the right balance between the productive and speculative economies”.  And it was also notable for the aversion of officials to lowering the company tax rate (or the effective tax rate shareholders pay on company income), even though they accept that our business income tax rates are now high by international standards, and that business investment (including FDI) is low by international standards. This chart is from the paper.  In general, what is taxed heavily you get less of.

corp income tax

But this time I was more interested in another of the background papers, this one on the possibility of inflation indexing the tax system.   Even with 2 per cent inflation, failing to take explicit account of inflation in the tax system introduces some material distortions and inefficiencies.  Many of the costs of inflation arise from the interaction with the tax system, and these distortions may be greater in New Zealand than in many other countries because of the way we tax retirement income savings (the TTE system introduced, as a great revenue grab at the time, in the late 1980s).

In the days of high inflation there was some momentum towards doing something about indexation. It had, for example, been a cause championed by former Reserve Bank Governor Ray White.  And in the late 1980s, the then government got as far as publishing a detailed consultative document.  But then inflation fell sharply (and maximum marginal tax rates were cut) and the issue died.  We don’t even have the income tax thresholds indexed for inflation, allowing Ministers of Finance ever few years to present as a tax cut an increase in revenue that should never have occurred in the first place.

In the early days of inflation targeting there might even have been a case for letting the issue die.  The inflation target was centred on 1 per cent annual CPI increases, and that target was premised on a view that the CPI had an annual upward bias of perhaps as much as 0.75 per cent per annum).  But since then, the extent of any biases in the CPI have been reduced, and the inflation target has twice been increased.   The inflation target now involves aiming for “true” inflation” of at least 1.5 per cent per annum.

The distortions are most obvious as regard interest receipts and payments.  Take a short-term term deposit rate of around 3 per cent at present.  Someone on the maximum marginal tax rate (33%) will be taxed so that the after-tax return is only 2 per cent. But if, as the Reserve Bank tells us, inflation expectations are 2 per cent, that means no real after-tax return.  Compensation for inflation isn’t income and it shouldn’t be taxed as such.  Only the real component of the interest rate (1 per cent) should be taxed.   The same distortion arises on the other side, for those able to deduct interest expenses in calculating taxable income: in the presence of inflation, this tax treatment subsidises business borrowing.  The amounts involved are not small.   As economist Andrew Coleman notes in his (as ever) stimulating TWG submission

Even at low inflation rates, these distortions are substantial. In 2017, for instance, residential landlords borrowed $70 billion. Even if the inflation rate is as low as 1 percent, this means residential landlords can deduct $700 million of real principal repayments from their taxable income, a subsidy worth over $200 million per year. New Zealand households lend in excess of $150 billion. When the inflation rate is 1 percent, lenders are expected to pay tax on $1.5 billion more than they ought. Many people who invest in interest-earning securities are elderly, risk averse, or unsophisticated investors. For some reason the New Zealand Government believes these investors should pay more tax than any other class of investors in New Zealand. It is a strange country that taxes the simplest, most easily understood, and the most easily purchased financial security at the highest rates. It suggests the Government has little interest in equity, its protestations notwithstanding.

There are other distortions too, notably around trading stock valuations and asset valuations on which true economic depreciation would be calculated.

As reflected in the paper released this week, officials are very wary about doing anything about fixing these distortions (and they fairly note that “no OECD country currently comprehensively inflation indexes their tax system”), and they devote many pages to outlining the practical challenges they believe would be involved, and the new distortions they believe would arise from partial approaches to indexation.

I have some sympathy with the stance taken by officials on the specific challenges to doing comprehensive indexation, especially in a way that does not bias transactions through favoured institutional vehicles.  But it is a particularly bloodless document that seems to reflect no sense of the injustice involved in taxing so heavily relatively unsophisticated savers (while subsidising business borrowers, especially those financing very long-lived assets).

This seems like a case where some joined-up whole-of-government policy advice would be desirable.  There would be no systematic distortions arising from the interaction between inflation and the tax system if there was no systematic or expected inflation.   Systematic inflation isn’t a natural or inevitable feature of an economic system –  in some ways it is about as odd as changing the length of a metre by 2 per cent a year, or the weight of a gram by 2 per cent a year.  In the UK, for example, (and with lots of annual variation) the price level in 1914 was about the same as it had been in 1860).  And the most compelling reason these days for targeting a positive inflation rate is the effective lower bound on nominal interest rates, itself created by policymakers and legislators.   Take some serious steps to remove that lower bound and (a) we’d be much better positioned whenever the next serious economic downturn happens, and (b) we could, almost at a stroke, eliminate the distortions –  and rank injustices –  that arise from the interaction between continuing, actively targeted, positive inflation, and a tax system that takes no account of this systematic targeted depreciation in the value of money.

It wouldn’t be hard, but our ministers, officials (Treasury and IRD), and central bankers currently seem utterly indifferent to the issue.