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.

The Fed looks to options in the next serious recession

I’ve written quite a bit recently about the apparent complacency of the Reserve Bank (and The Treasury and the Minister of Finance) around the ability of monetary policy to adequately cope with the next serious recession (here, here, and here).

Against that backdrop, it was interesting to see a substantive report of a recent discussion of exactly these sorts of issues in the minutes of a meeting a few weeks ago of the Federal Open Market Committee, the arm of the Federal Reserve that makes monetary policy decisions.   One might reasonably suggest that the discussion is happening several years later than it should have –  the problems and the limitations of conventional monetary policy have been apparent for some years now (especially in countries like the US that reached the effective lower bound in the last recession) – but better late than never.   And in the US context, some individual members of the FOMC have felt free to speak openly (eg here) on the issues and some possible policy responses.  It is the way open monetary policy committee systems can work.

Here are some extracts from the FOMC minutes

Monetary Policy Options at the Effective Lower Bound

The staff provided a briefing that summarized its analysis of the extent to which some of the Committee’s monetary policy tools could provide adequate policy accommodation if, in future economic downturns, the policy rate were again to become constrained by the effective lower bound (ELB). The staff examined simulations from the staff’s FRB/US model and various other economic models to assess the likelihood of the policy rate returning to the ELB and to evaluate how much additional policy accommodation could be delivered by the current toolkit.

Somewhat surprisingly, a footnote indicates that the staff modelling was still based on an effective lower bound of 12.5 basis points (the actual low the Fed went to for years after 2008), even though other countries have gone modestly negative (and our Reserve Bank has taken the view that the OCR could go to, say, 0.75 per cent.  There is no hint in the minutes of the FOMC discussing a lower effective floor, or what steps might be considered to lower it.

The staff’s analysis indicated that under various policy rules, including those prescribing aggressive reductions in the federal funds rate in response to adverse economic shocks, there was a meaningful risk that the ELB could bind sometime during the next decade.

Hardly surprising, given that the current Fed funds target is 1.75-2.0 per cent, and recessions seem to come round every decade or so.

In the discussion that followed the staff’s briefing, participants generally agreed that their current toolkit could provide significant accommodation but expressed concern about the potential limits on policy effectiveness stemming from the ELB. They viewed it as a matter of prudent planning to evaluate potential policy options in advance of such ELB events. Many participants commented on the monetary policy implications of the apparent secular decline in neutral real interest rates. That decline was viewed as likely driven by various factors, including slower trend growth of the labor force and productivity as well as increased demand for safe assets. In such circumstances, those participants saw monetary policy as having less scope than in the past to reduce the federal funds rate in response to negative shocks. Accordingly, in their view, spells at the ELB could become more frequent and protracted than in the past, consistent with the staff’s analysis. Moreover, the secular decline in interest rates was a global phenomenon, and a couple of participants emphasized that this decline increased the likelihood that the ELB could bind simultaneously in a number of countries. A few other participants raised the concern that frequent or extended ELB episodes could result in expectations for inflation that were below the Committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective, further limiting the scope for reductions in the federal funds rate to serve as a buffer for the economy and increasing the likelihood of ELB episodes.

There was clearly a range of views round the table, but it was encouraging to see some members highlight a variant of a point I’ve made here: because firms, households and market participants know that central banks will have relatively more limited firepower in the next recession, it may be harder to keep inflation expectations near the target, which may compound the challenges.

In the US, high government debt and large deficits are likely to be a constraint on the scope for active fiscal policy to complement monetary policy.

Fiscal policy was viewed as a potentially important tool in addressing a future economic downturn in which monetary policy was constrained by the ELB; however, countercyclical fiscal policy actions in the United States may be constrained by the high and rising level of federal government debt.

That might be on “technical” grounds –  genuine risks of bond market sell-offs –  or the wider political constraints that I highlighted in my post the other day, and which are likely to apply even in less-indebted countries like New Zealand.

Participants generally agreed that both forward guidance and balance sheet actions would be effective tools to use if the federal funds rate were to become constrained by the ELB. In the Addendum to the Policy Normalization Principles and Plans statement issued in June 2017, the Committee indicated that it would be prepared to use its full range of tools, including altering the size and composition of its balance sheet, if future economic conditions were to warrant a more accommodative monetary policy than can be achieved solely by reducing  the federal funds rate.  However, participants acknowledged that there may be limits to the effectiveness of these tools in addressing an ELB episode. They also emphasized that there was considerable uncertainty about the economic effects of these tools. Consistent with that view, a few participants noted that economic researchers had not yet reached a consensus about the effectiveness of unconventional policies. A number of participants indicated that there might be significant costs associated with the use of unconventional policies, and that these costs might limit, in particular, the extent to which the Committee should engage in large-scale asset purchases.

The uncertainties seem considerable.

The FOMC discussion concluded this way

While the Committee’s current toolkit was judged to be effective, participants agreed, as a matter of prudent planning, to discuss their policy options further and to broaden the discussion to include the evaluation of potential alternative policy strategies for addressing the ELB. Building on their discussions at previous meetings, participants suggested that a number of possible alternatives might be worth consideration and agreed to return to this topic at future meetings. Several participants indicated that it would be desirable to hold periodic and systematic reviews in which the Committee assessed the strengths and weaknesses of its current monetary policy framework.

As one reader noted in sending me the link to these minutes “refreshing (at least directionally)”,   which sounds about right to me.   The FOMC still seems quite a long way from really grappling with the severity of the next serious recession, when they (and all their major peer central banks) will have (it appears) little conventional monetary policy leeway, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the potential of unconventional instruments, and everyone –  especially in the financial markets –  will know it.

But it is to their credit that they are willing to have a discussion of this sort, publish fairly substantive minutes highlighting some important differences of emphasis and uncertainties, and are open to independent (named) perspectives from members in speeches.    That said, it should disconcert people that the FOMC is not already rather better prepared for the next serious recession –  like all central banks, their ability to anticipate the timing of the next such event is non-existent.

The Governor of the Reserve Bank has apparently been at the Jackson Hole retreat for central bankers this weekend.  Perhaps he could compare notes with his US counterparts and come back ready for some more open and substantive engagement on these issues in a New Zealand context (after all, in a day or two, he’ll have been in office for five months and we’ve still not had a substantive speech from him on any topic the Bank is responsible for).  Encouragingly, the Governor is reported as telling an interviewer in the margins of Jackson Hole that

The “biggest challenge” is to “get inflation to rise”

But it will be much more of a challenge in the next serious recession if people can’t be confident that central banks, here or abroad, can do all that needs to be done.  At present, no one can reasonably be that confident.  New Zealand can’t fix the world’s problems, but our policymakers can ensure our economy is well-positioned.  Not doing more just because others are still not doing enough should be no more excusable than when all too many countries drifted to the limits of conventional monetary policy at the end of the 1920s.  It wasn’t as if no one then was highlighting the risks.

I have a few other substantial commitments over the next two or three weeks, which means that blogging here may well be quite light for a while.

 

 

Options for the next serious recession: fiscal policy

I’ve run various posts over the last few years urging the authorities (Reserve Bank, Treasury, and the Minister of Finance) to get better prepared for the next serious recession (and lamenting the relative inaction on this front in other countries too, many of whom are worse-positioned than New Zealand is).

As a reminder, we went into the last recession with the OCR at 8.25 per cent, while the OCR now –  years into a growth phase, with resources (on official assessments) fairly full-employed –  is 1.75 per cent.  In that last recession, the Reserve Bank cut interest rates a long way, the exchange rate fell a long way, there was really large fiscal stimulus cutting in as the recession deepened, and there were lots of other interventions (guarantee scheme, special liquidity provisions) and it was still as severe as any New Zealand recession for decades, and took years to fully recover from (on official output and unemployment gap estimates perhaps seven or eight years).   Lives were blighted, in some cases permanently, in an event where there were no material constraints on the freedom of action of the New Zealand authorities.  In fact, our Reserve Bank cut the OCR (over 2008/09) by more than any other advanced country central bank.

Next time, whenever it is, it seems very unlikely that the Reserve Bank will have that degree of freedom, particularly around monetary policy.  On current policies and practices around bank notes, it seems unlikely that the OCR could be usefully cut below about -0.75 per cent.  Beyond that point, most of the action would be in the form of people shifting from bank deposits etc to physical currency, rather than buffering the economic downturn.

Our Reserve Bank has long appeared disconcertingly complacent about this issue/risk.  The latest example was comments by the new Governor and his longserving chief economist following the latest Monetary Policy Statement.    They talk blithely about the unconventional policy options other countries have used, but never confront the fact that almost no advanced country could have been comfortable with the speed of the bounceback from the last recession.   Output and unemployment gaps of eight or nine years (the OECD’s estimate for advanced countries as a whole) aren’t normal and shouldn’t be acceptable.

Quite why the Reserve Bank is so complacent is something one can debate.   My hypothesis is that it is some mix of assuming we will never face the problem (recall that they have spent years hankering to get the OCR back up again) and of noting that other people/countries will most likely face the problem before New Zealand does.   They also like to remind us that New Zealand has a floating exchange rate as if this somehow differentiates us (as a reminder so do Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, the US, the UK, Japan, Korea, Israel, and even the euro-area as a whole).  Whatever the explanation,  robust contingency planning, and building resilience into the system, is what we should be expecting from the Reserve Bank (and Treasury).  There is no sign of it happening.  Meanwhile, the Governor plays politics in areas (eg here and here) that really aren’t his responsibility.

In my post on Saturday, I touched again on the desirability of doing something –  specific and early, consulted on and well-signalled –  about removing the effective lower bound on nominal interest rates.   That would tackle the issue at source.    Monetary policy has been the primary stabilisation tool for decades for good reasons.  Among other things, it is well-understood and there is a fair degree of (political and economic) consensus around the use of the tool.  And confidence that the tool is at hand in turn proves (somewhat) self-stabilising, because people expect –  and typically get – a strong monetary policy response.

Perhaps the other reason why authorities –  perhaps especially in New Zealand – have been so complacent is the view that “never mind, if monetary policy is hamstrung there is always fiscal policy”.  After all, by international standards, public debt here is low (on an internationally comparable measure from the OECD, general government net financial liabilities, about 1 per cent of GDP, which puts us in the lower quartile –  less indebted – among OECD countries.)

The implicit view appears to be that, with such modest levels of debt, if and when there is another serious recession, New Zealand governments can simply spend (or cut taxes) “whatever it takes” to get economic activity back on course again.   After all, the upper quartile of OECD countries have net general government liabilities in excess of 80 per cent of GDP.

I’m sceptical for a variety of reasons.

One of them is the experience of the last recession.  For this, I had a look at the OECD data on the underlying general government primary balance as a per cent of potential GDP:

  • general government = all levels of government
  • underlying = cyclically-adjusted (ie removing the impact of the fluctuating business cycle on revenue (mostly), and adjusted for identified one-offs (eg recapitalisations of banking systems)
  • primary balance =  excluding financing costs, so that comparisons aren’t affected by changes in interest rates themselves
  • as a per cent of potential GDP =  so that a temporary collapse in actual GDP doesn’t muddy the comparison

The numbers aren’t perfect, and there are inevitable approximations, but they are the best cross-country data we have.  Changes in this balance measure are a reasonable measure of discretionary fiscal policy.

Here is how those underlying primary balances changed from 2007 (just prior to the recession) over the following two or three years.  I’ve taken the largest change I could find, and in every case that was over either two years to 2009, or over three years to 2010.

fisc stimulus

Some countries (Hungary, Estonia) were engaged in severe fiscal consolidation from the start.  Several others experienced almost no change in their structural fiscal balances.

Quite a few countries saw 5 percentage point shifts in their underlying fiscal balances.   Spain –  a country with no control over its domestic interest rates –  is recorded as having gone well beyond that.  I don’t know much about the specifics of Spain, but for those who are upbeat about the potential scope of discretionary fiscal policy I’d take it with at least a pinch of salt – on the OECD numbers, the Spanish primary deficit dropped again quite sharply the next year (and Spanish unemployment didn’t peak until several years later).

Note that both Australia and New Zealand are towards the right-hand end of that chart.  In Australia’s case, most of the movement resulted from deliberate counter-cyclical use of fiscal policy (the Kevin Rudd stimulus plans).  In New Zealand, by contrast, the change in the underlying fiscal position was almost entirely the result of discretionary fiscal commitments made by Labour government at a time when Treasury official forecasts did not envisage a recession at all.  From a narrow counter-cyclical perspective, those measure might have been fortuitous, but they were not deliberate discretionary counter-cyclical fiscal policy measures.  In fact, at the time they were seen in some quarters as exacerbating pressure on the exchange rate, and limiting the scope of any interest rate reductions.

Perhaps it is worth stressing again that in not one of the OECD countries did the reduction in structural fiscal surpluses (expansion in deficits) last more than two years.  In every single country, by 2011 structural fiscal policy (on this measure) had moved –  sometimes modestly, sometimes quite sharply –  into consolidation phase.  In most countries, either conventional monetary policy limits had been reached or (as in individual euro area countries) there was no scope for conventional monetary policy.  And it was to be years before output and unemployment gaps closed in most of these countries.

What is my point?   Simply, that it looks as though the political limits of discretionary fiscal stimulus were reached quite quickly, even in countries where there was no market pressure (any of the established floating exchange rate countries other than Iceland), and even though the economic rebound in most was anaemic at best.   That is why so many countries needed more conventional monetary capacity than in fact they had (and QE in various forms was not much of a substitute).

The OECD table on underlying primary balances only has data going back a few decades.  No doubt experiences in wartime were rather different –  in those circumstances huge shares of the nation’s resources can be marshalled and deployed in ways which (incidentially) stimuluate demand and activity.  But looking across the OECD countries over several decades, I couldn’t any examples of discretionary fiscal policy being used as a counter-cyclical tool materially more aggressively than happened over 2008 to 2010.  In Japan, for example, the structural fiscal balance worsened by about 6 percentage points over seven years after 1989.

So from revealed behaviour patterns, I’m sceptical as to just how much practical capacity there is for fiscal policy to do much, and for long, in the next serious recession, even in modestly-indebted New Zealand.    The limits aren’t technical –  they mostly weren’t last time –  but political.   Perhaps people will push back and run some argument along the lines of “oh, but we’ve learnt the lessons of unnecessary premature austerity last time round”.     To which my response would be along the lines of “show me some evidence, or reason to believe that things would, or even should, be much different next time”.   When – outside wartime –  has it ever happened?  And what about our political systems makes you comfortable that it is likely to happen next time?     We could probably run large structural deficits for a year or two, but pretty quickly the pressure is likely to mount to begin reining things back in again (especially if, for example, the next recession is accompanied by heavy mark-to-market losses on government investments –  eg NZSF).

And recall that here in New Zealand we had almost as much fiscal stimulus last time as any country, and even supported by huge cuts in interest rates (and without a home-grown financial crisis), we had a nasty recession (even a double-dip in 2010) from which it took ages to recover.

And all of this is without even examining how effective realistic fiscal policy is likely to be.    The easiest fiscal stimulus is a tax cut (or even a lump sum cash handout).   You can do clever ones, like the UK temporary cut in GST, which not only put more money in people’s pockets, but actively encouraged them to shift consumption forward –  only to then create problems as the deadline for raising the value-added tax rate loomed.   But putting money in people’s pocket –  in a recession, and often explicitly temporarily –  doesn’t guarantee they spend much of it.  The most effective demand-stimulating fiscal policy (supply side measures are another issue –  but lets just agree that deep cuts in company tax and related rates will not happen in the depths of a recession) is direct government purchases of goods and services.  Most talked of is government capital expenditure, infrastructure and all that.

But, approve or otherwise, no government has a reserve list of projects, designed and consented, just waiting to get starting the moment it is apparent the next deep recession in upon us (that moment usually being several months after the recession has begun).  It is almost certainly politically untenable for them to do so –  if the project is so good, so the argument will run, why not do it when times are good?  And so realistic government fiscal stimulus through the capital expenditure side will take months and years (more probably the latter) to even begin to get underway.   Faced with the actual physical destruction in Christchurch, look how long it took for major reconstruction to get underway.

What of income tax cuts?   Either the cuts are focused on those who pay the most taxes (in which case there is quickly one form of political pushback) or perhaps they take the form of a tax credit paid as a lump sum to everyone (in which case there is likely to be pushback of another political type –  ideas around “everyone becoming a welfare beneficiary).  I’m not attempting to defend either type of response, just to anticipate the risks.

By contrast, monetary policy –  the OCR –  can be adjusted almost immediately, and often begins to have an effect before the central bank even announces its formal decision (market expectations and all that).  And if monetary policy changes don’t affect everyone equally, they affect the entire country –  a borrower/saver/exporter in Invercargill just as their counterparts in Auckland.  In the line from a US Fed governor, monetary policy gets in “all the cracks” (although he was contrasting it with regulatory interventions).  Government capital expenditure is, by its nature, very specific in location.  There probably isn’t a natural backlog of major (useful) capital projects in Invercargill or Dunedin.

I’m not saying fiscal policy has no useful place in the stabilisation toolkit –  although my prior is that it is better-oriented towards the medium-term, with the automatic stabilisers allowed to work fully –  but that we should be very cautious about expecting that it is any sort of adequate substitute for monetary policy in the real world of politics, distrust of governments and so on, in which we actually dwell.    It is well past time for the Reserve Bank and the Treasury, led by the Minister of Finance, to be taking open steps towards ensuring that New Zealand has the conventional monetary policy capacity it would need in any new serious recession.