No idea apparently, probably not much interest

Over the three and half years that Jacinda Ardern has been Prime Minister and Grant Robertson Minister of Finance it has become increasingly obvious that not only do they have no serious ideas for turning around decades of productivity growth underperformance, and no intention of doing much on that score, but they have no real interest either.

Appointments are among the things that help reveal priorities. A couple of years ago they had the opportunity to look for a new Secretary to the Treasury who might revitalise the agency and start generating serious credible advice on fixing that economic failure – with all its ramifications for opportunities in other areas of life. They chose to pass up that opportunity.

More recently – and the focus of this post – there has been the Productivity Commission, set up a decade ago with some vision that it might offer medium-term analysis, research, and advice focused on reversing that economic failure. It hasn’t done a great job at that over the years, partly because the Commission is heavily constrained to work on specific inquiry topics that the government of the day determines. Neither government has really been interested in tackling the decades-long failure.

Late last year the government had the chance to appoint a new chair of the Commission – the key position in this (small) organisation. They could have found someone serious: someone with wide credibility on these issues, and preferably not seen as a partisan figure. As it was, they appointed Ganesh Nana. I wrote a bit about the appointment at the time.

Nana took office on 1 February. There was always the hope that reality wouldn’t be as bad as I (and others) had feared. Unfortunately, this week we’ve had two public contributions from Nana – an introductory statement, and a first on-the-record speech – that suggest reality is at least as bad as feared.

Take first his introductory statement, posted on the Commission’s website the other day. I described it elsewhere as just another marker in the sad decline of the Productivity Commission. In 1000 words there was not one hint of any insight on New Zealand’s productivity challenges just – in the style of the modern public sector – lots of Maori words, together with straw men (as if any government – or person – ever has cared only about GDP). It wasn’t much more than, as one other observer put it, a “word salad”. Perhaps it warmed the hearts of parts of the Labour Party and places further left, but it was almost entirely substance-free. He just doesn’t seem that interested in the medium-term performance of the economy – for which productivity is a key marker.

Perhaps more disconcerting was his speech yesterday at a Waikato University event called the 2021 New Zealand Economics Forum (which continues this morning), an event focused on the longer-term economic challenges New Zealand faces, especially in the wake of Covid. The organisers seem to have attracted a reasonably impressive array of speakers. After a welcome and introduction from the Waikato Vice-Chancellor, Nana – newly inducted head of the Productivity Commission – was the first speaker. It would seem like a forum and topic tailor-made for a powerful and insightful speech from the Chairman.

You can watch the whole thing yourself – about 45 minutes into the recording of yesterday’s event here. It was quite remarkable for how little there was there (and in fact how low-energy it all was). His title was “Challenges and opportunities for inproving productivity in a post-Covid world” but I heard not a single serious idea and hardly any supporting analysis. He did acknowledge that New Zealand’s productivity performance for the last two decades “and probably longer” (as if there is any serious doubt on the matter) had been “sobering”, and that productivity growth had been slowing. But that was about it. And if one of his messages was intended to be “you can’t keep on doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results” well, I’d agree. But that was really it. And when he suggested -in the body of his talk – that perhaps tourism shouldn’t come back to the way it was pre-Covid, it was supported by precisely no analysis at all, nor any suggestion as to where – if his idle prognostication or wish came true – the earnings and employment that tourism has generated might be replaced from. Perhaps someone might ask the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Tourism, or the PM what they think of their new Chairman’s perspective.

To be clear, I do not regard international tourism as the sort of industry likely to lead us back to first world economywide productivity performance – there is no country I’m aware of that it plays such a role – but them I’m not the only idly, but publicly, as head of a significant government agency, suggesting that the industry might usefully shrink. There seemed to be no mental model behind the comments, no research, and no policy prescriptions. And, of course, no cross-country comparative analysis or perspectives, and no sense of how far behind the productivity leaders we now are. It was as if he really wasn’t that interested.

There was quite a bit – none insightful – about the “Four capitals” Treasury likes to go on about. And just to reinforce the doubts that Nana has little or nothing useful to say about productivity, and not even much interest, in the question time we got a comment about how while the Commission would continue to publish its annual statistical report on productivity, he didn’t really like to pay too much attention to productivity. There was a fair point – but one that no one disputes – that productivity is really a medium-term thing and that he doesn’t pay much attention to a couple of quarters (to which I’d add, among other things data revisions reinforce that point). He described it as akin to a “profit and loss” measure, while he preferred to look at the “balance sheet” – those four capitals again, which might perhaps sound good to some but (a) for economic assets, the value is in the returns they generate (or credibly could generate, but (b) by comparison with labour productivity for which there is a good time series data, and reasonable cross-country comparisons, most of the “lets value the capitals” approaches offer neither. If, of course, there is a well-understood, long accepted, point that simply raping and pillaging the environment is, all else equal, a less valuable form of economic growth than income that does not do so, it doesn’t help in the slightest address the issues of New Zealand’s economic failure.

But perhaps that is the point. Robertson and Ardern have no interest in doing so – simply in cutting a small pie a bit differently – and so why bother appointing a chair of the Productivity Commission who might lead some hard thinking on the issues and offer options that might improve productivity – and wider “wellbeing” that stems from productivity possibilities. Easier simply to handwave and feel good.

Shame about the prospects for our country.

Not that good really

The Reserve Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee yesterday ambled back from their extended summer break and delivered the first monetary policy communication for the year – no speeches, no sign of any substantive interviews, but we did finally get this OCR review and Monetary Policy Statement. Having given themselves 3.5 months one might have hoped for something very good and insightful – there has, after all, been a lot happening, and the Bank has the largest concentration of macroeconomists anywhere in the country, generously funded at taxpayers’ expense.

I didn’t have that much trouble with the policy bottom line. If they were never going to cut the OCR and scrap the LSAP (as I suggested on Monday would have been warranted), at least they weren’t carried away with the “inflation risks mounting” sentiment that seems to be sweeping markets. In fact, I rather liked Orr’s response to a question in which he reminded listeners that central banks – the Reserve Bank more than most – had been too ready after the 2008/09 recession to want to raise interest rates and get back towards “normal” (a favoured line of his predecessor Graeme Wheeler), nicely and rightly adding that no one now knows what is “normal”, at least when it comes to interest rates. If medium-term forecasting is a mug’s game (on which more below), the Governor/MPC look to be right in suggesting that OCR increases are unlikely to be warranted any time soon.

On policy, there was an interesting framing in which the MPC said that they would keep policy “stimulatory” “until it is confident that consumer price inflation will be sustained at the 2 per cent per annum target midpoint, and that employment is at or above its maximum sustainable level. One might argue that that framing – especially that “and” – was (a) ultra vires (since the Remit subordinates the employment dimension) and/or (b) not entirely consistent (if employment is above maximum sustainable levels (as estimated) it is less likely that the Bank will be able to satisfy itself that inflation will remain “at” 2 per cent. Perhaps we should read it a little dovishly, but it remains a little disconcerting that after all these years of undershooting the target midpoint, the Bank is still giving nothing to ideas like the average inflation targeting the Federal Reserve has adopted for the time being. “At or above 2 per cent” might have been a preferable formula, and if that required a change in the Remit well… we discovered subsequently the Minister was already in that game. And it should remain a little troubling that with all the stimulus the Bank claims to be throwing at the situation, on their forecasts it is still 2.5 years until core inflation gets back to 2 per cent. Not much sign of the least-regrets framework really being acted upon, as distinct from cited.

In that context, one of the oddities about the Bank’s forecasts is that 2-3 years hence the Bank tells us it thinks there will be a positive output gap of 1.4 per cent (output running ahead of potential) and yet they also think the unemployment rate by then will be no lower than 4.6 per cent. On the face of it, that suggests they think the NAIRU-equivalent unemployment rate will by then be in excess of 5 per cent. Perhaps they do (perhaps those higher minimum wages really do cost jobs?), perhaps they don’t, but we don’t know because the Bank doesn’t explain.

Which is another of the oddities of the document. I’m not a big fan of medium-term macroeconomic forecasting, and was openly sceptical of its value for years when I was inside the Bank (it is too long ago to recall whether I was so sceptical when I ran the forecasting function) but the Bank purports to believe. A lot of effort has typically gone into doing and writing up the forecasts. And if you go to the formulaic pages at the front of the MPS, we are still told of a threefold approach to policy.


Which seems to put a lot of emphasis not on the conjuncture (current situation) but on the outlook (projections, forecasts surely?). And yet when we got to chapter 5 of the MPS – devoted to the outlook – there is much less than a full page of text, and then a two page bullet point table which contains no economic analysis at all, and which doesn’t appear to add anything beyond the numbers in the table. This appears to be a new approach – there was much more text in November – and it isn’t obviously an improvement. We have the Bank’s numbers, but almost nothing at all about the thinking, analysis, and research that lies behind them.

Perhaps – given my scepticism on medium-term forecasting – that might be more pardonable if there was lots of really high quality analysis of the current and recent past situation. In times like the present, perhaps one really can’t improve on a decent understanding of where we are now, and what we are learning from incoming data. But there isn’t anything very serious on that score either. For example, there is no sustained analysis of the housing market – which seems all the more extraordinary in light of the Minister’s intervention this morning – no sign that the Bank has done serious work on unpicking the various factors driving it, or influencing their quite optimistic forecasts. There is, for example, reliance on a story about returning New Zealanders last year. Perhaps it is a big part of the story, but argumentation is never developed, alternative hypotheses are never tested, and there is barely any mention of the rather large reduction in the number of non-citizens arriving (as it happens, it also isn’t that clear what they are assuming about net migrations as and when borders reopen).

Similarly I didn’t see any serious analysis of why the Bank thought it had been so surprised about recent developments. Of course, they weren’t alone in that surprise, but they set monetary policy, and they have all those resources at their disposal. Was it that monetary policy had been surprisingly potent – whether OCR or LSAP? Was it that resources and consumption were just much more flexible than they thought? Was it housing? (but if so, an authoritative analysis of the housing market is all the more important surely?) I don’t know the answers, and am not pushing particular stories, but shouldn’t we expect fresh and authoritative insights from the Bank? But there is nothing there – and nothing in the comments of the Governor and his senior staff at the press conference yesterday. There are lists, there are charts (some moderately interesting), but little or no insight or analysis – and there have been no speeches etc offering it either. It is the weakness of the institution – they might get some individual calls right, but one can’t have any confidence that they really know what they are doing and deserve deference for their insights, research and authoritative insights and judgements. Instead we get things like populist digs at banks for not, in the Governor’s view, having lowered their lending rates “enough’ – as if he was either a politician or perhaps a competition regulator. Oh, and in a document of not much more than 30 pages of text, devoid of much serious analysis on core issues, there is three pages devoted to one of the Governor’s pet playthings – the “Maori economy”. Can we expect one on the Catholic economy, the lefthanders’ economy, or the Labour-voters economy next? Each would be equally irrelevant to the Bank’s macroeconomic monetary policy – one economy, one instrument – statutory focus.

But the MPS was yesterday, and then this morning – safely after the FEC had had its chance to question the Bank – we had the real monetary policy initiative of the week, with the Minister of Finance announcing that he had changed the Remit to which the Bank works. He can do that, and had signalled back in November that he might make such a change. The new Remit is here.

It is a pretty shoddy affair on the Minister’s part. The new Remit was dated 22 February – Monday. Presumably the Bank was well aware of it. But the Minister kept it quiet until today, and the Governor made no mention of it yesterday – when the journalists had their quarterly chance to grill the Governor on monetary policy topics (next time not until late May). From a government that used to talk of being the most open and transparent ever, from a central bank that likes to claim it is highly transparent, it was like a sick joke, designed to avoid serious scrutiny and have all the reportage based on press releases – the Minister’s puff piece, and the Governor’s fluff.

It was typical Robertson (and perhaps Orr too). Robertson has never shown any sign of being serious about better monetary policy or a better institution (if he had, for example, he wouldn’t have banned people with an active research interest in monetary policy from being considered for the Committee) but he is very assiduous about having it look as if he is making a difference. That remains the best way to understand the first round of Reserve Bank reforms, and is the best way to see today’s announcement. The government is under pressure for doing little or nothing on housing. The Minister knows that monetary policy has little or nothing to do with the New Zealand housing market policy disaster, but he needs to look as if he is doing something, win a news cycle or two, and perhaps even fend off a few of his left-wing critics who do blame the Bank.

If you doubt that interpretation, look at the specific changes the Minister has made. At the front of the document there is woolly political paragraph about the government’s wider economic goals. It has no binding effect on anyone, but to that long list Robertson has added

An effective functioning housing market is a critical component of a sustainable and inclusive economy and promotes the maintenance of a sound and efficient financial system.

Well maybe, but even if you, I, the Governor or the MPC agreed it is simply a statement of faith, and anyway the Reserve Bank – especially with its monetary policy hat on – has no impact in delivering “an effective functioning housing market”.

And then later in the document the Minister has added some words. The first ones are in a section that does bind the Bank. There is a list of things that, in pursuing price stability and supporting maximum sustainable employment the Bank is required to do. There is longstanding stuff about avoiding “unnecessary instability in output, interest rates, and the exchange rate”, about looking through one-off price shocks, and having regard to “the efficiency and soundness of the financial system”. To that list the Minister has added this

assess the effect of its monetary policy decisions on the Government’s policy set out in subclause (3

and that “Government’s policy”? It reads thus

The Government’s policy is to support more sustainable house prices, including by dampening investor demand for existing housing stock, which would improve affordability for first-home buyers.

How wet is that? So the MPC is only required to “assess” the impact of its decisions on the government policy, not act in pursuit of that “government policy” (which might well be ultra vires anyway). A Reserve Bank action will no impact on a government policy: government policy will still be what it will be. At most that is another paragraph in each MPS. And quite how monetary policy decisions will affect the mix between the despised “investors” and other potential buyers will be a mystery to almost everyone (the Bank has financial regulatory interventions that it can use – although borders on the ultra vires to do so – that might have an effect but…..this is monetary policy.

It was a feeble effort. On the one hand we should be glad that the Minister sees sense and doesn’t ask the Bank to pursue house prices – doing so would simply push unemployment higher than it needs to be – but much better if he’d simply done nothing on monetary policy – and he and his colleagues concentrated on the real issues – rather than this limp effort in performative display, stage-managed to minimise the risk of serious immediate scrutiny. The Governor was, I guess, much too diplomatic to point out the emptiness of today’s announcement, but how he’d have answered faced with a sceptical press conference would have been interesting. And how MPC colleagues might have answered if they were ever allowed to speak openly, if appointments had not simply been based on who met certain political and gender criteria, who wouldn’t ever make life awkward for the Governor.

(Oh, and if the Minister and Governor really weren’t trying to avoid scrutiny, the obvious thing would have been to have released the Reserve Bank advice, the Treasury advice, and any Cabinet paper when the new Remit was announced. Of course they didn’t.)

Monetary policy

Having taken their long summer break – not heard from since 11 November – the Reserve Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee will be out with their Monetary Policy Statement on Wednesday. Much has changed in the economic data and indicators, here and abroad, since then, and it will be interesting to see what the Governor and has committee have made of it all. There are some genuine surprises and puzzles that the Committee should have been grappling with – and most other macro economists and commentators too, but the rest of us don’t get to set monetary policy. And if the strength of the economic rebound is a surprise – and it would appear to have been to the Bank too – how resilient is that rebound likely to prove, and under what conditions?

I’m somewhat sceptical of the idea of a resilient rebound this year – and with more than a few questions/puzzles about quite which data we can really count on at present – but without a compelling explanation for last year, one has to be even more hesitant than usual about backing a view about the future (macro forecasting is mostly a mug’s game anyway).

My own approach to monetary policy would probably be the one – “least regrets” – the Bank has repeatedly articulated over the last couple of years, if rarely followed in practice. That is especially so because the last year has made me more sceptical than I was about attempting to use fiscal policy for macro stabilisation (as distinct, say, from income relief amid a lockdown). Interest rates are the prices that balance savings and investment intentions, and monetary policy is about allowing interest rates to do that job.

And so even if the level of economic activity – even in per capita terms – is now back to something like it was at the start of last year, we still have

  • a central bank that has done nothing to reduce the (true) effective floor on the nominal OCR (even if they have very belatedly ensured that banks can cope with modestly negative rate),
  • core inflation that is still (a little) below the midpoint of the target range, not having been at or above that midpoint for the best part of a decade),
  • inflation expectations (surveys and market prices) that are still typically below the target midpoint, often by quite a long way (and this is so even though there has been quite a –  welcome –  lift in recent months),
  • the unemployment rate (inevitably measured less precisely than usual) is still non-trivially above reasonable guesses at where a NAIRU might be,
  • most other countries’ economies are doing less well cyclically than New Zealand’s and if vaccination programmes are well underway in a few of them, anything like normality still seems quite a way away, 
  • there is a great deal of uncertainty (inescapable, unavoidable) about the environment in which firms and households will be operating, and uncertainty tends not to encourage either consumption or investment spending, and
  • if the US is having another fiscal splurge, more generally across advanced countries the pressure in the next year or two is likely to be towards fiscal consolidation –  not necessarily dramatically so, but certainly in contrast to last year.  There isn’t much sign New Zealand will be any exception to that (nor, in my view, should it).

And then there is the wider backdrop. Even if we recover from this unusual Covid recession more readily than many had expected, the issue that has increasingly dogged monetary policy over the last decade has not gone away: nominal policy interest rates in more and more countries (now including former high interest rate countries New Zealand and Australia) are now near zero leaving rather limited monetary policy capacity when the next serious recession – grounded in economic developments not infection ones – comes along. That might be 10 years away, but it might be only a handful. The best thing monetary policy can do to help ensure there is some policy leeway next time is to err strongly on the easing side at present, generating inflation (and inflation expectation) outcomes that are – for a change – in the upper part of the target range. The Bank could articulate something like the Fed’s average inflation targeting approach – or, since the Minister is the one supposed to set the target, the Minister could tell them to – but a decent start would be to start acting as if they would be totally comfortable if, by chance, core inflation averaged say 2.3-2.5 per cent over the next five years. That doesn’t require actively targeting such numbers, but it does require recognising that central banks (including our own) have consistently over-forecast inflation over the last decade, and still don’t adequately understand why they’ve made that mistake. So by being actively willing to embrace higher inflation outcomes, perhaps the Bank and the MPC might just give themselves a better chance of delivering outcomes around 2 per cent – what successive ministers of finance have asked them to do.

If it were me, then, I would still be cutting the OCR, perhaps to zero this time. It would add a bit more macroeconomic stimulus, and would also be more realistic – since we don’t know the future – than idle pledges to keep the OCR where it is for some arbitrary length of time (recall that their last, hawkish as it turned out, arbitrary commitment only expires next month). And I would continue to express a willingness to take the OCR negative – and not a grudging willingness, but a genuine “do what it takes” approach to getting the economy back to full employment and inflation back to target.

And what of the Large Asset Purchase programme? If it were me, I would discontinue it now. That isn’t inconsistent with my macro stance (see above) because as regular readers know I’ve long been of the view that the LSAP was not making much macro difference at all (even if it may, at the margin, have helped a little in stabilising bond markets in the couple of weeks of global flurry last March), while it continues to (a) act as distraction (enabling the Bank to look and sound as if it is doing more than it is, and (b) has led some people to believe that somehow monetary policy, notably the LSAP programme, is greatly exacerbating that unnatural disaster of the rigged New Zealand housing market. Scrap the LSAP and nothing of substance will change around the housing market – access to finance, access to (use) land, supply of finance, demand, or even the shorter-term interest rates that are relevant to most mortgage borrowers. (And, of course, more generally the unnatural disaster has almost nothing to do with monetary policy – and even for those who want to “blame” interest rates, bear in mind that very long-term market rates, that central banks have little direct hold over most of the time, have been falling for decades.)

Now I don’t for a moment suppose that the Bank will do anything of that sort, on any of what I’m suggesting about monetary policy. But I hope they do give us some sort of serious framework outlining the sorts of specific factors that might eventually lead them to discontinue the LSAP. It is, for example, hard to see how they could justify continuing it if (a) they now believe banks can adequately cope with negative interest rates, and (b) if they get to a point where they think the risks are no longer skewed to the downside.

On such things, I’ve been reading over the last week a new book by the British economist Jonathan Ashworth on the experience this century with central bank asset purchase programmes (it is 20 years next months since the Bank of Japan first launched its quantitative easing). Quantitative Easing: The Great Central Bank Experiment was published last year and clearly was completed on the very eve of Covid – a couple of 2020 references, but no mention of the Covid recessions/interventions at all. It is a really nice summary treatment and documentary record of the activities in this area of the Fed, the Bank of England, the ECB, and the Bank of Japan, up to and including the Fed’s partial withdrawal from QE, as it finally raised interest rates after 2015 and wound back the size of its balance sheet. Although the publisher – launching this new series of books on aspects of the global financial system – describes the approach of the series as “resolutely heterodox”, in fact the book is strikingly orthodox. It is, therefore, quite a nice summary of the likely way the Reserve Bank and The Treasury were seeing the possibilities, and limitations, of quantitative easing when they were advising the government at the start of last year. It is also a good single point of reference if, like me, memories of some of these programmes grow somewhat hazy over time. And for anyone wanting a good introduction it is a fairly accessible read.

The orthodox view tends to be that asset purchase programmes have had some, perhaps significant, macroeconomic benefits. The case is probably strongest in the midst of the 2008/09 crisis when both the UK and US launched such programmes (although with important differences between those programmes) although Ashworth seems to favour interpretations in which later programmes have also had useful effects. I’m more sceptical, for a variety of reasons. Much of the work in this area rests of event studies around the announcement of programmes, and so it is a shame that Ashworth does not engage with (for example) the published work of former senior St Louis Fed researcher Dan Thornton who has critically reviewed claims in that are (see, for example, this journal article, and this policy piece). Ashworth rightly highlights how wrong were the people who claimed a decade ago that the asset purchase programmes would lead to a huge upsurge of inflation (much the same claims are made in some quarters on the right about the latest asset purchase programmes) but doesn’t really probe deeply questions as to whether a large scale asset swap can really make very much sustained macro difference. He doesn’t, for example, engage with the idea that things might be different if a central bank was buying bonds yielding, say, 10 per cent, and paying zero interest on settlement cash balances (as would once have been the norm) than if the central bank is purchasing assets yielding under 1 per cent (sometimes under zero) and paying the full policy rate on the resulting settlement cash balances. And although he usefully looks at the Fed’s balance sheet wind-down pre-Covid, his conclusion that that policy choice had little or no macro impact doesn’t seem to lead him to reflect afresh on whether the earlier policy interventions really had as much sustained effect as many central bankers prefer to believe. (One of my own sceptical arguments over they ears has been that there was little sign that bond yields had fallen further relative to policy rates in countries that used the LSAP tool – say the US or UK – than they had in countries that did not – say New Zealand or Australia.)

One point Ashworth does usefully highlight – and which I hope the RB will touch on on Wednesday – is the stock vs flow distinction. If QE has an effect, it is from the transactions in the market at the time (the flow) or from the accumulated withdrawal of bonds from the market (a stock effect). He notes that the literature tends to favour the stock story. If that is correct – and if QE has much effect at all – then, for example, the Reserve Bank could discontinue the LSAP now and continue to assert that the stock of bonds they had purchased was continuing to have a material stimulatory effect.

And just in case you think that LSAP-scepticism might just be some Reddell idiosyncrasy, I can leave you with a couple of quotes, The first is from the body of the book, from Paul Krugman, quoted in 2015 observing of the unconventional monetary policy tools “the bad stuff [presumably inflation risks] unpersuasive, the good stuff maybe, but not really compelling, this has just not turned out to be the game changing policy too that people had expected”. The other quote is from the Foreword to the book by the eminent academic and former central banker, Charles Goodhart (also a former colleague of Ashworth’s). Goodhart clearly likes the book, and commends it to readers, but notes that his own view that beyond intense crisis periods – in which bond purchases can respond to liquidity and market dysfunction stresses – the direct effect on the real economy via interest rates [ and recall that Orr claims the LSAP works by affecting interest rates], either actual or expected, and on the portfolio balance, was of second-order importance. QE2, QE3 and QE Infinity are relatively toothless”.

As I’ve noted previously when you have a tool that largely involves swapping one lots of (longer-term) government liabilities for another lot of (shorter-term) government liabilities – both paying low but market interest rates – and when your swap doesn’t even displace many existing holders of the long-term assets, it is inherently unlikely that you could use such a tool to generate large or sustained macro effects. My best read of the experience to date – abroad, nicely described in the book, or at home – is that we’ve seen just what we should expect, but with lots of central bank handwaving (the need to be seen to be doing something) that has distracted people into thinking that the tool is much more powerful – for good or ill – than it actually is.

Not really

Late on Friday afternoon I saw a tweet from Stuff politics and economics journalist Thomas Coughlan linking to a new and substantive article he’d written under the headline “Reserve Bank repeatedly warned Government money printing would lead to house price inflation”. Several other journalists who’ve each had a bee in their bonnet about the Reserve Bank’s asset purchase programme weighed in in support. None of them is too keen on Grant Robertson, and so it was presented as if they’d found evidence that the Minister of Finance had spent the year ignoring things that were not only totally predictable, but of which he had been advised by his officials. The Bank knew (we are told), as did The Treasury, but Robertson fiddled while Rome burned. Or so the story goes.

Now I yield to no one in my distaste for this government’s 3.5 years of appalling indifference to the unnatural disaster that is New Zealand house prices. But on a first glance the Stuff story didn’t seem very plausible – even noting that Coughlan was drawing on papers he seems to have obtained from The Treasury (and which, to his credit, he provided links to). However, it was Friday afternoon and my appetite for chasing these things down isn’t what it once was. So it wasn’t until yesterday that I read carefully the article, and the official papers Coughlan cited.

Coughlan links to three official papers. The first of these is a joint paper from the Reserve Bank and The Treasury dated 29 January 2020 addressed to the Minister of Finance on “Institutional Arrangements for Unconventional Monetary Policy”. I’d be surprised if the Minister paid much attention to it at all, for several reasons:

  • it was more than 20 pages long,
  • it was signed out by two fairly junior people (one on each side of the street), and
  • all it asked was for the Minister to agree that officials keep working on the issues (not the substance of so-called unconventional monetary policy, but “institutional arrangements” for something officials explicitly say is a low probability event any time in the following two years).   The intention at the time was a report back by the end of July.

But even if the Minister had read, marked, and inwardly digested the full report, what else would he have found?

Coughlan notes that the report says that “as these tools have never been used in New Zealand before, the magnitude of the macroeconomic stabilisation benefits is highly uncertain”.  Well, indeed.  But what of it?  In fact, at least one of the tools on the list has never been used anywhere, so it is hardly surprising no one could be confident what effect it might have.   It is the sort of boilerplate statement that, in a report of this sort, any reader will quickly pass over.

Then we learn that “although UMP tools entail many of the same trade-offs as conventional monetary policy, the scale of the tradeoffs can be larger with UMP.  The trade-offs include fiscal risks, financial stability risks, distributional impacts, and the impact on financial market functioning”.  Not that the operative word is “can”, and the list of “tradeoffs” is still very generic.  However, officials refer to a Figure A.  In this table the orange-coloured items are “the more significant trade-offs”, and this box (below) is about the class of tools labelled “Large scale asset purchases, including domestic government bonds, foreign currency or foreign government bonds, and corporate bonds.


Note that

  • there is no mention of house prices at all
  • the observation is about what “may” happen, not what will happen
  • a reasonable reader might reasonably suppose that officials were talking mainly about bidding up the price of assets the central bank was purchasing in such operations –  the most obvious “more directly” effect, since conventional monetary policy doesn’t work by buying assets outright but by setting an overnight deposit rate.

And that is about it in the body of a 20+ page document.  There is, however, an Annex about specific possible tools.  Do Ministers read Annexes at the end of 20 page documents?  Not often is my guess, especially when all this is about hypotheticals (so officials were telling the Minister), and when the paper is about institutional arrangements not details of tools.    But had he got that far here is what the Minister would have learned from his officials about asset purchase programmes.

Not only is there is no reference to house prices at all, but officials explicitly tell the Minister that in a New Zealand context a lower exchange rate is likely to be the main transmission channel.

So that was the 29 January paper. One might reasonably criticise both officials and the Minister for the lack of urgency by then (Wuhan was in lockdown, the Ministry of Health had deemed the coronavirus a serious issue, and the NZ government was days away from stopping arrivals from China…….oh, and the Bank/Treasury had had 10 years to prepare for a crisis in which the OCR hit zero) but one could hardly say Grant Robertson was now fixed with knowledge that if monetary policy was eased in the next downturn house prices would go crazy. No one was proposing the Reserve Bank buy houses, and house prices weren’t even mentioned.

The next document Coughlan cites is a short aide memoire from The Treasury dated 9 March 2020, prompted by the speech the Governor was to give the next day on unconventional monetary policy. It is titled “Update on work on institutional arrangements for unconventional monetary policy”. There is no analytical substance in the note at all (nor would one expect there to be). It does note that the risks of needing unconventional tools at some point had increased due to Covid-19, but there was no sense of urgency, and officials simply noted that they were bringing forward the report-back date for some bits of the institutional arrangements work to the end of May. I count that as pretty damning – this was, after all, only a week before the MPC (with the Secretary to the Treasury sitting on it) finally confronted reality and cut the OCR sharply, and instituted a floor (OCR at 25 basis points) that not even Treasury seems to have envisaged, but none of this has anything to do with house prices, distributional effects, or the like.

The third paper is dated 16 March and is an aide memoire from The Treasury on large scale asset purchases, the MPC having announced that morning that the LSAP would be next cab off the rank if the Bank considered more policy support was needed (note that the Minister’s own Covid-response package was to be announced on 17 March). Unsurprisingly perhaps, there isn’t anything new in this note either. House prices, for example, are not mentioned at all. There is something similar to the bit from the January paper about how the portfolio rebalancing channel might “push up the price of a range of assets, helping to flatten yield curves” – a phrasing that clearly has in mind simply bidding up long-term bond prices – and a repeat of the point that the exchange rate effect might be particularly strong in New Zealand. (At this point, Treasury still doesn’t seem to have envisaged that the government would be issuing so many new bonds that total private holdings might not drop much, if at all.)

And a little later there is the repeat of the distribution line: “LSAPs have many of the same distributional impacts as conventional monetary policy, but can raise asset prices more directly than conventional monetary policy, creating wealth inequality. However, they can also mitigate inequality by supporting employment.”. One might challenge some of the Treasury’s economics, but there is no reason in any of this to think (or for the Minister to think) that they were referring to anything other than the direct effects on prices of assets the Bank itself might purchase. And no one was suggesting houses for that list.

And that is it. That is the set of documents Coughlan claims show that the Minister of Finance was repeatedly warned that asset purchases would send house prices further into the stratosphere. It seems like very slim pickings to me.

Of course, we don’t know what the Secretary to the Treasury and the Governor may have said to the Minister in their private conversations with him. But we do know quite a lot about the Bank was saying in public.

For example, there was that long speech (19 pages) that the Governor delivered on 10 March – when he was also doing everything possible to play down any sense that monetary policy might need to do anything soon. It was sold as some sort of framework for thinking about monetary policy issues and options when the OCR had got to, or very near, zero.

The Governor tells us about a BIS assessment of other countries’ asset purchase programmes

and something of the Bank’s own thinking (emphasis added)

and then something that looks a bit more directly relevant

But note that (a) here he refers to both low global interest rates and unconventional monetary policy, not just the latter, and (b) Figure 5 actually shows that house prices (and share prices) in New Zealand had increased more in New Zealand over the last decade than in advanced countries as a group (many of which had used asset purchase programmes).

The very next paragraph reads as follows

Not exactly some sort of smoking gun, and certainly no sense that the Bank thought that launching an LSAP early in a severe downturn would send house prices further into the stratosphere.

In fact, the Governor helpfully included this chart showing how the Bank thought the transmission mechanism would work

It is quite a complicated chart but note that (a) there is no channel to house prices that is different from the way they thought normal monetary policy works (ie through lower interest rates) and (b) the only separate channel they highlight in regard to an LSAP tool is the exchange rate.

On the final page of his long speech the Governor wraps up this way (again, emphasis added)

The Governor had his bases covered with a long list of issues, but note that even that final warning is (a) not specific to an LSAP tool, (b) never – as with the rest of the speech – mentions house prices, and (c) seems to be talking about prolonged period effects, not those in the first few months after an intervention.

Quite possibly the Minister of Finance didn’t read this speech either, but had he done so he’d still not have been fixed with the sort of knowledge, and implied guilt, Coughlan claims.

One could go on. One could look back to the Bank’s significant Bulletin article in 2018 on monetary policy options. It was a careful survey of some of the issues and overseas experience, but on skimming through it again I didn’t see references to house prices. Or the Governor’s substantial Newsroom interview in late 2019 – the one in which he expressed a distinct preference for a negative OCR over LSAP-type tools – where there was also no reference to house prices.

Or, since Coughlan claims the Minister was fixed with knowledge and that the Bank had clearly advised him, we could look at the Bank’s own Monetary Policy Statements last year. In May, for example. when it was still early days, but when the LSAP had been deployed and the OCR been cut, the Bank’s baseline scenario was that house prices would fall by 9 per cent over the rest of 2020. In August, several months on, they noted that “accommodative monetary policy is supporting household spending by limiting house price declines”. They weren’t telling the Minister of Finance the LSAP would cause house prices to explode because…..that wasn’t their view, and at most they thought all their interventions were limiting house price falls (as one would expect – see transmission mechanism chart above – with conventional stabilisation monetary policy).

One could go on. There are other telling quotes from the Governor and other senior officials – although of course never from external MPC members who exist, if at all, in some sort of purdah – and the actions of the Bank (eg suspending LVR restrictions) or the rolling out of stress test guesstimates based on falling house prices.

There is simply nothing in the paper trail to suggest that the Bank (in particular, but probably Treasury too) was vigorously highlighting to the Minister of Finance that if they were let loose with the LSAP tool house prices would starting rocketing upwards again. They just weren’t. (And for what it is worth, the Bank’s survey of expectations – mostly of economists – through last year consistently had house price inflation expectations at or below the expectations that existed at the start of last year.)

Now it is of course true that house prices have gone crazy again (yesterday a real estate agent put a brochure in our letterbox telling us of this little Island Bay house – 112 square metres of house, 259 square metres of section, no view – that just sold for $1.4 million). In a better world – more knowledge, more good analysis – our officials and economists would have anticipated such an outcome. But they (well, we) didn’t. Speaking only for myself, I expected that as in most recessions we would see a fall in house prices that wouldn’t last that long, or be that deep, but might take a few years to reverse. After all, in typical recessions (a) interest rates fall, often more than they did in 2020), (b) bank lending standards often tighten (as the survey suggested they did last year), and in this downturn the net inflow of migrants was also likely to be disrupted.

There are people – on both the left (including the journalists I mentioned earlier) and on the right – who want ascribe a lot of the blame (the different than normal outcome) to the LSAP. There is much use of the loose, and not very accurate, term “money printing”. In this lecture late last year I told my story on why I’m convinced that what is little more than a large scale asset swap (two very similar assets, differing only by maturity date) is not having much macro effect at all. And I echo the Reserve Bank’s own repeated view that to the extent the LSAP works it does so by lowering interest rates, and the fall in interest rates in not unduly large, or larger than the Bank’s own published forecasts repeatedly suggested was needed for macro-stabilisation purposes.

I’m not that confident of my own story, but for now it would emphasise macroeconomic forecasting errors. To date, and for reasons that still aren’t clear, the economic rebound has been much sharper than any forecaster – but notably the RB and the Treasury – expected. Perhaps that will last, or perhaps not, but for as long as it does, in an environment where governments keep land artificially scarce, people are more likely to be willing to bid house prices to even more outlandish levels than would have seem plausible when the Bank and Treasury were advising the Minister in the first half of last year of the likelihood that the Covid downturn would be quite deep and quite enduring.

(Of course, adding further distortions to the once-functional market for housing finance, pursuing political agendas more than hardheaded assessments of risk as with the RB’s new LVR controls announced today, can dampen some of those house price pressures for a time. But the solution to the house price debacle still lies where it always did, with the central and local governments that continue to make land for development artificially scarce in a land-abundant country. Blaming the Reserve Bank, blaming the banks, blaming the tax system, or blaming anything else is really just distraction.)

Reforming the Reserve Bank, continued

Submissions to Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand bill close today. This is the next stage in the ongoing overhaul of the Reserve Bank legislation, and this particular bill focuses on a new governance structure for the Bank, largely importing for monetary policy the provisions of the amending legislation passed a couple of years ago. In the process, the substantive regulatory powers that were part of the Act are being spun out, unchanged for now, into a separate piece of legislation.

There is a fair amount of sensible stuff in the bill. The single decisionmaker model, flawed and unusual for monetary policy, deeply unsuited to the regulatory functions, will finally be no more. The MPC now makes monetary policy – well at least on paper at does, perhaps it more true that MPC is the venue at which monetary policy is made – and in future the Bank’s new Board will be responsible for all the other functions of the Bank (notably all those highly contentious bank regulatory policy functions, and the application of supervisory policy to banks, non-bank deposit takers, and insurance companies). There are some small steps in the right direction on funding agreements, and a formalised responsibility for Treasury in monitoring the Bank in support of the Minister’s role in holding the Bank to account.

There are some problematic things as well. There is a worrying provision that allows someone with a conflict of interest to nonetheless act and or a vote on a matter if someone as lowly as the deputy chair of the Board thinks it is okay. There is the worrying disappearance of the “efficiency” constraints on the Bank’s interventionist enthusiasms from the statutory goals for prudential policy. And there is what I think is the wrongheaded choice to keep all the functions – really quite different functions, probably needing quite different sorts of people at the helm – in a single institution.

I made only a quite short submission focused on just two areas of the bill that I see as problematic:

  • the quite different (utterly different) governance models being established for two different, each complex, policy functions housed in the same institution, and
  • the key role the Bank’s Board – primarily responsible for corporate matters and financial regulation/supervision – will have in the appointment of key monetary policy decisionmakers, the Governor and (in particular) the external members of the Monetary Policy Committee, even though there is no reason to think the Board will have any macro expertise, or will treat it as a priority, and although they will have no effective public accountability for appointments these unelected people will control.

On the first point

The Bank has two prime functions. 

The first is the conduct of monetary policy, which is primarily the responsibility of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC).  The MPC operates under a Remit set by the Minister, outlining more specifically the goals for monetary policy.  The Governor chairs the MPC, and although the remaining members (three internal, three external) are appointed by the Minister on the recommendation of the Board, the Governor himself has a great deal of say in those appointments, especially those of the internal members, whom the Governor appoints, remunerates, and allocates resources to (in respect of their line management functions).  That influence will be further strengthened under this bill because (rightly) the Deputy Governor will no longer be a statutory role.

The second main function is financial supervision and regulation, oversight of the financial system as a whole and prudential regulation of banks, deposit-takers, and insurance companies.  The Bank has extensive discretionary policymaking powers, especially as regards banks (the largest, by far, financial institutions in New Zealand).   This discretion exists not just as regards the application of clear policy to a specific institution’s circumstances, but as regards policy itself (notable recent examples in New Zealand have been around loan to value limits, and bank capital requirements).

This bill provides for a new Financial Policy Remit.  There is probably some merit in this innovation, although only time will tell (since we have not seen what such a Remit will look like or operate).  However, members should not be deceived by the use of the term of “Remit” for both monetary policy and financial regulatory functions.  The monetary policy remit is more or less binding on the MPC, clearly setting out a fairly widely-agreed target that is not too dissimilar to targets in a range of other advanced countries.  By contrast, section 201 makes clear that the financial policy remit is to be no more than the identification of things the Minister considers it desirable for the Bank to have regard to.       In other words, a huge amount of discretionary policymaking power is to be left with the Bank, in areas where there is no generally agreed right or wrong approach and thus little effective basis for holding the Bank to account for its exercise of those powers.    In the literature, notably for example former Bank of England Deputy Governor Sir Paul Tucker’s book Unelected Power, this lack of clarity (an unavoidable lack given our current state of knowledge) would be an argument for putting less policy-setting power in the hands of unelected officials, leaving contested policy choices to the Minister of Finance, working with expert advice from (in this case) The Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

What is striking, however, is the quite different governance model chosen for the Bank’s financial regulatory functions.  The powers of the Bank in this (and most other) areas will, in future, be vested in the Bank’s Board, and neither the Governor nor any other staff will be members of the Board.   There may be some merits in a governance model of that sort for some sorts of agencies.  In many Crown entities the chief executive is simply an employee of the Board.  That is, as I understand it, the situation at the Financial Markets Authority (albeit an agency that does not have extensive policymaking, as distinct from implementation, powers).  But it seems strangely anomalous to have two quite different governance models for two different, both prominent and complex, policy functions operating in the same institution.    And if there was a case for giving the chief executive (and fulltime experts) a stronger role in one or other of these functions, one might suppose it would be in the financial regulatory and policy side, where there is much greater ambiguity and uncertainty [including about goals, constraints, and transmission mechanisms]. 

It also seems anomalous that the monetary policy provisions have been written to make clear that the Governor is the key figure, including the prime public representative.  By contrast, for financial regulatory matters there will be a separate chair of a Board the Governor is not even a member of, and the Governor is at most an adviser to, and spokesman for, the Board.    While it is not unknown to have monetary policy and financial regulation done by different committees in the same institution (eg the UK) I’m not aware of any country that has chosen to create such gaping differences in the roles/powers of the Governor across those functions.   In one – the smaller (although more prominent) side of the Bank in future – he will be “kingpin”; in the other the Governor will have a diminished role that will only become clear with time.

Perhaps it might be a more pardonable outcome if the model has grown like topsy over a long period of times, but the two stages to the institutional reform of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand have been done as part of one process and by a single Minister of Finance.  It is not too late to step back and introduce greater alignment across the governance models used for the Bank’s two main functions.  Or to reserve more of the financial regulatory policymaking power to the Minister of Finance.

And on the second

Since 1989 the Governor has been appointed by the Minister of Finance, who may only appoint someone recommended by the Bank’s Board.  That in itself is a highly unusual model internationally. It is much more normal for the Minister of Finance (or the executive collectively) to be able appoint his/her own preferred candidate as Governor (that is, for example, the model in Australia, the UK, and – subject to Senate confirmation –  in the US).  Much the same model – Minister can appoint only people recommended by the Board –  was adopted for the other members of the Monetary Policy Committee in the 2018 amendments.

Whatever the possible merits of that model under the 1989 Act, the situation will be quite different under the provisions of this bill as drafted.  Under the 1989 model, the Board itself had few decision-making powers, none on any policy or operational matters, and its role was explicitly primarily about holding the Governor to account, and one of its key functions was the recommendation of the appointment of the Governor.  Whatever considerations influenced successive ministers in making Board appointments over the years, it was clear the Board had much the same (monitoring and accountability) responsibilities across all the functions the Bank/Governor were responsible for.   That remained more or less so under the 2018 amendments, in respect of the other MPC members.

But under this bill, the primary functions of the Board will in future be the conduct of the affairs of the Bank, other than those of the Monetary Policy Committee.  By far the largest of those functions will be financial system oversight and financial institution regulation and supervision (together with associated financial functions such as physical currency, payments systems, and the wholesale securities settlement system).    It seems likely that the bulk of the people appointed to the Board will be people with skills and background in and around financial institutions, and perhaps some people with a regulatory/corporate background.   That may be quite appropriate for the financial regulatory/oversight functions.  But macroeconomics and monetary policy is a quite different sort of role and requires a quite different set of skills, and it isn’t obvious that we (or future Ministers) can count on future Boards to have any real expertise in these matters, or any great interest (given that they will be busy doing the stuff the Board has prime responsibility for).    And when it comes to the appointment of the Governor in particular, isn’t there a serious risk that the Board will be more likely to emphasise skill sets relevant to their functions, those they see the Governor in each week/month, and not the skills necessary for the effective conduct of monetary policy?   And even if the Board members are well-motivated around monetary policy, what expertise or ability to judge are they likely to bring to the appointment/recommendation decisions.

I would strongly urge that these provisions be reviewed and amended.  In the Bill, Board members are to be appointed by the Minister but he/she will be required to consult with other political parties before making those appointments.  Why not, then, adopt, the same model for the appointment of the Governor and the appointment of other MPC members?  Doing that would not only make clear that monetary policy is not some secondary function, but would ensure that the Minister (a) has discretion to appoint people he/she is comfortable with (important since only the Minister has electoral accountability), (b) can draw on advice from The Treasury, the government’s key adviser on economic policy matters, and (c) adds a layer of reassurance (consultation with other parties) that still keeps tolerably low the risk of raw cronies being appointed to these important roles.   An alternative model to political party consultation – one I would prefer, and one used in the UK – is to provide for FEC itself to hold hearings on people being appointed to these before people can take up their appointments.  FEC would not have a formal power of veto, but the requirement for public scrutiny and the scope for hard questions also acts as an effective check in helping ensure that good quality candidates are consistently appointed.

There is really no excuse for such a dogs-breakfast. Yes, the MPC model is up and running, but has been in place for less than two years, and it would not require very large changes to bring the models applying to the two functions into greater alignment, and ensure appropriate control of appointments by the only people we – voters – can toss out; that is, the Minister of Finance.

A year on

24 January last year was the date of my first post on the coronavirus, specifically the potential for significant economic damage and disruption if it turned into something significant beyond China. At the time, there was no great prescience involved; it was simply that I follow China news reasonably closely, combined with the fact that I’d been fascinated by the economics of pandemics since I’d spent a lot of time on an earlier whole-of-government planning and preparedness exercise in the 2000s, when health authorities worried that an avian influenza would mutate into easy human-to-human transmission. For some time I’d had in the back of my mind to write a post about some of that work, about the potential scale of the near-term economic losses, and the sorts of economic interventions that might be called for.

A year on, I’m not really that interested in looking at how, for example, unconditional forecasts compared with outcomes (although as it happens I filled in my responses to the Reserve Bank’s Survey of Expectations the following day, and looking through those numbers now I must still have regarded widespread economic disruption affecting New Zealand as still being a very low probability). Rather I’m more interested in reflecting on what I’ve learned and what has surprised me, about economic behaviour and economic policy, given the way the virus itself has unfolded (the latter not being something economists had anything particular to offer on).

The thing I’ve found most surprising, given the severity of the virus, is the apparent resilience of private demand. My mental model 10 months ago was that private demand – consumption and investment – would fall quite sharply and stay quite low for a prolonged period (you can no doubt find me running that line in numerous posts through much of last year), and that that would be so whether or not a particular country was successful at keeping the virus out altogether, mostly stamping it out (eg NZ), or not. There were several reasons why that seemed plausible to me:

  • there were lost income-earning opportunities, which couldn’t be directly replaced while the pandemic persisted because –  for example –  people couldn’t travel internationally, or faced higher costs, more restrictions, and/or more uncertainty in doing so (eg I was supposed to be doing an overseas consulting trip in late Feb/early March 2020, and we cancelled not so much for fear of the virus in the other country, but from fear of having unknowable trouble/expense/disruption getting home again),
  • specifically, and for example, foreign students couldn’t come here, and although many were already here the longer the pandemic (and associated uncertainty) lasted the fewer were likely to be here (more go home, hardly any come).  Even if people were happy to study online from abroad, they wouldn’t be adding as much to demand here (food, travel, accommodation etc),
  • cross-border tourism was going to become all-but impossible, and if not impossible then that much more costly and uncertain,
  • inward immigration –  a key factor in New Zealand demand cycles –  was likely to be materially dampened for some time to come,
  • since no one knew how long the virus, and associated disruptions, would persist, private investment – the most cyclically variable part of GDP –  was likely to be particularly hard-hit.  Even allowing for some new spending on capital equipment directly associated with responding to the virus, it seemed likely that both from the demand-side and the financing side investment activity would fall away quite sharply –  perhaps especially in the sectors directly adversely affected, but more generally too.   Any disruptions to cross-border supply chains would only reinforce that
  • And even if New Zealand got more or less on top of things behind largely-closed borders, the economic losses in other countries that didn’t seemed likely to be severe.  The state of world economic activity typically matters a lot for New Zealand, including through commodity price channels. Investment, in particular, seemed likely to be hard hit.
  • more generally, uncertainty seemed likely to be a huge consideration, affecting households, firms, banks.  Pretty much everyone in fact, here or abroad.  At a household level, for example, even if a wage subsidy or similar protected your job in the narrow lockdown period, the economic environment had turned much more hostile and uncertain.  Losing a job, and finding it harder than usual to get another, was likely to affect spending and activity now.
  • (I also expected house prices to fall temporarily, perhaps by 10-20 per cent in real terms, as had happened in the previous recession, but unlike the Reserve Bank I’ve never believed that overall house price developments have much impact, one way or the other, on private consumption spending.)

And all this was reinforced by a recognition that in typical recessions we see these sorts of demand contractions, increases in unemployment, increased caution by lenders (and by investors) even when –  as usually –  interest rates are cut a long way.  And this time, interest rates hadn’t really been cut by that much at all –  in some countries almost not at all, but even in New Zealand by some fairly-modest fraction of what we normally see (75 basis points vs, for example, the 575 basis points of cuts in 2008/09).  So monetary policy would be doing something but not very much….and I thought those effects would be mutually reinforcing as the private sector recognised how little monetary policy was doing.    As just another example, serious downturns here usually see the exchange rate fall a lot, which is helpful in buffering the downturn.

There was, of course, fiscal policy. Fiscal policy also typically turns somewhat stimulatory during the worst of recessions, and we could expect more this time round – as indeed we saw, whether in countries (like NZ) with no much initial government debt, or in others with historically high debt to GDP ratios.

And yet, and yet…..if one is to believe a variety of economic indicators, the level of economic activity now doesn’t seem far from what it was a year ago. GDP is a badly lagging indicator, but on both measures real GDP in the September quarter was a bit above where it had been at the end of last year. Treasury’s activity index is partial, but more timely, and for what it is worth suggests that in December activity was about 1.5 per cent higher than a year earlier, and this in a country where there are now fewer people actually physically here (people who need to eat, need accommodation, take holidays etc) than were here last year. (Of course, there was still a lot of lost output back in March/April 2020, and most of that will never be recovered, but that isn’t my point here).

Of course, the unemployment rate has risen – although we won’t know the Dec quarter outcome for another week or so. But even if the December number is a bit higher, no one seems to expect anything dreadfully bad now – I don’t think any projections for the unemployment rate are now as bad as those in any of the past three New Zealand recessions.

It is all a bit surprising, on a number of counts.

One thing I clearly got wrong was in assuming that when New Zealanders couldn’t travel abroad – a non-trivial chunk of total spending by New Zealanders – they would mostly save, at least for a time, what they couldn’t spend abroad. As I noted last autumn, it didn’t seem that likely that a week in Whangamata in July was going to seem that attractive if you’d been hoping to holiday in Fiji, the Sunshine Coast, or more far-flung northern hemisphere places. And no one seemed likely to take up skiing when they previously holidayed in the sun in midwinter. Add in the economic uncertainty – see above – and it seemed not very likely there would be a lot of expenditure-switching towards the local economy. And yet there clearly has been. Whether people have been taking more holidays at home – especially over the summer – buying a car or a boat, eating out more, or committing to house alterations etc, the expenditure switching seems to have occurred, on a quite large scale. So much so that despite the really dramatic loss of overseas tourist spending – and some dip in foreign student spend – and the weakness in the wider world economy, overall economic activity seems to have recovered surprisingly well.

Perhaps it won’t last. Perhaps it isn’t well-measured. But for now at least it is hard to dispute the overall story. There are still, clearly, sectoral holes – pictures of near-empty carparks/bus parks in former overseas tourist hotspots – but the overall story seems surprisingly strong. Not boom times of course: unemployment is up fairly materially, but right now it has the feel of a quite-mild downturn overall. Consistent with that, and even though inflation expectations themselves have fallen, core inflation in the year to December was right where it had been in the year to December 2019 – a bit below target, still, but not falling as one might have expected (as the Reserve Bank did expect).

What explains it? Well, clearly there was more scope for expenditure-switching than I’d supposed. And that is good to know. But it can’t be anything like the whole story. After all, the wider world economy continues to materially underperform (relative to, say, expectations at the end of 2019), and uncertainty remains high (recall all those optimists about trans-Tasman bubbles back in the middle of last year, and compare that with the current situation – where even when/if Australia unilaterally reopens again to us, you’d surely be hesitant about booking when you don’t know the regulatory climate at the time you travel out, let alone what you might face coming home. No one has a good sense of when major industries – foreign tourism or export education – will return to normal, no one knows when population growth will resume, no one knows when the world economy will again be firing on all cylinders.

Of course, some will credit monetary policy. All those people talking up the “money printing” theme, and tying that into the unexpected surge in house prices. I don’t buy that story because – like the Reserve Bank – I think quantitative easing works mostly by changing interest rates and – see above – interest rates just haven’t changed by unusually large amounts. Perhaps there are some headline effects that neither the Bank nor I have paid enough heed to, but even if so such effects are unlikely to last for long. Oh, and of course the exchange rate – usually a key part of the monetary transmission mechanism – is no lower now than it was a year ago.

What about fiscal policy? There was, of course, a lot of fiscal support provided in the middle of last year, mostly in direct income support. A small amount of that is permanent (boost to household demand), notably the increases in welfare benefit levels, but by far the largest chunk was the wage subsidy. And large as that was (a) it has long since ended, and (b) it wasn’t large enough to replace all the private sector income loss (see how much GDP fell in the June quarter, even as jobs and basic household demand were supported by the wage subsidy payments. And as far I can tell there isn’t a lot of fiscal stimulus happening now (beyond what was already in the works and forecasts a year ago) – I’m sure there are some specific projects getting underway, but since little is ever really “shovel-ready” it just can’t be much relative to the scale of the wider economic challenges.

I don’t have strong conclusions, just puzzles. Why are people spending as strongly as they are, especially when we are reminded every day of our own vulnerability to new Covid outbreaks, lockdowns etc etc? It isn’t obvious that people have adequately factored in the real level of uncertainty.

Among the puzzles is that if unemployment is up and yet GDP is also flat or a bit up on a year ago, and the number of people here is a bit less than it was – that seems to suggest a boost to productivity that doesn’t make a lot of sense. When there was talk of really big job losses, people recognised that a lot of lowly-skilled people might lose their job, averaging up productivity even if no actual person was more productive, but now we are dealing with quite modest job losses. Even if GDP hasn’t fallen we’ve had material dislocations in individual sectors and those usually take time to work through. And – even with all the advances of technology – if we’d been told people couldn’t travel for a year – work and leisure travel – most would have assumed that would be a drag on productivity. Perhaps not instantly, but over time. And certainly not a boost. Business travel took place for a reason – and not the “joy” of long haul flying.

So some things don’t seem quite right. And in some cases not that sustainable. But quite what gives and when, who knows.

As for policy, my own position is that more macroeconomic policy support remains warranted. The case is simple: inflation and inflation expectations are below target and the unemployment rate is above any sort of NAIRU. I’d focus on monetary policy, which is the tool best-suited to short-term demand stimulus (as distinct from the income replacement imperative in March/April). If anything, over the last year I’ve become more wary of fiscal policy for countercyclical purposes. It gets presented as some sort of free lunch when it isn’t, and involves whichever lot holds power at the time making real resource commitments – to their own ideological biases – that are difficult to change later and which often don’t stand close scrutiny re the quality of the spending. By contrast, monetary policy attempts to mimic what real economic forces (savings, investment) would be doing to market interest rates, and involves no politician or public servant committing any real resources, or controlling anyone’s spending. Those best placed to spend more do, those more hesitant don’t, and interest rates can – or should be able to – be adjusted without limit (if central banks had done their jobs) to provide what support is needed, including drawing demand towards New Zealand (whereas fiscal policy focused on government spending) only tends to further increase the real exchange rate, and the excessively inward orientations of the New Zealand economy.

Productivity, Productivity Commission, and all that

I’ve written various pieces over the years on the Productivity Commission, both on specific papers and reports they have published, and on the Commission itself. I was quite keen on the idea of the Commission when it was first being mooted a decade or so ago. There was, after all, a serious productivity failure in New Zealand and across the Tasman the Australian Productivity Commission had become a fairly highly-regarded institution. But even from the early days I recall suggesting that it was hard to be too optimistic about the long-term prospects of the Commission, noting (among other things) the passing into history of the early Monetary and Economic Council, which had in its day (60s and early 70s) produced some worthwhile reports. In a small, no longer rich, country, maintaining critical mass was also always going to be a challenge, and agencies like The Treasury might be expected to have their beady eye on any budgetary resources allocated to the Commission, and on any good staff the Commission might attract or develop (a shift to another office block at bit further along The Terrace was unlikely to be much of a hurdle).

What I probably didn’t put enough weight on in those early days was the point that if governments weren’t at all interested in doing anything serious about New Zealand’s decades-long productivity failure, there really wasn’t much substantive point to a Productivity Commission at all, unless perhaps as something to distract the sceptics with (“see, we have a Productivity Commission”).

Ten years on, it isn’t obvious what the Commission has accomplished. There have been a few interesting research papers, some reports that may have clarified the understanding of a few policy points. But what difference have they made? Little, at least that I can see. Is the housing market disaster being substantively addressed? Is the state sector better managed? Is economywide productivity back on some sort of convergence path? Not as far as I can tell. Mostly that isn’t the Commission’s fault, although my impression is that the quality of the reports has deteriorated somewhat in recent years. But if politicians don’t care about fixing what ails this economy, why keep the Commission? It might be no more pointless than quite a few other government agencies and even ministries, but they all cost scarce real resources.

For the last 18 months I’ve been looking to appointment of the new chair of the Commission, replacing Murray Sherwin who has had the job for 10 years, as perhaps one last pointer to the seriousness – or otherwise – of Labour about productivity issues. There wasn’t much sign the Minister of Finance or Prime Minister cared much at all – or perhaps even understood the scale of our failure – but just possibly they might choose to appoint a new chair of the Productivity Commission who might lead really in-depth renewed intellectual efforts to address the failure, perhaps even in ways that might, by the force of their analysis and presentation, make it increasingly awkward for governments (Labour or National) to simply keep doing nothing. I wasn’t optimistic, partly because I’d watched Robertson and Ardern do nothing for several years, but also because – to be frank – it really wasn’t clear where they might find such an exceptional candidate even had they wanted one.

But then they removed all doubt last week when they announced the appointment of Ganesh Nana as the new chair. There is a strong sense that he is too close to the Labour Party. If that wasn’t ideal, it might not bother me much – especially given the thin pickings to choose a chair from among – if it were matched with a high and widespread regard among the economics and policy community for his rigour and intellectual leadership, including on productivity issues. Or even perhaps if he knew government and governent processes inside out (Sherwin, after all, was a senior public servant rather than himself being an intellectual leader). I don’t suppose the Nana commission is simply likely to parrot lines the Beehive would prefer – and can imagine some of Nana’s preferences being uncomfortable for them from the left – but this is someone who has spent 20+ years in the public economics debate in New Zealand, from his perch at BERL, and yet as far as I can tell his main two views of potential relevance are that (a) inflation targeting (of the sort adopted in most advanced economies) is a significant source of New Zealand’s economic underperformance, and (b) that a much larger population might make a big difference (notwithstanding use of that strategy for, just on this wave, the last 25 years or so.

Then there was this bumpf from the Minister’s press statement announcing the appointment

Ganesh Nana said he is excited to take up the position and looks forward to working with other Commission members and staff to focus on a broad perspective on productivity.

“Contributing to a transformation of the economic model and narrative towards one that values people and prioritises our role as kaitiaki o taonga is my kaupapa.  This perspective sees the delivery of wellbeing across several dimensions as critical measures of success of any economic model.

“Stepping into the Productivity Commission after more than 20 years at BERL will be a wrench for me and a move to outside my comfort zone.  However, this opportunity was not one I could ignore as the challenges facing 21st century Aotearoa become ever more intense.

“The role and nature of the work of the Commission is set to change in light of these pressing challenges.  I am committed to ensure the Commission will increasingly contribute to the wider strategic and policy kōrero,” Dr Nana said.

Whatever that means – and quite a bit isn’t at all clear to me – it doesn’t suggest any sort of laser-like focus on lifting, for example, economywide GDP per hour worked, in ways that might lift material living standards for New Zealanders as a whole.

(And then there was the unfortunate disclosure in the final part of the Minister’s press statement that the government has agreed that while functioning as a senior economic official, paid by the taxpayer, Nana is to be allowed to retain his almost half-share in his active economic consulting firm BERL. There is the small consolation that the Commission itself will not contract any business with BERL, but that should not be sufficient to reassure anyone concerned about what is left of the substance or appearance of good governance in New Zealand.)

A couple of weeks ago the Productivity Commission released a draft report on its “Frontier Firms” inquiry. The Commission does not control the inquiries it does – they are chosen by the government – and this one also seemed a bit daft to say the least, since “frontier firms” always seem much likely to arise from an overall economic policy environment that has been got right, rather than being something policymakers should be focusing on directly. But the Commission might still have made something useful, trying to craft something a bit more akin to a silk purse from the sow’s ear of a terms of reference.

I had thought of devoting a whole post to the draft report, and perhaps even making a formal submission on it, but since the report will be finalised under the Nana commission that mostly seems as though it would be a waste of time. And there is the odd useful point in the report, including the reminder that our productivity growth performance has remained dreadful by the standards of other modestly-productive advanced economies, and that we have relied on more hours worked, and the good fortune of the terms of trade, to avoid overall material living standards slipping much recently relative to other advanced economies. Productivity growth – much faster than we’ve achieved – remains central to any chance of sustainably lifting those material living standards and opening up other lifestyle etc choices.

But mostly the report is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Just before the draft report was released the Commission released a short paper on immigration issues that they had commissioned. I wrote about that note, somewhat sceptically, at the time – sceptical even though the gist of the author’s case might not be thought totally out of line with some of my own ideas. It turned out that the Fry and Wilson work was the basis for the Commission’s own discussion of immigration in the draft report, a discussion that neither seems terribly robust nor at all well-connected to the “frontier firms” theme of the report. Perhaps the RSE scheme has problems, perhaps some low-skilled work visas are issued too readily, but… orchards and vineyards didn’t really seem to be the sort of “frontier firms” the Commission had in mind in the rest of the report.

Perhaps my bigger concern was about their attempts to draw lessons from other countries. They, reasonably enough, suggest that there might be lessons from other small open advanced economies, perhaps especially relatively remote ones. But then they seem to end up mostly interested in places like Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands – all of which are in common economic area that is the EU (two even with the euro currency, most with no disadvantages of remoteness). I don’t think there was a single reference to Iceland, Malta, or Cyprus. Or to Israel – that country with all the high-tech firms and a productivity performance almost as bad as ours. And – though it might not be small, it has many similar characteristics to New Zealand – no mention at all of Australia. Remote Chile, Argentina and Uruguay get no mention – even though two of those three have had strong productivity growth in recent times – and neither, perhaps more surprisingly, do any of the (mostly small) OECD/EU countries in central and eastern Europe, many of which are now passing New Zealand levels of average labour productivity.

There wasn’t any systematic cross-country economic historical analysis or a rigorous attempt to assess which examples might hold what lessons for New Zealand. Instead, there a mix of things that might be music to the ears of a government that wants to be more active, and perhaps to punt our money again on the emergence of some mega NZ excellent firm(s) – without any demonstrated evidence that it (or its officials) can do so wisely or usefully – plus the odd thing that must have appealed to someone (eg the material on immigration – a subject that might still usefully warrant a full inquiry of its own, if the government would allow it, and when better than when we are in any case in something of a hiatus).

This will probably be the last post for this year, so I thought I’d leave you with a couple of charts to ponder.

The first is a reminder of just how little we know about what is going on with productivity – or probably most other aggregate economic measures – right now. As regular readers will know, I have updated every so often an economywide measure of labour productivity growth that averages the two different real GDP series (production and expenditure) and indexes of the two measures of hours (HLFS hours worked, QES hours paid).

mix of econ data

First, there is the huge difference in the two GDP measures. Whichever one one uses – but especially the expenditure measure – suggests a reasonable lift in average labour productivity this year (on one combination as much as 5 per cent). In the period to June there was an argument about low productivity workers losing their jobs, averaging up productivity for the remainder, but how plausible is that when hours are now estimated to be down only 1% or so on where they were at the end of last year (much less than, say, the fall in the last recession)? And thus how plausible is the notion of an acceleration in productivity growth given all the roadblocks the virus, and responses to it, have put in place this year. And although SNZ’s official population estimates have the population up 1.5 per cent this year (to September), if we take the natural increase data and the total net arrivals across the border data, they suggest a very slight drop this year in the number of people actually in New Zealand. I’m not sure, then, which of the economic data we can have any confidence in, although I’ll take a punt that the single least plausible of these numbers is the expenditure GDP one, and any resulting implication of any sort of real lift in productivity this year. SNZ has an unenviable job trying to get this year’s data straight.

But, of course, the real productivity challenge for New Zealand was there before Covid was heard of, and most likely be there still when Covid is but a memory. As we all know, New Zealand languishes miles behind the OECD productivity leaders (a bunch of northern European countries and the US), but in this chart I’ve shown how we’ve done over the full economic cycle from 2007 to 2019 relative not to the OECD leaders but to the countries that in 2007 either had low labour productivity than we did, or were not more than 10 per cent ahead of us then. For New Zealand I’ve shown both the number in the OECD database, and my average measure (which has the advantage of being updated for last week’s GDP release).

productivity 07 to 19

Whichever of the two NZ measures one uses, we’ve done better only than Greece and Mexico. Over decades Mexico has done so badly that the OECD suggests labour productivity in 2019 was less than 5 per cent higher than it had been in 1990. Even Greece has done less badly than that.

(As a quick cross-check, I also looked at the growth rates for this group of countries for this century to date. We’ve still done third-worst, beating the same two countries, over that period.)

It is a dismal performance. And there isn’t slightest sign that our government cares, or is at all interested in getting to the bottom of the problem, let alone reversing the decades of failure. Talking blithely about alternative measures of wellbeing etc shouldn’t be allowed to disguise that failure, which blights the living standards of this generation and the prospects of the next.

(And, sadly, there is no sign any political opposition party is really any better.)

Monetary policy in 2020

On Saturday I did a guest lecture to the Master of Applied Finance course at Victoria University. Martien Lubberink, who runs the course, invited me along to talk to the students about the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy this year (as it happens, most years for the best part of two decades I used to do a lecture to this same course articulating and championing the monetary policy framework and the Bank’s conduct of policy).

There wasn’t a great deal in the lecture that hasn’t already been covered in one or (many) more posts over the course of the year, but if anyone is interested here are the slides I used

Activity over substance VUW presentation 12 Dec 2020

and this is the story I was trying to tell

Notes for VUW MAF lecture on 2020 mon pol 12 Dec 2020

For the most part, I tried to look at what the Bank has, and hasn’t, done on their own terms. I didn’t, for example, spend lots of time on whether negative OCRs would “work”, but rather took as given the Bank’s repeatedly stated view that they would. I didn’t challenge the “least regrets” approach they have claimed, since the second half of last year, to be guiding them, but looked at how they had done relative to that worthy aspiration. I took for granted their embrace of the notion that in downturns when both inflation forecasts undershoot and unemployment forecasts overshoot aggressive monetary action is warranted. And against the backdrop of all that sort of thing I suggested that the year was best characterised as one of lots of activity, and rhetoric, and not a great deal of monetary policy substance.

For example, I included these two indicative charts comparing (real) interest rate and (nominal) exchange rates this year and in each of the three previous recessions since inflation targeting was adopted.

activity over substance

Whatever the impact of the LSAP and the funding for lending programme etc, the bottom line remains that key financial market prices just haven’t moved very much (and that is another area where I take as given – but also agree with the Bank – that to the extent those programmes work they do so largely by altering interest and exchange rates).

I ended the lecture with some thoughts on how we should evaluate the Bank’s monetary policy performance this year. From my notes

How should we evaluate the Bank’s performance?

We always have to be careful, when evaluating government agencies, not to hold them to unreasonable standards.  In this talk I’ve tried to ensure that I use either information that was available to them when they made decisions, their own rhetoric and arguments, or common international central banking practices and standards.   We can’t blame the RB, for example, for not pre-emptively easing a year ago in anticipation of a pandemic no one –  no central banker anyway –  could reasonably know about.

But we, and should, criticise them for:

  • The failure to recognise and respond to the emerging risks early (monetary policy works with a lag, risks around being near the lower bound were well known),
  • The failure, having decided that the negative OCR was a preferred option, to have ensured the bulk of the system was operationally ready (almost inexcusable, and has meant we have had monetary conditions tighter than otherwise for most of the year,
  • The failure to operate as if “least regrets” was actually guiding policy – the evidence for this not being my independent analysis, but their own numbers,
  • Falling back on exuberant spin regarding the impact of the LSAP, when realistically the effective impact is likely to have been small,
  • Opening the way to the “$100bn money printing” rhetoric by adopting LSAP rather than a mod-point on the yield curve target (as the RBA initially did, and even the LSAP the RBA is now doing is much smaller relative to the size of the economy),
  • Allowing the (second-best) sensible FFL instrument to also be framed as some dangerous money printing exercise,
  • Lack of serious transparency – whether the utter refusal to publish background analysis/research behind the mon policy choices/instruments, even in extremely unsettled times and when the rest of govt was being proactively transparent, or the continued invisibility and silence of the non-executive members of the MPC, and
  • The lack of effective communications and framing. There have been few speeches all year, hardly any published research, nothing from the non-exec MPC members.  Instead, they’ve largely left the framing of issues to critics –  notably the ones who think the Bank has done too much and is to blame either for house price inflation and some looming general inflation.  There has been nothing authoritative from the Bank, and they seem constantly to have been running to catch up.

    It has been a poor performance, that reflects poorly on all those involved: the Governor, his senior staff, the invisible non-exec MPC members, the Board (paid to hold management to account) and the Minister with responsibility for management and the Board.

    Of course, it is fair to ask how much difference a better monetary policy –  substance and presentation –  might have made.  By now, perhaps not a lot substantively – the mon pol lags are longer –  but into next year it would have helped lay the foundations for a strong recovery, a lift in inflation, and a rapid return to full employment (we can’t afford the 10 years it took after 2007).  And, agree with them or not, the RB would stand higher in informed opinion, and if we value the idea of an operationally independent central bank, that would have to have been a good thing.  It would truly have been a least regrets strategy.

At the end of the lecture, we had some time for questions. Perhaps the best question was the one I could not give a compelling answer to: why – given their projections, given their avowed “least regrets” approach – has the Bank and MPC not been willing to do more?

I had noted that there were similar issues with central banks in a number of other countries, and indeed that it was striking how relatively little monetary policy had done in this downturn and period of greatly-heightened uncertainty. You can see it in, for example, the published projections of the Reserve Bank of Australia, the ECB, and probably others too – where for several years to come not only is inflation expected to be below target, but unemployment is above general estimates of the respective NAIRUs. As our Governor notes, that is a combination that points in the direction of a lot of monetary policy support.

(As just one example of what is going on elsewhere, the ECB released its latest projections late last week.

ECB inflation

Three years out inflation is still barely back to 1.5 per cent, compared with a target of just under 2 per cent. In these same projections, the unemployment rate rises further from here.)

Central banks could do more to boost the recovery in activity and employment. The quiescent inflation numbers – their own projections – tell us that. In fact, those projections (and market and survey expectations) are best seen as a constraint limiting how much central banks can do; a constraint that when inflation projections are below target should be thought of as a non-binding constraint (especially when central banks around the world have had an upward bias to their inflation forecasts for the last decade).

So why don’t they do more? I don’t know. They don’t say – especially not our Reserve Bank which talks one set of rhetoric (often quite good rhetoric) and acts inconsistently with that rhetoric. Perhaps there is something in the story that active-government left-liberal Governor doesn’t want to use monetary policy because he wants to put pressure on the government to run bigger deficits and further increase public spending. I hope that isn’t a part of the story – it would be profoundly inconsistent with our democratic institutions of government for a non-elected official (and his lackeys on the MPC) to refuse to do their job simply to try to advance their personal political preferences in other areas. Perhaps they don’t believe the rhetoric (they themselves use) and doubt that monetary policy can do much more good in stabilising the economy. Perhaps there is some secure-public-employee indifference to the scandal of prolonged and unnecessarily high unemployment (which never affects senior central bankers, and probably rarely their children): it did, after all, take 10 long years after 2007 to get unemployment in New Zealand back down again. Perhaps there is some embarrassment that with all those years of advance notice they didn’t get their act together and ensure that banks were operationally ready for negative OCRs? Perhaps, globally, there is some discomfort that with all those years advance notice – most having got to the lower bound in the last recession – nothing (repeat nothing) has been done anywhere to make the lower bound less binding, and enable the sorts of deeply negative interest rates that (for example) former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff has called for.

Sure, it is easy for people to talk about all the fiscal stimulus that has been provided instead of monetary policy. But those published central bank forecasts – here or in other countries – capture all those effects. It is the job of monetary policy to estimate all the other effects and then, if the inflation outlook is below target and the unemployment outlook is above NAIRU-type estimates, to do more, to do what it takes. with monetary policy. That is what we have discretionary monetary policy for. (There are, of course, hard cases where the inflation and unemployment strands aren’t aligned, but as our own Governor has repeatedly pointed out this year, this isn’t one of those times.)

So, I really don’t know the answer to the student’s question. But I should (as should anyone who follows central banks closely), because they should be telling us. Instead, we’ve had a year of few speeches, no visibility (still) for the non-executive MPC members, little or no published research, a refusal to release background documents and analysis, and little or no attempt to articulate and defend a robust framework. 10 days or so ago, for example, the Governor gave a speech to an Australian audience on New Zealand monetary policy this year. As far it went, and by Orr’s standards, it wasn’t a bad speech but it addressed none of these questions. That isn’t good enough, and reflects poorly on everyone involved – the Governor, the MPC, the Board supposed to hold them to account, and the Minister of Finance with overall responsibility for the Bank, for monetary policy, and for economic performance more broadly.

There has been a lot of rhetoric, a lot of busy-work, but not a lot of monetary policy doing what it is there for, and not much transparency and accountability either.

Could do better?

Minus the question mark, that is the title of a new and fairly short report undertaken for the Productivity Commission by economists Julie Fry and Peter Wilson on “Migration and New Zealand’s frontier firms”. The Commission itself has been charged by the Minister of Finance with reporting on what could be done about so-called “frontier firms”, and has been casting about for various possible angles (apparently their draft report is due later this week). There is a Stuff article on the Fry and Wilson paper here, which begins this way

Despite its best efforts to become the next Silicon Valley, New Zealand has instead attracted a lot of nice people but very few trailblazers.

There probably have been – and still are – a few with that “next Silicon Valley” type of aspiration, but the key point is more like “lots of individually nice people, but probably not much economic gain to New Zealanders as a whole”.

Fry and Wilson’s own summary runs this way

Fry and Wilson key points

Fry and Wilson themselves seem a bit more sceptical on the economic value (to New Zealanders) of New Zealand’s large-scale immigration programme than they were in their short 2018 book that I wrote about here.

I’m a bit ambivalent about the report, even though – considered broadly – it goes in somewhat the same policy direction as the approach I’ve been championing for much of the last decade. Perhaps that is mostly because the Productivity Commission didn’t offer to pay very much for a report, and so the authors didn’t have the time or resource to consider the issues around the economics of New Zealand immigration in any great depth. A serious look at New Zealand’s immigration policy and the connection to New Zealand’s underwhelming economic performance would require, for example, a full Productivity Commission inquiry devoted just to that issue, but the government determines inquiry topics and I gather they’ve refused to have an immigration policy one done, even though immigration policy is one of the larger discretionary government structural policy interventions in the economy. But I can’t blame Fry and Wilson for that.

But unfortunately the (presumed resource) constraint means that the report really isn’t much more than an initial view that large scale immigration over the last 30 years probably hasn’t done much good for New Zealanders, and that hence somewhat less in future would more likely be beneficial. I don’t disagree – and, of course, have gone further than the authors in my hypothesis about the damage large scale immigration may have done (a story they describe as “plausible but untested”) – but who is the report going to persuade? The report doesn’t seek to engage with a broader academic literature that tends to be quite positive about economic gains from immigration, at least in the advanced world as a whole, or with the advocacy for it – including in a New Zealand context – by outfits like the IMF or the OECD. They might – as I do – think many of these results don’t stand up to close scrutiny (eg on the IMF here, or the OECD here), or may not have much application to a single extraordinarily-remote location, but they neither engage with the papers, not articulate their critiques. There isn’t much New Zealand specific formal research, but somewhat to my surprise, there wasn’t even a reference to the big advocacy piece the New Zealand Initiative did in 2017 (reviewed and critiqued at length here).

But in the rest of this post I wanted to comment mostly on two areas where I wasn’t particularly convinced, even as someone generally somewhat sympathetic to the thrust of the report. The first is the claim – also in those Key Points above – that New Zealand’s policy for attracting skilled migrants is “close to international best practice already”. The authors seem to offer little or no support for this proposition, but even if it were true it would not be particularly reassuring given that (a) we take a lot of migrants, as a percentage of New Zealand’s population, and (b) the evidence suggests that on average migrants are no more skilled than comparable New Zealand cohorts. The large numbers of people who have managed skilled migrant entry as low-level retail or cafe managers, for example, suggests that if this is world best practice, world practice is pretty poor (which in many cases is true no doubt, but that is their problem not ours). But more specifically, we also know that the New Zealand system for granting residency to “skilled migrants” is now strongly skewed in favour of people who are already in New Zealand – explicitly favouring people from abroad with New Zealand qualifications and New Zealand work experience (with bonus points for living in remote corners of this remote country). That favours absorption and integration, but generally not outstanding excellence: our universities generally not being top-tier, and our economy not being some global centre of excellence. It simply isn’t that easy for, say, a young family – parents perhaps good graduates of top 20 overseas universities – to just get residency in New Zealand, not without first relocating temporarily to the ends of the earth on a short-term visa in the hope residency eventually works out. To the extent there is benefit for New Zealand putative “frontier firms” in migration, it some of those sorts of people – with some proven work experience globally – who are likely to be more valuable than some 21 year old student studying at Massey who couldn’t get into Stanford or Cambridge.

Of course – and here I think Fry and Wilson probably agree – not that many top tier foreign people are likely to want to live and work here (as distinct from the boltholers), but lets not get complacent that our current skilled migration system is really fit for purpose, whether as to target number or conditions of entry (and although it isn’t dealt with in this report, a lot of our residency grantees don’t even come in via the skilled migrant pathway).

(On that “not that many top tier foreign people are likely to want to live and work here”, see my doubts expressed a few years ago about the the-new Global Impact Visas. Rereading that old post yesterday, nothing in what we have seen and heard of the scheme’s operation so far would lead me to materially alter my view of the prospects.)

The Productivity Commission over the last couple of years has emphasised quite a bit a desire to see New Zealand-based firms investing more beavily in technology. I’ve been uneasy about this line of argument because at times the Commission has seemed to put the cart before the horse, not digging deeply enough to understand why the New Zealand economy is underperforming and more profitable business opportunities aren’t apparent. This emphasis seems to carry over to the Fry and Wilson report – no doubt delivering something consistent with what the client was looking for. There are several pages (in what is really only a 30 page report) on opportunities (“very significant upside productivity potential”) if only we made it materially harder for firms to hire foreigners.

The predominant mechanism they seem to have in mind – whether in relation to students, working holidaymakers, or RSE workers (there is a whole section on the fruit industry) – is that if labour is harder and more expensive to get, firms will invest in technology. On the one hand, they seem to be buying into a model in which immigration has driven down wage rates (for which the evidence, considered broadly – as opposed to a few concentrated subsectors – is quite thin; in New Zealand wages have risen faster than GDP per hour worked over the last few decades). But there are also disconcerting parallels with a couple of very shaky arguments. Back in the disinflationary 1980s there was sometimes an argument used (in the UK and here) that a high real exchange rate – pretty much an inevitable part of a transition towards low inflation – was really quite good because it would encourage strong firms to invest more heavily in advanced technology etc to retain competitiveness. There was never much sign of that in the aggregate. And more recently we here claims that materially increasing minimum wages, from already quite high (relative to median wages) levels, will itself boost productivity and stimulate investment in technology. There might be some of that – firms will look for ways to mitigate the forced increase in labour costs – but there is no evidence in support of it as some sort of economywide pro-productivity strategy. And so I’m also uneasy when this argument is applied so simply to immigration. Perhaps there is something to it at an individual firm level, but it is unlikely to hold much at an economywide level. (Relatedly, much of the discussion in the paper seems to be about average labour productivity, and very little about the – conceptually more important – total factor productivity. One can raise labour productivity in ways that still leave the overall economy worse off – Think Big in the 1980s was probably such an example.)

The authors seem to favour a much lower level of non-citizen immigration to New Zealand (on average over time), not just nipping and tucking in a few individual migration approval streams. But if so, then their paper seems to neglect a rather important adjustment channel. As they note, historically New Zealand economists tended to emphasise the significance of the short-run demand effects of migration (and the well-established point that the short-run demand effects tend to outweigh near-term supply effects plays an important part in my own story). But if immigration by non-citizens is cut back markedly and for a prolonged period we would expect to see a reduction (perhaps a quite significant one) in the real exchange rate. And – to take the fruit industry as an example – a lower exchange rate might well more than outweigh any sector-specific wage effects from reduced access to migrant workers, leaving no particular incentive for the industry to invest more aggressively in technology to replace labour (for the existing tradables sector this is my story of how adjustment works once reform is done not just to an indvidual firm – deprived of access to labour – but at an economywide level). It isn’t that I really disagree with the Fry and Wilson direction of policy, but their analysis seems a bit too simple, and also inclined to treat the existing structure of the economy as a given (whereas on my argument I think we would, over time, see quite a different mix of sectors).

Fry and Wilson end their paper with some specific post-Covid suggestions for the government

fry and wilson 2

I’m sceptical that the 4th bullet has any content to it, although the broad direction of their recommendations isn’t one I’m uncomfortable with. My own suggestions (from a speech a few years ago) are along somewhat similar lines.

reddell immigration specifics

Finally, in their paper Fry and Wilson note of my views

While plausible, Reddell’s hypothesis has not been tested empirically. However, it is
possible that the natural experiment provided by the Covid-19-induced border closure will
enable more solid conclusions to be drawn.

I don’t think that is so. Most importantly, for a natural experiment you really want New Zealand immigration policy changed with all else unchanged, but this year too much has changed all at once for any sort of read, let alone a clean one. Among those changes, the differential ways different countries have handled Covid, massive fiscal stimulus (which, all else equal, tends to put upward pressure on the real exchange rate), most other countries also closing their borders to a greater or lesser extent, and a big disruption to key elements of our tradables sector. Oh, and all parties expect – political parties seem to champion – a return to the immigration status quo ante just as soon as possible.

For anyone wanting to read more of my story, there is this older paper from 2013, a speech on related topics from 2017, and a chapter in a recent book on New Zealand policymaking in which I look at some of the issues around New Zealand’s long-term economic underperformance, with an emphasis on the notion that however sensible large scale immigration may be for some countries, it seems not to have been more recently so for a remote land heavily reliant on a fixed stock of natural resources, and with few or no asymmetric shocks having worked in our favour for 100 years or more.

Robertson playing distraction

On Tuesday afternoon we learned that the Minister of Finance had written to the Governor of the Reserve Bank about housing and monetary policy. At his press conference yesterday, the Governor told us that the first thing he knew about it was on Monday, suggesting that the government had become worried over the weekend that it was on the political backfoot on housing and felt a need to be seen to be doing something/anything, to change the headlines for a day or two at least.

There wasn’t much to the Minister’s press statement. Perhaps it might even have seemed not-unreasonable if he’d come into office for the first time just a few days ago, but he’s been Minister of Finance for three years, and the housing disaster has just got steadily worse over that time. Little or nothing useful has happened in that time to do anything other than paper over a few symptoms of the problem. And no one believes any agenda the government has is likely to markedly change things for the better: if they did, expectations would already be shaping behaviour and land/house prices would already be falling. Why would one believe it when the Prime Minister refuses to talk in terms of materially lower house prices, and even the Minister of Finance yesterday could only talk about wanting “a sustained period of moderation in house prices” – ie enough to get the story of the front pages, not to actually fix the problem? That makes them no better than their National predecessors.

And so he made a bid to play distraction, writing to the Governor and suggesting that he (the Minister) might change the Remit the Monetary Policy Committee operates under. The Minister can make such changes himself (he does not need the Bank’s consent), but must seek comment from the Bank first.

It was a limp suggestion, as the Minister must have known when he wrote the letter (and as The Treasury would almost certainly advised him, if he asked for advice from them). In the Remit, consistent with the Act, the MPC is required to use monetary policy to keep inflation near 2 per cent, and consistent with that to do what it can to support “maximum sustainable employment” (in practical terms, low unemployment). And then there is this


The Minister suggested in his letter that he might like to add “and house prices” to the end of the worthy grab-bag phrase in b(ii).

b(ii) has been in the Bank’s monetary policy mandate (the old Policy Targets Agreements –  which I’d link to, but the Bank seems to have removed them from their website) since the end of 1999.    It was inserted when Labour became government that year and the new Minister of Finance, Michael Cullen, wanted some product differentiation.  The Bank had had a bad run over the previous parliamentary term, including the period when it ran things using a Monetary Conditions Index operating guideline, which led to us actively inducing a wildly unnecessary degree of variability in short-term interest rates.  Cullen had also, for some years, been somewhat exercised about the cyclical variability of the exchange rate.

It was cleverly-crafted wording.  Don Brash agreed to some new words that sounded worthy –  who, after all, wants “unnecessary” variability in anything – but which really changed nothing at all.  Better (or worse) still, no one has ever known quite what it meant, or if it meant anything at all beyond what was already implicit in a medium-term approach to inflation targeting (looking through short-term price fluctuations –  per b(iii) now –  had always been integral to the way we’d run thing).  A lot of time and energy was spent trying to articulate what it might mean –  the Bank’s Board were particularly exercised, since they were supposed to hold the Governor to account, and it wasn’t clear how, if it all, b(ii) changed anything.  For practical purposes, in all the years I sat on the OCR Advisory Committee, with b(ii) as part of the mandate we were advising against, I’m not convinced it ever made any material difference to any specific OCR decision.   If the Governor didn’t want to tighten much anyway, it was sometimes a convenient reference point –  wanting to avoid “unnecessary instability” in the exchange rate –  but a more hawkish Governor, or a more accurate set of forecasts, might just as easily have determined that any resulting pressure on the exchange rate, while perhaps a little regrettable, was nonetheless, “necessary”.    And then there were the tensions –  avoiding a bit more upward pressure on the exchange rate might actually contribute to increasing the variability in output, and so on.  

The clause was, and is, largely meaningless in any substantive sense.  From a purely substantive perspective I’ve argued for some years that it should simply have been dropped, but the fact that it lives on is a reminder that documents grow not necessarily because the substance requires it, but because there is a political itch to scratch. 

So Grant Robertson’s suggestion that he might change the Remit to add “and house prices”  to b(ii) should be seen in exactly that light. It is about scratching political itches – and distracting from the government’s own failures on housing –  not about substance.     We know this also because the Minister was at pains to reassure people that he wasn’t proposing to change the operational objectives the MPC is required to pursue.   If not, then adding “and house prices” is really no more than getting the MPC to add another few lines to the occasional MPS, to imply that they had paid ritual obeisance.  It might do no harm, but it will do no substantive good either.

But it won Robertson quite a few headlines, and even got the markets excited for a while, temporarily prompting the sort of lift in the exchange rate that might otherwise appear appear out of step with the government’s alleged desire to promote investment in more “productive assets”. 

But if there was anything real to it –  if the aim was actually to make the MPC set monetary policy differently (tighter at present) –  it would, of course, have to have come at the cost of a more sluggish recovery, lower than target inflation, and cyclical unemployment higher than necessary.  Which would have seemed very odd coming from a Minister of Finance who had explicitly introduced to the Act –  what was always implicit –  the cyclical unemployment dimension just a couple of years ago, complete with reminders of the importance his Labour forebears –  notably Peter Fraser –  had placed on full employment.    (I suppose, charitably, it could have involved some more fiscal stimulus to offset less monetary stimulus, but if the Minister had been serious about that he could do it anyway – the RB sets monetary policy in the light of government fiscal choices whatever they are.)

But of course it wasn’t serious. It was political theatre, and distraction, including an attempt to distance himself from monetary policy policy that he had explicitly authorised.  Thus he claims 

mof letter

But as the Minister knows very well, not only was the Bank well advanced in thinking about unconventional monetary policy options by then – they’d published a whole Bulletin article about it in May 2018 – and much of the rest of the world had been using them for some years, but that the LSAP programme (the one actually in effect this year) has been inauguarated with the explicit and repeated consent of the Minister of Finance himself (through the guarantees he has provided to the Bank). Unconventional monetary policy is, in any case, yet another ministerial distraction, since no supposes that whatever contribution monetary policy might have made to this year’s house price developments, it would have materially different if the Minister had ensured that the Bank had its act together in ways that meant that they used a negative OCR this year.

Anyway, the Minister’s letter prompted a quick response from the Bank. Perhaps some wonder if that was necessary – these things could be dealt with to a greater extent in private – but I’m with the Governor on this one. It was the Minister who chose to issue his letter the afternoon before the Bank’s long-scheduled FSR press conference. The Bank had no effective choice but to respond, and better to put things in writing than just rely on throwaway comments at a press conference.

I thought the Governor’s letter was mostly a fairly sensible and moderate holding response. He promised to come back to the Minister with more considered thoughts on the suggested addition to b(ii). There were a couple of bits that could be read more pointedly. For example, the Governor noted that

We welcome the opportunity to contribute to your work programme aimed at improving housing affordability. As I’ve said publicly on many occasions, monetary and financial regulatory policy alone cannot address this challenge. There are many long-term, structural issues at play.

The Bank had, in fact, had some nice lines to that effect in its Monetary Policy Statement just a couple of weeks ago

RB on housing

This is a government failure, not a central bank one. But I guess I wouldn’t expect any central bank Governor to be quite that pointed in public.

Several have also noted that the Governor pointed out that the Bank already considers house prices in setting monetary policy.

I can assure you that the MPC, in making its decisions, gives consideration to the potential impact of monetary policy on asset prices, including house prices. These are important transmission channels that affect employment and inflation. Housing market related prices are
also included in the Consumer Price Index, for example rents, rates, construction costs, and housing transaction costs.

But actually that was a bit cheeky. On those terms, at times like these the Bank positively welcomes higher house price inflation because of the beneficial spillovers they think that leads to in raising CPI inflation. Recall just a few weeks ago their chief economist was actively welcoming higher house prices, distinctly averse to falling prices.

Out of that first round, I’d suggest that the Governor came out ahead on points. The Minister got his headlines – lots of them in some media – but the Governor gave no hint of believing that there was likely to be anything of real substance there.

But the Governor must have over-reached yesterday. At the FSR press conference he expansively declared his pleasure that the Bank has been invited to share its expertise in advising on the wider issues of supply and affordability. In an interview with Stuff – now the frontpage story in the Dom-Post – Orr went further, talking about the tax advice they might also offer. It wasn’t clear what expertise the Governor thought the Bank had in these areas – there is nothing in their research publications or speeches in recent years that suggests any – but I guess that doesn’t often deter the Governor.

But all that talk can’t have gone down well with the Minister, as the newsroompro newsletter this morning includes this

milnes rb


All seems not to be sweetness and light between the Governor and the Minister. But then they deserve each other really. Robertson was engaged in a transparent attempt to distract briefly from the three years of failure of his own government, writing to the Reserve Bank – sure to get headlines – rather than putting the hard word on his own boss and his ministerial colleagues. And Orr, who surely knows there is nothing there and how empty b(ii) really is – and who genuinely seems to think monetary policy should be focused on boosting aggregate demand in ways that lift inflation and employment, can’t help himself in openly trying to embrace a much wider role as adviser on all manner of things that really have nothing much to do with the Bank. Meanwhile, through this period we have had precisely no serious speeches or research papers on monetary policy, we have a central bank that fell back on LSAP partly because it didn’t think to do the basics and check that banks could operate with a negative OCR, and (of course, still) the invisible external members of the Monetary Policy Committee. A high-performing central bank and Monetary Policy Committee would have done a much better job over months of articulating a story, and explaining the place of monetary policy in the mix.

Then, of course, there was the question as to whether had the proposed amendment to b(ii) been in place back in March anything about monetary policy this year would have been different. Orr – probably diplomatically – avoided answering that, but of course the straightforward answer is no. That is so for two reasons. First – and this is a point Orr made in his MPS press conference – the threat to output, employment, and inflation in March was so large that the operational objectives the Minister has given the MPC would simply have impelled a significant easing in monetary policy. But the other reason – actually more an explanation for monetary policy choices than is often realised – is the forecasts. Back in March, hardly anyone (no one I’m aware) would have forecast the rise in house prices we’ve actually seen. Most probably expected – I did – something more like 2008/09, with a dip in prices for a time. So sitting in an MPC meeting in March with an amended b(ii) the house price issues would have appeared moot. Monetary policy would have been conducted just as it was. Oh, and not to forget my point earlier: no one knows what b(ii) means in practice anyway.

But of course if the Minister took any economic advice at all before sending his political theatre letter, he’d have known that too.

So change the Remit, or don’t, in this way and (a) it won’t make any difference to the conduct of monetary policy, and (b) it won’t change the fact that the reforms that might make a real difference now to land/house prices are all matters under the control of ministers already, backed by their majority in Parliament. If my kids can’t buy houses 10 years hence, it is going to be the fault of Ardern and Robertson, and not at all that of the Reserve Bank.