Productivity, and politicians who no longer care

I was reminded again the other day both how (absolutely) poor even advanced countries were not that long ago, but also how (relatively) rich New Zealand was. I was reading a fascinating book on Ireland’s (rather shameful) history in World War Two and stumbled across a snippet suggesting that “there were nearly 170000 licensed radio sets in Ireland on outbreak of war”, in a country of almost three million people. On digging around a bit, I found that in New Zealand, then with 1.6 million people, we’d had 317509 licensed radio sets in 1939 (then, apparently, third highest in the world per capita). The licence fees in the two countries appear to have been very similar.

The standard compilation of historical estimates of per capita GDP – that of Angus Maddison – is consistent with my radio anecdote. In 1938/39 GDP per capita in New Zealand was more than twice that in Ireland, with New Zealand in the very top grouping (New Zealand, UK, USA, and Switzerland).

How times change. As even Irish official statisticians acknowledge the idiosyncracies of Ireland’s corporate tax system substantially distort Irish national accounts statistics, but doing whatever adjustments are possible (eg the Irish modified GNI measure) or looking at consumption statistics it is clear that these days Ireland is producing considerably better material living standards than New Zealand is. In terms of standard productivity measures – the OECD’s real GDP per hour worked data – they probably went past us in the mid-1980s.

The OECD productivity data go back as far as 1970. By then, we’d already had a couple of decades of relative decline – even though for most countries, including New Zealand, the 1950s and 1960s had seen really impressive absolute growth rates. Of the 23 countries for which the OECD has 1970 data – not all of them (including New Zealand) then part of the OECD – real GDP per hour worked here was just over 95 per cent of that in the median OECD country. We were a touch behind France and a touch of the UK. These days – pre-Covid – real GDP per hour worked is about two-thirds of the median for that same group of 23 countries.

By far our worst decade since these data start was the 1970s. In that decade we had, by some considerable margin, the slowest growth in labour productivity of any of the countries the OECD has data far. Unfortunately, since then there has never been any sustained period when we have regained ground relative to the OECD pack, and if anything the gaps have widened further.

Relative optimists might look at the New Zealand experience this century and observe that there hasn’t been any material slippage relative to the leading bunch of OECD countries.

But that shouldn’t really be any consolation when:

  • the absolute rate of productivity growth has been so poor (our average annual rate of productivity growth for the nine years to 2019 has been a bit worse than our dismal performance in the 1970s –  see above),
  • we’ve managed no catch-up relative to the leading bunch, even though their productivity rates  –  problems at the frontier –  have also been disappointing to say the least, and
  • our performance relative to other countries that aspired to catch-up has also been dreadful.

I first got systematically interested in New Zealand’s woeful record in a stint at Treasury from 2008 to 2010, in the course of which I was heavily involved with the then-government’s 2025 Taskforce – the one supposedly about catching up (in terms of material living standards) with Australia by 2025. I wrote most of the Taskforce’s first report in late 2009 and in doing so I noticed, and reported that, of the former Communist countries of eastern Europe, Slovenia had then just passed us in terms of real per capita GDP, that Slovakia had real GDP per hour worked approaching that of New Zealand.

There have been some data revisions since then, but if we look at current estimates of real GDP per hour worked, in PPP terms, for 2007, we find that Slovenia was indeed about 5 per cent ahead of New Zealand, although the gap to Slovakia was a bit larger (10 per cent) than those earlier estimates suggested. There are eight former Communist countries in the OECD. In 2007, real GDP per hour worked in New Zealand was already only 16 per cent ahead of the median of those countries, that margin have narrowed markedly in the previous decade. Perhaps that earlier catch-up wasn’t too surprising or alarming – if you stop hobbling your economy and get rid of the state-dominated Communist system, you are almost certain to bounceback to some extent.

But where are things now?

Real GDP per hour worked, 2019, $US PPP
Slovenia 45.2
Slovakia43.8
Lithuania42.5
New Zealand42.2
Czech Republic42.0
Poland41.0
Estonia40.8
Hungary37.7
Latvia37.0

Last year we were really just middle of the pack among these countries, and in another couple of years – on policies, practices, whatever in New Zealand and other countries – you’d have to assume we’ll be struggling to stay ahead of Hungary and Latvia for long. In terms of growth rates over the last decade, Hungary was the laggard of the former Communist countries – still grew faster than New Zealand, but not by that much – but it should be slim consolation if we just manage to stay ahead of Hungary.

Not once previously in the history of modern New Zealand has any of these countries previously had productivity or income per head performances to match those of New Zealand. They still lag quite a way behind the north-west European leaders – although the gap is closing. The standout isn’t them catching up, but us failing.

It isn’t just those former eastern bloc countries. At the turn of the century, New Zealand could console itself that if Korea was growing rapidly, real GDP per hour worked was still not much more than half that of New Zealand. On recent rates of growth, they will move ahead of us in another year or two. Or Turkey – with a history of unstable undemocracy, macroeconomic instability and so on. The old Ottoman Empire was the 19th century’s “sick man of Europe”. In 2017, for the first time in modern history, real GDP per hour worked in Turkey moved ahead of that in New Zealand.

But it isn’t all bad news I guess. If you really want to find advanced countries that have done less well than New Zealand – poorer/less productive and with a slower productivity growth rate – I can offer you Greece and Portugal. But falling on those sorts of comparisons is really head-in-the-sand stuff.

But….in the midst of an election campaign, occurring in probably toughest economic times for an election campaign since 1990, is there any sign that (a) any political parties, or leading figures in parties, care about this dire long-term economic performance, or (b) have either any serious ideas, or a commitment to getting and adopting serious ideas, about making a difference? If there are any such signs I must have missed them.

Presumably, if pushed and at some level, the people grappling for office must know that productivity really matters – here was my story why and how. It is about underpinning higher wages (without pricing people out of the market), about underpinning more leisure opportunities, improving access to better healthcare, underpinning improvements in life expectancy, and underpinning the consumption of the bits and pieces of consumer society that most of us seem to value. Perhaps if you are an extreme Green you might have an excuse not to care about productivity – or, at the other end of spectrum, a zealot for the New Conservatives – but for the rest it is hard to see, at least if they are serious about anything more than simply occupying office.

Perhaps one can find slight and partial excuses for our politicians. After all, it is not as if the government’s self-proclaimed premier economic advisers, The Treasury, have been firing on all cylinders, generating a steady stream of searching analysis and research with suggested solutions to our decades of economic failure. Then again, as things are set up why would they? Successive National and Labour (and even NZ First) Ministers of Finance have had no real interest: bureaucrats respond to incentives to, and the State Services Commissioners have played their part in appointing as Secretary to the Treasury people who weren’t likely to rock the boat.

But, at best, it is a partial explanation, not an excuse. Real political leaders set the agenda, with ideas of their own, drawing on the expertise of others, and demanding – or promising – much better from the public service. There is no sign of any of that at the top of either of our main parties (and, mostly, the others don’t really matter much, but they don’t seem any different either). I’m sure they are all nice people, but what are they doing – or promising – that might make a real difference, in reversing the decline in our relative material living standards, not just for the next year or two (borrowed money, redistributing a static or shrinking pie) but for the next generation or two (your kids and mine, our grand children etc). Short answer – on the evidence of years and years, and on the evidence of what parties are talking about and promising in this campaign – NOTHING. It is shameful. (And it is also not much excuse to suggest there is no huge groundswell of public anger, demanding something better: we don’t expect voters to engage on real GDP per hour worked, but don’t we hear again and again complaints about gaps in what productivity and growth makes more readily possible – health, housing standards and so on?)

Instead, any (expressed or public) concern seems to be limited to same predictably small group. There is me, here – and in a longer-form treatment here. There is Paul Conway, formerly of the Productivity Commission – where he led their work in this area, before frustration got the better of him – and now at BNZ, and there is Kerry McDonald, former economist, former head of Comalco, former leading company director. McDonald’s latest speech pulls no punches in its title, Our Economic Disaster and the Tragedy of NZ’s Political Leadership. And not much beyond that. The point isn’t that the three of us would agree of everything – we wouldn’t – but that our politicians and senior officials, our political parties, aren’t even engaged on the issue at all, let alone on serious options for making a difference.

One area where it looks as though there is some overlap in the policy prescriptions of Conway, McDonald, and Reddell is around immigration, and a sense – more strongly put at least in my case – that decades of high rates of non-citizen immigration, often not of people who are particularly highly-skilled, has not served us at all well in lifting productivity, even though the official case for high immigration to New Zealand asserted that it was a “critical economic enabler”.

I illustrated earlier in this post how the central and eastern European countries have been catching up and overtaking New Zealand. In this chart I’ve shown the populations of New Zealand and the median of these eight OECD countries this century, drawn from the World Bank/UN data.

e europe sept 20

Or this table of population growth rates this century

Population growth, per cent, 2000-19
Lithuania-20.4
Latvia-19.2
Estonia-5.0
Hungary-4.3
Poland-0.8
Slovak Republic1.2
Czech Republic4.0
Slovenia5.0
New Zealand27.5

All these countries have birth rates below replacement (generally lower than New Zealand’s) and all have had outward migration of their own citizens – us primarily to Australia, the Europeans mostly to western Europe. The big difference is that New Zealand – alone – has pursued rapid population growth as a matter of official policy, aggressively running one of the largest (per capita) official immigration programmes on the planet.

(As I’ve argued in numerous previous posts, rapid population growth isn’t necessarily inconsistent with rapid productivity growth, but rarely if ever has rapid population growth been a recipe for sustained rapid productivity growth – arguably the 19th centuries colonies of settlement, with abundant land may have been exceptions. Much depends on the opportunities, and locations matter. And yes, although Korea now has very modest population growth, Turkey’s population growth has been rapid.)

But, even amid the Covid disruptions – which could have been a great opportunity to stop and rethink – no political party seems interested in revisiting whether New Zealand’s large scale immigration policy has worked in the economic interests of New Zealanders as a whole, and all the media chatter is about getting going again with the supply of relatively lowly-skilled workers from abroad into the New Zealand labour market. There is no sign it has worked for New Zealanders for the past 25 years, and no obvious reason to suppose that will change for the better now.

But our political “leaders” show no sign of caring, at least about anything beyond the latest stories of firms in low-wage industries wanting a resumed supply of people willing to work at….low wages.

Perhaps there is an alternative credible model for thinking about how to reverse sustainably our decades of underperformance. But if so, you wouldn’t know it from listening to our politicians, or their officials.

PREFU thoughts

The debt numbers in yesterday’s PREFU are, to me, almost the least concerning aspects of the pages and pages of numbers/charts The Treasury published. My preferred debt measure – net core Crown debt, including the government financial assets held in the NZSF – is projected to peak at just under 40 per cent of GDP. As I’ve noted previously, numbers like that at the start of this year would have put us in the less-indebted half of the OECD countries then. By no obvious somewhat-objective metric is net debt at those sorts of levels particularly problematic, even if bond yields (and eventually, we assume, the OCR) do eventually head back in the direction of more-normal historical levels. And I hope neither main party – whether at this year’s election or that in 2023 – is going to make a fetish of specific timebound numerical targets for a particular debt measure (governments in few other countries do).

That said, the fiscal picture is not a rosy one. And it isn’t just because of Covid one-offs or because of the recession itself. Treasury produces estimates of the cyclically-adjusted balance, and this time gave us numbers that also stripped out those Covid measures. This is the resulting surplus/deficit chart.

CAB ex covid

Treasury estimated that there was a modest structural surplus over the second half of the 2010s, but now reckon the structural deficit will be around 1.5 per cent of GDP once we emerge from the immediate shadow of Covid. A three percentage point deterioration in the structural balance isn’t ruinous in and of itself – and is smaller than the moves in the previous decade – but it isn’t something to be entirely relaxed about either. It is the result of specific choices about permanent spending/tax choices. One would want to be comfortable that spending choices were of a particularly high quality.

I’m rather more bothered by the overall macroeconomic story, and the apparent complacency of The Treasury in these matters – not just as principal macro advisers to the government, but given that the Secretary to the Treasury is a non-voting member of the Reserve Bank Monetary Policy Committee. In four years time, the unemployment rate is forecast to still be materially above the NAIRU (and the output gap materially negative), and inflation is barely getting back to the target midpoint. A standard view of the monetary policy transmission mechanism is that monetary policy works with its fullest effects over perhaps an 18-24 month horizon. And yet on these projections not only has fiscal policy largely done its dash already, but there is hardly any further easing assumed in monetary policy (90 day bill rates drop to 0.1 per cent, but the OCR seems never to go negative). We have macroeconomic stabilisation policy to produce better cyclical outcomes than that. It has the feel of an approach that is just fine with people not likely to lose their jobs – Treasury and Reserve Bank officials – but shouldn’t be counted satisfactory to the rest of the population (and voters). Macro policy can’t solve structural failings, but it can address sustained cyclical weakness. A serious Opposition might make something of this, and reflect on the capabilities and priorities of our macro policy officials, and indeed on those (in the Beehive) who appoint/retain them.

One issue I’ve hammered on about here over the years is New Zealand’s rather woeful foreign trade performance. At the high tide of the latest wave of globalisation, we spent this century to date with the value of exports and imports shrinking as a share of GDP.

Treasury only produces volume forecasts for exports and imports in the PREFU. They aren’t pretty. Of course, (services) exports and imports are currently taking a large hit from closed borders, but Treasury assumes borders are reopened by the start of 2022.

Over the last economic cycle (2007/08 to the end of last year) the volume of New Zealand exports more or less kept pace with the growth rate in real GDP. But on Treasury’s forecasts over the full five years to 2023/2024, real GDP is projected to have risen by 8.4 per cent, while the volume of exports is projected to have risen by only 1.7 per cent. And whereas the volume of imports – things we consume, and use to produce – ran ahead of the growth in real GDP (quite significantly, as real import prices fell), even the latest forecast period to 2023/24 import volumes don’t even manage to keep pace with the subdued growth in real GDP.

As the prices of both exports and imports tend to grow more slowly than general prices (CPI, GDP deflator etc) and since Treasury projects the exchange rate goes nowhere over the next five years, these projections will be consistent with exports/imports falling to around a quarter of GDP. At the turn of the century they were around a third. And yet (growing) trade with the rest of the world is a key element in almost any country’s economic success – particularly for small countries.

The bottom line is perhaps expressed in lost GDP. We could do a simple comparison and look at nominal GDP for the years 2019/20 to 2023/24 from the Treasury’s HYEFU late last year and yesterday’s PREFU. Over those five years, Treasury now expects the value-added from all production in New Zealand will be $140 billion less than they thought just nine months ago. (For what it is worth, there is another $200 billion lost in the following five years, a period Treasury does not forecast in detail). These are really large losses, and on the Treasury numbers the associated wealth is never being made back. Nominal GDP matters for various reasons, including that most public and private debt is expressed in nominal terms.

But, of course, there is also plenty of focus on real GDP per capita. Over the last economic cycle (2007/08 to the end of last year), real GDP per capita. increased by about 1 per cent per annum. That was pretty underwhelming growth, reflecting the poor productivity performance and limited outward-oriented opportunities in turn reflected in weak business investment.

But here is rough comparison between the Treasury projections and a scenario in which we’d continued to stumble along at 1 per cent per annum growth in real per capita GDP.

scenario PREFU

On a rough estimate, the difference between the two lines is just over $100 billion – lost and never coming back. And although the two lines look as though they will eventually converge, my understanding of the Treasury projections beyond the official forecast period is that they don’t. Not only have we lost wealth upfront (that $100 billion) but our real annual income will always be a bit less than we previously thought.

None of these scenarios/numbers looks particularly unrealistically pessimistic to me. If anything, Treasury seems a bit more optimistic than I would be about the wider world economy – given how little has been done with monetary policy, the approaching political limits of fiscal policy, and the way that all societies look to be materially poorer than they would have thought just a few months ago, it is difficult to be very optimistic about the likely pace of sustained economic rebounds anywhere. And while Treasury assumes that we keep on in the medium-term with our modest productivity growht, it isn’t obvious even how that is going to be achieved – it is not as if either political party has any sort of serious economic plan. It doesn’t take aggressive fiscal consolidation here or abroad to think that private spending growth (consumption and investment) is likely to be really rather subdued for quite a long time to come.

Much of the political debate tends to turn on how much more debt governments have taken on, how much more public spending has been done. And there are important issues there, that deserve ongoing scrutiny, but at least as important is just how much poorer we now look likely to be than we thought just a few months ago. Fiscal policy redistributes among people in New Zealand, but even with all that fiscal support, as a country we are in aggregate so much poorer than we expected to be. And that will influence behaviour, choices, appetite for risk etc in the years ahead.

(Oh, and finally, I don’t have space to labour the point, but isn’t there something shameful when The Treasury reckons that – with no new fiscal or monetary stimulus – current structural features of the housing market (land use, immigration and whatever else) mean that they expect 7.4 per cent house price inflation in 2022/23 and a further 8.5 per cent the following year. That, not whether prices fall a bit this year as ,eg, unemployment rises, should be getting a lot more attention that it seems to be.)

Productivity and GDP

Tomorrow morning we finally get Statistic New Zealand’s first guess at June quarter GDP. If I’m being critical in that sentence, it is through the use of the “finally” – emphasising just how long (unusually long internationally) the delays are in producing national accounts data – rather than in the word “guess”. I don’t suppose SNZ will use the term itself, but I think everyone recognises just how difficult it has been for statistics agencies to get an accurate read on what went on in the second quarter this year, when so many economies were so severely affected by some mix of lockdowns and private cboices to reduce contacts/activities. There are likely to be big revisions to come, perhaps for some years to come, and most likely we will never have a hugely reliable estimate – scholars may continue to produce papers on the topic for decades to come. That is also a caveat on the inevitable comparisons that will be made tomorrow, in support of one narrative or another, about how well/badly New Zealand did relative to other advanced countries. Most/all of them – and their statistical agencies – will have had similar measurement and estimation problems.

We do, however, have some aggregate data on the second quarter, including estimates from the Household Labour Force Survey (HLFS) and the Quarterly Employment Survey ((QES) on, respectively, hours worked and hours paid. Each of these surveys – one of households, one of firms (in sectors covering most of the economy) – had their own challenges in the June quarter.

Over time, the growth in hours worked and hours paid tend to be quite similar (unsurprisingly really). From 2014 to 2019, the quarterly growth in hours worked averaged 0.74 per cent per quarter, and quarterly growth in hours paid averaged 0.65 per cent. From quarter to quarter there is quite a lot of variability, which also isn’t surprising given the way the data are compiled (as an example, my household was in the HLFS for a couple of years and I would answer for all adult members of the household: for hours, I’d give them a number for my wife’s hours that broadly reflected my impression of whether she’d had a particularly taxing time in the reference week or not, but it was impressionistic rather than precise). Partly for that reason, when I report estimates of quarterly growth in labour productivity, I use both an average of the two measures of GDP and an average of the two measures of hours.

But in the June quarter there was a huge difference between HLFS hours worked (-10.3 per cent) and QES hours paid (-3.4 per cent). Some of that will be measurement problems and natural noise. But quite a bit of it will, presumably, reflect the wage subsidy scheme. The wage subsidy scheme ensured that most people who were employed stayed employed during the June quarter – although by the end of the quarter the unemployment rate had risen quite a bit – but many of those whose incomes were supported by the wage subsidy may have been doing much reduced, or barely any at all, hours actually worked during the reference week (when they were surveyed). For some components of GDP the QES series had typically been used as one of the inputs, which would have been quite problematic for the June quarter (and, to a lesser extent) in September.

Statistics New Zealand has published a guide to the sorts of adjustments it is going to make to produce its first guesstimate of GDP tomorrow. They seem to be making a significant effort in a number of areas, and presumably this information – and direct contact with SNZ – is what has led private bank forecasters to converge on predictions that GDP will (be initially reported to) have fallen in the June quarter by something like 11-12 per cent (by contrast, in its August MPS the Reserve Bank expected a fall of 14.3 per cent, and that seemed to be a fairly uncontroversial estimate at the time).

I don’t do detailed quarterly forecasts so I do not have a view on what the initially reported estimate of the GDP fall will be, let alone what the “true” number towards which we hope successive revisions will iterate might be.

I have, however, long been uneasy – and think I wrote about this here back in April – but how, for example, SNZ were really going capture the decline in output in the public sector. Output indicators for the core public sector are a problem at the best of times, but there are plenty of stories of government departments that didn’t have sufficient laptops for all staff, or didn’t have server capacity to enable staff with laptops to all work from home simultaneously. And that is before the drag reduced effectiveness and productivity – if it were generally so productive everyone would have done it already – and the inevitable distraction/disruptions of young children at home. All these people were paid throughout, and were no doubt recorded as “working” – in an hours paid sense – but skimming through the SNZ guide I see no indication of any sort of adjustment for this sector. And in respect of public hospitals – much less busy than usual, with elective surgeries cancelled etc – there is also no sign of a planned adjustment to the measured contribution to GDP.

And this note from the guide

  • The method for school education will not be changed. Activity is assumed to be unchanged, with remote learning assumed to be a direct substitute for face-to-face learning.

didn’t strike me as entirely consistent with (a) changes to the requirements for getting NCEA passes this year (reduced number of credits students are required to achieve, (b) reports of the difficulties many students had (or the fact that the government was still trying to dish out free routers to poor households – allegedly mine – as recently as a couple of weeks ago, or (c) my observations from my kids about how relatively little many of their teachers seemed to do during the period. Some kids – including a couple of mine – have even have learned more during time at home than time at school but (a) I doubt that generalises, and (b) it certainly won’t show up in more NCEA credits, since schools actively reduced the number of credits they offered.

So those are just a few straws in the wind that leave me suspecting that whatever is published now is probably something of an overestimate of value-added in the June quarter.

I’m also a bit uneasy when I think about what sort of monthly track (implied) is required to have generated “only”, say, an 11 per cent fall in GDP during the June quarter, bearing in mind that real GDP had already fallen 1.6 per cent in the March quarter as a whole.

There was a pretty strong view back in April/May that during the so-called “Level 4” restrictions economic activity was likely to have been reduced by almost 40 per cent below normal (the Reserve Bank’s 37 per cent estimate was here, and I think The Treasury’s estimate was even weaker).

But even if one assumes that in May and June economic activity was right back up to the level prevailing on average during the March quarter (in much of which there must have been little or no Covid effect, even though by the last few days of the period the “lockdown” was in place), April (almost all of which was in lockdown) must have been no weaker than 67 per cent of the March quarter average level to generate an 11 per cent fall for the quarter as a whole.

And that just doesn’t really ring true. We know, for example, that there were no foreign tourists arriving in the June quarter, and levels 2 and 3 restrictions were in place for quite a while. We know too the firms that swore they met the legal requirements for the extended wage subsidy.

If instead, and for example, we assume that May and June were back up to 95 and 97 per cent respectively of March quarter levels of economic activity – which sounds more or less plausible – then April has to have been no weaker than 75 per cent of the March quarter to generate an 11 per cent fall for the June quarter as a whole. And that doesn’t really square with any contemporary estimates about how binding the so-called Level 4 restrictions were. Perhaps they were all wrong and things just weren’t so badly constrained at all, but count me a bit sceptical for now. We’ll see, but in and of itself tomorrow’s release may not shed much light we can count on.

And on the other hand, there is the question of the implied change in labour productivity (defined as real GDP per hour worked). Assume that the HLFS is a somewhat reasonable representation of hours actually worked during the quarter and one is working with a reduction in hours of 10.3 per cent.

Suppose then that the bank forecasters (I looked at ANZ, Westpac, and ASB) are right and GDP is reported to have fallen by 11-12 per cent. That would produce a “headline” – well, there are no headlines, because SNZ does not report this measure directly – drop in labour productivity of perhaps 1 or 1.5 per cent for the quarter.

That might, on the surface, sound plausible. All sorts of things must worked less efficiently under voluntary or regulatory restrictions around the virus. If anything across the range of sectors that normally involve extensive face-to-face contact it might sound like a reasonable stab – albeit perhaps on the small side – as a representative drop. Remember that even in places where gross output was maintained, often slightly more inputs will have been required to keep up output.

But what do we see in other countries? Finding quarterly productivity estimates for most other countries isn’t easy. The UK publishes an official whole economy series, but with a fair lag (so the Q2 estimates are not yet available, even though they publish monthly GDP). Australia does publish official estimates of real GDP per hour worked in the same release as the GDP numbers. The initial ABS estimate is that real GDP per hour worked rose quite sharply in the June quarter.

aus covid productivity

The US does not report official whole economy productivity, but labour productivity in the non-farm business sector is estimated to have risen by 10.1 per cent. In both cases, output fell, but hours worked fell even faster. Canada also reports a significant rise in average labour productivity in the June quarter even as real GDP also fell sharply.

What is going on here? It isn’t that Covid is suddenly making everyone, or even whole swathes of industry, materially more productive – the longed-for elixir of renewed productivity growth. Almost certainly what is going on is compositional change: the people who were working fewer hours (or not all) will have tended to be disproportionately in relative low wage/low labour productivity sectors/roles. One can think of bar staff, waitresses, office and motel cleaners, barbers and so on. On the other hand, a fairly large proportion of higher-paying jobs could be done, more or less effectively, with little or no face to face contact. And in Australia, for example, the hugely capital intensive resources sector will have been hardly affected at all by the Covid restrictions. Most individual sectors/roles might have maintained – more or less – their productivity, but for many lower paying ones the effective demand (and output) was just no longer there. Averaging those who were still producing/working one ends up with higher average productivity even if no individual is any more productive than ever.

Each country’s restrictions, and underlying economic structures, were/are a bit different. But on the face of it, it is a little hard to construct a story in which average labour productivity hardly changed in New Zealand when in other advanced economies it rose a lot. We were very stringent on shops and cafes/restaurants/bars. We had a large tourism sector that was very hard hit, and typically isn’t a hgh paying sector.

Now perhaps that HLFS estimates of hours worked (-10.3 per cent) is itself all wrong – although presumably other countries must have had similar issues – but if GDP comes out tomorrow with a reported fall similar to the reported fall in hours worked, it will be just another puzzle to add to the mix – and to hope for some significant revisions down the track. Of course, if (a) HLFS hours is a reasonable guide, and (b) other countries’ productivity estimates are a reasonable guide, then all else equal one might have expected a fall in GDP even less than the one those private forecasters are picking. And – even amid the great uncertainty – that really would be a surprise.

What difference did lockdowns make?

I’ve written a couple of posts over the months drawing on work by Waikato economics professor John Gibson. Back in April there was this post, and then last month I wrote about an empirical piece Gibson had done using US county-level data suggesting that government-imposed restrictions in response to Covid may have made little consistent contribution to reducing death rates (in turn consistent with evidence suggesting that much of the decline in social contact, and economic activity, was happening anyway, in advance of government restrictions).

Fascinating as I found that paper, I was never entirely convinced how far the point would generalise, It seemed implausible, for example, that government restrictions and “lockdowns” would never make much difference – even if, in practice, the particular ones used in US counties might, on average, not have. After all, at the extreme, if a population (wrongly) regarded the threat from a particular pandemic as fairly mild, and yet some megalomaniacal government nonetheless banned all cross-border movement and ordered that no one was to leave their home for six weeks it is quite likely that – gross over-reaction as the government’s reaction might be – fewer lives would be lost from the virus under extreme lockdown than with no government restrictions. Then again, if the public was right and the government was wrong, such a lockdown would not save any material number of virus deaths, but would come at an enormous cost, whether in economic terms or personal and civil liberty.

That earlier paper also used only US data, and although there is an enormous richness in US data – since restrictions were imposed at state and county level – there is the entire rest of the world, even just the advanced world, to consider. As it happens, Professor Gibson has now done another short paper looking at (much of) the OECD countries – most of the advanced world. Here is his abstract.

A popular narrative that New Zealand’s policy response to Coronavirus was ‘go hard, go early’ is misleading. While restrictions were the most stringent in the world during the Level 4 lockdown in March and April, these were imposed after the likely peak in new infections I use the time path of Covid-19 deaths for each OECD country to estimate inflection points. Allowing for the typical lag from infection to death, new infections peaked before the most stringent policy responses were applied in many countries, including New Zealand. The cross-country evidence shows that restrictions imposed after the inflection point in infections is reached are ineffective in reducing total deaths. Even restrictions imposed earlier have just a modest effect; if Sweden’s more relaxed restrictions had been used, an extra 310 Covid-19 deaths are predicted for New Zealand – far fewer than the thousands of deaths
predicted for New Zealand by some mathematical models.

Professor Gibson does not seem at all taken with the Prime Minister’s “go hard, go early” catchphrase. He argues that the New Zealand government went hard, but actually rather late. He begins the paper with this chart, comparing restrictions in New Zealand and several other advanced island countries (ISL being Iceland).

Gibson 1

And observes

Up until mid-March the New Zealand response generally lagged the other countries in Figure 1. Moreover, the initial response, from 3 February, required foreign nationals arriving from China to self-isolate for 14 days. In late February, this extended to travelers coming from Iran. Subsequent genomic sequencing of confirmed cases in New Zealand from 26 February until May 22 shows representation from nearly all the diversity in the global virus population, and cases causing ongoing local transmission were mostly from North America (Geoghagen et al. 2020). Thus, aside from self-isolation being poorly policed, restricting travelers from certain countries (for example, China, Iran) is ineffective at keeping the virus out, unless all countries in the world simultaneously impose the same restrictions. Without such coordination, the virus can spread to third countries, from whence it can enter New Zealand. It is like bolting one door on a stable with many exterior doors, with horses free to roam around inside so that a smart horse (aka ‘a tricky virus’) can escape through any of the other doors.

And goes on to note that

The evidence in Figure 1 is open to at least two criticisms. First, different comparator countries may allow alternative interpretations. Secondly, comparing with responses of other countries may not be the right metric. Sebhatu et al (2020) find a lot of mimicry; almost 80 percent of OECD countries adopted the same Covid-19 responses in a two-week period in midMarch: closing schools, closing workplaces, cancelling public events and restricting internal mobility. These homogeneous responses contrast with heterogeneity across countries in how widely Covid-19 had spread, in population density and age structure, and in healthcare system
preparedness. One interpretation of this contrast is that some governments panicked and followed the lead of others, rather than setting fit-for-purpose Covid-19 responses that reflected their local circumstances. So another approach to study policy timing is to compare policy responses with the spread of the virus in each country.

Gibson adopts an approach of working back from data on Covid deaths – imprecise as that it, it is generally regarded as better than direct estimates of case numbers, which are hugely affected by just how much testing has been done – to estimate when there must have been a turning point in infection numbers to be consistent with the observed deaths data. That involves using an estimate, informed by experience, of the lag from infections to deaths (he mentions a couple of papers estimating lags of three to four weeks). Gibson produces results for 34 OECD countries, although unfortunately (for New Zealand comparisons) not for Australia.

The results in Table 1 show that the inferred inflection date in infections ranges from February 23 to 4 June, and for the median OECD country occurred on 23 March. For New Zealand, the approach in Figure 2 suggests new infections peaked on March 16, over a week before the strictest restrictions began on 26 March. Even if a shorter lag from infections to deaths is assumed, the peak in new infections in New Zealand still will have occurred before the Level 4 lockdown began. New Zealand is amongst 17 countries whose peak policy stringency occurred after the likely turning point in infections. So based on comparing policy
timing with likely progress of the virus, the ‘go early’ claim seems untrue.

He argues that it matters

It matters that policy restrictions are applied too late. Over two-thirds of variation in Covid-19 death rates (as of August 18) across these 34 OECD countries is due to baseline characteristics: deaths are higher in more populous countries, with higher density, higher shares of elderly, immigrants and urbanites, and fewer hospital beds per capita and having land borders (Table 2). If the country-specific mean of the OxCGRT policy stringency index is included it provides no additional predictive power. However, if the time-series of policy stringency is split at the inflection point in infections for each country (based on Table 1), prepeak policy stringency is negatively associated with Covid-19 death rates while post-peak policy stringency has no statistically significant effect on death rates. A similar pattern is apparent if the (likely) dates of peak new infections are controlled for, or if the maximums of the stringency index are used rather than the means. Thus, it seems to matter more to ‘go early’ than to ‘go hard’.

Gibson goes on to deal with concerns about endogeneity, re-running tests looking at policy responses relative to those of other nearby countries. Doing that tends to confirm the thrust of the earlier results.

there is a precisely estimated negative elasticity of death rates with respect to the policy stringency that was in place prior to the peak of new infections and an insignificant effect of policy stringency after the inflection point in infections has occurred.

But even then the effects appear to be quite small

gibson 2

And what of New Zealand?

gibson 3

or, in the slightly less-loaded framing from the abstract

if Sweden’s more relaxed restrictions had been used, an extra 310 Covid-19 deaths are predicted for New Zealand – far fewer than the thousands of deaths predicted for New Zealand by some mathematical models.

Of course, all those 310 would have been people, with grieving families, but on this model, we would have had a rate of deaths per million still in the lower half of OECD countries (rates akin to many eastern European countries, and Norway) not to those of (most of) northern Europe, including Sweden.

Having read and reflected on the paper, and engaged on a couple of points with Professor Gibson, I thought there were still several points worth making in response:

  • unlike his earlier paper, this paper makes no claims about what was known, or not known, by New Zealand and other countries’ governments in mid-late March. Even if the true number of new infections had started to decline even prior to the New Zealand “lockdown” policymakers could not have used this methodology at the time (since the deaths – the foundation of the timing estimate – had not yet happened). Reviews with the benefit of hindsight are not without their considerable uses – most real-world reviews are of that sort – but it is important to be clear that that is what this paper is. Politicians, of course, use their own take on hindsight to reinforce their preferred narratives,
  • the results may depend quite a bit on the correct specification of the model, and in particular on whether the other variables included (country population, population density, elderly share of the population, foreign-born share of the population, per cent living in urban area, available hospital beds per capita, and the presence/absence of a land border) have a robust foundation. The one I was particularly sceptical about was country population, as I could not see a good reason for it to affect Covid death rates. I asked Gibson about it and he re-ran the model without that variable and in summary “the basic pattern of results in terms of the policy variables stays the same, and particularly the contrast between pre-peak and post-peak stringency”. As it happens, this variant produces a lower estimate of New Zealand deaths with Swedish-level restrictions than the models reported in the paper itself. (Gibson, however, continues to think a population variable has a sensible structural interpretation.)

If we take Gibson’s results at face value they seem pretty appealing (and, in many respects, not that surprising, since we know – from papers since released – that officials in mid-late March were not recommending a lockdown of anything like the stringency of what the government actually imposed).

That said, it isn’t clear to me what the nature (and quantification) of any tradeoffs around economic costs and loss of liberties might be. There is a reasonable argument – and it is the stance I take myself – that the extreme restrictions on economic activities and liberties should be counted as a very large cost, justifiable (if ever) only in the face of the most severe and near-certain threat. What sort of society are we when we tolerate a government banning a swim in the sea, banning funerals, banning any public celebration of Easter, banning utterly safe economic activity (a sole practitioner going to his or her place of business)? But perhaps there is a counter-argument if maintaining the sort of moderate death rate Gibson envisages also required that we kept Swedish-type restrictions in place right through the last six months? It is possible – but needs for work, more modelling – that the total economic costs might have been similar or even higher. But then should one put a higher price on the most extreme episodes not just weight all losses equally? Perhaps there is a clearer-cut argument there in respect of restrictions on liberties than on the narrower GDP effects, perhaps especially when we recognise that different people value different things, different freedoms, different obligations in different ways. And that arbitrariness and unpredictability of use of extreme controls should itself be represented as carrying, and imposing, a heavy cost.

My position all through has been that the government over-reacted in adopting the full extent of its so-called “Level 4” restrictions. But the issues in my mind then was a difference between a New Zealand “level 4” and the somewhat less severe approach adopted in Australian states. With the benefit of hindsight, a paper like that of Professor Gibson poses more questions – and the sort of the questions that need to be posed, since the virus hasn’t gone away and (for example) we see Israel being forcibly locked down again. I hope his paper gets some scrutiny from, and engagement with, some of the more thoughtful of the champions of the New Zealand government’s approach. Perhaps he is quite wrong and his conclusions just aren’t sound, but they look like results that should warrant serious engagement, perhaps even a question to the Minister of Health, the one who the other day was trying to pretend the government does not (implicitly or explicitly) put a dollar value on human life in making its spending/regulatory decisions.

More facts

I’m not sure that the people at the New Zealand Initiative really have much time for New Zealanders. I was inclined to suggest that perhaps that is why they are always keen to trade us in for more immigrants, but I don’t think their stance is in anyway unique to them or to New Zealanders. Instead, there is a class of geeks, often academics, particularly found in the US, who continually lament, and even deplore, what they regard as the “ignorance” of the general public. The public, you see, don’t know the facts the geeky teenagers (and a whole class of us older versions) know.

And yet somehow they get through life. Somehow, for all its faults, New Zealand is mostly peaceful, and moderately prosperous too. And at least by some benchmarks – those of the liberals at the NZI I imagine – these might even be thought of as the best of times in all human history.

This post is, of course, mostly going to be about the new report the Initiative released overnight, complete with some headline-grabbing opinion poll results about what people knew (or thought) about some questions on New Zealand politics and the political system.

But it was only a few months ago that the Initiative used a similar approach – headline-grabbing poll, illustrating the “ignorance” of the public – to back their report calling for more of a knowledge focus in our education system. It was a cause I was fairly sympathetic to – and probably only get more so as my children progress through NCEA – but I wrote a fairly sceptical (perhaps even scathing) post about what weight we might reasonably put on their survey results.

facts

Or

And is it particularly useful to know the antibiotics are about bacteria not viruses?  I did know that, but it isn’t particularly useful to me.  Instead, when I go to the doctor I typically take his advice, and when he prescribes something I try to follow the prescribed instructions.  It probably matters rather more –  in term of keeping antibiotics useful – that (a) doctors don’t over-prescribe and (b) patients follow instructions.  Or so I’ve been told, and I’ll operate of those rules of thumbs (especially the latter) for now.

But this time the Initiative has turned to our political etc system, with a slightly odd mix of 13 questions, in a public opinion survey conducted in January. To establish my geek bona fides, I would have answered – with the odd caveat (and even the Initiative had one in its footnotes) – all the questions the approved way. I tried it on two of my teenage kids: the younger one got about three-quarters right and the older one – not yet eligible to vote – got them all right but posed caveats I hadn’t initially thought of, but each of which was quite fair (and he’d done no civics classes at school).

I’m going to step through the questions quickly.

facts 2

I thought the results for the first question were pretty good. Recall that these surveys are presumably done over the phone, out of the blue, not giving people half an hour with pen and paper. It is easy to miss one item in a instant-recall quiz. Note that geeks will have noted the presence in Parliament of Jami-Lee Ross who does now lead/represent the Advance NZ party, although (a) in Parliament he was formally an independent, and (b) the survey was done in January and Advance NZ appears only to have been launched in April. Also, I presume I would have been marked incorrect had I listed the CCP among my answers, even though in some respects it was certainly true.

As for the second question, you’ll see that even the Initiative has a footnote to some other technically correct answers. But even though the Initiative whips the public for not understanding MMP, isn’t it plausible that at least some people had in mind “well, it asks about parties gaining seats, but actually constituency MPs are elected as individuals?” Quite possibly some respondents – perhaps new migrants, unlikely to vote – just weren’t familiar with “MMP” as a label. The answers might have been a little different if the question was “in the New Zealand electoral system…”?

facts 3

To be honest, I was really surprised by the David Parker result. Then again, I’ve been a political junkie for 45+ years, was a public servant for 30+ years, am married to a senior public servant, and devote a fair chunk of my time to writing about New Zealand public policy issues. We ran a little poll last night on a wider family group, and not one of them knew who the Minister for the Environment was – a PSA delegate, an academic, the owner of a provincial law firm, a couple of housewives, and a semi-retired national administrator and director. And as I reflected on that I thought “why would they need to, or want to, know?” In what way, if any, does it affect their individual lives, or probably even their vote (Parker being a list MP and votes primarily being for parties). Nerds remember the difference between Environment and Conservation, but to many “Environment” will sound like something Eugenie Sage might have been minister of.

As for Hipkins, yes lots of people have kids in school, but why would most people pay any particular attention to who happens to be Minister at the time. If you have concerns about schooling for most people the presenting face is likely to be the child’s teacher, the Principal, and perhaps – at a pinch – the chair of the board of trustees (I could not name chairs of trustees of either school my kids attend, but I could find out easily enough).

I guess the survey was run in January, but looking at this question yesterday I paused for a moment before answering.

facts 4

But for most people I imagine a more honest answer would have been “who cares?” (there were zealots on either side, and many of the zealots on the left actually suggest the bill doesn’t amount to much of substance – but geeks like process systems and bills).

Then we get some odd questions, to which (surely) there are not right or wrong answers – even if one’s own views happen to align with the Initiative (and the majority).

facts 5

After all, on the second of those questions, as the report notes Pharmac does make independent decisions. The NZI is keen on Pharmac (as am I) and also notes – carefully avoiding expressing any opinion on it – the Reserve Bank. But it is quite a complex question, and since we all know that even if independent decisionmakers are given criteria against which to decide, individual preferences enter into their decisionmaking, I can imagine those who generally favour a bit more of a role for “experts” (reasonably) giving a non-approved answer to this question.

As for the final sentence in that block, there is a small minority of CCP-linked very-politically-aware people in New Zealand who probably think Xi Jinping is just the thing, and really a pretty good model. I don’t agree, but it is a value not a fact.

Then back to something closer to factual.

facts 6

To the first, of course I can trot out the “correct” answer to the first question, but it is a US-framed question (and there is even some dispute among geeky people in the US as to whether it is the best framing). But what of New Zealand? Is the New Zealand Parliament really a “branch of government”? Personally, I think “the government” is accountable to Parliament. And what if someone had said “the Queen (or Governor-General), the Cabinet, and the public service”? NZI would have scored them incorrectly, but as “government” is used here it is arguably more accurate. And are courts part of “government”? Well, our courts have a different role than, say, the US Supreme Court – which really is the final arbiter of law in the US – and the courts guard very jealously their independence from the government. More generally, the very question is a geeky political science type question that – framed that way – hardly anyone needs to know.

(Oh, overlooked the courts question. Most people got the “right” answer, and yet some people will be aware that courts will often look to the intentions of Parliament in passing a law, and others will be aware that courts – on matters of judicial review etc – tend to be highly deferential to the preferences and judgements of the executive.)

And finally, foreign relations

facts 7

I was pretty impressed – well, surprised – that 38 per cent of people answered the Five Eyes question correctly. Pretty much no one had even heard of the Five Eyes (a colloquial term, even though here it is capitalised, and isn’t “agreement” or arrangement” more accurate than “alliance” anyway – and they describe it more accurately in their own text?) for decades, and if it has had a bit more coverage in recent years it impinges directly not at all on the life of almost anyone in New Zealand.

But the Initiative had fun – lets laugh at the plebs – with the question about the UK, jeering that perhaps the UK government may want to know about, as it were, the invincible ignorance of the colonial peasants, And yet, and yet….

When I posed this question to my son, who is planning to study international relations next year, he said “but don’t we have some sort of partnership agreement with NATO, and the UK is part of NATO?” Personally, I didn’t think that really counted – even if the NATO Secretary-General not long ago described New Zealand as one of NATO’s closest partners, and we have worked under NATO auspices in Afghanistan where the UK had a significant presence. But he dug a bit further, and pointed out to me something called AUSCANNZUKUS which led us on to ABCANZ, to AFIC, and to the CCEB (all described here – I think the army version of this we only joined formally in 2006).

Perhaps more tellingly, there was the Five Power Defence Arrangements between New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Singapore and Malaysia,

whereby the five powers are to consult each other “immediately” in the event or threat of an armed attack on any of these five countries for the purpose of deciding what measures should be taken jointly or separately in response.

People can stand on precise points about what “alliance” means – does it mean a binding commitment or not? – but frankly anyone who answered “yes” to that question – whatever they had in mind – can’t really be judged to have been incorrect.

The other weird aspect about the NZI treatment of this question is that it assumed that any such “alliance” was about UK aid to New Zealand, and that stupid New Zealanders think the UK will defend us. That seemed odd to me. Every New Zealand military involvement post- World War Two – whether under formal alliances, under UN auspices, or whatever – has been about us helping out others, typically much larger and more powerful countries, partly because it is “the right thing to do”, partly to buttress multi-dimensional relations with these countries. Those countries have often included the UK. I have fond memories of our assistance to the UK during the Falklands War – not under any formal military alliance, but because it was a good thing to do, to help out our friends in a time of need (and, at the margin, may have helped keep the UK onside in EU access dealings). So that even if you (correctly) think there is no more-formal mutual and reciprocal security guarantees between the UK and New Zealand – neither were there in 1939 – many people probably have in mind a relationship richer and deeper.

So that was all rather picky, warranted really only by the fairly dismissive tone the Initiative took to the public’s answers to their quite specific questions. In the end I’m not really going to disagree with them that the level of general public knowledge of details of our political etc system is pretty low. And one can be endlessly picky: in an exchange on Twitter this morning with Matthew Hooton he posed the question of who scored the first try in the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Apparently the first individual (“who”) to score a try was Michael Jones, and yet the first try was actually a penalty try.

But, as regards our political system, I’m still in the “in what way does any of this really matter?” camp. The people who really care about the Zero Carbon Bill will know the answer and – political geeks aside – most other people won’t, at least with any great accuracy. I think of my family members who didn’t know that David Parker was Minister for the Environment. I have absolute confidence in all of them as citizens and voters, and people who contribute to making families and societies what they are.

And was the level of “ignorance” of these details not ever thus? In the end, we mostly elect governments, and then – in time – we toss them out again. If I look back over 100 years of New Zealand history, it is hard to see too many times when the public acting collectively got it wrong (even though many of those times personally I might have voted with the minority). It is impossible to know counterfactuals, but the collective (as if) decision that it was time for Muldoon or Clark to go wasn’t ever likely to be dependent on a detailed sense of statutory interpretation or which parties voted for what specific piece of legislation (how many acts of Parliament could most people even name).

In their report the NZI make much of the importance of knowing who is to blame for what. It is a point that has some force in the United States – federal system, enumerated powers, written constitutions etc – but much less so in New Zealand. Here, to all intents and purposes, all powers rests with the executive or Parliament and – given the financial veto – no legislation can be passed without the consent of the executive. Even local bodies exercise only powers delegated to them from the centre. Events are either bad luck – exogenous – in which case we react partly to how governments handle them, or they are the direct responsibility of some or other branch of the executive. So mostly we vote “keep them in” or “toss them out” on some mix of judgements of competence, judgements of character/conduct (NZI doesn’t seem to approve of them), values, ideological branding, and so on. Most people don’t need much very specific factual knowledge – of the political geek variety – to make those choices.

And, on the other hand, as someone who answered all the questions “correctly”, who knows a fair amount about policies (and attribution of responsibility), I’m sitting here still currently planning to not cast a party vote at all. A fair chunk of factual knowledge doesn’t, in the end, help much – at least among those for whom a core value seems to be “but you have to vote; it is the only right thing to do”.

Of the specific NZI proposals, I’m all in favour of the regulatory structure being changed in ways that allow the return of ipredict, killed off by the Ministry of Justice and Simon Bridges. It was great….for political geeks and junkies. I’m sceptical – as they mostly seem to be – of civics classes in schools (in addition to their reasons, one would expect them to become a platform – another one – for teachers to engage in mild politicial indoctrination of their students). And I’m not convinced at all by the argument for putting financial incentives in place for factual political knowledge – rewarding kids for passing tests is generally regarded as a bad idea and I’m not convinced political system tests would really be much different. Same goes for offering big prizes to the knowledgeable listener when a radio station calls out of the blue with a political knowledge question: it would be great for introverted teenage political geeks, but would make almost no difference among the populations where (I presume) NZI thinks it would matter.

For all this, I’m not some starry-eyed optimist about New Zealand, democracy or whatever – in fact, I’m much more negative on New Zealand outcomes than the Initiative’s authors seem to be. But I think the issues and challenges run much deeper, and reflect more poorly on the “elites” and “establishment” of society than on the wider public.

I’m often reminded of these words of (later) US President John Adams written in 1798

Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion.  Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.  Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Many readers won’t necessarily agree (including with the wider claim that successful stable democracies probably need an enduring shared worldview, morality, religion –  not just weak agreement on procedural matters – but as I ended my post on the previous NZI report

The (narrow) facts just don’t get you far.  I’d rather people “knew” that Communism has been, and is, a great evil than that, say, they knew the geography of Hong Kong or the biochemistry of plastic.

Or, right now, a sense that CCP interests are so much deferred to in New Zealand politics –  even if some will dispute this –  matters much more, including to the enduring strength of our system, than answers to most of the NZI’s latest specific questions.

LSAP, deposits, bonds, house prices etc

There has been a flurry of commentary in the last couple of weeks about the (alleged) impact of the Reserve Bank’s Large Scale Asset Purchase programme. Much of it has seemed to me really quite confused. I don’t really want to pick on individual people – none of whom, as far as I’m aware, is a macro or monetary economist – although, for recency if nothing else, Bernard Hickey’s column yesterday is as good an example as any. But the Reserve Bank itself has not helped, tending to materially oversell what the LSAP programme has actually done.

There is, for example, a complaint (there in the headline of Hickey’s article) that “printed money being parked, not invested or spent”. But this seems to completely ignore the fact – it isn’t contested – that really only Reserve Bank actions affect the stock of settlement cash. All else equal, when the Bank buys an assets from someone in the private sector, that purchase will boost aggregate settlement cash, and only some other action by the Reserve Bank will subsequently alter the level of settlement cash. When private banks lend (borrow) more (less) aggressively, that may change an individual bank’s holding of settlement cash, but it won’t change the system total. Some of my views and interpretations may be idiosyncratic or controversial, but this one isn’t. It is totally straightforward and really beyond serious question. For anyone who wants to check out the influences on the aggregate level of settlement cash balances, the Reserve Bank produces a table – only monthly and too-long delayed in publication – detailing them (table D10 on their website). I’ll come back to those numbers.

Now, of course, the transactions that give rise to changes in settlement account balances aren’t always – or even normally – primarily with banks themselves. If the Reserve Bank bought a government bond I was holding, that would increase – more or less simultaneously – (a) my balance in my account at my bank, and (b) my bank’s balance in its account at the Reserve Bank. And because the government banks with the Reserve Bank, the same goes for (say) government pension payments: all else equal, they add to the recipient’s own deposits at his/her bank, and also to that recipient’s own bank’s deposits at the Reserve Bank (in normal times, the Reserve Bank does open market operations that roughly neutralise these fiscal flows – revenue or spending).

Much of the coverage of the LSAP purchases suggests that there has been a big net transfer of cash (deposits, settlement cash) from the Reserve Bank to private sector bondholders in recent months. Thus, we get stories and narratives about what “rich people” and other bond holders are (and aren’t – often the point) doing with all the cash they are now holding. But it simply isn’t a narrative relevant to New Zealand over recent months. The Reserve Bank publishes a table showing holdings of government securities (Table D30). Again, it is only monthly and we only have data to the end of July. But over the five months from the end of February to the end of July, secondary market holdings of New Zealand government securities (ie excluding those held by the Reserve Bank and EQC) increased by around $10 billion. It simply is not the case that funds managers, pension funds and the like (private bondholders generally) are suddenly awash with extra cash. In fact, collectively they have more tied up in loans to the Crown than they had back in February.

None of which should be really very surprising. After all, the government has run a massive (cash) fiscal deficit over the last six months – a reduced tax take and programmes that put lots of extra money into the accounts of businesses and households.

We can get a sense of just how large from that Influences on Settlement Cash table (D10) I referred to earlier. In the five months March to July the government paid out $23.8 billion more than it received. There is some seasonality in government flows, but for the same period last year the equivalent net payout (“government cash influence”) was $4.5 billion (and $4.9 billion in the same period in 2018). That is a lot of money put into the accounts of firms and households – the largest chunk will have been the wage subsidy payments, but there was also the corporate tax clawback, and various other one-offs, as well as the effect of the weaker economy in reducing the regular tax-take.

Over those five months the government has also issued, on-market as primary issuance, a great deal of debt (bonds and Treasury bills) offset by maturities (and early repurchases of maturing bonds by the Reserve Bank). Over the five months, the net of all these on-market transactions was $34.4 billion – as it happens, a whole lot more than the cash deficit for that period.

Now, of course, we know that the Reserve Bank – another arm of government – has been entering the secondary market to buy lots of government bonds. For the five months, the cash value of those purchases was $27.2 billion.

Take those two debt limbs together and issuance has exceeded RB LSAP purchases by about $7.2 billion.

And those are almost all the main influences on aggregate settlement cash balances. Other Reserve Bank liquidity management transactions can at times have a significant influence, but over these five months the net effect was tiny, at around $300m.

So broadly speaking, over the five months from the end of February to the end of July, the total level of settlement cash balances increased by about $16.4 billion (to $23.8 billion at the end of July). Roughly speaking, a cash deficit (also, coincidentally) of $23.8 billion, and net debt sales by the NZDMO/RB combined of $7.2 billion. And a few rates and mice.

Another way of looking at it is that the $23.8 billion “fiscal deficit” has been financed by $7.2 billion of net debt sales to the private sector, and by the issuance of $16.4 billion in Reserve Bank demand deposits (another name for settlement cash balances).

(And thus the biggest effect of the LSAP programme itself has really just been to change the balance between those last two numbers – consistent with the line that I keep running that to a first approximation the LSAP is just a large-scale asset swap, exchanging one set of low-yielding government liabilities (that anyone can hold) for another set of low-yielding government liabilities (that only banks can hold, while banks themselves assume new liabilities to their own depositors).

But taking the private sector as a whole what has happened over the last few months is that the fiscal policy choices (spending and revenue) have put lots more money in the pockets (and bank accounts) of firms and households. And the government as a whole (NZDMO/RB) has offset the settlement cash effects of that in part by (net) selling really rather a lot (by any normal standards) of net new bonds to private sector investors/funds managers etc. They, in turn, have less cash. Firms and ordinary households have more (at least than they otherwise would).

There have been strange arguments – and the Reserve Bank Governor sometimes feeds this silly line – that banks are not “doing their bit” by lending more to businesses, even though – we are told – they have so much more settlement cash. But this is a wrongheaded argument, because systemwide availability of settlement cash has rarely, if ever, in recent times (last couple of decades) been a significant constraints on bank lending. Aggregate settlement cash balances barely changed over the previous decade and plenty of lending occurred. In a severe and quite unexpected recession, it would generally be more reasonable to suppose that lack of demand from creditworthy borrowers, some caution among banks as to quite what really is creditworthy, and sheer uncertainty about the economic environment would explain why there wasn’t much new business lending occurring. In fact, sensible bank supervisors would typically welcome that outcome. And remember my point right at the start, even if banks were doing lots of new business lending, it would not change the level of settlement cash balances in the system as a whole by one jot.

So then we get to the question of house prices. Many people – me included – expected that we would have seen house prices beginning to fall already. Severe recessions and considerable uncertainty tends to have that affect. Often, tighter bank lending standards reinforce that. So what did we miss? I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me:

  • I have not been surprised by the extent of the fall in retail interest rates.  That fall has been small in total, and modest by the standards of significant past recessions.  When people idly talk about lower lending rates driving up house prices, they seem completely oblivious to the way –  whether over 1990/91, after 1997/98, or in 2008/09 –  falling interest rates initially went hand in hand with flat or falling house prices.  Interest rates were, after all, falling for a reason in the middle of a recession.  One can argue that trend lower interest rates are raising trend house prices (I don’t think so, but that is for another day) but there isn’t really a credible story that this modest fall in interest rates –  amid a big and uncertain recession –  is raising house prices now, in and of itself,
  • we also know that people who usually hold bonds are not suddenly finding themselves at a loose end, unable to invest their cash in government bonds and having to fall back on buying a house instead.  The aggregate figures tell us instead they are holding a lot more bonds than they were (and as a trustee of super funds that do have substantial bond exposures, I know our advisers have not come and urged us to sell out and buy houses).
  • but we’ve also had a highly unusual combination of events that together probably do explain why, to now anyway, house prices are holding up in most places, perhaps even rising.  
  • we’d never previously gone into a recession with binding LVR limits in place.  The Bank removed those limits when the recession began –  sensibly enough –  for a flawed policy –  and consistent with the way they’d always talked of operating, enabling some people who regulation had forced out of the market to get back in.  Regulatory credit constraints were eased.
  • We also had the mortgage holiday scheme, which had two legs to it.  The first was that banks generally agreed to show forbearance to people who would have otherwise had trouble servicing their mortgage over this period, allowing them to defer to later payments due now.  Mostly that was probably pretty sensible, and banks might done something along those lines for most customers even with no heavy-handed government involvement.  But then the Reserve Bank engaged in questionable regulatory forbearance, telling banks that even though the credit quality of their residential loan books had deteriorated –  people unable to pay, even if perhaps just for a time, but with threats of rising unemployment –  they could pretend otherwise, at least for the purposes of the capital requirements the Reserve Bank imposes on locally-incorporated banks.
  • And, third, we’ve had an unprecedented series of fiscal support measures, putting lots (and lots) of taxpayer money into the accounts of businesses (mostly, directly) and households, to offset to a considerable extent the immediate substantial loss of market incomes and GDP.

My approach then is to reason from the counterfactual.   Suppose these actions had not been taken, what then would we have expected to have seen in house prices?

I reckon it would be a safe bet that house prices would have fallen.  Sure, retail interest rates would still have come down, but as I noted earlier that happens in almost every recession, and the falls are typically larger than those we’ve seen this year.   But even just suppose the virus had done as it did, here and abroad, and that the anti-virus choices (policy and private) were as they were.  There would have been a huge increase, almost immediately, in unemployment, and a large number of households would have been thrown onto no more than the unemployment benefit, and many of those that weren’t would have running very scared.  The cashed-up might still have been interested in buying, at low interest rates, but there would have lots of sellers –  whether forced by the bank, or people just needing to cut their debt urgently –  and that wave of desired selling would have fed doubts that would have left buyers more wary than otherwise.    But it was the fiscal policy choices that put additional money in the pockets of those who might otherwise have been rushing to sell.

The thing is, that for all the moans and laments about house prices rising a little, no one seems to have been arguing that we should not have taken a generous approach to supporting households through recent months.  Given the logic of the LVRs, probably most people think it reasonable that those restrictions were suspended.   Few people think banks should have been more hard-hearted (even if a few geeks like me might be uneasy about the capital relief the RB provided). 

And it is those that are the choices that really mattered.  (They are also why I remain sceptical that any strength in the housing market will last much longer, given that the fiscal support is rapidly coming to an end, unemployment is rising (and is expected to continue to do so), the world economy looks sick, we’ve been reminded afresh of virus uncertainty, and deferred debt has not gone away.  Time will tell.)

Now none of this is to suggest we should be at all comfortable with the level of house prices in New Zealand.  They are a disgrace, and the direct responsibility of successive governments of all stripes, and of their local authority counterparts.    But given that all of them refuse to address the real issues –  opening up land use on the fringes of our towns and cities in ways that would bring land prices dramatically down – they can’t really be surprised by where we are now.

And it is has nothing whatever to do with the LSAP programme:

  •  which has not put more money in the hands of people who buy houses,
  • has not made any material difference to wholesale or retail interest rates over the relatively short-term maturities most New Zealand borrowers borrow at (even if there is a case that the might have a material difference to long-term rates, benefiting really only the government as borrower),
  • may have actually held short-term interest rates up a little, if the Reserve Bank is being honest in its claim that it preferred using the LSAP to cutting the OCR further this year,and
  • which has not enabled, empowered, or encouraged the government to run any larger deficits than it would otherwise have chosen to run (which could readily have been financed on-market, except perhaps in the torrid week or two in late March when global bond markets were dysfunctional.   Government deficits put money in the pockets of people.  Most people –  me included –  think they were right to do so (even if we might quibble about details).

Observant readers may have noticed that the government issued much more debt over those five months than the deficits it ran.  Without the LSAP, these transactions in isolation would have tended to drain the level of settlement cash.  But that would not have happened in practice.   Either the NZDMO would have spread out its issuance a bit more, or the Reserve Bank would have done (routine for it) open market operations to stabilise the aggregate level of settlement cash balances at levels consistent with their target level of short-term interest rates.

Other observant readers might wonder how the LSAP can be so relatively unimportant (in many ways almost as unimportant as the MMT authors might suggest).  A key issue here is that the yields the (whole of) government is paying on bonds is very similar now to the yield (the OCR) it is paying on unlimited settlement cash balances.   One could imagine a different world in which things would work out differently.  It used to be common for settlement cash balances to earn either zero interest, or a materially below market rate.  So if, say, the Reserve Bank was buying bonds at yields of 10  per cent –  where they were in the early 1990s –  and paying zero interest (or even a significant margin below market) on settlement cash balances, each individual bank would be very keen to get rid of any settlement cash building up in its account.  They still couldn’t change the total level of settlement cash balances but they could, for example, bid deposit rates down aggressively, which would (among other things) be expected to materially weaken the exchange rate.  But on current policy –  only adopted in March –  the Bank pays the full OCR on all and any settlement cash balances.  25 basis points isn’t a great return, but it is probably high enough –  relative say to bank bill yields – that banks aren’t desperate to offload settlement cash.  The transmission mechanism is then muted, as a matter of policy choice.

Finally, note that –  because of the inadequacies of the Bank’s data publication (influences on settlement cash really should be daily, published daily, in times like this) – all my numbers refer only to the period to the end of July.  But note that since the end of July the level of settlement cash balances has fallen further ($19 billion as of last Friday).  I haven’t tried to unpick what specifically has gone on in any detail, but my guess is that the cash fiscal deficit has diminished, while heavy bond and bill issuance by DMO has continued.  The Reserve Bank has stepped-up its own purchases but the bottom line remains one in which (a) if anything the Bank is draining funds from banks, although in doing so not really constraining any one or any thing, while (b) it is fiscal choices –  pretty widely supported ones –  that have still been putting money in the pockets of people who might, for example, be holding houses (and owing the attendant debt).  Unsurprisingly, bank deposits have risen in recent months, exactly as one should have expected.

And there endeth the lecture,  My son (doing Scholarship economics) asked about this stuff the other day and I ran him through most of this material.  My wife suggested I’d had my best schoolmaster’s voice on at the time.  I suspect the tone of this post is somewhat similar.  I hope the substance is some help in clarifying some of the issues. 

Pandemic income insurance

Way back on 16 March, the day before the government brought down the first of its pandemic economic response packages, I ran a post here in which – among other strands of an approach to the rapidly worsening economic situation – I suggested that the government should legislate quickly to provide, for the coming year, a guarantee that no one’s income would fall below 80 per cent of what it had been in the previous year. The proposed approach was to treat individuals and companies in much the same way. The underlying idea was to provide some certainty – to individuals, firms and lenders – without offsetting all losses (society was going to be poorer) and without locking people in to employment or business relationships that may have been sensible/profitable previously, but which wouldn’t necessarily be in future. And to recognise that individual firms and people are better placed to reach those judgements – about what makes sense for the future, what makes sense (say) to borrow to support – that government ministers or officials.

I knew that any such scheme might be very expensive, and rereading the post I see that I proposed it even though I was talking about economic scenarios for potential GDP losses that were materially worse than most think we will now actually face. But part of the mindset was the parallel with ACC – our no-fault accident compensation system. Being able to treat people in a fairly generous way when a serious pandemic – that was no one’s fault – hit could be conceptualised as one of the bases for the low-debt approach successive governments had taken to fiscal policy over recent decades. And it did not require governments to pick winners – firms they thought might/should flourish – or pick favourites.

Since it was sketch outline of a scheme, dreamed up over the previous few days, I was always conscious that there were lots of operational details that would have to be worked through before an idea of this sort could be implemented, and any scheme would need to be carefully evaluated for the risks that might lie hidden just beneath the surface. But evaluated not relative to standards of perfection, but relative to realistic alternatives approaches in a rapidly unfolding crisis.

I wrote a couple of other posts (here and here) touching on aspects of the pandemic insurance idea, and as I reflected a bit further and discussed/debated the idea with a few people, I suggested some potential refinements, including greater differentiation between companies and individuals. Other people, here and abroad, also suggested ideas that had some similarities in spirit to what I was looking to achieve.

Of course, nothing like the pandemic insurance scheme was adopted. Instead, we had a flurry of schemes and of individual bailouts, the main attraction of which seemed to be a steady stream of announceables for Cabinet ministers in election year (generally a negative in terms of the public interest, in which similar cases should be treated similarly), all while offering little or no certainty to individuals, firms, or their lenders.

I’ve continued to regard something like the pandemic insurance scheme as a superior option that should have been taken, but mostly I moved onto writing about other things. But the return of community-Covid, more or less severe government restrictions on economic (and other) activity, and arguments about whether and for how long the wage subsidy should be renewed only reinforced that sense that there would have been a better way. But a few tweets aside, I hadn’t given the issue much thought for a while until a few weeks ago a TVNZ producer got in touch to say that they had found reference to the pandemic insurance idea in an OIA response they had had from The Treasury, and asking if I’d talk to them about it.

It was only late last week that I got to see the response Treasury had provided (Treasury having fallen well below their usual past standards has still not put the response – dated 12 August – on their website (or even acknowledged my request for a copy of the same material). A little of the subsequent interview with TVNZ was aired as part of their story on Saturday night, itself built around the notion that the government had rejected this (appealing sounding) idea.

OIA Response Pandemic Insurance etc

The TVNZ OIA request had actually been for material on “helicopter payments”, which was refined to mean

“one-off payments made by the Government to citizens with the purpose of stimulating the economy,

(which in some respects does not describe the pandemic insurance idea well at all).

And yet most of the material in the quite lengthy OIA response (77 pages) turned out to be about the work The Treasury had undertaken on the pandemic insurance idea over the couple of weeks from 7 April, including some advice to the Minister of Finance.

There seems to have been quite serious interest in the option, and there is paper to the Minister of Finance providing a fair and balanced outline of the scheme – merits and risks – dated 9 April

tsy pandemic

and suggesting that if the Minister was seriously interested Treasury would do more work and report later in the month. Although there is no more record of the Minister’s view, he must have been sufficiently open for more work to have been done, including drawing in perspectives from operational agencies (including IRD and MSD) on feasibility and operational issues.

My impression is that Treasury did a pretty good job in looking at the option.

tsy pandemic 2

That final paragraph was always one of the key attractions to me.

As I went through the papers, I didn’t find too many surprises. The issues and risks official raised were largely the ones I’d expected – including, for example, the risk that some people might just opt out of the labour market this year and take the 80 per cent guarantee, and issues around effective marginal tax rates for those facing market incomes less than 80 per cent. Perhaps the one issue I hadn’t given much thought to was a comment from IRD about the risk of firms being able to shift revenue and/or expenses between tax years, with the observation that existing rules were not really designed to control that to any great extent. But, and operating in a second-best world, the officials involved generally seem to have regarded few of these obstacles as insuperable, bearing in mind the pitfalls of (for example) the plethora of alternative schemes.

The work seems to have come to an end on or about 23 April with Treasury finally deciding not to recommend the pandemic insurance approach. This email is from a Principal Advisor heavily involved in the evaluation to the Secretary and key (on the Covid issues) Deputy Secretary.

tsy pandemic 3

It probably shouldn’t surprise readers that I think the wrong call was made in the end, but equally it is probably not that surprising that the decision went the way it did. One reason – not, of course, acknowledged in the Treasury papers – is how slow officials were (across government) in appreciating the seriousness of what was already clearly unfolding globally – and as a major risk to New Zealand – by the end of January. As I’ve noted before there is no indication in any of the papers that have been released, or public comments at the time, that (for example) Ministers or the heads of the key government departments had begun serious contingency planning – devoting significant resource to it – any time before mid-March. This particular work didn’t get underway until well into April, by when a great deal had already begun to be set in stone, and when rolling out bite-sized new announcements – robust or not – no doubt seemed, and was, easier than a new comprehensive approach.

As it happens, even though there was a great deal of concern back in April about the affordability of the pandemic insurance scheme, with the benefit of hindsight there is a reasonable argument that it could even have been cheaper than the approaches actually adopted (GDP losses having been less severe, on a sustained basis, than feared in April), which in turn might have left more resources for the stimulus and recovery phase (pandemic insurance – like wage subsidies – was always more about income support and managing uncertainty in the heat of the crisis than about post-crisis recovery stimulus).

From my perspective, the post was mostly about recording my pleasant surprise at how seriously the pandemic insurance idea (mine, and some other variants) was taken by officials, and by what appears to have a pretty good job in evaluating it as an option, in what will have been very trying and pressured times.

From this vantage point – with the advantage of knowing how the first six months of the virus went, and with a sense of the economic ramifications – I still reckon it would have been a better approach. And yet – and I don’t recall seeing this in Treasury’s advice (perhaps it isn’t the thing for officials to write down) I can also see political pitfalls – around very large payouts to some companies, even if they weren’t gaming the system – that might have made it impossible, and unsustainable if tried, without (at least) a very strong degree of political leadership and marketing that such a no-fault no-favour approach was a better way to have gone. As I noted in an earlier post, I’d have hated having the Crown pay out to casino companies, but I would have endured for the sake of a fair across the board scheme. But every single person, every single lobby group, would have found some potential recipient to excoriate.

The TVNZ interviewer asked me about the pandemic insurance idea still had relevance for the future. My initial response to him was that yes it did, and that we might be much better off to have the infrastructure required to make it work in place and on the shelf ready to go for when future pandemics happen. Taxes will, after all, be a bit higher than otherwise as we gradually lower debt ratios, amid repeated talk of being ready for the next major adverse event, whether earthquake, volcano or pandemic.

And yet reflecting on it again over the weekend, I’m no longer quite so confident of that answer. More detailed work, and more thought, is probably required once this pandemic is behind us to strike the right balance – individuals vs firms, generosity in a no-fault shock vs moral hazard as just some of the examples of issues to be thought through, and planned for, ideally in a way that would survive contact with a new real severe adverse shock.

Macro policy pitfalls and options

The sad sight of someone who has seemed to be a normally honourable man –  Greens co-leader James Shaw – heading off down the path of Shane Jones-ism, is perhaps a general reminder of the temptations of politics and power, but also of much that is wrong about how the government is tackling the severe economic downturn we are now in.   Fiscal discipline around scarce real resources, always pretty weak at the best of times. is flung out the window and there is a mad scamper for ministerial announceables, and thus rewards to those who successfully bend the ear of ministers in a hurry.  Connections, lobbying, and the ability to spin a good yarn seem to become foremost, with a good dose of partisanship thrown in too.   The extraordinary large grant to a private business  planning to operate a school is just the example that happens to have grabbed the headlines, but there will be more no doubt through the list (apparently not all yet announced) of “shovel-ready projects”, and we’ve seen many through the Provincial Growth Fund almost from day one of its existence.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not opposed to the government running deficits –  even really rather large deficits – for a year or two.   Some mix of external events and government actions have tipped the economy into a severe recession and –  against a dismal global backdrop – the outlook is not at all promising.  Tax revenue would be down anyway, and that automatic stabiliser is a desirable feature of the fiscal system.   And one can make –  I have made –  a case for a pretty generous approach across the board to those, through no direct fault of their own, are caught in the backwash of the pandemic.  I’ve argued for thinking of such assistance as if we some ACC-like pandemic insurance, for which we paid the premiums in decades past through higher tax rates/lower government spending rates –  and thus lower debt – than would otherwise have been likely.

And some aspects of the government’s economic policy response have –  whatever their other faults –  had elements of that broadbased no-fault/no-favours approach.   I guess ministers couldn’t put a press statement for each individual who benefited from the wage subsidy, or the weird business tax clawback scheme.  But beyond that, and increasingly, what is supposed to be countercyclical stabilisation policy has become a stage for ministers to choose favourites, to support one and not another, to announce particular bailouts as acts of political favour.  It is a dreadful way to run things, rewarding not just ministerial favourites but the chancers and opportunists who are particularly aggressive in pursuing handouts.  So some tourist operators get handouts and other don’t.  Some sports got handouts and others don’t.     Favoured festivals –  I see the nearby festival on the list this morning –  get handouts.  And, in general, unless you are among the favoured, businesses (the myriad of small and low profile ones) get little or nothing at all.  James Shaw’s green school gets a huge capital grant and while no one –  of any ideological stripe –  should be getting such handouts, we can be quite sure no-one of a different ideological stripe than those associated with the governing parties would be getting one.    Perhaps many people involved really have the best of intentions, but frankly it is corrupt, and predictably so.

I was reading last night an open letter on economic policy that Keynes had addressed to Franklin Roosevelt in late 1933.  It was a bit of mixed bag as a letter, and had really a rather condescending tone, but the couple of sentences that caught my eye were these

“our own experience has shown how difficult it is to improvise useful Loan-expenditures at short notice. There are many obstacles to be patiently overcome, if waste, inefficiency and corruption are to be avoided”

Quite.

Now, of course, elections have consequences, and one would expect a government of the left to be deploying public resources in directions consistent with (a) manifesto commitments, and (b) their own general sympathies.    But in this case (a) the government was elected on a promise (wise or not) of considerable fiscal restraint, and (b) whatever the broad tenor of their policy approach, we should not expect public resources to be handed to individuals or favoured groups and companies, solely on the basis of the ability of those entities to get access to, and bend the ear of, ministers.  And it is not necessary to do so to deploy very substantial fiscal resources –  whether with a focus on consumption, investment, or business etc support more generally.  Broadbased tools, that do not rely on rewarding favourites, aren’t hard to devise or deploy.

More generally, of course, monetary policy is an option that has barely been used at all.   We have a severe recession, with little or no relief in sight (including globally) and yet whereas, faced with a serious downturn, we usually see perhaps a 500 basis point fall in interest rates and a sharp fall in the exchange rate, we’ve had no more than a 100 basis point fall in interest rates and no fall at all in the exchange rate.  And not because of some alarming inflationary threat that means further monetary support can’t prudently be risked…..but because the appointed Monetary Policy Committee, faced with very weak inflation forecasts and lingering higher unemployment, choose to do nothing.  And those with responsibility for the Bank –  the Minister of Finance, and the PM and Cabinet –  seem to be quite content with this abdication.

The beauty of monetary policy, and one of the reasons it has been a preferred stabilisation tool for most of the time since countercyclical macro policy became a thing, is that even if ministers are the ones making the day to day decisions –  and they usually aren’t because we mostly have central banks with day-to-day operational autonomy –  they don’t get to pick which firm, which party favourite, gets the benefit of lower borrowing costs, who suffers from reduced interest income, or what is affected by the lower exchange rate.    It is broad-based instrument, operating without fear or favour, and doing so pervasively –  it takes one decision by the relevant decisionmaking body and relative prices across the whole economy are altered virtually immediately, not some crude process of ministers and officials poring over thousands of applications for grants and loans and deciding –  on who knows what criteria –  whether or not to grant them.  And it has the subsidiary merit, when used wisely, of working with market forces –  in times like these investment demand is weak and precautionary savings demand is high, so one would normally expect –  if no government agency were in the way – the market-clearing interest rate would fall a long way.

On the left there still seems to be a view that monetary has done a great deal, and perhaps all it could.  I saw the other day a commentary from retired academic Keith Rankin on fiscal and monetary policy.  He claims not to be a “left-wing economist” –  although I suspect most would see him as generally being on the left –  but has no hesitation in pegging me as “right-wing economist”.  Apparently “right-wing economists tend to have a philosophical preference for monetary policy over fiscal policy”.   Anyway….he was picking up on some comments I made in a recent interview on Radio New Zealand.

To a non-right-wing economist, Reddell’s position in the interview seems strange; Reddell argues that New Zealand has – so far during the Covid19 pandemic – experienced a large fiscal stimulus and an inadequate monetary stimulus. In fact, while the fiscal outlay is large compared to any previous fiscal stimulus, much of the money available may remain unspent, and the government is showing reluctance to augment that outlay despite this month’s Covid19 outbreak. And, as a particular example, the government keeps pouring salt into the running sore that is the Canterbury District Health Board’s historic deficit (see here and here and here and here); the Minister of Health showed little sign of compassion towards the people of Canterbury when questioned about this on yesterday’s Covid19 press conference.

Further, monetary policy has been very expansionary. In its recent Monetary Policy Statement (and see here), the Reserve bank has committed to ongoing expansions of the money supply through quantitative easing. Because the Reserve Bank must act as a silo, however, it has to participate in the casino (the secondary bond market) to do this; perhaps a less than ideal way to run monetary policy. Reddell has too much faith in the ability of the Reserve Bank to expand business investment spending.

Reddell is a committed supporter of negative interest rates – indeed he cites the same American economist, Kenneth Rogoff, who I cited in Keith Rankin on Deeply Negative Interest Rates (28 May 2020). This call for deeply negative rates is tantamount to a call for negative interest on bank term deposits and savings accounts; that is, negative ‘retail interest rates’. While Reddell does not address the issue in the short interview cited, Rogoff notes that an interest rate setting this low would require something close to a fully electronic monetary system to prevent people withdrawing wads of cash to stuff under the bed or bury under the house.

I struggle to see how anyone can doubt that we have had a very large fiscal stimulus this year to date.  One can debate the merits of extending (or not) the wage subsidy –  personally (despite being a “right-wing economist”) I’d have favoured the certainty my pandemic insurance scheme would have provided –  but it doesn’t change the fact a great deal has been spent.  Similarly, one can have important debates about the base level of health funding –  and I’ve run several posts here in recent years expressing surprise at how low health spending as a share of GDP has been under this government, given their expressed priorities and views –  but it isn’t really relevant to the question of the make-up of the countercyclical policies deployed this year.  With big government or small government in normal times, cyclical challenges (including serious ones like this year’s) will still arise.

And so the important difference seems to turn on how we see the contribution of monetary policy.  Here Rankin seems to run the Reserve Bank line –  perhaps even more strongly than they would –  about policy being “highly expansionary”, without pointing to any evidence, arguments, or market prices to support that.  It is as if an announced intent to swap one lot of general government low-interest liabilities (bonds) for another lot (settlement cash deposits at the Reserve Bank) was hugely macroeconomically significant.  Perhaps it is, but the evidence is lacking…whether from the Reserve Bank or from those on the left (Rankin and others, see below) or those on the right (some who fear it is terribly effective and worrying about resurgent inflation.

While on Rankin, I just wanted to make two more brief points:

    • first, Rankin suggests I “have too much faith in the ability  of the Reserve Bank to expand  business investment spending”.  That took me by surprise, as I have no confidence in the Bank’s ability to expand investment spending directly at all, and nor is it a key channel by which I would be expecting monetary policy to work in the near-term.  It really is a straw man, whether recognised as such, often cited by those opposed to more use of monetary policy.  Early in a recession –  any recession –  interest rates are never what is holding back investment spending –  that would be things like a surprise drop in demand, heightened uncertainty, and perhaps some unease among providers of either debt or equity finance.  Only rarely do people invest into downturns,  When they can, they will postpone planned investment, and wait to see what happens.  There is a whole variety of channels by which monetary policy works –  and I expect I’m largely at one with the Reserve Bank on this –  including confidence effects, wealth effects, expectations effects and (importantly in New Zealand) exchange rate effects.  Be the first country to take its policy rate deeply negative and one would expect a significant new support for our tradables sector through a much lower exchange rate.  In turn, over time, as domestic and external demand improved investment could be expected to rise, in turn supported by temporarily lower interest rates, but that is some way down the track.
    • second, as Rankin notes I have continued to champion the use of deeply negative OCR (and right now any negative OCR at all, rather than the current RB passivity).  As he notes, in the interview he cites I did not mention the need to deal with the ability to convert deposits into physical cash at par, but that has been a longstanding theme of mine.  I don’t favour abolishing physical currency, but I do favour a potentially-variable premium price on large-scale conversions to cash (as do other advocates of deeply negative policy rates).  Those mechanisms would be quite easy to put in place, if there was the will to use monetary policy.

From people on the left-  at least in the New Zealand media –  there also seems to be some angst that (a) monetary policy has done a great deal, and that (b) in doing so it has exacerbated “inequality” in a way that we should, apparently, regret.   I’ve seen this line in particular from interest.co.nz’s Jenee Tibshraeny and (including again this morning) from Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan.  On occasion, Adrian Orr seems to give some encouragement to this line of thinking, but I think he is mostly wrong to do so

Perhaps the most important point here is the otherwise obvious one.  The worst sort of economic outcome, including from an inequality perspective (short or long term) is likely to be one in which unemployment goes up a long way and stays high, and where labour market participation rates fall away.  Sustained time out of employment, involuntarily, is one of the worst things for anyone’s lifetime economic prospects, and if some of the people who end up unemployed have plenty of resources to fall back on, the burden of unemployment tends to fall hardest on the people at the bottom, people are just starting out, and in many cases people from ethnic minorities (these are often overlapping groups).  From a macroeconomic policy perspective, the overriding priority should be getting people who want to work back into work just as quickly as possible.   That doesn’t mean we do just anything –  grants to favoured private companies to build new buildings are still a bad idea  – but it should mean we don’t hold back on tools with a long track record of contributing effectively to macroeconomic stabilisation because of ill-defined concerns about other aspects of “inequality”.

Asset prices appear to worry people in this context.    I’m probably as puzzled as the next person about the strength of global equity prices –  and I don’t think low interest rates (low for a reason) are a compelling story –  but it is unlikely that anything our Reserve Bank is doing is a big contributor to the current level of the NZX indices.  Even if it were, that would not necessarily be a bad thing, since one way to encourage new real investment is as the price of existing investment assets rises relative to the cost of building new.

And if house prices have risen a little (a) it is small compared to the 25 year rise governments have imposed on us, and (b) not that surprising once the Reserve Bank eased the LVR restrictions for which there was never a compelling financial stability rationale in the first place.

More generally, I think this commentators are still overestimating (quite dramatically) what monetary policy has done.   I read commentaries talking about “money flowing into the hands of asset holders” (Coughlan today) from the LSAP programme, but that really isn’t the story at all.  Across this year to date there has been little change in private sector holdings of government bonds, and certainly no large scale liquidation by existing holders (of the sort that sometimes happened in QE-type programmes in other countries).  Most investors are holding just as many New Zealand government bonds as they were.  All that has really happened is that (a) the government has spent a great deal more money than it has received in taxes, (b) that has been initially to them by the Reserve Bank, and (c) that net fiscal spending is mirrored in a rise in banks’ settlement account deposit balances at the Reserve Bank.  It would not have made any difference to anything that matters much if the Reserve Bank had just given the government a huge overdraft facility at, say, 25 basis points interest, rather than going through the bond issuance/LSAP rigmarole.  The public sector could have sold more bonds into the market instead, in which case the private sector would be holding more bonds and less settlement cash.  But the transactions that put more money in people’s pockets –  people with mortgages, people with businesses –  are the fiscal policy programmes.   Without them we might, reasonably, have anticipated a considerably weaker housing market.  Since few on the left would have favoured less fiscal outlays this year –  and neither would I for that matter –  they can’t easily have it both ways (Well, of course, they could, but the current government of the left has been almost as bad as previous governments of the left and right in dealing with the land use restrictions that create the housing-related dimensions of inequality.

Coughlan also seems to still belief that what happens to the debt the government owes the (government-owned and controlled) Reserve Bank matters macroeconomically.  See, on this, his column in last weekend’s Sunday Star-Times.   As I outlined last week, this is simply wrong: what matter isn’t the transactions between the government and the RB, but those between the whole-of-government and the private sector.  Those arise mostly from the fiscal policy choices.  The whole-of-government now owes the non-government a great deal more than it did in February –  reflecting the fiscal deficit.  That happens to take the form primarily of much higher settlement cash balances, but it could have been much higher private bond holdings.   Either way, the asset the Reserve Bank holds is largely irrelevant: the liabilities of the Crown are what matter.  And as the economy re recovers one would expect that the government will have to pay a higher price on those liabilities.   It could avoid doing so –  simply refusing to, engaged in “financial repression” –  but doing so would not avoid the associated real resource pressures. The same real resources can’t be used for two things at once.  Finally on Coughlan’s article, it seems weird to headline a column “It’s not a question of how, but if we’ll pay back the debt” when, on the government’s own numbers and depending on your preferred measure, debt to GDP will peak at around 50 per cent.  Default is usually more of a political choice than an economic one, but I’d be surprised if any stable democracy, issuing its own currency, has ever chosen to default with such a low level of debt –  low relative to other advanced countries, and (for that matter) low relative to our own history.

Monetary policy really should have been –  and should now, belatedly –  used much more aggressively.  It gets in all the cracks, it avoids the temptations of ministerial corruption, it works (even the RB thinks so), and it has the great merit that in committing claims over real resources the people best-placed to make decisions –  individual firms and households, accountable for their choices –  are making them, not politicians on a whim.

For anyone interested, the Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr is talking about the Bank’s use of monetary policy this year at Victoria University at 12:30pm today.  The event is now entirely by Zoom, and the organisers invited us to share the link with anyone interested.

Reviewing monetary policy (US) and spin (NZ)

There was an interesting development in US monetary policy last week with the announcement by the Fed that it would in future be thinking of  –  and operating – its inflation targeting regime a bit differently than in the past.  Note that for the last decade or more inflation has typically been below the 2 per cent annual rate (PCE deflator measure) the Fed described itself as targeting.

The Committee judges that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve’s statutory mandate.

Note that the US system itself is very different from our own.   Congress gave the Fed a single goal a long time ago, expressed in a way no one would today,

Section 2A. Monetary policy objectives

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.

And then left everything to the Fed.  The President (or the The Treasury) has no further power over how goals are conceptualised and operationalised, other than through powers of appointment (and potentially dismissal).

And last week, after a review that has gone on for some years, the Fed announced a new articulation of its target (emphasis added)

The Committee reaffirms its judgment that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as
measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve’s statutory mandate. The Committee judges that longer-term inflation expectations that are well anchored at 2 percent foster price stability and moderate long-term interest rates and enhance the Committee’s ability to promote maximum employment in the face of significant economic disturbances. In order to anchor longer-term inflation expectations at this level, the Committee seeks to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time, and therefore judges that, following periods when inflation has been running persistently below 2 percent, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time.

Reasonable people can probably differ on the merits of this change which, at least on paper, represents quite a material shift from the way inflation targets have been articulated pretty much everywhere since the regime was developed in the 1990s.

Previously, bygones were treated as bygones: if inflation was above (below) target for a period of time, the goal was to get it back down (up) to target over some reasonable period, and thus to support the goal –  repeated in that Fed statement –  of keeping longer-term inflation expectations at close to the target level.    Mistakes would happen, shocks would happen, but there was no reason to think they would be consistently on one side of the target rather than the other.

There was always the alternative of price level targeting.  People had discussed the option for years, researchers had analysed it, but no one (no country, no central bank) had ever found it sufficiently attractive to adopt as the basis for running policy.  There are good reasons for that.  Under price-level targeting, bygones are not bygones.  Run a few years with inflation higher (lower) than consistent with the price level target, and the central bank then has to deliberately and consciously set out to offset that deviation with a few years of inflation lower (higher) than the rate consistent with the longer-term price level target.  And since there are very few long-term nominal contracts, it was never really clear what was to be gained by a price level target.  And there were real doubts as to whether such targets would prove to be credible and time-consistent.   Would central banks really drive inflation a long way below target –  with likely unemployment consequences –  just to offset a period of above-target inflation?  At the Reserve Bank we never thought that likely or credible.

But the Fed has decided to give it a try, at least after a fashion.  As expressed, their new self-chosen goal is asymmetric –  there is no reference to how they would treat periods in which inflation had run persistently above 2 per cent  –  and it has the feel of something a bit jerry-built and opportunistic.

Like a number of other central banks, the Fed has undershot its inflation target for some years now. In part, as they themselves identify, that reflected mistakes in assessing how low the unemployment rate could go without resulting in higher trend inflation.   Arguably there is enough uncertainty about that –  and other indicators of excess capacity – that it no longer really made much sense to try to set and adjust the Fed funds rate on the basis of macroeconomic forecasts (a common description of inflation targeting was that it was really “inflation forecast targeting”).    If so, one might have to wait until one actually saw inflation itself moving clearly upwards. to or beyond target, before it would be safe or prudent to tighten monetary policy.  But since monetary policy adjustments only work with a lag –  a standard line is that the full effects take perhaps 18-24 months to be reflected in the inflation rate – if such an approach was taken seriously it would almost guarantee that if inflation had been persistently below target, there would be at least some offsetting errors later.  In a New Zealand context –  on which more later –  I’ve argued that against a backdrop of 10 years of having undershot the target, and inflation expectations quite subdued, if we ended with a few years with inflation a bit above 2 per cent it shouldn’t be viewed as particularly problematic.  As an outcome, it might not be a first-best desired thing, but –  given the uncertainties –  it wasn’t worth paying a significant price (eg in lost employment) to avoid.

But that has a different feel to what the Fed is now articulating.  They are now saying that they expect to consciously and deliberately set out to offset years of undershoots with years of overshoots.  And you can be sure it won’t be a case of careless drafting but of conscious choice.

There is perhaps one good argument for this approach.   Since the Fed refuses to use monetary policy instruments themselves aggressively to counter directly the persistent inflation undershoot, and more latterly the recession –  notably refusing to take their policy rate even modestly negative, let alone the “deeply negative” that people like former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff have called for – they want to try to hold up inflation expectations by persuading some people that they won’t be aggressive on the other side either –  jumping to tighten monetary policy at the first glimmer of sustained recovery, the first hint of higher inflation.

There are some hints in market prices – breakeven inflation rates, between indexed and conventional government bond yields –  that the announcement generated a small move of this sort. But…..breakeven inflation rates in the US had been rising fairly steadily for the last few months, and even now are only back to where they were at the end of last year.      That isn’t nothing – especially against the economic backdrop – but at the end of last year five and ten year breakevens were not high enough to be consistent with the Fed meeting its own target in future.  And now they certainly aren’t consistent with inflation outcomes being expected to overshoot the 2 per cent inflation target for several years, to consciously offset the past undershoots.

And then there is the problem of time-consistency.  It is one thing to suggest now that you –  or, typically, your successors –  will be quite content to deliberately target inflation persistently above target for several years several years in the future.  It is quite another to actually deliver on that.    Like many other central banks, the Fed has consistently undershot its target for a long time, preferencing one sort of error over another.  Why will people believe things will be different this time?  The Fed isn’t operating monetary policy more aggressively right now.  And if the core inflation rate does look like getting sustainably back to 2 per cent in a few years, won’t there be plenty of people running arguments like “well, that was then, that statement about overshooting served a purpose in the crisis, but this is now, the economy is recovering, and anyway who really wants core inflation above 2 per cent.  Remember, inflation itself is costly.”    And any rational observer will have to recognise that risk.

In the absence of a symmetrical approach to errors, one has to wonder why not just raise the inflation target itself –  something various prominent economists have called for over the years since 2008/09.  But perhaps to have done that would have stretched credulity just too far: it is one thing to set an inflation target at, say, 3 or even 4 per cent, but another to do effective things to actually deliver such an outcome.  The monetary policy the Fed has actually chosen to run –  and they are all choices –  over the last decade hasn’t successfully delivered 2 per cent inflation, let alone anything higher.

Interesting as the US change of stance is, my main focus is still New Zealand, and so I was interested to spot a short article on Bloomberg yesterday. in which the journalist reported on our Reserve Bank’s response to questions about the new Fed monetary policy strategy.    Somewhat surprisingly, Orr’s chief deputy on monetary policy Christian Hawkesby was willing to go on record.

“Our observation is that the U.S. Federal Reserve implementing its approach through ‘flexible average inflation targeting’ has a number of parallels with the Monetary Policy Committee’s stated preference to take a ‘least regrets’ approach to achieving its inflation and employment objectives,” Hawkesby said in response to written questions from Bloomberg News. “That is, if inflation has been below the mid-point of the target range for a time, the Committee’s least regret is to set policy where inflation might spend some time above the mid-point of the target range in the future.”

That final sentence might initially look the same as what the Fed is now saying, but it isn’t really the same thing.   From memory, we have seen lines of this sort once or twice before from individuals at the Reserve Bank,  and they seemed then to be saying something like what I was suggesting earlier: since it is hard to forecast with confidence, it probably doesn’t make much sense to be tightening until you are confident core inflation is actually back to target, and if so the lags mean there has to be some chance there will be a bit of an overshoot.    That is different in character from actually setting out to deliver above-target outcomes.

As it is, the policy documents the Reserve Bank works to still explicitly require them to focus on the target midpoint, and explicitly treat bygones as bygones in most circumstances –  so long as inflation expectations remain in check.

Here is the inflation bit of the Remit –  the document in which, by law, the Minister of Finance sets out the job of the MPC.

remit bit

The operative word there is “future”  – which has been in target documents (previously Policy Targets Agreements) – for many years.  Bygones are supposed to be treated as bygones, with a focus always on inflation in the period ahead.

I checked out the latest Letter of Expectation from the Minister to the Governor, dated early April this year (so well into the current crisis).   These documents have no legal force, but the Minister of Finance is the ultimate authority, including in deciding whether the Governor and MPC members keep their jobs.    There is no mention of the inflation target, and no suggestion that the Minister thinks the MPC should be reinterpreting their legal mandate to target inflation outcomes above the “2 percent midpoint” (only the strange suggestion that the Bank should be “ensuring a Māori world view is incorporated into core functions” –  whatever that might (or might not) mean for monetary policy.

Just in case, I read through the minutes of each of the Monetary Policy Committee meetings this year.  Unsurprisingly there was no hint of any idea of actively targeting inflation above the target midpoint –  despite 10 years of outcomes below target.    Consistent with that, in February the MPC has adopted a very slight tightening bias consistent with forecasts that delivered medium-term inflation outcomes right on 2 per  cent.

But, of course, none of this should be surprising given how little the Reserve Bank has actually done this year.    We can debate what contribution the LSAP programme may or may not have made, but the bottom line –  as even the RB says –  is how much interest rates have fallen,  Term deposits rates have fallen by perhaps 100-120 basis points.  Mortgage interest rates seem to have fallen by similar amounts (and as the Bank acknowledges their business lending rate data are inadequate for purpose).   Inflation expectations have fallen quite a lot –  affirmed again in yesterday’s ANZ survey – which is both a problem directly (people no longer expect 2 per cent to be achieved) and because it diminishes the impact of those (quite limited by historical standards) falls in nominal retail rates.  And, of course, the exchange rate is only slightly lower than it was before the Covid economic slump.

And what of the inflation outlook?  With all the Reserve Bank thinks it has thrown at the situation –  all the beneficial impact it thinks it is getting from the LSAP – even the Bank’s August inflation projections had inflation below the bottom of the target range for two years from now, only getting back to 2 per cent –  on their numbers, on which they have a long-term record of being over-optimistic –  three years from now.   By then it would have been almost 14 years with core inflation continuously less than 2 per cent.

Despite those years of actual undershoots –  the sorts of ones Hawkesby alluded to in his response to Bloomberg –  there is no hint at all in the actual conduct of policy of the Reserve Bank consciously and deliberately acting as if it is willing to see inflation come out a bit above 2 per cent (of course, it could still turn out that way, events can change and all forecasts have considerably margins of uncertainty).

After all, having failed in one of their prime duties –  to ensure banks could easily adjust to the negative interest rates they recognised that the next recession might require – they now suggest that they are bound by a rash pledge they made in March, not to change the OCR at all for a year.  No one except them regards such a pledge –  and certainly not one made when the Bank itself was still underestimating coronavirus –  as binding.  But they choose to do so, choose to run the consequent risks.  Thus, the OCR is still set at 0.25 per cent, only 75 basis points lower than it was at the start of the year.  90 day bank bill rates, as a result, sit at about 30 basis points.  By contrast in Australia –   where the Governor is also pretty hesitant about using monetary policy aggressively – the comparable rates are about 10 basis points.  Even if one accepted as valid the Governor’s claim that banks can’t cope with negative rates –  and I don’t; people adjust quickly when they have to, and those who are best-prepared get a jump on the rest, as it should be –  there is no reason at all not to have the OCR at zero now (and don’t tell me systems can’t cope with zero either, since there are numerous non-interest bearing products).   The MPC chooses not to change, and as a result monetary conditions are tighter than they need to be.   Of course, 25 basis points in isolation isn’t huge –  in typical recession we have 500+ points of easing –  but when so little has been done, when inflation forecasts and expectations are so low, and against the backdrop of a consistent undershoot, it is inexcusable not to use the capacity that unquestionably exists now, not idly talking of possible cuts sometime next year.

The MPC is running risks, but they are the opposite of those the Assistant Governor alluded to.  His attempt to suggest some sort of parallel with the new Fed approach –  which, in fairness, we have yet to see making real differences to policy –  has the feel of opportunistic spin.

(For those recalling my past emphasis on New Zealand inflation breakevens, yes I am conscious that they have risen a long way in the last few weeks.    I’m not sure quite what to make of that –  especially as it has been reflected in a sharp fall in real yields (20 year indexed bond (real) yields are down 40+ basis points over August) –  and it is certainly better than the alternative. But we still left with inflation breakeven numbersthat, even on the surface, are no higher than they were at the end of last year, when they were not consistent with the Bank consistently delivering on the inflation target,)

Writing off the Reserve Bank’s government bonds

From time to time I’ve been asked about the idea that the government bonds the Reserve Bank is now buying, and will most likely be holding for years to come, might be written off.   I thought I’d written an earlier post on the idea but I can’t find it –  perhaps it was just a few lines buried somewhere else – and the question keeps coming up.

The Reserve Bank’s own answer to the question –  I’ve seen it recently from both the Governor and the Chief Economist (the latter towards the end of this) – is to smile and suggest that, since they are the lender, it really isn’t up to them.    That, of course, is nonsense.  It is quite within the power of a lender to write-off their claim on a borrower, and that doesn’t require the borrower first to default or to petition for relief.   To revert back to some old posts, that is how ancient debt jubilees worked.

I guess that, in answering the way the do, the Bank is simply trying to avoid getting entangled in controversies that they don’t need.  I have some sympathy for them on that, and so just possibly it might be a tactically astute approach.  A better approach would be for them – as the specialists in such things, unlike the Minister of Finance – to call out the idea of that particular debt being written off for what it is: macroeconomically irrelevant.

In reality, of course, if the debt held by the Reserve Bank were to be written off, it would only be done with the concurrence of the government of the day.    Apart from anything else, if the Governor (or the Board, when the new Reserve Bank legislation is enacted) were to write off the Bank’s claims on the government, it would render the Bank deeply insolvent (very substantial negative equity).  You can’t have management of a government agency just deciding – wholly voluntarily – to render the agency deeply insolvent.

And that is even though the Reserve Bank is quite a bit different than most public sector entities, in that life would go –  operations would continue largely unaffected –  if the Reserve Bank had a balance sheet with a $20 billion (or $60 billion) hole in it.   The Bank isn’t a company, its directors don’t face standard penalties and threats, and –  critically – nothing about substantial negative equity would adversely affect the Bank’s ability to meet its obligations as they fall due.   The Reserve Bank meets its obligations by issuing more of its own liabilities (notes or, more usually, settlement cash balances).  People won’t stop using New Zealand dollars, and banks won’t stop banking at the Reserve Bank, just because there is a huge negative equity position.

(This isn’t just some hypothetical.  Several central banks have operated for long periods with negative equity; indeed I worked for one of them that had so many problems it couldn’t even generate a balance sheet for years at a time.  It also isn’t materially affected by arguments that seignorage revenue –  from the issuance of zero interest banknotes –  means that “true” central bank equity is often higher than it looks (much less so when all interest rates are near zero, and not at all if other interest rates are negative).)

The big reason why writing off the claims the Reserve Bank has on the government through the bonds it holds wouldn’t matter much, if at all, for macroeconomic purposes is that the Reserve Bank is –  in substance – simply a branch of the government.  Any financial value in the organisation accrues ultimately to the taxpayer, and the taxpayer in turn is ultimately responsible for the net liabilities of the Bank.  Governments can –  and sometimes do – default, but having the obligation on the balance sheet of a (wholly government-owned and parliamentarily-created) central bank doesn’t materially change the nature of the exposure.  If anything, governments have tended to be MORE committed to honouring the liabilities of their central bank –  their core monetary agency, where trust really matters –  than in their direct liabilities (thus, in New Zealand  –  as in the US or UK – central and local governments have –  long ago –  defaulted, but the Reserve Bank has never done so).

It is worth remembering what has actually gone on in the last few months.  There are several relevant strands:

  • the government has run a huge fiscal deficit, (meeting the gap between spending and revenue by drawing from its account at the Reserve Bank, in turn resulting in a big increase in banks’ settlement account balances at the Reserve Bank, as bank customers receive the net fiscal outlays),
  • the government has issued copious quantities of new bonds on market (the proceeds from the settlement of those purchases are credited to the Crown account at the Reserve Bank, paid for by debiting –  reducing –  banks’ settlement account balances at the Reserve Bank,
  • the Reserve Bank has purchased copious quantities of bonds on market (paying for them by crediting banks’ settlement accounts at the Reserve Bank).

In practice, the Reserve Bank does not buy bonds in quite the same proportions that the government is issuing them.  But to a first approximation –  and as I’ve written about previously – it does not make much macroeconomic difference whether the Reserve Bank is buying the bonds on market or buying them from the government directly.   In fact, it would not make much difference from a macroeconomic perspective if the Reserve Bank had simply given the government an overdraft equal to the value of the bonds it was otherwise going to purchase.     There are two caveats to that:

  • first, under either model the Reserve Bank has the genuine power to choose, and
  • second, that the fiscal deficit itself is not altered by the particular mechanism whereby the funds get to the Crown account.

But that seems a safe conclusion for now under our current institutional arrangements and culture.

From a private sector perspective, the net effect of the various transactions I listed earlier has been that:

  • private firms and households have been net recipients of government fiscal outlays, (which, in turn, boosts the non-bank private sector’s claims on banks)
  • banks have much larger holdings of (variable rate) settlement cash balances at the Reserve Bank.

Those settlement cash balances are the (relevant) net new whole-of-government debt.

By contrast, quite how the core government and the Reserve Bank rearrange claims between themselves just doesn’t matter very much (macroeconomically) at all.

Suppose the Minister of Finance and the Governor did get together and agree no payment needs to be made in respect of the bonds that Bank holds at maturity.  What does it change?   It doesn’t change is the appropriate stance of monetary policy –  determined by the outlook for the economy and inflation.  It doesn’t change the nature and extent of the Reserve Bank’s other liabilities –  which still have to be met when they mature.   And it doesn’t change anything about the underlying whole-of-government fiscal position.

I guess what people are worried about is that the government might feel it had to raise  taxes –  or cut spending –  more than otherwise “just” to pay off those bonds held by the Reserve Bank.  But remember that the Reserve Bank is just another part of government.  What would actually happen in that scenario is that settlement account balances held by banks at the Reserve Bank would fall (as, say, net taxes flowed into the government account at the Reserve Bank) –  and those are the new claims the private sector currently has on the government.    In other words, the higher taxes or lower spending still extinguish net debt to the private sector.   And if the government didn’t want to raise taxes/cut spending, it could simply issue more bonds on market.  In the process they would (a) repay the bonds held by the Reserve Bank, and (b) reduce settlement cash balances at the Reserve Bank, but (c) increase the net bonds held by the private sector.    Total private claims on whole of government aren’t changed.

(Now it is possible that at the point where the bonds mature, the Reserve Bank still thought that for monetary policy reasons settlement cash balances needed to be as large as ever.  If so, then of course they could purchase some more bonds on-market, or do some conventional open market operations. Neither set of transactions will change the overall claims of the private sector on the government sector –  net fiscal deficits are what do that.)

And what if the bonds were just written off?   As I noted earlier, write off the bonds and the Reserve Bank has a deeply negative equity position.   I don’t really think that is a sustainable long-term position.  It is a bad look in an advanced economy. It is a bad look if we still want to have an operationally independent central bank.  And we can’t rule out the possibility that, for example, risk departments in major international financial institutions might be hesitant about continuing to have the Reserve Bank of New Zealand as a counterparty, including for derivatives transactions, if it had a balance sheet with a large negative position –  even though, as outlined above, the Bank could unquestionably continue to pay its bills.  So at some point of other, the Bank would have to be recapitalised. But again that has little or no implications for the rest of the economy –  or the future tax burden.   The government subscribes for shares…and settles them by issuing to the Bank…more bonds.  The government, of course, pays interest to the Bank –  whether on bonds or overdrafts –  but, to a first approximation, Bank profits all flow back to the Crown.

This post has ended up being quite a lot longer than I really intended, as I’ve tried to cover off lots of bases and possible follow up questions.  Perhaps the key thing to remember is that what creates  the likelihood of higher taxes and lower spending (than otherwise) in future is unexpected/unscheduled fiscal deficits now.

Those deficits might be inevitable, even desirable (as many, perhaps most, might think of those this year as being), but it is they that matter, not  what are in effect the internal transactions between the core government and its wholly-owned Reserve Bank.   That is true even in some MMT world, provided one takes seriously their avowed commitment to keeping inflation in check over time.  You could fund the entire government on interest-free Reserve Bank overdrafts and the consequence would be explosive growth in banks’ settlement cash balances at the Reserve Bank.  But real resources are still limited (see yesterday’s post).  Over time, if you are serious about keeping inflation in check, you still have to either pay a market interest rate on those balances, or engage in heavy financial repression of other sorts, imposing additional imposts on the private sector just by less visible means.

Perhaps the other point worth remembering is the relevance of focusing on appropriately broad measures of true whole-of-government indebtedness, not ones dreamed up from time to time for political marketing purposes.