Economics from a different Labour candidate

May 25th, 2015 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

A commentator at The Standard said:

The second biggest NZ political deception of a lifetime is Labour claiming that our country cannot afford to keep the retirement age at 65. Money is created electronically by keystrokes by the Reserve Bank. How can we run out of money to pay super at 65?

Now normally what a blog commenter says is of no importance. But this commenter was in fact an official candidate for the NZ Labour Party. He’d be a Labour MP if they had got enough votes when he stood.

The fact someone with such economic illiteracy can get through candidate selection is a worry. He thinks money can just be created by keystroke by the Reserve Bank, without realising doing so would devalue the currency massively so that it becomes worthless. If one could just create new money by central bank fiat without bad consequences, then every nation on earth would do it.

This is not Economics 101. This is 3rd form economics.

Labour still refusing to calculate impact of VSR

May 7th, 2014 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

Labour is still refusing to put a figure on the probable impact of its plan to let the Reserve Bank lift KiwiSaver contributions to fight inflation.

There’s only two possible explanations for this.

  1. They have no idea what the impact will be, and didn’t bother to calculate it in developing their policy.
  2. They do know what the impact will be, but don’t want anyone to know.

I’m not sure which explanation is worse.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce has put the figure at $400 million against a $2.5 billion impact from a rise of 1 per cent in the official cash rate, the central bank’s other inflation-fighting tool.

Labour finance spokesman David Parker said Joyce’s $400m figure was wrong, but he was “not going to play his narrow little game” by releasing what Labour thought the impact would be.

It’s not a game. It’s called credibility. If Labour wants people to think that a VSR will mean lower interest rates, then they need to say what they believe the impact will be.

He said the variable savings rate (VSR) was just one of the mix of policies Labour would introduce.

That’s irrelevant. One can debate the impact of the other policies also. But this is the policy that they have said will mean lower interest rates. Why are they unwilling to give us their calculation of what the impact would be?

How much will take home pay drop?

May 4th, 2014 at 9:27 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

National wants Labour to say how much its policy to keep interest rates down will cost wage earners, calculating it would need to strip an extra 6 cents of every dollar earned to equal a 1 per cent interest rate rise.

Last week Labour announced its policies to help the Reserve Bank to control inflation, including a variable savings rate (VSR), which would alter the level of KiwiSaver contributions to ease the pressure to increase the Official Cash Rate (OCR), the benchmark against which almost all borrowing costs are set.

Speaking at the National Party’s northern region conference in Auckland yesterday, Economic Development Minister Stephen Joyce said the plans penalised wage earners in favour of farmers and home owners.

“KiwiSaver members are going to do all the heavy lifting for the whole economy.”

To make a material difference to interest rates a large chunk of take home pay would be stripped from them.

Joyce said Labour’s finance spokesman David Parker “has no idea how much KiwiSaver contributions would have to go up to make up for say a 1 per cent increase in interest rates.”

National had conducted “back of the envelope sums” which suggested that to prevent interest rates going up by 1 per cent, KiwiSaver rates would have to be lifted by 6 cents in the dollar.

I’ve seen that figure from a bank economist also. So what does that means if you are on say $60,000 a year. It means your take home pay will drop by $3,600 a year or a massive $70 a week to stop interest rates rising by 1%.

Now you may not even have a mortgage. Most people do not. Everyone who does not currently have a mortgage will have their take home pay slashed.

But what if you do have a mortgage. Say you have $300,000 owing on it. Let’s say the VSR means your interest rate is at 6% instead of 7%. What difference does that make to your weekly repayments? At 7% a $300,000 20 year mortgage costs you $536 a week. At 6% it is $495 a week so that saves you just $41 a week.

If you’re very wealthy, you’ll benefit from this policy. If your mortgage is say $1 million you’ll save $136 a week and your KiwiSaver contributions won’t increase as you’re self-employed.

Alexander on Labour’s monetary policy

May 2nd, 2014 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

BNZ Chief Economist Tony Alexander analyses the likely impacts of Labour’s monetary policy. Some surprises as he summarises:

  • Long tern Kiwisaver returns will be reduced as savers are forced to buy more shares when prices are high and fewer when they are low. 
  • Volatility in the sharemarket will rise. 
  • Investors will have extra incentive to purchase residential property, thus pushing house prices higher. 
  • Overseas debt will tend to be boosted. 
  • Bank profits will rise.

Alexander explains:

In fact the policy as proposed would probably act as an incentive to raise one’s debt level thus boosting New Zealand’s external debt rather than lowering it as Labour would like. Why? Because the explicit reduction in the heights to which interest rates would go over the monetary policy cycle means the income shock from that tightening would be less. Borrowing money would become safer as interest rate variability would be reduced and the incentive to fix one’s mortgage interest rate reduced.

Thus while some of the commentary from Labour and others has been negative toward banks, their proposed monetary policy would actually boost bank profits because more people would stay on floating rates than going fixed and bank margins are greater on the former than the latter. In addition because people would borrow more money bank business and profits will be boosted. Plus earnings from managing the larger Kiwisaver accounts would be greater.

So Labour’s policy will boost bank profits. Excellent.

Now look at this from a portfolio investment point of view. The policy would boost Kiwisaver contributions when the economy was booming and presumably asset prices like shares rising firmly and at high levels. The tightening of monetary policy would lead to more asset buying out of the contributions and this would amplify the equity price cycle while forcing people to buy more when equity prices are high. Then when the economy is weak and Kiwisaver contributions get cut people would be buying fewer shares thus amplifying the falls in share prices while seeing people buy fewer long term assets when their prices were low. Thus Labour’s policy would achieve exactly the opposite of what is recommended for long term savers with regard to purchasing equities, namely steady monetary value purchases through the economic cycle or even boosting purchases when prices are cyclically low rather than running with the herd and contributing to boom then bust asset price cycles.

And lower average returns for KiwiSaver investments!

The policy would also tend to boost house prices because the risk of having a large mortgage posed by the potential for high interest rates would be reduced. Additionally, because of lower average borrowing costs and because of reduced returns on the likes of term deposits plus the increased volatility in share prices we would expect to see more investors divert toward residential property. This would again tend to boost house prices, reduce home affordability, and again bias the housing market against young buyers.

Not starting to look such a great idea, is it.

He is also unimpressed with blaming house prices on immigrants:

And is it migration which has been pushing Auckland house prices in particular higher? Not at all. Auckland house prices rose by 38% between January 2009 and July last year. It was in July that the net annual migration flow for NZ rose above the ten year average of 10,000 people on its way to the latest reading near 32,000. Thus prices soared during a period of below average migration gains.

And he also points out the stupidity of a certain statement by a certain spokesperson:

Also, if one were a spokesman on matters economic then it would probably not be a good idea to suggest one has low understanding of how monetary policy works by saying low inflation in the most recent quarter means no need for any change in interest rates. Monetary policy looks forward and cannot affect what has already happened – though with a time machine as proposed by Mr Wells one might give it a go. Monetary policy changes now affect inflation a year and a half down the track.


How big an impact would variable compulsory saving have?

May 1st, 2014 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

More than 300,000 business owners and self-employed people would be exempted from Labour’s new policy to make workers pay more into KiwiSaver to dampen inflation in boom times.

Labour finance spokesman David Parker confirmed yesterday that his variable compulsory saving proposal would apply only to employee contributions to KiwiSaver – not to employer contributions, and not to self-employed people and employers who choose to pay voluntarily into their own KiwiSaver accounts.

This is a point I wasn’t aware of. The variable rate will only apply to employee contributions.

This means that the impact of a change of rate will be quite small. I’ve done some basic back of envelope contributions.

The current annual member contributions to KiwiSaver are around $1.8 billion. That’s based on a 3% minimum rate. So a 1% change in KS contribution rates would lead to $600 million more into KiwiSaver. However only around 40% of this will be increased savings (based on evidence to date) rather than transferred savings so the amount of money taken out of circulation (so to speak) will be $240 million.

Now the total amount of lending is currently around $330 billion. So a 1% change in interest rates would have an impact of around $3.3 billion.

So a very rough ballpark estimate is that you would need to increase the KiwiSaver contribution rate by around 14%, to have the same anti-inflationary impact as a 1% increase in interest rates.

Someone with better economic modelling skills than me can calculate a more precise figure, but the salient point is that any impact will be very small. It will not be a choice between interest rates going up or increasing the KiwiSaver contribution rate. Both will occur. Increasing the KiwiSaver contribution rate will have a small impact at the very margins.

Reaction to Labour’s monetary policy

April 30th, 2014 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Dom Post is supportive:

 Unlike its recent pronouncements on trucks in highway fast lanes, or the flagging national demand for wood, Labour’s ambitious new monetary policy has real heft.

The idea is first to make KiwiSaver compulsory, with payment levels about 9 per cent of income. That’s not monetary policy per se, but it’s a good idea – our savings are chronically low, which pushes up our interest rates.

Compulsory savings are also necessary for Labour’s next big idea – making KiwiSaver payment rates adjustable. Under the plan, the Reserve Bank could recommend increasing savings rates as a way of slowing the economy – or, conversely, lowering them to heat things up.

They have some reservations:

What about low-wage workers, who don’t have mortgages and can’t afford unpredictable shifts in income? Labour is considering exceptions for them, but that poses its own problems.

What about the wisdom of constantly mucking around with people’s retirement savings? Isn’t that an odd message to send, that they are subject to the whims of the economic cycle?

And will such adjustments be as effective as interest rate hikes in cooling the housing sector, the most inflationary part of the economy?

So Labour has some more explaining to do. But the questions should not puncture the idea – some might be unanswerable until the policy is tried.

The Herald is also supportive:

The Labour Party has done well to come up with a constructive monetary policy for the coming election. Its proposal to make KiwiSaver compulsory and use its contribution rate as an alternative to interest rate rises is imaginative and reasonable.

But also a reservation:

But if the bank can merely recommend that a government increase the KiwiSaver levy, the tool might seldom be used. If Labour leads the next government it might welcome recommendations, at least until the combined contributions of employers and earners rise from the current 6 per cent to 9 per cent.

Even Labour, though, would be reluctant to raise the levy in normal economic times, and would make exemptions for the lower paid. The bank would usually have to resort to the official cash rate.

This is a key point – that the Government would make the decision on changing the contribution rate. It means that political considerations will be placed ahead of monetary considerations. The reality is that changing the level of contributions will not be a tool that will be used often – which means interest rates would by far remain the dominant tool.

The Reserve Bank considers changing the OCR every six weeks or so. One could not cope with having the KiwiSaver contribution rate changing more than once a year. Employer software needs to change. Employees need certainty over their take home pay, and employers need certainty over their costs.

So while the proposed tool is not without some value, it is not a tool that can be used frequently or immediately.

Brian Fallow sums up some reaction:

Labour’s proposal to introduce a variable contribution rate to compulsory KiwiSaver as a counter-cyclical tool has received mixed reviews from bank economists.

Most were tepid: It can’t do any harm, it will probably be less effective than Labour hopes.

Probably a fair summary.

But ANZ chief economist Cameron Bagrie was unimpressed: “It has political bun fight written all over it.

“Will a Government really step up to the plate and alter KiwiSaver contributions [if] asked to by the Reserve Bank? Imagine the bank asked the Government of the day to alter tax rates to help with monetary policy. This would alter public saving as opposed to private saving, but would have similar economic effects. What do you think the response would be?” Bagrie said.

“A change in take-home pay is highly personal. For low-income earners in particular the fact that they will get the money back in several decades’ time will be to all intents and purposes irrelevant.”

Indeed. A low income earner needs the money now – not in 30 years.

And this is one of the problems of universal KiwiSaver – it means the state is making decisions on behalf of each individual family as to how much they need to save – and when. For many New Zealanders it can be more sensible to put surplus funds into a business or paying off a mortgage quicker.

The Herald also looks at winners and losers:

Households struggling to keep on top of their mortgages would be the winners under Labour’s proposed interest rate shake-up, but at the expense of those who can’t afford to get a foot on the property ladder, a budgeting service warns. …

But New Zealand Federation of Family Budgeting Services chief executive Raewyn Fox said the policy to keep interest rates low while forcing everyone to save more raised issues of fairness.

“The people who don’t have mortgages will be in effect subsidising the economy for the people who are obtaining an asset by buying a house.”

Yep – the biggest winners will be those with the biggest mortgages.

Bernard Hickey also looks at the pros and cons:

The Pros

The VSR would allow the Reserve Bank to remain independent and give it another way to slow or speed up the economy. There would, of course, be a Policy Targets Agreement between the Minister of Finance and the Reserve Bank Governor to govern how the VSR could be tweaked, but the decisions on when and how to use it would be made by the Governor.

Politically, the idea of increasing the KiwiSaver contribution rate seems more attractive than raising interest rates, at least for exporters and mortgage borrowers. It means the extra savings are kept by the wage or salary earner, rather than being ‘lost’ to the bank and term depositers.

In theory, raising the VSR would allow the Reserve Bank to avoid putting up interest rates and therefore take pressure off the currency.

The other parts of the policy that didn’t get as much attention may be just as important. Labour is saying the Reserve Bank could use macro-prudential tools such as capital requirements to limit lending growth or pressure on the currency. The Reserve Bank has already partly gone down this path with higher capital requirements for high LVR mortgages and the speed limit.

This wider use of macro-prudential tools could also help reduce the reliance on the OCR.

The Cons

Simply imposing KiwiSaver compulsion and a higher contribution rate may not necessarily improve national savings. The Australian experience has been mixed at best. It turned out Australians felt richer as their superannuation pots got bigger, which encouraged them to borrow even more against the value of their houses.

Compulsion in tandem with Labour’s policy of gradually increasing the retirement age to 67 is controversial within Labour and on the left of politics. There are plenty who argue poorer manual workers are discriminated against. There’ll be some tricky questions around who gets exemptions because of ill health and who can ask to be exempted on the grounds of hardship.

The other risks with compulsion are around the issue of Government guarantees, funds management fees and means testing. If you are forced to save by the Government you could argue your funds should be guaranteed by the Government.

The Australian scheme has become notorious for high fees and compulsion has become something of a subsidy for the funds management industry, and ironically, the banking sector. There would have to be some tough conversations and negotiations around fees. Here’s an excellent Grattan Institute report about Australia’s fees mess.

And finally there is the argument against compulsion that used to be made by the ‘Father’ of KiwiSaver, Michael Cullen, which is that once these funds get very big political pressure will build for means testing, as is the case in Australia. That would rob the current NZ Super scheme of some of the simplicity and fairness behind the universal pension.

I think the policy probably won’t achieve a lot, but it could be a potentially useful extra tool for the Reserve Bank. However to be truly effective you need the Reserve Bank able to decide – not just recommend to the Government.

But one should be aware that monetary policy is ultimately about reducing demand in the economy, and hence inflation. Now increasing KiwiSaver rates could reduce spending by households. But if Government spending is not restrained, then the overall impact on the economy will be insignificant. Fiscal policy and mometary policy need to work together. Just reducing household spending will not work, if government spending is not restrained.

Labour proposes a cut in everyone’s after tax income

April 29th, 2014 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

David Parker has announced:

Introduce a new tool – a variable savings rate or VSR – allowing the Bank to vary KiwiSaver savings rates (which would be universal under Labour) as an alternative to raising the OCR to take the heat out of the economy. This VSR would mean Kiwis would pay money to their retirement savings instead of higher mortgage payments to overseas banks.

Something that people should be aware of is that only a relatively small proportion of households or earners have a mortgage. While a VSR will impact every single person who earns money, by lowering their take home pay to reduce inflation.

What this means is that the Reserve Bank could lift the employee contribution rate to KiwiSaver from 3% to 4.5% (it will be compulsory). If you’re earning $40,000 a year then your take home pay will drop by $600 a year. The biggest losers in this policy are likely to be low and middle income earners who don’t currently have a mortgage. They will face a reduction in their after tax income.

This doesn’t mean the policy is a bad one, just that it creates both winners and losers – and the losers are low to middle income earners without a mortgage.

Economic confusion from Cunliffe

March 15th, 2014 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Jamie Whyte blogs:

David Cunliffe today gave a speech to the New Zealand Initiative, an economics think tank. The talk outlines the Labour Party’s economic policy. It displays so much economic confusion that it will take several posts to get through it all. Today I want to identify a fundamental conflict between Labour’s economic goal and its proposed monetary policy.

Mr Cunliffe begins his speech by saying that New Zealand businesses produce too much low value stuff. Labour wants to “support New Zealand business in the journey from volume to value”. 

Personally I’m very wary of any politician that makes a sweeping statement about what NZ businesses need to do. There is no one correct answer. For many businesses, volume is best, for others value is best. Having the Government declare businesses produce too much low value stuff is easy to do from an academic viewpoint –  but the businesses out there fighting for market share tend to be the best judge of what works for them.

He then claimed that “the biggest obstacle to our exporting businesses is the consistently over-valued and volatile exchange rate. Labour has long signalled it will review monetary policy to ensure our dollar is more fairly valued to help business and lower our external balance”.

The translation of this, is Labour is campaigning for higher inflation and price increases for everyone.

A devalued dollar helps exporters sell more overseas by reducing the price foreigners pay for our goods. For example, if the NZ dollar fell from US$0.85 US$ 0.70, what an American pays for a NZ$1,000 widget would fall from US$850 to US$700. So Americans would buy more of those NZ made widgets. But, of course, the value of those widget sales would have fallen. The reduced exchange rate increases the volume of what we sell overseas by decreasing its value – the exact opposite of Mr Cunliffe’s goal.

That is a total contradiction which exposes Labour’s economic policy to be slogans around a few tried left wing canards. Their monetary policy is, as Dr Whyte points out, in total opposition to their economic policy.

NZIER on who should set the cash rate

June 25th, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

NZIER have published this note:

The Greens’ idea to use the Reserve Bank Board to make monetary policy might improve decision-making but using a board designed to represent industry, risks compromising the Reserve Bank’s independence and the goals of monetary policy.

So they’re saying collective decision making may be better, but not if those deciding are not independent.

Responsibility for monetary policy rests solely with the Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. Twenty-five years ago, monetary policy was tied to the neck of one person to maximise accountability for inflation targeting. Today most countries have adopted inflation targeting but use a board rather than a single person to set interest rates.1

Groups tend to make better decisions than individuals by using a wider range of information. That often leads to less extreme decisions.2 And decision-making by groups is more effective because members of the group contribute a greater variety of perspectives.3

I would note it can lessen accountability though.

Recently the Reserve Bank of New Zealand set-up an internal Governing Committee, comprising the Governor, Deputy Governors and an Assistant Governor, as a group to assist decision-making.

These innovations help the Reserve Bank form better decisions from a wide range of information and perspectives. That means the distinction between a single decision-maker and decision-making by a board is blurred by current Reserve Bank practice. 

So we expect better monetary policy from a board rather than a single person. But given the way policy is currently set these gains are unlikely to be large.4

In other words, the decisions are in practice collective ones.

Moving to a board structure has practical implications. We agree that like elsewhere in the world, releasing the minutes and voting record of the committee improves transparency.


But already New Zealand has a very transparent central bank. According to one measure, New Zealand ranks as the second-most transparent central bank globally.5 Publishing the board minutes is helpful but the Reserve Bank of New Zealand does not have a transparency problem. 

But let’s not pretend there is a huge problem.

It’s not clear what making the decision-making board more representative of the wider economy might achieve.

If the problem is improving decision-making, NZIER’s view is the Reserve Bank already receives considerable input from all parts of the economy as part of its regular information gathering process.

Including exporters and manufacturers on a decision-making board seems targeted towards a solving a different perceived problem: changing the objectives of monetary policy.

But good monetary policy is not about promoting exports: it’s about targeting inflation.
Ultimately, monetary policy is a technical activity. So any decision-making board needs the professional advice and experience of career economists that understand the economy.

Basically the proposal is an attempt to change the purpose of monetary policy by stealth.

Who should set the cash rate?

June 21st, 2013 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

The Greens have proposed that the Reserve Bank Board should set the official cash rate, not just the Governor. It’s a reasonable debate to have, but one that seemed familiar. I was sure the issue had been canvassed in the past as part of an independent review. I asked Don Brash if my recollection was correct and he responded:

David, you are almost correct. Cullen asked Lars Svensson to conduct a comprehensive review of the whole monetary policy framework. At the time, in 2000, Svensson was a leading monetary policy academic, at Yale from memory. Being Swedish, he had the advantage of being from a country regarded as “moderate” in political terms and, like New Zealand, a country very dependent on trade, with a floating exchange rate. He has since become one of the Deputy Governors of the Swedish central bank. 

He gave the New Zealand framework top marks, describing it as “world’s best practice”, but he did say that he thought that having all monetary policy decisions vested in the single person of the Governor was risky. (Fortunately for me, he said I had done a good job!) He suggested that instead monetary policy decisions should be taken by a small internal committee of senior RB staff – not by the board of (outside) directors because of the potential for conflicts of interest. Both the Treasury and the non-executive directors of the Reserve Bank recommended that New Zealand stick with the single decision-maker model because that makes it easier to pin the blame if monetary policy doesn’t deliver what the Policy Targets Agreement (the agreement between Minister of Finance and Governor) requires to be delivered.

It is a fair point, that if you make the decision a joint one by the Board, it makes it harder for there to be accountability for any failure in monetary policy.

Greens dump printing money plan – for now!

June 19th, 2013 at 11:10 am by David Farrar

Vernon Small reports:

The Greens have dumped their call for quantitative easing – or printing money – after it became an electoral liability for the party and a future Labour-led government.

Green co-leader Russel Norman yesterday confirmed the u-turn after Monday’s release of the joint Labour-Green-NZ First-Mana report into manufacturing left the policy out of the mix.

Prime Minister John Key and other Government ministers have latched on to the plan to ‘‘print money’’ to paint the Opposition as economically radical.

Norman said it was never Green policy but was included in a discussion paper, issued last October.

This suggests they were not advocating it. This is far from the reality. Russel Norman was constantly tweeting that we should be printing money, and providing examples of other countries that were doing so. There is no doubt that the Green’s proposed Finance Minister thinks we should be printing money. The only thing that has changed is they have agreed to stop talking about it in public.

But if a Labour/Green Government got into office, and couldn’t get the books to balance, what do you think is more likely – that they’ll cut spending or print money?

And enjoy Clark and Dawe as they explain what the Greens mean by quantitative easing!

IMF on monetary policy

March 21st, 2013 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald editorial:

It is always useful to get a global perspective on issues that are the subject of local political wrangling. Light is generally shed on areas that may be clouded by the heat generated by debate. In that context, the International Monetary Fund’s annual report on the New Zealand economy is timely. It casts an especially valuable eye over the two questions of most current angst and anxiety, the significantly overvalued dollar and the overheated Auckland housing market. Its conclusions should put an end to much of the irrational comment on how these issues should be addressed.

The IMF says there should be no “messing with” the monetary policy framework just because the dollar is temporarily overvalued. Indeed, that framework, including a flexible exchange rate, was one of the reasons New Zealand had been relatively resilient in the face of the global downturn. “Do you want to mess [with] the framework because the exchange rate at the moment is overvalued, and do potentially long-term damage? I would be very reluctant to go down that path,” said Bruce Aitken, the head of the IMF team.

We are a minnow. To think we can unilaterally change our exchange rate is silly. You can do it by printing more money of course, which is a great way of making the entire country poorer.

That represents a strong riposte to politicians who have sought to reap advantage from manufacturers’ grievances over the high dollar. It confirms the dangers inherent in, for example, the Greens’ call for the exchange rate to be part of the Reserve Bank’s mandate. The lower interest rates that flowed from this would, as the IMF notes, remove an advantage held by New Zealand’s central bank. Unlike its counterparts in several nations, it still has the scope to cut interest rates if the country were hit by another major shock. Greens co-leader Russel Norman has accused the Reserve Bank governor Graeme Wheeler of complacency and being stuck in the 1980s. This report confirms that Dr Norman’s credibility is under far greater threat.

The Greens are almost the only party in the western world calling for printing money, when the official cash rate is still well above zero. Quantitative easing is the last resort, not the first resort. They just want to print money to pay for their promises.

The problem is not so much the NZ dollar is too high. The US dollar and Euro are tanking because a generation of borrow and spend policies are crippling them. By contrast we are historically low against the Australian dollar.

The problem for Shearer

March 21st, 2013 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The undisclosed bank account is posing some challenges for David Shearer, beyond just the transparency issue.

Stuff reports:

Shearer told Fairfax Media yesterday there was no advantage to having the account and there was “nothing special about it”.

Asked what that said about his financial expertise, given low interest rates in the US and the exchange rate losses he may have suffered from a rising New Zealand dollar, he shrugged and said: “The bottom line is it is there, and I have nothing more to say about it really.”

Banks today also questioned why Shearer would keep such a large amount of money in an account that paid such low interest – maybe 1.5 per cent – when he could earn more in New Zealand.

Shearer had also disclosed a mortgage in the register, which would charge a higher interest rate than the banks paid on deposits in New York.

“Why doesn’t he transfer some across and pay off his mortgage?” Banks asked.

How an MP arranges his or her personal finances should generally be of no concern to the public – it is a private matter. But when due to a stuff up, you force it into the public arena, people naturally get curious. You just can’t help it.

Now some people have got over-excited and have been saying that Shearer has a conflict of interest with Labour’s policy to spend billions of dollars pushing down the exchange rate, as that would allow him to convert his US dollars into NZ dollars at a higher profit.

I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous and is the sort of paranoia best left to some of the extremists on the left who likewise allege that John Key was asking questions in Parliament on Tranzrail to help their share price, rather than because he was (then) Opposition Finance Spokesperson.

Labour want to waste billions of dollars intervening in the exchange rate because they think it will be popular, not to help their leader make money on currency transactions.

So I don’t think the public will have a bar of the conspiracy theories.

But what the public do understand is paying down your mortgage. It’s something common to most families. You pay much more on your mortgage than you get in a bank, so you always transfer surplus savings against your mortgage.

And what the public will be wondering, even though it is none of their business, is why would you have several hundred thousand dollars in an US bank account, and not use it to pay down or off your mortgage. I mean no one sensibly wants to pay more interest to your bank than they have to.

The only three answers I can come up with are:

  1. You’re financially incompetent and it never occurred to you.
  2. You’re so well off, that saving thousands or tens of thousands of dollars off your mortgage doesn’t matter in the bigger scheme of things.
  3. There is some other reason to want to keep the money in the offshore account.

Have I missed a significant possibility?

Vernon Small also touches on the political side of the non disclosure:

The blunder shows a slackness and a lack of attention to detail unbecoming a prime minister.

Even having the account – rather than closing it quick-smart when he became leader – is problematic.

What of Labour’s views on economic nationalism? What about investing in local enterprises rather than leaving the money at low interest rates to be invested in the US?

And why not close it and bring it back now? Surely not because he is waiting for the exchange rate to move back in his favour? Mr Shearer, currency speculator?

It isn’t necessary to get overexcited by the ramifications of all this to see the potential for political harm for Labour and Mr Shearer.

By far the worst is that at a stroke he has neutralised attacks he could make, come the 2014 campaign, on John Key’s “brain fades”.

It is not hard to see how they will be turned back on him.

Which is worse: forgetting a swift mention of Kim Dotcom in a briefing by spooks or failing to remember for three years in a row your nest egg tucked away in a New York bank?

Labour had a very obvious campaign around Key having so called brain fades. It is now in tatters.

UPDATE: We have has some useful additional possible explanations. The list now is:

  1. You’re financially incompetent and it never occurred to you.
  2. You’re so well off, that saving thousands or tens of thousands of dollars off your mortgage doesn’t matter in the bigger scheme of things.
  3. Deliberately not paying off the mortgage, so he appears “an everyday bloke”
  4. Is writing the NZ mortgage payments off tax as an investment property
  5. Waiting for the exchange rate to drop, before he moves the money back to NZ
  6. There is some other reason to want to keep the money in the offshore account (US itunes purchases?)

How they plan to pay for their promises

March 14th, 2013 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar



This is the alternative. They honestly seem to believe that you can enrich a country by just printing more money. I thought this lunacy died out with Social Credit.

The only Western countries doing QE are those which have the official cash rate near zero and have run out of other options. No sensible country is advocating printing money in the circumstances NZ is in.

There is a difference between a last resort and a preferred option. As an analogy if someone is dying from blood loss through a severed limb then a tourniquet is your last resort to stop them dying. But if they have just cut their leg open a bit, you don’t apply a tourniquet as your first response because the impact of doing so is very nasty.

In monetary terms, the nasty impact is prices go up and up.

You can see the Twitter debate here.

Be scared, be very scared. Most Green policies will just be inefficient and waste money but not necessarily be hugely harmful. This one is different.

Fallow on monetary policy

January 31st, 2013 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

Brian Fallow writes in the NZ Herald:

Listening to a procession of manufacturers say their piece to the parliamentary inquiry into manufacturing this week, two things were clear.

One is that the high dollar is causing real and lasting damage to their sector.

The other is that the idea that an overvalued exchange rate is the fault of the monetary policy framework has hardened into dogma.

Cast off outdated neoliberal doctrine. Change the Reserve Bank’s mandate. Then New Zealand manufacturers will have a fighting chance. That was the message.

It echoes statements like this from Labour leader David Shearer last Sunday: “We’ll make changes to monetary policy so that our job-creating businesses aren’t undermined by our exchange rate.”

It is glib. It glosses over difficult questions about what changes they have in mind, and what the costs, risks, trade-offs and spillover effects would be

All correct.

And it misdiagnoses the problem, which is that the rather enfeebled state of much of the other 99.8 per cent of the world economy has led to policies abroad which are unhelpful from New Zealand’s point of view and which we can only hope succeed.

This is in fact the major point.  The US and Europe are poked (for now) and their dollars are weaker. Politicians preaching how we can rectify this are dreaming. If we want proof that this is about the weakness of the US$ and the Euro, not a strong NZ$ – look at this graph from ANZ:


As you can see we are in fact historically quite low against the Australian dollar.

If the object of the exercise is to ensure that in the future the Reserve Bank runs monetary policy looser than it otherwise would, consider this: higher inflation would lower real wages, and real incomes more broadly, in the hope of protecting jobs in the favoured sector. Should the union movement support that?

Lower interest rates would increase the risk of a housing bubble that, this time, bursts messily all over us. Ask the Irish tradesmen flocking to Christchurch how much fun that is.

If it succeeds in making New Zealand exports cheaper to foreign buyers – a pretty big if – it will also make New Zealand assets cheaper to foreign buyers. That should give economic nationalists in New Zealand First and the Greens pause.

So nice to have someone print this out.


Brash on monetary policy

December 17th, 2012 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Don Brash writes in the Herald:

Your columnist Bernard Hickey often writes articles with which I agree, but he has a real blind spot about monetary policy. Not long ago he was advocating printing money to reduce the foreign exchange value of the New Zealand dollar and avoid the need for so much government borrowing, apparently oblivious to the inflationary effects of such a policy. Yes, other central banks are printing money and buying government bonds, but they are all faced with potential deflation and have already reduced interest rates close to zero.

We are not in that situation by a very long way.

Printing money means we pay more for petrol, food, clothing etc.

Last Sunday he criticised what he described as our “obsession with strict inflation targeting” and “the theory that low inflation cures all ills”. But we’ve never had a “strict inflation targeting regime” and successive Reserve Bank governors have been willing to ignore the price effects of one-off factors like oil shocks and changes in GST, thereby allowing inflation to rise above the announced inflation target.

And the regime is set 1% higher than it used to be. It was 0% to 2%, and now is 1% to 3%. And as Don has said, it hasn’t rigorously been kept at 1% over the years.


If anything, we have had too much inflation. Those who say the answer is more inflation should be disregarded. How much more? Do we want 5%? 10%? 15%?

Low inflation does not cure all ills. But higher inflation helps nobody (except property speculators). It doesn’t even stimulate employment as we used to believe, except briefly by temporarily cutting real wages.

And while printing money or drastically easing monetary policy might get the exchange rate down, we know from bitter experience that this provides only temporary relief for exporters as higher inflation quickly offsets the benefits of a lower exchange rate.

For decades we could compete on international markets with the New Zealand dollar at US$1.12. Now we can’t because too often we listened to those who argued for just a bit more inflation.

The answer is not more inflation. The answer is greater productivity. You can’t print money to make a country richer.

Bank of England Governor on quantitative easing

October 25th, 2012 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Financial Times reports:

Sir Mervyn warned there were limits to the BoE’s policy of quantitative easing, under which it prints money and injects it into the economy by purchasing bonds: “Printing money is not . . . simply manna from heaven. There are no short-cuts to the necessary adjustment in our economy.”

And the BoE only did it because their cash rate couldn’t go lower.

Sir Mervyn also rounded on those calling for his institution to cancel the government debt it owns. Lord Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority and a leading candidate to replace Sir Mervyn as governor next year, mused about debt cancellation in a speech earlier this month. Calling such ideas “bad money creation” which would fudge monetary and fiscal policy, Sir Mervyn said “the BoE could not countenance any suggestion that we cancel our holdings of gilts”.

This will be the next policy from Dr Norman. Just have the Reserve Bank cancel all government debt. Bingo. Problem solved.

Mayes on QE

October 11th, 2012 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Former Reserve Bank Chief Economist David Mayes writes in the Herald:

Printing money is usually a last resort that seriously troubled countries use to stave off collapse, and not some mysterious trick that other nations have conjured up to achieve quick riches.

I never though a so called serious political party would advocate it, since Social Credit were killed off.

New Zealand has definitely not run out of opportunities to use conventional monetary and fiscal policy if it feels the economy faces a lack of demand. So why move to the unconventional now?

Quantitative easing is used when short-run nominal interest rates have been lowered to zero and it is still necessary to expand the economy.

And our cash rate is 2.5%

Quantitative easing is used when short-run nominal interest rates have been lowered to zero and it is still necessary to expand the economy. If the central bank then buys longer dated bonds or other financial securities (including commercial paper or mortgages from the private sector), it may continue stimulating the economy.

Evidence from a symposium being published by The Economic Journal suggests that this is achieving a little in the United Kingdom, the United States and the Euro area.

The problem is that it only works well if people fear major inflation and rush out to buy before prices rise. Once growth re-establishes again, the central bank sells all assets and mops up the extra money before inflation gets out of hand. That of course explains why it doesn’t really work. If inflation is going to be headed off, then why buy now? Hence the weak effect.

Thus quantitative easing needs to be on a massive scale if it is to work.

And this is what worries me. The Greens proposed printing $8 billion of money to stimulate the economy. Now what would they and Labour do, if that doesn’t work? Would they say it was a silly idea, or would they say the problem is they did not print enough money? They’ll then be printing another $10b, another $20b etc.

Fed Farmers say no to printing money

October 10th, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

The Greens claim their printing money proposal (which Labour supports, so long as the RB decides to do it, not the Govt) is to benefit exporters.

Well the group that represents more exporters in NZ than any other, Federated Farmers, have said they think the proposal is lunacy.

3 News reports:

The country’s biggest export sector is strongly opposed to the Green Party’s suggestion that the Government should print money to bring down the value of the dollar.

The agricultural sector sells most of its products overseas and Federated Farmers says printing money, known as quantitative easing, would be “incredibly bad” for New Zealand. …

The Government has rejected the idea and Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills says it would “set off an inflationary bomb that risks returning New Zealand to the dark days of double-digit interest rates”.

Mr Wills says quantitative easing should be a “break glass in case of fire” policy option.

“New Zealand is nowhere near such desperate measures because our official cash rate is 2.5 percent versus 0.5 percent in the United Kingdom, 0.25 percent in the United States and 0.10 percent in Japan.”

This is what is so bizarre about the Greens policy. Those countries which are doing QE are not doing it because they want to. They are doing it as a last resort as they can not lower their cash rate any lower.

The Greens would have New Zealand as pretty much the only developed country in the world to print money and cause inflation, as a preference rather than a last resort.

Dom Post on Greens plan to print money

October 9th, 2012 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

The Dom Post editorial:

New Zealand should have learned from bitter experience that it cannot shield itself from the vagaries of the international market. Labour and National tried that in the 1970s and early 1980s and ran up debts that took a generation to repay.

New Zealand is a small trading nation a long way from its markets. The only way for it to survive and prosper is to be flexible, adaptable and resilient. If the balance of economic power in the world is shifting, there is no use pretending it is not.

The decline in the value of the US dollar and the euro is a reflection of the decline in the relative worth of the American and European economies.

The attempts by American and some European policy-makers to reboot their economies by printing money are acts of political desperation.

It makes no sense for a country which has weathered the global financial crisis better than most of its Western counterparts to emulate their risky tactics. Printing money – or quantitative easing as it is technically known – fuels inflation, devalues assets and reduces purchasing power. Once started it is difficult to stop, as Germans discovered in the 1920s when wheelbarrows replaced wallets as the most efficient means of carting cash.

The Greens plan will see shares in Mitre 10 and Xerox increase!

It is interesting that Labour has not ruled out printing money also – just that they don’t want their fingerprints on it. The summary is:

  • Greens will force the Reserve Bank to print more money, driving up prices for all NZers
  • Labour will amend the RBA, to encourage the Reserve Bank to print more money, driving up prices for all NZers

Meet your future Green currency

October 8th, 2012 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

Also a great comment by Alex Tarrant on Twitter:

BREAKING: Fuji Xerox approaches Green Party in early bid for printer procurement contract…

Heh. Also Victoria tweeted:

Brb, just getting a wheelbarrow to carry my notes to buy a loaf of bread!

Matt Nolan at TVHE blogs a very useful analysis of what the Greens have proposed (and Labour are semi-supporting):

 Russel Norman is completely misrepresenting QE by saying that the recent crisis is “evidence it isn’t inflationary”.  QE was put in place to fight the fact that policy was too tight overseas, and they were trying to fight deflation – in essence the fact that inflation stayed near the “target band” in these countries is evidence that QE is indeed inflationary as you would expect … just in the way they were intending.

Exactly. QE can be considered if you face deflation, and your official cash rate is as low as it can go. We are within our target band at 1% (which is what I think we should be aiming for) and the cash rate is 2.5%.

Remember how often Greens and Labour complain about increased costs such as electricity and food? Well this is a policy to increase their costs even more for families finding it hards to make ends meet.

Now you may believe we should fund the rebuild with a one-off tax – that’s fine, in that case get the government to put a tax in place directly (or to directly cut spending from other place).  However, taxation by stealth of this sort is likely to be worse in multiple ways:

  1. We have betrayed RBNZ independence for virtually no reason … understandably a sneak tax by the RBNZ would make people less likely to believe them in the future about holding to their inflation mandate.  As a result, we run into the time-consistency issue in monetary policy again, and it will become more painful for economy when the RBNZ tries to commit to its inflation mandate again.
  2. We have a relatively rough redistribution of resources due to this.  By putting in our sneak tax through QE, we transfer resources to those with assets, those doing the rebuild, and those who can easily adjust prices/wages – while hurting those on fixed income, and those who have saved.  It is an inflation tax – pure and simple – and as a result, it will initially transfer resources from those who can’t protect themselves (generally the poor) to those who can (generally the rich).  If we introduce the tax through fiscal policy instead we can sort out these distributional issues a little better.
  3. A country that is willing to introduce QE as a clear fiscal transfer – when there is no monetary policy reason – will destroy its credibility with international lenders.  People will scoff at this, but such a policy will increase the level of “inflation insurance” lenders ask for – increasing the cost of credit in New Zealand.

That is a very good way to put it – the Greens have proposed an inflation tax – one that will hit fixed income households the hardest!

The Greens, and Ganesh Nana, are wrong in stating that the RBNZ has failed.  Distinctly and totally wrong.  Things like this:

”No system of monetary policy is perfect and New Zealand cannot remain the last devotee to a failed monetary theory while the rest of the world moves on,” Norman said.

Paint a complete and utter misrepresentation about the lessons from the Global Financial Crisis.  Our flexible inflation targeting framework saved us from a massive crisis at home – while the rest of the world fell apart.

Matt’s conclusions:

  1. We don’t need QE in NZ, as we have enough monetary stimulus (and if not we can cut interest rates further).
  2. What is being suggested isn’t even QE – its the monetization of government debt, effectively a inflation tax to pay for the rebuild in Canterbury.
  3. It is unlikely that such a tax is the “best” way of raising the revenue to rebuild Christchurch – which should be the primary question.

Say no to the Green’s inflation tax.

Oh you must watch the video also, H/T Whale.

John Clarke as hilarious as always. He is also factually correct in this case.

Greens literally believe money does grow on trees

October 8th, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

I thought this madness died with Social Credit, but Greens (and Labour may not be far behind) have said that they want the NZ Reserve Bank to effectively start printing money. They think that NZ printing more money is a good way to increase the relative value of the US dollar. We might as well start burning our savings.

Make no mistake, what they are calling for is the value of everyone’s savings to be reduce, as inflation takes off. You know all how they say wages are too low for low income workers? Well they want the cost of food, goods and services like electricity to increase faster than they have been.

There are basically two sorts of countries that print money. Those that are bankrupt, and those whose economies are so stalled that the central bank cash rate is as low as it can go.  In the US it is 0.25%. NZ is at 2.5% so a fair way away from that.

Russel Norman claimed:

Secondly, when you look overseas at the use of quantitative easing – because all of our major— most of our major trading partners are using it

This is simply wrong. The US and the the Eurozone and Japan have done it (and sort of the UK)  – again because they are almost bankrupt or their central rate can not be lowered anymore. But they are not our major trading partners.

Our exports for the year to June 2012 came to $46.7b. Exports to the Eurozone were $2.9b, UK $1.4b, Japan $3.4b and US $4.1b. That is a mere $11.8b out of $46.7b – under one quarter. Australia is almost a bigger export market than those four combined.

And let me tell you if we started printing money, and Australia was not, watch the outpour to Australia get far far worse.

Some policies put forward are just silly, or ineffective, or wasteful. Some are very very bad and dangerous. This is one of them. The idea of printing money to grow the economy has never worked long-term. It gives you a short-term sugar rush at best. It puts up the price of pretty much all goods and services as inflation grows.

It is actually to our advantage long-term that the US and Eurozone are printing money. Proposing to follow them voluntarily is the worst thing NZ could do.

Labour’s inflation policy a recipe for disaster

December 28th, 2009 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

The Dom Post has a guest column by Stephen Kirchner from the CIS:

The idea that New Zealand can ignore inflation and grow faster through easy money and a lower exchange rate is a tempting, but short-sighted view. It ignores the fact that higher domestic prices would ultimately undermine rather than promote international competitiveness. Economic growth and export success must ultimately be built on real factors such as productivity growth, not easy money and exchange rate depreciation.

It is like cheating on an exam – only works for a while

The Reserve Bank’s primary focus on inflation recognises that monetary policy needs to be based on a single instrument and policy objective. Pursuing multiple objectives with multiple instruments, as Labour now suggests, is a recipe for incoherent policy and poor economic performance such as New Zealand experienced before its path-breaking reforms of the 1980s.

TVNZ is a good example of having multiple conflicting objectives. Either none of the objectives are achieved particularly well, or some of them are just ignored.

It would also undermine the transparency and accountability that were important objectives of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act. Under the current framework, the governor of the Reserve Bank is personally accountable for realising the inflation target under a policy targets agreement with the finance minister. Sustained breaches of the inflation target can result in the non-executive members of the Reserve Bank board recommending dismissal of the governor to the minister. This is no idle threat, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to hold the governor accountable for achieving multiple objectives instead of a clearly defined inflation target.

An excellent point. More objectives will mean less accountability. The Governor will always have a get out of jail card.

Since the first PTA was entered into in 1990, the inflation target has been progressively watered down. Most notably, the inflation target has been relaxed from 0-2 per cent to 1-3 per cent and given a medium-term focus, so there is now greater tolerance of short-term breaches.

I actually believe it should go back to a 0% to 2% range. Over time even 3% inflation is too much.

More on monetary policy

November 26th, 2009 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Matt Nolan blogs:

Monetary policy at heart isn’t about “unemployment” or “output” or “the exchange rate” (which is a relative price).  Monetary policy is about money, it is about the supply of money, it is about the price level and inflation.  The “interest rate” is merely an instrument central banks use to control the money supply and keep “inflation stable”.  By keeping inflation stable we increase certainty and we help make sure that money remains a good indicator of the relative value of REAL goods and services.

The idea that we should mess around with this to tinker with other things misses the point – if our exchange rate is funny, unemployment is high, or output is below potential we have to ask “what issues in REAL economy are causing this”.  Monetary policy in itself is irrelevant – monetary policy IS about money, it IS about inflation, it IS about expectations regarding these nominal variables, it IS NOT about real economic variables.

I am not saying that monetary policy hasn’t moved real variables – but in a world where monetary policy IS solely focused on inflation and consistent expectations is a world where monetary policies impact on the real economy is at its best.

It worries me greatly that Labour have abandoned support for a bipartisan monetary policy consensus.

Drinkwater on monetary policy

November 22nd, 2009 at 6:00 am by David Farrar

Just as Scrubone has become the dedicated fisker of No Right Turn, B K Drinkwater has appointed himself as the fisker for Marty G at The Standard. His latest response to the suggestion that monetary policy should target inflation, unemployment and the exchange rate is:

Genius! What the RBNZ should do is this: pick a point on the Philips Curve and manage New Zealand’s economy towards it! If only some genius thought of this before.

Oh, wait. Someone did, and it didn’t work. Apparently, some guy called Friedman accurately predicted its failure …

Stagflation in the 70s proved Friedman correct, but this is where Phil Goff wants us to go back to.

I actually can’t figure out whether Marty wants the interest rates to be low or high. He thinks that if they’re too high, then the currency carry trade will create a “flood of credit”, making mortgage rates too low. His preferred solution—abandoning inflation-targeting—clearly implies that he wants the OCR lower than it is, and that by doing this, somehow mortgage rates will go up.

He’s very confused.

And then Blaise sums up:

So Marty wants the following:

  • A lower OCR
  • Higher mortgage rates
  • Jobs, or in other words, investment in New Zealand
  • Reduction in the currency carry trade, a big chunk of such investment

My head hurts.

Need more be said.