Wednesday, 12 August 2020

It helps, but we'll need more than this

No surprises in today's Monetary Policy Statement from the Reserve Bank. The official cash rate (OCR) was kept at 0.25% - as every one of us surveyed in the Finder forecaster survey had expected - and the size of the Bank's Large Scale Asset Purchase (LSAP) programme was increased to $100 billion. The point of the LSAP is to keep longer-term interest rates down by buying bonds: me, I'd be tempted to go the Aussie route where they've explicitly said what rate they're aiming for (0.25% for the Aussie three-year government bond). The RBNZ governor got asked at the press conference if the RBNZ was minded to some explicit bond yield targeting: it isn't ruled out, but it's not being ruled in, either. Can't see it hurting, as it would add to the information available on where the RBNZ is headed over time, its 'forward guidance' in the jargon.

Speaking of which, I'm not really sure anymore why the RB is keeping the OCR at 0.25%. Yes, it seems to want to have its forward guidance seen as rock solid, and it had said back in March that the OCR would be on hold "for at least the next 12 months". There may also have been some element of giving the banks a heads up about a timetable for getting their systems in order to handle a negative OCR. But in the wider scheme of things I'm inclined to think the extra support from a 0.25% cut now, especially if it helped weaken the NZ$, trumps the forward guidance credibility. And there is  not a lot of credibility downside risk anyway, given the recent turn of events and a new community outbreak. When the facts change, etc.

It's also worth pointing out that some of the Bank's other policy options would also get more bang per buck if the OCR were lower. As the Statement said, "Because the NZGB [New Zealand Government Bond] curve is already relatively flat around the current level of the OCR, a lower OCR would likely increase the effectiveness of LSAPs by lowering short-term interest rates and allowing LSAPs to flatten the yield curve at a lower level" (p19) and "A term lending programme may be increasingly useful for supporting the pass-through of monetary stimulus if the OCR were reduced" (p20).

But in any event further policy support, if only by way of a bigger LSAP at this stage, is absolutely the right thing to do, and would have been even without the latest Covid outbreak. And it's helpful that its previous easing is also quietly bearing fruit: as the Statement pointed out, "At least 50 percent of mortgages are due to be re-priced in the next 12 months" (p18), which will make quite a difference to a lot of households. 

At the same time you can't help feeling that monetary policy is well into diminishing returns territory. As cropped up in the press conference, marginal changes to interest rates aren't going to make much difference if, in deeply uncertain times, borrowers won't borrow and lenders won't lend. So the heavy lifting from here is going to have to be done by fiscal policy, and earlier plans to put the revolver back in the holster now look behind the curve.

Fiscal policy has been hugely important up to now: the Statement rightly pointed out that "The Wage Subsidy has temporarily supported more than 71 percent of New Zealand businesses and 1.7 million workers, helping employers to retain staff. As a result, the [Covid] impacts on employment to date have been small despite the unprecedented reduction in economic activity" (p25). The reality is that it's going to have to do a lot more again: "Fiscal stimulus is likely to be more significant and more front-loaded than we assumed in the May Statement" (p18). 

At this point, though, we don't have a great feel for what's likely to happen on the fiscal front, or as the Statement phrased it, "The exact timing, composition, and magnitude of government spending remains uncertain" (p10). August 20's Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Update is going to be one of the most important policy statements of recent times. And I very much hope it doesn't fall into the election campaign's depressing "I can out-austere you" heffalump trap.

Finally a wonkish point that only an economist will warm to, but it's important all the same. One of the things you need to know when you're trying to figure out how monetary policy is working is what interest rates people actually pay or receive (duh, but bear with me). The Statement noted, however, that "Detailed data on business lending rates is limited. The Reserve Bank has begun collecting information on actual new lending rates faced by firms, which will enable better monitoring of monetary policy transmission to businesses in the future" (p18)

Better late than never, and well done the Bank for getting on with it, but it's yet another Covid-revealed instance of our statistical infrastructure letting us down. On the other side of the election, the next Prime Minister could usefully appoint herself Minister for Statistics, and find out why have we been so bad over long periods of time at collecting the fuller set of data that policymakers - and the rest of us - need. It's a gap that's all the more bizarre when the world is awash in data that can be turned into useful official info, as Stats, the RB and Treasury recently showed when they came up with the New Zealand Activity Indicator

In campaign season, the pols are prepared to make all sorts of commitments: how about committing to a fully First World set of statistics?

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