Thursday, 12 November 2020

The Bank's other stuff

Yesterday's Monetary Policy Statement went entirely as expected - no change to the Official Cash Rate (still 0.25%), no change to the Large Scale Asset Purchasing Programme (still capped at $100 billion), and the introduction of the signalled Funding for Lending Programme, intended to provide a new source of cheap funding to lenders (three year funding at the OCR rate). 

If used fully, the new FLP would amount to $28 billion. In Australia, the equivalent Term Funding Facility, which has been going since April, has a capacity of some A$200 billion, or about NZ$212 billion. Divide by 7 as a rough pro rata rule of thumb and the Aussie TFF would be a NZ$30 billion or so programme here, so the good news is that we've introduced a similar-sized stimulus.

There is a line of thinking that providing extra funding for lending might be the proverbial 'pushing on a string' if, in still unsettled Covid conditions, borrowers aren't much minded to take on more debt or banks aren't much minded to take on more risk, and it's true that (as of early November) the Aussie one has seen only A$83 billion taken up, or some 40% of the total available. But as the RBNZ said in the Statement, the actual take-up may not matter so much if the new FLP gets the cost of borrowing down, or as the Bank put it (p21)

The key success metric of the FLP will be whether it results in declines in funding costs, and encourages recent declines in these costs to be passed through to lower household and business borrowing costs. We could see a scenario where FLP funds are only drawn down in small amounts, but its availability encourages a broad decline in interest rates. We would consider this scenario successful, even though actual use of the FLP would seem minimal.

There's always interesting stuff in the body of the Statement and this time round I was especially interested in what the RBNZ had found as it went around the business traps, and in its comments on house prices.

"Many businesses", the Statement said (p18), "expressed concern about finding required staff. Some firms noted that re-deploying staff from one industry to another can be difficult, particularly for skilled jobs. Many firms rely on hiring skilled workers from abroad, which they have been unable to do because of the border closure". 

Granted, the large numbers at risk of losing their jobs in the most affected sectors - the Statement reckoned that pre-Covid international tourism and education made up 6% of GDP - won't always be a good fit for the vacancies available elsewhere, and labour market policy is always going to struggle to assist the transition. "Active" labour market policies (like these successful ones) try to ease the process, but you do wonder whether we've got enough of them. And the reported dependence on overseas skills again makes you wonder how well our labour market is working to match up the demand for skills with the supply of them.

House prices have grabbed everyone's attention, not least because the latest resurgence wasn't supposed to happen in a world where (supposedly) shell-shocked households were hunkering down, not trading up the house. It got a fair bit of attention at the media conference at the Bank after the Statement (tune in around the 29:25 mark, and stay with the rest of the video). But the Bank was quite right to say that it's not its ever-lower interest rates that are the big moving part in the house price increases. As it - completely correctly - said in the Statement (p28):

High house prices in New Zealand largely reflect structural and regulatory issues in New Zealand’s housing market. In particular, land use restrictions, such as urban planning rules, limit the land available for housing and how intensively it can be used. These land use restrictions impede the ability of the market to increase the supply of houses when demand for houses increases. As a result, house prices tend to increase more than otherwise in response to higher housing demand. Other supply-side issues include infrastructure  planning, the building consent process, and the cost of building.

You can berate the Bank all you like, and launch market studies into the building materials trade till you're blue in the face. They're all in the twopenny halfpenny place. Nothing's going to happen to high house prices until the supply side of the market starts to work a lot, lot better.

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