Friday, 28 August 2020

Three management questions

Look, I'm an economist, and management thinking isn't normally my thing, and what do I know anyway, but from assorted encounters over the last wee while I've got three questions.

1 Are people kidding themselves about post-Covid working conditions?

There's a lot of optimism about remote working increasingly coming to replace the traditional battery hen office and its zero-privacy rent-minimising collaborative open spaces. I'm reasonably optimistic myself, as I wrote in 'Why the status quo is in for a hard time after COVID-19', where inter alia I said that "My guess is that we’ll look back at pre-COVID management practices like we look back at photos of 1950s typing pools". It'll be useful, too, if the evidence confirms that there is indeed a free lunch here - happier, more empowered employees and higher productivity. But I'm also wondering: in the businesses where the core problem is a command-and-control, hierarchical management mindset, how much will really change? Will us optimists be blindsided by the rise of things like intrusive computer monitoring software and locked-down-tight collaborative 'tools'? 

2 And while we're talking computer systems ...

Why is it that virtually every corporate in the western world provides its employees with gear that's more limited than what they could buy themselves, for less, at the nearest Noel Leeming or Harvey Norman?

3 'Stars'

There's been any amount of angst about the widening gap between the pay of the CEO and the pay of the average Jack or Jill. And then I read the other day about yet another company that's just recruited its new CEO from the marketplace for top executives. Fine: good luck to them. Probably a great pick who'll do them well. But I've got two observations. If every big company starts fishing in that pool - or to fake an economics veneer to it, the demand curve shifts out to the right - should anyone be surprised if CEO salaries blow out? And whatever happened to what I always thought was one of the main responsibilities of a board, which was to make sure that the current CEO was developing enough internal bench strength?

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

CLPINZ 2020 goes online

Last week's Competition Law and Policy Institute (CLPINZ) workshop was - perforce - the first time CLPINZ has run the annual event online, and the good news is that the technology worked just fine (ably organised by Conference Innovators, special hat-tip Olivia Lynch). Covid is reshaping a lot of things (as I wrote in Acuity, the accountants' magazine) and sometimes for the better. Online workshops may not provide the same personal contacts and networking but they can deliver a lot of bang per buck once travel costs don't come into the equation for speakers or attendees.

Can't cover everything but here are some of my highlights.

The keynote was the topical 'Antitrust in times of crisis and emerging from the crisis', by Maureen K. Ohlhausen from Baker Botts in Washington DC, with commentary by Ayman Guirguis from K&L Gates in Sydney and session chair Anna Ryan of Lane Neave in Christchurch. One theme was the need for competition authorities everywhere to scramble hard to authorise (or at a minimum stand aside from preventing) collaborative activities between firms who would normally be competitors, when they are responding to covid logistical challenges (eg coordination of grocery deliveries, or availability of medical resources). The ACCC in particular has in my view been commendably quick to get provisional authorisations out the door. 

Another was how to treat 'failing firms': there are a lot of cases where firms are in trouble (or heading for foreseeable trouble) and while they can't qualify for the usually strict merger conditions around a 'failing firm', a properly forward-looking analysis of the competitive outlook might well lead you to allow a merger. 

A third theme was the renewed focus on market power in the tech space now that we're all even more dependent on the big tech names for our remote working and our online shopping. The conclusion as I saw it was that there is still no clear verdict on whether these markets are naturally tippy towards one predominant incumbent, or whether there are issues of market power that need to be corrected.

Consumer law isn't usually top of my interests, but I was very much taken with the session on 'Unconscionability and unfair contract terms', where the speaker was Sarah Court, Commissioner, ACCC, the commentator Anna Rawlings, Chair of the NZ Commerce Commission, and session chair James Craig of Simpson Grierson. As background, Australia's got unconscionability on the statute books, and we're minded to go the same way. I'd heard Sarah Court on this topic before (see here) and while the Kobelt case she cites as showing the Aussie law isn't working might be one of those odd cases that might not influence anything over the longer haul, there's a real chance that our courts might also struggle to nail genuinely ratbag behaviour. Why not read Kobelt and see what your call would have been? And if you think Kobelt got the wrong end of the stick, what would you suggest to fix it?

Another area where we look to be heading to align our legislation with the Aussies is changing our current s36 of the Commerce Act, the bit that deals with abuse of market power. The plan is we will move away from our current legal test (which focuses on the 'counterfactual test' of what would a firm without market power have done) to an 'effects test' which, as it says on the tin, tries to take an objective view of whether the conduct actually works anti-competitively (both jurisdictions would also retain anticompetitive purpose, which would catch those incriminating internal e-mails). 

I went into this session - 'Misuse of market power – what an 'effects test' would mean for New Zealand', speaker Dr Katharine Kemp from the University of New South Wales, commentator Brent Fisse of Brent Fisse Lawyers, session chair John Land from Bankside Chambers - with what I regret to reveal was a largely closed mind: I'm pro-change. But I came out with the odd niggle of doubt about potential over-reach. Faced with the choice of the status quo or the change, I'd still change, as the counterfactual test asks the wrong question plus we get the benefit of trans-Tasman alignment, but I suspect policy analysts on both sides of the Tasman will be watching the first few 'effects' cases very closely indeed.

And yet another area where we are harmonising with the Aussies (and with global practice generally) is criminalisation of cartels, where on the topic of  'Cartels – criminalisation – lessons from the Australian experience' we heard from Marcus Bezzi, Executive General Manager at the  ACCC, commentary from Marc Corlett QC from Britomart Chambers, chairing by Glenn Shewan from Bell Gully. I'm generally not in favour of yet more criminal offences when we already have far too many people in jail (by developed economy standards), but I'm prepared to make an exception for 'hard core' cartels which I see from a moral perspective as akin to fraud (quite apart from the often sizeable economic detriments).

One thing that's worried me, though, is that every 'ordinary' New Zealand cartel, if I can call it that, would attract criminal charges, which I would regard as overkill. I was partly relieved to hear Marcus talk about a memorandum of understanding between the ACCC and the Aussie Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions which aims to keep the criminal route for the worse cases, which is surely right. I presume something similar will go into place here at home before we go live in April next year. Marc Corlett's remarks said (to me at least) that individuals caught in the grinder between the criminal prosecutor and a perhaps not always supportive employer are going to be in a tough place: another reason in my view to make sure that we concentrate on the hard core conduct and the big fish.

The session on 'Acquisitions of nascent competitors', speaker Renata B. Hesse from Sullivan & Cromwell in Washington DC (who if I heard it right may indeed have coined the phrase 'killer acquisition'), commentator Iain Thain from DLA Piper in Auckland, session chair Will Taylor from NERA Economic Consulting in Auckland, got me thinking. This is a really tough area. It's important to stop killer acquisitions: as Iain emphasised, it's the competitive struggle that unearths all sorts of lucky discoveries (sometimes unexpected ones) even if in the end the market tips to one big winner. But it is very hard for competition authorities to deal with, when even those most up with the game in any given sector can't be sure what might have developed into a credible challenger to an incumbent, but for its pre-emptive acquisition. As Renata said, you're often trying to do an objective analysis of something that is inherently subjective. 

Some days I favour channelling my inner Schumpeter, not worrying too much about temporary tech monopolies and letting it all play out in the creative destruction gale. Sometimes there must be good outcomes when an incumbent offers a genuinely better product, once it has bolted on the smaller-firm functionality it's just bought, whereas you might be waiting years for the small firm to develop a full-feature offering. But then will incumbents' internal R&D slack off if they can rely on buying the next bright idea? And what if ... you get the drift. This is hard.

Life's too short to summarise everything but for the record we also had an economists' panel - 'Hipster economists? Values, welfare and evidence', and a corporate counsel oriented panel - 'Handy hints for practice – Joint ventures and commercial agreements', and if they ring your bell you can get in touch with the panellists (here's the full workshop programme with the details).

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?