Donal Curtin

Donal Curtin is a macroeconomist (former chief economist for a big bank), writer (six years as a financial journalist with Euromoney, award-winning economics columnist, blogger), economic regulator (12 years on the Commerce Commission). He has an economics consultancy based in Auckland and blogs for The Dismal Science. Donal is on Twitter @donal_curtin

More house lending controls to come? - The Dismal Science

Feb 17, 2015

As we all know, the Reserve Bank is in a difficult spot.

It can't easily raise rates. It probably doesn't want to anyway, since (as I've argued before), overall monetary policy conditions are already too tight. But even if it did, the Kiwi dollar would appreciate, or at the very least not fall to the levels the RBNZ would like: "The upward pressure on the TWI reflects several influences but primarily investors have been attracted by the broad strength of the economy and our higher interest rates", as the Governor's speech last week said (it's here as a web page and here as a pdf), and wider interest differentials in NZ's favour would clearly make the fight on the NZ$ front more difficult (as is already the case with the A$/NZ$ cross rate after the Aussies' cut in interest rates).

It can't easily lower rates. There's an argument that the low oil price has lowered any inflation risks, and another (which I'm partial to) that, in hindsight, it overtightened with its latest OCR increases, but cutting rates in the middle of a boom would still be rather odd. "New Zealand is the only country among the advanced economies that has had a positive output gap in the past two years, our unemployment rate is low and falling, net inward migration and labour force participation is at record levels, and business and consumer confidence surveys remain strong", as the Governor said, plus it would make the housing market even more exuberant - "we have already seen some effective easing of credit conditions with declines in fixed-rate mortgages, at a time when we have financial stability concerns about accelerating house prices in Auckland".

So by default it's stuck with leaving interest rates where they are, which means that its financial stability headache over Auckland house prices doesn't go away, or even gets progressively worse - floating mortgage rates stay where they are (or even drop a bit if the banks' marketing wars heat up a bit more), while fixed rates fall as long maturity bond yields remain very low overseas (essentially we're lumbered with importing world bond yields, plus a credit/risk premium).

All of which leads you to think that there may be another round of "macro-prudential" regulation around the corner. We've got the existing regulation - only 10% of new bank lending on houses can have a loan to value ratio (LVR) higher than 80%, or put another way, 90% of new lending must have at least a 20% deposit - but while it's had some impact, it doesn't look as if it's been enough to rein in the Auckland market in particular. Prices in an already expensive market are up another 13% in the year to last December (on the latest REINZ data),

Yes, there's more going on than just easy credit. As the Governor said, Auckland prices reflect a melange of "rising household incomes, falling interest rates on fixed-rate mortgages, strong migration inflows and continued market tightness". But there's still a financial stability issue. When these factors ease, or reverse (eg when housing supply finally come on strong), banks risk being left with big loans on lower priced assets. So you'd reckon the RBNZ must be looking in the cupboard for another macro-prudential stick.

As it happens, there's a brand new model for them to have a look at, and that's the Irish Central Bank's. The Irish had one of the biggest housing market busts of all time - the national house price halved, almost exactly, between the peak in September '07 and the trough in March '13 - and, to put it very mildly, are not keen to see a repeat. With Irish house prices up 16.2% over the year to last December, they've just stepped in with a package that combines LVR ratio limits and loan to income ratios. You can read the whole thing in the Bank's FAQ here: the gist is a 3.5 times income limit for all new loans except loans to buy rental properties, a 20% LVR ratio limit for most mortgages, a 10% first time buyers' LVR limit up to €220,000 (about NZ$340,000), and a 30% LVR limit for rental property loans. There's room for the banks to do some business outside these limits (20% can be outside the income limit, 15% outside the LVR limits).

Interestingly, one of the questions in the FAQ reads, "Has the Central Bank considered that these measures may be discriminatory against people looking to buy in Dublin and the surrounding areas?" The Irish Central Bank preferred to downplay that aspect - it says, yes, but only a bit - but that's exactly the sort of selective impact we'd like to see happening in Auckland.

"We will be talking more about the housing market over the next few months", the Governor said last week. I wonder if they'll be talking with an Irish accent?

Who got what? - The Dismal Science

Feb 16, 2015

The Productivity Commission has just come out this morning with an interesting new Working Paper, "Who benefits from productivity growth? –The labour income share in New Zealand", and if life's too short, there's an accompanying "cut to the chase" summary. The labour income share, by the way, is as it sounds  - "The labour income share (LIS) is the proportion of income generated from production that is spent on labour in the form of wages and associated on-costs" such as employers' super contributions. The rest of the income in the economy is attributed to capital, so the paper is about the split of national income between wages and salaries on the one side, and returns to the owners of capital on the other.

At first sight, the headline finding risks feeding the post-Piketty fears of those who think the working stiff is losing out to the plutocrat: here's a graph (it's Fig 1 in the summary) of GDP and labour's share of it. The labour share's gone down from around 64-65% of GDP to around 56%.

But whether this is a good thing or a bad thing isn't at all obvious: as the paper says (p6), it "depends on the situation and is partly a matter of preference. For example, would New Zealanders prefer to participate in an economy where real wages are increasing strongly but the LIS is falling because productivity growth is even faster, or an economy with weak growth in real wages and productivity so that the LIS is more constant?", and the paper steers clear of making any judgement calls.

One factor in the background is that capital's share will depend on how much capital there is. If there's a lot more capital going into the business of producing GNP then there used to be, and most of us would reckon that's a good thing (lots more equipment at work in the Aussie economy is one of the reasons Australia has been growing faster than us in recent years), then its share will tend to go up and labour's to go down. It's not a given - could be, for example, that wages go up fast enough for labour's share of the total cake to hold up - but it's likely. And as it happens, we have in fact seen the amount of capital in use growing faster than the amount of labour employed. Here are the numbers. 'MS-11' in the title is the 11-industry 'measured sector' that the paper has looked at, and  'MFP' is 'multifactor productivity', or that bit of GDP that isn't explained by increased inputs of labour and capital.

The fall in labour's share is also not a uniquely Kiwi phenomenon, by the way, if you've been thinking deep dark thoughts about the distributional consequences of Rogernomics and its successors*. In a range of OECD countries the labour income share typically rose to a peak in the late '70s or early '80s and declined since as a result of a bunch of things. As the paper notes summarising the research on the whys and wherefores (p10), "Perhaps most importantly, technological advances that have increased the return on capital have led to capital deepening as businesses have substituted capital for more-expensive labour...Other contributing factors include shifts in industry composition towards more capital-intensive industries, increased globalisation that increased the global supply of cheap labour, and institutional developments that have reduced labour’s bargaining power". 

And if you're still nurturing "they're watering the workers' beer" thoughts, the paper shows that there are actually good links between the value that employees bring to their business (the growth in labour productivity) and what they get out of it as a result by way of higher real wages, as these two charts from the summary show. Over time (left hand graph)  and across industries (right hand one), if firms are doing well because the employees are more productive, it turns up in the payroll run.

The paper doesn't have a lot to say about policy, and that's fine, it set out to be more of an analytical piece, but what it does say is sensible: if there are all these trends buffeting labour's share of the goodies, then (from p7)
benefiting from new technology requires investment in the necessary complementary skills. In particular, the education system must be of high quality and sufficiently responsive to provide new and dislocated workers with the skills they need to enter productive and lucrative occupations where they can make the most of new technology. Policy should also work to minimise entry barriers and other frictions, such as excessive occupational licensing, that prevent workers from moving to where they can work most productively. There is also a geographic aspect to this in that cities are one of humankind’s most productive inventions. So restrictions on housing supply that mean low-skilled workers cannot afford to live in economically dynamic places can limit productivity growth and economic resilience to change.
Even if policy is set just right to ensure that the benefits of technology-based growth and globalisation are widely spread, a social safety net may still have to catch people who fall through the cracks. Accordingly, policy must ensure that social services function effectively to deal with the side effects of rapid technological change
It may not be original - much the same policy combo is what has traditionally been prescribed to cope with the impact of freeing up international trade - but it's none the worse for that.

Another thing I liked about this paper is that it's given us a handy summary way of thinking about our recent economic growth, and here it is. You've got the different growth cycles, and their sources, all in one nicely packaged schematic.

As the graph indicates, we had a 'high productivity' phase in the 1990s, when that tricky multi-factor productivity kicked in much more forcefully than it had been doing before, or has since. Australia did, too, as the data below shows (snipped from Table 6.2 of the paper).

And that brings us to the biggest policy questions of all. Where did that surge in productivity come from? Why did it go away? And, most crucially, can we get it back?

*I'd also note that one of the bigger dips in the labour share occurred pre-reforms, in 1982-84, when Muldoon in his Late Anarchy period imposed a wage and price freeze. As the report notes (p39), "In practice, this proved to be more a wage freeze than a price freeze".

KISS - The Dismal Science

Dec 04, 2014

This morning the Commerce Commission released the wholesale price Chorus is allowed to charge to Internet service providers (ISPs), and which therefore is the core component of the retail prices those ISPs charge you for your fixed line broadband.
It's made up of two parts, the first being the bit for the cost of the copper line from your place to a Chorus switch (the 'local loop' or UCLL) and the second ('UBA') being the cost of the fancy electronics that Chorus can (optionally) provide to ISPs to save them having to use their own. The local loop bit will be $28.22 a month and the UBA bit will be $10.17 a month, making a total of $38.39. This compared with the previous price allowed, of $44.98.
These prices are based on explicit, detailed and complex modelling of the costs involved, and are intended to replace the interim hold-the-fort prices that the Commission had previously set, based on the cost of the same services overseas in countries who do things much the same way as we do. This 'benchmarking' exercise had set a local loop price of $23.52 and a UBA price of $10.92, making a total of $34.44.
There are all sorts of issues involved here, big and small, affecting everything from the profitability of  Chorus through to uptake of the country's shiny new ultra fast fibre network. And they directly affect you, too: already some ISPs are saying that the drop in the wholesale price (from $44.98 to $38.39) had already been passed on to you, so you won't be getting any further joy out of it.
In any event, I'd like to pick on one small aspect of the process, even though it's largely moot now, and it's about those interim 'benchmarked' prices.
I think they did a good job of providing a quick, cheap and reasonably accurate initial estimate of the eventual wholesale price. They were pretty much spot-on when it came to the UBA part ($10.92 versus $10.17), which is remarkable given that everyone was agreed that the benchmarking process had only a couple of countries overseas to use as sighting shots. And they weren't far off when it came to the local loop component, either ($23.52 versus $28.22) - especially when you consider that the fully modelled cost estimate involves a whole swathe of judgement calls made by the Commission and its modellers, and is not a glimpse into some eternal truth held in the mind of an omniscient Being.
So I'd take two lessons away from this, both involving the KISS principle.
The first is that over the next couple of years we're going to be taking a close look at the shape of our telco regulatory regime, and I'd like to suggest that we keep the cheap and cheerful benchmarking process. It's relatively fast - a particularly important consideration in fast moving markets like ICT - it's relatively transparent, it's understandable, it's relatively cheap, and it's accurate within some rough-and-ready-justice tolerance. I'd go further, and make it harder for parties to invoke the full cost modelling approach, which introduces layers of cost, delay and complexity, and all for a gain in 'accuracy' that (because of multiple modelling options) may be more illusory than real. And in general I'd like to see the 'good enough' option chosen over the one that keeps consultancies on three continents in business.
The second is that we need to think harder about the increasing complexity and cost of regulation across all sectors, and not just the telco business. I agree with Eric Crampton of the NZ Initiative, when he said on that "Too much of New Zealand’s regulatory apparatus would suit a country of forty million rather than the one we have". He's got his own examples: one I came across recently was the Commerce Commission's needing to sign off a $3 million increase in capex spending on a little Transpower project in South Canterbury. The process will take five months from start to finish, and has already spawned a 54 page initial draft decision.
That's a bit of an extreme example, and I should make it clear that it's not the Commerce Commission's fault: it's been lumbered with this ludicrously over-engineered regulatory regime. And I should add that from next April the Commission won't have to get out of bed for anything under $20 million - which is, of course, where the threshold for its involvement should have been in the first place (if not higher again). And I'd have to note that bloodymindedness on the part of Transpower and its customers drew this intrusive regime on their own heads, and a bit of enlightened give and take could have avoided the whole mess.
But it's there now, and it's holding up the sector, and its cousins in other sectors are also increasingly clunky and costly. It's time for more people in the policy analyst community to do what the MD of one company I know used to do: hold up the sign that says, "Does it make the boat go faster?"

We’re on the right policy track - The Dismal Science

Dec 02, 2014

Graeme Wheeler, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, gave a fine speech today at a central banking conference in Wellington. It's a fairly easy read, too, for the non-specialist, so best thing is have a go yourself. But if life's too short, here are the two big points I'd take from it.
First, next time you hear politicians say, "why don't we have a bit more inflation and a bit more growth, instead of the Reserve Bank holding us back all the time", tell them they're talking bollocks.
As Wheeler points out (p4), "In the 20 years before the [1989 Reserve Bank] Act, annual real GDP growth averaged 2.2 percent while annual inflation was volatile around an average of 11.4 percent. Since 1990, annual inflation and real GDP growth have averaged 2.3 and 2.6 percent respectively and there has been a marked decline in inflation variability".
In other words, you can have it all - the same (or even marginally better) GDP growth, and lower and less erratic inflation. It's not a trade-off over the longer haul.
Here's the graph he put up to illustrate it. You can see, more or less, that the GDP growth rate picture is much the same before and after, and you can very clearly see that inflation is much, much lower and much, much less volatile.

The other big point is about transparency and independence. Internationally, central banks have been getting much more communicative about what they are up to and why (though, as I noted here, the European Central Bank has been a slow learner), and have been given more independence from government. We score highly on this: as he said, "A recent international survey ranked New Zealand second among 120 central banks for transparency".
Again, you'll hear politicians trying to take back control of monetary policy, sometimes cloaking their eagerness to get their clammy electoral hands back on the interest rate lever in the language of "democratic control".
Ignore them: what the evidence shows - as I found when I looked up that "recent international survey" that the Governor mentioned - is that more transparency and independence result in lower and less erratic inflation. The authors say (p236) that "Disentangling the impact of the two dimensions of central bank arrangements is difficult—not surprisingly, given that they respond to similar determinants", but either separately or together the picture is consistent: higher levels of transparency and independence lead to lower inflation and less volatile inflation.
Bottom line - and this is my take, not Wheeler's words - there's good reason to be very sceptical about relaxing or overriding our current inflation targetting regime, and equally good reason to steer clear of letting the pollies back in charge of it.