Labour wants to upgrade monetary policy, preserving inflation targeting but asking the Reserve Bank to reduce persistent external deficits. To help, the Reserve Bank might get to vary contributions to an enhanced Kiwisaver scheme and go a little further with macro-prudential policy. Getting kiwis to save more is probably a good thing. If successful, interest rates would be lower and ease the exchange rate a little. But the evidence-base is weak and there are many leaks since implementation and accountability frameworks are not clear. Better to leave the Reserve Bank to do what they do best – implementing flexible inflation targeting.
The problem as defined
Many commentators point out that New Zealand has high real interest rates and that the exchange rate is overvalued relative to an economy less reliant on borrowing from abroad (see below). That makes our exports less competitive and promotes consumption of imported goods over domestically manufactured goods.
Our persistent negative external balance – that nets our borrowing and imports from overseas against exports – largely reflects our savings choices. Of course, an external balance can also reflect imports of capital equipment for investment in the real economy but most likely reducing the external balance would reflect a useful rebalancing of economic conditions for New Zealand.
What’s on the table?
Labour is proposing to preserve the core of the current regime:
- central bank independence
- the flexible exchange rate
- unimpeded capital flows into and out of New Zealand
- the inflation target that sits at the heart of the monetary policy regime
but innovate on the framework by introducing an additional tool. That tool, a Variable Savings Rate (VSR), changes the rate of contribution into a compulsory Kiwisaver account, raising contribution in good times and lowering contributions in bad times.
The quid pro quo is an additional objective for monetary policy:
“…maintaining stability in the general level of prices in a manner which best assists in achieving a positive external balance over the cycle…”
Making Kiwisaver compulsory
Labour’s proposals contain policies aimed at both the structure of the economy and policies to better manage the economic cycle.
The key structural proposal is to make Kiwisaver compulsory and increase the contribution to 9 percent over time. On paper this is really nice. Policies that help kiwis save – if effective – are probably good, reducing the real interest rate and the exchange rate a little.
However, a compulsory Kiwisaver has costs. Many workers would rather spend superannuation contributions on their children, going to university or reducing their mortgage.It’s simply irrational to save much if income is low and the microeconomic data suggests New Zealanders have sufficient savings for retirement.
Many of the other proposals are helpful, establishing a sufficiently flexible economy where resources respond quickly to price signals and are allocated effectively across the economy.
A variable savings rate to manage the cycle?
One of the key policies is introducing a Variable Savings Rate, which increases compulsory contributions to Kiwisaver in boom times and reduces contributions in recessions.
Changing the price of credit – the interest rate –– “gets in all the cracks” of the economy, changing the cost of spending today rather than tomorrow for businesses, exporters and households.
Trying to influence the quantity of credit – by varying the contributions to Kiwisaver – affects only some households, a much smaller fraction of the economy. Interest rates will still have to do the heavy lifting to manage the economic cycle.
And there will be many leaks. For example:
- First-home buyers with large mortgages forego Kiwisaver payments to pay off mortgages Under a VSR they will reduce mortgage payments, borrowing more to offset increased Kiwisaver contributions. Net savings are unchanged.
- Leveraged up property speculators are largely unaffected by outgoings to Kiwisaver. Lower interest rates would mean cheaper access to credit, encouraging speculators to leverage up further.
- Low-income earners are stretched. Inevitably, they would require exemptions but these are messy and set up odd incentives.
Increasing the Kiwisaver contribution rate would not have the same impact as increasing interest rates on reducing inflationary pressure and increasing savings.
Implementation needs tidying
Labour clearly notes that more work needs to be done to investigate a variable savings rate while preserving the independence of the Reserve Bank.
Requiring the Reserve Bank ask the Government every six weeks to reset the VSR would undermine its independence and would be practically unworkable, forcing the Reserve Bank to second-guess the Government view in their Monetary Policy Statement. That leaves two unpleasant choices:
- the Government sets the savings contributions or
- license the Reserve Bank to set the savings rate.
Option 1 leaves the Reserve Bank one tool short of too many objectives: who then carries the can for the external balance? Option 2 allows the Reserve Bank to implement savings policy. It seems difficult to retain the same consensus across the political spectrum and constituency for the Reserve Bank to set this rate.
Accountability also needs tidying – actually a lot of tidying
Back in much simpler times, there was a very clear objective for the Governor of the Reserve Bank – pin inflation to a defined target. Maybe the Governor couldn’t in practice be fired for missing the target but it was reasonably clear when the Governor was doing a good job with monetary policy and when things were out of hand.
Appropriately, as the monetary policy regime matured, the objectives for inflation targeting expanded to include dampening cycles in output, the exchange rate and interest rates. That makes it harder to assess performance but at least the metric is clear.
Holding a central bank to account for the external balance is entirely different. The external balance nets both our external borrowing and saving and trade in goods and services (exports and imports). The current account (see below) moves for a wide array of reasons. So should the Governor be praised for the improvement in the current account from the Canterbury rebuild or the booming demand for our dairy products? Should the Governor be castigated for our individual decisions to borrow to buy or build a home for our families? It’s pretty unclear what can be signed up to.
My overall assessment
Labour’s proposal is clever, preserving the core of central banking but teasing with sufficient innovation to warrant the upgrade tag. And compulsory Kiwisaver probably pushes in the right direction.
Labour’s key innovation – a variable savings rate – also holds promise on paper. But running through the details suggests very limited effectiveness. There would be leaks, so interest rates would have to do almost all the legwork.
Moreover, implementing the variable savings rate raises real questions about what the central bank should do and what it can realistically be held accountable for. Worth remembering that manufacturing has been on a secular decline well before inflation targeting was implemented (see below).