Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Are interest rates really biting?

"Increasing mortgage interest rates", the Reserve Bank said on page 18 of its latest Monetary Policy Statement, "combined with a tightening of loan-to-value ratio (LVR) restrictions in late 2016, have contributed to a slowing in the housing market".

Moderating the heat of the housing market may be welcome - though previously low interest rates are far from being the only thing that's been inflaming the market - but otherwise I got a bit worried that higher rates might be crimping the economic outlook. If the average or marginal household is now carrying a bigger mortgage, and mortgage interest rates go up, the impact on already cramped family budgets could see unpleasant things happening (via consequent necessary cutbacks in household spending) to the currently strong state of the economy.

And then I thought, hang on a sec. Yes, it's true that some mortgage interest rates have started to increase. The chain of events is, US bond yields have risen, especially after Trump was elected; NZ bond yields and other local long term interest rates have gone up as well (they tend to track the US rates plus a credit premium); and this has fed through with a lag (via higher funding costs for the banks) to higher fixed mortgage rates. The graph below shows the past year's trends for some of these rates*. Rates bottomed out around the middle of last year and have risen a bit since.

But how much these increases have been contributing to a slower housing market (or indeed slower anything else) is debatable. The first time borrower may be finding it slightly tougher going. But for existing borrowers, most folks these days are on fixed rates - at the end of December last, there were $182 billion worth of fixed rate mortgages compared to $53 billion of floating rate - and they won't have noticed anything, because they haven't come to the end of their existing fixed rate arrangement.

And then I wondered, well, what happens when they do roll over from their existing fixed rate? Will they roll over into something that will have the household worried about how to balance its books?

Quite the reverse, actually. Here's what a borrower who took out an x-year fixed rate mortgage x years ago would pay to roll over into another x-year fixed rate mortgage today (or at least at the end of December, the  latest available RBNZ data, though today's rates are very similar).

Other than for the 1-year fixed rate, where it's effectively the same, the household with an expiring fixed rate mortgage will be rolling over into a lower borrowing cost for another mortgage of the same maturity as before. Large falls in fixed rates in recent years dominate the small increases in the last few months. For most borrowers in coming months, the mortgage rollover will boost disposable income, not restrain it.

There's also the possibility, though, that local fixed rates will keep on rising and upset the calculation. Let's suppose that US interest rates rise by 0.5% during the course of this year (roughly in line with what the latest, February, Wall Street Journal poll of US forecasters expects for US 10-year yields). And let's assume all local rates rise by the same amount. By the end of this year, 3-, 4- and 5-year fixed borrowers would still be rolling over into cheaper loans, but 1- and 2-year borrowers would be paying a bit more, as would first time borrowers. Overall, this wouldn't represent a big squeeze (or possible any squeeze) on household budgets.

So I'm inclined to think that rising mortgage rates will not be any near-term threat to the economic outlook, and somewhat unconvinced that they can have have played much part to date in a slowing housing market. There may be other reasons for a national cyclical slowdown - the latest BusinessNZ/Bank of New Zealand survey of manufacturing had a hint of the construction sector hitting capacity constraints, though on the other hand the equivalent survey of services showed there is still "swift, broad-based, growth occurring in the services sector" - but interest rates, to date, don't look like much of an actual or potential brake.

*Local fixed rate mortgage rates come from the RBNZ's site, but they're not where might think they are (you'd likely expect in 'Statistics', 'Exchange and interest rates', 'B3: Retail interest rates on lending and deposits'). However you can find the full range of fixed mortgage rates in 'Statistics, 'Registered Banks', 'S8: Banks' mortgage lending ($mn)'; they're in section E6. For the very latest rates, if you go to the bottom of the 'Mortgage Rates Table' in the 'Mortgages' part of the Good Returns website, you'll find the up to date median floating and fixed (1,2 and 3 year) rates.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Bits and bobs from the Bank

We all know the big news from today's Monetary Policy Statement - the official cash rate stays on hold, as unanimously expected by the forecasting community, and, assuming the world pans out the RBNZ thinks it will, an eventual rate rise is a bit closer than before.

But there's always less important, but still interesting, stuff to be found in the nooks and crannies of the MPS and in the Governor's 10.00am press conference afterwards.

Here's one thing worth noting from the MPS, as a corrective to anyone who thinks our big rise in net immigration is mainly or wholly because we're being swamped by Asians.

In 2012, we had essentially a breakeven net immigration position (for the record, a small loss of 1,165 people). Since then net immigration has soared to last year's net intake of 70,588. That's a turnaround of 71,753. By far the biggest moving part in the turnaround isn't Asian at all. It's what has happened trans-Tasman, Over the same period, fewer Kiwis decided to go to Australia, and more Kiwis (and some Aussies) decided to come here, as our economic cycle picked up and theirs slowed down. As a result we moved from a net loss to Australia of 38,796 people in 2012 to a small net gain of 1,563 in 2016, a turnaround of 40,359. That's 56% of everything right there.

From the press conference, John McDermott, the Bank's Head of Economics, picked up on a question from the NBR's Rob Hosking, who had asked about the multiple references to 'uncertainty' of one kind or another, and said we should all have a look at "Nick Bloom's website".

This is what (I reckon) he meant - the Economic Policy Uncertainty website, which has some wonderful indices measuring the level of economic policy uncertainty in various economies, and globally. Here's the latest global picture, as at November 2016. No wonder people are talking about high levels of uncertainty: while the index hasn't been going forever (it starts in 1997), current global policy uncertainty is at an all-time high for the period.

Fascinating site - you can read their methodology, and download the data for quite a range of countries (sadly not including us). But the Aussies are there: here's what they look like.

And finally there was a casual reference from the Governor, responding to a question about the future track of interest rates, where he said that in the November MPS, there had been a 20% probability of an OCR cut built into the OCR forecast, but it has now been removed in this latest one.

I don't recall ever reading (or hearing) about these probabilities before. I don't have a problem with them - they would seem to be an eminently reasonable way of thinking about things - but if they are indeed an established part of the policy thinking, I'd quite like to have more detail at future Statements. Central banks seem quite comfortable these days indicating an easing or a tightening bias: sharing some probabilities around it wouldn't go amiss.

Has planning been worth it?

There was a big turnout on Tuesday night in Auckland at the latest Law and Economics Association of New Zealand (LEANZ) event - a panel discussion featuring three members of the Auckland Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel. In fine interdisciplinary LEANZ style, they were Judge David Kirkpatrick (the Panel chair), planner Jan Crawford, and economist Stuart Shepherd.

Chatham House rules, so I can't say anything specific about who said what, but I can safely say that all three were very good speakers - informed, persuasive, congenial, thoughtful, and able to put technical stuff into plain (or at least a good deal plainer) English. So full marks to the organisers, Richard Meade (AUT and Cognitus Advisory) and Andreas Heuser (Treasury) for putting it all together. Special thanks to Simpson Grierson who kindly hosted the event: the LEANZ caravan would be unable to travel on without these corporate oases.Though you can help, too: here's that LEANZ site again, so you can pay your $75 sub ($50 for students).

So, noting again that these are my views and not what the presenters may or may not have said, what did I take away from it?

Clearly the members of the Panel did the best they could with the machinery they had to drive, and in particular they aimed to get the availability of housing land up to where it needs to be (though there may be a developing, and less known, shortage of land for business purposes). And they had the added complexity of having to amalgamate the previous jumble of territorial authority plans into one overall plan for the new one-city Auckland, as well as being lumbered with a process not of their choosing. In the circumstances, they did a fine job.

But it's also clear that the planning process for Auckland has become enormously top-heavy and inefficient. Like other parts of our regulatory apparatus (such as the price control 'Part Four' bits of the Commerce Act) it badly needs paring back to something quicker, more targeted, cheaper, and more efficient.

In part the current clunkiness comes from importing an industrial-strength First World planning policy infrastructure, without paying enough mind to what might work for a small distant economy with not-quite-First-World incomes to pay for it. And in part it's because plans have been allowed to become voluminous grab-bags of miscellaneous agendas (price control, income redistribution, architectural design preferences). I've written previously about one bonkers 'food security' provision, where growing vegetables was prioritised over housing development.

The complexity largely speaks for itself, but here, as just one tiny example, is the legend you'll need to understand the Unitary Plan maps.

Six kinds of residential zone. Five kinds of 'open space'. Ten - ten! - kinds of business zone. Five kinds of rural zone (not counting the Waitakeres and the Hunuas, which are two more zones of their own). And seven kinds of coastal zone. 'Micromanagement' doesn't even begin to describe it.

And it's not just a matter of economic inefficiency, though the purely economic costs must surely be substantial: a fair slab of potential housing development, for example, reportedly got put on hold until the Unitary Plan finally saw the light of day at the end of a nearly three year process. It also carries social costs. The process is now so cumbersome and protracted that it is very difficult for non-experts to have their say - a level of difficulty that could threaten to undermine the perceived legitimacy of the outcome amongst the wider public. .

I'm also not sure that the planning process has fully got to grips with what you would imagine would be one of the core outputs of any plan: integrating the plan, infrastructure provision, and the intentions of owners/developers of resources. All three need to be aligned for anything significant to happen. Nor are enough people making even back of an envelope attempts to estimate the net benefits (widely defined) of plan provisions. What about those 'volcanic viewshafts', for example, which protect people's ability to see (say) Mount Wellington from their home? I wonder how Tokyo would have got on if it had to be designed so everyone could see Mount Fuji: not very well at all, I'd say. And if people were given the choice of their kids getting houses (say) $200,000 cheaper but without a view of Mount Albert, which would they pick?

Which brings me to my final point - the role of markets. Yes, we all know that plans may be needed to help address the externalities and coordination issues that can crop up in dense conurbations. But the role of markets and prices (and indeed economic analysis) hasn't been so much assisted as largely displaced. In particular, the housing market has been distorted and suppressed.

The Salvation Army's latest State of the Nation Report, for example, says (p50) that
based on an average occupancy of three people per dwelling...and given that Auckland’s population grew by an estimated 45,000 people for the year to 30 September 2016, accommodating this number of people required 15,000 additional dwellings. Consents for new dwellings over the same period lagged this number by 5000.
Over the past five years, the cumulative shortfall in new housing to cater for Auckland’s population growth is estimated to be almost 18,000 dwellings. 
The Sallies snarked that the recent level of consents (10,000 a year) "has been celebrated as proof that Auckland’s housing problems are being resolved by the market", but that "in a slightly longer context this record is, however, not remarkable". The reality isn't that the market has delivered, but inadequately. The reality is that the market has not been allowed to work properly, or, for some places and activities, not allowed at all.

In sum, on the one side, you have an uncertain quantum of planning benefits, and on the other, clearer and large costs. I wonder what the net outcome has been?

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

What should we do about 'cartels'?

I've just got back from holidays and as I'm playing myself in, I find that last week the National Business Review ran with an op-ed piece, 'Editor's Insight: Greens kick dead horse of cartel criminalisation'.

It said that the Greens were using cartel criminalisation as part of "a promising anti-business platform"; that cartels may be a non-existent problem - "In recent years, only one significant domestic cartel has been prosecuted (in wood chemicals) while the two others were in international air cargo and freight forwarding" - and that in any event "cartels are not necessarily bad news for customers or competitive business, except in cases of price fixing or blatant rigging of the market...Cartels are commonplace in certain industries where, for operational reasons, companies work together for their own benefit as well their customers’ but otherwise remain competitive entities. Shipping, airlines and similar services are examples".

I don't care about the politics of the issues, but I think the rest of the argument is debatable.

Part of it is people talking past each other. The NBR piece calls the ordinary, sometimes necessary, and as the NBR says, often beneficial cooperation between otherwise rivals in an industry a 'cartel': most people wouldn't. The arrangements that two airlines make to get your baggage to the end point of your journey with them would not normally be termed a 'cartel', and indeed most dictionary definitions don't include that sort of thing, either. Google "definition of cartel", for example, and what comes up at the head of the results is "an association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition", which is the usual anti-competitive meaning of 'cartel'.

Clearly, there's never been any intention of criminalising beneficial pro-consumer cooperation, what the NBR called "bona fide commercial behaviour". The  debate has always been about those "cases of price fixing or blatant rigging of the market" the NBR also mentioned. So what should we do about those?

Are they too few to bother about? It's hard to tell: by definition, cartels are unknown unknowns until they're rumbled. I'll come back to that in a minute.

But otherwise I'm for criminalisation of the genuine, blatant - what are sometimes called 'hard core' - examples of price-fixing and bid-rigging. Last time I wrote about this, I said I endorsed criminalisation somewhat reluctantly: there are already too many redneck yobbos running around trying to jail people for this, that and the other, and not enough people taking liberal or progressive lines focussed on prevention and rehabilitation. And I've since learned that we already have a distressingly high rate of incarceration by international standards, which ought to give New Zealand lawmakers considerable pause for thought before they write yet another 'crime' onto the lawbooks.

But I'm still inclined towards a hard line. For cases that fit the classic hard core model - anti-competitive intent that is manifestly not bona fide, secrecy, collusion, persistence, materiality - it's beyond absurd that the shop assistant who pockets $25 from the till will end up in the District Court, whereas the shadowy guys who meet on the fringes of industry fairs to steal $25 million from the public won't hear the knock of the cop at their door.

And it's pro-business, pro-market people in particular who should be most concerned about this. The typical cartel is a conspiracy to rort other businesses. One good example is the Amcor/Visy stitch-up of the Australasian markets for cardboard packaging. Businesses who wanted to put their stuff in boxes and send it out the door - even the biggest (Coca Cola, Fonterra, Goodman Fielder) who can normally look after themselves - were being ripped off.

People who believe that, for most purposes, well-functioning markets are the best way to deliver national productivity and consumer satisfaction, should be equally incensed. There's nothing more brutal to the proper working of markets than a cartel that substitutes their own chicanery for the free play of demand and supply. People get less, and pay more, than they would otherwise. How'd you feel, for example, if it was the health service that was on the receiving end of one of these hard core cartels?

The only thing, frankly, that might give me pause for thought is that criminalisation might, just, be counterproductive. The idea behind it was that it would discourage cartel formation in the first place, and arguably would also strengthen the 'ratting out' regimes that competition authorities typically run to encourage cartellists to dob in their former co-conspirators. But it also could strengthen the incentives to conceal a new or ongoing cartel. I'd wondered about this, and subsequently learned that there's some evidence suggesting that today's cartellists could indeed be running deeper and quieter than before.

In short, it's never easy, for obvious reasons, to know the prevalence of (true, anti-competitive) cartels. And it's possible that criminalisation, perversely, might have led cartellists to become more adept at hiding them. We won't know that for a while, and maybe not for a long while, though it might be a straw in the wind that the first alleged criminal cartel cases are beginning to pop up in Australia (latest news here). For the time being we simply don't know how big or how small an issue might be out there.

If criminalisation meant that cartels became much harder to find, I might reconsider. But for now I'm not inclined to cut cartels any slack. They're criminal conspiracies, on the same moral level as guys in balaclavas on their way to the bank with shotguns. They should get the same treatment.