Reserve Bank Governor ’embattled’

Michael Reddell isn’t a fan of the performance of Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr.

Croaking Cassandra: An embattled Orr

And then there was the press conference.   I’ve seen some pretty poor performances from Governors over the years –  early ones by Alan Bollard were often awkward, and as Graeme Wheeler became more embattled the defensive introvert, never comfortable with the media, took over.     But this one was the worst I’ve seen, and from someone who has many talents in communications.  But just not, so it is confirmed again, in coping with challenge, disagreement, or finding himself on the back foot.  I doubt a senior politician would have got away with it, and it isn’t obvious why an unelected bureaucrat, uncomfortable at facing serious scrutiny, should do so.

The Governor and Deputy Governor faced several questions about the possible impact of the Bank’s capital proposals on farm lending –  various commentators have suggested such borrowers will be among the hardest hit.  The Bank attempted to push back claiming that any sectoral impacts were nothing to do with them, and all about banks’ own choices.  But they seemed blind to the fact that banks will have more ability to pass on the additional costs of the higher capital requirements to some sectors, some borrowers, than others.  And that is because of a point the Bank never addresses: their capital requirements don’t apply to all lenders.

The Governor came across as embattled from start to finish –  embattled at best, at times prickly, rude, and behaving in a manner quite inappropriate for a senior unelected public official exercising a great deal of discretionary power, with few formal checks and balances.   BusinessDesk’s Jenny Ruth – who often asks particularly pointed questions about the exercise of the Bank’s regulatory powers, and the lack of transparency around its use of those powers – was the particular target of his ire, and at one point he tried to refuse to take further questions from her.

The press conference deterioriated further as it got towards the end.  Without specific further prompting, the Governor noted a certain frostiness in the room, and then launched off again in his own defence.

A couple of articles in the Herald in recent days tells us some more of the story.   The first was from Liam Dann, who has in the past provided a trusty outlet for the views of successive Governors, and the second was a column from Pattrick Smellie, under the heading “Bunker mentality returns to the RBNZ?”, evoking unwelcome memories of the Wheeler governorship.

Orr very much needs to be pulled into line, for his own sake and that of the country (as single decisionmaker he still wields huge untrammelled power).

At present, he is displaying none of the qualities that we should expect to find in powerful unelected official –  nothing calm, nothing judicious, nothing open and engaging, just embattled, defensive, aggressive, playing the man rather than the ball, all around troubles of his own making (poor process around radical proposals made without any robust shared analysis, all while he is prosecutor, judge, and jury in his own case).

He also notes something odd – “when we have no idea who will even be Secretary to the Treasury –  lead economic adviser to the government –  three weeks from now”. That’s if Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf stays in the job that long.

Is there really no replacement for him yet?

Treasury Secretary – ” the right place with immigration levels”

In an interview on The Nation the Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf said that “I think we’re probably in more or less the right place with immigration levels”.

Immigration levels are often talked about in relation to housing issues. The simple fact is that if as a country we want growth in New Zealand then we need immigration. And a growing population needs more housing.

But the thing is people see immigration at high levels, they see house prices going up, they see the need for more schools — those are the things that they see.
Sure, and we need immigration because we need the sort of— our businesses need particular types of skills that we haven’t got right now, so I think that plays a big part. We need immigration for just the generation of ideas. Don’t forget that currently some of the net immigration numbers are as much about New Zealanders not leaving the country and some of them returning from Australia.

So do we need to keep growing, then, do you think?
I think we absolutely need to keep growing as a country.

But more immigration?
Well, I think we need to— We’ve got currently— The OECD, when it last looked at our immigration settings said they were broadly right. We have to keep looking to make sure they’re actually meeting our needs, and I think it’s something you keep under constant review, because we also want to develop— we want our education system to be developing the skills that we feel we need for our people, so I think immigration meets a gap, but I mean we can, sort of, fill that gap ourselves by making sure the education system delivers.

So do you think we’re in a sweet spot with immigration levels, or can we and should we be bringing more people in?
No, no, I think we’re probably in more or less the right place with immigration levels. As I said, I mean, the current numbers are as much about people not leaving New Zealand or returning from Australia, and we need to take account of the impact of those numbers, so we do need to build new schools; we do need to critically build new houses.

A lot of those migrants come to Auckland, and you have said that you believe that Auckland should be the focus of growth, and you’re happy to see it get bigger, then?
Am I happy to see Auckland grow?

Yeah, see Auckland grow even more.
In general, I’m happy to see Auckland grow. I think what we’ve learnt from history, and certainly what we’re learning at the moment from around the world, is agglomeration — the bringing together of activities in a large urban area, like Auckland — makes a massive difference to the overall— ultimately the overall living standards of a country as a whole. It needs to be managed growth. It absolutely needs to be managed growth, but the trend — you know, over the last hundred years; New Zealand’s rural population has basically stayed stable. It’s the urban areas that have been growing, and that trend is going to continue.

Immigration is used as a political football, often with particular groups of immigrants getting the kicking.

The number of immigrants can’t just be turned off and on at the whim of opposition politicians. Rules and quotas are used and while they can be tweaked it would be poor practice to keep making major changes. If we want to encourage good immigrants we need to have clear and consistent rules and requirements.

And a major factor that can’t be controlled is New Zealanders leaving, and New Zealanders returning. We are free to come and go as we please.

There’s currently a surge in net migration into New Zealand because the flow to Australia has dropped significantly and the flow of returning Kiwis has increased significantly. That has changed in a relatively short time and will change again if the Australian economy picks up again.

If we want growth we need to maintain immigration numbers at approximately the current levels and increase housing to cater for them.

Video: Interview: Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf

Full transcript (Scoop): Lisa Owen interviews Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf

Treasury Secretary – Capital Gains Tax won’t help Auckland

The Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf was interviewed on The Nation yesterday and said he doubted a capital gains tax would help the escalation in property prices in Auckland.

A CGT isn’t a quick fix and it won’t address the current problems.

Well, just this week the Deputy Reserve Bank Governor, Grant Spencer, is calling for a capital gains tax, or some kind of tax on investment. What do you make of that?

Well, I think what Grant Spencer was talking about was the need for us to address the housing issues in Auckland, and at the heart of the housing issue in Auckland is that we’re not building enough houses, and the Productivity Commission said a few years ago when it looked at this issue that building more houses is the answer. Looking really carefully at our planning regulations is the single biggest thing that will make a difference to how we build— how many houses we build in Auckland.

So you don’t think a capital gains tax or a tax like that is part of the solution?

I’m quite sceptical. If the issue that people are talking about is house prices, London and Sydney have got capital gains taxes and they’ve got similar issues as us. This is a phenomenon that’s actually playing out in large urban areas which are successful, right? And New Zealand is successful, Auckland is successful, so one of the consequences of that, as in Sydney and London and in Vancouver, is the current phenomenon, house prices. But we need to build more houses to actually meet the needs that we’ve got.

So in your view, it’s a supply side problem, then?

That’s the principal issue, is the supply side problem. And it’s not just my view; it’s the Productivity Commission’s view as well.

A Capital Gains Tax would do little or nothing to address the soaring property prices in Auckland.

A CGT (as proposed by Labour last term):

  • It would phase in very gradually so would have little immediate impact
  • It would not tax capital gains already realised
  • It would affect the whole country, not just Auckland
  • It has proven to not limit property inflation in other countries

So it’s a solution to a different problem, the broadening of the tax take. That’s a different debate with varying views on it’s worth.

Capital gains are already taxed on property speculation – where property is bought and sold with the aim of capital gain (according to IRD rules). Capital gains on share trading is also taxable.

Makhlouf is correct saying “building more houses is the answer” – building more houses in Auckland where the biggest demand is. For this to happen more land must be made available more easily. It’s land inflation that’s the problem, and that’s happening due to a shortage of supply and too many restrictions on higher density use.

Video: Interview: Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf

Full transcript (Scoop): Lisa Owen interviews Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf