Friday, 10 May 2013

The Reserve Bank, Debt and the Property Market

The issues of house price rises in Auckland and Christchurch is prompting comment that it may be time for the Governor of the Reserve Bank to raise interest rates.   It is noted in the media that an increase in interest rates will result in foreign money seeking higher returns to enter the domestic market and this will also increase the value of the already overvalued dollar. 
What hasn’t been commented on is that an increase in interest rates will also penalise every business and household in the country including everyone resident in Auckland and Christchurch who already have a mortgage and have no intention of buying or selling a home.  There will be no beneficial behaviour change within that wide group who are not seeking to get further into debt but it will impose hardship and constrain the rest of the economy.  The interest rate rise would be imposed simply as an attempt to limit price rises in response to artificial shortages of housing in two localised parts of the property market. 
The more sensible action would be to address the cause of these shortages rather than attempt to alter the market response by raising interest rates.
The Reserve Bank Act is not only completely ineffectual at slowing property prices it is the root cause of property price inflation.  Because the Reserve Bank Act obliges debtors to pay over the market price for debt, it also guarantees lenders greater than normal market returns on investments.  The result is that foreign cash looking for high and secure returns has flooded into the New Zealand property market.  The banks are incentivised to actively inflate the property market because of the high returns it provides (thanks to the Reserve Bank Act) and because of the flood of money that they have to invest.  As a result the more the Reserve Bank increases interests rates above the natural rate for the marketplace the more money that flows into the property market, the less risk averse lenders need to be because they receive higher margins on loans and this results in banks adopting laxer lending practices, this then leads to property price inflation which results in the rate of increase in capital value of the property (in the overheated parts of the market) to exceed the cost of debt - for a while at least – the negative real rate of interest in this small part of the property market consequently further incentivises borrowing.
The end result is that we are as a nation carrying far more debt than is necessary for the economy to function effectively, we have a ruinously over valued property market, we have a grossly overvalued exchange rate, we are bleeding our scarce foreign earnings on interest payments on all the debt and meanwhile our productive sector is crippled by both the cost of borrowing and by the over-valued and highly unstable exchange rate, Instead of suppressing inflation, the Reserve Bank act causes inflation.
The Reserve Bank Act is singularly the most stupid element of the reforms of the 1980’s.  It is utterly illogical in that it defies the simplest of precepts of economics.  The answer to the problem of inflation is simple.  If a government wishes to increase the cost to the consumer of any element of the economy without increasing the supply of that element it imposes a tax not a compulsory price increase – alcohol and tobacco are excellent examples of this concept in action.   The government also targets only those activities it wants to constrain.  So when it taxes alcohol it does that based on alcohol content – it doesn’t tax all liquids.
A tax also allows for redistribution and targeting by the government to occur so if the tax imposes on lower income households this can be resolved through social payments with the tax on debt as a source of funds.  Similarly the tax can be linked to the asset class or region causing the problem so there may be a lower tax on business debt.  This is not difficult; the banks already set interest rates by the manner in which the debt is secured, the tax could be similarly targeted.   This is only one possible mechanism as there are is a range of possible taxation responses to this problem which these need to be linked into a wider strategic review of the role of taxation in the economy.
At a more fundamental level any market failure or physical circumstances causing the price pressure also needs to be addressed.  Auckland prices are being driven by a range of other policy actions by government that put inflationary pressure into the market.  These include allowing uncontrolled foreign ownership of residential real estate, immigration – from both within New Zealand and from off-shore - and from a failure to fully price the true cost to the national economy of growth of the major cities and the cost of internal migration of business and residents.  Property in the larger cities but particularly in Auckland is being subsidised in a number of ways while the rest of the national market is in one form or another languishing with surplus housing and infrastructure.  In addition to fostering policy that actively inflates the cost of housing nationally and causes our international debt to be excessive and our currency to be over-valued we are not as a nation using our existing investment in infrastructure wisely. 
We need to be asking ourselves collectively why we, who as a nation have the highest natural capital per capita and arguably the best system of society in the world, are one of its debt basket cases.  We are only being prevented from being another Greece or Cyprus by the dairy industry.  We also need to ask why we are not so much better off as a nation when countries like China and Singapore are doing so much with so comparatively little.  The answer is quite simple and that comes down to the vision and courage of their political leadership, could I commend you to read George Monbiot’s recent post as it very accurately describes the malaise that we have inflicted upon ourselves with our reforms and our reliance on “The Market”  to provide. 


  1. Meanwhile, over in Australia, what did their Reserve Bank do, unexpectedly?

  2. The main difference between Greece, Cyprus and New Zealand is that New Zealand is a sovereign currency issuer. Unfortunately Bill English doesn't understand this or its implications.

    By the way it has been a long time between your interesting posts.

    1. for both good and bad - as a sovereign currency issuer we should be managing our exchange rate more imaginatively then we do - along with a few other things!

      I intend to get back into it - I have been very busy out in the garden for the last wee while plus gave up on it for a while as it seems something more radical than blogging is required to save our poor country from its inept/venal leadership - still we aren't as poorly lead as Australia for all of that. I have had an interesting exposure to Oz politics recently AC and am spending this wet Saturday sitting in front of the fire writing policy papers for one of the minor players in the federal election. If only they could get their act together they would have a good chance of doing a Winston Peters at least.

  3. "doing a Winston Peters..."?
    Xenophobia and too many cigarettes?