Monday 8 October 2012

Paying for earthquakes

Matt Nolan walks us through why quantitative easing to pay for the Christchurch Rebuild isn't particularly good policy. If we need a monetary push, the place to start is interest rates - and then only if RBNZ thinks we're going to be below the 1% lower inflation bound over the medium term. If we need a fiscal push, which is highly debatable, doing it through earthquake spending might not be as helpful as the Greens might like - especially as regulatory bottlenecks and regulatory capacity constraints in Christchurch seem to be holding things up at least as much as money.

Let's recall how standard public finance says to pay for things like earthquakes. If the status quo ex ante had about the right mix of spending and taxation, then you cut spending in non-earthquake areas, increase spending on earthquake rebuilding, perhaps slightly increase taxes in the short term but definitely take on debt to spread the rebuilding costs over the longer term. This is bog standard public finance. Paul Krugman and Steven Landsburg agree. I walked through the argument slowly a while back.

What do we get if the government prints earthquake bonds and RBNZ prints money to buy them? Here's Nolan:
Now you may believe we should fund the rebuild with a one-off tax – that’s fine, in that case get the government to put a tax in place directly (or to directly cut spending from other place).  However, taxation by stealth of this sort is likely to be worse in multiple ways:
  1. We have betrayed RBNZ independence for virtually no reason … understandably a sneak tax by the RBNZ would make people less likely to believe them in the future about holding to their inflation mandate.  As a result, we run into the time-consistency issue in monetary policy again, and it will become more painful for economy when the RBNZ tries to commit to its inflation mandate again.
  2. We have a relatively rough redistribution of resources due to this.  By putting in our sneak tax through QE, we transfer resources to those with assets, those doing the rebuild, and those who can easily adjust prices/wages – while hurting those on fixed income, and those who have saved.  It is an inflation tax – pure and simple – and as a result, it will initially transfer resources from those who can’t protect themselves (generally the poor) to those who can (generally the rich).  If we introduce the tax through fiscal policy instead we can sort out these distributional issues a little better.
  3. A country that is willing to introduce QE as a clear fiscal transfer – when there is no monetary policy reason – will destroy its credibility with international lenders.  People will scoff at this, but such a policy will increase the level of “inflation insurance” lenders ask for – increasing the cost of credit in New Zealand.
These are obvious and true costs, that have been seen from similar policies around the world for hundreds of years.  QE really isn’t anything new, and if we want a fiscal transfer of this sort just say it (as the Greens previously have to be fair), and do it through fiscal policy – it has nothing to do with the RBNZ.
I suspect Matt's "that's fine" at the start is more recognition that the policy at least is honest rather than that it's a good idea. Borrowing for major one-off capital expenditures is far better than a one-off tax.

Matt's also a little harsher about those peddling crank economics than he's usually willing to go:
The constant banging on about the exchange rate and the RBNZ shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the “issues” NZ faces.
The Greens, and Ganesh Nana, are wrong in stating that the RBNZ has failed.  Distinctly and totally wrong.
I approve.

Bernard Hickey was calling on Twitter last week for a review of the desirability of central bank independence. Matt and I got a bit testy. This is one of those issues where re-politicising whether the central bank should be independent has almost the same effect as removing independence: if RBNZ believes that its independence is conditional not on meeting the PTA but rather on making a mob of monetary cranks happy, then it might be tempted to start skewing its policy. And even if it doesn't, if people think it might be, that also starts wrecking expectations. There's reasonable latent public demand for bad monetary policy. Feeding and encouraging the trolls is a remarkably dangerous game. It's fine to debate what optimal monetary policy is. But suggesting that because RBNZ isn't following your preferred one, we ought reconsider central bank independence... that's intellectual vandalism on par with saying we should do away with Pharmac because you didn't like the Herceptin decision. In sum:

  • Good: trying to convince RBNZ of your views on monetary policy.
  • Bad: whipping up the hooples to break central bank independence.

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