Media celebs or prophets of profit?

By Maria Slade

Does talk of yields, risk profiles, demand and supply side economics, GDP and the OCR make your eyes glaze over?

You and most of the country. But translate those economic vital statistics into whether your mortgage rates are likely to go up, what petrol might cost you over the Christmas holidays, and if it's a good time to change jobs and suddenly the economic commentators have your attention.

That is the role of people like Tony Alexander, Brendan O'Donovan and Cameron Bagrie, the retail bank economic frontmen who have become virtual household names due to their regular appearances in the media.

Has that omnipresence turned them into media celebrities focused more on the slick soundbite than offering sage advice, or can we usefully rely on them to tell us whether house values will fall or interest rates go up?

Point one: No one is good at forecasting shocks, Westpac chief economist Brendan O'Donovan says. Otherwise they wouldn't be shocks.

Point two: Numbers are meaningless to the average person, his BNZ counterpart, Tony Alexander offers.

Arguably the poster boys for New Zealand economic forecasting, O'Donovan and Alexander form an almost daily media comment tag-team. Both say that aside from a line in their job descriptions about maintaining relations with the media, how they shape that public profile is up to them.

Alexander says he has cut back in the past six months on the number of media interviews he gives, because "it was simply getting over the top. To the point where two-thirds of the phone calls I'd receive during the day plus would be from journalists."

O'Donovan does not have a problem with the quantity of media calls he gets - "The concern is when you're not being quoted," he quips - but he does push as much as he can on to his team so that it's Westpac economics being profiled rather than him personally. His department pursues a research agenda and tries to comment on issues it's done original work on. "We get quoted a lot because we are paid to be across a variety of issues."

Donovan avoids commenting on New Zealand's volatile monthly data: "I've never wanted to be in the space of saying, it's up, down."

Asked if he keeps score on when he is right and when he's wide of the mark, he is unequivocal. "Definitely. If I was a trader I would be able to make very good money if I was only getting a bit over a third of my picks right. But [as] an economist, that sort of hit ratio isn't very acceptable."

Alexander contends he doesn't keep an explicit score of when he's been right and wrong. "I often take pains to remind people that we're talking about the future, it hasn't happened. The chances are I'm going to be wrong, it's simply a question of how wrong my forecasts will be."

The trick, he says, is to formulate a core view on the economy over the next 12 to 24 months, and to amend that as information comes in. "You don't redo forecasts every four weeks."

Then you translate that for the layman. Alexander believes that at the end of one of his economic presentations, the audience should be able to sum up in 90 seconds what he's said. "My focus has been more on talking to ... people like my parents, their friends, people who are not making business decisions very often."

ANZ chief economist Cameron Bagrie says he's given 200 presentations in the past 12 months, so a few calls from the media on top of that are no hardship. But he concedes the risk is that the commentary can become a patter. "While we're running teams who are feeding in the information, you still need to have time to actually step back and do a little bit of work yourself, and I guess pop up for air. The danger is that you turn into the old mouse in the exercise wheel."

Goldman Sachs JBWere economist Shamubeel Eaqub says it's a job of storytelling, and about getting the direction right. He also won't focus on a single piece of economic data. And the currency he doesn't even try to forecast. "I think that's a fool's game."

The public information role is one Eaqub takes seriously. Although his commentary is tailored to his company's clients, those clients also invest money for the public, he says.

New Zealanders are "strangely divorced" from the financial markets, and the media needs to play a bigger role in addressing this country's low levels of financial literacy, he believes. "So for that to happen people like us, analysts and economists, need to contribute comments, analysis, so people can engage a bit more."

But woe betide the journalist who misquotes Eaqub. "Those people get quickly chopped off the distribution list. It doesn't happen twice."

Westpac's O'Donovan says most economists in New Zealand are employed either directly or indirectly by the Government, so in terms of economic debate it's fallen to the bank economists to fill a commentary void and "provide a sanity check".

Auckland University economics professor Tim Hazledine says academics should be chipping in more.

"You don't expect my colleagues in the mechanical engineering department to pop up in the media writing Jeremy Clarkson-style road test reports on the latest Audi. Yet if it wasn't for the work done in mechanical engineering departments here and around the world, there wouldn't be a latest Audi."

Hazledine cites New Zealand Institute chief executive David Skilling as a commentator who probably has "more public policy input than me and all my colleagues combined".

Skilling takes the compliment with a grain of salt, saying as a think tank it's the institute's role to stimulate debate. But he agrees with the sentiment. "The economic debate should extend beyond a statement by Michael Cullen or Alan Bollard. So I'm not particularly concerned that you get the usual suspects interviewed about interest rate decisions. But I guess what I'd like to see is a broader economic policy debate where the people contributing are contributing on longer term issues."

Hazledine takes up the theme, saying he doesn't often hear anyone debating things like whether some prices should actually be going up to reflect scarcity of resources. "We're running out of things, we want petrol to go up, at the margin anyway. How do you fit that into a blanket zero inflation policy? I think that's going to need to be thought through"

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