Tony Alexander carries a BNZ business card, has a BNZ email address and has been paid (nicely, presumably) by them for almost 20 years. But his office, which he’s hardly ever in, is tacked onto his home in the countryside, he’s been known to wear ties in colours other than blue, and despite his chief economist title, he heads a department of exactly no-one. Who or what, then, is Tony Alexander?
A I get paid by the BNZ. What do they get for that? Information to bank management and staff regarding the New Zealand economy, through my publications and talks to audiences around the country. I’m also part of the brand, in that my commentary says we know what’s happening in the economy, therefore we know its influences on your business, therefore we can better inform you about the most appropriate financial products for your business.
Q How do you know when it’s worked?
A Now and then I’ll have a boss come along and ask me exactly the same question. The problem is like the other economists out there, I’ll humour them and say, well, we can look at the numbers of people that are subscribed to the publications and so on – but realistically, for someone in my position there’s no overall definitive measure you can use.
Q Why did you become an economist?
A Partly because I understood it. Most people don’t, and I thought there was a niche. But really, where did it come from? My father was a builder of houses and flats in Christchurch during the 1970s and he unfortunately was caught out by the collapse of the sector and had to put his firm into voluntary liquidation in about 1977. We then lost the lovely house and the grill piece of land we had in Christchurch, and Mum got depressed and went to the doctor. And she said to the doc, “I’m depressed,” and he said, “Yep, you are”. Then he said to her, “Read this,” and gave her The Grapes of Wrath and said, “If you want to know about people who really had it hard, have a look at this”. So I started reading about the Great Depression too, and got stuck into Tony Simpson’s The Sugarbag Years. It was about personal experiences during the Great Depression, not the economics. And I thought to myself, what we’ve got here is a failure of economies. And that got me interested in economics overall. These systems, which can go wrong.
Q If that’s what drives you, why are you working for a bank rather than a government?
A Economic systems aren’t largely driven by governments. The lesson of the Great Depression is that when the private sector gets itself into major problems, debt levels too high or whatever, there is an ability and a duty for government to get stuck in and make sure a Great Depression never repeats itself. The role for governments is helping mitigate the extremities of economic cycles, and there is maybe the ability to influence outcomes through industrial policies, but mainly there’s the ability for governments to stuff it up, by politicians thinking they have the power and the knowledge and the ability to do things they can’t do, because they presently don’t understand what’s going on.
Q Reading your last weekly update I know you like coffee and bird parks, find crowded trains annoying and prefer Air New Zealand business class to that of Singapore Airlines. Are you just a natural over-sharer, or do you think it’s important to serve your economic commentary with a side order of personality?
A I’m very open when it comes to writing about stuff. I found from keeping a personal diary years ago and then when I was working in the Westpac dealing room having to write a morning fax very quickly, that I have an ability to think about stuff and at the same time type it out. It just flows out naturally. I don’t think, “I need seven quirky things to whack in there this week” – it’s just developed naturally and people seem to appreciate it. I’ve got 27,000 people receiving the weekly overview every Thursday night so I guess that says something.
Q A lot of what you write is about other countries and you travel a lot to do that …
A People have to get overseas to understand that you have a culture that has some characteristics that make growth of the New Zealand economy difficult. NZTE has surveyed other countries’ takes on New Zealand. The Americans find us not emotive enough. The Australians find us not assertive enough. The Chinese find us too honest, relatively naïve and slow in our appreciation of some of the changes in the market. There are differences. I think we can retain many key aspects of our culture, but when we’re looking at our connection with the rest of the planet we have to adjust the way we do business.
Q You have five children. Does financial literacy begin at home?
A I bring them up to think independently, to follow their own path. I’ve made no recommendations that they should get into economics. Our goal is to make sure the kids get a good, rounded normal education and make their own choices after that, whether they want to stay in New Zealand or, as is my strong suggestion to them, get their degree and go overseas for a while and see how they like it. Don’t just graduate and stick around here, get married, start breeding straight away – the world needs more rounded people than that.
Q How do you get everything done when you’re hardly ever in the office?
A I work from home and have done for 10 years. Each morning I go to my local café in the countryside for two, three hours and get a lot done, and then come back to my office here. On the road, I never turn off. When an idea strikes, I write something down. When I’m in an airport, I open up the PC and write away. Sitting on the aeroplanes, write away.
Q When other kids ask yours what their dad does for a living, what do you think they say?
A They probably say he talks on the TV now and then, sometimes he meets the Finance Minister … I think they would struggle as much as my parents would struggle to say exactly what I do.
Q If Bernard Hickey is sad and Gareth Morgan is mad, what are you?
A Reasoned. I set out to give a reasonable view on the economy that people understand … sorry that doesn’t rhyme.