Towards a better-governed Reserve Bank

Yesterday saw comments on Reserve Bank governance from a couple of senior politicians.

The Green Party’s new finance spokesperson, Julie Anne Genter, put out a press release yesterday arguing that

The Reserve Bank made the right decision today to cut the OCR – effectively reversing the mistaken OCR increases in 2014 – but concentrating this power in just one person isn’t the right way to make good decisions,” Green Party finance spokesperson Julie Anne Genter said.

“We’d like to see the Reserve Bank’s decision-making power broadened to more than just one person – decision making by a panel of experts from across the economy would be in line with what happens in other OECD countries.

“Over-forecast inflation has kept interest rates higher than they should have been in recent years, which has cost the economy jobs

I happen to think she is right.  We don’t change the governance model to produce a different OCR decision on any particular day, but as one part of securing a better, more transparent, more resilient central bank.  There are no guarantees, but such a central bank is less likely to make mistakes like last year’s monetary policy –  recall that this is the only central bank in the world that has twice started tightening and then had to reverse itself.  Other countries don’t run things the New Zealand way, and we don’t run other areas of government this way either.  The case for change is pretty clear, and multi-dimensional.

I was interested in one aspect of her statement.  The Greens have previously favoured making the Reserve Bank’s Board the decision-making body for the Bank (which would parallel the approach in Australia), and have at times talked of ensuring that there are representatives of industry, employees etc on the Board.

But in this statement she calls for a “a panel of experts from across the economy”, which appears to suggest something rather more technocratic  (and, hence, perhaps more aligned with a majority of OECD countries, which often have decision-making committees with a majority of at least semi-expert members).  I’m not sure if they intended to convey a change of approach –  perhaps she just want to sound more internationally conventional –  but the change of tone is interesting.

Genter followed up her press release with an oral question in the House yesterday afternoon (number 9), asking the Minister of Finance if he still had confidence in the Reserve Bank following yesterday’s decision, using it as a hook to ask a series of supplementaries about governance (in one of which she repeated the point about a “panel of experts from across the economy”).  The questioning didn’t go overly well for her.  That was partly because the Minister of Finance was away, and Steven Joyce answered for him.  But it was also because she allowed some serious questions about governance to be tied too closely to a specific OCR decision, which allowed Joyce to bat her away with comments along the lines that he didn’t agree there had been a mistake, and we didn’t want politicians second-guessing individual OCR decisions.

Nonetheless, the responses that she received were still interesting.

First, there was a slightly backhanded compliment

Hon STEVEN JOYCE : The suggestion that the member makes, of having a panel of people making the decision, is, I have to say, not the silliest suggestion in monetary policy we have heard from the Greens over the years, and many countries—

and

Julie Anne Genter : Does he agree with Treasury’s advice to him that “The current single decision-maker approach poses risks”, and that “on balance, we think there would be benefits to moving towards a monetary policy committee in the future.”; if not, why not?

Hon STEVEN JOYCE : I am, of course, aware of that policy advice. But it is important to note that the New Zealand system has served us very well, I think, over the last 26-odd years. Yes, you could have a change at some point, but, again, I think that if you wanted to do it, and it is not a proposal that we are at all considering at this point, but if it was something that you wanted to do, you would have to do it for the right reasons and not because you disagreed.

and

Julie Anne Genter : Is the Minister aware that no other OECD country with a central bank gives so much legal power to a single official?

Hon STEVEN JOYCE : As I said previously, I am aware of that. Actually, as I said to the member in one of my earlier answers—this is on behalf of the Minister of Finance—actually, there is a range of ways in which that is done internationally. But the basis on which you would change that is not on the basis that a number of members of Parliament think that the Reserve Bank Governor had made the wrong or unnecessary decision in a previous year, which the member asserted in one of her previous questions.

Julie Anne Genter : Given that the only independent review of New Zealand’s monetary policy framework since the 1989 Act was put in place recommended changing the law in regard to bank governance, and that no other OECD country with a central bank gives so much power to a single individual, will his Government consider updating the law?

Hon STEVEN JOYCE : I thought I had answered that previously, but the answer is no, we have no plans to do so at this stage.

Not once did the Minister defend the basic elements of the current governance structure.  He defended operational independence for the Bank (which Genter didn’t seem to be questioning), he claimed that the system had served us well for 26 years, but there was no principled defence of allowing so much legal power to a single individual.  And he didn’t even rule out change, just noting at the end of the questions that the current government “have no plans to do so at this stage”.

I’ve been a bit puzzled as to why the current government has been resistant to change.  The independent review undertake for the previous government recommended legislative change (and the range of things the Governor is personally deciding has widened materially since then), the Treasury favoured change[1], they found that many market economists favoured change.  And most of the Opposition parties appear to have favoured change –  Labour seems to have come and gone on the issue, but is hardly likely to be a robust supporter of giving so much power to one official.  And, of course, we have good reason to believe – although he is now highly secretive about it –  that Graeme Wheeler favours change.

Among those favouring change, there will be a variety of different motivations and a variety of different alternative models in view.  I sketched out my preferred model here, but I know able people with different perspectives on the details of a new model.

I suspect that the Minister of Finance has little time for the Governor’s preferred model, of legislating to entrench a system in which Reserve Bank senior staff alone get to make the decisions.  Michael Cullen certainly didn’t like that specific option when Lars Svensson recommended it.  And this isn’t just an issue of monetary policy, and there are likely to be quite some differences  –  including with Treasury  – around the Bank’s prudential powers.  But the reluctance to open up the issue is still a bit of a puzzle.  Graeme Wheeler’s poor stewardship of the office of Governor is strengthening the case for change, but these are decisions that really should be made independent of the personalities, and of the foibles of the individuals involved.  That was why the Treasury advice in 2012 was appropriate –  ie flagging the issue with the Minister before it was apparent who would be nominated as the next Governor.

Perhaps the Minister of Finance worries that opening up the issue now would:

  • Be seen as political interference in current monetary policy
  • Be seen as a vote of no-confidence in the current Governor
  • Be seen as a win for Opposition parties, and particularly the Greens.

I hope none of those is the explanation for inaction, but I don’t really understand what is.  It seems most unlikely to be a strong in-principle preference for a model that gives unprecedented amounts of power to a single unelected official (or else presumably Steven Joyce would have run those lines)

Good legislation takes time. Graeme Wheeler will soon start the last two years of his term.  Now is the time for the Minister to open up the issue.  Perhaps he could ask Treasury to prepare a consultative document on the issues and options and put it out for several months of submissions and discussions.  That could allow legislation to be drafted next year, and to be in place so that the new Governor, taking office in late September 2017, would take office knowing that it was on the basis of the new model, while allowing Graeme Wheeler to see out his term on the arrangements that he was appointed on.  There is nothing sacrosanct about those arrangements –  Parliament makes the rules and can change them –  but the timing would now work quite well.  Moreover, since revitalising the Reserve Bank, and making it more rigorous, open, and resilient, will probably require a quite different sort of person, the change of Governor would be a good time for a new law to take effect.

There probably aren’t many votes in Reserve Bank reform, but good governance reforms, bringing our Reserve Bank more into line with international practice and the way other government agencies in New Zealand are run, would be one part of a good legacy for a long-serving Minister of Finance.

[1] I don’t know where Treasury now stands on the issue but have lodged an OIA for copies of any work they have been doing on the issue.

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