Joyce requests review of Reserve Bank governance structure

Some will have seen Hamish Rutherford’s Stuff article reporting on the review the Minister of Finance has commissioned (to be undertaken by former State Services Commissioner, and former Treasury deputy secretary  responsible for macroeconomics,) Iain Rennie) on two aspects of Reserve Bank governance:

  • whether something like the existing internal committee in which the Governor makes his OCR decisions should be formalised in legislation, and
  • whether the Reserve Bank should remain the “owner” of the various pieces of legislation (RB Act, as well as the insurance and non-bank legislation) it operates under.

This is very welcome news.  As I noted in a post a couple of months ago on governance issues,  Steven Joyce has previously been on-record less averse than some to changing the model.


Who knows if the new Minister of Finance is interested, but flicking through some old posts, I was encouraged to find one from September 2015, reporting an exchange in the House between then Associate Minister of Finance Steven Joyce and the Greens then finance spokesperson Julie Anne Genter.  In response to a question on governance, Joyce responded

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—

A backhanded dig at the Greens at one level, but not an outright dismissal by any means.

And with the Governor confirming that he is leaving in September, and a year now until a permanent new Governor is in place, it is good time to have such a review, so as to be open to the possibility of reform, including in discussion with potential candidates for Governor.   Treasury tried to interest the previous Minister of Finance in legislative reform before Graeme Wheeler was appointed, but were knocked back (even though Treasury had found support for reform from market economists).   Graeme Wheeler also sought to initiate reform –  legislating for his Governning Committee –  in 2013 (although he still keeps all the relevant papers hush-hush), and was also knocked back by the Minister of Finance.  So, I’m encouraged that Steven Joyce has initiated the review.

That said, it is a pretty small step.  Iain Rennie will bring some relevant background to the issue, although his track record as State Services Commissioner might not command much confidence in circles other than those who appointed him.  And the Minister of Finance is not committing the National Party to supporting change.  But with almost all other political parties favouring change, and Rennie likely to point out the simple fact that no other New Zealand public sector entity is governed the way the Reserve Bank is (all power formally in one official’s hands), and no other central bank and financial regulatory agency in other advanced countries puts so much power (monetary policy and banking etc regulation) in one person’s hand, it is likely to set in place momentum leading towards some legislative reform next year.

I spoke to Rutherford about this yesterday and am quoted in the article

Michael Reddell, a former special advisor to the Reserve Bank who says he sat on a committee on OCR decisions for 20 years, said formalising the current structure would make only a marginal difference, as the members all reported to the governor.

“If your pay and rations are determined by the governor, then the extent that you’re willing to stand up is questionable, particularly to a tyrannical governor,” Reddell said.

“If the minister [of finance] were appointing the people on the committee, it would be a material step forward.”

All three Governors who have operated under the current legislation have operated pretty collegially.  For a long time, the OCR Advisory Group (OCRAG) was the forum in which the Governor took formal written advice and recommendation, and then made his decision (I was part of that group for a long time).  Mostly his decision was in line with the (usually) clear-cut majorities of advice.  All members of that committee were appointed by the Governor, including two external advisers.   The current Governor has put in another layer of hierarchy, taking advice from a wider group and then making his decision in a smaller group (him, his two deputies and the chief economist).

I should stress that the reference to “tyrannical” Governors was not intended as a reflection on anyone who has served as Governor.    But you need to design institutions around poor or insecure Governors: good ones will want, and will encourage, debate and alternative perspectives.  Poor ones will squash it, and if they control all the members of the statutory committee, it offers little or no protection  –  and actually puts monetary policy decisionmakers at a further remove from the voters and Minister of Finance.   As I’ve argued previously, we need more involvement of the Minister in appointing monetary policy (and financial regulation) decisionmakers, and also need external perspectives brought into the process, in the form of full formal participation in the decisionmaking.  As, for example, it is in Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, Sweden and so on.

Rutherford’s report doesn’t say whether the Rennie review will also look at the formal decisionmaking structure for financial regulation.  Those issues will have to be considered in any legislative reform, and it is probably more important to get collective and external decisionmaking processes formalised, since in these areas the Bank does not operate to something like the PTA, but rather exercises huge amounts of barely-fettered discretion.

The second half of the review –  looking at whether the Bank should stay responsible for its legislation – is not one of the (long list) of reform issues I’ve focused on.  It will probably have many people at the Reserve Bank spitting tacks, and looking at all sorts of bureaucratic tactics to retain something as close as possible to the status quo.  I favour change (but will openly acknowledge that until perhaps the last five years I had the same insider hubris that affects many RBers –  a belief that “we are different” and no one else in positioned to do the legislation-ownership role well).  That is simply wrong –  and if the expertise isn’t there right now, it could be developed over time (probably in Treasury) without too much difficulty.  Again, it would bring the Reserve Bank into line with other Crown entity types of bodies, few (if any) of which are now responsible for their own legislation (altho in years gone by some important ones –  eg ACC – were).  It might seem to many readers like an “inside the Beltway” issues, that doesn’t really matter to citizens.  That would be a mistaken view.  Reform in this area is just one part of the overall agenda to improve the accountability of the now very-powerful Reserve Bank, and bring its goverance more into line with that for other Crown agencies, and with central banks and financial regulatory agencies abroad.

And so for the second time this week, I commend Steven Joyce.  It is only an unambitious start, but the start matters.