Various views on Reserve Bank reform

Undecided to the end, earlier this afternoon I went out for a walk resolved that I wouldn’t come home until I’d voted.  With guests to cook dinner for, it was an effective constraint.

The other day, the Herald ran a Bloomberg column by journalist Tracy Withers headed “RBNZ could be in for a shake-up”.  Much of the column is familiar ground, and complements my own post the other day on the coming reform of the Reserve Bank –  whichever party forms the next government.    But there were a couple of interesting snippets, one of which wasn’t in the version the Herald used but is now in the updated column the link will take you to.

The first is an explicit comment from the Secretary to the Treasury, Gabs Makhlouf.  It seems quite unusual for a neutral public servant to be commenting in public –  in another country as it happens – on any matter of possible new policy just a few days out from an election.   Save it for the post-election briefing to the incoming Minister of Finance, would surely have been the stance of most senior public servants (all the more so when it is an issue on which at several parties have explicit public policies).

Anyway, what does Makhlouf think about Reserve Bank reform?

Gabriel Makhlouf, head of New Zealand’s Treasury Department, said he favors formalizing committee-based decision making at the central bank but doesn’t have a view on whether the committee should include external members.
“I can see why people may be concerned about that, and I can also see the value of having externals, and the different perspective they bring,” he said in an interview in Singapore Friday. “It’s something we are definitely going to study quite carefully before we decide what to recommend to the government.”

Treasury has long-favoured a move to formalise a committee-based decisionmaking structure.  They unsuccessfully attempted to interest the then Minister of Finance, Bill English, back in 2012 before Graeme Wheeler was appointed.  But it is surely a little surprising that, after all these years, and five months after Iain Rennie’s report on such issues was finalised, that Treasury still doesn’t have a view on a key aspect of possible reform.  Or are they simply waiting for the election results to come in, and will then tailor their advice to the proferences of their new masters?  I’d like to think not, but is there good reason to do so?

The other interesting snippet –  and maybe it wasn’t new but I hadn’t seen the specific quote previously –  was about the views of the current Minister of Finance.

If a National-led government is returned to power, Finance Minister Steven Joyce has said he’s open to formalizing the existing committee structure but doesn’t favor outside members.
“We should have a look at it,” Joyce said in a July interview. “I wouldn’t see radical change. I think the Reserve Bank model serves us very well.”

I’d certainly disagree with his final sentence, but of course he is welcome to his view. But it does tend to confirm the suggestion I made in the post earlier in the week that the Rennie report must have proposed quite far-reaching reforms.  After all, if Rennie had concluded that the current governance model “serves us very well” and that no change was required, or only some minor changes such as formalising the current Governing Committee, surely the Minister of Finance would have released the report by now.  Rennie may not command enormous respect beyond, say, the current occupants of the Beehive, but had a former State Services Commissioner and former Treasury deputy secretary for macroeconomics concluded that no material change was appropriate –  and certainly nothing like the changes (still modest themselves) that Labour and the Greens have campaigned on – it would have been modestly useful to the National Party, who have attempted to argue that Labour and the Greens simply don’t have what it takes to be economic managers.

Given that the Rennie report to Treasury was paid for with public money, was finished five months ago, and is official information, it is pretty inexcusable that it has not yet seen the light of day.

(I should note that neither the Joyce comments nor those of Makhlouf comments seem to address the Reserve Bank functions other than monetary policy.   In those regulatory areas, reform is even more vital, given the relative lack of constraints on the Governor’s personal freedom of action –  nothing like the Policy Targets Agreement exists.)

The other thing that prompted this post was the Herald’s editorial on Thursday, prompted by the Bloomberg column, and headed “Meddling with OCR carries risks”.  The text doesn’t appear to be online.

Over recent years, the Herald has been a useful mouthpiece for the Reserve Bank, and for outgoing Governor Graeme Wheeler in particular.  By not asking any awkward questions, they’ve been given preferential access to soft interviews and profiles, and have reliably backed up the Governor’s choices –  even when hindsight proves those choices weren’t always the best.

The editorial is somewhat overblown, and lacking in any serious supporting analysis. It asserts

This country has no need to copy any country’s conduct of monetary policy.  New Zealand pioneered inflation targeting by an independent central bank and it served this country will through the global financial crisis whatever mistakes were others may have made.   The divergent targets of the US Federal Reserve possibly contributed to the crisis.

We certainly pioneered formal inflation targeting, although independent central banks had been around in several other countries for decades –  on that count we followed an international lead.  Actually, I’d agree that inflation targeting served us reasonable well through the crisis, as it served well a bunch of other countries.  The US only formally adopted inflation targeting after the crisis was over.  Some would argue that different rules (nominal GDP, price level targeting, wage targeting) might have led to even better responses, although I’m a bit sceptical of that claim.  And any suggestion that the “divergent targets” of the Federal Reserve may have contributed to the crisis probably rests on claims by US economist John Taylor that interest rates were held too low –  below the Taylor rule prescription –  in the early 2000s.  There may be something to that specific point, but…..the Reserve Bank’s own published analysis shows that we did much the same thing during that period.  It is one thing to argue that New Zealand’s monetary policy isn’t much different than that in countries with differently expressed statutory goals (including the US and Australia), but another to argue that our monetary policy is somehow superior to that of those countries.   There is just no evidence for that latter proposition.

Then there is a weird paragraph about the Labour Party’s proposal to add an employment/unemployment dimension to the monetary policy goal.  There are certainly some questions Labour needs to answer if they do happen to form the next government, but to conclude (rhetorically), “could a Labour Party bear a target of 0-4 per cent unemployment”?  one can only suppose the answer must be “yes, but they probably wouldn’t suggest being that prescriptive”.   Only a few people –  some able ones among them –  think full employment in New Zealand at present is lower than 4 per cent.

In the end, the editorial writers seem to conclude that adding an unemployment dimension might not do much harm after all (although they can’t conceive of it doing any good), and what really worries them is the governance proposals.

Labour’s proposed changes to the way the Bank operates may be more damaging.  The Governor would no longer be solely answerable for the key interest rate, the official cash rate (OCR) set eight times a year [isn’t it seven now?].  Labour would give the decision to a committee with some appointees from outside the bank.  Already the Governor consults widely. But sole accountability can produce better decisions. A committee allows blame to be dispersed.

I was pretty gobsmacked. As I noted in my post the other day, I criticize Labour`s proposals as excessively timid, and leaving too much effective power in the Governor.  But quite what is the Herald concerned about?  That we might have a decision-making structure for monetary policy a little more like those in

  • Australia,
  • the United States,
  • the United Kingdom,
  • Norway,
  • Sweden,
  • the euro-area
  • Israel (which had a single decisionmaker until a few years ago, but changed)

They are correct that we don’t need to follow what other countries do.  But there is often wisdom in the choices those other countries make, and when the current Reserve Bank Act was written few countries had reformed their practices in recent decades.  We were (so we thought) pathbreakers, but no country has followed us along this particular path.

Or perhaps the Herald is concerned that monetary policy might be governed the way the rest of the country is?  For example,

  • the Cabinet (actually a committee of people who aren`t technical experts),
  • most companies, while final decision-making power typically rests with a Board,
  • the governance of most or all other Crown entities, from the Board of Trustees of the local primary school, to that of powerful regulatory agencies like the Financial Markets Authority, or
  • our higher courts –  both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court decide each case with a panel of judges.

But perhaps New Zealand monetary policy is uniquely suited to single (formal) decision-making? It is possible I suppose, but frankly it seems unlikely.

And do notice the careful wording “sole accountability can produce better decisions”.  In theory perhaps it can, if we have as Governor someone uniquely talented and gifted with insight and judgements far beyond those of mere mortals.  But this is a real world.  If such people existed, it would be very hard to identify them in advance –  or perhaps even persuade them to serve.   And if those responsible for appointing a Governor thought they`d found such a superstar, only for reality to turn out a bit differently, that would be a recipe for worse outcomes than under a (much more robust) formal committee-based decision-making model. It is why in most areas of life we choose governance models of that sort, rather than beating on supermen (or women).

And today, I`m not even getting into questions of the actual judgements or track record of accountability of Graeme Wheeler.     That can wait for next week.

The editorial concludes that

our system of monetary management is working well. Labour should hesitate to meddle with it.

Actually, not many people would really agree.  Even Steven Joyce says he is open to some change. It is a risky system, out of step with international practice and New Zealand practice in other areas of public life.  It has gone hand in hand with a progressive weakening in the quality of the institution, and if one does wants to talk about relatively uncontroversial specific failures, bear in mind that the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is the only central bank in the world to have launched two tightening cycles since the 2008/09 recession, only to have to quickly reverse both of them.  Those were choices made by individuals given too much power by Parliament. Whoever forms the next government, it is time for a change at the Reserve Bank.