The Rennie review: still secret

Hamish Rutherford has a new story up at Stuff on the review of aspects of the governance of the Reserve Bank undertaken earlier this year by former State Services Commissioner (and former Treasury Deputy Secretary for macro matters) Iain Rennie.  The report was undertaken for Treasury, at the request of the Minister of Finance.  The final report was, we’ve been told, delivered in mid-April.

I’ve written about this a review a few times:

But still the review report has not been released, and nor is Treasury willing to release either earlier drafts of the report, or the comments made by reviewers.

Today’s article appears to be prompted by some observations from ANZ chief economist Cameron Bagrie,

Cameron Bagrie, chief economist for ANZ, said without the terms of reference he was “flying a bit blind”, but it was possible the review was headed towards recommending a model used across the Tasman, where powers are split between the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA).
“The consensus seems to be that the review is about monetary policy,” Bagrie said.
“I suspect it’s broader and maybe they are looking at whether we have an Australian model where they have the RBA for monetary policy, financial stability, markets, payments et al and APRA for the prudential/regulatory side.”

I’m quoted in Rutherford’s article.  As I’ve said previously, I’d be really surprised if Rennie was recommending a structural separation (along the lines of Australia).  There are all sorts of models internationally, but I haven’t heard anyone in New Zealand for some years seriously propose structural separation (I may at times have advocated such a split in the past), especially since the British government a few years brought the regulatory functions back under the same roof as monetary policy.   There are separate statutory committees for each main function, but they are all conducted out of the Bank of England.  If anything, the global trend in recent years has been to emphasise the important overlaps or crossovers between monetary policy and financial stability, if only in respect of the underlying information flows.

Although Bagrie noted that “the consensus seems to be that the review is about monetary policy”, it has surely been clear for some time that the review could not have been that narrow in scope?  After all, Steven Joyce told us in April that he asked the reviewer to look at whether the Reserve Bank should continue to be responsible for its own legislation –  an issue that is almost entirely about the Bank’s regulatory responsibilities.  And the terms of engagement document did note explicitly that

The Treasury is contracting Iain Rennie to provide a report assessing governance and decision-making at the Reserve Bank.

Nothing there suggesting monetary policy only.  And, in any case, no reviewer could really do a serious job looking only at monetary policy, given that it occurs within an institution, and both functional and (whole of) institutional governance would be likely to be affected by any decisions regarding monetary policy.  And Treasury has been known to be unhappy about the governance of the financial regulatory functions –  including the Bank’s responsibility for its own legislation –  and Rennie was contracted by The Treasury.

On which note, Rutherford includes this

Top officials within the Reserve Bank are said to believe Rennie’s report is something of a power grab by Treasury.

Michael Reddell, the former special advisor to the Reserve Bank, said even the details about the report already released , around which organisation was responsible for the central bank’s governing legislation, amounted to a power play.

Far be from me to agree with the Bank on this.  If I said there was a “power play” involved, it was simply to note that the Treasury has long been uncomfortable about governance, accountability and information flows around the financial regulation powers of the Reserve Bank.  I happen to agree with them   There is too much power vested in one individual, and in one agency.  Those powers should be trimmed, and stronger accountability established.  The Treasury should probably be made responsible as the primary advisers on the various pieces of legislation the Bank operates under.

In a post a couple of weeks ago, I referred to the Bagrie thesis, the Rennie review, and Reserve Bank reform prospects more generally, noting

On the National Party side, you’ll recall that the Minister of Finance had Treasury hire former State Services Commissioner (and former Treasury deputy secretary) Iain Rennie to provide some analysis and advice on possible changes to the governance of the Reserve Bank.  Having had drafts reviewed by various experts, the report was completed months ago, but hasn’t yet seen the light of day.  Treasury has been blocking the release of even drafts of the report, or comments on the draft by reviewers, and nothing is heard from the Minister of Finance.    Presumably Rennie didn’t conclude that everything was just fine and no changes were required.  Had he done so, there would have been no reason not to publish, and it might even have been a small piece of useful ammunition against the sorts of reforms opposition parties are campaigning on.

The interesting question is (a) how far has Rennie gone in his recommendations, and (b) whether a re-elected National government (perhaps reliant on New Zealand First –  long critical of the Reserve Bank) would implement them?   I heard the other day a hypothesis that the report isn’t being released because it calls for reform so radical that the Reserve Bank would be split in two (a monetary policy and macro agency, like the Reserve Bank of Australia, and a prudential regulatory agency (like APRA).   There are pros and cons to such a structural split, but I haven’t for a long time heard anyone here seriously propose it as an option (and particularly not since the UK government brought all those functions back under one roof).    Time will tell, but I would hope Rennie would recommend things like (ideas previously proposed here, and practices in the UK):

  • moving (in law) to committee-based decisionmaking,
  • having external members appointed directly by the Minister,
  • separate committees for monetary policy and the prudential regulatory functions,
  • a mandated greater degree of transparency, and
  • (something Joyce asked for advice on) making Treasury primarily responsible for the legislation under which the Reserve Bank operates.

As I say, time will tell.  But if National is back in office, they will presumably want to move quite quickly on appointing a permanent Governor (the Board, which is driving the process, meets again later this week), and whoever takes the role would presumably want to know what legislative arrangements they would be operating under.

It is well past time for the Rennie report, and associated documents to be released.  Doing so can’t have suited the current government, but this is an official document, paid for with taxpayers’ money.   And there can’t really be any credible grounds under the Official Information Act for withholding a months’-old consultants report to The Treasury on matters of organisation design.  In fact, in the current hiatus –  between Governors –  I would argue that there is a significant public interest in the release of the report now.


On wages: expectations and reality

Last week, when I was tied up with other stuff, I heard a few media reports that a new Westpac survey was showing that public expectations of wage increases were slipping away.  At the time, I didn’t look at the details, but made a note to come back to it.

This was the key chart included in Westpac’s report of the survey results.

wage expectations

Introduced with this text:

Although workers may be feeling more confident about job opportunities, when it comes to the outlook for earnings, sentiment is really in the dumps. Increasing numbers of workers are telling us that they don’t expect any change in their earnings from work over the coming year. In fact, the number of workers who expect to receive a pay increase over the coming year is languishing at the sort of lows we saw during the financial crisis.

Concluding with this

And while nominal wage growth has remained muted, consumer price inflation has picked up. After lingering below 1% for much of the past few years, consumer price
inflation is now running at 1.7% per annum. This means that the limited pay rises many workers have received have only just been keeping pace with changes in the cost of living. And for those workers who didn’t receive a pay rise (and even for some that did), their spending power may be going backwards.

I’m not really convinced.

I’m not doubting that respondents did answer the question the way Westpac reports. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the recent reversal of wage expectations was the real thing: there was all sorts of talk not long away about wage inflation being just about to “take off”, which so far hasn’t come to anything much.   But even with the recent reversal, expectations are still just back to around where they were for a fair part of 2015 and 2016.

My concern is more about how to interpret the longer-run of data in the chart and, in fact, how to make sense of wage data themselves.

For a start, surely respondents to this survey are inclined to bias their answers downwards?  After all, look at the results for the 2005 to 2007 period, when the labour market was unquestionably tight (including the fact that the unemployment rate was below 4 per cent), and general wage inflation –  on any of the measures –  was quite high.  And yet only around 50 per cent of respondents expected a wage increase.  Many more than that must have been achieving a wage increase.  As I’ve noted previously, the labour share of total income has actually been increasing in New Zealand.

Second, it is worth remembering that inflation expectations now are materially lower than they were a decade ago.

household expecs 2017

The numbers bounce around a bit, but at the end of the previous boom the average year-ahead expectation was around 4.5 per cent, whereas now it around 3 per cent.  (One shouldn’t put much weight on the absolute numbers, but the pattern is consistent with others surveys of inflation expectations.)   If inflation expectations have fallen materially, surely it is reasonable that fewer survey respondents will now be expecting nominal wage increases, even if everything else (labour market tightness, productivity growth or whatever) was unchanged?

Westpac also uses as a reference point a 1.7 per cent rise in annual wages.  That number appears to come from the LCI, a series that purports to adjust for what firms’ report were productivity changes.  It is better to use the “analytical unadjusted” measure from the LCI, which is closer to a stratified raw measure of wage increases –  which is, after all, more like what the respondents in the Westpac survey are being asked about.

Many commentator also focus on the even lower wage inflation numbers from the Quarterly Employment Survey (QES) –  a wage measure that is notoriously volatile (and not really representative of how anyone thinks the labour market is actually working).  It is quite prone to compositional changes, and thus doesn’t reflect – or really try to reflect –  an individual’s own experience in the labour market.

I’ve covered this issue in an earlier post.

I’m not sure why people put so much weight on the QES measure of hourly wage inflation.  It has well-known problems (for these purposes) and is hugely volatile.   Here is a chart showing wage inflation for the private sector according to (a) the QES, and (b) the Labour Cost Index, analytical unadjusted series.

wages debate  No economic analyst thinks wage inflation is anything like as volatile as the blue line –  in fact, wage stickiness, and persistence in wage-setting patterns is one of the features of modern market economies.

And here is the chart I ran last week, comparing real private sector wage inflation (the orange line above, adjusted for the sectoral core measure of CPI inflation) with productivity growth.

Real wage inflation now is lower than it was in the pre-2008 boom years, but it is running well ahead of productivity growth (however one lags or transforms it).

As I noted in that earlier post, real wage inflation in New Zealand has been surprisingly strong in recent years, given the complete absence of any (actual or trend) growth in labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked).  Of course, low inflation and low inflation expectations hold down the nominal rates of wage increases (relative to what we were experiencing a decade ago), but the real measures are largely what matter.   Real household purchasing power from labour income in New Zealand has been increasing –  from increased employment, but also from real wage increases that are more than it is likely that the economy can support in the longer-term.

Perhaps then people are right to expect more modest wage increases ahead.  But if so, it will likely be because the non-tradables led pseudo-boom of the last few years comes to an end, and market processes across the economy force an adjustment in wage-setting to something more consistent with our alarmingly poor productivity growth record (in this particular bad phase now five years and counting).