Towards a more open central bank

Earlier in the week I wrote a post making the case for reform of the Reserve Bank to be done in such in a way that encourages a much more open central bank, at least in its monetary policy dimensions (there are similar, but different, issues around the other areas of the Bank’s responsibilities).     That post was prompted by the public efforts of the “acting Governor” and his deputy (and acknowledged candidate to be the new Governor) to push back against (a) external members on a new statutory Monetary Policy Committee, and particularly (b) to resist any suggestion of any greater transparency around monetary policy.   As I illustrated in that post, what these officials dislike are systems that work well, and have become established, in places as diverse as the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the United States.  There is no obvious reason why such an approach could not work well in New Zealand.  And it is not as if the Reserve Bank’s reputation now stands so high that no sane person can envisage any possible room for improvement.

I gather that Spencer and Bascand have since given other interviews restating again their opposition to reforms along these lines.  Whatever their views, it is astonishing that they are carrying on this campaign in public –  even as Bascand has been privately making his case to be the next Governor.  They are bureaucrats, who are paid to operate under the laws, and governance arrangements, that Parliament – acting on behalf of the people –  establishes.  Good statutory provisions governing powerful public agencies involve striking a balance between, on the one hand, drawing on technical expertise, and on the other hand, protecting the interests of citizens against over-mighty bureaucrats advancing their personal interests and/or the interests of their bureau.    Openness and transparency are among those protections.  It is perhaps telling that Bank officials are keen on openness when it allows them to advance their views on this issue –  to protect their patch –  but not when it might prove awkward for them.   Graeme Wheeler was much the same  –  last year willing to go public to tell us that for one controversial OCR decision every single one of his advisers had supported him, but then willing to fight all the way to the Ombudsman to prevent citizens seeing comparable numbers for other decisions (even ones well in the past).  The only principle that seems to guide them on such matters is patch protection and self-interest, precisely the things we need protection against (and the sorts of things that motivated the Official Information Act 35 years ago).

In the purpose provisions of the Official Information Act, the very first item is this

to increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand in order—

  • to enable their more effective participation in the making and administration of laws and policies; and
  • to promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials,—

and thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote the good government of New Zealand

It is a mindset that has never taken hold at the Reserve Bank.    And thus it was encouraging that in the Speech from the Throne the other day there was an explicit commitment to “improving transparency” around monetary policy.

But after my post the other day, someone got in touch to point out that I’d left out one argument for a more open (monetary policy) central bank.  This correspondent noted that they would have

….added another argument for the value of individual responsibility of committee members: Central banks should stop pretending that the future is knowable, and the economy well understood. Monolithic representation of THE Bank view perpetuates that dangerous myth.

I agree entirely.  To have left it out the other day was an oversight, but it was also something implicit in many of the other arguments and international experiences.

Getting monetary policy roughly right –  the best than anyone can hope for –  is a process of discovery, iteration, revision and so on.  It isn’t a case of one wise person, or even a handful of wise bureaucrats, consulting the secret oracle, and revealing truth to the peasants.   Members of a monetary policy committee –  or the Governor under current NZ law –  get to make the final decision on the OCR, but they know no more about how the economy works, or what might happen next, than any number of other observers.  Indeed, of the four members of Wheeler’s advisory Governing Committe, only one could be considered pretty much fulltime focused on monetary policy (the chief economist).  Of course, they have more analytical resources at their command –  but, in fact, those are our resources, paid for by taxpayers.

When it suits them, the Bank will –  correctly –  emphasise just how much uncertainty there is about the appropriate monetary policy, and how the economy and inflation might unfold in future.  But, if so, what do they have to be afraid of from a much greater degree of openness?

I went back and listened again to the relevant bits of Thursday’s press conference.  Governor-aspirant Geoff Bascand was quite explicit that he thought people needed to focus on the issues that “the Bank” had set out in its Monetary Policy Statement, on “the risks ‘the Bank’ was considering”, on “the substance”.  Bascand didn’t want people focusing on the other issues, or divergences of views, and so on.

It is the same old mindset: we know “the truth”, we know which issues are important and which aren’t, we know how best to balance risks, and so on. And “we” can’t possibly risk letting people know that there might, at times, be genuine differences of view among able people at the Reserve Bank.   But what evidence do they have for such claims?  Either of the degree of knowledge they (implicitly) claim for themselves. or for the level of risk they claim explicitly to worry about.    Instead, life is just easier for bureaucrats if we maintain the secrecy, and continue to channel a monolithic view –  monolithic this time, monolithic next time, monolithic the time after, even though each of those monolithic views may be quite different from each other.

It would bore readers to run through the evidence for how often the Governor’s monolithic view has been wrong (or central banks in other countries have been wrong).  Sometimes one could count him culpable. At other times, things just turned different than most people –  inside or outside the Bank –  reasonably thought likely.  That is the nature of the beast: things are highly uncertain and nothing is gained, no one’s interests (probably not even those of really capable bureaucrats) are advanced by keeping on pretending otherwise.  The evidence to the contrary is there almost every time any central bank sits down and deliberates on monetary policy.  Mostly, it seems as of Spencer, Bascand, and McDermott have settled in a comfortable rut.  It may suit them, but that isn’t a good argument in institutional design.

I noted the other day the Supreme Court offers a good counter-example.   Final appellate decisions are, in some ways, quite like OCR decisions.  They aren’t necessarily “the truth”, but they are final.   Smart lawyers make sophisticated arguments on either side of any particular case.  Smart judges often enough disagree among themselves.  Some decisions end up being made by a 5:0 vote, but many are 3:2 decisions, and the Chief Justice can easily be in a minority.    Court hearings are, typically, open, and decisions – in the affirmative, and dissenting –  are typically published.    Only an idealist would pretend that the decision is “truth” –  the only possible, or sensible, way of reading the facts and relevant statutes.  But that particular panel of judges –  chosen for their character and expertise –  gets to make the final decision.

It isn’t clear why monetary policy should be so different.  It is even more provisional since, although each OCR decision is final, the panel is back every couple of months looking at an only slightly different set of facts, but sometimes reading them in quite different ways.  I’m not suggesting –  at the ludicrous extreme –  broadcasting meetings of a Monetary Policy Committee, but I can see no possible harm – to the public, or to a well-managed Reserve Bank – from shifting to a culture of much more radical openness, suited to the specifics of monetary policy.   Why shouldn’t the relevant background papers be published, even with a bit of a lag?  Doing so would not only gives stakeholders more a sense of the quality of the staff analysis, it would allow outsiders to point to things staff might (being human) have missed.    Why shouldn’t dissenting opinions, carefully crafted, be included in the minutes (much as the appellate judges do)?  And why shouldn’t members of the MPC –  each independent statutory appointees, and accountable as such –  be giving thoughtful speeches, or interviews, outlining how they see the issues around monetary policy, in ways that invite input from outsiders.  Capable people –  the only sort who should hold these roles –  need have nothing to fear from the contest of ideas.  From such exchanges, from such scrutiny, usually better decisions –  still imperfect –  will emerge.  And the public will have a better sense of the limits of what they can expect from any agency in an area so (inevitably) riddled with uncertainty.

Openness can be messy.  There will be mis-steps at times.  But that is nature of a free and open society.    Choreographed uniformity of view should be left to Xi Jinping.  I noticed a day or so ago that Robert Kaplan, head of Dallas Fed, was on the wires observing

“History has shown that normally when we have a substantial overshoot the Fed ultimately needs to take actions to play catch-up,” Kaplan said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Kaplan said he was actively considering “appropriate next steps” when asked if he was willing to consider a rate rise at the upcoming Fed meeting, FT reported.

I’m sure there are plenty of people around the Fed who will disagree with Kaplan’s particular perspective.  But the question for old-school bureaucrats like Spencer and Bascand is what possible harm, to the conduct of monetary policy or the interests of the American people, is done by such openness?  I can’t see any.  I hope the Minister of Finance –  helped by the forthcoming Independent Expert Advisory Panel –  will draw the same sort of conclusion, and ensure that the new legislation is crafted, and key appointments are made, accordingly.

4 thoughts on “Towards a more open central bank

  1. The first thing they have to do is to work out the criteria for lifting of the 40% equity on the LVR. I still cannot get over how very disappointed I am that there is still no action plan by the RBNZ. Not even sure why my bank has levied a 41% equity requirement on my investment property portfolio as they are so worried about the 40% equity rule threshold.

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    • 1% does not sound very much. But if every bank were to act so conservatively then they have effectively withdrawn $4 billion of credit liquidity out of say $400 billion of debt, commercial, residential and business. No wonder there is a credit availability issue out there.

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  2. I do like the idea of broadcasting the MPC, but I can see it probably wouldn’t work. Publishing briefing papers without delay seems reasonable too. Speeches etc by committee members seems reasonable too. But may depend on the committee size. At present, any comment by the “committee of one” could have an unwelcome effect on markets. But with a large committee, the comments by one out spoken member can be ignored as noise.

    I was just thinking, parliament could be the MPC, and make/vote on the decision every six weeks?

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