Adrian Orr as Governor-designate

There are some good aspects in the announcement yesterday that the government intends to appoint Adrian Orr as the next Governor of the Reserve Bank.

For a start, the appointment will be a lawful one –  always a help.  Steven Joyce’s unlawful appointee as “acting Governor” will continue to mind the store until late March, and then at least we will be back to having someone lawful in office.   The unlawful interlude was unnecessary, and reflects poorly on governance and policymaking in New Zealand, but it will be soon be over.  Be thankful for small mercies.

It also seems highly unlikely that Adrian Orr will spend his first five years in office skulking in corners, avoiding any serious media scrutiny.   He is a vigorous and, mostly, effective communicator (on which more below) and in that sense is likely to be a welcome breath of fresh air in the Reserve Bank.  If he can model greater openness, across all the Bank’s function, it would be a significant step forward.

And there might be reason to hope that an Orr-led Reserve Bank might start to take transparency –  within and beyond the confines of the Official Information Act –  rather more seriously.  I’m not a huge fan of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, but I am quite impressed by their transparency, including in dealing with Official Information Act requests.  When I asked recently for the background papers justifying the decision to cut the Fund’s carbon exposures –  they’d already pro-actively released some papers –  I got (from memory) something like 3000 pages of material.  When one asks the Reserve Bank for background papers to monetary policy decisions, one is repeatedly stonewalled (unless it is about things from 10 years ago).  I hope the contrast bodes well for the sort of leadership Adrian will bring to the Bank.

That is the positive side of the appointment.  But here is what I wrote earlier in the year, at the time when controversy was raging about his NZSF salary.

Orr simply isn’t –  and I wouldn’t have thought he’d claim otherwise –  some investment guru, blessed with extraordinary insights into markets, prospective returns etc etc.  He was a capable economist, and a good communicator (at least when he doesn’t lapse into vulgarity), who turned himself into a manager and seems to have done quite well at that.   He always seeemed skilled at managing upwards, and his management style (in my observation at the Reserve Bank) seemed to err towards the polarising (“are you with us, or against us”), attracting and retaining loyalists, but not exactly encouraging diversity of perspectives or styles.  He isn’t exactly a self-effacing character. (That is one reason I’m not convinced he is quite the right person to be the next Governor of the Reserve Bank.)

I’d stand by those comments today.

He is more of a manager –  and perhaps a salesperson – than an economist, despite some comments in the last day about him being an “exceptional economist”.  That has probably been so for at least 20 years now.  In itself, that isn’t a criticism, and there is a significant management dimension to the Reserve Bank role –  in particular, at present, a change management responsibility (both to implement whatever changes emerge from the Minister of Finance’s secretive review of the Reserve Bank Act, and to lift the internal performance, and improve the culture, of the Bank).

His management approach might be more questionable. In his first short stint at the Reserve Bank, 20 years ago, he took over a department that was severely demoralised and lacking the influence it would normally have had.  In a narrow sense, he did an effective job of turning around that underperformance.   But his style always seemed to be quite a divisive one, playing up “his team” at the expense of others, rather than seeking to lift the entire organisation  –  in fact, he boasted of it in his farewell speech when he left the Bank in 2000.  I haven’t observed him directly in the last decade, but I am struck by the number of able people I’ve known who’ve worked for him for a time, and then didn’t.    It wasn’t, as far as I could see, that they went on to bigger and better things either.  Adrian seems to build cohesive teams of loyalists.  That has its place, but it isn’t obvious that the Reserve Bank is one of those places.

What of his communications skills?  He can be hugely entertaining, and quite remarkably vulgar (an astonishingly crude analogy involving toothbrushes springs to mind).   Just the thing –  perhaps –  in an old-fashioned market economist.  Not, perhaps, the sort of thing we might hope for from a Reserve Bank Governor.   Financial markets can get rather precious about very slight changes in phrasing etc from the Reserve Bank, and it is hard to be confident just how well Orr will go down.  No doubt he will rein in his tongue most of the time –  and perhaps he has calmed down a bit with age – but it is the exceptions that are likely to prove problematic.

And what happens when some journalist or market economist riles him?    Perhaps a journalist might ask him about how he would approach an episode like the Toplis affair?  You (and I) might like to hope things would be different, but I have in mind an episode from Orr’s time as Deputy Governor.  A visiting economist was engaging in what they thought was a bit of robust dialogue with Orr in a meeting with several people at the Bank.  Shortly afterwards, Orr bailed the visitor up in the street and told him ‘never, ever, do that in front of my staff again”.

And yet, so we are told, part of the motivation for the forthcoming reforms to the Reserve Bank is to ensure that more perspectives are heard, and incorporated, in decisionmaking at the Bank.   How confident can we be that Orr will actually implement the reforms in a way that will foster debate and diversity, rather than clamp down on it and marginalise anyone he perceives as disagreeing with him?   Particularly if the person or people disagreeing with them doesn’t share his blokish style, or might simply know more about a particular issue than Orr does.

And how is Orr going to do –  repeatedly in the public eye, in a way he hasn’t been for the last decade –  with the sort of gravitas and political neutrality the role of Governor requires?  Only a few weeks ago – when he must already have known that he was likely to become Governor –  Orr gave a speech to the Institute of Directors, in which he reportedly dismissed the views of Deputy Prime Minister on the economy as “bollocks” and went on to suggest, in answer to a question about nuclear risks in North Korea, that perhaps two issues could be solved at once ‘because Winston is going to North Korea”.  Recall that at the time, Orr was not some independent market economist, but a senior public servant.     He might well have been right in his views on the economy, but is this how senior public servants should be operating?

I also have concerns about the way Orr engages with issues and evidence. My very first dealing with him involved some controversial reform proposals we were working on at the Bank, while Adrian was still in the private sector.   Adrian’s submission had played rather fast and loose with the data, something I pointed out to Don Brash, the then Governor.  Don went rather quiet and didn’t say much, which puzzled me a little, until a day or two later Adrian’s appointment as Reserve Bank chief economist was announced.  Much more recently, there was some debate earlier in the year about NZSF’s performance.   On a good day, and in official documents, Adrian will happily tell you NZSF’s performance can only really be judged over, say, 20 or 30 years horizons.  But then he will pop up in the newspaper suggesting that a few moderately good years –  amid a global asset market boom –  vindicate the existence of the Fund and the way it is run.    He keeps trying to convince us that he runs  a “sovereign wealth fund”, when it fact it is a speculative punt on world markets, using borrowed money (yours and mine).  He has simply refused to engage with the international evidence casting doubt on whether active funds management can generate positive expected returns in the long-run, and when he led the NZSF into a big (politically popular, but economically questionable) move out of carbon exposures –  an active management call if ever there was one – he took steps to ensure that taxpayers couldn’t really know whether his judgement paid off (hiding the change in the benchmark itself, rather than being constantly reported in devations from a benchmark).     I’m just not sure it is quite the degree of rigour, authority and independence of mind that we should be looking for in a Reserve Bank Governor.  What example, for a start, does it set for his own subordinates in how they marshall evidence and arguments for him?

On the same note, there was that speech Orr gave last month to the Institute of Directors (full text here).  It was given at a time when he knew he was in the final stages of the gubernatorial selection process.   It was advertised as a substantial speech

Looking Beyond Our Shores – Adrian Orr’s Address to the Institute of Directors

Adrian Orr’s address to the Institute of Directors, Wellington, 16 November 2017.
Adrian shares his thoughts on what directors need to think about to make sure New Zealand benefits from its place in the globalised economy.

So you might have expected some considerable substantive analysis.   But there wasn’t much there at all.     You won’t find anything about New Zealand’s underperformance –  productivity, exports, or whatever.   But you will find one conventional wisdom thought after another (albeit with a tantalising aside on Chinese influence), whether or not they apply to New Zealand  (eg “returns to the owners of capital versus labour –  which is stretched to extremes at present within and between nations” –  when the labour share of income has been rising in New Zealand for 15 years).  And then it devolves to “doing something” about climate change –  which might or might not be sound, but isn’t going to make us materially better off – and lots of self-praise (not all of it even accurate) for the NZSF.    A speech on how to “make sure New Zealands benefits from its place in the globalised economy” ends with these platitudes

My summary thoughts are:

  • Companies must take more long-term ownership of all their activities – it is the Board’s role; 
  • New Zealand needs to embrace a global reputation of longtermism, and sell it; and
  • We can start with climate and our culture at the company level.

No real answers, and not much depth there.   Perhaps it wasn’t characteristic –  I haven’t gone back and read his other speeches from recent years –  but this was the speech on a topic somewhat closer to his new areas of responsibility as a (singlehanded) key economic decisionmaker.

I’m sure there are those capable people who are genuinely impressed with Adrian (as presumably, the Reserve Bank Board was –  the same people who appointed Graeme Wheeler).  But don’t be fooled by the absence of any sceptical comment at all in the last day or so.     Of the people the media is likely to go to for comment, many will be needing to maintain a professional relationship with him in his new role, and others will work for organisations that do business with NZSF –  and Orr is still chief executive there for a few more months.

Only time will now tell how Orr does in the job.   For a time he will be by far the most powerful unelected person in New Zealand –  exercising singlehandedly all the monetary policy, regulatory, and intervention powers the various Acts give to the Governor –  and then and beyond responsible for leading the transition to a reformed Reserve Bank (details of which are still unknown –  including how much effective power will be left with the Governor).  As someone who is well-known to fight for his patch, his people, I’ve further revised down my estimate of the prospects for real change at the Bank –  especially around the financial stability functions where (a) the Bank is almost lawless, and (b) the Minister of Finance doesn’t care very much.  I’d like to believe he will do well –  for the New Zealand public –  but it is hard not to shake the impression that Adrian Orr is no Phil Lowe (RBA), Stephen Poloz (Bank of Canada), Philip Lane (central bank of Ireland), Stan Fischer (former central bank of Israel and recent vice-chair of the Fed).   In some ways he will be very different from Graeme Wheeler, but in many areas we could be exchanging one set of weaknesses for another.

But I suspect he will be wildly popular at the annual financial markets function the Reserve Bank hosts.   Bonhomie, backslapping, and plenty to drink tended to characterise those functions when I had to attend them.