The Reserve Bank’s Board

I’m not an NBR subscriber but I’d been told that last Friday’s edition was quoting me on various aspects of Reserve Bank reform, so when I was in town yesterday I picked up a copy.  I’ll come back later in the post to that article by Jenny Ruth.

But, as it happened, there was another substantial piece in the same issue of NBR also calling for an overhaul of the Reserve Bank governance model.  This one was from Roger Partridge, chairman of the New Zealand Initiative.

The New Zealand Initiative will, no doubt fairly, tell you that they don’t represent any particular interests.  Nonetheless, in Australian parlance, their membership makes up the “big end of town”.  In particular, all four main banks (and a couple of the smaller one) are members, and the Board includes the chair of the Financial Markets Authority and a (until recently) CEO of one of the banks  (CBL Insurance is also shown as one of the members, but I guess not for much longer).

The Initiative appears to be quite unhappy with the governance of the Reserve Bank, especially around its prudential regulatory functions.  All the Bank’s powers are “directly vested in the Governor” and thus, they argue, “the Governor is not accountable to the board in the way any other chief executive would be and the Board has no power to override regulatory decisions”.  Partridge goes on to note that, in his view,

“None of this would matter if the Reserve Bank’s exercise of regulatory power were consistently exemplary. But, as the New Zealand Initiative will disclose in a report to be published next month, there are reasons to believe the bank’s conduct is far from exemplary.”

(Disclosure: I was one of the many people they talked to in putting this report together, and have seen and commented on a draft.  Here I restrict my comments to what is in Partridge’s NBR article.)

Partridge expresses concerns about both “the standards of behaviour of those responsible for the bank’s regulatory decisionmaking, and with the quality of analysis informing its policymaking”.    He notes that the current model is unusual, and (a) lacks the checks and balances that arise from multi-member decisionmaking bodies, (b) the Board has limited effective ability to hold the Governor to account, and (c) the Bank isn’t subject to “the same level of departmental or parliamentary scrutiny as other regulators”.

It is hard to disagree, and I’m certainly not about to.

But in thinking about alternative models, I’m not convinced –  on the basis of what is on display here –  that the New Zealand Initiative has yet thought hard enough.  For example, they seem to take for granted that the Reserve Bank (a single organisation) should be responsible for both monetary policy and the regulatory functions, and yet focus only on the governance of one of those functions, not that of the organisation as a whole.  They also seem to take for granted the existing powers the Reserve Bank has on the regulatory side –  in which the Bank has much more policymaking powers, not just powers around the implementation and enforcement of policy, than most other regulators do.

Partridge appears to approach the issue primarily with a corporate model in mind.  In a corporation, the Board is elected by shareholders and has overall responsibility for the business.  The Board in turn appoints a chief executive –  who might, or might not, be appointed as a Board member –  and delegates certain responsibilities (day to day management) to the chief executive.    And what the Board giveth the Board can take away  – if it can hire, it can fire, and it can alter or withdraw delegations, or even override specific decisions.  Key strategic decisions will be taken by the Board.  There is, at least in principle, a clear goal in mind: maximising value for the shareholders.   And the business either operates in a competitive environment or if not, that is a problem for the competition authorities.  Hardly ever are commercial businesses handed monopoly powers.  That is a quite different situation from a regulatory agency – prudential or otherwise.

Partridge cites the Financial Markets Authority as a better model.  In many respects, the FMA is structured like a corporate: the Minister appoints (and can dismiss) part-time Board members, and the Board hires a chief executive.  But it is worth remembering that the FMA has quite limited policymaking powers: most policy is made by the Minister, whose primary advisers on those matters are MBIE.   The FMA is largely an implementation and enforcement agency.  That is a quite different assignment of powers than currently exists for the Reserve Bank’s regulatory functions (especially around banks).  Also unaddressed are the potentially serious conflict of interest issues around the FMA Board, in its decisionmaking role. More than half the Board members appear to be actively involved in financial markets type activities (directly or as advisers), and even if (as I’m sure happens) individuals recuse themselves from individual cases in which they may have direct associations) it is, nonetheless, a governance body made up largely of those with direct interests that won’t necessarily always align well with the public interest.

Reasonable people can reach different views on the performance of the FMA. I gather many people are currently quite pleased with it, although my own limited exposure –  as a superannuation fund trustee dealing with some egregious historical abuses of power and breaches of trust deeds – leaves me underwhelmed.  It is certainly a model that should be looked at in reforming Reserve Bank governance –  it is, after all, the other key financial system regulator –  but I’m less sure that it is a readily workable model for the prudential functions, even with big changes in the overall structure of the Reserve Bank, and some reassignment of powers.  It certainly couldn’t operate well if both monetary policy and the regulatory functions are left in the same institution.  It doesn’t seem to be a model followed in any other country.  And it isn’t necessary to deal with the core problem in the current system: too much power is concentrated in a single person’s hands.  In a standalone regulatory agency, I suspect an executive board –  akin to the APRA model –  is likely to be an (inevitably imperfect) better model.  In an monetary policy agency, the Governor and any committee/Board members should all be appointed by the Minister (as is standard international practice).

Having said that, I welcome the fact that the New Zealand Initiative is now championing the cause for reform of the governance of the Bank’s prudential regulatory functions, and hope that adds to the impetus for putting those issues front and centre in Stage 2 of the review of the Reserve Bank Act.

Jenny Ruth’s article in the same issue of NBR picked up two of the issues I’ve been calling for reform on.  The first relates to fixing up the current weak provisions around Reserve Bank five-yearly funding agreements: they are (formally) voluntary, not remotely transparent, and out of step with the way we fund numerous other important government agencies, including ones that can make life difficult for sitting governments deciding on annual budgets.   Current provisions are simply out of step, and should be fixed.  If not now, we could wait another 30 years until the next major review of the legislation.

The other issue relates to the future of the Reserve Bank Board

“Another of Mr Reddell’s views is that the Reserve Bank’s board is essentially useless and should be scrapped and Shoeshine can’t help but agree.”

She goes on to recount my own bad experience with the Board –  the Board chair’s active cheerleading for the then-Governor tarring me as irresponsible, after I highlighted evidence suggesting (correctly as it happens) a leak of the March 2016 OCR decision –  and the way the Board was similarly supine in the face of the former Governor’s attempt to silence BNZ chief economist Stephen Toplis.  By statute, the Board exists to hold the Governor to account.  By revealed preference, they seem to exist to have the Governor’s back and never ever express even the slightest open unease.  They aren’t decision-makers (Parliament hasn’t given them that power), and instead they’ve chosen to turn themselves into cheerleaders.

My unease here isn’t personal.  I know several of the directors and have worked quite closely with a couple of them.  One even attends the same church as me and was MC at our wedding.  But they are serving no useful role and in some areas simply aren’t even following the law.

Jenny Ruth highlights the quiesence around the misplaced and ill-judged 2014 tightening cycle, referring to Board annual reports.

Shoeshine knows what a wonderful thing hindsight is, but Mr Wheeler was never able to bring himself to acknowledge that hindsight did indeed show the 2014 hikes were a mistake. Clearly the board couldn’t bring itself to disagree with him.  Shoeshine’s all for this cheerleading role to end.

As it happens, the Board was cheerleading right to the end of Graeme Wheeler’s term.  Quite recently I lodged a request for the minutes of Board meetings from the second half of last year.  One of those meetings was Wheeler’s final one as Governor.   I guess it is customary to say only nice things to those who are leaving, and to step delicately around any points of unease.  But whatever they may have said in private they didn’t need to record anything much for posterity (which is what minute of this sort really are).    And yet they did.  This (with emphasis added]  is from the minutes of the Board meeting held on 21 September 2017.

The Board noted that Governor Wheeler had successfully led a substantial amount of change in Bank policies and in internal Bank management. Policy initiatives included the development of macroprudential tools to address financial stability concerns, changes to the regulatory regime for regulated financial institutions, a review of payments system infrastructure, the new currency, and an expansion in the Bank’s communication and external engagement. Within the Bank Governor Wheeler has promoted a focus on efficient use of resources, understanding risk in the Bank’s operations, the development of management and leadership capability and the formalization of the Governing Committee framework for decision-making within the Bank. On monetary policy and inflation, Governor Wheeler faced global economic and financial conditions that produced a sustained deflationary impulse through tradable goods prices despite moderately strong economic growth in New Zealand and non-tradable inflation within the target range. Governor Wheeler led a substantial new research programme within the Bank analysing the drivers of low inflation outcomes, including the reasons why the record levels of migration have produced less inflationary pressure than in earlier business cycles. The Board has enjoyed an open and collegial relationship with the Governor, including in the implementation of a range of new processes following from the receipt of Minister English’s “Letter of Expectations” to the Board.

The Governor thanked the Board for its constructive advice and support for him
throughout his term.

How terribly chummy.   It is carefully worded, but there is no mention of the persistent failure to keep inflation near the target midpoint (despite all the “substantial new research programme”), and none of the fact that surely no one other than Bank –  and the cheerleading Board? – regarded external communcations during the Wheeler years as any sort of positive.  In a way it is all encapsulated in the final remark recorded from the Governor –  this Board exists almost entirely as the agent of the public and the Minister to hold the Governor to account, not to “support” him.

It really time for this Board to be disbanded.   Perhaps a Board has a role in either an ongoing Reserve Bank (as monetary authority) or in a new Prudential Regulatory Authority, but if so it should be nothing like the sort of board we’ve wasted public money on for almost 30 years now.

Finally, the release of those Board minutes confirms that the Board still does not meet even some of its most basic statutory obligations, those under the Public Records Act.   There is nothing at all in the minutes about the process leading to the recommendation to the Minister of Finance of a name of a person to be appointed as the new Governor.  To be clear, if there had been I’d have expected much of the material to have been withheld –  on privacy grounds –  but the minutes are quite clear that there is no such record.   As an example, at the meeting of 16 November –  presumably the one at which the final recommentation was made –  there is just this

8.2 Non-Executive Directors-only Session

No minutes follow, no records, no indications of anything being withheld.  Simply a flagrant breach of a simple statutory obligation.

I noticed that earlier this week the government appointed Dr Chris Eichbaum to the Reserve Bank Board (a role he held previously, being appointed by Michael Cullen for a term from 2008 to 2013).   Eichbaum is an academic, working in the School of Government at Victoria University, and so presumably has a professional interest in good process etc. Whatever else Eichbaum brings, perhaps he could remind his colleagues of their basic statutory recordkeeping obligations?


4 thoughts on “The Reserve Bank’s Board

  1. I am over the fetish over the notion of Central Bank’s omniscience and omnipotence. The attribution of the control of the economy and even inflation, to this higher power is detrimental to an economy long-term. No doubt, central bank can control inflation with tight-money, but the to complain that it is not causing enough inflation doesn’t follow.

    The fetishing of central bank (and economists) is even resulting changes to the Reserve Bank Act, allowing the consideration of unemployment rates in monetary decision. This is very unhealthy and has led to asymmetrical policy decision making, the Fed-Put, where downside risk is perceived to be mitigated: leading to ever increasing debt/risk profiles. Ultimately, resulting in a more fragile economic system, waiting for the Minsky’s moment- the Sword-of-Damocles

    What has this worship of central banks and the mantra of stability lead us to?: an economic system on the face-of-it moderates economic swings, but leaving dead wood unremoved and hazards magnified- waiting for a catalysmic fire.

    The discussion of reorganisation of the Reserve Bank Board, reminds me of the analogy of an outside consultant brought in to improve performance recommending: the workplace needs to rearrange furniture/breakdown walls- specious in my mind. The question should be: has the Reserve Bank worked in practice, and who cares if in theory other models may be better.

    To quote Yogi Berra: In theory, practice and theory should be the same; but in practice they are not.


    • I’d argue that the Reserve Bank hasn’t worked well in practice, as regards either monetary policy or financial regulatory responsibilities. Since the model is also somewhat flawed in theory, it is appropriate to make structural changes. Indeed, you’ll note that Partridge made exactly your point: it might not matter if the arrangements have worked in practice but he thinks they haven’t. Personally, I would favour change even if the arrangements looked to have worked not badly: one needs resilient regimes, incl to poor Governors.

      But I quite take the point that no one should repose too much confidence in any govt agency, including central banks.


    • NZ household debt roughly equal NZ household savings of $166 billion. Therefore the impact of monetary policy on NZ household is pretty much muted. If interest rates rises savers gain and borrowers lose. If interest rates fall savers lose and borrowers gain. There is $120 billion in Investment property debt and farm debt but those are more of a business nature. The remaining $150 billion is business debt. Therefore monetary policy largest impact is the impact of commercial and business activity. Economists in the RBNZ and Treasury have wrongly guided Monetary policy and laying waste to NZ businesses en masse. I keep hearing from government ministers like David Parker and top economists like you, Micheal, that no one associates NZ with high tech industries and that the only thing we are good at is land based primary industries. What a nonsense. If thats the only thing we are good at then we do not need the CPTPP Free trade agreement or any other Free Trade Agreements. We are already at peak agriculture exporting 90% of our agricultural production with 10 million cows and 4 million tourists. We simply cannot continue to increase any further sales from this avenue and subsidise these industries through increased levels of pollutants. We are just giving away our sovereign rights for not much gain as we have already reached peak primary production.


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