I had been meaning to write about a speech given last week by Grant Spencer of the Reserve Bank on so-called “macro-prudential policy”. It was a thoughtful speech, as befits the man, and the last he will give as a public servant before retiring next week.
That it was thoughtful doesn’t mean that I generally agreed with Spencer’s (personal, rather than institutional) views. There were at least two important omissions. First, as it has done over the last half-decade (and more) the Bank continues to grossly underplay the importance of land-use restrictions in accounting for increases in the prices of houses (and particularly the land under them). Until they get that element of the analysis more central, it is difficult to have much confidence in what they say about housing markets, housing risks, or possible Band-aid regulatory interventions of their own devising. And second, they constantly ignore the limitations of their own knowledge. I’m not suggesting for a moment that they are worse than other regulators in this regard – who all, typically, have the same blindspot – but it might matter rather more from a regulator than exercises, and wants to be able to continue to exercise, large discretionary intervention powers, with pervasive effects over the lives – and financing options – of many New Zealanders. If they won’t openly acknowledge their own inevitable limitations, and discuss openly how they think about and manage the associated risks, how can we have any real confidence that they aren’t just blundering onwards, fired by good intentions and injunctions to “trust us” rather than by robust analysis. In respect of both these omissions, I hope – without much hope – that the new Governor begins to put the Bank on a better footing.
When someone asked me the other day if there was anything new in the speech, one thing I noticed was how far the Bank’s current senior management appears to have come over the last few months around possible changes to the governance of the Bank’s main functions. Casual readers might not notice the change, because it is presented as anything but. Specifically, this is what Spencer had to say.
Given the planned introduction of a new decision making committee (MPC) for monetary policy, the Review should consider establishing a financial policy committee (FPC) for decisions relating to both micro and macro prudential policy. The Reserve Bank has supported a two-committee (MPC/FPC) model in place of the current single Governing Committee, for example in the Bank’s 2017 “Briefing for Incoming Minister”.
Of course, it is only a few months since the Bank’s expressed preference was simply to take the existing internal Governing Committee (the Governor and the deputies/assistant he appoints) and recognise it in statute, as the forum through which the Governor would continue to make final decisions.
And what of the claim that the Bank has – not just does now – supported a two-committee model, including in its Briefing to the Incoming Minister late last year? At very best, that is gilding the lily.
“Provided the Governing Committee remains relatively small, we believe it should continue to make decisions by consensus, with the Governor having the final decision if no consensus can be achieved. “
The Reserve Bank considers that some evolution in its decision-making approach may be appropriate. We recommend that the review of the RBNZ Act be limited to your stated change objectives. We consider a review along these lines could be completed reasonably quickly and we would be happy to prepare a draft terms of reference, in consultation with the Treasury. A variety of arrangements are possible and these are discussed, alongside the rationale for the Bank’s preferred model, in Appendix 6.
Other legislative changes that may be desirable over time include:
– Creating separate decision-making committees for monetary and financial policy
Note the suggestion to the Minister to keep the forthcoming review of the Act to the minimum of what Labour had promised (which dealt only with monetary policy), with some vague suggestion that at some time in the future – but not in this review – separate committees “may” be appropriate. It could scarcely be called a full-throated endorsement of change.
Of course, the Bank lost various battles. The first stage of the review is being led by Treasury (dealing with the monetary policy bits) and the second stage will look at (as yet unidentified issues). And it seems they must have recognised that the ground is shifting, and that it would be hard to defend the current single decisionmaker models for the Bank’s huge regulatory (policy and operational) powers once momentum gathered behind a committee model for monetary policy. Whatever the reason, it is a welcome move on the part of the current management. Of course, we have no idea what the new Governor – taking office in a few days – thinks about suggestions to curtail his powers.
And just finally on the speech, one element of good governance is obeying, and respecting, the law. Once again, Spencer’s speech and press release have been put out under the title “Grant Spencer, Governor”. He simply isn’t. At best he is “acting Governor”, a specific provision under the Reserve Bank Act. A “Governor” has to be appointed for a minimum term of five years. If it were a lawful appointment, there is nothing shameful in being acting Governor – the one previous example, Rod Carr for five months in 2002, never purported to be the Governor. As it is, my analysis stills suggests that the appointment was unlawful, and thus Steven Joyce and the Bank’s Board (by making the appointment) and Grant Robertson (in recognising it) both undermined the law and good governance and marred the end of Spencer’s distinguished career. At very least, those provisions of the Act should be reviewed as part of Stage 2.
Meanwhile, we are still waiting for the now-overdue results of Stage 1, for the report of the Independent Expert Advisory Panel (which, as far as we can tell, has neither sought submissions nor engaged in consultation) and for the new Policy Targets Agreement which wil guide monetary policy from next week.
Still on matters re the Reserve Bank, there is a column in the Dominion-Post this morning by Rob Stock having a go at the Open Bank Resolution (OBR) and associated hair-cut of creditors and depositors option for handling a failed bank. Like me – and many other people, including the IMF and The Treasury – Stock favours deposit insurance. But he seems to see deposit insurance and OBR as alternatives, whereas I see them natural complements. Indeed, the only way I can ever see the OBR instrument being allowed to work, if a substantial bank fails, is if deposit insurance is also in place.
Stock introduces his article with a straw man argument that ordinary depositors can’t really monitor banks and so shouldn’t be exposed to any financial loss if a bank fails. Not even the first point is really true. There are, for example, published credit ratings, and any changes in those credit ratings – at least for major institutions – get quite a lot of coverage. A huge amount of information is reduced to a single letter, in a well-articulated series of gradations. Should one have vast confidence in ratings agencies? Probably not – although perhaps not much less than in prudential regulators, based on track records. But if your bank is heading towards, say, a BBB- rating and you have any material amount of money it would probably be a good idea to consider changing banks, or spreading your money around. No one thought that South Canterbury Finance or Hanover were the same risk as the ANZ, at least until the deposit guarantee scheme made putting money in SCF rock-solid safe, whereupon many depositors rushed for the higher yields.
But there is a broader point that many risks in life aren’t able to be fully monitored, controlled, hedged, avoided or whatever One might become a highly-specialised employee in a firm or industry that fails, or is taken out by regulatory changes. Regions and towns rise and fall, and take house prices with them. Governments might one day free up land use laws, reducing house and land prices to more normal levels. Wars and natural disasters happen. Chronic illness can strike a family. Even a marriage can be hugely risky. For the median depositor there is typically much less at stake in their bank account (and typical losses – percentage of liabilities – on failed retail banks aren’t that large).
Are there potential hard cases? For sure, and Stock cites one of them. If you’ve just sold your mortgage-free house – for, say $1 million – and are settling on another house next week and your bank failed in the course of that week, you could be exposed to quite a loss even though you’d had no desire to be a creditor of the bank. Cases like that are one reason why I favour the Reserve Bank opening up electronic settlement accounts – central bank e-cash if you like – to the general public. There wouldn’t be much demand, but on those rare occasions like the house settlement example, you might happily pay for the peace of mind of an effective government guarantee. I’m looking forward to the new Reserve Bank Bulletin article on such matters next month.
I don’t think those few extreme examples warrant full insurance for all individual depositors, no matter the size of their balance. There are many classes of people struck by not-easily-monitorable illiquid risks (see above) I’d have more sympathy with. But I’m a political pragmatist, and as I argued previously I just cannot envisage an elected government allowing a major bank to fail, allowing all creditors to be haircut, if there is no protection at all. That is especially so when, almost by construction, the Reserve Bank – the government’s agent – will have failed in its duties (and probably kept crucial information from the public, as in the recent insurance failure case) for the situation to have got to that point. A full bailout will typically be the path of least resistance.
And a full bailout will mean not just bailing out the grandma with a $30000 term deposit, or the person changing homes with $1m temporarily on deposit, but bailing out wholesale creditors – domestic and foreign – with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of exposure. Do that – or set up structures that aren’t time-consistent and encourage people to believe in bailouts – and any market discipline, even by the big end of town, will be very severely eroded. And, in a crisis, we’ll be transferring taxpayers’ scarce resources to people including foreign investors – who really should be capable of looking after themselves. It has happened before and it will happen again. But deposit insurance – funded by levies on covered deposits – increases the chances of being able to impose losses on the bigger creditors if things go wrong.
Perhaps OBR would still never be used. And there are costs to the banks in being pre-positioned for it. But we shouldn’t easily give in to a view that any money lent to a bank is rock-solid, backed by government guarantees. It is not as if there aren’t plausible market mechanisms that could deliver much the same result, at some cost to the depositor (eg a bank or money market fund that held only short-dated government or central bank liabilities). But there is little evidence of any revealed demand for such an asset – the cost presumably not being worth it to most people, to cover a very small risk. By contrast, we voluntarily pay for fire or theft insurance – often to cover what are really quite modest risks.
There may not be any more posts this week (and if there are, they won’t be of any great substance). I have a couple of other commitments on Thursday and Friday and, as I’m sure many have discovered before me, broken bones seem to sap an astonishing amount of energy for something so small.