Proposed Reserve Bank Act changes – Stage 1

My previous post concentrated mostly on the new Policy Targets Agreement, which will govern monetary policy, under the current Act, for the next year or so.

In this post, I want to concentrate on the announcements made by the Minister of Finance about the first stage of his planned legislative reforms.    There is a summary graphic, and a set of questions and answers.

The proposed reforms represent a step forward.  We’ve been in the peculiar position for almost 30 years in which one individual, not even appointed directly by the Minister of Finance, made all the monetary policy decisions.  It made it easy to know who to fire –  that was the argument made for the model in the late 1980s – but it was a model that was out of step with how almost every other public agency was run and (as became increasingly apparent) with how monetary policy was run in most other countries.   In a free and democratic society, committees –  with ranges of views, and the implicit checks and balances a range of individuals provide –  should be how major public authority decisions are typically made.   It is little consolation that successive Governors drew on advisory committees to assist their decisionmaking: on the one hand, all members of those committees owed their positions to the Governor, and on the other, institutions need to be resilient to bad appointees, not just get along moderately well in normal times.   And if some advisers were happy to disagree (and Governors sometimes even welcomed a range of views), others weren’t –  I recall one Assistant Governor who told us that he saw his role on the OCR Advisory Group as being to back the Governor.

But that particular battle now appears to have been fought and won –  albeit belatedly (Treasury –  and the Green Party –  were calling for structural reform years ago).    The Labour Party campaigned on, and the government has now promised legislation to give effect to, moving to a statutory committee model.  Today’s announcement fleshes out some –  but not all –  of the details.

Here is the summary graphic

rb reform graphic

The key aspects are that

  • there will always be a majority of Reserve Bank staff,
  • there will be a minimum of two externals,
  • appointments will be made by the Minister of Finance but s/he will be able to appoint only people nominated by the Reserve Bank’s Board.

This model is a slight improvement on what the Labour Party campaigned on.  In that model, the Governor himself would have appointed all the MPC members, internal and external.  But the improvement is slight, for two reasons:

  • first, because a majority of the committee will be internal, all appointed to their executive day jobs (eg Assistant Governor, Chief Economist or whatever) by the Governor.  No Board is going to turn down the Governor’s recommendation as to which of his staff should be on the MPC.   Thus, the Governor in effect appoints the majority of the committee.  For a good Governor –  really welcoming diversity and debate –  it mightn’t be a problem.  For more average appointees, it reinforces the risk of continued groupthink and a voting bloc on the committee.  Remember that the executive members have their pay and promotion determined by the Governor,
  • second, because the Reserve Bank Board is likely to look largely to the Governor for advice on who should be the external appointees to the committee.   Recall that the Governor himself is a member of the Board –  even though its prime job is to hold him to account –  and most of the Board members have no subject expertise, no resources, and little reason not to defer to the Governor (whom they themselves appointed).  Perhaps some reasonable people will be found to serve, but it seems exceptionally unlikely that anyone awkward, or with a materially different perspective, will be allowed in the door.  In all likelihood, we’ll end up with something not much improved on the model in place for the last 17 years or so –  in which the Governor has had a couple of part-time external advisers, appointed mostly for their business connections and knowledge, rather than their perspectives on macroeconomic policy.

This simply isn’t the way public appointments should be made.   The Minister of Health appoints people directly to DHBs, the Prime Minister directly determines who will be appointed as the Commissioner of Police, ministers appoint directly members to the board of all sorts of decisionmaking crown entities (including, in the financial areas, the Financial Markets Authority), and so on.

And direct appointment by elected politicians is the way most top central bank appointments are made in other countries.   In Australia, it is true of the Governor, Deputy Governor, and all the RBA Board members. In the UK, all but two of the MPC members are directly appointed by the Chancellor, and in the US all the members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors are appointed by the President, subject to Senate confirmation.

I hope someone asked Grant Robertson why he resisted bringing the appointment process for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand positions into the international mainstream, because I don’t understand it –  and there is nothing to justify his choice in rhe Q&A material that has been released.    Ministers may not have much subject expertise, but they have legitimacy –  they are elected, and have to front to Parliament each week.  The Reserve Bank Board members have no subject expertise, and no legitimacy –  indeed, at any one time, half will have been appointed in the previous term of government.  They might be competent behind-the-scenes professional director types, but that’s all.  And yet they are being empowered to choose who will run New Zealand macroeconomic policy.  It is a gaping democratic defict that really should have been fixed, not exacerbated.   And it is not as if the Board’s practical track record might persuade one to set aside principled objections to the process –   they’ve just been cheerleaders, more focused on having the Governor’s back, than on serving the public interest.

The appointment process is one reason why I call today’s announcement as a big win for Reserve Bank management.  Committee appointments will safely be in the hands of the Governor and his team (Board and management).

The other reason why it is a big win for Bank management is the announcements about the processes that the new Monetary Policy Committee will be expected, or required, to adopt.

Here is part 2 of the Minister’s graphic

RB graphic part 2

The idea of a charter makes sense.  Arrangements around how the new MPC should work are probably better not legislated –  although I think a requirement to publish minutes (although not the form of those minutes) should be in statute –  and thus able to evolve with experience and individuals.   Beyond that, I think the Minister has made the wrong choices when articulating what he will be looking for, largely caving to the preferences of the Bank’s management, who were horrified by the idea of open debate and a transparent recording of views and associated individualised accountability.

Several of better inflation-targeting central banks are much more open –  notably, those of the UK, the US, and Sweden.  But here is what the Minister proposes

How will the MPC take decisions?
It is expected that the MPC will aim to reach decisions by consensus. Where a consensus cannot be reached, decisions will be taken by a majority vote, with the Governor having the casting vote if necessary.

The Governor will chair the MPC and will be the sole spokesperson on its decisions.

What documents will the MPC publish?
In addition to Monetary Policy Statements, it is intended that the first Charter agreed between the Minister and the MPC will require the MPC to publish non-attributed meeting records that reflect differences of view between MPC members where they exist. It is also intended that the MPC will publish the balance of votes for any decision where a vote is required, without attributing votes to individuals. This approach will balance the need for transparency about the decision-making process with the need for clarity and coherence in communicating the MPC’s decisions.

Frankly, it seems unlikely we will ever see vote numbers.  Recall that the Governor has an internal majority on the MPC, who can – and may well –  caucus before the meeting and agree a collective view.  The externals start out in a minority,  will have already passed some sort of inoffensiveness test to get appointed, and they appear unable to articulate their views in public, so the incentive to record an anonymous dissenting vote seems pretty low.   A management-driven “consensus” seems likely to be the default option, and over time that will become the self-reinforcing norm, because the signal in one external insisting on recording a dissenting vote will be sufficiently attention-grabbing that often enough people just won’t go that far.  Far better to normalise the fact that there is –  and should be –  quite a range of views, whether about how the economy will unfold and how monetary policy should respond to the risks.   As I’ve noted before, it is not clear how the citizens of the US, the UK, or Sweden or worse off for an open and transparent process of individual responsibility and accountability, and an ongoing moderately open contest of ideas.  Bureuacrats don’t like it –  of course – but we should be designing public agencies around the interests of the public, including those scrutiny and accountability, not around the interests of the bureaucrats.  In this case again, Grant Robertson appears to have bowed to the personal interests of the officials.

There are some good aspects to what the Minister has announced:

  • as I noted in my earlier post, the move away from a Policy Targets Agreement model to a system in which the Minister sets the operational objectives, and the associated official advice is pro-actively published, is a step forward, and almost inevitable with the move to a committee.  But there are lots of operational details to be clarified, including (for example) how frequently the Minister can change such objectives (the default PTA has been for five years),
  • on-balance, the inclusion of a non-voting Treasury observer on the MPC is probably a modest step forward, but it depends how it works.  The documents suggest this person is simply there to pass on information about fiscal policy, and given the substantial time commitment the MPC role is likely to entail it could end up filled by a fairly junior Treasury person (by contrast, in Australia the Secretary to the Treasury sits on the RBA Board),
  • the Minister is moving to provide for the appointment of the Board chair and deputy chair to be made directly by him (the normal model) rather than chosen by Board members themselves.  At the margin this will help remind the Board that they work for the Minister and the public, not for the Bank.  To be fully effective, however, the Minister should also amend the Act to allow him to dismiss Board members for failing to be sufficiently vigorous in holding the Governor and MPC members to account.

But there are also lots of issues that aren’t sorted out in the announcement today and which will only become clear when the legislation emerges (or in some cases when the charter is signed).  For example:

  • what are the limits of what the new MPC will be responsible for?    The Q&A material says that “For example, the MPC will also have responsibility for strategic choices around the monetary policy tools used by the Reserve Bank”, but does this include foreign exchange intervention strategy, issues around issuing digital currency, the terms of which the Bank issues physical currency etc (all relevant to zero lower bound issues).  Then again, perhaps these things don’t matter because the Governor has a built-in majority on the MPC?
  • what can individual MPC members be fired for (given expectations of consensus decisionmaking), or will the formalised accountability model –  which never amount to much in practice –  be largely got rid of?
  • whose will the forecasts in the Monetary Policy Statement be?  At present they are, formally, the Governor’s forecasts.

And then there is the Stage 2 part of the review of the Reserve Bank Act.   The Q&A document says

Phase 2 of the Review is currently being scoped. It will focus on the Reserve Bank’s financial stability role and broader governance reform. The Panel is due to give the Minister of Finance its recommendations for the scope of Phase 2 of the Review shortly. Announcements on this will be made in the coming months. Subsequent policy work will commence in the second half of 2018.

But given the increased role for the Reserve Bank’s Board in today’s announcement, the government seems to have already decided to retain something very like the current governance model and in particular the role for the –  historically useless –  Board.  I guess there is still time to reconsider before the Stage 1 proposals are legislated, but they’d be better off splitting up the Bank, setting up a Prudential Regulatory Agency, taking appointment powers directly into the Minister’s hands (perhaps with some non-binding confirmation hearings) and getting rid of the Board altogether.

Meantime, they will be celebrating at the Reserve Bank tonight.  As far as possible, the (effective) status quo has won out, and a more open and contestable system has lost out.

On the new PTA

The last ever Policy Targets Agreement was released this morning, signed by the incoming Governor and the Minister of Finance.  With it came the decisions the government has made on reforms to the legislative framework governing monetary policy (decision makers, governance, transparency etc).  We are now finally getting past the year in which first the outgoing Governor was a lame-duck, and then the period when there was no lawful “acting Governor” or lawful “Policy Targets Agreement” –  and even if you did regard both as lawful, they were no better than caretakers.   With the government’s planned reforms such an unfortunate hiatus should never happen again (as it doesn’t happen abroad).

The Policy Targets Agreement is the key document in short-term macroeconomic management in New Zealand: it is the mandate for the Governor in his role as single decisionmaker on monetary policy, and monetary policy is the active tool for short-term economic stabilisation.   This one isn’t expected to have a long life.  Once the new legislation is in place –  scheduled for next year –  the Policy Targets Agreement will be replaced by a mechanism in which the Minister of Finance unilaterally sets the operational objectives for monetary policy (the UK system), although only after receiving (published) advice from the Reserve Bank and the Treasury.   That is a welcome change –  not only does it put responsibility for goal-setting firmly where it belongs (with elected ministers) but it removes the awkward aspect of the current system, in which an incoming Governor has had to agree targets (sometimes dealing with quite technical points) before being appointed, and often with only limited staff advice.   It was also a necessary change once a committee, with evolving membership –  rather than a single individual –  was made responsible for monetary policy.

The new (shortlived) Policy Targets Agreement has a few changes, although mostly not of great substance.

  • there is an even longer statement of the government’s political aspirations (‘inclusive economy”, “low carbon economy”, an economy that “reduces inequality and poverty”) none of which has anything to do with monetary policy.  Closer to economic policy, there are worthy aspiration (“a strong diversified export base”) which monetary policy can’t do anything about, and government policy isn’t doing anything about.
  • the substance of the document has been shortened a bit, but mostly not in a good way.  For example,
    • if I welcome the deletion of the reference to asset prices added in 2012, I’m uneasy about removing the explicit expectation that in monitoring inflation the Bank shouldn’t just look at the headline CPI.
    • And perhaps it isn’t of much substance, but I’m interested that they chose to remove “average” from the requirement that policy “focus on keeping future inflation near the 2 per cent mid-point”.
    • And I am a little uneasy about the removal of the list of the sorts of event/shocks that might justifiably warrant inflation being away from target, and the removal of the requirement to explain, when inflation is outside the target range, what they are doing to ensure that future inflation remains consistent with the target.  At the margin, it slightly weakens formal accountability (weak enough in practice anyway) and –  in the current climate –  may weaken the impetus to get core inflation back to 2 per cent (after so many years),
  • there are several changes relating to the new employment aspect of the objective (which, contrary to Arthur Grimes, I consider neither ‘disastrous’ nor ‘crazy’, and which risk being more feeble and virtue-signalling in nature than anything else).
    • at a high level there is an expectation that “the conduct of monetary policy will….contribute to supporting maximum sustainable employment”,
    • adding “employment” to the list of in the provision requiring the Governor to seek to avoid “unncessary instability”, and
    • a requirement to explain in Monetary Policy Statements how “current” monetary policy decisions contribute to “maximum levels of sustainable employment”

Quite what, if any difference, these provisions make will really depend on the new Governor’s assessment.   His press release suggests no difference at all

Mr Orr said that the PTA also recognises the role of monetary policy in contributing to supporting maximum sustainable employment, as will be captured formally in an amendment Bill in coming months.

In other words, just formalising what is already there.  An approach that, not incidentally, delivered us an unemployment rate materially above the NAIRU –  on the Bank’s own numbers –  for most of the last decade.   At present, we can probably expect lots of rhetoric –  repeated references to the contribution the Bank is making –  and nothing of substance, although in fairness it may be hard to tell for some time (since the unemployment rate is now closer to a true NAIRU than it has been for some considerable time).  It will be interesting to see the Governor’s first MPS and the associated press conference.

Personally, I’d have preferred that the new requirements were specified in terms of unemployment –  explicitly an excess capacity measure. There probably isn’t a great deal in the issue, except that the current formulation tends to treat high rates of employment as a “good thing”, when there is little economic foundation to such a proposition. By contrast, minimising (sustainably) the rate of unemployment is more unambiguously a “good thing”.

Perhaps more disappointingly, it is fine to require the Bank to explain how current monetary policy decisions are contributing to maximum sustainable employment.  But that is the sort of obligation an undergraduate student of economics could meet without difficulty and without much substance.  It is unfortunate that the Bank is not being required to:

  • explain how past monetary policy decisions have actually contributed to maximum sustainable employment,
  • explain how its future monetary policy plans will do so (the Act requires the Bank to explain policy plans for the (rolling) next five years),
  • publish estimates of the maximum sustainable level of employment.

Finally, with the OCR at 1.75 per cent and the current economic expansion having run for eight or nine years, it is disappointing that the Minister and incoming Governor have not signalled anything about the importance of preparing for the next recession, and reducing the extent to which the near-zero lower bound (inability to take the OCR below about -0.75 per cent) could severely limit the capacity of the Reserve Bank to maintain price stability (or contribute to maximum sustainable employment) in the next recession.  That recession  –  timing unknown of course –  remains much the biggest threat of unnecessarily high unemployment.  And yet it still doesn’t seem to be being taken seriously.

I’ll do a separate post on the planned legislative reforms.   For now, suffice to say that if it is a small step in the right direction, it is a big win for the Reserve Bank establishment.