A sadly diminished central bank

Under the Reserve Bank Act as it stands at present, before a Governor is formally appointed the Minister of Finance is required to reach agreement on a Policy Targets Agreement (on monetary policy) with that person.  It is a strange system –  again one no other country has chosen to follow in law.  A Governor-designate may, for example, not know a great deal about monetary policy before taking up the job.  And it also appears to give a great deal of policy-setting power to an unelected official, treating the Governor-designate as almost an equal with the elected Minister of Finance.   Since the Governor-designate will generally be ambitious for the role –  and as even potential Governors give some deference to, for example, electoral mandates – in fact the Minister of Finance has the greater say.

The system is shortly to be replaced.  Here is what the Minister of Finance had to say in his announcement on the Reserve Bank reforms in late March.

Currently, the PTA is an agreement between the Minister of Finance and the Governor. Looking forward, as the MPC will be collectively responsible for making monetary policy decisions, it would be inappropriate for the Governor to be the sole member of the MPC to agree the operational objectives for monetary policy. As a result, we are changing to a model where the Minister of Finance sets the operational objectives for monetary policy. These objectives will be set after nonbinding advice from the Reserve Bank and the Treasury (as the Minister’s advisor) is released publicly.

The approach the Government has agreed to for the setting of operational objectives going forward was recommended by the Independent Expert Advisory Panel. This approach imposes discipline on the decisions of the Minister, given the fact that the Minister’s decision will need to take account of publicly disclosed advice from the Reserve Bank and the Treasury. Further accountability measures, such as requiring the Minister to justify decisions before the House, will be considered in the detailed design of this policy proposal.

It is also intended that the setting of monetary policy objectives going forward will involve greater transparency and public input. Decisions on monetary policy objectives are important, and therefore public debate and understanding should be required.

There are still a few unanswered questions, details to be fleshed out, but that looks a largely sensible approach.  I especially welcome the emphasis on

a) the routine pro-active disclosure of official (Treasury and Reserve Bank) advice on the setting of the operational objectives for monetary policy, and

(b) greater ex ante transparency, public input, and public debate.   Setting the operational objectives for monetary policy is the key bit of policy around macroeconomic stabilisation, and is far too important to be done secretly by the Minister and a few internal advisers.  In almost other area of multi-year policy, proposed frameworks would be open for much more public consultation, scrutiny and debate.  I’ve written previously about the much more open approach adopted to the five-yearly refresh of monetary policy targets in Canada.

So, well done Minister.

But despite the admirable promises about the future, in the most recent PTA (that signed with Adrian Orr in late March, a day before he took office), the process seems to have borne no resemblance to what the Minister promises for the future.

There was no public consultation (indeed, the Treasury papers that have been released talk of some consultation with some market economists in 2016 –  under a different government with a different view on monetary policy and the Reserve Bank).

The Treasury advice to the Minister has been pro-actively released (I wrote about it here), but it was disturbingly thin in key areas (issues around the effective lower bound for nominal interest rates, and the next recession).

And what of the Reserve Bank?  One might expect that the Reserve Bank itself would have the greatest concentration of official expertise on monetary policy and related issues –  not just drafting issues, but the key economic issues, including some of those monetary management issues that are just over the horizon).  One certainly wouldn’t want only Reserve Bank perspectives taken into account –  after all, one key part of the PTA involves the Minister, acting in the public interest, disciplining and holding to account the Reserve Bank –  but it would be astonishing if they didn’t have useful perspectives to add.   Perspectives that really should be seen by both the Minister of Finance and by the Governor-designate.  The Minister’s statement about future arrangements would suggest that, at least in principle, he’d agree.

When the Policy Targets Agreement was released I noted that I had lodged an Official Information Act request for the Reserve Bank’s analysis and advice on PTA issues, but that I didn’t really expect much, because I expected to be obstructed and delayed.

There was a bit of delay, in that the Bank took almost the full 20 working days to respond when –  as will shortly be clear –  they could have (and by law should have) responded almost immediately.

This was what I asked for

Copies of any papers relating to the new Policy Targets Agreement signed earlier this week.  I am interested in any advice to the Minister or his office, and any advice provided to the then Governor-designate, as well as any substantive internal advice or analysis papers prepared or obtained in the period since the current government was formed.

and this was the response

The Reserve Bank didn’t provide advice about the Policy Targets Agreement (PTA) to Adrian Orr prior to his start as Governor, and advice to the Minister of Finance was provided by the Treasury rather than the Reserve Bank.

That is a categorical statement: no advice (written or oral) to the Minister of Finance, and no advice (written or oral) to the Governor-designate.

In a follow-up email exchange, I also clarified with them that there were no “substantive internal advice or analysis papers prepared or obtained in the period since the current government was formed” either.

And there was also nothing of this sort in the Briefing for the Incoming Minister released late last year either.

It is almost literally incredible –  ie impossible to believe.  Public servants of my acquaintance have suggested that the Bank might just be lying, but I don’t believe that.  Or perhaps I crafted my request too narrowly?  Perhaps they had done substantive analytical pieces before the election rather than after it, but given the differences in emphasis between the two main parties it doesn’t seem likely that one would really be a substitute for the other.  And they probably will have provided comments to Treasury on drafts of its advice to the Minister, but nothing in that advice is a distinctively Reserve Bank contribution.

It seems rather a sad commentary on what the organisation seems to have become over recent years.  There has been much talk about collective monetary policy decisionmaking –  and ministerial commitments to legislate –  and yet the new Governor apparently neither sought nor received any advice from his (new) senior colleagues on the drafting of the Policy Targets Agreement, the key macroeconomic stabilisation policy document.  The Reserve Bank has substantial experience with the conduct of monetary policy here,  substantial exposure to what is done in other countries, and a significant research capability funded by taxpayers (presumably, at least in part, to shed light on such issues).   The Minister of Finance says he wants future PTAs (or their equivalent) to benefit from (published) advice from both the Reserve Bank and the Treasury, and yet he sought –  or at least received –  none this time from the Reserve Bank.  And yet the Bank itself, if its OIA response is to be believed, had done no substantive analysis or internal advice on PTA issues in the months between the government  – with, for example, its new emphasis on employment – taking office and the signing of a new PTA.

It seems like some sad mix of abdication of responsibility, and the sidelining of the institution that is supposed to be centre of official professional expertise in the area.

It is a far cry from, for example, the approach taken fifteen years earlier.  In April 2002 Don Brash resigned as Governor, and Rod Carr was appointed to act, holding the fort until a new permanent appointment could be made.  That process in turn spanned a general election.  At the time, Reserve Bank senior management took the view that it would prudent and useful for us to invest quite heavily in preparing background papers which could assist the Minister of Finance, The Treasury, the Board, and whoever was being considered for appointment as Governor to (a) get to grips with the issue, and (b) see where our reading of the evidence and arguments had led us to.  The resulting 100 page document is here.    And that wasn’t the limit of our involvement.  We provided advice to Alan Bollard (before he took office) for his discussions with the Minister of Finance, and participated directly in at least one (I say “at least” because I attended one  myself) of his meetings with the Minister on detailed issues around the negotiation of the Policy Targets Agreement.   It wasn’t a climate in which Reserve Bank staff and management perspectives were necessarily overly welcome –  the Bank was to some extent seen as almost an ideological “enemy” (see, as one cause, Don Brash’s 2001 speech I wrote about recently) and there was a great deal of opposition in the Beehive to the idea of anyone internal getting the job as Governor.     But it didn’t stop the Bank preparing and supplying what was (to my mind) reasonably good quality analysis and advice.

As I’ve said previously, the Reserve Bank certainly shouldn’t have a monopoly on advice/analysis in this area –  and much of its analysis on various issues in recent years has been less good than it should –  but the apparent complete lack of any serious analysis or advice to the Minister or the Governor-designate reflects pretty poorly on all involved –  Minister, “acting Governor”, Governor-designate.   It tells of a sadly diminished central bank.

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