There was another interview the other day with new Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr. This one, on interest.co.nz, focused on issues somewhat connected to the Reserve Bank’s responsibility for financial sector prudential regulation/supervision, and associated failure management responsibilities.
In the interview Orr touched again on an idea he has already alluded to in one of his interviews: the idea of getting a clearer, more quantified, sense from Parliament as to what it is looking for from the Reserve Bank in its conduct of regulatory policy.
It is an appealing idea in principle. For monetary policy, Parliament has specified a goal of price stability, and in the Policy Targets Agreement the (elected) Minister of Finance gives that operational form (a focus on 2 per cent annual inflation, within a range of 1 to 3 per cent). There is nothing similar for the extensive regulatory powers the Bank has.
In respect of banks, section 68 of the Act sets out the goals
Exercise of powers under this Part
The powers conferred on the Governor-General, the Minister, and the Bank by this Part shall be exercised for the purposes of—
promoting the maintenance of a sound and efficient financial system; or
avoiding significant damage to the financial system that could result from the failure of a registered bank.
Which is fine as far as it goes – and what isn’t there (eg a depositor protection mandate) is often as important as what is. But it isn’t very specific, and provides no guidance as to how to interpret the idea of an “efficient” financial system (as a result, it has been debated internally for decades), no sense of how sound the system should be (or even what a “sound system”, as distinct from sound institutions, might be. And the same overarching provision (sec 68) has seen the Reserve Bank’s approach to bank regulation and supervision change very substantially over the years, with little or no involvement from Parliament.
There is a reasonable argument – made quite forcefully in former Bank of England Deputy Governor Paul Tucker’s new book on such matters – that if in a particular aspect society’s preferences aren’t reasonably stable, and able to be written down reasonably well, then policymaking powers in that area should not be delegated to an independent agency (let alone what is formally a one-man agency). With the second stage of the review of the Reserve Bank Act underway, Orr can obviously see a threat to the Bank’s powers, and thus he suggests an attempt be made to have Parliament articulate its preferences, and views on possible trade-offs, more directly. If they could do so, having unelected decisionmakers then working to deliver on that mandate might be less democratically objectionable, and the Reserve Bank might have a greater degree of legitimacy in these areas than it does now.
And so the Governor told his interviewer
“For inflation targeting we’ve got a clear target [being] 1% to 3% on average. For the prudential regulation, – how do we articulate that target? In other words what is the risk appetite of the people of New Zealand as represented by Members of Parliament for banking regulation? Do you screw it down to one corner where nothing can happen – it’s very sounds but totally inefficient, or do you have trade-offs allowing firms to come and go and consumers to be aware etc? So that is going to be a really good, useful articulation that will come out of that,” says Orr.
At first blush it sounds promising, and I’m certainly not going to discourage an effort to try to uncover such an articulation of preferences. But I am a little sceptical that anything very stable or useful will emerge from the process. I’d prefer that all rule-making powers were removed back to the Minister of Finance (or indeed Parliament), leaving the role of the Reserve Bank as (a) technical advisers, and (b) implementers.
It might be fine to express a view that banking system regulation should be designed on a view that there should be no major bank failure on average more than once in a hundred years – actually about the rate in New Zealand history – or, indeed, five hundred years. That might (and has in the past internally) be some help in how one calibrates capital requirements for banks. It will, however, be almost no help in deciding whether LVR restrictions are a legitimate use of coercive, redistributive, government powers. Or whether we care much about small institutions. Or, indeed, whether the Reserve Bank should have the power to approve (or not) the appointment of senior staff in banks. And even if society could express a stable preference for a regime designed to deliver no more than one failure per 100 years, it provides very little basis for that other vital strand of the governance of independent agencies – serious accountability. Good luck could readily deliver a 50 year run of no failures without reflecting any great actual credit on the central bankers in charge at the time (who might have been doing fine, or doing a lousy job). And if the one in a hundred year shock happens next year, it will still be very difficult to say with any certainty that the central bankers were doing the job they were asked to do – they may well have been, and just got unlucky, and the public is likely to want scapegoats. Elected politicians serve that role better than unelected technocrats.
But if there is anything more to the idea the Governor is toying with, it would be good to get some material into the public domain in due course, and have it scrutinised or debated.
In his latest interview, the Governor also touched again on the calls for a royal commission into conduct in the financial sector, as underway at present in Australia. This time he is a lot more moderate, explicitly recognising that it isn’t his call.
Against the backdrop of the unacceptable conduct coming to light in Australia’s Royal Commission on financial services, Orr doesn’t believe New Zealand needs its own Royal Commission. However, he says the impact of the Australian one is certainly being felt in NZ.
“There will be not a single bank in New Zealand that is not, at the moment, really checking every cupboard for skeletons here in New Zealand. That is without doubt. This has really put the wind up the banks to say ‘hey, what is the alternative to sound regulation, it’s a Royal Commission’. We’re meeting collectively with the CEOs, we’re meeting individually with the chairs, and we always do on a regular basis,” Orr says.
“Is a Royal Commission necessary? At the moment in my personal opinion no, but I’m not the one who would call one anyway.”
Orr says while the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority is “being held up as some [sort of] global best practice,” and works alongside the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Reserve Bank of Australia with all having “heavy boots on the ground,” they’re still having “this cultural challenge.” Thus more hands-on regulation than the Reserve Bank’s light touch regulatory oversight of banks isn’t necessarily the best way forward.
But it is an odd mix of responses. On the one hand, Orr seems to come across as something of a champion or defender of the banks in New Zealand. That is no part of his role. He is the prudential (soundness) regulator, in the public interest – recall section 68 of the Act, quoted earlier – and his role (the Reserve Bank’s role) has almost nothing to do with conduct standards.
And he seems to be attempting distraction on other issues by conflating prudential/systemic issues with conduct issues. Thus, when various people (including the IMF) have argued that New Zealand should adopt a prudential regulatory regime more akin to APRA’s (which, in effect, operates here to a considerable extent anyway, because APRA is focused on the entire Australian banking groups), Orr doesn’t engage in the substance of that debate, but attempts to muddy the water by making the point that a more intensive prudential regime in Australia hasn’t prevented some of the conduct issues coming to light in the Royal Commission. Indeed, but why would one imagine it should? They are two quite different issues. In the same way, an investigation into whether the local supermarket was meeting minimum wage or holiday pay provisions for its staff wouldn’t expect to shed any light on food-handling issues in the same supermarket.
Part of the legitimacy of independent central banks involves them being seen to speak in an authoritative and trustworthy way.
But the comment from the Governor that led me to read the account of the interview was on the vexed subject of deposit insurance. The article had this as (part of) its headline
RBNZ Governor says differences between deposit insurance & minimum deposit not frozen in OBR scenario are ‘technicalities’
That sounded like an intriguing claim. You’ll recall that the Reserve Bank has long staunchly opposed deposit insurance (eg articles/speeches referenced here), even though people like The Treasury, the IMF, and various other commentators (including me and my former RB colleague Geof Mortlock) favour it. The new Governor doesn’t seem to share the Bank’s long-running opposition.
Asked whether the Reserve Bank should get an explicit statutory objective to protect bank depositors and/or insurance policyholders, Orr says deposit protection, or deposit insurance, is “something that’s going to be here in the future.” NZ’s currently an outlier among OCED countries in not having explicit deposit insurance.
“I think that’s something that’s going to be here in the future. We need to work our way through what it means
I’m surprised that change of stance didn’t get more coverage. Of course, whether or not we have deposit insurance isn’t a decision for the Reserve Bank; it is a matter for the government and Parliament. Nonetheless, if the Reserve Bank Governor is going to withdraw the bank’s opposition, that removes a significant bureaucratic roadblock. Well done, Governor. (To be clear, I favour deposit insurance not as a first-best outcome, but as a second-best that makes it more likely that future governments will allow troubled financial institutions to fail, rather than bail out all the creditors.)
But it was the Governor’s next comments on the issue that were more troubling, and which suggest he hasn’t yet got sufficiently to grips with the issue before opening his mouth.
I think people have been talking across each other a lot,” Orr says.
“The bank here has got a policy called Open Bank Resolution. And that is the idea that if a bank is too large to fail, we have to keep it open. But we have to recapitalise. So the current owners or investors who have largely done their dough, how do you recapitalise it and how do you have the door open the next day?”
“As part of that open bank resolution, we’ve already said there can be a de minimis around depositors money that they will have access to. We just need to speak in better English to say ‘you know you are going to have some cash there, you are going to be able to get your sandwiches, meet your bills, do all of that on the Monday. Because if it didn’t happen that way, then that one bank failure creates all banks to fail, there’s [bank] runs everywhere’,” adds Orr.“So being explicit with the language is really important. New Zealand needs an open bank resolution capability because foreign taxpayers cannot be relied on in any sense or form, to bail out domestic depositors. It just doesn’t happen that way in the world, and it certainly doesn’t happen over the instant time period needed. So we need to be able to say ‘this is how we will shut and reopen a bank quickly and don’t worry there will be some de minimis access to your deposits’.”
When it was put to him that depositors having access to a de minimis sum if open bank resolution was implemented on their bank isn’t the same as explicit deposit insurance, Orr suggested the difference is merely technical.
“We could have a discussion through that legislation to say ‘economically it’s the same, could we call it the same, or is it part of a failure management?’ I believe it’s the same end outcome, the technicalities behind it are just technicalities. We need to be able to say to the public ‘if we’re shutting the bank down, what do you have access to, what is the guaranteed de minimis or minimum, or protection,’ and then we need to work out how is that going to be funded.”
There is a lot of mixed-up stuff in there.
For a start, the question of how we manage the failure of a bank in New Zealand has nothing whatever to do with the idea of foreign taxpayers bailing out New Zealand depositors. I’m not aware that anyone supposed that was very likely. Indeed, all our planning – including the requirement for most deposit-taking banks to incorporate locally – has been based on the idea that New Zealand is on its own (although for the Australian banking groups, whatever happens in the event of failure is likely to be negotiated by politicians from the two countries). Instead the general issue here is
- should a large bank simply be allowed to close if it fails, and handled through normal liquidation procedures (few would say yes to that).
- if not, how best can the bank be kept open,
- it could be bailed out by the government (benefiting all creditors, including foreign wholesale ones),
- or the OBR tool could be used, in which all creditors’ claims would be immediately “haircut”, so that the losses fall on shareholders and creditors not on taxpayers but the bank’s doors remain open.
Within the OBR scheme there has always been the idea of a de minimis amount which might not be haircut at all. It isn’t an issue about liquidity – as the Governor suggests – because in the reopened bank everyone has access to some of their money. It is an explicitly distributional issue. For example, a welfare beneficiary might have only $100 in their account (living almost from day to day), such accounts in total won’t have much money in them, so it might be easier (involve many fewer creditors, and less immediate resort to eg foodbanks) and in some sense fairer just to give people with such small balances immediate access to all their money and not have them share in any losses (or have to bother about ongoing dealings with those handling the failure). It has mostly been seen as a matter of administrative convenience, but also of realpolitik (reduce the number of voters affected by losses in a failure). And if these very small creditors are fully paid out, it does involve a transfer of wealth from all other creditors, but the amounts involved, even cumulatively, are pretty small.
In recent years, there has been talk of this de minimis amount creeping up. There have even been suggestions of something as large as $10000 – in other words, if you have less than $10000 in your (failed) bank, you wouldn’t face any losses. It must be this sort of thing the Governor has in mind when he talks of the difference between deposit insurance and the de minimis being little more than “technicalities”.
But he is still wrong:
- first, the de minimis would only apply where OBR was used, and OBR is only one option. Even if looks like an attractive option, in some circumstances, for a large bank, it might not be a necessary or appropriate response to the failure of a small bank.
- second, the de minimis is being paid out of other creditors’ money (it is essentially a (small) depositor preference scheme). That might be tolerable for very small balances – other creditors have an interest in lowering administrative costs of managing the OBR – but is most unlikely to be defensible, or acceptable, for larger de minimis amounts, Perhaps the Governor has in mind, the government chipping in directly to cover the larger de minimis amounts, but relative to a proper priced deposit insurance regime that seems far inferior, and different by degree, not just by “technicalities”.
- third, no de minimis amount I’ve ever heard mentioned comes close to the sorts of payout (coverage) limits in typical deposit insurance schemes abroad. As the author of the interest.co.nz piece points out “Under Australia’s deposit insurance scheme, deposits are protected up to a limit of A$250,000 for each account-holder at any bank, building society or credit union that’s authorised by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority”. Attempting to rely on the de minimis – as people like the Governor sometimes do in advance of the failure – is just a recipe for increasing the likelihood of a full bailout at point of failure, as the amount envisaged just won’t match public expectations/demands (as revealed in other countries).
To repeat, it is good that the new Governor appears to be shifting ground on deposit insurance. But let’s not settle for half-baked responses, using a vehicle never designed to deal with the issue of deposit insurance. Legislate and put in place a proper deposit insurance scheme, and levy depositors to pay for the insurance.
Do that and, as I’ve argued previously, the chances of being able to use OBR – to impose losses on large and wholesale creditors, including foreign ones – will be materially increased. Without sorting out deposit insurance properly, most likely any future government faced with a failure of a large bank will just fall back on the tried, true, and costly solution of a full state bailout.