Tomorrow brings the first of the Reserve Bank Monetary Policy Statements under the new Governor, Adrian Orr. I’ve noticed several preview commentaries headed up with plays on the Governor’s surname: BNZ’s was “Either Or”, and ASB’s was “Rowing with a new Orr” . I was tempted to head up this post with “Rowing with just one Orr”, a reminder that – for all the promised new legislation (at least in respect of the monetary policy powers) – for the time being, the Governor governs alone. One unelected official alone has the legal authority to make OCR decisions – and to decide on all the other bits of policy and operations the Reserve Bank has statutory responsibility for. It isn’t a good formula – failing tests of both legitimacy and robustness. It isn’t helped by the threadbare nature of the parliamentary scrutiny of the Bank and the Governor. In the terms Paul Tucker uses in his new book, the Governor is an ‘overmighty citizen’.
That isn’t Orr’s fault. The law is what it (unfortunately) is, and perhaps will soon be changed. But the conduct of the Bank, and the Governor personally, is something that Orr has totally under his control. One of the things former Bank of England Deputy Governor Tucker advocates in his new book is that if central banks want to sustain operational independence, and if that independence is to work for the good of society, an ethos of self-restraint is really important. It is reiterated in the very last line of his entire book
“Beyond the parameters of the formal regime, an ethic of sefl-restraint should be encouraged and fostered.”
Society delegates a great deal of power to our independent central bank. It can do us good (we hope, typically) or harm, but unelected officials who exercise such great power need to act, and speak, as if they know their limits. They aren’t politicians, they have no general mandate, and if they have a platform it is for the purposes Parliament has set down, not to champion personal causes, or even to “help out” governments in other roles. It is a distinctly limited role.
In his first six weeks in office, there have already been reasons to doubt that the Governor understands, or shares, that view – itself all the more important when (formally) the Reserve Bank is a one-man show. We’ve seen him stray well beyond the Reserve Bank’s areas of responsibility in various interviews, and in ways that could often be read as quite politically-aligned. We’ve seen him all over the place on financial conduct issues, and the politics of possible inquiries – none of which has anything to do with his mandate – including rushing to sign on with the FMA’s populist demands of banks, which again have nothing to do with the Reserve Bank’s statutory mandate or powers. You can win cheap popularity for a time by going with the mob – or even with popular elite opinions – but you safeguard the institution and its important role, over the longer-term, by doing what Parliament asks you to do, in a moderate and responsible manner, and leaving other stuff to other people.
The real test for the Governor tomorrow is unlikely to be the Monetary Policy Statement document itself – much as the analysts will be looking for evidence of a distinctive Orrian perspective. The test is much more likely to be the press conference an hour later, and perhaps even the Finance and Expenditure Committee hearing later in the day. Given the Governor’s garrulous style to date, journalists must be almost salivating at the opportunity to tempt the Governor into some rash remark, as he answers questions, live and unscripted, for a prolonged period. Much of the rest of the Reserve Bank must be ever so slightly uneasy.
The BNZ commentary put it this way
…it goes without saying that Adrian Orr’s presentation style in the post MPS news conference will be more dynamic than his predecessor.
“Dynamic” perhaps being a euphemism for things like freewheeling, unpredictable, entertaining – not words that (for good reason) one typically associates with a central bank Governor. Leaders of political parties, yes; central bank Governors, no. Central bank press conferences shouldn’t an occasion to which to bring the popcorn.
In many ways, I’m sure an Orr press conference will be a welcome relief after many of the Wheeler ones. The previous Governor often came across as morose and defensive – and even he wandered off reservation at times (I recall an answer about the possible implications of some North Korean action). But I hope we don’t see an over-correction from an exuberant new Governor. We should certainly welcome a more open and frank exchange on monetary policy issues, perhaps even a Governor willing occasionally to acknowledge the odd mistake, but unpredictable free-for-alls aren’t going to be good for the institution, for the individual, or for the country – gruesomely entertaining as they might well be in the short-term.
One of the last bits of data before the MPS came out yesterday: the Reserve Bank’s quarterly survey of expectations (the Bank itself will have had the data several days earlier). There wasn’t much of great interest in the the quarter to quarter changes. But it is worth nothing that respondents seem to think we’ve reached the peak of the economic cycle: after eight years of expecting the unemployment rate to fall further over the medium-term, for the last few quarters they’ve been expecting things to turn around (albeit only a bit).
Looking through the longer runs of data, a couple of things caught my eye. Analysts (me included) often don’t pay much attention to year-ahead measures of inflation expectations, which get tossed around by all sort of short-term effects (oil price changes, changes in taxes and government charges, and even climatic effects on fruit and vegetable prices). On the other hand, it is also a horizon analysts know a little more about – there are specifics and not just models – and a horizon where, by the time the expectation is being recorded, the Reserve Bank can’t do much more about the outcome. So I thought this chart, showing year-ahead inflation expectations since mid-2012 was a sober reminder that monetary policy hasn’t been quite right.
Recall that the target was 2 per cent inflation. These expectations – with all their short-term noise – haven’t been centred on 2 per cent, but something a bit lower. Not surprisingly, outcomes have also been centred somewhere lower: headline CPI inflation averaged about 1 per cent over this period, and even the Bank’s preferred core inflation rate measure averaged 1.4 per cent. So even at these sorts of short horizons, the analysts have had an upside bias to their inflation forecasts, and even those forecasts haven’t centred at 2 per cent. Perhaps a question might be in order for the Governor tomorrow?
I was also interested in another longer-run chart. The survey asks respondents where they think the 10 year bond rate will be at the end of the current quarter, and in a year’s time. The difference between those two responses is an indication of how respondents think the underlying trends in interest rate markets will start to play out. Here is a chart of the actual New Zealand 10 year bond yield going back to 1995 when these survey questions start,
There are cycles, of course, but the trend has been pretty clearly downwards, especially so since around 2011.
And yet here is what respondents to the Reserve Bank survey expected.
The expected changes are never that large, but what is interesting is the sign of the expected movement. With the exception of pretty brief periods when domestic interest rates here were particularly high (mid 90s and the couple of years prior to the 2008/09 recession) the Bank’s respondents have persistently expected bond yields to start rising again. Even the short-term variability in the series has been lower in the post-recession period, such is the apparent strength of the view. Respondents – no doubt like the Reserve Bank, which has repeatedly told us that in their view neutral interest rates are much higher than current rates – have mostly just had the wrong model. (I’m not sure what my views would have been in the early post-recession period, although they were probably similar to the consensus. I’ve been in the survey itself for the last three years and my records suggest that in none of those surveys have I predicted an increase in bond yields – in all but one I picked a reduction.)
Quite possibly, similar surveys in other countries would have produced similar results, but it is a cautionary reminder of just how wrong the mainstream view has mostly been in the post-recession years.
Last year the Reserve Bank revised the survey to add questions about expectations of inflation five and ten years hence (previously we’d had only two-year ahead expectations). It is still early days, but the results look much as you might expect: both five and ten year ahead expectations seem centred on 2.1 per cent, just a touch above the midpoint of the inflation target (my own expectations for these horizons, which stretch beyond the current Governor/government, are lower). Two-year ahead expectations are about the same. With current 10 year bond rates at around 2.8 per cent, and inflation expectations (in the survey) at around 2.1 per cent over the whole 10 years, respondents seem to think New Zealand real interest rates are very low (only around 0.7 percentage points).
But again we have the contrast between the recorded (and anonymous) views of local survey respondents, and the implied view of people putting money on the outlook for inflation. The current 10 year nominal government bond yield features in both comparisons.
But what about our inflation-indexed government bond yields? The 7.5 year bond was at 1.34 per cent yesterday, and the 12.5 year bond was at 1.7 per cent, suggesting a 10 year real government interest rate of around 1.5 percentage points.
And here is the gap between the yield on a 10 year nominal bond, and the two relevant inflation-indexed bonds.
There isn’t any sign that markets are trading as if they believe inflation over the next 10 years will average where the respondents to the Reserve Bank survey say it will. Ten years from now is roughly halfway between those two indexed bond maturity dates: the latest observation of the average of those two series would be around 1.25 per cent. People with a choice of holding indexed or nominal bonds to maturity (eg long-term superannuation funds) will be worse off holding conventional bonds if inflation is anything like what the survey respondents think than if they held indexed bonds. It is a real money choice. Bondholders are positioned consistent with the survey respondents being wrong.
I labour this point for two reasons. First, one reason for having inflation indexed government bonds is to provide a market check on what people actually transacting are acting as if inflation will be (rightly or wrongly). And second, because when it regularly tells us that medium to long-term inflation expectations are stable at around 2 per cent, the Reserve Bank relies on survey measures, and appears to put no weight on market measures at all, even though they are telling a quite different story (and in fairly settled times). The Reserve Bank never attempts to justify this one-eyed approach, and never seems to reference market-based expectations measures at all.
Given that the Bank itself, and survey respondents, have been so persistently wrong about inflation (and about interest rates) it might be worth someone – journalist or MP – asking the new Governor tomorrow about whether he is more confident average inflation is finally about to rise than people staking money on the issue appear to be, and if so what is the basis for his confidence. Open engagement on that sort of issue is just the sort of thing that might have people reasonably thinking more highly of the new Governor.
(In a similar vein, the Minister of Finance has promised that the minutes of meetings of the future statutory Monetary Policy Committee will be published in a timely way. There would be nothing to stop the Governor taking the lead now and publishing – tomorrow or with a lag of no more than a couple of weeks – the minutes of any meetings of his Governirng Committee relating to tomorrow’s MPS and the associated OCR decision. Doing so would be a small, but telling, promissory note, a token foreshadowing a new era of greater transparency.)