Funding the Reserve Bank: focus on your statutory mandate

The Reserve Bank has been joining the ranks of the public sector agencies bidding for more money –  not just doing so in the conventional manner, behind closed doors in private discussions with relevant ministers, but in public.

There were some initial comments a few weeks ago, which I didn’t notice at the time, using this totally spurious argument

we are a net contributor to Crown revenue rather than a cost, and we’ve asked if we can hang on to a little more of what we make in order to fund extra work,” the Reserve Bank spokesman said.

The Reserve Bank generates a lot of money (mainly) by issuing zero interest bank notes (a statutory monopoly) and investing the proceeds in interest-bearing assets.  It takes little skill to collect this (what is in effect a) tax.     That income should have no bearing, formal or rhetorical, on how much of our resources the Reserve Bank is permitted to spend on other stuff –  mostly more bureaucrats to do regulation, analysis, and (see below) political positioning, of the sort many other cash-constrained bureaucracies in Wellington do.   Those activities do not generate even an iota of revenue for the Crown.

They were back with the begging bowl this week at the annual financial review undertaken by Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee.  I saw two accounts –  one from Newsroom, and one from interest.co.nz.      There were a couple of strange claims, including the Governor appearing to suggest that the CBL failure might have occurred because the Reserve Bank didn’t have enough staff.  I don’t regard that as a totally implausible story  –  then again, the system is not supposed to prevent all failures, and at least some concerns relate to what the Bank did do (suppression orders) rather than what it didn’t do.  But if staffing was a concern, and the Bank thought it didn’t have the resources to do the job Parliament had given it, surely the previous year’s Annual Reports would have said so.  And I’m pretty sure they didn’t.

Orr is also reported as claiming that

….now was the time to resource-up and ready the bank for a crisis.

“The time when under-resourcing most shows up is generally during a time of crisis and we aren’t in one of those times,” Orr said.

I doubt that is so. In a crisis it is all hands to the pump, and institutions pull through.  If there is under-resourcing (and that is an open question) it is more likely to affect progressing work programmes in more-normal times.

Perhaps it is why, 8.5 months into his governorship, we still haven’t had a substantive speech from the Governor on either monetary policy or financial stability/regulation?  But that can’t really be the explanation either –  after all, we’ve always only had one Governor, and his predecessors somehow managed.

The Reserve Bank’s finances are not very tightly managed (externally, by the minister or Parliament).  Under the current Act there is provision for (but not a necessity for) a five-yearly funding agreement, outlining how much the Bank can spend.   It isn’t a great model, for various reasons, even if it was a step forward on the total lack of formal controls that existed prior to the 1989 Act.

But my experience was that almost every year, the Reserve Bank’s actual spending undershot what was provided for in the Funding Agreement.  I knew they had had the odd tighter year this decade, but other than that it isn’t something I follow closely.  But here is interest.co.nz’s account of what the Bank said in its latest Annual Report released in October.

The Reserve Bank’s annual report, issued last month, showed it had undershot spending allowed through its funding agreement by $26.7 million over three years and paid a $430 million annual dividend. By June 30 the Reserve Bank had spent $173.1 million of a possible $199.8 million allowed by its 2015-2020 Funding Agreement, signed with the previous National-led government. Net operating expenses in the June 2018 year were $4.1 million below the funding agreement, despite rising $8 million year-on-year to $76 million.

“The $26.7 million cumulative underspending is expected to partially reverse in the last two years of the funding agreement, as capitalised expenditure on systems improvements is amortised to operating expenses, and the issuance of new banknotes continues. The Bank expects to be within the five-year aggregate expenditure provided for in the funding agreement,” the annual report said.

Bottom line?  They’ve been underspending again, and even though that is “expected to partially reverse” over the next two years, the forecast reversal is only partial and, once again, they expect to underspending the Funding Agreement allowance.  And, under the current statutory model there are no adverse consequences for the Bank if it were to have spent a little more than the Funding Agreement number anyway.  But the issue is moot –  they seem to have managed in a way that will actually underspend (again).

Which leaves another of Orr’s comments ringing a bit hollow

Orr in the select committee again pointed out the limitations of the five-yearly model, saying a “phenomenal” number of “unanticipated” events had happened in the last five years, and the same would be the case in the next five years.

And probably every five years since 1990, and yet the Bank still almost always underspends.

Having said that, this may be one of the areas in which there is some convergence of views between me and the Governor.  The five-year funding agreement model is crazy and should be scrapped.   No corporate – no government agency for that matter –  sets operating expenditure budgets five years in advance, and it is simply silly to expect to do so for the Reserve Bank.  It is fine to do rough medium-term plans to help ensure that foreseeable expenditure pressures are identified well in advance, but that is different from a binding five-year budget.

Where we may well diverge again is that I think the Reserve Bank’s policy, regulatory and related activities should be funded –  as most government agencies are – by means of detailed annual appropriations by Parliament (and will be forthrightly making that case when the current review of the Reserve Bank Act gets round to looking at funding issues).  I wrote about the issue in a post earlier in the year.   Here were some of my points:

A common argument –  at least among central bankers –  is that somehow central banks are different.  There is only one important respect in which they are: they earn far more than they spend.  But even that isn’t very important here.  Central banks make money largely through the statutory monopoly on currency issue, which is just (in effect) another form of taxation.  And spending and revenue are two quite different bits of government finance: IRD might collect lots of money, but it can only spend what Parliament appropriates.

And what of those arguments about avoiding back-door pressure?  Even they don’t mark out central banks.  After all, we don’t want ministers interfering in Police decisions either (a rather more important issue than a central bank), but Police are funded by parliamentary appropriation.  So is the Independent Police Complaints Authority.   There are plenty of regulatory agencies where policy might be set by politicians, but the implementation of that policy is set by an independent Board, and where backdoor pressure could –  in principle be applied.  Other bodies publish awkward reports that make life difficult for politicians.  But those bodies too are typically funded each year by parliamentary appropriation.  It is just how our system of government works.

When I wrote about this issue in 2015 (having only recently emerged from the Bank), I was hesitant about calling for radical change.   The funding agreement system itself could be tightened up in various ways, which might represent an improvement on what we have now.   But there isn’t any very obvious reason not to start with a clean sheet of paper, and build a new system –  aligned with how we manage public spending in the rest of government –  starting from the principle of annual appropriations, with a clear delineation by functions (monetary policy, financial system regulation, physical currency etc), and standard restrictions on the ability of ministers to reallocate funds across votes).

I’m not aware of any country that funds it central bank by annual appropriation.  But historically, central bank spending all round the world was subject to weak parliamentary control.  This is one of those areas where the international models aren’t attractive, and the standard should instead be the way in which we authorise spending across the rest of government.   This is a policy and regulatory agency ….  and should be funded, and held to account, accordingly.

But if the Governor really thinks he doesn’t have enough resources to do aspects of the job Parliament has given, perhaps he could look rather hard at how he prioritises.  In his FEC appearance the other day, he claimed to have been doing so, but in my observation his sense of priorities appears personal, idiosyncratic and even political, not at all well-aligned with the Bank’s statutory mandate.

Recall that the Governor has only been in office for just over eight months, but already we’ve had things like:

  • speeches on climate change, helping out his buddies in the government and in the liberal wing of the business community,
  • the “Reserve Bank as tree god” exercise, which surely didn’t just flow off the end of the Governor’s pen in an idle hour one Saturday afternoon. It will have consumed real resources, at an opportunity cost,
  • cartoon versions of the Monetary Policy Statements and Financial Stability Reviews,  and
  • swamping those individually modest items by several orders of magnitude there was the conduct inquiry of which I noted upon its release

Despite highlighting several times in the report that this was really none of their business (of course they phrased it more bureaucratically: “neither regulator has a direct legislative mandate for regulating the conduct of providers of core banking services”), they’d spent an estimated $2 million of public money to mount their bully pulpit, lecture the banks, lobby for more powers for themselves.  

It simply wasn’t their job, but it suited the Governor’s ambitions to sweep in and spend large amounts of public money –  for modest-sized agencies –  on a personal campaign, to discover what?

The waste goes on.  There is an advert out at the moment for a Manager, Performance and Corporate Relations.  There appears to be some real work associated with the role (some of the bureaucratic hoop-jumping all government agencies have to do) but part of the role is this

Leading a mid-sized team of specialists, the person appointed will provide leadership to organisation-wide initiatives such as the Bank’s Climate Change Strategy and Te Ao Maori framework.

There can be no possible need for whatever a “Te Ao Maori framework” actually turns out to be.   The Reserve Bank isn’t some social agency dealing with troubled individual families, where quite possibly individual cultural backgrounds matter.  It doesn’t really deal with ordinary people much at all –  that is not a criticism, it doesn’t need to.    It runs monetary policy –  which affects and benefits people quite regardless of ethnicity-  and it regulates banks (and other financial institutions) again –  one would hope –  regardless of the ethnicity of individual managers or shareholders.  Fortunately, the “principles of the Treaty of Waitangi” are not part of the Reserve Bank Act.     I don’t suppose the Bank will be spending a vast amount of money in this area, but every little bit reallocated to financial regulation would surely help, at least if you believe the Governor and his Deputy.  It has the feel of the Governor pursuing another personal political agenda at the expense of the taxpayer.

And then there is “the Bank’s Climate Change Strategy”.    I’ve touched on this before, but as a reminder the Reserve Bank is an office-bound organisation, with precisely two offices (main one and a small one –  probably unnecessary –  in Auckland).  For practical reasons (to do with specialist vaults) the Bank –  unlike most central government agencies –  owns a building in central Wellington, and if they own any vehicles at all it might be just one car.  They are a wholesaler of one physical product –  bank notes –  but they import that product from overseas producers, for whom the Reserve Bank is no more than a modest-sized customer (thus with little market power).  But they do, I suppose, travel to lots of overseas meetings (but last I looked, international air travel still isn’t captured in the agreed international carbon reporting framework or our own current government’s incipient net-zero goal).

There is just no obvious reason –  at least not one that isn’t ultra vires –  for the Reserve Bank to be spending public money on a “climate change strategy” at all.  It is a feel-good piece of political positioning, perhaps helping the Governor is his turf fights around the Reserve Bank Act, and assisting him in a cause that he clearly feels strongly about personally –  even if there is little sign of him thinking about it deeply.

I’ve written prevously about the sheer vacuity of much of this, especially in the New Zealand context –  our banking system hardly being heavily exposed to, say, oil producers.  There was a vapid box in the FSR a few weeks ago, and as I noted of it

The text burbles on about possible risks, but it all adds up to very little.     There are numerous risks banks and borrowers face every decade, every century.  Relative prices change, trade protection changes, external markets change, exchange rates change, technology changes, economies cycle, land use law changes.  Oh, and the climate changes.

If one looks at the structure of New Zealand bank (or insurer balance sheets) it just isn’t credible that climate change poses a significant risk to the soundness of the New Zealand financial system (that pesky law again).   Some individuals are likely to face losses from actual and prospective sea-level rises, but banks (and insurers) typically have diversified national portfolios.   People can’t have mortgage debt without insurance, and so the insurers are likely to be constraining people first.   Much the same surely goes for the rural sector?   Sure, adding agriculture into the ETS at the sort of carbon price some zealots have called for would be pretty detrimental to the economics of a dairy debt portfolio, but then freeing up the urban land market probably wouldn’t be great for residential mortgage portfolios, and we don’t see double-page spreads from the Reserve Bank on that issue, or the Governor trying to play himself into some more central role in that area.     It smacks of politics –  signalling the Governor’s green credentials –  more than anything legitimately tied to financial system soundness.

As it happens, the Bank yesterday released its “Climate Change Strategy“, a 10 point statement which seems almost equally devoid of content relevant to the statutory responsibilities of the Bank.  Instead, the Governor is offering political support to the government (that is the gist of the first paragraph) and bidding to be a player.  Here are two of their 10 points.

8.No single institution working alone can achieve meaningful progress on a global challenge such as climate change. Furthermore, it is not for financial policymakers to drive the transition to a low-carbon economy, nor is it the role of the Bank to advocate one policy response over another. That is the role of government.

9. However, appropriate action on a national or global level can only be achieved if individuals and entities are able to take action on a micro level. For this to occur, two conditions need to be met. First, there has to be proactive and effective leadership to drive our collective understanding of climate risks and to establish robust strategies to respond to those risks. Second, there has to be effective and timely dissemination of those assessments and strategies. Appropriate information will be vital in enabling entities and individuals to price and manage risks, facilitating the transition to a low-carbon economy, and ultimately contributing to both the soundness and efficiency of the financial system.

You might agree, disagree, or simply yawn, but when did this become an issue for a central bank, with important, powerful, but quite limited, statutory responsibilities?  And a central bank crying poor, claiming it doesn’t have enough money for its day jobs.   It is more like a creed than something one might reasonably expect from a central bank.

As part of the Bank’s statement we learn that

The Bank has also been welcomed as member of the Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System (NGFS). The Network was set up in December 2017 at the Paris ‘One Planet Summit’ to strengthen the global response required to meet the goals of the Paris agreement.

Head of Department Financial System Policy and Analysis Toby Fiennes says the Reserve Bank is very proud to have been accepted as a member of the NGFS.

“Playing our part globally, and as a leader in the Pacific region, is important both in terms of reinforcing New Zealand’s reputation as a ‘good global citizen’, and in providing us access to the latest thinking around the globe,” Mr Fiennes says.

(Among this small group of (excessively funded?) central banks and regulators is the central banking arm of the Chinese Communist Party. )

I guess it is the sort of feel-good, but empty, rhetoric one now expects from public servants.  And I guess when you see yourself as a tree god, the fit with an organisation devoted to “greening the financial system” must be almost complete?   But it is all empty.  “Playing our part globally” seems likely to involve little more than another round of international meetings to attend –  all those extra emissions – at the taxpayers’ expense, to advance Orr’s personal agenda at a time when he suggests the institution has insufficient money to do the job the taxpayer instructed them to do.  On an issue where there are no material financial system implications at all.

I’m open to the idea that the Bank might in fact need more financial resources, given the various jobs that (wisely or not) Parliament has instructed them to do.   There are other agencies and causes that might have a stronger case  and (on the other hand) some that should simply be wound up altogether.  But the Bank’s case would be that much more compelling if there weren’t repeated signs that the Governor was using the institution and public resources to advance personal, often quite political, agendas that reach beyond his statutory responsibilities.  He should be ensuring –  and the Board insisting –  that resources are rigorously prioritised to focus on the statutory mandate.

6 thoughts on “Funding the Reserve Bank: focus on your statutory mandate

  1. Regardless of what anyone may think about human induced climate change, NZ’s contribution amounts to 0.17% of global CO2 emissions. We could follow the IPCC mandate, or completely ignore it, and the climate, the sea levels and the polar bears will not notice.

    In the interview below, Australia Chief Scientist appears to have implied that anything Australia does will not have any influence on the climate, and they produce 1.8% of the worlds greenhouse gases, or ten times NZ’s contribution.

    https://www.heraldsun.com.au/blogs/andrew-bolt/finkel-was-right-first-time-virtually-nothing/news-story/763a69d7fdbc383cf3a210342842aac3

    Yet the economic cost of compliance for both NZ and Australia is considerable. None of this however appears to be newsworthy.

    Like

    • The argument that robbing a bank of only 0.17% of its deposits doesn’t matter because the amount is insignificant doesn’t work. However if we tackle our fraction can we be confident others will do the same? Or at least make an effort?
      It seems reasonable if you go to the beach to take your litter home even when others are not. It is setting an example. It even makes sense to pick up a fraction of other peoples litter and set an better example. What would be irrational is to dedicate every trip to the beach to doing nothing but collect others litter.
      I remain skeptical that we can stop all emissions; the details seem to involve buying credits from other countries and that doesn’t stop climate change and planting trees and that seems unsustainable; eventually the country will be covered by trees.
      I remain skeptical of long term targets with no simple short term targets. So if we are committed to reducing CO2 by 0.17% of the international total in 32 years how about our Prime Minister and our climate change minister promising to resign if they fail to cut 0.01% before the next election?

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      • Hi Bob

        If CO2 was a pollutant, in the same vein as rubbish on the beach, then your analogy might stack up, however it’s not, and it doesn’t. CO2 is essential to sustaining all plant and human life. It is a major contributor to renewed ‘global greening’ of the planet. Some estimate that the increased crop yields resulting from slightly higher percentages of CO2 in our atmosphere contribute about $140Billion a year to the global economy:

        http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/the-benefits-of-carbon-dioxide/

        However I agree with your scepticism regarding any governments commitment to the ‘Paris accord’ or implementing policy that will practically reduce their countries emissions to the extent ‘demanded’ by the IPCC. We see how that played out in France just recently. New Zealanders are less stroppy than the French, but add another dollar a litre to our fuel in order to reduce demand, and I imagine there would be protests.

        People seem happy to signal their virtue over this issue, but most will be extremely reluctant to sacrifice their lifestyle for the cause.

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      • Brendan, I’m willing to go along with the majority of scientists just the way I go along with the doctors who prescribe my pills. A little skeptical but in general accepting their authority. So I think we ought to be doing something about climate change (although my personal opinion is it is a minor issue compared to the rapid pollution and destruction of our world).

        The scientists may be wrong but their arguments do hang together. Compared to them the political response is a joke. Take for example “” … but last I looked, international air travel still isn’t captured in the agreed international carbon reporting framework or our own current government’s incipient net-zero goal “”. No climate change policy can make sense if you ignore a substantial cause of CO2 emissions. It is possible to imagine electric cars in the mid-term but nobody has a solution for planes. Any sane climate change policy for NZ must include policies for international air travel. For example: incentives for tourists from nearby countries; incentives for fewer, larger more efficient planes; charging all passengers a carbon tax – if Auckland can have a fuel tax why not all air travellers.

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  2. Bob.The story about the scientists is a con.
    A good site to read is Joanne Novas.
    Judith Curry is a top climate scientist that is worth listening to.

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    • Roger, I checked Judith Curry’s wikipedia entry and certainly agree with her “”Uncertainty Monster”” and “”wicked problem”” concepts. The uncertainy goes in both directions; even the IPPC reports (at least until recently) gave a small probability to ‘no change’ and a slightly higher probability to ‘much worse’. But it makes sense to plan for the worst case just as we buy house insurance without expecting our house to burn down.

      However who would buy house insurance if it cost more than a new house? This is where an economist’s expertise is needed.

      I’m still looking for a climate change forum that provides a rational debate with informed contributions from both sides. I was impressed by Jim Flynn’s short book; he certainly is a believer in imminent drastic climate change but he also believes only a technical solution is possible ( it is impossible and immoral to stop the developing world develop ).

      I’ve heard of Joanne Novas and will give her site a try.

      Like

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