MPC remit and charter

The Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Reserve Bank today released the Remit and Charter for the new statutory Monetary Policy Committee, that takes effect from 1 April.  The Remit largely replaces the Policy Targets Agreement structure in place since 1990, and future remits will be set directly by the Minister of Finance, after advice from the Reserve Bank (among others) and associated public consultation.  The Charter is mostly new, governing how the MPC is supposed to operate in some key, outward-facing, dimensions. It complements various detailed statutory provisions.   Even though both documents are this time agreed between the Governor and the Minister, it is clear that the Minister has taken the lead: the press release is issued by the Minister alone, and although it is now reproduced on the Bank’s website, contains various bits of political spin.

The contents of the new Remit are in many respects pretty similar in substance to the current PTA, but there are a couple of changes worth noting.

One looks like an error.  In the Context section the Remit states that

“(the Act) requires that monetary policy promote the prosperity and wellbeing of New Zealanders”

That line took me by surprise so I went back and checked the new legislation.    The relevant provision actually states

The purpose of this Act is to promote the prosperity and well-being of New Zealanders,

Those are two different things.  The Remit –  which the Governor has voluntarily signed on to – can reasonably be read as suggesting that monetary policy should be conducted with “wellbeing” in mind.  The Act sets out statutory objectives for monetary policy (the things the MPC is supposed to pursue and take into account), simply stating that Parliament has put the legislation in place believing that the monetary policy goals (and other powers the Bank has, including regulation and supervision) will conduce to the wellbeing of New Zealanders.  The Remit shouldn’t have been worded that way.

My second observation about the Remit is more positive (and would be more positive still if the document hadn’t been released in a format in which one can’t copy and paste extracts).    It is stated that “monetary policy contributes to public welfare by reducing cyclical variations in employment and economic activity whilst maintaining price stability over the medium-term”.  I like that formulation, which is much closer to what I recommended should be the statutory goal for monetary policy.  Price stability is the constraint, economic stabilisation is the primary purpose.   Whether or not the wording is quite consistent with the actual new legislative goal is something for the MPC, and those paid to hold them to account, to work out.

What of the Charter?

My overarching unease about the MPC is that it will be dominated the Governor.  That is partly through the channel of the inbuilt management majority (and the Governor hires the other managers), and partly because of the heavy say the Governor will have in who gets appointed to the (minority) external positions.

But it is reinforced by the relentless, and explicit, drive for “consensus”.   This is from the Charter


“Consensus” isn’t a recipe for getting the best answers, but for lowest common denominator answers that everyone can live with.  It isn’t really a recipe for a robust examination of competing arguments and analyses either –  at least unless one has exceptional people (which is always unlikely, almost by definition) –  and especially when management has (a) an inbuilt majority, and (b) control of all the research and analysis resources (and of the pen in drafting MPSs etc).   The risk remain that outsiders, knowing they are inevitably outnumbered, and having ‘consensus’ waved in their faces will simply go along, free-riding.

The formal transparency model chosen is likely, at the margin, to reinforce this risk.  We are told that the record of the meeting will be published at the same time as the OCR announcement (2pm on Wednesday, following an MPC meeting that morning).  Even allowing for various preliminay meetings, the “record” of the meeting will inevitably be heavily pre-drafted by staff who work to the Governor, and the ability of outside MPC members to get any alternative perspectives included is going to be an uphill struggle.  Most central bank MPCs release minutes with something of a lag.   All that said, time will tell how it works out.

One interesting provision in the Charter was this

charter 1

charter 2

It was interesting for two reasons.  First, this provision appears to accept that significant operational decisions around monetary policy are the responsibility of the MPC.  That was not (is not, in my view) clear from the legislation.   If so, it is welcome, especially if it involves an expectation by the Minister that, for example, any future quantitative easing and similar decisions would also be a matter for MPC.  We’ll have to see.

Presumably this provision is supposed to cover the longstanding arrangements for possible foreign exchange intervention.  When I was at the Bank, the OCR Advisory Group (internal forerunner to the MPC) was the forum in which the Governor made in principle decisions on intervention, and specific timing choices etc were then dealt directly between the Governor and the Financial Markets Department.

If so, the specific provisions go much too far.   Perhaps there is a case at times for not announcing foreign exchange intervention immediately in some circumstances.  But there are no grounds for leaving the MPC to decide for itself when, if ever, specific information on intervention will be released (the implied movements in the Bank’s fx position come out more than a month later, and even then without comment of explanation).    At present, there probably is not much practical importance attaching to this point, but the system should be started as we mean to go on.  Much better to have insisted that all market intervention (size and nature, although not counterparties) should be disclosed within 10 days of such intervention.  Apart from anything else, these are big financial risks the taxpayer is (given no choice in) assuming.

My final observation on the charter offers kudos to the Minister.  There has been a great deal of talk about the need to seek consensus (which is still in the charter) and the claim had been made that this meant all MPC members should speak, if at all, with a single voice.  Bank management championed this (self-interestedly no doubt), despite the successful examples of countries like the UK, the US, and Sweden, and a year ago it seemed that they had persuaded the Minister of their view.  It was one reason why good people would probably have been deterred from applying for the external positions –  facing a built-in internal majority, and with no ability to articulate in public alternative perspectives, it wasn’t obvious that the positions offered more than sightseeing (looking at the innards of how the Bank works).  I’ve banged on about the issue for months, and I know others have also raised concerns.

And so imagine the pleasant surprise I got when I  got towards the end of the charter.

charter 3

I don’t have any particular problems with (a) or (b), although I can imagine some future disputes about what does and doesn’t contribute to the “overall effectiveness” of the monetary policy decision etc, since things that might muddy the water a bit in the short-term could easily strengthen the institution, and its accountability, in the medium term.  I also had no problem with (d) which is pretty much how Reserve Bank staff have operated for many years.

What caught my eye was (c), under which it appears that members of the MPC –  internal and external –  will be free to comment in public, expressing their own views on the economic situation, risks, and monetary policy.   On monetary policy itself, they are required to draw on official communications “as appropriate” –  and I’m sure they will, as appropriate.  But it doesn’t bind MPC members to agree with committee decision, or to endorse all the arguments the Governor himself might offer in support of the decision.  On the economy etc, they can say what they like (in substance) provided they do so politely  (as people typically do in transparent foreign central banks) and let their colleagues know in advance what they’ll be saying.  It is a material step forward relative to what we’ve been promised (although time will tell whether anyone, internal or external (and thus vetted for tameness by the Governor) ever utilises these provisions).

What is also interesting is some of the detail.  There is now an explicit written requirement that any off-the-record private remarks about monetary policy or the economic outlook have to be consistent with official MPC communications.  Presumably this also applies to the Governor (there is no suggestion it doesn’t) so if there are off-the-record expletive-laden rants at private commercial functions in future, at least they won’t be offering any insights on the economy and monetary policy.  Perhaps that Rotary Club advertising the Governor as offering candid perspectives on the New Zealand economy –  if you pay – will have to revise its plans?  More probably, the Governor probably won’t regard himself as bound by the rules.

And then there was the final sentence.  Any on-the-record remarks (occasions at which they will be made) will have to (a) notified to the public in advance, and (b) with full text on the Bank’s website in real-time.   In principle, this looks fine and sensible (although it is far from what has been practised by management up til now).  In practice, it will prevent MPC members giving interviews, and appears designed to ensure that the only communications are speeeches with written texts to which MPC members adhere closely.  But, again, there is no suggestion that these rules don’t apply to the Governor –  and his views are inevitably most market-moving.   So can we look forward to an end to off-the-record speeches from the Governor on matters of substance, and to wild departures from the prepared and published text.   After all, as the document says, MPC members shouldn’t provide, or look as though they are providing, new information to private subsets of people.     (Personally, I suspect the document goes a little too far.  It would probably be unfortunate if, say, the Governor cannot (as the document appears to suggest) give an interview to, say, Morning Report or one of the main current affairs programmes, so long as there is adequate public notification as to when and where he will be speaking.)

As I’ve said on various previous occasions, I’m pretty ambivalent about the monetary policy legislative amendments, and particularly about the MPC, which looks set to be a Governor-dominated creature, not too different in effect from what we’ve had for the last 29 years.  But credit where it is due.  There are some welcome aspects in the details of today’s announcement and I, quite honestly, hope the new system works better than I expect it to.    Who knows, the less closed nature of the rule may even help attract a better class of candidate to consider the MPC position.

For now, of course, we are still left guessing who four of the seven MPC members will be.

See, not so hard after all

Back in November 2017, just after the government took office, the Reserve Bank in its Monetary Policy Statement identified various assumptions they had made about the impact of various of the new government’s policies.  Some of these assumptions made quite a difference to the outlook, but no analysis or reasoning was presented to give us any confidence in the assumptions they were (reasonably or unreasonably) making. One of those new policies was KiwiBuild.

Seeing as the Bank is a powerful public agency, it seemed only reasonable to request copies of any analysis undertaken as part of arriving at the assumptions policymakers were using.   The Bank refused and many many months later the Ombudsman backed them up (if ever there was a case for an overhaul of the Official Information Act, this was a good example).  The Ombudsman did point out that he had to rule as at the date the request had been made.  So, a year having passed, I again requested this material.  The Bank again refused (and I haven’t yet gotten round to appealing to the Ombudsman).     Quarter after quarter the Monetary Policy Statements talk about KiwiBuild, but we’ve never seen any supporting analysis.   A state secret apparently.

Until yesterday that is.  In the latest Monetary Policy Statement there was the usual discussion of KiwiBuild –  potentially a big influence on one of the most highly-cylical parts of the whole economy –  but there was also a footnote pointing readers to an obscure corner of the Bank’s website, and a special background note on KiwiBuild, and the assumptions the Bank is making.  All released simultaneous with the statement itself.   See, it just wasn’t that hard.  And has the sky fallen?

(As it happens I remain rather sceptical of the assumption that KiwiBuild is going to be a significant net addition to total residential investment over the next decade.  Why would it, when the main issues in the housing market are land prices and, to a lesser extent, construction costs, and it isn’t obvious how KiwiBuild deals with either of them?  If it proves to be a net addition, it will probably be because it is a subsidy scheme for the favoured –  lucky – few.)

As for the overall tone of the monetary policy conclusions to the statement, count me sceptical.  At one level it is almost always true that the next OCR move could be up or down –  and in that sense most forecasting (especially that a couple of years ahead) is futile: useless and pointless.   But for the Governor to suggest that the risks now are really even balanced, even at some relatively near-term horizon, seems to suggest he is  falling into the same trap that beguiled the Bank for much of the last decade; the belief that somewhere, just around the corner, inflation pressures are finally going to build sufficiently that they will need to raise the OCR.   We’ve come through a cyclical recovery, the reconstruction after a series of highly-destructive earthquakes, strong terms of trade, and a huge unexpected population surge, and none of it has been enough to really support higher interest rates. The OCR now is lower than it was at the end of the last recession, and still core inflation struggles to get anywhere 2 per cent.    There is no lift in imported inflation, no significant new surges in domestic demand in view, and as the Bank notes business investment is pretty subdued.  Instead actual GDP growth has been easing, population growth is easing, employment growth is easing, confidence is pretty subdued, the heat in the housing market (for now at least) is easing.  Oh, and several of the major components of the world economy –  China and the euro-area  –  are weakening, and the Australian economy (important to New Zealand through a host of channels) also appears to be easing, centred in one of the most cyclically-variable parts of the economy, construction.   It was surprising to see no richness or depth to any of the international discussion –  and to see the Bank buying into the highly dubious line that any slowing in China is mostly about the “trade war”.   Few other observers seem to see it that way.

From a starting point with inflation still below target midpoint after all these years, it would seem much more reasonable to suppose that if there is an OCR adjustment in the next year or so, it is (much) more likely to be a cut than an increase.      Time will tell, including about how long the 1.5 per cent lift in the exchange rate will last.

Commendably, the Bank is now talking openly about many other economies have limited capacity to respond to a future serious downturn.  That is welcome acknowledgement, but it would count for more if the Bank were taking seriously the real (if slightly less binding) constraints New Zealand will also face in the next future serious downturn.

A couple of other things in the document caught my eye.  One was this chart

NAIRU 2019

The Bank seems to be trying to tell us that it really has no idea whether the unemployment was above or below the NAIRU at any time in the last 17 years.  I don’t suppose in practice they operate that way, but when they present a chart like this it is a bit hard to take seriously the other bits of their economic analysis.

The other specific was some rather upbeat comments on productivity performance in recent years, which has led the Bank to the view that they now to expect no acceleration in productivity growth in the years ahead.  The Governor always seems to err on the (politically convenient) upbeat side.  I’m not sure quite how the Bank derives their productivity measure –  I’m guessing as some sort of per person employed measure –  but as a reminder to readers here is the chart of real GDP per hour worked, the standard measure of labour productivity.  To deal, to some extent, with the noise in the individual series, I use both measures of quarterly GDP and both (HLFS and QES) measures of hours.

real GDP phw dec 18

There has been no labour productivity growth for the last three or four years, and little for the last six or seven.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bank is right to expect no acceleration (on current policies), but if we keep on with near-zero labour productivity growth it is a rather bleak prospect for New Zealanders.

A great deal of the press conference was taken up with questions –  generally not very sympathetic –  about the Governor’s proposals to increase substantially capital requirements for banks.   In the course of the press conference he and Geoff Bascand made some reasonable points –  including about the merits of putting the big 4 banks and the smaller banks on a more equal footing in calculating requirements – and at least fronted up on the other questions.  It is just a shame this was being done reactively now, rather than pro-actively when the proposals were first released in December.

I remain rather sceptical of the Bank’s case –  in which everything is a win-win, in which the economy is safer, more prosperous, and even with lower interest rates.  If you doubt that I’m characterising their bold claims correctly, this is the stylised diagram that leads the consultative document.

something for allIt is a free lunch they are claiming to offer.  I suspect few will be convinced.

In the course of the press conference, the Governor asserted that the Bank’s proposals will, if implemented, mean that future capital ratio requirements would be “well within the range of norms” seen in other countries.  I found that a surprising claim, and there is nothing –  not a word – in the consultative document to back it up.  If true, it would be material in thinking about the appropriateness of the Bank’s proposals.  But where is the evidence (granting that this is something that can’t be answered in a ten second Google search)?  I’ve lodged an Official Information Act request for the analysis the Governor is using to support his claim.  It would, surely, be in his interests to have such analysis out there.

Also at the press conference, there was the hardy perennial claim that inflation expectations are “well-anchored” at 2 per cent, and everyone believes that monetary policy is just fine.  As my hardy perennial response, here are inflation breakevens from the government bond (indexed and conventional) market.  The last observation is today’s data.

IIB breakevens feb 19

People with money at stake don’t seem to believe you Governor.  Last time things got this low a series of OCR cuts only helped, at least partially, rectify the position.

And, finally, who does the Bank suppose gets any value at all from the cartoon version of the statement?  For example


Is the Monetary Policy Statement now a set text in intermediate school?  If the kids are especially naughty do they have to read it twice?   Even your average MP, sitting on the Finance and Expenditure Committee and supposedly holding the Bank to account, has to be able to cope with a little more than that.  I’m not expecting much of the new statutory MPC, but perhaps they could prevail on the Governor to drop the cartoons and simply write in reasonably accessible English?

Later this morning we get the Remit (PTA replacement) and Charter for the new Monetary Policy Committee.  I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts about them tomorrow.