“The 30 billion dollar whim”

A week or two back I foreshadowed a forthcoming paper by my former colleague Ian Harrison reviewing the Reserve Bank’s proposals under which the banks would have to greatly increase the volume of capital simply to carry on doing the business they are doing now.

Like me, Ian spent decades at the Reserve Bank.  But much of his time was spent specifically in the area of banking regulation and bank supervision, including leading much of the modelling work done a few years ago as part of the Basle III process, which resulted in something like the current bank capital requirements.   He knows the detail in this area, has consulted on this sort of stuff since leaving the Bank, and has invested a great deal of time and effort over the last couple of months in getting to grips with the Bank’s proposals, reviewing the various papers they’ve published, and going back and reviewing the papers the Bank has cited in support of their case.   The result is his (50 page) review document.   Here are his key conclusions (overlapping in various places with points I’ve made in post here). Ian does not pull his punches.

Part two: Key conclusions

1. The ‘risk tolerance’ approach is a backward step that ignores a consideration of both the costs and benefits of the policy. The soundness test is based on an arbitrarily chosen probability of bank failure that ignores the cost of meeting the target. The Bank has ignored its own cost benefit model which did take the probability of bank failure, the costs of a failure, the interest rate costs of higher capital and societal risk aversion into account.

2. Bank decision based on fabricated evidence. The Banks’s decision to pursue a 1:200 failure target was purportedly based on evidence from a version of the Basel advanced model. It was manipulated to produce the right answer. Initially, a 1:100 target was proposed, but when this couldn’t generate a capital increase, the target was switched to 1:200 at the last minute.

The Bank’s model inputs were not credible. It was assumed that all loans were higher risk business loans and that the probability of loan default, a key model input, was more than two and a half times the estimates the Reserve Bank has approved banks to use in their capital modelling.

The Bank’s analysis was embarrassingly bad, so it attempted to cover this up with a subsequent information paper that was written after the decision was made, and after the Consultation paper was released. It reached the same conclusion on the required level of capital, but only by assuming a 1:333 failure probability, and by using model inputs that were still not credible.

3. A 1:200 target can be met with a capital ratio of around 8 percent. If the Basel model were rerun using credible inputs if would probably show that a 1:200 failure rate can be met with a capital ratio of around 8 percent.

4. The policy will be costly. The Bank has down played the interest rate impact of the policy, saying any increases will be ‘minimal’. Based on its own assessment of the interest rate impact, the annual cost will be about $1.5-2 billion a year. The present value of the cost of the policy could be in excess of $30 billion.

A homeowner with a $400,000 mortgage could be paying an additional $1,000 a year. A business with a $5 million loan could be paying an additional $50,000.

5. The Bank’s assessment that the banking system is currently unsound is at odds with rating agency assessments and borders on the irresponsible. The rating agancies’ assessment of the four major banks is AA-, suggesting a failure rate of 1:1250. The Bank is now saying that, at current capital ratios, the banking system is ‘unsound’ because the failure rate is worse than 1:200. Or in other words the New Zealand banking system is not too far from ‘junk’ status. The international evidence does not support the Bank’s contention that the probability of a crisis is worse than 1:200. The Bank has ignored the fact that banks will need to hold an operating margin over the regulatory minimum, and has not adjusted New Zealand capital ratios to international standards to make a fair like-for-like comparison.

6. The Bank‘s analysis ignores the fact that the banking system is mostly foreign owned. Foreign ownership increases the cost of higher capital because the borrowing cost increases flow to foreign owners. Foreign owners will support their subsidiaries in certain circumstances, which reduces the probability of a bank failure. There is little point in having a higher CET1 ratio than Australia, because if a parent fails then it is highly likely that the subsidiary will also fail, because of the contagion effect. A New Zealand subsidiary might still appear to have plenty capital, but depositors will run and the Reserve Bank and government will have to intervene.

7. The Australian option of increasing tier two capital has been ignored. APRA is proposing to increase bank capital by five percentage points, but will allow banks to use tier two capital to meet the higher target. This provides the same benefits, in a crisis, as CET1 capital, but at about one fifth of the cost. New Zealanders will be required to spend an additional $1.2 billion a year in interest costs for almost no benefit in terms of more resilience to a severe crisis.

8. The benefits of higher capital are modest. Most of the costs of a banking failure are due to borrowing decisions made before the downturn. This will impose costs regardless of the amount of capital held. With current levels of bank capital failures will be rare, with the main cost likely to be a government capital injection. The experience with most banking crises, in countries most like New Zealand, is that governments have recovered most of their costs when the bank shares are subsequently sold.

9. The Bank is mis-selling insurance. The Bank is selling a form of insurance to the New Zealand public, but it vague about the premium costs and has exaggerated the benefits. The premium is the $1.5-2 billion. The benefit would be around a 10 percent reduction in the economic cost of a financial crisis, with an expected return of a few tens of millions.

An informed, rational public would not buy this policy.

10. New Zealand banks already well capitalised compared to international norms. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report argued that if New Zealand bank capital ratios were calculated using international measurement standards they would be 6 percentage points higher, placing New Zealand in the upper ranks of well capitalised banking systems. The Reserve Bank critised some details in the report, but has not produced is own assessment as Australia’s APRA has done.

11. The Bank has forgotten about the OBR.   The Open Bank Resolution (OBR) bank failure mechanism, was originally conceived as a substitute for higher capital to reduce fiscal risk, and to reduce the costs of a bank failure. While banks are been required to spend almost $1 billion on outsourcing policies to supportthe OBR, it does not appear in the capital review at all – despite the Governor’s arguments that the main justification for capital increases is to reduce fiscal risk.

The bottom line?

An informed, rational public would not buy this policy.

But, as it happens, an informed rational public won’t get a say. The Governor proposes and (under New Zealand law) disposes: prosecutor, judge, jury, and appellate court in his own case.

Partly, I gather, for his own amusement, and partly to help respond accessibly to some specific assertions/arguments in the more accessible material the Bank has put out to support the Governor’s case, Ian has a separate document, the Pinocchio awards.

pinocchio 2pinocchio 1

The Governor is a great deal smarter and more analytically capable than Donald Trump, but on Ian’s reading, he is resorting to the financial regulator’s equivalent of questionable Trumpian rhetoric to champion the indefensible.  Against Trump there are the courts and Congress.  Against a Governor with a whim and the bit between his teeth……well, nothing really.

It would be interesting to see what the Reserve Bank makes of Ian’s arguments and evidence.

UPDATE: A fairly accessible summary of some of Ian Harrison’s key argument in this article by veteran journalist Jenny Ruth.


Shipley and the China Council

Last week I wrote a post about Jenny Shipley’s position in the wake of the High Court judgment against her and other directors of Mainzeal.

I noted then that her position as chair of the local China Construction Bank was almost certainly untenable.  Even if, for some reason, the owners (the parent bank) had still been happy to have her, the Reserve Bank could not have allowed her to remain in her post and still retained any credibility around its “fit and proper person” regime. The Mainzeal board, chaired by Shipley, had continued trading for years with negative equity, with only the weakest suggestions of possible support from the parent.  Corporate law is designed to protect creditors from that sort of corporate (mis)governance.

Shipley has now announced that she will be leaving the China Construction Bank board.   We don’t know how much of a role the Reserve Bank played in that departure. No doubt they would hide behind the Official Information Act (or worse, section 105 of the Reserve Bank Act) and refuse to tell us.  That is a shame: it is a lost opportunity to demonstrate to the public that the regime has teeth when it comes to seriously problematic individuals. Mind you, I guess it might also leave them open to questions about how it is that they were happy to have Jenny Shipley chairing a New Zealand bank for the last several years, as more and more information about the Mainzeal situation emerged.

The focus now turns to Shipley’s role on the Executive Board of the New Zealand China Council.   In my earlier post I commented on this only briefly

As for Shipley’s membership of the executive board of the China Council……surely that tawdry taxpayer-funded body that sticks up for Beijing at every turn, has Jian Yang on its advisory board, defends Huawei, and won’t stick up for Anne-Marie Brady is just the place for her?  Then again, if the government doesn’t want the last vestiges of any credibility its propaganda body still has to be in shreds, they should probably remove her too. 

Shipley has clearly been very much in the good graces of Beijing over the years.  It wasn’t long ago that she had actually been on the parent board of the China Construction Bank, and she is now on the board of the regime-sponsored Boao Forum.   She has a long history of giving cover (literally in this case) to Beijing, going back to her brief time as Prime Minister.   Even that interview she gave to the People’s Daily back in December suggests a strong (and useful to Beijing) alignment between her public views and the preferred stances of Beijing.

But it isn’t clear whose interests are now really being served if she remains on the Executive Board of the China Council –  except perhaps those like me who poke the stick at this taxpayer-funded pro-Beijing advocacy and propaganda body.

Perhaps it suits Beijing to have such a tainted individual on their tame domestic lobby group.  See, democracy  and ‘doing the right thing’ is so enfeebled in New Zealand that our friend gets to retain her public position despite the very evident systematic poor governance on display at Mainzeal.   Perhaps, but Shipley’s failings are now sufficiently evident –  and will now always be associated with her name – that is doesn’t look as though it would really help the cause of keeping New Zealanders lulled into obliviousness about the nature of the regime.  The China Council is supposed to look like a bunch of decent public-spirited New Zealanders.

For similar reasons it can’t really be in the interests of the China Council itself for Shipley to stay on.  All the other, individually decent, people who sit on the Executive Board will be tarred by association.  You can’t so fundamentally mismanage a major business, resulting in huge losses for many people as a result of choices that were irresponsible and probably illegal, and expect to keep right on in prominent governance roles.    It wasn’t one small mistake early in someone’s career, but a big and very costly mistake for someone with the seniority and experience people should have been able to count on.  Shipley might still be well-connected in China, but there are other people with connections (if not, I’m sure Madame Wu at the PRC Embassy could help with introductions).  And everyone knows that neither corporate governance nor political governance in the PRC operate to the sorts of standards we expect in New Zealand.    If the China Council really wants us to believe that they champion New Zealand standing for New Zealand values, standards, and interests –  not just pre-emptively submitting to Beijing’s preferences – it should be in their interests too to get Jenny Shipley off their board, and quickly.

In a sense who owned Mainzeal shouldn’t be that relevant here –  the failure of the directors was alarming and unacceptable whoever the shareholders had been – but the fact that the firm was owned by someone originally from the PRC, and with extensive interests back there, just strengthens the argument around appearances.   The suspicion has been that, in effect, the China Council serves PRC interests more than those of New Zealanders.  A harsh critic might suggest something similar (perhaps unfairly) about the Mainzeal board.

And it shouldn’t be in the government’s interest for Jenny Shipley to remain on the China Council board either.  I was staggered at the way the Prime Minister the other day sought to avoid any responsibility or any involvement.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was earlier asked whether she had any problem with Shipley being on the New Zealand China Council. She said it was not an appointment the Government had any role in.

The rules of the incorporated society that is the China Council are not readily available, so I’m not sure quite what the formal mechanism is for appointments to the Executive Board.  The China Council’s website also doesn’t say.   But it shouldn’t matter greatly.  The government pays

The Council receives approximately two thirds of its operational funding from the New Zealand Government through an annual grant from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

[UPDATE: The latest set of accounts suggest just under half now, but with the government clearly the single largest funder.]

and very senior government officials serve on the Executive Board with Shipley.

The Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Chief Executive of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise are both ex officio members of the Executive Board.

It is a creature of the New Zealand government and the Prime Minister simply can’t avoid responsibility.  I wonder what the Foreign Minister –  no fan of Shipley –  thinks?  Is the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade really comfortable serving on an Executive Board with someone like Shipley?

Perhaps there are discussions going on behind the scenes, but after a week since the judgment was handed down, it is quite inappropriate that Jenny Shipley is still on the Executive Board of this prominent government-funded body, and that the Prime Minister won’t express a view on the appropriateness of Shipley’s position.

I was debating this point with someone the other day who argued that if the Prime Minister expressed a view she would open herself to attacks from the National Party (presumably something about inappropriate interference, or upsetting (Todd McClay’s, Jian Yang’s, Peter Goodfellow’s friends in) Beijing).   Well, maybe, but I wouldn’t have thought Jenny Shipley, in her current position, is someone even National would want to touch with a barge pole.  Are those the sorts of business governance practices National wants to defend, in public?  I can’t imagine so.

And so if the Prime Minister won’t express concern about a senior figure, found to have grossly underperformed in a very prominent governance position, it risks looking as though (a) the Prime Minister isn’t bothered by such misconduct (generally) or (b) remains more interested in not upsetting friends of Beijing and Beijing’s sensitivities than about defending acceptable standards of corporate governance and decency here in New Zealand.  She associates herself with all the tawdriness of the China Council –  defences of Huawei, silence on Jian Yang, silence on Anne-Marie Brady, and a general reluctance ever to articulate New Zealand interests when, as inevitably happens, those sometimes clash with those of the PRC. Perhaps it buys her an easier life in the short-term.  In the longer-term it further corrodes whatever reputation for decency she might once have had.  It simply shouldn’t be in her interests, or that of the government, for Shipley to remain on the China Council board.  And no one really doubts that – as the agency holding the purse strings –  if she wanted Shipley gone she would very soon be gone.

Whatever other contributions Jenny Shipley may have made over the years, her record at Mainzeal now means that she diminishes the standing and reputation of any body or individual that continues to use her in governance roles, or which support her in such roles.  Foremost among those now, the Prime Minister and the China Council itself.   As one expert noted in the Dominion-Post this morning, the market has ways of taking care of these issues – Shipley (and her other fellow Mainzeal directors) might now struggle to get directors and officers liability insurance.   But those mechanisms can’t protect us when it comes to public bodies. Only leadership protects us there.  But at present there seems to be a void – an abdication – where leadership on this issue should be.

I did an interview with Morning Report on this issue this morning.  If they put the audio up I will link to it.  [UPDATE: In fact, here it is.]

UPDATE:  A reader has pointed me to where the constitution and rules of the China Council are online (details in a comment).  It appears that the Executive Board is self-selecting and self-perpertuating

CC rules

The point remains that if the Prime Minister, representing by far the largest funder, wanted Shipley off the Executive Board (a) she would almost certainly be gone quite quickly, and (b) even if she wasn’t, the PM would have made clear her refusal to countenance the standards of corporate governance on display in the Mainzeal case.