Revisiting some RB history

One of Stuff’s political correspondents, Henry Cooke, had a column in this morning’s  Dominion-Post about Adrian Orr and the power he wields, single-handedly, around banking regulation.

The column starts with some comparisons with some other senior public servants

Think Police Commissioner Mike Bush, former Treasury boss Gabriel Makhlouf​, or State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes. These three have had more influence over the way this country is run than all but the most powerful MPs.

Yet that trio can technically be called to heel by their ministers, even if doing so will probably result in a serious headache for the minister in question. Not so for Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr, whose independence is enshrined in law.

Not probably company most would want to be numbered with.  A Police Commissioner who gave a eulogy at the funeral of a former policeman widely accepted as having planted evidence in a murder case, who seems to be counted on not to make trouble for whichever party is in power, and who is only too happy for the NZ Police to cosy up to, and assist, the PRC security forces.  A now-departed Treasury Secretary who presided over the decline of his own institution, and then flitted the country refusing to accept any serious responsbility for his own conduct over the “budget hack” affair.  And so on.     Whatever influence these people might have – not much I’d have thought in the case of the Police Commissioner – they have no policymaking powers themselves.

By contrast, when it comes to banking regulation, the Reserve Bank Governor enjoys a great deal of formal power, with little accountability and no rights of appeal against his policy decisions.   They are powers which should be reined in, by MPs and ministers, and which while they exist need to be used with the utmost judiciousness and care.  Under Orr, it is more like a bull in a china shop, pursuing personal whims, perhaps political agendas, all supported by not very much robust analysis at all.   I’ve written about all that previously and am not going to repeat it today.

Cooke notes the suggestion by Paul Goldsmith that the Governor should have fewer policymaking powers, with big policy calls in banking regulation being made by ministers and MPs, as big policy calls in most other areas of public life are.  But then follows a strange end to his article, which is the point of this post.

Goldsmith knows all about how the Reserve Bank can set off real political fires. He wrote the book about the last Reserve Bank governor to step so seriously into the fray: Don Brash. Way way back in 1990 the then-Labour government’s election-year Budget was utterly blunted when Brash decided to immediately hike interest rates in response. Brash was drawn into the bitter debate between David Lange and his own finance minister, and the whole thing was extremely public.

We are nowhere near that level of chaos yet. But things sure are starting to get interesting.

I guess it is what comes of middle age, but the events of 1990 still seem to me not much further back than yesterday (not “way way back”), but I suppose the typical journalist is young.  Even so, it isn’t hard to have checked that the Prime Minister in question was Geoffrey Palmer  (and, unless I’ve missed something, the Goldsmith book doesn’t seem to deal with the episode in question at all).

And there are a few things to bear in mind as institutional context to that episode:

  • the Reserve Bank had received statutory operational independence only a few months earlier, under legislation initiated by the government in question (4th Labour government,
  • under that legislation, the Bank was responsible for pursuing an inflation target, primarily set by the government but formalised in a Policy Targets Agreement between the Governor and the Minister.  That agreement had been signed as recently as March 1990 and required as to get to price stability (0 to 2 per cent annual inflation) by the end of 1992,
  • at the time, the Labour government was miles behind in the polls, in an FPP electorial system, and generally expected to be thrashed in the polls later that year (I see in my diary that in the week in question I observed that “the only question seems to be whether Labour will hold St Albans and Christchurch Central”, two of Labour’s safer seats, held by Minister and PM respectively,
  • while National had supported the Reserve Bank Act (a) it was promising to push the target date further out (to 1993) and (b) that was with the Richardson camp dominant, but there was a fear that a less “hardline” strand within the caucus might prove dominant (eg, as it was thought at the time, the popular Winston Peters and Bill Birch),
  • the reform programme had already ripped apart Labour, the economy was in the midst of a difficult adjustment, and privately even someone as mainstream as the Minister of Finance was saying privately (in a meeting with officials), “we all know that if we don’t get to 0 to 2 per cent, we’ll just change the target”.

All of which could be summed up in the idea that there was not yet a great deal of credibility attached to the notion that inflation was actually going to be securely lowered into a 0 to 2 per cent range.  People, including markets, were searching for signals and signs that might buttress or undermine confidence.  And yet it was the Bank’s job –  mandated by Parliament and the Minister – to deliver that price stability outcome, and to do so at least transitional economic cost.

So what happened?   On 24 July 1990 the government brought down a Budget that was treated by financial markets as something of an election giveaway.  Under the rules at the time, they posted a surplus, but only by including what was in effect a large expected asset sale proceeds as revenue, and significant deficits were again forecast in the out-years.  It was widely viewed as a reversal of direction after five years of sustained fiscal consolidation.  There were a number of measures in the Budget (reductions in government price/fees/excises) which would have the effect of lowering the headline inflation rate for one year, but those weren’t really the focus of either the Reserve Bank or the financial markets.

Bond yields rose in response, and as market participants reflected a bit further the exchange rate fell.    It was that move, rather than the Budget itself, that prompted a reaction from the Reserve Bank.  Until the exchange rate fell, we had planned only a mild passing comment –  about the importance of ongoing fiscal discipline –  in the next Monetary Policy Statement.

At that time, we did not set an official interest rate (the OCR wasn’t a thing until 1999).  And the conventional view, not just at the Bank, was that exchange rate changes had a big short-term effect on domestic prices (whereas these days the short-term effects are roughly a 1 per cent change in the CPI for a 10 per cent change in the exchange rate, in those days empiricial estimates suggested anything up to a 4.6 per cent change in the CPI for a 10 per cent change in the exchange rate).  And so, roughly speaking, we ran policy with (unpublished) ranges in which the TWI could fluctuate, which were reset each quarter in light of the inflation outlook and changes in economic data.  If the exchange rate looked to move through the bottom of the range, we made a statement (‘open mouth operations’) and usually the statement itself was sufficient for interest rates and the exchange rate to adjust (the latter back into the range).

On Tuesday 31 July – thus a week after the Budget –  the exchange rate had fallen throught the bottom of our indicative range, and the Governor agreed to tighten monetary policy (it was a decision made a bit more easily than usual because all three of the more dovish senior officials were all away that week, but it was entirely in line with our standard operating framework).  We knew it wasn’t going to be popular – I noted in my diary that evening the question of whether it would spark a confrontation with the government – but the point of an operationally independent central bank was to be willing to be unpopular, especially in the run-up to elections.  There was a bit of a sense that it would not look good for the case for operational autonomy if we did nothing when first market doubts arose.  (Some years later David Caygill confirmed to me that the government had not expected any adverse reaction.)

We made an initial statement the following morning, which pushed interest rates up but didn’t do much to the exchange rate.  The statement was well-received by market economists (“who seemed surprised that we had the backbone – an NBR article this morning openly suggested that we want to back away”) and the Opposition finance people “who are impressed with the explicitness and clarity of the statement” (they had been criticising us for oblique communications), and even the media coverage wasn’t bad.  The Minister of Finance was not terribly supportive, but the Prime Minister was overseas.

On the following day, we were pondering whether we needed to make another statement –  to get the exchange rate back within the range.    Those with a particularly good memory may recall that this was also the day (2 August) Iraq invaded Kuwait, which pushed oil prices sharply upwards.  At the time –  although we weren’t knee-jerk reacting to oil prices –  our stance would have been that first round oil price effects were to be looked through, but that much higher oil prices would create risks of higher inflation expectations and a spillover into holding underlying or core inflation above target.

And so we made another statement the following morning.  For a time that day we thought we’d completely botched things because there were wire service reports that Iraq had gone on to invade Saudi Arabia too, but of course that was soon proved false.  Interest rates rose quite a bit, and the exchange rate also edged higher.  Banks began raising mortgage rates prompting the Minister of Finance to come out with rather silly comments (“presumably under Palmer’s orders”) about the banks being mean and out to get the government.  With the Prime Minister’s return both he and the Minister were out with further critical comments –  recall that they were less than three months out from an election thrashing .  The comments were aimed especially at the banks, while noting that there was nothing the government could do (monetary policy operational decisions having been handed to the Bank).

It wasn’t as if the Bank itself was totally blinkered and doctrinaire during this period.  In the days following this episode we discussed ourselves at senior levels whether we should consider recommending pushing back the target date (to, say, 1993) but on balance decided not to do so just yet.

That specific controversy died down pretty quickly, and to my mind remains an example of the system working as it was supposed to.  We were doing our job, and the government was doing its (setting fiscal policy, having initially set the inflation target itself).   I haven’t checked with Don Brash but I’ve never heard a suggestion that the framework, the target, or Don’s position was then in jeopardy.  In fact, a month or so later, Don was upsetting the Opposition by making himself somewhat party to the “Growth Agreement” the government and the unions reached –  in our terms, what that amount to was simply restating that if inflation pressures (this time wages) were lower then all else equal monetary policy would be able to be easier and interest rates (and the exchange rate) lower.

With the benefit of hindsight one can argue about whether the Bank’s monetary policy tightening was really necessary. In some respects, the market reaction post-Budget was a confidence shock and demand might have been expected to weaken anyway.  Moreover, actual exchange rate passthroughs were to prove weaker in future than had been the case in the past.   With better analysis might we have realised that sooner? Perhaps.  But as I noted, the Bank’s reaction was wholly consistent with the Policy Targets Agreement, signed only a few months earlier, and with our best understanding then of how the economy worked, in the midst of a highly contentious and uncertain disinflation, and was supported by the bulk of private market economists.

I’m not sure where Henry Cooke got his story, but it just wasn’t “chaos” then, and to the extent there was any, it wasn’t Bank-initiated.

In fact, that episode wasn’t even close to the toughest political challenges for the Bank.   Only a few months later, National was in power and Jim Bolger in particular was very unhappy with some of the choices the Bank was making.  Goldsmith records Ruth Richardson warning Brash, as she was about to leave for an overseas trip, not to “make waves” as his “best friend at court” wouldn’t be around to provide cover.  That angst went on for months, and even culminated in pressure on the Bank from senior Treasury officials to ease monetary policy specifically to assist Richardson’s own political position.  (I am less confident that we handled 1991 that well, even on the sort of information we should have used at the time).

And then, of course, a decade later there was Don Brash’s infamous Knowledge Wave conference speech –  given rather against the advice of various of his closer advisers – which, whatever its substantive merits, did involve stepping well outside his statutory role, and greatly irritated the then Prime Minister, in turn poisoning the prospects for any internal candidate succeeding Brash when he left for politics in 2002.

The point of this post is really twofold.  I quite like delving into the monetary policy history, much of which isn’t that well or readily accessibly documented.  But I was also keen to differentiate that episode from the current controversy around Orr.  In 1990 the government set the mandate –  and was free to change it at any time –  and we were simply doing our best to implement that mandate, in a climate of huge political and economic uncertainty.

By contrast, when Adrian Orr is proposing banning people from serving on the boards of bank parents and subs or –  much more radically –  proposes that he should more or less double how much capital locally-incorporated banks would need, he isn’t following some clear and specific mandate set by Parliament or the Minister, against which he can readily be held to account.  He is pursuing a personal whim.  His stated goal –  reducing the risks to the soundness of the financial system –  is certainly an authorised statutory goal, but there is no professional consensus on what level of risk is appropriate, or what policy steps might deliver that level of risks, or what costs might be imposed in the transition or the steady-state.  And there are no effective rights of appeal, no override powers, to his one-man exercise of his personal preferences.     That simply isn’t appropriate.  With superlative supporting analysis, and a long and open period of real consultation –  before the Governor nailed his colours to the mast, as prosecutor in the case he himself will judge –  it might be one thing (still not ideal).  What we’ve actually had in the past year falls far short of that sort of standard.  It is a much more serious situation –  including because there are no self-correcting mechanisms (eg inflation falling below target, telling the Bank it has things a bit tight –  than a one-week flurry around a modest monetary policy adjustment implemented in pursuit of a goal the government itself had explicitly set.

The Minister of Finance and the Board do not have formal override powers.  But they could, and should, be using the leverage they have to insist on a much more compelling case being made for any actual policy adjustment (and not for that case to be published only after the decision itself has been made).  Cooke’s article quoted a submission suggesting annual GDP costs of up to $1.8 billion a year, but the Governor’s own deputy has quite openly suggested that the policy will cost the economy $750 million a year.  For gains –  in a sound and well-managed banking system – that are far from evident, in an economy where tightening credit conditions, even just in a transition, are about the last thing that is needed.

 

One thought on “Revisiting some RB history

  1. At the time, I was working for Fletcher Building and can recall thinking that Don Brash was far too aggressive and hawkish and that even the recessions under the Brash RB governor regime in NZ was engineered by the RBNZ. Everytime there was a sign of good times, interest rates went through the roof. Don Brash wielded a superstar status and when he called for higher interest rates, the banks moved even before even the advent of the OCR in 1999. The OCR was cranked up aggressively to 6.50% by May 2000 when Fletcher Challenge was in the middle of leveraged acquisitions. Analysts blamed Fletcher Forest but in reality profitability throughout the group was damaged by rising interest rates. By March 2001 it was all over for the 92 year old company.

    At the time Fletcher Challenge was one of the largest company on the NZSX but as Don Brash cranked up interest rates the company struggled and the end result was the breakup of a great NZ icon successfully operating on the world stage. I blame the demise of Fletcher Challenge entirely on the aggressive interest rate regime under Don Brash.

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