The tree god again

Some months ago the Governor of the Reserve Bank inaugurated his audacious bid to have his institution –  seen by most as a official agency created by, and accountable to, Parliament –  seen as some sort of local pagan tree god, with him (I assume) as the high priest in the cult of Tane Mahuta.  We’ve been told, by the Governor, that a people –  New Zealanders –  walked in economic darkness until finally the light dawned with the creation of the Reserve Bank.  It is pretty absurd stuff, not even backed by decent history or analysis, and one might be inclined just to ignore it, but the Governor seems serious.  In particular, he keeps returning to his claim. In fact, he was at it again –  claiming the mantle of Tane Mahuta –  yesterday with another little release that poses more questions than it offers answers (and which presumably means we’ll end the year still with no substantive speech from the Governor on anything he actually has statutory responsibility for).

Readers might recall that there was a damning report on the Reserve Bank as financial regulator, drawing on survey results of regulated institutions, released in April by the New Zealand Initiative.    This chart summed it up quite well

partridge 1

It has, presumably, been a priority for the Governor to improve the situation.   After all, even the Bank’s Board –  always reluctant to ever suggest any weaknesses at the Bank, even though their sole role is monitoring and accountability –  was moved to comment on this report, and the issues it raises, in their Annual Report this year.

And thus the Governor begins

In a step toward achieving the best “regulator-regulated” relationships possible, the Reserve Bank (Te Pūtea Matua) has established a Relationship Charter for working effectively with banks. The Charter will also be discussed with insurers and non-bank deposit takers in the near future.

One might question just how “best” is to be defined here –  after all, the public interest is not the same as that of either the Reserve Bank or of the banks, and there have been many examples globally of all too-comfortable relationships between regulators and the regulated.

But it was the next paragraph that started to get interesting.

Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr said the Relationship Charter commits the Bank and the financial sector to a mutual understanding of appropriate conduct and culture. “This is underpinned by the principle ‘te hunga tiaki’, the combined stewardship of an efficient system for the benefit of all,” Mr Orr said.

I’m not sure that understanding is necesssarily advanced when an institution operating in English introduces little-known phrases from another language to their press releases.  Here is how Te Ara explains “te hunga tiaki”

Te hunga tiaki

The Te Arawa tribes use the term ‘te hunga tiaki’ instead of kaitiaki, explains Huhana Mihinui.

The prefix ‘hunga’ is more common than ‘kai’ amongst Te Arawa, hence te hunga tiaki rather than kaitiaki. The essence of hunga is a group with common purpose. Hunga may also link with the sense of communal responsibilities. The same meaning is not conveyed with ‘kai’ … te hunga tiaki likewise invokes ideas of obligations to offer hospitality, but also to manage and protect, with the implicit recognition of the group’s mana whenua [customary authority over a traditional territory] role in this respect. 1

Which sounds pretty problematic frankly.  Banks and the Reserve Bank do not have a common purpose or a common set of responsibilities.  The Reserve Bank has legal responsibilities to the people of New Zealand, and the banks have legal responsibilities to their shareholders.  The two won’t always be inconsistent, but at times they will and there is little gained (and some things risked) from trying to pretend otherwise.  In both cases –  but particularly in that of the Reserve Bank –  there are limits on the ability of the principals (citizens and shareholders) to ensure that the boards and/or managers are actually operating according to those responsibilities.   Shareholders can sell.  Citizens are stuck with the Governor.

The statement goes on

“Writing it was the easy part. Operating consistently with the conduct principles is the challenge. We will regularly mutually review behaviours with the industry. Appropriate conduct is critical to the trust and wellbeing of New Zealand’s financial system, and the Reserve Bank – the ‘Tane Mahuta’ of the financial garden,” Mr Orr said. 

It is the tree god again –  a tree god that has some considerable way to go in improving its own conduct, be it around attempting to silence critics or whatever.

But this is also where I started to get puzzled.   In both those last two paragraphs from the statement, there is a suggestion that this document is some sort of agreed position between the banks and the Reserve Bank.   It is there in the charter document itself –  a one pager, complete with cartoonish tree god characters.

RBNZ-Relationships-Charter

(What I didn’t see was, for example, “we will avoid abusing our office and putting pressure on regulated bank CEOs to silence their economists when those economists write things we don’t like”.)

The word “mutual” is there twice, clearly suggesting that the banks have signed on to this.

But, if so, isn’t it a little strange that there are no quotes from any bankers, or the Bankers’ Association, in the press release, just the Governor’s own spin?   And when I checked the Bankers’ Association website, there was no statement from them. In fact, I checked the websites of all the big four banks and there was not a comment or statement from any of them.   Frankly, it doesn’t seem very “mutual”.   It looks a lot like gubernatorial spin.

And, to be frank, I don’t really see any good reason why there should be such mutual commitments.   Regulated entities don’t owe anything to the regulators.  They may often be intimidated by them, (privately) derisive of them, or even respect them.  But the regulated entities are just private bodies trying to go about their business in a competitive market.  By contrast, the Reserve Bank  –  the Governor personally –  carries a great deal of power over those entities, and they have few formal remedies against the abuse of that power.   What might reasonably be expected is unilateral commitments by the Governor as to how his organisations will operate in its dealings with regulated entities, standards (ideally measurable ones) that they and we can use to hold the regulator to account.      But that is different from what purports to be on offer in yesterday’s statement.

Of the brief specifics in the list of commitments, I don’t have too much to say.  There is a big element of “motherhood and apple pie” to them, and a few notable elements missing.  There is nothing about analytical rigour, nothing about transparency, nothing about remembering that the Bank’s responsibility is primarily to the New Zealand public, nothing about maintaining appropriate distance between the regulator and the regulated.  But I guess those would have been inconsistent with the fallacious claims about all being in it together and working for common goals.

It is at about this point that the Bank’s press release changes tone quite noticeably (not quite sure what happened to “one organisation, one message, one tone”).   Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand takes over and claims

Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand said the Reserve Bank’s recent announcement of a consultation with banks about the appropriate level of bank capital highlights the usefulness of the Relationship Charter.

And even in that one sentence he captures some of the mindset risks.  As I read the announcement the other day, it was a public consultation about the appropriate level of bank capital, and yet the Deputy Governor presents it as a “consultation with banks”.  If the Bank is going to run with this “Relationship Charter” notion, perhaps they could consider one for their relationship with the only people who give them legitimacy, Parliament and the public (having said that, perhaps I should be careful what I wish for).

And then weirdly –  in a press release supposed to highlight a new era of comity, open-mindedness etc –  the Deputy Governor launches into an argumentative spiel about the proposed new capital requirements.

“There is a natural conflict of interest. Banks will want to hold lower levels of capital to maximise returns for their shareholders. However, customers and society wear the full economic and social cost of a bank failure. We represent society’s interests and will naturally insist on higher capital holdings than any one individual shareholder,” Mr Bascand said.

Strange use of the phrase “conflict of interest”, which usually relates to a person or an organisation having two competing loyalties (perhaps personal and institutional), but even if one sets that point to one side for now, the rest is all rather one-dimensional and not terribly compelling.  He seems unaware, for example, that banks often hold capital well above regulatory minima –  creditors and rating agencies have perspectives too –  or that in most industries firms happily determine their own levels of capital, and somehow society manages (and prospers).  And, of course, there is not an iota of recognition of the way in which bureaucrats all too often serve bureaucratic interests (rather than societal ones), of the distinction between loan losses and bank failures, or of how the interventions of official and ministers often create the problems in the first place.

And then there is the final paragraph

“Following our Relationship Charter, we long signalled the purpose of our work and shared our analysis and consultation timetable. We have also committed significant time to engage with banks and provide a sensible transition period to make any changes we decide on. The Charter means what we are looking to achieve can be discussed professionally, while we continue to build appropriate working relationships. Outcomes will be superior and better understood and owned by society,” Mr Bascand said.

Of course, for example, whether the proposed transition period is “sensible” is itself a matter for consultation (one would hope –  and not just with banks).  Given the high probability of a recession in the next five years –  and the limited firepower here and abroad to deal with a severe recession –  some might reasonably wonder at just how wise it would be to compel big increases in capital ratios over that five year period, at a time when the Bank’s own analysis repeatedly suggests the banks are sound with current capital levels.   Credit availability might well be more than usually constrained.

One might go on to note that the level of disclosure in the consultative document is seriously inadequate for such a substantial intervention –  one that would take New Zealand further away from the international mainstream not closer to it.   As I noted in a post a few days ago, back in 2012 the Bank published a fuller cost-benefit analysis of the sorts of capital requirements that were then in place.  There is nothing similar in the consultative document issued last week, not even (I gather) any engagement with the previous cost-benefit analysis.  Given the amounts of money involved, that is simply unacceptable.  I’ve lodged an Official Information Act request for the (any) modelling and analysis they’ve done, but I (and others) shouldn’t have needed to; it should have been released as a matter of course.  In fact, even better they should have published a series of technical background papers over the year, held discussions with a range of interested parties (not just banks) before coming to the decisions they chose to formally consult on.      That is what good regulatory process might have looked like.

And then there is that bold final claim

Outcomes will be superior and better understood and owned by society

I’m all for effective and professional relationships between the Reserve Bank and the banks it regulates.  Perhaps that may even lead to better policy outcomes, but there is no guaranteee of that (after all, at the end of it all the law allows the Governor to make policy pretty much on a personal whim –  which is a lot like what the proposed higher capital ratios feel like).  But quite how a better relationship between the Reserve Bank and the banks will make outcomes “better understood and owned by society” is a complete mystery to me.   There are plenty of examples of regulators and the regulated ganging up against the public interest, and others of the regulators ramming through changes that might –  or might not –  be in society’s interest.  There is simply no easy mapping from a better relationship between the Bank and the banks, and good outcomes for society, let alone ones that –  whatever it means –  are “owned by society”.   Good outcomes rely heavily on very good and searching analysis.  And nothing in the Charter commits the Bank to that.

When one reads the argumentative second half of the press release it is little wonder the banks themselves wanted nothing to do with the statement.   I guess there isn’t much chance of the banks and the Reserve Bank getting too close to each other in the coming months as they (and the bank parents and APRA no doubt too) fight over the billions of additional capital Adrian Orr thinks they should have.

Meanwhile, the Governor can play at tree gods.  But it would be much better for everyone, including most notably citizens, if he were to engage openly and (in particular) more substantively on the issues he has legal responsibility for.   Cartoons and glib statements don’t build confidence where it counts.

 

 

 

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.

What?

In the press release for last week’s Reserve Bank Financial Stability Report, the Governor commented that

Our preliminary view is that higher capital requirements are necessary, so that the banking system can be sufficiently resilient whilst remaining efficient. We will release a final consultation paper on bank capital requirements in December.

In commenting briefly on that, I observed

Time will tell how persuasive their case is, but given the robustness of the banking system in the face of previous demanding stress tests, the marginal benefits (in terms of crisis probability reduction) for an additional dollar of required capital must now be pretty small.

There wasn’t much more in the body of the document (and, as I gather it, there wasn’t anything much at the FEC hearing later in the day), so I was happy to wait and see the consultative document.

But the Governor apparently wasn’t.  At 12.25pm on Friday a “speech advisory” turned up telling

The Reserve Bank will release an excerpt from an address by Governor Adrian Orr on the importance of bank capital for New Zealand society.

It was to be released at 2 pm.   The decision to release this material must have been a rushed and last minute one –  not only was the formal advisory last minute, but there had been no suggestion of such a speech when the FSR was released a couple of days previously.

And, perhaps most importantly, what they did release was a pretty shoddy effort.    We still haven’t had a proper speech text from the Governor on either of his main areas of responsibility (monetary policy or financial regulation/supervision) but we do now have 700 words of unsubstantiated (without analysis or evidence) jottings on a very important forthcoming policy issue. which could have really big financial implications for some of the largest businesses in New Zealand and possibly for the economy as a whole.

The broad framework probably isn’t too objectionable.  All else equal, higher capital requirements on banks will reduce the probability of bank failures, and so it probably makes sense to think about the appropriate capital requirements relative to some norm about how (in)frequently one might be willing to see the banking system run into problems in which creditors (as distinct from shareholders) lose money.  At the extreme, require banks to lend only from equity and no deposit or bondholder will ever lose money (there won’t be any).

But what is also relevant is the tendency of politicians to bail out banks.  Not only does the possibility of them doing so create incentives for bank shareholders to run more risks than otherwise (since creditors won’t penalise higher risk to the same extent as otherwise), but there is a potential for –  at times quite large –  fiscal transfers when the failures happen.  Politicians have more of an incentive to impose high capital requirements on banks when they acknowledge their own tendencies to bail out those banks.  If, by contrast, they could resist those temptations –  or even manage them, in say a model with retail deposit insurance, but wholesale creditors left to their own devices –  it would also be more realistic to leave the question of capital structure to the market –  in just the same way that the capital structure of most other types of companies is a mattter for the market (shareholders interacting with lenders, customers, ratings agencies and so on).

But nothing like this appears in the Governor’s jottings.  Instead, we have the evil banks, the put-upon public and the courageous Reserve Bank fighting our corner.   I’d like to think the Governor’s analysis is more sophisticated than that, and one can’t say everything in 700 words, but…..it was his choice, entirely his, to give us 700 words of jottings and no supporting analysis, no testing and challenging of his assumptions etc.

There are all manner of weak claims.  For example

We know one thing for sure, the public’s risk tolerance will be less than bank owners’ risk tolerance. 

I think the point he is trying to make is about systemic banking crises –  when large chunks of the entire banking system run into trouble.  There is an arguable case –  but only arguable –  for his claim in that situation, but (a) it isn’t the case he makes, and (b) I really hope that (say) the shareholders of TSB or Heartland Bank have a lower risk tolerance around their business than I do, because I just don’t care much at all if they fail (or succeed).  Their failures  –  should such events occur –  should be, almost entirely, a matter for their shareholders and their creditors, with little or no wider public perspective.

There are other odd arguments

Banks also hold more capital than their regulatory minimums, to achieve a credit rating to do business. The ratings agencies are fallible however, given they operate with as much ‘art’ as ‘science’.

Bank failures also happen more often and can be more devastating than bank owners – and credit ratings agencies – tend to remember.

And central banks and regulators don’t operate “with as much ‘art’ as ‘science'”?   Yeah right.   And the second argument conflates too quite separate points.  Some bank failures may be “devastating” –  although not all by any means (remember Barings) –  but the impact of a bank failure isn’t an issue for ratings agencies, the probability of failure is.   And I do hope that when he gets beyond jottings the Governor will address the experience of countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada where –  over more than a century –  the experience of (major) bank failure is almost non-existent.

The Governor tries to explain why public and private interests can diverge (emphasis added)

First, there is cost associated with holding capital, being what the capital could earn if it was invested elsewhere. Second, bank owners can earn a greater return on their investment by using less of their own money and borrowing more – leverage. And, the most a bank owner can lose is their capital. The wider public loses a lot more (see Figure 2).

But what is Figure 2?

figure 2

Which probably looks –  as it is intended to –  a little scary, but actually (a) I was impressed by how small many of these numbers are (bearing in mind that financial crises don’t come round every year), and (b) more importantly, as the Governor surely knows, fiscal costs are not social costs.  Fiscal costs are just transfers –  mostly from one lots of citizens (public as a whole) to others.  I’m not defending bank bailouts, but they don’t make a country poorer, all they do is have the losses (which have arisen anyway) redistributed around the citizenry.  If the Governor is going to make a serious case, he needs to tackle –  seriously and analytically –  the alleged social costs of bank failures and systemic financial crises.  So far there is no sign he has done so.  But we await the consultative document.

There is a suggestion something more substantive is coming

We have been reassessing the capital level in the banking sector that minimises the cost to society of a bank failure, while ensuring the banking system remains profitable.

The stylised diagram in Figure 3 highlights where we have got to. Our assessment is that we can improve the soundness of the New Zealand banking system with additional capital with no trade-off to efficiency.

and this is Figure 3

capital chart

It is a stylised chart to be sure, but people choose their stylisation to make their rhetorical point, and in this one the Governor is trying to suggest that we can be big gains (much greater financial stability, and higher levels (discounted present values presumably) of output) by increasing capital requirements on banks.

I don’t doubt that the Bank can construct and calibrate a model that produces such results.  One can construct and calibrate models to produce almost any result the commissioning official wants.  The test will be one of how robust and plausible the particular specifications are.  We don’t know, because the Governor is sounding off but not (yet) showing us the analysis.  Frankly, I find the implied claim quite implausible.   Probably higher capital requirements could reduce the incidence of financial crises.  But the frequency of such events is already extremely low in well-governed countries where the state minimises its interventions in the financial system, so I don’t see the gains on that front as likely to be large.    And, as I’ve outlined here in various previous posts I don’t think that the evidence is that persuasive that financial crises themselves are as costly as the regulators (champing at the bit for more power) claim.  And many of the costs there are, arise from bad borrowing and lending, misallocation of investment resources, which are likely to happen from time to time no matter how well-capitalised the banks are.

There are nuanced arguments here, about which reasonable people can disagree. But not in the Governor’s world apparently.

He comes to his concluding paragraph, the first half of which is this

A word of caution. Output or GDP are glib proxies for economic wellbeing – the end goal of our economic policy purpose. When confronted with widespread unemployment, falling wages, collapsing house prices, and many other manifestations of a banking crisis, wellbeing is threatened. Much recent literature suggests a loss of confidence is one cause of societal ills such as poor mental and physical health, and a loss of social cohesion.

Oh, come on.  “Glib proxies”……..    No one has ever claimed that GDP is the be-all and end-all of everything, but it is a serious effort at measurement, which enables comparisons across time and across countries.  Which is in stark contrast to the unmeasureable, unmanageable, will-o-wisp that the Governor (and Treasury and the Minister of Finance) are so keen on today.

As for the rest, sometimes financial stresses can exacerbate unemployment and the like,  but the financial crises typically arise and deepen in the context of common events or shocks that lead to both: people default on their residential mortgages when they’ve lost their jobs and house prices have fallen, but those events don’t occur in a vacuum.  And anyone (and Governor) who wants to suggest that mental health crises and a decline in social cohesion can be substantially prevented by higher levels of bank capital is either dreaming, or just making up stuff that sounds good on a first lay read.

The Governor ends with this sentence

If we believe we can tolerate bank system failures more frequently than once-every-200 years, then this must be an explicit decision made with full understanding of the consequences.

As if his, finger in the dark, once-every-200 years is now the benchmark, and if not adopted we face serious consequences.   Let’s see the evidence and analysis first.  Including recognition that systemic banking crises don’t just happen because of larger than usual random shocks –  the isimplest scenario in which higher capital requirements “work” –  but mostly from quite rare and infrequent bursts of craziness, not caused by banks in isolation, but by some combination of banks and (widely spread) borrowers, often precipitated by some ill-judged or ill-managed policy intervention chosen by a government.   Higher capital ratios just aren’t much protection against the gross misallocations that arise in the process –  in which much of any waste/loss is already in train (masked by the boom times) before any financial institution runs into trouble (the current Chinese situation is yet another example).

Perhaps as importantly, under the current (deeply flawed) Reserve Bank Act the choice about capital is one the Governor is empowered to make.  But his deputy, responsible for financial stability functions, had some comments to make on this point in a recent speech (emphasis added)

And Phase 2 of the Government’s review is an opportunity for all New Zealanders to consider the Reserve Bank’s mandate, its powers, governance and independence. The capital review gives us all an opportunity to think again about our risk tolerance – how safe we want our banking system to be; how we balance soundness and efficiency; what gains we can make, both in terms of financial stability and output; and how we allocate private and social costs.

It may be that the legislation underpinning our mandate can be enhanced, for example, by formal guidance from government or another governance body, on the level of risk of a financial crisis that society is willing to tolerate.

These are choices that should be made by politicians, who are accountable to us, not by a single unelected and largely unaccountable (certainly to citizenry) official.  We need officials and experts to offer analysis and advice, not to be able to impose their personal ideological perspectives or pet peeves on the entire economy and society.

We must hope that the forthcoming consultative document is a serious well-considered and well-documented piece of analysis, and that having issued it the Governor will be open to serious consideration of alternative perspectives.  But what was released last Friday –  700 words of unsupported jottings –  wasn’t promising.

(I should add that I have shifted my view on bank capital somewhat over the years, partly I suspect as a result of no longer being inside the Bank. It is somewhat surprising how –  for all one knows it in theory –  things look different depending on where one happens to be sitting.  But my big concern at present is not that it would necessarily wrong to raise required bank capital, but that the standard of argumentation from a immensely powerful public official seems –  for now – so threadbare.)

Restructuring the Reserve Bank

Seven months (and counting) into his term as Governor, Adrian Orr still hasn’t deigned to deliver an on-the-record speech on either of his main areas of statutory responsibility (monetary policy and financial stability) but he has this morning done what it seems almost all new CEOs –  public sector and private sector –  now do, and restructured his senior management, ousting or demoting several top managers, elevating one or two, and opening up a raft of vacancies.  Public sector senior management restructurings seem to generate most of the Situations Vacant business for the Dominion-Post newspaper these days.

A few people have asked my thoughts on the restructuring, so…..

As a first observation, I give credit to the Governor for resisting the temptation of across the board grade inflation (although there is at least one example, see below).  Every public sector senior management advert one sees –  I pay attention mostly because my wife has been in the market – is full of Deputy Chief Executive roles (not infrequently five or ten of them).  The Bank’s Act constrains the number of Deputy Governor positions (only one, in the bill before the House at present) but if he’d wanted to, all these SLT positions could have been designated Deputy Chief Executive roles.  As it is, having resisted title inflation, the Governor might find some potential applicants a bit more hesistant than otherwise: an Assistant Governor (even for Economics, Financial, and Banking) may sound less glamorous than a Deputy Chief Executive title.

This is the new structure, which looks a lot like those for all manner of public sector organisations.new-leadership-team-structure

Three of those positions are filled straight away.

Appointments to Senior Leadership Team
Geoff Bascand – (Currently Deputy Governor and Head of Financial Stability) has accepted a role on the SLT as Deputy Governor and General Manager of Financial Stability.
Lindsay Jenkin (currently Head of Human Resources) has accepted a role on the SLT as Assistant Governor/General Manager of People and Culture
Mike Wolyncewicz (currently Chief Financial Officer and Head of Financial Services Group) has accepted a role on the SLT as Assistant Governor/ Chief Financial Officer Finance.

Of those two appointments (Bascand and Wolyncewicz) seem sensible and appropriate.  Bascand currently holds a statutory Deputy Governor appointment and would have been hard to shift even if the Governor had wanted him out.  His role is slightly –  though perhaps sensibly – diminished as he will no longer have overall senior management responsibility for financial markets.

To be blunt, the new Assistant Governor for People and Culture has the feel of tokenism on two counts.   The first count relates to the current tendency for HR managers to be given glorified titles and to report directly to the chief executive (the message supposedly being “we value our people”, as if organisations never did when HR was a fairly low-level support role).  Line managers are the people who convey (by their actions mostly) to staff the extent to which they are valued (or otherwise).   And the second relates to the incumbent, who just is not particularly impressive.  As someone put it to me, perhaps she might be okay in some modest commercial operation, but she never showed any sign of being suited for a key leadership role in a significant policy organisation.  But….she is a woman, and in promoting her Adrian Orr manages –  after 84 years –  to have a woman in a top tier role (although still not in a key role in policy or operational areas, the raison d’etre for the organisation).   It will have been an easy win to simply grade-inflate the Manager, Human Resources role.  After all, as he said a few months ago

We will be working actively. We are just going to have to be far more aggressive at getting the gender balance balanced,” Orr said in a recent interview

(And before I get angry emails or anonymous comments from past or present Reserve Bank staff, I will reiterate my view –  and it is only mine –  that there are no conceivable grounds on which Lindsay Jenkin would be in the top tier of a major policy organisation other than her sex.  I wish it were otherwise.)

In the entire restructuring, the person one should probably feel most sorry for is Sean Mills, Assistant Governor and Head of Operations, whose job is dis-established and who is leaving the Bank, having joined under a year ago.  I suppose he knew the risks –  taking on a direct report job in the hiatus between Governors, when no one had any idea who the new Governor would be or what structure he or she would prefer.  I’ve never met Mills, and have heard nothing good or bad about him, but it is always a bit tough to lose your job after less than a year.

Two long-serving key senior managers –  both in their roles for 11 years now –  are demoted as part of the restructuring, one perhaps a bit more obviously than the other.

The first is Toby Fiennes, currently Head of Prudential Supervision.  His role –  a big job –  appears to have been split in two.

Toby Fiennes (currently Head of Prudential Supervision Department) has accepted the role of Head of Department for Financial Stability Policy and Analytics.

with one of his current managers (very able) taking up the role responsible for actual oversight of financial institutions.

Andy Wood has accepted the new role of Head of Department for Financial System Oversight.

I always had some time for Fiennes (although I’ve probably criticised speeches and articles here) and thought him in some respects the best of the main departmental heads.  Perhaps it is just that the job has gotten so big that the Governor no longer wanted one person doing it, but the new role is much-diminished relative to what he has been doing for the last decade.   And Geoff Bascand already had the key overall financial stability role, so there was no possible promotion opportunity.

The bigger, and more obvious, demotion is that of (current) Assistant Governor and Head of Economics, John McDermott.

John McDermott (currently Assistant Governor and Head of Economics) has accepted the role of Chief Economist and Head of Department for Economics in the Economics, Financial Markets and Banking Group.

After 11.5 years as a direct report to the Governor, and almost as long with the Assistant Governor title, McDermott loses both.

I’m always hesitant to write much about McDermott.  He was my boss for six years, and while we had our differences we sat across from each other for years and exchanged views on all manner of work and family things.  I liked him, was looking just the other day at the personal gift he gave me when I left the Bank, and I was genuinely pleased to applaud his daughter’s award the other night at the Wellington East Girls’ College prizegiving.

Unfortunately, I don’t think he was the person for the role he has held for eleven years, and which he never really grew into or made of that position what it should have become.  He has a strong track record as a researcher, and apparently was for quite a while the most widely-cited New Zealand economics researcher, but the key senior manager for monetary policy –  effectively a deputy governor without the title – required more than McDermott had to offer.   In public view, this was apparent in speeches and Monetary Policy Statement press conferences.  And thus, sad as it perhaps is for John, I think the Governor has made the right choice.  Whether McDermott stays for much longer in the diminished position he will now take up perhaps depends a lot on who gets vacant (and crucial) new role of Assistant Governor for Economics, Financial Markets, and Banking).

Two other senior managers in core roles leaving the Bank

Mark Perry (Head of Financial Markets)…..elected to leave the Reserve Bank.

Bernard Hodgetts (Head of Macro-Financial Department, who is currently seconded as Director Reserve Bank Review in the Treasury) has also chosen to leave the Reserve Bank after he finishes his role leading the review.

The Head of Department for Financial Markets won’t be an easy role to fill –  I wouldn’t have thought there were any obvious internal candidates.

Three more comments on the review:

  • even if a role like “Assistant Governor, Governance, Strategy and Corporate Relations” is the sort of title one sees in lots of government agencies, it feels like another example of grade inflation.  Presumably this involves the communications functions, the Board Secretary, and churning out the myriad hoop-jumping documents like the Statement of Intent.  People with “strategy” in their title in public sector organisation are rarely at the heart of what the organisation do.
  • there will be a lot of focus on who gets the role of Assistant Governor, Economics, Financial Markets, and Banking.  This is (slightly) bigger role than Murray Sherwin held 20 years ago, without the benefit of the Deputy Governor title.    We will have to wait until the adverts appear to see whether the Governor is after a policy leader (someone who really knows this stuff) or a generic public service manager.  If –  as I hope –  the former, it has been speculated to me that the Governor may try to attract back to the Bank the current Treasury chief economist Tim Ng (whose talents would be better used doing almost anything than wellbeing budgets).  Another possibility is the current Treasury deputy secretary for macro, Bryan Chapple who has a central banking background and led some of the financial markets reform work at MBIE.  No doubt there will be others applying, especially as the holder of the position is almost certainly to be a statutory appointee to the new Monetary Policy Committee.
  • this restructuring also probably helps clarify who will be the four internal members of the new Monetary Policy Committee.  The Governor and Deputy Governor will be members ex officio, and it is hard to see how the other positions would not be given to the Assistant Governor, Economics, Financial Markets,and Banking) and to John McDermott, as head of the Economics Department.

Overall, the restructuring is quite a mixed bag.   There are some good appointments and some poor ones already, and quite a lot will depend on a handful of the remaining appointments (especially the quality of person they can attract to that Assistant Governor role –  which, notwithstanding my earlier cautions about grade inflation, really should be a deputy chief executive position, both for recruitment reasons and for the stature and standing of the person in international central banking circles).

If I have a caveat about the overall structure, it is probably that the Bank would be better for having at least one senior policy person –  whether as Deputy Governor or so Advisor to the Governor –  who didn’t have a demanding line management role.  Such roles aren’t uncommon in other central banks, but I guess it depends on the Governor’s own preferred operating style.

And since I have the opportunity of a post about the Bank, I should note that I have not abandoned the issue of the Governor’s total non-transparency in respect of his speech about transparency to the Transparency International AGM (at which he was introduced by the State Services Commissioner, who has responsibilities for open government).  I am pleased to see this issue has had a little bit of media attention, including this article which pointed out that 90 per cent of Transparency International’s funding comes from the taxpayer.  I have an Official Information Act request in with the Bank for any briefing notes or text the Governor used, for any recordings that may exist, and if none do for a summary of what was said (memories –  very fresh, since I lodged the request within hours of the Governor delivering his speech – are official information too.   I don’t expect much, but there is a point to be made –  all the more so given the topic, the audience, the introducer, and the funding source for the body to which he was speaking. I can’t imagine Orr said anything very controversial, in which case why the secrecy? And if what he said was controversial –  foreshadowing for example Monday’s forthcoming culture review – it shouldn’t be said only to select private audiences.  It was simply an unnecessary own-goal, some sort of silly reassertion (perhaps Wheeler like) of a Reserve Bank perception that it really should be above such trivial matters as disclosure, transparency and the Official Information Act.

 

Three central bankers

Three heads of central banks feature in this (perhaps rather bitsy) post.

The first is one of the heroes of modern central banking, Paul Volcker.  Now aged 91, and clearly ailing, he has a new (co-authored) book out tomorrow, part memoir and part (apparently) his perspectives on various public policy challenges now facing the US.  (His successor Alan Greenspan, now aged 92, also had a new book out a couple of weeks ago.   At this rate, Don Brash –  a mere stripling at 78  –  could be just getting going.)

There are various articles and interviews around (I liked this one with the FT’s Gillian Tett) but what I wanted to write about was an extract from the Volcker book, published last week by Bloomberg (and which a reader drew to my attention), under the heading “What’s wrong with the 2 per cent inflation target”.     Volcker was, of course, the person who as head of the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987 took the lead role in ensuring that monetary policy was finally run sufficiently tightly, for long enough, to get US inflation enduring down.   One can debate how much was the man, and how much was an idea whose time had come, but it was on his watch that the hard choices were made.

This was, of course, before the days of formal inflation targeting.  Volcker has never been a supporter, citing approvingly in his article Alan Greenspan’s famous response to a mid -1990s challenge from Janet Yellen.

Yellen asked Greenspan: “How do you define price stability?” He gave what I see as the only sensible answer: “That state in which expected changes in the general price level do not effectively alter business or household decisions.” Yellen persisted: “Could you please put a number on that?”

The Fed finally came to do so, now adopting its own numerical target (2 per cent annual increases in the private consumption deflator.

Volcker takes the opportunity to blame us, writing of his visit to New Zealand in 1988 (when I recall meeting him).

The changes included narrowing the central bank’s focus to a single goal: bringing the inflation rate down to a predetermined target. The new government set an annual inflation rate of zero to 2 percent as the central bank’s key objective. The simplicity of the target was seen as part of its appeal — no excuses, no hedging about, one policy, one instrument. Within a year or so the inflation rate fell to about 2 percent.

The central bank head, Donald Brash, became a kind of traveling salesman. He had a lot of customers. After all, those regression models calculated by staff trained in econometrics have to be fed numbers, not principles.

He is probably a little unfair.  Rightly or wrongly, the rest of the world would have got there anyway (eg Canada adopted an independent inflation target very shortly after we did), and in time it was the New Zealand inflation target that was revised up to fall more into line with an international consensus centred on something around 2 per cent. His bigger point is that he doen’t like tight numerical targets: some of his reasons are defensible, but it is also worth recalling the Volcker was in his prime in an age when there was much less transparency and accountability more generally.

But my bigger concern with the article, and argument, is about what comes across as complacency about the risks the US (and many other countries) face when the next serious recession hits.  He is opposed to any steps to push inflation up to, or even a bit above, 2 per cent, and he also  doesn’t propose doing anything to remove, or even ease, the constraint posed by the near-zero lower bound on nominal interest rates.

Deflation, or even a period when monetary policy is constrained in its ability to bring the economy back to normal levels of utilisation following a serious recession, just doesn’t seem to be a risk that bothers him, provided financial system risks are kept in check.

The lesson, to me, is crystal clear. Deflation is a threat posed by a critical breakdown of the financial system. Slow growth and recurrent recessions without systemic financial disturbances, even the big recessions of 1975 and 1982, have not posed such a risk.

I found that a fairly breathtaking claim.  After all, the effective Fed funds interest rate in 1974 had peaked at around 13 per cent, and in 1981 it had peaked at around 19 per cent.  There was a huge amount of room for real and nominal interest rates to fall.  Right now, the Fed funds target rate is 2.0 to 2.25 per cent.

For most of history the Federal Reserve didn’t announce an interest rate target, but in this chart I’ve shown the change in the actual effective Fed funds rate (as traded) for each of the significant policy easing cycles since the late 1960s.

fed funds cuts

The median cut was 5.4 percentage points (not inconsistent with the typical scale of interest rate cuts in other countries, including New Zealand, faced with serious downturns).  Some of those falls were probably falls in inflation expectations, but even in the last three events –  when inflation expectations have been more stable –  cuts of 5 percentage points have been observed. (I was going to use the word “required” there, but there seems little doubt that policy rates would have been cut further after 2007 –  consistent, for example, with standard Taylor rule prescriptions –  if it had not been for the lower bound on nominal rates.)

And what of the current situation?  With a Fed funds target rate of about 2 per cent, if a serious recession hit today the Federal Reserve has conventional policy leeway of perhaps 2 percentage points (if they treat 0 to 0.25 per cent as the floor next time as they did last time) or perhaps as much as 2.75-3 percentage points (if they treat the effective floor as more like the -0.75 per cent a couple of European countries have operated with).  The Fed has given no public hint that they would actually be prepared to take policy rates negative in the next recession, so for now markets can only guess –  and perhaps hope.   But either way, the conventional monetary policy leeway is much less than was used in any of the significant US downturns of the previous 50 years.   That should be worrying someone like Paul Volcker more than it seems to, especially when three other considerations are taken into acount:

  • when markets know those limitations –  and firms and households will quickly learn them when the recession comes –  inflation expectations are likely to drop away more quickly than usual, because no one will be able to count on the Fed being able to keep inflation near target,
  • US fiscal policy has been so badly debauched that there is going to be little (political) leeway for material discretionary fiscal stimulus in the next recession, and
  • most other advanced countries have even less conventional monetary policy capacity now than the US does (and even less than usual relative to past history).

Reasonable people can quibble about the place of formal inflation targeting, but there needs to be much more urgency in planning to cope with the next serious recession, whatever its source or precise timing.

As readers know, I was not one of the biggest fans of former Reserve Bank Governor Graeme Wheeler.  But in Herald economics columnist Brian Fallow’s article last Friday there was some quotes from a recent speech Wheeler had given in Washington that had me nodding fairly approvingly as I read.

If the advanced economies face a recession in the next few years, much of the burden for stimulus will fall on fiscal policy, Wheeler says. The scope to cut interest rates is limited as policy rates in several countries remain at or near historic lows. Countries accounting for a quarter of global GDP have policy rates at or below 0.5 per cent, whereas policy cuts in recessions have often been of the order of 5 percentage points.

“In such a situation central banks would rely on additional quantitative easing and governments would face considerable pressure to expand their budget deficits through spending increases and/or tax cuts.”

They are words that need more attention even in a New Zealand context, where the OCR is only 1.75 per cent.  It was 8.25 per cent going into the last serious downturn.

Wheeler’s speech (a copy of which Brian Fallow kindly, and with permission, passed on) – to a conference on sovereign debt management –  is mostly about debt management issues.  It has a number of interesting charts from various publications, including this sobering one.

wheeler chart

Perhaps what interested me was that in his discussion of the issues and risks, Wheeler seemed not to touch at all on the two approaches often used in very heavily indebted countries –  even advanced countries – facing serious new stresses: default and/or surprise sustained inflation.   To the credit of successive New Zealand governments, fiscal policy here is in pretty good shape, and debt is low, but looking around the world it would perhaps be a surprise if Greece is the only advanced country to default on its sovereign debt (or actively seek to inflate it away) in the first half of this century.

And finally, our own current Governor.  He has just brought up seven months in office without a substantive public speech on the main policy areas he has responsibility for; monetary policy and financial stability.   It is quite extraordinary. He has been free with his thoughts on climate change, infrastructure financing, tree gods, and so on and so forth, while batting away questions about the next serious recession and its risks in a rather glib, excessively complacent, way (hint: QE and its variants is not –  based on international experience – an adequate answer).

Anyway, the Governor has repeatedly told us about his commitment to greater openness and communications.  I’ve been a sceptical of that claim –  both because every Governor says it in his or her own way, but also because of the track record that is already building.  There have been, as I said, no substantive speeches from Orr on his main areas of legal responsibility.  Speeches that are published apparently bear little or no relationship to what the Governor actually says to the specific audience.  There have been no steps taken to, say, match the RBA in making generally available the answers senior central bankers give in Q&A sessions after speeches, and we heard not long ago of a speech Orr gave to a private organisation, commenting loosely on matters of considerable interest to markets and those monitoring the organisation, but with no external record of what was said.

And it seems that there is likely to be another example today.  The next Monetary Policy Statement is due next week, as is the joint FMA-RB statement on bank conduct and culture (FMA responsibility that the Governor has barged into), both surely rather sensitive matters.  And yet the Governor is giving a significant speech this evening at the annual meeting of the lobby group Transparency International.

Guest Speaker: Adrian Orr

Adrian’s speech will encourage discussion about the relevance of transparency, accountability and integrity in the New Zealand financial sector.

Adrian Orr will be introduced by State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes, and thanked by new Justice Secretary, Andrew Kibblewhite.

And yet his speech –  to Transparency International, introduced by the State Services Commissioner, thanked by the head of the Prime Minister’s department –  on transparency, is to be, well, totally non-transparent.  From the Reserve Bank’s page for published speeches

Upcoming speeches
There is nothing scheduled.
It seems like a bad look all round: for Transparency International (admittedly a private body) and its senior public service people doing the introductions, and for the Bank itself.   This isn’t some mid-level central banker doing a routine talk to the Taihape Lions Club, but the Governor himself on a topic of a great deal of interest –  to a body itself reportedly committed to more transparency and better governance.
I’d encourage the Bank to rethink, and to make available a script (or preferably a recording, given the Governor’s style) of his speech, and of the subsequent Q&A session.  It should be standard practice, and Transparency International would be a good place to start.

What is the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy?

I’ve been banging on a bit about how the new(ish) Reserve Bank Governor has been enthusiastically talking about everything under the sun (mostly modish left-wing causes) in speeches and interviews, but six months into his term of office we still haven’t had a considered speech from him on any of the things he is, by law, exclusively responsible for, notably monetary policy and banking and insurance prudential regulation.  It is quite an extraordinary omission.  It is almost as if he isn’t overly interested in monetary policy and financial stability, which can be pretty dry but need to be done well and accounted for rigorously, preferring to use the pulpit his office provides to pursue personal political and policy agendas.   The appearance of that is bad enough, let alone the reality.  And then, of course, there are his meanders after the forest gods.

I stumbled yesterday on an example of what is lacking around monetary policy when a reader in the financial markets pointed out this line in a Bloomberg interview done by one of Orr’s senior managers, chief economist John McDermott, just after the last Monetary Policy Statement in August.

In current circumstances, the bank would need to see core inflation above 2 percent before it considered raising rates, he said.

I’d seen the interview when it was first published, but somehow overlooked this line.  As far as I’m aware, it didn’t get much –  or any –  attention anywhere else either, although who knows whether in the private briefings the Bank provides to select market economists they may have explained themselves.

As it stands, it looks like –  but perhaps isn’t – quite a change in the way the Bank thinks about monetary policy, but with no explanation and no elaboration.

Under the previous Governor –  on whose watch, and in agreement with the Minister, the 2 per cent target midpoint was explicitly made the focus of monetary policy –  the Bank’s approach would have been described as something like the following: adjust the OCR so that, allowing for the lags, a couple of years ahead (core) inflation would be around 2 per cent.

It was a forecast-based approach, and of course forecasts are often wrong.  Over the last decades, forecast errors were mostly one-sided, so that core inflation ended up consistently undershooting the target midpoint. The approach recognised that the midpoint could never be achieved with 100 per cent certainty, but envisaged departures from it arising only by (less or more) inevitable accident.

The approach the chief economist is reported as articulating in that interview seems quite different on two counts:

  • it isn’t forecast-based (they would need to actually see core inflation above 2 per cent before moving –  bearing in mind that the lags from policy to core inflation outcomes are probably 18-24 months), and
  • they would be relaxed about seeing inflation settle above the target midpoint, and not just by accident.

If that is the Bank’s new approach to policy, I would have considerable sympathy with it  (although many probably wouldn’t).   I’ve argued for some time that, given the limited scope to cut the OCR in the next recession, it would have been desirable to get inflation up, perhaps even a bit beyond 2 per cent, and with it inflation expectations.  That, in turn, would have supported higher nominal interest rates, and provided more room to move in the next serious downturn.   Given the evident difficulties of forecasting, I’ve also argued that for the time being the Bank should put relatively greater weight on what they can see now –  actual core inflation outcomes –  not on quite distant forecasts.  Doing so would seem a rational response to the evident uncertainty about the model (how the economy and inflation process are working).

(I’d have “considerable sympathy” if this were the new policy reaction function, but would have even more sympathy if such an approach had been reflected in the Policy Targets Agreement, ie with explicit ministerial support.)

But is this really the Bank’s policy approach?  We don’t know.  McDermott seems set to become a member of the new statutory Monetary Policy Committee next year, but for now he is just an adviser to the Governor, and only the Governor’s view finally matters.   There was no hint of such a policy approach in the last Monetary Policy Statement, or in the OCR announcement this week.  And, of course, the Governor talks about everything under the sun, but has provided no sustained analysis of how he thinks about the monetary policy process.

We don’t know, and that knowledge gap matters to anyone trying to make sense of how the Reserve Bank might respond to incoming information.    If core inflation now is at, say, 1.7 per cent rising gradually on current policy to 2 per cent over the next 18 to 24 months,  any upside economic surprise should be expected to take the Bank close to tightening, on the old forecast-based approach focused on the 2 per cent midpoint.   But if it takes actual core inflation to be above 2 per cent before they think about moving, near-term surprises would have to be very large –  with direct and immediate core inflation implications –  to make much difference at all to policy judgements.

If the new Governor has made such a change of approach, he’d have my full support – for the little that matters.   But whatever his actual approach, we are well overdue receiving a proper explanation from him as to how he –  in whom so much power is vested by law –  is thinking about monetary policy and the appropriate reaction function.

As part of that, we are overdue a good sustained explanation about how he is thinking about handling, and preparing for, the next serious downturn (beyond rather complacent, even glib, answers about there being lots of tools at his disposal).

It might all interest the Governor less than climate change, the (alleged) failures of capitalism, or idly lecturing people on the insufficiently long-term perspective they take to this, that or the other issues.   But it is the job he has taken on, and the Bank has liked to boast (not very credibly or convincingly) about how transparent it is.  A clear statement about how he thinks about monetary policy, not just as this or that particular OCR review, but in general, and in the context of the longer-term risks around the next downturn, would actually rather nicely fit with his emphasis on more long-term thinking.  Or is that lecture just for other people?

More on Orr

It is six months today since Adrian Orr took office as Governor of the Reserve Bank, the latest (and last, given forthcoming legislative reforms) in a line of people who over the last 30 years have held office as the single most powerful unelected person in New Zealand (more powerful individually than most elected people).

When it comes to monetary policy, I’ve had no particular problem with the Governor’s bottom-lines.  In fact, if he’d stuck to those, the contents of this blog in recent months would have been quite different.

Here was the bottom line in May (the Governor’s first OCR decision)

The Official Cash Rate (OCR) will remain at 1.75 percent for some time to come. The direction of our next move is equally balanced, up or down. Only time and events will tell.

in June

The Official Cash Rate (OCR) will remain at 1.75 percent for now. However, we are well positioned to manage change in either direction – up or down – as necessary.

in August

The Official Cash Rate (OCR) remains at 1.75 percent. We expect to keep the OCR at this level through 2019 and into 2020, longer than we projected in our May Statement. The direction of our next OCR move could be up or down.

and here is the Governor today

The Official Cash Rate (OCR) remains at 1.75 percent. We expect to keep the OCR at this level through 2019 and into 2020. The direction of our next OCR move could be up or down.

As one of the only (perhaps the only) commentators who has been consistently on record in thinking a lower OCR would have been a good idea, and who has argued that if there is a move in the next 12 months it will be a cut, I’ve welcomed the fact that –  unlike most market economists –  the Bank’s focus doesn’t appear to have been on when the next OCR increase happens.  Too much focus in that direction misled both the Bank and the market economists for much of the last decade.

Thus far, well done Governor.

The bit in those “bottom line” statements that has left me a little uneasy is the apparently confident statements about the future: in March, the OCR would stay at 1.75 per cent “for some time to come”, and in the last two releases it has been even more specific about dates if less dogmatic in tone (“we expect to keep the OCR at this level through 2019 and into 2020”).       But none of us knows the future.  Macro forecasting is pretty futile more than perhaps a quarter or two ahead, and yet the Governor spends resources and puts his reputation somewhat on the line as if he were some sort of oracle, granted insight into the far –  by monetary policy standards –  far future.    It is bizarre and unnecessary.

But perhaps equally surprising is the way the market economists play the game.  Their commentaries are full of discussions around whether the next adjustment is more likely (say) 12 months out or 15 months out, as if they too are oracles, blessed with some particular insight.  I suppose they have clients who want this sort of stuff, but you might think that at least some of the better clients would appreciate being told the truth: there is almost no chance of the OCR changing in the next three months, and beyond it is really anyone’s guess, almost inherently unknowable.  Words like those in the Governor’s first statement: only time and events will tell.  Crisp and honest.

And yet I’m conscious that much of my experience was in periods when interest rates moved round a great deal.  And these days they seem not to.

The OCR system itself is almost 20 years old.   The first OCR was set in March 1999.  In this chart, I’ve shown the first 10 years of data (to February 2009) and the subsequent 9.5 years to now.

OCR 10 years

In the first 10 years, the range from low to high was almost 500 basis points.  In the rest of the 1990s, the amplitude of fluctuations in the 90 day bank bill rate was similarly large.

And the last 9.5 years?   The total range within which the OCR has fluctuated is only 175 basis points, and it was only even that wide because of the msisguided enthusiasm for tightening in 2014.

That is quite a difference.

But the difference is even more stark if we look at retail interest rates.   Here is the Reserve Bank’s floating first mortgage rate series for the same two periods.

floating 10 yr

Over the last 9.5 years, this mortgage interest rate has moved within a total range of only about 110 basis points.

And here is the same chart for the Bank’s six-month term deposit rate series.

TD rate 10 years

The range from high to low is about 170 basis points (similar to that for the OCR), but the peaks were a very long time ago now (back in 2010/11).  For years now, term deposit rates (on this indicator) have fluctuated little, between just over 4 per cent and just over 3 per cent.

I don’t have a good hypothesis for why we have seen such a dramatic change in the variability of interest rates.  It doesn’t surprise when one sees such patterns in countries that hit the effective lower bound on nominal interest rates –  unable to cut further, inflation lingers low and there is little reason then to raise rates. But that isn’t the New Zealand story at all  –  the lowest the OCR has got is the current 1.75 per cent and everyone recognises it could be cut further if necessary.

Has the economy really got so much more stable than it was in the previous couple of decades?  It seems unlikely, perhaps especially in New Zealand (with, for example, record swings in population, big earthquakes, and big terms of trade changes).  Perhaps, to some extent, the Reserve Bank has simulated the sort of behaviour seen in the lower bound countries: always reluctant to cut (even though they always could have), inflation has stayed too low, and the economic upswings have, partly as a result, been pretty muted by historical standards and not very inflationary.  I’m genuinely puzzled.  Who knows, perhaps the Governor could offer the benefits of Bank research and analysis on this point whenever he finally gets round to deigning to give a substantive speech on his primary (according to the Act) responsibility, monetary policy?

Changing tack, in yesterday’s post I had a bit of fun taking the Governor to task over his attempt to articulate the story of the Reserve Bank as if it were some obscure mythical tree god, Tane Mahuta.   Late in that post, I noted that they had adopted some imagery of an island, as what the Bank was working towards.  In their own words

“We have visualised ‘our island’ that we are moving towards on the horizon, one that all New Zealanders can be proud of and that Tane Mahuta –  our Bank – can stand tall on.”

And this was the page with the picture I showed.

our island.png

I noted yesterday

It appears to be the island where the imaginary tree god dwells.  But, here’s the thing, it doesn’t look a bit like anywhere in New Zealand.  And the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is supposed to be primarily about New Zealand and New Zealanders.   Has the tree god flown the coop (so to speak) and fled to some poor Pacific Island where –  perhaps –  well paid senior central bankers take their winter holidays and commune with the deity?   I’d prefer a central bank –  even one deluded that it is a tree god –  to think New Zealand, New Zealand people, New Zealand places.

A diligent reader took the photo and did a little digging with the help of Mr Google.  Turns out that the Governor’s island is Bora Bora, a very expensive resort location in French Polynesia.  I guess it is the sort of place the Governor and his chums flit off too –  although I’d been under the impression the Governor’s destination of preference was the Cook Islands –  but the weird thing is that it is in a quite different country.  Even more oddly, given his distaste for the colonial experience –  suffusing his official document –  it is a territory of an old European empire.   Don’t we have any islands in New Zealand?

But we do, of course.  The Governor can probably see Somes Island out his office window. I live in a suburb named for its island.  And all of us live on these islands, the myriad of them that make up New Zealand.

I guess it was just a silly slip –  though you wonder how no one picked it up –  but it does seem all too consistent with the Governor’s style: once over lightly, and  more focused on the issues he isn’t responsible for (recall not long ago he told us we were lucky as a country not to export fossil fuels) than on the narrow range of things he is responsible for.  Perhaps he could put aside the tree god stuff and get back to (what a commenter this morning urged me to) the “dry old world of money”.   There is more interesting and important stuff in the world, but “money” is the Governor’s job, and it needs to be done well, and in a way that commands respect.

And, finally, regular readers might recall a post from a month or so ago, in which a reader had passed on a report of the Governor’s address (off the record –  and thus only the favoured few had access) to an INFINZ financial markets function in Wellington in late August.    It was reported that the Governor has been typically loquacious, but offering up potentially quite highly market-sensitive information to his favoured audience.

Typically loquacious but, so the report suggests, perhaps going rather beyond the Bank’s public lines on monetary policy as articulated in the August Monetary Policy Statement, in a very dovish direction.     And weighing in on what sort of person he wanted (and did not want –  economists apparently not wanted) on the new Monetary Policy Committee –  the one where the Minister supposedly makes the appointment, the one where the legislation has not yet been dealt with by the relevant select committee.

It seemed rather undisciplined and inappropriate, and I reminded readers again of the contrast with the Reserve Bank of Australia where speeches by the Governor and senior staff are typically on-the-record, usually with a published record of the subsequent Q&A session as well.  The difference doesn’t matter much when off the record speeches are totally anodyne, and people answer questions in a similar unrevealing way, but that certainly isn’t Orr’s style.

On this occasion, so the report I received suggested, it wasn’t just monetary policy things the Governor was free and frank about.    There was, for example, reportedly stuff about how if banks didn’t change their ways he’d change them for them, by setting up a Royal Commission here  [something the government would surely not be keen on given their difficult relationship with the business community, and plethora of reviews/inquiries], and a totally dismissive approach to the recent failure –  on the Bank’s watch – of CBL Insurance.

I put in an Official Information Act request to the Bank about this speech.  I didn’t expect much –  it seemed unlikely the Governor was working from a text, but (given his style) it was at least possible (it would be prudent more generally) there might have been a recording.  There wasn’t apparently.

But I also asked for copies for briefing notes or emails related to the content of the speech.  And there was some material there in the response I got back this morning.   The full response will apparently be put on their website before long (now here).   What was interesting was a request sent out on behalf of the Governor to several Bank staff who had been at the function inviting any feedback  (the request was for anything, good or bad, but perhaps not surprisingly none of the staff offered anything sceptical or critical, to a Governor not known for welcoming challenge).   In those comments we learn from one

My impression from the crowd was that they also enjoyed the speech and are really starting appreciate that having a longer-term vision and focus is important. I like that you gave the audience practical examples such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Carbon Disclosure Project, and Principles of Responsible Investing that they can start using/working toward now – they have no excuses for inaction!

The SDGs have nothing whatever to do with the Reserve Bank or its responsibilities.

And from another

For example, Adrian discussed climate change and short-term vs. long-term thinking.

Nor, of course, has climate change.  Short-term vs long-term thinking is one of his hobbyhorses, but as I’ve noted previously the Bank has done nothing substantive on this claim.

It sounds as if the speech was all over the show, and mostly (as we’ve come to expect) not on the things he is paid to be responsible for. It is undisciplined and unfortunate, and won’t help wider confidence in him or the tree god (though those who like his leftist political analysis may, shortsightedly, welcome it).  And none of it is transparent and open, more like a locker-room chat to his buddies in the financial sector.  He tells us the economy sat in darkness before the advent of the Reserve Bank.  Maybe, maybe not, but assuredly we all too often sit in darkness when it comes to the activities of the Bank itself.  That simply shouldn’t be acceptable.  Openness, and equal information for all, should be the watchwords of a modern accountable central bank and its Governor.