The Governor as a Green

No doubt the Green Party has its place.  Some people –  a small minority generally, although rather a large minority around where I live –  vote for it.    Under our parliamentary system, that earns them some MPs, and at present –  a first –  they even have a few ministers outside Cabinet.     The critical point here is that those people were elected, and can be tossed out again if the voters get disillusioned.   They and their supporters champion their causes, as people on the other sides of politics pursue their own causes and views.

But if the contest of ideas and worldviews is integral to our political system, our system of government has also historically relied on senior public servants and holders of appointed public offices doing the specific job they were appointed to, and not using (unelected) public office as a platform, openly or covertly, for advancing their personal political or policy agendas in areas for which they have no responsibility.     Of course, many such people will have personal views on all manner of political and policy issues.   But we expect them (a) to keep those views to themselves, and (b) not to allow those personal views to influence the conduct of their professional responsibilities.   Historically, some holders of really senior public service or judicial positions have quietly chosen not to vote at all.   Respecting these sorts of self-denying conventions is all the more important the more power the holder of a specific office wields (the Deputy Secretary, Corporate in the Department of Internal Affairs –  say –  is a different matter than the Chief Justice, the Commissioner of Police, or the Governor of the Reserve Bank).  Keeping the personal and the professional separate is part of that ethos.

Why do these rules and conventions matter?   Because the office is supposed to be more important than the officeholder.   And one of the strengths of our system of government has been avoiding, to a large extent, the politicisation of the public service, or of that top tier of state appointments.    A capable Chief Justice, a capable Commissioner of Police (is there such a thing?), a capable Secretary to the Treasury should command confidence across the political spectrum, across the community, for their technical expertise, good judgement, shrewd advice (or whatever mix of skills is relevant to the particular position).  And part of that  should involve being able to be confident that the holder of any particular position is not using his or her office as a platform to advance personal and political views on matters quite unrelated to the role to which they have been appointed.  Apart from anything else, these officeholders are being paid, from your taxes and mine, to do a specific job.

And the alternative approach is pretty unappetising, especially in a small country with (typically) a pretty thin pool of talent.   Perhaps the US is big enough that it can comfortably turn over thousands of positions each time the President changes, and still mostly staff senior ranks with capable people.   We almost certainly can’t.  Or consider the unsightly spectacle of the US Supreme Court: all the nominees, from whichever party, seem highly capable, but no one on either side now views the Court as some impartial body, disinterestedly applying the law and constitution.  It has become largely an extension of ideological politics, but beyond the usual accountability mechanisms.  Fortunately, even in the United States, the central bank has been relatively immune from partisanship –  perhaps partly because of the self-restraint exercised by most incumbents, limiting the extent to which they stray off reservation in their speeches etc.

Our new Governor seems to understand none of this. Or if he does understand it, he seems to care not a fig about our system of government: there are ideological causes to fight, and institutional turf battles to win.  In the first month or two in office we saw him talking openly about all manner of things that were simply nothing to do with his current job –  sustainable agriculture, climate change, infrastructure financing, capital gains taxes (and both sides of the bank conduct issues –  neither of them being a prudential issue).  A charitable person might have seen these as rookie errors –  a new appointee revelling in the spotlight and not quite sure where the limits were.  In Orr’s case, he has been around long enough that that never seemed very likely, and it is now clear that the way he started is the way he means to go on.  In the process he is destroying the institutional capital built up around the Reserve Bank –  as surely, and perhaps more damagingly, than his predecessor did by other means.

And for all his (stated) enthusiasm for openness, transparency, “demystifying” the Reserve Bank, and cartoons to aid communications, the Governor has not given a single speech on any of his core responsibilities during his now four months in office.  The Bank’s website tells us none is scheduled either. Nothing on monetary policy, nothing on the state of the economy, nothing on governance of the institution, nothing on financial regulation, nothing on financial stability.  Just nothing.

That doesn’t stop him sounding off on all manner of other topics.  There have been two more examples just recently.

I don’t usually follow Tagata Pasifika, but a reader yesterday sent me link to an interview that outlet had recently done with the new Governor.  I guess the Governor isn’t responsible for the headlines (“The Cook Islander keeping our economy afloat”) but, whatever his background, one had thought of the Governor as a New Zealander (unlike, say, the British Secretary to the Treasury), and perhaps more importantly, the Reserve Bank doesn’t “keep our economy afloat”.

Much of the interview was fairly heartwarming innocuous stuff about that one strand of Orr’s ancestry that is from the Cook Islands.  But as it went on, it became more troubling.  Interviewed as Governor, from the Reserve Bank premises, he was offering his thoughts on what “we” (Pacific people in New Zealand) could do to overcome poor outcomes (incomes, home ownership etc).  There was strange rhetoric about how people had sought to divide and conquer them, and that everyone needed to “work together”.  Predictably (perhaps even appropriately given his role), there was no suggestion that (for example) low home ownership rates might be improved if only the government freed up land markets, but weirdly there was talk about subsidised loans (I think from within the community) to get into housing –  which might seem a little at odds with the Governor’s day job (where he wields regulatory powers to stop willing borrowers and willing lenders getting together to take on a housing mortgage).

Even that mightn’t have been too bothersome.  But as we got towards the end of the interview, the left-wing rhetoric was really unleashed.  We were, listeners were told, facing challenges of “societal sustainability”: we can’t have, so the Governor told us, haves and have nots and all expect to get along together.  In such a world, said the Governor, one group will be locked in, and the other group locked out.

It would make great – if largely empty –  election rhetoric from, say, the Green Party (Metiria Turei’s proxy now governs the Reserve Bank?).  But it has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with the job the Governor is paid to do, and in which capacity he was conducting this interview.   It wasn’t even backed by any suggestion of serious analysis, but I guess it sounded good at the time.  It is hardly the sort of stuff that is going to command general respect for the Governor in his important day job.

“Doing stuff” about climate change seems to be one of the Governor’s personal causes, nay crusades.  It was there in some of those earlier interviews I wrote about previously, but it was on full, and prepared, display a couple of weeks ago, when the Governor was a panellist at the launch of something called the Climate Leaders Coalition.    They advertise themselves as 60 CEOs whose businesses, in some sense or other, allegedly account for nearly 50 per cent of New Zealand’s emissions –  a claim which seems like a bit of stretch, since (for example) although Fonterra is part of it, the farmer shareholders (who actually own the cows) aren’t.   Buried a bit further down the website, we find that these firms actually account for 8 per cent of employment in New Zealand.   I found it hard to take the grouping very seriously –  it seemed to involve a great deal of virtue-signalling and keeping on side with the new government –  even before I looked down the list and found that the Wellington City Council zoo was a member.

I guess virtue-signalling, lobbying, and generally kowtowing is what CEOs have to do in the regulatory state.  Here is what all the hullabaloo was about

We take climate change seriously in our business:
*We measure our greenhouse gas emissions and publicly report on them
*We set a public emissions reduction target consistent with keeping within 2° of warming
*We work with our suppliers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions

We believe the transition to a low emissions economy is an opportunity to improve New Zealand’s prosperity:
*We support the Paris Agreement & New Zealand’s commitment to it
*We support introduction of a climate commission and carbon budgets enshrined in law

All of which is pretty devoid of content or, arguably, demonstrably untrue.  The cause of a least-cost adjustment towards a lower-emissions economy –  economic efficiency – isn’t helped by every individual firm proposing some emissions reductions target that is somehow “consistent with” keeping within 2 degrees of warming –  one wants price signals and individual firms reacting based on the specifics of their own businesses and markets.  Some firms and industries might actually increase gross emissions, others might close down completely.  Then, of course, there is the claim that the transition to a low emissions economy is an opportunity to improve New Zealand’s prosperity: the government’s own consultative document suggests that a net-zero target by 2050 could come at a cost to GDP of 10-22 per cent, and no credible argument has been advanced as to how prosperity and productivity will be boosted by this big adverse shock (in a country still heavily reliant on animal emissions –  let alone international aviation emissions, not included in the official numbers.

In other words it was mostly feel-good stuff, worth some headlines on the day, but amounting to almost nothing.   It was self-interest on display (perhaps defensive self-interest, but self-interest nonetheless) –  which is fine; it is what businesses do, especially in face of looming regulatory constraints.

But what was the Governor of the Reserve Bank doing participating in this function, celebrating the event, cheering them on, all without adding a shred of economic analysis to the discussion?

You can watch the Governor’s part in the panel discussion (about an hour in at this link).  There was no sign from the Governor suggesting that he was participating simply in some sort of personal capacity – if that is even possible for high officials.  In fact, apparently rather the contrary: his speaking notes are available on the Reserve Bank website as his first and (so far) only gubernatorial speech.

Even the published text is like something from a crusade rally:

To see so many companies agree to the following is a moment of rejoice.

and

The best time to start this process is 30 years ago, or today. So I am privileged and proud to be a Kiwi sitting on this stage with so many New Zealand companies involved.

We are told that consumers will want “intergenerational justice” –  although I suspect most of the businesses present know that consumers typically want a decent product at a low price.

We are told that

Climate change, if not addressed, will create unforeseen social disruption and displacement.

I’m not sure how a public servant can state with such confidence that ‘unforeseen” things will in fact happen.

New Zealand can’t change the world. But, the world expects New Zealand to lead.
What do we have at risk?

Apparently almost nothing

We have less embedded costs and risks associated with making change (e.g., very limited fossil fuel production and dependency). We have least to lose and most to gain.

and

We can be a brand leader on climate change in the world given our starting point.

Surprisingly –  or perhaps not –  there is no mention of those animal emissions, and the absence as yet of economic ways of reducing emissions without eliminating the animals.  No mention of us having among the very highest per capita emissions in the advanced world, no mention of the importance of international shipping and aviation to the New Zealand economy, no mention of the policy-induced rapid population growth which drives hard against any other policy efforts to reduce emissions.  And, of course, no mention at all of the NZIER modelling featuring in the government’s own consultative document suggesting a very large real economic cost of adjustment, or of the Infometrics modelling featuring in the same document suggesting that the costs of adjustment will fall disproportionately on lower decile New Zealanders, and not very much at all on the highly paid like Mr Orr and the Climate Leaders Coalition members.

Orr never cites any evidence for his bizarre claim that the world expects New Zealand to lead in this area (in fact, given our size and different economic structure, it would be a sign of profound cynicism and unseriousness if “the world” actually did have such expectations.   But he does provide what he considers as evidence for why “we” can lead.

I have been fortunate to have witnessed great transformation in thinking and behaviours – such as the business commitment today – related to responsible investing.   My own experiences include involvement in:

  • The UN’s Carbon Disclosure Project (which the New Zealand Super Fund (NZSF) led and had pushed back at us by so many New Zealand businesses – there is no ‘I’ in denial);
  • Our leadership of the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds (IFSWF) on responsible investing, and the ‘One-Planet’ initiative that the NZ Super Fund only last week promoted and signed;
  • The NZSF’s own courage in reducing their carbon exposure and engaging companies and searching for new alternative energy uses; and

In other words, not a single private sector entity, and no real economic adjustment (no actual reductions in emissions) just various different gatherings of government agencies around the world.  As for the claim that the NZSF portfolio reallocation took “courage” –  and isn’t it bad form to boast of your own “courage” anyway? – whose money was on the line?  It certainly wasn’t the Governor’s –  and as I’ve pointed out before the change was done in such a non-transparent way that we can’t even keep track of how much money this reallocation will have made (Orr’s claim had in any case been that it was hard-headed business decision, justified by expected risk/return considerations).

There is, in the published speaking notes, some rather strained attempt to connect the Reserve Bank’s financial stability role to the climate change discussion, but almost all of that was missing from the version he actually delivered, and none of it is compelling in the New Zealand context.  Perhaps there is some story to be told about dairy debt exposures, if emissions prices are pushed up too quickly undermining farm profitability and driving down rural land prices –  but there was none of that even hinted at in the Governor’s notes. I guess it would have disturbed the feel-good mood of the day.  It might have suggested an economic cost, rather than the nonsensical claims the Governor associated himself with about the opportunity to improve prosperity.

It was the sort of stuff you might expect at a Green Party rally –  although probably at least some of them might be more honest about the likely cost of the hairshirt.

And all that was just the Governor’s published text.  In his actual comments (viewable at the link above) we saw the schoolboy clownish side of the Governor on display, flippantly suggesting that the Bank wouldn’t raise the OCR until carbon had been reduced to zero.  I don’t suppose anyone took him remotely seriously –  a problem in itself, since Governors (like Presidents of the United States) really should be able to be taken seriously –  but it displayed none of the gravitas and seriousness one might hope for in the holder of such a high office.   That isn’t just me getting old and pompous: here was the relevant line from the Board’s advertisement for the position of Governor

Personal style will be consistent with the national importance and gravitas of the role.

And then we had this nonsense

“Let’s have our moment of glory, but we are lagging behing the world. And today we’re leap-frogging at least back to the frontier on one part of it,”

“Moment of glory” or “leap-frogging at least back to the frontier” from that lot of not very specific commitments, Wellington Zoo leading the way to save the world?

It went on.  We were told that “social cohesion would be truly truly challenged if we don’t do something about climate change” –  really, in New Zealand, which might just get a bit warmer and more pleasant?  The audience was warned of nation-state failures, thus presumably the imperative for New Zealand to “take the lead” – “we can do it, we should do it.  Lets do it”.   It must have felt very good in that meeting that morning.

At least until the Governor began to denounce capitalism.    Modern-day capitalism, the audience was told, drives you to short-termism.  No sense that it might have contributed mightily – including sparking innovation to deal with costs, problems, and opportunities that arise – to the unrivalled material prosperity the world – in almost every corner –  enjoys today.  No, capitalism is the problem.  That must have been a bit awkward for the assembled CEOs –  or at least for their owners –  but no one seemed to challenge the Governor on that.   Which was probably just as well, as the Governor didn’t seem to have anything to back up his claims.   Rereading his published speaking notes, it was striking that not once did he identify any problems, costs, risks, or failures in government interventions.   Wise governments, wise central banks, wise regulators will save us………

It isn’t as if this sort of rhetoric is new.    A month or two back the Governor was sounding off nearer to his own territory, claiming that financial markets (lenders, borrowers, and all) were myopic and therefore regulation was needed.  But when I asked for any research or analysis done by or for the Bank in support of this proposition, it turned out there was none.  It was just off the top of his head.  But it must have sounded good at the time.

Reflecting on all this, I have a number of concerns.  Perhaps the least of them is the lightweight nature of the Governor’s contribution, which too often sound more like campaign speeches than the considered thoughts of a serious senior public official.   If this is how he comments when we do see or hear him, what must things be like in private?  If this is the standard we now get from top public servants, what must the rest of government be like (all those CEOs we –  rightly –  never hear from)?

A good test is always whether one would have the same reaction if someone you are criticising was saying things you agreed with.  In this case, I can unambiguously say yes.  I’d be embarrassed to have such lightweight crusading perspectives from someone so senior for any cause I supported.  And it is simply inappropriate for the central bank Governor to be weighing in on such issues at all –  whether climate change policy, infrastructure. taxation policy, immigration policy, welfare reform, land supply or whatever.  It isn’t his job, and we need to be able to have confidence that the Governor has just one agenda –  doing his job –  not using his pulpit to champion personal agendas.  If the Governor wants to pursue those causes, he should set up a think-tank or run for Parliament.

I don’t suppose that Adrian Orr is setting out to advance the cause of any particular political party.  And no doubt the views he expresses –  flippantly and more seriously –  are all his own.  But he only gets away with it because he is mostly advancing causes the current government and its support parties happen to agree with.  Imagine the outrage if he were attacking –  especially in a similarly lightweight way –  causes dear to the heart of the government?  I’m not, of course, suggesting he should do so –  whatever private views he might have on such things, neither we nor the government should know them.  The Governor is paid well, and given enormous power, to do a quite specific job, and he needs to learn to stick to his knitting.

Idly, one might suggest that the Reserve Bank Board should do its job.  Not only did they lay down that requirement for gravitas, but they added this criterion

The successful candidate will also demonstrate an appreciation of the significance of the Bank’s independence and the behaviours required for ensuring long-term sustainability of that independence.

Sounding off loudly (and lightly) in support of all manner of contentious causes represents a real threat to the sustainability of effective independence.  If this behaviour is tolerated, only politically-acceptable lackeys need apply for the Governor’s role in future, and incumbent Governors are likely to find it quite difficult to work with a different colour of government.  Both would be most unfortunate outcomes.

As I say, one might idly hope that the Reserve Bank Board would do its job, and pull the Governor back into line.  Then again, when has the Board ever done that?  They seem to see their role as being to have the back of the Governor –  whoever he is, whatever he does –  added to a sense that the law itself doesn’t really apply to them.

I’m no fan of the Green Party. But at least they put themselves to the people and got elected. They face the electorate again in two years.  The Governor has no such mandate, no such legitimacy, for running Green Party like rhetoric from his well-paid public bully pulpit.

 

Off the top of the Governor’s head

From a post a couple of weeks ago, just after the release of the Reserve Bank’s Financial Stability Report.

In a similar vein, I noted a story on Newsroom this morning, reporting the Governor’s appearance at the Finance and Expenditure Committee yesterday.  He was reported thus

But he told the select committee he would much rather the Reserve Bank, as banking regulator, could trust banks and borrowers to be prudent.

“I would love to not have to be active in that space. If banks had true long-term horizons, if the consumers were fully aware and myopia didn’t exist across borrowers, all the different foibles that people have, then you wouldn’t need the regulatory imposts.”

Talk about “nanny state” –  the Governor wishes he could trust us.  I wish we could trust him and his colleagues.

But, more specifically, the Governor here asserts again that banks are too short-term in their operations, that borrowers are myopic, and we need Reserve Bank intervention (he was talking of LVR and DTI restrictions) to save us from ourselves.  Par for the course, the Governor offered no evidence for his proposition (and there was none advanced in the FSR), it just seems to be some sort of new gubernatorial whim (as Graeme Wheeler came with the scarring experience of living through the US crisis, in this case Orr comes with an NZSF perspective –  neither grounded in specific  analysis of the New Zealand banking system).  I’ve lodged an OIA request this morning for any Reserve Bank analysis in support of these propositions.

To the credit of the Reserve Bank, they seem to have started responding to OIA requests more promptly.  I got the Bank’s response this morning.  Here is what it says:

On 10 May you made an Official Information request seeking: 

copies of any research, analysis or related material generated by, or for, the Reserve Bank suggesting that New Zealand banks had inappropriately short lending horizons, and New Zealand borrowers suffered from “myopia”. 

Under the provisions of OIA section 18(e), which allows refusal of a request where the information is not held, the Reserve Bank is refusing your request.

The Governor’s view as expressed in the reported comment was formed without recourse to specific material produced by, or for, the Reserve Bank.

So there was no analysis in the FSR supporting his claim, and nothing the Bank had done –  not even apparently in the previous five years – that supported his claim about the need for Reserve Bank interventions (LVRs, DTIs etc) constraining New Zealand banks’ lending, and New Zealand households’ access to credit.

He appears to have just made it up.  It was a whim, a prejudice, a line that sounded good as he said it…….and this is the basis on which the Governor makes policy (singlehandedly) and testifies to Parliament.  In a way, it isn’t that surprising, given the criticisms people like Ian Harrison and I have levelled at the quality of the analysis used to support their actual and proposed regulatory interventions, but to hear it direct from the Bank is still pretty telling.

 

 

Another Orr interview

The Governor of the Reserve Bank was interviewed over the weekend on Newshub Nation. Perhaps even fewer people than usual watched the programme, since it was  on over a holiday weekend, but I saw a few comments –  public and private –  suggesting it was a rather odd performance so I finally had a look myself.  I had to agree with the commenters.

There were three broad topics covered in the interview:

  • infrastructure finance,
  • bank conduct issues, and
  • mortgage lending.

Of those three topics, only the third is really within the ambit of the Governor’s responsibilities.

On infrastructure finance, you’ll recall that a few weeks ago the Governor weighed in on this issue, claiming to be speaking both in his former capacity of head of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund (NZSF) and in his current role as Governor.  He was venting about his frustration that NZSF had not been able to invest in infrastructure projects in Christchurch after the earthquakes.

“My single biggest frustration when I was at the Super Fund was the inability to be able to invest in New Zealand infrastructure.

“We never got to spend a single penny in Christchurch. I stopped going down. It became too hard,” Orr said.

“I went down, even once CERA [the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority] was formed, and the person said ‘it’s great to see you here, Minister [Gerry] Brownlee is very pleased you’re here. Now, tell me again which KiwiSaver fund you’re from’.”

Understandably, that upset Gerry Brownlee and prompted a rare criticism of a central bank Governor from the Leader of the Opposition and a suggestion that the Governor should stick to his knitting –  the core stuff he now has legal responsibility for.

Orr now claims he wasn’t being specifically critical of the Christchurch situation –  although see the quote – and that he was just making a general point, one he is not defensive about at all.  There isn’t, in his view, enough “outside capital” being brought into infrastructure development, here and abroad.

His mandate, so he claimed in this latest interview, was his obligation to contribute to “maximum sustainable employment” –  the words recently added to the Policy Targets Agreement governing the conduct of monetary policy.   As I’ve pointed out recently, this argument just doesn’t stack up: the words in the PTA are about the conduct of monetary policy (interest rates and all that) not a licence for the Governor to get on his bully pulpit and start lecturing us –  politicians and citizens –  about all manner of other policies he happens to think might be a good idea.   It is a doubly flawed argument because even the new monetary policy mandate is about employment –  not productivity or GDP per capita –  and the Governor will know very well that you can have a poor fully-employed economy or a prosperous fully-employed economy.   Infrastructure finance –  even well done –  has almost nothing to do with sustainable levels of employment.

In the latest interview, he was asked (very first question) about the recent bid by NZSF to invest in light rail in Auckland.  Instead of gently reminding the interviewer that such things aren’t his responsibility any longer, the Governor weighed in.  Any opportunity for outside capital should be welcomed, we were told.  The Governor went on to lament the “hang-ups” people have –  “people”, we were told, were the problem here, “getting in the way” of sensible solutions.  The Governor complained that all this leads to infrastructure being financed by debt or taxes, when it really should –  in his view –  be financed by equity (perhaps he didn’t notice that the NZSF itself was, and is, funded by debt and taxes, or that he has previously called for governments to take on more debt).  The Governor complained about politicians being scared of tolls, and argued that they “need to get over it”.     Challenged as to whether these were not political debates, the Governor argued that he was trying to get these out of the political debate –  as if mere citizens, the dread “people”, might not reasonably have a view not only on what projects should be done, but how they should be owned/financed.   Wrapping up that particular segment of the interview, the Governor opined that the wider economic benefits of light rail were “incredibly important” to maximising sustainable employment”.

It all remains, as I put it some weeks ago, very unwise and quite inappropriate.  Even if his views had merit (which, I would argue, they mostly don’t), these are issues which have nothing to do with the Reserve Bank (where the Governor wields a great deal of barely trammelled power).  As I put it in an earlier post

The Governor holds an important public office, in which he wields (singlehandedly at present) enormous power in a limited range of areas.  It really matters –  if we care at all about avoiding the politicisation of all our institutions –  that officials like the Governor (or the Police Commissioner, the Chief Justice, the Ombudsman or whoever) are regarded as trustworthy, and not believed to be using the specific platform they’ve been afforded to advance personal agendas in areas miles outside the mandate Parliament has given them.   We don’t want a climate in which only partisan hacks have any confidence in officeholders, and only then when their side got to appoint the particular officeholder.  And that is the path Adrian Orr seems –  no doubt unintentionally – to be taking us down. 

The arrogance of it all is pretty breathtaking too –  we “the people” are the problem.  Officials and politicians sometimes say things like that in private (feeling that they really deserve a better class of “people”), but generally not in public.  And the Governor seems to have no conception of the way in which genuine outside capital in a private project in a competitive industry, where all the gains and losses accrue to the private providers, differs from the public-private partnerships he waxes lyrical about (even while championing what would, at best, have been only public-public partnerships, since NZSF is just another pot of government money).    Contracting, in ways that both preserves the public interest and ensures continuity of high quality service, has proved hellishly difficult.   Providers of outside capital in PPPs –  whether state entities of the sort Orr has championed or private ones –  don’t care at all about the fundamental merits of a particular project, so long as they can write a contract that more or less guarantees returns to them.  In such a world, easy access to money can be a recipe for a smoother road to more really bad projects being done –  anyone recall the synthetic petrol plant, as an example of outside capital and guaranteed rates of return?

I’m not suggesting the Governor is totally wrong –  I’m pretty sympathetic to congestion pricing on city roads for example –  but in his official capacity, it is none of his business.    There is a vacancy coming up for Secretary to the Treasury; perhaps could apply for that position?  Or he could run for Parliament –  though probably not with that dismissive attitude to “the people” –  or retire and get a newspaper column.  But it is nothing to do with the Reserve Bank, and he jeopardises the Bank’s position –  both the ability to do its day job with general support, and increasing the chances of future partisan hack appointments –  if he goes on this way.

And what about his claim that infrastructure finance is really core to what the Reserve Bank does?  There was this from his public statement a couple of weeks ago

I have spoken about specific issues recently because increased infrastructure investment opportunities provide sound investment choices, risk diversification for financing goods and services, and improves maximum sustainable employment by relieving capacity constraints.

These are all core components of the Reserve Bank’s role and something we often speak about in our Financial Stability Reports.

In the last month, we’ve had a Monetary Policy Statement and a Financial Stability Report.  There were no mentions at all of infrastructure in the Monetary Policy Statement and, once again, a single mention in the Financial Stability Report –  a brief reference to “market infrastructure”.  The Governor just seems to be making it up on the fly, when these issues are no more part of his official brief than most other areas of government policy are.  

The second strand of the weekend interview had to do the ongoing banking conduct investigation  –  in which the Reserve Bank and the FMA demand banks and insurers prove their innocence, on points which (at least in the Reserve Bank’s case) are really not the government agency’s business.  There wasn’t much new in this part of the interview, apart from the somewhat surprising claim that the Reserve Bank has a very good insight into banks and insurers (which makes you wonder how CBL failed, or Westpac ended up using unapproved capital models for years, or how a few weeks ago the Governor could have been convinced there were no problems here, but now leaves open the possibility that he could recommend a Royal Commission).

As the Governor ran through his checklist of issues, it was more and more clear how little any of this had to do with the Reserve Bank’s statutory responsibilities.  He was concerned, for example, as to whether banks were “customer-focused”.  Personally, I rather hope that, as private businesses, they are shareholder-focused, working first in the interests of the owners.   Now, working in the interests of the owners does not preclude caring a great deal about good customer service (whether in banking or any other sector) but it shouldn’t be the prime goal.  And whether or not banks offer good customer service has very little to do with the Reserve Bank’s statutory focus on the soundness and efficiency of the financial system.    Perhaps we all wish it did, but some friendly customer-focused banks fail, and most flinty hardnosed one don’t, and vice versa.  There is no particular connection.

Similarly, the Governor was concerned about remediation when customers have problems with their banks.  Perhaps there is a role for some agency of government to take an interest (perhaps…..) but there is no obvious connection to the Reserve Bank’s prudential regulatory functions.  Over the years I’ve had plenty more complaints about my supermarket than about my bank, but (fortunately) no one seems to think governments should regulate customer service in supermarkets.

The Governor has found a partial defender in Gareth Vaughan at interest.co.nz.  But as Vaughan notes, it hasn’t typically been the Reserve Bank way

In 2015 when Australian authorities were probing high credit card interest rates, my colleague Jenée Tibshraeny tried to find someone, anyone, in a position of power in New Zealand to take an interest in credit card interest rates here that were at similar levels to Australia. This is what a Reserve Bank spokesman told Jenée;

“The Reserve Bank of New Zealand regulates banks, insurers, and non-bank deposit takers (NBDTs) at a systemic level – i.e. to make sure the financial system remains sound.”

“We don’t regulate from an individual customer protection perspective and don’t have comment to offer about pricing of products and services offered by banks, insurers and NBDTs,” a Reserve Bank spokesman said in 2015.

That stance is entirely consistent with the legislation the Reserve Bank operates under.  Vaughan concludes

Personally I welcome the Reserve Bank thinking of consumers, be they borrowers, savers or insurance policyholders. By taking an interest in consumer outcomes Orr is humanising the Reserve Bank, and making it more relevant to the general public.

However, if this is the path the Reserve Bank wants to go down, and has government support to do so, then perhaps phase 2 of the Government’s Reserve Bank Act review is a good opportunity to enshrine this more consumer outcomes focused role into the Reserve Bank Act. The terms of reference for Phase 2 are due to be published during June.

In a sense, that is the point.   Responsibilities of government agencies are something for Parliament –  the pesky “people” and their representatives again –  to assign, not for individual officials to grab.  I happen to disagree with Vaughan here –  between the FMA and generic consumer protection law, there is no obvious gap for the Reserve Bank –  but it should be a matter for Parliament.

It remains hard not to conclude that Orr is driving this populist bandwagon for two reasons:

  • to avoid letting the FMA take the limelight (the Reserve Bank has never been keen to play second fiddle to the FMA, especially on anything affecting banks) and
  • to distract attention from the Reserve Bank’s own poor performance as a prudential regulator, encapsulated in the recent scathing feedback in the New Zealand Initiative report.

He seems to have been remarkably successful so far – journalists seem to have been so pleasantly surprised by on-the-record media access to the Governor that they don’t bother asking the hard questions, and the Governor gets to portray himself as some sort of tribune of the abused masses (with or without evidence).

Personally, I find the sort of concerns outlined in today’s Australian about the Royal Commission itself , or concerns about the potential for these show trials to reduce access to credit, including (in particular) for small businesses, ones our officials or politicians might take rather more seriously.  But, probably, feel-good rhetoric is more satisfying in the short-term.

The final part of the Governor’s interview was about mortgage lending.  It wasn’t impressive.  The Governor declared that “we’re scared” about the high debt to income ratios evident among households with mortgages, but then in the next breath stressed that banks were very well capitalised and highly liquid etc.     Those two observations are simply inconsistent: if the Reserve Bank really has grounds to be scared (a) bad outcomes should be showing up in their stress tests (which they don’t) and (b) the Bank should be articulating a concern that banks are insufficiently capitalised and raising capital requirements further.  And it isn’t clear how the Governor thinks that, in a regulatory climate in which land prices are driven artificially high, ordinary people would be able to buy a house without a very high initial debt to income ratio.  But this seems to have become an evidence and argument-free zone, in favour of emoting about the “high debt” (not, as I noted last week, much higher relative to income than it was a decade ago).

The final question in the entire interview was about whether loans for Kiwibuild houses should be exempt from the LVR restrictions.  The Governor’s initial response was that he didn’t know, and couldn’t answer.  But then, pushed a little further, he expressed a view that such loans should be exempt……..they were, after all, about adding supply, and doing it quickly, and helping low income people into homes who might not otherwise be able to manage it.

Quite what was going on there wasn’t very clear.  There is already an exemption for people purchasing new houses (and any debt developers take on in the construction phase isn’t covered by LVR restrictions anyway).

The new dwelling construction exemption applies to most residential mortgage lending to finance the construction of a new residential property.

The construction loan should either be
(1) for a property where the borrower has made a financial and legal commitment to buy in the form of a purchase contract with the builder, prior to the property being built or at an early stage in construction. This could be traditional ‘construction lending’ where the loan is disbursed in staged payments, or it could be a loan to finance the purchase of a property, which will be settled (in one payment) once the build is complete.

(2) For a newly-built entire dwelling completed less than six months before the mortgage application. The dwelling must be purchased from the original developer (the contract to buy at completion can be agreed while the building is still being constructed).

This exemption didn’t exist when LVR were first rushed in by the previous Governor, but pretty quickly industry and political pressure built up and the Reserve Bank amended the policy.  In doing so, they revealed the fundamental incoherence of the LVR framework:  the Reserve Bank has always claimed that it is about protecting financial stability and reducing (their view) of excess risk in bank mortgage books.  And yet, lending on new properties –  all else equal – is riskier than lending on existing houses.  Existing houses are, for one thing, finished.  They are also in areas that have been occupied for some time.  By contrast, new houses –  especially in new subdivisions –  can be left high and dry when and if the property turns, or the economy turns down.  Think of the pictures of abandoned subdivisions on the outskirts of Dublin, or of some US cities in the last downturn.

And the Governor’s, apparently off the cuff, suggestion that credit restrictions should be easier for low income people who might not otherwise be able to get into a house, was distressingly reminiscent of the US policies –  political and bureaucratic – in the decade before the US crisis, which ended badly (for banks, and for many borrowers).   It is a recipe for encouraging banks –  supposed to be “customer-focused” in the Governor’s view –  to be more ready to lend to people relatively less able to support debt.  It is, frankly, irresponsible.   (And all this is before one even gets to questions about the extent to which Kiwibuild will simply crowd out other construction –  the Bank’s analysis on which they simply refuse to release, despite having opined on the issue in past MPSs.)

The quality of policymaking – official and political – in New Zealand has fallen away quite sharply in the last 15 or 20 years.  Sadly, Adrian Orr as Governor increasingly seems at risk of averaging it down further.  All while showing no sign of addressing the problems in his own backyard –  whether as regulator, analyst, or as sponsor.

Banking conduct and culture – the Governor again

It can be hard to keep up with the twists and turns of the new Governor of the Reserve Bank (a living argument for the need to entrench committee-based decisionmaking –  and, at that, committees that are not under the thumb of the Governor).  Take conduct issues and the Australian Royal Commission as a prime example.

Not many weeks ago –  he has only been in the job for two months –  Orr was apparently content that there were no significant conduct problems here.   That was a bit of a surprise, given the common ownership of many of the financial institutions operating here and the fact –  not to put too fine a point on it –  that only a decade ago we’d been sending people to prison for the way they’d run finance companies.  But, according to the Governor, things were different  –  the culture here was “infinitely better”.    We certainly didn’t need a Royal Commission.

It wasn’t clear what these conduct issues had to do with the Governor anyway –  the Reserve Bank is a prudential regulator (soundness and stability) not a conduct one.  And the Governor did move on to acknowledge that any decision on Royal Commissions or the like wasn’t a matter for him –  the establishment of the Australian one was a highly political call.

But then, before we knew where we were, the Governor had done a volte faceperhaps uneasy that the Financial Markets Authority –  which is a conduct regulator –  was going to get the limelight, and any kudos that came from putting pressure on the banks.  And so we had a joint demarche from the Governor and the chief executive of the FMA, summoning banks to a meeting and demanding –  like some populist political figures, rather than officials in a country governed by the rule of law –  that banks prove their innocence.

There wasn’t much doubt as to the sort of stuff the Governor (and the FMA head) were talking about  –  their letter explicitly referenced the Australian Royal Commission, and the FMA’s own conduct guide.

Last week, the Governor and his FMA counterpart moved on to life insurance companies, sending them a very similarly worded set of demands.

And then a document appeared on the Reserve Bank’s website late last week, under the heading

Banking conduct and culture – The Reserve Bank’s role and efforts ahead

Release date
24 May 2018
An article by Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr.

One could only assume it was going to be more of the same.  But as I read it, it became clear that the Governor had changed horses again.   This time we got a very defensive three page essay on banking and banking regulation, apparently in the leadup to the release of the Financial Stability Report tomorrow morning –  the new Governor’s first.

It opens with lots of bluster about various public concerns about banks since the 2008/09 crisis

Globally, and especially following the mid-2009 financial crisis, there has been significant, vocal, public concern about the drivers and cultures of bank behaviour. Are banks too profitable, too short-term, incentivised to over-lend, insufficiently sound, too large to be managed, too global to be regulated, and too open to operational and security risks?

without ever once stopping to note that New Zealand and Australian banks came through that episode in fine shape, and that most of the questions the Governor is referring to relate to places where there were systemic banking failures, and government bailouts of major institutions.

Then we get some references to the Australian environment

The plethora of recent Australian-led banking inquiries is unprecedented, the most significant being the ongoing Australian Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.  The concerns that gave rise to these inquiries should be heeded, not just by Australian-owned banks, but by all financial service providers in New Zealand, including our own domestically-owned banks and insurers.

never once noting the febrile Australian political environment, and casting aspersions by association (using taxpayer resources to do so) without offering a shred of evidence.  It is what populists do.

And then we get this odd claim

The general public hear plenty of noise from these institutions and local commentators as to whether we are doing too much, or too little, too often. The noise is confusing to the non-expert.  We get that.  The topic is technical, we deal with institutions in confidence at times, and many New Zealanders have not experienced first-hand a financial crisis. 

Actually, we hear very little from the banks.  By all accounts, they are scared of crossing the Reserve Bank in public (recall the previous Governor’s attempt to shut down Stephen Toplis).  And the Reserve Bank itself is highly secretive –  note its refusal to offer any open accounting for its conduct around the Westpac capital models or Kiwibank capital instrument cases.  If the Governor is foreshadowing a new openness from the Reserve Bank on such regulatory issues that would be welcome, but the past has been his Bank’s failure not that of the banks, local commentators, or the public (to whom he seems to be trying to talk down).  Acknowledging that the Reserve Bank can, and has, made mistakes would be a helpful start, a signal of being in earnest.

The Governor moves on to set out three sets of expectations for banks.

First, operating in New Zealand.

This means they must abide by the laws of the land, and these are often different to where they came from. For example, we need the locally incorporated banks to have local directors, who are bound by domestic law and must attest to the bank being sound. These directors should be closest to the bank decision making, and are liable for these decisions.

and so on.  So far, so banal.  The Governor outlines no specific concerns, and appears to be trying to operate by slur – the “evil Australian banks who think they can come here and act as if this is Australia”.    That is no way for a central bank Governor to operate.

The second is a lengthy statement of the point that foreign banks operating here have both home and host regulators.  That’s true, but it isn’t clear that the Governor has a point, and certainly not one related to that “Banking conduct and culture” heading.

Weirdly, he repeats a line he ran in an interview a few weeks ago

No foreign government can commit their current or future taxpayers to bailing out foreign country depositors or shareholders. It is untenable politically.

As I noted then, this is simply irrelevant

For a start, the question of how we manage the failure of a bank in New Zealand has nothing whatever to do with the idea of foreign taxpayers bailing out New Zealand depositors.  I’m not aware that anyone supposed that was very likely.  Indeed, all our planning –  including the requirement for most deposit-taking banks to incorporate locally –  has been based on the idea that New Zealand is on its own (although for the Australian banking groups, whatever happens in the event of failure is likely to be negotiated by politicians from the two countries).   Instead the general issue here is

  • should a large bank simply be allowed to close if it fails, and handled through normal liquidation procedures (few would say yes to that).
  • if not, how best can the bank be kept open,
  • it could be bailed out by the government (benefiting all creditors, including foreign wholesale ones),
  • or the OBR tool could be used, in which all creditors’ claims would be immediately “haircut”, so that the losses fall on shareholders and creditors not on taxpayers but  the bank’s doors remain open.

But the Governor concludes this particular section by asserting that OBR is the failure management resolution tool, when as he knows that isn’t his call –  it is a decision for the Minister of Finance at the time, probably after extended haggling with the Australian government.

The Governor’s third point is

Third, and finally, when we regulate any licensed entity we need to do so in a manner that is both sound (safe) and efficient (dynamic and competitive).

Which is more or less fine (actually, the requirement is around the system as a whole not the individual institution), but a propos of nothing that is apparent in the Governor’s statement.

All of this seems to have rather little (ie nothing) to do with “conduct and culture” but with banks’ gripes about the Reserve Bank’s handling of its responsibilities.

Recent bankers’ complaints about our activities tend to focus on three issues: NZ-specific capital, the role of attestation requirements, and the need to prove their ability to resolve a bank failure inside the legal and fiscal bounds of New Zealand.

to which the Governor’s response is a single sentence dismissal

These are all part of doing business here in New Zealand. It is profitable business, and our goal is for consumers to be well served, taxpayers’ money preserved, and our financial systems sound and efficient.

That isn’t serious policymaking or serious accountability, it is just a set of rhetorical assertions, trying to take cover under the Governor’s joint efforts with the FMA to suggest there is something amiss in the way banks are running themselves in dealing with individual customers.

The Governor goes on

Our aspiration is to have the best ‘regulator-regulated’ relationship in the world built on mutual respect.  This doesn’t mean we will always agree with regulated entities. What it does mean is we will be clear and consistent on our position, engage with regulated entities in open and responsive manner, and balance soundness and efficiency considerations.   This is our service promise to regulated entities. 

I’m not sure it is in the public interest for the “regulator-regulated relationship” to be “best in the world” –  regulatory capture is a really significant risk, and perhaps especially when the regulator has recently done as poorly, and had such atrocious feedback, as the Reserve Bank’s regulatory function.   Not many weeks ago the Governor was pledging to take that feedback seriously and bring about change –  I praised him for it –  but that sentiment all appears lost now.

And so the Governor attempts to bring all this back under the heading of “conduct and culture”.  He claims

All said and done, the effectiveness of all of our efforts rests very much on the conduct and culture of the banks that operate in New Zealand. Culture determines ‘how they do things’.

Actually, that is nonsense.  The Reserve Bank is a prudential regulator, not a conduct one, and the perceived failure of the Reserve Bank in this area over recent years (all that feedback captured in the New Zealand Initiative report) is much more about the conduct and culture of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand than about anything to do with the banks operating here.   A defensive mentality, that doesn’t welcome criticism or scrutiny,  policy measures put out in a rush without decent supporting analysis, and so on.  Those are Reserve Bank failures.  They weren’t the fault of the current Governor, but it is his responsibility to fix that culture.

But then the Governor closes his statement with an attempt to articulate what he means by culture.

  • Do banks acknowledge they are operating in New Zealand – and the responsibilities this implies?
  • Do banks acknowledge the home-host regulator relationship, giving each appropriate respect?  And,
  • Are banks willing to compete in both a sound and efficient manner for the long-term – beyond the tenure of a current CEO or Board? This means investing in the people, systems and capabilities needed for a sustainable New Zealand bank business.

For a start, none of this bears any relationship to the culture and conduct stuff he and the FMA had been demanding of banks, stemming from the Royal Commission.  It is a sign of a Governor on the defensive, trying rhetoric rather than analysis.

How, for example, are banks supposed to prove to the Governor’s satisfaction that they ‘acknowledge they are operating in New Zealand –  and the responsibilities this implies”?  Does that mean just accepting whatever the Governor says or does without challenge?  If the Governor has specific concerns –  thinks the banks have broken the law –  he should take those matters up with them individually.  Otherwise, he should get off his bully pulpit and simply do his job, including fixing up his own institution.

As for his second point, what is “appropriate respect”.  I want banks that obey the law, and challenge it and the Bank when they seem to be doing a poor job.  Respect, Governor, is earned by a track record of consistent competent performance, not demanded as some sort of right.

And as for the final point, it is really very little to do with the Reserve Bank.  If an individual bank were, say, to take a view that prospects in New Zealand were poor, and it was looking to wind down its business here over time, that is matter for the shareholders, not for the New Zealand prudential regulator.   Banks themselves might reasonably ask whether the Reserve Bank is regulating beyond the term of the existing Governor.   But again, if the Governor has specific concerns –  within his statutory mandate –  he should raise them with the banks concerned, and outline them in the FSR.

It was a strange statement, and attracted little media attention (perhaps the Governor is already talking so often that his words have become cheap talk).  It should probably have attracted more, given the rather desperate attempt to cloak a pushback against the banks, around prudential regulatory policy, with his populist “culture and conduct” cause.  It was all a bit empty.

By the time the FSR comes out tomorrow it will have been six days since this recent statement was issued. Who knows what tack the Governor will be taking by then.  It really isn’t good enough –  we should be able to expect a stable and predictable regulatory voice, engaging in substantive issues (if there are such) in substantive ways.  I hope some journalists or MPs take the opportunity tomorrow to call him out on the way in which he has been operating.

 

Orr defends himself

There seems to have been almost no media coverage of an extraordinary statement put out late on Wednesday by the going-rogue Governor of the Reserve Bank, Adrian Orr.  Perhaps he was fortunate that all eyes were already on Thursday’s Budget.

I’ve been drawing attention to the way in which Orr has been speaking out on all and sundry issues – often contentious political issues – for which neither he nor the Bank has been assigned responsibility by Parliament.   We’ve had climate change issues, infrastructure spending, both sides of the bank conduct issue (where he was defending the banks only to flip sides and start poking a stick at them), sustainable agriculture, and capital gains taxes. (Various posts touching on the Governor’s comments are here.)

Last week he was at it again, giving an interview to Stuff’s Hamish Rutherford in which he took the opportunity to attack the way the Christchurch rebuild had been done, including in particular the lack of opportunities for his former employer, the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.  And a couple of days out from the Budget, he took another opportunity to call for more government infrastructure spending, more government borrowing, and to offer his thoughts on public procurement processes.  Anyone would think he was a party leader at election time.

There were two separate classes of issues arising out of the interview with Hamish Rutherford.  The first was around the details of what Orr was saying about the Christchurch rebuild and the substance of NZSF’s involvement or lack of it.    The former minister, Gerry Brownlee, understandably took umbrage at the substance of Orr’s remarks, but the details of that particular spat weren’t my concern (although a commenter in detail here suggests Brownlee was on the stronger ground).

The second class of issues –  and the focus of my concern – is around the appropriateness of the Governor speaking out at all on these (and the other) issues.   As I summed it up the other day, the Governor’s comments are very unwise and quite inappropriate –  and would be so regardless of any substantive merits in his views.   The Governor holds an important public office, in which he wields (singlehandedly at present) enormous power in a limited range of areas.  It really matters –  if we care at all about avoiding the politicisation of all our institutions –  that officials like the Governor (or the Police Commissioner, the Chief Justice, the Ombudsman or whoever) are regarded as trustworthy, and not believed to be using the specific platform they’ve been afforded to advance personal agendas in areas miles outside the mandate Parliament has given them.   We don’t want a climate in which only partisan hacks have any confidence in officeholders, and only then when their side got to appoint the particular officeholder.  And that is the path Adrian Orr seems –  no doubt unintentionally – to be taking us down.  As I’ve noted previously, as his time in office lengthened, Don Brash made something of the same mistake.    That was unfortunate and inappropriate, but in 14 years in office I’d be surprised if Don managed as many overtly political comments as Adrian Orr has delivered in less than two months.

I’ve had conversations with people, including journalists, who can’t really see a problem.  I guess Orr is still in his honeymoon phase, and the journalists are still just grateful they no longer face a Governor who wouldn’t even communicate properly on issues that were his clear and specific responsibility.  Perhaps it helps to see the problem by supposing that a new Governor had come to office and was giving interviews calling for, say,:

  • doing nothing about climate change,
  • cutting capital taxes,
  • lamenting that the government had not just stayed out of central Christchurch and had just landowners get on with it,
  • suggesting that the state stay out of housebuilding,
  • promoting irrigation schemes, and (for the sake of argument)
  • attacking light rail

That new Governor might be perfectly technically capable of doing monetary policy and financial regulatory tasks.  But nonetheless, there would almost certainly be an outcry –  people from the left attacking the Governor for his attacks on policies of the government of the day, and people on the right using the Governor’s comments to buttress their anti-government rhetoric.  It  would be unwise, and should be quite unacceptable for a Governor to be making such comments.  And it is no more wise, or acceptable/appropriate, for him to be making comments on the other side of such issues.

I’m not suggesting that the Governor is an active Labour/Greens partisan, making the comments he does to try to advance the interests of the governing parties.  Probably he believes he is better than them anyway.  But clearly his personal views on all manner of issues seem to align with those of Labour (in particular), and since he has lots of turf battles to win (around the reform of the Reserve Bank) he probably judges that it doesn’t hurt his personal cause to be speaking as he has.  But even if that works out for him in the short-term it isn’t desirable.  His interests aren’t the national interest.  It is conceivable that the second half of his term could see him working with a National government, and he’ll have made that more difficult with these overtly political comments, ranging well beyond his brief.  And he will have increased the risk that future Reserve Bank Governor appointments will be made on an overtly partisan basis –   “if the Governor feels free to speak on absolutely anything, we want someone who’ll be championing our particular causes”.  That would be highly undesirable.

After Orr’s comments last week, there was an outraged response from Gerry Brownlee (on the specifics) but there was also a response from the Opposition leader, Simon Bridges.  That upped the ante quite a bit, even though Bridges’ statement was pretty moderate.

Bridges did not directly answer questions about whether he believed Orr comments were a sign he had sided with the new Government, or on the tone of Brownlee’s comments, but said Orr would have taken a lesson from the episode.

“I am sure he [Orr] will have seen what Mr Brownlee has said, and you know, there’ll just be a lesson there in terms of sticking to the knitting in terms of what his remit is.

“I’m sure he’ll want to be very careful about not wanting to step into legitimate political debates, rather than his mandate as Reserve Bank governor.”

Bridges said National had supported Orr being appointed governor.

“He’s a good guy, he’s a clever economist, he’s a great communicator, so he’s got the skills to be governor.”

That “stick to his knitting” line was particular welcome, but it was still a pretty emollient statement. Opposition leaders don’t wade in every day criticising the Governor –  in fact, memory suggests (perhaps incorrectly) it is really quite unusual –  but it was clearly a statement that was seeking a de-escalation.  There was no criticism of Orr’s appointment or his basic skills and qualities, and really just a quite moderate call for a minor course correction.   When I saw the Bridges comments, I assumed that would be the end of the matter: the Opposition would take it no further, Orr would retire to lick his wounds and reflect, and perhaps in time emissaries might be dispatched to make clear that the Bank recognised where its core responsibilities did and didn’t lie.  Others at the Reserve Bank, meanwhile, (better schooled in the responsibilities and limits of a central bank) would breath a sigh of relief

But no.  Instead late on Wednesday the Governor put out a full page statement under the Reserve Bank name defending himself, and if anything taking the offensive, claiming the freedom (nay, responsibility) to speak out on almost anything.   “Doubling down” was my quick summary.

The Governor began

I greatly respect and appreciate the operational independence of the Reserve Bank.

Maybe, but talking so freely on all manner of contentious political issues does nothing to foster long-term public support for that operational independence.

My comments about infrastructure investment reported in the recent Stuff article of 15 May related not only to my previous role as CEO of the NZ Super Fund, but also to my current role as Governor of the Reserve Bank.

There are two points here.  First, as Governor he shouldn’t be giving interviews about his previous job –  we didn’t hear Don Brash giving interviews about Trustbank or Alan Bollard about Treasury once they were Governor. It is all the more important to maintain that clear separation given that in this case the Governor had previously had another government job.    But, second, this is where he begins to double-down, claiming that it is right and appropriate, as Governor, to be talking openly about these contentious political issues, for which he has no direct policy responsibility.

He disagrees

I spoke openly and frankly because that is a desired feature of the role of Reserve Bank Governor.

Yes, we would welcome a Governor who spoke clearly, and accessibly, on the issues Parliament has assigned to him.  His immediate predecessor didn’t do that bit of the job well at all. But that is very different from a Governor sounding off, without nuance, on all manner of highly contentious issues.   The Governor himself may “desire” to do so –  and no doubt it makes good copy so journalists won’t say no –  but perhaps the Governor could point to any other indication that the public interest is being served by the approach he is taking?

There follow a couple of paragraphs about the specifics of NZSF and Christchurch rebuild issues, including

Any lack of investment by the NZ Super Fund was not caused by lack of commitment from either Mr Brownlee or the NZ Super Fund. Rather it was due to no access for third-party capital into the core infrastructure space, for example, ports (air and sea), transport, electricity distribution and so on. These were decisions made by the appropriate authorities at the time.

It still isn’t clear why NZSF involvement (or any third-party capital) would have been appropriate in any of the major public aspects of the rebuild process,  most of which were (as my commenter points out) well below the size threshold NZSF itself says it is looking for (and bigger ones, notably the convention centre and the stadium remain of questionable economic value).    But, even setting that to one side, there is something extraordinary about this issue being fought on the website of the operationally-independent Reserve Bank.  It is, quite simply, none of the Bank’s responsibility.

But here the Governor pivots to try to claim that this is all very much part of his new responsibilities.

That challenge is not unique to Christchurch or New Zealand. It is a global financial challenge and one that leads to financial instability at times, especially stressed balance sheets.

This is a stretch, to say the very least.    Even if we were to allow that it was a “global financial challenge”, it wasn’t one in Christchurch, and certainly posed (and poses) no threat to financial stability in New Zealand.     One might, as well, worry about pots of government money, and the way they can be used to subvert good decisionmaking, robust allocation of capital, and so on –  perhaps especially if the Governor of a central bank starts championing the causes of such government funds.

The Governor attempts to generalise

The Reserve Bank Act requires us to promote a sound and efficient financial system. The Policy Targets Agreement that I have signed with the Minister of Finance also requires that, along with maintaining low and stable inflation, the Reserve Bank must contribute to maximising sustainable employment.

But even here he, no doubt deliberately, skates over some important language in the Act and the Policy Targets Agreement.  For example, the Act does not require the Reserve Bank to “promote a sound and efficient financial system” .  Here is the key provision of the Reserve Bank Act

68 Exercise of powers under this Part

The powers conferred on the Governor-General, the Minister, and the Bank by this Part shall be exercised for the purposes of—

(a)  promoting the maintenance of a sound and efficient financial system; or

(b)  avoiding significant damage to the financial system that could result from the failure of a registered bank.

In other words, it isn’t a general obligation, but a constraint on how the Bank’s statutory powers are used.  The specific statutory powers to regulate banks must be used in a way that promotes the maintenance of a sound and efficient financial system.  There is quite a difference from weighing in championing PPPs, more government debt, or specific solutions to particular Christchurch rebuild issues.

Similarly, in the Policy Targets Agreement –  a provision governing the conduct of monetary policy – there is just this descriptive statement

The conduct of monetary policy will maintain a stable general level of prices, and contribute to supporting maximum sustainable employment within the economy.

and a requirement to explain in each MPS

The conduct of monetary policy will maintain a stable general level of prices, and contribute to supporting maximum sustainable employment within the economy.

No one thinks that offering interviews on PPPs, sustainable agriculture, or the Christchurch rebuild is what is meant by “the conduct of monetary policy”.

Well, no one other than the Governor that is. Because he goes on

I have spoken about specific issues recently because increased infrastructure investment opportunities provide sound investment choices, risk diversification for financing goods and services, and improves maximum sustainable employment by relieving capacity constraints.   These are all core components of the Reserve Bank’s role and something we often speak about in our Financial Stability Reports.

I almost fell off my chair laughing when I read that line.  When I was young at the Bank we used to occasionally argue that we were free to talk about absolutely anything because almost anything could be argued to affect price stability, in some form or another (resource usage and all that).  There was even a statutory provision.

10 Formulation and implementation of monetary policy

In formulating and implementing monetary policy the Bank shall—

(a)  have regard to the efficiency and soundness of the financial system:
(b) consult with, and give advice to, the Government and such persons or organisations as the Bank considers can assist it to achieve and maintain the economic objective of monetary policy.

But no one took that sort of ambitious –  rather silly – argument very seriously.  At least, it appears, until the Governor came along.    Now, it seems, the Governor wants to openly argue that absolutely anything if within his purview.

Even then he seems confused. For example, he claims that

…..increased infrastructure investment opportunities………improves maximum sustainable employment by relieving capacity constraints.

Well, maybe eventually if the infrastructure investment itself is robust and cost-effective (a test much infrastructure spending in New Zealand fails).  But, as no doubt his economists could point out to him, in the short to medium increased infrastructure spending puts more pressure on resources, and exacerbates capacity constraints and inflationary pressure (all that additional spending before the capacity comes on line).  And then he goes on to assert that these are “core components” of what the Reserve Bank does. and are “something we often speak about in the our Financial Stability Reports”.   Which is an odd claim, since issues about relieving capacity constraints would appear more naturally to belong in Monetary Policy Statements.  And doubly odd in that when I checked the most recent Financial Stability Report, there was a but one reference to “infrastructure” in the entire document, and that a reference to something they call the “retirement saving infrastructure”.   But there is a new FSR out next week, so I guess the Governor will be ensuring it does touch on infrastructure issues?

It all smacks of a statement pulled together in a rush, under pressure.  He clearly hasn’t stopped to think of the total non-viability of a Governor addressing such issues in ways the government of the day doesn’t like (and thus the inappropriateness of only addressing it in ways they do like) or of the implications of his position –  at future press conferences or FEC hearings he’d have no grounds to refuse comments on almost any aspect of policy some mischevious questioner wanted to ask about.  Immigration policy Governor?  Welfare policy Governor?  And so on.  It is a reckless path.

It isn’t unlawful, of course, for the Governor to speak on these issues.  Perhaps, over time, a Governor could develop a sufficient reputation in office for his stewardship of his core responsibilities that people look to him or her to comment occasionally on a slightly wider range of issues. But to wade in, on so many contentious issues, in an utterly non-nuanced way, so early in his term seems extremely unwise and quite inappropriate.  The Minister of Finance and the chair of the Bank’s Board should be making that point forcefully to the Governor, as often as is necessary until his behaviour changes.

Back when the Reserve Bank Board advertised the job last year, two of the qualities they claimed to be looking for were:

  • Personal style will be consistent with the national importance and gravitas of the role.

  • The successful candidate will also demonstrate an appreciation of the significance of the Bank’s independence and the behaviours required for ensuring long-term sustainability of that independence.

Orr’s approach at present isn’t consistent with either of those.

And he appears to be carrying on as he started. In the Sunday Star-Times yesterday, Orr was again being quoted on things that are little or none of his responsibility.

Last year, New Zealand banks reported a combined $5.19b in profits, up just over $355 million year-on-year.

New Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr said he was perplexed by the ongoing strength in bank profits.

Perhaps he might be “perplexed” but it really isn’t anything to do with a prudential regulator.  If there are competition issues, we have a Commerce Act and government ministers.  He went on

Checks on whether bank profits were sustainable would form a significant part of the “culture check” being undertaken by the Reserve Bank and Financial Markets Authority, Orr said.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry in Australia revealed serious misconduct by New Zealand banks’ parent companies.

That prompted New Zealand regulators to demand more information from New Zealand banks, which they had until May 18 to deliver.

“I think you’ve always got to be sure that they are competing properly and they are behaving responsibly,” Orr said.

“If they’re making profits, good on them, but let’s make sure they’re long-term sustainable profits and there’s true competition in the markets.”

To repeat, almost none of this is anything to do with the Reserve Bank’s statutory areas of responsibility.  Perhaps it plays to a populist mood, but it fails to respect boundaries, including the reasons why we assign different functions to different agencies.  And the public mood is a fickle mistress.

Perhaps comments on bank profits are slightly less egregious, in some circumstances, than those on climate change, sustainable agriculture, capital gains taxes, PPPs or whatever, but none of its suggests a Governor with the sort of self-discipline and recognition of limits that the role demands.  Much of it seems more attuned to grabbing headlines, than to offering the sort of nuanced reflection that might occasionally provide a useful contribution to a thoughtful debate on some important issues.

It is still early days in the Governor’s term, but a change of approach is already well overdue.  It is not as if there aren’t plenty of issues that the Governor is most definitely responsible for –  and accountable for –  that he could be getting quietly on with.

 

Very unwise and quite inappropriate

That was my immediate reaction yesterday when someone asked my view of Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr’s latest public comments, on the Christchurch rebuild, PPPs, government infrastructure spending, and so on.

Here was just a sample of what the Reserve Bank Governor said, as reported by Stuff’s Hamish Rutherford

Orr, who is now the governor of the Reserve Bank, made an enthusiastic plea for New Zealand to embrace “third party capital” – a reference to public private partnerships – as a means of boosting investment in infrastructure.

“This country, we’ve gone through the lowest ever global interest rates, we’re in good fiscal health. Why aren’t we investing?” Orr said in an interview.

“Personally, as a citizen of New Zealand I’m very pleased to see public investment being planned and trying to get underway, and I’m even more pleased as a citizen of the world that third party capital is increasingly being allowed to be part of the public infrastructure investment.”

Orr acknowledged he was giving a plug for his former employer, the NZ Super Fund

He goes on to complain about the rebuild process, and the lack of investment opportunities for NZSF, about public procurement processes, even weighing on the woes of Fletcher Building.

As I’ve said before, if having left the NZSF job he was now retired –  or even just joining the ranks of company directors and consultants –  there would be no problem with him expressing his views.

But he is a public servant.  And as Governor of the Reserve Bank he personally exercises an extraordinary degree of power, singlehandedly making the monetary policy decisions, as well as exercising a huge range of regulatory powers over banks, insurance companies and other non-bank deposit-takers.  He is the most powerful unelected individual in New Zealand.    In the areas Parliament has empowered him.

But the stuff he was talking about in his interview yesterday was –  again –  none of his official business.  He is welcome to his personal views, but when he speaks publically he should be speaking only on the things he has official responsibility for.   Either that, or change jobs and make a run for Parliament.  As someone observed to me recently, too often Orr sounds as if he would really prefer to be Minister of Finance.  But he isn’t.  He has no popular mandate, and responsibilities only as specifically laid down in various bits of legislation (primarily the Reserve Bank Act).

Why does it matter?  Because if the public is to be confident in delegating huge amounts of power to unelected officials, they also need to be confident that those unelected officials aren’t misusing that power, or the pulpit it can provide, to pursue personal or political agendas.

I’ve written several posts recently about the new book, Unelected Power, by former Bank of England Deputy Governor Paul Tucker.  Touching on some of these sorts of issues, Tucker notes that in his time at the top of the Bank of England he never knew the personal politics of his senior colleagues, and he was glad of that.   Perhaps that is just the famed English reserve, but it is something to reflect on here.  I’ve written previously about Don Brash overstepping that mark –  in a way that really soured relations between the Bank and the then government.   Arguably Orr’s case is worse, both because he is weighing in on immediately relevant political issues, including more or less directly attacking the stewardship of the previous government, and because he is overtly on the same side as the current government.  When (as central bank Governor) you openly disagree with the current government on general policy issues it might still be unwise and very wrong , but at least no one thinks you are in league with the government.   The whole case for an independent central bank, is so that they can act independently, in those specific areas Parliament has asked them to handle.  The Christchurch rebuild, PPPs, infrastructure finance more generally, are not among those responsibilities.  Nor, for that matter, is “giving a plug” for the Governor’s former employer.

When the initial Stuff story appeared, I was a bit surprised the journalist didn’t seem to have sought a comment from the Opposition Finance spokesperson, who as it happens is also a Christchurch MP.   You just do not see anything like this degree of overt political comment from central bank Governors in other advanced economies, and one of Paul Tucker’s other points is that delegating power to independent agencies really only works well if the legislature is effective in scrutinising and holding it to account the independent agency, including ensuring that it is (a) doing its job, and (b) only doing its job (in other words, sticking to the mandate democratically elected people have given them).   Parliamentary scrutiny of the Reserve Bank was very weak under the previous government, and appears to be no better now.  There is still no word from Amy Adams about the Governor flagrantly overstepping the bounds.

But a few hours later, her colleague Gerry Brownlee came out swinging at the Governor.  I don’t often agree with Mr Brownlee, but on this occasion his remarks seemed both forthright and to the point.  He was “incensed”

Brownlee said he was “incensed” by the comments which he believes mischaracterised the situation. As Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister he visited the fund about investment options but were told were not on the scale the fund needed.

“It certainly looks like the Reserve Bank governor has bought into the current Government’s mantra that everything the previous government did was wrong and everyone should join in in saying so.

“And I think that’s a very dangerous position for him to be in.”

When a senior MP describes himself as “incensed” by comments made by the central bank Governor –  especially when they aren’t about things in the Governor’s remit –  it is time for the grown-ups in the room to wake up and do something about the situation.   When the Governor so undermines confidence in himself, he weakens his own position, he weakens the Bank, and that is potentially damaging for the country.

I’m still a bit puzzled by what game the Governor is playing.

It could be that he just hasn’t yet adjusted to his new role.    In various earlier incarnations he was chief economist for the National Bank and for Westpac.  In roles like that part of his job was to say to provocative stuff in an interesting way, to get coverage for him and his bank. Back in the spotlight now, with every serious media outlet only too happy to report his every word, perhaps he just hasn’t adjusted yet.   I find that a little hard to credit, for various reasons, including that he is 55 not 35, has already spent  eleven years as a public sector CEO, and that yesterday’s remarks weren’t the first time he’s overstepped.

Perhaps, too, he just sees no connection between the comments he makes on climate change, infrastructure finance, the Christchurch rebuild, PPPs etc and his day job.  But he’d have to be extraordinarily naive to believe that, and he isn’t.  His views are reported because he is the Governor, not as “Adrian Orr, citizen of Devenport [or wherever he now lives]”.  Another really senior unelected role is that of the Chief Justice: just think of the outrage if she were out giving speeches and interviews on all manner of political issues, unrelated to the administration of justice.   That is a measure of how wrong Orr’s current stance is –  and he wields more power personally than the Chief Justice.

And that leaves the even more unwelcome possibility that, in some sense, Orr is playing politics.   A former colleague put it to me the other day that “Orr is a political animal, par excellence”.   I’m sure he is only ever uttering his own genuinely-held views, and I’m not sure he is even that good a political player (on the evidence of the last few weeks) but look at his incentives.  The Governor has a huge number of turf battles to fight and win this year, around the various stages of the review of the Reserve Bank Act.    Will the Bank keep prudential responsibilities in house?  Even if so, will the policymaking powers stay with the Governor, move to a committee, or be removed back to the Minister?  What sort of people will be appointed to the new Monetary Policy Committee, and what sorts of constraints will the Minister put on their freedom to challenge the Governor?  Might tighter budgetary constraints be put on the Bank, or regular (properly-resourced)_ provisions for external reviews be established?   And so on.

And how to win those battles?  Good quality analysis and advice goes only so far.  Orr might reasonably conclude that things are more likely to go his way, if the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues (and parties outside Cabinet) smile benevolently on the Governor and think of him as “one of us”.

I’m not fully persuaded this is the bulk of the story either.  Orr has, after all, been a public servant for the last 15 years, and if his approach is all about political game-playing and seeking leverage with ministers, you’d have to think he’d have the art down pat better than the overtly political stuff on display in recent weeks.   There has to be a risk that, whatever his intentions, he has overstepped the mark so far and so often, so early, that at least some in government might be having a case of buyer’s remorse, wondering quite what they have got themselves into with this new Governor –  who might be “sound” ideologically, but seems to lack that deeper sort of soundness the nation should be able to count on.

Whatever the explanation, it needs to stop.

When there was speculation last year as to who might be the next Governor, one reason on my list of factors counting against Adrian Orr was precisely that he was a strong character, given to speaking his mind, and one whom the Board (and specifically the Board chair) might find hard to keep on a leash.  The same thought might, I speculated, worry a new Minister of Finance.    Of course, in the Board’s case it has become increasingly clear that they see themselves as facilitators for, and defenders of, the Governor, not needing to do anything to hold him to account.  But if they really care at all about the institution, and about good governance in New Zealand, they need to call the Governor to order now.

I noted earlier my surprise that the Opposition finance spokesperson had not commented on the way the Governor is operating.  Neither, it appears, has the Minister of Finance.   Perhaps it would be worth some journalist asking the Minister for his comments, even if only to record him refusing to comment, washing his hands of any responsibility (for the conduct of someone he appointed, in an agency he is responsible for).

The Governor is damaging himself, and he is damaging the institution.  It is early days and there is still time for a course correction, but it needs to happen now, and to be decisive.  It isn’t, after all, as if the Governor is without messes to clear up in his own areas of responsibility (eg here and here).  And leave politics –  including public finance, infrastructure, climate change or whatever  – to those we’ve elected.

(I have deliberately avoided engaging with the content of the Governor’s comments.  Even if I fully agreed with him, they would still be unwise and quite inappropriate, and it is the process point –  good governance – that matters most.)

UPDATE: I notice that issues about Orr’s remarks are beginning to be highlighted elsewhere.

UPDATE 2: Rereading the post I wrote when Orr’s appointment was first announced, there is nothing (positive or otherwise) in it I’d resile from now, and some of the potential areas of concern touched on then already seem to be being realised.

UPDATE 3: For those who don’t normally read the comments here, I suggest at least looking at the one by former Reserve Bank official, Geof Mortlock.

UPDATE 4:  The Minister of Finance has indeed refused to comment.

Eyes determinedly shut

After a series of posts late last year, I haven’t written much recently about the New Zealand economic and political relationship with the People’s Republic of China.  It isn’t that I’ve lost interest, or become somehow less convinced of the importance of the issues. It remains, for example, a disgrace that unrepentant former PRC intelligence officer Jian Yang  –  who now acknowledges misrepresenting his past on official documents –  sits in our Parliament, protected by his own party and not subject to any critical scrutiny from the new Prime Minister or her party.  All parties seem determined to look the other way.  Businesses trading with the party-State no doubt quietly cheer them on.  Don’t ever rock the boat, don’t ever display any self-respect, seems to be the watchword.  Deals need doing, bottom lines enriching.

I’ve been busy with other things, but yesterday was the “China Business Summit 2018” in Auckland, operating under the logo “Eyes Wide Open”.    The Prime Minister and the Minister for Trade and Export Growth both gave what were billed as keynote speeches.  I want to focus on the Prime Minister’s speech, but couldn’t go past David Parker’s risible description of

“China’s leadership on issues like…trade liberalisation have the potential to add momentum to collective efforts in the region”.

No serious observer –  no one with other than an obsequious political agenda –  could regard the PRC as a leader in the cause of trade liberalisation.  The PRC lags badly, mostly to the detriment of their own citizens. That is so whether it is tariffs under consideration, or non-tariff barriers, and it is as true of the letter of law as well as the way laws are actually applied (recalling that the PRC is not exactly known for the priority placed on the rule of law.  As the Chief Justice of the PRC regularly reminds people, in the PRC the law is at the service of the Party.

Curiously enough, even Stephen Jacobi –  executive director of and spokesman for the (largely) taxpayer-funded advocacy group the New Zealand China Council seems to agree.  He is reported in another article this morning again stressing how difficult it will be to get the upgrade to the New Zealand/China preferential (“free’) trade agreement unless New Zealand gets more actively on board with the PRC geopolitical initiative, the Belt and Road.    Because, let’s be clear, the PRC’s barriers to international trade are a great deal higher than those New Zealand still has in place.  For them, deals (“FTAs”) are primarily about politics, not about some rules-based international order –  which may from time to time be useful to them, but only instrumentally.

But what of the Prime Minister’s speech?

There is lots of gush, and little reality.

We will look to cooperate with China to promote regional stability and development

How, one wonders, do we see the PRC promoting regional stability –  that isn’t just the quiescence of the indebted, the intimidated, or the bought – in  flagrant aggression in the South China Sea, standoffs with India, in the repeated threats to prosperous and democratic Taiwan, in the intimidating patrols around the Senkaku Islands, in loading up developing countries with debt, in the threats to democracy in places like Cambodia or the Maldives?

She moves on to note that

The Belt and Road Initiative is a priority for China.  New Zealand is considering areas we want to engage in the initiative, and other areas where we will be interested observers.

In fairness, that is hardly a ringing endorsement –  and perhaps less than her audience would have liked –  but recall what our government (previous one) has already signed up to in the Memorandum of Arrangement.  I wrote about that a few months ago.  You might recall that the two governments agreed.

BRI 3
I think the ball is in the PRC’s court when it comes to avoiding threats to regional peace.  By pretending otherwise, New Zealand governments simply give cover to the PRC agenda.

Of course, there is worse in the agreement, with talk of us both promoting the “fusion of civilisations”

BRI 2

As I noted in the earlier post

I’m quite sure I – and most New Zealanders –  have  little interest in pushing forward “coordinated economic…and cultural development” with a state that can’t deliver anything like first world living standards for its own people (while Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea etc do) and whose idea of cultural development appears to involve the deliberate suppression of culture in Xinjiang, the persecution of religion (Christian, Muslim, Falun Gong or whatever), the denial of freedom of expression (let alone the vote) and which has only recently backed away from compelling abortions.  And that is just their activities inside China.    “Fusion among civilisations” doesn’t sound overly attractive either –  most of us cherish our own, and value and respect the good in others, without wanting any sort of fusion,and loss of distinctiveness.  But perhaps Simon Bridges [who signed the agreement for the previous government]  saw things differently?

Perhaps one day the Prime Minister could tell us, straightforwardly, whether this stuff –  an agreement the New Zealand government is party to – reflects her values?

In her speech yesterday there was a whole section headed “New Zealand Values”

This brings me back to something that this government has placed front and centre of its agenda – our values

But what might those values be?  She goes on to tell us (or at least I think she does –  the language is a bit garbled).

This is why my government is placing such an emphasis on our core values, like on environmental and climate change issues. 

So that was no mention of:

  • democracy,
  • rule of law, domestically and internationally,
  • freedom of speech,
  • freedom of religion,
  • standing by countries that share similar values, when they are threatened.

or anything of the sort.  Just climate change and the environment (although are those “values” or just issues?) –  where, conveniently, her rhetoric and the PRC seem to, for now, align.

Then she moves to the standard fallback line of one New Zealand minister or Prime Minister after another.

Naturally, there are areas where we do not see eye to eye with China. 

We will just never, ever, come out and clearly and state what those differences are.  Instead, she trivialises the (unspoken) differences

This is normal and to be expected with any country, especially where we have different histories and different political systems.

It is as if she treats the PRC as a normal country, rather than one of the biggest abusers of domestic human rights and most aggressive external powers anywhere.  It is today’s Soviet Union, except probably with more evidence of an active external aggressive agenda.   Our Prime Ministers a generation or two back didn’t trivialise the difference between the Soviet Union and the West in the way that John Key did, and Jacinda Ardern does.  Then again, I’m pretty sure we didn’t have party presidents (Haworth and Goodfellow) issuing congratulary statements on the occasion of meetings of the Soviet Communist Party.

But there weren’t big business interests –  private and government (think universities) –  with dollars at stake then.

Of course, the Prime Minister tries to cover herself with talk of

New Zealand and China can and do discuss issues where we have different perspectives.  We can do this because we have a strong and a mature relationship – a relationship built on mutual respect; and a relationship that is resilient enough for us to raise differences of view, in a respectful way.   This is a sign of the strength and maturity of our relationship.

But it is just words when our leaders –  accountable to the citizenry, not to Fonterra, Zespri or university vice-chancellors –  will never utter a word of concern in public.   Maybe they do occasionally raise issues in private –  and the PRC authorities politely ignore them – but even that argument was undercut by the Deputy Prime Minister in comments yesterday

The foreign minister was asked whether China’s influence in New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific would be on the agenda during his trip.

“I’m in a job called foreign affairs, and diplomacy is rather important. You’ll know I’m naturally a tactful person, and I won’t be raising those issues in the way you put them.”

These aren’t values they stand for, just dollars.

The Prime Minister can talk in generalities all she likes

Our reputation as a leader on environmental issues; as a fair player internationally; as a defender of the international rules-based system, a system which privileges state sovereignty and dispute settlement on the basis of diplomacy and dialogue, is fundamental to who we are as a nation and as a society.

But specifics are what count.  Anyone can give POLSCI 101 talks, but when she won’t (say) stand up and call unacceptable China’s illegal creation of new artificial islands in the South China Sea, its illegal assertion of sovereignty, and the militarisation of those new “islands” –  to reference just her talk of “a system which privileges state sovereignty and dispute settlement on the basis of diplomacy and dialogue” –  it is hard to take her seriously on the values score.  When she won’t call out Jian Yang’s position, or the way in which PRC-affiliated entities have gained effective control of Chinese language media in New Zealand, or the way several universities and many of our schools are taking PRC money on PRC terms, it is hard to take her seriously when she talks of values, even as it directly affects New Zealand.   [UPDATE: This very morning she managed to openly criticise actions of two other countries.]

But probably the big-business entities putting pressure on the government to do whatever it takes to get the “FTA” upgrade –  unconcerned about values, but very interested in bottom lines –  will be happy with her.

It all seems a lot more Neville Chamberlain than Michael Joseph Savage (whose government was quite critical of the appeasement of Nazi Germany).  But however deluded Chamberlain was, nobody supposed his stance was just about the money.

And, since most of you come here for the economics, I was struck by an account I saw of the appearance last week by the Governor of the Reserve Bank at Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee, where he was asked about China.  Astonishingly, the Governor reportedly claimed that the Chinese economic story was well-understood –  I think most of those close to it would argue that anyone who thinks they really understand it is only revealing how much they don’t know – but then he want on to make what is simply a factually inaccurate statement.  He claimed, so it is reported, that China was in some “miraculous” period where it was moving into “first world economic wealth”.

Productivity is the foundation of prosperity.  The cohort of countries near the very top of the OECD league tables (several northern European ones and the US) have real GDP per hour worked, in PPP terms, of around US$70 an hour.   Here –  from the Conference Board database – are the 2017 numbers for the various first world Asian economies, and for the PRC.

Real GDP per hour worked (USD, PPP)
Singapore 64
Hong Kong 54
Taiwan 51
Japan 46
South Korea 37
(PR of) China 14

Even underperforming New Zealand manages US$42 an hour.  Other countries matching the PRC productivity numbers include such denizens of the first world as Indonesia, Ecuador, and Peru.

It sounds as if the Governor has been buying the hype.  But I suppose his political masters won’t be unhappy: flattery and never ever uttering a sceptical word are among their watchwords.