What?

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

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

In commenting briefly on that, I observed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are all manner of weak claims.  For example

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

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

There are other odd arguments

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

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

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

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

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

But what is Figure 2?

figure 2

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

There is a suggestion something more substantive is coming

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

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

and this is Figure 3

capital chart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Governor ends with this sentence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restructuring the Reserve Bank

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

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

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

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

Three of those positions are filled straight away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two other senior managers in core roles leaving the Bank

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

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

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

Three more comments on the review:

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

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

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

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

 

Three central bankers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fed funds cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wheeler chart

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

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

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

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

Guest Speaker: Adrian Orr

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

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

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

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

What is the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Orr

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

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

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

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

in June

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

in August

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

and here is the Governor today

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

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

Thus far, well done Governor.

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

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

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

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

OCR 10 years

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

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

That is quite a difference.

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

floating 10 yr

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

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

TD rate 10 years

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

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

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

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

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

And this was the page with the picture I showed.

our island.png

I noted yesterday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And from another

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

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

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

Orr among the forest gods

Almost 1300 years ago, the English missionary priest and bishop Saint Boniface confronted the belief of some pagan German villagers in Thor, god of (among other things) oak trees. Tree gods (or beliefs in them) were vanquished, and Boniface became known as the apostle to the Germans..

Pre-evangelisation, Maori had their own tree god, Tane Mahuta.    As far as I can tell, not many believe any longer in this local tree god: when I looked up the 2013 Census data, there were lots of Maori recording no religion, and there were plenty of Catholics and Anglicans.  But there wasn’t a category shown for tree gods, or any of the other deities (Wikipedia has a list of at least 35 of them).

But the Governor of the Reserve Bank seems intent on bringing them back.

Tomorrow will mark six months since Adrian Orr became the most powerful unelected person in New Zealand, as Governor of the Reserve Bank.  Six months on we’ve had not a single serious and substantive speech on the policy areas he is responsible for, and where he exercises a huge amount of barely-trammelled power.  No speech on monetary policy, no speech on banking regulation, and nothing either on the less prominent things the Governor is responsible for –  such as, for example, insurance prudential supervision, a New Zealand insurer having failed, regulated by the Reserve Bank just before the Governor took office.  He hasn’t substantively and openly engaged with, or responded to, the damning survey results on the Bank’s performance as a financial system regulator.

Instead, we’ve heard the Governor on almost everything else.  There was infrastructure, climate change (repeatedly), the failings of capitalism, geopolitics, women in economics, and of course bank “conduct” (playing distraction from his institution’s own failings, by trying to butt into a field for which the Bank has no statutory responsibility).    There have been lots of words, but not much sign of in-depth reflection or distinctive insights, and even less sign of doing him well, and being open about, the jobs Parliament has actually given the Bank.   Throw in some considerable complacency about monetary policy and it should be a pretty disquieting picture.

Some of it is probably just the Governor’s well-known propensity to talk.  Some of it might even be an understandable (if misguided in application) desire to lift the esprit-de-corps at the Reserve Bank after the demoralising Wheeler years.  And a lot seems to be about winning the turf battles, ensuring that in the reviews of the Reserve Bank Act that the government has underway as much as possible of the Bank’s powers are kept, in effect, under the Governor’s control, and that the existing powers and functions of the Reserve Bank are all kept in the Reserve Bank.  Part of that seems to be about openly subscribing what should be a non-partisan agency to every trendy left-wing cause that is going (and which, presumably, the Governor believes in personally.) A power play in other words –  and, with a weak government that probably doesn’t care much, quite likely to succeed,  somewhat to the detriment of New Zealand.

The latest example was the release on Monday of a rather curious 36 page document called The Journey of Te Putea Matua: our Tane Mahuta.   Te Putea Matua is the Maori name the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has taken upon itself (such being the way these days with public sector agencies).  It isn’t clear who “our” is in this context, although it seems the Governor  – himself with no apparent Maori ancestry – wants us New Zealanders to identify with some Maori tree god that –  data suggest –  no one believes in, and to think of the Reserve Bank as akin to a localised tree god.  Frankly, it seems weird.  These days, most New Zealanders don’t claim allegiance to any deity, but of those of us who do most –  Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, of European, Maori or any other ancestry – choose to worship a God with rather more all-encompassing claims.

But the Governor seems dead keen on championing Maori belief systems from centuries past.    In an official document of our central bank we read

A core pillar of the evolving Māori belief system is a tale of the earth mother (Papatūānuku) and the sky father (Ranginui) who needed separating to allow the
sun to shine in. Tāne Mahuta – the god of the forest and birds – managed this task after some false starts and help from his family. The sunlight allowed life to flourish in Tāne Mahuta’s garden.

This quote appears twice in the document.

All very interesting perhaps in some cultural studies course, but what does it have to do with macroeconomic management or financial stability?  Well, according to the Governor (in a radio interview on this yesterday) before there was a Reserve Bank “darkness was on our economy”.  The Reserve Bank was the god of the forest, and let the sun shine in.  Perhaps it is just my own culture, but the imagery that sprang to mind was that of people who walked in darkness having seen a great light.   But imagine the uproar if a Governor had been using Judeo-Christian imagery in an official publication.

On the same page we read

Many of these birds feature on the NZ dollar money including the kereru, kaka, and kiwi – core to our belief system and survival.

I’m a bit lost again as to who “our” is here.  I’m pretty sure I’m like most New Zealanders; I never saw a bird as “core” to my “belief system”.  Perhaps the Governor does, although if so we might worry about the quality of his judgements in other areas.

As I say, it is an odd document.  There are pages and pages that have nothing whatever to do with monetary policy or the financial system.  Some of it is even quite interesting, but why are we spending scarce taxpayers’ money recounting stories of New Zealand general history?  There is a page about the Maori navigators and, somewhat out of order, an earlier one about what early Maori ate and what the tribes traded among themselves.   And there is a whole page about Kate Sheppard who, admirable as she was, has nothing whatever to do with New Zealand economic or financial history and policy.  There is questionable history:  simple matters of fact (eg Apirana Ngata wasn’t the first Maori Cabinet minister and didn’t first hold office in the 1920s – James Carroll, who held high office for a long period (twice as acting Prime Minister), preceded him), highly questionable and tendentious economic history, and overall a tone (perhaps comforting to today’s liberal political elite) that seems embarrassed by the European settlement of New Zealand.     There is lots on the difficulties and injustices that some Maori faced, and little or nothing on the advantages that western institutions and society brought.  Reasonable people might debate that balance, but it isn’t clear what the central bank –  paid to do monetary policy and financial stability –  is doing weighing in on the matter.

As I noted earlier, in a radio interview yesterday the Governor claimed that prior to the creation of the Reserve Bank ‘darkness was on our economy’, that the Reserve Bank had let the sunshine in, and that Australia and the UK had somehow turned their backs on us at the point the Bank was created.   In fact, here it is – Reserve Bank as tree god –  in the document itself.

The Reserve Bank became the Tāne Mahuta of New Zealand’s financial system, allowing the sun to shine in on the economy.

I think there was a plausible case for the creation of a central bank here, but to listen to or read the Governor you’d have no idea that New Zealand without a Reserve Bank had been among the handful of most prosperous countries in the world.  Here from the publication, writing about the period before the Reserve Bank was created

The infrastructure funding was further hindered by the banks being foreign-owned (British and Australian) and issuing private currency. Credit growth in New Zealand was driven by the economic performance of these foreign economies, unrelated
to the demands of New Zealand. Subsequent recessions in Britain and Australia slowed lending in New Zealand when it was most needed.

Very little of this stands much scrutiny.  You’d have no idea from reading that material that the New Zealand government had made heavy and persistent use of international capital markets, such that by 1929 it –  like its Australian peers –  had among the very highest public debt to GDP ratios (and NIIP ratios) ever recorded in an advanced country.  You’d have no idea that New Zealand was among the most prosperous countries around (like Australia and the United States, neither of which had had central banks in the decades prior to World War One).   You’d have no idea that the economic fortunes of New Zealand, trading heavily with the UK, might reasonably be expected to be affected by the economic fortunes of the UK –  terms of trade and all that.   Or that economic cycles in New Zealand and Australia were naturally quite highly correlated (common shocks and all that).  And of course –  with all the Governor’s talk about how we could “print our own money” – within five years of the creation of the Reserve Bank, itself after recovery from the Great Depression was well underway, that we’d not unrelatedly run into a foreign exchange crisis that led to the imposition of highly inefficient controls that plagued us (administered by the evil twin of the tree god?) for decades.  Or even that persistent inflation dates from the creation of the Reserve Bank

One can’t cover everything in a glossy pamphlet, even one that seems to purport to be aimed at adults (including Reserve Bank staff according to the Governor), but there isn’t much excuse for this sort of misleading and one-dimensional argumentation, aka propaganda.

The propaganda face of the document becomes clearer in the second half.   Among the issues the government’s review of the Reserve Bank Act is looking at is whether the prudential and regulatory functions of the Bank should be split out into a new standalone agency, a New Zealand Prudential Regulatory Authority.  I think that, on balance, that would be a preferable model.  It also happens to be the model adopted in much of the advanced world, including many/most small advanced economies.  There are arguments to be made on both sides of the issue, but you wouldn’t know it from reading about the Governor’s vision of the Bank as a Maori tree god, where one and indivisible seems to be the watchword.      Everything is about “synergies”, and nothing about weaknesses or risks, nothing about how other countries do things, nothing about the full range of criteria one might want to consider in devising, and holding to account,  regulatory institutions for New Zealand.

I don’t have any problem with officials, including from affected agencies, offering careful balanced and rigorous advice on the pros and cons of structural separation. But that is a choice ultimately for ministers and for Parliament.  And among the relevant considerations are issues of accountability and governance.  Neither word appears in Governor’s propaganda piece.   But then tree gods probably aren’t known for accountability.  New Zealand government regulatory institutions should be.   If ministers and Parliament decide to opt for structural separation, I wonder how the Governor will revise his document –  his tree god having been split in two.

Among the tree god’s claims about financial regulation and what the Bank brings to bear was this breathtaking assertion, prominently displayed at the head of a page (p27).

The Reserve Bank is highly incentivised to ‘get it right’ when it comes to prudential regulation. We have a lot at risk

It is an extraordinary claim, that could be made only be someone wilfully blind –  or choosing to ignore –  decades of serious analysis of government failure, and the institutional incentives that face regulators, regulatory agencies, and their masters.

There is nothing on the rest of that page to back the tree god’s claim.   On any reasonable and hardheaded analysis, the Reserve Bank has very weak incentives to “get it right”, or even to know –  and be able to tell us –  what “get it right” might mean.   When banks fail, neither the Reserve Bank Governor nor any of the tree god’s staff have any money at stake (at least in their professional capacity, and as I recall things, Reserve Bank staff – rightly –  aren’t allowed to own shares in banks).  It is all but impossible to get rid of a Reserve Bank Governor, and it is even harder to get rid of staff (for bad policy or bad supervision).  Most senior figures in central bank and regulatory agencies of countries that ran into financial crises 10 years ago, stayed on or in time moved on to comfortable, honoured (a peerage in Mervyn King’s case) retirements, or better-remunerated positions in the private sector.

And when the Reserve Bank uses its powers in ways that reduce the efficiency of the financial system, or stopping willing borrowers and willing lenders writing mortgage contracts, where are incentives on the Reserve Bank to “get things right”.  There are no personal consequences –  the Governor and his senior staff either won’t have, or would have no problem getting, mortgages.  The previous Governor got to exercise the bee in his bonnet about housing crises, and to play politics, with no supporting analysis and no effective accountability.    The current head of the tree god opines that lenders and borrowers can’t be trusted –  but tree gods apparently can –  but when challenged produced no analysis to support his claim.  That sort of system creates incentives for sure, but they aren’t to “get it right”.  Officials have incentives to keep things secret, and we saw that on full display with the Bank’s supervision of CBL Insurance last year –  they might argue it was in the public interest, but even if so, it was clearly in their private interests, and against the interests of many members of the public.

Another word that hardly appears at all in the document is “transparency”.  If you wanted to call yourself a tree god who sheds light upon the dark world that was pre-1933 New Zealand (or, presumably, a modern New Zealand without our current Reserve Bank) you might think there would be at least some self-awareness of the other side of letting the light in: letting in the light on the Bank’s own operation.   As I’ve documented here over the years, the Bank is quite open about what it wants to be open about.  But what credit to them is that, everyone releases what they want to release: the essence of transparency is readily and willingly releasing material that they might, in some senses, prefer to keep to themselves, to make for an easier life for the tree god.  Our Reserve Bank –  the Governor’s pagan tree god –  is notoriously secretive and obstructive, consistently pushing to and beyond the limits of the Official Information Act.  Only a few weeks ago the Ombudsman’s office had to intervene to remind them that simply invoking “Chatham House rules” doesn’t enable you to keep things secret.  And with even the Cabinet having promised pro-active release of Cabinet papers, and pro-active release of Budget background papers and advice, the Reserve Bank looks not like a tree god shedding light in dark places, but like some more malevolent self-interested dark deity.

The Governor also tells us he has adopted an ever more ambitious goal than the previous Governor’s one.  Graeme Wheeler articulated a vision of the Reserve Bank as “best small central bank” in the world.  It was pretty empty.    There was no sign that citizens or other stakeholders had asked him to be the “best small central bank”  –  richer countries than us will often choose to spend a lot more (and with less accountability) on their central bank.  In any case, when challenged a few years later, it turned out that there was nothing going on to benchmark themselves against that ostensible aspiration.   But Orr’s aspiration for his tree god is an unqualified “best central bank”.     The institution is a very long way from that at present –  and getting further away if Orr uses the Bank as a platform for pushing for his personal political agendas, well beyond the Bank’s statutory responsibility.  It isn’t open, it isn’t excellent, it is accountable.  It should do much better (although I’m still not convinced that a small poor advanced country should be expecting, ir aiming, ot have best central bank there is.)

And finally, among the oddities of Orr’s apparent aspirations is something about an island.  There is a full page under the heading “Our island and Tane Mahuta”, complete with lots of (mostly) worthy (if sometimes threatening, for staff ) aspirations, and this picture.

RB island

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

Better still, ditch the pagan religion –  not (according to the Census) taken seriously by Maori, and never part of the heritage or beliefs of most New Zealand –  leave it to the cultural studies textbooks, and get on with doing your job, openly, accountably, excellently.

And, as part of that, abandon the complacency about monetary policy, expressed again  by the Governor is his Radio NZ interview yesterday.   The next serious recession  is, according to him, nothing to worry about.  Monetary policy faces no serious constraints.  Which, presumably, is why all those other countries who did find themselves at the effective lower bound last time round were able to rebound so quickly and effectively, and deliver inflation consistently near target.  Or perhaps that is only in a false tree god’s imaginary world?

UPDATE: I meant to include, but accidentally left out, reference to the fact that the Bank of New Zealand had been majority New Zealand government owned from 1894, forty years before the Reserve Bank was formed.   Surely the Governor was aware of that?

Orr on women, and himself

Six weeks or so ago, I wrote a couple of posts in quick succession on issues fitting under the loose heading “women in economics”.   I commented on a recent conference paper produced by a couple of senior Treasury officials (one of whom was male), and on the situation at the Reserve Bank prompted by some comments from the (male) Governor and the release of some statistics on the proportion of female applicants for various positions, including that of Governor.    My overall sense was something along the lines of “there seems to be a real and longstanding problem –  perhaps not easily fixed – at the Reserve Bank, but that it was less clear that there was a wider problem”.    Those posts were not universally well-received, and I received various comments, open and private, suggesting that as a mere male I had no right to comment on these issues, that any perspectives had –  by assumption –  no value, and (in the words of one particularly strident commenter) that I should withdraw quietly and “reflect on how your internal biases are harming women”.

And then a few weeks ago, there was a newsletter around from GEN (the Government Economics Network) advertising a launch event for a Women in Economics Network (for anyone interested, they have a LinkedIn group here), at which the speaker was to be Governor of the Reserve Bank, Adrian Orr.  It was advertised as open to anyone, and since I have an interest in the issues –  particularly as they affected the Reserve Bank (where I was manager for a long time), and the contrast between their experience and that of other entities – I signed up to go along.  I also attended because it must be a decade since I’d heard Adrian Orr speaking in the flesh, and as I’ve been quite critical of some aspects of his nascent governorship, including his speeches, I was interested to see how he now came across to a live audience.

It seemed like a fairly well-attended event, held at The Treasury.  The audience apparently included some high school students and teachers, as well as lots of public service types, and was (as one would probably expect) around 85 per cent female.

The event began a bit oddly, with some sort of introductory greeting or welcome from Gabs Makhlouf, the politically-correct British Secretary to the Treasury.  It was in Maori, and I’d be surprised if more than a handful of attendees had a clue what he was saying.

The Governor was introduced by Vicki Plater, chair of the new network and a senior manager at The Treasury.  She noted in her introduction how, particularly as a  macroeconomist (a sub-discipline of economics with a particularly preponderance of men), it was a common experience to be (or feel like) the only woman in the room.

That resonated.  And so it was strange, and rather tin-eared, for the Governor to stand up and say, in his best jesting style “you know Vicki, most male economists also think they are the only economist in the room”.   It was, no doubt, a self-deprecating dig at a tendency of smart opinionated people to think, or act as if, they have “the” right answer to whatever is being debated.  But it seemed oddly inappropriate, as if to –  no doubt unconsciously – minimise the perspective and experience of women in (macro)economics –  the subject he’d been invited to address.

(It was also a bit strange that in the course of his comments –  speech and later panel discussion – Orr’s only unscripted references to individuals in the audience were to men.)

It wasn’t a long speech, but it was also striking how little content there was.   It was a paean to diversity and inclusion, but only in the most general and unspecific form.  We were told about some project the Bank has underway to re-tell its own story in terms of some Maori metaphor or mythology (the connection to the issue at hand being less than clear).  He asserted that somewhere around the Industrial Revolution humans had lost “the talent of working together in teams”, and we heard a brief snippet of his own experience of perceived exclusion at the recent Jackson Hole seminar (for top central bankers and the like).  He owned up to not himself being a great listener.   It wasn’t necessarily off the subject, but it all seemed pretty tangentially relevant.  If I was looking for the consistent theme it would be something around having to make an effort and break out of the constraints of established, unquestioned, ways of doing things.   There wasn’t much to disagree with, but equally you wouldn’t know that he was head of (and formerly held other senior positions in) an institution that has never had a women in a senior management role in policy or core operational areas in its 84 year history.  Perhaps that wasn’t the point; perhaps the point just was that senior male leaders (Governor and Secretary) cared enough to turn up.

Following the Governor’s talk there was a panel discussion, involving the Governor and a senior academic economist and an MBIE principal advisor (both women).   The Governor was again on form.  The MBIE principal adviser (of a Pacific background) noted that Pacific people in economics had few role models, and that the Governor was the pre-eminent role model.  His response: “I don’t know about being a role model; perhaps a sausage roll.”

There was a great deal of (seemingly) unquestioning acceptance of the unconscious bias model, with quite a few (unexamined) claims of conscious bias thrown in.    There was no discussion at all of how some occupations, and academic disciplines, end up very heavily female and others very heavily male, no discussion of the apparent “gender equality paradox” , just an inchoate sense of something, generically, being wrong. Quite what, specifically, wasn’t clear.

The Governor was the most confident communicator of the three, and since he tends to wear his heart on his sleeve we heard a few interesting anecdotes.  One was, I think, designed to illustrate how those in power can be unaware of the impact they are having on others.  He noted that shortly after his appointment as Governor was announced he’d had an email from a former staff member, who lambasted Adrian for the severely adversely impact he had apparently had, in some past professional role, on this person’s life.  This had apparently come as total news to the Governor, and it sounded as if the searing email had shaken him at least momentarily.  But the effect of the anecdote was rather undermined when he rushed on noting “but I got over it”.   Perhaps the problem really was with the writer, but it seemed to be a strange way to end –  perhaps confirmation of Orr’s earlier acknowledgement that he isn’t a good listener.

There was some discussion on calling out actions or words that display –  or are perceived to display – bias (the senior academic noted that she how did so openly and straightaway –  although when a new graduate later asked about this, it was acknowledged that it was not necessarily an option prudently open to everyone).   Orr told us about coming back from an appearance at Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee and noting that all the Reserve Bank team had been male, suggesting that needed to change.  Apparently –  as these things do –  word got out, and down the organisation, crystallising in an email from somone (a manager I gathered) that in future appearances only women were wanted.   The point of the anecdote was that apparently someone had called this to the attention of the Governor and he’d corrected the messaging.  But it actually sounded more like a warning about the risks of loose words, emoting without a proper framework, from a new CEO.

In fact, you wondered whether those people at the Reserve Bank had really got the wrong message.  There was a question from the floor about quotas and whether or not they were a good idea.  All three panellists seemed a bit ambivalent, but the Governor actually came back to elaborate his initial quick response and stated that “positive discrimination is needed sometimes”.   That such discrimination would almost certainly be against the law seemed not to concern this senior public servant, speaking in an open forum.

In some respects, the Governor was in fine form on Friday.   The phrase “consummate communicator” was running round in my head, but as I reflected further I realised that that isn’t an accurate description at all.  Orr has a great way with words, and can be very entertaining, but effective communication involves getting appropriate alignment between audience, subject matter, and occasion.  In a senior public servant, gravitas also matters (pompous and old-fashioned as it might sound to some).  And as some of the comments above suggest, he tends to be a bit tone-deaf.   At the time, Orr was appointed, I included this snippet (drawing on a Bernard Hickey story)

Only a few weeks ago – when he must already have known that he was likely to become Governor –  Orr gave a speech to the Institute of Directors, in which he reportedly dismissed the views of Deputy Prime Minister on the economy as “bollocks” and went on to suggest, in answer to a question about nuclear risks in North Korea, that perhaps two issues could be solved at once ‘because Winston is going to North Korea”.  Recall that at the time, Orr was not some independent market economist, but a senior public servant.     He might well have been right in his views on the economy, but is this how senior public servants should be operating?

In his talk on Friday –  mostly among public servants – he probably was more relaxed than he usually is in public; it was very similar to the way he used to be when we both worked at the Bank.  But listening to Orr again, I was reminded of David Lange, who also had a great way with words.  Lange’s way with words developed, as I think even he recognised, as a defence mechanism  –  the way an overweight child pushed back and held his own in the playground.  I’m not sure what it is with the Governor, but perhaps he hinted at it himself in his remarks on Friday, noting that having grown up far from the halls of, say, Christ’s College, Auckland Grammar (or the female equivalents) – although didn’t most people? –  he had felt that he was having to push to be accepted, and in turn had had to come to accept that people with other upbringings also have valid and useful perspectives, their own strengths and weaknesses.  It isn’t clear to me that he has yet fully got over that background and the associated insecurities.  Perhaps a lot of it is just shtick –  a comedy routine –  but it is striking how often one hears from the Governor, or sees in profiles, references to his friends and relatives in Taupo and Rotorua, particularly those who didn’t have much formal education or interest in book-learning.  Have I ever heard, I wonder, any senior figure –  not running for office –  reference his conversations with his mates at the TAB (or the Wellington Club, or the golf club, or the church, or….well anywhere)?

The Governor is a smart guy.  No one disputes that.  But there are questions about his depth, his seriousness, and his judgement (see, for example, my comments last week on his recent speech).  Add in a dominant personality and a self-acknowledged reluctance to listen –  although, of course, self-recognition is some small progress –  and it reinforces the doubts about vesting so much power in his hands, or of structuring a Monetary Policy Committee in a way that continues to ensure his total dominance.

Meanwhile, we are still waiting for a thoughtful on-the-record speech on monetary policy and/or the Bank’s financial stability responsibilities.  I’m still waiting for a response to my OIA request about his, apparently rather loose, speech to INFINZ a couple of weeks ago.

And the specific issues at the Reserve Bank, where women have rarely (well never) achieved really senior roles in the central areas of responsibility, await the Governor’s attention.   It is, in my view and my experience, a complex story, but if it isn’t addressed seriously and well over the next few years –  better management, better structures, better people –  it will be increasingly awkward for the Governor and the Board (around half female) paid to hold him to account.