The creeping corruption of official New Zealand

I’m not sure how many readers get and read the Sunday Star-Times (SST) newspaper.  Some weeks I flick through and wonder why we still do.  But yesterday as I turned the pages I was glad I had, because it was as if one page after another shone a light on some aspect or other of the degraded state of New Zealand public life.   And it got me thinking not just about those specific stories, but about others that had been in the news over the previous week.

Starting with the relatively small stuff, there was an SST story about NZTA.   The first bit of the story was about how

The New Zealand Transport Agency allowed a senior staffer to bid for a multi-million dollar contract in a ridesharing service that came with a $475,000 subsidy from the Government agency.

Surely that should have been totally unacceptable?  But not, it appears, to NZTA.  Despite, as the article notes, guidance from the State Services Commission that

“in general, having a private business in the same area as a public servant’s official responsibilities would be highly problematic and is most likely to be unacceptable”.

NZTA’s blithe response was to state that “it managed the obvious conflict of interest”.

Now, as I understand it, it wasn’t NZTA itself awarding the contract and (as it happens) the senior NZTA employee didn’t win the contract.  But why was such conduct allowed in the first place?  If you work for a government agency, you simply don’t do stuff in your private life where there could be any reasonable suggestion of a conflict of interest.

This particular story was, we were told, one of seven cases of employee conflict of interest NZTA had to disclose.  The other specific case cited in the article –  around an NZTA regional director who is also chair of a Maori tribal authority “involved in a project currently under construction” by NZTA –  seems, if anything, worse.  The fact that the regional director had agreed not to be involved in any matters relating to the project, doesn’t change the fact that all her staff and colleagues know her, and presumably know of her outside interests.  It is (well, should be) staggering that these arrangements are smiled on by NZTA.  (And it should be a little surprising that the journalist writing up the story seems to have made no effort to get comment from the Minister of Transport, or from the Opposition spokesperson.)

Elsewhere in the media last week – I think mainly in the Herald – was the story of the Supreme Court judge who had been off on holiday with a senior lawyer in a case that was currently before the Supreme Court.   In various articles I saw, uneasy lawyers were falling over themselves not to impugn the “personal integrity” of the judge –  I guess the (now retired) judge has colleagues and these lawyers might have to appear before them –  but frankly this just should not be acceptable conduct.  Apparently the rules allow the other side to object to such cosy holiday arrangements (or other possible conflicts) –  which didn’t happen in this case –  but as the articles noted that is hardly a cost or risk-free option for the other side’s counsel, risking getting offside with the judge (for having disrupted his or her –  in this case – holiday plans, and perhaps being seen to impugn their integrity).   But the onus shouldn’t be on opposing counsel: the rules should be strict, and the conduct of the judges should be (if anything) stricter.  Personal integrity here should include a conscious recognition of the need for justice to be seen, by fair-minded observers, as utterly impartial.

There is talk in the articles about how hard it is for judges, of the “small and tight-knit” legal community, of lifelong friends, and so on and so forth.    Nothing in that should make it acceptable behaviour for judges to be holidaying with lawyers who appear before them (and especially not in current cases, and for higher court judges).  When you take on the office of judge –  perhaps especially in our final court of appeal –  you should accept –  and the system should demand –  a high degree of restraint, and of distance, that people in most other roles won’t face.

But, being New Zealand, it isn’t clear that anything is happening about situations like this  (there is a specific –  somewhat belated –  application for a recall of the judgment in question, but this is a wider issue).  I saw no questions of the Chief Justice demanding answers as to how this can be acceptable behaviour, and no questions of the Minister of Justice and/or Attorney-General.   And not a peep from the Opposition, of course.

A bit further on in yesterday’s SST was a column about the Gordon Jon Thompson situation.  This was the lobbyist, and friend of the Prime Minister’s, brought in by the Prime Minister to serve as her chief of staff for several months, with exposure to all Cabinet papers, and heavy involvement in the appointment of Labour ministerial staff, all the time fully intending to return to his lobbying business.  If I’ve read correctly the various stories, throughout his time in the PM’s office, he remained a director of his lobbying firm, and never disclosed who his clients were, rendering it hard to take seriously the Prime Minister’s claims that matters relating to his clients were never discussed between them.    And then this morning we read that there is more

“The Prime Minister’s office has said she ‘seeks out Mr Thompson as a sounding board from time to time.’ However, none of the Prime Minister’s interactions with Mr Thompson appear in her ministerial diary released on the Beehive website.

“Last year, the Government undertook to publicly release details of Ministers’ diaries consistent with its promise to be the most open and transparent administration in New Zealand’s history. The Prime Minister has released details of phone calls and meetings with a wide range of people. So, why is she keeping her communications with Mr Thompson a secret?

Again, lots of people seem to fall over themselves to not impugn the “personal integrity” of those involved.  But their personal integrity is in question, because senior people need to recognise, and live in a way that respects, that the absolute avoidance of any appearance of conflicts is almost as important as the absolute avoidance of the substance.  Confidence in our system depends on people have good grounds to believe that the system works fairly, impartially, and with rules and degrees of self-restraint that bend over backwards to avoid actual or perceived conflicts.      The question isn’t whether laws have been broken or not –  although it looks as though the laws should be tightened –  but a matter of what is an acceptably high standard of behaviour from those holding public office.     Even if everyone in this affair had the best of intentions (which we can’t simply grant) conduct in this case cannot possibly have reached that level, if we are at all serious about decent and demanding standards in public life.

Then, of course, there is the ongoing Makhlouf affair.  Really serious misjudgements by one of our most senior public servants were on full display during the “Budget leak” affair a couple of weeks ago.  Notionally, Makhlouf’s employer is conducting an inquiry into that behaviour, but (a) this is the same State Services Commission that was putting out coordinated statements with Makhlouf as part of the original problematic series of events, and (b) even as the inquiry is ongoing, the State Services Commissioner was giving a gushy farewell speech at the Beehive farewell party for Makhlouf, including stressing how collegial the group of public sector CEOs is.   Perhaps we’ll even see this week the State Services Commissioner’s report, but how can anyone have any confidence in the integrity of the process, let alone in the willingness of top officials to take any responsibility, or express contrition, when they get things wrong –  as Makhlouf demonstrably did?   The cosy arrogance of the whole affair was further compounded last week when Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee held its hearings for Vote Finance.  The Minister of Finance turned up, but the Secretary to the Treasury simply absented himself.  He wasn’t sick, he wasn’t suspended while the SSC inquiry was ongoing, and he seems to have simply decided that serious scrutiny –  not from his chums at SSC but from Opposition MPs – whether about the systemic weaknesses that led to the problems in the first place, or about his own conduct, could be uncomfortable, and so stayed away, sending his underlings along to make excuses for him.   And, as we know, he leaves office later this week, flitting off to another job in another country.   Parliamentary scrutiny of public officials is supposed to be one of the features of our systems, but when it gets uncomfortable it clearly doesn’t matter to Makhlouf – nor, presumably, to Grant Robertson who might reasonably have insisted that Makhlouf turn up.

In a post last week on the ANZ/Hisco affair, I noted that –  whatever the prurient interest in a large private business’s issues with its now-departed CEO –  there should be greater focus on senior public officials who use the public purse (their time, paid for by the taxpayer) to advance personal causes, political or otherwise, for which they have no official mandate.   After all, while we can change banks, we are stuck with our central bank (our transport agency, our courts and so on).    As I noted

And when the Governor of the (monopoly) Reserve Bank never gives substantive speeches about things he is actually responsible for, plays fast and loose with the Official Information Act, claims he has no resources to properly oversee the bank capital system (internal models and all) that the Bank itself put in place, all while spending a million dollars on a Maori strategy (for a body with little or no public-facing role), devoting his time and professional energies to personal passions, be it climate change, infrastructure, or whatever, there is also nothing we can do about it.  The amounts involved –  money diverted from core functions (under budgetary pressure) to finance the Goveror’s personal causes and whims –  is probably already at least as much as the Hisco case over 10 years.  But we can’t change central banks, can’t dump our shares in the Reserve Bank.  Perhaps these issues (for some reason) excite fewer people, but when the abuses and slippages are by high government officials, they need to be taken much more seriously, precisely because exit isn’t (for us, citizens) an options.  The small(ish) stuff needs to be sweated.

Some readers may have thought I was slightly over-egging the point, but shortly after releasing that post, I had an email from a reader with yet another example of Orr abusing his office.  Next month, Orr is giving a speech to the financial industry group FINSIA (members can get continuing professional development credits for turning up to hear him) and my reader sent along the promotional email.  Orr’s speech is billed as “The Future of the Reserve Bank: The View from Tane Mahuta” (which itself was a bit puzzling because in responding to critics of his tree god nonsense Orr claimed that “we don’t see ourselves as a tree god”, and yet that seems to be exactly how his speech is billed.)    It is possible there could be some substantively interesting material –  after all, the next stage of the review of the Reserve Bank is supposed to see a discussion document out in the next couple of weeks.  And there is some mention of that review in the email FINSIA sent out hawking the Governor’s address.    But just as much space is given to this

The Bank is focusing on strategies that contribute to climate change sustainability and a commitment to a more culturally inclusive central bank with a higher degree of awareness of Te Ao Māori.

You can be sure that Bank’s communications people will have approved how the Governor’s speaking engagement is described in the FINSIA advert.

As I have noted many times before, the Bank has no mandate at all for the Governor’s climate change focus.  As he very well knows, it is largely irrelevant to monetary policy, and of very little relevance around financial stability in New Zealand.  It is a personal crusade –  using a public platform to advance his personal causes.  Much the same can be said for his Maori strategy: it bears no relation to the things Parliament asked him to do, and neither monetary policy nor financial regulatory policy bear down in systematically different ways on Maori than on non-Maori (any more than on red heads as distinct from others,  Christians as distinct from atheists, Labour voters as distinct from National voters, and so on).  It is simply a misuse of office, and of the scarce resources the taxpayer has put at the Governor’s disposal (recall, that this is the Governor who claims he is under-resourced to do basic elements of his financial regulatory role).    Perhaps it all plays well with members of the Labour and Greens caucuses, but that simply isn’t his job –  and it remains possible he could find himself working with a National-led government before his term is out.   How could they, or we, have any confidence in the impartiality of the Governor, or that he is using his office –  and resources –  strictly for the things Parliament mandated the Bank to do.

(And while people on the right often want to suggest that all the bad stuff emanates from the Minister of Finance –  same tendency evident in reverse when National-led governments are in offce – I took the opportunity to look up the Minister of Finance’s latest letter of expectation to the Governor.  These letters can’t add to or subtract from statutory obligations, but can be interesting/important nonetheless.    But, as it happens, none of the Governor’s personal obsessions  – climate change, the tree god, the “Maori strategy” –  were mentioned at all,  It was nice to have that level of confirmation that the abuse of office is all the Governor’s own doing.)

I could go on as regards the Bank. I’m involved at present in the consequences of highly problematic (at best) choices made by the Bank, dating back to when Orr was Deputy Governor, and for which neither he nor his current deputy –  responsible for the Bank’s work on “culture and conduct” in the financial system –  show any real sign of taking responsibility for, or fixing.  Come to think of it, the Financial Markets Authority –  financial regulator –  displays little energy either.  But that is enough for now.

These are just a handful of the sorts of episodes, great and small, that go on in New Zealand –  a country that likes to claim high standards of governance and accountability in public life.  They take different forms.  Already, the Shane Jones/Semenoff affair recedes into memory.  Police simply flout the law.  Or what of a statistics agency run so poorly that even the Census was botched, and yet no one loses their job?  And so we could go on. If we don’t start sweating the “small stuff” again, or simply get used to a ‘near enough is good enough”, or “never mind, decent individuals” standard, we’ll lose any traction in clinging onto the sort of standards a decent and open society should be insisting on from those who hold public office.  Good –  honest, open, rigorous, accountable – government is a rare and valuable thing.  Degraded government –  and we risk slipping down exactly that path  –  is a serious threat to the sort of standards New Zealanders once held dear.

Then again, what to expect in a country where the major Opposition party has a former PRC military intelligence official, close to the PRC embassy, (formerly?) a CCP member, sitting in its caucus, while its president sings the praises of Xi Jinping?  And the governing parties seem quite unbothered by any of that, having sold any soul they once had when it comes to anything to do with the regime in Beijing (in fact, this very week, the deputy leader of the Labour Party is in China aiming “to deepen…our relationship with China”.)  Xinjiang?  Hong Kong extradition laws?  Forced organ extractions?   South China Sea?  Systematic persecution of religious believers of all stripes?  Systematic repression of any dissenters?  Abduction of Canadian citizens?  Never mind, nothing to do with us, seems to be the combined National and Labour line.

Just another example of a corrupted and corroding system, where the only “value” left seems to be some mix of what can be got away with, and what generates a few more dollars or donations.  And barely anything left at all about what is right and decent.  Or about the notion that the only real test of someone’s values is what they will pay a price for.

(And, after all that, I never even got to the SST stories on the immigration system. Perhaps tomorrow.)

 

 

Powerful unelected public appointees

Some time in the next couple of weeks the Minister of Finance will be announcing the members of the new (statutory) Monetary Policy Committee which assumes responsibility for monetary policy on 1 April.  There will be seven of them, and only one serves ex officio (the Governor), so there will be six names to be announced.  Almost certainly, the Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand will be one of them, and the new Assistant Governor for economics and financial markets, Christian Hawkesby, will be another.   The fourth internal member is likely to be the new Chief Economist, but that position hasn’t been filled yet, so perhaps that is the source of the delay.  And then there will be the three mystery part-time external appointees.

When I said that the Minister will announce the appointments, that shouldn’t be read as suggesting the Minister will have had much say (at least if the legal process has been followed).   The appointments will all have been sorted out between the Governor and the Bank’s board –  most of whom were appointed by the previous government.  The Minister can reject nominations, but can’t impose his own candidate (although I have heard suggestions of him trying to inject names into the process).   Those were the same rules that applied when the Governor was appointed.

(In addition, of course, the outgoing Secretary to the Treasury has nominated himself to be the first Treasury observer on the Monetary Policy Committee.  It is a strange choice, both because the Secretary’s term expires very shortly (you’d have thought some continuity might be a good idea) and because any Secretary to the Treasury has perhaps 300 issues to keep on top of, and spending up to 50 days a year –  the advertised expectation for external members – as a non-voting observer at the Reserve Bank suggests an odd sense of priorities.   It looks like the sort of role one would normally expect a second or third tier person to take on.)

And thus monetary policy will be in the hands of a group of people not only themselves unelected, but appointed (in effect) by people who are not only unelected but are (a) typically faceless, known by hardly anyone, (b) lacking in much technical or policy capability and (c) largely unaccountable.   Monetary policy may not seem overly important right now – it is over two years since the OCR changed –  but it matters a great in serious downturns, and preparations for the next such downturn should be a significant issue for the Bank and the new MPC now.

And these people will take up their new statutory roles without a chance for us, or our elected representatives, to grill them, and to understand the thinking around monetary policy that they might bring to the role.  That is, of course, so even for the Governor, because although he has now been in that job for almost a year, he’s not yet given a substantive speech on monetary policy (more concerned, it appears, with tree gods and the like).

In principle, the members of Monetary Policy Committee can agree to do speeches and interviews (under quite tight constraints, but still better than the nothing the Minister first intended).  But you are very unlikely to hear any distinctive voice from the internal members of the committee (they after all, owe their pay, resources, and promotion prospects etc to the Governor).  And I’m still expecting that the external members will be chosen in part for their willingness to come quietly and not rock (as he sees it) the Governor’s boat.

How much better if, before you take up office as a policymaker –  and that is what the MPC are, exercising considerably discretion –  you had to front up at an open hearing of a parliamentary select committee and explain your qualifications for the job, your views on monetary policy and macroeconomic management, and any questions about your background, potential conflicts etc, that MPs might think relevant.    It is, of course, what happens in the United States.    There, members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors have to win Senate confirmation.  That has some appeal, but I’m not proposing that –  the US has a quite different system of government.

But in the United Kingdom, where the statutory Monetary Policy Committee system is relatively new (about 20 years old) they have something very much like what I’m proposing.    Before taking up their appointments, new members of the MPC have to undergo a Treasury Select Committee hearing.   The Committee can’t veto the appointment, and the whole House of Commons doesn’t get a vote.  But an adverse report from the Committee can be a considerable embarrassment.  In one case in the last couple of years, someone appointed as Deputy Governor actually stepped down after the report by the select committee.  That she stepped down was probably better for the Bank of England and better for a sense of serious democratic scrutiny and accountability.  Ministers might, in the end, be able to appoint pretty much anyone, but there is another layer of open scrutiny which they –  and the nominee –  have to be prepared for.

Sceptics will cast doubt on what value our local version, the Finance and Expenditure Committee, might add in the process.  The UK Treasury Select Committee is regarded as one of the better scrutinising select committees around (in the economics and finance field), and isn’t just full of people champing at the bit to be the next Cabinet minister (our system is particularly bad at present, in that both the chair and deputy chair are already parliamentary undersecretaries, in effect part of the executive already).  Committee scrutiny of Reserve Bank MPSs and FSRs is already perfunctory and typically more focused on point-scoring and that evening’s news bulletin.  So my expectations of pre-appointment scrutiny hearings aren’t that high.  But just because MPs are often pretty useless doesn’t mean we just give up on democratic scrutiny and accountability.  Just possibly, given a new and responsible role some might see it as an opportunity to demonstrate their chops.

I hope that the Minister of Finance and his officials, in considering Phase 2 of the Reserve Bank Act review –  likely to deliver us another new policy committee –  will keep this possible innovation in mind.

It isn’t just a model for the Monetary Policy Committee though.  I reckon it should be much more seriously considered for a range of other key appointments, currently totally in the gift of ministers, where the appointee concerned will exercise huge discretionary power –  often reflecting a personal ideology, personal character – sometimes for decades.

For example, today (12 March) is Dame Sian Elias’s 70th birthday.  That means she finally has to retire as Chief Justice, after a couple of months short of twenty years in office.  The higher courts are now pretty transparent –  certainly by the standards of the Reserve Bank –  but she, and her colleagues of the Supreme Court, have exercised huge amounts of discretionary power, and there isn’t anything citizens can do about that.  (Parliament could, of course, legislate to reverse the effect of some egregious ruling.)  And for a term for which I’m not aware of any parallel in New Zealand (most other statutory appointments, from the Governor-General down, are for no more than five years).

Sian Elias is replaced as Chief Justice, on the Attorney-General’s sole choice, by Helen Winkelmann.  She is 53 and most probably will end up as Chief Justice for 17 years.   The government announced plans last year to extend the power of the Supreme Court, so as explicitly allow the courts to make declarations of inconsistency of individual peices of legislation with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, while mandating Parliament to reconsider and respond.  Sure, the declarations would not overturn existing legislation, but it is a further chipping away at the sovereignty of Parliament, entrusted to a committee of ex-lawyers, appointed by the Attorney-General (typically an active senior politician, usually holding other portfolios as well) and with no serious scrutiny of (say) the judicial philosophy, personal ideology, or background of the appointees (indeed, it is almost regarded as lese-majeste for anyone to raise such doubts).

And there is no point pretending that judges just “read the statute” (or the Bill of Rights) –  they interpret (shaped in part by their own background and predispositions) and thus themselves create the law.   And yet there is no prior scrutiny whatever –  rather the Attorney-General of the day sorts out his/her candidates, using whatever criteria they choose (Chris Finlayson got to appoint most of the current senior judges with no scrutiny or transparency at all).  And once appointed, neither the Chief Justice nor individual Supreme Court judges ever have to account for their approach, philosophy or whatever.   Politics (not specifically partisan politics) and ideology are almost inevitably at work in how higher court judges operate (anyone doubting this, refer to the US experience, and here we don’t even have the checked of a hallowed constitutional text.)

Attorneys-General and judges seem to like this approach (unsurprisingly).  As they put it on the courts website

From time to time it has been suggested that a more formal method for appointment of judges should be adopted but that course has not been followed. There is no suggestion that the present procedure has not served the country well.

Well, they would say that wouldn’t they.  For Supreme Courts judges (including the Chief Justice in particular) I think there is a pretty good case for (a) a fixed term appointment (say, 10 years without the right of renewal) and (b) for proper parliamentary hearings, at which nominees could be seriously grilled, before taking up any appointment.  Perhaps most of our top judges have been as good as we could get –  although one Supreme Court justice has already had to step down –  but no one should hold that much power for that long, and certainly not without serious and open scrutiny before taking up the position.

The position of Commissioner of Police is being advertised at present.  That appointment is in the gift of the Prime Minister of the day (with only as much scrutiny of the appointment as the Prime Minister chooses to give –  not much apparently in recent case of the Deputy Commissioner.  In some respects, it is less concerning that the situation of the Chief Justice – the appointment is only for three years at a time, and in the end the courts hold more power than the Commissioner.  On the other hand, when you hold a three year appointment, and want to be reappointed, there is quite an incentive not to rock the boat in ways that might make the Prime Minister look askance.  The Police have gained an, apparently well-earned, reputation for preferring to look the other way when complaints or issues involving politicians and political parties are involved.

And if you think the Commissioner of Police doesn’t really exercise much power, I’d remind you of the current incumbent’s claim last week that he alone –  not elected politicians –  had the power to decide whether or not the Police should routinely carry fire-arms.    If someone you love ends up dead at the hands of a police officer acting rashly, it won’t be much comfort if the IPCA eventually raps Police over the knuckles (and things carry on much as usual).  At a more mundane level, Police exercise discretionary power.  In effect, marijuana has been decriminalised, not by Act of Parliament, but by the choice of the Police Commissioner (you might or might not support decriminalisation, but everyone will recognise that it is a significant choice).  There are all manner of other areas where Police discretion is at work –  or could be revoked on an individualised basis.

And it isn’t as if the Commissioner has been without blemish, whether in office (think Haumaha) or prior to taking it up (that historic drink-driving conviction that only come up several years after he took office, or the eulogy at the funeral of a former police officer found to have planted evidence in a major case).  Perhaps he really is, or was, the best person for the job, but it might be more reassuring if, instead of just being appointed by John Key, he’d had to face some open hearings, including around his views on the sorts of areas where the Police might either just stop policing, or greatly step up policing.  Add in a non-renewable five or seven year term, and we’d be considerably closer to a system that balanced operational independence (in the narrow areas where that is appropriate) with democratic accountability, and a reminder that ultimately the Police are supposed to work for the people, not for the Prime Minister of the day.

I’m sure there are other positions where a similar degree of open parliamentary scrutiny would enhance confidence in the appointments made to powerful public positions, espcially roles in which the holders exercise significant discretion –  either policymaking, or in holding other officeholders to account.  I had a list of senior positions in this post, and quite a few of those (eg Human Rights Commissioners, and head of the IPCA) look like candidates for pre-appointment parliamentary hearings.   The Chief Justice and the Police Commissioner are much more fundamentally important roles than those at the Reserve Bank, but the sort of change I’m proposing would also be more unconventional for those roles.  The UK approach, for the Bank of England appointees, is already established and has proved its worth. I’d commend it to the government.

Implications of a new government for monetary policy

Whichever way New Zealand First decides to go, we’ll have a different government than we’ve had for the last few years.   Whatever form that government takes –  coalition, confidence and supply agreements, or just sitting on the cross-benches – New Zealand First’s votes will typically be vital for passing any legislation, and whichever party leads the government will constantly be needing to consult with New Zealand First to avoid inadvertently getting offside with them.

As issues around the Reserve Bank and the exchange rate have been a significant part of Winston Peters’ stated concerns over the years (including attempts to amend the Act through a private members’ bill, and repeated references to a Singaporean style of monetary policy), it is interesting to speculate on what difference his bloc of votes in Parliament might make to these issues over the next few years.  A journalist asked for my thoughts the other day, and this post fleshes out what I said in response to those questions.

There are probably at least three –  separable – areas worth touching on (simply as regards the Bank’s monetary policy roles):

  • the specification of the target for monetary policy, whether in the Act or the Policy Targets Agreement,
  • any changes to the legislated decisionmaking and accountability provisions for monetary policy, and
  • the type of person appointed as Governor.

I find it worthwhile to recall that Winston Peters has history in this area.  In 1996, New Zealand First was campaigning vigorously on bringing about change at the Reserve Bank.  At the time, the particular concern was that in focusing on price stability (0 to 2 per cent inflation at the time) we were encouraging/causing an overvalued exchange rate.  The proposed remedy was that we should instead target inflation around the average of our main trading partners (then a bit higher than New Zealand).    What actually happened was that as part of the horse-trading for the coalition agreement with National, Don Brash agreed to an amended Policy Targets Agreement, in which the target was raised from 0 to 2 per cent annual inflation, to 0 to 3 per cent annual inflation.  Actual inflation had been averaging about 1.5 per  cent anyway, so although the change made a small difference to policy for a short period, the difference was pretty minimal.  After that, Winston Peters –  as Treasurer – displayed little real interest in monetary policy and never bothered the Bank again.

So my starting point, in thinking about New Zealand First influence on Reserve Bank matters now, is that although I’m quite sure that the concerns Peters expresses –  including around overvalued real exchange rates –  are quite real (and in many respects valid –  shared as they’ve been by people spanning the range from Graeme Wheeler to me), in the end not much about the conduct of monetary policy is likely to change at his insistence.  And that is probably as it should be –  our real exchange rate problems are not primarily grounded in monetary policy problems.

We also know that although Peters has repeatedly talked of preferring a Singaporean model of monetary policy (a guided exchange rate, without an officially-set OCR), both Steven Joyce and Grant Robertson during the campaign flatly ruled out such a change.  They were right to do so.  I’ve explained why in a post earlier this year.    Even if such a system was desirable, it isn’t workable (at all) for New Zealand unless and until the structural demand factors behind our interest rates being persistently higher than those abroad are tackled –  and that isn’t a matter for monetary policy.

And the Singaporean model is not one of an absolutely fixed exchange rate.  It is a managed regime (historically, “managed” in all sorts of ways, including direct controls and strong moral suasion).  It produces a fairly high degree of short-term stability in the basket measure of the Singapore dollar.      But it works, to the extent it does, mostly because the SGD interest rates consistent with domestic medium-term price stability in Singapore are typically a bit lower than those in other advanced countries (in turn a reflection of the large current account surpluses Singapore now runs –  national savings rates far outstripping desired domestic investment).  As the Reserve Bank paper I linked to earlier noted

“From 1990 to 2011, the average short term Singapore government borrowing rate was 1.8 percent p.a. below returns on the US Treasury bill.”

Those are big differences (materially larger than the difference between the two countries’ average inflation rates).  And they mean that Singapore dollar fixed income assets are not particularly attractive to foreign investment funds.  By contrast, New Zealand’s short-term real and nominal interest rates are almost always materially higher than those in other advanced countries.   Partly as a result, even though Singapore’s economy is now materially larger than New Zealand’s, there is less international trade in the Singapore dollar than in the New Zealand dollar.

So a Singaporean model just is not going to be launched in New Zealand any time soon.

If Peters sides with National, what then might he secure in this area?

An obvious possibility would be a change to the Policy Targets Agreement.  There has to be a new one when a Governor is appointed, and (if they think the current interim one is lawful and binding –  which I don’t) they could also seek an immediate change.  Such changes immediately upon a change of government have been the norm rather than the exception (having happened, to a greater ot lesser extent, in 1990, 1996, 1999, and 2008).

At the start of each Policy Targets Agreement it has become customary (Peters began the pattern in 1996) to have a preamble about what the government is hoping to achieve.  The current government’s preamble reads this way:

The Government’s economic objective is to promote a growing, open and competitive economy as the best means of delivering permanently higher incomes and living standards for New Zealanders. Price stability plays an important part in supporting this objective.

It would be easy enough to craft a form of words that talked about avoiding an overvalued and excessively volatile exchange rate and promoting the tradables sector of the New Zealand economy.

But it won’t make any difference –  one iota of difference –  to the way monetary policy is conducted.  It is a statement of political aspiration –  and can perhaps be sold to the base as such –  not a mandate for the Governor.

Recall too that the Policy Targets Agreements since 1999 have required the Bank, while pursuing price stability to” seek to avoid unnecessary instability in output, interest rates and the exchange rate”.  On occasion, that provision has (modestly) influenced monetary policy choices at the margin (one reason I’ve favoured removing it), at least with a Governor who was that way inclined anyway.  In principle, the exchange rate element could be singled out and given more prominence further up the document.

Winston Peters’ private members bill sought to amend the statutory goal of monetary policy (section 8 of the Act) this way (adding the bolded words)

The primary function of the Bank is to formulate and implement monetary policy directed to the economic objective of maintaining stability in the general level of prices while maintaining an exchange rate that is conducive to real export growth and job creation.

I simply cannot see the National Party agreeing to that specific formulation. I hope they wouldn’t.  It goes too far and asks the Reserve Bank to do something that is impossible (real exchange rates are real phenomena, not monetary ones).   But could they consider a formulation like this one?

The primary function of the Bank is to formulate and implement monetary policy directed to the economic objective of maintaining stability in the general level of prices while promoting the highest levels of production, trade and employment that can be achieved by monetary policy.

It is very similar to the legislative provisions introduced by the National government in 1950, in providing a greater degree of (formal) independence for the Reserve Bank and a new focus on price stability.  But in that framing the caveat “the highest levels…that can be achieved by monetary policy” is vital.   Beyond the short to medium term, monetary policy can’t do much other than maintain stable prices.

Perhaps they could find, and agree on, some clever wording.   It would be a rhetorical victory for Peters, and since rhetoric and symbolism do matter not necessarily an insignificant one.

But, so I would argue, not one that would, on its own, make any practical difference to the conduct of monetary policy.  Reflecting back on the 25 years of advice I gave to successive Governors on the appropriate OCR, I can’t think of a single occasion when the advice would have been likely to be different under this formulation than under the current wording.

What about possible governance changes –  to the formal statutory provisions around monetary policy decisionmaking?  At present, all power is vested in the Governor personally, the Governor’s appointment is largely controlled by the Bank’s Board (unlike most countries where the Minister of Finance has the main power).

I can’t imagine that the National Party would be averse to some changes in this area.  After all, Steven Joyce commissioned the Rennie review and in doing so was presumably open to at least some modest changes (perhaps legislating something like the current internal advisory committee).   But equally, it is difficult to see why New Zealand First would regard it as any sort of win to hand power to more internal technocrats.  To the extent New Zealand First favours governance changes they probably prefer a decisionmaking Board dominated by outsiders, with a strong export sector orientation.  Perhaps it isn’t a die in the ditch issue for National, but it is harder to see the two parties reaching agreement on that sort of change, even if it did produce something that looked rather like the (generally highly-regarded) Reserve Bank of Australia.

But if Peters and New Zealand First care about making a difference to the actual conduct of monetary policy over the next few years, or even to how the Bank talks about monetary policy, the key consideration is who becomes Governor.   Whatever the formal specification of the target, whatever flowery words exist around goals, the personality, instincts, “models”, and preferences of whoever is appointed Governor matters a great deal.  Partly because it is a single decisionmaker system, and partly because as chief executive the Governor (inevitably and appropriately) has a big influence on how the institution evolves, where it focuses its analytical energies and advice etc.

But the Governor selection process has been underway for months, and the Bank’s Board – all appointed by the National government –  must be getting close to delivering an initial recommendation to whoever is appointed as Minister of Finance.   No doubt the Minister of Finance would consult New Zealand First –  whether through the Cabinet appointments process, or outside it –  and the Minister can reject a Board nomination.  But the Minister can’t impose his or her own candidate, they just have to consider the next person the Board puts forward.  Since the Board were (a) appointed under the current system, and (b) have had no concerns at all about the conduct of monetary policy or the leadership of the Bank in recent years, it seems reasonable to assume they’ll be putting forward a status quo candidate (there are no known exceptional candidates).  If so, my money is on Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand who –  as I’ve written about recently –  might be a safe pair of hands, but is unlikely to be more than that, and about whom there are some concerns (especially if, as Peters appears to, one cares about the interests of bank depositors.)

In short, if National leads the next government I wouldn’t expect any material differences on the monetary policy front, even if there are some symbolic wins for New Zealand First.  Even governance reform –  which most people think desirable –  might be hard to actually deliver (the status quo will avoid any conflicts).

And what if Labour leads the next government, requiring support of the Greens and New Zealand First for legislation?

In that case, legislative reforms are more certain, but somewhat similar questions remain about what difference they might make.

Thus, the Labour Party campaigned on amending section 8 of the Act to include some sort of full employment objective.   They haven’t provided specific suggested wording, and would no doubt want official advice on that.  The Greens have endorsed that proposal and there is no obvious reason why New Zealand First would oppose it. But they might want to try to get some reference to the exchange rate or the tradables sector included, whether in the Act itself or in the Policy Targets Agreement.  The sort of wording I floated earlier in this post might provide a basis for something workable.

I’ve also previously suggested that if Labour is serious about the full employment concern, it might make sense to amend section 15 of the Act (governing monetary policy statements) to require the Bank to periodically publish its estimates of a non-inflationary unemployment rate (a NAIRU), and explain deviations of the actual unemployment rate from that (moving) estimate.  In principle, something similar could be done for the real exchange rate, but the (theoretical) grounds for doing so are rather weaker.  Perhaps the political grounds are stronger, and such a change might encourage the Bank to devote more of its research efforts to real exchange rate and economic performance issues.

But –  and I deliberately use the same words I used above –  such legislative changes are not ones that would, on their own, make any practical difference to the conduct of monetary policy.  Reflecting back on the 25 years of advice I gave to successive Governors on the appropriate OCR, I can’t think of a single occasion when the advice would have been likely to be different under this formulation than under the current wording.

The Labour Party and the Greens also campaigned on legislative reforms to the monetary policy governance model (including a decisionmaking committee with a mix of insiders and relatively expert outsiders, and the timely publication of the minutes of such a committee.)   Although those proposals would represent a step in the right direction, they are rather weak. In particular, since Labour proposed that all the committee members would be appointed by the Governor, the change would largely just cement-in the undue dominance of the Governor.    But I’d be surprised if they were wedded to those details, and it shouldn’t be too hard to reach a tri-party agreement on a decisionmaking structure for monetary policy –  probably one that put more of the appointment powers in the hands of the Minister of Finance (as elsewhere) and allowed for non-expert members (as is quite common on Crown boards –  or, indeed, in Cabinet).

So legislative change in that area –  probably quite significant change –  seems like something we could count on under a Labour-led government.

But whether it would make much difference to the actual conduct of policy over the next few years still depends considerably on who is appointed as Governor.   Not only will whoever is appointed as Governor going to be the sole decisionmaker until new legislation is passed and implemented –  which could easily be 12 to 18 months away –  but that individual will be an important part of the design of the new legislation and the sort of culture that is built (or rebuilt) at the Reserve Bank.

As I noted earlier, the appointment process for the Governor has been underway for months.  Applications closed at a time –  early July –  when few people would have given the left much chance of forming a government.  And the Board, all appointed by the current government and strong public backers of the conduct of policy in recent years, have the lead role in the appointment.   Perhaps a new Labour-led government would reject a Bascand nomination.  But even if they did so, they have no idea which name would be wheeled up next.

There are alternatives, if the parties to a left-led government actually wanted things done differently at the Bank.   First, they could insist that the Bank’s Board reopen the selection process, working within the sorts of priorities such a new government would be legislating for.  Or they could simply pass a very simple and short amending Act to give the appointment power to the Minister of Finance (which is how things work almost everywhere else).  Of course, there is still the question of who would be the right candidate, but at least they would establish alignment of vision from the start –  a reasonable aspiration, given that the Reserve Bank Governor has more influence on short-term macro outcomes than the Minister of Finance, and yet the Minister of Finance has to live with the electoral consequences.

Over time, governance changes are important as part of putting things at the Reserve Bank on a more conventional footing (relative to other central banks, and to the rest of the New Zealand public sector).   I think some legislative respecification of the statutory goal for monetary policy  –  along the lines Labour has suggested –  is probably appropriate: if nothing else, it reminds people why we do active monetary policy at all.   But on their own, those changes won’t make any material difference to the conduct of monetary policy  –  or even to the way the Bank communicates –  in the shorter-term (next couple of years) unless the right person is chosen as Governor.  Perhaps so much shouldn’t hang on one unelected individual, but in our system at present it does.

Symbols matter, but so does substance.  It will be interesting to see which turns out to matter more to a new government with New Zealand First support.

In closing, there is a long and interesting article in today’s Financial Times on some of the challenges – technical and political –  facing central bankers.  As the author notes, in many countries authorities are grappling with a mix that includes very low unemployment and little wage inflation.  In appointing a Governor for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, it would be highly desirable to find someone who recognises, and internalises, that the challenges here are rather different.  Unlike the US, UK, or Japan (for example) New Zealand’s unemployment rate is still well above pre-recessionary levels –  when demographic factors are probably lowering the NAIRU –  and real wage inflation, while quite low in absolute terms, is running well ahead of (non-existent) productivity growth.    There are some other countries – the UK and Finland notably –  that also have non-existent productivity growth, but it is far from a universal story.  Productivity growth carries on in the US and Australia and (according to a commentary I read last night) in Japan real output per hour worked is up 8.5 per cent in the last five years (comparable number for New Zealand, zero).

Some of these issues are relevant to monetary policy (eg unemployment gaps) and some are relevant to medium-term competitiveness (wages rising ahead of productivity growth).  We should expect a Governor who can recognise the similarities between New Zealand’s experiences and those abroad, but also the significant differences, and who can talk authoritatively about what monetary policy can, and cannot, do to help.  Perhaps even, as a bonus, one who might even be able to provide some research and advice to governments on the nature of the economic issues that only governments can act to fix.

 

 

 

 

The Rennie review: still secret

Hamish Rutherford has a new story up at Stuff on the review of aspects of the governance of the Reserve Bank undertaken earlier this year by former State Services Commissioner (and former Treasury Deputy Secretary for macro matters) Iain Rennie.  The report was undertaken for Treasury, at the request of the Minister of Finance.  The final report was, we’ve been told, delivered in mid-April.

I’ve written about this a review a few times:

But still the review report has not been released, and nor is Treasury willing to release either earlier drafts of the report, or the comments made by reviewers.

Today’s article appears to be prompted by some observations from ANZ chief economist Cameron Bagrie,

Cameron Bagrie, chief economist for ANZ, said without the terms of reference he was “flying a bit blind”, but it was possible the review was headed towards recommending a model used across the Tasman, where powers are split between the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA).
“The consensus seems to be that the review is about monetary policy,” Bagrie said.
“I suspect it’s broader and maybe they are looking at whether we have an Australian model where they have the RBA for monetary policy, financial stability, markets, payments et al and APRA for the prudential/regulatory side.”

I’m quoted in Rutherford’s article.  As I’ve said previously, I’d be really surprised if Rennie was recommending a structural separation (along the lines of Australia).  There are all sorts of models internationally, but I haven’t heard anyone in New Zealand for some years seriously propose structural separation (I may at times have advocated such a split in the past), especially since the British government a few years brought the regulatory functions back under the same roof as monetary policy.   There are separate statutory committees for each main function, but they are all conducted out of the Bank of England.  If anything, the global trend in recent years has been to emphasise the important overlaps or crossovers between monetary policy and financial stability, if only in respect of the underlying information flows.

Although Bagrie noted that “the consensus seems to be that the review is about monetary policy”, it has surely been clear for some time that the review could not have been that narrow in scope?  After all, Steven Joyce told us in April that he asked the reviewer to look at whether the Reserve Bank should continue to be responsible for its own legislation –  an issue that is almost entirely about the Bank’s regulatory responsibilities.  And the terms of engagement document did note explicitly that

The Treasury is contracting Iain Rennie to provide a report assessing governance and decision-making at the Reserve Bank.

Nothing there suggesting monetary policy only.  And, in any case, no reviewer could really do a serious job looking only at monetary policy, given that it occurs within an institution, and both functional and (whole of) institutional governance would be likely to be affected by any decisions regarding monetary policy.  And Treasury has been known to be unhappy about the governance of the financial regulatory functions –  including the Bank’s responsibility for its own legislation –  and Rennie was contracted by The Treasury.

On which note, Rutherford includes this

Top officials within the Reserve Bank are said to believe Rennie’s report is something of a power grab by Treasury.

Michael Reddell, the former special advisor to the Reserve Bank, said even the details about the report already released , around which organisation was responsible for the central bank’s governing legislation, amounted to a power play.

Far be from me to agree with the Bank on this.  If I said there was a “power play” involved, it was simply to note that the Treasury has long been uncomfortable about governance, accountability and information flows around the financial regulation powers of the Reserve Bank.  I happen to agree with them   There is too much power vested in one individual, and in one agency.  Those powers should be trimmed, and stronger accountability established.  The Treasury should probably be made responsible as the primary advisers on the various pieces of legislation the Bank operates under.

In a post a couple of weeks ago, I referred to the Bagrie thesis, the Rennie review, and Reserve Bank reform prospects more generally, noting

On the National Party side, you’ll recall that the Minister of Finance had Treasury hire former State Services Commissioner (and former Treasury deputy secretary) Iain Rennie to provide some analysis and advice on possible changes to the governance of the Reserve Bank.  Having had drafts reviewed by various experts, the report was completed months ago, but hasn’t yet seen the light of day.  Treasury has been blocking the release of even drafts of the report, or comments on the draft by reviewers, and nothing is heard from the Minister of Finance.    Presumably Rennie didn’t conclude that everything was just fine and no changes were required.  Had he done so, there would have been no reason not to publish, and it might even have been a small piece of useful ammunition against the sorts of reforms opposition parties are campaigning on.

The interesting question is (a) how far has Rennie gone in his recommendations, and (b) whether a re-elected National government (perhaps reliant on New Zealand First –  long critical of the Reserve Bank) would implement them?   I heard the other day a hypothesis that the report isn’t being released because it calls for reform so radical that the Reserve Bank would be split in two (a monetary policy and macro agency, like the Reserve Bank of Australia, and a prudential regulatory agency (like APRA).   There are pros and cons to such a structural split, but I haven’t for a long time heard anyone here seriously propose it as an option (and particularly not since the UK government brought all those functions back under one roof).    Time will tell, but I would hope Rennie would recommend things like (ideas previously proposed here, and practices in the UK):

  • moving (in law) to committee-based decisionmaking,
  • having external members appointed directly by the Minister,
  • separate committees for monetary policy and the prudential regulatory functions,
  • a mandated greater degree of transparency, and
  • (something Joyce asked for advice on) making Treasury primarily responsible for the legislation under which the Reserve Bank operates.

As I say, time will tell.  But if National is back in office, they will presumably want to move quite quickly on appointing a permanent Governor (the Board, which is driving the process, meets again later this week), and whoever takes the role would presumably want to know what legislative arrangements they would be operating under.

It is well past time for the Rennie report, and associated documents to be released.  Doing so can’t have suited the current government, but this is an official document, paid for with taxpayers’ money.   And there can’t really be any credible grounds under the Official Information Act for withholding a months’-old consultants report to The Treasury on matters of organisation design.  In fact, in the current hiatus –  between Governors –  I would argue that there is a significant public interest in the release of the report now.

 

Reserve Bank Annual Reports

Last Friday, the Reserve Bank’s Annual Reports were published.  There were two of them, both required by law.   But most people wouldn’t know that.

There was the outgoing Governor’s own report on the Bank’s performance, the annual accounts etc.  That warranted a press release, and some modest media coverage.  But buried inside the Bank’s annual report was the, quite separate, statutory Annual Report of the Reserve Bank’s Board.    It has no separate place on the Bank’s website, it wasn’t accompanied by a press release from the chairman, although this year it did actually get passing mention in the “acting Governor”‘s press release.

The Reserve Bank Board isn’t a real board, in the sense known either in the private business sector, or in the government sector.  As the Board itself notes “the Board is a unique governance body in the public sector”.  The Board largely controls the appointment of the Governor, and has some say over the recommended dividend.  But otherwise, its powers are all supposed to be about providing a level of scrutiny and monitoring of the Bank –  and in particular the Governor personally – on behalf of the Minister of Finance and the public.  In practice, at least with a public face on, the Board tends to be emollience personified –  nothing to worry about here chaps –  that has very effectively served the interests of successive Governors.

A post about the Board’s Annual Report has become a bit of an annual ritual (2015 and 2016).  But before turning to the substance of the Board’s 2017 report, I wanted to pick up just a few points in the (now former) Governor’s report.

In his final speech as Governor (which I wrote about here), Graeme Wheeler sought to (a) tell a pretty positive story about New Zealand’s economic performance over his five years in office, and (b) claim significant credit for the Bank for that (supposed) good performance.   He returns to the theme in the Annual Report

With our own economy about to enter its ninth year of expansion, it’s useful to put a longer-term focus on New Zealand’s progress. Compared to the period 1990-2012
(i.e., the 22-year period since flexible inflation targeting was first introduced), New Zealand’s economy has experienced slightly stronger GDP growth and much faster employment growth over the last five years. Headline inflation has, however, been weaker and our current account deficit has been smaller as a share of GDP, while the unemployment rate has been around its average for the period since the mid-1990s. Labour productivity growth has been disappointing, a challenge we share with many other advanced economies. While some of these economic outcomes since 2012 lie beyond the influence of Reserve Bank policy levers, the Bank’s monetary policy has been a significant driver behind the growth in output and employment.

Setting aside the minor point that there was a double-dip recession in 2010, and thus any expansion has been running for only around seven years, there is so much wrong or misleading with these claims that it is hard to believe that a serious public figure –  a public servant not a politician –  would repeat them.

Where to begin?

Perhaps with the five years in which there has been no labour productivity growth at all.  Yes, global productivity growth is weaker than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, but few other advanced economies have experienced anything as bad as New Zealand’s productivity record in the last five years.

Or with the fact that headline GDP growth has been reasonable only because of very rapid population growth.  Growth in real per capita GDP has been pretty poor, largely reflecting the complete absence of productivity growth.  Similarly, rapid employment growth mostly reflects rapid population growth, and unemployment has been above any reasonable estimates of a NAIRU throughout the Governor’s term.

Or with the shrinkage of the export sector as a share of GDP.

Or with house prices.

Or with the fact that, over this particular five years I’m pretty sure that the Reserve Bank was the only advanced country central bank to boldly set off on what it envisaged as a large tightening phase, only to have to (grudgingly) more than complete unwind the tightenings they actually did implement.

With no global crises, no domestic crises, no domestic concerns about conventional monetary policy exhausting its capacity (unlike many other advanced countries), Wheeler should have had a fairly easy five years.   As it is, there isn’t much credit he can claim for the Bank and its monetary policy.

It is the sort of self-serving nonsense the Bank’s Board –  if it was doing its job –  should have been calling out.   Apart from being simply wrong, it isn’t even helpful.  If the Bank had really had the huge influence on medium-term economic performance that the Governor seems to be claiming, it rather undermines the case for having so much power – so many choices-  at such a remove from elected politicians.  The normal case for an independent central bank is that such an agency will keep inflation down and won’t make much difference to economic performance at all.

But there is –  again – little sign in the Board’s Report of serious scrutiny or accountability.  Even honesty seems to be at a premium.

The Board’s Reports have certainly lengthened.  Only three years ago, the Board’s report was only two pages long.    Last year’s report was four pages long.  This year’s report is six pages long, and the first four of them are quite densely-packed text.

But apparently the Reserve Bank does no wrong, ever.  So not only is the Reserve Bank Board “a unique governance body” in the public sector, but the Reserve Bank must be a unique organisation, public or private.   One wonders if it was immaculately conceived, or acquired such perfection itself?

There is two solid pages of text on monetary policy and (as far as I can see) not a word that management would feel even slightly uncomfortable with.  No areas that the Board thinks the Bank might have put greater emphasis on, no disagreement, nothing.

There is another one and a half pages on the Bank’s regulatory functions, but again apparently nothing where the Board thought the Bank might have done better, or areas where a different emphasis might have been helpful. It could all have been written by management (and may well have been).  Management will have been particularly pleased to read this

“The Board has also observed that the Bank carefully considers the feedback it receives on regulatory initiatives, bearing in mind that regulated institutions will not always agree with the regulator’s approach and the eventual regulatory outcomes.”

No doubt, although there is little evidence open to the rest of us to suggest that the Bank pays any heed to substantive feedback in its formal consultation processes.  And one might reasonably wonder whether in a moment of introspection the Board might perhaps think that “monitored institutions will not always agree with the monitor’s approach or the eventual conclusions of the monitor”, and wonder if that description has ever characterised the Board’s Annual Reports on the bank.

And so we labour on through lots of descriptive text about the activities of the Board –  with nothing on the evaluative frameworks they use, or the external advice they draw on.  As we do, we come to the odd interesting snippet such as this

“Monitoring the Bank’s relationships is a continuous process.  During the year the Board availed itself of a number of opportunities to observe how these were operating in practice, paying particular regard to any feedback on the messaging, transparency and accountability of the Bank.”

It looks as though this sentence is supposed to be meaningful, but quite what the meaning is supposed to be isn’t clear at all.    Does it mean that perhaps they were just ever so slightly uncomfortable with the heavyhanded pressure Graeme Wheeler and his senior managers brought to bear on Stephen Toplis and the BNZ (the latter an institution the Bank regulates) when Toplis criticised the Governor’s communications, even if they can’t bring themselves to say so?    One might hope so, but if people who are paid to hold a powerful agency to account won’t even criticise, even diplomatically, such egregious abuse of office, we might wonder again what use they are to citizens.   (And I did lodge an OIA request, the results of which suggests no serious concerns in private either.)

Towards the end of the Board’s report, they write about the change of Governor.  To read this report, one wouldn’t know that the Board had been well down the track towards recruiting a new permanent Governor, oblivious to the election, when the Minister of Finance forced them to stop.  You have to wonder what they gain by the omission, when the relevant material is already public.   They explicitly note that they and Treasury sought advice from Crown Law on the approach to be followed.   Despite that advice, the purported “acting Governor” appointment still appears to be unlawful.  Remarkably, the report contains nothing on the steps the Board had already taken, before the end of 2016/17 to find a new Governor, even though that appointment is one of their principal responsibilities.

Finally, as it does every year, the Board’s Report notes the Board’s relationship to the Reserve Bank’s superannuation scheme (the Board appoints half the trustees including the chair).   This is a deeply troubled fund, grappling with some pretty serious historical errors –  including some made by the Board itself, which must approve rule changes.   I’ve written previously about the role of the Bank’s (now) deputy chief executive –  who attends all Board meetings –  in these matters.   But the Board’s Annual Report simply records the heart-warming fact that the new superannuation fund chair “kept the Board informed of the work associated with the development of a new Deed for the Trust”.  On the principle that when you things you know about are wrong, it leaves one worried about the other material that one doesn’t know in detail.  On this occasion, there was no “new deed”, but some amendments to the rules (largely) to allow the superannuation fund to comply with the new Financial Markets Conduct Act.   As part of those changes, trustees were about to left in the lurch by the Bank –  unremunerated and yet with no liability insurance.    Only threats that the new rules would not be executed (requires all trustees to sign) and a written protest to the Board helped secure a backdown.  And the more serious issues, of past rules breaches, and mistakes in past rule changes, still look set to head to the courts next year.  Millions of dollars are potentially in dispute.

As I’ve written (repeatedly) before, the Reserve Bank’s Board doesn’t really serve much of a useful function.  A thoroughgoing reform of the goverance of the Reserve Bank (including the role of the Board) is well overdue, and there are signs now that whoever forms the next government it may well happen (although I am less optimstic of that if National leads the next government as even if they favour some change, they may not favour changes New Zealand First –  or the Greens if you must –  would support).   If the Board is to retain a role as an accountability and monitoring body, it too will need a shake-up.  Independent resourcing would help, but much of what is really needed is a different mindset, in which the Board finally serves the public, not acting as guardians of the Governor.  My own preference would be for the monitoring and accoutability functions to be undertaken by a Macroeconomic Advisory Council, established formally at arms-length from the Bank, the Treasury and the Minister of Finance.

 

 

A first unlawful act?

Earlier in the week, Graeme Wheeler completed his term as Governor and left office.  Even in a week with little real news to report, his departure didn’t seem to receive any notice in the media.  Not even the Herald managed an enconium.   Surely his departure must go unlamented almost everywhere, even if, no doubt, the Bank’s Board –  supposedly guardians of the public interest, but in fact guardians of the Governor –  gave him a good dinner on the occasion of their meeting last week?

And now Grant Spencer – erstwhile deputy chief executive – purports to be in charge, as “acting Governor” until a permanent appointment can be made by the incoming Minister of Finance.  I like Grant.  He was my boss in two separate stints spread over many years, and –  in the late 80s –  was a voice of reason and moderation in an age when young hotheads didn’t always welcome such perspectives.   Now that he purports to wield so much untrammelled power –  not just monetary policy, but all the Bank’s regulatory functions –  I’m sure his management skills must also have improved further.  I like to tell the story of the two years, very early in my management career, without any structured performance feedback from him: the only way I could really be confident I must have been doing ok was through the annual pay round, but when he came to deliver that news I was on the phone, so Grant scribbled the number on a piece of paper, dropped it on my desk, and left.  But I’m sure he would be a safe pair of hands, minding the store.

Unfortunately, his purported appointment –  probably sensible in intention if Graeme Wheeler couldn’t have been persuaded to take a temporary extension – is, as I’ve been pointing out for months, probably unlawful.  (If, as a new reader, you are puzzled by that claim, you can read for yourself my thoughts on the summary of Crown Law’s legal advice on the issue.  I still have with the Ombudsman a request for (a summary of) the Reserve Bank’s own lawyer’s advice.)

And if his appointment is unlawful then so, presumably, are all the acts the Bank takes –  or purports to undertake –  under his authority over the next few months.  Including setting the OCR.

Again, that proposition might puzzle you.  Surely even if there was some question over the lawfulness of the appointment of an acting Governor in these circumstances, there would be no question of the lawfulness of the Bank’s actions?  I had a look at the legislation a few months ago.

Does it all matter?    Sometimes laws contain provisions stating that any problems in the appointment of an officeholder, or doubts about the validity of the appointment, don’t affect the validity of enforceability of the actions/decisions taken by that person.

In fact, the Reserve Bank Act has one of those provisions.    For the Board.  Under section 54(4)

The validity of any act of the Board is not affected by—

(a) any vacancy in its membership; or
(b) any defect in the appointment of a director; or
(c) the fact that any non-executive director is disqualified from appointment under section 58

But there is simply nothing comparable for the Governor.    Curiously, there is protection for the Deputy Chief Executive when exercising delegated authority from the Governor.   Under section 51 

The fact that the Deputy Chief Executive exercises any powers or functions of the Governor shall be conclusive proof of the authority to do so, and no person shall be concerned to inquire whether the occasion for doing so has arisen or has ceased.

But there is nothing like it for the Governor, or any acting Governor.  There is simply a requirement on the Board and the Minister to make a proper appointment, and to have that person in place once the previous Governor’s term ends (and presumably an expectation that Governor appointments are sufficiently high profile, and as all powers of the Bank rest with the Governor, no questions should ever arise about the authority of the Governor him or her self to make decisions.

(Again, it is perhaps worth noting that there are also no such protections in the 1964 Act – the one in place when the 1989 Act was being drafted.  The drafters presumably made conscious choices about what to add and what not to.)

If the appointment of Spencer as acting Governor is unlawful, it looks as though any actions taken by him –  or under his (purported) delegations during his term –  would also be unlawful.

Perhaps it won’t matter very much.  Few people expect the OCR to be changed in the next six months, and if so perhaps they could argue that successive OCR decisions aren’t actions but inactions –  just leaving things as Wheeler left them.

But the Reserve Bank does lots of other stuff.   They commit to commercial contracts, they deal in New Zealand in international markets.  They take enforcement actions against financial institutions that fall foul of the law, or of the Bank’s rules.  And so on.  In a crises, they (the Governor) has substantial regulatory powers.

The situation should never have been allowed to arise.  As I’ve noted for months, it was easily avoidable, with a simple temporary change to the Reserve Bank Act (which there is no obvious reason for the Opposition parties to have opposed –  either on the substance, or as regards Spencer personally, whom everyone regards as a decent and honourable person).   But now we have an unlawful appointment, and Spencer purporting to exercise the powers of (acting) Governor.

But what of the OCR press release –  which, as pure commentary, I suppose Spencer is free to issue?  It probably isn’t that sensible to make much of minor differences in wording: in some areas Spencer may just use slightly different hobbyhorse phrasing than Wheeler would have.  But no one sees it as a material departure from last Wheeler statement, even if (perhaps) the confidence in the growth outlook might be fading.  As for what it might mean for actual (or purported) OCR setting, not much.  After all, it is quite plausible that a new Minister of Finance and coalition could mean modifications to the Policy Targets Agreement almost straightaway (happened in 1993, 1996, and 1999).  And even if that doesn’t happen, Spencer won’t be there to offer his opinion by the end of March, and no one knows who the new Governor will be, or what mandate he or she will be working towards.

The growth outlook was one of the issues I touched on in my comments on the last Monetary Policy Statement.  Those comments still seem largely valid now –  the June quarter GDP numbers were flattered by big one-off boosts to services exports from the World Masters Games and the Lions tour, and yet still showed growth of only 0.8 per cent.

But perhaps my biggest puzzle is where all the forecast growth is coming from.

Over the next six quarters, the Bank projects that quarterly GDP growth will average just over 0.9 per cent. This chart shows six-quarter moving average of GDP growth (in turn, averaging the production and expenditure measures).

GDP growth qtrly

The orange dot shows the forecast for the next six quarters.  Their projections suggest that the economy will grow more rapidly over the next 18 months than it has managed on a sustained basis at any time in the current recovery.   You might not think that the difference looks large, but:

  • the Bank already recognises that monetary conditions are tighter than they were last year,
  • the Bank is forecasting a substantial reduction in the net migration inflow, and no one seriously doubts that unexpectedly rapid population growth has been the biggest single driver of headline GDP growth in recent years.  However much immigration adds to supply, it adds a lot to demand.

So why are we to expect a sustained growth acceleration from here?   Although it isn’t stated in the document, I hear that the Bank is invoking the expected fiscal stimulus (from promised measures announced in the Budget).  In isolation that might make some sense, but against the projected halving in the net migration inflow and the actual tightening in monetary conditions, it doesn’t really ring true.     If anything, the risk now has to be that over the next 18 months, headline GDP growth averages lower than we’ve seen in the last couple of years.

Whichever parties form the next government, and as I noted last week, it seems likely that government expenditure will be higher than projected.  But it is still difficult to see a growth outlook as relatively buoyant as the Bank projected –  and requires if inflation is to get back to target –  as the most likely outcome.

And the Bank –  and government –  still seem grossly underprepared for the next recession, whenever it comes.

 

Reforming the Reserve Bank?

A week from now Graeme Wheeler will be clearing his desk on his last day as Governor of the Reserve Bank.  I’ll have some more to say about his stewardship of the role, either on that last day or perhaps when the Reserve Bank’s Annual Report and the Board’s Annual Report are published –  on past practice they should be released any day now, and I suspect Wheeler will want to publish before he leaves office.

But by next Tuesday also, most of the votes in this year’s election will have been counted.  Who knows how quickly, or slowly, but we’ll be on course for the formation of a government for the next three years.  Either way, change seems likely for the Reserve Bank –  and not just the unlawful term of an “acting Governor” , and in time the appointment of a new substantive Governor.

On the National Party side, you’ll recall that the Minister of Finance had Treasury hire former State Services Commissioner (and former Treasury deputy secretary) Iain Rennie to provide some analysis and advice on possible changes to the governance of the Reserve Bank.  Having had drafts reviewed by various experts, the report was completed months ago, but hasn’t yet seen the light of day.  Treasury has been blocking the release of even drafts of the report, or comments on the draft by reviewers, and nothing is heard from the Minister of Finance.    Presumably Rennie didn’t conclude that everything was just fine and no changes were required.  Had he done so, there would have been no reason not to publish, and it might even have been a small piece of useful ammunition against the sorts of reforms opposition parties are campaigning on.

The interesting question is (a) how far has Rennie gone in his recommendations, and (b) whether a re-elected National government (perhaps reliant on New Zealand First –  long critical of the Reserve Bank) would implement them?   I heard the other day a hypothesis that the report isn’t being released because it calls for reform so radical that the Reserve Bank would be split in two (a monetary policy and macro agency, like the Reserve Bank of Australia, and a prudential regulatory agency (like APRA).   There are pros and cons to such a structural split, but I haven’t for a long time heard anyone here seriously propose it as an option (and particularly not since the UK government brought all those functions back under one roof).    Time will tell, but I would hope Rennie would recommend things like (ideas previously proposed here, and practices in the UK):

  • moving (in law) to committee-based decisionmaking,
  • having external members appointed directly by the Minister,
  • separate committees for monetary policy and the prudential regulatory functions,
  • a mandated greater degree of transparency, and
  • (something Joyce asked for advice on) making Treasury primarily responsible for the legislation under which the Reserve Bank operates.

As I say, time will tell.  But if National is back in office, they will presumably want to move quite quickly on appointing a permanent Governor (the Board, which is driving the process, meets again later this week), and whoever takes the role would presumably want to know what legislative arrangements they would be operating under.

But what if Labour leads the next government?  They will have access to the Rennie report, although I had heard that Grant Robertson was quite dismissive when that report was initially commissioned.  Perhaps more importantly, they have campaigned on some quite significant changes to the monetary policy side of the Reserve Bank, notably:

  • a statutory Monetary Policy Committee, comprising insiders and outsiders, but with all the other members appointed by the Governor himself (and a non-voting Treasury representative),
  • adding a goal of full employment to the Bank’s monetary policy objectives, and
  • requiring publication of the minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee fairly shortly after any particular interest rate decision.

I’ve written about those proposals on various occasions previously (including here and, more recently, here).  In general, I’m sympathetic, but think the governance reforms are excessively timid (and haven’t yet tackled some important issues).

Unsurprisingly, Reserve Bank reform hasn’t a big part of the election campaign. But they were a big part of Alex Tarrant’s interview with Grant Robertson last week.  In fact, Robertson’s comments in that interview are by far the fullest I’ve seen since the day the policy was released some months ago.  In summary, they only increase my unease and concerns about possible lost opportunities.

Tarrant asked first about the pool of possible people to serve on such a committee

One concern is whether we’d have the depth of talent of candidates for such an outfit not connected to the large banks or businesses.

I’ve never found that a particularly persuasive concern.  We manage to run a country with a huge number of public sector board and committees, some on very technical manners and others not.  We have a Cabinet after all.   And will fill all those posts: the appointees aren’t always exceptional, but then again neither (in this case) are the Governors.

Robertson put his response this way

Robertson reckons we do. “We’ll be looking towards people with monetary policy expertise, in academia. We know that there are people who have served boards before, who have a strength and a knowledge and an understanding of monetary policy,” he says.
“The two ideas we’ve got [for Monetary Policy] are linked, in the sense that we do want to broaden the objectives of the Bank, and so therefore we’ll be looking for people who can bring some knowledge and expertise in the wider macro economy – the way in which employment is going.

Here is, I think, one of the areas in which he is risking making a mistake.  Perhaps he could find a decent academic with professional strengths in monetary policy, but there aren’t many of them here, and it isn’t the skill-set that is really most needed.  The technical expertise will always reside primarily inside the Bank.  What they should be looking for in outsiders to serve on a Monetary Policy Committee is a range of skills, but most of all a cast of mind that will mean those externals don’t just become a front for management.  The role needs people who will ask hard questions –  some of them technical perhaps, but many no more technical than one would might expect from a good Board director.

Tarrant didn’t raise the issue of who appoints the external members.   Robertson’s announced policy had been that the Governor himself would appoint the externals, and control when/if they could speak externally.  That would be a serious mistake, and is not a model followed by any of the central banks I’m aware of.   Monetary policy is a major aspect of short-term stabilisation policy (ie economic policy), and the decisionmakers should be appointed directly by the Minister of Finance (who is, after all, the only person we voters can hold to account).   When I raised this issue with him, he expressed concern that it wouldn’t be a “good look” for him to be grabbing the appointment powers to himself.  Frankly, I disagree; it would simply be moving towards standard international practice.   As I’ve noted previously, if he wants a Labour precedent, when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took office in 1997 they reformed the Bank of England, made it operationally independent, established a (statutory) Monetary Policy Committe, and to this day most of the members are appointed directly by the Chancellor of Exchequer.    Allowing the Governor to appoint his or her own externals (and a minority of voters at that) is a recipe for maintaining the status quo, not changing it.  (After all, the Governor already appoints a couple of external advisers to help him on monetary policy, including (somewhat inappropriately) at present the Prime Minister’s brother.)

Tarrant moves on to the proposed addition of an employment/unemployment objective for monetary policy.  We still don’t have many specifics from Labour on how they propose to operationalise this change –  a change I generally support.  Robertson has talked of getting unemployment down to 4 per cent, but the state of knowledge isn’t such that it would make sense to add a numerical target to a new Policy Targets Agreement.    We don’t know what the long-run sustainable rate of unemployment (given eg deographics, labour market institutions, welfare provisions is) but we should want the Reserve Bank to be finding out.  By “finding out” I don’t just mean doing a lot of formal research –  although that would no doubt be part of the process –  but running policy in such a way that reveals, through developments in inflation, when we’ve got unemployment as low as it can sustainably go (ie without other micro reforms).

It looks as though there is quite a bit of work still to do to get this part of the package right.  My tuppenceworth is that appointing the right person/people is probably the most important element of the proposed reorientation: you want people making these decisions who realise that the whole point of discretionary monetary policy has always been to get and keep unemployment as low as possible consistent with maintaining price stability.    And I’ve previously suggested some specific statutory amendments that would help shift the orientation of the Bank:

  • require the Bank to publish updated estimates of the long-run sustainable rate of unemployment (or the NAIRU) at least once a year in the Monetary Policy Statement,  and
  • require that in each statutorily-required Monetary Policy Statement, the Bank explain the reasons why, in its view, actual unemployment deviates (or is projected to deviate) from the NAIRU, and the steps (if any) the Bank proposes to take to close the gap.

If appointing the right people is critical, what does Robertson have to say about that?

He expresses a modicum of concern that the new [not legally binding] Policy Targets Agreement between the Minister of Finance and Grant Spencer, notionally to come into effect next week, was done without any consultation with him.  But his concern comes to not much

Robertson was concerned that he wasn’t consulted when Steven Joyce signed the Policy Targets Agreement with interim governor Grant Spencer for the six-month period following the election. As it happens, he agrees with six months of the status quo. But, “when you’re in that period, immediately before the election, I do believe that it would have been better to have had some input from the Opposition in that.”

And, actually, in normal circumstances under the current law an incoming government would inherit a Policy Targets Agreement (and a Governor) with no automatic right to change that PTA (although new Ministers often ask nicely, and Governors have usually agreed).

Robertson should have been more concerned about the permanent appointments that have been made at the Reserve Bank in recent months, by the outgoing Governor, that risk boxing in a new Governor (and a new government).    Robertson’s governance model envisages that the members of the internal Governing Committee would become voting members of the Monetary Policy Committee.  But instead of making just an acting appointment to the (Deputy Governor level) role of Head of Financial Stability –  to cover the period while the current incumbent serves as “acting Governor –  a permanent appointment has already been made.   That role was filled by shifting Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand into the role, but then a permanent appointment has also been made –  of someone with no obvious value to add to things monetary policy or prudential –  as Bascand’s successor as Head of Operations.  Surely these permanent appointments should have been left to the new Governor, especially with the prospect of legislative change in the wind whoever leads the next government?   Allowing a new CEO to apppoint his own top team, when vacancies exist around the changeover, would seem at very least a common courtesy.   And people will exercise the monetary policy votes, not algorithms, so appointing the right people matters.

Strangely, Robertson doesn’t even seem that interested in the appointment of the new Governor, which the (current government appointed) Board has had underway for months.   Applications for the job closed weeks before the Labour Party started its dramatic rise in the polls.  And yet

So, is he happy with the current set-up where the Finance Minister can veto a board recommendation, but has no other power over the process?
“I’m not proposing any change to that,” he says. “I respect the independence, it’s a very important relationship.” One reason he has been talking about Labour’s designs is to give a heads up to anyone that applies for the job about where he’s coming from.

He keeps going on about “respecting” Reserve Bank independence, but that operational independence –  the responsibility to set the OCR independently of direct political involvement –  is a totally different matter from appointing the individual who, on current law, will have by far the largest policy influence on the short-term direction of the New Zealand economy.  He/she will determine what weight the Bank gives, for example, to the proposed employment objective.  And in almost every other advanced economy, the Minister of Finance or head of government has a key role initiating the appointment of the central bank Governor.  It is the way normal countries do things (perhaps with some role for non-binding parliamentary confirmation hearings).  It is what Philip Hammond or Scott Morrison do.  It is what Barack Obama did and (okay…) what Donald Trump shortly will do.    Our law should be changed.  Perhaps require the Minister to consult the Board –  although few if any of them have expertise in public policy or economic management –  but put the power, and the responsibility, squarely with the Minister of Finance.

I’m frankly not sure why Labour is so reluctant.  They are presented with the ideal opportunity here.  When, for example, Gordon Brown reformed the Bank of England he was faced with an experienced incumbent Governor, and a very strong internal deputy –  and yet they went ahead with reforms that markedly reduced the power of the Bank, and introduced powerful externals not under the thumb of the Governor.  Here, if Labour takes office they will do with a vacancy in the role of Governor.  Changing the law regarding the appojntment wouldn’t be a slap in the face to anyone (other than perhaps the Board, who are mostly a pretty faceless and unaccountable lot).  I’ve argued that, given the vacancy, one of the first steps of a new government should be a short amending bill to put the appointment power back in the hands of the Minister.  At present, he is on track for being presented with a status quo candidate (the Board has pretty consistently defended the status quo) when Labour (and the Greens and New Zealand First) are campaigning on changing the status quo.

What makes me say that?  Well, Robertson actually.    Because in the interview he says

How about the job description for the next Governor – is he OK with that? “Yes, but, as I say, the reason we gave the speech was to make sure that people were aware that, should we be elected, this is the direction we’re going in. The job description is what it is, as it stands today.”

It is frankly incredible.  The job description –  which I wrote about here –  was decided by the Board, all of whom were appointed by the National government.  The members aren’t openly partisan, but they were people National was comfortable with (when Labour was in power, they also had competent people on the Board, but the complexion was a bit different).   And the job description is framed under the Act as it stands (and quite rightly so –  it is all the Board can do).  But Labour is campaigning on material changes to the Reserve Bank Act, to its policy responsibilities, and to the personal powers of the Governor.  Surely it would seem likely that a subtly different set of skills would be appropriate under the current Act/PTA, than under whatever Labour and its allies are proposing?   Surely, at least to some extent, different sorts of people would be interested in the role (there are, for example, some people who would be resolutely opposed to any suggestion of adding an unemployment target, and might find it very hard to work under such a regime).   Even if Labour wasn’t going to adopt my suggestion of amending the Act to take the appointment into the Minister’s hands directly, they should be thinking of sitting down with the Board as soon as they take office, outlining their plans and visions, and inviting the Board to re-open the selection process, now that potential candidates are better placed to know what might be expected of them?

I was also interested in this comment from Robertson

Grant Spencer’s 1-3% target with a 2% mid-point will remain in place over the six months post-election. “We’ve got to take some time to get ourselves in and then have the discussions we want.”

I can understand where he is coming from, but…..parliamentary terms are only three years, and what he is effectively saying here is although he wants the Bank to focus on unemployment as well as inflation he is not going to anything about it until one-sixth of his first term is already over.   It wasn’t what Ruth Richardson did in 1990, Winston Peters in 1996, or Michael Cullen in 1999.  And even if he can’t amend the Act immediately to establish the employment objective –  and getting the details right does matter –  it would be quite within his powers to seek an amendment to the Policy Targets Agreement (which, in this case is non-binding anyway) to capture those unemployment concerns straightaway.  Given Labour’s clearly stated intention to legislate in this area, it also might not be unreasonable to at least consider use of a section 12 override (although this would probably run head-on into the concerns about the legality of the Spencer term and the supposed PTA).

And, then, finally, there is the large gap in all these reform proposals.  Tarrant didn’t ask about it and Robertson has never substantively addressed it.  The Reserve Bank has huge discretionary policymaking powers, especially over banks, which are (in law) exercised personally by the Governor, with no adequate accountability framework (nothing like the Policy Targets Agreement for example).  Any exercise that opens up the governance of the Reserve Bank –  as is likely under any government emerging after the election –  has to find a solution to those issues as well.  There are questions around which powers should be with the Minister and which with the Bank, and for those exercised by the Bank whether a committee (and if so of what sort) or an individual should (in law) wield them.   There are, probably second-order, issues around whether (so-called) macro-prudential analysis and regulation should be governed differently than the day-to-day regulatory regimes applying to banks, insurers, and deposit-takers.  I gather Labour recognises that the issues exist, but has as yet not really given any thought to how to resolve the issues.  I’m sure Treasury has some advice waiting for whoever does take office.

Robertson has been at pains to stress that the core of the Reserve Bank Act was passed almost 30 years ago (and previous core Reserve Bank Acts didn’t last that long).  There are enough issues outstanding –  lots not touched on in this post –  that doing the reform well really should be quite a major piece of legislation.  That will take time, but if he wants to embed change, reorient and lift the overall performance of the institution, he really should be thinking a lot harder (than he appears to be, based on this interview) about ensuring that he acts early to ensure that any government he is a leading figure in can choose as central bank Governor someone they are confident in, both as regards the conduct of policy, and about making effective the sort of structural and cultural changes they talk of.